Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Seaside, the Seaside! Beachy reads for August from Ali Bacon

From time immemorial (well at least since the coming of the railways) a British holiday has meant the seaside, and for me even a mountain retreat in Wales and Scotland is all the better if there’s a golden beach to run down to at the end of the day. Our coast has been celebrated in all kinds of ways in print and on TV because in our hearts it’s where we like to be. In my case even reading Paul Theroux’s A Kingdom by the Sea  which pulls no punches, didn’t rid me of my beach love, and Tenby – the only place he had a good word for– is still on my bucket list.

Southwold is respectable but Something Might Happen 
But we don’t need Theroux to remind us that away from the waters edge, our seaside towns are a mixed bunch and very many of them are in decline. Of all those I’ve visited in the last couple of years, I can see how those that have remained quaint have added a chic and gentrified air that sometimes feels odd. I can think of several that have simply gone to seed and one or two that teeter interestingly on the edge.  I mean those that have added a Fatface or Jack Crew to a High Street that still has plenty of cheap tat at the ‘wrong’ end.

The sea-side like it is
The seaside is everywhere in fiction too, often using a much-loved coastline or childhood haunt to play with our own latent nostalgia. Unusually Lynn Michell’s the Red Beach Hut (forthcoming from Inspired Quill – I had a review copy) doesn’t specify a particular location but draws expertly on our shared experience of run-down seaside-iness (for an  elegiac story of a vulnerable boy and the adult who befriends him. As the book opens, the fragile friendship between eight year-old Neville and grown-up Abbott, on the run from someone or something, is wrecked for reasons we can only guess at: the remainder of the book paints an increasingly compelling picture of what’s at stake. The unnamed  town is redolent of all the nostalgia and sadness these places can evoke: run-down arcades on a faded sea-front, businesses struggling to survive. But the drabness is  redeemed by the ever-changing light of the sea, the sensation of damp and gritty sand and, most of all (how I longed for a bag as I read!) the smell of chips. The pace picks up when we’re thrust into the stresses of Abbott’s day job and as the narrative flicks backwards and forwards, we’re reminded that in any part of Britain, ignorance and bigotry are never far away.  I was left with the sensation of the fragility not just of seaside communities but of the knife-edge on which society is perched.

In fiction beaches aren’t just blurred by nostalgia but fraught with danger – children can so easily come to harm on a sunny day or go missing in a crowd.  Jane Rusbridge’s Devils Music and  Moira Forsyth’s Waiting for Lindsay all play on these latent fears and Julie Myerson's gut-wrenching Something Might Happen makes brilliant use of its Southwold location. So if we want a light holiday read – a 'beach read' – maybe the beach is not the place to go. But if we just love the sea and everything in or along its shores, there’s plenty of choice of the dramas that can be played out there.  

Did I mention I wrote a book with a seaside theme? Only 99p on Kindle last time I looked!

Ailsa is running as fast as she can, but the past is catching up
Ali Bacon's first novel, A Kettle of Fish, moves from the seaside villages of East Fife to the darker side of Edinburgh's artistic community. 

Her second novel, In the Blink of an Eye, will be published by Linen Press in 2018.

Monday, 21 August 2017

For Sale - Fantasy Author's House - Katherine Roberts

I have spent the past few months house hunting in Cornwall. I thought I was looking for a new home, but actually I'm finding a lot of sad stories, any one of which expanded into fiction would make the basis of a good novel. People splitting up so the house has to be sold to split the equity... people who love their small home but have to move on because of a growing family... tenants who have lived there happily for years, but are being evicted because the landlord wants/needs to sell up... death in the family... infirmity forcing older people out of their much-cherished cottage into something more practical... redundancy. And then those strange places where the estate agent seems reluctant to tell you anything at all, and my writer's imagination starts working overtime... What exactly does "ready to go" mean? Are the neighbours horrible/drug dealers/axe-murderers?

Truth is, a new home is not the easiest of things to find, even (I imagine) if you are looking for a standard 3 bed on a housing estate somewhere close to a station and a good school and have half a million pounds to spend. But for an author, with a more modest budget and a rather stranger wishlist, it can be a minefield. Estate Agents seem to speak an entirely foreign language.

Estate Agent (eager to welcome a potential new buyer): How many bedrooms?

Author: Two or three if I can afford it... or one would be fine... as long as it also has room for all my books and a private, quiet space to write.

EA: Just for yourself, then?

Author: Plus my muse. And the cat, so it can't be on a busy road.

EA: (tosses a couple of properties on the side of the busy A38 back into the drawer.) Location?

Author: Peaceful (didn't I just say this?) so I can disappear into my fantasy world. Also, I need to be close to a station so I can commute for my Royal Literary Fund Fellow posting, and to London to see my agent/publisher.

EA: Er, you do know Cornwall is rather a long way from London...?

Author: I only need to commute in that direction when I actually have an agent/ publisher.

EA: Ah, so you're looking for a holiday cottage/second home? (Pulls out a few overpriced 'luxury lodges' that come with thousands of pounds per annum site fees and a holiday restriction).

Author: No, it'll be my only home.

EA: Budget?

Author: £200,000 max. (Feels the need to add apologetically: "I'm not exactly JK Rowling.").

EA (trying not to sound too disappointed at this apparently miniscule house-buying budget): So are you looking for a house, a flat, or a bungalow?

Author: Anything, as long as it has the right "feel" so I can write there. And I'll need somewhere to park my car while I am working at home.

EA (throws the tiny cottages with dodgy parking that have been weekend homes back into the drawer): Does the parking have to be off-road?

Author: Yes (duh!). I also have two bicycles, so a garage or shed would be ideal.

EA: Anything else?

Author: Did I mention the cat? And I sometimes ride horses and enjoy walking in the woods, so somewhere to store muddy boots, etc.

EA: What about these? (Having guessed my age as possible "early retired", pushes across a pile of ugly 1950s - 1970s bungalows).

Author: (totally uninspired, but at least they have gardens and some have garages) I'll take a look at the outsides and let you know.

EA: Good. And maybe this would suit you? (way over-budget newbuild on a housing estate/sea of mud, not even got the roof on yet.)

Author: Er, no.

EA: What do you like, then, exactly?

Author: I'd like to view this one! (quirky property just returned to market, looks interesting if a bit expensive).

EA: Ahhh... sorry, we can't do a viewing there that day, we're very busy (presumably trying to sell the practical but uninspiring bungalows, dodgy houses on the edge of the main road, and tiny overpriced holiday cottages without any parking).

Author: (getting slightly depressed now) I think I'm going to have to widen my search a bit to find what I want...

EA: That's the right thing to do! (Maybe she'll become someone else's problem?)

So what would you look for in the ideal fantasy author's home?

Here's my current wishlist:

* Dragons, obviously.
* Countryside views, so village or edge of a town - but not where there are plans to build 1,000 new houses in the neighbouring field!
* Good local community and nice neighbours, where I'll feel safe living alone.
* Garage, ideally. Plus off road parking.
* Easy drive/walk to a mainline station for when I have a publisher, paid work, or a major UK book tour.
* Peace and quiet for working on my books at home.
* Private garden for when I am not to outside appearances working, but actually dreaming of plots/characters with the possibility of rushing back inside to the computer as soon as inspiration strikes or my current plot tangle sorts itself out.
* Gothic windows would be nice with an inspiring view to gaze at whilst waiting for inspiration to strike... or maybe no view at all so I'll get more writing done?
* Close to other writers and artists for coffee and sympathetic chats when inspiration goes AWOL.
* Good cycling and walking in the area, with horses/riding/livery stable nearby.
* Stone walls for that essential castle-like feel. Better still, a small castle with a moat for keeping out other people's kids and confused EAs.
* Open fireplace for burning the furniture in hard times, and possibly roasting roadkill on a spit if things get really desperate.
* Maybe a listed building in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so the neighbours can't indulge in endless 'home improvements' that result in an ugly conservatory/extension across your inspiring view and overlooking your once-private garden (disturbing your muse with their building noise and mess while they do so).
* Oh, and a unicorn would be nice...

Earthaven maybe?

Wish me luck!


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers with a focus on legend and myth. She also writes historical fiction with a touch of romance for older readers under the name 'Katherine A Roberts'.

Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The perils of not being able to say 'no' by Sandra Horn

I am untangled!

I am, constitutionally, a weed. A sad ‘people-pleaser’. A gal  who cain’t say no and is always overly optimistic. Consequently, at great cost to my writing time and energy, I tend to get enmeshed in endless proof-reading for friends, mentoring other friends and, of late, writing a story based on a man’s sketchy recollections of bedtime tales his mother told him almost 70 years ago.

It was great fun to write, I should say, knitting the fragments together and extending it all into a magical adventure, but there was a HUGE snag. He knows nothing about the publishing world and has not even read any children’s literature – or anything about it – since he was a child himself, but he is convinced that the book will be a best-seller and Walt Disney would be bound to want it for a film and we’d end up being millionaires. I had several increasingly firm attempts to tell him how it really is in the publishing world, none of which he listened to.

I have sent the finished version to an agent. We haven’t heard anything yet, of course. It’s a long shot anyway. Meantime, he went ahead and commissioned an artist to illustrate it, at huge expense, in spite of my saying until I was blue in the face that it doesn’t work like that.  Finally, I had to make it absolutely clear that writing the words was the beginning and end of my involvement (we do have a Memorandum of Agreement which says I’m not putting any money in) because I couldn’t bear the nonsense any more. He is very angry and has cut communication – for which relief, much thanks. It’s been exhausting.
What now, though? I’ve also just finished two lots of proofs and some subbing for different people. The new ‘The Silkie’ is just about ready for publication and I’ve even managed to write the back-cover blurb, with some help (why is writing blurbs so impossibly difficult??).

 The Silkie final illustration: Jeannie giving back the Silkie's skin and setting him free. Anne-Marie Perks' lovely delicate work

So, freedom! I’m still on the 52 Poems challenge and am, at present, a week ahead, so at last some headspace to get back to some other writing. After several attempts – opening the file, closing it again in a panic – I have gone back to a YA novel I started more years ago than I care to think, and which I thought I’d finished at least twice. Readers’ comments on the last revision but one were along the lines of ‘some lovely writing but it doesn’t quite work’. Perhaps it will never work, but I have never quite been able to let it go. Some of it is in the first person of one central character but the other main protagonist is mute, so it switches to narrative. I now think that’s OK, but at some point I tried to make him speak so as to overcome any problems the switch between formats might have. It was hopeless. He doesn’t speak and that’s that. He has an extraordinarily rich inner life, verging on the mystical, and it stays inside his head. That’s just how he is.

Reading it again after a very long time with sinews duly stiffened, I can see some inconsistencies that need ironing out, and some places where the continuity needs to be clearer. They are relatively straightforward to correct. I’ve read it with as fiercely critical an eye as I can muster, and I still like it and feel good about it. The next step is to take it to my writing group for their input. After that... who knows?  Just feeling that it is finally complete and I’ve done all I can with it will be something - and perhaps it will be enough.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Just The Facts, Ma’am by Jan Edwards

I am very much aware of the fact that I can be a bit of a cracked record when it comes to research, constantly banging on about how important it is to check even the smallest details before using them in any sort of writing.
It is something that I maintain is hugely important, but when I  came against a phenomenon of commonly held perceptions and whether being correct in the face of general opinion will alienate a reader, I had to wonder if veracity is always seen in that light through a readers’ perception.
A few weeks ago I read a small section from the first draft of Bunch Courtney bk 2. This latest crime novel is firmly anchored in the first weeks of May 1940.  Dunkirk, the Blitz and Battle of Britain are yet to come, yet May remains a pivotal month during the conflict as a whole, not least because it saw a momentous change in our Government.  
As I saw it, in order to place a peg in time, quoting a newspaper headline in which the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain faced a vote of no confidence, dated events quite precisely.
‘Oh, but you are wrong,’ several of the group cried. ‘Churchill was Prime Minister throughout the war years.’
‘Not so,’ I replied, lacing up the hood of my imaginary researchers’ anorak firmly beneath my chin. ‘Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill on 10th May 1940.’
It was argued that stating Chamberlain as PM at that point might raise questions in the minds of some readers for the above mentioned reasons, and that the distraction of Googling the facts could risk my losing their interest.
It made me think. Should I fudge the facts merely to avoid confusion?
One of Churchill’s first moves in his first month as PM was the mandatory internment of “all potential enemy aliens”, a move that Chamberlain had done all he could to delay because he feared a backlash against innocent people fleeing Hitler and the war. These, I felt, where the event-led issues against which my book are set and thus wholly pertinent to my plot.
Others in the group agreed with me and declared that facts were facts, and it was a given that all writers should use them correctly, especially when they fly directly in the face of misconception.
As I had been reading from a first draft I let the matter pass. The text will be rewritten several times, because that is how I work, and as I had clearly failed to get the point across in this early version it obviously requires some stern revision.
The second point of research raised, however, was a correction too far.  My protagonists had decided to go ‘up to London’ to shop for some urgently needed clothes. Once again the banner of verisimilitude was raised. This time over that old wartime chestnut; rationing.
‘Ah, ‘I was told.  ‘This would not happen because these women would need sufficient clothing coupons to spare for somebody who did not live in that household and that would be very unlikely.’
‘Not so,’ say I. ‘Clothing coupons were not issued until June 1941- a whole year later.’  
I do realise how many people fall into the trap of believing that all things were rationed from the outset (including many items that were never rationed at all). And I can quite see how a casual mention on such a point might raise questions.
But... In my humble opinion it behoves all writers of historical fiction to be as accurate as we are able.
The Chamberlain point can be rephrased easily enough, but shopping is never to be taken lightly whatever the era – and facts are facts!
In her Reith Lectures earlier this year the historian Dame Hilary Mantel raise a similar point, saying something along the lines of; “Our image of a squalid, filthy, disease-ridden past isn’t entirely accurate. Life was precarious, childbirth was dangerous and epidemics did kill, but people wore freshly washed linen, observed complex table manners, associated dirt with disease and managed to retain most of their teeth. In the pre-industrial era, the air even smelled sweeter and sounded quieter.” Mantel says, “When we imagine a lost world, we must first rearrange our senses – listen and look, before judging.”
It is comforting to know that I am not alone in wanting to address inaccurate perceptions of our past, and whilst I may not have Dame Hilary's clout, this should not detract from the points we have to make.
Or alternatively, when it comes to research for my crime fiction, what better than to paraphrase one the of the mis-quoted lines attributed to a fictional crime-buster of yesteryear...
‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’

Jan Edwards can be found on:
Blog: https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats:

Friday, 18 August 2017

Nervous as ever, by Tara Lyons

Last month, as everyone packed their bags and headed home after another fantastic Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, I was buzzing. And, as much as I enjoyed the festival, it actually had nothing to do with my feelings of excitement and fear.

Sunday 23 July was a big day for me because the third book in my DI Hamilton series, Deadly Friendship, was published. I thought my emotions would be far more contained than they were - not only was this my third book in the series, but, in total, it's the fifth I've published, so I should be used to publication day, right? Wrong! I've realised my nerves build the more I write ... and I'm sure many authors feel this. We're constantly in competition with the last book we've written - if readers loved it, can we match, and even exceed, their expectations? And if they hated it, can we better ourselves and our stories? We all know that we can't please all the people all the time, but gosh, we can continue to try ... and that in itself is nerve-racking.

Above: The fantastic authors, readers and bloggers who
shared a glass a fizz with me at midnight and
right: author Lee Child 
even stopped to pose for a good
luck photo with me on publication day

I'm sometimes asked by bloggers and readers if I have any special traditions for publication day, and the answer is always no. They've all been on a weekday, so I'm usually at home with my son, doing the nursery run, washing and cooking, and of course interacting with people on social media. So, maybe Harrogate did have something to do with the butterflies in my stomach, because as midnight hit, I was surrounded by amazingly supportive readers, bloggers and fellow authors who shared a drink with me and wished me luck. It certainly made for a memorable publication day.

To the other Authors Electric writers, do you have any fun traditions for publication day?

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Editing, by Elizabeth Kay

The days of reliable editors in publishing houses and magazines are long gone. Although many of them are still excellent, the changes in English teaching here in Great Britain over the decades have taken their toll. I notice far more mistakes in professionally-published books than I ever did forty years ago. And if you’re considering the self-publishing route, you need to be your own editor which is very hard work. Always remember that writing is about communicating; if you cannot express yourself adequately, without waffling, you won’t achieve the impact you want.
In the commercial world, word-count is very important. Magazines have specific slots to fill, and children’s books may be part of a series with a house style that doesn’t vary. Competitions will have a maximum word-lengths for short stories, and if you run over you’ll be disqualified.
It is always possible to cut, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Honestly.
For the first pass, look at ways of eliminating repetitions, condensing what you say, and cutting out unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. It’s surprising how much you can get rid of this way.
For the second pass, look at the order in which you present information. Would it be more economical to do it another way? Do you have any superfluous characters? If they’re necessary for furthering the plot, can you combine two of them? Do you really need that scene – what does it achieve? Try justifying each sentence to yourself out loud, and asking yourself whether it furthers the plot, develops the characters, and illustrates the theme. Not every scene can do all these things, but it’s something to aim for.
The third pass is the most difficult, and really applies to longer pieces such as books or plays. This is when you still need to get rid of a lot of words, and you have to decide to get rid of a plot thread. It’s a bit like unravelling knitting – when you knit it back together, you must remember to pick up all the stitches. I know I’ve read plenty of books when I suddenly think – whatever happened to X? It’s almost certainly because the book has been edited, and a plot thread hadn’t been extracted all the way back. Now that we have word processors, and search facilities that can hunt out such things it’s much easier to do than previously.
Sometimes it seems as though you’ve edited out important moments to ensure the piece doesn’t over-run. This kind of thing is an integral part of being a professional writer. I have often been required to drastically cut a manuscript – usually because I’ve decided to aim it at a different target. My book for reluctant readers, Fury,
was originally a full-length book for adults and started life at 75,000 words. My agent suggested that, as the main protagonist was a teenage girl, I should cut it to 40,000 and aim it at a different market. When this didn’t sell we re-thought it once more, aimed it at reluctant readers and cut it to 9,000, whereupon it was published by Barrington Stoke. I realized that as the main protagonist was a teenager, it might work better for a younger age-group, so it went from 70,000 words to 40,000. This didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, and my agent suggested I cut it still further for a different readership. So it went down to 9,000 words, and was published by Barrington Stoke. Now that it’s out of print I’ve re-done it for the Kindle, and this time I can illustrate it myself. It also means re-doing the cover, of course, so that I don’t infringe the copyright of the original cover designer.  So now there's the UK cover, the American one, and my Kindle version.
The whole process of doing such a drastic edit was really interesting. You start by getting rid of everything that isn’t vital, and you condense wherever you can. But that’s not enough for a cut this drastic, so plotlines have to go as well. It’s rather like trying to unpick a piece of knitting or embroidery. If you don’t follow the thread all the way back to the beginning you’re left with a question – what happened to the man in the top hat? Where did the horse go? What was the result of the drought? I think we’ve all read books where something has gone unanswered, and neither the writer nor the editor has spotted the problem. It’s an easy error to commit, but it may stop the suspension of disbelief because it’s reminding the reader that this story is a fabrication – it only ever happened in the mind of the writer, not real life.
Don’t be afraid of cutting. All things are possible!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Getting Covered by Jane Thornley

These days, I consider selecting a cover for my books to be as fraught with trauma as writing a blurb, or penning a synopsis, all of which are akin to tooth extractions.

Giving birth to the covers for my four-book series was comparatively easy. Half way through the respective manuscripts, ideas for the cover began percolating, sometimes only in snatches and occasionally arriving fully-formed. Because the series has an art and design thread, I conjured my ideas from a variety of historical and archaeological references, and ran a city skyscrape of Istanbul, London & Rome in the background of all four to denote the international thriller vibe. My graphic designer grasped the concept and used the photos I sent to create four luscious covers that definitely helped sell my books.

Then I decided to switch genres from a fun adventure thriller to psychological suspense--much more serious, much more penetrating, and definitely in need of a different approach. For the first time in my cover history, I hit a wall. It took me ages to come up with anything. Then, because there's a creepy dreamy quality to some sections of the book where my character is climbing the London rooftops, I imagined a cover capturing that one aspect. I sent my notions off to my graphic designer who, unfortunately, did exactly as I asked. I loved the result, by the way--the profile of a woman gazing down over the Victoria rooftops with St. Paul's cathedral in the background, all luminous blues and moonlight like an Arthur Rackham illustration.

However, I soon found out that such a cover said the opposite of psychological suspense. One of my Facebook writing colleagues suggested Peter Pan getting high, as usual, which would be perfect if Peter Pan was a serial killer.

Back to the proverbial drawing board went I. A cover designer reached out to be and floated another concept entirely: a woman crouching on a roof, obviously up to something nefarious in her black leather and spandex, with rain pummelling St.Paul's in the background. Now the mood said edgy, dangerous, utterly suspenseful ... and, as one author suggested, also communicated a vampire US political thriller. Regardless of what my opinions are regarding blood-suckering US politicians, that was not my book.

By now I was beginning to despair. I had alienated my graphic designer who didn't much like another designer's work encroaching on his territory, understandably. On the other hand, he wasn't a cover designer who understood the intricacies of targeting today's book market, and only took my directions, which I apparently wasn't qualified to give.

That's when I stepped back, way back. I turned the task over to the new cover designer along with my blurb and ended up with a striking cover I can live with. She switched Big Ben with St. Paul's to eliminate any US-centric notions that only one dome exists on the planet, and hardened up the scenery to denote the suspense aspect. All potential vampires and resemblences to comic book heros were quickly banished. Job done.

And the whole experience has left me sobered. I have learned that choosing the right cover requires more than a professional artist, it requires a knowledgable cover artist. I realize that I don't want a cover to echo the book's plot so much as to entice and intrigue within the reader's expectations of that genre. I also learned that group-think over covers can be a feeding frenzy. Among the helpful and supportive comments there will always be both haters and lovers, but that the most brutal opinions are often the most beneficial. The best advice I got was to just step away, Jane, step away ...

The general response among my individual writing friends is that they love the new cover. Those who are friends but not writers love it, too, but say it's "not me". Obviously designing one's own cover, even conceptually, puts so much of one one's own creative DNA into the mix that the story may be eclipsed. All my existing series covers definitely bear my brand and reflect the plots, but now I'm changing directions. Actually, I'm a cross-genre buffet writer, anyway, so switching gears suits me just fine.

Now let's see if the cover helps sell the book. That story's yet to come.