Sunday, 28 July 2013

Seeing is perceiving

Nice to know they care about their work.
After our last, excellent post, about what can happen once a book is out there in the wild, my thoughts turned to one of my novels that's still on the starting blocks. It's completed (pending further edits, anyway!), but the feedback has been...well...interesting.

I describe Scars & Stripes as a transatlantic comedy drama. It's set in the late 1980s and follows 20 year-old Alex's efforts to create a new life for himself after his relationship ends. It used to be more 'gaggy', but the good folks in the Penzance Writers' group and the Famous Five writers' group (it's a long story) felt that the dramatic elements were being overshadowed.

And then one evening, after I'd read out an excerpt, Sue Louineau, author of Chapel in the Woods, remarked that for a comedic novel there were some surprisingly heavy themes and experiences in there.

Love, betrayal, sex, friendship, delusion, firearms, a car accident, death, loss, acceptance, mental illness and sexual politics - all are key elements in Alex's journey from Pierrot to hero. And although, when recalling the actual events that some of Alex's adventures were inspired by, I've tended to play up the irony and the humour, while playing down the pathos, there are rich, shadowy veins of serious drama running throughout the book. 

All of which, takes me neatly, if tangentially, to Woody Allen. I watched the excellent two-part documentary on BBC4 recently about Woody, his work and his life. A few things became clear:
- He is rarely satisfied with the end result.
- He often has a completely different intention for the film than the meaning derived by the critics and the audience.
- He is largely unmoved by praise or criticism.
- He finishes one film and then moves on to the next one.

Ah yes, I can hear you mutter, but he can afford to. Well, that's certainly true, but can other writers afford not to? I don't know whether Scars & Stripes will make the transition from submission to publication through the conventional route. However, I do know that, while doing some fine sanding here and there, I need to also move on to the next project. Maybe that's the true message of 'Art for art's sake' - from a writer's perspective? The story works its way through you and then you make yourself available to the next one.

So how does any of the above inform my understanding of my own work? Well, apart from recognising a possible study in character armour, it tells me that my pitch to an agent, editor or reader needs to acknowledge some of Sue's perceptions. In the end, it's less about how I see my work and more about how the reader sees it. After all, they'll be the ones who decide if it 'works' for them.

Now, where's that work-in-progress? There's work to be done!

Monday, 22 July 2013

'TheTime Hunters' author Carl Ashmore asks: Dear Harper Collins, can I have my series back, please?

In September 2010, I was invited by the Strictly Writing team to write about my experiences on the Harper Collins writers website ‘Authonomy’. I had gained a gold star for my children’s book ‘The Time Hunters’, and a highly positive review from a Harper Collins editor. Here is a passage from that review:

'I really enjoyed reading THE TIME HUNTERS. You start off the action with a bang, drawing the reader in right away. Your writing is strong, and in places has a classic feel.... It has terrific potential.'

In October 2010, I decided to independently publish ‘The Time Hunters’ and made it available as print and eBook. Pretty quickly, the book gained a number of very positive reviews and began to sell well, generating a solid and loyal fan base. Since then, the book has gained 128 five star reviews across Amazon.co.uk and .com and sold twenty thousand plus copies. I have also published two sequels, ‘The Time Hunters and the Box of Eternity’ and ‘The Time Hunters and the Spear of Fate’ and they have sold equally well and maintained the same level of acclaim. I have also sold the foreign rights to a Brazilian major publisher, Bertrand Brasil, and ‘The Time Hunters’ is due to be published in that territory at some point in 2013.   


To sum up the plot, ‘The Time Hunters’ is about a young girl, Becky, and her brother, Joe, who, along with their time-travelling uncle and Will Scarlet, embark on a series of fast-paced adventures in a treasure hunt for powerful ancient relics.

Anyway, this month saw the publication of a new children’s series by Harper Collins. It’s called (I’m sure you can see where this is going) ‘Time Hunters’. And the plot – well, it’s about a boy and girl who embark on a series of fast-paced adventures in a treasure hunt through time for powerful ancient relics. Now, in many ways, that is where the similarities appear to end, but they don’t. In Book 5 of their Time Hunters they encounter ‘Blackbeard’ (I meet him in ‘The Time Hunters and the Box of Eternity’ (2011)).  In Book 4 of their series, they visit Ancient Greece, I do it in ‘The Time Hunters’ (2010). In Book 6 of their series they visit Ancient Egypt and battle mummies, I do that in ‘The Time Hunters and the Spear of Fate’ (2013).

I know full well you cannot copyright a title or idea, but this seems more than that. My series has been exceedingly visible across the Internet since 2010, so why on earth would anyone publish a new series under the same name, particularly when the general premise, some storylines and target audience are identical?

Like many writers, when preparing a new book, I spend countless hours considering titles, trying to find the most suitable one to reflect the tone, storyline, target audience and genre of the book. Upon crafting a list of candidates, I’ll Google what already exists. This is where I’m incensed by the actions of Harper Collins. ‘The Time Hunters’ (yeah, I know they dropped the ‘The’) is extremely visible whichever search engine you use. I also understand that some titles are common and will have multiple books attached to them. As an experiment, I Googled the term ‘Killing Time’ and found there were over twenty books from different authors with that title on Amazon alone. However, ‘The Time Hunters’ is a much less generic title. Plus, it is indelibly linked with an established and popular series that already exists … my series.
 
Furthermore, my frustrations are compounded by the fact the new ‘Time Hunters’ is published by Harper Collins - the very same company who said my book had ‘terrific potential.’

I have contacted the author and she (Chris Baker is a pseudonym) has pointed out she was working for a book packaging company, Hothouse Fiction, and that the name, concept, copyright etc. all belong to Harper Collins and Hothouse. She said she was merely a ‘hired pen’, that this kind of thing ‘no doubt happens a lot’ and I must find it ‘frustrating’. Well, in truth, there are other ‘f’ words I could use to more accurately describe my feelings about this.

And, in this case, I’m not sure this situation does happen as often as she suggests. As I said earlier, this is not merely the duplication of a title, or the similarity of the concept, this is a combination of the two that damages a brand (I hate that term) I have worked on since 2005. Clearly, if I approached another major publisher and pitched them a children’s time travel series about a boy and a girl that travel through time on a treasure hunt, then surely their response would be  ‘Well, hang on, Carl, a series like yours already exists and is published by Harper Collins.’

Let me just say I bear no ill feelings toward the author of the new TH series, whatsoever. She seems very personable and is just a writer trying to eke an income in a difficult publishing world. And I wholeheartedly believe her when she says she hasn’t seen my work. However, someone would have seen it, they had to have seen it - someone at Hothouse or at Harper Collins - and they still pressed ahead with their ‘Time Hunters’ series.

I’m just the little guy and they’re a major corporation. I write from my kitchen in a terraced house in Crewe, my four-year old daughter doing everything she can to stop me writing a word, whilst the people that have created this situation probably swan around Soho quaffing goblets of Viognier. The two stories are probably different enough for them to argue there has been no plagiarism, but I can’t deny this situation smarts, somewhat - no, as a matter of fact, it stinks…

Furthermore, as using the same title and concept of an existing series is clearly not an issue, then the next time I write a children’s series I’ll make sure it’s about young wizards and call it ‘Harry Potter’. No better still, I’ll call it ‘Ziggy Waggabobble and the Mosphorous Flagdulaters’, a story about heroin-addicted frogs that pepper their conversations with swear words. Let’s see if the Viognier quaffers want to nick that, too …

If you have any thoughts then my email is carlashmore@mailcity.com


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

How not to be a pain in the arse author


I have a book out - keep it under your hat.
For most authors, that moment when you first hold your book in your arms, or see it sleeping gently on screen, is one you'll remember forever. I expect having a baby is a similar delight. Or maybe a kitten. But stop for a second and think about how other people be feeling about your new bundle of joy. Sure, it's the most beautiful thing in the world to you and you want to share the experience with everyone you meet. But here's a list ponder first, to help you make the transition into book parenthood without too many sleepless nights.
 
1. Give it a rest
Yes, you've written a book. And that's all well and good, really. But not everyone wants to read your book and, in fact, some people will be irritated by the fact that you've completed a book when they, like so many others, have merely talked about doing it.

2. These things take time
If someone says they'll read and review your book - and thumbscrews haven't been applied - they'll get round to it eventually. Sending reminder emails, and behaving like a small dog bouncing up and down beside an empty food bowl, is not going to change the laws of the space-time continuum. Not in your favour, anyway.
 
3. The graduate
Don't look back in rancour (closest synonym I could find, honest) when someone asks you for short cuts to good writing. Think about the people who have helped you along the way and how much less painful it could have been if you'd had a few more insightful pointers early on. Share some goodwill.

4. Guerilla marketeer or cheeky monkey?
God loves a trier, so they say, but some attempts at publicity are just bad form. Hiding your bookmark for others to find in your local bookshop, or the library, or people's coat pockets on the train. If you're passionate about your book then try talking to people (however, see item 1 above). And mailing flyers to celebrities is a waste of a good stamp. And an envelope. And a flyer.

5. Big boots, big ideas, big deal!
Your book is out there, so naturally you want readers, readers and more readers. And naturally you've read up on how to use the power of the Internet for your book alone. But...please don't talk about your social media strategy and the movie rights to your book; oh, and let's not forget that indie publishing house you've got planned. However, a little patience wouldn't go amiss, dude. If you really want to succeed, take decisive steps and the first of those is to do rather than say.

6. Here's my badge
To be an author is a wonderful thing. You made the journey and you have a book to show for it. You may even have readers and reviews and be money up on the deal. Even so, maybe you should wait a while before you start giving out unsolicited advice, offering to run workshops on the basis of your one book, or working out a set of tariffs. At least until you have a year's worth of healthy bank statements and another book in development.

7. There is no party
Somewhere in the darkest recesses of school*, we developed this idea that all the cool kids had their own special club. There was no meeting place and no rules; they just fitted in. Many authors are life's observers and that's one of their strengths. But when you start to get the success you feel you deserve, don't mistake that for the actual fulfillment of being a writer. Whether your book ends up on the bestseller list or in the remainder bucket, you're still a writer and there is no party. Hence, no golden ticket, no proven magic formula and no sense is lamenting what other writers have. Someone, somewhere, could be looking at you and feeling the same way.  


What irritates you about new authors?


* A deliberate play on words - see what I did there...

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Grief and creativity: what happens to your writing when your life falls apart?


2013 so far has been, I can categorically state, the worst year of my life. But that’s good for writers, yeah? It’s all material.  That’s what I told myself, at the start of the year, when I found out that I had to leave the flat I’d lived in for 11 years and was plunged into a property market that seemed to have gone insane when I wasn’t looking. When I developed, out of the blue, a medical condition called TMJ, which for about three months left me in fairly constant pain (in my face! Which is as delightful as it sounds). When my mum was repeatedly hospitalised with vague diagnoses that never quite equated to effective treatment.  I’ll get through this, I said, and it’ll all be great material.

Then two days after I moved out of my flat (having spectacularly failed to find a new place to live), my mum’s health took a turn for the worse, and she died, and suddenly it didn’t feel like just material any more. I was homeless, and grieving, and, as an only child, faced with the burden of clearing out my mum’s council flat and sorting her estate alone, all the while (theoretically) house hunting and doing enough freelance work to pay for the roof that I would eventually, hopefully have over my head again. Juggling these demands, while shuttling my belongings between those friends who were kind enough to put me up and dealing with the emotional fall out exhausted me. I was numb, and in shock, not only at how I felt but how others reacted: overwhelmed by the kindness of some, but dumbfounded by the absence of others – of all those messages from people who said things like ‘if there’s anything I can do, let me know’, ‘anything’ clearly not extending to replying to text messages or emails that dared to express any sentiments but the stoic Britishism ‘I’m fine’. And then, just when I thought I was finding a foothold in the new, shifting landscape of my life, a close friend died unexpectedly, and I was abruptly plunged into a community of grief, all of us stunned and staggering with shock, the unique bombshell of a life ended far too soon, and I was back among the people on the other side of those texts and emails, struggling to find the right words to soothe someone who cannot be consoled. What chance does creativity have in amongst all that?

And yet writing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s not something I can afford to shelve until I feel better or have more time – it’s a big part of what I do for a living. True, with no publisher breathing down my neck I have a certain  amount of leeway where my new book is concerned (in the outline stages when the first storms broke, and currently sitting in a pile of notebooks in a friend’s spare bedroom – not, alas, the spare bedroom where I currently am) but I still need to bring in royalties, and to do that I need to promote my books, and I need to maintain that momentum by keeping the series going, because in a competitive market, it’s all too easy to be forgotten. The magazine I write for can’t change its print deadline, and the websites I create content for still expect that regular stream of articles. The world doesn’t stop, however much I might want it to. Writing might seem a trivial activity in the midst of all this chaos, but anyone who writes – because it puts a roof over their heads or just because it lets them be a little saner amongst all the craziness – will tell you that it’s not. So how do you hold onto it? How do you keep going? Here are some things that helped me. Maybe they’ll help you.

Pare back to the essentials – as a freelancer, my main priority had to be the clients I already had, so I concentrated my efforts on hitting the necessary deadlines, and focusing on the work that was in front of me, as it was important to me that I didn’t let anyone down, especially as I rely on repeat business and word of mouth recommendations. This isn’t ideal – I really should have spent the last three months out there generating new work as well, so I may well have a nice little financial crisis looming to add to my woes – but sometimes you have to recognise your limitations. Sure, it was frustrating to have to put my book and other big projects on hold, but when getting out of bed in the morning becomes one of the day’s biggest achievements, you need to marshal your energy. Likewise, if you’re doing a nine-to-five (or, let’s face it, these days, more likely an 8.30 to somewhere after 6ish) you may need to scale back other projects, no matter how important they feel to you. Grief is bloody exhausting – don’t set yourself up for disappointment by expecting to achieve too much.

Think small, think different – one writer friend of mine put her book on hold in the aftermath of a relationship break up, but channelled her creative energy through a blog, which felt like a more manageable commitment. Another novelist friend recommends journaling, and I must admit I have started to find it helpful. You’re still actually putting pen to paper, so it feels vaguely productive, but since it’s totally private, you can be completely unfiltered and self-indulgent, and basically write any old rubbish that you like without having to worry about anyone else judging you for it. If that sounds too airy fairy, think snippets: make notes of ideas without thinking that you have to follow them up or develop them, write character scenes, or sketches. For once, allow yourself to think small.

Don’t feel guilty – let yourself off the hook however you feel, whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes a crisis can be a spur for creativity (I finished my first novel in the aftermath of a massive break up; while the rest of my life fell to pieces, the words fell into place), so don’t feel like you are indulging something trivial or insignificant if you do get the urge to write. I did a couple of pieces recently – snippets, really, that I produced to promote my book – and I found myself feeling guilty for writing them, guilty for enjoying them, then guilty for putting them out there and promoting them. My God, my mum just died! How could I be faffing about on Twitter? But loss brings plenty of misery – don’t begrudge yourself any bright spots when they happen.

Ask for support (but be prepared not always to get it) – some people will amaze you with their supportiveness, others…won’t. They might have their own stuff to deal with (you’d be amazed what’s happening behind the scenes in other people’s lives that you often only find out in retrospect), or they might just be thoughtless pricks, but either way you need to not stress about other people’s reactions. Seek out whoever you find it easiest to be with. I’ve been making my living from writing of one sort or another for 20 years now (alright, generally not the glamorous sort, but still) and some of my friends even now don’t understand how much a part of me it is – and that’s fine. I’m sure there are plenty of blindspots in my own empathy (and god knows I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I have had my own tact bypass when to comes to the lives and crises of others) so I can’t expect everyone to always understand how my priorities work.  For instance, I recently told a friend I had written an article on my mother’s death for a magazine, and she was properly , genuinely appalled, as if I’d stuck the coffin on eBay or something. Don’t feel bad for avoiding people who make you feel worse for caring about what you care about; you can always pick up with them again later down the line when you feel stronger, or realise this is an opportunity to shed some people who no longer belong in your life.

Write about it, or don’t write about it, either is fine – You may feel your situation is the germs of some great creative masterpiece, or it may make you want to write about kittens and romance and shopping. You can feel disappointed in yourself for not tackling big issues in your work when you’re confronted with them in your life, but do whatever works for you. 
Have faith – even if your crisis has plunged you into a massive writer’s block (or your current crisis is a massive writer’s block), the words will come back. I’m already finding my character’s voices popping back into my head again, and snippets of ideas are starting to come to me. It may be a while before I get to develop any of them, but the creative crisis I envisaged has so far failed to emerge, though for a month or so I feared that, on top of everything else I’d lost, the ability to write a decent sentence had vanished too. It may take longer for you – life might just get in the way for a while – but it’ll come back. Trust me on this one; it’ll be ready when you are.

This is how the inside of my mind currently feels

Tracey Sinclair is the author of 4 books including the Dark Dates series, the latest of which is Wolf Night (see Darkdates.org). She’s also currently still looking for a nice little one bedroom flat in Brighton to rent, so if you know of anywhere…

Thursday, 11 July 2013

"Wait! Hold that Bandwagon!"

For me, self-publishing has always felt like the ‘elephant’ in my room. That's the room called Rejection’ because it's where my manuscripts which were heartily rebuffed by Literary Agents, reside. Of course ‘heartily’ is completely the wrong word to use – that’s the infamous self-flagellation talking.   I actually had some really nice rejects – no, seriously, I did.  At one point I was even on first name, chatty e-mail terms with about three Agents.  Ah, those were the days.

So what’s my point? (note: excessive naval-contemplation and digressive meanderings – this will be referenced later).  My point is that if any of my 4 self e-published novels had any proper literary merit then it stands to pretty good reason that they’d have been taken on by an agent at the time of subbing.  But they weren’t.  One of them got quite close – you know the story – the re-writes – the end changes – the re-writes – culminating in (and I nearly said ‘inevitable’ but why inevitable? Why should I be such a defeatist?) Rejection.

I can’t say that I was buoyed by the e-publishing ‘movement’ and felt that the time was right for my rejected manuscripts to land out there in the w.w.world for A.Reader, his wife and his brother to buy and perhaps enjoy.  But I can say with hand on heart that I went into self-publishing with extreme trepidation.  In fact so trepidatious was I that I changed my author name to my maiden name so that nobody who knew me ‘properly’ would know it was me.  And I kind of sloped them onto the system.  Oh, I did tell some writer friends and announce it on Facebook but that’s never felt ‘real’ to me anyway.  Anyone on my screen is (in my head) a cyborg and part of the Truman show; not the real world where there are Sainsburys, dirty dishes and dog poo.

I never  imagined that I’d get good ‘sales’ figures.  I assumed (rightly) that if I advertised any of the books FREE for a few days, that downloads would increase because everybody likes something for nothing, right?  Right.  They do – the numbers stratospherically soar when there’s £0.00 to spend.  Especially if a freebie co-incides with a weekend or Bank Holiday. And I’m not knocking that.  For me, if it’s downloaded, that means it’s on somebody’s Reading Device and for it to have got on there, buttons would have been pressed, decisions made (it’s free – the opening paragraph isn’t sh*te  therefore I’ll have it) and my words have been passed on.  I could say that really this is enough and all I ever wanted but I’d be lying.

I’ve had some reviews on the books I’ve got on Amazon.  Only 3 of them (out of a combined total of no more than 10) are from ‘proper’ readers – i.e. people I have never ‘met’ either in the flesh or through Facebook/Writing circles.  So these three are the true judges of whether my books are good or not.  To me, anyway.  I’m  not knocking the ‘others’ who are FB friends or whatever but they’re bound  not to say anything  terrible about it because – well, writers have such fragile egos don’t they? And I’d never say anything detrimental about another writer’s book I’ve read. 
 
So here (endeth the blethering and meandering, naval introspection) is what I say to you  today, dear Strictly fellows.  I have only today noticed a previously undetected icon on Amazon.co.uk which asks you if you’d like to read your reviews from Amazon.com as well… Well, I answer: that’s very nice of you, I didn’t realise there were any, yes please and thanking you most kindly.
*gulp* (that’s me reading it)
*gulp* (that’s me re-reading it.  Also *wide-eyed*)
*gulp* (yep - a third time.  Please add a broadening smile, a nod and a loosening of the shoulders)

This person is my Simon Cowell – this person – who read my book from (brilliant, witty, hopeful) beginning to (rambling, hackneyed, bitter) end has explained everything to me that I already knew but was pretending might not be (all) true.  And along with telling me how poorly executed my story is, the reviewer also added that if re-written I could have pulled it off successfully.  Hope floats.
*Perhaps they’d consider becoming my Agent?

We writers are always banging on about not taking reviews personally aren’t we?  This book was the first one I ever wrote. It was started 10 years ago,  was written during an enormous personal upheaval and should have remained as torn, tear-stained sheets of therapeutic A4 in the ring binder it started out in.

It wasn’t so much a story as a confessional memoir. It was a cathartic key to dealing with the bereavement, divorce and disillusionment I was battling with at the time and the fact that I changed the characters names did nothing to protect any parties involved.  The dead stayed dead, the divorce went through, but I was able to work out why both relationships were doomed to failure.

The fact that the book is also littered with humour and wry observations doesn’t make it any more a ‘proper’ book.  It actually just proves I deal with personal tragedy in a very Carry-On way.   (Example: I can still remember the horror on my mother’s face as I laughed like a Hyena when she told me her own mother – my beloved Nanna – had just died.  See?  Wrong.).

So, even though the reviewer didn’t know it, they actually got very personal about some very real stuff I was going through.  My main character (that’ll be Me) was a big Nellie and a wuss and handled stuff badly. That was when she wasn’t being melodramatic and contemplating her naval.  Well, this I already knew.  I just didn’t realise I was such a badly drawn fictional character.  Maybe if people had told me at the time to stop acting like a drama queen, grow some balls and get my life sorted out rather than write it to death, then I’d be in a very different place from the one I’m in now.

Anyway, what this Review has taught me:
  •  Never publish anything that’s personal. It could bite you on the arse.
  •  If you want impartial approval you ain’t gonna to find it in the mirror. (That’s the creative writing mirror; I’m not suggesting your lipstick’s the wrong shade or anything).
  •  Stop bloody waffling, woman and get to the point (that’s the creative writing point; I’m not suggesting I digress, meander or anything… although saying that…)

I have another book (contemporary women’s fiction – romcommy, wry, no cupcakes involved) that I was dithering over pressing ‘upload’ onto Amazon because it Wasn’t Good Enough for Agents.  I even made a cover for it  and everything, but I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson and I am going to start listening to my ‘gut’ a bit more.  Like I said, it didn’t ‘feel right’ at the start but I felt left out so did it anyway – but now I’m entering a new phase of my life called Second Guessing. And it’s about bleedin’ time.
Nice cover: shame there'll be no book

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Guest Post by Tom Vowler



A Sense of Place in Fiction: 
Why I Choose Dartmoor as the setting for my Novel
 
When it comes to setting a novel somewhere, I'm unapologetic about the landscape I bestow my narratives with. While many regard the evocation of the natural world in contemporary fiction as old-fashioned, even irrelevant, for me it’s not really possible (or desirable) to resist this aspect from rising up to influence the work. Indeed, it can be a book’s starting point.
            In this instance, though, I had my concept, the novel’s fulcrum all else would turn on; several characters were emerging. But still I was undecided about the book’s location. The uplands of Dartmoor have long been in my blood, its epic beauty the perfect place for literary contemplation, the link between walking and creativity mined whenever I can. But setting in fiction should never just be an act of convenience (I live on the edge of the moor) or aesthetic adornment. Nor should it merely seek the creation of mood, texture and tone (though I certainly used it to this effect).
Landscape must serve a purpose in a novel, for example representing someone’s inner state, acting as mirror or metaphor. So the moor's contrasting aspects (austere, bog-ridden terrain one minute, breath-taking, primeval splendour the next) matched well my mercurial protagonist, a woman in her early forties who seeks refuge on its remote slopes. In an attempt to start a new life she marries a ranger and begins a family, the moor’s seasons, its rhythms, playing out as she tries desperately to keep her past from intruding. Inspired (as I was) by the ceramics at Powder Mills, she becomes a potter, using only materials found in the land around her, her art a connection to this newfound sanctuary, which becomes both her home and place of work. Meanwhile her knowledge of the moor’s flora and fauna flourishes, as did my own in the two years spent researching and writing the book, for example the coalescing of climatic zones that allows rare species of butterfly and lichen to prosper in unique habitats. Or the prehistoric monuments that adorn the National Park.   
I began to weave the two together, so that Dartmoor became part of my characters, their lives part of it. They were mutually dependent, their histories and futures inexorably bound, the characters products of the moor rather than just its inhabitants. In particular the moor's (perceived) malevolence, its ancient and gnarled oak woodlands with their twisted boughs, became an allegory for one character's turmoil, while the prison (which features heavily) served well as an allegory of tyranny and menace. I also spent time getting to know the people who lived on the moor, those who made their living there amid its culture and customs, much of my composition done by a fire in one of its beguiling pubs (which also features!). In an attempt to capture Dartmoor’s true essence I took hundreds of photographs and made endless notes, the writer’s job being to know their subject and setting at least as well as their characters do.  
Landscape, too, can become a character in itself, its complexity and chronology granting it a stake, allowing the reader to invest in it as they might the people or the story itself. (Early feedback of the book has alluded to the character 'Dartmoor’, remarking on its personification, something that was important to me.)
And whereas topography is objective, for me landscape is something much more subjective, and so how a character regards a given place tells us about them without the need for the author to clumsily spell it out. (Someone’s dreary, sombre plains are another’s endlessly beautiful terrain.)
My novel, then, is not just a paean to Dartmoor, though I hope it is that. The moor is part of my characters, they part of it. The landscape is a character itself, alive and capricious. It is the book’s architecture, running through each chapter like a seam of granite, the story’s themes and narrative entwined with the tors, valleys and communities of this wonderful place.

Tom Vowler is an award-winning author and associate lecturer in Creative Writing at Plymouth University, where he is studying for a PhD on landscape and trauma in fiction. His short story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011, and his debut novel, What Lies Within, was published in April 2013.

His blog is here

Friday, 5 July 2013

What's the story, Sam?



If you enjoy visiting Strictly Writing (other coffee break venues are available, but that's not important right now), you have Samantha Tonge to thank. She's like our very own James T Kirk, who first captained this Enterprise*

Sam and I traded emails recently and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to find out what she's been writing and where that writing has taken her.

Howdy, Sam. I have visited your new website -  http://www.samanthatonge.co.uk/ - and found out everything there is to know about you, so I plan to ask all sorts of pertinent questions.

Hi Derek, nice to be back on SW. And if the questions are too probing, I’ll just teleport myself off the ship!


Q1. What's the best thing about having an agent and what's the most challenging aspect of the relationship?

There are lots of best bits – having someone independent of your family believe in your work! Plus being able to hand over the submission process to a professional person who won’t nudge and alienate the publisher every five minutes – writing brings out the worst aspects of my personality, top-of-the-list impatience. Plus having a sounding board for the next project is very reassuring. No one wants to spend six months on a project that should never have been started in the first place.

As for the challenging aspects… Well, for me that comes back to my impatience. Whilst it’s great having someone else submit work for you, at the same time that means the process is out of your control – so you can’t nudge, off your own back. This is good and you know when the agent is right about just sitting tight for a while, but can still be highly frustrating!

Q2. What made you first submit stories for The People's Friend and other magazines?

I’d written novels for several years, without success, and everyone kept telling me I should write shorts - but I could never think of a beginning, middle and end. And then a chick lit writer ran a competition and for the first time I managed to come up with a complete story. It was dreadful, looking back, but I believe the brain is like any other muscle – the more you use certain areas of it, the better they get. Writing that one story helped me crack on with another. People ask me, now, how I come up with so many ideas, but the more short stories you write, the easier it becomes to find ideas and see inspiration in everyday life. The women’s magazine market always suited my writing style, so I joined a very helpful online writing group which pointed me in the right direction. Finally I started to sell and make money from my writing, which has always been an important goal of mine.

Q3. Congratulations on having your work selected for The People's Friend 2014 annual.  Have you ever considered producing your own anthology?

Thank you! Yes, I’m very excited to have two stories in the annual which is published today. And no, I’ve never considered self-publishing by myself – I am something of a technophobe. Recently, I bought a Kindle and what joy just to have a diagram for instructions! I wouldn’t know where to start with cover design, etc, and I’m in awe of authors who do put together their own collections.

I am thrilled about a collection of my feel-good stories that is being put together by up-and-coming publisher Alfie Dog Fiction. This anthology should be available in the autumn.

Q4. Did you set out to write Romantic Comedy novels and is there any other genre you feel drawn to writing?

No, my first novel was more serious. It was in my second that I introduced a comedic tone and through the process of writing this, and the next novel, really found my writing voice. In real life I am something of a jokey, one-liner kind of person and it took a while for my work to reflect that.

As for writing other genres, the great thing about writing stories for the Womag market is that you can indulge yourself. I’ve just sold a cowboy story and in the past, horror. Once or twice, though, I’ve had to rewrite stories for the People’s Friend because my chick lit tones have crept in. I still write humorous stories for them, but the comedy is gentler.
  
Q5. What's next on Sam's writing To-Do list?

Well, us womag writers always have to think three months ahead, so now I’m moving on to autumn stories. Also, a paranormal idea for a novel is flirting with my muse…

Q6. What's so special about the Poseidon Adventure - I'm assuming we're talking about the original version? (Check out Sam's website and you'll know what I mean.)

Ooh yes, the original, although the Kurt Russell remake is great, too. I love the drama and the romance; the visual contrast between the glitzy dinner dance at the beginning and the burnt, shredded clothes of the survivors… Like any reader, as a viewer I want to be moved in some way – made to laugh, shed a tear, get a lump in my throat… It’s all there in this film. Um, well, perhaps apart from the laughs…!

Q7. A hypothetical question. You can choose three literary people to be stuck in a lift with for an hour. Who would you choose and why?

Jane Austen – I’d like to be the one to tell her just how much her literature still means to women, decades on. Barbara Cartland. I think, fundamentally, she understood the importance of romance in people’s lives. I’d like to find out how she managed to “write” books by dictating them to her secretary. I could never imagine doing that. And as a huge fan of the Romance with Bite genre, Stephanie Meyer, of course!

Q8. Yes, given that, in your own words, you're a vampire geek girl, what spoils a vampire tale for you?

I’m a fan of the modern genre, where the vampires have redeeming qualities and don’t just see humans as prey. So the old school tales, where the vampire is more likely to be portrayed as an amoral predator, wouldn’t really do it for me. I need romance and poignant scenes where the vampire understands what he has become and misses his mortality. Ahem, yes, time to ‘fess up, I’m a diehard Twihard!** (fan of the Twilight Series).


* Yes, I do know that it was Captain Pike first, and one could argue that, chronologically, it would really be Captain Archer. But nobody likes a sci-fi show-off... 

** Here at Strictly Writing we like to be informative. That's a new word for the spellchecker!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Putting good words together well

We all want to write well, don’t we?  And by write I mean, of course, make up stories that are readable.  And by readable, not only do I mean ‘make sense’ I mean entertaining, thought-provoking, interesting.  You know the thing.  That’s why you’re here.  Why we’re all here.

That’s what I presume anybody who has their name on any book has done; wanted to do and has proven to the world that they have the capability to do.  They have a book in print.  On shelves.  In my home, in my hand (and destined for the Charity Bin should I see fit). They can write. And if they have a book published I assume they can write well.

The penultimate book I read, I positively ‘devoured’. In fact if I’d been passed the pre-proof copy and asked to pen a suitable one-liner to go on said book, I’d have said something like “bloody brilliant”.  Because it was.  It wasn’t perfect - there isn’t a book I’d ever call perfect - but it was pretty damn near.  And here’s a line that made me want to squeeze it to death in a readerly-writerly hug:

“….. I stand holding recyclable bin bags in the middle of Age UK.  The woman at the counter has grey hair in a bun and glasses round her neck on a string, like a wonderful granny from a Roald Dahl story who’d adopt you if your parents were wiped out in the first chapter in  some blackly comic manner.’
…..
I can’t tell you how delighted I felt when I read this.  And how many times I had to re-read it because of how tickly-with-joy it made me.  I mean, it just evokes such a spontaneous image and reading as a writer, it made me doff a cap and a half to the author. (Mhairi Mcfarlane: ‘You Had Me At Hello’ – bloody brilliant, I might have mentioned).

This book made me want to write and write and write… and that hasn’t happened to me since I read Marion Keyes’ ‘Watermelon’ debut decades ago.

Accessibility and personality leap from every page.  That’s both books.

And so to my next read.  And to a book which has just about as many  thousands of 5 star ratings as the above and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into it.
But, dear writer, please, read this:

‘To go back to Gail, I must talk to her in person.  A letter just won’t do.  Oh look it started raining.  I hope Eilidh is not out on her bike.  She used to love cycling, we’d been everywhere on our bikes when she lived here.
I just burnt my hand.’

I’ve re-read this just as many times as I re-read the wonderful first example I gave you.  And it still makes me want to scream, tear something up and stamp on it (probably the book because it doesn’t get any better, let me tell you).

Oh look it started raining’? *ahem* tense?  Yep, just a tad.

So stunned by its awfulness, I showed people.  To make sure I hadn’t mis-read or misunderstood.  One person handed it back and said “It’s like something I’d have written in year 8 and been embarrassed to admit to.”

Well quite.

And this book (I read right to the bitter BITTER end just to make sure it was as bad as it started out. Guess what?) made me want to write and write and write as well, but for wildly different reasons.  I just couldn’t believe that this sort of thing got past a reader/editor/agent/whatever order they  come in and got published and was still getting SO MANY 5* reviews.   I mean wtf?
It gave me hope.

And it won't be going in the charity bin because whenever I feel like I can’t go on and everything I write is truly awful, I know that all I have to do is pick up this book, turn to ANY page… yes ANY… and it will make me feel better again.

Here, have another piece:

‘When I told Jamie, he didn’t say anything.  He said he had to go, he was meeting his friend John, they were going fishing. He avoided me for the next two weeks.’


Yep, I know.   Set in the land where, when people don’t say anything,  then proceed to SAY SOMETHING. (And even Word’ has green-squiggled the ‘they’ in this sentence.  Argh!).