Sunday, 8 December 2019

100 Rejections in a Year by Helen Chambers.

Inspired by unexpected writing success in 2018, in 2019 I have aimed for 100 rejections (see LitHub article in August 2018 blogpost) on the basis that if you submit 100 pieces, something might get published. Furthermore, I wanted something positive to record each month. Spurred on by the supportive Sue Dawes, without whose help I would have achieved far less, we both set up money pots to keep a physical record. We agreed on the following rates: a penny for a rejection, and 5p for an acceptance, long-or-short-list, or publication. 

I started the year at a cracking pace, and thought I might meet 100 submissions (an average of 8 or 9 per month). As the year continued, I found the pressure and work involved in organising so many submissions become horribly time-consuming. I was aware of writing fewer new pieces, too. This has been the only downside, however, and has been outweighed by the positives.

The benefits have been huge - see the Writing Achievements page on my personal blog for the acceptances! In addition, I find I now brush off rejections relatively quickly without sinking into depression. Of course, I still feel huge disappointment when a story I love doesn’t make a mark, and I still have plenty of days where I doubt my ability to write - but I look back knowing that some of my writing has made the grade. I’m also far more open to the idea of editing and improving existing stories. If I’ve liked it, or it’s reached a long-list, then it’s good enough to warrant more work. A change of tense, of focus, or of narrative viewpoint can often reinvigorate and improve a piece. I’ve taken stories written in the past and improved them (now I finally believe that nothing I write is ever wasted!). I’ve taken greater risks with my writing. My editing skills have sharpened throughout the year, and I’ve become more proficient at helping others edit their work. I’ve discovered some fantastic literary journals I’d not known about, and read some excellent writing in their pages.

So, as of 8th December 2019 (I still have two pieces ‘out’ for consideration and a couple more December deadlines I may meet), here is my 2019 tally:

Total: £1.39 made up of 63 submissions.
5ps: 95p (19 positive responses)
Pennies: 44p (44 rejections)

I keep a poorly-organised notebook list too, and have most of my stories recorded on index cards, so I can see what I’ve got and where I’ve previously sent things. Sadly, these systems are subject to human error. If I haven't had the right change to hand when I receive the notification, the money may never reach the pot (I’m wary of ‘overpaying’ when I can’t remember!). My notebook, which I sometimes forget to use or can’t find, records 68 submissions. Either way, that still averages at five submissions per month, which is more than ever before - and I know I’ve recorded the positives correctly!

So in 2020 I’m going to continue topping up my money-pot but I plan to work at a less frenetic pace. I haven’t set a target. I want to work on a couple of longer pieces I have in mind, and of course, I still love writing flash. At WriteNight recently, the wonderful Penny Simpson (follow her on twitter @topscribe) talked of choosing one big competition to aim at each year. I plan to steer a relaxed course somewhere between that and my 63 submissions. Happy New Writing Year to you all!

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Author Interview - Edward Wilson by Paula K. Randall

Interview with Ted Wilson

I first encountered Ted's work when I attended a Crime Fest conference a few years ago, and since then have read all his books. It wasn't until I was reading The Whitehall Mandarin that it dawned on me that we had people and places in common - namely, Lowestoft College, where I think he left the year I joined!

So, Ted Wilson, author, lecturer, Vietnam veteran and naturalised Brit, this is your writing life!   
1. Your first book, A River in May, wasn’t published until 2002. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your writing before that time. Were you interested in writing before then, or was it your experiences in the Vietnam War that motivated you?

I began writing my Vietnam novel at the remote outpost of Nong Son in the winter of 1970. Nong Son was defended by a 13 man US Special Forces team and 300 Vietnamese irregulars. I was only 22 years old and not really mature enough to cope with the things that were happening around me. I was very lonely. The only American I bonded with was Thomas Jefferson Rainey. Tom, a fellow lieutenant, was a reserved southern aristocrat – and, as his name suggested, a remote kinsman of the third US president. Tom survived the war, but committed suicide a number of years afterwards – a not uncommon fate.

My only escape routes at Nong Son were writing and reading – and, of course, Jim Beam and a generous supply of synthetic morphine tablets that a medic had given me to deal with a bout of dysentery. Almost as good as the bourbon and morphine were the boxes of ex-library books we received from the Red Cross, but with their covers torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I devoured them, but stirred clear of any books about war – my reading was escapism. My writing, however, was all about the war and formed the basis of my debut novel – finally published 32 years later. The escapist reading that I enjoyed most was about artists and writers leading a bohemian life. It all sounded so much better than being a soldier. The film about Viet vets that I most relate to is the 1990 Jacob’s Ladder where the protagonist returns to a boho life-style in New York. The film’s dénouement haunts me. Could Jacob Singer and I have suffered the same fate? Could the mostly happy past 50 years of my life – as an ex-pat, an Eng-Lit lecturer, a fairly successful writer and the person typing this blog – all be a drug induced illusion imagined on a triage trolley while the Graves Reg ghouls wait to haul me off to the I Corps mortuary? 

And then you moved on to the cold war. Perhaps you could talk a bit about the genesis of Catesby. Does he have a particular counterpart in the real world, or is he an amalgam?

Catesby doesn’t appear until my third book, The Darkling Spy – although I point out in sly retrospection that Catesby and Bone were nameless undercover agents in the previous book, The Envoy. I hope someday there will be revised new edition of The Envoy in which Catesby will have a cameo walk-on role to justify calling that book the first in the Catesby series.

In any case, I wanted to create a main character in whose skin I felt comfortable. My mother, like Catesby’s, served in the bar of her father’s dockside tavern. I suspect that was how she met my father who was a merchant seaman. Like Catesby, whose own father died at sea when he was two, I have no memory of my former merchant sailor father who died when I was seven months old. Importantly, both Catesby and I were brought up in Roman Catholic households where English was not the first language. This created a sense of cultural dislocation, a good background for someone who is going to be a spy. Catesby grew up putting on personas and hiding part of his background. Like Catesby, I was the first generation of my family to go to university and – like him – I married far ‘above myself’. Although Catesby is a vastly different character from me, I do come from the sort of background that allows me to write about the issues he faces. And, ironically, the streets of my childhood home in Baltimore bear an eerie resemblance to the streets around the docks of Catesby’s Lowestoft.

But yes, Catesby is also an amalgam. He is not based at all on any literary predecessor, but there is something of him in all the East Anglians I have rubbed shoulders with for the past 43 years and all the British people of his generation that I came in contact with. Catesby, born in 1923, was largely shaped by the war. My late father-in-law, David, was a platoon leader at Monte Casino. My conversations with David and his war diaries provided a valuable insight into what Catesby and his generation experienced. Although my father-in-law, the perfect English gentleman, was totally different from Catesby in character and personality, he was the sort of person Catesby would have admired and aspired, unsuccessfully, to emulate. Catesby’s failure to live up to an ideal is something that plagues him throughout his life. Having said that Catesby has no literary precursors, I now realise that something of Graham Greene’s failed heroes may have unconsciously weaved its way into his characterisation.

The book that I recently finished, provisionally entitled Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man, is a Catesby series prequel and coming-of-age novel. It follows Catesby from being a grammar school modern languages whiz, to a year at Cambridge, to SOE training and then his adventures with the Resistance in occupied France. We learn that Catesby is a chameleon. As a working class lad at Cambridge he doesn’t flaunt his proletarian roots, but adapts instead the manners and voices of the posh kids around him. When he returns home for Christmas, he goes to the pub and reverts to talking in a Lowestoft accent, but his effort is greeted by ‘a certain coldness from those around him. One of his uncles, a fitter in the shipyard, leaned over and whispered, “What you trying to do, boy? I think it’s time you went back to Cambridge.”’ When you cut your roots you can’t grow them back. I hope that my books are more than spy thrillers

3.  And we come to my favourite, Kit Fournier. Do you have any plans to bring him back? 

I am pleased that you like Kit. He is an important character in the book I have just begun, provisionally entitled A Very Quiet American. The book is set in Marseille about 1950 where Kit and another CIA officer have been sent to covertly assist the Corsican mafia in their battle against the Communist led dock workers for control of the port of Marseille. Meanwhile Catesby, sent by London to observe and report, exceeds his brief. The story involves the French Connection and I am sure that once again Kit will be struggling with his conscience as well as Catesby.
By the way, Kit Fournier was partly inspired by former CIA officer Philip Agee. This extract from Wikipedia may help explain why: ‘Agee stated that his Roman Catholic social conscience had made him increasingly uncomfortable with his work by the late 1960s leading to his disillusionment with the CIA and its support for authoritarian governments across Latin America.’

4. Your main characters all have connections with Suffolk, even the American Kit Fournier. Could you talk a bit about your connections with Suffolk? 

Suffolk was love at first sight – although I was warmed up for that first sight by Norfolk and the Yare. It was a late afternoon in June 1975 and I was on the Norwich train to Lowestoft where I had a job interview the next morning at Lowestoft College. What a marvellous train journey. I was bowled over by the big sky, the water, the reeds, the marshes, the meadows, the low lying woodlands. The landscape seemed unpopulated except for ghostly sails mysteriously drifting above the reeds. You couldn’t see the boats or their crews, only the sunlit sails. And the station names evoked East Anglian magic: Reedham, Haddiscoe, Somerleyton. I knew I had finally come home and this lovely merging of water and land and sky was where I would spend the rest of my days.
Our current home is on the edge of the Saints, a hinterland of mysterious hidden villages – where, by the way, Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel, Warlight, is partly set. I also lived in Dene Road Lowestoft for six years – a few minutes from the beach and the dunes. I was a lecturer at the college for over twenty years and also did supply teaching at various schools in the town. I also had a happy few years teaching part-time at Leiston High. The other places I’ve lived are Frostenden and Bulcamp, where for a year I rented a cottage that overlooked the Blyth estuary. My wife’s family first came to Suffolk in the 1840s – and still own Dingle Great Farm on the marshes between Walberswick and Dunwich. It’s a very austere place with no mains electricity or mains water, but Clement Attlee used to come there for working holidays.
I love Suffolk, but there is also a dark side to its beauty – and you can hear that dark side, reverberating against the beauty, in the music of Benjamin Britten, especially in Peter Grimes. If Suffolk was only sweetness and light, it would be bland. Writers and artists need harshness as well as peace. 

5.  Do you ever intend to set a novel in your native Baltimore? 

Baltimore is an utterly fascinating place which has produced more musicians, composers and writers per head of population than any place in the USA – as well as the world’s most famous sociopath. How apt that Thomas Harris chose Baltimore as Hannibal Lecter’s hometown. Likewise, many of the scenes in House of Cards are shot in a Baltimore pretending to be Washington – which, I hope, my fellow Baltimorean and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also finds amusing.
Unfortunately, I probably won’t ever set a novel in Baltimore because I don’t think I could do the place justice. Having said that, Kit Fournier is a Baltimorean – and comes from the same posh part of town, North Charles Street, as Dr Lecter. But neither Kit nor Hannibal represent what the city really is. Baltimore is predominantly black and stories about Baltimore should be mostly about black lives. I very much admire David Simon for getting the mix right in The Wire.
Fellow Baltimoreans include Billie Holiday, Frank Zappa, Cab Calloway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip Glass and Mrs Wallis Simpson, who nearly became Queen.

6.  None of your novels fit the standard tropes of British spy novels. Catesby in particular is quite conflicted by being, on the one hand, a member of the British establishment, and on the other, quite strongly left-leaning. How far do Catesby’s attitudes reflect your own views? 

