Friday, December 30, 2011

Guest Blog: What Makes a Good Fiction Story: Plot Driven or Character Drive? by Karen Cioffi

(Excerpt from How to Write Books for Children – Writing, Publishing, and Marketing Children’s Books by Karen Cioffi)

Stories can be plot driven or character driven, so which is the best formula to use when writing a story? Knowing a little about both methods should help in making a decision.

Plot Driven Story

A story’s plot moves the story forward, from point A to point B. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a straight line; in fact a course that twists and turns is much better. This type of plot creates movement and interest. It’s the twists and turns that will keep the forward momentum fresh, as well as create anticipation. Anticipation will hold a reader’s attention.

The plot also provides reasons and explanations for the occurrences in the story, as well as offers conflict and obstacles that the protagonist must overcome to hopefully create growth. These elements create a connection with the reader. It entices the reader to keep turning the pages.

Without a plot it is difficult to create growth and movement for the protagonist. It might be comparable to looking at a still photo. It might be a beautiful photo and may even conjure up emotions in the viewer, but how long do you think it would hold a reader’s attention?

Along with this, the plot molds the protagonist. It causes growth and movement in the character. Assume you have a timid woman who through circumstances, the plot, transforms into a brave, strong, forceful hero. Where would the story be without the events that lead this timid woman to move past herself and into a new existence?

Character Driven Story

On the other hand, a character driven story creates a bond between the protagonist and reader. It is the development and growth of the character, the character’s personal journey, which motivates the reader to connect. There doesn’t need to be twists and turns, or fire works. The reader becomes involved with the character and this is all the enticement the reader needs to keep reading.

In addition to this, the character works hand in hand with the plot to move the story forward. As the character begins her transformation the plot moves in the same direction.

In some instances, such as short stories, a character driven story can work amazingly well, such as in The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin. In cases such as this, the connection developed between the character and the reader can be more than enough to satisfy the reader. But, all in all, it seems to be the combined efforts of a well plotted and character driven story that works the best.

The Best of Both Worlds

According to science fiction and fantasy writer, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., “The best fiction should be an intertwined blend of character, plot, setting, and style.”

The elements of a story working together, creates a story that will be remembered.

All the aspects of a story should complement each other, should move each other forward to a satisfying conclusion, and should draw the reader in.

If you have an action packed plot driven story, but it lacks believable and sympathetic characters, you’re story will be lacking. The same holds true if you have a believable and sympathetic character, but the story lacks movement, it will usually also fall short. As with all things in life balance is necessary, the same holds true when writing a story.

Karen Cioffi is a published author, freelance writer, and marketer, and to start the New Year with a BANG, from January 1 through February 28, 2012, she is offering all her writing and marketing e-books (purchased directly from her site/s using the Paypal SHOPPING CART) for a $1.19 each. And, this will include new titles added within that time period.

For a complete list of the available titles and links to more information:

For a complete list (with brief descriptions of each ebook) go to:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Compulsive Reader Talks Top 5 Shows Of All Time

My radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks is nearing it's fifth year.  In Internet terms, that's a long time and a lot of shows, all dedicated to authors, books, and the changing world of publishing.   As we inch towards the end of 2011, I thought it might be interesting to have a little look back, and see which shows have been most popular.  So, in order of popularity, I'm listing the top five shows of all time, which you might like to listen to once more or catch up on if you missed them first time round.  Note that all of the shows are also available on iTunes and you can download them and listen to them in the car or while you're cooking, etc.  I think you'll find much here that's enlightening and interesting.  I know that I've certainly enjoyed the significant privilege of being able to talk to such inspirational people and am very excited about the line up for 2012.

 1.  Interview with Craig Silvey
Craig Silvey's novel Jasper Jones won a swag of awards and changed the writing game for this young novelist and musician.  With film rights in hand, the book is set to continue its well-deserved popularity.  Silvey dropped by shortly after the book was published to talk to us about Jasper Jones in a show that remains the most popular that I've ever aired.

2.  Interview with Helen Townsend
Helen Townsend has had over 17 books published, and dropped by the show to talk to me about her book Above the Starry Frame, a historical novel that followed the life of William Irwin, an Irish farm boy who migrated to Australia at 18 in 1849, leaving behind the Irish potato famine.

3.  Interview with Sir Ken Robinson
Ken Robinson has become an international celebrity for, among other things, his amazing TED Talks, and his life changing, educationally focused book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.  From my point of view, what I liked best about Ken Robinson, was how down to earth and just plain nice he was when we chatted, shortly after The Element was released.

4.  Interview with Howard Waldman
Howard Waldman's literary works busts all genres, bringing sci fi, fantasy, mystery and historical fiction into a seamless literary experience.  In this interview he talks to me about his book Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die. 

 5.  Interview with Mark Coker
I don't think it would be a stretch to credit at least some of the impact and growth of ebooks to Smashwords' Mark Coker. From a one man show with a single book to 80,000+ books, Smashwords opened the floodgates for self-publishing, changing the way books are published and sold. Many others have since followed, but perhaps none to the same extent.  Mark dropped by the show to talk about his site in the relatively early days, and to make some predictions which nearly all played out.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday thank you

As the end of 2011 fast approaches (too fast perhaps), I'd like to just take a moment to thank you, my dear readers, for all your wonderful support this year.  Not only for stopping by to read and comment on each blog post, but for linking virtual hands in a worldwide community of those who love to read and talk about books.

I've got a couple of end of year gifts for you.  The first is from my writing group Writers on the Move, who have provided a Holiday Season 2011 eBook from the members.  This book is full of writing and marketing tips, and can be picked up here

The second is a full copy of my poetry book Quark Soup, which can be grabbed here.

Finally, I'd like you to have a copy of my award winning short story The Fall

Enjoy and have a healthy, safe, happy holiday season all the best for a terrific new year. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Top 2011 book list roundup

I'm not going to do a list of my top 2011 books.  I've already dispensed with the notion of stars and because I like so many books, some of which I've read this year but which didn't come out this year (one book I read this year came out in 1953), and for different reasons and different moods, that I just don't feel comfortable pinpointing just some of them.  It's all too much of a reduction for me.  But what I will do as a kind of year end roundup, is to point you in the direction of some of the more interesting, well done 'best 2011 book lists' that others have made.

  • Salon's fiction list is quite a nice one, followed neatly by their writer's favourites list where 50 well-known writers including Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Patchett, Stephen Pinker and Ali Smith choose their favourite books of 2011.  
  • Publisher's Weekly has a top 10 slide show that includes review links.
  • The Guardian UK does something similar to Salon, and asks well-known authors like John Banville, Julian Barnes and Margaret Drabble to provide their lists.  Readers area asked to also contribute to the discussion.
  • The editors at Slate pick their tops, with quite an eclectic selection. 
  • The NY Times has 5 top fiction and 5 top nonfiction on their list.  
  • Kirkus Books focuses solely on fiction and provides review links to each book they've chosen.
  • Library Journal Review's top 10 has an interesting range of fiction and nonfiction
  • Goodreads choice award for 2011 has a range of popular and literary titles, all good.
  • The Telegraph UK's Keith Miller picks his besties for 2011 and I agree with nearly all of them (though I'm still struggling with The Pale King, which has some of the most beautiful writing I've ever come across but which is so painfully inchoate at times that I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get through it (and I like to think of myself as reasonably tough).
  • I haven't read a single book on the Esquire list and as you might expect, there's a kind of blokey slant to them at least judging from the descriptions, but I'm including it here for balance.
  • The Atlantic has ten enticing books that the others missed including one delightfully described as being "rich as loam".
  • Readings author picks has just a slight Australian slant, and includes some great books that other lists have missed (including the one I've picked as my #1 this year).
Finally I will just end by saying that the one book which made my heart race the most this year, which actually made me stop reading for a moment to catch my breath, was China Mieville's Embassytown.  It's not an easy book - certainly not one for reading when you're half-asleep or looking for a little light entertainment.  I've given my own copy out to about six people who wanted it after hearing me gush, and only one of them actually ended up reading the whole book.  But oh, the things Mieville does with language in that book.  It's extraordinary. 
Happy reading everyone!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blackout: the visual rendition

We've had a few storms here lately, where the power came on and off, which encouraged me (once the power was back on), to finally give Prezi a try and have a play with a poem that was indeed, as the title suggests, inspired by a lengthy blackout.  This is the result: a visual rendering of the final poem in my book Repulsion Thrust (available for less than $10 at Amazon I might add by way of a holiday gift giving prompt).  Our utter dependence on power is a notion that I'm continually reminded of every time a piece of technology (and like most people I'm surrounded by it and base my daily activities on the use of it, including what I'm doing right now) doesn't work.  Of course I do have candles in the larder, and playing boardgames by candlelight is actually a very relaxing and soothing thing to do, once the panic and sense of isolation wears off.  Nevertheless...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Literary Trends on Both Sides of the Pond

Guest blog by Isabella Woods

With Christmas fast approaching and consumers feeling the pinch of recent budget cuts, the battle is on the High St to entice Christmas shoppers inside their tinsle laden interiors to spend their precious pennies.

In the last decade, technology has dramatically affected the way that consumers read. With updated versions of e-readers and i-pad’s hitting the shelves over the next few weeks, where does that leave the likes of WHSmith’s and Waterstones when it comes to buying literature?

Slaughter of the innocents

 More than 800 bookshops have shut in the past five years, including almost 400 independent outlets, according to new figures from the Booksellers Association of UK and Ireland. Major book retailers are being forced to cut their prices and it’s not an uncommon site to see ‘buy one get one free’ deals on immaculate hardcovers to encourage that all important Christmas consumer, full of mulled wine and on his way to compare broadband deals at the pub.

In our modern world, there has been an increased interest for e-readers such as's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony's Reader. Rather than trying to wedge our dog-eared paperbacks into our bags, we are now convenienced with downloadble novels in their hundreds within the slimline gadgets.

Sales of e-books increased by 318% in 2010 and many predict that at least 50% of all books sold within 10 years will be digital downloads. Does it really share the same sentiment to receive a gift certificate for Amazon in order to download your fiction, or is it really better to receive an old-fashioned book?

There seems to be a similar electronic landslide in the US, where Net e-book sales in January were reported to have accumulated $69.9 million in revenue for their publishers, which amounts to a 116 percent jump from last year's total for the month. During the same period, adult hardcovers were down 11.3 percent to $49.1 million and paperbacks faced a similar reduction in demand and fell to $83.6 million, a steep drop of 19.7 percent year-on-year.

However, back in the UK, there seems to be an unlikely profiteer in the form of the supermarket. Publishers and Literary agents are more likely to keep a keen eye on what’s making Tesco’s Top 10 fiction, as sales at supermarkets and “mixed multiples”, such as high street shops like Mothercare, rose by 7% in 2010, an increase of around £14.9m in value terms.

Retailer Analyst, Kate Clavert, said: “I think there is a general trend of supermarkets taking an increasing share of the non-food spend. They can also pitch their pricing lower than the high street, which is something they can do economically. is now selling more e-books than paperback books, so their business has shifted too."

Public libraries - now available in pocket size

Since the spending cuts have been introduced, libraries are facing a bleak future. Are they an easy target for government cuts or are we as a society not using the services of this institution as we once did? I regularly visit the library with my young children, but other than children, students and the elderly, are the books really being borrowed as much as they once were? The libraries are pulling out all the stops to bring back local support it seems, with more in-house events such as film clubs, book clubs and craft fairs being held. There has also been an increase of computers for internet use installed within the library itself. It does seem ironic while a few people scour the shelves for a book to read, a queue is forming for people to log on to the available computers in order to check their e-mail accounts.

According to Public Libraries News, “More than 360 libraries and nearly 30 mobile services in England are under threat of closure this year as councils respond to the recession and government funding cuts.”

I hope that the libraries stay open. I take full advantage of borrowing books that would ordinarily cost me £10 from a book shop. I haven’t yet dipped my toe into the future of e-reading, I am hoping that the likes of Waterstone’s shop windows continue to burst with eye-catching books to entice me inside. But, on a recent train journey, I couldn’t help but notice a plethora of commuters sat tapping on their Smartphones or engrossed in their Kindles, a random few with a paperback or newspaper. Will the book become obsolete, down the same path as vinyl or VHS, is the future really Kindle?

Isabella Woods is a professional writer for numerous websites and publications.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Books I'm grateful for

There's so much to be thankful for this year.  I've got my own novel Black Cow coming out in the new year, I've got a new novel in the works, and poetry flowing from the fingertips (and a very interesting proposal on something that I can't yet talk about but is exciting me).  But it's as a reader that I'm most grateful.  I'm grateful for my stack of 'to be read' books.  Yes, it's growing, and yes I have more books than time to read (or review) them, but in the overall scheme of things, I'm pretty happy to be in this situation.  I'm thankful for Julian Barnes' The Sense of An Ending, sitting patiently, in all its slim, elegant hardbackness, on my bedside table.  I'm also grateful for Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery, with its striking red and gilt wolf cover, promising the most erudite of terror.  Then there's my half finished Catch-22 (I'll be back soon Joseph), Richard Dawkins' and Dave McKean's The Magic of Reality, beautiful enough to have on the coffee table (though I don't actually have a coffee table), the lovely Buddhistic poetry book Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them, which is almost finished (and it's been doing me so much good that I've nearly forgotten to blog), and many many more delicious books, all plump and juicy and beckoning to me from their steamy covers.

If I don't show up at your Thanksgiving dinner, it isn't because I'm not grateful for your invitation.  I'm not averse to turkey with cranberry sauce, or a lovely natter over a glass of vino.  It's just that there are so many good books out right now, that all I really wanna do, is sit like a statue (let's say, like Buddha) on my plump sofa and read all weekend long.  Happy Thanksgiving, and may all your stacks be enticing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Blogging BooBoos: A Baker’s Dozen

Guest Blog by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

I often coach authors with their blogging projects. They know it’s important enough to the health of their books to hire me, but they haven’t explored their blog’s features and they tend to go blog-happy and forget that a blog intended to market their books must stay focused on, well, books. At the very least. Actually the focus should be a little narrower than that. It should follow a track aligned with the genre the author writes in or even the specific book he or she has written.

Here are some basic rules for an author’s blog if the blog is to do more than serve as a fun hobby.

1. Map out a campaign for your blog. Reread your book. What are the themes? What do the characters do for a living? What genre is it. Make notes. I mean it. You should be able to make a list of ten or twelve essential aspects of your book. Now decide which of them you want to cover in your blog and name it according. Often your name or the name of your book will work.

2. Type “labels” or keywords into that little window-like form located under your blog post window. They help people—you know, people like READERS—find your blog.

3. Don’t spend a lot of money getting someone to design your blog page. Sure it should look good, but the free templates will work just fine. People come to hear what you have to say.

4. Don’t bury your blog on the most obscure service you can find. It should be on one that Google’s spiders visit and record. That’s one reason I like or It’s owned by Google and blog posts get noticed practically immediately.

5. Like just about anything else in your book’s marketing campaign, exposure is important. Use Real Simple Syndication (RSS Feeds) to send notifications to Twitter, your Facebook page, even your Web site.

6. Don’t choose a blog service that tells you in its terms of service that in will censure and censor what you write. (Wordpress is one of those.) What if you write chicklit? Or streetwise crime? Or just like to rant? And trust me, blog visitors tend to love a good rant!

7. You know that voice you developed when you wrote your book. Don’t lose it! You blog isn’t a high school essay.

8. One of my writing pals (Peter Bowerman) ends almost every one of his blogs with a question. It’s a good habit to get into..

9. Read. Ideas come from reading everything from The New Yorker to Time magazine to other people’s blogs. (But do check the chapter on plagiarism in the new edition of my Frugal Book Promoter ( . It will help you navigate things like quotes and the borrowing of ideas.

10. Promote your blog by leaving comments on others’ blogs—especially if they relate to yours. But do add something to the conversation rather than using a cut-and-paste comment that obviously shows no interest in the blogger or her post.

11. Add images, widgets, or ads when you can. Some blog services help you by automating gadgets that will help with this.

12. Use a service like Google’s Analytics that helps you assess where your readers are coming from and which of your blogs attract the most readers.

13. Occasionally mention some of the other things you do on the Web, like your Web site, your Facebook Like page, and your Twitter stream.

If you are a fiction writer, read the white paper Phyllis Zimbler Miller and I wrote on blogging for fiction writers ( And the chapters on blogging in The Frugal Book Promoter. Honestly, do these things and you may not need to pay me or people like me the big bucks (Ahem!) to make your blog effective.

Effective involves others—writers, readers, and other bloggers. Effective blogging connects with your other online entities. You can have fun with it. You should have fun with it. But blogging effectively adds to the joy. Think of how much more fun it will be when you look at those stats and see that your blogging efforts are in fact a viable way to market your book.

 Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of Your Blog, Your Business (, and a new edition of the multi award-winning The Frugal Book Promoter ( which has been Expanded! Updated! And is now a USA Book News winner in its own right! It’s also now available for Kindle at

Friday, November 11, 2011

Am I really to blame?

The Poetic Museling are blaming me as one of the guilty parties for the situation they find themselves in now. I conducted a workshop on "Developing a Poetry Chapbook from Concept to Completion," during the 2008 Muse Online Writers Conference. Some of the poets who took this workshop continued to meet after the Conference to write and critique, and collectively decided to create something that was greater than each of their individual works.

They're now assigning blame to me for giving them courage, vision, and tools to go forward with a dream to create a real book. They called me "mentor", and asked for my advice along the way as they chose and edited their poems, and I was happy to oblige.  

The resulting Lifelines Anthology, written by the Poetic Muselings, is now available on Amazon. Am I excited and proud of what these poets have created out of that class?  You bet I am.  Do I accept the blame (and kudos)?  Nah.  They did it all themselves, following through what was little more than a series of prompts with guts, tenacity, talent and a lot of hard work. The resulting book is a beautiful thing, full of insightful poetry, life stories, and a great deal of vision.  Well done Muselings.  It was all your own doing!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Free (Literary) Lunch

Way back in my undergrad days I attended a launch party for Alison Armstrong's The Joyce of Cooking. It was a heady affair for me, not least of which because I was in the midst of my very first graduate level class in James Joyce, having become rather smitten with Ulysses, and I felt utterly, absolutely accepted as an equal there, thanks to a very kind introduction by my then teacher Sydney Feshbach, who later became president of the James Joyce Society in NY where the launch was held. I've since had at the back of my mind that I would also like to do a literary cookbook of some description - combining my love of books with a love of eating (and even greater of love reading about people eating).  That hasn't really happened, not least of which because I'm not a chef, but I did put together a fun little cookbook titled The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, which involved scouring some of my favourite books and developing recipes based on meals that characters actually ate.  Most of the books didn't provide recipes, but I had a go at formulating my own and tested each one and they were all pretty nice.  Most are easy - only one was a little complex and that's in keeping with the complexity of the novel that inspired it The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. So here's the one complex recipe from the book.  If you'd like the other easier ones, you can have them for the not very complex price of $0.  To grab a copy just drop by my website and sign up for my newsletter there (I don't send out many - just updates when new books come out - and don't worry - I'm not that prolific!) and a copy will be yours.  Happy cooking!

From The Magic Mountain
He dressed conscientiously for the evening meal, and sitting n his place between Miss Robinson and the schoolmistress, he ate: julienne soup, baked and roast meats with suitable accompaniments, two pieces of a tart made of macaroons, butter-cream chocolate, jam and marzipan, and lastly excellent cheese and pumpernickel. As before. He ordered a bottle of Kulmbacher. But, by the time he had half emptied his tall glass, he became clearly and unmistakably aware that bed was the best place for him. (83)

Magic Mountain Macaroon and Butter-Cream Chocolate Pie

Butter Cream

1 tbsp cocoa
12 tbsp very soft butter
1 tbsp hot water
2 egg yolks
½ cup sugar

In an electric mixer bowl, mix the cocoa and water. Then add the egg yolks and sugar. Place the bowl in a pan of hot water over medium heat, beat with an electric mixer until the smooth and shiny. Then beat in the butter until smooth. Set aside.

Pie Pastry

1 ¼ cups flour
¾ tsp salt
7 tbsp cold butter, cut into pieces
5 tbsp ice water.

In a food processor (put into the freezer 10 minutes beforehand), combine flour and salt. Add butter and process until like bread crumbs. Sprinkle water on and process into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out and fit into a greased 9 inch pie pan. Crimp the dough to form a decorative border (using a fork). Prick the pastry with a fork. Chill for at least 30 minutes before filling and baking.



2 cups single cream
8 oz dark couverture chocolate
½ cup sugar
8 oz ground almonds
2 egg whites, whipped until stiff

Bring the cream to simmering point in a saucepan. Put the chocolate into a bowl and stir in the hot cream. Keep stirring until it has combined to form a sauce. Stir in the almonds, and sugar, and let cool to room temperature. Gently mix in the whipped egg whites until combined, and place in the tart shell. Bake at in a preheated 350ºF or 180ºC oven for 45 minutes until the filling has set and is slightly puffed. Cool on a pie rack. When cool, pipe butter cream frosting around the edge and over the top in a lattice effect. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Blooming Red Finalist in USA Best Books Award


LOS ANGELES –, the premiere online magazine and review website for mainstream and independent publishing houses, announced that Blooming Red has been placed as a finalist for poetry in THE USA “BEST BOOKS 2011” AWARDS on November 1, 2011. Awards were presented for titles published in 2010 and 2011.

Jeffrey Keen, President and CEO of USA Book News, said this year’s contest yielded an unprecedented number of entries, which were then narrowed down to winners and finalists. Winners and finalists traversed the publishing landscape: Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, Random House, Penguin, Harper Collins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons and hundreds of independent houses contributed to this year’s outstanding competition. Keen adds, “Our success begins with the enthusiastic participation of authors and publishers and continues with our distinguished panel of industry judges who bring to the table their extensive editorial, PR, marketing, and design expertise.” Keen says of the awards, now in their ninth year, “The 2011 results represent a phenomenal mix of books from a wide array of publishers throughout the United States. With a full publicity and marketing campaign promoting the results of the USA ‘Best Books’ Awards, this year’s winners and finalists will gain additional media coverage for the upcoming holiday retail season.”

Of Bloming Red, reviewer Joyce White said "Reading these two award winners is like partaking in their womanhood, tasting their femininity, and meeting their past head on. Their poems cry out for their inner child who still wants Santa to come visit them, you know...equality for all; and, I agree with Carolyn who says "[in] Einstein's less than balanced world...we would be less than dead."  Maggie writes of abundance and waste, of gluttonous dyspepsia...of the inability to digest joy when others are hungry, what cannot be created or destroyed...a huge database of Christmas past (found in the attic)...random messy knowledge curse of recall becoming parcels he could leap...with only one present leading him to greatness...with anticipation turning to memory before weeping eyes...a house full of dreams, visions and desires, each glass ball becoming a wish, taken from the tree of life we decorate at Christmas...super connections pulsing, through the anti-matter of your tired brain, wrought with nostalgia and wrung through time's dryer...Once the paper's gone, it's just us again, tired, spent, remembering tap of the keyboard a newbie springs sacrifices in blood here...this is a rational zone so many years on fertile.  Make your holiday great and read your family Blooming Red. It is a great holiday stuffer!"

A complete list of the winners and finalists of The USA “Best Books 2011” Awards are available online at

Friday, October 28, 2011

Great Spooky Lit

Here in Australia, we don't celebrate Halloween very much, but try telling that to my daughter, who has been planning her costume since last Halloween.  Of course I like to celebrate every occasion by reading - but maybe I'll make my books just a wee bit spookier than usual.  Here's a little list of three scarily wonderful books that readers who don't want to tip over into the horror genre can still enjoy when everything else is too light and upbeat.

First off the bat is Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Take your pick - they're all good and all spooky, but I'm going to recommend The Prince of Mist just because it's his YA book, quick and easy to read, and spine tingling, even at the end. 

Then there's Neil Gaiman.  You could go with The Graveyard Book, but actually Coraline is the more disturbing because more like a universal nightmare.  Those button eyes and mother-not-mother still haunt me when I think about it. 

Finally, from the archives, there's Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  I'm going through a little Stevenson revival at the moment, and as with The Prince of Mist and Coraline, what works so well in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the universal chord that the book touches.  We all have a touch of Hyde in us (though hopefully not to the same extent) - that evil twin (the not-mother, the spurned clown) who takes us near the edge.  We can almost understand, empathise with, and even see ourselves slipping into that bad guy role.  Bwahahaha.  Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Extreme Reading

I'll read anywhere.  Even on a windy sand dune with
pockets and shoes stuffed full of sand, and children's voices mingling with hungry gulls in the background. Here I am reading John Flanagan's last Ranger's Apprentice book number 11: The Lost Stories.  I've got an interview with John next week and although I wouldn't normally be drawn to these kinds of 'boys own' adventures, my twelve year old loves them and I agreed to read the books and interview John on his behalf.  I have to say that I've been enjoying the books very much, even to the point of ignoring my kids shouts to come and roll down the dunes with them (um, tempting as that was), since I had to see what Rangers Halt and Will did next.  I did eventually put the book away and made it up and down the giant dunes multiple times, Will and Halt accompanying me all the while. 

I like encorporating the scene of my reading into the whole fictive experience.  Sitting in a beautiful remote landscape (and this one was truly beautiful) while reading about smashbuckling daring deeds is part of the fun.  The wind in my hair mirroed the wind in my characters' hair as they rode their talking horses, and fought battle after battle against pirates, roamers, "moondarkers" and highway robbers, leaving their world a safer place.  Where's the wildest place you've ever read?  The most inhospitable or exquisite conditions?  Do you require a 'fine and private place' to read or can you drop everything anywhere and dip into that lovely fictive world? 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Musing on the Muse

Every year I participate in the Muse 
Online Writers Conference as a presenter, and every year it seems to get just a little bit bigger.  The first year I presented, I ran a poetry workshop.  A group from that session were so inspired, from each other as much as me - I encouraged them to critique one another and they really jumped into that, that they formed a poetry writing group called Poetic Muselings that continued to work together.  Their anthology titled Lifelines has just been accepted for publication by Inkspotter Publishing.  Am I proud?  You betcha.  This is about the best outcome a writer teacher could hope for, and is due in large part to that wonderful rarified air of a conference that transcends space, linking a group of individuals towards a shared goal.  I've since run workshops on characterisation, workshops on writing a query (and several of the people on that course have gone on to have the books they've queried accepted by traditional publishing houses - yay!).  This year I did a joint week long workshop with the wonderful Karen Cioffi on "Creating and Building Your Author/Writer Online Presence".  It was a big, full-on course that went from website and content creation through to article marketing, SEO and keywords, podcasting, creating ebooks, online commerce, and information marketing.  Kind of like a one stop online platform bootcamp.  Any one of those topics could have run in a full week workshop, but our ambitious attendees got stuck in and worked hard, setting up or tweaking their websites, creating and submitting keyword rich, optimised articles, and even creating their own podcasts.  I was so inspired by both Karen and our attendees, that I completely revamped my own website during the week, moving it to a new platform and giving it a fresh new look. There were many different workshops held, dealing with topics as diverse as shoestring marketing, writing suspense, working social media, developing a unique voice, obtaining contacts, writing flash fiction, fantasy, horror, self-publishing, creating worlds, espionage, and even creating monsters.  If I had the time, I'd probably take every one of the courses.  As it was, I was busy teaching my own!  But one of the benefits of the Muse, is that all the workshops and documentation remain visible for several weeks afterwards, and you can bet I'll be trawling the boards to gather in as much of this collective store of knowledge as I can.  If you didn't make it this year, there's always 2012.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writing, Fear, and Yoga


Though it may look like the writer isn't doing much, sitting for hours in front of a laptop, the brain is heavily engaged.  The work is often emotionally demanding, taking us places that we're afraid of but need to go, and forcing us to look into the black heart of our deepest fears to uncover truth in our characters and situation.

  It takes great courage to walk the difficult path of the artist, and often the effort is physically exhausting.  Fear is always tracking you, and the closer you are to reaching your writing goals, the more intense and insidious that fear can become.  Fear is a great shapeshifter, looking like block, like the need to research, like being too busy to write.  It can stop your story in its tracks just when you're about to make a breakthrough.  My latest work in progress is particularly challenging, taking me to dark recesses of the past, exploring notions just beyond my intellectual capabilities, and forcing me to rethink what I know about fiction.  Every writing session is hard.  That's how I know I'm on the right path - because it it were easy, I wouldn't be pushing myself, growing, or moving my skills to a higher bar.  So how does one cope with this fear in all of its incarnations?  How do you push through it towards completion? 

My biggest ally against fear is to move my body.  Exercise of all kind helps, but for me, there's nothing quite like either swimming, or doing yoga - two forms of exercise that have a mental impact on me.  Both swimming and yoga are what I call breath practices, because they rely on regular and focused breathing. It's often too cold for me to swim.  I don't much like heated indoor pools (the chlorine doesn't agree with me), so I tend to do a lot of yoga.  Yoga is amazing for writers.  Here are three reasons why yoga is a natural ally for the writer:
  • It helps teach us to see writing as a practice, rather than an end point.  We keep moving along the writing path, growing, changing, and pushing towards wisdom and expression.  It's not possible to fail, no matter how hard it is, when you have this perception.  Showing up for practice is all that's needed.
  • It teaches you to breathe.  Ah, breath.  How simple and yet how powerful. Breathing is the perfect antedote to fear.  I first found out how powerful it was when I was in labour with my first child, screaming in pain.  An angel of a midwife came to me and taught me to breath slowly, deeply, with my full body and I calmed down and got to work.  I've turned to breath again and again in times of stress, strife, and fear, and it never fails to remind me of the transience of each moment and the need to work, calmly, through panic. 
  •  It teaches patience.  Sometimes the right words take time to come.  You have to keep showing up, doing the exercises, stretching, breathing and working towards the vision.
Yoga teaches me to see my writing as work that has to be done - a responsibility and positive impetus rather than a vanity (another manifestation of fear).  So next time you're struggling with the dragons of fear -- call it what you will: block, self-doubt, other priorities, "no-time" -- try taking a 30 minute yoga break and see if that doesn't help.  Breath through it.  Even when it hurts.  Then back to work.  The world is waiting for you to change it. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bright Star

I know it's two years old now, but last night I watched Bright Star, and this morning my daughter, who watched it with me, was so inspired (she's a romantic thing) that we've spent a very pleasant morning reading the poetry of Keats, complete with my handwritten college scribbles from the Norton Anthology of Poetry (Third Edition), which has stayed with me for many years and comes out surprisingly often (I love my Kindle but can assign no such sentimental value to the books it contains). The film was lovely, romantic as one would expect, and firmly grounded in and defined by Keats' work.  Normally my poetic tastes tend towards the moderns and post-moderns.  But I've enjoyed re-discovering the romantics today. In honour of the film, and of my daughter's sudden and quite satisfying interest in the poets of the romantic era, I thought I'd provide you with the full text of the poem that gave the film it's name.  By the way, my daughter had me look up Eremite for her, and for those of you who don't know, it's a religious recluse. As usual, Jane Campion, you've outdone yourself.

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out: Joseph Heller's Catch 22

Banned Books Week runs from Sept. 24 – Oct.1, when readers around the world are encouraged to celebrate books that often get banned in various places around the world.  There are other books that have been banned more often than Catch-22, but it's Catch-22's 50th anniversary, and it's looking pretty darn good for its age.  I just got sent this lovely new edition by Random House, with a soft matt finish cover and have been enjoying it immensely, not only for the sharp spotlight it shines on the kind of overt bureaucratic absurdity that is no less relevant today than it was 50 years ago, but also because of the superb writing. For example, check out these two sentences: "Hungry Joe was a throbbing, ragged mass of motile irritability.  The steady ticking of a watch in a quiet room crashed like torture against his unshielded brain." Is that superb characterisation or what?  Catch-22 was banned in Strongsville, Ohio in 1972 and that decision was overturned in 1976. It was also challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974) and again in Snoqualmie, Washington (1979).   Here's a little clip I prepared for the global 'read-out' in which I read about the "catch" (the best catch there is...):

Friday, September 23, 2011

Open the pod bay doors, HAL

Perhaps this isn't the first time that a fictional construct has been cited in a court case as prior art (art in this case, being used in a literal sense), but it's the first that I've heard of it.  Of course I'm talking about the patent dispute between Apple's i-Pad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab which have cited the images in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as evidence of prior art. The implications of this are interesting to me, and I wonder whether it will elevate art to a new level in terms of the relationship between conception and development.  Does a visual hypothesis equate to pre-conception.  Of course it's a long way from an imaginary conception to a working prototype and it appears that the German courts have rejected the Kubrick Defence, which is, of course, not called the Clarke defense, since it's design that we're talking about here. In other words, it's the visuals in the film, and not the description in the book that has been cited.  Nevertheless, the very fact that it was raised creates an interesting hornet's nest about the 'hypothesis', industrial design, and artistic conception and the interrelationship between them, particularly from a legal point of view.  As an author, I'll be watching the ongoing outcome with interest, and thinking about the power of art in new ways.

ps: I loved 2001 - one of the very few instances where I felt the film was better than the book. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Healing the World with Poetry (guest blog)

by Joyce White

Poetry makes an excellent conversation beginning with a lump in the throat then spilling out like liquid honey so sweet, savory, ending in the most natural wisdom, To be a poet, you need to know when to listen and when not, as well as begin every day with a moment of silence, during the day listen to the children who are always on, we can learn as much from them as they us,

Poets need to befriend isolated thinkers, to enjoy their gift of gab, to recognize universal truths, listen to their intuitions, and welcome the muses that are their best fans,

Poets need to give credence to the “unseen” and to know that there is no coincidence, and be appreciative of free will,

Poets need to ride the winds with glee that blow through their minds, and to write those thoughts down before someone else does or before they're forgotten all together.

Poets need to learn to appreciate the sun setting, a bird call, a quiet garden, a clear sky, and a creative effort with an unambiguous pen. Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, the unknown healing all wounds of reason.  

Words are healers whether we are writing them, singing them or reading them. Of course, a loving friend can be a healer. A song can be a healer. A celebratory greeting card can be a healer.  We all enjoy healing through the music of words and images.

Both reading and writing poetry are forms of therapy for the reader and the writer. Writing poetry is an excellent way to pay renewed attention to the masters and their art. They inspire us to turn their art into “our art” through films, paintings, poetry or even clay sculptures. None of us write alone without carrying on our back the whisperings of others.

There is no such thing as writer’s block when we use others ideas to inspire us. Poetically speaking, I think most poets are like honey bees hungrily searching through a grand buffet of literature, film and/or art for that speck of pollen we can turn into honey. Besides authoring two books, I had a lot to say and needed a way to say it, so I started experimenting with poetry.

But in truth, humans like to make everything a game especially writers and poets. We play connect-the-dots with words and feelings, paying close attention to the sound and flower of our memories, as well as their arrangement on the page. I play connect-the-dots with sentences, images and/or word pictures.

I’m always looking for an initial thought burst, a memory or a feeling I can blow out of proportion and use in a grand over-indulgent way when writing poetry. “You may discover your best poems while writing your worst prose.” says Joyce Carol Oates. “As soon as you connect with your true subject, you will write.”
If I had to describe my inner poet, I’d say he looked at the world a little eschewed. He lives patiently in me, giving me fragrant hope where there was once none. He inspired me to write although it never occurred to me I was a poet. I come by using words for healing by instinct.  

I’ve read an author must be like God, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Somerset Maugham says, “If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.” Samuel Johnson says, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”

When the right words come, they are as beautiful and unsought as country wild flowers. There are many ways of being artful. To write poetry I sometimes start out with the words, “I am…or I am silly…or I am afraid…or, I am not like anyone else. You can also write a Pet Peeve Poem, by reacting to a common, everyday annoyance like the phone ringing when you’re in the bathroom! Choose a subject that really irritates you enough to be memorable or humorous.

Decide if you want your poem to be serious, playful or sarcastic. There is something about our milestones that beg to have their passes marked on paper even our annoyances and mishaps. Our only goal is to be truthful, and if we can fake that on paper, we’ve got it made. Mark Twain says, “Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore, are most economical in its use. Elvis Presley says, 
“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it isn’t going’ away.”

John F. Kennedy, speaking at the dedication of a library for Robert Frost, less than a month before he was murdered: “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. –John Fitzgerald Kennedy October 26, 1963, Amherst College
John Fox at Poetic Medicine says, “What words roll off the tongue or look like treasures on the page waiting to be opened? What words excite you as you say them, make you want to laugh at their sound or shout them out? Treat words as if they were paint, clay or wood; allow words to be a physical material to shape, mold, chisel and blend.  Liberate simple, seemingly ordinary words from the prison of habit (for instance, how they are used—or misused to make us consumers!) and free those words to breathe fresh air together.”

Say this:
…say threshold, cottonmouth, Russian leather,
say ash, picot, fallow deer, saxophone, say kitchen sink.
This is a birthday party for the mouth—it’s better than ice cream,
say waterlilly, refrigerator, hartebeest, Prussian blue
and the word will take you, if you let it,
the word will take you along across the air of your head
so that you’re there as it settles into the thing it was made for,
adding to it a shimmer and the bird song of its sound…
Marilyn Krysl from Saying Things

Follow your heart and imagination…and circle five words from the list below and include them in a poem. Here are a few words from Poetic Medicine on my website to get you started for your artistic pleasure:

My website,  would enjoy reading your poems, articles and essays that you have written. In addition, we are accepting photographs of original artwork as well the stories of how they were born in your mind and how they brought you healing. Contact my website and let your healing become stepping stones to healing for others.