Friday, 26 August 2016

Sometimes the Silver Screen Don't Shine by Ruby Barnes

In July 2016 the Barnes family spent two weeks in Majorca, during which three of the four of us read The Shining by one Mr Stephen King. The readings were punctuated by Mrs R appearing at doorways and saying "Here's Johnny!" in her best Jack Nicholson impression, which was scary enough. Imagine our individual surprise when the "Here's Johnny!" phrase was nowhere to be found in the 2011 paperback reprint of the 1977 original novel. We resolved to watch Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version of the story on our return to Ireland, as it was before my daughter's time and I had never managed to watch the film all the way through.
Many times re-published, this edition of the 1977 novel has a 2001 introduction by the author.

The novel revolves around a very limited number of characters in an ultimately claustrophobic setting. What happens before the family of three reach the Overlook Hotel is of great significance when it comes to understanding why Jack, Wendy and little Danny Torrance behave the way they do once the Overlook become snowbound. Jack's history of drink and violence, and his struggle with self-esteem as a writer of limited success, are essential elements. Danny's psychic premonitions, guided by his imaginary friend Tony, build a sense of menace from the start. The dubious history of the Overlook itself is a key driver for the plot. The head of steam built by the hotel's faulty boiler and the thumping of the wooden mallet in Danny's trances built the tension at an ominous pace.
There are very few loose ends or lame components in the novel. King himself says in his introduction that "there is a cocky quality in some of The Shining's prose that has come to grate on me later years, but I still like the book enormously and recognize the choice it forced on me". The choice he talks about is between creating an obvious monster and a more subtle, reality-based horror such as the Jack Torrance of this novel. All three Barnes critics found it to be a great read.

Here's Johnny!

It was with great expectations that we sat down on our return to watch the 1980 film version of The Shining. My previous failed attempts at watching the film I put down to my short attention span and poor hearing. Pretty soon good old Jack Nicholson was stomping about the Overlook in his pre-manic style, gearing up to full lunatic (as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
But wait! Where was Jack's back story? His history of violence and drinking, of abuse and being abused. What about the Overlook's own history? Where was Danny's sense of premonition, the thumping of the wooden mallet, the imaginary Tony's warnings?
New additions were thrown into the mix. Scary twins girls featured regularly. Tony was reduced to a finger puppet. Nothing hung together. The brief appearance of a man in a dog costume only made sense having read the book. It was a disjointed mess. Kubrick had gone for the cheap trick, a full-on Nicholson monster with little or no plausibility. Nothing much more than a slasher film of gratuitous madness.
In his paperback introduction King alludes to the fact that he had just one single conversation with Kubrick about the film and they had come to different conclusions regarding Jack Torrance. I suspect it was a much more marked difference than that.
I never did "get" The Shining as a film and I never will. It's the worst kind of clichéd interpretation of a great novel. Nevertheless, it retains a reputation as a key part of pop culture.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Publishing a Picturebook with Createspace - by Susan Price

Three Billy Goats Gruff - Susan and Andrew Price
At last, Three Billy Goats Gruff is available on Amazon, both as paperback and ebook, after much cursing on the part of me and Andrew Price, the illustrator.

With apologies for the length, here's what Andrew and I have learned about the process.

How To...Olsen

This blog is going to be about Createspace. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. After going to the mat with Createspace, producing the Kindle is cake.

But don't let me put you off, if you have a spare picture-book. Lash out a couple of quid on How To Format Your Picturebook For Createspace Without The Frustration and get stuck in. We found Olsen's book invaluable, but worked out a few wrinkles for ourselves too.

 Graphics Programme

You will need a graphics programme, such as PhotoShop (which you can now rent annually or monthly) or the free Open Source programme, Gimp. There are others, such as Canva and one recommended by our own Karen Bush, PicMonkey, which struck me as a more intuitive, user-friendly PhotoShop.

If you can't use any graphics programme, then bribe, trap, marry or otherwise acquire someone who can. I am lucky in my brothers, Andrew and Adam, who can both use more than one graphics prog. Andrew has gone as far as teaching me the basics.

Before You Even Start...

There are things you have to consider before you even start programming your picture book. For instance, Createspace won't upload any book with fewer than 26 pages, so forget the traditional formula of 24 pages (excluding front and back matter.)

This gives more freedom in telling the story, but if you want to republish an existing out of print (OOP) picturebook, you may have to be creative with title-pages, author bios, ads for forthcoming books and so on, to reach the required page number.

Then there's cost. Amazon charges pennies for electronic delivery of ebooks, so cost of production is irrelevant. But Createspace produces an actual paper book which you can drop on the floor with a thump. So costs of materials, storage and delivery apply. Createspace sets a minimal price, which covers the costs of production and their profit. To make a profit for yourself, you must charge above this. The more pages in the book, the higher you will have to set your price.

Createspace Hates Spreads

Middle-Sized Billy Goat flees the Troll

One of the great appeals of the picturebook to an illustrator is the opportunity to design lively, story-telling pictures across a double-page spread. But Createspace was designed to automatically publish books for adults, with pages of text to right and left and a central gutter. During the proofing stage, Createspace's digital previewer marks double spreads as mistakes, because they cross the gutter. The challenge is to publish such a book despite Createspace.

What Size?

You need to decide on your book's size. Createspace offers you several, of slightly different proportions. For Three Billy Goats Gruff, Andrew and I chose the largest standard size offered: 11 inches by 8. Amazon always works in inches. In centimetres, this is 27.9 x 20.3.

How Do You Get The Book Into The Computer?

You've decided on your lay-out and the number of pages. You've decided the size of your book. But how do you get your picture layouts, text and all, into the computer?

First, in your graphics programme, you will make a background or blank canvas. Your book's pages will be 'inserted' or pasted onto this background. When edited to your satisfaction, you'll save the whole layout as a picture-file. We used the jpeg format, but Createspace will accept others.

BUT, before you know how big to make your 'blank canvas', you have to consider 'bleed' and 'gutter. 


You're creating a paperback which will be printed on real paper and chopped to size.

You need to allow an area at the edges of your pages for 'bleed.' Anything which falls within the bleed may be cut off during the book's production.

Createspace suggests that you allow 0.125 inches to the width and 0.25 inches to the height. So if each of your single pages is 11 x 8 inches, then this has to become 11.25 x 8.125 inches. Olsen suggests that you play safe and make the bleed half an inch, so: 11.5 x 9 inches.

Gutter or Spine Width

Createspace provides a formula for calculating spine width here.
In short, for a colour interior, you multiply the number of pages by 0.002347.
Three Billy Goats Gruff had 48 pages, so its spine width was 0.112656. Or, rounded up, 0.113 inches.

When calculating page dimensions, the spine-width is halved as one half is one side of the gutter and the other half on the other.

The dimensions for our left-hand single page, 11 x 8 including bleed and gutter are:

 Bleed    +    Page Width   +    Bleed   +   Half-Gutter
  0.25                 8                     0.25             0.06             =    8.56 inches

For the right-hand page, the half-gutter goes on the other side.

For double-page spreads, you double this: 11.5 inches high by 17.12 inches wide.

So, now you've done all your hard sums, can you go ahead and set up your blank canvas?
First you have to supersize.


If you want your book to be 11 x 8, you don't make your graphic programme blank canvas that size, not even with added bleed and gutter.

Andrew, with his graphics background, made our blank canvas four times bigger: 45 inches high and 34.24 iches wide. (Miraculously, this fits easily inside the computer screen.)

Set the resolution too. Andrew says to make it at least 300 dpi. (Dots per inch: also known as PPI, Pixels Per Inch.) Andrew never works at less than 300 dpi.

Why such huge files? Two reasons, Andrew says. To enable you to create original artwork and to keep your images sharp when reproduced.

"When creating original artwork," Andrew explains, "you need to be able to magnify your image to handle fine detail. If your image is a mere 11 x 8, it will pixellate - break up - and blur as you zoom in close. Make your file 4 to 6 times larger than you need and you'll be able to zoom in close without losing definition."

Then, looking ahead, "What if you want to use your image for a small postcard, or a big poster? An image of 11 x 9 would pixellate and look terrible if we tried to blow it up or shrink it.

"Huge files give you high resolution. Shrinking the images for Kindle or Createspace sheds pixels and losing definition but if you start with a huge file, your image stays sharp."

Guide Lines

When you've made your supersized blank canvas, place guide lines on it, to show you where the bleed areas and gutter will be.

The bleed of 0.25 at top and bottom becomes a supersized inch, so the horizontal guides are set one inch from the top of the page, and 42 inches from the top.

The vertical guides are set at an inch from the left-hand edge and 33 inches from the left. You can place guides to show where the gutter is too.

So, now you have your huge blank canvas set up and your guide lines showing you the bleeds. Now you're going to bring your pages into the computer and place them on this blank canvas.

An OOP Book

Let's say you have an OOP picture book. You want to self-publish it and either own the rights in both text and art-work, or you own one and have the permission of the rights-holder for the other.

If your home-scanner has a large bed and is capable of taking high-res copies, then scan your book, page by page, and save the scans as picture files. We saved the scans as jpegs, but you may prefer another format. The pages must lie flat on the scanner-bed to prevent light getting in at the edges and spoiling the scan. You may have to tear your book into separate pages to achieve this.

Create a clearly named folder to hold these picture files, so you can find them easily. Label each image alphabetically. For instance: aGoats01 - bGoats02 - and so on. Back up that folder!

You may prefer to take your book to a high-street printer. They will supply you with high resolution scans on a CD or USB stick.

Once the scans are in your computer as jpegs, you can open them in your graphics programme and drag them onto your supersized blank canvas. You will probably have to resize them.

As you resize each image, save them as huge graphics images (4-6 times the size you need.) Then use the Save As tool to save them as humungous jpegs.

So now you have two copies of each page: one saved as a graphics programme file and one as a jpeg or picture file.

The next step is to make another blank canvas in your graphics programme, this time at your book's actual size. Page by page, copy your humungous jpegs onto this canvas and resize to fit. Because of the original supersize, it will stay sharp.

Put the book-sized jpegs in their own folder. Name them alphabetically and back them up.

(Because these files are so huge, it's best to store them on an external drive or a USB. They will take up an awful lot of space in  your computer's memory.)

An Original Book

A Wacom graphics tablet
What if you want to create an original book?

You can make sketches or paintings on paper or board and scan them into your computer, saving them as picture files, such as jpegs. Or you can use a graphics tablet, such as the Wacom Bamboo, to draw directly into your graphics programme. (The tablet gives you far more control than a mouse.)

Or combine the two methods: scan in drawings and then use the tablet to rework them.

Layer It

Take full advantage of your graphic programme's layers by putting every element of your work on different layers.

Think of the layers as a series of transparencies piled on top of one another, just as pre-digital animation used layers of transparent cells

The background was painted on one layer. An important feature, such as a large tree, would be painted on the layer on top of that. A character would be on the next layer up. Because the layers were transparent, the onlooker could see all the elements at once, forming a complete picture. However, details on the upper layers could be changed without altering those underneath.

The layers in graphics programmes work in the same way. Different programmes may call them by different names, but I think most have something similar.

So, put your background drawing on one layer. Put the colour for it on another layer. Name both layers clearly, so you can find the one you want.

The outline drawing of characters each have their own layer. Their colouring goes on other layers.

The text has its own layer. Indeed, each sentence - each word, each letter - can have its own layer, if you wish.

Obviously, these ever multiplying layers can become difficult to manage. So, why bother?

Well, say you want to change the tree from a spring tree in blossom to an autumn tree. But Goldilocks is standing in front of it and you don't want to change her. Well, switch off her layer. She vanishes. You can then work on the tree as much as you like without worrying about Goldilocks.

When you're happy with the tree, turn Goldilocks back on and there she is, in front of the tree, unchanged.  If you now want to change the colour of her clothes, you can do that, without changing her outline, if you have the colours on a separate layer.

You can experiment with the text, changing its position, size, colour and font without changing anything else. You can re-use a background or that tree several times, copying them from one canvas to another.

Save And Back Up!

Save your work as graphics files, with all their many layers. Name them alphabetically and put them in a folder of their own. This may seem fussy and boring, but you will be glad you did it.

Back them up! I know I'm nagging, but be told.

When you're happy with your pages and want to save them as picture files, first open the saved graphic files and 'flatten' the layers. This amalgamates all the layers into one image.

It also 'embeds' the text as part of the illustration. In effect, your graphics file becomes a photograph of your page: illustration and text become one.

You have to do this before you save them in a picture format and load them up to Createspace but, once flattened, you can no longer make changes to either picture or text.

While this was in layers in a graphic file, we could change the font, its colour and size. Once layers are 'flattened' it becomes fixed.

But you will almost certainly have to make further adjustments before you can publish.

This is why it's so important to save your graphics files, with all their layers. When you need to make changes, you can return to these graphics files, make changes and save them as jpegs again.

Once you have flattened your pages, use the Save As tool to save them as jpegs or whatever format you are using. Put them in their own folder, alphabetically.

But these jpegs are huge, at least four times larger than you want them to be. You have to reduce them to the size of your book, plus its bleeds and gutter. So, make a new blank canvas in that size and copy each of your jpegs to it, resizing it to fit. Save the book-sized jpegs in their own folder. Alphabetically.

Keep your supersized jpegs and your layered graphics files. They are your master copies.

Next, loading up to Createspace. You thought we'd never get here.

Faff and More Faff.

We made our book with Microsoft Word. Eventually.

When Andrew and I first researched making our book, all the advice was to make a PDF using Adobe Pro, an expensive programme which can create a PDF as well as read one.

We signed up for the 30-day free trial, agreeing that, if it worked for us, we would each sell a kidney and buy it.

Readers, we followed the instructions to the letter. We hopefully loaded our PDFs to Createspace countless times - and saw tiny thumbnails crammed unreadably into one corner.

We read and re-read the best advice from the best people, checked our work, changed dimensions, sacrificed to Odin... Nothing worked. It was a bit frustrating.

While Andrew howled at the moon, I read a bit further into Olsen's book and found a chapter about using Word. Here's how.

Using Word for Createspace Picturebooks

First, create a Word page file at the actual size of your book, plus bleeds and gutter. I refer you to Olsen, who tells you exactly what to do.

We learned for ourselves that it's best to add more blank pages to your Word file than you will actually need before you add any content. It's much easier to insert pictures into empty pages than it is to add a page after you've inserted a picture.

When your blank Word file of 55 or so pages is ready, go through and insert all your book-sized jpegs. Here is where all that patient alphabetical labelling pays off. Instead of hunting through all the thumbnails in the folder, looking for the one you want, they are all neatly in order.

It will be even more useful when you come to make the Kindle version.

Go to Insert Picture and, when the Browse box opens, click on the picture you want. Click Open, and it will appear in your Word file. Use Picture Tools to centre the image. You may have to drag it at the corners to resize it.

Your double-spreads will have to be cropped into single pages as Word will only accept single pages. They may not look as if they join up in Word, but if you have your measurements correct, they will.

The first time we loaded a Word file up to Createspace, it worked! It wasn't perfect, but it was the right size, filling the digital 'book' from edge to edge.

The pages were out of order, and we had to add an extra title page to bump the others along so that the pages meant to form a double spread did so.

We had both our graphics programme and the Createspace previewer open at the same time, and flicked from one to the other, so we could see what elements we had to adjust.


You proof-read on Createspace's digital previewer. To make corrections, return to your original graphics files, edit and then save, first as a graphics file, then as a supersized jpeg and finally as a book-sized jpeg. This may seem a lot of unnecessary work, but you need those files. And once you've learned what to do, the saving at different sizes is quick and easy. (Though, admittedly, it will do your head in at first.)

When you've made your corrections, load them up to Createspace as an interior file and test again. You can load up your book and check it with the previewer as many times as you like.

You create your cover and load it up separately. (Hey, if you can make a Createspace double-page picture book spread, you can create a cover. Just remember to allow for your bleeds and spine-width.)

'Live Elements' Warning

Finally, when you think you can do no more, you submit for publication. At this point, Createspace will put big red warning triangles all over your book because your 'live elements' stray into the bleed and cross the gutter. This alarms Createspace. It urges you to cease, desist and abandon all hope.

Hold your nerve. If you are satisfied you've done your sums right, and you've put nothing into the bleeds and gutter that you can't bear to see trimmed, then your book will be fine.

With a certain resignation, Createspace supplies a button which allows you to ignore all its warnings and go ahead anyway. And even if you have made a bad mistake, you can still put it right.

This is because you are going to -

Pay For A Proof Copy.

It hurts, but Andrew and I seriously advise you to cough up and pay for a paper proof copy to be sent from America. The on-line previewer, though very good, is not perfect. When our paper copy arrived we saw that there were a couple of lines of text that were painfully close to the page edge, although they'd looked okay on-screen. We were able to return to our master-copies and move them (thanks to the graphic layers.)

Andrew spotted places in his art-work where the colour wasn't as smoothly graduated as he wanted it to be. This hadn't shown up as well on screen as it did on the printed page. Again, he was able to return to his master-copies and improve them.


After all this, we still hadn't had enough. We made the book into a Kindle ebook too, though it was easier than Createspace. This seems to be selling in America better than the UK.

First Attempt

This was our first attempt to produce a fully-fledged, full-bleed picture-book with double page spreads with Createspace and it was a lot of work. But we've learned an enormous amount and are confident that our second book, which is already under way, will be much easier. It's to be The Bremen Town Musicians.

Three Billy Goats Gruff by Susan Price.   Illustrated by Andrew Price.

Paperback              Kindle ebook
    UK                                UK
    US                                 US

Using a graphics programme also allowed us to strip out colour and produce a colouring-in book, with closed writing exercises.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

What makes you fizz? by Jo Carroll

I'm not around today. I'm at a cricket match. (England v Pakistan, an ODI, at the Ageas Bowl, for anyone who is interested.)

Cricket isn't for everyone - so this isn't the space where I bang on about googlies and cow corner. Instead - I recall an interview with Alistair Cook (the England captain) after a particularly quiet day in the field, when he talked about the importance of sport as entertainment. People pay to watch just because they enjoy it.

He made me think. For, when you unpick it, you could argue that all sports that open their gates to the paying public are in the entertainment business. Football, snooker, cricket - they are all sustained by people willing to pay for the pleasure of watching.

And writers? Surely we, too, are in the entertainment business. We hope that we can give enough people enough pleasure to pay for us to keep writing.

Pleasure, of course, is a complicated construct. For some it is enough to be diverted from life's realities for an hour or two. Some want to be challenged by difficult or controversial issues. Others want to engage on a deeply emotional level. But they are all looking for something to connect with on one level or another - something to entice them away from FaceBook or the TV.

But ... What about the power of writing challenge ideas? To highlight injustice? To prompt a reader to leap from the sofa and join the rebels on the the barricades in an effort to change things? Surely good writing has the potential to change lives?

Yes, writing can change lives. But before it can do that, the reader must be engaged to the point that reading becomes more important than anything else in the world - and to do that it has to 'entertain', in the widest sense of the word. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have abandoned a worthy tome full of philosophical insight on the basis that I have better things to do than fall asleep over a book, however important the ideas. And I have sat up late at night to wrestle with ideas because they are new and challenging and my brain is fizzing with them.

And that, I would argue, is what entertainment is - that brain-fizzing. It helps us feel truly alive.
Reading, writing, singing, and cricket do it for me - what about you?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Lev Butts Discusses Negative Reviews

I recently had the first two novellas of my Arthurian Western, Guns of the Waste Land, picked up by Venture Press over in the U.K. for release as a single ebook. This has made me understandably excited as it is my first foray into traditional publishing (although to be fair, both novellas were picked up by Hold Fast Press, a co-op press in Long Beach, California, for publication as paperbacks a few months prior, they just haven't come out yet).

One of the biggest benefits of traditional publishing, I have found, is promotion. While I have had some modicum of success promoting my work as a self-publisher, there is only so far I can go on a fixed and meager budget.

Also having a professional art department
design your cover is a pretty nice perk, too.

Venture, though, was able to do quite a bit for me in that department: they gave the book a free give-away, then kept it at a reduced price for a few weeks to drum up word of mouth. They then blasted the Twitter-sphere with seemingly nonstop tweets directing readers to my page on Amazon, and encouraged all who downloaded the book to write a review.

Now as we have said many times in this group, reviews are the most important thing a reader can do for a writer. Yes, just as (if not more) important than actually buying the book. That's why we have free and reduced give-aways periodically. Your review literally helps us get our books seen by others, especially on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

But we also really dig it when you buy our books, so keep doing that, too.

And Venture Press did me proud, I have to say. While the first volume of Guns of the Waste Land had languished around nine reviews for a couple of years, within weeks of Venture's promotion push, I had garnered a whopping 61 reviews and they are still trickling in.

Most of them have been positive reviews, and I am glad. I'm certainly glad to read them and feel good about my abilities as a writer. However, there have been quite a few negative reviews as well, and that's what I want to talk about today.

Admittedly, while we love to read positive reviews about our books, there is no real difference in good or bad reviews when we are looking for exposure on the bookseller websites. The higher the number of our reviews (good, bad, or indifferent), the more chances we have of showing up on someone's suggestion list if they are buying a book in a similar genre or style.

That being said, though, negative reviews can be hard to take, regardless of how much they are outweighed by the sheer number of positive reviews. Ernest Hemingway once slapped a critic in the face with a book because of a bad review. Isaac Asimov claims that writers fall into one of two groups: "Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review." I tend fall into the latter category.

Many authors opt not to read their reviews at all or at least to avoid the bad ones, lest the experience sink them so far into the morass of self-doubt and despair that they never pick up the pen again. However, I think that most of us can't help ourselves and, like trying not to look at a a car wreck, we cannot stop ourselves from taking a peek.

This article is for those folks, my people. The writers who work a bad review like a mouth ulcer or a bug bite scratched until sepsis sets in. Even though we know we will regret it, we read the critique and worry over it for days.

Well I am here to help. If you're going to read the negative review, you may as well understand them. Bad reviews fall into three categories and you need to know how to handle each of them.

The Good

Believe it or not some negative reviews can actually be a good thing. Statistically speaking, having a some one- or two-star reviews actually helps your sales. If everything is four- or five-stars, a reader might be dubious, and suspect the reviews are from friends, family, or others who have a vested interest in making a sub-par work seem fantastic. Not every reader is going to love your work because not every reader's interests are your interests. Having a few negative reviews, then, gives a reader a more well-rounded view of a works strengths and weaknesses.

As a writer, honest, well-thought out reviews can help you in your craft as well. If something doesn't work for a reader, and more importantly doesn't work for several readers, it may be something that you need to tweak for your next project (or in the case of self-publishing/print-on-demand, something you may consider for updating the files).

Take for example the following negative reviews of Guns of the Waste Land:

It's clear from these, that my non-linear story-telling was confusing for some readers. Admittedly, this style was a virtue according to some of the positive reviews, but what I may want to consider in the future is making the transitions to other story lines more clear and smoother.

Or take this one:

While short, this review gives me a legitimate complaint that I can address later. If I'm writing a Western, I may want to consider more action scenes. While I may ultimately decide that the balance I have established works well, this review at least gives me something to consider for my next volume.

These types of reviews give you food for thought, so the best thing to do is consider the ideas presented and decide for yourself how much of them to internalize.

Unfortunately, not all reviews are as helpful as these.

The Bad

Some reviews attempt to be constructive, but they just kind of aren't:

These types of reviews are probably due more to your particular style or editorial decisions not being to the liking of the reader. They seem to say something solid, but they never quite pull it off. Almost as if they know the books wasn't for them, but can't really put their finger on why.

And the truth of the matter is the book probably isn't their cup of tea, and they don't know why, and that is perfectly okay.

Sometimes they know exactly why it's not their cup of tea:

Though, to be honest, I do not recall blaspheming the name of Jesus at any point in the book.

Or these folks, who apparently take issue with the fact that the book is the first in a series:

Even, here though, the readers did not realize the whole purpose of the book is to set up a series. They clearly did not want to invest in a series, and that is perfectly fine.

There is nothing you can do as an author to improve your work with these types of reviews, so the best thing to do is to ignore them and keep writing.

And then we have...

The Ugly

These can be just be hurtful reviews whose main aim is to ridicule the author for not living up to the reviewers admittedly vague idea of what good writing is. They differ from the previous two reviews in that they often include hurtful language whose only goal is to make sure the offending party never dares to pick up a pen again:

These reviews have no real aim other than to shame the writer for deigning to enter a realm the reviewer still hasn't had the guts to enter themselves. They want to make the author feel as bad about about him/herself as the reviewer feels about his/her own life decisions.

The best thing to do with these reviews is to ignore them. Or remember that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby have their fair share of crappy, hurtful reviews, too.

Others just make no sense at all. They are pure word salad, as if someone gave Sarah Palin speed, set her in front of a keyboard and said "Go to town!"

These, you savor. You print them up and take them out whenever you feel like you're a crap writer who will never accomplish a piece of golden language if you tried for an eternity. You read them, you smile, and you feel better, secure in the knowledge that at least you know how the "return" button works, the purpose of punctuation, and how to spell "a."

I hope this has been helpful because it has amused the Dickens out of me.

Monday, 22 August 2016

'Everything Love Is' and the contract between writer and reader, by Ali Bacon

Freebie alert! Anyone who comments on this post from August 22nd - 24th 2016 will be entered into a draw for a free copy of Everything Love Is, the new novel by Claire King published by Bloomsbury, July 2016

I ran into author Claire King a few years ago on Twitter when her novel Night Rainbow (which I really enjoyed) was accepted by an agent and then a publisher. Since then Claire has not only had her second novel published but also moved from France to Gloucestershire, and so on a  sunny Saturday in July, I met her at her book signing in Stroud (complete with luscious macarons) and came home to bury myself in Everything Love Is.

As expected the writing was gorgeous and the opening had a hint of intrigue in the narrative voice. Fifty pages in I wasn’t so sure. The main character, Baptiste, a therapist who lives on a canal, was lovely and I wanted to know what was happening to him. But what was happening? The second voice (or was it more than one?) was still perplexing me. Who was Chouette, the owl to Baptiste’s kingfisher? Just when I thought I had worked it out – tada! – I was proved completely wrong.  I considered throwing my lovely new book across the room, but chose the alternative course of looking up reviews, not because I wanted the plot explained, but just to see if I was the only stupid person out there. Apparently not (phew!) - others had also struggled with the opening -  so I took a deep breath and carried on.

In the end I loved it too and you can read my review here. But it was a very close thing and made me think about the bond of trust that’s formed between writer and reader and how far it can be stretched.
Remember that book from the 70s. I’m okay, You’re okay?  - a mantra which sums up the ideal working relationship. I think it also applies to reader and writer. A good writer inspires confidence – we want to feel safe – okay -  in their hands.  We also want to feel a bit flattered by being allowed to work things out for ourselves and not have everything spelled out. That makes both of us okay – oh that’s clever and so am I. But what if we can’t work it out? That leaves us with two options, either a) the writer has messed up or b) I am dim. Either way that bond of trust is broken. From page 50 (my usual giving up point) to page 90 or thereabouts, when I began to see the light, things were not okay between me and this author!

In fact there is a very good reason for the confusion that reigns in the first third of this book but just to satisfy the part of me that nearly threw the book away, I went back to ask Claire a few questions.

Ali: Hi Claire - did you always intend the structure to be as it is and had you chosen the voice of Chouette from the start?’
Claire: Hi Ali – no! My first draft of the book was in first person, with only Baptiste narrating. This was a style that worked well in The Night Rainbow because whilst Pea [five-year-old narrator] was a naive narrator, the adult reader could infer the wider story from what she saw and heard. But in Baptiste's case, because of the nature of his story, that wasn't a workable approach. In my second draft I switched to third person point of view, but it felt flat and expositional.
Ali:  So then you chose Chouette?
Claire: Yes, eventually I settled on the dual narration, switching between chapters. It became clear that not only did this work for telling Baptiste's story, but that the story was in fact just as much Chouette's as it was his. And that was, for me, the moment when it started to become a real story about love.
Ali: I can see that dual narration gives the book a great dynamic and I suppose it would lose something if we knew the identity of Chouette from the outset. But did you realise you would be giving your readers a bit of a headache?
Claire: Once the manuscript was with Bloomsbury, I spent a long time working with my editor to refine the pacing and the balance between the two voices, particularly in the first part of the book. I know that what resulted asks the reader to live through some disorienting moments initially, and that that might risk putting some readers off early on, but I do think it is worth the risk, because I wanted to take readers on a journey that can't adequately be explained any other way.
Ali: I admit I’ve tried and failed to think how else you could have got the effect you wanted in this book, although it’s certainly a risk to leave the revelation so late.

So there we have it. Claire and I, I’m glad to say, are friends again, and I hope people do persevere with Everything Love Is as it’s a great read with many lovely stories entwined with those of Baptiste and Chouette.

Author and reader need to be friends!
So, the question for readers of this blog is, are there any great books you’ve felt like throwing across the room, and how long do you give the author before giving up?

Or if you're a writer, have you ever worried about how much of a risk you can take with your reader's patience or trust?  

Remember anyone who comments will be entered in the draw for a free copy of Claire's novel.

Many thanks to Claire for spilling the beans and to Bloomsbury for the free copy. 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Why does the sea sparkle? - Katherine Roberts

Europa and the bull enter the sea
picture credit: Jean François de Troy [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Living in a seaside resort, it can be difficult to settle at the computer in August when everyone else seems to be on holiday. But a morning walk along the promenade can be great research.

Small boy to his dad: "Why does the sea sparkle?"

Dad (clearly the practical type): "It's the sun reflecting off the water."

Small boy goes quiet, possibly trying to remember exactly what 'reflection' means, and why he isn't seeing the whole sun reflected in the water just a whole bay full of sparkles?

A writer might have answered differently:

"They're fairies dancing on the waves..."
"A mermaid dropped her purse and lost all her diamonds..."
"It's the dreaded sparkle-eye disease and you've just caught it..."
"They're last night's fallen stars..."
"An evil villain in an underwater lair is trying to hypnotise us all into voting for him so he can rule the world..."

And I'm sure you can think of plenty of other creative explanations for this phenomenon.

The small boy's question is, of course, a classic starting point for a myth. This got me wondering if there are any traditional myths out there mentioning sea glitter, so I looked it up and came across the myth of Europa and the Bull, where Zeus transforms himself into a white bull to seduce the maiden Europa, who catches hold of the bull's neck and is carried on a wild ride across the sea to the isle of Crete, where they embark upon a night of passion. This myth mentions the sparkles as being the pearls of Europa's gown and her ride is in pursuit of pleasure, though in a later version Europa notes the 'oily glitter of the sea' as she is unwillingly being carried across it by the bull. Here, it's the movement of the bull through the water that disturbs the waves to produce the glitter, in the same way the sea otter in this lovely picture creates its own glitter:

picture credit: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons

The real science behind the glittering sea is, of course, a bit more complicated than the father's explanation. It is really many thousands of reflections of the sun reflecting off the waves, dependent on the wind and the tides and the position of the small boy, the angle of the sun, and other random elements such as seabirds landing on the water, fish breaking the surface and submerged rocks. There must be a mathematical formula for the glitter but I suspect it's not straightforward, and would need a lot of computer power to reproduce the effect even if I could come up with a formula. So here's a short video I took on one of my 'research walks':


But the small boy's question got me thinking about writing, and how we authors need readers to shine a light on our work even when we are in motion. Sometimes the sun shines on us, we win an award, get a handful of great reviews, or our publisher throws us a glittering launch party, and then we sparkle like the sea on a bright morning, diamond-like and dancing, and everyone wants to be near us. Then the sun goes behind a cloud, and we suddenly look dull and not so interesting, the people watching us idly from the shore shiver and go back to their hotel for a cream tea instead. Winter comes bringing grey skies and mist, and we start to look moody and chilly and at times rather threatening. Our readers leave town and head off to a glittering party on the other side of the world instead. Soon the rain sets in, and eventually even the hardiest of dog walkers pull up their hoods and decide it's time to head home and curl up by the fire with a good book, which might even be one of ours they purchased months ago while we were briefly glittering.

The sea is still out there. Its tides ebb and flow just the same, and the water is just as deep. We might get angry in stormy weather and batter a few cliffs, claim a slice of a neglected coast path, perhaps even demolish a railway line or two. But when our readers do not shine on us we do not sparkle, and we are about as welcome as an ocean of cold water at the parties. All we can do is carry on writing in the hope that next summer will be a good one, and many thousands of small boys (and their dads and mums and sisters and aunties and uncles) will wonder at the suddenly visible surface of our work and ask: "Dad, why does the sea sparkle?"

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy with a focus on legend and myth for young readers. Her latest release is a collection of science fiction in her series of Ampersand Tales for slightly older readers, bringing together some of her previously published shorter fiction and prize winning stories from the 1990s.

Weird and Wonderful
short science fiction by Katherine Roberts

Note: It was daylight when the small boy asked the question that inspired this post, but there is apparently a similar phenomenon seen at night in some parts of the world, where the spooky blue light known as 'sea sparkle' is due to glowing algae:  - which looks rather like something out of one of my stories!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Perspectives by Sandra Horn

A while ago, I submitted two poems for an anthology on Age.

I am Of A Certain Age myself, and was under the (mistaken, as it turned out) impression that it would be celebrating agedness. I was delighted when one poem was accepted. Then, when the proofs came, it was only too evident that the focus was on loss, dementia, incontinence, death...very good poems, I must say, but not exactly joyful. I went to the launch with some trepidation and discovered two things: the guest editor had been working with people with dementia, and I was, by a stretch, the oldest poet there.  It made me remember that when one is surrounded by the less happy aspects of life, perspectives, inevitably, become skewed. No-one there had met my sparky mother, dignified, in control, and sharp as a tack until she closed her eyes for the last time at age 93. Or my friend Alice, who lived to 105 and was equally ‘with-it’ to the end. They didn’t know about the woman who has just passed grade 6 ballet at the age of 71. They were looking at old age from the perspectives of its sadder aspects. I wouldn’t want to deny that there are aspects of old age that are often challenging, tragic, but that is so very far from the whole story. It partly depends on where you’re standing – too close to the sad parts of ageing for the editor, or too far distant from the lived experience of being older for the younger poets.

I wrote the poem – the ‘in my head’ bit before editing, re-editing, etc. - on the ferry between Hurst Castle and Keyhaven. It’s a great walk along the Spit to the castle, and a short-and-sweet ride back on the little ferry. Two things enchanted me on the way back: one was a row of beautiful identical white boats, tethered to mooring buoys and making that lovely tinkle-clank noise in the breeze. They were called, Skugga, Sylphe, Seren Wen and  Sea Eagle. Seren Wen is Welsh for evening star and Skugga is Faroese for cloud, I discovered later. The second thing was a kite surfer; a gorgeous muscular young man, who came alongside and then soared up and over the ferry. A nice piece of showing-off that brought a smile to my face. My spirits were lifted along with the kite and I was reminded strongly of a friend, who, well into her eighties and physically frail, said, one day, out of the blue, ‘Inside this old woman is young girl dancing.’ Here’s the poem in its original form:

On the ferry

The ferry chugs unhurried through the bay.
To our left, the shingle bank;
To the right, a row of tethered boats,
Skugga, Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen,
Tug at their moorings in the salty wind.

Kite surfer skims the shallow sea,
Comes alongside, keeps pace with us,
Then makes a half-turn, lifts –
And flies. Over the ferry,
Over Sea Eagle, Skugga, Sylphe and Seren Wen.

Oh, I am nudging threescore years and ten,
Slack-fleshed, stiff-jointed,
Needing to feel my feet flat on the ground;
But now I’m up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.

The ferry chugs below.
Skugga and Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen
Clatter and tug and fret;
Sea-bound. Earth-bound, while I surf the sky.
I am the woman on the chugging ferry.
I am a freed Sea Eagle, sky-bound Skugga, floating Sylphe, a shining Seren Wen.

 When it was published, in The Emma Press Anthology of Age, it didn’t have the final two lines as   the editor thought they didn’t add anything. I’ve put them back, here, not to argue with the editorial advice, but to underline my feelings and thoughts on that day, in that moment. It is simply a hymn of thankfulness for undimmed youthful oomph in an ageing body, which is pretty common amongst my venerable acquaintances. The anthology had a stonking review in Cadaverine (yes, really) Magazine. The reviewer picked my poem out as her favourite. Joy! Amazed delightedness! Cor, blimey! She saw intimations of mortality in it that I hadn’t seen or meant, though. I don’t know who she is but I’m willing to bet that she is young. Young in body, I mean. She won’t yet know about the dancer inside – the unageing dancer. 

My own very particular favourite in the anthology is by Joan Lennon. It is written from yet another perspective on oldness – a much, much longer view.  I find it profoundly joyful. Here it is, with Joan’s permission.


Warm wool of moor
wraps the hills –
   black feathered trees
   a touch of frippery
to soften old shoulders –
the long day
   paled to pink
though flame remembered
   in touches
   in shadows,
umber, amber, ochre
aged together
to a comfortable communion –
   this old earth
   that old sun.

Wow! Joan – and thank you!