Sexing up the classics - should we care?

OK, I admit it: I'm one of the 15 people in the English-speaking world who hasn't read 50 Shades of Grey. I wasn't averse to the idea - I'm actually quite partial to the odd bit of well-written erotica. But as even its staunchest defenders would probably admit that ‘well-written' isn't a phrase that's often attached to Ms James' series, I was inevitably disappointed: the clunky prose and grating style felled me long before I could make it to any of the rude (or ideologically questionable) bits. 

The subsequent flooding of the bestseller lists with so called 'mummy porn' has left me unmoved but also un-outraged - most of it looks utter rubbish, true, but then the bestseller lists are often rubbish, and frankly I'd rather see some jobbing writer coin it in than some reality TV star who sees fit to write a biography at the grand old age of 24. In fact, the author in me is actually quite chuffed for all those erotic novelists who have spent years churning out titles to little appreciation and now find their backlist given a 50 Shades makeover and being promoted on the shelves of WH Smith.
Spicing up the classics

So I was amused rather than outraged when publisher Clandestine Classics announced it planned to release digital versions of sexed up classic (and, importantly, out of copyright) titles such as Wuthering Heights – and they weren’t the only ones with that idea. Cue inevitable backlash on debasing the originals, the dumbing down / sexing up of society, the death of creativity and dearth of original ideas... But, honestly, why get your bloomers in such a twist? It's not exactly new: authors have been writing sequels for years, and recently there has been a whole trend for supernatural takes on familiar titles, whether you want to see Elizabeth Bennett go all Twilight in Mr Darcy, Vampyre (only one of several Darcy-as-vampire books) or all Walking Dead in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (surely even if you hate the trend, you can admire the idea of Jane Slayre? No? Come on!). Nor is it the first time that someone has sexed them up: the P & P sequel Mr Darcy Takes A Wife is, I am reliably informed, a Jilly Cooper style bonkbuster in which Mr Darcy, ahem, takes his wife. Repeatedly. 
Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska steamed up the screen as Jane and Rochester

In the spirit of pure research - honest, officer - I decided to download a couple of these titles and see what the fuss was about. Pan’s Jane Eyre Laid Bare was choice number 1: swayed by its elegant cover and the fact that, yes, it was only 99p. (I haven't read it yet, but will report back. Am I good to you, or what?) The second was the slightly more questionable looking Hemlock Bones: A Stud in Scarlet. No, seriously - presumably due to the restrictions of the Conan Doyle estate, the publishers didn't use the characters' names, so instead you have the puntastic Hemlock Bones and his trusty (and, it turns out, lusty) assistant Doctor Hotson in their nice little flat on Laker Street. Having whetted my appetite for some Holmesian fun with the enormously entertaining Robert Downey Jr film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows on Saturday night, on Sunday I decided to give it a try. And it... wasn't actually bad. I mean, the prose quality of the added bits wouldn't give Ian McEwan sleepless nights, but... it wasn't that bad.

I'm not such an aficionado that I could tell if they'd just tweaked the original text and added bits, or just rewritten it in the style of Conan Doyle (it's decades since I read A Study in Scarlet), but it certainly felt authentic - and despite the rather Carry On feeling of the title, it was played straight (so to speak) as a crime thriller meets romance, even including the lengthy flashback to the killer's history which I vaguely remember finding tedious the first time round.   Obviously, if one man swooning over another isn't your cup of Earl Grey (and be warned, there's quite a lot of swooning) or (fairly graphic) gay sex offends you or leaves you cold, this isn't a book you should be buying, but I found it actually quite charming and sweet, no more offensive to the characters than I did the RDJ film - which, let's face it, slathers the homoeroticism on with a trowel. Frankly, the often shonky formatting was the most offensive thing in the book. 

Classics become classics because they have a high degree of robustness; in the same way Shakespeare can take pretty much anything we throw at him, so can these stories and characters. Sure, you could argue it's just fan fiction with an editor and a marketing budget - but so what? Nobody is stealing the originals and locking them away - this isn't the Chapman Brothers defacing Goya paintings and ruining them from future generations. This is writers putting their own spin on stories that will outlive us all. I, for one, have no problem with that.

A Book, an Apple, and a Bowl of Popcorn - guest post by Susan Waggoner

Reading and writing have always been inextricably linked in my mind.  One is breathing in, the other is breathing out, and both are necessary for the organism to function.  I always feel a special excitement, and an increase in respiration, when the leaves begin to turn and the crisp of autumn is in the air.  My heart lifts. The winter reading season is at hand!

I grew up near Minneapolis, where winter is long, days are short, and school is often cancelled because buses will not start below –30 Fahrenheit.  The climate gave me good cause to read.  So did my parents, who led by example.  No night was too cold for a trip to the library, or to take our haul home and celebrate with popcorn and apples. 

The arrival of a long-awaited book caused palpable excitement throughout the whole house.  My mother, a teacher, would race home from school to read before my father came home.  After dinner, it was his turn with the book.  This was an era of big historical fiction and, through sheer longing to be part of the family book circle, the first adult books I read were Michener’s Hawaii, MacKinlay Kantor’s Spirit Lake and James Clavell’s Shogun. I read all of these in the winter months as I recall, and all of them fuelled my desire to write. My first (and very terrible) book, written at age 15, was set on the Minnesota frontier.
I cannot imagine writing without reading, or reading without writing.  My “to read” list, kept on a database, currently stands at 7,670.  There are only a few hundred on there I don’t truly want to read, or believe I will have time to read someday.  Winter is that time.  So, get your duvets ready. Snuggle up with a hot drink, and maybe an apple, and take yourself off to somewhere magical.

Susan Waggoner was born in Iowa, grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs, and received degrees from the University of Iowa. Except for one year in which she worked as an editorial assistant, she has always been a self-employed writer. She has written a number of non-fiction adult books, one novel and one young adult title. Tired of the current trend for gloomy dystopia in YA fiction, she wrote Neptune’s Tears, an exciting and romantic vision of the future. She divides her time between New York and London.  


Just something to bear in mind

Bring a little eggstra to the table.

Every minute, of every hour, of every day, another book is born. More, probably.

And there'll be fanfares and launch parties and campaigns, at the top table.

For the new wave of self and independently published books, there'll be blogs and tweets, and frendly reviews, and blog hops, and giveaways and bookmarks.

There'll be debates (if you're lucky!) and comparisons. And friends helping out, of both the willing and conscripted varieties.

And let's not forget the naysayers, along with the backslappers; the silent competition too, perhaps even from your own stable.

And a million other chances and reasons not to buy your book, just at this time you understand?

And the cover and those opening lines will delight some and disappoint others.

Your story will be unique, just like everyone else's.

So you better make damn sure your book has something worth saying, and that it says it well.

Because it's a bloody jungle out there!

Introducing Red Button Publishing

Today I'm delighted to welcome Caroline Goldsmith back to Strictly, talking about new publishing venture Red Button Publishing.

What exactly is Red Button Publishing?
Red Button Publishing is a brand new digital fiction imprint. We are looking for new and exciting writers to work with us. Just like a big red button, we want fiction that is irresistible. We are currently accepting submissions via our website and we hope to make our first writers’ works available this Autumn.

What services are you offering writers? We believe that it takes a team to make a book work. My business partner, Karen Ings, and I have nearly three decades' worth of experience in trade publishing and this is what we can bring to the mix. We can offer full editorial support and collaboration. We will give your book a great cover design and create imaginative marketing material. We will work to promote our titles through our website and via social media, ensuring that every Red Button book has the best chance of meeting the right reader. We also understand that many writers dream of seeing their books in paper format, and we recognise that digital publication can often be a stepping stone to a conventional publishing deal. With this in mind, we will act as literary agents for any of our writers if approached by mainstream publishing houses. We are passionate about fiction, and unlike other companies, we will not charge any upfront fees to read or publish your work.

For writers who prefer to self publish we can offer bespoke services including editorial feedback, proofreading, cover design and digital marketing material and advice on digital publishing and marketing.

What sort of books are looking for – any particular genres or types?
We are happy to consider fiction of any genre. We have already received a variety of submissions including thrillers and literary fiction. Give us a try!

What made you want to set it up? Karen and I have known each other for over ten years, having worked together previously. We are passionate about fiction and about publishing. The digital market opens up a wealth of opportunity for writers but we think there is still a real need for the skills and experience of those who have worked in the publishing industry and really understand what makes books work. We want to use our skills base to make some really great reads and get more writers to their audiences.

Tell us a little bit about your background and that of your business partner?
Karen has worked as an editor in trade publishing for fifteen years, commissioning for the last ten. Recently she has worked freelance for companies like Quercus and Penguin. My background has been in a variety of roles, including sales, marketing and publicity for companies like Aurum Press and more recently Dorling Kindersley/ Penguin Group.

How do you see the company progressing?
We want Red Button to become synonymous with great fiction and we want the writers associated with our brand to realise their full potential.

Many people see the current publishing industry as in decline – do you agree? How has the market changed since you started out and how do you think it will change in future?
We’ve seen so many changes to our industry during the span of our careers. Digital has certainly been the biggest change for some time and has already changed the way the industry functions. The direct relationship between reader and publisher is becoming more important and more open. What you should realise about the publishing industry though, is that in the most part, it is run by people with a real passion for books. It’s not the industry to join if you want to make your fortune! These people have skills, creativity and experience that are crucial to the production of quality literature. Publishing will adapt and change but as an industry, it will survive in one form or another.

What is the number one piece of advice you would give to writers who are trying to get their books out there, either through a publisher or on their own?Always, always work with an editor.

Caroline Goldsmith


Tense? Yeah, just a bit.

My name is Debs Riccio and I have a problem with the past and the future.  

I’m stuck in the present, which is a good place to be according to counsellors and psychiatrists, but NOT writers.

I can’t seem to move on no matter how I word it. 

I can set a whole sentence, paragraph, chapter in the past but I have a struggle getting it to move onto the present without feeling like I’ve cheated potential readers out of the bit ‘in between’ – you know, the parts where, okay, so nothing MUCH happens, but life has gone on enough for it to arrive at this NOW point. 

 You see the thing is Nothing happens all the time, does it?  But what if I’ve missed out pertinent parts like the arrival or departure of something, someone, somewhere and my Dear Reader is feeling like I’ve swindled them and misinformed them with smoke, mirrors, sleight of  key; they’ll think me a fraud.  Oh god… hand me a tissue*. Thanks.

too tense (and a horse)

It wasn’t always like this I’m sure.  I think I’ve written a whole book where the past moves on to become the future and the present becomes the past and we all live happily ever after, but I think that was a fluke.  I might have been drunk.  I certainly didn’t get an agent out of it that’s for sure.  I think it might even have had chapter headings like ‘October 1986’ which, come to think of it, is cheating, isn’t it?  (Adrian and Bridget excluded of course because they were just brilliant and nobody can write a diary like those guys).

Oh how I envy and hate the able writer who can take a reader seamlessly through a childhood, skip gaily through a coming-of-age-experience and end up turning death into myriad of exciting possibilities.  

Yes, thanks, this *one’s a bit wet.

I mean is this why War and Peace is so long – because the author wasn’t sure how to skip the boring bits and included every trip to the loo and cup of coffee?  Sometimes I  worry about ending one chapter with the night falling (quick – duck!) and the next one beginning with the dawn of a brand new day because, surely MC would’ve dreamt? Something must’ve happened during the night? Why aren’t you telling me this?  It could be important.  MC may have had a protein-rich wee and be on a slippery slope to Diabetes – THIS would matter.  Well, wouldn’t it?
Oh god, I’ll be doing a Gillian McKeith soon and shifting through the…. Oh cheers*.

One ‘criticism’ that an agent made with my last book (the one that they had for AGES and loved – no, seriously, they did.  Just “not enough” – you know those… yep them’s the ones) was that the entire book happened over the course of 4-5 days and she found it a little far-fetched.  I remember feeling like my wrist had been slapped a bit and it still smarts if I’m honest.  Because this MC had a ghost in her house and you can’t tell me that Nothing Happens during the night when you’re living with a GHOST.  Surely?  Really?  A LOT of stuff happened at night – every night. For oh... 4-5 days. Anyway….. like I said, I have trouble moving on.  As did my ghost, actually.

I’ve read books that cover a weekend and I’ve read books that span a lifetime so maybe mine was too Ordinary.  Too photographic; a snapshot of Something Happening, but I thought that’s what stories are supposed to do?  Isn’t it?

Maybe I should have stuck with painting.  At least with a painting you don’t have to worry what happened before the picture took shape – or what’s going to happen to the central theme afterwards. 

Maybe I should write the world’s first one-word book.  I’d probably call it PRESENT (by ‘anonymous’) and let everybody make of it what they will.  They could read between lines (okay, letters) and embellish according to their beliefs and add their own back story and interpret it however they chose.

It wouldn’t be any less strange than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, would it?

*No tissues were harmed in the production of this post.  All characters and scenes are fictitious and are the result of the writer’s ridiculously overactive imagination and desire to be published in whatever form it takes.

Writing Drama with Oliver Emanuel

Photograph by Paul Harkin.
There are many pluses to being a member of the Strictly Writing blog team. Of course, there's the endless supply of luxury chocolates. And who could forget the Christmas gathering in Avignon? Or my endless capacity to make things up and commit them to the screen.

For me, though, one of the biggest bonuses is having a mandate to get out there and talk to writers. I was recently listening to a five-part Radio 4 production of The Other One, and was so impressed that I immediately tracked down the dramatist, Oliver Emanuel. As writing drama isn't something I've ever tried, I wanted to find out what I've been missing.

Oliver, as well as The Other One, you recently had a play, Ancient Greek, broadcast on Radio 4. Can you talk us through the commissioning process please?

Ooh. It’s a mystery.

I’m kidding. But in all seriousness I find it very hard to describe. Here’s what I can say…

It starts with an idea. In the first instance, I try out the idea on my director (most frequently Kirsty Williams at BBC Radio Drama Scotland) and see what she says. We chat a bit and then I put the idea on paper. No more than a page. There might be a few drafts of the idea. Then it disappears into the BBC machine for a couple of months and I forget about it.

If I’m very very lucky I get a call from Kirsty to tell me we’re on.

We will often have notes from Jeremy Howe (commissioning editor Radio Drama) at this point. Although you are only one of hundreds of commissioned writers, the BBC are incredibly invested in each and every play.

I have written about ten plays and stories for the BBC radio but I still have more of my ideas rejected rather than accepted.

I don’t mind.

It should be difficult to get a commission.

When it happens, it means that the idea has real potential.

Was radio drama your first port of call as a writer, or did you start out somewhere else? 

I am a theatre person.

My mum was a drama teacher and my dad is an excellent amateur actor. I was in loads of plays when I was a kid so that’s my natural habitat.

Saying that, the radio was always on in our house.

I love radio drama.

When I saw an opportunity to submit ideas to the BBC Writersroom for a short commission, I jumped at the chance.

As it happened, it was at roughly the same time as my first big theatre commission.

So I’m lucky in that I have parallel careers. I have always written both.

Has the increase in digital and Internet radio stations opened up opportunities for dramatists?

Hmm. I would so yes and no.

In the first instance there is potential for downloads and the iPlayer has revolutionised how most of us listen to the radio.

You can listen to my play live, in the car or the week after broadcast. Radio is a popular medium so the more people it can reach, the better. It’s brilliant that you can experience a play at any time in any place.

But there’s really only one place that makes radio drama and that’s the BBC.

There aren’t any other channels that do it.

I would love it if there was the equivalent of a Channel 4 or an HBO but there aren’t. Not yet at least.

In your own writing process, do you generally start with a voice, a character or a plot?

Sometimes I read a news article that interests me. (This is true of my recent play The Other One which was based on a news article from Russia). Sometimes a picture appears in my mind. Other times I just sit down and see who’s talking.

I never know the ending to what I’m writing. I just launch myself into it and see what happens. I know a lot of writers who plan meticulously but I’m not one of them. I wish I could but I can’t.

My work is often about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I like to have a sense that this person could be me or you but then I like to jam them up and make trouble. So I’ll have a character and then I’ll give them something impossible to get out of and see what comes out of my head.

With The Other One, there is a twelve-year old girl called Laura who comes home from school only to be told that the people who she thought were her parents are not her parents. I didn’t know what she was going to do next but I wanted to find out. And the tougher I make the situation, the more charged the drama will be.

Which writers (dramatists, novelists, short stories writers and others) inspire you and why?

I get inspired by lots of people. Not just writers but musicians, artists and people I meet in the course of my research.

I’ve done a couple of writing projects with vulnerable young people. Two projects in a Young Offenders Institute and one with runaways. The children I met had lived incredible lives and they were generous enough to share their stories with me. Their openness has inspired a whole raft of work about young people in contemporary Britain.

But you asked about writers.

I live in Scotland and we have some amazing playwrights up here. David Greig, David Harrower, Linda McLean, Rob Evans, Lewis Hetherington, Davey Anderson, David Ireland and Robert Forrest.

I read a lot and almost every book I read inspires me. Too many to mention here.

My big three are Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill and Anton Chekov.

But Elvis Presley is the king of most things to my mind.

I was once advised, if I was serious about writing comedy, that I ought to move to London, Glasgow or Manchester.* Do you think the location of a writer is a factor in getting work commissioned?

Good question. If I were you I’d move to Manchester or Glasgow. London has too many of everything. I think it won’t be too long until it explodes!

I think you can write anywhere but it is difficult to be a writer without a base.

Glasgow is the place I became a grown-up writer.

I don’t honestly know how it is in other places. I know that as a playwright I have a lot of meetings, rehearsals and events that are part and parcel of being a writer. Could I live somewhere else? Probably. Do I want to? No.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently writing a play called Dragon for a theatre company called Vox Motus in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s about a twelve-year old boy whose mum dies and then he discovers a dragon in his bedroom. It opens in October 2013.

What other writing have you had published / performed / broadcast?

I’ve had about ten plays and short stories on BBC Radio 4.

I write quickly. I have to. I’m rubbish with money.

What advice would you give to anyone contemplating writing for radio?


Just listen to what is out there and decide what you like and what you don’t like. Get an opinion. Develop a taste for it.

And find a story that you need to tell or you will explode.

And then start writing words.

How many dramatists does it take to change a lightbulb?

That’s not a lightbulb, that’s magic.

* Leave Cornwall? You must be joking.