Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Where are the Asian novelists and poets? By Leela Soma

Salman Rushdie is the winner of the Best of Booker Prize for his Midnight’s Children. But how many Asian writers are recognised, encouraged in the UK? How many parents or young people see it as a career choice? Drama, dance, music, and the other arts have made great strides in being inclusive and Asians contribute and participate in these categories as they rightfully should. When it comes to writing, there seems to be a dearth of books by Asians especially in novels and poetry. Not even Asian magazines feature any articles on writing as a career for Asians. Why is this?

We can’t blame the publishing industry alone. Though one of the reasons given by many is that Asian books are not ‘commercial enough’ to invest in! There is a need to get many writers to participate in every town and city that they live in. Whenever I go to book launches, book festivals I see very few Asians participating in it. Literature is an important aspect of society that we cannot ignore. It is our stories and poems that make our culture rich, and a heritage to be proud of. My own reasons for becoming a writer were because of this void.

Like all first generation Asians, I was busy pursuing my career and raising a family since I arrived in 1969. As an avid reader I was a regular visitor to major bookshops. There were few books written by British Asians in the 1970’s. Hanif Kureshi was one of the few who had a body of work that was accessible to all. I had to order books or get books sent from India if I needed to read anything written by Asians. I always liked reading and writing so I took it upon myself to fill that void, but found time only after I retired from full time teaching as a Principal Teacher of Modern Studies. I attended some courses in creative writing at Glasgow University and joined my local Strathkelvin Writers group, where I won the Margaret Thompson Trophy for new writing. It was that support from the fellow writers at Strathkelvin Writers group that helped me finish my first novel Twice Born and get it published in 2008.

While writing novel one, the idea for Bombay Baby had already formed in my mind. It was a photo in the Times newspaper of an Indian baby born to a Yorkshire couple by embryo transfer in India. The story flowed easily and the novel was published by Dahlia Publishers in 2011.

My short story collection Boxed In followed soon, published by The Pot Hole Press in e reader format.

Writing and getting published is not easy, but if you have the passion and determination, it can be done. There is a lot of awareness now for the need for diversity in publication. Small independent publishers are taking up the challenge and are reaching out and seeking writers. I hope this inspires new Asian writers to pick up their pens and get writing. Our voices need to be heard, we need to contribute to the mainstream literature of this country. We must leave a legacy for the next generations, something that tells them the stories of Asians in UK. I also hope that a new award for Asian writers is introduced. If there is a MOBO for music, book prizes for women writers like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is high time there is a National Award for the best Asian novelist or poet in Britain. Participation by Asian midlist writers’ not just big prize winners in all aspects of writing is the key to diversity in literature published in UK.

Get writing now.

btw: I am also thrilled to hear that I have made it to the most prestigious British Indian Awards 2015 in the category of Arts and Culture awareness.

I was born in Madras, India and now live in Glasgow. My poems and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and publications, including The Scotsman, and Gutter magazine. My two novels and a short story collection are all available on Amazon UK, US and on Kobo, Nook, Smashwords and other platforms worldwide.


Monday, 29 June 2015

Magic on a Monday N M Browne

I want to talk about magic. I’m not personally particularly magical: my wishes rarely come true, I have yet to discover the secret of eternal youth and I can’t fly though I have always really, really wanted to and I lack even the most elementary skills of turning raw ingredients into delicious and nutritious feast for the senses.  Even with all these inadequacies, however  I am proud to stand up and boast my credentials as a somewhat inept  practitioner  of fundamental magics, the simple fireside spell casting of the story teller. 
 There is something arcane, mystical and almost supernatural about the telepathic power of text.  The way in which through story we can live a million lives in a million different places: the ideas we have in our heads, the worlds we dream of and the invisible people we talk to as we go about our daily business are conveyed through the magical medium of words from our brains to those of our readers. Its not telepathy -it’s better than telepathy because we get rid of all the rubbish. We give our readers our best selves.
 Someone like JK Rowling is a rather superior magical worker simply because of the number of young minds with which she has spoken. There is hardly a child between nineteen and twenty six whose imaginative life has not been shaped by her words on the page or her words transmuted further into images on the screen.  Don’t you find that remarkable? I wouldn’t claim she is the greatest either or that you have to be great to be important. My own imagination is still fed by the long dead, CS Lewis, Thomas Hardy, the lovely Jane whose stories inform my every day view of the world.
  I am editing my own work at the moment - never my favourite thing and am struck still by the power of this magic. I don’t mean I’m entranced or transported by my own wit and wisdom, I am not yet quite senile, but that pictures and ideas I had forgotten about are held within the text, like thoughts fixed in aspic.

 I don’t really care about the medium used to record the words. They have the same effect whether hand scrawled in an exercise book or digitally reproduced on a kindle. We are quick to marvel at the magic of the technology and perhaps slower to recognise that when it all comes down to it the essential magic is ours: the bizarre power to make pictures in other people’s heads, to give the imaginary, form. So  as you read this somewhat delayed posting ( as even minor magicians can sometimes be unreliable) and perhaps drink a coffee, toast yourself and our much underrated craft,  celebrate the magicians of story.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


In my front garden, the poppies have suddenly performed their annual magic - and what a performance it is. On one occasion, David and I stood, like kids, for ages, watching the buds all fat and pregnant with the blossom to come, to see if we could capture the precise moment it happened (and no, cameras are not the same as human eyes), but we never did.  It felt like a stage magician's trick - pulling, no, !exploding! stuff out of a hat.

Yet another small garden miracle happened recently. Three years ago, we planted two spectacular alliums (well, we believed the pictures in the garden centre). In their first year, they produced masses of rather floppy green leaves, and in the second, likewise, but this year in Spring a single stem began growing out of the limp salad mess, and I didn't even notice it until it was tall enough to produce a round, fat bud, out of which came this star-burst. David, with his passion for all things astronomical, would have loved it.

And concerning other things astral, I'd like to mention Amazon's star rating system for books, which is so open to abuse. A very well-established author friend and colleague of mine, Jean Ure, recently posted on Facebook that one of her books received a one star review from a young reader who wrote that she'd absolutely loved the story, but had then detected an omitted full stop! I found myself wondering if she might have been related in some way to Michael Gove who (seriously mis-quoting Bob Dylan) could take the stars out of the night-time and paint it midnight black. Yes, punctuation is important, as is spelling - they're both vital elements in the communications toolbox - but stories and poetry and the sheer music of words are so much bigger than the rules. It's a complex problem, though... I know I couldn't read a badly punctuated book because it implies ignorance of the craft of wordsmithing, but I doubt if I'd notice a single omitted full stop unless I were actively looking for it, which is not what reading's about.

A few days ago I was given a general anaesthetic for a minor wrist operation, and I'm still recovering from the after-effects of it. The reason I'm mentioning it is because Jude, my daughter, came up from Cornwall to stay with me, and we did, as always, do a lot of talking. One of the things we discussed was the fate of one of my Y/A novels: SIRIUS RISING, which has been doing the publishing rounds for a number of years, and which has nearly, but not quite, made it. If I put it on Amazon KDP, which I've been long considering doing, then formatting and cover design become major issues. Jude is now quite a whizz at Photoshop, so we began playing. The other important thing she talked about was "SPILLIKIN", which is the play her company's pitching to the Edinbrough Festival. Its theme is fascinating and thought-provoking - the use of advanced robotics to cope with the problems of dementia in an ageing population (a robot has infinite patience, and yes, there's a real one in the play). I will be saying more about this in my next blog, but in the meantime, do take a look at Pipeline Theatre's website.

And lastly, of course ...

Saturday, 27 June 2015

That Splinter of Ice in the Heart of Every Writer -Andrew Crofts

Living, as I do, in one of the safest and most prosperous islands in the world, and being part of a comfortable and loving family, it is easy to forget or to remain ignorant of the depths of hellishness that man is capable of inflicting on his fellow man, and frequently does. The collapse of the communist Eastern Bloc at the end of the eighties released a hurricane of shocking and fascinating human interest stories, carried back to the West by people who needed the help of ghostwriters to tell them.

When Romanian President, Nicolae Ceausescu, was toppled from power and executed in 1989 his country was released from a quarter of a century of oppression. What horrified the outside world the most, however, was what was discovered inside the walls of the “orphanages for the irrecuperable” which littered the country. Thousands of children who had been deemed to be of no use to Romania, or who had been “inconvenient” births, were found locked up in these asylums, tied up in cots, starved, abused, driven insane and beaten until they eventually gave up living. This was what medieval Bedlams must have looked like. Western cameras went in and recorded scenes the like of which we had not seen in Europe since the liberation of the concentration camps after the Second World War.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia stories of war crimes and ethnic cleansing emerged daily as different factions and nationalities struggled to fill the power vacuum, using any atrocities they deemed necessary. Soldiers, doctors, diplomats and charity workers all came out of the area with tales of unbelievable barbarity and many of them also needed ghostwriters to help them put into words horrors that had left them speechless.

The symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall seemed like a new beginning. Although the stories that had been hiding behind it were more prosaic than we had been led to believe by the propaganda of the Cold War, at a personal level they were both shocking and awe-inspiring. Individual stories of endless, grinding poverty, cruelty and darkness emerged into the light. Each story that was brought to me seemed more gruelling and shocking than the one before.

Out of that darkness, however, it was possible to make out glimmers of hope as good people made huge sacrifices and put their own lives on hold in order to help. A variety of ghost-written books followed. There were tales of hopelessly crippled and apparently mad orphans being saved by western surgeons and by the love of patient foster families. Bombed orphanages were rebuilt by soldiers, charities were set up and families who had been separated for a generation were reunited. There was so much to do but no shortage of people who wanted to help, and who then wanted to tell the stories of the horrors and the miracles they had witnessed.

For a writer it was a Pandora’s box; scenes of unspeakable evil and personal struggles, often leading to happy endings. I wrote the story of a small boy who had been tied up and imprisoned in an orphanage cot for the first four years of his life, condemned by the authorities as sub-human because he was believed to be both physically and mentally handicapped, who was saved by a volunteer and given a full life in the West. I did one for a soldier who rebuilt a bombed orphanage for a local town in his own time and went on to create a full scale charity and another for an English woman who had been trapped in Eastern Europe as a teenager when the Iron Curtain was erected, not escaping back to her family in the West until the curtain finally fell nearly half a century later. I also helped tell tales for some of the pioneering business pirates and ex-politicians who built fast fortunes as communism crumbled and a new frontier-land of opportunities opened up for those bold and ruthless enough to grab them.

These stories were the absolute stuff of life, horrifying and inspiring, sickening and uplifting, frightening and dramatic. I seldom cried while I was actually there in the orphanages, or actually listening to the stories, (was it Graham Greene who said “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”?), but I confess that when I came to write the stories the ice would inevitably melt into tears. The goal then was to ensure that the readers would be equally moved to tears at the same time as being unable to stop turning the pages.     

That “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” that Greene talked about helps a great deal when listening to stories that have the potential to break your heart. Ghosts, like other authors, need to be able to remain objective, slightly distant, hovering above the emotion, watching and noting what it looks and sounds like. But at the same time we need to understand what it feels like in order to convey it to the reader.

If the person who is telling you the story is crying, then you need to be able to make the reader cry too when you reproduce the story on the page, but you won’t be able to  do that if you get too close. You need to be interested in the story, amazed by it, moved by it, but you cannot let it cloud the clarity of your own thoughts while you are interviewing.

Sometimes I have sat with people who are in floods of tears when they tell their stories. More often they struggle to hold in those tears, their chins trembling, their eyes and noses running involuntarily, their voices cracking as they battle bravely on with the memories that cause them so much pain and which they want so much to exorcise. It is a cliché that many of the soldiers who had the most traumatic times in the trenches of the First World War never wanted to speak about their experiences once they got home. The same rule has applied to others who have suffered since in different ways but times have changed. The medical profession came to understand about post-traumatic stress and people are now encouraged to talk about their traumas in order to learn how to cope with them. It is still never an easy thing for most damaged people to do.

My role is to sit and wait, quiet and encouraging; never criticising them, never comforting them, never rushing them, just passing the tissues, assuring them there is no problem and waiting for them to feel able to continue.

Readers want to be moved to tears by stories, just as they want to be moved to laughter or to shrieks of fear. They want to “feel something”. A ghostwriter must catch the elements that produce that effect and reproduce them later on the page, not during the interview.

I guess therapists and analysts must work in the same way because often when I get to the end of the interviewing process the subject will say they feel like they have just been through a course of therapy. They are nearly always grateful to have been able to unburden themselves but still the fact remains that there was a splinter of ice required in order to achieve it – and that troubles me a little.   

It isn’t only once work is under way that a ghost has to remain detached. Often the people who make initial enquiries about hiring a ghostwriter have heartbreaking tales to tell. To have to warn them that the fact that they have lost a child in appalling circumstances or been tortured for months by an oppressive regime, does not necessarily mean that they will get a publishing deal, can seem unbearably cruel – but to give them false hope would be far crueler.

I suppose it’s the same in many other professions. A pediatrician must spend a large proportion of his or her time having to give heart-breaking news to parents. A press photographer sent to a war or disaster zone, a policeman dealing with the victims of a terrible crime or having to break the news of a death to a family. All these people can only function effectively in their jobs if they become detached in some way, deliberately inserting Greene’s cold, hard, necessary splinter of ice.   

Friday, 26 June 2015

You've Got Mail by Ruby Barnes

I get mail. A lot of mail. Every day. I ask for it. In total I am subscribed to twenty-five (yes, 25) daily e-book mail lists. In addition, I'm also subscribed to a similar number, no, let's say maybe fifty author and publisher mail lists from which I receive maybe two or three e-mails a day. I like getting e-mails. However, I don't buy a lot of e-books, maybe one or two a month. But there is method in my madness. I'm studying mail lists.

Yesterday I was reading a thread in the Writers' Cafe on kboards.com and the topic was Veterans, share your pro-tips! What's something you wish you'd known sooner? This topic or similar comes up frequently in on-line self-published author communities. A lot of great advice can be gleaned by mining these threads, with the caveat that your mileage may vary i.e. all things don't work equally well for everyone. One perennial gem in such threads is build your mailing list. As soon as you get into this self-published or micro-publishing business you should get that mailing list started. Don't delay, get yours today. You won't regret it. When you have a new release or a special offer you can inform interested readers and kindly give them the opportunity to buy your product. Having a zillion facebook likes or blog or twitter followers doesn’t give you a guaranteed e-mailbox through which to post your communication, but a mail list does. It’s worth spending time, effort and money on building a qualified mailing list as those valuable subscribers could potentially buy all your current and future books. But how best to go about building a list?

There are a number of ways to build your mailing list. However you do it, you will need permission from the individual before you add them to your list. In order to stay on the right side of data protection and spam laws, it’s a good idea to use an e-mail list management tool such as MailChimp or AWeber. These are free initially but can have a cost after a trial period or once a subscriber threshold is reached. I prefer MailChimp (as it has lots of cheeky apes onscreen).

