Book Blethers

Self-Publishing in the Digital Age – Conference

From the same team who organised the hugely informative day-conference – ‘How to Get Published’ [reported over on bookrambler] is this another one day conference- this time the focus is on self-publishing.

Speakers include Alison Baverstock [Sen. Publishing Lecturer & author of The Naked Author] and Sophie Rochester [Literary Platform]in a very full programme covering topical issues from where to start to choosing a digital platform and how to work with Amazon’s listings. What stands out for me, though, is the prominence given to editing. Where other digital conferences and talks focus on getting to that #1 spot, here, rightly, the focus is on quality.

I’d urge you to go along, if you can, published and beginning writers, as they really do think of everything and are warm, engaging and make sure everyone feels welcome. Good networking opportunities too [and the cakes are delicious!].

Date- 3 November 2012 – 9:30am-5:30pm

Place: Wellcome Centre, London [across the road from Euston Station]

Booking Website & full info. – Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book

Author Q & A with Prize-winning Children’s Writer Lari Don

Cross-posted from BookRambler because Lari’s answers are really helpful for writers thinking about how to structure their stories and writing books for older readers.

BookRambler’s Q&A with Lari Don


Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year. Maze Running and other Magical Missions is published by Floris Books this month and the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children. Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.


Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:


One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…

[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]


Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.

Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?

LDI’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens!  However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through.  I hope that’s why it’s pacy!

Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?

LD:I don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.

I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!

When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.

But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.

And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…

Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?

LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!

Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?

LDGetting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it!  I don’t much like arguing with him…

And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.

Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?

LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…

I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.

Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?

LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.

And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!


Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?

LD:Good question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first.  But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.

When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.

However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!

Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?

LDOh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !


Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?

LDInitially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it!  But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.

Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?

LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy.  Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.

And finally…. Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions – what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?

LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!   

Writing is easy for a woman? – thoughts for International Women’s Day

Singled out for newsworthy potential  in today’s Telegraph is Aifric Campbell, sadly not, it seems, for the brilliance of her writing in On the Floor, but for switching jobs from City trader to writer. News copy needs a fresh angle and a simple announcement detailing the Orange Prize long list isn’t deemed interesting of itself. The ‘news’ is that Aifric ‘stopped working’ in the City because of the long hours away from her baby and stayed home and wrote books. Now, I know that this is a dumbed down distillation of the story of the novel but it’s also a negation of the creative process; the sheer, monumental effort of writing.

The message is that writing is an easier option than competing on the City trading floors.

Really? Is it only the male writer who writes with such intensity that it leads to physical exhaustion? Is writing a soft option for a woman?

Surely the article should investigate the process of writing and how it compares to City trading. How, for example, did she find time to write and be a full time mother at the same time – isn’t that juggling? What is the difference between working full time away from home and working full time in the home? And wouldn’t we think differently of Aifric if we also knew that, as well as writing full time, she lectured on creative writing, held a PhD?

Aifric received her PhD in Critical and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in 2007 where she has also lectured. She’s the recipient of an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a Thayer Fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles and writing residencies at Yaddo in New York.

Aifric has taught creative writing at UEA, University of Sussex and is now teaching at Imperial College, London.  – from Aifric’s website

Here’s a piece from the same newspaper on the writer Colm Tóibín’s day – a piece that doesn’t include any mention of family, babies, or juggling, but which does make much of his university posts…

ironically, it’s written to coincide with publication of New Ways to Kill Your Mother.

Happy International Women’s Day


I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: writers need to read. Read in and around your interest; read non-fiction to understand structure; read wide-ranging genres and styles of fiction to understand how to pace your story.

Lionel Shriver’s new short story, “Vermin”, for Stylist Magazine, is a great read to learn how to pace your story.

Note how she doesn’t give endless unnecessary information about the couple – we learn just enough so that we know their occupation and aspirations. We also learn what the narrator thinks of her partner – but not too much and no moaning or breast-beating.

Shriver gives just enough hints of their lives to interest the reader but not so much that it gets overbearing.

Out the porch windows late at night we’d follow these stout, hunched creatures big as bulldogs lumbering across the top of that wall, their obsidian eyes catching the light of the street lamp, long conical snouts snuffling curiously at the brick. Wearing concentric circles of black-and-white fur like oversized spectacles, they also looked intelligent. Michael liked to peer out the front door and meet the animal’s gaze square on. He nursed a mythology about himself that he could communicate with animals, and I indulged this little vanity since everything about Michael beguiled me then.

We get inside Kate’s head and understand why she’s upset about the change in their lives that home-ownership brings. Beyond that, though, Shriver lets us see that it’s not about home-ownership but something bigger between them. Ending the above paragraph with ‘then’ hints at what’s to come – plants a flag of probable intention – but isn’t overt.

There’s no clever twist to the dénouement – an ending that’s only possible because of the way that Shriver unfolds the story gradually; slowly revealing her characters and showing how their relationship unravels.

  • There are five Stylist short stories for you to read and enjoy – and study.

Manuscript Monday

I just posted on the BookRambler blog about Pan Macmillan’s latest opportunity for unpublished writers. On Manuscript Mondays they are open to unsolicited email submissions.

Although it’s tempting to hit the SEND button take time and make sure your manuscript is as polished and professional as it can be. A second opinion or evaluation might make all the difference between getting it noticed and read or rejected.

Get in touch for rates and services.

Writers on Writing

All writers know that the best writing happens when they take a detour – – when they break the ‘rules’ – – 

– – deviate from expected routes.

(c.) IrvingPhillips


But writers are contrary beasts.

Some of them have created really helpful ‘rules’,

presumably, so that new writers can break them …

…and create new ones ….

Here are a few of the best of them from around the internet:

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction’ – series in The Guardian, part one, 20 February 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction‘ – series in The Guardian, part two, 20 February 2010 

Elmore Leonard’s ‘Ten Rules of Fiction‘ – from the NY Times, 16 July 2001

Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘8 Basics of Creative Writing‘ (reprinted on Gotham Writers Workshop site)

Author Janet Fitch’s ‘10 Rules for Writers‘ – from ‘Jacket Copy’ in the LA Times, 13 July 2010

  • What’s your favourite ‘writing rule’?
  • Which rule do you always break?

Have a good weekend.


Martin Beck Series

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Martin Beck Series since I started reading the first one last year. I blipped about it [] by way of a ‘holding’ comment so apologies for cross-posting and repetition. I could blame eye problems and catching up at work but the fault lies squarely with not sticking to my self-imposed rule of writing up a review or comment straight after finishing a book. Anyhow, below is my attempt to write about the series but I’ve failed to give it the justice it deserves. I think, above all, what stands out the most are the characters. Grumpy, moody, miserable, childish, huffy, mannerly, naive, vulnerable, and utterly appealing, they’re all fixed in my memory as real as if I’d met each of them personally.

This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

The whole series is highly recommended. I won’t review each book but give a mini introduction to whet your appetite:

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

Martin Beck Series, No. 6, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

Once I complete the series I’ll update here- but do read ahead, you won’t be disappointed in this wonderful crime series.