Monday, 23 March 2015

Standpoint - when characters come to life


The first time I thought my Brit thriller, Standpoint, might have legs was when I had an argument with the main character in a car. Yes, I know how ridiculous that looks on a screen, but it's what happened. It was during a novel writing summer school tutored by Jane Pollard at University College Falmouth.

On the very first day two important things happened that had a profound influence on my writing. The first was that Jane told us we'd never write our books the same way again - this, was me, was absolutely true. The second occurred when each of the class outlined their book's plot and themes. When it came to my turn - a tale of a 20-something who leaves London to start a new life in the USA* - she asked who the antagonist was and I said 'life'. She suggested that idea might not be suitable for this course and that I'd be better coming up with a completely new idea.

My first response was one of panic. However, the day's exercises were really useful and when she asked those of us without a clear storyline to think about it overnight I went away confidently. One of the techniques I've used to write short fiction is to listen for 'the voice'. It's a little like meditation, except you have a different expectation when you start and a different focus during each session. It doesn't always work, but I have had good results from time to time. When there's simply no voice present at all, I sometimes used my mind's eye to focus in on an imaginary person, or an object.

There was no voice, only a character reluctant to speak with me. Why? He was busy! So began my introduction to Thomas Bladen. He was taking photographs and keeping records, and it was his job; this gave me a starting point. Once we'd got into some sort of dialogue he told me he was from Yorkshire, which I'd only been to once, as well as his age and the important relationships in his life.

By the next morning, on the drive over to Falmouth, Thomas and I were discussing aspects of this new book. The fact that his character arrived largely fully formed made the process of developing the book more like a voyage of discovery (or investigation!) than one of invention. Of course, not everything played out on the page exactly like the early discussions, but still remember his voice in my head as I parked up on day two of the course, insisting that he wanted a helicopter! Did he get it? You'll have to read Standpoint to find out.

What's your process or technique for creating new fiction from scratch?

Standpoint is published by Joffe Books.

You can find it on Amazon, here for the UK and here for the US
Can one good man hold the line without crossing it?

* Scars & Stripes is now a completed standalone comedy drama, in need of an agent or publisher - I'm just saying... 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Partial eclipse of the heart

The important thing about today's partial eclipse (let's face it - an almost total eclipse, percentage-wise) is that it doesn't happen very often. Anne and I headed to a little-used beach on the north coast and breathed in the sea salt, up on the headland. 

The only person on the beach below was a woman with her dog. She climbed up the path and spoke with us a few minutes before the 'big moment'. She said that she took her dog to the beach every day before work and I thought what a lovely way it was to start your day.

Lacking a quality camera (you may recall that I smashed the last one trying to take pictures of bright green seaweed at Lamorna), we relied on an iPad screen. The image above doesn't really capture the moment pictorially but I like it anyway because it captures a moment. There's a burst of sunlight in the centre and a teeny image of the eclipse, partway through, to the left. I think it's some kind of reflection, but I'll leave that one to the photographers to explain.

Like I said, it's a moment - the two of us peering at the sun on a screen, my hands becoming colder and colder, the still earth at our feet and the breeze bringing in the scent of the sea. Earth, water, fire and air - it has all the elements of all the elements!

I couldn't help thinking that - just like the sequence of near identical images I'd captured on the Pad - we exist in a series of moments, each one slightly different or dramatically different. We like to think that we have autonomy and self-determination, and sometimes that's true, but often we can only choose to be fully present. That was about the time I put the screen away and just breathed in the moment with Anne. That's the point at which, further down the line, stories are created.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Yoga of Writing

Go with the flow?
Writers seem to occupy that curious hinterland between the potential and the actual. We create characters and give them life on the page, and worlds to roam, in the hope that someday other people will visit them to read about their adventures and dilemmas. It's not a given though and for every book that's out there - whether or not it's doing well - you can get your last sixpence that a whole shelf's worth of books never saw the light of day for one reason or another. 

It's arguably a huge leap of faith to start that first sentence and then progress to the end. And that's before the baying hounds of commercial reality and the critics come a-calling. 

There is also a deeper, dare I say it, spiritual side to writing. 

I was in a yoga class for the last couple of weeks (don't too impressed - I have the hip and shoulder flexibility of hardened asphalt) and our teacher, Indra, said something that really struck a chord. He talked about what yoga is and that the physical postures were only an aspect of good practice, to be combined with the breath and awareness. Otherwise, he said, you're just making shapes.

Later, at home with a hot chocolate and biscuits (what better reward for a yogic workout?) I thought about how that approach might apply to writing. Like yoga, writing can be a process of development - and by that I mean development for life. Writers can create good prose, craft  cunning plot lines and sculpt characters that live on long after the book is closed. That's all great and worthy of a book sale. However, the deeper side of writing, extolled and examined in books like The Artist's Way, is that we get to grips with ourselves. 

Some of that introspection and reflection will find its way on to the page, but whether it does or not we grow as a consequence. Now, I know that self-actualisation and the cult of the self is often frowned upon as navel gazing. (My brother used to say I wanted to find myself and maybe I should try one of the cupboards.) 

Writing's all about the words, isn't it? I'm not so sure. 

In yoga, the breakthroughs I've had have been small insights or tiny physical adjustments that teach me something about myself (and not always something good!). Writing offers the same rewards. It can be therapeutic, challenging and bring out our insecurities, competitiveness, focus and compassion. 

When you strip back all the tools and techniques, all the clever strategies and the yardsticks that we measure ourselves by - and beat ourselves up with - we are simply in a class of one. We don't even have to learn if we don't want to. But if we dig deep, beyond the stories that are easiest and safest to tell, we may just find some treasure to share with our readers. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Farewell to Musa


Tomorrow marks the end of Musa Publishing. Although I’d had some short fiction in anthologies and on websites, Musa was the first publisher to put my work out as books. Initially I was hesitant because ebooks were a new venture for me, but what won me over was their warmth,  organisation and openness. It wasn’t just a business it was a also a thriving community of authors, sharing tips, support and experience.

The Silent Hills is a 5000 word suspense story and I was surprised when they took it on as a standalone work. In hindsight it may have been due to their generosity of spirit and desire to build a list than for any commercial potential because, although well-received  and reviewed, The Silent Hills failed to really establish an audience.

However, what TSH did do was get me involved in the Musa community. I met authors of genres I’ve never been near – LGBT, Regency Romance and Erotica, to name but three – and found that our similarities as writers are much greater than our differences. Whatever the genre, the requirements of good writing are the same – always have been and always will.

TSH also gave me the confidence to try something different. Next time I wrote Superhero Club, a children’s book for a mid-grade audience. If anything this book was even more of a challenge because it dealt with bullying, food issues and the value of friendship. It was, once again, a story that wrote itself. An added complication for the book was that it was firmly set in the UK, but Musa’s house style was US English.

SC came out about a year after TSH and barely made sales into double figures. It could be that the subject matter was too close to home for the target readership. I did contact a variety of youth organisations, but either the timing was wrong or the staff had any pressures and priorities. I mention all this because I recognised (and still do!) that any publisher can only do so much. Every author must play their part in actively marketing their books and the more creative the approach the better.

I didn’t submit another book to Musa. I was thinking about a sequel to SC, but that would have been in the autumn. I didn’t part with any full-length novels because I thought the house style would make edits a nightmare. Editing was always a collaborative experience, so I had some idea of what I might be taking on!

All of which is a way of saying I had less to lose with Musa with my books, but I was fully committed to their cause. It was a virtual place of passion and enterprise with an online infrastructure that’s unmatched by anywhere else I’ve seen. Musa have been responsible for dozens of books and dozens of first-time authors. It’s to the credit of the team that they are ending Musa precisely because they have been unable to run it along commercial lines. In the meantime royalties have always been paid and everyone that I’ve spoken with in the Musa family has felt a genuine sense of loss and admiration for the dream that has now come to an end.

Time is running out if you want to grab yourself an ebook bargain. Naturally I’d be delighted if you picked Superhero Club, but I also encourage you to check out the wider Musa site to see if anything takes your fancy.

Thank you, Musa, for everything, and good luck to my fellow Musan authors out there.

“Nothing good is a miracle, nothing lovely is a dream.”
   Richard Bach,   Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah


Monday, 23 February 2015

TIme and Tide and Recovery


Back in the Dark Ages, when I was in Junior School, they would occasionally wheel out a large television and we’d watch part of a series that was considered both entertaining and educational. From what I recall, we never got to see a whole series – perhaps two or three episodes at most (out of six, I think). 

One series involved an alien child – you knew he was an alien because his face and clothes were silver – befriended by an Earthling child and trying to escape the clutches of someone in authority. Yes, it does sound a little like ET.

I have very little recollection of the other series, apart from the ending! A group of children have followed clues to a small box hidden in a garden, possibly in a rockery, and inside the box there’s a note that reads: Time does not stand still. As a child this was not the kind of treasure I wanted to find. 

However, as well as not remaining static time can bestow perspective. History, I once scribbled into a notebook, is just a series of stories we tell ourselves over and over again. Ask someone else and the history changes. Time changes history not only because there may be more facts and less propaganda as the years roll on, but also as a consequence of the context changing.

What’s this got to do with writing? Quite a lot and not much, depending upon your perspective.

I had a bout of flu recently, which is still taking its toll (rambling alert), but I can now see some improvement every day. I spent the first day of proper sickness in bed – I haven’t done that since I was a child. When it comes to flu, you know the drill – shivers, sweats, headaches, pains in the teeth, the jaw, behind the eyes (I also had them for a day or three before), sneezing, coughing, nausea, no sense of taste and a total loss of appetite. I also had tinnitus, which included repetitive noises – sometimes like music or machinery – and repetitive thoughts. 

Sleeping for maybe an hour at a time, sometimes far less, your perception of time itself changes. Even my dreams were on a loop. I approached the same wall at least half a dozen times and I can’t get past it. (Yes, I am a fan of John Wyndham’s novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, as well as the 1960 film, Village of the Damned – I like your thinking!)

Not really eating and not really sleeping, apart from feeling very debilitating, can act like a detox because your mind begins to empty. Precepts and concepts that seem inviolable peel back with ease like a banana. 

I’m not going to lie to you – as soon as I became cogent, or something very like it, I checked my emails. Much of it, while not exactly spam, was not really relevant. The bulk of that was elective, perhaps when I was interested in specific information about ebook marketing, business models, entrepreneurship, marketing, governmental policy, civil liberties, cyber-security and all the other good stuff I read about for business and pleasure.

But…when you only have five minutes of focused attention it tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. What I did with my five minutes was this:
1.    I updated a freelance profile to show I was ill with flu and therefore all work was suspended.
2.    I changed my preferences and eradicated around 50% of all not really relevant emails. I’ll take a view on the other stuff when I want to take a closer look at it.

In my next five minutes of clear thinking, which doesn’t include the time slot where I just felt sorry for myself and was only slightly amused by Anne coughing like a distressed sea lion (of course, she had the flu first…), I did some actual thinking.

Writing requires introspection, and lots of it, not only so that you can trace the muse through the wondrous forest of your own imagination (where both fiction and non-fiction are born), but also so that you can get your head around the other stuff that fits around your writing and connects you to the world – preferably the parts that wants to buy your work.

Illness, however, doesn’t believe in media campaigns and schedules. It has ‘missing out syndrome’ pegged: you can’t miss out if you’re not really interested.

The world, of course, goes on without you and you might lose a little business. Then again, that can happen any day of the week. I think I might have lost a job not so long ago over less than a penny a word, although that might have been the flu addling my pitching technique.

Where was I? Yes, don’t wait until you’re unwell to stand back and take stock. Make time to regularly ask yourself the difficult questions:
1.    What sort of writer have I become?
2.    What sort of writer do I want to be?
3.    How am I measuring my success?

That last point is all-important. In business we’re told that the bottom line is profit and loss. Well, yes, as a business; but not as a human being. If you’re so focused on leverage and margins and all the other stuff that can make being in business so interesting that you don’t see the bigger picture, you’re really missing out on something vital.

Writing makes writers what they are, but it doesn’t make them who they are.

Put your pen down; turn off your tablet, desktop, laptop, or smart phone. Live. Before you do, here’s something to ponder:

There will never be another day exactly like today, so what will you do to distinguish it from all the others?

Look alive, people – spring is coming. It’s time for some changes, and some more vitamin C.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

All For One - Anthologies


One of the more obvious challenges a writer faces is how to fill a book. Ask any novelist and they will likely tell you that the second half of a novel is easier to write because the characters and plot are already well established, and part two is often largely about resolving the consequences of part one.

For those who pen shorter material, although there are competitions and magazines out there eager for flash fiction or 2000 words on a theme, putting together a collection of stories for publication can seem onerous because short fiction can be a hard sell.

One solution is to create or contribute to an anthology, showcasing the work of several writers. Books can be themed or stand as a general celebration of the art of short fiction. (If you thought sculpture was difficult, try sculpting a 250-word piece.) Anthologies are also a blessing for those writers who are uncomfortable in the spotlight – there may be more of those than you think!

Other advantages of a multi-writer anthology

-       You have more chance of filling a book.
-       Individual writers can focus on a small number of contributions.
-       You automatically start off with a group of people keen to spread the word.
-       Those same people (unless they all live on the same street) are likely to have separate communities, increasing the potential for word-of-mouth recommendations.
-       Every author is likely to buy at least one copy* so that ought to get the ball rolling.

The challenges of a multi-writer anthology

-       There may be differences of opinion in the editing process, unless you have clear ground rules or an editor-in-chief.
-       Some contributors may not want or be able to get involved in the marketing of the book.
-       There has to be a running order, preferably one that’s carefully balanced.
-       Erm…the money.

Anthologies can be funded in several ways. Costs can be shared among the contributors (in which case it might be wise to agree a set word count for each story). Grants may be available, especially if it’s a thematic anthology or raises funds for a particular cause – the Arts Council is a good place to start in the UK. There’s still the faint possibility of anthologies being funded by publishers in what used to be called the traditional way with contributors receiving royalties from sales. There’s also the buy-out option where writers are paid a one-off fee to use their material in perpetuity.

If you’re funding the book yourself / yourselves, costs can be reduced by publishing as an ebook (if you have the time and the know-how, your only expense will be the cover design), or by producing a Print-on-Demand version.

I’ve been fortunate to contribute to four anthologies.

Beyond the Horizon is a general fiction anthology published by Bamboccioni Books. I contributed a sci-fi tale, in the spirit of Asimov, Rogue, about what it means to really live.









The Coffee Shop Chronicles Vol 1 (Oh the Places I Have Bean) is a themed anthology about coffee from A Word with You Press. It contains a mixture of anecdotes, poetry and fiction celebrating the much-loved** caffeine creation. I was one of four editors and my fiction contribution is Diner, a short tale about relationships, lies and self-deceit.








Kissing Frankenstein in a general fiction anthology published by Flash-Fiction South West. I contributed some really short pieces (some only six words long) and my main piece, Between the Lines, was a story about taking chances.








Miracles of Kindness is a themed anthology contains anecdotes about…well…kindness. My contribution, The Street Angel, is about the folly of first impressions when I found myself stranded in Chicago late one night.

My plan, later this year, is to put together an ebook anthology of my own work. Entitled Into the Void and sporting a stylish cover design supplied by www.goonwrite.com, it will feature a mixture of favourite pieces, new material and experimental work.









* Not always though. I know of an anthology where the contributors received a small buy-out fee and a significant proportion of writers never bought a copy.

** Although, ironically, not by me.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

And now for some good news...

Branching out.

I'd planned to post something about anthologies, but that will have to wait. Why? I'll tell you because a lot has been happening. No, I haven't finished the first draft of The Caretaker yet. However...drum roll....


I signed a contract recently with Joffe Books for my two Brit thrillers, Standpoint and Line of Sight to be published as ebooks. They also have the first option on the other three books in the Thomas Bladen series. The Caretaker is the next in line, so that rather creates a welcome sense of urgency.

Another nugget of positivity was seeing a letter of mine in the Winter 2014 edition of the Society of Author's journal, The Author.

Writers spend much of their times in their heads, or facing a page / screen. After that it's a strange and often bewildering journey to get a response, never mind personalised feedback you can actually work with.

How wondrous and stranger still to receive an invitation to submit something and then, after a few weeks and some rapid emails back and forth, an offer of a contract.

