Wednesday, 24 January 2018

When writing is difficult - Jo Carroll

When writing is difficult - and I don’t mean those days when we stare at a screen or open our notebooks and there we are, a couple of hours later, with nothing but a few deleted sentences to show for it. We all have days like that - and some of us deal with them better than others. Hey ho, that’s just how it is.

Nor am I talking about days when we are so overwhelmed by Life that we need all our creative and emotional energies just to keep the show on the road. We all have those days too - they come and they go again.

No, I mean when there are huge physical impediments to writing. 

When I arrived in Kathmandu, last week, it was seriously cold - not freezing, but cold enough for poor people without warm clothes or blankets to die. I’ve been here several times, and - though I knew in theory that Kathmandu could get chilly at night in the winter, I’ve not known cold like that here except in the mountains. So I huddled myself in the thermal clothes I’d worn to leave the UK and accepted the invitation to join a group of young men round a fire to eat flame-charred potatoes.  What a story - but when I returned to my room my first concern was to get under the blankets and keep warm - and I have yet to master the art of writing under a blanket.

But this anecdote set me thinking - have I grown too used to my western comforts to carry on writing in any circumstances? For instance, how do men and women write from prison - and I don’t mean some of our UK prisons, where creative expression is seen as helpful and prisoners can easily buy paper and pencils. 

But how do you write in a prison cell that you share with forty other people, with thirty blankets to go round and a slop-bucket stinking in the corner? How do you write, as Solzhenitsyn did, in the Gulag, where fingers can be frozen beyond the capacity hold a pencil? How do you carry on writing when every scrap of paper is like treasure, so you cannot shape and reshape each sentence but must get it right first time, every time? How do you write if you have to work till it feels your back will break? 

I cannot - and do not wish to - escape from the privileged cushion of living in the UK. My mildly uncomfortable night in Kathmandu gave me a fraction of insight into the challenges for writers who keep going when it seems the world wants them to stop. And it does make me wonder how many essential stories remain untold simply because it is impossible for the writer to gather the energy, the materials, and the time to write them down.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Lev Butts' New Year's Resolutions

So it's a new year. A time to reflect on your failures of the past and to look forward to your new failures ahead. It's a time to think about the poor decisions that led you to whatever sorry state you found yourself in at 11:59 PM December 31, as you knelt on hands and knees releasing all the alcohol you had earlier ingested into a cold and frozen street gutter as you anxiously await the dropping of whatever shamanic object your local civic administrators have deemed symbolic of your community.

Yes, my local little hamlet has decided the possum is our most perfect metaphor 
It is a time to consider what different actions you may take in the following year to prevent these same mistakes and usher in all new and interesting ones.

It is, in short, time for the litany of new year's resolutions.

I'm not generally one to make new year's resolutions. I know myself well-enough to know that trouble and disappointment will find me regardless of whatever ill-conceived plans I make to avoid it. I also know that any high-minded noble resolution I make will inevitably fall by the wayside once the weight of professional responsibility and the natural inertia of everyday life settles down and firmly upon my shoulders.

But I also have a blog to write and a dearth of ideas, so here goes.

Given my track record with new year's resolutions, I know better than to make grand, sweeping resolutions no one could possibly achieve. Or ones that are so completely impractical no one would want to achieve them. Or resolutions that are just plain stupid. Or ones that are all of the above.

Like that time I was going to form a boy band in high school
and absolutely destroy The New Kids on the Block
No, this year, if I'm going to do this, I'm doing it right. I'm going for the lowest common denominator of resolutions. I share them with you this month because I believe in you. I believe you, too, will utterly fail at your resolutions and so I give you this, my fallback position, so you can hang your head proudly and know, you did the least amount of work to achieve the easiest resolutions of all. If you do better than this, you will feel like a god.

If you can't even do these things, well...I guess you can take comfort in the fact that you are now the most least driven person alive.

