Chilling children’s fiction?

‘The children felt tremendously excited. At last they were at the very top. Jo carefully pulled himself up the last branch. He disappeared into the purple hole. Bessie and Fanny followed him.

‘The branch came to an end and a little ladder ran through the cloud. Up the children went – and before they knew what had happened, there they were out in the sunshine, in a new and very strange land…’IMG_2234

This extract comes from what was probably my favourite book as a child, and indeed, one which certainly inspired my love of fantasy fiction. It is, of course, from The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton and, to my young reading self, was one of the most exciting stories I had ever read. There was a magical wood where the trees talked to one another in a secret language – ‘wisha, wisha, wisha’ - rabbit paths frequented by all kinds of fairy creatures who held moonlight revelries and of course, there was the Faraway Tree – a gigantic, enchanted tree in the centre of the wood which was home to the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot, Mister Watzisname, Silky the elf and of course, Moonface - guardian of the Slippery Slip and situated just below the cloud which concealed whatever mysterious land was at the top of the tree that day.

Ok, I won’t go on, but it was brilliant.IMG_2232

What sparked this trip down memory lane was reading, firstly, a short piece by Suzi Feay entitled On Re-reading Leon Garfield in the June/July issue of The London Magazine, along with an article in the Guardian about this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize longlist.IMG_2236

In this case, nostalgia for Suzi, as it has been for myself in re-reading children’s classics over the years, proved a pleasant experience – savouring those stories enjoyed in childhood as an adult proving their durability and the skill of the writer. Taking the example of The Ghost Downstairs by Mr Garfield, she writes: I relived my youthful terror all over again at the remembered words: ‘In the cabin, precisely outlined against the leaping flames, he had seen the phantom child! It was driving the train.’

Garfield was himself, a winner of the inaugural 1967 Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize with his book, Devil-in-the-Fog – which brings me to the aforementioned article.

The article, you can read for yourself – there’s no need to repeat its words here – but the question it appears to raise is as follows: Is children’s fiction too dark?

IMG_2238That’s the gist anyway, and the paper points out that this year’s longlist has none of the gloomy, depressing fiction filling other such prizes. Hence my reflections. Children and young adult readers do show a preference for reading dark tales today – vampires, post-apocalyptic worlds, well, the darker the better it seems – but then, haven’t they always? Yet I know that it isn’t just parents’ nostalgia that similarly sees Enid Blyton’s tales of fairies and elves still flying off the shelves. Her stories are more wholesome, yes, but aren’t without danger. It is just perhaps a little bit more obvious that her heroes will always triumph.

As publishers continue to seek out writing that is ‘innovative’, ‘edgy’ and ‘original’, what I think is being hinted at here is – do stories which shock and even disgust readers (again, refer to the article for an example of what they’re alluding to!) necessarily translate as being ‘good works of fiction’, or are they being chosen simply because they offer something which hasn’t been seen before? IMG_2235

Everyone will have their own view on the matter but, upon reflecting on my own reading history – which includes everything from magic to mystery, murder, crime, horror, historical and more, an eclectic mix is surely the best for anyone. It is for the reader to decide what they wish to read – the writer for what they feel inclined to write - but so long as there continues to be a suitable variety of dark and light to choose from then… what’s the problem?



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‘Words worth’

An article ‘revealed’ this week what writers, I’m sure, have always known. Most of us earn very little.piggy bank If you want to put an exact figure on it, the average yearly salary for an author was quoted at around the £11,000 mark. The cited research indicated a drop in the number of full-time authors but did, however, offer some hope by way of self-publishing as an up-and-coming ‘tidy little earner’ for those striving to live ‘by the pen’.

This, at least is good, but it puts me in mind of a book I read a year or so ago (and mentioned in one of my very first blog posts) called New Grub Street (by George Gissing). Great book. Look a little closer and you may well ask if anything much has changed for writers struggling to earn a living… On the surface, yes, but dig deeper and decide that for yourself.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl – Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

I spoke with London-based author Cherry Smyth recently, whose novel Hold Still, presents a snapshot of the art scene during the 1800s, namely through the eyes of James Whistler, Gustave Coubert and their artistic muse, Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan. Cherry told me that writing the novel also gave her a chance to highlight the parallels between the art world and women’s place in it then and now – and to show how little things have really changed. For me, New Grub Street, does the same for writers.

However, in my own forays into writing I know, of course, that opportunity abounds, as it does with any craft, if you look for it, chase after it and, well persist. And, as I mentioned before in reference to self-publishing, it’s true that success looks different for everyone. Not all writers write for money, nor feel they ought to. Most realistic writers also know that authorship is always destined to be something they do ‘on the side’ of a more regular job. You don’t have to look far in history to see that lots, if not all, of ‘the greats’ wrote in and around their day-to-day post. Writers have generally always had to expect little in financial return for their work.

Arts Council logoOn a personal note, I’m delighted to report that I am the recipient, this year, of a great opportunity for writers in Northern Ireland, as I have been awarded a National Lottery-funded grant on behalf of the Arts Council NI as part of their Support for Individual Artists Programme. The grant will support me in writing a collection of short stories and poetry and, given what we know about writers’ earnings, it’s very gratefully received.

Those who are trying to earn a living by the pen may rightly feel frustrated at the way in which words are so easily dismissed when it comes to valuing their worth in hard cash, but thankfully for us all, there are organisations like arts councils and the like who understand the effort involved, appreciate the output and are prepared to support writers in their work.

It sprinkles a little gold dust on those quills and reminds us that our words have worth…


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One Throne Magazine: Review

Far in the north of Canada, nestled close to the Arctic Circle, lies Dawson City – a creative hub which is now home to the recently launched online literary journal, One Throne Magazine.

Published quarterly (always on the first day of each season), One Throne Magazine showcases ‘the foremost in writing, spanning genres, and running the gamut from elegant prose and poetry, to plot-driven stories, to speculative fiction.’OneThrone Mag-chair

I was surprised and delighted to be invited to do a review of the second edition of the publication, released to the world in June, and I was infinitely curious as to what it would be like… especially when I landed on the home page and was welcomed by a grid of beautiful, original artwork. Quirky, magical and mysterious, they captured my imagination immediately and all I wanted to know was - what words lay beneath?

With eight poems, three works of fiction and one piece of flash fiction, there is certainly a form of writing to suit any reader and, as already pointed out, there is an inspired piece of artwork or photography which acts as a cover page illustration for each piece of writing, so the magazine is also a showcase for talented artists as well as authors. All in all – an impressive welcome for One Throne Magazine readers.

As for the writing itself, there are of course a range of styles and stories on display, yet they work well together in forming the body of the publication. Hovering over each picture will tell readers if they are about to embark on a poetic adventure or a fictional piece of writing and I decided to begin with the poets – more specifically, with Dog Years - an evocative poem by Ryan Favata and, surprisingly, his first published piece. Here’s a taste, but you can read the rest via the link above.

‘They say it’s ten dog years per human year for the first two years,

‘I Missed You Today’ by Peek ©

then four dog years per human year for each year after.

This must mean for the first two years

catching a tennis ball and bringing it back feels like four days,

traversing a lake a month.’

Dog owners will surely love this poem, but it’s a piece of writing, I think, which will speak to everyone as, with most poetry, it isn’t always quite what you think it’s about at the start. As my first reading experience on OTM (One Throne Magazine), I was suitably impressed and quickly read on…

What a surprise to see that one of the next poems I came across, Desert, by Lesley-Anne Evans, was the work of a Belfast-born writer, albeit raised in Toronto.

‘Here in the welcoming undark

we unfurl to moon moisture

stretch slick over topics, tremble

with ears perked and turning

to possibility on wings…’

This is another thing which I like about OTM – their contributors are from all over – Canada, of course, but also: America, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and Israel. Oh, and they’re seeking submissions for their upcoming Fall issue, so there’s a great opportunity!

Charles Bane Jr’s My Love is another poem which stood out for me, although I have to say (and I can be picky with poems), I hesitate to pick out favourites, and only do so because I really won’t have room to mention them all here, if I’m to keep this post a reasonable length. As current nominee for Poet Laureate of Florida, his poem is pensive – an olde world love poem, I would say – the words and the accompanying artwork mirroring beautifully the magic of the night.

