Sunday, 31 July 2016

15 and Not Out - Guest Post by Conrad Jones

I am Conrad Jones a 50-year-old Author, originally from a sleepy green-belt called Tarbock Green, which is situated on the outskirts of Liverpool. I spent a number of years living in Holyhead, Anglesey, which I class as my home, before starting a career as a trainee manager with McDonalds Restaurants in 1989. I worked in management at McDonalds Restaurants Ltd from 1989-2002, working my way up to Business Consultant (area manager) working in the corporate and franchised departments.

On March 20th 1993 I was managing the Restaurant in Warrington’s Bridge St when two Irish Republican Army bombs exploded directly outside the store, resulting in the death of two young boys and many casualties. Along with hundreds of other people there that day, I was deeply affected by the attack, which led to a long-term interest in the motivation and mind set of criminal gangs. I began to read anything crime related that I could get my hands on.

I link this experience with the desire to write books on the subject, which came much later on due to an unusual set of circumstances. Because of that experience my early novels follow the adventures of an elite counter terrorist unit, The Terrorist Task Force, and their leader, John Tankersley, or ‘Tank’ and they are the Soft Target Series, which have been described by a reviewer as ‘Reacher on steroids’.  

I had no intentions of writing until 2007, when I set off on an 11-week tour of the USA. The day before I boarded the plane, Madeleine Mcann disappeared and all through the holiday I followed the American news reports which had little or no information about her. I didn't realise it at the time, but the terrible kidnap would inspire my book, The Child Taker years later. During that trip, I received news that my house had been burgled and my work van and equipment were stolen. That summer was the year when York and Tewksbury were flooded by a deluge and insurance companies were swamped with claims. They informed me that they couldn't do anything for weeks and that returning home would be a wasted journey. Rendered unemployed on a beach in Clearwater, Florida, I decided to begin my first book, Soft Target. I have never stopped writing since. I have recently completed my 15th novel, Brick, something that never would have happened but for that burglary and my experiences in Warrington.

The Child Taker was the 6th book in the Soft Target Series but it also became the first book in the Detective Alec Ramsay Series when I signed a three book deal with London-based publishers, Thames River Press. The series is now 7 books long with an average of 4.8 stars from over 2000 reviews. The first two books are always free with over 1100 5-star reviews.

As far as my favourite series ever, it has to be James Herbert’s, The Rats trilogy. The first book did for me what school books couldn’t. It fascinated me, triggered my imagination and gave me the hunger to want to read more. I waited years for the second book, The Lair, and Domain, the third book to come out and they were amazing. Domain is one of the best books I have ever read. In later years, Lee Child, especially the early books, has kept me hypnotised on my sunbed on holiday as has Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch Series. My latest book Brick is a standalone novel and you can see it here:

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Leader of the Pack by Bill Kirton

I’ve had a career-change idea. If I’m honest, I want something which doesn’t involve that strange concept of a work ethic. I’m not looking, either, for a luxury yacht, a Monte Carlo pad (do people still say ‘pad’?) or a cellar full of Château Pétrus. And, despite my unflagging egocentricity, I want to keep my carbon footprint as small as possible.

So I think I need to become a guru. It’s nice having followers on Facebook, Twitter and blogs but it’s no substitute for followers in the flesh who’d come to my hut to ask for guidance, waft about singing ethereal songs, making Peace signs and, basically, worshipping me. Or not even that. They can worship someone else if they like. The only problem with that is, if I’m their guru, then it’s up to me to tell them whom or what to worship, and I don’t want to create a religion. All I want is a little sect. (Ah, think of the gags I could have written if, grammatically, it had been legitimate to make that noun plural.)

So, how do I get to be a guru? I don’t think there are courses or degrees in it yet but it seems that all I need is stuff to preach and a few gullible people. Well, thanks to Simon Cowell, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Nigel Farage, etc., I know there’s no shortage of gullibility. And the stuff is easy; I’m a writer so I can just make it up. So I’d start with a few gnomic utterances, such as ‘The sweetness of the butterfly is the only true way’. It’s not great, though, is it? And to some people it might even seem to make sense. OK, let’s add a bit more gnomicness. How about ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’? Bingo.

So a follower (let’s call her Doris) stands at the open door of my hut. I smile and beckon her in. She sits beside me on the goose-quill bed (I don’t know what that is, but I think it’s the right sort of thing for a guru to have) and says: ‘I’m troubled’.
     I smile again, stroke her hair and say ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’.
     She nods quietly, head bowed. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘but what does it all mean?’
     I take her hands in mine.
     ‘Doris,’ I say. ‘Feel the swan in your blood.’
     We sit there for twenty minutes. Not another word passes between us. At last she smiles again, kisses my fingers and says ‘Thank you’.
     ‘No sweat,’ I reply, before realising that’s not a guru thing and adding ‘Inhabit the crystal’.
     ‘I will,’ she says, and goes to water the cannabis.

See? It’s not hard. I might have to expand on some of these little pearls, make them into sermons. No, not sermons – they explain stuff, draw conclusions. Parables are better. Just have to remember to get the context right. None of the labouring in vineyards, baguettes and fishes or Good Samaritan stuff. They’d better be IT consultants or media studies tutors. Something like…
‘A lifestyle coach was walking along a country lane when she passed a garage. Inside, a mechanic was leaning over an engine. She stopped and asked him what he was doing. “Cleaning a carburettor,” he said.
     “Have you cleaned many?” she asked.
     “Hundreds,” said the man.
     “Different types?’ she said.
     “SUVs, Jeeps, Dodge 58s with the old-style overhead camshafts, more or less everything,” he said.
     The woman stepped towards him and laid her white hand over his.
     “I have a collection of over three hundred Barbies,” she said.
     The man looked at her and a tear formed in his left eye. The woman raised her finger, collected the tear, placed it on his grease-smeared lip and turned away to continue her walk.
     The mechanic watched her go, the tears welling in his eyes once more. He reached for a hammer and began hitting the carburettor with fierce, unrelenting blows.’

OK, I think I’m ready. Just need some followers and a hut.

Friday, 29 July 2016

How Not to Write a Novel: N M Browne

Every serious writer is a master of procrastination. I am sure that, if you are reading this, you are already on track. However, if you are running out of ideas, I would like to share with you my top procrastination tips. I can guarantee that if you follow these, you will never finish a novel again.
1.     Make a ‘to do’ list.
If you think list-making helps avoid procrastination, you are doing it wrong.
    There is only one possible pad you can use for list making and only one pen. You keep them in any one of several places about the house. To find them you will have to clean your office/workspace, reorganise your bedside cabinet and clear all kitchen surfaces. Clearing kitchen surfaces necessitates making room in your cupboards. Your pen is obviously a cartridge pen which takes only one (obscure) brand of cartridges which are rarely in stock anywhere, necessitating several hours online and/or a shopping expedition.
     Once you have the correct pen and pad for list-making, begin with at least four tasks that are impossible. I suggest things like getting to the bottom of the laundry basket, upgrading your website, filing your emails and preparing your tax return. Do no writing until they are done.
2.     Research.
Before writing a book you must research broadly , particularly if you don’t know what the book is going to be about. This may involve foreign travel, shopping trips, visits to the cinema/gym/art gallery/theatre etc in order to overhear interesting conversations, get a feel for a possible novel setting etc. It is essential to engage in random internet trawling, facebook interaction, and book buying. 
     You will need to read everything and, if you are really serious, take notes. Always keep notes in a special notebook (as above.) Draw lots of maps and diagrams and make lists of possible character names. Write all notes illegibly in longhand so that, in the unlikely event you ever want to access the information in your notebook, you will have to track down the original note source and read it again. Under no circumstances have a plan.
In order find the best agent/publisher and sell your book in shedloads read all the posts on internet chat rooms that deal with writing and the publishing industry. Sign up for mailing lists and join online writing communities. Blog and read other bloggers. Post compulsively about your ideas and worries. Ask for advice and dispense it. Get into arguments. 
Change your mind about the marketability of the book you might like to write. Think about writing another one. Repeat as necessary.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Interesting Words, Horror, and Pipeline Theatre, by Enid Richemont

Recently I was given this delightful book by my daughter who thought (quite rightly) that it would amuse me. LOST IN TRANSLATION, by Ella Frances Sanders, is a collection of single words  describing mostly, but not always, familiar situations for which, in English, we'd use several. There is, for example: MURR-MA, from an almost extinct Australian language, which means searching for things under water with your feet.
     There is the lovely-sounding TIAM, in Farsi, meaning the twinkle in your eyes when you meet someone special, and on the downside: KUMMERSPECK, in German, which literally translates as 'grief-bacon', meaning the excess weight gained by emotional over-eating. The illustrations are fun, too - do check it out.

For authors specialising in crime and horror,how are you responding to recent global events which seem to surpass anything dreamed up in a novel? Which of us, writing futuristic fantasy twenty or so years ago, would have invented a lethal and brutal theocracy? Margaret Atwood in THE HANDMAID'S TALE comes close, and I'm sure there must be others, but sometimes I feel I'm actually living inside a horror movie.
     I'm sure the late and much-lamented Ruth Rendell would have done something amazing with this - her deep knowledge and understanding of disturbed minds would be so illuminating right now, because this is a sect which actively recruits psychopaths. So how do you write in times of horror? I think of the First World War poets, and the literature that came out of the Holocaust, and as readers, we still care about individual deaths, and we continue to care about the reasons why. Below is a copy of my recent post on Facebook in response to the inevitably ominous: 'News Coming In'. A fantasy, of course, but who knows? And I can 'see' the pictures, and that laughing baby.


My Cornish family's theatre company - - will be in Edinburgh with a brand new production: SWIVELHEAD - in August. For those of you already impressed by TRANSPORTS and SPILLIKINS - this will be a treat. For others who don't yet know them, if you're in Edinburgh you're in for a treat.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Playing Literary Games - Andrew Crofts

Like many writers I am not a natural games player; firstly because I have terrible trouble remembering the rules to anything and secondly because I seldom care whether I win or not, which rather removes the fun for those with competitive urges that need scratching.

When I received an email out of the blue, however, asking if I would like to take part in a literary panel game called “Ex Libris” which would be recorded in front of a live audience at Blackwells in Oxford and then put out as a pod-cast, my interest was piqued.

Ex Libris was invented by Oxford Games who also invented, among many others, Jenga, and has been available as a board game for some time. Quite why it hasn’t yet been snapped up by Radio 4 I can’t imagine. Anyhow, the BBC’s loss is Blackwells’ gain.

The rules are simple. There are four contestants. One reads out a book title and author, with a very short plot synopsis. It could be anything from Blyton to Byron, Wodehouse to Wordsworth, Henry James to E.L. James – you get the idea.

The other three panelists are then asked to write their imagined first line of the book, (or the last line). While they are doing that the one who has been singled out is interviewed for five minutes about their career or their latest book.

All three forgeries are then read out, along with the real one, and the three panelists have to guess which the genuine one is. They get points if theirs is thought to be the original one or if they succeed in guessing it correctly. They can play to win or they can play for laughs, or, in an ideal world, a combination of the two.

To be honest, it is pretty much a test of the panelists’ ghostwriting skills, so it seemed like a challenge I could hardly turn down, plus Oxford is always a pleasant place to while away a night and there was a free dinner on offer for all involved.

It was a dark and stormy night – no, it actually was, and it was the night of the Brexit vote. (One of the chosen books was Nigel Farage's autobiography). Everyone in Oxford was campaigning wildly through the wet streets for “remain” and there seemed to be little awareness that outside this happy academic bubble things were about to turn very ugly indeed – such innocent times. In fact “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

        sorry, but you see how catchy this “opening lines thing” is?

Not only was the night “dark and stormy” and not only was the European Union about to start unraveling, there were also floods and overturned lorries on the roads into Oxford, which kept one of the panelists away and a substitute had to be found fast from the Blackwells staff, (and a very impressive performer she turned out to be).

You’ll have to listen to the pod-cast of episode 4 of Ex-Libris Live ( order to find out if I managed to keep my ghostwriting credentials in tact; but if you work at Radio 4, for goodness sake don’t dither too long for fear that Simon Cowell will get his hands on this format!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Recognising a Diamond in the Rough by Sensei Ruby Barnes

A few weeks ago I attended a session at the Irish Writers' Centre in Dublin (many thanks to Valerie Ryan for organising) with some of my writing colleagues from our Kilkenny writers' group. We spent several fascinating hours in the company of acclaimed novelist Mia Gallagher who kindly shared her knowledge of writing and editing, and the varying experiences of being published by large (Penguin) and small (Little Island) publishing houses. Mia herself offers editing services and was able to clearly articulate both sides of the author / editor equation.

