E is for Enthralling: The Fantasy and Sci-Fi Books that Got Me Hooked

The inspiration for today’s post comes from the ‘chat’ (i.e. blog comment exchange) I had yesterday with Roland Clarke, fellow writer, A to Zer and 100kin100days member (you could visit his blog next…). I mused about fantasy and sci-fi – about how I’d loved it but then spent a long period avoiding it, because everything I picked up seemed derivative; same old, same old. But it was the genre that inspired a devotion which carried me through to my teens and beyond, long after other genres (school, pony and mystery stories) had been left behind.To discover where this love started, we’re going back, back… no, I mean we’re REALLY going back..

Blyton blue plaque.jpg
Plaque near Dulwich library

Enid Blyton: The Far-Away Tree series
Three children climbed a huge tree inhabited by a host of fascinating, vaguely humanoid creatures – Saucepan Man, Moonface and Silky the Fairy. Were there others? There was a helter-skelter that went right down through the middle of the tree, AND different magical lands were on a rota to appear at the top of the tree. Some lands were fun, some were scary (to someone of 6 or 7). What’s not to love?

C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia
I get twitchy when people refer to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the ‘first’ Narnia book. It was written first, but please don’t give it to anyone to read first; in the Chronicles it’s book 2. The confusion comes from Lewis’ writing order (2,4,5,6,3,1,7), but if you don’t read the Magician’s Nephew first, you’ll never discover how Narnia came into being – or where the wardrobe came from in the first place.

  1. The Magician’s Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and his Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

Despite – or as well as, depending on your leaning – being Christian allegory, the Chronicles are a darn good read. Yes, the language and mannerisms are dated now, but for the time, the girls are portrayed as relatively strong characters who do not stay out of the fighting. Battles, magic, rescues, betrayal, super-villains, loveable animal comrades that  talk, the notion of a different world just round the corner from ours and the heady idea that one day I might be called upon, just as Peter, Edward, Susan and Lucy were, to go and ‘make a difference: marvellous!
The Horse and His Boy is hard-going and a little lacking in Lewis magic. It only really relates to The Last Battle,  and can be left out altogether without much impact. As for The Last Battle – by now I was 8 or 9 and had already lost two of the three grandparents I started with. It made me cry.

Lloyd Alexander.jpg
Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander: The Chronicles of Prydain
They’re brilliant, and based on Welsh mythology. Never heard of them? Er… ever heard of the Disney film, The Black Cauldron? That’s not that surprising either. Taking its title from the 2nd book, yet loosely based on books 1 and 2, it was “the first Disney animated theatrical feature to receive a PG rating. It even had to be edited twice to avoid being released with a PG-13 or R rating” (IMDB).  It’s popularly known as ‘the film that nearly finished Disney’. I’ll explain why in my ‘U for Underrated’ blog post. That aside, the books are well worth a read. The character development is great, as are the moral dilemmas; there’s an interesting heroine and a pig-keeper who comes into his own. But as is often the case, the ending is bitter sweet. Here I am in tears again at the end of book 5: 10 years old.

  1. The Book of Three
  2. The Black Cauldron
  3. The Castle of Llyr
  4. Taran Wanderer
  5. The High King

More Fantasy talk on Monday in F is for Fascinating 🙂

C is for Cool: Competitions, Evolution, Bono, Penguins & Positive Productivity!

I have the same problem with Cool as I did with Boring yesterday. So many things are cool – where would I begin? People with enquiring, open minds; people who aren’t scared to speak up against prejudice, even when it doesn’t affect them; parents who encourage their children to make decisions for themselves, instead of dictating their beliefs and aspirations – and provide them with the tools to do so. All very Cool.

Penguins, of course, live in cool places and are also inherently cool. Some have funky hairstyles, the Dad does his share of parenting and contrary to urban myth, they do not become so fixated on aeroplanes in the Falkland Islands that they fall over backwards while watching them, because they are far too cool for that.

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With all this abundance of coolness, I decided to simply share three of my Google Alerts that struck me as cool.

1) Competitions

Interesting creative writing competitions for children, particularly with good prizes, are relatively rare – but this one qualifies. Stroud Library are running a competition to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Laurie Lee, most famous for Cider with Rosie. I recommend Laurie Lee; if you haven’t read any of his work, shuffle off to the library right now. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a favourite of mine.

Laurie Lee

The theme of the competition is Legends set somewhere in the Five Valleys, where many of Laurie’s stories originated, and where he lived in the village of Slad.

There are two age categories for the competition:

  • Under 7s : 50-500 words
  • 8-12 years: 300-1,000 words

For each category the 1st prize will be £25 and a bundle of books and the 2nd prize will be £15, which is great, so if you know any young budding writers, point them in the direction of this page, where they can download an application form. The competition opens on 5th April and closes on the 31st May, and the webpage also has details of a workshop children can attend to help them get started on their masterpiece.


Scientists have been looking afresh at the Permian-Triassic extinction that occurred around 252 million years ago . While they know that this event, which destroyed 90% percent of marine life and 70 % of terrestrial life, was caused by a disruption to the carbon cycle, the cause of the disruption has always been a mystery – although they knew that something ’caused a burst of carbon to come out of storage’, turning seas to acid and raising temperatures.

According to the Smithsonian website, geophysicist  Daniel Rothman and his team have noticed that the carbon cycle disruption  wasn’t typical of a geological event like a meteorite strike or volcano, where it would peak then taper off; instead the disruption seemed to grow at an increasing rate over time. So they’re hypothesising that microbes may be to blame – pesky microbes that may have traded genes. They believe that Methanosarcina gained two genes from a bacteria that gave them the ability to eat organic waste (with its stored carbon) from the sea floor, causing them to pump out methane and push carbon back into the water. You can read the full article here.


It makes you wonder what else microbes may have been responsible for…

3) Bono

Bono is (arguably) cool, but apparently the poor lad has writer’s block – which is seriously delaying progress on U2’s planned new album and follow up tour. CBC books thoughtfully provided 5 brief writing tips from authors that might help him on his way. You can read them all if you want, but I wanted to share  my favourite one:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Mark Twain

Not only is this true, but it’s also the essence of a handy book by Simon Whaley, called The Positively Productive Writer, which explains in detail exactly how to  ‘break your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks’ and provides a host of useful and inspiring tips to get you started.

If you’re a writer who needs a constructive kick up the butt and a Plan, then read all about it here before hopping off and buying (or downloading) it. Perhaps I should send a link to Bono, too…

I Dabbled in a Drabble

Yes, I dabbled in a drabble. That is, a teensy tiny story. And it was fun.

One of my fellow #100kwords100days members, Gerald Hornsby, mentioned an anthology that was looking for sci-fi and fantasy stories just 100 words long. As I had a bit of time on my hands that day and submissions were about to close, I had a go.

It’s amazing how much editing you can do on a 100 word story, which is ironic (you’ll see why in a minute). But I sent off my drabble, entitled Valhalla, and hey presto! it was accepted into 100 Worlds: Lightning-Quick SF and Fantasy Tales . I got the ebook for free but didn’t get a chance to look at it – anyway I fancied the paperback, which arrived today.

And after all that editing – I find that they’ve replaced a painstakingly positioned semi-colon with a comma,  changing the whole feel of the sentence. Oh, it’s a hard life…

Money & Morality – The Freelancer’s Dilemma

You may think that the professional life of a freelance writer is free of any soul-wrenching moral dilemmas. After all, you think, surely these freelance writers choose what work they do? The clue’s in the name!

Well you’re right. Mainly.
A freelance writer can choose the work they do, although work that they might refuse to do when they’ve just finished their third lamb roast dinner that month might look much more appealing when they’ve just opened their cupboard to find only a solitary tin of Tesco’s Everyday Baked Beans.

(I’m in no way dissing Everyday Baked Beans; I buy them. I merely mention them for comparative purposes). But what might interest you is what freelancers get asked to do – regardless of whether they say yes or not.

Firstly there are the jobs that have ‘You’re going to be involved in a slander or libel case if you take this’ written all over them. For a sample of these fine professional work opportunities, sign up to Freelancer.com for a month of so and you’ll soon have a selection to study. Nearly all these spring from the USA (sorry, it’s a fact). Often written by someone who is borderline literate, they usually tell a tale of woe, often involving a family member, and ask that you write their ‘true’ story so that they can get justice via memoir publication /going to the national papers/taking the ‘guilty’ party (often a daughter, son, ex-partner, ex-boss) to court.

I only look at these because many are just entitled as ‘need ghostwriter for my memoir’ (or ‘ghostwritter for my trew storey‘). Any writer who wades in and writes a ‘true’ account of such emotive and controversial topics with only one side of the story available to them, must surely have a death wish or be desperate for money. Probably both.

Illustration of two bats and a ghost

The second category of avoid-like-the-plague jobs is perhaps best explained with a real life example – in which the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent (depending on your moral standpoint). Recently I came across an opportunity to write a ‘professional literature essay’. Being the proud owner of a first class BA Hons in this area, I took a closer look. The fee offered was $30 and this was the description:

Num. of words: 1250
Topic: Hansel and Gretel
Tone: Instructional/Educational
Extensive research needed: yes

Ideal! One of my specialist subjects had been children’s literature, and fairy tales had been a major topic. I could do this with my eyes closed! However, a little wary already due to the use of the word ‘essay’, I sent as message:

Hi X, Could you tell me what the context, title and purpose of this essay is please? Many thanks.

X replied:
Mrs. Alison, (??)
We studied how to create an arguable claim and write specifically and persuasively about literature. For this paper, you need to draw on the work, finding themes and morals in the Hansel and Gretel’s story to create an argument about a fairy tale and to prove it using the story itself. Is it clear?
Thanks, X

Oh yes, X. It’s crystal clear. You’ve uttered that fatal phrase ‘We studied’. You want me to do your homework – possibly your final assessment piece; it’s probably for an A level at the very least, and far more likely with this topic to be for a uni diploma or degree.


See that line? That’s where I draw it, you see. I’ve managed to get my GCSEs, A levels, Pharmaceutical Science qualification, various Education qualifications, a uni Diploma and a BA Hons, often in circumstances far from ideal – and many of them were gained while holding down a job and looking after two children. Blatant requests from Great Big Cheats asking me to help them Cheat Cheat Cheat make me see red. However, I felt my response explained my point but was civil – nay, t’was politeness itself.

Dear X,
Thanks for your reply. I’m afraid that having worked so hard for my own qualifications, I make it a rule not to do work for other people’s, as I believe this devalues the work of people who achieve their qualifications through their own efforts. Therefore I won’t be putting in a proposal. Many thanks, Alison

There. I’d said my piece, bowed out gracefully without personally attacking X. The end.

Wrong! I got a reply – most definitely personal, and most definitely not polite!

Hi Alison
I assure you that almost every other people I see around (including me) works so hard for their own qualifications. In order to make money, you must do work for orther people’s. Contrary to your argument about devaluing, I think this improves the value of people who achieve their “qualifications” through their own efforts. Your mind of thinking won’t make you more valuable in the long run, and no one needs your advice on how to write stuff as every sort of information is available online for free of charge! If you are part of this community, and want to make money, you must use your qualifications and give people what they need. Your job is not to tell people what kind of principles you have, and believe me noone cares about it. 
Regards, X

I confess I nearly had a urine-based accident when this popped into my inbox. But it confused me on several points.

  • If people who obviously can’t achieve qualifications by themselves get other people who can do the work, and do know their stuff, to do their work for them – and end up with a certificate that looks just like the one owned by us poor saps who slog away for years – how can this possibly ‘improve the value’ of the people  who ‘achieve their “qualifications” through their own efforts’?
  • If ‘no one needs [my] advice on how to write stuff as every sort of information is available online for free of charge!’ – why do other people do it so often, and why was X asking for someone to write his essay? X could just have looked it up. Simples!

    Anyway, this concludes this post because as you can see above, ‘[my] job is not to tell people what kind of principles [I] have, and… noone cares about it’. So I won’t.

You Want Me To Do WHAT? OR, Meeting Your Public

So we all know the deal these days. Whether your début novel is published by one of the Big Names and sails into the best seller charts, or whether you’re trying to sell copies of your self-published book to anyone besides your neighbour, aunt and grandma, you need to promote yourself and your work. And for most writers, the onus is on them to contact local papers and radio, tweet, set up a Facebook Page, blog, link, vlog about their writing journey, do guest posts about what their study looks like, share links to their Pinterest account, get LinkedIn… and generally put themselves about a bit.

If you want advice about how to promote your book, look no further than ‘self-confessed media tart’ Jane Wenham-Jones’ book, Wannabe A Writer We’ve Heard Of her brilliant follow up to Wannabe A Writer. You can find info about them both on the link.

But say, after urging from your publisher and/or advice from Jane W-J, you now find yourself in front of a crowd at a village hall, in front of a pile of books at your local book store, or in the studio of a local radio station wearing big headphones, with the producer counting down to your cue while sweat pools in between your shoulder blades? Few of us come purpose-built to deal with those situations gracefully and productively. That’s where Skillsstudio could come in handy. They offer corporate, group and one-to one coaching on presentation skills, public speaking, communication skills, voice training, interview skills and media training, plus e-learning, and their website offers some great tips. As radio interviews are often the first media-facing exercise writers have to endure, those are the Skillstudio tips I thought I’d summarise and share.

Tips for Radio Interviews
When you are interviewed on radio you have an incredibly short amount of time to make an impact.  So it’s important that you don’t waste a second or mess up – as you probably won’t have time to recover from a mistake.”

Definitely true. A good friend of mine was suddenly told she would be interviewed on the radio, via telephone, about the services provided by the family centre she ran. I tuned in and listened while she pelleted poor Barbara Sturgeon of Radio Kent with a super-speed burst of facts. Barbara had no chance of getting a word in edgeways and was falling about laughing by the time my hapless friend finished. It was certainly a memorable first radio interview, but not a good one. Her message wasn’t clear because she rushed – hence Studioskills golden rules:

  • use the time before an interview to focus on what the presenter is saying beforehand.  You may pick up some useful background information or context that you can use in your responses.
  • Speak in short sentences – one thought per sentence.
  • Take time over the first three words of the sentence – so that you don’t rush into the sentence.
  • Don’t rush any syllables – make sure each syllable in the word is pronounced
  • Don’t butt in to the question – wait for the presenter to finish asking the question before you respond
  • Focus on understanding the question, rather than rehearsing your response in your head
  • Buy yourself time at the start of your response with a phrase such as “that’s a very interesting question” – if you need time to think about how to start your answer
  • Tell a story – if you imagine each of your responses are a short story – this will automatically inject more energy and expression into your voice
  • Emphasise important words – these are the key words that make up the essence of your sentences and will help you to sound more convincing
  • Smile – when you smile your voice smiles and it comes across more appealing and personable to the listeners. 

If you want more tips about how to face your admiring public with confidence, pop over to Skillstudio and take a look. And next time one of your loved ones is short of a present idea, why not ask them to buy you a course? Especially as at the moment, if yours is a personal booking, you can get 25% off the advertised prices – just include the promotional code PERSONAL when completing the online booking form. You must also pay for the course within 5 days of making the booking.

Now… first question… where did you get the idea for your book? Don’t rush your answer! 😀


Whipping Your WIPs into Submission, OR ‘Fifty Shades of Completion’

Over on the Facebook Group for the 100k in 100Days Challenge, we don’t only talk about writing 100K words in 100 days. I know: it’s a shocker. We do mainly talk about writing, so if that doesn’t appeal, don’t join. Because it will bore you to tears, and life’s too short, even on a Grey day.

One of our recent natters intellectual debates was about languishing WIPS (works in  progress, lovies. You’re new here, aren’t you? Welcome :D).
Why do we have them? How many do we have? Will we/should we, ever finish some/most/all of them? After I suggested that performing a personal WIP audit could be useful,  suddenly the thread morphed into a secular online Confessional. Dozens of WIPs were admitted. The sin of Never Finishing any work above ‘short story length’ (a Grey area) was confessed (if this was a Vlog, you’d see me raising my hand here. As it isn’t, use your imagination). Some WIPs supposedly started when their authors were living in trees writing with a scratchy stick, but that was probably an exaggeration. Flamin’ writers.

Many of us felt we had at least a few WIPs worth retrieving from the Grey recesses of our archives – worth reviving or even completely rewriting, because the original idea was sound. How to do this logically, though, and how to balance the demands of ancient WIPs with the urge to start new stuff – that’s tricky. Or is it?As I’m all for giving an approving nod to other writers and their ideas, and this confessional mode is hard to get  out of, I’ll tell you now that if you need help with this, How To Finish What You Start – A Five Step Plan For Writersmay be all you need to tackle this Grey area.

