Monday, 29 February 2016

Ten ideas for getting ideas: N M Browne

I don’t know about you but the question I get asked most often is: Where do you  get your ideas from?  I usually make some facetious remark about leaving chocolate out for the idea fairies or mining the subconscious with miniature drilling equipment. The more interesting question is how you go about getting ideas if for any reason the normal sources have dried up or given up chocolate for Lent. I was asked about this recently by another member of my newly formed crit group and these were my top ten solutions.

1.First go for a walk – ideally somewhere you don’t know but your own neighbourhood is fine. Check your watch/phone. Walk for ten minutes exactly – what ever you find there is the setting for your story.
The first person you meet next is either your protagonist or your antagonist. If its an adult they may not have to interact with your protagonist they may just be the person who decides that their house is being pulled down/they are being deported/ they can’t go to the school of their choice/ their mother can’t get the cancer drug/they will be on the last ship off the planet or whatever.
Buy a paper or download one. Find a story on page 5 – somehow that story contains the problem that will impact your protagonist. ( If nothing fits go to page 4 or 6 or the Sports pages)
I would definitely have a story brewing by this point. If nothing else the quest for a story can be reworked as a story for younger children.

2.Open a book at random turn to the sixth line of page 39 – that is is your opening line.

3. Go to somewhere full of kids (do not wear a mac and look dodgy) listen. Within four minutes you will have a conversation you can start your book with.

4. Here are some people:
1.witch, 2.bully, 3. android, 4.dancer,5 wild child, 6 healer
here are some situations:
1sudden death of a relative, 2breaking a leg, 3 catching the wrong bus, 4 falling down a hole, 5 winning a prize, 6 running away.
Here are some places:
1 Zoo,  2 fun fair/disneyland thing, 3 shopping centre, 4 swimming pool, 5 abandoned building, 6 forest.
What people want: 1 to be loved, 2. to escape slavery/drudgery/everyday, 3 to save someone they love, 4. To find something they’ve lost, 5 a home, 6. Their fortune.
I’m sure you can guess the next step. Find a die and roll it. If you get a 1 on your first roll your protagonist is a witch … keep rolling.

5. What is you’re the plot of your favourite children’s book? Write it out at every decision point in the story what would have happened if the protag had chosen differently – what would the story be and who would they have to be do have done other than they did. Maybe they are a coward or maybe they take action earlier than occurs in the story.

6 A related idea: What happens at the end of a favourite story – replace the characters with some borrowed from your second favourite book change the names, swap genders and then off you go.

7. What did you most want when you were a child? What would have happened if you got it but in getting it you lost something as important – a hand, a brother, your sight, a best friend, an opportunity.

8.Take a lesser known fairy story and make it contemporary. Gillian Cross did that with Wolf - sort of.  EG In Hansel and Gretel the kids are living rough taken in by someone who runs a hostel, who wants to traffic them or use them as slave labour, or perhaps use body parts for operations or …

9.Write the first ten words that come into your head on a piece of paper ( or pick ten objects from around the house.) Write an opening paragraph which uses all the words or a plot which connects the objects. Sometimes this frees up ideas.

10 This is what I actually do – write  down the first sentence that comes into your head then write another. 

So what are your top ten techniques for idea generation?

Sunday, 28 February 2016


This odd little image is of a fake snake artfully placed, by me, on the remains of one of last year's hanging baskets, in the hope that it will scare off marauding and destructive magpies. From my kitchen window, I've been watching them swoop down and make off with the last of my little over-wintering plants plus chunks of the container, so having had enough, I went online and discovered this amusing deterrent - irresistable, at least for me, so I walked up to our local toyshop and asked to be shown some fake snakes (I chose the most aggressive and poisonous-looking one).

But of course, being in one of my writing personae a picture book author, the two words grabbed me, and I fell instantly in love. 'Fake' rhymes with SO many words, and I began playing. How about a 'fake cake', made from pink and green kitchen sponges topped with white emulsion? A 'fake hake' made of silvery fabric and caught in a net could hang from my ceiling. A 'fake lake'? I think I've already seen one of these, made from row after row of polytunnels. A 'fake rake' might be made from uncooked sausages tied to a broom handle, while a 'fake brake' could be life-threatening. And, moving into surrealism/existentialism or maybe even quantum physics, what is a 'fake fake' (discuss)? How I love the all silly places words can take you to, and, who knows? there might even be a picture books in all this nonsense.

I recently read two Young Adult novels, one by a colleague I'd be happy to call a friend (we share an agent, too), the other by Frances Hardinge who's recently won the Costa Prize for fiction, both books very different in style and setting. The first: MORE OF ME, by Kathryn Evans, set very much in the here and now, with spot-on contemporary teen dialogue, offered a very unusual concept which simply grabbed me by the throat. Encountering her extraordinary premise, I just had to find out how it was going to be resolved, and I had no clever theories of my own. Quite brilliant.

