Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Goodreads Reviews

I haven't looked at Goodreads for a while, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the lovely reviews for The Ghostly Father.  Thank you everyone! 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

WHO WRITES ABOUT PLACE? - A guest post by Miriam Drori

Today I'm honoured to welcome on to my blog my great friend and writing buddy Miriam Drori.  

Miriam and I first "met" back in 2012, when we were students in the same online romance-writing workshop.  Since then we have met in person twice, when Miriam has visited the UK.  And our novels from that workshop have now both been published by Crooked Cat.

One thing I noticed particularly about Miriam's novel, Neither Here Nor There (set partly in Jerusalem and partly in London), is its wonderful sense of place.  So I asked Miriam if she might like to write a blog post about place.

Over to you, Miriam…


Who writes about place?

This is the first of two posts I’m doing about place. The second will probably be on Tim Taylor’s blog (although he doesn’t know it yet).

Place is important for us all. It defines our roots and our bases. It goes a long way to defining who we are. It affects everything we create, whether it’s writing, pictures, music or anything else. Off the top of my head, I came up with several song lines about place:

Songs using the word ‘place’

·         There are places I remember – Beatles
·         I had to find the passage back to the place I was before – Eagles (Hotel California)
·         There’s a place for us – West Side Story

Songs about home

·         I’m coming home, I’ve done my time (Tie a Yellow Ribbon)  - Tony Orlando & Dawn
·         The Green, Green Grass of Home  – Tom Jones
·         Homeward Bound – Simon & Garfunkel

I can think of songs about specific places: London, Marakesh, Paris, California.

Of the songs I know in Hebrew (my second language), there are some about Tel-Aviv, Beit She’an, Galillee, the Dead Sea and of course Jerusalem. Also London, San Fransisco, Cairo and other parts of the world. Other songs that invoke place are: Things you see from there, you don’t see from here and Closed kindergarten.

So what about place in writing? Several writers have been quoted as saying, in different ways, that without a place there is no story. The place in question can be real or imaginary, as small as a room or as large as the universe. Whatever it is, our job is to make the reader see it and understand our story in terms of it. So one answer to my question is: all writers write about place.

While that is true, place features more strongly in some stories, even becoming an additional character, while in others it is not so important. Writers who delve deeply into place, it seems to me, are those who have moved countries at least once, or those who have travelled widely.

Last year, I attended an Arvon course in a wonderful setting in Devon. Both the course tutors, and the guest tutor too, have travelled. Ben Faccini has lived in three countries, giving him the right background to write The Water Breather, a novel about a boy and his family who are constantly on the move. Jean McNeil moved from Canada to the UK and has travelled extensively. Her stories are driven by settings all over the world. Anjali Joseph, who is from India, has studied in the UK, and her novels also span countries.
One of several writing seminars I attended this year, called “Wish you were here,” discussed writing about place. The Israeli tutor, Ayelet Tsabari, now lives in Canada and is very conscious of place in her writing. She gave us plenty of good advice, and also mentioned one problem when she read out a scene from one of her stories. She said Canadian and other audiences find the Israeli scene exotic while for us (those attending the seminar) it would seem ordinary.

I had the same thought when I described the setting of my novel, Neither Here Nor There, as exotic. There will be some for whom the setting of Jerusalem is not at all exotic. However, seeing a familiar place through strange eyes can be enlightening, too. Things you take for granted can take on a different light.

Esty, the heroine of Neither Here Nor There, sees familiar places from a very different perspective, now that she has drastically changed her way of life.

 Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, one of many places featured in Neither Here Nor There

Miriam Drori was born and brought up in London, and now lives in Jerusalem where her daughter has left her to hold the female fort against three males.

Following careers as a computer programmer and a technical writer, Miriam has been writing creatively for the past ten years and has had short stories published online and in anthologies. Neither Here Nor There, published on 17 June 2014, is her first published novel.

Miriam began writing in order to raise awareness of social anxiety. Since then the scope of her writing has widened, but she hasn’t lost sight of her original goal.

Miriam’s website:

Neither Here Nor There is available from Crooked Cat BooksAmazon and Smashwords

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

POCKETING THE EXPERIENCE - the story behind Nice Girls Don't

Back in 2008 I did an online Creative Writing course with the Open University.  It was called Start Writing Fiction, and lasted for about three months.  As part of the course the students were set two tutor-marked assignments, one of which involved writing about an emotion. 

The choice of emotion was left up to us, but were advised by our tutor that it was much easier to write convincingly about a negative emotion (such as anger) than about a positive one such as happiness or contentment.  Having tried both, I very quickly discovered that she was right; my attempt at a “positive” piece sounded trite and shallow, whereas the “negative” emotion produced a powerful passage which was so toe-curlingly harrowing that I still cringe whenever I read it.  But the tutor did give me full marks for it, so in that respect at least I must have done something right.

But for a very long time after that, I found I couldn’t write anything which wasn’t dark, or brooding, or in some cases downright depressing.  This wasn’t, I hasten to add, because of any serious angst in my own life – it was purely and simply because I’d got into the mindset that the only way I could write anything “serious” was by going over to the dark side.  Even when, a couple of years later, I made a tentative start on writing a novel (more about that later) I still found it very difficult to shake off that doom-laden mantle.

Then, in January 2012, I chanced across an advertisement for an online workshop run by Sally Quilford, on the subject of writing Pocket Novel romances.  Romance writing was something I’d never had the courage to tackle, but this six-week course looked interesting, manageable and affordable – and I desperately needed to learn how to lighten up my writing.  Despite (to my shame) knowing next to nothing about Pocket Novels, I signed up.

Before the course began I bought and read a few of the DC Thomson Pocket Novels.  It didn’t take long for me to realise that a Pocket Novel offers a lovely dose of escapism, and is usually intended to be read in a single sitting (ideally whilst either lounging on a sunny beach or curled up in front of a roaring log fire).  I ought to be able to write something like this, I thought.  After all, how hard can it be…?

How naïve of me.

I very quickly learned that writing a Pocket Novel is nowhere near as simple as the experts make it look.  Despite their modest price and unpretentious appearance, Pocket Novels are no less “proper” novels than those costing several times as much.  So much so that they are recognised by the mighty Romantic Novelists’ Association.  No trivial matter, then.

As I’d found during the OU “emotion” exercise, easy reading makes for very hard writing.  The story needs to be light but not bland, readable but not simplistic, and with likeable and credible characters and enough action and conflict to keep the reader’s interest until the last page.  Not easy, when the Pocket Novel Rulebook is (or at least was at the time) a long list of Thou-Shalt-Nots.  All plots need conflict, but how on earth can a writer produce a convincing plot when so many of the usual sources of conflict (crime, infidelity, divorce, death) are totally off-limits? 

And yet, under Sally’s expert tuition and kind encouragement, I eventually began to learn that yes, it is possible – if one regards conflict in terms of a problem that needs to be solved.  This can take the form of (for example) fear, or insecurity, or separation – all of which can be tackled without recourse to any of the traditionally more traumatic themes.  As one of the rules for a Pocket Novel is that the Happy Ever After ending is non-negotiable, the story is all about the journey towards it, and how those problems are overcome along the way.

By the end of the six weeks I had a title (Nice Girls Don’t), a hero, a heroine, a few secondary characters, a basic storyline and a selection of scenes.  Plus a whole new set of friends and writing buddies – all of whom are every bit as valuable to me as everything I learned during the course.  It took me another few months to produce the rest of the book – during which time one of the characters completely floored me by saying something which went on to change the entire course of the subplot.  Until then I had no idea that my fictional creations could take on personalities of their own!  Clearly I still had a lot to learn.

And that learning curve included one of the hardest lessons of all: rejection.  Nice Girls Don’t was turned down by both of the DC Thomson outlets – probably because it didn’t tick all their very stringent boxes.  I remain full of admiration for anyone who can manage to crack that very hard market.

So Nice Girls Don’t was relegated to the murky depths of my hard drive whilst I turned my attention back to the novel I’d started a couple of years earlier.  This was a retelling of the traditional Romeo & Juliet story, but a version in which the star-crossed lovers didn’t die.  At that stage I was writing it mainly for myself, because it was the ending I wanted, but I was now able to go back to the manuscript with a fresher and more critical eye, and a better knowledge of what a publisher might look for.  In short, the Pocket Novel workshop taught me how to take my writing more seriously and how to develop a more professional approach.  As a result I was able to fine-tune the manuscript and eventually submit it to a publisher.  The Ghostly Father, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, was officially released (very appropriately, given the subject-matter) on St Valentine’s Day 2014.

After Crooked Cat accepted The Ghostly Father, I was inspired to resurrect the manuscript of Nice Girls Don't and submit it to them.  Once again, they have been brave enough to take me on as an author.  Today, Nice Girls Don't (a romantic mystery set in 1982) is officially released.  And it still hasn't fully sunk in.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Gobsmacked, proud, and humbled - and a favour to ask please

Hello again, dear friends.  I wonder if I could ask you a HUGE favour?

Yesterday I discovered that The Ghostly Father has been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award for 2014, in the "books nominated by readers" category.  Needless to say, I was gobsmacked, proud and humbled, all at the same time.

But this is only the start.  If it's going to stand any chance of getting even to the longlist stage, it's going to need a lot of support - and that apparently includes the number of nominations it gets at this stage. So, if any of you (and/or any of your friends) have read it, enjoyed it, and think it stands any chance, please could I ask you to add your own nomination to the list?

Here's the link to the site.  All the instructions are in the main article, but briefly, you need to make your nomination in the "Comments" thread at the end of the article, beginning with the word "Nomination."  All nominations close at midnight on 13 July 2014.

Thank you all in advance :-)

Saturday, 28 June 2014

BROTHERS IN ARMS - a joint post with Ailsa Abraham

Whilst recently chatting over a glass or three of wine, I and fellow-Crooked Cat author Ailsa Abraham realised that our male lead characters (Lorenzo in The Ghostly Father and Iamo in Alchemy and its sequel Shaman’s Drum) have a great deal in common.  They come from similar backgrounds, they’re both monks, and they’re both somewhat unorthodox in their outlook on life.  So we decided to get the two of them together and ask them a few questions.  

Let's start at the beginning – what made you enter a monastery in the first place?

LORENZO – I had no choice.  I was told by my father that this was what I must do, and he threatened to disown me if I did not obey him.  To say that this was a shock does not even come close to describing how I felt; he was a kind and just man, and for him to behave thus was completely out of character.  I did not find out the real reason for his actions until almost twenty years later.

IAMO – I had felt a sense of vocation from my early years and studied with the Temple while I was at university. It was a natural progression for me to take my vows as soon as I finished my studies.

Did you have a happy childhood? Had it always been your ambition/vocation?

LORENZO – My childhood was privileged.  My father was a Venetian count and we lived in a palazzo.  All our needs were taken care of by our servants.  I had one brother, three years my senior.  Sadly I never knew my mother, who had died at my birth.

It was never my ambition or vocation to enter Holy Orders.  My one desire was to become a physician.

IAMO – Not particularly. Like Lorenzo I was born into an aristocratic family but I found myself unable to take an interest in the things expected of me and I became interested in the Path very early on. I had almost no contact with my parents but adored my Nanny. It was probably through her that I found my vocation.

Were you not bothered about the vows of chastity etc that you had to take? Did you give those a lot of consideration before making your decision?

LORENZO – Having lost the love of my life before I entered the order, the vows of chastity did not cause me any problems.  I knew that I could never replace her.

IAMO – in my Order we were only required to take celibacy vows after a certain time and by then I was so set on my career as a priest that I gave it very little thought. I had never been in love and felt that the pro outweighed the con inestimably.

Once in the order, were you happy?

LORENZO – To my great surprise, yes.  I am sure this is due in no small part to the influence of Fra’ Roberto, the Father Superior who became my own “ghostly father.”  He displayed a level of kindness, sympathy, compassion and good sense which I had never anticipated of a monastic.

IAMO – Probably less so than Lorenzo. I became the assistant to the High Priestess of our Order and my responsibilities were onerous. I failed in my duties several times. Although Scribe has never said so, I think she has hinted that I was itching for adventure.

Did you ever envisage leaving the order?

LORENZO – Never.  Indeed, I did not imagine that it would even be possible.  I had always understood that the vows were for life.

IAMO – As far as my past life was concerned, I had burned my bridges. All contact with my family had been cut and they were furious that I was not going to return to give them the heir they wanted. Not having considered any other way of life, I never imagined anything else.

Did you have much of a life on the outside “in the world” before taking your vows?

LORENZO –- I was eighteen when I first entered the friary as a postulant, but for the year before that I was apprentice to an apothecary.  This is where I learned the skills which prepared me for my later tasks as herbalist and infirmarian.

IAMO – Yes. Like all privileged little boys of my class I went to prep and public school. My studies were then pursued at university because I wanted to study under Professor Oliver, so I had the life of a student with all the attendant excesses. Also, in an effort to marry me off and dissuade me from the monastic life, my mother had shoved various prospective brides at me. Yes, I think it's fair to say I had my share of “real life”.

How did you decide on your monastic name?

LORENZO –- My real name is Sebastiano Lorenzo Matteo Giovanni Battista Da Porto.  I was always known as Sebastiano, but when I came to take my vows I was asked to choose another name because there was already a Fra’ Sebastiano in the friary.  I chose Lorenzo because it is my second given name.

IAMO – I would rather not reveal that as I have been Iamo for so long now and will stay that way. Perhaps if I just say that it is composed of my initials.

When you entered the order, what did you miss most of your earlier life?  How did you cope without it?

LORENZO – It was all so different from what I had previously known that for a long time I was not comparing like with like, so the question did not arise.  Once I had accustomed myself to the new way of life, the biggest difference was being a servant rather than a master.  But that was the way of the Franciscans – their task was to serve.

IAMO – Nothing. Oh yes, the occasional cigarette. Mostly I was very happy in the Temple.

Was there anything you were glad to leave behind when you entered the order?

LORENZO – Unhappiness.  I had just had to bid farewell to the love of my life.  And also (I am ashamed to say this), following my father’s inexplicable change of demeanour, I was glad that I should not have to have any further contact with him.

IAMO – Yes, killing. My father belongs to the “hunting, shooting, fishing” brigade and such things leave me cold. I cannot bear the taking of sentient life for no reason. I'm vegetarian and the only things I kill willingly are demons, but that is a moot point. Are they in fact “living” in the first place? I was glad to get out of a world I didn't fit into.

From what we can gather, neither of you seemed to have had much difficulty about bending the rules when it suited you.  Do you feel guilty about that?

LORENZO – I had to (as you describe it) “bend the rules” on one particular occasion – which was to help a desperate person out of a desperate situation.  I have no feelings of guilt about that – but I cannot even begin to imagine how I would feel if the outcome of my actions had been different.

IAMO – I have to agree with my brother monk here. I didn't just bend the rules, I broke them, threw them on the ground and jumped up and down on them. I had to pay for that but no, I do not regret it for a moment because I did it for the finest of motives – love.

Thank you both, gentlemen – this has been a fasinating discussion!

This post is also available on Ailsa's blog here.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Indie Author Land Interview

One of my fellow Crooked Cat authors recently told me about the wonderful site Indie Author Land.  Here is the interview I did for them about The Ghostly Father.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Gifts of the Spirit - a guest post by Ailsa Abraham

Today on my blog I have a very special guest – my fellow Crooked Cat author: the fun, fabulous and bewitchingly fascinating Ailsa Abraham.

Welcome, Ailsa.  I’ve been fascinated by your intriguing postings about religion – and I’ve noticed that your beliefs appear to be very diverse.  Please tell me – how do you reconcile them? 

Thanks for asking, Sue. I know that my mentioning of various belief systems confuses many people, and I'm asked, “Well what exactly ARE you?” The answer is simple. I'm a spiritual being who has come to the conclusion that it is all one and only the ways of expressing it, rituals and forms of words change. The trappings are not important, it is what is in your heart and the way you treat other people that matter.

That may sound radical but my Quaker friends agree. They don't use the word “God,” they say “Spirit” – which fits in perfectly with my Shamanistic training.

It's probably that I was exposed to most of the world's major religions at an early age. My father was Jewish, but played the organ at the local Anglican church because he was the only organist they had. Mother had been brought up Presbyterian, nearly converted to Catholicism but settled on “All purpose Protestant” after marrying my father.

So from early years I was just as at home in a synagogue as I was in a church. Then came my life surrounded by Muslims. Because my late aunt worked in the Sudan, we had very close connections with her students who were sent to the UK to study in British hospitals. I played with the other little girls and learned that in their house I put on a tirha to cover my head and we ate with our right hands only (by dint of being made to sit on my left hand to avoid mistakes).

Coming into adulthood, I was drawn to the pagan path.  I studied Wicca up to High Priestess level, but shortly after my ordination I had to leave and so was without a coven. That was when I took up Shamanism, which respects the spirit of all things.

I believe very sincerely that there is a Spirit of the Universe, but the human mind is incapable of taking in the immensity of it, so man makes God in his own image. That's fine. The Green Lady of the pagans is the Blue and White Lady of the Catholics, Quan Yin of the Buddhists and just an expression of the feminine side of the infinite.

Quan Yin

I was only co-opted into the Catholic community because I live in a nominally Roman Catholic country and I'm a healer. People in the village came to me for healing, but were uncomfortable thinking it was some form of sorcery. They wanted to believe that my healing gifts were from their God, or (more precisely) from the Virgin Mary. Fine, no problem, I'll connect with her as well as any other. Keeping other people happy and doing “When in Rome” is a way of life for me. Particularly “when in a Roman's what is expected of you.”

I totally respect anyone's faith or absence of one. I don't force anything I feel to be true on anyone else, and I appreciate it if they do the same to me. I will join in with whatever festivals, celebrations or customs are expected with a few exceptions. When the local corner shop was run by a charming Hindu couple, I made a point of paying homage with a Namaste to their shrine to Shiva and Lakshmi. On buses in Malta where there were religious tableaux above the driver, I crossed myself as I saw others doing. I may not have spoken the language, but I got my arm patted by a few old dears for knowing how to behave.

It comes down to respecting Spirit, in whatever form, whether it is a tree, flower, statue,touching a mezuzza, lighting incense... it really isn't important. Respect is important. Not upsetting people is important.

One final thought – as one who has been on the pagan path, Roman Catholicism is very easy to switch over to. It is very feminine-centred, and their Mary looks awfully like the Goddess she replaced all those centuries ago. I say good morning to the Lady on the Hill every day, because I think She understands that it doesn't matter what colour she is wearing, we know what we are both on about.

If this upsets anyone, I'm truly sorry.  But that is probably because you think you have the One True Answer...and I don't believe that anyone has that. Not me for sure!

What a fascinating and thought-provoking post, Ailsa.  Thank you very much for sharing it!