Who are we talking to? by Colin Brush

‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half’  John Wanamaker, US Postmaster General & marketing pioneer

‘It’s for everyone.’

I’ve heard these words from authors, agents and publishers too many times down the years. The claim that by some extraordinary alchemy they have in their hands a book that transcends reading tastes as well as demographics, appeals to teenagers and octogenarians, crosses the chasms of literacy and prejudice, and will be fought over in the street by a public desperate to grasp hold of a copy the moment they learn of its existence. I’d call it blind optimism but really it is the laziness of assumption. It’s a refusal to ask oneself some fundamental questions about the work itself. Such as: what is it doing, why is it doing it and who likes this sort of thing?

Because the truth about all really successful books is that they start out by initially reaching and engaging a core audience and then, if they are lucky, word ripples outwards into the general population. And if they are really, really lucky those ripples might excite a great many of the fabled ‘everyone’.

So when writing a blurb to connect your book with its audience two important matters need to be understood before you set pen to paper: what kind of book it is you are selling (see previous post) and who exactly it is for. This post is about the latter.

Casablanca

Take the film Casablanca – a story of war, love, betrayal and redemption. As Robert Blake observed it has a versatile plot that means we can talk about or pitch it in a variety of different ways (again, see last post). Describing it as a love-triangle or boy-meets-girl-plus-obstacles (for example, Romeo and Juliet) tale will draw in those seeking a romance. Pitching it as a tragedy – a spider-and-the-fly Othello-type of story or the hero with a fatal flaw (Achilles) – may appeal to those who like their endings dark. Or how about a tale of unrecognised virtue (Cinderella) or the debt that must be paid (Faust)? Each pitch will likely get different engagement from different kinds of audiences.

But how do we know which audience to pitch to and what it is that excites them?

I refer you to John Wanamaker’s quote about advertising at the top: we don’t, we can’t.

But we can make some educated guesses.

Picture your ideal reader. (Try not to picture yourself – your book’s audience has to be bigger than just you if you’re going to sell any copies.) What do they wear? Where do they shop? How might they talk? What do they like to read, watch, listen to? Make a list until you feel you know them intimately. Think of them a bit like a character in your stories. Bring them alive. The sooner you can imagine them as a living, breathing person the sooner you can begin to try to think like them. If you can get into their head, you then have a chance of seeing your book through their eyes. Only then are you giving yourself the opportunity of discovering it anew. At this point you can ask yourself what it is they are looking for. How might they react to one story pitch versus another?

When you’re done you can try imagining someone else – someone just a little or completely different – and then see how your results compare. Maybe the person you originally thought was your ideal reader turns out not to be.

The flaw in this approach is that as market research goes it is entirely made up. But unless you can get lots of different kinds of people to read your book as well as provide detailed feedback about themselves and how they like your pitch, then this made-up approach at least has the benefit of getting you to think about your book from an (imaginary) outsider’s perspective.

This is the trick: imagining what your pitch sounds like if you’ve never read (or indeed written) your book. What does it look like from the outside?

I was once asked to write some copy for Albert Camus’ existential classics, The Plague and The Outsider. In my brief from the editor I was told that these editions were commonly sold for use in secondary schools. So I asked myself what it was about these books that would appeal most to bored teenagers. When I think of teenagers I think of taking those stumbling first steps without an adult lurking in the background – of going to movies with friends, of rebelling against responsibility and of feeling (however imaginary) different.

I decided to write The Plague as a horror novel:

It starts with the rats. Vomiting blood, they die in their hundreds, then in their thousands. When the rats are all gone, the citizens begin to fall sick. Like the rats, they too die in ever greater numbers. The authorities quarantine the town. Cut off, the terrified townspeople must face this horror alone. Some resign themselves to death or the whims of fate. Others seek someone to blame or dream of revenge or are determined to escape. But a few, like stoic Dr Rieux, stand together to fight the terror. A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender to it. They will resist the plague.

And The Outsider as about being misunderstood: Meursault is different. He will not lie. He will not pretend. He is true to himself. So when his mother dies and he is unmoved, he refuses to do the proper thing and grieve. Returning to Algiers after the funeral, he carries on life as usual until he becomes involved in a violent murder. In court, it is clear that Meursault’s guilt or innocence will not be determined by what he did or did not do. He is on trial for being different – an outsider.

Over the years I’ve written a few different versions of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. What I love about this novel, professionally speaking, is that you can pitch it as a literary work or as a thriller or even something that sits in that difficult-to-achieve realm between the two (which is exactly what the book is, of course). It all depends on who you are trying to interest at the time.

Donna Tartt has rejected every single one of my blurbs (just as she has rejected every attempt to replace the book’s original UK cover design). As an author she knows exactly how she wants to pitch her story and as the writer of one of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling books of all time, can we say she is wrong?

So go ahead and imagine the hordes of readers queuing up to read your book. Imagine you are one of them and then ask yourself: what is the pitch that will sell it to you?

Next: Pitching your story’s emotional hook . . .

Colin BrushColin Brush’s words have helped (or hindered) the sales of over 4,000 titles published in the UK. He remains at large.

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What’s the Story? by Colin Brush

The second in a series of how-to posts by Colin Brush

Seven Basic Plots‘Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.’ TV review of The Wizard of Oz

Before we put pen to paper and write our blurb we need to make a couple of decisions. The first is what kind of story it is we are pitching. The second is deciding who the book is for – who is its audience? (This will be the subject of the next post.)

The question of the story is in some ways the easiest and the hardest. We’ve likely already written the story so we know what it is about. But now we must decide what kind of book it is we are blurbing. (Note I used the word decide not divine: it will be a decision.) I don’t mean deciding whether it is science fiction or fantasy, crime or historical or any other bookshop genre. No, if we are going to pigeonhole our book we are going to do so with style.

When I say we must work out what kind of story it is I mean ask yourself which one of the great plots it is. Romance? Tragedy? Quest? Rags to riches? Overcoming the monster? Voyage and return? Or rebirth? These are the seven great plots in the world of story. (Naturally, there is some debate over these plots, with the numbers dropping to two and rising to thirty-six by some accounts. It doesn’t matter what version you choose, just so long as it is clear to yourself and thus to your potential reader.) These plots we may understand intuitively as authors but they are also recognised (even if just unconsciously) by our readers. And this is the point. They are universal. They straddle genres. We know what to expect from them and so they tell us what kind of story we are dealing with. This is as important for readers as for writers.

Of course, your story may feature elements or the entirety of more than one of these plots. It’d be surprised if it didn’t. But when you are writing a blurb it is wise to focus on only one story plot. In my experience blurbs that feature more than one story thread read rather knottily: a tangle of characters and motivations that it takes a few readings to decipher. More to the point, the less clear to a reader what kind of book it is they are holding in their hands, the less likely they are to remain holding it for long. Watch people in bookshops. They rarely spend more than thirty seconds perusing a blurb – if they read all of it at all (a big if) then mostly they do so only once.

So at this point you must decide which of your plots is the one that works best as the backbone of your blurb. It is worth writing down your various options. In making these distinctions and decisions you may also find that you are already starting to shape the writing of your blurb.

For example, if we have a tale exploring the doomed affair between an immortal human and a dying Martian, we could perhaps pitch it as a romance or a tragedy. To pitch it as a romance we might lead our blurb with the beginning of the affair. If instead we think a tragedy is truer and thus has a greater appeal then we may prefer to begin with its heartbreaking end.

‘Romeo first set eyes on Juleeta at the Martian Ambassador’s party . . .’ versus ‘Juleeta was dying long before she met Romeo at the Martian Ambassador’s party . . .’

How about the story of a child who unites the tribes struggling in the ruins of an ancient empire only to find her rule as Queen threatened by the return of a forgotten evil? A rags-to-riches tale would focus on the child-queen’s journey. A quest story would concentrate on the problems of uniting these disparate tribes. Overcoming the monster would dwell on the forgotten evil.

Or what about the protagonist who sacrifices all they hold dear to discover the truth of their origins, only to learn it was benignly buried in their genes all along, just waiting to be discovered? Is this a voyage and return story, or one of rebirth?

Whichever you choose will dictate how you frame and structure your blurb (more on this in a later post).

I am not saying that choosing a story type precludes you from using details that do not fit your chosen story. What I am saying is once you’ve chosen a story type, you should remain true to that story and find a way of accommodating the other elements into it. Your blurb should be pulling in one direction, making clear what kind of story this is.

Why? In part because different people are drawn to different types of story (more on this in my next post). They like to know what they are going to be reading. Many readers are not eclectic in their tastes and know exactly what they want. They have a multitude of desires and the blurb’s job is to attract the subset of those competing desires which the book will most satisfy.

But the truth is that if it is not clear to the reader what kind of book it is – let me say again we’re not talking vampire, wizard, dragon or rocket ship signifiers, we’re talking universal story roots – then our lack of clarity is at best going to confuse them and at worst to actively turn them off.

Lastly, knowing the kind of story we’re pitching tells us how to structure and write our blurb.

But before we get to that we need to think a little bit more about our audience.

Colin BrushColin Brush has been writing book blurbs for twenty years. At some point he may consider switching from scribing the outside of book cover to penning the words inside.

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How to Sell Your Book in a Few Words by Colin Brush

This is the beginning of a series of weekly how-to posts by Colin Brush. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.

Typewriter 3‘If you think you have a book evolving, now is the time to write the flap copy – the blurb, in fact. An author should never be too proud to write their own flap copy. Getting the heart and soul of a book into fewer than 100 words helps you focus. More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your own head.’  Terry Pratchett, Guardian

You’ve spent months, even years, writing and editing your book. The intricacies of story, characters, plot and theme interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw. You’ve polished and polished until the words shine. You’ve got the perfect title. The cover is coming along a treat. You’ve even garnered some advance praise. Everything is looking good for publication and then, almost as an afterthought, the matter of the copy – the blurb – rears its head. Can you sum up your book in a paragraph or two? More importantly, can you sell your book?

Of course, you’ve just written many thousands of great words. How hard can a couple hundred more be?

To read the blurbs on some paperbacks and (too many) hardbacks, the answer appears to be pretty damn difficult.

IMG_4389

Colin Brush

Blurbs aren’t easy. I’ve been working as a publishing copywriter for twenty years and I’ve written blurbs for over 4,000 titles – ranging from classics to the latest contemporary fiction, prize winners to supermarket thrillers, short story and poetry collections to multi-volume histories, self-help books to celebrity autobiographies – and it’s clear that many often struggle to find the right words to make their books stand out. I know I frequently do.

This isn’t helped by a publishing peculiarity: blurbs are mostly written by editor and/or author. This is unsurprising since editor and author know the book better than anyone else and both are expected to be good with words. Yet such truisms ignore the fact that there are many different kinds of writing. Writing a good blurb doesn’t just require being good with words. It means thinking as much about the book’s audience as it does about the book itself. Who do we want to buy it? What are they looking for? What are their reading desires? What elements does the book have that will excite them most? What emotions do we need to tap into?

To write a persuasive blurb we have to connect our book’s strengths to our audience’s wants and needs.

This, in my experience, is made harder for editor and author alike because of their closeness to the book. They have spent so long among the trees it can be difficult to remember what the wood looks like from the outside. I rarely read all of a book I’m blurbing – I don’t have the time, sadly – but if I do it is always harder to write the blurb. My head is filled with ideas, images and emotions and it can be paralysing knowing what to put in and what to leave out.

Woods by PHOTOPHANATIC1

That’s why I developed a process to help me craft my blurbs.

Over the next few posts I’d like to share with you some of these techniques and strategies. We’ll work out what kind of story we’re trying to sell. We’ll think about the reader (our audience). We’ll see how both audience and story inform our pitch or emotional hook. We’ll look at turning that pitch into a simple blurb structure. We’ll discover how understanding blurb geometry (yes, I believe they can have geometric shapes: triangles, diamonds, hourglasses) helps you to more easily write or rewrite a blurb. And let’s not forget about the words themselves: how we can use them to best effect.

Just like there are no correct novels, there are no correct blurbs (though we can argue that incorrect varieties of both are legion). Each blurb is a creative response to a story, seeking to connect that story with its readers. And like novels, some blurbs will seem qualitatively better and some will seem qualitatively worse and not everyone will agree on which is which. But my aim here is to help us all understand the choices available to us so we can make better and more informed decisions about the correct words to sell our stories.

Because when you’re sweating over a blurb after writing a book it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.

This is what this series of posts will be about. Stepping back from the trees to rediscover what drove you into the wood in the first place, so that others will be tempted to follow you.

Colin BrushColin Brush has worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty-five years. At some point he might think about following his late father’s deathbed advice and get a proper job.

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Dolly Garland – BAME SFF Award Finalist

When you try to be a professional writer and start sending things out in the world, one of the best ways to cope with rejections is to send things out and forget about them – because let’s face it, rejections outnumber acceptances in the publishing industry, especially when you are not an established author.

In January, I submitted the first few chapters of my novel, Kali’s Call to Gollancz’s contest for BAME SFF writers, which is supported by Ben Aaronovitch and NaNoWriMo. I didn’t exactly forget about it, but I didn’t obsess about it either.

Then in May, I first received an email saying the short-list date was pushed back due to current situations. So then the shortlist and the nervous anticipation was back in my mind. And about a week later, I received another email that included words “I’m thrilled…” and I just stared at it for a few moments.

BAME AWard

Gollancz is a pretty solid name in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and so is Ben Aaronovitch. So the fact that my novel, Kali’s Call, was included in the shortlist is nothing short of astounding.

The first few chapters of Kali’s Call were actually workshopped at my first Milford in 2017, and the feedback I received from everyone there was immensely useful. My intention to finish that novel soon after Milford didn’t work out, and the book has actually progressed a lot slower than I’d planned. In fact, I ended up not touching it for over a year. Lots of reasons behind it, including non-writing reasons. But sometimes books just take you on a weird journey. I wrote other things in between, but this book just sat there.

When I first started writing this book, it was with a complete pantser approach, because I just wanted to see where the story would take me. Shivani, one of the main characters in the story, came to me first when I wrote a short story for Fight Like a Girl anthology. In this book, Shivani’s journey continues. But it was Avantika, who came to me solid as a character, and it was her story I started to write.

The pantser approach was great, until the story took me to the middle, and just left me there. So when I returned to it, I wanted to be a little more methodical. I have plotted novels before, and this was an experiment in just going with the flow. If there is anything I should have known about my general personality is that I am totally not the sort who goes with the flow. People telling me to relax stresses me out more than whatever actual stress I might be experiencing. The same thing happened with this book. There is a room for free form exploring the story, but I think for something as big as a novel, I have now learned my lesson that I like to know where I am going.

As Isaac Asimov said, “Knowing the beginning and the end of the story before you start writing it.” So I figured out my exact end, and got bit of a handle on how the characters were going to get there. I don’t have all the details yet, and some parts are still really frustrating, but I have a general direction.

The final results of the Gollancz contest will be out in mid-July. Of course, I am nervous. I have no doubt that other shortlisted writers are very talented, and I know one of them personally from a London writing group. But I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for me.

However, one good thing that has already come out of this, is it’s given me my writing mojo back. I was struggling to write when the lockdown started. Like a lot of us have been. There is an illusion of more time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a sudden creative outburst. But once this result came out, it really inspired me. I thought if others can see the potential of this book, then I owe it to myself to finish it. So I promised myself that I will finish the first draft of this story by the time the results come out in July, and since then I’ve been sticking to it.

It’s certainly not easy, and sometimes it is like pulling teeth. I am also currently doing a very busy day job, so that means I am writing in the evenings, trying to meet my daily quota. I know, there are people who write under far more challenging circumstances, but like anything, it’s relative. But getting back into daily writing, meeting my self-imposed word counts, and seeing that progress bar is giving me all sorts of productive feel. But more importantly, I am finally seeing this story shape take on paper (or screen) as I had seen it in my head, and that is the most important thing.

I don’t like leaving stories incomplete. Whatever ends up on the page never quite measures up to what is in one’s head, but you can’t edit the blank page.

So I’m really thankful to Milford for seeing the potential of this story in the first place, and to Gollancz for seeing that now. Now I better get back to that word count.

 

Dolly - author photoDolly Garland started her life in India and after trying a couple of continents, now calls London her home. She writes stories that are a bit like her – muddled in culture. A verified coffee addict, she can be found on Twitter @DollyGarland, or her website, www.dollygarland.com

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Handy Habits by Ben Jeapes

Will it sound unbearably smug if I say that lockdown hasn’t really affected me? Apart from getting a new computer. Otherwise normal service has continued pretty well without interruption.

I don’t want it to sound smug, because I know people who are horribly ill, whose companies are going down the pan, who are struggling financially, whose children with special needs are climbing the walls, or any combination of the above plus any other side effects you can think of. But the effects on me personally, and hence on my writing, are indirect.

There have been changes, of course. I’m normally the only one at home during the day. Suddenly there are other people around claiming to be my family. They certainly resemble the people I usually only see first thing and in the evenings, so I take them at their word.

I have been banished from the workroom, as my wife’s admin job really requires the main computer with its big screen. I now have a space of my own in the living room – I’m still deciding whether to refer to it as the auxiliary console room or the battle bridge – which for the first week or so I spent hunched over the laptop, since all I do all day is tap-tap-tap at the keyboard, and how hard can that be? Fortunately my stepson decided to bust the boredom of furlough by building a brand new machine from scratch, and having no further use for it, gave it to me. So I now have the most modern and fastest computer in the house and can get on with the business of the new normal – or, as I like to call it, normal.

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Brooksie Elk keeps a stern eye on me as I write.

Normal for me is being a full time ghostwriter: how that came about accidentally is a story for another day. It’s the habits I’ve learnt while writing full time for the last five years that have helped me survive.

A few years ago I learnt from another Milforder, I think Dave Gullen, the handy tip of walking to work, even if you live at home: in other words, a quick walk around the block before the working day begins. It’s excellent advice. It not only guarantees you a minimum amount of exercise and fresh air but helps reset the mind into writing mode. This also fitted well with the peak lockdown rule of only leaving the house once a day for exercise.

Next, regular hours. I keep office hours during weekdays. I’m working by 9, I take a lunch break, I down tools at 5pm without a sense of guilt and I rarely work weekends.

I can do this because I keep track of the words. If you have a word count, and a deadline, then it becomes a simple matter of maths to work out how many words you need to average per day between now and then to turn the job in on time. So simple in fact that you can put it in a spreadsheet. Which I do. With graphs, but that’s just me and is optional. Of course, they may not always be the right words (or in the right order): you need to factor in time to let yourself edit, rewrite, check and so on. But that can be added to the mix and the fundamental maths is unchanged.

I have a wall planner, except that it’s not a planner on the wall, it’s a spreadsheet. The principle is the same. At a glance I can look at any day of the year and see what I am supposed to be working on. What I am supposed to have worked on. What I will shortly be working on. When I can and can’t take on new work. What promises I can viably make about delivery times. And so on.

Time was I would have recoiled in horror at letting such blatant practical common sense interfere with the precious flower of my creativity. But I’ve grown up since then. I’m running a business of one. Other people (publishers and clients) are running businesses that depend on my output (words) arriving dependably and in good order. It’s the least I can do.

 

BenJeapesBen Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be quite easy (it isn’t) and save him from having to get a real job (it didn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of several novels and short stories, he is also an experienced ghostwriter, journal editor, book publisher and technical writer. His most recent book is a biography of the amazing Ada Lovelace for children, published by David Fickling Books. His novels to date are: His Majesty’s Starship; The Xenocide Mission; Time’s Chariot; The New World Order; Phoenicia’s Worlds; The Teen, the Witch & the Thief; The Comeback of the King; and H.M.S. Barabbas. His short story collection Jeapes Japes is available from Wizard’s Tower Press (https://wizardstowerpress.com/). He is now a full time ghostwriter, writing stuff for other people which annoyingly makes more money than his own does. His website is at www.benjeapes.com.

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Lockdown So Far by Mark Bilsborough

GuitarThings I’ve learned in lockdown so far:

  • I can’t play the guitar, no matter how hard I try
  • Dominic Cummings is making me very cross
  • I should be writing, but I’m not.

There are others, like I’ve learned how very difficult it is to make lemon meringue pie, but it’s the writing thing that’s exercising me the most. Sure I’m doing some writing-y things (like writing this, for instance), but I should be tarting up the novel and sending it out, sorting out a short story or two and getting started on the next story.

ReadingInstead, I’m reading a lot (though not as much as I thought I would), watching lots of TV and spending way too much time on the Guardian website getting steadily more open mouthed at the various ramblings of Trump and Johnson.

So why am I not writing? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s always insisted that if only I had the time the novel would be finished in double-quick time and I’d be well on the way with the sequel. And now I don’t have that excuse. I’ve got others of course – it’s too hot, the dog needs walking, I just need to check whether I’ve heard of any of the current Government ministers (where have they all come from? And what happened to all the people who used to do that stuff?) – but it’s now obvious to me what I always suspected: it’s not about time: it’s about something else. Not ideas (I’m pretty sure I’ve got some of those), not motivation (yes, I’d really like to see my books in Waterstones, thank you very much) and it’s not because I don’t know how to do it (doing it well is, of course, something entirely different!).

I think it’s a phobia about finishing stuff. If it’s in my head no one can argue that I’ve got an award-winning novel stashed away. As soon as it leaves my head and enters my computer then , maybe, a bit of the cold light of objectivity might creep in. But that’s okay as long as only I see it because I’m biased and am very good at overlooking my writing’s shortcomings (or I would have if it had any). But once I send a story out? No pretending.

So I tinker, and prevaricate, and check on the BBC News website to see what new ways our leaders have of disappointing us.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having a (writing) commitment phobia. But others seem to get over it, so there must be a plan that works for me. I’m very good at making plans. I have a big, shiny whiteboard. I can map out plotlines, character descriptions, a nice, neat causal chain etc. And I have a spiffy spreadsheet with markets, submission dates, responses and acceptance rates. I’m very pleased with my whiteboard plot plans – pity I never follow them. And the spreadsheet just tells me that if I submit loads of things and they get rejected then my acceptance rate goes down and I feel bad.

So maybe no plan is the plan. So here’s the (no) plan. Write. Edit. Write some more. Edit some more. Then when the pile of newly finished potential masterworks is big, send it out. Try and forget where I send it to, so I won’t be disappointed if they turn it down. Delete the line on the spreadsheet that says ‘acceptance rate’ and always remember that if a magazine prints a story inferior to the one I’ve recently had rejected by them, it must be because I’m not an old schoolfriend or drinking buddy of the editor.

It won’t work because it’s still a plan, of course (even if it is a stripped down, keep your eyes firmly closed kind of a plan). Also I don’t really buy the editor’s drinking buddy’s line, even if there may be a grain of truth in it (talent will shine through, surely?).

I’m pretty sure what would work, though. A nice, fat book deal.

Better get writing.

Mark BilsboroughMark Bilsborough is a Northerner in long term exile in the soft-bellied South of England where he’s found a rare scrap of countryside to inspire him, though his attempts to write proper science fiction often strangely morph into fantasy. He’s had short stories published in numerous places and is perennially about to finish his novel.  In real life he’s been a civil servant, teacher and charity director, occasionally skulking off to attend things like Odyssey and Milford. He writes reviews for SFconcatenation (www.concatenation.org) and edits Mensa’s Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror journal. His infrequently updated website is at www.markbilsborough.com

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Interview with Marion Pitman

MitBGive us a short biography in three sentences or fewer.
I grew up in north London, left school at 16, and started a second-hand book and bric a brac business. The shop and flat burned down in 2000, and I spent a couple of years travelling, mostly to Zimbabwe and New Zealand, mostly watching cricket. I have one surviving stepdaughter and three step-grandchildren; I have no car, no TV and no cats.

When did you start writing? What was your first sale?
I started writing as a tiny child: as soon as I learned to write, that’s what I did. I think my first sale was a zombie story to Mary Danby for the Fontana Book of Horror in 1978, and not long after I sold a second story, The Seal Songs, to 19 magazine, and then to an anthology.

Have you always written short stories or is there a novel inside you burning to get out?
There are several novels inside me, and I have in fact finished four – one is pretty bad, two might be saleable with a lot of rewriting, and one is too short. I don’t know whether it comes from writing poetry, where one aims to distil the idea into a few exactly right words, but I do tend much more towards writing short. In 2017 Alchemy Press published a collection of some of my published stories (and one new one) as Music in the Bone, which got some decent reviews. I’m hoping to put together another collection before too long.

Do you have a preferred short story length, or does it vary from idea to idea?
It varies a lot, but as I say usually shorter rather than longer. Anything from flash fiction to 8/9 thousand words, but most of them are probably 2-5 thousand. I seem to be writing longer as I get older, not sure why… Generally speaking my short stories have a single narrative thread, which sometimes needs a bit of space to express itself, and sometimes delivers its message quite briskly.

You’ve had short stories published in anthologies, how did that come about? Did you have a suitable short to submit, or did you write something to order?
When I started submitting stories, there were ghost and weird anthologies coming out from mainstream publishers, like the Fontana Books of Horror, and it was sort of an obvious target, with a fairly broad remit. I’ve always written more ghost stories than other things, and I wasn’t aware of many other markets for those. Most of the anthologies I submit to now have narrower specifications, so I will generally write something to fit, unless it just happens that I have something appropriate – as happened, oddly enough, when someone announced an anthology of horror stories featuring potatoes. I’ve only once been approached for a story for an anthology, and sadly my contribution was rejected as being not scary enough.

Do you prefer writing science fiction or fantasy, or any other genre?
I like writing fantasy, and two of the four unpublished novels are fantasy; with the shorter stuff, it’s mostly ghost stories and weird shit, quite often with an inspiration from folklore or ballads. I blame it on reading M R James at an early age. As the collection demonstrates, I also write SF, fantasy, detective stories, and Westerns. And I write poetry.

Do you have any particular theme that you keep returning to?
Redemption. I write a lot about the strangeness under the surface, but I am generally trying to say something about people finding some kind of salvation, and meaning. This is sometimes at odds with the requirements of a horror story, but I don’t think it need be.

Happy endings, yes or no? :
Yes if possible, see previous question, but it needs to be the right ending for the story. My definition of a happy ending is quite broad, not excluding the death of the protagonist, but it needs to be the right death.

51oGfLK15pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What’s your most recent publication?
I think my most recent story was in Shadmocks and Shivers, an R Chetwynd-Hayes tribute anthology from Shadow Publishing, in 2019. I also have a story in Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives part 2, from Belanger Books, which should be out any minute.

What are you working on now?
Revising some old unsold stories to see if they can find a home; potentially working on the too-short novel to make it publishable; writing some short fiction on spec. I’ve also been revisiting my poetry – I always used to say that writing poetry is like being a manufacturer of high-class gas mantles, however good they are no-one’s going to buy them, but recently poetry seems to be having a bit of a come back, so who knows.

 

dscf8797 (5)www.marionpitman.co.uk
http://andallshallbewelldotcom.wordpress.com

Story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.

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Tina Anghelatos asks Tiffani Angus some questions about her new novel, Threading the Labyrinth.

Tiffani Angus_Threading the LabyrinthTina: The garden is the main character – what gave you the idea about the haunted garden and why did you choose those particular time periods? Which is your favourite?

Tiffani: The original idea was to write about a house and its changes through the centuries, but as I started that research—this is over a decade ago—I realised that the garden’s changes would be much more drastic. The research into gardens and garden re-creation made me realise that gardens leave behind traces—they exist in layers, one atop another. This idea—of a place holding on to time—meant that of course there would be ghosts! Because I wanted the novel to be set in the same garden over centuries, I was restricted to a house of a certain vintage, hence the Hall in the novel that was previously part of an abbey (emptied and then given away during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 16th century). I was also restricted by the records available for gardens and what they looked like, so I chose the time periods based on garden fashion of the time. The first popular gardening manuals in English weren’t written until the late 1500s, so setting the first chronological part of the novel in the early 1600s meant that there would be gardening books but that my protagonist, Joan, would have her own ways of doing things that she learned from others and not from books, and the garden would still have some Tudor-era characteristics. The next section, the later 1700s, coincides with the English Landscape style; it’s here that the garden is under real threat, just like nearly every Tudor-era garden was at the time—there are only a few extant now. The 1860s is an intersection of a lot of things such as the growing Arts & Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, the rise of photography, the collecting craze (when wealthy garden owners would collect one of every species they could get—flowers or trees), and improvements to greenhouses. And I had to include the 1940s because of the necessity of turning once grand gardens of flowers into crop-yielding fields and because Land Girls are awesome.

My favorite has to be the earliest; I love a knot garden and I’m fascinated by how people lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. One idea I had that didn’t make it into the book but might develop into a stand-alone story is the protagonist of the 1700s section, Thomas Hill, and originally where (or when!) he came from and about the garden in the 1660s. Little note about him: he’s named after the author of the first gardening manual in English written for the general population.

Tina: Is The Remains based on a real property? 

Tiffani: No—it’s an amalgam of historic homes I have visited. I adore Hatfield House, which was one of the original inspirations for Threading because of its link to Elizabeth I, but it isn’t as old as the Hall in the book.

Tina: Toni gets trapped in a haunted house at night. She seems reasonably calm about it and the other ghosts. Have you ever had spooky encounter? Would you stay overnight?

Tiffani: I have had a couple of moments that were spooky. In one house I lived in when I was around 12, we swore we could hear whispering in the bathroom. But my grandmother was the lightning rod for ghost sightings in my family; once when I was around 12 she woke up to find her father (who died right after I was born) petting the cat, who was lying on the end of the bed. She wasn’t a flaky woman—she was very practical, very logical, very much the matriarch—so I believed her. And it didn’t scare her at all; she was happy he visited. I liked the idea of that—that your family is still there, visiting, in the background, so I don’t find the idea scary at all.

Tina: Do you like to garden?

Tiffani: That’s a loaded question! I laugh because pretty much everyone who reads my fiction—not just Threading but several of my stories, which are related to horticultural history—assume I have a massive green thumb. I grew up in the desert without a garden and only really had to learn when I bought a house in the US about 20 years ago that was not in a desert and suddenly found myself the keeper of half a dozen lilacs, over a dozen peonies, and more irises than I could count. Plus a wisteria that was the bane of my existence, bleeding heart, lily-of-the-valley, several flowering shrubs, hostas of all shapes, clematis, a herb and veg garden, and a poison ivy that, no matter what, I could not kill. I liked gardening fine in April and hated it by July. So now I like gardens that other people sweat and toil over; I appreciate the work that goes into them but don’t have to deal with bugs or weeds!

Tina: James Hitchen with his book of plants is another fascinating character. Was something like Culper’s Complete Herbal in your mind when you wrote Hitchen?

Tiffani: One of my favorite parts of research was going to the rare books room in the British Library and handling the gardening books from the late 1500s and early 1600s. I had to get books in the novel because of the shift from experiential knowledge to ‘book learning’ that was happening at this time in history (which Culpeper had a lot to do with in the 1650s). There were practical books for gardeners, such as the real Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), plus early herbals such as William Turner’s Herbal (1551), which was the first of its kind originally written in English, and John Gerard’s The Herbal or General History of Plants (1597), a lot of which was lifted from other books from the continent.

So here is this guy, Hitchen, who suddenly appears with his books and is trusted to know what he is doing, but someone who is barely literate knows more about the garden—I liked the clash of knowledge, especially in a walled garden that seems to have a mind of its own. The title of Hitchen’s book in Threading was inspired by the ridiculously long titles of some of those early books that previewed everything contained in their pages. But one word was especially important: secrets. At this time, scientific knowledge was starting to grow, which contrasted with the older belief that “the ancients” were the last word in everything and questioning them was a bad idea. So the publishing world had to sell books that contained information, and what better way to do it than to promise that they held information that no one else knew? So I did the same thing with Hitchen’s book, which is completely made up:  A compleat collection of plants and trees as described by Wm. Tusser, natural philosopher, including receipts for physic and offering all of the secrets of the garden.

It’s funny that you ask about Nicholas Culpeper because I am thinking about him for my next novel (after the one I am currently writing). Not a whole lot is known about him, so I am thinking about how to approach his life from a different perspective.

Tina: Hitchen also reminds me of the early explorers from Kew Gardens who went out collecting exotic plants to bring back to England. Kew Gardens is little later than Hitchen, but have you visited there for inspiration or other places with traditional gardens?

Tiffani: Threading the Labyrinth was part of my PhD dissertation (paired with a 40,000-word examination of space and time in Threading and in other gardens in fantasy fiction). When I was doing my research, I got to go on “field studies” to, well, actual fields! I travelled all over, going to gardens, flower shows, museums, etc. I went to Kew early in the research and loved it (and am hoping to go back one day to do some serious research in their archives, depending on my work schedule). I also went to Hatfield House, Biddulph Grange, Stowe, Fenton House, Clandon Park, Hampton Court, Kentwell, Chelsea Physic Garden, and Sissinghurst (twice!), among others. It’s hard to go to these places and not think about the people who have worked there over the centuries.

Tina: Do you have a favourite historical garden and house?

Tiffani: Hatfield House, definitely. I have been a couple of times and am hoping to be able to go back again—maybe next year if the pandemic eases and things open again! There is just something about it that caught my attention before I ever came to the UK; when I learned that the house where Elizabeth I lived as a child and where she was when she became queen, I was fascinated because where I grew up the oldest houses were from the 1950s!

Tina: Are you interested in modern gardens as well traditional ones or is the historical interaction between people like Women’s Land Army out in the fields and their interaction with nature that fascinates you?

Tiffani: For me it’s all about the historical interaction. I’m the same way with modern architecture and modern art; I mean, I took a bunch of art history classes at university and understand why it exists, but I don’t necessarily want it on my walls! As someone who grew up in a very new place, I am fascinated by history and always curious about the people who have, over the centuries, lived in these houses and worked in these gardens. Learning about the landowners—and the aristocrats and royalty—is all well and good (I mean, who doesn’t love a costume drama?) but it’s the people like us who I think deserve more attention. Take any of us back a century or two and we would’ve been the servants, the farmers, the workers. That’s why Threading isn’t about the landowners but the workers; so much of the history we are taught is about the big names and big events, so I’m always interested in the people below stairs who cooked the meals, the women who did the laundry, the people who went to work in the factories, the young women who signed up to be Land Girls and left the city behind, and what it means for us to be stewards of that history.

Threading the Labyrinth – Back cover blurb:
Toni, the American owner of a failing gallery, is unexpectedly called to Hertfordshire when she inherits a manor house from a mysterious lost relative. What she really needs is something valuable to sell to save her business. But, leaving the New Mexico desert behind, all she finds are crumbling buildings, overgrown gardens, and a vast archive in need of cataloguing. Soon she is immersed in the history of the house: the gardens that seem to change in the twilight; the ghost of a fighter plane from World War Two; the figures she sees from the corner of her eye. She must ask herself, what if her heritage has carried lives across centuries.

Tiffani-AngusTiffani Angus teaches creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Her short fiction—historical fantasy, science fiction, horror, and even erotica—has been published at Strange Horizons and in several anthologies. She lives in Bury St Edmunds with her partner and really wants a cat.

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It would have been nice… by Jacey Bedford

This is the week we would have held our third Milford Writers’ Retreat at the wonderful Trigonos in North Wales. Sadly Coronavirus intervened. Trigonos is still closed as per government instructions.

Had it been legal to run the week a few of our number were willing to give it a go, since Trigonos informed us that they’d worked out a way for the staff to social distance, however a few of us fall into the vulnerable category, so  we would have gone ahead with reduced numbers.

As you can see with the photo from last year social distancing amongst the writers would be difficult. Yes, theoretically we attend the retreat to have some uninterrupted writing time, but coffee breaks and meal times are very sociable, and that side of it is what makes the retreat work so well. Yes, you are writing on your own for most of the day, but those sociable breaks mean that you can take a break, give and receive encouragement, or simply have a laugh and relax amongst people who get it.

Retreat 2019 coffetime group

The eight writers who were signed up for the June retreat have all agreed to roll on their deposits to the next Milford Retreat which will be held at Trigonos from 8th – 15th May 2021. We can accept up to 12 attendees, so that means we have four available places. If you’re interested, there are details and an application form here: http://www.milfordsf.co.uk/retreats.htm

While you’re thinking about the retreat, have some lovely photos of our venue, Trigonos and the surrounding area.

Trigonos sunrise Powder Thompson

Nantlle Valley sm

Laptop window sunshine

Jacey-new hair

Jacey Bedford writes science fiction and fantasy and is published by DAW in the USA. She is the hon. sec of Milford, and she maintains this blog.

Web: www.jaceybedford.co.uk
email: jacey (at) jaceybedford.co.uk
Twitter: @jaceybedford
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer
Blog: http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com
Amazon.com Author Central Page:
https://www.amazon.com/author/jaceybedford

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Thoughts on the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – 30th May 2020

launch 01

Jacey Bedford

I watched the SpaceX terminated launch last Wednesday and then again the actual launch on Saturday – immediately followed by watching Apollo 11, the documentary using newly unearthed film footage and audio recordings. This was the (so far) pinnacle of US achievement, landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in July 1969. I was reminded that although things change, they also stay the same. This time it’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the hot seats. The preparation, the suiting-up, the journey to the rocket and up into the Crew Dragon capsule which is essentially a tiny sealed compartment sitting on top of a giant bomb. The countdown and then – finally – the launch itself.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Though I’m immensely proud of the work on the International Space Station (as much for the cooperation between nations as the scientific achievements) like many others I’ve been frustrated by the world’s apparent lack of interest in establishing a moon base in the fifty years following the first landing. However, SpaceX now presents us with a commercial alternative to government-funded space exploration. It’s in the name, SpaceX. The commercially funded SpaceX launch in a reusable craft could be the first step to a return to the moon and our first trip to Mars. I’m writing this on Sunday morning and the live feed for the ongoing mission is still running. The astronauts have just been woken by their chosen wake-up song: Planet Caravan by Black Sabbath. I hope Bob and Doug had a good night’s sleep. I’m holding my breath for the docking with the International Space Station, one final co-elliptic burn to go.

Launch 03

Above: Mission control 2020
Below: Missoon control Apollo 11 1969

Apollo11 01

Liz Williams
I watched the Space-Ex launch on Wednesday, tuning into NASA’s feed in time for the last hour or so, but within a few minutes it was evident that the launch was a scrub. Disappointing, but I duly tuned in again on Saturday to see the ‘candle’ lit. Pretty impressive – I am not a huge fan of Elon Musk but I should think he is justifiably proud of his company’s achievement at the moment. Great to see it go up although I was nervous. And good to see the Falcon alight back down again although I think Musk might have been reading too much Iain Banks given the name of the drone ship. It also occurred to me that conspiracy theorists must have had a field day with the brief loss of feed during the touchdown…

I watched the docking with my mother, who is 92 and who has been a SF fan for 40 years. We were both fascinated. I showed her the ‘space dads’ with their stowaway purple dinosaur and we were pleased to see Bob and Doug float through what I persist in thinking of as the airlock. Great stuff and I hope everyone on the ISS returns safely to Planet Earth.

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