Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Perils and Pleasures of When Real and Imagined Characters Meet - Umberto Tosi

I remember having a heated discussion – okay, argument – with my historian friend, Dino Moro Sanchez, in Los Angeles back in the 1980s about Peter Shaffer‘s play, Amadeus, which I had seen in New York not long before the Oscar-winning Miloš Forman film came out. My erudite friend was of the scholarly opinion that Shaffer had pandered shamelessly to popular myths about Mozart – to wit: that rival Antonio Salieri had something to do with Mozart’s untimely death, and that Mozart wrote his exquisite compositions off the top of his head, penned onto paper perfectly every time. Historians have debunked both of those clichés, of course.

Much as I favor historical accuracy, however, I disagreed with my friend on grounds of poetic license. Shaffer’s play wasn’t supposed to be biographical, I argued. It examined the nature of envy and hypocritical ambivalence about genius. Fictional works should never be confused with history, I pontificated. They need only illuminate deeper truths to be valid – regardless of boring facts. In support, I cited Shakespeare – always a safe choice – who pshawed historical accuracy with aplomb in his historical plays.

So what if Richard III wasn’t a hunchback and probably didn’t have the wee Tower Princes murdered. Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story, as Mark Twain probably didn’t say, but well might have. I could have also argued that only plausibility matters in fiction, not truth, but that comes uncomfortably close to saying there’s no difference between a lying and writing, which Oscar Wilde didn’t say, but might have.

I had occasion to think a good bit about that long-ago, never-resolved debate with my scholarly friend last year, while writing Ophelia Rising, my novel about the “real life” of Shakespeare’s fair maiden before and after Hamlet. That’s because, while maintaining my position, I had to admit that he had a point. 

Having been a working journalist for many years, I valued accuracy and held popular myths in contempt – especially those regurgitated by fellow writers too lazy, naïve or timid to question assumptions. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction writers. Good fiction requires authenticity – or a sense of it – as much as it does compelling characters and narratives. At the same time, I knew that it’s common for nonfiction authors, though we loathe admitting it – to make educated guesses and bend the arc of what is known to fit into appealing narrative lines.

Add this: The truth of something – even if superficially mundane – usually turns out to be much more interesting than its meme. Mozart’s personal papers reveal reams of musical drafts scribbled with scratch-outs and revisions, by no means perfect on first pass. Apparently he had no superpower, no fiber-optic t-1 line to the Great Composer in the Sky. Mozart was human, imperfect, hard at work with quill and paper at his fortepiano trying to get it right. That connects us to him more powerfully, and makes the heart-rending humanity and transcendent genius of his music all the more fascinating and inspiring.

Back at my writing desk, I had no problem as long as Ophelia remained in the fictional context of Shakespeare’s play. But the premise of my novel, is that Ophelia didn’t drown after all, but fell from that tree into the real world of 16th century renaissance Europe in which the play is set. From there on, as she struggles to survive and find herself, she encounters a succession of historical characters who actually lived in those times. That was a challenge, considering the issue of historical accuracy versus narrative authenticity. Being as I wrote the novel as a faux history – in the tongue-in-cheek homage to Cervantes – I plotted, drafted and struggled to make Ophelia into a plausible historical figure among real contemporaries, who had to be compellingly rendered as well.

As faux history, Queen Gertrude’s elaborate description of Ophelia’s death in Act IV, scene 7 of Hamlet – strangely, once-removed off stage by Shakespeare – always seemed fishy to me, as it were. The queen takes great pains to make Ophelia’s “death” sound accidental, apparently so as not to cast further blame on the King or her son, the already unhinged prince. In my novel, Ophelia does fall from the bough of that tree into the brook, but she is swept downstream and rescued by that troupe of traveling players from the play, now hastening away from troubled Elsinore.

Complicating matters: Though fictional herself, Ophelia is as well-known as any historical personage. Trying to depict her authentically involved studying her “history” in much the same way I did with the real people in my novel – in her case, examining all the clues to her character and background that the Bard left in the play.

Just as with real historical figures, the myths diverged from actual details which prove tastier. Prevalent Ophelia mythology portrays her as an archetype of innocent feminine victimization. Victorian poets and artists – particularly the Pre-Raphaelites – portrayed her as the ultimate tragic damsel. Modern feminists framed her as oppressed by patriarchy, compelled to be obedient, though not necessarily of a compliant nature. Virginia Woolf, for example, said, with morbid irony, that “Ophelia’s death by water can be interpreted, like her madness, as an admirable assertion of identity.”

William Shakespeare
Fortunately, stereotypes aside, Shakespeare made Ophelia a vividly complex character to start with. Though nominally dutiful to father, brother and crown in the play, she gives as good as she gets. She calls her brother Laertes a hypocrite for lecturing her on chastity. She tells Hamlet he’s being a cad, and hands his gifts back to him. Under cover of madness, she tells King Claudius, with flowers and in so many words at great risk, that he is an evil, faithless liar with much to rue. At the same time, the Bard left a lot out, especially given that Ophelia is not the main character. Shakespeare, therefore, gives permission to create a rich narrative of Ophelia’s life both prior to and – re-imagined – after the action on stage.

That brings us back to the reality-based characters encountered by Ophelia Rising’s protagonist – don’t forget: a cultured, palace raised young woman, after all. They are all real to her, but as many are drawn from real life as from Shakespeare’s and my own imagination.

This literary device, of course, is nothing new. Dante filled hell, purgatory and heaven with famous contemporaries in his Divine Comedy, seven hundred years ago. Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, Emma Goldman, Joan of Arc, JFK, Chaplin, Hitler, Napoleon, The Borgias, Queen Elizabeth I, Jesus, Moses, Billy the Kid – the list of famous people we encounter in novels of all genres goes on endlessly. Some are clearly caricatures – like “Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” – some surreal, but often they are meticulously researched – to me the ones most convincing. Still, we tire of these  ubiquitous historical icons. To wit: recently, Analee Newitz’s ran an amusing page called “Six Historic Characters We’re Sick of Seeing in Science Fiction.” See if you can guess who they are.

I used none of the above for Ophelia Rising. In fact, with a couple of exceptions (not on Ms. Newitz’s list), I avoided famous historical figures in favor of significant but unsung people from the past –- late renaissance characters that Ophelia encounters in the course of her journey. Fortunately I found a wealth of research about such people amid the history books and papers I read in researching the novel.

Using famous figures gives writers a shortcut to already established impressions off which to play, accurate or not. Everyone has a picture of Abe Lincoln and an opinion about Marilyn Monroe. History's more obscure supporting actors appealed to me, however, for the flip side of that. None of them are memes. I could establish and play with lessor-known figures, the same as with any fictional characters, plus they real ones have always seemed juicier to me than anything I could invent.

Famous or obscure, I discovered that the same rules apply. 1.) A character has to fit. I found it best to incorporate real people where they made sense in the narrative, just as I would imaginary characters. 2.) In both cases, the context has to be as authentic to the late sixteenth-century story as the characters to give the reader a sense of what it’s like for a protagonist living in those times. Researching these settings, I found no lack of real, fascinating characters, many of whom were well known in their time, but are nearly forgotten now.

Isabella Andreini
Take, for example, Isabella Andreini – on whom I modeled the co-director of the troupe that provides Ophelia refuge. The real Isabella was Venetian poet, playwright and actress, celebrated in her day – contemporaneous with Shakespeare but largely forgotten now. The Bard may have even seen her perform during is so-called “lost years” before the Globe. She and her husband directed a troupe – I Gelosi – that performed in much of Europe. There’s nothing either way about her troupe having  performed in Denmark specifically, but it’s entirely plausible. Women weren’t allowed on stage in Elizabethan England, you say? Not so, on much of the continent during Shakespeare’s time, when Isabella Andreini was but one of many popular Italian female players and playwrights that included Vittoria Colonna, Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella to name but a few, this, even in an age when “learned women” remained a novelty.
Vittoria Colonna

It was an age of bloody religious repression and extended wars, and one of discovery in art, science and philosophy. Printers cranked out thousands of the new, “portable” books, spreading styles, screeds, ideas and information. Northern Europe’s biggest printing house was run by another now forgotten woman – Volcxken Diercx – who also happens to be a character Ophelia encounters and befriends. Diercx – whom the characters in Ophelia Rising nickname “Vola” – co-founded Four Winds Press in Antwerp with her husband Hieronymus Cőck and continued its successful operation for thirty years after his death and 1570, publishing works by many of the most famous writers and artists of the day. Among other real life characters in the novel: Princess Charlotte de Bourbon (wife of William the Silent and an important figure in the Dutch independence war against imperial Spain) printer and humanist writer Christophe Plantin, Flemish mannerist painter Bartholomeus Spranger and – more remembered than the rest – the great Danish astronomer – he of the artificial metallic nose – Tycho Brahe. To say more risks novel spoilage.
Volcxken Diercx

My take-away from all this: Giving my historian friend his due helped make me conscientious about portraying these real people, and made my writing experience the richer for it. I hope it proves the same for Ophelia Rising’s readers. 

Umberto Tosi's latest novel is “Ophelia Rising.” He has been author, journalist and editor of many books, stories and journals and presently is contributing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Parta-a-a-a-ay! - Authors Electric

Bring balloons, bring booze, bring the dogs,
bring whatever you like - but bring yourself!
It's time to partaaaay!

Well, perhaps not quite yet, but soon, so we're just getting ourselves in the mood.
Bercause this isn't any old party, this is the AE launch party for our forthcoming anthology. And because it is an e-book (although it will also be appearing as a physical version thanks to the heroic efforts and late night candle-burning of Susan Price) and we are Electric Authors, it will of course, be an online launch party. 

There's a lot to be said for the virtues of this - no need to find dog sitters (or for children either) while you are out. There is no driving there and back involved, so you can drink as much as you like - and no rushing to catch the last train either. No stress over what to wear (or wailing when you find your favourite outfit fits rather more snugly than the last time you donned it - or worse still, fails to fit at all). No one has to crawl out of bed at dawn the next day to tidy up the mess: in fact you can even attend the party from the comfort of your bed if that's what you fancy.
Of course there will be sparklers!
So do come and join the fun and mingle with us all - our Midsummer Day launch party starts at 11 am on June 21st - click HERE to receive your party invitation. (Or if you forget, just stumble on over to our FB page ...) Bring a friend, bring your dogs, wear what you like ... there will be virtual nibbles and drinks available, guaranteed not to produce hangovers or extra inches on the waistline. (Although we cannot be held responsible for the effects of anything real that you quaff or scoff as you recline amongst your goose down pillows)

Oh - and the reason for all the merriment? We did mention it didn't we? Our first anthology of short fiction stories, which will be appearing that day. It's called A Flash in the Pen and is available for pre-order on Amazon HERE in the UK and HERE in the US ... in fact it's available globally so check out your local Amazon ... and get ready to partaaaay!

Stuffed full of brilliant stuff.
And only 99p/99c so a bargain as well - but only for the first month
so rush out and buy a copy now!

Friday, 29 May 2015

The World Divides... N M Browne

Planning back when I could plan.
The world divides into people who divide the world into two divisions and those who don't. As I fall clumsily between two stools more often than not, I have rarely had time for such binary thinking. People seem to defy categorisation largely because we are so inconsistent, switching attributes according to circumstances, eluding definitions. On the other hand, I often say 'on the other hand' and regularly divide the future into two possible outcomes.  I have been know to mutter  ' It will either sell or it won't,' under my breath like a mantra, one which I find oddly reassuring. Similarly, ' the editor will either like it or she won't,' helps because it makes it sound as though both outcomes are equally likely at a time when I am full of the greatest doubts.
 I've always had the least patience with the idea that writers are either 'planners' or 'pantsters', which for those of you may not have heard it, divides the writing world into those who plan their novels in great detail and those who make it up as they go along and write by the seat of their pants.
When I first started writing fiction, I had recently completed an MBA and was on maternity leave from an oil company. I was always short of time and very interested in speed and efficiency. My first couple of novels were written speedily and efficiently through a combination of writing by the seat of my pants until I had a story idea and then by following a broad kind of plan which meant that I didn't have to reorder too many chapters or disappear up any blind alleys. I was rather smug about the success of my method, and felt that it provided strong evidence for my opinion that people's behaviours are rarely wholly one thing or the other. Well, I'm obliged to confess that it no longer works, at least not for me. Other more experienced writers have always told me that the process of writing is a slippery, capricious thing much, I suppose, like creativity itself. It appears to resist categorisation and methodologies and is often downright perverse. It appears that I  have strayed from my position somewhere near the planning fork of efficiency and speed and crossed to the other side, the darker side of chaos and confusion. I used to plough through a novel in a kind of headlong rush and now, unable to plan, I meander. I leave each day's work in a kind of limbo as if I am building a suspension bridge as I go, plank by plank with only the haziest notion of where the misty, other side lies. I have become, quite unambiguously, a pantster.
 I wish I could say it is invigorating, but I would be lying. If the world divides into those who 'tell it like it is' and those who don't, I fear I am on the least comfortable side. I suppose the good news is that I still stand on the glass-half-full side of the optimist/pessimist split: there is nothing to say that a book that is quickly and efficiently written is better than one dribbled out in fits and starts. After all this story will either work or it won't.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Tiny Books, Wonder Books, and Anthologies, by Enid Richemont

To my great shame, and my almost certain loss, I have never read Thomas Hardy, but yesterday, feeling low, I took myself off to see "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD" at the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. This proved to be one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen, its images of the English landscape like a Nineteenth Century Book of Hours. The actual plot is extraordinary, with its peak moment coming about three-quarters of the way through (well that's my analysis, but others may differ).

I have often meant to draw a plot graph of books that impress me, as I'm sure many of you have. The (sadly, late) Ruth Rendell orchestrated plot lines like a symphony. I often likened her novels to music, and even painting - Paul Klee 'taking a line for a walk' springs to mind. Very recently, I've taken on a brief for fifty word stories aimed at four/five year olds -  the length of a medium-sized email (or, in musical terms, a VERY short exercise piece for the recorder). These things are really challenging, in the way poetry is challenging. Enforced discipline in writing, or indeed, any of the arts, is, but as far as a plot graph for the fifty-worders - well, the plot line IS there, but you might need a microscope!

Delighted to discover my book: "THE BIG PURPLE WONDER BOOK" currently featuring in ReadZone's Reading Pathway after dropping out of sight for far too long. This is a story based on the sheer magic of learning to read, which, surprisingly, was the main reason for it, initially, to be turned down by publishers - their logic being, I think, that if you're reading this story, you don't need to be told. However, many kids are still lucky enough to be read to, either by their parents or their teachers, so this might grab them. And for the ones who've already got there,well - it's quite a scary story.

I was one of the lucky kids who got read to. My mum had a collection of those wonderful children's anthologies from the Thirties - thin pages, fantastic illustrations and an eclectic mixture of stuff - no dumbing down for kids then. It was there I encountered my first Dickens (extracts), legends and fairytales, bits from Lewis Carroll, and all the funny stuff from Edward Lear complete with silly pictures. In my Purple Wonder Book story, a small boy called Tom discovers one of these dumped in a box in a charity shop, but this one has seriously magical properties (well, they always did...)

