Monday 29 June 2015

The Sun has got His Hat On (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

The sun is shining and we (Little G and I) are hanging out in the park. We have a picnic, some water, some fruit and a selection of toys. Little G is stripped down to her vest and a pair of baggy elasticated trousers. But there is a problem.

The sun is very shiny and Little G won't wear her hat. Now, when I was a baby (in days so far off they probably have some archaeological tag to them), small babies were regularly stripped off and allowed to wander around naked. It was called 'having an air bath' and apparently my Nanny (don't ask) was a strong advocate for the benefits of sunshine on the infant bod.

Sadly, the sun then, like many things, was far weaker, so You must be mad has dinned it into me that Little G needs to wear her lovely flowered sunhat whenever we go out in it. The problem is that Little G just doesn't want to. She hates the strings that tie under her chin. She hates the hat that shades her face.

In the end, tired of picking up the sunhat and replacing only for it to be thrown off again, I tie knots in each corner of a hankie and plonk it on her head. She looks like a total urchin, but she tolerates it. Temporarily.

We finish the picnic, have a few crawling races and head for home. I park the buggy in the living room and unload the remnants of the picnic and Little G, who immediately begins kicking off and pointing at the buggy. I lift her up so that she can show me what's wrong ... a favourite toy has been left ungathered? Nope. She points at the sunhat.

I give it to her. She puts it on, then hurries to the full length mirror, hauls herself to her feet and begins chuckling and admiring herself. All afternoon she potters round happily, playing with her toys and wearing the sunhat. Indoors. 

To be continued ....    .....  

Saturday 27 June 2015

The PINK SOFA welcomes Tom Williams

Writer and blogger Tom Williams and I met via a long comment he left on one of my blogs. Tom writes historical fiction and claims to dislike Twitter. It has been my fixed purpose to disabuse him of this dislike ever since. Tom used to have a pet ferret, but it has now passed on to the great Trouser Leg in the sky.

When not writing his superb books (set during the Napoleonic Wars and featuring British Agent James Burke), Tom and his wife like to go Tango dancing ... something that has really caught the PINK SOFA'S fancy and it has been practicing its swivels and turns in preparation for his visit. 
I asked Tom some questions about himself.

How did you get into writing historical fiction?

I was in Sarawak, in Borneo, and I saw the museum exhibit about the Brooke Rajahs. I was so fascinated that when I came back to England I spent a lot of time researching the life of James Brooke. Eventually I decided that it could be the basis of a novel. (That was hardly an original thought – there have been loads of other books about him.)

How/where do you research your material?
Research used to mean weeks spent in libraries. Thanks to the Internet, I can do a lot of my research from home these days. When I can, I like to visit the places that things happened. The most fun I had was researching Burke in the Land of Silver. I spent a long time poking around the back streets of Buenos Aires and then went riding with the gauchos on an estancia. Finally, because Burke crosses the Andes as the snows are starting, I tried to ride across in the snow. It turns out that's not really possible – but we got a long way. I'm hoping to go and do it in summer next year.

 How long does each book take to write many drafts do you do?

Each one takes about a year. I don't do a redraft from beginning to end. Thanks to the wonders of word processing you can polish and edit and amend all the time. Some things end up in the finished novel pretty well unchanged from the first time I wrote them – others have been written and rewritten until my fingers bleed.

Why don't you self publish?

I enjoy writing. I used to work in magazine publishing and I gave it up to write. If I wanted to work in publishing, I'd have kept my job and made a lot more money. As it is, Accent Press relieve me of the responsibility of editing and formatting and basically getting the book out there, and they give me a lot of support in marketing. Writing can be quite lonely and having a supportive publisher makes a difference.
What's the best/worst thing about being a writer?

I've always wanted to write and now I can afford to indulge myself. It just gives me a lot of pleasure.

Absolutely definitely the worst thing is that increasingly, in order for people to find your books, you have to sell yourself. Like a lot of authors, I'm quite reclusive by nature and the whole business of "the author as brand" is not something I'm comfortable with. Still, I'm here answering your questions, so I suppose it's getting easier.

Name a book that changed your life

Jerusalem the Golden by Margaret Drabble

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Realistically, anyone would die pretty quickly if set down outside their own time period. I can ride (after a fashion), shoot (ditto), I can handle a bow and I know which end of an epee is the pointy one. So I could probably survive an hour or two from the 17th century until the start of the 20th. I really struggle with the 21st century.

What's your most treasured possession?

Anything that connects me to the internet.

You are a great fan of Tango. How did you get into dancing? What do you enjoy about it?

When I was a child I wanted to do ballet, but this was in the north of England in the days before Billy Elliot and my parents dismissed the idea out of hand. God knows why I wanted to – I'd have been terrible at it. Still, there's nothing like being told you can't do something to motivate you. Eventually I took up ice dancing as a socially acceptable alternative and then a friend introduced me to tango and I’ve been dancing it ever since.

What is the one thing that would improve the quality of your life?

Don't tell anyone I said so, but my life is pretty neat as it is.

What keeps you awake at night?

Usually nothing does, but lately I've been worrying about ways to get more people reading my books about James Burke. Most people who do, really rather like them – it's just a case of doing things like this to get them better known.

How do you want to be remembered?

I’d like my family to remember me (which, let's face it, they’re going to) and it would be nice if the books carried on being read for a while, but otherwise I really don't care. People worry too much about what others will think of them when they're dead. I'll be dead – it’s not really going to matter to me.

What would you like to say to your younger self..if you could meet him now?

It doesn't matter – I wouldn't listen.

What advice would you give a writer starting out on their first novel?

If you have to do this stupid thing, do it properly. Write something that's as good as it can be, and then rewrite it. Get your friends to look at it, and then write it again. And bear in mind that you have more chance of winning the lottery than ever reaching the bestseller lists – pretty well regardless of how good you are.

Writing really is a mug's game. Yes, I do enjoy it, but, like most writers, I do it because I have to. It's a sort of mental illness. If this is true of you, welcome to the club. If not, do yourself a favour and take up something saner – like freefall parachuting, or marathon running, or poking sticks in your eyes.

Tom's books & contacts:   

Links are to KIndle, but all the books are available in paperback as well.

If this is all too much, why not link to my Amazon author page? 


Twitter: @TomCW99 

Monday 22 June 2015

An App for Everything (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

They always say you can learn so much from being in the company of small children. To which I would add that most of what you learn is that you know very little. The world that Little G has been born into is so different from mine that I sometimes feel I am living on Pluto.

Take technology - in particular the ubiquitous mobile phone. I have a very basic Nokia phone that does practically nothing and does even that reluctantly. You must be mad has an iPhone and a Blackberry. Both are terror incognita as far as I am concerned.

Little G, however, has no fear of technology. Since I started minding her she has managed to set the alarm on my rubbish phone (twice), silently call some of my friends, and take various pictures of the carpet. OK, admittedly all this was accidental (I think) but the fact that she is happy to play around with a phone that worries me witless speaks volumes.

From a very early age, she also mastered how to push a button on the iPhone that activated a little app sequence of cartoon animals. I would sit staring in amazement as, with one tiny finger, she changed the picture and chuckled.

Actually You must be mad's iPhone has all sorts of apps on it. Games apps, picture apps, number apps, word recognition apps, story apps, and an app that sings nursery rhymes. In theory you could just give Little G an iPhone and let her get on with it. Luckily, nobody has yet invented a cuddles app. So I am still in business.

To be continued ...      ....

Saturday 20 June 2015

Commercial or Self-Published?

With publication of Death & Dominion drawing closer (October 12th), I have been asked once again by several people why I decided to go with a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing, as I did previously with Jigsaw Pieces. It has been pointed out that I am on a % rate, and if I returned to self publishing, I'd make a lot more money. 

Two reasons why I originally made the decision, and am, for now, sticking with it: Firstly, it is all too easy nowadays to write a book, cobble together a cover and upload the finished product to Amazon (actually, it damn well isn't .. as you can read here:). Advances in technology have opened up enormous opportunities for self-publishing that were never there when I started writing books, and that is a good thing.

However, inevitably there is a lot of dross out there and it lets the side down. Poorly written and produced books with typos, badly designed covers, sold at rock bottom prices is not the way I want to go. Despite the many ''Hey, I produced a book for virtually nothing'' blogs, the writers of the best self-published books have usually used beta readers, then paid out for professional editing, proofreading and cover designing. Hats off to them. It is hard work and not easy and having done it once, and not being as young as I was then, I'm not keen to do it again.

Secondly, to be accepted by a commercial publisher is a sign that my work is of a certain standard. Very few writers are now being taken on by the ''big'' mainstream houses. You have to be young, connected to somebody who works in the industry, the possessor of a fabulously interesting/made up back story, or a celeb. It is also harder to find an agent - and agents take upwards of 10% of all royalties earned anyway.

Small independents like Crooked Cat (my publisher) are now the first port of call for those writers who find the big publishing doors slammed shut. The market is changing once more, as evidenced when Crooked Cat recently opened its doors for submissions and was totally taken aback by the inundation of manuscripts. They are in the business of making money, as are all independent publishers and they only take on a small percentage of the writers who apply. I am one of the lucky few.

Even though I am not self-published, I still have a lot of autonomy. I can do whatever I like, publicity-wise, and if you follow me on Twitter (@carolJhedges) you will know that I do. I had very little autonomy with Usborne and OUP and I gather that some big publishing houses like to keep a close eye on their writers so they don't run amok on social media, which could rebound back on them.

I also chose the covers of my books, which remind me of contemporary newspaper headings, or theatrical posters. They are designed by a local graphic artist, who is also a friend. I have been told they are reminiscent of very early Penguin covers. They are certainly quirky and different ... just like the stories .. and, dare I say it, like the author of the stories herself!

So what's your publishing experience? And as a reader you ''prefer'' a book that has a 'proper publisher' behind it? Do share ....


Monday 15 June 2015

Ladies who Lunch (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

On the 2 days that You must be mad entrusts her into my rickety care, I am responsible for Little G's meals from breakfast to dinner. Sometimes I am left instructions as to what is available in the fridge. Sometimes I am left to my own devices.

On Wednesday however, we always go out for lunch. We head for the same place: Wagamama. For those who don't know, Wagamama is a kind of Japanese/Asian upmarket caff. The diners sit on benches at long communal tables. Cutlery is in bamboo holders and there are various beetley coloured sauces.

The good thing about Wagamama, which makes it our default diner of choice, is that it caters for children. We sit in a special area, which has buggy parking, clip on high chairs, crayons and drawing paper. Little G enjoys the odd suck of a crayon while waiting for her meal to arrive.

We are creatures of habit, so we order the same food every week. It saves time. I have a small chicken ramen. Little G has grilled noodles, chicken and grated carrot. It always arrives quickly, which is a Big Plus, as Little G gets miffed if everybody else is tucking into nice food while she has nothing to eat.

Occasionally if Wagamama is full, we have sat in the communal area. This is interesting for us, especially Little G who likes watching people struggling to eat strange green pod-like things with chopsticks, but you quickly become aware that the enjoyment is not reciprocal in that some of the more chi-chi clientele don't like the sight of a 15 month old shovelling chicken and noodles into her mouth with her fingers.

Luckily Little G is far too young to be aware of adult disapproval and as many of the disapprovers drop bits of their lunch all over the table as well, I can't help thinking that at the end of the day there isn't that much difference.

To be continued ...   ...

Saturday 13 June 2015

Serial Killers: A series versus a one-off book?

As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my ex-agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 60+ reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. Grateful as I was to Crooked Cat Books, I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel, Honour & Obey, which was published last November, and Death & Dominion which will appear this November. I have also started writing Murder & Mayhem which will be the fourth outing for Stride & Cully.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out'': after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that, unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book 1 that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't. The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told, though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. I can't see myself getting as far as a fifth book right now. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third. In the meantime, I plot on with book 4, crossing my fingers, hoping that it will avoid the ubiquitous plotholes and that I can pull it off successfully yet again.

So what's your experience? Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts....

Monday 8 June 2015

Parking (Adventures of L-PLate Gran)

When You must be mad was young, the nearest park involved a fifteen minute walk and crossing a very busy road with no traffic island. The nearest open space was actually the local cemetery, which was why You must be mad grew up with a finely tuned sense of mortality and a collection of green gravel.

Cut to today, and Little G lives two minutes away from vast expanses of  lovely green park with a lake, swings and tennis courts. It is our favourite go-to place. The park clientele varies depending on the time of day. If we make an early morning swing run, we tend to see lots of dog walkers, or people using the park as a cut-through to the station.

From mid-morning, the park fills up with tourists (it is adjacent to the Cathedral) and mums with frazzled faces walking their babies to sleep. From three onwards, the park is taken over by children and teenagers enjoying their freedom from the constraints of learning.

Afternoon also brings the ice-cream van.

Now,You must be mad has issued strict instructions about the non-offering of cake and other sweet stuff, so when the recent heatwave lures me into rashly buying myself a dark chocolate Magnum, I have it all planned out. As soon as Little G begins eyeing up the ice cream, I offer her the standard rice cake.

She gives it a withering look, drops it over the side of the buggy and points at the Magnum. I peel off the shiny paper and give it to her to play with. She drops it over the side of the buggy and points at the Magnum. So reluctantly, and telling her it isn't really allowed, I scrape off the tiniest bit of dark chocolate and hand it over.

What happens next completely negates the theory that the sum of its parts is not greater than the whole. Within a nano-second, Little G has chocolate all over her face, all over her hands and in her hair. Also on her 'Everything's Better At Grandma's' top that I like to dress her in for publicity purposes.

I remind myself that one cannot swear in front of a baby. Under the chocolate, Little G's face is a study in blissful contentment. I gulp down the Magnum in record time and we head back for a change of clothes and a wipedown with a warm flannel.

To be continued ...     .....

Saturday 6 June 2015

Invigilator At Large!

Whenever people learn that I invigilate GCSE/A Level exams at a local secondary school, they always respond with: 'Oh, exams were much easier in my day'. Which I translate as: 'the mists of time have blurred my memory of what it was really like.'

OK, some subjects - Modern Foreign Languages and Music for example, are easier, but the peripherals and pressures today are vastly different. Now the cohort of 2015 have to obtain B grades in Maths, Science and English just to get into Sixth Form, which would exclude me for a start as I only got five O Levels, none of them Maths (failed twice) and none of them Science (kicked out for disruptive behaviour).

In 1966, eight subjects was considered the maximum a student could handle. Now, many Year 11s take twelve or more subjects, meaning that they can be sitting as many as four exams in a single day. It's a logistical nightmare. But if you choose to turn your back on education and leave school at 16, there are very few apprenticeships or decent jobs waiting for you.

Even if you decide to stay on to do A Levels, the chances are you will have to pass with top grades to be considered by any decent university. Straight As and A* at GCSE and the same at A Level or you won't get that place you want on the course you have chosen. So no way would I, with my rubbish O Levels be offered an unconditional place to read English & Archaeology at London University, as I was in 1968.

And then after your three years' study, you leave with a debt of £50,000 and no prospect of a well paid job. No wonder every secondary school I know now holds therapy groups for stressed and depressed students. And incidents of self-harming and eating disorders have rocketed.

I was not a 'successful' student measured by today's standards. I wasn't gregarious, I was no teacher's favourite. I spent a lot of time not being there. My interest lay in other areas .... I read voraciously, wrote copiously and thought exams and school were a waste of my time.Today's hot-house system would have consigned me to to life's rubbish heap.

My fear is that it's probably doing just this to many talented teenagers who don't fit into the mould and can't handle the current one-size-fits-all educational treadmill. Easier exams? Possibly. But a far more uncertain future.

Monday 1 June 2015

Ducks Deluxe (The Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Spring is in the air and it is time to hit the park. Not that Little G and I haven't been there before - it is our default location as there is a long hill leading to the lake that generally sends her to sleep on the way down, and gives me arm ache on the way up.

Today armed with the bread crusts that were going to be my lunch but hey, I am prepared to sacrifice nutrition in the cause of a nature lesson, we head down to the lake which is, with the onset of warmer weather, a hive of activity (apologies for mixed metaphor).

Ducks are paddling, ducks are quacking, ducks are flapping, ducks are disputing over lady ducks, ducks are transporting dodgy bits of litter and inappropriate sticks to perilously tenuous nesting sites. Little G and I are entranced.

I park the buggy, and produce the bread bag from some inner crevice. Ducks pause in their various activities and start to foregather. Bread is thrown. I give bread to Little G to throw. She eats it. I throw more bread. I give her more. She eats it. Ducks squabble and fight and knock each other into the water. We run out of bread.

All the way back up the long long hill I feel dizzy and lightheaded. And later, I can't stop fixating about duck. Roast duck. Duck risotto. Crispy duck with Hoisin sauce and sliced spring onions and pancakes ... I must be going down with some kind of mallard imaginaire.

To be continued ....   ....