Saturday, 30 January 2016

Where is the Line Between Reality and Imagination? Guest Post by MA Demers

While writing my first novel, Baby Jane, which is set in Vancouver, Canada, I wanted to restrict my main male protagonist to a single detective, Dylan Lewis. In Vancouver, though, homicide detectives work in pairs, and thus I contrived to have Dylan’s partner, Tom Farrow, off on holiday for the whole book. So you can imagine my surprise when, only 48 pages in, I found my imaginary medical examiner asking Dylan, “When’s Tom back?” “Sunday,” Dylan replies.


Tom Farrow did indeed return on Sunday, and became one of my favourite characters in the book.  Question is, why did he come back, and uninvited no less? Was it just my creative subconscious realizing I needed another foil for Dylan? Or was this something more intriguing: that Tom existed in another, perhaps parallel, universe, and I had merely tapped into his existence?

Many moons ago, in university, I studied comparative religions and was intrigued to learn that the monotone beat of shamanic drumming induces the brain to produce theta brainwaves, which are the same brainwaves our brains produce when we dream. “Ecstatic” religions, such as that of North American Natives, teach us that when we dream we enter the spirit world, or, more precisely, that we connect with our soul that lives in both the spirit and the mundane worlds, and as such keeps us connected to the rest of the universe, that is, to Creation. Our dreams are therefore messages from the spirit world, from both guardians and foes, or are events we experience in this parallel dimension.

(In Western medicine many psychologists suggest their patients keep a dream diary in order to analyze and understand their problems better; in Native medicine, rather than passively wait for messages from dreams, shamans — also known as medicine men/women — use the shamanic drum to enter into a controlled dream state where they can communicate directly with the spirits to gather information and help the patient.)

If dreaming, then, is really us connecting to another dimension, then is this also what imagination is? After all, what is imagination if not a form of controlled dreaming? And if so, what, then, is a “product of my imagination”? Are my stories and characters manufactured by me, the writer, or am I merely a stenographer for the universe?

I decided to explore this theme in my latest novel, The Point Between, in which a famous mystery writer is murdered only to meet in the afterlife the lead detective of her novels. Marcus Mantova claims authorship of the now dead Lily Harrington’s stories, and his assertions send her into a crisis: what, if any, talent had she then possessed? And if none, then why her? As Lily ponders in the book, “she must have had some aptitude for the job … you certainly don’t hire a mechanic to perform brain surgery, or vice versa.” So is Marcus really the author of her books, or is she the author and he merely her muse?

Ironically, while I was writing the novel the experience I had with Baby Jane repeated itself. The Point Between was supposed to be centered around Lily and Marcus, but a woman named Penelope Winters inserted herself into the story. Like Tom Farrow, Penelope arrived fully formed, her looks and personality both clear as a bell. When she first popped into my head, I thought it would be fun if she, too, had been a character in Lily’s novels, but Penelope was having none of that:

“I’m a dead Whatcom County homicide detective.”

“But wouldn’t it be cool if you were Marcus’s great love from early in the series? You know, the one who got away and so now he’s a womanizing narcissist who can never love again, like Vesper and James Bond?”

“No. I am Marcus’s ex, but I’m a dead Whatcom County homicide detective.”

“Huh. Okay, then.”

And thus I found myself in the rather bizarre situation of experiencing the very experience I was writing about even as I was writing it:

“[Penelope] had appeared uninvited, like some of the characters in Lily’s novels who seemed to write themselves into the narrative, leaving her wondering where they had come from, what far recess of her mind had conjured up the apparition. Or the way a minor character, written in to bridge a gap or maybe create a red herring, would then take on a life of their own and become central to the plot. It was always a spooky feeling when such events occurred, and each time they did Lily would assign responsibility to her muse, yet this muse never had a name or even a face, was nothing more than a mechanism to explain the inexplicable.”

So the next time you’re reading a novel and imagining yourself in the story, or imagining the hero or heroine as a real person in your own life, ask yourself what if? What if he or she is real? What if your alleged fantasy life is actually taking place — but in another dimension? Would that make your dreams more real? More possible?

And while you’re reading a book, consider this: is it possible someone somewhere else is reading — or writing — about you?

About M. A. Demers

M. A. Demers is a writer, editor and self-publishing consultant with a diverse clientele as far away as Australia and Columbia. In 2011 she self-published her first novel, Baby Jane, followed by The Global Indie Author: Your Guide to the World of Self-Publishing, now in its third edition, and the concise To Kindle in Ten Steps: The Easy Way to Format, Create and Self-Publish an eBook on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. The Point Between is her second novel. She lives near Vancouver, Canada.

About Baby Jane
There’s more to good and evil than meets the eye...
When human remains are found in her pre-war fixer-upper in an east Vancouver neighbourhood, Claire Dawson’s grand plans to fix the house—and her life—take a disturbing turn. Suspicious there might exist a relationship between the discovery and her own tragic past, Claire insinuates herself into the investigation, unknowingly placing herself in harm’s way and Homicide’s Detective Dylan Lewis in an impossible conflict of interest. And when Dylan’s grandmother, a Coast Salish medicine woman, wades into the mystery, challenging the demon whose earthly form is behind the murder, the three find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes battle where lines are blurred and worlds collide—but souls are ultimately freed.

About The Point Between
It’s hard to tell fact from fiction, especially when you’re a ghost …
Bestselling mystery novelist Lily Harrington has been found hanging in her home in the tiny, oddball haven of Point Roberts, Washington, and all signs point to suicide. Worried the truth will be buried with her, Lily teams up with Marcus Mantova, the sexy detective of her novels, to influence the investigation and catch her killer. Yet no sooner has Lily come to terms with the existence of Marcus, the womanizing egomaniac she had thought a product of her imagination, than dead Whatcom County detective Penelope Winters also worms her way onto the case. Lies, frauds, and competing agendas take Lily on a roller-coaster ride over heaven and earth until, at last, she discovers the truth and another chance at life.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Weird : N M Browne

I was a weird kid, well weird for Nelson where I went to school. I was terrible at sport, obsessed with books and reading, wouldn't wear make up and thought there was something wrong with girls who covered their rough books with pictures of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond. Luckily back then school finished at sixteen and I was able to go to sixth form college. I was still weird, but it mattered less. I fell in love with my subjects, and with a few boys, started wearing (rather a lot of) make up and was angst ridden, academically ambitious but essentially happy.
 I bother you with all this because yesterday I made the four and half hour train journey that took me back to my old sixth form college and thirty seven years back in time.
As soon as I got off the train I smelled it: a tang of something in the damp northern air, the scent of my past. I marched up the road in the wind and rain, head down and someone said' All right love?' and I was - extremely all right: you can take the girl out of Lancashire but you can't take Lancashire out of the girl. My inner northerner perked up and smelled the bacon butties.
 The College isn't the same. There is a new building and it sort of hums with efficiency. We had a down at heel common room with a juke box. Now there is a proper lecture theatre and computers and lots of steel and glass. Everyone back then had a lot of hair and I don't think conditioner had been invented; we were spotty and badly dressed and not at all like the students of the new improved college. I half expected to see my old teachers, Doc Collins and Mr Monroe but they were long gone though the new ones were every bit as impressive: my old college is now one of the best in the country.
Everyone was so lovely to me that I felt rather fraudulent - particularly as it turns out - I was talking as an 'inspirational alumnus.'
 You might wonder what this has to do with books and writing and to be honest so did I when I was planning my talk. What could I tell these sixth formers? I had no tips to give, no secret of my
( somewhat dubious) success. I suppose the only thing I could say is that writers aren't born but made of whatever is at hand. Most of us, I humbly suggest, are like everyone else only maybe less good at staying where we are put: we are always elsewhere in our heads. We are made  of awkwardness and desire, long solitary walks and book fed imagination, a little bit of millstone grit and a strong sense of our own importance.
 I looked for the girl I'd been in the audience among all the polite girls sitting quietly and affecting interest in my ramblings. She was there, I know she was, looking at me cynically, wondering who the hell I thought I was trying to tell her anything.  So I didn't try to tell her too much.  You can't, can you? So I told her everything is grist to the mill, keep going and know that it is OK to be weird. There are a lot of us out there.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Lizzie Lizard, Little Owl Press, Pipeline theatre, Bach and Tolstoy (grandiose or what?)

Coming out in March is another of my little books written for Franklin Watts' Early Readers. This one, in response to their brief for stories about animals practising Olympic-type sports, features Lizzie Lizard who's being wooed and pursued by a number of beasties whose intentions are far from honourable! As with a couple of my other books, the illustrator is Inna Chernyak from the Ukraine - a country I'd prefer to associate with artists, poets, writers, dancers, music and songs - all the really important things in life - than with any kind of armed conflict. Speaking of the important things in life, do pay a visit to Little Owl Press - an Iranian publishing house based in London which specialises in the re-telling of Persian fairytales. Predictably, the illustrations are gorgeous.

At the other end of the writing spectrum is an adult novel, COUNTERPOINT, which I'm currently editing and re-structuring. It's a novel I wrote twenty-five years ago, on a typewriter (remember those?) but a few weeks ago I had it re-typed and converted to Word. Thought I'd let it sit there quietly on my computer for a few months or even longer, but I took a peek, just to check on what exactly I had, and - you've guessed it - started working on it. As with many first novels, the plot evolved out of an intense experience in my personal life, so going back to it has been, and is being, both difficult and painful, like the most intense form of psychological analysis (well, at least it isn't costing me anything). Someone else in a previous blog was talking about music to write to. I couldn't do that - it would be a choice between working and listening - but running through this novel are Bach's Goldberg Variations, and I've once again been hearing them inside my head as I work.

One of the many curious things I've discovered in working on this is how my use of language has changed since then - well, obviously, you'd think, but I wasn't so much aware of it until now. It's in little things, like so much of the explanatory dialogue in the text beginning with: 'Look', which always reminds me of Tony Blair, and far fewer abbreviations for 'he/she will' etc, I think, than you'd find in a more contemporary novel. 'Would've', 'should've' instead of 'would have', 'should have' have recently crept in, and now feel normal ('would of', though, remains totally unacceptable, although so many kids and even their teachers use that form).

Our daughter's theatre company, PIPELINE, has recently received that rarity - an Arts Council grant, which means they can now afford to take on tour their very poignant, and already much-loved production: TRANSPORTS, written by playwright Jon Welch. They brought this to Covent Garden two years ago, and everyone I know who saw it was impressed (that's her on the left, on a windy day in Cornwall, and please note that I always say 'our' daughter in spite of the sad fact that David's not with us any more).

The plot links the Holocaust and Kindertransports with a troubled, 21st century teenager. The story is traumatic, but does have an unexpectedly joyous resolution. If it comes your way, do try to see it. The troubled teenager was originally played by our grand-daughter, Anna, but she's now at drama school, so they've had to audition a replacement. It must feel strange, quite uncomfortable, and challenging, to step into a major role played so successfully by someone else.

Talking drama, I, like many other people, have been impressed by the BBC's current production of Tolstoy's 'WAR and PEACE'. To my shame, I've never actually read it, and only just approximately know the story. My local bookshop's stocked the paperback which is immense - you could easily mug someone with it. I love the characters in this production, especially Pierre with his moony spectacles, and his shy clumsiness.

Finally, I'd like to apologise for the disparity of both fonts and text size in this blog. Blogger has gone up the creek, and keeps randomly fiddling with both, and I have now lost patience with it, so it's going out as it stands in the Preview. It was supposed to be composed using Times Large, and - who knows? maybe by January 28th it will have righted itself, or maybe pigs might fly (I've been working on a flying pig for ages)

My website's: Facebook: Enid Richemont Children's Author

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

On Behalf of My Client - Andrew Crofts

“She said what?” my wife’s tone of voice managed to convey both her contempt for the woman I was describing and her astonishment at my naiveté for swallowing her line. Her fork had come to a halt half way to her mouth as she peered down the table at me, obviously awaiting some sort of satisfactory response.

As so often happens I had been talking without fully engaging my brain, expounding my client’s theories on why she was performing a social service by sleeping with other people’s husbands. My wife’s tone had woken me fully and I sensed danger. I paused and struggled to replay whatever I had just said in my head. The words, which just an hour or two before I had been typing out with fluent conviction, suddenly had a rather hollow ring to them.

I cleared my throat and tried putting my client’s point of view a little differently. My wife listened like a High Court judge might listen to a lawyer pleading for a client with a hopeless case, but her expression did not lighten.

“And you believed her?” she asked once I had burbled to a standstill.

Now I was on the ropes. I had to think why it was I was putting forward this woman’s highly immoral ideas as if they were founded in logic. Under this sort of cross-examination my client’s view of the world did seem a little ethically shaky, but as her ghost it was my job to put her case for her as eloquently and convincingly as possible, not challenge it. If I had actually questioned what she was telling me to her face she would have grown defensive and would have become more cautious in talking to me honestly. I needed her to open up and explain herself as fully as possible, I did not want to intimidate her into silence or aggressive self justification.

Under my wife’s inquisitorial glare, however, I could feel my confidence in my client’s story ebbing away. I was still only in the early stages of the writing and I couldn’t afford to lose sympathy with the woman whose voice I was going to be thinking and speaking in for the next few months.

“I can’t talk about it,” I said, able to hear the panic in my own voice.

“What do you mean?”

“I have to believe in her version of the story if I am going to be able to tell it convincingly. Once I’ve finished the book we can argue about the rights and wrongs of her philosophy of life as much as we like. I just can’t do it now.”

My wife gave a snort which could have been simply agreement but to my sensitive ears still seemed to contain a suggestion of derision. A new golden rule had just been born in our house. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

You Have Thirty Minutes to Evacuate by Ruby Barnes

In half an hour you and your family will have to leave your home, probably forever. What are you going to take with you? The good news is you have your car, truck or whatever you normally drive. One vehicle containing your family and the essentials of your life. If you only ride a bike then hitch a lift

Oh, I forgot to mention that this is not a holiday. You are fleeing certain death, or worse, at the hands of an evil horde of hungry undead and venomous mutants. The good news is that you and your pals stopped off at the shops on the way home and essential food and drink items are already taken care of.

So, I packed all my DIY tools, including the brand new ones I have never used but keep because they will come in handy some day. As Mrs R was busy being a mad scientist out at the laboratory, I was free to load all our clothes into the pickup without having to check what would be suitable for which occasion. My son, being a boy scout, had the forethought to grab our sleeping bags and a couple of extra bedcovers.

It didn't occur to me that the undead and the mutants, although fairly well organised by John Baptist, might not be able to maintain the county's infrastructure and that mains electricity would be a rare commodity. So not only would my power tools prove completely useless but also the petrol pumps at service stations wouldn't be functioning. Important for anyone planning to flee the zombie apocalypse - fill up the tank before you hit the road.

On the plus side, we had enough ginger biscuits to feed an army, I brought along six months supply of antihistamine tablets so I wouldn't get a constant runny nose and - oh yes - I took my samurai sword.

What about you? Would you and yours escape the encroaching evil dead? Would you remember the Monopoly and the Scrabble?

coming soon on Amazon and all the other places

You can learn more about Ruby and his zombie exploits at

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Dragon Like Yoda Talks - Not! - by Susan Price

Here I go again, doing what I'm told you absolutely should not do -
Foiling The Dragon by Susan Price
that is, talking back to your critics.
I did it here, when people said my villain in the Sterkarm books, James Windsor, was not believable - and now I'm going to defend my poetry-loving dragon in Foiling The Dragon.

I recently put Foiling The Dragon. out as a paperback and e-book. It is, as the strapline informs you, 'A light-hearted fantasy of poets, sorceresses, dragons — and wrapping paper.' It's not epic fantasy. It's meant to amuse for a few hours, and maybe make you smile.

On Amazon it's collected some positive reviews. J. Mathews says,
 'I enjoyed this book as a child, and have just read it again. I found it equally enjoyable.'
Thank you, J. Mathews. I don't know who you are, but I greatly appreciate your taking the time and trouble to post a positive review.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
D. Lamb says:
Drily funny reversal of the usual medieval fantasy stereotypes... Anti-hero, anti-king and even a bit anti-Shakespeare - what's not to like?  
Thank you, D. Lamb. Again, I've no idea who you are but, for me, you get it. You describe the book wot I wrote.

Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

One of the reviews underneath, by 'Aldrea Alien,' makes some good points about wavering point of view (which I know is a besetting sin of mine, and which I have been discussing with my editor, Matrice, as I work on Sterkarm 3. Fair cop, guv.

But Aldrea A does allow that 'the dragon was a hoot' and the book was 'worth reading for the dragon scenes alone.' 

Another review - which may even have inspired D. Lamb and J. Mathews to their good deeds - is headlined: '"Foiling The Dragon" Is Very Very Bad.' Why? Because the 'characters are not particularly likeable' and 'the big scary dragon talks like some kind of dodgy medieval Yoda ("Thou to me the way will show"). Even A. Alien, although thinking the dragon the best thing in the book, says the dragon, 'spoke a little like Yoda.'

Well, I could discuss whether or not characters should always be 'likeable' for hours - and I think it's especially questionable for them to be entirely 'likeable' in something which aims at being funny, since most humour involves telling the truth about ourselves.

Humour isn't about the big, heroic, chivalric, handsome, strong epic fantasy vision of ourselves that we all like to indulge in now and again. Instead, it undercuts all that by telling the truth about how weak, cowardly, selfish, envious, slothful and all those other sinful things we are in reality.

Some people like the shiny heroic version better, but that doesn't mean that the funnier version doesn't have its value. However, that's a matter of taste and opinion. As I said when defending my Sterkarm villain:  
I’m neither surprised nor dismayed that some people dislike some of my books.  I had my reasons for writing it the way I did; but other people would have made different choices, and dislike those I made. Fair enough.
The point I would like to take issue with - and I suppose it's a bit daft of me to be annoyed by it but it nevertheless irks - is the suggestion that I based the dragon on Yoda, from Star Wars. That the dragon 'talks like Yoda.' That I copied this from the film.

Here's the dragon: the roofed and dim back of the cave, there was a heap of... gold coins, and plates, gold jugs, gold trays, and something that looked very like a crown. It was these things, sliding down from their heap, that had made the metallic noise.

     It was the reason they had slid that worried Paul more. Lying on top of the heap was — an animal. A very big animal. It was curled up, its back towards Paul. A back covered in scales. And spikes. A long tail, also edged with spikes, trailed down from the heap of gold and along the floor of the cave. The tip of the tail ended in an arrow-shaped point, and twitched slightly.

     Its general colour was greenish, but some of the scales had a reddish, coppery sheen...Its sides rose and fell, and more coins slid down from the heap.

     Paul made a strangled sound as his stifled breath at last escaped him, and he had to gulp for another. After that gulp he thought it was time to edge in a casual, slow, but still pretty nippy way for the cave entrance. He’d got no further than moving one foot when the gold began to cascade in all directions as the dragon’s shoulders twisted. A neck rose, uncoiling, and turning the head towards him. Two eyes — forward-facing, focusing, predator’s eyes — lazily opened in its mask. Two huge, smokily yellow and glowing eyes, with narrow black triangular centres, sharpened on him.

The mouth opened — and opened — and opened, showing a black lining and four long, sharp, dripping wet teeth. A black, forked tongue coiled backwards and then flicked forwards. A gust of smoke blew from the mouth, carrying towards him that stink of damp and smouldering.

    The thing squirmed on its pile of gold, twisting round to face him, scattering coins and crowns and sword-belts. Wings unfolded, rustling against rock, fanning the burning stink towards him. What a size it was! He could feel the strength of those wings from where he stood, His own legs gave way and he sat on the rock, shrank himself down, trying to be small.

     Raised up as he was, on top of the boulder, the dragon’s head was above him. Even if he could have run for the cave entrance, what would have been the use? That long neck would have snaked out… He didn’t want to think any further.
     "Best for thee it would be," said the dragon, "if thou a bard wert.”

      The dragon like a German into English literally translating speaks. This because a Nordic, Germanic dragon it is. Yoda its creator's mind never entered.
     Okay, I'll give the terminating verbs a rest. I can tell you how that phrase 'terminal verbs' got into my vocabulary, though. From my cousin, a fluent German speaker, who explained that German has a different way of ordering its parts of speech from English. German almost always places the verb 'in the terminal postition.'
      And, you see, I was writing about this dragon... It was definately a dragon in the tradition of the North - a fire-breathing, carnivorous beast, red in tooth and claw, bearing little good-will towards anybody or anything. To misquote the much missed Pratchett: 'The nearest a dragon can come to understanding what "friend" means is "an enemy who is still alive."'
      There is also a tradition that these mythical beasts are intelligent and sometimes even talk. It suited me and my plot to have an intelligent, talking dragon. So, if a great Germanic, gold-hoarding worm opens its gob and speaks - what does it sound like?
     Presumably, when it has occasion to speak to its own kind, it speaks in dragon. But it's been alive a long time, and it's picked up a bit of the languages spoken by these pestilential forked vermin that swarm all over the place. And, being a Nordic, Germanic dragon, presumably the first such language it picked up was a Germanic language... So it speaks with a German terminal verb.
     Now this reasoning of mine might have as many holes as a sieve - but it has nothing whatsoever to do with that cuddly little goblin from a futuristic Space Opera.
     Why, when characterising an ancient, ferocious Northern mythological creature, would I have chosen to copy a kindly, cuddly alien from a science-fiction film?
     I probably have to break this gently to 'A Customer', but: the whole world is not encompassed by Star Wars (and I speak as someone who loved Star Wars. Saw it when it first came out.)
     People were thinking and inventing pre-Star Wars. Even post-Star Wars, people can manage to invent without reference to it. Sometimes their ideas have similarities.
     It's sort of like parallell evolution - faced with the same problems, entirely different creatures come up with a similar solutions, and end up looking very alike, even though they are not at all related. Fish, for instance. Scientists say 'there is no such thing as a fish.' There are just a lot of unrelated creatures which all evolved to live in water. Evolving to live in water resulted in a lot of them looking very similar, despite being, in fact, as distantly related to each other as horses and caterpillers.
     So it comes down to this:
     If your opinion is that my amusing little fantasy is very very bad, fine. You didn't like it, it wasn't what you were looking for. I'm sorry I didn't succeed in entertaining you. Better luck with your book choices in future. (And strewth, I can sympathise, I've thrown enough books aside myself.)
     But - 
     The dragon like Yoda talks - NOT!

Foiling The Dragon
Paperback    UK   US

Foiling The Dragon
Ebook    UK      US


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Some darlings matter more than others.

I've just escaped from the Ecuadorian jungle. I say 'escaped' as it makes it all sound more adventurous. In fact I was with an organised tour - but it was still something of an expedition: a flight from Quito, bus ride, then two hours in a fast boat down the Napo river, and then a walk (over an hour) through the jungle to the lodge. Not a trip for the faint-hearted. (It is possible, when water levels are higher, to get there by canoe down small creeks and waterways.)

I was in the upper Amazon basin. And the diversity, of plant, tree, bird, insect and mammal life is astonishing - and precious. We saw giant otters - so rare they are listed as endangered. We saw monkeys and turtles and caiman. We saw frogs and beetles and spiders (including a tarantula).

And - deep underneath all this wonderfulness - is oil. The oil companies are circling. Just one road into the jungle, they say (with its truck and belching diesel). Just a few wells (with homes for the workers, and machinery, and constant flames). At the moment the area is protected, but this is a poor country and the temptation is huge.

Which got me thinking. As writers we are told to 'murder our darlings'. To highlight all that stuff we've grown unreasonably attached to and press the delete button. Only when we've done that can we make a reasoned assessment of our writing, to discover that which is working and weed out the dross.

All very reasonable. But what if our darlings - without our realising it - are treasures? What if we give in to the pressures of all those 'tips for writers' that proliferate on Twitter? What if we turn our backs on something wonderful on the basis that we can make more money writing twaddle?

None of which implies that our darlings might be wonderful. But if they matter to us they need to be treasured in some way, if only to remind ourselves that we can do this. In the same way that this wonderful jungle needs to be protected from the greed of the oil companies - but this time all our lives may depend on it.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Lev Butts' Comic Countdown Part III 1/2

We are almost finished with this year's countdown of the top five metafictional comics. I'd like to take a moment to thank a couple of folks without whom this list could not have been written. Consider it the obligatory long distance dedication.

My D&D Group

It may come as somewhat of a surprise to you all, but I am indeed kind of a nerd. I've been playing tabletop RPGs since the mid-1990's when the owner of the restaurant I worked at told me he ran a game on Sunday nights, and I wondered if experimenting with live-action story-telling would help my writing (SPOILER ALERT: Kind of).

You know . . . that game that lets television audiences know the characters are socially awkward but really smart?
My boss, Bunch, ran the game from his living room in a house that was slowly being reclaimed by earth elementals.

This place.
It was here, on Bunch's book shelf, that I first saw the Cerebus telephone books. And it was here that I once found myself spending several hours with nothing to do but read them after my character stumbled over a doorstep, and I horribly fumbled my saving throw, causing him fall on his own dagger and stab himself through the eye a mere fifteen minutes after the gaming session began.

Another member of the gaming group, Shimkus, is the guy who first introduced me to Neil Gaiman's Sandman on the ride over to Bunch's Amazing Sinking Home and D&D Parlour after I had mentioned that I was a fan of Gaiman's fiction (an indirect result of my having roomed with the third member of the gaming group, Chris, for a few months after college and finding a copy of Good Omens laying around my first week there).

My Oldest Friend
Pictured here are (l-r) Jack, me, and a classmate at the Huntsville Space Center about the time we met in 7th grade

Jack Mayfield is responsible for a lot of who I am today. He introduced me to the work of Douglas Adams, helping make me a lifelong fan of both The Hithchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. He also recorded for me every episode of Grenada's Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett, at a time when we didn't have cable, and our antenna was all but useless for picking up the local PBS station, turning me into a lifelong Sherlockian long before Robert Downey, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Johnny Lee Miller refused to wear the deerstalker.

Shh. Don't tell anyone, but the those three gentlemen to your right? Rank amateurs.
He also introduced me to Doctor Who, The Smiths, audio dramas, a ton of stuff I'm still interested in today. But most importantly for this countdown, he gave me my first copy of Alan Moore's The Watchmen in 1987, and as it had done for countless other readers (casual and critic alike), this graphic novel showed me that comics can often be much more than just an entertaining way to waste time.

My Older Stepbrother

I don't have a picture of BJ, so here's a picture of Jim Carey. Close enough.

BJ, may be the most important person for this list since he first introduced me to comic books in general. As a kid, I was (and remain) a huge Star Wars fan, and when my mother remarried, my new stepbrother had every issue of the original Marvel run of Star Wars comics. He gave me the first one for free, but like any good drug dealer, he gradually raised the price.

"C'mon, man, you know you want a little more. Look at that art, so smooth. Smell that newsprint, intoxicating. Five dollars, and the next one's yours."
I was so addicted to this new form of story-telling, there was no limit to the lengths I would go to feed my habit. Pretty soon, I was doing other people's homework for spare change. I was actually doing my own chores. Eventually I hit rock-bottom: I did BJ's chores for him in addition to giving him my entire allowance.

Eventually, I moved on to harder stuff. I was reading Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, sometimes even the odd Daredevil. When Marvel wasn't enough, I moved on to DC: Batman, Superman. I once even sank so low as to read an entire run of Plastic-Man.

Sadly, I never recovered.
So there you have it: These are the people you can blame thank for this ongoing countdown.

I hope they're happy.

Next month: The countdown continues.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Joy to the world: Ali Bacon looks at the problems of merging fact and fiction

When my friend muddled the cinema times and we failed to make The Danish Girl, I wasn’t too disappointed because we plumped for Joy instead. I'd heard good reports of it and was interested to see what Jennifer Lawrence (known to me only through Hunger Games ) would make of the role of a beleaguered mother with an entrepreneurial streak.
In the end I did enjoy the film but in some respects was disappointed. The opening depended too much on clips from a TV soap opera  to set out the theme of ‘strong woman’. Nor did I feel we needed so much back story of how Joy met her live-in ex and the previous run-ins with her father and half-sister. But then I never was keen on back-story-dump, however engaging the back story might be.
As soon as Joy invented her miracle mop, the pace picked up and the plot had its own momentum, but there were still sticking points for me  - what did the grandmother add apart from a voice-over? (No I don’t like voice-overs either!) and motifs from Joy's early life were dragged in, as if the point of it all needed pinning down.  (Business tycoon just happens to have the childhood toy she designed in a cardboard box by her desk …?)

How to do it well!
But what really interests me is that Joy is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, claiming to be a fictionalised and inspirational version of her life rather than a ‘straight bio-pic’ (if such a thing exists). As a result I was moved to dig up some background to the story including this article from Vanity Fair on how the director David O. Russell combined fact and fiction. And as someone who has tried (and so far failed!) to write just this kind of account of a real life (in novel form) I’m suddenly filled with sympathy for the screenwriter, even more so when I take in the amount of research he did on (and with) his subject.

Of course there are many examples of successful biographical fiction  – Mantel and Cromwell spring instantly to mind! - but I’ve also found quite a few that, like Joy, fall short of perfection. (It seems invidious to list them, but for me Jill Dawson's Rupert Brooke didn't really fly and I gave up on David Lodge's H. G. Wells, although a biographer friend liked it a lot. You can find one I did like here.)

Not so sure about this one
My own problem has been that the more facts I uncover the less I want to deviate from them. And however dramatic a life-story seems to be, it rarely meets the structures of satisfying fiction.This, surely, is the reason why historical novelists often use a fictional or little-known character on which to hang the main thrust of a story in which the well-known historical figure is part of the backdrop rather than the main player.  (Something discovered by Margaret Skea in this interesting account of her own first novel.)

Authors of biography - even fictional biography -  are bound to hold their subjects in a kind of respect and I suspect this has hampered the writing of Joy. Some fictional elements have been added – the evil half-sister, and the apparently unresolved sexual tension between Joy and the man who steered her through her early TV appearances. I’m also gratified to find the voiceover grandma was an add-on! But somehow these plot-lines, which could have provided key story arcs, don’t feel fully realised – because, I suppose, they didn’t in the end impinge on what happened to the real Joy.

Although I abandoned my novel a while ago, I’ve discovered it hasn’t abandoned me and I’m now approaching it from a different angle by writing from a number of viewpoints and without any reference to ‘the facts’ beyond the most obvious historical turning-points. We’ll see how far I get this time!

But not everyone finds it quite so hard and I’m looking forward to Catherine Czerkawska’s forthcoming The Jewel – based on the life of Jean Armour, wife of Rabbie Burns. 
I’m sure she’s worked out just how to tackle the merging of fact and fiction.

Ali Bacon writes novels and short fiction. 
Her first published novel, A Kettle of Fish is set in Fife and Edinburgh.
It's available as e-book or paperback from the usual places!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

When a good friend dies - Katherine Roberts

A good friend died just before Christmas. She was about 10 years older than me but still too young. She had cancer but it was still a shock. In the summer when I went back to Wales to see her, she seemed quite well. She had completed a course of chemotherapy and was walking 15 miles a day, writing and keeping up with her various social activities and her family. Now she is gone, and I will never again walk with her along the banks of the River Wye discussing books and publishing and putting the world to rights.

Sue in Usk

Before she died, Sue self-published a book set in the near future in the Welsh border country where she lived. She'd been writing it for several years but kept quiet about the story, most of our discussions being about how she might find a publisher. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she decided she couldn't wait any longer for publishers to say 'yes' and took the book to a local printer. After her death, her daughter kindly sent me a copy.

Reading this book has been an emotional experience. My friend comes alive again through the words, perhaps more so than if she'd gone the traditional publishing route and worked with an editor to shape the story. The book can probably be described as Welsh dystopia, set in a fictional town called Wyton not all that far removed from Ross-on-Wye, where I used to live. Floods have cut off the community, and the batteries of the title are precious currency to power up the otherwise useless technology that survived the floods. The novel follows a girl called Hope as she makes her way through the lawless feudal border country in search of a home she can call her own. With an underlying Pandora's box theme, there are poems and songs written by Sue mixed in with the prose, and the opening verse seems particularly appropriate for this time of year:

Long ages past trees took the land, men ran from them afraid.
What creatures prowled the shadowland, what terrors stalked the shade?
So in the days before the books when the first songs were made
they hunted in the open plains and shunned the forest glade.
And when they learned to farm the land they set the woods to burn
and felled the trees to make their walls and warships in their turn.
But now the trees are marching back the land is quiet again,
and we must take another way after the scouring rain
and we must find another way to live our lives again.

