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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Alzheimers, SPILLIKINS and THE TIME TREE by Enid Richemont

A little while ago, I was sent a signed copy of Tabitha Suzuma's Young Adult novel, Hurt. As with many online writer 'friends' on Facebook, ours has grown into something gratifyingly like a real friendship, and since we both live in London, I have no doubt that, one day, we will meet. Pain is something we share - mine from losing David and hers for very different and more complex reasons.

I rarely finish reading a complex and challenging novel in a day, but that Sunday was a bad day for me - Sundays tend to be - so because it was an unexpected gift, I began reading it. I am a slow reader (David, by contrast, was a book-gobbler) so I didn't expect it to occupy my whole day, but it did. The writing is exquisite, and the plot brilliant. It's not easy to grab a reader's attention right up to the last word, but she did it. Please don't be put off by its "Young Adult" labelling - so many Y/A novels are crossover, and this one certainly was. Incidentally, might there be an "Old Adult" genre? Silly responses, please. And as for the "Adult" genre, well that word has been well and truly corrupted - might well be re-named the: "Oh look, I've got genitals" genre.

This is the first cover image for my first published book: The Time Tree. It took me almost ten years to get it accepted, mostly because I was very busy doing other design-orientated things, but also because I really had no idea about the children's book market apart from the fact that I absolutely loved reading to my children. I'd had quite a decent small publishing career via short stories for magazines, and even acquired an agent, but writing a book was something else, and only came about because I'd made up a lengthy story for my daughter and her best friend, and they both wanted me to write it down so that they could read it again.

The Time Tree seemed to grab people, and it stayed in print for ages, acquiring a new cover image in the process (the first one was deemed to be old-fashioned). It attracted film interest - first from a small and very niche film company in Switzerland who wanted to translate it into the Bernois dialect and manipulate the plot. Thankfully, it didn't happen. At present it's with a company called Wild Thyme Productions, which is, fortunately, London-based, but whether it happens depends, as usal, on money, and making films is expensive. The story's about a profoundly deaf Elizabethan child, treated, of course, like an idiot, in spite of her well-meaning family, who somehow makes contact with a couple of very 20/21st century girls, best friends who are on the cusp of leaving primary school.

Lastly, I want to tell you about Pipeline Theatre's extraordinary play - first, because Pipeline is our daughter's company, but secondly because Spillikin has been conceived and written by playwright Jon Welch.

Alzheimer's seems to be the topic of the moment, with the best-selling novel - Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Spillikin is a love story - yes, you have to believe it. It opened briefly in Cornwall, will be moving to Latitude in Suffolk, and then on to Edinbrough - the festival. It features a real, working robot. If you can, go and see it, and having seen it, if you're moved by it, tell people, tell the world. Alzheimer's made off with one of my favourite writers, the incomparable Terry Pratchett, and it's time we put a stop to it.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Society of Authors Campaigns for All of Us - Andrew Crofts

As I get close to the end of my three year stint serving on the Management Committee of the Society of
Authors, I want to sing the praises of the staff there who do the most magnificent job of supporting members who are being treated unfairly or who simply need professional advice.

Writing is one of the hardest jobs from which to make a living wage and it is hugely comforting for members to know that they have this dedicated team of enormously experienced and efficient lawyers and publishing contracts experts willing to fight on their behalf.

On July 7th I attended a summer party on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament, thrown by the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group, at which the SoA’s constantly campaigning Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon, laid out the Society’s “magnificent seven requirements” for writers’ contracts – spelling out the acronym “CREATOR”. They are well worth repeating here.

Contracts need to be clear and should exist for all writers, including journalists.
Remuneration needs to be fair, and allow for the author to share the rewards in such circumstances as bestsellerdom.
Exploitation: authors need to be given the opportunity to make money from all modes, on the “use it or lose it” principle – so that form unexploited by the publisher could revert to the author.
Accounting should be fair, understandable, proper.
Terms: there should be reasonable and limited contract terms so that publishers do not hold rights indefinitely.
Ownership: authors, illustrators and translators should always be credited, and their moral rights unwaivable.
Reasonableness: all unreasonable requests should be struck out.

I would urge any author who has not already done so to visit the Society’s website  and see what is on offer. To have the strength of these lawyers and experts on your team will make all the difference in any negotiation or dispute – and that is only one part of the range of services that they offer.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Don't Lose Your Head, Follow Your Heart by Ruby Barnes

A very brief post from me this month, and a shameless plug for my new release.

I have two main interests - writing and karate - and recently found a way to combine them. The novels I have so far punished the world with include an odd mix of drama, tragedy, human failure, sex and violence. It takes me one to two years to complete a book. This year I wanted to try and write something light and fast, giving myself a daily target of at least a thousand words, but I was lacking a subject. While ruminating on a topic for a new writing project, I threw myself into the world of karate which I have inhabited over the past four years.

The club I'm a member of has an interesting mix of disciplines - sport karate (fairly traditional but without all the Japanese words), semi-contact sparring with full protective gear, weapons, self-defence, something for everyone who wants to work up a sweat and get rid of some day job aggression. My weapon of choice is the katana or sword. Samurai sword sort of thing. As I became more proficient with the sword, I envisaged each strike as actually cutting my opponent to pieces. I'm not really a psycho, so I imagined attacking monsters, zombies in fact. The sword is really the perfect apocalypse weapon for Ireland which has very few firearms. And there I had it. A series of zombie apocalypse novellas with jaw-dropping gory humour. Zombies versus Ninjas.

Each of the two books I have so far published has taken two months from start to finish, including beta reading, editing and publishing. The first reviews are now in for book 1 - Zombies v. Ninjas: Origin. The verdict? See for yourself here. If you think you might like to escape into the world of an apocalyptic Ireland then drop me a line and I'll gladly give you an e-copy.

Thanks for listening and see you on the other side.

The new series from Ruby Barnes

It's a love story (okay, it's not)

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Kindle Kids by Susan Price

In between bouts of editing the Sterkarms, I've been having a look at Kindle Kids' Book Creator.

I'm interested because I'm hoping to publish some picture books,
with my brothers as illustrators.

Brother Adam's chapati chasing tiger
So, what does the Kindle Kids' Book Creator offer?

It allows you to import art work in jpeg, tif or png format (it says here. The only one of them I know anything about is jpeg.)

It recommends, however, that you save your book as 'a multi-paged PDF file,' with the cover included as the first page, and upload it like that - which is what my brothers and I will be doing.

The part that really interests me, though, is the 'text pop-ups.'

Since the text will probably be embedded in the art-work, and might be viewed on the small screen of a mobile phone, it will be quite hard to read. Kindle Kids allows you to programme in a 'text
Brother Andrew's goat-bothering troll
pop-up'  - that is, to add a window into which you type your text. When a reader taps on this it will 'pop-up', allowing the text to be easily read. Another tap, and it goes away again.

When you download Kindle Kids, a detailed book of instructions is included, as a PDF.

There's also a Previewer, which allows you to see what your picture book will look like on several different devices.

I wonder if Amazon has plans to extend the possibilities of Kindle Kids? I've been looking at picture book apps which allow you, for instance, to tap on a word and hear that word spoken aloud - so helping children to link the spoken word, which they probably already recognise, with the written word.

The apps allow you to highlight one word - so books that emphasis a particular sound might highlight the letters that produce that sound.

These apps also make it possible to touch a picture of a dog, and hear it bark - or the picture of a ship and see it sail away, off the page. I would love to do something like this, but could not possibly afford to pay a programmer a fair price to do all that pernickety, brain-breaking work.

If anyone knows more about these apps, I'd be very interested to learn.

The work that goes into a picture-book, by the way - I'll say it again - is enormous. And usually under-rated. The composition of the pictures, the balance of colours and shapes - the revision to allow for text - the revision of the text to fit with the pictures - the effort needed to make the few limited words bounce and spark... It annoys me to see these books so often dismissed as 'stuff for kids' when they are works of art and love.

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     Rattle is one of them – a dirty, pipe-smoking, swearing collier wench, who dresses and swaggers like a boy.
     But she’s in love… With the young farmer who works the land on the hill above the mine. Jonathan Turner, a god-fearing, prim and proper Methodist.
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Friday, 24 July 2015

The stories we tell of ourselves -Jo Carroll

As you read this, I'm on my way to a funeral. I have agreed to 'say a few words.' So I shall probably be driving round the M25 working out what I'm going to say.

I lie. I'm not quite that disorganised. But I won't have it written down to the last comma, either. Instead I'll have a card or two to remind me, and then speak as I feel. This - I promise - is not the same as 'winging it.' It is, rather, a half-way - a gathering of ideas so that I have a rough structure and then responding to the feelings of the moment.

I will have 2-3 minutes so sum up the 60+ years I've known her. And somehow I need to do that without diminishing her.

But it has got me thinking - not only about the woman I need to speak about, but about the stories we tell of ourselves. Isn't that what we all try to do of ourselves - that 140 characters on Twitter, the baby biographies on Facebook? We reduce our complexities to soundbites in the hope that we can, somehow, use those to entice people to explore our blogs and our books and our general media personas.

Yet even that is a fraction of who we are. When I'm faffing about online as a writer, I'll dip into writing fora and talk about character development and the challenge of pacing. On another day, when I'm in travelling mode, I'll play on a travelling forum and join in discussions about rucksacks and the need for insurance.

And still that is only part of the picture. I'm widow, mother, grandmother. I'm obsessed with cricket. I'd rather sit in my garden and read than dead-head the roses. I hate the winter.

How exciting this is! All these different roles we play - not only over the course of a lifetime but sometimes in just a day or so. We take this knowledge into our writing, of course, as we allow characters in our fiction to come out to play. Our heroine might, at the time of writing, be a miserable woman who expresses her rage by throwing her laptop out of the window. Yet another day - off the page - there will be things that give her joy, that make her laugh, that remind her of people who still love her.

And so our understanding of characters should draw on our awareness of this rich complexity. Which might explain why developing characters is so difficult, and so much fun.

Now I must go. I have a real woman to think about.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Lev Butts Takes His Stand

As I came back from my trip to Kansas City last month, on June 18, 2015, I was faced with the horrendous story of Dylan Roof, who had the night before murdered nine unarmed African-Americans as they worshipped in one of the oldest historically black churches in the country.

Roof, a home grown terrorist and white supremacist, allegedly entered the church during prayer meeting, attended services for about an hour, then opened fire killing nine and wounding a tenth. He was quickly identified and apprehended and is currently awaiting trial.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, focus shifted to the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds. See, after the shooting, all flags on the grounds were lowered to half-mast to honor the dead, except for the Confederate battle flag which flies, not on the capitol building, but on its grounds nearby. There were two reasons this flag was not lowered: it was forbidden by law for the flag to be altered in anyway without permission of the General assembly, and more importantly, it was affixed directly to the pole: It could not be lowered without someone shimmying up there and doing it by hand.

Regardless, of the reasons, it looked bad, and once again raised concerns about public displays of the Confederate flag. This picture of Roof didn't help either:

On a side note: Once the flag controversy is over,
I expect calls for the closure of Gold's Gym. Oh wait.
While at the time, South Carolina could not do anything about its flag, retailers quickly sprang into action. Walmart announced fairly quickly that it would no longer carry Confederate flag merchandise due to its being a symbol of racial hatred, followed quickly by eBay, Apple and, among others.

Pictured: Items that are apparently not symbols of racial hatred and thus readily available for purchase.
And this is where a horrifying tragedy that had evolved into a long overdue discussion of the inappropriateness of the Confederate flag being displayed on tax-funded grounds devolved into absurdity:

Apple has banned the display of the Confederate flag on all apps, including historically accurate strategy games about the Civil War. EBay has followed suit, though admittedly, its banning-bot could use a bit of a tune-up.

Pictured: eBay's idea of a Confederate flag.
The Emperor is pleased that the site saw fit to ban this.
WB next surprised the world not by announcing that they'd be pulling all Dukes of Hazzard merchandise because of the flag on the car, but because no one ever thought they were still producing Dukes of Hazzard merchandise to begin with. Then TV Land pulled those no-harm meaning good ol' boys off the air thirty years after the show had been cancelled, and the absurdity reached new heights.

Some day the censors might get'em, but the law never will.
Thus we come to Amazon. When this story first broke, the internet was afire with rumors that the ban would extend to book covers despite the fact that no official word had been released other than the initial reports of "merchandise" being banned.

As a Southern writer and as a scholar of Southern culture and literature, I watched this new development with a close eye. After all, much of my fiction takes place in the South. I have even, in recent years considered writing a story set during the antebellum, Civil War, and/or Reconstruction eras. Before June 17th, it would be perfectly reasonable to employ the flag on the cover of such a book.

While I support the rights of a private business to determine what it will or will not sell, I feared that Amazon would, like Warner Brothers, fail to take context into account and rely instead on a blind knee-jerk reaction.  However, several quick Amazon searches performed sporadically over the last few weeks have revealed that, at least for now, covers are not affected.

Until I began researching for this very post. Last week, Pennsylvania historian, Michael Dreese discovered that This Flag Never Goes Down, his book discussing the Confederate battle flag's role in the battle of Gettysburg, had been removed from Amazon's virtual shelves. While Amazon has apparently reinstated the book, it is not clear whether this marks a permanent reinstatement or a temporary reprieve until Amazon's August 22 deadline to remove a Confederate merchandise from it's store.

Here's my problem with such draconian measures. Leaving aside the reality that simply removing a flag does absolutely nothing to solve the very real racial tensions in this country other than to provide a palliative Band-Aid to an amputated limb, arbitrarily forbidding an image on a book cover undermines the integrity of both author and audience.

It tells authors that they are unable to determine for themselves what constitutes fair use of an image. There are several instances where the Confederate flag may, in fact, be the perfect image for a particular book: A novel about the South during the War, for instance. Shall we have a boy in gray waving Old Glory instead of the Stars and Bars? Perhaps if there is a story in which the protagonist takes on the KKK, we should have an image of a clansman waving the Stars and Stripes.
Because, you know, that flag has never been used to further a racist agenda.
Such a policy also tells consumers that they lack sufficient intelligence to tell the difference between a symbol being used for hatred and division:

And the same symbol used as literary shorthand:

or as a historical reference:

It is also an insult to those who suffered from the tragedy in Charleston: It tells them that their pain and anguish can easily be ameliorated by simply taking some books off a shelf and removing a few video games. Banning the swastika in Germany did not eradicate racism there; dictating what I can or cannot put on the cover of my book without regard for context or authorial intent will similarly not prevent other terrorist killings. Indeed, it hasn't.

I do, however, think that with a little tweaking,
we can get The Dukes of Hazzard back on the air.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Antidotes to writing, by Ali Bacon

Not adding up
Writers write, right? And for many of us there are so many other things to do that writing fills all the available spare time that’s going. But I recently got into an odd situation of doing too much writing or applying too much of my headspace to a single writing project - and it wasn’t working. The novel had ground to a halt and parts of it had been written and rewritten to a point where I felt I was simply moving words around in the hope that they would fall into place like one of those old sliding puzzles. Of course there was no perfect solution but that didn’t stop me going round in ever-decreasing circles. I decided to down tools. Since then I have meandered back to some bits of writing but I’m a lot more aware of the importance of the other things I do and it’s made me think about how and why they contribute to my sanity.

Making and doing

Only a bit of unpicking!

I used to joke I took up writing because I was no good at knitting. But in fact that’s not true. I’m not a very ‘handy’ person, but  I like knitting and really enjoy the process of making something that doesn’t require too much fiddling. In the winter knitting also keeps me warm and it makes me feel a lot less guilty about watching TV! But why does it feel like a refreshing change from writing? Well it’s practical, with a concrete result, and more crucially, it comes with a set of instruction!  I think you get my drift. I’ve never been much of a plotter with novels, and although I’m a lot more aware these days of ‘the rules’ of writing, for me a novel is a journey of discovery. Well that’s fine, but sometimes it’s good to sit down, follow the rules, and eventually you have the finished article. I don’t really mind how long it takes, or if I have to unpick a few rows (I blame Poldark!) because success (small caveat over patterns downloaded from t’internet!) is almost guaranteed. How refreshing.

In similar vein, a year or so ago I tried my hand at calligraphy, and for a few weeks I was blissfully content to practise up and down strokes with a felt tip pen. The novelty of that part soon wore off but it reminded me that writing was also about forming words and letters, that books were originally physical artefacts, and the change of pace was definitely therapeutic. Then we moved on to projects which were much more of a creative test. We had to think about the remit, plan our response, visualise the outcome and then do it. Yes, more like a novel, and demanding in a way I hadn’t expected, but because the outcome was visual, it felt creative in a different way.
I liked it, but there was a problem. I couldn’t actually master the techniques. My results (see below!) never looked as good as I wanted them to. I could see the finished item but I couldn’t produce it. 

So I will never be a calligrapher, but it’s good to have a creative project that’s not writing-related. At the moment I have an on-going sewing project with some remnants of curtain material. I’m no psychologist but I imagine that making stuff uses different parts of the brain compared to translating the imagination into words.

A bit of singing and dancing

Calligraphy/dancing mash-up!
All kinds of exercise are good, but most of them allow the brain to keep working on other things – yes, while walking or cycling and (take it from me) even golfing, you can mull over that scene, that character that plot twist. Which can be beneficial. But I discovered that there’s a huge benefit in having the brain entirely absorbed in something else. A while ago we decided to try ballroom dancing. We’ll never be on Strictly, but just remembering the sequence of steps in the foxtrot and managing to get it right definitely does not allow for other brain activity! 

Music is a great mood-changer and singing in a choir is also about people coming together and creating something as a group, so I am always loath to miss my weekly outing to the Resound Community Choir.  

On an impulse I added a string to my musical bow by signing up to some informal music theory classes. I do have some vestigial knowledge of quavers and crochets from childhood piano lessons but I have really enjoyed finding out more about chords, scales and intervals. Thinking about it, from Latin and Greek to the basics of html I’ve always loved learning languages and I suppose musical notation is a kind of language, better still, the kind of language with a strict internal logic. A bit like a knitting pattern!  
Everyone needs recreation (that's re-creation) of some kind, and I think the activities I’ve thrown myself into have been a way of freeing up my mind from the stranglehold writing can sometimes exert. Will they take over from writing altogether? Well there have been times when I look in my diary and wonder when I’m going to find the time, but I'm not too worried. Writing has been part of my life for far too long for it to disappear completely, so watch this space!