Burnt Toast Editorial

The #NoBullshit Publishing Consultancy

Category Archive:Writers

The changing writing scene in Dorchester by our guest writer, Dr Gail Aldwin.

When I started my journey to becoming a published author ten years ago, there was little or no support for writers where I lived in Dorchester.

Due to the Thomas Hardy connection, there has been a longstanding literary event in the form of a biennial International Thomas Hardy Festival and Conference, held over a 10-day period, usually at the start of the summer holidays. The Society originated from the first Thomas Hardy Festival held in 1968 to mark the 40th anniversary of Hardy’s death. The programme is varied and interesting with tickets for sale at individual events but the focus is on readers rather than writers.

Sue Ashby and Pat Yonwin set up the Dorset Writers Network in 2008 with the aim to link writers and writing groups across the county. Sessions were offered in central Dorset locations including Dorchester so that writers could receive input and network to share tips and strategies. Currently most networking is done online with a large following on Facebook and Twitter. The Dorset Writers Network continues to offer workshops to support writers across the county and on 23rd November 2019 from 10.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. the network is hosting an Open House at the Corn Exchange in Blandford with a choice of free one-hour writing workshops, books stalls for local writers and networking opportunities. This is offered as part of the inaugural Blandford Literary Festival.

There are many flourishing literary festivals across Dorset including those in Bridport and Sherborne. The first Dorchester Literary Festival took place in 2014 and now offers a large programme of literary of talks from Tuesday, 15th October to Sunday, 20th October 2019. In a bid to support local writers, the Festival Directors established a competition for writers in 2018. Any writer with a strong connection to the South West is invited to submit a copy of their published  fiction or non-fiction to the Hall & Woodhouse Local Writing Prize. In 2019, Emma Timpany from Cornwall was awarded the £1000 prize for her novella Travelling in the Dark.

Over the last few years, two writing groups have been established to cater for new and experienced writers in the town. Writers in the Alley meets on the first Wednesday of the month in the skittle alley of Goldies pub (hence the name) and offers support to all writers: any style, any genre. Writing Buddies meets on the first Saturday of every month in Dorchester Library with the aim to share tips, writing news, goals, and writing exercises.

In Bournemouth and Poole there’s long been a tradition of spoken word events. Currently in Dorchester there’s also a poetry open mic at Books Beyond Words on High East Street on the first Thursday of each month. This provides a platform for local poets and songwriters to share their work through reading and performance.

With so much new support for writers in Dorset, one wonders what developments will take place in the next ten years.

© Gail Aldwin, 2019.

About Gail Aldwin

Dr Gail Aldwin, © 2019.

Settled in Dorset, UK since 2006, Dr Gail Aldwin has lived in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Spain. Her published work includes a debut novel The String Games which is longlisted in the fiction category of The People’s Book Prize 2019. Vote for her novel to reach the finalist stage here.

Her collection of short fiction Paisley Shirt, was longlisted in the Saboteur Awards 2018. She also writes poetry and her pamphlet adversaries/comrades was published in 2019. As part of 3-She, Gail co-writes short plays and comedy sketches that have been staged in Bridport, Brighton and Salisbury. She appears at literary festivals and fringe festivals in London and the South West.

Click here to view Gail’s website and follow her tweets @gailaldwin  

 

 

 

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To stand any chance of writing well, you need to read as much as you can, and I read a lot when I was young. From our guest writer, journalist Darren Slade.

Most of my evenings end with a spot of reading.

Unfortunately, that period of reading usually lasts for precisely one minute before I lose consciousness and the book tumbles to the floor, closely followed by my glasses. In some ways, that’s frustrating. The working day might be taxing, but it would be nice if my brain had enough energy left by the end of the day to last through more than a page or two before powering down.

Five on a Treasure Island, Enid Blyton. First edition, 1942. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31764624

On the other hand, it’s pleasing that, with all the demands and distractions that crowd our lives every day, many of us still see reading as the way to unwind and push back the cares of the everyday world for a bit. If you were lucky, reading was the way you were encouraged to relax as a child, and the habit stuck.

To stand any chance of writing well, you need to read as much as you can, and I read a lot when I was young. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of staying awake too late because I was engrossed in a desperately exciting story, like Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island or David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks.

Just as importantly, I read our household’s copy of the Daily Mirror every day. It was always the most tightly written newspaper of them all, and if I have any aptitude at all for writing concisely, it’s probably the result of absorbing that prose style. 

David Whittaker. First Doctor Who scripwriter.

Today, it’s possible to read all day and night without ever picking up a book or newspaper. The internet has shown us just how resilient the written word is. For all the bandwidth taken up by Instagram and YouTube, a huge amount of the online experience is about text.

But while we might consume a lot of words online, it is important sometimes to shun the easy dopamine hit of the internet and go back to good old-fashioned ink on paper. It is a different experience – deeper, more focused and less vulnerable to the impulse to switch tasks. It’s easy to fritter away precious time looking at your phone’s screen, but time spent on a book is rarely wasted.

Sick Puppy, Carl Hiaasen. First edition, 2001.

Susan England is a great champion of text on a page. She’s read a lot of books – and recommended some good ones to me, introducing me to the journalist turned real writer Carl Hiaasen.

She’s an experienced ex-publisher  and editor with lots of ideas. I suspect that the people who use her services will be better writers as a result.

© Darren Slade, 2019.

 ***********

Poole-born Darren Slade is a long-serving journalist at the Daily Echo. He has been local government correspondent (covering such controversies as the Imax and the Winter Gardens), chief reporter, occasional columnist and business editor. He recently became group business editor for the Daily Echo Bournemouth, the Southern Daily Echo and the Dorset Echo.  

Darren Slade, © Newsquest, 2019.

He is a politics junkie, a film fan (everything from Woody Allen to Hammer horror) and a book lover who doesn’t get enough reading time but is rarely happier than when reading PG Wodehouse. 

You can follow all of Darren’s reportage on Twitter @echodaz and on Linkedin 

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Flourish! A gentler way to grow people by our guest writer, Clare Nonhebel.

In her mid-twenties, studying conservation and use of water in the environment, PhD student Anna was walking into university one day when she found she just couldn’t take another step. It was the beginning of a two-year breakdown brought on by working all day, every day.

It’s a scenario that many people are able to relate to, and thanks to some high-profile people now willing to talk about their own struggles with mental health, we are beginning to acknowledge the insane pressure that our society places on human beings – and that we place on ourselves – to be constantly functional and productive.

Beset by acute distress, the only relief Anna experienced came from being outdoors, walking for hours, and starting to grow a few herbs, handling the soil and nurturing living plants.

Now, as horticulturist in a dedicated team working on the wonderful Flourish gardening-for-mental-health project at Livability Holton Lee, Dorset, Anna draws on her experience of the benefits of raising plants without use of harsh chemicals, and of raising the quality of people’s lives by enabling them to work together in a natural environment, without harsh judgements and unreal expectations. 

In a world that tends to divide people into categories and reject those who don’t neatly fit them, Flourish welcomes all kinds of people to come as they are, with their unique abilities and disabilities, enthusiasms, doubts and fears.

For some, it’s a chance to recover their calm and move towards volunteering or employment, while for others it’s a chance to develop social and practical skills. For everyone, it’s an experience of community and an acknowledgement that no one can thrive in isolation from nature and from other human beings.

For Ron, a retired biology teacher, Flourish provided a chance to rediscover the person he was before illness. “I’ve always been interested in nature and wildlife and growing things but after my stroke I didn’t feel like myself any more: I had lost my speech and my ability to write, which was a part of my identity as a teacher. I had also lost confidence, especially socially, and even now I find it difficult if I’m at the rugby club or somewhere and a group of four or five people are all talking at once. 

“Recovering from a stroke is hard work, tiring and humiliating, but Holton Lee is a nice place, surrounded by nature and wildlife and so many birds – I’ve recorded 156 species in the 17 years I’ve been here – and gradually my confidence came back. I’ve got back my speech, and my writing has reverted to the way it was – my signature is still the same, which for me is a sign that I’m still the same person.

“My funding ended in 2005 but I became a volunteer at Flourish. I mainly work in the greenhouse and I still use my old dissecting kit from the biology labs, which is great for sowing seeds!”

While many people on the Flourish project have support and funding due to a recognised diagnosis of a physical or mental health condition, others are struggling with less definable issues – low self-esteem, complex learning difficulties, post-traumatic stress or simply inexplicable anguish – that make everyday tasks and enjoyments feel like hurdles to overcome. It’s these unseen wounds that can be hardest for others to understand.

As one Flourish participant expressed it, “Society’s view of mental illness tends to be weakness, laziness or a threat. It all comes under the same heading, whether someone’s condition causes mild confusion or behaviour that could be dangerous.”

Caroline survived a stroke, lung cancer and osteoporosis but with a background history of loss of home, job, marriage, relationships and her beloved allotment, she was becoming isolated.

“I thought, ‘What else is going to happen to me?’ I got very frustrated. When a lady from the local social prescribing agency introduced me to Holton Lee, I was surprised: how many times had I driven past this place and never realised it was there! I was in awe when I saw it: what a fabulous place to be!

“Flourish was the best thing that happened to me. I live on my own and it’s very nice to come out and meet other people, and we all love the garden. Everything here is geared up for helping people. You don’t always know what kind of disability people have. It’s a community regardless of disabilities; we all connect and work together as a team. 

“We were coming back from a walk one afternoon and I said, ‘I just love this place!’ and one of the staff said, ‘We love you!’ Well – what more can you ask?”

Lucy, a gentle-natured 21-year old, was already familiar with Holton Lee when she first came for a trial day at Flourish, as her family came regularly to the 350-acre harbourside site to walk the dog and enjoy the woods and heathland. She loved the tranquillity of the place – but found it a bit challenging to adjust to the exuberance of some of the other young Flourish participants when she started coming to the gardening project! 

“I had done a little bit of gardening at home and I was doing life skills, including floristry, at college, but I was looking for somewhere that I could talk to people more because I felt I wasn’t doing that enough; I was afraid I wouldn’t get the words out.

“I had struggled at school right from the start because I have autism, which was diagnosed when I was about three. Other children would ask why I had extra help at school and say it wasn’t fair.

“I left school at 17. I did an extra year there doing a life skills course that they made up for me but that was quite hard because I don’t think they had very much understanding about people that had different problems. At college it was better and I did get to talk to people more there. I think people are easier to get on with when they have had struggles themselves, even if not the same kind of thing.

“Holton Lee is very peaceful and I always felt relaxed here. When we were shown round the gardens I really liked it. But the first day was a bit daunting! There was a mix of people and it was quite noisy! It was challenging talking to people I didn’t know but I did enjoy the work I was doing: picking and arranging flowers and making up veg boxes for sale.

“My parents and people at college said they saw a change in me. When I first started, they could see how nervous I was – and I do still get nervous but I am doing it!

“Everyone brings something to the project and people have said I’m good at listening and that I’m a very kind person. I pick up what people are feeling, without them having to say it, and I have sympathy for people if they find life difficult. I know what they mean.”

Mike, a self-employed builder who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, was at first resistant to the idea of attending a therapeutic project. “I knew I needed to get out of the house. I couldn’t work or drive any more, I lost the pension I was building up and I nearly lost our house as well. But I told my wife and the lady from social services, ‘I’m not doing pottery and I’m not doing painting!’

“I wasn’t particularly keen on gardening either – I’ve got plenty of gardening to do at home. But here at Flourish there’s no pressure to do anything; you can try things and see what you like. I started making things out of wood. I had a lot of experience of working with wood, as a builder, and that skill side of my brain wasn’t affected, though my memory was.

“From the beginning, everyone was friendly but it took me a long time to connect with people and not to switch off when they were talking. And when a scan showed my brain had got worse, I said I wasn’t coming in any more. But some of the boys here are worse off than me – even though they can use a mobile phone and I can’t!

“Being around people with different disabilities has shown me that there are people out there – thousands – getting on with life when it’s difficult. I look at people in a different way now; I see people as people, not as a disability.

“At my last hospital appointment the doctor said my brain had got worse again but he couldn’t understand how I was doing the things I am doing – volunteering here three times a week now and teaching the young lads woodwork and mechanical skills. He said the work I’m doing here is better than any medication and told me to keep going!” 

For myself, when I started volunteering at Holton Lee five years ago, my only intention was to help out with a bit of weeding. But after a few weeks I was puzzling to work out what was going on here: it was more than a successful therapeutic project or an organic market garden; there was something else happening.

This widely diverse range of people was not just a random group engaging in shared activities; they were building a genuine community, based on respect for everyone’s strengths and limitations and acceptance of each other’s differences.

The dividing lines are blurred here. A non-verbal young man with autism and physical disabilities shows a volunteer how to change a drill bit. Staff members talk honestly about their own struggles with maintaining mental health. Support workers and carers say that accompanying their clients to the project doesn’t feel like work but benefits them as well.

I love the absence of ‘us and them.’ And the fact that absolutely everything – even uprooting a whole patch of plants in the mistaken belief that they are weeds – is not only forgiven but likely to prompt gales of laughter. But most of all I love the way that people change from numb and terrified newcomers to confident members of this thriving community – within a couple of weeks of arriving. 

That’s why an offer to write a few paragraphs telling people’s stories, in an attempt to promote awareness and aid much-needed fundraising for this worthwhile charity, somehow grew into a whole book. If you’d like to read more, it’s on Amazon: Flourish! A gentler way to grow people – price £5.99, with all profits going to the Flourish project. To purchase a copy, or perhaps even several copies, click here!

Or better still, if you’re in the area, pop into the farmhouse shop, pick up a copy there and come and see us!

© Clare Nonhebel, 2019.

Clare Nonhebel is author of 14 fiction and non-fiction books – the latter covering subjects including homelessness, Death Row, faith and doubt, and spiritual healing. Details of all of them are on her website https://clarenonhebel.com

Her first novel, Cold Showers, won a Trask Award for new fiction writers, was serialized in a women’s magazine and broadcast on BBC radio, and some books have been translated into German, Swedish and Slovene. 

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Clare worked for charities and a social work agency and as a PR agency account executive. She has been a regular feature writer for women’s and business magazines and a columnist for a Christian publication, as well as writing newspaper articles and reviews and producing company in-house magazines.

Her own experience of health problems has drawn her to explore the realities of genuine spiritual, physical and emotional healing, and has led to a belief that people can only be healed into community, not back into their pre-symptom individual lives.

Clare graduated in French Studies with Philosophy from Warwick University and enjoys gardening, swimming in the sea, and has a love/hate relationship with sewing. She lives with her husband Robin, a retired history teacher, in Dorset.

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“It’s not a beauty pageant!” says leading UK literary agent. Helpful, no-nonsense tips on submitting a book proposal.

Andrew Lownie and Dr Susan England, Westbourne Book Binge, April 2018.

Your book is special to you and may one day be to other people but at the moment it is just another submission. Authors need to remember that agents are inundated with submissions. Most have full lists already and need to concentrate on their existing clients. Of course we are looking for new talent but the chances of selling books from the slush pile are small.

Some agents claim they have never sold anything from the slush pile though I take it very seriously, and personally look at almost twenty thousand submissions each year . Given each submission may be over forty pages long, that is a lot of reading to fit around the reading of my existing clients’ work, such as the fifty delivered manuscripts each year, and the normal work of the agency. 

The most promising submissions – some eight a week – once read by me are passed to one of my specialist readers where the average charge for a reading will be about £40; my bill for reading each year is over £15,000. Sometimes I will obtain several reports and spend years with authors reworking proposals and still fail to sell the book. Out of all those submissions, I will only take on around a dozen authors a year, and of those I might place eight.

The decision whether or not to look more carefully at a submission is made quickly, so authors may benefit from the following tips:

  1. Address the agent correctly. I often receive proposals meant for other agencies, Mr Brown, Mr Mooney, Ms Lownie, the Andrew Lownie Litter Agency , the Andrew Lownie Literacy Agency. Sometimes the email claims to be addressed to me exclusively but refers to other agents in the CC field, or the text of the email.

  2. Make sure the agent actually handles what you are offering. Well over half my submissions are for genres which, in all the reference books and on my website, I categorically say I don’t represent. I don’t know of any agency that handles poetry and short stories.

  3. Pitch by email rather than by phone. It’s all about the writing.

  4. Try and personalise your email. It is easy enough now agencies have websites to find out the authors they handle. Look at the acknowledgements page of books which are comparable and try the agent who handled the book. Any email submission which I see has been copied to hundreds of other agencies is immediately discarded. A submission which shows the author has done research on the agency and comes with a recommendation is always taken seriously.

  5. Follow instructions. If agencies have a preferred format then follow it and customise your proposal. The format is generally the one that they find works with publishers and helps everyone assess the proposal most effectively. Don’t insist they read the whole manuscript.

  6. If the book is categorically rejected then don’t respond pointing out they have made a ‘mistake’. Move on to the next agency. It is a subjective business and agents turn down proposals, even perfectly publishable ones, for all sorts of specific reasons even if they don’t always give you those reasons.

  7. Agents understand that authors need to make multiple submissions to agencies but dislike ‘beauty parades’. It is not flattering nor encouraging to be told one is simply one of a hundred approaches . Time is limited and if one suspects the author may go elsewhere then one simply says no at the beginning. Keep quiet about multiple submissions and only send a few at a time so one can adapt submission in the light of response.

  8. Agencies are keen to find and nurture talent but they are inundated with submissions. Remember they are businesses not Citizens Advice Bureaux, manuscript evaluation services or a branch of Social Services. Don’t expect them to recommend other agencies within or outside their areas of expertise.

  9. Presentation is important. Check spelling and punctuation. Don’t underline or use exclamation marks. Don’t include lots of separate attachments, or send multiple emails for the same submission. One email with one attachment is ideal.

  10. Be clear. The concept of the book should be apparent in the opening sentence. Don’t use euphemisms “I would like to share with you my completed novel” etc.

  11. Don’t boast -the agent will be the judge of the quality of the material – but do highlight in a covering note what you think makes your book different and special.

  12. Not every idea makes a book. It might solely work as a television programme and long article.

  13. Not every book is sufficiently commercial for an agent or trade publisher. There are now plenty of opportunities to self-publish without being ripped off.

    © Andrew Lownie, 2019.

    To contact Andrew Lownie Literary Agency click here

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J.K. Rowling and Norman Mailer. How authors of blockbusters plan their plots.

One wouldn’t readily think there’s a literary or publishing connection between J.K. Rowling, author of the world’s most famous wizard since either Oz or Merlin and the late American writer Norman Mailer,¹ an author best known for his pugilistic and bruising intellectualism.

What is it that binds these two unlikely literary behemoths other than their obvious star selling power? The answer is planning the plot; what Tony Buzan would call “mind mapping” or what was known in the 1970s as “idea sunbursting”.

Currently held in the Mailer archive in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, ² the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost reveals how its author managed the monumental amount of ideas, events, and characters that propel a novel about the CIA from 1959-1964 to its 1,100 plus pages conclusion. ³

So vast and complex are the strands that pull the story of Mailer’s central character of Harry Hubbard, that each year is worked out in detail with key plot and character developments highlighted with column headings e.g. “Havanna”, “Judith Campbell” (JFK’s mistress), “Hoover and FBI”, and “RFK” (Robert Kennedy). In the column “World Events” you will find amongst many other entries: “Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate” (1959), “Berlin Wall goes up” (1961), “Glenn first American to orbit Earth” (1962), “Kim Philby named as Soviet spy by British” (1963), and “Sex scandal forces out John Profumo” (1963).

Under the column “Miscellaneous”, Mailer identified contemporaneous keynote detail such as the films La Dolce VitaGoldfingerCleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and Psycho; the publication of books such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Tin Drum and Hertzog; and popular music hits as in Moon Riverand Let’s do the Twist. He even made a reference in the “JFK” column to Motown Records and some of their most famous acts of the time − the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

Yet, Mailer is far from being the only author whose plot planning and story outlines have been captured in formats not entirely dissimilar. Nor is it the first example of plot planning by map, for example Joseph Heller’s plan for Catch 22 was hatched in this fashion. But it is perhaps the most fascinating for its use of historical event to flesh out character and context and clearly demonstrates Mailer’s expertise in this form of literary writing. 

Which brings me to J. K. Rowling. A writer whose stories could not be further from those of Norman Mailer – except in one respect – they both write (wrote in the case of Mailer) bumper-sized books with complex plots. Just take a look below at how she mapped out the plot of The Order of the Phoenix, drafted on hole-punched A4 lined paper no less! 

¹ Norman Mailer (1923-2007). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

² For the Harlot’s Ghost mind map at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas click http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2011/06/16/in-the-galleries-mailers-character-timeline-for-harlots-ghost/

³ Mailer’s original intention was to write a two-volume chronicle of the CIA of which Harlot’s Ghost was the first. The project was never completed.

For an enlarged version of the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/1big.jpg

For an enlarged version of J. K. Rowling’s plan of The Order of the Phoenix click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/3big.jpg

To purchase a copy of Harlot’s Ghost click here.

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Arthur and George by Julian Barnes is our Book Pick for June!

I’m a fan of the English writer Julian Barnes; I admire his economical use of language and his careful construction of the plot lines and psycho-drama of his novels. A little while back I read his tenth book Arthur and George, first published in 2005, and what struck me was how well he had researched a criminal case that became an Edwardian cause célèbre with the involvement of the creator of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

Julian Barnes.

George Edjali, a young lawyer of mixed race – whose father was an Indian Parsee who converted to Christianity, became a clergyman, and came to England to take up a country parish in Staffordshire – was accused of the crime of “ripping horses” in Wyrley in 1903. 

These incidents became known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages” and were sensationalised in the newspapers of the day. Edjali was arrested, charged and sentenced to seven years penal servitude, reduced to three after a petition was raised for his release. Conan Doyle became involved when he read of Edjali’s determination to clear his name and his family’s reputation, and resume his professional life after having been banned from practising law.

Conan Doyle investigated the circumstances surrounding the “rippings” and was convinced that Edjali was an innocent man. Using his celebrity to generate public interest in the case, he lobbied the Home Office for a pardon and due compensation for Edjali. One of the outcomes of this campaign and the light it threw on certain legal and police procedural practices was the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. 

George Edjali, Police photograph, 1903.

Julian Barnes used a number of sources to help shape the novel’s characters, their motivation, their psychology, and to convey the social attitudes of the period. Conan Doyle was convinced that Edjali was convicted of the crimes due to two critical factors: firstly that he was of mixed race and reportedly “looked strange”, and second that the Staffordshire Constabulary was not only incompetent but made the crime fit the man. What had convinced Conan Doyle of Edjali’s innocence was on first meeting him he noticed the younger man’s severe myopia; Doyle had once been a specialist in opthalmology before finding success as a writer. 

Seeing, yet not seeing, lies at the heart of Arthur and George. It’s a powerful rumination on identity, Englishness, life and death, guilt and innocence, and the grey space existing between.

For further information and material on the Edjali case see Birmingham City Council archives at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/edalji 

For information about George Edjali see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Edalji

To listen to a 1987 BBC radio dramatization of the case click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePHl02pqjQE

For the Conan Doyle letters to the Chief Constable of Staffordfordshire concerning the Edalji Case see http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22713/lot/134/

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A bear, an alien, and two stories of migration. Our book picks for May.

The question of migration and its impact on societies is everywhere in the print and broadcast media. So too on social media.

Today we are launching our Book Pick of the Month. Just to get things off to a good start we decided to subvert the one book rule and select two! Why make a rule if you can’t break it?  Our choices for the Book Pick’s first outing are How to be an Alien. A Handbook for Beginners and Advanced Learners by George Mikes and Winnie Ille Pu (The Latin Edition) by A. A. Milne, translated by Alexander Lenard.

At first glance these two books may seem like odd bedfellows but on closer inspection the common factor is the shared experience of migration of the author of one and the translator of the other. ¹

George Mikes and How to be an Alien

George Mikes was born in Hungary in 1912 under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. Whilst his father had ambitions that George would follow his profession of the law, his son’s interest lay in writing and journalism. After graduating in Budapest in 1933, George gained his first post as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Reggel (“Morning”), shortly followed by writing a column for Színházi Élet  (“Theatre Life”).

By 1938 he was the London correspondent for Reggel and 8 Órai Ujság (“8 O’Clock Paper”), a post he held until 1940. Despatched to London to cover the Munich Crisis he was only expected to stay for a couple of weeks. In fact he stayed for the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1946.

Mikes’ real talent was as a humourist. In a long career he wrote over 40 books, 35 of them humorous and many post-war British classics. He was recognised as a blender of elements of Hungarian, English and Jewish humour.

His most successful and outright best-selling title was How to be an Alien, first published in 1946, translated into 22 languages and published in 39 countries. In it he portrayed himself as a bumbling alien who describes the habits of the natives in the vast, strange but friendly “country” of London. ² How to be an Alien

Quoted examples of his gentle and wry poking of fun at the British still ring true:

“Continental people have a sex life, British people a hot water bottle”, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms a queue of one”, “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game”, “Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: ‘I say …’ and then keeping silent for three days on end”, and a particular favourite, “Remember: If you go for a walk with a friend in England, don’t say a single word for hours; if you go for a walk with your dog, talk to it all the time.”

To accompany the witticism of Mikes’ observations the book was illustrated by Nicholas Bentley who captured the essence of the author’s comic perspective.

Alexander Lenard and Winnie Ille Pu

In the case of Alexander Lenard, born in Budapest in 1910, the unexpected success of his Latin translation of A. A. Milne’s classic and beloved story of the bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger, threw the spotlight of fame on to an otherwise almost reclusive 50 year-old Hungarian-born doctor who spoke 12 languages, who with his wife Andrietta was resettled in Brazil in 1952 by the International Refugee Organization. One of the few possessions they took with them on their odyssey to find a safe haven was an English language edition of Winnie the Pooh.

Because his Austrian medical degree was not recognised in Brazil, Lenard worked as a nurse in a lead mine, a pharmacist, and a translator at medical conferences. Eventually buying land in the sparsely populated Itajai valley in Southern Brazil the Lenards built a two-room house where he painted, wrote poetry and indulged his passion for Bach. In 1956 Lenard won the equivalent of $2,000 on the Sao Paolo Television Bach Competition. With the winnings more land was purchased and a larger house was built. Winnie Ille Pu

When teaching Latin to the daughter of a local resident who expressed a wish for something interesting to read in the language Lenard began translating Winnie the Pooh. Over a period of seven years he mined the classics for idiomatic expressions used in ancient Rome and its empire. Whereas the original was a children’s book Lenard’s “Pu” was filled with puns and alliteration from centuries of Latin literature.

Not able to find a publisher for his “Pu” Lenard paid a printer in Sao Paolo to publish a print run of 100 copies, sending review copies to foreign publishers. This led to a Swedish publisher printing 2,000 copies of an abridged version which in turn prompted Methuen, A. A. Milne’s publisher, to publish several thousand. Milne’s American publisher Dutton, published “Pu” in 1960 with the result that Lenard’s book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks – a feat unheard of for a foreign language book let alone one written entirely in Latin.

The New York Times writer, Lewis Nicholls described it as ” … the greatest book a dead language has ever known.” The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that “… it does more to attract interest in Latin than Cicero, Caesar and Virgil combined.”

The message from these two Hungarian migrants, writers both, is that we are all someone else’s foreigner. And that includes a funny little bear and an alien.

¹ Strictly speaking Lenard and his wife were refugees.

² As a matter of interest Montesquieu used this satirical literary device in his Lettres Persanes to excoriate and satirise French society especially that of the court of Louis XVI. It was first published in 1721.

Read more about George Mikes here

Read more about Alexander Lenard here

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Dying for your art? Charles Dickens’ indefatigable writer Walter Thornbury.

The Independent published an article a couple of years ago about Charles Dickens and his many publishing ventures such as Household WordsHousehold Narrative and All the Year Round, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Here’s why.

The author of the piece, Jeremy Parrott, ¹ described how he had unravelled the roll call of contributors to these journals which up until his research had largely remained something of a mystery. Within his article he refers to the University of Buckingham’s online digitised archive of these magazines which can be accessed by researchers and the public alike. I was especially intrigued with this extract from the article:

“As well as staff writers for the magazine, Dickens had a small group of regulars including the nigh-indefatigable Walter Thornbury who wrote close to 200 pieces for All the Year Round and Household Words before dying of exhaustion in a mental asylum at the age of 48″. ²

Walter Thornbury

It would seem that in the service of Household Words and All the Year Round Thornbury travelled widely, writing articles that vividly depicted the United States and Palestine, the Iberian Peninsula, and European Turkey. He also wrote a long series of articles in All the Year Round entitled “Old Stories Retold”, where he covered topics such as “Trafalgar in 1805”, “Bombardment of Algiers in 1816”, “The Assassination of Mr. Perceval in 1812”, “The Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820”, “The Two Great Murders in the Ratcliffe Highway in 1811”, and “The Resurrection Men—Burke and Hare, in 1829”.

Apparently the series was curtailed due to Dickens’ dislike of their sanguinary and salacious content!

You can read more about Walter George Thornbury, Dickens’ indefatigable writer here  

¹ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/charles-dickens-all-the-year-round-discovering-the-fascinating-insight-into-the-world-of-victorian-a6815301.html

² SadlyThornbury died of overwork at Camberwell House Asylum, Peckham Road, London, on 11th June 1876, and was buried on the 13th at Nunhead Cemetery. He was survived by a wife and three sons.

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#wonderword! Dégringolade, Captain Haddock and Theresa May.

Here’s another glorious #wonderword! One you might be forgiven for thinking was the name of a villain in a James Bond film but in fact dégringolade is used either as a verb or a noun to describe a more serious state of affairs – that of a decline or deterioration. Not just any old type of decline but a rapid one. One minute up, next minute down, just like Captain Haddock of Tintin fame whose life is a series of disasters interspersed with acts of comedic heroism. It also brings to mind yesterday’s inglorious tumble in political clout and prestige of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May.

A prime case of semantic drift dégringolade’s etymological origins are Middle French (desgringueler) meaning to tumble and also Middle Dutch (crinkelen) to make curl, similar in fact to the English words of “crinkle” and “crank”. In other words dégringolade indicates not only decline but its speed and trajectory. Got it?

Its first known use was in 1873; perhaps not so surprising as this was but six years before the French Revolution. Although mostly commonly found in French usage it does pop up in English especially in political and financial journalism, for example,

“For a Democratic Party in the depths of political dégringolade, liberal-Progressives throughout DC and the media are expressing a level of bravado that reeks of either an embarrassing feign or a deep level of denial of the message sent to them by the American people.” ¹

Or in the case of the English author Julian Barnes from Nothing to be Frightened of, his maverick twist on the family memoir,

“Though I based the story on a septuagenarian dégringolade I heard about elsewhere, which I then grafted on to my parents’ home life, I didn’t deceive myself about what I was up to. I was retrospectively – posthumously – giving my father a bit of fun, of extra life, of air.” ²

Either way it is a fantastically expressive and imaginative word to be savoured.

¹ Winters, P. M., “Democratic Party Dégringolade”, Dignitas News Service, 6 November 2014.

² Barnes, J, Nothing to be Frightened of, (Jonathan Cape), 2008. For a review of this book written in the New York Times by Garson Keillor click here.

For the pronounciation of dégringolade click here.

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What do olives and Charles Dickens have in common? The #wonderword oleaginous.

Here’s another glorious #wonderword – oleaginous. As you pronounce (olee-a-gee-nus) it’s hard to resist elongating and savouring the sound of this elastic adjectival word.

Its etymological origin is Middle English from the French oléagineux and the Latin oleaginous (“of the olive tree”) and its meaning is two-fold:

1) rich in, covered with, or producing oil;

2) unctuous, exaggeratedly complimentary, fawning, smarmy.

Thus, oleaginous is a perfect combination of meaning and descriptive representation.

Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is arguably the most powerful depiction of someone who’s oleaginous. When Dickens’ eponymous hero first encounters Heep, Dickens holds nothing back in his descriptive powers:

“Heep’s face was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.”

“He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.”

Like many of Dickens’ villains, Heep is motivated mainly by greed; yet embodied in his character there’s a commentary on the English class system. As the plot of David Copperfield unfolds Heep eventually reveals his lifelong resentment at being the object of charity and low expectations. His thwarted ambition is the driving force behind his cunning and villainy.

Much of Dickens’ fiction was inspired by personal experience and scholars have attributed the inspiration for Uriah Heep as either Hans Christian Andersen, ¹ whom the author met in 1847 shortly before writing David Copperfield or more likely Thomas Powell, a friend of Dickens’ ne’er do well brother Augustus and an employee of Thomas Chapman, a friend of the author. Powell apparently ” … ingratiated himself into the Dickens household” and was duly discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled £10,000 from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in a number of pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens’ social class and background. ²  So quite a step from olives to embezzlement!

¹ Hawes, Dennis, Who’s Who in Dickens, (Routledge), 1998, p. 109.

² “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens” see http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Gallery/g322.htm

Click here for a biography of Charles Dickens at the BBC website.

Click here for information about the actor Bransby Williams.

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Pancrazio’s legacy: the literary shaping of a novelist from our guest writer Marius Gabriel.

My parents’ house was full of books, thousands of them; and I have belonged to many public libraries in different countries. But two particular libraries shaped my mind more than any others. The first was in Villa Valverde, in Sicily, where I spent part of my childhood.

The Villa Valverde was a pensione which had been built by my paternal grandfather, Pancrazio Cipolla. He’d spent decades working in London hotels, rising from waiter to manager. He took his savings back to Taormina and built Valverde around 1910, as a luxurious retreat for British tourists.  It had all mod cons, including a library of English books. These had all been supplied by a publisher who specialized in such things, and were in a uniform edition of brown leather with gold tooling, proudly stamped with the hotel name and crest. The books were all Victorian and masculine – Sir Walter Scott, Charles Kingsley, Conan Doyle, Fennimore Cooper and the like.

It was here I met Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, and Amyas Lee, and Sherlock Holmes and Natty Bumppo, and the ‘Man Who Would Be King.’ Rather heavy going, since I was not yet ten, but I swallowed it all down in huge draughts.

The second library was at my high school, when my peripatetic parents took us from Sicily to South Africa. It was in a decaying part of the school that has long since been knocked down (we used to spear rats there during break, with compasses tied to rulers). The collection itself was large, and consisted mainly of bequests from Old Boys, some of them dating back to Edwardian and Victorian times, and smelling strongly of tobacco and damp. No attempt had been made to catalogue or filter this heterogeneous collection. They were simply in alphabetical order according to author. In my six years there, I must have read almost every volume.

I lugged home bound editions of Punch dating from the 1850s to the First World War, which was where I began to pick up what little modern history I know (and developed a fondness for weak jokes.) I found, and read with wide eyes, Henry Miller (an education of a different kind), Colette (I had to ask my mother what a Lesbian was) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (nothing left to the imagination there).

I read fusty old copies of Sheridan le Fanu, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson. I ploughed my way through novelists popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s: Sinclair Lewis (I must have read Kingsblood Royal a dozen times), Thornton Wilder, Edgar Wallace; Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck (I adored him), J.B. Priestly (very heavy going), Daphne du Maurier, A. J. Cronin, H.G. Wells (where I learned what socialism was); Robert Graves (also pretty hot stuff) and Somerset Maugham.

I read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. I read at night, under the sheets, with a flashlight, till two in the morning. I read on the bus to and from school. I read on the toilet and at the supper table. I read without even knowing why I read at times, so long as the words on the page held me.

A tenacious memory for useless things means that many of these books are still rattling around inside my head, and will surface at odd moments; or, what is worse, half-surface, and lead me a merry dance trying to recall which book and which author, in which library, in which country, in which year…

© Marius Gabriel, 2019.

Marius Gabriel, our guest writer

Marius is the author of eight sagas and historical novels, including the best-sellers The Mask Of TimeThe Original Sin, and The Seventh MoonCosmopolitan accused him of “Keeping you reading while your dinner burns”. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, and now divides his time between London and Cairo. He has three grown-up children.

His latest novel, The Ocean Liner is set post-Second World War and published by Lake Union, is available on Amazon or by placing an order with Marius via his website. His next book The Parisans is scheduled for publication later tihis year. You can view all of Marius’s book  (and there are many) on his Wiki entry 

You may also be interested to read Marius’s GoodReads page where he writes a blog. If you like cooking Marius is the man for you. Baking bread being a speciality. 

P.S. Marius served his author apprenticeship as a student at Newcastle University. To finance his postgraduate research, he wrote 33 Mills & Boon romances under a pseudonym. His identity as a man had to be kept secret until he turned to longer fiction under his own name.

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Palimpsest, Gore Vidal and reading between the lines.

In 1995, the American writer, political commentator, and essayist Gore Vidal ¹ broke his own declared vow never to write a memoir. Palimpsest – the first of what was to be a two volume work ² – was published to great acclaim and some criticism as befitted a public figure whose intellectual and cultural writings on American history and American life had created enemies as well as supporters.

When writing on the subject of his name he explained that his birth certificate had originally recorded it as Eugene Louis Vidal; this was then changed to Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr.; subsequent to this the name Gore was added at his christening in 1939. Fourteen years later as an adolescent he took the decision to discard the first two names.

This act of self-alteration or indeed erasure links directly to the meaning of palimpsest, our latest favourite word, with its etymological root in Latin from the Greek palimpsēstos, from palin “again” + psēstos “rubbed smooth”. Its use is most commonly found in the study of old manuscripts, scrolls and books; in modern usage it is used in architecture, archaeology and geomorphology. #wordwonk

Perhaps one of the best known palimpsests is that attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Known as The Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript is a Byzantine prayer book from the thirteenth century assembled using pages from several earlier manuscripts – one of which contained several treatises by Archimedes that were copied in tenth century Constantinople. These were first discovered in 1906 by the Danish Archimedes scholar Johan Ludwig Heiberg.

As the key aspect of such a manuscript is its layer upon layer of writing, for one so acutely aware of self-fashioning and self-actualisation as Gore Vidal, Palimpsest was perfectly judged.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gore_Vidal

² Point to Point Navigation is the second volume of Gore Vidal’s memoir and was published in 2006.

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How to make a killing on camera from our guest writer Adam Dickson.

The UK film industry has never been healthier. According to the British Film Institute an income of £1.6bn was generated from film and television production in 2016 with Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts leading the box office.  Drama series like Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey continue to enthral viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, highlighting the wealth of acting and technical expertise for which the United Kingdom is renowned.

Generous tax breaks encourage investment into what is generally accepted as a high-risk industry. Film Tax Relief opens the door to big production companies who previously looked to foreign locations to meet their budgets.

The digital age has revolutionised both the way films are made and the demand for content. Netflix alone invested $3bn on media content in 2014, and plans to spend $6bn over the next three years. Good news indeed for the legion of screenwriters out there, hunched over keypads in dusty garret rooms, looking for a break. Competition is fierce. But the opportunities to pitch unsolicited work are considerable. From the BBC Writersroom to screenwriting contests like the Nicholl Fellowship, ¹ there are no end of resources out there, all on the look out for fresh talent.

You may, of course, wish to bypass the conventional route and make the film yourself. As an incentive to investors, HMRC offers tax relief of up to 50% under SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) Guidelines. Independent production companies can apply for Advanced Assurance, proving their legitimacy to third parties.

Through a chance meeting at a networking event, one such opportunity came my way. I had written a screenplay based on a real-life murder case from 1946, which had generated some interest locally in my home town of Bournemouth. A contact at the networking event introduced me to Martin Spooner, a finance facilitator who specialises in investment for film. I pitched the outline to him and, in August 2014 we agreed to meet.

Since then the project has grown in size and stature. In March 2015, we submitted a 26-page application to HMRC’s Compliance Department, and sat back to await their decision. Several weeks later, we received the good news that West Cliff Productions Ltd had been given Advanced Assurance – in other words, the green light to go out and seek investors.

From a humble writer’s point of view, all this is quite daunting. But the excitement of being involved in something as ambitious and enterprising as a film project far outweighs any reservations I might have.

And now to the screenplay …

Neville Heath was an ex-RAF pilot, hanged for murder in 1946. The case became the subject of huge media interest, with women queuing for up to 14 hours for a glimpse of the charismatic killer from the public gallery.

Neville Heath

Neville Heath.

However, many questions remain unanswered to this day. Who was the real Heath, and what was his motivation for killing? How did he become, in the words of one biographer: “… the most dangerous criminal modern Britain has ever known”?

Such was Heath’s deadly appeal that film-making legend, Alfred Hitchcock, optioned a screenplay based on the case. Horrified at the leading character’s warped persona, studio bosses vetoed the project and the idea was abandoned. So, there you have it.

This is the film that Hitchcock never made!

Our guest writer, Adam Dickson

Adam was a student of Bill Stanton’s Writer’s Tutorial for several years, learning the craft of writing fiction. The Butterfly Collector was his first novel. Drowning by Numbers, his second was published in June 2013.

A lifetime fitness enthusiast, Adam suffered two massive brain seizures in 2003 and was left permanently disabled. In spite of this setback, he took up triathlon and began entering races, competing in Ironman UK in 2007. He co-authored Triathlon – Serious About Your Sport which was published by New Holland in May 2012.

Two more titles on swimming and cycling were published in March 2013.  Adam has also written a book on mental healthSurfing the Edge – a survivor’s guide to bipolar disorder, which was published in 2015.

His screenplay, Heart of a Murderer, is based on a real-life murder case that caused a media sensation in England in 1946. Filming is scheduled in Bournemouth and London for Spring 2018.

¹ See http://www.oscars.org/nicholl

You can discover more about the Neville Heath film here or email adam@westcliffproductions.com  

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