Audiobooks – Part 4

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1.   a soundproofed workspace;
  2.   differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.   learning how to edit and master.

In Part 3, I talked about the workspace and how I had set up a ‘recording studio’ (such a grand title doesn’t fit the reality) in my younger daughter’s bedroom at the back of the house, away from the main road. Nothing’s changed there—this is the best I can do.

Time to talk about the second of my concerns. As anticipated, it turned out that my difficulties would amount to more than merely trying to differentiate between characters, so I’m going to look at the process of narration as a whole.

There are various aspects to consider before starting to record, such as the positioning of the microphone, and the time of day when your recording environment is likely to be quietest and your voice at its optimum.

Here’s something I learned the hard way: it’s vital to ensure your recording software is set to record using the correct microphone. Since my professional microphone ‘lives’ in the recording studio, I can only change the default setting once I’m all set up and it’s connected to my laptop.

One evening I recorded four short stories, one after another, while ‘in the zone’—my pronunciation and enunciation were top drawer, my pacing felt spot-on, I barely made a mistake. When I was back downstairs ready to start editing, that something was wrong became evident as soon as I opened the first recording. The wave pattern was peculiar: all spikes and no flat lines, not even on the silences. The sound coming through my headphones confirmed what my eyes had already told me: my voice sounded distant and tinny, overlaid by crackles and hums and weird popping noises. All four recordings were the same—worthless.

It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong: I had forgotten to set Audacity to record through the USB microphone. The stories had been recorded through the laptop’s inbuilt microphone, which I hadn’t been speaking directly into and which, in any case, is unsuited to capturing sound to the standard required. Live and learn—I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Another time I sat down to edit a new recording, only to find my voice overlaid by a distant humming noise that I hadn’t noticed while recording and which rendered another lengthy effort useless.

It again took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. One of my daughters had been charging her electric toothbrush in the bathroom next door to my recording studio. We live in a modern house where the internal walls are slightly thicker than cardboard and the microphone had picked up the electrical hum. Again, it’s now something I make sure to check before starting to record.

Onto the recording process itself and my physical limitations.

Over thirty years ago, when in my early twenties, two of my teeth—one of the front incisors and the tooth next to it—were snapped at the roots. My dentist was able to straighten them, but warned that I was likely to lose them one day. ‘One day’ turned out to be around eighteen months ago; since then I’ve had to wear a denture that affixes to the roof of my mouth. It was only when sitting down to attempt narrating for the first time that I realised the effect the denture has upon my speech.

Where the fake teeth butt up to my real teeth, there’s a gap which occasionally, especially on words with a pronounced ‘ess’ sound, causes me to whistle. My tongue sometimes slaps against the plastic denture plate. The denture causes me to slur or mumble certain words. (I’ve tried narrating without wearing the denture, but that’s worse—without it, I struggle on ‘th’ and ‘ff’ sounds; I can’t say fairer than that, boom boom.)

It’s a disadvantage for audio work. When I realise I’ve whistled or mumbled during recording, it’s fine because I simply re-record that part, knowing I can remove the bungled section during editing. It makes the recording (and editing) process longer, but it’s something I accept I have to put up with until I can get implants to replace the denture. It’s more problematic when I whistle/mumble but don’t realise at the time—more on that when I come to talk about editing in a future instalment.

As for my inability to perform accents, I’ve tried and failed, and concluded that it’s not something I can learn to do, except perhaps by having professional voice acting lessons, and probably not even then. I can do an identifiably Irish or Scottish or Australian accent for the odd stereotypical phrase or two (“G’day, cobber!”), but it lasts as long as the average sneeze before deteriorating into some weird intonation that sounds like a cross between Welsh and, I don’t know, Martian, or something off-planet.

How, then, to differentiate between characters holding a conversation, especially when there are only two speaking and so there may not be many dialogue tags in the source material? I experimented with having one character speak deeper and/or quicker than the other, but found it difficult to be consistent, and the finished recording usually sounded ludicrous and amateur. After many, and I mean many, hours of trial and error, I settled on not trying to differentiate between them at all and relying on the listener to know who’s speaking from context. Now and again, I might throw in an extra dialogue tag during recording if I think the listener needs an additional cue.

Then there’s lack of knowledge about pronunciation. I’ve blogged about The Avid Reader’s Curse, where a reader might only have encountered a word through reading and so has no idea how to pronounce it. There are a surprising number of them.

