Writing Update

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I’m just waiting for my beta-reader to finish the manuscript of The Night Bus – the collection of poems and short stories I hope to publish later this month – with my fingers crossed that any further editing will be quick and painless. But what of the book I said I was just finishing, a couple of months ago?

Ah, yes. Having had my first beta-reader go through A Good Place and my mulling over both the feedback from their Red Biro Of Doom and my own thoughts about parts of it I already felt weren’t really strong enough, I’ve decided to sit on it for a while and then go back and change a few things. Well, okay, a lot of things. A huge number of things, maybe. In the meantime, I shall concentrate again on The Assassin’s Garden which continues to make steady progress in the background, and which slowly becomes more complex month by month.

And I was struck by something I heard on an interview with Phillip Pullman on Sunday TV, after the screening of the first episode of His Dark Materials; (which was excellent, BTW) he commented that after the books he had already written and published, His Dark Materials was the book, and by inference the world, he had always wanted to create. And I feel that way about the world I’m creating in The Assassin’s Garden. It both is this world and is not this world, with elements of both the fantastic and of fantasy (disclaimer – my definitions of those may not be exactly the same as yours!). And it feels like the culmination of all the fantastical elements I’ve ever written into stories in the past.

And don’t forget if you’ve already read Making Friends With the Crocodile and not left a review on Amazon / Goodreads / Anywhere else, I would be eternally grateful if you did. It’s a really important way of reaching others who might be interested in buying the book.

Is it time to open the wine, yet?

Short Stories and Poems (2)

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My grateful thanks to everyone who responded to my request for thoughts on my last post about the content of my book. I was a little surprised (and very pleased!) that most comments tended to agree with my own thoughts on it, so I’ve decided I will go with a mixed collection, both short stories and poems, linked by the theme of ‘journeys’. I am also including a few illustrations with the poems, where I think the poems will benefit from them.

The book will be titled The Night Bus, and with luck it will be available by or before November 30th.

I need to finish a couple of edits, and sort out the running order, then I should be ready for the formatting headaches.

I’ll tell you a little more about it soon.

Review of The New Asylum by Frank Prem

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This is Australian poet Frank’s third collection of poems, and in a way this is a return to the narrative arc of his first collection; Small Town Kid, after the heartbreak of his second collection, Devil in the Wind, which dealt with the horrors of the bush fires in Australia on what became known as Black Saturday in February 2009

Not only is this a personal, time-ordered narrative like Small Town Kid, but it takes up Frank’s life where that collection left off, with his taking a job at the institution in his home town housing people with mental health problems. At that time (around forty years ago), these institutions were generally known as ‘mental asylums’ although that name, as well as a lot of the attitudes that coloured people’s ideas of them, have supposedly been consigned to history.

These poems take us on Frank’s journey from his visits to the institution where both his parents worked, then as naive and wide-eyed Trainee Psychiatric Nurse through to today, introducing us to a wonderful collection of colourful, sad, genial, well-meaning and, yes sometimes, mad characters, both staff and residents of the institution and, latterly, the hostel that acts as a ‘half-way house’ between incarceration and release.

All these characters are realistically and sympathetically drawn, and I suspect that not a few readers will be surprised at the humour (occasionally black) and warmth that comes through from the average day in their lives. Frank does not shy away from showing the attitudes prevalent in those earlier days, when patients were severely regimented and often treated less than sympathetically, although I suspect there is much he does not reveal. But where he is at his best, I feel, is in depicting the almost unutterable sadness of many of the inmates. In ‘Huntington’s Marionette’ it is for the young victim of this, one of the cruellest of all diseases, In ‘Lost: One Cockerel’ it is for another youngster, this time a young man with his mind destroyed by illicit drugs. Then there are the families of these victims, often victims themselves in so many ways – dealing with loss or aggression, blame, or just the horror of watching a loved one disintegrate before their eyes.

And the institution is frequently under-staffed and the staff are over-worked, a situation all too familiar to anyone working in public health today as well as then. The final poem  ‘Still its Creature’ is the book’s epilogue, and it is worth quoting the first few lines..

in aftermath

it seems so clear

there are few mental-health

happy endings

and there are no

simple cures

I give this five stars out of five.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

Blogging vs Other Social Media

It’s a fight to the death!

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Well, okay, not quite that, but bear with me for a bit longer.

The other week I gave a short talk to my writing group on reasons a writer should be on social media and, more importantly, why they needed a blog. I’m not going to go into this in any detail now, but I promised I’d summarise what I said in bullet points, and then thought it might be worth putting up here to see if anyone felt like adding anything to it.

So…

Why?

  • As a writer, you need to have a social media presence to sell books, to get known. Even if you are a published author.
  • On a social media platform, you are aiming to get shares for your posts. The more shares, the more people will see them.
  • It’s all about engaging with customers, fans and critics.
  • There are a huge number of platforms, but just a few examples that I have experience of:
  • Facebook is the biggest, and the most active, with a high rate of engagement. Having an Author Page is a good way to engage through backstories, questions, surveys and daily updates (yours or your work), ‘Behind the scenes’ articles.
  • Linkedin has many users, but a low rate of engagement. A business page can be useful.
  • Twitter is short and succinct. A sort of ‘Marketing Lite’. Posts appear fleetingly and then are essentially gone, though, unless they generate lots of likes and retweets.
  • Goodreads is like ‘background’ media – people need to seek you out to find you.
  • But the number one way to be found is through blog posts.
  • Like all good social media, blogs encourage visitors to return. Unlike ordinary websites, they are updated regularly and the reader can be alerted to each new post.
  • There are many other reasons to blog, viz:
  1. Teaches you to write more professionally – you have an audience
  2. Discipline
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback from people outside your usual circle
  5. Networking with others
  6. You can upload links to other social media
  7. There is space to write more in-depth than on other social media
  8. To review work for other writers
  9. To explore ideas and get feedback on these
  • A blog is simply a website with posts being regularly replaced, although the old ones are still on the website to read.
  • There are many blogging platforms, but I use WordPress.
  • One advantage of WP is the ease by which readers can see you have a new post.
  • Whichever platform you choose, it should have clear instructions and / or tutorials to help you set up.
  • It should also allow you to block spammers, remove adverts (by upgrading), monetise your site, and change the layout. In other words, have as much control as possible over its appearance.
  • It can be really helpful if the platform provides diagnostics on data such as page views, visitors, likes, comments, and links to and from your site. This helps you plan and refine how you run it.

How?

  • Purchase your own address! It is not very expensive, but it makes your blog more personal, more professional, and the address more memorable. And the host cannot arbitrarily close it down, which might happen with a free site.
  • Start by going and looking at other blogs, to find what you like and might work for you. then use your Site Builder Tool to create your site.
  • Once you begin writing your first post make sure you are using a clear font that stands out.
  • Keep the post around 500 words, certainly under 1000. When you have a decent following, you may get away with more, but new readers will be put off by longer ones. (As a guide, this post has 945 words).
  • Add a picture or two to help it stand out and look less daunting, but not too many. And not just dozens of selfies, unless you are an established celebrity. It’s a real turn off.
  • Make the post interesting! Put some good stuff in first, to get the readers’ attention. And don’t save all the good stuff until the end, as readers might not otherwise get there.
  • Use categories and tabs on each post to help new readers find them.

Issues

  • Don’t feel under pressure to post to a fixed schedule.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the subjects you post about – it’s all under your control and there are no rules on it. Let it develop organically.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. It’s very easy to get into a mindset where you think you need to do all these things to a rigid schedule.
  • Don’t obsess about the number of followers you have or likes / comments you get. Chasing them is counter-productive.
  • Find some blogs YOU like, and follow them, commenting when you have something to say. That way you will begin to get visits in return and then, hopefully, follows back. It is pointless following a blog that doesn’t interest you, just hoping to get a follow back. You want followers who will be interested in what you have to offer.
  • And on that subject, if a new follower has a site that doesn’t interest you, there is no obligation for you to follow them back.
  • And don’t feel obliged to comment on / like / or even read every post on blogs you follow.
  • Do remember that copyright law applies exactly the same on the internet as it does in the real world. If you copy a photo or article from the internet without permission and post it on your blog be prepared for possible legal unpleasantness. I always use my own, just to be safe. I think it looks better, too.

Unfest at Tunbridge Wells and Books

Last weekend, Bank Holiday weekend, saw the annual UNFEST fringe music festival held in Tunbridge Wells.

It describes itself as Showcasing local and regional music, spoken word, food and drink,  the emphasis is on involving local, independent businesses.

Our writing group had a stand there on the Saturday afternoon, where we hassled unsuspecting passers-by in the hope they would buy our books or, should they be interested in writing, come along to one of our meetings to see what we are up to.

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We sold a few books and had a pleasant time.

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And later on another of our members, Paul Gunn, played with his band. Their splendid music is described as Featuring an edgy vintage piano, classical cello solos with Latin and Rock rhythms.

Should you be fortunate enough to reside in the Tunbridge Wells area you can find out about our writing group, Irregular Writers, here.

And wherever you live, you can find out more about Paul Gunn’s music here.

What on Earth are you waiting for?

World Book Day

World Book Day, celebrated today, 7th March, has the declared aim: Our mission is to give every child and young person a book of their own.

It is celebrated in the UK, although I have no idea whether this is an idea that has been taken up elsewhere, and would be interested to find out.

Schools, in particular, seem to have embraced the idea, with children encouraged to attend classes dressed as their favourite book or literary character. Thus hundreds of Harry Potters and Willy Wonkas and Very Hungry Caterpillars march into schools across the country once each year.

A splendid thought!

Which brings me to a marvellous project aimed at schools across the country.

Growing, in a way, out of Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant book Landmarks is The Lost Words, a collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. I can do no better than to quote Jackie Morris on the reasons: It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone… These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

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So The Lost Words is aimed towards children, to encourage them, through the words and paintings of the book, to discover the natural world that so many of them know nothing of.

So many grow up today without any meaningful contact with the natural world, and this book aims to encourage them to know and to love and protect it.

And the project – the campaign, really, in a very ad hoc way, is to raise money where necessary to place a copy of the book in every school in Britain. It has already been achieved in Scotland, I understand, and hopefully, it will soon be achieved in every other school in Britain.

Review of Masks and Other Stories From Colombia by Richard Crosfield

In Masks and Other Stories From Colombia, Richard Crosfield brings us twenty five tales set in Colombia, the majority of them viewed through the privileged eyes of Printer, a British expatriate.

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Printer, we are told, has a good ear for a story, and is much in demand by hosts and hostesses at parties to recount these tales. He also has more empathy and sympathy for the Colombians who surround him than do most of the other cossetted expats. Naturally, this acts as a good device to introduce several of the stories.

Some of the stories are little more than vignettes, bringing the reader into the lives led by the mixture of the very poor, the well-to-do middle class, and the extremely well-off and powerful of Colombian society, as well as the expats among whom Printer lives and works. These appear to do little more than illustrate what the lives of these people are like, yet at the end of each story something has changed; there has been resolution of some kind.

Of the others, some demonstrate that you don’t always require an earth-shattering event to create a satisfactory ending, but just a quiet re-drawing of the landscape. Something has shifted, perhaps so subtly that not all the protagonists have even noticed. But we, the readers, see it clearly.

Yet it is easy for the reader to become lulled into a false sense of security by this, so that we are caught out – shocked, perhaps – when we come to one of the stories that has a more powerful and emotional conclusion.

The temptation when placing stories in a setting that is very different from the writer’s own setting, even when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – perhaps especially when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – is to either set all of them in the almost artificial world inhabited by the expat, or to try to set them in the wider community, a community that perhaps they may not completely understand. Richard has managed successfully to do both, something that demonstrates an easy familiarity with both these worlds.

Throughout the book, we can see that the author’s sympathies lie very much with the underdogs of Colombian society, although the stories never become clichés of the noble poor versus the evil rich. They are told with too much intelligence and enough humour to escape that, and, perhaps above all, the writing itself is easy and a joy to read.

Expect to encounter amateur cricketers and murderous bandits, whores and priests, street kids and artists. And a whole host of others.

This is most certainly a five star read.

My disclaimer – I received a copy of this book having beta read one of the stories for the author, although I was not asked to write a review. But my admiration for the stories and my pleasure reading them is entirely genuine.

Review of Revolution #1 by Zin Murphy

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It is 1973, and the hero of this story, Ed Scripps, has left England to make his fortune in Portugal.

Portugal, though, is on the cusp of revolution and when it breaks out it seems at first as though it will benefit Ed. He has a keen eye for the business opportunity, and a winning way with the opposite sex, and as the revolution unfolds Ed manages to both win hearts and begin to make money. It looks as though his future is assured.

But as the revolution begins to lose impetus and high ideals give way to the familiar corruption of the old regime, Ed’s life begins to implode as well, reflecting the collapse of the new ideals in the face of a harsh economic climate. In an attempt to recoup his business losses, he soon becomes involved in drug dealing and begins to move among the shady figures of Portugal’s underworld, among whom he is hopelessly out of his depth.

As his monetary struggles increase, he then finds he has lost his wife to another woman, and then his best friend Mark is sucked into a mysterious and vicious cult and Mark’s wife appeals to Ed for help.

With danger seemingly lurking around every corner, Ed decides he must do the right thing.

A realistically complex character, certainly neither wholly black nor white, Ed has few scruples about making money from drug dealing or being serially unfaithful to whichever woman he is with at the time, yet the reader never fails to cheer for him, so sympathetically is he drawn.

This is a thoroughly convincing portrayal of time and place, and a great read that draws you in from the start.