Sunday, 29 July 2018

Debbie Young Puts the Log Back into Blogging

If you want to get ahead, get a hat - I mean, a blog

We're all so used to reading and writing blogs now that it's easy to forget that they are a relatively recent phenomenon. 

Jane Perrone, writing on The Guardian's blog just 14 years ago, felt the need to explain what they were for the sake of the uninitiated:
A weblog is, literally, a "log" of the web - a diary-style site, in which the author (a "blogger") links to other web pages he or she finds interesting using entries posted in reverse chronological order.

We Sing, We Dance, We Blog...

I'd almost forgotten that blogs used to be called weblogs. When I see that word now, my instinct is to read it as "we blog" rather than "web log", as if it's part of the declension of the verb "to blog". (Iblog, youblog, heblogs, weblog ...)

Interesting, too, that Perrone defines the main purpose of a weblog as being to link to other web pages rather than to post original content, which I've always perceived as the bigger priority.

Back to the Bloginning (groan)

Stumbling across Perrone's definition set me thinking about how my own blog came into being, eight years ago. I started it at a critical time in my life: I had just handed in  my notice for my last full-time day job in order to focus on building an author career.

The purpose of my blog was then three-fold:

  • to declare my intent to be an author, on the basis that publicly committing yourself to something makes it more likely to happen
  • to make myself write something new on a regular basis
  • to start building an audience for my books when I got round to writing them
Having fun with M C Beaton
Eight years and over 500 published posts later, I've revamped the look and the layout of my blog countless times. Many a time I've counselled those new to blogging that a writer's blog is never done. No matter how much work I do on my blog, the day will never come when I can tick it off my to-do list as a fait accompli.

Whereas my blog started out as the front page and focal point of my website, it's now a subset of my now substantial author website, which has separate pages on each of my books, news about my events, reviews, videos, podcasts and other jollities. 

Reasons to be Posting

I've also changed what I post about

At the outset, it was anything and everything - I'd pick a fun idea and treat it as a writing prompt, whether or not it had anything to do with my writing career. This list demonstrates the crazy diversity of my early posts:

More recently with most of my writing energies being directed into my growing series of novels (the fifth is due at my editor's tomorrow), I've mostly kept my blog topped up by repurposing other content, such as the monthly columns I write for two local magazines, or guest posts published elsewhere. And before you ask, yes, I repost my Authors Electric posts there too.

Four novels and counting... the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery will be out in September

I've been trying to keep the plate spinning and keep my blog fresh by posting weekly, ideally on a Wednesday. I chose that day for no other reason than the existence of a #writerswednesday or #ww hashtag on Twitter that made it easy to remember when to post. For the same reason, I try to make any appointments I have at 11am, so that I don't forget when they are!

Elevenses - such a great time of day!
(With Oakwood Lit Fest director Dawn Brookes)
(Photo: Angela Fitch)

The Ever-Changing Blogosphere

While my blog was evolving, the blogosphere also changed. In short, it's become saturated. Every man and his dog has a blog.(Quite a few cats have their own blogs too.. 
So many blogs to read, so little time to read them - which means it's harder to get people to read yours, no matter how good your posts, how winning your images, and how optimised your SEO.

Going Full Circle

Eight years since that first post, my declaration of intent has been fulfilled
I'm now an established author with a growing back-catalogue of novels and other books, and a busy diary of writing-related engagements. 
Opening Oakwood Lit Fest (Photo: Angela Fitch)
So I'm about to redefine my blog's purpose yet again. I'm going to take it back to basics and make it more of a writer's journal, with short posts about the various events in my writing life - talks, festivals, outings that inspire me, as well as announcements about my books and as a record of pieces I publish elsewhere. 

Although I'm just winding down to taking some time off during the school summer holidays, my diary is usually madly busy. If I write about every writing-related event in my life, I'll be posting far more often than weekly. 

Which I'm trying to view as a benefit: if I find I can't keep up with recording what I've been doing, then I'm trying to do too much (a constant weakness of mine) - and I'll take that as a sign that I should ease up for the sake of my sanity.

So in summary, my new-look blog will actually be an old-fashioned writer's diary, only in digital form - a log of my writing life.

My new objectives for my Writing Life blog will be: 
  • to provide those who enjoy reading my books with interesting insights and fun facts about the person who wrote them 
  • to help other writers achieve their own career goals by sharing what I learn along the way
  • to keep a record of events and developments in my writing life for my own interest
After all, if I don't find my blog interesting, why should anyone else? As Oscar Wilde would say, one always needs something sensational to read on the train...

To sample my author blog at first hand, visit my author website:
And please always feel free to join the conversation via the comments box!

Taking a bow at Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest

Sweet inspiration: N M Browne

I don’t believe in the muse any more than I believe in writer’s block. I believe in hard work, regular
hours, good diet and plenty of exercise. I believe that in a well-ordered life there is room neither for inspiration nor despair but only solid graft, ruthless discipline and a robust attitude to failure. If  I got up early and sat at my desk for a solid eight hours a day, I am quite certain I would write a lot of books and I would be much more successful.
    It is perhaps surprising then that I struggle with the well-ordered life and am quite prone to apparent moments of inspiration, and then months of arid days when putting one word in front of another seems like a long, forced march to nowhere. Obviously, this isn’t surprising if you have ever met me or read any of my previous blogs, but even I find the gulf between what I believe about creativity and what I experience slightly disconcerting.
        About four years ago I set my self the task of writing a poem a day for a year and asking friends and fellow writers to join in. It was huge fun, but didn’t produce much of any poetic value: a couple were published in a small magazine and one made it into a rather lovely hardback collection by Eyewear, but most were as disposable as loo roll (though significantly less necessary.) Some of the daily poems were modified and used to accompany my sister’s exhibition of paintings in Sydney, but the quality of the paintings made me embarrassed for my puerile little poems so I haven’t written any poetry since.  That is until I couldn’t do anything else.
   In early July as the temperature outside hit Mediterranean heights, I was suddenly attacked by an irresistible urge to write poetry. I have written no prose for about a month and for a week or two everything I saw seemed plump and pregnant with poetic potential.  I had to write sonnets, villanelles, sestinas and free verse. It was lovely if a little demanding: I’d wake in the night with an idea, restless with creativity and heat rash.
  The urge has gone now as inexplicably as it came. I’ve sobered up from whatever heightened state possessed me. My idea stream has slowed to its usual grudging trickle and, sadly, the poems I wrote in the full flow seem less lustrous, altogether more obvious and banal than they appeared in the golden glow of my unexpected enthusiasm.
  I don’t believe in the muse any more than I believe in writer’s block, but I do believe that the human brain is a very weird thing. Now that I‘m back to my normal prosaic self, I am struggling to account for my strange passion. I am also more than a little bereft: back to staring blankly at even blanker screen
So, in the absence of a muse, tomorrow I’ll be at my desk early, trying out the graft approach…

Saturday, 28 July 2018

END OF LIFE and a MYSTERIOUS BOOK by Enid Richemont

There are so many books one reads for pleasure, and admiration for the writing, but there are some stories, not necessarily by well-known authors, which strangely settle in the psyche and just don't go away. One of these, title and author unknown to me at least (perhaps you can identify it for me?) and possibly picked up in a charity shop, came with the most extraordinary and unusual premise, and with an unforgettably moving ending which I won't reveal here as you may well know who the author is, but may not have read the book. The premise is based on the second nativity of a divine child, not necessarily Jesus, to a woman who is the very opposite of Mary - a twenty-first century and very sexually experienced woman in her late twenties? early thirties? drinks quite a lot, and smokes etc, who is visited in her bedroom by a very sexy male angel. At first she assumes he's a burglar?pervert? but it becomes clear that he's not because he's gentle and respectful (and very sexy) - it's just that his message to her makes no sense at all: she has been chosen to bear a very special Child. I mean, is this guy a nutcase? If this rings a bell with anyone, I'd love to know who wrote it, and how their career progressed afterwards because I've never forgotten it.

