Archive for June, 2012

On 1st April this year, Anne Tyler made a rare appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival. This wonderful American writer has been publishing her stories of large dysfunctional Baltimore families since the 1960s. In all that time, she’s only given a couple of interviews. It’s no wonder so many people queued to get good seats to hear her speak.

The sun shone, everyone was relaxed and chatting; sitting on the window sill way above the stage in the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, I felt a moment of pure happiness. I told anyone who would listen to me: I am a writer! I had my notebook in my hand to prove the point.

The day before, I had officially ‘retired’ from a thirty year career in pharmaceutical manufacturing and consultancy. I’d written technical text-books for the past fifteen years but had gradually found my interests moving towards fiction. Now I had the chance to give free rein to my creative side.

Three months down the road, this seems like a good time to reflect on what have I’ve achieved so far— and what I’ve learned. I wasn’t really staring at a blank page or starting from scratch. My to-do list at the beginning of April read like this:

  • Convert Chudleigh Phoenix (the community magazine I co-edit) from bimonthly to monthly;
  • Write 6000 word story and 1500 word essay for final module of MA;
  • Write 15000 word creative piece and 5000 word essay for MA dissertation;
  • Write article on ‘Doing an MA as a Mature Student’ for Writing Magazine;
  • Finish the first draft of my novel Gorgito’s Ice-Rink
  • Put the final touches to Pharmaceutical Process Design and Management 
  • Ramp up the marketing for Life is Not a Trifling Affair
  • Bump up my score of ‘out-theres’ (submissions to magazines or competitions);
  • Put more time into building my marketing platform.

And that’s without mentioning planning and writing a 40 page brochure for our town’s summer festival; project managing the town’s Christmas Fayre; and generally ‘sorting my life out’! It didn’t take long for me to bring out that saying so beloved of retirees: I don’t know how I had time to go to work at all!

I’ve always been good at time management — and as a former factory manager, I tend to work on the ‘just-in-time’ principle. (In fact, I’m quite impressed with myself that I’m writing this on Wednesday morning when the deadline I’ve been given isn’t until Thursday evening.) Some of the items on my list have defined deadlines. So I calculate how much time each will take; work back from the deadline; and set a start date. No problem. In the past three months, I’ve published three editions of CP; submitted the WM article (which will be out in the August issue); completed my final module assignments (achieving a reasonable mark); and am well on the way towards completing my dissertation work. The 40 -page brochure has been printed and is being delivered this week. The pharma textbook is out on 12th July — although I confess asking the publisher to contract out the indexing.

Life is Not a Trifling Affair is an anthology of short stories I co-published with another writer last July. It’s been a huge learning curve — and frankly, the writing side was the easiest part. We launched it at the Chudleigh Literary Festival; organised a pre-Christmas Fair; heavily promoted it with friends and family; and converted it to an ebook in March. What we’d avoided doing so far was getting out on the road, knocking on doors and asking strangers to stock it. There was always an excuse: she has children and a part-time job; I was working more or less full-time for a demanding client. But in reality, we were scared of rejection.

Finally, in mid-May, we ran out of excuses. We planned our route and hit the road. The response we got was overwhelming. On our first day, we found five outlets that agreed to stock the book. The only refusal we got was at a local holiday park that had closed their shop — but even there, we left with a list of suggested other venues. We were so relieved by the reaction, we quickly planned several other days out. We gained so much confidence that when we did get a rather surly refusal in a gift shop in a popular tourist haunt on Dartmoor, we smiled sweetly and left without feeling in the least abashed. The highlight of that day was two outlets that refused to consider Sale or Return – and bought 13 copies between them on the spot. We’ve even started taking a stall at local craft fairs — our confidence is growing every day.

I am finding that my enthusiasm for writing the novel waxes and wanes. Some days I can write more than 3000 words; one week I added more than 10000 to the total. Sometimes, I write nothing at all — and initially, I felt guilty, wondering if I was being afflicted with the dreaded ‘writers’ block’. Then I looked back at how much I’d done in three months and decided that wasn’t it.

I’ve always been a grasshopper in relation to my writing (and to the rest of my life for that matter). I tend to jump from one topic to another, from one task to the next, as the fancy takes me (unless I’m working to a deadline, of course). So, I’m learning to relax and enjoy the process. Writing should be the best job in the world, but if I try to force it, I’m not enjoying it – and in that case, what’s the point?

If I feel like working on the novel, I do so. I switch off the phone and the email, log out of Facebook, and get on with it. If I don’t feel like it, I work on a short story, make notes on a character, update my website, prepare the minutes of the last Christmas Fayre committee meeting — anything that involves putting words on a page. Then when I’ve done enough to justify my title as ‘writer’, I read a novel (an illicit day-time pleasure that can now be justified in the name of research).

I’ve released the inner grasshopper and she’s having a wonderful time exploring.

***

Elizabeth Ducie is a writer (as she never tires of telling people). She produces the Chudleigh Phoenix Community Magazine and runs the annual CP writing competition. Her first co-written anthology of short stories Life is Not a Trifling Affair is available from the website or on Amazon for Kindle. The second anthology Life is Not a Bed of Roses will be out on 23rd November. A Brummie by birth, Elizabeth moved with her husband to the south-west of England for its rich, green scenery after many years in London and the arid south-east. She forgot to wonder why the countryside was so green — but has now invested in a pair of wellies, so is much happier. When she grows up, she wants to be a best-selling novelist and live in a cottage with roses around the door. So far, she’s got the roses!

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Triskele Books: A Toast to the Power of Three

Several years ago, I was fortunate to receive an invitation to join the online writing group, Writing Asylum – an eclectic collection of supportive writers with keen editorial eyes and unfailing support and encouragement. My work improved and, after many revisions I finally had a novel I thought was fit for public eyes. But my agent was not able to arouse the slightest interest from any of the big publishers. So, what to do? Self-publishing? Poorly-written, shabbily put-together books? Not for me, thanks. Despite these reservations, independent publishing was, however, becoming a more enticing, and the only viable option, to getting a book to readers. Though taking it on alone seemed a fearsome task.

I got together with two of the writers from the writing group who were in similar situations with their novels. We discussed our independent fears: homemade covers, inconsistent typesetting, “hobby” writing, unprofessional presentation, inappropriate marketing, financial incompetence, individual responsibility, and the sense of isolation. We certainly did not want any of this. We wanted to create books that would be indistinguishable from those professionally produced. We wanted the real thing. Suddenly, sharing it all between three seemed far less scary and, after months of planning and discussion, our authors’ collective, Triskele Books was born.

To be successful, we knew Triskele Books needed both a distinctive brand and a focus. The Triskele logo was Jill’s idea, the origin of which represents what we stand for: three independent circles that resemble three scrolls, uniting to create something entirely new. Since we all share a passion for “place” in our story-telling, location as a focal point seemed suited to our books. Gillian’s melange of legend, crime and the “otherworldly” evokes the wild Celtic landscape of Anglesey. Jill’s fast-paced European crime thrillers transport readers from the Basque country to The Dalmatian Coast, while my stories are set in the historical past of rural France.

We all had a similar vision for the Triskele Books website design: simple, clean and bold, which our fourth Triskele member, Jane Dixon-Smith, executed perfectly. A talented designer with valuable publishing experience and incredible insight into our personal aspirations, she created our covers, our websites, and typeset our content, thus creating unity for Triskele Books, all the while demonstrating unfailing patience with our endless questions.

These focal points – location and quality – make it easier to market ourselves and, hopefully, to recruit more Triskelites in the future; authors with the same commitment to quality. We all have to agree, unanimously, on any decisions concerning Triskele. We won’t publish a book without the full backing and agreement of the other members. This is a collective, and we work things out through discussion. There are now six of us on the Triskele “board” and despite being spread over Europe, we are able to tackle tough decisions, fight fires and respect one another’s opinions.

To maintain our quality brand, we work together, providing mutual editing, support, encouragement and marketing. Manuscript critiques, editing and proofreading are far more effective in a threesome, rather than trusting one’s own unobjective eyes. We pull apart each other’s work and argue over it whilst trying to keep in mind the author’s individual style and vision of her work. After final revisions, we proofread each other’s books and try to make each one as striking and as professional as possible in both content and design.

We also share the workload in terms of marketing and promotion. Each member is allocated certain tasks, which the others know will be done to the best of her ability. We rely on each other and take comfort in the knowledge that these mammoth tasks are far less daunting when shared. Not only that, but the pressure not to let the others down is even more of an incentive.

You might be wondering about the financial aspects of such a collective? Triskele Books is a collective, as each author retains her own rights and profits but for the collective to get started, we all contributed an equal sum to cover website, promotional material, design and launch funds. When we need to add funds, we do so, in equal amounts. I think that for something like this to work, trust is mandatory. None of us would have embarked on such a project without total trust in each other, not only for the financial aspects, but also on an emotional level.

So, the result after all these months? We celebrated a fabulous launch day on Saturday 2nd June in London, and the amount of support from friends and family was immensely encouraging and loads of fun! The first books are on sale, and in the world of marketing and networking, the very nature of our threesome is proving more valuable than ever. Each book displays an ad for the other two, thus promoting all three at once. We share helpful sites, information and opportunities, each of us promoting our own, as well as the other Triskele books.

The independent process has proved to be hard, frustrating and exciting work, and we’ve found that our friendship is an asset. When one of us is knocked out for the count, the others push her back into the ring with friendly pats on the back, and virtual glasses of wine. We’ve shared the angst, the uncertainties, the mistakes, and learned an incredible lot in a short time, gaining valuable advice from successful independently-published authors, swapping marketing and networking opportunities and cheering each other on. We’ve connected with other writers, passing on what we’ve learned and discussing our experience. We’ve grown to depend on each other whilst retaining our individuality. And we no longer fear independent publishing. Cheers to Triskele Books!

***

Gillian Hamer (author of The Charter):

Born in the industrial Midlands, Gillian’s heart has always yearned for the wilds of North Wales and the pull of the ocean.

A Company Director for twenty years, she has written obsessively for over a decade. After completing a Creative Writing course, she decided to take her writing to the next level and sought representation. She is a columnist for Words with Jam literary magazine, a regular theatre goer and avid reader across genres.

She splits her time between Birmingham and a remote cottage on Anglesey where she finds her inspiration.

Gillian is represented by Shelley Powers, of The Shelley Powers Literary Agency.

The Charter is the first, but not the last, of Gillian’s novels to be based around the dramatic Anglesey coastline.

www.gillianhamer.com

J.J Marsh (author of Behind Closed Doors):

Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.

Now based in Switzerland, Jill consults on language strategy, works with the Nuance Words project and is a columnist for Words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes.

Behind Closed Doors is the first Beatrice Stubbs novel, a European crime series set in compelling locations all over the Continent.

www.beatrice-stubbs.com

Liza Perrat (author of Spirit of Lost Angels):

Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator.

Since completing a creative writing course ten years ago, several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.

She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

Spirit of Lost Angels is the first in a historical series set against a backdrop of rural France.

www.lizaperrat.com

Triskele Books website

Triskele Books Facebook page

Jane Dixon Smith website

This week I entered the monthly competition run by an online writer’s group, on the unseasonal theme of A Royal Christmas, and got a ‘Commended’ for my 250-word piece. In celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (which I managed to avoid completely) and since I’m unlikely to find a market for this cynical little tale, I thought I’d put it up here. I hope it makes you chuckle.

Warning: Do Not Read if you think criticism of the royal family is unpatriotic. I’d hate to offend anyone!

The Royal Presents

“Come in, Charles. Sit down.”

“It wasn’t me that cheeked Nanny. Honest, Ma, it was Andrew.”

“We’ll speak to him later. Meanwhile we want to discuss your letter to Santa.”

“I’ve asked for a new video game called Pac-man. Farty Fawcett says it’s fab!”

“Charlie dear, much as we’d like you to stay our baby forever, you need to grow up, at least in public.”

“Why, Ma?”

“People are starting to talk. It’s time you got married and had an heir.”

“Cripes! What will Cammy say? You know how scary she can be.”

“She needn’t worry, son. You won’t have to do the nasty. They can work wonders with test tubes these days.”

“But Ma—”

“Don’t whine, Charles. We’ve chosen a nice, quiet girl; distant cousin…virgin…likes children. She’s a bit like Camilla, but not so—”

“Sexy?”

“—married.”

“Damn! I thought that might be a problem, sooner or later.”

“Yes, marriage is an awful bind, but you must think of England.”

“Look, Ma, if I agree to marry Cousin — what’s her name?”

“Diana.”

“Right. If I agree, can I have Pac-man too? I’ll need something to do on my honeymoon.”

“Do as we say and we’ll have a word with Santa.”

“Cool!”

“Once Diana’s popped out an heir, and a spare, we can pack her off to the country and everything will go back to normal. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“It’s not as though she’ll cause any trouble. Shy little Di wouldn’t say boo to a goose!”

Travelling backwards –
and taking your readers with you

When you write about the distant past, you’re aiming to take your reader somewhere neither of you have ever been. You’ll need to be both a convincing liar and an engaging one. How do you combine historical authenticity with storytelling that feels fresh and true? How do you avoid getting bogged down in period detail?

When I embarked on my own novel, I realised early on that I needed to know a lot more than I did about a whole host of things: the Luftwaffe, Kindertransports, musical life in Dublin, the physical fabric of pre-war Berlin. I went for total immersion; at my lowest point I could have told you pretty much anything you wanted to know about a Heinkel He-111. When I started to write, though, it was dead on the page.

I put the whole project to one side. When I came back to it a few years later, something strange had happened. The research seemed to have evened itself out, and all those insistent details clamouring for inclusion had piped down. This time, I wrote from the heart. I started with universals – jeopardy, betrayal, isolation, exile, hope, desire – the things that always feel the same. I tried to tell a truthful story and not to worry about the barrier of time between my characters and me. When I needed to know something, I checked it. If I found a little snippet that would light up a scene, I used it. Everything else, I threw away.

If I have any advice to give, it’s this: try to see things with a period eye. Don’t highlight things your character would take for granted as a means of shoehorning in your research. I was lucky to have Oskar capable of playing the role of the observant outsider. For him, everything about Ireland is odd, different. He notices the advertisements because he hasn’t a clue what Bovril is, or Bird’s, or why a trolley bus might have Gold Flake written on the side. Your characters are creatures of their time. Don’t give them your attitudes or the security of your vantage point. Remember that you stand in a privileged position because you know all about outcomes and have the benefit of moral hindsight. My characters don’t know who will win the war, if Ireland will be invaded and, if so, by whom. The tension between their ignorance and our knowledge is part of what differentiates historical fiction from other genres, at least some of the time.

You need to know the historical context, of course, but people living through a period don’t spend every moment reflecting on the great canvas on which their lives are painted. In your research, what you’re really looking for is texture. What did people eat? Were they cold? What did they fear and desire?

If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a detail that will take your breath away. Cherish it, but don’t smother the spark by trying to find out everything about it. If you let it work as an imaginative trigger, it will be much more potent. Let it find its own place in your fictional world. I came across a brownish mural in a bar in Northern France, a depiction of a very German-looking village. I’ve really no idea how it got to be there, but I decided I could use it in my own made-up way. Direct testimony is valuable for its emotional link to the past – a schoolgirl meets Hitler on a choir trip, a Luftwaffe crewmember swims in the Golfe de Morbihan on his day off, a refugee watches a small boy stretch his arm out towards the retreating coastline.

When dealing with research, absorb the facts, then liberate yourself from them. Your story must be plausible, but it need not be true. Know your period inside out, but don’t push your research at the readers ad nauseam. They want to lose themselves in the narrative, to forget that you’ve made it all up. Don’t keep dragging them back to Wikipedia. Remember that, whatever the period, human emotions were no different then than now, a daisy was still a daisy and milk turned sour.

Total immersion lends confidence to your writing, but you must be prepared to take imaginative leaps too. You can’t know everything. Hold tight to the things that don’t change, then close your eyes and jump! It’s fiction after all.

***

Annemarie Neary is the author of A Parachute in the Lime Tree, published by The History Press Ireland in March 2012. She is an award-winning short story writer and former lawyer. This is her first novel. Further information on Annemarie’s website.  To get updates on the historical background to the book, check out the book’s dedicated Facebook page.