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NinaMilton

Sabbie Dare and Friends

I have been writing fiction since my reception teacher, Mrs Marsden, put a paper and pencil in front of me. I can remember thinking; What? Do real people write these lovely books? I want to do that! I gained an MA in creating writing and sold my first books for children; Sweet’n’Sour, (HarperCollins) and Tough Luck, (Thornberry Publishing), both from Amazon. I also love writing short stories and they regularly appear in British anthologies. I now write crime fiction, published by Midnight Ink. The idea for In the Moors , my first Shaman Mystery came to me one day, in the guise of Sabbbie Dare. She came to me fully formed and said; “I'm a young therapist, a shaman, and sometimes I do get very strange people walking into my therapy room. Honestly, I could write a book about some of them...” I am a druid; a pagan path which takes me close to the earth and into the deep recesses of my mind. Shamanic techniques help me in my life - in fact they changed my life - although, unlike Sabbie, I’ve never set up a therapeutic practice...I’m too busy writing and teaching creative writing with the Open College of the Arts. I’m a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Although I was born, educated and raised my two children in the West Country, I now live in west Wales with my husband James. IN THE MOORS, the first Shaman Mystery starring SABBIE DARE was released in the US in 2013 and UNRAVELLING VISIONS will be out this autumn, but you can already reserve your copy on Amazon. Join me on my vibrant blogsite, http://www.kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com where I offer students and other writers some hard-gained advice on how to write fiction.

On the Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is known for his gratuitous violence – blood, gore, screaming pain and horribly inflicted death. I’ve seen three of his books as films –  No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. I was determined to see The Road as soon as it came out, as I’m a big Viggo fan, even though I’d already taken the book out of the library sometime before and so knew it would be full of cellars of decomposing bodies – worse – cellars full of living bodies, waiting to die at the hands of the cannibals who imprisoned them. 
 
Reading it once again, on Kindle, I don’t have such a terrible sense of doom, because I know there is a possibly glimmer of light at the very end of the story. This time, I spotted the signals of hope that are lightly threaded through the story. I didn't feel so tense and worried about ‘The Boy' and his future. Even so, it’s The Boy that brings a sense of tension to the story, because he’s the one that’s always asking…is there danger? Don’t lets go in there…what’s that noise, Dad? Are those bad guys? He articulates the fears of the story, while ‘The Man’ constantly reassures his son,…it’s okay…keep moving… This doesn't reassure the reader, though; we know that The Man is equally terrified of everything they may find ahead on their road. Secretly, as the very same concerns as The Boy. In his head, he often asks himself why he’s taking this journey in the impossible  hope of finding warm seas in the south of the USA. But aloud, he simply encourages his son to keep going.  
 
Time moves back and forwards in the story. We see man and boy journey along a bare landscape after a final apocalypse has devastated everything, and, (it feels at first), killed most of the people and possibly all of the wildlife. From the start, I assumed that this devastation is world-wide, although we’re not told this. For a long time we only see man, boy, and the occasional lost soul along the road, while, in his mind, The Man thinks back to before the apocalypse, remembering, in short passages, his wife and their love, her pregnancy, and then the event atomic or natural, whatever has caused this absolute brokenness, and after it, the baby being born, and their decision to try to journey across the land to the sea. Perhaps they hope to get onboard some imagined boat; perhaps he just thinks it will be warmer down there, in contrast to the conditions they travel through, where ash blows all around them, and their shoes are wrapped in sacking against deep snow. 
 
In one flashback we see the wife decide to leave them while they sleep, and go off to her death, her suicide. I found that particularly shocking, and wondered if a woman writer would have imagined this in the same way; women rarely leave their children voluntarily.  So I have to think of this as a writer’s device; McCarthy wanted The Road to be about a boy and a man. I don’t blame him. What he created was powerful reading which, for all its masculine tone, is moving and full of tender love. He gets  right into the head of The Man for most of the time. We never see The Boy’s thoughts, but often McCarthy moves out of the thoughts and immediate perceptions of The Man while  constantly shifting from The Man's warm-hearted love to an more objective viewpoint to observe the savage, dreadful landscape and its inhabitants. 
 
McCarthy injects much power into his writing.  A clever strategy to help this is that he drops all use of speech marks. There are no long dialogues, so they are easily dispensed with, along with some apostrophes, some capital letters and all semi colons.  Alongside this bid for immediacy the use of heightened language, which, as we move away from inner thoughts to McCarthy’s narration, becomes lyrical. He uses this technique because The Man doesn’t have the time or energy to be ‘poetical’ – he’s too exhausted, in fact he’s half dead, even when we first meet him. The two travellers barely have strength to talk; 
[The Boy:] It's really cold
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
Yes.
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We're not going to die. 
 
This becomes one of two main tensions, or questions of conflict, in the book. The first is ‘when will the bad guys come’. They do come, often. The first takes one of the bullets in The Man’s gun; it leaves him with one bullet, which is not enough for him to be able to execute himself and The Boy if they need to die rapidly. It was the one thing that had kept him going…that he had those two bullets. This happens about a 1/4 of the way into the book, and is one of many points in the story where tension…and blood pressure…is raised. The second main question of conflict is ‘will The Man die before The Boy is safe’. There might be a third question, but I found it hard to ask. ‘Will they both die?’ was something I didn't have the heart to think about. I didn’t want to believe even McCarthy could do that to his story, even though I know he can be absolutely brutal in his writing. I know McCarthy wouldn't spare me the honest reality, which was that everyone in that world would surely die. I read on, wondering why I was so hopeful.
 
The story is crisscrossed with the image, and symbol, of roads. The man and boy spend much time on the road, described wonderfully by McCarthy. It is the guideline of the novel, a desolate, transient thing, full of danger. It always points to where they need to go, even though it would be a rare reader who, while reading, sees the point to going there. The road was a physical reality, the ever onward walking, walking, but also a state of mind…the understanding that we see our journey through life as the ‘road ahead’, which we are always taking, until we die. A second symbol of journeying is the shopping cart (supermarket trolley) they push, filled with all their wordy goods. This is their grail, their treasure, and yet it’s almost impossible to drive smoothly along, especially up or down hill, or through snow. As I read, I was always aware of its vital importance. When they hide it to run away from the ‘bloodcults' who form lethal gangs, or to search derelict houses, I worried about the cart, fearing that it would be looted while they are gone. And sometimes, it is. Fire, another symbol used cleverly, punctuates the roadway. They build fire every night, when they can, even though sometimes it might draw the wrong attention. Eventually, The Boy has to leave his father, and The Man lists instructions…keep going south. Keep the gun with you. Find the good guys. But, most important…
You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes, it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
 
McCarthy refuses to let you look away, but at the same time, you’re allowed to, sort of, because the reader is likely to identify deeply with The Boy. Like fire, he is a symbol of hope, and The Man, perpetually tender towards his son, is always making him look away from the grossness of their world, to lie in a ditch, stay out of sight. Their relationship stabilises and motivates the father. Of course it does; The Boy is all The Man has to live for and move forward for. The Boy often uses the word ‘okay’ as if to console, reassure.  An understanding, came right as I began to read that first time. The Boy has learnt quickly. He does not run out of sight, he does not play unless something is initiated by his father. He does not laugh. He is rarely ‘naughty’, but occasionally, he can be cruel to his dad. He has grown old, while still small, and with it, he’s gained amazing wisdom. He’s been born into the post-apocalyptic world and has known nothing but cold, pain, ill health and fear, and yet he’s actually the one that has compassion for outsiders. I found that convincing. Children can be wonderfully ‘self-righteous’, but this compassion seems more than this, as if, with no play and no fun in his life, he’s worked through a philosophy in which kindness is paramount. After all, it’s what he has constantly received from his father, for whom he is a…golden chalice, good house to a god… Hisconstant approach becomes another rich symbol in the book. I began to see The Man as representing the human – the brutal, if sentient, creature with a strong instinct to survive. He keeps going because he must. To do what his wife did is unthinkable, even though he knows there might be a time, if they fell into the hands of a bloodcult, that death would be preferable. But to survive, they cannot show compassion to any outsider. They cannot offer food to the starving, for they are starving too. They cannot stop to help the trapped, or the distressed, because they have no time to waste, and in any case, all others are seen as a threat – best they stay trapped. 
 
The boy, in contrast, has a shining empathy with those in need. He is constantly exploring his father to be benevolent, to show fellow-feeling, to stop, to help, to share what they have. When his father uses the penultimate bullet in the gun to save their lives, The Boy cannot speak or even look at his dad for a long time. Even though it’s clear The Boy, in his young wisdom understands, why The Man has made such rules, he constantly rises above them.
The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He's been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Stop it.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There's nothing to be done for him.
 
To me, The Boy’s response represented the soul within the sentient being, and the core understanding that together, they make up a sort of duality of being human; the father’s brutal drive for survival is an external need, but locked inside is a sort of radiant grace, that links with the way The Man considers The Boy as a chalice. And that’s why I think the book has the end it has – why I didn't need to worry about asking that third, awful question.

McCarthy is a renowned recluse, and would never write a happy(ish) end just because he thought his readership might like it, or because his editor demanded it. I think at the end,  what we see is the body stripped away, and the soul walk out of it. The boy walks into the light, taking the inner fire. As if to prove it, McCarthy finishes the book like this…
 
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional…In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
 

Off the Peg; how Ottessa Moshfegh wrote Eileen



If you’ve been thinking of dashing off a thriller in the hope of great success in the book market, then I would have been the first person to stop you. “Never jump on a bandwagon”, I’d have said, along with, “ignore books like Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. You can’t ‘dash off’ great writing.  But Ottessa Moshfegh ignored such sane suggestions and went right ahead and wrote Aileen, one of the best Mann-Booker short-listed novels I’ve read in a long time. 
 
After writing with a novella and beginning a debut collection of short stories, she decided not to “wait 30 years to be discovered” and came clean about her writing methods In a recent interview. “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined… I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.” 
 
Having worked through Watt’s advice, she wrote for 60 days to produce an ‘off the peg’ novel. But Moshfegh is too good an author to churn our rubbish. “It turned into a work of its own”, she explains.
 
Soon as I opened Eileen, I was hooked on the wonderful voice created in this disturbingly dark novel. The narrator is old, reminiscing the past. It’s 1964 and Aileen, at twenty-six, is already on the shelf. She works as a clerk in Moorhead, a penal institution for young men, where she's in lust with Randy, one of the guards; off duty she stalks him, knowing full well he’d never look at her and convinced she would never agree to have sex with him anyway…her first time “would be by force”.
 
 
http://themanbookerprize.com/books/eileen-by-ottessa-moshfegh
Aileen's self-loathing forbids her to wash regulaly. She dresses in her dead mother’s old clothes and eats frugally, believing herself to be fat and ugly inside and out, purging her system with laxatives. She joins her drunken father each night in drowning out the cruel world. But secretly, she’s saving her father’s pension and dreams of escape.

Moshfegh knows precisely what an unlikable character she’s created. In Vice Magazine she said; “My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it’s very refined … It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.” To a degree she seems to be writing from experience; in the past she’s had both drink and eating problems.
 
The story is told through the device of the interior monologue, or if you prefer, the “retrospective first-person”. The sensation of reading is that of a half-whispered story over a cup of tea…the need to tell someone the secrets of your past, before you die. Reading the first half of the novel as my train pummelled over the Pennine way (and the second half as it roared back to West Wales), it was if Eileen reached one of her thin wrists out from the pages and dragged me into the last week of her life before she left her small town and escaped to New York. 
 
Eileen sees the world from a bleak perspective which has a constant edge of humour. In the packed carriage of my train, I experienced those embarrassing moments – laughing out aloud – time and again. Eileen is a very funny novel. The black irony kept me gripped as much as the promise that her drear life was leading to dreadful violence.
 
Right from the start, I knew Eileen was not going to come out of this journey as the innocent victim. “This is not a love story”, Aileen says. “I was not a lesbian”, and, “I didn’t eat good food until my second husband”  In a delicious nod to Chekhov’s foreshadowing device; “Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun.” She hints that there will be terror and bloodshed, and I believed her implicitly because these are her memories, and her urge to confess is palpable.
 
The festive season is steadily approaching; the contents page tells us that it will all over by Christmas Eve, but the sad festivities are subverted wonderfully by Eileen’s repressively dark mind. It’s her job to decorate the institution’s Christmas tree, while at home, there is not a bauble to be seen, just a dead mouse in her glove compartment.
 
At this point, Rebecca, a stunning, red-headed graduate, comes to work at Moorhead. Eileen is swept up into a kind of obsession when Rebecca shows an interest in her. Both girls are drawn to an inmate, Polk, who has killed his policeman father. Eileen watches Polk masterbate while in solitary confinement, but Rebecca has access to his notes and, in her role as the new psychologist, believes she can penetrate the young man’s mind to find the truth about him, a decision that is the catalyst to action.
 
So, if you’re about to start a novel using Watt’s 90 day, or any other formulaic method, do read this book first, checking it out against the standard tips, like Joanna Penn’s: Grab the reader by the throat, have a crime, don’t write likeable characters, have an ending that slaps you in the face. Huge ticks with these. Or my own tip: rock the boat half-way through, as Moshfegh does with her Rebecca character. 
 
This is a psychological thriller, and that’s given Moshfegh good sales, a popular following and some great reviews – Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph was left “dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius”. But she also has her critics. Lydia Kiesling in her Guardian review thought that; “there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right…The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness.” Yes, I noted that failing too, early in the text. Things like, I was very unhappy and angry all the time. Moshfegh has fallen into the trap of ‘telling not showing’. But it’s a very little slip, the sort we all make at some point when writing hundreds of pages of story. Mostly, the book is all ‘show', a vivid picture of 60’s USA, of the edges of society, of mental health, and of how easy it is to lose one’s own integrity, or have it stolen away.
 
Eileen might be thought of as an unreliable narrator, but I found nothing but the truth in the heated depths of the text. I believed in her completely. She may be flawed, but she felt like an intensely real, if bleak, creation. In that, I seem to agree with Moshfegh; “Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”

And honest character who has committed the most awful crime, that is...

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker's Dracula

 

I was holidaying in Whitby when I first realised that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a surprisingly modern novel. I’d watched the Hammer film versions of the book in my misspent youth and they left with the opinion that the book was a bit of late Victorian gothic horror, no where near good enough for me to need to wade through all that gore. But every Whitby bookshop had a copy of Dracula in its window, and naturally, I soon succumbed, reading it on the top of blowy cliffs and in the shelter of the beaches below. I took it on every walk, along with my butterfly identification book.
 
 
We did a lot of walking that holiday, passing the whaling arch on West Cliff, which Stoker would have passed too, with his family, when he holidayed here in June 1990. He stayed at Royal Crescent and it was there I discovered just how inspiring his time in Whitby must have been. Bram Stoker had found his inspiration. Standing in the crescent, you have a view of the North Sea, past sloping green cliff and grey sands. Across the river estuary are the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which must have been at least as gothic then as it is now.  The churchyard of St Mary lies below, the location of a vampiric attack in the second half of the story. As twilight falls, bats begin to swoop into view.
 
Mina, one of the two young female characters in Dracula, voices Stoker’s thoughts on the town: Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of "Marmion," where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…
 
Bram Stoker also spent time at Whitby library – he made notes from 'An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, in which he must have seen the name ‘Dracula’ for the first time. The fifteenth-century Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was as bloodthirsty as his fictional counterpart, impaling his enemies on long spikes and nailing turbans to the scalps of foreign ambassadors. Stoker gives his reader the historical allusion that Count Dracula is the descendant of Vlad – in his Author’s Note he explains that the documents assembled in the novel are real. Even as I read this, before starting the novel, I was reminded of the hype around The Blair Witch Project, and saw how astute Stoker was as a writer. 
 
He’d called this story The Un-dead for all the time he was writing it. Just before publication, he changed his title to  the wonderfully charged-up name of the antagonis. This  may have changed its destiny, although ‘un-dead’ remains a popular trope today, especially in Young Adult literature.
 
I began my holiday read, and soon found that it was not at all like the Hammer Horror version…or for that matter like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which I found almost unwatchably hammed up. Dracula contains elements of the conventions of gothic fiction…dark-shadowed, cobwebby castles juxtaposed with vast remote landscapes and vulnerable, virginal girls threatened by black-coated evil-doers… but Stoker contrasts his Transylvanian castle with parochial Whitby and the bustle of London in the 1990s.
 
Starting with that holiday in Whitby, Stoker used a wide range of research methods and a clear understanding of modern character development to write the story, but a stuck with the traditional gothic novel structure; diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings etc. It opens with the most famous section of the book, Jonathan Harker's Journal, which recounts his visit to Transylvania as a lawyer helping the count through his London property transaction. Harker falls under the spell of the Brides of Dracula and succumbs to the vampire’s influence. This opening feels like it has an impossible resolution and I turned the pages as fast as any modern thriller, needing to know how he could possibly escape with his life. At that point, I had no idea how many other characters would not escape with theirs. The novel keeps twisting and surprising us, as Dracula, on his way to London aboard a ship (hidden in a coffin) is washed up in Whitby and escapes in the shape of a black dog, and we’re introduced to Renfield, who is incarcerated in  a mental asylum where he lives on a diet of flies and spiders.
 
Stoker's masterpiece was part of a fin-de-siècle literary culture obsessed with crime – this was the time that Jack the Ripper stalked Whitechapel – and sensationalism – these were the original ‘naughties’. The book strips away the layers of late Victorian anxiety such as loss of religious traditions,  colonialism, scientific advancement, plus a growing awareness of female sexuality and a continued fear of homosexuality.  The book is a mirror in which generations of readers have explored their own fantasies. 
 
Maurice Richardson described it as; a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match, and no one could argue with that (or prevent themselves from rushing to read such a book).
 
 
"In the Moors is a dark thriller, dealing with chilling serial crime but, due to the skill of the author’s writing and the humour and engaging character of Sabbie Dare, it is also a highly enjoyable read that is very difficult to put down once you pick it up.

In fact the main issue for me was reaching the end of the book and wondering what I could read next that would match up to it. Fortunately there is a book two and three in the series (although I started the series by reading book three, so also can confirm you can read them in any order). And hopefully Milton will continue the series with a book four.

Very addictive and highly recommended!
"

Read the latest review of NIna Milton's thriller,  In the Moors, the first in the Shaman Mystery Series  here; http://shamanismbooks.co.uk/in-the-moors/

 

Source: http://shamanismbooks.co.uk/in-the-moors

Making a Drama of it–Writng with Tension

One of the most useful techniques writer can stuff under their belt is the ability to control tension and create drama in their story – regardless of whether it is a piece of micro-fiction or the length of Moby Dick (whale or book). The challenges are subtly different – in a novel it’s keeping the tension going sufficiently to entice the reader the less dramatic chapters, whilst in short stories, creating a balance between the peaks and the necessary lulls in a tight space can be a test of skill.

