3) Who are we Talking To? by Colin Brush

Number 3/8 in a series of weekly how-to posts on writing your own cover copy by Colin Brush reprinted from Summer 2020. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.

‘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 Brush

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

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2) What’s the Story by Colin Brush

The second in a series of how-to posts by Colin Brush reprinted from July 2020

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 Brush

Colin 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. Advertisements

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1) 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 reprinted from Summer 2020. 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 Brush

Colin 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.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why writing is like driving a HGV by Liz Williams

Well, not quite like driving a HGV. There are lots of pretty obvious differences: as a writer, I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night, be sworn at by other motorists, unload a large vehicle full of pallets with a grumpy warehouse operator, and have to use filthy motorway services. Not usually, anyway. And truck drivers are arguably a lot more crucial for the economy than writers, as well as, at least right now, better paid. But there is one analogy that I’d like to draw between HGV driving and writing.

A friend of ours does indeed drive actual trucks for a living. They are the enormous tankers that you see on the motorway, and in my friend’s case, they are full of fruit juice. A couple of years ago he was on an early morning run in one of these tankers when a vixen ran out in front of him and stopped dead in the middle of the road. Little fox vs enormous juice tanker would not have ended well for the vixen had not my friend, an animal lover, slammed on the brakes. The vixen ran off to fight another day; my friend, after mopping his brow a bit, continued on his way.

There are all sorts of things that can happen if you suddenly apply the brakes to a heavy load – skidding is one of them. Another – and I don’t know a great deal about driving HGVs, but this is my understanding – is the possibility of the failure of the complex hydraulics and what-have-you that govern balance of the load and the actual cab. In a worst case scenario, if these fail, the cab stops but the load carries on going, straight through the cab and the driver. This (hopefully) doesn’t happen because the engineering is worked out to the point where there are lots of things that will stop it happening.

I am currently writing the last book of a quartet, which started with Comet Weather (published by New Con Press), continued with Blackthorn Winter and will go on across Embertide (coming out with New Con again in 2022) and Salt on the Midnight Fire, the last in the series, which I’m writing now. I’m about 60,000 words into this but I can, rather like a shaky load of fruit juice, feel the weight of the previous novels building up behind me. My task is to review the previous books, plus all the characters that have appeared in them, and all the loose ends, and stop that freight crashing through and demolishing the last book in the series. To do this, I have to apply the brakes to the writing process, but rather more gently than my truck driving friend in the analogy above, and have to keep going back to see what’s what in books one, two and three.

Comet Weather had one sequence which I knew was going to appear, and be fully explained, in the last novel. I haven’t written that section yet, but I am working up to it. I have written series before – the Chen novels – and I’m conscious that all sorts of balls can be dropped in the final book. I think that the way round this is to plot meticulously, but also to accept that you will miss something and there are some loose ends which are not going to be resolved – hopefully these will not derail the whole thing. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m pantsing these novels: they’re not standalone books, which the Chen series was, so I’ve got quite a juggling act to keep everything on board. It’s curious how your writing process develops over time – I used not to plot my books very thoroughly in the early days, but after being told by my agent that I suffered from Transparent Head Syndrome (‘you think everyone will know what’s in your mind. They don’t’) I started to plot more thoroughly. With this new series, I am not plotting far ahead, although there are elements that I knew I wanted to have in the final novel. It’s quite scary, but also exhilarating. Let’s hope, though, that some metaphorical fox doesn’t suddenly run out in front of me…

Liz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), is now published by New Con Press and Open Road Media, and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for over 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Of breast cancer and cryptids and what makes us angry by Cheryl Sonnier

I didn’t know I had breast cancer when I wrote, Investigating the Sea-Hag Menace, in early April this year.

I didn’t have the routine Mammogram until mid-June, a month and a half after Improbable Press accepted the story. A couple of weeks later, I was called back for more tests, and on 2nd August I had a mastectomy on my right side. It all happened so quickly, in a whirl of disbelief, anger and grief; I didn’t have time to think about the story and implications until afterwards.

Then, I began to suspect that when people who knew about the breast cancer read the story, they would assume that the line below from the story’s narrator is autobiographical:

‘I wonder what the scars from my mastectomy would look like, covered in those glimmering scales, and whether Tim would be able to look at them without pity clouding his eyes.’