We listened, asked questions and made the occasional furtive attempt to grasp the elusive goal of writing a manuscript that agents and publishers will want. Or, as was freely admitted for those who might dare to venture into the modern world of self-publishing, the goal of writing a novel that readers will want to read. I felt confused for the first hour or so as my feeble brain struggled with which hat to wear. As an "independent author" I have self-published seven novels and that escapade has morphed into micro-publishing with twenty-eight titles (from four individual authors plus three multi-author anthologies) under the Marble City Publishing banner. Editing and formatting is what I do for sedentary fun when I'm not writing or fighting. My perspective during that workshop was flip-flopping from author to editor to publisher.

Mia continued to talk, telling us about the publishing process with her first novel, Hellfire, and how the manuscript changed substantially between Penguin's acceptance of the book and eventual publication. Then it struck me. Penguin had seen Hellfire for the raw diamond that it was and were prepared to invest in structural editing to get the novel to become the multi-faceted jewel they believed it could be. I thought about the nineteen submissions received by Marble City in the previous twelve months, all of which we had rejected. Did we lack the imagination or ability to spot a diamond in the rough? Had we passed over work which deserved more attention? I have to be honest and say I’m very quick to take against a manuscript if it exhibits unrealistic dialogue, excessive word echo, unbelievable plot twists and turns, etc. I’m not saying Hellfire had any of those faults when Penguin accepted it. Having listened to Mia’s advice on editing and her track record in script writing, I very much doubt she had any such authorly ticks. What Penguin most likely did was to add to the pot with their developmental editing skills and turn a very good novel into a great novel. Hellfire did receive critical acclaim although, by Mia’s own admission, the book wasn’t a commercial success. It took Mia another nine years to produce her next novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, by which time the publisher with interest had changed to the smaller Irish house of Little Island.

As soon as I arrived home from the workshop I went about snagging a copy of Hellfire. provided a second-hand copy for a couple of quid. It soon arrived and I dived in. The novel was nothing like I had expected. It was written in vernacular Dublin language, a stream of consciousness life account from a narrator with a complex personality and substance abuse issues. A kind of mix between The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. I really enjoyed Hellfire but I could understand why Mia hadn’t become a prodigious name for Penguin. Hellfire is a standalone tome, the like of which cannot be easily repeated. The narrative voice is unique and the character’s story has been told with the conclusion of the book. Hellfire was a long time in the making, having started life as a short story / play. Mia, during the workshop, mentioned her long journey with the book and compared the experience to another Irish writer – John Boyne, who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (commercially successful as both book and film) in just a weekend.

But I digress. The point I’m pondering is not how long it takes to write a bestseller. Rather, what is it that defines a publisher’s ability to spot a nugget of gold, and is their capacity and willingness to work that manuscript into something truly praiseworthy a feature of the publisher’s critical mass? Are micro-publishers capable of seeing the potential in a manuscript and willing and able to invest enough time, effort and skill to produce a result? Or are micro-publishers only good for copy editing?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Flashing Pens - by Susan Price

Another Flash in the Pen
I know it's not the done thing to favourably review a book in which you yourself have a story. It's understandably seen as biased. Well, I would say it's good, wouldn't I?
          So I wasn't planning to review Another Flash in the Pen here. I reckoned I would post the fact of its existence on Facebook and then keep schtum.
          And, to be brutally honest, I had muted expectations.
          I like short stories. I've read lots of anthologies and what I've come to expect is a few stand-out pieces studding a book full of perfectly good but underwhelming stories. Or, perhaps, stories that would be stand-out pieces for someone else but just don't do it for me.
          That's what I expected from Another Flash in the Pen and, had it been so, I would simply have kept quiet.

          What I actually found was a book full of stories that I tore through, enjoying each and everyone. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up again, because the last story had been so good... And putting it down, having finished another story, thinking, "That was good! What's the next one called?" - And finding that I didn't want the collection to end.

          I knew, of course, that my Electric colleagues are good writers but familiarity takes the edge off everything. I'd forgotten just how good they are.
          This book acted as a refresher course. There's laugh-out-loud funny. Elgaic and atmospheric. Haunting - though not always by ghosts.
          Vivid snap-shots of life. Tales of the sea. Stories of life on other planets in the future and stories with a sharp awareness of life as it is here and now.

          When I finished the book, I felt that I had very rarely read a collection of short stories where I enjoyed all of the stories so much.
          So I'm going to stick my head above the parapet and say that I think this is an unusually good anthology which would keep most readers happy - whether because they like short stories or because they want something short to read during commutes or on the beach. I stayed at home and read it over several days, whenever I had a few spare moments.
          It has me looking forward keenly to the AE collection of ghost stories because I love a good ghost story and this collection had raised my expectations.

          Thanks to all the great writers who donated stories, and an especial thanks to Karen Bush who - despite having a great many other things to do - found time to put it together, edit and format it. Though she was helped by whippets.

Another Flash In The Pen

Paperback           UK              US
Kindle                 UK              US

Sunday, 24 July 2016

What do you look for in a travel book? - Jo Carroll

What do you look for in a travel book?

One of the most memorable pieces of advice I was ever given was 'don't write about things people can see on the telly'. And so I have never written about hearing Rigoletto at the Sydney Opera House as both can be found online without too much difficulty (even though it was wonderful).

That mentor also told me make sure I involved my own experience - which meant writing about things I hadn't told my daughters about. I'll never forget steeling myself to tell them about the man with a gun in Lucknow.

But my last trip took me to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. I spent a few days deep in the upper Amazon basin, where caimans hide in the shallows and tarantulas creep up the hut walls. Google any nature site and it's easy to see pictures of the Amazon (though they can't capture that wet mud smell, nor the wake-up call of the howler monkeys).

I took a road trip through the mountains, where the ground trembles for so much of the time that roads are constantly cracked. Volcanoes spurt steam high into the sky. The air is thin, and clear, and raptors soar on the thermals. I'm sure you can see that if you google 'Andes'. Though that moment when you discover dragonflies copulating is very special:

And so the Galápagos Islands - easy enough to find pictures of tortoises and iguana and parading frigate birds online. But nothing can replace that feeling of being humbled by the whole experience - being so close to creatures like this that are so rare and so precious:

Having said all that, when I read about travels it's the people who intrigue me. How they live and work and raise their families in the mountains or in the depths of the jungle. What stories do they tell? What sense do they make of me, a white woman wandering around and often unable to contain my curiosity about their ways of life? And, because I'm even more interested in people than I am in places, I write about them.

But you - when you pick up a travel book, what are you hoping to find?

You can find examples of my travel writing on my website: And if you want to know what I got up to in Ecuador, there's always Frogs and Frigate Birds

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Make Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

Characters are the soul of fiction. They are the first movers of story. Imagine any story you've ever read, then take out the characters. What you have left is essentially a lunatic's National Geographic article: a description of a fantastic landscape or a discussion of a particular group or species daily habits.

Without characters, The Hobbit, for instance, would read something like this:

Chapter 1: Hobbits live relatively peaceful lives, reside in modestly decorated holes in hills, and like to eat. Like a lot. They have seven meals a day, and do not like to be surpised by unexpected visitors.

Chapter 2: Trolls will eat anything and turn to stone in the sunlight.

Chapter 3: Elves are wise, and kind of pompous assholes.

Chapter 4: Goblins are just assholes.

Chapter 5: Caves are dark and scary, and sometimes people lose jewelry there.

Chapter 6: Wolves and Goblins are friends and often team up to terrorize villages, but giant eagles will sometimes put a stop to those shenanigans.

Chapter 7: Shape-shifters can, indeed, count.

Chapter 8: The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.

Chapter 9: Elves are pretty much pompous assholes wherever they live.

Chapter 10: Humans are generally trifling and gullible, but can also be quite generous.

Chapter 11: Dragons are really sleepy, and can count better than shape-shifters

Chapters 12: Dwarves live in mountains...

Chapter 13: ...and really, really like treasure.

Chapter 14: Humans really are a mixed bag. Thank Eru some of them can shoot.

Chapter 15: When I say dwarves like their treasure, I mean it. They like other people's treasure, too.

Chapter 16: Hobbits make good thieves when they are properly motivated.

Chapter 17: When five armies of various species fight, things get messy. Hobbits generally nap through it.

Chapter 18: Return trips are boring.

Chapter 19: Hobbits will sell all your shit if you vacation too long.

The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.
And I have promises to keep,
So bye.
Clearly then, character is the single most important part of any story. So how do we make good ones? "Good guys" are generally easier to create. We mainly look at ourselves in the mirror, nip and tuck our unsightly flaws, and write down what we see.

This is why so may of the best protagonists appeal to us: they are glorified versions of ourselves. No, we don't make them perfect; we know we, ourselves, are flawed, so imbue our heroes with a few of those flaws or make them relatable: Bilbo Baggins is kind of a passively shy, regular guy until he gets dragged into an adventure and learns he is really brave underneath. Nick Carraway is really just a nobody who is star-struck by rich people until he realizes they are a pretty self-centered lot. Ishmael is a bored twenty-something with no direction looking for adventure.

The point here is that in order to make compelling heroes, you need only give them a character flaw that they must overcome in order to grow into the hero we all know they really are. They are us, after all, and no one really thinks of themselves as the bad guy.

Shut up, Jesse.
Here's the problem: If characters are the most important aspect of fiction, the bad guy is just as important as the good guy. More important in many ways. You don't need nice characters to make a story. Thanks to the concept of anti-heroes, you can have protagonists who are complete and utter assholes.

Tolkien wrote a whole book about them.
Bad guys are a little harder for most of us to do, though. We have a tendency to paint evil in big, broad, mustache twirling strokes.

Indeed so many of our bad guys are just variations of this guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks.
We have the Western bad guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks

Fantasy bad guy:
Ties elves to the train tracks

Space bad guy:

Ties Jedi and Rebels to the train tracks

We even have History bad guy:

Ties Jews to the train tracks

But for the most part, these are all guys who are so clearly evil, that they may as well be the same person. And ultimately, with the exception of the last two, they are. Don't believe me? Ask yourself the following questions: What's the name of the impressively mustachioed fellow tying the girl to the tracks? Who's the cowboy? Is the fantasy guy Morgoth, Sauron, The Black Lieutenant, or Shai'tan? Most of us don't know. Because these villains are so interchangeably similar, it doesn't matter. We just need to know they're baddies, and that the goodies are going to defeat them.

So why are the other two different?

Because to a great degree, we can see ourselves in them. Darth Vader is intriguing to us because, like a good hero, he is flawed. We understand what he wants: He wants order, he wants to protect his family, he wants to make the galaxy safe. That he has to destroy all impediments to this in his quest is unfortunate (especially since the impediments are our well-meaning heroes), but unavoidable. He is evil, not by nature, but by circumstance. He cannot balance his lofty goals with fair action. He believes, like many of us (like all of us from time to time, if we're really being honest) that our lofty ends justify the horrible means we have to use to attain them.

So what about Hitler? Surely we generally don't see ourselves in him. Well, we do, but in a way that is perhaps way more disturbing for us. Darth Vader (or Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter or Breaking Bad's Walter White) represents our own ideals taken to the extreme excluding all other moral concerns. He represents what we can do if we myopically focus only on our own initailly laudable goals and desires.

We cannot say the same for Hitler (or Charles Manson or Norman Bates), though. The argument that Hitler let the laudable goal of fixing Germany get out of control falls kind of flat when you consider that there was never a time in his career when his solution to the problem was anything short of skull-kissing crazy. Why, then, are we so fascinated with him? Because even he, even Hitler, had a tee-tiny spark of humanity in him. He loved dogs and children. He was a vegetarian. He was an artist.

Though not the best boyfriend, I guess.

We are fascinated by bad guys like Hitler because unlike Darth Vader's type of bad guy, these guys didn't let their virtues become so powerful that they became evil. These bad guys became evil in spite of their humanity, not because of it. And that is, in many ways, a far more frightening concept.

These two types of bad guys are far more intriguing to us because they do essentially the same thing as the fascinating good guys do: They reflect on some level aspects of ourselves. Good heroes reflect an idealized version of ourselves; great heroes reflect that but also keep some amount of our flaws. Good villains reflect flawed versions of ourselves, great villains do that but also retain some spark of humanity or pathos within them that makes their evil tragic instead of completely terrifying.

All this is a long-winded way of saying if you want to make charismatic, believable, and unforgettable villains, you have to make them at least somewhat sympathetic. You have to understand that they are the heroes of  their own stories. And you have to care about them just as much as you care about the heroes.

P.S. If you think it is impossible to make Hitler a sympathetic villain without somehow excusing the horrors he created, I urge you to read Unto the Beast by Richard Monaco. It truly is a perfect example of what I've been talking about here.

Though you might wait a bit until Venture Press re-releases it 
and Monaco can make a little cash from it.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Feelings not facts - from novel to short story, by Ali Bacon

Since my recent post which touched on the early photographs of Hill and Adamson, I’ve not only paid a flying visit to St Andrews (my old university town and always a good place to go) but also been invited to read a selection of my historical fiction at the St Andrews Photography Festival. This is a huge thrill for me and has given me the nice job of making sure that by the time of my event on Sept 9th. I've assembled the right words in exactly the right order. 

Reading Silver Harvest in April at  Stroud Short Stories
I’m planning to read five or six pieces which have already been written in one form or other, but I don’t want to read for more than 10 minutes at a time  - i.e. 1500 words max - and although the pieces are linked in theme, I would like each one to stand alone. 

Looking at my raw material, only Silver Harvest fits the bill exactly. The others are either too long or, on closer inspection, betray their origins as fragments of a novel. ‘Repurposing’ them is proving an interesting task and one that’s making me aware of the strictures of short story writing. 

Here are a few rules I’ve made for myself in my reverse-engineering project of cutting my cloth to suit my new coat!

  1. Stay in the moment.
    I'm trying not to hark backwards to previous stories or things I know happened, and since there is no option for the audience to read on, I'm avoid ‘foreshadowing’, i.e. hinting at what’s to come (or even jumping ahead to tell people!)
    St Andrews Cathedral, an iconic ruin 
  2.  Make sure each short story has a structure of its own, i.e. each one should have its own story arc, however brief. A piece of narrative which is there to fill a historical gap will just be exposition.
  3.  Avoid too many scene changes. I don’t particularly like ‘static’ short stories, but in 1500 words there are only so many places we can go without things feeling rushed. If necessary, history can be compressed!
  4. Examine minor characters and decide who is really needed. Short stories traditionally have a narrow focus rather than a big cast of characters. If a character is required, don’t linger over a description, just let them play the role that’s required. It might be they don’t even need a name.
  5. Strip down the dialogue. Every word counts so skip yes’s no’s and maybe’s – just let them agree or otherwise! If it’s just for plot, you could use indirect speech which holds things up less. ‘He thanked them but said he would leave that night,’ is slicker IMO than, ‘thank you, but I will leave tonight,’ he said.
  6. Feelings not facts! i.e. beware exposition/info dump. I’m writing historical fiction and would like my audience to know how much I’ve found out about these people and their time, but sticking in extra facts, events or characters is either insecurity or showing off. An eagle-eyed beta reader has found one of these I didn't see for myself.

In writing down these rules I can see I have broken quite a few of them (3 and 4 especially!) so it’s time for another look at the writing  - or maybe the rules!

Finally, I can also see that most of them could be applied to a novel, which confirms my belief that the process of writing a novel and short story are not so very different. However a novel takes a lot longer!

If you would like to know more about the St Andrews Festival of Photography, please visit their Facebook page or my own website.

Ali Bacon was born in Fife and lives in Bristol where she writes, reads, reviews, and occasionally takes to the stage. Her novel A Kettle of Fish is available in print and as an e-book.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Taking your Kindle to the Beach? - Katherine Roberts

It’s the holiday season! Long summer days, schools are out or almost out, and if you're like me you’re probably thinking about a beach somewhere... I’m lucky in that I live about ten minutes' walk from one of the best sandcastle beaches in the country (according to an experiment carried out by the BBC a few years ago). Above is Preston beach - the one with all the beach huts in the English Riviera resort of Torbay. The red colour of the sand comes from the local sandstone cliffs.

You can get here by train on the intercity to Plymouth, which runs along the coast from Exeter via. the recently repaired sea wall at Dawlish. Hop on to the branch line at Newton Abbot, and you'll end up at Paignton, where you can either walk past all the bucket-and-spade shops and casinos to the beach, or board the steam train to continue at a more leisurely fashion down the line to Kingswear and from there via the passenger ferry to the Naval port of Dartmouth.

Travel by steam in Torbay (picture credit: Geof  Sheppard)

Along the way, you might like to request a stop at Greenway Halt, where Agatha Christie holidayed on the banks of the River Dart. Today the house and gardens are run by the National Trust and are well worth a visit if you’re in the area. It's like stepping back in time.

Greenway House - Agatha Christie's holiday home
In the house, you can hear a short recording of Agatha herself talking about the writing process (she apparently did not give many interviews about her books, but gets straight to the point: "First you spend a lot of time worrying about the plot, then you have to find time to write the book...") New this year, you can even try out Agatha Christie's typewriter, set up as part of the Writing Places residency with a rather charming notice on top "How to use a Typewriter" warning people that the keys might stick if you try to use it like a computer keyboard. It certainly brought back memories, since I typed my first two novels on my childhood typewriter. Here I am, starting to fill that blank page...

'Agatha' Roberts  (picture credit: A Corkill)
Greenway encourages ‘green’ transport and slots in the car park are limited so the train is a good option for visiting, with either a 30-minute woodland walk to the house from the Halt, or a free shuttle bus from the local station. You can also sail down the river to the house by taking the ferry from Totnes.

River Dart from Greenway

If you enjoy historic towns, Totnes with its independent shops and Friday market is just five miles inland, and there are several traditional Devonshire villages with thatched cottages in the area, including one in the middle of Torbay itself... Cockington Village, where I learned to ride a pony by falling off in the mud on my first canter through the woods. The stables have since been converted into holiday homes, although you can still take a carriage ride through the parkland surrounding Cockington Court, which is now a crafts venue for local artisans where you can watch rocking horses being carved, glass blowing, and buy some wicked chocolate creations from the Cockington Chocolate Company. Or if you fancy a working holiday in the area, the old gamekeeper’s cottage has just been converted into accommodation for long term volunteers to help maintain the country park:

Gamekeeper's cottage (before conversion - it now has a lovely new thatch!)
If you're driving, we have a brand new bypass that opened at Christmas connecting the end of the A380 dual carriageway to Torbay (a notorious bottleneck previously, now possible in just five minutes). We all love this new road, since it means we can get to Exeter airport in less than half an hour, and reach the mainline station at Newton Abbot in ten minutes connecting with London in a shade over three hours.

Paignton Pier - just over three hours from London

So if you're stuck for holiday ideas and the euro is looking expensive, why not give Torbay a try this year? It's been a seaside resort since the Victorian era, but lottery funding has brought several changes in recent years with other projects ongoing. There's always plenty going on during the summer months - miles of red sand to build sandcastles, a shallow tide for warm and safe bathing, country and coastal walks, the Victorian pier, pretty fishing harbours and plenty to keep the kids happy on Paignton Green (there’s usually a circus earlier in the year, an August fairground, donkey rides, firework displays, and a multiplex cinema). You can stay in one of the grand old hotels, at a choice of smaller guest houses and B&Bs, or in one of the holiday lodges in the outlying caravan parks. Last month we hosted our very first airshow with the planes flying low over the sea and a brilliant view from the beach. For motorcycle enthusiasts, Bikers Make A Difference (BMAD) hold their festival here in the spring, and if you’re thinking about retiring beside the sea we have palm trees, very little frost or snow, a lovely new library and just about the best value houses in the entire county. Plenty of bungalows and spacious 1930s houses with sea views, or if you're quick you can pick up this historic cottage in the old part of town for under £130,000.

The new Paignton library

For holiday reading, nothing beats relaxing in a deckchair with a favourite paperback. But if your suitcase is bursting at the seams and you need some fiction to fill your holiday Kindle, the Electric Authors offer a wide variety of ebooks for all reading tastes, and for those who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of magic and romance my Legend of Genghis Khan trilogy is on summer promotion until 25th July:

1. PRINCE OF WOLVES – FREE download.
2. BRIDE OF WOLVES – countdown deal 99p / 99c (price rises in 2 days)
3. BLOOD OF WOLVES – only £1.99 / $2.99

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy fiction with a focus on legend and myth for younger readers, and historical fiction with a bit more romance for older readers under the name Katherine A Roberts.
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