Free, easy and a little bit sleazy - just the way you like it
Insufferable Characters Author of some of the finest, funniest crime books including Boiling a Frog and Where the Bodies are Buried, Christopher Brookmyre talks about creating his characters, then making them somewhat less insufferable
60 Seconds with Steven Conte and Susan Jane Gilman An Agent’s View Need an agent? We’ve got two! Andrew Lownie and Jonny Geller join us to discuss the current market and answer your questions
Interview with Amazon Kindle #1 Bestseller Mark Edwards And, yes, he’s an indie-author
Writing to Live Again The first in a series of articles by Catriona Troth
Arseholes in Paradise Perry Iles discussing Britons abroad and his latest choice of TV when he should probably be writing
Charactershitsticks Derek Duggan being extremely sarcastic
August | September 2011
Photography Tricia Malley Ross Gillespie
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Contents Random stuff 4
Characters with Legs - author of some of the finest, funniest crime books including Boiling a Frog and Where the Bodies are Buried, Christopher Brookmyre talks about
creating his characters, then making them somewhat less insufferable 9
60 Second Interviews with Steven Conte and Susan Jane Gilman
Book Festivals: A Preview - a look at the Lewisham and Wigtown Book Festivals
Writer’s Retreat - a look at not writing on a writing retreat with Jo Reed
Keeping up with the Janes - Austenproject on Twitter by Clair Humphries
Comics - AAAAAAArgh! Reboot Blues By Andrew Ramsay
Arseholes in Paradise - procrastinating with Perry Iles
You Couldn’t Make it Up - Danny Gillan having a good old News of the World Rant
Putting Library Closures to the Test - Catriona Troth reporting on the first in a series of judicial reviews of council decisions to close libraries
Favourites with JD Smith - you and I on our favourite characters
Here Come the Girls - Character Forming by Anne Stormont
Why Good Novels Make Great Films by Gillian Hamer
Charactershitsticks - Derek Duggan being sarcastic
Book v Film: The Crimson Petal & The White - by Gillian Hamer
The Many Lives of Alison Wonderland - an interview with Helen Smith
Celebrating London Sanctuary by Catriona Troth, the Library Cat
Writing to Live Again with Catriona Troth
Hitting the Top of the Kindle Charts - an interview with Mark Edwards
Quite Small Stories 34
We’re Chained - by Arike Oke
Accidents Happen - by JW Hicks
Eat Your Words - by Mary Cassells
Comp Corner - winners of 5 copies of 22 Britannia Road, corralled by Danny Gillan
39 Are You Having a Laugh? Words with JAM’s comedy scene competition information
The Agent’s View with Andrew Lownie and Jonny Geller
Populating the Fictional World with Sarah Bower - the second of ten creative writing exercises
Is self-editing a doddle or is editor-speak gobbledegook to you? by Helen Corner
Scripts: American Character - first in a regular slot on scripts with Ola Zaltin
Characters in Novels: People Like Us? by Sue Carver
Synopsis Doctor is back, with Sheila Bugler
Question Corner - Lorraine Mace answers your questions on writing
What We Think of Some Books
Some other stuff 53
Dear Ed - Letters of the satirical variety
The Rumour Mill - sorting the bags of truth from the bags of shite
Horoscopes - by Shameless Charlatan Druid Keith
Sarah Bower is the author of two historical novels, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and THE BOOK OF LOVE (published as SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA in the US). She has also published short stories in QWF, The Yellow Room, and Spiked among others. She has a creative writing MA from the University of East Anglia where she now teaches. She also teaches creative writing for the Open University. Sarah was born in Yorkshire and now lives in Suffolk. Sheila Bugler won a place on the 2008 Apprenticeships in Fiction programme. Whilst publishers debate her first novel, she is working on her second novel and spending way too much time indulging her unhealthy interest in synopsis-writing. Clinical psychologist Sue Carver is serving a long apprenticeship in novelwriting. Her aphorism is: it takes as long as it takes. Her first novel is set in the world of psychological therapy and her second takes her far out of her comfort zone. She has published poetry under her maiden surname: Leppard, but she wasn’t made in Sheffield and, although she has wide tastes in music, she much prefers Raymond to Def. Derek Duggan is a graduate of The Samuel Beckett Centre for Theatre Studies at Trinity College Dublin. He lives in Spain with his wife and children and is not a tobogganist. Danny Gillan’s award-winning Will You Love Me Tomorrow was described as one of the best debut novels of 2008. Now, for entirely cash related reasons, Danny’s novel Scratch is available for Kindle readers (‘users’ sounds a bit druggy). It’s so funny it’s made people accidentally wee, apparently. Really, actually wee in their pants. True story..www. dannygillan.co.uk Gillian Hamer is a full time company director and part time novelist. She divides her time between the industrial Midlands and the wilds of Anglesey, where she spends far too much time dreaming about becoming the next Agatha Christie. http://gillian]wordpress.com/ Dan Holloway In June Dan’s novel The Company of Fellows was voted “favourite Oxford novel” in a poll of readers from Blackwell’s bookstore. On July 28th he took part in Blackwell’s Rising Stars panel alongside authors Naomi Wood, Nikesh Shukla and Stuart Evers, and on October 18th is being handed the use of the Oxford store’s world-famous Norrington Room to host the spoken word event This Is Oxford. Perry Iles is an old man from Scotland. If he was a dwarf, he’d be grumpy. He lives in a state of semi-permanent apoplectic biliousness, and hates children, puppies, kittens, and periods of unseemly emotion such as Christmas. He pours out vinegary invective via a small writing machine, and thinks it’s a bit like throwing liver at the wall. He tells anyone who’ll listen that this gives him a modicum of gratification. Andrew Lownie is a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents and Society of Authors and was until recently the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’ Club Prize which supports first-time biographers. Lorraine Mace is a columnist with Writing Magazine and co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam, of The Writer’s ABC Checklist, has had her work published in five countries. Winner of the Petra Kenney International Poetry Award (comic verse category), she writes fiction for the women’s magazine market and is a writing competition judge. www.lorrainemace. com JJ Marsh - writer, teacher, newt. www.jjmarsh.wordpress.com Matt Shaw - author, cartoonist, photographer, hermit, Billy-No-Mates. www.mattshawpublications.co.uk Anne Stormont - as well as being a writer, is a wife, mother and teacher. She is also a hopeless romantic, who likes happy endings. Kat Troth grew up in two countries, uses two names, and has had two different careers. One career she has spent writing technical reports for a non-technical audience. In the other, she attempts to write fiction. She tries always to remember who she is at any one time, but usually finds she has at least two opinions about everything. Ola Zaltin is a Swedish screenwriter working out of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has written for both the big screen and the small, including episodes for the Swedish Wallander series. Together with Susanne O’Leary he is the co-author of the novel Virtual Strangers, (available as eBook).
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JD Smith lives and works in the English Lake District. She uses her publishing house Quinn Publications as a source of procrastination to avoid actually writing.
The print version of the magazine is doing extremely well. If you want to receive a copy of the October issue through your letterbox instead of your inbox, visit www.wordswithjam.co.uk/ paperissuesubscription for more information. In addition, Words with JAM is not only available as a Kindle E-book, but also in a variety of other E-book formats through Smashwords. Or there’s the good old fashioned free online copy.
Right then, who wants to know how many readers the June 2011 issue had? TWELVE THOUSAND! Actually, it was nearer thirteen thousand, but that’s a little unlucky so I’m willing to sacrifice 800 or so. The issue was linked to in countries all over the world, in a number different languages, and by sites from your basic one-man blog to IMDb. We were asked to syndicate and to sell our exclusive with Jo Rowling, but did we? No, we’re better than that (although I daren’t ask how much they were offering first). We also had the odd website which thought that blatantly copying the interview pages out of the PDF, and uploading them onto their website, or copying and pasting the interview itself, is okay. Well, it’s not, but thank you for taking note of my emails and withdrawing it. How, I hear you ask, do you move onwards and upwards from there? An interview with one of the biggest (not dead) authors in the world. Well, that there is a very good question. One which for a while there I didn’t know the answer to. And then it came to me: just wing it like we normally do. Okay, that’s not strictly true. We’ve lined up a selection of both my own personal favourites, and some incredibly talented hot writers to cover coming issues. As for this issue? First off, the funny, witty, and incredibly talented Scottish crime writer, Christopher Brookmyre, takes the helm and talks about his characters, including how to make them less insufferable. As you work your way through the mag, you’ll see contributors posing the question of us creating characters that are images of ourselves - um, Chris? Jo Reed describes what it’s like to not write on a writing retreat, we’ve got comic ranting from Andrew, and all I can say for Perry’s column is watch you don’t spit tea on your keyboard as you pee your pants laughing. 60 Second interviews feature ... wait for it ... Steven Conte and Susan Jane Gilman. There’s a preview in the run up to the Lewisham and Wigtown Excuses to Drink Wine, I mean Book Festivals. We publish YOUR
favourite characters, together with a couple of ours, and Anne talks about her love of the female lead. Derek’s article is mainly about characters, although it could possibly also be used as a lesson in sarcasm. Danny touches on the subject of the newspaper that is no more. Gilly looks at more book v film, plus, the bit we all want to know, how many billion pounds the box office makes from films based on books. Answer: lots. Our resident Library Cat gives you a series of articles this issue. Writing to Live Again is possibly one of the most poignant articles WWJ has ever published, but to top that she has the latest from Court 2 on library closures. For all you indie publishers, and all those thinking of selfpublishing their e-book, Dan Holloway interviews Amazon Kindle’s number one bestseller, Mark Edwards. There’s more short stories, more competitions, more very true, honest, horoscopes, thoroughly researched answers to rumours, and a crossword - plus answers to the last crossword just to prove we didn’t just have random boxes in a pretty pattern. Our resident agent Andrew Lownie is back answering your questions together with Curtis Brown fiction agent Jonny Geller. Learn how to populate your fictional world with Sarah Bower in her second writing exercise, and guest Helen Corner of Cornerstones talks about self-editing. We want to broaden the range here at WWJ Towers, and so we’ll not only be talking more about comics, but also scripts with scriptwriter Ola Zaltin. Resident clinical psychologist Sue Carver discusses empathy in therapy and fiction, Sheila Bugler is back with Synopsis Doc, and Lorraine answers your questions on writing. Yep, this issue is once again jam packed with writery goodness. Now I’m off to have a glass of wine whilst you enjoy!
Latest Podcasts Altered by JW Hicks In the June Edition of Words with Jam, JW Hicks won second and third prizes in our First Page Competition. Of ‘Altered’, which won second prize, the judge, Andrew Crofts, wrote: ‘Wonderful, colloquial writing that is easy to read despite the unusual use of language. The first paragraph is fabulous - funny shocking, intriguing... The whole page is vibrant, funny and the slang doesn’t sound forced or false... I love it and would really like to read more. I want to find out more about Raft and Ratty. I even want to know more about the ‘sizeable corpse’” Well, for all of you who felt the same, here is the whole of the first chapter, read by the author. And if you want to find out more about JW Hicks, you can read an interview with her at: http:// jjmarsh.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/interviewwith-jw-hicks/
Immune by Mig Living Something different for you with this one. First, a short story, ‘Immune’, written by Mig Living. Secondly, a piece of music inspired by the story. The title is ‘I Walked with a Zombie’, by Schmuckfenster. “Every day is a struggle for survival against the zombie hordes. Baron is on his own. Apart from his zombie.” ‘Immune’ is read for you by Axeman.
Tales of Unrequited Love by Anna Hobson A selection of poems performed by the author. Anna tells us, “They are inspired by dark humanity; by the shifting seething turmoil within; by the sparks created by collisions of character. I write about love, pain and heartbreak; about blind instinct, manipulation, and the selfish guzzling of emotion.” You can listen to episodes, download them or subscribe to the podcast either at http:// wordswithjam.podomatic.com or on iTunes via http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/words-withjam/id423101927 - and if you feel like giving us a review or a star rating while you’re there, that’s even better!
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Blogging Along Since April we’ve had a bit of a blog revamp, and invited some fabulous guest bloggers to feature alongside our usual postings. Recent blog posts include:
The Enid Blyton Story by Gillian E Hamer Following on from our Children’s/YA theme in the June 2011 issue, a piece on world famous children’s author, Enid Blyton ...
Don’t Forget Your Wellies by Dan Holloway
Reader Letters We want to hear what you think of the magazine. The good, the bad, the ugly ... the good. Simply reply to this newsletter. We’ll be giving away a printed copy of the magazine to the editor’s favourite each issue (or a wine voucher/random book to those already a print subscriber).
Question Corner Do you have layout issues, problematic characters, or struggle to get to grips with your grammar? Each issue, co-author of The Writer’s ABC Checklist, Lorraine Mace, answers your questions on writing: firstname.lastname@example.org
M is FREE to Words with JA s. We provide an online subscriber of interviews, n original collectio ies, advice, ramblings, funn e views and mor re , ns io competit . ue iss ly each bi-month will be out early Our next issue October 2011. iries: For general enqu jam.co.uk ith w ds or w r@ edito : For submissions k dswithjam.co.u or w @ submissions
It’s festival time, season of indeterminate noodles, oxygen bars and trenchfoot. Now I’ve got nothing against such gatherings. I’ve been to my fair share (even written about one particularly muddy one). But what I’m talking about is decidedly more, er, indoors ...
Designer Labels by Rebecca Woodhead You are wearing a label, whether you know it or not, and everyone can see it. What label did you pick? Unpublished Writer? Writer-To-Be? Did you even choose your own, or did you just accept one that someone else handed out? Maybe it no longer fits, but you wear it anyway, because it’s familiar, it doesn’t make you stand out from your peers, and nobody is offended by it. It is safe. The idea of throwing aside a worn out old label and designing your own may be a little fear-inducing, but what if you gave it a go? Visit www.blog.wordswithjam.co.uk
Submissions Words with JAM Best Comedy Scene Competition 2011 As you may have noticed we enjoy a decent laugh here at WWJ Towers. So for this competition we want comedy scenes, in any format – script, novel extract, short story, play etc. One scene per entry, as many entries as you like. Closing Date: 19th August 2011 See page 39 for more details.
WIN a copy of Alison Wonderland FREE entry We’ve got five copies of Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland to give away this issue. See page 38 for details on how to enter. Closing Date: 5th September 2011
I’ve just signed up for your e-zine and am currently chortling my way through back copies. Seriously, there are some amusing, yet informative, articles and I’m very happy to have stumbled across Words With Jam. I will spread the word! Best wishes, Jackie Buxton Brilliant! Gob smacking brillant! Made my weekend - can’t wait to get my hands on the hard copy. Just tweeted it and hope your readership soars! All the best, Nick, Pelican Post
From Facebook: I’m delighted with this! It’ll take me all day to get through the content - but this one’s a keeper - Bethany Tudor
Oooh lovely #wordswithjam print copy just thudded through my door. Congrats to all involved it looks fantastic - sallietams Sallie Tams
My Favourite and winner of a printed copy: Dear Words With Jam, The reason I like Words With Jam is that it has a good spread of interesting writing-related topics, but mainly because it has a SENSE OF HUMOUR.
Yay! I look forward to every issue here in NZ. Have just bought the Smashwords copy so I can read on my Sony Reader while I’m away in Kaikoura this weekend. Cosy fire, glass of pinot, roaring sea and Words with Jam. Yeah! - Jo Bailey
Other writing magazines seem to be full of despair, desperation and angst from us unpublished hordes. This is marginally offset by the barely concealed glee from the Smug Bastards who have got a publishing deal, all saying with nauseating false modesty that if they can do it, anyone can.
Fantastic,keep on keeping on...we love you; well I do! - Kathryn Faulkner
Well, obviously not. Anyone can’t, or we’d all be living next to J.K. Rowling.
Can I just say that Zimmerframe Blues has just brought tears to my eye - of nostalgia and mirth. Excellent job - Irene Pizzie Thank you. Love the nice and easy one click to the Kindle. Xx - Pam Howes
I know it is sickening when the brown envelope comes back again, but as long as there is alcohol and chocolate, we can get through this. And I have a goldfish to talk to, which is a great comfort.
Keep the cork in the bottle! I cannot wait for my online edition, when I have it you have my permission to have as many bottles as you want. You should be well chuffed x - Sami Green
Writing magazines can be a distraction from actually writing, but Words With Jam cheers me up and encourages me; gets my head in the right place to write. See the play on right/ write in that sentence? Good innit?
With love from me and Monty (the goldfish),
Loved the new Jo Rowling interview in @ wordswithJAM. One of the better ones in years! It’s nice to hear from her. :) Sarahbadger Sarah Keeler Badger
Ask the Agent Every issue, the best agents in the business will give us the view from the other side. Not only do you get insights, tips and expert advice, but YOUR questions will be answered personally.
Brilliant @WordswithJAM out now - http://bit. ly/cKr5MS - features amazing interview with JK Rowling and write up of a night I performed at! - lucyayrton Lucy Ayrton
I say, @WordswithJAM is rather good. Some nice bits on genre, & you can read it for free online http://tiny.cc/wwj - writingislovely Rhian
If you wish to write in, please email me at editor@ wordswithjam.co.uk. My favourite letter will receive a free print version of the issue. New Stuff | 5
PhotographyTricia Malley Ross Gillespie
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Characters with Legs by Christopher Brookmyre
y new novel, Where the Bodies are Buried, had at its genus an unusual process regarding the development of characters: one surprisingly atypical among those proponents of crime fiction, myself included, who have published a series of works featuring the same protagonist. This experimental new technique might best be described as “thinking ahead”, and you would be astonished to discover how rarely it has been deployed throughout the creation of the best-known sleuths to be found on the printed page. It was my intention to create a group of characters I could explore and develop over the course of a series of novels, shaped by their relationships with each other as much as by the events that befall them. You may be wondering what is so unusual about that, perhaps thinking of any number of crime series that have evolved their protagonists over years and even decades. However, the truth is that in most of those instances, the author was not aware at their inception that he or she was writing anything more than one novel.
the perfect foil, not least because he also provided a ventriloquist’s dummy for my own ideological rantings. However, I never conceived of him existing in a world beyond his cartoonish origins, so when I realised that he was nonetheless the ideal vehicle to drive subsequent stories, I had to find ways of making him (a) more plausible and (b) less slappable. To this end, I endeavoured to treat him extremely badly and consistently take him out of his comfort zone: in Boiling A Frog, I put him in jail; in Be My Enemy, I stuck him on a corporate team-building weekend; and finally in Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, I had him narrate the story from the somewhat embarrassing position of being dead. It is also my experience that you seldom know at the point of inception which characters are going to turn out to be the most interesting. When I was writing A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, I created what I envisaged to be a peripheral figure by the name of Angelique de Xavia; (like Rebus, the surname was something of an in-joke). She was supposed to resemble, in the eyes of my gamer-geek
I fell into a far deeper pit than Rankin in creating Jack Parlabane, inasmuch as I saddled him with something much worse than tastes and enthusiasms about which I was under-informed: I made him insufferable. It is a tale I have heard told repeatedly over the years by my fellow crime-writers: how they created a particular character in order to drive the narrative, with no inkling that they would come to be writing about that individual again and again. Ian Rankin says he never intended Inspector Rebus to feature beyond Knots and Crosses, which was why he felt comfortable giving him a name that referred to a puzzle in a weekly Scottish newspaper. He also confesses to initially making Rebus a jazz fan in order to render him more august, only to be confronted, upon bringing him back for further adventures, by the fact that Rankin himself didn’t know much about jazz, and nor was he very interested in learning more. He did, however, know a lot about the Rolling Stones… The truth is that most of the time, you simply don’t know which characters are going to have legs. I fell into a far deeper pit than Rankin in creating Jack Parlabane, inasmuch as I saddled him with something much worse than tastes and enthusiasms about which I was under-informed: I made him insufferable. When he debuted in Quite Ugly One Morning, it was against the backdrop of a scabrous satire populated with grotesquely caricatured villains, and thus a mouthy crusading journalist seemed
protagonist Raymond Ash, a video-game heroine: all dressed in black, sporting an arsenal of weapons and martial-arts skills, along with a suitably comic-book nickname, Angel-X. When I came to write her, and began asking myself who she was beneath the Kevlar, I realised that there were more layers to her than I had room to explore in that particular book. She became the focus of my next novel, The Sacred Art of Stealing, and then returned in A Snowball in Hell. Having learned from these experiences, I thought I should skew the odds in my favour by coming up with three main characters in Where the Bodies Are Buried, wondering which one would announce itself as the driving force for the next book. But in keeping with my life-long understanding that you know nothing about a book until you actually write it, I was wrong again. When it came to the sequel, When the Devil Drives, it was the story itself that made my decisions for me. Sometimes character drives narrative, sometimes narrative drives character. In the end, you generally find the process has been a symbiosis of both: the folly is in thinking you can choose which path to start from in advance.
About Christopher Christopher Brookmyre is the author of fourteen published novels to-date, the latest being Where The Bodies Are Buried. In 2006 Christopher won the seventh Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction with All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses An Eye and, as is tradition, a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig was named after the winning novel. On accepting the award, Christopher said: “My favourite PG Wodehouse quote is ‘It is seldom difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine’; today I’d like to think that I resemble the ray of sunshine.” Quite Ugly One Morning was the winner of the Critics’ First Blood Award for Best First Crime Novel of the Year in 1996. The short story “Bampot Central” was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Short Story Dagger in 1997; Christopher has written a fair few other pieces of short fiction. Boiling a Frog won the Sherlock Award for Best Comic Detective Novel in 2000 and Christopher became the only writer to win two Sherlocks when Be My Enemy picked up the 2004 prize. In 2007, Christopher was given the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing. As you may surmise from the above, Chris(topher) Brookmyre is very, very good. We knew we needed someone pretty special to follow up our JKR interview last issue, and we found just the ticket.
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60 Second Interviews with JJ Marsh
Each month, we persuade, tempt and coerce (or bully, harass and blackmail) two writers into spilling the contents of their shelves. Twelve questions on books and writing. Plus the Joker – a wild thirteenth card which can reveal so much. Be honest, what do you put on YOUR chips? Your intrepid reporter, Jill
Steven Conte Which was your favourite childhood book? The Sailor Dog (1953) by Margaret Wise Brown, the epic tale of a dog’s retrieval of his maritime heritage.
Where do you write? Just about anywhere. For the last year I’ve been mobile, house-sitting and dropping in on family. I write at desks, at kitchen tables and in cafés. Spending time in the latter helps mitigate the social isolation of writing.
Which was the book that changed your life? Sophie’s Choice (1979) by William Styron, which I first read at the age of 19. This almost perfect novel (Styron’s great compassion and humanity briefly fail him when he writes about the reluctance of young women in the late-1940s to part with their virginity) is the finest of a series of novels that I read in my late-teens in which a young male protagonist falls under the spell of a beautiful, compelling woman who later dies in tragic circumstances. I had my reasons. In places, Sophie’s Choice is also terrifically funny.
What do you think is distinctive about Australian fiction? In earlier times, the encounter of writers of European descent with an immense and mostly arid continent, as well as an anxiety that real life and culture were happening elsewhere. These days, Australian fiction is exceptionally diverse, nicely mirroring the culture. Landscape remains a recurring theme, and the question “Who on earth are we?” keeps popping up. Having said that, we’re more outwardlooking than ever before, and increasingly what we see when we look outward is Asia. About Steven Steven Conte is the Melbournebased author of The Zookeeper’s War, which in 2008 won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, then worth A$100,000. The Zookeeper’s War has been published in Britain and Ireland and translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant, book reviewer and university tutor are some of the jobs with which he has supported his writing. Steven’s website is at www.stevenconte.com
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse? ‘Feel’, ‘seem’ and ‘body’ all come to mind. Go figure.
Do you see distinct lines between genre and literary fiction? Not a line so much as a continuum, and of course literary and genre fiction are always borrowing from one another. I see myself as writing in a realist literary tradition, which I think of as an evolving genre that each generation refreshes with its own technical and stylistic and innovations. What remains constant is the impulse to portray the world, not as it “really is” but rather how it feels – emotionally, intellectually, sensually – to be alive in it.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam. Since the early 1980s I’ve been a huge admirer of McEwan’s work and have always found it perverse that he won the Booker for what I feel is his least engaging novel. Having said that, I should probably reread the book to see if I now feel differently about it.
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What have you learned from writing? Tenacity. Separating, as far as possible, my sense of self worth from the downs and also the ups of writing.
Do you have a guilty reading pleasure? Women’s magazines in waiting rooms.
E-books – nemesis or genesis? Genesis, so long as we repel the pirates. My fetish is for words, not for pulped Finnish pine.
Which book/writer deserves to be better known? Mates of Mars (1991) by the Australian satirist David Foster. A fearless and abrasive novel about a disparate band of Sydney taekwondo enthusiasts who attend a training camp in the Northern Territory, get caught in the Wet, become involved in an Aboriginal payback killing and then have to escape by stealing a prawn trawler in a bid to fish their way to Singapore. The triumphantly two-dimensional characters include a medical professor, a Chinese postgraduate student, a feminist self-defence instructor, an Aboriginal rugby-league star, a male model, and a nightclub bouncer who deliberately severs his paralysed legs, only to recover full use of his stumps.
What are you working on at the moment? Another novel.
What scares you most - spiders, snakes or critics? I’m always pleased to discover that there are people who care enough about fiction to write critically about it. So I’d have to say snakes, which, after cars, pose the nastiest threat to my nearest companion, a flat-coated retriever named Meddles.
Susan Jane Gilman Which was your favourite childhood book? Eloise by Kay Thompson. The protagonist is a smartmouthed, rebellious, precocious firebrand who creates her own reality and takes over the Plaza Hotel. And she’s six. What’s not to love? My parents gave this book to me when I was six and have been regretting it ever since: I immediately took to Eloise as a kindred spirit and a role model. To this day, it’s one of my favourite books. And she’s still one of my role models.
About Susan Author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara, Susan has written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine and won a New York Press Association Award for features written on assignment in Poland. Her short stories have been published in Ploughshares, Story, Beloit Fiction Journal, Greensboro Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review and she was awarded VQR’s 1999 Literary Award for short fiction. Susan is also a commentator for National Public Radio and co-hosts “Bookmark”, a monthly book show on World Radio Switzerland.
Where do you write, what objects are on your desk, and why? I have a home office with a big white laminate desk where I sit immobilized and plagued by insecurity for roughly nine hours a day. There are always little knick-knacks littering my work space for me to fiddle (procrastinate) with. The most interesting are tiny, antique pairs of shoes that were made for Chinese women who’d had their feet bound at the turn of the last century. I bought them at an antique market in Beijing when I returned to China in 2005 to research my latest book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. While the shoes might be replicas of the originals, they’re beautifully embroidered – and horrifying. The size is smaller than most toddlers wear. I keep them as a visual reminder of how constricted and crippled women have been throughout history – whether by society or our own desire to conform. I also have two huge, beautiful geodes that I bought in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco from a man desperate to sell me something – anything, really. It broke my heart. The majesty of nature and the pain of humanity are glistening right there in those rocks. On a lighter note, I also have a hairy, magenta rubber yo-yo that lights up. I play with it constantly – whenever I’m stuck for inspiration, working through an idea, or stuck on-hold for 45-minutes on the telephone.
