writing


http://thedisplacednation.com/2014/07/08/location-locution-jj-marsh-looks-back-on-a-year-with-tdn/

Passion for place is something I never stop banging on about.

Today marks my one year anniversary as guest columnist of The Displaced Nation.

So what better time for a birthday retrospective of my favourite replies?

After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.

And for extra icing, a handful of books feature location as a character in its own right.

 

http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.ch/2014/07/jj-marsh-guest-blogging-today.html

Poetry

Barbara Scott-Emmett never learns.

She’s let me back onto her blog, despite the last incident.

Here I talk about The One That Got Away… Or Did It?

 

People

Since throwing myself into the world of publishing, I have been staggered by the kindness and generosity of other professionals.

The Book Designer blog showcases 9 Self-Publishing Fiction Writers You Should Follow Today.

Agreed.

I’ve met some, interviewed others and follow most on that list. They scare me by how much they achieve, but I find them all inspiring.

Yet I’d like to put forward a list of my own. Not only self-published, but from across the spectrum.

These people taught me  much about the craft of writing and I return to them again and again.

How To Be Disciplined. How To Be Courageous. How To Be A Writer.

Thank you, People!

Me, Susan Jane Gilman, Joanna Penn, Libby O'Loghlin and Emma Darwin

Me, Susan Jane Gilman, Joanna Penn, Libby O’Loghlin and Emma Darwin

Sheila Bugler

Emma Darwin

Amanda Hodgkinson

Dan Holloway

John Hudspith

Lorraine Mace

Roz Morris

Libby O’Loghlin

Triskele Books

 

 

002 - Copy (3)

My bookshelf – a glorious mish-mash

The newspaper I’ve read since I was able to choose for myself  is The Guardian. We share a roughly similar world view, their standard of journalism is high and they tackle controversial issues. Best of all, I love their books section, book passion and literary mindset. I could spend all day browsing their features and reviews.

They were one of the first broadsheets to get behind self-publishing as a serious literary phenomenon and I couldn’t have been prouder to appear in their pages as a Reader Recommended indie book last year.

Now they’ve launched a prize for Best Self-Published Book, which runs monthly. Hooray!

Or… not?

(Note: As a non-UK resident, I am ineligible to enter. This is not a ‘How Dare They Overlook My Genius’ hissy fit, but a general concern.)

It’s early days, but the first two winning books have been selected and duly reviewed. Two very different winners; a comic romp and the story of a suffragette.

Much to admire in Tom Moran’s Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers, but the reviewer says this:

But it is surprisingly easy to forget that Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers is self-published – that it hasn’t been through the editing, streamlining, stringent process of a publishing house. Spelling, grammar, the rest of it, are all spot-on, and Moran’s story hangs together neatly, pleasingly, and open-endedly ready for a follow-up.

 … a slice of (sometimes) comic fantasy which deserves comparison to the likes of Robert Rankin – another author who isn’t afraid to pile on the quips, and who nonetheless enjoys a home at a mainstream publisher. There’s talent, here, if you can trample through the jokes to find it.

The reviewer of The Right of the Subjects, by Jude Starling, makes her judgement in the headline. A closely researched and passionately told story of suffragism, this novel could have been greatly improved by a conventional publisher.

… They [editors] may remind you that people don’t describe themselves as going somewhere with “our eyes shining”. They’ll mention that The Right of the Subjects might not be the most alluring title. They won’t let you use the word “tut” three times on one page, or the same formula each time you describe someone’s physical appearance, or have a character called Annie appearing alongside a character called Amie. They’ll tell you when your book is, say, 25% (30,000 words or so, in this case) too long.

Rather makes me glad I’m not eligible if this is my reward. A pat on the head for a ‘nice try’?

I have several issues with this.

If you are awarding a prize for the Best Self-Published Novel, why not choose one you can rave about? I’m a regular reviewer for Bookmuse, never differentiating between indie, trad or small press (unless I feel it deserves a mention, such as with A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing). I’ve read literary fiction, horror, in translation, YA, thriller and general fiction from a range of sources, and won’t review if I can’t recommend. Not one self-published novel on the site merited such half-hearted enthusiasm as these prize winners. If I were Mr Moran or Ms Starling, I’d find this chalice not quite poisoned, but certainly corked.

