Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Only a fool

Procrastinating with Perry Iles, author of A Dictionary of Linguistic Absurdities 

A world become one, salads and sun, only a fool would say that.

With those lyrics, Steely Dan closed the door on the hippie dream in the very early seventies. It was probably a retort to Altamont and the Manson Family. But at the same time, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were opening another door and politely ushering us into the future of rock and roll. None of this California nonsense, just slick music. Rock and roll put its suit on, ate its recto-crunchies like a good boy and went to work on time. Fagen and Becker themselves looked and often sounded like a pair of Jewish accountants badly disguised as freaks, but the point was that the first Steely Dan album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, represented a paradigm shift in music, just like the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and Nirvana’s Bleach. Back then of course it was just a band making an album and hoping for the best.

The future is odd; you can never predict where it’s going to go, because like most human and earthly laws it’s governed by pure chance and luck. But the trouble with the future is that it very rapidly becomes the past, and because of the random nature of chaos a lot of predictions wind up sounding really stupid. I once read an article from about 20 years ago which said with all confidence that these new-fangled DVD things would be soon be called “Davids”. It’s obvious why, but somehow the collective human consciousness didn’t make that linguistic shortcut and it would sound ridiculous to suddenly start watching pornographic davids, unless you were Victoria Beckham perhaps. Or Elton John. Another thing predicted with great confidence was nuclear powered cars. School buses made of glass and powered by sparks and hydrogen would probably have been safer, but the Ford Motor Company in 1958 invested money, time and effort and came up with the Ford Nucleon, a concept car with its own onboard nuclear reactor in which you could drive your children to school extremely carefully. Now I’m no fan of the Toyota Prius or the Nissan Insipid or whatever those cars are that run on the breath of fluffy bunnies and fairy-dust, because their construction factories and shipping costs have taken up vast swathes of rain forest, giving them a carbon footprint the size of Wales that everyone conveniently ignores and resulting in a very ugly car which only Sting or Bono would drive. Buying a second-hand diesel Range Rover is a much greener option, but if humans are arrogant enough to think they can permanently change the environment of an entire planet they should stand in the middle of Siberia for a week to gain a proper perspective on how important they are before trying to predict how hot it will be in 2050 because of Jeremy Clarkson. But given the choice between a Ford Nucleon and a Toyota Prius I’d probably opt for the latter, because I like my daughter and I don’t want to see her grow another head or have her face rot off.

Many people write about the future. Often they do so to showcase their own views on the present and offer up a dystopia that will of course happen if nobody listens to their thinly disguised metaphors. One thing that we can be sure of is that the past will repeat itself because humans are stupid creatures who refuse to learn very much, so you’re on pretty safe ground if you want to write a science fiction novel based on concentration camps in the Cillit Bang Nebula or ethnic cleansing on the moon or the subjugation of women in the fifth dimension, but if you want to write a futuristic novel based on your own ideas of what the future might hold, you have to be a pretty imaginative fantasist.

Which brings me in a circumambulatory fashion to David Mitchell and Cloud Atlas, for two reasons. First because it’s a very good book indeed, which describes the future in a way that doesn’t grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and say “See! Look what will happen if you don’t listen to my genius-level idealistic bollocks!”, and secondly because it features a place called Great Chesterford, where I used to live. Better still, it features the village station, in which I had some fairly uproarious times involving alcohol, barmaids and occasional narcotics in the 1980s. You don’t often expect to go to a station in order to get drunk and/or stoned, and it was of course also possible to catch trains there, but in the late seventies British Rail, or whoever ran our railway system in those nationalized days, sold the building at a knockdown price and it was bought by some people who turned it into a bar and restaurant and became friends of mine over the course of a few years of incipient alcoholism. I was married at the time and frankly I wasn’t a very nice fellow in those days, so let’s just say that it all ended badly, there were tears before bedtime and some people got hurt and leave it at that because that isn’t what I’m going to write about. But the thing was that the station building actually straddled the county line between Essex and Cambridgeshire, and neither county’s police force wanted jurisdiction over it, so they just left it alone. The result was that it knew no such thing as closing time and often stayed open until everyone either passed out or went home. The restaurant was good one, based on Spanish dishes and the Spanish sense of time which meant that people would call in for something to eat at midnight and stay until they were too drunk to stand up. 

A friend of mine once popped down there for a lunchtime drink on Sunday and didn’t get home until Wednesday evening. His wife wouldn’t let him in so he went and bought a bunch of flowers and fed them through the letterbox one at a time until she forgave him. It took quite a lot of flowers. We were younger then, and didn’t care about the future and what it might bring. I used to go to racecourses with Doug, the owner. We’d take his dog so the police wouldn’t breathalyse us. It was Doug’s contention that the police never breathalysed anyone with a dog in the car, because they’d not only have to arrest the driver, they’d have to wake up the dog handlers and get them to open the pound to house the dog until the driver was sober enough to go home. That was evidently too much hassle. So when Doug rather predictably got banned for a year he employed me as his driver and we would zip around the country in his Mercedes dressed in suits and car-coats pretending to act like George Cole and Dennis Waterman off of Minder. In reality I cashed the family allowance and lost it on the horses and came home uproariously pissed and the person I was married to at the time was not pleased with me.

But of course, while I was being a middle-class rebel there were other things going on in the world beyond. The reason the restaurant specialized in Spanish food was that the cook and part owner was Spanish. She was fiery, tempestuous and highly strung. Let’s call her Manuela. She was married to a publisher in the nearest town who was fluent in Spanish and they had three beautiful daughters who were fluent in both languages and in Catalan too. The publisher had as his main client the Argentinean education system, part of the Argentine government, and he and Manuela would often wine and dine their British representatives in the restaurant. He published atlases for the Argentineans, and it was obviously a lucrative business. Their standard of living was high and their beautiful daughters were all in private education, and he’d bought Manuela half of the business to run with Doug, whose Mercedes I was driving from one racecourse to another by then.

So, it was the early 1980s and everything was going along quite nicely until that Thatcher woman decided to shore up her popularity by killing some South Americans. Doug and I, thundering between Cheltenham and Chepstow racecourses wearing our carcoats, listening to Dire Straits on the 8-track and drinking from the bottle, thought this a splendid idea. Manuela, Spanish and married to a Cambridge man with enough intelligence and empathy to see beyond the jingoism, came to a very different conclusion, especially after we sank the Belgrano. I was back from the racing by them, sitting at the bar with Doug and drinking, for some reason, Pernod, when she came running through the crowded restaurant from the kitchen brandishing a large meat cleaver and shouting “Bastardes! Inglès dogs! You sink my sheep. My-a sheep! You all fuckeen bastardes!” The drinkers at the bar yelled back at her and a couple of days later we sellotaped the Sun’s Gotcha headline to the swing-door that led through to the kitchen. Whether the Belgrano was in or out of the exclusion zone was not discussed, nor was whose exclusion zone it was anyway and whether it was legal or not. David Mitchell again, this time in Black Swan Green, quoted an Argentinean minister as saying “Britannia once rules the waves. Now she just waives the rules.”

It made little difference to us in our quiet, drunken Essex/Cambridgeshire backwater. The troop ships arrived in Argentina, everyone thought that Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding was hippie bollocks and we carried on listening to Dire Straits. Manuela’s husband kept on talking with his Argentinean counterparts in Buenos Aires. He kept on publishing their atlases, in which the Falkland Islands were referred to as Las Islas Malvinas, and he kept getting paid by the Argentineans. Then of course, the Argies started to fight back. On the day HMS Sheffield was blown to bits by exocets and some bombs we’d sold them once, Manuela came running through from the kitchen again with her cleaver, laughing and yelling “We keel you! We seenk your fuckeen sheep! We weening now!” She did a little dance and ran back into the kitchen, and that night the food was especially tender and the portions larger than normal. Over the next few days the Argentineans did lots more damage and Manuela did a lot more shouting and dancing and it looked as if we might have to retreat. Margaret Thatcher single-handedly held the nation’s resolve through the crisis and sent in the SAS to fight some teenage conscripts, with predictable results.

And of course the intelligence services and the press got to work stirring things up and perpetuating a little more hatred – an easy task, because we’re people, it’s what we do best. The Sun or the News of the World or some such scurrilous little amoral redtop got hold of the fact that Manuela’s husband had a lucrative contract with the Argentine school system and was therefore of course supporting their ideological struggle to retain las Islas Malvinas. Communications were supposed to be cut. “I just phone them up,” he said, “I publish books for them, they give me money; that’s how capitalism works, go ask the Prime Minister. Her son probably sold them the weapons they blew our soldiers up with anyway.” That explanation didn’t work for the paper’s readership. He was a traitor in our midst and his wife was suddenly Argentinean, and not from Barcelona at all.

I wandered down to the bar for a drink one day shortly after all this. There were three black Rovers with tinted windows parked outside. I went to go in and was stopped by someone in a suit. “They’re shut” he said. I went home again. They were shut all day, but reopened the following evening. Doug and Manuela and Manuela’s husband had been thoroughly questioned by MI5 officials. The school atlas contract was no more, the restaurant was very quiet over the next few weeks. I phoned the bar one day, I can’t remember why, and heard double-clicks when Doug answered and a funny burring noise after I’d hung up. They were tapping the phone. So, of course, being almost permanently drunk I told some other people and we started phoning the bar when we knew there was no one there so we could leave obscure messages on the answerphone:

This is the Station Restaurant and Bar, please leave your message after the tone:
“Grandmother says the butterflies have landed. I repeat, Grandmother says the butterflies have landed…”
“…the moon will be blue on the fourteenth. I repeat, blue on the fourteenth…”

…and so on. We stopped in the end. It was only funny for a short while. Manuela’s husband’s business suffered, the restaurant’s popularity diminished, Britain won the war, Thatcher got re-elected, a couple more years ticked by and I began to hallucinate occasionally and do stuff I couldn’t remember doing. The person I was married to decided she didn’t want to be married to me any more and I can’t blame her. I stopped wearing carcoats, going racing or listening to Dire Straits. I started a diet that consisted mainly of lager and amphetamines and marijuana and began to think that horse-racing was not really that enjoyable and that Sonic Youth and the Ramones were much more fun to listen to than Dire Straits. The drink took Doug. Before the restaurant closed he slept through the winter in one of the upstairs rooms, woke with frost on his covers from his own breath and started his days with whisky-and-milk and Marlboro while his Mercedes rusted outside in the rain. Then the bailiffs called and he went to Suffolk and died. I don’t know what happened to Manuela or her husband. Cancer took the man who posted flowers through his wife’s letterbox. A stroke took Thatcher a long time later and the nation danced for a bit like it was the 1980s again, all shoulderpads and tight perms. And me? I’m still here. Not many would have predicted that, but hey ho, let’s go, can you give me a gabba-gabba-hey? Still putting pen to paper and lucky enough to be of reasonably sound mind.

What of the future? The events I’ve described here took place thirty years ago. I expect that in thirty years’ time I’ll be dead too, but only fools or geniuses should predict. I’m glad I have no window to the future, because I’m scared shitless of the questions I might ask it about my daughter or my wife and the answers I might want to erase from my mind afterwards but would instead be forced to live with. Or questions about the world, which continues to be run by charlatans, thieves and crooks – or at best those gifted with the powers of self-delusion. I’ll leave such suppositions to the professional tale-spinners, because the real world has enough power to frighten without predicting worse things. We try to buttress ourselves against the future, in the same way we buttress ourselves against death by clinging to ancient fairytales. But there is no God and we are his prophets, as Cormac McCarthy once said, and I’ll sign off with another of his quotes…

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there.


by Barbara Scott Emmett

4 stars

In an effort to  reconcile with her estranged husband, Imogen Webb goes to stay at the possibly haunted Deverell Gatehouse with her in-laws. Before long mysterious happenings occur in and around the mediaeval Gatehouse and soon Imogen finds herself transported back to Tudor times. At first these visits are brief but tension soon builds around whether she can get back to the present and bring with her a modern day child who has become trapped there.

Imogen is also desperate to help an imprisoned and tortured priest and to change the course of his life and death at the hands of Mary Tudor. However, she finds herself having to question whether history can, or should, be changed.

This is a gripping timeslip novel and both the modern day and historical sections are compellingly written. The history of the time is chilling and many of the characters are real personages who are brought vividly to life.

The present day characters bicker and get on each other's nerves, creating a lighter counterpoint to the stark 16th century—until the denouement, when they all become embroiled in a fight for life and justice. Running through the novel is a deftly handled romantic strand and a modern day struggle to save the ancient Deverell seat from developers, making this a very satisfying story.

Karen MacLeod usually writes historical novels and this is evident in the accuracy of the period detail. I found I had to pay careful attention in order to keep up with who was who, but then this is not a period of which I already have any great knowledge. Those fascinated by the dark days of religious persecution and bloody murder will love this book.

Barbara Scott Emmett lives in Newcastle and writes in a room overlooking the Tyne. She shares this writing space with her husband, crime novelist Jimmy Bain, and their cat Gizzie. When not writing she edits the work of others and assists in ebook creation.

The Poison Boy by Fletcher Moss

reviewed by Anne Stormont

5 Stars

magical storytelling for all ages

Wow! What a read! It's easy to see why this first novel from Fletcher Moss won the 2013 Times/Chicken House Children's novel competition.

It's a swashbuckling, sewertramping, riverswimming, mudswilling, punchflinging, pistolshooting adventure story. Set at an indeterminate time - but one that recalls aspects of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras - and in the fictional town of Highlions - a sort of smaller, darker London type city - complete with river running through, the book has crime, intrigue and plenty of surprises - as well as a bit of sweet and innocent first love.

And, hurrah, there's not a vampire in sight!

The story is told in a succinct and uncluttered way which gives it the brisk pace that its target readership demands. The plot is essentially a quest - a quest for justice and to solve a mystery. The main character is Dalton Fly who works as a poison boy. His work involves pre-tasting the food of the rich in order to ensure it's safe to be eaten. After his friend and fellow poison boy dies horribly having drunk some poisoned wine, Dalton is on a mission to find the poisoner. The mission is dangerous, shocking and throws up some unexpected truths for Dalton.

The characters are complete originals. Dalton is a wonderful and endearing hero who is both brave and vulnerable. His friends, acquaintances and adversaries are also well-drawn. A few deft brushstrokes and his friends including Sal Sleepwell, Scarlet Dropmore and Luke Eppington  are brought instantly to life. You only need to meet them once and you feel you know them.  Dalton's enemies are equally vivid. The truly awful Pallis Tench is gruesome, grotesque and great!

We are led through sewers and tunnels, up chimneys and along rivers, lanes and streets. We are steeped in mud, river water and filth. We see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the smells with lifelike clarity.

The imaginative use of language is superb. I especially love the character names and the 'swear' words - all complete inventions.  And I suspect readers may well want to adopt 'dreck' and 'kite' as undercover curses.
The novel is aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds and would probably appeal most to the middle of that age range. But I have a feeling it could well be a 'crossover' book - appealing to adults and children alike.

This a stunning debut. I would love to read  Dalton Fly's further adventures and really hope there's a sequel planned.

The Poison Boy is published by The Chicken House and is available from bookshops and on Amazon.

Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults - mainly of the menopausal and post-menopausal female persuasion - and for children. She blogs at - where you can find out lots more about her.  

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

Reviewed by Anne Stormont

5 Stars

a powerful and poignant story of a childhood summer

I read this debut novel when I was ill in bed with flu - and I was transported. I was taken away from my aches, pains, shivers and sweats to a wonderful, warm, French summer. Even better, it was a childhood summer.
I was quickly immersed in the sights, sounds and scents of five-year-old Pea's world. And the story this engaging young narrator tells is moving, powerful and oh so vivid.

As the summer passes Pea and her younger sister, Margot are left to fill their days as they please in the meadows and fields near their house. Pea's widowed and pregnant mother is so pre-occupied with her own grief that she is unable to carry out any mothering duties. Indeed she spends most of her time in bed engulfed in and weakened by her sorrow.

Pea and Margot try to come up with ways to make their mother happy again including trying to find her a new husband. They befriend, and are befriended by Claude, a neighbouring farmer who is also burdened with grief. The girls play, explore and puzzle over the ways of the adults around them.

It's not an easy thing to tell a grown-up  story through the eyes of a child and to render it realistic and poignant for adult readers but Claire King makes it look simple.

This is an enchanting and charming book which will make you both smile and reminisce about the innocence of childhood  -and cry with recognition at the loss of that innocence that adulthood brings.

It is a perfect summer read and indeed a winter sickbed one too.

The Night Rainbow is published by Bloomsbury and is available in bookshops and on Amazon.   

Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults - mainly of the menopausal and post-menopausal female persuasion - and for children. She blogs at  - where you can find out lots more about her.  

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Reviewed by Liza Perrat

5 stars

In the Old Testament, Dinah’s life is only hinted at in a brief detour within the familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis which deals with her father, Jacob, son of Issac, grandson of Abraham and brother of Esau. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has taken these scant details of Dinah’s life and imagined them into an amazing narrative of what might have happened.

The author never suggests this is the "true" story. It is a novel, even though it may be based in fact. However, the story seems to be thoroughly researched, and I was as fascinated by her descriptions of life in Biblical times as by the lives of the characters.

The Red Tent explores the lives of the wives and daughter of Jacob, affording us a glimpse into the world of women at that time. Told through the eyes of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter to survive into adulthood, the author has created a wonderful tale of an otherwise minor character.

