Monday, 18 June 2018

The Legacy

by J.D. Peterson

Our stories and ideas motivate us to write and publish our books and e-books. Fueled by the excitement of our project we persevere through a myriad of procedures and often times obstacles, to finally celebrate the moment our book cover first appears on the Amazon website and other outlets.

Would we find such excitement or perseverance if the work was not our own?           

This past week a friend of mine published ‘her’ first e-book. Originally published in hardback, it is a Thai cookbook written by her now-deceased, ex-mother-in-law. Simply titled; “The Original Thai Cookbook” the Amazon description says it is The first complete, authentic Thai cookbook published in America, with more than 140 traditional, kitchen-tested recipes. 
The author, Jennifer Brennan, was born into a family of British Colonials, sailing the seas on clipper ships for the British East India Company, and was very familiar with the spices and cooking techniques delivered within the pages of this book. Both Jennifers mother and grandmother were born in Calcutta, part of the British Raj in India. Jennifer mixes her personal travel narratives, photos and artwork with delicious recipes. The recipes are packed full of exotic ingredients, herbs and spices used to flavor authentic Thai cooking.

The current e-book project began when the publisher holding the rights to the book contacted the family, alerting them to the fact that the publisher was no longer printing the cookbook. My friend, Kristine, wanted to preserve the authentic recipes, photos and stories into the digital age. Having done e-publishing in the past, and currently a website designer, she took on the project without the aid of e-pub software, aligning the recipes and chapters through direct coding. My head hurts just thinking about that one. It took a long time, and a lot of work, but she did it.

Aside from the obvious work of setting up the recipes by digitizing the text and photos, there was also a daunting legal side to this project. Written permission needed to be acquired from any living heirs of Jennifer Brennans work before the e-book could become a reality. Names and addresses of family members were collected and letters were sent out. One by one, responses and signatures were obtained, some after many months. Finally, permission was acquired from all relevant persons and the actual work could begin. For many people, this legal aspect would have been enough to put a project on the proverbial back burner never to travel the road to completion.                              

Kudos to Kristine for pushing through all the obstacles! The e-book is a posthumous tribute to Jennifer Brennans life and travels. The Thai cookbook, a gift for future generations to enjoy recipes of authentic cuisine.    

                                                                                                                                                    On that note...

This past week I lost a dear friend to a stroke. He was an amazing musician who helped me bring another of my creative aspects to life; music. Bob Freed was a talented engineer and producer in the studio. He also played drums, bass guitar, rhythm and lead guitar on my tracks, then mixed and mastered my final recordings, breathing life into the songs through his skill and talent.

Bob is one of many unsung heros that nurture the creative muse living inside the artists of the world. Where would we be without those that share our process behind the scenes? Those that aid us and facilitate in bringing our 'intellectual property' out of the 'intellect' and into the 'property'. Where would we be without those who diligently preserve the work of an author, now gone from the world?

Our books, our music, our artwork and everything else we create is the legacy of our lives. Even if the work we leave behind does not always reach the mainstream audience it deserves, we know that we followed through on our ideas and created the stories, art, and music, bringing them into real existence as a testament to human vision. Somehow we overcame many obstacles and moved ideas out of the realm of imagination and into the land of books, CD’s and other tangible examples of the muse that drives us on to dream and create.

It takes courage to put our work out into the world. Our novels are a labor of love. But it is worth noting that our personal motivations become part of a bigger creative expression. A tribute to the artist within, still alive and kicking in spite of the challenges of our modern world.

Our words. 
Our work. 
Our legacy.
May it endure the passage of time.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Revisiting a vivid memory, by Elizabeth Kay

I decided to start this before I went back to Morocco, so that my initial memories are untainted by new impressions. I was eighteen, in between the sixth form and art school and I have used the experiences I had in many pieces of writing since. My mother had taken out an insurance policy to send me to secretarial school if I couldn’t do anything else, and when I got into college she asked me what I wanted to do with the money instead. Travel, of course. I had been to Poland and Austria with my father, but I was hankering after something really different, and when I saw this holiday advertised in a teenage magazine I simply drooled. Three weeks, driving through France and Spain in two Land Rovers, travelling round Morocco, and then returning by train. This was 1967, and Morocco was not yet a tourist destination. Pure adventure.
            I remember seeing my first group of date palms, and being slightly surprised that they really existed. Being the only one of the party of twenty-one who spoke reasonable French, which, as the product of an English Grammar School, was rather a surprise. Being the least fussy about food, as I was prepared to try anything. Fifty years later, a lot of my memories are just snapshots. We camped, and made the mistake of setting up our tents in a wadi. I assumed the expedition leader knew that people could get washed away in the middle of the night, the way my geography teacher had told me, so I said nothing and admired the lightning in the Atlas Mountains several miles away until we noticed the water around our ankles… It rose quite quickly, but slowly enough so that we were able to get everything out and up the bank onto dry land. The following morning our campsite was under 12 foot of water. I saw scorpions and lizards, and the lure of travel set in from then on.

Desert rose
Unidentified crystal!
Unfortunately I cracked a rib a couple of days before leaving for Morocco this time, but I still went. So now I’m back, and the riad that I stayed at was in the heart of the kasbah. Very little had changed, other than a lot more motorbikes which are ideal for the narrow streets – so narrow, that no vehicle could stop outside our hotel. I’d expected Macdonalds and Burger King, but no. It’s still mint tea, couscous and tagines, although the lizards and scorpions failed to put in an appearance. I had to make do with Colin the cockroach instead. I was going to write a lot more, but I’m dosed up on painkillers so this will have to do. Wherever I go, I try to bring back just one beautiful thing. And so many times, they’ve been the inspiration for something else. The Turkish carpet I bought in Yalikavak, which became the magic carpet Nimby in Back to the Divide. The extraordinary shoes I bought in Ukraine, which featured in Beware of Men with Moustaches. The wooden elephant I bought in Zambia, which I had in front of me when I wrote HuntedSo here is the desert rose I bought on my first trip to Morocco, all the those years ago, and from earlier this month some unidentified crystals from the Atlas Mountains. If anyone can identify them, I’d be obliged.

Marrakech - just the same as ever. Apart from the football shirts.

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Secret of Normal - by Tony Daniel

I spent a good portion of my life being a writer in secret. Not for lack of trying, but more because everyone around me thought it was a stupid idea, my trying to write books. “It’s a pipe dream,” they would tell me. “You’re wasting your time.” “What makes you think you can write?” “There’s a reason why certain people write books and others don’t – talent.”

Oh yeah, I’ve heard them all. And yet, I kept on writing. Like most people who aspire to write, I had the traditional desk drawer full of half-written novels, plays that needed finishing, and short stories that just petered out after about ten pages. But I never abandoned any of them. I just put them away to simmer.

I spent many years working in the “real world,” just like people wanted me to. I did the shirt-and-tie thing, took my paychecks home, and lived the life of everyone else’s images. But I wrote. I wrote essays and articles and op-ed pieces. I picked up a few freelance gigs here and there, usually for no real byline, just a check, but I was writing. You need 600 words on the joys of visiting the Grand Canyon for your in-flight magazine? I can do that. Four hundred words of filler for a training manual? You got it. A revision of your entire employee manual to make it seem more ‘friendly’? Consider it done. Not a problem, and thank you for your money.

But, all the while, I wrote the things I wanted to write about. The freelance pieces were my “gateway drug,” if you will. They opened the doors to the other writing, the writing where the author creates their own world, their own vision of place, of people, of personality. Some were not pretty at all, I freely admit. Some were flat-out bad, if I am to be completely honest. Some were dark, dark to the point that I had to question exactly where my mindset was to even wander in that direction. Some were so ridiculously optimistic that a reader would think I was sitting at a keyboard or typewriter with a scuba tank full of laughing gas on my back.

If there are rules to writing, the one that can be the hardest to grasp is really the simplest one – find your own voice, your own style. Anyone can say they want to write like Pat Conroy, or Harper Lee, or A. Conan Doyle, or Jane Austen. And I know many people that have tried to base their writing life on trying to match the styles of those authors, sewing patchwork quilts of beautiful words into blankets of lyrical prose, only to find out that those styles are hard to match.

My question becomes this – why would you want to be a carbon copy of someone else?

Toni Morrison once said “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it."

When I read that quote for the first time, it hit me like a left hook to the jaw. THAT was why I enjoyed writing so much, but I had never been able to put it into words. Sure, writing might seem like a pipe dream to some people, but those people are generally so tied into their own lifestyle that they want, no, they NEED you to follow along with them in order to keep the status quo. If your dream conflicts with their ideas of “normal,” then they must put you in your place, right behind them, while they lead you on the path of “normal.”

Is it abnormal, then, to want to create? Absolutely not. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, knitters knit, and illustrators illustrate. Why can’t a writer write? And if there are books out there that I want to read, but the books don’t exist, why shouldn’t I be the one to write those books? I don’t need to write the next Pat Conroy book, or the next “To Kill A Mockingbird,” or the new “Pride and Prejudice.” I can go buy those. What I can’t go buy are the books in my head, the stories I find darting from synapse to synapse, the questions I hear bouncing around in my head as I try to fall asleep at night.
I decided to write my first novel at the age of 12. I hunted and pecked my way through 75 badly-typed pages with an old Royal typewriter I found at a garage sale, and loved every second of it. The story itself was terrible, pieced together from books I had read, movies I had seen, and plot holes big enough to park a truck in, but I loved every moment of typing with two index fingers, crossing out errors with capital X’s, and the freedom I felt while putting this odd little world together.

And now, some 40 years later, with bundles of anonymous freelance pieces out there in the universe, scripts for advertising campaigns for car lots and PSA’s for camping safety and the like, I gave in to the dream and wrote a full novel. And, wonder of wonders, people bought it to read. I am no threat to Stephen King or Michael Connolly yet, but I proudly held a copy of a book I wrote in many a face and said, “Does this look like a pipe dream now?”

I am now a part of a universe, a gathering of like-minded people who create with words. And those detractors who wanted me to follow the normal path are behind me now, wanting to know how they can “become” writers. Suddenly, all the folks who spent years wanting me to follow their lead are wanting me to lead them. “Normal” is not as fun as they want it to be, it seems.

Look around you, look around at the world we live in now. What the hell is “normal” anymore? And, if THIS is “normal,” why would you want to be a part of it?

We, as writers, have the ability to create our own “normal,” bring it to the world, and let readers decide if they enjoy it or not. We are free to create the citizens of our worlds, have them behave as we think they should, and let those people endure adventures, hardships, joys, and sorrows. And if those characters sink into the memories of a reader, and flip that little switch that sets them into thinking that they, too, want to create, to write, then THAT should be the “normal” we all strive for.

When you open a book, you open a world. When you write a book, you open your world up to the reader. If they join your world, if they embrace it and make it a part of their mind, then you have welcomed another writer-to-be into the group. And that, folks, is what makes writing worthwhile to me. I’m a storyteller, and if my stories bring you in, you are welcome to stay. If you want to become a storyteller, find your stories and tell them. Plain and simple, just tell the story and see who joins in.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

When a Beta Reader Says No -- Jay Sennett

The manuscript, a second volume of my ongoing memoir series, was done and sent to my beta readers. I felt so proud, constructing essays using some of the tools I learned in Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic and a few essays I studied in the journal A Public Space.

“I like what you’ve written,” one beta reader wrote in an email. “My question is,” she continued. “Who are you writing for?”

Her question floored me. I had countless bylines, varieties of writing experience, two completed screenplays and one completed novel and more than a passing understanding of how the English language works. Not once did a beta reader ask me who I was writing for.

The second volume seemed no different. I was writing for my readers.

Like me, I thought the tired cliches used to describe transsexual experiences like mine bored them. Like me, I thought they wanted a complex narrative about being born female then transitioning to male, and well before the internet, too. Like me, I thought the singular and sole use of the first-person in the emerging, but still small, body of transgender and transsexual literature made them weary.

Didn’t they want second- and third-person pronouns used to explore the difficult, fraught yet wonderful experiences that center around living in a conundrum? (How does a 32-year-old lesbian become a man?)

I know I did. They did, too, right?

My beta reader’s response set me back on my heels, and longer than I care to admit. Professionals should recover quickly, from even the most devastating feedback. Something about the style of the manuscript combined with her question forced me to accept an embarrassing truth. 

I wrote this manuscript for myself, only.

Authors who claim they don’t care if no one reads their work just seem like liars to me. I care quite a bit about people reading what I write, reveling in every story people share about how my writing touched them. Crass as it may be, I do want to move people, a nearly impossible task if I’m only writing for myself. 

I was that guy on a first date who tires of listening to his date. Enough about you! Let’s talk about me.

I was also the guy who forgot the  importance of story telling. Experimental fiction and nonfiction attracted me for a variety of reasons. Narrative structures are usually the first thing to go in experimental writing. Virginia Woolf has written one of the very best anti-plots in English. Mrs. Dalloway taught me a lot about time in narratives and the arbitrary nature of literary realism.

But Ms. Woolf won’t be remembered ever for her compelling plotting skills. What I realized after pondering my beta reader’s question, reviewing my dogeared copy of The Story Grid and whining to myself about how so very hard - hard, I say!- writing is, I understood something very important for my career as a writer: people like me, who have had their lives dissected in medical journals, scorned in the media and degraded from the pulpit need well-written stories. Our lives may depend on it.

Axiomatic, I know. But experimental literatures works on the principal that the thing being experimented on has a whole body of positive words somewhere else. Transsexuals like me don’t have the luxury of an already existing body of literature where we are loved and feted and seen for who we are.

How I write anything is a choice, and while I could choose from a variety of tools, I have opted to rewrite every essay using the power of the age-old three-act structure to share my experiences. This kind of storytelling touches us all still.

Jay Sennett is the author of Moxie, Vol. 1 and Self-Organizing Men. He recently published his first short story, Oh Sh!t! and is the co-founder and publisher of Homofactus Press.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

It’s a funny old world... by Alex Marchant

As Captain Jack Sparrow says in Pirates of the Caribbean, ‘It’s a funny old world, innit?’
Image result for captain jack sparrow

And isn’t it strange how much can change in just a couple of weeks? After all my worries and fears charted in last months’ blog – about readers’ expectation of that tricky second novel, of whether I’d finish everything I needed to in good time for publication day, whether I’d manage to have any sort of launch – everything seemed somehow to come together. Very suddenly. Or, perhaps I should say, just in time, despite my tendency to do everything at the last minute ( this blog. Less than 12 hours until I’m due to post it. But it has been a busy week – or three.)

To backtrack... My second children’s novel, The King’s Man, was due to be launched on 26th May – a date chosen for one very good, and another less sensible, reason. The former – because it was the Saturday at the start of the UK spring bank holiday weekend, and therefore the school half-term holiday throughout the country. This would mean that, if any of my big ideas for a launch came to fruition, it would be a good time to stage an event that children could attend. The latter – well, it’s a personally significant date for two reasons (one family-related, the other football-related), and I thought it would be nice to add a third!

Image result for arsenal 1989
Arsenal clinching the Championship in the final minute of the final league match, 26 May 1989 [Photo copyright FourFourTwo]

A week before and I was all set for publication: the button was pressed for ebook preordering on Amazon, all paperback proofs had been received and approved, a bulk order made for sending out review copies and for private sales. And that was when I realized – I didn’t actually have a launch arranged. My big ideas hadn’t come about, of course – and I didn’t have any small ideas for back up.

Cue the start of panicked arrangements for a virtual launch.

‘Panicked’ particularly because, though I’d heard of such things, I’d never actually attended a virtual launch, let alone arranged one – and frankly I had no idea where to start! And it’s at times like that that you discover just what a fantastic, collaborative bunch of people authors are.

I created an event on Facebook at only a few days’ notice and asked a few fellow writers for advice. And before long, not only did I have plenty of ideas for how to run the event, I had four (yes, four!) guest authors lined up to take a slot (and also take some of the pressure off me). As a result, I extended the time from the original two hours to three – and on the day, the time passed so quickly and the discussions were so lively that it seemed not nearly long enough. Although it has to be said I was more than ready to crack open that waiting bottle of bubbly as the event drew to a close...

The event guests – of whom there were around 50 – also seemed to enjoy themselves, being very complimentary and very much getting into the swing of things – entering competitions, posting questions, entering into lively debates about my characters (mainly King Richard III of course). One had even already read the ebook (16 hours after publication) and offered up my first review. Another (one of my fellow authors) even put together a fantastic video for The King's Man (

And my worries about how the book would be received were soon laid to rest. All the reviews on Amazon are five star to date, with my favourite headline so far being ‘A brilliant, gripping, heart-wrenching sequel!’ Reviewers acknowledge that it’s a very different book to the first, but seem to ‘get’ what I’ve tried to do.

Oh, and then, three days before my virtual launch, what should happen? Only the sudden, unexpected flowering of one of my 'big ideas'. An email arrived from the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester - where King Richard was buried for more than 500 years and where his grave was rediscovered in 2012. Apologizing for the late reply, it asked whether I was still interested in launching the book there. And would the second weekend of the school holiday be OK – to give a little more time for publicity? What do you think was my reply?

And the icing on the cake? They invited Pilgrim the Peregrine along too!

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Observing the World Around You – Bronwen Griffiths

A writer need to be observant – you have to notice the small gestures people make, the way a butterfly lands on a flower, the sound the rain makes when it falls. But you also have to find the words to describe what you observe without resorting to cliché - that’s not always an easy task. Often it can feel as if everything has already been said. However, that’s not true. Just think of the many new marvellous stories and poems published each year. Remember, there are ways to focus your mind, to enable you to put a stop to the chatter in your head -that prevents you from being creative.

None of this is rocket science. Indeed much of it has been said before. But a little reminder is always a good thing. All of us can – at times - get so caught up in our everyday worries that we can’t write, or – if we do write – the writing comes out flat and boring.

For one thing always carry a notebook – and I mean a paper notebook.  Use the notebook to jot down thoughts and observations. Draw in it. Rage in it. Sorrow in it. Be joyful in it. The act of putting pen to paper – using the muscles in your arm and fingers, feeling the touch of the paper, listening to how the pen sounds on the page – these are important. They access different parts of your brain. Many of your jottings will remain just that - jottings. But sometimes they will trigger a story, a poem, or even an idea for a novel.

I use my notebooks to observe the world around me – a particular smile, the sound of the cuckoo down by the river, the movement of the leaves outside the window. And it’s often when I’m travelling or walking that I have my best thoughts. And believe me if you don’t write them down you will forget.

We all have days when our writing seems turgid and unexciting. Or perhaps you are mid-way through a novel parts of it cause you to yawn when re-reading. Walk round the local park or your garden and note down smells and sounds. Or try that in the kitchen. Or open the window and listen to the traffic. Then try re-writing a piece that isn’t working by adding a sound, smell, or even a particular object.

Smells are often the hardest to describe but they are very evocative.  The next time you smell freshly baked bread, cut-grass, or the deep fragrance of a rose, ask yourself what each of those things smells like, besides itself. In other words, try to experience the fragrance rather than merely identifying it. Really what you’re trying to do in all of this is to trick your intellectual brain and focus on the feelings, the emotions and physicality of the world around you. You need your intellectual brain to plan the book, edit and world-build but there’s much more to good writing than this.

It’s important to be playful. When I first started writing I think I was more playful – possibly because I was less concerned with my image as a writer. Now that I’m published I find myself getting bogged down with ‘getting it right’ and with thoughts of publication and marketing. These are important considerations but again, they are not everything.

Some years ago when I was running workshops in primary schools we had great fun with word combining….you can do this yourself or in a writing group -

Divide the participants into 2 equal groups. Each member of group 1 makes an arbitrary list of five interesting adjectives. At the same time, each member of group two makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. Then their arbitrary lists are combined, usually resulting in some pretty strange combinations. Do the same with verbs and nouns, or all three.

The writer must also learn to notice human behavior in its infinite variety. How do people walk—do they trudge, tiptoe or swagger? How do they sit? Do they slouch, or perch primly? In The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald uses gesture to differentiate one character from another and make each of them believable and memorable. Tom Buchanan stand with his legs apart, like a Colossus. When the book’s narrator first sees the professional athlete Jordan Baker, she appears to be balancing something invisible on her chin. And examine this description of Frankie in Carson McCullers book, The Member of the Wedding - In fact, I got my growth too fast, stretched long as a hayrake and acquired no softening grace in my features. My forehead wrinkled because I shut my eyes against certain sights. My jaw grew and my mouth sank into it. My nose was long. God had overlooked me in the making, given me no marks of His favours. I was angles and sharp edges, a girl of bent tin.

With human behaviour you have to become a bit of a spy. Listen in to conversations on the bus or the train, watch people from afar and try and work out what they are doing or saying to each other – I’ll never forget some of the strange conversations I’ve overheard – not that they all end up in my stories but they might – the young woman crying over the death of her goldfish on the train, the impatient woman on the phone to her mother – yes mother I’ll be there in a minute, no mother I haven’t….being unable to hear the mother’s voice was  useful because my mind could fill in the gaps.

So go on. Observe. Be playful. Experiment. Take risks.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, A Bird in the House, (2014) and Here Casts No Shadow, (2018)  and a collection of short stories, Not Here, Not Us - stories of Syria (2016)