Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Occupation Diaries by Raja Shehadeh & The Wall by William Sutcliffe

Reviewed by Anne Stormont

These are two five star reads on the topic of freedom. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they're connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.

I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine in 2012. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I'd just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.

I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh's writing certainly confirmed the impressions I'd formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.

It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.

Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.
The standout section for me was Shehadeh's poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train's arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It's part of an art installation commemorating the station's centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their 'dismal present' and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.
I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and  a quiet and honest activist.

It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.

The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father - killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army - lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn't get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua's mother. Joshua also hates Amarias - finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.

The town is close to  a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.

All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that 'the enemy' live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua's concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.

It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He's not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.

The book is a political fable which presents a political reality.  Looking through young Joshua's eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It's a clash of innocence and experience.

In the end it's a redemptive tale -  or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he'll use what he's learned to redeem and give hope to - even in a small way - people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.

I urge you to consider reading both the above books. The writing is straight-forward,  informative and moving. More than that - it is full of dignity and life-affirming truth.

Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon
The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books

The Wall is published by Bloomsbury

Scripts: Go to Jail to Break Free by Ola Zaltin

Freedom - whoppee! I’ve got the whole world as my stage. I can write whatever I like, about whomever I like, living wherever I like. The computer screen is pristine white, the cursor winks at me invitingly and I can type faster than a choirboy runs from a bishop.

So where to begin?

I think I want to tell a story about a boy and a girl, who meet in...Nairobi. He’s English middle-class visiting grandparents; she’s a girl from the slums. No. Wait. She’s English white middle-class visiting her dad who’s stationed in Nairobi working at the embassy, and he’s the dishwasher at the embassy, living in a hut in the slums with his five siblings.

Okay. Delete all that, not another Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve always wanted to write the new Star Wars, only with actual galactic stars as living creatures and sentient creatures battling out during the big bang.

...or maybe not. Better have another glass of red. Or not. Slow down now. White page again. Deep breath (and yeah a little sip of Merlot never hurt Hemingway, did it? He only put a shotgun in his mouth, no biggie. Big glass of Merlot then).

Who’s the main character? Man? Woman? Transgender? Dog? A talking stuffed bear? A Lego piece?  Is it a main character story, or an ensemble cast? Is it told V-O, narrated by an old man remembering his youth told in flashback - or, hey! Maybe it’s a silent movie?

And genre, God! (More Merlot, and there might be some vodka in the freezer for later on.) Romantic comedy? Tragi-comedy? Historical drama? Cop drama? Drama? Comedy? Black comedy? Comedy comedy? Strange film set in Korea? Sci-fi, low-fi, wifi - shiiiiit. What the FI have I got myself into? (Wine glasses are for ponces, btw, wine tastes best straight from the bottle.)

I haven’t even started (or in fact I have - about 13 times - but it’s looking to be a sad ending. Or should I make it a happy ending? For which character, in what location, told by whom? Aaargh.

Freedom is choice. And if there’s too much choice, you get lost - both mentally and geographically (anyone who’s ever visited a US supermall knows what I’m talking about).

For me, the trick is to take away as much “freedom” from my story as possible. Because if the whole world is your stage; if your characters are unlimited, if anything can happen at any given moment - you’re lost on an ocean of possibilities. This (to me) is both bewildering, scary and uncreative.

Writing - at least screenwriting - is not about freedom. In fact, it’s about rules, and strict ones at that.

So let’s rewind the tape, erase that computer screen once again and start over. What if, in fact, you didn’t have any freedom when you started writing your story? What if you had some very narrow parameters to work with, some absolutely unbreakable rules?

A typical film-school writing assignment is something like “two guys and a girl in a room”: one is pregnant, one is the father, there’s a gun, and a million dollars: only one leaves the room alive.  Write the scene. You have 30 minutes. Go.

(Producers, by the way, love these kind of scenes and movies: one room, one house, one apartment. They hate overseas travel, night scenes and any kind of film with Grand Central Station in it: it’s called “Writing with your wallet” - in fact, their wallet. A producer will ten times more likely accept a script that’s cheap to produce than one that needs thousands of extras dancing in Grand Central Station at night in costume.)

Examples of films that come to mind with small casts and limited locations are:

Pieces of April
Basically located in a tenement building and a car. The building where April lives, and the car that her family is travelling in, to come to her Thanksgiving dinner.

A lesbian (yes, with Gina Gershon: go see) noir crime thriller set in one apartment.

Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Before Midnight
Okay, the films take place in three different locations (but only one for each film); Vienna, Paris and Pelopenessos, Greece, but it’s basically two people growing up, bickering, talking and meeting - and parting.

Those are just from the top of my head. The list could be made almost endless. (Oh, here’s another one: Little Miss Sunshine: A dysfunctional family travel cross-country in a beat-up VW bus to a pageant they all know their pre-teen daughter IMPOSSIBLY can win. One car, one family. Brilliant.)

Imprisonment is a great ally for the creative screenwriter. Freedom the enemy. Instead of mumbling to a possible collaborative partner:  “Uh, yeah, it’s about, like, my dad and stuff…?” Do your homework; build that prison before you even leave your room. Boil down the location. Sketch out the characters (no more than five, ever). Set up your parameters before you write one single word on page. Will there be a murder? Will cops figure - or not - if it’s a crime drama? Will the press play a part - or not - if it’s a legal drama? For example, have a vague idea, at least, of the ending.

Then, when all that is done: let loose, and let your characters take a right where you’d planned a left, argue when you’d wanted silence, make love when celibacy was the rule. For short: break the rules. But to do that you have to have rules in the first place, right?

For me, as a writer, creative freedom is impossible without imprisonment: rules that help me build the screenplay in a coherent and structured way. And what is school, workplace, the army, prison - hell, driving down the road - but rules?

In real life we all live (and mostly abide) by rules, from dawn ’til dusk, and then some. And why do we (mostly) go to the movies?

To see people break the darn rules. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Industry View - Amazon vs Hachette

By JJ Marsh

OK, here’s the story so far:

Amazon and Hachette (one of the Big Five trade publishers) disagree terms. Amazon takes action against Hachette-published books by allegedly lowering discounts and removing pre-order options. Negotiations drag out and authors feel the pinch.

Authors such as Douglas Preston, Lee Child and John Grisham sign a letter, calling on Amazon to resolve the dispute without hurting authors and asking readers to email Jeff Bezos to ‘tell him what you think’.

Hugh Howey launches a petition of his own in support of Amazon and criticising the Big Five as devaluing readers and authors alike.

Amazon offers Hachette authors 100% royalties on their eBooks while the dispute lasts. 

UPDATE: July 29: Amazon release a statement with hard data on pricing.

David Gaughran
David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and the author of the historical adventures Mercenary and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, as well as the popular writers’ books Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible.
He blogs regularly about writing and the book business here. A keen observer of industry changes, a top-rated blogger and publishing advisor, this is his take on the dispute.

WWJ: This is not the first time a distributor and publisher have clashed. Why is Amazon v. Hachette attracting more interest than, for example, Barnes & Noble v. Simon & Schuster?

DG: Because it’s Amazon! It doesn’t matter that Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster had a similar dispute last year (without people losing their minds) because the currency of the internet is attention and a story on Amazon will guarantee more clicks than anything else. The spat between Amazon and Hachette is essentially a business dispute between a large corporation and a very large corporation, but the “industry” is attempting to depict it as a battle for the future of writing as a viable profession.

This allows them to tap into the fear that many writers have about the paradigm shift that’s underway. Hachette can’t come right out and say that it wants higher book prices (which is the result if they prevail in negotiations and take back control of pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount), so instead we get a narrative of a rapacious corporation versus a plucky guardian of our literary heritage. Authors should adopt a little more scepticism towards what is a concerted PR campaign from a series of vested interests.

WWJ: The recent furore over author earnings can’t be ignored. Leaving aside the Pattersons and Childs, who’s losing out, if anyone?

DG: I don’t think we should set them aside so fast. Bestselling authors like Patterson, Preston & Child are being hit hard in this dispute because Amazon is no longer providing pre-order facilities to Hachette. Pre-orders are essential to the very top-selling authors because the New York Times counts all pre-order sales as first-week sales for the purposes of their bestseller list. These big-name authors are on very different contracts than the average writer (which is why we’ve never seen them organize a protest against unconscionable contract terms and the paltry royalty rates the average writer receives, or something like the industrial-scale scamming at places like Penguin Random House-owned Author Solutions). These guys tend to get escalators or bonuses based on things like appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, so the real reason for this protest, I respectfully submit, is that it’s hitting them in the pocket. I don’t think they care about the average writer.

That’s not to say the average Hachette author is unaffected by this dispute. Hachette’s Amazon sales are way down – by much more than other retailers are seeing an uptick. I’m sure that affects Hachette titles across the board. And I’m also sure that when these authors come to negotiate their next contract with Hachette that reduced sales numbers will have an impact on any terms they are offered, despite the fact that this dispute was outside their control, because that’s what always happens.

I’m hoping this dispute gets resolved as quickly as possible. However, I fear negotiations could drag out for some time, so it’s essential that Amazon and Hachette remove authors from the firing line immediately. To date, Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to compensate affected authors. Hachette has summarily dismissed each offer without making any counter-offer whatsoever – indicative, in my opinion, of how it has approached the overall negotiations. Indeed, it could be argued that Hachette wants to keep authors in the firing line to increase the pressure on Amazon.

WWJ: Accusations and emotions are running high, with commentators invoking everything from commercial suicide to predicting the death of literature. What’s your outlook?

DG: Fear is the most powerful tool if you want to manipulate public opinion. Emotions are running high because the publishing industry is being radically reshaped by the same disruptive forces that have transformed all sorts of industries from travel and insurance to newspapers and music. Change is scary, and the publishing industry is changing at light-speed. If you want a parallel with music, I think it’s akin to going from vinyl straight to MP3.

Publishers like Hachette have been doing everything possible to slow down the changeover from print to digital. It knows that self-publishers and small publishers are grabbing huge market share because large publishers don’t have a lock on digital distribution like they do with print. Once a reader goes from shopping in Waterstones to buying e-books from Amazon, that reader starts buying way more books that aren’t published by the biggest players. The response of large publishers to the digital revolution was to drag their feet on the digitization of backlist books, institute windowing for e-books (so they weren’t released at the same time as hardbacks), and engage in an illegal conspiracy to fix the price of e-books to keep prices artificially high – all of which is designed to slow down the switch to digital.

Hachette’s aim in these negotiations is to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books. The net effect will be higher prices for readers, which in turn will slow down the transition to e-books. This buys Hachette time as it figures out this weird thing called the internet and how to talk to those strange people called readers – something they didn’t really have to do in a print world where its customers were booksellers.

I absolutely reject the notion that if Hachette fails to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books that this will lead to some kind of disaster. I think that’s a regressive, zero-sum view of the marketplace which fails to grasp that books are in competition with all sorts of other forms of entertainment. I think lower prices are something that we should strive for as that grows the market – which benefits all writers (and readers).

WWJ: Both the letter and petition I mention above appeal to The Reader. Do you see readers as the reluctant jury service or fortunate beneficiaries in this case?

DG: I don’t think most readers care about the details of any publishing dispute, but they do care about the after-effects – which often aren’t immediately apparent. Readers reacted with boycotts and one-star reviews when five of the Big Six publishers engaged in an illegal conspiracy with Apple to fix the price of e-books. I think they will be similarly mad if Hachette prevails now and Hachette e-books become more expensive overnight.

WWJ: Amazon’s hold on the market is described as a monopsony. If the UK had retained the Net Book Agreement [fixed price book agreement such as exist in France and Germany], would we now be playing on a fairer field?

DG: It’s quite revealing how traditional publishers cast envious eyes at the price-fixing/discount-restricting laws in places like France and Germany. It makes a mockery of any claim that they weren’t intending to fix e-book prices in America. The nostalgia with which the Net Book Agreement is viewed is equally illuminating. Such price-maintenance agreements are always presented in the media as a positive thing for the future of literature, but they are really about control. Publishers want to maintain e-book prices at a higher level so they can slow the changeover to digital as much as possible. Let’s be very clear about this: anyone campaigning for these kinds of laws or agreements is campaigning for higher book prices – something I absolutely oppose and something I think would be an incredibly regressive step.

With regard to the UK in particular, the problem, in my view, wasn’t getting rid of the Net Book Agreement, but the practice of publishers offering sweetheart deals to chains and supermarkets, making it next-to-impossible for independent bookstores to compete.

WWJ: Earlier this month, New York publisher Morgan Entrekin said, “we’re seeing concentration in the fewest hands ever in publishing history.” Do you think that’s true?

DG: I presume Morgan Entrekin was talking about the retail side of the business, but it’s also happening on the publishing side. Penguin Random House was the highest-profile merger/acquisition in recent years but the first half of 2014 was the busiest for mergers/acquisitions since before the financial crisis. The concentration is more obvious on the retail side where Amazon has grabbed a huge chunk of the market and major bookselling chains have collapsed or are teetering on the brink. What’s interesting to me is that consolidation on the publishing side has historically led to poorer conditions for writers and readers (with worsening terms and higher book prices), but consolidation on the retail side seems to be doing the opposite. Book prices are falling, and writers have new ways to publish their work with better contract terms and higher royalty rates – whether that’s with a progressive digital publisher, or through self-publishing.

There’s no argument from me with the view that a diverse retail landscape is the ideal, but the above phenomenon should be noted because it illustrates that market domination by one player isn’t inherently bad, but what makes it less than ideal is what companies can do with such power. In other words, it’s about what Amazon might do at some undefined point in the future rather than their actions to date. If the solution being proposed to this future-problem is for government intervention and/or price-fixing agreements then that will make the situation worse, not better. We should be encouraging Amazon’s competitors to raise their game, instead of trying to remove competition from the marketplace.

The simple fact is that Amazon sells more e-books than anyone else because it provides a better customer experience. If you look at the e-bookstores of Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and Google, the difference is immediately apparent. And if you start divvying up the market by governmental fiat, then these players will have zero incentive to raise their game.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass August 2014

with Kathryn Price, Co-director at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

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

Fault Lines by Mary Rose McCarthy

Green, dappled light, fell in diamond shapes on the pine needle floor. She smelled the sticky-sap resin and tasted bits of old rope. The old chair seat, once brown, was chipped and rotten in places. The chair-back had been sawn off and replaced with the four ropes that secured the home-made swing to a tree branch in the grove below the house.

There were no more than five or six trees here but the children liked to call it a grove; as if it was a mini forest of giant hardwoods rather than a motely copse of scraggly larch and spruce.  To get a decent swing the girl sat on the battered seat, gripped the ropes beside each hand at a height slightly above shoulder level, pushed back with her feet till they were nearly off the ground then swung forward with all her strength.  If she did it properly, the momentum sent her soaring into the cobalt sky.  If she did it properly, each successive swing sent her higher and higher delirious on the success of its own pendulous movement.

As she sailed into the blue she imagined a pirate on the sea, or the Famous Five out for a day of adventure exploring.   The air rushed against her face and whipped her hair into her eyes.  The girl loved the feeling of freedom and daring being on that swing gave her.

She then tucked her feet under her and launched up into standing position, feet firmly planted on the seat, arms bent at the elbows as she hung on the ropes. The ropes burned her hands she griped them so tightly. She felt that funny drop-down sensation in her stomach on each upward swing. Clouds grazed the hills she glimpsed in the distance between the lattice-like weave of branches.

Then the ground spun beneath her face, with the dusty, feet-scuffed- earth close to her mouth. Faster and faster, trees and diamond shaped sun, and glossy ivy leaves went round her head. The rope bit tighter into her hands, she felt the smooth wood of the worn seat against her cheek. Ropes criss-crossed and knotted above her, spun wildly as they coalesced into a thick strand against her neck.

Barely able to breathe she called and called, each shout carried over the hills and clouds and patches of blue sky but didn’t reach as far as the house.

Critique by Kathryn Price

This is an opening rich in atmosphere and sensory description. Colour, sound, smell and even taste explode from the page and draw us into this scene which feels drenched in promise – and menace.

Pushing this sensory evocation even further, inhabiting the as-yet-unnamed girl’s point of view more intimately, would help take this scene to the next level. At the moment, it’s not obvious why the girl’s name is withheld (perhaps to maintain an air of mystery or for plot reasons that we don’t know about yet) and without a name, there’s a slightly contrived, distanced feeling to the references to her.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as the close POV established in the opening paragraph is maintained. However, after the wonderfully vivid she smelled the sticky-sap resin and tasted bits of old rope we quickly shift back into a more externalised POV, filling in the detail about how the swing had been made. Might it be possible to rework this information so that it, too, feels rooted in the girl’s viewpoint? For instance:

When the legs of the old chair had finally given way, her father had taken the seat and attached it with thick ropes to the branch above where she now sat. She always took a moment to stroke the soft, worn wood, poke her finger into the holes, before climbing on. She liked to picture them all sitting stiffly at the dinner table and imagine that the chair was happier now than it had been then.

Of course, this may not be quite right for the specific details and relationships the author wishes to set up at this stage; but the aim should be to link the description in this opening scene as closely as possible to the girl’s immediate experience of it.

By contrast, some of the details included here are a little too forensically specific to be emotionally revealing. Take care that the mechanics of character action don’t submerge the really important elements of a scene. In this instance, there’s a focus on how and why the girl grips the ropes (see the section beginning to get a decent swing… of its own pendulous movement). Here, her actions feel too detailed: the reader knows how swinging works and, presumably, the joy in going as high as possible, and would prefer to be immersed in what it is about this girl, this swing, that makes the moment special.

The following paragraph is certainly more revealing in this regard: the girl’s make-believe gives us a warm insight into her thoughts (though even these could be a touch more unique, less generic, and more specific to her). Ideally, the joy she takes in the movement of the swing and of losing herself in her imagination should be evident through her thoughts and actions, so that we don’t need to be told that she loved the feeling of freedom and daring.

Alongside a greater insight into the girl’s perspective we could afford even more sensory detail regarding the setting. This is one of those moments, quite literary in tone (I’m guessing this will be some sort of literary or psychological thriller) which benefits from an almost leisurely build-up of pace and detail, allowing us to lose ourselves utterly in what seems to be an idyllic moment before everything is turned on its head (both metaphorically and, in this instance, literally).

So, the more slowly and carefully the scene is set, the greater the impact of the pay-off will be. I would have liked to know more about the season, for instance (with the dappled sunlight and clouds it could be Spring, Summer or Autumn); and the other children that are mentioned – are they anywhere near? Can she hear them playing? What has happened prior to this scene, what is her mood? Is she hiding after an argument or is she just a natural loner? These kinds of additional details should have the effect of drawing us all the more closely into the action.

When it comes to the final paragraphs, more clarity is needed. At the moment the writing shies away from describing what’s happening in too much visceral detail and feels abstract and uncertain as a result; in fact, I had to read this twice before I realised there had been an accident. This is probably deliberate, designed to replicate in the reader the girl’s feelings of confusion; however, the language could be clearer in terms of tone so that it’s more obvious something bad has happened.

As it stands, phrases like the ground spun beneath her … glossy ivy leaves went round her head … she felt the smooth wood … coalesced into a thick strand … she called and called sound too calm and considered for what ought to be a moment of panic and terror. In essence, the mood feels the same as it has throughout. Might it be possible to adjust the tone slightly whilst also aiming to stay true to what she’s actually experiencing? For example:

With a thump, the ground was hurtling towards her, and her mouth was full of foot-scuffed dust. Then the earth was above her – that wasn’t right – spinning dizzily so that she couldn’t tell which way was which. The rope bit into her hands, had twisted her elbow and wrist into an awful grinding angle, that made her gasp and yelp as she scrabbled to pull herself upright. The seat was against her cheek; her eye felt swollen. Ropes criss-crossed and knotted above her, twining into a thick cord that was somehow around her neck. And now she couldn’t breathe. Through the buzzing in her ears she could hear Nathan and Julia’s shouts from the lawn and she tried yelling back to them but only a thin wheeze came out.

It’s often tempting when writing about a character who isn’t going to appear in the novel again to keep them at arm’s length from the reader, and in many ways this makes sense – it’s a good way of signalling that the character is not ‘for keeps’, and also of allowing the reader an emotional distance to protect them from harrowing material. However, what we currently have here is a mix of up-close POV writing and more distanced, allusive, authorial material, and the balance doesn’t always feel quite right.

Since this is a solitary, intimate scene, allowing us greater insight into the girl’s viewpoint should help to build emotional intensity and a strong connection with her. Together with an almost hyper-awareness of her surroundings this should combine to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension that escalates towards the final moments – for which we will be firmly, chillingly present inside her head.

Capitals in titles, professional societies and word counts – Lorraine Mace answers your questions

Sean from Brighton sent in a formatting question: I never know when to use capitals in titles. I see sometimes there are words in the middle without caps, but I don’t know why. Also, should the title of a story have a full stop at the end?

I’ll answer the last question first, as it will be the short part of my answer. No, titles shouldn’t have a full stop at the end as they are not sentences. However, if the title forms a question, you should use a question mark or, if it is necessary to show shock, surprise or a similar emotion, an exclamation mark.

Question: Far from the Madding Crowd?
Exclamation: Far from the Madding Crowd!
Straight title: Far from the Madding Crowd

As you can see from the title I’ve borrowed in the explanation above, some of the words are in lower case. What I’ve used is called title case.

This is because capital letters are used only for the first word and the principal words.

So, you would use capitals for all words which are not articles (a/an/the), conjunctions (any joining word such as and/but/or) and prepositions (such as on/in/with/from).

If a title starts with an article, conjunction or preposition, that would be capitalised, but only in that case.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does not have the conjunction, articles or preposition capitalised. However, if the book title hadn’t included Harry’s name, the first article would need to be capitalised as it would be the first word in the title: The Order of the Phoenix

Alice from Tenby wants to join a professional association, but has been turned down by the Society of Authors: I’ve self-published my first novel and I think it’s going to do really well, but when I tried to join the Society of Authors, I was told I didn’t qualify because I’m self-published and haven’t yet sold enough books. I know from an author friend who is a member that the Society offers authors lots of help and advice with legal matters. Is there something similar for self-published authors I could join?

Yes, what you’re looking for is ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors), a non-profit association of author-publishers. On their website it states: We offer connection and collaboration, advice and education. And we campaign for, and further the interests of, self-publishing writers everywhere. I’m sure you will find everything you need on their website. The address is:

Veronica from Marbella has a problem with her novel being too long: I’ve been told by many people (and seen it on countless websites) that publishers won’t look at debut novels that are too long. I’ve been told mine, a story set in the days of the French Resistance, should be between 70,000 and 90,000 words. I’m only about two-thirds of the way into it and it’s already over 85,000 words. What should I do? Should I cut out one of the characters? Change the plot slightly? Take out one of the subplots? Please help, because I can’t bear the thought of spending all this time writing a book and then being told it’s too long to be published.

First of all, the thing to bear in mind about word count guidelines is that is all they are – guidelines. If a stunning novel landed on an agent or publisher’s desk that they simply couldn’t put down, there is no way it would be rejected as being too long, even if it was well over the standard word count!

Secondly, you have said yourself that you haven’t even finished the book yet, so there is no way of knowing what should be cut, if anything.

A first draft is just a way of getting your thoughts and ideas down on paper. When you go through your first rewrite you will automatically cut sentences, paragraphs, maybe even entire scenes, because they don’t fit. You may find that you have two or three minor players who could be morphed into one stronger character, which again would affect the word count.

On second, third, fourth and fifth drafts, you’ll tighten dialogue, cut out all the padding and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

By the time your novel is ready to be sent anywhere, it will be a much smoother, sleeker beast than the one you are currently wrestling with. Get the words down and leave the worries about length and publishing needs until you’ve polished your baby so that it gleams. If it does that, no one will care if it’s a few thousand words more than the guidelines say it should be.

If you have a question for Lorraine, email

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, was 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

Monday, 28 July 2014

60 Seconds with Marc Acito

Marc won the Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play with his comedy Birds of a Feather. He is the head writer of the musical Allegiance, which won the Craig Noel Award for Outstanding New Musical and broke the all-time box-office record at the Old Globe. He is also the book writer of A Room with a View, which played at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

With Tony Award-winning producer Dede Harris, he is developing a one-man “monologsical” of his first novel How I Paid for College, which won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was an Editors' Choice for The New York Times. Translated into five languages the author cannot read, the novel inspired a sequel, Attack of the Theater People. Other projects in development include a mini-musical with Broadway legend Sheldon Harnick. He recently became the first writer to receive two NAMT grants in one year.

Now a regular contributor to Playbill, Marc did numerous commentaries to the 12 million listeners of NPR’s All Things Considered. He teaches Story Structure to writers of all mediums at NYU.

Which work (literary, stage, cinema) most influenced you when growing up?

The Wizard of Oz. Though I still don’t understand why Dorothy wanted to go back to Kansas. I would’ve stayed in Oz.

Where do you write? What’s on your desk and why?

I don’t have a desk. I write everywhere: the bed, the couch, the table, the toilet. Since writing isn’t just typing, I do a lot of “writing" when walking my dog.

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

My husband, Floyd Sklaver. He inspires me, challenges me. He’s both my editor and my muse. He knew I was a writer well before I did.

How does the conventional theatre structure influence your writing?

When it comes to structure, it’s all (Ancient) Greek to me. Everything else is just old wine in new bottles.

Do you have tropes that you most overuse?

Maybe one of these days I’ll stop writing about repressed people finding their true selves.

What are the benefits of the collaborative creative process?

There’s someone to argue with rather than just myself.

As a coach and creative writing teacher, what would you say is the most common mistake writers make?

Don’t be boring.

You work across a lot of genres. Where are you most comfortable?

Believe it or not, scholarly essays. If I didn’t have such extreme anxiety with taking tests, I probably would’ve gone to grad school and become an academic.
As an ex-drama student, I found How I Paid For College hilarious. What makes you laugh?
I am a connoisseur of youtube videos in which stupid people fall down and hurt themselves.

Will we see more of Edward Zanni?

Edward will be gracing the stage next year in a one-man musical adaptation of How I Paid for College.

Which book/show/exhibition/TV series has impressed you most this year?

I’m in the midst of gobbling Susie Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, delicious sentence by sentence, page by page. It’s like a hot fudge sundae version of two of my favorite books, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

It’s all theater all the time for me now. Given the stop-start, push-me-pull-you nature of that business, I’m working on several projects at once on subjects as varied as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two; the adolescence of Judy Garland; a musical adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View; and a play about Albert Einstein.

Finally, which ice-cream flavour best represents your personality?

I’d say Ben and Jerry’s Turtle Cheesecake: an unexpected twist on something traditional; a little nutty, a little flaky and swirling inside.

60 Seconds with Jonathan Gibbs

A writer and journalist born in Trinidad and raised in Essex, Jonathan did an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and receiving the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary. Followed by a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing, which comprised Randall, or The Painted Grape, and a critical essay, Beyond Ekphrasis: The Role and Function of Artworks in the Novels of Don DeLillo. He currently teaches undergraduate modules on Creative Writing and The Writing of Journalism, and is a regular columnist for The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. Jonathan's debut novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, was published on 19 June 2014 by Galley Beggar Press.

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

Hard question! Parents? School? A particular author? A particular book? I don’t think I can pinpoint one person or thing that has influenced me more than anything else. Different things have had different impacts at different times. In terms of this novel, Randall, I suppose the Creative Writing degrees I did at UEA in Norwich, where I wrote it, had a huge influence. The people there, the sense of having a goal, the feeling of being part of a community all pushed me to make it the book it is.

Augusto Boal described internal oppressors as The Cop in the Head. How do you silence the reviewer to leave the writer in peace?

Oh boy, that cop. They’re useful, of course, but you need to keep them at bay for huge stretches of your writing time. I use two things that I know other writers hate: music, and alcohol. A glass of wine, or two, when writing late at night, banishes the usual inhibitions – that any particular set of words you happen to get down on screen look useless, the moment you see them – and lets me get the scene done. Not all the time, and not during the day, but it can give you that extra burst of energy you need at the end of a tiring day, and make the process of first-drafting more fun that is often otherwise is.

Music I use during the day when I’m writing. Particular types of music, particular albums – and usually one album on repeat, so that it sinks into my unconscious, and I can listen without hearing. I love the rhythm of it, it helps the rhythm of the writing – frees the Dancer in the Head, that the Cop in the Head wants to shut down. Just nodding along to something, sat in my chair, helps me get out of myself, and into that imaginative space where the novel is taking place. (Thinking about it, walking is a great help to writing, and the rhythm of music is perhaps the closest you can get to that while sat in your chair.)

Do you have tropes, phrases or words that you most overuse?

Ask my editors! I think Sam and Elly at Galley Beggars pointed out a preponderance of my characters to “sit themselves” in chairs, rather than just sit, and I know I’m always having them look at each other, and smile. Just stupid behavioural descriptors like that.

Short stories or novels – where do you feel most freedom?

Novels, I suppose. Stories, which I don’t write that many, are usually built around one idea, one moment, one trick I want to try to pull off, and so the writing of them is usually targeted at that goal. They’re something I want to try, or get out of my system. Novels are more explorative. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or I’m always keen to find a way to subvert or derail what I do think is going to happen.

What makes you laugh?

Happy people. Stupid people. Smart people. Clumsy people. Puns, screwball back-and-forth, intellectual slapstick. So many different kinds of laughter. Laughter is a cultural manifestation. I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what I laugh at.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of British literature?

Hum. Well, it keeps going, doesn’t it? There are loads of great writers out there, and they’re getting published, in some form or other, so to that extent I’m optimistic. What I’m pessimistic about is the ability of British publishing, and of publishing in general, to serve British literature. I don’t like reading stuff digitally, and I have all sorts of sentimental attachment to books. Like most people, if I don’t have a book to hand, I’d rather be browsing Twitter or reading some online journalism than reading a book on a tablet or phone. Holding a book-as-object in your hand makes reading a whole-body thing. I just don’t see people reading books on buses and trains like they used to, and I don’t really blame them. Nobody’s yet written the story I’d prefer to read onscreen than on the page, and the culture seems to be conspiring against the page, so that makes me sad.

Where do you write? What’s on your desk and why?

At my desk. On it: monitor, keyboard, dictionaries, thesaurus, useful books etc – I love looking stuff up when I’m writing, love building up a pile of mess that I can then clear away to nothing – also Post-it notes, water, coffee, a screwdriver, rubber bands, all sorts of crap. This is the desk that I work my day job at, too, so it’s far from the monkish ideal.

Confess a guilty reading pleasure.

Haven’t got one. You won’t find me reading a book that I’d feel guilty about reading. Either that means I don’t read crap, or it’s not crap if I’m reading it, right?

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

I really thought I’d love Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, or at least envy it. It was tackling the same art world that Randall is set in, and I’d heard great things about the zippy, muscular prose style. (I love Don DeLillo, and got the impression that was the kind of thing we were talking.) But I found it overwritten, in a very American way: forceful, but wilfully slapdash at the same time, like a cool kid who very much wants to look like they think they’re not being looked at while they groove away in the corner of the disco.

Your fascination with book design – where does that come from?

From beautiful books – and then from the beginnings of an understanding of how books are more than objects, they are a technology, and they exist to serve a market. Why do Penguin have NINE different editions of Frankenstein across their adult and children’s imprints? Why does Morrissey insist on being a Penguin Classic then have such a large font and wide spacing (roughly 25% fewer words per page than my Penguin Classic Moby Dick!). When a publisher reissues an author’s back catalogue in a new design, what are they trying to do? Books are texts wrapped in their own advertisements. I love what they look like, and what they tell us about ourselves as readers.

What are the benefits of publishing with a small press like Galley Beggar?

Attention and focus. Immediacy of response. Delicious home-cooked food. Being able to look your editor in the eye without feeling they have a great machine behind them that will skew their reply.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

I have a novel and a YA novel, both in rough first draft, and I’m toying with which to run. Probably the novel: it’s about the pop music industry, in the way that Randall is about the art world – as with the book design thing, I’m fascinated by the way technology has driven the art form (pop/rock music) that I grew up thinking was somehow naturally, instinctively, authentically creative.

Money’s no object – which artwork would you buy?

A big 17th Century oil painting, something by Poussin or Claude. Something as far removed from any piece of art I’d actually be likely to every own. Something that would totally dominate any room it was hung in. A landscape or Classical scene, that I would lose myself in – those Mediterranean hills shading into the distance, the high, feathery trees, the people in their important configurations.

Read the Bookmuse review of Randall.

Cities of Refuge

by Catriona Troth

I have written before about writers who are refugees and asylum seekers – particularly those who are part of Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life group, so I was intrigued to be asked to write about the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
Extremism (2013) by ICORN guest writer Fadi Abou Hassan, Drøbak city of refuge 

ICORN offers a place of refuge to writers who, as a direct consequence of their writing are either

· At risk of being killed, abducted, physically attacked or “disappearing”.

· Sentenced to (or at risk of being sentenced to) a prison term

· Unable to express themselves freely for fear of persecution

Some of the most vulnerable writers have already fled to other countries when they apply and are living without status, often in extreme economic hardship.

Each city focuses on one writer at a time, providing a Guest Writer with a safe place to stay and economic security for two years. The guest writers can work in safe surroundings and take part in the cultural life of the host city. They are also given time to think about a more permanent solution to their situation.

ICORN works in closely with PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, who evaluate each application and determine the authenticity of any declared danger or the likelihood of threatened persecution being carried out. However, the decision to invite any given writer rests with the individual City of Refuge.

2013 saw a dramatic increase in applications, driven in part by the war in Syria and in part by an increase in awareness of the role of ICORN. In the past twelve months, 29 writers have taken up residence in ICORN member cities. Current guest writers come from countries including Iraq, Palestine, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Yemen, China, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Georgia and Belarus – but the majority currently come from Iran and Syria.

Lawon Barszczewski (photo credit -
ICORN’s newest guest writer is Lawon Barszczewski from Belarus, who has suffered discrimination for speaking out internationally about human rights abuses in his home country. Barszczewski was welcomed to Krakow , which in 2011 became first city in Central and Eastern Europe to join ICORN.

A Parliament of Writers

The concept of ICORN goes back to July 1993, when Algerian writer Tahar Djaout was assassinated. More than 300 writers signed a petition calling for a system of organised aid for persecuted writers. This led to the establishment of the International Parliament of Writers, with Salman Rushdie as its first president.

In 1995, the European Charter of Cities of Asylum was adopted by the Council of Europe, giving a legal and institutional framework for providing asylum to writers. This charter lay the foundations for the International Network of Cities of Asylum (INCA), which eventually expanded to include 34 cities in Europe, the USA and Africa. INCA was eventually disbanded in 2005. However those who had been involved did not want to see its goals and ideals abandoned and in December 2005, ICORN was formed, with its administrative centre in Stavanger, Norway.

ICORN currently comprises 44 cities in 14 countries. At present, the only active City of Refuge outside of Europe is Mexico City. The majority (29) are in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. There is one City of Refuge in the UK (Norwich), with others in the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Poland. Those in the planning stages include cities in Switzerland, the USA, Colombia, South Africa, and Brazil.

Chenjerai Hove
Norway has been exceptional in its support of refugee writers. Those who come to one of its thirteen Cities of Refuge – as Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove did in 2005 – are given an automatic residence permit, and the Cities of Refuge work is supported by the State. Because of this, those writers applying to ICORN who may never be able to return to their home countries are sent, wherever possible, to Norway.

Most, though, are not looking for permanent refugee status, but simply some time and space to write and to express themselves freely.

Sayar Bayati

My Language: My Treasure 

Of course, for many writers, while they gain a place of safety, they lose something too. Not only have they left behind their homes and families, but often their language as well. As Iranian writer Sahar Bayati (newly arrived guest writer in Haugesund City of Refuge in Norway) expressed it in an interview for Pen International, “I write in Persian, which is my treasure – I can play with words and explore, whereas in Norwegian I feel like a baby dependent on others.”

One thing all exiled writers want is a way to publish their work. In 2007, six ICORN cities (Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Norwich, Stavanger, and Stockholm) joined together to create Shahrazad Stories for Life, a website and project to promote the voices of all ICORN writers. The project ran until 2012, and at this year’s ICORN General Assembly in Ljubljana there were calls for another similar collaborative project to be launched, to provide a platform for publishing and touring, and to give writers training in digital self-publishing.

Helge Lund, Executive Director

Executive Director of ICORN, Helge Lunde has been involved with exiled writers since Stavanger became one of the first Cities of Asylum in 1998.
Mansur Rajih

Helge, what inspired you to become involved with writers in exile?

I started working a director of an international festival for literature and freedom of speech in my hometown Stavanger, Norway in 1998. At that time the city was already member of the International Parliament of Writers' (IPW) network of cities of asylum, and I became the coordinator for Mansur Rajih, a magnificent poet who came straight to Stavanger after 15 years imprisonment in Yemen. Then my future was sealed in many ways. Together with Norwegian PEN presiden,t Kjell Olaf Jensen, I worked with expanding the network to other cities in Norway, and when IPW and their network collapsed in 2005, I was very glad and privileged to take part in forming ICORN, which I have been directing since.

Norway provides some state support for Cities of Refuge – but how is the work financed elsewhere?

The Norwegian Cities of Refuge receives their guest writers as refugees, hence the major basic expenses (salary, housing) is covered by the state, as with all other UN refugees. This is an exception; ICORN as such is a long term, but temporary placement system. Although there are regional and national similarities, every city of refuge is composed in different ways, structurally and financially. The municipality is in charge, but gains support from several sources/partners, private, public, local, national, trans-national.

Living in a city for two years is very different from visiting for a couple of weeks. What support are writers given to cope with the culture shock and the change of language?

Exchange of ideas and experiences between member cities, between guest writers and throughout the entire network is the key to upholding a sustainable refuge systeme of this kind. We see win-win situtations between host cities and guest writers multiply, but many times it takes weeks, months, even towards a year before a persecuted and traumatized writer can feel safe enough to engage actively with the host community.

For those who do not want to claim permanent refugee status, what happens when they return to their home countries? I imagine they remain on the radar of Pen International. Does their raised profile internationally tend to afford them some protection when they go home?

For those who are able to return to their home country after finishing their refuge in an ICORN city, ICORN, PEN International and other organisations/bodies are working together to maximise protection measures. A raised international profile usually helps, but unfortunately we also see examples of the opposite. What we call the "post placement challenge" is maybe the most pressing issue for an organisation like ICORN to tackle. There is and can never be one single solution to such a task, only increased, targeted efforts between all involved parties (the writers included) can keep the network going on a more sustainable basis.

Are there any writers’ stories that have particularly touched you over the years?

The stories are, luckily, mounting up. Lots of success stories, about writers who once were silenced and censored, who has, thanks to the fantastic work in/by the ICORN cities, has regained their strong and creative voice. I mentioned Mansur Rajih, arriving in Stavanger already in 1998. Many years later I could hear him shouting from his guest writer office nearby my own desk. Rushing out to see what was happening, I soon realised that he was shouting into a phone his message to a large crowd in his hometown Sanaa, in Yemen, which gathered at the market place could hear Mansur inspire them to keep up the good spirit of the Arab uprisings.

How would you like to see ICORN expand and develop over the next few years?

To see even one new ICORN city develop, and in the end successfully invite and integrate their first guest writer, is worth all what we have invested in the ICORN network so far. Luckily, we see the network growing, and it will be amazing to follow in the next months and years how new shelter cities emerge, not only in Europe, but increasingly also in Canada, US, Latin America, Australia and Africa.

Thank you, Helge.

You can read more about ICORN and hear the stories of the guest writers in their own words at Or you can follow them on Twitter at

Swedish Pen publishes the Dissident Blog, which includes the ICORN Relay – a series of post from ICORN guest writers.

The Industry View - The Independent Bookseller

Peter Snell is the manager of Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey.
Barton's is a proper independent with great books, cards, maps, knowledgeable staff, Henry the giant teddy, free coffee and a comfy sofa by the fire.

Why did you become a bookseller?

I think that I have always been a bookseller, I just didn't know it until I started. Books and words have always been important to me. I can't remember learning to read but I used to read the classifieds on the front
 of The Times at 4. Family meal times always featured the two volume Shorter OED on the dining table and my father spoke ten languages and our house was full of books. I had worked in insurance and for IBM, I did a history degree and retrained as a teacher, became very ill about 20 years ago and as part of my strategy to get my life up and running again started working half a day a week in a local bookshop. Two years later the manager became very ill herself and I took over. Six years ago my wife bought the business to keep me employed and so Barton's Bookshop was born.
In a nutshell, I became a bookseller by accident/design and found it fitted me perfectly. My IBM database skills, history research skills and breadth of reading over the years fitted me perfectly for the job. I am
not a specialist in anything but I am a very good generalist and know enough about lots of different things to be able to understand what customers are looking for and find the right book for them.

Bookshops are one of the first places I seek out in a new town or city. What makes a visit to a bookshop such a special experience?

Assuming we are talking about independents then that is probably the major clue to what you should expect. Anything. One of the joys of proper bookshops is the way they are individually curated and mould themselves to their owners and customers. You would expect to find staff who know books and care about them and who want to help customers. A fuller answer to this question can be found in Mark Forsyth's "The Unknown Unknown". Proper bookshops are full of serendipitous opportunities. They are hand-selling
centres full of hidden gems and treasures. You never know what you are going to find, but rest assured you will always come away with a new friend in your hand.

The media is wringing its hands over the demise of independent bookshops. Have rumours of the death of the bookseller been greatly exaggerated?

This the scariest question you have posed me. Undoubtedly there are fewer independent bookshops than when I started bookselling. Hopefully the cull has left the stronger businesses still trading and their increasing
scarcity is making them destination shops. I can't imagine the closure of all bookshops but I am sure that quite a lot more will fade away over the next decade. Reducing the numbers should make the remaining few that more precious. I talk to many customers who are turning away from online purchasing and deliberately seeking out proper bookshops because they want us still to be around when they need our advice or assistance in the years to come.  

I know many book lovers who use an eReader, but none who'd be prepared to give up physical books. Is it the smell, the feel or the beautiful covers which inspire loyalty?

All the points you raise are valid but so many people work on screens these days and have multi-function home entertainment centres that there also seems to be a desire to get away from backlit displays whenever
possible. There are those who love to show off their books on shelves and see them as friends. Whenever I visit a stately home, NT property or even new friends I can't help looking at their bookshelves to help me gain some deeper understanding of their lives or of the people who used to live there.

I love the look and feel of a book. A finely crafted tome of the right size and weight is a thing of joy and, until you open the cover, full of so much possibility. Books are exciting and yes they do smell good too.

The physical accessibility of a book and being able to hold several pages open at one time is rewarding and difficult to replicate.

What makes Barton's such a success, in your view?

Peter and French work experience student, Max
My intention all along has been to create the sort of shop I would like to buy books from and serve customers in the way I would like to be served. If this has worked and is a success in your eyes then it must be that there are enough people around who think like me to make it work.

I have deliberately developed relationships with authors in recent years and hope that this is enabling me to bring exciting new talents to my customers and that they appreciate this added aspect to our service.

You're a great supporter of indie, or self-published authors. Why do you embrace those many regard as 'the great unwashed'?

I see no point in trying to compete with supermarkets and chain stores who often sell popular and best-seller titles at less than my wholesaler's prices. It falls on me then to discover the hidden gems, treasures and unknown authors whose books I can hand-sell to a discerning audience of readers. I read as many proofs and author submissions as I can to find books to recommend. Some of the best books I have read are by indie authors and so are some of the worst. However, the same holds true for traditionally published books.

Indie authors may well not fit snugly into publisher's categories and genres but this is not a reason to keep them off the shelves. They have something to say and tales to tell and I hope that I can help in some small way to "Spread The Words".

Which book has impressed you most this year?

That is probably the easiest question you have posed me. "Dead Ends" by Erin Lange is probably the best YA novel I have read in five, possibly ten years. Actually it isn't that easy a question because I have two other novels to nominate. The first is "An Unchoreographed Life" by Jane Davis and the second is "Lifeform Three" by Roz Morris. I could give you reviews but why not go to my website and have a look at the comments there.

Nice easy one to finish with - how do you see the future of the publishing industry?

I do not foresee the death of the printed book but I think that there will be more authors' publishing cooperatives and artisan publishers appearing to cater for special books for special people. Perhaps something like the old Arts and Crafts Movement for literature. At the same time I fear that the larger publishing houses will merge even more and this will mean the rise of large and more conservative concerns at one end of the spectrum, which will leave room for smaller and more adventurous niche publishers as outlined above.

By JJ Marsh

Friday, 25 July 2014

The Secret to Writing a Series – Part 14 – or the real trick behind avoiding writer’s block by Derek Duggan

These days it is almost inconceivable to write a novel that isn’t going to be part of a series. Readers, apparently, can’t get enough of the same characters doing the same things endlessly. In fact, they cling to contrivances like, say, a magic baddie trying to kill a magic goodie only really while he’s at school and making sure to draw out his attempts to cover an entire school year so that the magic baddie can be defeated in a way that will allow the magic goodie and his friends to get an extra few points to ensure they win the house cup.

First let us take a look at the history of the series. The modern series was invented in 1955 by Ian Fleming when he released the third in the James Bond series of books, Moonraker. There had been many attempts at the series before, but they’d never quite made it past the sequel stage and most of these books disappeared into obscurity almost immediately after they were launched. How many of you have read Oliver UnTwisted1985, or Tolstoy’s massive flop A Bit of Arguing and then Everyone Getting Along?

Tolkien had a shot at this too, but ran out of steam at three, also in 1955, with the release of the ultimate volume of The Lord of the Rings, the prophetically titled Peter Jackson’s Pension. So Fleming was left to develop the format alone. He wrote fourteen books in all, many of them quite good, as nobody had realized at that time that there was no need to keep up any semblance of quality with a series. Since then, of course, there have been about 31 Bond books, including the rather good Young Bond series by Charlie Higson and the shatteringly awful Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks.

Writing a series is not for the faint of heart – Early attempter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a ton of short stories featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, but when he tried to convert these into novels it sent him so mental in the face that he started trying to talk to ghosts and things until, in the end, the only person he spoke to was Bruce Willis.

Fleming avoided going bananas by being a bit of a subtle misogynist (allegedly).  You have to look in his books carefully to spot this, but if you think about it, calling a character Pussy Galore  (Goldfinger, 1959) could be interpreted as an example of this tendency. However, recently uncovered correspondence between him and his publisher that I’ve just made up shows that he had originally been much more even handed with his choice of character names and the title character of that particular novel, Auric Goldfinger, had originally been called Cock Uptheringpiece, so maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. But finally the pressure of  keeping the quality up got to him and made him die.

So, how could he have avoided this early grave? Well, he could have taken a leaf out of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books about paint drying, or, as they are more commonly known, the Perry Mason series. This began in 1933 when Gardner realized that there was no Bargain Hunt on the telly in the afternoon and pensioners had nothing to do with their time other than smell faintly of wee. There were over eighty novels featuring lovable Perry and his pals and at the time of Gardner’s death there were 135 million copies of the books in print, which is, coincidently, exactly how many words there are in the bit of The Deathly Hallows where they just hang about doing a bit of camping while waiting for the big showdown at the end of the school year. The difference between Gardner and Fleming is that Gardner realized that in order to avoid a relatively hasty descent into madness and/or dying what he needed to do was to just stick to the formula and write each new book as if the previous ones never happened. And this simple system can really play into the hands of the lazy writer – you still have to actually sit down and type out eighty books, but you never have to worry about writer’s block or anything.

Of course, you need to come up with a simple hook. In Gardner’s case it is that someone is accused of a murder and then, despite what seems like overwhelming evidence at the start, it turns out they didn’t do it and after a bit of cross examination by Perry the real murderer fesses up, just like in real life.

A recent series that has taken this approach is Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in which some people drink bush tea and some don’t and some people talk to their shoes. And some cars get fixed. This may seem pedestrian, but the hook, the clever bit, is that it all happens in Botswana, so people have funny names which is absolutely hilarious.

And that’s it. That’s all you need to write a series. Just pick a random place and have some people with funny names prove that someone didn’t kill someone else and you’re on your way to your first (of many) bestseller. Here’s a title you can have for free – Hamish Mc Floogenhat and his Outer Hebridian Key Cutting Shop. There’s no end to the possibilities with that one.

What are you waiting for?

Glad I could help.