Thursday, 31 March 2016

Pictures Within Words - Guest Post by JS Watts

I’m delighted to be writing a guest post for this wonderfully electrifying blog. I’ve been told I can write about anything I like, so long as it has something to do with writing. I’ve therefore decided to write about art, the pictorial kind.

No, I’m not being contrary or awkward, honest. The pictures I’m going to talk about are those that feature directly in my writing, primarily my poetry and one of my novels, A Darker Moon (which is available in all the usual electronic formats, so it is appropriate for this blog).

I am not a painter myself. The nearest I come to creating visual pictures is via photography (feel free to check out my photoblog if you are interested in the photographic images I create), but visual art is important to me, so I guess it’s not surprising that it features so frequently in my writing. As to why it’s important, I believe it has as much to do with childhood memories and experiences, as any deep-rooted psychological drivers (which I shall most definitely NOT be exploring here!).

I was born and grew up in London and childhood school summer holidays were not complete without a visit to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. There were also regular trips to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kenwood House and assorted other historic properties and museums in the city. From an early age, my head was filled with images of fantastic paintings and works of art. Not surprisingly, as an adult, those images have coloured my writing (pun intended). As I am a poet as well as a fiction writer, you might not be surprised by this.

Ekphrastic poetry is quite common (Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, for example, and Sylvia Plath’s The Ghost’s Leavetaking, which was inspired by a Paul Klee painting). In my poetry collection Cats and Other Myths you will find the poem Crazy Jane, which is based on a sketch by the Victorian artist Richard Dadd. There is also Coyote, a poem that found inspiration in traditional North American Indian images of the self-same animal.

In my new poetry collection, Years Ago You Coloured Me, I have taken the inspiration of pictures a little bit further. There are various Ekphrastic poems such as The Horses, inspired by the George Stubbs painting Whistlejacket, which I first saw hanging in Kenwood House and subsequently in the National Gallery, and another Stubbs painting, Mare and Foals, which hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. There are also poems such as At The Courtauld and View From Sheep Field Barn, Much Hadham (the latter winning third prize in the 2015 Yeovil Literary Prize for Poetry) which build on visits to the Courtauld Gallery in London and the former home of the sculptor Henry Moore in Perry Green, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire: poetry not inspired by just one work of art, but many.

Years Ago You Coloured Me is first and foremost a book about influence, resonance and memory, including my own. Given my childhood visits to art galleries, it is almost to be expected that fine art is among the echoes I’ve tried to capture in these poems. My novel, A Darker Moon, is a totally different book, however.

A Darker Moon is a dark-fiction novel of mythic rebirth and psychological collapse, as well as what makes us human. It relates the story of Abe, a lost and damaged soul who, like me, grows up in London and is influenced by the paintings and images he sees as a child. In particular, he becomes obsessed with the reoccurring image of a woman who looks like his mother, or at least the woman he thinks of as his mother, because all he has of her is an anonymous black and white photograph. He spends a lot of time in galleries trying to track down one particular painting, but clearly he has been influenced by other paintings he has seen. References to these are dotted, sometimes obliquely, through his retelling of his story. For example, there is Gainsborough’s Mr. Andrews and Dieric Bouts’ Man in Red, faces seen in pre-Victorian paintings and, deep within his sexual fantasies, images of Rodin sculptures and L’Origin du Monde by Gustave Courbet. How deep this obsession with the visual goes is not totally clear, but images are extremely important to Abe, including the vivid memory pictures he retains in his head:

“A small brown owl perches on my cot rail, its huge, yellow eyes, like two full harvest moons. It may only be a little owl, but those eyes are big enough to drown an infant, and I have a sense of falling, of being sucked in and down towards two pools of deep moonlight. It is my earliest memory.”

Abe’s fascination with pictures is, I admit, one I share. His obsessions and the rest of his dark and at times disturbing story, are wholly his.

Being a writer, if I admit to any obsession, it’ll be with words, but I am able to explore and indulge my love of painting within my poetry and the stories I make up. I can recreate remembered pictures with words, as well as building them into the words of a story or novel. Pictures and words may be different forms of art, but for me, I am fortunate that they so often go together.

About J.S.Watts: J.S.Watts is a British writer. She was born in London and now lives and writes in East Anglia. In between, she read English at Somerville College, Oxford and spent many years working in the British education sector.

Her poetry, short stories and book reviews appear in a variety of publications in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States including Acumen, Mslexia and Orbis and have been broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. She has been Poetry Reviews Editor for Open Wide Magazine and Poetry Editor for Ethereal Tales. She has written five books. Her poetry collection, Cats and Other Myths and a subsequent multi-award nominated poetry pamphlet, Songs of Steelyard Sue, are published by Lapwing Publications, as is her latest collection, Years Ago You Coloured Me. Her novels, A Darker Moon and Witchlight are published by Vagabondage Press.  A Darker Moon and Witchlight are available in all electronic formats from the usual providers. Her poetry can be obtained in PDF format from Lapwing Publications. For further details, see

About A Darker Moon: Abe Finchley is a damaged man, an orphan with no roots and no family ties. When he finally meets the woman he has been looking for all his life, he finds not just love and passion, but a dark and violent family history that spans generations into humanity’s deepest past.

Eve is the woman of his dreams; but dream is just another word for nightmare, and Abe knows all about those. Amidst a confused web of lies and secrets, Abe is trying to discover who he is and make sense of what he may become. More than just his future and his new-found love is at stake. When he discovers that he has a brother, a man bound by divine destiny to kill him, Abe is going to have to make a difficult choice. A choice that might redeem the world. A choice that just might destroy it.

A Darker Moon is a dark, psychological fantasy. A mythical tale of light and shadow and the unlit places where it is best not to shine even the dimmest light.

A Darker Moon by J.S.Watts (ISBN 978-0615706528) is published by Vagabondage Press 
in paperback and e-book formats. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Book that wasn't Written by Zombies: N M Browne

I am a bit ashamed to admit that I am rubbish at quite a lot of things related to book production: I am not as good as I should be at punctuation and my typing is truly shocking so that, in spite of all the advantages of self publishing, I have always been a bit lazy and tried to get someone else to deal with my weaknesses. Every book I have published has had mistakes – a character called Ruby morphed into Roberta in the space of a paragraph in one novel, but generally good editing has saved me for looking like an ignorant, illiterate ignoramus more times than I can say.
However, I recently sent a book out to a couple of small presses and was slightly perturbed by the result. Now, I don’t actually mind a book being rejected – or rather after I have stomped around the house, kicking my non existent cat and swearing at my existent husband – I accept that my writing is not for everyone. I have never sold in the kind of quantities that will make a publisher rich beyond the dreams of even moderate solvency, let alone avarice.
The book I was trying to sell is well written, if I say it myself, but is a rather complicated post apocalyptic story about a young girl coming of age. As a creative writing lecturer, I have come across any number of these and I have no doubt that a bored submissions’ reader would glance at my synopsis and yawn. It is not a bad book or I wouldn’t be trying to sell it, but it isn’t high concept and though it is barbed, as all my stories are, it lacks any obvious hook. I was disappointed when I received a rejection email from some reasonably obscure publisher but not that surprised: it happens and even I didn’t believe this book would sell in enormous quantities. What shocked me was the feedback.

There is too much passive voice (was, were, am, is, etc.). We recommend removing all instances of these verbs and replacing them with active verbs.

Well, I kind of see what was meant.  I did use passive voice once to describe the action of a violent storm on a barge: you are allowed to do that sometimes for deliberate effect. However, the entire book was written in third person past tense, which inevitably involves using the past tense of the verb ‘to be’. Occasionally, people speaks to other people in the story  and reasonably enough use the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ too: ‘I am, she is ‘ -  it is pretty well impossible to avoid. This is not passive voice! Passive voice is quite easy to spot, as one very intelligent facebook post pointed out, if you can add ‘by zombies’ after it,  it’s passive voice so: ‘my text was evaluated ( by illiterate zombies)’ is passive voice.  ‘I was distressed to discover that the person who evaluated my text was an illiterate zombie’ is not, even though the verb ’was’ occurs in both sentences. Did you see what I did there?
  Rejection is inevitable as a writer. I don’t like it, but I accept it will happen -  like death and taxes. The press has recently been full of rejection letters sent to the famous and successful so everyone knows that the publisher's process is both flawed and subjective. Nonetheless I do think that as writers we have a right to expect that the people who read our work and judge us have something of a clue about the business of writing or If they know nothing about the technicalities are honest enough to say, ‘I didn’t enjoy your book.’  Not liking something is a good enough reason to reject it. But please Ms or Mr Unpaid New Intern don’t try to give half baked advice about something you clearly know nothing about. I am old, published, embittered and generally cynical, but I would be very upset if anyone felt that as a result of an ill judged email they were obliged to avoid, ‘was’, ‘ were’, ‘am’ and ‘is’!
Is I not right?

Monday, 28 March 2016


First of all, a funny little success story which began several years ago via a venture called UTales, now sadly (or maybe not sadly) no more.  The idea was to pair picture book authors (one of my several writing identities) with illustrators. Well, I'd once dreamed up a surreal and funny little book about a small boy who would eat nothing but chips, and in these days of healthy eating and five-a-day veggies, it did seem like a goer, but it had had no takers, so I thought - why not give it a try? I teamed myself up with an illustrator called Duncan Beedie, still at the beginning of his career, so in the course of our many online discussions, I also offered him some advice (I am old and well-seasoned in this difficult profession).

Fast forward to the present. Duncan and I had almost, but not quite, lost touch (when David died, he was hugely sympathetic). Suddenly, hey! He'd written and illustrated his own picture book: THE BEAR WHO STARED, and got it accepted by Templar, so sent me a dedicated copy saying: It all started with Chip Head. I am so, so pleased for him. It's a delightfully simple story about a very shy bear who needed friends but kept doing that off-putting thing - staring. As soon as he learns to smile instead, everyone loves him.

Every year I get invited to the Hachette party, and always managed to fiddle an invite for David, too, as he was such a great book lover and really enjoyed the publishing scene. For obvious reasons, I wasn't able to attend the last two parties - couldn't face them without him, but this year I was brave (well not that brave, as I took along a friend as a minder). Hachette's moved into a very posh building along the embankment, and the party was on the sixth floor which also had a roof garden, and I was curious. I am so glad I went. It was an icy, clear evening, and all the lights along the South Bank were glittering - I felt like a goggle-eyed tourist in my own city. Here's a pic of me propping up the bar (more on that later) and looking like the only person there because everyone else was out of camera on the right.

Propping up the bar leads me into very uncomfortable territory - the relationship, often destructive, between writers and alcohol, to mention Hemingway and Dylan Thomas to name only two. It's a funny business, writing, and for many people, some kind of artificial prod is needed to get started. I'm familiar both with 'word diarrhea' (which is a gift when it happens because you end up with a huge amount of raw material which you can then work on), and the silent horror that lies in a blank screen or a sheet of white paper - at least, if you're an artist, you can make a mark. Alcohol seems to release something I can't put a name to - it's neither inhibition nor anything to do with relaxation. It's also a ritual - ice clinking in the glass, and I can fool myself into thinking I'm in the zone. But I'm becoming increasingly aware of its unhealthy side and would like to cut down. It would be interesting to find out what kick-starts other writers - has anyone tried meditation for this? I name the greatest inhibitor of all, though - too many rejections, or, even worse, being ignored.

I picked up a children's novel in a charity shop the other day, and fascinated by its premise, bought it. It was in a totally pristine state, which might have suggested something, because, eager to get into it, I abandoned it after reading a couple of chapters - why? The fantasy I'd initially bought into - the brilliant concept - was contained inside an issue-led plot, and I felt cheated. For obvious reasons, I'm naming neither title nor premise, but I did begin to wonder if we're becoming tired of issue-led plots (the issue in this case was, unsurprisingly, after the success of Lionel Shriver's book, autism). Now autism is an intriguing subject, and autistic children are being viewed, and treated, at present in a very positive way, which is great. High-spectrum autistic people are amazing. Years ago, I spent a year working in a Rudolf Steiner residential school for children with problems, and encountered a beautiful redhaired eleven year old boy who could not speak, but who was able to reproduce complex music, even symphonies - it was a kind of magic, another way of being. Nevertheless, the issue-led aspect of what was clearly a well-written book, turned me completely off.

March 28th is the final day of my small promotion for the Kindle edition of  'THE GLASS BIRD', with its glorious cover illustration by Caroline Anstey - which means that today you can read it for free. It's aimed at 7-10 year olds, though, so please be generous. It's a gentle fantasy about a very lonely Quaker boy who comes across something wonderful half-hidden in the grass.

The Glass Bird   US

Sunday, 27 March 2016

A Million Books in an African Warehouse - Andrew Crofts

“You must fly down for the launch of the book,” the Minister boomed, “I insist. The President will be there. It will be a great day. There will be food and speeches. I will make all the arrangements for you.”

There was no arguing with him, and I didn’t really want to anyway. Most clients don’t even admit that they’ve used a ghostwriter; they certainly don’t want to invite him or her half way across the world to the launch party. In most cases they don’t even let the ghost know that there is going to be a party. Once the book is written and delivered the ghost normally slinks back into the shadows and moves on to the next project, allowing the client to bask in the glory of being a published author. The Minister, however, was a man who enjoyed the limelight so much he wanted to share it with the whole world, which was one of the reasons he was such an endearing man.

His extremely efficient assistant made the arrangements through the embassy in London and a business class ticket was delivered to the house by a driver. I didn’t even bother to ask about accommodation arrangements because my previous trips had shown that the Minister was the most hospitable of men. He would have thought of everything. Normally when you arrive at the borders of a country other than your own you need to provide evidence of where you will be staying. When your ticket has been arranged by someone like the Minister everything is different. Someone would have had a word in the ear of the airport officials, money or other favours would have been exchanged, minders would be waiting to take me to an SUV with darkened windows. It had happened like that every time I had been to see him during the writing process.

The launch of the book was held in a government office that I hadn’t been to before. The building must have been designed in colonial times and had a suitable air of faded grandeur, befitting a distinguished literary event. A feast had been laid out for guests on trestle tables and groups of sofas and armchairs had been clustered around the room so that politicians and business people could huddle and whisper, their conspiratorial conversations occasionally interrupted with roars of laughter and outbreaks of back-slapping. There were surprisingly large piles of books which the guests were helping themselves to, flicking through the pages in search of their own names or those of their rivals.

The arrival of the President momentarily overshadowed the Minister’s flamboyant act as host and newly published author. The pecking order took a few moments to readjust before everyone was comfortable once more.

The Minister made a speech and graciously acknowledged his ghostwriter in a remarkable display of modesty, honesty and openness. The President also made a speech praising the Minister. Conversations then resumed as one politician after another stood to tell the room how much they admired the author of the book and how exciting it was that his ideas on how to lead Africa to future prosperity were now set down in print.

The Minister smiled and nodded his appreciation to each of the speakers in turn, but he was also working the room as they talked, shaking hands and hugging everyone who came near him.

As he moved closer to where I was standing I overheard him accepting praise from a woman swathed in colourful traditional dress, a Rolex glinting on her wrist.

“Your book will be a best seller,” she assured him.

“Yes, yes,” he grinned his acknowledgement, “we have a million copies printed up and ready to distribute. We want every child in Africa to have a copy.”

I caught his eye over the lady’s shoulder and smiled. I knew that it was his knack for positive thinking and dreaming big dreams that had got him where he was and might yet get him into the Presidential Palace. The book, I knew, was just one more step in the process of establishing himself as a future leader. Eventually he reached me and clapped a mighty arm around my shoulder.

“Are you having a good time, my friend?” he asked. “Are you glad that you came?”

“Yes, very good,” I said. “How many copies have you actually had printed?”

“A million,” he said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I thought we’d agreed to start with a couple of thousand,” I said, still not sure whether to believe the bombast.

“You know me,” he winked, “I like to think big. I believe in the message of the book. I want copies in every school in Africa.”

“You’ve actually had a million copies printed?”

I was trying to imagine what a million copies of a book must look like. Even if he was exaggerating and he had only printed a tenth of that figure it would still mean crates and crates of books.

“Yes, of course.”

“Where are they?”

“My brother has a warehouse near to the town where my mother lives. You remember going there?”

“Of course.”

I had spent a pleasant weekend with his mother, a sunny, smiling woman who spoke no English and passed her days happily sitting in the shade inside the walls of the family compound, preparing food to be cooked by her daughters and shouting abuse at the goats whenever they strayed amongst her vegetables. I could imagine the delivery lorries arriving in the tiny town, coating the watching locals with dust from the unmade roads. In his home area the Minister was like a king and the warehouse full of books would be one more jewel in the crown of his glorious career.

As far as I know the crates are still in the warehouse.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

I Get Knocked Down But I Get Up Again by Ruby Barnes

Since last month's blog post I haven't written a thing. The priorities have been elsewhere - reading the unpublished manuscript of a colleague and getting beaten up at karate. The manuscript reading went well and more will follow from Marble City Publishing on that account later this year. As for the karate beatings, that's the subject of this post.

Our club, Evolution Martial Arts Academy in Kilkenny, competes in a variety of competitions. We do all kinds of stuff, ranging from traditional karate to demonstrations that are best described as a series of stunts you might see in a martial arts film. We also do creative forms, with or without weapons, to pieces of music that we choose ourselves. Another category we compete in is sparring, or fighting, and that's where the oldest ninja in town (yours truly) wheels himself out to do battle.

Mr Incredible is me, of course (this is non-traditional garb, it was Halloween training).

Over the past two or three years I've been making sporadic appearances at a quarterly tournament up in Dublin. The category I compete in is called points fighting which means the competitors try to score a hit with foot or fist on the upper body of their opponent. Once the referees see a hit, the action is paused and then restarted. So it's about speed and accuracy, rather than power and durability. That's not to say there isn't an occasional bloody nose or lip, or knockdown, even though full protective gear is obligatory. I have a very consistent record in my division ("veterans"). I won one fight. Other than that, I always lose. But I like to think I'm getting better. In my defence, the age category for that division is 35+ and I'm now 53 years young, so my opponents are often spring chickens by comparison. Also there's no weight limit so my 78kg (172lb or 12st 4lb) self is often pitted against much heavier fighters. The last fight I had at that venue, I lost 4 - 6 to a 35-year-old guy. On the same day I fought for the first time in the light contact continuous division (which doesn't stop when a point is scored). I lost, what a surprise, against a 38-year-old who went on to win the division. In fact I was knocked off my feet, but I got up again and fought on. There's no points score in that style, it's based upon aggression, accuracy and control of the fight. I lost.

Ruby takes to the floor

Then, during a karate club night out, which included a spattering of alcohol, it was suggested that I could enter another tournament which had recently announced a new "super-veteran" 50+ category. That sounded great to me, I might even stand some chance against ninjas of a similar vintage. There was a weight split too, with a division below 74kg and one above 74kg. I solemnly swore to shift a little bit of weight and be guaranteed to fight similar-sized old fellas.

Time went on and the club members were asked to choose their divisions for an upcoming tournament. I looked into the details on the website and realised two things. Firstly, this was the tournament with the new super-veterans 50+ divisions. Secondly, it was the Irish Open, an annual affair which has thousands of entrants from all over Europe and also attracts the top names from the USA and Canada. My stomach flipped. This could be my ultimate humiliation. I consulted with the club elders and opinions see-sawed from "you'll be fine, most people over fifty have been doing karate so long that they can't kick above waist high, so you'll have an advantage" to "anyone you fight will have forty-plus years of experience and be a high dan grade black belt" to "they'll all be karate instructors and won't have spare time to dedicate to their own training". So, taking all this on board, I did the best preparation I could under the circumstances. I set about losing 4 kg (9 lbs) in two weeks.

Today's TV is full of weight loss shows with the pounds falling off folk left right and centre. At 177cm (5' 9 and 3/4") tall and 78kg (172lb or 12st 4lb), I wasn't sure I had 4 kg or 9lbs to lose, but I was determined to try. I train up to eight hours a week so I knew the exercise regime was already in place. My focus was purely upon diet. All that karate gives me a big appetite so I decided to cut out bread and beer. For the first week I didn't touch a slice of bread or a roll or a pizza. No beer or wine that week either. For carbohydrates I ate only brown rice or wholegrain pasta or couscous. Lunch was a salad with every vegetable and leaf I could find plus feta cheese, mixed bean salad and smoked salmon. Luckily I love all that stuff so it was no real sacrifice. Week 1 weigh-in and I had lost 3lbs, just over a kilo. It was good but not good enough.

Week 2 and the weight-loss pressure was on. If I couldn't reach less than 74kg by the Thursday evening weigh-in then I would have to fight in the over 74kg division with the big old lads who would seriously outweigh me and, from experience, a hefty kick or punch from a seasoned heavyweight would be no laughing matter. I decided to cut out carbs altogether. Pasta, rice and couscous were off the menu. Bean salad and feta cheese bit the dust too. I upped the salad vegetables and smoked salmon for lunch. In the evenings I had chicken or poached salmon on a bed of mixed leaves. Hunger pangs at any time of day were met with the allegedly negative calories of celery sticks. I was very lucky that I've always been a fan of celery, because I really consumed a lot of it that week.

celery, my best friend celery

Six o'clock on the Thursday evening and I took my turn to stand in my underwear on the Irish Open weigh-in scales at City West Conference Centre, Dublin. The result was 73.7kg (162.5 lbs or 11st 8.5lbs). I probably could have kept my trousers on. That weight allowed me to enter both the over and under 74kg age 50+ divisions, so I took part in both on the Saturday, having eaten like a hungry lunatic in the interim.

On the day I flitted up and down between the fighting on the ground floor and the weapons & forms on the second, where most of my club-mates were competing. Thousands of competitors milled around eighteen different fighting areas. Although everything was high-tech it was difficult to tell how the different divisions were progressing. My first fight wasn't due until around 4pm but I happened past the allocated area at 3:10pm and went into a panic as I realised they were ahead of schedule and I was due up fight after next. A mad rush upstairs to tell my coach and son, leaping back downstairs, throwing on my fighting gear and performing a few rudimentary stretches, I was on the mat and about to fight in my first international tournament. My opponent walked onto the mat and I saw for the first time where that 74kg weight cut had placed me. He was muscled, grizzled and turned out to be vicious, but I was six inches taller.

So how did it turn out? Well, I used my reach and threw out kicks and jabs that occasionally landed on target. My opponent became frustrated and, when the referee called break, hit me after the break. It rocked me a bit the first time. The second time I really felt it. The third punch after the ref had called stop knocked me right off my feet. I made a Shakespearean show of regaining my footing as the referee consulted with the corner judges. Looking back at the video, my opponent received an official warning at that point but I missed the fun as my ears were singing as if cartoon birds were tweeting around my head. His next punch after the ref said stop earned my opponent a lost point as punishment. We pressed on until the time ran out and someone grabbed my hand to raise it in the air. I had won by 11 - 4. I had a few minutes to recover before the next fight.

Another one bites the dust. That's me on the floor, with the salad green fighting gear.

Opponent number two was also shorter than me, but not by so much. He was fast like lightning and his kicks stretched over my head with ease. My tactics from the previous fight weren't effective. As the points mounted up against me, I changed my plan of attack from long range jabs and kicks to crush, kill, destroy, attempting to kick my opponent off the mat. It almost worked and I had him cornered at the final bell but I lost 3 - 5. At least I didn't get punched off my feet that time. Right after the fight my coach came clean and told me what he hadn't dare say at the start of the bout in case I got the heebie jeebies. I had just been fighting a renowned 6th dan black belt, five times world champion who, sure enough, went on to win that under 74kg 50+ years sparring division. The score looks close but, in hindsight, I reckon he was keeping a safe margin and taking it a bit easy on me. Nevertheless, it was a small division and I got to share the podium in joint third place with a lovely Italian chap who couldn't speak a word of English. The bronze medal looks nice on my bedroom wall with all Mrs R's running awards.

Yours truly far right

I also entered the over 74kg 50+ years division but was beaten 2 - 5 in my first fight by a very experienced guy from England who was the same age as me but about ten kilos heavier. I made some repetitive errors and he capitalised on my inexperience. Hopefully I learned from that fight too. The next quarterly tournament is on April 16th.

Three weeks later and I've stuck with the big salad lunches but otherwise I'm back on a normal diet, the only concession being management of portion sizes (I usually eat enough rice, pasta or potatoes for two) and sticking to brown rice or wholemeal pasta and occasionally bread. Wine and beer make a weekend guest appearance. My weight has hovered around 74kg and this morning I was 73.8kg. Maybe this is the new slimline me.

So now it's time to do the predictable thing and try to draw some kind of parallel between my recent martial arts beatings and the business of writing novels, but I'm not sure I can manage it. Probably the best thing is to slip a couple of heavy titles inside my gloves the next time I fight. In 2015 I spent my writing energy on the Zombies v. Ninjas series which combined both of my favourite things - writing and fighting (the zombies were incidental but necessary). 2016 was to be my murder mystery writing year but I have a feeling the ninjas are going to prevail once again. On Easter Monday we have our annual fundraising show with 30+ performances by the karate club. I'll be waving my sword around to the original theme of Mission Impossible and also doing an umbrella self-defence routine to the tune of Singing in the Rain. When the dust settles on all that, let's see if the muse says fight or write, or both.

Zombies v. Ninjas series by R.A. Barnes

Friday, 25 March 2016

Scrabbling Brains Alive! - by Susan Price

My partner keeps his brain alive - his expression - by playing Scrabble.
     He's only been playing the game for about a year, but he took to it ferociously and now plays every chance he gets. He even plays against himself.
      He joined his local U3A and their unsuspecting Scrabble-arm made him welcome - since then he's beaten them all, even their best player, monotonously, like gongs. And by 'beaten', I mean by over 300 points.
     In self-defense, they brought in rules such as: No cheating by using the official Scrabble dictionary instead of an old Concise Collins without a cover, published in the 1940s. And then: No looking things up in dictionaries.
     It did them no good. He's simply memorised all the allowable two and three letter words, and all the allowable words containing 'U', such as:
usufruct: the right to enjoy the use of another's property, so long as it's not damaged or destroyed,
 uraeus: the emblem of power, in the form of a serpent, on the front of an Egyption god or ruler's headdress.

     This is well worth the effort, he tells me, because 'U' is the hardest vowel to get rid of.
     Unless you have a 'Q' of course - and needless to say, he's also learned by heart all the words you can play where the 'Q' doesn't have to be followed by a 'U.' (Qat, qi, qis...)

     You can see that I have fallen into the trap, above, of telling you what usufruct and uraeus mean, as if it mattered.
     I'm a writer. I'm handicapped by an interest in what the words mean. I waste brain space and energy by trying to remember them. My partner, always happy with numbers and the patterns they make, has no interest in their meaning, only in their mean.
     All that matters to him is what they score on the Scrabble board.
(Usufruct is good: it has an F (4) and a C (3).) Get it on a triple and you could score 39. Or 29 if you could only get the F on a triple letter tile. If he can't score 20 or over, he considers missing a turn and changing his letters.

     I've picked up some of his Scrabble tricks and get better and better. I skelped (14) the cheukster (18) the other night - beat him by a whole 60 points, while he usually beats me by hundreds. I did a victory dance around his room. And last night I ran him hard - he won, but only by one point.
      It is a very good game, with that complexity which builds from simplicity - but I look back over my life and the last few years and wonder if my brain really needs Scrabble for life-assistance. I'm an author, for gods' sake - and an Electric Author at that.

      I've spent most of my life suddenly realising that I urgently need to find out, for instance, a lot more about the invasion of the Great Danish Army, or the atmosphere of Mars... the floor-plans of Border pele towers... what Vikings carried as packed lunches... or the design of half-submerged, floating hotels and houses already being built and planned for the water-logged future.

     And then along comes e-publishing and several steep learning curves as I found out how to make e-books and CreateSpace paperbacks - and along the way, try to get to grips with marketing - with social media... None of these things were in the job description when I started. Or even imagined by most of us. Maybe a few science-fiction writers had a glimmer...
     Because I need copyright free images, I'm getting more and more involved in the complexities of graphics programmes. Just last weekend my Author Electric colleague, Karen Bush, was telling me about Pic Monkey and Be Funky.
     In the past, I've several times written the texts for picture books - but I've never been so closely involved in writing and designing them as now, working with my brothers. The pictures change the words, and the words change the pictures... It's a very challenging form and the fact that it's 'only for kids' makes it harder, not easier.

Once, a girl made a chapati for her tea.
But the chapati didn't want to be eaten.
Up from the table it jumped and out of
the door it ran.
"Run, run, fast as  you can
You can't put me in your frying pan!"
         The Runaway Chapati

The most exciting day of little Tinku's life!
The Maharaja is to be married and the whole
palace is alive with hustle and bustle...
          Tinku Tries To Help

      I haven't even gone near audio books, as some of my colleagues have... Maybe, one day...

     But if always learning and puzzling things out is what keeps the brain alive, then a horde of villagers with pitchforks are probably going to have to visit the cemetery, six months after the death of AE members, to beat our still buzzing brains to death.

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

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

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Finding the story, Jo Carroll

I'm back from my travels. And I know that some people will be waiting for me to write about the mountains and jungles of Ecuador, and the astonishing islands of the Galapagos. After all, that's what I do, isn't it - go walkabout and then come home to write a book.

If only it were that easy. But 'woman has wonderful time in Ecuador' isn't a story. I can flesh that out a bit - 'woman stays in a lodge in the jungle, climbs a volcano, stays in an old city or two, potters round a market, flops about on a beach and then spends a week on a boat in the Galapagos' isn't really a story. Indeed, I can feel you glazing over as you trawl down that list and then you'll see my point. It's not that hard to write about what I did. But finding a thread that holds it together in a narrative that takes it beyond a written version of your neighbours' holiday snaps, that's the hard bit.

I did meet some interesting people, so that helps. And I had the odd close encounter with wild things - a tarantula and a shark - that made my heart beat fast for a while. The volcano is now erupting, so that is something to think about. But those are all scenes. I need to find the story.

Sometimes I wonder if fiction writers have it easier. For instance, I'm sure someone could weave an adventure around this chap:

Or how about her:

Of this pair of dancing boobies:

I have hundreds of photographs, and am almost ready for a grandchild to climb on my knee. Are we sitting comfortably, then I'll begin. Once upon a time there was a tortoise called Tabitha ...

But only my grandchildren listen to my short story efforts. Outside the family, I'm known for my travel writing. And right now I can't see the story of this trip. Maybe it is hiding behind all those pictures. Maybe it's time to put a lock on my iPhotos and allow the diaries - which are overflowing with words - to come out to play. There must be a story lurking somewhere. 

If you want more pictures, or more travelling stories, you can find them on my website: