Thursday, 30 August 2018

Debbie Young Raises a Glass to a Cotswold Pub's Free Library Initiative

Debbie Young is refreshed by Scottish mountain air
 After a fortnight's holiday near Glencoe in a minimalist cottage and abundant fresh mountain air, I returned to my own cluttered cottage ten days ago determined to ditch surplus possessions. Even (whisper it) a few of my large collection of books...

Fate sent me a helping hand in the form of a request from the landlady of Dinneywick's pub in Kingswood, the next-but-one village from where I live in the Cotswolds. She asked me whether I could donate any secondhand books for the pub's new free library scheme.

I've had a Little Free Library on my front garden wall for a couple of years, and there are more like this popping up all over the country.

My own Little Free Library

A Bookish Pedigree for a Pub

Aggie's interest in doing something similar came as no surprise. When she and her partner Guiseppe ran The Fox in Hawkesbury Upton, they gained a reputation as an innovative, energetic couple full of ideas for keeping a country pub afloat. One of these ideas was to support the first ever Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival when I founded it four years ago. They generously provided the venue, and for the next two Festivals were a key player in its success. As a tribute to their support, the cover of the first Festival's anthology sported a drawing of The Fox by Festival author and illustrator Sophie E Tallis.

The Fox graced the cover of the inaugural HU Lit Fest Anthology

Earlier this year they moved to the delightfully quaint Dinneywicks pub in Kingswood, near Wotton-under-Edge.

Dinneywicks customers will be able to borrow books for free from the Dinney's Little Library whenever they drop into the pub.

"I'll have a pint of paperbacks, please."

This is a valuable social service to a small rural community without its own public library. Customers are welcome to access it at any time during opening hours. Aggie is hoping that it will encourage people to come in for a coffee and chat during the day, as well as during the busier evening hours.

All of the books are donated, and I was glad to be able to deliver two large bags yesterday to help fill their shelves. Most of the books are in as-new condition.

Aggie proudly presents the new Little Dinneys Library

The eagle-eyed reader familiar with my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels may spot a brand new set of them on the second shelf down at the right hand side. I was happy to throw those in for free for three reasons:

  • I was delighted to have the opportunity to return the favour that Aggie and Guiseppe did me when they were so supportive of the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest.
  • I know that Dinneys will be actively luring eager readers to the pub to enjoy their new facility, so this is a useful opportunity for me to reach a new audience. 
  • When you're writing a series of novels, free sampling is a handy marketing technique, assuming that if a person receives a free book in the series and enjoys it, it's quite likely they'll go on to buy the rest of them.

When Free Books Act As Ambassadors for Authors

It's a similar situation to finding a book in a charity shop or jumble sale. When a reader picks up a book for £1 or even pence there, the author may not profit from that sale, but he does gain valuable exposure and a connection with a potential new fan. That fan may go on to snap up full-price copies from conventional bookshops after that.

I confess I only made this connection a few years back when I was interviewing Hereward Corbett, the proprietor of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshops in Nailsworth and Tetbury. I asked him whether he minded so many charity shops selling books in those towns, assuming he'd view them as competition undercutting his prices.

Debbie Young with Hereward Corbett (photo by Chris Cuppage)
Not at all, he told me, because readers would often take a punt on an unknown author, and once hooked came to his shops to order brand new copies of their other books at full price.

A country pub with books on the menu
I wish Aggie and Guiseppe every success with their new venture, and I hope their example will encourage other pubs to follow suit.

Of course, Dinneywick's isn't just about books: it's a delightful pub, which they've just refurbished to a very high standard, with a cosy, attractive interior, pleasant walled garden and terrific food. So if you're passing that way, do call in to see them - with or without a book to donate!

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Mixing it up: N M Browne

 I am of an age when it is remarkably easy to get stuck in a mental rut: new story ideas have the unmistakable flavour of other books.
Photo: Jeanne Girard: Sutton Hoo July 2018
You find yourself reaching for a familiar phrase, a particular sentence rhythm, hell, even a character name you have used before. If this has never happened to you, then move along, look away, you are probably youthful, mentally flexible  and I have nothing interesting to say to you (though I am open to any tip you can offer me.) To everyone else, this has been my attempted solution: over the last few months, I have been experimenting with different forms of writing to force my lazy brain into forging new neural pathways, stave off early mental decline and re-energise my work. At least that has been the plan. 

  I have been sticking to it too. I have written a few more short stories since my last post on the subject. One of them may form the basis of a novel. Or not. I am still writing the odd poem (they are very odd) since my last blog and I think the time I’ve spent word wrangling may yet do my prose some good. I have also tried storytelling just to push myself even further out of my comfort zone. 

  At the end of July, I was lucky enough to be involved in an Anglo Saxon event at Sutton Hoo with the living history experts Wulfheodonas. For anyone interested in the period, the quality of the kit and the depth of knowledge in this group is phenomenal and at this event, they were joined by various groups from across Europe who share their ethos of reproducing the technologies, costumes and weaponry from well documented archaeological finds. Much of the material is of museum quality. Inspired by my desire for self-improvement and my usual compulsive need to be helpful, I volunteered to tell some of the myths and stories from the period. Of course, I conveniently forgot that I didn’t know any Anglo Saxon myths and stories and had never actually done any story telling…

    As the event neared, I found myself increasingly concerned. What if people turned up expecting one of those all-round genius performers who could play a period instrument, recite poetry, sing dance and do (suitably historical) magical tricks? What if they were expecting an Anglo Saxon expert and all they got was me? 

    Full of trepidation and that sinking feeling you have when you fear you have been an idiot, I learned the bones of some stories - more or less with a little bit of vagueness around the names - and decided to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t. I used a few story-tellerish tricks and jumped around in dramatic fashion, but actually what worked best was just telling the story with conviction. When I trusted the story and stopped jumping around, you could hear a pin drop.

  So what has been the result of all this adventuring? I don’t think I’ve made any new pathways, I am still meandering down the same overgrown ill-kempt, byways of the mind as usual. But though my mental housekeeping and road building has been a failure, I think the short stories have helped my story structures, the poetry has helped me be more adventurous with words and the storytelling has reminded me of the thing I must be going senile to have forgotten: always trust the story. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

"THE TIME TREE" film, screen-writing, and sixteenth century fear of witches, by Enid Richemont

Well, the secret I've had to hold back on for two years is now out, as, if you follow me on Facebook, you'll already know. The modest film deal I've referred to from time to time was based on my first children's novel, THE TIME TREE, published by Walker Books in the early Nineties, and a first for them, too, as it was the first time they'd published a children's novel.

The book stayed in print for ages, and seemed to grab people in a very special way. It's a time-slip story - a magical encounter, via an ancient oak tree, between two contemporary eleven year old girls, and a profoundly deaf Elizabethan girl of the same age. It's a book that grabbed a very close friend who works in the media, and who had always seen it as a film (I didn't) so she pushed me into writing a screenplay with a number of plot extensions and developments, which was challenging and exciting. Writing for the screen is SO very different from writing a novel, because the whole story has to be conveyed via dialogue and visuals - in a screenplay, you can't, with words, get inside the heads of your characters - they have to express their feelings through either dialogue or acting. I love doing it, although, frankly, I didn't think it was going anywhere. Then suddenly, two years ago, it did.

Competition is fierce in the film business, so I was sworn to absolute secrecy. Even a hint, without even naming the book, was jumped on. I have, obliquely, mentioned it on here from time to time, just talking about the challenge of writing for film, but no more.

The project started out as a feature length film, but ended (disappointingly for me) as a short film, which nevertheless got it screened recently at the Sarajevo Film Festival, which we're hoping will get it noticed. This is one of the stills. The fierce and unpleasant woman on the left (she's in charge of the equally unpleasant household staff) is played to the hilt by Frances Tomelty, and the child on the right is the Elizabethan girl, Anne. The young actress who played her had to take lessons in how to be profoundly deaf - not easy, but she did it very convincingly. Below (and a very dark shot - sorry) are the two contemporary girls.

It was not only hard, but also dangerous, to be at all 'different' in the sixteenth century, with its total belief in witchcraft. Discussing this with a female writer friend yesterday, we both decided that she'd almost certainly have been classified as a witch - red-haired, female, owns not only one but two cats, and with marks on her skin - freckles and the odd small mole - ticks all the boxes, so ripe for the pricking.

If you're curious, the book isn't available as an ebook (there was too much hanging on it to do that), and is very hard to get hold of second-hand, but you can try. Abe Books is very good. However, the text does seriously need updating, much of which I've already done via the screenplays. Hoping now for a full-length screen offer, followed by a book deal, but maybe that's the wrong way round?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Brilliant Writing Careers - Andrew Crofts

Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers

“Their Brilliant Careers – the Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers,” by Ryan O’Neill is a spoof literary history which contains so many characters and situations that will be painfully and hilariously recognisable to writers and publishers the world over it is tempting as a reader to simply suspend disbelief and go with the flow.

Each biography is written as a short story but the lives of the various writers soon start to intersect. There are many good jokes, even for those of us who are unfamiliar with the real Australian literary scene that it is satirising. It would be great to think that Mr O’Neill might one day turn his attention to the literary pretensions and deceptions of other cultures – just imagine what he could do with the Bloomsbury Set, Will Self, Martin Amis – or Jeffrey Archer.     

Saturday, 25 August 2018

'A Ministry Of Defense, But No Ministry Of Peace': A Celebration of Myanmar Poetry at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival by Dipika Mukherjee

NOTE: This article was first published on the Poetry Foundation website on May 21, 2014. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival remains one of the most interesting festivals I've participated in, and I feel privileged to have been a part of this historic festival, even though the patron, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not lived up to the ideals she represented in 2014.

The Champak, fragrant with white blossoms growing wild on Mandalay hill, perfumes the gardens of the Mandalay Hill Resort. This is where the 2014 Irrawaddy Literary Festival was held from February 14-16, with poetry read under white canopies amid the feathery foliage. Palm trees fringed tiny wooden pagodas; even the breeze was mellow.

In this most Zen-like of settings, the Myanmar poets read fiery words. Words to inspire the schoolchildren bussed into the venue from Myit Nge and surrounding schools, children with faces plastered with the yellowish-white thanaka paste, distinguishing them from the trendy young volunteers from the Jefferson Centre who spoke fluent English. There were very young nuns in light pink robes, and older male monks in robes of red and deep orange.
Bagan, Pinya, Innwa, Taungoo—even the tents were bi-syllabic sounds that rolled off the tongue. Naing Myint Lwin, who won a poetry contest at the Guardian newspaper in 1960, began with her prize-winning poem about the river Irawaddy:
As they reach the rich delta

The land they’ve formed year by year,
With pride and joy they murmur,
“We are a credit to Burma”.

Her English words, reminiscent of the Kiplingesque verses read on plantation verandahs peopled by colonial masters, were like nothing that followed.

As Pyae Phyo Ti began his poem, the young interpreter hidden behind the electrical equipment caught my eye. A device in my ear would sound the simultaneous translation into English, but the volunteers were very new to this. In an earlier session, the translator had collapsed into a fit of uncontrollable laughter at a speaker’s comment, which had clearly been irreproducible into English.

