Archive for the ‘ Mark Williams on Writing ’ Category

Out of Africa with Ruth Harris

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Yeah, I’m still here, contrary to appearances.

I said in my last post I thought the worst of the internet issues here in West Africa were over and I had high hopes of getting back to some semi-regular blogging. That was in January…

The thing is, life in any “third world” country is a constant triumph of hope over experience. In a desperately poor country like The Gambia hope is often all people have as they go about the daily grind of subsistence living, where soup kitchens and state hand-outs and homeless shelters are unknown.

Which is a constant reminder to me of how lucky I am here. I eat at least once every day, have a tap in the yard, semi-reliable electric and internet, and no heating bills. I have my dream job as a writer, have fulfilled my childhood dream of living in a mud hut in Africa, and am daily reminded, by the company of some of the poorest but happiest children on the planet, what really matters in life.

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Okay, so my workstation might not be everyone’s idea of comfort, but a rusting iron door propped up on a plastic oil drum and the remains of a table does the job. The mosquito swatter doubles as a fan and the lamp does a fine job when the frequent pwercuts plunge us into darkness each evening. Seriously, what more does one need to be a writer?

And life here appears to have just got better, with the final upgrades and repairs to the new ACE (African Coast-Europe) subterranean internet cable, which means (hopefully) some internet stability at last.

To celebrate, I’m back with the second MWi post of the year, and with a guest who doesn’t know she’s here yet, but I’m sure won’t mind my blatant act of piracy in stealing her own blog post from yesterday (which I just read an hour ago) and presenting it here in full.

Ruth Harris is an internationally-acclaimed million-selling author who lives in New York — a lifestyle about as far removed from the reality of Africa as you can get. Yet she wrote a book set here on the dark continent (and kindle gifted a copy to e when it was released – thanks, Ruth!). The novel is called Zuri.

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I meant to have reviewed it here way back, but the realities of life got in the way, as usual. Then I saw Ruth’s latest post on her blog, about how she came to write Zuri, and just knew I had to repost it here.

Normally I’d email and ask permission first, but we’re in different time zones and chances are by the time Ruth got the message and responded I’d have lost my net connection again, and then something else would crop up to distract me. So I’m going to risk a New York law suit and paste now, ask later

Romance and an accidental collision.

Romance as a category has shown its strength over the decades as it evolved from the early days of the nurse romance—pretty nurse Patricia wins handsome Dr. Phillips—through the “bodice rippers” of the Eighties to the many sub-genres that exist today including, of course, the steamy erotic romances descending from 50 Shades.

No matter the sub-genre, there always seems to be room for further expansion and an eager audience willing to follow writers wherever our imaginations take us. To pirates and pirate ships, to the Middle Ages, Regency England, and the settling of the American West. Wherever there are people, people can—and will—fall in love.  We want to write about them and readers love to read about them.

ZURI—the word means “beautiful” in Swahili—is a romance with an unusual setting: an animal orphanage named Kihali located in Africa. The initial idea for the book was the product of an accidental collision.

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Out Of Africa, set in Kenya in the early 1920’s and starring Meryl Streep as the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen, and the young, golden Robert Redford as a white hunter, is a grand romance—and one of my favorite movies. I watch it every now and then and had just seen it again when, while casually flipping thru TV channels one evening, I happened to see a clip of a baby rhino. I was blown away by the little rhino’s appeal and gracefulness.

Baby animals never fail but a rhino? Could a baby rhino actually be adorable? Yes, indeed. Very much so.

I was also aware via newspaper and internet articles that poaching had become an extremely lucrative international crime. The slaughter of rhinos and elephants was decimating the wildlife populations of Africa to the point where they are now endangered species. Between the glamor of Africa, the vulnerability and appeal of helpless animals and the sweeping Streep-Redford romance, the germ for the book was firmly planted.

The need for research was obvious. I had to find out about the people involved in the dangerous work of animal rescue and protection, the newest scientific discoveries in animal communication as more and more is learned about their high intelligence, the gory reality of poaching and the ruthless criminal gangs who profit from its bloody endeavors.

Then there were the details of rhino husbandry and veterinary, the amazing work being done by African animal orphanages, the risks involved in wildlife care, the details of rhino and elephant behavior—Zuri, the orphaned baby rhino who is the story’s heroine, meets elephant and other animal friends at Kihali. I also needed to find out about the local language, Swahili, Kenyan cuisine & wedding rituals—and I needed to use my research in a way that fit in naturally with the narrative flow of the book.

The research was fascinating. Did you know that the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons? Or that rhino horn—it’s actually keratin, the same material found in feathers and nails—is thought to cure cancer, maintain sexual vigor and is considered a miracle medicine in Asia, although it is, in fact, of zero medical value? The price of rhino horn, driven by demand in booming Asian economies, is now more expensive than gold as is the ivory from elephant tusks, used not for “medicinal” purposes but to make carved trinkets.

Of course, in a romance, a love story is crucial. Therefore: Renny Kudrow, the sexy scientist and expert in animal communication, who is the moody Alpha hero. Renny is the Director of Kihali and Starlite Higgins is his newly-hired vet, a talented doctor who hides a horrifying secret. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Starlite panics and almost causes Zuri’s rescue to fail. The two who must work together to save Zuri and the other animals in their care must also work their way through their initial very rough beginning to a much-deserved Happily Ever After ending.

By the time I finished writing ZURI, I thought of the book as romance in its broadest sense, meaning love of beauty, love of nature, love of animals, and, of course, the romantic and transformative power of human love.

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Thanks in advance for letting me post that here, Ruth. It’s a great book and one I’d recommend to all. I especially love that cover!

Ruth’s blog is here. Ruth also posts regularly over at Anne R. Allen’s blog here.

In my part of Africa rhinos and elephants and the like are in short supply (we have some great hippos and crocs, though). There are wildlife parks here, and a “proper” safari park in neighbouring Senegal, but regular readers will know it’s the children of Africa that are why I’m here.

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More on my young friends in future posts.

But here to end with something Ruth mentioned above: the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons. And just like with drugs and weapons, the trade in ivory and other animal parts (sharks’ fins, tigers’ testicle, seal fur, etc) impacts on human lives as well as the animals that are brutally and needlessly slaughtered.

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Before.

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After.

Whether it’s the suffering of innocent doe-eyed animals, or innocent bright-eyed children, that upsets you, remember there’s aways something you can do to help.

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How To be A Publisher In the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity

So it’s finally happened. No, not the book. Keep up!

That’s happened too, of course.

But even more exciting than that! I now have a reliable electric supply AND a reliable internet connection.

No, I can’t believe it either.

The components for the solar power arrived last month (just in time for the rainy season) and this past few days I finally took delivery of a 4G internet service. Yep, that’s me on the far left

Of course it’s not 4G by Western standards. But by local African standards, and compared to last week,  it’s simply incredible. And once the novelty of being able to listen to radio and watch youtube videos wears off I’ll have no more excuses for my haphazard postings here on MWi, and my poor communications generally.

Fact is my old ISP service had deteriorated to the extent that I’ve only been able to get into my own blog two or three times a month. To all those who commented recently and were seemingly ignore, it wasn’t deliberate.

So be warned. I’m back, and with lost time to make up!

And we’ll start right here by announcing what you probably all knew already, that How To Be A Writer In The E-Age finally went live this past week and is even now storming the Amazon charts.

Check it out on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk..

It will be available on other platforms shortly, and the POD release is imminent too.

Chasing this we have Paul Dillon’s The Magic In the Receiver (any day now) and the first of  Terry Galanoy’s Bloodgold series.

And no, we haven’t forgotten our very own Rapunzel or St. Mallory’s, but both fell foul of the constant problems with electricity and net here. Expect to see them all in the near future, as well as a resumption of my observations on the publishing and writing scene and some more insights into my life here in West Africa!

Okay, short and brief this time, but don’t get used to it. I’ll be back to normal next post!

St. Mallory’s Forever! – Coming Soon

Never let is be said we rush out our ebooks prematurely! So much for the Christmas release…

But Easter is looking promising! Maybe.  Anyway, it’s coming soon!

You can check out the story behind the story over at the official St. Mallory’s blog where the latest post is entitled I Jolly Well Don’t Talk Like That!, courtesy of our resident boarder, Charley.

For recent visitors unfamiliar with the St. Mallory’s project, St. Mallory’s Forever! is a four-author collaboration between ourselves and two fantabulous teen writers as per the cover credits. A modern day boarding school series with all the jolly hockey sticks fun of Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton, with some Jennings and Billy Bunter-esque farce thrown in for good measure, but without the stone-age social hang-ups that bedevil those classics of children’s literature.

As befits a modern-day teen novel the story is told through the blogs of the three MCs. For those who can’t wait, here’s a taster.

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Abby 1: Welcome To My World.

 

Schools are strange places, where strange things happen.

But in an *insert fingered air quotes here* ordinary school, the students leave at the end of the day, and there are a few hours where those buildings are magical. They’re empty, they’re quiet, and they’re free of bossy teachers.

Empty schools are also creepy beyond reason, if you’ve ever been in one at night, but at least you can walk freely down the corridors. Those are the hours during which Behind The Scenes Stuff  happens. That’s when they fix the computers and the lights. Cleaners come and go. Rude graffiti and disgusting stains caused by unmentionable human fluids miraculously disappear. By the time students return in the morning, all the little mysteries they hadn’t quite solved are gone as if they’d never been there at all.

Boarding schools aren’t like that. Sure, there are still cleaners and maintenance teams doing their jobs in the background. And sure, departments don’t talk to each other; errors, clashing events and new rules can be ignored for months before finally surfacing when they reach critical status; and everybody in charge seems determined to make everything twice as complicated as it needs to be. You think state school teachers are bossy? You don’t know the half of it!

But there are always students around in a boarding school. True, they’ll be in their houses, but they still need attention and supervision, and if left alone for a moment, prep will be abandoned and all hell with break loose.

At least, that’s what it’s like at St Mallory’s School for Girls.

How do I know? Because I’m a boarder at St. Mall’s. Three years, now, and I’m just starting the Middle Fifth. The Middle Fifth? Exactly. Unless you’re a boarder too you won’t know what the heck that means. Which is why I’m starting this blog.

I’m just back from the summer hols and I’ve got to tell you I am seriously urinated off (we’re not allowed to swear on the school’s time) at the misconceptions and stereotypes everyone out there in the “real world” has about boarding school girls. It’s not true! Well, some of it’s not, anyway.

You see, there are (advance warning: silly pun coming up!) three schools of thought about girls and boarding schools. First there’s the jolly hockey sticks world of Eleanor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. And yes, you bet we call our school Malory Towers sometimes, when not in earshot of teachers!

Then there’s St. Trinians. Of course we know all the songs! Altogether now, St. Mallory’s, St. Mallory’s Will Never Die! Sadly, real life here at St. Mall’s is nothing like that, though the Head could well be in a man in drag. Hmmm. Now there’s a rumour worth starting…

Finally there’s Harry Potter. I mean, what was JK Rowling thinking of, making Hogwarts a mixed-sex school? She should have got rid of Harry and all those daft boys, made it an all girls’ school with Hermione the star of the show (not that she isn’t anyway –  Hermione rocks!) and she probably would have sold a lot more books and might be rich by now.

Of course, none of these are remotely accurate portrayals of modern boarding school life. Believe it or not we don’t walk around with books on our head and learn how to hire a governess. We don’t run riot in the science labs and make stink-bombs, blow up the school or scare off teachers. And we can’t turn the younger kids into frogs – but don’t tell my little cousins that, because they’re convinced that I can.

So I’ve decided to write this blog and expose what really goes on in a top-notch school like St. Mall’s. The world has a right to know!

I’ll be posting here whenever I can get a moment’s privacy. Not easy in a school with 400 marauding adolescents, hordes of bitter and twisted teachers, and who knows how many other ancillary staff we see but never actually meet – imagine Piccadilly Circus on a busy day and you’re not even half-way there. But I’ll do my best to dish the dirt on everyone and everything, as it happens.

Jolly hockey sticks!

And no, we do not say things like that here, but you were expecting it, right?

Which is why you need to subscribe to my blog. Because everything you thought you knew about girls’ boarding schools is totally and utterly wrong, I promise you.

Yes, even that bit!

 

 

Abby 2:

Chaos, Carnage and Confusion – Travelling Day.

 

They call it a travelling day, but to Abigail Roe (that’s me by the way, just so as you know) it looks more like a traffic jam day. Every parking bay is taken, and a long, straggly line of overstuffed cars trail away out of the courtyard, through the gates and up the long, snaking school drive to vanish among the Sussex hedgerows.

The air thrums with the grumble and snarl of expensive motors (I swear some of them hire a Rolls just for the day, to make a good impression) while frantic parents struggle through the school gates, laden with trunks, suitcases and lumpy carrier bags. Harrods, mostly, although occasionally a Fortnum & Mason bag will put in an appearance. And very occasionally an M&S Finest. You can spot the scholarship girls a mile away!

Bitchy? Moi?  

I was joking. Honest! Actually, when we’re at home our parents go out and do the weekly shop at Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s just like everyone else. But this is the first day back, so everyone is out to make a good impression. Hair coiffured, nails perfectly manicured, uniform all crisp and new and hitherto untouched by human hands. Shoes polished until they positively gleam. Unblemished undies, newly fitted bras that are a tad too big so we can grow into them, and –

“Abby! Abby darling, could you come here for a moment?”

Oh. My. God. Excuse me. Must go. That’s my mother calling.

She never calls me darling at home (wouldn’t dare!) so why in the name of all things sane does she call me it here? If boarding school has that effect on parents, what chance do us poor students stand?

“Coming, Mum!”  *Stretches lips into big happy smile*. Rule number one: never show how embarrassed you are by your parents. No matter what they say or do, or what they’re wearing

Reluctantly I dragged myself from in front of the big oak doors and made my way down to the parking area. Drat! I’d just got prime position on the top step, too. Queen of all I surveyed. Great for spotting old friends arriving, and even better for identifying any potential fags I mean new girls – but more on that later.

I darted down the steps and jinked my way through the oncoming crowds towards Mum’s car. Of course she’s only parked right between a Roller and a top of the range 4X4 with huge wheels and an even bigger back seat, with enough inbuilt games consoles such that you could happily never get out.

No idea what sort of vehicle it is, mind (I’m a girl – knowing car brands is the boys’ equivalent of reading Hello! magazine) but you can be sure it’s never been off-road in its life, and the trip down to sunny Brighton is probably the first time it’s ever been outside the M25.

Oh, did I say sunny? Strike that! I’ve never known first day back to be anything but overcast and dreary, and today’s no exception. I think the guy upstairs is sending us a subliminal message about the term ahead. Gloomy outlook. Storms on the horizon.

“Well, I’d better be off, sweetheart,” said Mum, eyes moist and ready to flood. “I want to get back on the road before the traffic gets too bad,” she managed to finish, her voice breaking slightly.

Oh God, I hate this bit. You know, the “saying goodbye in front of all your friends” bit. Why can’t they have a private “Saying Goodbye Room” where this can be done behind closed doors? Luckily I’m an old hand at this now. I know how to put a brave face on it as we both realise we won’t see each other ever, ever, ever again. Well, for a month or two, anyway.

That’s why Dad and my little sister aren’t invited. Seeing your father in tears is just soooo embarrassing! Little sis’ Ruby is embarrassing too, of course, but for entirely different reasons. Last term Ruby only picked her nose, licked it and the offered it to Matron. No wonder she’s been left at home this time. My sister, I mean, not Matron.

“Will you be alright, Abby?” Mum was asking in that special voice she reserves for such occasions. A typical Mum question. Only one answer is permitted.

“Of course, Mum.” I rolled my eyes theatrically (may as well put my drama lessons to some use!). “I’ve done this before, you know. I’m not a Lower Fourth any more.” *Refrains from spitting to clean my mouth of that reference to the tadpoles of the Lower Fourth now I’m a senior.*

Mum pulled a face, as she does, then flung her arms round me like she was at some theatre audition, hugging me as if this was the end. “I’ll give your love to Daddy when he comes on leave.”

“Mum!” I mock-glared at her, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by the smile tugging at my lips. Daddy? Hello, Mother? I’m fifteen, don’t you know?

“Make sure you write to me,” Mum went on. I want to know all the latest goss’.”

 Goss’? Don’tcha just hate it when parents try and talk cool?

“It’s not the nineteenth century anymore,” I said. “Have you heard of email?”

“Very funny, dear.  You know full well it’s not the same if it hasn’t got a stamp on it. Anyway, Abby, I…”

Uh-oh, here we go. Big rush of emotion. Please God, don’t let any of my friends be watching. I squeezed Mum one last time, then carefully eased her into the driving seat before she could start another round of hugs. “Hi Becky! Just coming!” I shouted at no-one in particular, knowing Mum couldn’t see over the 4×4 she’d parked next to. A last kiss through the wound-down window.

“Gotta go. All my friends are here,” I lied.

Well, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I know blubbing at every little goodbye is part of a mother’s job description, but I’m not six any more, and it’s not a major untruth. I mean, my friends will all be here by now, just not here.

“Toodles!” I shouted. “Gotta scoot!”

And I ran for it, back to the safety of the patio outside the oak doors. I watched as Mum wriggled our large Ford (Now don’t start – I only know it’s a Ford ’cause it says so on the front) out of the parking bay. The great grey beast looked a bit out of place among the smaller, sleeker cars of most other parents, and the palaces-on-wheels of the More-Money-Than-Sense brigade, but my family have always been the practical sort – well, for the most part. 

I snickered as the car squeezed through the iron gates and headed up the road, imagining Mum muttering about how inconsiderately people were parking. Either that, or she’d be cursing the SatNav to Kingdom Come because it was taking a decade and a half to load up the route home.

Mum and I had arrived long before the worst of the rush – previous experience had taught us to avoid the period between three and four o’clock wherever possible – so I trotted back through the main foyer, through the inner courtyard and off across the playing fields back to Marylebone Boarding House. That’s my “home” for the next eon and a half. And while the rest of the house unpacked their belongings, I sat down on the semi-comfy sofa in the house office to watch the rest of the girls arrive.

By the way, if you’re confused about all this “house” business just stick around – I’ll explain it all as I go. You have to understand boarding schools exist in a different world from everything else. If there’s an easy way and a hard way of doing anything, you can be sure the boarding school has chosen the hard way, just to be awkward. For instance, we –

“Hi, Abby! Great to see you again.”

“Hey ho, Don Pedro!” I gave Teresa a welcome hug as she plonked herself down on the sofa next to me. Teresa and I go way back to the Lower Fourth, three years ago. And if you’re trying to work out how I can be in the Middle Fifth now if the Lower Fourth was three years ago, then join the club. Boarding schools have their very own version of the English language, I tell you.

“What’s the damage out there?” Teresa asked in that lovely Spanish accent of hers. Yeah, she’s from Spain, hence the nickname, but I can’t do accents on a blog, so just use your imagination. And yeah, the Spanish accent comes with that perfect olive complexion, long dark hair and huge brown eyes that would make a Labrador jealous. It’s so unfair!

“Chaos as usual,” I said as I watched another girl struggle in with her cases. I gave her a friendly wave. “Good holiday, Sandra?” But Sandra had already barged through the door with her trunks. “I turned back to the Don. “I swear we have more and more people here every year. Any idea how many newbies coming our way this term?”

“Not a clue,” Don Pedro shrugged, adding, “About twelve in the Lower Fourth. One in the Upper – moving over from another school, or something like that. The usual crop for the Lower Fifth … and two for us. One’s a foreigner. Zoo-Anne, or something weird. And there’s a Helen somebody too.”

Hey, don’t ask me how the Don knows all this stuff! But if you want top secret admin info, D.P is your man. So to speak.

“Two newbies with us?” I asked, just in case I’d misheard. It was pretty rare to have new students join the Middle Fifth.

Teresa nodded. “But I don’t know much about them.”

Like I believe that! Not. I’m sure the Don has secret access to the student files.

“I expect Mrs T. will get around to that when they arrive,” Teresa finished, a wry smile on her face.

We sat a minute in silence taking in that first-day-back-at school ambience. You know the one. Everything perfectly polished and spic and span. A place for everything and everything in its place. This time tomorrow it will look like a bomb’s hit it.

“So, ready for yet another mind-numbingly dull hour-long House Meeting?” Don Pedro asked.

“Ready to doze off more like,” I said, and we both exploded into a fit of girlie giggles.

 Let the madness recommence!

Abby 3: Meet The Inma– I Mean, Students.

 

Teresa and I sat by the window for a few more minutes, watching out for familiar faces and snickering every time we saw some poor over-laden father skittering after a gaggle of giggling daughters. However, before long, the Don and I got the fidgets and decided to head for the penthouse suite, as we call our private quarters, to see how many of our fellow inmates had survived the mad crush outside. Up two flights of stairs we went, and onto a long corridor lined with low doors.

 Yes, I did say doors. Discard your medieval mental images of Ye Olde Communal Dorm where twelve teenage girls sleep side by side in a big round room with nothing but a curtain and a tiny chest of drawers between them.

Here in the twenty-first century, we have worked out that people actually need space to store suitcases, clothing and creature comforts. Thus, the invention of the cubicle – or cubie, for short. A bed, a wardrobe, three drawers under the bed, as well as a larger sliding drawer for bedsheets, spare towels and such, a desk with a totally inadequate number of plug sockets and an Ethernet point. And a window with the usual assortment of sill-dwelling spiders, of course.

But I’m wittering.

Amidst all the hugs, squealing and babbled tales of holiday misadventures, Don Pedro spread the news about the new students, and before long all six dorm-mates (that is to say, the six who weren’t still mired in packing or lost at Heathrow airport) were sitting on my bed animatedly discussing the new arrivals.

“Do you remember that awful French girl we had in the Upper Fourth?” the Don asked. “The one who used to bang on all the doors to ask who was in the cubies?”

“Oh yes, how could we ever forget dahling Fleeeur,” Philippa giggled. Pip’s another old hand from the Fourth form, though most of the Lower Fourth are taller than her. She makes up for it though, and I challenge anyone to have a conversation with her and not laugh. “I swear the T-ster nearly had a fit when she found her washing her hair at midnight,” Pip added.

“It was ten to midnight, actually,” said the Don.

“Pedant,” said Pip, pulling a face at her.

“Peasant,” countered Don Pedro, to a round of giggling from the others.

“I’m sure the new girls won’t be that bad,” I said, cutting across the playful bickering. “And, come on, it’ll be nice to see some new faces, right?”

“Too true,” muttered Pip. “I’ll go mad if I have to spend another minute surrounded by your ugly mugs.”

 “Oi!” I did my best impersonation of our surly Deputy Head, Mr Tuftt. “Mind your manners, you scurvy ruffian!”

This, however, only made everyone laugh louder, though not loud enough to drown out the booming voice from below.

 “Middle Fifth!”

 It was Mrs O’Kallaghan, the House Matron. She’s not a very big woman – even I’m taller than her! – but her voice carries like anything, even on the corridors. “Would anyone care to come down and meet the new girls?”

 Despite the phrasing it was an order, not a suggestion.  Matron has this wonderful way of making us think we have options when there is only one choice.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Pip struck the pose we’d used in the play last year (think Superman meets Usain Bolt and you get the idea). No matter how many times we’d burst out laughing at it, batty Miss Cantrip insisted it was perfect for the powerful nature of the line. Personally, I reckon Shakespeare would have choked on his metaphors from laughing so hard if he saw it, but none of us complained.
 Fun Fact: It was also during that year that we’d given Teresa the nickname of Don Pedro, after another of Shakespeare’s characters. What can I say? Aspiring thespians, the lot of us.

And so, in yet another red-faced state of muffled hysterics, we thundered down the stairs and into the house foyer to meet the newest additions to the Middle Fifth of Marylebone House at St. Mallory’s.

 

Helen 1: Stranger In A Strange Land

 

Hey out there, non-existent readers. I’m hoping there’s someone somewhere who’ll be able to tell me I’m not the only one who’s had to go through this. I mean, there are other teachers’ kids out there, aren’t there? But I guess they’re not usually moving to *cue menacing music and clap of thunder* a boarding school.
BTW, I’m new to this whole blogging thing, so don’t yell at me if I do anything wrong. It’s just, I have no-one to talk things through with here, because I don’t know anybody yet, Mum aside. And I’m pretty sure if I try and keep my emotions inside for any longer, I’ll explode, and then there’ll be bits of me splattered all over this fancy-arse building.

To make matters worse (if that were possible) I’m having to write this on a proper computer. You know, sat at a desk with a separate monitor and keyboard, like in the olden days, which means anyone can sneak a look over my shoulder.

 Not that I need worry. The only other person who’s used the computer room so far is a Chinese girl, who’s also new here. I thought about trying to make friends with her, but she’s in the English as a Second Language class, so I’d probably be wasting my time.

She’s obviously on a scholarship if she can’t afford her own laptop. Everyone has them here, except me and China Girl. Mum says she’ll get me one once she gets her first salary in, but that could take forever, so I’ve asked Dad, secretly. Mum will go spare when she finds out (in case you hadn’t worked it out, they hate each other) but what’s she gonna do? Ground me? I’m already grounded just being here.

Living in a school! It’s just so not normal.

Oh yeah, intros. Sorry, Got carried away. My name is Helen Stroud, and I’m fourteen years old. At a normal school, I’d be going into Year 10, but like I say, this is so not normal. Apparently here it’s called Middle Fifth. Until now, I’ve been going to a scuzzy comprehensive school in London that I won’t name for legal reasons (ha, like they could afford lawyers!), because that’s where my mum taught.

All my life I’ve moved schools whenever Mum got a new job, promotion, or whatever. It wasn’t so bad at primary school because I just went to the local one, wherever we moved, but since I got to secondary school age I’ve generally gone to wherever she was teaching. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that (obviously not, unless you’re a teacher’s offspring too), but the only advantage is the lift in the morning. Seriously. And now I actually have to sleep at school too – it’s just like being in prison. And I didn’t do anything wrong!

Okay, the background just so you’re up to speed. About two weeks before term started, Mum announced that she’d got this job at this place called St Mallory’s. I looked it up, only to find it was some posh private boarding school in Brighton.

Brighton? All my friends are in Wandsworth!

As for Boarding School… I thought that only happened in Harry Potter! At least at a normal school we escaped in the afternoon, and had fun at weekends. Now I’m a real-life prisoner of Azkaban. 

Of course I kicked up a fuss and said I’d rather go and stay with Dad in Birmingham than go to a boarding school full of stuck-up snobs with posh accents walking about with books on their heads.

Oops! Not a good move. Even mentioning dad is a hanging offence in our house. Mum went ballistic. I got the full kabonga about how difficult things were for her since Dad walked out on us. As I remember events she chucked him out, but that’s another story.

And then she started telling me about how wonderful this St. Mallory’s place was. Incredible facilities, she said. I’d even be able to learn Latin! Yeah, like that will come in handy buying a ticket on the London underground. Come to that, they don’t even have an underground system in Brighton. I mean, be serious! How can anyone live without the Tube?

Of course, Mum said I was overreacting. Moi? Overreact?  It’s Brighton, for God’s sake! It hasn’t even got a sandy beach. There was no way I was going to any snotty boarding school.

I was all but ready to run away from home when Mum told me about the music facilities. Now that got my attention. Mum being a music teacher an’ all, I’m kind of a natural at music. So maybe this St. Mallory’s place wouldn’t be quite so bad after all.
 So, I said goodbye to everyone (that’s the part I hate) and to my old school (no tears there). Now I’ve swapped my old black skirt, white shirt, black blazer uniform for a kilt, blouse and jumper. Seriously, why do all private schools have a kilt? Is it because they’re expensive and can only be bought from one particular shop? Answers on a postcard please…

And today we finally came to the school.

Well, I say finally but of course Mum had been before, for the interview, but muggings here missed out on the Open Day tour and everything, so apart from the brochure ad the website – which of course are all special effects photography, not real – I had no idea what to expect.

It was madness.

Utter flaming madness! And yes, I do know stronger expletives than that. I’m just being polite, seeing as this is my first blog.

Anyway, the place was massive, bigger than the pictures in the brochure made it look, and all the kids arriving were proper posh with their cars and expensive clothes, as you’d expect. It made me, in my Primark outfit, carrying a suitcase that we got on special offer from Argos, look like a complete tramp. I could almost feel their eyes on me as I walked up to the steps and tried to work out where to go. A snooty-looking girl at the top of the stairs glanced at me once with a face like she was chewing a lemon with added vinegar, but I just  ignored her.

When we got inside, some teachery person explained to me where my dorm was. Ugh, great. Sharing a room with some posh girl. Okay, so it’s not actually a dorm, not like in the films, anyway. And it’s not really sharing. We have these door-partition things which mean we’ve got our own cubicle, kind of, (the walls between them don’t have ceilings) but I can still hear whatever’s going on and it means I won’t be able to play loud music.

Then this teachery person took me on some grand tour. Well, she’s not actually a teacher, as you probably guessed from the adjective. She’s a matron, in fact. Can you believe that? A real-life matron, just like in the films! Talk about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! Still, could be worse. Could be like Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I say, Fag! My shoes need polishing!

And I wish I could show you photos of the music room coz it is to die for, seriously. The range of instruments here alone is worth all the suffering. They’ve got more instruments in their woodwind section alone than my last school had of everything! In fact I’m almost – Oh, sorry. That was Matron at the door, telling me to come and join the others. I’ll have to chase after her because I haven’t a clue how to get anywhere here yet. The school map is about as useful as a chocolate teapot on a hot day.

I’ll explain more later. Unless you’re a posh kid like the girls here, you don’t know what these places are like on the inside. But don’t worry, I’m going to expose the truth about this place. They may have a great music room, but they’re still all snotty-nosed posh brats who think they’re better than us normal folk. Except maybe China Girl, but as she can’t communicate I guess I’m on my own. Helen Stroud vs. St. Mallory’s Posh School For Snooty Girls. Bring it on!

And yeah, you should subscribe, so you don’t miss anything. I may not be very interesting on my own, but my revelations will be, I promise. And if you could comment occasionally just to let me know you’re around I’d appreciate it. I’d hate to think I’m going to all this effort and no-one is reading.

Writing for Pleasure and, Maybe, Profit, but Seriously, Who Cares?

When we planned the launch of our YA imprint this spring our first thoughts were to kick-off with St. Mallory’s Forever!, our contemporary English boarding school series currently in its final stages. We’ll be presenting a preview of the absolutely to die for St. Mall’s cover (by Xtine at Flip City) later this week.

But we decided to pre-empt ourselves and release our first YA novel before the YA imprint launch.

That’s it above, and if you’re thinking that’s a rather bleak looking cover for a YA novel, you’d be right. Our wonderful designer Athanasios had to go against natural instinct and come up with something distinctly un-YA for this book, at our request.

There’a a lovely post over at Maggie Carlise’s blog  http://maggiepublishing.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/the-indie-in-indie-publishing/ about writing for money, and writing for art. Here’s an excerpt:

 If everybody is doing something a certain way, who’s to say it’ll work for me?  What lifts me out of the herd that is everybody else in that scenario?  Isn’t it just as likely (if not more likely) that I won’t find any sort of success in doing things the established way – and I’ll end up devoting a lot of time and energy to something that doesn’t get me great results, and isn’t even interesting to me???  I just don’t want to do that.

My feeling now is:  either I’ll reach a place of success with my writing/publishing…or I won’t.  But if I do things the way I want, the way that feels right to me, the way that reflects my own personal goals and is fun, then no matter what happens financially I’ll feel as if I accomplished something.  Whereas, if I try to do what you’re “supposed” to do, or what the “experts” say to do, and then I fail…it’ll feel like a real failure, like I wasted a lot of time. What I really want is to feel like I accomplished something…something real.  I don’t want to make my decisions based on ephemeral things like money – I really don’t.

This applies to my actual writing too.  I don’t mind at all writing for pure marketability.  Not everything I do has to be artistically pure.  But I need to be clear about what of my writing falls into what category, or I won’t feel good about what I’m doing.  Going along with this:  if I want to privilege the things that are more meaningful and (potentially) less marketable…I’m not going to feel badly about that.  Even if I never sell anything at all.

Maybe there’s a degree of idealism to what I’m saying…but I’m okay with that.

I actually think there’s practicality to it too, though.  When you’re building a business (or a “brand”), you have to be true to yourself, I think.  How else, really, will you stand apart, amidst all the other people with goals similar to yours?  How will you look like somebody with something worth saying (or reading), and not just a follower?

Although we didn’t have self-publishing in mind at the time, the need to be different was always foremost in our minds when we wrote Sugar & Spice. Love it or hate it, no-one could say it was a derivative copy-cat thriller like everything else out there. The very fact that it went where no thriller had gone before made it the book no trad-publisher would risk and the book the British e-reading public enthused over.

With our debut YA novel we took the same approach. This is YA, but not as you know it. About the only thing YA here is the target audience, but we’re not expecting to compete with Twilight or the The Hunger Games in the sales stakes.

Historical coming-of-age literary fiction for YA is not what most people would expect, and nor is the story-line. No zombies, vampires, paranormal fantasies or boy-meets-girl relationships here. No happy-ever-after ending, either.

As the cover images makes clear, this is a Holocaust novel, but one with a difference.

The elevator pitch:

Three children, the oldest twelve, the youngest six, smuggle themselves into Auschwitz in search of their parents.

Will it sell? Probably not. We’re heartened by the early rankings on KIndle UK, but they’re meaningless indicators of things to come.  Do we care? Quite honestly, no. We could have chosen something far more commercial, far more uplifting, and written it in a very different style if sales were our only measure of achievement.

But sometimes it’s nice to do art for art’s sake.

Sometimes, to be true to itself, a story cannot have a happy-ever-after ending. We’re talking about the Holocaust here. The only happy ending is that it’s no longer happening.

Sometimes the success of a book lies not in its future sales, good or bad, but in the mere fact that is has been written at all.

I can’t speak for Saffi, but if Anca’s Story never sells another copy it will still be my proudest achievement.

Art for art’s sake? Yeah, why not?

Anca’s Story is newly released on Kindle US and Kindle UK and will be joining other platforms in the near future.

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I don’t normally do excerpts from our novels, but I’m going to make an exception in this case, for those interested.

We join the children as they have crossed the vast Auschwitz complex, hiding beneath barracks by day, dodging Nazi guards by night, searching for their parents, cold and hunger bringing them to the brink of surrender.

61.

We had, all three of us, fallen asleep in our latest shelter when we were startled to hear the whistle of a locomotive in the distance.  In the dark of the night there had been no opportunity to study our latest view, but the locomotive’s piercing scream introduced us to a new day and with it new terrors.

            Somehow Nicolae was energised by the steam engine’s approach, awakening the boy within that enfeebled skeleton of a child that had for the past three days followed me like a mindless automaton from one hiding place to the next. Clinging, never letting go, of Elone’s hand. 

            Yet now he was aware once more, eyes almost bright, eager to see the train approach.  So thrilled was I by this ostensive recovery that I abandoned caution and allowed all three of us to advance as far forward as we dared, to purchase a view.

            It was evident now we had found the far perimeter of the site, all but adjacent to the glowing chimneys we had spied on our arrival, and as we watched two huge gates were opened across a railway siding that entered the camp just a few hundred metres distant.  As the train crossed the perimeter boundary music, Wagner I would later learn, began broadcasting from loudspeakers hung liberally around the concourse where Nazi guards, Kapos and labourers waited to greet the new arrivals.

            The locomotive ground to a halt, dragging the ophidian cattle trucks shuddering in its wake and I saw Nicolae’s expression change as memories of our own tragic journey were rekindled in his mind.  I wanted to draw him back, to shield him, but he held tight to Elone’s hand. I wanted to pull him to me, but instead we watched, silently mesmerized by the scene of ostensive welcome. 

            As the doors were opened and the passengers began to tumble out we were relieved to see them mostly fit and able, if exhausted from their journey, which I surmised must have been of much shorter duration than our own terrifying ride to have allowed them to keep so well. 

            The first wagons carried women and children, the latter men, though none wore the distinguishing brassard pronouncing them to be Jews. 

            As we watched, families join together on the concourse after their journey, children and wives hurrying to their fathers and husbands. I was filled with envy, the fear instilled by Henryk’s and Maxim’s words evaporating as the sound of joyous families reunited raised even above the loud music.

            It was obvious enough to me now that Maxim was mistaken, misled somehow by rumour and innuendo, his mind weakened by poor health, mistaking the fatalities caused by typhus for the work of the Nazis, and I felt my spirits rise. 

            The music stopped and Nazi guards stepped forward, addressing hundreds of people in broken Polish, confirming my suspicion that these were local people, having been brought from within Poland to work.

            Someone asked, “Where is our luggage?” and for a brief few seconds my worst fears danced across my mind as I realised not a single valise accompanied them, bringing back vivid memories of the scene I had witnessed in Warsaw.  A guard assured them their trunks were in the end wagon and would be unloaded shortly, and somehow I allowed myself to believe it, for in doing so I gained hope we would soon find our mother.

            The guards began to move among the new arrivals, asking them their trades and skills, directing those with valued abilities to a separate area, requesting the others remain where they were.  My pulse quickened as I heard a woman respond she was a seamstress and watched with keen interest as she was directed to stand with the select few.  This was Mama’s trade and evidently a valued one.  Most surely had she arrived safely at Auschwitz she would have been selected for her skills and might even now be employed somewhere close by. 

            As I watched the segregation of skilled and unskilled workers continue my hopes rose still further and I found myself clutching the hands of Elone and Nicolae, a faint smile playing on my lips. 

            Quite soon the separation was complete and the skilled workers were led away, assured they would meet their families again later, once they had been fully assessed.

            Then the Nazi guard turned on the several hundred Poles still standing on the concourse and warned them that the camp was rife with typhus, a fatal disease transmitted by lice, and that for this reason all new arrivals had to be disinfected before entry into the camp could be permitted.  Why the selected skilled workers should have been taken through without this precaution was not explained. 

            I watched the crowd directed to some windowless barracks just a short way distant, following a path which ran by our hideaway.

            My mind raced.  This was our chance to join them, to sneak in amongst them as they passed, to go on to the cleansing showers, and to emerge refreshed and lice-free. 

            A smile played on my lips and I reached out to Nicolae’s shoulder. From the showers we would surely be taken directly to the women’s quarters, perhaps to find Mama that very day. It was all I could do not to rush out and announce ourselves.

            As I edged forward, whispering to the children to make ready, I felt Elone touch my arm and looking to her could see alarm in her eyes. 

            As if reading my mind she whispered, “No, Anca, I do not like it.  There is something wrong here.”

            Be it intuition or childlike fear, her prescience concerned me, for I could not banish entirely from my mind the words of Maxim.  If his crazed denunciation of the showers was just too incredible to be believed, still his tortured features haunted my mind, warning me all was not as it seemed.

            I took a deep breath, closing my eyes, searching for the correct response. The right decision. At last I said quietly, “You are right, Elone.  Now is not the time.”

 

62.

We watched in silent fascination as the hundreds of people were led to the windowless barracks, there to be made to strip naked on the concourse, men, women and children alike, old and young together, evidently indifferent to their nudity, perhaps accepting it was the price they paid for their future security.  I thought fleetingly of the scene on the hill I had witnessed from Henryk’s truck. But this was different, I told myself. The showers were right alongside.

            A patina of frost still clung to the hard ground and a cold wind blew through the camp, making the would-be bathers shiver and hold their arms about themselves to keep warm.

            Guided by Kapos, labourers began to gather their clothes, throwing the garments onto carts.  To be disinfected, the curious were told. 

            More men appeared, carrying large sheets which they lay on the ground then, as we watched, these naked people were made to stand astride and their body hair, from their heads, beneath their arms, everywhere, was shaven clean. To prevent the typhus lice breeding I heard the Kapos explain.

            Only when every person, adult and child alike, had been so treated, were they led to the showers.  How many were crammed into each room I could not tell, but somehow every person there was found a place in one or other of the buildings and the doors closed around them. 

            The sheets of hair were carefully gathered and carted away, to what end I could not begin to guess.

            Now the concourse was all but empty, only a few guards remaining, indifferent to the Poles awaiting their fumigation within. 

            Nothing more to see, we eased our way back to our secure hiding place beneath the hut and huddled together for warmth.  I stroked Elone’s hair, thankful we had not presented ourselves as I had considered, a smile playing on my lips to imagine her head shaven.

            But my smile was short lived as the first screams began. 

            Bewildered, we stared about us, perplexed as to where the sound emanated, but in seconds it was obvious.  Maxim’s words came flooding back to me, of the fate met by his wife Catherine, taken to the shower rooms on her first day.

            As the screams became louder I hugged Nicolae to me, futilely covering his ears with my hands. 

Elone was clutching me, her eyes wide with fear, streaming tears, looking to me for salvation, but I could offer none. 

            For perhaps twenty minutes the screams continued unabated, tortured screams of men, women and children, enduring a fate I could not begin to imagine. 

            And then the screams began to subside and minutes later there was only silence, broken by the incessant, uncontrollable sobbing of three terrified children, alone and afraid in the very heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

 

63.

Nicolae was in shock, a low whine barely audible, that I could no nothing to quell, and I feared Elone would soon join him. 

            We clung together, lost innocents in this place of darkness and malificence.  Yet somehow, for all I had seen and heard, my mind could not embrace the truth. 

            For all I had witnessed…  My father’s execution; the brutal murder on the platform in Bucharest; the mowing down of lines of Jews outside Plaszow; the screams that still echoed loudly in my mind…  For all Henryk and Maxim had warned me, still I could not conceive of the enormity… Of the sheer scale of the extermination taking place here.

            It was so unreal that I began telling myself it had not happened.  That hunger and fatigue had produced some horrific collective hallucination between us.  That I would shortly wake up in a warm bed at home and find the whole thing had been no more than an obscene nightmare.

            I wanted to comfort the children, to deny what they had heard, to give them hope, but my brain had all but ceased to control my body.  I found myself being drawn back to the edge of the hut despite myself, not wanting, but needing, to see.  To assure myself it had not taken place, that I was somehow mistaken.

            For a moment, perhaps minutes, perhaps an hour, it was as if nothing had happened.  The concourse was deserted, the shower rooms silent.  A cool autumn sun was breaking through the smog of ash that drifted incessantly from the furnace chimneys now just a short way distant.  From afar I could hear the sounds of industry as the factories churned out their deadly munitions.

            Closer still I heard voices, human voices, from within the shower barracks and I was craning myself forward, desperate to believe, willing those hundreds of naked Poles to walk back out into the cold day, cleansed and disinfected, ready to don clean clothes and take up their duties.

            As the doors opened from within it was all I could do to contain my joy and rush out to greet them.  To embrace them.  To celebrate their very existence. 

            But the dream turned to macabre reality as the first labourer appeared in his striped prison uniform, dragging a cart behind him.  If I knew what was on the cart even before it emerged into view, still I looked, unable to tear my eyes from this grisly scene. 

            I watched, unwillingly, unable to turn away, as cartloads of tangled bodies were drawn across the concourse before me, quietly borne to the furnaces in the distance. 

            And as I watched the true nature of these ovens became apparent.  These four huge chimneys rising above the birch trees represented no industrial process but one.  They were crematoria, designed and built for the sole purpose to dispose of the bodies of the innocent victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

Call Me Demens, But… – Charley R. reviews Susan Kaye Quinn’s “Open Minds”

If you’re wondering what that snazzy little Saffina Desforges Recommended logo is all about then I’m afriad you’ll have to be patient  a little longer. All will be revealed shortly, but not today.

Suffice to say that, despite the teething problems (as with any new start-up enterprise), and local conditions and ailments delaying progress, the MWiDP wagon is still rolling, and the YA / teen fiction imprint is gathering pace.

Our very own St. Mallory’s Forever!, the first of a new YA boarding school series, is close to launch, and it will be joined by a very, very different YA book Anca’s Story. Both will be in an ebook store near you this spring, along with our top secret (so top secret we can’t even mention title or topic at this stage!) MG / 8-12 series which could be live as early as next month.

For those who missed yesterday’s post, our own Sugar & Spice was officially declared the UK’s best selling indie ebook of 2011, and came in at number eleven out of ALL ebooks sold last year, despite being up against some of the biggest names in the industry. We made the top rankings not in some fly-by-night promo blitz, only to disappear a week later, but held poll position for months at a time and was the most searched for brand for several months.

I mention this now because, wiith our new distribution outlets now live (see post here for background) we’ll be looking to emulate that success in 2012, not just for our own titles but for those who have joined with us under the MWiDP banner. The Saffina Desforges Recommended initative is just one part of that master-plan, using our brand recognition to help promote your books. More in coming weeks.

Here just to remind regulars, and inform recent newcomers, that we last year lent our commendation to many promising YA authors who went on to great success (Michelle Brooks, Marion G. Harmon and Megg Jensen to name but a few) and plan to expand that support this year.

And first in line for 2012 is Susan Kaye Quinn (that’s her on the right), whose book Open Minds was itelf a mind-opening experience. I absolutely loved it, and predict a huge success in the future for this title as word spreads.

And Susan herself will be here after the weekend talking about YA in general.

But for now, back to her book. I have to admit I was sorely tempted to review this myself, but my co-writer Charley R. beat me to it. Here’s Charley:

Call Me Demens, But…

Charley R. reviews Susan Kaye Quinn’s Open Minds

Before I begin, I have a confession to make. Despite the fact I am not yet old enough to drive, order a drink in a bar, or marry without my parents’ consent, Young Adult fiction usually isn’t my scene. Call me a literature snob, but most of the time I feel they just reiterate the same old story, with a few mythical creatures thrown in just to spice things up.

So, for me, Open Minds was a lovely breath of fresh air. The premise of the story is very simple – it’s our world, in the future, and everyone can read minds. Well, almost everyone. Our heroine and first-person narrator Kira is a zero – she can’t read minds, or project her own thoughts, which makes life surrounded by constantly gabbling mentalists something of a daily trial for her. That is, until she accidentally clobbers her best friend’s brain and discovers she’s not a zero … though she might just wish she was.

I found the world to be a very engaging place – it was intriguingly realistic, while at the same time managing to make me go “ooh, shiny!” at several very strange moments (especially when it came to the mindwave controlled cars. So long, SatNav!). The slang is also completely believable and, for me, was one of the highlights of the book. It’s hard enough working out why certain words are slang today, let alone devising convincing ones of your own! “Demens” is my favourite 

However, despite this, I think the story was pretty effective. It was quick, snappy and moved along at a good pace to keep the action coming and – praise be! – avoided any long stretches of angsting that seem so common to today’s teenage heroines. The characters were clear cut and sympathetic – well, except the baddies, but even they manage to look rather cool. Regrettably, due to an unfortunate combination of brisk pacing and a small cast of characters, every event did turn out to be rather Kira-centred, and I found the singling her out as an extra-special individual among an already gifted group was a little irksome at times. Thankfully, the author knows too well to let me get a solid point on that, because she then went and showed us a perfectly viable and believable conclusion for Kira’s individual prowess. Curse you, logic!

On a similar note, I did very much like the deft handling of the grey area concerning the shadowy Clan. Rather than confirm them as either good or bad people through events of the book, the author has performed that oh-so-delicious yet utterly frustrating feat of presenting them both ways. It’s up to us to decide what we really think of them (personally, I’m just as confused as Kira. Though I would rather like to give Agent Kestrel to Andre and Molloy, just for kicks and giggles…)

In short, therefore, I’d say Open Minds is a pretty piece of YA indeed. True, it’s not flawless – Kira sometimes falls into the trap of out-of-character altruism, and I found the swiftness with which she attached herself to Laney (and, to a certain extent, Laney herself), a bit peculiar – but, I think the fact I’m now planning to pass it around my friends is testament to its charm. That, and I have to fight down an urge to describe everything as “mesh” now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and test my own jacking skills … here kitty kitty …

Thanks, Charley.

I just adore the future teen world Susan has created with Open Minds. And in particular I loved that it was almost at the very end of the book that the author finally gave us a date for when this is set, and throughout the book the new world was spoonfed to us without ever info-dumping or contriving dialogue to explain why things are like they are.

One of the true joys of indie-reading is coming across new writers who have all the skills and flair of an accomplished long-published author. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you know pretty much from the first page that you have stumbled across something special. That you are reading the work of a future superstar.

Susan Kaye Quinn is one such, and I have no hesitation in introducing her as the first Saffina Desforges Recommended author of 2012.

Open Minds is available on  amazon.co.uk, and of course on: Amazon.com:

B&N:       Smashwords:     iTunes:      Diesel:   and Kobo.

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Finally, just to say Charley R., our intrepid reviewer, is herself in the spotlight in the newly released short-story anthology Saffina Desforges Presents… Volume 2 of the Kindle Coffee-Break Collection. I’ll be covering that here in detail on MWi after the weekend (yeah, a busy week ahead on MWi – you have been warned!).

Trad Publishing: Sinking Ship? Or Phoenix that will Rise from the Ashes?

Way back in 2011 (anyone remember that long ago?) one of the more imaginative assertions of the grandees of indie spokes-folk was the suggestion that print was on its deathbed thanks to digital, that the Big Six publishers were going to the wall, and self-publishers would inherit the Earth.
Well, no question self-publishers have gone from strength to strength, and we all know how well the tiny minority at the top are doing.
But most of these are formerly trad-pubbed authors with an established brand built up over many years, and a backlist of titles they’ve re-acquired rights to.
All credit to them for seizing the opportunity and taking control of their careers. But let’s not for one second pretend this is something your average new author, starting out from scratch as a self-publisher, can hope to emulate.
Sure, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. And the same goes for the formerly trad-pubbed authors now going it alone to huge acclaim. It is precisely because they are exceptions that they are news worthy.
What I find increasingly bizarre is the advice they give out to new authors. Don’t even think about promotion until you have four or five titles out. Forget free and cheap strategies – “you indies have no business sense”. And best yet, aim to put out a new title every two weeks!
What planet are these people on?

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I ran a post on MWi back in May of last year suggesting the doom-mongerers might be a bit premature with their predictions.

Back in 2009 there were two schools of thought. Either this “new” epublishing fad would die a death and paper would remain king (the experience of the newspaper industry being a classic example) or the Big 6 were finished.
As one leading pundit said in April 2009, the Big 6 were not even “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – they’re staying put and ordering more piña coladas and charging them to rooms that are already underwater.”
Two years on the Big 6 are most definitely still with us, and while there’s no question they are changing, there’s little sign that they are going under. Which will be a great disappointment to Konrath, but should be a big relief to the rest of us.
Paper sales are plummeting, giant bookselling chains like Borders are in liquidation, and Konrath and co. have already written the obituaries for the Big 6 and are there, spades in hand, digging their graves.
But I disagree. I simply cannot see the end for the Big 6 or for publishing.
Just the opposite in fact.

As I’ve said on MWi many times, big ships are hard to turn. But below deck there’s a frenzy of activity long before anything is seen on the surface. And once they do turn they soon pick up speed.
Almost another year on, and the ship has turned.

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According to Calvin Reid at Publisher’s Weekly the Digital Book World conference has just wound up with some contrite statements by the trad publishers:

A panel featuring executives form S&S, Random House, Little Brown, HarperCollins and Perseus, spent the morning issuing mea culpas (and highlighting current and planned correctives) over past “paternalistic” practices in dealing with their authors. Indeed there was a fair amount of discussion about whether authors should be called “partners,” “customers,” or “clients,” in an era when veteran authors and even emerging writers have viable alternatives to the traditional publishing contract.

Some quotes to savour with your morning coffee.:

“Publishers must treat authors as equal partners,” said Little, Brown’s Michael Pietsch, “We are offering a service to authors,” as the panelists also emphasized that it’s not always clear to authors, just what publishers do for them. “If authors are confused about what we do, we need to make it clear,” said Random House’s Madeleine MacIntosh. Joe Mangan of Perseus agreed, “communication is the key.”

Okay, us indies can indulge a smile at this belated turn-around by the trad-publishers, in the certain knowledge the success of indie-publishing has forced this change of attitude.

But let’s also be clear what it means:

The Big Six aren’t going to the wall anytime soon. While they spent the first half of 2011 publicly denouncing ebooks, and the second easing up on the rhetoric, they were all the time busily investing in the new world of ebooks.

And as the quotes above show, they can and do learn, and can and do change. Too little, too late? I don’t think so.

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In future posts I’ll be returning to just what this means for indie publishing, and why indie writers should welcome rather than rue the return of the Big Six.

But for today, a word from our sponsor.

In past posts elsewhere I discussed how ebooks would be transformed by sponsorship these coming years, and that advertising within ebooks could and would happen, and that it needn’t be a bad thing. The suggestion had a mixed response at the time, from horrified to gleeful, but most seemed curious as to how it might work.

In fact some writers are already making it pay for them. For example, Olivia Lennox writes across many subjects, and tendered a post on library-lending and piracy which she thought might interest MWi readers.

Like most bloggers, I’m always on the look-out for guests and new material, so when Olivia emailed offering me a guest post I was of course all ears. But unlike 99% of bloggers, Olivia is a professional freelance journalist. Having been down that road myself in a past life I know that freelance does not mean giving away articles for free. Far from it! Which got me asking why any professional writer would want to write an article for an unpaid blog like MWi. It turns out Olivia makes part of her living by writing sponsored articles.

And it transpires this is a fine example of what we might expect in the future with ebook sponsorship, so I’m presenting Olivia’s article in its entirety. Further discussion follows after you’ve read Olivia’s post.

Will Piracy Kill Public eBook Libraries?

With the announcement that Penguin has pulled all its new books from e-lending in libraries due to ambiguously labelled “security issues” with digital copies, it’s clear to see piracy has reared its ugly head and leads to the question of whether eBook lending is ever going to take off if publishers are so concerned with “security issues”.

According to the Library Journal publication, there has been a 185% increase of eBooks being offered in public libraries across the country and this is a clear step towards a new type of library lending. With Amazon signing up their Kindle to 11,000 public libraries, it’s clear that the eBook really is an alternative to the traditional paperback, even for library users. Digital editions in libraries are a fantastic development and have the added bonus of no worries about late fees as once the time period of loan is up, the book is simply removed from your device. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t curl up on your recliner sofa with your eReader just as easily as you could with a trusty old paperback.

However, with the Penguin group suspending all new eBooks from being made available to libraries in digital form and a complete ban on lending out eBooks to Amazon Kindle users; it is clear there’s a big underlying issue. The Penguin group cited “security concerns” as their reason for this action and this can only mean piracy. There has been no time frame given for the action so it could be a permanent decision although Penguin haven’t pulled their back catalog from the shelves, just new releases and of course, that complete unavailability for Amazon Kindle users.

Penguin aren’t the first publishing company to exercise caution when lending our their eBooks, in fact both Macmillan and Simon & Schuster have kept their entire catalog unavailable and HarperCollins have some very strict guidelines in place, with very stringent limitations on the number of times eBooks can be lent. With these publishers all considered high flyers in the industry, it’s a worry for eBook readers that they may not have access to some of the best books around.

What’s the problem with Amazon?

It seems Penguin have a problem with Amazon in particular, as they don’t like that library eBook lending is directly linked to Amazon. Across US libraries, the service used to lend Kindle eBooks is offered through OverDrive. Overdrive is an Ohio-based book lending company who provide services to over 10,000 schools and libraries in the USA and another 15,000 worldwide. In October, OverDrive began a deal with Amazon for lending eBooks to Kindle uses, promoting Kindle compatibility. As well as working with Kindle, OverDrive provide eBook lending in many other formats including those compatible with Apple and Android devices. Using OverDrive, users are about to loan DRM-protected eBooks which then expire when the lending period is up.

The problem with OverDrive and Kindle, is that the titles borrowed from their library appear in their Amazon.com Kindle account area and it’s from here the content can be delivered to your Kindle or Kindle app. This has irritated many publishers and a whole host of readers too as Amazon are seemingly acting as a storefront for all eBooks, whether you’ve used their site to purchase them or not.

The issue of eBook piracy

Publishers have voiced concerns regarding piracy and the digitalisation of books since their first creation and in fact, it’s very easy to see through multiple sites across the web that there are people out there offering thousands and thousands of eBooks for free via Torrent and other download sites. These sites sometimes even include books which have just been released, which is obviously to the detriment of the publishers. That being said, this has been an issue for music producers and record labels for decades now and so this isn’t really anything new, it’s just that the publishing industry is just being stung by it.

The issue of piracy and eBook lending is a bit more complex. There are many reasons that publishers may think lending increases the volume of piracy out there. Firstly, the number of different sources through which the digital content passes is a concern. Rather than being transferred from company to reader, a library eBook will pass through the library itself, an intermediary company such as OverDrive and then onto the reader, increasing the number of points at which it could be intercepted and copied. The second major area that concerns is to do with DRM protection. Unfortunately, there are tools readily available to remove this protection from eBooks and then they can be easily shared. With eBook lending, there is no purchase required so it only takes one talented hacker with a library card to slowly work their way through hundreds of books, making them readily available to download and keep for free.

eBook lending is a brilliant opportunity to spread the digitalisation of literature and books in general and is something that should be cherished not damned. Hopefully, publishers like Penguin will soon find a way to protect their content in such a way that means they are happy to make it readily available to all the digital bookworms out there.

Thanks, Olivia.

Piracy is of course the age-old excuse for inaction, and a nice little earner for those offering so-called anti-piracy services. But the fact is there are two types of pirates: The international pirates against whom we love to rant, though they cost us nothing, and the domestic pirates we prefer not to acknowledge, who actually cost us far, far more.

A reminder for now that most ebook piracy occurs in the USA, and that some of America’s biggest corporations profit from it daily and therefore have abolutely no reason to try prevent it. More on this in the near future here on MWi.

But back to sponsorship. The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the link to a sofa company hidden away in the text. Now I have no idea what the arrangement is between them and Olivia (I would stress MWi has no connection with the company and uses this purely for ilustrative purposes) but what is clear is that this is a very unobtrusive way of advertising.

It’s a short step from a link like this in an article to a similar link in an ebook. For those not interested, just ignore it and read on. But if the link is to a product or brand the MC of the novel is constantly using, or to a location or event, then easy to see the potential here to attract an advertiser’s interest. And their money.

All the moreso if you think about how easy it would be to run paid adverts in the back of your ebook. I stress in the back, so they dont interfere with the reading experience.

Yes, I can hear the purists muttering about how this would never have happened in print. About how this is the thin end of the wedge.

Of course these same people wil happily read comics, magazines and newspapers, listen to radio and watch TV chock full of advertising. Many a print book in the past has carried paid ads.  And almost every print book carries ads from its own publisher. So get real. It’s gonna happen whether you like it or not.

I’ll return to the ways in which writers might benefit fr0m these developments in future posts. But for now, ponder Olivia’s article and answer this question honestly: Did the sponsored link in the post in any way detract from the quality of the artcle or the point it was making?

 

 

Tech Talk Special Edition: Take on Twitter

I was hrzavhahagh *cough cough* years old when this came out. I know how young I am, don’t need reminding. But it is one of the first music videos I can ever remember and sticks with me more than 25 years later. That’s a powerful thing! So enjoy Aha! Take on Me before we talk about TAKING ON TWITTER!!!

THE JANUARY 2012 TWITTER CHALLENGE!

First, I am @EAWwrites on Twitter. Send a Tweet with “@EAWwrites I’m doing the Twitter Challenge” so I can add you to my lists and help you.

The goals:

  • Note your Twitter following at the start. For me, that’s roughly 1800 followers. Multiply by 1.5. That’s the goal of follower increase. So for me, that’s reach 2,700 followers by January 31st.
  • Learn how to maximize automating and participating on Twitter (it takes both).
  • Track your book sale links to see how your Twitter campaigns are doing!

Step One:

Sign up for Twitter. If you are new, make a goal of 200 followers. Go through their tutorial to learn all about how to tweet. The gist of it is sharing information in 140 characters or less. Managed correctly, tweeting is a great creative exercise for your writing in crafting short, simple messages.

Step Two: Sign up for Bit.ly. Add the links for your books (you can customize the shortened link if you’d like, I use bit.ly/CNXNook1 for example for my link to CANCELLED on Nook). These are the links you are going to tweet and track. You can also shorten links to blog posts you want to track. Tracking is good!

Write 10 Tweets in a Word Document and Save it as Auto-tweets

There is a little controversy about auto-tweeting. Some purists maintain that auto-tweeting is against the spirit of “social” media. I say pish-posh. How is a bulletin board with flyers and business cards not social in your local coffee shop? Exactly. Are the people standing right there the entire time their flyer is up? No. Instead, the manager just takes down things that are a little stale. Twitter is that manager.

When you send out a tweet, it might have a life span of a few seconds in your followers’ feeds, depending on many factors. If it’s retweeted (RT) then it gets a little chance at a second life. But for the most part, the tweet you posted 5 minutes ago already impacted the people it was going to impact and it’s in the annals of the web now.

Back to the Word document:

Write your tweets and aim for 100 characters or less, including your shortened link. You can check this by highlighting your tweet and checking the Word Count. There is usually a character count, with spaces. That’s the number you are looking for.

Effective Tweets

A recent study from MIT looked at factors to induce RTing. You can read if you’d like, but here’s what I’ve pulled from it.

  1. Less than 100 characters so the RT doesn’t get cut off when someone clicks RT. ex: She returned his shirt and ruined his life. CANCELLED on KINDLE bit.ly/CNXaakindle  [82 characters]
  2. Capitalize the first word, try to keep it short to stand out in the feed. ex: ROMANCE from a MALE pov. He’s becoming daddy, his fiancee isn’t pregnant. bit.ly/CNXnook1  [90 characters]
  3. Ask for the RT. ex: FREE #ebooks on The-Cheap.net Jan 1st. Over 500 to giveaway! PLS RT [67 characters]
  4. Be a human. ex: Told daughter not to write on self, she pointed at my tattoos. #Mommyfail [73 characters]
  5. Share links of places you’re featured. This is called external validation, or RT tweets that mention you (you will find this is your @twittername tab in Twitter). TECH TALK Learn all about links! On Mark Williams international: bit.ly/mwidp02 [79 characters]
  6.  Be practical, get known as someone who tweets links of information your followers can use. ex. WRITERS read this, easy guide to make business plan for ebook! bit.ly/ebookbizplan [83 characters]
  7. Offer a sale or good deal (not necessarily your book, any good deal for your followers) 2 examples: UK Kindle Romance from a bloke’s POV! Only 99p for a LIMITED TIME bit.ly/CNXukaa [81 characters notice I added a “hurry” to make people click?] OMG Tell me, are these not stunning NOOK covers? I so want one! bit.ly/obercover [80 characters]
  8. Topical. You can take advantage of a trending hashtag or latest news item, showing you are “with it.” Big example of this was all of the Steve Jobs tribute tweets when he passed away in October. People RT to emphathize, and show they feel your sentiment, even if it’s only 140 characters long. Most popular one then? ex. #iSad [4 characters, spoke 4,000 worth]
  9. Time Sensitive. Add a time qualifier, like I did in number 7, or be specific so people want to RT because it can’t wait. ex. Jan 1st The-cheap.net has over 500 books to gift through NOOK. Get a New Book for the New Year! [95 characters]

Okay, so use the tips above to make a list of 10-20 tweets in a word document. Save it. Now open Hootsuite.com.

Automating Through Hootsuite

For this exercise, using the FREE automation on Hootsuite.com is more than acceptable. It will prompt you how to add a twitter account “Add a Social Network.”

Click the paper airplane in the left hand corner, then SCHEDULE. If you have more than one social media account connected (I do) you need to click the one you want to post to in the top right.

Now click Compose a Message. Copy and paste one of those tweets in your Word Document, and then select the date and time, and click SCHEDULE.

Your scheduled tweet should now appear in your dock, and if you messed up, you can click the pencil to edit it.

Schedule 10-20 tweets all throughout the day, concentrating on the three peak times: Morning (6 AM-8 AM your timezone) Lunch (11AM- 1PM) and Evening (6PM-10PM) for 7 Days in a row. You can’t schedule a Tweet that’s already scheduled, but you can make a very minor adjustment (one character, add a period, take it out, add an exclamation) and it’s not considered identical. This will let you tweet the same tweet a few days in a row at different times. Also, don’t worry about the Add a Link block. We’re pre-shortening our links, this is just a way Hootsuite will shorten a long link for you (handy if it’s a link you don’t want to bother tracking) as tracking link clicks with Hootsuite is difficult/costs.

Maintenance/Participation

You can’t just automate. Every day you automate tweets, you need to go back and check  how they’re doing. It’s like baiting fishing lines, check and see if a fish bit! If someone RT’d you, thank them, then click on their profile and find a good tweet of theirs to RT in kind. People who followed you? Follow them back. People you follow who followed people? (in the Activity Feed on Twitter) Follow those people too, they will follow back.

When I first started tweeting, I only followed what I thought were “quality follows.” Yeah, I sat at about 200-300 followers for MONTHS. I even Unfollowed people I couldn’t remember why I’d followed them!

You can now use LISTS to keep your true twitter friends close, just click their profile and the little person silhouette, then Add to List. You can make public and private lists. I have a Private list of “Readers in UK” “readers in Germany” that I use to classify my followers when I remember to do this. It’s private, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m just cold and calculating.

It’s silly to worry about following strangers for a Twitter account you primarily want to use to get your book out there. You never know when a tweet of yours will spark someone’s interest, someone you had no interaction with before. For example, I wrote a blog post about taxes last year, and by tweeting it, I was followed by a few financial professionals. Guess what? A few times, they’ve retweeted my book link tweet because it was interesting. People of ALL professions read, not just authors. 🙂 So don’t just follow back or only follow authors!

I RT based on a tweet’s merit, not just because it’s from someone I know. And besides, how much do you really know someone on Twitter? You don’t. So might as well make your community bulletin board access as large as you possibly can. But do keep the number of people you are following within 100-150 or so of the number of people following you. Twitter has a mechanism to prevent spam following, but it’s best to just do this on your own and not rely on that. Besides, you don’t want to be that person who follows 600 people but is only followed back by 27.

Spend 10-15 minutes a day checking your @twittername feed and responding. Your automated tweets that are just you being human (#4 Above) will make you appear as if you are there. And since Twitter is all about instant and busy people with busy lives, it’s perfectly acceptable to get back to a Reply or RT in a few hours or even a day or two. After all, you’re busy! 🙂

The Plan, Once More With Feeling

Automate your tweets. 10-20 per day.

Interact daily with the people who RT you.

Participate in #WriterWednesday and #FollowFriday. Type in #FollowFriday, find one that is a bunch of names, click RT. Follow those people. At least one or two will RT with a TY, and half or more will follow you back. Easy way to get 3-4 new followers for only 1 minute of effort.

30 days, grow those followers to 150% of what you have now. And watch how often your links are clicked at bit.ly.

Additional Resources

I talk about using spreadsheets to automate on Hootsuite which is a bit more involved, and requires the $5.99/month membership on my blog. Read it for extra credit and to learn more tips and tricks to automate tweets. 🙂


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