From the start, we are immediately drawn into the intimate details of the lives of Dinah and her four “mothers”, as Jacob marries Dinah’s mother, Leah, then her sister, Rachel, then takes as concubines the other two sisters: Zilpah, and Bilhah. As the only daughter, Dinah’s “mothers” all love and spoil her, bestowing on Dinah gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. In their relationship with Jacob, and with each other, these women struggle through a range of emotions: jealously, love, pride and loyalty.

We hear about the births of the children resulting from these relationships, as well as Dinah’s childhood of learning from her “mothers” in the red tent, where the women were isolated during their cycles. Within the confines of the red tent, the women bonded in such a way as to give them a subtle power over men, who were fearful of their rituals and knowledge of childbearing. It gave them a certain amount of leverage in a very much male-dominated society.

Later in the story, Dinah’s father, Jacob, leaves his father-in-law’s lands, along with his extensive family and flock of sheep and, eventually, certain events tear these women’s lives apart, as Dinah falls in love and ends up in Egypt.

You do not have to be familiar with the Bible to enjoy this novel as The Red Tent is not, in essence, a religious book, but it does discuss the God of Jacob's father, as well as exploring the many gods worshipped by other cultures of the time. 

This story, about the strength of women, was one of the best I have read in a long time: powerful, beautifully written and imaginatively conceived. I was sorry to reach the last page. Dinah's tale reaches out from a remarkable period in early history, creating for us an intimate connection with our past, and I cannot recommend this book more highly.

The Rumour Mill – sorting the bags of truth from the bags of shite

Heard a rumour but you’re not sure if it’s a bag of truth or just a big bag of shite? Send it to us and we’ll get our top investigative journalist Kris Dangle to look into it for you.

A bloke down the pub the other night told me that all the figures about speed cameras saving lives is just manipulation by the government because it’s really a stealth tax on law abiding citizens who have the right to break the law if they want and the only real place to get any real information about them is from blokes down the pub. Is this truly true?
I’ve checked out several similar rumours – for example, the only place to find out how the NHS should be run is from blokes down the pub or the only place to find out how to win the World Cup is from a bloke down the pub or the only place to find out why windfarms don’t work is from a bloke down the pub - and although several Colleges now offer third level courses in this, resulting in a Dip TS (Diploma in Talking Shite) there is no truth in this at all.

A friend of mine who knows a cyclist said that if a motorist tells you that they have a right to use the road because they pay road tax on their car despite this not being the case since 1936 you are allowed to kick them up their stupid arse without any fear of charges being brought against you. Could this really be the case?
Unfortunately this is not actually the case as there is currently no law against spouting ignorant shite when someone wants to justify being an ignorant cunt. You also can’t punch people in their stupid faces for parking in two spaces outside your local supermarket.

My granddad who is ninety five and knows a thing or two about how to be paranoid said that he heard from his childhood friend that Facebook sells all your posts to the illuminati and that by using all this information they are going to come and kill us all in our beds. Is he right?
He’s not totally correct. Facebook does sell all your information, but it’s just to the government. They have made a list of everyone who has ever posted a picture of their dinner and are currently rushing through legislation to compel all those on the list to wear a t-shirt with the legend – I’m an incredibly sad bastard.

I’ve just heard that the real reason David Beckham is retiring from football is that he finally has enough tattoos to work in a carnival. Is this the absolute truth?
Yes. Apparently he and Ozzy Osbourne have chipped in and bought a Waltzer together and they’ll be asking the residents of seaside towns to ‘Scream if you want to go faster,’ from July on.

Andrew Lownie talks about his agency’s initiative – Thistle Publishing

Interview by JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs series

Thistle Publishing was born out of a combination of frustration and opportunity. As an agent, I was finding publishers were increasingly cautious about commissioning books, even by established authors. Books which I thought very commercial , often with serial potential, were being turned down, sometimes because of concerns about the legal ramifications and sometimes because editors couldn’t obtain full in-house support.

It often seemed power had moved from the editorial departments to sales and legal. Editors were taking longer to make decisions and publishers to publish – books could take up to 18 months to come out after delivery – in what was becoming a very fickle and competitive market. There was also a remorseless drive down in terms of royalties and share of subsidiary rights income and increasing insistence on world rights.

This seemed crazy as, in my view, power had shifted from the publisher to the author. The digital revolution meant authors could easily self-publish and buy in any required services such as editorial and marketing. Amazon had created the largest bookshop in the world and were courting literary agencies offering attractive terms – such as 70% on e-book income compared to 25% from publishers, and licences which could be cancelled at any time – and help with digitisation and cover design. I was also impressed by Amazon’s professionalism, ‘can-do’ attitude and flexibility.

Many agencies were dipping their toes in the market pushing reverted backlist titles or filling territorial gaps where books had not sold such as in America. I decided to be more ambitious and was influenced by your very own writers’ conference in Zurich last October where it was clear changes in the industry were being driven by authors and agents who would be left behind if they didn’t embrace the revolution taking place.

Twenty years ago, I had self-published the complete short stories of John Buchan in three volumes, under the imprint Thistle Publishing, complete with a silk bookmark and handsomely printed by Clays. A thousand copy run of the first volume had sold out quickly so I rapidly printed another thousand copies of a boxed set of the three volumes and sold them through a few key bookshops, ads and mailings. I made more money from that piece of self-publishing than the five editions of my Buchan biography from major publishers and since then I have always been a great supporter of indie publishing, under certain circumstances.

The Thistle imprint was revived, a new company set up with my agency colleague David Haviland as an equal partner, the company registered for VAT, bank accounts set up, a website created and publicists interviewed. We began to scour the agency backlists for suitable titles for reissue and our current submissions for books in which we had a confidence that had hitherto not been shared by publishers. We would not take on books which were not up to our existing quality standards, and we would not be publishers – Amazon was the publisher and we took only our usual 15% agency commission – but we would lend our authority, contacts and expertise to the list.

Though many authors were self-publishing very successfully, it seemed to me that their books looked self-published – not least because it was clear they came from Amazon – and lacked marketing and publicity push. David and I decided we would spend time on cover design and pay for a two-day publicity campaign which could be topped up by the authors. The agency would also use its Twitter and Facebook accounts and the monthly newsletter to add further promotional support.

The aim would be to showcase and establish books for domestic and foreign publishers and film companies in the hope that media attention, reviews and sales might lead to fresh business. Many self-published books were being picked up by publishers and it seemed a strategy that could work even better for agency titles. The fact that Amazon and Thistle didn’t insist on a licence term meant that books could be sold on almost immediately if interest was shown. We also wanted to generate new revenue streams for authors and make all their books work for them whether it was exploiting out of print backlists or ‘plugging’ rights gaps.

The list launched at the beginning of the year. We've published 17 titles now, with another 20 completed and just awaiting publication, and 60 more books in the pipeline. We’ve already had a bestseller with David Haviland’s historical trivia book Why Was Queen Victoria Such a Prude?, which was top in all its categories on Amazon.

One of the advantages of the list is we can react to events quickly so, for example, our first book, Mary Hollingsworth’s account of a papal Conclave, was published the day after the Pope announced he was stepping down, and we were able to quickly turn around a biography of Amy Winehouse to tie-in with a serial in the Sun and the paperback publication of her father’s book. In June we have book on an undercover unit in Northern Ireland tied in to a Panorama programme and a Sunday newspaper serial.

Peter Daughtrey’s fascinating case for the lost city of Atlantis being on the Portuguese coast had a US publisher but not a UK one so we simply published it shortly after it came out in the US, whilst Darren Moore’s thematic study The Soldier had been published in the UK but not yet in the US.

Many books were critically well-received but now out of print and had never had e-book editions – and sometimes never even a paperback - such as Anthony Bruce’s book on the war in Palestine during the First World War: The Last Crusade, Mark Higgitt’s account of HMS Ardent during the Falklands War: Through Fire and Water, and David Stafford’s books of twentieth century history: Spies Beneath Berlin, Churchill & Secret Service, and Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945.

An area with great potential, not least because of translation and film opportunities, is fiction, and Thistle has already begun reissuing MJ Trow’s comic historical crime series based on Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade, which was originally published by Constable. In June we will be bringing out thirteen novels by Guy Bellamy, most originally published by Penguin, whom Auberon Waugh described on first publication over thirty years ago as “a major new comic talent.” Another novelist of whom we have high hopes is Nicholas Best, whose Tennis and the Masai was described by the Sunday Times on first publication as “The funniest book I have read since David Lodge’s Small World.” Later in the year, Thistle will be reissuing some of Joyce Cary’s novels together with a new collection of his short stories – many hitherto unpublished.

Tom Pocock was a naval historian, whom I represented for almost twenty years until his death in 2007 and whose books should never have been allowed to go out of print; Thistle will be reissuing nineteen of them over the summer thereby providing focus and momentum. Similarly, we will be bundling titles under themes, such as a series on Prime Ministers to include James Chambers’s life of Palmerston and RJQ Adams’s books on Balfour and Bonar Law.