Well and poorly done, Old Sport!
So here they are:

My Absurdly Achievable Writing Resolutions for 2018

1. Write more often.

Many people say if you want to improve any activity, you need specific, measurable goals. If you want to run more, for example, you need to express precisely how many miles you want to run so you can measure your progress.

Me? I don't write enough, I want to write more. At present I write about twice a week. The rest of the time is spent with work and family obligations. I want to write more than that. I'm not worried about wanting to write at least one hour a day five times a week. I will count it a win If I write three times a week, even if it's only fifteen minutes. So, yeah it's a kind of specific goal, but it's insanely doable.

2. Read more often.

Like my writing, I need to read more. I need to try to step away a bit from the mindless iPhone games I play if I find myself with an extra few minutes. Obviously, if I'm at my desk, this time is better taken up with writing, but if I'm not, I have ebooks on my phone I could be reading instead of trying crushing candy or flicking angry birds or whatever the mindless game du jour is at that time.

This dumb game here? At least ten hours I will be begging for on my death bed.
As I've said many many times, the best skill to use to develop your writing is your reading. You let that stagnate, and your writing will surely follow.

3. Try new things.

We tend to get stuck in ruts. We have a way of doing things that works for us, so we quit pushing ourselves. Even if we do both of the previous things on this list, we will improve only a tiny bit if we don't step outside our comfort zone. Read things you wouldn't ordinarily read. Write in a genre you wouldn't ordinarily try. Write in a method you haven't tried before. The point is to stretch yourself.

I was thinking something more metaphorical.
Currently, I am doing most of these things. I am reading more creative nonfiction, something I thought would bore me to tears, but is becoming increasingly more intriguing to me. I recently finished Melissa Fay Greene's Praying for Sheetrock, about a civil rights lawsuit in a coastal Georgia town, and I have begun reading John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about a murder in Savannah during the mid-1980's.

I am writing in a genre I would not normally feel skilled enough to try.  I am writing my first mystery story: It is set in Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian London narrated by a Scotland Yard inspector. The story blends the hard-boiled detective with the amateur detective genres and also acts as a deconstruction of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Turns out, I am more competent at it than I thought I'd be.

I am also writing in a different way. I have always been comfortable writing one thing at a time, but now I find myself working on two pieces simultaneously: the aforementioned mystery and a werewolf novel, The Bloody Georgia Moon, based on a couple of my family legends. This second novel is also a creative stretch for me as I am co-writing it with Brad Strickland, and I have never co-written a piece before. All of these things are making me a better writer, I think.

So those are my new years resolutions. Hopefully I can keep them relatively easily and without too much hassle. You are welcome to them as well if, like me, you are lazy and lack ambition, but want to feel like you are accomplishing something.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Almost Paradise: Ali Bacon finds something missing on her desert island

Ginger Torch Lily - totally tropical
I’m lucky to be just back from a Caribbean holiday where we were greeted more than once with the words ‘welcome to paradise!’ and it was easy to see the comparison: exotic plants, colourful birds, and the kind of warmth I always associate with the big greenhouses we visited as kids in our local park – except this was everywhere and 24/7 - a joy after a cold December. Add fresh pineapple, melon, papaya and spiced rum punch more or less on tap and you can guess we were happy.

Our friend the 'breakfast bird'
But paradise? I began to get picky. As we were deposited from our courtesy bus on to a pretty but rather busy beach, I muttered to my companion that I had imagined paradise to be a lot less populated. Then there was the night-time noise. I expect I would eventually have got used to the chirruping crickets and squeaky tree-frogs but   when these were joined by the crash of rain on our homely tin roof I was reaching for the ear-plugs.

Yes, I really was being picky because the scenery was gorgeous and there was always something new to see and taste. Then, in our second week, we found the real paradise in the shape of Sandy Island – a perfect spot, uninhabited and just a twenty minute boat ride away. The palm-fringed beach was ours for the day, the water perfect for swimming as waves crashed scenically over a protective reef. With the rest of our small beach party I stripped off, swam, then lay out my towel for a rest and a read.
But alas, in the packing of sunscreen, flipflops, towel and Deet, my Kindle had been left behind. Yes, I had NO BOOK!

Sandy Island - almost Paradise
Of course there are worse places (hospital wards, dentists’ waiting rooms?) to be stuck without a book, and I coped for the few hours either side of our barbecue tuna lunch. It just reminded me how important books are in good times as well as bad and how that radio show has it the wrong way round. I could probably manage with a couple of discs but even allowing for the Bible and Shakespeare, I’d need a lot more than one book!

Maybe for next time I’ll think about what my Desert Island Books would be. To be going on with, here’s what I did read on the rest of our lovely trip.

Capital Stories – just 4 short stories from Edinburgh writers. What a great idea to publish a bite-sized anthology with a city focus. (Reviewed here.) 

A Message from the Other Side by Moira Forsyth – one of my favourite writers comes up trumps again. (Reviewed here)

Bendiction by Kent Harulf –a downbeat premise but another stunningly beautiful account of small-town America.

The Truth About Melody Brown by Lisa Jewell – my book club read for January was an excellent  story with a likeable and misused heroine, though something in the timeline got me irritated.

Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan – my first read by this Bristol thriller writer took a while to get going but had me well and truly hooked by the harrowing conclusion. I’ll be looking at more from Gilly. 

Ali Bacon's next book, In the Blink of an Eye is set in Victorian Edinburgh and will be published in April 2018 by Linen Press

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Up and Down Again: an author's tale - Katherine Roberts

Question: What is this?

(a) Sales graph of my latest indie-published ebook?
(b) My amazon author ranking (i.e. popularity)?
(c) A midlist author's income?
(d) Sales graph of a traditionally published title in the month following its publication?

If you've been writing and publishing for a few years, you might well be tempted to answer 'yes' to all these.

But you'd be wrong.

This is what I was actually doing when I created the above graph:

Not writing, but skiing in Switzerland.

Before you get too envious, this photo was taken on one of the sunny days when it had snowed during the night. We also had days like the one that created the graph below, when skiing was pretty much impossible because the weather was too windy for most of the lifts to run, and then a tree fell on the single chairlift that was running so it was forced to shut too, meaning we had to walk half an hour back to the village in ski boots carrying our skis, in the rain.

 a bad ski day

Nobody was stopping to take photos that day, except of the tree on the chairlift, which was a similar situation to this Youtube video - although our tree was bigger so that it caught across the wires and had to be chopped down by the army before the skiers trapped on the lift could be rescued. (I was not on it at the time - the attendants saw the tree fall and stopped the lift before anyone could get hurt.)

The truth is, whether you're skiing or writing or publishing (or indeed doing many other things in life are reliant on conditions outside your control), sometimes the climate is simply against you. Hence my choice of title for this post, influenced by a certain well-known hobbit's There and Back Again... Up and Down Again, a pattern the experienced writer comes to know all too well.

On the mountain it's usually the elements you end up battling, which are difficult to forecast more than a couple of days ahead, and even then are prone to unforeseen change - our final day's skiing in the sun was meant to be another wash-out rainstorm. Instead we created the first graph, shown here again with its totals: 45 km of pistes skied and 26 km of lifts ridden, making a total of 7,357 vertical meters.

a good ski day

Publishing has a climate too, which can be just as unforgiving and just as beyond the average author's control. And sometimes - as in the case of lift closure due to falling trees in a storm - doing what you planned to do is well nigh impossible, barring extreme measures such as putting skins on the bottom of your skis and walking up the mountain - three hours of climbing for ten minutes of downhill in snow-turned-to-glue-by-the-rain, anyone? That's about as fun as it sounds. About as much fun as taking three years to write a book when every word screams "give up!", only to have your publishers turn it down because they need to publish the latest hot new debut (preferably several of them) in order to survive. For a number of years now, a toxic climate of sale-and-return coupled with high discount sales has made it difficult to maintain a long term career as a non-celebrity author.

In the mountains, those skiers who are in a ski resort for the whole winter - the seasonnaires - tend to stay in bed when the conditions are against them. They know the climate will improve another day, the snow will fall, and afterwards the sun will shine again. So, contrary to many writing blogs which advise churning out a set number of words each day and publishing a book a year - or a month, or a week, or whatever crazy indie publishing target you have set yourself - I am going to give you permission to stay in bed on the bad days.

You won't be writing very much on those days, but the writing has not gone away, I promise. It is still there, and you have a lot more experience of the publishing process than when you were a debut author. You can still write just as well as before, despite the climate (and editors and agents) saying you can't. You can even write but not publish for a while. And meanwhile, conditions out there in publishing are changing in unforeseen ways. Watch them through the window from the comfort of your log cabin, and save your energy for the days when it has snowed in the night, the lifts are running and there are no falling trees to knock you off halfway up, so you reach the top of the mountain just as the sun rises, and swoop down through the powder feeling as if you are flying, to stop at the bottom with a big smile on your face ready to take the next lift up...

Because there are writing days like that, too.

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award in 2000 for her debut fantasy for young readers Song Quest. Her latest novel for older readers is Bone Music: the Legend of Genghis Khan, coming from Greystones Press in April.

You can sample Katherine's historical fiction for older readers with this short tale of Queen Boudicca's rebellion, available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from the links below.


More details at

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin by Sandra Horn

May 2018 be a good one for you, folks! Peace, love, joy and creativity in ample measures! Here are some early daffodils to lift your spirits.

So far, 2018 hasn’t really lifted my own spirits. I can only hope it will get better. I’d had a burst of energy towards the end of 2017 and had sent out several poems and short stories and a children’s novel, mostly in response to call-outs and competitions. The rejections/non-acceptances came in thick and fast with the new year. There was one really nice one – just about the nicest rejection I’ve ever had, from an agent: ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider your work. This was a difficult decision as I was really impressed with your submission. The writing is engaging, the idea is appealing and you write with real energy and imagination. However, while there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it.’ She went on to say she’d be keen to read anything I write in the future. So far, so not too bad – but as for all the rest, silence or shortlists on which my name was not. How to deal with it all?

Once, years ago, I won a prize for best writing for television. There was a nice cheque and the promise of the script being read by a TV producer. I waited. Waited. Waited and then sent out a tentative enquiry, which resulted in an invitation to go to the studio for a meeting. Yay! BAFTAs here I come! When I got there, the script was produced very mangled and covered in coffee-cup stains and general uggle. ‘So sorry,’ said the Producer, ‘it had fallen down the back of the desk, hence the delay – we didn’t find it until we got your enquiry.’

There were encouraging comments but it didn’t get produced because it didn’t fit their needs – too short for a one-off. What it did was make me twitch every time I sent work anywhere and didn’t hear anything. It must have fallen down the back of the desk! This is not a rejection, they’ve simply lost it...haven’t they? Or, nowadays, they’ve deleted the email by mistake. Nobody has read it, or they’d have taken it up. Obviously. Such little delusions don’t last long, though. I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself by phoning to ask if they, whoever they are, actually received my work and actually read it. I allow myself the wild thought and then let it go. Nobody else needs to know what goes on inside my fevered head. 

Other private thoughts include: Bastards! They’ve got something against me! Jobs for the in-crowd! What’s the matter with them – are they stupid, or what? I indulge one or the others of these for a while and then let them pass. If there’s a list of the successful work, I’ll look at it. I’m usually humbled. Yes, I see why those works were chosen and mine fell short. Occasionally – very occasionally – I’m indignant, especially if it’s poetry aimed at children. There’s a lot of poor stuff out there. Short stories are another minefield. Often, I just don’t get it. I have to face it, it’s not my métier, but that doesn’t seem to stop me trying! Daft, isn’t it? Why keep trying, only to fail? Because the alternative is unthinkable, that’s why.