Catesby’s politics are a reflection of my own. But what is now called ‘strongly left’ would have been the political centre ground during the post-war years. The shocking thing for an Attlee supporting Labourite of Catesby’s generation is how far the UK and the USA have drifted to the right. Eisenhower, a Republican president, taxed the richest at 93% and denounced the ‘military-industrial complex’. Harold Macmillan, a Conservative PM, dismantled most of the British empire and maintained state ownership of rail and public utilities.
I am writing this just a day after former MI6 boss, Sir Richard Dearlove, condemned John le Carré’s books as being ‘corrosive’. I stand shoulder to shoulder with le Carré against this attack. Le Carré isn’t the corrosive one, it is Dearlove himself. On the very day of the 2017 general election Richard Dearlove wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph condemning Jeremy Corbyn as an ‘old fashioned international socialist’ who would be ‘profoundly dangerous’ as prime minister. It is shocking – and frightening – that a former head of the Secret Intelligence Service should intervene so openly in an election. In A Very British Ending, I wrote about how members of MI5 and MI6 conspired with the CIA to overthrow Harold Wilson’s government – even if it meant staging a military coup to do so. Dearlove’s words give a chilling credence to my work of ‘fiction’.
I think it is unfortunate that so many writers of spy fiction are afraid to show their political leanings – or maybe, even more alarming, they haven’t any politics. Everyone knew that Graham Greene was a lefty and that Evelyn Waugh – whom I much admire – was a high Tory. It didn’t hurt their sales. On the other hand, Erskine Childers, who made no secret of his politics either, was executed by firing squad. Another writer who fared badly owing to his politics was Dashiell Hammett. I am proud that Hammett, yet another fellow Baltimorean, and I went to the same high school.Unfortunately, Sam Hammett (as Dashiell was known) had to leave the school at age 14 to help support his family. The experience of poverty turned Hammett into a life-long left-wing activist – which eventually landed him in prison. As a trustee of the Civil Rights Congress, Hammett was subpoenaed to give evidence at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. He refused to name other activists and was sentenced to six months in jail where he was assigned the job of cleaning toilets. Hammett was blacklisted and his books removed from public libraries. He died in poverty a few years later. I think the job of a novelist is like Lord Reith’s injunction for the BBC, but with ‘entertain’ coming first. If we don’t entertain, the reader won’t turn the pages to be to be informed and educated. I’m proud that my books have a leftish tinge – and I’m sure the ghost of Sam Hammett is nodding approval.

7.  I’m aware that your books have been read by people who were themselves involved in some of the real world incidents you refer to in your books, for example the surveillance on Harold Wilson, and the events surrounding the Falklands War, and insofar as I’ve spoken to some of them they have generally been impressed by what they see as your ‘insider knowledge’. Without getting anyone in hot water, could you talk a bit about your close understanding of the activities in the so-called corridors of power? 

At times I’m just as much of an investigative journalist as I am a novelist. But, like most journalists, most of what I dig up is the result of paper chases and online research rather than talking to people. It’s what people in the intelligence services call ‘open-source intelligence’. I have talked to a few people who trod the corridors of power and a few of them have passed on interesting anecdotes. But, sadly, following me around while I do research wouldn’t make a very interesting television drama. Often what I discover from talking to real people is confirmation of what I already suspected. Once, for example, I had a chat with a person – very near the pinnacle of power – who confided to me that certain military officers had been planning for a coup to remove Harold Wilson. Well, that didn’t change anything in my book because it had already been published. 
For me, a more important aspect of rubbing shoulders with people who have walked the corridors of power is becoming familiar with their culture and manners. All of them are courteous and often good company, but most of them are tight-lipped. When defending her order to sink the Belgrano against Diana Gould in the famous BBC Nationwideconfrontation, Thatcher maintained that she hadn’t heard that Argentina had agreed to a peace plan and an immediate ceasefire – even though cables had been pinging across the Atlantic for sixteen hours. There are, I am sure, a few mandarins still alive who know this is a lie, but their lips will remain forever sealed.
Fortunately, not all diplomats are always diplomatic – particularly as they get older. One of my best sources for research – and it is an absolute treasure trove of insider indiscretion – is the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme at Churchill College Cambridge. Shhh!

8.  And finally, it’s said that there are two kinds of writers: those who plan methodically, and those who just begin and see where the characters and events take them. But I get the sense from reading your work that you actually have a different approach from either of those, that in fact you start with a big idea and work the novel around that. Could you comment on your own methods?

You are absolutely right: I don’t plan methodically nor do I just let the narrative hare off in an uncontrolled way. Character is, however, more important than plot. No one remembers Raymond Chandler’s plots, but everyone remembers Marlowe. The opening paragraph of The Big Sleep is all about character with only a thin nod to plot at the end:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Catesby, by the way, would love a pair of those socks. And what a fine literary touch they are too. Chandler’s book is about death (the ‘black wool’) and time (the ‘dark blue clocks’). Sorry for the pract. crit. excursion, but my dark secret is that I want my books to be literary fiction rather than just ‘thrillers’. I admire Graham Greene and le Carré for having done both.

The best plots are often a combination of the subconscious and real life memory. The final dénouement of The Whitehall Mandarin was inspired by a single sentence that I heard uttered about two a.m. on New Year’s morning in the 1990s in a house overlooking the entrance of a Suffolk river (unnamed to protect the memory of the person involved). You will find a paraphrased version on p339, line 5. By the way, when you finish reading p356 of this book, may I recommend you reread pages 25 and 26 to help you decide what really happened?

I try to write novels which are an interaction between history and character – and between historical characters and purely fictional characters. My excellent editor, Martin Fletcher, has dubbed my writing ‘docufiction’. Docufiction is usually a film genre in which real life characters, such as the Aran islanders in Man of Aran, interact with professional actors. Pure historical fiction deals only with real historical characters (however distorted and fictionalised they may be), but my docufiction novels pose characters who are totally fictional (Catesby, Fournier, Henry Bone) against real historical characters (the Kennedys, Heath, Thatcher, Francis Pym, the totally mad James Jesus Angleton). I feel that my fictional creations are better able to probe and reveal the characters of historical figures than their historical contemporaries. I also feel that fictional characters can be more interesting than historical ones. While researching my books I often find that real life figures from history, especially the villains, turn out to be dull and dreary. Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as ‘terrifyingly normal’ and representing ‘the banality of evil’ is chillingly apt.

Thank you for having been patient enough to read my comments. I hope they provide some enlightenment not just about my novels, but about books and writing in general.

And if you'd like to read Ted's books, find them on his website.     

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

How to avoid sentimentality in writing

How to avoid sentimentality in writing.

I have recently been working on a novel in which I have found it hard to avoid slipping into rather cringe-makingly sentimental writing. After completing the first draft I googled this problem and discovered what I think is useful advice on the blog Storm Writing School

I like the sensible and practical approach taken by the author T.D. Storm. Using the distinction between sentiment and sentimentality, he emphasises the fact that successful story telling inevitably involves conveying emotion and engaging the emotions of the reader.
‘In order to imply true emotion, a writer needs to hit a sweet spot between supplying enough detail and overdoing it.’

He provides amusing examples of two types of ‘distortion’ of emotion that can occur in writing: ‘distortion by excess’ – too much melodrama, cliché, telling rather than showing, tear-jerking; and ‘distortion by lack’ – a complete deficit of emotion.

In addition, he offers 7 remedies for the avoidance of sentimental writing, which I’ll try and summarise below:

1.      Know and develop your characters fully, so that their reactions and idiosyncrasies will make their emotional responses more authentic and less like stock reactions.
2.      Include interiority and past. Show how the character thinks and how the past impinges on the present scene.
3.      Include speculation and prediction. Characters thinking about the future is an authentic human reaction, but beware of daydreams as plot devices
4.      Include sensory detail. Use settings and objects to reveal a character’s sensory experience and show what he/she perceives.
5.      Get rid of your own feelings. An imagined scene can be very highly emotionally charged. Putting your writing aside for a while and asking the opinion of trusted readers will help create distance between imagining and reading.
6.      Earn your sentiment situationally. The interior experience of the character has to have a context. You need a situation that leads to the emotion.
7.      Risk sentimentality. You need to make readers feel, so take the risk of being sentimental.

He follows this up with an invitation for people to write a scene using the two types of distortion he has illustrated, and then write another piece that hits ‘the sweet spot.’

I must try this, but first I’ll go back to my draft and check out all the scenes where sentimentality has crept in!

Storm Writing School also has a wide range of other useful sources of advice, information and support for writers.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Where do ideas come from?

The genesis of ideas.

A question that all writers get asked from time to time is: where do you get your ideas from? Well that’s not always easy to answer. Ideas come from the mind, don’t they? From the imagination.
Well, yes and no, I would say to that. There’s usually a spark somewhere that emanates from something a writer has seen or heard, something read, maybe on the news. Sometimes it may come from a snatch of conversation overheard on a bus, or in a café or pub. That doesn’t mean that anything and everything gets turned into a story, and usually, if it does, it comes out in a different form. And quite often it’s misremembered anyway. But somewhere along the line that incident has stayed inside the head of the writer, slowly taking shape, emerging half-formed, to be worked on, polished, tossed about until it reaches its final shape where it’s quite probably unrecognisable from the original incident. I often think ideas are like sauerkraut, they start from very humble beginnings to ferment, with time and patience, into something nutritious.
                What started me thinking about this was reading Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith, herself an absolute master of the art. She gives as an example the various stimuli that set Bram Stoker on the way to his masterpiece, Dracula. When holidaying in Whitby he apparently came across an old newspaper report of a shipwreck which had landed on the beach below the ruined abbey with no survivors on board. From this he developed the idea of Dracula’s coffin washing ashore.
                At this year’s Cromarty Arts Festival Ian Rankin talked about his idea for the short story and radio play The Death Watch Journal.  On holiday with his wife in St. Lucia he saw a clipping from an edition of Private Eye about a private detective who had been found dead in a car park whilst looking into a miscarriage of justice. This combined in his mind with another incident in which children found a body in a wood in an abandoned car and Voila! A story began to emerge.
                For myself, ideas can take years – even decades to germinate. Hangman’s Wood began because I saw the writer Simon Kernick being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup, and talking about an incident that occurred to himself and another boy when they were abducted and taken into a nearby wood and physically assaulted. My current work in progress, Washed in the Blood, was precipitated by two incidents, both of which took place over thirty years ago. One was a report of a small child’s body washed up on the beach somewhere down south. The child had been in his pyjamas, and no-one ever claimed him. The other part of the plot was driven by a story told me by a total stranger at a bus stop, which was that her grandson had just committed suicide because the company who’d employed him on a Youth Employment Scheme had given him the sack as soon as he was eighteen and therefore entitled to a proper wage.
                So ideas can come from the most unexpected places. And at the time they may not even feel like ideas. But where they don’t come from is from somebody saying to you – I know a good story you could write. That, I’m afraid just doesn’t work. That’s your story, not mine, and I like to use my own imagination, even though sometimes it seems to be wearing a bit thin!

Paula K Randall

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare company

Did your first experience of Shakespeare at school put you off, or were you lucky with an inspirational teacher? I was lucky and loved it, but hadn’t acted in a play since I was at primary school. In an area of my life loosely related to my writing, I’m co-directing Macbeth - my second Shakespeare performance – for the Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare Company (WOASC).

When I was a primary-school teacher, I used drama and wrote and staged devised plays and noticed how the whole process improved the children’s writing, understanding and confidence. Wanting to develop my skills, in 2012 I went along to watch The Tempest in rehearsal with Sheila Foster (Director and Founder of WOASC) and stayed. I became prompter for the performance. By the end of the run, I knew the play so well, I devised and wrote a version which the year 6 class performed - followed in subsequent years by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf and Treasure Island (I was thrilled that when OFSTED came into the hall to watch my lesson, we were rehearsing the mutineer versus crew fight scene!) and several other small-scale productions. I enthusiastically taught English through drama and was disappointed when the government cut much of it from the National Curriculum, as I’d seen how much it helped, and indeed I sent a tranche of children off to secondary school with a love of Shakespeare. But that’s for a different blog post.

In the meantime, I tentatively had a try at acting for myself and cut my teeth as a comic character called Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor. Making the audience laugh went straight to my head and I was hooked! Maybe I’d been an actor all along, as a teacher. Later parts for WOASC included Lord Essex in King John, Celia in As You Like It, a multitude of small parts in Pericles (including an assassin and also the Goddess Diana) and Saleria in Merchant of Venice. I am in no way a Shakespeare expert, though I’ve learned a huge amount from performing in these plays. If you’re interested – and it’s great fun – look out for our open, informal workshops during the Autumn and Spring, when we’re not rehearsing for our summer performance.

Last year, I was lucky enough to co-direct the complex and intriguing lesser-known play Cymbeline with Sheila, and this year I’m Assistant Director (with Clare Durance directing) for Macbeth. We’re performing in St Mary’s Churchyard, Wivenhoe, and, if you’re local, I strongly urge you to come and watch. For those of you who are confused (and I was, until I became involved) a Director guides the actors performances, while a Producer organises everything in between venue-booking and insurance, printing of posters, tickets and programmes, right through to ensuring there are audience toilet facilities! There is a huge and talented production team to co-ordinate and the crew (staging, lighting, costume design, props, publicity, music) comprises a greater number of people than actors. This year we are Producers as well as Directors (the latter being more fun) working with the cast on interpreting Shakespeare’s lines and telling the story as a whole. We started work last Autumn, auditioned in February, and began rehearsing our superb cast at the end of March.

The WOASC philosophy is to tell the story as clearly as we can, so the audience can follow (even without much knowledge of Shakespearean language). We hope we’ve achieved that, although the language in Macbeth is truly beautiful - some of the best - and it’s been described as a long poem with good reason. There is something very special about whole atmosphere and experience of Outdoor Theatre (fingers crossed for dry evenings, wrap up warm even if it’s a hot day!). Do come, 25-29th June, 7.30pm, tickets £7.50 from the Wivenhoe Bookshop and online here. Next year, I’m Lead Director and I’m already playing around with ideas. Watch this space!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Review of reviews

How useful are book reviews?

I’ve noticed writers in the writing community on Twitter often ask readers to submit book reviews – sometimes with a discrete nudge, sometimes with a direct request, occasionally with a blatant bribe. This has set me thinking about the usefulness, the value and indeed the ethics of reviews. It’s turned out to be a more interesting subject to consider than I expected. (I was just planning to write a quick 5-minute blog!).
     Most of the reviews I read are on commonly accessed, online sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. When it comes to writing one, every time I finish an ebook on Kindle I am asked to rate it on Amazon and a review is requested. I often as not might press the rating stars but then ignore the request for an actual review. Isn’t that what most people do? Of course it might be different if I feel very strongly about the book. If I’ve read a paper copy, bought from a bookshop or borrowed from the library, I’m more likely to rate it and maybe comment or recommend on Goodreads, rather than on Amazon.
     I realise there are many other online sites on which to post or read reviews and also a myriad of review magazines exist, ranging from ‘The London Review of Books’ to ‘Book Club Bible’ and ‘Self-publishing Review’. A review can be a literary analysis or a scholarly essay, a summary review, an opinion piece or simply a comment based on personal taste. I imagine formats used by the publishing industry might be different from those used by the average readers.
     So what makes me write a review? Sometimes it could be a favour for a writing friend, or more often I will simply be passing onto others a recommendation for a book I’ve loved reading. I’ve often had the feeling when I’ve enjoyed a particular book, that I want friends to enjoy it too - I want to be able to talk to them about it. Sometimes I feel sad, even a little lost, when I’ve finished a special book and I want to recall my own thoughts and feelings about it before I let go. Sometimes I genuinely want the writer to know how much I’ve enjoyed their work, especially if I’ve felt a special connection with their characters or subject matter. (I’ve looked at the last twenty book reviews I’ve posted on Amazon and was surprised to note that seven of the books I’ve responded to were actually written by friends).
     In terms of the ethics of book review writing, I think it is important to be honest but also kind – not every book deserves five stars and not all genres or styles are to everyone’s taste but most books have some merit that can be recognised. Good teachers always say it’s good to balance any negative comments with positives – I suggest in book reviews always look for the positives and handle negatives gently and with sensitivity. If the writing is truly awful, I would consider avoiding doing a review at all. (If it is offensive, pornographic, or downright rude, rather than reviewing it, I’d say report it). In most cases I would acknowledge that the writer has worked long and hard to create their 80,000+ word masterpiece.  They probably have battled through umpteen rejections before getting their book published, be it traditionally or independently, so most will appreciate some consideration.

     Having said all that, if any of you readers out there have read and enjoyed reading ‘Lawn House Blues’ do feel free to submit a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Please regard this as a gentle nudge, as I’m not going to bribe you. Be assured it’s quite an easy and straightforward process to write and post a brief review and you might well make a writer’s day.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Finding the Right Title

Finding the right title

Choosing a good title for a story or novel can be tantalisingly difficult. I usually resort to random brain-racking, leading to a few unsatisfactory possibilities based on fixations with particular phrases or words that cannot be dislodged from the mind. So, I wondered if using a more systematic approach would help.
            Predictably, there is a wealth of material online – individual writers and organisations offering various approaches. I selected one by iUniverse:
This provides a step-by-step guide to generating possible titles. The advice starts with some general ‘rules’ about titles and then moves on to 10 ‘Tips to get Creativity Flowing’.

            I tried to use these tips to generate titles (in italics) for a novel I am currently writing. (Please note that I have adapted the tips. There is more detail on the site.)

1.      Consider the essence of your book. What is your book about? Underlying theme of story?
Illegitimacy, Identity, Paternity.  Comment: As titles these sound like Sociology books

2.      Look over your book’s text. Are there any lines that jump out at you?
Revelry for Gentlemen.  Comment: In the novel this phrase, used in a letter by one of the minor characters, is meant to suggest the attitudes of upper class men to lower class women, but as a title it sounds rather pornographic.

3.      Add perspective. How do the characters see themselves?
The two main characters commit criminal acts of different types and are remorseful.
Remorse, The Guilt of Thieves, The Price of Theft

4.      Consider the visual. Is there a special setting for the story?
Early 18th century King’s Lynn, a thriving port with coastal and overseas trade.
Port of Plenty, Smugglers’ Haven

5.      Add some mystery.
Who is my father? The Love Child, A Question of Fatherhood, A Mother’s Secret

6.      Research best-selling titles in your book’s genre

A very swift survey reveals certain preferences:  the pattern definite article – adjective – noun e.g The Italian Wife, The Incendiary Plot, The Scarlet Thief and definite article – possessive noun phrase e.g. The Gamekeeper’s Wife, The King’s Evil, The Prince of Mirrors

7.    Search for words in the dictionary. Flip to random pages in your dictionary and look over the words.
dishonour, flesh and blood, imbue, mental, pursuer, rogue, titled, vassal
Comment: A thesaurus might have produced more relevant words!

8.      Consider song lyrics and lines from poems and other books.
The Family Face (a phrase from a poem by Thomas Hardy called ‘Heredity’)

9.      Free write. Jot down every title, word or combination of words that comes to mind.
Boat Crew, Inherited Evil, River of Evil, Redemption, Criminal Classes, Compulsion, The Hoard, Father and Daughter, Orphans of Evil, Theft and Keeping, Evil in the Blood, Crime in the Blood

10.  Change your words. Try adding an adjective or verb to the main idea of your book.
Wicked Inheritance, Beautiful Bastard, Unknown Daughter, Base Born, Thieving Classes, Finding Father

In conclusion, this process certainly generated a wider range of ideas than I can usually produce, though I’m not convinced that I’ve found the right title yet!