Monday, 8 February 2016

Get Inspired - Lynne Garner

Last month I mentioned I'd treated myself to a Kindle Fire and had spent time not only playing games (well to be honest only the one Free Flow, which is very addictive) but I'd also explored a few writing apps. Over the last month I've been 'playing' with them and decided that I'd write couple of reviews. So here goes...

Note: The links take you to Amazon but these apps are also available for iPhone

Screens from 'Story Lines' 
Story Lines  
Designed by: Magostech
Cost: free

I love real story cubes and regularly use them in class to help inspire my students for their short stories. The cubes I normally use come in packs of nine giving you 54 images. However these have 10 images each, giving you 90 images, so offering many more combinations. To use you simply shake your phone or tablet and the dice scatter. You can then drag them into some order and lock the image. I've only used the app as a 'guest' however if you sign up you can also use the 'write story' facility. If playing on your phone (android) you can save an image of the 'throw' to your phone for later use. However I also uploaded to my iPhone and the app doesn't appear to offer this facility, which is a shame. This is an app I will be keeping and if you teach creative writing is one you may wish to introduce to your students. It's also a great app to have on you when you're sitting in that waiting room or on the train and want to exercise your imagination.

Name Dice
Name Dice app

Design by: Thinkamingo Inc.
Cost: Free

Name Dice is a simple tool to create interesting fictional names. It includes hundreds of first and last names, resulting in nearly endless names combinations. It's very simply to use, just tap on the screen and a new name appears. Those that it's generated for me include Ivy Lambert, Hugo Carter, Bailey Charles or it could be Charles Bailey. Again this is an app I'll not only use myself but will also introduce to my students. I may even combine it with the 5 x W and H game (who, what, why, when, where and how) I often start my courses off with.

There are another couple of apps I'm still exploring and if they are any good I'll let you know next month.

In the meantime if you have any favourite apps please do share.


Now for a blatant plug - don't say I didn't warn you:

My latest short story collection Coyote Tales Retold is available on Amazon in ebook format. Also available Meet The Tricksters a collection of 18 short stories featuring Anansi the Trickster Spider, Brer Rabbit and Coyote is available as a paper back and an ebook. 

I run the following online courses for Women On Writing:
How to write A children's book and get published
5 picture books in 5 weeks
How to write a hobby-based how to book

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Second Coming by Bill Kirton

The original blog I'd scheduled for today was (and still is because I'll post it next month) intended to be an entertaining aside about what great readers children are and how open they leave their imaginations. But the relentless cynicism of our rulers, their hypocrisy and their recent, blatant demonstrations that they know it and couldn't care less if we do too has forced my hand. The Google tax thing, the 'bunch of migrants' crack by Cameron - well, make your own list, there's plenty to choose from - they're profoundly depressing, and (lucky me) I've never been a depressive.

After that, I suppose it’s important to add a disclaimer. The blog expresses my own opinions and is not intended to represent in any way the ethos, philosophy, or collective political leanings – if there are any – of Authors Electric. Some readers also may ask why I've chosen such a topic, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with writing. My excuse is that nothing I've read or heard anywhere comes close to expressing my fears and despair better than the concluding poem. It doesn't solve the problem, but it gives it frightening substance.

First then, the title. My subject is the re-election of the bloke in 10 Downing Street but I actually stole it from two writers. One is John Niven, whose novel The Second Coming  is hilarious and not only envisages the sort of heaven I’d love to spend time (indeed, eternity) in but also gives a highly believable version of how the story of Jesus might repeat itself in a 21st century context. I’ll get to the other later.

Next, I make no apologies for the fact that the most, indeed only, powerful bit of this post was not written by me. Sometimes, though, we need our real writers, our geniuses, to capture things, movements, stresses, fears, Jungian and Freudian nightmares which many of the rest of us apprehend but can’t satisfactorily fix in words. Some may accuse me of being melodramatic but I find the prevailing political ideologies and rhetoric sinister, dangerous, toxic. And those in power are making sure that there won't be change any time soon.

Last May, my blog post fell on election day.  It was an effort at a light-hearted (although still serious and wary) satire on that process, but my fictional fairy tale came nowhere near the grotesque actuality of the outcome. I've waited, just in case my fears proved groundless, but (surprise, surprise) they haven't. The messages coming out of the government 'we' (apparently) elected are predictably clear. 'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war'. Bye, bye, human rights. Eff off, foreigners. Hi to health and education for those who can afford it. Any infrastructure still in public hands? Flog it. Single mothers? On your bikes. Social housing? Don't be silly. Oh, and tax evaders? Help yourselves.

But it’s even worse than that. It’s an opening up of sour divisions between citizens who face the same ‘enemies’, share the same interests. It’s divide and rule. It’s an unleashing of cynical forces of discord, self-interest, ignorance and darkness.