Who was the biggest influence on your writing life? Frank McCourt. I had the great, good fortune to have him as my English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. His Creative Writing class inspired me to write non-stop and taught me crucial lessons about the craft. This was long before he was famous. He was, as we said, “just a teacher.” I was a teenager, which meant, of course, that even my hair was an opera. Yet he championed me and told me I had talent. One day, he told me to send a piece I’d written to The Village Voice newspaper. I did – and they published me. I was sixteen years old. This was huge professional validation. He also sent my work to national writing contests – and it won prizes. I adored him and worked out a way to take his class almost every single semester until I graduated. When I headed off to college, he wrote at length in my yearbook: “Don’t, don’t, don’t ever let them still your voice…Go to your room and let your pen rip across the
page…move over Jane Austen. Bow your head Mary McCarthy. Run for cover, Fran Leibowitz.” And in the darkest nights at college, when I was ravaged with insecurity and despair, I re-read it. (I still do). And I kept writing. And we stayed in touch. Mr. McCourt, my teacher, became “Frank,” evolving into my mentor and friend. Whenever I had a professional triumph – an Op-Ed in the New York Times or a journalism award – I called him. He was as proud as any parent. And I, arrogant young upstart that I was, figured that one day, when I wrote my first book, I’d dedicate it to him so that, you know, he’d be remembered. He’d share a little bit of my glory. HAHAHAHHAHA! Of course, the whole world got to participate in Frank McCourt’s happy ending, in his global, spectacular success with Angela’s Ashes. We watched the awards and accolades rain down on him like champagne. And my friends from high school and I were delirious with joy: He did it! He did it! The triumph and justice of it was monumental. In 2005, when my second book, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress debuted on The New York Times’ Bestseller List, the first person I called wasn’t my husband, or my agent, or my parents, but Frank. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” I choked into the phone. “You made me what I am today.” And he chuckled. “I did, didn’t I?” I simply would not be a writer today if it wasn’t for Frank McCourt. I bow before him for all eternity. He died two years ago, and I miss him every goddamn day.
What makes you laugh? Human stupidity, absurdity, and naivety --particularly my own.
Which book should every child read? Eloise, of course. And all three of mine. Kiss My Tiara, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven are all completely inappropriate for anyone under age twelve, but so what? When I was eight, my mother read me the J.D. Salinger short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” about a war vet killing himself, and I turned out just fine.
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse? Yes, three: “Wow,” “Cry me a fucking river,” and “The world should have my problems.”
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Moby Dick. Ugh. I’ve heard two different and very brilliant professors refer to it as “the greatest American novel ever written.” But I found it tedious, phallocentric, and half of it barely readable – and I’ve plodded through it three times.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer? I can’t even begin to imagine it – and for a writer, that’s saying something.
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Which book do you wish you’d written? The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, although I haven’t read it since I was seventeen. But when I read the final paragraph, I burst into tears, I was so moved and overwhelmed and impressed, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wished I’d written it. Yet I haven’t gone back to re-read because I’m afraid it won’t hold up. The experience of reading it was so perfect and awe-inspiring and seminal for me as a young writer, that I don’t want to tarnish the memory and the impact by going back with a more critical eye. I’d also have been thrilled to have written The Odyssey of course, simply because it’s The Odyssey. Ditto for The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Run, Rabbit, Run and Eloise, of course, would be great, too.
Has the recent ‘made-up memoir’ scandal damaged the market for true stories? I don’t know how it’s affected the market, but it’s made life tough for those of us who have written memoirs without making stuff up. Now, when people read about my dinner with Mick Jagger, or how I was forced to follow a Maharishi as a kid, or my disastrous trip through China at age 21 where my friend and I fell apart, they ask me, “Did that really happen?” That drives me crazy: Of course it did. If I made that stuff up, I’d certainly make myself and my loved ones look a hellava lot better. For Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which is about a naïve and disastrous backpacking trip I took through China when it had just opened up to young travellers, my publisher had me track down some of the people who’d helped save my life two decades ago. They wanted me to have as much
‘It doesn’t have to be the truth, just your vision of it, written down’
WOMEN’S NOVEL COMPETITION 2011 1st prize £5,000 Judges: Clare Alexander, Jenni Murray, Sarah Waters Closing date: 30 September 2011 Unpublished novelists only visit: www.mslexia.co.uk email: email@example.com call: 0191 233 3860 for full details
documentation and verification as possible before we went to press. While it was amazing to track down some of the people in my memoir, it was also extremely nerve-wracking and time-consuming. They were all over the globe. I also feel very strongly that if you’re going to pen a memoir, then you have an obligation to tell the truth as best you remember it. The fact that a story is true gives it a particular power – and resonance with readers. After reading my books, a lot of people write me very confessional letters and emails. My books comfort them, make them feel less alone, less vulnerable, and less freakish because they feel a connection with my own experiences. Sometimes, they tell me they feel like I’m a close friend. They pour their hearts out to me at readings and dinner parties. If I were to turn around and say, “Oh, my family didn’t really implode,” or “I wasn’t really bullied like that – I just made it up to sell books,” they’d feel hideously betrayed and sort of violated. If you’ve got a great story that didn’t really happen to you, just write it as a novel and call it a day.
What are you working on at the moment? My three published books are non-fiction. Now, frankly I’ve had it with reality, so I’m working on a novel. I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as difficult to write as my other three books.
Which pizza topping best represents your personality? Smoked salmon. And chocolate.
Book Festivals: a preview
Lewisham Literary Festival
coming soon with Sheila Bugler I live in Lewisham, South-East London. It’s a great place to live, full of creative, community-spirited people who run all sorts of exciting cultural events, including the borough’s first ever literary festival, taking place in September 2011. Excited at the prospect of my very own local lit fest, I tracked down festival organiser, Rachel Holdsworth, and persuaded her to tell me more. Here, Rachel tells WWJ her reasons for running this event, and explains why cakes will be almost as important as books at this literary festival.
What inspired you to run a literary festival? It was a combination of things, really. I’ve been writing about London’s literary scene for the last 18 months with Londonist.com: the festivals, the talks, the brilliant new salons and events. I was marginally involved with last year’s Peckham Literary Festival which was a big success, and the Save Libraries campaign had such passion in Lewisham that the idea began to grow. But it wasn’t until I spoke to the team behind Hither Green Hall, who put on regular cinema screenings and campaign for a cinema in the borough, that practicality and ideas came together. Have you ever done anything like this before? No! You always think the people who put together events like this are hyper-organised and extremely well connected - it turns out they’re actually just part of an enthusiastic local community. I’ve lived in Lewisham for nearly five years and I still get blown away by the creativity, determination and friendliness of the people who live here. I may never be allowed to cross the Thames again, but I think the festival would be a lot harder to organise in North London. How’s it going so far? Rather well. We have five venues confirmed three libraries (Lewisham Libraries have been very supportive), the Cafe of Good Hope and St
Swithun’s church hall. We’ve got some council funding, the programme is nearly finished and the Crystal Palace-based Bookseller Crow on the Hill will run a pop-up bookshop. All we have to do now is sort out the bar... Tell us a bit more about the events taking place during the festival We’re aiming for a good spread: there are the ‘traditional’ author panels with readings, chat and audience Q&A (including award-winning and bestselling writers), historical talks, a preview of Black History Month, performance poetry, book swapping and comedy storytelling for grownups. There’ll also be free events for children with published authors being fun and silly and making reading interesting. And we’re running a poetry competition for young people in the borough aged 14 and under (details below). Literary festivals can sometimes be perceived as being stuffy. How will this one be different? Everyone will be welcome at the festival; we won’t make you feel inadequate if you haven’t read Ulysses (I certainly haven’t). We really want to avoid that stereotype of bearded, middle-aged, professor types droning on about being influenced by some 18th century writer you’ve never heard of. We plan to have a bar selling wine and real ale, for a start, and we’re inviting interesting, exciting writers to come and talk. To set the tone the opening event will be the Firestation Book Swap, which is a monthly event at the Firestation Arts Centre in Windsor. It’s irreverent, anarchic and people get in free if they bring homemade cake. Cake and books! What could be better? What are you most looking forward to? Being diplomatic: everything. And that is true there’s nothing that’s been programmed as a ‘filler’. Being specific: the Firestation Book Swap
and Tall Tales storytelling, to close the festival, are excellent events that happen regularly elsewhere and are coming on tour to Lewisham. I’m also excited about seeing Joe Dunthorne (author of Submarine) and Skeptics in the Pub are putting together a science panel. The poetry night should have some real energy... Basically: yes, everything. And least? Eight days of running around and not sleeping properly. How can I find out more? The festival is happening 9 – 16 September, 2011 in venues across Lewisham and Hither Green. More information is available on our blog (http:// lewishamlitfest.wordpress.com/). If you want to be added to our mailing list, drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on Twitter and get updates in your news feed by liking us on Facebook. As I’ve mentioned, we’re also running a poetry competition for children (14 and under). We’re looking for poems on the subject of ‘Lewisham’ and there are no restrictions on the type of poem, anything and everything is welcome – haikus, sonnets, Limericks, whatever… you decide! The best 30 or so (as judged by a group of local poets including Janett Plummer) will be printed, bound into a book and presented to libraries and schools. The best overall poem will receive a £20 gift card from Foyles. Make sure each entry has your name, age and your address or the address of your school or youth group! Closing date for entries is 16th September, and they can be sent to: Lewisham Literary Festival c/o Cooper Locke Gallery 132 Hither Green Lane Hither Green London SE13 6QA
Wigtown Book Festival
coming soon with Danny Gillan
It’s almost that time again. It’s almost time for two brave souls from WWJ Towers to shape up and ship out on possibly their most dangerous mission of the year. Yes, The Wigtown Book Festival is almost upon us and, just as we have been for the past two years, we’ll be risking almost every internal organ we possess in our efforts to bring you the highlights, lowlights and shining lights of the week-long literary extravaganza. Just for you
we’re willing to endure the hell of all those book shops, bars, book shops, hotels, book shops and restaurants - the wine, good God, the wine! See how much we love you?
Galloway, Misha Glenny, Celia Imrie, AL Kennedy, Rory Stewart, David Vann and Maggie O’Farrell are just some of those already confirmed to attend this year’s Wigtown Book Festival. The 2011 Wigtown Book Festival programme is currently being prepared and will be off the press in early August. Friends, Friends for Life and Benefactors will receive their copies hot off
Check below for details of some of the writers appearing this year, and come back in our December issue to read our exclusive coverage of the event. Be warned, there may be hangovers.
the press, followed closely by those on the festival
Chris Brookmyre, Tam Dalyell, Tom Devine, Janice
mailing list. If you are not on the mailing list and would like to receive a copy, please email your full name and postal address to mail@
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Writer’s Rehab “Like Mae West, I vanted to be alone – well, most of the time at any rate. So I decided to do my own thing, and booked a small cottage in the wildest part of Cumbria I could find.”
e’ve all been there. I finally get a day off to really get stuck into that short story/ article/novel chapter I’ve been trying to write for weeks. I sit down at the desk and suddenly the three month old lump of cheese on the carpet starts to get on my nerves. I nip into the kitchen to get the dustpan, and notice the pile of washing I meant to put in the machine yesterday. While I’m there I might as well take the rubbish out, so I grab the bag, and on the way back from the bin I notice all those weeds in the front garden, the ones that are going to shower the whole street with seeds and draw down the vilification of my neighbours if I don’t do something about it NOW. Two hours later I make myself a coffee and get back to my desk, brimming with inspiration and determination, and realise I forgot the dustpan and the cheese is still there. And it’s even more irritating. I nip down to get the pan and the washing cycle has finished. I empty the machine and put it out to dry and notice all the weeds in the back garden. An interminable time later, it’s dark, I get back to my desk, stare at a blank page and the cheese is still there … Tomorrow, I’m back to the day job. I decide I’m finally going to carry out my threat to myself, and go away somewhere to write. The idea of a writing retreat has been buzzing around for some time. My non-writing friends don’t understand it – they think I’ve finally lost it. Why pay to go and sit in a house staring at a computer screen, when all I do all day is sit in a house staring at a computer screen anyway? I’ve got one of the best rural views in the country out of the window of my back bedroom, so I don’t even have that excuse to fall back on. ‘It’s the cheese,’ I tell them, and let them form their own conclusions about the state of my mental health. My friends who write, though, do understand it. They nod sagely at the idea, and gaze wistfully at nothing in particular – even the ones who, like me, are single, have houses, computer screens and wonderful views. We wax lyrical about how fantastic it must be to have no mobile signal, no Internet, no email; to be able to concentrate on that novel with no distractions – the writer’s Shangri-La. Right.
By Jo Reed
There are plenty of custom ‘writing retreats’ to choose from. Many of them incorporate courses and workshops. That’s great if you want to meet other writers, but I had a huge edit to finish of a novel, so decided against the social-type venue. Like Mae West, I vanted to be alone – well, most of the time at any rate. So I decided to do my own thing, and booked a small cottage in the wildest part of Cumbria I could find. Just the sort of place that wouldn’t have wifi or 3G; where I would be forced to get down to it. I chose two weeks in March, partly because March was within my budget, and partly because it was March and Cumbria, so the weather was going to be terrible. I would have to stay in and write, because there would be nothing else to do. I turned up after a six hour drive at Beech Cottage, a lovely little place in the off-the-beaten-track village of Scales, near Ulverston. I had one of those selfsatisfied smirks on my face – I caught sight of it in the rear view mirror. My cup was overflowing with righteous self-denial. I was ‘away from it all’ and I was going to write. I unpacked the laptop, made a snack and faffed around for a while with the wood burning stove, then sat down and brought up my unedited manuscript. Ooo-kay. Down in the right hand corner of the screen was a little red cross where my wi-fi connection should be. Good. I watched the word processor for a while. I could see the little red cross out of the corner of my eye. It was starting to get irritating. The wood burning stove needed more wood. I got up and faffed with it. I made a coffee and sat down. The little red cross was still there. It had been a long drive. I went to bed. Next morning I leapt out of bed mid-morning. Well, this was a retreat – I mean, you’re supposed to relax – it’s not as if you have to sit there writing from dawn to dusk after all. I put the kettle on and opened the curtains. It was sunny. Very sunny. A couple of hikers waved at me. Nice day for it. I took a mug of tea into the lounge, faffed with the wood burning stove, switched on the laptop and brought up my unedited manuscript. I watched the little red cross where the wi-fi connection should be for a while. It was getting really irritating. There was a patch of sunlight just
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under the window. It would be nice to sit in it. I rearranged the sofa and brought the laptop over. I sat down and the little red cross was replaced by a single bar, fading in and out. I stood on the sofa. The bar stopped winking. I sat down. The red cross came back. Bugger. I stared at the manuscript for a while. By mid-afternoon I realised that anyone watching through the window might be forgiven for thinking a mad woman had moved into the village. I had written nothing, but had succeeded in inventing a new fitness regime which comprised standing on the sofa, holding the laptop above my head upside down, watching until the red cross turned into a bar, then sitting down again. When this became too repetitive, periods of faffing with the wood burning stove, waving at hikers and boiling the kettle added variety. All I needed was a three month old piece of cheese on the carpet. I was on a writing retreat – in Shangri-La. Right. Next day I needed to take the situation in hand. I spent the morning masquerading as a furniture removal firm. The sofa and dining table switched places. With a little judicious placing of tourist brochures under the table legs, I was able to gain a flat surface with enough height to get a steady single bar on the wi-fi connection, if I placed the laptop half on the table and half on the window sill. Three sofa cushions on a dining chair brought me into line with the keyboard and screen. It wasn’t as if I actually had to be on the Internet. I was away from the email, the chat groups, all the distractions. That was the point. Just as long as I got rid of that irritating red cross. I stared at my manuscript. I looked at the bar on my wi-fi connection, feeling smug. I faffed with the wood burning stove and boiled the kettle a few times. I went to bed. By the afternoon of day three, I’d settled into a routine. Stove, bar, kettle; kettle, bar, stove. If I said it in a Tommy Cooper accent it sounded productive, especially sitting on the pile of cushions. Outside it remained steadfastly sunny, and waving at hikers was still an optional extra. At nightfall, I caved in, clicked the connect button on my laptop and collected my email. Two offers of cut price Viagra and a free tenner
on the bingo. I heaved a sigh of relief and got the first good night’s sleep since I arrived. After breakfast on day four, I realised something. It wasn’t the Internet that was stopping me writing. It wasn’t housework, or my job, or even the blasted wood burning stove. The only thing stopping me writing was me stressing about not writing. It was another sunny day so I went for a walk, a mile across country to Morecambe Bay. I walked on the beach, found two pubs (closed) and a Farm Shop with an irresistible cake counter. By the time I scaled the pile of cushions back to my perch I had composed a 400 word flash fiction about Manchester tarts. Day five was taken up sightseeing. I started early, had morning coffee in Grange-over-Sands, visited a Buddhist temple and ended up, late afternoon, at Dove Cottage. I hadn’t thought about writing all day. On the drive home, that completely new angle on chapter 19 that had been bothering me for weeks suddenly popped into my head. By the time I opened my laptop it had crystallised and I was up writing until three in the morning. During the rest of the two week break, I managed to almost complete the rewrite and sketch out three new short stories. I also took time out to meet a local friend and see more of the lake district. Beech Cottage was the perfect place to stay, and just what I needed. All I had to do was understand that in order to go on a successful writing retreat, it is necessary, sometimes, to retreat from writing. Jo Reed lives and writes in the Southwest of England. She is the author of the Blood Dancers series of novels, published by Wild Wolf Publishing. Jo won the Daily Telegraph travel writing award in 2009, and her short stories have appeared in many national magazines, including Mslexia, The People’s Friend and Lancashire Magazine. Her next Blood Dancers novel, Malim’s Legacy is due for publication in late 2011/2012, and she is currently working on a fourth novel.
For details of the holiday cottage Jo stayed in, email email@example.com
Keeping up with the Janes Austenproject on Twitter by Clair Humphries
t is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen parodies, sequels and spin-offs have been done to death. Even die-hard Darcy fans like me have to admit that, zombies aside, an original take on Austen’s world of Regency romance is pretty much impossible. Or so I thought – until I signed up to the Austenproject, a collaborative story written in tweets by fans from across the globe. Using the hashtag #A4T, writers book fifteen minute slots every Tuesday, during which they can indulge their ‘inner Jane’ fantasies and move the plot of the Austen-inspired story forward as they see fit. For some, this has meant staying faithful to favourite characters and themes, while others have been slightly more – well – subversive. The creators of the project –Adam Spunberg and Lynn Shepherd – both know a thing or two about Austen. Adam is a writer, film critic and fan whose flair for social media has inspired the project and its followers. Equally inspiring is Lynn, the award-winning author of Murder at Mansfield Park, an Agatha-Christie style whodunnit based on the classic novel. Between them, their enthusiasm has prompted over fifty writers worldwide to participate in the story. Entitled A Ball at Pemberley, it is a truly democratic process, uniting published writers and novices alike.
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I’ve always found Austen fans (or ‘Janeites’ as we say in the trade!) to be a warm and friendly bunch, and the Austenproject reaffirms this, with writers of all abilities being welcomed into the demure, muslin-clad bosom of the #A4T family. The story reflects the diverse writing styles and interests of its contributors. As you would expect, Mr Darcy regularly takes centre stage in a plot littered with love trysts, intrigues and smouldering suitors on horseback. The backdrop of Pemberley provides all the Regency amusements an Austen heroine could desire, whether it be taking a turn on the pianoforte, or dancing with a handsome, brooding stranger. Austen is known for her dry wit and arch humour, and this is reflected in #A4T; moments of farce, fantasy and outlandish Gothic horror co-exist with more traditional plotlines and themes. Even celebrity crushes pop up in the narrative as rakish versions of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant regularly re-appear, wreaking havoc with the affections of female admirers. These twists and turns in an often surreal plot may sound confusing, but there is a structure to it. Each week, contributors vote in polls to determine future storylines and new ideas are discussed as a group, often via email.
For me, the Austenproject is a great example of how social media can enhance writers’ lives. It’s great fun, creative and has helped me build a new network of writing ‘friends,’ many of whom have blogs and websites to link to. The project has also created a bit of a media stir, leading to various online news articles and interviews with BBC radio. So, Dear Reader, why not take a look yourself and read A Ball at Pemberley on Twitter at #A4T? You’ll be in excellent and most agreeable company. Read the whole story at:
www.austenproject.com Twitter hashtag #A4T
Clair Humphries writes humorous fiction and contributed to the Jane Austen-themed anthology ‘Dancing With Mr Darcy’ edited by Sarah Waters (Honno). She lives with her own Mr Darcy in Kent.
! h g r A A A A A A A s ic Com Reboot Blues By Andrew Ramsay
ll right, when I was first asked to write for Words With JAM, I thought I might be able to tell you a bit about comics and hopefully make some of you more interested in picking up a graphic novel here and there. I thought I would try and tell you about how great comics are and try and justify to you why, as a man stepping ever so close 40, I’m still spending my pocket money on ‘funny books’. So it kind of goes against all I cherish and hold holy when I tell you that I’m about to explain what I hate about comics. There’s a reason why. In fact, there are a couple of reasons why: DC comics, the owners of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (and my own all time favourite, The Flash) have plans to ‘reboot’ their whole comic book universe. Now, they’ve done this before, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis being two of the biggest changes in recent times (they like a good crisis, do DC). If you’re interested, you can find out all about these on your friendly Wikipedia pages (a lot of it’s true, you know). In the first ‘Crisis’, Barry Allen, the silver age Flash sacrificed himself to save the world. His nephew, Wally West (my HERO!!!) decided, after years as Kid Flash, to replace ‘Kid’ with ‘The’ and honour his uncle’s selfless deed. Wally spent the next 30 odd years as The Flash, solving high speed crimes and fighting crazy enemies. All good so far. However, DC, in their misguided wisdom, decided to revive Barry Allen, thereby reducing his sacrifice and belittling his ultimate hero status, and heave the greatest hero ever (Wally) to the side. It now seems that the reason this was done was to set the DC universe up for the latest upcoming event, Flashpoint. The main premise being, the Reverse Flash (baddie – kinda like The Flash except, eh, bad) has the power to go back in time and affect previous events, thereby altering much of the DC universe. With me so far? I’ll now jump quickly to another of my peeves for a moment. I don’t actually have any copies of the last three months worth of The Flash or the first or second issue of Flashpoint and, due to this, I’m not entirely sure what’s happening. Why don’t I have these copies? Because I choose to use a local store to pick up my monthly comic titles. Now, just to let you know, I live in a small mining village in East Ayrshire in Scotland. We have a Spar and a Village Store. The nearest specialist comic store is in Glasgow, a good 40 miles away. I get
my comics in Ayr, in a store that sells comics because I asked him if he would. He uses an outside supplier and stocks, on average, twenty comics a month. The suppliers don’t really care if they get there on time, in chronological order or get there at all. The shop owner isn’t overly bothered because he knows comics are like a drug to me and that, if my normal comics aren’t there, I’ll buy something else just to get my ‘fix’ and I’ll be back later on to pick up my usual titles. My brother tells me I’m stupid. He tells me to buy them from the internet. “Get them delivered”, he says. But this means I miss out on my jaunts into town, looking through the extra titles the supplier has decided to randomly bestow upon us that month and talking comics with the shop owner. He’s a nice guy. Local shops have been under huge pressure with dodgy economical times. Who am I to add to the pressure? I ask you this genuinely because I don’t know the answer. What’s the feeling with you people that read ‘normal’ books? Do you buy books you’re not even sure you want from a smaller, more personal store with nowhere near the choice that large Waterstone-like stores have, just to ensure you continue to have the option of buying books you’re not even sure you want? Or do you go to Waterstone’s and sell your soul to buy a book so that you get the opportunity to enjoy the ending before you inadvertently stumble onto the ending on a shitty web page that also tries to sell you insurance while you’re there? Anyway, back to reason one, the feckin’ reboot. Apparently, according to some shitty insurance toting web page, all DC’s main books will revert to issue number one and pretty much everything that’s ever happened will be wiped from existence in an attempt to pull in new readers with gold embossed shiny covers that claim it to be the start of a new era. This aggravates me to no end. How disrespectful is this to the writers and artists who sweated blood and tears over hard-worked, intelligent story arcs and beautifully formed characters, for them suddenly not to have meant anything? How would you feel if suddenly there was no monster in Frankenstein or no Hyde in The
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? They’d be stupid books! But it seems to be ok to do it to comics. I’m worried people, I’m very worried! Do I lose faith in comics? Do I start to think that comics are just for kids? I mean, surely the heads of DC don’t expect an intelligent adult to accept the rape of his hero’s history, do they? Or, do I dutifully embrace the new (possibly Wally West free) universe? I don’t know! And, to be truthful, until the suppliers get their fingers out and send the video/DVD/sweety/hardcore pornography shop that also stocks my comics the issues I’ve been asking for for around 4 months, I won’t know. Thanks for listening, perhaps I’ll write next issue about why I hate money grabbing crossover titles or perhaps I’ll be writing DC’s President, Dan DiDio, an unreserved apology for even questioning his masterplan. However, I may be just one step away from an editorial reboot myself and be writing about the benefits of reading Drs Frankenstein and Jekyll’s latest beach adventures. Anyway, see you in the funny pages.
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Arseholes in Paradise Procrastinating with Perry Iles The summer’s here: the annual grunting lesbian pingpong-fest at Wimbledon has finished in disappointment for plucky little Tim, or whoever, and the French countryside is filled with drug addicts falling off bicycles. It’s an odd-numbered year, so there’s no decent sport to watch until the football season starts. So, in this character-driven issue of WWJ, Perry Iles spends the holiday season bemoaning the characteristics of the denizens of England’s green and pleasant as they pop across the channel to desecrate Europe with their very presence. Here’s the Eiger, look. It’s rearing up fourteen thousand feet behind the Swiss town
Look in the foreground. Occupying that space where there should be a schoolgirl with blonde pigtails wearing a puff-sleeved gingham dress and carrying a double yoke of milk pails as she eats a bar of Suchard, there is instead a monstrosity from Liverpool who is almost perfectly spherical and has a face you could slice bread with. In a voice that would shatter crystal, the monster speaks. Prodding a roll across a plate with her knife because she can’t tell crusty from stale, she says: “Thee don’t do a proper brekkie, them forrins.” Welcome to Channel Four’s Coach Trip, the latest must-see in car crash television. Here is a little microcosm of how the English behave when they’re abroad. Meet Phil. He’s in Germany, asking for a ham sandwich. “Is it English ’am?” he asks. Brendan, the long-suffering tour guide explains that he’s in Germany, so it’s very probably German ham. Phil looks distrustful, but tries it anyway and continues to eat with the sort of expression you’d expect to find on the face of a starving man being offered a dogshit butty. And here’s Sam and Amanda, two girls
’im an’ ah din’t like ’im.” I’m really not exaggerating here. The English really are that stupid. Maybe you don’t expect the average English holidaymaker to be brainier than Kurt Cobain’s ceiling, especially the sort that actually chooses to travel by coach, sealed in a big sweaty tin for thousands of miles with other travellers of limited imagination, but they could at least try a little harder to not give the impression that they’re all two vouchers short of a pop-up toaster. In real life, when I’m not watching television or drinking or sleeping or breaking wind or yelling at the world, I work in my wife’s shop in a small tourist town in the Scottish Borders. In summer the town fills with elderly widows on Lochs and Glens or Bonnie Scotland holidays. Great swathes of slowmoving beige polyester clog the pavements and dear sweet little old ladies come into my shop wearing their tight, white perms like cotton wool on withered apples. They moan on about everything from the price of a cup of tea to that nice tin of Scottish shortbread with the cartoon Nessie on it that they bought for the neighbour as a thank-you for looking after Tibbles
Occupying that space where there should be a schoolgirl with blonde pigtails wearing a puff-sleeved gingham dress and carrying a double yoke of milk pails as she eats a bar of Suchard, there is instead a monstrosity from Liverpool who is almost perfectly spherical and has a face you could slice bread with. of Grindelwald. It’s a mixture of grey and white, though not in the sense of a seagull shitting on a pensioner. It is, in short, beautiful. The sky behind it has the blue depth of forever. It’s so azure it’s almost cerulean. There’s a high-altitude wind blowing up there, lifting a veil of snow from the summit so the sun shines through a shimmering rainbow across the peak. The sky is dotted with little white summer clouds. On the lower slopes of the valley, the cloud-shadows move slowly along the mountainsides and light brown cattle munch away at the emerald grass. Above the whispers of the wind, you can hear cowbells clonking in the morning air. There’s a Sunday morning church bonging a counterpoint. The little town at the foot of the mountain is made of wood and geraniums. Under the summer sun it’s growing hot as the day advances. But.
