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.

 

 

 

 

People of Inspiration: JK Rowling

I’ve long admired JK Rowling, and not simply because she’s one of the world’s most successful contemporary authors.

JK Rowling
JK Rowling

Although it’s true I love all the Harry Potter novels, and followed the stories as each was published, and saw every film as it was released, I have special reasons for finding JK Rowling a source of inspiration.

I feel that in her HP series she has gathered up many of the greatest treasures of world folklore and mythology into a new creation that stands as a reference point in itself.  Her imagined world has entered our consciousness. For instance, a few days ago I was in a boarding school looking at an ornate list of names on the wall and I immediately thought of Hogwarts’ Past Headmasters. Another recent example was my visit to Ham House, Richmond; whilst studying one of the many portraits, I half expected the lady in the portrait to shout, “Password!” at me.

And I have on a number of occasions found myself in conversation with someone, saying things like, “Oh, I wish I had Hermione’s Time-Turner” or “I could do with Hermione’s bottomless bag”, certain that the person I was speaking to would immediately know what I meant.

I’ve only recently read the book Very Good Lives which is JK Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in 2008.  And for the first time I discovered she had worked in Amnesty International during her early twenties. As she described her experiences in Amnesty International’s offices, I could see at once the influence this had had on the Harry Potter stories – Dolores Umbridge cruelly punishing Harry, Voldemort torturing then executing Charity Burbridge, Lucius Malfoy and his abusive relationship with Dobby (before he became a free elf, of course), and of course many other examples.

It also amused me to read of how JK Rowling had chosen to study Classics, against her parents’ wishes, as they thought it a subject that could never lead to a decent job that would never pay a mortgage let alone secure a pension.

I could also see very clearly why JK Rowling felt she had to write The Casual Vacancy. I identified with and recognised what she wrote about in its pages.

I find JK Rowling inspiring not only as a successful author, but also for her own personal qualities. In this world we often see the power that great wealth bestows concentrated in the hands of the wrong people. To my mind, we can be very thankful that JK Rowling is one of the people in whose hands that power is concentrated.

It is clear from her Harvard speech where her heart lies, despite all her wealth and success: Poverty is not an ennobling experience… I am not going to tell you failure is fun… but failure means a stripping away of the inessentials… I stopped pretending I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…. Failure gave me an inner security I never attained by passing exams… I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I’d suspected.

I must admit that after reading her Harvard speech I do wonder how many of those young graduates she spoke to went away and subsequently empathised with the poorest in the world, and lobbied their government to change its polices? For that was what JK Rowling urged them to do.

Meanwhile, all we who admire  and love the Harry Potter stories, can be very glad that JK Rowling, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, ‘nipped off down the Classics corridor’ to study a useless subject that  nobody ever believed would win her a job.

Did You Struggle With The Large Number of Characters in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? Here’s a Useful Crib-Sheet!

BBC 1 will be starting the first of a three-part mini series of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy on Sunday at 9pm. I’m delighted that the BBC have chosen to adapt it as a drama, and will be watching eagerly. I have a high opinion of the book: see my book review here.

I was fascinated to learn that the screenwriter Sarah Phelps has, with JK Rowling’s agreement, changed the ending; she says “it needs some kind of redemptive moment at the end”. This tuned in with my own observations in my review, where I wrote:

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses….  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.”

If you’ve read the book and struggled with the number of characters, here’s my own personal cribsheet of every named character in the novel. I created this list as I read the novel. Some of those named are not developed as characters at all, but are simply referred to. I hope you find this list helpful; though of course when you watch the mini-series you probably won’t have a problem keeping up with the characters, because the actors will make a big difference.

SC Skillman’s CRIB SHEET OF ALL THE CHARACTERS IN

A CASUAL VACANCY

by JK Rowling

 

Barry Fairbrother, “bearded little man”, Parish Counsellor, Bank Manager, who dies of an aneurysm at the beginning of the novel

His wife Mary, and their children Declan, Fergus, and twins Niamh and Siobhan

Miles Mollison, solicitor, in partnership with Gavin Hughes

Samantha, Miles’s wife

Their daughters Lexie and Libby who go to St Anne’s Independent School in Yarvil

Howard, Miles’s father, owner of delicatessan, Chair of Parish Council, 1st Citizen of Pagford

Shirley, Howard’s wife, Miles’s mother; she is a hospital volunteer, had hated Barry Fairbrother, and administers the Council’s website

Patricia, their daughter, Miles’s sister

Gavin Hughes, squash partner of Barry’s, solicitor in partnership with Miles

Kay Bawden, social worker, Gavin’s lover

Gaia, Kay’s daughter

Una, Alex and Mattie, Kay’s social services colleagues

Colin and Tessa Wall, friends of Mary and Barry. Colin is a Deputy Headteacher and Tessa is Head of Guidance.

Stuart their son, known as “Fatso”, who is best friends with Andrew Price, and has a sexual relationship with Krystal Weedon

Ruth Price, a nurse

Simon Price, Ruth’s husband, abusive and boorish to his family, runs a printworks, is particularly aggressive to his elder son Andrew

Their son Andrew who has a bad attitude to his father Simon, and who fancies Kay’s daughter Gaia

Andrew’s younger brother Paul

Maureen, Howard’s business partner in the Delicatessan, age 62, widow of Howard’s previous business partner Ken

Shona, Miles and Gavin’s legal secretary

Dr Parminder Jawanda, local GP, Parish Counsellor, had loved Barry Fairbrother

Vikram, her handsome husband, cardiac surgeon

Their three children: Jaswant, Sukhvinder and Rajpal

Mrs Shawcross, headmistress

Aubrey Fawley who purchased Sweetlove House in the 1950’s and had four children

Young Aubrey, his son, Pagford’s rep on the Yarvil Council, a merchant banker in London

Julia, Young Aubrey’s wife

Alison Jenkins, news reporter

 

PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN or are associated with people who live in “THE FIELDS”

 

Terri Weedon, a drug addict and dysfunctional mother

Krystal, her daughter, problem pupil

Robbie, Krystal’s little brother (Terri’s son), in danger of being removed by social services

Anne-Marie, their sister, (Terri’s other daughter) no longer living with them

Obbo, drug-pusher, who sells drugs to Terri

Nikki, Jemma and Leane, Krystal’s schoolfriends

Nana Cath, Krystal’s great-grandmother, and Terri’s grandmother

Rhiannon, another of Nana Cath’s granddaughters (Terri’s cousin?)

John and Sue, Nana Cath’s son and daughter

Cheryl and Danielle, Terri’s sisters

Dane Tully, dysfunctional teen, his father and two brothers are frequently in prison

 

A Review of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

I’m a great  admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.

When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.

The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling
The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling

Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did.  I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.

When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.

JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.

I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.

It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.

JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.

Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.

In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.

For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences.  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.

A World of Wonders at Leavesden Studios

On a recent visit to the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, I was moved.

The door to the Chamber of Secrets
The door to the Chamber of Secrets

Not simply by the moment when I and my two children first stepped into the Hogwarts Great Hall, or by the moment when I first came upon the model of Hogwarts Castle, or when I first saw that beautiful Hogwarts Bridge out in the middle of the “Back Lot”, or by when I tasted my first Butterbeer, but by the whole experience, and the reflections that arose from it.

Hogwarts Bridge
Hogwarts Bridge

All these wonderful objects and scenes and lovingly created details and the magnificent model castle… all because of one woman’s imagination.

To see the products of J.K. Rowlings’ imagination brought into richly-detailed reality was awesome.

I thought, All this is here because of people loving her stories in their millions.

“People in their millions”, of course equals “money”, in the film industry.

Dolores Umbridge's study
Dolores Umbridge’s study

But I was reminded of what J.K. Rowling said when asked in Trafalgar Square after the premier of the final “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” film, “What do you want to say?”

And she said, “Thank you – for making this happen.”

And as I left the Warner Brothers studios I thought too of her words, displayed in the exhibition: “Stories can only live if someone listens.”


* Photos taken by Abigail Robinson

A Portal to Another World – What Makes Any Place a Dream Home?

A couple of days ago the words ‘dream home’ sprang into my mind. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bit like J.K. Rowling on that train journey when she  was gazing out of the window day-dreaming and she thought ‘Boy wizard – doesn’t know he’s a wizard – gets invited to wizard school.’ Anyway, these words ‘dream home’ came into my mind as I was driving along in my car. And then I thought, Whoever first came up with the idea that any of us might, or indeed should, aspire to one day living in a ‘dream home’?  And what gives some of us the right and the privilege to live in a ‘dream home’, whereas thousands of others are constrained by money, location, convenience and so on, and end up in a home which is OK for them to live in but in no way constitutes a dream home and never will?

Of course there are those in this world for whom ‘home’ is an improvised shack in a slum or on a rubbish dump. But who says such people don’t also have ‘dream homes?’  Or is the very concept ‘dream home’ one that our consumer society has invented so they can attach dream lifestyles to it and then attempt to sell us the products that will somehow propel us into those dream lifestyles?

In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” you will find a house that qualifies to be my own personal dream home. Ever since I was a young child, my dream home has involved flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, secret staircases within the thickness of a wall, exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and diamond-paned windows. Perhaps I was first influenced by a lovely English country pub which somehow got associated in my mind with warmth, happiness, belonging…

So why on earth do I think that a fifteenth century English timbered cottage (beautifully restored and renovated of course) or farmhouse or indeed an Elizabethan hall-house qualify to be my dream home? Because they remind me of things from childhood, because such houses contain idiosyncratic corners and minstrels’ galleries and sloping ceilings and uneven walls, and probably because these things are the stuff of children’s stories, (or the sort I read anyway).  Houses that may provide entrances to other worlds… perhaps this in itself provides the definition of my dream home.

C.S.Lewis was first inspired for “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe” by the house he and his brother explored when they were young children. An unused room with a mysterious wardrobe… This was a concept that turned out to be powerful and fertile, as did that of the boy wizard dreamed up on the train journey.  There is a rich tradition in children’s literature of houses that somehow become portals to another dimension – consider the world Lewis Carroll projects Alice into through the looking glass in her house, wait for the clock to strike thirteen and see what follows in “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce,  or step with Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” into the  chilling parallel world of the Other Mother and the Other Father.

Having written this, I have now convinced myself that the only qualification dream homes need is portals to other worlds. What do you think? What is your idea of a dream home? Have you too been inspired and influenced by the stories you read as a child?