Revisiting the Christmas List – and the Round Robin Newsletter

We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List – and the round robin newsletter.  I remember the very first time my parents ever received one of these newsletters from a family friend.  It was the cause of much fascination and amusement.  But since then, the idea has caught on amongst the UK population with the speed of – dare I say it – a pandemic.

Candle, Christmas tree and sherry
Candle, Christmas tree and sherry

I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon. But one major motive was the delightful contribution by novelist Alexander McCall Smith the other day which I heard on BBC Radio 4 Today programme. This wonderful Scottish author – whose 44 Scotland Street novels I love – was talking about the Round Robin Newsletter, and making some points about the tendency to boast in these newsletters. We were shaking with laughter as we listened to him.

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Grayson Perry in Grayson’s Art Club

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from  artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.

Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art –  tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs.  These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.

In. another exhibition of Grayson’s works, I loved his “Walthamstow Tapestry

In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”

This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.

Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of  dressing as a little girl.

Grayson Perry  has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.

Grayson Perry in one of his colourful alternative personnas
Artist Grayson Perry

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

On 4th September, on the fourth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Susan Hampson hosted a guest post from me on her blog Books From Dusk till Dawn.Springboard

This is part of a series in which I reblog my articles from that blog tour.  So today’s post is the article Susan first published online, called:

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

In books on the craft of writing fiction, one of the key areas to which a writer must pay attention is high emotional charge. And if the new writer is in doubt about whose point of view to take – in other words, whose story is this? –  the main question to ask is, Who has the highest emotional stakes in the outcome of the plot?
I’ve also read that when the author is building conflict into the plot, and setting up a protagonist and an antagonist / villain, a sure way to increase depth and high emotional stakes is to make the antagonist / villain a close family member.
When we write fiction we all draw upon our own life experiences. And for many of us, our greatest challenge in life, after the challenge of self-knowledge, is how we handle our closest relationships.
In my psychological suspense novel Mystical Circles I drew upon my observations and personal experiences of many people and relationships throughout my life. But family relationships do rank highly; father and son; two sisters; two twin brothers; mother and son.  I have of course transposed real relationships into fictional situations. When we use real people to create fictional characters the wisest strategy is to employ a composite of different individuals within one person. So we can never say, this character is based on X or Y whom I know personally. But the fact remains that some fictional characters do contain a greater proportion of certain individuals.
I have drawn upon those for whom I have a strong affection and also those whom I’ve found challenging. But beyond all this I think it’s true to say that there’s probably a little bit of me in all the characters.
One of the greatest joys of reading fiction is to enter into the heart and mind of someone else to share their joys and sorrows, and to understand how they think. How can this be so unless the writer incorporates part of their own psyche into those characters? I know this is certainly true for Mystical Circles.
I also believe this principle applies to the creation of a villain, who in order to be compelling, must be a complex mixture of influences, memories, desires, wounds, compulsions, longings and choices.
In life often the ultimate villain is hidden, shadowy, the manipulator behind the scenes.
And so it is in Mystical Circles. I’ll leave my readers to work out who that might be, but hope that this particular plot-spoiler will never appear in the reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

On 3rd September on the third day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Rosie Amber hosted a guest post from me on her blog.On a journey (2)

This is part of a series in which I reblog the articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Rosie Amber first published online, called:

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

Recently a fellow blogger piqued my interest with a piece about online book reviews. Amongst the observations she made, she referred to the attitude authors take to their reviews. She noted that many people have different interpretations of the star-ratings. Specifically she mentioned that she had experienced some asking her to take down three star reviews which they interpreted as negative.

As an author and reviewer myself, I review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. I will give a book 5 stars only if it hooked me, kept me enthralled, made me want to read on, answered the questions the author posed, AND delivered a strong, satisfying end. If all those things above are present, but the end does not satisfy, I will downgrade a star rating. I think you can in some way define an author’s theme, worldview, mindset (at the time of writing, anyway) from the way they choose to end a novel.

But having said this, I will admit to a challenge when I came to write the end of my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition with a new cover on 5 September). Ideally I would have liked to give two alternative endings, as John Fowles did in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

I don’t like an ending which ties up all the loose strands, and which is unequivocally happy or sad. My ideal ending is bittersweet. As in life, I believe that when all our dreams are fulfilled there will always be other aspects of the situation which have the potential to cause disruption in the future. One of my favourite endings is that to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicebecause although the central story question is answered positively, it is also bristling with ironic little hints that life is not necessarily going to run smoothly for the main protagonist hereafter.

How I chose to end Mystical Circles was full of challenges because the raison d’etre of the story – a hothouse community called Wheel of Love who have gathered around a charismatic leader to learn how to achieve an ideal existence – derives all its emotional charge and dangerous dynamics from the psychological instability of the group members – and its leader.  The situation I outline in the novel – the attempt by a young woman journalist to rescue her younger sister from a mystical cult – could have a number of outcomes.

I think the key to a successful ending is that it must satisfy, whether it is happy, sad, tragic or bittersweet. I am conscious, too, that an unsatisfying end can undo much of the good work of an author.  As novelists the best we can do is to remain true to ourselves, to what we are trying to say within our stories. Though I admit we often don’t even know what we’re trying to say, until we’ve said it!

And back to reviews again; I love reviews of any star-rating where the reader has clearly read the book thoughtfully, and has genuine opinions to offer about plot, characterisation, theme. On Amazon the healthiest star-rating profile is a triangle with its broad side at the top. I am afraid I feel suspicious of books that have only five stars. Also I am often attracted to the one star reviews. I want to know, “What is the worst that can be said about this novel?” And, quixotically, some of the things said by the one star reviewers make me want to read the book. Human opinions are incredibly diverse, especially about books, and we must all respect that.

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.

 

 

 

 

The New Luminarie Editions of Mystical Circles and Perilous Path Are Out Now

I’m pleased to  announce my two new books are on sale now. Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4 They can be found online through the links below and also, of course, to order through all good bookshops.

You can download my psychological suspense novel Mystical Circles here, and you can buy the paperback here.

My inspirational writer’s guide Perilous Path can be downloaded here, or ordered as a paperback here.

There are many ways to help an author besides buying the books! Cover design of Perilous Path by SC Skillman, a motivational and inspirational writer's guide pub Luminarie 5 Sep 2017You can get the word out by sharing, recommending and reviewing online. And in the real world you can recommend titles to your own book club for discussion; or order the books through your local library to increase their awareness and encourage them to order copies for their stock.

It all helps. And if you do support me in any one of the above ways,  thank you very much!

 

 

Luminarie editions of Mystical Circles and Perilous Path Out Today!

Today is publication day for my two new Luminarie editions Mystical Circles (psychological suspense novel) and Perilous Path (inspirational writer’s guide).

Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4
Cover Design for Mystical Circles by SC Skillman – psychological suspense pub Luminarie 5 Sep 2017

Both are widely available through online retailers, or to order from bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

They are available both as ebooks and as paperbacks.

And from 8 September both books will be on Goodreads giveaway to UK readers. Yes – I have 10 paperback copies of each book to give away to the lucky winners!

The giveaway will last for one month. If you live in the UK and you’re a Goodreads member why not hop over there and enter the giveaway.

Cover design of Perilous Path by SC Skillman, a motivational and inspirational writer's guide pub Luminarie 5 Sep 2017And if you do win, and you read the books, please do remember, we authors always love Amazon reviews, no matter how many stars, and whatever you choose to say in an honest review.

And that’s not all my news. Today (5th September 2017) is also Day 5 of my Blog Tour. Today I’m on Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo and the title of my guest post is “Inside a spiritual hothouse.” Hope to see you over there!

Follow the new Mystical Circles Blog Tour 1-9 September 2017

Mystical Circles will be released by Luminarie both as a paperback and as an ebook with a new cover design on 5 September. To celebrate, I’m doing a Blog Tour Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017which will see me stop off at nine blogs, each with a unique guest post.

Do take a look at each blog post if you have time – there will be other opportunities to read them here on my blog later if you miss them on the tour!

Over the course of the 9 stops on this tour, I write on the following subjects:

Sacha Black

A guide for authors – how to survive the siren voices of the internet

Jenny in Neverland

Genre – what is it exactly?

Rosie Amber

On the art and inexact science of a good ending to a novel

Books From Dusk till Dawn

Psychology, spirituality and family relationships – a volatile mix

Sue Vincent

Inside a spiritual hothouse

Shelley Wilson

An author interview by Shelley Wilson

MJ Mallon

Inspiration, motivation and keeping to the path

Chat About Books

Intense relationships in closed communities, and the stress and tension of life

Linda’s Book Bag

An author interview by Linda

I do hope you can stop by the blogs to read more about the source of my ideas for the characters and story of Mystical Circles and also to find some personal inspiration and motivation along the way!

 

 

 

 

I’ll be at the UK Games Expo at the NEC Birmingham 2-6 June 2017

I’ll be at the UK Games Expo at the NEC Birmingham UKGElogotomorrow Fri 2 June and all weekend signing copies of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path on the Authors Stand (F11) alongside Gareth Baker, (thrillers & fantasy); Darren W Pearce (fantasy & sci fi); Richard Denning (horror, fantasy & historical fiction); Jonathan Green (Fighting Fantasy gamebooks & Doctor who novels) & Ian Livingstone (creator of Fighting Fantasy interactive gamebooks).

Hope to see some of you there over the weekend!

My Dream Cast for “Mystical Circles”

Novelists, have you “dreamcast the film adaptation of your book? Many do! Film Adaptations of books If you do it early enough in the process of writing your novel, it can be very helpful. Though I understand that the reality of having your book turned into a film can sometimes not be a very pleasant experience. I was amused by this quote from the blog My Book, the Movie:

They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles. I would tell them, and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And that would be the end of it.   (Elmore Leonard, in 2000, on the extent of his input for Hollywood’s adaptation of his novels).

Here’s my dream cast for Mystical Circles:

Juliet, my main protagonist, who  hurries to the Cotswolds to rescue her sister from a charismatic cult leader:   Jennifer Lawrence

Zoe, Juliet’s younger sister:      Saoirse Ronan

Theo, a troubled priest:    Bradley James

Rory, a strange young man with a mysterious “thorn in the flesh”:    Johnny Depp

Edgar, obsessed with getting new recruits to fill out questionnaires:     Matt Smith

Al, an American visitor:     John Goodman

Llewellyn, a Welsh poet:     Rhys Ifans

Don, the cult leader’s disenchanted father:     Bill Nighy

Oleg, a Russian visitor:     David Tennant

Sam, a nervous youth, here on his GP’s recommendation to recover from an unhealthy mutually interdependent relationship with his twin brother:     Matt Baynton

Laura, flighty girl-woman of indeterminate age:     Sarah Hadland

Craig, the cult leader:     Tom Hiddleston

James, urbane and elegant, Craig’s former mentor from Edinburgh University who inspired him to set up the cult in the first place:     Benedict Cumberbatch

Patrick, an Irish handyman and gardener:     James Nesbitt

Beth, an insecure and tense young woman:      Zooey Deschanel

And having chosen the cast, here is my dream production company:  Working Title Films.

And the producers:  Duncan Kenworthy, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan.

And finally, the Director: Debbie Isitt.

Look out for the third edition of Mystical Circles  with a new cover design. It will be published by Luminarie on 30 August 2017.