The second, THE LIE TREE, is much longer and more complex, with its Victorian setting slowly winding around the reader like the eponymous Lie Tree. Its protagonist, Faith, is a highly intelligent young woman hemmed in, as are all the female characters in this novel, by the restrictions placed on them by the 'morality' of their age (doubt if this book will go on sale in Saudi Arabia!) With its setting on a strange Northern island, chilly, wet, muddy, sea-battered, it's a haunting and unforgettable read. Both books have been published with ebook versions, which is how I acquired and read them (ain't technology wonderful?) And no, the image on the right is not one of the island, but it's still chilly and Northern - it shows some junior members of my family cavorting as pseudo-trolls in Norway.

There are two kinds of writer, no, there are two kinds of people, and I'm getting more and more obsessed by this. I picked up a radio interview a while ago, and got it in the middle, so I have no idea who it was being interviewed except that she seemed to be a writer. Asked whether she knew what was going to happen in her novels, she replied: Of course. Otherwise it would be like driving without a road map. The second kind of writer - me, unfortunately - grabs a few interesting ingredients, puts them together, stirs, simmers, until something 'comes out'. Sometimes, as with recipes when you grab anything that comes to hand, this works, and indeed, has, but often it doesn't. And as with both writing and cooking, so it is, I realise, with life - a thought I find quite disturbing.


Saturday, 27 February 2016

Abused Children Find a Voice - Andrew Crofts

At the beginning of the nineties I started to receive phone calls and letters from people who wanted to write about abuses they had suffered in their childhoods. These were not people who had had the misfortune to be born in countries that were enduring brutal dictatorships, civil wars or ethnic cleansing campaigns, these were people who had been born and bought up in democratic, peacetime Britain, a country that prided itself on being civilised, with developed social welfare services.

Their calls seemed to be cries for help and as I talked to them I became aware of just how much courage it had taken most of them to pick up the phone in the first place. These were people whose experiences did not lead them to expect to be listened to or believed but they had the courage to keep on trying to tell their stories. Many of the things they told me tore my heart out and I felt sure there would be a readership for them if I could just get them out into the bookshops.

I wanted to find out more about their lives and I wanted to help them to tell their stories as movingly and dramatically as possible. It seemed likely that if these stories were moving me then they would move other people as well.

When, as a teenager, I read “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell I had been particularly struck by a scene in Paris where Orwell reports meeting a man called Charlie, who he describes as “a local curiosity”. Charlie tells of visiting a girl who is being kept prisoner in a cellar which had been tricked out as a bordello-style bedroom and was guarded upstairs by an old crone. Charlie told how he gave the old woman a thousand francs, which he had stolen from his drunken brother.

“Voila,” the woman said, “go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand – perfectly free.”

Orwell reports Charlie’s experiences in the cellar as if they make Charlie an interesting and colourful character, but it struck me that it was the girl whose story was actually the most mysterious and interesting. How had she got there? Who had betrayed her? What was the rest of her life like? What was she thinking? What were her dreams? What became of her?  Her story seemed more intriguing than the story of the narrator, (Orwell himself), an Old Etonian playing at being a “plongeur” for a while, (a bit like an early version of the student gap year), before becoming a literary legend.

The stories that I was now hearing seemed just as fascinating, coming from a dark world that was unknown to me and that I wanted to understand better. I couldn’t understand how so many people could be getting away with abusing children and I had difficulty imagining what it must feel like to be one of those children. It seemed to me that it would be a good thing to shine some bright lights into these dark corners of the human experience, so that everyone could understand more.  They also seemed to me to be perfect fairy tales; good versus evil, innocent little heroes and heroines fighting back against terrible villains. 

Filled with optimism I kept listening to the stories, writing synopses and sample material and trying to persuade publishers that they should publish them. The reaction was always the same; “no one” the publishers all informed me, “wants to read such grueling and depressing stories”. Child abuse, they believed, was all too horrible to contemplate. Even among the most liberal of them I could detect skepticism; was it possible that such terrible things could be happening in our own country? Surely not.

But what, I kept asking, were pantomimes like Cinderella and Snow White about if it wasn’t child abuse? And what about Dickens’s tales from the workhouses and back streets of Victorian England? Do we really believe that the Artful Dodger and his pals were required to do nothing worse than steal a few pocket handkerchiefs and watches on behalf of their violent, thieving, drunken masters? Even the orphaned Harry Potter starts out abused by the aunt and uncle charged with his guardianship.

I truly couldn’t understand how the same publishers could produce so many books about war, genocide and murder, creating best sellers by glamorising, stylising and fetishising serial killers and rapists, mafia bosses and military leaders, and at the same time think that genuine, original stories by children who had been victimised were somehow too tasteless to be told.

Then in 1995 Dave Peltzer self-published his memoir, “A Child Called It” in America, and it became a word-of-mouth bestseller, filtering up into my consciousness via my children and their friends, who were passing it around in the school playground, much to the consternation of some of their parents and teachers.

A few years later I received another email from a man who wanted to write something similar about his own childhood with a violent and abusive mother. I warned him that my experience told me I might not be able to sell the book to publishers. He said that he was willing to take the risk and wanted to commission me to write the book anyway.

It was a good story. Once it was completed I sent it to an exceptionally discreet and gentle agent, who I knew would be sympathetic when it came time to break the bad news to the author that it was unsaleable. I had reckoned without the “Peltzer-factor”.

Within a week she had three publishers making offers and the book went for a six figure advance. It then sat at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks and eventually went on to be made into a movie. The game had changed entirely. Other publishers saw this success and remembered that I had been in to see them in the past. They started ringing to find out if I still had any other stories that could be packaged in a similar way. On one memorable day editors from three different publishing houses, all having just come from editorial planning meetings, rang within a few hours of one another with the same request. I had plenty of stories ready and waiting, all I had to do was introduce the people with the stories to the people who now really wanted the stories, and then write them.

The demand seemed insatiable. Supermarkets started to stock the resulting titles in massive quantities and kept asking the publishers for more. I was in a publisher’s office introducing one of these clients when another publisher, who we had been to see earlier in the day, rang my mobile. I excused myself and slipped out of the room to take the call.

“If you leave that building now,” the other publisher said, “I will give you quarter of a million pounds.”

I felt like Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”. The client and I then spent a surreal afternoon taking calls from the two publishers, finally clinching the deal before putting her back on her train home. Three months later exactly the same thing happened with another client’s story of abuse. (I will be explaining later in the “filthy lucre” chapter how sums like this will soon be whittled away by reality to become far less dramatic figures, but these occasional episodes of apparent largess on the part of publishers do at least provide temporary doses of adrenaline and optimism to any writer’s life).

Books that I wouldn’t have been able to interest anyone in a few months before were now the objects of ferocious bidding wars between the publishers with the biggest cheque books. I ended up writing about a dozen of them, selling some in conjunction with several agents and some under my own steam. For a while they virtually all became bestsellers. There was one week when there were actually three of them in the Sunday Times charts at the same time. In some cases I was contracted to remain anonymous, but several of them graciously put my name on the flyleaf, such as “The Little Prisoner” by Jane Elliott, “Just a Boy” by Richard McCann, “Daddy’s Little Earner” by Maria Landon, “Cry Silent Tears” by Joe Peters and “Please, Daddy, No” by Stuart Howarth.

So, who was reading these books which the publishers had been so sure would be too terrible for anyone to bear? Initially there was the “tourist trade”; people who, like me, could not imagine what it must be like to live in such a world and wanted to understand it better. Then there were the actual citizens of this “hidden” world; the children who had suffered or witnessed abuse and were wanting the comfort of knowing that they were not alone. There is no way of ever quantifying how many people suffer some sort of bullying or abuse in their childhood which leaves them scarred in some way, but let’s take a guess that it is around ten per cent of the population. That includes those abused in the home, in care, or by authority figures like priests or school teachers. That is six million people in the UK alone.

Then there are those who simply want to read scary, tear-jerking tales about little heroes and heroines overcoming monsters; the same people who want to see Cinderella go to the ball and Oliver Twist escape from the clutches of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

People who had been keeping their own stories of abuse secret due to a mixture of fear and shame, suddenly saw that it was alright to speak out. The stories I was being brought grew more and more extreme and horrific. No one was going to be able to pretend that child abuse was not a problem in society any longer. The misery memoir phenomenon became a bubble, with all the big publishers rushing onto the shelves with look-alike products. Within a few years the market was saturated and books that would previously have been given advances of hundreds of thousands of pounds were having trouble finding publishers once more.

The genie, however, was now out of the bottle and it wasn’t long before abusers and bullies were being named and shamed in any number of previously inviolable institutions from schools to churches, orphanages to mental hospitals and even the BBC, to a point where it started to look to some like a witch hunt.

Some time later I heard a highly distinguished publisher on a podium being asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the “misery memoir” genre. He was not one of those who had joined in the gold rush and I assumed that he was going to say something dismissive.

“I think they changed the art of autobiography forever,” he said. “They forced authors to be much more open and revelatory. It is no longer good enough to tell anecdotes about the day you “met Prince Philip” or “danced with Sammy Davis Junior”; if you want to capture the hearts of readers you have to open up your emotional life as well and talk honestly and from the heart. I think they did the genre a great service.”

Friday, 26 February 2016

Making a Silk Purse Out of a Sow's Ear by Ruby Barnes

I'm not the most romantic person on the planet. I do try and remember to buy the long suffering Mrs R a card on birthdays, Valentine's, wedding anniversary and Christmas, but the finer detail of celebratory arrangements often passes me by. Meanwhile, my fictional characters are happily getting lovey-dovey and doing all the right things. But this year was different. I had finished book three of my Zombies v. Ninjas trilogy (which anyway contains minimal romance) and had no active WIP to distract me. So Mrs R was given a (modestly) better birthday deal this February.

The celebratory dinner didn't involve the kids but just the two of us. The restaurant was the award-winning Zuni, her favourite in Kilkenny, and the choice was kept secret right up until we stepped out of the leather-seated taxi. The maitre d showed us to a quiet corner table which ideally suited our mood and we kicked off with a glass of Prosecco, as is our habit. Mrs R looked gorgeous and I had even remembered to wear my bionic ears, so both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. The only downside was I had given the wall bench seat to Mrs R, as it was her preference, and my chair was just a little too close to the table behind me.


We ordered our starters. The birthday girl went for the pork belly confit with picalilli mayonnaise and apple chutney. I opted for cured salmon with pickled cucumber & leeks, wasabi creme fraiche and asian dressing. A party of four arrived at the table behind us and began to talk business. I knew it was business because I had my bionic ears in and one of the party was very loudly spoken. He had an American accent and was talking at high speed and very enthusiastically about A.I. (which I knew to be Artificial Intelligence). In one of my previous jobs I had also been involved with Artificial Intelligence and I have a working knowledge of it. In fact, Mrs R often says I have Artificial Intelligence. Although the speaker's accent didn't have the cadence I had come to expect of California or wherever the AI people hang out, I thought it was really great that Ireland's economy was getting back on track and that Kilkenny, the smallest of cities, could become involved somehow in AI. And I told Mrs R as much.

Our starters arrived and Mrs R's knife and fork were poised to dig into the confit of pork belly when the loud voice proudly announced, 'We have enough of the stuff to inseminate every *** on the island!"

My first thought was an angry one. How dare some visitor call Ireland an island. I mean, I know it is an island but it's our world. We don't think of it as an island. It sounded derogatory. Then the insemination sunk in, so to speak. I looked at Mrs R.

'Every cow?' I whispered across the table to her.
'Every sow,' she replied.
'Yep, we could inseminate them all, every sow on the island,' the loud American repeated, as if he was participating in our conversation.

Mrs R put a forkful of pork belly into her mouth and chewed it slowly with a smile. 'Nice,' she said.
I looked at the wasabi creme fraiche on my plate and pushed the rest of my food away from it. Mrs R raised an eyebrow.
'I don't like the look of it,' I said.

By the time we had finished our main courses we were intimately familiar with many aspects of artificial insemination in pigs, including the importance of a sow being in heat and the key principals of semen-handling. And I was ready to kill one business tourist.
'Perhaps if we were farmers we would find it more tasteful,' Mrs R suggested.


We shared a dessert and joined each other on the bench seat so I could get a look at the offender. By that time their main course had arrived and the Artificial Insemination conversation had dried up. I couldn't tell, just by looking at them, which of the four men at the table was the proud possessor of enough pig semen to inseminate a large island.

My murderous intentions were calmed by a lemon meringue Alaska. We began to jointly and verbally draft a note that we would leave with the pork men on our departure, explaining what are and are not polite conversation topics in such a restaurant but thanking them for the tips, which we hoped to put to practical use somewhere along the line, although it wouldn't be personally as we already had adequate numbers of offspring thank you very much.

Unfortunately, by the time we had finished our dessert drinks, the swine inseminators had shot off into the night. So we never had the chance to share our thoughts.

Just another romantic night in Rubyland.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Long Drove Road - by Susan Price

"I don’t think those dogs ever mistook me for their master. They were good herd-dogs and I think they knew exactly what I was — a little calf, lost from the herd. A lost little pup wandering loose. They knew that what they had to do was take me in charge, and herd me along, and watch over me, until they had brought me somewhere safe."

It’s a long way home — from East to West across Scotland’s mountains and lochs.

          Sandy’s mother is desperate for money. So she ‘bonds’ ten-year-old Sandy to a wealthy farmer until he’s twenty-one.
          Sandy is miserable — bullied, ill-fed and beaten. He runs home, and is heart-broken when his mother makes him return, to another beating.
          So Sandy runs away, though he fears he will be caught and hung for breaking his bond. Alone, on the road, he longs for a safe, loving home.
          Then he falls in with friends: two drover dogs, making their way home, by themselves, to a distant croft.
          Sandy decides to follow the dogs to wherever they belong. He dreams there will be a place by the fire for him too…

But when the dogs reach home, will Sandy be left outside, alone again?

Here it is at long last - my first entirely original indie-book, The Drover's Dogs. Everything else I've published has been a book that had, originally, been conventionally published, had gone out of print and which I'd made available again using KDP or CreateSpace.
          But this book, The Drover's Dogs, has never been in print anywhere before: it's my first original self-published book. I'm late to the party, I know, but I'm very pleased to have got here.
          It's been a long road, both for my young hero, Sandy, who has to walk across Scotland and for me.

          First, of course, write your book. Most people visiting here will know very well that this isn't a straightforward process, and usually not a short one either. (See Sandra Horn's wonderful blog, a few days ago, on how an idea first starts to struggle into life.)

          The original seed of The Drover's Dogs was planted almost twenty years ago, when I read  'The Drove Roads of Scotland; by A. R. B. Haldane. I think I was looking into some places to walk in Scotland. I came across this in the footnotes (I've always found footnotes a very fertile place for ideas. Always have a look through the footnotes.)
Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had 'stanced' and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs...' 
I loved the idea of these very intelligent lively dogs making their own way home, trotting across moors and mountains, patiently waiting for ferries across lochs, calling at inns for their dinner...
Loch Katrine, Wikimedia, Graham Lewis

          For a good many years, I reguarly took this idea out and dusted it off, started the dogs trotting on their way... But always gave up because I could never think of a story to accompany them.
          I can't remember exactly how my young hero, Sandy, edged his way into the story. I think I was noodling about on various sites about Border Collies, reading anecdotes about these dogs, and their intelligence.

                                       Q: How many Border Collies does it take to change a
Wikimedia: Border Collie

 A: They don't do light-bulbs, but ask them nicely and they might be prepared to re-design your whole lighting system when they have a spare moment.

          I read that these dogs are so bright that they aren't good family pets, unless you're able to devote a lot of time and energy to them.
          One correspondent wrote that he had to keep a close eye on his collie at family gatherings where there were children. His collie recognised that these were junior members of the pack and saw it as his job to constantly circle the family group, rounding  up any straying children and herding them back into the pack. All very amusing - except that if any of the children objected - or worse, ran away - the collie was prepared to growl threateningly, give chase and even nip in order to do its duty and drive (drove?) those children back where, as the collie saw it, they should be. - A dilemma. The dog was not ill-natured, or dangerous. So long as the children were obedient and stayed where he thought they should be, the collie was delightful with them. But the dog had a work-ethic that would not be denied.
          I think it was this post which sparked the idea of a runaway boy who meets the drove dogs on the road. He thinks it's all his own
From the British Library Collection on Flickr
idea to follow the dogs - after all, he has nowhere else to go and they're company. He doesn't realise - at the time - that the dogs see him as 'a little lost calf' and have taken him into their charge. He begins to realise it when he tries to leave them and finds himself being droved.

          I remember that, at first, I intended to make the boy an 'apprentice' escaped from a factory or mill.
          For centuries, the apprentice system was a way for a boy to acquire a thorough training in a trade, but during the industrial revolution it was corrupted by the unscrupulous in something which was no more than slavery. These 'apprentices' of the industrial age were often orphaned or abandoned children. The mill or factory paid 'a bond' to the workhouse which supplied them - this bond had originally been what a boy's parents paid for his keep while he was learning a trade - but the factories taught no trade. The children were employed to tend and clean machinery and were favoured because they were very, very cheap labour.
          These 'apprentices' were often ill-fed, ill-treated, over-worked and locked in at night so they could not escape. (And since nothing changes, many children are treated like this today, wherever the lack of one of those deplorable 'nanny-states' makes it possible.)

         To return to my story - further research showed me that the dates didn't work. By the time the factories were in full swing, the droving trade was already dying. At this point my Scottish partner told me about 'the bondagers.' These were farm-labourers, usually women but also boys, who were 'bonded' to work for a farmer. The bond usually lasted for a year, but the length of time varied - as did the treatment the bondagers recieved (though it was always a hard life by our standards, as they worked the land seven days a week in all weathers.)
          My partner had heard a radio programme which had told of a boy 'bonded' just before the First World War. He'd been put to sleep in a damp shed, with nettles and thistles growing through his mattress and fed very badly. When the war broke out, he managed to escape his bond by signing up. While everyone else in his barracks complained about the discomfort and poor food, the ex-bondager thought himself in luxury. He'd never been so well clothed, well-housed or well-fed.
          So I shifted the details of my story and made Sandy a bondager escaping from ill-treatment. He starts his walk somewhere north of Falkirk in the east and follows the dogs along Loch Katrine to the northern end of Loch Lomond, along the edge of Loch Fyne, over the hills to Loch Awe and then over the hills to Oban on the west coast.

          That's enough for one blog, though. Next month, I'll say something about how I came up with the cover.

Susan Price won the Carnegie Medal for her book, The Ghost Drum, and the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Sterkarm Handshake (soon to be reprinted by Open Road.)

Her first original, self-published book, The Drover's Dogs can be found here:



I apologise if anyone follows the above links and finds the books 'Not Available.' They will be, presently.

Karen Bush of this blog, Editor at large and whippet fancier, alerted me to typos in the copy I forwarded to her. So I proofed it - again - and republished: but it may take a couple of days to reappear on the Amazon site.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Sorry, I'm not here. Well, not very sorry.

When you read this, I'll be climbing off a boat in the Galapagos. I shall have been snorkelling, gazing at exotic fish and corals. I shall have been tramping on tropical islands and gawping at giant turtles and blue-footed boobies (that's a bird, just in case your imagination was taking you elsewhere).

And I shall have had no phone nor internet connection for a whole week. (I don't, as I write this, know if I'll be connected by the time you read it.)

So here's the dilemma. A week on a boat, sailing among the most exotic islands in the world. Or faffing about on social media, marketing a book or few? For me, the answer is easy. Travelling comes first, then writing about travelling, and finally the delights of blogs and Facebook and Twitter.  (Actually keeping in touch with my daughters and grandchildren comes very high on that list - and they know that.)

As writers we are told we should be out there, all the time, reinforcing our brand. Being generally witty and generous and getting aerated about important things like writers being paid at conferences. If we hide away, how will anyone discover how wonderful we are? In this internet age we have, we are told, no choice but to join in the social media frenzy.

I know all that. But I think we still have choices. I'm still going to the Galapagos, still going willingly where no man nor woman can reach me, because it's an opportunity I simply can't pass by. Giving the marketing a miss for a whole week is a small price to pay. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't give a monkey's toss about missing Facebook and Twitter and even my lovely colleagues here at authors electric, because for me it's a 'trip of a lifetime' (forgive the cliche). It will all still be there when I get back (assuming a few people are willing to hang around and smile through all the tales I'll have to tell).

And you - can you think of anything that would take you away from social media, from marketing, from the whole paraphernalia of the Internet, and you know that it's going to be just the best thing ever?

You can read about some of my travels on my website:

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Lev Butts' Comic Count Down: Interlude

This month, I had planned to continue my countdown of the five best metafictional comic books. I really had. For those of you who have forgotten (or are too lazy to go read the previous posts), though, I wanted to preface it with a brief recap of metafiction. However, the recap got away from me and kind of became the whole post. But, hey, it's educational and funny, and it has lots of great clips of David Addison and Maddie Hayes playing Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. So sit back and enjoy.

Metafiction, as the previous link explains, is any work of fiction that is, either overtly or subtly, aware of itself as a work of fiction.

There are essentially three types of metafiction. There's the metafiction in which the characters are literally aware that they are works of fiction. This is, perhaps, the type of metafiction that is by far the easiest to spot. Characters often "break the fourth wall" and speak directly to the audience or otherwise refer to themselves as characters in a fictional universe.

Ziggy gets it.
There are two sub-types of this kind of metafiction, and  the 1980's television show Moonlighting provides best examples of both of them. (In fact, Moonlighting provides great examples of every type of metafiction as we'll see). In the first type, the fourth wall is merely cracked, in other words, while a character may seem to directly address the audience, what he/she says fits the context of the story so that the fourth wall remains relatively intact:

The second type of "fourth wall" metaficiton involves essentially destroying the wall. A character addresses the audience in such a way that leaves no doubt of the character's understanding of his/her role as a fictional construct:

Oblique metafiction is arguably the most common type of metafiction, though. In this type of metafiction characters say things that, while making perfect sense in the context of the story, also serve as a nudge to the audience that the author (if not the characters) is aware that he/she is creating a work of fiction. Where cracking the fourth wall is an overt wink to the audience that may or may not break the fourth wall, this oblique metafiction is more of a subtle cough, leaving the audience to doubt that the fourth wall has been touched at all. Think of it as a brushing against the fourth wall type of metafiction. In it characters may say things like "If this were a story, no one would believe it" or "This whole situation is made-for-television." This is most clearly evident in the first twenty seconds of the following clip:

However, it is the third type of metafiction I am concerned with here. This type is a kind of meta-metafiction in that the characters not only refer directly to their own fictional natures but blatantly discuss or critique the art of creating a story. They are aware, in other words, of the rules of story-making, the relationship between creator and creation, and, most of all, their own successes or failures in these areas.

M. C. Escher gets it
Moonlighting did this type of metafiction exceedingly well (especially when the show's ratings were plummeting), but nothing showcases this type better than the last ten minutes of the final episode (appropriately titled "Lunar Eclipse"):

This is the type of metafictional comic I have been most interested in. They have all been comics that are not only are aware they are comics, but are also, to a greater or lesser degree, aware of the art of storytelling. These comics spend a lot of their time telling the audience how a story is told and/or critiquing, either directly or indirectly, the mechanics of their own stories.

Next Month: We get to number two on the countdown (I promise. I pinky swear)

Moonlighting even created a new type of metafiction: 
Anticiating the irony of its main actor's future

Monday, 22 February 2016

If it’s Monday it must be Muscat – Ali Bacon offers some tongue-in-cheek advice on taking a cruise

So we recently succumbed to the siren call of all those fellow retirees who live their lives on the high seas by taking a short cruise around the Arabian Gulf

We loved the sunshine but if you’re thinking of doing it, you might want to take this short test to decide if cruising is for you!

1. Time to pack! So do you:
a)  Start planning your wardrobe a month in advance, using a printed timetable of which nights will be formal, casual, or themed and with your favourite weather app to hand. (You can always pay for extra baggage).
b)  You assemble most of last year’s summer wardrobe and your one posh frock, throw in a few panic buys then throw them out again in case you go over the baggage allowance  
c)   Your Rohan gear is light and crinkle-proof. You share a rucksack as usual

2. After an overnight flight you’ve been embarked (yes, this is a transitive verb) but have yet to be  reunited with your luggage.
Embarkation day - now where are those flipflops?
Do you:
a)  go straight to the pool, slap on the sunscreen and have a swim using the gear from your carefully packed day bag. 
b)   go straight to the all-day café then throw yourself on a lounger and fall asleep, waking to discover you are red all over (apart from the sleeve and trouser marks)
c)   go straight to the walking track where you complete your daily step quota despite having to negotiate all those plebs on the sun-loungers.

3. At dinner:
a)   you’ve opted for ‘freedom dining’ which means you have a different audience each night to regale with your previous cruising experiences (of which this is by far the worst)
b)   you’ve gone for ‘fixed dining’ as it was cheaper. By the third night you hate your fellow-diners so much you fork out for freedom dining and run straight into the people from a)
c)   you dine a deux in the sushi restaurant because some extras are worth it 

4. First day ashore: 
a)   Ashore? You’d rather have the pool and spa to yourself for the day. (Anyway you saw this place last time around).
b)   Despite the extravagant cost of the ship’s excursion and the fact that it leaves at dawn, you take it. At least you’re guaranteed not to miss the evening sailing time and won't have to grapple with local currency, or food, or locals.
c)   This is the life. You have a copy of Lonely Planet and supplies of Omani Rial. If only you didn't have to be back by four p.m. At least there's time for some authentic local cuisine

5. Day two:
a)   As day one. You may stroll off the boat in the afternoon as the TV channels on this ship are a bit rubbish, or catch up with friends using the on-board internet (easily worth the $20 a day).
b)   You don’t really miss being online, honest, but you’ve spotted a café advertising free wifi. After two coffees and half an hour’s internet rage you decide there’s something wrong with the wifi or your phone or both. Too late you discover the café has no loo.
c)   You left your phone at home so you can give yourself entirely to the holiday experience. 

6. Dressing up:
Party time!
a)  You knew tonight was going to be the 'Arabian white party' and have brought your white palazzo pants .
b)   As it happens you brought a white top which you throw over some trousers. You add some dangly earrings for good measure and think this looks okay until you sit next to someone you could have really got on with if they weren’t suspicious of your dress sense.
c)   After dinner you’ll be in your cabin reading from a selection of novels by local writers.  

7. Day three: a sea day (this means you’re not getting off)

Towel-folding anyone?
a) This is your favourite kind of day but you have to get up early to bag a sun-lounger. You signed up in advance for the ladies pamper session as a break from sunbathing
b) Since you don't have to rise at dawn you linger over breakfast then can’t find a sun-lounger except in the wind-tunnel on deck
4. The only activity with spaces left is decorative towel-folding as practiced by the cabin staff. You decide your life has been adequate without knowing how to fold a towel in the shape of a rabbit or a bull-dog and settle for watching T.V. under the bedclothes as the cabin air-con is quite chilly
c) You spend the day on the top deck with your travel binoculars but fail to spot a single dolphin (unlike those who took the pre-paid boat-trip on day 1). 

8. Swimwear choices
a)   you have a sarong that matches every swimsuit
b)   you brought a baggy t-shirt you thought would do
c)    you only swim before breakfast when the pool is empty, do your 20 lengths (that’s 100 in this size of pool) and go straight back for breakfast in the cabin

Seventies night, apparently
9. Evening entertainment
a)  you’ve seen most of it before and prefer to hit the all-in drinks package
b)  you can’t afford to drink all night so you experience a mime-artist who looks suspiciously like the guy who served ice-cream by the pool and an act rumoured to have won BGT. Actually, it could have been worse.
c)  Book, cabin, smug.

10. Beauty routine
a)   you’ve brought your enriched handcream to counteract the constant sanitising and your acrylic nails should easily last the week
b)   after two days of constant sanitising, the nail polish administered pre-cruise by your daughter is looking a bit ragged, so rather than shell out $15 in the shop you brave an on-shore pharmacist who sells you something you’re too scared to use.
c)    nail polish is bad for the environment and remover is worse. Anyway you’re not going to dinner tonight having picked up a bug, possibly at the Omani lunch. 

11. Tipping
a)   you signed up for set tipping but will obviously give a little extra to the cabin boy who folded the towels so nicely
b)   you signed up for set tipping by mistake, you’re certainly not shelling out any more no matter how many towel creations are lined up  
c)    you waived the set tipping and have been keeping a log of every crew member who has gone beyond (or beneath) the call of duty so that you can reward them appropriately

Don't get left behind!
12. Last night
a) now’s the time to make sure you get full value from the drinks package. You can sleep it off on the flight home
b) now’s the time to have a single cocktail then put your back out in the disco
c) now’s the time for a last foray into local culture. Unfortunately your desert trip takes longer than expected and you get lost on your way back to the port. You can’t contact the ship as you have no phone and so you miss the evening sailing time. You need all your remaining cash to pay for a night in the Abu Dhabi equivalent of a Travelodge, for whose cleanliness and convenience you are profoundly grateful, even if the lack of dinner leaves you feeling decidedly empty. 

So how did you do?

Mostly As
Obviously you’ve done this before and have the whole thing sussed. Just try not to make it quite so obvious - please!

Mostly B’s
A good try but you have a lot to learn. Next time consider going with friends. That way you can create your very own dining club. 

Mostly C's
Well really what were you thinking? You would clearly be happier trekking across the Indian sub-continent or touring the coast of Ireland in your camper van.
But if you do decide to do it again, please bring something decent to wear!

Ali Bacon was mostly Bs and Cs but still had a great time. she might even do it again!
She's now back at her desk concocting short stories and blog posts for Authors Electric.  Find out more about her published writing here or at

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Author's If - Katherine Roberts

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you...

The famous poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling needs little introduction. But did you know this poem was originally published in 1910 as a mere introduction to a chapter in a book of historical fantasy stories for children called Rewards and Fairies? (I didn't, and I write historical fantasy for young readers myself.) Several other poems and short stories by Rudyard Kipling appeared in that collection, and yet "If" is the one most people remember today.

The poem is now in the public domain, so you can read it in full by following the link below.


There are obvious lessons an author can take away from "If" - not the least that a single story or poem buried in a collection might turn out to be the most important work of your entire career... so watch those contracts, people! I've been having the kind of year (and it's only February) when it's important to remember that such miracles can happen to authors big and small. In fact, by replacing a few choice words, Rudyard Kipling's famous poem makes perfect sense to an Electric Author writing today.

The Author's If (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

If you can keep your imagination when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust your story when all editors doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait for a publishing contract and not be driven to despair by waiting,
Or being tagged on Facebook, don’t deal in tagging,
Or being ignored, don’t give way to ignoring,
And yet don’t look too desperate, nor blog too much about it:

If you can dream of popularity—and not make sales your master;
If you can write—and not make daily word counts your aim;
If you can meet with Bestsellerdom and Returns
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to see the stories you've written
Twisted by reviews to make a trap for readers,
Or watch the books you gave your life to, remaindered,
And revert rights and republish them with digital tools:

If you can make a heap of all your earnings
And risk it all on another book,
And lose your way, and start again at the beginning
And never breathe a word about your failure;
If you can force your heart and imagination
To serve your stories long after they are broken,
And so keep going when there is nothing in you
Except the Muse which says to them: “Keep on!”

If you can talk with publishers and keep your innocence,
Or walk with Famous Authors—nor lose the common touch,
If neither critics nor fans can hurt you,
If all writers count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of truth written,
Yours is the Book and everything that’s in it,
And—what is more—you’ll be an Author, my friend.

Apart from writing dubious pastiche poetry, Katherine Roberts writes historical fantasy for young readers and (to fill those unforgiving minutes while waiting for the next contract) is experimenting with some novella-length fiction for older readers.

Her most recent release is part 2 of the Legend of Genghis Khan, available now for Kindle at £1.99/$2.99, or subscribers can read it free on Kindle Unlimited.

Visit for more details of this series and Katherine's other books.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Is it the 'flu? by Sandra Horn

I have always tried to duck questions like ‘How do you go about writing?  I don’t really know how to answer and anyway, I’m not sure there is only one answer. Here I am, though, right at the beginning of an idea hatching and it has a familiar feeling, so this is an attempt to describe what is happening.
First, though, it IS the idea that’s hatching at present, not me that’s hatching the idea – or that’s what it feels like. I’ll press on, regardless of grammatical correctness, if you don’t mind; that’s how it takes me:
Idling through emails or Facebook or some such, I come across a message/post that catches my eye. I’m trying to write plays at present and this one is from a local theatre wanting 10-minute submissions. I open it. There’s a theme: David Bowie. I think it’s not for me – I know he was a singer/songwriter of exceptional talent and inventiveness, but ‘pop’ (if that’s the right word? Probably not) isn’t really my thing. But then I get that feeling – a sort of restless anticipation, like just before going into labour or laying an egg, maybe. I have no personal experience of that (egg-laying), so I’m guessing. The thing is, I was absolutely bowled over by his song ‘Where are we now?’ The first, wistful line of the song starts running in my head. I’m foggy about the rest of the words. Blast! I’ll have to look them up. I find the lyrics online. I copy them down. That’s it. The worm has entered my brain. There is no guarantee of a good outcome at this stage – or, indeed, any outcome at all, but the worm is irresistible. It has propelled me into Another State of Being. I look more things up, I begin to scribble:

Why she in Berlin? Phone calls. Mother or daughter? How does he know she’s here? Stroke? Funny phone calls and same on entryphone? Aksel, Aton, Frantz, Lennart. Shot? Thought dead? If daughter, is mother dead? ‘You’re the drunk in the cafe.  Lurched. Couldn’t speak properly.  Etc.
Now I’m really bewitched, bothered and bewildered by it. At breakfast, someone has asked me to pass the peanut butter – apparently – and I respond, ‘Do you know how to say ‘piss off’ in German?’ 

Answer not forthcoming,  I look it up. I decide to try and clear my head by going out into the garden and chopping back the summer jasmine, which has grown into a mega-birdnest. I stop halfway through, as yet another thought has popped in, rush back indoors, scribble more. Jasmine is now looking lopsided and even worse. It’ll have to wait for the rest of its haircut.

Daughter just arrived? Living there? Why? Asking Mum to come – lay ghosts? Jungle now nightclub!  Photo? Wall came down 1989. Police (Polizei) 110 or 112. How old everybody?
Later that morning: Apparently, coffee was offered and I did not respond. Did I not hear? What? 

Family now concerned. Me too. It’s like a virus before all the symptoms have emerged – you can’t shake the feeling but you’re not sure what comes next, yet.  Write blog about it. Does it help? No.
So far so incoherent. The possibility of a feeble fizzle-out is quite high if I can’t ‘hear’ the voices I need. I look up ‘drunk’ and ‘stroke’ in German.
Ouch! I fail to see that I haven't reached the bottom step of the stairs, as I was wondering ‘flowers or not flowers?’  at the time and it caused me to go temporarily blind. I am strongly reminded of the bit in ‘I Capture the Castle’ where they incarcerate their (certifiably insane, in my opinion) father in the tower to force him to write. I don’t need to be forced to write, just to be locked away for my own safety and the good of those around me. 

It’s finished.It might be crap. 
Ooh, coffee? Yes, please!