‘But at twilight,

love, the flooring’s swept,

a loom removed in lowering

steps, and a hearth of sparks

is overturned.’

The juxtaposition of work by a potential poet laureate with that of newly published authors is also refreshing, in that OTM’s door is simply open to great writing – be it from established or freshly fledged writers.

Andrew Reichard is another example of a newly published writer, and his poem, Backward, is a thought-provoking and imaginative piece on the fragility of time – of looking forward, of looking behind…

'Time Warped' by Toysoldier Thor ©

‘Time Warped’ by Toysoldier Thor ©

“Many Things Live Backward,”

he said, and I admit I thought him out of his


This is just a snapshot of the poetry on offer and all I can say is that I would definitely recommend checking it out…

To the fiction, then, and a flash fiction piece in Voracious, by Ilana Masad, which will certainly make you perceive your fellow commuters on the subway or underground a little differently after reading!

‘Her name begins with a V and is old-fashioned…’ – Yes, but her wandering thoughts are anything but…

The fiction is as varied in style and content as the poetry, creating an eclectic mix of writing in this second edition of One Throne Magazine, but a collection of work which sits well as just that – a complete collection. There is memoir in Notes from a Discarded Memoir by Timothy Ogene:

‘The coffin maker, cloaked in a white robe, astride a black coffin, with a whip, rode in the air, towards me, that ugly grin on his face. When he landed, he opened the coffin.’

… in which he recalls his time in ‘the blocks’ – ‘a place that I will never return to, and will never forget. There are times I wish I could forget the blocks, and times I wish I could remember more. ‘

'Until We Meet Again' by Robert Dowling ©

‘Until We Meet Again’ by Robert Dowling ©

It is the lengthiest piece of work in the publication and offers an emotive insight into the writer’s childhood. There is an altogether different glimpse into childhood in Wonderful and in Abbi Abbey Abbie Alexander, but perhaps you’d best check those out for yourselves…

This is but a very brief look at an online literary magazine which I for one will be following with interest and which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Personally, there are some publications out there which just don’t inspire enough enthusiasm in me to remember them but with One Throne Magazine, the combination of evocative, well-written poetry, fiction and artwork will certainly have me coming back for more…


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Ways with Words (part three): Self-publishing!

The third and final part of the recent Ways with Words event, kindly organised by LitNet NI as part of the Belfast Book Festival, saw us enter the rather exciting world of self-publishing. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my hopes of getting published the traditional way, that is, via an agent and publishing deal, but more and more, my eyes are being opened to the adventure that is self-publishing.

In the past I shunned the idea, having laid eyes upon books which very obviously hadn’t graced the hands of an editor and had simplyTree of books been written (revised? maybe?) and pushed out into the world without a second thought. Books like this, no matter how great the concept, are what give self-publishing a bad name. They play into the hands of the ‘literary elite’ who only deem traditionally published novels to be legitimate and worth the reading. It’s true that most people will still reach for the mainstream published book ahead of the self-published one but… times are a-changing.

People like to have things now, not in a week’s time; they read online every day; they download books for a pound or two for Kindle or other e-reading devices. In short – they are increasingly likely to take a chance on a self-published novel. They don’t have much to lose. The onus on the author then, is to make that book the best that it can be and help to grow the good reputation of an expanding industry.

But enough from me on the matter (I’m on board now, can’t you tell?!). What did our self-published gurus tell us at the Ways with Words event?naked author

Alison Baverstock, author of ‘The Naked Author – A Guide to Self-Publishing’, began by telling us that, in wanting others to read our work, “writers need strong egos.” She added that with self-publishing, more females opted for this and that, perhaps despite what some may think, 76% of self-published authors have a degree to their name.

“It’s not just for people who can’t find a publisher,” she stressed. “People are coming back for more – people who had traditional publishing deals and then decided to self-publish.”

Why is this? Well, most importantly, because it gives the author more control of the publishing process.

Meanwhile, 59% of those self-publishing, as backed up by Alison’s research, were using editors, whilst 21% took legal advice on the process. A further 26% used marketing support. So – self-publishing (SP) is taken quite as seriously by authors who are serious about their work as traditional publishing. The only difference is – here the author is in charge, not a publishing house.

Unsurprisingly, “uniformly, self-published satisfactions are very high,” added Alison. Her conclusions?

  • SP is a segmented market – no one size fits all
  • It’s a process, not a product
  • SP brings contentment
  • Far from ‘going it alone’, it’s very often team-based

As for publishers… “they haven’t tried to show how they add importance.”mousetrapped

Alison reiterated the point about knowing when to acknowledge that work was finished and suitable for showing to people. It can be too easy to send something off without waiting until it’s the best it can be. She added that the dangers of getting feedback too soon were:

  • You can go viral for the wrong reasons
  • You can damage your writing self
  • Ideas can shrivel when explained to those who aren’t interested

Also – SP can help you get objectivity and most importantly – “It’s something to be proud of, not apologetic about.”

Next up was Catherine Ryan Howard from Cork and AGR Moore from Belfast – two SP authors who have seen success with their books and are passionate about the benefits of SP. Interesting points to note from them for potential SP writers:

  • Lulu is a great SP service to use (Catherine has sold over 25,000 copies of her Mousetrapped book after SP using Lulu)
  • Also, Createspace is good for paperback copies
  • Amazon and Smashwords are SP staples and is also worth checking out
  • Employ the service of an editor and a good cover designer – skip these and, well, open the door to errors, dodgy covers and sullying the reputation of quality SP work
  • Use Goodreads and Twitter competitions to promote your book
  • Oh, and, in the words of Catherine - “everyone should self-publish. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it!”

amelia blackAGR Moore, aka Andrew, author of The Unseen Chronicles of Amelia Black, advised that putting a short story onto somewhere like Smashwords (for free) with links to your SP books for sale, is a good way of directing the purchasing public to your work. Generally, the advice was that ebook sales for SP are higher than paperback sales, harking back to the fact that people are still a bit wary about investing heavily in SP books as opposed to traditionally published ones.

“They just want entertainment,” he said. “Ebooks are something disposable that will entertain them. As a SP author, you can raise up and meet this demand.”

As a children’s author, AGR also advised that getting endorsements from teachers (and parents) for your book would help sell it to parents, who, after all, are the ones who are going to be doing the buying.

What we all wanted to know however was – how much does this all cost? Well, the reality is – if you want to do something well, you have to give some to get some, and you’re really talking, after deploying an editor and cover designer, around the £1,000-£1,500 mark. It’s a business after all and if you want to succeed, it had better be good.

What’s more, when it comes to being an author - ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’


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A Poetic Celebration

“If we write, we have to enter another world… A poem is that space we can inhabit.”

So said Ciaran Carson at the recent performance event of Reading and Writing for Peace: A Poetic Celebration, which saw a collection of participants from the peace poetry workshops attend the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University to celebrate the poetry produced from workshops throughout the past year.

Me with Tara Lynne O'Neill

Me with Tara Lynne O’Neill

I was delighted that my own poem, Awakening, was chosen amongst those being performed by local actors for the event, and let’s just say – for anyone who has never experienced hearing someone else read their work before - it’s quite surreal. The actor who read my poem (Tara Lynne O’Neill) - although ‘performed’ is a better word for it, as all the actors read with suitable emotion attached – did so differently from how I would have read it, proving the theory that once released into the world, poetry takes on a life of its own… I was, however, very pleased with how she read it and interested to see how someone else had interpreted my words.

Meanwhile, with the John Hewitt International Summer School fast approaching, it was also great to catch up with Tina Burke from last year’s school, as well as Mary Ellen Hayward, both from the Jane Ross Writers Group in Limavady.

Me and Tina Burke of the Jane Ross Writers Group

Me and Tina Burke of the Jane Ross Writers Group

The event was, of course, all thanks to the work of Leon Litvak of Queen’s University who, with the support of the NI Community Relations Council (CRC), brought the peace project initiative to Northern Ireland. The good news is – they are now able to continue the project for another year, so other writers in NI will have the opportunity to participate in the new upcoming workshops.

As Jacqueline Irwin, CEO of the CRC said: “This project is a point of light.” With the following day, June 21, the official Day of Reflection, when the hurt caused by conflict is acknowledged and remembered, she added that the event was “a very fitting tribute” to this.

“Poetry is the product and catalyst of reflection,” she added. “Poetry reaches into you and captures our shared community.”

The evening also included readings from Moyra Donaldson and Ciaran Carson, along with a post-show discussion at the end, which the audience was invited to take part in. The question inevitably asked during this, was: ‘Does poetry make a difference in the pursuit of peace?’

The Peace Palace in the Hague, Netherlands

The Peace Palace in the Hague, Netherlands

The answer was overwhelmingly that yes, poetry did have an impact, as it provided an outlet for people to express hitherto hidden thoughts, feelings and emotions and to share these, if desired, with others. It offered them a way, in many cases, to deal with issues they weren’t able to deal with before.

Ciaran Carson added: “Auden said, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. I say, everything happens in a small back room. I also have a notion of the word ‘stanza’. It means ‘a room’ and comes from the Italian ‘to stand’. So, a stanza in a poem is a space where the poet stands. You can enter into that space in your own manner.

“A poem is to allow the space where a reader can enter in his or her own way. What we want in a poem is accuracy in language… how you feel. If a poem operates as a poem, it speaks in its own terms.”



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Ways with Words (part two): Agents & publishers

After a whirlwind introduction into the, quite frankly, heady world of modern-day writing and publishing from Ian Sansom, the next part of our Belfast Book Festival event  - LitNetNI’s Ways with Words – saw some of the key players take to the stage. The agents and the publishers.

So, those who are more usually just a name on a website, an entry in the good old Writers & Artists Yearbook, took form and sat in front of a collection of us writers to dispense advice, answer questions and no doubt, hope not to be mobbed at the end…

We had Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander, Lindsey Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates and representatives from Blackstaff Press, Carcanet Press and Liberties Press. In short, as pretty impressive line-up.

The question is… just what did they say?Q

Well, unsurprisingly, they were fairly straight-talking and clear on what they wanted and ultimately, that is Good Writing. Sorry, Great Writing. Not rocket science, no, but then again, when there’s so much emphasis on marketing these days and getting attention, it’s important to remember that without fantastic words, nothing’s ever going to happen.

Below are their responses to three key questions put to the panel:

1) What can writers do to attract the attention of an agent or publisher?

Carcanet Press (who have TS Eliot winner Sinead Morrissey in their stables) use their PN review journal as a sort of vetting for authors. That is, we were told, it is often used as a “test for publication”, with writers published here more likely to go on and get a book published with them.

Blackstaff Press meanwhile, are big on social media and how much reaction writers are getting to their work online – do they have a huge amount of followers (and therefore potential buyers?) - are they attracting attention? Blackstaff have already used this method to publish authors, e.g. Lessa Harker’s Maggie Muff trilogy gained a very healthy following online and subsequently brought her to the publisher’s attention.

London agent, Clare Alexander, was very forthright in saying that for her, she jumps straight into the writing when she gets hold of a submission, bypassing the synopsis (that thorn in every writer’s side!) so it doesn’t spoil what’s to come. She also advised in sending to about three agents at the same time, as waiting for a response can, of course, take months… And if you are so lucky as to find someone expressing an interest in your work, she added: “Go and see them. See how they describe the book to you. If they describe a different book, then they’re not for you.” (How disappointing if you were to find an agent who liked your work but completely misrepresented it? The only thing to do is wait it out for someone who ‘gets’ your work.) Clare also said to look out for that up-and-coming agent building their client list – someone who will be keen to recruit new writers.

Lindsey Fraser added that most of the Fraser Ross Associates authors write for children and that, yes , wait for it – a great number of their submissions are rejected. Why? Because the writer has just “made attempts at a story” but hasn’t gone into a bookstore or library to see what the competition is. “We turn down some because they’re quite similar to what we’re representing,” she said. “But we don’t get it right all the time.”IMG_1982

2) How much of a package should we be offering? For example, should writers have a blog and be on Twitter?

“Particularly with children’s writing, authors are expected to get out there to do their stuff,” Lindsey told us. “Public persona has become more important. Blogs about children’s writing… some are great. Some are not.”

Clare advised us that all writers should do what’s natural to them but that for her, she didn’t care very much about ‘the package’.

It was a mixed bad of responses to this one but, suffice it to say, whatever works for you, although each genre has its own ‘best way’ perhaps of raising awareness of its particular brand.

3) Genre: should we be fully formed in this?

Clare’s advice was that, ultimately, no – writers do not need to be fully formed in their particular genre, but they do need to clarify a genre. Writers who approach her with a crime novel or ‘a rom-com if you prefer that’, or a kid’s book, a historical fiction book (you get the picture), will get an automatic ‘no’ from her, as “they need to know what they’re offering me.”

Blackstaff agreed on writers not having to be ‘fully formed’ and even said that feedback sometimes can be given to see work improved. (Feedback may be rare but it does happen!)

I’ve focused on the main responses to these key questions and it should be pointed out that all of the panel were agreed on one thing (put into words quite succinctly by Blackstaff Press!): If you’re not reading – what are you doing??reuben reading

You have been warned! Readers make writers. Readers write and writers read.

Carcanet added that for them, they want “something that’s surprising in sound and form as opposed to the content”.

Our advice to take away was:

  • Find your own way of writing and being a success (it’s different for everyone – publication? Simply completing a story? You decide.)
  • It’s never really finished – keep going! Write on!
  • If you’re not reading, what are you doing?
  • Do your homework before submitting

And ultimately – they may not know what they want – but they’ll know it when they see it….

Next week: Self-publishing revelations!

Post Script

This week I am pleased to say I attended the Reading and Writing for Peace: A Poetic Celebration performance event in Belfast, where my peace poem was performed by an actor alongside a collection of the other project participants’ work. Details of how this went coming soon…




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Ways with Words… Part one

“I think the opportunities for the writer have never been better. All sorts of boundaries have been broken…”

So said former publisher and widely published author/academic, Alison Baverstock at the weekend, when I had the opportunity to attend LitNet NI’s Ways with Words Literature Development Day at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival 2014. It was a day packed full of tips and advice from those often heard of, seldom seen (unless you’re one of the lucky authors to have secured an agent and publisher!), with professionals flying in from Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Dublin and of course, coming in from Belfast city itself to engage with us local writers.

We enjoyed Q&As with said agents and authors and heard from two successfully self-published authors in the afternoon, but first, it was left to the inimitable Ian Sansom to stir up some lively enthusiasm for the day with his introductory message – entitled: Crusoe’s Reckoning.Flying letters

We had anecdotes! We had tangential side stories! We had facts! History! Research! Opinion!

We had A LOT of stimulating titbits about writing and the heady dynamics it can entail today – via the internet and all that Social Media – but it certainly fired up anyone who wasn’t already on the edge of their seats. If anyone has ever heard Mr Sansom speak, they will know that his passionate addresses flow fast so, in point form, I present a mere few of those literary titbits…

The Digital Revolution is happening and it’s happening via:

  • Text
  • Real-time communication
  • Broadcast and moving pictures
  • Debate and discussion
  • Reference
  • Games

Nothing new there, I hear you say – we know about these things. Yes, but – how do they affect you as a writer and how do you – indeed, do you – harness them effectively to support/publicise your craft?

“We’re in a phase at the moment that we might call the Digital Incunabula – no-one’s seen anything like this before,” explained Sansom. “We haven’t quite worked out what all these things are meant to be… using this digital technology as writers.”

Indeed, even books – bound, printed, basic books – were once an enigma to be mastered. Writing techniques, publishing techniques and publicising techniques have subsequently fragmented with the internet and we’re still muddling our way through the amazon. So to speak.crusoe

“We write/edit/design/publish/print. We’ve gone from needing an agent and publisher to now needing beta readers, brand managers, copy editors, designers and printers…

“How do writers reckon with themselves? We need to reckon with our time… (herego, Crusoe’s Reckoning) It’s to do with how you match your time with what you have available.”

Yes, when Robinson Crusoe was stranded on his island, he realised he needed to seize control of his situation – he had to reckon with himself with regards to how he would take ownership of his time and consciously apply himself in his new environment.

What I think Sansom was asking us writers was – are we doing the same?

It was a good start to the day – a day which had many more insights to come and which, for those who weren’t there, will have to wait for another post…

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