And here’s where my second title source comes in.

One morning, I heard on BBC Radio 4 a very familiar poem, written for a different troubled time (and, coincidentally, by a man with sometime fascist leanings) which (spookily) summed up the fears I had and have about what the outcomes of ‘our’ choice of government may prove to be. It’s the W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. It was written in 1919 but its opening stanza is almost a literal description of the events of May 2015 and its shudder-inducing final image may well represent a real future.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Rule Britannia, eh?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Littlewich Ways Launch - by Debbie Bennett

Back in September, I blogged abut the community radio play project I'm involved in - Littlewich Ways. On Friday we had our "official" launch party in the local pub, accompanied by a big-screen production (yes, I know it's radio, but bear with me ...), much alcohol and nibbles.

You can see the results here on our very own Youtube channel, set up by yours truly. Or via our blog page/website at Or just click below...

It's been nearly two years in the making. When you think that at the start, few of us had any idea what we were doing, I think we've come a long way. We're not professional scriptwriters, actors and technicians. All of us have day jobs and do this purely for fun.

When we decided to use Youtube to host our efforts, we realised we'd need something visual. Youtube is a visual medium and we needed a picture, or pictures, on-screen while the audio track was playing. So we decided to add a single picture per scene, to add a visual "clue" to the setting as well as something to look at. Finding pictures wasn't easy - a single image per scene that would repeat for every scene in the same setting. We debated what types of house each of our fictional families would live in and did most of our own photography, then added a sponge filter to everything to attempt to tie it all together somehow. My daughter had the brainwave of using some drone footage taken by a neighbour last summer and put it together as an opening sequence (the white house is ours!). And I had a very steep learning curve in getting to grips with Adobe Premiere Pro to grasp the basics of overlaying and editing sound and image files.

So we're nearly thirty (roughly 15-minute) episodes in, with two out there and live. We're about to start recording episodes 3 and 4. We've covered the sublime to the ridiculous with everything in-between.

And they still haven't let me kill anybody.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Shipping Forecast by Sandra Horn

I may have mentioned before that I’m a sad nut about the sounds of words. They can make me shiver, dance, laugh with sheer joy – and none more so than those issued by the Met Office at regular intervals throughout my life.
I, a total landlubber, have loved listening to the Shipping Forecast ever since I can remember, and long before I had a clue about what it meant. It was like a mysterious poem. First, the quietly authoritative, beautifully modulated voice: Attention all shipping! I was stilled by that. Then the anticipation of the thrilling litany of names: Dogger, Fisher, German Bight (Bite? Whaa!), Viking, Forties, Cromarty, Ross... Oh, Heligoland! There were no Utsires then and I remember the irritation when I first heard the interlopers. Where had THEY come from, blast it? Funny-sounding, and how on earth do you spell them? And Finisterre (lovely!) becoming Fitzroy (not lovely at all). How dare anyone change my poem? 

It doesn’t end with the names, of course; there’s more: Westerly backing southwesterly 3 or 4. Rain later. Good. I didn’t understand the numbers – didn’t know about the Beaufort Scale and wind speed until years later.  I didn’t know that the ‘good’ at the end was visibility, and puzzled over why it could follow wintry or thundery showers. Why were they ‘good’? My total ignorance, then, about what I was hearing, did nothing to diminish the pleasure of listening to it. It was, and is, a joy.

I now know that I’m not alone – far from it! Thanks to Peter Collyer’s remarkable illustrated book,’Rain Later, Good: painting the shipping forecast’, I find that there are people like me all over the place listening in on the land, sometimes far from the sea. It has been mentioned in poems by the likes of Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. It has been set to music by Cecelia MacDowell. It has been chosen on Desert Island Discs! It was featured in the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games as part of the hand-over to London, and in the opening ceremony of the 2012 games in London. 

It is, of course, read beautifully. Three minutes, at dictation speed. This is achieved by leaving out unnecessary qualifying words like ‘weather’, ‘wind’, visibility’, so that the essential information can be given at a speed permitting comprehension and note-taking if need be.  What a contrast to the weather forecasts on the telly! Too much information to take in, gabbled frantically by people with rictus (why grin?) and no poetry at all. Yuk.   Just think if it could be modelled on the Shipping Forecast instead: Southwest, southerly, 2 or 3, showers, moderate; southeast...central, northeast, etc. I’d listen to that! I’d probably even remember it after it had finished, unlike now.  BBC and Met Office, please take note. Use the Power of Words and spaces!
And here they are:
Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties,
Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,
Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames,
Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre (poetic licence),
Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea,
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides,
Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes,
South East Iceland.

Rain later Good: painting the shipping forecast, by Peter Collyer, Bloomsbury, 2013. Wonderful 
pictures too!

Sea pictures by Niall Horn 

The Stormteller ebook - no Shipping Forecast in this story - weather changes are predicted by a piece of mysterious wood!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

How long should it take to write a novel? - Alice Jolly

How long should it take to write a novel? Well, that's a silly question, really, isn't it? Because everyone knows there is no 'should' in it. It takes as long as it takes. But despite all of that, I have recently had cause to consider this question.

What as writers do we generally expect? Is the equation always 'time spent equals quality of book.' Is it ever possible to work on a book for too long? Does a writer spend the same time on each book?

Ten years ago, I certainly thought that I had an answer to that last question. I had written three novels by then and each had taken about four years. So I thought - ok, so that's my process and probably that won't change much now. It would be better if I could work quicker but I can't. (One book had missed a publisher's deadline by two years).

But then the next novel took eight years - or maybe even more. I'm too embarrassed really to put an exact figure on it. Then came a memoir which probably took eighteen months but I don't really include that because (let's face it) writing a memoir is a doddle compared to writing a novel. You just write down what happened next in your life. So how complicated can that be?

Now I am writing a new novel and it is coming together at terrifying speed. Of course, I should just be pleased about this. But as a writer, I always need to have something to worry about. So now I am worrying about the fact that, given how quickly this book seems to be happening, it can't be any good.

Uuuum? I think it does happen sometimes that a novelist finds that a book just drops off the end of the pen with no real difficulty at all. And if that is currently what is happening to me, then I really must not complain.

But as a general rule - and I'm sure others will vehemently disagree - I do think that 'time spent equals quality of book.' I read far too many novels at the moment which are not much more than first drafts. And I also know that most of the books I really love took the writer years to write. Even if I don't know that as a fact, I can feel it in the writing.

Finally, as writers we ask a great deal of readers. We want them to pay a fair sum for the book and then we expect them to spend two or three days of their lives dedicated to our work.

Personally, if I am going to make this commitment, then I expect the writer to have spent many long hours making that book absolutely as good as it can be. Because, after all, I could have used that time to read a better book. I can't get those hours back again.

I'm With the Groundhog - Umberto Tosi

I might still be trapped in a Groundhog Day loop as you read this post on February 3, but at least I will have gotten out a message. Lately, I keep rewriting the same passages over and over, only to find myself back at the beginning like a monk on an M.C. Escher staircase. My inamorata says I'm probably rushing the process. By her – and any other sane person's – reckoning, I've only been at this particular work for a few months, but I'm convinced it has been years, maybe eons. She reminds me that I've complained about being looped before. Maybe it's a nice way to tell me I'm loopy, but it kind of makes my point. “It happens with my paintings too,” she says. “You'll break through. You always do.” I'm not so sure. You never know what's going to work until it does.

The late Harold Ramis who produced and directed Groundhog Day, was all over the place about how many years Phil Connors, the hapless cynical weatherman played by Bill Murray, spent reliving February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA. He once said 10,000 years and other estimates have ranged from ten to thirty-three. It takes a lot of practice for a mere mortal to play piano with style and become real mensch as Murray's character eventually does – also to write compellingly. The film has been hailed as a spiritual metaphor by Buddhists, Jews, Christians and atheists – and, of course, representing the stages of creative process. “I get it everywhere,” Ramis said, “but the movie is what it is, a movie.”

Ramis was a Chicago boy, as are Danny Rubin who wrote the original screenplay and Bill Murray. The trio had interwoven histories with the Windy City's legendary improvisational theater and sketch comedy groups founded by Paul Sills, including Second City and the Story Theater. Ramis went to Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School a few blocks from where I live in Rogers Park on the North Side. An Abbott and Costello Who's-On-First routine pops into my head whenever I walk by it, and I wonder if it did the budding the comedic genius, being as he was of my generation.
“What school do you go to?”
“Hayt school.”
“Yes, well, I did too, but I mean, where do you go to school?”
“I mean, what's the name of the school where you go...”
… And so forth.

Ramis, Gilda Radner, John Belushi
with the old Second City.
funny, but not yet famous.
My longtime friend and San Francisco improvisational theater coach and jazz musician Doug Kassel came up with that same Chicago crowd – as a young performer under Sills and the godmother of improvisation herself, Viola Spolin. Doug remembers Ramis in “the first SC hippie cast with John Belushi, the Murray Brothers, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. This was just before Ramis and Flaherty joined SCTV in Canada” with Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis and others. “It's hard to stand out when you're surrounded by people like that, but I think that he (Ramis) thought of himself as a writer rather than as a comedian.”

Danny Rubin, now a Harvard professor living in Brookine, Massachusetts near where I was born, says it took him only four days to write the first draft of Groundhog Day's original screenplay and about 10 days more to refine it. However, it took him three years to formulate the concept, characters, locale, storyline and other specifics needed to start the actual writing. Rubin has authored a delightful e-book on the process – How to Write Groundhog Day. It's part tutorial and part breezy inside story about the screenplay's inception, development and production, which he breaks into: “Pre-Hog,” “Hog” and “Post-Hog”. It's only available as an e-book, he says “because paper doesn't do hypertext.” The e-book includes an early draft of the actual screenplay with hypertext annotations and author comments. With finger-touches, the reader gets notes on the evolution of pickup scenes between Phil and Rita, why they chose Sonny & Cher's “I Got You, Babe,” as Phil's endlessly annoying 6 a.m. clock-radio wakeup number, reminding Phil he doesn't got Rita, or anybody.

The revision process went on right through filming in Woodstock, Illinois, a town 50 miles north of Chicago that was made to stand in for the real Punxsutaney, PA, which was deemed too rural. Ramis revised Rubin's script once Columbia bought the rights, tailoring it more to the comedic talents of Bill Murray, with whom Ramis had made Ghostbusters I and II and Meatballs. Murray – said to have been going through personal troubles at the time – wanted something darker than their previous hit comedies. He argued with Ramis so much that the two had to use Rubin as their intermediary. Their friendship damaged, Ramis and Murray quit speaking to each other for more than twenty years until just before Ramis' death of a vascular autoimmune disorder at age 69 in February, 2014.

Every writer of note who opines on the writing, counsels patience and persistence, and especially, remembering that the writing part is only one stage of the process, more often a means to greater ideas than it is an end in itself. An actor mouthing a snappy comeback on screen can make a character and the screenwriter to invented it look like geniuses, said Rubin in a 1999 essay, Time Thinking. But that one line might take weeks, months or even years to find, he adds. “Writing allows me to be a kind of time bank. I can store up thousands of potential moments until just the right one is called for. That's when I make a time withdrawal.”

Makes sense to me. I was pretty self-satisfied that it took me a scant eight months to write the 500-plus pages of Ophelia Rising. That is, until I remembered that I had spent years modeling and researching the idea for a novel re-imagining Shakespeare's fair maid. Writing is a time loop, and the writer, like Phil Collins, can get even more stuck trying to find a quick way out instead of letting the solution come to him or her. Sometimes it doesn't even help to remind myself of that – only to keep going. There's one catch that addes urgency, however: unlike Phil Collins, we mortal writers don't have an unlimited number of Groundhog Days to get it right. That can be a curse, or a blessing that helps us get things done.

Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor.  
He studied improvisational theater and played onstage with three groups in Northern California, where he was editor of San Francisco magazines and wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Pictures? You can, with Canva - Mari Biella

One of the worst things about being a self-published author is that you have to do everything. I mean bleedin’ everything, including all those clever, specialised things that normal people can’t even understand. You either have to learn to do them yourself, or pay through the nose to get someone else to do them for you.

Nowhere is this problem more sticky than when you’re dealing with pictures, as you frequently are. You may be in the business of arranging words on the page or screen, but we live in a visual world and sooner or later you have to worry about images, too. Book covers, for example: unless you’re a graphic artist as well as a writer, these are probably best left to people who have at least a vague notion of what they’re doing. And what about blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and so on? They must come complete with images! Nice, fancy images that will hold people’s wandering eyes and reel them in!

A blank screen is exactly what you don't want. Image credit: Petr Kratochvil |

Actually, finding attractive images is relatively easy, and not necessarily expensive either. But actually using them can be tricky. How do you create a blog header or a Facebook cover? Until very recently, I didn’t have a clue.

Then I found out about a little thing called Canva.

Canva is very good news indeed. It’s free to join, and you can log in with Facebook, which spares you the trouble of having to memorise yet another password. Moreover – and a few requisite hours of turning the air blue notwithstanding – it’s actually quite easy to use. (Bear in mind that I am the kind of technologically-challenged simpleton who couldn’t use Photoshop because it made my poor brain hurt.) Not even Luddites like me need fear Canva, though. Canva is almost foolproof, or at least would be if fools weren’t so incredibly ingenious.

You only need take a quick look at Canva’s main page to see what you can do. Social media posts, presentations, infographics, business cards, Facebook covers and ads, postcards! Even eBook and album covers, no less! Many of the designs are free, too. Others you have to pay for, but they’re not expensive. They even have photos that you can use, and many of them are free too.

As if to prove how incredibly easy it is, even I have used it with a certain degree of success. This is the email header I prepared for the AE newsletter:

And here’s my Facebook cover:

And my blog title:

All of which no doubt look pretty basic to the trained eye, but which to me are nothing short of miraculous.

So there you go – something so user-friendly that even I can handle it, and largely free to boot! Who says you get nothing for nothing in this world, eh?