Thursday, 23 January 2020

Book Review - Shout: An Anthology of Resistance Poetry and Short Fictiom



I seldom post book reviews on this blog any more; it became tedious, and there are plenty of review sites around. But this anthology, soon to be released, is one I'd like to talk about.

I received an advance copy from the publisher of this anthology for the purpose of review, and I feel privileged to have done so. Over recent years I've become accustomed to a slight cringe when opening the work of lesser-known writers, and so the sheer professionalism of this book was the first thing to appeal. Ah, but the content!

I'm not really qualified to review poetry, so all I can say about the poems is that I enjoyed them, they spoke to the heart. The stories, though! Despite the uniformly dystopian visions presented, every single one of these stories was an absolute pleasure to read. Personal favourites of mine were No Collision, by Jennifer Lee Rossman, and Emma's Knives by Karen Eisenbrey, the former for its sharp and humorous wit, which is served unerringly with a light and precise hand, and never overdone, a thing not easy, and the latter for its endearing portrayal of one person's lone fight, and for the charming contrast of the traditional recipes.

There is far less protest fiction being published in today's America than there ought to be; in recent years we have seen the world's view of this country degenerating from slightly patronising friendliness to appalled horror, loathing and terror. This fine piece of work will, I hope, form a spearhead to a new literary movement.

If you're American, read it because you need it. If you're not, read it because it's excellent short fiction.


Shout will be released on 2 February, and can be pre-ordered HERE.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The Dust of History

The dust of history

By John Passant


I have seen the future
Today, outside
As the bush burns
Destroys and kills
Homes and lives
Up in smoke
Climate change remains unspoken
By the broken government
And the almost quiet Opposition
Lying words and minor actions
Do not stop climate change
Or fix the current disasters
Across my country
Or what is left of it
Too late to see it
Before it goes to shit
It has gone already
Down that route
All gone, gone for years
I have only tears,
And fears we will repeat this shit
Now, tomorrow
And next year
If we let them
Revolution must be our solution
Our class united can rid us of the deniers
And those who equivocate
Today is not too late
Tomorrow is
Will we come together
To defeat them and their weather?
Or breath their smoke for what seems forever?
We can, we must
Send their profit system and climate change
To the dust of history
And end this misery
John Passant, 7 January 2020

John reading one of his poems on the CD, accompanied by Mileyna Cifali of The Awesome


John Passant is a lawyer, activist and poet. He has published two books of his poetry, which you can find HERE.
A CD of his poetry set to music is HERE. You can buy the music, or listen free online.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Why I Am Racist - the taint we can't scrub out.


If you have even read past the title, you're probably shocked AF. And that's okay. Shock is an appropriate response.

What I want to talk about today is the invisible, unconscious racism we all - well most of us, there may be some perfect individuals - are still tainted with, despite our best efforts. It's an uncomfortable subject, for sure. 

It's a kind of contra bias, a sort of balance to the oversensitivity some people of colour have, where any conflict is deemed to be for racist reasons. I still remember a huge quarrel I had with another student at college, back when I was only seventeen. That's a LONG time ago. You hate me because I'm black, he said. No I don't, I told him. I hate you because you're a prick.

Of course it's better not to quarrel with our fellow students, especially when we're both living on campus and have to share the laundry facilities. But quarrels happen and this kind of thing still happens too. People who are attached to their bigotry and want to preserve it often sneeringly call my fellow student's accusation (his name was Onga, I still remember him because I just disliked him so much) 'playing the race card', a dismissive, patronising phrase which makes my fur stand up whenever I hear it. But this kind of response, combined with an honest person's natural desire to weed out all racism from himself, has given rise to a kind of contra bias, where there's a presumption that we have to like a person just because he is dark skinned. What crap this is! An arsehole is an arsehole in any colour. Nevertheless, our responses tend to be modified even when we don't give way to this.

Let me give you an example. A kind of thought experiment. Suppose I am working in an office, working for a firm (thankfully those days are behind me, but I spent most of my adult life this way so I know all about it.) In my department is a man who is much younger than I am. He is not my boss. He presumptuously gives me some instructions, which he has no right to do, and he does so in a patronising way that really gets my back up. With me so far? I'm sure any female has had this kind of experience.

Now suppose that man is a European, like me. I might well say to him, 'Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs, boy.' I say 'boy' to denigrate him and put him in his place. Of course it's rude. It's meant to be. It also reminds him of the fact I'm older and more experienced than he is.

