Wednesday, 28 February 2018


My latest children's book with Franklin Watts is called "MORE", and it's a re-telling of the classic folk tale of the magic bowl which fills itself with whatever food you might wish for, as long as you follow the rules which aren't really that difficult. However, there wouldn't be a story unless something goes disastrously wrong. There's a Grimms version of it, involving a poor soldier returning from war, whose bowl is stolen at an inn and then misused, but there are many others. 

In my version, it's a greedy maharajah with a serious eating disorder who covets the bowl. and here he is in all his overblown glory, as portrayed by my brilliant illustrator Shahab Shamshirsuz. The maharajah will demand the bowl owned by the young son of a poor family (which of course he gets because they have no choice) and takes it back to his palace in order to stuff himself whenever he feels like it, but oh dear! There is a quite serious problem which only one person can resolve, and it's not the maharajah.

Here's the cover image by the same artist - I love it!

These books are part of a graded reading scheme in which I became professionally involved quite a long time ago, The advances aren't great, but the PLR plus the fact that they sell directly into schools makes up for that, and the illustrators are a joy to work with. The downside? Every text has to pass under the gimlet eyes of the 'educators' whose feeling for language is often almost totally absent, so conflicts do arise. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that making real books available to children, books available to read or borrow, for free, in public libraries is the best answer to any literacy problems, plus the excellent work of wonderful publishers like Barrington Stoke who specialise in books aimed at the dyslexic. Public libraries were where I really got close up and intimate with literature - books my working class parents couldn't afford and wouldn't have bought anyway.

Recently I've become increasingly aware of structural problems in novels - is it that I'm becoming more stroppy? A publisher had such confidence in one of his  newly published novels that he turned over a third of it into a free download, daring you, the reader, not to want to read the rest of it, and he was right in my case - the plot grabbed me by the throat, and I simply had to go on reading, so I bought it to read on my Kindle. The trouble for me was that the two thirds or so left felt rushed and over-complicated - so many threads to tie up, so many challenging thoughts the author wanted to throw at me, that I completely lost that feeling of intimacy with a master-storyteller (which this author clearly was) running with, and exploring, a wonderfully preposterous idea.

Novels are like love affairs, and this one seemed to begin with the orgasm and then end with deconstruction (happens in real life, too, but doesn't make a good story.) As a writer, I'm only too familiar with this problem - you're totally in love with a fantastic concept, a "what if?" and you run with it, and then it takes you into a myriad unexpected small and complex pathways all of which you somehow have to deal with - been there, and done that. How I envy people who can map out, from the beginning, precisely where a work is going. And as for this book, which shall be nameless as it is extremely readable, and I wouldn't want to be a spoiler, the initial orgasm is indeed breathtaking. 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Dark Lure of Haiti - Andrew Crofts

Poor, tiny, battered Haiti is in the global headlines once more – this time courtesy of a scandal involving aid workers and prostitutes.

I have to confess that there have been many times where I have accepted an invitation to a destination simply because I have read and loved a book about the place, (“The World of Suzie Wong” for Hong Kong, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for New York, “Death in Venice” for Venice, “Myra Breckinridge” for Hollywood, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” for the Caribbean islands generally, “The Great Railway Bazaar” for the art of travel itself, and so forth).

 the_comedians_small1_2.jpg.png (149×240)

I must have read Graham Greene’s “The Comedians” pretty soon after it was published in 1966, when I would still have been in my teens, (I had probably seen the film too, which was produced as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton the following year).

Greene had already caught my attention with both his stories and his own life, taking my imagination to some of the darkest and most frightening places on Earth. “The Comedians” painted a picture of Haiti under the tyrannical “Papa Doc”, who used the fearful power of Voodoo and his private army, the Tonton Macoute, to control the people. It seemed like the most exotic and dangerous place a man could ever hope to travel to and Greene’s story was filled with the sort of damaged characters who roam such places in search of quick fortunes and adventure, always living on the outside.

the-comedians-1967.jpg (300×200) 

In the early eighties I was hawking my services as a travel writer to anyone in a position to dole out a free flight or a bit of board and lodging. I had been spending time on a number of Caribbean islands like Jamaica, St Lucia and Barbados, where it was not hard to find tourist authorities and hotel owners who were willing to entertain a freelance writer for a while in exchange for articles about their islands and their facilities. Haiti, however, was going to be a harder nut to crack and I lacked the nerve to simply turn up at Port au Prince and take my chances.

 babydoc2.jpg (600×400)

By that time Papa Doc’s son, “Baby Doc”, who was only a couple of years older than me, was President and the darkness of tyranny that Greene had depicted so chillingly had, if anything, deepened. The only news stories that came out of the island were bad ones, making it all the more intriguing. I had written to the island’s consulate, making preliminary enquiries but not holding out much hope of a reply, when I received a phone call from a British businessman who had made his home in Haiti and was extremely keen to promote the place.

“You need to come to Haiti,” he told me, “everyone has opinions about it but no one really knows it. You can stay with us and I’ll show you the real island.”

It was an invitation I was definitely not going to turn down. It was a chance to experience first hand how an ex-pat lived in such a place, and I would have someone to guide me in Greene’s footsteps. Perfect.

Baby Doc would be ensconced in the white folly of a presidential palace for only a few more years before he was overthrown and fled into exile on the French Riviera. 

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The palace now lies in ruins following the earthquake, as uninhabitable as the rest of the city around it, but then it still gleamed like a heavily guarded wedding cake amidst the squalor as I stood outside the gates staring in, trying to imagine the domestic life of the tyrant and his family, wondering how they managed to justify their actions to themselves and to one another. It was a curiosity which would later tempt me to accept invitations to the palaces of other tyrants, wanting to see what made them different, wanting to understand how they had found themselves in such extreme situations, able to exert their terrible will over whole populations.

The exotic Grand Hotel Oloffson, where Greene had set most of his story, (calling it the Hotel Trianon), and which  had been used in the film, still stood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and one of Greene’s original characters, Aubelin Jolicoeur, (the gossip columnist, Petit Pierre, in the book), still propped up the bar.

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“He has made himself one of the country’s leading characters,” I wrote at the time, “affecting cane, monocle, cravat and a theatrically camp manner which makes many unaware of just how much influence he has at the presidential palace and in ministerial offices.”

In one of those ministerial offices I met the island’s then director of tourism, “a Gucci-clad minister by the name of Theo Duval”.

“Why do we travel?” he mused. “To feel in a pleasant way, to make a loop in the straight line of our existence, escaping into timelessness, a dreamlike state in which we are not reminded of our servitude.”

It was the first truly poor place I had ever visited and I was shocked to see how close to the brink of chaos people can survive, and frightened to see how fragile a veneer civilisation actually is.

“The Comedians” ends with one of the departing characters throwing a handful of coins from a car window, causing a dangerous riot amongst the scrabbling horde of street children – an image which we would later see magnified and repeated nightly on the news after the island was repeatedly hit by natural disasters.
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“When people come to Haiti,” Aubelin Jolicoeur told me in the hotel bar as the tropical night-rains crashed down on the roof of the veranda outside, “they always try to make the story funny. They never take it seriously. All through the centuries we have been ostracised by the world because we were the first black republic. Always we are misunderstood and misinterpreted. There is a bad spell on Haiti.”

Monday, 26 February 2018

In Praise of Cozy Literary Festivals by Dipika Mukherjee

First Impressions
Like most writers, I have done my fair share of speaking at literary festivals. In 2017, for example, I went from the humongous Singapore Literary Festival (which had concurrent panels for three days and a dedicated Artist Liason Officer (ALO) to escort me to the correct venue), to the much smaller Neustadt Festival in Oklahoma with nine speakers.

All literary festivals have something to offer the writer and the reader, but I personally enjoy the cozier festivals more. There is something about being thrown together in close proximity for a few days, usually in the same cozy hotel, that encourages a special kind of literary friendship to blossom.

L to R: Polly, Amy, Peter, Sheena, Annabel, Dipika, Jenny, Louisa
Gladstone's Hearth Festival in 2018, held from February 3-4 in Wales, was just such a festival.

My fellow speakers were Annabel Abbs, Sheena Wilkinson and Jenny Lewis. Polly Atkin was writer-in-residence in February. I learnt a lot from my fellow writers in the week that I was at Gladstone's: Annabel gave a brilliant talk on old cookbooks and the voiceless and powerless women behind the bestsellers of centuries past;
Sheena spoke on making history come alive for young readers in Ireland and beyond; Jenny read eloquently from her recreation of the epic Gilgamesh; Polly's talk, on the fragmented verse of writers dealing with chronic pain, touched a chord in many people in the audience.

The Q&A sessions were lively and interactive. I spoke on writing the political Asian novel and I found the audience knowledgeable about issues Malaysian as well as Indian; this was a globally-engaged, erudite, group. Retired professors and researchers, like Rob Spence and Elaine Ellery, had driven from the nearby universities, and the tenor of the questions ranged from academic to the curious.

Much of the discussion spilled over to lunch and dinner, and for the members of the audience that stayed overnight, even to breakfast the next day.

Gladstone's library prides itself on being a meeting place dedicated to dialogue and debate, and this is a gorgeous venue for anyone interested in engaging with the issues of our present day.

As Britain's only Prime Ministerial Library, it contains a large number of books from the collection of William Gladstone, with the statesman's marginalia inscribed on yellowing pages. The wooden arches and galleries of the interior soar to the skies like a place of worship; this is truly a cathedral of learning.

This is a lovely place to be a writer-in-residence. Rooms are cozy and television-free, although they do have a charming retro radio by the bed. The on-site restaurant, Food For Thought, spoiled us all with hearty Welsh and international food (they serve sumptuous teatime treats in addition to three meals). Then there was wine by the fire in the evenings, and conversations trailing into the night. On other days, I'd be at the library until it closed at 10pm at night.

With Annabel & Polly in the dining room
My days passed in writerly conversations and reading for research, walking through the estate's deep woods before a hearty meal. I fed my mind and soul.

Click here to listen to my talk on Soundcloud: Writing the Political Asian Novel.

Gladstone's Writers-in-Residence 2019 applications close on 30th April 2018!

Dipika Mukherjee has her home in Chicago but trawls the world for fabulous stories and smelly food (the durian is a favourite). You can read about her work at

Sunday, 25 February 2018

That Bloke by Susan Price

This blog is going to be a bit off-topic.
     I'm in the middle of planning for several school visits and my mind is not so much like Sandra's fluttery brown things as like an over-excited and untrained collie racing round a field, barking furiously and scaring away the sheep it's trying to round up.
     In an attempt to exhaust the over-excited collie, I went to the gym on Tuesday morning. And That Bloke was there again. The one that makes my jaw drop.

     Before you start conjuring up some tall, blond, muscled Adonis, stop and think again. He is nothing whatsoever like that.
     He is Asian and probably no taller than me, though he's certainly much slimmer.
     He doesn't strut around in a skin tight vest with all his tattoos on oiled display. Instead, he dresses anonymously, in a loose t-shirt and knee-length baggy shorts. The most 'don't-look-at-me' gear you could imagine. I haven't seen him talk to anyone, and he does nothing at all to draw attention to himself. Apart from the astonishing stuff he does-- which he performs in an abstracted, absorbed manner with not even the quickest glance round to see if anyone's watching.

      At the centre of the gym floor is a complicated structure of vertical steel bars, with some cross bars. Various platforms can be hooked onto this structure at different heights. There's a punch-bag hanging at one side, and straps with hoops on them, with which some brave people do press-up and what-not.
      The first time I noticed That Bloke, I happened to be on a cycle near this central structure. Absorbed in my own work-out, I barely registered That Bloke when he strolled over and seized hold of one of the vertical bars. I assumed he was going to do some chin-ups, which is a common enough sight. Even the men do them, sometimes.
     Then I realised that That Bloke wasn't hanging down from the upper cross-bars... No, he was standing out horizontally from one of the vertical bars. He had taken hold of a vertical bar at about head-height -- and then raised his whole body, legs and all, so that he stood out, rigidly, horizontally from it. Arms straight out, legs straight out. And there he stayed. Perfectly still. For what seemed like an age. While my jaw slowly dropped lower and lower with every ticking second.
Like this. Honest.

     The core-strength required to hold your body in that position for even a second is, well, considerable. Without even talking about the arm and shoulder strength. Pole-dancers can do this, I know, as part of their routine -- but they don't hold it the position for so long.
     For all the expression That Bloke showed, he might have been standing at a bus-stop.
     Then he dropped to his feet and went off quietly to shake the big heavy ropes.

     He was there again on Tuesday morning. He started off by fixing a plastic platform to the steel frame, at about hip height. Then he stepped up onto it, first with his left leg, then with his right. That is, he lifted one foot onto a platform at hip height -- and then used that one leg to step him up onto the platform. Like climbing a stair where every step is at hip-level. He repeated this stunt several times.
     I thought this was mad enough. But he followed it up by putting both hands flat on this platform -- his feet were on the floor, remember. He then raised his legs in a straight line behind him.
     Picture the scene. His hands are palm down on this hip-height platform. He balances on them while he raises the rest of his body, and his legs, in a straight line behind him. His heels are slightly higher than his head. The palms of his hands are his only contact with anything solid.

      Let me be clear. His feet aren't resting on anything. There is nothing supporting his body except his hands. He is holding his entire body at that sloping angle in empty air.
     Then he did press-ups. While balancing on his hands and holding the whole weight of his body in the air, in a horizontal line, he did several press-ups. I was there. I watched him do it. I wouldn't have believed it otherwise. I didn't even know the human body was capable of that.
     After four or five press-ups, he dropped down, had a drink of water and wandered out of the gym.

    Washboard abs? -- With that kind of core strength, the man must have abs like the steel cable that holds up the Forth Bridge. Somewhere under his loose, baggy t-shirt.
     You wouldn't give him a glance if he passed you in the street. He wasn't tall.  He wasn't 'built.' What could be seen of his arms and legs seemed quite slim and normal, and not noteably muscular. He seemed unremarkable in every way -- until he started turning himself into a human shelf-bracket or angle-poise lamp.

When I told Davy about That Bloke, Davy said, "He must be a gymnast. Only a gymnast would want to do that."
     If Bill Kirton is sufficiently recovered from his op, I'd appreciate a glimpse of what Bill could make of this character. Or what anyone else makes of him.
     The gym, I should say, is a well-attended but unspectacular 'lifestyle centre' run by the local authority (or, at least, out-sourced by them.) It's not expensive or in any way glitzy. Its clientele spans the local population, from the young and fit to the old and unfit (like me) to people in wheelchairs and people who come along with guide-dogs or carers. And in the middle of us all, this quiet bloke quietly doing astonishing things. And then wandering off. To where? To do what? Leap tall buildings with a single bound?

What I have are been mostly doing, when not gawping at the gym, is sorting out my website, which badly needed it. It had somehow got into such a fankle that not even I could find anything on it.
     It's a work still in progress, but I think a lot of progress has been made. At least you can find your way round it now.
     It's here.
And on it, you can find out more about these. 

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Reflections on going away and coming home. Jo Carroll

I’m home from my travels. So surely I should be returning to the blank screen with renewed vigour, shouldn’t I? 

Why doesn’t it work like that? I’ve a big project I want to get my teeth into. I should be refreshed by five weeks up mountains. I should be rising from my bed at sparrowfart and tapping away at the computer as the cocks crow.

Oh the best-laid plans. And I’ve been away often enough to know it never works like that. The reality of a long journey, heaps of washing, and an empty fridge means that ordinary self-care must come first.

Ah, self-care. I had plenty of time to reflect on that while I was away. I had an apartment in Pokhara, with a sunny balcony and view across rooftops to the hills and mountains. From there I could watch as the women of Nepal worked to meet the basic needs of their families. 

Unpicked, that can be reduced to: keeping warm, keeping clean, and keeping well-fed. None of which is too difficult for those of us in the UK with enough money to pay our bills. But it can be brutally difficult for those not so privileged.

Many homes in Nepal have one cold tap on the roof. Women have to wash themselves (and these are modest women for whom baring their bodies is embarrassing), their clothes, and their children. I lost count of the time I watched a mother dunk a screaming child under freezing water, smother him or her with soap, and then back under the tap to rinse it all off. This is all the more challenging when the weather is cold - homes have no heating and I learned to wear a blanket. Local people, rightly, had no sympathy for my wimpy shivering. And then they need to cook - generally on a two-burner calor gas hob. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, most have small gardens where the women grow vegetables; rice and lentils are bought in sacks from the market and need picking through for small stones before they are cooked.

So why, now I’m home and looking after myself is a doddle compared with that, is it so hard to settle down to write? My own theory, apart from the reality of jet lag and a cold I picked up on the plane, is that I need time to reflect on my own good fortune. I know that no Nepali woman will know if I take a day or a week to settle back into a routine at home. 

But somehow I need time to remind myself not to take my privilege for granted. 

Friday, 23 February 2018

One Is the Loneliest Number by Lev Butts

As any independently or mid-level traditionally published author will tell you, unless your first name is Neil or Stephen or J. K. and your last name is King or Rowling or Gaiman, you are going to spend a goodly portion of your time attending various conventions to promote your work. This is especially true if you are writing genre fiction.

If you are traditionally published and lucky, your publisher may foot the bill for your hotel, and the convention planners may buy a few copies of your books for you to sign and sell throughout the weekend. If you are and independently published author or a traditionally published author and unlucky, you are going to be footing the bills for these things and setting them up yourself.

Results may vary.
You will still do it, though, because it's part of getting your work out there and building your own name recognition.

However, regardless of how much you plan and prepare, every once in a while, things will turn out much differently than you pictured them.

Last weekend, I attended a local steampunk convention, Atlanta's own Anachrocon, to promote my Guns of the Waste Land series as well as my upcoming critical edition of H. P. Lovecraft's work (I finally found a publisher for it). Neither of these really qualify as steampunk, but there is enough of an overlap, that I have managed to get invited to the convention for last three years. My panels are generally fairly well attended, and I usually sell five to ten copies of each of my books when I go.

This year, however, one of my panels brought in a whopping zero attendees, unless you count my wife, and our two friends (one, a fellow writer we had been eating with just before the panel was supposed to start). Also, about fifteen minutes before the panel ended, the wife and husband team who made up the next panel showed up. However, no one who was actually not a personal acquaintance through blood or friendship or not directly involved with the convention showed up.

No one.

Artist's rendition. Note the yawning abyss through the windows.
So what do you do in this situation?

Yep, you give the damned thing anyway. Honestly, even if your family and friends aren't there, and it's just you and the big empty, you give the presentation to an empty room because there are more benefits than doing nothing at all. 

1. Gain Practice

This will not be the last time you ever have to speak on this topic barring some unforeseen circumstance. Take the opportunity to practice the performance under conditions closer than anything else you can find to giving it to a live audience at a convention. Say what you want about practicing alone in your room beforehand. Nothing beats practicing alone in the conference room for authenticity.

Except, maybe, speaking in front of a packed conference room full of folks who pre-ordered your book.

2. Build Confidence

It is certainly a blow to your confidence to walk into what you hope will be a packed room and expect to be a room of about five or ten folks, and find an empty room. No doubt about that.

The only way to build that confidence back is to show them jerkholes that stood you up that you don't need their pissant presence to give a kickass speech. You stand up there and give that presentation anyway.

Seriously, though, doing this really will build your confidence, especially if, like me, you find it even more awkward to speak to yourself than to complete strangers. If you can give the presentation with the same energy and motivation to an empty room that you would have to a full house, no other presentation will ever have the same level of anxiety associated with it. Ever.

I mean, unless these guys are the audience. If so, good luck, dude.
3. Lure Others

A lot of people sneak in and out of convention presentations, especially when the convention offers concurrent panels. There may be two equally interesting panels and a patron may want to see the first bit of one and the last bit of another. Others may leave a panel from boredom. Still others may just be wandering the halls until something catches their fancy.

These are your audience. 

If you sit alone and silently in a conference room, or worse yet, leave it when no one shows up, you have lost the opportunity to gain this new audience. However, if you give your presentation anyway, with enough energy that it grabs a passer-by's attention, you have created an audience, and hopefully a new fan. Once you have one person listening, it will be easier to continue and possibly get another.

Of course, your room may end as empty as it began, too, but you will have still gotten more out of the experience if you give the presentation anyway than if you simply leave and get a drink at the bar.

The bar will be there when your hour is over; the practice, confidence, and possible new audience will not be.

Also, when it's all said and done and you post the pictures on your social media,
no one has to know it was just you and a roomful of  empty chairs.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Choosing a genre: how Ali Bacon nearly wrote the wrong book

My hero D.O. Hill, by permission
Preus Museum, Norway
I may not have said much about my latest project here on Authors Electric, so in case you haven't heard, I have a novel coming out in April called In the Blink of an Eye.

I was inspired to write it by the real story of one man's journey through art and photography and the women who fell, in different ways, under his spell.  

The accepted term for a life-story written as a novel is 'fictional biography' , but trawling through some older posts across at, I remember that for quite some time I wasn't sure what kind of book In the Blink of an Eye was going to be.  
While I explored the shape of the story on the page, I was aware of keeping as closely as I could to ‘the facts’. And new facts were popping up all the time. If I included them all  surely it would be non-fiction, or perhaps more correctly 'narrative non-fiction'.  Had I really only plumped for the novel because it was the form I knew best? 

Next question – what is narrative non-fiction exactly? My one role model for this was Dava Sobel whose Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter I enjoyed years ago before I took up writing. But my own copies had disappeared and my memories were hazy – what was the balance of exposition, action, dialogue? How much drama is there in what I thought of as a drama-documentary? 

Another problem was that it was hard to find examples of fictional biography that really satisfied me as a reader of fiction and in those I unearthed it often felt like the writer was too respectful of the subject to craft a satisfying read, especially if the subject's life story was well-known or easy to verify.  I understood that respect for the person and for the history. Could I really overcome that barrier and write a compelling book?

I considered a documentary approach long and hard enough to imagine how such a book would look and where it might begin:- almost certainly, I decided, with the monumental painting which framed my artist's story, a painting that's still in existence (though rarely on public display) today. 

Then, as I panted my way to the end of my first (fiction) draft, a footnote in one of my sources brought up something I had previously missed, a book called Mr Hill’s Big Picture. Yes, the picture that was so often in the front of my mind.  I banged in an order and the book arrived a couple of days later. 

When it arrived I practically gobbled it up. Yes, it was highly readable (is this what they mean by ‘narrative'?) and covered a big proportion of the material I was using, albeit from a different perspective.  Here was the book I had almost begun to write. Just as well I didn't, as someone had got there before me. 

Not long after I did some clearing out and found Galileo’s Daughter in my bookcase. It had been there all along. Clearly fate had intervened – or did I just not want to find it?  And I did eventually get to some very good fictional biographies (Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood, The Jewel by former AE author Catherine Czerkawska) which encouraged me to think the impossible task of melding fact and fiction could be done. 

And now it is. Hurrah and also phew! I'm happy I picked the right genre. I just hope my readers agree!

Ali Bacon was born in Fife and lives in Bristol where she writes novels and short stories.  A Kettle of Fish, coming of age novel set in Scotland,  was published in 2012. 

In the Blink of an Eye will be published by Linen Press on April 11th 2018 in paperback and as an e-book.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Publishers playing the Game of Thrones - Katherine Roberts

Yes, I know I'm about five years behind everyone else, but I've finally discovered the most addictive fantasy series to hit our screens this century - namely Game of Thrones, based on George R R Martin's series of best-selling fantasy novels "A Song of Ice and Fire".

Briefly, for those of you who haven't come across this series yet, there is a scary looking THRONE made from the swords of enemies of the state, which powerful families known as HOUSES are fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of sitting on to become supreme ruler of a fantasy kingdom named WESTEROS. Needless to say, those who succeed don't tend to stay sitting there very long, which makes me wonder why they are all fighting so hard to sit there in the first place? Though I must admit the throne room with its stained glass windows is magnificent, and there must be a certain satisfaction in being able to order your fiercest rivals' heads sliced from their bodies so you can add their swords to the throne at your back and breathe a little easier for... oh, about an episode or two, before someone turns the beer-stained tables and does the same to you.

There are seven seasons out already, with a final eighth season on its way next year, so I've still got some catching up to do... and for those fantasy-allergic people who are about to leave before the wizards arrive, did I mention the SEX? The DVDs are certificate 18, so this is not your typical elf-and-amusing-dwarf fantasy for the kids with wizards and dragons. There is an elvish-style family, certainly (House Targaryen), a dwarf (the far from funny Tyrion Lannister), and even a dragon or two, but so far little magic of the wand-waving variety... who needs wizards when you can have sex any way you want it? This all helps to make the Kingdom of Westeros a frighteningly real place, and while several of the families have children with major parts, you can expect them to get hurt in the same way as the adult characters. So don't let your nine-year-old watch it before bed, okay?

The books - for those who prefer words.

Which brings me to the 'publishing' part. Not for nothing do we call the bigger publishers PUBLISHING HOUSES. With all the takeovers going on recently apparently there are now only five or six... seven if you count Amazon. These are usually referred to in the business as "the Big Six". There are also many smaller independents, like Templar Books (now swallowed up by Bonnier), who published my Game of Thrones for 9 year olds about King Arthur's daughter as The Pendragon Legacy quartet between 2012 and 2014, just before they stopped doing fiction. Another UK independent Greystones Press is publishing my novel about the young Genghis Khan Bone Music in April 2018. And, of course, many authors now have their own publishing arms, doing it for themselves.

As far as the exalted Throne of Publishos goes, however, these smaller guys (and gals) can pretty much forget it. If they're lucky, they will be able to publish whatever they want in its shadow, or out in the misty isles for a while, and nobody will see them as enough of a rival to think it worth slicing their heads from their bodies. But make no mistake, the Big Six are still at it tooth and nail, all seeking to seat one of their authors on that powerful throne at the expense of their rivals.

The Iron Throne of Westeros

And what does this fantastic Throne of Publishos look like? It's probably not made of swords, like the Iron Throne of Westeros, because not all best-selling books are fantasy or historical. Is it made from the pulped books of their enemies? Maybe so... if you see other people's books as competition, which publishers do, of course. The only exception being books on their own list, in which case other writers published by that House are expected to support their publisher's chosen candidate for the throne (probably the book/author they have paid the most for and need to sell in the biggest quantities). In return, the writer finds shelter at the House in the form of a publishing contract and is, in the best cases, made to feel part of the family, sharing in the success of the other books on their list - maybe in the form of an bigger advance for their next book, paid for by the profits made from their current reigning writer. I think the Throne of Publishos is more likely to be made of the skulls of dead authors, or perhaps their twisted literary souls, wrenched from the husks of their bodies, which continue in the real world as half-alive zombies with a job that pays the bills, no longer even dreaming about sitting on that Throne, and maybe even secretly relieved to stop playing the Game.

The truth is that publishing and writing are two very different games. Back in the good old days, authors used to concentrate on the writing and leave the Game up to their publishers, who were on the whole pretty good at it, producing a chain of bestselling authors to sit on the Throne attended by a whole string of fairly happy midlist authors who felt protected and supported by them. Now authors need to play the Game too if they want to survive in the cut-throat world of publishing, and mostly they just get hurt. Rather than an experienced writer keeping the Throne warm for the length of their career and kindly handing it over to a new young debut when the time is right, we have an author-boom generation of new (not necessarily young, though it clearly helps) debuts all desperate to sit there - if only for a book or two.

For, despite all the doom and gloom about the end of publishing as we know it, there is still very much a Throne of Publishos, and a lot of celebrities seem to sit on it these days - presumably in a kind of second-throne way, since they also have other thrones elsewhere to keep warm so they can return there when their stint ruling Publishos is over. Until JK Rowling, I am not sure many children's authors actually sat on this throne, but they are obviously expected to do so now, which has snatched the comfortable world of children's books off its misty isle and thrown some of us to the sharks on the way. In future, maybe publishers will find a way to produce best-selling books by committee, or the press of a key, and find a way to sit on the throne themselves, leaving authors well out of the game? Or maybe every author will become their own publisher and start playing the Game armed with their publishers' old weapons, seeing other authors as rivals and slicing heads from bodies, until they are exhausted and blood-spattered and the only author left in the world? That would be a very lonely King or Queen of Publishos.

I don't know how the Game of Thrones ends - I am currently working my way through the boxed sets, so no spoilers, please! But I have a feeling it won't end well, at least not for most of the major characters. In this kind of game, where competition kills off the strongest rivals like gladiators slaughtering each other in the arena of Ancient Rome, nobody is ever happy or fulfilled except maybe the spectators who bet on the winning authors, so perhaps it's time to change the rules?

New rules for the Game of Publishos:

* Think not of the latest celebrity title as competition, but a book that can help you see what is good and bad about your own work.
* Think not of big publishers as the enemy, but as Houses struggling to survive in a hostile world, where you might find shelter and sustenance if you are willing to offer them your loyalty for a while.
* Think not of the Throne of Publishos as a place you want to sit at any cost, but as an uncomfortable over-sized chair to avoid being anywhere near at all costs.
* Think not of Amazon as an evil dragon to be slain, but as a powerful creature that you can ride if you want to fly.
* Think not of your fellow author as a rival, but as a friend or mentor who can help you on your own publishing journey.

And never let those who play the Game by their own rules tell you otherwise.

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.
Her Pendragon Legacy series about King Arthur's daughter is published by Templar Books in the UK and Hachette in France.

For more details and free ebooks visit

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Schmetterling by Sandra Horn

Dad always worked with his hands. He’d been trained as a carpenter and joiner, but after the war he joined Mum’s family building firm and learned to be a plasterer. I think these jobs must require total absorption – getting the consistency and thickness perfectly right, making changes in body movement to accommodate to distance-from-core,  constantly judging the state of the receiving wall...and all on what looks like automatic pilot; a deeply-embedded skill.

All the time he was working, he sang. He sang completely unselfconsciously, almost as if he didn’t know he was doing it. He’d had his voice trained as a child by a formidable aunt (she was an LRAM, spoken in a hushed whisper) until she threw him out for misbehaving. He had a fine tenor voice and had picked up snatches of Italian opera. They were my first foreign words, but not much use in general conversation: None shall sleep! Your tiny hand is frozen! On with the motley, the powder and the paint! Love me, Alfredo!

My big break came when I went to Italian lessons decades later and the teacher asked each of us what we did. ‘Scrivo!’ I warbled (Rodolfo, Act 1, La Bohème). My favourite Dad story is that he was once plastering a vast factory building and all the windows were open. He became aware of someone outside shouting ‘Excuse me, mister!’ and he went to a window and looked down. A small boy was standing there. ‘Yes, Sonny?’ asked Dad. ‘My mum says, please, do you know The Lost Chord?’
This long preamble is about bits of the brain doing their separate ‘things’ at the same time. It can be a blessing or a curse – happy synchronicity or destructive interference. When it’s happy it’s called multi-tasking and women are supposed to be particularly good at it. When it’s not, it’s like being inhabited by those butterflies, whatever they’re called, little browny jobs that flit about endlessly and very fast and never settle anywhere for more than a nanosecond. 

I’m not like Dad. If I’m singing, I’m singing. Introduce anything else into the job and I’m sunk. The other side of the coin is that when I’m not totally absorbed in something, I’m full of little brown butterflies. The other day, for example, I was thinking about Dad’s story and The Lost Chord was flitting around in my head, alternating with Pretty Flamingo, and images of Dad leaning out of the factory window and Paul Jones with a microphone. This sort of thing happens all the time and rarely makes sense. It’s very distracting. It can shut out everything else. I have to be very careful to make sure I’m not away with the butterflies when I’m walking downstairs, for example, or I’d miss a step and end up in a heap at the bottom. I drop and smash things if I’m in butterfly mode; I just don’t see the glass, the vase, the precious plate. They are sacrificed to a mental pot-pourri of, say, a snatch of Robert Frost: and miles to go before I sleep, Ravel’s Bolero, Klimt’s The Kiss and did I remember to hang the bathmat up? Then someone comes in, someone speaks to me, the phone rings, the butterflies crash-land and in that moment so does the plate/ vase/glass. 

What has all this to do with writing? Well, I’m not sure whether the act of writing banishes the butterflies or the butterflies have to go before I can even think of starting. They disappear when I’m in a state of quiet concentration, not always easy to attain when I’m tired, fretful, under the weather, etc. It’s an effortful calmness, if that makes any sense at all! Something like this:

*Cover your ears against music,
Chatter, noises of the town.
Search for an almost-silence,
A feathery soft swish.

Empty your mind of sunsets,
Scarlet poppies, apricots.
Contemplate goosedown, tundra,
Iced Sherbert, moon.

Sometimes I think it’s the need to write that becomes a butterfly-banishing force; sometimes I think that they flit off randomly and leave me with some head-space for a while so I can write. I prefer to believe that writing saves me from the flittering; that as soon as there’s a scintilla, a crumb of an idea I want to put on the page, something changes fundamentally and I can focus.
I’ve just stopped for a coffee and into my head popped this ‘joke’,  which relates to this post in a sideways sort of way: An Italian, a Frenchman and a German were arguing about which of their languages was the most beautiful. They took the words for butterfly as an example. ‘Farfalle’, sighed the Italian. ‘Papillon’ crooned the Frenchman. ‘Schmetterling’ said the German and the other two burst out laughing. It’s not funny at all. Schmetterling is perfect. It’s EXACTLY what the little brown jobs in my garden and in my head do! 

*extract from How to Paint a Snowscene, Artemis issue 16, May 2016.