Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Art imitates life imitates art while most of us just try to figure out what's going on

From Skin Wars - Life imitating art imitating life.
Oscar Wilde, famously quoted as saying 'life imitates art far more than art imitates life', must be spinning in his grave about now. Certainly, one hundred and thirty years ago his statement was probably true. In fact, it was probably true twenty years ago. Now, however, life has once again taken the reins and is moving and changing at a pace too fast for even the most trendy hipsters to keep up with.

  • Social landscapes are constantly changing. Now sex and gender mean different things and it's becoming more commonly accepted that there are dozens of the latter.
  • Technology that seemed decades or even centuries away now looks plausible in the next few years.
  • Fake news is so common, even from previously trusted sources, that the real trick is finding true news.
  • The political landscape pushes the boundaries of even the most on-trend Tom Clancy or Bill Patterson novel (in fact, the latter has even joined forces with a previous president for a recent novel).
  • ...and the kids... the kids are increasingly hard to understand by anyone not directly of their generation, which is now about a ten-year span. They've taken to changing and redefining the language to such a degree that some words no longer have the same meaning 10 years after they were coined. And let's not even talk about fashion, relationships, or work-place expectations.

Yes, trends come and go before they can even be noticed by anyone over 30, modern art has a narrow window of relevance (if it ever had any!), science and technology are moving at a pace almost unimaginable by the average person, and fiction writing, well, anything not purely fantasy is essentially historical fiction by the time it's published — easily dated by whatever social or technological references enter into the story. As authors, even science fiction authors, we're essentially left playing catch-up.

As an example, just last November I finished the first draft of a near future YA mundane science fiction novel (mundane meaning plausible, without any fancy magical technology). Set twenty years in the future, it featured autodrive cars guided by a city-wide computer network, pervasive voice-activated computer assistants, household 3D printers, implanted computers, mind-controlled cosmetic appendages, and paperless workstations in schools, to name a few. Socially, the transgendered were accepted in the same manner as anyone else, society had settled on two new pronouns one for non-binary people and one for human-like machines, artificial wombs had just become commonplace, and some children were now gestated entirely ex utero. Politically, unease between China and the US was still brewing and both had moon bases, although the US was playing catchup. I'd just added a corporate Mars colony to the backstory.

I hope it's obvious that I was attempting to incorporate and extrapolate the latest modern technology into a fully functional state by the time of my story. At the time of writing, all of the ideas seemed plausible within the twenty-year timeline leading to the story although I felt some might be stretching the boundaries of plausibility more than others.

Fast forward to 2019 and, given the new developments I've learned about in the last two months, including amazing developments in artificial intelligence, the promise of personal flying cars within a year or two at most, China's moon landing, and others (and that's not even considering that we're due for a paradigm shift in computational processing and storage soon) and I already have to redo much of the world-building and plot points from the story, as some key items are already out of date.

While I very much enjoy the ride when it comes to watching all the new technological developments, there's little question they can wreck havoc on contemporary fiction stories. And I haven't even touched on the challenge of crime fiction!

Oscar Wilde, while you also lived in chaotic times, they were nothing like the twenty-teens. Art no longer holds a candle to life when it comes to innovation, creativity, and change. However, be that as it may, personally, I can't wait to see what's next.

Edwin H Rydberg is a science fiction writer and futurist. He can be found at his website Alternate Futures, or at various events hosted by Promoting Yorkshire Authors.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

I Think I May Have Foreseen the Coming of Trump Thirty Years Ago - Andrew Crofts

It seems I may have had some sort of visionary experience at the end of the 1980s and foresaw the whole Trump phenomenon.

In the course of filming an interview the other day, I rooted out a book I published in 1990 with Hutchinson Business Books titled “Hype – the Essential Guide to Marketing Yourself”.  

Image result for hype! [book]

By today’s standards it was a pretty mild affair, although I did talk a bit about the advantages of self-publishing, which in those days was still called “vanity publishing”, and which I remember got me a ticking off from the fabulous Libby Purves in the Times. This was not only before the Internet took off, it was also before we were familiar with the term “reality tv” and before we started to sink into the celebrity culture swamp, which has since risen to our chins.

I guess if I was writing it today the publishers would suggest a title like “How to Build a Platform for Yourself”.

Anyhow, in a summary on the very last page of the book I find I wrote the following:
“Donald and Ivana Trump became king and queen of New York society because of their outrageously high profile success as property developers, financiers and hoteliers. Even those who don’t like their style have to admit that they are interesting at the moment, which means that they can make contacts at any level they like, which leads to them being even more successful and attractive to other achievers.”

Oh my days, what a lot can happen in thirty years. I can only plead that I was still very young, (as, I guess, were Mr and Mrs Trump), and that out of the mouths of babes ….  

Image result for donald and ivana trump

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Diana Athill's Extraordinary Life, By Dipika Mukherjee

I “found” Diana Athill rather late in my reading life, and I have V.S. Naipaul to thank for it.

A week after Naipaul’s death, Athill wrote an essay about being Naipaul's editor. She described admiring Naipaul’s work but disliking the man, and there was such certitude in her storytelling voice that I was immediately hooked. 

I hunted down Stet. Part historical overview of British publishing, part break-room office gossip, it was riveting. Athill had been a well-regarded British editor for fifty years, and her own literary career took off after her retirement; this book was published when she was 83 years old. When I read StetDiana Athill was already a hundred years old, yet meteoric in the British literary scene. She became my hero; this rare, ageless female writer, one who discusses literary nuances and sexual romps with great pleasure.

Athill’s editorial training is evident in every crisp, well-crafted sentence. When she announces her inability to care about money – and as most writers earn so little from writing that financial optimism seems a prerequisite for this profession -- she phrases it delightfully so: “Somewhere within me lurks an unregenerate creature which feels that money ought to fall from the sky, like rain. Should it fail to do so – too bad; like a farmer enduring droughts one would get by somehow, or go under, which would be unpleasant but not so unpleasant as having blighted one’s days by worrying about money.”

She has chapters for the writers she edited -- Naipaul, Rhys, Updike – and through her, I discovered the enchantment of The Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys had a troubled life and left the world some exquisite prose, and Athill has a great deal of respect for even the most difficult of writers :

“The chief difference, it seems to me, between the person who is lucky enough to possess the ability to create – whether with words or sound or pigment or wood or whatever – and those who haven’t got it, is that the former react to experience directly and each in his own way, while the latter are less ready to trust their own responses and often prefer to make use of those generally agreed to be acceptable by their friends and relations. And while the former certainly include by far the greater proportion of individuals who would be difficult to live with, they also include a similarly large proportion of individuals who are exciting or disturbing or amusing or inspiring to know.”

Athill’s imaginary world was boundless, and she looked for writers who opened hearts and minds, especially in difficult times:

“...why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of life; of its consuming darkness, and also – thank God – of the light that continues to struggle through.

Stet is an apt title for her memoir; from the Latin “let it stand” it is used on corrected manuscripts to indicate that a correction or alteration should be ignored. This book was, in her own words, meant to live on even after her own life was erased, so that she would “feel a little less dead if a few people read it”.

More than a few people have already read Stet, and those that haven’t yet, a treat awaits. 

Thank you for your words, Diana Athill. The literary world is an immeasurably better place for having had you in it.

Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her work, focusing on the politics of modern Asian societies and diaspora, includes the novels Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016) and Shambala Junction (Aurora Metro, 2016).

Friday, 25 January 2019

Wolves, Katts and Bone Dogs: Ideas From Folk-lore by Susan Price

The Wolf's Footprint, Susan Price
Years ago, when I wrote The Wolf's Footprint, I took the children being abandoned in a forest from the beginning of Hansel and Gretel and added a pinch of Russian folklore: the idea that if you drink water from an animal's footprint, then you turn into that animal.

It's always been popular in schools -- indeed Kate Stilitz turned it into a musical. You can read about that here.

It continues to be my best-seller as an Indie book -- in the UK, the US, in Canada, Australia and Europe. If I knew what it was about the book that appeals so much, I'd put it into everything I write.

Its popularity decided me to spend 2018 in re-publishing some of my books for the same age-group of eight to ten.
Like The Wolf's Footprint, they're a mixture of original story-telling and folklore.

The three I managed to get done -- with the help of my illustrator, Andrew -- are:-

Odin's Monster, Susan Price
Odin's Monster is set further back in the past than the others: in the Viking Age. I based it loosely on the old Icelandic legend of 'Thorgeir's Bull.'

A witch with a grudge creates a monster and sends it against his enemy -- who happens to be the book's hero, Thord Cat.

The tension racks up as the monster drives away Thord's friends and family until only the old beggar woman, Bergthora, is left to keep him company as he waits for the monster 'to come horned' and kill him.

The book has illustrations by Andrew Price. The picture on the cover is one of them.

Master Thomas Kat, Susan Price

Master Thomas Katt is set in the Elizabethan Age but it's loosely based on an old Danish folk-story I came on when I was reading every book of obscure folk-lore I could find.

In the folk-tale, an old, childless couple become so besotted with their bull-calf that they take him to be educated by the local clergyman, so that he'll be better fitted to manage the farm when he inherits it.

