Friday, 31 January 2014

Triskele Trail - A Pathway to Independent Publishing

By Gillian Hamer

There’s a new kid in town. A new voice in indie-publishing advice. And she’s called The Triskele Trail. (Because she’s quite obviously a lady.)

Joking aside, The Triskele Trail has already been touted as the new 'writers’ bible’ – and that’s within its first week of publication.

And it’s exactly that. A ‘Go-To’ Guide at any stage of the writing or publishing experience. The warts-an-all story of our journey from inception to publication. Whether you have trouble with grammar or POV. If you’re haunted by dangling participles or ISBNs. Or if maybe you’re simply interested in what makes a ‘good cover’ – you’ll find the answer in The Triskele Trail.

Put together by the five core Triskele members: Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh, Liza Perrat, JD Smith and Catriona Troth with extra input from associate authors, friends of Triskele, and a selection of professional voices,
it’s available as an eBook with plans to release a paperback version in 2014.

It’s not a How-to-Book. It’s a How-we-did-it-Book. And with seventeen beautiful and exceptional novels under their belts, Triskele Books certainly have something worth talking about – and an ethos where we firmly believe that shared knowledge is vital in such a rapidly changing environment.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to a range of voices.

What other authors are saying about The Triskele Trail:

Despite having published more than eighty books with traditional publishing houses I found the path through the jungle of independent and self-publishing peppered with booby traps for the unwary. I wish I’d had this book when I set out, it would have saved me a great deal of time, money and heartache.

This is the ultimate jungle guidebook written by people who have actually cut their own path through the undergrowth. They have weathered all the set-backs, fallen into all the traps and climbed back out again, emerging into the light, bruised but triumphant, with a thriving small business and a number of handsome books. The lessons they have to teach are priceless for anyone hoping to follow them.

Modern publishing is an industry filled with dreamers, fantasists and the plain deluded. This book is a clear, calm, factual guide from people who truly know what they are talking about

Andrew Crofts is a ghostwriter and author who has published more than eighty books, a dozen of which were Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He has also guided a number of international clients successfully through the minefield of independent publishing.  His latest novella, “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”, draws on his experience ghosting for the powerful and wealthy.

This is a must-have book on indie publishing from a writers' collective. Having successfully published seventeen novels between them, they decided to write about their experiences and I am glad they did. In the changing world of publishing, this book is filled with all the information every writer should know. The Triskele Trail is a twenty-first century indie writers' bible. In other words, an essential purchase. Beautifully presented in clear, easy to read chapters, it's a book I will be coming back to again and again.

Amanda Hodgkinson is an award winning, New York Times bestselling novelist. Her debut novel 22 Britannia Road was published in 2011 to great critical acclaim. It was a Waterstones best debut novel, an Editor's Pick Best Books of the Year and was nominated for the Goodreads Reader's Choice best historical novel.  Her new novel Spilt Milk (Penguin Books) is available for pre-order and will be published on 6th February 2014.

Triskele stands out in the world of indie authors as an author collective that is focused and mindful of their writing, publishing and marketing processes. In this book, you'll learn their views on the fundamentals of being an indie author, as well as the benefits of a collective, who to trust on the journey, plus tips on time management and researching historical fiction. The Triskele Trail is a smorgasbord of useful tidbits and the book will definitely help authors make decisions in this rapidly changing publishing environment.

J.F.Penn is the bestselling author of Desecration and the ARKANE series of thrillers, as well as the #1 bestseller ‘How to Market a Book’ and ‘Career Change’ published under Joanna Penn. Joanna’s site for writers, has been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers three years running. She is a professional speaker on creative entrepreneurship, digital publishing and internet marketing, and has been nominated as one of the Top 100 creative professionals by the Guardian 2013, alongside JK Rowling. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn

In the true spirit of the writers' collective whose name it bears, this book brings together many different voices (and not just the five authors currently in the Triskele group) to share the benefits of their experience with indie authors everywhere. It picks off in turn every aspect of the production and publication of an indie book for examination, offering a wealth of advice gained at first hand. It was good to see quite a few pages devoted to ways of improving the writer's craft - something too often overlooked in books of this kind, when it is of course the most important part of the whole process of producing a professional quality, self-published book in any genre.

All of this it does with good humour and wit, with the individual writers' characters, passions and different areas of expertise shining through their various chapters. As I was reading, I felt as if I was witnessing a writers' conference unfold on the page before me, a series of single-speaker presentations interspersed with some two-handers or panel discussions. Like any good writers' conference, it reassured me that I'm doing a lot right already, reminded me of some things I knew but had forgotten, and left me buzzing with lots of new ideas too.

"The Triskele Trail" includes copious references to authoritative websites, books and blogs, effectively delivering substantially more than the word count of the book itself. Usually I prefer to have reference books in print form, but this book is so stuffed with useful hotlinks that reading it as an e-book makes more sense, as it will be easier to jump straight to the links. I understand there are plans to bring out a print edition in due course (and with that beautiful cover, it would look good on any writer's reference bookshelf).
Excellent value for money, and well worth the investment of the time it takes to read it, too.

Debbie Young is the editor of ALLi's Self-Publishing Advice blog<> Her author website YoungByName <>, includes her personal blog and sample short stories, flash fiction, travelogues and memoirs. Her most recent book is Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes: One Family's Story of Life After Diagnosis <>, from which all profits go to the Type 1 Diabetes research charity, JDRF<>.

60 Seconds with Rohan Quine

Rohan Quine by James Keates
Rohan Quine’s novel The Imagination Thief was published by EC1 Digital and the Firsty Group in 2013, as an ebookwith multimedia content. The paperback will be launched at London Author Fair 2014, along with four novellas: The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong. Each is available as a separate ebook, and all four are collected into one paperback entitled The Platinum Raven and other novellas.

Rohan grew up in South London, spent a couple of years in L.A. and then a decade in New York, where he ran around excitably, saying a few well-chosen words in a handful of feature films and TV shows, modelling in a few places, and drinking deep in many more places. He’s now living back in East London, as an Imagination Thief, with his boyfriend and a rabbit named Clytemnestra.

 Which book most influenced you when growing up?

Maldoror, the only novel by Lautréamont, whom I hadn’t heard of until I chanced on a copy in a second-hand bookshop: standing there, I started reading it (not so very fast, as the publication was in the original French, being rich and complex French), and I can still remember the sense of magic that seeped across the inches of space between the page and my eyes, like a subtle heat hitting my face, with a sense of grandeur and hidden echoes, as if I were first becoming aware of that huge unseen cavern just the other side of the air beside us, which we spend our everyday lives pretending isn’t there. Strange to say, it was a couple more years before I had time to read the book, in French and then English; but when I got there, it carried on dishing up what I’d felt from that half-page in the bookshop, becoming my oldest literary friend and shooting with ease into the number-one position, where it’s remained ever since. I haven’t dipped into it for a few years now, but there its spine is on the shelves, bleeding its gorgeous poison across the room at me.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

Sometimes the venue is one or other of a suite of immaculately sterile conference rooms occupying one full storey of a powerful tower in the Financial District of London, in the small hours of the morning, with a dead City street below through the window and nobody else around me at all: no movement, no sound, no distractions, just empty luxury and silence at a regulated temperature, possibly about as far from the land and the soil as you can get, sitting motionless, staring down at my laptop computer in expressionless focus for a long time—reminding myself, when I catch sight of me reflected across the room in the expanse of unopenable window-glass at night, of Sadako in the Japanese horror movie The Ring. (Scope for a sequel there, maybe: Ring 4: Sadako in the Conference Suite...)

But I hasten to add I’m not always such an ice-queen as that might suggest, because I do also write at a crowded desk at home, in the company of Dotty the elephant (she’s there because of her indelible association with The Imagination Thief, as well as a little sheep from Hollywood called The Sheep, and a relentlessly perky little pink Barbie I was given in Downtown L.A. who’s hitched a ride with me ever since and who sometimes winks at me when I hammer into shape a sentence that meets her high standards.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

It’s probably the fact that, compared with the various other activities I’ve got up to (such as the film and TV malarkey in New York, where I never had any serious artistic mission at all), writing stands out for me as being an activity where I seem to have no interest in creating anything that’s not setting out to be the fullest/deepest/richest artistic response to life and the world that I’m capable of—which often means that what’s written will be artistically challenging, demanding, perverse, even deranged, because often these are the best ways of slapping life as hard in the face as it deserves, while making love with life at the same time too of course. I enjoy and admire plenty of writing that has no such intentions at all but instead has different ambitions of its own, such as to entertain, to grip, to amuse or whatever else it may be, and I have no urge whatsoever to be prescriptive for anyone else; this is simply a description of what I happen to find myself daft enough to be motivated by. And in answer to your question, this has a big impact, because (for me at least) writing in this category takes a much longer time than writing in any other. It has a big impact also because, despite feeling like the only game in town from my point of view, it runs counter to what motivates the vast majority of the marketplace, which is very sensibly commercial instead!

Perhaps the reason this category tends to take longer is that you’re involving and investing every aspect of yourself throughout all of it, even if individual sentences may not show this on their surface and may (we hope) slip down just as sweetly as good writing in other categories does. I aim to push imagination and language towards their extremes, in order to explore and illuminate the beauty, horror and mirth of this predicament called life, where we all seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time. In doing so, I draw on all corners of my own imaginative self as the vehicle for this exploration, backed up by a clear-eyed awareness of what the greatest and/or strangest and/or most challenging artists from the past and the present have already written, and try to slip onto that grand dance-floor and join in as best I can. Whether or not I turn out to be less fleet-footed than they are is a different question, but the aim remains the same and for me that’s the rewarding part. Our budding John Peel / Jay Jopling of literary/experimental fiction and poetry in the UK, the nascent National Treasure Mr Dan Holloway, bids each of us come up with a concise mission statement expressing our core aim in writing. For me that mission is best expressed in three questions:

· How can I illuminate the world, to the best of my abilities, using language in new and old ways, and thereby leave the world infinitesimally better than it was before I did so?

· How can I aim and attune my ears as clearly as possible to whatever my/our highest artistic potential is, then bring down the richest results from that place, then give those results the truest and most beautiful form I can create?

· How can what I write take an honest account of the darkness and pain in the world, while at the same time being a vote for life (maybe even an absolute blast of fun, along the way)?

How would you describe the genre of The Imagination Thief?

I’d say The Imagination Thief is literary fiction, with elements of magical realism and a dusting of horror.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Adverbs, perhaps. But this is addressed while polishing: I run a search throughout the text for “ly”, and then just give as many of them as possible a careful flip into some other form.

You use an amazing palette of characters – how do you keep track?

The Imagination Thief has two lead characters, five co-stars and seven supporting characters, totalling fourteen. There were a few charts along the way. But it was helpful that for the most part, each of the main characters began as a mass of discrete shards of text, the majority of these shards being mined out of myself, catalysed by music. Once created, these thousands of shards were pushed into about half a dozen different heaps, as dictated by the flavour of the shard. As the heaps grew, they came to be ferocious in the magnified distinctness of their different flavours; and each of these heaps became one of the central characters. That these characters have such strong flavour distinctions and such origins made it less possible for them to get into any unintended mix-ups.

Each of the upcoming four novellas has only a few characters, so they were simpler. Their casts overlap with the cast of The Imagination Thief, in the sense that all five tales share a small handful of characters but each tale also has other characters of its own. A given character isn’t always quite the same person from tale to tale (for instance one of them is female in one tale but male in all the others), and in The Host in the Attic one character is a novelist who wrote The Imagination Thief; so there are a few games being played with the characters. They add up to a set of mischievous little chess-pieces, whom I’m looking forward to casting in tale number six when I start writing it later this year.

One of the most appealing elements of The Imagination Thief is the location – Asbury Park. Why is it so special?

It grew into a small but authentic icon of Americana throughout the twentieth century, as a classic seaside resort, then started sliding downwards in economic terms and became more counter-cultural than wholesome, spawning many musicians along the way, most notably Bruce Springsteen. By the time I found the place, its whole eastern half was a fascinating mix of 80% ghost town and 20% functional, while its western inland half soldiered on in dogged semi-normality. It was the eastern half where I stayed for a week.

In such a scenario there was of course something universally gothic going on, which already provides rich resonances involving mortality, the transience of all human endeavour etc. But I was just as interested in the separate task of doing right by this damaged little treasure of a place in all its specific historical reality, to laminate it for all time in exactly the state I chanced to find it, perhaps to give us an unusual look at what happens to places we create—as I describe on my website. And I had a truck-load of material in my own head, which was also at once both universal and specific, in the same way as my location was: this truck-load was universal in the sense that it was a very full and complex response to having been dropped into this strange thing called life; and it was specific, in that this response was to draw from all corners of one very specific experiencer or messenger. So there were two universals and two ultra-specifics, all endeavouring to balance together in some kind of balletic square, fit for a circus act.

Do you consider The Imagination Thief a transmedia project?

Yes. It’s quite fine to consume only its words: they’re the core of it, they stand alone and they were how it began. But as another, optional dimension, you can also consume the following, either alongside or after or before reading the text. (As mentioned on the Tumblr page, the filmed elements were professionally produced, but funded very much out of Love and Experimentation, so no Hollywood gloss should be expected, nor indeed any car-chases.)

Will you tell us about the latest project?

On the 21st of Feb, four novellas will be released, entitled The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong. They will be launched at the London Author Fair a week later on the 28th. Four separate ebooks and also as a single paperback called The Platinum Raven and other novellas, which has just popped up into visibility, like a little January crocus.

New York in the 90s – sum up your decade-long experience in six words.

Bright, dark, intense, funny, hard-edged, hard-won.

The Imagination of History by Anne Stormont

My stories, your stories, our stories – history’s got them all covered.

History is an irresistible source of inspiration for fiction writers and a compelling theme for readers.

The root of the word ‘history’ is Greek, and it means ‘knowledge obtained by inquiry’. The knowledge gained by inquiry is essential when seeking to establish what happened in the past.  Archaeologists and historians look for evidence and attempt to make best guesses as to what that evidence might mean about life in the past.

But the study of history is, like many areas of human activity, open to interpretation.  History is always going to be filtered through human intellect, emotion and bias.  While it’s scientifically possible to ascertain dates, locations and even an order of events, it’s open to conjecture as to the motivation, intention and effects of those events.

But however unreliable, and however skewed it may be, most of us are interested in history. We want to know where and who we come from. We want to know our local and national lore. We want to hear about the positive deeds done by our ancestors, and of injustices committed against them. Having done so, we draw our own conclusions.

In the December 2013 issue of Words with Jam, the theme was memory. And I wrote there about the unreliability of memory, but what was also clear was that this unreliability doesn’t affect the popularity of memoirs, diaries and journals, both amongst writers and readers. Subjectivity seems to be forgivable, even desirable.

And it’s this subjective side of history that makes it an ideal aspect of human life for writers to draw on. History’s got it all covered, the best and worst of human nature, the best and worst of times. All storytelling is historical in nature. It’s unavoidable. History fires the imagination. It opens the door to reflection, to re-imagination  and to speculation.

History’s stories began to be told in the ancient myths and legends and in the oral-storytelling tradition. They’d tell about ancestors, cultures and beliefs long gone. They’d tell of wars and sieges. They’d embroider and re-interpret.  They contained big themes and mostly there’d be grains of truth contained in them in what they said about human nature.

History’s themes are humanity’s themes. There’s war and conquest, persecution, upheaval, power and powerlessness, forced migration, romance, crime and adventure. Some of the themes also lend themselves to children’s fiction and, of course, to science fiction and fantasy. The themes are eternal. Fiction rooted in history can be a way for both writers and readers to make sense of the human condition.

I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (Sceptre 2012) at the moment. Now there’s a historical novel that really plays with the genre. Paradoxically, if anything, it secures its place as a historical novel  while also showing the possibility of  genre-plus and genre-busting.

Its originality, playfulness, intrigue and depth are wonderful. The story-telling is marvellous.  It’s entertaining and it’s profound. There’s a ‘meaning of life’ feel to it. The author sets some of the story in the future, but that in no way disqualifies the book as historical in the widest sense.  It does this by taking the reader out of their own place in time and lets them view more of the big, timeline picture. Mitchell gives us a glimpse of a possible future history, as well as telling of a past. As a child I adored books that were set in the past. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), What Katy Did (Susan Coolidge) and Heidi (Johanna Spyri) all presented fascinating lives and sound role models to this little girl of the 1960s. Later I was captivated by Treasure Island and Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson). Then, as a young woman I was into the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the historical adventures contained in books such as The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart.

Nowadays I enjoy the romantic, historical fiction of our dear editor, Jane, and the historical crime fiction of Sara Sheridan (1950s Brighton Belle series) and Shirley Mackay (medieval tales set in and around the University of St Andrews).

We are all part of history – all part of a continuous and continuing timeline. There are my-stories, his-stories, her-stories, your-stories, our-stories and their stories to be told and read. There are stories of the past, of now and of the future.

For writers, history is a mine, a well and an eternal source.

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 female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.  

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig

Review by Cathy White
Star rating: 5/5

An alien from the planet Vonnadoria inhabits Professor Andrew Martin’s body. Finding himself walking naked down the motorway, ignorant of all things human (including clothes, evidently), he learns to read by perusing a copy of Cosmopolitan in a service station.

Professor Martin - a mathematical genius at Cambridge University - has solved the Riemann Hypothesis; the secret of prime numbers. Vonnadorians, convinced this is the key to space travel, for which they don’t believe humans are responsible enough, sent one of their own to replace Professor Martin and destroy all traces of the solution, including anyone who knows the puzzle’s been solved.

Eventually getting ‘home’ to Professor Martin’s wife and teenage son, their ‘inside out’ appearance initially repulses the unnamed alien. However, as time goes on, an emotional attachment and fondness for them is developed, to the extent a note is written to Professor Martin’s son containing ninety-seven pieces of advice ranging from ‘You are lucky to be alive. Inhale and take in life’s wonders’, to ‘Peanut butter sandwiches go perfectly well with a glass of white wine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’.

Don’t let the prime numbers and aliens put you off – this isn’t a mathematical sci-fi novel; this is a hilariously wry, observational look at human behaviour: ‘They placed me inside a small room that was, in perfect accord with all human rooms, a shrine to the rectangle’, ‘… human history is full of inventions of things of which they have no idea how to handle (the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semi-colon)’.

This insightful, heartwarming and funny novel teeters between those lightbulb-flashing ‘oh yeah!’ moments to those ‘oh no!’ ones. It certainly makes you think about what it means to be human.

Cathy White was born in London and in a previous life held a variety of jobs including legal secretary and literary agent’s assistant. In 2009, she left the city for the sticks, emigrating to the Kent countryside where she lives in an 18th century ex-bakery with her boyfriend and cat. She blogs at, and

East of Whitby 1: The Invisible Woman Goes To The Seaside

By Sarah Bower

Yes, I am writing this from east of Whitby, from very far east of Whitby. I am writing this in my new office at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where I am writer in residence for the next six months. Why Whitby, you may ask, especially those of you who know my home university is the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Well, as writer in residence I have some teaching responsibilities but my main purpose is to reside, and write, and the novel I shall be working on while I’m here, entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is set in Whitby (and Palestine, but that will be for another article). You may find this perverse. Surely the lore relating to novel writing dictates that the writer immerse herself in the setting of her novel in order to render this with the kind of authenticity that helps to bring the fictional world to life. Certainly, if you are writing realist fiction, or speculative fiction which nevertheless has identifiable ‘real’ settings, you need as much first hand knowledge and experience of these as you can glean in order to transport readers to a concrete and credible world.

But ‘raw’ research is unlikely to achieve this goal. If you try to write from the midst of the impressions and sensations which crowd in upon you when you are in a place and observing with intensity and acuity you are more likely to produce unprocessed muddle than coherent scene-setting. Research must be processed, refined, and edited in a way which ensures you use only what shores up your imaginative process and supports the aims of your novel. An excess of meticulous description merely gets in the way of the story telling and frustrates the reader, as I know to my cost. I well remember, shortly after returning from a research trip to Italy for Sins of the House of Borgia, the way my writing group’s eyes glazed over as I read out pages on the topography of the Este castle in Ferrara.

It seems to me, therefore, that there is some sense after all in writing about Whitby from the vantage point of Hong Kong. Both places have things in common which help me to focus on what is important. They are both sea ports, for example, and from this common base I can build up in my mind the ways in which they vary and see how this helps me to give a true picture of Whitby. Hong Kong is one of the busiest ports in the world. The sea lanes between its 258 islands are more like aquatic motorways than the paradise of azure water, white sands and palm trees conjured in the western imagination by the words ‘South China Sea’. There is an endless coming and going of barges, container ships, sampans and gin palaces. The seas around Whitby, by contrast, offer wind farms and oil rigs and little else, other than the very occasional pleasure boat, because the fishing industry that put Whitby on the map in the 19th century is now virtually dead.

Hong Kong and Whitby are steep places, where flights of steps frequently take the place of pavements. In Hong Kong, steps lead to shops and bars and banks and packed apartment blocks, and people rush up and down them in pursuit of busy daily lives. In Whitby, the most famous flight of steps leads to the ruined abbey made famous by Bram Stoker and is thronged with slow moving tourists whose main aim is to fill the gap between pub lunch and cream tea.

These contrasts help me to highlight a sense I am looking for in my novel, of Whitby as a place where people wash up rather than somewhere they arrive or move through with purpose, of a place looking more towards the past than the future. By thinking outwards from what the two places have in common to the different ways in which these commonalities manifest themselves I can arrive at the mood I am trying to achieve, of a location which is in the world but not of it, passed by, overlooked, isolated, a destination to which the characters in my novel come to find time and space to deal with the blows life has dealt them. Travel is always, on some level, a running away as well as towards and so, the part of me that has run away to Hong Kong resonates with and reflects back on to the running away enacted by these characters and helps me to develop them as well as the world they live in.

The central figure in Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is a woman in her mid-fifties, recently widowed in traumatic circumstances, who embarks on a love affair with a younger man. This is something which still attracts comment in the west, but is no longer greeted with the derision it used to be. The further we move from validating sexual relations in terms of their procreative power and, perhaps, return to classical notions of erotic love, the less we prejudice romantic pairings which have no procreative possibility. Middle aged women are no longer, as Germaine Greer lamented in the 1990s, invisible. Here, however, and on a trip to Bangkok last year, I observe that middle aged western women are most certainly invisible. It surprises me that in Hong Kong, as well as in Thailand, where it didn’t surprise me at all, you see a great many middle aged western men with Asian wives and partners and very few middle aged western women.

I will express no personal view on this because what view can I possibly hold about something as private, mysterious and downright ineffable as other people’s relationships? My observation has, however, given me a lot to think about where my heroine is concerned. It has reminded me that she cannot roar, cougar like, into her seduction of her young lover. She is no Mrs. Robinson but a woman whose entire life has contributed to her conviction that she is one of the invisible. In this way – pace those readers who are always convinced the novelist is writing about herself – she is very different from me! Walking around the gated community where I am living, however, and where there seem to be quite a number of western men with Asian partners, I wonder about the almost complete absence of western women of my own age, and feel more able to tap into my heroine’s mindset, and thus chart the journey she has to go on, than I have ever done before.

So yes, it may seem bizarre to go to the far east to write about the north east coast of England, and to live in a young, go-getting Asian society in order to examine the psyche of England in middle class and middle age, but the perspective it gives is exciting, unforeseen, and invaluable.

There will be more from Sarah Bower East of Whitby in future editions. Her third novel, Erosion, which is set in East Anglia and was written in East Anglia and includes a spot of murder but not much in the way of love affairs, will be published soon.

Sartor Resartus, a poem by Lynn Roberts

First Quarter 2013 Flash 500 Humour Verse Winner

When - couth and kempt from head to toe - I climb on board the morning train
the state of dress I find thereon inclines me to leap off again...
instead I sit and sulk, and start reordering the sumptuary laws,
by noting who to hang and flay (and who should simply stay indoors).

No boxers hoving into view, or crotch that dangles round the shin;
no naked rolls of midriff dough, or knees composed of pleated skin;
no jeans that measure round the thigh a lot more than the leg is long;
no public bra straps, backs (or fronts); no peeking G-strings (really wrong);

no trainers built like dodgem cars; no hoods or sunnies worn inside;
no denim over thirty-eight, or blouson tops – have you no pride?
no clots of fascination stuck grotesquely just above the ear;
no clingy lycra, shapeless fleece, or unseductive sporty gear...

But much the strongest of my ire’s reserved for that disaster
which we should exile straightaway, or (preferably) much faster:
that ghastly adult babygro, in which our youth are strutting;
the onesie - prophylactic for desire and lust and rutting...

So if you’re found within my realm thus hideously bepantled,
you’ll be defrocked -
debagged -
uncapped -
divested –

For information on Flash 500 competitions, visit the Flash 500 website: 

When No One Is Looking by Karen Jones

Mrs Mclean disappeared when I was the only one watching.

At first she just got smaller and smaller. Never a tall woman to begin with, her clothes hung on her, as though borrowed from an older, big-boned sister. Even her head looked shrunken, hair too full and candy-floss fluffy for the skull it adorned. I remember trying to tell people.

“Dad, Mrs McLean is tiny.”

“Wheesht, Siobhan, I’m listening to the radio.” He didn’t even look at me when he spoke.

“Mum, Mrs McLean is teeny, tiny, toaty now.”

“Away back to reading your book, Siobhan, I’m busy with the cooking.” She didn’t even take her eyes off the dough she was kneading on the board.

“I’ve finished my book. But Mrs McLean, she’s…”

“You’ve finished another book? Jesus, that librarian must be sick looking at the pair of us. Well go and play then, but leave poor Mrs Mclean alone, do you hear? She’s had enough to deal with.”

And so she had. I’d heard them talk about all the things she’d lost: her son in a war somewhere far away that Dad said wasn’t even our fight; her daughter to a sickness they only ever called the big C; her husband to one of the special hospitals – there were three surrounding our group of villages, so I always thought she’d find him one day if she just looked in the right one – and her sisters and brothers to the four corners of the world. I knew the world was round, but never argued when I ear-wigged on the adults. Then we were all losing Mrs McLean but no one would listen.

One morning I stood at my bedroom window and watched her walk down her garden path. With every step she shrivelled until her clothes dragged along, her head lost inside her cardigan, just the fuzzy hair sticking out of the hole. Then the wind rose and her hair scattered across the grass, like dandelion fluff when I blew it to tell the time, and her shoes stopped walking as her skirt and top crumpled onto them.

Mrs McLean disappeared because I was the only one watching.

Flash 500 Winning Story First Quarter 2013
For information on Flash 500 competitions, visit the Flash 500 website: 


By Ola Zaltin

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
So ends one of the most famous detective films in history.

Whatever actually happened in Chinatown (the title of the film) is only hinted at throughout the story. The notion we get is that whatever happened in Chinatown - in the past - was not good.  It has, in fact, tainted and jaded our protagonist no end. It was probably the reason JJ Gittes was dismissed - or left - the police force and became a private investigator.

Furthermore: we get a strong indication that it was what happened in Chinatown that brings our protagonist to the brink of disaster - and beyond - once again: his stubborn belief that he can fix the world. The laconic ending line from his erstwhile partner summing it all up: you can’t.


Most stories are told from here on and forwards. “This is the set-up, this is what happens, this is how it ends.” (A tiny village is each year beset by a marauding gang that steal their meagre crops. A party of villagers venture into the big city to hire samurai to protect them. The samurai do so, but lose most of their members in the endeavour. The samurai have won a pyrrhic battle: the farmers are the real victors. Seven Samurai.)

In the straight forward told narrative, if the past is used at all, it is to tell us something about our characters. This backstory is often there to give our main characters a bit more texture and humanity (or not, as in this piece of climactic ending exchange from Runaway Train: “Sara: You’re an animal! Manny: No, worse! Human! Human!”) Their history, their inner turmoils and struggles will lead them to either 1. Learning the life lesson at hand: happy ending, or 2. Not: tragic ending.

“Detective story” as a genre will be taken loosely within the context of this particular columnist’s venture into the past. What I will call “Investigative” stories can range in subject matter from an in-your-face plucky single mother of two taking down a huge corporation in court, to a quiet English butler re-evaluating his life, to the super-rich of America trying to save their own skin. 

Stories that have very different storylines, but share this: the characters attempt to untangle a web of lies and deceit going back in time: be it huge corporations having poisoned innocent men, women and children; or a lone butler looking back on his life trying to make the remains of his days make sense; or a lawyer trying to find out what really happened on that one single day.

All three films here - chosen at random - are firmly set in the present, but involve a great deal of history: what happened, and how and where? They are of course Erin Brockovich, The Remains of the Day and Reversal of Fortune. (The last film’s story based on real events and in a stroke of genius by the screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, the voice-over narration is done by the woman central to the drama - now in a coma. A device later used with similar success in Desperate Housewives.)


None of the above mentioned stories could by the farthest stretch of the imagination be called detective stories, but they share the central element of one driven main character researching the past to solve a puzzle in the present. The investigative storyline gives the writer a handful of very useful tools for telling the story.

1. A main character with a drive and passion: trying to answer a life-changing question.
2. A strong backstory motivating the main character for his or her quest.
3. People trying to stop main character from reaching his or her goal.
4. The titillating central question: is it true? is it not? who’s the culprit? what really happened?!
5.  Will it be a happy ending? We invest our emotions in the main character, hoping for a happy outcome to their quest.

Philomena, starring Judi Dench, is a good example of an investigative storyline that is neither a thriller nor a detective genre film. Philomena is a middle-aged woman with grown children. She carries a great secret burden: when a young woman, she had sex before marriage, became pregnant and was thrown out of her family and forced to give her baby boy away to nuns, who gave him away to unknown parents. She gets in contact with the reporter Sixsmith, who decides to help her research the story, and find her son. Nuns, Americans, ex-partners, bureaucrats all conspire to stop Philomena on her quest. Will she find her lost son - and how and what will he be? A junkie or a happy family father? Philomena sets out on her life-altering journey.

See the five or so beats in the above? How although it’s no detective movie or thriller - it uses the same dramatic elements to tell a story of finding something hidden in the past to great effect.


Detective stories are by nature told in the reverse. The central question here is: “What happened?” and there’s a fair amount of time travel involved to solve the crime.

When a detective story begins, the murder is already done, or will be, within minutes of screen time. The detective(s) arrive to find a fait accompli. Now it’s time to start the research back in time, minute by minute, hour by hour, and map the victims background, friends, enemies, movements, witnesses - and so on; you know the drill.

This is usually set against a ticking clock - and clocks, as we all know, move forward. The detective(s) are under pressure to travel back in time, to prevent the murderer killing in the future.

My own way of writing crime (or investigative) stories comes in stages. The first is thinking of the crime, who committed it, why and how. I.e. creating the backstory; the road into history that the detective will start travelling down, step by step and hour by hour into the past. Much of this is often background work on the characters involved in, or around, the murder. Their lives, their liaisons, their jobs, dreams, secrets (up and above all, their most innermost and secret drives and fears) and goals.

The second stage is covering the whole thing up. When I know who committed the murder, and how and why, and what the red herrings will probably be, who profits from keeping the history being kept hidden, and thus will look suspicious (but not necessarily be the guilty party).

This trail is akin to a detonator wire I’ve covered by sand, that the detective will uncover and follow and which will blow up in his face (or hopefully not) at the end of that line. A flow chart of webbed wires, in fact, were some will lead to duds, some branch off in unexpected directions but in the end, one wire will be found to be the right one that leads to the denouement - the defusing of the big explosion, as it were.

Then and only then does the detective come onto the stage, stage three in the process.
Also here is the question of how and why central. How does the detective (or an “investigator” such as Philomena) come into the story? Why now? What happens that triggers the story?
And why is this character chosen as the detective/investigator, what drives him or her? What makes it absolutely impossible for them to say no to the challenge of heading down that dark and scary tunnel into the past that might very well give them some nasty shocks, uncomfortable truths, deadly enemies and most probably put them in harm’s way? What is the reason he or she just HAS to undertake this perilous journey? (Hint: it’s often something to do with their own past…)


The collection of data to solve the crime is at the very core of the investigation.
Modern film and TV-series almost all have their ubiquitous data-nerd: Benji (Mission Impossible franchise), Penelope Garcia (Criminal Minds), Job (Banshee), Finch (Person of Interest) to name but a few. There’s nothing these geniuses can’t find in an instant, cross-indexing and illegally searching, providing passwords, background, aliases, locations and floor plans, (somehow - also magical - always being able to have radio-contact with our protagonist, although said is 200 meters underground in a cement bunker 200 kms away) etc etc. To me, this has ruined the basic art of knocking on doors and talking to people, and sadly, gradually taken the impossible out of the mission. Person of Interest is a clear indicator of the state of things, as it is involved with the stopping of future crimes, not even yet committed. (It also moves so fast and was so uninvolving this viewer opted out after ten minutes of viewing.) The basic premise of uncovering something hidden and dark has been reduced to typing on a keyboard and bingo; the idea of searching your way, slowly and painstakingly down through the corridors of time, replaced by a matter of pressing Enter and hey presto, here’s the culprit!

Call me old, but I’m more and more beginning to enjoy series like Foyle’s War, or more recently Inspector Gently, detectives inhabiting a world before the internet and mobile phones, where a lot of walking and talking, pondering and observing and going back and talking solves the crime. HBO’s new series True Detective takes the element of going back in time full on with (so far) great success. Telling the story of a 17-year hunt for a serial killer it divides its time deliciously between the present day interviews of the two detectives first involved with the case 17 years ago, and flashbacks to that time, when mobile phones were scarce, the world wide web unborn and there weren’t any radio masts yet in the bayous of Louisiana.

The pace of a series without mobiles and internet is slower, it takes its time. We get to know people, their idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. We lean forward to learn more and engage, as opposed to leaning back and getting everything served with the click of a mouse from the resident nerd IT-oracle. (The other day I found a guy on a message board asking if anyone noticed, right at the end of episode two of True Detective, what looked like four stones being dropped in the lake as the camera tilted up and away from the church. I personally think that it wasn’t stones. Or something meant to be there, just fish surfacing coincidentally or whatever, the wind. But just the fact that this guy is so super into every scene, every movement, every possible clue, is both telling and endearing.)


Famously, Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne first wrote the ending as a happy ending, with the evil father Noah Cross being shot, and daughter Evelyn surviving. Polanski’s instincts told him this would make it just another bland cop thriller, and reversed it, with the resulting tragic ending. Polanski was right: with a happy ending, the whole shebang would have sunk without a trace.

To be a bit glib, story is a part of history; and history must be an integral part of every good story, be it a happy or tragic ending. From character background to the investigative storyline to detective films proper, history is a very essential part in a film or tv-narrative. Research it, explore it, develop it and use it - or you’re history. 

Writing the Other by Dan Holloway

History is like sex. Writers have an uncanny ability to make it into a complication it isn’t. On the one hand we have L P Hartley’s endlessly regurgitated Wittgenstinian guff “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” On the other we have the great German historiographer Ernst Troeltsch’s pompous prognostication that “things happened then much as they happen now”.

The problem with history is exactly the same as the problem with sex. For some strange reason we have taken it upon ourselves to think of it as somehow standing apart from other facets of the worlds we choose to write about. We assume there must be a particular problem when it comes to writing sex as opposed to, say, writing about what a character eats. And we have the same problem when we think about setting our characters’ world in the past as opposed to, say, setting it in a neighbouring country or the world of professional tennis.

And yet history is not a special case. There are no special cases, in writing or in life. As a writer we walk the same tightrope wherever we set our world, and we will write the best book we can when we remember that and don’t look down. On the one hand, humanity is a universal. Troeltsch is right – we all share something. And that something enables us as writers to reach outside our solipsism, to touch and inspire our readers by reaching inside them through the worlds and words we create for our characters. And yet every mind except our own is somehow alien to us, and any attempt truly to get “inside” it will fail, will be little more than a projection of our own inner geography.

The balance is to hold both of these thoughts centre stage and drop neither, to attain empathy without claiming ownership. If we can succeed in that, then we achieve that alchemical magic which leaves our readers changed in their understanding both of themselves and of others. It is as though we reach our authorial fingers inside their psyche and open an internal door for them onto a world that encompasses both parts of themselves of which they were previously unaware and that brings them a filter from outside through which to see themselves and the world anew.

It is interesting that I should be writing this having just written a particularly difficult and introspective piece about writing and gender, specifically whether men can write women and whether men can write about books by women. These debates add an extra level of nuance to the question of how we write history, by showing that the question “How do I write about the Other?” always has a political context.

Let me explain. When men write about women, they have more questions to ask than simply “how do I balance the sameness of our shared humanity and the otherness of our different sex?” There is the additional question of how to deal with their privilege. Privilege is something around to which a conversation will always come when we start talking about writing other people. Because so often writing other people can actually mean “writing on behalf of other people” which can so easily, without us realising it even, become “silencing other people and giving them our words instead.” This is an issue whose importance increases proportionately with the demand our narrative places on those voices being taken seriously. In other words, the more men write women in what purports to be a sympathetic way, the more important it is that they speak in their own voices and not projections of our own, because the greater the damage that is being done when people believe they are hearing one thing only for another to be what they really hear. Or, more simply, the bigger and more damaging the lie we are telling.

It is crucial to get one’s head around this as a writer because writing history is the ultimate act of the privileged. Those whose word has passed are those who not only don’t have a voice in our time but can’t have a voice in our time. We are their mouthpiece, so it matters that when we write their words we realise the whole matted mess of complexities our words bring with them.

Being sensitive to our privilege in relation to the past is, really, an extension of realising that in some cases the balancing act of giving others their words veers a little more to Wittgenstein and a little less to Troeltsch. We might think, we might want to plead even, that we share an inseparable bond of humanity with our characters. And we might want to give them problems that we acknowledge to be universal, that “surely” no one could claim are anything but manifestations of something everyone knows who shares in that common humanity.

But the greater our privilege with regard to the people we are writing, the more aware we need to be that what we see as universal may actually be a projection of something that is deeply personal, or that arises from our position of privilege. To go back to the question of gender, take a man who writes a female protagonist in a love story, a heroine faced with choices about their direction in life, whether to up sticks and move abroad to follow their dream of success as a singer, or to pursue their love for someone they met on holiday. No man would, I hope, be so crass as to say “what’s the problem, I don’t get why they don’t just take off” and have them do just that, simply because that’s what they’d do. A writer with some degree of sensitivity would want to consider the psychological boundaries that may exist for his heroine that he considers to be “non-issues” because of his privilege – at the crudest level, he might feel safe schlepping over to a rough part of Hamburg and setting up in a bedsit so he can follow in the Beatles’ footsteps, but how would his heroine feel about travelling on her own to a strange place whose culture she doesn’t know? Of course she may end up doing the same thing, but the writer will both alienate women reading the book and do something potentially worse, do his heroine the violence of denying her her own inner voice, if he does not take her through her thought process and not his.

When it comes to history, we need to filter both the desire to write what is universal and the desire to write what is different through the lens of privilege. In the case of the former we need to be sensitive to the question whether what we perceive as a universal, timeless truth of human nature is actually just a simple reflection of ourselves. In the case of the latter, we need to ask something similar – when we read those markers that make a period or a culture unique, are we simply grafting our own views onto them?

This isn’t to say there’s no place in writing about the past for using our characters and the world in which we put them to comment on our own world. Indeed, just as so many authors do so well with science fiction, displacing our characters from the familiar surroundings of our world might actually make it easier to identify dilemmas that we face on which we’d like to focus. Suppose for example you want to look at the way different groups are treated in our contemporary cosmopolitan cities. You could, as Zadie Smith or Monica Ali do so effectively, write about today. But there may be many reasons why that would cloud too many issues – from the personal to the political, or simply the fact that you want to draw out a single strand within this theme and it is too complicated to do so in a contemporary setting. So you may transport your story to Nineteenth Century Liverpool, or Venice in the 1500s. Being aware of why you are doing this and what you want to achieve from it will help you to write the book so as both to draw out what you want to say about contemporary society more clearly and to avoid doing a disservice to history.

It is when what you want to do is shed light on the past that you need to be most careful. I would suggest that it is never truly possible to disengage past from present, yourself from your characters, and that when you are sure to make yourself most aware of this is when you will succeed best in doing justice to your characters and your readers.


Dan Holloway has just released “Self-publish With Integrity”, a book to guide you through the labyrinth of helpful and not so helpful advice, whatever stage of the self-publishing process you are at. With chapters on, amongst other topics, self-doubt, building a community, and pinning down precisely what it is you want from your writing life, the book will help you to stay true to your goals and retain a passion for writing throughout your literary life.

Subject Matters: How to win a short story competition

By Jane Ayres

You’ve posted off the final draft of your short story to yet another writing competition, paying attention to all the ingredients you know judges look for - like structure, plot, pacing, characterisation, dialogue, and language.  But how important is your choice of subject? Will it engage your readers - or alienate them?  What themes do you intend to explore in your story? And what part does subjectivity play in the decision-making process?  After all, writing competition judges are human beings, aren’t they?

Short story competitions are a great opportunity to develop your writing portfolio, improve your discipline in working to deadlines – and maybe even win a prize.  But is it really down to luck?  Or can you do anything to maximise your chances of success?

There are hundreds of competitions to choose from, and whether or not they specify themes and topics, or appear to provide an open-ended brief, when it comes to wining short story competitions, subject really matters.  Some competitions are extremely helpful when it comes to guidelines on the genres they will consider, and give clear and specific guidelines, and useful advice.  Others vary.

Whether or not you agree with the exclusion of particular categories is irrelevant.  If you want to succeed in competitions, the guidelines are there for your benefit, so read, absorb and inwardly digest before you start to write.

Judges sometimes complain about repeatedly seeing tired, over-used story lines. For instance, the main character turns out to be a ghost or the narrator is really a dog.  Maybe the down-trodden wife leaves her boring/cheating husband or an evil murderer finally gets his come-uppance.  On the whole, death in various forms is a popular subject so the occasional humorous tale can make a refreshing change.

If you want to submit a horror story then consider the monthly Dark Tales writing competitions (  Keen to produce a heart-warming romance?  Try the Cremona Romance Short Story Competition from The Cremona hotel in Bournemouth, for romantic stories with a seaside setting. (
(Don’t get your entries mixed up for these two!)

The Mona Schreiber Prize wants humorous fiction and non-fiction. “Comic essays, poetry, short stories, scripts and humorous shopping lists are all acceptable.” (
The James White Award for science fiction stories gives very specific advice on choosing your subject.

The Tom-Gallon Trust Award advises, “The submitted story should be traditional, rather than experimental, in character.”  ( ). The advantage of all these guidelines is that you are given clues and signposting about what is likely to be acceptable. 

The Annual New Writer Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes ( ) want fiction on any subject or theme, in any genre (except children’s) and are looking for “bold, incisive material in any genre providing it reflects today’s writing.”    But “today’s writing” encompasses a huge arena - are we talking Lee Child, Dorothy Koomson or JK Rowling?  All of these writers have different, unique voices and all represent current fiction.  Don’t they?  Which leads to the issue of subjectivity.

The part that subjectivity plays in judging writing competitions is often overlooked and rarely acknowledged.  Even where the accepted genres are stated, writing about certain subjects will not do you any favours.  Some subjects are perhaps generally accepted as taboos, for instance stories that incite racial hatred or describe gratuitous acts of sadistic violence, but in addition judges will have their own particular dislikes, subjects they find revolting or distasteful, or situations that strike a very personal chord.  It’s part and parcel of being human.  So if you write a story glamorising a burglar and the person judging has just had their house ransacked, your theme may not be well received.   You should also bear in mind that some competitions produce anthologies of shortlisted work to go on sale to the general public.  Understandably, they will not wish to offend or alienate sections of the community.

Stories are often penalised for being unrealistic.  Again, this can be subjective.  I have known of stories criticised on this basis when they were based on actual events, on situations that the writer may have actually experienced or witnessed.  What is unbelievable to one reader may be perfectly acceptable to another, depending on their own life experience and attitudes, which is, after all, what shapes our personalities, outlooks and values. For this reason, you may find that a story doesn’t make the shortlist for one competition but wins a prize in another.  Speaking from personal experience, a previous story, rejected by an editor who “hated the characters”, went on to win first prize in a national short story competition.  (Moral - if you believe in yourself, keep at it!)

Of course, what judges look for above all is a well written story with that extra something, that mysterious, elusive quality that makes it stand out from the rest.  What, nowadays, is referred to as “the wow factor.”

So if you want to succeed in short story competitions, read the rules, do your research, and acknowledge the role that subjectivity plays in the decision making process.  Use common sense about the choice and treatment of your subject.  Outside the competition arena, the rules may, or may not, differ.  But that’s another story…

About the author:
Jane had her first short story published in a UK pony magazine when she was 14. Since then she has written many books and stories for children and teenagers, and published work has been translated into nine languages. A passionate cat lover, Jane is donating all author royalties from her e-book Coming Home to the charity Cats Protection. See the trailer here:

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Rebecca Johnson

Negotiating with the Dead is not a self-help book for writers – not even one about trying to pick a new way among the myriads of brilliant plots, characters and sentences written by people who have gone before you. There is no advice on how to construct a story arc, how to find inspiration or whether or not to kill your darlings. Atwood’s explanation of the task she set herself when she was asked to write this book or, rather, to perform the lectures that the book is based on, is to ‘examine the various self-images – the job descriptions if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.’ She then goes on to say how hard she found this task and lists the many things that she was not sure that she could offer. No literary theories, declarations, manifestos or the like. She ends up with a definition that is vague, even perhaps coy, but seems to cover it all. The book is about ‘the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different.’ It’s about what it is that writers get up to when they write.

I should say now that I think Atwood is being a little disingenuous here. Because this is, in many ways, a book about the politics of writing (and of reading, though there is less of that). Specifically and severally, it is about the politics of writing as a woman, and as a writer growing up in a marginal culture, from a post-colonial position. So although she doesn’t talk about how she devised her marvellous stories, or how she learnt her craft, she makes it very clear, without ever being boring or seeming to lecture, that writing is always a political act, and is always from the experience of being who you are and where you are from.

In six chapters, based on the six Empson Lectures* she gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000, she looks at this occupation, or vocation, or art from various perspectives. How does one become a writer, she asks. What is a writer? Who do writers think writers are? Who does society think writers are? Who do writers write for? And who readers think writers are? She progresses from the raw material of a writer and how this might differ from anything or anyone else, through the conflict between ‘art’ and money, or ‘art for art’s sake’ versus the moral and social imperatives of writing, to the mythic and magical status writers are accorded at the borders of shamanism and religion as representatives of the knowledge of the dead. To do this she uses writers’ own words, stories and myths from an eclectic range of sources woven together in witty, down to earth, erudite and ingenious ways to illustrate her points. Is writing just showing off? Or is it the heart and soul of our societies?

Margaret Atwood’s book is a fascinating read for anyone wishing to write, or ‘be a writer’. Not only because she says, modestly, that she is a fairly ordinary person from an unprepossessing background who made it because she kept on going (unlike her brother, who wrote poems as a young man but then stopped). But because it is a heady myth in itself, woven together in part from the words of others, casting the writer as a genie who, like Prospero in The Tempest, pulls the strings of power from behind the scenes. ‘All writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality…to bring something or someone back from the dead,’ she argues. If this sounds a little morbid or peculiar, she says, that’s because it is. ‘Writing itself is a little peculiar.’

So now we know why we’re all just slightly odd.

*In honour of William Empson, poet and literary critic, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity among many other works.

(Virago, 2003, £8.99 pbk).