And there are words I know how to pronounce, but that nevertheless keep tripping me up. ‘Anemone’, for instance, and ‘algae’ (I keep wanting to pronounce it to rhyme with ‘guy’, instead of the correct ‘ghee’). Or ‘pasty complexion’; I know that ‘pasty’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tasty’, but my traitorous brain insists on making me pronounce it during recording as the meat-filled parcel of pastry.Some word combinations I stumble over for no apparent reason. ‘Smoky oakiness’ is one. ‘Or harpist’s’ is another. There’s a story in Pond Life with a character named Jake; at one point of the story, I kept calling him Jack, usually without noticing. Fortunately, it was during the practice phase and the recording would be deleted anyway. By the time I came to record the final version, I knew what to look out for.

The practice phase. Yeah, that lasted weeks. Hour upon hour of recording the same material, experimenting with distance from and angle to the microphone, voice tone, pacing, breathing. I kept at it until I could no longer stand reading the same stuff aloud knowing it would be deleted. It was time to start recording in earnest and get to grips with editing.

Editing, hmm. More on this in Part 5. Till then…

Guest Post – Desiree Villena

Today I’m delighted to host Desiree Villena, who’s going to talk about self-editing, a topic I have discussed myself on occasion. Over to Desiree…

5 Common Self-Editing Mistakes to Avoid

Editing your own manuscript is one of those capricious endeavours that’s high-risk, high-reward. On one hand, if you’re able to perform an effective self-edit , you can maintain complete creative control over your work and save money on editing services down the line. Even if you intend to hire an editor regardless, an initial round of self-editing can make their job a lot easier (and their final invoice a lot lower) than you might think.

On the other hand, without the right information and expectations going into this process, you could end up spending hours on a self-edit that barely improves — or even degrades — your manuscript. To prevent this from happening, you can’t just rely on what you should do; you also have to know what not to do! That’s where this post comes in. Here are five all-too-common self-editing mistakes to avoid, both for your sake and your future readers’.

1. Diving in immediately

Sam touches on this in the post linked above, but it’s such an unequivocal blunder that it bears repeating: do not, under any circumstances, start editing your manuscript the day you finish it (or even the day after that!). For one thing, you deserve a break after all your hard work; for another, you need some space in order to evaluate your book as objectively as possible. This space allows you to detach emotionally from both your prose and your story, giving you the capacity to see where your sentences might be overwrought, or your plot a little bit patchy.

Writers have varying opinions on the ideal amount of time to wait before editing. I’d recommend a six-week minimum, though I agree with the above post that two to three months is better still. Zadie Smith, one of my writing role models, has said that this couple-month period “will do” — she prefers to wait a year or more, though acknowledges this isn’t always possible. However, her reasoning is airtight: “You need to become [your work’s] reader instead of its writer.” I think this can be achieved in six weeks, but the longer the better, if you have the time to spare.

2. Copy editing first

Upon commencing your self-edit, you may feel like you should start by going through your manuscript and correcting spelling, grammar and other mechanical mistakes: in other words, copy editing. Resist the urge to pick this low-hanging fruit! While it may feel like a good way to ease yourself into the editing process, it will almost certainly end up being a waste of time.

Unless you’re some kind of perfect-first-draft deity, you’ll need to rewrite significant chunks of your book in the course of editing — rendering any previous copy editing of those sections useless and forcing you to copy edit similar passages all over again. Indeed, copy editing before developmental editing can genuinely hinder later rounds of polishing! You’ll feel as though you’ve already caught everything major (even if you’ve technically rewritten a good portion of your manuscript) and give yourself permission to skim, or you’ll grow so impatient with rereading that you eventually just give up.

That’s not to say you can’t do any early-stage copy editing, especially if it helps you loosen up your editing muscles… but try and keep it to a minimum before you’ve worked through the big-picture stuff. If you know you wouldn’t change a word of your first chapter or your current book description, for example, you have my permission to copy edit as a (brief) warm-up to developmental editing.

3. Prioritising style over substance

Jumping off that last tip, another frequent pitfall of the editing process is caring more about the style than the substance of your work. Again, I know it’s usually more fun to tweak your prose than to address problems with your plot and characters, but even the most eloquent writing in the world won’t make those problems go away! On the contrary, it will aggravate readers, who’ll wonder why you put so much effort into decorating a mediocre-tasting cake when you could have been refining the recipe (if you’ll excuse the slightly mixed metaphor).

If the problem persists, you’ll end up with a book that’s eloquently written but ultimately shallow, or too long and meandering, or even completely nonsensical. I’m sure we can all think of books like this; don’t let yours become one of them! Even if you’re determined to cultivate a signature style, you must focus on the fundamentals first: a beginning, middle, and end, round characters who interact in interesting ways, and a central conflict that rings true and gets readers invested.

If you feel your work is lacking in any of these areas, try some writing exercises to develop them, particularly in terms of plot and character development. Once you have these elements nailed down, you can return to experimenting with your prose.

4. Comparing your work to other authors’

Here’s another issue that often befalls writers who believe shimmering prose is the end-all, be-all of literature: comparing their writing to that of other authors. For those attempting to pay homage to literary favourites, this can certainly exacerbate the style-over-substance conundrum, but there are other negative outcomes as well.

One of these, as you can probably guess, is editing your own writing to sound precisely like your favourite author’s — effectively erasing what makes you unique as a writer, and often forcing you into a style that doesn’t come naturally. In fact, in my experience, comparing my work to that of others typically results in the worst of both worlds: my own voice gets lost, and the one that replaces it sounds utterly contrived. (I still remember a painful summer of writing and editing when I was trying to imitate Gillian Flynn, memorising snippets of Gone Girl that had been posted on her author website in a desperate attempt to absorb her style.)

On top of all this, remember that your book is still a work-in-progress at this stage! Comparing it to a perfectly polished, published title is unfair on every level. To that end, if you feel especially impressionable or fragile while editing, I’d suggest steering clear of well-written books altogether — or reading exclusively outside your genre to avoid potential comparisons. Just as you need mental space from your own book at the start of this process, you also need it from other books once it’s time to get to work.

5. Not getting a third-party proofreader

I know this post is about self-editing, but hear me out: even once you’ve gone through your book multiple times with a fine-tooth comb, you can’t guarantee error-free copy without a professional proofread. The harsh reality is that your own biases will keep you from fixing phrases that sound awkward to everyone else, and your brain will skip right over typos because you’ve seen them a million times. So once you’ve powered through the developmental and copy editing stages, don’t kid yourself — hire a proofreader for this final, crucial part.

Naturally, there are many other ways that the self-editing process can go awry, but these five are perhaps the most prevalent and harmful. They’re also all mistakes that I’ve made myself, about which I wish someone else had warned me! So do as I say, not as I’ve done, and embark on your own self-editing journey with the confidence and clarity to evade these terrible traps.

 

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 5

To continue with my occasional look at common grammatical issues I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Starting sentences with conjunctions

Is it okay to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’ and ‘but’? Take the opening line to William Blake’s poem that has subsequently been turned into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’:

And did those feet in ancient times…

So there’s the answer (see what I did there?)—yep, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I’m not going to overegg it. There are plenty of places where you can read more about this; here, for example: quick_and_dirty_tips

But it leads nicely (and there?) into the next topic…

Ending sentences with prepositions

“A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.”
― Winston S. Churchill

The grammar pedants would have Winnie saying, “A preposition is a terrible thing with which to end a sentence.” There’s nothing wrong with this second version, though it sounds a little stuffy to my ears. However—and here’s the crux of it—there is absolutely nothing wrong with the original version, either.

Over to Merriam-Webster: words_at_play

Startled

I have, on occasion, encountered this construction:

He burst into the room. I startled.

That’s grammatically incorrect. You can be startled:

He burst into the room. I was startled

You can startle someone or something:

He burst into the room. He startled me.

You can also start (jump in fright or surprise):

He burst into the room. I started.

There are, of course, technical reasons why the first example is poor grammatically. They’re to do with transitive and intransitive verbs, and requiring an object to be acted upon, but you can look that up yourselves if interested. It’s a little dry.

Here’s one of the more accessible explanations I’ve found online:  english_grammar_explained

 

I’ll leave you with a thought. If the collective noun for a group of squid isn’t ‘squad’, it ought to be. Till next time…

Guest Post – Maggie Plummer (Part 2)

American author Maggie Plummer becomes the first person to guest twice on my blog. It’s been more than a year since she first appeared, here ; what a different world we lived in then. Today she’s going to talk about something highly topical so it’s over to Maggie.

Writing Fiction During a Pandemic

When the coronavirus began to hit the United States a few months ago, it just so happened that I was finishing up my latest novel, Webs in the Mist: The Jessie Morgan Series, Book 2. As the television and internet news got more and more alarming, working on the new novel gave me desperately needed, long breaks from real life.

What an advantage, submerging my overactive mind in my 1970s Jessie Morgan fiction world! What a blessing! Each day, when I finished working on the book, I felt refreshed by having thoroughly escaped our new reality. It reminds me of how, during our too-long, too-gray western Montana winters, I sometimes find relief by writing about hot, sunny settings. It’s a mental vacation.

As the coronavirus crisis progressed, I watched friends and family being consumed by the news, obsessed with the pandemic’s frightening impacts on our country. Many of them were and are paralyzed by it.

I’m lucky, because somehow I’m able to keep working on my writing during this crisis. I’m lucky in other ways, too:

  • I live alone with my sweet dog and work in my house, so staying home in self-quarantine is not that different from what I normally do;
  • I don’t have children at home, taking away from my writing schedule; and
  • My new novel is set in the 1970s and offers a cheerful escape for my readers; I’m not adding to their fear with pessimistic, dystopian novels, and that helps me go for it, even now.

One writer friend is journaling about her day-to-day pandemic experience. That can help us work it out in our minds, and keep our spirits up. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to stay focused on our many blessings.

COVID-19 is a huge distraction that’s difficult to avoid, with the media in our faces. Our imaginations take off: What a story! How will it end? Compared to what’s actually going on in the world, perhaps our novel’s conflict seems trivial. How do you keep going as a writer?

I think we can give ourselves a break now, whether we’re being productive in our writing or not. As novelists we can bury our heads in the sand and feel good about it. But: If we can’t write during this pandemic, that’s OK too. Life is too short for beating ourselves up.

Here’s the bottom line: Writing fiction is good for our mental health. It’s a great way to channel our creative energy, so that we don’t go haywire and start bouncing off the walls. Writers need to write. That means spending plenty of time in our fiction worlds, even if all we do is play around with character studies or do internet research about our books’ settings. The main thing, I think, is to immerse ourselves in that fictional realm, letting our writer minds take a massive, deep breath of fresh air.

Don’t forget, our writing might just help others take refreshing, deep breaths, too.

Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author whose latest novel, Webs in the Mist, is Book Two of her semi-autobiographical Jessie Morgan series. Like Jessie, she lived in San Francisco during the freewheeling 1970s, riding the cable cars in raggedy bell-bottom jeans. These days the author works from her Montana home near the shores of Flathead Lake, where she loves camping with her sweet black lab, Peaches. Webs in the Mist is Maggie’s fourth published novel.

Links:

Webs in the Mist

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Weird Words 3

The third in a series of posts taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Minuscule

A film with this title recently premiered on Sky Movies—perhaps I ought to get out more (tricky though that is in today’s world), but I was gratified to see it spelt correctly. Mind, it’s understandable why we so often see it written as ‘miniscule’. In its adjectival form, it means ‘very small; tiny’ and so people will, wrongly though not unreasonably, associate it with the prefix ‘mini’, and words such as ‘minimal’ and ‘miniature’. Merriam-Webster, while listing ‘minuscule’ as the only correct spelling, notes that some dictionaries accept ‘miniscule’ as a legitimate variant. A case of where enough people get something wrong, it ends up being right?

Jeopardy

One of those words I have to pause and think about before spelling it correctly. There was a time when I couldn’t spell it without looking it up. Then I realised that it takes the same form as ‘leopard’ and I’ve been able to spell it ever since, though I still have to pause and think about it for a moment.

Diphthong

Also known as a gliding vowel, which is a lovely description. It’s the vowel sound found in words like ‘oil’ and ‘loud’ (and, indeed, in ‘sound’ and ‘found’), where the pronunciation changes during the syllable. (Ironically, the word diphthong does not itself contain any diphthongs.) This is one of those words that you might come across occasionally in writing, especially if you are interested in the technicalities of the English language, but won’t often hear spoken, and so there is ample scope for The Avid Reader’s Curse to strike. In my head, I pronounce it ignoring the first ‘h’: dip-thong. Turns out that’s the American pronunciation and the British pronunciation is diff-thong. Who knew?

 

That’s all for Part 3. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

In Dublin’s Fair City

James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Iris Murdoch, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Binchy… The list of notable authors associated with Dublin is impressive.

I’ve made several visits to the city, mostly to watch Wales take on Ireland in the Six Nations and once on a cricket tour (yep, cricket). It’s always struck me as a city that revolves around its pubs. And some fine pubs there are, too.

So, literature, pubs and rugby—what better place to spend a long weekend with five old school friends in honour of us all turning fifty-five?

We chose the weekend of 8th February 2020 because that’s when Wales were playing Ireland in Dublin in this year’s Six Nations. (For those who don’t follow rugby, that’s the main annual rugby union championship in the northern hemisphere.) The downside is that to fly from our local airport, Cardiff, means paying outrageously high fares—the operators hike their prices for that weekend because they know how much we Welsh love our rugby and how many of us follow Wales when they play away.

Our solution was to fly from Cardiff with KLM to Amsterdam and spend a few hours in Schiphol airport, before catching a connecting flight to the Emerald Isle. Nobody (least of all me—the older I get, the more I dislike flying) relished the thought of catching two flights in one day and taking seven hours to reach somewhere a little more than an hour’s flight from Cardiff, but a saving of £300 each sealed the deal.

Flying out was fine. The few hours layover in Schiphol we spent in a pub in the huge terminal building. ‘Huge’ is not an exaggeration—it’s the size of a small town, as we were to have painfully brought home to us during the journey home.

By teatime, we had linked up with the final member of our party (who had flown to Dublin from Heathrow), taken photos of the Welsh rugby team (who’d walked past us in Dublin airport), and found our way to our hotel in the city centre, just off O’Connell Street. By six, we were partaking of the weekend’s first pint of Guinness.

 

We arrived in Dublin on the Thursday. The match would occupy Saturday and we were returning home on Sunday. That left Friday to be filled. Since we are fifty-five, not twenty-five, we were keen to avoid a daytime activity that involved excessive amounts of alcohol. When one of our party, who works for the British Museum, suggested a cultural tour of the city, the rest of us were happy to tag along. On our way to the museums and galleries, we passed the house where Bram Stoker once lived. Dracula being one of the novels I loved as a teenager, I had to take some snaps. Here are a few combined.

I won’t bore you with details of the entire weekend—this is a writing blog, after all—but suffice it to say that there was laughter and reminiscing and Guinness aplenty. Much as you’d expect when six lifelong friends get together again after a while apart. That’s the thing with good friends: it doesn’t really matter how long you spend apart; when you all meet up again, you merely pick up where you left off.

Here’s a snap I took of the boys outside St Stephen’s Green in the city centre. They look like an ageing rock band recreating the cover of one of their albums from back in the day.

There is one more writing-related mention. On Sunday morning, we braved Storm Ciara to stroll over to Temple Bar. One of the settings of my Earth Haven novel, The Beacon, is Dublin. One of the characters makes her temporary home in The Quays pub in post-apocalyptic Temple Bar. I chose it because I have some happy memories of the pub from previous trips.

Since we were right there, it would have been a shame not to pop in for a pint.

Travelling home wasn’t dull. Since we had to once more fly via Schiphol, having to take off and land twice in the teeth of Ciara was, um, interesting. Due to inevitable delays caused by the storm, we landed in Schiphol and were deposited by the airport bus in the concourse with barely fifteen minutes before the departure gate closed for our connecting flight to Cardiff. Not much of a problem, perhaps, except that it turned out we were at least a mile from where we needed to be. Have you ever seen a group of unfit fifty-five-year-olds with a few dodgy knees and hips between them, suffering the effects of a long weekend on Guinness, legging it down seemingly endless stretches of corridor? By the time we made it to the departure gate, panting and sweating, we must have looked as if we’d crossed a desert, not an airport.

We made it home only a couple of hours late. Since we’d been expecting to miss our connecting flight and have to spend the night on the floor in Schiphol, I’ve never been so relieved to land back in Cardiff.

Oh, and Wales lost the rugby in a disappointing performance. It only briefly took the shine off a fantastic weekend.

National Heroes Service – Part 2

It has been eight weeks since my last blog post; nine since an aneurysm in my right knee caused my foot to go numb and resulted in my having to undergo emergency surgery.

Before I get to the purpose of this post, a quick update on my leg. It’s been a long old haul, not helped by coming down with an infection in the wound. That required a course of strong antibiotics and set back my recovery at least a week. But I’m relieved to say that, although I still have some way to go before I can claim to be completely recovered, if I ever can, my leg has vastly improved. I can now sleep without waking up with throbbing pain every time I move; I can wear long trousers with only minimal discomfort; I can walk a mile before anything starts to ache.

It’s going to be a beaut of a scar, running from the inside of my thigh almost from my groin to around midway between knee and ankle. I aim to gradually increase the distance of my walks, along with the number and severity of inclines, until I can comfortably walk four miles of mixed terrain in an hour. I am hoping the numbness that makes much of my leg feel like a plank of wood will wear off, at least partially.

Enough about me. The purpose of my last post was to praise the staff of the NHS, after my first-hand experience of what they have to put up with—some of the patients in the wards I was in were, to put it politely, hugely demanding, with one or two taking up a massively disproportionate amount of the nursing resources. And look what the staff have been going through since.

I didn’t feel I could resume my blog and not pay tribute to them again. And not only to those who work in our health service, but carers everywhere, our police and other emergency services, those who work in all aspects of retail (from supply and delivery to checkout), refuse collectors, those keeping our public transport going, the postmen and -women… the list could go on. In short, everyone who has continued to work, at risk to their own health, to keep us fed and warm and safe and informed.

Many—too many—have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many—too many—have flouted government advice and made the situation worse. An example: during the weekend commencing 3rd April, well into the second week of lockdown, it was reported that police in Greater Manchester had to close down 660 house and street parties. That’s a lot of people who don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves.

Mind, there have been some face-palming moments that make me wonder how those making the rules expect the rest of us to obey them when they themselves are cheerfully breaking them. Take, for instance, the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland. She was caught, twice, travelling to her second home, more than an hour’s drive from her main home, once with her entire family in tow, having been busy appearing on television and in press conferences advising the public to remain indoors and not to travel unless essential.

And it apparently goes on. A video is doing the rounds on social media claiming to show Westminster Bridge at 8:00 yesterday evening during the weekly expression of gratitude for the NHS. In a seemingly police-sanctioned display (police cars are pulled up to the kerb and police officers are standing on the pavement with members of the public), people are crowded onto the bridge in blatant disregard for social distancing.

This isn’t the place to get political, but our government has to hold its hands up and admit it got a lot of things wrong, especially early on. From not seeming to know what strategy to adopt to combat the viral threat, to confusion over procuring essential PPE and testing equipment, it has, at times, appeared to be a shambles. At the time of writing, the UK is the fifth-highest ranked country in the world for the number of covid-19 deaths—almost 14,000. Fifth… yet we rank twenty-first for population and we’re an island. There will surely be some serious questions to answer when this is over.

My bestselling books are the Earth Haven trilogy, an apocalyptic tale about a manufactured virus that is spread deliberately and brings humankind to its knees. A friend asked me whether I’d write them in today’s climate. My answer was probably not; it would feel too much like writing non-fiction. I’m reminded of the meme that’s been doing the rounds for the past few years, but that seems particularly apt now: a sign outside a bookshop announcing that the post-apocalyptic section has been moved to current affairs.

But I digress. With my leg on the mend, I’m aiming to resume posting to my blog every two weeks from today. The posts will, as usual, be loosely related to writing, reading, publishing and, when I can’t avoid it, marketing. Starting next time.

Today, it’s all about the amazing staff who run our National Health Service, and the remarkable people who are keeping other essential services in our country running. You’re bloody heroes and heroines, each and every one of you.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

National Heroes Service

A week ago—Valentine’s Day—I awoke with a vague tingling sensation in my right leg. I assumed I’d slept on it awkwardly, ignored it, sat at my desk and got to work. It was only a few hours later, at lunchtime, that I realised the tingling had become more focused, centred on my foot, while my right calf, knee and thigh had developed an ominous dull ache. Then I noticed the colour—or, rather, absence of it—in my foot. It resembled a plucked chicken and had grown icy cold.

My wife took one look and whisked me to our local A & E Department—what Americans would call ER. Over the ensuing hours, the colour gradually returned to my foot, but not fully. After a scan, I was informed that I had an aneurysm (a bulging of the artery) behind my knee, which had filled with clotted material that had interrupted the flow of blood to my foot. The lovely surgeon I spoke to explained that I needed to go to a different hospital where they had a specialist vascular surgical team and warned me to expect surgery that evening. She added that they would arrange an emergency transfer. By teatime, I was in the back of an ambulance being transported—blue lights flashing, sirens blaring—the twenty or so miles to Morriston Hospital in Swansea.

I did have to undergo emergency surgery to bypass the aneurysm, though it didn’t take place until Monday evening. I awoke in the recovery room and glanced down. The surge of relief was almost overwhelming when I could see my right foot and feel the toes wiggling. There had been a risk I would lose the leg.

Here’s a snap I took Monday evening when I was back on the ward—the push button thingy lying on the  bed alongside my bandaged leg is for morphine, though I barely felt the need to press it. I’ve rarely experienced such a sense of exhilaration as I felt that night; it was making the pain bearable. Though I couldn’t have got out of bed for all the drips attached to me, I was ready to party.

I came home on Wednesday and have been excelling in the sheer blissfulness of being in my own bed ever since. The incision in my leg runs from the groin almost to the ankle—my daughter counted at least fifty staples holding it together. They are due to come out next Friday.

It’s going to take a good few weeks for me to recover from the surgery so this blog is going to have to take a break for a month or so. But, as Arnie says, I’ll be back.

In the meantime, I had to post something here to thank the amazing men and women who staff our NHS. They are truly a wonderful bunch of people who do our country great credit. Not going to get all political, but the NHS is something bigger and better than any government can lay credit to. Quite frankly, it serves us well despite the politicians, not because of them.

And, yep, unlike the politicians, the NHS staff are, to a man and woman, heroes and heroines. I owe them my leg, if not my life, and will be grateful for the rest of my days.

Enid Bloody Blyton

Five years ago, I was asked by an online magazine, Mass Movement, to pen a short article on the topic ‘What changed your life?’ My piece was featured alongside one by Larry Niven, the author of Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer, which I thought was well cool. Anyway, the other day I was having a Facebook conversation with some friends who are reading Enid Blyton’s books to their children. I mentioned that I’d written this article, but when I went to find it to give them a link, it seemed to have disappeared into the ether. Not being one to waste an article, I thought I’d reproduce it here, with a nod to Rob and Ange, and to all parents who start their children off along the joyous path of reading with a spot of Enid.

Enid Bloody Blyton

I have just turned fifty. Bald, with a paunch, and a fondness for beer and rugby. My reading tastes and writing tend towards the dark side. Give me a scary or fantastical film, a bottle of red wine and a bag of chocolates on a Friday night, I’m as happy as a pig in shit.

Darkness, science fiction, horror… why, then, am I penning a short article about that author of insufferably quaint children’s books from another era, Enid Blyton? Enid bloody Blyton? Well, those good folk from Mass Movement asked me for a piece about something that changed my life, and books play a huge part in my life. They mould it, inform it, direct it. The love of books led me, inevitably and irrevocably, to creating my own.

I’ve been writing fiction for around twenty years. Working full-time in a dreary, soul-sucking job allows me to return home of an evening with my brain still functioning and so able to write. Many spare hours are given over to tapping away at the computer keyboard, to the exclusion of most else (I have a very understanding family). Difficult to answer a question about something that changed my life without talking about books. Which brings me back to Enid Blyton.

She’s the one who started it. As soon as I learned to read, I read. Her books, those aimed at very young children of which I was one, were the first. They made a lasting impression that shaped the way I have viewed the world ever since.

The books were Adventures of the Wishing Chair, The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. My well-thumbed copies are around the house somewhere; I passed them on to my daughters. The children in these books have names like Dick and Fanny. Other character names I can still recall all these years later: Chinky, Silky, Moonface, the Saucepan Man. Hell, if I read the books now, I’d see innuendos everywhere and wonder quite what she was stirring into her tea while she wrote them.

But back then I possessed nothing but childhood innocence and a mind like a dry sponge ready to soak up whatever spilled its way. And spill Enid did.

I gasped with astonishment when the chair’s legs first sprouted feathery wings that enabled Dick or Fanny or whoever to embark on magical adventures. Or when the top of the Faraway Tree rotated to reveal a new and wondrous land that Dick, etc were able to enter for, yep, you guessed it, magical adventures.

To my fifty-year-old self, this all seems unutterably twee. But my five-year-old eyes were opened to the infinite worlds of possibilities that can be contained within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me.

One of my friends calls me a dreamer. He’s probably right. And it’s all your fault, Enid bloody Blyton. You set me on a path that I still follow. You changed my life. For that I thank you.

Guest Post – Claire Buss

I’m kicking off this year’s blog schedule with a guest post from the cake-loving Claire Buss. She’s going to talk about the meaning of success, a topic that most writers will have pondered at some time (me included; I talked about this very thing here). Over to Claire.

The Big Debate – The Enigma of Success

This is how the conversation goes:

“So, what do you do, Claire?”

“Oh, I’m a writer.”

“Really? Anything I’d have seen?”

“Well… all my books are on Amazon so…”

“Who’s your publisher?”

“Actually, I’m self-published.”

“Oh, right. So when are you going back to work?”

Because, of course, having a publishing deal with a well-known publisher like Penguin Random House or Harper Collins is the definition of success for a writer – isn’t it?

What if it’s not? What if I am successful for typing ‘The End’ at the close of a 60,000-word manuscript? Google tells me that 97% of writers fail to finish their book; therefore if I fall into that top 3% of finishers, surely I am now a success.

The traditional publishing route dictates that first you must secure yourself an agent as many publishing houses will not touch unsolicited manuscripts. And so, us happy individuals in the elite 3% must begin touting our stories to agents who receive thousands of submissions a year and are only really interested in current market trends. If you are a BAME author writing about diversity, disability or LGBTQ issues, then congratulations, you’re a hot bet. You are the lucky 1 in 1000 who will land an agent.

However, these things are never quite that straightforward. I know of two superb Pen to Print authors who have successfully landed an agent, congratulations again, but have yet to receive a publishing deal. So maybe snagging a literary agent is not full measure of writer success. In an article about the odds of getting a publishing deal that I read recently on Jericho Writers, an editor at one of the big-5 publishing houses in the UK buys less than 1% of the work offered to him. 1%. That’s not great odds.

As an independent or indie author, I have now published 14 titles, 2 audiobooks and had short stories published in 4 anthologies. Am I successful simply because of the number of books I published in the last three years? Am I successful because my work was deemed worthy of inclusion in other people’s anthologies? Perhaps that is not enough. I am also multi-award winning and can list accolades on my website of which I am very proud, but are they a stamp of success? I didn’t win the Booker Prize. Yet.

I have not so far managed to earn a significant wage as an author in order to contribute significantly financially to my family, yet am I successful simply because I do earn money from my writing – no matter the amount? According to research carried out by CREATe, the average author take-home wage in 2018 was in the region of £10,000 per annum so even if I were financially successful, we are not talking multi-million-pound deals.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

For a writer who views their authorship as a business and is committed to achieving goals and self-imposed deadlines with the help of quarterly plans and a vast array of spreadsheets, it seems that I have met my success. For me, it is always about what’s next. I am constantly aiming to grow and develop as a writer, improve my craft and continue to write and release books that readers want to read.

I firmly believe that if I can just get my novels in front of as many people as possible, I will start to see growth in sales and readers. How can I achieve that goal? Well, that is indeed the magic question and once I figure it out, I’ll be sure to let you know.

It’s not enough to be successful as a writer, you also need to be successful as a human being. And a parent. And a representative of your ethnic tick box. Perhaps if we just focus on our best in all that we do, success will decode itself. For that in itself is another measure of success. Passing on what you’ve learnt along your journey and sharing your pitfalls with others, so they don’t make the same mistakes. Join online writing groups and share your experiences, ask questions so you can learn from others and pass on the tips you have picked up. If something works for you, tell your writing community and make sure others know they can come to you for help and support. It’s a lonely job being a writer, but it’s a wonderful community being an author.

(first published in Write On! Magazine, Dec 2019)

You can read Write On! Magazine online at https://pentoprint.org/product-category/magazine/ and if you’d like to submit a piece of creative work or a writing article, please send it to pentoprint@lbbd.gov.uk

 

Claire Buss is an award-winning multi-genre author and poet based in the UK. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead, Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict, Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with her debut novel, The Gaia Effect, setting her writing career in motion. She continues to write passionately and is hopelessly addicted to cake.

To find out more about Claire and her work:

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