Saturday, December 31, 2011

KIVA - helping people to help themselves

Model representing peasant woman

KIVA is a charity which uses tiny loans from ordinary people like me and you, to help people in developing countries realise their dreams of small business enterprises. They have business plans and they pay back the loans so we give to charity and get the money back over a fixed period. At the moment my loan is enabling a woman sheep-farmer in Peru to improve her livestock. For less money than I just spent on hair-slides, I've helped someone to help herself.

It is difficult to talk about a charity without sounding like spam mail, the sort that offers free gifts and huge prizes but after two years involved in KIVA, I would like to give this organisation some publicity and talk from my personal experience. It really does seem to be working. I have put loan money into the system three times via Paypal and had full repayment each time, when I have put it back into the system to help someone else.

So, what's the catch? I am very cynical about charities and I checked out as much detail as I could to see where the money was going. I have three issues about charities in general

1) Charities support social systems which should not exist, instead of challenging them. I already pay taxes, which go to the state security system, which SHOULD be providing for the disadvantaged in our own society and, through international loans, to less developed countries.

KIVA is offering support to individuals in less developed countries who have a practical plan to improve their own lives and, by knock-on effect, their communities. I am lending money to someone like me, which I don't see as being virtuous, just a practical way of contributing to the world community. The saying goes 'Give a man a fish, and he will eat once. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime' KIVA is supporting the fishermen, enabling them to buy rods and boats, to continue the analogy. These are all people who know how to fish already - or in the case of my gutsy sixty year old Peruvian lady, how to run a sheep farm. My taxes do not do support these people and I have no control over where my tax money goes. Also, the amount of money is hairslide money to me - business expansion for a Peruvian woman. And I get paid back!

2) Middle-men make profits from the charity and even with well-intentioned, principled organisers, 90% (or whatever figure) of most of the input goes on administration.

KIVA does have middle-men. They choose borrowers with workable business plans, they manage the loans and the repayments, the website information and updates. Yes, they get paid. If I get my money back, where does their money come from? The borrowers. There are high rates of interest to borrow my money, up to 17%. This is open information and has been challenged. KIVA's response is that this is an acceptable rate in the designated country, that banks would not give loans at all to these borrowers and that the repayment is negotiated according to what the borrower can manage, extended as necessary. The bottom line is that the borrower is happy, and, answering the initial concern, if you deduct the 17% from our loans, then the borrower is getting 83% of what we loan - that compares very well with other models of charity organisation.

3) Do they do what they say? I believe that education and supporting those who are independent CAN change the world, whereas helping the poor and starving - however important this is in humanitarian terms - will never change the world. Support those who can then support others is my principle for change. I want any extra money for charity, additional to taxes, to make a difference tomorrow not just today. I dropped out of one 'Sponsor a child' charity, where I thought I was paying towards a child's education in Nepal, because the feedback was so confused that I no longer believed I was supporting the named child whose photo I'd been given. I lost faith in that charity.

So far, with millions of borrowers, and personal contact by some of them, KIVA has delivered what it says it does. If I find otherwise, I will be the first to say so.

1) You need Paypal and you need to be willing to loan a minimum of 25$ so if you 'live' in another currency, you'll lose on the exchange rate and you can sometimes lose on the exchange rate even if you pay in dollars. I've been paid back in full each time but with some borrowers you are told there is a risk of not receiving full repayment. I've accepted a risky borrower and still been paid back.

2) You get informed of each repayment but it stays in a separate KIVA pot  in Paypal and only gets moved back into your main Paypal total if you request this. This is fine if you are 'collecting' the money until you are repaid in full and then putting it back into the system but it means you have to do something to access that money. I suspect it's a way of encouraging people to keep in the loop and loan the money each time.

3) You can give KIVA loans as presents, which means the recipient gets the fun of choosing a borrower and you put the loan money upfront. If the recipient doesn't get round to it after a year, KIVA chooses the borrower, so money isn't wasted. This is a great idea and I've tried it once, but I'm not sure how the repayment works, whether it goes to the giver or the recipient - in which case, what happens if he/she doesn't have Paypal?

If you are new to KIVA and want to try it out, there are a limited number of free loans to women borrowers available here There are borrowers of both sexes in KIVA but as women have far more difficulties getting loans and starting/developing businesses in the countries involved, there is a higher percentage of women in the KIVA programme.

If I've misrepresented KIVA, or if you want to add your own experiences, feel free to comment.

Homeless man

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Democracy and book reviews - yours matter

Are you more likely to buy a book if it is recommended by

a) a household name superstar?
b) a well-known author/journalist?
c) your friend?
d) an unknown online reviewer/Blogger?
e) a lot of people online?

I have only just realised how my own habits as a reader are changing, so of course I am thinking about what this means for me as a writer.

In life before computers, I used to read book reviews in newspapers, and I also used to notice the quotations on a book's cover. If I liked Writer X and Writer X said 'The best historical novel this year' I'd give the book a try. I would also share book recommendations with friends who had similar reading tastes. So that puts the former me firmly in b) and c)

I'm still a c) person but I've ditched b) not just because I no longer read newspapers, not just because I'm cynical about the small mutual appreciation societies of the successful, but because I read reviews online, wherever they catch my eye. The big sites for me are amazon and goodreads but I also read reviews on smashwords and on online journals. Surely online journals are just a modern version of those newspapers of the past? Not so. There were perhaps a dozen newspapers for sale and not all of those had book reviews. Even if you add magazines, the number of publications was tiny compared with the explosion of online material. More publications and more reviewers, destroying that little clique of the past - or creating a million new little cliques, depending how you see things.

If I read a well-written review that tells me something about the book and gives a judgement on it that makes sense, I am definitely influenced. If I see ten such reviews, the book stays in my mind as one to read. d) and e) are becoming far more important and the only criterion for me is that the review itself tells me what I need to know. I don't care who the reviewer is, where he lives, how successful she is at her job - all I care about is the information on a book I might want to read. All that matters in a reviewer is the reading, and the reviewing. Democracy at work!

I know that authors are supposed to 'persuade' friends and family to write reviews, or sign up under pseudonyms and write their own. Apart from the difficulties thrown in their way by the book sites, this strategy has another disadvantage - you can tell if a review is phony. I can certainly tell. So as far as I'm concerned, if the review does its job I don't care whether it's written by the author or his granny, it's telling me what I want to know about the book. Comparing two reviews will usually show up a phony one.

Although I'm very grateful when friends or family like one of my books and post a review, I don't ask. I prefer to keep my friends and family rather than have them avoid me because a) I'll expect them to buy my latest book - 14 books cost a lot of money b) I'll want them to do homework on it after reading it.

I find myself writing more and more reviews because I know how much it matters, to the writer and to other readers. If I buy something on ebay, I leave feedback. It keeps ebay safe. If I read a book and take 2 minutes to star-rate it on goodreads, it keeps the book industry democratic. I have the right to vote; I should use it. Gone are the days when some white man in a public-school tie praised the work of some other white man in a public-school tie (or of course, trashed it, because that too can be part of the review game)

If you've read something you loved, say so and why. If you've read something you hated, say so and why. Your vote counts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And the winning balls are...

You remember I blogged about shooting an olive ball recipe for a magazine? Original blog here.  Usually there are a few photographers shoot the same recipe and there's no guarantee that one of your images will be chosen. That was the case with the other recipes required but no-one else shot the olive balls so it was a no-brainer that one of my shots would be chosen. Maybe blogging about it scared off the competition - I might test that again next year some time.

That left my images competing against ... my images. And the winner was ... drum roll

Looks like the combination of hero olive ball with party background met what was required. If you're interested in the shots of the other recipes, check out the details here. My pork stew lost out to jonathansloane's warm take on this but I'm sure Jonathan and I will cross swords again for a re-match in 2012 - may the yummiest image win!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cuddle last year's pup this Christmas

Pup of 2006 - Blanche-Neige de Neouvielle in November 2011

OK so she sometimes drives me round the twist, and it doesn't please me to know it's my own fault for accidentally encouraging her. She barks at every passing fly, eats everything unmentionable outdoors if I let her, and her habits in the kitchen would be great if she actually was the sous-chef she thinks she is - 'Mmm, that tastes good, a little more salt in that perhaps, and I'll just clear up this mess on the worktop here' (lick, slurp) 'OK, OK I'll lie down here like you've told me and just watch. Or maybe I'd rather lie down a bit nearer that cooker.' ( sneaky shuffle, lick, slurp)

What really takes me to the edge is her response to 'No, no, no.' She wags her tail and considers the matter. This means 'I hear you, just chill a bit while I decide what's best for both of us'. It's this independence of spirit that we all love - and hate - in a Pyrenean Mountain dog. Wouldn't it be lovely to start again with a cuddly fluffball puppy and get it right this time?

Despite all the advice, there will be puppies in new homes everywhere this Christmas. Here in France, the shelters are filling up with unwanted dogs. Yes, I'm sure that some of them are clearing the way for this year's puppy. Many shelters have even had open days just before Christmas from desperation at overcrowding, in hope that people will adopt a dog for Christmas - and not return it afterwards when it shows the qualities for which it was abandoned in the first place. The breeders I knew in the UK wouldn't let a puppy go to a new home until after Christmas; here I've seen puppies advertised as Christmas presents.

Yes, I'd love a puppy. But not instead of my puppy of 2006. We have a history together, nearly six years of learning each other's habits, good and bad. If she lies on her back and does kangaroo boxing with her back legs, while giving me 'the eye', that's an invitation to human-patou wrestling. If she has a sore spot, she trusts me to sort it for her. And if she tests me, that's for my own good, to keep me up to scratch. No puppy could replace her and she didn't replace the puppies before her. I'll be cuddling last year's puppy this Christmas.
by Pam Tanzey


Santa comes quietly long before dawn
While shops are still busy and lights are still on
While dinners are cooking and kitchens are warm
And children count presents they'll open by morn.

He slips past the trees in windows aglow
Through the gate to the backyard
As icy winds blow
To find the pup he brought last year
Chained up in the snow
And, kneeling, he whispers,
�Are you ready to go?�

There are too many stops like this one tonight
Before the beginning of his regular flight
He leaves not a note or footprint in sight
Just an unbuckled collar
On a cold Christmas night.....
This poem won the Maxwell Award for Excellence in Poetry
in 1998 from the Dog Writers Association of America

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happy Christmas to all my ex-pupils

Bad role model

'Tis the season for nostalgia and the cinnamon smells of mulled wine triggered a whole series of Proustian moments back in the classroom with thirty kids of varying degrees of bastardliness. If there were less than thirty kids, it was because the degree of bastardliness was proportionately increased per kid, according to the informed calculations of what, as a young teacher, I called 'the Head'. I have no idea why Christmas and mulled wine remind me of Room 13. The nose has its reasons.

I spent nine years in Room 13, after a year dreaming it might be mine one day, and you have no idea how much difference it makes to have a room of one's own. Forget that sissy writer stuff. I mean the sheer physical wear and tear of carrying bags and piles of books while running to get from one end of a large comprehensive school to the other, before the kids have killed each other while waiting for you. I've been back to do writing workshops in that same school and no-one seemed to notice that I left 22 years ago. My ghost still haunts Room 13 and classes even study one of my novels 'On the Other Hand.' This is strange and wonderful to me.

Things happened in my classroom. Not always good things, although the number of pupils who exited via the window has been vastly increased by rumour. There were only two, on different occasions, and it was a ground floor classroom, and home time. I only ever killed one animal, a pet mouse, and I didn't know it was in the schoolbag that I threw onto the floor in mock temper at bad behaviour. I am really very very sorry.

When people asked me what I taught, I always said, 'Children'. Youngsters between 11 and 18, more accurately. As a subject, I could never have taught anything other than English, which to me was a process, with freedom to choose content. As well as being taught by brilliant left-wing tutors at university (York), I was inspired by guest lecturers, including the great educationalists Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Freire taught Brazilian peasants to read and write, and was exiled for it. I never forgot that literacy was a political weapon. Illich taught me that schools can never include all the resources for learning that are out there in the world. I never forgot what education was for. The difficulty was to apply those ideals in a roomful of varying degrees of bastardliness. Not to mention the sexism in the staffroom.
Bad parents (probably overworked teachers)

Of course I didn't succeed and I learned more than any of the thousands of pupils who passed through my incompetent hands but we had some fun along the way and things definitely happened. Among my desperate attempts at motivation,  my favourites were:- the extended bank robbery, where an entire class of 13 year olds with literacy difficulties planned and acted out a bank robbery (using the big hall for what we called 'drama'); the blackmail letter written to the Headteacher by my class of 15 year olds for GCSE coursework, in which they pointed out the consequences of him selling wine to fellow Heads during 'meetings', with full details of said wine going into car boots (as seen from the window of Room 13); the 'yes, you can write about something else that interests you', which gave me a reasoned investigation into Kennedy's death and a greater knowledge of body-building, amongst the many many topics which my pupils felt I ought to know more about; and of course those sparky 18-year-old minds, in full literary debate over Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida', in role as Trojan princes, deciding whether Helen of Troy had come to represent some value that mattered, or whether she was an adulterous tart whom Paris should just give back to her husband to stop all the fighting.

Beware strangers online

The numbers add up. I've taught thousands of pupils, and - even more frightening - thousands of teachers. Looking back, the youngsters were far far more tolerant than the adults. They waited, bemused but patient, while I got over attacks of the giggles, even to the extent of falling off my chair on the teacher's platform. 19th century poetry was one of my weak spots - Keat's 'Pot of Basil' is a killer. Is there really some reader who thinks it's romantic to take your murdered lover's head back home, stick it in a plant pot and put basil on top of it? How big a plant pot would you need? If it fits the head it would be too big for your average basil plant. And basil is notoriously difficult to grow. Should I find a severed head to improve my basil-growing? And then muse fondly on it/him when I see how nice and green my basil is growing with all those nutrients? That's on a par with the medieval maiden who stashed her murdered lover under the bed, where he stayed for seven years until the opportunity for revenge came. No, my murdered lovers can stay nicely buried, thank you very much, like all my darkest secrets.

This is just to say thank you and Happy Christmas, to all those to whom I was once 'Miss', who've taught me so much. I also want to disclaim all responsibility for any of my pupils' subsequent careers in poetry, journalism, robbery or blackmail - your successes are entirely your own doing. If I could do it all again, I would, and I'd do it better,  but it wouldn't be half as much fun.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A lady's favour

Another extract from 'Song at Dawn'.

Read blurb on amazon

Dragonetz is Commander of the Guard and Troubadour to Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine, Queen of France, and Estela is the mystery girl Aliénor has required him to tutor. In this part of the story he is showing her his secret building project, a paper mill. At this time in Europe, only the Moors had the skills to make paper. 

That, my sweet Estela, is the beauty of it! I shall sell paper to the Church for enormous profit and I shall be fantastically rich! As shall my workers.’
Estela chewed the side of a finger, a bad habit she had kept from childhood. ‘The Church won’t like it,’ she stated.
‘No, they won’t.’
‘That makes a dangerous enemy.’ Estela stated the fact.
‘We’ve told him,’ Raoulf was gloomy. ‘But you can see what he’s like. The future pff!’ and he spat, coarsely. ‘The future will be my Lord’s body with a bolt through it!’
‘Ever the optimist!’ Dragonetz clapped Raoulf on the back. ‘That’s what you’re here for, you and your men, to watch my mill and watch my back. Speaking of which, this should make things even.’ With which enigmatic statement, he tore off his doublet and underthings so that he too was bare to the waist, then he grabbed Arnaut’s hand and dragged his unwilling man into a run. Shouting, ‘I said I owed him a ducking,’ Dragonetz ran the two of them straight off the edge of the bank into the river.
‘You mad whore-son,’ burst from Raoulf as he rushed after them to the bank, anxiously scanning the murky water for signs of life. Estela counted to thirty before two heads burst up above the surface, gasping, spouting and followed by thrashing arms. Arnaut twisted underwater, avoiding Dragonetz’ attempt to duck him again and came up at a safe distance, both men treading water and spluttering. ‘Come and join us, Estela,’  Dragonetz called to her.
‘Can’t swim,’ she yelled back.
‘What are you thinking of, bringing a Lady here!’ Raoulf shouted, purple with annoyance.
‘A Lady! I’d forgotten!’
‘Oh my God, no,’ groaned Raoulf.
‘Estela, my sweet, Arnaut wants to do combat and regain his pride – throw us a token.’

Without thinking, Estela pulled the bangle off her arm and threw it in a high arc to land equidistant from the two men. Neither wasted words but dived underneath, rippling the surface as they carved the water underneath. Another count, thirty, forty, Estela thought that Raoulf would explode, holding his own breath to see how long it was possible, then Arnaut broke surface, gasping, followed quickly by a triumphant Dragonetz whooping and waving the bangle in the air.