The blank page still needs to be faced every writing day and I'm the same person I ever was (although, it has to be said, there's a little spring in my step now). However, now, for the first time in quite a while, I'm eager to see what the edits look like from someone in the industry - what they read into the stories and what they think does or not suit the market. 

As far as I'm concerned I've written my book/s I wanted to write, so bar a culling of any of my favourite characters, I'm open to any improvements that will turn a writers' tale into a commercial novel.

If you write short fiction or novel length stories, is there anything you draw the line at when it comes to other people's edits?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Spotlight on the International Freelancer - Mridu Khullar Relph

While there is no magic bullet for freelancing success there is a wealth of useful information out there online. So much so that sometimes it's hard to know what to download and where to spend your valuable reading time. You need a filter and the one that I use can be summed up in a single word: character

I like to spend my time with people who not only inspire me but whose writing gives me a flavour of who they are. As a general rule, I don't do corporate (which comes as no surprise to anyone who knew me in my BT days).

Mridu Khullar Relph is an international writer and entrepreneur that I always make time for. She has her own way of doing things and talks about the writer's life as well as how to get the right words on paper / screen. 

Happily, she has made time for me too and agreed to do this interview. Have a read, check out the links, and add her to your resource list.
1. As an international journalist and writer, how did you compete in a global market when you first started out?

Looking back, I think I stood out because I was constantly coming up with new and interesting stories from India that my editors had never heard of or seen published elsewhere. At least in my early years, if a major publication had covered a story, I almost never went near it. Instead, I made it my goal to find stories that hadn’t been told before. One year, I traveled across India trying to find stories of women who were doing unique and interesting things and many of them had never been told before. I’d also try to take major news stories and find slants or angles to them that made them unique. This frequently allowed me to break into publications such as TIME and The New York Times.

I’ve found that often, it’s about the story. Find a good one and most editors will have a hard time saying no.  


2. Following on with the international theme, some freelance sites are being criticised for passively encouraging a ‘lowest bid’ approach to secure jobs on offer. Obviously, in a market that embraces different economies, pricing and budget will always be relative. How might authors based in the Western hemisphere gain an edge if they cannot compete on price?

An experienced professional is an experienced professional no matter where in the world you live and in my understanding, high-quality professional writers who live in Asia and Africa frequently charge equal to, if not more than, their Western counterparts because we’re so rare and because we have to work so hard to negate these perceptions of low-quality work based on our location. I never recommend competing on price, no matter where in the world you are.

Compete, instead, on quality. Come up with the best story ideas, write perfect drafts, deliver your work on time, speak to your editors, go above and beyond for them, especially when you’re new to the craft and still learning the ropes. Build relationships, not only with editors but other writers. Share information. Be generous. Give referrals freely. Work hard. Keep learning. Keep practicing. Treat every assignment as if it were paying $1 a word. Never get cocky.

That’s it. It’s pretty simple, really.


3. Do you approach your non-fiction and your fiction differently in terms of time management, headspace and creativity?

Absolutely. I treat my non-fiction, which mostly comprises freelancing at this point, as a business because it is what pays my bills and helps buy chew toys for the dog. So I approach it exactly how a person should approach a business - I run my numbers regularly, I don’t accept work below a certain rate, I’m always careful to carve out time for marketing, and I’m aware that I need to make a certain amount of money per week or month for me to consider freelancing a sustainable way of making a living.

My fiction, on the other hand, makes no money at this point in time and so I treat it more like a hobby or a side project that hasn’t quite taken off. I’ll often write in bed, frequently only when the mood strikes, and there are long periods when I have to neglect it entirely. That’s fine for now, but I’m hoping that at some point in the next two years, my fiction will start making money, too, and at that point I will certainly start approaching it differently.


4. Are there any places in the world you would particularly like to live in and why?

I’m currently dividing my time between my two favorite countries - India and the UK. For now, that works perfectly for me and is the perfect blend of east and west that I like. 


5. What motivates you to write so much content for free, and do you feel writers at the beginning of their journey should try it?

I’m assuming you mean my blog because I don’t ever write for free, nor do I ever endorse that anyone do so.

I started writing my blog back in 2002 when I was first starting out in freelancing. I kept it up intermittently, sharing personal experiences of my travel and things I was learning about the freelancing business as a solo female traveler and a journalist writing for international publications from India. At the time, I seemed to be the only one successfully doing so, and I wanted to share the lessons I learned with people who were following my work, mainly freelancers from countries in Asia and Africa. In fact, many of my readers did go on to write for The New York Times and TIME magazine and it encouraged me to continue sharing those tips, something I do to this day.

In fact, so popular did my little advice blog become that it has actually now become its own website—The International Freelancer (http://www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com). On my own website and personal blog, I’ll continue sharing lessons that have to do with my career and sharing notes about my journeys in the writing world and life. 


6. You write about creativity - is there any book you return to time and again to call out to the muse?

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a perennial favourite not only because she’s so straightforward with the truth about the writing life, but because she does it with so much humor and depth. I love re-reading this book every few years and it never fails to inspire.


7. There are some writers - I’m one - who are happy to write about deeply personal experience. Where would you draw the line in your writing?

I draw the line at family, I think. While I do write about my life and of course, that involves my family, I’m always careful to tell my story and not theirs. My husband is actually pretty open and doesn’t mind my writing about us and our life at all, so it usually does come down to me where that line is and I tend to be cautious more often than not. I won’t often write about my son.

I used to write a lot of essays when I first started writing but lately, I’ve found fiction to be a lot more effective and engaging form of telling parts of my own story.


8. Have you had any success syndicating your work in print? If so, any tips?! I hold my hand up - this one is specifically for me, as I have a back catalogue of Green Living humour pieces that I’d love to find a second home for!

Unfortunately, no. That’s one area I’ve never actually pursued and know very little about.


9. Where can we find out more about your writing?

My personal portfolio is at my personal website, www.mridukhullar.com, but I also run a website for freelance writers and journalists called The International Freelancer, http://www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com.


10. Are there any other forms of writing you want to try?

I’m very interested in audio at the moment, so learning how to write for podcasts and radio is definitely something I’d love to explore in the coming months and although it’s not writing, I also really like the idea of speaking, so I’ve actively been soliciting opportunities in that area as well.


Visit www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com to download 21 query letters that sold to top publications, including The New York Times and TIME, for free.

Friday, 9 January 2015

When words collide

"With our thoughts we make the world." - Buddha
You'd have to be a hermit not to have heard about the atrocities carried out in France this week, which included the murders of writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo magazine. The media - in print and on our screens - are falling over themselves to debate the issues of free speech, free expression of ideas, the right to satirise, and also the freedom to hold religious and political views.

Like countless other writers I have watched the debate and the media storm, as well as the international show of solidarity. As a sometime satirist myself, I believe passionately that humour can enable us to confront ideas that we might otherwise shy away from, and to shine a light on the incongruities and paradoxes within us, our beliefs, our language and the societies we inhabit.

Fiction can take us into some very dark and strange places indeed; characters and circumstances which, even if we did not encounter them on the page, already exist in the 'real world'.

For example, writing about violence, weapons, or fear is not a vicarious thrill for me. Having personally experienced physical threats in the past with a hammer, a knife and a gun (not, I hasten to add, as a result of my writing!), I find myself, at times, simultaneously drawn to similar situations on the page and repulsed by them. However, as a thriller writer, with one or two provisos, I allow the story to develop along its own lines. Sometimes we need to be scared, confronted, challenged and even outraged.

I am also aware that the other side of the argument carries some weight. In the workplace bullying is often defined not by the intention of the act, but by how it is experienced by the victim. It can't simply be taken back with, "I was only kidding - I didn't mean it that way." Context cannot be presumed and it's a truism that one can only reason with people who are reasonable.

Where does this leave us as individuals, as writers and as a society? In a word: troubled.

We need open dialogue, recognising that although our similarities will always be greater than our differences, it is those very differences that may us who we are (and who we think we are). 

If there may be one positive to come out of this tragedy I hope it will be an open and adult conversation about what it means to live in a democracy - both the freedoms we enjoy and the responsibilities it places upon us. In the meantime let's all be mindful of the stories we tell and the ones we choose to consume - and occasionally remind ourselves that they are, in fact, just that: stories.