I’ve never been able to write short stories. No doubt part of the problem is that I don’t often read short stories. With a few notable exceptions (Saki, Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link), I don’t particularly like short stories. I’m generally of the opinion that if something is worth telling, it’s worth settling down, getting comfy and spending a good few hours with.

But people are forever telling aspiring writers they should enter competitions – and most writing competitions are for short stories. So occasionally I find myself knuckling down and giving it a try. Most of the time what I end up producing is a story fragment: the beginning of what obviously ought to be a much longer work, or a snapshot of a moment, that er doesn’t actually tell a story at all.

Back in January I learnt of a zombie short story competition being run by SFX magazine, to be judged by Zom-B and Cirque du Freak author, Darren Shan. The criteria were that it had to feature a santa outfit and christmas lights, and be no more than 1500 words.

1500 words! That’s nothing. What on earth can you say that’s worth saying in 1500 words??

Nevertheless I determined to try. One night, instead of sleeping, I had an idea for the story, and I crept out of bed in the wee hours to jot down some notes. I expected that, as is often the way with insomnia inspired notes, they would turn out to be nonsensical gibberings. But in the morning the notes still seemed to show promise, and I set about writing the story.

I finished the draft that afternoon, and set it aside to mature. The next problem I have with short story competitions is that my writing process moves at a glacial pace. Those who have been waiting 2+ years for Kikimora to be released know this to be true.

I generally rewrite every scene several times before I’m done, and I don’t trust anything I’ve written to be any good until it has sat untouched for a good few months and I can come back and read it with fresh eyes.

Obviously you do not get that luxury when entering a competition. I began my story, The Big Guy, just a week before the closing date. The next day I decided it was utter nonsense, and I had better write something else.

I came up with a completely different idea, a more conventional survivors-of-the-zombie-apocalypse scenario – though still, I hoped, with some entertaining quirks to the trope.

I wrote a couple of opening scenes I was pleased with (I’m particularly proud of the scene where the hungover protagonist has to fight her zombie co-workers in the toilets (after passing out during the office christmas party), with only a bottle of bleach and bog brush as weapons) – and then I ran out of word count. I pared down those two opening scenes until nothing I liked remained, wrote in the next couple of scenes, again ran out of word count.

I stripped it back still further, I reached an end point, of sorts. I read it back. It was useless. The set up had promise, but a 1500 word short story was not the platform for this particular story. It read like the opening of a TV series, a British Walking Dead with added goofiness and ill-advised drunken sex.

I still wasn’t sure about The Big Guy (I’d only had chance to rewrite it three times). Was the tone right? Was it too silly? Too depressing? An awkward mixture of both those things? I very much suspected it was.

But on the plus side it was the first short story I’ve ever written which had a beginning, middle and end; that told an actual story, and did it all in less than 1500 words. That in itself seemed an achievement. And so I submitted it.

Almost two months later the editor of SFX emailed to say I’d won the competition, that Darren Shan and the other judges loved The Big Guy. To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement.

I went back to reread my story, and of course wanted to take a red pen to it. How did I let that line stay in it? What’s with that woeful description? Was I drunk when I wrote it? But apparently it was good enough. And perhaps the lesson to be learnt here (as well as to keep on trying) is that structure might be more important than fine prose? Get the shape of the story right (and I do feel confident that The Big Guy’s story structure is sound and solid), and the fine detail of precisely which words you use – although clearly still important – might not be quite as vital as the story itself (readers of Dan Brown surely realised this a long time ago. I am late to the party).

So will I give up my many months gestation on new writing? Allow it to pass the gate rough and ready? Not a chance. What I will do though is try to concentrate more on the shape, the load-bearing pillars of my stories. I’m pretty sure that will stand me in good stead.

You can read my winning entry in this month’s SFX (out today allegedly, though not yet in my local Tescos). Pics to follow!

A huge thanks to the SFX team and to Darren Shan for providing me with a much needed boost when I needed it most. Cheers guys.

Because you seriously can’t have too much of this sort of thing, I am shamelessly stealing Alyssa Rosenberg’s idea of telling Hollywood how to fix itself and produce films about women, for women, starring women.

In her original piece, Rosenberg says that “the number of leading roles for women has actually fallen since 2002, from 16 percent of protagonists in top-grossing films to 12 percent.” TWELVE PERCENT. Yeesh.

Though I totally applaud her concept, I have to admit I am not familiar with a single one of the books she referenced. I read something else by Tamora Pierce one time, but that’s as far as it goes.

So, without further ado, here are my suggestions for stories Hollywood should be telling, and the actresses to help them tell those stories:

Jennifer Lawrence as Murcatto, ‘the Snake of Talins’, Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books inhabit a very distinct world which is explored over many volumes. However, Best Served Cold is a standalone novel with a female protagonist I hesitate to describe as tough as nails. She makes nails look like they’re made of blancmange.

As you may gather from the title, it’s a grand revenge drama. Women never get to star in revenge dramas (with the notable exception of Kill Bill). It always bugged me in the Crow that after Eric Draven is murdered, and his girlfriend is raped and murdered – he’s the one who gets to come back for vengeance. Surely she was more wronged? More deserving of revenge and closure? Sigh.

So it’s a revenge drama, it’s also a heist – two things that Hollywood loves – and it’s insanely violent. In the wake of Game of Thrones, grim dark fantasy is big business. Hollywood, you are crazy not to be making this film already!

Sophie Turner and Stephanie Cole as Sophie Hatter in Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Now, I know Hiyao Miyazaki already did a pretty good job at a film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ much loved Howl’s Moving Castle. But two things: 1) we haven’t seen a live action version, and 2) it was a very loose adaptation. I would love to see a much more faithful version of the story: very English, very traditional.

Turner could do a good job of showing us Sophie Hatter as a mousey, put upon young shop assistant – nurturing a spark that will come to fruition by the end of the story. Cole would be marvellous as the cranky, forthright Sophie after she falls under a spell that ages her 90 years – and allows her to blossom into her true, assertive, magical self.

Saorise Ronan as Tally in Uglies, Pretties, etc

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy (later quartet) is perfect for Hollywood right now: dystopian societies on the verge of collapse! Underdog revolutionaries! And at the heart of it all a questioning of all our trivial, shallow, self obsessed values, of our desire to inhabit some perpetual arrested development. All that, plus some kick-ass action and extreme wish fulfilment makeovers (if you like that sort of thing). Ten years since it’s release, it’s only becoming more relevant to our celebrity trivia obsessed culture.

Ronan is a fine actress, and has action credentials (see Hanna). She has the kind of face that can be plain or stunning, depending how she’s presented. And although significantly older than Westerfeld’s protagonist, is able to play young. Make this happen!

Maisie Williams as Cat Royal in The Diamond of Drury Lane, etc

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia GoldingAfter her attention grabbing performance as the child refugee-turned-killer in Game of Thrones, I’m sure Maisie Williams has offers queuing round the block – probably for action-oriented roles. But I’d like to see her do something a bit different.

Julia Golding’s Cat Royal books are joyful, exuberant, perfect entertainment for children and adults alike. Cat is smart, passionate, impetuous, and kind-hearted. She’s more of an evader than a fighter, but she’s undeniably tough. I bet Maisie isn’t getting offered any roles like that, and I think she’d be great at it.

Raffey Cassidy as Melanie in The Girl with all the Gifts

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
I’ve struggled to come up with a young lead for M R Carey’s terrifying tale of the sympathetic but deadly zombie girl on the run in post-apocalyptic London, but Raffey Cassidy fits the bill. She has a surprising amount of experience for such a young actress – she played the young Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, and is set to co-star as a robot with George Clooney in Tomorrowland. She also has a definite look – you could believe there’s something a bit uncanny about her.

Hayley Atwell as Chava in the Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
Helene Wecker’s magical, wonder-filled tale of hard won love and understanding between a plain, Jewish golem and passionate Syrian Djinni is surely one that’s worth telling on the big screen.

Is it too obvious to cast Gwendoline Christie as the large, awkward golem, Chava? I think so. So how about the far less obvious Hayley Atwell? Yes, she’s gorgeous, but Hollywood can plainify her, and I think she exemplifies that warm, down-to-earth endurance that is central to Chava’s character.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Emily in Lexicon

Lexicon by Max Barry
Moretz has proved her acting and action chops in such diverse films as Let Me In and Kick Ass. She would be perfect as the vulnerable, manipulative, hyper-intelligent and ass-kicking Emily in last year’s barn-storming techno/psychological thriller, Lexicon by Max Barry.

So those are my picks for female-oriented films I’d love to see. What are yours? The joy of this exercise is that anyone could and should be doing it – the more the merrier. Perhaps eventually Hollywood will sit up and take notice?

Every day approximately seven zillion squillion books are self published. And the world takes absolutely no notice, assuming they are all rubbish. No doubt some of them are. Others, while not rubbish, are likely flawed. But there are also perfectly decent books which are self published.

Why are they self published if they’re so good? There can be a variety of reasons. A publisher invests a deal of time and money into every title they publish. They have their own agendas and criteria to meet, and simply being ‘good’ isn’t necessarily enough. Maybe it’s good, but they can’t see a large market. Maybe it’s good, but similar to titles they already produce. Maybe it’s good, but currently unfashionable. Maybe it’s good – really good – but just not quite as good as those other ten titles that they have decided to publish.

Some authors claim they self publish by choice; they retain control over every stage of the process, and reap far greater profits. Personally I find this doubtful. Sure, you make a greater profit on each sale – but only if people are buying your book. 70% of nothing is still nothing.

The self published author’s greatest challenges are visibility and credibility. No one knows or cares about their book. The only people they can persuade to read it are likely to be friends and family (certainly early on in the process). They would love for a real, objective reviewer to read and blog about it, but without some initial credibility there is little reason for such a person to take a chance on it.

This is where you can help. Those handful of reviews the book manages to garner in its early months are vital. The bottom line is that the more reviews a book receives the greater its credibility. Unquestionably.

But not all reviews are equal. While any review is better than none (yes, even a one star review), there are things you can do which make your review really valuable to the author, and things which make it … less so.

You have the best intentions. You want to help out the author; you certainly don’t want to upset or offend them. So you go write them that review. Here are the top three pitfalls to avoid.

1) Five Stars

range of reviews

Range of reviews on Amazon for The Golem and Djinni by Helene Wecker

You may think the greatest favour you can do the author is to award the book five stars (assuming five is the maximum on whatever platform you are reviewing). Unfortunately nothing screams ‘Self published author with only friends for reviewers’ like a very small number of reviews all awarding five stars.

That is not the natural pattern of reviewing. Go check out any mainstream, popular book. It will have 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star reviews. It will have a range, maybe a bell curve, with most of the reviews clustering around four or five stars. Even a work of renowned genius does not garner uniformly five star reviews. It doesn’t garner uniform reviews at all. People have different opinions about it, and they don’t all think they’d better give it the same number of stars as the last person, so that they don’t look stingy.

Keep it realistic. Honestly.

2) I don’t usually read this genre…

‘I don’t normally read sci-fi/children’s books/romances, but this had me captivated from the beginning.’ You might think you’re saying, ‘Read this! It’s brilliant! Even if you think you don’t like the genre. Honest. It’s fantastic.’ But what you’re actually saying is, ‘The only reason I read this book is because the author is a friend, and asked me to.’

3) Boris has done a fantastic job

So the author is your brother, your old school pal, your work colleague. Maybe you don’t know anyone else who’s written a book. It’s pretty cool, right? Referring to the author by their first name subtley lets the world know that you personally know them. You, by association, are pretty cool too.

Or not. Again, what you are really saying is, ‘I only read this book because I know the author.’ It might be true, but it damages their credibility.

Similarly, if you happen to have the same surname as the author, maybe this is the one circumstance where ‘any review at all’ is NOT better than none :-S

If you can avoid those three pitfalls then your review could really help your author pal. So that’s what not to do. But what should you do?

Be honest

I know you don’t want to offend Boris, and really he has done awfully well, and you’re proud of him, but that bit in the middle with the elephant and the volcano didn’t entirely make sense, did it? The plot got a bit confusing around the time the mermen turned up through the oceanic rift, and come to think of it, the comedy sidekick otter was actually a bit irritating.

It’s okay to say that. I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to say it again:

It’s okay to criticise your friend’s book!

Say that it’s interesting, say that it’s funny, say that you enjoyed it* – just don’t be afraid to also say, “But…” And don’t be afraid to deduct stars accordingly. Your author pal will thank you in the long run. Hopefully, if they have a bit of realism about their situation, they will thank you immediately.

Your friend has most likely spent years writing their book. They’ve put off social events, missed playing with the kids, maybe they’ve taken time off work, with the accompanying loss in earnings. They are serious about writing books and making a success of it. Patting them on the head and saying, ‘well done, that’s brilliant’ doesn’t help them. If there are areas they need to improve on then tell them. They want to get it right. They want to improve. But if no one tells them where they’re going wrong, how will they ever get better? Meanwhile, they are sitting scratching their heads, thinking, ‘if my book is so damn fantastic, how come I’ve only sold 20 copies..?’

In conclusion, you can help your author pal with their two main problems of visibility and credibility. You help with their visibility simply by writing any review at all. You can help with their credibility by reviewing their book as though it was written by someone you don’t know; by being honest, by pointing out flaws.

With a small range of honest reviews their book stands a far greater chance of being taken seriously by other readers and reviewers than if it only has a handful of glowing, five star reviews.

On behalf of all self publishing authors, thank you for taking the time to read this – and for every review you write for self published authors. It really does help.

Other authors, do you agree with this article? What would you add to the list of review pitfalls?

* assuming those things are true.

Today I am very pleased to recieve a couple of signed books from the delightful Krista D Ball.

Alongside her novels, Krista also researches and compiles authors guides. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an entertaining and informative look at how food works (or should work!) in fantasy novels. Drawing on historical sources, as well as some enthusiastic home experimentation, Krista presents a lively guide to all things mead, ale and roast boar related.

signed books from Krista D Ball

signed books from Krista D Ball

A month or so ago I won a competition to supply Krista with an interesting food related fact. Having watched many series of QI, I had no difficulty in recalling that an allergy to Brazil nuts can be triggered by sexual contact with someone who has eaten them; it is the only food allergy which can be triggered in quite this way.

I was not the only entrant to explore the strangeness of Brazil nuts, but was fortunate to be chosen the winner. For this I received not only a signed copy of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, but also Krista’s new writers’ guide: Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes, a Regency and Steampunk field guide.

Huzzah! I look forward very much to reading it. Thank you, Krista :-D

You can visit Krista’s blog here.
You can buy What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank here, and Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes here.

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

Did you know Getty are now allowing bloggers and other social media users to use their images for free?

Of course there’s a catch. You are actually hosting an iframe which embeds the image from Getty directly into your page. If privacy issues are a concern, then you may want to read more about what that means for you and your users.

I’m not sure how big a deal the privacy issue is (I’ve never been too good at corporate paranoia. Axe-murderer hiding under the bed paranoia, yes, absolutely!), and it allows me a sudden cornucopia of eye candy that would never previously have been within reach.

It’s also really easy – but bizarrely unadvertised. I’ve been looking around for a good half hour or so, thinking: okay, I’ve read all these reports that I can use Getty images, but, uh, how? Do I need to register? Where are some instructions? I’ve found an image I want, I can see payment options, but not a lot else…

Wonder no more! See the </> symbol below my image above? That’s all you need. Click that and you get a little snippet of code. Paste that into the html view of your web page, and bob’s your uncle. Pretty image on your site.

Hurrah.

If you need more info than that, see Getty’s own instructions.

Happy image searching!

me with fizz

me with champagne (not today, but I’ll look very similar when we crack a bottle open shortly – just wearing ten extra layers…) [photo credit: Uncut ID]

I know I have not been a good blogger recently. Work commitments stepped up and this left me with little writing time. What time I had I naturally wanted to spend finishing my two-years-overdue work in progress, Kikimora.

And today I finally have. Hallelujah! It’s been a hell of a slog. I originally envisaged it as a short, simple story, something a bit easier after the three plus years I spent on Darklands. Well, here we are four years later and 40,000 words over budget…

The edit can wait for another day. Today I’m just happy with having reached a draught (certainly not a first draft, and definitely not the last) – but a draught which is of reasonable enough quality that I may manage to hand it over to a trusted ally for some constructive criticism. Or I may sit in my darkened room for another year with a red pen, crossing words out and putting slightly different words back in…

The main issue is that it’s too damned long, clocking in at a hefty 136,000 words. Darklands was 114,000, and I thought that was really a bit too long.

The draught I’ve just completed started out eight months ago with the lofty intention of trimming the manuscript by a quarter. Instead I added about 10,000 words :-/

But I will persevere. I know roughly where I need to trim. I like the beginning, I like the end. The middle section sags and is all doughy and bleh. I need to whittle it down, and liven it up. As I say, a job for another day. Today I am so happy to have finally reached this milestone.

As a taster, here is the glossary I have just written, introducing characters from a variety of mythologies who either make an appearance or are referenced:

Baba Yaga A dreadful witch. She flies through the air in a pestle and mortar, and lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s legs.
Bacchus The Roman god of wine and revelry.
Banshee A female spirit in Celtic mythology, said to foretell death with a terrible wailing.
Czernoboch A Slavic god with dual roles of death and rebirth.
Djinn A genie.
Hecate Greek goddess of witchcraft, poison and necromancy.
Leshy The guardian of the forest. Fierce and wild; humans should be wary of him.
North Wind A frequent character in many mythologies, particularly European ones – bluff, fierce and unpredictable.
Old Silenus Companion of Bacchus, habitually drunken and riding on a donkey.
Orpheus Renowned musician from Greek mythology whose music caused riots and hysteria.
Red Cross Knight Saint George, as described battling with a dragon in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem of 1590, The Fairy Queen.
River Styx In Greek mythology the river you must cross to reach the land of the dead.
Rusalka In Slavic folklore a water spirit, much like a mermaid. Fierce and treacherous, their aim is to lure people to drown in their pools.

Any of that particularly take your fancy? I know my sister is looking forward to reading about Leshy, Baba Yaga and the Rusalkas – they are after all the main mythological presence in a Slavic set story. But the story’s characters are well read and curious, and well aware of other folklore traditions.