Thursday 14 December 2017

Book review: Ours: poetry collection including Maureen Duffy

OursOurs by Maureen Duffy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Maureen Duffy's poetry - it's down to earth, solid, and is about real people and real things. There is only one of her poems in Ours because this is mainly a book of the winners and shortlisted entries to a competition that she judged. The fact that she was the judge ensures the quality of the end product, and there are a handful of other poets who were invited to contribute to the final collection. The book contains two other names that I know, Robert Jaggs-Fowler and Sue Knight - neither of whom are a well known as poets as they should be but maybe that will change with time.

View all my reviews

Thursday 7 December 2017

Writing successful commercial fiction

This book, How to be a Fantastic Writer, is the expanded 2nd edition of The Writers' Toolkit. It is the recommended text (by the editors at Fantastic Books) for writers of commercial fiction.

Targeted specifically at authors of commercial fiction, this book lifts the lid and shows you the component pieces of compelling prose and how they fit together. It debunks popular myths – you’ve heard the adage ‘show, don’t tell’; did you know that ‘tell, don’t show’ has an equally vital role to play in vibrant fiction? The trick is knowing which to use and when. This book will tell you. It strips away the mystery and shows the practical steps involved in when and how to build dramatic effect; how to make your characters come alive on the page; how to employ powerful 21st century techniques (don’t let the film-makers have all the best tools).

How to be a Fantastic Writer leads you step by step from beginning to end. If you’re just starting out and want a solid framework to give you confidence, or if you are a seasoned novelist who wants practical advice on how to inject tension into a scene that inexplicably seems to drag, then this is the book for you.

“Specifically addresses the vast majority of the problems we encounter when assessing authors’ manuscripts. The whole team was delighted when the authors agreed to write an expanded second edition.” Mae, senior editor, Fantastic Books Publishing

                From Amazon reviews of the first edition

“You can literally see what needs to happen, where the sticking points are and how to resolve them. For me it was like a light turning on in my head.”

“Gets straight to the heart of what makes fiction commercial but also eminently readable.”
“It has given me considerable inspiration.”

 “It has clarified what my next steps are and how much work I still have to do. For that alone, it is worth the money.”

“The instructions for preparing a two-sentence pitch were alone worth the cost of the book.”

Thursday 30 November 2017

Looking forward ... looking back ...

This has been a series of seven blogs exploring a variety of corners of fiction writing. I’ve looked at some of the genres that don’t always (or ever) get prominent billing in the book stores, plus some that are always centre stage. Each was seen through the lens of a different writer.

Elaine Hemingway: Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Danuta Reah: With Criminal Intent

Thursday 23 November 2017

International best-sellerdom via an unconventional route

My interviewee, Susan Alison, is an artist and author whose first novel, White Lies and Custard Creams shot to the top of the best-seller lists in 2011 and stayed there for weeks. Amazon used a picture of it in their online charts in a promotion to sell Kindles.

I’m especially intrigued by Susan’s decision to self-publish when she could have gone the traditional route. ‘I've always been a self-employed-type-person,’ she says, ‘and this was just an extension of that. It suits me to do it all myself and not have to rely on other people.’

Once she’d gone that route, did she have any regrets? ‘None. I was working to my own timetables rather than waiting for other people. After I'd done it, I wondered why I hadn't done it years before.’

Prior to publishing her novel, Susan was a prolific short story writer having appeared in a variety of women’s magazines. Since that first novel, she has published three more standalone romantic comedies; two in an urban fantasy series; and a collection of her previously published short stories in an illustrated anthology.

In addition to these, she has published six colouring books and two books of illustrated doggerel.
It feels like a disparate collection. It there a common thread?

‘What they all have in common is dogs. There are dogs in all of them somewhere. Oh, except for the cat colouring book - no dogs in there. Just cats... I like dogs. They are straightforward creatures. I like that.’

It’s true. Dogs figure large in Susan’s writing. They bound through the pages of her novels. One of her illustrated doggerel books is about the Corgi Olympics; the other, from the pen of CorgiScribe, is about being a writer. Her colouring books feature corgis, border collies, whippets and greyhounds; and yes there is that one anomalous one about cats.

And does she target specific markets or audiences when she writes?

‘I'm always going to write what I enjoy writing,’ she tells me, ‘rather than what I think is going to sell. Partly because it's difficult to tell what is going to sell and partly because if you're in it for the long haul you need to be able to have some enthusiasm about tying yourself to the desk and keyboard rather than a major reluctance to get on with it.’

How does the art impact the writing and vice versa?

‘The art and the writing are all on the same spectrum except that when I'm an artist I have films showing on the other monitor, but when I'm a writer I have to have complete silence. I do the art in a relaxed fashion, but am running on adrenaline when writing a first draft. I love doing the first draft but dislike editing.’

Currently Susan is halfway through 'Staking out the Goat' which is a sequel to 'White Lies and Custard Creams'; she’s also halfway through book three of her Hounds Abroad urban fantasy trilogy; and halfway through an illustrated doggerel book about a magical corgi.

It sounds to me like she needs a lot of complete silence to keep ahead of all that adrenalin. Time to tiptoe out of this interview.

Follow these links to find out more about Susan, her writing, and her art.

Thursday 16 November 2017

With Criminal Intent

My interviewee today is Danuta Reah with whom I co-authored The Writers’ Toolkit several years ago. I mention that just so I can flag that Fantastic Books’ editors took it up as their recommended text, badgered us into an expanded second edition called How to be a Fantastic Writer and that new edition is just out.

Danuta is a crime novelist. She was Chair of the Crime Writers Association a few years ago. However, her specific expertise is in English Language and linguistics, and this adds a particular weight to her views. As well as being a novelist, she’s a book reviewer; the sort with a growing following. She pulls no punches but to be reviewed by her can give a book a real boost.

What came first, the academic writing or the novels?

She tells me, ‘I started out writing academic stuff - a general book about text analysis, a book about the language of newspapers. I learned a lot about writing in general that way - learning how to structure a long piece of work and, of course, with text analysis, you learn a lot about the writer's craft from studying the way other writers do it. I used a lot of what I gained from that in The Writers' Toolkit and later in How to be a Fantastic Writer.’

In what ways does her academic writing impact on her novels?

‘I know some people get a bit nervous that my novels are going to be very “literary” (whatever that means) and that they won't enjoy them - and then they are surprised to find that they're tense, suspenseful, scary - not the same as an academic text book at all.’

‘I do use my academic background. I have written three novels that make use of my work in forensic linguistics - the analysis of language in the context of crime - identifying the writer or speaker, identifying forgeries, voice recognition, that kind of thing. I used it a bit in Silent Playgrounds, and even more Night Angels.’

The books above, Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels are three of Danuta’s Yorkshire quartet. The fourth in the series is BleakWater.

The mystery in her most recently published novel, The Last Room, centres entirely round the forensic investigation of language.

In this series of interviews, I have spoken to some people who write in genres I’ve never heard of. Danuta writes fiction in one of the most popular genres. Does being part of a big all-embracing genre cause any problems?

‘There's a tendency to get lost in the crowd. I know when I go into a book shop and look at the crime section, I'm overwhelmed by the choice and let myself become too influenced by the table displays and book shop recommendations. My reviewing has led me to authors I've thoroughly enjoyed, but probably would have missed on the shelf. I shouldn't say this as a writer, but there are too many crime novels out there and I suspect we are close to “peak crime”.

‘Another big problem is fashion and “the next big thing”. The problem is, editors want more of what sells, forgetting that quite often, the next big thing comes from a publisher who was prepared to move away from what everyone else is publishing at the moment. People forget sometimes that Stieg Larsson's books, which were very much the next big thing a few years ago are really structured as very traditional crime novels, but they seemed very new because no one was publishing that kind of thing at the time - and of course, Larsson did it very well. Right now, it's all psychology, unreliable narrators and final plot twists - great fun when handled by a good writer, but frustrating when a writer gets it wrong, and you suspect the book was written that way because the writer was pushed into it by the publisher rather than made that choice themselves. I don't want any more unreliable narrators, and I certainly don't want any more final “twists” that I can see coming from a mile away.’

Danuta has been published by a variety of publishers from the huge conglomerates to the small independents. I ask if she has any words of wisdom for other authors supposing they were in a position to choose?

‘It's horses for courses really. Small publishers are a lot more loyal to their authors and will work harder to help you publicise your books. The downside is a lot of them don't really have the clout with the bookshops, which makes it tough. You have to get out there and sell the book yourself. Amazon may be seen as the death of book shops, but it's also a lifeline for small publishers and for mid-list authors to get their books out there. Big publishers are pretty ruthless. If you don't increase your sales book on book by a certain amount, you're out, and there's a Catch-22 in this in that less than satisfactory sales means you get far less sales input.’

I ask if Danuta has ever self-published. When she says no, I ask why?

‘I don't know why. I know a few writers who got fed up with traditional publishers and went for it - but you have to be a very good self-publicist and be able to put in a lot more time than you do with a traditional publisher. If you're self-publishing ebooks it can be very profitable as once you've paid off your initial costs, you can just keep on selling. Self-publishing hard copy is very tough. It's expensive, you have to get your books into bookshops, in front of reviewers and in front of your audience. That's very hard and I would only consider that if I already had a massive market.’

Danuta’s next novel is called Life Ruins, and it turns out it has had expressions of interest from both a small publisher and one of the big 5. Which will she go with?

‘Until a contract’s signed, my lips are sealed.’

Find out more about Danuta and her writing on her website.

Thursday 9 November 2017

When romance spells trouble

Rhoda Baxter is the first of two interviewees who writes in one of the world’s biggest and most popular genres. In Rhoda’s case, it’s romance. Her fifth book, Girl in Trouble, is just out and I wonder if she considers her work part of a sub-genre or does she prefer not to pigeonhole her books like that?

‘I used to be bothered by the idea of pigeonholing my books,’ she says, ‘but I'm more relaxed about it now because it lets the readers know what to expect.’ She goes on to explain one of the difficulties which is that the pigeonholes change from country to country. 

‘In the UK, what I write is considered contemporary romance; by definition, set in the present and involving two characters falling in love. There are usually jokes, so that makes it... romantic comedy or “chicklit”. On the other hand, my books often deal with slightly darker themes behind the joking; the current book is about fathers and daughters and the choice to remain childless, which is not what people expect from romantic comedy. That nudges the books into women's fiction.'

‘In America, my novels are, arguably, not even proper romances because they focus on other things as well as on the couple. And there isn't enough sex! I could say they were “sweet” romances, because of said lack of on-page sex, but then the language is not clean by US standards. Being Brits my characters are fairly free with 'bloody' and 'bugger' type words. So maybe not “sweet” romance then. But if you look at the books that are classed as Romantic Comedy on the US Amazon site, you're faced with acres and acres of bare man-chest. My poor little cartoony covers look completely out of place. The best description for my books in the US would be “novel with strong romantic elements”, which, according to Amazon, isn't a real sub-genre.

‘I write two sorts of books - light romantic comedy and the standalones which are slightly darker and lean towards women's fiction rather than romance. The latest is a lighter book, but has a very angry protagonist.

‘So, the short answer is, I have no problem with pigeonholing my books. The difficulty is finding which pigeonhole to cram them into.’

Having given me a whole new angle to think about, Rhoda adds, ‘I bet you're sorry you asked now!’

No, not in the least. I want to present people thinking on the page, exploring ideas. I ask Rhoda if she’s ever tried to write up an interview with a subject whose longest answer to any question was yes or no. She promises to keep the comprehensive answers coming.

Given this fluidity of sub-genre, I wonder if Rhoda writes for a particular audience and is that audience different for the different books? Her answer is specific enough to surprise me.

‘I've always written with a particular reader in mind. She's a friend who went to school with me and she was my first reader when I wrote stories in my teens. She's well read, geeky and cynical but a romantic at heart, a lot like me. Since my books were published, I've realised that there are more people who like the same sort of thing. I tend to attract readers who like their romances to be plausible and accurately depicted, especially where scientist characters are involved. No 25-year-old ingénues with two PhDs leading research groups here. Who'd want to do two PhDs anyway?!’

Good point! I find myself quite taken with this idea of the specific audience of one. I can see where it could not only work but make a few decisions on the direction of a book a lot easier to make. So essentially she is happy with her chosen genre, but are there any down-sides?

‘There's so much competition!’ she says. ‘There's also a fair bit of snobbery from non-readers of romance - usually people who looked at a cover of a Mills and Boon book once in the 1970’s and decided they “don't read romance”. That's annoying. On the other hand, there's a large romance writing community where everyone is really friendly and the people who do read romance are usually voracious readers and are on the lookout for new books to read all the time.’

That last point is an undoubted plus as romance is by far the best-selling genre around the world. Rhoda’s previous four books have all been well-received. Her first, Girl On The Run, chose the unexpected setting of a patent law firm; Please Release Me (set in a hospice) was shortlisted for a Love Stories award in 2015 and Girl Having a Ball was shortlisted for the prestigious RoNA (best romantic comedy) award in 2017. 

Her books all have a distinct new angle. What draws her to one idea, setting or context over another?

Rhoda’s initial, ‘Hmm...’ reassures me that she hasn’t yet been tempted down the monosyllabic route. ‘I tend to look at the ideas I have,’ she tells me. ‘Then I jump on the one that feels the most exciting. It's not a scientific way of doing things. If I have a commitment I have to meet, like a novella that needs to be written by Christmas, then I'll do that first. I usually start with a scenario. For example, in Girl In Trouble, I started with the premise of what happens if a woman who is determined to be child-free accidentally gets pregnant?’

Sounds like the perfect premise for one of Rhoda’s books.

That ‘Hmm...’ again. ‘All books start off as a vast, wonderful idea,’ she points out. ‘But they inevitably turn out to be harder to execute than I anticipated. When Iris Murdoch said "Every book is the wreck of a beautiful idea," she was spot on.’

There’s food for thought here and some intriguing angles on the business of novel writing. My final question is to ask Rhoda to tell me something about Girl in Trouble. This is the question to which I expect the longest answer of the interview.

She says, ‘When things go wrong, is Olivia too stubborn to accept help?’

And that’s it. The shortest answer I’ve had from her! But in her own unique style, it’s specific, it’s unexpected and a whole stack of hidden agendas peep temptingly from behind that brief reply. My advice is to click HERE and go get the book.

You can find out more about Rhoda on her website


Thursday 2 November 2017

All things Skiffy but drawing the line at Grimdark

Shellie Horst is hard to pigeonhole in terms of what she writes because she covers such a range – Sci-Fi, fantasy, advertising copy, articles, blog posts, reviews, Minecraft projects, interactive narratives ... I could go on but my head is beginning to spin, so for starters I ask her to tell me about the interactive narratives she’s working on for Hull’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival, and in particular, the millymollymo website.

‘I have a business background, and used to build and develop websites so it was only natural that I created my own site, when I started my Creative Writing Degree. I’m guessing what you really want to know is why Millymollymo?’

I do.

‘There’s nothing especially complex about it,’ she tells me. ‘Milly Molly Moo was a pet name my mother used for me. I’m in the process of rebuilding the site to incorporate some of the other aspects of my writing. It’s grown a lot since then, moving from the observations of a student to my career as a writer and overview of the reviews I do for SFFWorld. It’s something authors overlook, many use it to sell from, but it can be so much more than just another route to market.

‘In 2015 I received a Special Commission as part of the Humber Mouth Literature Festival, Ten Miles East Of England: The Quest for the Lost Stories. I was lucky enough to work with some amazing children at Alderman Cogan CE School, Hull. Together we not only developed a story but then converted it to a game for Minecraft.’

You can see more of the project HERE.

‘It was a hugely rewarding experience for the class, staff, parents and myself. The pupils discovered the elements of story planning and writing, as well as basic coding. Every child involved produced a huge amount of writing. They were eager to see it transformed to something they could all play on. It created connections within families and enabled the pupils to share something visually throughout the project. 

‘This area is something I believe strongly about. Stories are everywhere, not just printed on paper and bound in books. Just because a child isn’t reading Dickens or Austen doesn’t mean they are not interacting with words.’

This is just a part of Shellie’s life as a writer and she does all this whilst being a mum of young children. I wonder if juggling figures in her repertoire.

‘Juggling, not so much,’ she says. ‘I’d never get anything done! I’m so disorganised generally and things have a way of trying to prioritise over my writing. So malicious organisation and ruthlessly sticking to schedules is the only way to deal with the social lives of my family. Everything has its place. It’s all a bit over the top, but it gets done. Eventually.

‘When I switch from the freelance writing to the fiction, I have playlists and a number of writing exercises to get me back into the right mind-set. On the upside, you can get a lot done while waiting for a dance class to end, or a swimming club to start. I make the most of time spent waiting by editing, or writing up notes. I’m also very lucky to have a husband who isn’t fussed if the vacuuming isn’t done on a daily basis!’

Shellie is a contributor to Woodbridge Press’s successful Exploration Anthology series, which now comprises four books. Her story, When the Skies Fall, features in Explorations: Through the Wormhole. In it she explores what happens to a colony when it loses contact with Earth.

Given the huge range of her writing activities I’m curious to know if she has a favourite genre. Her answer surprises me.

‘I use the genre I need to tell the story, but only ever within SFF. Science Fiction and Fantasy, speculative fiction, SFF, Skiffy - call it what you like. It’s what I read, it’s what I love. The genre pulls in from others, stories may need romance, sometimes crime or historical, but always fantastical. The genre is so inclusive why do anything else? I do avoid hard science in my work. I prefer to explore how the technology affects the characters and how they interact with it, as opposed to the more technical details of how it works. For example, we don’t worry how a website works, only that we are able to order with next day delivery, and there’s plenty of science behind it.

‘Even in Fantasy where science takes a back step to the magical, science is still there in the Blacksmith’s or the Mill. While I enjoy reading the Grimdark subgenre, it’s not something I enjoy writing. My current project is set in a fantasy world. Fantasy gets a lot of stick for “the chosen one” trope. Yet I think that the hope of being unique is important. Being singled out in your 9-5 doldrums for positive reasons rather than not meeting your targets would brighten anyone’s day! I think that hope is what appeals to many readers.’

What’s next from the pen of Shellie Horst?

‘A project I have been working on has come to an end and I’ve just completed Nisi Shawl’s and K.T. Tempest Master Class on Writing theOther. I’m toying with the free time and mental space it’s created. I’m using it to world build while working on the second draft of my fantasy novel. I’m sure there will be short stories in there somewhere too.’

Good news there for fans of skiffy, SFF, speculative fiction and all things fantasy. Please come back before too long, Shellie, and tell us how things are going.

Meanwhile if you want to explore Shellie’s varied output, check out her MillyMollyMo website.

Thursday 26 October 2017

From old records to human stories

When writer Joy Gelsthorpe decided to do some family research, it was not with the intention of becoming a novelist. However, as she looked into the Parish Records of the village of Reighton on the East Yorkshire coast, intriguing facts began to emerge that made her start to wonder about the lives of these people. The vicar, for example, had nine children. How did his family cope in a tiny vicarage?

Widening her net, Joy read the Beverley Quarter Sessions of the period. Here she came across assaults, disturbances of the peace, smuggling, even the poisoning of a dog. The people of the early 18th century were coming to life in her imagination. She knew she had the material for a novel set in the early 1700s, but went on to spend several years on her research.

When she finally sat down to start on the novel that was clamouring to be written, she notes that it had already grown in her mind into a trilogy, adding, ‘Those three books have now become four.’

The opening to the series emerged when she read about the harsh winter of 1703. ‘It was one of the worst storms in British history,’ she says.

But even with years of meticulous research behind her, she says, ‘There wasn’t much to go on. All I had were the dates of births, marriages and deaths, but I didn’t know any detail, how people died or what motives lay behind their marriages. Court indictments, wills and sales of land provided further information but nothing about people’s personalities and desires.’

Nonetheless, these bare facts gave her both a framework and a time scale around which to build the characters and imagine the problems they would confront. She says, ‘It wasn’t long before the people felt real to me and, if I left off writing for a while, I missed them.’

Joy structured events for the whole period of the four books from 1703 to 1735. ‘I knew, well in advance of my writing, when people married or died. Even so, I did make some mistakes and had to backtrack at times and re-write sections. I found out later that one of my favourite characters, who I thought to be childless, did have one daughter. I was reluctant to alter things and, when there was no further record of the girl either dying or marrying, I decided to use artistic licence and just leave her out. Also, as the Jordan family tended to use the same few Christian names, it is highly likely that I have combined the lives of at least two William Jordans.’

The area where Joy lives is a close-knit community where people tend to know each other. Some of her readers will be people she knows personally but will also be direct descendants of some of the people she is writing about. I ask if that causes her any worries.

‘It’s true,’ she says, ‘the names of the characters are those of some friends, and they may be descendants. I’ve worried from the start whether to use the real names or not. I hope people understand that the characters’ actions and motives are figments of my imagination. I don’t want to upset anyone. After all, the Jordan family are my own ancestors and that has not stopped me from painting a dark picture of them at times.’

And what happens when these books are finished?

‘I have a new writing project, but it’s on hold while I’m working on the Reighton books. It’s based on imaginary letters from a young lady on holiday in Filey in 1819. It’s about a handsome fisher boy that she sees and falls in love with. The idea came after hearing Eliza Carthy sing “The Bonnie Fisher Boy”.’

How far along the road is she with the Reighton books?

‘All four books have been written but are in the process of their second and third re-drafts. I’ve had an encouraging response on book one from a publisher who wants me to change a few things and re-submit, so I’m reworking that.’

That sounds encouraging. I have had the opportunity to read extracts from books one and two. Joy really has done her research and paints a fascinating picture of rural life in the early 18th century. I hope she’ll be back here before too long to share news of publication of the whole series.

Thursday 19 October 2017

A thoroughly modern genre – the eco-thriller

Sue Knight’s second book, Waiting for Gordo, published this year by Fantastic Books Publishing, is billed as an eco-thriller. I’m not entirely sure what that is but I know it doesn’t do justice to the emotional range that this short novel evokes. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in its beautifully observed relationships, but within a paragraph unease has crept up and turned into terror. And all within an incredible landscape.

One reviewer said of the book that it took them right back to the Maldives, and it’s hard to imagine any other setting provided the inspiration and back drop, though the location is never specifically mentioned. I ask about what inspired the setting?

Sue says, ‘It was indeed the Maldives and I am so pleased that was recognised. I did want to convey the beauty of the islands. We had many many dive trips there in our expat days, staying at various small islands. And I wrote and edited quite a bit of it on those trips.’

So what exactly is an eco-thriller?

‘Yes. That is an excellent question,’ says Sue, adding into our live chat interview the line <...looks evasive and tries to change subject...> but she goes on to say, ‘Perhaps because one of the book's main themes is the way we find a paradise destination, go there, in our droves, and in doing so, do we spoil it? And yet we are wanted and needed there. The issue of global warming is touched upon too. But I take no sides politically speaking, and have no political answers to offer.’

I wonder were there things about the Maldives and society there that made her uneasy while she was there or have her misgivings emerged with hindsight? Or indeed are these misgivings entirely fictional?

‘I wouldn't say I had any misgivings really - the tourist islands are very separate from the day to day life of the Maldives and I never even travelled to Male, the main island. My thoughts over the years were mainly about the increasing luxuries tourism requires, and how it weighs with these small isolated islands, so remote and set so low in the beautiful Indian Ocean.’

The story at times is very funny as it charts the different relationships of the group on the island, but there are moments of dreadful unease that become real terror. I ask Sue if she has walked around a remote island at night on her own? And if so, how did it feel?

She thanks me for finding the book both funny and frightening as that was what she was aiming for. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I have walked on the islands at night, though not all the way round as my heroine does. It was lovely. And felt safe. I liked the evenings and nights there best of all. There are no cars, no traffic noise, just the sea beating and beating against the island edges. The stars are bright and the air smells of frangipani blossom. I wasn't so keen on Disco/Karaoke night blaring out from the bar at the other end, but that was only one night, and it is what many tourists want. I never felt at all uneasy about walking on my own in the dark there. I enjoyed it. But it is nearly ten years since I was there, and sadly things may have changed, as violence seems to be on the increase everywhere.’

Sue’s first book, a novelette called Till They Dropped, was very different in terms of its setting and characters, yet it had that same edge-of-seat tension and was perhaps giving the same message from a very different angle. I ask if she would agree.

‘Yes, “Till they Dropped” could be described as an eco-thriller I guess, as, many many years ago, I began to wonder about all the shopping malls being built, and whether the world would run out of shoppers. So I decided to write the story of the last shopper left alive, and the deadly danger that would put her in. But that was also about the brave new world we tried so hard to build in the wake of WW2.’

Will there be any more Maldives-inspired books?

‘I don't think so, no. So I hope I have done them justice in this one.’

Undoubtedly, she has. Waiting for Gordo perfectly captures the beauty and remoteness of these small tropical islands.

What is next?

‘I am working on another thriller inspired by my childhood family home and another paradise which was my granny's rambling old house and garden - a fairy tale place for us grandchildren. And I am using a Rebecca-ish theme in that my heroine is the second wife haunted by the memory of the first wife. I even have a Mrs Danvers figure. It is nearly finished. And I hope it is scary, but also funny.’

I for one, can’t wait for the next book, and I’ll leave the last word to Sue who, in response to that genre question again, says, ‘I would like to call it a post-modern version of Rebecca, but the problem with that is that someone might ask me what that means. And the only thing I can think of to say with reference to “post-modern” is that it is a phrase that testifies to the foolishness of calling any movement in art “modern”.’

Follow Sue’s blog HERE

Thursday 12 October 2017

Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Elaine Hemingway is a writer with a wide and varied writing CV. Retired now, she spent many years in Africa and was once a regular contributor to a local newspaper with a column called Stille Oomblik, which translates to Quiet Moment. 

‘I had to give up the column,’ she says, ‘when we moved to Natal.’ But clearly the writing bug had well and truly caught her long before then, and her publications track her progress down Africa, with a short story in a Zambian newspaper, an article in a car magazine reflecting the self-sufficient life she and her family had to lead, and her Stille Oomblik column from the Transvaal.

Elaine has long nurtured ambitions to write a longer piece. ‘As we moved down Africa,’ she says, ‘I became fascinated by the history, acquiring the diaries of Johan van Riebeeck and attempting an historical novel based on his time in South Africa.’

Was the book ever completed?

‘Sadly not, because life continued to intrude,’ says Elaine, ‘and I became more adept at procrastination. But it was my religious values that brought me back to my writing. I grew up with Christian beliefs, but only after a particular disaster did I come to full commitment and find my niche. Writing and studying became a real pleasure, to be indulged more deeply. My Stille Oomblik column was a part of it.’

Elaine ran a Resource Centre which demanded a lot of reading and presenting of reviews. She also led a home Bible Study group and Experiencing God courses, all of which left little time for general writing although she managed a couple of articles in Baptist Today and Christian Living magazines. After this and after producing a 40th anniversary brochure and magazine complete with interviews with all the many Pastors, Elaine says, ‘It seemed inevitable that we would start a writing group and that’s what we did.’

This writing group spawned a self-published novel from one of the church deacons as well as many other forms of writing including biblical crosswords. ‘We even started a quarterly Church News mag,’ says Elaine.

Elaine and her husband Dennis moved back to England, after which the group disbanded but the Resource Centre still continues.

Since her retirement Elaine has become an active member of the Faith Writers and has completed the annual NaNoWriMo challenge which she intends doing again this year. Elaine has used NaNoWriMo to kickstart an ambitious project, a Midrashim – fiction based on a Biblical account – in which she interleaves a present-day story of Marla, a young woman struck by sudden tragedy, with the story of another young woman, Shayna, caught up in the Babylonian wars of around 600 BC.

And how does it feel to have her major work well underway? ‘It is really taxing me,’ says Elaine. ‘It’s far more difficult than preparing Bible studies! Juggling two time frames isn’t making it any easier so I waver between perseverance and procrastination.’

I have had the good fortune to have heard some extracts from Elaine’s magnum opus. She has captured her two time-frames exquisitely, portraying the grief and despair of the modern Marla, and the terrifying maelstrom of war in which Shayna is swept up.

Don’t procrastinate too long, Elaine, and please come back here to let us know when the book is finished.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Looking at a few of the oddities of fiction writing

The seven blogs following this will explore a variety of corners of fiction writing, looking at some of the less well-known genres as well as the issues of writing in a popular genre. I have lined up writers whose fiction ranges from factual base to fantasy world; from debut novelists to international best-sellers, some of whom are well-nigh impossible to pigeonhole. The one thing they have in common is that I enjoy their work. I hope you will too. As the blogs are published, the links below will come live, one a week starting one week from today - mark the dates.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Set in Hull, the UK City of Culture – a publisher’s nightmare author

Syrup TrapCity, due out in August 2017, is set in the UK in the northern port of Hull. It opens as Hull’s City of Culture year dawns. But in order for it to be published in that same City of Culture year I had to write it in advance. In the summer of 2016 I was writing about the winter that was yet to come, studying long-range forecasts. 
(Please, no snow. Why not? Think Poirot and mobile phones)

From the start, I nursed an ambition (kept from my publisher) to grab the manuscript back out of production at the last minute to add something iconic that marked Hull’s birth as UK City of Culture. A publisher’s nightmare, the author who insists on last minute changes.

Nonetheless, I intended doing it, but what would it be? I wasn’t going to bend the plot. I just wanted that iconic something-or-other in there. It would have to happen early in the year, so as to disrupt, as opposed to kill dead, the production of the book.

And the good people of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 presented me with the perfect event.

Blade was conceived byartist Nayan Kulkarni, and was one of the first of a programme of temporary artworks created for the city’s public spaces.

Blade was a 75 metre long, 25 tonne rotor blade; the world’s largest, handmade fibreglass component, and one of the first made at the Siemens factory in Hull. On the night of January 7th, it was transported secretly in an incredible feat of logistics and engineering, to be installed in the town centre bisecting Queen Victoria Square, reaching from Savile Street to Carr Lane, rising from street level (where pedestrians could run their hands over its smooth skin) to a height of over 5.5 metres at its tip, allowing double-decker buses to travel beneath.

The only dilemma for me was whose story should intersect with the Blade’s epic journey? Someone needed to spot that giant convoy in the small hours and wonder about it for a moment. Annie maybe; she tends to be out and about at night. Or restaurateur, Meriç, who would officially disapprove of the disruption and secretly delight in the extra publicity. It could be head waiter, Yağız, out trying to track Annie. Perhaps Ayaan and Cari Ahmed could come across it whilst out for a romantic stroll late that night. It might even be Max Corder striding the city streets as he checks his many and varied investments.

To decide who would have the job, I checked to see who was where, and who would be best in the role. I expected to have many options. I’ll bet those engineers thought they would have options too. But much in the way that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Queen Victoria Square, it turned out that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Syrup Trap City
What was my lone option? Sorry, no spoilers. It'll be out soon. Read the book.

Monday 12 June 2017

Advice for writers #13: hidden gems or crazy counsel? No greater agony...?

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #13.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou)

*No* greater agony? Hmmm...

I know from experience that there is a spectrum that runs from mild frustration to serious vexation in having the nuts and bolts of a story in my head and, for whatever reason, being unable to tell / write it.

That urge to tell the story is something that crops up a lot in modern life. Why else do warring couples or battling neighbours go on to daytime TV to play out the details of their mini human tragedies for the baying crowd?

Clearly each party is convinced of the rightness of their cause. And, people being people, the majority (all?) of these cases will not be cut-and-dried goodie-versus-baddie situations.

However, these are 30 or 60 minute productions that cover several cases. They need cut-and-dried; and they need goodie-vs-baddie for the baying medieval crowd they’ve assembled (and for their ratings). So every complex human tragedy will be cut, edited, shoved, shaped and led by the nose to fit the blueprint.

Judge, jury and executioner of audience ratings will vilify one side and venerate the other in the interests of shallow, knock-about entertainment.

One side will be declared ‘innocent’ from the off, on the basis of some superficial factor that might be percentage body fat. The appointed ‘goodie’ will preen and gloat, maybe squeeze out a few tears and, urged on by the rabid presenter and the baying mob, will scream accusations and shout for blood.

But what about the people who really matter back in post-production-company real life? Sadly that 15 (more likely 5) minutes of fame is usually it. The 'goodie' returns to a world that at best disregards them and at worst despises them. The nuances of the story begin to matter as the fallout hits. The ‘How could you...?’ from the people who are still around long after the production company has moved on –  children, family and friends. The hope of being recognised as ‘someone from the TV’ evaporates sharply when the only recognition is accompanied by derision. And relationships that might have settled given time and measured thought are now fractured beyond repair leaving families split and friends gone.

No greater agony than bearing that untold story inside you? Clearly that one doesn’t stack up put against the suffering around the world but I’ll allow Maya Angelou some poetic licence, because there must be something in it given the lengths that people go to get their stories told.

Here’s the caveat: where you tell that story can be more important than simply getting it out.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Advice for writers #12: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A mere 20 for Shakespeare and 2 dogs called Tina?

On stage next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #12.

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older you get more skilful at casting them” (Gore Vidal)

This is an interesting one that has different angles. Those imaginary friends that children have; the sort that John Windham takes to a new level in Chocky; the Gondolians and Angrians of the Brontes’ childhoods. Perhaps a degree of hyperbole here though. Each and every writer? I’m not sure about that. Is it that each and every person is born with Vidal’s repertory company, but not all of them go on to be writers?

Moving on from the ‘born with’ aspect, let’s look at the size of this repertory company. Vidal lays claim to 10 or so and says that’s a lot. With the caveat that I’m not going to trawl his writing in order to analyse each character looking for pastiche and cloning, and I’ve no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else has carried out that thankless task (imagine having to set aside the reading enjoyment to keep turning back to cold analysis) I’m prepared to accept that he’s about right. With six (soon to be seven) series novels under my belt plus a children’s book, my repertory company is no bigger, perhaps a little smaller. I’m not counting extras and I’m taking into account those players who I have a tendency to typecast. I’m in good company in this recycling of souls. Alan Bennett said he didn’t realise for a long time that the dogs in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet and The Outside Dog were both called Tina.

Annie’s Aunt Marian is one of mine. Any time I need a woman over a certain age I find myself casting her again. Timothy’s great aunt (as yet unpublished) is, now I think of it, the same actor playing a different role. And yes of course some books have casts of hundreds / thousands, but they are extras hired in for the book and not part of the company.

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of editing and I’ve judged writing competitions. One thing that distinguishes an experienced writer from a novice is the size of the cast. A whole host of named characters piling on stage on page one; named extras, whose only role is to bulk out a crowd, are signs that the writer is new to this stuff.

On the face of it, a repertory company of 10 players for himself and a mere 20 for Shakespeare might sound like a huge underestimate, but Vidal hits on a good point and it’s one worth remembering especially as you set out on your first writing assignment.

Sunday 29 January 2017

Advice for writers #11: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Lessons we fail to learn, not just as writers

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #11.

“I can shake off everything as I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn” (Anne Frank)

Nothing to argue with here. It isn’t a quote given as advice to others, it is Anne Frank talking about herself. Considering the conditions under which she wrote most of her work, it is incredible that she packed in so much of life, of emotion, of philosophy.

She had done considerable rewriting of her diaries with a view to publishing them after the war but of course the job was left unfinished. Happily for future generations the numerous notebooks were not destroyed. Less happily, and fewer than a hundred years later, we are living in a world where too many people seem to thirst for war – maybe they have no imaginations, maybe they never read, maybe they believe that war will never touch them. And whilst they thirst for the bloodshed of others they justify the starving and brutalising of children Anne Frank’s age and younger.

I don’t believe there can be a serious argument that says we don’t all have much to learn from Anne Frank – I don’t just mean this quote and I don’t just mean writers and writing – but looking around the world today it is distressingly easy to find people who have learnt nothing at all.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Advice for writers #10: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Wait a minute! Food for Thought

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number 10.

“You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say” (F Scott Fitzgerald)

If it’s true that you write because you have something to say, does it follow that if you have something to say, then you write?

No of course not. If you have something to say, then often you ... well ... you simply say it. Though there are times when someone has something to say that has to be written down. It happened to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. No way would Elizabeth Bennett have waited around for him to insult her family before getting to the truth about Wickham. Though I think it would be hard to pull off such a long letter in a modern novel. There must be examples but I can’t bring one to mind.

How about having a story to tell? Do writers write because they have a story to tell? Fitzgerald seems to imply more than that, a message behind the story, a fundamental truth perhaps.

It’s an interesting quote, and I’m inclined to think that there’s something in it because the alternative is the writer who writes when they have nothing to say at all. Ah... wait a minute... Now I believe I can bring to mind certain books where I would be hard pressed to know what possessed the writer to string the words together.

However, that doesn’t negate the sense behind what Fitzgerald said. In fact it underlines it. It’s worth taking the time to think about what you want to say – not in meticulous detail but in solid overview. Can you sum up your novel in a sentence? If not, are you really clear about what you’re writing about?

Useful food for thought here.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Advice for writers #7 #8 #9: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Gold Dust and Garbage

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes are numbers 7,  8 and 9.

Quote 7 provides some sound practical advice from one of the greats of crime fiction.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learnt in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative” (Elmore Leonard)

Exactly right. It’s all too easy to go with the early programming of school English lessons; no prepositions at the ends of sentences, no ands, ors or buts at the start. But if the reader is always aware of the writer behind the prose, they are not being sucked into the world of the story.

The dialogue must find a direct route from the page into the reader’s head where it manifests as a character speaking. The descriptions must feel to the reader as though they are standing at the edge looking out on the landscape of the tale or looking in on the inner angst of the drama. Neither realistic dialogue nor a view of the landscape comes wrapped in complex grammatical niceties.

Know the rules before you break them, so that you know how and when best to do the deed, but be aware too that many so-called grammatical truths stand on shaky foundations (that’s a whole new blog of course).

And while we’re being practical and useful, here’s no 8:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” (Robert Frost)

Quite so. If you didn’t laugh or cry or if you didn’t have to write that scene with your eyes tight shut and your breath held, then how is the reader going to find it funny, sad or truly scary.

Yes, that’s great advice, but just for balance and just to show that great writers are not inevitably founts of constructive wisdom, here’s a counter example.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Come off it, Kurt! What sort of college did you go to? Semicolons are a respectable member of the punctuation tribe. Sure, no one wants to see them spread everywhere with a scatter-gun, and no manuscript will fall apart if every semicolon were to be replaced with a comma, but there are times when the comma doesn’t quite hit the note. Sometimes the elements within a list belong together in a way that the comma doesn’t fully catch. It’s a nuance, a shade, a trace. But then isn’t great writing – as opposed to just OK writing – often a case of catching those nuances right on the nose.

And you know what, Kurt? Your writing at its best can do just that. We used Slaughterhouse-Five in our Writers’ Toolkit as an example of how good it can get.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Advice for writers #6 #7: hidden gems or crazy counsel? The Why and the How

As inspiration for the New Year, quotes six and seven IN THIS SERIES get the treatment.

Quote number 6 is:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” (Anais Nin)

There are many ways of putting this one and you’ll find variations on the theme from other writers, some of which I intend to unpack later, but this one just kind of chimed with me.

In a nutshell is it the absolute reason why I write? Well, no. If I’d had to think it out for myself I doubt I’d have said it at all, and if I had I wouldn’t have put it so neatly. And yet... and yet... there’s something in it, and I like that I didn’t think of it myself. It gives me a sense of learning something I didn’t already know.

Now for some pragmatism and quote 7.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard” (Neil Gaiman)

And that is spot on. Agatha Christie said something similar when asked how she wrote her books. You think of an idea then you force yourself to write it.

The planning, the plotting, getting the shape of the thing on paper (or screen) is a process that I enjoy. Getting from the rough outline to a set of words that makes sense is the bit I find pedestrian, a bit of a chore. But polishing that set of words to make a scene spring to life, fly off the page, crackle with tension – that’s the bit I really love.

And there’s something about that final polish that has an air of tasting life the second time, but Neil Gaiman has the nail on its clichéd head. It’s a funny business, writing, and it really is that easy and that hard.