‘She’s not an ordinary Lady,’ he yelled, ‘she’s a Troubairitz! Ask her!’ And then he struck out for the bank, Arnaut following at a safe distance and after some horseplay with Dragonetz trying to prevent Arnaut getting out the water, both men stood dripping and laughing, pushing each other. Dragonetz waved the bangle, taunting and Arnaut stood, bent double, getting the words out with difficulty. ‘You always have to win, don’t you, even when you don’t want the prize!’

Dragonetz’ eyes glittered. ‘Always, Arnaut, always,’ and then he knelt in front of Estela, offering her the bangle back. She looked down on the black curly hair, bent in mock homage, the broad wet shoulders, the long tapered fingers reaching out to her, returning her token. She felt Arnaut’s stillness, the sunshine, the moment to which this day had been leading all along. She shut her eyes and felt for the lyric. If this were a song, how would it go? And then she knew what to do.

some of Jean Gill's books on Goodreads

Snake on SaturdaysSnake on Saturdays
reviews: 3
ratings: 51 (avg rating 4.75)

Song at DawnSong at Dawn
reviews: 1
ratings: 276 (avg rating 4.50)

Someone to Look Up toSomeone to Look Up to
reviews: 2
ratings: 185 (avg rating 4.50)

On the Other HandOn the Other Hand
ratings: 114 (avg rating 3.00)

A Small Cheese in ProvenceA Small Cheese in Provence
ratings: 3 (avg rating 0.0)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Extract from 'Song at Dawn' with author's notes

The real historical character Ermengarda (also known as Ermengarde, Ainemerda, or Ainemarda) was born in 1129 and died in Perpignan, 14 October 1197). She was ruler of Narbonne from four years old, from 1134 to 1192. In this extract from the novel Ermengarda is preparing for the visit of Aliénor, Queen of France, better known in English as Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the 12th century France was a small kingdom, with no power in Occitania (what we now know as the south of France). The Rabbi who enters at the end of the extract is also a real historical figure.

Read blurb on amazon
Extract from 'Song at Dawn'

Ermengarda, Viscomtesse of Narbonne, glanced idly through the narrow window, over the city wall to the River Aude, swollen with winter rain and snow melt flowing down from the mountains. Another few weeks and it would be time for the sheep to go back up from the plains to the heights for summer grazing. The reckoning from the harsh winter was being tallied daily in the ledgers of the clerks, who reported conscientiously to their mistress. They had no option as Ermengarda knew every last solidus in her coffers, and if Narbonne was the richest city in Occitania, it was in no small measure due to its ruler.

Today, however, Ermengarda had more pressing and personal concerns. Within the next day, few days, week, depending on how the journey went, she was expecting the Duchesse d’Aquitaine with a full entourage of Ladies and men-at-arms. The Palace had been preparing for weeks, storing grain, wine, hams; sweeping and strewing herbs in bedchambers; laying straw and placing troughs by empty stables. No detail was too small, from the Narbonne coat of arms on the heavy fabric newly draping the windows of Aliénor’s chambers, to the phials of oriental perfume by the bathing tubs.

Like the ducks. Ermengarda watched as a group of mallards seemed to float along with the current while their little legs were paddling for all they were worth.  And the paddling would continue for as long as Aliénor honoured Narbonne with her presence and with the requirement that Narbonne feed, quarter and entertain four hundred personnel. Ermengarda sighed. The timing was not good. Apart from the disastrous winter, her people were suffering in the wake of the great failure known as the Second Crusade.  Also considered by some, more specifically, as Aliénor’s great failure.

Narbonne relied on trade, and trade relied on trust and security. The sea-captains needed to set sail from their safe harbour without fear of being attacked by Genoese pirates when they’d barely left the bay, and in the certainty of re-victualing and repairing boat damage while they bought Moorish goods in the spice ports of Oltra mar. In addition to the sea-ways, overland routes had to be safe from thieves and brigands. And now look at the state of things! Every day her captains and merchants brought Ermengarda new problems;  news of peaceful traders imprisoned, tortured and disfigured in deliberate reprisals against any Christians; news of safe routes barred by weather and wreckers. Everywhere, the balance for which she worked so hard shifted into insanity. Soon the trading season would begin in earnest and she must use all of her connections to repair the damage as best she could.

So, how did she feel about Aliénor coming? They had last met before the Crusade, Aliénor blazing with the passion of her adventure and Ermengarda full of misgivings, like a spectre at a wedding, a crone spreading ill-will and evil omens with her caution and reservations. Having been right gave her no pleasure now and she was slow to judge Aliénor as harshly as much of the world judged her. This elegant woman, her senior by ten years, had dazzled fourteen-year old Ermengarda with her intellect and exquisite taste, had shared her inside knowledge of the most powerful men in the land along with her secret recipes for cheek rouge, had called her a friend – and still did.

But even at fourteen, Ermengarda had her own hard-earned understanding of powerful men – and women – and she never forgot that Aliénor’s authority, over however great a realm, was harnessed in uneasy pairing with the King of France, Louis, while she, Ermengarda, was Narbonne. There was no doubt that Aquitaine was Aliénor’s but to what extent did Aliénor belong to Aquitaine? Her eye had roamed to France and rumour said she was still not satisfied.

Rumours. Ermengarda collected rumours along with the daily reckoning of accounts. It was impossible that Aliénor could have carried out half that she was credited or blamed for Oltra mar, overseas, but even so she had played a part that ran to twenty verses in the latest songs, some versions of which had been banned for the coming visit. Although Aliénor might be amused by the stories of herself riding bare-breasted with her Amazons to hack down the Infidels, Ermengarda did not think that a kind hostess would encourage the singing of ‘the whore of Antioch’ in which Aliénor’s trips to her uncle’s bed became increasingly lewd. Whether she had actually made those trips to her uncle’s bed was one of the many little details that might become clearer after Ermengarda saw Aliénor again. Could it have happened? It seemed more likely to Ermengarda than the tale of the Amazon army. It was important to know what you were called behind your back and Ermengarda knew perfectly well that she was ‘the shopkeeper’ and Aliénor ‘the whore’. To some extent she would always be a shopkeeper, Ermengarda acknowledged.

Her thoughts flowed downstream with the Aude. The ducks’ apparent serenity had been short-lived and five male mallards were attacking each other viciously in their attempt to mate the one female. Ermengarda watched as two males, still fighting each other, held the female underwater in their mating frenzy and drowned her.  Be careful, Aliénor, be very careful. Not all lovers go down on their knees.

A respectful knock called her attention. Time to attend to the shop window and make sure that Narbonne looked every inch the jewel of the Mediterranean. She hoped Aliénor would have the good sense to send riders ahead that would give her at least one day’s warning of the onslaught. But of course. She smiled. That charming Dragonetz would be the one to send ahead. And he would be sure to remember the sort of courtesy that put her in a good mood.
‘Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, you may enter,’ she instructed. To business.

Author's Note on the historical background
When I discovered Ermengarda, I really admired her strength as a ruler during such a brutal period in history. Contrary to the northern laws, women in Occitania could inherit titles and were taught how to manage their own lands. This was also true of the more famous Aliénor of Aquitaine but the more I found out about Aliénor, the less I was sure I liked her. The reverse was true of Ermengarda and I can't believe how absent she is from the history books. 
As factual background, I highly recommend the book 'Ermengarda of Narbonne and the world of the troubadours' by Frederic L. Cheyette

When actual historical figures appear in the narrative, I used historical fact whenever I could find it, and then added detail which fits with historians' research. The 12th century left little in writing so both fact and interpretation are widely disputed by historians, leaving room for a novelist to explore what might have happened. There is no record of Aliénor visiting Narbonne but it is certainly possible in the dates I have suggested, and it seems likely that she and Ermengarda would have formed an alliance. Also, the notion that Aliénor brought sugar back from the Crusades and made it part of Narbonne's trading goods has some evidential support, linking Aliénor strongly with Narbonne.
Aliénor is of course known in English as Eleanor but I have tried to keep the flavour of the period by retaining French or Occitan names, unless this confuses the narrative. Spelling of names was arbitrary and every other male ruler in Occitania was called Raymond so I have used the different language spellings to try to distinguish between the various Raymonds, who would in fact all have enjoyed every spelling possible at the time.
Although Estela and Dragonetz are completely fictional characters, they live in the real world and events of the 12th century, which I have recreated to the best of my ability.  All the lyrics in the book are from existing texts attributed to different troubadours but where the historical troubadours appear in the narrative, such as Marcabru, his lyrics are indeed his own.  Again, he could have been in Narbonne at this time. Amazingly, the Prince of Orkney did indeed call at Narbonne and write heroic verse for Ermengarda at roughly this date.
In Occitania (now the south of France and north of Spain) it was a time when Muslims and Jews shared their amazing science, medicine, engineering, technology and even philosophy. Some Christians, like Dragonetz, recognized the future; others preached hellfire and damnation. Among the heathen inventions which drew the wrath of the Church, threatening its coffers and its monopoly on the word, was paper.
The medieval Church was so successful in stamping out the production of paper in Christian Europe that it took 200 years before the knowledge of the 12th century re-appeared, leading to that freedom of thought across time that we call a book. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Awards, prizes and competitions

Good news for 'Song at Dawn' Literature Wales has mailed me to say it's eligible for the 'Wales Book of the Year 2011' and has asked for 5 copies of the book for the judges. I am chuffed to bits for three reasons; Wales is my adopted country and if it didn't rain all the time, I would still be living there, so I am proud to be Welsh-enough. Secondly, it is a hot award to be in the running for, and thirdly, I take it as a big compliment when someone invites me to submit my writing for anything. It happens to me now and then with poetry that I get asked if I'll contribute to an anthology, and it's almost like being a real writer when it happens. I've been published every which way except bestselling (yet) but I still hate the process of submission and rejection, whether to publishers/literary agents, or for competitions and awards. However, what you don't enter, you can't win, so if I come across an opportunity for any of my writing, I consider it.

What makes the Wales Book of the Year so hot, in my view? 1) great, varied company on that list of books entered 2) my kind of prize 3) if you're eligible, simple submission

Awards, competitions and prizes are good for publicity and make you feel good if you win this particular lottery but you'd be surprised how often 1,2 and 3 add up to a rip-off or just a predictable waste of your time.

1) Your name on any list of authors is publicity but you do get judged by the company you keep. The Wales Book of the Year  authors are a mix of people I've never heard of, a couple of big names and people who've been to my house for tea or shared a dire performance at a Pembrokeshire pub. It's amazing how many people feel the need to go for a pee when I reach a particularly moving part of a long poem. When we poets go on the road, audience response can reach new lows.

I think my worst performance was on the 3rd day of a festival in a field in mid-Wales. I'd been paid to give a poetry workshop but, it being the third day and all, by the time I tramped across the mud and past the hippy teepees, I was almost high myself from passive smoking. I found the 'creative tent' and when some guy asked if I had some paper, I thought I had a customer, but no, he just wanted to roll his own. As a feeble attempt to earn my pay, I went into the tea tent, stood on a chair and declaimed 'For you I tamed nine tigers.' There was no rapturous applause but at least I wasn't stoned. Everyone else was. I got down from my chair and squelched back to the car, and home.

I like hanging out with authors whose very names fill me with awe. It feels good to say that my poems were published in the same anthology as Margaret Atwood's and there are writers for whom I have just as much respect, on that Literature Wales list. What's more, they're part of my history.

John Barnie, then Editor of Planet, rejected the first poem I sent him and wrote screeds of constructive criticism on his rejection reply, with the invitation to send more. Going the extra mile makes him a special editor and he did publish some of my poems. I met Ifor Thomas at one of those Pembroke pub performances and I've never forgotten what he suggested to do with clingfilm, nor the fact that his toilet was too depressed to clean itself after his girlfriend left. Herbert Williams and I did school workshops together and compared notes on the 14year old thug who wrote his heart out for us strangers. It was Herbert who won the Cinnamon Press Novella Award the year one of my manuscripts, 'Crystal Balls',  was shortlisted. And if you want a big name, try Gwyneth Lewis, Wales' first national poet, just as well know for her autobiographical 'Sunbathing in the Rain: a cheerful book about depression'

I miss the writing scene in Wales. It is alive and inspiring, for both readers and writers, in English and in Welsh. So it is important to me to be Welsh-enough to join that list. Being there is already an Award. Although actually my name isn't there yet and I've checked 53 times today so far.

2) The Wales Book of the Year prize is big money (and a trophy). I would like to win lots of money (trophy optional) because money would give my writing status and big prize money attracts good competition (See 1) Also because I don't have enough money not to enjoy having more.

You'd be surprised how many competitions have prizes I'd pay not to win. I'm sure there are people who want to win 4 months writing retreat in a Benedictine monastery but I am not one of them.

My favourite prize to go after used to be 'publication' but now I'm self-publishing I no longer want to have my baby published as a pamphlet by a 19th century printing press in Newcastle (no offence to Geordies - I've seen equal historically accurate and unsaleable publications in Yorkshire)

3) Eligibility. It took me a while to realise that 99.99% of awards and competitions for writers have regulations specifically drawn up to exclude me. I am either too old or too young; the wrong race, nationality or religion (lacking any); resident of the wrong country; self-published, or having a publisher in the wrong country. When I do fit the criteria, it usually turns out that was for the year before and they've been changed to make sure I can't enter. As self-publishing becomes a choice for more and more authors, rather than a last desperate attempt to get your Mum to read your book, I think awards and prizes will change but many Awards require publisher nomination.

The daft thing about this is that anyone can set up as a publisher, and many have, and happily bring out his/her own books. One writer even posed as her own Literary Agent to add gravitas to her book, which became a bestseller (after she spent 10,000 pounds sterling on marketing and, in a year off paid work, visited bookshops all over the UK claiming she was a local author to get her book onto the shelves - this was in the days when there were still bookshops).

If you are eligible, you then check out the submission requirements. I'm happy to send a book or five, if they're going to be read as part of a serious award or competition, but it does cost money, Small publishers do not check awards and competitions but will enter books for you if you pay. This does cost money. Some of the biggest prizes in the writing business demand not only books but cash upfront from publishers. This can cost very very big money. At one stage there was a prize which guaranteed big sales from the major publicity and bookshop commitment (= future money) in return for something like 12,000 pounds. I tried to find the details on this but I think it's a prize that was discontinued and I can't check up the facts now.

Small presses keep going by charging entry for competitions; are you willing to pay 20 pounds to get someone to even read your manuscript? Your choice. Big prizes often charge big money so that only big publishers (or rich writers) can afford to submit books.

This is why I like the Wales Book of the Year Award. If you are eligible, you submit 5 books and 3 judges choose the best. The mystery remains as to what happens to the extra 2 books. Is this in case 2 get eaten by the dog/run through the washing-machine?

Finally, if you've submitted work for an award or competition, CHECK THE PRIZE-GIVING DATE! Do NOT book a holiday in Venice for exactly the same date on which you win two prizes in the same damn international writing competition otherwise, because you wish to stay married, you will be mooching along the Grand Canal instead of wearing a strapless dress and tearfully thanking your parents, said husband and the dog, in front of London's finest.

Of course you're not going to win. It's a lottery. But sometimes you do. I won the prize for children's writing and the prize for journalism in the London Writers' inc annual competition one year and missed the ceremony. On the other hand, the prize money wouldn't have paid for the journey, or even the posh dress, and I did get to be in an anthology with very good company.

I'll just check whether my name has gone onto that Literature Wales list yet.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing my new novel

Me at work

I am not Amanda Hocking. She is 27 years old and a self-published kindle millionaire (book sales, not money), the epitome of success in the new publishing world. I am none of these things but neither am I troubled by these aspects of her life and career as a writer. What sent me into traumatic self-doubt was reading an article about her stating that she writes a book in 2-4 weeks. Is this one of the new 'short books' in vogue? Not according to amazon data. The two of her books I looked up kicked in at over 300 pages in print version.

I reckon this makes her 6-100 times more productive than I am, depending on whether she keeps writing at this pace, one book after another. If you want to make money, it is definitely better to write like Amanda Hocking than the way I do, and the only advice I can give you is to go and read Amanda Hocking's blog. But there are many different reasons for writing and many different ways to write, without even starting a debate about quality, so I'll let you in on my secret life over the next year.

After Christmas, I'm going to start writing my next novel, and I expect to finish it by the end of 2012 and revise it in 2013. Why don't I just start, rather than set a rough starting date? Because once I start, I become immersed in the world of my novel, obsessive, protective of the 3 hours a day (roughly) that I dedicate to my writing, obsessive, irritated by interruption, contemptous of any trivial concerns relating to the 21st century, obsessive. You get the idea. Of all this, the only really bad thing about writing a book is that it stops me writing a different book.

Let's assume I will live and write for another 26 years (An online quiz told me that my life expectancy was 82 so it seems reasonable to base calculations around that). On average, I take a year to write a book and a year in between books for research/brain food/revision/publication/marketing; longer for a historical novel because the research is a bigger job. This means I will probably only write 13 more books, and that's assuming I don't get the dreaded writer's block. I have hundreds of ideas for books written on scruffy scraps - bits of envelope, shopping lists, minutes of educational meetings, hotel bills - all stuffed in a drawer of my desk. When I start writing a book, it is a bigger commitment than marriage. All right, perhaps not quite as big a commitment as marriage, but it cuts out so many other emotional adventures you could have had. At least for me it does.

Three years ago, I was ready to start writing a novel but I could only narrow my favourite ideas down to five and it hurt to choose. I outlined the plots to my husband and said 'Which do you fancy?' He said 'The one about the troubadour girl with the big white dog.' And so 'Song at Dawn' started. The idea for that book was sparked by my reading for pleasure an American book on women troubadours, which stated in the introduction, 'It was rumoured that a female troubadour toured the south of France with a large white dog.' How could I not want to write that story, given my relationship with Pyreneans! Another quote that stuck in my mind was 'Troubadours were the rock stars of the middle ages.' And so I imagined Dragonetz and of course fell in love with him myself.

I have thought again about the claims of all those neglected ideas in my desk but Dragonetz' hold is too strong and I need to go back to the 12th century. I have another story to tell.

My TOP TEN Writing Tips,  for Myself (because everyone is different)
1. Know what you're writing about.
That's not the same as 'write about what you know'. I'm writing about the 12th century and I knew little about this period before I researched 'Song at Dawn'. I also like to know the places where my story is set and if I haven't been there, I look up maps, read travel books, bring the place to life in my head. I have no idea why it matters to me to be as realistic as possible but it does.

2. Know what it is you're writing.
If you're writing a full novel, it helps to know that it's likely to be 80,000 words or more and to have some idea of how the story in your head will play out in that number of words. If you're writing a minisaga of under 500 words for a competition, it's a little different. When I have an idea I just know whether it's going to be a poem, a play, a short story or a novel - I've written and published all of them. Experience helps, as does reading widely and learning your craft. Writers' groups are good, whether online or down the local bookshop once a month (like we do). Make the crucial decisions of a) Point of view (1st or 3rd person, or even (rarely) 2nd?); whose viewpoint to start with and are you going to switch viewpoint? b) Tense (past or the increasingly popular present tense? c) Structure (chronological, flashbacks,dual time-line?) - so many choices. Now you're ready to begin, or rather to spend hours on the beginning, because everyone knows the beginning is crucial.

3. Know when to plan and when not to.
I often have a whole scene in my head but a sketchy idea of before and after. Sometimes that scene has changed by the time the plot gets there, sometimes I cut it but often, magically, the scene works. I jot down brief reminders of such scenes, or parts of plot, or character background and keep a whole jumble of notes in a Word file,  that I use and edit as I work. Stories simmer in my head, sometimes for years, and then suddenly take on the structure needed. If everything is planned before you write, your story is dead. If nothing is planned, there's no suspense and you don't get a 'page-turner.'

4. Let the characters live and breathe.
One of the elements that creates a real story is when your characters insist on behaving in ways you hadn't planned. You don't write dialogue; your characters really speak. Those unexpected turns are part of the pleasure of writing not just part of the pleasure in reading. And that goes for all your characters. You have to get into the skin of vile people as well as attractive ones and it can be a very disturbing experience.

5. Don't judge it or revise it; write it until it's finished.
One day you'll think it's crap, the next day you'll think it's brilliant. It's neither. An old piece of advice that I took to heart was 'Don't get it right, get it written.' I know that I get into the flow of writing and my right brain takes over so I'm not even conscious of writing or of time - I'm living my story. Judging and revising need your left brain and that interrupts the flow. One thing I find awkward writing a historical novel is being stuck on a period detail while I'm really into the story. Sometimes I'll look it up online at the time but often I'll just underline that bit and go back to it later to add/delete/change whatever I wasn't sure about.

6. Don't show what you're writing to anyone until it's finished. 
I used to make my poor husband read each chapter hot off the press. The pressure on both of us was horrible. I knew from his face when he didn't like something even if he learned how touchy I was about criticism while I was in mid-creation. Usually, he reads a book in about 6 hours so reading one over a year, a chapter every few weeks, was impossible, even without being expected to make wonderful comments and be constructive in any criticism. It's a miracle we're still together but now I do have the self-discipline to wait a year for my first reader - and my first reader is still the same one, who's been with me from my first published poem, 26 years ago.

7. Don't submit other books to publishers while you're in mid-creation. 
Of course I can take rejection! I have drawers full of them! I use them constructively to improve my work, to motivate me when I know an editor wrote a personal comment, and I target publishers to try again! Yeah, right.  Not only do I hate them but they stop me writing, sometimes for a week or two. They wasted my creative time to make all those stupidly complicated submission details, tailored to that particular publisher, and it's usually obvious that no-one even looked at what I sent. A friend of mine hand-delivered his MS (which is a great book!) to a London literary agent and received it back by post in the self-addressed, stamped envelope the afternoon of the same day.

8. Pace yourself and avoid brain-drain activities 
This is one reason I love photography. I can write and then shoot. They are different activities. Shooting is so much of the present moment, instant results, instant feedback. I can go out walking the dog (with or without camera) and it doesn't stop me writing. But reviewing books, running and preparing my writers' group, marketing my published books, and probably blogging - we'll see! - are activities that drain my writing energy. So I put my book first and catch up on other things in the in-between-books year. I am a morning person and I prefer to write for about three hours in the morning, after breakfast and dog-walking, every day of the week I can.

9. Stop writing when you know what is going to happen next. This is my favourite tip because it makes me happy when I write and I'm sure it prevents writer's block. I stop writing for the day at a point when I know exactly what I'm going to write next. Sometimes I write a note to myself about the next passage. I really look forward to writing what I already have in my head and the next day I can't wait to get going. If I get stuck, I work something out before I stop writing for the day, always.

10. Enjoy it. Laugh at your own jokes. As my husband and son tell me, someone has to. Be proud of what you've achieved in writing it at all. If it's any good, that's a bonus. Half the bestselling books published are crap in my view so who's to say what's good and what isn't?

11. Revise it. I know, I said 10 tips, but the 11th is the essential that no-one ever wants to do. You can pay as many pro editors as you like but only one person knows what your book should be like and that's you, so stop moaning and get back to work. It is much better to leave some time before revising your writing, whether it's a poem, a play or a novel. You will love your baby one day, hate it the next and you need distance to use your left brain and really work on it. Not just the spelling and punctuation - you can pay someone to do that. No, the pain is where you find inconsistencies of plot, character or just detail. Then there are awkwardly written passages that could be better.

Do your best and then let your baby go out into the world, to have its own adventures.

I never read books on how to write in case I find out I don't know how to write. However, while I was playing the authonomy game, I met the Impeccable Editor. Her advice is excellent and as long as her book is posted on authonomy, the opening chapters are here for free. I'm guessing Impeccable is a woman but that might just be my innate prejudice. I know for sure that Impeccable would be able to improve this Post because she is that rare being, an Editor

while I'm a writer and this is hot off the press so it is full of mistakes and I think it's great.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A hero olive cheeseball and friends

The cheeseballs really are rolling - all 6 variations that I uploaded were accepted by the inspectors. Which would you choose to go beside the recipe in a magazine? Feel free to choose or critique in a comment on the post. The answer will be on my Blog as soon after the 16th December as the buyer chooses. You can check out the competition here

Note that the bottom two have my hero olive cheeseball, neatly cut in two to show the olive and pepper stuffing. I didn't realise when I was shooting but unfortunately the two halves look like mad glass eyes on a lumpy brown monster so some of my images would be great for Hallowe'en or a children's party but not for a serious magazine. If I'd had more time or energy, I'd have exaggerated the effect and shot some crazy ones too. Instead I have some that are just bad.

The close-up I posted last time was accepted too so that's number 6



3. Eye level with hero olive cheeseball

4. tall person view with hero olive cheeseball


The deadline for the shoot isn't until 16th December so there is bound to be some competition by then. There's a lot of cameraderie amongst the food shooters who meet up in the Forums to respond to recipe requests so I usually play nice and post images early if I've had them accepted. This can backfire, like the time I posted before inspection and had straight rejections. Ouch! And obviously you're showing your hand so any little genius idea you've added might spark a better idea to trump yours.

I did shoot the pork stew too, for the same buyer, so I'll post those but I won't share the olive balls until nearer the deadline. I'm hoping no-one else will pick up on the New Year party favours idea so why make it easy for them? Of course if the competition read my blog, they're well ahead, and they can always check out my portfolio (Sort by Age to see the most recent). The truth is, the other food shooters are all so good they don't need my help but a little paranoia is good for business. Sometimes, the first images posted are just so good that everyone else wonders why they should bother but it's always interesting to compare takes on the same recipe.

There are 30,000 photographers selling over 8 million photos on
so competition isn't just fierce, it's life-threatening for those who make stock their livelihood. I'm glad I'm not one of them.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Designer Spotlight kudos for my book jacket

BUY book here

Woke up to some amazing news. I've been awarded 5 free credits to spend on photos and a new icon to go beside my silver canister on istock. My jacket design for 'Song at Dawn'  has made it to istock's Design Spotlight as the design of the week for other artists to view, rate and comment. That part is a bit scary but my shoulders are broad enough and I can certainly learn from constructive criticism. I love designing book jackets and this one was a real labour of love.

To make the design, I bought 6 images from istockphoto and used 1 of my own. The separate images and photographers can be seen on the Design Spotlight. Many thanks to
 for their superb images.

I cropped, isolated and combined the images, each one in a different layer in Photoshop. The key moment in composition was when I flipped the girl and all of a sudden, it all worked. I loved the magnetic gaze of the Tuareg from the moment I saw the photo and I can see the characters in my novel coming alive on this jacket, giving the combination of romance, adventure and medieval ambience that I was after. It's amazing how many photos of people in medieval costume just look like photos of people posing in medieval costume but the people I chose all seemed to me to have real presence. I realise that the Tuareg was not intended as a medieval persona but such traditional costume is timeless. My problem with the Tuareg was that the top of his head was cropped and I had to reconstruct his headgear. I also had to take the warrior tattoos off the knight's face - too Celtic for my place and period.

The last touch on the artwork was to change the colour completely from the original images - the cameo of the guard was in blue, the girl was in blue. Colorizing not only gave the ambience I wanted, it also integrated the different elements to make them part of the same story.

I used lulu's cover wizard to upload front and back covers, omitting the spine, sized from a previous book jacket of the same size. This left the spine as plain colour. The ISBN was automatically added to the back cover and I then downloaded the correctly sized pdf of the full jacket and, using masks and layers with my original design, I revealed the spine area and adapted its size a tad to make a homogeneous design. I then uploaded this to lulu as an advanced all-in-one design.

lulu does give exact measurements to create an all-in-one design but I was concerned about the exact requirement for the size of the ISBN. Working in this manner I was guaranteed the correct size of cover and ISBN.

First draft of the design, from the free comps you can download from istock, before I chose a different girl, flipped her round and changed all the colours