Happy Valentine’s Day 2020

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and I intended to write a story for you. However, the plot bunny grew to stupid proportions and necessitated quite a bit of research so will not be ready for publication for some time. By the time I realised that, it was getting too late to write anything else. So, as I was about to add pdf versions of some of my work to my free fiction page I decided that would have to be my Valentine gift to you this year. People who have been following my posts for some time will be familiar with the works but at least can now download to read at their convenience and on any device. So I’ll post now for the sake of my Australian friends. Click on the free stuff tab and download anything you want to read, re-read or share! Enjoy!

Marketing: a plea for advice

A New Year’s Resolution you are invited to help me keep.

It’s still January (isn’t it?) – and anyway, I had lots of reviews to post.

I’ve been thinking really hard about marketing. I usually do, at this time of year, just before making some kind of New Year Resolution. It never really works, but at least it means I spend a little time considering the options and the various things I could do. So this yeajorar’s resolution was simply to work harder at marketing…

I ought to start by saying that when I began to write novels and novellas for publication, I very quickly abandoned any publishers other than myself. I found I was too much of a control freak to cope with editors, sales teams, etc. That doesn’t mean I don’t use editors – I do, but I’ve chosen them because I like their work, not because somebody else has imposed them on me. Then, having settled for self-publishing, I made the one resolution (in June, not at New Year) I have actually so far kept. As I began the process in 2012 I’m quite pleased with myself.

What’s this amazing resolution? Not to spend any money whatsoever on my work other than the obvious cost of having a laptop, an internet connection and programs such as Word and Photoshop. Things I would want anyway. Oh – and some money on Skype which was the cheapest way to communicate with the US tax people and get a foreign exemption. My editors (more than one) are people for whom I edit in turn, or repay in other non-monetary ways. And yes, at least one is a professional editor. I make my own covers. I do my own formatting. I seek advice from other writers on FB or WordPress. I read the advice given by Smashwords and Amazon. I follow bloggers like David Gaughran for his inestimable advice.

I know my books are as good as I and my editors can make them in terms of language, story development, formatting, etc. Technically, I don’t think I need to change anything.

I also know that because my works cross more than one genre they will appeal to fewer readers than straightforward romance, crime or fantasy will. They are, perhaps, less sexually explicit than many romance books which may also affect sales. On the other hand they are definitely not YA material though some young adults might well enjoy them.

I do find it hard to write adequate blurbs and choose appropriate tags, and this is probably the area where 2020’s resolution will end up initially.

I’m happy with my covers. I personally dislike covers that feature stock pictures of models (sometimes the same one on various different books) – pictures that often don’t tie in with the descriptions of the character inside, or my vision of them, and pictures that in many cases are simply unappealing. I prefer covers that give a glimpse of the kind of world the reader will enter, so I end up not using figures on my covers at all. I find working with graphics programs (and my own photos) quite therapeutic, so sometimes I start creating a cover even before a book is finished. I’m aware that romance novels are supposed to have those stock figures. I’m also aware that stock figures sell copies.

Then there’s pricing. I’ve tried various price levels and have used Smashwords’ sale (when some of my books were free), given coupons for freebies or discounts to people I know or to people who might leave reviews. I don’t think I’m getting it right.

I’ve looked at other authors’ pricing and also at my own buying habits.

I am really reluctant to pay much for the first book by an author I have not tried before unless I am getting recommendations from a lot of people I trust and who I know share my tastes. So maybe I ought to be pricing the first in each series lower? I am also reluctant to pay much more than $3.99 for any e-book – the publishing costs are far lower than for print books and even when I know and like the author anything more than that price usually has to be in a series I’m following and also be a full length novel. But I have actually stopped following some series because of the high prices (e.g. Rivers of London). And yes, I check the length of books before buying; I’m not keen on paying anything for a standalone short story, however good.

I have noticed that anything under $3 tends to be novella length at best, so maybe I’m selling my series short? I personally tend to avoid short stories unless they’re in a collection (I do have a vaguely limited budget) and it’s possible potential purchasers see my prices as indicating reduced content, especially since my first two publications were novellas.

I currently have the following books available with, as they insist, the same price on Amazon and Smashwords.

Series: The Skilled Investigators (fantasy, elf detectives, female heroine, intelligent dragon, sub plot of mm romance)

 The Scroll
 The Market
 The Crown
 The Lantern
 The Road

All full length novels (between 60k and 80k words) and all currently priced at $2.99. The final volume in the series, The River, is finished (currently with betas) and I hope to publish it early in the New Year. Before Easter, anyway.

Series: Living Fae (‘urban’ fantasy with fae living in Cheshire, UK, plus unicorns, with both mm and mf romance)

 Growing Up Fae
 Tales From Tara
 Flying Free
 On The Edge

Again, all at $2.99 and again, all full length. These overlap to some extent but need to be read in sequence to make sense.

Once both my two series are completed, I have wondered about creating box sets and altering the price – maybe make the individual books dearer but give heavy discounts on the box sets. I could probably then justify doing some kind of relaunch. Thoughts?

Novellas: stand-alone stories which are longer than short stories

 The Lord of Shalott (an mm take on Arthurian legend)
 Silkskin and the Forest Dwellers (an mm version of Snow White set in mediaeval Great Zimbabwe)
 Silver Chains (contemporary mm romance)

The first two are currently $1.99 and the last is $0.99 – it got a lot of downloads when it was free in the Smashwords sale. That hasn’t generated any actual sales and whilst I’m happy with the story it doesn’t really showcase my usual style.

Collections of short stories:

 Three Legends (mm retelling of legends)
 Beating Hearts (five fantasy and sci fi stories)

Both currently $1.99

I published a short Christmas story in December making it free until at least the end of January – maybe till Valentine’s Day. Once I’ve sorted out some formatting I might price it at $0.99 or I might just leave it free. I wrote at leisure but published in haste, so the technical bits need tweaking!

 False Starts

2020 will be devoted to The Virgin and the Unicorn, which is written but needs a lot of work. It’s a full length novel, a regency-style fantasy with an arranged royal marriage plus sentient unicorns and a lot of culture clash which is one of my favourite themes. I suppose going by my current pricing it would be $2.99 but I have a feeling I’m getting that wrong.

I’ve tried ‘advertising’ on FB, not only on my own page but also on various groups. Some writer friends have been nice enough to ‘interview’ me, and reblog my posts. I admit to getting confused about where and when to ‘promote’ my books and possibly not doing enough research. That’s definitely part of the resolution!

Meanwhile, I’m not making many sales. Not none, but not many. Not enough, in fact, to make up for the nightmare this time every year of having to deal with the Inland Revenue (see https://jaymountney.wordpress.com/2020/01/09/its-that-time-of-year-again-tax-returns/). So obviously I need to reconsider various aspects of marketing. I’d seriously welcome comments and advice from all and sundry. You could comment here or find me on FB and message me. Or you could email me at harlequinandyarrow@gmail.com

I’d really welcome advice from strangers who happen to be following this blog as well as from people I already know!

By the way, I do have two other resolutions:

 healthier eating for the whole family and paying extra attention to environmental concerns (especially with regard to packaging).
 actually using the jewellery and accessories I have/buy/receive instead of hoarding them, dragon-style. Dragons are, I think, for fiction rather than the dressing-table.

It’s that time of year again… (tax returns)

Tearing my hair out. I dedicated today to doing my tax returns. I earn so little it annoys me anyway, but I (a) pay tax on my work pension so have to declare other earnings and (b) need the US foreigner tax exemption so have to be part of the system. I did, going by past experience, expect to spend the whole day. It looks as if tomorrow is spoken for, too.

1. Get messages from HMRC about tax self assessment being due.

2. After previous years, put off doing anything till the due date is looming.

3. Attempt to sign in using Government Gateway details (which have worked in the past) and find Government Gateway has closed but I can use the details to sign in to their new system.

4. But they want to verify it’s me.

5. So they send an email and I authenticate my email address.

6. They ask for my passport number. I don’t keep my passport in the lounge (who does?) so this involves a trip upstairs. Anyway, fill in the number as requested.

7. Now they want to send me an access code but do it using my old mobile phone number which no longer works. I changed my number early last year.

8. I can change my preferences and give them a new number – which means signing in again. Change preferences to include updated phone number. (And no, I can’t use the landline because they use an automated number which our Call Guardian won’t accept and I can’t white list their automated number because they won’t give it to me till I’m completely signed in.)

9. New mobile number accepted.

10. They send a code. This means going to the other end of the house. We get internet at one end of our long narrow old stone cottage and mobile coverage at the other. Not their fault, but still.

11. Back at the computer with code. Sign in.

12. At this point they tell me I’m signed into the wrong account but won’t explain.

13. Try things like clicking on continue, hoping to find a new form to fill in.

14. Just keeps going to a loop with ‘wrong account’ message.

15. Email them and they get back to me to say will deal with problem in the next two days.

16. Another email saying they’ve removed my security preferences. I think they mean the change of phone number but still, panic ensues.

17. In the process of trying to open these emails, my gmail crashes.

18. Try to reload gmail and Chrome crashes.

19. Try to reload Chrome and laptop crashes. Well, it could be coincidence but I wasn’t doing anything else…

20. All restarted. Try again with similar results including a new text code (back on my travels) and the same wrong account message. I simply don’t have another account.

21. Try phoning. Permanently engaged, except when they aren’t but aren’t answering.

22. Try their online help forum but you have to be logged into your account to access it.

23. Note that my attempts so far get me to a page which has all my details – full name, d.o.b., address, email, National Insurance number, passport number, etc. so they know exactly who I am…

24. Note that all their offers of help relate to help filling in the form. I only want access to the form which I can deal with quite happily if I can ever get it.

25. Reflect that most people only access this site once a year when their tax is due and it’s insane for them to keep changing the way things are done. Intend, if I ever get through to the phone helpline, to ask for a printed assessment form. Will let you know but it may be some time. Give up for today.

(For anyone who notices these things, yes, that’s the same frog/toad. He/she comes in handy.)

I don’t often say anything about my life…

…my tastes in books, music, etc. yes. Daily events and feelings? Not so much. It takes me a while to be convinced anyone might be interested, and by the time I’ve decided they might, life has usually moved on. However, a group I’m active in on Dreamwidth gave an interesting prompt and for once I felt inspired. Feel free to grab the idea and run with it – either for your own life or for some kind of ongoing action in my story. (And yes, it’s all real, very real, too real.)

Prompt: Write Your Life! No, really! Write the opening segment of a TV show based on your life right now. It can be a comedy, a drama, a dramedy, reality TV, horror, whatever fits your circumstances. You can keep it drabble-sized, write a pitch for your show, or maybe do an arty title card. You can write yourself, an original character, or drop fandom characters into your life. However you approach this, the important thing is to have fun with it!

From Sunshine to Shadow.
(An ongoing soap opera.)

When the story begins the heroine has an idyllic lifestyle with two homes, one in UK and one in Portugal. Much of her treasured antique furniture is en route for the Portuguese house though some is still in storage. The UK house, now sparsely furnished but habitable, needs work before it can be sold.

A wildfire destroys the Portuguese house and most of her personal belongings including all her books, CDs, DVDs, inherited heirlooms and gifts received for birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries, etc. for her entire life. There is survivor guilt because she was not there and so many of her friends were. Some of them lost their houses, too.

The stored furniture returns and fills the UK house with extra ‘stuff’ which needs culling, and far too many boxes which can’t be unpacked because there is no access to anywhere to put the contents. A sideboard arrives and is filled, then other arrivals mean the sideboard is no longer accessible. The contents might just as well have gone up in smoke. The planned IKEA kitchen (and appliances) for Portugal now form a massive ‘island’ in the centre of the UK kitchen. (See the illustration…)

The heroine now feels like a rat in a maze – or in a scrapyard full of junk. (Just as weeds are flowers in the wrong place, junk is belongings in the wrong place…). There is no room to celebrate the holidays or anniversaries or entertain friends. Christmas dinner can’t easily be cooked because of the navigational hazards. She is considering a chicken with minimal trimmings. There is no space anywhere for a tree. Cards could theoretically be strung from the beams in the lounge but boxes prevent these being reached. She has come to the conclusion that any gifts or desires are just asking for future disaster and has deleted her wish list. Anything that might replace lost items is just seen as adding insult to injury; replacements create flashbacks, and besides, the items could turn up in the boxes. Who knows?

The scrap heap (or whatever you want to call it) has built up over the two years since the fire, as the heroine’s husband has gradually brought things ‘home’. The only silver lining is that the insurance company paid out in full. This underlines the truth of the saying that money can’t buy happiness.

Meanwhile, there is ongoing drama related to a possible poltergeist in the seventeenth century UK house. Suspicions have been around for years but recently, whatever is going on has expanded. Missing in action so far: a wooden letter opener, a charging cable for a Kindle (fortunately she has two), one of a favourite pair of earrings, two Christmas cards for relatives abroad (not yet addressed so nobody posted them) and, perhaps more worryingly, a very heavy sharp cooking knife. The vacuum cleaner hose was blocked by a small plastic dinosaur that nobody remembers ever having seen.

On another faintly paranormal note, the heroine has become aware that appointments with both her hairdresser and her dentist are always, but always, accompanied by appalling weather. No other appointments or arrangements are ever affected – the weather varies as it usually does in UK.

From the sublime to the more-than-ridiculous. Will she ever find out what’s in the boxes? Will she ever be able to use the kitchen safely again? Who (or what) has the knife? Can we predict the weather next Monday? Follow this slowly unfolding drama to find out.

A ‘mememe’ meme grabbed from a friend.

You can probably learn a lot about someone from their tastes in books, art, music, films, etc.

My favourite author/book

I have to go with Lord of the Rings. I have read it multiple times and I still return to it. I wouldn’t say Tolkien is the best author I’ve read. (I don’t, for instance, enjoy the style of The Silmarillion.) But the book is fabulous. The films try hard and I enjoyed them but they pale in comparison. If I had to pick an author I’d probably choose Georgette Heyer – shades of Austen plus subtext with lots of humour as well.

The Book I’m reading.

Culpeper’s Herbal. It’s a re-read. I lost my copy in the Portuguese fire and have repurchased, this time a copy with modern updates/annotations. I’ve used the book for reference when writing my fae saga and I love all the ways it sends my mind down lots of untrodden pathways. I was interested to note that JKR in an interview said she had three copies. Other than that I’m reading this week’s New Statesman, and enjoying the short stories in the Rainbow Advent Calendar.

The book I wish I’d written

I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series. Whenever I read King I feel as if I’ve attended a writing master class, and I really liked the series plus the way it merged genres: adventure, romance, urban legends, quasi-sci fi, horror. Every word counts and the style, especially in the later volumes (he wrote it over a long period) is flawless.

The book I couldn’t finish.

I usually plough through to the end (with some skimming), especially if a book is popular, to see what the fuss is about. I tend to abandon badly written romance and crime. I think I’ll have to mention The Silmarillion – see my first answer! I got totally bogged down and bored. Same with Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read

Not actually ashamed since it was a deliberate choice, but I haven’t read Ulysses. I’ve seen excerpts and that was enough. I definitely avoid anything that might be ‘stream of consciousness’ even though I gather it is currently fashionable again.

My favourite play

Torn between Midsummer Night’s Dream and Vivat Regina.

My favourite film

Torn again. The Third Man or The Fifth Element? If I had to pick for a Desert Island I’d have to toss a coin.

The box set I’m hooked on

Game of Thrones. I wasn’t able to watch it as it aired but I am up to date on the books. My copy of Season 8 (the final one) arrived this morning and I have so far been able to avoid spoilers – since the book series is not yet complete I have no idea who wins the game or whether winter simply draws play to a close. Why it took about six months for the DVDs to be available I have no idea.

My favourite TV series

Spiral, or Engrenages to give it its correct French title. Long running French cop show with all kinds of extra delights involving lawyers, French culture, and a look at modern policing issues. Before that, I might have said Spooks, for the same reasons. But I think I’m enjoying the French series more, partly because the actors, who are superb, are unfamiliar to me so I’m both hooked and fascinated.

My favourite piece of music

When I remember to vote in Classic FM’s annual lovefest, I always choose Bruch’s violin concerto. The first time I heard it I was on my way to work and stopped the car (and was late) in order to hear the end and then find out what it was.

The last movie that made me cry

Probably I, Daniel Blake.

The lyric I wish I’d written

More Like the Movies – Dr Hook

The poem/song that saved me

Not sure I ever needed saving… but I’ve always felt an affinity with Robert Frost’s short poem In Neglect:

They leave us so to the way we took,
As two in whom them were proved mistaken,
That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
With michievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
And try if we cannot feel forsaken.

He’s one of my favourite poets anyway.

The music that cheers me up.

It depends on my mood. If I really need to laugh, Flanders and Swan, or The Wurzels. Or Captain Beaky, though I lost my CD in Portugal and it’s no longer available. If I want to feel optimistic, perhaps any Chopin other than the Études which have some rather sombre pieces. His other work takes me to happy places – a visit to his house (now a gorgeous museum) in Poland, and learning to play some of the waltzes.

If I could own one painting, it would be

Hmm. I love all sorts of paintings in art galleries. Not so much in my own house which is ‘difficult’ with lots of oak beams and uneven nooks and crannies. Perhaps a fairy painting by Brian Froud or Amy Brown. It would have to be small if I was going to hang it anywhere. Other than those, I like the female pre-Raphaelites a lot.

The place I feel happiest.

My mood tends to depend on the company I’m in rather than the location. This is a hard question. Maybe in our garden in summer, especially at twilight, with that indigo sky, bats, and stars.

My guiltiest cultural pleasure

Buying too many e-books. I’m usually over-budget and nobody knows but me because they’re all hidden on my Kindle.

I’m having a fantasy dinner party. I’ll invite these artists and authors.

I only enjoy small dinner parties with people I already know and like so this is another hard one. And authors or artists whose work I like are not necessarily people I’d get on with or want to cook for. I’m going to go with people I do actually know: Fiona Glass (writer), Kat Soini (poet), Stevie Carroll (writer), Beth Richardson (artist), Bruce McGregor (actor). I think they’d get on well and the conversation would be stimulating.

…and I’ll put on this music

The Best of Queen, The Best of The Rolling Stones, and The Best of Sting.

The play/film that I’m looking forward to

I haven’t watched Peterloo yet but it’s on my Amazon Prime watchlist. Since I live on the outskirts of Manchester it’s something I’m really interested in.

The play/film I walked out of

I’ve never walked out of a theatre or cinema unless I’ve had to catch a last bus or train. I can switch off films on TV or my laptop and frequently do. The last one was Master and Commander. I was looking forward to it because I’d enjoyed some of the books, but I couldn’t be bothered with all the sea scenes.

The dam that didn’t break.

(This is a photo taken from a television account of the affair.)

The eyes of UK, and probably of much of the world, have been on Whaley Bridge where the dam on Toddbrook Reservoir threatened to collapse. If it had, the town would have been washed away, not just flooded.

Our eyes have been totally glued to the news. Whaley Bridge lies only a few miles from our house, and we have friends there. In fact, during the near-disaster we were looking after some dogs for friends who live in Whaley Bridge but were on holiday in Brazil. Their house, like those of others we know, was perfectly safe, being uphill of the reservoir, but they were watching the news from Brazil, and watching our FB posts with my husband’s photographs which charted some of the events.

Whilst there was total panic (or so it seemed) about what might happen downstream in the valley of the River Goyt if the dam broke, we weren’t personally threatened as our house is well above any potential flood level. However, we were very much affected by the entire affair. Roads were closed – sometimes arbitrarily, we all thought – and we had difficulty accessing the garage that looks after our cars. Bus routes were diverted, the Manchester-Sheffield rail line that goes through Whaley Bridge was closed, and you can imagine the knock-on effects on the whole area. Traffic chaos, rumours, and a lot of disbelief.

We had always known the dam was there, of course. But whoever allowed people to develop the little town on Whaley Bridge below it must, we thought, have been convinced it was all safe. Even now, with the reservoir empty and all danger averted, it seems foolhardy to drive along the main street, but it really is necessary at times! (For example, returning the dogs to their family…)

We have since seen short video footage of various local roads including some of the ones up in the hills; they were turned into rivers and will be needing repair for some time to come.

The reservoir was built by the Victorians and was intended to feed into the lock system for the local canals. We know a couple of people with narrow boats who were affected by the lock closures. Admittedly this aspect of things was ‘trivial’ in that it only affected leisure activities but it still added to the general regional disruption.

Obviously the people of Whaley Bridge who were evacuated were the ones who suffered most, and our hearts went out to them while we watched the weather forecast and hoped against hope that the reservoir would be emptied before further downpours. We had some sympathy for some people who refused to leave – apparently there was confusion about their animals and whether they could also be evacuated.

The army, police, fire service and lots of volunteers did a wonderful job, and in the end, the disaster didn’t happen. That was a matter of luck. Panorama (BBC) is currently filming interviews for a programme with a focus on Whaley Bridge but looking at a lot of UK reservoirs and dams. Let’s hope we don’t get any repeats of this summer’s events!

‘Why I write’ meme adapted for original works.

I promised to adapt this set of questions for my original work so here it is.

1 What made you start writing original stories, poetry, etc?
My first ‘work’ was a play performed by our local Brownie troop. I was five, and because I had written it I was allowed to join the big girls and be onstage. I think this must have gone to my head… I continued with plays, poems and stories until I left uni. Working as an English teacher meant producing work as a ‘role model’ for pupils, and I had neither the time nor the creative energy left to write anything else. When I took early retirement, one story was already in my head so I was itching to get to the keyboard.

2. Which of your own works have you reread the most?
I think sections of my Living Fae series. The story started in a ‘muse’ journal on LJ and by the time I decided on publication it needed a great deal of collection, collation, and decisions about what to include. As a result, I read and re-read various parts till I almost knew them by heart. At first, they were a pleasant surprise as I’d forgotten quite a lot. Later, I just wanted to get them sorted out and sent off to my editor.

3. Describe the differences between your first published work and your most recent.
When I decided to self-publish I used two novellas and a collection of three short stories as ‘practice’. So they were comparatively short. They were all based on legends and fairy tales, twisted into fresh forms. I was lucky enough to have seriously good editors and I learnt a lot from them.
My most recent publication was a short story – a contemporary romance. I wrote it some time ago, initially for a prompt in a writing group then, in a longer and edited version, for inclusion in a now defunct online zine. I decided to publish it myself and it went through a further editing and formatting process until I was satisfied with it. It has no fantasy and no connection with fairy tales.

4. Do you think your style has changed over time? How so?
I think and hope I use different styles depending on the kind of story I am telling. For example, my novella The Lord of Shalott, and the first volume of Living Fae are told in first person. I write novels, novellas, short stories, flashfic and poetry. I also write reviews and critiques. Obviously I need to use varied styles for all these. I don’t think my style has changed much in recent years; it has changed since I was a teenager, of course, but that’s to be expected.

5. You’ve posted a work anonymously. How would someone be able to guess you’ve written it?
As I said in the fanfic meme with the same questions, I once did this when the online writing group suggested we all write a flashfic in the style of my Living Fae material. Nobody was able to guess who had written what; I assume part of the reason was the choice of similar subject matter, characters, etc. Beyond that experiment, I can’t think how anyone would guess I had written something unless I included locations that people who know me know I’m familiar with.

6. Name three stories you found easy to write.
No real answer to this.

7. Name three stories you found difficult to write.
All writing is easy for me. It’s the editing, proof reading, formatting, etc. that causes headaches.

8. What’s your ratio of hits to kudos?
This was a fanfic question and I assume I need to consider ‘success’ as a writer. The world is drowning in self published material and I am not alone in sinking without much of a trace. My royalties about keep us in pizza and we don’t eat that every week. They also cause intense irritation to me when my tax returns are due. Most people who both like fantasy and actually find my books are complimentary, but too few find them! The same applies to my fanfic and I think the bottom line is just that I’m completely hopeless at marketing.

