Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing V

We have reached the halfway point of my Self-Publishing Countdown. It being October 23, we are also about a week away from Halloween, so it seems appropriate this month to look at a self-published Lovecraftian horror novel.

Ghost Reader wants a scary story.
5. Dancer in the Dark by Thomas E. Fuller and Brad Strickland

I love H. P. Lovecraft. I know he can be a problematic writer in many respects. His writing can be unapologetically racist in places (his descriptions of the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn prove particularly offensive). His characters are often one-dimensional, and his diction often proves overly dense for a casual reader.

Despite this, Lovecraft's stories of unimaginably ancient beings whose motives are so inscrutable to mere mortals that we must either go mad or perish in the face of the unassailable knowledge that we are less than nothing in the universal scheme of things are so much more horrifying to me than a simple ghost story of unrequited love or tales of the walking dead shambling across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

The Dancer in the Dark is a near-perfect example of Lovecraftian, cosmic horror done well. Fuller and Strickland manage to make Lovecraft work for a modern audience. The hero of this novel is no young and fit adventurer taking on cosmic horrors with both fists and a flamethrower. In true Lovecraftian fashion, our protagonist is an elderly academic, Dr. Cletus Tremaine professor emeritus of Miskatonic University's archaeology department, who is called down to the rural North Georgia mountains to investigate a mystery surrounding some pre-historic Indian burial mounds.

In many respects the story reminds me of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," centering as it does around someone's attempts to bring forth an ancient evil to reshape the world. However, this novel is more than simply a retelling in a different geographical setting. In Fuller and Strickland's hands, this story manages to take some problematic aspects of Lovecraft's fiction and make them work: Tremaine is not, for example, a one-dimensional esoterica-spouting academic. He is an aging man who, as he investigates the central mystery of the story, still struggles with the grief of losing his wife six years ago and tries to repair his strained relationship with his nephew, a fellow archaeologist and head of the team investigating the mounds.

The authors also avoid falling into the ethnic and regional stereotypes Lovecraft is so often guilty of while still presenting a fair depiction of the regional differences between the New England protagonist and the Southern denizens of Blankenship, Georgia. Sheriff John Bell Hood Conklin, for instance, could easily descend into the all-too-familiar caricature of Crooked Southern Sheriff (think Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice from Smokey and the Bandit).

Instead, the authors set you up to expect that depiction before presenting a sympathetic, honest cop stuck between equally compelling sides in his desire to investigate a series of murders with seemingly no logical solution.

Their women characters, too, come across as independent and driven without contradicting the mores of the 1920's setting of the novel. Of particular note is Elizabeth Garrett, reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, who hopes her reporting of the mounds story will help her move from the society page to more prestigious assignments.

The treatment of race is also noteworthy here. Where Lovecraft often falls into easy reliance on negative stereotypes, Fuller and Strickland rarely if ever mention a character's race directly (unless, as in the case of the Cherokee Indian John MacIntosh, it is important to the development of the plot). Their African American characters for instance are distinguished more through context than through any direct mention of ethnicity. This is done, too, without whitewashing or ignoring the problematic racial relationships of the early Twentieth-Century American South. Tremaine's apology for his carpet bag to a rail porter provides a mildly humorous example of this.

However, the novel is worth reading for more than the fully developed characters. Where Lovecraft often becomes bogged down in his own narrative voice and heavy-handed attempts (especially in his earlier work) to build suspense, this story is perfectly paced, very much like a Hitchcock film: the tale moves forward in increments gradually piling on details and picking up steam until the climax brings all the threads together. Also of note is the denouement, where so many modern novels end almost immediately after the resolution of the climax, Fuller and Strickland allow the story time to unwind and reach a natural equilibrium before drawing the narrative to a satisfactory close.

Thomas E. Fuller and Brad Strickland's The Dancer in the Dark is well worth your time. In addition to being a near perfect example of cosmic horror, it is also a well-crafted, perfectly paced supernatural mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Give it a shot; you won't be disappointed. While you read, see if you can’t find the ingeniously subtle reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I give it 5/5 tentacles

Note: Don't let my critique of Lovecraft's shortcomings fool you. His strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. If you've not read him, give him a try. His work, too, first appeared as self-published collections. (Arkham House Publishing was originally specifically set up by his friends August Derleth and David Wandrei to publish his works in book form after his death). If you’re looking for a place to start, I have recently published a pretty good (if I say so myself) introduction to Lovecraft's work through McFarland Publishing.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Winners and almost winners. Ali Bacon compares porcelain with clay and other gutsy stuff in this year’s Sir Walter Scott Prize

As a (new) writer of historical fiction I’ve taken a particular interest in this year’s Sir Walter Scott Prize and set myself the task of reading the shortlist. I haven’t quite got to the end, but knowing the winner is Ben Myers with The Gallows Pole, here are a few thoughts after four (out of six) very different reads. 

I came across Jane Harris’ Sugar Money soon after a trip to the Caribbean so was particularly interested in this 18th century Grenadan adventure story, then progressed to the newly announced winner (a very different 18th Century Yorkshire) before I got to Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves and most recently Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. As it happens the second two are both 20th Century so it seems reasonable to pair them by period. 

Despite differences of geography and style, there are similarities between the two ‘earlier’ titles (and they get a slightly longer review in this blog post)  Both use a form of vernacular for at least some of the narrative and I preferred the creole patois (a fascinating linguistic confection to which I assimilated surprisingly quickly), to the more prosaic transcription of Yorkshire dialect for David Hartley’s character. Both also aspire to a basis in historical fact – which I suspect to be authentic on the case of the Gallows Pole and perhaps not so in Sugar Money. Whichever is the case I’m not sure why current historical fiction has to give us this basis in documentation (Mann Booker-nominated His Bloody Project a case in point) when I’m quite happy to read fiction as fiction!These are both highly original books with elements in each that I loved or could have done without, but I can see that Gallows Pole, with its dark intensity and closeness to the landscape has a bit more literary clout than Sugar Money (which Harris says owes its allegiance to the adventure stories of R.L. Stevenson) though I’m not sure it doesn’t score just as highly on sheer readability.

Of the other two books, I again liked both in different ways. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a quietly engaging book about two women living on the land in the aftermath of WW2, apparently minding their own business until their peace is broken by a newcomer and a murder trial ensues. 

I’ve just discovered that although this is told as straight fiction, the book is based on the author’s family history and this is her attempt to weave known facts into a narrative. This may explain why a lot of what may have happened between these women is left unsaid. 
I liked it very much but perhaps its quietude and oblique approach worked against it in the final analysis. 

Manhattan Beach is different again. The opening scenes give us a child’s eye view of things 11 year-old Anna does not understand in her father’s (and her own) day to day life in New York of the early 1940s. We go on to meet gangland bosses and shipyard workers, divers and seamen who all play some part in World War Two while working out their own paths in life. The character of Dexter Styles, whose relationships involve old money and new, is mesmerising and when he leaves the scene the book looses a momentum that isn’t replaced. But this is still a great book on a wide canvas and all in third person, which makes it a great foil to the more intimate narratives of the previous contenders. Without having read the remaining ‘shortlistees’, I think this one is at the top of my list so far.

So I still have two to read; Grace by Paul Lynch and The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath. But it seems to me that even within one genre there is such diversity that deciding on the winner must be horrendously difficult. 

Here’s part of the judges' statement. 

‘Judging this prize is always tough, and our 2018 shortlist was such a cornucopia of different styles, themes and historical episodes that we had our first ever hung jury and secret ballot. …. In the end, our final choice was between delicate porcelain and earthy clay, and clay triumphed."

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves could be the porcelain and Gallows Pole most certainly the clay. But where does that leave the others?  Sugar Money is strong rum I suppose; Manhattan Beach, with its great tapestry of war-time America, much more sustaining than any cocktail.

Ali Bacon's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye is set in Victorian Edinburgh. A fictional biography of artist and photographer David Octavius Hill, it tells his story through the eyes of those who knew or sat for him and has been described by reviewers as 'elegant and fascinating' and 'beautiful, accomplished and profoundly moving'.

Available in ebook or paperback from Linen Press.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Karla Brading interviewed by Katherine Roberts

Karla Brading
One of the best things about writing books for young readers is when a fan of your work starts writing books as well. From her very first letter to me, after she'd enjoyed my fantasy novel Spellfall, I knew Karla Brading was a born writer, possibly even a fellow fantasy author. Many letter exchanges later (and I mean real letters, written by hand on paper and posted into one of those shiny red letterboxes you see dotted around the place), and it became obvious she was highly creative too. Then one day a package dropped through my letterbox containing Karla's first novel. A vampire book, as I remember - it still sits proudly on my shelf among my signed copies.

A few more years passed, and Karla now has a book deal with the highly-respected Welsh press Gomer for her latest novel The Inn of Waking Shadows, which I had the privilege of reading at proof stage on my Kindle. This one is a ghost story for teens set in a haunted pub in Wales, and it'll send shivers down your spine, whatever your age... imagine if Stephen King lived in Wales and wrote for kids, and that should give you some idea of what to expect.

Inn of Waking Shadows
This summer I caught up with Karla, who kindly agreed to answer some questions about her writing and her artwork, a sample of which features on the cover of her new book.

What was the first story you ever wrote? And which was your first book?

KB: The first short story was written with my Mum’s help. She used to write down random story titles and I would go away to my room and come up with a story inspired by these titles, to proudly show her. I remember the first title clear as daylight: The Red Shoes. I envisioned a girl in a red coat with glossy Mary Janes that she wore to dance for her parents and for her friends at school, in the living room and at the park. The older I got, the more I wanted red shoes just like it!

Later, after a sudden move to South Wales from Southampton, I was that little bit older (9 years old) and capable of lengthier pieces. The first story I deemed as a ‘novel’ was called Beyond Imagination. It was about a girl who could imagine anything to be true. Adventures ensued with her school friend Richard, who was a real friend of mine at the time. It amounted to thirty A4 handwritten pages but to me, it felt like I’d created something in the same ambitious calibre as The Lord of the Rings!

My teacher used to let me read my earlier works out loud in class (junior school) and even allowed me to visit the nursery to read shorter pieces to the little ones. They were very encouraging.

They were lucky to have you! I understand The Inn of Waking Shadows is based on a real place... have you ever been there, and how did it inspire your book?

photo: Andy Dolman, CC wikimedia.org

KB: That’s right! The book is based on what is allegedly ‘the most haunted pub in Wales'. It featured on a popular ghost hunting programme called 'Most Haunted' and happens to be about forty minutes from my house. The Skirrid Inn is 900 years old and allows people to stay overnight in what was once an old court house. 182 people were hung there and the same wooden beam that the noose was tied to remains part of the furnishings.

Spooky... do people really pay to stay there?

KB: I have stayed overnight on two occasions now. Once for a friend’s 21st birthday, and the other time for my 30th birthday. The first time, I heard a bell ringing in the night. It deeply unsettled me but became a feature in my book. A 35 year old maid called Fanny Price died at the inn. I liked the idea of the bell summoning her, even in the afterlife.

Definitely the kind of place to inspire a ghost story! But you are also a talented artist. How does your artwork tie in with your writing, and which do you enjoy most?

KB: The artwork is something I find very therapeutic, whereas writing feels like my soul is desperately speaking out. It’s intoxicating – writing - creating people and worlds, knowing you’re the master of a character’s fate. Unfortunately, my past has been a very sad one and I put all my energy into creativity now, reminding myself that there’s a world of opportunity and colour.

With the artwork, I can put on music and sing to my heart’s content, quickly working a paint brush over the grooves of a crisp sheet of paper. Or focus intently on the neat, tiny pencil lines that create my fine-detailed works. People can follow the progress online and be inspired and it spurs me on to create more and more when they react so positively. A lot of my artwork depicts my daughter Willow in fantastical situations. We have quite a collection. It’s become a diary without words.

The writing is a different kind of art. I love the writing and painting equally, and with as much passion as my heart can bleed. I didn’t learn art in school. I knew from the age of six I wanted to be a writer no matter what, so it was all I practised and dreamed about. But delightfully, my latest novel has both my text and illustrations published in one edition. I feel truly accomplished at the moment.

It's a magical feeling, I agree. Do you enjoy meeting other writers? Any favourite conventions or book festivals?

KB: I LOVE meeting other writers! We all have this magic at our centres: I can sense it. We see the universe that little bit differently. The simplest of moments can be transformed into a deeply relevant scene in the pages of our work. Our emotions and sensitivity tend to be heightened (as is with a lot of creative careers).

I find a lot of writers hold on to the innocence and playfulness of their youth. I’ve seen a writer wave goodbye to me with loud and ridiculous gusto in the middle of London, making me laugh hysterically. I’ve stood bare foot in a cool river, balancing upon slippery rocks with a fellow writer I truly admire; swans staring curiously nearby. I’ve seen a writer jump bollards like a ten-year-old and tackle a tree swing for an adrenaline rush. And personally, I’m no stranger to behaving like a kid, dancing in the middle of the street, or putting on silly accents and voices to draw smiles from friends. 

innocence and playfulness

Writers just seem to know that life doesn’t have to be mundane if you turn it upside down and inside out and look at it from all angles. Writing is a special kind of gift to a world that can be difficult at times. The work can be a hard slog. The editing can be draining and invigorating all at once. But in my experience, writers are very supportive of each other. I absolutely adore going to festivals such as The Hay Literary Festival, to listen to how other authors' minds work and the process they go through when producing a novel. I always come away inspired and having made new friends and contacts. I don't know where I'd be without Hay and the opportunities it's presented me with.

Karla and Katherine paddling in the Wye at Hay

KR: I enjoy Hay, too, and still like to visit occasionally for a good root around in the secondhand bookshops, where you never know what you might find! Which brings me to my final question... what would you call your unicorn?

KB: Oooooh. Now there’s a question. It would have to be a she for a start, because I’m all about empowered females. And if I were to own something as exotic as a unicorn, she’d have to be a lady too. I’d probably go for something like ‘Moonlight,’ because I love a dark night when the moon is bright. Or maybe ‘Stormbringer,’ because I’m convinced I was a warrior in another life. Haha!

Lady Moonlight Stormbringer (everyone knows unicorns have three names) - sounds good to me. Thank you very much, Karla Brading!

You can order Karla's new book from amazon or visit Gomer Press to order direct.

Follow Karla for all her latest news on Twitter https://twitter.com/KarlaJMBrading


Karla Brading was interviewed by Katherine Roberts, who has some Welsh blood herself, which might be why she enjoys writing fantasy and historical/legendary fiction for young readers. Find out more about Spellfall and Katherine's other books at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Of The Church and churches by Sandra Horn

Is this an odd topic for a blog? Probably. It's an attempt to look at the push-and-pull of churches/religion on me and my writing. I was brought up vaguely C of E but I’m ambivalent about the Church as an institution these days. I used to be sent to Sunday School as a child. What I remember most about it was that your team got points for everyone who attended so you’d be beaten up by your team-mates for not turning up. The church was a good mile-and-a-half from home and we would have walked in all weathers, so my attendance was erratic.

My school started each day with a short service and hymns. Once, not long before Christmas, there was a decoration with holly and a candle in front of the Headmistress. It caught fire. We were supposed to be praying – ie with our eyes SHUT. Mine were open, O sin against the Holy Ghost, which is why I saw the thing going up in flames. What was I to do? If I shouted ‘Fire!’ I’d be caught out. If I didn’t, we could all be immolated. I took the coward’s way and kept shtum, but luckily one of the teachers smelled smoke, or heard crackling, or something, opened her eyes and dashed a glass of water over the flames. 

I think I was ambivalent even then, although I loved singing the hymns – still do, as long as they are not the dreadful tuneless dirges many of the more modern writers seem to favour. Ear-shrivelling. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Harvest Festival...very enjoyable markers of the turning year. I also love some of the legends and have plundered some as a writer – I’ve written stories around St Cuthbert and his miraculous encounters with various animals and birds on the islands off the Northumberland coast. Absurd, enchanting fairytales. 

Some church buildings are, of course, very beautiful – and some are absolutely not. Some are designed to make us poor humans feel like lowly worms – oppressive – like Notre Dame and the Duomo in Florence, and some are vainglorious, shouting more of the wealth and importance of their patrons than the glory of God. One of my favourites is the little church at Moreton in Dorset, with its clear glass windows exquisitely etched by Laurence Whistler. It’s flooded with light and the countryside is visible all around. I hadn’t realised how much church interiors can be darkened by stained glass until I went there. I keep going back for the sheer joy of it.

The church at Minstead, in the New Forest, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended up being buried, has a gallery for children and poor people and a shut-off room for the gentry with its own side-door where the servants could bring dinners in. Historic relics? Not entirely, alas, not yet. 

 I don’t have much to do with churches or the Church these days, except recently when I was involved with Salisbury’s St Thomas’s Church  800th anniversary celebrations. I belong to a Women’s Theatre Group, Juno, based in Salisbury, and we had been asked to kick off the celebrations with ‘Salisbury Tales’ which were a series of monologues and two-handers tracing the history of the church and its place in the community locally and more widely (it’s a pilgrim church). It has a wonderful Doom painting over the chancel arch, with a glorious Satan, half cockerel, half crocodile. Its colours are somewhat faded, as it was covered in whitewash for years to protect it from being pickaxed by the Iconoclasts, and cleaning it inevitably caused some damage to the pigments. It’s still a dramatic feature, though, with its ancient imagery looming over the much newer children’s play area and tea bar. 

Salisbury Tales began with the earliest pilgrims and ended with the man installing a new audio system and one of those lovely women of the flower rota and the teas. Some of the writers were new to it and were mentored, which gave us the chance to sort out a 13th-century pilgrim referring to ‘egocentric’ Kings, and the use of ‘O God, you search me and you know me’ set to one of the aforementioned tuneless dirges when it would have been plainsong, most likely. Instead, we had several people planted amongst the congregation/audience whispering the words. Nice and atmospheric.

 Salisbury Tales cast

The character in my monologue was Martha, the Holy Duster – a kind of Everywoman, who spoke a prologue and epilogue and all the linking material between the plays. With her broom and her pinny, she could have been from any age of the church; a fallen woman earning her redemption and her dole by keeping the floor swept and the pews dusted. Grateful if slightly baffled by the sermons and the rituals. For her, as for many, the church was and is a kindly, forgiving refuge. A place of safety and solace when plague ravaged the city, a welcoming place for a cuppa and a chat nowadays. – and a focus of caring and outreach during the recent poisonings and their aftermath.  I get all that, but still I’m on the outside looking in.

Friday, 19 October 2018

When Have You Truly Moved? - Jan Edwards

We moved house a year ago. It doesn’t feel that long and yet it does. People have stopped asking if we are ‘settled in yet’, and after twelve months I think we can probably say we feel comfortable here now. 
Certainly I feel able to write here - which took a while. It is not just the change in house but the uncertainty of having things to hand. That unpacking of your world - Virginia Woolf's  room of one's own where you can feel sure of creative flow with interruption. Okay - there are still spouses and telephones and door bells to deal with, but that scrabbling about for simple things like pens and research materials is no longer an issue.
There is an old adage that you have never truly moved house until you have unpacked the last box. Now I suspect on that score we have ‘unpacked’ most things in that we have opened all boxes and inspected the contents. But what about the boxes that were repacked and migrated to the attic? Or the shed? Do they count?
I spent half an hour today looking for a crystal sun catcher. I have not  knowingly seen it since we moved but the low winter sun is streaming through my office window and I thought how pretty it would be to have the rainbows that the crystal sent dancing out across the walls. 
So I searched.
It did not surface.
Being small it is conceivable that it became entangled in some bubblewrap and was accidentally discarded, or else (more likely) ended up in one of those re-packed boxes somewhere in the roof-void jungle.
It isn’t important in the scheme of things, and not some family heirloom whose loss will be lamented, but it made me wonder what else was packed away, never to resurface over the past twelve months, and in which case will we ever be truly settled in until they do? 
So long as I can write I am not sure it matters.
More about Jan Edwards and her work can be found on:
Blog: https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: Winter DownsFables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  
Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Plants as Catalysts, by Elizabeth Kay

A few months ago I held a creative writing class at RHS Wisley, and the subject matter needed to fit the setting. I suppose the first book I read as a child that really featured vegetation as something important was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Gardens are represented as being important and life-affirming, and the gradual transformation of self-centred Mary Lennox and hypochondriac Colin is brought about by the resurrection of a forbidden garden that has been neglected for ten years.

However, plants aren’t always the good guys. The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, was a ground-breaking science fiction novel, based around the idea that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Take away everyone’s eyesight, and carnivorous plants that walk can fill a lot of suddenly-vacated evolutionary niches. Plants themselves can provide a lot of really good ideas. Tumble weed is not fixed to one place, and moves freely with the aid of the wind. There are pitcher plants that are so large that they can devour frogs and small birds as well as the insects we usually associate with their diet, and this came in very useful in my book Jinx on the Divide. The Joshua Tree can live for 1000 years, and just think about the changes that might have seen.

Even more mind-boggling is a Great Basin bristlecone pine, measured by its ring count to be 5067 years old. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known living individual nonclonal tree in the world. Clonal colonies are linked by their roots.

Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce in Sweden, is a tree on top of roots that have been carbon dated to 9,550 years old, established at the end of the last ice age. There is a Quaking Aspen whose roots have been dated at 80,000 years.

New research is also suggesting that plants are intelligent – not in exactly the same way as us, but with their own ability to sense things. They can react to the sound of caterpillars eating nearby leaves, and begin to secrete defensive chemicals. They can sense gravity, and the presence of water. Anyone who remembers the TV series, The Private Life of Plants, may recall the speeded-up footage of a bramble growing. It was absolutely terrifying, using its thorns to grab hold of things in order to climb higher, and strangling other plants in its way. I’ve had fun with plants over the years. This is a short story called Ash Wednesday, which was originally published in Magnet Magazine in July 2013.

Genetic engineering can work in mysterious ways.

            The Great Timber Shortage led to the development of rapid-growth trees, and their subsequent and enthusiastic cultivation worldwide – but genes have agendas of their own, and we are not party to all of them.
            Initially, the walking trees were hailed as a triumph. Pines were the first; fast-growing, sensibly-shaped for inner-city walkabouts, faintly aromatic. A touch of Scotch mist in every shopping precinct, and no extra outlay each Christmas – just get the whisky companies to sponsor the fairy lights. The walkers weren’t vandalised, either – ripping off a branch seemed more like an amputation. But best of all, as far as the local councils were concerned, you couldn’t put a TPO on a single one of them. Tree Preservation Orders had been the bane of every developer; you had to build around protected trees, and if one was ever-so-accidentally cut down, the culprit got a hefty fine.

            Joshua Green had seen his job description change beyond belief. When he’d started as a tree officer he’d felt like an environmental warrior, saving damsons in distress. And then it had all changed. The first pine had walked into the shopping mall one December morning and settled down in its appointed place like a belly-dancer, shivering and shaking until its roots were thoroughly buried in the loosened earth. Joshua eyed it with caution.

            When the main waterpipe under the pavement fractured some months later, the tree was simply led off to the nearest park and left there while the repairs went ahead unhindered. The cause of the fracture was never identified. Joshua sat in the park, eating his lunch and watching the tree, wondering what would happen if it decided to go for a wander on its own.    The council printed a new leaflet, Branching Out, detailing the latest species they’d acquired for the car-park of the new superstore. Five oaks had been felled to tarmac it, which was now perfectly legal. Over a period of ten years half the trees in Britain had disappeared and been replaced with walkers. Unfortunately oaks had refused to mutate, so the council had opted for silver birches and an ash.
            The new ash tree was very beautiful; graceful sweeping branches, pale grey-green trunk, an inbuilt immunity to ash die-back disease.
            “Nice bit of shade for the cars,” said Corby, the developer.
            The tree rustled faintly.
            “Cars? Is that all you care about?” said Joshua, who cycled everywhere.
            “I care about what I’m paid to care about,” said Corby, who’d just won the contract for the new by-pass. “The oaks will have to go. We’ll be using walking willows. That way, if they start to undermine the road they can just uproot themselves and back off a bit.”
            That autumn, the trees stayed green until November. Then there was a sharp frost and the borough was stripped of its foliage overnight – all except for the ash in the car-park. Joshua blinked in astonishment; the leaves seemed impervious to cold, and now that he could see it against the skeletons of the other trees he could see how much it had grown. A slight breeze ruffled the greenery, and the tree spoke the way ashes have spoken time out of mind; a whisper, a rustle, a sigh… Yggdrasil, Yggdrasil...  A thrush started to sing, and a butterfly settled on the trunk. The tree was brimming with unseasonable life, and Joshua felt a powerful sense of unease.
            That Christmas, the fairy lights on the pine in the shopping mall fused eleven times. The following February an escaped apple tree overturned some fruit stalls, and a holly caused considerable damage when it broke into a balloon factory.
            On Shrove Tuesday, while Joshua was eating pancakes for breakfast, the phone rang.
            “Josh!” yelled Corby. “Get down here, quick as you can! I’m on site…” But the rest of his words were lost in a howling gale, and then he was cut off altogether. Joshua looked out of the window, but the sun was shining and the sycamore was as motionless as a painting. He bolted the last of his pancake, and got on his bike.
            There only seemed to be half as many trees as there had been the day before. When he reached the site he realised that everyone had stopped work. The oaks were surrounded by walking willows. Above them all towered the ash, far taller than he remembered it, right in the way of the bulldozers.
            Someone had a radio. The sound fizzed and crackled, and the newsreader’s words ebbed and flowed like the sea. A man was being interviewed about Norse mythology, about Yggdrasil, the tree of life, the giant ash that bound together heaven and earth – and hell.
            A chainsaw coughed malignantly into life. Lightning flashed and thunder roared as the tree started to pull its snaky roots out of the ground. The workforce dropped their tools and ran.

That evening, Joshua sat staring at the television in disbelief. A copse of hawthorns was marching up Whitehall. Giant redwoods had surrounded the White House, Cairo was overrun with palms, Tokyo by flowering cherries, Nairobi with baobabs. Then a weeping fig walked into the newsroom, and the picture turned to snowflakes.
Five minutes later there was a power cut. Only the clock in the church tower had anything to say.
            As Joshua listened, it struck midnight.
            It was Ash Wednesday.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Not So Free Free Book Giveaway

I tried the free book giveaway marketing tactic earlier this year. Gaining a following of supportive readers motivated me to do it.  Far more successful self-published authors used the “perm-free” model to gain new readers, new markets and a lot of brand new pounds and euros in their bank accounts.

Why not try it? If they achieved greater book sales using the model of giving away their equity for free, surely it should work for me. The experts claimed giving away one of my books for free helped me gain the all important newsletter subscriber, the holy grail of author-driven book marketing. They are worth gold! They sell your books! They give you reviews!

I wrote copy for my automation sequence, tweaked my landing page and wrote copy for Facebook ads designed to entice readers to give me their email address in exchange for a free copy of my book. The future looked so bright, until it dimmed.

Over time a sense of crudeness creeped over me.  With each free download I expected readers to review my book - the one they received for free, at least - on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Goodreads.

That’s the transactional agreement, right?

Their email for my free book.

Except readers refused to accept the equal sign in this exchange. Happily they downloaded my free book — in kindle, nook, iOS and PDF formats! with free support if they couldn't get the file onto their reader of choice — and did nothing; or worse, reported me to my email provider for spamming them; or the worst of the worst, an fellow LGBT community member who gave me their email address, downloaded the book, immediately unsubscribed, then forwarded the free download email link to half a dozen other people.

Readers contacted me requesting I resend the link because “I sign up for so many author downloads, I can’t find yours in my inbox.” (That’s a direct quote, btw).

Did you bother to read my book or any of the books you download, I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Ignoring the request seemed a kinder approach for my sanity.

Setting aside the loss of my time and the money associated with expending that time the spiritual cost indebted me the most. Truly I’ve felt better punching myself in the face.

Towards the end of the experiment I felt worthless as a writer. Of course  I know writing is more than sales and the importance of making connections with readers, blah, blah, blah. Readers barely acknowledged me. They have so many free books to read why should they care about me and my writing? Readers have become surfeited with free books. And this is the crux of the problem.

Readers now expect free and demand it from writers. We’ve created the Pavlovian response amongst readers. That’s on us.

Critics tell me I need to focus on the long game. You sell fewer books in the beginning for a bigger dividend down the road. But if at some point the free giveaway model has so thoroughly depleted my sense of worth as a writer, what will I have gained? I want to be writing in 30 years. Giving away any more of my books for free inhibits that goal.

I want to earn a decent living from my writing and be acknowledged by readers and feel good about marketing and writing. So I’m calling it quits on the free book giveaway. For next book launch, I will offer a time-based discount on the book’s price; I will give away a book or two through raffle copter and  excerpt a few paragraphs on the web.

I love writing compelling content that certain readers like and publishing it through my newsletter, here at Author's Electric and other publishing outlets I write for. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Year Zero? - by Alex Marchant

What a year it’s been!

A life-changing year. This month, and almost to the day as I write this, it’s been a whole year since I published my first book. A year in which, for the first time, I’ve been able to call myself an author. Not just wish for it, or dream about it, but actually introduce myself as an author.

And because I decided to launch my book on the anniversary of the birthday of my leading historical character (2nd October), I was able, courtesy of a totally unexpected, but rather fabulous invitation, to celebrate its first anniversary at the same time as his birthday  in his old home, surrounded by other devotees – and with cake! Lots of cake! (More on that later.)

Did I think a year ago just where I’d be now? No – not at all. My only aim was to get that book published – to master the labyrinthine processes needed to produce an ebook, and paperbacks via two different suppliers. And to adhere to US, as well as my own UK, tax regulations, because – really? – there would be money coming my way if – when – people began to buy it. It was quite late on in the process when I realized that last fact: I knew of course that the point of publishing the book was so that people to read it, but for them to do that they had to buy it (usually) – and in order for them to want to do that, I’d have to sell it to them. Marketing, promotion – that was something else I had to master.

The grand marketing plan still hasn’t been drawn up. I continue to promote on a very ad hoc basis. Some time this winter, when things are quieter, I’ll sit down and read all those ‘how to’ guides and plan properly – probably. But somehow, even without all that, the pre-orders began to roll in, then sales; I started to interact with complete strangers on social media who’d bought the book and enjoyed it; and, yes, sums of money mysteriously appeared in my bank account...

...and in all sorts of currencies...
The learning curve continued, if anything growing steeper. Three weeks before Christmas I had my first ‘public appearance’ since publication – it may have been only a local senior school fayre, but it still counted. People spoke to me seriously as an author, discussed the ins and outs of my particular period of history, and – I couldn’t quite believe it – bought my books. Quite a few of them. It gave me the confidence to start planning more face-to-face appearances for the coming year – and to say ‘yes’ when invitations arrived, even when my first instinct might have been to run a mile in the opposite direction.
Two kind gentlemen helping me with publicity
 shots at Barnet Medieval Festival

Since then it seems I’ve hardly had time to turn around, with new experiences coming fast one upon another. With the release of the sequel, I now have the ‘full set’ to present and sell. (Though there is a third book underway, taking the lives of my fictional characters onwards, the first two books complete the story of King Richard III himself, which was what I originally set out to do.) And events and activities so far have included (all of them firsts): stalls at several medieval festivals; giving readings and talks at said festivals (the pinnacle being when, at Bosworth, a gunnery demonstration began in the main arena right on cue – just as I was describing the cannon-fire in my reading of the build-up to the battle from ‘The King’s Man’!); talks and question-and-answer sessions at schools and libraries; a videoed interview and reading alongside a fellow author at my first library event (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nnNrCeWnqs); a virtual book launch, plus two ‘bricks and mortar’ ones; upcoming attendance at my very first literary festival (Moulton, Northamptonshire). All things that a year ago would have had me running, terrified, for the hills.

Cover girl?
Other ‘firsts’ include a recent invitation to review a fellow author’s recently submitted manuscript, with an eye to providing a quote for her cover (me?!), and putting out a tentative suggestion for a collaboration to produce an anthology of short fiction as a charity fundraiser. To my surprise, all eleven fellow authors I approached in the first instance were enthusiastic to become involved, so I’m currently busy editing my first contributory volume in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK), which assists people with the same condition that King Richard had. With my new-found mantra of ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’, the title is Grant Me the Carving of My Name, used with permission of the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, from her poem ‘Richard’ read by Benedict Cumberbatch at the king’s reburial in 2015. And I’m currently waiting on tenterhooks for final confirmation of a contribution by another well-known ‘name’. All fingers and other extremities crossed…

Cover image of the anthology
kindly contributed by Riikka Katajisto

And that cake mentioned above? That was perhaps the most relaxing of my events so far this year. The manager of Middleham Castle in Wensleydale decided to throw a party for the 566th birthday of the most famous of the castle’s owners, namely King Richard, and she invited me along to cut the cake on his behalf. I’ve never been a ‘special guest’ before. It almost made me feel like a ‘real’ author…

Cutting the cake iced in the King Richard's
 colours of murrey and blue. And it was very tasty.