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from Chigwell, in a boat on an underground lake in a beautiful grotto near Lausanne. The water is so clear it looks as if their little boat is floating on air. Lights below the water are momentarily blotted out by movement. Sam and Amanda shriek in that kind of blockit-out-and-run-like-fuck-till-you’re-out-ofearshot harmony I last heard at the climax of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s version of Summer Nights. “Wossat?” they chorus. “It’s a trout, girls, it’s OK.” Brendan says “Woss a trout?” “It’s a kind of fish.” “Izzit gunna bite me?” “No, dear, it’s a trout.” “Don’t like them water-fish.” Back with Phil, he’s crossed from Germany to Austria and he’s been to a concert in Vienna. “Ah went to see that Mozart. Ah’d never ’eard of
but which turned out to have been made in Taiwan. I nod and tune them out until they’ve finished picking things up and putting them back in the wrong place and I wonder if they could do us all a favour and just go away before I lose my temper and drop-kick them into the street just so that I can listen out for the sweet crunch of hip on pavement when they land. My town is where the Coach Trip crowd comes when it gets old, and I’m a foreigner in a foreign land witnessing the tunnel-vision of the inhabitants of the land of my fathers. Because I’m afraid I’m English too, despite having spent twenty years in Scotland. Being English is something that causes me a great deal of shame and embarrassment from time to time but it’s just something I’ll have to live with. Back when I was young I used to go abroad every summer with my parents. My father would practise for the
holiday by learning a few phrases in various languages. These phrases would embody the English attitude of innate suspicion towards Johnny Foreigner: “Show me to the British Consulate”; “My room suffers from insects”; “You have short-changed me!”; “This Madonna refuses to function”, and so on. But at least we’d attempt to integrate. We’d eat the local food, get used to currencies and learn a bit about local history, language and culture. This doesn’t seem to happen any more, and I can imagine the sinking heart of any foreigner when approached by an Englishman abroad. Here comes that swagger, that expression of belligerent bullet-headed distrust. The t-shirt that’s too small for the ubiquitous English beer-gut and the saggy pair of union jack shorts. The tattoo of Nick Griffin buttfucking a bulldog. Next to him is his wife, wearing that just-sucked-a-lemon look on her mahogany-tanned face and lots of gold plated chunky jewellery around her scrawny and liver-spotted neck as they scour the baking concrete for an all-day breakfast or a roast dinner at lunch time in August in Spain. Compare and contrast Blackpool and Skegness with Biarritz and St Tropez and you have an embodiment of that which separates us from our foreign cousins. The Spaniards made such a comparison at the start of the holiday boom in the early 1970s and created Benidorm and Torremolinos for us. “Let’s attract the English,” they said, and lo, it was made so. I’d imagine the mayor of Benidorm thinking “Surely not. Not this bad,” before we came in our millions and made it even worse, sparking off the cliché that dates back to the old Monty Python sketch about adenoidal typists from Birmingham with flabby white thighs and diarrhoea complaining about the lizard in the bidet – a cliché that hasn’t changed one iota over the last forty years. There’s a small island off the northwest coast of Europe populated by Burberry Apes, thugs and idiots. The trouble is that it wasn’t always so. Once we had an empire, once we had class, distinction, manners and once, long ago, we ruled the world. As David Mitchell once said after British forces sank the Belgrano, “Britannia used to rule the waves. Now she just waives
the rules.” We ignore the local culture now; in our profound insensitivity, we seem to think that the Europeans are there simply to provide us with entertainment and bow to our every whim, and when that doesn’t suit us it’s always their fault and never ours because really they’re some kind of sub-species put there in the role of servant and whipping-boy to the aggression
does Benidorm sound like a mattress shop, or a brand of sleeping tablets? Something that lulls us into a kind of dream in which we can still pretend to be better than anyone and still pretend that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Stands the mercury at 40 degrees C, and where’s the nearest Maccy D? Last time I went to Europe, a vital part of my preparation was the phrase “I’m not English, I’m Scottish” which I learned to say in every major European language. It stood me in good stead, as I watched the initial reactions of people I met change and their faces open into smiles. I found myself thirteen thousand feet up an Alp on one occasion. It had started to snow in June, bitter flakes borne on a horizontal wind. The man at the top of the cable car offered me his jacket as I was dressed in summer clothes. “Thank you but no,” I replied, “for I am Scottish and in Scotland it is ever thus and I am as a rock.” Which is just how hard you have to be just to stop yourself dying of embarrassment at the attitudes and behaviour of the English abroad. Watch Coach Trip; it’s one of the funniest programmes on the telly just now, until the point comes when you realise it isn’t actually a sitcom. It’s us, happy and glorious, swaddled in the spurious comfort of our imagined greatness from a time dating back to a world that never actually existed in the first place.
Maybe you don’t expect the average English holidaymaker to be brainier than Kurt Cobain’s ceiling, especially the sort that actually chooses to travel by coach, sealed in a big sweaty tin for thousands of miles with other travellers of limited imagination, but they could at least try a little harder to not give the impression that they’re all two vouchers short of a pop-up toaster. that accompanies the last dregs of the bogus English national complex of superiority. When did we change? When did we stop being quietly spoken, mannered classicists and start behaving like some kind of arriviste trailer trash? Can it be traced back to our world cup win in 1966? Was that the high water mark of post-war European glory? Something to be aspired to for the future, and when that aspiration proved beyond reach we retreated into a caricature of our former greatness, became all mouth and trousers, all bluster and threat, just gasbags full of hot air pretending we were still superior to Europeans because we’d let the Americans come over and win our war for us, when in fact Europe was creating down-market playgrounds like Benidorm and Torremolinos as some kind of hedonistic damage limitation just to stop us spreading any further inland. They created for us a special kind of Dachau-on-Sea, and laughed as we went there willingly and thereby refrained from desecrating the finer sites of European culture. Because there aren’t many fish and chip shops in Nice or St Tropez, are there? Is there a Queen Vic in Venice like there is in Lloret de Mar? And is it just me, or
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You Couldn’t Make It Up by Danny Gillan
Everyone else is talking about characters so I figured I’d rant about something else this month. So, The News of the World, eh? Mental. To utilise, just this once, a terrible cliché, you couldn’t make it up. Or could you, hmm? Nah, you really couldn’t. Thing is, Rupert Murdoch has always been a bit of a monster. His name’s Rupert, for Christ sake, how could he not be? But now, with this, he’s become an actual archetype. He’s verging on super villain status. So is his son. And her with the ginger ringlets. He’s got a whole dynasty of the nasty going on. And how did it happen? How did we, a proud democracy built on fairness and the public’s right to choose our own path free from the influence of evil, end up like this? Because we repeatedly voted in the spineless fuckwits (of both colours) who deliberately gave the clan
privacy or misery they intruded upon. It’s News International – they’re bastards. And of course David Cameron hired one of their shining shites to work as is PR man. And of course Scotland Yard gave another of the slithering, suppurative scum-buckets a nice fat contract with the Met. Of course they did. We live in a country (and point of the compass) run by power-hungry cowards and sycophantic suck-ups who’d lick the arse of a plague-ridden toad if it meant the chance of getting elected or putting a positive spin on their latest povertypromoting policy. Surely this surprised no one? We vote them in, after all. And we read their newspapers, by the millions. And we suddenly believe their bullshit about high public spending being to blame for the financial crisis that we all know was caused by investment banks doing stupid things with money they didn’t have. We are none of us innocent, sadly. But what does all this have to do with writing, I hear you ask? Not much, to be fair. Though I suppose there’ll be more paper about
right away. Morally bankrupt PI? Done to death. Politicians who get a bit too close to the flame? Boring. Corporate executives willing to do anything to get another rung up the ladder? Been there, done that, didn’t suit the t-shirt cos I only wear v-necks. Police cock-up cover-ups? Meh. The only actual surprise in the whole thing is that the Dowler family have maintained such grace and dignity, given the awfulness they’ve been faced with. Their book I would buy, but I have a feeling they’re not going to have the inclination to cash in. Power and money, the two greatest motivators for fuckwittery on the planet, and two of the finest sources of inspiration for baddies in books, have been made to look cheap, pathetic and predictable by this band of grubby twats. Surely they could at least have put a hit out on someone, just to make it less believable. In saying that, at the time of writing the big three, Rupert, James, and Rebekah (God, even the names are boring) have been summoned
The saddest thing, from a fiction writer’s point of view, is that almost no one involved in the whole business would make a credible antagonist in a novel. They’re just way too stereotypical, no one would believe them. of devilment the power, leeway and political support to become the pile of bile they’ve now proved themselves to be. We let it happen. We also let the Taliban happen, and Saddam Hussein, and most of the other current problems of the planet. We’re shite at running the world, always have been. But we’ll worry about that another time. It started small – no one gives a shit about Andy Gray or Jude Law, let’s face it – then seemed to go away, only to return after a few years, bigger, stronger, further reaching and much, much more disgusting and morally reprehensible (much like The One True Ring, or Piers Morgan). The funniest thing about this entirely not funny at all situation is watching all the politicians who’ve spent years trying to get in the good books of Murdoch and his minions feigning shock and surprise at the revelation they were dancing with the devil. I mean, Christ, this is the company behind Fox News. Have you heard the gutter slurping lies they peddle daily? Of course they hacked the phones of murder victims and fallen soldiers for a story. Of course they deleted messages In order to make space for more titbits of tragedy. Of course they didn’t care about whose
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to make books with, now that The News of the World is gone (take that, e-book revolution!). At least till The Sun on Sunday appears. There is, though, one thing of which we can be sure. In a year or so, there will be several books on sale about this situation. Some will be from those on the inside, trying to play innocent and explain how they were just following orders and it was the only way to survive in such a competitive, cut-throat business. Some will be from those on the outside, basically expanding on the insults I’ve laid out with such level-headed dispassion above. Yer man Glenn Mulcaire will definitely have a book out soon, if only to help pay his lawyers’ fees. And that’ll give all us unsuccessful authors something else to moan about – more sensationalist crap clogging up the best-seller charts, edging out those of us more worthy of attention. See? Bastards! The saddest thing, from a fiction writer’s point of view, is that almost no one involved in the whole business would make a credible antagonist in a novel. They’re just way too stereotypical, no one would believe them. James Bond has already done the mad press baron as villain thing, so that’s out the window
to appear in front of Parliament. You’ll know by the time you read this how that worked out, but right now I’m hoping they’ll grin evilly as they tell the watching public about the satellite that even now is pointing nuclear lasers at the free world, before listing their demands, cackling. Or at the very least Rupert admitting Rebekah is the result of that affair he had with L. Ron. Hubbard. At least that’d be interesting. See, I told you this was a piece about characters. Anyway, the only good thing to come out of this sorry, sorry mess is that Murdoch’s takeover of BskyB has fallen through. I really didn’t want to switch to Virgin, Sky+ is brilliant. Danny writes fiction when we let him. His second novel, Scratch, and short story collection, A Selection of Meats and Cheeses, are available on Kindle and all other reputable e-book stores. No one is yet sure if the excess of suddenly available paper makes a print version of either any more likely.
“A public library is the most enduring of memorials.”
Mark Twain, 1894
Putting Library Closures to the Test by Catriona Troth, the Library Cat
he atmosphere in Court 2 is surprisingly low key, considering this is a case that could influence the future of the 400+ libraries currently under threat of closure around the UK. For this is the first of a series of judicial reviews of council decisions to close libraries: a challenge to Brent Council’s decision to close six of its libraries. Somerset and Gloucestershire are up next, and the Isle of Wight is about to go through a preliminary stage to decide if it will proceed to judicial review. If this challenge is successful then more will surely follow. The challenge is being brought in the names of Brent residents who qualify for legal aid. But because the outcome of this case benefits not only the claimants but the whole community, the community is required to find an additional £30k. This is being raised through a number of fundraising events. (Indeed, midway through this hearing, Philip Pullman attends a packed event in Kensal Rise to read from his book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and to answer questions from the audience.) Nick Cave and Depeche Mode are among the well-known names who have contributed to the fund. If the case is won (and the costs are therefore paid by the Council), the money will go to benefit the six threatened libraries. The immediate build up has been fraught with tension. People were shocked to learn that, in apparent defiance of the judicial review process, Brent Council intended to discuss plans to sell off two of its libraries the night before the hearing began. In the event, following a barrage of requests from library users to address the meeting and object to the sales, the council agreed to defer its decision.
DAY ONE IN THE ROYAL COURTS The main entrance hall is vast and cathedrallike and pretty much empty, with doors and stairways leading off it. When I finally find my way up a wide stone spiral staircase to Court 2, there is just enough space at the end of one of the two rows of public benches for me to squeeze in. (I later find out that so many people wanted to attend, that they had to
open up a second public gallery upstairs – first dusting it down to make it fit for habitation.) In front of the public benches are three rows for the lawyers and other officials. And facing us, raised up on his own dais, is the judge – Lord Justice Ousely. The barristers are wigged and gowned, but the judge is bareheaded, the only insignia of his office being the long red bands on his gown. This red is echoed in the t-shirts worn by the protestors: on the backs of many of those sitting in front of me, I can read the names of the six libraries under threat. Unlike a courtroom drama on film, there is no grandstanding. This feels more like eavesdropping on a private conversation between the barrister and the judge. Those in the public gallery must strain to hear and several sit with their hands cupped behind their ears.
LEGAL ARGUMENTS In the course of the next two and a half days, the lawyers presented their arguments.* According to the Brent S.O.S. Libraries website, the basis of the legal challenge is that Brent Council closed its mind to alternatives, did not assess community needs properly, made significant mistakes about the facts, misunderstood its legal duty to provide a library service, and acted unfairly. Speaking for the claimants, Helen Mountfield QC told the court that the council had failed to assess the impact of the closures on young people from particular religious and ethnic communities. She maintained that the council should have done its initial analysis earlier, enabling it to ask the right questions during the consultation process. Interestingly, Elizabeth Laing QC, representing the council, argued that whether the service provided by Brent was “comprehensive and efficient” was a matter, not for the court, but for the Secretary of State to decide. So far, Ed Vaisey (the libraries minister) and Jeremy Hunt (the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) have declined to intervene in any of the cases of library cuts referred to them by protestors – even where, as in Lewisham – libraries have actually been closed. The mantra from DCMS is that they “continue to monitor and assess proposals…”
*More detailed reports of the arguments may be found in the Bookseller.
PASSIONS AND FRUSTRATIONS So why are the protestors going to such lengths to protect their libraries? Talking to them outside the Royal Courts, the message is clear. Some recall taking their own children to the library, and want another generation to have the same opportunities they had. (“What mother is going to lug a pushchair and toddlers 3 km down the road on a winter’s evening?”) Others speak of the pride they feel in the history of libraries like Kensal Rise (opened by Mark Twain in 1900 with a gift of five books to begin their collection). This is a week of ups and downs for libraries across the country. The judge scheduled to review the challenge brought by
campaigners from Somerset and Gloucester has issued an injunction preventing those Councils closing any libraries until their judicial review has been held. On the other, Dorset Council has voted, by 21 votes to 20, to proceed with its plan to close 9 of its libraries, and Wakefield Council has added an additional 12 to the ‘at risk’ register. As the Brent hearing closes, the protestors are said to be ‘hopeful’ that the judge will decide in their favour. But at this point, even a date for a ruling has not been set. Until then, the council have undertaken not to close any libraries. We’ll continue to keep you posted via the Words with Jam blog.
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Favourites with JD Smith
This issue we asked you to write in with your favourite characters, and it seems a few of you share some firm favourites – I’m concerned about Poirot’s moustache, but I’ve not read the books, so I’ll take your word on that one. For me, I’ve never been drawn to characters in literature, per se, but characters from history. They are the ones I like to read about. The ones I will read over and over again, in books by different authors, from different angles. It’s their histories, that I know actually existed, which have survived for generations, that really tickles my interest. The blurbs on historical fiction novels and trailers for epic films are my one weakness. I even love the cliché of the word ‘epic’ and lines such as ‘one man’s fight for …’ Where ‘best romantic comedy of the year’ is becoming tiresome, they’re not. Retelling history is the most basic form of storytelling. Passing down from generation to generation, by word of mouth or the written hand, is how we have come to know so much of what has gone before. There are people in the media spotlight now and we can wonder if they will be a household name in hundreds or thousands of years as Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Helen of Troy, Napoleon, Boadicea, Alexander the Great, Alfred the Great, Henry VIII are now. These are people whose stories are well known, whose lives have been recounted time after time. Why? Because behind every retelling of 20 | Random Stuff
their life and circumstance lies the knowledge that they changed a country, a civilisation, the world.
Lucy Snowe, Villette (Charlotte Bronte) Because she is quietly independent and a keen observer of the foibles of those who surround her. Paula, Montreux
My favourite character? I can’t give just one, so I’ll say ‘those from history’. Here’s some of your favourites …
The Pasha, Eothen (Alexander Kinglake) He’s a nutter. DB, Glarus
With an egg shaped head, an oversized moustache and vastly superior “little grey cells”, there can only be one Hercule Poirot. Or at least his creator can only hope so – Agatha Christie once famously described her sleuth as an “odious little man”, and seems rather to have regretted choosing a Belgian ex-policeman-turned-PI as a protagonist. But there’s no denying the little man’s popularity; he even received an obituary in the New York Times in 1975, the only fictional character to ever have this honour. Of course, where would he have been without his faithful team: the kindly Captain Hastings, playing Watson to Poirot’s Holmes; Miss Lemon the secretary, with her fastidious filing system; absent-minded Ariadne Oliver, crime fiction writer and dedicated eater of apples; Chief Inspector Japp, destined forever to trail in Poirot’s shadow. Through 33 novels and more than 50 short stories Poirot and his loyal gang followed the clues, analysed the psychology, outwitted the murderers… and thoroughly entertained millions the world over. Rin Simpson My favourite character is Mariam from Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’. I like her because she has a beautiful modesty beneath which lies a resilient personality. Mariam is born a harami, an unwanted thing but she never accepts this label and fights against it throughout the novel. She struggles with life, first betrayed by the father she adores and then sold into a loveless and ultimately childless marriage to a much older man. She is unable to win her husband’s approval and is humiliated when he brings a second younger wife, Laila, into their home. However, it is Laila’s arrival that allows Mariam to become the great character she is. Overcoming the prejudice she initially feels, her strength rises and she becomes a friend and a mother figure to Laila, giving the younger woman the guidance and companionship that was missing from her own adolescence. Eventually helping her through the pregnancy and childbirth she had so desperately wanted for herself. Ultimately her selflessness and strength allow her to give her own life to save Laila’s. Mariam is a character who starts small and becomes huge but without ever losing her humility. Belinda Fidler From the instantly-recognisable TV theme tune to his favourite drink (sirop de cassis, don’t you know!) there’s no one quite like Hercule Poirot. Christie played a trump card when she created what has to be crime fiction’s most memorable character since Sherlock Holmes. His wonderful accent and sayings (little grey cells, mon ami) are trademarks around the world. He’s a genius, yet fallible. An OCD candidate, yet astute. He is warm, yet eccentric. But more than anything, he stands out from the crowd. For me, Poirot is everything a great character should be. Gillian Hamer
Susan Sto Helit, Thief of Time (Terry Pratchett) Because I’ve been told I’m like her in some ways, and I wish I was as capable with kids as she is! Mika, Stans Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery) - When I first read those books, I wanted to be just like her. Victoria, Préverenges Dennis the Menace, Beano Annual 1977 (Davey Law/Ian Chisholm) - He takes after me. A, Zurich Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole) - Modern age Don Quixote, the original Homer, sucker of donuts, my own personal hero. Traubert, CH Calvin, Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson) Everyone can associate with his antics and wild imagination. And because he had a sarcastic tiger as a friend. Dustin, Gland Zaphod Beeblebrox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) He’s funnier than me. Mirfield, Basel Pony, Pony, Bear and Appletree (Sigrid Heuck and Hilary Schmitt-Thomas) My childhood favourite. Air, Schweiz Sir Harry Flashman VC, Flashman and the Tiger (George MacDonald Fraser) - All the Flashmans are great, but I think the Tiger one I remember most. Al, Geneva Sissy Hankshaw, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Tom Robbins) The most bodacious female character ever. Sissy quite simply rocks. Lou, Zurich Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones’s Diary (Helen Fielding) ‘Cos she makes my life look almost normal, and I wish I had friends like hers!! Angela, Luzern Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in the Dorothy L. Sayers detective novels. Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) Lorikeet, Neuchatel Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren) - Coz she would make a fab teacher MC, la Cote Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze - The strange incident of the dog in the nightime Mike, Zurich
Here Come the Girls Character Forming by Anne Stormont Before writing this article, I hadn’t given much thought to which fictional characters had made the biggest impression on me. I was fairly certain of my ‘desert island’ novels, but these were on the list because of the complete package – character, plot, setting etc. To compile the list, I looked back over the decades of my life and chose the ones who resonated, and still resonate, the most with me. And, although many dearly loved people had to be left out, I really enjoyed coming up with my personal chronology of charismatic characters. I also found it to be quite revealing as to what makes me tick - both as reader and writer. In fact, I recommend the above activity to writers. It’s a good way of analysing what it is that will make your own creations work.
As I went through the process, I realised that, in many cases, the characters I’d chosen were people I’d be happy to meet in real life – people I’d want to spend time with –which of course, is what you do as you read a novel. Several of them actually had real life parallels in my circle of friends. Some were characters I’d aspire to be and some reminded me of me. And still others fascinated me because they were so unfamiliar and different. Interestingly – to me at any rate – my final list was all women. Not that surprising perhaps, when you consider that I was born in the mid 1950s and grew up in the sixties and early seventies. The ‘Women’s Lib’ movement was very much part of my formative years – so all my chosen characters are strong, feisty, proactive women – not a Bridget Jones amongst them. N.B. If any men had made it onto the list they’d all have been from crime fiction – Henning Mankell’s Wallander, P.D.James’ Adam Dalglish and Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler – I’m in love with them all.
So – to the list – my desert island character companions would be: My childhood favourites are Wendy from James Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’, Katy from Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did,’ Joanna Spyri’s eponymous Heidi, Jo from Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ , Darrell Rivers from Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ series and Milly Molly Mandy – also Blyton’s. All of these girls pushed the boundaries and conventions of their time. All of them were clever, compassionate and brave. For my teenage years, my chosen trio seem, on the face of it, to be very different from each other. They are Chris Guthrie from Lewis Grassic Gibbons ‘Sunset Song, Maggie from Betty Smith’s ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ and Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’. However they do have things in common. All of them must fight to survive, all are shaped by the landscape in which they find themselves and all of them prove to be tough and resilient. In my twenties I became a wife and mother. And from then, and through my thirties, whilst I combined those two roles with a full-time working life, my reading rate slowed somewhat. However, two authors and their characters fed my feminism. Alice Thomas Ellis’s female characters were outlandish, outrageous and daring and they made me gasp and laugh out loud. For example there was one who – by feeding her husband with cream, butter and cakes - slowly killed him with kindness. And then there was author, Sara Maitland’s, first-person narrator in ‘Women Fly When Men Aren’t Watching.’ She’s deliciously and wickedly ironic as she gives a beautiful description of her mother and of her adolescence. As the twentieth century came to an end, I was in my forties and my stand out character for that
decade is Reta Williams. She stars in ‘Unless’ by the amazing (and much lamented due to her untimely death) Carol Shields. Reta is a writer of ‘light’ fiction, whose ordinary life is made anything but ordinary by Shields’ sparkling writing. Reta is startlingly real and her inner life is so beautifully described as she seeks her runaway daughter, struggles with her latest book and copes with family life. Now I’m halfway through my fifties, and my main fictional woman of the decade so far is Lily. Lily is the main character in Isla Dewar’s ‘Secrets of a Family Album’. Lily, too, is a writer and she too seems to have an ordinary family life. However when she discovers a secret about her mother, Lily’s life becomes much less ordinary and she ventures out of her comfort zone to moving and life-changing effect. And nowadays, it is the above sort of impact that I strive for when I create my own characters. Although, ironically, in my first novel, I had a male as well as a female first person narrator, I strove to make them rounded, recognisable and full of resonance. I love my own characters as much as all the ones listed above – and, even if that’s rather immodest of me to do so – I think that’s the key to the impact factor. I can only hope that for some, any, of my readers, my own imaginary people are as real and affecting as those listed above. Why not draw up a list of your own most influential, fictional friends and acquaintances across the decades? What sort of characters appeal to you? Is there a common thread? What does the list tell you about yourself as a reader and, perhaps, as a writer? As to what it’s shown me – I’m drawn to characters who are as brave and open-minded as I’d like to be – and who, nowadays, feed my subversive old bat tendencies.
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Why Good Novels Make Great Films by Gillian E Hamer
s writers, there must be a part of us that sometimes imagines our central character up there on the big screen. Perhaps we muse which actor or actress could play our lead. Or perhaps we dream of working with talented directors who could bring alive the scenes we see so clearly in our minds. But who makes those ultimate decisions? How do Hollywood producers decide which books would make outstanding movies? Or how do BBC producers choose which novels would adapt well into a television series? The figures would indicate that you stand more chance of being struck several times by lightning on the same day each year, than you do of cutting a Hollywood deal. While worldwide publishing figures indicate that approximately 50,000 new novels are published each year – less than a hundred make it to the big screen. And of the five percent who are offered options, about one in ten make it all the way. But if red carpet success is your ultimate dream, don’t be too despondent - a more positive, tantalising figure is that forty two percent of all Oscars awarded for Best Picture are based on novels. And the figure is on the rise … So, it’s no wonder there are so many people working behind the scenes to try to be the person to discover next season’s Harry Potter. How do film agents who are constantly on the look out for the next epic find their sources? Well, some apparently do not base their choices purely on huge commercial sales figures for the novels or the current in-trend genre. Some agents prefer to rely on years of experience, a gut instinct that a particular book would sell itself to film adaptation. When pushed, they admit that underlying ideals behind this instinctive ‘feel’ for a new project centre around the contrasting circumstances of reading versus watching. Questions they must be able to answer include: What to include/ exclude? How to compensate for necessary exclusions? How to show what the writer tells? … And these are only the tip of the iceberg. If they are able to satisfy themselves to at least eighty percent of their queries, then they may decide to push the novel through to round two. Many film agents admit more and more they look to new age technology as a source of information. Some admit they regularly trawl, not only best seller lists – but blogs, Twitter, and book comparison sites like Goodreads.com – eager to find the next-bigthing. Increasing emphasis seems to be put on
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‘metadata,’ with agents and buyers seeing it as the life blood of not only the publishing chain but also linking it directly to rights marketing. As with everything, creating an online identity seems to be the big news for all authors. So, more work. More distraction or rather avoidance tactics for already stretched authors, trying to juggle a multitude of daily tasks. So, why bother? Well, perhaps a glimpse at how lucrative the film/TV rights market is today will provide the answer. From recent listings of ‘Top Grossing Movie Sources,’ books, short stories, comics, graphic novels, legends, fairy tales and ‘factual’ books together total approximately 29% of Box Office takings – about $3.5 billion per year. And every year, blockbusters, for example The King’s Speech in 2010, can easily gross in excess of $400 million dollars worldwide. So, while the risks are high, and the results are some times hit or miss, with these kind of figures, Hollywood will always turn to the bookshelf for new ideas. Sometimes agents get it right, while
and continents. Will the audience respond to the story? Is it original? Thought-provoking? Emotive? Are the characters strong enough? What is its unique selling point? Does it have a strong sense of place? Can the film-maker replicate the intimate experience the reader gets from the novel – concentrating it down from days/weeks to two to three hours at most? For many years, among the literary world, films adapted from novels have always invited unfavourable comparisons with their literary originals. Audiences seemed to always view the films as fundamentally flawed because they are not original cinematic conceptions, and critics and journalists found fault with superficial dissimilarities, casting decisions, and inevitable compression that leads to the loss of favourite characters or scenes. But in recent years, there has been a huge turnaround, with many journalists believing that some film adaptations excelled the books, using up to date technology to bring to life the novels. And while personal choice will always play a huge factor in these discussions, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is
From recent listings of ‘Top Grossing Movie Sources,’ books, short stories, comics, graphic novels, legends, fairy tales and ‘factual’ books together total approximately 29% of Box Office takings – about $3.5 billion per year. Hollywood producers get it wrong. Booksto-film agent, Jess Aghassi, fell in love with the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, believing the amazing piece of literature would be perfect for the big screen. However, the agent admits, he tried in vain to sell the premise to no avail … until the novel hit the NY Times bestseller list. Within a year, production of the film was under way, attracting huge names like Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. Which goes to show that busy Hollywood executives prefer to trust the general public to industry insiders, and also proves how important it is for every novel to reach maximum potential in an effort to get noticed. Questions that these leading books-to-film agents ask seem very similar across genres
one particular example - with many preferring director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world than the author’s original. So, while there is no hard and fast rule to what books are chosen to develop into film, getting into the bestsellers list, creating a strong online exposure, and having a unique selling point are the biggest contributory factors to ensuring your novel makes at least the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder.
by Derek Duggan
Characters. There’s no getting away from it, the chances are if you’re writing a book you’re going to have to have some characters in it. But is it really necessary to do any actual research or make any effort at all to have your characters seem real, or can you just blag your way through and hope the reader won’t notice in much the same way as it’s possible for plots to develop in many crime or thriller stories? In the old days, it used to be customary to pepper even the most sensational of books with characters that were at least consistent with themselves, but surely none of that’s necessary these days, is it? Do you really have to worry what each character’s motivation is in every scene and what their overall objective is through the arc of the book, or series of books? Isn’t that an awful lot of work when so many people won’t even notice? So, if you’re not going to do any proper work, how can you develop characters for your novel? The easiest thing to do is just say that your character has lots of characteristics and then simply ignore all that when you need them to behave completely differently in order to get around a plot point. Think of Sophie Neveu out of The Da Vinci Code. We have a lot of background character information about her - she’s Parisian, been brought up in an extremely artistic environment, is very well educated, has no problem expressing herself, and is supposed to be a fantastic cryptologist, so good, in fact, that she’s the go-to person in the French Police when there’s an emergency cryptic puzzle to be solved in the middle of the night even if it’s her
own granddad that’s been murdered. So how come the reader can solve the poor crossword clues that drive the plot five pages ahead of her? Isn’t that massively out of character? Or maybe only people who are above average genius cryptologists read the book… You can also ignore cultural tags and assume the reader will allow the character to take on their own localised repressions etc. How many people thought it was odd when this young French urbane and cultured woman turned out to be so prudish about sex? Obviously no one wants to walk in on their granddad having a ritual shag in the basement, but her decision not to confront him about it and never talk to him again was out of kilter with her forthright confident character. We might have understood her revulsion more readily if he’d been caught fucking a goat, or a fireplace, or whatever, but many readers may not have even spotted this massive out of character moment. And if no one noticed, does it really matter? A lot of character problems can be circumvented simply by ignoring them. How many people puzzle over the fact that Harry Potter went to a normal Muggle primary school and didn’t make a single friend in all that time? We know he’s not shy and that he’s pleasant and relatively gregarious, so how come he’s such a Billy-No-Mates? Throughout the books he’s never afraid to tell those in authority exactly what he thinks, so how come he never dobbed his Aunt and Uncle in for making him sleep under the stairs all those years? And what does that say about the state of social services in his locality? If the readers aren’t asking these questions is there any reason to draw attention to them? Another trick is to have your affable protagonist like another character, even when they do things that would clearly be unforgivable in real life and this can help keep
The easiest thing to do is just say that your character has lots of characteristics and then simply ignore all that when you need them to behave completely differently in order to get around a plot point.
the reader on-side. Nobody worries about Albus Dumbledore’s terrible attitude towards the health and safety of the kids in his care. No wonder parents in the book were calling for him to be sacked – a child fucking died on school property during a sports event that he endorsed and I doubt Royal Liver paid out on that one – although this is in keeping with his character of reckless endangerment of the kids under his stewardship considering how he allows Harry and Co. to do incredibly dangerous things from the time they’re ten. However, Harry loves him, and the reader loves Harry, so by extension the reader loves Dumbledore. Then again, inclusion of these things would have greatly slowed down the pace of the novel – would anyone really want to read a chapter where all the entrants to the Tri Wizard Tournament have to sit down and wade through a liability waiver? In fairness, Harry would have had to get a guardian to sign it for him as he was underage at the time so he probably wouldn’t have even been able to enter in the first place, as, knowing what we do about his Aunt and Uncle, there’s about as much chance of them signing the document as there is of Margaret Thatcher shaking her booty in a thong in the next Snoop Dogg video while being elected Queen of Scotland and receiving the nicest person ever award. Finally, you can use your secondary characters to normalise any irregularities your protagonist might have. The fact that the fictional guy who runs the company that investigates the backgrounds of people is happy enough to employ Lisbeth Salander despite what the common sense of the reader might suggest means it must be OK and not the practice of someone who’s about to have their long running Sunday paper closed down. At the end of the day it’s supposed to be fiction, so anyone who complains that it’s all made up is just a whinging gimp who hasn’t understood the concept. Now, what are you waiting for? Make some shit up!
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Book v Film: The Crimson Petal & The White by Gillian Hamer
s we’re focussing on characterisation this month, there are few stronger female characters recently than prostitute, Sugar, in the novel by Michael Faber. So, let’s compare this original against the recent BBC2 adaptation. Among literary critics Faber found himself labelled as the 21st Century Dickens, and this novel mooted as the book Dickens would never have dared to write. So, how will this detailed, and sometimes graphic, depiction of the dark side of Victorian London work as a television adaptation? “You may imagine from other stories you’ve read that you know this world well - but those stories flattered you. You are an alien from another time and place altogether.” So says central character, Sugar, narrating at the beginning of the opening sequence, and I for one had my doubts that the BBC would be able to pull off the dramatic impact of the novel. So, did they achieve it …?
BOOK Not since reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak have I encountered such an original narrative as that which Michael Faber used in this novel. You are taken by the hand, almost timidly at first but with increasing playfulness, by an all-seeing narrator who pulls the reader through varying POVs, from prostitutes to gentry – and every layer of society in between – of late-nineteenth century London. Every scene is stripped bare and we are introduced to the crudest of details that Dickens would never have dared touch upon. But although the narrator was omnipresent, ever ready with a witty remark to link the character’s stories, I never felt the voice intruded on the style or tone of the novel. In fact, for me, the post-modern style enhanced it, giving a refreshing balance to the gritty detail of the book. I particularly loved one paragraph where the narrator apologised if the pace was slow and the information boring but asked the reader to be patient and bear with him! We follow various threads, but principally the story revolves around an ageing young man, William Rackham, who is plunged into running the family business when he becomes obsessed with prostitute, Sugar, and decides to keep her all to himself, setting her up first in her own lodgings and finally moving her into his home as the family Governess. The costs involved mean he has to take on responsibilities for the first time in his life, and we see the impact this has on his delicate wife, Agnes, who is tormented by an unrecognised brain tumour and an evil doctor onto the point of madness.
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Sugar is a fascinating character, and for me steals the book. She is a fast-learner, wellread and educated, yet subservient - with a reputation at the beginning of the book as being the ‘whore that would do anything other whores wouldn’t’. But as the story continues, Sugar’s layers are exposed one by one, and we see her determination to pull herself out of poverty, and that struggle makes for fascinating reading. The descriptions of London in 1875 were magnificent, and although I’ve not checked historical accuracy, I had no doubt in my mind that the Notting Hill Faber described would have been easily recognisable to anyone from that period. The newly opened department stores and the regular use of omnibuses introduced a new modern streak to the expanding city. Faber brings the scenes vividly to life, while still reminding us of the stink and the squalor of the closely packed streets of Church Lane and Silver Street, and the poverty of the bottom rung of society. While in contrast he uses Rackham’s friends, Ashwell and Bodley, to excellently portray the pomp and ridiculous nature of the upper classes and their own views on society. Original, thought-provoking, bold and competent writing – a book that I would love to have written myself – is not something I come across all that often. It might be eight hundred or so pages – but for me it was still too short.
FILM “If you dare enter this world you better tread carefully …” advises Sugar on the cover of the DVD – and it’s true. There’s a dense, dark and eerie, almost nightmarish feel to the recent BBC 2 adaptation that makes the whole four episodes totally engrossing. Trawling the dark back streets of Victorian London, my pulse pounded in fear and anticipation – and even though I’d already read the novel, I felt curiously confused. As if I was watching the event unfold real time and had no prior knowledge of the character’s outcomes. I was pleased that the plot of the television version mirrored the novel in most aspects, although I did feel that Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation concentrated on Sugar as the central main character, with the surrounding characters adding strong support roles and intricate layers to her tale. The acting was sublime and added to the perfect balance of the piece, Romola Garai as Sugar, and Amanda Hale as Agnes Rackham, completely stole the show for me. Along with strong support from Richard E Grant, Gillian Anderson and Chris O’Dowd among others in this stellar cast.
The sexual side of the story felt a little bit muted. There was the usual build up beforehand, rumours of filth and gratuity but I think the producers wimped out a little. Where in the novel Faber pushed boundaries without being overtly explicit, the producers here seemed to shy away with the film. The plot revolves around the story of a prostitute, ergo we expect to see not the romantic, gushing side of sexual love-making, but the reality of the function of intercourse as experienced through the eyes of the young women who find themselves in that position. We needed to understand how Sugar turned into the person she became, and while this worked in the novel, I’m not sure it was graphic enough in the film. I found the pace of the story rushed in the television version. To get the whole 835 pages of Faber’s epic into four one-hour episodes was, I think, pushing it. If I have any complaint, then it is that there was an essence of the story that was lost in translation. In the effort of the producers to keep tight to the plot, the necessary compression seemed to give a haphazard feel to the drama. The other point I was keen to see how Coxon would handle in her adaptation was the narrator. In the novel we have this acerbic, slightly patronising omnipresent guide, who manhandles us between scenes and characters. For me, I don’t think the voiceover had the same effect, again something was lost in the handling of the transition, and failed to settle me securely into each scene and topic. Although the ‘show not tell’ worked well in the most part, I didn’t feel the connection – particularly with complex minds like Agnes – that I had when reading the novel. And one final positive, which I will briefly mention so not as to spoil either version for those yet to venture into Faber’s world, is that I preferred the ending of the television version. I thought the ultimate twist was handled with a final gut punch that was lacking in the novel. So … verdict. I have to admit it was a very, very close run thing. I was engrossed by the television adaptation and watched all four episodes in one long run. But … I can still feel the lingering presence of the novel’s narrator, and the first time I set foot inside Mrs Castaway’s brothel through the eyes of Michael Faber. Therefore it has to be …
Book 1 – Television - 0
Have you got a book in you? Let’s get it out there. One October weekend. Two professional writers. Three networking opportunities. Unlimited inspiration … Zürich, 1-2 October, 2011 Fiction: Amanda Hodgkinson Author of 22 Britannia Road (Penguin Books Fig Tree Imprint) Oprah book club choice Amazon.com book of the month Listed in Waterstone’s 11, best debut Þction 2011 http://amandahodgkinson.com/ words
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Non-Fiction: Andrew Crofts, Ghostwriter One of Britain's most successful ghostwriters, constantly in the bestsellers list, but rarely under his own name. Thriller writer Robert Harris used Andrew's Ghostwriting as the inspiration for his bestseller, “The Ghost”, since made into a successful Þlm. From celebrities to politicians, refugees to leading businessmen, no one knows how to transfer experience onto paper like Andrew. If you’ve got it in you, he’ll get it out. http://www.andrewcrofts.com/
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The Many Lives of Alison Wonderland by Catriona Troth
hen she was very young (and being poor and searching her soul seemed like a good idea) Helen Smith dreamt of being a poet. As she got older, she decided it might be an idea to live a bit first: thirty seemed about the right age to become a writer. Before that, she’d travel the world and live an interesting life… Then she had her daughter, which sidetracked her somewhat. At the age of twenty-nine she decided if she was going to meet her own deadline, she’d better get on with it. The result – Alison Wonderland – is a book that has taken on a life of its own. It was first published more than ten years ago by Gollancz, followed a year or so later by its sequel, Being Light. This first incarnation of the book garnered some enviable reviews. The Times reviewer wrote, “Only occasionally does a piece of fiction leap out and demand immediate cult status. Alison Wonderland is one.” In the Guardian, Julie Burchill wrote, “Made me sigh and throw it on the floor in envious pique.” But around the time the second book came out, Gollancz was taken over, Smith’s editor left and the two books languished. For a few years, Smith concentrated on dramatic writing, but having those books out of print continued to niggle. “I’d worked so hard on them and I loved them. It seemed that, if those books weren’t in print, I didn’t feel like an author,” she says. Just over a year ago, she got the rights back and decided to selfpublish, just to have them ‘out there’ again. “I had such low expections: I told myself I’d be happy if ten copies sold. When I sold six on the first day, I thought, well, that’s great. I’m nearly making my goal.” Had she just brought them out as ebooks? “No, and in retrospect I think that was a mistake. These days, I always suggest to authors that, if they are going to self-publish, they stick to ebook format, because there is no upfront investment.” She spent time on various readers’ forums, like the Kindle boards and Good Reads and Library Thing. “It’s incredibly time consuming. You have to try not to be like the dinner party guest who whips out a box of their books and tries to sell them to the other guests. But it brings you into contact with readers of all sorts, and gives you an insight into what they are reading and why they buy books. ” After a few months, Amazon Encore approached her with an offer. “I think they were looking for books that had had some critical acclaim over here, but which hadn’t been published in the US. The sales of my books were quite modest. They weren’t best sellers. But they saw some potential.” So now Alison Wonderland is on its third lease of life. “Amazon Encore has been like that forgiving new boyfriend who doesn’t care how many people you’ve slept with. I have my own publicist in New York. I
went over for Book Expo America in May because they were promoting it there.” Does this suggest self-publishing is the new slush pile? “Maybe, for some sorts of books. It can be one way of demonstrating that there’s an audience for your writing. And the whole climate is changing.”
Beyond the Page I first came across Smith when she was performing a couple of her stories to an audience at the Not the Oxford Literary Festival. Is this something she does a lot? “It’s fairly new but I definitely want to do more. Sometimes I think just reading from your book can test the patience of the audience. So I thought I’d try my hand at story-telling. “ Her first venture into the field was at the Yarn Festival at London’s bar-cum-arts venue, The Book Club, where she took part in the Illustrationarium – where illustrators were challenged to provide art work in real time while authors spun their yarns in front of an audience. And more recently, she won the Literary Death Match at the Bromley Literary Festival. “And you never know what will result from these things – like meeting you in Oxford and ending up on the Words with Jam podcast. I believe that if you just do anything, something will come of it.” As well as writing novels and performing, Smith also writes for the theatre. How did that come about? “I hadn’t been to drama school. I wasn’t in contact with actors. It had never even occurred to me to try writing for the theatre. But after my editor left, I wasn’t sure if I would write another novel. I happened to spot a call for submissions from a small Scottish theatre company.” The company was benchtours. They had a title (“The Psychic Detective and Those Disappeared”) and the outline of an idea, and unusually, they were willing to consider writers who weren’t established in the theatre. Smith sent her pitch, then went and met them, and they hired her. The play went on to be produced not only on the Edinburgh Fringe, but also at Watch This Space, the National Theatre’s outdoor venue on the South Bank. Smith believes the theatre is a much neglected outlet for writers looking to showcase their work. “With TV, even when people pay you to write something, the chances of it actually being produced are slight. And if your work doesn’t see the light of day, what’s the point? “With theatre there isn’t as much money, but there is a much better chance that it will be put on somewhere. And it can happen very quickly. There is an immediacy that I really love. “It’s great training too. You have to hold people’s interest - something that’s easy to forget when it’s just
Alison Wonderland is published by Amazon Encore on 16th August 2011. You’ll find a review in this edition of Words with Jam, and we’re giving 5 copies away in Comp Corner You can hear Helen Smith’s story ‘Aubergine’ on the Words with Jam podcast at http:// wordswithjam.podomatic. com/, or follow her blog at http://www.emperorsclothes. co.uk
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you and the page. If you bore someone in a play or at a reading you get instant feedback.” Smith has worked with Stephen Sharkey’s company The Miniaturists, who perform 5 short plays in one evening, using a mixture of new and established writers. She is currently involved in setting up an all-woman theatre company, which will also aim to showcase new writing. And she has recently been commissioned to adapt Muriel Spark’s novel, The Abbess of Crewe, for the stage. “With a novel you have complete creative control, but you’re on your own. You can’t bang on about your book, even to someone who really loves you: at some point you have to just go away and write it. But with theatre, you can sit and talk to the director about your shared vision.” Intriguingly, Smith wrote on her blog that her ideal job would be Assistant Head Gardner at a stately home. Why? “Oh, it would be lovely to be doing something out of doors, something creative, to do with growing things, which gives you that sense of reward. Head Gardener would be too much responsibility. But if I could be the assistant, and just have my tasks allotted. I wouldn’t have any worries, but I’d live in a kind of paradise. And perhaps if there were an open air theatre in the grounds…? Smith beams. “Wouldn’t that be lovely? You’d have to press all your friends to be in it. Shakespeare – that would be so much fun.”
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Write to Life For the last five years, Smith has been a volunteer mentor with Write to Life – a group of writers from Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture). “I’d supported of the Medical Foundation for about ten years. I got to the point where I wanted to do more than just give money.” Did she have any training or qualifications for the work? “Not really. I’d taught English to adults and children when I was in Hong Kong, but just on the assumption that, if you can speak English, you must be able to teach it.” The volunteers take turns to run the fortnightly workshops, and they also carry out one-to-one mentoring with individual writers. “I was worried that it would be really heart-breaking. But what used to strike me most is how full of laughter these workshops are.” One of the people Helen mentored has gone on to university in Scotland, sponsored by supporters of Freedom from Torture. Another has had her work published in the journal, Modern Poetry in Translation. “Many of them were writers in their own countries – sometimes it is because of what they wrote that they suffered in their own country. But they want to tell their stories – they want to talk about what happened to them. It’s life affirming because they are survivors.” A tenacity for life, it seems, is a recurring theme in Helen Smith’s story.
Celebrating London Sanctuary by Catriona Troth, the Library Cat
ntrigued by Helen Smith’s work with Freedom From Torture, I headed for the Celebrating Sanctuary London Festival on London’s South Bank. Celebrating Sanctuary London, now in its twelfth year, is the opening event of Refugee Week. This year, they were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention on Refugees. In contrast to the rain of the previous ten days, the tents and stalls set out in Bernie Spain gardens, below the Oxo Tower, were bathed in dappled sunshine. As I approached from Waterloo, cooking smells wafted towards me from stalls serving food from North Africa, Ghana, Eritrea... Groups such as the Red Cross, the Council for Refugees, Freedom from Torture, and The Migrant and Refugees Communities Forum were represented and eager to dispel the myths about refugees so often perpetuated by sections of the Press. On the Amnesty International stall, they were decorating umbrellas in honour of the annual Umbrella Parade. The three stages – the Collaboration Stage, the Hot Shoe Café Stage and the Acoustic Yurt – were showcasing talent from singers to storytellers to cookery demonstrations. I spent most of my time sitting comfortably on a woven carpet on the floor of the Acoustic Yurt, where performance poet and playwright Shane Solanki was bringing together words and music from around the world. As I arrived, Nikesh Shukla was reading from his debut novel Coconut Unlimited, about three hapless Asian boys who form a ‘legendary’ hip-hop band, despite the fact they can’t rap. I was soon chuckling at his description of conversations in Gurarati peppered with words (like ‘tape recorder’ and ‘television’) for which Gujarati has no translation. (Subsititute Welsh for Gujarati and he could have been describing just about any conversation between my mum and my grandmother.) Shukla was followed by Romanian puppeteer Monooka, who had formed an impromptu collaboration with Algerian musicians Duo El Andeluz when her own backing band fell ill. Monooka has long dark hair and a fringe that flops over her huge glasses, giving her the air of a little girl dressing up. With one of her puppets, she used no strings but somehow managed to imbue its movements with expression even though you could see her hands gently moving the puppet’s limbs. New Zealand writer Garth Cartwright read from his book, Princes Among Men, an account of his travels with the gypsy musicians in the mahalas (ghettos) of Eastern Europe. His picture of a vibrant culture struggling with poor education, poverty and a loss of livelihood was, to some extent, offset by the next act. Romany rights activist and musician Kerieva is part Irish and part Manouche (French Romany) and has a degree in performing arts and masters degree in human rights. She also has a voice to raise the roof. Sadly, a large part of the crowd left the tent as her act ended, leaving it half empty as the two women I had come to hear were introduced. Jade from Uganda and *Faith from Ethopia are both from Write to Life – a group of writers who are all survivors of torture, and who have been mentored by volunteers like Helen Smith from Freedom From Torture. Lucy Popescu, introducing them, told the audience how writing in a safe environment can help refugees turn horrifying experiences into poems, essays, short stories and journalism that shed some light on their suffering but also help
them to deal with the problems of exile and asylum. The writers read two poems each. Then *Faith – a tiny, beautiful woman who walks with a pronounced limp – put aside her poetry and began to sing. Her voice filled the tent and brought people crowding back through the doors. But it was their words that stayed with me. In ‘Moving a Country,’ Jade spoke of how: I ran out of the house Without packing anything Even my sanity *Faith’s poem must strike a chord with anyone who has moved countries. Hey, my name[…] Do you know how much I still love you? Even if people do not remember you, find it difficult to pronounce you and say, “Say it again”. Their anthology, Body Maps, was on sale and I bought a copy. The significance of the title might have escaped me if I hadn’t also attended the Human Library that was taking place under the trees nearby. The ‘book’ I took out was a Sri Lankan refugee – a former business man who fell foul of the current government there when he criticised their misappropriation of international aid money, sent to help victims of the tsunami in 2004. As we chatted, he showed me the medico-legal report that Freedom from Torture had helped him put together. This is a document that all refugees must provide to support their claim for asylum. It includes charts of the human body on which a doctor must record all the scars and injuries – such as badly healed fractures, damaged ligaments or chronic bone infections – found during an intimate medical exam. On the way home I began to read accounts in the anthology of refugees who have undergone this process. “I tried to speak but no sound came out. My mind had lost all touch with the events that must have caused the scars he found.” [Stephanie] “I was a piece of meat, being looked over and annotated.” [Timothe] “I think sometimes human beings can close off their feelings when they need to. I felt nothing except, ‘Let’s get this done.’” [Nadine] As Popescu puts it in the anthology’s introduction, “their courage shines through their stories and pays testament to the strength of the human spirit.” *Pseudonyms used at the request of the authors
Body Maps costs £5 and can be purchased from Amazon or from Freedom from Torture’s website.
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Writing to Live Again by Catriona Troth
“Writing makes me feel alive again. Let me say, it makes me feel human again. All those people who did whatever they wanted to finish all of us off – we have risen above what they did. We are fighters†.” [Jade Amoli-Jackson] Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture) was founded by Helen Bamber in 1985. It provides survivors with medical treatment and counselling, documents evidence of torture, helps support asylum applications and gives practical help with the problems of living in exile. It also offers a wide variety of therapies, including gardening, art – and the writing group, Write to Life. Write to Life was set up by the playwright Sonja Linden eleven years ago. It began with just four writers and a couple of mentors and quckly showed how writing can help survivors cope better with their past and the present. The group now comprises some 20 clients, all referred by counsellors who recognise that for some writing can heal like no other form of therapy. Their work is truly ground-breaking. Write to Life is possibly the only therapeutic writing group in the world dedicated specifically to survivors of torture. Many of the writers are in what the group’s current coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman, describes as ‘a state of
petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Writing is something they can do anywhere, at any time. “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.” And the fact that the writing is done in a group can itself provide profound support. “One of the consequences of what they have been through,” says Hayman, “is a loss of trust in other people – and what makes it particularly hard is that often the people you trust the least are those from your own culture. The group can become like family, because these are people who can understand what you have been through.” “Write to Life is the big ear that listens from afar and gives me the relief of a family and hope for the future.^” [Stephen, Burundi.] Hayman took over from Sonja Linden in 2004. At this point, none of the writers’ work had been published or performed in public. Hayman had a very strong sense that these were voices that needed to be heard. “These are people who have been systematically abused and humiliated. Having their voices heard is empowering. It also helps with the survivor guilt that many of them feel: they are giving a voice to those who can longer speak.” “What you went through still lives with you and keeps you awake, like a frozen fish with its eyes wide open all the time†.” [ Stephen, Burundi] The first public performance of the group’s work was at an Amnesty sponsored event at the Edinburgh Book Festival. But it wasn’t as positive an experience as it might have been. “All the work was read by actors,” Hayman explains. “The writers had no say in how it was done. They felt sidelined.” “I always find it is less expressive when it is an actor who is reading my writing. There is some emotion that is lost†.” [Stephanie, Cameroon] Yet performing their work in public is nevertheless a huge deal for writers for whom English may be their third, fourth – even fifth language. To help them, Hayman arranged for a group of the writers to work with the theatre director Kristine Landon-Smith, who has developed a technique for helping performers use their own accents, voice and body language to express their work. Landon-Smith first gets performers to improvise scenes in their own native language.
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This may involve different actors working simultaneously in different languages, but that doesn’t matter because it’s the emotion expressed that’s important, not the words. Then, in the second phase of the workshop, the participants are encouraged to switch rapidly between improvisation and the text, so that the emotion they express so freely in their own language flows through into their performances. Hayman has great ambition for the group. She is aware of how few people one small group in London can reach. She’d like to see similar groups in all the areas round the country where asylum seekers are sent. And she also has plans for setting up an online forum for refugee writers who aren’t in a position to join a workshop but who would like inspiration, mentoring, ideas and contact with others like themselves.
Making Your Voice Heard “As one writer put it, the rapt attention of an audience is like a mirror in front of her, reassuring her that, after all the horror and degradation, she is still, powerfully and triumphantly, alive^” [Sheila Hayman] I meet Sheila Hayman and some of the Write To Life group at a All Hallows, Gospel Oak in north London where readings from the group’s work are to be interspersed with choral music. Many of these writers are by now festival veterans, but this is the first time that a whole evening has been dedicated to their work. All Hallows is a large Victorian basilica with a high, vaulted ceiling. It is a wonderful space for the choirs, but the worry is that – here as in the wider world – the voices of the refugees will be lost. The difference is, tonight people will be straining to hear every word. I am introduced to *Uganda, a former child soldier and one of tonight’s performers. He is a big man. He stoops a little, as if anxious not to intimidate with his bulk. But his smile is radiant. *Uganda tells me that, like all people pushed into a corner, asylum seekers have their own language, their own words for things. It doesn’t matter where they come from, all asylum seekers will understand these words and British people will not. He lets me in on one of them. ‘Mamba’, he says, is used to refer to the way so many British people talk at asylum seekers instead of listening to what they have to say. He is working now on a piece he calls The Price of London. The price he refers to is not
just the high cost of living, making it almost impossible to live in the capital on their meagre benefits (currently £35.52 per week for a single adult). It is everything an asylum seeker must go through – the loss of home and family, the shock of a new culture, the humiliations of the process of claiming asylum, the endless, endless wait. “The price is too high,” he says gently. What Hayman referred to earlier as the ‘institutionalised sadism’ of the asylum application process pushes people to the brink of suicide. “If it wasn’t for Freedom from Torture, I would not be here today,” he says. He recalls a text that came just when he was at his lowest ebb. “Don’t give up hope,” it said. “Know that all things must come to an end.” The group gathers in the church basement to share a meal. There are hugs and cries of delight as old friends recognise one another. Then we climb the stairs again and take our seats in the nave. The evening’s procedings are introduced by Freedom from Torture’s patron, Juliet Stevenson. Twenty years ago, she played the lead character in Death and the Maiden, by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman. Faced with portraying a woman who had been tortured, Stevenson recognised this was one occasion that imagination alone was not enough. She approached the Medical Foundation (as it was then) and spoke with psychiatrists, psychotherapists, lawyers– but most importantly to some of their clients. People who had experienced torture and who were prepared to talk to her about their appalling experiences. She has been a supporter of Freedom from Torture ever since. Time and again, quotes from members of Write to Life underline how important the group has been to them. Hayman introduces one piece, read by an actor, saying the writer cannot be here in the church because he is so terribly injured that, “just to come to a workshop he must rest up all the day before and again all the day after”. Yet he always comes. Another, *Alban, now a requalified doctor practising in the UK, writes in a poem: “This is better than any medication; this is all I needed to be completely healed.” In amongst music from two youth choirs, we hear *F Mehrban’s tribute to her cellmate Nosrat, “little bird with a heart of a lion”, who was executed in Iran’s notorious Evin prison when she was still only a teenager, and Sabir’s account – laced with shockingly dark humour, of sharing a cell in Iraq with ‘The Dreamer’ and ‘The Hungry Man.’ Then Hayman introduces the last piece of the first half. The composer James Drew-Edwards has set a poem by Amina Abdallah from Somalia to music, to be performed by the Rosslyn Hill Chapel Choir. When she heard which poem had been chosen, Hayman says, “My first thought was, bollocks – the one author we’ve lost touch with.” Then a week before the performance, like a miracle, Amina appears again. She’s here in the church tonight; Hayman introduces her. An actress reads her poem. Then a French horn plays two long, mournful notes. The setting is modern, but nonetheless lyrical. Amina’s words weave back and forth through the choir’s different parts, gathering power from the music. As the voices of the choir fade into silence, Amina is called up to the front. People are hugging her. The applause goes on and on, rising up, filling the vaults. Tonight, at least, her voice has been heard. If you are already working with refugee writers, or are interested in volunteering as a mentor, Sheila Hayman would like to hear from you. She would also like to hear from anyone who has ideas about how to set up and run an online forum for aspiring refugee writers. You can contact Sheila Hayman via sheila@ sheilahayman.com or via the Freedom From Torture website: www.torturecare. org.uk *Pseudonyms used at the request of the authors †Quoted from the short film, Finding a Voice by Sheila Hayman, which shows six of the writers as they take part in one of Kristine Landon-Smith’s intracultural workshops and use improvisation to turn a reading of their work into a performance. It can be viewed at http://www.tamasha.org.uk/the-arrival-project/ ^Quoted from Write to Life’s latest anthology, Body Maps. Two of *F. Mehrban’s poems were published in Modern Poetry in Translation in the issue ‘Freed Speech’ (2009). You can also hear her poems, read by Richard Trinder, on http://www.youtube.com/user/FMehrbanpoetry ‘My Painful Journey,’ Jade Amoli-Jackson’s account of her escape from Uganda, was selected by judges including Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and the novelist Kate Mosse to be published in the Penguin Anthology From There To Here in 2009.
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Hitting the Top of the Kindle Charts Dan Holloway interviews Mark Edwards
The theme of my column may be social media and live performing, but first and foremost it’s about sharing tips for all writers, especially those going it alone, on how to get the word out there in the most fun and effective way possible. So when one of my writer friends had the most extraordinary couple of months you could possibly imagine, I knew I had to talk to him and get the lowdown. You may have seen Mark Edwards, and his co-author Louise Voss, on the BBC, in the papers, all over the shop. The first truly independent authors to hit the number 1 spot in the Kindle charts with uber-super thriller Catch Your Death (and at one time they occupied the 1 AND 2 slots thanks to Killing Cupid), with around 50,000 sales for Kindle since the spring and – stop press! – now a six figure four book deal with Harper Collins, Mark is a pleasure to know and an object lesson to writers everywhere. I’m delighted he agreed to share the story (and some secrets) of his and Louise’s success, and tell me a little about the current project he’s working on, the Summer Book Club, a collaboration between 8 leading independent authors. He is living proof of the importance of having a focused goal, buckets of talent, and putting in the graft to let those two things work their alchemy – oh, and, of course, never sleeping! DH: First, I have to ask, on a scale of that’s a nice shandy to a year’s supply of Pomerol’s finest, how on earth does it feel to be the first fully independent author to be number 1 on Amazon? ME: It was like cracking open an ice cold beer after spending the whole of a scorching hot day doing manual labour. Or a little bit like the end of Shawshank Redemption when he finally breaks out and achieves the thing he’s worked so hard on for years, chipchipping away and being patient and determined. When I refreshed Amazon to see that Catch Your Death was No.1 I immediately called Louise and we both shrieked with happiness. A few weeks later, when we got our deal with HarperCollins, I actually sat down and cried with relief and elation. When something you’ve dreamt of and worked for finally happens, after so many knock-backs in the past, it tastes so sweet. DH: It’s a tough one racking my brains thinking what writers will want to know that you’re not bored of being asked, so apologies for treading tired ground, but first up let me ask you about writing in a pair. It seems to be the thing to do, what with the duo behind Saffina Desforges storming the charts and then you and Louise. Why/how/ what the blazes is that all about? ME: This is definitely the question we are most asked. I am waiting for somebody to ask where we get our ideas from but maybe nobody thinks we have any ideas. The idea of writing as a duo came about on a boozy night
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out. We came up with the idea of trying to create a thriller version of Come Together by Emlyn Rees and Josie Lloyd, where male and female protagonists took it in turns to tell the story. Killing Cupid was born and we never looked back. Well, apart from all the times we get asked to look back. DH: You’re a thriller writer and a bit of a pop culture guru, so I’m guessing you’ve seen that Columbo episode. You know, the one with the writing pair. So what would you say, looking back *and* forward, to someone considering teaming up? ME: I would say that you need to find your creative soulmate - someone whose opinion you respect and trust. There is absolutely no ego or competitiveness involved in our relationship which is why we make such a good team. I don’t think it’s easy to find someone like that and I certainly couldn’t imagine ever teaming up with someone else. We don’t agree on everything, and there is some tension in our writing - mainly between my tendency to crank up the sex and violence and Louise’s more literary leanings - that makes it work really well. DH: Kindle has been seen by many authors as a bit of a goldrush in the past year, and I imagine your success will do nothing to dampen that notion. But surely it’s not that simple. ME: No it’s definitely not that simple and most indie writers are scrabbling for pennies rather than panning for gold. We earned a whole £120 between us in our first three months. In June, we both earned considerably more from the Kindle than from our day jobs, but it’s still not riches. I have just realised that I took your question literally when I saw the word ‘goldrush’. So the proper answer to the question is that no, it took a lot of hard work and nous to make it work. Plus a good dollop of luck. DH: I have to say I find it both scary and irresponsible how little I see the word “bubble” in media coverage of the Kindle self-publishing phenomenon. Is it too late for people thinking about starting out now? How could people just setting up maximise their chances of success? ME: I don’t know if it is a bubble. Apparently, there are more self-published writers in the Amazon Top 100 now than there were a year ago, although we’re very vulnerable to things like the Amazon Summer Sale, which completely transformed the chart in just 24 hours. To maximise your chance of success you need to follow the golden rules: great books, catchy titles and covers, strong blurbs and the willingness to put in a lot of hours. Oh, and be nice to everybody. DH: You’re the driving force behind the Summer Book Club. Could you tell me a bit about it and what makes it different from Richard and Judy or Oprah? ME: The idea came to me on holiday as a way of helping readers find new books by indie writers. There is so much choice out there that it can be impossible knowing where to start. This is from someone who spends hours browsing Amazon looking for books I might enjoy. So
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I contacted a number of big-name indie authors, some of whom I had already interviewed on this blog, others who had never heard of me, thinking they would most likely turn me down. To my delight, nearly everyone said yes, including the huge US authors HP Mallory, J Carson Black, Scott Nicholson and Victorine Lieske, plus the UK bestsellers Saffina Desforges and Sibel Hodge, and a brilliant newcomer, Cheryl Shireman, who epitomises all that is good about indie publishing. The Book Club has several components: first is an anthology containing excerpts and short stories from all of the authors. This is being given away free on Smashwords and is just 70p on Amazon, with the proceeds going to charity. Secondly, we have a Facebook group where readers can ask questions to the authors and chat with each other about books. Every Saturday night we have been doing live webchats on Facebook which is enormous fun. Finally, we are cross-promoting each other on our blogs, with the aim of letting our own readers know about these other great writers. DH: Was it hard to get that many big names together in the first place, and what’s it like coordinating a project like that, on a scale of herding cats to one big love-in? ME: I had already been in touch with most of the writers, either interviewing them for my blog or exchanging messages on forums. Nearly everyone I asked said yes straight away, which was fantastic, and the whole group has been highly enthusiastic. It can be a bit like herding cats at times, with emails flying around all over the place, but that’s because everyone is so into it and brimming over with ideas.
know to write reviews or downvote low reviews or form mutual review groups. In the context of the Summer Book Club, and the wider Amazon community, how would you advise authors on treading the line between the benefits of getting together with other writers and the need to be honest and open and to be *seen* to be such? ME: Hmmm... It’s tricky. We don’t want to be seen as a clique, and I don’t think we are ‘gaming’ anyone. We are just trying to introduce readers to writers they might like. By making the book free on Smashwords, and by trying to get Amazon to allow us to give it away, we are certainly not trying to rip anyone off. DH: Finally, as someone who’d rather chew nails than sign a publishing contract, I have to ask – you say you’re in talks with an agent and publishers (stop press – since I asked this it has gone beyond the talk stage – Mark and Louise now have a six figure four book deal with Harper Collins). Why? ME: Because being a published author with a book in the shops has been my dream since I was in my early twenties. Having a good publisher and editor can make a big difference to your writing career. We want as many people as possible to read our books, and at the moment most people still buy real books. Plus we want more time to write rather than do promotion which is what most indie writers spend all their time doing.
Thank you so much to Mark for his time and inspiration. Next time we will be back to the really important business of talking about ME ME ME.
DH: Readers aren’t stupid. One of the things I like about being independent (I do think there’s a patronising tendency in some of what the publishing industry does) is being able to put stuff out there and trust readers to like it or not. But on Amazon in particular they’re not stupid in the sense they resent feeling “gamed” by independent authors (I know the publishing industry routinely does this with how they get reviews and column inches, but hey, one of the points of being independent is to take the high ground, right?) who get people they
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We’re Chained by Arike Oke
As I attempted to force my way into sleep I thought about Ali in the bar that evening, and how she’d stared at the ice cubes in her glass, which were making tiny twitches as the vodka melted them. “This means something,” she said, almost inaudibly, as she saw me observing her. She made a side smile with her mouth. “I’m sorry?” I said. Ali’s problems were her own and I could have left them that way, but I was heartsore. My chest ached with the sadness that sat on my ribs like some horrendous thick lipped toad. I wanted to drink, and talk, and not think about the way each second, or gesture or even thought, was a second, gesture and thought further from where we’d been. Ali shrugged. The side smile turned down into a frown. “It’s nothing.” She unbound her slippery long dark hair from the bun it was wound into, ran her fingers through it, shook worked-loose strands from her fingers, refixed her hair, sighed. “Okay,” I looked away from her, not conversationally inspired. I examined the paper napkin the bargirl had put under my glass. It was a round frilly-edged slip. White with a green design embossed. I put my finger against the edge of it; felt the sharpness of the lasercut paper between my finger nail and the nail bed. I thought about places overseas and backlit bars where we’d sit on shiny stools whose seats span around. How once you’d been trying to get up onto one of those stools and your flipflop dropped from one foot and flicked across the room as the seat span unexpectedly beneath you. We both laughed as you hopped across the tiled floor, complaining about the sand cutting at you in between the toes of the still flipflopped foot. I should have picked up that shoe for you. “It’s something we used to say,” Ali ignored her own long pause and continued a conversation that we’d been having in her head. “Like a lame joke. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Phillip Seymour Hoffman keeps making mounds of clay or something and he says, all intense, ‘This means something’.” Ali drew out the e in ‘means’, pushing the word out, her eyes shining, looking inwards. “Richard Dreyfuss,” I said. She noticed neither her mistake nor my correction. “So it became something we said, just at random, to make each other laugh.” She laughed then by herself, a joyless ha ha, at I suppose some slideshow playing in her mind. This is no good for me, I thought, the two of us supposedly cheering one another up with a post-work drink, and instead taking solo trips inside our heads. “Do you still talk to her?” I asked, thinking that if Ali wouldn’t (couldn’t) break into my little sadness nest then I’d try to find a way into hers and leave mine on its ledge waiting for my return. She drank what was left in her glass. She looked up to catch the bargirl’s eye, made a flirtatious wink at the girl (which I think she didn’t even register that she’d done) and sighed a short puff from deep in her throat. “We did try, but it was so hard, you know?” The bargirl came over, Ali tapped her glass and pointed at mine. More drinks were served, we drank. I was finding it hard to ignore myself, a sinkhole was dropping within me. Ali knew how to glide over these stutters in conversation. She continued, “I mean, the friends thing. We were never friends before we were lovers and then you’re supposed to try and switch tracks, just like that, when things end. You know like you were on the same train headed to happy ever after or some crap like that, then a switch is flipped, you’re on different tracks going different places. You want to be able to, you know, at least stay arms outstretched fingers touching but maybe it’s just better to wave and send each other postcards from where you end up.
34 | Quite Small Stories
Just look forward to getting where you’re going and try to not to fuck everything up next time.” Ali poked my hand then. I had been focussing on the freckles on the back of it. Tracing them one to another with a finger from my other hand, like a dot to dot. “Is that what you think I should do then? Get on a train to I’mOkayThanksForTheLols land?” I said, trying to sound light but I probably came over sour. To her eternal credit Ali grabbed my wrists and held my arms over my head. Laughing dirtily she pumped them up and down saying, “Yes, fuck it! Choo choo! Next stop ThanksForTheLols land!” “Fuck off!” I tried to take back my arms. I could see us in the eyes of the cute bargirl, ginger scruffy man in a crumpled cotton shirt with sweat patches under the arms, being manhandled by this wiry Japanese hippy girl in denim shorts and band tee shirt. Fucking ridiculous. I am what, 150 pounds, and she’s still stronger than me. She knew I was hating this. She pumped my arms up and down again. I jumped off my stool, a douchebag move. The sudden weight shift pitched Ali forward and she lost her grip. “Well,” she said, getting back on her stool and gesturing for more drinks with a short movement of her hand. She turned away from me, biting the skin at the side of her index finger, her hand curled around her face. I felt pressure dropping inside my ears; the sinkhole began pulling down my guts. I blinked. I followed along the round edge of the bar with my thumb. “I mean, ‘Lols’? Seriously.” Ali said, still not looking at me. “Yeah? ‘Choo choo’? I’ll choo you,” I said, the sinkhole paused. Ali turned and looked right at me. “That’s what she said,” she said. I looked at my lovely friend with her eyebrow cocked and her mouth smiling on the other side. She stared back at me. The ‘that’s what she said’ lay like a dare between us. I didn’t take it: the laughter spouted up before I could. I gurgled it. It spewed out. Ali joined me and we shared it: real laughing. It hurt. I can feel it now across my stomach. “I missed you,” I told Ali. “Yeah,” Ali said. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed. I felt her fingers warm with life and blood through my sleeve. The button on my rolled up shirt cuff dug into my skin, maybe it even cut me. I welcomed the small pain. I knew that this tiny injury made this moment permanent. I’m always going to remember this, I thought to myself. Our drinks arrived. We drank. I wake up the next day swaddled in sweat and sheets that stick to me. Cold drool is dampening my right cheek because I’ve slept with my mouth open. My skin has linen folds creased into it where I’ve crushed my face against the pillow. I am profoundly uncomfortable and unlonely. About Arike Arike Oke balances writing with being a rollergirl and helping people use archives creatively. She has been writing short fiction seriously since 2008. She is inspired by themes of identity, place and belonging. Her short story, ‘If you wait by the river long enough’ was exhibited in Hull’s Artlink Gallery for Black History Month 2010. She runs a story blog (http://arikewrites.wordpress.com/) and is currently researching Hull’s fishing community for her next story.
Quite Small Stories
Accidents Happen by JW Hicks
‘Sir, it wasn’t my fault, honest. Wasn’t anybody’s, really. It just... happened. Woody said let’s go and look up Peterson. It didn’t sound like one of his mad schemes. We don’t do mad schemes any more, I swear, not since the chewing gum incident. We gave you our word.’ Sir’s schtum, drilling me with his dark eyes. I’m looking down a black hole. He moves, I flinch, but he focuses on Woody. Kid’s gonna crumble. Okay, so he swore on the Book of Star Ship Regs he’d keep it glued, leave the talking to me. But Woody’s a mouth; he gets an idea, he spits it out. He thinks of a stonking come-back and he’ll tell the world, even if it earns him a bent nose. Same with the wisecracks – anything for a laugh, my brother. The force of the stare will melt Woody’s mouth glue. He says something wild, we’ll really feel the woe. Marla saves us. Starts sobbing, doesn’t she? Havta hand it to her, she’s good, damn good. Most folk looking at Marla, see a skinny nothing; a pale skinned, drab-haired kid. Timid mouse, they’d think. They’d be wrong. Toughest member of the Indestructibles, is Marla. She sure gets Sir’s eyes off Woody. He’s glaring at her now and the sobs settle to a steady sniffle. Sir
Woody waves a suggestion. ‘We could look up Peterson, see how he’s doing.’ After barely a moment’s thought we all agree to what turns out to be Woody’s ultimate disaster of an idea. We’d had classes with Peterson before his father transferred back to Main Day shift. Even considered asking him to join the Indestructibles, before he disappeared; new shift, new quarters. We got it, not everybody copes with the change from Main to Alt. Pity, we said, Peterson’s our kind of guy. Then promptly forgot him. Now we’re all fired up, determined to seek him out. But how? Main Day quarters are the far side of the barrier. ‘O-kay,’ I say. ‘We’ll troll up to Education, log on, find the transfer info and print out the route. Easy-cheesy.’ Easy? Yeah, right. We get into the deserted Ed section, no trouble. Who dogs the hatches into a school? No one goes there willingly, not even the teachers. But as to logging on... ‘Comp’s asking for a password’ I say, shocked. ‘No way,’ says Woody. ‘Who locks down a learning comp?’ ‘Let me at it, Jake,’ says Marla. ‘I know the password.’ ‘How come?’ ‘Unlike some people, I use my eyes. Shift over, Jake.’ Shoulda known she’d have the password. No one notices Marla when she doesn’t want them to. Marla never has to write anything down, she’s got eidetic memory. Sees all, forgets squat. But did she catch me blushing? She’s into the records in no time flat, then hits a major snag. ‘Can’t
Interrupted mid-way into a mammoth cleaning session, the mam’s hair is in tangles and she’s sweating streams. She’s got two screamers at her ankles and all three are paddling in a river of Scrub-Off oozing from a tipped canister. We might just have arrived at the wrong moment. clasps his hands behind his back, shakes his head and moves to the twins. Tobe is blank faced like always. I’ve known Tobe forever and still can’t read him. Spike, now, she’s open as the day and she’ll talk up a storm. Spike’s as friendly as all get out, but a bigger liar than anyone I’ve ever met. Sir will get nothing from Tobe and a big dose of fabricated kak from his sister. Then he’ll be back to me. * Month-end-Sunday is make do and mend day; the boringest of all boring days. Ma’s cleaning, Da’s cleaning and Woody and me’s sposed to be cleaning; preparing for Inspection Monday. Hell to that. Soon as Da’s half inside the oven, scraping at last month’s gunge with Ma telling him where and how hard to scrape, I squirt oil on the door hinges and the two of us ghost out of the cubby. Time we get back, Ma and Da will be too exhausted to ream us out. Not. Still, a reaming after the fact is better than hours of cleaning hatchways, polishing mag-boots and reading the Book of Regulations out loud. Spike and Tobe wait in the service duct. Marla skiddles in soon after. ‘Hi, Jake,’ she says. And, hell, what do I do? Blush! Woody sniggers and I dig two fingers in his gut. He opens his mouth, he’ll get worse. ‘So,’ I say, trying for cool. ‘What’s on the menu?’ ‘Nosing around the engine room and having a word with Billo?’ This from Tobe, who has a thing for engines, and actually wants to be an engineer. ‘Nah.’ This from Spike who hates ‘em.
find no Abe Peterson.’ ‘You enter the right dates?’ I say and get a frosty glare. Not into criticism, our Marla. ‘If you think you can do better, try it.’ I don’t find Abe, but I do find a couple of Petersons. Both families lodge on Deck 6. I risk a grin, but Marla looks away. ‘How ‘bout we go to Deck 6 and ask?’ I say. ‘Could be relatives, couldn’t they? They might know Abe and his dad.’ I can tell Marla thinks the idea’s a runner by the way she’s first to the imager and grabbing at the hard copy. Yeah, it’s gonna be one of those days. Takes no time at all to ‘rive at Deck 6, seeing as how everybody’s busy scrubbing and polishing. Even the skeleton crew’s eyes down and concentrating case Sir does a walkabout. Copy in hand, Marla wins the race to cubby 9. The door jerks open, Marla puts her question and the door opener barks, ‘Say again?’ Wow, is she in a rage. Marla stands her ground. ‘Um, do you know Abe Peterson, Mam?’ ‘What?’ Interrupted mid-way into a mammoth cleaning session, the mam’s hair is in tangles and she’s sweating streams. She’s got two screamers at her ankles and all three are paddling in a river of Scrub-Off oozing from a tipped canister. We might just have arrived at the wrong moment. I take a step back, but Spike and Marla are on the move. Spike grabs a screamer, hands it to Tobe and snatches up the other kid. Meanwhile Marla’s organising Woody into mopping up the Scrub-Off and glaring at me to shift stumps and help. Sometimes Marla doesn’t need words.
Quite Small Stories | 35
Accidents Happen Time the kids stop crying and the deck’s dry, Mam Peterson is putty in our hands. We leave the cubby with firm directions and our gobs packed tight with ginger fruit-balls. We head for Main Day Zone. Could be tricky, though, crossing the barrier into Main. See, we don’t exactly see eye to eye with Mainer kids. They think they’re a cut above, while we know we are. Us Indestructibles have earned a fair amount of knocks trying to bring them round to our point of view. Yeah, we’re known in Main and not just to the kids. Their Sir knows us, too. We been keeping a low profile lately, cos if our Sir hears of any shenanigans, we’re up before the Captain. Sir wouldn’t listen when I said it wouldn’t be right to disturb her, account of all she has to deal with. Just gave me the look. It doesn’t take much to get to the other side of the barrier, time we ‘rive it’s all serene-o. By the look of it the Mainers have worked like dogs to be ready for their Inspection Day. All you can hear is snoring. The stand-by lighting’s good enough for us to follow Mam Peterson’s directions, but by now I, for one, am having second thoughts. Seems we’re wearing ourselves out hunting for someone we haven’t thought twice about since he left class. Not only that, we’re in for a drubbing over
That’s when the riot starts, some sleepy head alerts Security and we’re handed over to the Alt-Day crew and come face to face with our Sir. * An eye-blink later, Sir abandons Tobe and Spike and stalks back to stare at me, and he still won’t say anything. Just stands there, cold eyed. It’s no use me saying anything. What’s to say? He knows, I know, hell, all us Indestructibles know we caused a riot. He presses a call button, summoning two lutes. ‘Take them, to Captain Sturge,’ he orders. The lutes shift fast as cut-tailed rats. We havta run to keep up. Further we go, faster things change. Deck’s less battered, sleeker looking and there’s no chipped paint. Marla hisses, ‘Bridge crew territory.’ My stomach does a flip. The lutes halt by a serious looking hatch, guarded by two non-coms. One of them opens the hatch and disappears inside, leaving us cooling our heels. Time we get the call, we’re jelly. Inside, Captain Krista Sturge, commander of the whole damn starship, sits behind her real wood desk. We line up in front.
We head for Main Day Zone. Could be tricky, though, crossing the barrier into Main. See, we don’t exactly see eye to eye with Mainer kids. They think they’re a cut above, while we know we are. ditching our cleaning duties to go chasing a stupid idea. Bad enough for our parents to find out, but what about Sir? Bet he’d count this a shenanigan. ‘Jake? You’re lagging behind. We’re nearly there.’ Woody and the twins look back at me and Marla. Guess they’re wondering why we stopped. ‘It’s a waste of time, Marla.’ ‘What is?’ ‘Us searching. We might not find Abe, and if we do what’s he gonna say to us? We’re Alts. He started off Main, now he’s Main again. He won’t wanna talk to us. So what are we doing this for? I vote we go back.’ ‘Go back!’ Woody squeaks. ‘No-oo.’ I go through it all again for him and the twins. They see sense, Woody doesn’t. Did I say he’s not only mouth almighty but a pighead to boot. Marla’s on the fence. Course Woody tips the balance, haring off like Sir’s chasing him, and natch, we follow. And that’s when everything goes ker-bluey. Woody’s thumping every door-hatch he passes, shouting Peterson’s name like a banshee. ‘A-abe. Abe Peterson! Come out, come out wherever you are.’ I make a spurt and catch him. Woody won’t stay caught, kicking and yelling like I’m ripping his arms off. I beg Marla for help but she’s convulsed with giggles, hanging on to a hysterical Spike, both of them too weak and wobbly to take a step. Tobe’s just watching us like he’s studying alien life forms. No help there. Next thing the hatches open, and sleepy eyed folk stagger out to see what’s what. With them come a fair sprinkling of Main kids. And of course they recognise the Indestructibles.
And wait. She stares, stern faced. A month of time later she reads out the list of our misdeeds. She has ‘em all, even down to the chewing gum episode. ‘Your repeated infractions merit sanctions,’ she announces, opening the Book of Regulations every ship kid knows by heart. She reads ‘em out starting with Capital Offences and halting at hard labour. We get three months air duct scrubbing. Great. ‘But, in consideration for an act of kindness reported by Mam Peterson. I hereby reduce your sentence. You will only scrub ducts on festival days. The rest of your off time will be used for clean-up duties in the Main Day sector, after your normal classes have ended. I am also making it my business to check your schoolwork regularly. I have been reliably informed there is much need of improvement.’ We’re hustled home in silence. Me and Woody get cold shoulder for supper, no doubt the others get the same. Next morning, Inspection Monday, Ma says the kids from Main and Alt are gonna share lessons one week in every four. ‘Parently, we got to learn to get along. While we wait for the inspectors to call, Ma lets Woody skip to Tobe and Spike’s. I don’t go ‘cos Marla’s coming round. Ma agreed we needed to catch up on class-work. I didn’t tell mouth almighty it was Marla’s idea. Guess she musta seen me blush.
About JW A life-long story maker and story writer who took early retirement from teaching and signed on for creative writing classes run by Cardiff University. Soon after, she started writing her first futuristic novel. Her most recent, Modall, was shortlisted for the 2010 Dundee Prize for unpublished authors, while the first pages of Altered and This World and The Next came 2nd and 3rd in Words with JAM’s 2011 First Page Competition, judged by Andrew Crofts.
36 | Quite Small Stories
Quite Small Stories
Eat Your Words by Mary Cassells
Creative writing courses are all very well, but what if it just ain’t your thing? I had to let Trevor go. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when you get in your boyfriend’s car and it reeks of a perfume you never use? But, like I told Julie, this did leave me a bit adrift, socially speaking. What she reckoned was, I ought to get myself to evening classes where I’d be likely to get to know some interesting blokes. Now I don’t usually listen to Julie, but given that my job was in a college cafeteria, nipping along a couple of corridors in search of talent after work did make some sort of sense. A cookery course was tempting because the stuff I served up every day had given me an appetite for finding out what real food looked like. But the trouble here was that the cookery tutor didn’t have a lot going for him in the looks department. On the other hand, I seriously fancied Lawrence, the Creative Writing tutor. Arriving early for the first lesson, I bagged a front desk so Lawrence couldn’t miss my deep-cavity top and abbreviated hemline. Looking past the top of my head, Lawrence asked us to write something we had done recently, and I was deciding whether to describe the session with the dentist or how I’d told Trev to sod off when I noticed the man next to me was scribbling what looked like very short sentences. Glancing between flashes of his go-faster pen, I couldn’t help seeing that some of the lines ended with a matching word. Which was what gave me the clue that “something you have done recently” meant something we’d written recently. Bit of a hard ask, that, when all you ever write is shopping lists and emails to your sister. The following week, our marked work was on our desks, and we had to re-write it according to our tutor’s constructive comments. I learned how to punctuate a shopping list and that proper nouns must carry a capital letter. It seems that Marmite is proper, whereas marmalade isn’t. Even though I’d left out the bit about choosing this course on account of the tutor being a hunk on legs, my email to Julie still got heavily criticised. The gorgeous Lawrence advised that it was always best to decide at the outset which tense I planned to write in. Apparently, you’re not supposed to skip from past tense to future or present. Totally confused by something called a pluperfect, I ended up re-writing the thing in the very tense mode. Neither did I fully grasp the bit about writing in the first person. I mean, if I wasn’t the first person to write my email to Julie, who the devil was supposed to do it for me? And, I wondered, would my sister give a toss that a verb is something you do? I was still struggling to complete my revised edition when the guy next to me placed his pen on the desk with a sigh of satisfaction, although he couldn’t have finished because his five pages had become three. Even so, his poem was chosen to be read aloud to demonstrate how well he’d applied tutorial criticism, especially the art of précis. Apparently this meant he’d pruned his words and, as far as I was concerned, if it meant he said oats less often, that was a good thing. I, for one, believed he should have those seriously curtailed. But he’d been allowed to write porridge with a capital letter because it started a new line, then a thing called poetic licence allowed him to use different tenses if it meant the poem rhymed. Which I didn’t think was very fair. Meanwhile, Lawrence hadn’t as much as winked at me by week four. Then he had another one of his migraines, so we had a session on journalistic photography with a tutor who didn’t come close to what you might call fit. But at least I could relax in the knowledge that pictures didn’t have semi-colons or conjunctions. Not to mention something called a preposition. And being told that a picture is worth a thousand words was good news for someone who’d had their shopping list torn to
shreds. Even I can point a camera, but the stuff about shutter exposure, action shots and middle distance settings did my head in. Still, the guy sitting next to me had the look of a sexy social lion with some to spare, so I gave my legs a bit more exposure and waited to see what developed in the way of near distance action. I could only assume my desk mate’s eyes were permanently adjusted to a dark room because they failed miserably to focus on my thighs. As for Lawrence, he’d paid me more attention when I was a net hygiene turban and a pink nylon overall serving mushy peas in the cafeteria. Half term was looming and, in spite of the arm and a leg I’d spent on alluring gear, he couldn’t even remember my name. And I still didn’t know my adjective from my adverb, so I looked around the college canteen to assess the enjoyment factor of students on other courses. The bloke getting hot under the collar about cross stitch versus herringbone over a plate of lasagne put me off the tapestry course. The massive backsides of the women discussing hydraulic gears diverted my fleeting interest in truck maintenance, and the language students seemed a bit over enthusiastic in their casual dropping of the occasional Latin joke. Some of them definitely needed to work on their accents. Besides which, none of the other tutors were what you’d exactly call dishy. The thing was, though, I had invested a term’s fees, hadn’t I? Which meant that, fiscally speaking, making one last hit on Lawrence was the way to go. So, clad in a membrane top with a V that stopped short of my navel, with my hair fixed in a drop-dead sexy droop, I turned up early for class. The reason Lawrence didn’t notice me straight off was because he was practically wearing the origami teacher at the time. As you do in a situation like that, I dumped my homework: Some Words About Food, into a wastepaper basket and stalked out of the classroom. Annoying really because I’d spent nearly an hour writing out that dinner menu. Not wanting half a term’s fees going to waste, I transferred them to the cookery course – and discovered that’s where the tasty fellers are. I was asked out twice on the strength of my profiteroles, and my coq au vin caused quite a stir. Oh yes, I was beginning to be well able to drop French words in the college canteen along with the best of the language students. What was really weird, though, was that I was getting a bit fond of Kevin the tutor, in spite of him being on the short side and apparently prone to tucking in to his own recipes. Then – would you believe it! – there I am in a calf-length apron, wearing a bib instead of a cleavage, and my cookery tutor invites me to The Neptune seafood restaurant to discuss lobster dressings. Well, I can tell you, this called for some panic clothes buying. I mean, that restaurant is not the sort of place where you turn up in a cling-film top and a thigh pelmet! The best I could do in a hurry was a long flared skirt from the Indian shop and a square-necked blouse that only hinted at the fact I’d got collar bones. Yes, well, I did feel a bit maiden auntyish, but the first thing Kevin said was how nice I looked. Which goes to show there’s no accounting for a bloke’s dress sense. But, hey, he was offering to give me private cookery sessions, so where was the harm in buying the sort of stuff he favoured? Which was how I came to be wearing a modest bit of kit whilst immodestly brandishing a diploma when I got myself a job as sous chef in a classy new joint. As for the journalist who turned up to cover the restaurant opening – I’ve got some choice adjectives for him, but with both of us working odd hours, dating is an irregular verb. I’m not sure if it’s a proper one or not, but it’s becoming serious with a capital S, and the future tense looks promising. About Mary With her husband, three cats and her very own cement mixer, Mary lives amid the throes of the restoration of a stone farmhouse in a tiny Burgundian hamlet.She first flexed her writing muscles on stage scripts for an ex-patriot club on the edge of the Borneo jungle, then moved on to short stories and novels.
Quite Small Stories | 37
Comp Corner Corralled by Danny Gillan
Not So Famous Last Words
God is black. Today I was hit by a car and died. At least I thought I had. The doctor beamed down and winked. ‘Fuck me, I thought you were God’. Then, would you believe it, I went and died. - Julie Lewis
Death is popular. Almost everybody does it eventually. It is (along with taxis, for some reason) one of life’s only certainties. It’s the ultimate “pass” time.
He walked through the gloom towards the red glow, the priest by his side. The mist cleared to reveal large iron gates that creaked open as they approached. Tormented screams echoed from beyond. ‘Shit,’ muttered the clergyman. ‘It does exist.‘ - Trevor Belshaw
And, judging by the huge response to last issue’s competition, writers find death even more interesting than normal people. I wish we had more prizes to give away as the list of winners could easily be doubled in size. As ever, massive thanks to everyone who entered and didn’t make it to the final five. But somebody had to win, and here they are. All five entrants listed below will shortly find a copy of Amanda Hodgkinson’s sublime 22 Britannia Road waiting for them at their nearest post office depot because they ‘weren’t home’ when the postman honestly did try to deliver it. Thanks go once again to both Amanda and the lovely people at her publishers, Fig Tree, for supplying the prizes this month.
“I think I’m going. I can feel myself slipping away.” The man closed his eyes and let out a sigh as his wife and daughter began to weep. His eyes opened. “Well, practice run done. How did you cope?” - Chris Bridges The child asked her what happens after death. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Once you die, there’s nothing. Just black. That’s the comfort of it. No more pain.” The child didn’t say anything after that. And neither did she. - Martine Svanevik And finally, just to add a bit of culture: Ophelia’s last words ‘Pharting is such sweet sorrow. The quality of sprouts was not strained as it droppeth like an odorous cloud til the Twelfth Night when The Tempest roared and splitlet Hamlet’s doublet in triplet blasts. Thus I depart as I recoil.’ - Mary Cassells
win one of five copies
Congratulations to all. We had a healthy mix of the serious and the silly in our entries this month, and hopefully our five winners reflect that perfectly.
So, what next, I hear you briefly wonder ... Well, given the popularity of us giving away actual prizes for this competition, we’ve gone and got some more for the next one. The next batch of five luckier than they deserve winners will receive a brand spanking new copy of Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland. How good is that?
And what do you need to do for a chance to win? Simple. This time, we want you to go a bit Joseph Campbell. Don’t know who Joseph Campbell is? Shame on you! He’s the guy who came up with the infamous ‘hero’s journey’ explanation that ‘there’s only seven basic plots’. Well we want you to disprove that by coming up with some new ones. Easy, eh? Here’s an example to get you going: Boy meets girl. Girl rejects boy. Boy pursues girl anyway. Girl is cannibal. Girl eats boy. Boy regrets whole thing. See, simple. Send your own, wholly original and not stolen off anyone else plot to firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to include your name (you’d be amazed how many people forget that bit) and postal address, and place your entry in the body of the email. Attachments are not popular round here. Have at it!
38 | Competitions
Are you having a laugh? Words with JAM Best Comedy Scene Competition 2011
Words with JAM Best Comedy Scene Competition 2011 As you may have noticed we enjoy a decent laugh here at WWJ Towers. So for this competition we want comedy scenes, in any format – script, novel extract, short story, play etc. One scene per entry, as many entries as you like.
Prizes: £200 First Prize (plus publication in Words with JAM) and five runners up of £25 each and a copy of Christopher Brookmyre’s Where the Bodies Are Buried (plus publication on the Words with JAM Blog) Word Limit: up to1000, plus 40 word max synopsis to introduce the scenario (optional) Entry Fee: £5, plus £3 per entry thereafter Closing Date: 19th August 2011 Winners will be announced in the October 2011 issue of Words with JAM. More information: www.wordswithjam.co.uk/maincompetition
And who is that judge? I hear you ask. Well, we went all out this time and pulled in one of the biggest names in the comedy world. Unfortunately Simon Pegg cancelled, so Danny is doing it instead. Danny Gillan has been a contributing deputy editor at Words With JAM since its inception in 2009. He has no idea what this job title means. His first novel, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, won the 2007 Undiscovered Authors competition and was published by Discovered Authors in 2008. It was described at the time as one of the best debuts of the year, and the funniest book about depression you’ll ever read. Sadly, Discovered Authors fell prey to the recession and the book is currently unavailable. The great reading public are ambivalent about this. His second novel, Scratch, is now available on Amazon Kindle. A recent reader said: I laughed so hard when reading chapter four that I think I let out a little bit of wee. This is Danny’s favourite review ever. Danny has had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies. www.dannygillan.co.uk Scratch is currently available on Amazon www.facebook.com/dannygillan
As ever the work has to be your own and previously unpublished, and while not wanting to be too strict any more than a thousand words or so will be more likely to make us cry than laugh. There is no lower word limit. Each entry must be a complete scene but can be from any point in a story. The object is to make us laugh, pure and simple. It can be a stand-alone sketch, a scene from a novel/short story, play, script or anything else you can think up. A brief, 40 word max synopsis to introduce the scenario is fine, but it really is just the jokes we’re interested in so don’t worry too much about character development/setting etc unless it is integral to the humour. Of course, humour is one of the most subjective genres out there, but what it comes down to in the end, though, is did it make the judge laugh?
UPDATE! 5 copies of Christopher Brookmyre’s Where the Bodies Are Buried have been added to the runner up prizes Random Stuff | 39
The Agent’s View with Andrew Lownie and Jonny Geller
Andrew answering YOUR questions
Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and journalist, he began his publishing career as the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton. In 1985 became an agent at John Farquharson, now part of Curtis Brown, and the following year became the then youngest director in British publishing when he was appointed a director. Since 1984 he has written and reviewed for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, Spectator and Guardian, which has given him good journalistic contacts. As an author himself, most notably of a biography of John Buchan and a literary companion to Edinburgh, he has an understanding of the issues and problems affecting writers. He is a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents and Society of Authors and was until recently the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’ Club Prize which supports first-time biographers.
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Is the misery memoir finished or is there still a market for this kind of writing? Giulia Alberti, Padua There is still a demand, and always will be as it’s an area that relates to many people’s lives, though many publishers have pulled out as the market has become flooded. Harper Collins are the main publisher in the area but are tending to prefer books which can become a series, rather than one-offs. I continue to have great success with Cathy Glass, who has just branched out into fiction and has published over a dozen books in this area, and have just negotiated a four-book deal with Collins for another foster carer called Casey Watson. The market now seems to be more nostalgic, inspirational, domestic and softer with happy endings rather than misery memoir. I’m also interested in accounts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and it seems many other readers feel the same. I am well aware that it is rare for collections of short stories written by a new or unknown author to get published. There are, however, a few publishers out there who will accept such collections. Do you think it worth my while to try to find an agent who specialises in this field? Stephanie Smith, Gloucester I love short stories and, indeed, have myself edited two collections of stories – one set in Edinburgh and another by espionage writers - but the book market for short stories is tough and I don’t know any agents who specialize in them or, indeed, handle them unless written by an established novelist. Your best bet is to approach the publishers directly but the conventional publishing wisdom is to only publish short story collections when writers are famous or absolutely brilliant. The good news is there are a growing number of short story competitions, more magazines are publishing stories - even by unknowns - and there are now a number of opportunities through e-books to selfpublish and even download individual stories. With regard to the recent scandals surrounding The Bookseller of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea, do you think agents and publishers will steer clear of this kind of cross-cultural ‘faction’ for fear of similar fallout? Ian Fletcher, Rotterdam Verifying old ‘true-life’ stories has become a real headache for agents and publishers and the due diligence required is time-consuming and not always possible. Sometimes one has to simply make an instinctive judgment about a person and the veracity of their story. I know of several books which publishers continue to publish – one story categorized as fiction/ history – knowing them not to be true. I think the public care less than the media about the issue, knowing there is always a bit of artistic licence in a memoir. I’ve had
trouble selling a memoir of a woman who claims to have been brought up by monkeys in the Columbian jungle because similar stories have turned out to be frauds. At the same time libel, questions of confidentiality and rights to privacy are making unauthorized biographies and investigative books less attractive to publishers, which is a shame. What do you have to do to persuade an agent to actually read your work? I’ve had many responses, all saying something like: “I enjoyed your work but sadly we don’t feel it’s quite for us...” Does this mean they have actually read it? Stephen Parr, Bristol/Lancashire I can’t speak for other agents but I read every submission I receive – over 20,000 a year – because that’s how I find new writers, but I don’t read all of the submission because I can usually tell within seconds whether the book is suitable for my list. My job is to assess whether the book is right for my list and I can sell it. I simply don’t have time to give an evaluation of the book; as it is, I’m working seven days a week and over twelve hours a day. If a writer wants feedback then there are plenty of manuscript evaluation companies who will give a considered response for a fee. If the proposal keeps being rejected then maybe it’s a matter of looking at the proposal and establishing why it’s not right for the agent. Look at some of my tips on my website about approaching an agent to see how best to maximize your chances of being read. Would any agents be interested in an individual account of a military conflict which is still ongoing? Darren Holmes, Bracknell Of course. There have always been instant books published whilst a military conflict took place. ‘A literary scout is an agent’s best friend, they say. What do they do and why are they your best friend?’ Sally R., London One of our best friends. Literary scouts are paid by publishers to alert them to suitable projects. They make up their own minds about the suitability of the book for their publisher but clearly help build the ‘buzz’ around a book. Scouts are one way of alerting publishes to a desirable property but a very useful one which should be used sparingly to be most effective.
Jonny Geller Interview by JJ Marsh Traditional publishing is undergoing a series of rapid and dramatic changes. Are you optimistic for the future? I’m optimistic that people will always want good stories. Not only readers, but obviously publishers and agents too. Things are changing and will continue to change in the way books are bought, sold, marketed and even read. But people will always want books. In the end, it’s all about the story.
Aside from being an agent, Jonny is Managing Director of the books division at Curtis Brown. After working as an actor in the early 90s, he joined Curtis Brown as an assistant before becoming an agent in 1995. His range of writers spans authors of first-class literary fiction to best-selling thriller writers, from ground-breaking journalists to public figures and business people, from comedians and actors to the very best writers of women’s commercial fiction. In 2006, Jonny wrote a humour book called Yes, But is it Good for the Jews? published by Penguin (UK), Bloomsbury (US) and Einaudi (Italy). On the steering committee for World Book Night 2011 and the London Book Fair Advisory Board, Jonny was shortlisted for the British Inspiration awards (media category) for 2011 and shortlisted for Literary Agent of the Year Award in 2007, 2010 & 2011.
And what about agents? Are they now doing the job of editors and editors doing the work of marketers? That’s too simplistic. Agents have been moving towards the editorial side for over ten years. And in today’s climate, you can’t sell a book that isn’t at least 80% there. So the agent works with the author to get it to that stage. In the old days, agents had lunch with publishers, pitched an idea they were excited about and by mid afternoon, a deal was on the table. Now, months of work precede that pitch, including putting a marketing plan in place. After a sale, it’s the agent who continually lobbies to raise the author’s profile, organises the blurb, gets quotes for the jacket and so on. Put it this way, it’s like walking someone home. It used to be that the agent would take the author all the way to the gate. Now they have to come inside the house with you. Agents as publishers – foxes in the henhouse or versatile opportunism? Whatever is best for the author. It’s not really a viable alternative for most authors but for an out-of-print estate, why not? I don’t see it as a conflict of interests at all. Agents should always be offering their clients the best deal they can get, and sometimes that will be publishing via the agent.
Your client base is broad; historical fiction, journalism, commercial women’s fiction, literary and spy novels. How do you keep up with all these genres? I don’t sleep. (Laughs.) Well, it’s an agent’s job to be curious. I talk to my authors and I learn a lot from people like Jon Snow and the experiences he’s had. And people like John le Carré or David Lodge who have been writing for years and know so much. I believe in listening to my writers. Which trends do you see waxing and waning at present? Commercial women’s fiction is having a tough time of it this year. People do still want relationship stories, but they’re going to have to be differently marketed from now on. Thrillers are growing, of course; TV is saturated with well-written British crime drama. And I think that David Nicholls (One Day) has started something. The male take on relationships, so long as it’s in a strong story, is definitely an interest area. But that’s not really new, is it? Tony Parsons has been doing it for years. Exactly. But these phases of hearing the male viewpoint tend to explode, everyone talks about the change in attitude and then there’s no follow-up. Apart from that, novels with Book Club appeal are consistently popular. Books with a factual basis which can be discussed outside the story itself, or from a wider perspective, are very attractive. Room, by Emma Donoghue is a typical example. Are you going to write another book? Not now. I’ve got three little boys to look after as well as lots of authors. I’m glad I did it, I enjoyed the process and it was interesting to see things from the other side. But right now, I just don’t have the time. Follow Jonny on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jonnygeller.
Can you see more major authors taking control of their material as JK Rowling has done with Pottermore? It is a hugely significant move. Other big brands will be looking carefully at investing in a similar model, or getting the publisher to do it for them. It’s certainly changed the game and everyone’s watching to see how it will work. You once described retailers as the weak link in the publishing chain. Do you still see it that way? That was when I was very, very angry at the 3-for-2 model. I still maintain that buying three books for the price of two is not a logical move if you want people to come back to your bookshop within a month. But retailers, when they’re good, are very, very good. Nothing beats a good bookseller who engages and understands readers.
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Populating the Fictional World by Sarah Bower
he fiction writer is a strange, parthenogenetic species whose offspring arrive in the world in all sorts of guises. They may be fully-formed or mere outline sketches, male, female, child or ancient, human, robot, or anything in between. Some are sweet-natured, some seething with evil intent, most shift up and down this spectrum in devious and unpredictable ways. All are, or should be, in some way memorable. They bristle with barbed hooks that, once they have entered the reader’s heart, cannot be easily removed. Having looked last time at tips for how to find inspiration and begin writing, we now come to the nuts and bolts of creating a story, the set of technical components – plot, character, setting, point of view, voice, pace – which make up a piece of narrative fiction. The greatest of these is character. What do we really remember about our favourite books? What is it that makes them our favourites in the first place? Imagine you are among a group of people who all loved Little Women as children. The first thing you do is play the categorisation game. Who are you? Glamorous Amy, worthy Meg, the ‘little mother’, gawky Jo with her ink-stained fingers? Long after we have halfforgotten what happens to these girls in the course of Alcott’s novel, we remember them, the essence of who they are and what they say to us as – usually – women. There’s another of these games. In your choice of partner are you a Darcy girl, or do you prefer the maimed Mr. Rochester? Or Heathcliff, with all that that entails. You may only half-recall the finer details of the stories of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Cathy Earnshaw, but you never forget the women themselves or the men they fell in love with. So, when thinking about how to construct a story, even if the characters are not the element which comes to you first, they are the key to involving readers. It is the characters who will ventriloquise what you want to say. The most obvious – and most hotly denied – source of characters is your own friends and family. This is not to say that you will want to lovingly recreate every detail of Auntie Gladys, or your annoying little brother, or your best friend from school. While all fiction is, by definition, autobiographical because it is generated by the author’s own imagination, there’s autobiographical and autobiographical. A mistake many beginning authors make, when enjoined to ‘write what you know’ is to
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write what is, in effect, memoir, not fiction. The way to use the people in your life as characters in your fiction is to cannibalise them. As Graham Greene famously remarked, every writer must have a sliver of ice in his heart. So, much as if you were playing Tops and Tails, you can take Auntie Gladys’ honky tonk piano playing skills and blend them with your best friend’s taste for Malibu to create the basis for a character who is completely fictional yet composed of ‘real’ parts which will help you to achieve the authenticity and true-to-life feel that strong and memorable fictional characters always have. People watching is a great source of material for characters. I have a chronic inability to be late for anything, which means I frequently find myself hanging around in bars and cafes, waiting for people who have a more wholesome attitude to punctuality than myself. On these occasions, I shamelessly watch people and eavesdrop on their conversations. I make up scenarios about groups and couples based on their demeanour with one another and snatched words and phrases overheard, and busily noting these down in my notebook or on my phone makes me look less like a billy-nomates as I wait for my companions to arrive. You can be more pro-active in this process if you actually choose someone in the street and follow them for a while. This is an exercise often set for student actors, to follow a stranger for, say, half an hour and then be able to reproduce their walk, their attitude when sitting or standing, getting on a bus, ordering a coffee etc. This approach is, of course, particularly useful for the budding author of crime fiction! Once you have amassed the raw material you need to construct a character, how do you adopt the mantle of Dr. Frankenstein and breathe life into them? Fiction, even when it is at the outer realms of fantasy, is an imitation of life. It cannot be anything else because life is all we know. Consequently, the best way to approach the business of making your characters live is to think about how we learn to know our fellow human beings in the real world. We do this from the outside in; it is not, usually, until we know people well that they reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to us. Even then, they may be selective with the truth, and will give their lies away to the attentive observers by a whole series of ‘pantomimes’. Our knowledge of other people is built up through our senses (sight, sound,
smell, taste, possibly, in certain circumstances) and our intuitions. So, when you set about revealing a character to your readers, this is how you should do it. Try to avoid ‘telling’ readers about characters. When you introduce your heroine, do not give us a paragraph detailing the colour of her hair, the number of brothers and sisters she has, her preference for jasmine tea and pinot grigio over espresso and margueritas. This not only stops the forward momentum of your story because it is merely descriptive, it also tends to be off-putting to readers because it leaves them no opportunity to put their own imaginations to work in conjunction with yours. Focus on showing what she is like through her actions, so she is revealed to readers in just the same way as she is revealed to other characters in the story. Let us learn she likes jasmine tea through seeing her order it, or overhearing her telling someone else it’s her favourite. Let us know she has red hair because she wishes it was blonde, or decides she can’t wear purple because it will clash with it. This way we learn not just that she is a red head but that she lacks confidence in her appearance, likes the colour purple, is a little vain and possibly fancies a man who always goes out with blondes. You tell us one thing, but you show us many more. Finally, remember Stephen King’s dictum that, however minor a character, when that person is centre stage, the spotlight is on them and no-one else. All your characters, even the walk-on parts, must be multi-dimensional and nuanced just as real people are. The milkman isn’t just the milkman, he’s a forty-two yearold father of three whose wife suffers from depression and who dreams of bungee jumping in New Zealand. The hero isn’t just tall, dark, handsome, square-jawed and ripped, he’s terrified of spiders, gets eczema on the backs of his knees and likes seventies soul music. The power of fiction lies in its ability to turn a mirror on the world we live in and tell us, truthfully, who is the fairest of them all. The driving force behind this process is the characters, the representations of humanity who act out their lives on the page and thereby offer us catharsis. Our relationships with our favourite fictional characters may outlast friendships, marriages or the bonds between parents and children. Wouldn’t you love to think that the characters you create might have this power?
Is Self-editing a doddle or is editor-speak gobbledegook to you? by Helen Corner
Helen Corner at Cornerstones www. cornerstones.co.uk tells us why it’s always good to know what you’re talking about before you meet the agent. You’ve finished your dazzling, high-concept and well-written novel, you’ve sent it out, and an agent calls you and requests a meeting. This is exciting - a chance for you to chat about your book and see if there’s a mutual rapport. You arrive at her office, where manuscripts are heaped on the desk, and sit down with a coffee while she balances your MS on her lap. There are lots of red tags on the pages, but she’s smiling so you relax. She’s just how you imagined her: professional (she requested the meeting within a few weeks of you sending the MS), approachable (but not in a cosy way; after all you want her to be ruthless at the negotiating table) and you can tell you’re in good hands. Then again, you researched and profiled the five agents you submitted to, so you know that her reputation is outstanding. In your mind, you’ve already signed on the dotted line and written courtesy emails to the other four agents thanking them for their time and informing them that you have representation. Then she starts thumbing through the red tags and talking about the book needing more work; one more redraft and a further read before she signs you up officially. She mentions strengthening your main character and introducing more tension peaks in the midsection; and how about tightening up scene structure in general to increase pace? Oh and by the way, there’s no rush. She’d much rather see a polished MS that’s ready to go out to the six editors she’s earmarked. You might be one of the few first-time authors who thinks this is a breeze. You can manage all of this and more, and deliver within the week. If you’re confident that you can make thorough rather than cosmetic revisions, then you’re lucky. At Cornerstones we’re often nervous when authors make swift revisions as they’re rarely effective. But what if, like most debut authors, all this technique speak is meaningless? Your mind’s gone fuzzy, your hearing wobbles, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your pencil keeps slipping out of your hand.
Words like ‘character empathy’ and ‘arcs’ appear on your notepad and you’re transported back to school during that awful failed French exam. At this juncture, there are two things you can do and neither is ideal: One is to put up your hand and admit that you’re not sure what she’s talking about. What’s an emotional arc, exactly? This would be just about acceptable, as she smiles and takes a deep breath, but she may privately lose a bit of confidence in you - while she could teach you about self-editing, does she really have time? Or you could keep quiet and decide you’ll deal with it alone. You’ll put yourself on a crash course in self-editing techniques, revise your MS and hope for the best. This means lots of pressure to get it right, and anxiety about whether you’ll be able to deliver. Ideally, you should already be acquainted with these techniques. You’ll be confident and calm during this meeting, bold enough to take these editorial suggestions away to process later, think about the revisions that have been requested and then write a confirmation email with a proposed plan. You’ll be able to write that you’ve thought seriously about increasing the tension peaks in the mid-section, but you’d rather combine the six she suggested into three impactful ones, which are listed, and which would fit into the 3-act graph. You plan to interweave the heroine’s internal conflict more closely with the action plot in a cause and effect way right from the beginning, which should boost empathy and understanding. As for scene structure, you intend to do a ruthless prune and cut down on overwriting to foreground the climax of each scene. This should aid pace and tension overall. (If I’m not making sense don’t worry: this can all be taught and is what we specialise in.) This course of action doesn’t challenge the agent’s suggestions, which are brainstorming ideas and open to the author’s interpretation. It shows a mutual working towards a solution that feels right for your story, where you ‘own’ the revisions. This is very important because unless you feel comfortable with your edits they’re unlikely to be effective. A combined effort from you and the agent will hopefully deliver the best for the book and demonstrate that you can work together. The agent will also feel confident about sending you off to your first meeting with your editor who will almost
certainly have further suggestions. Your job is to know how to write fully. Not just to write creatively (which is mainly talent and application) but to know how to hone your work into a book strong enough to launch you into a full and prosperous writing career. It’s a rare author who can do this alone. Learning how to self-edit is not ‘writing by numbers’ as some authors fear; rather it’s knowing what components make a great story and then how, when and why you can bend the rules. Self-editing can turn a goodish book into a dazzling one. It’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, and should be nurtured like any other part of the craft of writing. And, at the very least, who wouldn’t want a second opinion on their writing? I’m about to get Kathryn Price, Cornerstones’ managing editor, to see if this article makes sense; if it can be tightened up and repetition cut; if the beginning, middle and end is in place. Good luck in your first agent meeting, and with preparation you’ll be one of those dream authors that agents tell us about. Cornerstones is a leading UK literary consultancy. They have over 60 professional editors who specialise in guiding authors through self-editing. They scout for agents and have launched many first time writers. See www.cornerstones.co.uk for author journeys. Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published, Hodder, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner outlines their self-editing and submission teaching techniques. They’re very approachable so please email Helen@ cornerstones.co.uk or call 020 7792 5551 if you’d like feedback on your sample material with no obligation to use their services.
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Scripts: American Character by Ola Zaltin
As a newcomer to the craft of writing literary prose, I was somewhat surprised to hear of the term ”Show, don’t Tell”. As in, when writing Novels, have your characters show their character through their actions. Tell the story with images and actions. Which totally threw me. I come from screenwriting, and the first thing you’re learnt in American screenwriting 101 is this: Film is Action and Images, and Action describes Character. Tell your story in images and actions, and at all costs avoid dialogue, voice-over and similar cheap tricks attempted by Europeans, auteurs and other such riffraff. Which is why about every screenwriter I know is a closet novelist. People like us have x-rated fantasies about telling, telling, telling and showing fuck all. Interior monologues by the chapter, exposition running for pages and dialogue by the yard. This be the stuff our dreams are made of. Because in screenwriting, space is premium, and action is king.
forward momentum, and zero plot. Richard summed it up in his laconic Bronx patois: “What I learnt that day was this: a screenplay is maximum 90 pages long, every scene has to carry the story forward and the plot has to be tighter than a crab’s ass.” With infidelity, the three golden rules may be Deny, Deny, Deny. But let me tell you, with Hollywood, it’s: Momentum, Momentum, Momentum. Going back to character.
Character Presentation Film is images and action, character serves these two and plot is the natural born child of the three aforementioned. Amen. Anyone casting a glance at a screenplay page will immediately realize that very few words actually get to go on it. The font has to be Courier 12 pt, and the line-spacing 1.5, and that’s before you get to the narrow middle space you have to write dialogue in. Screenplay formatting is structured in such a way that one page is roughly one minute of screentime. This way, producers can directly flip to The End on page 96 of your labour of love and declare without
“What I learnt that day was this: a screenplay is maximum 90 pages long, every scene has to carry the story forward and the plot has to be tighter than a crab’s ass.” I once had the good fortune to participate in a screenwriting master-class held by the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. He recounted his journey from successfull young author (The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, etc), to budding screenwriter. A big-time producer contacted him with the idea of transforming Price’s first novel into a film. He received a sum ten-fold what he had earnt so far on his first two novels together, and got a deadline of six months for a first draft. When the six months were up, he turned in a 490 page screenplay, correctly formatted, on time. This is when the kindly Hollywood producer called Mr Price up and informed him that the screenplay was exactly 400 pages too long, had no
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reading a word of it: ”Aw, I can’t make this shit!” And they will. For short, you need to be smart about setting up your character and do it in the most economic and visual way you can think of. Screenplay space is scarce. In the opening of Red Rock West (1993), Nicolas Cage is a lone drifter in some American desert, out of gas, out of cash and out of luck. He finds a seemingly abandoned petrol-station way back of beyond, walks into the store and flips open the cash-register: it’s full of cash. He has none. There’s no one around. He closes the cash-register without taking a bill out of it. Voilá: he’s a good guy. No dialogue, just action, not five minutes into the movie, we know who to root for, no matter what may come.
During the opening sequence of SE7EN we are visually told the morning routines of detectives Mills and Somerset. Mills (Brad Pitt) is the young pup, who pulls on his shirt with buttons buttoned and selects his tie at random amongst a variety of pre-tied ties and runs out through the door. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is the older gentleman who has everything laid out neatly ironed, chooses every item carefully and with deliberation. Mills will turn out to be the impulsive, daring, intuitive character, battling throughout the story with Somerset’s analytical, cool, considering character. Again: characters presented through action and images.
The Character Arc Having thus introduced your main character, you’ve got to present us with his or her inner-conflict. This is something that’s bugging them at the core of their very being. What is stopping them from expressing their true potential as human beings (if this sounds eerily like a recruitment folder for Scientology or the US Army, fear not; we’re still in the la-la land of movie suspension of disbelief. That being said ... yes, there are similarities). At the outset, you have to present the public with the antithesis of what is to come: • Jerry Maguire can’t stand what his job is and what he has become. (Jerry Maguire) • Dewey Finn is an irresponsible kid in a man’s body. (School of Rock) • Frankie Dunn believes women have nothing to do in the ring. (Million Dollar Baby) They need to change, right? No? Well, according to American storytelling 101, they do. Basically, what happens in all three films is that these three white American males (imagine that ...) round about 20 pages into the screenplay do something life changing; write that memo about the failed business of sports-agenting, take a teaching job, accept a female boxer as his charge. From then on and for the next 60 or so pages, the protagonists go through every kind of hell and obstacle on his (or her) journey of adversity, understanding and finally change (cue the Burbank Philharmonics). Classic example: From the starting point of hating kids and loving his house and solitude above all else, grumpy old Carl Fredricksen at the climax of UP has to let go of his house (literally!) to save the kid. His inner conflict is illustrated in action by him hanging onto the house, floating in the air, and having to let it go to save the boy. (Okay, you have to see this film
to get the just mentioned). Brilliant piece of innerconflict resolved through image and action.
The Character Transformed The transformed character is the opposite of what he was in the opening of the film. He - or she - but most often he, alas and alack, has Learnt something and Changed. Now, if this happened as much in real life as in the movies, for one thing, there wouldn’t be a 3 billion dollar a year diet-book industry in the USA. Because if people in real life really did read the book, followed the advice, got slim and stayed slim, well, then ... why buy another book? For short: people don’t change very much in real life, so we seek hope, faith, and the possibility of Change for an hour and a half with a bucket of popcorn, a barrel of Pepsi and five hankies. Then we walk out into the light and enjoy a triple baconwhopper-heart-stopper-mega-everything meal with none of that green stuff and extra cheese, please. Now, back to the world of tinseltown makebelieve: • Jerry Maguire mans up and takes care of both business and his lady love and has her at hello. • Dewey Finn keeps on rockin’ but now as a responsible adult teaching kids to roll with the rocks. • Frankie Dunn takes Maggie Fitzgerald into his heart in lieu of the daughter he never knew. (NB: In American films, if the character fails to conform and to change in a cute way, they’re killed off at the ending. Forrest Gump’s girlfriend - AIDS gets her for leading a hippie lifestyle, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty has to die because he steps out of the bourgeois norm, Thelma and Louise rebel against patriarchial American society and drive off a cliff smiling. Etc. Same could be argued in Maggie Fitzgerald’s case: she tries to take the fight to the maledominated boxing society, and - surprise - dies. Etc) In the end, I have but one piece of advice tacked to my wall. At the end of that master-class we asked Richard Price’s advice to us (then) young and hopeful screenwriters. What had his dismal start taught him and how had he become so good. He paused, then looked at us and growled: “Go to the movies. Pay attention!” Amen.
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Characters in Novels: People Like Us? by Sue Carver
What distinguishes novel writing from other artistic endeavours is the necessary and unavoidable affinity that novelists have with their subject-matter: people. According to E. M. Forster, characters in novels are “wordmasses” made up by the novelist “…conditioned by what he guesses about other people, and himself ”. 1 Characters in novels differ from people in life in one important respect: to a greater or lesser extent, their inner lives are revealed. That we can fully understand characters in novels when, in life, people – including ourselves – are essentially unknowable seems to be a large part of the novel’s appeal. Great novels evoke a real sense of the unique consciousnesses of the characters portrayed and it is on that aspect of character creation that I will focus here.
Surface and Depth Writers can choose to stay on the surface, portraying character via speech and behaviour, as in this extract from Hemingway 2: The doctor went out on the porch. The door slammed behind him. He heard his wife catch her breath when the door slammed. “Sorry,” he said, outside her window with the blinds drawn. “It’s all right, dear,” she said. He walked in the heat out the gate and along the path into the hemlock woods. or to dive deep, giving thoughts and emotions in addition, like McEwan: Willing himself not to, he raised the book to his nostrils and inhaled. Dust, old paper, the scent of soap on his hands, but nothing of her. How had it crept up on him, this advanced stage of fetishizing the love object? ... He had spent three years drily studying the symptoms, which had seemed no more than literary conventions, and now, in solitude, like some ruffed and plumed courtier come to the edge of the forest to contemplate a discarded token, he was worshiping her traces - not a handkerchief, but fingerprints! - while he languished in his lady’s scorn.” 3
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Regardless of which approach is chosen – surface or deep – every utterance, gesture, thought and feeling needs to be consistent with the writer’s empathic understanding of his or her fictional characters.
Empathy in therapy and fiction Carl Rogers, humanistic psychologist and creator of the person-centred approach to therapy, described empathy as the “… understanding of the client’s world as seen from the inside. To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without losing the ‘as if ’ quality – this is empathy.” 4 Drawing a distinction between empathy and the related concepts of sympathy and identification is vital for my day job, clinical psychology. I also find it valuable to have in mind when creating fictional characters. Flaubert is often quoted as having said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, d’après moi ...” (Madame Bovary is me, based on me). By his own account, Flaubert appears to sail perilously close to identification: a psychological process by which an individual assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of another. In my view, he does himself an injustice: empathy is in evidence in Madame Bovary, not identification. Too close identification of novelists with their characters can produce results in fiction that are as messy as they are in therapy, the most extreme example of this being the creation of ‘Mary-Sue’ characters, which are little more than wish-fulfilments of the author, projected onto the page. Ensuring the necessary degree of objectivity required by empathy, I suggest, poses the greatest challenge for the author when writing characters that are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical.
Can Empathy Be Enhanced? The role of the novel in shaping empathy in readers has been debated for centuries. Recent research offers support for George Eliot’s bold declaration: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, then it does nothing.” 5 Does empathy felt while reading fiction cultivate a sense of connection, which leads to altruistic actions on behalf of real others? In “Empathy and the Novel” (2007) 6, Suzanne Keen – drawing on psychology, neuroscience, literary history and philosophy – concludes that while certain novels can provoke empathy in readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour. She observes that the
greater the degree of ‘fictiveness’ a given novel has – according to the readers’ perceptions – the more likely they are to empathise with its characters. As with many complex human qualities with profound implications for social functioning, the foundations for empathy are laid down in early childhood, with both nature and nurture coming into play. The ability to empathise is likely to be on a continuum and there will be individual differences with regard to how well-developed this capacity is. What if empathising with one’s fellow human beings isn’t a particular strength? Can one learn to increase empathic understanding? Research into the enhancement of empathy in adulthood is thin on the ground, but what there is suggests that there is greater plasticity than was previously thought. For example, a very recent study indicated that ‘imagining and enacting oneself as an imaginary other’ can enhance empathy in adolescents (Goldstein and Winner, in press) 7. In this, and other studies in this area, role-play was used, but I see no reason why the sustained cognitive and emotional effort required to create fictional characters, and to follow their journey through the course of writing a novel, should not enhance empathy. The good news for fiction writers is that this aspect of writing fiction, along with others, may well improve with time and effort, but we won’t necessarily become more altruistic in the process. References 1. E. M Forster, Aspects of the Novel 2. Ernest Hemingway, The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife 3. Ian McEwan, Atonement 4. Carl. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy 5. George Eliot, letter to Charles Bray 6. Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel 7. Goldstein, T.R. and Winner, E. Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind, Journal of Cognition and Development (2011 in press)
Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose. Her Q and A column, Carver’s Couch, will appear in the October issue of WWJ. Please send your questions to: email@example.com with the subject heading Carver’s Couch. Random Stuff | 47
Synopsis Doctor with Sheila Bugler
Synopsis Doctor – working with Brenda Darling on the synopsis for her novel, Hard Knocks. Brenda is an English writer living and working in Spain. She moved to Spain in 2007 to retire and concentrate on her passion – writing. Her first novel, Hard Knocks, is set in London’s East End, where she was brought up. Brenda contacted the Synopsis Doctor for help. Here, Brenda and Sheila share their experiences of working together.
Although there are no hard and fast rules, you should try to stick to a one-page synopsis. Why? There are two reasons. The first is that agents have limited time. They expect you to be able to summarise your plot concisely. If you can’t, they’ll wonder what else you can’t do. Secondly, your synopsis should be interesting. That’s very hard to achieve if you go for a blow-by-blow account of your novel that covers several pages. Make every word count and don’t write more than you need to. If you do, there’s a chance no one will read it.
Brenda’s comments Sheila’s comments Brenda contacted WWJ for help writing the synopsis for her first novel, Hard Knocks, which follows three generations of women growing up in London’s East End. Brenda sent me her first draft of the synopsis which, in her own words, needed a little ‘TLC’. For many writers, the major problem a synopsis presents is how to condense a novel of 80,000+ lovingly crafted words into a one-page summary. In my experience, most writers start out by producing a synopsis that is overly long and complex. This wasn’t Brenda’s problem, however, and I was pleasantly surprised when I read her first draft. It was concise (355 words) but with just enough information to give me a flavour of what the novel was about. In fact, by the end of the synopsis I knew the genre (commercial women’s fiction), the plot outline (three generations of women battling adversity to find their place in the world), and basic information about the main characters – Belle, Elizabeth and Minerva. There were some areas that needed clarification and I pointed these out to Brenda in my feedback. However, the main problem with Brenda’s first draft was presentation. I really struggled with this. I know this was only a first draft but, even at this stage, I felt Brenda needed to pay more attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation. So, I attacked the synopsis with my red pen and sent it back to Brenda with lots of comments. I asked her to write another draft, which she did. The second draft was much better although – again – there were some basic problems that needed attention. These were mainly around punctuation. Again, I got my red pen out, sent it back to Brenda and asked her to take another look. She did some more work, sent a third version to me and, with a bit of tweaking, we now had a synopsis we were both happy with. Here, you can see the first and final versions for yourself. Hopefully it’s obvious why the second version is better. Here are my reasons for preferring the final version: Presentation – the final version looks good on the page. There is a heading which gives important information about the novel (including author, wordcount and genre). The paragraphs are neatly laid out and each character is introduced in BLOCK CAPITALS, making it easy to scan the text and see who the characters are. Grammar, spelling and punctuation – the earlier problems have been cleared up and the final version is now easy to read and I am not distracted by careless errors. (If you’re reading this and are considering submitting your work to an agent, please do one thing for me – it is more important than anything else. GET SOMEONE ELSE TO PROOFREAD YOUR SUBMISSION PACK BEFORE YOU SEND IT. This is your one and only chance to create a good impression. You cannot afford to mess it up.) Length - the new, improved synopsis still fits on one page.
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Dear Sheila I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. As a novice, I found writing a synopsis a real challenge. But I thrive on challenges. Your direction and guidance enabled me to see my faults. The synopsis is now more balanced. Short, but telling. I thank you! I know I couldn’t have done it without your help. Brenda
HARD KNOCKS – SYNOPSIS VERSION 1 Synopsis Three generations of women, struggles to overcome their belief that as females they are not worth tuppence in the pecking order of the family Seven year old Belle is confused and unhappy when she becomes an unpaid skivvy. Unloved and ignored by her mother, she finds life hard to bear. Reaching puberty, she turns to men looking for self worth but instead of the love and support she craves she is abused and raped whilst striving for a normal life. She turns to her older brother for support but he has his own problems and can’t help her. Eventually she marries and has four children; but her husband – like all the other men – treats her badly – but by now Belle accepts this as part of life, not more then she deserves. After the death of her cold hearted uncaring mother she discovers two diaries. The discovery sheds light on Bells own unhappy past. She reads the stories of Elizabeth and Minerva – who, she learns are her mother and grandmother. Elizabeth a middle class Victorian woman has more then her fair share of disasters in her life. At sixteen, she takes a job as a nurse, in an Asylum for the poor and insane in the East End of London. Forced to marry and give birth to a son, and then suffers painful child abduction. A chance meeting with William Davis a working class cockney ends in heartbreak. Minerva tells of her life being dragged through the bombed out East End after the second world into the modern era of change. Rebuffed by a lover, abortion and loss, she marries Bill and leads him a dog’s life. Bitterness and distain leave a scar. Both women have two things in common, secrets, and the desperate need for forgiveness, they both believed that a son was more important then a daughter and their unjust behaviour and actions led to heartbreak for all concerned. Bell finds comfort amongst the pages. They give her answers she has been looking for all her life. She can now forgive, and learn to love and respect the strong woman she has become. 355
Question Corner Co-author of The Writer’s ABC Checklist, Lorraine Mace, answers your questions ...
HARD KNOCKS – FINAL VERSION Name: Title: Word count: Genre:
Brenda Darling Hard Knocks 110,000 words Commercial women’s fiction
Three generations of women struggle to overcome their belief that, as females, they are not worth tuppence in the pecking order of the family. Seven year-old BELLE is confused and unhappy when she becomes an unpaid skivvy in the family home. Unloved and ignored by her mother, she finds life hard to bear. Reaching puberty, she turns to men for self-worth. However, instead of the love and support she craves, she is abused and raped. She seeks support from her older brother but he has his own problems – battling drug addiction – and can’t help her. Eventually she marries and has four children. Her husband - like all the other men in her life - treats her badly. By now, Belle accepts this as part of life, nothing more than she deserves. After the death of her uncaring mother, she discovers two diaries. They shed light on Belle’s own unhappy past. She reads the stories of ELIZABETH and MINERVA - her grandmother and mother. Elizabeth, her grandmother, was a middle class Victorian woman, who had more than her share of disasters in her life. At sixteen, she takes a job as a nurse in an asylum for the poor in the East End of London. Forced to marry, she gives birth to a son. She then suffers a painful child abduction. A chance meeting with WILLIAM DAVIS, a workingclass cockney, ends in heartbreak. Minerva, Belle’s mother, tells of her life being dragged through the bombed-out East End after the Second World War into the modern era of change. Rebuffed by a lover, she marries BILL FRANCES and makes his life hell. Bitterness and disdain leave a scar. Both women have two things in common - secrets and the desperate need for forgiveness. They both believed that a son was more important than a daughter and their unjust behaviour and actions led to unhappiness for all concerned. Belle finds comfort amongst the pages. They give her answers she has been looking for all her life. She can now forgive, and learn to love and respect the strong woman she has become.
Biswajit Ganguly from India sent in an interesting question, the answer to which requires some research on his part. I am a self-published author of six books. I want to submit my book manuscripts to various competitions for self-published authors (for published books) on web. I just want to know is there any competition where I can submit my book manuscript for free and through online sending method. Please come up with those competitions which are open to Indian authors like me. There are various novel competitions worldwide, but most of them require payment of some kind to enter. Finding one which is free, accepts previously published and/or self-published books, as well as online entries, is not going to be easy. I am sorry to say I don’t know of any competitions which fit your needs. I would suggest setting aside a considerable amount of time for online research. I hope you find something suitable.
Steve Parr from somewhere in the UK sent in the following letter. If an agent responds to a manuscript by saying something like, “I liked your novel but it wasn’t quite for us” - would you infer from this that he has actually read it? (Yes, I have had many such responses). Whether or not it has been read is difficult to tell from such a response, but one thing that does come through loud and clear is that the wording is generic one-response-fits-all. Often agents stop reading after a set number of pages because they already know the writing style or subject matter is not for them. In which case, they send out a thanks, but no thanks reply. However, if the agent adds a few comments on why it wasn’t quite for them it is more likely the manuscript was read. Any comments outside of a form letter should be examined and digested very carefully. If the comments suggest alterations or point out flaws, consider acting on the advice. It is rare an agent will add comments unless he or she feels the manuscript has merit.
Caron Garrod, also from somewhere in the UK, asked a very interesting question. One of my characters is deaf, and I am not sure how to set out when she is speaking in sign language. At the moment, I am putting these conversations into a completely different font (Bradley Hand 16) and not using speech marks. Is this right? I don’t think there is a set rule about how to show someone speaking in sign language, but I
would suggest using normal speech punctuation and adding narrative such as: her fingers flying in her anxiety to get her point across. I’m sure you can come up with better wording, but hope you understand what I mean. This isn’t needed every time she speaks, just occasionally to jog the memory of the reader that she is using sign language. Anything which reminds someone it’s just a story and stops them from losing themselves in the book should be avoided. The important thing is that your readers realise the character is deaf without being taken out of the story because you’re using a different font. If the characterisation is done well, your readers won’t forget.
Liz from Montrose in Scotland wants to submit a reworked story to a competition. I was thinking about recycling a story of 700 words which was published in an anthology of my short stories I had published two years ago (all proceeds to Macmillan Cancer Support). The new story is for a competition and will be more than twice as long, have a different title, but will have much the same characters and theme as the original. Could I therefore say that this version has not been previously published as the rules demand? If you double the word count and change the title, you’re most probably already talking about a new story. But once you get going on the redraft, you’ll find the story will evolve into something completely different anyway, as tends to happen with major rewrites. The theme might remain the same, but I bet your characters change their actions when you have more words to play with. However, I would advise changing the character names as well, just to be on the safe side. If, having done all that, you feel the story is too close to the original, why not drop the competition organisers a line and ask them if they would accept such a rewrite?