9. What do your fic bookmarks say about you?

Another fanfic question (specific to AO3) so I’ll refer to my to-be-read list instead. I read widely and voraciously, and at any one time you’d find mainstream novels, genre novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction in the queue. I think it just says I like reading! I also keep a record of e-books I’ve read, partly to stop myself re-purchasing them and partly so that I can recall the titles and authors to recommend to other people. That list says I like history, fantasy, mm romance, crime, biography, science (especially the natural world), finance, politics, and cookbooks.

10. What’s a theme that keeps coming up in your writing?
Culture clash, which is something that interests me.

11. What kind of relationships are you most interested in writing?
I have a tendency to focus on mm romantic relationships, though not to the exclusion of anything else.

12. For E-rated fic what are some things your characters keep doing?
I will assume we are talking about books that would be suitable for general audiences. That means my Skilled Investigators series, and as the name implies, the characters keep finding crimes and mysteries to investigate. Other than that, like anyone, they eat, sleep, talk, etc.

13. Name three favourite characters to write.
1. Harlequin, the main character in Living Fae. I call him my muse and he lives in my head and tries to influence all my writing.
2. Genef, the main character in Skilled Investigators. She is training as a detective and I like both her attitude to her work and her ability to question herself. She doesn’t live in my head, and although female, has almost nothing in common with me.
3. Scratch, the dragon who helps Genef in Skilled Investigators. I love writing from a dragon’s point of view, thinking how he might see human and elf behaviour and what he might say about it.

14. You’re applying for the [fanfic] writer of the year award. What five works do you put in your portfolio?
I’d have to think about things that are published somewhere, including my WordPress site. My work wanders around between genres and I don’t think they’d ever be regarded as award material for original writing. However, if I had to put together a selection:
1. Lord of Shalott: a novella set in Arthurian legend and inspired by Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott.
2. Growing up Fae: volume 1 of Living Fae, told in journal form by Harlequin, a modern fairy living on Alderley Edge in Cheshire.
3. Answering Amanda: a children’s story based on Harlequin’s little sister’s letters to a human child. This is ready to send to anyone who asks for it using the information at the end of volume 3 of Living Fae. It was, in fact, the springboard for the entire world/series.
4. The Zoo: one of my poems, based on an actual day at Chester Zoo. It’s on my WordPress site. I might create a volume of poems to put on Smashwords; poems always get more ‘likes’ than anything on WordPress.
4. The Scroll: volume 1 of The Skilled Investigators and the one that introduces Scratch, the dragon.

Why I write fanfic.

A friend (on Dreamwidth and in real life) posted a meme about her fanfic writing. This inspired me and I promised to do my own. I also intend to adapt the meme for my original writing.

1. What made you start writing fanfic?

My daughter knew some of my tastes in books and linked me to a Yuletide story in Arthurian Legend. At about the same time I was asked to teach an upper primary class English Language using Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott (note this was a language class, not a literature one). I was annoyed with the national curriculum approach to poetry and felt able to write to the same standard as the Yuletide fic so I wrote Lord of Shalott which I originally posted as fanfic. A lot of editing and additions later it turned into a self-published novella… I was already writing original work but was panic stricken at the thought of submitting to editors. The Lord of Shalott enabled me to try putting my work ‘out there’ and to explore self-publishing. Once I’d started, in both original and fanfic writing, the floodgates opened.

2. Which of your own fanfics have you reread the most?
I don’t usually re-read my fanfics unless I need to refer to something in a series and then I just skim or do ‘find’ (with no ‘replace’). I have re-read First a couple of times when people have asked to quote from it.

3. Describe the differences between your first fanfic and your most recent fanfic.
Lord of Shalott was historic fantasy, inspired by a poem. It was written in first person, it had a focus on cross-dressing, it referenced various myths and legends and it involved a longing for a relationship. My most recent work (other than some meta and drabbles) was …to catch a thief, a mediaeval AU for a cop buddy fandom (Pros), where I wrote part 1, a friend wrote part 2, we co-wrote part 3 and part 4 was my most recent fanfic. It had an established relationship (from the first three parts) as the focus and was a mild mystery story, told in third person. So although both were ‘historical’ fics they had totally different inspiration and were in different fandoms. In the first, I needed to echo the tone of the poem, and in the second I needed to capture the voices of the modern actors.

4. Do you think your style has changed over time? How so?
I use a number of different styles and I don’t think there has been any particular change over time. I try to alter my style to suit the canon I am writing for, but I know some of my work will be recognisable anyway.

5. You’ve posted a fic anonymously. How would someone be able to guess you’ve written it?
I tried this in a writing exercise I did in a Yahoo writing group – we all wrote a fanfic of part of my Living Fae series. Nobody was able to guess immediately which effort was mine. Presumably the others were attempting to copy my style!

6. Name three stories you found easy to write.
The first version of Lord of Shalott just poured out of me, probably fuelled by anger at the way we were supposed to ask children to view poetry and literature. The result wasn’t actually suitable for young children but that’s beside the point.
…to catch a thief was easy, too, because all the period research was already done for the first three parts and all the names etc. were in my head.
The Thing (SGA) was easy because I just went with the prompts people gave me and didn’t have to think about the story in advance.

7. Name three stories you found difficult to write.
This is an impossible question because I don’t find writing difficult. Editing, yes, research, yes, and proof reading, yes, but not writing. I sometimes find it difficult to motivate myself to start a story but that’s a different matter.

8. What’s your ratio of hits to kudos?
I haven’t the faintest idea. I vaguely know which of my fics get most hits and kudos and it seems to be linked to the general popularity of the fandom. (LotR and Grimm). Beyond that, I don’t know and the idea of trying to work it out dismays me. Besides, why would I?

9. What do your fic bookmarks say about you?

I usually bookmark a fic if I want to recommend it. I don’t have private bookmarks as a rule – I either subscribe to an author or series, or I download something I want to read eventually and it lurks on my hard drive. So I suppose my bookmarks say I’m a reviewer. They also show I’m extremely multi-fandom.

10. What’s a theme that keeps coming up in your writing?
I suppose mm romance.

11. What kind of relationships are you most interested in writing?
It varies with different fandoms. I quite like relationships that grow slowly and involve a lot of banter. I also like the kind that connect with a lot of minor characters, both canon and OC.

12. For E-rated fic what are some things your characters keep doing?
I had to Google this and I gather it means gen fic. I don’t write much of this and if I did, I hope my characters wouldn’t keep doing anything, other than sleeping and eating… I suppose they’d talk? I like writing dialogue.

13. Name three favourite characters to write.
Another impossible one. I’m too multi-fandom to have favourites. I should think my favourites are the ones I’m writing at the time.

14. You’re applying for the fanfic writer of the year award. What five fics do you put in your portfolio?
I wouldn’t apply, but if I had to, on pain of death or losing thbe right to be considered a fanfic writer, then:
First (Rome)
Blame Daniel (SG1)
The Morning Gift (Pros AU)
Elegy for a hanged man (Spooks)
Paths of the Living (LotR)

Things I dislike in books, films, etc.

I thought it was time, as a reviewer, that I posted about the things I dislike in books and films (including TV); the things that throw me out of a story, the things that make me abandon a book or a series and the things that stop me buying. Some of the following might result in a bad review. Some might prevent purchase. Some are just a warning sign and I might like a book despite their inclusion. Some are very personal dislikes and don’t say anything about the book or film. But you deserve to know where I am coming from! In alphabetical order:

* Bad language in the sense of curses and similar.
I know it might be realistic, but when it’s constant, I can’t read or listen to it. Recent examples include The Wolf of Wall Street who used f…g as every other word, and Dominus, a novel about ancient Rome that had so many curses and uses of ‘s..t’ that I just couldn’t carry on. We all use expletives from time to time but most people, particularly people with even a modicum of education, reserve them for important issues (like hammering your thumb…) and I think constant usage diminishes their impact in real life and is bordering on unlikely in scripts and novels. At any rate, I thoroughly dislike it.

*Bad language in the sense of poor grammar, spelling, etc.
I don’t mean typos though those annoy me when they come thick and fast.

I do mean the misuse of vocabulary where either the author either hasn’t a clue what the right word is, or cravenly believes their wordchecker’s correction.

I also mean the dizzying switching of tenses or points of view within one section of text.

I mean, too, the frequent use of poor punctuation (which a wordchecker would soon put right). (Punctuation should make a text easier to read.)

I mean, in addition, the frequent use of things like ‘er’, meant, I think, to add verisimilitude to speech but actually just making it hard to read. (When we listen to someone who hesitates we ignore the hesitations, but that’s harder when they’re written down and we are forced to process them.)

I certainly mean poor grammar – not what Word’s spag checker regards as bad grammar but what the average English teacher means. As an ex-English teacher, I am always annoyed by it and it almost always throws me out of the story and ensures I won’t return to the author. I’m aware that grammar isn’t every writer’s strength, but that’s what editors are for.

*Forced comedy
I hate comedy that seems to be telling me I must laugh. I am highly amused at some jokes, cartoons and situations but I rarely enjoy stand-up comedians or comedy shows, I often have to switch off if there’s canned laughter, and I don’t enjoy books that employ similar techniques. I realise I’m in a minority here! My sense of humour tends more towards irony than banana skin slips. I say ‘tends’ because there are exceptions but they’re few and far between.

*Fundamental objections.
It should go without saying that I don’t appreciate any attempt to ‘sell’ me racism, sexism, or fundamentalist religion of any kind in the guise of fiction. I actually binned a couple of children’s books given to my daughter with these themes, because I wouldn’t let her read them till she was old enough to ‘see through’ the message (by which time she wouldn’t enjoy the stories) and I didn’t want to be responsible for unleashing them on others via a charity shop. Not quite book burning, but yes, a kind of censorship. I would, of course, defend the right of the writers and publishers to produce these, but at the same time defend my own right to decide not to have anything to do with them and to discourage others.

*Insistence on using experimental prose.
I appreciate that some people think this is clever, and certainly it isn’t something that is actually wrong. It just strikes me as pretentious and annoying, whether it’s done by a Booker prize winner or a fanfic writer. For example, Hilary Mantel does it in A Place of Greater Safety – the whole style changes from chapter to chapter, with some of it reading like a TV script, and some like a history book. Irritating.

*Plot devices that are almost guaranteed to make me abandon the book or film.
I personally dislike stories that are told from the point of view of the villain or criminal. I feel cheated, because I enjoy crime stories where I try to work out ‘whodunnit’ or how they did it alongside the detectives.

I dislike ambiguous endings unless there’s a sequel in the pipeline, though obviously I won’t know till I reach the ending and just end up feeling furious.

The same goes for endings that are not consistent with the story and seem to be a kind of ‘how on earth can I end this’ attitude on the part of the author. As a teacher I used to dislike children’s stories that ended ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘and then I died’ and I find adults have similar tendencies at times… I think the worst book I read was one that was a crime story which ended abruptly. Apparently the author died and friends got the book published as a kind of memorial. The reader could be pretty sure who the criminal was, but there were so many unanswered questions I wanted to throw the book in the trash – some memorial!

*Plot holes.
I know some of these are probably not even noticed by the writer till after the book or film has gone public. They should have been noticed by beta readers, editors, etc. Oddly, I have seen more of these in books published by mainstream ‘big’ publishing houses than in genre fiction or fanfic. Maybe a lack of beta readers and discussion groups?

*Serious anachronisms and cultural errors.
I’m not talking about using modern language when the story is about e.g. ancient Rome. That makes the writing more accessible to the modern reader and unless the writer is going to write in Latin (and even then, Latin changed, as all languages do) it’s not something that worries me. Linguistic anachronisms do ‘throw’ me; the use of slang terms should be always be carefully researched. It’s no good using modern language for a book about e.g. mediaeval society and including slang that is obviously twenty-first century in origin. Yes, the mediaeval people would have used slang, but unless it is very carefully done, the text shouldn’t really include it. It’s easy to say something like, ‘he cursed roundly’ rather than have him saying ‘Shit’. So should the correct usage of period phrases be researched – like ‘methinks’ or ‘prithee’ though I really wish writers wouldn’t use them at all. Film makers can just about get away with it if they’re staging Shakespeare…

One type of anachronism that infuriated me was in a book that purported to be about the mediaeval popes and their families. A party was described and the meal ended with chocolates with exotic fillings. I instantly distrusted all the other historical research the writer had done.

Similarly, books by e.g. American writers who clearly have a foggy grasp of Brit geography, customs, or conversational norms annoy me, as do Brit books that play fast and loose with American (or any other) culture. Whilst I don’t think the exhortation to ‘write what you know’ holds water, I do think a writer should ‘know what they write’ which is a different thing and assumes writers do their research meticulously. I don’t think a writer who sets their work in the past or in a foreign country needs to be an expert, but they should make sure they don’t make glaringly obvious errors. Also, I am more likely to be annoyed if the blurb or the notes about the author try to suggest expertise.

Even fantasy or sci fi needs to be grounded in some kind of reality. I once abandoned the notion of having two moons on a world when I realised I would need to alter all references to tides, seasons, etc. Fairies and aliens work best when they follow ‘laws’ made clear in the story and not random ideas that have appealed to the author as pretty or interesting. If it’s a truly alien or alternate world, it needs internal consistency and sensible natural rules.

*Things I am less keen on but will try.
I am a lover of fantasy but I am not at all keen on books where the main character ends up crossing into another world or reality. I have read a few where it worked, but it’s not my favourite genre.

The same goes for time travel where I find it hard to suspend disbelief.

Mpreg is only acceptable for me if there’s a sensible scientific explanation e.g. an alien race with fluid gender roles, an experiment on humans, an alternative universe where this is the norm.

I am less than fond of vampires (I have read some good ones but hate Anne Rice…), the invasion of earth by monstrous aliens (they need to stay on other planets where the likes of SG1 or SGA can deal with them), and most m/m/f menage tropes. I am also reluctant to read about either zombies or superheroes. I think I like my protagonists to be flawed and human or ‘normal’ within their non-human community.

*Too much explicit sex.
I have no desire for a return to the ‘fade to black’ fashion of writing, whether the romance/marriage/hook-up/whatever is m/m, m/f, f/f or any permutation. However, I want the sex scenes to further either the plot or the character development. If they appear to be merely there for titillation, I skim them, and if they appear too often or are too long, I usually abandon the story. I don’t find the ‘tab A into slot B’ approach to sex scenes hot, in the least, just boring. I am much more interested in the emotions engendered by the sex (or lack of it). Some of my favourite romances don’t get the protagonists into bed until near the end of the story.

*Too much explicit violence.
Although I enjoy crime books and thrillers, I don’t particularly want battle or gore dwelled on lovingly by the writer or the film maker. I tend to skim or look away if any kind of violence lasts too long, and complex battle scenes pass me by in a blur. This probably explains my own difficulties in writing such scenes, even short ones, and I do realise they are sometimes needed to further the plot, but that doesn’t stop me hating them!

Also, while I will read some BDSM, I personally can’t cope with kinks involving things like blood, enemas, excreta, etc. The sex doesn’t have to be vanilla but I have personal limits though I understand that they really are personal and that violence and gore may appeal to some readers and can be well written. Also, I will read about darker things if they are essential to a crime investigation but still don’t like them described in too much detail. For instance, I can read about a detective seeing the aftermath of violence or even a pathologist finding out what happened, but don’t want a blow-by-blow account of the killer’s actions as they happen.

*Too much purple prose and too much description.
Descriptions are all the better for being sparse. Adjectives are overused by a lot of writers just starting out – maybe a hangover from their schooldays when they were encouraged to use too many, presumably to increase their vocabulary and add at least some interest to whatever they were producing.

In a novel, over-description jars the reader. Even world building, which is essential, is better done in very small increments with a lot left to the imagination. We do not need to know every detail of what every character (even minor ones) is wearing, and nor do we need an estate agent’s description of a building or its surroundings. Too many modern writers seem to think that descriptions of clothing will introduce characters to their readers. Actually, for me, it doesn’t work. I am so hung up on trying to visualise the dress, shoes, etc. that it’s hard to get back to what is being said or done. When I meet someone in real life I rarely notice every detail of their outfit though I might focus on a particularly attractive tie or scarf and on a general colour scheme. So I don’t expect to be forced to concentrate on itemised clothing when I meet a character in text, either. (I really don’t need to know what a detective is wearing at the scene of a crime, though it might be more relevant if he has to work under cover.)

Film makers are better in this respect. They get someone to make sure the costumes and location are perfect then just let them speak for themselves to the viewer. Basically, we would notice if things clashed or were not true to the period (which might actually be important if the character liked them that way). Otherwise, we can just leave them in their proper place, the background.

*****

It might seem surprising, in view of the above list, that I find so many books and films to love! That just means there are some seriously good writers and directors out there and they make me very happy indeed.

Book covers I have liked.

A friend and fellow writer on FB tagged me to do a meme. The instructions were to post seven book covers that you liked or were influential in your life, with a brief explanation, then tag other writers to do the same. This was to take place over seven consecutive days. Apart from the problem of getting my head around logging in and posting every day, which, incidentally, I managed, I was a bit worried because I lost a lot of my favourite or most important books in our fires in Portugal, and had to do a lot of googling to get approximate versions of the covers I wanted to use. It was hard to choose the covers. A lot of the books I read early in life had plain covers, and I can’t quite remember when modern covers became the norm. Also, I might like a book but not the cover, or vice versa. I decided to go with the first seven that pushed their way to the front of my mind. I thought you might be interested, so here they are. Obviously, if you read the FB posts you can now stop reading this!

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My first cover is of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Tolkien’s trilogy. I ought perhaps to say that most of my books as a child and teenager had plain covers – often faux leather or the Penguin coded ones – and this came as an intriguing surprise. My own copy looks like this but is grey with black, white and red; I don’t currently have a scanner and Amazon don’t apparently have the old version. The elvish script and the way the shape reflects the title, the hint of exotic lands, heroic deeds and a group adventure – these all appealed to me as soon as I saw the book. I had no idea in advance what it would look like – a school friend had recommended it and I requested it as a Christmas present. It is a gift that has kept on giving, as I have read it numerous times, and have referred to the maps and notes when reading The Hobbit and after watching the films. My son-in-law assures me that if I hadn’t actually read my copies of the books they would now be valuable. They are valuable to me, in any case!

My second cover is perhaps a cheat. I have lost my copy, so even if I had a scanner I couldn’t scan it. So I looked on Amazon, in vain, and then googled images. This comes nearest but is not quite as I remember it.
George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin was written in 1870 but still appealed to me when I came across it in the 1950s. The cover hinted at the themes of good and evil, of a child learning about hidden things, and of magical beings. I know my cover had the ‘fairy godmother’ element, and was, like this, a plain cover with a picture superimposed – actually stuck on – in the centre. I’m not sure it was exactly this one; I seem to remember more blueness.
I enjoyed the book and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie. I was never encouraged to read ‘fairy stories’, though perhaps this one was an exception because the author originally published it in a Christian magazine. This may or may not explain my current addiction to fantasy and all things fae! Anyway, I loved the story, though not really for the ‘good and evil’ aspect that the author was perhaps trying to emphasise. I loved the idea of the hidden world of goblins, of their possible interaction with ‘reality’ and the idea that an ordinary girl, albeit a princess, could be introduced to that world. I loved the cover, partly because of liking the contents, but also for its promise of secrets. It’s a precursor of stories like Mary Norton’s Borrowers and Pratchett’s Truckers for younger readers and CJ Cherryh’s Goblin Mirror for adults. It also echoes a variety of traditional tales such as the one about the elves and the shoemaker. I was, I remember, reminded of AA Milne’s Christopher Robin poem about the brownies who might have lived behind the nursery curtain.

Day three. My choice of cover is The Warden by Anthony Trollope. It is, of course, the first in the Barchester Chronicles, a series I loved before the BBC found it. I like the way this cover shows me a picture of rural England and suggests I can enter it and get to know the people and places in the books. It doesn’t try to impose a portrait of any of the characters, either from an artist’s imagination or from a film version, but lets me create them in my own mind. I originally borrowed the books from a friend and from the library, then my daughter bought me a set, (none of which had this cover). In any case, my copies were lost in the fire.
I enjoy the slow unfolding of Barchester life with its sense of place, the gradual character development, and the way the stories never follow traditional tropes or paths but grow out of the characters and their surroundings. I think I prefer Trollope to Austen, though it’s a close call. At any rate, I prefer both to Dickens or Eliot at least partly because there is less high drama and more recounting of gentle individual joys and sorrows. I like nineteenth century novels with their measured pace, so at odds with present day ideas of story-telling. I like modern novels too, but variety is good!

My fourth cover has to be The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, the book that introduces the Discworld series. Paul Kidby’s covers (to the whole series) complement the stories. Both the illustrations and the stories are detailed, funny, wise, and refreshing. They teach us about ourselves and our world in the guise of fantasy tales and pictures, and repay frequent visits! I had all the books and have rescued some. I also had a calendar of covers which might still be around, buried in a box. I love looking at the pictures and finding the characters mentioned in the story. Needless to say, I love the books, too. I love all their covers and have just chosen this first one to represent the rest.

For the fifth day I’ve chosen The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. This was the cover of the copy I had (before the fire) but my version was a softback. It was quite hard to read in the physical sense – heavy, and difficult to keep open, with shiny pages that didn’t do my eyesight any favours. I had to use a lap tray and be careful about lighting. However, I loved the book and the cover seems to point to the wonders within! I can be irritated with the typical Dawkins stridency about all kinds of things revolving round evolution (even though I agree with him) but this is a purely factual book, presenting the latest in research. It is structured in a way that echoes The Canterbury Tales, which is amusing and holds the reader’s interest. Dawkins and his co-writer Yan Wong take the reader from the very beginning of life on our planet to the present day, taking their time, and exploring all kinds of byways as they go. I enjoy reading about biology, and evolution, and this book is excellent. It is also perfectly accessible to the ‘lay’ person, even though the research is, of course, excellent. If I repurchase it, I will not be going for the landscape softback edition even though the orientation suits the illustrations. It was too hard to deal with, and as a new copy would be mainly for reference purposes, a ‘normal’ book would almost certainly suit me better.

My sixth cover is for A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It’s a straightforward romance though it’s far more than that and it’s very long (and very satisfying).The story concerns an Indian girl from a ‘good’ family, and the search for the right bridegroom. In the course of the novel the heroine and the reader meet a variety of possible husbands, and it is interesting that the western reader’s choice might well be quite different from the eventual decision reached by the heroine and her family. The book follows the numerous suitors’ lives in some detail, and gives us a lot of insight into life and culture in modern India, including politics, religion and gender issues. I loved the novel, was deeply immersed in the various lives and loves, and was quite startled by the final approval of the suitable boy. My copy (lost) had this cover, which I think gives a good idea of the contents: a gateway to the world of the upper class Indian in the second half of the twentieth century, not long after the partition from Pakistan. The peacock represents India, of course, but also refers to some of the candidates for Lata’s hand, as well as, perhaps, to Lata herself.

My final cover is one I do not possess (and have never had it) but which is firmly on my wish list. Harry Potter – A History of Magic, produced by the British Library, is the book of the exhibition. I don’t often visit London and when I did, I was unable to get a ticket to the exhibition at a convenient time, but I saw the television programme based on it, and would love to have the book. I’d like the hardback version because I know I’d be using it as a reference book and for me, neither e-books nor paperbacks are adequate for that purpose on a long term basis. I love the cover. The phoenix encapsulates the Harry Potter connection plus the theme of ideas rising from unlikely or unusual origins to create a tradition of magic. Since some of my writing involves fantasy and magic, I would hope to find inspiration and information within the text and illustrations. The television programme was tantalising and has raised my expectations.