Monday, 31 March 2014


by Sarah Bower

I recently made my second visit to a restaurant in Wanchai. Wanchai is one of Hong Kongs more famous tourist areas, full of lurid neon, lurid men with paunches drinking lurid quantities of beer at unexpected times of day, and hard-working girls in hot pants and thigh boots. This restaurant, however, is a low-key, family-run affair down a little side street, its front door obscured by gigantic air conditioners and trolleys whose purposes are mysterious, a place you would never notice if you didnt know it was there, to which I was lucky enough to be introduced by a Chinese friend who is attentive to my adaptation to life in Hong Kong.

On our first visit, though my friend was the soul of courtesy and forbearance, she must have been mortified by my messy and profligate inability to use chopsticks for anything practical like getting food in my mouth. (Well, yes, she was she took photographs, warning me that, if I ever crossed her, they would appear on Facebook.) On our most recent visit, I was handling my chopsticks almost like a native. I could even eat jing sui dan, which is a kind of savoury egg custard, and to die for, with chopsticks. I surprised myself with the effectiveness of my adaptation. My friend was incredulous. Somehow, my brain had done the work required to learn this new trick. As I don’t use chopsticks all the time (indeed, Hong Kong is as well known for its western style restaurants as its Asian ones). It seems to have happened by osmosis.

The wielding of chopsticks is merely the outward evidence of something deeper which has been taking place since I arrived in Hong Kong in January. Last week, I was in Tokyo for the annual literature festival. It was a wonderful trip and I loved every minute of it, but when I raised the window blind to watch my return flight land, and the citys lights marked out its now familiar pattern of islands and bridges against the usual misty night, the thought that entered my head, and the feeling in my heart, was home. I was coming home. Until now, I have lived nearly all my life in the UK. I define myself as English or, at least, as one kind of English, with roots in the socialism of the Fabian Society and the dark pastoral of Hardy, a love of the shipping forecast, afternoon tea and golden retrievers and an abiding conviction that the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible sits at the pinnacle of what language is capable of. Yet, in three months, China has become home.

How did that happen? The why is relatively straightforward, though outside the scope of this essay, but the when and the how are more difficult. You dont know at what point this kind of adaptation begins, nor where it may end. It is an odd, hybrid, unpredictable thing defined by bizarre compromises. The Archers Omnibus, for example, with Sunday evening cocktails rather than Sunday morning breakfast. The reflection, on a recent birthday, that I had got there eight hours sooner than I would have done in the UK, and whether this actually makes any difference to how old I am. (Perhaps, if you keep travelling around the world the other way at the right pace, you might avoid birthdays altogether!)

Its like a microcosm of how language itself adapts and English, with its long colonial history and its pragmatic approach to its definition of itself, is surely one of the most adaptable, stretchy, downright baggy languages on the planet. Were all familiar with the best-known examples words like cha, bungalow, pyjamas or googly that speak to us of our Asian histories, or bower, portico, ham, entrepreneur (for which George W. Bush once said there was no French equivalent), that are children of our complex love (and hate) affair with mainland Europe. Its almost impossible, now, to conceive of an English without the neologisms of the computer age, from website to kilobyte, an English in which we do not Google or Skype or plague our virtual friends with selfies. Then there are the acronyms, the chavs and neets and asbos, and the words whose function slips over time. Bad becomes a noun, as in ‘my bad. Medal becomes a verb in the mouths of Olympic athletes and commentators. What, in fact, is English but a fabulous Gormenghast of a language whose every word and usage opens up a maze of passages into history, geography, science and politics, half lit, poorly signposted, endlessly enticing?

I don’t want to write about the process of adapting books for the screen or, increasingly the musical theatre. American Psycho the musical? Im sorry, but even Matt Smith cant redeem that one for my money! While a movie may become something altogether greater than the book from whence it came - The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Windor might come to inform the story in a way which blesses both Cabaret, Brokeback Mountain - the initial process whereby book is rendered into script is mechanical. At its best, it becomes creative, but it begins as cutting and pasting, and alas, sometimes it stays that way.

What I want to explore here is the kind of adaptation that begins consciously but becomes a kind of second nature. This is what the novelist looks to achieve when creating voices for her characters, the transition point at which what began as a deliberate exercise in ventriloquism becomes something more magical, when the dummy comes to life and takes over. Yet, when I say ‘explore’, how possible is that? How can an intuitive process be mapped? How much, in fact, do we want to know about the malevolent interior workings of the dummy’s mind, long imprisoned and drunk on liberty?

For me, the process of adapting to a new voice begins with immersive reading - which certainly makes my bookshelves and London Library request history appear a little strange. For the about-to-be-published Erosion, for example, I had to master the art of becoming a child murderer, a soldier in Northern Ireland and a garden designer, among others. All of this seems straightforward in comparison to preparing to enter the mind of Cesare Borgia.

I am currently writing in the voice of a Palestinian man living in the camps in Lebanon, while residing in China and listening to John Humphrys wishing me a lugubrious good morning at two o-clock in the afternoon. I pass the long and beautiful bus journey which takes me from my home in the New Territories to Hong Kong Island with the sea view and the iconic IFC2 (from which Batman jumped in The Dark Knight) in the corner of my eye and my main attention focused on the experience of the refugees massacred at Sabra and Shatila. As I read and write, my mind also races forward to a planned research trip to Palestine in the autumn, when I shall be joining the Zaytoun Project ( to pick olives near Nablus. How, then, will the voice of my Palestinian character change? What new adaptations shall I make? What layers will be added to the complex and analysis-defying voice that is both me, and my history, and the characters I create and theirs?

During a panel discussion at the Tokyo LitFest, David Mitchell and Ruth Ozeki agreed that, if the novel form didn’t exist, they and others like them would most likely end up in an asylum. (Cue knowing and sympathetic laughter from the audience.) As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, ‘Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’ Writing a novel is a kind of madness, is in itself an attempt to adapt to some disconnect in one’s relation to the outside world that has the effect of making that world seem far less real, or sensible, than the one inside the novelist’s head. I have heard many novelists say they write novels to make sense of life, or to take control of it - aspirations which seem to me, in and of themselves, insane. Life is neither rational nor subject to control. Stuff happens, as they say. Writing a novel is more like spinning a chrysalis around oneself, inside which one may endlessly hope to transform into a butterfly.

‘A chrysalis would be quite easy to pick up with chopsticks,’ mutters the author to herself, still in her pyjamas at lunch time, the better to adapt to the Radio Four morning schedule with an eight hour time delay. Or perhaps it’s just a game she’s playing with the six year old son of her Palestinian protagonist to take his mind off the fact he will shortly be blown up by an Israeli bomb. Oh, wait…he doesn’t know that, it’s only me who knows that…

Sarah Bower is quite mad. You shouldn’t trust a word she says. Do read her books, though - the people in those are relatively rational.

She Dreamt she was a Bulldozer, she Dreamt she was Alone in an Empty Field – procrastinating with Perry Iles

This all came from a programme I recorded; one of those music programmes about classic albums. I’d managed to avoid the one about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but here was Cream’s Disraeli Gears, which by happy coincidence was the first LP I ever bought. The spring of 1969 it was, and there were two record shops in Cambridge – Millers, a department store at the top of Sidney Street, and Boots, which had a record booth over in the corner near the Petty Cury entrance where we’d go in school lunchtimes to listen to new Rolling Stones singles.

“Are you going to buy it?” The girl behind the counter would say.

“Dunno till I listen to it, do I?” I’d reply.

She’d put the record on and we’d sit in the booth and listen to it. It was like a telephone booth with holes drilled into what were probably asbestos walls to prevent echo, or in reality to make the booth look more music-like and less like something Superman would get changed in. And then of course we’d run off out of the shop without buying anything, stopping only to shoplift some sweets or twenty Gold Leaf if we were lucky.

But then one evening in the winter of 1968 there was a programme on the BBC about Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall. I’ve always liked music, always kept abreast of who was who and where was where as far as the Top Twenty was concerned, but this was something close to adoration. I sat open mouthed through Sunshine of your Love and Spoonful and Crossroads and realised that Eric Clapton was in fact God. My father watched the programme with an expression of puzzlement and then asked me if they were actually trying to sound like that. The programme came to the part where Eric Clapton talked about tone control and effects pedals, and I realised the answer was yes.

At the time I was thirteen. The next week I went into Boots, ignored the latest singles and started thumbing through the LP section. They were called albums too. I didn’t know why until recently, when I found out that in America record companies used to release a band’s back catalogue in a series of singles lumped together and presented in page format in some kind of plastic binder like a photograph album. Later they released them in LP forms as “best of” collections. It wasn’t untoward to hear Americans say “I have a couple of Beach Boys albums and one of their LPs too.” This didn’t happen in Britain, so I couldn’t buy Cream records one at a time. I had to buy an LP or nothing, and the LP was £1/17s/6d (Why did they use “d” to symbolize pennies? No doubt the internet will tell me). Anyway, back in Boots I pulled out the cover of Disraeli Gears and asked the woman at the checkout if I could listen to it. Either she was feeling kind or she didn’t know me, because she put it on and I sat in the booth for forty minutes or so listening to the most fabulous noise I’d ever heard in my life. I needed to own it, but by my reckoning it would take me thirty-seven and a half weeks to save up for it, notwithstanding the price of sweets and the fact that I was just learning to smoke. I couldn’t steal it because they only kept the LP covers in the racks. The actual records were stored behind the counter. I was given a shilling in pocket money every week. My father had been giving me an annual increment of 3d a week for the last couple of years, and allowing my bedtime to go back by half an hour each birthday. Survived another year, son? Here, have some more time and money.

So I got a paper round. Every evening after school I had to cycle to the next village three miles away and collect the Cambridge Evening News and put it through 47 different letterboxes in my village. It took me about an hour and a half, six days a week and I was paid 4/6d a week by Terry Quinn, an unsmiling and slightly oleaginous newsagent and grocer with Brylcreemed hair who is probably dead now. He was OK, though. He gave me half a crown bonus every Christmas.

So after about three months, in the spring of 1969, I went into Boots and bought Disraeli Gears. It was like a ritual. The woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted it in mono or stereo and I said stereo and she slid the record out from its rack, put it into a new white inner sleeve and put the sleeve into the psychedelic coloured cover. I immediately took it out again and put it back with the inner sleeve opening at right angles to the outer sleeve opening so dust wouldn’t get in and the record wouldn’t fall out. And when I got home I played it at teatime, and in the evening and at breakfast next morning and I learned that thing about balancing the bass and treble controls despite the fact that they would never, ever be right and making sure there was no dust on the needle, and there was no feeling like it in all the world. Not just the music, but the pop of the record player going on, the amplified clunks as I adjusted the speed of the turntable, the click of the mechanism as I pulled the arm back to set the turntable spinning and the hiss and crackle from the grooves as the stylus touched the record.

It was the start of an obsession.

I bought Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Neil Young and that Deep Purple LP with the Hieronymus Bosch cover and Boogie with Canned Heat and the Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper and all of those sampler LPs that would have been albums in America — Nice Enough to Eat and Fill your Head with Rock, Gutbucket and Son of Gutbucket. They were cheap and bulked out my record collection. But what fabulous noise there was to discover on those samplers, what gems and precious minutes of hair-on-end loveliness, Laura Nyro singing Gibsom Street, Dr Strangely Strange, High Tide and the odd blues outing from Tony McPhee and Jo-Ann Kelly. Given that I covered pretty much all the ground from the Byrds to Black Sabbath I wasn’t exactly discerning, but music was an eclectic mess itself back then. Engelbert Humperdinck was touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Animals on stage after Tom Jones. It was young people’s music so it didn’t matter, no one would remember it in five years’ time. The Beatles made a bit of money and so did Mick Jagger, but this noise was just a passing phase, after all.

And now it’s gone. Clapton is dressed in Armani and makes me grind my teeth to a fine powder every time he plays Wonderful Tonight. The Jefferson Airplane promoted themselves to Starship status, and maybe they did build this city on rock and roll, but I don’t want to live there any more. But the point I’m making in this issue that’s dedicated to adaptation and change is that music was a tactile pleasure, not just an aural one. Records came in various thicknesses, were of differing quality. The Reprise label was particularly awful, their cheap vinyl scratching and hissing away under Neil Young’s quieter songs. Their covers were flimsy and the American gatefold sleeves were hastily adapted into single sleeves for British release. I knew people who only bought US import versions of any Reprise release, they were that bad, and they’d have the gatefold of Neil Young’s On the Beach, with the beautiful photographs and the flowery wallpaper and the empty pair of shoes that symbolized Danny Whitten in the sand next to the buried Cadillac fin. I’d read the lyric sheets as I listened to the music, or in the case of Disraeli Gears trace the intricate ornamentation of the cover design. And when the record finished I’d lift it off so carefully and slip it back into its sleeve and put it away (in alphabetical order of course) for next time.

Then came cassettes. Horrid little things they were, with their fragile little covers and no lyric sheets. No concept of design, the only useful thing being that you could wind a track back, or the whole side just by sticking a pencil into the centre of the cassette and whirling it around like a football rattle. My father bought a Mark 3 Ford Cortina 2.3GXL with an eight-track in it. He was getting ill by then, and he’d play Chopin and drive everywhere at 28mph in the wrong gear. When he died I sold the car and the eight-track that went with it. The best way to approach cassettes was to record on blank ones from the record player and then get a cassette system from somewhere and have and auto-electrician fit it for you, and then sod’s law dictated that the first time you drove round a bend the cassettes would all slide off the dashboard and either shatter into dozens of pieces or lodge under your brake pedal enabling you to drive at speed into bus queues full of children without being able to stop.

I was a taxi driver throughout the 1980s, and the only way to avoid New Romantic ghastliness or to have to listen to passengers’ inane drivel was to fit a cassette player and play horrible things on it. Given that it was the eighties that would usually be punk rock or death metal but I’d listen to the radio for John Peel too, and catch the undercurrents of dark matter in what people describe in retrospect as an utterly taste-free decade.

And sometime during that period they went and invented CDs, and everything had to be bought all over again. CDs were acceptable because they were big enough to feature artwork and you could use them as Frisbees or beer coasters and they’d still work. And the other good thing about CDs was that they finally made all those hi-fi buffs shut the fuck up. There are of course those who decry everything since vinyl, much as there are those who still believe in God and who think the Earth is flat. Like some kind of demented Texan creationist they hang on to their collections and fulminate like frothing evangelists when new releases are not released in vinyl format. But CDs put an end to all that nonsense; they were portable, and you could get little CD players for the bedside table and for the car as well.

And now there’s something else. As I said earlier, there was a time when the tactile aspect of music was as important as the listening pleasure. When you’d run your fingers along the spines of the LP covers, pull out the CD booklets and open up the lyric sheets. I have hundreds of CDs all stored in those little racks you can get from Ikea that probably have one of those cute Swedish names like Smegma or Prepuce. And now they’re going, to some extent because my daughter has taught me how to download things, but mostly because of Spotify, which holds twenty million songs, all free. Just go out and buy one of those Bose systems with a download link or go to a poncey music shop and get something so expensive and minimalist that it only has an on-off switch and a volume control. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. On your smartphone, bopping along the street with your Dr Dre headphones on, on your laptop while you’re working or playing Candy Crush (there’s probably a way you can mute the game without muting the music. Anyone who can tell me what that way is, so I can zap jelly whilst listening to Husker Du, will earn my eternal gratitude — but probably not my wife’s). With Spotify you can make a playlist and skip the filler tracks on your favourite CDs. Get one track only from bands like Martha and the Muffins who only ever made one good track anyway. Get Rock Lobster and Planet Claire without having to listen to Love Shack or buy a whole “Best of the B52s” CD. You could even get some kind of compromise going with your significant other. My wife and I have musical tastes that are quite radically different. She likes a tune she can hum to while I like something that sounds like a train crash. We have an overlap section like the common area in a Venn diagram that includes Tom Waits and Steely Dan and Portishead, but I tell her that Robbie Williams is for people who don’t really like music very much and she asks me, in a weird echo of my father’s words, if Sonic Youth are actually trying to sound like that.

But I do find it just slightly easier to get a Spotify account and pay that little bit extra to avoid advertisements, and my wife is the reason for this. She likes to relax at night by listening to Chakra-realignment music — or as I refer to it, fucking hippie bollocks. What she doesn’t want after twenty minutes of getting in touch with her higher angels by listening to panpipes or whales wailing or dolphins clicking is Barry Scott yelling “BANG! AND THE DIRT IS GONE!” or that mulleted wanker off of Safestyle Windows shouting “YOU BUY ONE YOU GET ONE FREE! I SAY YOU BUY ONE YOU GET ONE FREE!” And I don’t want to hear adverts for Dulcolax constipation relief during dinner and imagining the sort of calm and collected woman they use on the TV adverts who comes dancing out of the house smiling and waving as if she hadn’t spent the last twenty minutes shitting her brains out in random directions.

There’s one thing I’ll hang on to, though. In the nineties, Montreal took over from Liverpool, San Fansisco, Seattle and Manchester as the centre of music’s universe. Weird and wintry post-rock ambience came drifting down the ice-locked St Lawrence Seaway, and Arcade Fire got famous. But up in the Hotel 2 Tango, Godspeed You!Black Emperor were releasing gems of godless noise with titles like Terrible Canyons of Static, They Don’t Sleep Any More on the Beach and She Dreamt She was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She was Alone in an Empty Field. Not only that, but they were selling in such limited quantities that the band were sitting in their converted hotel decorating each individual CD and LP cover that went out, pasting photos onto covers, deliberately designing them so they wouldn’t fit into CD cabinets properly. Constellation/Kranky records even put out a sampler of their artists, just like the old days; One Speed Bike, Fly Pan Am, Frankie Sparo and Thee Silver Mt Zion Tra-La-La and Oompah Memorial Band with Choir. These hand-decorated wonders are things I will not be parted from. The best music since the sixties, nihilistic, the sort of thing that could ideally soundtrack a Cormac McCarthy novel (Go and listen to Dead Flag Blues if you don’t believe me), drones and building cacophonies depicted by the band members themselves in graph form rather than as track listings. And while you’re listening you can run your fingers along the spines of the cardboard CD covers (no ghastly jewel cases for these guys), and look at the insert sheets and photos that have been affixed by hand to the cover.

These wonders I will keep forever. The Cream LP has long since gone, abandoned probably in the home of an ex-wife or girlfriend. And me? I’m old now, I won’t be moving from here, and the music will stay with me, at my fingertips, free. But apart from those few exceptions described above, all tactile pleasures have been removed. Another brick crumbles, and falls from the wall at my feet in a fine layer of dust.

Adapting Fact into Fiction
The Play: We’re Not Going Back

We’re Not Going Back tackles the resilience of working communities, the make-and-mend fabric of family and the power of sticking two fingers up to a government hell-bent on destruction… with humour, song and a six pack of Babycham.

The Director/Theatre Company: Rod Dixon & Red Ladder

Rod Dixon is Artistic Director of Red Ladder, a radical theatre company with 45 years of history. The company is acknowledged as one of Britain’s leading national touring companies producing new theatre, contributing to social change and global justice.

The Writer: Boff Whalley

Writer, singer, songwriter and founder of the band Chumbawamba, Boff has also written drama for theatre and radio, and composed soundtrack music for films by Ken Loach and Alex Cox.

Interview with Boff Whalley

Why did you choose these particular events to dramatise?

Boff Whalley
Because it's the 30th anniversary of the strike; and because Unite the union wanted to fund and promote a play about the miners with Red Ladder. On top of this, the subject still has so much resonance, especially around Leeds/Yorkshire where Red Ladder is based. The wounds opened during the strike aren't healed, and the current government are constantly reminding people of Thatcherism and its legacy. What happened to the miners and the NUM is directly affecting the union movement now.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction/play/film?

That people who were involved in the strike may think they 'own' the truth. "Oh, it wasn't like that…". I'm always keen to tell people that even when I write about history for theatre the fiction is an important part of it. I don't want to write documentaries, I want to write stories. And storytelling is about elaborating, drawing out crucial parts of a narrative, making it entertaining.

How did you go about researching the reality?

Well, memory was good research since I was around the strike when it happened – definitely one of the advantages of writing history that isn't in the far-distance. I read books and watched footage that related directly to Women Against Pit Closures. Together with Rod we met a group of miners' wives and their supporters, who were gathering for an annual reunion – that was pretty inspiring, and even though I'd written the basic first draft by then it informed how I saw the characters and subsequently what changes I made to the script. I think it also probably had a big effect on how Rod and me saw the general feel of the play – unashamedly funny and upbeat, despite the subject matter. We also saw Jean Gittins from the WAPC speaking – she reiterated that idea, calling the strike "the best year of my life."

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I like telling stories about events that have huge resonance and meaning, but tell the story from the point of view of just three or four (or less) people, families, friends, how the bigger story affects them personally, affects their relationships, how it changes them as people. The historic events become almost just a backdrop, something happening outside the front door. I love setting plays in living rooms whilst political upheaval is going on outside the house. I think you can tell stories effectively from the living room, without having to portray the cops beating up miners (for instance). That's a problem with a lot of modern theatre for me – there's so much emphasis on drama that we lose the macro view of history, how it resonates personally with people. Too often historical drama becomes just a series of 'incidents' strung together with a fictional narrative. I didn't want that. I'm happier writing three sisters standing talking at a funeral than I am showing the death of a young lad while picking coal from a slag heap.

What you you hope the readers/viewers/audience will take away from the experience?

Firstly, the sense that they were entertained, they enjoyed it. Secondly, questions – arguments, disagreements, talking points, whatever. Thirdly, I want them to go away with a least one of the songs stuck in their heads for a few days! I want people to see our stuff and find things out about history that they didn't already know; especially things they assumed they knew. But that mustn't make the play into a history lecture. The Book: Ghost Town

Ghost Town is set in Coventry in 1981, when the city of Two Tone and Ska was riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

The author: Catriona Troth

After more than twenty years spent writing technical reports at work and fiction on the commuter train, Catriona made the shift into freelance writing. She now writes a regular column for this very literary magazine, researches and writes articles for Quakers in the World and tweets as @L1bCat. Her writing explores themes of identity and childhood memory.
Interview with Catriona Troth

Why did you choose these particular events to fictionalise?

I was living in Coventry at a time when there was a lot of tension between skinheads and Asian youths. But I was a student, very much at the fringes of what was going on. Years later, when I went back the research that time as a possible backdrop for a story, I discovered things had been much worse than I'd suspected at the time. And yet somehow the city pulled back from the brink and sent the racists packing. I became obsessed with telling the story of what happened that summer - something that is really very little known outside of Coventry.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

I felt a huge responsibility to the people who experienced those events to get it right - to be factually accurate but also emotionally honest. On top of that, I was writing about a community that was not my own. When I finally finished the book, it was very important to me that it was read by by someone who came from that world before I ventured to publish it. That gave me the confidence that I wasn't simply being crass. I am still conscious of the risk that someone who actually lived through the events could say, 'You got that wrong.'

How did you go about researching the reality? 

Catriona Troth
 Even today, there is very little on the web about what happened in Coventry that summer. I spent time in the Coventry City Library going through newspaper archives from the period, and I read the small section at the back of the Scarman report that refers to Coventry. Apart from that, I read a lot of books - factual and fiction - that involved to comparable events. And now, Social Media has given me the opportunity to talk to a few people who were there at the time - something I couldn't easily do when I started out.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I chose as my main point of view characters two people who were, in their different ways, outsiders to the conflict, but caught up in it. This was partly because of the perspective it gave me on what was happening. But it was also because, as an outsider myself, it was easier to get inside that perspective. I didn't feel confident that - as a white middle class woman - I could authentically inhabit the point of view of a working class skinhead or a British Asian kid from East Africa. But having moved back and forth between two continents most of my childhood, and having grown up monolingual in a bilingual household, I did have the glimmering of an idea what it was like to be caught between two cultures.

What you you hope the readers/viewers/audience will take away from the experience?

I hope they learn how easy it is for those with malign intent to manipulate vulnerable people into scapegoating others - and that it's always worth making a stand against the politics of hate. And I hope they'd think it was a damn good story too.

The Book: Feral Youth hard-hitting look at the real causes of the summer riots, written from the perspective of a 15-year old girl in south London. As a south Londoner by birth and now a resident of Ealing, one of the affected areas, Courtney wrote Feral Youth because she believes that the real causes of the uprising have not gone away and another riot may well be imminent.

The Author: Polly Courtney
In late 2011, Polly famously walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, for the ‘girly’ titles and covers assigned to her books – most notably, It’s a Man’s World, the hard-hitting take on the lads’ mag industry and its impact on society. Footballer, violinist, commentator and passionate champion of the underdog, Polly is keen advocate of self-publishing and doing things her own way.

Interview with Polly Courtney 

Why did you choose these events to write about?

The London Riots had a profound effect on me. I remember lying in bed, scrolling through Twitter and smelling the burning rubber of police cars on fire. I thought: Wow, this is big. Something is seriously wrong here. It was around this time that I started mentoring a child with Kids Company, so I was seeing depravation first-hand. I was glued to the news in the following days and weeks, waiting for explanations, but they never came. Politicians were quick to write off the events as 'pure criminality caused by a feral underclass' and the mainstream media focused on the long prison sentences, as though jailing young people would solve the problems. No, I thought. It's more complicated. When I started to dig into it, I realised that the events of August 2011 were just the tip of a very large, ugly iceberg and I wanted to expose the whole thing with Feral Youth - but also to show that change is possible.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

On the plus side, it's a 'hook' to hang the book off; if somebody asks me what Feral Youth is about, I say: It's the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl. But while that appeals to some people, it also puts others off. The riots were very divisive, just like the benefits cuts we're seeing now. A lot of people would like to pretend they weren't a big deal - they want to forget all about what happened. So I guess in a way, I'm reducing my potential readership for the book by setting it in such a contentious part of history. But I'm fine with that. I know that Feral Youth will only appeal to the open-minded. Not everybody can put themselves in the shoes of a deprived, angry, vulnerable teenager for 100,000 words!

How did you go about researching the reality?

Polly Courtney
I made life difficult for myself by opting to write the whole novel in the dialect and inner monologue of Alesha, street slang and all. So not only did I have to understand the events of what happened, I also had to get inside the head of a disenfranchised 15-year-old and work out her attitude, her voice and her issues. I did this by running mini-brainstorms and workshops with young people in schools, youth clubs and charities. I also talked to youth workers, teachers, social workers and youth club volunteers to get a sense of how it was to work closely with disenfranchised teenagers. I supplemented this first-hand research with a lot of reading - reports on the riots, statistics and views on youth issues and so on - but for me, the most valuable part was talking directly with young people. They had strong views on everything from the cost of Nike creps to austerity cuts. Oh - and I did a lot of riding buses. You can learn a lot by eavesdropping.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I wanted to put the reader right in the shoes of Alesha, so that they saw things through her eyes, felt her frustrations and lived her life for a summer. She's from a deprived background and lives her life in such a different way to me and probably to most of my readers, but that was the point. Too many people write off the Aleshas of this world, as though they're beyond hope, they don't matter and their problems aren't our problems. But they're not beyond hope. They matter, and the problems are very much ours. Feral Youth is not always an easy read, but I wanted to make people think. We can't always judge using our own frameworks and experiences. We have to try and see things from another point of view.

What do you hope the readers will take away from the experience?

A sense of hope and a better understanding of a part of society that's too often ignored, stigmatised and punished. There are deep-rooted problems, but there are also solutions. Over the course of one summer, Alesha's life changes track many times. I hope that people will come away thinking that change is possible, if we open our minds and empathise. I'd love to think that reading Feral Youth inspired someone to mentor a child. Book: Until Our Blood Is Dry In March 1984, when miners across the country begin the long strike, trouble is brewing in Ystrad. It is time to defend jobs, the pits and a way of life that has formed both the life of valley and the nation.
What matters most: to be right, to be loved or to belong?

 The Author: Kit Habianic

Kit grew up in Caerphilly, Colwyn Bay and Cardiff. Her journalism has appeared, amongst others, in The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Times, Marie Claire (US), and Time Out and in trade titles in Europe and the Middle East. Now based in London, she processes copy for a business daily, all the while plotting new stories to write.

Interview with Kit Habianic

Why did you choose these particular events to fictionalise?

The miners’ strike was the defining event of my youth; the dispute tore the country apart, set neighbours against neighbours, even fathers against sons. I grew up in villages on the South Wales coalfield and the events of that year remain vivid and real.

It doesn’t feel as though I chose to write a novel about the miners’ strike – more that the events of that year demanded to be sifted and considered again.

High-stakes conflict is fascinating material to mine. The strike raised complex issues about loyalty versus self-preservation, principles versus politics, right versus wrong. The men and women who did or didn’t get involved felt their survival was at stake, made choices from hope or from despair. Plot and characters sprang out of that conflict.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

The dispute happened within living memory and has left a bitter legacy. The miners lost and paid a heavy price as the government shut pit after pit. At the beginning of the strike, the mining industry employed around quarter of a million people. All those people, whether they supported the strike or opposed it, lost their jobs in the UK’s pits.

So many people lost so much and a ravine of bitterness divides those who supported the strike and those who opposed it. As a writer, you ask yourself, do I have the right to dig into this, to risk reopening old wounds. A novel is a version of the truth as its characters see it but with recent, real-life events there are always many other deeply held truths.

How did you go about researching the reality?

I visited Big Pit, once a working mine now a museum, to get a sense of what it must have been like to work below ground and met former colliers who talked about their experiences. Swansea University holds the South Wales miners’ library at Hendrefoelan. It was fascinating to listen to crackly taped interviews recorded during and just after the strike and to read through all the poems and stories and pamphlets.

I also spent a lot of time at the British Library and in Colindale at the newspaper library, which sadly closed last year. The British Library has a vast stash of non-fiction books about the strike, as well as pamphlets and magazines. And reading microfiche of old newspapers was fascinating. I’d forgotten the extent to which much of the media demonised striking miners at the time.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

Because the strike is so divisive, I decided early on to explore it through three opposing viewpoints.

Gwyn, the overman, has been promoted to a lowly management role and promised better if he toes the Coal Board line. He has every reason to oppose the strike and to resent the NUM activists who stand in his way. He believes it’s his duty to better himself, to look after his own and to encourage his daughter to do the same.

Scrapper, the young collier, has spent his life in a tiny mining village that offers no job prospects beyond the pit. He comes from a long line of union activists but also believes passionately that the only way to save Blackthorn pit is to come out on strike.

As the strike progresses Helen, Gwyn’s daughter and Scrapper’s lover, finds herself torn between the two sides and trapped by what her family, her school friends and her neighbours expect of her.

The political becomes ever more personal to all three characters. The choices they make will cost them everything.

What you hope the readers will take away from the experience?

Kit Habianic
Reading has always been an escape and an adventure. How else do we get to step into someone else’s skin, and feel what someone else would feel and wonder what decision we’d make, in their shoes? That’s what makes writing so compelling, too.

I hope the book transports the reader to the coalfields of the Eighties and leads them to question what decisions and choices they’d make in the same circumstances as Gwyn, or Scrapper, or Helen.

But maybe the novel has something to say about the way we live now, too. There’s very little UK fiction set in working-class communities today. At a time when the rich seem richer yet the poor so much poorer, there are many stories that deserve to be told but never seem to get heard.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and first drafts.

How To Sell Your Book To Hollywood

Walt Morton, Novelist & Screenwriter, shares tips with JJ Marsh

Tell us a bit about yourself, Walt. How did you get involved in the movie business?

Walt Morton
In 1988, I had just moved across the country to Los Angeles. I knew nothing about Hollywood but I thought I could probably write and sell an original screenplay because many screenplays I paged through seemed dumb, wooden, or the work of a chimpanzee. How hard could it be? Over the next eight years I wrote seven screenplays. I even earned some money and had one script bought outright. I worked for a producer as a writer-for-hire like in the old Hollywood days.

Movies based on original screenplays have become rarer and rarer. To make this clear, an "original" screenplay is a screenplay that is not based on a novel or TV show or toy or comic book or anything else. It just starts as a writer’s idea for a movie.

Starting in the 1990s the average cost of making a Hollywood studio film skyrocketed with the associated costs of marketing and global distribution. Today, any big studio movie with star actors represents an investment by the studio of over $100 million dollars.

Scared studio executives almost never have the guts to make original material anymore, so seek ideas already vetted in the consumer marketplace. They’d rather bet on something already popular as a book, novel, TV show, comic, etc. This is not rocket science.

The realization almost nobody was buying original screenplays put me on the slow road to being a novelist. That, and a conversation I had with Michael Crichton, back in 1997. Crichton said:

"When I write a novel I get paid for that. Then I get paid again for the movie rights. And then paid again when they hire me to write the screenplay. And maybe I even get paid to direct it. And then there may be pay for a sequel. If you have a good idea -- you should get paid for it five times."

Hearing that was a slap in the face and I felt dumb for ever writing screenplays. Still, it took me awhile to start writing novels.

In Hollywood today, the most desirable thing is "intellectual property" (novel, book, toy, etc.) very popular with the public. Further, this I.P. should be "hot" -- which means exploitable in every way possible.

A literary novel like Richard Yates's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (1961) took forty years to become a quality film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and even then only made a disappointing $20 million dollars (losing $80 million dollars in the process). But you do get to feel good and win some awards. Still -- no one is going to build a "Revolutionary Road theme park." Nor will there be toys, spin-offs, or a long-running TV show. For the pure reason of financial exploitability, studio executives get a lot more excited about genre material like Twilight or fan favorites like Spider-Man than quality literary novels.

The dirty secret of Hollywood is that quality literary novels usually make dreadfully dull movies.

OK, selling film rights to your work is an attractive option to many authors. But whispers and rumours surrounding the mysterious process make it a daunting prospect. Can I start at the beginning? Back in the day when I sought a traditional publisher, the process was 1. Submit to an agent. 2. Agent takes you on. 3. Agent sells to publisher. Is there a similar process in film?

At the top-end of the food chain, if you are a traditionally-published author, you probably already have an agent, (i.e. William Morris Agency). If that agent is in New York, they will have a counterpart at a branch office in Los Angeles involved in selling rights and "packaging" projects. If you are in this echelon of writer (James Patterson, Harlan Coben, etc.) your latest novel may even be read by Hollywood in pre-publication galleys or e-mailed around as a PDF.

Hollywood "film" agents play a slightly different game than New York "book" agents. The book agent is trying to find a publisher who will pay for an author's work. The film agent is trying to assemble the "package" that might become a movie. And a package has a lot of moving parts including possibly -- novel / screenwriter / director / actor / actress / studio / etc -- and all those parts need to line up for a giant golden paycheck to fall out of the sky.

But people in Hollywood are not dumb (contrary to popular opinion) and they are constantly looking for “good” material that could possibly become a good / profitable movie. The indie author should spend 95% of their time than in crafting good material. Honestly, you should spend all your time making the best book you can, and much less time in blogging, tweeting, schmoozing and publicizing. Because at the end of the day, no amount of schmoozing will turn a crap book into a good movie.

Let me repeat that:


To defuse any argument, I am sure some literary snob will say: "What about Twilight? That was a lightweight book for teenage girls!" The arena of literary taste and postmodern criticism... while Stephenie Meyer might not be the greatest literary stylist, she presented a great idea with huge popularity potential.

The best advice for indie authors is to write good books, entertain people and sell well on Amazon. If you can do that, you won’t need to call Hollywood. They will call you. It worked for Amanda Hocking. She’s a good example of a writer who was productive, pleased her fans, and built an audience. Eventually, Hollywood calls. It’s not that unusual.

Can you explain exactly what a ‘treatment’ consists of?

A proper screenplay is as precise in format and structure as an architect's plan for a 30-floor skyscraper. It runs between 118 and 122 pages (one page per minute of screen running time) and is almost exactly 20,000 words. A treatment is a much more informal document that might be 4,000 to 12,000 words and is a kind of summary of how a project might be presented as a movie. Treatments read like a short story and may be used either as a production tool as a kind of intermediary on the way to developing a screenplay or a sales tool to get a producer or actor interested.

For the novelist, you should encourage interested parties to read your novel -- if it's any good -- and if they don't have time to read it you may question if they are seriously interested. Any time you have a meeting with someone and you become aware the other person has not actually read your work, for whatever reason, a flashing red warning light should go off in the writer’s brain because this is a sure sign you will be treated awfully in the near future.

One suggestion I heard is to create a comic book or graphic novel version of your book.

If you have the skill and (considerable) resources to make this happen it’s not a terrible idea. Agents, producers, development people all love comic books. There are several of reasons for this. The biggest one is that a harried studio executive on the phone for 14 hours a day gets a comic book or graphic novel, s/he will have the capacity to digest it in five minutes. Reading a novel would take some actual time, peace, isolation, concentration – all things in short supply. Moreover, a graphic novel version is easier to visualize even if you have a fried imagination and a bad hangover. The colorful simplicity of a comic book says: “hey – this could be a movie.”

Two other factors that support this thought are the massive success of blockbuster movies spun off comic book titles like Batman, X-Men, Iron Man, and Spider Man. You get a sense of the new prestige of comic books when you go to a convention like Comicon, which is now a feeding frenzy of Hollywood development and networking. So, the real answer is – YES – if you had a comic book adaptation of your novel it would be easier to get it SEEN, and possibly develop producer interest, but this is no sure-fire guarantee and producing a decent graphic novel is a lot of work and thousands of dollars if you are hiring artists to do it for you.

And would it make sense to write the screenplay version yourself? Surely studios want to hire their own screenwriters?

Screenwriting is a different skill-set from writing a novel. It requires mostly the ability to condense and dramatize. Also to simplify. Sometimes, details quite interesting to read in a novel become mere background in a screenplay. And you must literally think about replacing long sections of a novel with a single picture, a map, a photo, etc. The good news is -- if you are able to write a novel, a screenplay is a lot less work than the novel you wrote. 100,000 words versus 20,000. Primarily, you just need to cut description, keep the best dramatic moments and save the best dialog and you are most of the way there.

As with a comic book, it’s generally easier to get a producer to read a screenplay because they will be able to read it more quickly than your novel, and since it’s in screenplay form it is one step closer to being imagined as potentially a movie. The producer would rather have a screenplay adaptation of your novel written by an A-list screenwriter like David Koepp because if he had that, it would be easier to get other people in the industry to read it and easier to attract a star, a director, and make a package to take into a studio. But a David Koepp adaptation might cost the producer a $500,000 fee, and if your version of the book you know so well is free, it can be attractive. The downside is you are not getting paid to write a screenplay up front, but you may be paid a token fee later. The best scenario is for you to write it, then David Koepp gets hired to “polish” it. Then you share credit with an A-list screenwriter, and by association you may become one.

One tip I heard last week was the importance of the title. Apparently some books have been picked up on the strength of title alone.

It’s very rare. I can’t think of one that turned into a good movie. And you don’t get paid substantial amounts if someone is just buying a title, unless for example, you miraculously have the movie rights to a title like “WIKILEAKS.” Hollywood is a land of ideas and they are traded around like currency. Sometimes things of little substance like a title can rise for a moment. Book titles are often changed as movies get made and this is a long-standing common practice (though dumb) driven by marketing executives in movie studios who like to give little paper questionnaires to test audiences. Generally, the thinking is: “If it’s a really famous book we can’t change the title because there is brand recognition, but if it’s not too famous, we’ll stick a thumb in and improve it.” Thus, Stephen Hunter’s POINT OF IMPACT becomes the dumber, shorter SHOOTER. Is this an improvement? Probably not, but somebody earned their salary for that month.

If you’re already a bestseller with a huge fan base, I guess you’re a more attractive prospect?

This is true, unless there is something about your books that makes them difficult to do as movies. Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency” series has 14 excellent and popular novels, but this is not the kind of thing that you can build a theme park around. Nobody in Hollywood knows where Botswana is. The Hollywood brain looks for familiar-but-different recipes because anything as “out there” as a lady detective in Botswana feels like a big risk.

Previously, one might have said an expensive period setting like Patrick O' Brian's Napoleonic naval warfare novels would make them too expensive to serialize as films but the worldwide success of G.R.R. Martin's "Game Of Thrones" series shows that Hollywood will risk the money if the fan-base is there. Still, the truth is it's never very hard to get Hollywood producers to look at HIGHLY POPULAR novels and series. The authors of these works have calls on their answering machines all the time from producers curious about rights.

Some very smart writers have scant adaptations of their work (Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz, Joe Lansdale) because they don't want to sell the rights to some knucklehead who’ll do a terrible job of making the movie. Michael Crichton worked with some of most talented people in Hollywood (Spielberg). Stephen King has worked with some very able adaptors and also some terrible ones. Don't get into a situation like Jim Butcher and have a bad adaptation of your major series stumble and fail. It’s very hard to re-ignite passion for something already filmed and flopped.

Let’s say you do have a studio interested in adapting your work for the screen. Is this the time to seek an agent specialised in selling film rights?

Absolutely. You need an agent and (better) a lawyer very familiar with entertainment law or you will be taken advantage of. You will be told you are being offered the best deal ever only later to find out that even your own agent was not acting in your ultimate best interests. Because your ICM agent is wetting-their-pants eager to make a deal because that’s his (or her) job and it makes them look good next Monday at the all-agency meeting and they will be cheered and praised for packaging a sale. You, on the other hand, will have to live for the rest of your life with whatever the deal did to your copyright on the intellectual property. For clarity on this I attach one paragraph from the middle of a nine-page “option purchase” agreement I was asked to sign. It was authored by a top Hollywood lawyer:

If Producer exercises the Option, Producer shall own all right, title and interest of every kind or nature in and to the Book and the characters, plots, themes and titles therein, including but not limited to, all motion picture, television and customary allied rights in and to the Book (collectively, the “Rights”). Such Rights shall include without limitation the right to develop, produce, broadcast, transmit, reproduce, exhibit and/or exploit the Picture and/or any other derivative works based on the Book in all media and by any means, whether now known or hereafter developed, including theatrical, video/DVD, soundtrack, remake, sequel and merchandizing rights, and all copyrights therein and all renewals and extensions thereof.

Now that is business-as-usual, and you might willingly sign a thing like that when someone is waving a six-figure check at you. And your agent says it’s “industry standard.” But what a lawyer will tell you is they just bought the rights to all your characters. And you don’t own them any more. So if you felt like writing a sequel or a series or anything – tough luck. You are at their mercy. In the old days, producers just wanted to pay you for the right to film your book. Period. Now, they want to chain and handcuff you if you let them. What would be proper to sign is a limited agreement like this:

Producer shall own all motion picture rights in and to the Book (Such Rights shall include without limitation the right to develop, produce, broadcast, transmit, reproduce, exhibit and/or exploit the Picture based on the Book including theatrical, video/DVD, remake and film merchandizing rights.) 
Do you have any other tips you are willing to share which might help other indie authors navigate the movie business?

Focus on writing, and write a lot. Your best idea may come when you least expect it. One of the truest things is something I heard from Terry Rossio. Terry is a very successful, smart writer who has an overlooked but terrific blog about his experiences in Hollywood and you can read him at What he says is this: the number one problem for most writers in Hollywood is “lack of a good concept.” This is absolutely true. And I would extend it to include writers in general. Many writers spend years trying to craft the best possible version of a book that is – at core -- an uninteresting idea, no matter how well done. One of the most overlooked skills a writer needs to develop is the ability to tell the difference between a good idea and a weaker idea. Pick the good one to invest your time in.

Thousands of people are passing screenplays, books, and comic books around Hollywood. What you don’t see are many good original ideas that would also make a good movie. If your novel can pass that test of “good idea, and it would make a good movie,” then it’s likely your novel will be discovered by Hollywood. It may not happen overnight. It might take a decade. Or two. But if your novel would make a great movie, there’s a decent chance someone will become interested in making it, as long as your manuscript isn’t hidden in your sock drawer.
You can find Walt at his website:

Walt Morton’s latest novel is AMERICAN GHOUL

It would make a great movie. 

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and first drafts.

Victoria Strauss - Writer Beware!

Victoria Strauss, co-founder and Vice-Chair of SFWA’s Committee on Writing Scams, is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone fantasy duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and Passion Blue, a historical fantasy for teens. She has written hundreds of book reviews for publications such as SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She received the 2009 SFWA Service Award, and in 2012 was honored with an Independent Book Blogger Award. She’s webmistress of the Writer Beware website, which she co-created, and maintains the Writer Beware database, blog, and Facebook page.

Victoria, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Your name has become synonymous with exposing the sharks in the publishing industry. How did it all start?

People often ask me if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no--by and large, my publishing experiences have been positive. But I was fairly ignorant when I began to seek publication, and while scams weren’t anywhere near as common as they are now, it was luck more than anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.

Around the time I first went online, in the mid 1990s, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers’ discussion of their experiences on the Internet: scam book doctor Edit Ink, fraudulent vanity publishers Northwest Publishing and Commonwealth Publications, and the notorious Deering Literary Agency with its satellite vanity publisher, Sovereign Publications.

I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry, which I hadn’t known existed. In 1998, when I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create an online resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance, and began to put together the website that would become Writer Beware.

At the same time, Ann Crispin, who at that time was SFWA’s Vice-President, was working on establishing a Committee on Writing Scams, with the goal of gathering information on literary fraud. Neither of us knew what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our efforts dovetailed perfectly, and we decided to join forces, merging the Writer Beware website with the Committee.

Ann and I worked together on Writer Beware for fifteen years. In 2013, Ann passed away, but her tireless advocacy for writers stands as an enduring legacy.

You have an impressive database, which is regularly updated, containing all kinds of threats to the unwary writer, from overpriced services to fake competitions to downright fraud. That’s a lot of work. How are you funded?

Yes, it is a lot of work, but well worth it for the information and warnings we're able to provide to writers.

Writer Beware is staffed entirely by volunteers. For expenses and insurance, we're sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association.

Can you give us a couple of examples of less-than-ethical practices you’ve uncovered?

Literary agents who charge reading or other upfront fees (literary agents, like real estate agents, work on commission), refer clients to paid services for which they receive kickbacks (one major referral scheme was Edit Ink, a fraudulent editing service that charged writers thousands of dollars for rudimentary critiques), refer clients to their own paid services (a conflict of interest; some questionable agencies are nothing more than fronts for editing services), or misrepresent their experience and expertise (an amateur agent, who doesn't have the skills to do the job, can be as bad for a writer's career as a scam agent).

Publishers (as distinct from self-publishing services) that charge fees or require purchases as a condition of publication, offer abusive and/or nonstandard contracts (such as life-of-copyright contracts with no provision for rights reversion), and fail to fulfill their contractual obligations (we hear all the time from writers who can't get the payments due them, or whose books are published riddled with errors, or whose publication dates are repeatedly delayed...the list is endless). As with literary agents, amateurism is a problem: it's so cheap and easy to set up a publisher these days that anyone can do it, whether or not they have the knowledge or the funding to do it right.

You’re a successful fantasy author and reviewer in addition to a writers’ champion – what’s your time management secret?

Panic! But seriously, I've had to cut back on some of my activities in the past few years, in order to concentrate on my own writing and Writer Beware. I no longer do book reviews, for instance, or moderate writers' message boards.

I’m guessing the number of sharks has multiplied with the rise of self-publishing.

Yes, unfortunately. The rising number of small presses, and the growth of self-publishing options, has spurred an explosion of schemes and scams. Unqualified and less-than-qualified independent editors are a big problem. Fake awards are also a danger (such as high-entry-fee awards designed not to showcase writers but to make money for the awards sponsor), as are marketing schemes--paid book review schemes, unscrupulous blog tour operators, PR services that rely on spam-style methods such as email blasts. The list goes on.

Researching this article, I noticed you’ve attracted some vitriol, presumably from exposed schemers. Does that ever bother you?

When Ann and I were first getting involved with Writer Beware---yes, it did. But it's an inevitable part of doing what we do, and I've learned to take it in our stride. Mostly, the vitriol comes from non-credible sources, and one thing I've learned over the years is that the trolls and the haters usually discredit themselves better than I ever could.

Writer Beware has been sued twice for defamation, by people whose bad practices we exposed. Both times, we prevailed. One suit was dismissed due to the plaintiff's refusal to cooperate with the discovery and interrogatory process; the other was also dismissed, and we were able to get it declared frivolous and to win our court costs back.

To what extent do you work with other writers’ organisations such as Authors’ Guild, Society of Authors, The Alliance of Independent Authors, Association of Authors’ Agents, etc?

As noted above, we're sponsored by three professional writers' groups. I'm also one of ALLi's Watchdogs, and we cooperate with the Authors Guild, AAA, AAR, etc. as needed.

What does the future of publishing look like to you? What makes you pessimistic / optimistic?

That's a tough question. Clearly, the future is digital, and publishing is in the throes of a major paradigm shift, but I don't think anyone can reliably say more than that at this point (though that doesn't stop people from trying). Much of the prognostication I see looks more like wish fulfillment, based on whether the prognosticator wants traditional publishing to survive or self-publishing to prevail.

What makes me optimistic? From traditional publishing to small press publishing to self-publishing, there are more options for authors now than there have ever been, more ways of reaching and interacting with readers, more ways of networking and connecting for authors. People still love books--in whatever form--and want to read. All of that is very exciting.

What makes me pessimistic? The growing dominance of mega-corporations, such as Amazon. The rise in ebooks has transformed self-publishing, but the flip side of that is that the lion's share of the transformation belongs to a single player, and what looks like author empowerment is in fact part of a corporate strategy to dominate the ebook market. Also depressing: the incredible polarization between advocates of self-publishing and traditional publishing. No one path is best for all authors--isn't that the point of having options?--but you'd never know that from a lot of the discourse these days. Authors need to support and advocate for one another--not be at odds over publishing choices.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and first drafts.

60 Seconds with Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novel, An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown; 2012). Her short fiction has been published by the Atlantic, the Yale Review, Consequence magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Brooklyn Review, and other magazines, and in 2011 she was made a Hawthornden Fellow. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), the Village Voice, Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, Ms., and many other periodicals in the US and the UK. She was born in New York City, and raised there and in western Massachusetts, earning a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Subsequent moves included a decade in eastern France. Her husband’s current posting as a human-rights lawyer with the UN has her most of the year in Switzerland, along with their two daughters.

Which work most influenced you when growing up?

D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and The Bible, particularly the New Testament. The Narnia series.

Where do you write?

In a spare bedroom-turned-office in my home. On the living room sofa, when I need a change of scenery. In my head, while running. On trains, always.

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

I grew up in a fourteenth-floor corner apartment in New York City with views over the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, Riverside Park, the skyline, the sunset. I spent a lot of my youth daydreaming.

How far are you influenced by other media, such as music or fine art?


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


Which writers do you enjoy?

Many! I mostly, but not exclusively, read literary fiction.

Why do you write?

Have to.

What makes you laugh?

My daughters. My husband. Life.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

I don’t really feel guilty about it but… children’s books?

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Any play by Shakespeare, I suppose, in the sense that then my work would be done here.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

Must I choose? Well, I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain last summer and thought: instant classic.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

A new novel! This one explores the effect of a historic event on a family. An Unexpected Guest, my debut novel, took place all in one day; this novel spans from 1942 to the present. It also journeys from the Philippines to Los Angeles to Scotland’s Inner Hebrides to West Africa and back, with stops in between. It makes An Unexpected Guest’s Paris – Boston – Dublin triangle seem like small potatoes.

What’s the best way of spending a Sunday morning?


Connect with Anne here:

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Question Corner with Lorraine Mace - Answers to questions on that, which and where

Seb from Inverness sent in a question over when to use that and when to use which. I know this is something that vexes many writers, so hope the answer helps.

Seb says: I’m not a novice writer by any means, but I can never decide what the rule is over that and which. Is there a simple way to remember?

Okay, the basic rule is this: if the sentence doesn’t need the clause (it makes sense without) you use which. If the sentence does need the clause you use that.

The car, which is green, has a manual gearbox.
The car that is green has a manual gearbox.

The two sentences look identical at first, but the meanings are not the same.

The car, which is green, has a manual gearbox. This tells us there is only one car and it has a manual gearbox. The clause (the words inside the two commas) isn’t necessary to illustrate the meaning. It is additional information and doesn’t affect the fact there is only one car and it has a manual gearbox.

The car that is green has a manual gearbox. This sentence suggests there is more than one car, but it is the car that is green that has the manual gearbox. The phrase ‘that is green’ is necessary to show clearly of all the cars on the forecourt, it is the green one that has the manual gearbox.

The proper phrase for it is a restrictive clause because another part of the sentence depends on it. You can’t remove that clause (that is green) without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Nancy, who is currently living in Barcelona, is doing a non-fiction writing course. As she says: living abroad, it’s not always easy to carry out research. Do you know of any good reference sites?

As I wasn’t sure what topic or categories would be of benefit, I’ve collected a range of online reference sites, all of which are useful for those of us who have limited access to English language libraries and museums, but are equally useful to readers who aren’t resident abroad.

Ask Oxford has built a database on grammar, usage and words, as well as giving a quote of the week, word of the day, spelling help and origins of words and phrases.
Cambridge dictionary is useful:
Merriam Webster is another good online dictionary and is useful when an alternative word is needed.

Quotes and Sayings is a wonderful site to find quotes by subject or author, excerpts from speeches and poetry, and a good selection of proverbs and sayings. The site also provides the full text of several books by Arthur Conan Doyle and the following works by Shakespeare: All's Well that Ends Well, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest and his Sonnets.

Museums is a gateway to various UK museums, galleries and heritage attractions. provides access to a database of about 5,000 artefacts from the British Museum's collections. produced by the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council, this is an online database of more than 6,000 collections in the UK's museums, galleries, archives and libraries. The Imperial War Museum covers conflicts from the First World War to the present day. is an American site that provides information on museums and galleries worldwide. the National Gallery Search allows you to explore by artist, subject, theme or title. the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television gives details of the collections which include the world's first negative and the earliest television footage. the National Portrait Gallery lists collections by name of artist or sitter, by medium, or by subject. the Natural History Museum has details of the museum's collections, information about research, details of services and access to the catalogue. the Tate Online gives access to works in the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. 

Fee-paying sites
The British Library gives online access to this incredible resource and offers copies of documents for a fee. is the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, will be published in the USA on 2nd April 2014.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of the crime/thriller series featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes and Call It Pretending.