Writing and backgammon

We've recently learned how to play backgammon, so now we can finally use the set that we bought in Turkey about 15 years ago. (I said we'd get there in the end.)

Like all dice games there is a great deal of luck in the game, although strategy and 'reading the game' play their parts too. Such is our competitiveness that we've both started practising online at http://www.247backgammon.org/ to sharpen our skills.

Naturally, I started on the beginner's level and lately I've been practising almost exclusively on the expert level. And by practising I mean losing. It won't surprise you to learn that the expert level seems to be far luckier with the dice than the lower settings, or me. And any mistakes I make are ruthlessly punished.

Why then do I play against the expert? Because, win or lose, that's usually when I play at my best (although that's cold comfort when I feel I've been cheated out of victory).

It seems to me that writing is a lot like backgammon. We can stick to the lower levels and enjoy the game without feeling too taxed. Stories will still get written, in their own time, and may even be shared. There's no shame in that and we can derive a great deal of fulfilment from the creativity and feedback.

Or...we can turn things up a few notches and dare to try a game at expert level. We can work to a deadline and a plan, gather up our finished work and edit it until our fingers hurt, and then risk all by sending our writing to an agent, a publisher or a magazine editor.

We may feel that the odds are stacked against us and that the dice are rigged. The statistics certainly bear out that point of view.

But you know what?

Sometimes statistics don't show the full story. Sometimes we gain far more, even if we 'fail', by pushing ourselves beyond our limits. Sometimes, instead of publication being solely a game we want to win, we can choose to see it as a journey and an experience we can learn from and grow from.

My trusty spreadsheet (see previous post) shows me all the times I've submitted material and the percentages of successes and failures. But more than that, it shows me how far I've come as a writer.

Speaking of which....coming soon!

CAUSE & EFFECT- my third novel published by Joffe Books this year.

A random attack on a child and a clinical assassination thrust Thomas Bladen into a dark conspiracy.
Thomas Bladen works in surveillance for a shadowy unit of the British government. But just when he thought things had settled down, his girlfriend Miranda’s father calls in a favour. Thomas must investigate an attack on the loved one of a drug dealer. As he delves deeper, he finds out the truth about Miranda’s past and his investigation takes him closer to the shadow state and endangers everyone Thomas cares about. 

Due out on 12th December 2015 and available for pre-order.

The joy of spreadsheets

Spreadsheets reveal the fruits of your labours
After a word processing package, a writer's best software friend may well be a spreadsheet. True, they're not seen as sexy or as creative as certain bespoke applications I could name (but won't, as I don't have a sponsorship deal!). However, when you get a basic grasp of how spreadsheets work, basic formulas and the meaning of GIGO*, a good spreadsheet can save you time and free up your thinking.

Providing you keep the information up to date, a spreadsheet can give you a detailed overview of your writing empire, o that you can see at a glance how you're faring financially and which of your many strings is twanging a good tune.

Here are some of my favourite uses for a writer's spreadsheet:

- Tracking submissions, while adding in a simple formula will also give you a prompt date for following up or for giving up.

- Displaying your freelance pitches, submissions, successes and clients by category. Why? Because it will give you a clear indication of what you're good at and whether you've knocked on the same door before (and with what effect).

- Money. My trusty - and far from sophisticated - spreadsheet can tell me which types of writing are the most lucrative for me, and the average payment for a type of job (e.g. blog writing, article writing, ghostwriting, branding, editing, etc.) and which invoices have yet to be sent or remain unpaid.

- A library overview of which pieces I've written, whether they're sold or unsold, the word count, and - for sold pieces - whether and when any second rights are available.

- For novels, I can keep account of the word count per chapter, and the key events it contains. If I want to change the sequence of events it makes it easier for re-plotting.

- Novel email lists for updates or new announcements.

Once the worksheet is set up and any formulas configured (that sounds way more complicated than it actually is), it's simple a case of updating the s/sheet with any new or changed information. Hey presto, you can concentrate on writing!

* Garbage In Garbage Out. But you knew that, right?

Clarissa Johal and The Island

Since time immemorial people have gathered around the fire to tell stories and wondered what else might be lurking close by in the shadows. I recently caught up with Clarissa Johal, author of Paranormal, Gothic Horror & Fantasy books and stories. She knows a thing or two about those shadowy realms - and their inhabitants...

Q1. Congratulations, Clarissa, on the publication of your latest novel, The Island, through Booktrope, Forsaken Imprint. What was your journey to publication with this one?  

The Island is my fifth book, but I’ve had three short stories, a play, and numerous magazine articles published. To date, I’ve worked with five different publishers. They’ve run the gamut from smaller houses (Musa Publishing), to larger ones (Permuted Press). My latest (Booktrope) is a hybrid publisher. Hybrids are a new concept in the world of publishing, but I think authors will see more of them pop up in the future. Publishing is a journey. As an author, I look at each book, the requirements to make it successful, and my own time-frame. Then, I choose which publishing model works best for me, and run with it.

Q2. Have you always been drawn to the paranormal on the page or off it?

I've had experiences, and consider the paranormal a part of the world we live in. I never considered writing in the genre until about five years ago. While working on a fantasy trilogy, I was hit with the characters of Cronan and Lucas, my Death Spirit and Guardian from Between. I would wake with their back-stories in my head, I’d get flashes of their homeland and people they knew—it was weird. They wouldn’t leave me alone, and they certainly didn’t belong in my fantasy trilogy! Finally, I set the trilogy aside, and started writing Between. I joke that I was pulled into the Otherworld with that book. I’ve been writing paranormal and gothic horror ever since.  

Q3. Is there a paranormal experience of your own you'd like to share?

I’ve had quite a few. One, in particular, happened last October. My husband and I were watching television one evening. Suddenly, there was this pop of light right in the middle of the living room, about five feet from the ground, followed by the scent of an electrical charge. We both saw and smelled it. My husband decided to go to bed, but I stayed up. As I continued to watch television alone, the living room began to feel crowded. I kept catching movement in the peripheral of my vision, but when I’d look, there was nothing there. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night. I’ve written about several other experiences in my blog, and even to me, they sound odd. But after years of the unexplained, I’ve come to the conclusion, “it is what it is.”

Q4. What was the inspiration for The Island?

You get the exclusive on that, because I don’t think I’ve told anyone!  When I was twelve, my parents sent me to camp for the summer. The camp was located on a small island off the mainland, and kept solely for campers only. In addition to standard camp activities, the kids were allowed to explore on their own as long as they stayed together in groups of three. Unfortunately, because I was a new kid, my group of three was just me. When the camp counselors asked if we had found our groups, I kept my mouth shut. Free time came, and off I went to explore on my own. There were designated paths on the island which campers were supposed stick to. But you know how that goes—kids do what they do. Most of the kids headed towards the beach, but I decided to forge my own path into the woods. While waist-high in foliage, I literally fell into a small cave. The cave was empty…but not empty. Have you ever had that feeling? It felt like whatever resided inside, suddenly fixated on me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood, I felt icy cold, and the prick of tears was close, though I didn’t know why. It almost felt like I had stumbled into someplace sacred. I managed to climb out, and literally made myself walk away calmly. Quite honestly, it felt like I was being watched at that point. That night, I tossed and turned, unsettled. The feeling persisted into the next day, so I returned to the area—wanting to make peace with it. But try as I might, and no matter how many times I combed that area, the cave was nowhere to be found. That cave (and the feeling associated with it) stuck with me, and so The Island was born.

Q5. What authors have inspired you?

Paranormal, horror and fantasy authors who combine complex mythological concepts into their story-telling are at the top of my list. BROM, Charles de Lint, and Robert Holdstock are all inspiring in that regard. I grew up reading the classics, which I think gave me a good base as to what constitutes “good” literature. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, and The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, are two of my favorite books.

Q6. It would be remiss of me if I didn't ask, "What's with the trapeze?" 

Ha! I’ve studied ballet for over twenty years. Last year, I decided to take trapeze classes offered by Cirque de Vol, and fell in love with it. When I hear music, I choreograph trapeze routines in my head—that’s how obsessed I am! I’ve even had a trapeze installed in my living room so I can practice. There’s something about the trapeze arts that strikes a chord. When I’m on the trapeze, it feels right. Does that sound bonkers? It probably is.

Q7. Do you have a writing process?

My idea usually begins as a flash of the location (usually in a dream, or when I’m in the shower, oddly enough). That gives me a locale. The characters seep in later (again, they’ll usually come to me completely formed in dreams, or in the shower). Then, I’ll sit and write the story from beginning to end. At the risk of sounding cuckoo, the characters tell me what to write, not vice versa. I do my “details” research after the first draft is completed, and then work on my edits.

Q8. Where can we find out more about you and your books?

I’m everywhere….

Author Website http://www.clarissajohal.com/
Amazon Author Page http://www.amazon.com/Clarissa-Johal/e/B003KVTMPK/
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/clarissa.johal.9
Twitter @ClarissaJohal
Google+ https://plus.google.com/u/0/101586327494596967316
Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4502113.Clarissa_Johal
Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/clarissajohal/

Q9. What are you working on next?

My readers were intrigued by one of the side-characters, Poppy, from Struck. They kept asking if I was going to do a spin-off with her. Typically, I don’t do spin-offs or series books, but decided to give it a go. Let’s just say, she had a story to tell! Poppy should be completed by December 2015, and published sometime in 2016. Take a peek at the blurb:

A red-headed, pink-loving mortician who speaks to the dead.
A socially awkward funeral director.
Poppy and Dante from Struck are back.

Something is lingering around Skyview Funeral Home--and it's stealing souls of the departed. With Dante in tow, Poppy is determined to put a stop to it. Will she be able to protect those who are trying to cross over? Or will her soul be next?

That said, you can keep up with my latest releases by following my Amazon Author Page  http://www.amazon.com/Clarissa-Johal/e/B003KVTMPK/

Leave me out of it!

One of the toughest challenges for an author is letting your characters (your literary children) grow up and gain their independence. It's a curious and somewhat dissociative process to enter into a dialogue with a character you've created, as far as you're aware, and find that they not only answer you back they also surprise you with their responses.

Some characters start out as the antithesis of the author, while others are more nuanced - they reflect some personal values and reject others. Compound or composite characters, drawing from several people both real and imagined, tend to have the most rounded psychologies.

In my opinion it's the flaws that make characters interesting. The slip of the virtuous, the villain who is fond of cats, or the knowing femme fatale - they all reveal a conflicted self and a struggle against one element of their own nature. 

Generally, I think, when we are personally repelled by one of our own creations (or any strong emption, come to that), we are probably on to something. 

Characters allow us to explore the shadow side of our own psyches; they are, to a degree, an expression of us but also a rejection of us. They are secret selves and parallel selves and selves without our constraints and conditioning, unguided by our own moral compass.

As an author I create or encounter situations on the page where characters behave in ways that are as foreign to me as a weekend on Gannymede. However, like most parents, I never disown my literary children whatever they have done. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit they're not bad, they're just written that way.

The third Thomas Bladen novel, Cause & Effect, is published later this year by Joffe Books. You can pre-order it here: