Thursday, 26 May 2016

Who Ya Gonna Call? Us Ninjas! by Ruby Barnes

This month I'm sharing the info on my upcoming book launch. All are welcome! Here's the blurb from the Facebook event:

Official launch of the Zombies v. Ninjas book series by R.A. Barnes, published by Kilkenny company Marble City Publishing and printed in Ireland.

MC for the evening will be local author and Francis MacManus prize winner Patrick Griffith.

This trilogy of paperbacks features characters that are surprisingly similar to the members of Evolution Martial Arts Academy as they battle to save Kilkenny, Ireland and the World from the Undead. Suitable for all ages from 10 to 110. Ruby Barnes and the Evolution Team members will be signing books on the night. All Marble City profits from the launch will go to Fundraising for Evolution Martial Arts Academy for the team to compete in America in 2017.


More about the books here at rubybarnesbooks.com and I'll be writing a series of blog posts on that site about the background to the rise of the Undead in Ireland, the (pseudo)science behind parthenogenesis and the development of vaccine against the poisonous bite of the Undead's mutant offspring.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Remembering Me: N M Browne

And breathe.
I am coming back to a novel I wrote in 2002. I'm calling it 'Remembering Me.'
Back then two of my kids were still at primary school. I still did the school run every day – only in my case it was rather a brisk walk (I was always a teeny bit late.) My older sons were at secondary school and my house was awash with damp rugby kit and lost exercise books, ballet bags, grubby school sweat shirts, crumpled reminders about head lice and mud. There was always a lot of mud and noise: sauce pans clattering, singing, shouting, TV, radio and argument.
     There’s no sign of any of that in this book, though in my clumsy rendition of the main character I can see that I still lived with the grunting masculinity of early adolescence. I guess that in this story I was trying to leave the chaos of domesticity behind. It is set on an isolated beach and no one talks much: it’s an oddly silent book. I wrote about solitude and the sea and I wonder why I thought any child would want to read it.
      This isn’t my first novel, but there is something very amateurish about it. I wanted to write ‘proper prose’ and the result is awkward, like a gawky girl pretending to be a grown up.
      I am pleased that reading it now has me reaching for my red pen. For a long time I thought it was rather brilliant. My poor agent tried to sell it a few times but, unsurprisingly, no one was interested.
      I have tried to revise it before and that attempt is also a bit self conscious, a bit try-hard and it peters out after five chapters, as if the weight of all those wrong words was too much for me.  If I were a gardener I’d say it was like trying to impose order on something wildly overgrown. The garden plan had merit (insofar as there was one,) but there are too many weeds and the few trees  that thrive are planted in the wrong place. I’m worried that if I try to dig them up they’ll die.
      It would be so much easier to begin something new and yet I’d like to think that I’ve learned something in all those interim years. Now, finally, I can see what is wrong, so surely I can fix it?

      My little girl with the ballet bag is at university, the boys grown up. I don’t need to write silence into my novels: the house is quiet. I’m taking a deep breath and I’m going back. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Those nail biting copy-editing days.

I've just sent my ebook about Ecuador to the copy editor.

It's nail-biting, isn't it, that moment of pressing 'send' and knowing someone is going to take a toothcomb to your efforts. If it's truly dreadful, I want to know - of course I do. I don't want to publish something that will make the reader decide that chewing his/her own arm off is preferable to reading this twaddle.

Travel writing brings its own challenges. Print books can include photographs. But I haven't found a way to incorporate pictures into ebooks and still keep the price down. Which has been a particular challenge with this book. I mean, how do you find the words for this:




Or this:




So I need to know if the word-pictures I've painted do justice to some of the things I've seen. Some I can enhance by talking about smells (the mud and dust of the jungle) or sounds (the cry of the frigate birds), or just the feeling of amazement at being there (swimming with sea lion pups). I need my copy editor tell me if I've failed to capture all that.

Most of all I want him to be thorough. If there are clunky sentences, or I've not made sense, then it needs dealing with. If it comes back with pages of tracked changes, well, fine - that's what I've asked for.

I'm a grown up. The copy editor is looking at my writing. If this writing isn't good enough, it just means it's not good enough. It doesn't say anything about me as a woman.

And yet ... and yet ... Sometimes it still feels like I'm back at school at waiting for an essay to come back, hoping for a good mark at the end and half expecting pages of red pen. The ubiquitous 'could do better'. Or even 'See Me' - oh the stomach-churning of 'See Me', even when it's done kindly.

Kindness was rare and precious when I was a school. Which is probably why I'm biting my nails a bit now. But - having said all that - I'm working with someone I trust. And that, when it comes down to it, is what we all need from our copy editors. We need them to be able to tell it like it is without massaging our childish feelings.

We are, after all, grown ups. And sometimes we all write rubbish!

If you want to read more about my travels (and not all of it is twaddle!) you can find links on my website: http://jocarroll.co.uk

Monday, 23 May 2016

Lev Butts' Comic Count Down Part V

Well here we are. We have finally reached the end of my countdown of metafictional comics, and it only took nine months to do it. Yes, there are children being born this month who were conceived on the day I began this outting.

Hi kids! Y'all got some catching up to do.
There have been some sidetracksmeanderings, and just plain random laziness, admittedly, but we have at last gotten here. If you are like these kids, you may want to check out the previous list first:

You could start with the honorable mentions, then move on to

5. Cerebus by Simms and Gerhard

4. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Moore and O'Neal

3. Sandman by Gaiman and various artists

2. Fables by Willingham and various artists

And now....

1. The Unwritten - Mike Carey (author) and Peter Gross (artist)


On the surface, The Unwritten seems like a conscious rip-off of both Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman's comic The Books of Magic. Like these two previous works, The Unwritten involves a dark-haired, bespectacled youth who is unexpectedly chosen for a magical adventure because of his latent magical abilities. However, in this story, the boy wizard, Tommy Taylor, is a character in an eponymous children's fantasy series within the series.

Pictured here: Hermione Molly Sue comes to Harry's Tim's Tommy's aid
after his climactic final battle with Lord Voldemort The Other Count Ambrosio.

The comic book, however, follows the story of an adult Tom Taylor, who was the child of theauthor of the Tommy Taylor novels, and the model for the boy-wizard character. Tom makes his primary living as a jaded and semi-belligerant convention guest discussing the work of his missing and presumed dead father and begrudgingly signing copies of the novels. He claims to have never done anything with his life because of his father's work and believes his only real talent to be an encyclopedic knowledge of what he terms "literary geography": the real-world cognates of literary settings and/or other places of literary importance (where important writers were born/lived/died or where important works were written).

On one level, The Unwritten owes more to the life of Christopher Robin Milne (the son of A. A. Milne and the template for Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh books) than it does to Harry Potter, though. Tom, like the real-world Christopher Robin, resents his father for his perceived lack of a childhood due to his being constantly confused with his literary doppelgänger. On this level, the story works as a metaphor for the (not always positive) ways in which literature can alter or overtake our lives.

However, as with the other entries in this countdown, the story here works on several levels. Mike Carey, the creator of the series describes The Unwriten as "a story about stories." This is both a literal and a metaphorical description. Many literary texts play important roles in the story: The Tommy Taylor novels, for example, were written in the Villa Diodati, the same mansion in which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Additionally, Moby Dick, the Just So Stories, The Song of Roland, and Gilgamesh all play important roles as the narrative unfolds.

Villa Diodati in fiction and reality.

More importantly, though, the 1925 novella Jud Süß illustrates how The Unwritten is both literally and metaphorically a story about stories. At one point Tom and his friends find themselves trapped in the world of the 1940 Nazi film adaptation of the novella. Originally, the novella told the sympathetic story of a Jewish banker and his suffering under anti-semitism. In the hands of Nazi adaptors, however, the 1940 film became one of the most effective pieces of anti-semitic propaganda. Carey's use of this film as a setting, then, becomes a meditation on not only how literature can change the world, but on the dangerous ways in which the world can change literature.

This theme of the interconnectedness of story and life is implied from the very beginning. As the first volume of the series progresses, we learn that there is more to Tom's story than even he is aware. Tom is quite possibly the living manifestation of his father's fictional creation. In other words, he may, quite literally, be his father's words made flesh. Seriously, this 71 issue comic almost literally encompasses all of Western literature and more. And what it doesn't incorporate, Fables does, and The Unwritten has an entire story line that takes place in the world of Willingham's comic so....

In short, this book is about it all: how stories are important, how stories come about, how stories change us, how we change stories, and how we are inextricably bound into our own stories. It incorporates every individual thing I liked about entries 5-2 of this countdown, and even the things I liked about the honorable mentions, and wraps them all in one neat package. How could there ever be a different #1?


Next Month: Not another countdown, but beyond that I honestly have no idea. I'm sure I'll think of something by the 22nd. See you then!

Wrong Tommy. Wrong Wizard.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Is the short story really worthwhile, is the novel really dead? by Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon
My feelings about short stories have always been mixed. Until I began writing I’d read very few unless you count my Mum's Woman’s Own on a rainy day circa 1967.  Then in my quest to Become A Writer I signed up to an evening class without noticing the topic was short stories.  I enjoyed it but was over the moon when I found out that the excellent teacher was starting another course the following autumn on writing a novel. Since then I only ever really considered short stories as a kind of career stepping-stone, a ‘look at me’ moment in the greater plan of trying to sell a novel to an agent or publisher. 

Even when I began having some modest success in competitions I was still a reluctant consumer of short stories, literary or otherwise, and if I’m honest, viewed all those claims about the short story having at last come into its own with some scepticism.
Don’t get me wrong I’m still not completely won over (of the several anthologies I own, I don’t think there’s one in which I’ve read every single story - *blush*) but I may be on the path to conversion.

What has changed? Well as you’ll have seen from previous posts  I've discovered that if I have a limited attention span for reading short stories, I do like listening to them and have been involved in several ‘livelit’ events where I’ve met talented local writers who can write and perform with great panache.

Jenny Heap with other writers (I'm 3rd from right!) at Hawkesbury Upton Litfest
But what about reading short fiction? Well at HawkesburyUpton Literature festival (where I was in the company of as many short story writers as novelists without feeling like a fish out of water) I ran into Jenny Heap who has recently published ‘a circle of short stories.’  That had me intrigued straight away. In my short stay on the MA at Bath Spa the idea of a collection of linked short stories was often bandied about, but had I ever met one, as it were, in the flesh? Tessa Hadley’s Accidents in the Home has been given this label but to me it was more coherent than that. Other collections (Debbie Young’s witty Marry in Haste or the Unchained library anthology published by my writing group) have themes but no interconnections.

The Woman Who Never Did (I reviewed it here)is both entertaining and thought provoking and doen't conform to many (off-putting!) preconceptions of the short story genre. Its interconnections (some tight some loose) also kept me interested.  As a result, when I came across this article by Anthony Cummins Clear-eyed and cutting edge, has the short story come of age,  I decided to suspend my usual scepticism and read it properly. 

Cummins  praises a number of short story collections including a new one by Mark Haddon but also identifies quite a few novels which are really made up from separate stories.  He says: 

"This is either a grown-up way to construct a story that trusts the reader to make sense of it, or it neglects the writers duty to build something coherent. It can be a way to sidestep the contrivance of plot and let the characters breathe..."

Sidestepping the contrivance of plot rings a bell with me even as a reader. I think modern commercial fiction has become increasingly plot-driven. I’m thinking of things like Gone Girl or even Elizabeth is Missing. These are compelling reads but do they give the lasting satisfaction of a novel that builds more slowly and demands more of us? And as a writer who has had struggled with plot in the past, I’m always on the look out for a McGuffin or a plot-twist and even if I don’t see it, the knowledge that it’s there is somehow distracting.  I remember a few years ago Andrew Marr declared himself growing weary of the novel form and although they will always be my staple reading diet I think I see now where he was coming from.

And so I am attracted at least in theory to this new form of novel and although I’ve twice started and given up on Cloud Atlas (more blushes) maybe it’s time I got to grips with some of the others mentioned in the article. As to the ‘pure’ short story collection, Cummins hits the nail on the head in explaining my own past aversion, "A traditional novel can be put down and picked up with steady enjoyment, whereas short stories demand engagement, continually renewed. It’s a form that asks for more attention, not less."
This has been my problem exactly. Reading short stories consecutively is just too mentally tiring. Unlike a novel I just have to put them down!


Of course there are exceptions, and If anyone needs more persuading to give short stories a go, there's our own anthology Another Flash in the Pen availabe on pre-order now - no mental tiredness or your money back!
(I can say that can't I?)







You can read more about Ali Bacon on our author website.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Online or off grid? Enter Earthaven - Katherine Roberts

This month, I bought a car for the first time in ages, trading my faithful 13 year old Renault Clio in part exchange for an eco-friendly zero road tax three year old Peugeot 107. The whole process has in the meantime moved online, so there is no signing and posting off various coloured parts of the V5 logbook, no queuing at the Post Office clutching your MOT and insurance documents to buy a pretty paper tax disc to display on your windscreen, no real MOT certificate even, although you do still get a printed confirmation from the test station. You don't need any of the paper documents any more. It's all there on a computer somewhere in the vaults of the DVLA, and changes are done instantly online. You can even check the tax and MOT status of any car you fancy on the DVLA website by entering the registration and make... which could become quite a hobby if you live on the kind of road I do, with all sorts of vehicles passing up and down at every hour of the day and night.

It's undeniably simpler, quicker, no longer incorporates a delay of maybe several weeks when you're in limbo, wondering if your posted logbook changes ever reached the DVLA and what might happen if they don't. All well and good when you're at a dealership on the edge of town - and whoever had time for post office queues, anyway? Yet have I really sold one car and bought another? The car on my drive has changed colour and has a different number plate, but without the careful and slower paper-based process of the (not so distant) past, it all feels strangely insubstantial, as if those online records could be wiped out by a single strike of the delete key, unscheduled data crash, online terrorism, or - more likely - a mischievous teenage hacker with a laptop in their bedroom.

My parents are of the generation who coped very well for most of their lives without computers, and don't really see why they should get connected now they are retired. I can see their point, but I can also see them getting more and more frustrated by not being able to do essential day-to-day things on paper in the old fashioned way. I help them out whenever I can... booking airport parking, looking up information that is only on a website and therefore invisible to people like my parents. The car dealer does all the online stuff for you, so if my Dad buys a car he doesn't have to worry. He just needs to hand over the money and trust the dealer. The main banks still offer branch services... so far. We can still send in paper tax returns, but for how long? Cheques are no longer accepted in many places (including car dealerships, it seems). Real money - the coin sort - is being phased out in favour of contactless bank cards. We are not so far away from being totally reliant on a central computer in some vault somewhere not going wrong. And that's before you factor in other, more sinister, reasons why data can get corrupted or changed, or simply disappear. One of the scariest dystopian books I've read is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where financial freedom (and, as a result, physical freedom) is taken away from women at the single press of a key, and it all makes me rather paranoid. Maybe that particular scenario wouldn't happen today, but I can think of many others that might just as easily happen, and some that probably will, if we continue blithely down this virtual route into a totally online world where we have no choice but to trust the people who enter and look after our data. Will we even know when that delete key is pressed, supposedly for our own good?

Feel like going off grid yet? Well, if you enjoy a bit of irony and don't mind reading a book in e-format, here's your chance to escape for a few hours... in anticipation of the lo-o-ong awaited sequel to my Earthaven novel Spellfall (chosen for the "Children's 76" by American Independent Booksellers when it was published in 2001 by Chicken House/Scholastic), I am lowering the price of the Kindle edition of the first book until the second title Spellspring comes out. For just 99c/99p, from this weekend until Spellspring is published, readers aged 9+ can visit the enchanted world of Earthaven where technology does not work and magic takes over... magic being just as dangerous to the uninitiated, of course!




Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first novel Song Quest. She writes fantasy/legendary fiction for young readers, and historical fiction for older readers under the name Katherine A Roberts. Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Friday, 20 May 2016

Adventures in audio by Sandra Horn



I first ventured into a recording studio aeons ago when I was working in a pain management clinic. I was using a technique of induced deep relaxation with the patients and wanted to give them something helpful to use between sessions. There was a recording suite in the teaching hospital and they had a whole library of royalty-free music I could add. Soon after we began, the technician stopped me and asked if I had anything on under my sweater. Eh? Apparently, there was a synthetic-material-rubbing sort of noise, undetectable to the human ear but picked up by the microphone. Luckily, I had something decent underneath, so peeled off the top layer and we started again. I’d been pre-warned to keep still and not to rustle my script, so was feeling quite tense while trying to maintain a soft soothing voice...’Stop!’ said the technician, ‘there’s a rhythmic background noise. We think you might be clenching your buttock muscles.’
          Scrolling forward a geological epoch or three, I recorded Tattybogle for a cd, at lovely Starshine Music’s place in Sussex. We arrived in the early evening, so as to avoid the noise of the builders who were there in the day building a studio. They hadn’t gone home, so we sat in the garden and reflected how quiet it was in the Sussex countryside. Apart from dogs barking, a combine harvester in the next field, and as a grand climax (ha!) Shetland ponies bonking enthusiastically and vocally just over the hedge.  We waited for it all to die down and then went in. As the studio wasn’t yet finished, we recorded in a bedroom – two bedrooms, in fact, with Richard the Sound Engineer in one and me next door. Everyone else sat downstairs and were forbidden to run taps, flush loos, etc. I read Kipling’s ‘Four and Twenty Ponies’ first to remind me of my Sussex voice, and off we went. 


          Some years on again, I re-published my storybook The Silkie as an ebook, with a beautiful new cover by Anne-Marie Perks. For some reason, since lost down a hole in my brain, I thought it would be a good idea to make an audiobook of it. In fact, it wasn’t a bad idea as such, but the mistake was to record it myself. I was nervous about throwing any more money at it by employing an actor. I went to see theatre Director, Fran Morley, who had directed my play ‘Six Characters’ , and she gave me an intensive session on the text and how to give it life. Fine. Except that the studio I had booked was cold and gloomy, I was by myself with headphones that kept slipping down, trying to hold on to them, not clench my buttock muscles, not rustle the pages of the script...and all my preparation went for nothing. It’s flat. To crown it all, the technician then proudly announced that he’d ‘taken all the breffs out’ of the recording, which he seemed to think was a good thing to do. Indeed, he had taken them out, and then closed the gaps...it sounded like an insane gabble. We went through it all again, telling him where to put them back, but this was costing me a fortune so in the end we took it home and edited it ourselves. It was much better, but still not good. 


          I also recorded the text of ‘Rainbow!’ there, which went rather better, and my multi-talented friend and the book’s illustrator, Bee Willey, will use it in an animated version of the book. It will also exist as a colouring-in book and we’ll see how that goes. New departure!

Episode 4: Starshine invited me to record ‘The Moon Thieves’ in their completed studio. I sat in the lovely sunny room, with triple-glazed wndows onto the Sussex Downs, not miked up because it was all built in somehow, and could see and talk to Richard in his glass booth. It was fun and I know the text backwards and inside-out, so it’s lively. Richard then put some silly sound effects in. Great! Sadly, the people it was made for, who wanted to put stories into a form that children could listen to on smartphones, etc. went out of business, so it has never been used. Ho hum.


Episode 5: my play about FGM has just been recorded BY AN ACTOR, in a studio in the crypt of a church just round the corner. I knew actor Jan Wilde because she had commissioned a comic monologue from me for Dorset Opera’s gala evening, and she had made a wonderful job of it.  We did several takes for sound quality and odd bits Jan wasn’t happy with, and there it was. She did both voices and it sounds great! It’s now on WAV and MP3 files and has been winging off to anyone who wants to use it.
          Next time? If there ever is a next time, I’ll phone Jan!