Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Where and when do you do your best writing? Guest Post by Fran Brady

I drift awake as fingers of light probe the curtains. Where am I? Not at home. Then a glow of delight starts somewhere in the region of my belly and creeps up my body. It washes my face in a grin. I remember where I am.

I inch out of bed, reach for my dressing-gown and push my feet into the rubber sandals that will double as slippers and paddling shoes for the next fortnight. My husband is still fast asleep: I know by the click at the top of each breath.

At the bottom of the stairs, my dog stirs in his basket and watches me. Time to get up? No, not yet: just the early shift. He drops his head on to his paws and is asleep again in seconds.

The kitchen is filling with light. Curtains are never drawn here. Moonlight on the water demands an audience. As I wait for the kettle, I watch a corncrake strutting on the handkerchief of lawn. The rest of the garden must be left wild by law to ensure this bird’s habitat and now I reap the fruits of compliance. Later will come boatloads of twitchers with cameras, tripods, binoculars and picnics. Have you seen one? they will ask as I pass them on my way to the shop. They will hear them: who does not? Crek! Crek! The sound is everywhere on the island but seeing is a different matter. I watch as the bird slips into the long grass and begins its mating call, ever-hopeful.

Looking out of the kitchen window
The coffee smells wonderful. I smile at the mug and raid the heap of home-baking by the breadbin. Hurrah for grateful houseguests! I choose a slab of cherry and almond cake. The sitting-room with windows on three sides is also full of light; chilly, though, now that my bed-warmth is dissipating. I switch on two bars of the electric fire and fetch my leggings and thick socks from behind the couch where I hid them last night. I liberate my laptop from its charging cord and settle on the sofa facing the east window. As I sip my coffee and savour the cake, waiting for the computer to boot up, I watch the sun push up behind Ben More. It reminds me of watching my grandchild being born, the head crowning from the birth canal, full of promise.

I finish the cake and blow a couple of crumbs off the keyboard. I close my eyes and let the words, phrases, scraps of dialogue and ideas for plot development that were fermenting in my head as I fell asleep rise to the surface. Then I open them and begin to type. After a while, I stop, read, frown, change, delete, cut and paste. The last mouthful of coffee is forgotten and goes cold. It is not quite seven o’clock and the sun has risen over the Sound of Iona.

The door slides open and, looking up, seeing no-one, I think: Dog. No dog appears. What on earth…?  A small child appears round the side of the armchair: my granddaughter, that crowning head beginning already to fulfill its promise. She sidles in, reading my do-not-disturb signals, and comes to sit at my side without a word. I carry on tapping the keys and stroking the cursor pad. She picks at a few cake crumbs on the sofa and peers at the coffee dregs with disgust. A few minutes pass in which I try to remain in laptop world and she tries to remain still and silent.

Our house
We both give in at the same moment. Then we are laughing and hugging and she is telling me about her dreams of the night and her plans for the day. She asks me what I have been writing but, before I can begin to tell her, she is demanding A STORY. I take her over to the window and we watch the fishing boats coming home and the gulls keening over them. Once upon a time, there was a little girl who went on holiday with her mummy and daddy and grandma and granddad and some other people to a big house on a tiny island….

“And Tucky woof-woof” she interrupts. At the mention of his name, Tucker the dog decides it really is morning now and comes through to join us. We will just have time for a story before the first breakfaster invades the kitchen. My writer’s sunrise world has gone for another day.

I spend two weeks every year at a big house on the Hebridean Isle of Iona. Over the past twenty years, my husband and I have taken over fifty friends and family members with us and enjoyed wonderful house-party holidays. My fourth novel (a work-in-progress) is set in that beautiful area (well, it would be rude not to!) in the 1920s. Researching it over several years’ has been enormous fun and I am more in love now than ever with ‘Iona of my heart; Iona of my love.’ (from a poem attributed to St. Columba who landed on Iona in 563 and brought Christianity to Scotland).

Fran has published two novels and one children’s book. She is also currently (and experimentally) uploading her third novel in installments on to her website, advertising it with links on her Facebook author page.



Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the Critical List: N M Browne


 I have spent most of my writing life burying my inner critic, entombing him in concrete, and consigning him to a deep and inaccessible grave.  Too much analysis, too much self consciousness can strangle a nascent idea and kill it dead.  I would never have written a word had I not managed to fool my critic into believing I was doing nothing very serious, just pIaying, lulling him into a false sense of security before sneaking up behind him and disabling him with a sharp hatchet blow to the skull. You will note that he is male. I try not to analyse that fact too closely.
All this psychological aggression is primarily defensive: at  the beginning of the creative process there is nothing, just a murky kind of potential, then gradually, if you are lucky, you may get a glimmering of something, a glimpse through thick fog of a ghost of  a story seed. The last thing you should do is expose these half formed, germinating almost-nothings to the harshness of a critic’s cold gaze: especially mine. My personal critic is a snide, sardonic and uncharitable bastard. Why do you think I buried him so deep? He and I have hammered out an uneasy truce over the last thirty years. Usually he is held captive and silent in his fortified tomb for most of the first draft and then vampire- like arises to suck all my joy and confidence away for a few, grim hours a week as I edit.  
 I have also spent the last few years teaching Creative Writing and it has got me thinking about the usefulness of my inner critic and the balance between self belief, self deception and self criticism. I’ve come to believe that at least a drop or two of delusion is needed to oil the wheels of creativity. Would we ever write if we didn’t believe at some level that we could do it? Of course we have probably all come across  someone with an excess of confidence, so much self belief that they are impervious to the  possibility of improvement. Such  turbo powered assurance makes creating anything that might actual be worth reading significantly less likely. Somewhere between abject, doubtful despair   and ebullient certainty there lies a sweet spot, but I have no idea where it is. 
 That’s why Creative writing teaching is a risky business.
 Obviously it’s risky for the students because they lay themselves on the line and put themselves in my hands, an unnaturally contorted position that isn’t very comfortable for either us. They pay good money to meet my critic  much earlier in their process than might be ideal and, for all his many faults, he does his best to give value for money. Too much honesty too soon can be crippling: too little too late and self belief can set like concrete so that the writer struggles to move forward at all.  
 It’s perhaps less obvious that teaching can be almost as risky for the teacher. We are all vulnerable; teacher and student together on a vast, storm-wracked ocean  in the same unstable boat. Be warned  that the inner critic can be as subtle as he is brutal and there’s nothing he likes better than to sabotage the voyage and scupper your craft.  Once you let that bastard out of his  lead-lined, cast- iron  box  he’s the very devil to get back in. Or is that just mine?  




Monday, 28 September 2015

Silence, Picture books, Editing and Times Journalists

The colour spreads for my next little book with Franklin Watts arrived by post this morning. I usually get to see these online, so receiving them like this was unexpected, but pleasing, as I can scan them in to share them with friends. It's been an exquisitely beautiful Autumnal day here in London, so this added to my pleasure. The illustrator, Inna Chernyak, lives in the Ukraine, and we've already collaborated on a picture book: "Quicker than a Princess", published by TopThat Publishing.

What are your optimum conditions for creative writing? I am, and have always been, a silence freak - I cannot imagine working against a background of music. It would be an active competition between the world inside my head and sound of the music, and I can't do both. Many, many years ago, when I was writing and publishing short stories for women's magazines, we had an elderly next door neighbour (we lived in rented accomodation back then). She was a thin, bitter-faced woman with brightly henna'ed hair, and she seemed to spend her whole day watching TV VERY LOUDLY - I imagine she was probably deaf. The sound penetrated both the walls of our flat and the walls of my mind. It drove me crazy. We tried talking to her, but got nowhere. Eventually I gave up trying to write, for a number of reasons, this being one of them. The other two? Well, one was that I was pushing boundaries writing-wise and the mags didn't approve. The other one was that I became pregnant, and our landlady decided we had to go, no children being part of the agreement. Happily, David's job suddenly involved us moving elsewhere, so things worked out well for us.

Silence at present is a different kind of problem because David died suddenly two years ago, so I now live alone and have all the silence I could possibly need (or not). It sometimes drives me crazy, so that I have to call someone, anyone, and I'm finding it harder and harder to get into that magical writing space. Before, I found the space through making a quiet pool via quite a lot of interaction; now the silence is unlimited. It's like unexpectedly inheriting a fortune with no idea what to do with it. The result is, that apart from writing to briefs, which are always a joy when I get them, I'm editing/re-writing work that's already there.

Decades ago, I wrote two rather strange adult novels. The earliest, COUNTERPOINT, was on an actual typewriter (remember those?) and was picked up, at the time, by a radically Feminist press (which shall be nameless). Among many of their ideological requirements was the insistence that men would be barred from any launch party. I opted out. Recently, a friend of a writer friend (hope that makes sense) has offered to scan it for me (I'd be paying her), and I'm suddenly confronted  by the prospect of dealing with work written with such intensity - I can still remember being almost 'out of it' at the time. Publishing-wise, I don't think it's a goer. E-book-wise, well, who knows?

As I've published books for Young Adults, via Walker Books, in the past, like  "WOLFSONG" http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00846FYX0 - these days I often nosy around in what's currently out there Y/A wise. Recently, I came up, at random, with two extremely disturbing books, neither of which I shall name. They were both the stuff of nightmares, and both very readable.

The first offered me two dislikeable characters who each had very good reasons for being the way they were, but not good enough for me. These two were set in a cast of other totally dislikeable characters - in fact, there was really no one in this book I would have wanted to know apart from the two protagonists whose story pulled me in, forcing me to side uncomfortably, as a reader, with the two Nasties. I pulled out of the text, and jumped to the end - how was this going to resolve itself? The actual writing didn't seem to matter any more, although the author was a fluent storyteller. The answer seemed to be more of the same, but cleverer. Way back in, I think, the Fifties, there was a very disturbing and controversial novel called: "THE BAD SEED", featuring a child who was, for no discernable reason, simply "bad". Both books raise the eternal question: what is evil?

The second book was pure horror, and a bit akin to Stephen King's work. The writing really grabbed me; the images were terrifying, but unlike the first book, there were people in it I cared about, so I stayed with it until the end, as the author had intended. The first book was certainly a page-turner - it had me turning several pages at a time, sometimes whole chapters. It was pantomime evil, but even in pantos you have to be rooting for someone you care about - Cinderella, Jack or who have you.

Talking writing in general, I always, to the horror of left-wing friends and family, buy The Times on Saturdays - the reason being that there are journalists whose work I love. To mention a few, Matthew Parris, with whose opinions I don't always agree, but he does know his stuff and how to express it. Giles Coren, the son of journalist Alan Coren - witty, erudite and rude. Janice Turner, a common-sense feminist, always deals with challenging issues, and then there's the truly extraordinary Melanie Reid, a paraplegic ex-sports columnist and horse rider, whose weekly column always puts any of my own physical frailties into perspective. All this splendid stuff, however, is invariably let down by the consumerist magazine - last week faffing on about a dress selling for over £11,000 (dear Blog readers - I, of course, bought two). 




Sunday, 27 September 2015

Under Armed Guard in Lahore - Andrew Crofts



It was an unusual ghosting project because the main character was twelve years old and had recently been assassinated. The story could have been narrated by a second person, but he was in hiding somewhere in Europe and was not at all sure he wanted to raise his head above the parapet in this way.



The project had been sparked into life by a producer who wanted to make a film about the life of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy who had allegedly been sold by his parents to a carpet factory owner at the age of four. Six years later, the story went, he succeeded in escaping the clutches of his tyrannical master. A young boy alone in the world, surviving off foraged scraps, he stumbled across a Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) rally. The organisation took him under its wing, and he began working to spread the word to other enslaved children that they too could be free. He participated in raids on illegal factories and addressed international conventions. He was awarded the Reebok “Youth in Action” Award and a scholarship to study law in Boston. But before he could start to enjoy the results of his hard work, his life was cut short by a hail of bullets from the gun of an unknown sympathiser or employee of the carpet masters.  Ehsan Khan, who ran the BLLF, had been forced to leave the country or face a similar fate, or imprisonment, and was now hiding in Europe.

“I want to make a film of Iqbal’s life but I think there should be a book to go with it,” the producer told me over lunch at the Rib Room, a haunt of the international rich in the Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel in London’s Sloane Street. He was an imposing man, dressed completely in black, right down to his Gucci cowboy boots. “You need to come over to Lahore and see the village where he came from, the factory where he was enslaved and the place where they murdered him. You need to talk to his mother and to the people at BLLF. We will need to arrange for protection.”

At our next meeting in the Rib Room Ehsan Khan was also there, emerging unannounced from his hiding place for a few hours to talk about the project, preparing the way for our trip. After lunch Ehsan hurried away, vanishing into the crowds as I strolled with the producer to Harrods where he wanted to pick up some of his favourite cigars.

“I will make all the travel arrangements,” he said as we walked. “My brother-in-law is the chief of police in Lahore. He will provide us with the security we need.”

It was decided a friend and co-worker of Ehsan’s would come with us.

A week or two later we were ensconced in the Pearl-Continental Hotel in Lahore and news reached us over a sumptuous breakfast buffet, via the producer’s luxury Vertu mobile, that all the campaign staff of BLLF had been arrested and were being held somewhere where we could not get access to them.

“I have talked to my brother-in-law,” the producer said, “and he will see what he can do.”

Later that morning we were taking coffee with the brother-in-law in his office, overlooking the overgrown courtyard of the colonial style police station. The atmosphere in the office was relaxed as the two men seemed to gossip about friends and family, and perhaps talked a little about our plans for the coming week. Excluded by the language barrier, entirely reliant on them for everything, I settled down to await developments.

A shiny black Range Rover was found for us; the sheer size and splendour of it, I was assured, would be enough to intimidate anyone who might prefer not to see us in their village - and an armed guard was added to our entourage. There were reports that the imprisoned BLLF campaigners were being beaten somewhere in the bowels of the police station, which caused the producer consternation, but his brother-in-law merely shrugged to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of such inevitable injustice.

The streets of Lahore were hot and exciting, with a hint of threat in the stares that followed us wherever we went. Outside the city the Pakistani and Indian armies were lining their tanks up along either side of the border. In the villages the children and buffaloes splashed and wallowed in the red waters of the canals and rivers as the adults sat around watching the world in much the same way they must have been doing for centuries.

Everyone we came across wanted to tell us their side of the Iqbal story, playing up their own role in the drama, enjoying the break we were providing in their usual daily routines. Iqbal was both a local hero and already something of a mythical figure. It was becoming increasingly hard to tell the fantasies from the realities in everything we were being told.

The whole village seemed to be congregating in the school building where we went to meet more people who claimed they had known him. The crowd spilled out into the street, peering in through the door and windows at us. Overcome with emotion at one point, the producer made the mistake of opening his wallet to distribute largesse and the policeman had to insert himself and his rifle between us and the villagers as they pressed forward with their hands outstretched.  

In the evenings we paid visits to a number of the producer’s family members, and one of his mother’s servants joined us, falling asleep in the back of the car and snoring loudly as we continued to travel to the brick kilns and carpet factories where whole families still work in virtual slavery, and out into the desolate fields where our little hero was murdered, watched from a distance by suspicious eyes as flocks of crows circled noisily in the air above us.

Iqbal’s legend has all the elements of a classic fairy tale, a folk story that can be passed from mouth to mouth, growing and mutating as it goes. It was becoming almost impossible to see where the facts of the story might be but the fundamental truth about bonded child labour was becoming abundantly clear, just as it was in Europe and America in the days when children worked long hours in factories and mines and were sent up chimneys. The story of this one little boy who became a martyr made it more human and more understandable, just as Oliver Twist made Dickens’ message about the workhouses and orphanages of Victorian London more accessible and memorable. A drama teacher at an American school recently contacted me to ask if he could dramatise the book for a performance by his pupils, so maybe one day in the future Iqbal too will be the subject of a West End/Broadway musical.

Upon my return to England I read “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, where the complex characters frequented the Pearl-Continental Hotel and the same cafés and streets that I had been travelling through with the producer. I smelt again the dangers that mine every cross-cultural encounter in modern Pakistan, feeling grateful for whatever protection it was the producer’s brother-in-law gave us.


Saturday, 26 September 2015

Size Does Matter! by Ruby Barnes



Please tell me you all have the same problems as I do in this internet-based world that we live in. It's all driven by usernames, passwords, URLs, cookies and crumbs or something. An infinite number of web places with wondrous free things awaiting if you just register, sign up, log in, tune in and trip out. Maybe there's a log in with facebook option, or twitter or something? It all just seems to work. Until it doesn't.

This person is saying terrible things about you ... A friend has tagged you in a photo ... I can't believe this is you in this video … got big boobs and a big butt and know how to use them (that last one always has me wondering about alternative bb & bb usages). You click the message and, hey presto, someone has hacked your twitter, your facebook and who knows what else. You might not even know you've been compromised, unless a kind friend who has received spam from your hijacked account decides to let you know. Do you use the same username and password for internet banking and social media? System meltdown.

Lots of naked people go crazy

Almost as bad is when someone munches your cookies. You go to Goodreads, facebook, twitter, Google, webmail or whatever and hit the first letter of your username. It doesn't fill in the rest like it usually does. You type it in and wait for the long forgotten password to automatically appear as a row of asterisks. It doesn't. This can happen accidentally (using too broad a brush when clearing out internet history so no-one knows you've been looking at cute puppies), deliberately (if you let someone else use your computer and they trash your cookies while eradicating their forensic trace evidence, because who can you trust these days?) or inadvertently (e.g. when you start using a new browser or your employer does an upgrade that wipes the slate clean or your hardware / software spontaneously combusts because it just knows your life is becoming dependent upon it). But when those cookies are gone, they're gone.

Do you keep your user names and passwords in a safe place? I bet you use the same ones all the time. Can you hear a van engine running outside in the dark? Those are villains waiting to hack into your Wi-Fi, infiltrating your facebook account with fake party announcements, ordering takeaway food online for delivery and making large charitable cash donations to wildlife funds from your bank account (you can tell I don't think people are really evil).

How about your browsing history? Do you bookmark and favorite the myriad interesting reading, writing and strange food idea sites you come across? Do you keep them in some kind of sensible schema that enables you to ever find them ever again? Of course you could just try typing in part of the URL but that's not going to work for long because you or someone has wiped that browsing history during a moment of paranoia.

I'm a squirrel and it drives me nuts. I store everything somewhere safe. I know I have it but often can't find it. This laptop I'm writing on now has backups of the previous two laptops, three mp3 players, two cameras and four mobile phones on its hard disk. I have a back up of all that on an external hard disk which also contains a back up of two even earlier computers. At least twelve years of favorites, pics, novels, book reviews, music, you name it. How did we ever get by without all this stuff?

Is there a cure for all this complexity and paranoia? Keep it simple, maybe? You tell me. In the meantime I want to mention some other little things - custom URLs. One thing I do keep on my Excel file of links and whatnot is a number of shortened URLs I've created on http://bitly.com and other such wizard places. If you are writing tweets and want to shorten links or if you want a very long link abbreviated to manageable length for some other purpose such as a blog post then bitly and other shorteners (such as tinyurl.com) can be very useful. Just past in a link into bitly e.g. here's my affiliate link for Zombies v. Ninjas: Origin:
http://www.amazon.com/Zombies-v-Ninjas-R-Barnes-ebook/dp/B00YEZM8AW?tag=mcp2014-21
and one click will shorten it to e.g. http://amzn.to/1LFbd27
This looks even better if you enter a custom alias which bitly will then allocate to your link e.g. http://bit.ly/ZvNOrigin

cover for Zombies v. Ninjas: Origin by R.A. Barnes

One of the advantages of bitly is that adding a “+” to the end of the bitly URL will take you to a statistics page showing number of clicks on that link (by hour, day week etc), country of click origin and other info such as source e.g. twitter (and it will even show which tweets generated those clicks!)
A shortened, customised URL can be used for good or for evil. If you want to hide something (like an affiliate code as in the example above) then it's handy. That's only a minor evil. No one gets hurt. If you want to take someone to somewhere they wouldn't normally go (pictures of cute puppies?) then you can do that as well but that's spam, virus, bad boy tactics and the clicker will never trust you ever again.

On the good side, you can keep a nice list of shortened links created for your own personal use with logical shortened forms. A good example of this, if you're an author, is e.g. a custom URL for one of your books. http://viewBook.at/ZvN2Domination takes me straight to my Amazon book page where I can check on my reviews for the new release or just look admiringly at the bloodthirsty cover art. It's also useful for tweets, blog posts, emails and chat forums. Pop that abbreviated URL onto facebook and it links straight through with the preview. Of course, people need to trust you not to lead them into darkness with your bitly tiny URLs. Your tiny bits and pieces need to be unique and self-explanatory to gain click-through confidence.

cover for Zombies v. Ninjas 2: Domination by R.A. Barnes

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Runaway Chapatti by Susan Price

The Runaway Chapatti, by Susan Price, Illustrated by Adam Price

Here it is at last!

After much discussion, arguing, editing, proofing, arguing - well, this is a PriceClan production - alterations, rewriting, arguing - the chapati is on the run again.

It's been out of print for a while, but the wonders of indie-publishing make it possible for me to bring it back.

There has been a bit of delay in getting the book on sale. It's a collaboration between me and my brother Adam, the illustrator. For the sake of convenience, it was published from Adam's CreateSpace account - and that caused the problem.

To their credit rather than otherwise, Amazon almost immediately 'suppressed' the book (their term) while they checked whether either or both of us had the necessary rights. We both emailed them, quoting our membership numbers and explaining - and although I've heard nothing from Amazon, I see that the book is again available.

It's an early-reader book, making use of the story's repeated refrain to emphasise several basic words, such as 'Come back!'



One reason for republishing the book is that I'm frequently asked by teachers where they can buy copies - I had another enquiry a couple of days ago. There are second-hand copies on sale - on Amazon, where else? - for £88 each.

Educators of the nation! - You can now buy copies from Amazon or, if you're not allowed to place orders with them, you can order directly from my website, here.  
Meanwhile, the scaffolding is still up on PriceClan's other picture book, the Billy Goats Gruff, but I'm very happy with it, and hope the goats will be tripping, trotting and tramping along soon. 




So far, The Runaway Chapatti is only available as a paperback, but I hope it will be on Kindle . 

The Runaway Chapatti    UK       US 

My website - where other  books, such as The Wolf's Footprint and the Carnegie winning The Ghost Drum, can also be found for sale.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Trying to write differently.

As you read this, I'm sitting by a lake in Nepal. Water laps gently against stones on the shoreline. Boats chug across to a temple on a tiny island about three hundred metres away. Behind me, the Himalaya are reaching for the sky.

But this is not, for me, a 'normal travel-writing trip'. (Though I'm not sure I know what that is.) Instead I have responded to invitations from friends who live here, who have survived the earthquake and are putting their lived back together again, and who have asked for help to boost their tourist industry.

I understand the need. The Nepali are independent people and capable of rebuilding their homes and schools and hospitals and temples without the great and the good of the developed world telling them what to do. But they need money - and tourism, which was buried beneath the rubble for a while, is their most obvious, and immediate, source of income.

And yet, it seems, many are staying away. I know it's monsoon season, and so numbers will be down - but bookings are sparse for the drier seasons even though all the major treks (even Everest) have reopened. Hotels have spruced up their rooms. Restaurants are perfecting new dishes. Sherpas and mountain guides are ready with their maps and backpacks.

I do understand some people's reluctance to visit so soon after a disaster. It's hard, seeing rubble where once stood glorious temples. Trekking up Everest, knowing that so many people died there, must be a challenge.

And yet without tourists Nepal will sink into even greater need. The damage of the earthquake will be compounded by a floundering economy.

Which is where I come in. I have agreed to help promote tourism here. It was one of those enthusiastic promises we make without really thinking it through (or am I the only person who does that?). Because I don't have the faintest idea how to promote anything. Efforts to sell my books are somewhat apologetic. And this matters far more than a few books.

And so, please, if anyone has any idea how to do this, has links with marketing people who might know how to do this, or even has questions about the country that might prompt people to think about visiting, please ask me. Because this matters.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Lev Butts' Comic Count Down Part I

Last month, I decided it was time I did another countdown, but this time I'm counting down the five best metafictional comics: those that deal either overtly or covertly with how stories work, that are to a greater or lesser degree "aware" of themselves as comics.

I got the list right here, so let's begin.
5. Cerebus - Dave Sim (writing and art) and Gerhard (art)


Cerebus is perhaps one of the biggest success stories in independent publishing. In December 1977, Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim, created what was supposed to be a satire of sword and sorcery comics. This 6,000 page saga tells the story of an aardvark named Cerebus "the Earth Pig Born" and barbarian-for-hire. He wants only to earn enough gold fighting in order to pay his bar tab until the day he meets Jaka, a dancer with whom Cerebus falls in love. He spends much of the rest of his days trying and failing to obtain her, and along the way, he becomes prime minister, pope, pariah, and prophet. 

As early as issue #26, the comic evolved into biting political satire, and it was not long after that the title moved on to satirize literally every aspect of society and popular culture. On the surface, it seems little different from Howard the Duck. However, where Steve Gerber's creation lasted just a handful of issues with only one dealing exclusively with writing fiction, Cerebus spanned 300 issues, and from issue 114 (in which Oscar Wilde takes over as narrator for a while), until the end, the art of writing becomes as integral to Sim's story as the plot itself. 

Indeed, issues 139-150 (collected as Melmoth) deals almost exclusively with how the events of the previous storyline (Jaka's Story issues 114-138) lead directly to the death of Oscar Wilde. Much of this tale is even told using Wilde's actual letters as the narrative. 


At least half of a later storyline, Reads (issues 175-186), deals specifically with the business of commercial writing and the dangers inherent in selling out, and in the next stroyline, Minds (issues 187-200), the climax of the entire series, Cerebus literally meets his creator, a disembodied voice named "Dave," who meticulously lays out Cerebus' life path and shows him where he went wrong before showing him all the flawed futures he can expect should Dave "make" Jaka love him. 

Cerebus discusses his life with "Dave" while circling himself.
Later (issues 240-265) Cerebus and Jaka will spend several days on a riverboat with F. Scott Fitzgerald and will winter with Ernest Hemingway. Both of these storylines discuss either overtly or obliquely the many ways real life intersects with literature.


Literature and storytelling, weave in and out of Cerebus' storyline throughout it's 27-year run in much the same way as good literature is intertwined in our own lives. In many ways, this metafictional aspect of Cerebus becomes a metaphor for the ways in which we all draw advice, inspiration, and meaning from our own reading and acts of creation. 

And while that may not be the primary point of the story (which can be taken to be anything from the highly controversial "Women are users and men are dupes" to "The best religion is a kind of mish-mash of Judaism and Islam" to "The hell with it, there's too much here to single out just one thing"), it is certainly the idea that appealed most to me and which brings me back to it again and again.

Next Time: I look at childhood fairy tales and the artist who draws them.



Tuesday, 22 September 2015

History, change, and renewal: a weekend in Scotland, with Ali Bacon

Angus - farming country in the lee of the hills
When we do historical research it’s easy to think that we have to uncover some hidden world lying beneath the accretions of business, construction, technology and all the stuff that has happened between ‘now’ and ‘then’, stuff we often think of as progress.
But of course things aren’t that simple, and I was reminded of this last weekend on a bit of an impromptu trip to Scotland to the small town in Angus which was home to many of my ancestors. 

Brechin High Street
I had been there only once before, in my childhood, and had hazy memories of family walks, paddling in a very cold river, and on rainy days (we had a few!) being allowed to spend my pocket money in Woolworths. (Retail therapy started young in my case!) Returning after 50 (or more) years, I found (no surprise) that even Woolworths has gone, leaving a random mixture of businesses: –an upmarket deli and an unreconstructed corner shop,  a local hardware supplier and a Polish grocer, a small branch of Boots and one of those wedding boutiques that seem to pop up in small towns. Despite the addition of the Auld Bakehouse serving posh coffee and cake on the site of a 1950s family bakery, the effect was curiously inert.

But what did surprise me was the quaintness (unnoticed by my seven-year-old self) of the old town centre with lots of the 18th century houses in the street  where our ancestors lived more or less unchanged. It was comparatively easy to picture their lives there in a sleepy town built around the cathedral where my great-great-grandfather worked, surrounded by farming country and close to the hills and glens.

Duke's Mill - old factory, new flats
But in fact this was also an illusion. From the mid-nineteenth century Brechin had two linen factories and a paper mill. Contemporary engravings show a town of smoking chimneys and my Granny worked, like all of her friends, at Duke’s, a power-loom mill built with enough Victorian chutzpah to have been preserved today as up-market flats. Local almanacs provided for us in the library showed the plethora of manufacturers and retailers attending to the needs of a busy population. Glasgow it was not, but it had all the hallmarks of Victorian society, a station and a new town square, a floridly gothic Mechanics Institute and a slum area prone to flooding.
So history is not so much about progress (however we define it) as change and renewal. When one industry dies (Dukes closed in 1980) what will take its place? There was new building going on and our landlady claimed she was busy on week-nights with businessmen en route to and from Aberdeen, but I wonder if Brechin will be bigger or smaller, busier or more dormant, in another fifty years.  Time marches on, but not always in the direction we expect.
Last year I read Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, a curious novel that exposes the life of a community through its landscape, and you could at least say that in Brechin we can peer through the centuries and imagine the characters who lived and worked there.

By contrast, on our way home, we had an overnight stop in Edinburgh’s Western Harbour area, where high-rise apartments, hotels and supermarkets have been flung out on what was once a links area. Newhaven harbour at least is intact, giving us a ‘bonny view’ as we scoffed down much-needed pizza in the waterfront restaurant, but how many travelers would know that across the road as recently as the 1930s there was a  bustling fishing village much admired for its work ethic and provision of what we think of today as social services. 
Newhaven was also made famous by the photographs of my hero and so I couldn’t resist a quick look at what’s left. To be fair the original village (as seen here) is now a conservation area and the Victorian school is still in use as council offices alongside a bright new primary.  
A few streets of new housing have been built in the style of the fishermen’s ‘forestair’ cottages. But for me on the edge of this city with so much history, this tiny settlement (briefly celebrated in my contemporary novel) has somehow been eclipsed by the world around it. If only its museum (now a wholesale fishmonger) had survived it might have made more of a mark and call to passers by that there is something here worth seeing or learning about.

But perhaps not everywhere can wear its history on its sleeve, and writers will always be happy to dig around and see what lies beneath.

A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon
contemporary Scottish fiction
available as e-book or paperback

She’s running as fast as she can, but the past is catching up. 

Ailsa has just left school and should be living it up on a summer trip, but her plans are scuppered by her needy and secretive mother Lorraine. In desperation she takes up with local fishmonger Ian. He’s good for her soul and her sex-life, but their future is blighted by the shadow of Ailsa’s absent father Tom, an art-teacher who left home after making the papers in the worst possible way. Ian eventually blots his copy book and Lorraine is implicated in his treachery. Ailsa takes off for Edinburgh where Shane, a picture rights dealer with more than a touch of the night, is happy to provide a job and a bed. With him Ailsa lets go of her inhibitions, but can she let go of her past? 
A Kettle of Fish moves from the East coast of Fife to the art galleries of Edinburgh, where Ailsa finds herself fishing for clues about Tom.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Future of Publishing - a report by Katherine Roberts

Earlier this month I attended the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators Group conference at Bath University. I have never been to this annual event, despite being a member of the Society since my first book Song Quest was published in 1999, so thought it about time I checked out the business side of things. Also, I was a student at Bath in the early 1980's and was curious to see how much the campus had changed.

The answer is quite a lot, to the point of being unrecognisable when I got halfway up the drive. The original Parade had almost vanished behind sleek new buildings, and the campus now has wonderful sporting facilities as well as hi-tech student accommodation. I spent most of the first night playing with the coloured light display above the bed-shelf in my "Quad" pod, and a fair bit of time working out how to lock the door from the inside with my non-touch keycard (which, it turns out, you can't do unless you open the door first and tell it to lock before you close it). Keys are so last century.

Apparently so is the internet, according to futurist Christopher Barnatt who spoke at the conference on the Future of Publishing. I found his talk particularly interesting, since he was one of the few people there who did not work in the publishing business (apart from writing books about the future), and was therefore looking at publishing from the outside rather than the inside. When people work in a business and know it very well, as many publishing professionals and established authors do, there is a danger we can end up navel gazing, which leads to short sightedness when things change.

Christopher's talk was in two parts - new technology, and how this is affecting the business of publishing books and the author in particular. Regular readers of this blog will already be halfway there, but some people at the conference still seemed a bit e-blind.

The mind-blowing technology part:

* The internet revolution has been and gone, and now the internet is just a tool.

* Dedicated ebook reader sales peaked in 2012 and are on the decline. People prefer to read ebooks on multi-purpose tablets and smartphones etc. Soon this might be on wearable technology.

* Print on Demand will become quicker and cheaper, with local machines such as the existing Espresso in supermarkets and other outlets producing books in seconds according to local customer demand (I believe it currently takes about 6 minutes to print a book on one of these machines). Taking the local digital manufacturing revolution further, I am even wondering if every household might eventually have a small POD machine so they can make their own personal print copy of a digital book?


* Personalisation will become more important, with readers choosing details such as the font size, a customized cover, the hero's name, etc. You can already choose things like font size in ebooks, but print books could have e-ink pages too with hyperlinks.

*Nanotechnology will allow for moving colour images in books.

* 3D printing will open up small scale personalised manufacturing to individuals. While probably not useful for printing books, this could be great for merchandising items such as plastic models of your characters. You can 3D print on plastic, metal, chocolate and living tissue as well as many other materials. In China, they have already 3D printed a functioning car and a mansion.

*The good news is that Christopher thinks both print books and ebooks will be around for a while yet - it's just the way they are produced, the way they are read, and the way they reach readers that is likely to change.

So what effect does all this have on authors and their readers?

The old model goes like this, and is pretty much a one way street where the author has little control over the process except for writing the book:

author --> publisher --> distributor --> retailer --> reader

(Unfortunately for authors, money travels the other way, shedding chunks for services at each stage.)

The new model looks more like this:

author--> distributor --> reader

But since this model is missing the publisher and retailer, those functions will be taken over by bottom-up aggregators providing services to the author, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) agents providing advertising by enabling readers to find the books they want to read. In this model, the streets are very much two way, with both the author and the reader being involved in the aggregation and SEO processes and the distributor in the middle holding it all together. Currently, online retailers such as Amazon fulfill this purpose.

At the moment, Christopher says the publishing aggregators are not yet in place, although companies like Draft2Digital provide an increasing range of services to authors enabling their books to reach readers. The White Glove service provided by agents to their authors is another step towards aggregation. Meanwhile, the links in the resources tab and sidebar of this blog will take you to various independent services that might help you publish your book. SEO agents however do exist, about which I admit to not knowing nearly enough. My limited knowledge extends as far as Amazon's keywords (for which the KDP platform provides helpful guidelines) and placing my books in the appropriate BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories so that the readers who might enjoy them have half - or at least better than zero - chance of finding them.

Christopher thinks in the future the old model will only work for the top (i.e. most popular) 1% of authors, which seems to be pretty much fact when you look at the huge gap in earnings between the big sellers and what used to be called the midlist although it's probably still working for a slightly larger percentage than this - say the most popular 10% at a guess? Christopher says everyone else will probably do better with the new model. So if you are not in the top 1% of big-selling authors, then it might be time to start taking notes...

I find this quite exciting as both an author and a reader. The main reason I became an early Kindle adopter in 2010 was because I could no longer find the books (or the authors) I enjoyed reading in the shops any more. Yet on the whole I still prefer to read a physical book, so the idea of local POD machines where I can print one and buy it straight away without having to pay the postage charge or wait for delivery quite attractive. Why are these machines not in every library and supermaket now? Are they too expensive still?

In the future then, I will be able to do a quick online search and find the perfect kind of read for me, even when I don't know exactly which book or author I want. If I'd like to read the ebook I can download it straight away to a device of my choice and start reading within seconds. This digital edition will probably be free or very cheap. If I want a paper copy, at the moment I can order a POD edition from somewhere like Amazon and wait a few days for delivery. But soon I'll be able to drive to my local supermarket, or maybe stroll to my local print shop, and print the book I want to read in less than a minute with the font size I prefer and the cover image I prefer as well. Soon after that, I might even be able to set my new home book machine to produce my own personalised copy while I put the kettle on, and read it literally 'hot off the press'.

Yep, when I get my personal home book printing machine, I'm going to have that 'print' button 3D-printed so it's big and red like end of the world buttons always are...
find this one at www.wackybuttons.com
*

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and legend for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter, available in hardcover and paperback as well as ebook. All of her backlist titles are now available as ebooks. More at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Christopher Barnatt is Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies at Nottingham University Business School. He also writes books.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The road to Little Red Ella and the FGM by Sandra Horn





Warning: some of the ensuing post is absolutely grim, but please read it anyway.
This picture has nothing much to do with the blog, except that it is a woman of noble bearing

Long  years ago, as a callow undergraduate, I once debated cultural relativism with my late and much-lamented Prof. Marie Jahoda. I was for it, I said. ‘OK,’ she replied, ‘you are walking along and you hear screams. Some women are holding a young girl in the cold waters of a stream to dull the pain before they excise her clitoris with a sharp stone. It’s a cultural thing; a rite of passage, so of course you wouldn’t intervene.’  She had, as they say, got me there. I think I said something feeble, like I still upheld the principle while agreeing that the specifics were sometimes abominable and should be countered.  Fast forward 30 years or so and a medical student comes to see me to ask if I will supervise her special project. She’s a Somali; a lovely girl with her head covered modestly in a scarf. Her project is on female circumcision. I assume that she wants to expose it as barbaric, but no. She wants to explore its cultural relevance and develop an explanatory paper about it. I am surprised but I keep my counsel. She’s bright and determined and has access to women’s groups from countries where it is practised, so she sets off to do her interviews. Some weeks later, she comes back profoundly moved and distressed by what she’s heard, and the project becomes about telling of the women’s experiences and suffering.
Fast forward another 20 years and I am in a SheWrites scriptwriting group led by the inestimable Angie Street. She challenges us to write about not-written-about issues for women and to start with short scripts about menstruation. Much of the writing is sharp, funny and liberating. Then we’re off on our own topics and I am drawn back to what we now call Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – which is not, by the way, an exclusively Islamic practice. It goes back at least to the time of Abraham and has been, and is, practised in some Christian subgroups and one Jewish sect. It is currently practised in many African countries, among others, and the prevalence varies across ethnic groups. (1). It may be performed during infancy, adolescence, or during a woman’s first pregnancy, usually by a woman. In some cultures, a woman is not marriageable unless she has been circumcised. In its least severe form, the clitoris is ablated. In other cases, the labia minora are also removed. In the worst form of FGM, the labia majora are cut away and the edges of the wound are stitched together until they heal and form scar tissue, which binds them together. This leaves a small hole for the passage of menses and urine. The horrors of intercourse and giving birth can hardly be imagined. I couldn’t NOT write about it, but how?  I was absolutely bebothered for ages, couldn’t leave it alone, couldn’t do it, until the idea of a pantomime fell into my head. Thus, Little Red Ella and the FGM, which also stands for Fairy GodMother, of course. It’s written in panto doggerel. The FGM appears and asks Ella if she’s like to marry a handsome prince. Well, who wouldn’t? The only thing is, it requires a ‘small’ procedure: the amputation of Ella’s ‘nasty, hairy, stick-outy things (toes) so she can fit into dainty little shoes...never mind that she’ll be in pain crippled, etc. it’s cultural, traditional, and Hey! she’ll marry a prince! Except that she won’t, she announces. It’s her body, her toes, and to hell with any prince or Fairy, for that matter) who asks such a cruel sacrifice of her.
It’s very short, and to my surprise and delight has been chosen by Juno Women’s Theatre for performance at the Salisbury Fringe Festival. I can’t judge if it ‘works’ on the page, so seeing it in performance will be invaluable and if it is what I hope – a thought-provoking message delivered in an off-beat way, I hope it will be taken up by schools, etc. If anyone is interested, I’ll send it out after the October 4th performance.
( (1)    Source: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2313097.html