Do you have layout issues, problematic characters, or struggle to get to grips with your grammar? Each issue, co-author of The Writer’s ABC Checklist, Lorraine Mace, answers your questions on writing: firstname.lastname@example.org
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What we think of some books Floccinaucinihilipilification: the estimation of something as valueless Tacenda: things better left unsaid 5’9”: The average height of a British adult male Deipnosophist: someone skilled in making dinner-table conversation Logodaedalus: one who is cunning in the use of words
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Review by Lisa Hinsley Rating: Logodaedalus
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was recommended to me by a friend, and I was bowled over by the novel. I devoured it in a few days (a feat itself as I have a youngish family) and was left with that sad feeling, an almost a bereft feeling, I get when finishing a truly great novel. In this dystopian alternative present, Offred is a handmaid, assigned to a Commander and his ‘infertile’ wife. Her only reason to live, to be allowed to live, is for procreation. In the land of Gilead, once the United States, women have been suppressed almost entirely. Eyes watch for anyone behaving out of the allowed norms that have been established, and punishment is either execution, to later be hung on display on the wall surrounding the centre of Gilead, or to be sent to the poisoned and radioactive lands and for an untimely and painful death. For now, Offred is avoiding the latter fate, but only by performing a monthly ceremony, the culmination of which involves the Commander inseminating her. But her time is running short. If she does not fall pregnant soon, she will be sent to the poisoned lands in disgrace. When she continually fails to fall pregnant, Offred, aided by the Commander’s wife, looks elsewhere for viable sperm. What stayed with me after finishing this novel, other than the desperate need to find out the rest of her tale, and my feeling of abandonment by the author in not finishing the handmaid’s tale (she left me hungering for more, much more), was the method in which the book was ended. Without giving too much
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more away, I was offended by the documentary style finish. Not offended as in unhappy with the author, but offended by the last characters I met. How dare they refer to Offred so casually, laugh at her issues, make light of her life. She had become very real to me, and I wanted to stick up for her pain, her solitude, all she gave up to become a handmaid. What I came away with was a better sense of my own past, of the real people who have lived through adversity, a bigger respect for their struggles and their courage for these real people who made their real stories known. I still hunger to know what happened next, and probably will for some time yet. One thing I do know, I will be thinking about this novel for a long time.
Triclops by Susan Howe, Avery Mathers and Lee Williams Review by JJ Marsh Rating: Deipnosophist
Such a short story collection is like exploring a jewellery box. Hours pass while poring over one gem, until another catches your eye. Forty stories by three writers: Susan Howe, Avery Mathers and Lee Williams. This collection makes the most of its three voices, allowing each to surprise, confide, horrify, uplift and amuse. Many pieces could be extended into a larger work. The Unusual Death of Governor Li, Out of Hand and Gakapa, each with superbly realised concepts and distinctive voices, give the impression of being nascent novels. I was genuinely disappointed to reach the end. Three differing writers make for a lively variety; from a housewife’s transformation to a conman’s comeuppance, a daughter’s revelation to a shape-changer’s final battle, postapocalyptic tunnel-dwellers to the dead man who won’t lie down, these stories light every corner of imagination. Susan Howe’s distinctive style illuminates the underbelly of the everyday. Her deft twists in The Beast Next Door and One Man’s Meat reveal unexpected events behind suburban closed doors. Every tale is rooted in reality. Those beady eyes on the cover seem to sum up Howe’s writing – she doesn’t miss a single detail – and seems equally adept at both heartwarming and spine-chilling. Avery Mathers does a neat turn with dialogue, spotlighting his characters and
their quirks through idiosyncratic speech and interactions. A Different Question and Neemee and the Danger are wholly engrossing journeys; one into the past and memory, one along a country road. But the shifting plates of teenage perception and a child’s logic take away all the signposts and make you wonder. Neemee is one of my favourite characters. A certain amount of influence filters through the work of Lee Williams. Yet when it’s done this well, I want to shout, watch your back, de Bernières, (The Unusual Death of Governor Li), Ishiguro (Changes), Lovecraft (Servants) and O’Brien (Restless Apple Jackson). From magic realism to gothic horror, this is a writer in full command of an immense talent, who can turn his hand to just about anything. The collection’s professionalism in presentation is flawless. In content, it stumbles occasionally. The few selfreferential elements feel awkward, like something produced for friends and family rather than a contender for the general market. This is a shame, as it contains some priceless treasures which stand comparison to the best. Despite this minor quibble, I’d enthusiastically recommend this collection for its richness of material and trio of powerful voices. An ideal gift for a reader or writer. Some of these stories will stay with me a long time.
Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith Reviewed by JD Smith Rating: 5’9”
Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith is aptly named, taking the reader through a weird and quirky world set in the not so peculiar modern London. There’s no Red Queen, and no Mad Hatter to speak of, but there is a cast of unusual and often bizarre characters taking us on a ride through the fantastic land centred on the equally intriguing character of Alison Temple. Joining an all-female team of private investigators after her husband cheats on her, Alison is put on an unlikely case involving mistreatment of animals, genetic engineering and a shig – a large woolly creature that is a cross between a sheep and a pig. No sooner is Alison on the case, than things turn weird. Her friend Taron’s handbag is stolen in mistake for hers, and the address book used to target her
Reviews friends. The two women set off for the seaside, hoping things will blow over. Meanwhile Taron becomes set on finding a baby for her mother (who may be a witch) to bring up as an apprentice. Whilst sitting on the sea front after a night’s clubbing, they dream one up and, hey presto, they find a baby! Back in London, Jeff, possibly the most loveable character of them all - an inventor, poet, neighbour and Alison’s protector – is abducted. Alison and Taron embark on a mission to find and save him. The new-found baby tags along, too. Along the way, Smith includes a variety of arresting observations that crowd the minds of her varied cast. It is fairly well documented that when schizophrenics hear voices they commonly describe hearing a middleaged BBC presenter. A less well known fact is that patients often mistook Princess Diana for Moors murderer Myra Hindley … The chapters shift from first to third person without any change in narrative style, producing somewhat disconcerting reading at times. But the narrative on a whole is unique and rhythmic, drawing you in to the life and tone of Alison Temple. The characters, too, can sound rather similar, with too little variation to their dialogue, and at times the interaction between them can be frustratingly slow. That said, their quirks and the situations in which you find them set them apart. The observations of life are perhaps more authorial than character driven, but they are nevertheless true and engaging, as when Alison describes what a wife wants to know about her cheating husband. What is the girlfriend like? Common, available, dispensable? And a nice link to the title: she only hopes he has found someone ordinary and common to suck his cock, rather than a soft-looking blonde in an Alice band whose womb is twitching because she’s pushing thirty. Not forgetting the odd lines that can ring uncomfortably true: I never worry that I will disturb [Jeff], that he will be naked or fucking someone or in a bad mood. I always expect to find him alone and amenable, inventing things that I secretly find amusing. It’s as if he doesn’t exist except when I’m there, and then only in a role that suits me. At 189 fairly spacious pages, story can feel a bit light. But there are plenty of wonderful
touches of reality and descriptive gems in Smith’s playful narrative that makes Alison Wonderland worth a read.
John Lennon - The Life by Philip Norman. Review by Pam Howes Rating: Logodaedalus
Growing up in the late fifties and early sixties, I left Elvis behind, following his army years. I felt restless; there was time and room for a change in my musical tastes. And then I saw them! The Beatles doing their first UK appearance on Scene at Six Thirty. I was hooked and collected and read everything I could about them, but to me, John Lennon stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was my hero and inspiration. This book, which is just over 850 pages, was given to me as a birthday gift and is a must read, whether you’re a fan or not. I’ve taken my time reading it. I wanted to savour each chapter. Apart from the years in New York, there’s not a lot of new stuff in there, however, it’s very well written, as one would expect from Philip Norman, and it was good to re-visit those early days and re-live many magical moments as well as the tragic ones. The well-documented first meeting with Paul McCartney in July 1957 at the Woolton church fete. John, being suitably impressed by Paul’s lefthanded guitar playing on the tricky number “Twenty Flight Rock” invited him to join The Quarrymen. The tragic death of his mother, Julia, only a short time after being reacquainted with her. The Hamburg years and the first Cavern gigs. All very well described. No matter how much I read on the subject, the feeling that John was trapped and rootless, certainly in the Kenwood years with Cynthia and Julian, comes over loud and clear in these pages. I’m not convinced that he was one hundred per cent happy in NYC with Yoko. But then, we’ll never really know that now. The infamous “Lost Weekend” in LA spent with May Pang and the likes of Keith Moon and Harry Neilson, show a lost boy, rather than a grown man, let off the leash by his wife and given the free rein to screw around. John describes it as a God-
awful time in Lost Arseholes. He floundered around, waiting fourteen months for Yoko to decide what she wanted. The years spent bringing up Sean and turning his back on musical colleagues is well depicted. The one man, Neil Aspinall, who stood by John through thick and thin, and who could have written a truly great story, probably closer to the truth than anyone else has ever done, is sadly also no longer with us. That would have been some tale. I found the final chapter here very moving, the release of the Double Fantasy album and the signing of said album for Mark Chapman. Even though I knew what was coming, it still gets to me. If only John had made the decision to come back to live in Britain.
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks Review by Gillian Hamer Rating: Deipnosophist
There’s a clever and complex narrative style to this tale of contemporary London. Faulks is clearly unhappy with the modern day capital, and this novel touches on various aspects of his discontent in this ‘state of the nation’ story. Set over seven days, the book opens halfway through preparations of a dinner party by the wife of a newly-elected Tory MP desperate to make a good impression on his party and constituents. This setting provides a useful plot device to introduce us to the guest list – and start us on a journey that touches on such diverse topics as corrupt bankers, Islamic extremists, over-paid football stars, London tube drivers and disillusioned book critics, to name but a few. Faulks cleverly manipulates the reader through the story, using as a focal point, John Veales, a hedge fund manager who spends the whole of the seven days plotting the downfall of a major city bank. It’s impossible not to link this story to recent financial failures in the UK, and it’s also impossible not to get the message that the author is beside himself with fury at the antics of the banking industry. The research Faulks has undertaken here is impeccable, and even if you have no interest in multi-million dollar bonuses, the message of the appalling consequence - the fact the tax payer is left to clean up the damage inflicted by
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What we think of some books one greedy individual - comes through loud and clear. There is a message here that Faulks does not want missed. Faulks also touches on the topic of terrorism, plunging into the heart of an Islamic extremist cell, through the eyes of Hassan alRashid - a young man whose father, Farooq, made his millions from setting up a pickle factory and is one of the Tory dinner party guests. We see the internal struggle of the younger al-Rashid when he becomes involved in a bomb plot to blow up a psychiatric hospital. Again, the research feels spot on and there are clear messages again from the author. There are many other characters whose lives we follow – from the mundane to some life-changing moments. There are also some wonderful continuity touches that also help show the face of modern day living – the effects of drug use on teenage minds and a cyclist riding without lights who almost wipes out each character one by one. The characterisation in the novel is excellent, which it has to be to carry off this kind of narrative. The threads that link each character are cleverly achieved: R Tranter coaches Farooq al-Rashid on how to meet the Queen to receive his OBE, while John Veale’s son ends up in the hospital under threat of a bomb attack after a drug related meltdown. It is the complex but believable twisting of the narrative that makes this compelling reading and ends us at the Tory dinner party where the different threads come together and the characters finally meet. I think the highlight of the book for me was the final dinner party. A drunken speech by one of the lesser characters, Roger Malpasse, hammered home Faulk’s personal opinion on the banking crisis and stood apart from the one-sided version of the saga we’d seen from Veale’s side. This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Faulks and I found it a compelling tale of contemporary London, using a clever and original narrative. I thought the author excelled at research, giving us an insight into worlds we may only otherwise glance at in the pages of the daily newspaper. The plotting impressed me and the pace didn’t falter throughout the book, the differing threads moved at a good pace but never confused me. For anyone who enjoys a
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high-paced thriller, with messages of morality throughout, this is a definite must-read.
Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre Review by Danny Gillan Rating: Logodaedalus
Normally with a new Brookmyre novel, the controversy comes via whatever is the latest target for his generally hilarious satire – he’s had a go at religion, politics, privatisation, bigotry, the polis, devolution, reality TV, the privatisation of the NHS, Glesga gangsters, primary school and even aliens in the past, and his aim has never been less than scathingly accurate. This time though, the talking point is something different – it’s that there is, very deliberately, no talking point (apart from changing his name from Christopher to Chris, obviously). He’s given up the satire if not the sarcasm this time round, in an effort to write a more ‘pure’ form of crime fiction. Gone are the rants and digressions, he’s said cheerio to the overtly comic set pieces and global terrorism, there are no incomprehensible (to some) neds or apparently super-powered computer geeks. This one’s just a crime story. A Mystery. A whothefuckdunnitthen, if you will. But surely, you may say, those were all the things that made him, well, him. That’s what made him different, special, what lifted him above all those other writers who just kill people at the start then let some detective work out who did it for the next three hundred pages. Well, no, as it happens. Because, beneath the humour and the pokey finger, what Brookmyre has always been is a damned good crime writer. His plotting, pacing and twistyturniness have always been there. More than that, though, his characters have always been there. He’s a master of creating people we care about – often flawed, usually making dumb choices and always folk we’d be happy to share a pint with once the dust has
settled and the baddies have gone to whichever hell they deserve. In Where The Bodies Are Buried, these are the things he’s focused on – a top rate mystery/ thriller populated by characters with lives and histories that explain their actions, forward the plot and, now and them, make us want to give them a wee hug. It’s about a dead drug dealer and Detective Catherine McLeod’s efforts to find the killers. McLeod doesn’t have a drink or drug problem and is happily (most of time) married. She has kids who wake her up in the middle of the night and worries about the same stuff the rest of us do, while trying to do her job. Oh, and she hates gangsters. Really hates them. And it’s about Jasmine Sharp, drama student dropout and fledgling private investigator, whose fledges get even more inged when her mentor, boss and uncle, Jim Sharp, disappears. No one else is looking into it, so she has to. Jim’s the guy who pays the wages and if he doesn’t turn up soon she’s going to be in bother with her landlord. And it’s about the mysterious Tron Ingrams, whoever the hell he is. Then there’s the Ramsay family, who disappeared years ago. Plus it’s about quite a few other people, many of whom don’t last very long. It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, disguised as a fish supper, as Catherine and Jasmine’s separate inquiries slowly lace together. Where The Bodies Are Buried works on pretty much every level Brookmyre strives for – the plot keeps you guessing and leads to a fair few unexpected revelations, and he establishes a core group of characters we’ll be more than happy to follow into their next adventure. Plus, and he may not want to hear this, it’s still funny! His mastery of natural, sarcasmlaced dialogue is as evident as ever and he can’t quite manage to keep his ‘old’ self out of the prose and descriptions completely. We should be glad about that. Brookmyre has made no secret that this novel marks a new chapter in his writing career. Just as should be expected from an author of his talent, this first chapter does its job superbly – we want to keep reading.
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Which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels won her the Costa award? (3, 4, 4, 5, 4, 4) A logical paradox (5, 2) These days he might be Chuck D (7,7) Melanie Wilkes’ frenemy (8, 5) Orma Marthy is missing the seas, we hear (6,8) The bell tolled for him in 1961 (6, 9) Safety feature evokes Dostoevsky (4,4) Who is French author, Elisabeth Gille’s famous mother? (5, 10) In which country is Alex Garland’s The Beach set? (8) Magical boy plights Perry a troth (5,6) Drunk Welshman has not madly changed (5,6) Where is Steven Conte’s zoo? Australian bushranger whose story won Peter Carey the Booker prize (3, 5).
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Pink hen gets reformed on writing (7,4) What’s special about Brookmyre’s rubber ducks? (10) What nationality is the author of The Thorn Birds? (10) Formal Billy brandishes fruit easterly at playwright (7,11) McCarthy novel is a red hot diversion (3,4) Looks almost like something’s wrong with this writer. Maybe we should give him the bird first (6,4) Political writer’s lower body parts make an offensive noise, we hear. (4,5) Where is Atwood’s tale set? The dog, Timmy, accompanied them on their adventures (3, 6, 4) He became the American boy (5, 5, 3)
If you would like to download and print a copy of the Crossword, visit www.wordswithjam.co.uk/crossword
Dear Ed Letters of the satirical variety
Dear Words With Jam, I am writing to you in desperation and I really hope that either you or one of your readers will be able to help me out with my shameful problem. My son is fourteen and he often reads comics. In public. I am mortified. I’m sure all the neighbours think he’s a simpleton. I’ve tried everything. I even gave him a beautiful limited edition leather bound copy of Ulysses by James Joyce for his birthday, but he didn’t even try to read it. I’m worried that he’ll grow up to be common. What’s next, tattoos? I blame government cuts. (And foreigners, of course). Please help, Mrs U Pherass Dear Mrs Pherass, I just can’t be bothered any more. I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll throw this one out to the readers. Anyone out there want to have a shot at this? Ed Dear WWJ, I read a recent letter you published in your wonderful bi-monthly magazine from a lady who was worried about her son reading comics. I believe I may have a solution for her. Simply ask your son if he thinks Spiderman would read comics. That should sort him out. You’re welcome, S Imples Dear Editor, Upon flicking through this issue of Words With Jam I came across the letter printed at the top of this page. I puzzled over it and then saw that someone had offered what they think is a solution. They said to ask the boy if he thought Spiderman reads comics. Of course, this may only add fuel to the fire for in issue twelve of the Out on a Web series, Spiderman does indeed spend some time reading a comic. It might be better to ask if Superman reads comics, for his alter ego, Clark Kent, is
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a serious investigative journalist who doesn’t hack phones or anything, although he often uses his super hearing and super x-ray vision to find stuff out. I’m not a nerd or anything and I know a girl and everything – this is just information I’ve picked up along the way. Hope this might help, D Ork
Wolverine berserker attack and fucked up those traders in the Temple. Great art work. I also liked the bit where Batman went back in time to do a superhero team up with Jesus and they kicked the shit out of the devil. So, nothing to worry about. May the force be with you, S Ingle
Dear Ed, Sweet Jesus Christ on a donkey in Blackpool. There’s nothing wrong with reading comics. I’ve read them all my life and I turned out just fine. At least he’s reading, right? Tell him to check out Scott Pilgrim – it’s a lot fucking better than Ulysses. Yours truly, Norma L Head
Dear WWJ, I’m writing to tell you of my own shameful addiction to comics. It began with the Sunday funnies when I was maybe five or six. Before long I was reading the Beano on a weekly basis. It seemed like a bit of harmless fun at the time, but make no mistake, it led to harder comics. One of the guys at school gave me a copy of 2000 AD. I should have said no, but I didn’t want to look foolish in front of the other kids. I thought I could handle it. Suddenly I found myself craving more tales of Judge Dredd. It didn’t stop there. I began to read Marvel comics and then DC. I started taking the odd 20p out of my mum’s purse to fuel this addiction. I even began peddling back issues to some of the younger kids in school, getting them hooked too. I went as far as to change my name by deed poll to that of my favourite comic book character. I kept the addiction hidden from my wife, but she knew something was up when I took out that massive second mortgage to get issue one of Spiderman (in mint condition). I lost the house, and my lovely wife. I am now in a twelve step program. My name is Desperate Dan and I have been comic free for thirty seven days. Sincerely yours, Desperate.
Thanks for that, Norma. Seriously. Ed. Dear Sir, I’ve recently been following the series of letters on your Dear Ed page about young teenage boys reading comics with great interest. It’s not a matter to be taken lightly and the lady is right to worry that it could spiral out of control. There was a boy on our street who spent a lot of time with his nose in comics and now he’s gay. Coincidence? I think not. I will remember Mrs Pherass’s son in my prayers. Sincerely hoping she finds a solution soon, God bless you. Kat Olic Dear Words, I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels since childhood. Mrs Pherass might be interested in knowing that lots of regular novels have been faithfully adapted to this format, many very successfully. I haven’t come across a GN of Ulysses, but there’s definitely a few Bible ones. I’ve only read one of them, but there was a great bit when Jesus did a
Good luck, Desperate. Thanks for sharing that with us. I hope you can patch things up with Mrs Dan. Ed
The Rumour Mill
sorting the bags of truth from the bags of shite
Heard a rumour but you’re not sure if it’s a bag of truth or just a big bag of shite? Send it to us and we’ll get our top investigative journalist Kris Dangle to look into it for you. A taxi driver told me the reason there’s a global financial crisis is because all the expendable money in the world has been given to JK Rowling. Could there be any truth to this statement? Although taxi drivers are normally absolutely spot on with their opinions, I’m afraid this one is a bit wide of the mark. Apparently the problem really began when The Da Vinci Code soared to the top of the charts in Greece.
While recently on a trip to London I was surprised to hear from the gentleman driving our cab that scientists now believe the rising water levels in the world have not actually been caused by global warming, but by irresponsible children throwing stones into the sea? Is this the case? While Archimedes Principle states - Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid – and so, therefore, every stone thrown into the sea would indeed add to the overall volume, you have to remember one thing – your driver is a cock.
Is it true that News Corporation, whose main UK subsidiary is News International, also own Harper Collins? Yes. Yes it is.
I’ve heard that the government are attempting to quantify how many fucking morons there are in the country by having reporters stand in front of a camera in the street and then using facial recognition technology to identify the gormless twats who gather behind them. This can’t be true, can it? This one has been doing the rounds ever since the latest FaRT (Facial Recognition Technology) known as IdentiArsehole came onto the market. This system is rumoured to be set to replace the old analogue version which consisted of taking a room full of people and offering them a free bar and just taking the names of those who made pigs of themselves, but we’ll have to wait and see.
I’m not sure, but I thought I heard someone say that Pixar have made Cars II. That can’t be right, can it, considering the first one was such a pile of terrible shite? It is true, yes. Other sequels to shit movies that are currently in the pipeline include an additional new Star Trek movie featuring the new cast, and Pirates of the Caribbean V after which Johnny Depp will be making a sixty foot statue of himself dressed as lovable pirate Captain Jack Sparrow out of money.
Horoscopes by Shameless Charlatan Druid Keith This month I’ll be delving into your Zodiacal personality and suggesting other things you might like to have a go at believing in. There are many brilliant beliefs out there and not only are all of them completely one hundred per cent real, but once you believe in them yourself, and with the rise in popularity of supernatural fairs etc, you may be able to turn these beliefs into a handy little earner. LEO - Your palliative and loving nature means you can’t bear to idly stand by while others are suffering, which is no surprise as your house is ruled by Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing. You also possess the ability to keep a straight face while talking about chakras and energy grids. As such, you would be wholly suited to a career in the art of healing crystals. All you need is a few bits of different coloured crystals, a crystal wand, and a cd of whale song and you’ll be making money hand over fist before you know it. VIRGO - Your dazzling empathy and ability to reach people at an emotional level leaves you perfectly positioned to get money from people by taking photographs of their Auras. Once they’ve heard your sales pitch gullible people everywhere will be falling over themselves to hand over twenty quid a throw for a dodgy Polaroid. You could probably even get them to chuck you an extra eighty to hold your hands over their head and hum a bit while you ‘energise’ their Aura. LIBRA - You have the ability to be acutely aware of how very small things can have an impact on the wider world. Even tiny things can tip the balance of your Librarianist scales. To this end, why not look into Hahnemann’s law of similars (often known as – Let like be cured by like) and get into homeopathy. Once you’ve got access to water and a few bottles you’ll be on your way to fortune in no time. One word of caution though – there are some things that can’t be cured in this way. Gun shot wounds, for example can’t be cured by shooting the person again with a tiny gun that’s been diluted with the sea. SCORPIO - As a Scorpionianist, you, more than any of the other children of the zodiac, are likely to be gifted with second sight. With a little hard work and determination you’ll be able to sense, and possibly even see, ghosts and other presences that are hanging about people’s houses. Obviously, you may have to convince the (living) residents who don’t have your amazing gifts that their house is full of spirits who’ll chop them up while they sleep (as all lingering spirits are unhappy and used to be axe murderers while alive) so get them to turn off all the lights and then speak really quietly for a minute before you freak out in the pitch dark while being possessed. This should scare the shit out of them enough to hand over a few quid for an Exorcism. Happy days. SAGITARIUS - Your caring, sensitive nature and ability to always look for the best in people is because you are deeply aware of the guardian Angel who is always at your side, guiding you through the good times and comforting you through the bad. With just a little practice you will be able to hear them talking. Once you’ve developed this talent why not have a go at talking to other peoples and let your own angel set the fee.
CAPRICORN - Your fine enquiring mind and ability to niggle out the facts means you would be well suited to joining a religion. There are loads out there to choose from so don’t be afraid to shop around. And remember, if normal religions don’t seem far fetched enough, there’s always Scientology. Once you’ve got the basics why not make up your own version and get others who like your religion to pay for a new roof on your house or any other building work you might like to have done. AQUARIUS - Aquarius, when put through the scientific rigors of numerology, ends up being the number eight which, as we all know, stands for power and sacrifice. So, not only would your star personality lend itself to Numerology, but also to ritually sacrificing animals with power tools. This may not make you a fortune though, unless you’re an unconventional butcher of some sort. PISCES - Of all the children of the Zodiac, Piscesianists have the chance for the quickest route to financial reward through their beliefs because you are someone who can really believe in Cosmic Ordering. All you have to do is write down what you want and wait for it to happen. It’s that simple. So, why not write down your lottery numbers and then you can happily piss all of your life savings away while you wait for the big money to start rolling in. Remember, if you don’t win it’s because you don’t believe enough. ARIES - Although you can be very literal minded and like mostly to believe in things you can see and touch, and things that are obviously true (like horoscopes), you also have an extremely creative side which allows you to take things to the next level. Why not start off with something simple like convincing a few people down the pub that speed cameras are really just a stealth tax on normal citizens who have every right to drive as fast as they like whenever they want and before you know it you could be setting up and collecting membership fees to your local anti Windfarm group. TAURUS - Your ability not to punch people in the face who ask inane questions all the time means you would be perfect working with children. You would be well suited to the belief that children should be allowed to set their own boundaries even if that means ruining the evening of everyone else in the restaurant. GEMINI - Geminianists are well known for their quick wits and fiery personalities, but did you know that they are also, with very little training, able to find water that’s buried deep underground with just a couple of sticks? And metal too, including gold! This might sound mental, but it’s totally true. It’s called dowsing. You might be surprised just how many people there are out there who would be willing to give you money to watch you use your supernatural talent in their field and who don’t think it’s such a load of bollocks. CANCER - Believe it or not, all Cancerianists have the ability to commune psychically with animals. Fact. You may have gotten through your life so far without realising where those voices were coming from, but you’re not going crazy; it’s just that you’ve been tuning in to the thoughts of animals. Cats are easiest to practice on, but don’t try it in front of Christians or they’ll burn you at the stake quicker than you can say ‘I’m not a witch!’ Once you’ve got the hang of cats move onto dogs. There are plenty of people out there who already spend foolish money on their pets so don’t be afraid to charge mental money. Psychic powers like this aren’t cheap to maintain, after all.
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Words with JAM Copyright ÂŠ 2011 Quinn Publications The contributors assert the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the authors of this work. All Rights reserved. All opinions expressed in Words with JAM are the sole opinion of the contributor and not that of Quinn Publications or Words with JAM as a whole. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the individual contributor and/or Quinn Publications, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Distributed from the UK. Not to be resold. Editor: JD Smith email@example.com Deputy Editors: Lorraine Mace firstname.lastname@example.org Danny Gillan email@example.com
Published on Jul 31, 2011
It’s that time again! August is upon us and you know what that means – another issue of everyone’s favourite organ, Words with JAM. Some may...