The clergyman defrauds the old couple of all their money by pretending to educate their calf  -- but really, he kills the calf. And he gets away with it.

The lesson of the folk-tale seems to be: Fools deserve to be cheated. I didn't like this. I'd read that Elizabeth I said, "My laws shall ever protect the fools from the knaves." Perhaps it was this that gave me the idea of setting the book in Elizabeth's reign and making the Queen a character in it.

I changed things. In my version, it's a kitten the old couple take to be educated -- and the Vicar doesn't get away with his villainy. He tells the old couple that their kitten has run away to sea and, years later, sends them on a wild goose chase (as he thinks) to the Miching Mouse Tavern to meet 'Master Thomas Katt, just put in from the shores of Muscovy.' Master Katt, says the Vicar, is their kitten grown into a man.

When the poor old couple find the Miching Mouse, there really is a sea-captain named Thomas Katt and he takes up their cause and discovers that the Vicar has become the Queen's chaplain. Master Katt puts the case before the Queen, who is furious and wants to execute her chaplain forthwith. But Thomas Katt comes up with a better plan...

This book is illustrated too. Here's Master Tom Katt, just put in from Muscovy, listening to the tale of two strangers who think he is their kitten grown up.

It's the tale of a tom-kitten that grew to be a Tom Katt.
The Bone Dog, Susan Price

The Bone Dog has a contemporary setting but ideas from legend and folk-lore have still worked their way in.

Sarah longs for a pet but her parents won't let her have one because they are too expensive and messy. During the summer holidays Sarah goes, as usual, to stay with her grandmother and uncle Bryan who are, matter of factly, witches.

Her uncle promises to make her a pet that will never need to see the vet and won't need feeding. He does so by making her 'a bone dog' from an old fox fur collar belonging to his mother and a bone left over from a meal. He stitches the bone into the fur and brings the thing to life with suitable midnight ceremony.

Sarah teaches her pet tricks and treats it as a sophisticated toy -- until she discovers that she can see and hear what 'Reynardine' sees and hears. When she falls out with the girls next door, she uses her 'pet' to take revenge.

But the idea of a creature created from a bone and controlled by a witch comes from Icelandic legend. Icelandic witches were said to be able to create a 'milk carrier' from a human rib-bone. It would bowl off, end over end, to suckle milk from neighbours' cows and return to the witch with a cheery cry of, "My belly's full, Mummy!" It then vomited milk into a churn the witch had set ready. All very unsavoury. My bone dog is quite sinister but at least he doesn't run around up-chucking stolen milk all over the place.

Three books and all of them started with an idea drawn from folk-lore. I don't know where I'd be without my shelves of myths, legends and folk-lore.

Wishing you all a belated New Year - may it be prosperous. I hope your first-footer brought you plenty of cake, coal and whisky to see you through until this time 2020. (I think we may need it.)

Susan Price won the Carnegie medal for The Ghost Drum
The Guardian Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.

Her website, with reviews, writing tips, short stories and book extracts

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Money Laundering - Jo Carroll

I can't quite believe I'm writing this - it's one of those situations that 'happen to someone else'.

Well, buying and selling property is something many of us have to do from time to time. We don't have to like it, but sometimes we do have to do it. It is, we are told, one of the most stressful processes - but mostly we just get on with it, with the help of a whinge or two to friends and family.

Last year I tried to sell my house and buy a flat. It was time to downsize. Buying the flat - that was the easy bit. I found somewhere lovely, the offer was accepted ... so all I had to do was sell the house. Maybe I should have been better prepared for the house to not sell. But, after a few sleepless nights counting pennies, I boxed and coxed money, bought the flat and found a tenant for the house. That, at least, gave me breathing space.

And all was hunky dory. My lovely tenant renewed her contract, I had an income and a lovely new flat. But - out of the blue - my tenant had to move. She was responsible for bills and rent to the end of her contract, but I was bothered that the house - a beautiful, listed, Regency terraced house - was empty as winter approached.

Then, out of the blue, the house-buying fairy waved her wand! Oh joy, a buyer - with no long chain to consider and ready to proceed quickly. My problems would be over. I could bounce into the Christmas holidays knowing it was only a matter of time and all would be well.

And here's where it went a bit odd. There had been talk of exchanging contracts before Christmas, but I didn't think twice when that was delayed - it would have been a bit of a rush. And of course it takes time for everything to swing back into gear once the holidays are over. So when the promise to exchange on a Friday was postponed till the Monday, I didn't sweat. But when that was postponed till the following Friday I began to quiver.

And on the Friday came the phone call ... everything is probably fine but ... we are just checking your buyer isn't ... money laundering.

Money laundering! Surely it's Russian oligarchs or bigwigs from criminal gangs who go in for money laundering? Not ordinary women who are moving to the country from South London?

We can't say any more, I was told. But don't worry about it - I'm sure we'll get it sorted.

Don't worry about it!! What else am I going to do? I had a whole weekend to not worry about it. In the cold light of day I made a plan B: go back to the agents, cry, and ask them to help me. It was as good a plan as any. In the cold hours of the night, my lovely, empty house filled with mould and rats. Wind howled through its ill-fitting windows and rain dripped down its chimney. The basement flooded. Japanese knotweed ran rampant through the garden, trampling roses and snowdrops and all things beautiful.

Monday came. It was sorted. My buyer had legitimate reasons to have money in China. I flopped back and ridiculed my fretting. We exchanged. By the time you read this the sale will be complete.

Why am I telling you all this? Because crippling anxiety that can happen to any of us. Anything that keeps us awake becomes ridiculous in those bleak night hours. And if it can happen to us, it can happen to our characters. They can sweat, and be unable to eat, or think. My story ended happily - but in our stories we cannot allow matters to be resolved so easily. And so, in a novel, the buyer would be guilty but disappear, the house would be falling down, my bank would be unforgiving, the agents would go bust, my flat would catch fire, I'd be accused of arson (not guilty of course) and be thrown into prison, where ...

As writers, we can use anything that happens to us and transform it into fiction. I tried to keep a diary through it all, mostly to notice how that level of anxiety ate my everyday functioning - all that might, one day, be useful in my writing. But I'll do that another day. Right now I'm popping the champagne.

If you want to read about the challenges I threw at a character, please read The Planter's Daughter

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing VII

We are on the downhill side of my list of ten great self-published books. By now, hopefully those who doubt the worth of self-publishing are beginning to rethink it, and those who have long supported self-publishing are feeling appropriately justified.

This list could not come at a better time for self-publishers. It seems that every time self-published authors begin to gain new grounds in respect, something happens to undercut those gains. Just last month, for example, The Georgia Writers Association ended a long tradition of allowing self-published authors to be nominated for their Georgia Author of the Year Award. This is a curious decision considering a goodly portion of the Association membership (though clearly not the board of directors) are indie authors. This decision is also ironic and sad considering that seventeen years ago, the Association received accolades for being so inclusive of indie authors.

I find this particularly disheartening considering that my first published book, a collection of short fiction, was self-published, and its being nominated for the GAYA was the high point of my experience with that book. Back then, if memory serves, you could not nominate your own self-published book, so this meant someone thought enough of it to put it up for consideration.

Anyway, as disappointed as I am in the Association, this development serves to underscore how important it is to highlight good self-published work when it appears.

Clearly no one in charge is going to.

The Confederate - Scott Thompson

Scott Thompson does not normally self-publish. He is the author of two previous novels that were, however, independently published by small presses: Young Men Shall See (TAG Publishing) and Eight Days (French Press Bookworks). The Confederate, though, is a bit out of Thompson's normal genre, so he decided to publish it himself at his publisher's suggestion.

The Confederate is an impressive Western that hearkens back to the early dime novels of the 1890's by writers such as Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham and the early twentieth century pulp Westerns of Zane Grey. Indeed the writing style itself is very close to Grey's, short, simple sentences that appeal to any reading level, but like Grey's work, this simplicity masks deceptively modern themes. While the writing may feel anachronistically simple and plain for a modern audience, Thompson skillfully weaves in a surprisingly modern viewpoint. 

The story tells of ex-Confederate officer Robert Ambrose, who returns home from the Civil War disillusioned as to the War's legitimacy and the nobility of its cause to find his fiancee engaged to another man and his former life in shambles. Turning his back on the past, Ambrose heads to the Colorado territory to forge a new life in the untamed West. Throughout his journey, Ambrose comes to question not only his own morality, but the blind assumptions that led him to take up arms against his fellow Americans.

In Ambrose, Thompson gives us a new kind of Confederate hero: not the cryptoracist veteran who bemoans the tragedy of the South's "Lost Cause," but a man who, while proud of the service he gave his homeland, finds himself questioning the political underpinnings that made such service necessary. Ambrose shows us a man who learns to accept others on the basis of their actions rather than the color of their skin. In fact, Thompson's treatment of race is one of the aspects of the novel I like the most: Unlike the traditional Westerns Thompson emulates, we are not given a portrait of white culture "taming" the savages and building a civilization, nor are we given, as in many revisionist Westerns of the 1960's and 1970's, a representation of ethnic minorities as pure and noble savages that teach the barbaric white man to appreciate nature and rise above his prejudices. Instead, Thompson populates his town of Argentine, Colorado, with a diverse cast of characters whose morality has nothing to do with race.

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the pacing of both Ambrose's primary plot and the subplot of Narcissa, Ambrose's lost love, and her journey to the West in search of him. Not only does Thompson pace it so well that when the paths inevitably cross, it makes perfect sense, but each step of Narcissa's personal journey parallels a similar step made by Ambrose in his. Finally, I enjoyed that Thompson undermines traditional Westerns by not making it necessary for Narcissa to be saved by Ambrose while he also undermines revisionist Western tropes by making it unnecessary for Narcissa to rescue Ambrose either. Both plots, while necessarily intertwined, allow their respective protagonists to solve their own dilemmas on their own, making for stronger characters overall.

In short, do not be deceived by Thompson's simple stylistic choices. The Confederate is a far more complex story than it appears, and much more intriguing. I could not put it down. If Zane Grey wrote Larry McMurtry's reinterpretation of Forrest Carter's The Outlaw Josey Wales, it might well read very much like Scott Thompson's The Confederate.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Pay per (Re)view? Ali Bacon discovers how hard it is for small publishers to get press coverage.

This month has delivered another hard knock as regards the realities of life with a small publisher. I’m talking about book reviews, not on Amazon or Goodreads or the fabulous efforts of book bloggers (to whom I'm eternally grateful), but the world of the main-stream press, or the bits of it I thought would be accessible to the author of a small but perfectly formed (though I say it myself!) piece of Scottish historical fiction.

Print copies don't come cheap
I like to think neither myself nor Linen Press took anything for granted as far as reviewers were concerned.  Before Blink was published we made a list of potential review media from the general (Guardian, TLS, Scotsman) to the more niche photography journals. Rather than send review copies unsolicited, each of the reviewers  was sent (as were many personal contacts, bloggers and bookshops) book, author and cover info. I was buoyed up by the fact that we got replies from several large circulation publications saying ‘yes please, send a copy’ which we duly did (all print of course – no ebooks for this sector, apparently.) 

A few months down the line, I considered many reasons why reviews from the ‘yes’s’ had not been forthcoming: - maybe the whole thing just took longer than I imagined, or I was overoptimistic in thinking Blink would be considered a masterpiece by anyone other than those close to home?  What has disarmed me is the discovery, in fits and starts, that the book is unlikely to have been seen by most of these reviewers, never mind read or reviewed.   According to one contact, the TLS, for instance, has mountains of books in a kind of review slush-pile and I guess this is par for the course.

Poking a few arts correspondent contacts on social media (nothing ventured!) didn’t seem to work and I believe Linen Press made some calls to no effect. So it was an admission of defeat to ring a Scottish magazine of international standing (who had accepted a review copy but published no review) to ask about placing an advert. I saw this readership as my main audience. Speculate to accumulate?

Needless to say the cost of even ¼ page was eye-watering, but a special deal was offered for the upcoming issue with favourable placement next to the book review page. And, wait a minute, if we were advertising, the book would also get a mini review into the bargain. Now I was sitting up and taking notice. However Linen Press had other commitments which made the spend a no-go and as I earn only a standard royalty from sales through Linen, I didn’t imagine I would recoup £200+ from paying for the advert myself. (If I’d been self-publishing, my money would, I think, have been on the table – discuss?) But while all this was in the air, I had a think. Wasn’t placing an advert with a review guaranteed tantamount to paying for a review?

We few, we happy few
This led me to examine the other worthy-looking contenders for reviews in the issue of the magazine I had to hand. Clearly they favoured reputable Scottish and local history publishing houses - and why not? But with my hackles raised, I was suspicious enough to think why? In fact 16 reviews in that issue were spread over a small number of publishers.  FB friends suggested it was standard practice for publishers to keep review editors sweet: friends in other sectors said it was common for ‘advertorial’ to be offered (i.e a feature article) only if an advert is placed. And what about the coverage in the same issue of books from a reputable but expensive self-publishing  provider Matador? Is this what the author pays for in that ‘publicity package’? If so I am actually more impressed than I expected to be!

Overall, of course I’m dispirited. We all know about publishers paying for bookshop placement etc but I naively thought reviews were reviews. If I got the book in front of someone sympathetic to the genre and style, bingo! Well the scales have fallen from my eyes in that respect as in one or two other matters of indie publishing. 

6  out of 5. 110% success!
But rather than give in to sour grapes I’m trying to look on this as simply a reality check and of course to count my blessings,especially with this latest stunning review from author Mari Howard (whose Oxford novels are well worth a look). If you don't have time to read the whole review I can tell you She has given In the Blink of an Eye 6 stars out of 5!  So huge thanks to her and to all my other reviewers wherever you may be.

Of course I’d also be interested to know of any other strategies available for storming the citadels of the mainstream press and leave you with a foretaste of my next preoccupation – book prizes!

Ali Bacon's In the Blink of an Eye (Linen Press 2018) is a fictionalised account of the life of Scottish artist and photographer D. O. Hill told through the eyes of those who knew him.  
In e-book and paperback, best prices direct from the publisher. Also from other reputable bookshops and online outlets. 

Her contemporary Scottish novel A Kettle of Fish is also available from Amazon and through bookshops.


Monday, 21 January 2019

Three weird things I've learnt from the internet - Katherine Roberts

If you're an indie-minded author, you're probably used to discovering how to do stuff for yourself. If you want writing or publishing advice, you can read a blog (like this one), or download an ebook that promises to make you into a million-dollar bestseller in three days... and hopefully you're wise enough to know the difference. But there is a whole world of free advice out there that can help a writer survive day to day - because it's not all about dreaming up stories, you know.

Here are three random things I learnt from the internet this year, all of which have saved me money and/or time, and possibly helped save the planet, too.

1. How to get a fly out of your ear.

Last summer (which was gloriously sunny and warm, remember?), I went cycling one evening and returned home with a buzzing noise in one of my ears. At first I thought a fly had got tangled in my hair and tried to brush it away. Yet the buzzing persisted, on and off, throughout the evening, at which point I realised - to my horror - that the fly was actually inside my ear.

Google supplied this helpful advice:

(a) suffocate the fly by pouring olive oil into your ear, then
(b) go to A&E so a nurse can syringe it out.

This seemed a bit cruel, since my fly was obviously still very much alive. Besides, braving A&E on a Saturday night seemed more dangerous than a small fly stuck in my ear. I decided it would find its own way out overnight, and went to bed. By morning, all was quiet – it must have either escaped or died. Then I opened the curtains, and my ear started buzzing frantically again. Obviously not.

Back to Google one last time before heading off to A&E, and I discovered a helpful video that sadly I can no longer find amidst all the advice that has been uploaded since, but basically this Australian chap said to shine a torch into your ear, while pulling at your ear lobe to straighten the ear canal and help the fly find its way out. Three minutes of frantic buzzing later, and SPLAT… a tiny midge hit the torch at high speed, stunned but still alive. After a few seconds, it shook out its wings and flew away - a happy ending for both of us.

Money saved: olive oil for ear; parking charge at the hospital.
Time saved: several hours at A&E on a Saturday night.
Planet saved: the drive to A&E; one small fly.

2. How to mend a broken flush.

Just before Christmas, my toilet (which happens to be the only one in the house) finally gave up flushing. It had been temperamental for months, but I'd always managed to get it to work with a strong wrist action and meant to call the plumber at some stage to sort it out, only these things have a habit of slipping off the list until they turn into an emergency. This was an emergency. With visions of my elderly parents trying to flush the loo on Christmas Day with a bucket of water, I phoned the plumber. Predictably, he was on holiday and could not come for another week. So I turned to Google and discovered a whole collection of scary plumbing videos on YouTube... “Turn off the water, then take the cistern off the wall” most of them began, cheerily. They (usually a he) then told you how tricky it all was, before going into the procedure for removing and changing the diaphragm inside the syphon, followed by reassembling the cistern, and ending with advice to “make sure there are no leaks”. Professional plumbers, perhaps, touting for trade from hapless DIY-ers like me?

I had not really planned on doing major plumbing while preparing the Christmas dinner. Then I found a simpler video - again, this seems to have got lost in Google, but it seems some syphons (why don't they make them all like that?) unscrew in the middle and come apart so you don't have to take the whole thing off the wall and disconnect the pipes, unless you need to replace the whole syphon... and usually you don't, since it's normally just the plastic membrane at the bottom that goes. Taking the top off my cistern again, I saw it was indeed the helpful sort that comes apart in three pieces… phew!

This is what mine looked like when I got it out. A wonder it worked at all, really.

the bit that makes the flush work... or not

A rusty handle screw broke and delayed me a bit while I found some tools to remove it. but the whole process only took me (a complete novice) about 20 minutes. I made my replacement diaphragm out of an unused A4 plastic wallet in shiny blue, cutting around my old shredded template for size and recycling a bit of plastic into the bargain. I put the thing back together again, decided the handle screw wasn't doing very much anyway so I could manage without, and… success! My loo is now flushing better than it has done since I moved into the house 10 years ago.

Afterwards, I sent for the proper replacement diaphragm for my type of syphon from a seller I found on amazon (£1.50 plus postage) and found another screw for the handle, but so far my DIY repair is still working brilliantly… it'll probably still be in there when I sell the house. If you have a more modern type of loo, you can buy these diaphragms locally and save the postage.

Money saved: £150+ (plumber plus repair)
Time saved: none, since it took me a lot longer to fix than it would have taken the plumber!
Planet saved: plumber's journey to my house; new syphon (doubt plumber would fuss with the diaphragm); recycled plastic wallet.

3. How to unlock an old Epson printer with flashing lights.

OK, I'll admit my inkjet printer is getting on a bit. I've been using it since at least 1990, but I don’t really want/need to replace it… it’s cheap to run, produces adequate printouts for my own use (manuscript drafts mostly, that end up in the recycling when I've finished scribbling on them), and it happily uses recycled inks. It even prints in colour when it's feeling energetic. Besides, I know most of its quirks... up until last month, that is, when it threw a total wobbly and jammed with all three lights blinking, then refused to do anything even after being turned off and on again (my usual emergency repair tactic for anything tech). The handbook advised an “unknown fault” and calling the engineer… do they still have engineers for 1990s Epson Styluses?

It looked like 'goodbye old Epson' and 'hello new printer' time. But before I consigned my trusty old printer to the tip and headed off to PC World, I went back to Google again. Two minutes later, I discovered from a forum the correct combination of buttons to press. It’s non-intuitive (i.e unlikely you’d stumble on the correct combination by accident), and I've forgotten the combination already, but it worked first time – the old printer reset itself and now works perfectly again.

If you've got an Epson printer that refuses to play, here's the secret combination:

Money saved: £50 (new printer).
Time saved: 2 hours (shopping for new printer).
Planet saved: tipping old printer; driving across town.

Thank you, Google!

What’s the most useful non-writing thing you've learnt from the internet this year, and how much money/time/planet did it save?

When she's not doing emergency plumbing, Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers.

Bone Music paperback

Her latest book is BONE MUSIC: the Legend of Genghis Khan, published by Greystones Press and nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal.

Find out more at

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Wrapping up, opening up by Sandra Horn

                                                              R.I.P.  THE CLUCKET PRESS

I have a very poor sense of time passing – no good to ask me ‘when was that?’ because I won’t have a clue. I usually end up saying’ some time ago’ and I’m always surprised when someone tells me exactly when it was. So recently, when I opened a copy of The Mud Maid and saw that we brought it out in 2005, I was astounded. Fourteen years since we launched the Clucket Press with it, our first DIY book.  Now that we are winding the dear old Clucket Press down and I’m looking for other ways to fill my time constructively and creatively (no golf, no Bridge, thanks) I realise how much I owe it. It’s not just the creation of the books and the fun – and frustration, sometimes, it must be said -  of working with others in the process, but also the way it was crucial in my making the transition from full-time, very demanding paid work to retirement. There were new challenges and excitements every day and new things to learn – we knew NOTHING at first! Instead of dragging myself out of bed to face the day with dread, and falling into bed at the other end exhausted, I was bouncing around and buzzing. (Unfortunate simile there; I sound like a hopped-up bee! ) It gave me more than a sense of purpose, it was fun and, even more importantly, it allowed me the time and space to do things I loved; write and immerse myself in books. Also, it gave us (me and my other half Niall) an opportunity to work together. That has had its rocky moments, it’s true, but it has been a great new chapter for us.

Lately, one of my close friends and ex-colleague took early retirement too. She was foundering for quite a while but she has always been creative – a real craftsperson – and she now weaves, works in polymer clay, knits, paints on silk and makes beautiful quilted bags. It has taken time for her to realise that the hobbies she has always delighted in can be an end in themselves: the expression of creative skills which are so much a part of who she is but have been inevitably pushed into the background by the need to put the bread on the table. For her, as for me, it has been playtime but with a purpose; allowing a largely hidden part of oneself to come out of the cupboard and grow, bounce and buzz. A renaissance.

Inevitably, the Clucket Press has come to an end. We have produced, since 2005, three picture books from scratch: The Mud Maid, The Giant, and The Furzey Oak. The first two, for the Lost Gardens of Heligan, are still selling strongly. We transferred production of them to the Heligan team a couple of years ago (or thereabouts) and now we just collect an annual royalty.

 We then went on to produce a trilogy of delightful children’s books by Jayne Woodhouse: The Stephensons’ Rocket, And Rocky Two, and Rocky’s Home Run, and a stunning autobiography by Vera Forster, A Daughter of Her Century. 

While we were at it and becoming confident (over-confident?) we resurrected some of my out-of-print books after getting the rights back and negotiating with the illustrators for the picture books, Rory McRory, The Moon Thieves,(original artists) The Dandelion Wish (new artist).

  We produced two new picture books, I Can't Hear You! I Can't See You! and Suvi and the Sky Folk 

and commissioned new artists for the story books (Goose Anna, TheStormteller, Naz and the Djinn, The Hob and Miss Minkin, The Silkie). 


  So why give up now? 

The last books are just not selling. They have become a vanity project, for me. I wanted to see my stories in beautiful new covers on good-quality paper and I have. The cold hard fact is that, having commissioned artists whose work I love, the unit costs of the books prices them out of the market anyway. I’d need to sell them in their hundreds to recoup the costs and it ain’t going to happen. With those we have left, we are selling a few and giving the rest to charities. 

What to do now, then? Ha! Go back to my first love, poetry, and try to write again. Let it come out of the cupboard and grow, play, bounce about and see where it takes me. 

Artists: Karen Popham (Mud Maid, Giant) Mervyn Hathaway (Furzey Oak) Joanna Williams (Rocky books 1 and 2), Niall Horn (Daughter of her Century) Louise Warwick (Dandelion Wish, Naz and the Djinn), Anne-Marie Perks (Silkie),  Katie Stewart (Hob and Miss Minkin),  Kate Aughey (Goose Anna), Bee Willey (Rory McRory), Esther Connon (Moon Thieves), Muza Ulasowski (I Can't Hear You! and Suvi and the Sky Folk).

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Techno-Gremlin - Jan Edwards

Being connected to all things digital is such an integral part of our world that we barely notice it anymore. Be it computers, phones or any other method we merrily log onto this or that and take it for granted that the entire world will be there at the touch of a screen.
I am not an IT illiterate but neither am I any kind of expert so the fixing these things often boils down to trial and error. Generally I flounder about trying this and that until it works again with little idea of how I reached a solution. Added to all of that is – as those who know me will attest - my unfortunate effect on anything electrical. Specifically anything that contains batteries but on occasion things of  more general technology.
Every laptop I have ever owned has required at least one new battery whilst in my clutches and I can’t begin to count the watches that have died on my wrist. Though even I was surprised when, on a longish car trip, stopped the watch of a friend sitting next to me! It restarted a few minutes after we got out at our destination and she was more than an arm length away from me. Mobile phones die when carried on my person for more than an hour or two and my current android phone has refused to make internet connections in all the time I have owned it (phone and txt use only). This has resulted in my relying heavily on my admittedly ancient desk top computer as my main access point to that all-important digital world.
Imagine my chagrin when that lifeline began to drop in and out of connection at random moments. Now I can accept that something is simply broken. It’s a nuisance but nothing lasts for ever. But this half working and half not without apparent cause was driving me crazy.
Annoyingly things would work in the evenings and not during the daytime when I needed to be online to contact various people. Was it something outside of the house affecting service? Plainly not, or we’d have no broadband at all.
I have spent three days trying to keep the connection live long enough to get essential work done. But time and again it would be ten minutes access, and down it would go for five or six hours... and I was getting close to despair. The idea of having to go and shop for a new computer was depressing.
In the course of writing it’s not uncommon for me to come across some point that needs checking. Anything from a place name to a make of car from 1937 to slang terms of the same era. Not being able to find these things in minutes as has become habit was frustrating to say the least. Especially when Peter, my other half, was having no such problems connecting with the same remote broadband device from his study next door, nor were we having any problems with the TV or landline.
Being in the middle of so many time-sensitive projects that were put off ‘until after Christmas’ meant that all of the info on the old machine would need transferring by hand (or should I say data stick). Not to mention the backlog of jobs piling up because I’ve effectively been ‘offline’ for most of the week – and there I was with a list of jobs to be done by today and before! Email replies to various bloggers; events to be listed on Facebook and blogs to post for same; posters to be sent out; story deadlines missed; blogs for Authors Electric...
Technology is always pushed as being the answer to all things and to some extent it is. Without it we would not have the thriving world of indie publishing nor the means to connect with our readerships around the globe. It enables us to go shopping from our armchairs, talk to relatives on another continent and even do something simple like make an appointment with a GP without spending an hour on hold – and we’ve all been there!
Finding the problems persisted this morning I was down to threatening my recalcitrant PC with a one way trip to the tip (you laugh – but the laying of hands and speaking sternly to electrical items has worked for me in the past). At the same time I was once again checking all connections on my PC and re-fixing the antenna, Peter had rebooted the broadband. Voila. Within minutes I had go.
Which of those three things worked I have no idea. Peter is placing blame firmly on my techno-gremlin gifts, and he is quite probably correct. But for now it is working, contact is remade and relief does not begin to cover it... 
Technology is great!  Until it breaks...