Charlie Britten's writing blog

A Bad Blogger

Cartoon about adverbsI am a bad blogger.  I know I am.  I haven’t blogged for almost two weeks and, as you know, Dear Reader, one of the big musts of blogging is to post often.  Most professional blogs, I believe, post daily.  (But, DR, honestly and truly, could you cope with me blogging daily?  Would you read me every day?  I think I know the answer.)

In my very first post, I commented on what I thought was the freedom of blogosphere, on being able – if I so chose –  to use things like brackets and adverbs, and to start sentences with And and But, to shake off the many shackles of creative writing dos and don’ts – which, as I’ve discovered, most published authors keep at arm’s length anyway.  All too soon I discovered the mantras of blogging.  In fact, every few weeks, I discover someone else on Google or Twitter setting out more blogging rules.  A few months ago, I wrote about some of the blogging rules… but I’m sure there have been many more put online between now and then.

There are also rules for posting on social media, which, I believe, we take social media far too seriously.   From my experience in being in education, I saw a lot of college/ school managers trying to get down with the kids, never a great teaching strategy, and managers in commerce and industry were doing the same.   But why?  What saddo regularly reads the Facebook page of their hairdresser?  Who is going to visit an author’s Facebook page given over, mostly or wholly, to publicising his/her book?

Don’t get me on to Twitter.  And, before you ask, I don’t do any of the others.

Twelve people have liked my current Facebook post about coming bottom in a primary school quiz and several othersFacebook 'like' thumb. commented.  If I had a book, this sort of post wouldn’t promote it.  I’m certain that the reason it’s attracted so many likes is because it’s self-deprecating, the opposite of promoting.  At its best, Facebook is about exchanging news with people we know and when it stops being that, it stops being interesting, and people stop looking at it.   (Note the reps there, Dear Reader.  And no one’s asking me to correct it and, actually, I think it adds emphasis.  Ooh, and also an adverb.)

Cat Reading KindleSo let’s scrap The Rules.  Let’s be ourselves when we blog and in social media.  Give ourselves the freedom to write it like it is and how we like.   One day, what’s on our mind (to paraphrase the prompt on our Facebook pages) will be that we have indeed written a book, and people will read that fact because, over the years, you’ve shared the real stuff – and even the soppy videos about kittens.



I’ve started so I’ll finish.  When I choose a book, I normally follow Magnus Magnusson’s advice, but I couldn’t for The Girl from Kraków.  About modern history, east European modern history to boot, it should’ve been right up my street, but it isn’t.  Dear Reader, it was grim.  Yes, you would say.  What do you expect in a novel about Poland in the Second World War?  Things were grim.  Yes, I know they were, DR.

I cannot fault Alex Rosenberg’s thorough, wide-ranging and detailed historical research.   Factually, I learned a lot, about conditions throughout Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly about the Polish Home Army, a shadowy subject, because the Soviets tried to deny its existence for decades.  The scope of Rosenberg’s book is simply enormous:  by 60%, we had visited Poland and France in the interwar years,  the Spanish Civil War, Poland under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, and afterwards when the Germans overran the whole of Poland, Moscow during the war and the Warsaw Ghetto.   We also passed through a Schindler’s List type factory and touched upon the Enigma Code.  In truth, one of the problems is that its scope is too huge and disorientating.   I also cannot fault Rosenberg on his analysis of soctal attitudes; he wrote that most Poles would not actively seek to betray Jews but, apart from a few notable exceptions, they wouldn’t inconvenience themselves too much to support them either.  I feel that Rosenberg would have been better writing a non-fiction work on Poland during the war.

So why didn’t I continue reading The Girl from Kraków?  Firstly, its unrelenting grimness, DR.  Even Dickens, who covered some really edgy stuff, understood how much grief his reader could take.  The Poles make jokes of even the worst things, but this is not evident in this book.  Secondly, I couldn’t warm to any of the characters, because none of them seem to have any sort of moral compass.  For the first part of the book, Rita is negative about everything, except for sex, for which she is voracious.  Tadeusz is a shirker, a chancer and a fraud, who strikes lucky every time.  Urs is boring.  Erich is full of himself.  I can’t like anybody.   Thirdly, it is way too long – 454 pages, apparently, but it felt like many more.  Fourthly, maybe it was just not my sort of thing.  It’s had lots of rave reviews, so maybe I’m missing something.  The Girl from Kraków is available on Amazon, although it is officially published by Lake House.

I’ve just spent an amazing weekend on the Association of Christian Writers committee retreat, with ten amazing people.  Haven’t we got some amazing comps lined up for you!  Not all of them restricted to members only, either.  And three more Writers’ Days, one quite soon in Bath, on 12 March, one in July and one more in London in October.  For more info, visit the ACW website.

At 11 o’clock last night, I was helping Wendy H Jones to sort out Twitter, and, Dear Reader, I actually saw part of the next Shona McKenzie novel in progress, on the screen in Word.  Wendy tells me she went on writing it, past midnight, because she couldn’t sleep and all weekend she kept saying dead bodies.  Now Wendy is an author who understands when and how to turn the grief on and off, so that her readers can actually finish her books.  Wendy writes crime fiction, Alex Rosenberg literary/historical fiction.  When I was a child, I believed that, if a book was boring and stodgy, it was literature, and, if it was enjoyable, not.  Do I need to revise that opinion?

I was hoping to include some nice jolly pictures of Kraków at the end but, I’m still working on the iPad, so I can’t access my photos.  Am I bad (blogger)?

David Bowie as Aladdin InsaneSo, where were you when you heard that he had died?  Were you one of the thousands who stood around on a January evening getting very cold outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton or even colder in New York?  Quite frankly, Dear Reader, I just don’t know what we’re going to carry on the rest of our lives.  Even though most of us had only a nodding acquaintance with David Bowie’s music until last Monday.   Starman, Heroes, Life on Mars and Rebel Rebel.   Yes, we love them all and we now know how each one goes – after we hastily looked them up on YouTube on Monday morning.

Of course, my thoughts are with Bowie’s wife, Iman, members of his family and friends who actually knew him, but that’s not you and me, Dear Reader, or the people standing outside the Ritzy cinema.  Let’s get real, shall we?  I’m sure most of us have mourned someone close to us, a member of our family or a close friend, and we have felt real pain.  You don’t feel genuine grief for a rock star, however much you might enjoy his music.

Why then do we allow ourselves to be manipulated into hysteria, largely, by the press?  Two days later, the actor Alan Rickman died, and we almost started all over again.  Is life so grim, or so boring?  The early seventies, when Bowie first came upon the scene, was one of the richest and most prolific eras for rock music and, at the risk of being called a heretic, he was not the greatest.  Are we going to have to go through the whole business again for Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bryan Ferry, Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, four members of Abba and countless others, who are very much alive?  Syd Barrett died in 2006, without fuss; I’m sure Pink Floyd were at least as innovative as Bowie, and have at least as many fans.

In 1976, during Bowie’s heyday, the composer Benjamin Britten died and I have this abiding memory of a group of – very serious – music students clustered around a transistor radio in somebody’s room, amongst rolled-up dirty socks and half-written essays, listening to an obituary delivered in the portentous and sepulchral tone that only Radio Three can manage.  Those students were sad in a respectful way, but, as they knew full well, Britten’s music was still there for them.

So, what has this got to do with writing, seeing as this is a writing blog?  Not a lot, and, yes, I am venting online.  Except, as we all know, everything is to do with writing, particularly observations about human emotion.   Someone could write a story about this.  Possibly me.

Above you see the classic photo of Bowie as Aladdin Insane, below one of him holding a cat.  I like seeing the ‘relentless innovator and champion of outsiders’ (according to Newsweek) holding a little ginger cat.  (Both pictures are reproduced courtesy of creative commons.)

David Bowie holding a cat.

So, fare thee well, my trusty friend Duotrope, you who have stood full-square behind me during my first few years of subbing.  I’m afraid I’ve just cancelled your $50 annual subscription through PayPal and after 29 January 2016 you and I shall go our separate ways.  It’s not you, it’s me.  You have not changed but, over the years, I have come to realise that you and I are not compatible.  As you will be painfully aware, I haven’t paid you many visits over the past year to eighteen months, despite setting you up on my Firefox Bookmarks Toolbar to remind me that you’re there.

Duotrope, I have no quarrels with you.  I remember when you used to be free, but, quite frankly, writers shouldn’t begrudge paying for your services.  You should charge for what must involve a lot of work by a lot of people: listing on a database all those magazine and book publishers of fiction, non-fiction and poetry; their requirements and preferences; whether they pay or not and, if so, how much; the editor interviews; response times; most of all, for sorting them into categories, for genre, topic, style, length, audience… and other things.  Your site is well-built and user-friendly.  Over the years, I have typed my requirements into your search page and you have found me many destinations for my stories (a few successful, many not, but, there again,  that was me, not you).

So why am I going?  I thought about it long and hard but I had to take into account how little I have been using your services of late and why.  You are American, Duotrope dear, and I’m a Brit.  You are young and I am old.  You are literary, and I am middle-brow.  Publications run by young, literary Americans, who are not my natural readers, predominate on your database (although I do realise that not all the publications on there are like this).  I cannot see myself ever submitting to The Beauty of Death Anthology or Australian Rationalist , Icarus Down Review or Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, all of which you mentioned in your last weekly Duotrope Newsletter.   For the last year or so, my interests have been in subbing (unsuccessfully) to womag (for which there are other and different resources), historical and Christian.  I have also subbed a lot of my mainstream stuff to comps, listed mainly in Mslexia and other writing magazines.   However, you did put me on to The Copperfield Review and Circa (my historical favourite destinations) and, to be fair, several others where I have had hits.  Oh, aren’t I the treacherous one!

I may also need to say goodbye to another old writing friend – my Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop, which is seven years old, as I recently discovered when I was sorting through some papers.  The fan is running almost continually, which is not good news, and it’s running very very slowly, particularly on the internet.  Moreover, yesterday, whilst trying to clean the keyboard, I managed to knock off the E key, although I’m getting used to using the residual rubber teet in its place.  I have found a replacement E from replacementlaptopkeys,  despite being quite used to seeing students typing on keyboards with several keys missing.  My friend, Dell, is going to the computer doctor next week, and I’m crossing everything.  He/she is likely to be expensive to replace.

My laptop keyboard without an E

“Happy Christmas everybody.”  Cue loud shouts and pathetic waves.  This is how a large number of television shows broadcast around Christmas in the 1970s and 1980s used to end.   Of course, there were notable exceptions, like newsreader Angela Rippon doing high-kicks on Morecombe and Wise in 1976,  but it seemed that few writers for television could write about Christmas and make it effective.  I don’t know whether it’s any better nowadays, as I’ve given up watching television, but what I do know is that many novelists and short story writers suffer from the same affliction, oozing sentimentality and corniness.  And then Daddy disappeared, but suddenly there was Father Christmas in a red dressing gown.  Or this one:  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, seeing the children’s faces light up when they opened their presents.

Of course, there is a sadder angle of Christmas – people being alone on Christmas Day, family arguments and break-up, the desperation of people on the streets at Christmas – but mainstream publications (and broadcasters) don’t want to publish that sort of thing and writers know that.   No editor wants to be accused of bah humbug.   Since the 1970s/80s, we have moved away from our Christian roots, so all that is left is cringe-making sentimentality.  It may come as an enormous surprise to many people in the UK but – really and truly – Christmas is not for the children or about any of these things:  ever more extravagant presents, turkey, drinking too much or wearing silly hats.

The best writing about Christmas is where something happens in a Christmas context.  The action in many of the crime/thriller novels of Patricia Cornwell took place over Christmas, with Kay Scarpetta, her niece Lucy and Captain Pete Marino making pasta from scratch on Christmas Day, at the same time as solving a series of murders.   Dickens is supposed to have invented Christmas in this country (actually Prince Albert had much more to do with it) but even ‘A Christmas Carol’ contained a Christmas-relevant narrative.

How refreshing, therefore, to read Take a Break’s Fiction Feast for Christmas 2015 and Woman’s Weekly’s Fiction Series (for January 2016 actually), both filled (mostly) with Christmas stories.  Being a vegetarian, I particularly enjoyed Teresa Ashby’s ‘You Can’t Please Them All’ (in Take a Break’s Fiction Feast) ; that is truly a story I wish I’d written myself!   With twenty-three stories in Take A Break’s Fiction Feast and twenty-five stories in Woman’s Weekly Fiction Series, it also gives me hope in my long quest to get something published in womag.  By the way, my friend Patsy Collins had two stories in each magazine and Helen Yendall (whose Blog About Writing I follow) had one story in each.

Of course, I do know that, if I was going to write a Christmas story and hope to have it published in either of these magazines, or anywhere else, I would have had to have written it and submitted in the summer, so maybe I should have written this post either very much earlier or very much later.  So, at the risk of saying something that has been said many times before, Happy Christmas everybody.

Holly with red berries


Cover of Killer's Cross by Wendy H JonesA few weeks ago, I interviewed Wendy Jones on the launch of her third book, Killer’s Cross.  I have now read Killer’s Cross, and I can tell you, Dear Reader, it gets very scary towards the end.

The Dundee murder glut continues under DI Shona McKenzie’s watch.  This time, the victims are being dumped outside churches, dressed as clergy, but with a cross carved upon their chests and every drop of blood drained from their bodies (shades of Merchant of Venice, perhaps?).  Unlike the other two novels which take place in bitter Scottish snowstorms, in this one Shona McKenzie works in an overpowering heatwave.  Although now in a relationship with gentle Procurator Fiscal Douglas, she is as relentless and confrontational as ever.  In fact, her rudeness to virtually everyone is breathtaking, so it’s hardly surprising she gets into trouble with the Chief Constable for it.  However, she’s a leader who inspires confidence and respect.  Just how much loyalty she has inspired in her team only becomes apparent towards the end of ‘Killers Cross’.

As in all the other McKenzie novels, Killer’s Cross includes chilling inset chapters from the killer’s point of view, generally planning his/her next murder with cold clinical precision.  Some of the events at the very end are shocking and unexpected, but reflect real happenings.

Shona’s team is still eating for Scotland, even though her deputy, Peter, has been put on a diet – by his wife.  The team – Peter, Roy, Nina, Abigail, Jason – is growing, not just in size, but in character, and even the Chief is showing chinks in his armour of disapproval.  Shona, a relatively recent return-ee from Oxfordshire, is still struggling with the Scottish dialect and Scottish nicknames.  Why is Roy called Roy, for instance?  She’s forgotten.

Wendy writes in present tense, unusual for crime fiction.    (This is something I forgot to mention in the interview.)

Killers Cross is available from Wendy Jones’ website.  A good read!

Wishing you a very happy Christmas.  Too tired to write anymore.

Really helpful advice for all novelists and hopeful novelists, from Cheryl Fassett. And some really useful-looking links, which I haven’t checked out yet myself.

Catching Fireflies

So, you wrote a novel in November. Or maybe it was November 2007. Either way, you are in one of two camps; you are just itching to pull it out and read your magnificent words, or you are terrified that they may be discovered. Their future is up to you.

I would think at some point you will want to take them out from under the bed or out of the drawer where you have hidden the thumb drive under 8 pounds of clutter and read them. Even if you have no intention of ever attempting to publish them, reading them is good for you. It helps you see them for what they are – either well-constructed plots and characters, or detritus of your brain which runs around like a toddler with ADD.


After the appropriate waiting period – a few months or years – please take out your manuscript…

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