Women’s writing is often assumed to be autobiographical, rather than an attempt to understand how someone else might react in any given situation. As it happens, I did have breast cancer and – looking at my own still-vivid scar – I think a set of glimmering sea-hag scales would look bloody marvellous. But I didn’t know about the cancer when I wrote the story, unless my body was subconsciously trying to let me know. If so, I’m sorry body; I completely missed the clue. Thank goodness for routine mammograms.

My husband isn’t called Tim, either and he hasn’t once looked upon me with pity. In fact, an important part of the healing process, of coming to terms with the drastic change in my body, has been laughing with him about how we are now even more a matched pair. Him with his long, vertical heart surgery scar and me with my long, horizontal mastectomy scar.

We are older, though, he and I, and we have never had much time for the superficial. When the consultant surgeon asked me how I felt about having the mastectomy, my reaction was, ‘I’m gutted, but at least it isn’t an arm, or a leg.’ If I’d been younger, though, my reaction may well have been different. We are constantly expected to live up to an image of womanhood seen on social media and in advertising. It’s not a true image (so many are filtered and touched up), but it’s one that so many young women grow up feeling they should aspire to all the same. For me, losing a breast was hard. There’s a nine-inch scar; part of me is missing and until I got my wonderful prosthetic, it was a huge knock to my self-confidence. But I’m at that ‘invisible’ age, where my appearance no longer matters to men in general (something I explored in my story, ‘What You Wish For,’ in The Invisible Collection from Nightjar Press). Losing a breast while the pressure is still on for a woman to be attractive to men must be devastating.

It shouldn’t be that way. We should not be valued for our appearance above all else. It’s one of society’s ‘norms’ that has always made me angry both as a woman, and as the mother of a daughter. There are so many other injustices that make women angry. Investigating the Sea-Hag Menace explores some of them and will be included in Dark Cheer: Cryptids Emerging Volume Blue, due out in December 2021 and available for pre-order now.

Cheryl Sonnier is a part time MFA student at Manchester Writing School. She lives in Leeds with her husband and two cats.

Publications include, Nightjar Press, Wyldblood Publications, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Five Elements Anthology, Plasma Frequency, Dark Futures, Roadworks: Tales From the Hard Road, Cemetery Sonata, QWF.

This blog post reprinted with permission.

Posted in fantasy, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

You Can Do It – An author walks the Camino by Kari Sperring

I have to admit it; I’m concerned about Gaetan. Not worried, precisely — it’s not that strong a feeling — but I cannot but wonder. Did he make it all the way? Did he cope with the long slog up to the Cruz de Ferro, or the narrow rocky path after El Acebo? And what did he make of that muddy ford below Riego. He hasn’t said, and I’d like to know, just in case. I’ve been reading about him since somewhere around Astorga and I want to know.

I picture him as a first or second year undergraduate, 18 or 19 – 20 at most – and, like many young men that age, still catching up to himself in terms of growth. He trips over his own feet still, not entirely used to the length of his legs, and prone to knocking things off desks with his elbows. He watches the football with his friends, of course, but was never that keen on it at school – he prefers computer games or swimming – and he’s not really used to long distance walking. But all his friends want to walk the Camino this summer, and he’s known most of them since primary school, and, well, he really wants to walk with them, all these up and down miles to Santiago.

I don’t know where he started from. With his name he’s probably French, but there’s a chance he’s Spanish or even German and his parents just liked the sound of it. Perhaps, like so many pilgrims on the Camino Frances, he started at St Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and has already made his way over those steep mountains. Perhaps, like many locals, he began at Roncevalles or Pamplona. Perhaps, like Karen and me, he began in Burgos. I don’t know. I just know he’s somewhere, walking these same paths as we are, and his friends are sending encouragement via notes on way posts and signs. They write them in multiple languages – Spanish and Italian and French and Portuguese.  His friends are polyglots or else from multiple countries and they care about him, even though, clearly, he has somehow fallen behind.

It’s August in Spain and hitting the middle 30s by early afternoon. Pilgrims rise early, walking out of small villages and towns at 6 or 7 in the morning, to get in as many kilometres as possible before the heat sets in. I’m here with my friend Karen, who has walked the Camino by several routes before, and we are only doing part of it this year – on foot from Burgos in the province of Castile y Leon to O Cebreiro on the edge of Galicia. It’s around 200 km, all told – about a quarter of the total route from St Jean to Santiago. It’s Karen’s favourite section and we’re doing it in short stages, because right now she isn’t very well. For the first week – the hottest, as it turns out – my partner Phil is with us too and we walk along the dusty paths of the Meseta Central, the great central plain, where, according to Alan Jay Lerner, the rain mainly falls.

Not in August (though, having been there in November and December on other trips I have got very wet indeed walking up to ruined castles). It’s arid and shadeless, wide fields of grain and sunflowers, though not always as flat as the name suggests. Villages are few, and of those we reach, many seem half-deserted, houses dozing behind shuttered windows. In Burgos, we got our Credencials  — pilgrim passports – stamped in the great cathedral – before we began the first day’s walk. Now we are collecting new stamps, from occasional cafes and overnight small hotels and albergues. Hontanas, Castrojeriz, Boadilla, Fromista… In Castrojeriz Phil and I leave Karen at a bar and climb up in the full heat of the day to the great castle that towers over the town. Below, the plain spreads out on all sides, hazy in the afternoon light. Walking into Fromista, we spot an otter playing in the waters of the canal. Karen and I photograph wildflowers, with the vague intention of asking someone later what they are. I wonder, later, how Gaetan coped with the meseta and the long hot days, but at that point I haven’t yet heard of him.

Phil has to fly home, so we fast forward by road to Leon, with another cathedral, and a welcome hotel with air-conditioning. Then it’s onwards again, just Karen and I now, for another three weeks. She has seen these places before, and our walk is illustrated by her memories of who she met, what happened, what has changed. She likes the great skies and open spaces of the meseta: I meanwhile have developed a need to see as many of the churches on the route that are open. The Camino is, after all, a walk through time as well as space: these paths, these churches and villages persist, rocks in an endless river of pilgrims. We are tiny, in their memories: I find that oddly soothing as I walk. There is no rush, here. There is no need to feel burdened by huge matters of politics or society, or, at least, to feel personally responsible for solving them all the time. What there is is time: time less to think (though that element is there) than simply to be, breathing and walking and blending into the wider world. Villar de Mazarife, Villavante, Hospital d’Orbigo, Astorga. The Camino, says Karen, throws challenges, and in Astorga we find ours, with a mix up over hotel bookings. The town has pretty buildings and some wonderful ice cream, but I am unfairly pleased to see the back of it.

And that is where we meet – or, at least, encounter – Gaetan. His name is written in black pen on one of the signs that mark the route.  Benga, Gaetan, benga! Come on, Gaetan, you can do it. Somewhere over the last days, he has fallen behind his companions. It’s a long way from St Jean or Roncesvalles to Astorga, and he has blisters or shin splints, or maybe picked up an infection, and the others had to move on ahead. But they know he’s still walking, and even as they cover their own miles, they send him encouragement. Vas-y, Gaetan, vas-y. From here on, we see the messages almost daily, words of kindness and help for one man which somehow cheer us, too.

There are a huge number of books about the Camino. Nearly everyone who walks it blogs or journals, so it seems. In Villafranca del Bierzo, we meet a young man who is collecting answers from other pilgrims in a small notebook. Why are we here? What do we want from our caminos? What is the meaning of life. He’s serious and charming, and will go to a monastery once he finishes his walk. I am here to learn stillness, I write, and to teach myself patience. I don’t know about meaning, but it helps to be kind. I am here to try and let go of some of my own bad patterns. After Leon, the Camino leaves the meseta and starts to climb; the days are cooler, but the paths are noticeably steeper, too. In the mountains above Foncebadon, the route passes the Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, where pilgrims traditionally leave a pebble brought from home. Some bear messages in ink, commemorating loved ones. Some are plain. I bring a small piece of flint from near where I live now and place it down in symbol of something I no longer wish to carry. Karen speaks her words as she places her stone; I am silent. To each their own. Somewhere, I think, as we climb down the piled stones below the cross, Gaetan too has left his token.

Our last walking day, I walk alone: this last section is steep and Karen’s feet are painful. I’m out early: as I walk out of Las Herrerias, I pass other pilgrims eating breakfast in cafes, or fastening their boots. The path winds up through trees: another older woman and I pass each other multiple times and smile and wave. She is from Madrid, but studied in Cambridge where I live. I don’t get her name, but I meet her again that night in a bar. There’s nothing open at the top of the first steep section, but after the next, the bar-albergue in La Laguna is open and every other pilgrim I met that morning stops there for coffee or water or beer. An elderly German cyclist asks me to take a photo of him and his mountain bike, to commemorate the climb. And there, on the edge of the village, that familiar black writing, this time in English, Come on, Gaetan, come on.

I hope he made it, not just up that particular steep path, but beyond, on through Galicia to Santiago itself. I picture him in the square in front of the cathedral, his backpack on the paving beside him, laughing and smiling as he hugs his friends in triumph. You made it, Gaetan. Well done.

This is where, if I were to write a conventional camino memoir, I would point out some deeper meaning. But, as Karen says to me, several times across the walk, we each walk our own camino. Mine is not complete: I still yearn to walk those 600 missing kilometres from St Jean, on to Santiago itself. And there are other caminos: later this year I will walk the shorter Camino Ingles, from Ferrol on the northern coast of Spain. I will be looking out for Gaetan, and all his companions and friends and kin.

And, Gaetan, if you chance to read this, let me know how you got on, please. I hope it went well.

Kari Sperring is the author of two novels (Living with Ghosts [DAW 2009] and The Grass King’s Concubine [DAW 2012], the novella Serpent Rose [NewCon Press 2019] and an assortment of short stories. As Kari Maund, she has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s British and lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner Phil and three very determined cats, who guarantee that everything she writes will have been thoroughly sat upon. Her website is http://www.karisperring .com and you can also find her on Facebook. Her latest novella, Rose Knot came out from Newcon Press this summer.

Posted in reading, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Revving Up to Publication Day by Jacey Bedford

When I was an unpublished author my single aim was to get a book published.

Then it happened. I sold my first book to DAW in 2013 for publication in 2014. That was Empire of Dust. There have been five subsequent books resulting in two completed trilogies. I never really intended to commit trilogy but if you read Juliet E McKenna’s blog post last week on why publishers like ‘more of the same but different’ you’ll realise why they like trilogies and series.

Now I’m published I have a different aim, and that’s to get as much publicity and promotion for my books as I possibly can because there are a lot of books out there and I’d like mine to get their fair share of attention.

I have a new book out soon.

I’ve just done the copy-edit check for my upcoming book, The Amber Crown. The copy editor has gone through it minutely to check for spelling mistakes, clunky prose, anything that doesn’t sound right and – of course – punctuation. I’ve done that myself, several times, of course, but another set of eyes and a keen brain never hurts. Also, because I’m published by DAW in the USA, my UK English prose has to be translated into American. I’m not confident enough in American English. I could easily miss something, so I prefer it to be done by an American English speaker. Americans always use way more commas than Brits, too, but I’m getting used to that now. I use more commas in my writing than I used to do, and I don’t overreact when I see all the added commas the copy editor has slung in there.

The next step in the process is checking the page proofs. This is the last time I will have the opportunity to make any alterations, but at the page proof stage they’d better be small alterations—the odd typo that’s been missed etc. That should happen in the next week or two.

The Amber Crown is out on 11th January 2022. It’s in trade paperback, the large format. I’m so looking forward to seeing it. It will come out in mass market paperback format at some future date. All my previous books have been in mass market paperback. It’s already up for pre-order on Amazon. This time DAW have world rights (unlike my other six books for which they only had North American rights). I’m hoping that means it’s available on Kindle in the wider territories.

I have now been introduced to my publicist, Stephanie Felty, and my marketing person, Jessica Plummer. Both of these good people are from PenguinRandomHouse, DAW’s mothership. I’m getting together a list of fellow writers who will take blog posts from me. I intend these should start to appear in December and continue into January. That’s a lot of blog posts, each one different.

I’ve only ever had a publicist for the previous books. If I had a marketing person, I didn’t know about her. I realised that I didn’t know the difference between publicity and marketing, but apparently the publicity person handles getting the book reviews, and the author interviews, and does a lot of her work before the book is published. i.e. she deals with earned promotion The marketing person deals with paid promotion, like media and print advertising, running Goodreads giveaways etc.

If anyone out there reading this would like to host either a blog post or an interview from me, please get in touch via my website at www.jaceybedford.co.uk. If anyone who reviews for magazines or book-sites, or hosts a book review blog, would like a review copy, please get in touch and I’ll pass your details along to Stephanie.

I think The Amber Crown is my best book yet, so I’m putting in every effort to get the word out there. Though sometimes… just sometimes… I look back to when I was an unpublished author and my single aim was to get a book published, and I think life was so simple then.

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog and occasionally writes for it, too. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and her novels are published by DAW in the USA. Her short fiction has been published on both sides of the Atlantic and has even been translated into an assortment of languages. She lives on the edge of Yorkahire’s Pennine Hills with her husband, songwriter Brian Bedford, and a long haired black German Shepherd (a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany). Her day job is being an agent and music-mum for a bunch of itinerant folk singers.

Web: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/
Twitter: @jaceybedford
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer
Blog: http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

More of the Same but Different by Juliet E. McKenna

Where do we find something ‘the same but different’?

This is what publishing is looking for, above all else. That’s what a commissioning editor from Pan Macmillan said, giving a talk at the very first mystery and crime weekend held at my old college, St Hilda’s, in Oxford in 1994. That stuck with me because I was working in bookselling at the time, and as she explained, it’s what retailers and readers want too: a book offering what has already worked well – which also offers something fresh. A great many things have changed about the book trade since then, but this holds true.

So far, so straightforward, but just because something is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s why editors continue to reject retreads of the same ideas with comments like one of the many I received before I heard that talk at St Hilda’s: “There’s nothing to distinguish this from the six other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week”. So how did I get over that hurdle and become a published author?

I found the answer by reading, but not by reading more of the epic fantasy fiction I loved – and still do. As a crime and mystery fan as well, I was enjoying the independent-minded female private eyes who were newcomers to that genre in the 1990s; VI Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone, and Kate Brannigan to name but a few. Seeing how different the themes and classic ideas of whodunnits became when seen through those women’s eyes prompted me to wonder how a similar character would fare in a epic fantasy world? The more I though about that, all sorts of interesting possibilities occurred to me. The Thief’s Gamble in 1999 was the result, and the books that followed.

This approach continues to work for me more than twenty years later. The original inspiration for The Green Man’s Heir was a throwaway line in a short story, explaining that dryads’ sons are mortal men. The more I thought about that, the more options I saw for offering urban fantasy fans a blend of the elements they enjoy with a new perspective on that genre’s core themes and conventions. Add to that, the uncommunicative lone male is a staple suspect/red herring in murder mysteries, and the crossover between crime fiction and urban fantasy is well established. So what might happen if I put that loner at the centre of the story? What difference would it make to the established template to have a male protagonist who’s the human with one foot in the supernatural world? How about setting the action out in the countryside rather than heading down those familiar mean streets?

Once again, reading offered me answers as well as further intriguing ideas. I didn’t find these reading urban fantasy though. I turned to books of old folk tales that I hadn’t looked at since I was a kid, as well as scholarly explorations of myth that I’ve never had reason to read. I was soon reminded how often a wood-cutter’s son or the youngest of three princes ends up facing a supernatural challenge. I saw how many spirits of places, trees and waters are female in British folk tales, along with a good few shapeshifters. Everything I needed for gender-flipping so many of urban fantasy’s conventions was right there in front of me. Add to that, I realised I could draw on readers’ memories of childhood fairy stories to create unconscious expectations as well as wrong-footing them when that served my purposes.

The Green Man’s Challenge is the fourth of the contemporary fantasies where I’ve combined traditional tales with the realities of modern British rural life. This time I started by rereading those old stories about giants that we encounter as kids, such as Jack the Giant-Killer, and Jack and the Beanstalk. I found puzzles I didn’t expect when I looked to see where those stories had come from. That led me to the enduring mysteries that surround the giant figures carved into England’s chalk hillsides. The age-old history of those landscapes offered still more scope for my imagination. Once again I was able to weave these threads into a story that offers ‘the same but different’, not just to urban fantasy, but to the books so far in this series. That’s just as important.

I’m already thinking about the next Green Man novel. So far I have a handful of notions. Now I’ll start looking for the books which will offer up the people, places and stories that will combine with those ideas to create something entirely new and exciting. At the moment I have no idea what I will find, but I do know it’s going to be another fascinating journey. 

Juliet E. McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore in 2018, followed by The Green Man’s Foe, The Green Man’s Silence, and The Green Man’s Challenge. She writes and comments on book trade issues, has served as a judge for major genre awards, and reviews online and for magazines. She writes diverse short stories and novellas enjoying forays into darker fantasy, steampunk and SF. She has also written murder mysteries set in ancient Greece as J M Alvey.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Milford 2021 – a report by Liz Tuckwell

Left to right: Jeremy Pak Nelson, Sue Oke, Pete Sutton, Tiffani Angus, Matt Colborn and Jim Anderson (back), Dolly Garland Trevor Jones, Jacey Bedford, Pauline Dungate, Charlotte Forfieh, Liz Williams, Terry Jackman, David Allan, Georgina Kamsika, and Liz Tuckwell.

Milford 2020 was postponed due to COVID so, we’d all been waiting a year to attend. There were ten “old hands” and five newbies. Milford tries to keep five out of the fifteen slots for new writers every year. That meant many already knew each other but everyone was very friendly and welcoming to the newbies.

There was a flurry of emails before the weekend, sorting out travel arrangements especially the all-important how to get to Trigonos from Bangor. Drivers in the group were very generous in giving lifts to people. Everyone was asked to take a test the day before or on the morning of departure so we could be sure no one had COVID.

View over the lake towards Snowdon

Trigonos is set in beautiful scenery with a lake nearby. If it’s not cloudy, which it often is, you can see Snowdon. It’s amazingly quiet there. Now I’m home, I’m really noticing the noise.

I was a little worried when I read that people bring chocolate along to the crit sessions if they’re giving a harsh crit. And when I saw the chocolate piled on the table, I got more worried. The first day is allocated to stories by writers who’ve been previously, to help the newbies understand the process. To my relief, none of the crits were harsh but thoughtful with helpful suggestions. Liz and Jacey organise the running order so most of the newbies’ stories are on the second day, so newbies don’t have too long to fret.

Crit group

It’s surprisingly tiring taking part in the critting sessions as you’re concentrating all the time and I found myself going to bed far earlier than I ever do at home. And that seemed to be the norm for most people.

The things I enjoyed most about the week were:

  • Meeting the other writers.
  • The conversations in the library at mealtimes and after dinner. I really enjoyed talking to people who too love science fiction and fantasy.
  • The markets discussion on Thursday evening and when we went round the group at Pete Sutton’s suggestion to talk about what we’d had published.
  • The book recommendations as in ‘You should read [insert name of book] it’s amazing.”

There are swings and roundabouts with the accommodation. If you’re in the house, then you can just walk downstairs to breakfast and up to bed and help yourself to tea and coffee without leaving the building, which can be a real bonus if the weather is bad. If you’re in one of the other blocks of accommodation, you have a proper shower instead of a bath with a shower attachment. This year, the weather was pretty good so, I was pleased I had one of the rooms outside the main building.

I’ve been told that every year the daily menu demonstrates what the Trigonos garden has had in abundance. This year I firmly believe it was tomatoes and kale. The centre is usually vegan and vegetarian but makes a special allowance for Milford meat eaters. It’s good at accommodating people with special dietary requirements. I think there were four or five different milks on offer!

Jeremy Pak Nelson entertained us on the last night with a couple of beautiful tunes on his violin. Jacey Bedford entertained us throughout the week with funny phrases recorded for posterity from other Milford years and some she’d collected this year. My own favourite was “It was cheap and near the docks. How was I to know it was a sex hotel?”

We were hoping to go for a group lunch to a fish restaurant on Friday, but the restaurant was already fully booked. (One of the knock-on effects of COVID) So, some of us went on a trip to Caernarvon and fish and chips. Trigonos provided a packed lunch for the rest who wanted to write or go for a walk.

The week flew by. It seemed we had only just arrived before it was time to go.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live from Milford 2021 – Day #6

Jacey Bedford: This is our last day at Milford. We finished the crits yesterday, so today has been a free day. I drove into Caernarfon with Terry, Liz T and Tiffani. We did a little retail therapy and had lunch at the Anglesey Arms on the waterfront, right next to Caernarfon Castle (which seems to be currently buried in building work). Pete brought Jeremy and David, who went their own way but met us in the pub at lunchtime. It was disappointing that the pub’s extensive lunch menu had been severely reduced, but we were all happy with fish and chips.

Tomorrow we all depart after breakfast, some to the road, some to trains, but it’s been a fabulous week once again. Here are the participants…

Left to right: Jeremy Pak Nelson, Sue Oke, Pete Sutton, Tiffani Angus, Matt Colborn and Jim Anderson (back), Dolly Garland Trevor Jones, Jacey Bedford, Pauline Dungate, Charlotte Forfieh, Liz Williams, Terry Jackman, David Allan, Georgina Kamsika, and Liz Tuckwell.
Posted in Milford | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment