Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Donkeys and vodka: the mad science of proofreading

by Perry Iles, Chamber Proof (

Proof readers, proofreaders or proof-readers? We can’t even agree on how our job titles should be written down. What total bellends (bell-ends or bell ends) we are. But then no two proofreaders think alike anyway, because we’re all maverick geniuses, frustrated novelists and deeply flawed garret-dwelling paupers with nothing better to do than use our combination of OCD and Asperger’s Syndrome to pick apart the work of others. And we’ll never get it right because there is no right. Language is fluid—especially English, because the world’s greatest superpower speaks it all over the globe. There are those who think that America has dragged the English language kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and there are those who think that America has dragged it into a dark alley and beaten the living crap out of it. Who in the hell ever thought to use the word “disrespect” as a verb? It wasn’t one of our chaps, I’ll bet. Either way, an assault has been mounted, and the proofreader’s job is to defend a book against the slings and arrows of error and change. Which of course means that while I’m fending off mediaeval English weaponry with a stout oaken shield, some American in a sharp suit and sunglasses will pop up in front of me and shoot me in the face. While dictionaries and manuals try to pin down the elusive butterfly of correct prose and grammar, off it goes in a different direction, raising either two fingers or a middle digit at you, depending upon which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Language flows elegant and smooth like a glacier, changing shape and form as it goes.

Which means that for some words there is no right or wrong. When you get into your car, do you put on a seat belt, a seat-belt or a seatbelt? When you can’t be arsed to cook, will you have a take-away a takeaway? There is only consistency, which is the First Rule of Proofreading. Be consistent. Check the preferences of your author. It’s their book after all. Maintain an open channel at all times, dash off query emails. They’ll love you when you find a spelling error or some missing punctuation, but they’ll hate you when you overrule their preferences with your own when rules don’t apply. It takes only a moment to ask an author if their main character eats hash browns, hash-browns or hashbrowns.  
And don’t even talk to me about punctuation. Go talk to Lynne Truss, she knows it all. She’ll tell you when to use the Oxford comma and when to eschew it. Read Strunk and White, they’ll tell you when to use colons and semi-colons instead of full stops. Then try to act on what they say in a real life writing situation. Often you’ll find they’re talking bollocks. Or they’re trying to be clever buggers by shoehorning correct grammar into a sentence that needs changing anyway because it hasn’t been written right in the first place. These books are to writing what the Highway Code is to driving. They’ll tell you the rules, but they won’t make you a good writer. They’ll just teach you to run over fewer people, rather than less people. So here’s the Second Rule of Proofreading: If you’re stuck on the punctuation, the chances are the wording is wrong, because if the wording was right, you wouldn’t be stuck on it, would you? There you are, happily proofreading away without a care in the world, and then you get to something that stops you in your tracks with one of those comedy skid-noises they use when Fred Flintstone brings his car to a standstill using his feet. Here:

“Honestly, darling, I went to Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer’s but I couldn’t get those socks you like; perhaps you should try shopping on-line.”
The author (and the proofreader) is all in a lather about the use of semi-colons in dialogue, Oxford commas, possessive apostrophes, the double-use of “and” and that unnecessary hyphen in “on-line”, when they should be worrying about the ghastly dialogue instead. You could proofread that sentence until your brain started dribbling out of your ears. Go on, knock yourself out. But rather than just checking the grammar, the proofreader should offer a gentle nudge and tell the writer that people don’t really speak like that, and that it might be better to re-write the sentence along the following lines:

“Listen love, I went to every bloody supermarket in town and none of them had your socks. Try online, OK?”
There, that’s better, isn’t it? A good proofreader would underline that first sentence and suggest rewriting it a bit more like the second, because that sort of light copy-editing is part of a proofreader’s job. It’s part of mine, anyway. And when punctuation stops me in my tracks, re-wording the sentence will improve matters nine times out of ten. So before you start dicking about with the semi-colons and the fiddly shite, read that sentence out loud in front of a mirror or a loved one. Chances are you can say it better and more simply without, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “peppering your writing with all those unnecessary marks”. Think about what punctuation actually is. It’s not writing, it’s not poetry, it’s not great literature. It’s instructions. Stop here, pause there. Add emphasis! Are you asking a question? Oh gosh, someone’s about to say something. Here come some speech-marks, look! In good writing, most of these things come naturally anyway. Punctuation should be light, unobtrusive and minimal. Punctuation tells the readers what your writing should be showing them. You don’t need exclamation marks. Get rid of them. All of them, unless you’re writing children’s fiction. Adults know when someone is shouting, and it’s your job as a writer to show people being angry, not tell us they’re yelling their heads off. Get rid of colons and semi colons in fiction. They’re horrid little nasty half-hearted things anyway. They’re not big and they’re not clever. They are to punctuation what adverbs are to prose. Write your way round them and your writing will be better for it. Declare war on commas, use “and” more often. Write shorter sentences. Write longer sentences. Free your prose. Let it dance about without being tied down by unnecessary punctuation. Be more colloquial. Be free. You’re a writer. It’s fun. You’re dancing with the wind in your hair, not tapping out two-fingered sludge.

Proofreaders are there to polish your little red wagon, to make sure your book doesn’t go out into the world with its skirt tucked into its underwear. We do that not only by finding errors, but by making suggestions—small, light and often. Editors will tell you to make structural changes, to write out unnecessary characters altogether, to revise entire chapters. Proofreaders won’t do that, they’ll just buff up the details and offer a light copy-edit. They aren’t there to check out the shape of your forest, they’re there to examine the bark on the trees. And even then, there will be errors. There WILL be errors. I bet there are errors in this article if you look hard enough, and if there aren’t errors, there are things you’d have written differently. I once wrote and self-published a book in which it got cold in my car so I turned the heather on. This was doubly embarrassing, as Heather is my wife’s name (she was not in the car at the time. We were not dogging. Honestly, officer. Look at the moon, my mother would have understood…) The point there is that you read what you want to be there. You read what makes sense. As an author, I not only wrote that error, but on the dozens of rewrites and re-reads I let it stay there until it became encysted in my head, part of the manuscript. A friend read it once, after I’d published it, and said “You’ll never guess what you’ve written here…” so I had to kill her. A simple proofread and that poor woman would still be alive today.

Which also applies to names, by the way. Rule whatever (I’ve lost count) of proofreading is to google every single one of the fictional characters’ names in the book you’re working on, just in case the author hasn’t done that first. That way you’ll be able to check that they aren’t the same as famous people in fields you’re unfamiliar with, or a name you perhaps heard on the news and has stuck in your mind to re-emerge seven years later as the name for your baddie. You may not be familiar with football, movie stars of the 1930s or death metal, but some of your readers will be. Remember that the bad guy in Double Jeopardy was called Nicholas Parsons and that a book by English romantic novelist EV Thompson had a leading character called Tom Hanks in it. So before you use a cool name like Harry Styles or Matt Bellamy or Frank Black, go and google it, or people will point at you and laugh.

Your book is the God to which its creators bow down. The author is the prime creator, but there is a host of others who help dress your book up and make it look nice. The proofreader is but one of many, he’s the final polisher, the one who buffs the lacquer on what Stephen King calls your little red wagon. But proofreading is an inexact science. Pinning the English language down into a static form is like a pin-the-tail-on-a-donkey game in which you’ve been rapidly spun ten times and then force-fed a pint of vodka. And the donkey is real and moving and wants to kick you very hard because some cruel bastard has cut its tail off. The best you can hope for is that your book is enjoyed, recommended, critically acclaimed and sells by the warehouse-load. But one day, when you’re relaxing on your yacht in Monte Carlo harbour surrounded by women made of silicone or men with abs you could bounce marbles off, you’ll come across an error in your latest manuscript and suddenly you’ll feel like Madonna falling downstairs at the Brits, and your screams will echo from the mountains that surround the bay, and the head you’ll call for will quite possibly be mine.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

NEW SERIES - My Publishing Journey ... with Jan Ruth

By Gillian Hamer.

Every author has their own unique route to publication, with highs and lows, success and failure along the way. And every author is always curious how other writers reached their goals - was it easier for them, what mistakes did they make, how many rejection slips have they accumulated?

In our new series, we will be asking the questions other writers would like to ask. How? Why? When? And what they'd do differently next time.

First up we challenge Welsh-based contemporary fiction author, Jan Ruth, to reveal all about her own unique writing journey.

How did your writing journey start, was it just a hobby to begin with for you?

I’d still prefer to call it a hobby. I’d rather be motivated by pleasurable creative exploration, than strive to be a commercial success by forcing my slightly misshapen ovals into a succession of unforgiving circles. Perhaps I should call it a serious hobby, as I am seriously committed to producing the material to the best of my ability; something which was lacking in me when I was eventually signed to a publisher.

When did you know you were ‘good’?

I wrote my second novel at work in about 70 company notebooks. I managed to acquire another typewriter (electric this time) and purchased my first copy of The Writer’s & Artists Yearbook. The novel was called Summer in October and Anne Dewe – of Andrew Mann Literary Agents – immediately took a shine to it, and I think this was the first defining moment for me; confirmation that I’d got something right.

In her words: ‘It’s got something.’

She suggested some minor rewrites, some slight structural changes and the cull of a secondary character. Dewe wore two hats at the time and as well as acting agent for Mann, she was setting up her own publishing company called Love Stories Ltd. It was a project aiming to champion those books of substance which contained a romantic element but were perhaps directed towards the more mature reader and consistently fell through the net in traditional publishing. This was 1986 and chick-lit took the biggest slice of the romance market. Sadly, the project failed to get the right financial backing, but from a personal point of view a seed had been sown…

I never did find an outlet for that book but perhaps this illustrates how random the traditional world of publishing was, and still is. I didn’t view it like this at the time though. I was still naive enough to believe that if I wrote something good, then it would be published.

There followed a long barren time for me until I started writing again in 2001 when I discovered the joy of writing on a word processor. The result was a novel called Under Offer. This was taken on by Jane Judd on the proviso I worked with an editorial company to ‘tighten it up’. The company she suggested was Cornerstones. I had no idea such a service existed but what an excellent investment. I learnt so much, my manuscript was polished to a professional standard and most importantly, I understand why and how they’d took my 90,000 words to another level. Jane Judd happily took it back on as Wild Water. Despite this book never finding a publisher either (because it was out of genre, it didn’t fall into a specific category and it was narrated from a male viewpoint blah blah…) I think this was perhaps the biggest turning point for me and one which confirmed that I knew how to write, I could create engaging characters and strong settings.

I just didn’t write commercial fiction.

More on those rejection letters here:

Jan's Wild Water series
When and why did you decide you wanted your writing published?

I think I wanted a readership more than the idea of being published, but then I still craved some sort of validation that I wasn’t writing drivel.

What were your first steps towards publication?

I’d had fantastic success with agents and positive encouragement from professional editors, but actual publishers remained elusive. But then the Amazon publishing platform happened, and it seemed I didn’t need them after all…

What has been your proudest writing moment to date?

Making my mum laugh at Jimmy Tarbuck’s biography which I wrote at six years of age!

Any mistakes you wish, in hindsight, you had avoided?

I’ve made so many mistakes I’ve lost count but then I’d never have learnt anything without making them in the first place. I guess my biggest mistake and one which has cost me dearly in terms of reputation, cash, and time, was signing to a small publisher in 2015. I can honestly say the experience almost destroyed me, both creatively and emotionally. Given that I’d self-published my work up until that point and discovered a quiet success with sales and small awards, I found the experience was much like going back in time. It was almost as if everything I’d been aware of as an individual author and publisher had been wiped away and I was back to being beholden to a group of people who knew next to nothing about my material, didn’t appear to know how best to market it and most concerning of all; seemed to know less than me about the nuts and bolts of the various publishing platforms out there. The books they produced for me not only contained a lot of errors, but failed to sell. I was angry and disappointed.

For a while.

More on my traditional publishing experience here:

What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your journey?

I guess it’s always easy to be wise in hindsight, but if I’ve learnt anything it’s to take virtually everything with a pinch of salt and avoid the lemons. I should have trusted my gut more and stayed true to the spirit of the books, rather than be sidetracked by what was going on in the commercial world.

What top 3 tips would you offer new and up-coming authors hoping to publish?

A) Don’t self-publish until your book is ready. It’s actually slightly less important when it comes to sending out to agents or publishers because your work will (hopefully!) go through rigorous editing and proofreading stages if it is accepted. They will be looking for saleability, not correct comma placement. On the other hand, if you choose to produce your own book it pays to take your time with each stage.

B) Always seek reliable professional bodies for advice. If you are unsure where your material sits in terms of marketing or whether it conforms to a good general standard of writing in the first instance, consider contacting companies such as Cornerstones, who have a long proven track-record and work alongside agents and publishers. They know what the industry is looking for. If you intend to self-publish, their editorial advice is solid and supportive. It costs, but so do early mistakes. Better to get the basics right at the start than accept incorrect, conflicting, or even manipulative advice from an on-line forum. It goes without saying that you must never take advice from friends and family.

C) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket and sign everything away to a publisher. Times have changed, the snail-like speed of the traditional publishing world is struggling to keep up with the ebook explosion, and it has created huge areas ripe for exploitation. All authors should self-publish at least once, if only to understand the process from ground level, and to witness what can be achieved by an individual. The commercial bubble of traditional publishing may work for you, but it might not. It’s more likely to work if you can produce a lot of material in a strong commercial theme. Even so, there are no guarantees to success, however you quantify it. Writing a good book is not necessarily a pre-requisite to break in, either. What you must consider is that you may well want to break out before too long…

To learn more about Jan Ruth and her books, follow the links belows:

Thursday, 18 August 2016

First Page Competition 2016 - THE WINNERS!

We are delighted to announce the winners of our First Page Competition 2016, which has been judged by Piers Alexander.

The shortlist is as follows:

A Cruel Blow, by Annie Walmsley

Barik's Blades, by Henry Hyde

Bloodjacker, by T.D. Edge

Colours in Black and White, by Julia Thorley

Coming Home, by Vanessa Savage

For The Record, by Sara Green

Melody of the Two Lands, by Amanda Huskisson

Midsummer's Eve, by Tracy Fells

Paul Swan, by Andrew Stott

The Palimpsest, by Eivind Nerberg

The Quantum Eavesdropper, by Richard Gibney

Underneath, by Anne Goodwin

Warthog, by Andrew Broadfoot

The Devil’s Cataract, Sarah King

And the winning entries are:


A Cruel Blow, by Annie Walmsley

The day Dad nearly kills me, we’re out in the park. The rain’s like feathers on my skin. I scrape down the slide. I don’t mind getting wet, or dirty... in fact, I’m always covered in muck: oil, mud, leaves… There’s a special tub of Swarfega that’s kept just for me. It’s a secret. A big tin of green jelly that lives in the dark of the kitchen cupboard like one of those weird fish at the bottom of the ocean. Anyway, Dad’s dabbed that stuff just about everywhere on me: my legs, my arms and my forehead; all wiped clean before Mum can purse her lips and say, “What on earth is that? Call yourself a young lady?”

After the sticky slide, it’s the swing. Dad smiles and it’s like a door opening. He’s pushing me, and I can feel the excitement balled in my stomach. Dad’s six foot four and really fit even though these days he does a desk job. He whistles and I laugh, because it’s my song and I’m going really high now. Giggles float from us like bubbles.

I fling my feet out as the air fizzes past. I could reach up and do a full circle over the iron bars at the top. My head explodes at the thought. Dad catches the swing suddenly and then holds it. I dangle helplessly in midair - delirious, dribbling with anticipation. I’m level with the tops of the trees; I’m like a bird… then Dad lets go, giving it one last, massive shove. Trouble is, he doesn’t know his own strength and I’m projected off the swing, all curled up, into the trees. Dad’s screams follow me, “Liiizziiieee!!!” I do a forward roll as I land and come up, arms in the air.

“Ta da!” I bow, laughing, though my head is hurting where I’ve bashed it.

And Dad’s running towards me, his forehead folded with anxiety. He grabs me and I feel like I’m drowning. But it’s lovely because in that moment, it’s all about instinct and nothing to do with manners or what ‘young ladies’ should do. Now I know just how much he loves me. And it’s a lot. I bring out this moment, like a treasure, when they tell me those things later; when they say, “He isn’t really your father, you know.”

Judge's Report:

“The day Dad nearly kills me, we’re out in the park. The rain’s like feathers on my skin- ” now that’s how to grab a reader. A Cruel Blow pulls you straight into its off-kilter reality and doesn’t let you climb back out. It’s just a dad pushing a girl on a swing, but the story has all the intensity of childhood. Deceptively simple and with a sly rabbit-punch at the end.


Coming Home, by Vanessa Savage

The sold sign went up today. People crept out to watch; standing in silence as the big red Sold covered up the For Sale everyone assumed would be there forever because who the hell was going to buy that house, right? All the other ghouls cling to the shadows, but not me: I stand in the middle of the street, arms folded – I’m not scared of the Murder House.

“Who do you think bought it?”

I look at the man who slunk out of the shadows to ask and shrug. He offers me a cigarette and I lean in so he can light it. Close up, he smells fousty and his breath is meaty and sour. I want to use the burning cigarette to seal his mouth shut.

“Maybe someone who doesn’t know,” I say and he stares at me like I’m nuts.

I wasn’t here when it happened. I was here when the house was something else, not the Murder House, just a house. These people, all these people passing by, they were here. You can tell by the way they avert their eyes, they way they cross over the road, like something or someone will gobble them up if they get too close.

I lied to the man with the rotting breath. I do know who’s moving into the Murder House. You’re coming home, just like I have. It’s been so long and everything and nothing in this town has changed. The graffiti is dirtier, darker, the rot more deep-seated; a smell that lingers, a pus-stained bandage, a red streak of infection meandering away from the festering heart of it.

This house has always been the entry wound, sealing the infection in so it spreads under the surface, insidious, swelling and killing the healthy flesh around it. And You. You at the centre; the dirty needle, the rusty knife, the cause and the result.

In the dream I keep having about the Murder House, there are all these rooms off the landing and I don’t want to look in any of them because I know something terrible waits inside for me. But it’s okay because the doors are closed. They’re always closed.

Last night, though, there was another door at the end. I don’t want to fall asleep tonight, because there’s a door at the end that shouldn’t be there. There’s another door and this one is open.

Judge's Report

It’s risky for a narrator to tell you straightaway that they’re a nasty piece of work - but in Coming Home, it works. You want to know more about this person who considers themself a ghoul, who knows about the Murder House, who wants to seal someone’s mouth by burning it with a cigarette. “This house has always been the entry wound” - a metaphor that is nauseatingly extended, that makes you want to scrub your body after reading it - but I still wanted to get hold of page 2!


Warthog, by Andrew Broadfoot

Adamson Mushala stood at dawn on the sun-cracked earth and smelled the coming rains and hanging fish. Across the stream, gutted bream hung between dry-season saplings, their bellies pale with a dulled silvery gleam. Six bullet pocked shacks leaned into each other, sharing tin roofs and mud walls along the banks. Each bore one end of a vine hanging rope from which more fish fluttered erratically like his father’s medicine skulls, stagnant pond fish left to weather for the week, sweetening the meat, curing it from the bone.

