Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Carnegie's Gold: Ali Bacon visits her home town and remembers its benefactor

Over the past two years I’ve spent time and energy defending libraries here in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring local authorities where they are being subjected to ever more drastic cuts. This is partly because as an  ex-librarian (working mainly in the academic sector) I feel for the staff, but more because our local library played such a formative part in my childhood. So much so that it won a starring role in my first novel A Kettle of Fish (which I always hasten to add is nothing to do with my childhood - apart from the locations!)

Of course the library in Dunfermline wasn’t ‘just any library’ but the very first Carnegie Library and we were always being reminded of our debt of gratitude to our famous benefactor. (Andrew Carnegie was a native of the town).

Staircase to the new museum
Having moved south in my twenties, it's a while since I had darkened the door of my old library, until last month, when I was invited to speak at  the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference which was to be exactly there. I was already aware the original building of 1883 had been redeveloped and recently reopened as the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries and so I was both excited and apprehensive to see what had happened to my old stamping ground. 

Well I have to say I was totally wowed, and I don’t think it was just the librarian in me. DCLG won ‘Best building in Scotland’ for 2016 and although I haven’t seen the others I’m not surprised. I took some photos myself, but for the overall feel take a look here

The library now incorporates a museum and art gallery and has a stunning research reading room where its special collections can be accessed. The original lending library is still there for me to have a whiff of nostalgia and I can also say the café (great coffee, home-made cakes!) with its new view of the very ancient Dunfermline Abbey came in pretty handy in the course of our weekend stay.

The new reading room
It’s hard to imagine anything like this £12 million investment happening down here and I wondered if Scotland is just better funded for libraries and culture? Or is it the answer more obvious? Some quick and dirty research revealed funding was shared by the Local Authority, the Heritage Lottery fund and – yes, the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, custodian of the fortune left behind by ‘Uncle Andrew’. 

Of course capital investment is one thing, running costs another, and I see the opening hours of the new place are adequate rather than generous, so even this architectural gem is subject to normal restrictions.

New view of the Abbey and the library garden
Of course Carnegie gets mixed reviews beyond my home town. I was shocked as a teenager to hear of his other reputation as an anti-unionist who built his fortune at the expense of labourers. This reminds me that here in Bristol many of the city’s benefactors are having their names removed from public places because of their involvement in slavery. Putting the rights or wrongs of this to one side, I don’t think it would be possible to remove Carnegie from Dunfermline without dismantling vast swathes of the town, not to mention its collective consciousness : the traditional endearment to children was  ‘all Carnegie’s gold couldna buy ye’.  

Or has that changed now? At least we can see that Carnegie’s gold is still buying quite a lot.

Ali with her display at Undiscovered Dunfermline 

Ali's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye, inspired by a Victorian artist and photographer, will be published in 2018 by Linen Press.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

If Writers Were Bakers and Candlestick Makers - Katherine Roberts

There has been a brilliant hashtag running on Twitter this month called #IfWritersWereBakers. I'm not sure who started it, but if you missed the fun then try a Twitter search and you'll find a whole string of publishing truths that writers encounter sooner or later in the course of their careers.

One of my favourites is this If-Writers-Were-Bakers-style reader review from @Joannechocolat:
"I bought this chocolate cake from you, but when I got it home I found it had chocolate in it. One star."

While @say_shannon tackles the perennial curse of the children's author:
"Ah, so you're a CHILDREN'S baker. Anyone can bake cakes for children. When are you going to bake a proper cake?"

And, with National Novel Writing Month upon us, @MrsTrellis obviously has the right idea:
"I’m taking part in NaNoBaMo. I’ll add an ingredient a day for the whole of November, then I can call myself a baker."

The perfect way to let off steam! Since other writers on this blog have probably encountered more of the same (and bakers have been tackled on Twitter already) I thought I'd extend the concept slightly and let you add you own #IfWritersWere creations in the comments. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

#IfWritersWereCandlestickMakers: "Your candlestick is too long for today's candles."

#IfWritersWereJockeys: "My horse has been handicapped by the computer because the last horse I rode didn't win."

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "Three, two, one... sorry, when did you say your spaceship came out, again?"

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "To explore boldly where no astronaut has ever ventured... love, the copy-editor."*

(*You need to be old enough to remember the original Star Trek to understand this one!)

Over to you...

Katherine Roberts is writing a book about a Roman racehorse to follow in the hoof prints of her Alexander the Great epic "I am the Great Horse", which is now available in this bright orange cupcake - I mean, paperback - edition on demand in time for Christmas.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Running out of juice by Sandra Horn

I’m in a terrible flat spot. I got to poem 38 of the 52 poems challenge and just came to a stop. I made notes for the next two and wrote one verse but just couldn’t go on. For all these past weeks, I’ve just fiddled about with old stuff – poetry and prose – but have not been able to be creative at all. It’s a familiar dilemma, but doesn’t usually last this long. Often in the past, walking somewhere beautiful starts the process going and recently, we’ve been in the Lakes, in glorious sunny weather. Blue skies above just-turning autumn leaves reflected in the water. The roar and magnetic pull of a waterfall in spate. Saddleback blueish in the distance. Evenings around a log fire. A squelchy walk from Pooley Bridge to Barton Church to rescue a wren that might have been trapped in there (it wasn’t). Everything, in fact, to gladden the heart and get the creative juices flowing. Except they didn’t. 

This is a lake, not a story


At one point I put it down to that kindly-meant but deadening thing,  ‘You should write a story about that,’ ‘There’s a story for you, Sandra.’  Etc. I have written about the Lakes walks and other happenings, but they are reports, not stories. It’s curious how often the difference isn’t appreciated by people who are, after all, trying to be helpful and encouraging. It’s quite likely that there is something waiting to be written, but it will take traces of those experiences and transform them into something other. I don’t know what it might be yet – and might not know until the writing is finished and I read it through and it dawns on me where that particular passage could have had its origins. 

This is a sunset, not a story

I was thinking of the difference between reportage and storytelling last night, watching and listening to ‘My Country’, which relied very heavily (and heavily is the operative word) on verbatim speech. It’s a fashion in writing for the theatre too. At the risk of offending large numbers of people who know more about it than I do, I think it’s lazy – and rarely as challenging or engaging as it might be. We know that daily chat is often repetitive, can be clichĂ©-ridden and has not been thought about for long, if at all, before it is uttered. What can we learn from it, much less be excited by it? I think it is the job of a writer to take the raw material, listen hard, think harder, then let the creative forces loose on it. This transformative process is mysterious but it is crucial in the making of stories, which can then be transformative/informative/entertaining/thought-provoking in themselves – or what are they for?
Of course, I could just be riding a hobby-horse here, in a state of total ignorance, but in this long unproductive spell I’m having, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I have written about the Lake District walks to friends, describing such events is not a problem. Give me a topic, and even better, a deadline, and I’ll come up with something. With any luck it will be readable and I can make it amusing  if need be – but what I can’t do at present is the alchemy. I can polish the base metal nicely but it won’t turn into gold. I’m knitting instead! I’m knitting worthily, moreover. Little hats for smoothie bottles (for Age Concern), ‘bonding’ squares for the prem baby unit at St Thomas’s, fingerless gloves for my daughter’s outdoor craft activities. Anything absorbing but not requiring too much skill. And waiting. Waiting for the gleam at the back of my mind, the fiery spark, the – Oh, you know the stuff I mean. It’s elusive because, I suspect, I’ve never tamed it by setting proper time aside each day and being disciplined about writing. I’ve just bumbled along until something sets it off. I have, in the past, tried that business about ‘writing something every day’, ‘write for ten minutes, it doesn’t matter what you write’. The trouble is, it does matter! Ten minutes of uninspiring garbage is ten minutes down the drain. Never yet has it produced anything worthwhile. Back to the knitting. And waiting. And hoping.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Bingeing Fiction by Jan Edwards

My other half and I recently gave in to the wave of nothingness and repeats on Freeview TV and acquired Netflix.  A week on, and several evenings of watching we've only touched the surface the stuff that is available. 
When I say that I now have Netflix people often smile knowingly and utter dire warning of  binge-watching, but a week on I can’t say it has been any different to before.  Oh  I admit there is an awful lot more of it, and it is so very easy to access, but that Curate's egg conundrum of good versus bad in more or less equal measures remains. We’ve done a lot of sampling and/or catching up on things that we've missed. Watched random episodes of things that we’ve only ever heard about before.
My other half likes super-hero fiction whereas I am fairly indifferent to it so perhaps I have not really indulged in bingeing as such. Watching a whole series in a few days is not exactly new to us.  We have bought enough boxsets to prove that! 
So what constitutes binge watching?
That is not really a serious question. If somebody watches Strictly or MOTD or  any of the soaps X many times per week is it binging, or just enjoying the show? I've never missed an episode of Doctor Who but its taken me fifty plus years to do it. Not quite the same as viewing twenty episodes of the same show in a few days I will grant you, but why not follow up something you enjoy?
As I have just seen my script-writing efforts hit the shops as a part of a team in the Whovian oeuvre with White Witch of Devil’s End who am I to decry the completists? I’m one myself after all. 
I have just read another in Peter James's  excellent Roy Grace crime series, the thirteenth in the series? Now I have read those over several years but its not unusual for me to find an author new to me and go back to read their back catalogue is rapid succession. 
Binge reading?
I suspect many if not most of us have favourite fictional characters from our earliest reading onwards. Famous Five or Tracy Beaker eras. Paddington Bear or Horrid Henry.
The success of writers such as the late lamented Terry Pratchett's Discworld is one that also springs to mind. And of course it would be hard to ignore the J K Rowling phenomenon. Having worked as a bookseller I have seen the midnight queuing that occurred when the latest Harry Potter hit the shelves. But does it count as binge reading when there is often a year and more between volumes?
Crime and fantasy fiction are awash with such characters. I can see the attraction in writing them. When we invest so much time in developing characters and filling out the worlds they inhabit it makes sense to make use of them as far as we can.
I have had several short stories published about a diesel punk character by the name of Captain Georgianna Forsythe who investigates paranormal crimes for a secret government department and several more yet to find homes. I like Captain Georgi a lot. I know a lot about her; far more than appears on the written page. Likewise my1940s detective Rose Courtney feels very real to me. The difference between Rose and people in the real world is that I also know her future. I know her likes, dislikes, back history and state of mind through writing Winter Downs.

When we watch or read around familiar characters we are greeting them as virtual friends, and when we write about them we hope that our readers will enjoy their company as much as we do.

For what its worth, if binge-reading exists then for my money it’s not a bad thing.

You can read more about Jan on her blog site Here

Friday, 17 November 2017

Using witchcraft, by Elizabeth Kay

I’ve never liked the use of magic as a convenience, and I’ve always wanted it to have some sort of structure and to be as believable as possible. When I decided that I wanted to write a story about an alternative world, I tried to think of the most magical place I had ever visited. This was Monteverde, up in the cloud forest in Costa Rica in Central America. There really is a study centre there, and a hummingbird garden, and it’s beautiful. And the Continental Divide really is marked out, so that you can stand with a foot on either side. When I remembered that, it got me thinking that it would be a good place to cross from one world to another – but there was a problem. If everyone who straddled The Divide ended up in the other world, thousands of people would have disappeared. There had to be another factor – a pause of some sort. But choosing an
arbitrary number of seconds seemed very artificial, so I chose staying still for the length of a heartbeat, which gave me the idea for the main protagonist’s illness. Once I got him – Felix – into the other world, he then had two ready-made quests – how to get back to his own world, and the search for a magical cure to his illness. I could also populate this world with all my favourite creatures – griffins and unicorns and dragons, and I could invent some of my own as well.
One of the main problems with magic, however, is that it has to have rules, otherwise every problem can be solved with no effort. It takes time to explain these rules, though, which is better suited to an entire book. If you’re using it in a short piece, you need to establish the parameters for the bits you do use. I chose to have spells that needed to be tried and tested and perfected, which meant they could also go wrong, and different creatures had different abilities. If someone was a shape-shifter, there were only two shapes between which to alternate, which simplified things for the reader.
Of course, witchcraft is still believed in abroad, and rules still operate in perhaps a rather different way from before. My only experience of the way these things work is second hand, when my daughter was doing her PhD in the Ivory Coast. The small village where she did some of her fieldwork had three different belief systems. There were the Muslims, a bizarre fundamental Christian sect, and the Animists. I asked how they all got along and the answer was fine – unless there’s a witch hunt in progress, when all the Animists walk around with downcast eyes. This happens when there have been several deaths in a row – a perfectly normal state of affairs every few years in such a society.
“And do they find a witch?” I asked.
            “Oh yes. It’s always the same old lady.”
            “What happens then?”
            “She has to make a sacrifice, and then everything’s ok.”
            “It’s usually a crate of beer, which her sons buy for her. Then the whole village drinks it, and normality is restored. It’s a good system, though. She’s elderly, and she lives on her own. But no one takes advantage of her because they think she’s a witch.”
            My point here is that even in these enlightened times, people can still be afraid of a supposed witch, when the only proof is circumstantial. And if that’s the case now, what was it like before? I think the townsfolk would simply want to hound her out of the village, and burning her house makes perfect sense. But if she really is a witch, rather than a horse whisperer, you need to tell us why she doesn’t simply turn them all into toads!
            Both today and in the past, witchcraft was prevalent in societies which have a magical world view. It’s there to explain the bad things that happen, and offers ways of altering the natural order of things. When coincidences happen, this view is strengthened and the ritual becomes enshrined in the local belief system. Remnants of this are still around in our own society, and usually have their origins in something plausible. It’s unlucky to walk under a ladder because the person working on it may drop something on your head. Beginners’ luck – if you believe this to be a fact, this can be due to confirmation bias. You’re more likely to remember something that fits with your world view. Bad luck comes in threes – confirmation bias again. If two bad things have happened, you’re more likely to be looking out for the third thing, and when it happens you’ll put it down to your superstition rather than the random nature of life which can be really disturbing the more you think about it! Superstitions are self-reinforcing, because if something happens to work in your favour it will be used again, and the expectation that it will be successful is often self-fulfilling as it improves performance because it improves confidence.
            And finally, witchcraft has usually been associated with the conflict between good and evil, and devil worship. If praying to God didn’t work, then you might as well try the other chap. It is mentioned in the Bible – Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, and, much in the way of presidents today, started to overturn everything his predecessor had done once he started to rule. II Chronicles, 33:6 – …used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Leviticus 20:27 A man or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: Witches and wizards are frequently lumped together with criminals – Revelation 21:8 - …murderers, and whore-mongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone…  In other words, they’re all destined for hell. But witchcraft isn’t just the antithesis of Christianity. Even in Rome, black magic was punishable by death. It’s not something consigned to history, either. See: Countries that still kill witches 
            So think very carefully before you use magic in your story – there’s a long catalogue of associations, and the rules must be clear.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Motivation Matters - 10 Tips for Writers

Often when writers get together talk turns to two things;

1. I can’t seem to get motivated
2. I can’t find time to write

When someone says this, I know exactly how they feel. This thing called life always seems to get in the way. Also, most writers have at least a first degree, or maybe even a PhD in procrastination. A writers house is never cleaner than when there is a fast approaching deadline.

So how do we overcome this and settle down to some actual writing. First let us consider this:

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, 
you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’

Henry Ford

Something has to change to help us to move forward. There are several ways we can do this.

1. Mindset matters - the way your brain thinks is going to happen is what will happen
2. It’s time to change your mind - tell yourself you can. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain
3. Do 5 minutes of free writing before you start writing for the day. This can be on any topic you choose, or something daft. How about the night life of a paper clip. Have fun.
4. Dare to be different. Change your morning routine. Wear different clothes. Have a different breakfast. This will tell your brain today is going to be different.
5. Step away from the phone. Okay a bit of a joke, but seriously switch off social media. Everywhere. Switch off notifications on any device you are using.
6. Change your location. This can be as simple as within the house. If you write on a desktop this can be more tricky, however do some planning using good old fashioned paper and pen.
7. Write anywhere and everywhere you can. Utilise spare ten minutes here and there. I have made a joke on social media of posting photos of places I am writing. In the last week it has been The Skoda Garage, first class on Virgin Trains, Harrods Tea Room and Foyles Tea Room. Not got a laptop. Download Evernote on your phone and write on that. You can copy and paste when you get to your computer
8. Change your location part 2. Go to a cafe, library, local park or anywhere where you don’t usually write. Again your brain will think in different ways. Also these places seem to think you’re a bit strange if you start cleaning.
9. Write in a different way, change from computer to paper and pen or vice versa. Use a different colour pen or font. Start at a different part of the book.i
10. When you finish for the day end in the middle of a sentence. Then complete it when you start again. Your brain will carry on naturally.

I have screeds more top tips, but let’s leave them for another day. You’ve writing to do, and now is the perfect time to start.

Wendy H Jones is the award winning author of the 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

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

This Little Piggy Went to Market: by Jane Thornley

I just launched a new book and it was horrible--not the book, the process. Launching a new book used to be a thrill that naturally followed months of hard work tangled in bouts of magical thinking. This time the entire event fizzled. Actually, it hit me more like a punch in the gut. 

Blame too much marketing. Though the launch itself was no better or worse than any of the previous five times, my response was not—no virtual fireworks, no sense of accomplishment, no kudos, either internally or externally. In fact, I was a mess, sinking into growly misery. For weeks leading up to the launch, I hung a sign on my door warning my friends that I was not suitable for human consumption and, afterwards, I just moaned as I studied my stats. All the joy from what should be for any writer a momentous achievement, simply evaporated. 

And now, weeks later, I finally know why: it's because this little piggy went to market forgetting that it's not all about bringing home the bacon and thus got roasted alive. I tried too hard. I'd been chewing off huge chunks of marketing advice while listening to a legion of experts (and believe me, the experts are proliferating almost as quickly as ebooks on Amazon) until it felt as though I was choking on a giant hairball.
Everyone had suggestions for maximizing a new book’s first days in the world—how to get it noticed, how to get it read. Hit the bestseller list! Make readers buy your book! Multiple gurus are capitalizing on strategies for marketing this or that to indie authors, from Amazon ads to Facebook strategies. These experts promote courses and webinars and newsletters. They chatter away about blurbs and covers and self-promotion. Crow now, write later. 

I bought it all, literally, and crowed my throat raw. I flaunted my book in all venues possible using all the technigues learned. On the advice of one copywriter, I tried his blurb that better describes a comic book character than my protagonist  ("...she scales tall buildings.") while applying the BUY ME NOW labels to all all my ads. Really, it was nauseating. I was nauseating. Why couldn't I market while still being true to my own voice the way I used to? Because I'd amputated that voice in the name of the latest (desperate, competitive) marketing expertise.

Finally, I woke up--I mean, really woke up--and scaled it all back. I couldn't stand myself. It's not that all the gurus are wrong--their suggestions are valid and we are all struggling with the same issues--but that doesn't mean I need to swallow everything whole.  

Now I'm starting to breathe again. The book is doing fine while, more importantly, I'm doing much better. I've regained my equilibrium. I'm back to writing with that old magic and excitement streaming back in. I still market, of course, but more slowly and in a more measured fashion. These days, I apply my brain as the default position and only sprinkle in the advice of others.

And what have I learned, you ask? How about that marketing books is not the same as marketing cornflakes and that this little piggy doesn't have to get singed to bring home the bacon?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Breaking the Rules…. by Louise Boland

What feels like a lifetime ago (but was actually only last year), I used to work in the energy sector. We specialised in selling gas and electricity to business customers.  There!  I see you turning away already.  It’s dull, isn’t it?  

Before, at parties, when people asked what I did and I told them, this is what would happen: First, their eyes would glaze over, then they’d look down at their wine glass and discover they were in urgent need of a top-up, and then they would scurry away. 

Nowadays of course, I can tell people I’m a writer and a publisher, and that creates an entirely different reaction.  For everyone either loves reading books, thinks they can write a book, has written a book, or knows someone who has and who needs help getting it published.   (As a little side note for my old friend, Valpy – I still don’t think I have scope for publishing Pylon of the Month, but if there are any other commissioning editors out there looking for new material, then do check it out They want to put together a ‘best of’ collection.) 

But one of the biggest differences between energy and publishing is how they handle RULES.  In the energy section, you can’t move for rules, there are hundreds of documents containing them. It’s exhausting, but at least it’s all written down. 

What I have been struggling with in the book publishing sector is that there are also rules, but these are all UNWRITTEN and they’re mostly based on the logic of ‘Well… that’s how everyone does it.’ 

Over time I’ve come to understand that some of these rules are there because its easiest for everyone. Publishers send out review copies to the press in time for their deadlines, so that the papers can come out as the book is being released.  If you try to step outside these timelines, it just confuses everyone. 

But some of the rules are based on perceived commerciality.  Publishers want to sell what they know will sell.  And the safest way to do that is to publish what is already selling.  That is all very well, but the difficulty comes when writers are told that because their book isn’t what is currently selling, they should change it to something that is.  And so writers of fantastic literary fiction switch to writing crime, as their agent says it will be easier to pitch.  And people who write fiction which is less than 60,000 words get told by their agents to bump it up to 80,000 or even 90,000 before it stands a chance of being sent anywhere.  

At the moment, this bizarre WORD COUNT RULE is my biggest bug bear. 

There’s a great picture on the Bookfox blog site, called ‘Know Your Fiction Lengths’ ( where John Fox has laid out in an easy to see way, how many words your fiction must be to count as flash fiction, short story, novelette (didn’t even know there was such a thing!), novella, novel and (love it…) Russian Novel. 

This is really handy for authors who want to understand the publishing industry’s unwritten word count rules.  Crucially he warns authors to Mind the Gaps – ‘A 50k book is hard to place’ and to Mind the $$$s – only novels between 80,000 and 10,000 make money, anything else is ‘art and fun’. Great words of wisdom and super helpful for those authors who want to get an agent or publisher to consider their work. 

But I’m not having it.  Where would we be if everyone followed the rules like this? The world would be missing some fantastic fiction.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? 46,118 words.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? 49,459. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? a severely lacking 59,900. (Ok that last one’s not a great example as I guess he could have found another 100 words without ruining it too much if called upon…) 

At Fairlight Books, we encourage writers of literary fiction to submit their work to us whatever the length. If it’s a great story and great fiction, then please don’t consign it to the bottom drawer just because you know in your heart of hearts it will ruin it to make it twice the length. 

Farlight Books Logo
At the moment we have a passion for novellas.  So please spread the word.  No word limit rules at Fairlight Books.  We are open to submissions of literary fiction of ANY LENGTH!!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Anthologies and Writing Groups by Ann Evans


 Stories To Make You Smile is the new anthology put together by the Coventry Writers' Group. It's their fourth collection of members work. The first being Coventry Tales 1 which also took first place in an anthology competition, winning the group, I believe, £250. Then came Coventry Tales 2, and Christmas Tales, and now this one. As you'll gather from the title, it's a look at the lighter side of life with this collection.

Writing can be quite a solitary occupation so it's nice to meet up with fellow writers and work on a joint project such as an anthology. After writing our first a few years ago, we staged a performance at a local theatre, with wine and nibbles as an added incentive; and performed stories, plays and poetry to a full house. We've also done book signing events at the city centre library and in Waterstones.

Now that it's fairly easy to publish as print on demand, producing an anthology of members' work is a logical thing to do. It gives all the members a reason to get writing, it provides an option to learn about proof reading and editing, then of course there's the publishing and marketing side of things – so all good practice. And of course for some people having a story or poem published in an anthology, is the first thing they've ever had published, so gives them a huge boost.

Coventry Writers Group

Probably the best advice you can give anyone who is interested in writing, is to join a writing group.  I joined the Coventry Writers' Group back in the 1980s. Some good friendships have developed through the group, but of course people come and go and there's lots of old faces that stop coming for whatever reason, and you never see them again.

I'm pretty certain that the CWG began in the 1960s and we've met at a variety of different venues over that time. We now have the perfect venue. We meet in The Big Comfy Bookshop, which is set in a quirky 'village' of unusual and indepentant shops and little craft-type businesses. It lives up to its name with big comfy chairs and sofas, tables and coffee tables, and you can have wine, beer, tea and coffee and home made cake. It's also a hive for poetry performances and book signings. What could be more appropriate and inspiring than being surrounded by thousands of books as we chat about writing? 

Michael owner of the Big Comfy Bookshop

 Anyone else belong to a writing group? And do you fnd it useful?
If you'd like to buy a copy of Stories to Make You Smile:

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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dare to Become Better Sinners--Reb MacRath

There's no joy in watching an average sinner burn. But there's more fun in viewing the flights of the best than in hearing an angel hosanna.

Now, before your knickers start doing The Twist, as the British like to say, I mean saints and sinners in writing. And I'll start with a few wee examples to help set the stage for my rant. In fact, let's make this a brief game, with your identifying the relevant sin. The examples are taken from Sullivan's Sting, a delightful mystery by Lawrence Sanders, one of my favorite writers.

1) Mrs. Winslow was happy she'd worn her basic black and pearls, for all the women were in evening gowns and the men...were spiffy in white dinner jackets and plaid cummerbunds. She was introduced around and everyone was just as nice as they could be. Champagne was served in crystal flutes.

2) "Mort, I told you not to bet," Nancy said morosely. "David always wins. I need another drink."

3) More regulars came in; the tables filled up; someone fed the jukebox; the joint began to jump.

4) They drank a little wine. They danced to "You're the Top." They drank a little wine. They danced to "I Get a Kick Out of You." They drank a little wine. They danced to "Let's Fall in Love." They drank a little wine. They danced to "Anything Goes," and stopped.

5) The (mural's) painted sun looked like a toasted English muffin.

1) There's a whole lot of was-ing going on here. And the Style Nazis (SNs) forbid it, of course. Always use the active voice? Absurd. Bertie Winslow, a rich older lady, has been taken to a party peopled by a handsome con man's shills. The passive voice reflects her own passive, deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the promise of quick riches.

2) Morosely is an adverb, forbidden by the SNs. From Elmore Leonard to Stephen King, even bestselling authors deplore the use of adverbs. But--and it's a huge But, the size of Kim Karsashian's--used judiciously, an adverb can help the reader. It's far lazier for a writer to delete all adverbs than to use them where they count. If a character turns his head slowly, by all means let that 'slowly' remain. Ditto, if he or she says something triumphantly. P.S. : In flipping through King's IT, I found adverbs in abundance.

3) Jesus Christ, three semicolons in a single sentence? Replace them, though, with periods and you get a string of choppy schoolboy sentences instead of a one smoother, complex one that shows a bar coming to life.

4) Now, what the bloody hell is this? Haven't the SNs warned us to avoid all rhetoric and stylistic flourishes that call attention to themselves? And yet, for God's sake, here we have four parallel pairs of  short sentences that begin and end identically, except for the name of tune...then those last two words 'and stopped.' But here the rhetoric comes to life with a last brief paragraph:

 They went to his bedroom. The sheets were silk, and he couldn't get enough of her.

5) Hell, even the greenest of newbies knows to avoid adjectives and similes. But here, with an undercover agent scamming a flim flam man before a Florida mural, the sentence does just its job. Try removing 'painted' and/or 'toasted', and see for yourself.

Now, I found occasions in Sullivan's Sting where the prolific author could have used the active voice. For all I know, he should have. But these occasions didn't trouble me. Far from it. I'd rather read a great author who slips than a loser who licks SNs' boots.

Some may argue that times have changed and that the SNs reflect our day's taste. To which I answer: Izzat so? Last night I returned from vacation to find two books in my Amazon locker: The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Today's agents would have rejected each mystery on the sins of their first paragraphs.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

In each case, the passive verbs set us up brilliantly for the first paragraph's last pop. Sam Spade looks rather pleasantly like a blond satan. (Three modifiers--no, no, no!) And Philip Marlowe lets us know after four successive passives when why he's so well-dressed and sober.

In each case, we're hooked though so many rules have been broken. And we'll all do well to keep them in mind whenever the SNs' mad whispers try to beat us down. We may have caved in times past, but there's still time for all of us to become better sinners and break more rules in bolder ways because they've been written by writers...not slaves.

This cry for freedom comes from your old pal,



Here are two selections for you to grade, using what you've learned.

1) As written by Dashiell Hammett: 
"That--that story I told you yesterday was all--a story," she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes.
    "Oh, that," Spade said lightly. "We didn't exactly believe your story."
    "Then--?" Perplexity was added to the misery an fright in her eyes.
    "I mean that you paid us more than if you'd been telling th truth," he explained blandly, "and enough more to make it all right."

2) As rewritten by Miss Grundy:
 "That--that story I told you yesterday was all--a story," she said, and looked up at him now.
    "Oh, that," Spade said. "We didn't exactly believe your story."
    "I mean that you paid us more than if you'd been telling the truth," he said, "and enough more to make it all right."