Some apprentice writers have trouble isolating the drama in their work and often miss all the tricks in cranking up tension. They assume that events in a story will come across as dramatic – a mugging, for instance, that’s got to be drama, right? But it is so easy to muffle the tension instead of enhance it. In my children’s  novel for 9+ readers, Tough Luck, I had to write a mugging sceneHere is a first draft extract; the ‘freewrite’ I scribbled down while the scene had newly come into my mind…

 

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder. I ran into a courtyard, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I realized that I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. There was only one way in - and out.
They stopped abruptly when they saw me, trapped and defeated. They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. I stepped backwards as they moved in slowly. Then I realized I was doing what they wanted, I was backing into a wall. There'd be a moment when I could go no further, when they might pounce.
I gave it one last shot. I sprang forwards, taking them by surprise, head down, holding my skates in front of me like weapons, hurling myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, then one of them leapt at me, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands as the wet, glinting cobbles came up to meet me, but my nose and chin seemed to take most of the impact. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.
They were surrounding me. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulling my knees and folding my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The very last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head…

As muggings go, this one is pretty mundane at the moment, but there is so much I can now do to heighten the tension and turn this into an extreme dramatic experience for character and reader alike.

Control your Reader

Some stories prefer to jog along at a steady pace until ‘bang!’ the tension is loosed like a cannon shot – often towards the end. Other stories build up tension slowly and steadily from the beginning, like tightening the elastic band on one of those little plastic aeroplanes. To help you understand how your drama functions, think about the affect you want to have on your reader. In fact focus right in on your reader’s stomach. When we read edgy, dramatic pages, our stomach knots up alongside the characters’. At first it might just be a butterfly flutter of worry. But as the tension takes hold, we begin to grip the cover tight and pant with anxiety. The writer achieves this affect by controlling what happens in the reader’s mind (and in his steadily knotting stomach) moment by moment within the narrative.

Once you have a first draft – at least in your own head or scribbled onto a plot outline –looking at how the way you tell the story will directly affect the knots in the reader’s stomach. This might mean presenting the ‘threat/mystery’ earlier in the story. Equally, it might mean holding off on the true mystery, while mini ‘subplot’ threats are seeded in. 

The excerpt above is an early scene in the book – it sets the plot moving. So it should present an ‘explosion’ near the beginning that can set the blood racing and encourage the reader to then move through the next chapters - ones that burn slowly in comparison. I should let that explosion really rip. I might need to re-jig the sequence of events a bit and I should be careful not to race through it. I need to let the character (Brandon) tell his story at his own pace. 

Get inside a head

Scenes should be described from inside the mind of the character most affected by any rise in tension and drama. If this isn’t possible – because your 1st person protagonist is watching the event, for instance – you must be sure that they are intensely affected by what they see – that they are able to empathize with the affected person. (Unless, of course, what you want to demonstrate is that your protagonist isn’t good at empathy, or doesn’t consider this a drama at all. If that is the case, the scene won’t be represented to the reader as drama – so be sure this is what you intended.) 

Show, don’t tell will kick-start the process. Allow the character to register any physical reactions to the growth of tension inside him…my fists tightened…my heart was thumping against my ribs…my breath was coming in short, painful rasps…

Take all the time you need to make sure the reader is absolutely ‘there’ with the character(s). Don’t race through the action, or fail to report a single word spoken. Stop and use descriptive affects, ‘teasing’ your reader as unbearably as you can. Use strong verbs wherever possible to build tension. Avoid too many adjectives, but don’t avoid description…My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms…My heart was thumping against my ribs but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang as my breath came in short painful rasps

Slowing Down
‘Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice to almost all my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In the excerpt, I pummel along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Brandon would be doing that, after all. I can’t stop the action – it is full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while not actually stopping it. The simplest is to move into a short internal monologue. This is a renowned way of putting on the brakes at tense moments (some writers take terrible advantage of this, holding off their readers for pages, but that’s quite a risk). I must take as much time as I dare to express Brandon’s thoughts as he confronts the gang …They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. I remember thinking, they're not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up back walls
… 

You can see that I’m slowing the action down…writing into the gaps I left in my rush to get the words onto the page. Doing this increases tension. You wouldn’t think that would be so, but it is. The reader longs to be teased. They want to know the end of the story, the solution to the mystery, but when they reach the end they’re saddened. They wanted it to go on for ever. Otherwise Spielberg could have just spliced the first and last scenes in Jaws together and save everyone a whole evening’s viewing, or Bronte could have inscribed …reader, I married him…on the first page of Jane Eyre.

Make it Hard

Slowing down and holding back action works well to tighten the knots in the reader’s stomach. An equally good way is to make the action as difficult as possible. Make achieving a goal, even a small one, as hard as you convincingly can. Let terrible events draw out for as long as you dare, too…A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. I felt a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood
Atmosphere and Mood

These often ‘grab’ a reader and draw them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:

• Atmosphere intrigues, excites, disturbs, beguiles…in other words it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi. It is often created from the setting…PJ James is good at this…or the dialogue…consider Raymond Chandler…or character description…think Dickens. To create atmosphere, let the ‘surroundings’ of each scene speak to the reader…. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard. Suddenly a security light flashed on, like we were on stage, caught in the spotlight

• Mood is subtly different from atmosphere. It works like a perfume, subtly sensed as it further lifts the pace and atmosphere. It is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator... They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the security light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm…..

 

The mood affects the pace, and the opposite can also be true. Atmosphere can match, shadow or underline the character’s moods. The Pathetic Fallacy can aid this, from time to time, using landscape, place/objects, climate/weather, events, etc. Truly absorbing, readable stories have braided all the effects in perfect measure.

Light and Shade…Adding Pace

It’s good for ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing. We do this even when talking, changing the tone, speed and timbre of our voice for effect. Pace…the ‘speed of the read’…is the best way to vary light with shade, and useful at encouraging dramatic tension to fluctuate in a narrative. 

Pace should change regularly within a piece of writing. Of course, it’s fine to have a ‘favourite pace’ that you’ll use for the majority of the time. Particular paces attract particular readers. For instance, someone who loves the pace of a Virginia Wolfe novel, probably won’t like the pace of a Grisham, and vice versa. Pace can crawl, crush, accelerate, thrust or hurtle. We usually expect pace to be created from the action, but dialogue and even inner monologue can have pace, too. It’s used to advance the action, but can be cleverly used to delay the action – the ‘build-up’, which is often the place where the most tension lies. The pace you take your narrative at will depend on your readership, but don’t miss out on increasing the tension by varying pace at the important moments. 

There are various technical ways to engender pace and so control the tension that arises, including some quite small, but important adjustments:

1a. To slow pace, use the present participle frequently. 

1b. To speed it up, take them out (look for ‘ing’ endings)

2a. To slow pace, use longer words, longer speeches, words with a a smoother feel, longer sentences and longer paragraphs.

2b. To speed it up, use short, staccato words, lots of full stops and short paragraphs, snappy dialogue. Alliteration works well. Find a rhythm within the abruptness.

3a. To slow pace, use a little of the perfect tense (he had seen her) within the simple past. The passive form, although generally unwise, will slow pace. Abstract words slow pace because the reader has to ‘interpret’ them. Avoid unnecessary words such as seemed, then, also, quite, very, however, might.

3b. To speed it up, use the present tense, if possible within the context, and avoid the perfect tense, the passive form and abstract words.

4a. Look at presentation of images. To slow, give them a dreamy mood. Use all the techniques in ‘slowing down’, above.

4b. To speed up make images clear and precise, sharp sights & sounds. Don’t over describe, but metaphors and symbols can work as ‘shorthand description – sneak description into the action. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Avoid clichés, too!

 

In places, I need to speed my pace up. Here are the ways I utilized the ‘B’s above:

1. They howled into the courtyard…I hurled myself between two of them…

2. One last shot. I sprang forwards. My head was down. My skates were like weapons…

3. I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was against it, I was trapped.

4. The gang surrounded me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones.

 

Once you have your reader’s stomach wound into a knot, it’s difficult to keep that buzz of attention when you know you need to drop the pace again. Try creating a break where the reader can take a breath – ending a scene or chapter on a ‘high’ is an accepted and common method of curtailing high tension moments. Just don’t do this until you’ve extracted every gram of possible stomach-knotting!

Flashbacks work very well at this point in a story, because they put everything completely on ‘hold’ and the reader understands that mechanism (that ‘trick’) and goes with it, taking the ‘mystery’ forward with them in the hope it will later be solved. 

Interior monologue has a similar affect. Allow your character to ponder the dramatic moments or allow him to cogitate on a separate but vital issue. 

Often, the moment is so dramatic that it needs to be resolved at once. I can’t leave Brandon lying helpless on the ground. Not in chapter three. I need to find a way of saving him so that he can live to tell us the rest of his story.

I’m a bit happier with this section now. It’s tighter and faster, but has variations in pace. I think I feel confident to show you the outcome…

 

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. They were not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them with twists and turns. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard as the gang from the ice rink howled in and stopped abruptly.  
I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was up against it, I was trapped.
They would pounce.
My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms. My heart was thumping against my ribs and my breath came in short painful rasps, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang..
I thought about scooting round them. No chance. They spread out across the courtyard, like they were playing rugby. Suddenly a security light flashed and we were on stage, caught in the spotlight. They didn’t care. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the beam of light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm.
They were well spread out. I could get between them. I sprang forwards, head down. My skates were like weapons. I hurled myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, hang on, lose it as I kept running. For a wonderful second, I was free. 
One of them leapt at me from behind, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands. The cobbles came up to meet me. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face. 

The gang was all round me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulled my knees up as high and folded my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. There was a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood. Least, that's what I thought the redness was. Then I heard the sound of an engine through the fuzz. Smelt the exhaust. A car was rolling into the courtyard. 

Okay, you can unknot your stomach now…

Amahl and the Night Visitors – a storytelling experience

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Alongside my hubby, Jim, I love storytelling, and everything surrounding it… myths and folktales, personal stories, history versus legend, and the idea that, in this age of digital devices, we can still sit, spellbound, when someone opens their mouth and tells a story.

 

It’s surprising how easy it is in the UK to find storytelling sessions. The very best tour the country, just like rock stars, and we’ll drive a long way, and wade through a lot of mud to be at festivals, such as Beyond the Border, where performers like Daniel Morden, Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Eric Madden, Cath Little, and the great Robin Williamson, bewitch us with their tales.

 

 

 

 

We’ve started to include storytelling in the parties we hold; what better excuse to sit around a firepit or hearth with friends!

 

So, to get better acquainted with the techniques of storytelling, we joined a weekly workshop run by a professional storyteller. It was an experience – and a challenge. Each Monday, we delved into storytelling in a variety of ways, but we always started up on our feet, working on our breathing and posture, stretching, and moving to sound, singing and chanting to work our voices. When we eventually sat down, we closed our eyes and used visualization to increase what we saw in our mind’s eye. 


We worked in small groups, which was interesting at first, as we didn’t know each other. Then we began to get fond of one another, and the groups became a relaxed sharing of ideas. One week, we each brought a small item that meant a lot to us. We paired off and told its history to our classmate, making notes, because it was our partner’s item we had to use to make a story we could tell to the class. These became fascinating stories, some of them closely representing the original experience, some going off on a fantastical route. We use this sort of ‘exchange’ a lot – not just using artifacts, but also recalling anecdotes in an effort to ‘release’ stories and allow us to feel we have carte blanche over them.

 

In another class, we learnt about the monomyth…the hero’s journey…and worked together to create our hero and discover why they journeyed from their home to a threatening, unknown place. We worked on landscape, using all sorts of settings to either create new stories or emphasize parts of familiar tales, and learned how to face an audience, how to pace stories, time the telling, and breaking it into sections and working on relating some parts faster or slower than others.

 

We learned that in storytelling the five senses count for the most; listeners can feel the emotions of the story via experiencing tastes and smells, textures, pain and pleasure and the entire tapestry of sounds as well as describing colours and other visual descriptions. My writing friends will know that I think the five senses are very important in writing fiction, as well, but here they became crucial to help the listener ‘see’ the story.

 

We also worked on detail another aspect of written stories that, as my students know, I’m always banging on about. Detail in written fiction is the lifeblood of enrichment; in storytelling it has a similar, equally essential quality of slowing the fast pace of a story and engrossing the audience.

 

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One thing I really enjoyed as a writer, were the ‘storytelling packs’, which  contained random aspects of building a story, such as character names, settings and places, times and dates, and the random symbols often found in tales, such as talking birds and fantastical beasts, deep wells and ladders of maiden's hair, magic swords and foundling babies. I found it amazing, as someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to build plots, just how simple this exercise was, and how easily a story fell into place.

 

As a writer of short stories, it occurs to me that the storyteller has an advantage over the writer in one important direction; they can gauge the reaction of their audience immediately. They can also employ the benefits of body language, gesture, voice control and can even add atmosphere via sound and light effects. Meanwhile, the writer put out their stories without really knowing what their readership will think of them, and without any further props to help them get their point across. Getting direct feedback from an audience is  hugely scary, but the responses the storyteller wants are very similar to the ones a writer is looking for.

 

As we started to have the confidence to recreate and then tell stories, we were shown how to use ‘sparklines’, a method of mapping our presentation, and other ways to be able to remember where we were in our story. We began to include sound effects, background music, costumes, masks and props to aid our storytelling – better to get the basics under one’s belt before including such things – too much going on, and the novice storyteller will crash and burn!

 

The storyteller connects with their audience by evoking emotions from them. And the audience arrives, hoping for that; they’ve chosen the story…or the teller…because they like comic stories or sad stories or spine-chilling tales. But the storyteller will know immediately if they’ve been effective....if the audience doesn’t laugh at the funny bits, or be seen fumbling for tissues during the sad bits or gripping their knees from fear as the tension mounts, the storyteller knows right away that they have failed.

 

On the other hand, if feet stop shuffling, sweet wrappers stop being crackled and every eye is on the storyteller…that’s success. The story has woven its spell and the listeners are entirely absorbed. Even their breathing slows. 

 

For the writer, too, engaging a reader from the get-go is so important. Building tension into the reading experience that holds the reader and forces them to turn the page is equally about the five senses, detail, setting, character identification and empathy. Because we’re concerned for the welfare of the protagonist – plucky, perhaps, but vulnerable, or beset with problems or dangers – we’re totally caught up.  It could be said that every protagonist that walks the pages of a novel is on their personal hero’s journey.

 

Stories in books have several and varied effects on the reader. Endings might leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, or of vague unquiet...the characters might linger in their minds as they move through their life in the days ahead. But it’s harder for the writer to know if this has happened.

 

I admit, I still find it difficult to truly work out why some of my own stories are loved more than others. I can mostly put my finger on the reason when it is other people’s work I’m reading, but I sometimes just get too close to my own. 

 

That’s why I love it to bits when readers write to me; either via a card which drops through my door, or an unsolicited email that manages to avoid the junk box, or a message on Facebook or this Blogsite. I always try to respond. Quite recently, I heard from a reader of the Shaman Mysteries who lives in Scandinavia. I was dead chuffed about that – they love their ‘noir’ fiction in that cold place.

 

the book of the opera

At the end of our storytelling workshops, we each had to mount a proper performance. Because the Christmas festivities were upon us, I chose Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remembered this story from my childhood. It was originally a one act opera, first performed in New York on Christmas Eve, 1951. It had a haunting connection with early Christmases for me. Researching it, I found that both the music and the libretto was by Gian Carlo Menottia, who produced a little booklet, revealing how he tried to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there is no Father Christmas. Instead, as in Spain, they celebrate the Three Kings, who bring gifts, usually at Epiphany. I actually never met the Three Kings—he confesses—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.

 

It was a work of love for me, to recreate an opera into a storytelling performance. As I rehearsed, tears often welled up. But blocking and releasing your own emotion is part of the storytelling experience. For my performance, I didn’t use music or props, just gestures and my words. It was quite terrifying (we’d invited a small audience), but exhilarating, too.

 

 Beyond the Border entices you in.

 

Finally, comes the applause. Hearty clapping tells the performer that, not only did they wring the right emotions from their audience, but also that the listeners ‘got’ the story; that the denouement, especially, felt right and fit for purpose. Of course, I got my hearty clap…we all heartily clapped each other. But it made me realise one certain thing about storytelling.  Storytellers are very brave people. It is so much easier to put your written story into an attachment and press ‘send’, than stand up in public and weave fictional magic with your own voice.

 

 

Writing before You start Writing

 


The writer’s greatest fear – the blank page or screen.  
 
You sit, ready to begin.
 
You really, really want to write. In fact, you’ve got a great idea, although it’s still a bit...unformed. So you stare at the screen, for a long time, before you finally start to tap. 
 
Five paragraphs (or even worse – five lines,) down, your head slumps forward. You’re pretty sure you’ve written rubbish, and now you’ve even run out of rubbish to write. You hand slides to the mouse and before you know it, you’re playing that stupid game someone on Facebook sent you.
 
What went wrong? You know that you really, really wanted to write. Why can't you write?
 
You’ve forgotten something hugely important:
 
Most writing, starts long before you sit in front of screen or paper. First of all, you  have to ‘imagine up’ your writing.
 
Story, novel, play, poem…any writing at all, begins in our heads. Most successful writers do huge amounts of imagining, thinking and planning before they touch keyboard or pen. For this, they visit a strange place in their heads, which becomes increasingly real, the more they go there.
 
These methods of enhancing the imaginative process are open to all, and intently useful to those who are about to embark on their first writing. 
 
If fact, you have already done this, many times; we all do it every day. At its least intense, it's called day dreaming. As it becomes more intense, you may find that you reach a level where you're taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, you are not fully alert either. The pulse of your brain has slowed, becoming Alpha brain waves. It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, your mind soars off on such a totally different tack that when a passing friend calls your name, you don’t hear them, and if they tap your shoulders, you jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Then you apologize, saying, ‘I was somewhere else there, for a moment.’ The friend understands instantly. We all recognize this ‘losing of yourself’, but we don’t make use of it nearly enough. 
 
Entering this slower state of thinking allows you to take advantage of the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information (as in self-hypnosis) beyond our normal conscious awareness.
 
This trance state, is also called by may different names, and you might like to choose one that you’ll feel comfortable with:
  • Daydreaming
  • Reverie
  • Fantasizing
  • Introspection
  • Brown study 
  • Muse descending 
  • Deep listening
  • Slipping into a trance-like state
  • Visualization
  • Mental pictures
  • Head movies
  • Relaxed imagining
You might want to call this ‘meditating’, but a more accurate definition of meditation is that of emptying your mind by concentration on a single thing (such as your breath). However, you might find it beneficial to meditate prior to tapping your imagination, emptying out the normal ‘gabble of thoughts’ for a few minutes before letting your mind settle on what you next want to write. 
 
Once the process is underway, you can burrow deeper and deeper into your mind, until you reach the many voices of your self, unlocking something that you didn’t previously know was there. 
 
I discovered that dropping down into this world was hugely enjoyable. Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by the fact that plots, characters and entire scenes can drop into one’s mind from nowhere. For millennia people have asked whether such creations come from outside us, or deep within. The Greeks had it sown up, of course. The Nine Muses were goddesses who visited those ready to create works of art and dropped the inspiration into their minds.
 
http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Muse.html
Consider now if you have a special place or time or activity where you find yourself quite naturally thinking the words that will eventually turn up on the page. What are you doing when you write in your head? For me, it has to be walking alone. Once I’m underway, my feet seem to direct themselves, whether I’m heading to the nearest shopping centre or through a woodland, and my mind flies off on a journey into my project. Thoughts and memories are loosened and released and worlds of possibilities to open up. Your writing will be sharper, more present, more melodic. Your settings will have the tastes and colours and the subtlest background sounds all built in. You’ll be able to stand right beside your characters; you will see their freckles and dandruff, and where they cut themselves shaving. What’s more, they will regard you as their therapist, they will open their hearts and tell you everything that troubles them, from their first memories to their most hidden infamies.
 
Here is a list of special times where allowing yourself to concentrate on setting up ‘writing before writing’ can really work. For instance, if you already take the train to work each day, and find that you’re mind wanders as it moves steadily onward, then don’t forget to pack your notepad and pen. 
Study all the methods below and tick the ones you think would work for you, or already work for you. Add others that might better apply to you:
 
[] Walking alone
[] Repetitive tasks, such as housework
[] Gardening (especially weeding)
[] Lying half awake in bed
[] Listening to music
[] Sitting quietly (indoors or out) with eyes shut
[] A journey on train or bus
[]
[]
[]
 
Look through your ticks. You can have a go at several of these or you can choose one method you could employ more frequently. For instance, if you like the idea of spending more time sitting with your eyes closed, try to do this on a regular basis, but rather than allowing your mind to wander without any structure, think in terms of the writing you are working on. When you don’t know what to write, the visualizations will send you in search of memories from your childhood or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can go to seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot.  You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, drive, eat.  You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down. Very soon, scenes will play in your mind, characters will speak to each other, settings will become clear, and – perhaps most importantly for the moment you sit in front of a blank scene – you'll hear your narrative unfold in your head.
 
For some writers, this feels way too unstructured. Dropping the tight grip on the reigns of their writing feels scary. They find it hard to consider 'daydreaming' as part of 'the writing process'. If they're not actually writing, they're not writing at all. But your creative self could gallop at will if only you let it. After all, you can tighten the reigns again during the drafting process when you return to that blank screen, full of ideas. To start with, give your writing horse his head.
 
 
Naturally, translating these ‘visions’ onto the page is not always straightforward. Ideas can start to slip away, to fade as we try to describe them on paper. The feelings you had turn out to be difficult to translate into words. The key to this problem is to always have a notebook nearby – if you don’t record these thoughts quickly, they will float away, possibly never to bee seen again. Use your notebook to write down everything that comes to you – even if it feels unusable or incomprehensible or crazy at the time.
 
 
Your imagination is where your writing begins - using this technique, you can enter your creative world and roam around it at will. The writing that spills out as you sit up and grab a pen or laptop can become the foundation of your projects. You are recording words and images directly from the interior of your mind. 
 

 You are now writing directly from your own inspiration. Enjoy!

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

— feeling amazing

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

 
Once again, I'm delighted to say that a previous student has contacted me to say they’ve had a book accepted for publication. I get really excited when this happens; and hopefully, once the ‘wraps are off’ that writing friend of mine will be telling you about her success herself, in a guest post on this blogsite. In the meantime I have a message from her. It’s for all of those who read Kitchen Table Writers while writing your own first novel. 
 
“It’s bloody hard work.”
 
Every single student I’ve ever had, who got their contract in the end, would endorse that sentiment. I’d endorse that sentiment! 
 
You have to work very, very hard, and often for a very, very long time. No let up, and perhaps not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon to keep you going. 
 
When I started to write I had two small children and a part-time job. working nights so that their father could be there when I wasn’t. I didn’t have much time to write. Then, just as I got going, my mother developed severe dementia and came to live with us. That cut down my time even further. In fact, there was always something that could get in the way of writing regularly, and indeed, I didn’t always manage to write regularly, but I tried not to give up. I worked my way through my first children’s novel and found an agent. Eventually, that magical contract with HarperCollins appeared on my door mat (yes, it was the door mat, back in those days). People started to ask me what one needed to write successfully. And I kept telling them. 
 
“Bloody hard work.”
 
There are three main kinds of bloody hard work attached to the production of a novel. The first is the hard graft of the start. Have you filled three notebooks with ideas and snatches of prose which you’ve discarded, half used, or actually included? Have you yet thrown away half your novel and gone back to the beginning? Have you asked someone to look at the glimmerings and been slated on what you showed them? If not, you haven’t lived. And you certainly haven’t worked hard enough yet. Tossing out a lot of early work is part and parcel of the ‘first novel experience’. (Along with a lot of…yep…hard work.)
 
The second stage is completion. You’ve now actually got a draft that you’re pleased with. Heck, you might be actually proud of it, and so you should be; getting to this stage deserves huge congratulations from everyone who knows you. (It might also get huge sighs of relief, but that is a premature emotional reaction on their parts.) Believe me, this second stage is hard work. Mentally – you’re glued to a computer while you try, and try again, to formulate a synopsis that will do your novel justice, plus a covering letter that is neither too showy nor too dull. Physically, you need sheer grit and determination to go on when you realise that the synopsis and covering letter needs to be written, with slightly differing nuances, every time you send it out. Emotionally, it’s hard too, when back they bounce. Steadily, you work your way through the Writers and Artist’s Year Book, but no one wants you yet. Then, all at once, some one does want to see the entire book and you realise there may still be typos and other potholes. You need to go through it with a fine tooth comb. When the manuscript returns with a kind of ‘yee-ees…’ you discover that this agent or editor wants heaps more work done. 
 
Heaps. Of very, very hard work.
 
Finally, you reach the third stage. You’ve had the contract checked by the Writers’ Society 
and you can proudly proclaim you’re to be a published writer. Just as you sit back with a sigh, a long list of ‘do’s’ will arrive from the publisher. Set up a website or blog. Write a good blurb. Contact everyone you know for an endorsement. Promote your book. Start booking engagements. Plan your launch. Do book readings. Be a presence on twitter. Start the next book.
 
It’s such bloody hard work being a writer!
 
At least, when you reach that stage, you, along with all other professional writers, can reassure the new guys that your novel didn’t just come out of the air. 
 
Please do this – don’t let them believe that you glibly typed away for a couple of hours a week and then success just happened without further effort. Please tell them that you:
  • Filled up notebooks 
  • Had times you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Wrote half a novel and dumped it
  • Had further times when you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Took two years of back-aching, sight-failing keyboard work.
  • Almost had to start again anyway.
  • And that you’re still working hard to this day.
 
At that point, you’ll also know, as my friend knows now, just how important it is that people they know buy their new book. That it took a long time to craft it into a readable novel, and that it’s really worth reading, and yet is priced lower than a cinema trip. 
 
Why not pop over to Amazon today where putting ‘Nina Milton’ into the search engine will bring up that very, very bloody hard work – all of which is now transformed into steamingly good reads!
 

And do watch this space for news of my ex-student’s success.

 

Murder, They Wrote – Three Novelists Writing about Murder

MURDER, THEY WROTE  –– THREE NOVELISTS WRITING ABOUT MURDER

 

When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.

“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”

I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction? 

 

The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.

 

Belinda Bauer

http://www.belindabauer.co.uk

Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too. 

 

Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege,  which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad  So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016)  Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that  one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can

‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals.  Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.

 

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.

His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.

 

I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.

Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.

 

A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.

 

 

Seven Amazing Books Only I can Recall


Instead of reviewing books on the best seller list, or books winning prizes,  I’m looking at seven books that have generally been forgotten.

 
But, I haven’t forgotten them – in most instances, they are still in my bookcase. The memories I have aren’t only of the stories inside the covers, but of the time and place I read the book. Here are my ‘FORGOTTEN SEVEN’, starting with the most recent, and moving back in time.
 
ONE - The Voyage of the Narwhal
 

 

In the spring of 2000, I took three girlfriends on holiday to the Costa Del Azahar…the coast of orange blossom. We stayed in my tiny flat, which overlooked the Spanish Mediterranean. We basked in some early sunshine, ate at seafood restaurants, shopped at the markets for cheeses, wines and soft, Spanish bread, and took long walks along the coastal paths. We talked a lot, too, because we’d all known each other for at least twenty years and it was great to catch up. And I read my airport purchase; The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. It seemed a fitting read; the tale of a journey while we too, were away from home. But the Narwhal was grinding through the ice of the North-West Passage, rather than swimming in southern seas. 
 
It is 1855 and Erasmus Wells, an introspective naturalist, wants to extend his scholarship on this expedition to the Arctic captained by his brother-in-law-to-be, Zechariah Voorhies. Zechariah is nothing like shy Erasmus. He’s an impetuous smart-aleck who hopes to find a legendary ‘open polar sea’ and a missing explorer who disappeared a decade before.
 
So there’s the early clue – people die when they go to this place. 
 
The voyage turns colder and sourer, as winter closes over the ship, and things go badly wrong. "I want my NAME on something," Zechariah tells Erasmus. "Something BIG -- is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map.”. Although this is fiction, it rang horribly true, knowing as we do how explorers have lost their lives on both freezing continents. The waters are hazardous with shifting icebergs, the sled dogs die, and a sailor succumbs to lockjaw. Very soon they are hemmed in by ice on all sides, and the Narwhal spends an entire winter in the arctic with dwindling supplies of food. The crew splits into factions as Zechariah becomes in turns tyrannical and moody.
 
In the middle of a Spanish holiday, I was swept into this chilling adventure, and can still marvel at Barrett’s psychological insights into her characters and the depths of the philosophy with which she underpins her story. 
 
TWO
Kasuo Ishiguro wrote The Unconsoled between The Remains of the Day andWhen We Were Orphans. Both these books went down well with the book reading world, but The Unconsoled sank like a stone. Why? I kept asking as I read and reread it. Why aren’t people getting this marvellous book? 
Ishiguro is one of my favourite contemporary writers. (See my review of his latest, The Buried Giant.His books are imaginative, inventive, strongly crafted and push the boundaries to the very edges. The Unconsoled is my favourite of  all his novels. 
 
