Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ask yourself this

I was reading The Guardian recently and wondering why the Review section doesn't have a column for aspiring writers. Actually, that's a bit of a fib. I know why because I proposed such a piece and they politely declined, saying they prefer to commission in-house or to work with people they already have a relationship with.

However, my point still stands. Where - blogs aside - are the advice columns from aspiring writers? The ones who don't say 'this is what worked for me and here's the proof', but dosay 'this never worked for me at all' or even 'this seems to be working for me although you won't find my books on the shelves yet'?

Despite the well-worn advice to be original, I suspect most writers are looking for a route into publication that has been at least tiptoed through by somebody else. And yet, ironically, each of us is nothing like anybody else. Which is why I thought I'd use this post to do the kind of interview I'd like to see in a writing magazine.

These are the rules:
a) No links.
b) No plugs.
c) Ask yourself and answer the questions you think other people (especially other writers) might want to know about you.
d) Be honest.

Here we go then...

1. What sort of writer are you?
I ask myself that everyday. My standard response is that I write fiction, non-fiction and comedy. But the truth is that I don't know what sort of writer I am. I write for fun / personal fulfilment, I write for cash and I wrote for ambition. Strangely - or luckily - for me, these competing masters rarely conflict. It's as if the respective muses have organised a timetable. So, short answer: I haven't figured that one out yet.

2. Will you ever self-publish a novel again?
Previously, I'd have said no, as it was a labour of love and relied on some expert help from friends. However, lately I've been thinking about why I started writing in the first place and that was for two reasons: to work through the story myself and to have my work read. It's only time, money and my expectations of what conventional publication will do for my work that keep me rooting for the traditional model. Plus I'd love to do a book signing.

3. You're working on your fifth novel - does it get easier?
Yes, because I think you recognise the process and you learn to trust yourself and the muse more. The story evolves and sometimes it goes places you hadn't envisaged. That can be scary and frustrating, but I think it's preferable to having a contrived tale that only meets your requirements. I can't speak for other writers but I definitely do not write only for myself. 

4. What does success look like to you?
Five novels, five ISBNs and a five-figure sum. Also, the experience of collaboration on projects that take me into unfamiliar territory - plays, TV and more radio. I'm both fascinated and envious by the way some writers and performers end up in interesting places because they move in circles where those opportunities are possible. They get to extend their boundaries and develop more of their potential. Writing, as we know, is a solitary business much of the time, so having the right people around you can create unexpected adventures.

5. If money wasn't an issue, would you still write fiction, non-fiction and comedy?
Yes, with changes. I'd pick the freelance work carefully, I'd concentrate on the novels and I'd develop my own comedy projects (and complete others I started way back). I'd also love to do more gratis work to give other people a leg up.

6. How many book rejections have you had overall?
In excess of 100, spread across three novels and four humour books. And yes, that has stung a little over the course of the years. On the plus side, I saved on a roll or two of wallpaper in the downstairs loo. (And loo roll too.)

7. Social media - Holy Grail or crock of crap?
Holy crap. I think my mindset has changed around social media and for me it's more a means of connecting with writers and readers than a PR or sales portal. Apart from blogging and tweeting, I wouldn't miss the rest.

8. What advice would you give to your younger writer self?
Be courageous. Take chances. And, most importantly, live fully so that your writing has maturity and depth. Also, while I have his ear, learn quickly and move on. Don't get stuck in fixed ideas about writing, people or even yourself. Make life an adventure sooner and stop waiting for something interesting to happen. (Although, frankly, that did result in an interesting book.)

9. Any regrets as a writer?
Well, apart from whatever you can pick from the bones of my previous answers, there's the toll it takes on the other areas of your life.

Plus, I'd heard of golf widows before, but I didn't know about writing widows.
Writing is part of living, and not the other way around.

Genuinely, I regret not being able to help other writers more and vice versa. I think we either gravitate to other writers at our level or those are just the people we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like a wonderfully supportive club of fellow creatives; sometimes it feels like a buzzy competitive space; and some days it just feels like we're rats trapped in a bucket, trying to bite the hands of passing agents and editors as they waft overhead, out of reach.

Mostly I regret not getting more of an education - and by that I don't just mean qualifications. I'm talking about a greater awareness of culture and having greater creative aspirations and ambitions from a younger age. Fundamentally, I think, it's a class thing.

10.  Do you actually enjoy being a writer because it doesn't always sound like it?
Absolutely. I enjoy all of it in a way - even the despondency of rejection, the agonies of editing (and then re-editing) and the confrontational challenge of the blank page. We are fortunate to live in a place and a time when we can express our ideas so freely and quickly, and reach some kind of audience within minutes. We take that for granted, but it's a privilege many others don’t have.

Okay, I'm done. So, I have two gauntlets to cast down for you:

Firstly, to my fellow Strictly Writers, to interview themselves in a similar fashion.

Secondly, to our readers. I'll answer any writing-related question about my writing practice, my experience of the world of publishing (mostly from the outside!), or about the wonderful world of freelancing.

Don't be shy now.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Howdy Amigos!

Howdy amigos! Happens that you’ve caught me in a dreadful happy mood. You see, those good folks at Alfie Dog Fiction published my first short story collection, ‘Sweet Talk’ on 24th September. Finally, after years of grafting, little old me will have a real book signing – ain’t that just as exciting as any old rodeo? ‘Sweet Talk’ is a collection of 21 feel-good stories, guaranteed to leave you feeling as happy as a mustang off its reins. There’s young and mature romance, sibling rivalry, humour and plenty of tales starring pesky animals like cats, stick insects and birds.  That’s why I love writing short stories – I can experiment with any subject matter or genre.

Hence the Old West American tone of this piece. Recently, I woke up with the voice of – now whadda us modern folks call it? – a cowboy in my head. So, goddamn it, I created two characters, Connie and Elijah Boswell. Dreadful in love they were, during the gold rush of 1849. That lady was as fine as cream gravy. Their wicked neighbour Nathaniel was one to watch – a regular wolf, after gambling and whiskey. But good old Elijah, in his broad-rimmed hat, kept that particular outlaw in check. In fact, Nathaniel could have easily ended up in the bone orchard, thanks to Elijah’s rifle.

Hell, yeah, more fun than a hog in mud, I had, writing that story, set near Sacramento River. And fair dumbfounded I was, when The People’s Friend bought it.

So, listen up, y’all - what I’m saying is: go for it. Have fun. Let yourself loose. One story from ‘Sweet Talk’ is set just after the Second World War. Hell, I ain’t never written nothing earlier than the eighties, prior to that. But thanks to some fancy information I found about soldiers and rationing coupons, it all fell into place – same with two stories all about Irish luck and a Scottish poet. I just slapped on my research hat.

I’ve wrote stories about kids, men and women, sexy santas, divorced parents and awkward bosses… Don’t limit yourself. Vary settings, eras, characters and themes. Draw on your own life and that of others.

Most importantly, write from that there heart. Makes me sound as sweet as my ma’s plum pudding to say that, don’t it? But I speak the truth.

So, get a wiggle on and have a go. Best of luck folks! And if you know someone who’d just love a collection of warm, heartfelt stories to dip into, why not order them a copy of ‘Sweet Talk’?

Samantha Tonge has sold almost 80 stories to women’s magazines and her work appears regularly in The People’s Friend. She also writes romantic comedies and her agent is currently subbing her latest novel, ‘Doubting Abbey’, to publishers.

         For more information about Samantha why not visit:

‘Sweet Talk’ is available here.

Good news alert!

”Samantha has just agreed a 3 book deal with CarinaUK, Harlequin’s digital-first imprint. Her debut novel, “Doubting Abbey” will be published late autumn 2013.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

You are never alone when you have a book to keep you company by Mary Dinan

As I walked by the sea I saw a solitary figure, head down and fully focused. I wondered if she was lonely but then as I got closer could see she was reading a book. She looked as if she was enjoying the experience. I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew she wasn't lonely. How can you be lonely with a good read? She had entered into another world.

It was then I had a thought. 'You are never alone if you have a good book.' A book can fill almost every void. It can advise, comfort, entertain, inspire, and provide a means of escape. A book can change your life and has changed people's lives. God released one of the most read books in the world, The Holy Bible which has changed countless lives.

A book is an ever reliable friend that you can pick up and put down at will. A good book can really lift the spirit no end; even a cover on a book can lift your mood in an instant.

It's a great gift for a child to learn to love books from a very early age, as they will never be lonely while they have a good book and the thrill of going to a library as a child has stayed with me even to this day. I remember the joy of finding another Famous Five book by Enid Blyton and how I loved escaping into the world of ginger beer and Timmy the dog; joining the children who went on adventures.

Growing up, I remember taking a great interest in self-help books. I read them all, Dale Carnegie - How To Win Friends And Influence People, Wayne Dyer - Pulling Your Own Strings, Susan Jeffers - Feel The fear And Do It Anyway and the list goes on...As an only child these books were my big brothers and sisters. I turned to them for advice when there was no family about.
Books and reading are a gift.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A literary great is laid to rest

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's last words in a text message to his wife were 'Noli timere' - Latin for 'do not be afraid.' His recent passing has had a huge impact on the literary world which is so much poorer now he has gone.

His death has left a void which will never be filled by even the most talented of writers. But Heaney, the legend, still lives on in the hearts of many, as does his poetry with its lyrical beauty. A man who never let go of his roots, Seamus’ observations on life in my native Northern Ireland put the country on a world pedestal for scrutiny.

Heaney, a Catholic nationalist raised in an area called Mossbawn in South Derry (county) had views which clashed with the majority of pupils in my school. When our English teacher, ironically called Mrs Heaney (no relation!) introduced Digging to us, we read it as townie Protestant-like pariahs looking down on this poor rural nationalist world. We learned about his fervently Irish background and the fact he’d written the following shocking words: Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

The life that we were reading about was a world away from ours: as middle class Protestants, none of us could identify in any way with potatoes, bogs, Mass, rosaries, or priests. Granted, he wrote at a time when Catholics felt marginalised, like second class citizens, but with his unkempt white hair and warm smile, there was something so endearing about him. We didn’t study any more of his poetry, so it’s fair to say, we only really skimmed the surface.

However, his poetry become more and more alive as I matured and studied at university, and I soon grew to identify with his sense of loss, his love of nature and his reflections on childhood. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

He was universally loved around the world and no one could deny that. Often people don't get excited about a celebrity until that person has passed away. Then the bandwagon is filled and it's on its way. Like Kurt Cobain or Michael Jackson: suddenly, a slew of super fans come out of the closet. Thankfully, with Heaney, we have always loved and cherished him, as a fellow countryman, a patriot of poetry and a lover of language.

I must admit I only found Heaney’s poetry mildly interesting as a student at grammar school. Yes, shame on me. But his poetry grew on me the more I studied English Literature until I came to truly love his work. And when that alert came through from Press Association, while I was in Dublin, not only did I feel a sense of sadness and loss, but I started to sift through his poetry. Death of a Naturalist, Human Chain, Beowolf, North. The images lit up. I read slowly and I realised his work is stunningly beautful.

It gave me shivers up my spine as I read: Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops. And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him. For the first time in six weeks. Paler now.

I’m so disappointed I never the chance to meet him. It just wasn’t to be. Last Monday, he was laid to rest in the land which had inspired him. The cortege through the village of Bellaghy was headed by a lone piper, mourners snaking their way along the country roads. Earlier his friends and family bade farewell to him at a funeral service in Dublin.

This video, courtesy of my newspaper The Mid-Ulster Mail, shows the literary great being laid to rest…..

Friday, September 6, 2013

Who do I think I am?

Smiling, it appears, is not an option.

Well, this is me, sitting in the attic and doing my best to look authorial and as non unphotogenic as possible.

I'm woking with a client at the moment to bring her short story collection to life and what struck me most of all was the authenticity of the emotions on the page. I mean, I know we talkabout being authentic and moving the reader and all that groovy stuff. But I, as the reader, felt something when I read her words. I laughed out loud several times and I choked a little when I read about death and loss. (Which, if you know me, despite my track record in that department, is not my usual response.)

So, what gives?

Well, I think what gave was the pretence, which can happen when you create fiction a lot of the time, that this whole business of creating characters and words and worlds is all in the mind. 

It isn't - that's bullshit. If there's no emotion, the characters don't live. They simply exist. And we've all known, at some time or other, how soulless that can be. And while we're ensouling our characters, sometimes we need to ensoul ourselves. To really inhabit the landscapes of our creation and to put purselves in touch with the source of it all. Because, often, that source is our own experience.

I had a dream last night, which has inspired me to write this post. 

In the dream, I'm a small child, taking an exam. To my right is a boy I knew from school and he's continually looking over at my efforts to see what I'll write. He's smug because, I think, he's already finished the paper. Or perhaps he isn't taking the exam. Anyway, I ask him politely to mind his own business, but he persists. 

Finally, after maybe the fourth time, I say out loud (in the dream): "That's it. Enough. I'm not doing this." And I close the exercise book, push back my chair and stand up. Smug kid is a little taken aback, but he sits and watches me. Another boy to my left mutters that it's the wrong thing to do. However, I have the bit between my teeth now (in a way I never actually did as a child), and I make my way to the front of the hall where an English teacher towers over me and asks what I'm doing. I explain that I've quit the exam and he tells me it will cost £100 to do it again, and immediately starts planning how he could get funding for me. (He was a great teacher in the real world too.)

I push open a door and find I'm in a deserted London, close to Bank. As I looked down the gentle slope of the road, all I can see is grey stone buildings. And there's this tremendous sense of setting off in a new direction without security or community, and I can hear the echo of that other boy who was to the left of me, telling me not to do it. So I smile a little and start walking.

I doubt this is a dream that Messrs. Jung or Freud need trouble themselves with. As a writer, what struck me was how intense the emotions were. That sense of blood pumping through my veins and a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and fears, all subsumed by my will. 

In the end, that's all it was. No direction, no plan, guarantee, no strategy and no angle. Just the will to move forward. You know, I think there's something in that.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Much ado about not much

It's been a funny week. By which, I mean, it's been an unfunny week. Which, paradoxically, is still quite funny to me.

The new book, The Caretaker, is mapped out and the characters are taking their own sweet time to get where I want them to be. To be fair to my imaginary friends, I've been neglecting them in favour of a self-pubbed novel full of other imaginary friends, Covenant. You can read about my adventures with the Kindle Select giveaway over here.

The unfunny / funny parts?

Four book rejections this week. Four. And one of those was for a non-fiction comedy writing book I'd proposed. When your book is rejected before it's even written, that's a caution to you!

It has to be said, though, that one of my rejections was as positive a rejection as can be:

'While there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately, I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it and therefore I don't feel able to offer you representation for this project.'

That's great, right? Sure, it is. Except, if this agent isn't convinced they could find a publisher - and they're a top-flight agency - what hope is there for the others?

Add to that the scumbags who still email me in the name of my deceased brother, eight years on, because one of his online betting account providers (whose account I changed to my email in order to close it) passed the email address on.

And it would be easy to sit and await the orange bird of despondency (second cousin, once removed, to the bluebird of happiness). Only, even without the horrors of the news and the loss now of both Iain Banks and Seamus Heaney, let's face it, if those are my biggest issues, life must be pretty good. In fact, it is.

If my past selves (interpret as you wish, but I mean the me I was at various times in my life) could see all the writing and the stories to be written he'd be totally stoked. He'd be thrilled that I chose to become a writer and remind me that he's in a far worse place, even if he does have a full head of hair and fewer battle scars.

In a sense, we are always indebted to our own past - to the courageous choices we made and, from a different angle, those times we flew a flag of convenience. Our futures and our stories are dependent upon the people we are today and what we do with the opportunities we have at hand (or actively create).

If you've recently had a submission rejected, or your characters aren't playing ball, or life just sucks like a lemon taster working overtime, you have my empathy. If the muse doesn't answer your calls and the world can't see how great your work or your potential are, that can really sting.

So, what are you going to do about it? 

Me, I'm going to write. Why would I do otherwise?

Here's Howard Jones to play us out:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Get shirty!

Is it me, or is it hot in here?

Unless you live in an igloo or on a desert island, without WiFi, a LAN connection, TV reception or a newspaper, you'll know that the prolific and celebrated author Elmore Leonard died this week.

Alongside his frankly phenomenal creative output, he is also well known for his ten rules of writing, which I will repeat for you here with additional comments:

1. Never open a book with weather, even if it is a dark and stormy night.

2. Avoid prologues, which knackers every novel I've ever written - bar one.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. But what about my whispering, gasping and growling, he muttered.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said” … he admonished gravely. Erm, well said?

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Do interrobangs count? Or should that be

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." All of a sudden I have a sinking feeling that all hell will be let loose in my next edit.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Damn straight.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Finally, one I've often adhered to, only to find that readers feel they can't picture my characters clearly.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Which leaves descriptions of...?

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. You mean they skip parts of a book? That's just terrible.

Okay, those are EL's rules and here are some of mine.

1. Stand by your writing. That means owning it, even the sucky stuff. Everything you've ever written has made you the writer you are now.

2. Never justify your words  - and avoid explaining them, if you can. Once you start defending  something you've written - which is, after all, a collection of structured squiggles and lines, you've missed the point.

3. If an idea for a piece of writing takes you to a dark place or makes you feel something, go there.

4. Don't spend time trying to be everybody's friend. Firstly, it's not possible. And secondly, you're not writing for everybody - not unless you're writing a dictionary.

5. Just give it a go. Try, draft, edit and maybe even bin. But don't sit and wonder what you could have achieved. That way lies sadness. 

Anyhow, that's enough of me and my made-up-on-the-spot rules, what writing rules do you have?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Self-Promotion: A Guide to How Not To Do It

Part of the reason I am a particularly unsuccessful self-published author is the fact that I'm also a terrible self-publicist and/or marketeer. 
I don't do 'pushy'.  I can cajole, convince and steer during conversations, but give me a head-start on a two minute slot where I can openly tout my wares and I'll be a tremulous wet mess before you can say 'fer Gods' sake, spit it out woman'.

Case in point last weekend.  We were out at a brother-in-law's house (yes, the same one from 'that other' post here) and everyone was going on about what they'd been up to and what was happening currently in the Real World.
Mention was made of guttering, plumbing systems, restoring an old Volvo, the temperatures we are currently experiencing and the terrible wages your average care worker receives.

There was scant talk of anything that was happening in My World.  
And in My World lately there had been BIG THINGS.  But if you've been up to your knees in the care of re-plumbing an old Volvo in this heat, then chances are it probably hasn't hit your radar.
So... *ahem*. Nothing.  *Aaaah-HEM!*
Start BIG, was my plan... and usually I can get away with being a little 'outbursty' by reason of My age/My disposition (not sunny at the best of times) and/or My Occupation (that's the literary one and not the paid one you understand).
"I have a book out today" I said as proudly and as nonchalantly as possible.

And then...
'Oh My God, really?' came a reaction.  'What's it about? Do you have it with you? Where is it?'
*this is where I run out of puff - other people's expectations are FAR higher than my own I think.
"Okay - *still smiling* It's called STORIES FOR HOMES.  It's an anthology.  I have a story in it along with about 60 others."
'What do you mean? You didn't write it?'
"Well I have a story IN it.  Oh, I also designed the cover which I'm really....."
'So where is it?'
"Well.. it's an e-book - so it's... y'know, on Amazon.'
'You mean a Kindle book?'
"Well, yes, you can read it on a Kindle but you don't have to have a...."
'I haven't got a Kindle.  I can't see what all the fuss is about....'
"You don't need a Kindle to read an e-book - you can get a Kindle App for anything. I haven't got one, I download my books onto my pc and ..."
'You don't have a Kindle but you've published e-books? How does that work?'
*some time later*
'So how much are you getting for it?'
"It's for the charity, Shelter, so, nothing.  It's all for charity."
'Oh.' *definite disinterest*
"We're planning a paperback in the Autumn, though."
*murmur, mutter, back to the Volvo action.
This, people: THIS is why I get so heebie-jeebie about trying to announce anything to anybody in that place called the Real World.  They just don't get it, do they?
So - for those of you who DO get it, can I please proudly announce the birth of the wonderful 'STORIES FOR HOMES' anthology which is available to purchase on the Amazon Kindle site (and you DON'T have to have a proper Kindle, you really don't). 
All proceeds are going to the charity SHELTER and we have been riding high on the Amazon Kindle charts for the past week since it came out.
My story is No.27 and I might have mentioned I designed the cover too - did I?
*shrinks away because blatant self-promotion is excruciatingly embarrassing*

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Butterfly thoughts

Add caption

Last month, Anne and I finally cleared the old books out of the garage and took them to a car-boot sale. You can learn a lot about people at car-boots - the tryers, the observers, those who know exactly what they want, those who are open to anything that catches their eye and the browers - who want nothing more than a brief distraction in their day.

As luck would have it - and the luck was mine - we waited almost two hours to be allowed on-site, were allocated the final spot in a dead-end and the weather wasn't entirely kind to us.

All that said, I rather enjoyed the event. It was a great opportunity to let the books see daylight and to appreciate some of them again, and the stories that lay behind them. A holiday book inevitably brought to mind that holiday in Turkey - the one where I not only had the trots, but also wrote three short stories (one of which was subsequently published). 

Some were books I used to favour, but had chosen to release them into the wild; likewise a Christmas gift or two from long ago. There was also an esoteric volume, bought to research material for my magical fantasy, Covenant. Away, away all, and sendback a quid.

And the people...

Some would-be purchasers spent time chatting and befriending us, before clearing their throats and asking for a friendly discount. The books were all £1 each, just so you know.

Other customers rifled through the piles of books, couldn't find what they wanted and sniffed derisively as they left me to tidy up the display in their wake.

One person paused to pick up a book and then waxed lyrical about how much he hated the subject. My suggestion that he buy the book and then turn said person's face to the wall, as a sort of protest, fell upon deaf ears.

I met a man on a mobility scooter, joyous and witty (though alas, not in need of a book). I also met people who, to quote our late mum, were probably enjoying themselves, deep down, but had forgotten to tell their faces.

And as we tried to shelter from the rain, while simultaneously holding down the plastic sheet over the books, three thoughts came to me:
1. It's time to pack up.
2. Let's never do this again.
3. This is a lot like being a writer. (Although, to be fair, I think that about pretty much everything. I'm a little like The Fast Show's fabulous character, Swiss Tony, only with writing.)

How so, I imagine you asking.

Well, some writers will cosy up to you and loiter in your presence precisely as long as it takes to extract whatever information they're after. And then they're off, like a fart in a packed lift.

Others know exactly how they see themselves - and what they want - and have no time for anyone or anything else. They stick to their genre and whatever rung of the ladder they believe they're on.

There are writers, too, who make time for criticisms rather than critiques. They'll rush to Amazon for the latest bestsellers, only to read the worst reviews - and perhaps write a few as well.

Now, I'm not saying that the world of writers is an egalitarian utopia and that we should all hold doors (and windows) of oppurtunity open for one another. Although, frankly, it would be a nicer landscape if we did. I'm not that naive, as the woman with the $4trillion dollars for me in an offshore account discovered when she emailed me.

However, when we're busy writing and rewriting, pitching, submitting and smediaing (neat word, huh!), why not make the best of it. Tell your face, and tell your face to tell the world.

In the car-boot of life, even being able to pick up a pen and write whatever you feel like writing about, is a bargain. Even if no one may be buying right now.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Seeing is perceiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How not to be a pain in the arse author

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

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

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

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

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

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

What irritates you about new authors?

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