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Saturday, 28 March 2015

On Hating Spring, and a Nasty cosmic "IT", by Enid Richemont

Everyone, at present, seems to be sharing the delights of Spring - that feeling of renewal, the flowering, Spring blossoms. Someone on Facebook invited friends to share, in one word, their response to this season, and out they popped, like seedlings resurrected by the sun - crocuses, daffodils, budding leaves, snowdrops etc etc. There was only one negative word - 'death'. It was mine.

Stravinksy saw Spring synonymous with violence and death. Somebody - was it him? - described the sound of the ice cracking on the Volga as being like the slashing of a blade. And then, we have THE RITES OF SPRING, and, of course, Easter, which isn't really about bunnies and chicks, but about a horrendous form of death followed by the myth (or not, depending on your beliefs) of the resurrection. Spring, for me, has always been about death and violence. Yet I was married in Spring, and our two children were born in Spring.  Then the man I loved died suddenly, two years ago, in Spring - so for me, it's still a season of high drama, cruelty, death and re-birth. I wonder if Stephen King, or any other horror writer, has ever deliberately set any of their work in early Spring for these reasons?

We have recently lost the incomparable Terry Pratchett, with his gigantic imagination, and the world is a poorer place without him - except that his books live on, and I hope will never go out of print. I've recently been rereading THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD, and yes, of course, our planet and its inhabitants are all actually part of an experiment run by the Unseen University - who could doubt it? And in recent months, I've found myself wondering if 'God' isn't a rather unpleasant little cosmic programmer who's decided that we're getting a bit too canny for our boots.  People living longer, cures for plagues, and a general feeling that we should be nice to each other and even take care of our planet? Boring, boring, and worrying, too - where is Its place in all this? So It's been stirring things up a bit. Nasty.

Two small, but positive, book-related things have emerged from my unwanted and unloved Spring this year. The first has been the resurrection of one of my children's books I thought had vanished for ever - no, it didn't go out of print, but the publishers dealing with it did what publishers so often do - jumped into bed with each other, divorced, re-wed, then emerged as a different company in a different place. Not one of my favourite cover images, but hey! it will be out next month, so it will be a bit like having a new book out there. 

The second has been the unlikely acceptance of one of the stories I produced in response to a really challenging (well, for me) brief. It's set in the Rainforest, has three near-murders, and will be aimed at Years 1-2. As an American might say, go figure. 

On the Indie side, I'm still flirting with CreateSpace. A friend of my daughter's won a writing competition with an extraordinary debut Young Adult novel. The prize was publication plus an ISBN by the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, and she received a large quantity of books to distribute, plus a professional cover image. Exciting, except that her local bookshops refused to stock them, and I'm concerned that the narrow commercial requirements of so many traditional publishers might restrict her chances publishing-wise. She's not a celebrity, and recent publishers' reject cliches seem to have evolved from 'not quite right for our list' into the enigmatic, and infuriating: 'too quiet'.















God/Terry Pratchett/little FW story/research/Spring

Friday, 27 March 2015

A Glorious Weekend in Dublin - Andrew Crofts





The organisers of book festivals have been getting a bit of flack from authors recently for their lack of generosity and for generally making us feel we should be grateful to be invited in the first place. The Mountains to Sea Festival, held last week in Dun Laoghaire, in the picturesque outskirts of Dublin, is a glowing example of how things should be done. A well organised festival, a beautiful location, delightful, generous people, I can’t recommend them enough. If they come knocking on your door with an invitation bite their hands off and take the opportunity to spend as much time in and around the city as possible.

The visit was filled with happy co-incidences. In April a book that I ghosted, Secret Child by Gordon Lewis, is being published by HarperCollins. It is based in Dublin and is the inspiring story of a boy who was born and brought up in a secretive home for unmarried Catholic mothers in the 1950s. It was sheer chance that I was invited to be interviewed in the same city a few weeks before publication. On top of that I was being interviewed by Sue Leonard, a journalist I talked to for the first time a few months previously when she interviewed me for the Irish Examiner upon the publication of my memoir “Confessions of a Ghostwriter”.

It seems like the whole thing was just meant to be and on top of that an old friend that my wife and I had not seen for at least ten years turned up in the audience.

Secret Child is a touching story. Gordon had no idea what his mother had gone through before she arrived at Regina Coeli and he had no idea that he was a secret from her family and from everyone else in the outside world. No one outside the hostel knew that he even existed.

In fact he knew nothing of the outside world until he was old enough to start getting out of the hostel buildings and up to mischief in the streets of Dublin. That was when his mother realised that she was going to have to do something to save her boy from the sort of bleak future that faced so many illegitimate children in Ireland at that time – and save him from the dangers of his own reckless high spirits.

So, at the age of eight, Gordon was introduced to a much older man called Bill and told that he and his mother were going to be leaving the hostel, which had been the only home he had ever known, and travel to England to live with Bill. Over the following years, as the three of them struggled to survive, Gordon came to realise that there was more to his mother’s and Bill’s story than he could ever have imagined.

They had been lovers who had been separated by the religious divides of the time and by the ignorance of their families. Gordon knew Bill was not his real father, but no one ever talked about that, just as no one ever talked about their past life in Ireland. It was like it had never existed. Gordon’s whole life was full of secrets and puzzles and only when he returns to Ireland fifty years after leaving it, is he finally able to make sense of the whole story and understand the full horror of the hardships his mother suffered and the depth of the love story between her and Bill.

It was wonderful to get to spend a weekend in the city that I have been so recently writing about and experiencing so vividly through the eyes of another.



Thursday, 26 March 2015

Writing from the Heart, the Head or the Wallet?


I am nothing if not modest. In fact, modesty is the greatest amongst my many talents. I lay claim to an average level of proficiency in most physical pursuits, with the exception of gymnastics, ice-skating and throwing a ball, all of which I'm pretty crap at. But I can twirl several martial arts weapons with a worrying degree of almost efficiency. When it comes to tastes in music, I like a bit of everything – the latest tunes on the pop transistor radio station, classical pieces by people in suits, bluegrass by folks with no teeth, heavy rock by hairy ones. Stick a label on it and I've probably got examples in my music collection. I myself can play fairly averagely well on several musical instruments – guitar, piano, trumpet, anything that plucks or blows. Regarding TV, films – I'll watch Downton Abbey, Dr Who, Lillehammer, The Middle, almost anything. Reading – contemporary fiction, classics, crime, thrillers, science fiction, misery lit, I lap it all up. Not a big fan of non-fiction as I like to escape the humdrum roundedness of normal life.

seilf emit

A Jack of all trades and master of none, I first realised my inclinations as an author were similarly tainted when I joined a one year creative writing course here in Ireland (which became three years and has never really ended, in true Hotel California style). Without exception, every other course participant was firmly entrenched in a genre. That led to many a teething trouble between fans of different genres as we developed our peer group critique dynamic. I found I couldn't stomach cutesy stories about cats and doves or political diatribes dressed up as fiction, but I could still see the appeal of all the genres I like to read. The result for me was a writing direction that didn't fit neatly into a pigeonhole. We were schooled in submission letters to agents and publishers, advised to make our work look commercially appealing. I became a genre contortionist. Without much success. So I went Indie and eventually founded a small Indie publisher – Marble City Publishing (enter their freeKindle Paperwhite draw here!) – that specialises in those pickled eggs (you'll have to have clicked and read the genre contortionist to get that reference).

pickled eggs on the bookshelf

Fast forward four years and reviews of my first novel Peril have attributed such labels as noir, gritty urban and picaresque. Many folk agree with my modest author viewpoint that it's not a bad read at all (even if the most liked reviewer says they want to punch the MC narrator in the head) but when I try and think of other novels or films that are on a comparable theme I find obscure, financially unsuccessful cult offerings such as the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski of 1998 – "a crime comedy". I flatter myself of course (another of my great talents along with that bucketful of modesty, and flattery is always effective, even if it's not sincere, even if you do it to yourself in a bout of flattery onanism).

Before the end of that writing course I had embarked upon a new novel which became The Baptist – a psychological thriller centred around a mentally ill MC with religious mania. Something along the lines of Shutter Island. In my adventurous genre-bending style the narrative was delivered first person, which meant the reader was inside the crazy head of John Baptist. Couple this with lack of happy ever after and the result was described by reviewers as a demanding and disturbing read. So enough weird stuff, back to a sequel to Peril, and I wrote Getting Out of Dodge, more picaresque chuckles and dead bodies.

The next step was to attend a writing weekend with a crime fiction bestseller who described how best to keep things on track. “Read what you write, write what you read,” he said. So I drafted a cozy mystery, went home and re-wrote an old political conspiracy thriller, Koobi Fora. Having got that out of my system, I resolved to write a further follow-up to Dodge, as I could then start to market it as a serial. Instead, a nonsense novella about a solemniser (try saying that in polite company) materialised in the form of #AllUsers.


This year I had mostly been trying to get back on track with something serial for Dodge or The Baptist. Then I took a trip to Dublin to visit my elderly outlaws who were both in a semi-lucid non-life-threatening state of consciousness. On the way back home, Mrs R and I calmly discussed the best way forward for my writing career and quickly formulated the backbone of the latest blockbuster-to-be. Not to worry that I’ve long missed the genre boat with this new offering. The most important thing is I’m enjoying it and the words are flying onto the page. In five weeks I’ve managed to hit the 30k mark and this first of a series isn’t going to be much longer than that. Yes, writing from the heart, breathing new life back into my work. To Hell with the head and the wallet. Ruby Barnes is writing a zombie novel, of course. With humour and a picaresque first person narrator. Should sell a million.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Cover Creator - by Susan Price

A friend, asked  me about covers for ebooks recently. 
She didn't think she would make
back, in sales, the cost of paying for a cover to be designed, and she didn't feel capable of creating one herself. So, what to do?

I pointed her in the direction of CreateSpace and its free 'Cover Creator.'

CreateSpace is the Amazon company which enables you to publish in paperback. You download a template, into which you load your 'interior files' or the text of your book. Then a cover has to be designed, which will wrap around the paperback book - so it has to have a front and back, and a spine. The thickness of the spine depends on the word-number of your book.


http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Dance-Czars-Black-Sequence/dp/0992820448/
Paperback cover of 'Ghost Dance'
With my first POD paperbacks, the Ghost World series, I got my brother to take his Kindle cover designs and turn them into paperback covers, following the formula which Amazon provides. But I felt that I couldn't go on pestering my brother. When I turned my ghost story collections into paperbacks, I decided to use Cover Creator.

In fact, if you start with Createspace and produce a paperback, Amazon offers to turn it into a Kindle for you at the end of the process - and gives you a download of your Cover-Creator cover to use as the Kindle cover.

So, first go to CreateSpace and create an account. It's free to use.

Signing in takes you to your 'Member Dashboard' where all the titles of your books will appear - and also how many you've sold.

I'm going to use my book 'The Runaway Chapati' as an example. It's a picture book I worked on with the Educational branch of OUP, but it's now out of print. My brother, Adam, and I are planning to republish it, with new illustrations. When you click the 'Add New Title' button on the dashboard, you're taken to this screen:


The second column from the left, Setup, gives you a list of tasks to click on and complete. CreateSpace won't allow you to move on to some tasks until you've completed others. The third column, Review, is all about proofing. The third column, Distribute, is about choosing the Amazon channels you'll distribute your paperbacks through, what price you'll charge, the blurb, etc.

Click on 'interior' in the Setup column, and you see this screen:


This is where you choose the size of your book - there are a few sizes to choose from - and whether to have white or cream paper. You download a template - I've found the 'blank template' easier to work with - and insert your text. You then have to fiddle and tweak quite a lot to get it as you want it - but although fiddly and annoying, it isn't difficult. Except for page numbers. Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but I cannot get Word and CreateSpace to cooperate on page numbers.

Anyhow - I really want to talk about covers, and I only mention interiors because, of course, CreateSpace creates a cover for a paperback book, so it has to know the size of your book before it can calculate page size and spine width.

This is the screen you see when you click on the 'Build your cover on-line' option.


There are several different layouts to choose from, and all of them can be changed, to an extent. Depending on how much time you want to spend, you can play for hours, working on one, discarding it, starting again. They're all named after trees. For this demonstration, I'm going to use 'Oak.'


You can see, above, that my name, as author, and the title have been automatically inserted. The panel down the left-hand side allows you to adjust the cover.


Here (above) you can see that, using 'Theme' (on the left, at the top) I've changed the font. I've taken out the subtitle box, the Author photo box and the publisher logo box. The Barcode box isn't optional - Amazon takes care of that.

I've changed the background colour, and the 'Primary Font Colour' and 'Secondary Font Colour.' (Some cover templates have only one background colour and one font colour. In this particular template, the variation in background colour is automatic - I chose only one colour, the darker purple.

I haven't, as yet, changed the front cover image, or the blurb in the back cover box, but I can do both. Just wait you a moment...


There you are. But I don't like the above cover. So I'm going to scrap it and start again, with another template.


All I did was click on the 'change design' button at the bottom, and then choose another template. All the choices I'd already made were automatically loaded into the new template. I then changed the font style, using 'Theme' and the background and font colours.

I think, for a picture book, this is an altogether more playful and lively cover. It's the template called 'Juniper Spineless.' That is, it doesn't have a vertical strip for spine lettering incorporated into the design - which is okay because, as a picture book, it'll be very slim anyway.

Since the brief I gave Adam was 'bright, bright, bright!' I really ought to practice what I preach - and here I'm trying some of the bold, beautifully clashing colours you find in Indian art. Being an automated system, it cuts off the feet and tail of Adam's wonderfully springy tiger, which is a shame, but even so, I don't think it's too bad. The Tiger looks as if he might leap right through that cut-out window and into our world. (And in the real world, I daresay Adam will want to design his own cover. This is just to demonstrate what you can do with Cover Creator.

I thought that when I clicked 'submit cover', CreateSpace would tell me where to go, since I hadn't loaded up any interior files - but no. It presented me with this 'full size preview.'


Here is the full version of Adam's rough for the tiger, as he bounds out of the jungle with an absolutely no-strings attached offer of help for the runaway chapati. You can see how Amazon's computer has cropped the image.

And here are three of my covers which I've designed using Cover Creator - albeit, using images done for me by my brother Andrew. (Though Overheard In A Graveyard's image is actually a photo, taken in daylight, and made black and white on the computer, to suggest darkness.)


                         Hauntings                 Kindle                           Paperback


                        Overheard In A Graveyard,              Kindle           Paperback


                       Nightcomers                  Kindle                       Paperback

Cover Creator isn't as good, of course, as having a talented artist design a cover especially for your book. It sets limits on what you can do because it's a tool designed to be easy to use for thousands of people. Nevertheless, as a way of designing a cover, for free, I think it's an excellent compromise.

Post-Script: I am currently working on making my book, The Saga of Aslak Twice-Freed available through Amazon, and I'm going to try the experiment of first making it into a paperback with CreateSpace, and then using the CreateSpace files for the Kindle edition.



Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Do writers need roots? by Jo Carroll


As some of you know, I go walkabout from time to time. Some of my wanderings are recorded in my books, and writing them has become – for me – a vicarious way of reliving experiences for a second time. But the writing has also asked me some more serious questions.

My process for teasing the scribbles in my travelling notebooks into story begins with transcribing those scribbles. And one of the things that strikes me, every time, is how – apparently without thinking – I refer to a hotel as ‘home’.

Maybe it’s just a shorthand, a quicker way to refer to returning to wherever I’m laying my head that night than naming it every time. But, as I transcribe, and resist the urge to change or interpret anything, I find myself asking the question: where is home, and does it matter?

The first part is easy – home is Wiltshire. I’ve spent most of my adult life here. I know the cold winds that blow across the Downs in winter. I know the mud of Savernake Forest. The stones of Avebury feel like friends – in all weathers. I belong here.

But does that matter? I think it does. I cannot slough off the skin of a white woman’s middle class privilege, any more than DH Lawrence forgot his childhood among the mines of Nottinghamshire even though he spent so long wandering around Europe.

Again – does that matter? I think it does because our homes and histories shape not only the places we live but also the questions we ask. I find myself far more interested in the lives of women, working in shops or fields or factories, than in a man selling cars. I am interested in how women engage with the universal tasks of cooking, washing, caring for children. I cannot help compare the ease with which I can buy a curry from the local supermarket and pop it in the microwave with the effort a woman in India must make to pound her spices and pick stones from her rice. In contrast I struggle to concentrate on the guide trying to educate me on the whys and wherefores of welding.

And I think what matters most is being aware of it. I may have missed wonderful stories from men because I’m simply not able to engage with their machinery or dismissal of all things feminine.

I can only try to keep as open, and honest a mind as possible.

You can find links to photographs, travel writing, and to the books on my website: http://www.jocarroll.co.uk 

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Post-Poned Demon: Always Lurking, Never Arriving by Lev Butts

Almost a year ago, I wrote about overcoming writer's block. I had intended to write about procrastination the next month, but I kept putting it off until I didn't have time anymore, so I picked a fight with Ruth Graham that was about as successful as the one I picked with John Green. I tried to tackle procrastination again the next month, but instead I preached to the choir again about the benefits of self-publishing. Each month something else until finally, my procrastination reached epic proportions by convincing me to embark on a six month journey counting ten books.

This month, I say, "No more!" This month I am going to tackle that tiger headlong. This is it. This is the month, I discuss the evils of procrastination and give advice on tackling it.





















[add witty caption later]

Procrastination is a sneaky bastard. We all think of it as just putting off important work, but it is so much more than that. Sure, we've all procrastinated by vegging out on the sofa, binge-watching Arrested Development on Netflix. We may have even found ourselves sitting on the sofa literally staring into space instead of doing what needs to be done.

Don't believe the hype! Eating biscuits is not the answer.
This, the most obvious form of procrastination, is merely the first step in a highly sophisticated game of cat-and-mouse procrastination plays with you. The next step is far more subtle: You do something that needs to be done, but not the thing that needs to be done that you set out to do. You clean the kitchen, cut grass, wash clothes, or reorganize your DVDs. All things you've been putting off for a while, but suddenly now seem far more important than writing. 


When you finally sit down to write something, be careful! Procrastination has other plans there, too. Even assuming you can avoid the delectable treasures and hours of promise held by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, procrastination will very soon have you writing something completely unrelated to what you set out to write. 

Have a report due? Awesome! Draft that play instead.

Need to finish that poem? Terrific! Work on your report.

Time to hack away at your novel? Fantabulous! Why not write your monthly blog post for Authors Electric on procrastination instead?

How's that blog post coming? You know what you need? An awesome visual. Quick, Grasshopper! To the interwebs!

Pictured: The result of a fifteen minute search.
Not pictured: all the witty bon mots and piercing
insights I could've written.
So what can you do to stop it? The easy answer is the hardest solution, I'm afraid. Shut up and do what you're supposed to. Write the piece you set out to write. This advice, though, while certainly good, is also woefully impractical.

There is an art ot combatting procrastination, and that art lies in fighting it with its own tactics. Here are a few suggestions for doing just that:

1. Give In (But Just a Little)



Don't tell yourself you can't do something your mind tells you that you clearly want to. Do it, but on your terms. Work on your primary task for a set amount of time; then take a break and give yourself ten minutes or so to do whatever the hell you want to. Check Facebook. Pin stuff to Pinterest. Snap some chats, whatever. Just don't let it take up your whole day. Make a time limit and stick to it. 

If you need a little help making sure you don't take too much time on distracting webpages, perhaps you should give Stayfocusd a try. This app for Google Chrome allows you to set a timer on your distracting webpages. Once the allotted time is up, these sites are blocked for the rest of the day. It is fairly customizable, and unless you've chosen the "nuclear option" (this option is advised for only the worst procrastinators as they cannot be undone short of disabling the entire app) your times can be reset as needed. You can download it here.

2. Get the Hell Out


Boredom is procrastination's greatest tool. We get bored by our surroundings and decide to change them by doing other things. Next thing you know, you have spent the last three hours checking Facebook, cyber-stalking your significant other/crush/ex, and/or looking at more grumpy cat pictures than should be humanly possible.


Instead of doing something else when this happens, try finding a new setting. Take your laptop and go outside. Go to a coffee shop. Or simply go to another room. Change your setting, and you may find that that is enough to get you back on track.

Admittedly, this used to be considerably harder to do
given the size of personal computers.
3. Give It Two Minutes

There are all kinds of two-minute rules out there. I try to attribute everything I find, but seriously, the two-minute rule thing? There's more folks claiming credit for this little gem than there are Brians at a Python crucifixion.

I wrote the two-minute rule, and so did my wife.
Boiled down to its basic premise, David Allen's version of the two minute rule states that if a thing can be done in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Waiting to do it, remembering to do it, and actually doing it will often take at least five minutes (and usually significantly more). 

This sounds all well and good, but as I'm sure you're aware, a good writing session will take significantly more than two minutes. Well, James Clear expands on this by suggesting you break every task down to two-minute sections.  According to him, inertia makes it far more likely that you'll keep doing something once you start since it is easier to continue an action than to stop. Write a single sentence; chances are, you won't stop there. You'll write more.

Hopefully, these three simple suggestions will help you win the battle against procrastination. If not, I'm sure Google will be more than happy to let you spend untold hours researching better ways to combat procrastination; conversely, you might consider asking your Facebook friends for suggestions, or looking up solutions on Pinterest. 

I'm sure we will eventually get to the writing part.


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Amazon Reviews - why stop at 5 stars? by Ali Bacon

We all know how important Amazon reviews are to writers, indie writers in particular. With most bookshop chains in thrall to marketing managers from the Big Six, how else can we make any impression on the market which seems to be expanding exponentially? And if we publish only in digital formats, the online review really is the only real way to get exposure. With this in mind I try to do my best for fellow writers and post reviews whenever I can. With my own novel, A Kettle of Fish, I am keen to have as many reviews as possible and although less than 4 stars (see below!)is always a disappointment, I’d rather have a less than wonderful review than one that’s insincere, or even no review at all.

And there’s the rub. As a reader (rather than a writer) I’m beginning to wonder how much faith I can put in the Amazon 5-star system. For instance, I’ve just read a novel which, being aware of the author’s reputation, I expected to like a lot. Well for me it was okay, but not a book where the plot or the characters really engaged me. In fact as a writer I itched (as you do!) to do a bit of editing, to take out the ‘flash forward’ that robbed the story of suspense in the opening chapters and to give more space to the sub-plot which I found at least as interesting as the main event. But what bothered me more was that the book had over 100 reviews which averaged at 4.9 stars, i.e. nearly all 5 star reviews. Did all these people really stay awake turning the pages? 

But hang on. For 5 stars, Amazon only asks that we ‘love’ the book. It doesn’t have to be an all-time classic. A while ago, I decided I should get over myself and be more generous. I gave 5 stars to a well-written rom-com, which I would not class as great literature but it did do exactly what it said on the tin and with some style, so why not give it the full five? The trouble is, that novel is now superficially on a par with books I have liked a lot more and that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Once upon a time, Amazon allowed us to grant half a star and I admit that 3.5 or 4.5 stars made life a lot easier for a ditherer like me. 3.5 was above average, suitable for many books which I felt were competently written but didn’t quite do it for me. Now that the half star has gone, I have to decide between 3 stars (which feels mean) and 4 which in the case of my latest read feels like too much.  I also suspect that this has contributed to a kind of grade inflation in book reviews. Suddenly anything less than four isn’t worth having.  
Looks like it might be a ten!
Come to think of it, a 1-to-5 star rating with nothing in between is a very crude measure of a book’s qualities. If Strictly used one to ten, can’t we use at least as many for books? Then we could award a joyous SEVEN for a very decent read, eight would be pretty damn good, and 9 or 10 would be very special indeed.Or maybe we are all hooked on maximum points and even a ten point scale would soon be debased, which for readers may not be a problem. 

But I think that writers would benefit from something a bit more refined. It might encourage readers to rate more books and to think a bit more about what that rating means. 
Isn’t that what we all want?


Photo credit: Strictly come dancing by Keith Laverack on Flickr with a Creative Commons License