Talking anthologies, don't miss out on "A FLASH IN THE PEN", our own Authors Electric anthology launching on Midsummer's Day (June 21st, but I'm sure you knew that already). Dipping into an anthology is like going to a fantastic party full of interesting people. Some you may like, even love, and some may just not do it for you, but it's still a great party, so please come. My own short story: "GEMINI" is a fantasy based on hunger and famine - twins which are always with us even in the rich West.


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Beta-Testing Books - Andrew Crofts

One of the greatest by-products of the electronic publishing revolution is being able to keep developing and refining a book after its initial birth.

The traditional publishing business model loaded most of the pressure onto publication day, with a possible second chance of breathing marketing life into the project when the paperback came out a year later. If your book didn’t float on at least one of those launch days then it would almost certainly sink beneath the surface within a matter of weeks. Copies might possibly be washed up onto the shores of a few libraries and Oxfam shops over the coming years, and not much else unless it became caught up in a freak rights storm in Hollywood or as a foreign translation.

Now, however, we have more chances to get things right, more ways to keep a book alive while we try to work out the best way to alert potential readers to its existence and to tell them why they would enjoy it.

In other parts of the electronic jungle, such as on-line gaming, I believe they call this “beta-testing”, trying the product out on enthusiasts and specialists in order to check that it is good before launching it to the general market. I have found myself doing much the same thing with books, without fully realising that was what I was doing.

About 18 months ago I published my novella “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” via Amazon’s White Glove Service and United Agents. Sales were strong every time Amazon included it in a promotion and the book garnered around thirty good and thoughtful on-line reviews, (plus one troll, which seems a reasonable ratio). The signs appear to be good so I have now moved to the next stage, teaming up with the wonderful people at Red Door Publishing to create a beautiful hardback in the traditional manner, (although the POD paperback is also still available from Amazon, plus, of course, the e-book).

I commissioned a slightly refined cover from the same designer as before, Elliot Thomson of the Novak Collective, and Midas PR are working on the marketing. None of this would have been feasible five years ago and this is just one of the many reasons why I love what electronics have done for publishing.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

What You Really, Really Want by Ruby Barnes

So, tell me what you want, what you really, really want. As a reader of electric books and the like, what do you really, really want?

Why am I asking? Because me and my little publishing house, we give things away. Why would Marble City Publishing do that? To maximise readership for our authors and to reward readers for staying with us. This is nothing new, of course. Mail lists have been a mainstay of marketing ever since Baldrick started pushing Mrs Miggins' pies through letterboxes (ref. Blackadder for non-cognoscenti). Staying in touch with people is essential for a new book release.

The virtual cafés of the writing world are abuzz with methods to successfully build a mail list. Independent authors with prodigious output are presenting subscribers with such offerings as starter libraries of free novels. Phrases such as Reader Magnets abound. Online courses are being sold for hundreds of bucks to share the secret sauce of building an author's list. In this modern digital free-for-all of e-book marketing, however, Marble City Publishing is faced with a quandary.

Authors who are in a financial position or state-of-mind to give away some of their writing babies are doing something specific - they are building a brand around their author name. Reader finishes book, enjoys book and wants more from same author. That's how it works. Reader doesn't finish book, enjoy book and then want more from same publisher. Reader doesn't care who published the book. The target audience for a publisher's brand is not readers. A publisher's brand audience is the book distribution chain and current or aspiring authors. But that's not the audience that a micro-publisher, such as Marble City, wants to address. We want to reach readers. We could build mail lists for our individual authors but, unless that author is blazing a trail of quarterly or biannual releases as per the new generation of energetic indie authors, they won't have frequent enough new releases to maintain reader / subscriber interest.
So what's the answer? We could give a free book but, unless it's by the reader's preferred author then meh, there are plenty of free books around these days. No, we give away other stuff. So far Marble City has run free draws for a Kindle Paperwhite, a Kindle Fire and (in progress) another Kindle Paperwhite. But is that what a reader wants, really really wants? How about a $100 (or local equivalent currency) Amazon gift card? Or something else altogether? A year's Amazon Prime Membership? A gadget that goes whizzbang? A crate of red wine? A deluxe beer belly pack? A hive of honeybees for an African village? A vacuum cleaner? The samurai sword with which Ruby disposed of his first zombie? Would the nature of the prize determine the type of person who would enter and hope to win? Decisions, decisions. Help, please! What would you, as a reader, like the chance of winning?

In the meantime, here are some zombies.

Zombies versus Ninjas by R.A. Barnes
Ruby's upcoming novel

Monday, 25 May 2015

A Viking Voyages From CreateSpace to Kindle by Susan Price

Artwork copyright Andrew Price
I've just published my book, The Saga of Aslak Slave-Born, simultaneously as an e-book with Kindle, and as a print-on-demand paperback with CreateSpace.
          The book's been published before. It was first commissioned by the British publisher A&C Black, as part of their Flashback series of historical novels for children. The brief was to write an entertaining, exciting story which would persuade young readers to turn the pages for its own sake - while, at the same time, giving as historically accurate a picture of life in the Viking Age as possible.
          I took this very seriously, and, despite carrying a load of stuff about the Viking Age around in my head - which is why I was commissioned - I dusted off my books, checked facts and did further research. I've added a historical note to this new, self-published edition, called 'How Much Is True?'
          I tried hard not to put anything in the book for which there wasn't evidence. So when Aslak buys his way into 'a ship fellowship' and is given a token which identifies him as a member of that crew, and makes it easier for him to find a place in another ship, there is evidence of that being done in the Viking Age. (A bit like a modern lorry-driver showing his tachie-card to get lifts from other drivers.)
         When a rich, elderly woman takes a shine to Aslak, and decides that he is the slave she would like to take into the next life with her - well, there are several Viking graves which suggest that this was something which could, and did, happen. These graves hold one person placed in a central position, with grave goods, and a second person who is often decapitated, and who seems to have had their hands tied together behind their back.
          'Aslak' is the eleventh book I have self-published, but with all the others, I made an e-book first and then, later, published a paperback.
          The first book I made into a paperback was 'The Wolf's
Artwork copyright Andrew Price
Footprint', and I did it because so many teachers asked me where they could get copies. It's selling rather well. I thought 'Aslak' might appeal to the same market, since the Vikings are taught on the National Curriculum. (And my young cousin, who was one of its first readers, at the age of about ten, declared it, 'The best book ever written.' Hey, I'll take praise and good reviews wherever I can get them.)

          For some time now, CreateSpace has been offering me the option to 'publish with Kindle' as I come to the end of the CreateSpace process, urging me to click the button and transfer my files to the Kindle site.
          Every other time, I was using CreateSpace to publish a paperback version of a book I'd already published as an ebook, so I always ignored the 'publish on Kindle' button. But, with Aslak, I thought I might as well send my Viking voyaging from the one site to the other.
          I'd started by scanning 'Aslak' into my computer, and creating a Word file, which is what I would usually upload to Kindle. To make the paperback, I downloaded a 6" by 9" blank template from the CS site, and pasted my book into it. I then went through checking that the paragraph indents and line-breaks were as I wanted them.
          Since a silver Thor's Hammer pendent figures in the story, I used a public domain image of a Thor's Hammer to decorate the book. I pasted it into the Word file, and shrank the size until it was as I wanted it. Once it was, I copied and pasted it at every chapter heading. (Amazon specifies that the image has to be at least 300 dpi - dots per inch. If it's less, it will flag up a warning that the printed image may be blurry.)

          You check the book's appearance with the online previewer (above.) This lets you see how the book will open. All the pages are down the right hand side of the screen, and you turn the pages by clicking on the arrows to the left and right of the large central book. When you've seen how your book looks in the previewer, you can go back to your master copy, alter it and upload again. Repeat as many times as necessary.
          I designed the cover using an image done for me by my brother Andrew, and Amazon's Cover Creator. When I thought it was all as good as I could make it, I clicked the button to send Aslak sailing over to Kindle. And I gave the go-ahead for the paperback.

          On going to Kindle, I found that all had arrived safely, without shipwreck. A new entry had been made on my booklist, and Aslak's cover was already there. I used the on-line reviewer to check how Aslak had held up in the passage.
          I wasn't happy. A paperback is not an e-book. Lines were broken in odd places - there were strange gaps. The silver hammer still looked rather good, though.
          So I had to go back to my original Word file, add the silver hammers to each chapter, and then upload it to Kindle - just as I would usually do to create a Kindle book, in fact.
          And, of course, the pricing and distribution are all different.

          Conclusions? It was useful to have the cover designed on the CreateSpace site beamed over to Kindle. Apart from that, it's nothing but a piece of advertising for Kindle publishing. I still had to upload the Kindle file, and I still had to go through all the usual form-filling.


The Saga of Aslak Slave-Born                         The Wolf's Footprint 


Sunday, 24 May 2015

On saying what we mean, even on Twitter. by Jo Carroll

I'm grumbling about sloppy language, again.

As writers we should be precise. We hone our sentences until each word says exactly what we need to to say, don't we? Or course we do.

But let's unpick this.

I'll play a game with you. Let's have a continuum, from a bit of a problem to disaster, looking something like this:

Bit of a problem<----------------------------------------------------->Disaster

Now, you've been out, having a lovely time, maybe a couple of glasses of wine, and you're looking forward to a cup of tea before crawling into bed - only to find that the washing machine has leaked, the kitchen is under water, and the cat has knocked one of your most precious books onto the floor and it is ruined. Where would you place this on the continuum, and what word might you use?

Again, you leave your bag on the bus. Not only does it contain your purse, house keys and phone, it also has your laptop containing the final draft of your manuscript. It is the best novel you have ever written and you are on your way to the editor where you expected champagne. Well, maybe not champagne, but some serious backslapping and general cheer. Where would that lie, on my continuum, and what word would you use?

Your son, aged six, is diagnosed with a serious and possibly terminal illness. You face months, and possibly years, ferrying him backwards and forwards to hospitals, and countless nights holding his hand while he pretends he's not in pain or frightened. Where does that sit?

The earthquake in Nepal ...

I accept that 'disaster' is an individual experience. But - if I were to believe Facebook and Twitter - lives are at stake if someone misses a morning coffee or burns the cakes.

I would argue that, as writers, we owe it to ourselves and to our readers to choose our words meticulously. Even on Twitter. Words are precious - if we devalue them we devalue the experiences that underpin them.

You can see if I practise what I preach on my website:

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Lev Butts Judges Books by Their Covers

KI have never been a fan of the People of Walmart internet meme. It seems to me that much of it simply stuck-up jacktards making fun of poor people by taking snapshots of them at their most vulnerable: shopping at  America's #1 haven of low-priced, cheaply produced crap (Seriously, who isn't going to look like a sideshow freak when trying to shop with small children in tow?). It's a way for idiots to feel superior by laughing at other people just trying to get in, buy some batteries, groceries, and ammo, and get out. The message is clear: We are so much better than poor, uneducated people. Clearly the only people who shop at Wal-mart are these freaks and the rest of us taking pictures of them.

That or "No matter how bad your life is, at least you're not
middle-aged guy buying crappy films in a fat ballerina costume bad."
Over the last couple of weeks, I have come across several internet articles showcasing what is rapidly becoming the publishing world's answer to these unfortuante sites. If you clicked on any of those links, I'm sure you picked on the unstated thesis of them as well: Self-published books are the moral equivalent of the people of Wal-mart: something to be simultaneously pitied and ridiculed because of how they look.

Don't believe me? Google "bad self-published book covers" and click on some of the articles. Then go to the images tab, find the worst cover and read the connected article.

I picked this one. Who couldn't pick this one?
Do you see what I see? Almost every one of them not only implies that self-published writers are pathetic wannabes, they state it outright in no uncertain terms. In each, the argument begins with the crappy covers.

The truth is, self-published writers don't have a monopoly on shitty covers. There is no shortage of horrid covers for great traditionally published books.

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the most talented writers I know. I can tell you
there is zero chance she had any say in these travesties of slash-fic book covers. 
Somewhere in New England, John Irving looks at these covers
and wishes he could die so he could turn over in his grave.
James, Shelley, Orczy, and Twain are just glad they are already dead
As self-published writers, though, we get all the blame for our covers. With traditionally published books, cover design is handled  by a committee that generally does not include the author.

In lieu of a committee, though, there are a few things we can do to make our covers better:

Hire a Professional

This option may get you the best-looking cover. There is no shortage of professional artists more than willing to read your book, and design a cover for it. The best options are going to be artists who also have experience in commercial design and/or advertising. After all, your cover, is your primary source of advertising for your book.

When Zack Mason published his Chronoshift Trilogy, he chose this option, and the result are book covers that look as if they came from the best traditional publishing houses:

I bought them from a local bookstore and had no idea they were self-published. I did not regret my decision either. These are good books regardless of their covers, but the point is I'd not have picked them up if they looked like this:

The downside to this method is, of course, that it is expensive, prohibitively so for most of us. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a professionally designed cover, probably more. I can't speak for you, but unless I charge $500.00 a book, I'll never make up the cost of my cover in sales.

Fortunately, there are still other options.

Learn to Use Photoshop

This is probably the best solution of the three I'll discuss here. While you may get a better product paying someone to make you a cover, chances are they will be using Photoshop to do it anyway. Learn how to use the program (or any of the free alternatives) and you are one step closer to designing your own cover.

But, you may be thinking, I already use Photoshop.

Read that section heading again more closely
The key here is to learn to use the program. Understand the controls. Know what each effect does and when each is appropriate. Remember, just because many of the effects are interesting, you should not feel obligated to use all of them.

More importantly, understand what you want on your cover before opening the program. There are plenty of online instructions on cover design. Read them.

In general, decide on a single image that encapsulates your novel and work with that. This can be an image from a pivotal scene in the novel or an image/motif that runs throughout the narrative. Don't try to tell the entire story with images mismashed on the cover.

The original cover of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, for example has one image: an armadillo. This armadillo, though, is an image that runs throughout the novel as both motif and foreshadowing. Similarly, the background color and text of the cover resemble a granite gravestone, both referring to the title character who is the son of a granite quarryman and acting as more foreshadowing of future events:

It is simple, yet it still grabs your attention.

Brad Strickland, writing as Ken McKea, is a good example of using this technique in cover design. In each of these Photoshopped covers, he has chosen one powerful image that draws an audience in:

In the following example, the cover I designed for the re-release of Richard Monaco's Blood and Dreams, I found a public domain image of a painting that seemed similar to an early scene in the novel, then used to flip and alter the image to better fit the characters in the novel.

(Left) Original painting by N.C. Wyeth
(Right) Book cover
However, you may not have the time or inclination to learn image manipulation software. Perhaps you just want to write your book and get it on the shelves as quickly as possible. Perhaps you just feel technologically inadequate.

If so, there is still the final option:

Use Your Publishing Platform's Cover Generator

If you are publishing through, Amazon's CreateSpace, or Books-A-Million's new publishing platform, you have access to premade cover templates that are as user friendly as the rest of the platforms. In other words, if you can navigate your selected platform well enough to upload your files and publish, you can use its cover templates as well.

In each of these platforms many of the design decisions have been made for you: You may have little control over where your title or name appears on the cover. You may or may not have the option for an author photo. You may have a limited selection of type fonts available to particular page layouts.

However, you should still keep the basic rule of cover design in mind: a single image that stands for the the whole narrative. Keep your cover relatively simple.

Below are two different covers to my own Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories, one from, the other from CreateSpace. You will notice that in both, as different as they are, the image of an old cabin predominates since the cabin setting is important throughout the primary natrative.

(Left) cover
(Right) CreateSpace cover
Simplicity is key.

Whichever option you choose to create your cover, remember this:

Just as you should ideally have a beta reader for your manuscript to offer feedback and suggestions, you should also have others look at your cover ideas and offer their thoughts.

As embarassed as you may be having someone you know ridicule your work before it's published, it is nothing compared to your mortification when your poorly conceived cover becomes an internet meme.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A dream - or two - of Manderley, by Ali Bacon

For the last few months I’ve been helping with a teenage book-club and the breadth of reading of these 12 – 14 year-olds is awe-inspiring. Pride and Prejudice and The Help get equal billing with comic books, Harry Potter and Maze Runners. What was I reading at that age? Apart from school Home Readers and a few children's classics, mostly the novels loved by my parents and already on our bookshelves at home. I mean authors like Howard Spring, Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, Alistair McLean. 

Those we have loved
This brought me to think about the lifespan of popular novels, books regarded as de rigeur by one generation and elevated to classics or simply neglected by the next. I mean is anyone still reading Rider-Haggard – adventure novels par excellence of my parents’ generation? Will The Thorn Birds, possibly the most popular novel of my twenties, still be around when my own copy has been consigned to the bin by grieving (I hope) offspring? Is there some characteristic other than literary excellence that gives a book longevity?

Sequel - or prequel?
Coincidentally my reading club theme for this month is the ‘spin-off’ novel, aka fan fiction. Already familiar with lots of Austen spin-offs (including Valerie’s!) and not particularly interested in sub-Bond confections, I hit on the idea of reading Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill which after reading some dire reviews I hastily amended to Rebecca’s Tale by Sally BeaumanAnd it occurred to me that if a book elicits tributes (or more cynically cash-ins?) by later writers this must surely be a sign of an enduring appeal. 
As luck would have it the library also had a copy of Du Maurier's original Rebecca on the shelves, so off I went to refresh my memory and work out why this story has been revisited so many times. 

For anyone who needs reminding, from its famously rhythmical opening, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," Rebecca is a humdinger of a read. I’ve read many great novels this year (i.e. interesting, engaging, engrossing, sometimes challenging!) but this was the first one in ages that has given me that longing between reading sessions to be curled up with the book. Yes it is dated now, a period piece in which everyone speaks like Celia Johnson (or Victoria Wood's version of Celia Johnson!) Nor is the description particularly brilliant, but there is a hypnotic rhythm to the writing and the voice of the hapless narrator never falters in a piece of simply awesome storytelling.

But in some ways I’m still surprised this book has spawned so many genuflections. Most ‘fan fiction’ draws on a series or body of work: a colleague of mine had a secret life writing sub-Brent-Dyer Chalet School adventures, and Jane Austen, although hardly a cult read, does at least give her Janeites a whole world and social milieu to recreate, not to mention characters we long to follow. But Rebecca is a one-off. Its narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, is more infuriating than lovable, and the other characters have little scope for development. And despite its abrupt ending, the questions asked by the story are pretty much answered. Chapter 2, "We can never go back again, that much is certain. the past is still too close to us" (heck, another stonking line!) tells us what happens in the end. The only real mystery is the name of the heroine (or anti-heroine) and surely her anonymity is non-negotiable.  I’m only a short way into Sally Beauman’s book and so far she is rightly, I think, telling Rebecca’s story through new characters or those who play a small role in the original.

Saved from obscurity?
What gives this book its iconic status? Hitchcock and co must have helped, just as he made The Thirty-Nine Steps the best known of John Buchan's cannon. The other factor is the location, the sense that the house itself has a character and a part to play. The whole first chapter of Rebecca is a description of the ruined Manderley. It is a novel of jealousy and obsession, which according to this article, might be the author’s as well as the heroine’s. Perhaps this is what gives it its pulling power. 

I think Beauman is going to prove a good choice for my spin-off theme, but although I’m enjoying Rebecca’s Tale I’m not sure I’m going to fall in love with it. More importantly, is the original Rebecca going to be as popular in the future, or has its come to the end of its natural innings? When I asked my teenagers, none of them had heard of the book or the film. But they have now! They‘ll be the ones to decide if this is an all-time classic or simply so last century

Thursday, 21 May 2015

'‘I Want to be Alone!’ - Pauline Chandler

Are writers by nature anti-social? Is this why we write? 

This month, I was supposed to be blogging Part Two of my Spring Clean-Up post, with the focus of how edited my collection of fiction. We.ell, as so often happens with any type of cleaning in my house, I’ve started, so I’ll not finish. Tra la! My butterfly mind hops on to a different track. 

What interrupted my Clean-Up blog?  An interesting piece from the Huffington Post, about Introverts.

Now, I’m not a fan of labels for people, in any form.  We can only pin people down for a very short time. In the next moment we’re different. Influenced by something in our environment, we change our minds, we learn and grow, we evolve, as written in stone as blobs in a lava lamp.

Yet, this piece on Introverts really spoke to me, because I recognised myself and for the first time acknowledged my weirdness as perfectly normal. There, I've said it! I've come out! I'm an Introvert!  Finally. In my seventh decade. Better late than never!  Now I can forgive myself for being a party pooper, for hating the telephone, for not especially loving foreign travel, for feeling a transport of joy to be home again, with my own chair, mug, pillow.  For wanting to be alone, completely alone, to write. 

Of course, I do like socialising, occasionally, but not for long. My best friend and I used to meet for just an hour every week, which was perfect. I’m not sure I could handle a writer’s retreat, for example, with other writers. Too much stimulus! Too much strangeness and social effort. I still feel guilty about that, because I do love people and when I'm feeling brave and strong, I like meeting them.  

Here’s an extract from the Huffington Post article, with comments from fellow introverts and my own reactions in brackets.  

12 Things Introverts Want You to Know

1. They don't hate a good party.
Introverts aren't a bunch of awkward killjoys who don't like to have a good time. In fact, many introverts enjoy going to parties where they'll be with people they feel comfortable with. 
What can be so grating about large gatherings is the overstimulation.  Introverts feel exhausted by small talk and prefer more intimate conversations.

(TRUE: I’m sooo bad at small talk, which has led to endless embarrassing moments. At my first publisher’s party, I was introduced to an eminent writer who had given me a good review. trying not to be reticent, I shouted ‘I LOVE YOU!’ at him and enfolded him vigorously in a warm embrace. Der.)

2. Craving downtime doesn't mean they're anti-social.
Introverts need time to recharge, but they still want to be with their friends after they've snagged that alone time. They're not anti-social; they're selectively social.
"Just because nine times out of 10, I decline your invitation, does not mean I want you to stop inviting me.”


3. They're not open books (and that's perfectly okay).
Introverts rarely spout off the first thing that comes to their minds. This quiet reflection is a hallmark of this personality type 
and is quite the opposite of their extroverted counterparts, who speak their thoughts affirmatively and quickly.

(TRUE. It takes me ages to form an opinion I want to share.)

4. Personal space is highly valuable to them...
Introverts are more likely to opt for the aisle seat, 
rather than the middle to avoid being surrounded on all sides. This allows them an opportunity to remove themselves from a situation in order to recharge if they need to.


5. ...But yes, they'll give you a hug.
You just have to ask them first.

(NAH : I hug people all the time! You don’t need to ask. Just hug. )
6. Just because they're introverts doesn't meant they're shy...
Shyness and introversion are often used synonymously
, but as introverts are quick to point out, they're not the same thing. Introverts don't always fear social settings, they just place value on smaller, more meaningful social interactions -- and they're perfectly fine with remaining in that comfort zone.

(TRUE. I love meeting up with my small groups of friends.  Four's a good number, then you can catch up properly with everybody.)

7. ...Or stuck up, for that matter.
A quiet demeanor does not equate to a haughty attitude. When introverts don't overly contribute to a conversation, it's usually because they're being more observant than participatory.
"Me being quiet has nothing to do with doesn't mean I'm being rude and it doesn't mean I am snobby... It's nothing I can control and though I am very aware of it, I can only push myself so far until I'm past uncomfortable [and] tolerable."

(TRUE - L)

8. They don't want to be more outgoing.
Many people look at introversion as a character flaw, when in reality, introverts like their quieter demeanour and have no interest in changing.

(TRUE-ISH – I thought I had a character flaw and for many years have tried to change.)
9. They approach the workplace differently.
Introverts are typically averse to open office plans and sometimes can experience challenges navigating an ideal working environment. Finding quiet spaces, only attending crucial meetings and having routine check-ins with co-workers can help ease those office
roadblocks, according to  Susan Cain, author of a book on Introversion. 
"I tend to shrink back in work meetings where multiple people are brainstorming out loud, but that doesn't mean I don't care about the topic being discussed or that I'm not paying attention. “ I just need some time to mull over my thoughts before I present them to a crowd."

(TRUE.  Wish I’d realised this before I went for all those interviews for jobs I didn’t get and the demoralising debriefings afterwards )

10. They're not the biggest fans of phone calls.
 Out-of-the-blue phone conversations tend to feel intrusive to introverts, which may result in them screening your call. 
"Talking on the phone can be a form of torture. Please don't take offence that I'll text you back rather than call you. It's not you, it's me!"

(TRUE! I know..I'm sorry..)

11. Surprise birthday gatherings are the worst.
Big parties where introverts are the center of attention = A big no-no.
" I'd much rather have my few close friends for a quiet evening of games, wine and conversation.”


12. They have an intuitive nature.
Introverts tend to be in tune with their surroundings
, and as a result they may pick up on subtleties of conversations and moods that their louder counterparts may not pick up on.’

(TRUE – I think.)  

What do you think? Is this you, too?

Pauline Chandler