Suppose, on the other hand, that this young man is a brown-skinned man. Now there is no way, no way in the world, I'm going to use the term 'boy' when I speak to him. No matter how offensive he's been. Because for him, the connotations are quite different. There's too much history of brown men being called 'boy', you can't avoid the association. So whatever I say to him, and I might still be very rude, it is never going to contain that word.

Do you see the inherent racism in this? I've modified my response as a direct result of my perception of the person's skin colour. I say perception, because I'm not American, and I can never really get my head around which nationalities count as 'black'. There are so many. What about Maltese people, for example? Are they black or white? Who knows. Only the Americans with their mental colour charts. 

Things like this are impossible to get rid of, I think, at least in our current society where racism is still a thing, and I suspect that one day when it isn't, these things will just not be a thing either. But it makes a complete nonsense out of anyone's claim not to be racist, just supposing anyone other than out-and-out deliberate racists ever made this claim.

Food for thought. We all have this kind of thing, but I think it's important still to be aware of it, lest it expand into areas where it isn't justifiable and righteous. 

Friday, 6 December 2019

The TCA Writers' Awards, 2019


TOP CAT'S ALLEY WRITERS' AWARDS 2019

I should probably point out that not all of the winning books were first published this year. That's because, in true egocentric style, I'm working off when I read the book, not when it was first published. So without further ado, these are the works I feel deserve special mention, from what I've read and seen in 2019.

BEST LITERARY FICTION

Jeremy Wright, for Kaleidoscope

https://www.amazon.com/Kaleidoscope-JP-Wright-ebook/dp/B019BK3M1I


BEST NON-FICTION

Fr Rod Bower, for Outspoken

https://www.amazon.com/Outspoken-Because-Justice-Always-Social-ebook/dp/B07FMGJVJJ


BEST DYSTOPIAN NOVEL

Bradley Wind, for Bulb

https://www.amazon.com/BULB-Bradley-Taylor-Wind/dp/0997280573


BEST YA NOVEL

Michael Palmer-Cryle, for Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid

https://www.amazon.com/Hieronymus-Jones-Teacup-Squid-tentacles/dp/0648422437



BEST FANTASY SERIES


Sarina Dorie, for Womby's School for Wayward Witches

https://www.goodreads.com/series/236063-womby-s-school-for-wayward-witches


BEST ACTION SERIES

Andy Peloquin, for The Silent Champions

https://www.goodreads.com/series/274938-the-silent-champions


BEST HUMOROUS SERIES

Ben Aaronovitch, for the Rivers of London series

https://www.goodreads.com/series/51937-rivers-of-london


BEST DETECTIVE SERIES

Denzil Meyrick, for D.C.I. Daley

https://www.goodreads.com/series/161572-dci-daley


MOST DIFFICULT RHYME ACHIEVED

Andrew Barber - for the breathtaking rhyme of 'coup, yeah' with 'halleluia':

Andrew has given me permission to reproduce the poem, so here it is:

Coup De Vil
Although we have a monarchy,
We still think it’s democracy.
At least we did before we had a coup, yeah.
But coups get stopped before they’re done,
(Guy Fawkes’ attempt was only one)
And every time they fail it’s hallelujah.

A hundred years from now we’ll find
That all those pennies for the Guy
Are pennies for the Boris that would screw ya. 
I’m not an optimist, it’s true,
But up to now, we’ve pulled on through,
And every time we do it’s hallelujah.

There is some scarlet in the blue,
Some signs of change long overdue.
The queen has lost her rep for being cool, yeah. 
She’s just another decadent
Supporter of establishment
And monarchy is spent, so hallelujah.


These interesting times we share
Have got me pulling out my hair,
We’re fighting opportunists who outdrew ya. 
But mostly we’ve been here before,
And if we have a civil war,
It won’t be won by laws, so hallelujah.



MOST ORIGINAL CHARACTER

K.M. Harrell - for the bitter castle Azwick, in Zadea (still unpublished, but hopefully coming soon).

BEST SUPPORTING CHARACTER

Sarina Dorie, for the unicorns in Witches Gone Wicked

https://www.amazon.com/Witches-Gone-Wicked-Not-So-Cozy-Mystery-ebook/dp/B07D5LMMZ7


BEST NEW WORD COINED

Rozita Berry - for 'Zeitritter' (time traveller).

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL WINNERS! 


Tuesday, 3 December 2019

J is for Just Do It



My friend Fiona is decluttering her crowded house. She's really going at it, too. The other day she spent five hours working through paper clutter. She doesn't do this every day; after all, she has a full life. But she told me she is making it a point to get rid of something every day, so that even if she can only find a few minutes, the total of clutter in the house is reduced.

So, Fiona's decluttering, and I'm writing this book. It's uphill work this time. With some books, I can pound away and easily get a few thousand words a day. The Operation Tomcat books were each written in less than a month. Okay, they are novellas, not full-length novels, but still. They are easy and fun to write. I wish I'd chosen another of them for this project!

Be that as it may, I selected for my background project a book about people in a psychiatric hospital.  Not including the huge amounts of time I have had to spend on research, it's just a more difficult book to write than, well pretty well anything I've done before. There's a lot of grief, a lot of sorrow, a lot of character growth, and it's not as funny as most of my work, either. I've noticed in recent years that a lot of what I've been producing is not quite as frivolous as my early books.

Fiona's approach of doing something every day is a good one, and one I've been trying to apply with this book. In fact, I have it externally imposed, since I've been doing a friend's writing course and this book was my practical work for the course. We were to write a minimum of 750 words every weekday, and report our week's progress in our group every Friday.

On its face, this seemed like quite an easy thing to do. 750 words is not much; it is far less than my usual daily wordcount when I'm working on a book. And yet, somehow, with this one I found myself really struggling. So for today's article I thought I'd examine some of the reasons for that, and perhaps explore how they can be countered.

1. Emotional distress. 



This looms large at the moment. A little while ago, I was accosted in the street by a maniac, as I walked home from church. You would think that in a nice, middle-class suburb, an elderly woman could walk home from church without trouble, wouldn't you? Well, evidently you'd be wrong. The maniac said he was going to come to my house, hurt my animals or perhaps kill them (the actual term used was 'fuck up'), and pour a bucket of urine over my front door. Charming! And just so I'd take him seriously, he informed me of my address, which he's found out by stalking me. Now normally I'd ignore threats, but in this case Emily and my other kids are threatened. That's a whole different ballgame. I spent the first three days almost completely incapacitated with panic attacks, unable to leave the house. I'm still afraid, and more, I'm grieving the loss of the church where I've been so happy for the last eight years.

But wait! I'm supposed to be a professional! I've been writing for years, and I am neither a novice nor an amateur. We don't just not write because we 'don't feel like it', and nor do we imagine the existence of 'writer's block', muses, inspiration or any of that claptrap. It's a job. It's a job I know how to do.  I have set working hours. There is no reason in the world why any unhappiness ought to prevent me from being productive. So strike that one. It's an excuse. Perhaps those first few days were permissible; if I'd still been working in the city I might well have taken a couple of days leave. But no more. I've dealt with the situation as best I could; certain security measures have been implemented, and I'm not going to say any more about that as this is a public blog. Also, I saw a doctor, and got some really good techniques for dealing with panic attacks. This is the way. If something is hurting your ability to work, deal with it.

2. Interruptions. 


When you're working, you need to let everything - and everyone - else wait.

This one's a biggie, and a constant problem for many writers. You do not punch a time clock, you do not get a regular salary cheque, and because of this people tend not to see your job as 'a real job'.

The solution to interruptions is simple, although often not easy. You have to use the magic word. The magic word is 'no'. No, I can't come out shopping for the day. No, I can't pick up your kids from school/be on your committee/make a cake for your event/gossip on the telephone for two hours, whatever. No. And not just to other people, either. You have to say it to yourself as well. No, I'm not going to answer the phone. The doorbell, well I do tend to answer that, but unless it's the police or a delivery, people get pretty short shrift. No salesperson ever cold calls me twice! No, I shan't just go and hang out the washing/shop for dinner/take the dog for a walk. Just as with salaried employment, these things have to be done outside working hours. I have a twenty minute break in the morning, an hour for lunch, and I knock off at three. That is plenty of time to do personal stuff.

3. Internet. 


Of course it's wonderful, and there are genuine uses for it. Research, networking with other writers, and so on. But you do not need to have it up when you are actually writing. Especially Facebook, which will give you a notification every time someone tags you, or replies to something you said, or posts in a group you belong to. This comes under the heading of that three hour gossip-fest on the phone. Close Facebook, and close your email accounts, and close twitter, instagram, and any other social media sites. And especially if you participate in any online gaming. Close that. If you're playing something like Forge of Empires, as I do, time your productions to finish on your break, or just accept the fact you won't be there to collect them. It's only a game. Don't let it destroy your work. If you have an ongoing problem with this, consider giving up the game. It's not worth looking back one day and saying, if only I hadn't played so many games I might have finished my novel.

4. Too many tasks running concurrently. Just as this can spoil your computer's performance, so it can inhibit your own. Page thrashing isn't just a feature of technology. If you're constantly switching from one thing to another, choose one and stick with it. Of course it's valid enough to have several things on the go - things are at different stages. I have at present one finished book in revisions, and a long story in rotdown. But if you're drafting multiple things at the same time, this is bad. If they are similar things, you can get tangled between two books and make errors, like mentioning a character from one book in the other. If they aren't similar, it's even worse. Part of why I found it hard to get going with this current book is that for the early part of the year I was still writing the other one, the one that is now in revisions. That's a children's fantasy novel, a very different animal from the current work. It was hard, very hard, to get my mind out of one mode and into the other. In the end I acknowledged this and took a break from the current book to finish the children's one, which is my major project for this year, and was also close to completion. After I finished the draft, I went on with this book, and then I found it went much better. This is why in general I do not ever work on drafting more than one thing at a time.

Even with two unrelated tasks like drafting and revisions, you don't want to be havering back and forth. Different kinds of work require different mindsets. Segregate them. Perhaps you'll write in the morning and do revisions in the afternoon, as Stephen King does. Perhaps you'll write until you reach your daily target (time or wordcount, or a chapter, or whatever) and then work on your revisions. Ideally, the way you structure your day will take advantage of your knowledge of your own body's energy peaks and troughs. Also, having a set plan or method for dividing your time helps you to avoid spinning your wheels. You don't want to be in the position of sitting there scratching your head trying to decide what to work on. While you were doing that you could have written something.

So those are the Big Three, the unholy trinity of the enemies of productivity. And there is one more thing I need to say. Once you've said no to all the crap, dealt as well as you can with any issues like illness or maniacs threatening your family, and examined your workload for sensible composition, one thing remains. JUST DO IT.












Tuesday, 8 October 2019

I is for Irritating - Annoying Habits of Some Well-Known Writers

It's a generally accepted truism that no-one is perfect. 'Nobody's perfect!' we smugly cry as we face  the fact we forgot our child's gym uniform/ missed our class at the dog show/ turned up to work late for the third morning in a row. We accept our own failings with equanimity, although we are often not so tolerant of others.

We tend to be less critical of our idols, though, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the literary world. Certain writers, both dead and alive, are often perceived to be above criticism.

Not to me, though. On the right day, in the right bad mood, I can find fault with anything. Here, then, is a selection of the annoying habits of some of the great figures of  popular fiction. These are the things that, when you set yourself to emulate your favourite writer, ought to be the exceptions.

The thing about the writers I'm going to talk about today is that they are all really good writers. Seriously good, both in their craft and in their entertainment value, and massively successful as well. Of course they are - that's why we want to emulate them, isn't it? These guys are not third-rate hacks churning out rubbish; they are seasoned, developed, super-talented and their work has stood the test of time.

However. All of these guys have annoying habits that really piss me off when I read them. I'm pointing them out here to suggest that these are things to be sedulously avoided in your own work. Okay, so Stephen King can get away with it. That doesn't mean you will. You probably don't have the massive fan base he has.

ACCENTS

First on my list is Dickens. Often, when he writes dialogue with a working-class character, he rams it down our throat, over and over, with the spelling. Okay, so perhaps in his day working-class people pronounced 'v' as 'w'. So what? It gets very wearing, especially over the course of a long book, and most particularly when the material is not comic in its nature. Worst offenders are Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers. It isn't necessary, it has nothing to do with the plot, and if you can't show that your character is a member of a particular social class without phonetic spelling then you're not a very good writer. Dickens was a very good writer, so he had no excuse for ramming this down our throats with every sentence out of the characters' mouths.

Another offender in this category is Stephen King. Most of his books are set in and around Maine, his own stamping ground. Very sensible, too. There's a particular regional accent and dialect. Okay, fine. And of course you want your locals to sound natural. But it really isn't necessary to contort your spelling in every single speech. The first couple of times the character speaks is enough to establish a particular accent. I am reminded to be mindful of this myself, as one of my main characters in my current work is from South America. You want to show particularities of speech, but for heaven's sake don't grab your reader by the scruff and rub his nose in it.

CLOTHING

Constantly describing everyone's clothes like a David Jones catalogue is not cool. The person who irritates me the most with this is Robert Jordan. In his Wheel of Time series there is a group of women who invariably dress in dark skirts and white blouses. That point is made quite early in the series, that it's like a uniform for these women. If he'd left it at that it would have been fine, but all through the entire, long series, he hardly mentions one of these people without reminding us that she has on a dark skirt and a white blouse. Seriously, who cares? I'm not talking about some context where it's relevant, e.g. when one of them is sneaking about at night and her white blouse causes the sentry to spot her in the dark. Just ordinary situations, where clothing is mostly completely irrelevant. For the love of Chanel, don't do this!

WORDS

Some writers have a favourite word that they feel they have to drag in at every opportunity. It's not a very serious fault, but it can become extremely irritating when the word is used over and over again over the course of  a long book. My example here is Stephen Donaldson and the word 'intransigencce' in the Thomas Covenant series.

BELIEFS

We all have our beliefs, social, religious, and political. And no doubt those beliefs are going to become apparent in our work. Every writer reveals this kind of thing about himself; one can hardly write without doing so. But that doesn't make it okay to lecture your reader. Don't stop in the middle of a novel to deliver a five-page sermon about free love, or capitalism, or not wearing black with navy, or really anything at all. And no, it doesn't make it any better if you wrap quotes around it and have it come out of the mouth of a character. Just don't do this, people! It makes you look like an idiot. The worst offender in this category is Robert Heinlein, who has marred many otherwise fine books with his self-indulgent ranting.

Can we take a general principle out of this? Yes, I think we can; it is that excess in anything is generally to be deplored. This is one of the applications of Stephen King's often misunderstood exhortation to 'kill your darlings'. The 'darlings' are things to which you are inordinately attached, whether it's describing accents, cataloguing people's clothing, your political and economic beliefs, or even your favourite word. Overdoing these things is like wearing a classic Chanel suit and adding 54 pieces of Goldmark jewellery. It obscures and spoils your style.



Don't miss my recently released conclusion to the Fiona MacDougall trilogy. Available at AMAZON and SMASHWORDS


Sunday, 15 September 2019

H is for Helping Hand - What Goes Around Comes Around

Back in the long-ago I belonged to a writers' group, on Facebook. It wasn't a bad group, either, as these things go. I'm no longer a member, because groups tend to be a bit of a time sink for me, and from time to time, when I'm not satisfied with my productivity, I leave most of the ones I'm in. 

Anyway, this was quite a good group, and among other things people used to post passages of their work for critique by the group. One man used to post a lot of passages, and I gave comments on a number of them. After a while, another person in the group messaged me, saying 'don't waste time on Andy, he's very needy, he's always posting his stuff.'

It was well-meant, but I disagreed. I didn't see his constant posting for critique as neediness, or indeed as anything emotional. I saw it as evidence of a passionate commitment to excellence, a determination to make his writing the best it could be. Because of this, and because I thought the stuff he was producing showed a lot of talent, I felt he was worth a bit of effort.

Time has proved me right. From a not very confident, unpublished novice writer, this man, just a few years later, has emerged as a very successful author, with more than twenty books published. Not only that, but they are thundering good reads, too. Whenever I pick up a new one, I know I am about to experience the very best adventure fantasy. Happily for me, I'm on the list to receive advance review copies, so I get to enjoy them before everyone else, which adds to my pleasure, as does the secret little glow of smugness that comes from having been right all along. 

What am I getting at, here, you ask. Well, it's this - if I hadn't taken a bit of trouble to help out a beginner, I wouldn't have that special enjoyment - I would still enjoy the books, of course, but I wouldn't have that special pride that comes from having discovered someone, before others saw his merit. And that really brightens my day.

Most people, if they are writing, probably belong to one or more writers' groups. The benefits are enormous, as long as you limit the time you spend in them, a thing at which I am very bad, hence my periodic culls. But don't limit yourself to what you can get from your group. People who do that generally don't get much. You have to give back as well to reap the full benefits. 

By now, you'll probably be mad with curiosity to know who is the writer I'm talking about. It is Andy Peloquin, whose Hero of Darkness series introduced a massive and complex fantasy world in which multiple series interlock. Currently in train are the Heirs of Destiny series, and the prequel series The Silent Champions, in which Peloquin has branched into the genre of Military Fantasy. Find them all HERE.

While you're at Amazon binge-buying Andy's books, don't miss my own new release, Where The Heart is, the culmination of the Fiona MacDougall trilogy.

Get it HERE