Example indie books I’ve loved: I Stopped Time by Jane Davis,  The Flesh Market by Richard Wright, String Bridge by Jessica Bell

Traditional/conventional/mainstream/trade publishing is not always better. Top indie authors use professional editors, copy editors and proofreaders. They work with expert designers and typesetters. They work hard on their marketing just the same as any midlist author with a trad press must, and are often more creative and flexible in reaching readers.

Example of trade press publication editing: (author unnamed as I see this as publisher failure).

 p.21 – A. was explaining something to S., elaborately gesticulating. He liked to use them a lot while talking, just like an Italian.
p. 42 – Wrong character name
p. 68 – Wrong character name
p. 77 – For a few seconds, she lost balance, the creaking tyres leaving a long black mark behind.
p. 81 – C smiled afflicted.
p. 89 – Truly awful metaphor
p. 90 – …there was something grander then the trivial petty misery
p. 90 – A fomer boyfriend
p. 109 – The spheric sound of Goldfrap
p. 129 – “Take me under you microscope”
p. 132 – …as she watched him filetting that turbot
p. 138 – Mother and daugther.
p. 157 – C. and her friends are a rangle of mid-thirties character without…

 

The assessment of what ‘the best’ is always going to be subjective. Is that a polished package with its own branding? Or something that makes news because it sells? Or a brilliantly imaginative experiment in a tacky cover with a nasty font? Or a multimedia set of discoverables for readers to assemble and interpret? Or ‘almost as good as something the Big Five might put out’?

I find it depressing that the first two reviews of Best Self-Published Books in The Guardian/Legend Prize contain such reactionary observations and still hold up the trade model as ideal.

Self-publishing’s grown up.

Time reviewers caught up.

 

 

WebBanner June 2013

 

Words with JAM – the thinking person’s litmag – has a new competition. Fun, challenging and free!

 

Words with JAM’s Spoof The Genre Competition!

In association with Bookmuse

 

A condensed spoof of your favourite genre, up to 1000 words. For examples, see below.

Entry is FREE and favourites will be published in a Bookmuse Reader’s Journal later this year, which will include review templates, quotes, to-be-read record pages and more.
Prize
All published entrants will receive a complimentary copy of the journal,and the overall winner, chosen by the Triskele Books team, will receive a £30 Amazon voucher.
Closing Date
30th September 2014 (winners announced by 31st October 2014).
To Enter
Simply send your entry as a Word Doc to submissions@wordswithjam.co.uk
with the subject ‘Genre Spoof Competition’ and include your name, address and
phone number in the body of the email.

 

EXAMPLE A – Chicklit

 

Making Up Stories, by Angelica Poppet

 

It could only happen to Honey!

She’s standing in the rain in only her chemise, her Uggs are soaked and the keys are still upstairs in her Mulberry Bayswater. She only ran out to stop JayCee escaping into the cute little park at the end of her divine Chelsea mews terrace. But the blue-point Siamese has a mind of his own. He slipped between Honey’s shapely, tanned and smooth ankles, just before the door slammed shut. Just wait till she tells the girls about this tonight at the Balenciaga apero!

A taxi pulls up and a man gets out. Honey has no time to notice the Savile Row suit, the hand-tooled Italian leather loafers and rose-gold Rolex Oyster, because she’s hypnotised by his absinthe-green eyes.

“You’re wet,” he says, his voice the rich roasted brown of Sicilian espresso.

“I know,” she breathes, her voice the rippling tinkle of Nepalese windchimes.

 ***

Allegra, Sophia and Loveday screech when they hear about the tall, dark, handsome, minted neighbour. By half-past Bellini, they’re talking weddings.

“And his name?” demands Allegra.

Sophia tuts. “If it’s neither one or three syllables, darling, I simply forbid further contact.”

Honey does the Lady Di (dipped chin, coy smile, lowered lashes).

Allegra gasps. “OhEmGee, it’s both!”

“His name’s Benedict Story. But I can call him Ben.”

Screams, air kisses, more Bellinis.

Loveday cuts to the cuticle. “So no visible weirds?”

Honey hesitates. “He is a bit… odd. He wants to know my ‘über-narrative’ and says stuff like ‘Content is king’. Is that normal?”

Sophia scowls. “Probably works in publishing. Does he have a hairy back?”

 ***

Shanice finds her, eventually, with no tears left to cry. When Honey spills the reason she collapsed on the Conran chaise, unable to move since her morning macchiato, Shanice shrugs and gets on with the dusting. Honey gathers all her sobbed-out strength to confront her. Shanice says Ben has a point. Not only does Benedict see Honey as shallow and lacking a developmental arc, but her cleaning lady agrees! Honey can’t bear it. She has no alternative. She must go to Bali.

 ***

A monk in saffron robes (totes perfect for the downstairs bathroom) tells Honey she needs a spiritual leader. She tells him she already has one and confesses why she named her cat JayCee. Turns out he’s never heard of Jimmy Choo.

Meditation sucks. At least while sitting still for a facial peel, Honey knows she’ll look radiant. Inner contemplation is about as interesting as Radio Four. Sophia, Allegra and Loveday are in New York but ‘admire Honey so much for seeking herself’. Easy to say when sipping Cosmopolitans on Fifth Avenue.

 ***

Heathrow Airport, even after a First Class full reclining bed and antioxidant breakfast, is absolutely as hellish as Honey remembers. But before she can hail a taxi, a burly, brawny and Tom-Ford-scented pair of arms spin her off her feet.

“Benedict Story! I… um… what… er… ohm…”

“Honey. I missed you. So did JayCee. I may look like a catalogue model with passionate ethics and expressive brows, but I’m just a boy in love with the girl next door. Could we combine our expertise and contacts? What say we set up a bespoke personal service providing a beginning, middle and end for the terminally vacuous?”

“Why Benedict, I adore the idea. Whatever shall we call it?”

He blushes attractively. “If you will consent to become my wife, we could call it… Making Up Stories.”

 

EXAMPLE B – Crime

 

Only Dead Fish Have Open Mouths by Jed Blood

 

It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.

I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.

Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chilli dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.

Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.

Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.

The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster schucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.

Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.

Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.

Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.

Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.

Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.

Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.

Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.

 

 *terms and conditions apply (always wanted to say that)

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Photograph by Ivara Esege

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. Translated into thirty languages, she is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), and Half of a Yellow Sun, (Orange Prize winner, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, New York Times Notable Book, and People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year); and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, published to critical acclaim in 2009. Her latest novel Americanah, published 2013, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction; and was named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Chimamanda visited Switzerland as part of her two-week European tour. We met in Zürich’s Old Town and had a chat over a pot of peppermint tea.

Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my Top Shelf Books. I’m struck by its balance. The breadth and generosity of your narrative, and how the characters never become polemical devices. You say many of these stories come from your family history and in particular, your father. How are you able to maintain such a clear-eyed perspective?

I start off thinking of my characters as human. That period of our history has haunted me for a very long time. I’ve been close to obsessed by it. I took a while before I could write it. I’d written poems, I’d written short stories, I’d written a play at the age of sixteen, called For Love of Biafra, which was terrible. But it goes to show how long my interest in that period had lasted.

When I finally felt emotionally ready to write the novel, I didn’t want to romanticise the war, or the cause, or the humanity of the people who were involved. I kept reminding myself it was about the people. I spent so much time reading about the period and finding out lots of interesting little titbits, many of which were political, all of which I wanted in the book. So revising took quite a while, as I had to take out all those things which simply showed off my research.

I’m still reading Americanah. I wanted to finish it before this interview but found it a book I could not rush. I keep stopping to think. Once again, such clarity in observation, but I was surprised by the amount of wit and humour pervading the book. So the absurdities surrounding cultural perceptions, miscommunications and misunderstandings make you laugh as well as cry?

Yes. I spoke to a reader this week, who mentioned a character as ‘that racist Kimberley’. And I said, ‘What? I like her very much!’ The reason I say this is the miscommunications and misunderstandings can be hostile and malicious, but many of them are not. Many come from people who don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s something about it that’s funny, if sad. Even things that annoy me can make me laugh.

A woman came up to me yesterday and said, ‘Chimamanda, can you pronounce this word for me? It’s from South Africa’.


Your writing transports the reader. What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

What you see, what you smell, what you hear, just being there.

I noted the detail you used in your TED talk on feminism – the parking-space finders in Lagos.

Yes, the truth is sometimes in the smallest things.

I’d like to know more about how you choose to tell your story. In Americanah in particular, your jumping narrative makes me think of a mix of fireside storytelling, with meandering tangets, juxtaposed with fast flickering images, contrasted with slow, painful detail such as Obinze’s deportation.

Interesting question. I don’t know if I choose. It’s very hard for me to talk about how I work. I sometimes have to invent answers to questions on my writing process as I don’t really plan. When I start a book, I have a vague idea of what I want to do. And if it’s going well, it often becomes something else.

You’re right to observe that in sections like Obinze’s deportation, I pause. It’s an emotional pause. Because it’s important to me, that’s where I feel emotionally involved. In writing that scene, researching and talking to people, it made me very sad.

That vague idea. Theme, character, where do you start?

It’s character and story. But it’s unformed; a nebulous procession of images in my head. With Americanah, I had all these observations I’d made and conversations with other people I wanted to put into the book, but I didn’t know if Ifemelu would go back to Nigeria. I thought it might be a book about longing, about the home you had left behind. As the book progressed, she really wanted to go back, so she did.

With Half of a Yellow Sun, I started the novel obviously wanting the characters to be changed by the war. As I approached the end, I imagined something bad would happen to Baby. But Baby refused to have something bad happen to her. It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding strange. When it’s going well, the characters take over.

Books and writing feature as powerful portals in your novels.

Yes, and that is me. It’s easy to assume that books are important to everybody but they’re not. I know many intelligent people for whom books are irrelevant. This is me making a case for reading, for books.

What kind of books made an impact on you?

Growing up I read a lot of crime, most of which was bad. Do you know James Hadley Chase? You do? (laughs) He’s incredibly popular in Nigeria, but when I went abroad, no one had heard of him. I think I read every single James Hadley Chase book that was published. Recently, I got bored of what is termed ‘serious fiction’ and went back to the books I loved when I was younger. I tried to read James Hadley Chase and it was unbearable! It was so bad! But I discovered PD James and really, really like her. I don’t like violence and prefer the detective kind of thing.

It seems you naturally gravitated towards writing from being a passionate reader. I know you read Enid Blyton books as a child. I recognised the ginger beer.

I loved them!

Me too. You know, my cousin Marcus played Julian in the 1970s TV series of The Famous Five.

Really? I watched that in Nigeria! (sings the theme tune) “We are The Famous Five! Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog…” That’s hilarious!

Now Half of a Yellow Sun is a film, and there are rumours of interest in adapting Americanah. I spoke to David Mitchell about Cloud Atlas. He said he had almost no influence on the film adaptation and didn’t want to. He felt an adaptation should be a new creative vision, a story told in a different voice. What’s your view?

Very similar to his. I stayed away. I chose to stay away and it’s not even the wanting to hear the story from another voice, which by the way I did enjoy, but Half of a Yellow Sun means so much to me. Everything in that book matters to me. Film-making is such a different thing. It would involve making decisions not necessarily based on the integrity of the book. I worried it would break my heart. I thought I’d lose my mind if I were involved.

They asked if I wanted to write the script and I said no. I had a few conversations with the director [Biyi Bandele], who’s a friend of mine, which was calming. In one conversation, he talked about making the story about the sisters, and not Ugwu. I thought, no! Ugwu is the soul of this book. In many ways, Ugwu is me. For him to be something on the side was almost unbearable. He said, yes, I understand, but for film…

And I remember very clearly thinking this is why I cannot be involved.

Having seen the film, of course he is right. Making the sisters the focus works, perfectly. I just couldn’t have done it.

Are you impressed with it?

I think it’s beautiful. And very well acted. It’s filmed in Nigeria, which was important to me. The art of it, capturing Nigeria in beautiful images. There’s something very nostalgic about it that I love.

As an expat, I’m often seen as the mouthpiece of my country. A Brit must be able to justify Britain. You’ve mentioned not only being seen as a representative of your country but the entire continent. In the light of current events, is it an opportunity or a burden to focus attention on Nigerian issues?

Is there a third option? (laughs) I’m ambivalent about this. Sometimes when there are things I feel very strongly about, I’m grateful I have this voice. And there are times like now, when what’s happening is headline news. As often happens with headline news, it’s simplified and there’s no context. So I get 200 emails from news organisations all over the world wanting ‘Chimamanda to come and talk about girls-education-in-Nigeria’.

I’m from southern Nigeria. You’ve lived there so you know that the north and the south are quite different. And for an Igbo person, the education of women is not the problem; it’s the education of men. Men are dropping out of school in Igboland but women are much more educated. So for me to go and talk about girls’ education… it’s not even a lack of nuance, it’s just there’s not enough space for diverse stories. The thinking is that, after those girls were abducted, every Nigerian must have a story to tell about their own experience. And I don’t.

The dangers of the single story? [Chimamanda’s TED talk 2009]

Yes. They want me to focus on this one thing. And while I care very much about this one thing that’s bad, there are other things. So they’ll end up with a very lopsided view of this place where I come from and it’s a place I happen to love.

Also I don’t like to feel defensive. At times I do feel that way with
people who don’t know many stories about where I come from. An emotional defensiveness comes in. It’s strange.

And what are you working on next?

I can’t tell you.

I’m going to play the mysterious one. (laughs)

Tell me about you instead. What do remember from your time in Nigeria?

(I show Chimamanda a photograph from my childhood – see left.

We talk about memories, how pictures can hint at stories, and families.)

I noticed the photography credit in my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. Is that your brother? 

Photograph by Okey Adichie

(laughs) Yes! We had the most hilarious time! This was taken at the house where I grew up. We were walking around and he had the camera and he was saying, I’m tired of this. And I would say, no, tell me what the lighting is like, and he’d say, I don’t know anything about lighting, leave me alone. It’s amazing we actually got this picture, which isn’t bad.

From what I’ve read, you sound like you have a very good relationship with your family.

I have, actually. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t because writers are supposed to be all ‘oh, what my father did to me, what my mother did to me’. I tease my writer friends and tell them certain conversations, I just can’t join in. My parents are lovely. We’re all really close, my parents, my siblings and me.

I’m the strange one.





If eloquent, funny, animated, articulate, observant and precise are strange, may there be much more strangeness to come.

By JJ Marsh

 

I started writing because I wanted to tell stories.

My aim was to communicate – raise a smile, elicit a nod, provoke a frown or incite a reaction. Letters, journal entries, articles, stories and now books.  My measure of success was simply to be read.

I knew I’d never make myHardboiled Noir 50s fortune that way, but none of the things that make me happy are likely to clog the postbox with large cheques. Theatre, teaching, writing, eating fire…

The only thing that really mattered was to please my ideal reader. I wrote for someone judgemental, opinionated, ponderous, fickle, emotional, easily bored and difficult to entertain.

Me.

But to my own horror,  I wasn’t good enough. Reader Me found Writer Me gauche, awkward, and embarrassingly derivative.

I needed help. I found writers’ critique sites, tested a few and finally found a home with similarly judgemental, opinionated, ponderous, fickle, emotional, easily bored and difficult-to-entertain folk. The difference? They showed me how to meet my own standards.

Ten years later, I’ve published four books and played midwife to another dozen. My keystone is always quality. So I ask questions. Is this book as good as it can possibly be? Does it look, feel and smell like an object of desire? Will it be read and enjoyed as a Good Book? Is it what I really wanted to write? Is it honest?

Last month, I spent a weekend with an author whose rewards from writing could allow her to retire. Yet she writes. Every day. Why? While there are stories to tell, a good writer can always get better.

On ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice blog today, my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth, tackles the troublesome question of why indie-published books only ever make headlines because of sales. And asks a question. What matters most to the Indie Writer – quality or quantity?

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, check it out.

 

 

 

 

the leapStandards in self-publishing.

This whole argument feels like a perennial pinball machine, where opinions converge, collide, bend at impossible angles and ricochet off in another direction.

Debbie Young confronted the Elephant in the Room on the Self-Publishing Advice blog. Porter Anderson raised the topic via his Twitter debate #muse14. This phenomenon is the slightly awkward relative at a wedding, whose social skills are dubious, but you can’t get away from the fact you are related.

Let’s face it, lots of self-published books are crap. Whether that’s the cover, the writing or simply the concept, which might have been better off unpublished and retained as a private, personal seven-volume diatribe on vengeance / erotica / combustion engines.

It’s my hugest concern.

‘How could this be better?’ is the question I ask most. (This includes Where’s the corkscrew? Who the hell gave that git a driving licence? Do you need a pee and poo? – to husband, pugs and random strangers, not necessarily in that order.)

Self/indie publishing has many different perspectives. The radical and ground-breaking such as eightcutsgallerypress. The various methods of author collectives – genre, marketing, support, shared readership – all show that there is no one route to success.

When starting the Triskele Books collective, we set ourselves a challenge. Three elements were non-negotiable:

  • Our books will look professional
  • Every book must reflect our USP – Time and Place
  • Top quality writing

The first two points are pretty easy to judge, but the last, as we grow and learn, is far harder to define. What IS good writing? And who says so? We’ve worked together for years; as amateur critique partners, indie team-mates and now professional colleagues, thus we trust each other’s insight.

I could break down each of my books and tell you where the Triskelites made it better. I hope they’d say the same. Because we don’t settle for OK. It’s never ‘good enough’. It has to be the very best it can be, and that can take three or seven rewrites, a new cover design, or a total change of blurb.

New Triskele associates get that. These are writers prepared to listen, do the work and make a good book something exceptional. A collective depends on every single book being a flagship. You liked this? Well, there’s more where that came from. We’re currently reading the manuscripts from new potential associates, and offering structural/copy edit/line edit support, alongside marketing advice and collaborative opportunities.

This is what we do.

I’ve read some great books lately. Lowland, String Bridge, Night Train to Lisbon, A Funeral for an Owl, The Glass RoomThe Fleshmarket, Vlad the Inhaler, Spilt Milk: approximately 50/50 indie & trad published.

I’ve read some utter bilge, too. Seven (trad) books sit on the StinkPile, to be exchanged at the local coffee shop for something worth reading. At least six Kindle indies got deleted less than 10% in. Life’s too short for derivative, shallow and crappy – unless that’s what you’re looking for. (If so, you’re in luck – there’s a shedload.)

Standards.

I have them in reading. I want them in my writing. And as much as I am a bigmouthed, opinionated gobshite, I know other people’s input will take my work beyond my own reach. I hope mine can contribute in the same way.

On 1 April (I like to tempt fate) 2004, I quit my job and I moved to Switzerland to become a writer.

So today is my 10-Year Switzerversary!

Prost!

swiss collage

Dreams of floating around in white linen, scribbling perfect clauses on virgin vellum with a Montblanc evaporated pretty sharpish. Even working part time (teaching, directing, pulling pints), I had to supplement my income by rolling up my sleeves and ‘providing content’.

Content for business papers, English language teaching textbooks, lyrics for musical theatre, ghost-written articles for ladies’ magazines, advertising copy, editing MBA theses, speech-writing, interviews and a regular column: yes, grunt-work. But it paid the rent/dog food/wine merchant.

I dreamed that it would not only pay the bills, but leave me with enough time to knock out a novel every twelve months. Eight years later and three manuscripts locked in a bottom drawer, I published my first book.

So here’s to grunt-work. You taught me a shedload of lessons:

Discipline

As Jeanette Winterson says: Turn up for work. The whole “Absent Muse / I’m not in the mood / the words aren’t flowing” is crap. Write. Just write. Every single day. Produce the raw material. Then refine. You are a writer, not a princess. Just write.

Audience

Who are you talking to? ELT text requires universally comprehensible content across myriad linguistic backgrounds. Business coaching needs advice that’s snappy, short and immediately applicable. Shift your style to suit your readers and leave your ego in the hall. (Yes, I have rhymed honey with mummy – what of it?)

Bend

Use the word ‘impact’ as a verb, even if it hurts your teeth. Acknowledge the fact that ‘oversight’ has gone over to the dark side. They talk that way, so you must too. Accept the fact language is a growing, burgeoning phenomenon, with fungal offshoots such as ‘Gift Her This Mother’s Day!’ (Not only a hideous abuse of a noun, but ‘gift’ means poison in German.)

Deadlines

Last month, a headline interview for one of my magazines crashed and burned with a week to go before deadline. I scrabbled and searched and persuaded enough people to contribute quality content which met the brief in less than three days. Grunt-work makes you flexible.

People

Commissioning editors, actors, colleagues, teachers, critics, writers and author collective Triskele Books: all these people taught me compromise, accommodation, adjustment, balance and diplomacy. Listening and reading are labelled ‘passive’ skills. In an age where everyone produces, they’re anything but.

Dedication

Pianists practice scales. Artists study brushstrokes. Writers need to practise using their equipment. Those whose concepts exceed their technical skills will end up with a happy experiment or a disappointing mess. Learn the rules and choose when to conform.

Imagery

Selecting the right ambient words for a restaurant review or suitable suggestive vocabulary for an airline magazine article about in-flight romance is a skill in itself. What are you trying to say? How can you best convey it? Nibble, chew, suck, crunch or masticate? (That was for the restaurant, honest).

Gratification

Don’t write to fuel your ego. Likes and Shares and Retweets are nice. But if you want to satisfy one true fan, start with yourself. Ask yourself, would I, as a reader, love this? Or would I, in a cynical moment, think the writer is a bit of a git?

The End

Finish. Get through it, even if you hate the filthy rotten piece of sewage by the end. The achievement is writing X number of words and finding yourself at a resolution. You have, as one of my brilliant friends recently said, “… a pile of colourful wool. Now to knit it into a jumper”.

The Real Thing

Keep writing. Even when you’re sick of the screen, can’t bear any more words, feel dirty and tainted by the day job, do it again. But this time, for yourself. Shower off all the compromise and dive into a fresh page. Your words. Maybe they will never pay, but these words you own.

 

Whatever fun you’re having, Happy 1st April!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third and last in my recognition series.

Click here for Part One – Structure, Style and Sentence

or Part Two – Individuality, Voice and Interference

Or access both by a mere flick of the wrist, as they both reside below.

Now to round up the nods, I want to talk Language, Passion and Discipline.

 

Amanda and I in Paris

Amanda and I, Paris Dec 2013

Language: Amanda Hodgkinson

On an early foray into online critique sites, I struck gold. Amanda’s analyses were helpful in many ways, especially in use of language. Anyone who read her international bestseller 22 Britannia Road will not be surprised by Amanda’s love for poetry. She became a trusted ally, pointing out how sentence rhythm, word patterns and imagery could all combine to create music on the page and in the mind. In conversations on writing and books, I feel Amanda strips away all pretension and makes me think about feeling.

Her second novel, Spilt Milk, is already garnering high praise. Deservedly so.

 

Passion: DB Miller

books-by-db-miller

Pile of Books, Zürich

I met DB at the first writers’ workshop I attended in this city and I knew immediately. Here lay talent, style, an alternative look at the world but most of all, passion. Whether writing articles about indie bookshops and the effects of live music or devising a cruelly funny black comedy, DB gives it everything.

Maybe it’s the American background combined with European experience, but DB won’t accept bland. Unless the passion shines through, the ache, the drive, the reason for writing, it’s not worth doing. That goes for everything, from novels to emails. DB’s initials act as a mnemonic for me. Don’t Bullshit.

 

Professionalism: Lorraine Mace

Lorraine at the Triskele launch, London 2012

In both senses of the word, Lorraine represents professionalism and discipline to me. She writes across various genres, she achieves an incredible output, she’s generous with her time and experienced advice, and she’s rigorous in her thought processes. I will always bear her gratitude for creating one of the most beneficial critique sites I’ve ever used and inventing the Daily Word Counter.

She doesn’t accept half-measures and administers an almighty whiplash if she finds you shirking. Quite simply, I’d never have finished three novels had it not been for Lo. Despite associating her with absolute discipline, the other quality I associate with Ms Mace is a great sense of humour.

Read her crime novels under the pseudonym Frances di Plino, and watch out for her children’s novel out soon: Vlad the Inhaler.

 

Ten Things, said I not? Here’s number ten.

Writers need writers. I could have included so many more brilliantly creative and constructive minds: Anne, Kristen, Jo, Julie, Perry, Joh, Bill, Sarah, Chris, Emma, Carl, Kit, the other Chris, the other Jo and all the Triskele team. Whether real or virtual, I need to interact with other scribblers.

I’ve learned a lot from these generous, skilled and talented folk. But I’m far from the finished article. So I still seek writers, still seek to improve and learn. I hope I always will.

Part Two:

Sheila, Max and Darren taught me a lot about structure, style and sentences. Other writerly friends have added their own generous intelligence to erode my rough edges. Here’s three more.

Individuality: Libby O

TIPE LibbyReal-life mate and word-nuancer, Libby was one of the first to encourage my individuality. She spotted what makes me different and exhorted me to chase it. Many critiquers thought humour should play no role in crime writing. Libby disagreed. She’s a brutal stickler when it comes to punctuation and has threatened me with a colonoscopy if I don’t learn how to use a semi-colon, but she sees what makes a voice distinctive. She also makes me laugh and think.

Look.

Voice: Lee Williams

lee wI sniffed this guy out on a peer critique forum very quickly. It wasn’t hard. He was always in the Top Ten, always gave constructive, practical feedback and understood the concept of voice better than anyone I’d come across. Lee demonstrates how attention to every single word choice adds precision to your style. He changes character, period, attitude and POV with such assurance, I suspect he’s actually a seasoned pro, moonlighting. Read a few of these next time you’ve got ten minutes to kill. Masterful.

Interference: John Hudspith

Lauren listening to a storyJohnny and I have bounced from critique site to writers’ forum; engaging, arguing, supporting and writing. He’s one of the best ever at wielding the paring knife. He sees when the ego begins to interfere, where the voice is not individual but borrowed, at which points external input smothers individual style and how to put it right. Every last one of my short stories deserves a credit to John. He makes you better. Even now, when I re-read what I’ve written, I can feel a phantom John on my shoulder, sighing and tsking and reaching for the red pen.

Check out Kimi’s Secret for An Officially Approved By Kids Adventure.

pierWherever I live in the world, I seek writers.

Regardless of genre or experience, I always learn from encounters with other word-wielders.

That can be critiques of my work, critiques on theirs, appreciation of distinctive skill or recognition of differences.

I’ve passed through half a dozen peer review sites and despite battling egos, trolls, princesses and carbon copies, I’ve taken something valuable from each.  I have three real life groups, two writer friends and an opinionated (but usually right) relative. All this input makes my work better.

Talented writers and readers add something crucial, usually to one of three areas of my work:

  • Structure
  • Style
  • Sentence

Nowadays, I tend to lean on my superbly talented Triskele counterparts for the grunt-work of knocking my work into readability. But I hereby tip my hat to nine individuals who’ve changed the way I write.

(I’ll divide this into three parts, as it’s Sunday and you have awards ceremonies/period drama to watch.)

Here are the first three precious stones.

Structure: Sheila Bugler

Sheila Bugler picAn online critique partner for years, Sheila has an expert eye for crime plotting. Her early analyses of my work were 70% enthusiasm and 30% criticism, which mattered a lot in my under-confident days. Then she took the gloves off.

Every plant must be resolved, each choice driven by character, and nothing can ever turn out as the reader expected. Pace is driven to meet audience expectations of the three act tempo. Stand back and assess your handiwork and if you see saggy bits, get stitching

Sheila’s brilliant debut, Hunting Shadows, is a masterclass in crime writing

Style: Max Orkis

Max-OrkisPart of a real-life, meet-in-person writing group here in Zürich, Max appreciated style better than most. He spoke his mind and insisted I did too. He pushed me to tell the truth in my writing and demonstrated how to get braver. No euphemisms, but tangible, meaningful nouns, verbs and culturally loaded imagery. Max wrote as he talked. Fearlessly. And regardless of personal original standpoint, he showed (and told) how to use any voice with conviction.

I miss him.

I don’t know why I’m using the past tense. He’s not dead, just gone back to San Francisco.

His short story, In Passing, published in The Milo Review is available online. Enjoy.

darren-guestSentence: Darren J Guest

I’ve never met Darren in person, but via online debates, discussions and right-down-to-the-bone knife fights over writing, we know each other pretty well.

Darren administers the harsh slap to Gerund Addiction: “Slipping off her shoes, Sophie sighed and relaxed. Sipping the gin and tonic restored her good mood. Pressing the answerphone, she stretched, sighed and smiled silkily.”*

And then gives you a good thrashing for alliteration and adverbials to boot.

(*I never wrote that – it was an example, honest.)

Darren’s Dark Heart is scary, smart, weird and brilliant. Just what good literature should be.

Three more great writers and their top tips next week.

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