It's a slippy book, disorientated in time and space and drenched in music. Unlike the subsequent Never Let Me Go,  now a film, The Unconsoled  dropped out of sight like the anchor on the Narwhal, after receiving universally bad reviews at the time of its publication. The Telegraph review said it was a sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work and the Guardian said it left readers and reviewers baffled.  One literary critic said that the novel had invented its own category of badness. Meanwhile, I was reading it with intense absorption and enjoyment. But I'm glad to say that by 2005 literary critics were beginning to agree with me...they voted the novel as the third best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005, and The Sunday Times placed it in 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure; A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. 
 
The Unconsoled is set over three days in the life of concert pianist Ryder, who has come to an unnamed European city to perform. His memory seems patchy and selective and he drifts from situation to situation as if in a surreal dream, unable to totally understand what is going on. 
 
One scene in the book has never left me; Ryder is in his hotel room when he notices that the rug is similar to the one he played soldiers on when a child. Suddenly, he realizes that the room is actually his old bedroom; he's back in his childhood. What follows is a tender, almost cherishing memory of better times. In 1995, I’d recently been nursing my mother, who'd died of the advanced stages of a particularly psychotic form of Alzheimer's disease, and Ryder's problems and experiences reminded me of the twilight world she'd lived in, where real life probably invaded her dream world in unpleasant ways...she was happiest when imagining I was her sister, Beatrice, and that we were both in our twenties and living together before Mum married my father (Beatrice never married – in fact she came to live with the newly-weds!) Listening to Mum's mad conversations with herself gave me a wonderful insight into what life was like before the second world war (my mum was quite old when I was born). 
 
I would recommend Ishiguro to anyone who hasn't yet read him...all his books. But The Unconsoled has a special place in my heart and will never leave my bookcase...so get your own copy!
 
THREE
Talking of the surreal, I was listening to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.”
I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 
Written in the early 1960s, but only published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet isLeonora Carrington’s best loved book. Carrington was born in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. (See the cover illustration, left.) Her stories are as surrealist as her paintings; she writes with originality, imagination and charm. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. When Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, the pace hots-up remarkably, into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers. But such fun to read!
 
FOUR
I still have my battered copy of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, possibly the most important novel to come out of South Africa before it abolished apartheid. It was published in 1948 the US; in South Africa it created much controversy. When I opened it again to write this, the smell of old books came wafting out, taking me back to the seventies, when I bought it at a second-hand stall. At that time, South Africa apartheid was still universal, with vicious race laws. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robin Island and, here in the UK, I wanted to find something that would explain all of this to me. Cry, the Beloved Country, with its major theme of the overwhelming problem of racial inequality, suited my needs. It’s still an incredible read, and a reminder of how important it is not to turn back the clock.
 
FIVE
One rainy afternoon, I watched the 1945 black and white film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on the TV. I was a young mum at the time, and was drawn to the story of this impoverished but aspirational second-generation Irish-American living in Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century. So I did what eleven year old Francie Nolan did all the time; visit my local library to borrow the book. Written in 1943 by Betty Smith, the book was an immense success at the time. It must have hit the same nerve with that reading public as the film, and subsequently the novel, did with me. It’s the story of family life, and the immigrant experience. The Nolans are poor, often hungry, but they fill their home with warmth and love. The main metaphor of the book is the Chinese ‘Tree of Heaven’, which grows outside the window of the family’s run-down tenement building; a symbol of Francie’s desire for a good education, which she manages to obtain through some subterfuge with the US school system. This beautifully written account of the American immigrant experience might be due for a revival, for various reasons, right at this moment. 
SIX
Vita Sackville-West was a successful and prolific novelist and poet, but I actually know her best as the person who created the wonderful garden at Sissinghurst and as the inspiration for Orlando by Virginia Wolfe, written while they had a decade-long affair.
My copy of All Passion Spent arrived through the post in the form of a Virago Classic Triple bill. I had no idea where it came from, but I was truly grateful and delved into the three novels by three women, loving this one the most. I hung onto the book for years, but recently took it to discuss at my book club and gave it away so that others could enjoy it.
 
All Passion Spent came out in 1933 and focuses on some of Sackville-West’s primary concerns. She, like Wolfe, was passionate about people’s place in society, society’s constrictions on people, and women’s control of their lives. The story follows the elderly Lady Slane’s thoughts on her life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships, while she relaxes in the summer sun. She believes, as her life is approaching its end, that she should downsize, and by the time we reach the final third of this short novel, summer is over and Lady Slane has settled into a tiny cottage She’s hoping to be almost forgotten, allowed to get on with being old, but she finds she’s still too linked to her past. She bumps into Mr FitzGeorge who has arrived from India and has secretly been in love with her since their youth. After his death, he bequeaths his outstanding art collection to Lady Slane and she passes it all to the state, much to her rather unlikable children’s disgust.  This empowers her great-granddaughter Deborah,  who finds the courage to break-off her engagement and pursue her love of music. Lady Slane observes this with pleasure, for Deborah will be taking the path that Lady Slane herself longed to, but could not. The novel is not a great classic, but it is interesting and entertaining, and worth a read.
 
SEVEN
I don’t know if Vita Sackville-West ever read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, but I’m betting she might have. It is the first novel to be written by a working class person, so especially loved by the socialist left in the UK, but mostly forgotten by everyone else. Robert Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was a housepainter in the early years of the last century, and a member of the Socialist Democratic Association, an early version of the Labour Party. When Noonan died in 1911, he left his 250,000 word novel in the hands of his daughter. who sold it for £25. In 1914, the book came out as a 150,000 word first edition, and in 1918, after the 1st WW was over, it was slashed again, to 100,000 words (the length of the books in the Shaman Mystery Series!) and sold at one shilling. But an uncut version is available, if you’d like to take a look. 
Image from the 2010 London dramatization
To quote Wikipedia, Noonan’s story is…based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers.  The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. House decorator Frank Owen understands just how the middle and upper classes take advantage of his skills; he sees them as being ‘given away’ in the ‘great money trick’. 
 
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, as it’s an explicitly political work, but I loved it. The characters Tressell draws feel authentic and compassionate. I especially remember Owen’s little son, who swears by the efficacy of breakfast porridge, thus prophesying our own interest in the health-given benefits of oats today.
 
Perhaps you have read some of these long-forgotten books yourselves and loved them as much as I did, or maybe you hated them with equal passion.

 

If so, do tell Kitchen Table Writers by leaving a comment below.

The Soundtrack of a Novel

 

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” 


Walter Pater’s said that. It’s a famous quote of his, more famous than he is. When I first heard it, I checked him out, to find he was a nineteenth-century art critic and literary theorist who was born in the East End of London.

 

Some think that this quote is bunkum, and that art doesn’t move towards being music, but the idea resonates with me. Why else would Leonard Cohen have moved his writing sideways from prose and poetry to lyrics (oh! the money, maybe…).  Music often enhances reading; I played Bob Marley all the time when I was consumed by A Brief History of Seven Killings 

 

When I write, I’m always aware that certain scenes make a sort of music in my head. My characters, right from before I had anything published, always listened to music, often (this is possibly why these stories weren't published!) for long, closely-described scenes.

 

Then I read the critically acclaimed Teddy Wayne, and heard about how he created a ‘soundtrack’ to his most recent novel Loneran unsettling story of obsessive desire. In his article, Wayne says…A great deal of pop songs are also about romantic obsession and loneliness (often in the same breath), and many ostensible love songs, when you examine the lyrics, are really avowals of stalker-like pursuit or thoughts of the object of desire; the British seem to have a particular fondness for this kind of ballad

 

Wayne chose ten tracks that informed his portrayal of his protagonist. I’m writing book four of the Shaman Mysteries, Flood Gate, and I'm doing the same thing. My chosen tracks each represent a character, and I’m finding wonderful inspiration from listening to these songs. Follow the links to hear the music.

 

In order of appearance:

 

Larry Waish is a small-time poultry farmer who recently lost all his hens in one of the many floods that plague the Somerset Levels. What he’s discovered, is that his neighbour is to blame for his loss, and he’s hopping mad. Larry really loves Country and Western and plays The Eagles Heartache Tonight  a lot, while he’s trying to cope with what happened between him and Jack Spicer at Harper’s Coombe 

 

Jack Spicer, who’s real name is John, farms 200 acres of Somerset land, as his family has for generations. He's recently lost his daughter, and is helping bring up her daughter, baby Olivia. He knows he's been driven to do wrong, and t’s tormenting him. He's a bit of a classical buff, and listening to the slightly sinister tones of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto helped me build his character. By the end of chapter one, Jack is dead.

 

Sabbie Dare is a young shamanic practitioner and therapist who knows it is her destiny to be of service to people on the very edge of life. The victims of evil…the perpetrators of it.  Sabbie’s mad about Pet Shop Boys and pagan music which can vary from folksy to rocking, and includes groups like IncubuSucubus, Dahm the Bard and The Dolmen 

 

Kelly King was 28 when she threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d never really recovered from her life in The Willows, a local authority children’s home where Kelly, Sabbie and Debs Hitchings all lived when they were children. Kelly was depressed, directionless, and addicted to chocolate cookies. In her last days, she plugged into the music of her childhood, such as Pink’s There you go.

 

Debs Hitchings is a beautician who wanders from boyfriend to boyfriend and job to job. Debs turned up at the very end of In the Moors, (Book One) where she cuts Sabbie’s tortured hair, and has a small part in Unraveled Visions. In this book Debs, and the story of her past, takes centre stage. She’s known for cracking out Beyoncés Crazy in Love 

at the top of her voice as her heels skittered across nighttime pavements.

 

https://www.milesdavis.com

 

Quentin Lachapelle is a thirty-five year old photographer with a nice studio, a pretty wife, and a flourishing career. He meets Sabbie and Debs at Kelly King's funeral, where he offers to take some glamour shots of Debs, although he finds Sabbie’s dark skin tones and angled face interesting. There is more to Quentin that meets the eye…or the lens of his cameras. Quentin is a Miles Davis fan, of course. 

 

DI Reynard Buckely. Fans of the Shaman Mysteries will be delighted to hear that and Rey and Sabbie are still an item. In fact, things hot up between them considerably! Rey made his musical preferences clear in In the Moors, so there’s only one group I could play, and that’s the Stones

 

Fenella Waish is Larry’s sister. Now in her forties, but still living in their childhood home, Fen seeks help from Sabbie for longterm Ornithophobia, her paralysing fear of birds which prevents her going anywhere near Larry’s poultry shed. Fenella loves her laptop, which is her window on the world. Scared to be Lonely might bring tears to her eyes, but she plays it again and again.

 

Tara Yorkman. Before she died, Kelly was fruitlessly searching for her friend Tara, who lived at The Willows from when she was little. Kelly, in need of someone to care for, always looked out for Tara, until she was a teenager. Then she disappeared. When Kelly’s spirit comes to Sabbie in a dream, she feels indebted to continue the quest for the missing girl. I listen to Taylor Swift and other noughties music to get in touch with Tara.

 

Victor Doyle is a successful Bristol business man, a builder of local housing. Now 55, he's loaded, charming and still handsome in a chiselled way, although he’s put on a bit of weight. In the community, he’s a well-loved philanthropist, but underneath, the man is pure, unadulterated evil. I think he’d be rivitted by Pretty Women from Sweeny Todd.

 

If you're writing a novel, or a series of short stories, try finding and playing the soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the story and the characters. It can make a tremendous difference to the outcome. 

Books Are the Things That Make Us

— feeling amazing

Books are the Thing that Makes Us

 
Until I was four, we lived near a big red brick library which was in the centre of a park; St George's Park in Bristol. My father was the one that would take me into the library, rather than just to the swings and duck pond, and I can recall  the way the high bookcases loomed over my head, and the smell of the place, which I believed was the scent of bookworm. Dad would let me chose my own books from the children's section because he’d be busy picking his selection from the grown-up fiction. He loved authors like  Howard Spring, Neville Shute, George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I liked Milly Molly Mandy, the tales of Little Grey Rabbit and anything by Beatrice Potter. When we got home, he’d read the books to me. 
 
When I look back, the strangest, most obscure stories have left the biggest impression. One of the most loved books I actually owned was called Unicorn Island. My father read to me when I was little, but very soon I’d learned to read on my own and then I reread it a million times afterward. A coastal village of disparate animals are in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with a healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.
 
Not long after I’d started to read on my own, I realized I wanted to be a writer.
 
My first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember.
 
Mrs Marsden finished reading aloud and then asked the class to write a story themselves. It was then that I had my early epiphany. I was dumbfounded. For the first time, I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I thought they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation. I haven't looked back.
It was Mrs Marsden that turned me onto full-length fiction. I was going to borrow yet another Milly Molly Mandy from the class bookshelf when she accosted me, grabbed a thick volume from the shelf above and said, “You’re past all these baby books. Try this that one, Nina.” She handed me Mary Poppins, which I can remember taking to bed because I could not put it down. Maybe I read it too young, though, for when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.

I was often in bed with asthma, when I was small, and liked a stack of books beside my bed. There were books I’d return to time and again as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human-like endeavours in a little mousy town. Manly was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers who had put Manly to work cleaning his posh car (he turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. And when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter
 
I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories, the weird adventures of Alice and the tiny world of The Borrowers. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all of the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons, when Richard Rich asks… 'If I was, (a teacher) who would know it?' And Thomas Moore replies…'You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…’
I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. Well, okay I started to write a novel which I never finished. I wrote it by longhand and asked my friend to type it out. She was doing exams in typing at the time, so she was quite pleased. Every evening, I wrote in one corner of the room, while she typed at the table. Blissful silence until Maggie looked up and said, 'it is a bit old-fashioned, but it's really nice.'
 
'Thanks,' I simpered. I'm hoping people will enjoy it.'
 
'Nina,' she said, 'I was talking about my new dress. I've been talking about my new dress for the last five minutes.'
I do believe I've got better since then, both at writing and listening to criticism! I can remember bursting with pride when I received the first copies of the first book I had published; a children's novel with HarperCollins (still available from Amazon).
 
As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child.I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.

In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents.
 
I think that’s true of a lot of people. Books are the things that make us, when we are young. Finding ourselves inside those marvellous adventures gives us hope, fires our dreams and helps us cope with the things life throws at us. 

 

 
Source: http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/sarah-hilary-shadow-side-of-writing.html

Queue Here for the Best New Novels for 2017!

 

 

I’ll let you into a little secret. I’ve just sent a complete draft of the next Shaman Mystery to my agent…and she loved it. So now I’m polishing it up with a rag, some spittle and a tin of beeswax, in the hope that, sometime in 2017, FLOOD GATE, will start to become a book.

 

In the meantime, I wanted to know which great writers already have a book in the new year pipeline, and can reveal that the news is exciting.

 

I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, even though I knew there were flaws in the plot, because I firmly believed in the main character and her descent into alcohol hell. Paula Hawkins’ new book Into the Water, is out in 2017, and I wish her all success with it. She’s  sticking to the psychological thriller genre, using, I hear, themes of truth and family secrets. Definitely one to try. 

 

It always puzzles me, why some first-time authors with huge success, don’t write a second book, while some churn out one every year. I loved Arundhati Roy’s Booker winner, The God of Small Things when I read it in 1997, and now, 20 years after its publication, her 2nd book, The Ministry of Utmostherppiness (Hamish Hamilton) is due out. The one thing I now know, is that she’s still good at titles! I do hope it’s worth the long wait.

 

Colm Toibin only came to my attention when someone recommended Testament of Mary. I was impressed with his take on a New Testament character, and also with his ability to get deeply into the female mind. In May 2017, he’s releasing House of Names, telling the story of how Agamemnon orders the sacrifice of his daughter, to gain good omens for the Trojan war. When he sails home victorious at last, he’s faced with a family filled with hate and the need for vengance. The last book I read about the Illiad was THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, which won the 2012 Orange Prize. I loved that book, and I hope that this one proves as exciting. 

 

One of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman, has also chosen to weave mythology and legend into modern storytelling in his latest offering, Norse Mythology, due out in February. Gaiman’s ability with words, and his subtle understanding of how to use symbol and allegory, will surely promise this to be a great read.

 

Right this moment I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a book of essays about reading and writing, but he’s most  famous for Wonder Boys, one of my favourite books and also a great movie staring Michael Douglas as a washed-up author who discovers the next wunderkind

in his creative writing class. I’ve always had a theory about Wonder Boys; surely it started life as one of those writing exercises where you take various crazy items and have to work them into a story – in this case – Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, a dead dog, a tuba-paying transvestite and a squashed boa constrictor. Will Moonglow, (Fourth Estate) be as inventive and funny as Wonder Boys? I sincerely hope so.

 

Later in the year, lovers of William Boyd will have a treat with The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. Last summer, I read his story of an early female photographer, Sweet Caress, and I’m ready for more.

 

I’m ‘into’ The Hogarth Shakespeare Project at the moment, which is asking bestselling novelists to retell Shakespeare's works. "Hogarth" was launched in October last year, with Jeanette Winterson's take on The Winter’s Tale. I’ve just finished Margaret

Atwood’s Hag-Seed and loved it – laughed all the way through, while marvelling at her brilliantly woven analysis of The Tempest. Read a full review of the book hereSince reading it, I’ve watched Helen Mirren as Prospera in the DVD of Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, and have booked up to see the Royal Shakespeare version which is on now in Stratford on Avon.  



I can hardly wait for the 

next book in the project’s series, written by Tracy Chevalier, famous for Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has rewritten Othello. In New Boy, the story of Othello is set in a Washington school, with 11-year-old friends Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi being the key players in the tragedy.

 

And finally, I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley's next book of short stories. She was my tutor on my creative writing master’s degree, and I’ve admired her work every since. Brilliantly observant of the human condition, and a lyrical writer, she’s particularly great at the tricky form of short fiction. In Bad Dreams, the stories focus in on crucial moments of transition, and the blurb is enticing me to put my pre-order inreal things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.

 

 

In the meantime, while we’re still waiting for these books to arrive from Amazon, or at our chosen bookshops, I’ll wish you a very happy, prosperous and healthy 2017, and get back to putting the finishing touches to my latest novel, in which I delve into some shocking secrets that Sabbie Dare discovers in her past…

The UK Costa Book Awards

Costa Book Awards – the shortlists are out!

 
Another year, another book prize announced. This is one of my favourite book prizes, which has afforded me unbelievable reading. Novels like The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. 

Costa offers several awards each year, Novel Award, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children’s Book, and Short Story, and I already have several of the shortlist for each of these on my own ‘to read list’. 
 
I’m keen to get Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve love Tremain since she began to write, which is many moons. She has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I recently read her book Trespass I was thrilled to find she’d written a novel about murder. Was Tremain writing a crime thriller? My review of Trespass can be found here This new novel is set in Switzerland where the second world war is still a long-ago echo coming off the mountains. It’s described as “a striking portrait of friendship” 
 
There are four books in the First Novel shortlist, but I’ve heard of each of them Francis Spufford is already on the list as Golden Hill became the Waterstones Book of the Month, and Kit de Waal, shortlisted for My Name is Leon is know as a short story writer. But I’d never heard of Susan Beale’s first book The Good Guy and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand. . These are set in the US and long-ago Holland respectively, so on my beg, borrow or buy list they go.
 
 
Biography is not my favourite writing form, but this year I’d love to read Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return, It was  five years ago,as tension increased during the harrowing situation in Libya, that I read his Booker-shortlisted novel, In the Country of Men

 It felt a very pertinent and current read at the time, and is partly his memories of his childhood, during the time Colonel Gaddafi's regime took hold in the seventies. A boy of nine watches his father taken away for questioning and does not know what to think, or whom to trust. The novel is writing in such deceptively simple prose, but powerfully examines themes of conflict, family ties, and betrayal.
 
http://www.picador.com/books/the-bees
In the past, the Poetry Award has sent me rushing to read current poets. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees won five years ago, a short book I love to return to. Bees are central in this collection,…bees / are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them … and while doing that recalls bitter memories of what we have lost,This year, it will be Falling Awake  I read first. I’m already in love with Alice Oswald’s poetry, especially Dart, a shape-shifting epic poem about the river Dart, and the people who live around it. In the White Review, Oswald said; I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. You can hear Oswald read here.
 
 
Who doesn’t love Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry books? Now she’s on the Costa Children's shortlist with her first novel for older children: The Monstrous Child, described as a black comedy focusing on Nordic myth. This is the one that I want to read, it sounds scrumptious and long-awaited.
 
 
I have a very soft spot for the Short Story award, which hasn’t been going for very long, because in its inauguration, my Open College of the Arts student, Guy Le Jeune, came third with his story Small Town Removal, which I’d read in its very early stages. The Short Story Award shortlist will be announced soon, and all the shortlists will announce their ultimate winner on Tuesday 3rd January. From these five the Costa Book of the Year is selected. Fireworks will explode, Champagne will pop its cork and one writer will be very pleased…and a lot richer. 

 

Gold-Starred Rules for Shy Networking Writers

Gold-Starred Rules for Shy Networking Writers

 
 
 
 
Nina Milton, speaking and reading at the Wells Literary Festival
Blogpost fans who know me personally, would probably say I’m a bit of an extrovert, and can happily walk onto a stage and address a crowd, especially if it’s on the subject of books…especially if it on the subject of my books. 
 
Click to see more
In public, or among friends, I come across as bubbly, gregarious and confident. But actually, folks, I’m not an extrovert at all. Like many writers who love their own company and that of their characters, I’m actually a bit of a trembling flower. But I can do a conjuror’s magic trick which allows me to walk into a company of strangers and look outgoing, which I learned at the age of fifteen. 
 
As a kid I was painfully shy, which I blamed on my first name. In an age when unusual names were not common, I was teased mercilessly about mine. My mother had called me Nina – not after the famous Nordic singing duo or the ‘high priestess of soul’, but after her friend’s daughter, who for no reason I can fathom, pronounced the name to rhyme with nine, rather than teen. From my earliest memories, I hated my name. Kid’s called me ‘nine-o’clock instead of Nina Crane, or counted up across the street at me…’one-a, two-a three-a… 
 
Me at the Carmarthen Book Fair
When I took my first part-time job, I swore to change all of that. I went to work behind the sock and tie counter in a local department store. I was asked what my name was and I simply introduced myself as ‘Nina’  pronounced as in Nina Simone. Now, instead of bizarre and laughable, my name was singular and cool. A tiny alteration in pronunciation which did wonders for my ego, and taught me an interesting lesson…we can pretend to be more remarkable than we really are.
 
I’m telling you all of this because it’s Christmas Fayre season again, and I’m off to events  all over Wales to promote the Shaman Mystery Series. Last Saturday I was at Carmarthen library to promote my books and myself as a writer.
 
And on Saturday December 10th, I’m in the pretty town of Llandeilo, at the Llandeilo Book Fair.
Landeilo is tucked at the foot of the Black Mountains in South Wales, not far from Swansea, and is packed with lovely shops, as well as holding a book fair. 
 
Book events are not only great for selling your books, it’s also a place to meet other authors. I put on my ‘Neena, not Nine-a’ face and pretend to be fearless and undaunted, despite still being that trembling flower inside. To help me, I use my gold-starred rules for shy networking writers, and I'm going to share them with you!
 
 
Here are my gold-starred rules of networking for the writer who is shy at heart. I find they help a lot.
 
1. Use the four-pronged approach. First brought to the fore by Dale Carnegie, just remember to…
  • SMILE, 
  • ASK A QUESTION, 
  • LISTEN,
  • LEARN THE NAMES.
 
2. Be interested. Being actually interested in the other person stops the stench of desperation coming across and keeps that smile in place…naturally. It will also allow the right questions to pop into your mind – questions like, “what brought you here today” and “what sort of writing do you do”, and remind you to listen to the answers while getting that person’s name into your head (asking for their card really helps!)
 
 
 
 
 
3. Have no agenda. This springs naturally from being interested in the people around you. Concentrate on finding out about them, look keen to know more. No one wants to be in the same space as the ‘hard-selling, self-obsessed person’ for long.
 
 
 
 
4. Sort your plan. This is essential for hiding shyness and projecting confidence. Before you leave the house, get your ‘one minute blurb’ for your latest writing project clear in your mind. Look at my blogpost on elevator pitches to help you with this one. Remind yourself of your particular talents and strengths. It's important to map out what you want to talk about, because (rightly) be concentrating on rules 1-3 may take such things out of your mind. With rule 5 in mind, tell yourself all the ways your writing is wonderful – get your list prepared.
 
5. Be your passionate self. Having sorted your plan, you won’t need to look pushy because you’ll have more confidence in yourself. You’re smiling, so you’ll already be feeling happier. So now you can drop any artificiality and allow your lovely self to show through and demonstrate what you feel passionate about – I promise you, that’s always a winner. 
 
 
 
Do not say sorry. Okay – if you tip your wine over the books on your neighbour’s table, you might have to ask their forgiveness, but you should neverapologise for your writing or make excuses for your books, or admit that you’re not sure how good they might be. Your stories have value. When you sort your plan, put these values in the list. If you are selling your book, whether to a punter or a publisher, do not start with ‘sorry, but…’ That makes it sound like you’re asking for a favour, when in fact, you're offering to show them some marvellous work.
 
Have your cards ready. All writers should have some sort of business card. If you already have a book in print, there are fun alternatives, too. I like to use bookmarks, with the covers of my books, a short blurb and my contact details. Other writers use postcards. I have also seen greeting cards using the jackets of novels, but these are too costly to give away and should instead be there to raise revenue.
 
 
Try for generosity. You’ll be wanting people to be generous to you, to give your work a chance by stocking, reading it or publishing it! So you can afford to offer something in return, even if it’s only turning up an hour early to help put out all the tables.
 

 
 
 
Follow the leads. You’ve come home with a dozen cards from other writers, agents, booksellers and publishers. Follow them up, even if it’s only an email to say how nice it was to meet them. Keep those links going, as you never know where they might take your writing. And they'll remind you just how much you enjoyed the event, even though you're a shy n

Seamlessly Blends the Mystical…A review of Beneath the Tor by Nina Milton

Seamlessly Blends the Mystical…

 
 
An extremely original and engrossing novel - highly recommended…seamlessly blends the mystical with the realities of every-day life

Thank you, Indie Shaman for you marvellous review of the third in the Shaman Mystery Series.

Beneath the Tor is a compelling and well-paced mystery which contains recognisable and authentic diverse characters…an absorbing and intriguing murder mystery.

 

I was so delighted when June Kent, editor of the Indie Shaman Magazine review my latest novel, because I love that magazine! Every issue is packed with articles on spirituality and shamanism, laid out in a colourful and well-balanced way, with regulars, such as Plant lore, a poem, Community News and always contributions from the elders of the shaman world. Book reviews are a regular in the mag, and I was proud – honoured – to be among them.

Almost as important, I can buy Indie Shaman as a hold-in-the-hand magazine. I spend enough time on that computer – I like to flop down in comfort to read…especially when the mag says lovely things about my writing…

Set in the West Country, Beneath the Tor is the 3rd of author Nina Milton's  Shaman Mystery series in which therapeutic shaman Sabbie Dare uses her shamanic skills to solve murder mysteries. 

I write my crime thrillers for all readers, but as Sabbie Dare, my central character in the series, is a  shamanic practitioner by trade, the opinion of those who live a shamanic way of life is crucial to me. I aim to make my books, and my heroine, authentic, and so I was quite relieved when the review reinforced this, saying how the book…features many of the issues that affect contemporary shamanism including the serious as well as the amusing (one of my favourite phrases is from a potential workshop participant stating, "I'm already a shaman. I've done all the courses.")  The book also contains excellent descriptions of Sabbie's shamanic journeys and of her work with her guide, an otter called Trendle.

By the way, if you're reading this, and wondering what a shamanic journey is, and how a person's
guide can be an otter with a name, then dip over to my explanatory Page in this Blog; British Shamanism

Writing a review for good fiction…the editor's review continues…is difficult due to the tendency to get absorbed in the story, carrying the book with you everywhere, staying up late 'just finish this bit'…and totally forgetting about the review…And this was certainly the case with Beneath the Tor!

I'm full of gratitude for this endorsement from Indie Shaman, but also dead chuffed that June Kent couldn't put my book down!

If you'd like to read a bit of Beneath the Tor, you can do so. By clicking here, you will find yourself on my Amazon "Look Inside" Page where you can click on the cover of the book.

Meanwhile, have a look at Indie Shaman. It's not just for people with rattles and eye fringes, but for anyone interested in living ethically according to shamanic principles. The 48-page full-colour magazine can be ordered via snail mail or, for a mere £10 (UK) per year, downloaded as a PDF.

Thanks again, Indie Shaman!
Source: http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-seven-novels-that-entirely-changed.html?spref=fb