Algorithms and Magical Thinking – at St Mary’s Church Warwick and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

How do we deal with the unpredictabilty of the world we find ourselves in?spellbound-website-banner

Recently I’ve been challenged at two quite separate events to consider the ways in which we look at the world and handle the unpredictability and unaccountability of our lives.

One event was held in St Mary’s Church Warwick where I heard a lecture by Revd. Professor Bernard Silverman, formerly Scientific Adviser to the Home Office.

Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician
Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician

And the other event was an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, called Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

At first glance, it seems our choice between the two is clear. After all, we are rational twenty-first century beings. We’ve had the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we know all about logic and philosophy and psychology and the laws of cause and effect. We have modern medicine. We know about viruses and bacteria. We have innoculations. We live in a much more civilised, controlled, functional world, don’t we, than our predecessors?

Or do we? Take your choice:

Do we trust mathematical predictions through algorithms?

or do we rely on the magical thinking in which humankind has engaged for centuries?

or… do we hold both of these in our consciousness as we proceed through this world, along with other outlooks as well?

Do you ever wonder where those politicans get their statistics from that they throw at us during media interviews, to underline or prove or disprove certain policies?politicians and statistics As a statistician, Prof Silverman has advised the government on many vital issues, including the numbers of people involved in modern slavery, and those taking certain classes of illegal drugs and those involved in drug-dealing, and how to handle a massive influx of migrants into the country. He employs his expertise to predict and manage probabilities and to anticipate situations on a scientific basis, and thus to provide solutions to the best way of handling problems.

Once someone said to him incredulously, “You mean, you found that out by…. using algebra?”

To which he replied, “…as opposed to just guessing? Yes.”

He researches data and then fits a mathematical model to it, and then gives impartial expert advice to support government. He did say it’s up to science not to overplay the evidence; and it’s incumbent on scientists to explain what they’ve found in terms people can understand; findings should be informed by expertise and not solely by the scientists’ personal opinions.

He was asked about the ethical challenges to scientists and he said the only real danger is when the Chief Scientific Adviser gets captured by the agenda.

In order to guard against that, he or she must:

a) make sure advice is in the public domain

b) have several people to whom he or she is accountable

c) listen and observe – after all, that encapsulates the scientific method.

Having listened to Professor Silvermen I felt heartened and encouraged,  and left the church with a much more  positive view of our country and our system of government and indeed our politicians.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I felt that with the Chief Scientific Advisers behind them, we have good reason to trust our politicans, perhaps, much more than we do.

Then I went to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Here we found displayed many objects which testify to the reliance our forbears placed upon the idea of changing the external world and their circumstances by manipulation of objects through magic.

I found the exhibition aroused many different emotions; it was at different points, creepy, sad, disturbing, distressing, moving, thought-provoking. And as I went round the exhibition, I thought Humans are not essentially rational creatures – they are kaleidoscopic creatures.

George Iles quote on superstition

When we look at English history we may consider the following paradoxes:

Henry VIII chopped off people’s heads and condemned them to be hanged drawn and quartered,  and was in many ways a monster… and yet he was the first monarch to ensure an English translation of the Bible should be in every church, so the people could read in their own language the Gospels he himself clearly had not read (because the message of love, mercy and compassion had evidently not got through to him).

Elizabeth I fought to stop the idolatry and superstition of Catholic practices, and to institute her new Church, enlightened, rational, flower of the Reformation… and she also employed John Dee, Court Magician ( some of whose magical objects were in this exhibition). And women were persecuted and executed as witches right up until 1680 – 22 years into her reign.

James I has given his name to first much-revered King James translation of the Bible, and no more women were executed for witchcraft during his reign, and he fought to maintain Protestantism….except that he was obsessed with witchcraft, he wrote a book on it, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James I, and took the witches’ (genuine) spells directly out of James I’s book.

Yes, here in the twenty-first century we are rational beings… but we still have within us black spots of what has been called wilful self-deception.

People for centuries have ostensibly followed Christianity yet believed in magical objects and rituals and spells. Clergymen have fought a losing battle against superstition, and caches of magical objects – used everyday items imbued with magical spells – have been found even in the twentieth century, secreted in hiding places in old houses. Some of these caches were on display in the museum; a pair of man’s breeches; a child’s shoe; several teeth; a number of small medicine bottles, and all sorts of items, almost like a curious time capsule, stashed away up the chimney or under the floorboards to somehow magically influence the lives of their owners.

As I moved through the exhibition I found myself thinking that in the past centuries, the powerlessness and brutality of life would have often led people to magical thinking, when Christian prayer seemed not to work.

17th century woodcut - poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft
17th century woodcut – poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft

But are we so civilised and enlightened that we can look down on all that with incredulous disdain?

Do we cross our fingers, or avoid walking under ladders, or feel uneasy with the number 13? Do we have a dream catcher in our bedroom, or a lucky duck from Whitby sitting on the shelf? Do we pass on Irish blessings over social media with a threat that if you don’t forward it to 7 others something bad will happen to you? do you believe in house blessings, or keep crosses or icons around the house? Do you buy guardian angels on chains to wear as a pendant, or take a St Christopher on a journey with you? If we write, do we always use a special pen, or follow a certain ritual before beginning?

These and many other little rituals show that we still use magical thinking.

Certainly we can understand where JK Rowling got her ideas from and why her books have such a powerful hold on us…

 

 

 

Inspiration, Motivation and Keeping To The Path

On 7th September 2017 on the seventh day  of my Mystical Circles blog tour,Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 MJ Mallon published an article by me on her blog which has the wonderful title of  Kyrosmagica.

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles on that blog tour.

So with my thanks to Marje, here’s the article she first published on her blog on 7th September:

Inspiration, Motivation and Keeping to the Path

Being an author in today’s world is a much tougher journey than one might ever believe, when one first conceives the desire to write stories.

I was inspired at the age of seven by the adventure stories of Enid Blyton and wanted to write exciting stories like hers. Essentially my desire was to write about girls my own age doing thrilling and dangerous and intrepid things quite out of my own daily experience. I created two girls called Marilyn and Sylvia and wrote many stories about them. They were good, brave, beautiful, clever and talented, everything I wanted to be. In other words, the desire was for transformation.

And this is why I believe we read fiction. Our longing is to be transported from out of our own lives, our own minds, into the mind and heart of someone else, to enter into a different world, to be inside someone else’s skin, to share his or her joys and sorrow and hopes and dreams.

Listening to conversations and observing people and the interaction of their personalities has long fascinated me and is a large part of my desire to write. I wrote a detailed daily journal throughout my teens and twenties, which ran to many volumes, and in it I would often record conversations I had been a part of or had overheard, and observations about people I knew, including family relationships.

The changes in the publishing scene over the past couple of decades have held out a seductive allure to independent authors, offering power and autonomy. Yet the snares along the path are even greater. We have all these opportunities, but also there are many people pursuing the same dream, and recording their success and offering their advice on social media. This can prove overwhelming for sensitive, introverted creative people – which is the case with many writers.

So it can prove a lifeline when we find inspiring quotes to strengthen and uplift us. Here’s one, from St Paul: But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize. And he also encouraged his readers with these words: Only let us live up to all we have attained.

Knowing that others have struggled for years and eventually, with persistence, won through, is a very helpful reminder for us when we start to doubt the value of our past achievements and allow it to weaken our faith in what we are capable of achieving in the future. My non-fiction book Perilous Path, an inspirational writers’ guide, contains several chapters which help authors to overcome obstacles in their path, and suggest how to use art and music as therapy as well as a source of fresh inspiration.

So, finally, what makes us carry on? We need to draw the water of inspiration and motivation from a reliable well. I found one particular saying of Sir Winston Churchill very powerful. When invited to speak to an audience of school pupils, who were all waiting to hear wise words from the great man, he said, I only have five words to give you. Never, never, never give up.

 

SC Skillman Author photo WEB

SC SKILLMAN AUTHOR
I was born and brought up in Orpington, near south London. As a child I was inspired by Enid Blyton. I started writing adventure stories at the age of seven; the love of writing that her stories first instilled into me has strengthened over the years.

I studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and my first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later I lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to live in the UK. I now live in Warwickshire with my husband David, son Jamie and daughter Abigail. Nearby are three of England’s most famous destinations: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon and the two great castles at Kenilworth and Warwick.

My two thriller suspense novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit are set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from my present home. I’ve also written Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, a book of encouraging advice, tips and reminders for authors.

I am currently working on the second draft of my new novel, Director’s Cut. I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction of different complex personalities, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a writer!

And my advice to anyone who wants to be a writer? Read a lot, listen to people’s conversations, be observant about the details of your world, and especially about human behaviour and interaction, and persist in your writing, being single-minded to the point of obsession… never give up, always believe in yourself despite all evidence to the contrary, and hold out for what you first dreamed of.

 

 

Forging Our Own Paths and Surviving the Internet Sirens

On 1st September at the beginning of my Mystical Circles blog tour, author and blogger Sacha Black hosted a guest post from me on her blog.  Print

In my next few posts I shall be re-blogging my posts and auhor interviews on that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Sacha first published, called “How To Survive the Internet Sirens.”

I’ve just returned from ScotsWrite, a Society of Authors Conference in Scotland. And one of the speakers at the conference was a lady who I might include under the category of internet sirens though I will admit she said some very interesting things and I will be taking up some of her ideas! So there’s always a few exceptions to a general rule…

How To Survive the Internet Sirens

In the writing and publishing world these days we are often told that it is no longer sufficient to be just an author. No, you have to be a promoter as well, and a self-publicist, and a PR specialist. You have to master the art of the press release, learn how to write appealing advertising copy, know how to pitch yourself to someone in a single sentence in a lift, and master numerous pieces of software in order to orchestrate them all skilfully with one end in mind – to sell your product, i.e. your new book.

This all begs the question of how you should manage your time so you can actually fit in writing the next book.

One way of going about it is to be a multi-tasker. Accomplish several different tasks a day by juggling them all and keeping them all in the air. Or if you are a list person, try to achieve a sense of control over your life by surrounding yourself with typed-up To Do Lists.  Or perhaps you might work with a noticeboard covered with Post It Notes.
Lest we forget, what started all this was a desire to create fiction, to bring people to life who never existed, to dream up worlds for them to inhabit, and sometimes to find that ‘they come alive. They are capable of the surprising act or word. They stand outside the plot, unconditioned by it’. And then there are other characters ‘who have to be pushed around…. have the obstinacy of nonexistence…..are inextricably bound to the plot… whose only importance is to… help to furnish the scene in which a living character moves and speaks,” as Graham Greene explained so eloquently in his novel The End of the Affair.One thing’s for sure; you will need to try to Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4hold onto your sanity, so you may need your drug of choice – whether that be herbal calming tablets, or numerous infusions of caffeine, or glasses of wine, or, probably the least advisable substance of all, cakes and biscuits, to keep you going. For you will also have to master how to put out Facebook ads, and how to drive people to your mailing list sign-up forms, and monitor the response you get, and adjust your ads accordingly.

In this quote, Graham Greene expresses the strange feeling authors can sometimes get about their characters, when the lines blur between the real world and the fictional world of their own creation. Sometimes we do indeed feel like characters forced here and there by an unseen hand, without any free will. I fear that in today’s climate we as authors can feel like that, when voices ‘out there’ are constantly telling us what to do to make ourselves visible, to get readers to pay attention to us, to direct the searchlight of attention upon us, notice our books, and buy them.

It feels as if we are drifting, boats upon the current, into that region of the ocean where we may hear siren voices luring us onto the rocks. Maybe the only answer is to do as Odysseus did in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, during his voyage home after the Trojan War, when he tied himself to the mast, and stopped up all the ears of the sailors on the ship, so they might sail safely past and out of the range of the siren voices.

Surely this isn’t the way it should be for creative people?

 

And yet, perhaps I have misunderstood; for when we study the biographies of past authors, we cannot help noticing that they had their own struggles, though maybe slightly different, conditioned by the culture of their time. Were we ever intended to exist in an ivory tower, as we write our books?

I think of a wonderful quote from JK Rowling, who said in a 2003 interview with Jeremy Paxman: I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen. Being able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous and occasionally you would correspond with the Prince of Wales’ secretary. You know I didn’t think they’d rake through my bins, I didn’t expect to be photographed on the beach through long lenses.’

Every individual creative person has their own struggles, though I grant that JK Rowling’s struggles at that point were probably different from ours right now, as we try to make some kind of impact upon the world with our stories.

Each novel that we write has to some extent emerged from our own lives, our own personal experiences, our own take upon the world, and so it feels as if we are giving from deep within ourselves. That is certainly the case with my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition on 5 September).  Much of the novel has arisen from my own personal experience.

But I feel we can take heart from these words of Sir Winston Churchill who although he eventually became such an iconic figure, suffered many setbacks and failures in his life. He was addressing an audience of school pupils who had gathered to hear words of wisdom from the great man. He said, “I only have 5 words to give you. They are Never, never, never give up.

The links for my recently re-released novel Mystical Circles may be found here:

AmazonCOM

AmazonUK

Book Blurb:

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

 

 

 

 

BOOK COVER REVEAL: NEW LUMINARIE EDITION OF MYSTICAL CIRCLES, THE PREQUEL TO A PASSIONATE SPIRIT

I’m delighted to announce that I can now show you the Cover Reveal for my new Luminarie edition of Mystical Circles!Luminarie Banner-03.png

It’s been a long and sometimes fraught journey with the cover designers but I’m very excited with the final result!

Read two reviews here from young adult authors:

Intense Psychological Drama in a Beautiful Setting

First of all, I fell in love with the beautiful house where the story is set, and wanted to go there immediately! Against this backdrop, a tense and intriguing psychological drama is worked out, with new twists and revelations every day. The complex and often damaged characters gathered together react and interact more often than not in ways that surprise and sometimes shock, and you are kept guessing about the outcomes of some of the relationships until the very end. This was an intense and compelling story with many twists and turns in the plot to keep you reading. (Eleanor Watkins, YA author )

Psychological Suspense That Doesn’t Disappoint

The scene is an idyllic Cotswold farmhouse, where a mixed bag of needy people live in a community. Enter journalist Juliet, seeking to save her younger sister from the clutches of what she considers a cult, with its charismatic and enigmatic leader, Craig. Like Juliet, we are drawn into the claustrophobic lives of the characters in this “Wheel of Love” and find ourselves unable to leave. As the emotional and psychological tensions crackle and ignite against each other, it’s like watching a slow-motion train crash of the conflicting personalities, desires, jealousies and hurts. If you like your drama filled with psychological suspense, with a hint of the paranormal, then you won’t be disappointed. I’m pleased to see there’s a sequel, A Passionate Spirit.  (Philip S Davies, YA author)

So without more ado here is the book cover for Mystical Circles.

 

Mystical Circles 9781999707309 Full Cover Final Version4

Blurb:

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

The new Luminarie edition of Mystical Circles is available as from 5 September 2017. It will be available online and in all good bookstores.

And I am doing a special promotion for a limited period for UK readers of this blog. Copies of the paperback can be pre-ordered direct from me via the Contact Me section of this blog, at 20% discount from the RRP of £8.99, and free of p& p. There will be 10 copies of the book available through this promotion to the first 10 purchasers, and all I ask is that you post your review on Amazon as soon as you’ve read the book!

 

 

That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).

In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.

He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.

Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.

Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.

Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.

In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.

In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. claim they slept in the spare room.

Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.

It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?

This is the human comedy.  And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.

I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

What a Great Actress Has to Say to Creative Writers: Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes is an actress I have watched and been captivated by for decades. miriam-margolyesShe is of course the essential Dickensian character and she was perfect as a JK Rowling character too, and has been so in many other roles, both on TV and radio. I have often marvelled at her wonderful fluid and flexible voice on radio, and how incredibly versatile she is.

In her most recent appearance on our TV screens, investigating places round the world to retire to, the sheer roguish power of her personality is compelling. She slightly – and for some, greatly – outrages and offends us, yet I love her. She gives us permission to be who we are, whatever that may be, and she is a perfect example of being just exactly who she is, in total honesty and openness and freedom.

Despite the fact that she subverts the supposed ideal of feminine attractiveness in this very deluded society we live in, I think she is beautiful. She has eyes which shine with character and understanding and life. She is an intelligent and inspirational actress.

What does she have to say to us as creative writers? I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway that as writers we have, above all, to be true to ourselves; and our most essential piece of equipment should be a “shock-proof shit-detector” (Hemingway’s words). A writing mentor once said to me, “If you’re going to be a writer you have to come clean with yourself.” For some that can be a lifetime’s journey. I do believe that as writers if we are deceiving ourselves in any way at all, it will work its way into our writing. And another quote is also compelling: “be sure that your audience will find you out.” Any writer can attest to that from reading their Amazon reviews.

But before you ever get to Amazon reviews you must deal with comments and feedback on your ms from beta readers and professional editors. Every  criticism on your writing must be taken as reflecting on the work itself, and not on you as a person – something else that is very difficult for notoriously thin-skinned, sensitive writers.

What do you think?  Do you relate to this at all? I’d welcome comments from fellow writers.

 

 

 

 

I Have a New Book Coming Out Soon

I’m pleased to announce I have a new book coming out soon, this time non-fiction.aps-on-bookshelf-at-kenilworth-books-13-feb-2016

It will be a short one, 100 pages, and  will be available in paperback as well as an ebook.

I’ve written it for all those who’d love to know  about the process of writing novels: whether they be aspiring writers, or simply keen readers who are curious about how novelists think up their ideas and go about creating fiction from them.

Here’s a taste of some of the topics I’ll cover in the course of the book:

  1. Universal themes in fiction
  2. Strategies to develop creative and imaginative writing
  3. How to create a novel that your readers won’t want to put down
  4. Three tips for creative works of realistic fiction
  5. How to know which point of view to use in a story
  6. How to develop villainous characteristic traits in your writing
  7. How can Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes help you in your creative writing?
  8. Inspiration for creative writers from artists
  9. Suggestions for writing the end of a novel
  10. Always on the outside looking in – does a bestselling novelist have a lesson to teach aspiring writers?

Each topic has a chapter to itself, and the book contains 33 chapters.

 

Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

How do you find courage and motivation when your novel sinks in the middle?

How do you stay focused as a writer despite all the setbacks and disappointments?

How can great artists, musicians and psychologists give you inspiration?

You’ll find the answer to these questions and many others in this book. SC Skillman offers deep insight into the faith and hope that is vital for one who walks the perilous path into the ‘promised land’ of the writing profession.

More soon when I’ll let you know the title and give you the cover reveal!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.

 

 

 

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.