Organic growth

Some authors are very fortunate that they write (and write well) in a popular genre with a high reading rate. Readers are eager to hear about the next release from the author and will bite at an opportunity to do so. Placing a mail list sign-up link in the back matter of an e-book is a good way to build a dedicated mailing list and some people call this organic growth as it results from genuine interest in the author’s work. There is no cost to this except time and effort in building the list in MailChimp or a similar mailing list tool, and then pasting the link into the ebook file via Kindle Direct Publishing or wherever. The link (which can also be included in paperbacks as a typed URL or QR code image, or link on your website / blog) can be a customized short-link from a service such as bitly which will provide statistics on number of clicks. This is a great way to build your list but don’t sit and watch it grow because, unless you have astounding sales success and are writing series, the organic growth will be slow.

No mail list pictures so here's what happens when a foot pedicure goes wrong

Bait and hook

Another way to build a list is bait and hook. This sounds exploitative but it’s not really. If you offer the reader something they want then they may well sign up for that free thing and more. The thing you’re giving away needs to have value for the reader. The value may be that it’s exclusive e.g. a prequel to a series, not available elsewhere, or that it normally costs but you’re making it free to subscribers. A free e-book can work well if it’s part of a series or if the author has other works nicely fitting into the same genre. Exclusive content or free, either way the objective is to build the author’s brand strength so that the subscribing reader is interested in more books from that author. (This assumes that the author has enough titles to play with and feels comfortable with giving one away.) There’s no financial cost in giving away a free e-book to subscribers, not unless you decide to gift it on Amazon. Although this has the benefit of increasing sales ranking, there is a risk that the subscriber might use the gift certificate for a different e-book and not yours.

Another way to gather interested mailing list subscribers with bait and hook is to offer something else for free. Typically this involves a free draw for a prize. This could be loosely or closely writing related e.g. an Amazon gift card, or a signed paperback or something else of value. There is a financial cost to building a list in this way and I’ve found that cost of prizes / number of new subscribers gives me a subscriber cost of around 35c.

Advertising to gain subscribers

In this modern digital world the opportunity to advertise is open to anyone with dollars to spend. A lot of authors are experimenting with product advertising, paying venues such as Amazon, facebook and the likes of BookBub to feature their e-book in product ads. Some authors are leveraging these ads to build their mailing lists.

The current thinking on Amazon e-book ads is that they are not giving a good return at present, so we’ll leave them alone for now. Facebook, however, is receiving a lot of attention from authors and publishers (and other product vendors) as they offer a range of options to build and target ads. Some authors are using these ads to try and sell individual e-book titles, some are using them for selling e-book box sets. The cost per click and conversion rates on these ads usually mean they are only economical for higher priced e-books i.e. usually box sets. However, some authors have used the ads to funnel people into their free e-book (usually first in series) bait & hook. There is, of course, a cost to facebook ads. I haven’t yet hit the sweet spot with facebook ads but I’ve seen people quoting costs per subscriber of a dollar or less.

Another route to building your list is to combine bait & hook with organic by setting up an enticing sign-up route on a book that is scheduled for a promotion. Placing the sign-up link in the front matter of an e-book will catch the eye of readers who browse the Look Inside feature on Amazon. Purchasers of the advertised book may also see the link when they read the book, but they might inadvertently skip it as Kindle readers / apps usually start on chapter 1 and not the cover or front matter. So be sure to put the link in the back matter as well as the front matter. The success of this approach depends upon reader behaviour and the amount of traffic generated by the ad. I’ve had a $450 BookBub ad for a temporarily free book generate 300+ subscriptions. If this were solely a list building activity, this would equate to a cost per subscriber of around $1.50, but the follow-on paid sales of the book more than covered the ad cost, so those subscribers were a free bonus. As more and more advertisers bid for our advertising dollars, and their results sometimes disappoint, nesting a mail list build inside an ad is a good way to optimise return on investment.

Another way to advertise for subscribers is to sponsor a prize draw wherein the participants agree to sign up to mail lists, twitter, facebook etc of the sponsors in return for multiple entries to the draw. These draws are usually run using Rafflecopter or similar. The cost for the author is whatever sponsorship fee is paid to the organiser. I’ve found the cost per subscriber for this to be in the range 15 – 30c. Some might say these are the least qualified subscribers of all the above methods. Whether or not they stay with you after your next newsletter mail-out is a matter of careful content selection.

My books fit the pickled egg genre

The importance of mail-out content

Data protection laws are very strict these days about the legitimacy of mailing lists and avoidance of spam. In order to have the right to email people about your writing and related matters, you need subscribers to opt-in. You need them to give you permission to mail them on occasion. Mailing lists such as AWeber and MailChimp have this opt-in functionality built-in. Even when subscribers have opted in, sometimes people will forget they gave you permission to email them and will mark your communications as spam. So it’s essential that your communication explains how you came to have their email address (where and when they opted in), what you have to say to them (value proposition) and an option for them to opt out (unsubscribe). That way your subscribers will stay sweet for you.

The first thing to do is make it clear that you are mailing the subscriber because they signed up to hear more from you via a link in an e-book of yours that they own, a facebook ad for title X, a prize draw which you sponsored with title Y, etc. This immediately establishes your bona fides. Sometimes people’s interests have changed – they have too many e-mails or they just aren’t interested anymore, or they don’t remember signing up for your list. You should offer an unsubscribe link in the mail-out so they can quietly slip away rather than brand your e-mail as spam. Too many spam complaints can lock up your mail list tool and cause all kinds of problems.

