Sunday, 21 May 2017

Do writers need boundaries?

Vive la difference!
I'm at a really interesting point in the novel I'm writing. And I know that because it's making me uncomfortable. It's not violence or sex or swearing; no, it's more subtle than that. It's about religion and culture. More specifically, religion and culture that aren't mine. 

I've recently had some brilliant email conversations with Lynn Michell, founder of Linen Press, and it's been fascinating to see where our thinking aligns and where it diverges, when it comes to books. We've chatted about the tropes in genre fiction and how, for example, some of the archetypal characters in noir don't play so well out of context, or in a more modern one. It all got me thinking about the boundaries writers place upon themselves and how that can either be a blessing or a curse.

Sometimes when you create a character with a walk on role there is something about them that makes you want to spend more time with them. In Line of Sight that spotlight fell on Thurston Leon, a West Indian private detective based in Dalston. Then (same book) there's Stuart Fraser, the Scottish bloke working for Special Branch over in Belfast. And let's not forget the two cops from Shadow State, Karen Edwards and Jun Wen - a black Brummie and a British Born Chinese detective. You see where I'm going with this now?

The BBC website ran a piece recently about how prolific author and TV writer, Anthony Horowittz, was cautioned to not create a black lead character because he is white. I don't anticipate having a profile that high any time soon (!) so it's a moot point for me, but one that I have considered anyway. Sometimes ethnicity, religion and culture are entirely secondary to a character because they either aren't relevant to the story (and let's face it, I'm talking about my stories here), and sometimes there isn't space for that secondary character to get more than her five minutes on the page. And sometimes, for a whole heap of reasons, I don't feel I have the skill to do it well enough.

But when a fear of being labelled patronising or concerns of allegations of tokenism prevent literature (or any aspect of the arts) being diverse and, well...imaginative...I think we have a problem.

My fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series stumbles into that maze because it takes place during the 2005 London Bombings. There are a few changes to the team and an assignment that forces people to confront their values and prejudices. 

As writers we're so used to Mark Twain's 'write what you know' advice. (Or Hemingway's, if you prefer.) And you've probably heard my own updated version, which is 'know what you're writing about'. When it comes to diversity and inclusivity, I think it's more important to just get out of the village of our own experience. We need to be able to write about people we don't know, so that some of our readers can meet new people too. And not merely perfect, politically correct and sanitised stereotypes, but real, flawed and surprising people. 

Anyone who has read the series so far will know that I like to bring characters back from other books - Jack Langton, Sheryl, Sir Peter, and even Bob Peterson (I have a soft spot for Uncle Bob!). This time, MI5 operative Rupee Tagore also returns to Thomas and Karl's world. She was always there, on the floor below.

Writers need boundaries to see how far we've come and then how far we're willing or able to go. Beyond that, we're into the wastelands of taste and the quicksand of appropriateness.

It's a sad fact of our interconnected world that whatever you write, pretty much, someone will take issue or offence with. That's lesson one from social media! I believe, as writers, we have to be true to the muse and to how faithfully we can express our imagination on the page. It's a process, a continual momentum against that formless boundary made up of our own preconceptions and society's mores. When we lose that momentum we become static, trapped in the confines of our own experience, culture and identity. It's not that we have to continually push and risk offending or challenging; it's that we need to feel free to explore the other when the muse takes us. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017


Where it all began.

First, a public announcement. 

STANDPOINT is a FREE download from May 14th to May 18th. Please share / download / review and do all the other groovy things that make an author's soul sing. 


Second, a little update for those of you who have been on the bus with me since Standpoint was first published in 2015 (and a few from before then). I'm now working on the fifth book in the Spy Chaser series, which is currently entitled No Defence. Writing what may well be the last book in the cycle is an unusual experience. Of course, there is the usual process of research, drafting, editing, panicking and insomnia. But in addition there is a certain, subtle pressure to both tie up loose ends and leave a door open for Thomas, Miranda and Karl to have new adventures. 

This latest (let's not say last for now) novel takes place in the aftermath of the 2005 London Bombing, which was something I'd always planned to do and the reason why the series started off in 2003. Reading the details of that terrible time, along with the second failed wave of attacks two weeks later, is harrowing and so it should be. Regardless of the genre, readers expect a degree of authenticity and authors have a responsibility to deliver that. I remember feeling sickened when the film Skyfall showed a derailed London Underground train, but I think I was supposed to. 

Books and films do more than entertain - they can take us on an emotional journey. Sure, there are formulas and templates and models - see Blake Snyder's Save the Cat as one such overview. 

In No Defence, Thomas has years with the Surveillance Support Unit under his belt, and all the experiences of the previous four books. He still has an eye for the details other people piece and he still has a talent for finding trouble. But this time, perhaps more than in any previous Spy Chaser novel, he is equal to the task.

Even if No Defence proves to be the last Bladen book for a while (never say never, right?), I'm not stepping away from the series. I am actively exploring how to get Thomas's adventures on to the small screen, on radio, or even on the big screen. I think it's time for a downmarket spy who doesn't wear a dinner jacket, who borrows his girlfriend's car, and for whom it's always been personal.

Thanks, as always,


Sunday, 7 May 2017

Is Social Media the Writer's Friend?

Recently, The Guardian carried a piece about author Joanna Trollope's criticism of fellow author JK Rowling. Specifically, JT thinks JKR spends far too much time being far too vocal on social media. 

You can read about it here:

The part that really piqued my interest was JT's suggestion that aspiring authors will look at JKR's interactions online, with her legions of fans, and assume that's what authors need to do these days.

Firstly, of course, getting even half a legion of fans online that aren't bots, retweeter services or purveyors of webcams is quite an achievement. Perhaps a few cohorts is more realistic.

Secondly, social media and online interaction is part of the game now, especially for anyone who is self-published, independently published, or who just wants to engage with their audience outside of their books.

Thirdly, and this is the thing that struck me most, there is no single (or proper) way for writers to behave. Surely that's part of what being a writer is all about? You make it up! Why would it be any different off the page than on it?

There will never be another JK Rowling. Aspire as we may, that ship has sailed. All writers need to balance time spent online with actual writing, which can be problematic because social media activity can feel a bit like writing in that it's creative and engaging. It's also often more fun - a never-ending source of inspiration, validation and connection. It won't get your books written though and may actually cloud your judgment by overloading you with shiny examples of how other people do it. But that too is part of the game. You have to figure out who you are as a writer and how you plan to go about your writing business.

I've seen many people reach overload and declare on line that they're taking a break, as if they have a relationship with social media or the people they're connected with online. Maybe there's some truth in that. I have also spoken with writers who allocate specific time to Retweet, Share, Like and all the other satisfying button clicks. That can work too.

Personally, I think social media can be useful, especially when you are reaching out to discover your audience, and also to interact with other authors. The same goes for writing blogposts (I couldn't not mention them) or your own tweets and posts. Social media plugs us into what's going on, even if that happens to be a bunch of cat videos from time to time.

But please don't mistake it for creative writing. 

What your relationship with social media?


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Who Owns Your Books?

Now you see me.
When it comes to books, the word 'ownership' can mean different things at different times.

Who owns an idea?
Nobody. Try copyrighting an idea and be prepared for laughter and disdain.

Who owns a completed manuscript?
Unless you've been paid to ghostwrite a novel, ownership rests with the author. The laws on copyright different between the UK and US, so as this is a mixed audience I will simply say that in the UK copyright exists (but would still require proof if there was a legal challenge) from the act of writing it. The Society of Authors has some brilliant information here:

Who owns your book once it's contracted?
You own the manuscript and you enter into a contract with an agent or a publisher. They own their edited version of your original manuscript. No matter how many drafts you've gone through, an objective editor will find more gold and cut away more. Their contract permits them to do certain things with your manuscript and specifies which of those actions requires your prior approval.

Who owns your book once it's published?
You and the agent / publisher retain the same proprietary interest in the book, but the reader owns their copy. Now, here's the thing, they may also have an emotional investment in your characters and their adventures, which - I would argue - is every bit as important as the nuts-and-bolts ownership principle. If you disappoint them during that book or in any subsequent book, they will vent their frustration online or by word of mouth. Once you become aware of this factor it can be a challenge to balance what you want to write, what your characters want you to write, and what your audience expects. 

I have spoken on this blog before about the principle of 'the same but different'. However, different can mean different things to different people.

The BBC website recently reported that JK Rowling  tweeted her apologies for killing off Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. Some would argue that the plot demanded it and that there's a certain logic in his demise. Others were so attached to Snape (and, of course, Alan Rickman who portrayed him) that it felt like an act of literary cruelty. 

I ponder all of this as I write my fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series, and I'm mindful of the feedback I've received, including:
- Isn't it about time that Thomas and Miranda settled down?
- Is there an ultimate revelation at the conclusion of the series?
- Is Book 5 the end of the series?
- Why isn't Thomas more macho?
- I hope you don't kill someone off just for the sake of it.

Without giving away any spoilers, my statement to the imaginary panel is:
Someone dies in each book. I won't name the dead but I make it a body count of at least eight so far. Thomas has shot five people, been wounded by one, and restrained himself from shooting someone on at least one occasion (not counting a familial near-miss!). How much more macho do you want him? Thomas and Miranda's relationship has its own carousel of baggage, but it has also evolved through the series. Book 5 continues that journey. Is it the end for Thomas and Miranda and Karl? That depends on the readers and what they want. Of course, a TV deal would certainly help bring Thomas Bladen to a wider audience! And yes, there is a revelation of sorts in Book 5. It's subtle, but it is there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have gun battle to conduct. Or do I?


Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Writer's Code

Sometimes we can't see the woods for the bluebells.
I always dread software updates. I expect things to go wrong. Today was a doosie. The iPad update had all kinds of nifty improvements that I neither wanted nor needed. It doesn't need to interface better with any other device, or do any of the other spectacularly irrelevant things that I'm told I'm missing out on. But, fearing the worst, I click and button and then go for a long walk with Anne and the neighbour's dogs.

On returning, the Pad (we're on informal terms) asks for my Apple ID. Awkward. I know my National Insurance number and even my Driving Licence number, but anything more recent than the 1980s tends to take a while to sink in. 

No problem though because I can switch on the computer upstairs in the attic (which is where attics usually are). This is where the magic happens, if by magic we mean me negotiating with my novel to come together the way it's been plotted. Needless to say, that's not exactly the case.

Anyway, I find the Apple ID and realise that I have two. Back downstairs I go, check which one is required and then back up I go because I know not to write down a password, not even for a journey downstairs. 

ID entered and a new screen greets me. There is now a two stage verification to protect my account and would I prefer a text or a call to my mobile phone, and what's the number. The two stage question is easy in the first part and a challenge in the second. I know it starts with 07 because they all do. (20 years with BT and that's what I learned.) 

I switch on my mobile and check the Me entry in my contacts (having already checked the landline's caller display and found that I haven't rung home recently). And there I am in my own contacts, only I'm a digit short. Now, Anne has to switch on her mobile, to give me my mobile number, to enter it into a screen, so that a machine can text me, so that I can enter the verification code, so that I can access my Pad, which looks exactly like it used to an hour ago. Along the way I skip all the marvellous new services that I never wanted (tough luck, Siri).

Creative writing can be a lot like that. A submission needs a synopsis, which needs a complete manuscript, which needs editing, which needs writing and drafting. And before then we need time to bring together all the elements that make a book interesting to us and the reader. Each step feels like a cross between a quest (which it is), a scavenger hunt (which it can be), and a set of challenges designed to test our resilience and determination. But when those codes are acquired and entered in the right sequence we access something magical. We have become writers. 



Wednesday, 12 April 2017

People Person

Visitors to this blog will have noticed my People Per Hour button on the right hand side of the screen. Who knows, you may even have tired me too as a consequence. (In which case, thank you.) 

Like many freelancers I have tried many platforms and, back in the day, some content mills too (although the less said about those, the better). PPH has served me well, although it's not without its challenges.

I recently encountered another useful site for freelancers called - a completely free site dedicated to helping you find genuine home working opportunities.

You can find my PPH review there. Think of it as the good, the bad, and the opinionated:

I'd welcome your comments on the piece, either on the site itself or here.

My thanks to Ben Taylor at HWC for hosting the review.


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Introducing Erik Carter

I never tire of meeting other writers (more often, online these days) and finding out what makes them tick. Whether we specialise in the same genre or find ourselves in different camps there are always stories behind the stories and an individual path to 'The End'. 

This time I would like to introduce you to Erik Carter, who writes thrillers and mysteries. A trained public historian and design professional, his adventures have led him across America, where he has done everything from hosting a television show to shooting documentaries in the desert to teaching college. These experiences gave the background he needs for his greatest adventure—writing fiction.


1. How do you know when a story is going to fill a book? 

That's never really a problem for me because I always seem to think big story-wise. When a story idea comes to me, I typically have to work on wrangling in all the details before it gets too big! Writing a short story would be a challenge for me.

That said, however, here's a big caveat: I always write on the shorter side of longer works. So for instance, my mystery is about 60,000 words, and my thriller is about 80,000 words. These are both debut titles in their genres, so I'm planning on future installments being even a bit shorter. I like brevity, quick action, and economy of words. But I still don't think I'd be able to do a short story… LOL.

