Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Wisdom of Hindsight by Jan Ruth

A few funny words of wisdom for very new authors, and those in charge of household appliances.

Self-Publishing. If I could go back and start again, would I do anything differently? Yes, all of it! You see, I never read the instructions for anything. Half the programs on the new washing machine will never be used because I don’t have the patience to read the manual. I learnt about self-publishing the hard way, but maybe that’s not necessarily a negative. Sometimes, if you make horrible mistakes along the way, you’re not likely to forget them, or repeat them. Now, where’s that powder, the one that doesn’t foam? The one I was told not to use under any circumstances, the one that clogged the entire cycle...

The Pre-Wash:
1. Editing & proofreading.
2. Cover design & formatting.
3. Website & social marketing platforms.

Editing & Proofreading.
There are many, many books out there which are badly in need of a good soak and a pre-wash. I confess to having a head-start with regard to the actual business of writing fiction. Thirty years ago I went along the traditional route of trying to find agents and publishers. I had a modicum of success, but the most it taught me was how to write (and re-write, and re-write) and construct a novel, how to build character and how to observe the basic principles such as ‘show and not tell’.

Editing covers a broad spectrum of skills, from advising on all of the above to merely checking punctuation, or that names and timescales are consistent throughout. Your product needs to be as near perfect as you can make it if you want to be taken seriously, and sell books to the reading public with confidence. It is not a good idea to wait until the reader-review stage to get your work critiqued publicly on Amazon by the very reader you wish to please!

Anyway, to cut a long story down a bit, I decided to self-publish my languishing semi-edited manuscripts. I made mistakes, I chose the wrong people to work with. I was on the wrong spin cycle and foaming at the mouth in no time.

Then I met John Hudspith.

Some say he has the eyes of an owl and the body of a crow. (He’s already admitted to the droppings). He can edit any genre. He’s not only comfortable with freaky - such as double-jointed women in gingham - but he also has a handle on quite ordinary things like school puddings and little dogs. What I like about Mr Hudspith is that he personally hand-washes everything; there’s none of this short-cut business with pre-programmed software. He can cope with any kind of material, just check that care label out. He actually enjoys shrinking swathes of narrative such as short stories and blurbs. Hey, he shrunk my shorts but they’re a much better fit. Not only this, but his personal machine can vigorously rid a manuscript of the most stubborn stains, or it can tumble the softest silk into an even smoother ream. As for fluff, he openly admits to being especially obsessed with cleaning that particular filter till it’s sparkling.

Read more about the process here.

Cover design & Formatting.

Formatting the interior of the book is something which is more readily learnt if you have good basic computing skills. The cover, on the other hand can be a challenge. Homemade covers are fine if you have the right skills. The attention span of most people browsing for something to read is actually only a matter of seconds. Ideally, the book’s cover needs to sum up what the reader can expect to find on the inside. Trying to sell a book with the wrong cover is like working in a dry cleaners wearing dirty clothes. Image is everything. There may be a brilliant book inside that plain brown cover but we’ll never know because no one, not least your target audience, can be bothered to open it.

Do consider that your cover needs to work hard as a tiny thumbnail around the Internet. I didn’t. Anything dark or difficult to read will not do the job. If it looks poor and ill-thought out, readers will assume the same will apply to the writing inside.

I made mistakes with all of mine, they were far too subtle. Virtually everyone would say ‘Yes... very nice, but what’s it about?’

Then I met Jane Dixon-Smith.

Working with someone who knows exactly what independent authors are faced with, makes the process so much easier. Many self-published authors write books which cross genres, and although my novels are often labelled as romance, I was anxious not to portray the softer side of this genre, that meant no pastel colours or smiling happy people. In fact, I didn’t really want faces or figures at all, but I studied the market with a more critical eye and put personal feelings to one side. In collaboration with Jane, we went for a more commercial look which not only increased the readership but started to form a brand as well. Another important plus: my books were more readily accepted for promotions on advertising sites.

Your cover is part of your story, and deserves the same thought and effort. That old idiom, about not judging a book by its cover, is wrong.

Read more about the process here

Websites & Social Marketing Platforms.

A good-looking simple website with easy access to the books you want to sell is the single, most important piece of advertising you can do. It is your hub, your shop window to the world. If someone wants to find you or one of your books, the first thing they do is hit Google. Links to your blog, Facebook- Author page, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and so on, all those social networking sites are worth adding, and it pays to use all of them.

Simple, clean and fresh always works. I can’t imagine anyone searching for your books will be interested in cats dancing round the edge or fish swimming up and down the sides, but maybe that’s just me. If someone really hates cats, they might, just might... look elsewhere. Are you selling your books or telling everyone you like cats? I’m always turned off by those sites that look hugely complicated, books revolving at a rate of knots, tiny writing, too many badges, too much everything!

Hanging Out to Dry.

So, assuming you don’t have any of these editing and design skills, all of this is going to cost. Of course it will! You’re asking someone with professional credentials to spend time working on your product; those jobs which used to be down to the agent and the publisher.

‘Oh no!’ I hear you cry, ‘It’s free to publish. All you do, is upload a file from your computer, it’s really easy! If you have a problem along the way with any of this process, there are plenty of experts to help you on Facebook and Twitter.’

All true, of course, but if you want a fully functioning product, please read the instruction manual first.


Saturday, 29 November 2014

Winter Recycling: N M Browne

Today I was thinking of all the things I love about being a writer. One of them is that even the very best writers recycle themes, ideas, phrases, even plots. I am not going to claim greatness, but to prove my ecological credentials, here is a blog post
I wrote some years ago. Nothing has changed in the interim, or at least nothing that changes my views on these: ten reasons I like being a writer.

1. As an author you can lie in bed with your eyes shut claiming (sometimes legitimately) that you are not dozing but plotting...
2. Cafe Coffee and croissants post JK Rowling are a morally justifiable, if not a legally acceptable, expense.

3. You can still work in your dressing gown/birthday suit/wellies without anyone lecturing you on ‘inappropriate workplace attire’ or indeed horrific taste/cellulite.

4. You can still feign shock at parties when nobody has heard of you: ‘Oh but I always thought you were very well read...’ or ‘well I suppose my books are rather demanding... ‘

You can also cause acute panic in certain types of parent with a raised eyebrow and a bemused: ‘ Oh I’m surprised that (insert child’s name here) isn’t reading my stuff yet... How old did you say she was?

5. Nobody expects you to be on time or entirely sober as you are obviously an ‘artist’ of one kind or another. Similarly eccentric dress, erratic housekeeping and disgusting personal habits can be indulged with equanimity and people may be persuaded it’s all down to ‘creativity’.

6. You can avoid almost anything by claiming to be working and as no one knows what the hell you do all day, no one will contradict you (See 1 above)

7. If your year has been anything like mine you can expect a tax rebate. (See 1 above)

8. If you have an accountant and you’ve had a year like mine he/she may be fighting the impulse to send you charitable donations and/or food parcels...

9. You can take out your irritation by casting all your enemies as villains and put all the clever things you never manage to say into the mouths of your heroes.

10. You can go somewhere else, be someone else, do something amazing just by sitting down and writing. And it’s all free! This is a very good thing. (See 7 and 8 above)

Friday, 28 November 2014


To  continue the theme of publishers who nurture, or don't, my experience with Walker Books, my first publisher was very positive - in fact, I thought of them as my second family. Newspaper articles were written, at the time, about the experience - always positive - of being a Walker author, about being called, often at weekends, with exciting sales news or small publicity titbits, of the creche, of the private taxi service if you were working late with an editor (one of my most treasured memories was of being driven in a black cab from Vauxhall to Muswell Hill on an icy clear night, with all the lights of London town around me, and me feeling like a queen).

Oh, and the parties - the unforgettable parties (do they still happen?) - the barn dance one where they brought in bales of straw, to celebrate their entry into the American market, the Halloween one where someone who shall be nameless turned up in a VERY explicit devil costume, and, of course, the Crystal Ball...

Times have changed. By the early Naughties, all the books I'd published with them were out of print (these now form the core of my Kindle ebook collection). I tried, like a rejected child, knocking at their door with new offerings, but they didn't want to know. They had newer, grittier, younger authors. I was doing moderately well with other people, but it wasn't the same, and I was beginning to get rejects along the lines of ( and do they pull these things out of a hat?) - 'not quite right for our list', 'published something similar', or the always mysterious put-down, 'It's too quiet, I'm afraid'. So, like a squawking little chick ousted from the nest, I've been flapping along in the last few years, but I have to confess, it's been interesting, but challenging, especially now, without my beloved one-man IT department, the modest but unforgettable David Richemont, who was formatting "THE MAGIC SKATEBOARD" for me on the day he died (our daughter, Jude, helped me complete it for him).

As a total non sequitur, if you're in London at present, and love the challenge of Fringe theatre, don't miss seeing "STREAMING", the Pipeline Theatre's gritty play at The Pleasance, Islington. It's already attracting great reviews, and it's on until November 30th, so you have just two days (and it might well be too late). I do have to declare a vested interest - one of the young actresses is our amazing grand-daughter, Anna Munden.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Marketing Steam - Andrew Crofts

Self published authors know that they can’t do everything themselves. We may have decided that we do not need the “full raft” of services that the big publishing houses offer, but we do need the help of some of the clever people who slave within the bowels of those giants. Before anything else we need editors to keep our words under control, and we need designers if our covers are to look as good as, or better than, the ones churned out by the big guys.

Both editors and designers are fairly easy to find on the internet and don’t cost too much if the book has a budget and a chance of earning some money back. But then we come to the marketing side of the business, or creating “discoverability”, as it tends to be called these days. This is altogether a knottier problem.

Back in May I wrote in this slot about a “real life 50 Shades of Grey" which I had been hired to ghost for an anonymous European lady. The book worked out well and one of the biggest agents in London agreed to take it round the publishers for us. The reactions were dramatic. Some were shocked by the contents and thought it too strong for the general trade market, others were worried that readers wouldn’t like the fact that it was non-fiction rather than fiction. We received some offers but they didn’t seem to reflect the value which we believed the book could have. The advances weren’t dramatic enough to distract us from the paltry percentages we would be earning in royalties.

We decided we would take control of the project ourselves by working with a new and dynamic partnership publisher, RedDoor Publishing, which is the baby of Clare Christian, an editor whose previous venture was The Friday Project, (now part of HarperCollins), but we felt we needed to address the “discoverability” side of the challenge right from the beginning. To that end we hired Midas, probably the country’s best known publishing PR and marketing consultancy, and they worked with Clare on the design and packaging of the book before starting to plan the launch. We now have all the elements of a traditional publisher in place, but without the overheads of a huge Thames-side building and everything that is required to support such an edifice.

The book is due to be published in February and the marketing machine is grinding into action as I write.

Chances is the true story of the most erotic of love affairs, of the most intense and rewarding relationship possible between a man and woman – a relationship that blossomed out of heartbreak.

“What” the cover asks “if your first love was your soulmate and perfect sexual partner but you made the mistake of letting them go? What if you were reunited with that first love after fifteen years of unhappiness and you were then able to fulfil every romantic and erotic dream you had ever had?”    

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Is The Pen Mightier Than The Sword? by Ruby Barnes

My twitterprofile claims I am the oldest ninja in town. There’s an element of truth to this. I’m currently three years into my fourth attempt this half-century to master karate. I’m not getting any faster, I’m not getting any more flexible, but I am getting stronger and more determined. After a year of practise with the katana (a two-handed sword beastie of the samurai variety) I did a solo performance at the club’s recent fundraising show in front of an audience of 300+. A lot of attacking imaginary opponents with three feet of polished nastiness, all to the tune of Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets (go to 1:39 and it’s from there). It was a two hour programme and my mad frenzied attack was scheduled just before the interval.

So how did it go? Almost immediately I was inexplicably out of my expected timing sequence with the music and the ponderous thump of that Montagues and Capulets section required me to strike, thrust, push imaginary dead bodies off the blade in time to the beat. So I improvised. Added a few extra swishes, slices and twirls, a few additional victims. The second part of the piece was intended to be double-time and so I fairly went for it, hacking shadows from shoulder to hip, whirling like a Dervish (I know, I know) and knocking a few high kicks out above head level in between slashes. I finished with an overhead slash, dropped to one knee and finaled (?) with a reverse-thrusted blade into the abdomen of the invisible enemy behind me. The audience went wild(ly running to the rear of the auditorium for safety.) My teenage daughter told me after that, compared to the fleet-footed and lightning performances of the younger club members mine was “total death and destruction”. Club members who had watched on the monitor in the Green Room said it was a “very solid performance”. I breathed a sigh of relief, changed out of my sweaty weapons shirt and prepared to continue with the other three or four bit parts I had in the show. It all went swimmingly.

Then the professionally edited DVD of the show went on sale at the club. I bought a copy as my son also featured in it several times, took the DVD home, forgot about it for a week, and then sat through the whole thing on a Sunday afternoon. Verdict? Overall – excellent. But what about the sword-wielding ancient ninja? Well, in a sequence of about one hundred solo sword moves I lost my place on move number … three. That explained how things started to go wrong. The confusion and hesitation was evident as I plodded around like a slow-motion Jack Black in Nacho Libre (whilst twirling a sword that I was obviously frightened of). Until the second half. When things got much worse. Now I was an old man in a yard trying to kill a scampering rat with a shovel. End result: I was lucky not to impale myself, the audience was similarly fortunate and the rat got away.

So it was with sword trailing between my legs that I turned up at the dojo last night. I told Sensei Mags that I thought the DVD was excellent in all parts except one. And I knew which one. She smiled and made a few succinct points: the audience were mainly friends and family of the club members and most would have no idea if I had missed out moves, made mistakes or gotten out of timing; mine was the first sword piece in the show schedule so it didn’t suffer from comparison to the later sword pieces; was there rapturous applause? yes there was; club members thought it was a powerful performance and that the moves synced well to the beat of the chosen tune; I now had an excellent base to improve the things I needed to improve and knowing my own weaknesses is the first step. Maybe one day I would be able to join the medal-winning team we send to the World Grands in New York every second Christmas New Year.

I watched the DVD again. And again. And I’ll watch it a few more times. It struck me that this whole experience is very similar to the one I had when my pretentious, self-important and pedantic first novel chapters were read out and critiqued in the NUI Maynooth Creative Writing for Publication course in front of strangers. An emotional ride through the classic stages of change:
shock – is it really that bad? OMG it’s really bad;
denial – no it’s really not that bad – I look good in black (very slimming), the sword is shiny and I twirl it like a cheerleader;
anger – why didn’t anyone tell me it was so bad? I thought I had friends – it’s their fault, I’m only a beginner, I can’t be expected to become an expert overnight;
depression – I’m hanging up my pen / sword for good, I’m too clumsy for this game;
acceptance – okay, it is what it is, let’s take a closer look;
integration – I know what needs to be improved and I’ll practice those elements until the desired future state can be achieved.

Only through self-awareness can we strive for improvement.
(Practical tip for authors – dry your feet first.)

If you liked this post then take a look at The Baptist by R.A. Barnes. He doesn't need a sword to dispose of his victims. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Technological Scary Biscuits by Susan Price

Technology. How can you not love it? Space-craft on meteroids -
The Ghost Drum in paperback
even if it did fall over. And - an even greater achievement as far as I'm concerned - my book, The Ghost Drum, available in paperback again, after years out of print.

I knew when I finished it that it was the best book I'd ever written - though now, having re-read them all as I turned them into e-books, I think that its successors, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance, are, in some ways, better. Ghost Song is, I think, more lyrical and poetic, while Ghost Dance is altogether darker, with a more complex story. They were originally published for children but none of the books are particuarly childish.

Although they're 'fairy-tales' of a kind, they're based on the often bitter and cynical older stories, which were told by adults to adults, and reflected a kind of magical-realism response to often hard lives.

All the books were published in America, as well as the UK. They've been translated into Danish and Japanese. They have, at various times, had film-options on them - Ghost Drum is under option at the moment. They were reviewed well, and have been called 'classics.' But they were allowed to go out of print. (I'm becoming quite used to people saying, and writing, to me: 'Why on earth did publishers allow a book like that, a Carnegie winner, a classic, to go out of print?' Well, I don't know any more than anybody else does.)

My agent clawed back the rights, and we offered them to publishers again. I wrote another book, as yet unpublished, called Ghost Spell, and we offered all four as a package. My agent was sure she could sell them - but there were no offers. Publishers said it would be too expensive 'to get the franchise up on its legs again.' I had no idea my books were a franchise. Or that franchises had legs.

So I turned the first three books into e-books. There's the first cheer for technology. And for Amazon which, for all its many faults, not only saw that this was possible, but went ahead and made it possible for anybody to sit on their sofa, upload a file and publish their book as an ebook - at no upfront cost. And for other people, anywhere in the world, to sit on their sofas - or lie in their beds - or sit in a hotel lounge or on a train - and download that same file into their e-readers.

Amazon, a predatory business shark - let's never forget that - nevertheless saw a sharkish advantage in throwing open their website, with all its advertising and distribution machinery, to anyone who wanted to use it, virtually for free. And we seldom stop to think just how amazeballs - how gobsmackingly amazeballs - indeed, how scary biscuits - this is. It's all down to the technology - technology changing the shape of business and the world as surely as the first stone tools, and then the first Bronze tools, did.

Some people believe that Amazon is making fools of us all - that we are all silly little minnows gambolling into the mouth of the shark, and we will be sorry, oh yes, very sorry, by and by, because
Vandals, loitering. Well, Huns actually.
our foolishness will result in the downfall of culture as we know it. The vandals, in fact, are at the gates - where they've been loitering about, smoking and up to no good, whenever any great change has occurred, for centuries.

These people may be right. I have no idea how the 'e-book revolution' will eventually pan out. Neither has anyone else. Maybe it will all end in disaster. But, in the meantime, I have to say: What Chutzpah! What audacity. To see that it could be done - and to go ahead and tear into all the vast organisation that must have been necessary to make it work, and just do it. To ignore all the doubters, all the nay-sayers, all the despairing and warning howls from the wilderness, and just do it.

Amazon went further. They set up the machinery to make it possible to turn the file sat on your computer - the same one you turned into an e-book - into a publish-on-demand paperback book. At no upfront cost to the author. And then made it possible to sell it, world-wide, through Amazon's warehouses and website. I was
The Wolf's Footprint, paperback cover
slow to take them up on this - but when lots of teachers started contacting me to ask where they could find copies of my OOP book, The Wolf's Footprint, I started thinking about it.

First, I made it an e-book. But then I tackled the mountain - well, it's at least a small, steep foothill - of learning how to turn my e-book into a paperback. As always, I hauled in my brother as cover artist and illustrator.

It was harder than doing an e-book - or is it just that I've forgotten how hard I found producing an ebook when I first tried? I think it may be. I remember texting my younger brother, after midnight, with exclamations of despair. He replied, 'You'll get there. Goodnight.'

Anyhow, The Wolf's Footprint has been on sale as an e-book since early this year, and it sells well. But once the paperback was on sale, I found that it sold as well, if not better, than the e-book. We Authors Electric are all so keen on ebooks, we sometimes forget - I certainly do - that there are still whole town's-worth of people who never use computers, don't have e-readers, and want to buy paper books. So it occurred to me that I also ought to publish the Ghost World books as paperbacks. And preferably before Christmas.

But I was busy with workshops and it slipped my mind - until I realised, with a shock, that it was already November. So I set about getting the job done, downloading templates and getting on the brother's case.

I sat with him the other day, witnessing another staggering piece of technology in action. He had his cover for Ghost Drum on his computer, divided into many layers. He slid layers aside, or laid them over one another. He changed fonts in an instant, changed colours, increased transparency or opacity. He took up a tablet and a stylus and used it to sketch in a new outline and to erase others. He added the book's Carnegie Medal as a 'button' on the back. And then we uploaded it to the CreateSpace site in less than a minute. We've come to take this for granted, but it's staggering. It is euphoric gravy.

And Ghost Drum is now on sale on the Amazon site, as a paperback, less than a month after I set out to turn it into one. It isn't a careless rush-job either, because I was using a file that had already been proofed and edited when it was made into an e-book.

With conventional publishing, you couldn't even get a publisher to tell you that they were turning the book down in less than four months.

So let's hear it for technology.

Find the Carnegie Medal winning 'The Ghost Drum', in paperback, here.              UK                    US

Monday, 24 November 2014

This is not a revolutionary post by Jo Carroll

I know I'm a pedant. So sometimes I need to creep into a corner and give myself a talking to. Language moves on. 'Gotten' will become an acceptable import from America whether I like it or not.

But there is one word that makes my hackles rise whenever it is used inappropriately (which is most of the time.)


A revolutionary (noun) is a man or woman whose actions or beliefs promote comprehensive change in systems or in thinking: Che Guevara was a revolutionary. So was Darwin.

Revolutionary (adjective) describes the beliefs, ideas, or theories that underpin that change. So Darwin's discovery of evolution upended all previous assumptions about creation and the impact of his thinking rumbles on today.

But the word has been adopted by the advertising industry and become meaningless. So here, for any ad-men or ad-women who might drop by this blog, is why I will never buy anything that you describe as 'revolutionary:'

Shoes cannot be revolutionary unless they allow the wearer to do something that has never been done before when wearing shoes, such as walking on the ceiling.

Washing machines can never be revolutionary unless they learn to do something other than wash clothes. In which case they are no longer washing machines.

A toothbrush can never be revolutionary. Even if it is dressed up to look like a rocket it is still a toothbrush.

Face cream cannot be revolutionary. You might claim that it hides all my wrinkles. But so what? Even if you gave me baby skin - it would still be skin.

Furniture cannot be revolutionary. A chair is a chair, even if - like Dali's - it is shaped like lips.

And writing? Can writing be 'revolutionary?' Ah, here I am on thinner ice. Darwin, you remind me. Karl Marx. Sigmund Freud. I am sure you can add more examples of great thinkers who have made unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable contributions to literature. But they are precious, and rare. It is a label that needs applying thoughtfully - an accolade for work that has made an irrevocable contribution in the world of ideas.

My travel writing is not revolutionary, though it might make you think. (You can find links on my website here.)

And this post is not revolutionary. But wouldn't it be wonderful if it were, and the word were reclaimed and returned to its rightful place in the dictionary.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Lev Butts' Top Ten (Part III)

This month I continue to count down the ten most important books and/or series in my life. If you haven't seen the first four you can see numbers 10 & 9 here and numbers 8 & 7 here.

Last month I looked at two books that changed the way I look at life. This month I look at two books that changed the way I look at writing.

6. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

This may well be the first book I ever bought
based solely on the cover and author. I didn't read
the summary until I was standing in line to pay.
As you may be able to tell from the previous two entries, I've always been a fan of fantasy. After discovering Tolkien (see last month's entry), I delved into other fantasy series: I read Terry Brooks' Shannara trilogy, Marvel comics' run of the Elfquest series, anything about King Arthur I could get my hands on (more on that later), and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (see September's entry).

However, in 1996, while wasting time at a local stripmall bookstore in Carrollton, GA,  I came across a book that was listed as fantasy but seemed like no fantasy novel I'd ever read as it was set in modern-day London's subway tunnels.

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish everyman who finds himself drawn into the dark and feudal world of London's homeless when he attempts to save a wounded ragamuffin girl bleeding on the sidewalk. In his attempts to get her back home and discover who murdered her family, he encounters magical bums who talk to rats, meets the actual earl of Earl's Court, and has tea with the angel who destroyed Atlantis.

All while avoiding two antagonists who 
appear to have sprung fully formed from the 
opium-addled nightmares of Charles Dickens
Neverwhere taught me two things about writing: One was that genres can be blended; they don't have to be separated like food on a school lunch tray. In all of Gaiman's fiction, but in Neverwhere, particularly, such blending of genres allows the author to make the mundane magical. In Neverwhere, Gaiman presents what initially seems like a light-hearted, realistic romantic comedy of a man trying to balance his dead-end job with his demanding fiancee, and while this storyline develops steadily throughout the novel, it develops alongside the fantastic tale of a vagabond princess trying to get home and the noir-esque mystery surrounding her father's death.

The second thing I learned from Neverwhere is more technical: one of the easiest ways to inject a sense of magic and wonder into the ordinary world is to ignore metaphors. In Gaiman's world, metaphors are literal: There are actual black-clad warrior monks guarding Blackfriars Bridge. The Angel, Islington, is an actual angel. And you don't even want to know about Knightsbridge.

5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Despite the cover, this is not the heartwarming
story of a stone-cutting armadillo.
I first read John Irving's The World According to Garp when I was a freshman in high school after having watched the film (As a kid, I'd wanted to see it when it was in the theaters because it had Mork in it, but my mother wisely said it was too "old" for me).

"But Moooooooom."
I fell in love with Irving's quirky blend of realism, absurdity, and Dickensian plotting and determined to read everything he had written. Everything I read just got better and better (because I had randomly read the novels in the order they were written). Cider House Rules blew me away, and I didn't think anything could ever be better.

Then, the spring of my junior year, I saw A Prayer for Owen Meany in the mall bookstore and bought it.

If I were doing this list in order of importance, this novel would be in the top three, quite possibly the top one. Irving's seventh novel has so many things going for it I can't even list them all. It has what, for my money, is the best first sentence in any novel I've ever read:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
It tells you everything you need to know about the novel without actually telling you a damn thing. Who couldn't keep reading after that doozy of a sentence? And thus begins the tale of Little Johnny Wheelwright, the fatherless son of the the best-breasted mother in town and his best friend Owen Meany, the dimunitive, gravel-voiced son of Meany Granite Quarry.

Part retelling of The Scarlet Letter, part idyllic memoir of a New England childhood, part scathing critique of the Vietnam War and the Reagan Era, A Prayer for Owen Meany is so much more. If Gaiman shows us how to make the mundane magical, Irving masterfully makes the magical mundane. Only John Irving can fill a book with prophetic dreams and visions, near-divine miracles, and at least one visit from beyond the grave and make them all feel perfectly normal, like they ain't no thang.

I warn you, though; this is one book you definitely want to read. Do yourself a favor and avoid the train-wreck of a film they made from it. Jim Carrey's ham-fisted framing story is only the least worst thing about it.

I am doomed to remember a film with a wrecked plot—
not because of its plot, or because it was the worst film I ever saw,
 or even because it was the instrument of my first public fanboy rage,
but because it is the reason I lost my faith in Hollywood;
I am a cynic because of Simon Birch.
In short, I owe much of my writing style, I think, to both these writers. I don't think my novella Emily's Stitches could exist without Irving's influence, and my short stories "Misdirection" and "Gods for Sale, Cheap" both owe much to Gaiman's style.

Next month, we go into the ancient past and back-and-forth through time and space.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Why true life stories often don't make good fiction (aagh!) by Ali Bacon

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (with chapters by lots of well-known writers) has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve taken it down from time to time and consulted odd sections but never read it from cover to cover. Well you wouldn’t would you? But when I was looking for another topic, a chapter caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed before. ‘Why true-life stories often don’t make good fiction,’ by Alyce Miller

Aagh! If I had seen this before I might not have spent several years of my life attempting something that’s if not impossible certainly very difficult, viz. a fictional version of a life-story that for some reason reached out and spoke to me several years ago and is still (just) a work in progress

Alyce Miller suggests that the writer who 'finds' a powerful or moving real life story is often too close to it to do it justice. Because he/she already has emotional investment in it, she fails to create this for the reader.  Restricting the plot to ‘the way it happened’ (because it’s true!)) rather than exploring alternatives is another problem and the fact that writing becomes constrained if what’s going to happen is already mapped out. Fiction, she reminds us, should be an act of discovery for the writer as well as for the reader.

My experience of historical fiction is that the problems are similar and in some cases harder to overcome. Of course there are hundreds of great books that centre on real people and events (last year i loved Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy and Naomi Woods' Mrs Hemingway ), but I have come across quite a few that really don’t work, not for me anyway. Tracy Chevalier for instance used to be one of my favourite historical novelists. I devoured Girl with a Pearl Earring, Falling Angels and The Lady and The Unicorn

But what happened in Burning Bright, her novel about William Blake? Most people, including me, came away disappointed.  Remarkable Creatures had a better reception but to me there was still something missing. I never felt I was as close to the characters as I should have been. I can't remember now what the problem seemed to be, but in my own work I've encountered a certain reluctance to delve into the imagined consciousness of someone who is a real life hero as well as the character in my book. Or maybe it’s just that thing about the author being too close to the characters to actually convey them in writing. The other problem I think, particularly if there are primary sources available, is that it can be hard for an author who has done mountains of research to write something that conflicts with the ‘known facts’.  I didn’t read much of David Lodge’s A Man of Parts about HG Wells (biography buffs loved it) but the level of detail stopped me from being in  the ‘dream of fiction.’

Going back to my own project,  I can see my first draft had all of the problems listed in the Handbook with a few more besides. Character development was definitely ‘restricted’ (non-existent?) and I recall some plot possibilities being rejected because they were at odds with ‘the facts’. So was it all a terrible mistake? Well, I haven’t given up – yet - but I know have to see my ‘found story’ as an inspiration rather than a constraint. The story I set out to tell does not need ‘re-engineering’ as I said on Jane Davis’ blog recently, so much as re-imagining. So far I haven’t ditched the characters, but their story is starting in a different place and I feel it may not end up where I expect. Not the same book written differently, but actually a different book, a new voyage of discovery. 

As for Alyce Miller, I suspect even if I had read her warnings I still would have had a bash at this story. Some things you have to learn for yourself!  

Friday, 21 November 2014

Confessions of a Worrywart by Pauline Chandler

Some days, I’m completely exhausted well before nine o’clock in the morning, what with breakfast tv and the terrible news, and replying to messages on email, Facebook and Twitter.  
Then there’s the daily paper to read.

It’s all frightful. There’s no sense of calm any more. Have you noticed? Everyone’s worried to death and it can’t be good for us.  

And I've discovered something terrifying about bread.  
After two weeks, the white sliced bread, bought as an economy move, has not gone mouldy, which must mean it’s completely sterile. 

It's dead. When you eat white sliced bread, you’re putting dead bread in your mouth. I’m never going to buy white sliced bread again. Ever.  

Then there's the ladybirds. They're gathering in the corners of the window frames in the sitting room and kitchen, small crowds, cuddling into hibernation. They bother me and then again, they don’t bother me. They’re not noisy and I get a really good feeling from the thought that I’m helping wild life, but does it mean I’m a slattern who never cleans her windows and should I put my host of sleeping ladybirds outside, in the frosty  garden?

My friend urges me to support a woman writer who ‘lives her dream’, by devoting every minute of every day to her work in progress. Out come thoughts from Mrs Grumpy. 

'She doesn’t even wash her hair.  Ee-ew. Writers, artists, anyone, do not have the right to support, especially if they abandon personal hygiene. It’s lovely if you can wangle it, but don’t expect it. You’re not that special'. 
I reply that, of course, I'll help.  

Mrs Grumpy is followed by Mrs Irritated. 

'Why do people who ‘opt out’ of society, expect support? If you live in my country, and use its facilities and services, from libraries to public lavatories, you have to contribute. There’s no such thing as ‘There’s no such as thing as society’.  Listen up, we’re all in this together'.

Why does LIDL sell cat food labelled ‘for the sterilised and castrated’?  Indelicate.

Why did I buy chocolate-coated brazils, again?

Are there female zips? If the ‘keeper’ sits on one side rather than the other, is it like buttons on a shirt? Is it sword-related? Do boys mind wearing hoodies with female zips? If there are female zips.

Why is the man who is laying a new gas main in my road, smoking? Why is his mate standing watching him with his hands in his pockets?

If I eat a chocolate-coated brazil now, will it spoil my breakfast?

Why can’t I buy one kipper? There’s always two in a boil-in-the-bag, so there’s always one left over.  So sad.

Leftovers, like charity advertisements, weigh heavily on my conscience. They sit miserably, in the fridge, abandoned, like Victorian orphans, inexorably fading away without fuss. But, what is one to expect?  What can I do with two boiled potatoes? They're neither one thing nor the other.


One kipper and two potatoes. Hooray! Fish pie!


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Magic by Sandra Horn

How do we define magic? The dictionary isn’t much help: the supposed art of influencing course of events by occult control of nature or of spirits…inexplicable or remarkable influence producing surprising results (I like that one).

Is it too fanciful to think that it applies to the creative process?

Over and above the work – research, editing, re-writing, re-re-writing, sweat, blood, toil and tears, there seems to be something inexplicable, sometimes. Characters do something you didn’t plan or expect, or your careful plotting suddenly lurches into something else. Is this universal among writers, though? JK Rowling seems to plan her plots and people down to the last degree, she says, so are only some of us inflicted by inexplicable or remarkable influences?
I probably believed in fairies for much too long – or at least, in the possibility of fairies. I remember a meadow of wildflowers and long grass and butterflies where I almost thought I saw something. How old was I? Twelve, maybe.

Many years later, I read Tolkien’s claim that he found out about Hobbits from a book he’d come across: The Red Book of Westmarch – written by the Hobbits themselves. How exciting! I told my (relatively) new husband about it. He gave me a sideways look and muttered something about a literary device. What? Oh yes, of course…silly me. I expect I blushed at my naivete, but just for a moment, there, the possibility beckoned. We’re still married 40+ years on, by the way, in case you’re wondering – and I have (eventually) grown into a profound sceptic. I think.
But the possibility of other kinds of magic did remain with me for years: we had a ferociously grumpy German teacher (ie teacher of German) at school. She bawled several of us out of handed out detentions regularly, often with little or no cause. She frightened us, so we made a wax model, stuck pins in it, threw it on the fire. When she didn’t appear at the next lesson, we went from frightened to totally petrified. Had it worked? Was she dead? We hardly dared look at each other. It was just a sore throat, as it happens, but who knows what such concentrated ill-will can do? We didn’t repeat the experiment.
In the first pangs of adolescent love, I have willed someone to appear, to turn round and look at me, to respond to the heat of my desire. It never worked.  However, there is some evidence that ‘magical thinking’ – the belief that something – action, object, thought, circumstance, etc. not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome, can work for some people (Piercarlo Valdesolo, Scientific American October 19th, 2010). Valdesolo reports on a Danish study in which participants given a ‘lucky ball’ increased their scores on a putting task. They also scored higher on self-efficacy and concentration when they were allowed to bring in a ‘lucky charm’ from home.  So the ‘magic’ or ‘luck’ was simply about self-belief. In the presence of a lucky symbol, people set themselves higher goals and persevered for longer – so rabbits’ feet, lucky knickers, etc. are not perhaps such a joke after all. I only wish it could work for me. The two beautiful little bronze hares on my desk are stroked regularly but have yet to ‘speak’ for me and conjure my stories into print or electronics. Could it be the wrong phase of the moon? I wish…
Still, one can enjoy all kinds of magic vicariously through books. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading Valerie Bird’s Angel Child, a book in which thwarted and twisted desires work in the lives of otherwise unremarkable people – or rather, people who would otherwise be unremarkable, but for wearing a rainbow or breathing scorching breath – that kind of thing. Magical realism. What a delight to find that it isn’t confined to children’s literature! For me, that was discovering The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, in my adult life.

I have since gobbled my way through magical-realist works by other authors: Nights at the Circus, Midnight on the Avenue of Faith, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and the Chocolat trilogy.  Joanne Harris dips her toe in magic with the first book, and it really blossoms in the latest, The Lollipop Shoes. Scrumptious stuff.

And of course, there’s no reason why the characters and situations we invent should obey the usual rules of life, physics, space/time or whatever – it’s just making any deviation into the magical believable, even when it is in fact impossible, that’s the trick. I’ve dabbled in it with some of my children’s books – Piker’s sinister stone in Goose Anna, Hob in The Hob and Miss Minkin, Zeke’s mystical wood in The Stormteller – and for years now my silent child *Kai, who can feel himself inside the skin of animals, has haunted my thoughts in a book I don’t seem to be able to finish…but one day, maybe, one day. If I can only capture that elusive something that hovers just below the threshold of my consciousness. Anyone got a guaranteed lucky charm I can borrow?
*Afterthought: Kai is silent because his mother died borning him and she passed on her gift  and the silence of her death to him. It’s all but impossible, I find, to have a major character who doesn’t speak, but I’ve tried to make him talk and he won’t. MY character, made up by me, has a life I can’t influence. Is that some kind of magic?