Many of the books have an obvious target market which can easily be reached, such as Rachel Woods’s guide for aspiring models, and a forthcoming diet title on the magic Konjac noodle, which is tied in to a promotion by a Konjac distributor. Others have an obvious peg so, for example, we are publishing Paul Merrill’s comic guide to fatherhood on Father’s Day.

Digital has allowed us to explore different formats and lengths and we will be experimenting with a range of Thistle Singles – journalistic, sometimes polemical essays of 10,000-30,000 words around particular events or themes. One of the first will be Katharine Quarmby’s quest to find her father, a visiting Iranian naval officer who was forced to give her up for adoption, and discover her heritage. The e-book will be published for Father’s Day and has been picked up by Amazon’s own publishing programme.

The future looks promising with three Thistle books being actively promoted by Amazon, and all selling well – Churchill & Secret Service is particularly strong, currently at #78 in the overall Kindle bestsellers chart. Though selling books to trade publishers remains difficult, the opportunities presented by digital and Amazon are very exciting for authors and agents.

You can find out more about Thistle Publishing here.

JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.

Interview with Florence Thomas, translator

Why are you personally attracted to translating literature?
In two different languages, the same words can have a total different meaning. In order to "translate" an atmosphere, the translator sometimes needs to completely change the sentence.
It’s like cooking: the same recipe but the results are different, depending on the chef. Translating is like that. I can give my own emotions to someone else's book, if I am given the right to let my creativity flow.

What’s your process? Does it differ from work to work?
It only differs when the writer has special wishes. I first read the book, talk to the writer to get the feeling of what was behind the book (interestingly enough, not all writers are interested in sharing this with a translator), and also assess how free I am with the translation. I then make a first draft, word for word kind of. Then I write "my" book.

Some of my most-beloved books are translated works (Durrenmatt, Haas, Yoshimoto, Kundera). Why do you think translation is so important?
It is always better to read in the original language. However, no one will ever know all the languages but everybody has something to say. Translation is vital to get books known internationally. Books are words and words are thoughts, feelings, and more widely history, testimony. Without translation the word would be just a stain on paper to the outside world. When it is written, it is worth reading. Translation brings other cultures to your coffee table. How fantastic is that!

Do some works or even genres lend themselves more easily to translation?
In my opinion, everything can be translated, but every translator is not comfortable with every genre. I like literary translation because it is flowing, and because I am a writer. If I was a medical writer or a financial writer, maybe literary translations would not interest me.

When I watch movies with subtitles, it is always interesting for me to compare the two versions and also fascinating to hear the people laugh. Depending on whether they are listening or reading, the laughs take place at different times, but they all cry at the same parts. My opinion on this is that humour and jokes are harder to translate because they are linked to culture.

Obviously a translator must be familiar with two languages, but how much does knowledge of culture play a part?
If you know two languages, you can translate, words are words. This would be fine for technical writing. More than the culture, you need to be a specialist of the subject. In literary translation, you need to understand what is behind the words.

An example: I once translated a book by a Chinese writer. The paragraph depicted a young girl looking at the falling snow through the window.

When you "see" the picture in your mind, with a Western mindset, this is a romantic scene. The girl looks at the snow and she is transported by memories from childhood, making snowmen and endless snowball fights ... scarves and mittens and hot chocolate.

In northern China, looking at the snow would not bring the same feelings. The snow falling means cold, freezing weather, cold houses and apartments with very little (if any) heating. Cloudy sky for months and months. It is a sad atmosphere.

I translated this by having her look at the rain falling in strings on the sinister roads. It rendered the atmosphere.

Another example is young adult fiction. Somehow French translators think that YA speak is arrogant and impolite. So they translate the stories (books or movies) with an awful lot of slang and words taken from the familiar language, when actually in the original version, the language is rather moderate. This always puzzles me.

I imagine there are many different ways of working with an author. Do you have a preference?
Most of the authors now are email addresses and websites to me. I am a 21st century translator. I can get on board with anything. Some writers give a lot of freedom, some others are very strict with their work and want an exact translation with no flowers and butterflies. I don't have a preference.

But I do not enjoy translating my own books. I find this a very tough exercise, because I constantly "rewrite" the book. This is exhausting.

Which translators do you most admire?
I admired my university professor, Mr. Andre Levy. I have no idea what he does now or if he is still alive, but he was so prolific through his career. He translated encyclopediae and ancient literature dictionaries etc... Being in his presence, studying with his guidance was always humbling for me.

I read Charles Baudelaire's translation of Edgar Poe when I was a teenager and I had no idea that Mr. Poe wrote in English. To me, he wrote in French.

What is the hardest thing you’ve had to translate?
The hardest thing to translate is as always in human interactions, words I do not agree with, or words (and by word, I mean the large meaning of word: idea, concept, opinion) that are wrong (in my opinion) or conflicting with my beliefs..

Once I accept a translation, I go on with it. However, I find it extremely difficult to write words that do not make sense to me. This is a struggle.
An example is an American writer whose books I translated in the past. The writer was obviously deranged (not dangerous), and I often discussed this with the other translators (Spanish, Hebrew etc) because at times, it was troublesome to continue working on his texts.
Translation is a lonely job most of the times, but when I have colleagues I can talk to, it is comforting.

How do you cope with idioms? ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’, to give an English example. How would you tackle something like that?
Just like the lawyers do in court cases, they look for a precedent. I always go for the accepted translation of an idiom, they have all been translated. Sometimes, there are several meanings, according to the context, so I chose what makes sense to me. We have Internet groups where you can submit questions and get feedback from colleagues. Translation is not an exact science. I see so many translations that miss the spot.

An example (not from the literary translation world, but still interesting). An interview from Michael Jackson. The journalist asked "Are you homosexual?", MJ answered "Hmm. I have sex at home." Subtitle: "Yes, I am."
More than idioms, humour is difficult to translate, because sometimes, it does not make sense at all in another language, unless you have all the clues to go with it.

If you had the choice, which work would you most like to translate?
Biographies, love stories, and young adult books. I find love stories and YA lit casual and natural to translate.

Earlier this year, Burton Pike said, ‘A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders.’ Do you see an erosion of the border between literary and everyday language, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Burton Pike is a translator of literature. he called it "creepy" so I guess he does not like the development he mentions. I am not worried about anything going global, I am actually very happy with the internationalisation of books, concepts, ideas, ways of life, experiences... We do not exist in a bubble.

However, I like these differences, the various levels of languages. In the written language it is important, in my opinion, to know the different levels, to accept them and to use them accordingly.

There are ways to preserve traditions, in life as in literature. Translators like Mr. Pike are working on that. As far as French is concerned, there are still several levels of languages, and I believe it will always be so. School still teaches those different levels. High standards literature was never written for the common people, so this is a reality, which also waters down to translations.

I was fortunate to study French classical literature in the university and the possibilities to read a text with different angles are infinite. in our modern literature, there are experimental writers, who are judged either phenomenal or useless by one reader or another. Literature should cater for everyone.

As far as English is concerned, it is maybe different. English is a communication language, hence prone to alteration, above all when foreign authors write in English.

As a translator, one needs to always wonder if it makes sense in his/her culture to translate the book exactly as is, or if the writer would accept a transformation of the book so that it fits in more with local expectations.

I am an experimental writer, I like to change points of view, and rewrite the same story to see where it takes me, change the style of writing and let my pen carry my words somewhere unexpected. It is the same when I translate.

JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.

What Can Agents Offer Self Publishing Authors?

By Joanne Phillips

Last night I was lucky enough to be part of an online chat with two literary agents, Bryony Woods and Ella Kahn from Diamond Khan & Wood Agency. This Q&A session was offered as part of my creative writing MA, and I jumped at the chance to put my own questions to the agents.

When I knew this session was coming up, I asked my fellow Alli (Alliance of Independent Authors) members what kind of questions they’d ask. A very bold one was: What can agents offer to indie authors? Bold, but reasonable. With all the talk of ‘hybrid’ authors currently, I don’t think there’s any reason to perpetuate the them-and-us attitude towards agents, traditional publishing, and indies. Surely we can all open our eyes and see how well different professions and different approaches work in the market today?

We’ll come back to that. First, my report on what I learned from the very lovely Bryony and Ella – who typed so fast and tried so hard to answer questions from 32 students in a very short time their fingers must be sore today! Some of the submission guidelines may not be news to some of you, but for other readers who are considering submitting their novels (and DK&W seems like a great agency to submit to), I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you here:

Submission Guidelines

Bryony and Ella like to see submissions containing the first 3 chapters, or around 50 pages. You should also add a 1-2 page synopsis and - this is interesting – they like it if you add the synopsis at the end of the sample chapters within the same document. Both agents said they will read the cover letter (or email) first, and if it grabs them they’ll put the sample on their Kindle to read. They read the sample chapters first, and if they like them enough to get to the end, they will read the synopsis to see if the writer has fully developed the plot. Oh, and do include the ending in the synopsis. If I was submitting to an agent I might send the sample in mobi format too, just to make it easier for them to read. But this might come across as a bit desperate …

The covering letter was highlighted as being super-important. This is where they get an idea if you’re someone they could work with. In the letter you should include a short blurb to grab their interest, information about yourself, your writing history, qualifications if any, and why you wrote the book.

One of the nicest, and most refreshing thing about Bryony and Ella was their open attitude to submissions. Bryony loves ghost stories, gothic novels and fairy tales (are you reading this, Mum?), while Ella is looking for historical fiction of all types and ‘reading group fiction’ with a fast-paced plot. But both agreed they are open to most genres and that a strong concept and great writing are the most important factors. They really don’t like clunky dialogue and overuse of clichés.

My personal thoughts after this part of the session? I would definitely submit to this agency in the future. Both are committed to working with their authors long-term and developing careers, and while many in the indie world argue against having an agent at all, I disagree. Self publishing is wonderful, empowering, and under-appreciated by many in the industry – and misunderstand by many more. But there is much a good agent can offer to new authors, or published authors with a new project to pitch.

So, what can they offer to indie authors?

Which brings me to the meaty part of my post: Did I ask the bold question? Here is the question I put to Bryony and Ella:

Ella answered most of the questions, and the first thing she said was that many mainstream publishers are willing to look at self-published authors, but sales figures have to be really high – in the tens of thousands. She was very honest and admitted that her heart sinks slightly when a submission states that they self-published to test the market – but she did go on to explain the reason is that unless a debut novel has sold hugely, many publishers will consider it a flop, which is unfair, but as Ella rightly points out, you can only be a debut novelist once.

Asked about rights for successful indie titles, Ella explained that she’d rather work on all rights for a project, which I think is fair enough, don’t you? Besides, why would a big publisher offer print-only rights to anyone except those already selling massively? It wouldn’t be a good business model to cut off a source of income like digital book revenue.

One of the other students asked an interesting question, which was about representing an author who was committed to indie publishing as the start to a career, perhaps nurturing them (and taking a cut, of course) until they did make the big publisher’s lists. The answer in a nutshell was that the best start to an author’s career was to be with a mainstream publisher. (I’m just the messenger, guys!)

There wasn’t really a definitive answer to the question of what agents can offer to indies, but that might be down to the hectic nature of the chat. I did get the impression that while Bryony and Ella are totally open-minded to any quality submission, they are not about to start jumping for joy if an indie contacts them and offers their existing ebook or POD title for representation. And after hearing their arguments, I don’t blame them frankly.

My Summary 

Pre-existing opinions about self-publishing, and agents, and mainstream publishers go two ways. Indie authors have a lot to offer – at one point the conversation moved to marketing and promotion, and I was thinking how indie authors are way ahead of mainstream publishers in the most recent developments when it comes to reaching readers on a wider scale. Indie authors work SO HARD, they are committed to reaching the guys who matter – readers – and they are a determined bunch to boot!

But agents have a business model; they need to work within that and pay their bills. The two sides of publishing – if they are different sides – do meet, and often very successfully. But there still exists at best a mild suspicion of authors who’ve gone over to the dark side, and an unwillingness to match like for like. How do I know this? Because of the markers for success! Trad published authors are considered successful if they earn out their advance, and sometimes this means selling as few as 1000 books. They may have a marketing push behind them for a few months, and they may sell a few thousand ebooks as well, but this is an average run for many mid-list authors in the first year after publication of a title. But an indie author who sells ‘only’ a few thousand books? Not good enough. Indies have to sell tens of thousands to be considered as successful as their mid-list, trad pubbed counterparts. And if that’s not inequality, I don’t know what is.

Ending on a more positive note, both Bryony and Ella are looking for submissions, so those of you with polished novels ready to go should check out the guidelines on their website and go for it. They were lovely, and anyone who gets to work with them will be very lucky indeed.

About Joanne: Joanne is a writer seeking to connect with readers and other writers. She lives in Shropshire, England with her husband and five-year-old daughter. Her genre is commercial women’s fiction – chick lit for some – and her first novel Can’t Live Without is now for sale onAmazon Kindle and in paperback. You can find her website here:

I love me, what’s your hobby?

Writing your biographical note By Derek Duggan

There comes a point in every writer’s career where you will have to write a biography about yourself to stick on the fly leaf of your book. Simple, you might think, I can knock one out faster than a UKIP voter can say ‘I’m not a racist.’ But is it really that easy?

As anyone who has ever seen The Apprentice knows, when people talk themselves up they simply sound like the kind of person you’d like to see being made to lick up some dog sick. It’s a tricky thing and no matter how good you think you are at it you will always walk the fine line between coming over as a massive cock and coming over as a slightly less massive cock. This is further compounded for authors by the fact that you have to write the piece in the third person, the massive cockest of all the persons.

You might think that an easy way out of this is simply to get someone else to write it for you, but be advised – this won’t work as the reader is going to assume you wrote it yourself (unless you’re Katie Price in which case the reader will assume that you didn’t even write this bit).

So, what should you do? First it’s important to consider the genre of book you’ve written. More than anything else this has a giant bearing on what you need to include.

The most basic of all biographies is reserved for works of fiction. When asked to provide one of these here is an example of what to do –

Jessica Writer is the author of three novels including the critically acclaimed I’m a Writer. She lives in Holland with her husband and two daughters.

And that’s it. Many authors get this right, but there are an alarming number of people out there who take this opportunity to write a two thousand word essay about themselves. If you’ve won a relevant award, like the Booker or something, this will already be included on your cover, so there’s no need to put it in again. The full list of your other works will already be included and you can stick in a few quotes from various reviews on a separate page so you don’t have to include them again in your biography.

However, if you’re writing non-fiction you might like to include your qualifications and any relevant experience and so on.

Doctor Jessica Writer is a doctor and has done a lot of doctor things to do with medicine. This book is all about medicine so she knows what she’s talking about. She lives in Brazil with her Doctor husband and her children who are healthy because she’s a good doctor with mediciny knowledge. She qualified at being a doctor in a university and she works in a hospital.

This sort of thing is absolutely necessary because otherwise people might think you don’t know what you’re talking about. Many an excellent non-fiction tome has been let down in this way.

Books about food are divided into two categories, that of How to Cook It and Go on a Diet and this means that the biographies and especially the photos that go with it have to be very carefully chosen indeed. The photo in these cases is actually far more important than the words which accompany them. If you have written a How to Cook It book then you will need a very glossy shot of you looking happy and a bit unfit. Nigella Lawson, for example, often includes a photo of herself which has been mercilessly Photoshopped so that it resembles a person who has had their skin stretched around three hundred kilos of butter which coincidently is eighty per cent of the ingredients you will need to cook any of the recipes contained within. A short paragraph about yourself will do.

Jessica Writer has been eating food ever since she can remember. She eats, sleeps and drinks food. She loves food so much that she once ate the hind leg off the lamb of God. She lives in France with her husband and two cherubby children.

On the other hand, if you have written a Go on a Diet book, ideally you will need to have a picture of yourself looking extremely fit and wearing yoga gear with your midriff bare. If this worries you simply photoshop your head onto a picture of Jessica Ennis and Bob’s your mother’s brother. The words which accompany this should be similar to that of the Cook Book writer’s with just a few subtle yet important differences.

Jessica writer has been eating healthy food ever since she decided to lose weight. She eats well, sleeps soundly and drinks anything she can liquidize. She feels as fresh as a lamb. She lives in California with her husband, two dogs and a cat.

The authors who walk the finest line of all are those whose books fall into the self-help/esoteric category. Research has shown that the amount of units you shift is in direct proportion to how mental you make yourself sound in your biography. However, it’s not as simple as just starting out by saying you feel at one with the world because you drink a litre of goat spunk every morning. You have to lead into it, make yourself sound relatively normal and like you know all about the real world and then through a short series of seemingly logical steps work up to the goat jizz consumption.

Jessica Writer worked in the city for twelve years. Although extremely financially successful she felt her personal life was unfulfilling and out of control. She was surrounded by people and yet always felt alone. She tried many thing – yoga, meditation, a healthy diet, but none of these seemed to be doing the trick. And that’s when she found that ingesting a litre of man goat muck every day made her truly happy. And now she wants to share the secret with you.

And there you have it. Simply pick the relevant template for your book and success is practically guaranteed (disclaimer – success is not actually guaranteed).

Glad I could help.

Spiders and trolls: writing the internet part 2

Dan Holloway continues his look at incorporating the internet into fiction by exploring the possibilities for creating tension through using online communication and how to create the literary equivalent of spit screen TV.

So, last time I trixily and rather tritely made the case that “writing the internet” is actually just the same as writing regular dialogue. Which is true. But that’s not quite the whole story, and I thought the best way to illustrate the subtle differences between internet communication and dialogue is to take the most prominent features of difference and look at how to work them into a conversation.

I want to break this down into three areas.

1. virtuality. This may seem obvious, but it is massively important. When we converse online, or by text, we are not actually with the person we are talking to. This can be difficult enough when we’re trying to figure out all the nuances of meaning on the telephone, but online (OK, I’m not talking about Skype or videochatting) there is neither body language nor tone of voice to offer us non-linguistic clues.

Just think about that – no rising pitch to signal a playful question, winks or visual cues to sarcasm, no hesitation to show wariness, no scowl to show displeasure, no avoidance of eye contact we can latch onto to unmask a lie. The last of these points isn’t something that you can work into the way people converse, but is important to mention because you need to bear in mind not only how people consciously communicate across these hurdles, but what nuances they can and can’t draw – especially if, for example, you have a detective who needs to catch the villain out in a lie.

We might make fun of the use of emoticons in forums and text messages, and of those daft little acronyms like LOL and ROFLMAO, but far from stating the bleeding obvious, they can actually play an essential role in conveying emotion when there are no clues outside of the language itself. People who wouldn’t normally be seen dead drawing smiley faces will use them for clarity, and many of us use acronyms simply to save time and space. Do get to know a site like to help you get on top of these, but just like anything else, authenticity is the key. And that means there’s no real substitute for hanging out on a forum and seeing how people use emoticons and acronyms in real conversation.

Communication in this language-only world tends to devolve (this is something we will come to later, the pretty much universal rule that all online conversation spirals down or up into a formulaic steady state) in to one of two extremes, either extremely formal or extremely informal, with very little middle ground. Imagine this kind of exchange between two mid-ranking detectives at the end of their first long shift working on a new team together. Suppose they were relaxing over a pint following a debrief:

“Well that went well.”

“Yeah, nice to feel appreciated.”

“Aye, you can feel the love oozing from his pores.”

“Is that what it was?”

There are all sorts of things that make sense because the conversation is face to face. We don’t need to be told about the raised eyebrows and sarcastic faces because we know that’s what’s happening. We can see their visual cues and the way those interrelate.

Now suppose that one of the pair had been sent overseas, of down from Yorkshire to London, and after a long conference call with their superior they were catching up by text. It may be that each is raising their eyebrow, but the dynamic isn’t the same. They’re not feeding off one another, working themselves up into a mood bubble. And they certainly won’t refer to their boss’s physical appearance, so any sarcastic jokes will have a different frame of reference. The result is that the conversation will either tend to

-That was helpful ;)

-Empathy personified :p

Where the visual cues have entered into the language, or

-Slave driver

-Worse than bloody useless.

Where the implicit meaning has disappeared altogether and been brought wholly into the foreground

2. Minor characters

Remember those old Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies from the 1950s where people made calls on party lines and the screen would split and merge as people joined and left the conversation? The internet is like that only more so. More so in the sense that not only do some arenas such as chatrooms, blogs, and forums allow for parties that are more like an early 1990s warehouse rave than some genteel pillow talk but often these arenas are like bars. Along with whoever’s talking at any given time, there are the regulars. Those who sit around shooting the breeze at all hours, easing their way into every conversation. And realistic online communication needs to account for that.

Now, you don’t need to be a Beckett or a Stoppard to see the huge potential to be mined from chatrrom regulars and their quirks. They are the potential Falstaffs of the literary world. Of course, it’s not appropriate to many conversations, or whole genres, to start creating this kind of character. They would get decidedly in the way of a pacy thriller – although the sullen, sometimes thoughtful sometimes spiteful person on the fringes of conversation is a great candidate for a prime suspect in some kinds of thriller, and the everyday folk of a chatroom provide a perfect cast in which to hide them. Agatha Christie would, I am sure, have just adored internet forums and if she were writing today would have relocated all her vicarage tea parties there.

3. Dynamics of conversation

Most conversations we see in fiction follow a basic structure of back and forth. Of course there are group conversations as well, but even there a basic principle is at work, which is that – rather like those “I’m holding the pillow” management training exercises – the energy of the conversation moves around the group following the speaker.

Online conversations are more complex than that. OK, real life conversations are more complex too – the rule of following a single source of energy is by and large a fictional construct that is essential for being able to transcribe things in a way that is both interesting and coherent. But fictional online conversations don’t have those constraints. It is quite possible, by thinking about how you format things, to follow the way things actually work. And, more important, to do so not only without losing attention or coherence, but whilst heightening both.

There are two ways in which having multiple centres of conversational energy can work really well. The first is the forum/blog/chatroom thread in which there are multiple conversations happening at once. In real online conversations, these are delineated by the use of the @ sign at the start of comments, so it is always clear who is talking to whom. This translates to the page very well, and avoids the need for endless he said/she said tags. It is also a very good way of avoiding having two scenes when that would be inappropriate for dramatic reasons (back to backing similar scenes with similar arcs is always dramatically bad unless you have a very good artistic reason for it) but you have two sets of related characters who need to have similar conversations.

The second is the “aside”. This is something that can be done wonderfully on television by using split screen. In fiction it is a nightmare, and that’s a real shame, because as shows like 24 and Trial and Retribution have shown, it can be used to devastating effect to convey a scene from two angles when one or more characters is not party to the information that their companion/interlocutor and someone else, or the audience, is party to.

The printed page (ironically not so much, as technology currently stands, the ereader screen) is perfect for this. Simply use the right and left hand side of the book as a split screen. On one side you can present a group chat on a forum or chatroom. On the other side, using line spacing to convey the exact moment at which something is said, you can follow a side conversation that is going on between either two participants or one participant and a third party either in a private chatbar or by direct message.

The dramatic possibilities are manifold:
  • The sting. A group of people, as on Hustle or some such, may be buttering up a mark ready to strike. On one side the conversation to manipulate the mark carries on. On the other side they discuss tactics together. 
  • The agony aunt/uncle. In one chatbar someone undertakes “that conversation” with a lover whilst nestling on the shoulder of a best friend in another chatbar. 
  • The spider’s lair. Similar to the sting but more sinister. Perfect for psychological thrillers where a group is grooming a victim. Potentially terrifying. 
  • The trap. Similar to the lair only in reverse. This time some of the members of the ring aren’t what they seem – they’re police officers. 

And so on. The basic principle is always the same. One or more members of the conversation is playing more than one role, whilst others are playing only one. Usually the latter group will somehow be vulnerable to the manipulation of the former. It really is a marvellous dramatic device.

Dan Holloway's new novel, Evie and Guy, is one of the few books about which it can be truthfully said that it really is unlike anything else - a heartbreaking love story written wholly in numbers, it is free to download from his website ( Dan is a multiple slam winning poet and former winner of Literary Death Match. He runs the Open Up to Indies campaign for the Alliance of Independent Authors and writes about self-publishing and independent culture for the Guardian. You can see him performing poetry at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 8th, in Oxford on June 22n, and as a feature act at the leading London spoken word event Forget What You Heard (about spoken word) on June 22nd. Details on his website.

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass with Ayisha Malik

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explore and critique a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’.

The first page of Charity Massacre, submitted by Perry McDaid


The dream always begins the same. The office phone rings. A curt summons to Interview Room 2 ensues. The office is empty, but the manager steps out of his office long enough to give her the go-ahead. The transition between that and sitting in the interview room is a blur. Then everything slows down. She is no longer herself, but an observer.


The girl glances around the sparsely furnished interview room, her gaze fixing for a desperate moment on the open window. Silently reprimanding herself for drifting towards panic, she drags her attention back to the two officious creatures sitting at the other side of the conference table. One is a dowdy middle-aged blond female and the other a kindly-looking man in his sixties, on whom - she remarks inwardly - a few good meals would not be wasted.

The female official is sour-faced and scribbles busily on a note-pad before raising her head expectantly. The older, milder, male official waits patiently. The girl, subject of an ad-hoc inquisition, finds her eyes drawn repeatedly and anxiously to the door. It all seems very ominous to her.

‘No, I certainly did not.’ The response is indignant, although tinged with an undercurrent of dread. The man affects a tolerant smile.

‘Your superior says otherwise’ he probes, marking her disdain at the use of the rank honorific.

‘My supervisor,’ she responds, stressing the correction, ‘is ...’ She pauses to wonder how can she can effectively phrase her thoughts without landing herself in deeper trouble, ‘... mistaken.’ She takes a calming breath before continuing. ‘I have always acted in a professional manner, performing above and beyond my duties despite the lack of promotion or appreciation.’

The female official, apparently there to serve as witness and minute-taker, utters an almost inaudible grunt of dissent as she scratches away on her bargain basement note-pad. The flashy corporate folder only magnifies its cheapness. The poor quality of the paper rasps in the awkward quiet.

The target of their investigation finds a rage rising up beside the chilling dread and finds it reflected in the glare which, for a split second, she levels at the grunting woman. Words beyond her normal vocabulary scream to be released. Then the dread reasserts itself. She stares at the door, willing it to open: visualising a dramatic rescue bid by her union representative and office friends who had all been on lunch.

Cornerstones Critique ...

These opening pages create a strong sense of mystery; who is this woman and what is she being questioned about? Some tension is created with her furtive looks towards the open window – she clearly wants to escape, but why? The clipped dialogue in which we can discern that something is wrong is also used to good effect because it sets up the dynamic between the three characters. The author has also used the drip-feed technique well because it keeps the reader guessing, increasing a sense of mystery. The introductory paragraph feels a little out of place, and could be used in a short prologue rather than part of the first chapter. It might be worth asking if this is needed at all, although if the dream is a pertinent thread throughout the manuscript then it’s a useful device to frame the story.

At the moment the authorial perspective is diminishing the tension. We’re not yet sufficiently grounded in the character’s Point of View, and so we’re unable to orientate ourselves. We can gauge it’s the girl’s story we’re meant to be following, but we need to be immersed in the scene by experiencing her thoughts and feelings; all observations and reactions should be related from her perspective. The author could begin the second paragraph with She glances, immediately eliminating the distance between the character and reader. Incidentally, it might be a good idea to find out her name sooner rather than later.

Staying with character POV would also mean avoiding any head-hopping. We’re told that the old man marks her disdain at ‘rank honorific’, but this takes us away from the main POV. It might be better to write, ‘She sees a fleeting look of disdain before she responds with “My supervisor.”’

Maintaining character POV not only helps to immerse the reader in the action as it unfolds, creating tension and drama, but it can also help to prune sentences, removing words such as ‘remarks inwardly’ because the third person limited POV would show us her thought process. There are instances when awkward sentence structure means there’s a lack of clarity. For example, ‘The target of their investigation finds a rage rising up beside the chilling dread and finds it reflected in the glare which, for a split second, she levels at the grunting woman. Words beyond her normal vocabulary scream to be released.’ This is about simplifying the writing as well as maintaining POV. How can this sentence be restructured in order to clarify its meaning, and make it active? Also the words that scream to be released feel slightly overwritten. It’s fine because it shows her agitation and frustration, but can this be portrayed in a simpler way to ensure clarity of meaning? How might this feeling manifest itself in an action? Might she bite her tongue? Would she be willing herself not to swear? The foundation is set to show us what the character is going through – I like that the reader is also made to feel uncomfortable - so it’s just about taking it that little bit further, giving the reader a stronger sense of the character’s emotional state.

The narrative jars somewhat when we read, ‘subject of an ad-hoc inquisition, finds her eyes drawn repeatedly and anxiously to the door. It all seems very ominous to her.’ Firstly, this feels repetitive since we’ve already witnessed her gaze at the open window, also there’s an issue of Show Don’t Tell here - the repeated looks toward the door already suggest that she’s anxious, so we don’t need to be told this. This presented another issue in terms of what the character herself knows – if it seems ominous then it suggests she’s unsure as to why she’s in the room, but her panic implies that she does know why she’s there. If she’s unsure, wouldn’t she be more nervous and confused rather than frightened? It’s also better to use active rather than passive language so that ‘eyes’ are not ‘drawn,’ but the character is actively seeking an exit.

As mentioned, the dialogue is quite strong, helping to create mystery and tension. It is important that the author allows the reader to infer meaning from dialogue and action, though. It might be better to write, ‘My supervisor’ italicising the word in bold, rather than going on to write, ‘stressing the correction.’ Much of the joy of reading is inferring meaning from subtle hints the author gives, so the reader is able to understand through their own interpretation. It also keeps the prose clean by pruning any excess words.

Focusing on details such as the scratching on the note-pad, and the paper rasping in the silence, are lovely ways to create tension. Using the senses helps to Show rather than Tell and adds to the reading experience. It would benefit the scene to have more of this interspersed throughout the sample.

In essence there’s potential here to make this a very tense scene. Ideally we need to keep the reader hooked by employing a closer POV, more internal thought and using more action and dialogue to Show rather than Tell. Also, do ensure that every word justifies its place – where can words be cut, and is everything clear in its meaning? Equally important is to ensure that every sentence is written as simply as possible, this should in turn help with clarity.

Good luck with developing this potentially tense piece.

Cornerstones is a teaching-based literary consultancy. They specialise in providing self-editing feedback on writing, launching first-time authors and scout for agents for published and unpublished writers.

Please contact for more information.

Writing A Novella – Could writing a novella be your path to publication?

By Jenny Thomson

Who could have failed to notice the rise of the novella? Where once most publishers wouldn’t touch anything with less than 90,000 words with a bargepole unless you were famous, now there are so many calling out for novellas, it’s hard to keep track.

As writers we need to grab that opportunity and get writing to join the ranks of Stephen King (Hard Case Crime), Linwood Barclay (Quick Reads) and Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli and Isles Series) who have all published novellas. In Tess Gerritsen’s case, her novella, John Doe featured the regular characters from her novels, so she could introduce them to new readers. And that’s another role of novellas; to get people buying your other books.

Novellas are not a new phenomenon (Agatha Christie’s Three Blind Mice, which was eventually expanded and turned into her play The Mousetrap, is often described as a short story, but it’s a novella), but they are becoming more popular with publishers and readers for a number of reasons. They’re perfect as eBooks and they also suit reluctant readers who find a full–length novel daunting or who just want something to read on the beach or on the daily commute. Of all genres, romance and erotic fiction are the ones to benefit the most from the rise of eBooks as books people wouldn’t like to be seen reading can now be surreptitiously read on an e-reading device on a packed train. Novella-length fiction is perfect for e-books and that’s why there are so many opportunities out there.

But, what is a novella? Chances are that you’ll ask ten writers that question and get a different answer every time and none of them will be wrong. There’s a lot of confusion about what a novella is which isn’t helped by the guidelines offered by publishers in their submission guidelines varying so greatly. For instance, I recently received a submissions call from a romance publisher who wanted “novella-length romance stories” and they asked for 10,000 to 15,000 words. To many people that may sound like the length for a short story or a novelette (usually considered to be a piece of prose of 10,000 to 20,000 words in length). To other publishers a novella may be 20,000-50,000 words. No wonder as writers we get confused.

My first novella in the Die Hard for Girls series, Hell to Pay, comes in at 37,000 words. To me, that was its natural length and that’s what you’ll probably find when you write yours – your novella will also have a natural length. Don’t forcibly add chapters or scenes when it’s not called for. In novellas, readers will notice the padding even more than they would in a novel.

The structure of a novella differs from a novel in many ways. First off, you need to get stuck into the action or the turning point ASAP, especially when a sample is probably going to be visible on Amazon as most publishers use the "search inside” function. No word can be wasted and don’t overdo the flowery prose. You must have your reader gripped right from the start. In Hell To Pay, my heroine wakes up in a psychiatric hospital with no memory of how she got there. Immediately there are questions that pique the reader’s interest.

Try to end each chapter with a cliff-hanger or with a question to keep people reading. Chapters should preferably be short and punchy. That’s what readers expect in a novella – not meandering prose that takes twenty pages to describe the texture of a leaf or someone’s dress. Often novellas are read in one sitting.

The popularity of the Kindle platform to self-publish means there is lots of competition out there, especially in the romance, erotic fiction and fantasy genres. Not all of that competition is good, but there are lots of good writers out there, many who’ve been dropped by their publishers because they didn’t shift as many books as James Patterson (who does?). Do not under-estimate the competition because you have a track record with a traditional publisher.

There’s no time for elaborate, lengthy back story in novellas, something you shouldn’t be doing anyway. Characters' actions and reactions should bring out those kinds of details. Remember the first rule of all good fiction – show and don’t tell. Limit flashbacks as they will confuse readers. The same goes for point of view. You can have more than one point of view, but only if strictly necessary and it has got to move the story along, not drag it down so readers think “this character’s so dull, when are they getting back to the one I like?”

Novellas, like short stories, are also an ideal medium for first person POV, but that doesn’t mean they are confessionals.

The best thing about writing a novella is that you can have fun with it and take more risks than you would with full-length fiction. Unlike a novel, a novella is less daunting to write because it won’t take a year or more of work and if you find it’s not working, you can go away and do something else and go back to it. It’s easier to pick up your narrative thread.

Writing a novella can also help to flex your writing muscles, especially if it’s in a genre you’re not used to writing, and who knows you may even find that you’ve created characters that warrant a novel or a series of novellas.

When setting out to write a novella, one of the most important things is being able to describe your novella in just one sentence. Publishers and agents like to be able to describe books to others with as few words as possible. If you can’t do that then the idea you have is probably not suited for a novella as there might not be enough space to tell the story you want to. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be: A man with a split personality; one good, one evil.

Novellas generally should have one plot, although there can be subplots. There isn’t enough room to have more than one plot. Keep that for a novel. If you’re writing crime you can have as many twists as you want. I use the Stephen King rule – think what should logically happen next and then do the opposite. If you’re surprised by what happens next, your readers will be too and that’s what makes a good novella: one that compels people to read right to the end.

Cinnamon Press have a competition that allows writers to submit a novel or a novella. See for details. It costs £12 to enter, but with a prize of £400 and publication for new authors only, you may find it’s worth the entry fee. They also say that they’ve commissioned other novels from shortlisted entries. So, what are you waiting for?

For inspiration, why not check out this list of 20 great novellas you must read

Jenny Thomson is an award-winning crime writer who has been scribbling away all her life. A freelance journalist, her work has appeared in The Guardian, the Daily Mail and Scotland On Sunday. She’s also has 8 books published in a variety of genres, including self-help and humour.

Hell to Pay (the first in a series of Die Hard for Girls crime thriller novellas) will be published by Sassy Books on July 26th, 2013. She's currently working on the follow up, Throwaways, the second in the series that follows crime-fighting duo Nancy Kerry and Tommy McIntyre.

You can find her at
Or, on Twitter at @jenthom72

MATT HAIG in conversation with Gillian Hamer

Book v Film

Matt Haig is one of the new generation of young writers. Prolific. Cross-genre. Multi-age-range. Rule-breaking. Technology-savvy. Social media friendly. And yet … most importantly, a good old-fashioned story-teller who passionately believes books will never die because of an intrinsic human need to tell stories.

His first novel, The Last Family in England, was published in 2005 and went on to be a UK best-seller, with film rights sold to Brad Pitt’s production company – not a bad debut! In the past eight years, Haig has produced a remarkable list of best-sellers for both adult and YA audiences which have been translated into twenty-nine languages. In 2011, his biggest success to date, The Radleys, won an ALA Alex Award in America, plus has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It also won the TV Book Club Summer Read.

This is an author with both freshness and experience on his side, who isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers with some strong opinions along the way.

So, with one eye on this month’s topic of ‘The Future of Storytelling’ we sat down with Matt Haig and discussed some of today’s popular literary topics – including his recent announcement of a commission to write the screenplay of the film adaption of his latest novel, The Humans.


Matt, thanks for joining us at Words with Jam this month. So, for readers new to your work tell us about your new novel, THE HUMANS?
It is the first novel idea I ever had, but it has taken me a long time to pluck up the courage. I wanted to look at human life from the outside, so this is a story of a visitor from somewhere else, arriving here to look at all the strange and unfathomable habits we have. It starts off as a murder story and ends up a love story. I feel it is my best book by a long way, though readers might disagree.

The first book I read of yours was The Radleys, followed by The Possession of Mr Cave. You have some dark themes going on, even in your YA novels, so what motivates you in term of theme?
I find it hard to think about motives. I basically wait until a story wants to burst out and then let it lead the way. In full flow I write in a kind of frenzy. But I do tend to be drawn to the dark, but I think in my more recent writing I also offer readers a torch, a way out towards light.

You’re Yorkshire born and now live in the county, and seem to enjoy creating vivid landscapes in your books. Is location important to you? Do you prefer to write what you know or research further afield?
I start with a story idea. Sometimes that story demands research. For instance, in The Humans I write a lot about mathematics and prime numbers and a lot is set at Cambridge University. As someone who didn’t do A Level Maths a lot of research was involved. The story dictates, basically.

I love that you list Enid Blyton as one of your favourite authors, what are you reasons for choosing to write for children? How does it differ to writing for adults, and if you’re honest, which do you prefer and why?
I get more money for my adult stuff, but to be honest they both contain equal amounts of Heaven and Hell.

You’re a writer that divides and straddles genres. The Times once said of your work, “Weaves horror and humour into a terrific tale.” Where would you categorize your writing? 
Well I see tragedy and comedy as two sides of the same coin. Humour is the mechanism we humans have for coping with the dark stuff. I think both are intertwined in my writing because I see them intertwined in life.


So, your latest fantastic news is that THE HUMANS has been commissioned as a film? How did this come about and what were your initial thoughts? Or fears?
Well, I’ve had stuff sold for film before so my expectations are realistic. But it is exciting, and this one actually feels like it is going to be made. Plus, I’m writing the screenplay!

Did you have any concerns about how the plot and characters would come across on the big screen?
I’m working with a film producer I’ve worked with before – Tanya Seghatchian – and she is the kind of person you trust with these things.

Is your writing style a visual approach? Do you write scenes almost seeing them in your mind’s eye and imagining them acted out on the big screen?
Yes. Absolutely. I see what is happening and my job is to capture as much of it as possible with words.

You’ve been lucky enough to be commissioned as the scriptwriter for the film which is a fantastic accolade. How is that working out? How does it differ from writing the original novel?
It’s quicker. 20,000 words versus 80,000. I enjoy it as much. It’s very different in one sense, but the basics are the same. Storytelling is story telling.

Has the casting been sorted? Can you reveal any of the names?
No. I haven’t even finished the script…

What aspects of your writing do you think comes across well or is even enhanced in film?
I’m quite proud of my dialogue…

Other than the scriptwriting, how much involvement will you have with the actual production of the film?
No much, but that’s how I like it. Writers are writers. I’m fine about leaving the film people to do their job.

Are there any other novels you’ve written that you’d love to see in film? Or any offers in the wings?
I’ve sold the film rights to all my adult novels so I’d like to see all of them made…


What is currently on your reading list? Which of today’s authors do you admire?
I am now one of those writers who gets sent books so I have quite a few waiting for me to read. I admire tons of writers. Patrick Ness, Steven Hall, Jeanette Winterson (always have), as well as nice dollop of Steven King or Neil Gaiman.

Where do you stand on the ‘literary versus genre’ debate?
It’s a silly debate. There are good books and there are bad books, it is as simple as that. It’s not about what you write about, it’s how you write it. In theory a zombie novel could display more intelligence than a book about the Boer War. It’s about two things and two things only – snobbery and marketing, both of which are enemies of imagination.

Where do you stand on the ‘e-books versus paper’ debate?
Paper’s better. But one day they will converge. They have already developed electronic paper. In a decade or so we will see e-books that look like actual books. But I’m no fan of Kindles in their present incarnation. I think they are a very undeveloped technology, as opposed to a hardback, which has had centuries to develop and is pretty much perfect. But, that said, the medium is not the message. The words are the message. I’d prefer to read a good story on a Kindle than a bad one in a physical book.

Do you have a writing quote or mantra that works for you when the going gets tough?
Yes. It’s a silent one, that says you will never live long enough to get all your ideas down so don’t dilly, don’t dally…

You’ve been very honest about your mental health issues in your twenties, and you credit writing with saving your life. What do you believe it is about writing that is so cathartic and what does it add to your life today?
Writing releases thoughts, stops them building up, it is like a pressure cooker letting off steam. Creating things is also very good for the self-esteem, especially if you are proud of them. It is self-validation.

You have a brilliant blog that every writer should follow, and recently published a super post ’30 things every writer should know’ as featured in The Telegraph … If you could give just three top tips to a new writer venturing into your world, what would they be?
Write what you want, but work damn hard at it.

Lower your expectations of others, but expect more from yourself.

Don’t share until you’ve finished. Nothing kills a novel quicker than early exposure to critical eyes.


You're increasingly famous for your blog posts (Booktrust Blog) so clearly you embrace progress. Connected to this issue's theme, how do you see the Future of Storytelling?
The future of storytelling will be more interactive. It will be more inclusive of readers. It will be more like how stories were originally told, involving other voices. No-one knows exactly what will happen to books, but stories will be safe. Storytelling is a basic need and desire, and a key part of what makes us human.

The Humans is out in the UK on 9th May 2013 and 2nd July 2013 in USA

Reviews so far from those in the know …

The Humans is tremendous; a kind of Curious Incident meets The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's funny, touching and written in a highly appealing voice' Joanne Harris

'The Humans is a laugh-and-cry book. Troubling, thrilling, puzzling, believable and impossible. Matt Haig uses words like a tin-opener. We are the tin' Jeanette Winterson

'A brilliant exploration of what it is to love, and to be human, The Humans is both heartwarming and hilarious, weird, and utterly wonderful. One of the best books I've read in a very long time' S J Watson

'Excellent . . . very human and touching indeed' Patrick Ness

'Utterly wonderful' Mark Billingham

Gillian Hamer is a full-time company director and part-time author - who divides her time between her business in Birmingham and a remote cottage in Anglesey where she attempts to write. She has published three novels, The Charter, Closure and Complicit via Triskele