Thursday, 23 November 2017

Lev Butts Is Not Giving Thanks

Yeah, it's that time again.

Another holiday season is upon us. Here in America, the season is ushered in on Thanksgiving. The day families all over the country come together to break bread, share turkey, and alienate each other as soon as Uncle Frank (damn you, Frank!) shows up with his MAGA hat and "Lock her Up T-shirt" and berates Cousin Mike (Jesus, Mike!) in his hemp-woven parka and Bernie 2020 button for being a godless socialist all in the name of celebrating a bunch of ill-prepared Europeans almost dying of pneumonia and dysentery before a bunch of Natives took them in, showed them how to farm, and promptly died of the common cold caught from a snot-nosed baby Puritan.

That's one solution.

It's also that time when we show our thankfulness and goodwill toward mankind by engaging in the Black Friday Hunger Games: Shoppers run the gauntlet of shopping mall crowds and limited-supply, one-day-only-sales while dodging crying children and the fists, feet, and teeth of other, equally driven contestants in their quest for one (or ten) of a woefully inadequate stock of this year's hot ticket toy*.

May the odds be ever in your favor.
It's also the time of year when the otherwise self-absorbed take time to hone their humble-brag skills as they share what they're most thankful for. This is when we learn that Karen (that shrew) is oh-so very thankful that her McMansion and new Lexus have not made her forget her roots and that Rick (with a silent "p") is grateful that his promotion and raise make it possible for him to give more generously to the local soup kitchen.

Emerson, that jackass, perfecting the humble brag since 1841.
Well, I'm not going to do it this year. This year, I'm talking about a couple of things I am decidedly NOT thankful for.

People Who Don't Understand the Difference Between the Artist and the Art

In 2012, convicted cult-leader, mass-murderer, and admittedly under-appreciated musician, Charlie Manson was denied parole for like the bazilliongillionth time, and this week, uncontent to wait until his next hearing in 2027, he decided to take the matter to a higher court.

The title here says it all.

Anyway, while many of us took the day to celebrate (and others, mostly the younger folks, took the day to mourn the wrong guy), comedian Norm MacDonald, learned the hard way that sarcasm is really hard to convey via the written word (especially when that written word is limited to 140 characters).

The replies were, shall we say, less than aware of MacDonald's verbal irony:

Here's the problem with many of today's readers: They are so accustomed to being outraged by anything that doesn't fit with their own schema that they have lost the ability to stop and think about the purpose behind a piece of writing. Did the author really mean this apparently insane thing he wrote? He must have. He wrote it.

This problem appears in book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, too. When an author includes, say, a bad guy who is a racist and member of the Klan, some reviewers will accuse the author of himself being a racist if he allows this backwards, racist antagonist to use a racial slur.

Don't believe me? Check how often Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren have been accused of racism because of the actions of their obviously racist characters.

Unconstructive Criticism

Look, it's not that I don't like bad reviews (I mean, I don't, but that's not the point I'm making here). If I have to get a bad review, I'd like to know more of what you don't like about my book. Who knows? Maybe I will make a change in my next effort. It's not really likely, but possible.

Here's what I mean:

Despite the insulting tone, at least this reviewer tells me something specific about the work he or she found unappealing. I mean, clearly they are wrong, and couldn't be more wrong if they studied for being wrong and snuck crib notes into the being wrong test, but they gave me something to think about.

Here's another one that kind of works:

This one even gives some positive points about the book before giving specific issues he has. Of course, his problem with there not being Volumes 3 & 4 in a book clearly marked Volumes 1 & 2 seems a bit self-explanatory, but still...

This guy, though:
Really? Well thanks for sharing that razor-sharp insight, Bob. I'll get right on that for you. My next novel will be 300 pages of blank pages so you can stop reading it much sooner. I mean seriously, how is anyone supposed to make an educated decision on whether or not this book is for them with this?

And this one?

This one is just mean. Don't be this person. I mean, at the end of the day, the joke's on them: Every review, good or bad, helps get my book more recognition and exposure on Amazon, but still...

My grandmother always said that if I didn't have anything good to say I needed to keep my ignorant pie-hole shut. I disagree. Tell me the bad stuff, but give me something to refute or work with.

So that's it for this Unthanksgiving post. If you live in America, I sincerely wish you a happy Thanksgiving. May your day be full of dressing and empty of bodily injuries and emotional blackmail. If you live anywhere else, happy Thursday!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Carnegie's Gold: Ali Bacon visits her home town and remembers its benefactor

Over the past two years I’ve spent time and energy defending libraries here in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring local authorities where they are being subjected to ever more drastic cuts. This is partly because as an  ex-librarian (working mainly in the academic sector) I feel for the staff, but more because our local library played such a formative part in my childhood. So much so that it won a starring role in my first novel A Kettle of Fish (which I always hasten to add is nothing to do with my childhood - apart from the locations!)

Of course the library in Dunfermline wasn’t ‘just any library’ but the very first Carnegie Library and we were always being reminded of our debt of gratitude to our famous benefactor. (Andrew Carnegie was a native of the town).

Staircase to the new museum
Having moved south in my twenties, it's a while since I had darkened the door of my old library, until last month, when I was invited to speak at  the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference which was to be exactly there. I was already aware the original building of 1883 had been redeveloped and recently reopened as the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries and so I was both excited and apprehensive to see what had happened to my old stamping ground. 

Well I have to say I was totally wowed, and I don’t think it was just the librarian in me. DCLG won ‘Best building in Scotland’ for 2016 and although I haven’t seen the others I’m not surprised. I took some photos myself, but for the overall feel take a look here

The library now incorporates a museum and art gallery and has a stunning research reading room where its special collections can be accessed. The original lending library is still there for me to have a whiff of nostalgia and I can also say the café (great coffee, home-made cakes!) with its new view of the very ancient Dunfermline Abbey came in pretty handy in the course of our weekend stay.

The new reading room
It’s hard to imagine anything like this £12 million investment happening down here and I wondered if Scotland is just better funded for libraries and culture? Or is it the answer more obvious? Some quick and dirty research revealed funding was shared by the Local Authority, the Heritage Lottery fund and – yes, the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, custodian of the fortune left behind by ‘Uncle Andrew’. 

Of course capital investment is one thing, running costs another, and I see the opening hours of the new place are adequate rather than generous, so even this architectural gem is subject to normal restrictions.

New view of the Abbey and the library garden
Of course Carnegie gets mixed reviews beyond my home town. I was shocked as a teenager to hear of his other reputation as an anti-unionist who built his fortune at the expense of labourers. This reminds me that here in Bristol many of the city’s benefactors are having their names removed from public places because of their involvement in slavery. Putting the rights or wrongs of this to one side, I don’t think it would be possible to remove Carnegie from Dunfermline without dismantling vast swathes of the town, not to mention its collective consciousness : the traditional endearment to children was  ‘all Carnegie’s gold couldna buy ye’.  

Or has that changed now? At least we can see that Carnegie’s gold is still buying quite a lot.

Ali with her display at Undiscovered Dunfermline 

Ali's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye, inspired by a Victorian artist and photographer, will be published in 2018 by Linen Press.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

If Writers Were Bakers and Candlestick Makers - Katherine Roberts

There has been a brilliant hashtag running on Twitter this month called #IfWritersWereBakers. I'm not sure who started it, but if you missed the fun then try a Twitter search and you'll find a whole string of publishing truths that writers encounter sooner or later in the course of their careers.

One of my favourites is this If-Writers-Were-Bakers-style reader review from @Joannechocolat:
"I bought this chocolate cake from you, but when I got it home I found it had chocolate in it. One star."

While @say_shannon tackles the perennial curse of the children's author:
"Ah, so you're a CHILDREN'S baker. Anyone can bake cakes for children. When are you going to bake a proper cake?"

And, with National Novel Writing Month upon us, @MrsTrellis obviously has the right idea:
"I’m taking part in NaNoBaMo. I’ll add an ingredient a day for the whole of November, then I can call myself a baker."

The perfect way to let off steam! Since other writers on this blog have probably encountered more of the same (and bakers have been tackled on Twitter already) I thought I'd extend the concept slightly and let you add you own #IfWritersWere creations in the comments. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

#IfWritersWereCandlestickMakers: "Your candlestick is too long for today's candles."

#IfWritersWereJockeys: "My horse has been handicapped by the computer because the last horse I rode didn't win."

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "Three, two, one... sorry, when did you say your spaceship came out, again?"

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "To explore boldly where no astronaut has ever ventured... love, the copy-editor."*

(*You need to be old enough to remember the original Star Trek to understand this one!)

Over to you...

Katherine Roberts is writing a book about a Roman racehorse to follow in the hoof prints of her Alexander the Great epic "I am the Great Horse", which is now available in this bright orange cupcake - I mean, paperback - edition on demand in time for Christmas.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Running out of juice by Sandra Horn

I’m in a terrible flat spot. I got to poem 38 of the 52 poems challenge and just came to a stop. I made notes for the next two and wrote one verse but just couldn’t go on. For all these past weeks, I’ve just fiddled about with old stuff – poetry and prose – but have not been able to be creative at all. It’s a familiar dilemma, but doesn’t usually last this long. Often in the past, walking somewhere beautiful starts the process going and recently, we’ve been in the Lakes, in glorious sunny weather. Blue skies above just-turning autumn leaves reflected in the water. The roar and magnetic pull of a waterfall in spate. Saddleback blueish in the distance. Evenings around a log fire. A squelchy walk from Pooley Bridge to Barton Church to rescue a wren that might have been trapped in there (it wasn’t). Everything, in fact, to gladden the heart and get the creative juices flowing. Except they didn’t. 

This is a lake, not a story


At one point I put it down to that kindly-meant but deadening thing,  ‘You should write a story about that,’ ‘There’s a story for you, Sandra.’  Etc. I have written about the Lakes walks and other happenings, but they are reports, not stories. It’s curious how often the difference isn’t appreciated by people who are, after all, trying to be helpful and encouraging. It’s quite likely that there is something waiting to be written, but it will take traces of those experiences and transform them into something other. I don’t know what it might be yet – and might not know until the writing is finished and I read it through and it dawns on me where that particular passage could have had its origins. 

This is a sunset, not a story

I was thinking of the difference between reportage and storytelling last night, watching and listening to ‘My Country’, which relied very heavily (and heavily is the operative word) on verbatim speech. It’s a fashion in writing for the theatre too. At the risk of offending large numbers of people who know more about it than I do, I think it’s lazy – and rarely as challenging or engaging as it might be. We know that daily chat is often repetitive, can be clichĂ©-ridden and has not been thought about for long, if at all, before it is uttered. What can we learn from it, much less be excited by it? I think it is the job of a writer to take the raw material, listen hard, think harder, then let the creative forces loose on it. This transformative process is mysterious but it is crucial in the making of stories, which can then be transformative/informative/entertaining/thought-provoking in themselves – or what are they for?
Of course, I could just be riding a hobby-horse here, in a state of total ignorance, but in this long unproductive spell I’m having, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I have written about the Lake District walks to friends, describing such events is not a problem. Give me a topic, and even better, a deadline, and I’ll come up with something. With any luck it will be readable and I can make it amusing  if need be – but what I can’t do at present is the alchemy. I can polish the base metal nicely but it won’t turn into gold. I’m knitting instead! I’m knitting worthily, moreover. Little hats for smoothie bottles (for Age Concern), ‘bonding’ squares for the prem baby unit at St Thomas’s, fingerless gloves for my daughter’s outdoor craft activities. Anything absorbing but not requiring too much skill. And waiting. Waiting for the gleam at the back of my mind, the fiery spark, the – Oh, you know the stuff I mean. It’s elusive because, I suspect, I’ve never tamed it by setting proper time aside each day and being disciplined about writing. I’ve just bumbled along until something sets it off. I have, in the past, tried that business about ‘writing something every day’, ‘write for ten minutes, it doesn’t matter what you write’. The trouble is, it does matter! Ten minutes of uninspiring garbage is ten minutes down the drain. Never yet has it produced anything worthwhile. Back to the knitting. And waiting. And hoping.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Bingeing Fiction by Jan Edwards

My other half and I recently gave in to the wave of nothingness and repeats on Freeview TV and acquired Netflix.  A week on, and several evenings of watching we've only touched the surface the stuff that is available. 
When I say that I now have Netflix people often smile knowingly and utter dire warning of  binge-watching, but a week on I can’t say it has been any different to before.  Oh  I admit there is an awful lot more of it, and it is so very easy to access, but that Curate's egg conundrum of good versus bad in more or less equal measures remains. We’ve done a lot of sampling and/or catching up on things that we've missed. Watched random episodes of things that we’ve only ever heard about before.
My other half likes super-hero fiction whereas I am fairly indifferent to it so perhaps I have not really indulged in bingeing as such. Watching a whole series in a few days is not exactly new to us.  We have bought enough boxsets to prove that! 
So what constitutes binge watching?
That is not really a serious question. If somebody watches Strictly or MOTD or  any of the soaps X many times per week is it binging, or just enjoying the show? I've never missed an episode of Doctor Who but its taken me fifty plus years to do it. Not quite the same as viewing twenty episodes of the same show in a few days I will grant you, but why not follow up something you enjoy?
As I have just seen my script-writing efforts hit the shops as a part of a team in the Whovian oeuvre with White Witch of Devil’s End who am I to decry the completists? I’m one myself after all. 
I have just read another in Peter James's  excellent Roy Grace crime series, the thirteenth in the series? Now I have read those over several years but its not unusual for me to find an author new to me and go back to read their back catalogue is rapid succession. 
Binge reading?
I suspect many if not most of us have favourite fictional characters from our earliest reading onwards. Famous Five or Tracy Beaker eras. Paddington Bear or Horrid Henry.
The success of writers such as the late lamented Terry Pratchett's Discworld is one that also springs to mind. And of course it would be hard to ignore the J K Rowling phenomenon. Having worked as a bookseller I have seen the midnight queuing that occurred when the latest Harry Potter hit the shelves. But does it count as binge reading when there is often a year and more between volumes?
Crime and fantasy fiction are awash with such characters. I can see the attraction in writing them. When we invest so much time in developing characters and filling out the worlds they inhabit it makes sense to make use of them as far as we can.
I have had several short stories published about a diesel punk character by the name of Captain Georgianna Forsythe who investigates paranormal crimes for a secret government department and several more yet to find homes. I like Captain Georgi a lot. I know a lot about her; far more than appears on the written page. Likewise my1940s detective Rose Courtney feels very real to me. The difference between Rose and people in the real world is that I also know her future. I know her likes, dislikes, back history and state of mind through writing Winter Downs.

When we watch or read around familiar characters we are greeting them as virtual friends, and when we write about them we hope that our readers will enjoy their company as much as we do.

For what its worth, if binge-reading exists then for my money it’s not a bad thing.

You can read more about Jan on her blog site Here

Friday, 17 November 2017

Using witchcraft, by Elizabeth Kay

I’ve never liked the use of magic as a convenience, and I’ve always wanted it to have some sort of structure and to be as believable as possible. When I decided that I wanted to write a story about an alternative world, I tried to think of the most magical place I had ever visited. This was Monteverde, up in the cloud forest in Costa Rica in Central America. There really is a study centre there, and a hummingbird garden, and it’s beautiful. And the Continental Divide really is marked out, so that you can stand with a foot on either side. When I remembered that, it got me thinking that it would be a good place to cross from one world to another – but there was a problem. If everyone who straddled The Divide ended up in the other world, thousands of people would have disappeared. There had to be another factor – a pause of some sort. But choosing an
arbitrary number of seconds seemed very artificial, so I chose staying still for the length of a heartbeat, which gave me the idea for the main protagonist’s illness. Once I got him – Felix – into the other world, he then had two ready-made quests – how to get back to his own world, and the search for a magical cure to his illness. I could also populate this world with all my favourite creatures – griffins and unicorns and dragons, and I could invent some of my own as well.
One of the main problems with magic, however, is that it has to have rules, otherwise every problem can be solved with no effort. It takes time to explain these rules, though, which is better suited to an entire book. If you’re using it in a short piece, you need to establish the parameters for the bits you do use. I chose to have spells that needed to be tried and tested and perfected, which meant they could also go wrong, and different creatures had different abilities. If someone was a shape-shifter, there were only two shapes between which to alternate, which simplified things for the reader.
Of course, witchcraft is still believed in abroad, and rules still operate in perhaps a rather different way from before. My only experience of the way these things work is second hand, when my daughter was doing her PhD in the Ivory Coast. The small village where she did some of her fieldwork had three different belief systems. There were the Muslims, a bizarre fundamental Christian sect, and the Animists. I asked how they all got along and the answer was fine – unless there’s a witch hunt in progress, when all the Animists walk around with downcast eyes. This happens when there have been several deaths in a row – a perfectly normal state of affairs every few years in such a society.
“And do they find a witch?” I asked.
            “Oh yes. It’s always the same old lady.”
            “What happens then?”
            “She has to make a sacrifice, and then everything’s ok.”
            “It’s usually a crate of beer, which her sons buy for her. Then the whole village drinks it, and normality is restored. It’s a good system, though. She’s elderly, and she lives on her own. But no one takes advantage of her because they think she’s a witch.”
            My point here is that even in these enlightened times, people can still be afraid of a supposed witch, when the only proof is circumstantial. And if that’s the case now, what was it like before? I think the townsfolk would simply want to hound her out of the village, and burning her house makes perfect sense. But if she really is a witch, rather than a horse whisperer, you need to tell us why she doesn’t simply turn them all into toads!
            Both today and in the past, witchcraft was prevalent in societies which have a magical world view. It’s there to explain the bad things that happen, and offers ways of altering the natural order of things. When coincidences happen, this view is strengthened and the ritual becomes enshrined in the local belief system. Remnants of this are still around in our own society, and usually have their origins in something plausible. It’s unlucky to walk under a ladder because the person working on it may drop something on your head. Beginners’ luck – if you believe this to be a fact, this can be due to confirmation bias. You’re more likely to remember something that fits with your world view. Bad luck comes in threes – confirmation bias again. If two bad things have happened, you’re more likely to be looking out for the third thing, and when it happens you’ll put it down to your superstition rather than the random nature of life which can be really disturbing the more you think about it! Superstitions are self-reinforcing, because if something happens to work in your favour it will be used again, and the expectation that it will be successful is often self-fulfilling as it improves performance because it improves confidence.
            And finally, witchcraft has usually been associated with the conflict between good and evil, and devil worship. If praying to God didn’t work, then you might as well try the other chap. It is mentioned in the Bible – Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, and, much in the way of presidents today, started to overturn everything his predecessor had done once he started to rule. II Chronicles, 33:6 – …used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Leviticus 20:27 A man or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: Witches and wizards are frequently lumped together with criminals – Revelation 21:8 - …murderers, and whore-mongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone…  In other words, they’re all destined for hell. But witchcraft isn’t just the antithesis of Christianity. Even in Rome, black magic was punishable by death. It’s not something consigned to history, either. See: Countries that still kill witches 
            So think very carefully before you use magic in your story – there’s a long catalogue of associations, and the rules must be clear.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Motivation Matters - 10 Tips for Writers

Often when writers get together talk turns to two things;

1. I can’t seem to get motivated
2. I can’t find time to write

When someone says this, I know exactly how they feel. This thing called life always seems to get in the way. Also, most writers have at least a first degree, or maybe even a PhD in procrastination. A writers house is never cleaner than when there is a fast approaching deadline.

So how do we overcome this and settle down to some actual writing. First let us consider this:

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, 
you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’

Henry Ford

Something has to change to help us to move forward. There are several ways we can do this.

1. Mindset matters - the way your brain thinks is going to happen is what will happen
2. It’s time to change your mind - tell yourself you can. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain
3. Do 5 minutes of free writing before you start writing for the day. This can be on any topic you choose, or something daft. How about the night life of a paper clip. Have fun.
4. Dare to be different. Change your morning routine. Wear different clothes. Have a different breakfast. This will tell your brain today is going to be different.
5. Step away from the phone. Okay a bit of a joke, but seriously switch off social media. Everywhere. Switch off notifications on any device you are using.
6. Change your location. This can be as simple as within the house. If you write on a desktop this can be more tricky, however do some planning using good old fashioned paper and pen.
7. Write anywhere and everywhere you can. Utilise spare ten minutes here and there. I have made a joke on social media of posting photos of places I am writing. In the last week it has been The Skoda Garage, first class on Virgin Trains, Harrods Tea Room and Foyles Tea Room. Not got a laptop. Download Evernote on your phone and write on that. You can copy and paste when you get to your computer
8. Change your location part 2. Go to a cafe, library, local park or anywhere where you don’t usually write. Again your brain will think in different ways. Also these places seem to think you’re a bit strange if you start cleaning.
9. Write in a different way, change from computer to paper and pen or vice versa. Use a different colour pen or font. Start at a different part of the book.i
10. When you finish for the day end in the middle of a sentence. Then complete it when you start again. Your brain will carry on naturally.

I have screeds more top tips, but let’s leave them for another day. You’ve writing to do, and now is the perfect time to start.

Wendy H Jones is the award winning author of the DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, Motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival