Sunday, 28 September 2014


How do you judge a ‘good’ book? Or a ‘really good’ piece of music? Is there some objective quality these can be measured against? Or is it purely subjective? 

Can we use something as a proxy for quality – being assessed by experts, or appealing to a great deal of people, or having a lasting appeal over time? I’ll consider each of these in turn.

The problem with arbiters of quality being The Experts, is that we first need to decide who the experts are. There are many people willing to put themselves up for this role – university lecturers, book reviewers, other writers to name but a few. The problem is, their views are subjective, and they often don’t agree with each other. And even more often, I don’t agree with them. If I did, I would have to consider the books that, say, make it onto the shortlist for the Booker Prize as ‘good’. And, mmm, I really can’t say I do.

Volume of sales doesn't really imply quality for me, either. I understand that very many (young) people enjoy the music of One Direction, but does that mean it’s ‘good’. Likewise the books of E L James. On the other hand, I do think high sales can be an indicator of something – J K Rowling and Nora Roberts didn’t achieve the massive following they have without producing a really good product. But then, not everyone likes either of these, so we’re back to subjective judgements again – just the subjective views of a whole lot of people rather than the individual ones of the experts.

Having a lasting appeal over time actually makes more sense to me as an indicator of quality. I’m not a fan of classical music but I can wonder at and appreciate Mozart, as I can many ‘classical’ books such as Austen or George Elliot or Shakespeare. Being popular over a long period of time does show that the work isn't just suiting a current fashion. The problem with this measure is we have to wait a very long time before we can decide if something is good!

Although I can find reasons not to agree with many judgements on what is good and what isn’t, I do at heart believe there is something to the idea of ‘quality’. I might not be able to define it, but I can recognise it when I see it. Bob Dylan has it, as does Beethoven. Jennifer Crusie has it, as does Margaret Elphinstone, and Graeme Swinson (I strongly recommend his The Rosie Project if you haven’t come across him).

You might say it doesn’t matter, and we should leave everyone to like or dislike what they wish. Which of course is their prerogative. But there’s still this little bit of me that wants to be able to define and classify this…

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Looking for my voice by Jennifer Young

Icelandic fireworks. Image credit: Ármann Höskuldsson/IMO
So, it’s over. What a week it’s been. Now I’ve had a good long sleep I can lift my head from the pillow and get my life back.

What? Did I what? What did you think I was talking about? The referendum? Ha ha! No, this week was the deadline for submission of my Open University Masters dissertation - snappily entitled “How far can our knowledge of past explosive volcanic eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere contribute to prediction of future events and mitigation of their impacts?”

That’s why I’ve barely written anything for weeks that wasn’t either a work commitment or else involved a complicated analysis of the current situation at Bárðarbunga volcano (which, by the way, is now looking as if it may yet erupt properly).

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve loved my OU studies. But I am slightly worried that, as I enter my recovery period, I’m right out of my fiction mindset. My brain is programmed to focus on rhyolite rather than romance, and the fireworks of my imagination aren’t emotional ones but spat out from the bowels of the Earth.

Now that I have the time to write I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to do it. Although I have no concerns about ideas (my holiday in Italy gave me plenty of inspiration) there’s the question of contrasting styles to consider. I’ve trained myself to write in an impersonal style — one that’s measured and objective, stripped of any emotion and geared heavily towards the passive voice.

My promise to myself was that when all this was over I would let myself write. I have the synopsis of my holiday story planned although I’ve rather got out of touch with my characters. But that’s easily sorted — I just need to have a little chat with them over a coffee and see what they think.

No; my fear is that I may have lost my writing voice. Have I changed it for ever? Have I given up any lightness of touch I may have had? Will I write my novels like a scientist (which might be funny for five minutes but no longer)? Worst of all, will I lose the best of each approach and end up with the worst of both worlds?

Help, please! What’s your advice?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Building a character – thoughts on my new novel, by Jenny Harper

Daisy Irvine is a photographer. She works for a small regional newspaper, which is struggling for its existence (I like to write about women who face challenging situations in their lives). Naturally, my heroines are also plunged into emotional turmoil, and Daisy is no different.

So far so normal. Woman facing challenge. Woman falling in/out of love, struggling to save a relationship, or build a new one in the face of certain odds. But every novel has to be different, and every character must sing. I hope you’ll remember Daisy long after you have finished reading my novel, so let me tell you a bit about how I built her.

She’s talented, but lacks self belief. She’d disorganised and over reliant on others to sort out her problems. She lacks confidence – so much so that she carries a small teddy bear in her pocket (he’s called Tiny Ted) and strokes him when she feels in need of comfort. Unsurprisingly, he’s a bit bald. In short, Daisy is a little childlike. Once I realised that, Maximum Exposure developed into a ‘coming of age’ novel and the rest was easy.

What happens to Tiny Ted? Come to that, what happens to Daisy? And who, in heaven’s name, is Nefertiti?

Statue of Nefertiti, Wikimedia Commons.
To find out, you’ll need to click onto Amazon and download Maximum Exposure, my new novel, which is out today! Yay!

Maximum Exposure is my first novel with Accent Press, who were perspicacious enough to offer me a contract this summer. Thank you Accent Press! And thanks to all the team who have worked like crazy to get this book out to a very tight deadline.

I promise not to use this blog to push my wares too often. But come on, all you writers, admit it – a new book is a bit of a thrill! And a new book with a great new publisher is the icing on the cake. 

I'd love to know how you build your characters!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

WagTongues by Mary Smith

 I live in Dumfries & Galloway in the south west of Scotland. It’s a beautiful place to live with glorious countryside, forests, hills and miles of sandy beaches. It has lots of lovely little towns, many boasting independently-owned shops. It has excellent cafes and restaurants, which boast menus from delicious local produce: seafood, salmon, beef, venison, game. It has more artists, craft makers, and writers than you can shake a stick at BUT it does not have a single independent bookshop.

Authors – whether mainstream published or independent – have little opportunity to sell their books over the counter – over any counter. Last year, a few of us were grumbling about this state of affairs. Even the annual Book Festival, held in Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book town provides no opportunity for local writers to sell their books unless they are in the main programme. A small number of the 60 or so local writers might be in the programme each year but it leaves the vast majority invisible to the visitors to the book festival.

Instead of bemoaning our fate some of us decided to do something about it and so, WagTongues was born. It is a collective of Dumfries & Galloway writers which organises pop-up bookshops throughout the region. It is a bit anarchic – no constitution, no committee, no bank account. All published writers living in the region can sell their books in the pop-up bookshop. WagTongues takes no commission so authors receive the full sale price for their books.

The first pop-up bookshop happened in Wigtown last year, on the last day of the festival. It had proved very difficult to find a venue but the Machars Initiative came to the rescue and offered their office space – not ideal, but central. Authors were offered reading slots during the day and the bookshop turned into a mini festival, an element which has continued to be an integral part of WagTongues.

The next time we popped up was in Dumfries when we had a two-day shop in a central venue, on the weekend the Christmas lights were switched on so there were lots of events going on around us. It was a great success – apart from selling lots of books, people who would never in their wildest dreams have attended a poetry event were enticed in and discovered poetry could be fun, witty, and entertaining, authors were interviewed about their work and WagTongues started to become known and talked about.
Soon we were being invited to attend festivals and had a fantastic two days at Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival where we popped up in an old newsagents shop. This month we have three pop-up shops – one down and two more to go. The one we have just done was across the border in Carlisle when WagTongues was invited to pop up at the first Carlisle Book Festival. As it was in the library we couldn’t have our usual mini festival of readings but we had ‘Ask the Author Anything’ in which visitors could ask authors questions about their writing – or anything at all really as I realised when I heard author Margaret Elphinstone say: “Oh, that’s Auntie Barbara!”

Another part of the WagTongues experience is ‘The Poet Is In’. Visitors can describe a momentous event in their lives, drop it in a box and one of the resident poets immortalises the memory in poetry. It was a good day, even though sales were lower than usual – we suspect because people come to libraries to borrow, not buy books.

WagTongues has also been invited to take part in one of Dumfries’s newest festivals, the Nithraid – a boat race from the sea up to where the salt water meets the fresh in the River Nith. WagTongues will have a pop-up book-stall. The final event will be back in Wigtown on Saturday 27th September, which is the first Saturday of Wigtown Book Festival where there will a wide and exciting range of publications, a complete mini festival of readings and talks.

WagTongues is growing and is proving to be a fantastic showcase and sales point for the writers who live and work in Dumfries & Galloway – a beautiful region in which to live and work but which has no independent bookshops – and provides an opportunity for writers and readers to interact.

Are there any similar book-selling collectives out there? It would be great to compare notes.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Comics vs Novels by Christina Courtenay

This week we have a guest blog by award-winning author Christina Courtenay. 



Last week I went to see an exhibition about comics at the British Library – a slightly surprising venue for such a thing perhaps, but then comics, or graphic novels as they are now called, are books too, just with more pictures.  And they’re brilliant!

The exhibition – Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK – was a very detailed and complete history of the genre, starting with artists like Cruikshank and Hogarth who created connected prints that formed a sort of comic strip.  Although really, art as story telling had been around long before then – perhaps one can even count stone age cave paintings as some of them tell a tale of some sort!  Basically, story-telling is as important to humans as breathing, or maybe that’s an exaggeration, but as singing at least.  And obviously there are three ways of passing on a good story – by mouth (learning by rote), by writing and by creating pictures.
I’ve always loved drawing and painting, but sadly I’m not very good at it so I could never have become a comic artist (or any kind of artist for that matter!).  Looking at all the fantastic comics on display at that exhibition, I felt very jealous at first.  The artists were all so talented and managed to convey their characters’ feelings and movements perfectly in each panel of their graphic novels.  I wished I could do that too, as it seemed such a powerful way of telling the story.  The impact was twofold, visual and written at the same time, and therefore felt as though it affected me more strongly.

But then I started thinking about this and realised that in a way, novelists do more or less the same thing because as authors we paint with words.
Our descriptions are paintings inside someone’s mind – the readers have to interpret our ‘brushstrokes’ and form their own version of the painting in their imagination.  If we do our job properly, they will see exactly what we see when we are writing a scene down.  If not, at worst they won’t get the picture at all or (perhaps not quite such a disaster) they might imagine the scene in their own way.  That would be okay unless it’s the complete opposite of what you had intended.  When it comes to heroes, for example, it’s an absolute bonus because if we only give a vague description, suggesting certain traits/looks, the reader will apply these to a man they can fall in love with, the sort of male they prefer.  Whereas if they’d seen the picture the author had in mind, they might not have fancied him at all.
I have to admit I’m not very fond of descriptions and long narrative sections in novels.  I have been known to skip them if they go on a bit (shock, horror!) and much prefer books with lots of action and dialogue.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not very good at descriptions myself – I find it almost impossible to come up with similes and metaphors that others haven’t already used.  And I don’t want to have to resort to clichés unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Far better to keep it short and sharp then, at least, if, like me, you are writing to entertain readers and not for the sake of the language itself.
I do admire beautiful writing – who doesn’t? – but much prefer to read easily digested, light-hearted stuff without long descriptive passages.  Perhaps that makes me shallow, but it’s what I enjoy so I’m sticking to it.  How about you?  Do you prefer a quick read or do you like to linger over wonderfully phrased descriptions and clever use of words?  I’d love to know.

Christina’s latest novel, Monsoon Mists, is out now – for information click here -
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