James Fenton takes a good look at failure in ‘The Strength of Poetry’. ‘It’s not enough to fail,’ says Fenton, ‘You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse – my failure, my very own failure...And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. ..why are you neglecting your failure?’

Fenton goes on to say that ’Many people live in such horror of failure that they can never embark on any great enterprise...this is the worst kind of failure because there is truly no way out... In the end, nothing is achieved by this timidity. Or you can permit yourself one failure in life and devote your remaining days to mourning...This failure, it would seem, has been kept like a trophy, lovingly polished and always on display. But for a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.’

Wise words indeed. Now, how to implement them?

*The writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting

Friday, 19 January 2018

I Remember... by Jan Edwards

Recently (20th Dec) the author and editor Diana Athill was interviewed on the Today programme for her 100th birthday. Happy birthday!
One of the things Ms Athill mentioned in her interview was her first memory, which was of falling into a puddle and being hauled out again. It set me musing on my own earliest memories. I can think of several, and because we moved house two weeks after my 4th birthday I can accurately date them as being three or even two years old at the time.
Most of those images involved getting into trouble with Mother. And most often came out of trying to keep up with two elder brothers (then aged seven and nine) who did not want their tiny little sister to tag along in the first place.
Memory 1/ Throwing a monumental hissy fit because I could see my brothers building a snowman in the garden. I clearly recall standing in my cot and shaking the bars, whilst my mother stood at the sink washing up. (I was sick often and the kitchen was heated overnight by the Aga stove.)
Memory 2/ Crouching in the mud, with the younger of those brothers, at the edge of the duck pond; situated just opposite the farm cottage where we then lived. We were sailing little plastic boats that had been free gifts in cereal packets, and we were having a great time. But... going outside the gate was forbidden of course- going near the pond doubly so. When Mother caught up with us we were not popular. (Conversely Mother wasn’t too popular with us because we’d been having a lot of fun.)
Memory 3/ Standing alone in the grain store (another forbidden destination) in a thunder storm all alone. My darling brothers had left me there after first telling me that thunder was made by lions on the roof looking for somebody to eat. (Yup... that’s brothers for you.)
The thing that I have to ask myself next is how accurate are those memories? They are very clear in my mind. Not merely as images but also as vehicles for the emotions invoked at the time; anger, frustration and fear respectively.
Yet, as a discussion with another writer recently showed, our recall can be defective. She used a memory of her own the draft for a story in which her main character was listening to a particular record in a specific year. When she checked the dates for her final draft she realised it was impossible because that particular track did not appear for another two years. Not a false memory as such, more a case of the record being so evocative of an important period in her life that is felt like a perfect recall. The way in which music can and does evoke powerful emotions is another issue altogether.
Memory is a strange thing and often proves to be inaccurate. There have been many scientific papers in Scientific American and other publications on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts in trials and how people’s own background and biases can and do affect the way in which they process recall of events and perpetrators of crimes, which is something any crime writer needs to be aware of.
We all ‘think’ that we recall X or Y so vividly, but if it’s possible to check it’s often a memory influenced by so many other factors. Writers draw on memories a great deal, whether consciously or not, and those experiences are what make their fiction a far richer mix.
My own examples of recall are probably based on actual events but I have no idea how truly accurate they are from this distance. I have to assume they happened because I have no way of checking them.

And is there a point of all this waffle? Two in fact. ‘Beware of the false recall’ and ‘research is our friend’.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Authors in the Digital Age by J D Peterson

The digital age. Love it or hate it, the digital age is here to stay. Do you remember when you got your first home computer? Your first smart phone? In the past 25 years we have moved into a time when nearly all homes have at least one computer, and cellphones are a fixture in our world. Correspondence, business, entertainment and nearly all aspects of our lives are input into our digital files.
                                                        To me, as an artist, the digital age is a double-edged sword.
I first encountered this creative shift as a singer-songwriter and recording artist in the mid 1990’s. Music went from being recorded on magnetic tape to being stored in a digital computer file. MP3’s, a compact (and poorer) version of the original recording, made distribution, copying – and eventually pirating – very easy. I could create a professional recording at home with minimal cost.     

And, just like writers, I was responsible for mixing and mastering my songs, manufacturing the CD, completing cover artwork, and the final kicker – distribution and marketing. As authors, we are faced with similar changes as the world permanently shifts into the computer age.

But it’s not all bad.
On the one hand, drafting ideas into our computer programs has made writing easier – particularly for formatting, editing and rewriting. Maybe J.K.R. likes to write by hand, but not me. Give me the speed and freedom of the keyboard any day to a cramped hand! Computers give us the ability to research ideas with information at our fingertips, readily available to explore on the world wide web. In the digital age we can publish our own books and retain total creative input, as well as a larger portion of the profits.
            But, the freedom to publish in the digital age doesn’t come without its complications. Learning new programs, uploading to various distribution channels, creating social media profiles, blogging, email lists, video trailers… on and on and on. These have become the job of the independent digital age writer. The responsibility for promotion, marketing and distribution has landed squarely in our hands and make no mistake, it is a full time job.
Many of you excel in these areas. For me, marketing has created an entire new area of focus for education. To complicate matters, the landscape is constantly changing. New marketing websites with new ‘rules’ for promotion, as well as an ever changing array of social media platforms have created an entirely new job description for the writer in the digital age.
            Those that have mastered the challenges have gone on to do well. Some have developed computer programs or written books on marketing to help those of us that need guidance. Many writers have done so well in the digital age that they’ve launched businesses, creating an income solely by helping independent authors publish books and/or find promotional outlets and distribution channels.
Lately, I’ve heard complaints from writers whose novels have been pirated, some in foreign countries. Again, this is following the pattern of events for musicians. My album “Rhythm of the Dream” is on iTunes, but I was informed by a fan that Spotify had several tracks in their library – without my knowledge or consent. Add ‘protecting against copyright infringement’ to the list of duties of the modern writer.
            Finally, I must mention the issue of a real product vs. a virtual product. Alas, the digital age threatens the physical enjoyment of holding a book in our hand; the smell, the weight, the texture of
the paper. Welcome to the world of ebooks. Remember music album cover art? Oh, the joy of the 12” visual 'canvas' of an LP cover. The excitement of opening a new vinyl record and quickly checking for lyrics and more photos on the inner sleeve. LP records aside, when is the last time you bought an actual CD? For now, the printed book is holding it’s ground, but e-readers are growing in popularity. If we look again to the music industry, we get a glimpse of the possible fate of the printed word.
            Gaining new readers in the digital age can be exciting. Now we can reach people outside of our immediate city, state – even country. In an effort to gain readers many of us give away our books for free. I will gladly give my ebook in exchange for a review, but if we continue to offer books free, we run the risk of devaluing our work as authors. Again, a double-edged sword of the digital age – how to gain readers in a deluge of novels without devaluing our work.
            In the end, as a writer and musician, the digital age has enabled me to explore my creativity and produce products without the confines of traditional publishing. But, quite frankly, I’m exhausted from the work of promotion, marketing and distribution – and it distracts me from focusing on my writing. As a creative muse, these areas of the publishing industry are not my strong suit - but I plow along, learning and implementing new knowledge to increase awareness of my novels while trying to increase sales.
Admittedly, knowing that marketing will be a huge part of any completed novels, has dampened my excitement and enthusiasm for the modern day business of publishing as an indie author. Such is the life of a writer in the twenty-first century digital age.