Having a book deeply resonate with a reader is so moving for the author, and a few months ago, this happened with one of my own earlier books at a time I'd assumed it had been totally forgotten. MY MOTHER'S DAUGHTER, a Young Adult novel, was written at a time when I was having quite serious problems with my own daughter, and first published by Random House. Set in mid-Wales, but also London, it involved a painful exploration of adolescence and also senility, as it featured an old lady who had hallucinations, and who was almost certainly suffering from dementia.

Someone had read the book over twenty years ago, and had never forgotten it, so they posted smatterings of the plot, author unknown, on Facebook, and miraculously this got through to me. Cue one extremely touched and flattered author, and very happy reader. The book is available as an e-book for the Kindle, if you're curious, and although there were two very different cover illustrations, one for the paperback, I used just this one (the hardback), as I so much disliked the paperback image.

As I am a dedicated supporter of Assisted Dying, I do often, in imagination, visit the endgame on behalf of myself. In literature, good endings are so important, so how might mine be? We'd all like to die in our sleep, but that blessing isn't automatically granted. Having experienced hospitals, they wouldn't be my place of choice, and as for the horror of care homes...

So if physical problems became life-destroying, what would I do? Go to Switzerland? Efficient but expensive. In my mind, I have long had a simmering short story plot which has someone en route to Switzerland is in a plane about to crash - how more intense contemplation on life that would be is hard to imagine. A DIY job, then? It would have to be efficient, swift and painless, and who would find the body? In one of my many fantasies, I book into the Ritz - a posh room, a final amazing meal, excellent wine, an effective terminal potion, and then - adios amigos. But then the poor, shocked chambermaid...

Someone wrote a science fiction-type short story many years ago, based on the idea that every human being might be genetically adapted to engineer his/her own death by activating a physical but hard-to -reach part of the body, but the sociological effect of that turned out to be that humanity lost all its creatives.

Friday, 27 July 2018

A Writer's Dream Job - Ben Rhodes and Obama by Andrew Crofts

A few months ago I wrote about being a little envious of Michael Wolf for finding himself sitting in the White House at the moment when the Trump team came to power, allowing him to observe the mayhem from close quarters and to write “Fire and Fury”.

Well I have now read “The World as It Is – Inside the Obama White House” by Ben Rhodes, and I am even more eaten up with envy. Rhodes set out to be a novelist, became politically engaged and ended up as Obama’s speechwriter and advisor on matters international. For eight years the two of them were together virtually every day and Rhodes travelled more than a million miles in Air Force One, so that he could always be available to his friend and hero.

Image result for The World as it is by Ben Rhodes, images

Was there really a time when a man as good and gracious as Obama was able to be the most powerful in the world? Will liberals ever again see such a hopeful, idealistic situation in the White House, the Kremlin, Number Ten Downing Street, or anywhere else?

Rhodes writes beautifully about what happened during those eight golden years, and what it felt like to be there. Although I’m sure that in reality the toll it took on his health and his private life was close to intolerable, as a “dream job” for a writer wanting to be integral to the best action in the world, his must have been hard to beat.

Towards the end of the book Obama says to him; “ … that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”.

What an incredible story it is – and how well he tells it. If only we could turn the clock back ten years and feel that optimistic again.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Poetry by Design: Dipika Mukherjee takes a Broadside Workshop

On a rainy day in Chicago, five poets gathered in Wicker Park to create art from poetry. In short, we were there to make broadsides.

What are Broadsides, you ask? They are poetry rendered as gorgeous posters. Words to be displayed as wall art. The best gifts for wordsmiths and bibliophiles. 

I have always been in love with broadsides. My home is dotted with examples of poems as visual art and I have signed copies from the Copper Canyon Press  as well as illustrated examples from the Poetry Center

So when I saw that the Wasted Pages Writing Program was offering a Poetry by Design workshop on July 14 in Chicago, I immediately signed up.

So there we were, five poets, juxtaposing our words with pictures for maximum impact. Our fingers became inky from hauling huge drums of ink, and we found new inspiration from the work of the group.

Our Risograph machine had three ink options (black, brown, blue) and we had an array of colorful paper at our disposal. The poems had to be shorter than 30 lines (shorter is better; too many words on the page look as dazzling as a legal document!). 

CHIPRC Literary Coordinator, Liz, patiently walked us through the process (Photos from Wasted PagesWriter’s Workshop post on facebook show the works in progress).

Risographs are not intuitive in the way modern printing machines are; they are like a mimeograph and combine the techniques of screen printing, photocopying, and offset printing. Images are produced by a master copy wrapped around a cylinder coated in ink (referred to as a drum) and it is this drum that creates the impression on the paper fed into the machine, one at a time. The drums are heavy and correspond with a single color of ink, and every new color means a new master, with the multiple impressions finally layered on the printed stock.

A modern office printer is able to create colorful prints with much less effort and drama. But what you lose is the artisanal quality of the end-product, the light smudginess and tracks of ink, all of which make a broadside more remarkable.

I chose only two colors, black and blue for my poem. I had to print the ship first, then do the words by feeding in the paper already embossed with the ship. The paper was a wonderful cream/gold which shone, but a non-matte finish meant that the ink easily smeared if I became impatient.  

Here is the final result. This poem appears in the 2016 edition of Rhino poetry and you can read the original and listen to the audio version here.

Some literary presses will publish broadsides for poems they deem worthy, and you can check out Thrush Press and Littoral Press for that, among others. 

But if you want to experience the joy of framing your own words, placing the image just so, and getting your fingers inky in the process of some artisanal poetry, the next workshop by Chicago Publishers Resource Center (CHIPRC) will run on Saturday, August 25. They will be closing their doors after five years in business, which is a great pity. If you are in Chicago, show them some love by trying out a broadside workshop and leaving with something beautiful. 

Dipika Mukherjee is an author and sociolinguist. Her work focuses on the politics of modern Asian societies and diaspora. In the past year, she has given a keynote at the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference (Bali, 2017), juried at the Neustadt International Literary Festival (USA, 2018), spoken at the Hearth Festival (Wales, 2018) and the Singapore Writers Festival (Singapore, 2017); she has also given public talks at the University of Stockholm (Sweden, 2018) and the International Institute of Asian Studies (Netherlands, 2017). She lives in Chicago. More about her here.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Sweating with Wolves by Susan Price

The wolves come...

Friday 13th may be unlucky for some, but not for me.

On Friday July 13th I went into London, to Tiverton Primary School in Tottenham, to see the second performance of a musical play based on my book, The Wolf's Footprint.

It was an exhaustingly hot day -- and I got lost. I interrupted several people as they were going about their business, to ask the way to Tiverton School and every single one of these randomly selected people was as friendly and helpful as could be. Several pulled out smart-phones and entered the name of the school, so they could show me where it was and guide me on my way. Thanks to them, I found Tiverton in time for the afternoon session.

So thank you, kindly people of Haringey and Tottenham and especially those -- you know who you are -- who were stopped by a hot and dishevelled writer asking, "Do you know where Tiverton School is?"

At the school I spent the afternoon talking with two great classes about -- oh, how a writer works, the writing of Bremen Town Musicians, ghosts, wolves, fairy-tales. I had a great time. I only hope the children had half as good a time as I did. (If only it had been a bit less hot!)

Then I got to relax in the staff-room and chat to violinist Anna Jenkins and drummer Sebastien Hankin until it was time for the evening performance.

The play was first performed in 2014 and you can read about it here.

The performance this year, with a different cast, was every bit as good. As as I said to the packed audience at the end, I knew how it was going to turn out, but I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Wicked courtiers try to dissuade the king from helping his starving people -- in song.

The music moves from the sad and poignant to the boisterous and joyful -- and how the children danced so energetically -- with encores! -- in that heat, I don't know, but they did. The oldest cast members were no more than twelve but they performed with a confidence and engagement that was a delight.

When Resham Mirza, the admirable head-teacher, tweeted that she had watched the show 'with pride,
joy and admiration' I could only echo her. As the head of this wonderful school she has good reason to be proud. As the Head Governor of the school told me, as we sat in the front row, Resham not only nutures all kinds of artistic expression at the school, but they have great academic results too.

And, of course, there is Kate Stilitz, who wrote the music and lyrics and directed, drawing such wonderful performances from her young cast. Follow the link for a look at Kate's website, where you can see something of the many song-cycles and musical pieces she has written for children to perform.

The villagers celebrate the arrival of food.

 Kate also supplied the trumpeter, Ruben, as he's her son! Grow your own, that's the way.

If you're curious, there's a vimeo on Kate's website which will give you a taste of the show. (And possibly the worst photo of me, among stiff competition.)

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Libraries - so much more than just lenders of books. Jo Carroll

I’ve always known that libraries are important. I’ve retweeted posts that insist they are kept open, liked FB pages that support those that are struggling. Like millions of us, I recall many happy hours in my childhood spent in libraries, and they kept me sane when I was without money to buy any books at all.

But it wasn’t until I volunteered for my local library that I truly realised just how important they are.

I feel strongly that everyone who works in libraries should be paid. But cut after cut after cut means that many libraries can only function with volunteers. Should the money ever be found, I’ll be the first to move aside so someone can have a job. Meanwhile, I help keep the show on the road.

I love it. It’s ‘only’ shelving - but it’s oddly satisfying taking a heavy trolley full of books and finding a home for them all. But it’s while I’m tucking the latest Katie Fforde back into place that I become aware that the library does much more than lend books.

The town I live in has its share of homeless people. Here they can use the computers -- giving them access to agencies that might help them. There is no problem when all their worldly good are a heap behind them -- if they need space, that’s fine. There is also a seminar room with water cooler where I’ve seen homeless people tuck into sandwiches while they study the local paper.

We also provide shelter to people with mental health problems -- over the weeks I’ve come to know them and pass the time of day if they need it. Then there are the lonely and isolated who are in every week, always looking for someone to talk to about books. 

Not the everyone can make it to the library -- and so we have a troop of volunteers who select books for those who are unable to get there to choose their own. What a skill! These volunteers need a relationship with every reader, to understand what will keep them engrossed during lonely hours. I’ve watched trawling shelves, looking at book after book, trying to find the right ones.

And then there are the children. Last week the library echoed to the cry of a child: her mother was taking five minutes to find books for herself, while her three-year-old yelled, ‘I WANT A STORY!’ Attagirl!

(On top of that, I notice when someone has borrowed The Planter’s Daughter, which always gives me a little shiver of pleasure!)

Monday, 23 July 2018

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing II

Last month, I began my list of notable self-published books. These books, though, are not in any particular order (well other than the order in which I read them). Before I talk about this month's selection, however, I want to talk a bit about my method of finding these books.

I know quite a few authors of self-published books, and they're all really good, a few may even make this list, but I wanted to focus more on writers I had not read before. The point of this list is, after all, to get more self-published authors as much exposure to new readers. 

It is surprisingly hard to find self-published books by new authors, though, since one of the biggest drawbacks to self- or small-press publishing is the lack of promotional funds.

However, thanks to social media promotions, which are not nearly as expensive as you might think, I found it fairly easy to discover new writers just by browsing my Facebook news feed. In fact, over half of the novels I'll be discussing in this list were found in this manner (including the one I'm featuring this month).

The only drawback to this method of discovery, though, is that once you click on an ad, Facebook's algorithms make sure you get more ads like that one in your news feed. What this means in practical terms is that most of the books I discovered for this list fall in some aspect of the fantasy genre. 

and dark romance novels for some reason

lots and lots of dark romance novels

and whatever the hell this is.
I mention this, only to explain that the overabundance of fantasy in my list should not be taken to imply that only self-published fantasy is worth your time, it's just the primary genre that appeared in my news feed.

2. Hero in a Halfling (Epik Fantasy Series) by William Tyler Davis

I have to admit that the cover of this one drew my attention first. As a kid, I always loved the Rankin-Bass adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit, so much so that when I found out there was a sequel to the story, Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings and that all of them were based on books, I had to read the whole series.

This began a lifelong love of fantasy fiction that informs my reading interests to this day. Tolkien led me to Robert E. Howard, Neil Gaiman, and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. The cover of Davis' Hero in a Halfling evoked a blend of the Rankin-Bass and the Bakshi versions of Tolkien's fiction.

The plot itself seemed interesting enough for me to check it out:

Adventure. Excitement. This halfling craves those things. But when certain doom calls will he actually heed it?
Epik, a young halfling, is ill-content with his unambitious life. He dreams of magic - of wizards, knights, and a kingdom not so far away.
In search of a father he's never known and of magic he's sure he possesses, Epik moves to Dune All-En. He not only finds a wizard willing to train him but for the first time in Epik's life he makes friends, most notably a beautiful half-elf girl named Myra.
As a secret sect meet to plot the king's demise, a family of mountain trolls threatens the city. And Epik sees the opportunity to do something, well, epic.
He must learn magic.
He must save the girl.
And he must protect the kingdom . . . Before it falls into the wrong hands.
The Hobbit meets Robin Hood: Men in Tights in this light-hearted mysterious romp.
Hero in a Halfling is the first in the Epik Fantasy Series. Perfect for fans of both Discworld and Middle-earth. Snag your copy today on Kindle, audio, or print!

The book is marketed as a comedic fantasy, and it is humorous, but the strength of this book is not its comedy. This series is by no means going to be this generation's answer to Douglas Adams. Davis' book works best as a deconstruction of almost every single fantasy trope as well as several fantasy series. 

For example, the setting of the novel is the inverse of Tolkien's world: where Tolkien used the English countryside as his basis for Middle Earth, Davis sets his series in a thinly veiled version of New York City. Instead of Tolkien's Shire, a bucolic agrarian paradise, as the homeland of the halflings, Davis gives his halflings The Bog, in what would be south Jersey, just as bucolic and paradisaical as it sounds, for their home land.

The characters themselves also challenge the tropes of traditional fantasy. Our hero, Epik the Halfling, is not really the usual reluctant hero who doesn't want to leave behind his comfortable life and slowly discovers he is braver than he thought. Epik is raring to go. He can't wait to leave his boring backward hometown and search for his missing father while he learns magic. He doesn't slowly come to realize that he always had what it takes to be a hero. He's incompetent. By the end of the story, he's less so.

Epik's mentor, the wizard Gabby, is less Tolkien's Gandalf (despite the cover image) and more closely related to Ralph Bakshi's wizard Avatar, from his film Wizards.

less this
more this.
One of his love interests is Gerdy, who, rather than being the half-elven daughter of the king of the elves, is the half-dwarf daughter of a Epic's boss. Rather than being stunningly beautiful like a living Barbie doll, Gerdy is short, squat, and strong as an ox. She is also apparently the daughter of Snow White (yes, that Snow White). His other love interest is just a poor little rich girl who is vain and dumb as a sack of rocks.

The story itself is less than epic (in fact, the only truly epic thing about the novel is its protagonist's name), but that is in keeping with the overall theme of breaking down the traditional characteristics of fantasy literature. The court intrigue is paltry, the adventure is minimal: Epik leaves his dead-end job tending bar in a small town for a dead-end job tending bar in the Big City. The adventure, as in real life, happens to Epik when he quits looking for it, and the role he plays in the adventure is relatively minimal: he essentially tries to untie the captured rich girl.

None of these things are drawbacks. In fact, they're all kind of the point of the book. I found myself fascinated by each new way Davis undermines the expected patterns of fantasy: The love triangle that resolves itself in an unexpected way, the petty politics involved in one king claiming his birthright, a story line that would normally be the focal point of a high fantasy series. The typically heroic figures who turn out to be the most unsympathetic characters and arrogant jackasses (yet still the "good" guys). I also enjoyed the Easter egg references to other fantasy series presented by a narrator who is painfully aware that he is narrating a work of fantasy fiction.

In short, The Epik Fantasy series (or at least the first book) is in no way an epic fantasy; if anything it may be the first mundane fantasy. Rather than providing his readers escapist fiction, Davis shows us that actually living in a fantasy world is pretty much exactly as boring (and exciting) as living in the real world, and that makes it well worth the read.