How I made my first podcast

In case any of you are either curious, or thinking of setting up a podcast yourself, I thought I’d go through a few of the practicalities from making mine; I already wrote about the background to my sitcom podcast.

Recording, editing and mixing

It’s worth investing in a decent microphone – mine was second-hand from ebay a few years ago and I also got a Scarlett Solo which has a USB connection. If you plug the microphone into the Scarlett Solo with an audio cable you can record straight to the computer. I haven’t had much luck with built-in microphones on phone/tablet/laptop, and I heard a professional film-maker say last year that he’s now happy to make short films on a phone, but only if the audio’s recorded separately (i.e. the video capability of phones is more advanced than the audio). I had the microphone sat in a cradle on top of a box, with a pop shield (a fine metal mesh) clamped to the desk and fencing the microphone off from my mouth. I also had a thick piece of packing foam behind the microphone to stop reflected sound from the box. I’m lucky to live in a pretty quiet street, but I did make sure both my cats were asleep before I got going.

I’ve been recording stories to put on Chirbit for a few years (that’s why I got the microphone in the first place) and I’ve read on stage and radio a fair few times. It still took me nearly an hour to record a 26-minute episode – fluffed lines, wrong emphasis, someone slams a car door outside – and I counted that as a really efficient recording session. I’ve taken longer than that to be happy with a ten-minute piece before.

I used to use Audacity, which is brilliant and free. This time I used GarageBand which is free in the Apple system (I mentioned a few months back I got a second-hand Mac). Either way you can record your voice (or sound effects) directly into it via the Scarlett Solo, in separate tracks if necessary. You can then delete or move sections, add filters, fade in or out, mute tracks etc. Both have nice visual interfaces, but I found noise-reduction and fine control easier in Audacity – possibly I just haven’t found the right way to do it in GarageBand. GarageBand has drag-and-drop for moving sections around, I can’t remember if Audacity did.

It took about an hour to do the basic editing, by which I mean cutting out the fluffed lines, stitching in the better versions I recorded ten minutes later when I decided that after all, I wasn’t happy with how I’d read that paragraph. It then took at least as long again to add the sound effects, music, and do any necessary fades in or out. Mostly I was listening on headphones (cans not in-ear) to try and pick up small details. OneMonkey (Andrew Woods as mentioned in the podcast credits) did the noise reduction on my sound effects because I couldn’t work out how to do it and he has more experience than me in GarageBand.

The aesthetic

Once I’d got the words recorded I had to make design decisions – what is the vibe of the podcast? The cover art, fonts, theme music etc can all work towards conveying that vibe to the audience, but it’s easier said than done – this is why people hire designers who do that kind of thing for a living. Fonts, artwork, music and sound effects are where licensing and rights come in, so it’s fairly easy to either end up spending a lot of money or get into trouble for using something you don’t have the rights for.

Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays is a sitcom so quirky ought to be ok, but it’s not at the ‘zany’ end so nothing too clown-like. It’s about a history-buff who doesn’t fully inhabit the modern world – she uses archaic terminology, she’s very late to the smartphone party and is clueless on contemporary culture – so old-fashioned, maybe Victorian would work. On the other hand it’s set in the present day so I didn’t want anything too historical-looking that might lead the audience to expect a historical sitcom.

I had a vague calendar-based design idea for the cover but thankfully OneMonkey took that bit out of my hands and made a proper job of it, incorporating books and cats as Lee-Ann’s favourite things. He’s done websites and book or comic covers for us and our friends before, and he used public domain elements from then put the cover art together in Inkscape because that’s what we happen to have and are used to using (it’s free open-source software). I spent at least half an hour working my way down the list of fonts to get one that looked right – I was determined I wanted one with large and small capitals, but that’s not what I ended up using. Flexibility and being open to new ideas was very important in all of this.

For the theme music I was looking for something old, preferably public-domain, probably a brass band as it’s set in Yorkshire. The incidental music had been composed by OneMonkey using the French Horn setting in GarageBand but again that’s not what I ended up using. First I found Silverman Sound which is one man writing (free) theme music for every eventuality and has so many great pieces of music but none of them were brass. Then I tried the Free Music Archive and searched for historic and instrumental to see what they had. I clicked on one to see how the interface worked, and it wasn’t brass but I quite liked it. The more I searched, the more I kept coming back to Naughty Marietta by the Victor Herbert Orchestra from 1911, and that became the theme music. While I was listening to the track there was a repeating section that sounded like it might lend itself to scene breaks, so I edited that down to be incidental music.

I happened to record my own sound effects this time (one of my cats mewing, an alarm clock, and an outdated phone ring tone), but in the past I’m fairly sure I’ve sourced them from

Choosing a host, and distributing

From all the mention of free, open-source, and public domain above you’ll understand that I wasn’t about to sign up to a podcast host that cost twenty quid a month, certainly not for my first attempt when I was dipping a toe in the water and not guaranteed to carry on long-term. I did have a scout around though, and even within that price bracket there seemed a huge variation in what you got for your money so that while some of them didn’t seem worth it for me and my immediate needs, some of them just plain didn’t seem worth it. I opted for Anchor in the end because it’s free but still (as far as I could tell from the vague advert on the site) gave you a fair bit in terms of how many episodes you could have up, how many downloads they could have, and where your podcast could be found. Also, as part of Spotify it seemed unlikely to disappear suddenly. It didn’t give much information about requirements before signing up, but as it was free I thought it was easier to sign up and then change my mind than try to find all the info first. There is apparently a way to monetise your podcast via Anchor but I wasn’t interested in that so didn’t investigate.

I of course was uploading both audio and cover art but there are facilities to record and edit, plus make your own cover on the site. Uploading was quick and easy, and without doing anything further it was available both at my newly-created Anchor page and on Spotify. When I went to a podcast-making workshop last year they said in the UK 70% of podcasts were listened to via Apple, and 25% via Spotify, so at the very least I also needed this to be available on Apple podcasts.

Now, here’s the bit they don’t tell you – for that, you need the site to generate an RSS feed which includes your email address embedded in the code. I had signed up for Anchor using my usual personal email address, which I didn’t want to be publicly available. So, I set up a new (free) email address at GMX, very easily changed the email associated with my Anchor account to the GMX one, and then generated the RSS feed. I then had to create an Apple Podcasts Connect account (free) and give it the RSS feed, so that it picked everything up from Anchor (I might have had to choose categories by hand). My podcast had been verified and was available on Apple within a couple of hours, but I’ve heard it can take up to a week so it may have helped that I did all this from a Mac where I was already signed in with my Apple ID.

In conclusion

If you include all the time spent choosing a podcast host, choosing fonts, listening to music and sound effects I didn’t use, as well as the writing, recording, editing etc then this 26 minutes of audio took me at least a couple of weeks’ full-time work to make. Episode 2 should take less time of course because I’ve already got the cover art and theme music, I’ve got the distribution set up, but it will still take a while to write and I may need different sound effects.

It didn’t cost me any money, but only because I’d already bought audio equipment and I used public domain clip art and music. And got assistance from my other half with the design and production.

If you’d like to listen to the results, it’s Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays – you can listen in the browser at Anchor and it has buttons there to take you to Spotify or Apple if you prefer. If you enjoy it, you can always buy me a cuppa…


Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.


Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:


Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:


Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:


Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.

Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).

Week 5: Sleighbells ring, I’m not listening

Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.


Hat(s) courtesy Sister Number 1.

Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…

This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).

Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?

Creative payment: the digital tip jar

How many times have you contributed to an author, artist or musician’s coffers when you’ve had the (legitimate) alternative of downloading for free? I’m guilty of neglecting the digital tip jar myself, I’ll download a book (usually a pdf) because it’s free (might as well) but I’ll wait and see if it was any good before I part with any money (after all, anyone can supply any quality of writing for free as a pdf). A couple of years later I haven’t got round to reading it, or if I have I can’t remember where it came from so whether or not I rated it, the author hasn’t got anything from me. It would take a more dedicated person than me to go back and pay in a separate transaction from downloading the book (album, etc) anyway. Given all this, I can hardly complain at the lack of funds flowing through my own tip jar (the biscuit and biro fund, accessible where you can download my novel, my SF collection or The Little Book of Northern Women).

For a while, a few years ago, both Wasted Years and The Little Book of Northern Women were for sale on Amazon, and people took a chance and paid real money for them (thank you, if you were one of those adventurous souls). I took them off Amazon because I’m not comfortable with their dominance and, longterm user of open source software that I am (and having now read PostCapitalism by Paul Mason I appreciate that I’m apparently prefiguring the transition to a post-capitalist society) it made more sense somehow to make them freely available under a Creative Commons licence and ask people to chip in if they’d enjoyed it, then do the same for everything else I wanted to get out there. Think of it a little like crowdfunding: everyone who contributes only pays a small amount they’ll hardly notice, but it adds up across all the contributors so that the author, musicians or whoever (in this case me, and OneMonkey who does most of the proofreading, formatting etc and designed the cover for Cracks in the Foundations) gets a reasonable amount of money. The trouble is, as mentioned earlier, not that many people do it (even me).

I completely get that if you only have a small amount of money to spend on books I can’t compete with the new Stephen King or JK Rowling, just like some local band with their first album out can’t compete with Iron Maiden. I also understand that even with good intentions (like me) people don’t go back to donate once they’ve read the book or listened to the album. And I’d rather know loads of people were reading my stuff (and, I hope, enjoying it) than put off the potential readers that can’t afford to take a chance. But digital tip jars don’t seem to be the answer. Given that all writers, artists and musicians need to eat even if they’re not household names, does anyone know how we make this kind of deal work?

End of the summer days

Where does the time go? One minute you’ve got 12 work-free days up ahead, ready to be filled with all manner of excitement, the next there’s a day and a half to go before you resume the day-job and the to-do list’s as long as your arm and you haven’t written so much as a blog post. Or is that just me?


This picture of a red squirrel from last week might give you a clue as to what I’ve been doing instead of writing. A day at the seaside, some walks on the moors, a lazy summer afternoon with my sisters, a birthday visit to Big Brother, lots of quality time with paperbacks on trains. And then there’s the small matter of redecorating the study.

The study had pastel candy-stripe wallpaper and cream floor to ceiling cupboards, a relic from the previous owner. In our usual make do and mend fashion we’d covered the lot with posters and got on with our lives for five years. Fuelled by tea and a stack of old cassettes (AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Coverdale Page and The Blues Brothers) it’s now got colourful cupboards, revealed hearth tiles (sadly no fireplace) and two of the walls are papered in carefully selected pages from an out of date children’s encyclopedia. Wall number 3 is largely bookcase which makes it a task for another time. As OneMonkey pointed out, the room needed renaming since neither of us actually study in here any more, it’s more of a creating space like a workshop. Ooh, or a shed! (Influenced by Joanne Harris, I suspect). Behold, The Shed:


So here I am, ensconced in The Shed with a mug of tea and good intentions. Best get down to some writing.

(And yes, the title was a Tyketto reference. You should know my questionable musical taste by now)

Forthcoming Ostragoth comic: an interview with the illustrator

In between watching live streaming from this year’s Wacken festival, OneMonkey has been working on our new comic. It’s an adaptation of my short story Waiting for Boothroyd (which you can read in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations).


OneMonkey has done lettering, odd bits of artwork, and general editing/layout/adding brilliance for Ostragoth’s previous comics, but this time he’s taking on all art-related duties. To the backdrop of a Saxon gig I asked him why, how, and all those kinds of things.

I dabbled a bit last year and I thought I’d got the lettering I needed but I couldn’t get the character style right so I put it to one side. Coming back to it this year I hit on a good character design but that didn’t work with the previous lettering at all so I had to go back to the drawing board on that.

The character design is still under wraps because it may well change (I think it’s good, but I guess I’m slightly biased).

Thinking back to the odd 60s cartoons I used to watch, I wanted something along those lines. I saw a couple of what turned out to be Saul Bass-inspired fonts and they were close but not quite right. So I started from scratch, roughing out the outlines in the gimp then creating the vectors in Inkscape.

He’s like that. He sat and drew then re-drew all the letters until he was happy (a couple of days later). But now we have something unique.

Waiting for Boothroyd is planned to be a dynamic svg comic but we’ll have to see how that turns out. Not like I’ve ever done one before.

That doesn’t usually stop him. I for one am eagerly awaiting the completion of this version of Waiting for Boothroyd. I’ll keep you posted here.

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Weekend creativity

Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.

So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?

Sixth annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Whose word-enhancing art are you going to appreciate today? Five years ago I tried to boost the profile of artists quietly providing book covers and magazine illustrations. In the last few days, by coincidence, I’ve had my attention drawn to this vote for artwork (suitable for a future book cover) at Spark. Hard to choose, but I particularly liked Monsters and Marvels by Luke Spooner, Snake Bones by Rodrica Cogle, and The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword by Sean Greenberg.

It’s also been a week for comics exposure, what with Dave Gibbons being created Comics Laureate in the cause of literacy, so in case it’s not your usual medium why not check out some freely available volumes? There’s The Only Living Boy at NoiseTrade, and a whole graphic novel list at Free Online Novels (including 2 written by me, with fabulous art by Mark Pexton, which you can get here).

Words as art

The other night, Gideon Coe (BBC 6Music DJ with excellent musical taste) had a quiz where you had to figure out the album from a word cloud made from the lyrics. This set me off making clouds from Iron Maiden lyrics, which was great fun using the nifty online tool (where you can play around with colours, font, layout etc) at Wordle. Then I wondered what a short story would look like that way, and since I have a selection of my own to hand, I tried it with Last Night in Las Vegas, and here’s the result:

LastNightLVNot only does that look like a film poster for something cool and sixties, but it almost turns the story into poetry (come on, I did say ‘almost’). It’s amazing how it makes you look at the story in a different way, gives you an idea what’s going on and highlights themes. It could catch on as a form of ‘trailer’ for novels or short stories . I’d certainly consider using it that way – any readers or writers care to share their thoughts on the idea?


Weather reporting

Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.

Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.

Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.

  • A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
  • A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
  • Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
  • Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.

In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.

For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’

Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.

Books as art: the future of publishing?

I’ve made the books=vinyl, e-reader=mp3-player analogy before but it seemed to work so I’ll use it again: vinyl didn’t die out because of cassettes, or CDs, mini-discs or digital music collections. Books won’t die out.

OneMonkey raised an interesting question recently though: will they become pieces of art? If you can get the content of a novel electronically in a convenient form that many people have embraced, what will be the added value of owning the physical book? Aside from personal preferences on holding paper and turning real pages that smell of childhood memories, what? It’s the cachet, the exclusivity can be marketed but only if it is exclusive by some measure of the word.

Limited edition signed copies. Hand-written title pages, individual artwork, fine bindings. What if someone owned the original? What if by owning the original you could stop anyone else from being able to read it (like if you bought a watercolour from a commercial gallery and with it the rights to prints). Then you could charge for viewing; stately homes could charge the public to come and read in their library as well as see their Van Dyck’s in the long gallery. Writers could be commissioned by the wealthy.

Books can be art but they also contain ideas and I’d worry about anything that blocks the flow of that. But to stretch another analogy, I’d be much happier about a few rich collectors owning originals if it facilitated the sale of a load of cheap postcards, allowing art into every home.

Epitaphs, lasting legacies and the spec-fic pigeon

What would you want to be remembered for, if you had a choice? If you’re artistic at all, chances are you want your creations to live on after you, physically or in memory. If you make the distinction, would you want it to be your ‘serious’ work or the commercial output that pays the bills (or gives you pocket-money treats, depending how successful you are)? Would you rather the product of your frivolous youth was lost to the ravages of time, or do you think your best work is years behind you?

A while ago I wrote a story starting with Herman Sligo was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters. He died peacefully on November 8th and is survived by his younger sister from The First Line, which ended up being about an old lady’s sadness that her brother’s obituary focused on what was essentially a part-time job in his youth, rather than the community work he’d dedicated most of his life to. Outside of that community, the only reason anyone had heard his name was through television, since that literally made him visible to the wider world. If a genre author is known outside of their particular literary community, it’s usually for something that wouldn’t be considered their best or most representative work, but it might be the one that the wider population has heard of. In a similar way, bands or singers end up being remembered in general for the thing that most people will have heard, the commercial success.

As far as writing goes, I’m not sure what I’d prefer people to notice. If I had to be pigeonholed (which I’d rather not be, but it does happen) I’d rather be a spec-fic pigeon than a literary one. If nothing else, I like the sound of it.

Photographic inspiration

Basing a story on a picture is nothing new; there are websites which provide a picture and ask for related story submissions and I’ve done it myself a few times, with Psyche and the Soul, the Day the Circus Came to Town and a couple of as-yet unpublished stories all inspired by Mark Pexton’s art (Psyche, Insane Clown Posse, Meltoriel, and Pythia respectively). However, just because it’s not a new idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Whether you’re looking for more solid versions of the hazy characters in your head or searching for a full-blown story, a photo or postcard archive, your own family photo albums, or Flickr are good places to start.

I’m lucky enough to have copies of old family photos, like this one of a wedding group in the 1920s:

I vaguely remember the groom as an old man, and I’ve heard many stories about the bride so they’re tainted by reality for me, but the other people spark off ideas as I look at them. I have no idea who they are, what they did, where they lived so I have no limitations on the backgrounds I can conjure for them or the reasons I can come up with why one particular chap became best man. It all begins with details and questions. Who is the little boy and why doesn’t he look dressed up? Why is the older woman at the back wearing a heavy winter coat when the other women look more summery? What or who is the man at the back looking at?

As children, friend T and I spent many a happy hour huddled over a book celebrating the Picture Post, making up names, characters, backgrounds – filling in the reality around that one snapshot. Why were they looking over to one side? Who was the man lurking in the background with an ice cream? What urgent phonecall was the man with the moustache making as his secretary looked on?

Another good source, not quite the same, is the British Pathe film archive, free to view online. Fascinating in its own right, it has also provided a few sparking moments. Some of the films are silent anyway, but you can always mute the computer if you want to allow your imagination a little more room to manoeuvre.

Go hug an illustrator, tell them I sent you

It’s the second annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day – I know this because I made it up a year ago. The aim was to draw some attention (no pun intended, I swear) to the illustrators who interpret and enhance stories (or novels, with cover art) and enrich the reading experience. It’s probably more relevant if you read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy but I’d like to encourage you to take this opportunity to highlight an artist you’ve enjoyed in a recent magazine, or leave a comment on someone’s blog. You might think they won’t care, but even apparently successful artists may well appreciate some confirmation that someone’s noticed what they do.

To that end, I’ll point you at Darren Winter, stand-out artist in the last Interzone I read, and of course Mark Pexton who hasn’t been in Interzone for a while but we’ll forgive him because he’s been working on our stunning graphic novel (I’m allowed to refer to the art as stunning, I didn’t do it).

This is why I’m the writer

As regular readers know, I’ll be at Thought Bubble in Leeds this November attempting to entice people into buying my graphic novel. They’re having a sequential art competition for Thought Bubble (deadline today so if you haven’t already you’re too late), with the theme of ‘November in the north of England’. Having been struck down by the dreaded lurgy, and hence off work today, once I’d kind of woken up this afternoon I figured I’d give it a go (how hard can this cartooning lark be, right? I didn’t spend my childhood copying pictures out of the Beano for nothing). Taking the phrase ‘we will need your story to be good enough quality to print’ seriously, I won’t be entering the competition but I thought I might as well share it with you. See if you can guess why I normally write these things and let Mark do the art…

My non-entry to the Northern Sequential Art Competition

My non-entry to the Northern Sequential Art Competition

Cyclical Psyche

A while ago LeMat did a painting of Psyche which I really liked. I was so taken with it I wrote a story that sprang from staring at it one evening, and now that story’s going to be on Everyday Weirdness next week (December 16th). Of course, things never being simple around us, LeMat is now finishing off a new picture inspired by my story inspired by his picture. We could go on like this for a while, but maybe I’ll just work through the rest of his gallery and see what I come up with; this is the second story based on one of his pictures that I’ve had accepted in the last couple of months.

International Illustrator Appreciation Day: October 22nd

Talking to my artist friend LeMat the other day (now mainly reverting to the use of his real name Mark Pexton on his art, just to confuse everyone), I realised what a rough deal illustrators get. Whereas writers might (and do) sometimes complain about editors, low pay rates and a lack of appreciation, when was the last time you saw anyone mention the illustrations or cover art from a magazine? Mark’s had a full-page illustration in each of the last 3 copies of Interzone, and has apparently provided illustrations for the next 3 as well, but no-one seems to mention any of the illustrations in reviews, except to list the featured artists. He’s done a book cover, which adds a real atmosphere, but no-one mentions his name (except presumably in small print on the back cover). Even in magazines where the writers are paid, the artists often aren’t, not even with a contributor copy. To add insult to injury, illustrations are often classed as lower status than gallery art.

Cover illustrations, whether for books or magazines, are the first thing to catch the reader’s eye. Before I know what a novel’s about, I’ve got to notice it, pick it up and read the synopsis – what makes me do that? The cover (colours, image, lettering) have to convey some idea to me and look attractive enough to make me single that book out from all the surrounding ones. That takes some doing in the overloaded bookshelves of the modern world. So why aren’t the artists more prominent? Occasionally there’ll be a Quentin Blake, but mostly there are hundreds of Mark Pextons.

In a short story magazine, it’s easier and cheaper to leave the illustrations out, so there must be some reason why magazines like Interzone continue to include them. They can help to enhance the atmosphere, set the scene, and even to catch the reader’s eye in a way that the opening line of the story might not. I notice Mark’s illustrations because they’re usually familiar to me and I have a personal connection with them, but I confess I’m often guilty of overlooking illustrations. Or rather, I don’t mention them – they must filter through on some level because I’ll picture a character the way they’ve been drawn, or I’ll read the story waiting for a robot to appear and feel cheated when it doesn’t, because there was one in the main illustration.

Our reading lives would be less rich without illustrators, though we may not always realise that. I’d like to declare October 22nd International Illustrator Appreciation Day – phone an illustrator of your acquaintance, write a blog post, send an email or leave a comment on someone’s website (here, if you like), but somehow let those great artists know that they’re not being ignored.