Thursday, 19 December 2013

Chasing Stars with a Butterfly Net

[As this is my last blog post until January 2nd, I'm putting up more than a snippet this week. This is a short story written earlier this year for a competition on the theme of 'Stars'. I hope you enjoy it. May I wish everyone a joyous holiday, whatever you celebrate, and a peaceful New Year. See you in 2014.] 
 
 
After the funeral, Amy’s grandparents took her to live with them on the farm. Clambering down from the back of the battered, muddy Land Rover, her gaze was drawn to the wide patch of light making a path from her feet, across the yard and through the field towards the horizon where a creamy cratered moon stared down on her.  She leaned backwards against the vehicle and gasped as she slowly took in the display above her head. Orion’s Belt, the Plough, the Great Bear plus many others she couldn’t name; and threading through them all, the glowing arch of the Milky Way. As a well-educated teenager with an interest in science, she recognised these phenomena from the books she’d read and the television programmes she’d watched with her parents. But as a city girl visiting the Devon countryside for the first time in many years, this was a whole new experience. 

"Do you think they’re up there somewhere, Gramps?” she asked, her voice breaking and the tears she’d held back on the long drive from London finally beginning to slide down her cheeks. Her grandfather sighed and stood for a long time with his arm around her shoulder before speaking. She was beginning to think he hadn’t heard her question.

“I don’t know, poppet,” he said finally, “maybe they are. You know, in ancient times,” he continued, “they used to believe that every person on earth is represented by a star. When Fate decides your time is up, she snips the thread anchoring the star in place in the heavens.”

“And the star goes out?”
 
“Well, maybe, but only after making its way spectacularly to the afterlife.” He squeezed her shoulders and bent to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “Come child, let’s go in. Tomorrow night, I’ll take you to watch their final journey.”
 
 
“Nanny, are you sure you don’t want to come with us,” Amy said the next evening as she and her grandfather collected together blankets, torches and a flask of hot chocolate.
 
“Good gracious no, child,” laughed her grandmother, “My star-gazing days are over. I’ll just settle down with my new Dick Francis until you get back.”

The young girl and the old man walked across the field and threw down their blankets on a clear piece of grass next to the pond. Switching off the torches, they lay flat on their backs and waited for the show to begin.

Amy knew shooting stars were really meteors, small particles of debris burning up as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. But right now, she didn’t need the science or the truth. She needed a way to connect with her parents, snatched from her suddenly, shockingly, by a careless driver, while she was at a friend’s birthday party.

“They go so quickly,” she whispered. “If only I could hold on to one of them.”

As the Perseids meteor shower fizzed and crackled above her head, she tried closing her eyes, capturing the images, but although the stars flickered briefly against her closed lids, they soon disappeared.
 
“The Greeks believed a shooting star was good luck,” said her grandfather.        

“Maybe we should see if we could track one, see where it falls.”
 
“Or better still, catch it in mid-flight,” laughed Amy. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright. “Gramps, I’ve got an idea! Can we come back tomorrow?”
 
 
When the pair left the farmyard for their starry theatre the next evening, Amy had an old butterfly net tucked under her arm. As they lay watching the display, she tried to wrap the net around each of the fiery trails. Her head told her it was an impossibility, but part of her still had to keep trying; the part of her that wanted to believe if she could catch her parents’ stars she would be able to keep them with her a bit longer.
 
“No, that was someone else,” she would whisper each time she missed. “When
it’s you, I’ll know.”
 
Amy didn’t catch her shooting star that night, nor any night that week. As August gave way to September, she started at her new school and star-gazing was replaced, at her grandmother’s insistence, with homework and early nights. As time passed, the hurt became less of a sharp knife in her stomach and more like a dull ache that could be ignored most of the time. 
 
Every year, in the middle of August, Amy and Gramps would cross the field and lie staring at the stars. She never really gave up the hope that she would catch a star, but as she grew older, she swapped the butterfly net for a camera. Even when she left the farm to travel the world, taking pictures of other places, other constellations, she still tried to return in August, to share a week of star-gazing with the old man, especially after her grandmother passed away.


But this year, it was too late. She’d got the call while she was on a photo shoot in Kenya. A heart attack, a short, sharp shock and it was all over. Standing at the graveside where her beloved Gramps was now reunited with his wife, Amy smiled through her tears.

“I guess you’ll have a ringside seat at the show this year Gramps,” she said, “and no doubt Nanny will be keeping you company once more. But don’t worry, I won’t be alone either. I’ve brought someone with me; I think you’d like him.” Then, dropping her flowers on the grave, she turned away to where her new boyfriend, Ian, stood waiting for her. He was an astronomer; they’d met when she’d attended a lecture he’d given on The Myths and Realities of Shooting Stars.

Late that night, Amy and Ian left the farm she now owned, carrying blankets, torches and hot chocolate. They crossed the field to lie under the stars and say farewell to Gramps. And for one last time, Amy had a butterfly net tucked under her arm.
 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Banishing the Demon: Reflections on NaNoWriMo

As someone with a science education, working for thirty plus years in a highly technical industry, nano has always had a specific meaning: Used primarily in the metric system, it is the prefix denoting a billionth, a factor of ten to the minus nine or 0.000000001. In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about nanoscience and nanotechnology, the study and application of extremely small things.
 
 
But for the past few years, it has had a very different meaning to me and many other writers — and this time it’s big, very big — and it’s written differently. NaNo is short for NaNoWriMo, which itself is short for National Novel Writing Month. In 1999, founder Chris Baty and 21 other writers set themselves a challenge: to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Six of them completed the challenge. Over the years, the number of participants has grown and this year 320,671 took part. I was one of them - and for the first time in three attempts, I completed the challenge.
 
“I kill people for a living” is the way author Chris Nickson describes his crime-writing; descriptions based on other genres might be “I am a serial matchmaker”, “I put people in dangerous situations and then watch them struggle to get free,” or “I invent new worlds and new species”. Writers are a real mixed bunch, but we have one thing in common: we are all insecure about our work. I suspect there isn’t a writer now or in the past who hasn’t thought at some point this is rubbish; no-one’s going to read it.
 
When I first started to write fiction, a good friend told me it would ruin the pleasure of reading for me. She told me about the little demon who would sit on my shoulder, critiquing everything I read, examining the structure, the use of language, the characterisation, rather than letting me just concentrate on the story. She was right; members of the my book group often tell me I read differently from the rest of them.
 
But my friend didn’t warn me that the little demon would be even more vocal when I am writing than when I am reading. Sometimes it's difficult to concentrate for the voice of derision shouting in my ear. But not in November! During NaNo, I sent that demon on holiday and just wrote; it was an exercise in creativity, in pure quantity not quality. And it was such good fun. I’d given myself permission to write complete rubbish; I didn’t need to edit it in any way (that will come later).
 
I didn’t want to start a new novel; I’m still working on the one which began life as 6,000 words written during my first NaNo attempt in 2006. So I decided to use my word quota to write short stories, to build up my work-in-progress file for 2014 competitions, submissions and anthologies.  I aimed for 25 at 2,000 words each. The scientist in me knew I needed a structure to work with, so in the weeks leading up to 1st November, while colleagues were thinking up plot structures and jotting down notes on characters (planning is allowed, pre-writing isn’t), I made up three bags full of slips of paper: characters, locations and behaviours. Each time I finished a story, I pulled another slip from each bag, spent a few hours thinking about the ideas, and then went for it.
 
Over the course of the month, I wrote about a prudent teacher on a village green; a relentless student in a doctor’s surgery; a lustful chimney sweep on a bus; a hopeful shop assistant at an archaeological dig — and many more. I wrote twenty-three stories, well twenty two and a half, really. On 28th November, I hit 50,022 words — and stopped. Not actually mid-sentence, but certainly mid-story. This last one is a bit different; it’s a murder mystery in the style of Midsomer and it’s certainly way too long for a short story. Perhaps I did start a second novel after all. Maybe I’ll finish it in the New Year — or maybe I’ll hold it over until next November and write the rest of it then.
 
 
It’s now more than two weeks since NaNo finished and I’ve had time to reflect on what I got out of it. There’s the obvious sense of satisfaction of completing the task; I’m sure my Facebook and Twitter friends will excuse me displaying the ‘winner’ logo for just a little while longer. There’s a good stock of story drafts waiting for me to edit and polish in January. There’s the sense of camaraderie from knowing that so many other writers are doing the same thing at the same time all around the world. There’s the fun in watching the graph on the NaNo site grow each time the word count is updated  On the downside, there’s the stiff neck and sore back from sitting at the laptop so long every day (but they went after a couple of hot baths).
 
Most of all, there is the joy of just writing, without judgement, without criticism, without any sense of guilt at not producing perfect prose first time around. And that’s one benefit that I’m hoping to keep hold of until the same time next year. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Looking and Seeing

[Back in September, I wrote about a day spent with Chudleigh Writers' Circle in the garden of one of the members. Then it was all about the bigger picture, snapshots and the memories they invoked. This week's snippet came from an exercise in looking at one particular spot.]


From a distance, we see the shape; it is short compared to its neighbours, the overshadowing firs. The trunk is dark and straight; its branches splay out in all directions — yes, that’s right — exactly like Sideshow Bob, although his hair is red and those branches are green.

 
Walk closer with me, but take care for the ground is uneven. From here, the trunk is shorter, overshadowed and overgrown by the branches. And most point downwards and out to the side. They remind me of that photo of water dropping into a puddle, the splashes frozen in time. And the colour is no longer uniform; splashes of paler green and red appear among the dark forest hue of the leaves.
 

And now, as we move closer still, standing at eye-level with the tree, the trunk is no more than a shadow, a dark impression coated in robes of jungle green and red, like legs glimpsed through summer skirts in sunlight. The branches now divide into a chorus line supporting just one star that, centre-stage, takes its bow before this eager audience. A spiky, shiny skirt on silver limbs gives way to apple gingham, reds and greens both pale and dark.
 
 
But wait, our vision blurs and jumps in fear as a striped defender inspects the visitors. Keep still and feel the merest touch, as the guard checks us out, decides we will not harm her tree, and flies off to other business.
 
 
And finally, we reach the centre-point, the mid-point, the whole point of this journey. We looked at a tree, but now we see instead a different shape, a different colour, a pale apple green and rosy blushing fruit that is the point of everything.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Elizabeth Chats with...Simon Hall

[My guest this month is a broadcaster, a reporter, a novelist, a speaker and an all-round nice guy. I've seen Simon Hall present heart-rending reports on BBC Spotlight; enthuse school children to be junior reporters; and make an audience crack up with his tales of frozen road-kill and talking to the WI. I found him utterly believable in each situation.]

Simon Hall in his beloved Exeter
Good Morning Simon and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Let's start by finding out: if you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?
My notebooks with all my ideas for books, stories, characters and teaching. My hedgehog, Bert – he’s been with me since university and is a great companion. And lastly, my wonderful collection of awful ties.
 
A collection of which Simon is justifiably proud...

Yes, I've seen some of those ties; I guess that's why Bert wears sunglasses. Now, where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
Colleton Crescent, Exeter – because it’s so symbolic of my home city, with wonderful views of the river – a fantastic place to stop for a few minutes and reflect, or just to enjoy the spectacle.
 
How do you relax?
Running around the River Exe, which I’m fortunate to have flowing near my home. I watch the geese, ducks, swans and cormorants go about their pantomime of life and think my way through the writing projects I’m working on.
 
The view from Colleton Crescent at dusk
 
If you knew you only had 24 hours left, how would you spend them?
Telling all my friends and family how much they meant, and all they did for me.
 
Describe your ideal menu — and where would you like to eat it?
Mexican food, in a traditional pub setting. Spicy cuisine and real ale; an all round winner for me.
 
What would be in your ‘Room 101’?
Being forced to eat semolina at a great height.
 
If you could meet one person from history, who would it be — and why?
George Orwell, my writing hero. I’d like to know – how do you do it so deceptively simply, yet so damned well?
 
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
I’m not as strange as I look.
 
Bert the Hedgehog may not agree...
 
Would you describe yourself as left-brain (analytical), right-brain (intuitive) or a mix of both?
Both, luckily. It’s a quiet gift (and rare) but a very precious one.
 
Simon, I’ve set the earlier questions; now it’s your turn: Write the last question yourself and use it to tell us something about yourself, your life or your work.
My question is: Who’s your biggest influence in life?
And my answer: My father. For his gentleness, his wit and humour, his warmth, his principles and most of all, his love. He set me out in the world so very well, taught me so much and I shall miss him always.
 
Simon, many thanks for talking to us today.
 
If you want to read more from, and about, Simon Hall, you will find his website here.  Details of his TV Detective novels can be found here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Peace is Not at Home

[For the past 20 years, I have been lucky enough to visit Russia many times and my experiences and impressions colour much of my writing. This piece was written after a visit to Yekaterinburg.]
 
 
Screams rise from the earth and walls bleed pain; memories of children dying for their parents’ deeds. 
 
She pauses with her hand on the door, wondering if she should leave, but all is silent now and her feet draw her onwards, inwards. She had come here to think, maybe to find peace.  Away from the streets with its souvenir stalls and milling crowds.  Too early for guided tours, too late for the morning service, she is temporarily alone. 
 
Unlike other Orthodox churches — dark, with smoke-blackened wood, ancient icons, incense and melodic voices — this is built in honey-coloured stone and seems warm, without the draughts she has come to expect.  Sunlight through the windows in the cupola illuminates the murals and mosaics, colours bursting from the walls.  The altar screen is delicately carved.  There is no singing; just a reverential hush.
 
This should be a haven of peace and tranquillity.    People come in groups to share the joy of weddings and christenings, the solemnity of a funeral.  They come alone to pray or meditate; no-one bothers them as they stand in contemplation.
 
But she shivers as the echo of horror and violence bathes her once more in waves of frigid air.  This ‘Church on the Blood’ was once the Ipatiev House where five children were shot and bayoneted in atonement for their parents’ excesses. A family born to privilege and power, surrounded by controversy and finally overtaken by history.  Their bodies, burnt with acid and thrown into a pit in the forest, had lain unknown for more than half a century. They are now the object of pilgrimage for thousands.
 
As she crosses the open space below the huge dome, she hears their shades calling to her once more.  In a small alcove behind the altar, a photograph of the Romanov family sits on a pillar at the epicentre of the terror. She sees and smells the blood, feels the fear, hears the screams.  Whatever else she might find here, peace is not at home. 
 
She heads for the doorway and fresh air, passing other early morning visitors.  She wonders how they can be so calm and at peace.  Don’t they hear the echoes of the past?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Business of Writing: Sources of Advice

[No sooner has November (and NaNoWriMo) faded into history than we are in December and the long, slow run up to Christmas. Except that it's not slow at all. In my town, as in many others, the season started with the Advent Service yesterday and swings into full action with the Christmas Fayre and lights switch-on this Thursday, an event with which I'm heavily involved and which is taking up rather a lot of time at present. So I hope you will forgive a slight rehash this week, especially as this is a topic of great importance to many writers (and other small business owners as well).]


All businesses, whether limited companies, partnerships or sole traders need legal advice on occasion, for example when we are setting up our business, signing contracts or drafting our wills. The obvious option, and one that many businesses will use, is to engage a lawyer.

However, that is not a low-cost solution and there are alternatives that can be explored. There is the Business Link helpline which provides a quick response service for simple questions about starting or running a business or a more in-depth service for complex enquiries. There is the Citizens’ Advice Bureau which would be able to provide support to individuals, but probably not to limited companies. Or there are business support organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses which provides members with legal and financial advice. As writers, we have our own support via the Society of Authors which can help members with queries relating to the business of writing. Services include the confidential, individual vetting of contracts, and help with professional disputes.   

I’ve often found the answer to a query on the HMRC website, but there are also helplines that deal with specific questions, such as the New Employers Helpline, the New Self Employed Helpline, the Self Assessment Helpline and the VAT Helpline. These numbers can be found via a quick internet search.
So whatever our query or problem, there will be someone who can help us, either for free or as a paid service, depending on the circumstances. It’s worth being aware of all these services, so we can call on them rapidly if we need them.

What sources of advice do you find most useful? What would be your first port of call if you have a legal query?

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Liqud Plastic Sea

[Today's snippet of new prose has seen the light of day before. In April 2013, I published an ebook called Parcels in the Rain and Other Writing. Tomorrow, I am publishing the print version. So today, here's a little taster, based on an wonderful evening I spent in Plymouth a couple of years back.]
 
 

They come in ones or twos at first. A trickle becomes a flood, then stops. They capture territory — on rugs or chairs, with food and beer. Barbeque wood-smoke scents the air. Children and dogs roam free as daylight fades.
 
The sea is liquid plastic. Yachts are cornflake packet models. A ferry hugs the coast, shy of entering port. The distant coastline glitters with fairground lights beneath the orange-striped horizon.
 
 
 
Flares hit the sky. The sea begins to boil. The liquid plastic ignites in rainbows, shooting skywards, before dropping back on anchored boats.  Smeaton’s Tower blazes through the smoke. Palm-trees bloom golden then fade away.
 
Faces turned towards the sky, they gaze with children’s eyes, wide open, smiling, in awe. They’ve seen this spectacle six or sixty times, but still it’s like the first. Their murmured praises lost beneath the waves of sound, they reach out and trace the glowing trails across the sky.
 
 
 
A faint smell of cordite lingers on the breeze. Ears are stunned by explosions: the bangs and whines of igniting dreams. The after-image burns upon their eyes.
 
They leave in ones or twos at first. A trickle becomes a flood, then stops. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Too Busy To Write?

I am lucky enough to write for a living. It’s my full-time job. So that means I have at least thirty-five hours a week when I can be sitting at my lap-top turning out stunning prose with which to impress my readers, right? Wrong!

Firstly I have to make time for the other writerly activities like research, editing and reading (and yes, reading is definitely part of a writer’s working day). Then there are the business-related activities like writing proposals, preparing invoices, paying bills and doing the monthly accounts. There’s that huge millstone that is marketing and sales (one that all writers, especially indie authors, will recognise). And all this is before I even think about the personal, home-related and community-related activities on my monthly To Do list. If I manage to reserve twenty hours per week for new writing, I feel I’m doing well.

Please don’t think I’m complaining. I love my job; I love my lifestyle - and I know I have it far easier than anyone who’s writing while holding down a ‘proper job’. But I wanted to illustrate the importance of yet another aspect of a writer's Business Skills Toolbox: time management. I’ve talked about time management previously, but this time I'm going to discuss a specific tool: the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

 
When I was studying for my MBA at Cranfield, many years ago, it used to amuse us how many things could be expressed in the form of a 2 x 2 matrix. But it is a great way to illustrate concepts easily.

Like all organised people, I have a detailed To Do list (well, several actually) which rules what I do each month. However, sometimes the number of items on the list can become overwhelming and that’s when I turn to the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

All tasks can be categorised in terms of their degree of urgency and their level of importance to the individual. Something is Urgent if it needs to be done now; something is Important if it contributes to a long-term goal. The two are not necessarily synonymous. Once tasks have been categorised, the strategy for deciding in which order to do them is relatively easy to determine.

Urgent and Important: A call comes in from an editor looking for an article NOW to fill a hole that’s just appeared in this week’s paper. It’s a paper that pays well and could provide lots more commissions in the future. Strategy: Do It Now

Non-Urgent and Important: The corrections for the latest manuscript arrive with a request from the publisher to complete and return them within two weeks. A conservative estimate shows there is two days work required. Strategy: Schedule It For Later On

Urgent and Unimportant: A friend or relative makes a habit of phoning during the mornings ‘for a chat’ even though this is prime writing time: Strategy: Delegate It (in this case by use of an answering machine)

Non-Urgent and Unimportant: A new game is doing the rounds on Facebook and a number of writing buddies are sending invitations to compete with them / feed their cows / send them gifts. Strategy: Don’t Do It

This tool is variously attributed to Stephen Covey and to Dwight D Eisenhower. Covey certainly formalises the tool in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People but it is predated by the well-known quote from Eisenhower: What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

There are a number of formal methods for employing this tool, including templates and apps; personally, I just use the spreadsheet on which my To Do list is prepared.

I'd love to hear how other people find their way through a To Do list that threatens to overwhelm and inhibit. What tools and tips do you use?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

As Easy As...

[Today's snippet of new prose comes from another of Morgen Bailey's writing exercises: this one featuring the keywords: France, tune, whistle, repetitive and none.]


I jump on my bike and set off down the road, looking for adventure. I think today I will try to reach France. I’ve only been cycling for a few weeks. To start with, I had very little confidence — well, none at all, if I’m honest. I sat and looked at the bike for three days, too scared to even touch it. Then I decided I had to be a little bit brave — so I took it out of the garage and wheeled it down the road. Well, it is called a ‘push bike’, after all. When I’d done that for a day or two, I realised I really had to try and ride the thing if I was ever going to be independent.

So, I took it out into the field, where no-one could see me, stood on the pedals and pushed off. The wheels spun around, the spokes played a gentle tune; I sailed along for a few yards — and promptly fell off. Standing up, I gathered what was left of my dignity and shoved it in my pocket, before climbing on and trying again. This time I stayed on for almost the length of the field before I hit a stone, wobbled violently and slowly sank to the ground once more, with my legs tangled in the chain. At that point, I gave up and pushed the bike home again, pursing my lips in a silent whistle and pretending I’d only intended to be out for a few minutes anyway, so that was alright, wasn’t it?
 
This went on for a few days, and to tell you the truth, it became just a little repetitive, until suddenly, last Wednesday, I got distracted by the sound of a thrush — a song thrush I think it was — and I was so busy trying to spot it in the hedgerow, I didn’t notice I was pedalling along, upright, without a wobble — I was actually riding a bike!
 
Well, what do you know? The saying is true: you never forget how to ride a bike. It just takes a little longer to remember when you’re seventy two and the last time you were on a bike was Nan’s old ‘sit up and beg’ when you were a teenager.
 
So here I am, today, out for a really long ride — and I think I’ll go to France. Not France over the Channel, as in Paris France; that would be silly. We’ve got tuna sandwiches for tea today (it’s Wednesday) and I don’t want to miss them. But there’s a nice little cafĂ© at the other end of the seafront called ‘Le Petit France’. They’ve got white tables and chairs set out in the sunshine and an awning of red, white and blue for shelter if the sun’s too hot. Yes, I think I’ll go down there and have a cuppa. Then maybe I’ll ride home the long way around — through the valley and over the hill.

Monday, 18 November 2013

No More Guilt Over Dickens

Like many other bibliophiles, I own a full set of Dickens novels. You know the ones: green leather, gold lettering, pale yellow ribbon bookmark, thin paper and tiny print [although the last one might be more to do with age than the publisher].

I bought the set many years ago, one volume per month, in an imitation of the manner in which Dickens fed his words to an appreciative world. I can’t remember how much I paid for them, and that’s probably just as well.
 
 
At the time, I opened one or two of them, even tried to read a chapter or two, but that was it. And they have sat on the bookshelf ever since, staring accusingly at me. I read the abridged versions we were given at school. I’ve watched every TV adaptation for the past fifty years. I can quote famous lines from one or two of the novels. I’ve even seen Oliver! at the London Palladium. But, I have to admit it: I have never read Charles Dickens as an adult reader. And it's always been a source of guilt for me.

 Until now.

A couple of months back, our local book group was choosing our future reading matter. Someone suggested we go for one of the classics. I admitted my Dickens-less state; and that was it: Little Dorrit became our October book of the month.

I was somewhat dismayed on taking it from the shelf to find I was holding Volume I and that the whole work was just short of 1000 pages long. Dickens published it in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Maybe trying to read it in four weeks was a mistake.

I tried; I really tried to enjoy it. After the first couple of chapters, I gave in to age and downloaded the electronic version on my Kindle, which made the reading easier on my eyes, but it didn’t make it any easier on my brain.  I kept going to the very last page, although that took more than six weeks and I hadn’t got to the most dramatic chapters by the time our book club met. I loved some parts: the Circumlocution Office rang so many bells, even today, and I would recommend chapter 10 to anyone who thinks the bureaucracy of today’s government is anything new. The characterisation was as wonderful as I knew it would be: I loved Mr Pancks and Flora; hated Mr Dorrit more than the obvious villains; and wanted to give Little Dorrit a good shake on more than one occasion. But I struggled with the detailed descriptions and with the archaic language; with the fact that nothing happened sometimes for whole chapters at a time. As someone said during our book group discussion: the ending was a real page-turner, but it took a long time to get there.

I do not for one moment dispute that Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers this country, or indeed this world, has ever seen. But I have decided he’s not for me; not in the written form anyway. I will continue to watch or listen to adaptations and marvel at his story-telling abilities. There are another thirty-four volumes on my bookshelf; and I will probably not read any of them. There are just so many other good books out there which I want to read, both classics and modern publications. The book group’s going to tackle War and Peace next summer, but in the meantime, I’ve moving forward a century or so.
 
Does anyone want to buy a set of Charles Dickens novels, barely used?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Elizabeth Chats With...Curtis Jobling

[Anyone who read my Swanwick posts back in August will remember how I raved about Curtis Jobling. Originally best known for Bob the Builder, Raa Raa the Noisy Lion and other animations, he has recently turned to the written word with the Wereworld series of Fantasy and horror books. I am delighted to welcome Curtis as my November guest to Elizabeth's Page.]
 
 
 
Hello Curtis, great to have you on board. Let's start with an easy one: what is your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?
Arriving at my new home in Warrington and meeting a neighbouring kid who was sat at the bottom of the street with a nosebleed. I'd have been 2 years old, and it's stayed with me.

What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
Always loved English Language and Art - hard to pick between the two of them. I especially loved it when my English teacher had no lesson plan and said "Write your own story!" Other kids were crestfallen and I'd throw myself into it. Chemistry always left me as cold as a sub zero H20...
Interesting. I'm with you on this one. I've been a chemist for the past thirty years; but now I've thrown it all in to write instead - and I know which I prefer.
 
Where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
Home. That's where my family are. It may sound like a cliché but it's true. Work can take me everywhere and anywhere but I'm invariably looking back over my shoulder wondering what my loved ones are up to. If you want something else, I'm going to have to go with York. Wonderful city, and some very splendid memories from throughout my childhood and adulthood.

How do you relax?
With my wife and children (when they're behaving). Downtime might be watching the various shows that are backlogged on our SKY+ and in need of viewing. These are usually programmes such as Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You know the deal - violent, bloody and more than a little adult. Who'd have thought he made preschool kids' shows, eh?
 
If you could change one thing about yourself or your life so far, what would it be?
That I'd started writing seriously sooner. I've left it quite late, I feel, having pursued my career in animation and illustration for so long. If I'd have known that writing for an older audience was going to be this much fun I would most certainly have started sooner!

If you could meet one person from history, who would it be — and why?
Eric Morecambe. Everyone's favourite imaginary uncle.

Watch a film, go to the theatre, read a book or talk to friends — which would you prefer?
Can I have a curry with my friends? We can talk about all that other good stuff while we chow down on a fine Special Balti Guri. Coming from Birmingham myself, I can't fault a good Balti.
 
Now, if you could take part in one television programme, which one would it be?
The Adventure Game. It's a blast from the past but the Vortex freaked me out as a kid, not least because Keith Chegwin was disintegrated by it - that would be a battle royale!
 
Curtis, I’ve set the earlier questions; now it’s your turn: Write the last question yourself and use it to tell us something about yourself, your life or your work.
My question would be 'Where would you like to be in ten years time?' And my answer would be: still writing, I should imagine, and having a whale of a time to boot. We'd be living off the regular royalty cheques from the Wereworld books, movies and tie-in lunchboxes, quilts and undercrackers, and I'd be wordling for giggles. I don't think I shall ever truly retire. Creative souls want to create. I expect to be creating mischief and merriment while they hammer my coffin lid shut.
Curtis, thanks for taking the time to come and talk to me.
If you want to know more about Curtis Jobling and his work, check out his website here. You can find all his books on Amazon UK, or on Amazon USA.
 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Chase

[I've always tended to write pleasant stories, with good characters who get what they desire - and deserve. In fact, I'm thinking of calling my next anthology Nice Stories with Happy Endings. Today's snippet of new prose was a deliberate attempt to buck the trend. Did I succeed?]
 
 
Her breasts heave as she struggles to catch her breath. The chase is long and hard. He starts running as soon as he sees her. They race up the hill, weaving between the trees, his heavy boots thudding through the dried leaves and hardened mud. Her sneakers make less noise and she is more agile on her feet.
 
The path splits; each takes a different fork, but the ways turn back together and then he's in front of her. Arms pinned down, a swift kick behind the knees and they fall to the ground together and roll under the bushes. Clothes pulled hurriedly away from hot skin, the action is savage and short-lived. A final thrust with a sharp blade mimics the coupling of moments before.
 
Climbing from her position astride the man, she utters a short prayer. Then, reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a cigarillo. And she smiles.

Monday, 4 November 2013

E-publishing: the Best Guides to DIY

OK, so you've finished your novel. You've edited it so tightly, you can't slip another word in without an unsightly bulge. Your beta-readers have done their stuff. You've decided to go down the route of independent publication. What do you do next?
 
You could approach one of the companies or individuals offering services such as formatting and uploading. I've not got any experience of that route, so all I'm going to say is some of them provide an excellent, cost-effective service. And some of them don't. Do your research carefully and, if possible, get a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.
 

But, what I want to talk about is the DIY approach, which is the route I take, and a couple of useful guides that I always keep close by.
 
I publish my ebooks on Amazon for Kindle and on Smashwords for all other reading devices. Both platforms offer guidance on how to prepare your manuscript and (like many traditional publishers), they require slightly different approaches, so it's worth being aware of both of them.
 
Amazon offers a book called Building Your Book for Kindle. It's free and does exactly what it says on the cover. Starting with tips on formatting, which it's useful to read before you start writing, it will walk you through the different stages including preparing the front matter (copyright, acknowledgements etc.), table of contents, file formatting and conversion of the file to HTML for uploading. This may sound daunting, but if you are comfortable using Word, you shouldn't have difficulty understanding the steps needed.
 
The Smashwords Style Guide is written by Mark Coker, the developer of the Smashwords software. Once again, this is a free guide. It begins with a very detailed exposition of e-publishing and the Smashwords model. This is worth reading at least once, if you are new to ebooks, but the real meat of the guide starts on page 20 with pre-formatting. The detailed instructions are accompanied by screen-shot illustrations, but I have to confess to finding these less than useful, and suspect they could be confusing if you happen to be using a different version of Word. Personally, I work from the text and find this easy to follow. Again, anyone comfortable with Word will be OK.
 
While on the subject of Mark Coker, it's worth keeping your eyes open for his other book (also free) on Secrets to eBook Publishing Success and any of the presentations he gives, based on the annual survey of ebook sales statistics. For example, I was fascinated to hear that there is a direct relationship between the number of words in a book title and the level of sales. But more of that another day.
 
What's been your experience of DIY publishing? Which guides do you find most helpful?

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Rushing to the Ball Part 3

[Last week we saw my take on the old fable The Tortoise and the Hare. from the point of view of Harold Racer. This week's snippet of new prose is the same story, told through the eyes of Tommie, his brother.

I wasn’t looking forward to the Summer Ball. Harold had persuaded me to go, in fact he’d paid for the ticket so I couldn’t really complain, but I knew what would happen - it had happened before, We’d go there together, sit together for the meal - and then he’d get off with someone and I’d be no more use to him.
“You OK to get home on your own?” he’d said to me last year as he’d shepherded the Carnival Queen out towards the car park. I’d ended up walking the six miles home - and that’s no fun in a DJ and new shoes.
This year, I was going under my own steam. The Land Rover’s not too smart, but at least I'd have my own set of wheels.
I left home ten minutes after Harold - he’d been in a rush as usual. It had been raining all day, well, all year really, and the lanes were quite treacherous. As I got to the bottom of the hill, I slowed down. I knew it had been flooded there before. And that’s when I saw him. Oh dear, I know it’s not really funny - but he looked so forlorn standing up to his knees in water. I’d have stopped, but he’d already called the AA. As I drove past, I had a sudden thought; this year’s Carnival Queen was even fitter than last year’s.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Planning a Writing Project

Writers are creative people; we work when the muse visits us. We don’t have to worry about working to timetables or plans like people with ‘proper’ jobs. Right? Wrong! Whether we are writing an article that has been commissioned for a particular edition of a magazine; a short story for a competition; or a blog posting that’s due on a Monday (!), we all work to deadlines most of the time. Even those of us who are writing our first novel, without the pressure of a contract and an agent breathing down our necks (and wouldn’t that be a nice pressure to have to deal with?) will probably have a milestone we are working towards.

So we all need plans at one time or another, especially if we know the time we have is limited. I use simple Gantt charts for my planning, starting at the end and working backwards.
Let’s imagine we’ve been commissioned to write a book about how WWI impacted on our home town/village. The original author is no longer available and we’ve been asked to step in at this late hour. There is a clear deadline for publication: 28th July 2014. There will be no negotiation on that date; it’s been set in stone for 100 years. We need to work out how long we can spend on research and how long on writing. So let’s start by running through the stages of the project and working out which ones are fixed and beyond our control:

·        Research; photos & maps; interviews

·        Drafting

·        Writing

·        Editing & proofing

·        Copy deadline

·        Printing

·        Cover design

·        Pre-publicity and marketing
We know that printing will take one month; so the copy deadline is fixed at the end of June. If we allow 2 months for editing and proofing, that takes us back to the end of April. So we know we have six months for all the research, drafting and writing. How we plan those six months depends on our style of writing. Some writers can do the two activities in parallel; others need to have all their notes and research in place before they start. Personally, I’m in the latter group and would probably devote three months to research and plan to start writing at the start of February.

The last two activities are shared with other people and can be done simultaneously with the main project.

So our Gantt chart would look like this:
You can buy commercial software packages that do this for you, but I find a simple spreadsheet works just as well.
This is how I plan many of my projects. What sort of planning methods or tools do you use?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Rushing to the Ball Part 2

[A couple of weeks ago, I posted my take on the old fable The Tortoise and the Hare. This week's snippet of new prose is the same story, told through the eyes of Harold Racer, one of the two brothers.]

He’s such a slowcoach that brother of mine! I’ve been ready for ages and he’s still fiddling with his bow tie.

“Come on Tommie, get a move on! “ I say. And then he tells me he’s taking the Land Rover — well, he could have told me before — I’d have had a chance to suss out the talent while the Pimm's was being served.
OK, keys, ticket, wallet — here we go. Car’s looking good. I had her polished specially — the girls do love driving in a shiny red motor.

Oops, that was a bit slippery — someone could hurt themselves there — must mention that blind corner to the old guy up the road — he’s on the Council — he’ll sort it out.
Funny, the road looks all shiny down there — late sun shining through the hedge I guess.

Oh my god, come on girl, keep going! Can’t brake, she’ll stall...
Oh bugger!

Yeuk, that’s going to stain.
 
"Hello, is that the AA?"

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Evolution of Language: An Old-Fashioned Rant!

Our language is evolving. New words and phrases are admitted to the dictionary every few months.  The August 2013 update of the Oxford Dictionary includes: hackerspace [a place in which people with an interest in computing or technology can gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge]; double denim [a style of dress in which a denim jacket or shirt is worn with a pair of jeans or a denim skirt, often regarded as a breach of fashion etiquette] and twerking [and if you don’t know what that is, you’ve probably never heard of Miley Cyrus either].
 
I don’t have a problem with new words entering the language; it’s part of the growth of our culture. In my business studies days, we were told that a business that doesn’t grow will die. I guess it’s the same with a language: just ask the Romans.
 
I even get text speak. Although I’m probably one of the few people who put apostrophes into my texts, I have been known to describe something as gr8 on occasion and even know where the emoticons are found on my phone.
But there are a couple of linguistic habits that really annoy me — and, no, it’s not the use of the word ‘like’ in every possible phrase: that like so upsets me, there’s not like enough time to put all my thoughts down — so I’m going to leave that one to your own like imagination!
The first is the use of ‘no problem’ as an automatic response to any request. If I’m asking someone to do something really difficult and I’m not sure if it’s even possible, then ‘no problem’ would be a reasonable response (although a verb might be nice as well). Having a meal in a local restaurant recently, every request from a jug of water when we sat down to the bill at the end was greeted in that way. And I’m not going to mention the restaurant in question, since it’s by no means an isolated case. Somewhere in this country, is there a training company that teaches waiters, shop assistants and telesales operatives that ‘no problem’ is the appropriate response for all requests? Because if there is — I wish they’d stop!
The other phrase that sets my teeth on edge is ‘what was the name?’ I phone to check on progress with a delivery; I call at the box office to collect theatre tickets; I arrive at a restaurant where my every wish will prove to be ‘no problem’ and the first thing I’m asked is ‘what was the name?’. Please tell me I’m not the only person who is tempted to respond with ‘it was the same then as it is now’.  
So, on this very wet Monday morning, join me in giving in to your inner grump: what words or phrases really set your teeth on edge?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Rocking to Parenthood

[Recently, I was delighted to win the weekly 'Write Invite' competition. Based on one of three triggers, posted at 5.30pm on a Saturday evening, the exercise is to write and submit a piece before 6pm. In such a short time, the emphasis is inevitably on getting the words down, rather than fully polishing the piece. Today's snippet of prose is the story that won me my prize.]
 
 
I might not have been conceived in the back room of the Kings Arms just after closing time one Saturday night in December 1998 - but that's where it all started. My mother had gone with her mates to see Crimson Star playing their farewell gig before heading for London and 'the big time'.
 
Everyone loved Crimson Star - four local lads with ambition to top the charts and then make it big in the States. Charlie Mann the lead singer was everyone's favourites. He had all the girls - not to mention a few of the boys - sighing after him. Yes, everyone wanted to be with C the Mann - apart from my mother, that is.
 
Mum took one look at Chris, the drummer and she was gone. He had long curly hair tied back with a leather strap; he wore sleeveless T-shirts, even in the middle of winter, and he had a picture of Keith Moon tattooed on his chest.
 
When the gig was over, mum's mates all gathered around Charlie; everyone was paying attention to him; no-one had eyes for anyone else, so no-one noticed when Chris took mum's arm and pulled her away from the crowd and into the back room.
 
When Crimson Star left town two weeks later, my mum went with them. Well, not exactly with them, in the van - but she ran away from home, moved to London, got a job as a temp - and then started following the guys around wherever they went. At first they laughed at Chris, told him he was soft to put up with her, but gradually, they stopped, when they realised he was serious about her.
 
By the time they'd all been in London for six months, mum had stopped temping and started acting as a backing singer on some of the gigs. But then she got pregnant - and things started to go awry. My dad didn't want her working while I was on the way. The band didn't want a pregnant woman cramping their style - not a good look in the dressing room and at the late night parties. So mum and I came home. She didn't expect to see Chris ever again.
 
If you're going to be brought up by a single parent, it sure helps to be able to tell your mates the missing one is a rock star. When they ask me why it's always my dad who picks me up from school, I tell them about Crimson Star, about four young lads who lived the dream until they woke up. And I tell them about one - called Charlie Mann - who became a record producer, remembered a pregnant young woman with a voice like Janis Joplin, and took here away to change her life. Then I point to the pictures on YouTube and in Hello!
 
"That's my mum," I say, "she's a rock star."