The second thing to do is make clear the value proposition of your mail-out. You might need to adjust this depending upon the source of the subscriber and what originally encouraged them to subscribe. For this purpose it can be helpful to keep separate lists in your mail tool. I have separate lists for organic, giveaways and sponsored. The subscribers from those Rafflecopter giveaways are motivated by prize draws so it may be a good idea to throw them a chance of another, more exclusive prize draw (plus a reminder that unsubscribers won’t be eligible in the next prize draw). Organic subscribers are likely to be more interested in the upcoming new release and, of course, they won’t turn their nose up at a prize draw either. The way to handle bait & hook subscribers depends upon what the bait was. If it was one of your e-books then you can treat them similarly to organic subscribers.

The mechanics of sign-up pages

I’m not going to go into the details of the workings of MailChimp or AWeber here. Both tools (and there are others) have very good help pages, but I find the best way to find out what looks good and works is to go sign up to some mailing lists (but maybe not 75 like I mentioned in the opening paragraph!) and read some internet threads on the subject in places like kboards. General wisdom is keep it clear and clean, it’s all about that click to subscribe. Work out a way to count the traffic that clicks your link from wherever, count the conversion rate (how many new subscribers / number of link clicks – my average is about 55%), keep a tab on any costs and work out cost per subscriber.

Mail campaigns, open and click rates

Hurray! You’ve gathered a throng of qualified, interested subscribers. Now what? Most importantly, don’t neglect them. If they’re organic then give them some periodic newsletter content on upcoming or current new releases. If they’ve come from an event – a competition, an ad campaign, a prize draw – then greet them en masse once the event has completed. Make sure to manage your content to retain them with info on how you came to know of them etc as above.

MailChimp gives some very nice statistics for each mail-out campaign and you should monitor these to ensure you are getting a good number of people opening the mail (my opens range from 42% to 71%), that people are clicking any links you have placed in your mail-out (my click rates range from 2% – 17%), that not too many people are unsubscribing (my average is 1 – 5 unsubscribers per campaign) and that spam reports are few and far between (I’ve had 1 or 2 total since I started a mail list).

And finally…

Don’t be intimidated by huge mail lists and uber-successful authors with prodigious writing output, several lengthy series, glossy landing pages with “reader magnets” and the like. My list isn’t huge. For over a year it was single figures. Even if you have just one book, or even if you just have a blog or a website, start building your list now. These are your readers, these are your audience.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Hot trod! - by Susan Price

Twenty years ago - yes, it was twenty years ago, though it doesn't
The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price: Scholastic
seem possible - I went on holiday in Northumberland, walked along Hadrian's Wall and bought MacDonald Fraser's book, The Steel Bonnets, about the riding families, or reivers, of the Scottish Borders.

     As a result, I wrote The Sterkarm Handshake - which tells how a 21st Century multi-national company, FUP, develops a time-machine, and travels back 500 years, to the early 16th Century, in order to exploit the fossil fuels. They intend to bring the coal, oil and gas back through the time tube to their own time, and sell it at huge profit.
      They come into conflict with the natives, the Sterkarm family. Windsor, the 21st Century executive,  makes the mistake of dismissing them as 'peasants armed with sticks.' The 'sticks' are longbows and eight-foot lances and the Sterkarms - shrewd, quick and bolshy to the bone - make him regret his words.
       The book did very well, in the UK and US, and was followed by A Sterkarm Kiss - something every bit as unfriendly and lethal as a Sterkarm handshake. (Think along the lines of 'a Gorballs' kiss.')
     A Sterkarm Kiss ended on a steep cliff-hanger - and then just hung and hung. I had fully intended to write the third book, but my agent, self and publisher could not come to terms. So I walked away.
The late, lamented Cuddy - or facsimile of same
      I hadn't reckoned on how many fans the books had collected, how much they wanted the third book, and how indignant they were at my cavalier dropping of the series. (That and the fact that I killed the deerhound, Cuddy. Writers, I warn you: kill as many human beings as you like, in as many horrible ways as you like, but if you value a quiet life, spare your canine characters. Kill off a dog and you will never be allowed to forget it. In the midst of compliments, suddenly the concealed dagger: 'But you killed Cuddy.')
          Just after Kiss came out, my friend, the author Celia Rees (Pirates! and Sovay) marched up to me at an event we both attended, and the first words out of her mouth were, "How dare you? How dare you?" I reeled a bit before I found out she was talking about the unresolved end of the book. And then I had to apologise.
          I get emails, still, twenty years later, which begin by berating me for killing Cuddy, but end by asking, 'When is the third book coming out?' - 'Will there ever be a third book?' - 'What about a third book?' (And there is now a certain, whippet-loving fan who reguarly demands a fourth book. I don't have the strength.)

          Well, at last, I have an answer to this question. "Next year."
          The ebook publisher, Open Road, is going to re-release the 
Open Road
two older books, and publish the new, third one, all at the same time - in June 2016.

          Which is why I am on the editing Hot Trod.
          A 'trod' was a hue and cry in pursuit of stolen beasts. If your cattle were driven off by rievers, you were entitled to raise a trod in pursuit of them. If you pursued within six days, you were even entitled to cross the border (officially, that is. The border, wherever it was thought to be that week, was crossed unofficially all the time.)
          This pressing pursuit was 'a hot trod', and to be legal, you had to do it with 'hue and cry, horn and hound'  - and carry a smouldering peat on the point of a lance, as a sign, to let everyone know what you were about.
          Well, the accomplished editor, Matrice Hussey has driven off my story, has chased it into the hills with canny and devious questions - and I have a smouldering typescript hoist above on a sharp red pen, and am in hot trod across the fells of chapters and - wary of ambush - through the dales of paragraphs. How about that for torturing a metaphor?

          The manuscript has been delivered to me by email, and all Matrice's comments are in blue boxes down the right, in the mark-up pane. I can add my own comments, in red boxes. I like this. I can remember when illegible comments were scribbled in margins, or stuck on post-it notes.

          I'm embarrassed by the number of typos Matrice has spotted so far. She could probably spot one from across the street.
           She's also asked many, many pertinent questions about background and character motivation, which have me shoving my hair on end as I try to rake answers out of my head. And we've only got to chapter 10.
          But this is all good. I've always enjoyed a right old stooshy over edits. Writing any novel means juggling with a dozen different awkward objects at once - plot, theme, character, dialogue, description, narrative - and it's exhausting. You try your best and you think you're doing okay - but inevitably, you drop one of them.
          Matrice's job is to spot all the places where I dropped something - and she's very good at it. She asks all the difficult questions that any intelligent reader would ask - and gives me a chance to correct the flaws before other intelligent readers can object to them. (If she'd been there when I wrote Handshake, she might even have rescued Cuddy, who knows?)
          There's going to be quite a bit of rewriting, I think... But I'll get it done. Before June, next year.

Discounted Books

          By way of celebrating having a publication date for Sterkarm 3, I've put some of my other books on Kindle Discount, starting today. They'll be selling for as much as 72% off their usual price.

They are:-

Christopher Uptake: The Life and Times of a Godless Playmaker.

An adventure set in the reign of Elizabeth I of England.

                             Amazon US


The Story Collector

The elderly Mr. Grimsby collects folk-tales from his maid, her grandmother, a dying woman, an old soldier - and even from a Churchyard Grim and the Virgin... Everyone has a story.

Retellings of the folklore and legends that have fascinated me my whole life...   Also available in paperback

                                                      Amazon US

Hauntings: Nine Eerie Stories

'This collection… has a depth of emotion that is at times disturbing.'  Magpie, 1998

If you're looking for gross-out horror, this collection is not for you. I called it 'Hauntings' because that's what I wanted the stories to do - to stay with the reader, to haunt, to unsettle...I was trying for the effect of many of the 'true' ghost stories told in my family.

                                            Amazon US

The Saga of Aslak Slave-Born

The Viking Age. Adventure, fighting, ghosts.

A story for younger readers, it tells of how Aslak searches across the Northern world of the Viking Age, to find and rescue his lost sister, who has been sold as a slave.

                                                                    Amazon US 

Also available in paperback.              

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Conversations with the weather - Jo Carroll

It's sunny as I write this. I can hear my neighbour cutting her grass. Bees hover on the rosemary by my window. All I want to do, if I'm honest, is to finish this and get out there. To sit in a shady corner with a book and allow the afternoon to pass me by.

I recognise that I have an ongoing conversation with the weather. It's not simply that I'm British and we can be obsessed by it. It's that the weather can shape my day. Cold has me huddled indoors, hands curled around a mug of hot tea. The rain - especially if it comes with days of endless grey - leaves me struggling to find the motivation to do anything. Wind - ask any teacher of five-year-olds how she copes with children on a windy day. I know just how those children feel - wind seems to blow through my head leaving me reeling from one idea to another without managing to grasp any of them.

I know myself well enough to recognise that there are days when I need to go with the flow of the weather, and others when I need to challenge it. Much as I'd like to take each day as it comes, life simply isn't like that. Nevertheless, it has an impact on my mood and motivation - hence my scanning the sky every morning as I open my curtains.

So, if the weather does that to me - what does it do to my characters? I'm sure we can all think of books where storms, or droughts, or hot dry days are so well-developed that they are, effectively, additional characters in the narrative. The Grapes of Wrath would have no meaning without the droughts of the American mid-west. The Shipping News would be a totally different drama if it were set in the temperate seas off the Isle of Wight. Sherlock Holmes needs his fog.

But I think the weather play be an effective - and often much more subtle - contribution to our settings. Those of us in the UK are familiar with our fluctuating climate, yet I'm not convinced I use that to full advantage in my writing. I can tell you what my characters eat for breakfast or what shoes they wear - but I don't always think about how they might feel when they pull back the curtains and see snow.

And yet the more I think about it, the more the interaction between character and weather becomes relevant. Most of us play with character sketches, decide what they eat for breakfast and do they prefer dogs to cats. These scribbles rarely make it into the final piece but are all part of getting to know people. Yet I rarely engage in speculation about characters' interactions with the weather. Do they slap on sunscreen or hide in the shade? Do they huddle against the rain, or put their face to the sky and drink it? Do they wrap up and build snowmen or hide by the fire? Are they frightened of thunder?

Or are they are tempted to abandon all those things they ought to be doing on days when the sun is shining. What book would they take into the garden ... now there's an idea.

In fact, I'll take my kindle, sit in the shade, and enjoy A Flash in the Pen. And see how my colleagues use the weather in their short stories.!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Where Dreams Come From by Lev Butts

If I had to guess, I would say that the most common question an author gets asked is "Where do you get your ideas from?" This question is also, coincidentally, the most impossible to answer.

Except for this guy. His most commonly asked question is
"What if you die before you finish the last two volumes of  A Song of Ice and Fire?"
His answer is pretty concise.
It's a question that almost every author from John Irving to Stephen King, from Neil Gaiman to me dreads. And it is the most understandable question. Think about it. How often have you watched a movie or television show or read a book or comic or play and thought, "That story story seemed so simple and clear. I could write something like that if only I had that idea first. How can I have that idea first?"

The thing is, though, that we can't share where our ideas come from any more than we can teach someone to have a sense of humor. Sure I can tell you that the idea for Guns of the Waste Land came from reading an article about heroes in American fiction in which the author said the cowboy was America's answer to the knight, but that is hardly helpful, is it? I mean, I've already written that story.

And it's not really what people want to know usually. The question they are really asking is "How can I have good ideas like that and write my own stories?" And the answer there is actually pretty simple:

Train your imagination.

You need to learn to do something you probably did effortlessly as a child: use your imagination. How many of you had imaginary friends? Monsters under the bed or in the closet?

When we were children, the world was a magical place. Not always nice, but magical. In the dark lurked spirits and monsters and demons ready to spirit us off to hellish realms where'd we never see our mothers again. The woods and fields, though, were home to sprites and elves and hobbits and dwarves who would lead us off on grand adventures if we'd just let ourselves. Sure the elves and dwarves were most likely other kids from the neighborhood, but it didn't matter as long as we were playing.

Then we grew up, and all those things went by the wayside. Life got in the way: School, job, family. We began using our imagination in more practical ways: devising ways to cut corners at work, figuring out how to creatively skip one bill this month in order to pay off other bills instead. The only times we actively engage our creative imaginations are when we watch films or read books, and even then we are really just borrowing the imaginations of the authors.

Unless you're these guys:

In fact, the role playing gamers have an advantage over the rest of us because thay have consciously kept active imaginations. They are not content to simply read fantasy stories, they participate in creating them.

Now I'm not saying that we need to all go out and find a gaming group that meets once a week, but we do need to give more effort to exercising our imaginations in a similar way. Here's something I do regularly:

Fill in the blanks of reality.

Whenever I'm out in the world, I try to keep an eye out for odd little things that seem out of place or inexplicable, and I explain them. In other words, I create stories that explain the unexplainable.

The other day, for instance, as I was driving home, I spied something in the middle of the road ahead. As I drew closer, I realised that it was a stuffed rabbit lying there in the median. A child's toy, not some kind of taxidermy. So I began wondering how it got there. Sure, probably fell out a window or something when a kid got animated in his or her play and mom or dad refused to stop for it. But maybe it was clue to some child abduction case, or maybe the rabbit had escaped from a tyrannical kid's toy chest and had gotten this far before being flattened by a semi.

The stories don't have to be great, or even well-developed. They can still have blanks in them, but my goal is to try and create a much more entertaining tale than the horribly mundane series of events that likely occurred.

I'll give you a better example.

The Strange Case of the Raptured One-Legged Hooker.

Last week I was in Kansas City, Missouri, grading Advanced Placement essays for seven days straight. The grading site, a warehouse inside the KC Conference Center, was about 1 1/3 miles from my hotel, so I decided to walk there every day in order to get some modicum of exercise before and after my eight-hour stint of sitting in an uncomfortable chair grading mediocre essays.

We weren't allowed cameras, but I managed to sneak this picture
when the guards weren't looking.
On the way there my fourth day, I came across a lone shoe by a No Parking sign. "Huh," I thought, "there's a story there. That shoe didn't just park itself by that sign, and somewhere, I guess is a woman walking around with only one high-heeled shoe on. I mean, this is not something you just forget to put back on."

So I posted the picture to Facebook:

Caption: There's a story here.

It did not take long for my friends to respond including this interesting exchange:

From here a narrative was born. A narrative that developed more and more as the week wore on since each day I walked to work a different way, and each day, I found another bizarre sight: lacy bra and panties by the side of the road on day five, followed by a golden pillow the day after that, some jumbo sized star shaped glitter on the sidewalk the next day, a discarded pair of rubber gloves that evening, and finally a banana spray painted on the sidewalk the last day of my stay.

I posted each picture in turn and gradually a narrative emerged:

Caption: "My God. It's full of stars."
We don't know where she came from or where she went,
but we think she may have shed this mortal coil.
Caption: The investigation, it appears, is under way.

As you see, gradually, a narrative emerges about the disappearance of a young, one-legged hooker, who left a trail, a la Hansel and Gretel, of discarded clothing. A trail which, tragically, ended only in a scattering of stars. The authorities investigated, though, and finally a culprit was discovered and our hapless victim named:

Is this a full and complete narrative? Not really. Is it compelling? Maybe. It's certainly silly, and it functioned mainly to keep me occupied on my walk to work each morning. More importantly, though, it's a narrative that is tons more interesting than the more probable causes of each picture: drunken shenanigans, an unsecured pillow in a truck, glitter falling from a punctured crafts bag, lazy med techs, and a fairly good graffiti artist. 

Once the undergarments were found, my imagination went into overdrive. I made a conscious effort each day after that to find at least one bizarre thing to photograph and work into the story. And that is the point of this exercise. Tell at least a mildly interesting story.

I don't know that "The Strange Case of the Raptured One-Legged Hooker" will ever make it into a genuine short story, but that's not the point. 

The point is to keep yourself open to the little mysteries life throws at you and allow your imagination to play with them. 

That's where ideas, and dreams, come from. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Lights, camera, fiction. Ali Bacon thinks about taking to the stage

Something I touched on in a very ancient blog post and am now thinking about a lot more, is that all writing is a performance, because like all artistic endeavours it assumes an audience, an audience whose expectations may be satisfied, disappointed, exceeded, subverted, but always taken into account. (Even if writing is therapeutic or introspective, i.e. the audience is the writer her/himself, that audience still needs satisfaction.)
But this isn’t about philosophy or therapy. It’s about the writer as a performer, as in on stage. I could include Youtube and audio tapes but I’m thinking of  those times when as authors we’re asked to stand up in public and read our own words. 

I admit I used to hate it, not because it involved ‘public speaking’ - I was always fine with giving talks and presentations in work situations –but reading my own work felt like presenting myself , my creations, my inner world – which sent me in to an unusually shrinking violet state of mind.  Not surprisingly my first efforts at reading to an audience were not great. I was, I suspect, a bit wooden, and I know for a fact that even if I started slowly I always cantered to the end in the hope of sitting down again as quickly as possible.

Getting a taste for stardom
But last November, this suddenly changed. Perhaps it was the Stroud Short Stories venue (warm welcome, big crowd) or the fact that this was performance for its own sake i.e. not linked to any book-buying or selling event, that made the difference, or maybe it was just because the readers ahead of me gave such brilliant entertainment of different kinds, I stood up and, as I read, I realised I was actually enjoying my moment in the limelight. It was a shock but a good shock, a shock I might even like to have again.

Since then I’ve taken been taking in other short story events, although so far only in the audience. Story Friday which takes place every two months in Bath is similar in some ways to Stroud Short Stories. Work is submitted and the ‘prize’ is selection for the next reading event, although in both cases it’s made clear that the criteria for selection are not just quality of writing but how well your contribution fits with the specified theme and the other selections, i.e. it’s about the audience experience as much as the writing.  I first went along in December last year and the story that has left the biggest impression was a comedy in two voices with a reader for each voice. Was it a story? Was it a play? Does it matter? It was a great performance.

Cleveland Pools -  stories are waiting
 My next Story Friday experience was on a Sunday (!) afternoon at Cleveland Pools, a semi-derelict Georgian lido (yes, you read that right) which was intriguing enough in itself. As an audience we were divided into small groups (making a virtue of health & safety necessity) and led in turn to each of the original changing cubicles where a reader met us with a story. The writing remit was to reflect the location and as we listened we were treated to a history of the venue through characters from a pick-pocket at the original lido to a girl seeking shelter from the WW2 blitz. Most writers had chosen first person narratives and read ‘in character’ so this was an orchestrated performance rather than a set of readings. For any writer who doesn’t want to ‘perform,’ Story Fridays also gives the option of having work read by a professional actor.
Dance performance by the pool

But how are we as writers going to grasp the performance nettle? Excerpts of novels do not make for great performance IMO because they will never tell the whole story, but if we do need to tackle book launch reading we can at least hone our presentation and delivery and I’m grateful that on my late lamented MA course Lucy English, novelist and performance poet, gave us some great tips on reading aloud. (No 1 rule: Speak as slowly as you possibly can!) 

Orna Ross at the new Hawkesbury Upton Litfest
But at other recent events it has struck me that fiction for performance has its own demands in terms of form and content as well as in the strength of the presentation. In April at Hawkesbury Upton, Orna Ross, Shirley Wright and John Holland demonstrated the strengths for an audience (in the right hands) of poetry and flash fiction, and I remember how well Pauline Masurel’s short stories came across last year in Winterbourne Library. 

Does the spoken word need to pack a different kind of punch to the written word? I was fascinated to see A Word in Your Ear offering a workshop  – sadly I couldn’t make it - in writing short stories for performance. But around here there are a growing number of ‘live fiction’ events (Word of Mouth at Bristol Thunderbolt, the Bristol group Heads and Tales, Philip Douch in and around Cheltenham and a new Sunday night initiative in Stroud) and since I seem to be ‘between novels’ I’m planning to be in the audience of more of them. I actually prefer to hear rather than read short fiction and so it will be a pleasure to sit back and let these people entertain me -  and then to work out how to make my next bid for stardom.