BUT if the Five Step Plan seems too harsh, and not to have that holding-your-hand-and-guiding-you-gently-through-the-thicket-of-thorns-to-the-rainbow-rose-garden approach that you prefer, you might need my Fifty Steps Of Completion plan (except there are only fifteen) to Whip those Whips into Submission, instead. And no, I didn’t call it that to get hits from people seeking certain volumes of erotic fiction, it just came to me (no double entendre intended). If that’s what I was after, I would have mentioned E.L.James and slipped in the word Grey everywhere. (Oh… whoops.) Without Further Ado, I give you…


Fifteen Shades of Completion: Whipping Your WIPs into Submission.

Get a notepad ready – you’ll need it in a minute. (Yes, and a pen as well. Smarty Pants).

  1. Dig out every notebook and scrap of paper with writing on that you possess (yes, that includes shopping lists. What do they tell you about the person who wrote it, or what they’re about to do? They make great prompts!). Put them in one place: a boxfile if they fit, a bedroom if they don’t (displace the occupant. It’s for the Greater Good). Label your boxfile/bedroom WIPs.
  2. Search tirelessly through documents, blog posts, Sticky Notes, files from MyNovel/Scrivener/NewNovelist etc for writing. Save in one folder: WIPs.
  3. Time to separate your WIPs from your PIPs. PIPs are Ponderings in Progress. Snatches of dialogue, interesting info, undeveloped ideas; any pieces  less than about 5% of the intended finished length,  count as PIPs.
  4. Gather PIPs together in one computer folder and/or notebook, scrapbook, expanding/lever-arch/box file. If there’s a related cutting, join your PIP to it: staple, paper clip, or stick them on the same scrapbook page. Then, when you need a new idea (maybe you ran out of  WIPS; woo-hoo!) – all those brilliant seeds will be just waiting for you to come along and water them.
  5. FILE your PIPs, Make Way For Your WIPs! Label then store your PIPs.
  6. Only true WIPs left – got your notepad? LIST and number each one. No categorising, no comments, no ordering; just list. If it doesn’t  have a title, assign one that clearly identifies it, e.g. 1. Watch The Wall 2. Ghost sport story.
  7. Go down the list. Star WIPs that excite you/give you a warm fuzzy feeling.
  8. Again! This time star WIPs when you think, ‘I know what I’m doing with that.’
  9. Again! This time star WIPs when you think, ‘I could finish that fairly quickly.’
  10. Again! This time, star WIPs when you think, ‘I already have a competition/ submission/other purpose in mind for that one, that has a deadline attached.’ If the deadline is in the near future, give it two stars.
  11. You may feel that there’s one kind of project that you never complete, whether (like me!) it’s longer projects, non-fiction, flash…so brandish that pen again and star projects that fall into your ‘always left to last’ category.
  12. If your list contains items without any stars, take a good long look at them. Are there any that you feel you will never want to work on again? Now’s the time to heartlessly slash through those items.
  13. Hopefully by now you will have a short list of starred items – with any luck some will have more than one star. Your stars should enable you to write out a prioritised WIP list.
  14. What you need now is a PLAN. A rule that works for you, to ensure your WIP list is tackled whilst writing new stuff. Now you could go cold turkey – as recommended by the 5 step Plan – and ban yourself from writing anything new at all. By all means do this is you can, although remember to at least briefly write down any ideas in your PIPs book! But this won’t work for many people, who need to write new material because they have commitments to do so and/or need to write to earn money; or who find just revitalising old material feels stifling, making them lose heart.
  15. So if you can’t go cold turkey, what are your options? Here are some rules I suggested to Gerald Hornsby on the 100K group (he took up my audit suggestion and ended up logging a bewildering amount of languishing WIPs!).
  • ‘for every two new ideas I write up, I must finish 1 WIP’
  • ‘for every 2000 words I write on something brand new, I must write X amount on a WIP’,
  • ‘I will complete a WIP every two months’.

For any of these to work, it’s best to make a spreadsheet or some kind of record, to keep yourself honest, AND on track. Hope that’s cleared up any GREY areas 😉