November Update 2018

OUT AND ABOUT:

Been to a few shops, garden centres, and craft fairs this month. Watched a Christmas light switch-on and a surprisingly decent firework display put on by a small town.

TELEVISION:

Finished watching Touch with Kiefer Sutherland, a series that only ran for two seasons. Admittedly, this story of an autistic boy who sees patterns in numbers connecting people and events, supposedly being one of 36 special and important individuals took time to get started but they cancelled it after it got interesting. I think it could have run for a third season. It’s intellectual and may be too intelligent to make it a commercial property. Viewers needed to stick with this awhile and the viewing numbers dropped off drastically after the first episode or two. A pity because it did have much going for it. The more action based plot developed likely as an effort to save it.

Following this we jumped back in to continue watching Ray Donovan, a series we’ve not seen since the end of season 2. Violent owing to the story, I’m unsure whether the series has got better or the ability to stream it and binge watch without adverts has made the difference, but we’re enjoying this more than we did previously. It is definitely a show made for Liev Schreiber.

READING:

I eased away from horror for this month, although The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor is termed as such.  A book I thought might be more paranormal horror but is fitting in the thriller market, but has a good touch of creepiness. I enjoyed this book in the main for the way it’s plotted out, it’s never-ending cliffhangers and slow reveal.

I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge book I’ve had awhile and it will take me ages to get through this owing to the way I intend to read it. Very much a book I intend to dip in and out of over several months so I’ve only completed the first 100 pages, the section of poetry. Many hidden gems here though I have to say the reason his most loved and best-known poem is The Raven shines out. The cadence and emotional response it invokes never ceases to impress. Hoping there’ll be many gems and new tales to discover in the story section of the book.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry is a well-written book, with well-plotted layers and subtext. Alas, it’s not cohesive enough, maybe owing to the omnipresent head-hopping style. On occasion, I forgot I was reading a book set in 1893. It’s worse fault, though, is the likely error of the marketing department. The blurb promises one thing, the book another. Readers expect a developing romance wrapped around a mystery. The ‘Serpent’ of the title is a creature not so much myth as misunderstood. It is often figurative, a metaphor, subtext…which might be fine if readers were not led to believe otherwise. As for the romance, I had patience for that until around 60 pages from the end when my emotions turned to exasperation and disgust. I so wanted to say I loved this book but have to settle for liking it. The true heroine of the book reads, to me, as Stella and that’s a stretch. The writer may tell the story he or she wants, of course, and it’s true that humans are imperfect. Again, I sense that the marketing of this novel leads one to expect something it’s not and so does the author and novel no favours. This is not a mystery, and not a romance. It’s a set of characters and a slice of their shared histories.

WRITING:

Not much to tell you this month. I’ve been working on an as yet unofficial commissioned title and it’s one case of the nearer I get to The End the further away it feels.

The Beholder’s Eye

We’re told beauty is in the beholder’s eye, but awful book covers exist and, for a peculiar reason, a high proportion of poor art has appeared on romance books. I’m glad to report this trend is shifting and, as with the content, many covers reflect a discerning audience; good news for writers and readers.

If you’ve not read a romance in a while, they have changed. Aside from classic literature from authors such as Bronte or Austen (my first literary introduction to a romantic heroine was Jane Eyre), most young girls of my generation had their first taste of romance in the form of a Mills and Boon’s book. At age fourteen or fifteen, this gave girls a perverse view of romance and of what men expected of women. For those that love such books, I’m not knocking them. There are many good examples and they are intended to be fantasies.

I’m referring more to a sign of the times and of how things have evolved from when I was a teenager. As a friend exclaimed there was never an erection in a Mills and Boon’s when she was young, and while I am sure that despite our feminist backbones, many women appreciate the image of a handsome man sweeping them off their feet, these days it’s more a case of mutual support. Today’s heroines are as likely to pick up a baseball bat, or gun, or sword, or high-power laser particle whangamado gadget in defence of their man should the need require they take action. Heroines and their heroes now stand together (or a hero with a hero, and a heroine with a heroine or whatever combination one wishes), as, in an ideal world, love should conquer ‘all’. In love, both parties fall at the feet of the other. Equality is the key and, even in surrender, both can stay equal.

This new era of romance crosses age, class-distinctions, social taboos, even universes, for it crosses genres. If you look for the animal in your man or woman, you will find them in the form of vamps and shape-shifters of every description. Whether you read sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or westerns, if you can think of it, likely there’s a romance to suit your tastes. These stories now contain adventure, danger, excitement, and a soupcon of erotica.

What has this to do with the cover? From the writer’s point of view, one of promotion. People often ‘do’ judge a book by its cover. What caught my attention was during an author chat someone raised the question how do authors ‘choose’ their covers. The simple answer is that they don’t, and this goes for all genres. Sometimes, an author may even face having their beloved title changed, either for better promotional purposes, or, in a case of a publisher having two books with the same title, a wish not to confuse readers; they will ask the second writer to choose another option, but I have heard cases of publishers doing so without consultation.

The same applies to book covers. many publishers will do their utmost to create something pleasing to both the author and the expected readership. Others… well, even with the best of intentions mistakes happen, and, depending on the company’s policy, the author may have no say, no comeback, not even see a preview of the work before publication, which can lead to proofreading errors that are beyond the writer’s control.

Fortunately, many reputable publishers consider their authors’ feelings. A poor cover is terrible news for everyone — the publisher wants a book to sell as much as the author does. Mostly, yes, a good cover can be a good indicator, but, making a decision purely on what the eye sees is risky. I’ve discovered treasures hiding under awful wrapping paper and some dreadful works presented with spectacular artwork.

Such Rich Prose

With the gift-giving season fast approaching, I couldn’t help but think back on some of my childhood reads, which was my favourite type of gift to receive. I’ve never had a child in my life I haven’t given books to.

A few years ago I read The Owl Service by Alan Garner owing to a recommendation. I cannot say I found the writing charming and yet it has a haunting, surreal quality that makes for a memorable read. It’s supposed to be a children’s book but I can’t think of a reason apart from the adage in the publishing world that if the main character is a child, then it is a book for children. Publishers seem to think if the lead is a child, it will hold no interest for adults. The worldwide phenomenon of a certain wizard has turned this concept on the head. Whether you love or loathe the particular boy lead in question, I think this is a good thing. There are many books out there that cross the barrier between child and adult readers and I for one am not too proud to admit reading the occasional children’s book. I cannot imagine the inability to enjoy a pleasant afternoon revisiting some of my old favourite characters in their adventures. I have a quote on my website by C.S.Lewis: No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

When I young, my reading material was Pooh and then Enid Blyton’s Mr Meddles Muddles, Mr Pinkwhistle or Mr Twiddle. I was also fond of her Wishing Chair series and to this day I own a copy of Mr Galliano’s Circus (although I used to call him Mr Galeeno as I couldn’t get my tongue around the pronunciation). I wanted to be young Jimmy Brown and run away to the circus. In a more enlightened time and as an adult I couldn’t imagine anything worse (I am not a supporter of animal circuses) but I understand it was the running away on an ‘adventure’ part I loved so well. In the Moomins books, I wanted to be Snuffkin and share his love of travelling. From there I went on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I always preferred The Great Glass Elevator. Yes, there is a second book! I adored the Vermicious Knids far more than the Oompa-Loompas.

There was no stopping me. I loved The Water Babies because it touched my sense of fair play. Every child should hear of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby or Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. One Hundred and One Dalmatians a Disney film? I read the book by Dodie Smith and progressed to the sequel. Yes, once again there is a follow-up people seldom hear of called The Starlight Barking. Likewise, I read Bambi the book by Felix Salten and you’ll never see that story the same way again. As a child I lent it to an aunt and insisted she read it. After much nagging she (begrudgingly) sat down one day and only stopped when she realised it had grown too dark to see. She was that lost in the story.

Then it was Ballet Shoes and What Katy Did. My most unusual children’s book has got to be Snowflake by Paul Gallico. Mine is tatty, gone orange and lost its cover, though I can remember the cover to this day: pale blue and white with a white snowflake with a child’s face in the centre. Snowflake is ‘born’, falls in love with ‘Raindrop’, goes on a journey and at last returns to her creator. It’s the first book that made my heart ache.

Later came Oscar Wilde. His Happy Prince story made me sob. Once I was old enough, we started on the classics. It’s amazing in this day that classic literature is often termed as stuffy. Maybe it’s the classic moniker that has done the harm. They weren’t classics when I was young; they were just books. I started with Heidi but was soon on to Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These were my world. They were my friends. They never failed me, and took me adventuring with them. It’s a sad world where children don’t read these books today.

Then it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — the name of the creature’s creator, not the ‘monster’ when the whole point of the book is the true monsters are the man who created him, and the society who hounds him. This so-called horror story isn’t only that. It’s a morality lesson. At once I fell into the richness of the language, some of which may seem superfluous in this modern age but even in Mary Shelley’s introduction doesn’t “Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest” much more engrossing than “We talked well into the night before we went to bed”?

One of my favourite works is the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, for the involved story, the characters, and, most of all, owing to its rich language. I’ve enticed people to watch the BBC series but even though they often love the story, it disinclines them toward the book. I feel it’s a pity that children are often no longer raised on such rich prose. Not only are they missing out on such imaginative stories, one can’t help speculating whether it would do wonders for their verbal skills and their ability to communicate.

A Lovely Month

I skipped last week’s blog but hope I’ll be forgiven as I was away for a break in Pembrokeshire in Wales enjoying what has surprised us all: a gorgeous autumn. There are warnings that with the roses still in bloom and some days feeling like summer we’ll pay for it with a harsh winter. As there’s nothing we can do to alter whatever is in store, I’ve been enjoying every moment with long walks in forests and on beaches, with some clambering about the occasional castle thrown in.

Continuing my autumn celebration here’s another little poem, this time an Haiku entitled Rust. Although the word is most associated with a type of decay it’s the perfect description of the colour of some of the leaves on the tree and notes a decomposition that creates one of our most lovely seasons.

September 2018 update

A breeze through September…

OUT AND ABOUT:
The weather forecasters got it wrong one weekend meaning we went out on the worst day where we would have felt more at home in an ark than a car. That was one Saturday. The Sunday was supposed to be worse, so we were wondering how much worse it could be so, naturally, the sun came out. This meant we at least got work done in the garden clearing out the Strawberry bed, which had seemed like a good idea but turned out not so much. They spread far too easily. There’s more work to do in that area but at least we made a good start. Gardens are organic in more ways than one. Some plants are planted in error.

We also visited our now nearest IKEA, which proved simple to get to, but take my advice. If you intend to have a meal there if asked, “Do you want peas?” it’s a definite no. Not until we got to the till did we realise they weren’t included in the meal and at 50p a scoop I can do without. The meatballs… everyone said, “You’ve got to try the meatballs at IKEA.” We’ve heard this recommendation so often we thought, fine, we’ll try the meatballs (I believe you can also buy these in bags to take home). Well, they taste exactly the same as the ready-cooked meatballs you can buy in Lidl or Aldi, only theirs are better. Just be warned. And if you have an IKEA family card, you’re no longer considered ‘family’ on the weekend so no free drink. That’s changed, too, though some drinks come with free refills for everyone. I might stop for a drink if shopping and desperate but I won’t eat there again.

TELEVISION:
Nothing much to report film wise this month. We’re watching the Marvel films in order. Seen them all more than once but never in the order intended. We watched the last few episodes of Jonathan Creek and began ‘Touch’ starring Kiefer Sutherland. The pilot was well conceived though the format seems a little compressed in the second episode. An interesting idea where a widower learns his son’s autism is a rare ability where numbers connect patterns of seemingly unrelated people. There were only two seasons and I hope we stick with this but I can understand why it was cancelled —  an amazing idea that may be difficult to maintain to a high standard and enduring interest.

READING:
Between, Clarissa Johal
I love this writer’s work. I feel her stories deserve a place in a far larger market. Her imagination cannot be faulted, though I’m sometimes left feeling her books are one edit or two away from being perfect. I found Between to be a little disjointed and the ending felt a little rushed compared to the rest of the pacing but as always, a bright spark of an idea and powerful imagination is at the heart of the story.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
A perfect example of how different a film can feel from the book it’s based on. Hepburn’s performance and the alterations made for the screen gave Holly Golightly a pained aspect to her existence that doesn’t seem to so readily come across in the book. While I can admire it as a classic work and well-written, I found none of the characters likeable, not that I found them much better in the film, but they showed a few saving graces that seems lacking in the narrative.

Toast, Nigel Slater
Nigel Slater’s memoir told around the meals he shared with his family may be unique in its style and the childhood’s remembrances of joy at the simple pleasures instilled by food. For anyone of a certain age it will spike the memory, and for those too young to know what people used to eat it will be a history lesson told with real humour. His recollection of the dreaded crates of (often warm) yucky milk that would arrive at school is one I share, only had it been me made to stand at the front of the class until I drank it all, I would have happily stood there all day rather than even make the attempt. It’s hard to believe we used to consume even half these things, even more difficult to believe some still exist. Along with stories of how children caught diseases such as measles and mumps (not in the book but when one child caught something, the others were sent round to make sure they caught it too so they all got it over and done with) with no talk of vaccinations may sound shocking now, but was a commonplace occurrence then. Some memories are told with the innocent callousness only a child can muster; as an adult Slater has said he regretted being so harsh, but I think it’s forgivable as these are childhood recollections not tempered with time and understanding, more real for all that.

Monsters, Emerald Fennell
A book I picked up in a charity bin with a few others, I think this one caught my eye because it’s set in Fowey. I believed it to be a children’s book because of the ‘golden rule’ in publishing that if a book’s main protagonist is a child, the book is for children. With that in mind this black comedy first struck me as surprising. I thought this would be a story about two children who commit murder, not murders that captured their interest leading them on a downward spiral that seems to more often delight them than scare them or bring about the ‘change’ most plots put in place for their protagonists. It’s surprisingly funny in places, well-plotted and worked out. I’m uncertain the tone quite sat well with me for 13-year-olds. At times, some of their vocabulary seemed too sophisticated, at other times their behaviour too immature, but I’ve only personal experience on which to base my assessment and others may feel differently. This is an entertaining quick read, sort of like a child’s book for adults. As for two children you wouldn’t want to meet (the tagline), I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t want to meet any of the adults either. I’m happy to say I’ve come across none of these characters in Fowey.

WRITING:

My longing-to-work-on Dark Fiction novel has taken yet another back seat. This seems to be the year of getting side-tracked. When asked to take part in a series of any kind the writer faces dreaded deadlines. There are other times in publishing but when commissioned, I’m feeling those are the worse deadlines of all. I had to stop what I was doing to write a book proposal and, as I’m mostly a pantser (stories come often as if I’m reading a book), I had to do a little writing to get going. This is opposite to most fiction publications where the writer must finish the book before submission (factual books work a different way). With the big six publishers a writer may then be commissioned to write another two books, so it’s a three book contract, but often it’s a one book at a time deal — the finished article put forward for consideration. This time I had to work out a story beforehand — a job more suited to writers who prefer to pre-plot.

I also ended up editing an older work for re-release to which I’m adding a third title and turning three novellas into one full-length work. And there was all the paperwork that goes with the submission: the blurb, the cover art request form etc. I also polished off a longer short story I hoped a publisher could make use of. More on all this as and when. And there‘s another short story I’m still not in a position to discuss. For now, this month, the re-release of my LGBT romance ‘A Not So Hollow Heart’ happened, re-edited and with about 3000 words added.

My Emotional Arsenal

I may surprise many people by saying I’m not listing talent as the most important writing skill. The topmost item on my list is an Emotional Arsenal.

There’s an advert doing the rounds in the UK at the moment staring Claudia Winkleman promoting her use of Head and Shoulders Shampoo. In this advertisement, Claudia reads out some tweets including one that refers to her as an annoying personality vacuum. She jokes this off as if it means nothing. Maybe the tweet hurt, maybe it didn’t. I don’t care what shampoo she uses and I refuse to address any issues people may or may not have with her personality. I would like to think the tweet meant as little to her as it appears to in the ad because that’s the foremost skill anyone who does a job that draws public attention needs to learn. James Scott Bell refers to it as Rhino Skin.

Seriously, every writer must grow a thick skin. If rejection and harsh words are upsetting the publishing world may not be worth the grind. If the potential writer is a person who can only moderately handle criticism, then the thick skin required may develop, but the sooner the better is the only true advice. The writer will always face criticism at every stage—from editors, from readers, from critics and reviewers. One thing I admire J.K.Rowling for the most was saying she wasn’t taking dictation. Critique (as opposed to criticism) can be invaluable, but it’s best to learn to temper feedback with one’s own judgement. The writer should not allow every negative comment to influence the work. Train one’s reaction to meet negativity with determination.

Having said all that, I will contradict myself a little. You don’t ‘have’ to read reviews for your book. You’re allowed to take a break from the outside world and its influences. A negative review can be a good learning experience but if you find one particular place online has a habit of being a cesspit of negativity not only on your book but on others, it may not be the best place to hang out. If you receive nine glowing reviews but a tenth accuses you of being talentless and your book as best used as toilet paper, keep in the mind the internet is peppered by trolls—people who thrive on giving other people a day as black as their souls. Common sense is key here. Don’t take everything to heart and learn to recognise what is truth and what is not. That which is personal bias. Bigotry. And that which is plain meanness.

That’s another requirement on my list. The writer needs determination. Also, patience. These three things may be the most important for the writer’s Emotional Arsenal. Make that four. I will add discipline. The writer must make time for writing, and in an already busy life that can seem impossible. Writers face deadlines.

However, the writer who constructs an unbreakable emotional barrier may risk cutting themselves off from facing their work with honesty. Although I said grow a thick skin, in a way only practice and experience can teach the writer to deal with negativity and change it into something positive. It’s taken me time to learn how to flip a switch in my head from a writer to an editor, and it’s an ongoing process of learning, but I face my draft as a writer, my manuscript and all that comes after as an editor.

Be willing to learn—from courses, from writing know-how books, from reading material, from editors, and yes, also readers…. all to a point. Don’t get so wrapped up in these things they become more important than writing itself, but don’t dismiss them. In a flooded market there are as many ‘how-to’ books as wannabe writers, but there are good volumes out there. Be willing to study and to learn, always.