I have to admit I cried when I read that last line, because of course my friend does not have the luxury of finding another way. It has made me question some of the the things I've been putting off for the future, and in particular made me wonder about all those stories I too have stashed away that, for one reason or another, were deemed not commercial enough for publication. My friend's Welsh dystopia fell into that category, so if she had not published it herself the book would no doubt have been lost forever on some computer disk cleared out with the rubbish, and I'd never have been able to read it and remember my friend with such bitter-sweetness. Sue had many friends from different walks of life, so I'm sure I'm not the only one to be glad she produced this book before she died.

Taking a break on the Three Castles walk.

I suspect that in (traditional) publishing's quest for instant bestsellers, we have lost some of the original reasons for writing and publishing our stories. In Sue's case, it was obviously appropriate to self-publish. But for those of us who still have the time to choose whether or how our words should reach readers, here's a thought you might like to take away for the new year: How many potential readers does a book need before it is worth publishing?

If you want to read some of Sue's work, her short story QUEST is in the Mammoth Book of Seriously Comic Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley.

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and legend for young readers. Her latest book is Prince of Wolves - the first in a series of novellas for YA readers about Genghis Khan, being published independently because we can never know how long we have left in this world.

Find out more at

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Blogophilia by Sandra Horn

It’s that time of the month again...I’ve been trembling and muttering to myself for the past couple of days. Blog time. I was NEVER going to blog. Never going to sign up to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Fb got me because it was the only means of communicating with an ebook provider, now defunct. I was seduced into Twitter by promises of what it would do for my profile and therefore, maybe, book sales. Ho ho ho. LinkedIn? Can’t remember. Blogging, though, and every month, at that, is part of belonging to AE and tremble and mutter though I may, I see it as a blessing. It has given me something I struggle with: discipline. Every month, whether there is a single coherent thought in my head or not, whether I’m depressed, sick, burdened, hungover, woolly-headed or not, I must write something, somehow. And not just any old thing, but something other people will read! Highly Esteemed people. Is it any wonder that I quiver and mutter? Here’s the thing, though: there’s feedback from those same H.E. people. I fall over myself to get at it on the morning of 20th and if the day ever comes when no-one has commented, I will have to fall on my sword. Comments are always kind and encouraging, but that doesn’t mean they can be dismissed as just little pats on the back. They spur me on.
There’s more. I’ve been writing picture book texts for what seems like ever. I thought I knew how to do it. Of late, however, nobody wants my stuff. Am I all washed up? It seems not. Having to write something for adults in the blog, no matter how short, has given me a push into trying other kinds of writing. Hey, I have short stories in A Flash in the Pen 1 and 2! A poem in the Emma Press Anthology of Age. The ebook site Cutalongstory has published one story, The Gracie and Bella War, rejected one (weak ending), published one for children, Naz and the Djinn.

 I’m still learning, of course. And trying again. And sending stuff out. Thank you, AE. You are, individually and severally, inspirational.

Stopping now. Stuff to write.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Recycling: Increase your productivity

How green are you? How much do you recycle? How many bins sit at your back door?

In this age of recycling so that we don’t all finish up living on rubbish tips, I bet you’ve become adept at separating your waste paper from your bottles and tins. And of course there’s that wee bin for your food waste.

But what else do you recycle?

Have you thought about those blog posts you write, and the articles you submit to various online and offline publications. How many of those do you recycle by changing a bit here and a bit there? And what about all that research you’ve painstakingly done for your latest article or blockbuster? Once the book is written where does all that information go? Does it nestle cosily in your hard drive for evermore, or maybe it winds up in the salvage you are commendably recycling in order to save the planet? Or do you use it to write articles and blog posts?

And then there is the plot we squeeze out of our brains – more painful than giving birth – to arrange lovingly on the page in the hope that readers will find it interesting enough to buy the book. But is this plot really as original as we think it is? Or is this another example of recycling, whether that be consciously or unconsciously. Particularly when it is often said there are only seven basic plots in existence. Although I find the number of plots thought to exist varies according to who is saying it.

Christopher Booker seems to lead the field in this area. His book The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories details these plots, and if you can believe Wikipedia he apparently worked this out over a prolonged period of 34 years. But, of course, not everyone agrees with this. Foster-Harris, for example states there are three basic patterns of plot, while Ronald B Tobias considers there are twenty, as detailed in his book 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them, published by Writers Digest. And then there’s George Polti who advocates that there are 36 plots which he describes in his book Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. But just to make things easy for you, there is a list of all of these plots on the internet in a post called The “Basic” Plots in Literature.

But all that is getting away from our recycling topic. Should we recycle to increase our productivity? And if we do, how should we do it?

One thing I would say is, that if you do recycle blog posts, articles, or short stories between different blogs, magazines and anthologies, never forget to let the reader know it was previously published elsewhere.

Chris Longmuir


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