Sunday, 30 September 2012

Writing Course at Peralta 2012

Well, I've been very quiet this week in cyberspace and that's because it's been Peralta Writing Week 2012.  This year six people arrived eager to soak up some Tuscan sunshine and have time to write - there should have been eight, but two people fell by the wayside before the week began. Sadly, also, Caitlin Davies couldn't be here this year - so it was a much smaller group than usual.   Neil and I stayed at Peralta, and it's been a lovely, if very busy, time.  We work-shopped every morning;  walked, swam, talked, and wrote in the afternoon; shared work with each other in the early evening over an aperitivo, had dinner together, and finally collapsed into bed to start all over again in the morning.  Taking part can be a very scary experience, because participants arrive from all over the world, never having met before and you just don't know if you're going to get on with each other.  But this year, it was a fantastic group of people - one of the best that we've ever had, and it was quite sad when Saturday morning arrived and we all had to leave just as we'd all become friends.   I was very touched when the group presented me with a beautiful notebook (almost too posh to write in!!) and a small 'Quaderno' which they'd all signed and written a piece of poetry or prose for me to keep - a little book of memories.


The weather didn't always live up to its reputation - we had some very un-Italian days;  rain, cloud, thunderstorms, big winds - is there any part of the world that isn't having strange weather?  But we had one lovely, blue-sky day for lazing beside the pool and going out to explore the marble mountains, and the final evening was warm enough for us to eat outside and have a lively party to celebrate before everyone left.


We had one canine member of the course - Peralta's Ellie -  who seemed to manage to attend every workshop and read-around as well as the final dinner!

Now I'm back home and stuffing the washing machine with a week's worth of clothes, looking (with a glazed expression) at the stack of unanswered emails, and wishing normal life could be postponed for just a little longer!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Tuesday Poem: Estuary

I've just received the proofs of 'Estuary',  the new Anthology of art and poetry edited by Agnes Marton and Harriette Lawler and it's very exciting.  I've been paired with French painter Veronique Brosset, and it looks like this.....

And the poem on the opposite page looks like this (poem also copied below for clarity) ......



Estuary: A Confluence of Art and Poetry will be published soon by Moon and Mountain Press in the USA.  Contributors I'm familiar with include Pascale Petit, Ian Duhig, Michelle McGrane, Kim Moore and Abegail Morley, and there are many more international poets whose work is new to me.  It's a lovely project and I'm delighted to be part of it, and particularly to be the title poem!

The Estuary
            swills
out this waste of silt,
        through
wandering seines
    of water,
         empties and fills,
empties and fills,
        twice a day. 
The sludge looks solid. 
            Deceitful.
A boat has been drowned
    in it.
        The wooden hull
curves up, like a shell
    wedged in the sea floor
under the tide. 
             The sea
is a glittering rumour
              of  light where
sky and estuary meet,
              a salt aftertaste in the air.
I’m not here for the weather,
            or bathing,
this sea is too withdrawn
            for conversation.
I just want an idea of ocean,
    the tides, the drag of the moon,
the smell of sea fog.
             I want to examine
the wreckage, discover the shallow
    prints your feet made, among
            the birds’ pocked
    marks on the mud.  Put mine
beside them, hoping
        to last a few millennia
slowly fossilising
        into bedrock.

For more Tuesday Poems please pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub and take a look at other contributions from around the world. 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Story behind the Story

Where do stories come from?  How can a word, an image, something remembered, suddenly develop legs and start walking off on its own?

The Sun's Companion started off in the graveyard of a small country church, now deconsecrated.  I love wandering around them, looking at the stones and the names and thinking about the people under my feet. On one of these excursions I found an eighteenth century gravestone that said 'Tamar Fell, Beloved Wife of John Richardson'.  And I began to wonder - if she was his wife, why wasn't she called Tamar Richardson?  Tamar is a very unusual name - a river in Devon - and it stuck in my mind.

Looking it up, I discovered that Tamar is a biblical name - an old Testament princess - and it was very common among Quaker communities.  It was, apparently, also common for Quaker women to keep their own names after marriage.  The Pennine hills are riddled with old lead mines, owned by Quaker companies - many of the miners were also Quakers - so now the mystery of her name was solved.  But I carried on thinking about it.

Before long, Tamar had developed a twentieth century character and a personal history that would take her from Devon to Cumbria, via the dockside communities of the River Tyne.  Her life story had become fused with family stories told by my mother - stories I'd always longed to tell.  My grandmother was an amazing 'character' who lived in North Shields and her war-time tales and those of her friends, just had to be told too.
The character of Anna Weissmann was based partly on one of my mother's best friends when she was growing up - a girl who wanted to become a painter, but couldn't because there was no money for her training.  Anna's German heritage and her escape from Hitler's Germany in 1935 were informed by my father-in-law's experience of being a young jewish refugee.  He, too, was interned when war broke out, despite the fact that his mother had married an Englishman, and he believed himself to be British.

So that's how The Sun's Companion began - with a gravestone and some family stories.  Many of the characters are based on real people -  farming people on the remote Cumbrian fellside where I was brought up.  They're long dead now, as are the characters who sat round my grandmother's kitchen table in North Shields.  But I hope I've given them life again in the novel!

I love Margaret Atwood's book 'Negotiating with the Dead' - where she compares the act of writing fiction with Orpheus, going down into the underworld to bring the dead  Euridice to life again.  As fiction  writers we are all 're-membering' in some way or other.






Thursday, 20 September 2012

All is revealed! The Sun's Companion

Well, I’ve finally done it - found a title and a cover and sent The Sun’s Companion out into the world.  My first novel to see the light of day.  I hope you approve.

Many thanks to all those who suggested titles - some of the best ones were unfortunately already taken by other books. In the end I didn't choose any of them, but it was the suggestion, from two people, that I should sit down and brainstorm all the themes and ideas in the book that gave it to me.  I quickly realised that one of the recurring themes in the book is Fate - Nemesis - how our lives can be changed in an instant by events beyond our control.

As soon as I began to explore this, it became interesting. Nemesis was the Greek Goddess of judgement, who doled out the fates that each individual deserved and which none could escape.  At some point she has become synonymous in people’s minds with Fate.  Both are completely beyond the control of humanity. As a Roman poet put it:   "All the tangled paths of human life, by land and sea, are by the will of (Fate) hid from our eyes, and in many and devious tracks are cleft apart and in wandering mazes lost. Along them men by Fortune's dooming drift like unto leaves that drive before the wind.”  This seemed very appropriate for the plot of the novel, but I couldn’t call it Nemesis.  However, there was one entry for Nemesis on the internet that caught my eye.

Astronomers have predicted that our sun is a binary star and that its companion is a dark dwarf star on a long trajectory, swinging out into space and then in towards us again, causing cosmic catastrophes, comet storms and mass extinctions every million years or so.  The name they gave this star was Nemesis.

So, the two young female characters in the novel, Tamar and Anna, are at the mercy of Nemesis, the sun’s companion, as the nineteen thirties tick relentlessly towards a new decade and a war in Europe that will change their lives for ever.  I hope the title is going to be intriguing enough to attract readers - and the cover.  Once Neil had the title, the cover was a lot easier!  We’ve tried to give it a contemporary feel, but kept the antique suitcase for a suggestion of something historical.  The situation of the character is accurate too - Tamar does find herself in a cornfield in 1941.

The novel is up on Kindle now, although the official publication date is October 1st and by a lovely coincidence, it's reviewed by Debbie Bennett over at the Indie E-book Review Site today.  We hope to have it on Kobo soon, but Kobo Writing Life is proving rather more tricky than Amazon.  They’re having a few teething problems.  More on that soon.

You might find me a little quiet for the next week or so - the annual creative writing course at Peralta is about to begin and I have a small group of writers from all over the world - Canada to Australia - this year.  Keeping my fingers crossed that the weather stays good.  September can be fickle!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Tuesday Poem: If You are Lucky by Michelle McGrane

If you are lucky
you will carry one night with you
for the rest of your life,
a night like no other.
You won't see it coming.

Forget the day, the year.
It will arrive uninvoked,
an astrological anomaly.

You will remember
how every cell in your body
knew him, this stranger,

how you held your breath,
the way you searched his face.
This is how such evenings begin.

And you will be real in your skin,
bone and sinew;  the way you always thought
you could be.  Effortlessly.
This is how you will fit together.

His parted lips between your thighs,
your half-lit nipples darkening,
the hot-breathed arrival of desire,
the frenzied coupling
as you opened soundlessly
and the world flooded into you.

In the morning, maybe,
soon after sunrise
you will walk barefoot above a waterfall in the forest,
light-headed with the smell of sex,
laughing in your déshabillée.

You will carry
the music of this memory with you;
and from time to time,
in the small, withered hours,
your body will sing its remembering.

© Michelle McGrane

From A Suitable Girl, published by Pindrop Press 2010
Published with permission


This wonderful, sensual, romantic poem comes from Michelle McGrane's most recent collection A Suitable Girl.  The whole collection is very impressive and you can find a much longer review of it, with more poetry, over on my book blog hereMichelle McGrane was born in Zimbabwe in 1974, moved to South Africa when she was 14 and now lives in Johannesburg.  She edits the fantastic poetry site 'Peony Moon', (if you haven't checked it out before then please do) though where she gets the time to write, work and edit is a mystery!   Michelle has recently been to the UK for a series of poetry readings and is one of the international poets included in the forthcoming anthology of art and poetry 'Estuary', published in the USA by Moon and Mountain and edited by Harriette Lawler and Agnes Marton.

If you'd like to see more poetry, pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub and check out what the Tuesday Poets are posting from around the world.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?: In Praise of Unedited Self-publishing by Dan Hollo...

Dan is brilliant at sparking off controversial debates.  This one is no exception.  But he's right - indie publishing has freed writers from all conventional notions about how a book should read or look.

Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?: In Praise of Unedited Self-publishing by Dan Hollo...: (The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes , my alt novel written on Facebook that challenges us with the question of what is real in the ...

Friday, 14 September 2012

Strange encounter in a little town in Alsace

It wasn't an easy drive back from England this time.  Last year we drove  from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Pietrasanta in Italy in one long day;  this year it took two.  The weather in northern Europe was at its most disruptive - we drove through cloudbursts and thunderstorms and in between it just rained.  Heavy traffic, spray......   very tiring to drive through.  So we stopped in Alsace, in the south-eastern corner of France between Germany and Switzerland, on the edge of the Vosges mountains - an area we haven't explored before.  It was spectacularly beautiful, if a little too manicured.  I like my history rough at the edges.  But the wine and the food were good, the hotel cheap, and the people friendly.  Wonderful vignettes of wooded hills with ruined castles perched on the top, faded in and out of the mist.  We must go back one day for a proper look.   This was Ribeauville, where we stayed.


We were both overtired.  We took the luggage out of the car and Neil put a suitcase down to lock the doors, then spotted a better parking slot.  He got into the car, forgot the suitcase and was beginning to reverse out, when a man began shouting to him in French and gesticulating through the window.  Suitcase saved from extinction!   Later, as we sat at a table outside one of the little bars in the old town, the man walked past with his wife.  We thanked him in pidgin French, all over again, and we had a short conversation before he said, 'Are you by any chance English?'  'Yes,' we replied, still in French.  'Then why aren't we speaking English?'  he asked laughing.   Clearly American.   We invited them both to have a drink with us (only fair since he saved my suitcase) and began to chat.  Their names were Art and Nori Mattson and they were on a motorcycling holiday, all the way from New York.  Then, when we began, cautiously, to probe what we all 'did', it transpired that he was also an author, writing books on maritime and local history.  His most recent book is about the wreck of the Mexico off the shores of Long Island - a scandalous shipwreck, where people stood on the shore and watched more than a hundred Irish immigrants (mostly women and children) freeze to death on the deck.  The crew had already abandoned ship in the only rescue boat. It was such an infamous story that Walt Whitman wrote a poem about it (Sleepers, Leaves of Grass) and several painters painted it.

The book is called Water and Ice and  Art is now working on a novel based on the story.   I'm always astounded by the courage and suffering of early migrants.  Many of my Irish family went to America and I often wonder how many of them actually made it.  They risked their lives for a better way of life, just as migrants from the African continent are doing now - arriving in sinking vessels, without any guarantee of a welcome, never mind a job or a roof over their heads.    I've downloaded Art's book and am looking forward to reading about the Wreck of the Mexico. But what amazing serendipity to bump into another author on a foreign street like that?

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tuesday Poem: On the Road Again





The Ferry out of Hull

Leaving the sea loch
crammed on the rail like
hungry gulls, to watch
lace fractals at the edge
of the wake, the curling
vortices of salt and mud
in the back-wash of the ship's
propellers, churning us out
of port onto the heave of the
ocean towards a grey horizon
curved to a formula
we've learned by rote
but never understood;  the
slippage of air and sky, the force
that keeps the water, ship, us
from levitating into space,
the wormholes in the eddies
of time we're about to vanish
into as we inch towards
the edge of all we can see.




By the time you read this, I will probably be somewhere in Europe, on a road, heading for home.  I wrote the poem on the ferry - a piece of description really, just trying to describe what I was seeing.   The Mandelbrot sets forming and swirling at the edge of the ferry's wake fascinated me - I've never seen them happen in real life before.  Terrible photo from small point and click camera doesn't do justice to it!

There's one line in the poem I absolutely hate 'wormholes in the eddies of time', but will alter when I get back to base and have time to edit. Too busy driving at the moment!

Hope you aren't too busy to pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub, and check out what everyone else is posting.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

London and Back to meet an Agent

Just spent all day on trains to and from London - four hours each way - for a short meeting with the agent for the Norman Nicholson Estate.  This kind of travel is an endurance test for any author who doesn’t live in the south east of England, where the largest part of  the publishing industry is based.  But at least I got some peaceful writing and editing time on the train.

The Nicholson Estate, which I need to cooperate with for the biography of Norman I’m just beginning to write, is managed by David Higham’s.  They’re a very high powered  (but friendly) agency with clients like Alexander McCall Smith, Jacqueline Wilson and Stephen Fry.  Many people aren’t aware that a big part of an agency’s work is also to handle the estates of deceased authors.

This can be very lucrative - think of Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Catherine Cookson.  And most agents also have interesting literary archives containing letters and manuscripts from their clients, not to mention first editions, photographs and memorabilia. So, when you’re writing the biography of another writer, it’s very helpful to meet their agent.



But agents have a problem with a huge back-list of valuable work from authors no longer able to promote their own books.  Apparently some are going into another form of self-publishing, through Amazon’s POD White Glove programme - bringing out their authors’ back-lists and unplaced work.  Apparently Amazon offer a better deal to agents than the KDP authors' programme. It’s difficult to find out much about White Glove, but it shows just how clever Amazon is, in thinking through the problems faced by the publishing industry at the moment, and offering solutions.  We’ve all become publishers and so have our agents.  Where will it end?

For those of us who have agents, we have to e-publish with their cooperation.  It’s part of the deal, but it’s good to know that they’re gradually beginning to acknowledge the value of the  indie scene for at least some of our work.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Living in Interesting Times


This is a lovely post by Katherine Roberts at The History Girls - a review of women's writing from cave dwellers to kindle!  I couldn't resist sharing.

“May you live in interesting times” is a curse in some circles but, like it or not, authors today are living in very interesting times. There has been some wild speculation about the death of publishing as we know it, the death of printed books, the death of literature, the death of agents, and the death of professional authors (of which mine has been greatly exaggerated). But the only thing that’s really changed is the way a story gets out of the author’s head and into the reader’s head... the writing, publishing and distribution process, in other words. Because stories are the same now as they were thousands of years ago, when cavemen told tales around their campfires at night. . . .  Read More 

Sunday, 2 September 2012

David Gaughran: Manning the Barricades of the E-book Revolution

David Gaughran’s ‘Let’s Get Digital’ is a really good handbook for new indie-publishers - a morale booster and time-saver all in one.  More than that, it’s a justification for what is snobbishly being referred to as ‘self-publishing’ by the establishment, in a way that somehow brackets it with Vanity publishing and brands it as crap at the same time.

‘An Army is only ever prepared for the war that’s just finished’, warns one of David Gaughran’s authors.  But special forces have to envisage and prepare for the next war.  David Gaughran is the digital equivalent of special forces, preparing us for a digital revolution which, he suggests, has only just begun.

It may seem a bit far-fetched to think of what’s happening with e-books and self-publishing as a kind of war, but traditional publishing is putting up quite a fight and they don’t always fight clean.  ‘We should be on the same side, working together to advance our collective interests, but sometimes self-publishers are viewed as the enemy, or wayward children that are making a terrible mistake,’ David Gaughran observes. Digital authors need to be as fully armed with information as it’s possible for them to be. That’s why he wrote the book.  It’s sub-titled ‘How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should’.

The Guardian are giving a lot of space to the arguments of traditional publishing at the moment in the shape of Ewan Morrison who seems to think that all self-publishers should be exterminated in the interests of literary good taste.  Another article recently by US author Sue Grafton quoted her as saying that self-published authors were lazy, amateurish, and not bothering to learn their craft through years of rejection and the filtering system operated by agents and publishers.

Both commentators were woefully ill-informed.  Self published authors have to work harder than others - they don’t have a big publisher to do it all for them; and many, many self-published authors have decades of professional experience behind them and could teach EM and SG a thing or two about craft.  Of course there’s a lot of crap out there - but there is in traditional publishing too and it often sells better than the more ‘literary’ stuff!  As for being ‘amateurish’, only the top 5% of traditionally published authors earn enough to give up the day job and ‘go professional’.

David Gaughran dedicates a lot of space to encouragement and persuasion.  He gives you validation, if you need it, for self-publishing your work, and a dozen successful authors relate their reasons for going digital and share their experiences. They range from big players like Bob Mayer, to complete newbies, and yes, JA Konrath gets quoted too.

Gaughran’s message is simple - traditional, legacy publishing is doomed and he explains why.  Agents and publishers had it cosy and lucrative for a long time and they were slow to recognise the challenges presented by the digital age.  When cold commercial winds began to blow a few years ago they didn’t react in the right way, adopting industrial business models, going for mass market, accountant controlled publishing and allowing product quality and author development to be squeezed out. Then, when new technology arrived, they saw it as a threat and began to act defensively to defend their territory. They’ve have been consistently hostile towards e-books and self-publishing rather than working out how to join the party.

The truth is that writers and readers can now form partnerships without intermediaries.  We don’t need agents and gargantuan publishing houses that eat money and move at a snail’s pace. It’s too late to reverse this process. Some traditional publishing will remain, Gaughran states, and some independent booksellers will survive, but not in their current forms. Will the last person in the building please put out the light?

He also deconstructs some of the self-publishing myths.  So, there’s a lot of crap out there?  ‘The idea of the poor self-published work contaminating the rest is clearly rubbish.’  The cream will always rise to the top. It’s just as easy to find a good book on Amazon as it is in any bookshop.  People still find books in the same way - by telling each other. ‘Word of mouth... is the only thing that has ever sold books.’   And readers don’t care who the publisher is;  ‘If you have a quality cover, a great editor, perfect formatting, and a good story, your work cannot be readily distinguished from a trade published book’.

Having demolished the myths and encouraged you to join the digital revolution he goes on to show you how.  He doesn’t pretend that it’s easy and he stresses all along the way that quality really has to matter - if you’re not putting out a product that looks and reads professionally, then you shouldn’t be doing it.  Cutting editorial corners is the biggest mistake a self-published author can make.

Rather than go through the whole process of showing you in tedious detail how to convert files to mobi or e-pub, Gaughran offers you the option of downloading his own guide from the internet (free) as well as an excellent step-by-step instruction booklet by Guido Henkel (also free). Both documents are regularly up-dated.  Neil has already Kindled 7 books and put 2 up on Smashwords, but he says he learned a great deal from these guides - things he’d fiddled with for hours could be formatted in a couple of key strokes without resorting to bad language or being driven to the booze cupboard for inspiration.

Next, Gaughran takes you through the publicity and promotion you need to do - not the hours and hours that some doom merchants estimate - and probably no more than a legacy publisher would expect you to do.  I’ve recently spent two days travelling to give a one hour talk to 30 people in a bookshop, all to please a publisher and sell maybe 10 books.  A couple of hours on the internet seems economical to say the least. As well as covering the marketing angles, Gaughran also gives very good advice on the delicate business of pricing, explaining clearly how the Amazon thing works.  I found pricing e-books quite difficult and was glad of his advice.

David Gaughran never hides the fact that the formatting is complicated, nor the fact that you’re going to have to invest some money in cover design and editing if you want a top quality product, but he does make you feel that it’s all worthwhile and that joining the E-book Revolution is exactly the right thing to do right now.

Neil and I wish we’d had this book when we started on the road to e-publishing.  We’d have avoided a lot of pitfalls and not spent so much time agonising about doing the right thing.  This is a life-changing book for digital authors.  As David Gaughran says ‘It’s a great time to be a writer’!