Wednesday, 10 February 2016

'fessing up - Karen Bush

Hallo. My name is Karen, and I am a bookaholic. Haven't been able to say no to them for years and years and years, and it affects my everyday life in many, many ways ...

  • If I have to make a choice between buying a book or something for dinner, it's a no-brainer. Even if I am a little tired of beans on toast.
  • I can't pass a charity shop: I always have to go in because there are always so many books in there, all desperately looking for good homes.
  • While everyone else is whining on about it, I never mind being stuck in a queue as I always have a book or my e-reader with me.
  • While everyone else is out at the cinema I'm at home reading the book of the film. Which by all accounts is much better as well as cheaper.
  • If I'm dragged off to the pub, I'm the one sitting in the corner with a book. My partner used to complain until he saw sense after I pointed out that it was the price of my being the designated driver, and that although there was little that I could contribute to conversations about motorbikes, I was perfectly happy to discuss the book I was currently reading.
  • Long drive somewhere? Yippee - I love listening to audio books, and have even been known to sit in the car for a few more minutes after reaching my destination if I'm in the middle of a good bit.
  • Should anyone ask what I'd like for a birthday/Christmas present, the answer is, obviously, a book token. Or alternatively, baked beans to stock up my kitchen cupboards so I can then spend more money on books.
  • One of the reasons I like e-readers is because they are so much easier to prop up on the table so I can read while I'm eating my beans on toast.

I could give you many other examples, but I'm sure you get the idea. My name is Karen, and I am a bookaholic. Is there a cure? Goodness, I do hope not ...

The Curse of the Baked Bean Bonanza.
Chapter One
It was a dark and stormy night, 
and Angel was alarmed by a strange noise ...

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The NHS Constitution - a must-read? by Julia Jones

The NHS belongs to the people. 
It is there to improve our health and wellbeing, supporting us to keep mentally and physically well, to get better when we are ill and, when we cannot fully recover, to stay as well as we can to the end of our lives. It works at the limits of science – bringing the highest levels of human knowledge and skill to save lives and improve health. It touches our lives at times of basic human need, when care and compassion are what matter most.” 
Try reading this passage aloud. To my ears the rhythm and the phrasing achieve an almost prayerful quality: to stay as well as we can to the ends of our lives. This is the introduction to the most recent revision of the NHS Constitution and, while I’m not advocating the NHS designed-to-be-read-as-literature I’d be glad if you left this blog and went there now. I think we need to remind ourselves of the beauty of the concept. 

The NHS belongs to the people but this expression of vision only applies to England. All four UK countries are committed to a publicly funded health care system but as part of the processes of devolution, each NHS system operates independently and is accountable to its own government. Scotland has a Patient Charter of Rights and Responsibilities which has been incorporated into an Act by the Scottish Parliament (2011). Wales has a Patients Charter which was most recently revised in 2005. Health and Social Care Northern Ireland also has a Patients Charter and revision has been mentioned but not, I think, implemented. In England, the NHS Constitution must by law be updated every ten years, with involvement by patients, public and staff and is supplemented by a handbook which is updated every three years. What you are reading here is the latest edition, published October 2015.

Just in case readers in England are tempted to feel smug about this (what us, smug?) there is a viable argument that the structurally fragmented state of the English NHS (resulting from the Health and Social Care Act 2012) means that it is England where the NHS is in the greatest state of flux and where it is therefore crucial that we, as citizens, understand our ownership. The NHS is not such an old organisation. We may feel that it’s been around for ever but for very many of its current users – those born before 1948 – free healthcare was not always a fact of life. That may be why older people are, as a group, the most reluctant to complain.

The NHS Constitution exists to empower patients and their families by providing them with up to date information about their legal rights but I am not advocating it as an aid to complaint, necessary though that may sometimes be. I want us to read this document as something encouraging, supportive, energising. Writers and readers know that meaning is something that is made by both sides. I wish that reading this Constitution would help to break down the them-and-us feeling that can exist between staff and patients with their families and carers. After all it's a rare NHS staff member who will go through his or her life without also being an NHS patient. One in three of all of us will also, at some time in our lives, be a carer. The NHS belongs to all of us.

The NHS Constitution sets out seven key principles with their underpinning values. It tells us we have legal rights and makes pledges to us which go above and beyond legal rights.
A Welsh Carer's Passport
Take the principle of Access: it’s underpinned as one might expect by the right to receive NHS services free of charge and not to be refused on unreasonable grounds. But there is also the right to receive care and treatment which is appropriate to you, meets your needs and reflects your preferences.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on what this right of appropriateness might mean, if, for instance, you are someone living with dementia. Or if you are any frail or vulnerable person who is normally dependent on someone else for their daily functioning. Perhaps you have a learning disability? What would most appropriately meet your needs and reflect your preferences if you required hospital treatment? Being accompanied, I would guess, by someone you already know and trust. The Constitution pledges to make the transition as smooth as possible when you are referred between services and to put you, your family and carers at the centre of decisions that affect you or them.

Karen Wilson, the first nurse in Scotland
to sign her ward up to John's Campaign
My favourite principle is number four: The patient will be at the heart of everything the NHS does ... NHS services must reflect, and should be co-ordinated around and tailored to, the needs and preferences of patients, their families and their carers ... You have the right to be involved in planning and making decisions about your health and care with your care provider or providers, including your end of life care and to be given information and support to enable you to do this. Where appropriate (adds the most recent revision) this right includes your family and carers
So the next time a loving daughter is turned away from her “very poorly” father with dementia because it’s not visiting hours or when she is obstructed from making an appointment to talk to the clinicians who are looking after him at a time that is convenient for her to continue with her own socially vital job, she should remind the nay-sayers of Principle Four.

The "Dementia Together" team who are
pledged to introduced John's Campaign
to Northern Ireland
You are reading the NHS Constitution, latest edition. The consistent and welcome inclusion of family and carers as the appropriate support for some patients is new. Nicci Gerrard and I at John's Campaign were among many organisations who  downloaded a form from the Department of Health website last summer and filled in our suggestions --  usually (as you may have guessed) insisting that the words "family and carers" must be popped in as frequently as possible. Although I'd love to think that it was our winning way with words that made the difference, actually the civil servants who collated all our pieces of paper were probably responding primarily to the spirit of the 2014 Care Act.  

We won't therefore be putting in for PLR but we are as keen as any authors that the NHS Constitution should find readers. Currently only 24% of patients know it exists -- and many are reported as finding it "pretty meaningless" (Patient's Association report, July 2012). 
Nurses at St Helen's & Knowsley NHS Trust,
 the most recent group to join John's Campaign
Could we change this please? Because if everyone -- in all parts of the UK --  read and acted on the spirit and the letter of this delightful and well-written document there would be no more need to campaign for the right of people with dementia to be accompanied by their families or carers in hospital. Then Nicci and I could retire happily home to our desks and carry on writing fiction.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Get Inspired - Lynne Garner

Last month I mentioned I'd treated myself to a Kindle Fire and had spent time not only playing games (well to be honest only the one Free Flow, which is very addictive) but I'd also explored a few writing apps. Over the last month I've been 'playing' with them and decided that I'd write couple of reviews. So here goes...

Note: The links take you to Amazon but these apps are also available for iPhone

Screens from 'Story Lines' 
Story Lines  
Designed by: Magostech
Cost: free

I love real story cubes and regularly use them in class to help inspire my students for their short stories. The cubes I normally use come in packs of nine giving you 54 images. However these have 10 images each, giving you 90 images, so offering many more combinations. To use you simply shake your phone or tablet and the dice scatter. You can then drag them into some order and lock the image. I've only used the app as a 'guest' however if you sign up you can also use the 'write story' facility. If playing on your phone (android) you can save an image of the 'throw' to your phone for later use. However I also uploaded to my iPhone and the app doesn't appear to offer this facility, which is a shame. This is an app I will be keeping and if you teach creative writing is one you may wish to introduce to your students. It's also a great app to have on you when you're sitting in that waiting room or on the train and want to exercise your imagination.

Name Dice
Name Dice app

Design by: Thinkamingo Inc.
Cost: Free

Name Dice is a simple tool to create interesting fictional names. It includes hundreds of first and last names, resulting in nearly endless names combinations. It's very simply to use, just tap on the screen and a new name appears. Those that it's generated for me include Ivy Lambert, Hugo Carter, Bailey Charles or it could be Charles Bailey. Again this is an app I'll not only use myself but will also introduce to my students. I may even combine it with the 5 x W and H game (who, what, why, when, where and how) I often start my courses off with.

There are another couple of apps I'm still exploring and if they are any good I'll let you know next month.

In the meantime if you have any favourite apps please do share.


Now for a blatant plug - don't say I didn't warn you:

My latest short story collection Coyote Tales Retold is available on Amazon in ebook format. Also available Meet The Tricksters a collection of 18 short stories featuring Anansi the Trickster Spider, Brer Rabbit and Coyote is available as a paper back and an ebook. 

I run the following online courses for Women On Writing:
How to write A children's book and get published
5 picture books in 5 weeks
How to write a hobby-based how to book

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Second Coming by Bill Kirton

The original blog I'd scheduled for today was (and still is because I'll post it next month) intended to be an entertaining aside about what great readers children are and how open they leave their imaginations. But the relentless cynicism of our rulers, their hypocrisy and their recent, blatant demonstrations that they know it and couldn't care less if we do too has forced my hand. The Google tax thing, the 'bunch of migrants' crack by Cameron - well, make your own list, there's plenty to choose from - they're profoundly depressing, and (lucky me) I've never been a depressive.

After that, I suppose it’s important to add a disclaimer. The blog expresses my own opinions and is not intended to represent in any way the ethos, philosophy, or collective political leanings – if there are any – of Authors Electric. Some readers also may ask why I've chosen such a topic, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with writing. My excuse is that nothing I've read or heard anywhere comes close to expressing my fears and despair better than the concluding poem. It doesn't solve the problem, but it gives it frightening substance.

First then, the title. My subject is the re-election of the bloke in 10 Downing Street but I actually stole it from two writers. One is John Niven, whose novel The Second Coming  is hilarious and not only envisages the sort of heaven I’d love to spend time (indeed, eternity) in but also gives a highly believable version of how the story of Jesus might repeat itself in a 21st century context. I’ll get to the other later.

Next, I make no apologies for the fact that the most, indeed only, powerful bit of this post was not written by me. Sometimes, though, we need our real writers, our geniuses, to capture things, movements, stresses, fears, Jungian and Freudian nightmares which many of the rest of us apprehend but can’t satisfactorily fix in words. Some may accuse me of being melodramatic but I find the prevailing political ideologies and rhetoric sinister, dangerous, toxic. And those in power are making sure that there won't be change any time soon.

Last May, my blog post fell on election day.  It was an effort at a light-hearted (although still serious and wary) satire on that process, but my fictional fairy tale came nowhere near the grotesque actuality of the outcome. I've waited, just in case my fears proved groundless, but (surprise, surprise) they haven't. The messages coming out of the government 'we' (apparently) elected are predictably clear. 'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war'. Bye, bye, human rights. Eff off, foreigners. Hi to health and education for those who can afford it. Any infrastructure still in public hands? Flog it. Single mothers? On your bikes. Social housing? Don't be silly. Oh, and tax evaders? Help yourselves.

But it’s even worse than that. It’s an opening up of sour divisions between citizens who face the same ‘enemies’, share the same interests. It’s divide and rule. It’s an unleashing of cynical forces of discord, self-interest, ignorance and darkness.

And here’s where my second title source comes in.

One morning, I heard on BBC Radio 4 a very familiar poem, written for a different troubled time (and, coincidentally, by a man with sometime fascist leanings) which (spookily) summed up the fears I had and have about what the outcomes of ‘our’ choice of government may prove to be. It’s the W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. It was written in 1919 but its opening stanza is almost a literal description of the events of May 2015 and its shudder-inducing final image may well represent a real future.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Rule Britannia, eh?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Littlewich Ways Launch - by Debbie Bennett

Back in September, I blogged abut the community radio play project I'm involved in - Littlewich Ways. On Friday we had our "official" launch party in the local pub, accompanied by a big-screen production (yes, I know it's radio, but bear with me ...), much alcohol and nibbles.

You can see the results here on our very own Youtube channel, set up by yours truly. Or via our blog page/website at Or just click below...

It's been nearly two years in the making. When you think that at the start, few of us had any idea what we were doing, I think we've come a long way. We're not professional scriptwriters, actors and technicians. All of us have day jobs and do this purely for fun.

When we decided to use Youtube to host our efforts, we realised we'd need something visual. Youtube is a visual medium and we needed a picture, or pictures, on-screen while the audio track was playing. So we decided to add a single picture per scene, to add a visual "clue" to the setting as well as something to look at. Finding pictures wasn't easy - a single image per scene that would repeat for every scene in the same setting. We debated what types of house each of our fictional families would live in and did most of our own photography, then added a sponge filter to everything to attempt to tie it all together somehow. My daughter had the brainwave of using some drone footage taken by a neighbour last summer and put it together as an opening sequence (the white house is ours!). And I had a very steep learning curve in getting to grips with Adobe Premiere Pro to grasp the basics of overlaying and editing sound and image files.

So we're nearly thirty (roughly 15-minute) episodes in, with two out there and live. We're about to start recording episodes 3 and 4. We've covered the sublime to the ridiculous with everything in-between.

And they still haven't let me kill anybody.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Shipping Forecast by Sandra Horn

I may have mentioned before that I’m a sad nut about the sounds of words. They can make me shiver, dance, laugh with sheer joy – and none more so than those issued by the Met Office at regular intervals throughout my life.
I, a total landlubber, have loved listening to the Shipping Forecast ever since I can remember, and long before I had a clue about what it meant. It was like a mysterious poem. First, the quietly authoritative, beautifully modulated voice: Attention all shipping! I was stilled by that. Then the anticipation of the thrilling litany of names: Dogger, Fisher, German Bight (Bite? Whaa!), Viking, Forties, Cromarty, Ross... Oh, Heligoland! There were no Utsires then and I remember the irritation when I first heard the interlopers. Where had THEY come from, blast it? Funny-sounding, and how on earth do you spell them? And Finisterre (lovely!) becoming Fitzroy (not lovely at all). How dare anyone change my poem? 

It doesn’t end with the names, of course; there’s more: Westerly backing southwesterly 3 or 4. Rain later. Good. I didn’t understand the numbers – didn’t know about the Beaufort Scale and wind speed until years later.  I didn’t know that the ‘good’ at the end was visibility, and puzzled over why it could follow wintry or thundery showers. Why were they ‘good’? My total ignorance, then, about what I was hearing, did nothing to diminish the pleasure of listening to it. It was, and is, a joy.

I now know that I’m not alone – far from it! Thanks to Peter Collyer’s remarkable illustrated book,’Rain Later, Good: painting the shipping forecast’, I find that there are people like me all over the place listening in on the land, sometimes far from the sea. It has been mentioned in poems by the likes of Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. It has been set to music by Cecelia MacDowell. It has been chosen on Desert Island Discs! It was featured in the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games as part of the hand-over to London, and in the opening ceremony of the 2012 games in London. 

It is, of course, read beautifully. Three minutes, at dictation speed. This is achieved by leaving out unnecessary qualifying words like ‘weather’, ‘wind’, visibility’, so that the essential information can be given at a speed permitting comprehension and note-taking if need be.  What a contrast to the weather forecasts on the telly! Too much information to take in, gabbled frantically by people with rictus (why grin?) and no poetry at all. Yuk.   Just think if it could be modelled on the Shipping Forecast instead: Southwest, southerly, 2 or 3, showers, moderate; southeast...central, northeast, etc. I’d listen to that! I’d probably even remember it after it had finished, unlike now.  BBC and Met Office, please take note. Use the Power of Words and spaces!
And here they are:
Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties,
Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,
Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames,
Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre (poetic licence),
Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea,
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides,
Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes,
South East Iceland.

Rain later Good: painting the shipping forecast, by Peter Collyer, Bloomsbury, 2013. Wonderful 
pictures too!

Sea pictures by Niall Horn 

The Stormteller ebook - no Shipping Forecast in this story - weather changes are predicted by a piece of mysterious wood!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

How long should it take to write a novel? - Alice Jolly

How long should it take to write a novel? Well, that's a silly question, really, isn't it? Because everyone knows there is no 'should' in it. It takes as long as it takes. But despite all of that, I have recently had cause to consider this question.

What as writers do we generally expect? Is the equation always 'time spent equals quality of book.' Is it ever possible to work on a book for too long? Does a writer spend the same time on each book?

Ten years ago, I certainly thought that I had an answer to that last question. I had written three novels by then and each had taken about four years. So I thought - ok, so that's my process and probably that won't change much now. It would be better if I could work quicker but I can't. (One book had missed a publisher's deadline by two years).

But then the next novel took eight years - or maybe even more. I'm too embarrassed really to put an exact figure on it. Then came a memoir which probably took eighteen months but I don't really include that because (let's face it) writing a memoir is a doddle compared to writing a novel. You just write down what happened next in your life. So how complicated can that be?

Now I am writing a new novel and it is coming together at terrifying speed. Of course, I should just be pleased about this. But as a writer, I always need to have something to worry about. So now I am worrying about the fact that, given how quickly this book seems to be happening, it can't be any good.

Uuuum? I think it does happen sometimes that a novelist finds that a book just drops off the end of the pen with no real difficulty at all. And if that is currently what is happening to me, then I really must not complain.

But as a general rule - and I'm sure others will vehemently disagree - I do think that 'time spent equals quality of book.' I read far too many novels at the moment which are not much more than first drafts. And I also know that most of the books I really love took the writer years to write. Even if I don't know that as a fact, I can feel it in the writing.

Finally, as writers we ask a great deal of readers. We want them to pay a fair sum for the book and then we expect them to spend two or three days of their lives dedicated to our work.

Personally, if I am going to make this commitment, then I expect the writer to have spent many long hours making that book absolutely as good as it can be. Because, after all, I could have used that time to read a better book. I can't get those hours back again.