Wednesday, 21 March 2018

World Poetry Day - Katherine Roberts

Today is World Poetry Day, which was started by the United Nations in 1999 to celebrate poetry as a way for society to regain and assert its identity.

The thing I've come to realize about poets, as opposed to novelists or other types of writers, is that they don't expect to make a living from their poetry alone, even if it gets published widely. It seems to me that this detachment of art from commerce might be to poetry's benefit, as there is presumably less temptation for a poet to "sell out" in pursuit of a lucrative contract, dumbing down or otherwise editing their work to appeal to the widest possible audience (as it's been suggested I do by various agents and editors in the course of my career as a children's author - my resistance to this idea is possibly the reason why I am not more widely published as a children's author, and why I can identify with poets!).

I remember attending a poetry festival some years ago where, after the poet Selima Hill had read from her latest collection, a member of the audience asked what she did for money. With a wry smile, Selima said she did what most other people did - got a day job. Indeed, if you follow the link to Selima Hill's page, you'll find this quote by Rob Long that sums up the whole writerly dilemma: "Being a writer is a bit like being a shepherd: it's quaint, people envy the solitude, but everyone knows the real money is in synthetic fibers." - Rob Long, Conversations with My Agent.

I know if I write a poem, it's usually in response to some emotional event, either in the world or in my own private life. I have written 150,000 word novels and sprawling fantasy trilogies, but when emotions run deep and dark, sometimes only a poem will do. The container may be small, but this very smallness appears to give the words contained within a magical power.

modern Morin Khur
(Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of my favourite poems is Paul Muldoon's Medley for Morin Khur, which I came across as poem of the week in The Guardian just as I was wondering how to tackle the spiritual aspect of my novel 'Bone Music', and which seems to encompass the UNESCO World Poetry Day ethos. On the surface, it's a poem about the traditional Mongolian horse-head violin, but underneath of course it is so much more:
Medley for Morin Khur by Paul Muldoon.

If you want to read more of Paul's work, this poem also appears in his 2006 collection Horse Latitudes

As a child I was given a copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry selected by Louis Untermeyer which still sits on my shelf, long after I donated all my childhood fiction to charity shops. Children's poems are often playful or educational or both. Here's one that obviously must have appealed to the fledgling fantasy author in me, though a little bit of punctuation applied in the middle of each line makes the impossible possible.

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud wrapped with ivy round
I saw an oak creep along the ground
I saw a pismere swallow up a whale
I saw the sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass five fathoms deep
I saw a well full of men's tears that weep
I saw red eyes all of a flaming fire
I saw a house bigger than the moon and higher
I saw the sun at twelve o'clock at night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight.

Bonus point if you have a 10-year-old who knows what a pismere is!

There are so many brilliant poems out there to explore, and more being written every day. No doubt there will be an event near you to celebrate Word Poetry Day, but if you can't find one or are curious to know how poets (and other writers) work, you might enjoy this podcast published weekly by the Royal Literary Fund and available free on iTunes.

Writers Aloud podcast


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. Her young adult novel Bone Music about the young Genghis Khan, featuring a legendary version of the morin khur, is published on 5th April by Greystones Press and available for preorder now.

Bone Music

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A touch of The Other? by Sandra Horn

A most delightful primary school near Gloucester will be performing Tattybogle the Musical for their Easter show, so they invited me to spend a day with the year 1 and 2 children, reading stories and answering questions. Year 1 had prepared written questions  – very impressive for such small people!  Year 2’s were spontaneous. My favourite was ‘What’s your daddy’s name?’ One smart little girl also worked out how old I was by asking how long ago I’d written Tattybogle and how old I was then.
My absolutely top part of the day was a Year 1 written question: when did you becom the Other? It set me thinking about how much of ‘the other’ we are as authors. Are we a breed apart? A series of sub-species, rather, since there are several distinct types of writer? Or, can anyone and everyone write stories? The short answer is, I suppose, yes, anyone can, but whether or not they should, and then put them out for public consumption, is another matter entirely. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I’d taken part in a Book Show, at which authors showed their wares. There was a mixture of self-published and traditionally-published work. It ranged from impressive to ... not so great, as one might expect. Two of the more interesting books contained acknowledgements to ‘friend and critic’ and 'for proof-reading, corrections and support’. There’s the clue.

Participants were also invited to give short talks. The speakers were notable for the confidence they displayed in their work, unlike most writers I know, who tend to be anxious and overly self-critical. One who stood out was a freelance editor, who told us how much we needed her help with books we have wrote, and talked about people publishing books theirselves.  Shocking. It reminded me of a very delightful couple, a husband and wife,  I met a few years ago who had sunk a small fortune into a children’s book they’d written and illustrated. They’d had a print run of hardbacks, commissioned toys to go with the story and an elaborate display stand made like a windmill. They were going to donate a proportion of the profits they made to charity. I bought a copy. When I got it home, I was horrified at the number of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and typos. Then I had a distraught phone call from the woman. She asked me what I thought of the book, as they’d just had a very angry, rude letter from someone who’d bought a copy, pointing out all the errors,  asking them how they dared to put it on the market, and demanding their money back. I mumbled something about the importance of proof-reading, and she said they had employed someone to do that. A charlatan, obviously. He’d said he was a journalist and so they had trusted him – and paid him handsomely. I felt so badly for them. They lacked experience of how the world of publishing works and had been shafted. All their dreams were in tatters and their money wasted, but they had tried to do the right thing and employ someone they believed to be a professional to help them. 
My experiences at the Book Show made me think hard about the rash of self-published books we are seeing now. On the one hand, it’s great, and I have benefitted hugely from being able to produce some of my own work this way, as have many of us. I don’t want to deny anyone else the same opportunities, do I? No, BUT when a book has been put together without what one might call ‘due process’ – subjected to critical appraisal, with the emphasis on critical, rewritten as a result, re-re-written if necessary, edited, proof-read, etc. etc.  then presented to the world with more confidence than it might warrant, it makes me quite unreasonably angry. I’m not even sure why. Perhaps I’m just being snobby and don’t want my books to be lumped in with these others. I should remember that The Silkie was kindly, firmly and privately criticised for its layout and font by writers with my best interests at heart, so who am I to talk? 

More years ago now than I care to count, a small bunch of us set up a writing group. It’s still going strong, although we have lost two of the original members to death and have had to fight to fend off people who were desperate to join us but did not want constructive criticism. ‘Say what you like, I’m not changing anything,’was one memorable comment, about a long convoluted plot full of obvious holes. Two recently-new members are made of different stuff, however, and contribute hugely to the work. Our manifesto when we set up the group was that we would not start by seeking publication: we would write, bring copies, read aloud and listen to criticism with an open mind, rewrite as necessary, and go on until we had ‘found our voices’. Only then would we consider submitting the work to publishers. It has been invaluable. I wish some of the people who set out on the rocky road to publishing, by self or other, could have the benefit of a group of like-minded, fiercely critical writers to help them keep up to scratch – although I know that some brilliant writers have to plough the lonely furrow and couldn’t bear to be part of such a setup. However a writer works, they don’t just dash something down and put it out without further thought. They are self-aware, self-critical. It is these attributes, along with the willingness to craft, hone, fettle, and go on no matter how long it takes or how much effort, that separates writers out. Perhaps we really are the Other.  

Monday, 19 March 2018

Of Dog Food and Candle Wax by Jan Edwards

You know how it is – somebody mentions a particular subject on Facebook or Twitter, which sparks that domino effect of comments, which often stray off topic, interweaving with the original post but following trains of thought from a dozen, two dozen and more people.
You watch the thread build and add to the chatter but in your head the memories are sparked of things only related to the subject by tenuous fibres of thought. It is the catching those thoughts that can be essential to a writer.
Last night I danced on the edges of a thread that dealt with the subject of eating pet food. Specifically who had would own up to sampling dog or cat food, when and of what kind.
It is the kind of topic that at one time you would only ever have heard in the dying hours of a party. Who was going to own up to eating dog food after all?
Quite a number as it turned out. Dog biscuits seemed the most popular choice for the gourmet pet owner. Bonios and Spillers Shapes being the most mentioned.
d pitI shared my reminiscence of the pie we kids were subjected to several times every term, (and by pie I am talking two layers of thick stodgy pastry enclosing a thin smear of pink threads). The school cooks insisted it was Corned Beef Slice but we kids knew better. We just ‘knew’ that what we were actually being served was, in fact, ‘Kitty-Kat’ pie.
But the memory I kept back, not wishing to hog the thread, was from my very distant childhood (late 1950s) and far closer to the topic in hand.
The farm on which my father worked in Sussex was of the old fashioned kind even then and in order to phone the Vet  he had to walk down to the main farm yard (our cottage was a mile out, along a bridle path).
The estate manager whose phone Pop used in those cases (we did not have one at the cottage) was a ruddy-faced chap of the old school who went for the name of Bowles, with his wife who was of the same ilk. They might almost have stepped straight out of the Darling Buds of May. They worked hard and concerned themselves over the important things of life such as the care of stock and getting crops raised and harvested.  Mrs Bowles especially had an ‘eat drink and be merry’ philosophy on life; and here is where we get to the point of this rambling tale.
Pop needed to call the vet and because on this occasion Mother was cleaning at the ‘Main House’ I happened to be trailing in his wake (I was aged perhaps four or five).
old-farmhouse-kitchen-vintage-farmhouse-kitchen-decor-farmhouse-kitchen-table-benchMrs Bowles’s kitchen was typical of its time and type. Aga range at one end, huge dresser at the other that was crammed with plates, and mugs and other knick-knacks, sheaves of invoices, half burned candles in ancient tin holders, discarded hoof knives and farm detritus that had been brought in over years and abandoned where it lay; and all of it covered in a substantial and largely undisturbed pall of dust. The only ‘clean’ parts to be seen were the telephone handset and a pile of scrap paper left there for the taking of messages.
Even I at my tender years realised she was not remotely house proud, but then she didn’t really have the time when she had six kids and was in charge of raising any sickly animals as well as the chickens and other poultry in the yard. So it is with this in mind that you have to imagine this picture.
Mrs Bowles in her men’s shirt and trousers and a wrap-around pinny, standing at the table beating a large ball of bread dough into submission on the huge scrubbed oak table that dominated the room.
She greeted us cheerily and nodded to the phone and as Pop went to make his call I stood politely near the door trying not to let anything touch me.
il_340x270.1220247399_6t0kAt that point a chicken came scuttling and squawking from under the table, followed by a small dog. Looking underneath the table was a sight I shall recall always – and yes we have reached the punch line – there were several chickens, two dog, three piglets and the youngest two of Mrs B’s tribe (one dressed in vest and underpants and the other in vest only), all eating dog biscuits from the same vast metal dish.
That’s an image that will stay with you forever, and one I shall use in writing as some point. Never a memory wasted, provided I remember to write them down.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Reading your work to an audience, by Elizabeth Kay

Writers can be shy retiring creatures, preferring their stories to remain quietly on the page. However, there comes a time when more is required, and hiding behind the printed word is no longer an option. If you're doing well you may be paid to do it. You may have an audience of hundreds, or an audience of three. Or it may be that self-promotion means you have to do it for free, with few obvious sales. Remember, though, that the person who listened avidly, read the whole of the first chapter on the sales stand and bought nothing may remember it in the future, when a present is needed, or a recommendation, or holiday reading is on the agenda. What's required can differ wildly. There are straightforward readings from books, when merely being audible can be enough – as long as there’s a mic, and you remember you’re meant to speak into it. It depends what you write, though. If there's a lot of dialogue you may have to manage different accents, as well as threatening characters or terrified victims or, in the case of children's books, tigers or steam engines or fairies. You need to become an actor. This is no bad thing, as the introverted anti-social hermit you may be in reality has to take a back seat, and Joe Bloggs, crimewriter, has to take the stage. He needs to be one of your characters, and may bear little resemblance to your real self. Practice in front of the mirror. Film yourself on your tablet or your computer, and play it back. Joe may need a special hat, or scarf, or make-up, anything that lets you transform yourself as completely as Superman in a phone box. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

     Questions about your work can be another matter. There are the standard ones which crop up over and over again. Where do you get your ideas? How much do you earn? Have you met J.K.Rowling/Anthony Horowitz/Stieg Larsson? (He died fourteen years ago. Really? Are you sure?) It’s only once in a while you get a question that totally throws you. I was at a conference in Ukraine, and reading a passage from The Divide to a group of eleven-year-old children, who then lined up in a very orderly fashion to ask me questions in perfect English. “Can you tell me please,” said a bespectacled boy with a serious face, “whether the fantasy world in your book reflects the social values in the United Kingdom?”
     The biggest struggle I had was with poetry, despite the fact that the poets usually outnumber the audience. Trying to stop my hands shaking was really hard. Open mic sessions are unpredictable, and although people tend to go on for far too long the opposite can be just as difficult. You may decide that the poems you have chosen are totally unsuitable. Too graphic, not graphic enough, too many

swear words, wrong subject matter. And the really good one you wrote about your aunt’s dementia is right out when an elderly lady wanders in with a carer, and keeps asking where the changing rooms are and whether the water will be warm. This is when your Kindle can be invaluable, if you have your work on it. Remember you can import files as well as your own books. It's usually easier to find things on a Kindle than on a tablet or phone, as the font on your phone can simply be too small, even when you enlarge it. In the picture I'm reading from my poetry pamphlet, The Spirit Collection. Some people have prodigious memories, and can recite their poems from memory. I can’t. These days I have trouble remembering whether I put the car keys in the fridge or the oven. You need to hold your Kindle high enough so that your head isn’t buried in your chest, and the words have been lost down your cleavage – if you have one, of course. Humour never seems to win big poetry competitions, but it’s gold dust at an open mic session. Because you’re looking at your text rather than the audience, you have little idea how your work is being received. But raise a laugh, actually hear a positive reaction, and your confidence rises like a lark. Detecting someone snoring can have the opposite effect, of course, but you can put it down to the beer as the gathering is usually in a pub.
     Reading your work aloud is beneficial in many ways. You find out where people are amused, where they’re holding their breath with excitement, where they’re monumentally bored. You get to hear other people, witness their triumphs and disasters and learn from them. With practice, you can even start to ad lib. Poking fun at yourself or your birthplace is to be recommended. I attended a talk by Eoin Colfer at a conference, who, being Irish is a master at it. It was a Sunday, and there had been a certain amount of alcoholic revelry on the Saturday night. Ten minutes into the talk a door opened, and five or six people shuffled shame-facedly in, trying to be inconspicuous and sit down at the back. “Ah,” said Eoin brightly, “I see the Irish contingent has arrived.”

Friday, 16 March 2018

Writing More, Writing Faster - 10 Top Tips by Wendy H. Jones

I am sure we are all in agreement that at times our writing can seem like wading through treacle with lead boots on our feet. Other times it feels like we are flying and our fingers can't keep up with the words. Hands up who agrees?

Recently I've had so much on my mind that at times writing has taken a back seat. However, my mojo has reappeared and the words can't get out fast enough. What changed for me? Basically I got more organised. Here's how. 

1. Make sure your desk is cleared before you finish for the day. When I was in the Army we operated a clear desk policy. Coming back to a desk which doesn't look cluttered frees the mind and allows creative thoughts to flow.

2. The one caveat to the above is leave the document you want to work on open on your computer. This allows you to get straight into your writing the next day. Starting the computer, opening documents etc. allows your mind to think about other things. Before you know it you've spent 3 hours on FaceTwit and not one word written other than 'cute kitten' on someone's post. 

3. Train your mind to write the minute you sit at a keyboard. If the first thing you do at a keyboard is answer emails or do other tasks then your mind will think that's what it should be doing every time you sit at a keyboard. 

4. Prioritise your writing. Make it the first thing you do after shower and breakfast. 

5. Use very spare minute to write something. If you've got a five minute gap, then write. Use a notebook, notes app on phone, whatever you want to use, but write.

6. Jot down every thought you have about your book and keep it in a file. I use Evernote, but you can use anything you want. Whatever helps you and keeps the words flowing. 

7. Give your mind permission to write. Seems strange I know, but if you have a to do list with Writing at the top, then your mind has permission to leave those other things until later. It doesn't need to be cluttered up with things you might forget. 

8. Use word sprints to get more writing done. Your mind is better able to cope with 5, 10 or 20 minutes than staring at a blank page for a whole day. 

9. Jot down ideas about what you re going to write about that day. It doesn't have to be a full blown plan, but if your mind has a general idea of where you are headed it's more likely to take off and lead you down that path.

10. I've said this before but I'm saying it again. Seriously leave your phone elsewhere and shut off the internet on your computer. In today's society we are all trained to respond instantly to the ping of an incoming alert. Those running social media want us to be trained that way for obvious reasons. No one is going to die if you don't like that picture of a cute kitten. 

I hope this has helped. If you would like more ideas and tips then  check out Chris Fox's book 'Lifelong Writing Habit'. I can highly recommend it.


About the Author

Wendy H Jones is the Amazon Number 1 best-selling author of the award winning DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, Motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival. She has just edited a Lent Book, published by the Association of Christian Writers


Amazon Author Page



Thursday, 15 March 2018

Crack Me Open: On Getting a Literary Education by Jane Thornley

Nobody told me that receiving a good literary education was not the slow comfortable journey I expected so much as cracking myself open over and over again. I was nineteen.

I was required to climb monumental walls of my own preconceptions only to crash-land again and again on the other side. Everything was both more beautiful and more brutal than I could ever have imagined. And me, soft-shelled and Pollyanna-like, was not ready for the truth in all its variations.    

In retrospect, I only recall the little moments that pushed me over the edge. Maybe those are the important ones, after all. Here's an example of a tiny shove: I walked into a classroom late one day and there stood my Irish Canadian professor reading a poem about the seal hunt. This wasn't one of those cute-fluffy-pups-how-dare-they-slaughter-them poems but a raw bloody tale of men striving to survive doing what they'd always done. I'm sorry to say that I don't recall the name of the poem or the poet but I remember my horror and pain. I can tell you that many men died on the ice floes of northern Labrador and that poem laid bare all the raw, bloody, and painful truth of human toil pitted simultaneously against nature.

My professor cried as though he'd lost a friend among those frozen souls while I found myself crying for the whole pathos of the situation. Even more importantly for my education, that day I watched a grown man cry over a poem. I didn't realize that men could weep openly let alone weep openly over poetry. Men only wept at funerals and hockey games, right? And surely no one read poetry after high school. I grew up as a farmer's daughter who's dad "made good" as a car salesman. No men read poems in our house let alone cried over one. But those words and the way that man read it caused something massive to shift inside me, not the least of which was my admiration for men who read poetry and wept.

So when the day came for another professor to ask each student to stand and read a line from Sylvia Plath's Berc-Plage, I was ready to crack open again. I read: "This is the sea, then, this great abeyance. How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation." And she asked me why I emphasized where I did and in doing so taught me the weight of words. Words not only have meaning, but the reader participates in the emergence of that meaning while a speaker adds cadence and significance. The writer and the reader construct meaning together. We are a team. Suddenly, being a reader took on enormous importance, and I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to keep on reading, yes, but also to live in and with the written word.

For days, I'd recite that poem to myself, pealing back the layers of the world I thought I knew to test it against the one emerging. Now I began to understand what it meant to feel so vividly that it was like slicing your wrists against all the sharp edges of living. But pain was so wearing. Plath eventually committed suicide as did my next muse, Virginia Wolf, and really, I began to think that dying in that manner was all a bit too self-indulgent. Reading such angst caused me to turn away towards a brighter world view, though I continued to read widely and deeply from then on. For four more years, I penned poetry and read great literature. Eventually I fell in love with the novel and began writing them in secret at the rate of roughly one a year, each shoved into a drawer and buried.

I did not show my writing to a living soul. After all, my books were not great (serious) literature, they were genre. To me, genre was the equivalent of sludge. If I were ever to bump into one of my old professors, I doubt I'd even admit that I published at all. They'd expect something different of me, something literary, but studying Sylvia and Virginia taught me that it's all right to be entertaining because to be literary meant to be depressed. In fact, maybe genre writers live longer.

I've long since learned that one can write great literature without grinding down into sorrow but I am still content to entertain for the masses. I am a light-weight. Happy endings count for something, after all.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Novella.... Novella... Novella.... by Louise Boland

Fairlight Moderns
Ask anyone to name a famous literary novella and odds on they’ll pick something written before the middle of the twentieth century: Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea? 1952. Animal Farm? 1945.  Heart of Darkness? Back… back… way back to 1899…. 

And yet a quick scan of Amazon (other ebook platforms are available) shows how, in contrast, genre fiction today comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You want your sci-fi hit as a short story? a novella? a six-book box set? No problem. Literary fiction? Nope, novel-length only please. 

Discussing this strange situation with some writer friends, it’s easy to see how this has come about.   Send a great manuscript in to a literary agent these days that has less than 80,000 words and you’ll be advised to go home, get your pen out and not come back until you’ve managed a respectable 90,000.  And pitch up with something less than 60,000? You won’t even get out the slush pile. As a writer turned publisher, this just seemed crazy to me. And rightly so it seems as since we publicly opened our doors to submissions of literary fiction of ANY length at Fairlight Books, some of the best writing we’ve received has been that with a mid-ranging word count – anything from long short stories by exceptionally talented short story / flash fiction writers to fantastic itsy-bitsy mini-novels that haven’t made the word count elsewhere.  

So I’m very excited to say we’re going to be publishing these middle length fictions, starting from July 2018, as a series called the Fairlight Moderns.  

This is Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn.  Sophie is an award-winning flash fiction writer, and we’re so excited to be publishing her first work of longer fiction. 

Set in Romania in the 1970s, it follows Alina, who becomes a person of interest to the secret services when her brother-in-law defects to the West.

Told in a series of short flash fictions, and weaving in a bit of magic realism along the way, it’s a stunning literary debut.

And this is Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany, a short story writer born and raised in Dunedin, New Zealand, who now lives in Cornwall.

Set in the wild and unreliable landscape of southern New Zealand, the novella is an evocative story of a woman coming to terms with her past as she journeys with her son back to her home town. 

Details of these and other novellas in the series can be found on our website at:

As a writer, I always found it frustrating to be told to stretch a story out beyond what felt like its natural limit, so if you have an unpublished mid-length literary fiction work in your bottom drawer that has been butchered, stretched and abandoned, then please feel free to go back to the original version and send it to us. We'd love to see it!