“The poem is titled 'An Interview with Mandalay'...or something like that,” began my interpreter, a grin in his voice. “Rhymes and rhythms in Burmese are difficult to translate,” he apologized, “but I will try.”
The poem "Scars from the Story of Scholars" is introduced as the story of Mandalay, but is a diatribe against the economic colonization of Myanmar by the Chinese. Much fist-shaking fury accompanies the words about people buying land and taking over local business, and the translation provided include “Brutally murdered” and “Demonstrations.” The poet ends with the thought that although rumor has it that Mandalay will become just another province of Yunnan, it is still not too late for action.
At the Q&A session that follows, a young monk strides up to the microphone, his intent clear in the hard set of his face: “The poem shows that you are a great nationalist. What if people are saying you are an extreme nationalist?"
The tent thrums with anticipation as the poet and the monk face off for a few seconds.
“Well of course, in Mandalay there are people of different races but what I worry about is the illegal entry of people from different countries.”
The poet pauses to catch his breath as the questions come from all sides, mostly belligerent. No questions are asked in English, and this becomes a contentious argument for national identity versus economic progress. Besides, only a handful of foreigners are in the audience.
Next is Maung Than Yu, a composer who has written songs about Mandalay as well as poetry. His voice too rises, and there is a lot of gesturing as he says:
A mother loves her children more than herself. So for the sake of a mother’s love, may all men cease war. We all have to walk the path of peace. Universities should teach peace.
We have a Ministry of Defense, but no Ministry of Peace. No country has a Ministry of Peace! Let us work together to set up Ministries of Peace in each and every country. Let us remove mines and bombs and have less fighting and war!
I do not talk of romantic love. The love I speak of is very maternal, pure and clean, peaceful. We are not reciting a poem but celebrating a convocation. A degree is given to scholars who have learnt the subject. Now a convocation for the doctorate degree of a mother’s love for the nation!

He strikes a chord in the audience; the questions are less hostile. There is a sense of calm as the last two poets, Nyan Myo Htei and Thin Thin Aye Hein, take the stage.
Later, I would discover that the sessions with the Burmese writers have been very combative, especially as controversy has dogged the second year of this festival. Official permission to use the Kuthodaw Pagoda as the venue—a historical site slated as the “world’s largest book”—was withdrawn on the eve of the festival and a writers’ boycott also suggested some powerful political maneuvering. The festival organizers had to scramble to find another venue, but the organizing committee, headed by resourceful Jane Heyn, ensured that the festival would go on.
The patron of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now an elected Member of Parliament and a powerful member of the opposition possibly on the road to securing the presidency. Her presence was enough to speak volumes about the free exchange of literary thoughts and ideas that this festival sought to engender and Aung San Suu Kyi steered clear of any political rhetoric during her brief appearance, preferring to chat, fairly casually, about the literary influences on her own life.
But the impact of a festival like this was indisputable inside the many tents. Author Saya Kaung Thant spoke about Buddhist charity (“To donate, share –smile at least— it is a kind of donation. Feed a dog or a cat with the water in your house”) as well as democracy (“Refuse the fear and stand for the public with bright courage...only then will the journey to democracy begin”). His audience, mostly teenagers, listened with rapt attention.
Dr Aung Myint, a member of the organizing committee and an author, delivered an emotional closing speech: To be in a room like this, filled with the people of Myanmar chatting easily to foreign writers who had come from around the world, felt simply unbelievable.

Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer, sociolinguist, and global nomad. Her work has appeared in journals in the USA, Canada, Australia, UK, Malaysia, Singapore, China, and India and she is the author of three works of fiction: Shambala Junction (2016) Ode to Broken Things (2016) and Rules of Desire (2015); two poetry collections, The Third Glass of Wine (2015), and The Palimpsest of Exile (2009) and has edited four anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. More here.

Multiplying, Colour-Burn and Gaussian Blur by Susan Price

I started with this, drawn on a sheet of scrap paper, copied from a photo of a stuffed fox. I scanned it into the computer. Before I adjusted the contrasts, you could see the type showing through from the other side.

Then I opened the ink sketch in Photoshop, took out the white background of the scrap paper and added a dark background layer. Coloured the drawing, added a title and a screamer.

This is only a try-out for the front cover. I can't do the complete one until I've finished laying out the interior and know how thick the spine will be.
     I used various photos for reference, sometimes using the 'eye-dropper' tool to get an idea of what the colouring should be.
     I was so pleased with the result that I hailed a passing brother. "Cop a butcher's at this," I said.

     He came, he looked. A long silence. Then, grudgingly, "That's pretty good. Come out of it."
     He took over my chair. He over-layered in violet and red. He lowered opacity, multiplied and colour-burned. Recklessly, he employed the polygonal lasso and the Gaussian blur... 
     My good friend Karen Bush tells me that she likes it, but the nose of the fox is a bit wonky. It is, I know, but I don't care. The original stuffed fox in the photo may have had its nose put out of joint -- and in any case the 'bone dog' of the story is a sort of Frankenstein fox, created by witch-craft from an old fox-fur clumsily stitched together.

Here's the completed cover.

Amazon 'suppressed' it for a while because they weren't convinced I own the publishing rights. They seem to do this with every book published with Createspace now, which I suppose is a good thing. Frustrating, though. My friend, the above mentioned Karen Bush, a retired member of this blog, was all set to publish her book about how to deal with your dog's fear of fireworks and had arranged an article in Your Dog magazine to help publicise it.  But because Amazon suppressed her book she now doubts whether she'll be able to get a proof copy and make any alterations before the article appears.

       The Bone Dog is part of a project of mine -- to republish all my out of print books for the age-group 8--10. Since The Wolf's Footprint is my best-seller among my indie-books, it seems to make sense to publish more for that market.

The Wolf's Footprint

Bone Dog is available now, both as paperback
 and kindle

Friday, 24 August 2018

The joys of research - Jo Carroll

I’m tiptoeing towards another novel. 

It takes month to evolve from initial idea to that challenge of the first sentence. I’ve learned to trust that process - ideas, like soup, need simmering time. But they also need occasional attention - in the form of research. Ideas need contexts.

I love research. I love the way it takes me down surprising avenues (or sometimes barely visible pathways) - it’s so easy to spend days learning about something that is nothing to do with the subject but is hugely interesting. No learning, I tell myself, is wasted. (Or it wouldn’t be if I could remember it two days later.)

Research takes many shapes. The most obvious is googling. Speaking personally, I find it the least inspiring. It’s so easy to click from page to page, and read regurgitated facts. If all I need is facts then it’s the obvious way to begin.

But I want more than facts. I need to understand place (not surprising, maybe, for a travel writer). And so, whenever possible, I visit the towns or villages where my novel is set. I walk the streets, wander down alleyways, sit on a quiet station and listen to the birds. I linger in cafes and watch the routes that people use across a square. If I can, I’ll visit in sunshine and in rain - where do I find shelter?

And I try to read original documents. This is where I am seriously distracted. 

I can spend hours in libraries. Town libraries, busy with local people researching family histories. University libraries, with students trying to concentrate and text at the same time. County history centres, where original copies of council meetings or parish records are kept - these are my favourite. They smell of dust and old paper. People whisper as if the records themselves might tell them to hush. I must take notes in pencil. I scribble pages of irrelevant information simply because it has intrigued me.

Simply a way to put off the moment of finally facing that blank page? Possibly. But that doesn’t stop me enjoying the process. Surely I’m not the only one?

If you want to read the result of my last foray into research, please read The Planter’s Daughter.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing III

If you’re just joining us for this latest countdown, I’m listing (in no particular order) the best self-published books I’ve come across.

I’m doing this for two reasons:

  • I want to show that self-publishing, despite the commonly held belief, does not automatically signify a lack of quality.
  • Since the hardest part of self-publishing is finding an audience outside your immediate circle of associations, I am hoping to spread the word about these talented writers to a wider audience.

If you missed my previous posts, you can find them here, here, and here

Okay, let’s get started, shall we?

3.  Dangerous to Know - K. T. Davies (The Chronicles of Breed series)

This is another series that showed up on my Facebook feed, probably because I clicked on last month’s selection, Hero in a Halfling. And if you liked William Tyler Davis’ book, this one will probably appeal to you as well. The humor is drier and less satiric than Davis’ work, but it is genuinely funny. Where Davis’ humor is designed in many ways to break your suspension of disbelief and remind you that you are reading a work of fantasy, Davies’ humor is a natural result of the narrative situation. In short, William Tyler Davis is a genuinely funny author in his Epik Fantasy series while K. T. Davies’ character Breed has a genuinely sardonic sense of humor.

However, The Chronicles of Breed series is a completely different beast than Davis’ Epik Fantasy series. The Chronicles of Breed is marketed as a blend of Deadpool and Game of Thrones, and while I see how that might bring in more readers and I see how such comparisons can be made, I feel that a better comparison can be made to the Thief series of video games, a cult classic series that introduced the first-person sneaker genre, set in a pseudo-Victorian, semi-steampunk world (very much like Neil Gaiman’s London Below in Neverwhere). Like Thief, Dangerous to Know (which is the first volume in the series) follows the adventures of a master thief who finds themself at the center of an Apocalyptic prophecy (or three). What at first seems like a fairly random series of heist jobs ultimately turns into small pieces of larger machinations to end the world, and it is up to our “hero” to put a stop to the plot and save the world.  

While I genuinely like this plot structure (after all, it’s one of the reasons I list Thief as my favorite video game of all time), this is not why I recommend this book. It’s not even in my top three reasons for enjoying it as much as I do. My primary fascination with this novel (and the reason I intend to read the rest of the series) is the character of the protagonist, Breed (which is not the character’s actual name; we never learn the character’s actual given name).

For one thing, Breed is not human. In almost all of the fantasy novels I have read, the main characters are, for all intents and purposes, human, be they elves (tall, overly pompous humans), dwarves (short, vulgar humans), halflings (shorter, timid humans), Men (idealized humans), or sometimes centaurs (I got nothing). If the main characters are not human, they are generally some kind of anthropomorphized mammal. Breed is a halfbreed (hence the name) of a female human and a male thoasa, an anthropomorphized reptilian species, who favors the father more than the mother in looks and personality. 

I find this an inspired choice, as we are not really trained to view reptiles sympathetically. In most fantasy literature, reptilian characters are, nine times out of ten, antagonists, monsters to be feared and avoided. Here, Davies gives us a truly alien viewpoint. Making Breed a reptile allows the reader to have no idea how the character will react to a given situation. It also frees Davies to cast the humans as the true monsters. Breed’s human mother, for instance, is truly one of the most despicable characters in fantasy lit (or any literature for that matter), willing, for example, to murder her only child for “crimes” as petty as arriving later than expected from a successful heist.

This is not to say that Breed is a completely sympathetic character. Breed is not a hero in the classic sense, more antihero, really. The character is as cold-blooded as their species. Breed doesn’t ever (unless this changes in later books) follow the overused trope of jackass-turns-hero. The character begins as an amoral jerk and ends just as badly. The only difference is that we, as the readers, understand the motivations more. If Breed saves someone or helps them, it is because Breed wants to, not because the social order demands such heroism. Even saving the world comes more from self-preservation than altruism: After all, how can a thief steal things, if there isn’t a world to house them in?

The biggest surprise for me as a reader is Breed’s gender. There isn’t one. This may be due to the character’s species, given that some reptiles and amphibians possess the ability to change gender depending on necessity (if Jurassic Park is to be believed, anyway), but I can’t help but think that at least part of it is due to Davies’ desire to allow the readers to determine that gender for themselves. Davies goes out of the way (with much greater success and fluidity than I have in this review) to avoid any references to gender: Breed seems attracted to both genders equally, for instance. Making Breed the narrator also helps avoid the necessity of gendered pronouns.

Even the character’s visual depictions seem fairly androgynous.  
And all of this gives the reader unprecedented freedom to imagine Breed however the reader wishes. Davies allows you to quite literally choose your own protagonist, and that, to me is an amazing accomplishment.  

If this has sparked your interest, Davies has made available two free prequels, a novella and a short story. You simply need to go here and give your email address, and you will receive links to download them within a day or two. I recommend both of these shorter tales as heartily as I do Dangerous to Know. I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the series. 

The entire series so far:
Prequel 1: A Fistful of Rubies (free)
Prequel 2: Something Wicked (free)
Book 1: Dangerous to Know
Book 2: Tooth and Claw
Book 3: The Best Laid Plans