2. What's the best and the worst writing advice you ever received? 

This is a toughie. I would say the best writing advice I've received is to utilize the power of the hero's journey. Specifically, my favorite book (non-fiction or fiction) is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. It's aimed mainly at screenwriters (where I got my start), but it applies to novelists as well. Vogler expands upon the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, and his book literally changed my life, not just as a writer but as a person.

I'm drawing a blank on what the worst advice I've received is because I think there's a bit of wisdom to most pieces of writing advice. Of course, you take more from some pieces of advice from others, but I think that writers almost always have other writers' best interests in mind, so the advice is almost always good.  

3. What is your current novel about? 

My first two books came out these last two months almost back-to-back, so I'll give brief descriptions of each. 

Stone Groove is a historical thriller set in the 1970s. Federal Agent Dale Conley investigates the bizarre cases that others can't solve. His new assignment: 140 people have gone missing, and the kidnapper emulated the Lost Colony of Roanoke, a mysterious 400-year-old mass disappearance. Having nothing more than an empty crime scene, a blood-spattered stone, and history books to guide him, Dale must solve the kidnapper's demented riddles ... before the missing people are murdered.

The Clements Kettle is a mystery that takes place in an over-the-top, spaghetti Western setting. Barnaby Wilcox is the West's best private eye. But when a new client asks him to track down a missing kettle, he's left scratching his head. When he's told that the kettle is cursed, he can't help but laugh. That is, until the deaths start piling up. Everyone who touches the kettle ends up in a pine box. Now Barnaby must track the kettle across the desert, from small towns to high society, to stop the final killing. 

4. Can you see your books adapted to TV or film? (And do you have a preference?) 

Absolutely! I write very much "like a movie," so I could definitely see this. In fact, I got my start with serious writing in screenplays. Of the two, I would prefer film. I'm a big fan of movies, and I don't watch television almost at all. However, I know we're in a really good time for television quality, so I think either of my series could fit well there too. 

5. Who are your influences as a writer and a reader? 

I'm a big movie buff, and, as I said, I write "like a movie," so I have a lot of movie influences. The '80s movie magic (Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, etc.). Bond films. Indiana Jones. Westerns. Comedies. In terms of authors, perhaps my favorite is Michael Crichton. He wrote thrillers, but that's about the beginning and end of the similarities in our writing. 

However, I don't think that, as authors, all of our influences need to be parallel. Dan Brown's break-neck speed in his first two Langdon's books was something I specifically studied for my thriller. Love those two books. Of course, given Stone Groove is a historical thriller, I have to give my thanks to Mr. Brown, as he more or less single-handedly created the sub-genre. And, again, The Writer's Journey had a huge impact on me. 

6. What are your greatest challenges as an author? 

The business side of it. There are immense challenges with this. It's exciting, but there is soooo much to learn. I'm just starting out, though, so I know it will all start to make better sense soon. 

7. What is your favourite aspect of being an author? 

Storytelling. I love to tell stories, and it is my sincere hope that my talents in doing so will make other people's better. If one of my books can help someone who's having a bad time smile for a moment, to forget what's been troubling them, then I'm doing my job! 

8. Where can we find out more about you? 

At my website,

9. What question did you not want to be asked, and how would you answer it?! 

I gave the question about bad writing advice some serious thought! I guess I copped out by saying that I've never really received bad writing advice, lol!

Erik Carter

Friday, 17 March 2017

Room for a Review

Last month I ran a mini workshop on the theme of Comedy Writing in Fiction. (I mentioned it here.) Linda recently sent me a review of the event and she's kindly let me post it on this blog.

In the words of Rabbie Burns in To a Louse:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
Too see oursels as ithers see us!

Crimes, chases, and a whole lorra laughs

February’s guest at Writers’ Café was Derek Thompson (not to be confused with local MP Derek Thomas, especially as they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum!). “Our Derek”, as we should perhaps refer to him henceforth, is the author of a number of novels available online and in paperback - notably the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series, which has reached book four with Shadow State and sounds serious enough. But unlike some other authors who do the grittier end of the thriller spectrum, Our Derek keeps the really graphic violence at arm’s distance, taking things only as far as he feels the reader needs to go. He also includes regular bouts of comradely banter between his characters, some wry comment at their expense, and - occasionally - downright comic situations. Well, what will those hardened men on the fringes of the official police do, when the stolen car they’ve been tracking turns out to have a baby in the back?

As a freelancer, Derek has had a full and interesting writing career – although he also has a part-time “day job”. Apart from novels, his work has included what he said was “the rudest greetings card ever”* (and although he later said he sometimes used inappropriate material to “test the water”, the joke was definitely judged unfit for the ears of Writers’ Café). He describes himself as an “emerging writer”, although at least one member of his audience is already a fan and has read every one of his books. His final drafts go out to “beta-test” with a panel of fellow-writers, before being submitted to his publisher, Joffe Books, and are subsequently available on Amazon. Some American readers have struggled with the British slang and the (by no means excessive) emotional content, but Derek likes his characters to be more than mere ciphers. “I argue with my characters”, he said, “and if I’m lucky, they argue back”. Apart from his personal Facebook account, he has a professional page, a blog, and an account with Twitter – which he feels scores well for instant communication, though less well for actual engagement.

By way of instruction, Derek pointed out that “there’s more to comedy than a few laughs”, and provided us with an excellent summary of techniques for writing comedy, which include setting up misunderstandings and confounding expectations. Then of course there is juxtaposition, exaggeration – and the rule (or pattern) of three. Comedy, he said, is a “dance between content and context, and between language and ideas” which can either reinforce or challenge orthodoxies - authority and stereotyping alike. He described one purpose of comedy as “getting your point across diagonally”. Derek cited the opening of Iain Banks’ Crow Road (It was the day my grandmother exploded.) as a perfect comic moment which needs no explanation, acts as a hook and sets the tone of what will follow.

And then, of course, it was time to rummage in pockets and bags for our own pens. The challenge was to take an event within the shared experience such as a wedding or an interview, and weave comedy into it by using some of the techniques that had been discussed. Members happily read their work, which ranged from treatments to finished prose, from a summary of the nightmare reception to a cross-purposes conversation.  Some of these may re-emerge sooner or later at a Café open session, where (as some of our regular turns are aware) a bit of comedy always goes down a treat.

Derek’s writing secrets? (Well, we always ask.) Writers, he told us, need a “shard of ice at their heart” and a willingness to cannibalise their own experience. Derek will be putting this into practice in his current novel, Stars and Stripes, and some Penzance scratchcard buyers may soon be reading a scene that feels oddly familiar. He has also appropriated nuggets of film and classic literature, and starts by “walking round a novel to find the way in”, describing this voyage of discovery as the technique of a “poor man’s medium”. Yes, he does favour a set routine and sets time aside on a daily basis, writing a set number of words “though not necessarily in the right order”. He recommends trains for the sense of constraint and the rhythmic background they provide (are the speedier sections of his plots composed the other side of Exeter?), and – like most writers – warns us away from writing on any internet-enabled device in the early stages. And he freely admitted that wearing a favourite hat – no, literally – is just the thing for providing the right cranial stimulus.

You can read more from, and about, Derek at and see his books at

He is happy to connect on Twitter - - or on Facebook -

About Linda

She is a writer, historian and speaker. She worked on collaborative scripts for History Through the Looking Glass at the Penzance Literary Festival and is also involved with the Penwith Local History Group, having contributed a chapter in their latest book, "Women of West Cornwall". She is currently working on a new book about the history of Penzance. She says it's a long-term project!

Incidentally, if you are in Cornwall 5th - 8th of July, the Penzance Literary Festival is well worth a visit. They have a packed and diverse programme of events.

* All I will say is that it involves glass houses...

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

How writing can be a therapeutic tool

"Writing does not protect us from tragedy, but it does give us a way of working through problems and perhaps expressing them differently in fiction."

It's a truism that writers draw upon personal experience - and that of others - when they create fiction. This is not only part of the writer's desire to bring authenticity to their characters, plots and dialogue, it's also therapeutic. The same can be said for non-fiction, although I venture to suggest that fiction gives us greater leeway because we are not constrained by details yet remain informed by the emotional content.

When my brother died, back in 2005, alongside trampling around the fields and talking to myself I found it really helpful to put pen to paper. I tried poetry and keeping a journal (well, commandeering the journal I already kept sporadically). Nothing profound emerged, but it was a tacit signal to my subconscious that I intended to keep a channel open and if there was anything unsaid or repressed, well it had a place to go to.

Some time later, when I felt better able to organise those ideas and feelings so that I could examine them (yes, of course Lieutenant Data was one of my favourite Star Trek TNG characters!), I approached a newspaper with a proposal to write  a personal piece about grief and losing a sibling. Although the newspaper said yes I still had to work hard - arguably, the hardest ever, to let the words tell the truth while accommodating the editor's suggestions and requirements. Having found a way to express that loss and reflect upon it, my grief was accessible to readers.

I'm not advocating bearing your soul unless you feel drawn to it because the process is not without consequences. Other people will read what you have written, and what you have not written, and possibly draw conclusions you never intended. In the final analysis though, I think that sort of writing encourages others to share their shadows and gives us both - writer and reader - permission to feel.

I mention all this because I haven't blogged much this month, due to a family situation. I'm still making notes about it that may yet find expression in a piece of writing. For now though, it's a way of remembering and coming to terms with that tricky customer we call life.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Writing can be a funny old business

Workshops are a great way to learn, to find out what you already know, and to approach a familiar subject with fresh eyes. This still holds true when you're the person delivering the event.

Back in 2012 I ran a one-day workshop on Comedy Writing for Beginners for the Moon Hut Writers' Group in Falmouth. It was great fun and a little experimental (as some of the feedback attested!).

We covered:
- What makes a joke
- Types of joke
- Some techniques for creating jokes
- Writing topical jokes and cartoon captions
- What to do with your jokes once you've written written them

More recently, I was invited to run a two-hour slot for West Cornwall Café Writers’ Group, so I created a cut-down version of the follow-up workshop, Comedy Writing in Fiction. (For fans of Raymond Chandler, I described it as The Little Sister of the original.)

This time, with a different audience we covered (in a whistle-stop tour):
- What makes a joke, types of joke and some techniques for creating jokes

followed by

- Reasons for making jokes
- Finding humour in formal situations and personal anecdotes
- Scapegoating
- Why and when to use comedy in fiction
- Where comedy may come from in your fiction

The most interesting times for me were when someone asked a question I wasn't expecting, or talked about a personal experience or observation. It was nice too to have someone there who has read three of my novels from the Spy Chaser series.

Things I realised on the day:

1. We all of us know more than we think we do.

2. Our writing reflects who we are, our life experiences and our attitudes. They go hand in hand, and the one cannot expand and develop without the other.

3. Writers' concerns do not change, however long we've been writing and wherever we see ourselves on the ladder. Some of those fundamental questions are (and remain): 
- Am I doing this right and is there a way to do it better?
- How do I make my writing more authentic?
- What steps can I take to make my work more publishable?
- How can I express myself more fully as a writer?

A huge thank you to Barbara, Brigitte, Elaine, Ginny, Jak, Kate and Linda for your hospitality and enthusiasm on the day.  Sharing the event was a wonderful perk for sticking with a teenager's dreams of writing a book one day, from all those years ago!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Cornish short stories wanted

Leave no stone unturned to find your inspiration for a story.

Are you a writer who was born in Cornwall, or who lives in Cornwall?

If your answer is yes then opportunity has just knocked and your ship has come in.

Emma Timpany and Felicity Notley, both published short fiction writers themselves, are the editors for Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing.

You can find out everything you need to know here:
In the meantime, here are some crucial details:
- A word count of between 2,000 and 6,000 words.
- The submission deadline is 7 July 2017.
- OnTwitter at @CornishShorts and a dedicated page on Facebook.

What can you write about? Let your imagination go wild!

The Collection will be divided into four thematic sections and you may or may not wish to make use of these as a prompt for your own writing: 
Sailors' Knots - the high seas and all things maritime
The Heart of the Storm - love and death
Enchantment - magic, hauntings and concealment
Cornishware - domestics

The new collection of Cornish short stories will be published by the History Press in May 2018.

It's time to tell some tales!

Monday, 23 January 2017

What's the story with Neil Roberts?

Almost a year ago I chatted with writer Neil Roberts about his love for short fiction. Fast forward 11 months and we met up in cyberspace to talk about where the fragments of his imagination have taken him since then. It seems he's been busy!

Q1 Neil, as a writer of short fiction, how does it feel to have a debut, full-length novel on circulation to agents?

Frankly there are mixed feelings. Although From On High is the first novel I've circulated to agents it's not the only one I've written (more of that later). Likewise I've been published a few times in anthologies which has coloured my opinion of my own writing.

A few years ago I touted a previous novel to a few agents and publishers. It never found a home, but received a some positive responses among the form rejection letters. Those handful of encouraging sentences kept me going - words of praise from professionals have that effect - but my self-doubts always said "if the novel had been that good they would have accepted it". Such is my inner voice, and it speaks longer and louder than any isolated sentence ever could. As a result I toiled away in seclusion, writing more for my own pleasure than out of any hopes of publication. I wrote a second novel in that time, but kept it to myself.

From On High is actually my third novel, but only the second I've sent to all those agents and agencies.

This time the process feels different. Having had shorter works published I now know that my writing is of sufficient quality to warrant acceptance so selection comes down to that intangible set of criteria used by agents. Do they feel passionate about it? Is there a market for it? Can they sell it to a publisher? That last is vital, of course - they are running a business after all.

So far I've received nothing but rejections, but I can honestly say I'm far less bothered than I was before. A little bit of self-confidence goes a long way. Having said that, there's still that heady mix of good vibes and doubt whenever I check my emails.

Q2 Tell us about your work and what inspired it. Use the elevator pitch idea if you want - you're in a lift with the agent of your dreams, so what do you say before the fifth floor?

Fifth floor? Well then I'm going to seriously bend your ear - you know how fast I can speak.
In just a couple of sentences: From On High is an end-times novel set in in the modern day, placed in Christian Cornwall and written by a secular Jew. It centres around Finn and a mysterious figure named Doe who becomes part of his life, an invader and protector rolled into one. Think 'urban gothic' without the unnecessary romance, but with extra hamburgers. There's conversations, confrontations, revelations and more. I hope you'll get a chance to read it very soon.

As to what inspired it, well it evolved from a short story of the same name which I wrote some time ago, itself inspired by a short story you wrote, Derek (Behind Enemy Lines? Am I recalling correctly? [You have a good memory, Neil!]). I always knew my own short had a kernel I could expand upon but it took years (and several false starts) to discover that hidden story.

Writing it was as close to torture as anything I've ever done. Seriously, it was the literary version of self-harm. There are some very dark threads running through everything I write, but none more so than with From On High. In places it was a real struggle to carry on writing, to follow those threads to their horrifying conclusion. Gruelling might be a better word. Thankfully the result has been far more than worth it.

Q3 How did you decide which agents to try first? Also, what made you choose the traditional publishing route as your first option?

I actually did a search on the Internet and started noting down agents which seemed to fit. Sometimes it was based upon the genres they listed as of interest, sometimes on their existing clientele, sometimes on the agents' bios. Much as when they choose their clients, I find that choosing an agent has definite insubstantial components.

Once I had that list of twenty or so agencies I started calling them. A few I crossed-off right then and there. Maybe I'll approach them again in future, but not right now. Why? you ask. Well, not because I wasn't a fit for them, but because I didn't get a feel that they would be a good fit for me. As an author I will be working closely with an agency for a long time - there's a reason so many books are dedicated to agents - so if someone starts off being brusque, unfriendly or downright rude that sets off alarm bells. And remember these people will potentially be representing me so I needed to think how I would come across in their hands.
Most of the people I spoke to were receptionists or PAs, not the agents themselves, but you can get a good handle on an organisation by their choice of customer-facing staff. I noted the names and positions of those with whom I spoke and was as polite as I could be. I also made sure I knew to whom I should address my submissions.

Once I had my final list I started sending off submissions in the format each agent requested. Some agents want just three chapters, others 10,000 words and others still the first 50 pages - I gave them what they asked and always included a covering letter including my bio and the fact I'd already spoken to them or one of their colleagues. I used the names from the notes I'd taken as well. Sending a cover letter "to whom it may concern" is never as good as one which is sent "Dear Mr Blogs", and if I've spoken to their colleague Dave it makes sense to say so.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. As emails came in I responded to them and updated my list. It's not a quick process. After three months a few had not replied so I called them again. Three hadn't received my submissions (possibly thanks to spam filters) and one had lost it in an internal reorganisation, so I resent emails to each of them.

So far it's been over five months since those first emails were sent and I've not yet heard back from all the agents (one responded exactly five months to the day after I'd sent my submission).

As to why I've chosen to pursue 'traditional' publishing, well that's probably due to several factors, and was not necessarily a conscious decision.

I still have an emotional connections to actual books so that was undoubtedly an important reason, but I also know that my strengths as a writer are in writing, not marketing. I don't know publishers, their business or their craft. While I could educate myself, I'd rather explore the option of using an expert in such matters first, and that's exactly what agents are.

But I'm more than happy to explore non-traditional publication. In fact I already have...

Q4 What are you working on at the moment?

I'm taking a break for a little bit, pursuing digital sculpture with more diligence while I rest the literary portions of my mind. But there's still a little research going on, a little bit of editing filling a few of my hours. I just needed to take a few weeks off from writing to recharge the batteries.

My first novel was As Cruel As Nature and in November I chose to publish it via CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. Why? Because at 140,000 words long it was simply far too large for a first-time author to hope to see published.

However, it remained my first novel, a passion-piece and a real learning experience, so I wanted to get it out there.

I put about a month into rewriting, editing, polishing, prodding and formatting it. The process had been started many times, but this was the one which I vowed would end with publication. For various reasons it became vitally important to me.

I published at the end of November so now As Cruel As Nature is finally available in paperback or ebook in the usual places (i.e. Amazon).

If you're interested - and since you've read so far I assume you are - it's set within free Russia, occupied Russia and Poland during the winter of 1943 and follows a group of Russian insurgents on a mission deep into the heart of the Third Reich. It's what would happen if the task to save Private Ryan had been given to a very Russian Dirty Dozen.
I also decided recently to publish a few collections of my short stories - I have been in a publishing frenzy!

I've been formally published a few times now, both here and in the US, and subsequently had the rights to those individual stories revert to me so thought I'd get those pieces back out there. To be frank, there's not a lot else to do with them - publishers are after first publication rights, not second. I also had a few other stories written for competitions and the like which were just taking up space on my hard-drive so decided to anthologise them all in three small, themed collections.

I called them Fragments of My Imagination and they are available for download on Amazon too.

Oh, and I'm working on a collection of stories alluringly titled ReVive Clive.

I guess I'm not taking as much of a break as I thought.

Q5 Ebooks or paperback, or both?

Both. Definitely both.

I'm still attached to the physical medium, but ebooks are so accessible these days.
There's also the financial factor. Books have a per unit manufacturing cost and this reflects the price. To illustrate, As Cruel As Nature in paperback costs £12.99 while in ebook it's just £1.99. And I see practically the same royalty from each. Naturally I didn't have the same production overheads and running costs as a publishing house when I prepared As Cruel As Nature, but that means there are costs I don't need to pass on to my readers. So I haven't. The only reason my printed works cost more is because of those manufacturing costs.

There are downsides to the ebook revolution though. When sites like CreateSpace made self-publishing through print on demand so easy the volume of books available surged. The rise of the ebook has turned a surge into a deluge. There are thousands of books published every day on Amazon, books which would otherwise have gone out to publishers. And that's the problem. While many of those books have merit there are so many more which would have never have travelled beyond the slushpile. More of a shame is that many of those which are actually of a potentially publishable quality desperately need the attentions of an editor or two. Seriously, check out some of the reviews on Amazon (assuming you haven't a volume or two already on your shelf) and see how many lament the layout, misspelling and grammatical errors in otherwise excellent books. Once the monumental task of writing a novel has been completed every writer wants to get their book out there - I know I did - but there's a reason it takes publishers the best part of a year to get that story from "the end" to the shops.

There is, however, a solution. If you're serious about writing then join a writers' group or two. Not only does it focus your writing it also gives feedback. A second eye on your work is always a good thing - it's far too easy to become blind to your flaws while you're toiling away in blissful isolation.

Q6 Name two books that changed the way you thought about your own writing.

That is a damned difficult question. Seriously, it's a real ass-kicker.

The first would have to be Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks. It made me realise that it had become possible to break genre expectations. When many hear sci-fi they think Star Wars or Star Trek, but Banks broke that mould. Hell, he shattered it. Even though Use of Weapons isn't hard sci-fi, it's far from space opera too, and - most importantly - the setting is predominantly a backdrop to a story about the human condition (even though none of the protagonists are exactly human).

The second book is an anthology named Slaughterhouse: the Serial Killer edition, volume 2. It was the first anthology for which I was accepted and, simply put, that was the first time I believed I was actually capable of producing publishable work. That was a real sea-change for me. It meant that I'd passed an important threshold, one which many writers never breach. 'Acceptance or rejection' is still the big dilemma in my writing life, but now I can legitimately believe that the factors involved needn't include whether I'm any good at the actual writing bit. At long last I am, at the very least, good enough.

Q7 How do you know when your characters have 'come to life'?

When I stop being able to write them and have to accept the way they want to act. Yes, it's a cliche, but there comes a point when the characters are in situations where I have planned for them to act a certain way. And they don't. I'll find myself saying "Finn would never be so blasé" or "Weidermann wouldn't say that". That's when my novel finally becomes their story.

Q8 What are your writing goals for 2017?

To use my writing time more wisely. Seriously, if I wrote as much on my word processor as I do in YouTube comments I'd be more prolific than Stephen King.

I'm also intending to make more use of my Twitter account.

Q9 Where can we find out more about your writing?

As mentioned previously, I keep a very occasional Twitter account on @WriterRoberts. I also have a goodly amount of work now available on Amazon. Just search for P N Roberts. Then tell your friends (especially if they're literary agents). Damn, I'm becoming shameless.