Tuesday, 30 January 2018

In Which Debbie Young Remembers Forget-me-nots

I'm also awfully fond of bluebells
As a novelist, I like to think I make everything up. 

While the standard disclaimer appears on my copyright pages declaring each book a work of fiction, little details creep in from real life. 
Snippets and snapshots are dredged up from the ragbag of my memory.
Sometimes this is for no apparent reason, such as the recycling bins that appeared in three separate stories in my flash fiction collection, Quick Change. I didn't even notice the repetition until one of my beta readers asked why they kept cropping up. For fear of seeming obsessive, I replaced one bin with a bonfire, which made for a much better story. 

Other times I manage to wrestle the reasons from my subconscious after I've finished writing the story, such as the forget-me-not motif that runs throughout my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series. 

The first book in the series
In the first novel, Best Murder in Show, Hector, the local bookseller, remarks on the colour of Sophie's eyes. She's in fancy dress as Virginia Woolf on a book-themed carnival float, while he's playing Homer, togged out in a toga.

"Your eyes are the wrong colour for Virginia Woolf," he tells her. "Hers were grey. Yours are forget-me-not blue."

As the series progresses, forget-me-nots become a symbol of all that Sophie stands for. (I won't spoil the plot by explaining what that means.) 

Only after weaving this motif into the story did I realise my affection for this humble little flower dates back much further. It originates in the unlikely setting of a suburban London garden most unlike Sophie's home in the idyllic Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.

Forget-me-nots in my grandmother's old vase
You see, forget-me-nots flourished in my grandmother's back garden, in my childhood home town of Sidcup. Visiting after school, I'd skip up her garden path, admiring the low clouds of tiny blue flowers edging the concrete path beneath her washing line. Often I'd pick a bunch to present to her on my arrival, complimenting her on how beautiful the garden was looking. 

Compared to the carefully cultivated garden of my other grandmother - the one I picture when I write about Sophie's Auntie May's cottage garden - the forget-me-not grandmother's garden was sparsely planted. The only reason those flowers appeared there in such profusion was that she often didn't bother to plant much else. With no competition, they quickly took over the flowerbeds. My grandmother may even have regarded them as weeds. 
To my childish eyes, with their sky-blue colour and fairytale name, they were as precious and exotic as the very best hothouse roses. 
I'm very glad that Sophie likes them too.

Since writing them into Sophie's stories, I've started to acquire forget-me-nots all around my writing desk - fake ones, of course, so they last all year round. The latest addition is a vintage pottery candleholder decorated with forget-me-not transfers, a must-buy at the local Guides' jumble sale. Seeing my little forget-me-knot collection every day spurs me on to write more and makes me happy.

Their manifestation in my current work-in-progress came to me in a flash, and I'm very pleased with how it's worked out. 

Murder by the Book, set between New Year and Valentine's Day, will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. 

But I'll have to wait till book five, Springtime for Murder, before I can allow the real flowers to blossom in Wendlebury Barrow. Oh no, hang on, I mean fictitious ones. 

Roll on, spring, I'm ready for you, real or not.

To keep up to date with my book news, visit my website, www.authordebbieyoung.com,
where you can also read the first chapter
of each Sophie Sayers Village Mystery for free.

(Top photo by Angela Fitch Photography, others by Debbie Young)

Monday, 29 January 2018

Forgetting: N M Browne

   I like to think I have a good memory - you wouldn’t want me on your quiz team - I don’t remember facts, but I have a
good episodic memory. I remember moments, feelings, clothes, interiors, conversation; the light on the field where my husband proposed, the colour of the curtains in the maternity suite - transient things. Then tonight I was looking through the chaos of my old photos - and I saw just how much I have forgotten. 
    I don’t remember the day that this photograph was taken and it is full of mysteries:  I am wearing a blouse of my mother’s which is odd. I am also wearing a long skirt and court shoes when everyone else is in shorts. Why? What am I doing with my legs and was it entirely wise when balancing a four year old on my hip? Who is taking this shot? Why are we all looking in different directions? I look miserable, but I know that this was a happy time, full of nappies, and milk, bedtime stories, incomprehensible childhood play and permanent dazed, exhaustion. 
    My guess is that we are saying goodbye to someone for whom I’ve just cooked lunch. I look like a woman with pans to wash, who has made a desperate attempt to look like a grown up. I suspect I was pregnant with my daughter too, which might account for the borrowed blouse.  Either way I love this photo for its mixture of ease and awkwardness:the comfortable intimacy I remember, the particular circumstances, I forget. 
  It turns out that I don’t just forget events, I also forget stories, particularly my own.  I have returned once again to a novel I wrote many years ago and I am struck by the same mixture of ease and awkwardness that I found in this photo. In the novel there is an oddness that poses questions. Things that made sense at the time, now, seen through older and more experienced eyes, seem inexplicable and mildly bonkers. My writing style is as unnecessarily and incongruously formal as my court shoes in this picture-as if I was trying too hard to be grown up and should have stuck with bare feet.
   I have forgotten what it was I was trying to do with the novel: all I have is what I did and, like this photo, it both baffles and intrigues me. Why, for example, did I rush the ending so badly? Why did I introduce so many interesting plot ideas only to forget about them half way through? Why were all my name choices so terrible? And why did I so often eschew the use of the full stop?
 Yet there is ease as well as awkwardness, an atmosphere and sense of place. The story evoked a very particular  feeling  that I have never forgotten, which makes it worth a rewrite. 
Maybe, in the end, it is feelings that are most worth remembering: the comfortable intimacy of motherhood, the immersive strangeness of a new book. Let's hope so, as everything else I seem to forget.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Philip Pullman, Calligraphy, Self-portraits and Censorship by Enid Richemont

I have just finished reading, on my Kindle, Philip Pullman's latest book, "LA BELLE SAUVAGE", the back story to his award-winning Trilogy, "HIS DARK MATERIALS". It has been an enchanted reading journey to which, whenever real life got in the way, I kept wanting to return, so did. That's the spell that really good writing always casts.

The next book on my current reading list will, I think, be very different - Kate Atkinson's "A GOD IN RUINS" (or perhaps not so very different as Philip Pullman, too, classifies Church and Religion as the enemy, but then I don't know the plot so it may not involve that at all). Moving from a passionate involvement with one book to another always feels slightly promiscuous, but then what is life without a bit of delicious promiscuity?

And mentioning promiscuity, for those of you who are, like me, agented, have you ever approached another agent while still tied to your current one? Does the word get out? I've been warned that the agent-y community is small and intimate, like a suburban street with twitching curtains - "Oh look, she's soliciting, mutter, mutter..." - but is it? I'm also old, and definitely not a fascinating debut, so I can't afford to lose the one I've got.

I am, indeed, so old that I have a young teenage grandson who's recently re-discovered his innate talent for drawing and painting, and who has turned three of his old skateboards (he is a passionate skateboarder) into a triptych, with a self-portrait in the middle. Now self-portraits really aren't the same a 'selfies' - they involve a deep and persistant exploration of one's own face, and they often end up looking sinister because the gaze is so intense. I did one years ago, in which I look scarily evil. This was because I was continually looking up at myself in the mirror. There are some brilliantly expert ones in the National Portrait Gallery in London, though, which don't do this, and there are always some incomprehensively clever ones in their BP exhibition in June - ones where mirrors are somehow behind mirrors (don't even ask!) I never miss this, because I've always been fascinated by people's faces, and because the artists are so contemporary and often really young.

These hieroglyphs on the right came out of my cleaning my draining board this morning. They looked like a curious Oriental script, so I photographed them, but unfortunately my camera also picked up the edge of the window. Still interesting, though, and had me wondering about early calligraphy and bubble patterns in water and streams.

A fairly eminent children's author friend has recently come up against something I can only only describe as censorship by the ignorant. Her book is a story which involves a young girl exposed to verbal bullying, so obviously it contains some of the inacceptably racist language used by the bullies. However, a parent at a primary school complained that the word 'Paki' was used, and the school immediately withdrew the book from its library. The word then got around, the local paper became involved, followed by the sensationalist end of the National Press, and the complaining mum suddenly had a lot of satisfying publicity, while the author's reputation suffered to the extent that a statement from her publisher had to be posted in The Bookseller. I find this very disturbing - do you? Censorship is always suspect.

Coming soon: "ONE HUNDRED WISHES", published by Franklin Watts.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Fire and Fury - Publish and be Damned - Andrew Crofts

As a writer I am quite jealous of Michael Wolff. Also as a writer, I am extremely heartened to see that books still have the power to shock and disrupt in a world where other forms of writing, from tweets and articles to speeches and television programs, dissolve into the news ether within hours of appearing.

I’m jealous because how often does a writer get a stroke of luck like that? Wolff almost accidentally found himself sitting at the heart of the biggest story on the planet, (well, the biggest story in the self-absorbed, navel-gazing western world at least), with nobody apparently paying him any attention. All he had to do was watch, listen and prompt people with the odd question and the whole terrible, fabulous, incredible story tumbled into his lap.

51AEI3isFiL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (329×499)

The reading world, primed by box sets like The Sopranos, The West Wing, House of Cards and McMafia, (two of which also started their lives as books), was ready and waiting for someone to take all the thousands of story strands of the last year or two of power, politics, corruption and buffoonery, and put them into a book shape.

Between hard covers, (although I have to admit I couldn’t wait those extra few hours and downloaded it as an e-book), the story suddenly had a permanency and authority which none of the fleeting news stories had managed to achieve. It became a news story in itself – possibly the biggest book-related news story since Fifty Shades of Grey first exploded into the public consciousness.

So, bravo to Mr Wolff, and all the various publishers who took no notice of the furious bluster from the White House et al and went ahead to publish and be damned.

fire-and-fury.png (1000×525)

Friday, 26 January 2018

When Literature gets too Real: Dipika Mukherjee Examines Never Let Me Go and Breaking News about the Cloning of Primates

(Spoiler Alert!)

Kazuo Ishiguro is the latest Nobel laureate in Literature, and when he won, I decided to read Never Let Me Go. Like most readers, I buy more books than I have time to read, and Ishiguro’s latest triumph just nudged me a little harder towards this book. I have long admired his understated, gorgeous prose.

Never Let Me Go starts very, very slowly and as I read, I was struck by the thought that if this were a book written by a woman, it would be dismissed as derivative YA fiction in the mould of Enid Blyton’s tales of British boarding schools. The love triangle seemed clichéd and all too predictable, and I almost stopped reading.

But I had faith in the Ishiguro magic, the slow unfurling of earlier scenes which take on color as the story gently unspools. And this book does not disappoint.

When I finished the book, I had a vague sense of unease. And then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the next three days.

The most astonishing books are like that, aren't they, implanting themselves in our subconscious and tugging at our deepest beliefs? Never Let Me Go takes on the human foolishness in staving off an inevitable death:
"We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we've lived through, or feel we've had enough time.”
Never Let Me Go was published in 2005; the movie version came out in 2010. Watch the trailer here.

Movies, in general, tend to think the audience is largely unsophisticated, which is an assumption that literary fiction never starts with. Never Let Me Go similarly spells out that this story is about human cloning pretty early into the movie. Because so much of the book’s weight rests on the gradual unveiling, the movie, despite the gorgeous cinematography and some excellent acting, did not work for me. The relationships were less layered, and some wonderful metaphors literally lost.

The all-Caucasian cast was also a great disappointment. While reading, I found delightful connections to the immigrant debate (certainly applicable in British communities) but Ishiguro’s nuanced narrative on valuing lives of all kinds was lost through the whitewashing of the cast.

Today, the world was told that Chinese researchers have managed to clone primates, refining the technology used on Dolly the sheep in 1996. An ABC Australia news article quotes: 
"Humans are primates. So [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken," said Muming Poo, who helped supervise the program at the institute. 
"The reason … we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health (italics mine). 
The New York Times has a more restrained response and assures "That Doesn't Mean You're Next". The Independent tells us that the pictures of the cute monkeys gloss over a life of pain.

As a writer of fiction, I have addressed the real issues of international adoptions and what an international demand is doing to the poorer women in Asia in Shambala Junction. Unfortunately, when market forces create enough of a demand, ethical issues are no longer a consideration and the business can become illegal quickly.  

Last week at a book club in Chicago, we discussed Never Let Me Go. One reader  found the story unrealistic because of the improbability of the science. Another dismissed the dystopia of the book as government regulations tightly control medical research.

Beyond the science, Ishiguro forces us to examine our own prejudices, and our own complicity in wanting a change; especially our desire to save those we love, no matter what the cost. The following lines do not occur in the movie, but they are at the heart of the book, where an adult spies on a cloned child, dancing with a doll:
“I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel, world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”
If you could protect your child or a parent from cancer, what price would you be willing to pay?

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The UK Is Going Mad For These Covers!!! by Susan Price

Thank you, Lev Butts. You have been an inspiration.

     My Authors Electric colleagues are always being inspirational and Lev was the latest one at it. Before Christmas 2017, Lev did a blog on ideas for presents to give the writers in your life.
     One of Lev's gift ideas was a book on cover design: Cover Design Secrets Bestselling Authors Use to Sell More Books, by Derek Murphy. (Oooh, those sneaky best-selling authors with their secrets. Murphy is no slouch on 'exactly what it says on the tin' titles either.)
     Lev's blog seems to have been quite a success, since just earlier this month, another AE, Reb MacRath was having a bit of a rave about another of his recommends, Arc customisable notebooks.
     But since I've been spared the notebook obsession that seems to strike so many writers, it was the cover design secrets that grabbed me. It had been nagging in the back of my mind for quite some while that not all of my covers were as, well, grabby as they could be.
      What were those secrets that best-selling authors were hogging to themselves? I needed to know.

     I ended up looking into several books on the subject. Look up Murphy's book on Amazon and you will be shown several others covering the same ground.
     What did I glean? -- as my Scots partner always puts it.
     Well, I'd always known that the cover needs to show the would-be reader the kind of book they'll be getting, whether it's humourous, romantic, historical, thrilling adventure or blood-thirsty crime.

     But this is a factual approach. Here you are: there's a castle and someone in historical clothing on the front: it's historical. Or, there's a fast modern car and a gun, so it's contemporary and a thriller.

     I think what I'd failed to grasp -- surprisingly, considering how I've made my living -- is that there needs to be an emotional connection too, just as in story-telling.
     When we write, we most often start with something that shows the reader the character they'll be connecting with. We construct a scene that lures the reader into identifying with that character, that creates an interest in them. So a cover needs to say, not only: This is X kind of book. It has to also say: Don't you want to know more about this person?

Years ago I was commissioned to write a story set in the Viking Age. The publishers wanted something pacey and exciting but historically accurate. After it went out of print, I republished it myself, and this is the cover it had. (Art work by Andrew Price.)

I looked at it again, and considered it in the light of what I'd been reading about book design. Despite all the axe and sword waving, it seems a little aloof and distant. It says: This is a book set in a time when blokes went about in helmets and mail, looking for trouble.

But there's a bunch of them. Milling. Which one are we supposed to be rooting for?

So I fired up PhotoShop and made some changes.

 Saga of Aslak Slave-Born by Susan Price

This new cover gets in close and personal and leaves no one in any doubt about which one is Aslak, our main man. It also reminds me of the quote from Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That
 'Britain was attacked by waves of Picts (and, of course, Scots) who had recently learnt how to climb the wall, and of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who, landing at Thanet, soon overran the country with fire (and, of course, the sword).'
Another book of mine which I felt was not being sold by its cover was The Bearwood Witch. 

Andrew and I, in designing the cover, had been puzzled what to put on it. There's a witch but it's set, not in fairy-tale forests, but in one of today's grimy inner cities. How to tell the reader that, visually?

We came up with this, but neither of us were very happy with it.

The door-key was supposed to suggest the present day, while the five-pointed star stood for witchcraft. It's quite eye-catching and graphic, but who builds an emotional connection with a key? It doesn't give the reader much idea of what to expect.

Again to PhotoShop. (I know, Karen, I know about PicMonkey but just as the shortest way to a destination is the way you already know well, so is the shortest way to a new cover.)

The Bearwood Witch by Susan Price

I think the new cover (left) does a far better job of connecting a browser with the book and what they can expect from it. Darkness settles over a street of parked cars and terraced housing as we are eyeballed by one of the main characters.

I also discovered that I'd neglected to publish Bearwood Witch as a paperback -- well, that's put right now.

The title of this blog is, of course, inspired by all those ads that keep popping up while you're browsing on-line, with either 'the UK' or the name of some town local to you inserted: Oldbury is going mad for this diet plan!  Smethwick is going crazy for these incontinence pads!

Well, the UK as a whole does seem to have gone a bit giddy just lately but I can assure you that neither Smethwick nor Oldbury goes mad for anything.

Except these books. The UK is going mad for them, I tell you. Mad.

