Tuesday 21 August 2018

Steeped in Summer Stories - Winchester Writers' Festival and Oxford summer schools

This is one of those catch-up posts as it dawns on me how long it is since I last blogged! And why is that, you ask? The spring and summer were intense phases of teaching, along with my core editorial work. I realised yesterday that we are on the cusp of autumn and couldn't quite believe it. This post, then, is a photographic diary of my summer and of the amazing people I've met.

I taught a part-time course on getting started in writing from April onwards as part of the University of Oxford's Department of Continuing Education work.
At Winchester with my friend, writer Lisa Greaves

In June I ran three workshops at Cornerstone Arts
With the Festival's original founder,
the wonderful Barbara Large

in Didcot, then paid my annual visit to teach at the Winchester Writers' Festival.

Conference Director Judith Heneghan

Speaker Helen Dennis
The Stripe Theatre by night
Teaching on the OUSSA programme

With my OUSSA students
In July and August, I taught on Oxford University's Summer School for Adults (OUSSA) at Rewley House, followed by the university's International Creative Writing Summer School for three weeks at Exeter College.

OUSSA students

Along the way, I met, as I always do, writers who were starting out or more advanced, writers brimful of enthusiasm, motivation, curiosity and the desire to improve their craft. I read and gave feedback on writing that was poignant, dramatic, thoughtful, beautiful, gripping.

Getting ready to teach at Exeter College
with fellow tutors Julie Hearn, Frank Egerton and Matthew Barton
Exeter College, its lawns drier than we've ever seen!

Tutors Susannah Rickards and Rachel Bentham

Turl Street Oxford

Exeter College Chapel

Exeter College Chapel

Exeter College Dining Hall

Exeter College Chapel

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I'll be back in the autumn with more musings about the world of books, an IGISIRI catch-up,  and more interviews and guest-posts too. Till then, enjoy the rest of your summer!

Thursday 1 March 2018

From injustice to insight: Jane Davis guest-posts about what inspired her new novel's powerful examination of resilience after tragedy

My guest today is Jane Davis, who has written an absolutely fascinating range of novels. I do love this, that she doesn't keep stirring the pot and serving up the same old same old: every book has an extraordinary cover and an extraordinary, individual tale to tell. Her latest is no exception: Smash all the Windows tells you by its title that it is about rage and rebellion against injustice. I'm always fascinated by the triggers for story and how stories take hold of us until we simply must tell them. Here's Jane's account of how this latest novel came into being for her –

Write about how Smash all the Windows came into being? It sounds so simple.

The seed of my novel was anger. I remember that quite clearly. I was appalled by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged stunned and blinking from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now that the original ruling had been overturned, they could get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crowd-crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. What was particularly shocking was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms across the country. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame. In that moment, victims became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.

Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exist in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.

The previous year, on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. The escalator I would normally have used was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for how fast it was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

My fictional disaster shared many common elements with Hillsborough. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t posted on Twitter. In both instances, someone in management was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way’ is still the most dangerous sentence in the English language.) Facilities dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Risk assessments hadn’t considered how multiple casualties might be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families and friends, and the police, doctors and nurses who dealt with the aftermath. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones.

But, writing about my fictional incident, new difficulties soon presented themselves. And they came from far closer to home. In May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting of my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.

Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I had to make conscious decisions if I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. This would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, everything I read about accident investigation delivered a clear message. Any finding that an individual is to blame is not only likely be biased, but will fail to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but there are difficulties and dangers holding companies and organisations to account. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in a London Underground station, I picked a prime example of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures. London’s rapidly growing population is the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties of expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these challenges more concentrated than in the City. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.

Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged that suggested it could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now appeared to be commentating on two disasters, both of which were far closer to home! And having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was seriously out of tune with public opinion. 

Fortunately the focus of my novel is human drama. My challenge was translate the emotional fallout onto the page, capturing all of the guarded memories, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who turns his grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. The real story is about human resilience and the healing power of art. It is a story with a beating heart.

Smash all the Windows:

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.

It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Smash all the Windows is currently on special offer at only 99p until May 31st. The Universal Link is books2read.com/u/49P21p - choose your vendor and order from there.

About Jane:

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.

Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

Jane has also written: 

Smash all the Windows individual pre-ordering/buying links:

Amazon.com                     https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079MBP3WD
Amazon.co.uk                   https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079MBP3WD
Kobo:                                    https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/smash-all-the-windows
Smashwords                      https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/788752
Apple (iBooks)                  https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1346027779

Press enquiries janerossdale@btinternet.com
High resolution photos available from https://jane-davis.co.uk/media-kit/


I, for one, am delighted it's March now! February was not my friend: I'm still ill with a tenacious virus but will be launching my first online course, Get Ready to Write, later in the year. If you're not already on my newsletter list and you want to be among the first to know more about my courses and special offers, then you can sign up here. You'll get a free productivity guide too!

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Self-publishing service shark warning: guest-post by Ann Kelley

You'll know that I have often celebrated the freedom writers have these days to choose between a traditional and an independent route to publication. My guest today is Ann Kelley, who has previously featured on this blog here. I love her writing - her ability to observe the natural world is second to none. She has experienced success as a traditionally published writer, winning the Costa Children's Book of the Year with her novel The Bower Bird, the second in her enchanting and moving trilogy about Gussie, a young girl with a life-threatening illness, who is one of the most 'alive' people you will ever meet in fiction. The first in the series is The Burying Beetle and all are published by Luath Press.

Ann has also published an ebook herself, of her novella On a Night of Snow. She went on to publish it last year as a lovely paperback with her own illustrations - and if you're a cat fan, this book should be catnip to you!

I've invited her to guest-post, though, because she has a salutary tale to tell of the darker side of the self-publishing industry, where, sadly, there are still sharks cruising to exploit writers. I won't name the firm in question here - but if anyone is seeking to self-publish I strongly advise them to join the Alliance of Independent Authors, because they can provide recommendations of good service providers and warn you off the baddies and incompetents.

Here's Ann's experience: 

My novella ON A MOONLIT NIGHT was first published as an Ebook (On a Night of Snow) a few years ago under a different title. My editor, Jennie Renton, who had worked on several of my published novels offered to set up the ebook for me. 

But, I had started to draw, and was given encouragement by my teachers and others to illustrate my own writing.  I remembered the novella, and set to work producing as many drawings of cats as I could.

ON A MOONLIT NIGHT is the first book I have published myself, having had over twenty books published by mainline publishers in the past.

Self-publishing is an exciting project. I had an excellent, helpful designer - Peter Bennett, who had worked with me on several other productions. He helped with choosing the correct paper and card as well as designing the entire book, cover to cover. And what a cover! That was fun! We couldn’t decide which cat to place on the front cover, and in the end he  presented me with the image of all the cats I had drawn! I particularly asked for the end pages to be visually exciting with flaps. Having complete control over the design was wonderful. I recommend it.

However, when it came to finding a printer things started to go very wrong. I got quotes from several local printers but decided on X (London based) as the price was considerably lower. A mistake! 

The designer sent the pdfs to them and they approved them. I ordered 250 copies. I was offered a 10% discount if I paid upfront. I took up the offer - second mistake! March 2017 I paid the discounted  price of £1530. 

The printer kept promising that the courier was on his way. We had house sitters to answer the door if they arrived when we were on holiday in Scotland. The books failed to arrive, more promises and excuses, no books. By June  I had given up hope. The printer wouldn’t give us the courier’s tracking number. We failed to reach the courier on one or on the phone.

He said he would  use another printer. I thought X was a printer, but not so. He was just a middleman, it seems. Again no books.

The printer promised to pay the full refund if the books didn’t arrive by that weekend. No books. I phoned and politely said that I felt stupid, duped, that it was a scam.

And now, no refund apart from little dribbles of £10 and £20 - adding up to £150. So I went to the Small Claims Court. What a palaver! Had to send them three copies of all emails or correspondence between X and myself and pay court costs. Quite stressful even thinking about it. 

We attended the court just before Christmas. No-one from X attended the court. The judge went through the details carefully and found for me. She did say thought that didn’t necessarily mean that I would get my money back. Was X a limited company? No idea. I was naively expecting them to be honest with me. A lesson learnt.  PAY ON DELIVERY, NOT UPFRONT.

I eventually went to a more expensive local printer, who delivered the beautifully printed books for free. I don’t know if I will get my money back. I don’t want to pay for bailiffs. But I won my case. Have kept all the copies of emails, just in case…

Ann's book is a delight, in spite of all the travails! If you are interested in it you can email her to receive a buying link (contact me at info@fictionfire.co.uk and I will forward your message). You can also find out more about Ann and her other books, by visiting  her website at www.annkelley.co.uk  If you'd like to read the original story in ebook form, here's the link

My 2014 interview with Ann, discussing the spirit of place, is here.

Here's the link to the Alliance of Independent Authors again:

Alliance of Independent Authors /

Finally, though a virus has derailed my plans temporarily, I will be launching my first online course very soon - if you're not already on my newsletter list and you want to be among the first to hear, then you can sign up here. You'll get a free productivity guide too!

Friday 2 February 2018

When is being faithful being faithless? Anna Belfrage guest posts about a wife's terrible dilemma

With Alison Morton on the left and Anna Belfrage on the right
 at the HNS conference in London 2014
Yikes, where did January go? It may have been a long, dark month, but it went in the blink of an eye - probably because I've been working full-tilt on a project. All will be revealed soon and if you want to be the first to know, then join my newsletter list at www.fictionfire.co.uk

After this post-Christmas break, I'm delighted to welcome Anna Belfrage to Literascribe, to talk about the inspiration for her story, 'The Sharing of a Husband', which appears in Distant Echoes. Her story shows us a husband and wife who love one another but are in an absolutely impossible situation - I'll let Anna explain why:

In 1984, the Swedish Herrey brothers won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song named ‘Diggiloo, Diggiley’. The Herrey brothers were somewhat exotic in Sweden: they were practising Mormons. At the time, most Swedes would equate Mormons with young men in dark suits who would knock on your door and politely ask for some moments of your time so that they could introduce you to their faith. Those of us who’d watched How the West was Won (a TV series featuring the Macahan family who set out due west in the aftermath of the US Civil War that was a HUGE hit in Sweden) had been presented with a somewhat more sinister version of Mormons: dark clad men who practised polygamy and enticed young gullible girls into plural marriages.

Obviously, this was a gross simplification. There was much more to the Mormons than their take on polygamy.

The Mormon religion saw the light of the day in the early 19th century. The first prophet, Joseph Smith, purportedly had a vision where an angel guided him to discover a number of tables in gold, upon which was inscribed the story of a lost people, the Nephites. This people were the descendants of one Lehi who, inspired by God, had his extended tribe build boats and sailed west, away from the land of Israel and to Central America. Joseph Smith translated the golden plates into what became the Book of Mormon, so named after the angel that pointed Joseph in the direction of the golden tables.
At the time, the world was a restless place: in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the economy was generally unstable. The future looked anything but pink and rosy, and more and more people turned to religion to find some sort of hope. The Awakening was upon us, a period when preachers of all denominations tried to grow their flocks by promising salvation. The young Joseph Smith was so confused by all these preachers, all of them insisting their interpretation of the Christian faith was the right one, that he went into the forest and prayed, hoping for divine guidance. God delivered, telling Joseph to seek guidance only in Scripture, not in charlatans.

Simultaneously with all this religious fervour, the world, and in particular America, saw a number of Utopian movements. These were movements aimed at building a better, fairer world. People traipsed off into the wilds to build a brave new world, aspiring to societies built on equality and freedom.
The religion Joseph Smith presented to the world in the 1830s was to a large extent influenced by Utopian thought. He wanted to build a brand new way of life in which no one went hungry or homeless. Obviously, this appealed. And as Joseph Smith was a charismatic and very handsome man, he was especially appealing to women. 

So far, so good, one could have said. Not so. The Mormons were viewed with scepticism by the established churches, and when Joseph Smith had the vision that had him urging his Mormon brethren to embrace polygamy, he indirectly handed his enemies a loaded gun with which to shoot him. At the time, polygamy was not expressly forbidden by American law, but it was definitely frowned upon. Persecution of Mormons increased, Joseph Smith was arrested and murdered in his prison cell, and the new leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, saw no choice but to lead his people even further west, all the way to present day Utah where the tenacious Mormons would carve out a garden in the desert and establish a new city, Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young was a firm believer in polygamy and considered it to be the duty of every Mormon man to take multiple wives and of every Mormon woman to accept having sister wives. But surely it can’t have been that easy, can it? Jealousy between wives must have caused strife and disharmony, and many men would probably have preferred having only one wife—because they loved the one they had.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Salt Lake City on several occasions. I count many LDS-members (Church of Latter Day Saints is the official name for the religion founded by Joseph Smith) among my friends. And when I ask them what they think of polygamy (which, BTW, is no longer permitted by the Church of Latter Day Saints, hasn’t been since the late 19th century) and what might have driven Joseph Smith to promote it, I get varied answers. No one questions the validity of Joseph’s vision – as the First Prophet, he may not be flawless in the eyes of present-day Mormons, but criticising him is not really on. However, both men and women talk about the sacrifice a plural marriage required: from the man, who had to distribute his time fairly among his wives, from the women, obliged to share their husband.

One of my Salt Lake City friends lent me a biography of one of his ancestors, one of the founding members of the LDS church. This man would end up with three wives, but it was his first wife whom he truly loved, thereby afflicted by guilt because he couldn’t quite summon the same feelings for his other two wives. In his case, he set up separate homes for his wives and spent his life ambulating from one home to the other, fathering close to twenty-four children. He was extremely proud of all his children, and he did his best to be a devoted husband to all his wives – but he only called one of them “my love”.

All of this inspired my short story, The Sharing of a Husband, the story of a young couple in Deseret. The husband is under severe pressure by the elders of the church to take more wives, but his present wife won’t hear of it. But poor Ellie is one lonely voice and Joshua ultimately caves, betraying Ellie to comply with the requirements of his church. Not, I imagine, an easy situation to resolve.

Thank you, Anna!

About Anna Belfrage: Anna is a financial professional with two absorbing interests - history and writing. She has authored the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her ongoing series is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer's rise to power. The latest Graham saga novel is There is Always a Tomorrow - her loyal fans are, no doubt, already looking forward to the next! Anyone who knows Anna finds it impossible to understand just how she manages to be so incredibly productive - but then, she has an ultra-dynamic imagination that never seems to switch off! Anna frequently guests on history blogs and her website is at http://www.annabelfrage.com/, her blog is at https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/ and you can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annabelfrageauthor/ 

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. 

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Previous guest-posts from contributors are herehere and here.

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life and be the first to hear about my new online courses launching in February!