Thunderheads replaced the horizon, beams of sunlight flaring and dying inside them, the valley guiding the hot wind in chafing gusts through the heart of the place. Mushala, fifteen with sun-blackened skin, watching in a soap-dried shirt open and fluttering to the wind, his eyes wide and white as if seeing his ancestors rise once more. He was barefoot and rail thin built from brittle sticks that ought to have snapped in the wind but never did, a body not built for work but destined for a lifetime of labour. He sniffed at the clouds and thought of his scant provisions and the many mouths of the family, the dilute mealie meal scraped from the cauldron. The few green twigs yet to dry will make a smoky and inadequate fire.

He turned back into the hut and his mother who sat rocking herself cross-legged in the dust, murmuring tunes without words or melody. Mostly she was quiet, occasionally tutting to herself and staring at the fire or the dead ashes of the fire, scratching at some vague itch. Other times, she wore a thin smile as if knowing a secret she’d never tell, or remembering when she was a young woman and not yet First Wife, dancing shoeless across the tangled bush of the Nsama Province. Tall, dark and enchanting she’d been, until the ritual, and her mind shattered. She’d let the pieces scatter to the wind, to the river, to the earth and never willed for their return.

Nabumino, Mushala’s father, the revered nganga who could speak with the spirits, conjured nothing useful before he bounced away along the rutted road in the chief’s pick-up truck. He said he’d be back with many good things, promising magic, avoiding questions. “When you see this face, that’s when I’m coming back.”

That was a dry season ago, just as the soldiers came.

Judge's Report

Warthog drops you into the smells and sounds of Africa, a domestic scene that’s tense with past violence. Adamson Mushala may be young, but he sees what’s around him clearly, and his parents are vividly drawn in their trauma and wilfulness. Nothing happens, but we know that Adamson will be pulled out of his normal world and into something much darker. A good use of “less is more”.

Congratulations to all the winners, we will be in contact soon.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

In Conversation with Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen, creative writing consultant and author of eight acclaimed novels including the Hollywood-adapted The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, The Rapture and The Uninvited in conversation with JJ Marsh and Karen Pegg

The way you genre hop is a joy to many writers who resist being boxed. Did you set out with that determination or was it an organic development? Have you ever experienced external pressure to write more of the same but different?

The reason I switch genres is that a lot of writers find themselves writing the same book over and over again. I wanted to avoid that. I’m an impatient reader and an impatient writer, so I just kid myself that I’m not writing the same thing, even though I do have certain themes and preoccupations.

I thought I would carry on writing comedy, I wasn’t expecting to write a dark novel. But when I wrote The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, I realised I was breaking new ground. The novel has two first-person narrators, one a nine-year-old boy and the other an adult man.
As I was writing the adult character, a coma specialist, it struck me that he was the first real 'grown-up' character I had ever written, because in all my previous novels the adults had been children in disguise. He was really hard to write: I didn’t really know how to deal with him. But I liked the challenge.

I had moved into psychological suspense and I was enjoying it. When you write a book it’s constructed, just like an object. It’s a bit like building a ship. Every element has its place, and all the parts must fit together so it can sail. It’s a cliche but it’s true: writing is 99% perspiration and one percent inspiration. Craft is fundamental.
That said, I don’t plan everything out beforehand. I like to be surprised, so I often don’t know how my books are going to end. Though I am pretty sure my subconscious has an idea.

Photo credit Djbril Sy

Much of your work reaches beyond the boundaries of what we might expect. Not just a what if... but in that world of what if, another what if... is that a product of a restless imagination or do you push yourself to look over the next horizon?

Some readers say to me: ‘the way you see the world is so weird’. All I can say is, it’s not weird to me. I see the world the way I see it and put in my books that way. I like asking the question ‘what if...’ because it’s so fundamental. It forces you to take a situation to its logical conclusion. I’ve been thinking about climate change for the last ten years and writing about it in the last two books, in a tangential sort of way. We’re in an era of ”what if?” so of course that’s the question I ask.
I also think ”what if?” is brilliant if you’re constructing a character. What’s the worst situation I can put this person into? What if the only person capable of changing events is the one least likely or worst equipped to deal with it?

From the internal world of Louis Drax to the wide ranging potential dystopia of The Uninvited, you evoke entire landscapes of the mind or the future with great attention to detail. Would you describe your creative process?

My creative process. Hmm. I start with reading the newspapers. I need to get fired up about something. I’m very theme-based. Character is important too but I can’t come up with my characters until I know what my theme is going to be.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is about buried memory.
There was a tragedy in my own family, long before I was born. It was all over the newspapers at the time and it scarred my mother psychologically for ever. Her father had died not long before, but in 1937 she lost two more members of her family in the space of four days, under very strange circumstances.

Her mother had taken her and her two brothers on a summer holiday in the Swiss Alps. The oldest brother, who was 19, had a row with his mother (my grandmother) and stormed off into the mountains. He was still missing four days later. By then the weather had turned so the search parties were called off but my grandmother was desperate, and she insisted on continuing alone. The next morning her body was found at the base of a cliff. The double mystery of uncle’s disappearance and my grandmother’s death were never solved. So my mother and her two remaining brothers were suddenly not only orphans, but bereft of a much-loved older brother who was never seen or heard of again.

Fast-forward 70 years, there I am writing a story about a small family going into the mountains, one member disappearing and the other falling off a cliff. The weird thing is I didn’t realise as I was writing The Ninth Life of Louis Drax that the inspiration came directly from that story which I’ d first heard as a six-year-old child. It’s so obvious, in retrospect.

Apart from that example, I don’t use my own life or family history in my novels. Mostly inspiration comes from the world around me. It can be a news story, an event or something as simple as a conversation. The book I’m trying to write now came out of a conversation I had with a glass-maker, ten years ago. Some things take a long time to gestate.

When I sit down to write, I wouldn’t describe it as a creative process because often it’s almost clerical. I enjoy rewriting possibly more than I enjoy writing. You’re applying your editing brain whereas actually writing something new can be like squeezing like blood out of a stone. If I’m working well I aim for a thousand words a day. Any more than that is a gift.

The book I’m writing at the moment I’m doing differently from the others. This time I’m not going for a gold standard chapter one. I’m writing fragments. I think of it as a patchwork quilt. I’m just doing these squares, I don’t know what order anything goes in, but I have great faith in my subconscious. Something in there is working on it. It’s what Stephen King calls the boys in the basement.

I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’ve abandoned quite a few novels over the years, two at the 60,000 word mark, because they simply weren’t working. Many writers have had this experience. You just have to keep faith with yourself.

You’ve experienced many different cultures. Do you see the influences of each on what you write?

Not all of them yet, but I’m waiting for Hong Kong to pop up, and Israel. After 30 years Taiwan appeared in The Uninvited in a key scene. I knew I wanted to do a global ghost story and when I went to Dubai to teach, I decided to incorporate it as a setting. I’ve set novels in France and Denmark because they’re countries I know well, whose languages I speak.

How far did the experience of journalism shape you as a writer?

My experience in radio was the most useful. Through the producing, interviewing and editing process I was learning all about dialogue and about how to shape a story. This was in the pre-digital era when you physically cut tape with a razor blade and shifted things around. So you were shaping something with your hands as well as your brain.

We met while we were guest tutors in Geneva and you're now teaching at A Chapter Away. Participants enthuse about your inspiring teaching. Do you enjoy helping other writers develop?

Well that’s very gratifying to hear! I have always received a huge amount of support from other writers, and still do. The thing about teaching is that you are also learning. So it’s not entirely altruistic. I like mentoring too, which I do through a wonderful company called Gold Dust, set up by Jill Dawson. It’s very rewarding to go deep into someone’s work, one-on-one, having conversations and giving notes, and seeing someone’s work blossoming.

There’s a dark vein of humour pulsing through your books. Can you always see the funny side?

Yes. It’s a almost a duty. Some of the best jokes are told at funerals. We need laughter more than we ever needed it. These times are the darkest I can remember. Humour does a crucial job. Laughter helps us deal with the hardest things in life. Make no mistake: humour is deeply, deeply serious.

An adaptation of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax appears in cinemas worldwide from September.

Liz Jensen will be teaching a Speculative Fiction course at the Arvon Foundation in November and tutoring at the residential course A Chapter Away July 1st - 8th 2017. (

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child - Review

Review by JJ Marsh

Here is a prophecy. Not Professor Trelawney’s but mine.

Just as the Harry Potter novels got millions of young people reading, this play will create a new generation of theatregoers. Because Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is theatre at its best; simply great storytelling.

The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Photo by Manuel Harlan

Keeping an audience of wildly varying ages and experience enthralled for over five hours speaks for itself. The story and its world are as absorbing as ever but this is an entirely new tale. Complex, well-plotted and filled with fascinating characters, the story plumbs many classic Potter themes. Family. Love. Friendships. Loyalty. The weight of expectation. And what magic really means.

No spoilers - #keepthesecrets - but it’s common knowledge the play takes place nineteen years after Harry’s final year at Hogwarts. He is now 37 and a dad of three. However, parenting is proving to be a tougher challenge than the Triwizard Tournament.

L-R Noma Dumezweni (Hermione Granger), Jamie Parker (Harry Potter) and Paul Thornley (Ron Weasley); Photo by Manuel Harlan

The magic at the heart of this piece is how all the elements of great theatre work together. Impressive acting, breathtaking effects, imaginative design and quite brilliant direction all combine with a powerful script to create an immersive experience. The audience does not so much suspend disbelief, but willingly joins in the extraordinary illusion. The result is a layered, exciting, thrilling and touching adventure – the antithesis of push-button emotional manipulation.

L-R Sandy McDade (Trolley Witch), Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy), Sam Clemmett (Albus Potter) and the cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Photo by Manuel Harlan

So well do all the aspects of the performance work, it’s difficult to pick out a single feature for special mention. Yet Movement Director Steven Hoggett deserves extra applause for his use of physicality, both from cast and crew, so that even scene changes become part of the shapeshifting impression. Trains, staircases, forests, doorways and corridors are all magicked into being through understated suggestion and effective staging.

The Cursed Child is a triumph of theatrical storytelling, leaving the audience stunned, satisfied and awed by what the combination of imaginations can achieve.

Photos by Manuel Harlan

250,000 tickets to be released tomorrow (4 August 2016)

Monday, 1 August 2016

Big 5 Mentorship Competition Shortlist Announced!


Triskele Books and Words With Jam are happy to announce the six shortlisted entries of our Big 5 Mentorship Competition –– from manuscript to publication –– worth over £5000!

Pleased with the multitude and quality of the entries, three members of the Triskele team read each and every one before finally coming to a joint decision.

We enjoyed reading through the variety of genres: everything from children’s to young adult, crime thrillers, sci-fi-fantasy, historical and literary fiction.

Only a few failed to adhere to the rules, such as no synopsis, no first chapter, which, unfortunately, disqualified these entries. So just a gentle reminder, it’s vital to read the competition rules before submitting.

The winners have been contacted and  invited to send the first 10 pages of their manuscript before September 1st to our independent judge, Sheila Bugler who will select one winner to be announced on Friday 4 November 2016.

Thank you to all who entered, ensuring our competition was a huge success. From the shortlist, I just know we’re going to have so much fun working on a great book to bring it up to publishing standard!

So, without further ado, here are the six shortlisted winners, in no particular order:

A Whisper of Snow in the Mountains by Janet Wright 

Crocodile Tears by Dianne Stadhams 

White Stock by Gill Thompson

Original Sins by Linda Duncan McLaughlin

Half a Small Kitchen by Su Lynch 

The Sky is a Blue Bowl by Sophie Wellstood 

Look out for details soon!