This is the saga of Aslak Ottarssen, born a slave.
Aslak, and his beloved sister, Astrid, are the children of a Norwegian farmer. Their mother was an
English slave.
     Their father chooses to free Aslak. But Astrid remains a slave.
     Aslak promises that he will buy her freedom when he is a man and can earn enough silver. At fifteen, he goes viking to earn his fortune.
     Returning from sea, he finds that his father has died. Worse: his step-brothers have sold his sister.
     Furious, Aslak leaves his home forever, and calls on his ship-brothers to help him find and free his sister.
     He pursues Astrid across the North: a violent and dangerous place in the Viking Age. His hot temper leads to him being sold into slavery himself, in Jorvik, capital of England's Danelaw.
     But, captive among strangers, he finds unexpected help, faces death, sees a ghost— and meets still more danger.
Can Aslak regain his own freedom and rescue his lost sister?
 Kindle              Paperback

Zoe wants her dead boyfriend back. 
She's heard all about Elizabeth Beckerdyke. About her being a witch. About her speaking to the dead.
     Maybe she can raise the dead too?
     So Zoe goes knocking on the witch's door.
                Duncan is homeless, a rough sleeper.
     He's looking for a new life. He fears the witch and he fears for Zoe.
                Elizabeth Beckerdyke wants to prove her power.
     But can she control what she leads back from the land of the dead?

                A dark, disturbing novel of the occult by the award-winning author of The Sterkarm Handshake.

Kindle             Paperback

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

When writing is difficult - Jo Carroll

When writing is difficult - and I don’t mean those days when we stare at a screen or open our notebooks and there we are, a couple of hours later, with nothing but a few deleted sentences to show for it. We all have days like that - and some of us deal with them better than others. Hey ho, that’s just how it is.

Nor am I talking about days when we are so overwhelmed by Life that we need all our creative and emotional energies just to keep the show on the road. We all have those days too - they come and they go again.

No, I mean when there are huge physical impediments to writing. 

When I arrived in Kathmandu, last week, it was seriously cold - not freezing, but cold enough for poor people without warm clothes or blankets to die. I’ve been here several times, and - though I knew in theory that Kathmandu could get chilly at night in the winter, I’ve not known cold like that here except in the mountains. So I huddled myself in the thermal clothes I’d worn to leave the UK and accepted the invitation to join a group of young men round a fire to eat flame-charred potatoes.  What a story - but when I returned to my room my first concern was to get under the blankets and keep warm - and I have yet to master the art of writing under a blanket.

But this anecdote set me thinking - have I grown too used to my western comforts to carry on writing in any circumstances? For instance, how do men and women write from prison - and I don’t mean some of our UK prisons, where creative expression is seen as helpful and prisoners can easily buy paper and pencils. 

But how do you write in a prison cell that you share with forty other people, with thirty blankets to go round and a slop-bucket stinking in the corner? How do you write, as Solzhenitsyn did, in the Gulag, where fingers can be frozen beyond the capacity hold a pencil? How do you carry on writing when every scrap of paper is like treasure, so you cannot shape and reshape each sentence but must get it right first time, every time? How do you write if you have to work till it feels your back will break? 

I cannot - and do not wish to - escape from the privileged cushion of living in the UK. My mildly uncomfortable night in Kathmandu gave me a fraction of insight into the challenges for writers who keep going when it seems the world wants them to stop. And it does make me wonder how many essential stories remain untold simply because it is impossible for the writer to gather the energy, the materials, and the time to write them down.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Lev Butts' New Year's Resolutions

So it's a new year. A time to reflect on your failures of the past and to look forward to your new failures ahead. It's a time to think about the poor decisions that led you to whatever sorry state you found yourself in at 11:59 PM December 31, as you knelt on hands and knees releasing all the alcohol you had earlier ingested into a cold and frozen street gutter as you anxiously await the dropping of whatever shamanic object your local civic administrators have deemed symbolic of your community.

Yes, my local little hamlet has decided the possum is our most perfect metaphor 
It is a time to consider what different actions you may take in the following year to prevent these same mistakes and usher in all new and interesting ones.

It is, in short, time for the litany of new year's resolutions.

I'm not generally one to make new year's resolutions. I know myself well-enough to know that trouble and disappointment will find me regardless of whatever ill-conceived plans I make to avoid it. I also know that any high-minded noble resolution I make will inevitably fall by the wayside once the weight of professional responsibility and the natural inertia of everyday life settles down and firmly upon my shoulders.

But I also have a blog to write and a dearth of ideas, so here goes.

Given my track record with new year's resolutions, I know better than to make grand, sweeping resolutions no one could possibly achieve. Or ones that are so completely impractical no one would want to achieve them. Or resolutions that are just plain stupid. Or ones that are all of the above.

Like that time I was going to form a boy band in high school
and absolutely destroy The New Kids on the Block
No, this year, if I'm going to do this, I'm doing it right. I'm going for the lowest common denominator of resolutions. I share them with you this month because I believe in you. I believe you, too, will utterly fail at your resolutions and so I give you this, my fallback position, so you can hang your head proudly and know, you did the least amount of work to achieve the easiest resolutions of all. If you do better than this, you will feel like a god.

If you can't even do these things, well...I guess you can take comfort in the fact that you are now the most least driven person alive.

Well and poorly done, Old Sport!
So here they are:

My Absurdly Achievable Writing Resolutions for 2018

1. Write more often.

Many people say if you want to improve any activity, you need specific, measurable goals. If you want to run more, for example, you need to express precisely how many miles you want to run so you can measure your progress.

Me? I don't write enough, I want to write more. At present I write about twice a week. The rest of the time is spent with work and family obligations. I want to write more than that. I'm not worried about wanting to write at least one hour a day five times a week. I will count it a win If I write three times a week, even if it's only fifteen minutes. So, yeah it's a kind of specific goal, but it's insanely doable.

2. Read more often.

Like my writing, I need to read more. I need to try to step away a bit from the mindless iPhone games I play if I find myself with an extra few minutes. Obviously, if I'm at my desk, this time is better taken up with writing, but if I'm not, I have ebooks on my phone I could be reading instead of trying crushing candy or flicking angry birds or whatever the mindless game du jour is at that time.

This dumb game here? At least ten hours I will be begging for on my death bed.
As I've said many many times, the best skill to use to develop your writing is your reading. You let that stagnate, and your writing will surely follow.

3. Try new things.

We tend to get stuck in ruts. We have a way of doing things that works for us, so we quit pushing ourselves. Even if we do both of the previous things on this list, we will improve only a tiny bit if we don't step outside our comfort zone. Read things you wouldn't ordinarily read. Write in a genre you wouldn't ordinarily try. Write in a method you haven't tried before. The point is to stretch yourself.

I was thinking something more metaphorical.
Currently, I am doing most of these things. I am reading more creative nonfiction, something I thought would bore me to tears, but is becoming increasingly more intriguing to me. I recently finished Melissa Fay Greene's Praying for Sheetrock, about a civil rights lawsuit in a coastal Georgia town, and I have begun reading John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about a murder in Savannah during the mid-1980's.

I am writing in a genre I would not normally feel skilled enough to try.  I am writing my first mystery story: It is set in Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian London narrated by a Scotland Yard inspector. The story blends the hard-boiled detective with the amateur detective genres and also acts as a deconstruction of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Turns out, I am more competent at it than I thought I'd be.

I am also writing in a different way. I have always been comfortable writing one thing at a time, but now I find myself working on two pieces simultaneously: the aforementioned mystery and a werewolf novel, The Bloody Georgia Moon, based on a couple of my family legends. This second novel is also a creative stretch for me as I am co-writing it with Brad Strickland, and I have never co-written a piece before. All of these things are making me a better writer, I think.

So those are my new years resolutions. Hopefully I can keep them relatively easily and without too much hassle. You are welcome to them as well if, like me, you are lazy and lack ambition, but want to feel like you are accomplishing something.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Almost Paradise: Ali Bacon finds something missing on her desert island

Ginger Torch Lily - totally tropical
I’m lucky to be just back from a Caribbean holiday where we were greeted more than once with the words ‘welcome to paradise!’ and it was easy to see the comparison: exotic plants, colourful birds, and the kind of warmth I always associate with the big greenhouses we visited as kids in our local park – except this was everywhere and 24/7 - a joy after a cold December. Add fresh pineapple, melon, papaya and spiced rum punch more or less on tap and you can guess we were happy.

Our friend the 'breakfast bird'
But paradise? I began to get picky. As we were deposited from our courtesy bus on to a pretty but rather busy beach, I muttered to my companion that I had imagined paradise to be a lot less populated. Then there was the night-time noise. I expect I would eventually have got used to the chirruping crickets and squeaky tree-frogs but   when these were joined by the crash of rain on our homely tin roof I was reaching for the ear-plugs.

Yes, I really was being picky because the scenery was gorgeous and there was always something new to see and taste. Then, in our second week, we found the real paradise in the shape of Sandy Island – a perfect spot, uninhabited and just a twenty minute boat ride away. The palm-fringed beach was ours for the day, the water perfect for swimming as waves crashed scenically over a protective reef. With the rest of our small beach party I stripped off, swam, then lay out my towel for a rest and a read.
But alas, in the packing of sunscreen, flipflops, towel and Deet, my Kindle had been left behind. Yes, I had NO BOOK!

Sandy Island - almost Paradise
Of course there are worse places (hospital wards, dentists’ waiting rooms?) to be stuck without a book, and I coped for the few hours either side of our barbecue tuna lunch. It just reminded me how important books are in good times as well as bad and how that radio show has it the wrong way round. I could probably manage with a couple of discs but even allowing for the Bible and Shakespeare, I’d need a lot more than one book!

Maybe for next time I’ll think about what my Desert Island Books would be. To be going on with, here’s what I did read on the rest of our lovely trip.

Capital Stories – just 4 short stories from Edinburgh writers. What a great idea to publish a bite-sized anthology with a city focus. (Reviewed here.) 

A Message from the Other Side by Moira Forsyth – one of my favourite writers comes up trumps again. (Reviewed here)

Bendiction by Kent Harulf –a downbeat premise but another stunningly beautiful account of small-town America.

The Truth About Melody Brown by Lisa Jewell – my book club read for January was an excellent  story with a likeable and misused heroine, though something in the timeline got me irritated.

Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan – my first read by this Bristol thriller writer took a while to get going but had me well and truly hooked by the harrowing conclusion. I’ll be looking at more from Gilly. 

Ali Bacon's next book, In the Blink of an Eye is set in Victorian Edinburgh and will be published in April 2018 by Linen Press

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Up and Down Again: an author's tale - Katherine Roberts

Question: What is this?

(a) Sales graph of my latest indie-published ebook?
(b) My amazon author ranking (i.e. popularity)?
(c) A midlist author's income?
(d) Sales graph of a traditionally published title in the month following its publication?

If you've been writing and publishing for a few years, you might well be tempted to answer 'yes' to all these.

But you'd be wrong.

This is what I was actually doing when I created the above graph:

Not writing, but skiing in Switzerland.

Before you get too envious, this photo was taken on one of the sunny days when it had snowed during the night. We also had days like the one that created the graph below, when skiing was pretty much impossible because the weather was too windy for most of the lifts to run, and then a tree fell on the single chairlift that was running so it was forced to shut too, meaning we had to walk half an hour back to the village in ski boots carrying our skis, in the rain.

 a bad ski day

Nobody was stopping to take photos that day, except of the tree on the chairlift, which was a similar situation to this Youtube video - although our tree was bigger so that it caught across the wires and had to be chopped down by the army before the skiers trapped on the lift could be rescued. (I was not on it at the time - the attendants saw the tree fall and stopped the lift before anyone could get hurt.)

The truth is, whether you're skiing or writing or publishing (or indeed doing many other things in life are reliant on conditions outside your control), sometimes the climate is simply against you. Hence my choice of title for this post, influenced by a certain well-known hobbit's There and Back Again... Up and Down Again, a pattern the experienced writer comes to know all too well.

On the mountain it's usually the elements you end up battling, which are difficult to forecast more than a couple of days ahead, and even then are prone to unforeseen change - our final day's skiing in the sun was meant to be another wash-out rainstorm. Instead we created the first graph, shown here again with its totals: 45 km of pistes skied and 26 km of lifts ridden, making a total of 7,357 vertical meters.

a good ski day

Publishing has a climate too, which can be just as unforgiving and just as beyond the average author's control. And sometimes - as in the case of lift closure due to falling trees in a storm - doing what you planned to do is well nigh impossible, barring extreme measures such as putting skins on the bottom of your skis and walking up the mountain - three hours of climbing for ten minutes of downhill in snow-turned-to-glue-by-the-rain, anyone? That's about as fun as it sounds. About as much fun as taking three years to write a book when every word screams "give up!", only to have your publishers turn it down because they need to publish the latest hot new debut (preferably several of them) in order to survive. For a number of years now, a toxic climate of sale-and-return coupled with high discount sales has made it difficult to maintain a long term career as a non-celebrity author.

In the mountains, those skiers who are in a ski resort for the whole winter - the seasonnaires - tend to stay in bed when the conditions are against them. They know the climate will improve another day, the snow will fall, and afterwards the sun will shine again. So, contrary to many writing blogs which advise churning out a set number of words each day and publishing a book a year - or a month, or a week, or whatever crazy indie publishing target you have set yourself - I am going to give you permission to stay in bed on the bad days.

You won't be writing very much on those days, but the writing has not gone away, I promise. It is still there, and you have a lot more experience of the publishing process than when you were a debut author. You can still write just as well as before, despite the climate (and editors and agents) saying you can't. You can even write but not publish for a while. And meanwhile, conditions out there in publishing are changing in unforeseen ways. Watch them through the window from the comfort of your log cabin, and save your energy for the days when it has snowed in the night, the lifts are running and there are no falling trees to knock you off halfway up, so you reach the top of the mountain just as the sun rises, and swoop down through the powder feeling as if you are flying, to stop at the bottom with a big smile on your face ready to take the next lift up...

Because there are writing days like that, too.

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award in 2000 for her debut fantasy for young readers Song Quest. Her latest novel for older readers is Bone Music: the Legend of Genghis Khan, coming from Greystones Press in April.

You can sample Katherine's historical fiction for older readers with this short tale of Queen Boudicca's rebellion, available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from the links below.


More details at

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin by Sandra Horn

May 2018 be a good one for you, folks! Peace, love, joy and creativity in ample measures! Here are some early daffodils to lift your spirits.

So far, 2018 hasn’t really lifted my own spirits. I can only hope it will get better. I’d had a burst of energy towards the end of 2017 and had sent out several poems and short stories and a children’s novel, mostly in response to call-outs and competitions. The rejections/non-acceptances came in thick and fast with the new year. There was one really nice one – just about the nicest rejection I’ve ever had, from an agent: ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider your work. This was a difficult decision as I was really impressed with your submission. The writing is engaging, the idea is appealing and you write with real energy and imagination. However, while there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it.’ She went on to say she’d be keen to read anything I write in the future. So far, so not too bad – but as for all the rest, silence or shortlists on which my name was not. How to deal with it all?

Once, years ago, I won a prize for best writing for television. There was a nice cheque and the promise of the script being read by a TV producer. I waited. Waited. Waited and then sent out a tentative enquiry, which resulted in an invitation to go to the studio for a meeting. Yay! BAFTAs here I come! When I got there, the script was produced very mangled and covered in coffee-cup stains and general uggle. ‘So sorry,’ said the Producer, ‘it had fallen down the back of the desk, hence the delay – we didn’t find it until we got your enquiry.’

There were encouraging comments but it didn’t get produced because it didn’t fit their needs – too short for a one-off. What it did was make me twitch every time I sent work anywhere and didn’t hear anything. It must have fallen down the back of the desk! This is not a rejection, they’ve simply lost it...haven’t they? Or, nowadays, they’ve deleted the email by mistake. Nobody has read it, or they’d have taken it up. Obviously. Such little delusions don’t last long, though. I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself by phoning to ask if they, whoever they are, actually received my work and actually read it. I allow myself the wild thought and then let it go. Nobody else needs to know what goes on inside my fevered head. 

Other private thoughts include: Bastards! They’ve got something against me! Jobs for the in-crowd! What’s the matter with them – are they stupid, or what? I indulge one or the others of these for a while and then let them pass. If there’s a list of the successful work, I’ll look at it. I’m usually humbled. Yes, I see why those works were chosen and mine fell short. Occasionally – very occasionally – I’m indignant, especially if it’s poetry aimed at children. There’s a lot of poor stuff out there. Short stories are another minefield. Often, I just don’t get it. I have to face it, it’s not my métier, but that doesn’t seem to stop me trying! Daft, isn’t it? Why keep trying, only to fail? Because the alternative is unthinkable, that’s why.

James Fenton takes a good look at failure in ‘The Strength of Poetry’. ‘It’s not enough to fail,’ says Fenton, ‘You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse – my failure, my very own failure...And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. ..why are you neglecting your failure?’

Fenton goes on to say that ’Many people live in such horror of failure that they can never embark on any great enterprise...this is the worst kind of failure because there is truly no way out... In the end, nothing is achieved by this timidity. Or you can permit yourself one failure in life and devote your remaining days to mourning...This failure, it would seem, has been kept like a trophy, lovingly polished and always on display. But for a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.’

Wise words indeed. Now, how to implement them?

*The writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting