Thursday, 22 September 2016

Copyright Restrictions On Books

Image by stevepb via Pixabay

A librarian approached me the other night. No, it's not the start of a joke. She said she'd seen me on the CLA excluded list. I think she suspected me of being a primadonna. I'm not, generally (except during band practice when I can't find my plectrum - I mean, how is it possible to lose it every ten minutes?). I chose to be on that excluded list because I want to make life easier for people - I allow far more re-use of my work than would be the case if it was included in a CLA licence.

The CLA excluded authors list. I'm in good company.
Note that this list is not comprehensive - any author who hasn't given the CLA/ALCS permission to re-licence their work is excluded, and many of them will never contact the CLA, or even know about it. Despite best efforts, this list can only ever be an incomplete snapshot.

If you are new to the acronym CLA, here's some background: it stands for The Copyright Licensing Agency. The law allows a certain amount of copying and re-use of published works. The CLA sell licences to allow a bit more than that without the threat of the CLA or relevant publisher taking legal action - though that only applies to the subset of authors and publishers they represent.

Here are some of my thoughts about this setup and the CLA, in no particular order. 
  1. As we saw above, in many cases a CLA licence is not required since the law allows a certain amount of use under the "fair dealing" provisions.
  2. A CLA licence is not all-encompassing, and can only cover authors and publishers who opt in and register with their partner organisations the ALCS and/or PLS. Lots of work is excluded but is not on the exclusion list, e.g. works from many non-trade-published authors. So even if you have a CLA licence, copying work that isn't registered (beyond what the law allows) would be illegal, and unfortunately there are new works being published everyday that aren't covered by a CLA licence, and no easy way while stood at a photocopier to check what is covered. I've worked in numerous educational institutions, and been in hundreds of libraries (workplace, school, FE [college], HE [university], business, private, national, public). An academic library might have thousands of staff and students using copiers every day, and if you sit by a photocopier and watch people use it, the process is the same in each case: approach the copier, slap book or journal on, copy, walk off (possibly reshelving the book or journal, possibly leaving it by the copier for a friendly, intelligent, lovely and gorgeous librarian to deal with). I've never observed anyone stop by the copier and try to browse the CLA website on their phone to check if the CLA licence allows them to copy that specific item. It would be horrendously complicated and impractical, which is why I've never seen anyone do that. Yet it is the only way to be sure that what is being copied is something that they are allowed to copy. It's a mess, frankly, and a bit of an elephant in the room, the thing we know but can't acknowledge. And it's one of the reasons why I think it would be better if the law allowed much more re-use than it currently does, so there would be no need for organisations to buy these extra licences (not just the CLA here - see my licensing society post for examples of other annual licences that organisations might be pressured into buying), taking chunks from budgets that could have gone on buying more books.
  3. Unfortunately organisations like the CLA/ALCS campaign for tighter copyright laws and more restrictions, rather than the way I would like things to go. I support many more concessions for re-use in particular circumstances, and removal of restrictions, so the CLA/ALCS/PLS etc have opposing views to those of authors like me. See my licensing society post for more on how this all works, and why I - as an author - don't take part in it. They don't represent me, whatever their websites seem to claim.
  4. I am sure staff at organisations such as the CLA work hard and mean well in acting in the interests of those that have joined them. They're probably really nice people, and I imagine I'd happily have a drink with any of them. But I don't agree with the CLA as an organisation prosecuting institutions which don't have a CLA licence. It all seems so mean-spirited and sneaky. And when applied to education e.g. FE and HE libraries, it seems totally wrong. Let's think about this for a moment. Suppose a university has a canteen that still uses proper cutlery rather than wasteful takeaway packaging. And a student takes a knife and tries to rob a bank with it. Then stabs someone with the knife when their meticulous and supposedly-foolproof plan goes wrong. Would you prosecute the university, because their knife was used in the crime? Or the student? I think it is pretty obvious that it would be ridiculous to prosecute the university. They hadn't known of, condoned, or committed a crime. They're not responsible for someone abusing their trust and using their property for an illegal purpose. But when it comes to copyright, common sense goes out the window. Suppose a university or council or library has a photocopier, for copying things within the limits the law allows (maybe with guidelines displayed on a poster by the machine). And a student or visitor copies beyond what the law allows - maybe a few chapters of a book about their favourite band. Again, the organisation hadn't known of, condoned, or committed a crime. They're not responsible for someone abusing their trust and using their property for an illegal purpose. It is the individual who is at fault. Yet it is the organisation that the CLA would persecute. (I was advised by more than one practitioner that the CLA generally use means other than prosecution to pressurize public and private bodies that don’t take up licences or who don’t comply e.g. encouraging students to "grass", occasional threats, audits etc.)
  5. Note the error in the image that starts this post. That list should just have a single line for my name; Organic Apocalypse (all works) should be in the publisher list below, not the author list. I contacted the CLA again about correcting that.
Anyway, back to the librarian. As I said to her at the time, I want to use the copyright page of my books to ALLOW more than the law permits, rather than use the page as most publishers do to try to RESTRICT actions. (Honestly, I'm so sick of books which say "No part of this book whatsoever may be reproduced blah bah blah without permission from the publisher" - liars! The law allows certain uses under the fair dealing provisions, such as quotation for purposes of review. Duh.) As an example, the CLA Licence in the past allowed institutions to copy up to 5% of a book. Apparently, starting this academic year, this will be increased to 10% of a book. For comparison, I allow 50%. I mean, I absolutely love it when my work is re-used for education.

So I'm proud of the copyright pages that will be used in my future books, as reproduced below. Hopefully you'll find it more straightforward and refreshing than most copyright pages.

Organic Apocalypse Copyright Manifesto

Organic Apocalypse believes culture should be shared. We support far more re-use than the UK law and licencing organisations currently allow. We respect our buyers, reviewers, libraries and educators. You don't need to sign anything or pay for a licence to get the extended rights below.
  • You can copy or quote up to 50% of our publications, for any non-commercial purpose as long as the source is acknowledged. So it's okay to do that for purposes such as review, criticism, study, assessment, research, teaching, education, parody, or just to say "Hey people, isn't this book amazing?"
  • You can sell our print books when you've finished with them. (Or pass them on to other people: share the love.) You buy, you own.
  • We don't add DRM to our e-books (though some third-party distributors do - wherever possible we opt out of such restrictions). Feel free to convert between formats (including scanning, e-formats, braille, audio) and store a backup for your own use.
  • Libraries: our print books can be freely loaned to the public, and sold on in booksales at end-of-life. Also, we don't inflate the price for libraries: you pay the same for a copy as anyone else. 
This is based on the situation in the UK: if your local law allows more than we state above, that's great! Local law then takes precedence over this.

Note to librarians and educators: all Organic Apocalypse titles are excluded from CLA (Copyright Licensing Agency) licences. We believe the law and CLA licences are too restrictive, and should allow far more re-use and sharing. If we joined the CLA we would have to restrict what we allow people to do with our work, and we won't compromise on that. So until the law becomes fairer in terms of allowing more re-use and sharing of copyrighted work, this manifesto is the best we can do. Times are hard, libraries and schools are closing: we do our bit by being as flexible and fair as possible. Peace and love and keep up the good work.

Updates Since I Drafted This Post - 2016-09-22 17:29

When I first drafted this post and ran it past a number of professionals in this area I had just thought the CLA were a bit clunky. But at the moment I'm rather furious.

This afternoon the CLA responded to my email about point 5 above, concerning them having incorrect information on their website.

Firstly, they said they don't update the publisher list any more (even though it is still openly available with no caveats). It is "an old list of Excluded Works that is no longer maintained/updated".

The confusing CLA site. Apparently visitors are meant to know that the author exclusion section is still used but the publisher exclusion section isn't. Image from 2016-09-22.

Instead people have to search yet another system of theirs (one which you can't browse - so you can't see a list of all excluded items, only search for ones you already know of). This makes me think of endless rabbit holes.

So far, so bad.

Then the CLA refused to add Organic Apocalypse to that database of excluded publishers, unless I jumped through unnecessary hoops by creating an account on a third party site that I have no interest in, and apparently the CLA want me to inform this extra site about every single book that is excluded, rather than it being a blanket exclusion. Apparently only then will the CLA fulfil their legal obligation to list excluded works. Which, basically, stinks.

And it leads to the situation where the CLA know certain works are excluded (e.g. all Organic Apocalypse-published titles, now and into the future), but the CLA refuse to communicate that to the people they sell their licences to. Also they sell licences by making it seem as all-encompassing as possible: so they are profiting from the implication that the licence covers works that they are fully aware it does not cover.

It is the CLA that sells the licence; the CLA have been informed that all works by a publisher are to be excluded. If they refuse to acknowledge that, and try to create extra barriers to acting on it, then they are profiting by selling rights they are not permitted to sell. So a warning to those who pay the CLA for a licence: by omitting excluded publishers it means the CLA licence's excluded works are inaccurate, and you have no way of knowing for sure what is included or excluded in a CLA licence.

The other thing that stinks is the lack of parity between how you opt in, or opt out.

Suppose you don't want to licence the CLA to re-sell some of your rights? You should not have to do anything, since by default they have no permission. But they require you to tell them specifically; and even that is not enough in some cases like this, where they try to send you off to register with another organisation.

Whereas suppose you do want them to re-sell some of your rights? No need to tell them about each book. Or do anything. Or even know about it, or agree with it, or be happy about it. Unless they specifically hear from you, they continue regardless.

The systems to "opt out" are made much more complicated and onerous, even though the CLA have no right to include your work automatically. Basic truth: you don't have to "opt out" of something you never agreed to "opt in" to in the first place. But that is exactly the position the CLA etc put you in.

I will update this. Hopefully it is a misunderstanding on their part and can be quickly rectified, but at the moment ... (Sigh). I hope I don't have to look into my options for dealing with the barriers the CLA are putting in place, but they are preventing me from exerting my rights. This experience just reinforces my decision to keep barge-pole length from their licences (and connected organisations such as the ALCS and PLS). Let's hope they correct this and respect the rights of authors and small publishers.

Updates Since I Drafted This Post - 2016-09-23 11:38

Resolved now, but I am tired (went bed at 6am, we authors are nuts) so I may add further details on another day. Thanks to the CLA for eventually acting on my request. I still think the CLA should make it clear from their first page that the CLA licence only covers authors and publishers that opt in, and they should link to both a full browse list and a searchable version of that opt in list from that homepage statement; and also link to the opt out list and explain that it is a guide, but only the opt in list is comprehensive. Still, enough progress for me to put my sabre away.


Monday, 19 September 2016

New Covers For My Darker Works

It's obviously the month for posts about book cover design - my own, and that of others.

As part of updating my existing books I have made small changes to the interiors (and in the case of Turner, added a bonus chapter). Then on to the wrapping: new covers too, all in the same style.

Turner has had a few covers in the past, often beautiful (e.g. this and this); however, I wanted to see whether marketing it with something more grimdark grungy might lead to sales.

Anyway, here are the new covers - e-book, and wraparound print covers. What do you think? I'm already making notes for future tweaks!


Monday, 12 September 2016

The Importance Of Cover Design - Jane Davis

Recently I wrote about book cover design in relation to my own books, a topic I often return to. Keeping to that theme, I am going to hand this post over to fellow author Jane Davis, to talk about the importance of cover design to her and her work. It's a pleasure to welcome Jane here, especially as she hosted me on her site a few months ago. Over to Jane!

The Importance Of Cover Design

One of the other huge joys of self-publishing is choosing how to present your work. Given that mine is difficult to categorise, I was conscious that I needed a strong brand. Of course, cover design is just one element of brand, but it’s a vital one nonetheless. An author has only eight seconds to grab a reader’s attention, so first impressions really do count. Rather than start from scratch, I chose to use elements from the cover of Half-truths and White Lies as building blocks: the font and the strong photographic image, repeated on the spine. The brief I gave cover designer Andrew Candy was that my books should look like a set you’d want to collect. I was thinking of my own bookshelves: the novels of John Irving; Frank Herbert’s Dune series; classic Penguin paperbacks. I wanted that certain something that would make people say, ‘Oh, another Jane Davis.’

I’m always absolutely clear about what I don’t want. My novel, These Fragile Things, is about a family in crisis when teenage daughter Judy claims to be seeing religious visions. But that’s only one element of the storyline and I didn’t want to exclude readers who wouldn’t normally read Christian fiction. I chose a butterfly with a broken wing, which represents transformation and hints at vulnerability.

For the cover of A Funeral for an Owl, perhaps the most literal of all my book covers, I had the image of a boy in mind, and my search for the right face took a long time. I was thinking of Ken Loach’s film adaptation of A Kestrel for a Knave (the wonderful Kes), and U2’s album cover for Boy. I provided Andrew with five separate images and precise instructions about where to put each one, but the end result was still a surprise. I sat on it for a couple of days but didn’t ask for a single change.

As I learned to trust Andrew’s instincts, my briefs grew more complex. For An Unchoreographed Life, my novel about a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother, I wanted to avoid any hint of erotica. Told partly from the perspective of a six-year-old, my story has more in common with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew than Belle de Jour. Describing a scene where my main character Alison comes face to face with a stag, I asked if it would be possible to combine the image of a ballerina with a deer. Andrew’s answer was yes, but only if I could find the right woman and the right deer, otherwise it would end up looking like a photoshop ‘bodge-job’. So that was my challenge. The final image suits the book perfectly: a woman who hasn’t been able to let go of her past and wears a mask.

The design for An Unknown Woman needed to show a woman undergoing an identity crisis. I wanted it to represent the difference between the way we see ourselves and how others see us, but also to hint at a complex mother/daughter relationship. I came up with the idea of two halves of a woman’s face and Andrew suggested adding a cracked mirror. I sourced the image of the younger woman, but it was Andrew who found picture the older woman, and then used his technical wizardry to manipulate it so that they look like one and the same. The cover has won two awards and I have no doubt that it contributed greatly to Writing Magazine’s decision to name An Unknown Woman as their Self-published book of the year.

For my latest release, My Counterfeit Self, I chose an image by Sergiy Glushchenko/500px, which had already won an award for underwater photography. Water is a repeat theme within the novel, but there’s also the sense of falling, the sense of disaster and shock. My main character, Lucy Forrester, is a political poet whose main cause is CND. It struck me that the bubbles coming from the woman’s mouth already looked a little like a mushroom cloud, but could be manipulated. I particularly liked the idea of the mushroom cloud coming out of the poet’s mouth.

If asked for a short-list of the key elements of my cover designs, I would say that they have to be instantly identifiable, inclusive and - I hope - intriguing.

-- Jane Davis

About Jane

Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is 'made-up truth'.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

Her latest novel, My Counterfeit Self, is released on 1st October 2016, but can be pre-ordered at the special price of 99p/99c.

‘A compelling portrayal of the bohemian life of an activist poet, the men she loves, and the issues she fights for.’ Eleanor Steele

Jane's social media links:

Monday, 5 September 2016

Book Cover Redesign For Harvest Festival

I don't know about you, but I'm always fascinated by how book covers are created - the designs that drop by the wayside and the elements that make it to the final version. It's probably why I've changed my own book covers so many times: I enjoy the process. I've written about this in the past (Cold Fusion 2000; the first professional cover for Turner which began here, continued here, and led to this; and a second professional cover for that book!)

Now let's take a look at the development of the cover for Harvest Festival

Harvest Festival's first temporary cover: a red harvest moon.
I didn't want to give anything away about the plot, or where the threat comes from.

The first cover I created was temporary, because I wasn't even sure about releasing a standalone novella. It was an experiment, and one that I think is successful, since many people seem to enjoy a short, action-packed book. I decided it could stay, and it was time to work on something more professional.

I then created this "pumpkin" cover after it became clear that 
Harvest Festival could stand on its own feet.

The pumpkin cover came about because I needed to capture the theme (horror at harvest time) without giving away the real threat/mystery. Strange blue lights are important in the novella, so I made sure they were included.
Note: for the pumpkin cover above and all the following images you are looking at the full wraparound cover for the print book - so the left half of the image would be the back of the book, the right half is the front cover (and would be cropped to provide the e-book cover). There is no spine text on Harvest Festival because it is a novella, and is too thin to accurately place any. Later images haven't had the back text and ISBN added yet, because I am still working on design.
Although some readers loved the pumpkin cover, others thought it was misleading - they expected some kind of teenage slasher novel, and they told me the book I'd written was far more interesting than the cover implied. I love Harvest Festival, and enjoy re-reading it myself, so decided to bestow it with a better cover, crafted with the care and attention I'd given to They Move Below.


First I found some images and knocked up a rough idea for composition. A Welsh farmhouse topped by oppressively strange clouds and space. (If you've read the book you'll understand why each element is relevant!) The hand was to add an idea of threat without giving too much away. It's red to imply infra-red vision: the viewpoint of a predator. That's also the reason why I applied Depth of Field (DoF), so that the house is in focus and the rest of the image begins to blur, a way of focussing attention, one of a number of ways to do that. Another was highlighting the house with a vignette effect, but I decided that didn't work so I haven't shown those drafts.

This was me playing with the Depth of Field idea - notice how it pulls the eye towards the element that is in focus, at the expense of losing detail elsewhere.

At this point I was happy to start afresh and rebuild the elements at higher resolution.

A more polished version of my ideas.

All the elements were present now. The colour tones have been shifted to the blue end of the spectrum to match the story and imply cold. I fixed the derelict windows on the house and replaced one with a light - because it is an upstairs window it adds to the feeling of it being night time, people going to bed, isolated vulnerability. I switched to a hand reaching for the gate (red, for contrast - heat, organic, injury). There's a lot of detail on it, but ambiguous as to who (or what) it belongs to. It appears to be wounded, with some strange textures which will make sense to anyone who has read Harvest Festival.

Starting to add text.

Now with the front text and tagline added. There's so much detail in the image it took a few attempts to create "pop" on the title, and I'm still not sure if I have enough yet, so that the text stands out from the background. I used a motion blur shadow to add depth to the title. The novella's anme frames the lit window, though also possibly obscures it. A subtle black edging to the image helps the author name stand out. The tagline at the top is clear and easy to read, probably the largest I've ever had a tagline, but I think it can really help to give an indication of what a novel is about, and to reinforce or clarify the visual image. Yellows and oranges make a good contrast to blue. My long-term readers will probably recognise the typeface from a previous version of Turner, but with added relief (raised reflective bits) to make it look more solid.

The same as above, but the hand obscures part of my name. 
Does that effect work, or is it better to show my name clearly?

A boosted visual.

For the version above I added various effects to boost the colours, making things more stark and alien (and slightly cartoony). The sky works better but I am not sure if it is too much, and would make the text harder to read. Happy to have any comments on that.

The same boosted version, with a Depth of Field effect.

The Depth of Field effect is also something I am unsure about - do you prefer it with that, or without? Is the loss of detail worth it to help draw focus to the house?
That's as far as I've got, and I welcome feedback. Once I finalise this cover I'll update They Move Below with with the same font and style, then create a new cover for Turner to match, so my three dark action/horror/thriller books look like a set. Comment below, or via email, Facebook or Twitter. Thanks!
Note: I occasionally edit books for other authors and publishers. In the future I may also offer some cover design advice/creation/retouching as part of that package if required. I love finding ways to represent a book visually, whilst also making the cover a beautiful image in its own right.


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Get Bendy

A poor abused book, trying to flap away to freedom. Image by jarmoluk via Pixabay.

"Get bendy," he says.
"No, I'm not talking about yoga," he adds.

I love the physicality of a printed book. It has strengths (texture, presence) that can't be replicated digitally. E-books have three features that ameliorate this for me: you can read them in the dark (and not wake your bed partner); you can tap a word to get an instant dictionary definition; and you can fit 50 books into your pocket.

The other day I was asked whether I use a bookmark to keep my place in a printed book or if I fold down the corner of the page.

WHAAAAATT!!! I could never fold a page! I am an ex-librarian! I’d argue that there is always something to mark a page with if a bookmark isn't nearby. A scrap of paper. A hairclip. A sock. A drinks coaster. Another book inserted lightly at the edge. A lock of hair from a virgin princess. A bus ticket. We live in a world of things, and they can be repurposed!

It was pointed out that if they own the book they can do what they want with it and I shouldn’t be imposing my rules on someone else.

I don’t think I was doing that. Obviously, each book owner can do as they wish. If I want to smother my book in chocolate spread it is my prerogative. But I'd need to have a good reason to do that. Likewise if I enjoyed folding the pages or writing in the book - great, let me do it. It's just that, for me, "lack of something to use as a bookmark" has never occurred in 40+ years, so it doesn’t seem like a good reason to fold a page. The only reason to fold a page is because I like folding pages (in which case I should take up origami).

Then again, I am someone who plans ahead a lot. I cut the front of nice cards into strips and leave small piles on shelves. Even guests can partake of my bookmarky beneficence.

Which makes me think - with the print copies of my work, am I more horrified by a fate of notes, scribbles, creasings and tearings; or by the sadness of a pristine almost-unread state destined for a charity shop? It's the kind of conundrum that I often ponder. Two types of horror.

So, you. You there in the corner, in the spotlight, looking guilty with a paperback. Bookmarks or bent-over corners? Or resting a book open flat so that the spine splits? Would you write in a book? Am I overly fussy about this? Over to you.


Thursday, 18 August 2016

Ey up! I talk about my Manchester novels on Jenny Kane's website.

Aye, well chuffed, pop over to Jenny's website to hear what I was nattering about (mostly
2000 Tunes, and Cold Fusion 2000).

This is a backup of the text there.

Guest Post from Karl Drinkwater: Thinking Manchester in the year 2000…
Posted by Jenny Kane on Aug 18th, 2016

I’m delighted to welcome Karl Drinkwater to my blog today to chat about his writing, and the influence the city of Manchester has had on his words. Why not put your feet up for five minutes and join us for a chat?

Karl Drinkwater

Hi Karl, where are you from?
I’m originally from Manchester. Therefore I grew up miserable. This gradually softened to a perpetual grumpiness and a desire to create a better world through fiction. I now live in Wales. It’s like Manchester with hills and greenery.

Manchester (1)

Which books did you want to talk about today?
Cold Fusion 2000, and 2000 Tunes. They were my most recent novels, both set in Manchester in the year 2000, shortly after I left for Wales. When you leave a place you see it in a different light, the good and the bad. And you see yourself in a different light too. A teeny bit of that will bleed between the covers.

Karl Drinkwater Cold 

What inspired you to write the books?
I think I was getting things out of my system with these books. They’re love letters to Manchester, its music, its city, whilst also being critical of some aspects. And they’re also more traditional love stories after a fashion, about nerds and difficult people being able to find love and happiness and contentment. Both books are set in the same summer with crossover places, themes, situations and characters that sometimes mirror each other.

Karl Drinkwater 2000 Tunes 

What type of research did you have to do for your book?
Since both novels were set in a very real place I wanted to reflect that, and show how the geography of an area affects our perception of it. The difficulty was that the city centre had changed a lot in the last sixteen years. Many of the places in the novel have already been lost, renamed, altered or closed. 2000 Tunes opens outside The Haçienda, one of the world’s most famous nightclubs: just before it was demolished for luxury flats. I had to combine my memories of the city at the time with archival photos and discussions; my diaries were useful too. I built the city back up as it used to be and then let the characters breathe into that space.

There were also the elements related to the protagonist nerds. In Cold Fusion 2000 we have Alex, who is obsessed with with poetry … and hardcore physics. Luckily I’ve studied literature and astronomy at university, but I still had to learn more to fully get into his head. In 2000 Tunes Mark is obsessed with the music of Manchester. Again, it’s a love of mine, but the amount of detail I had to research so that I could draw parallels between songs based on dates, musicians, locations and so on as Mark does … that was a whole other level. Some of the research led to a series of blog posts all about the songs Mark thinks are the best examples of Manchester music (and which also form the chapter names in the novel). You’ll find the posts here.

Manchester (4) 

Why the year 2000?
It was a time when people thought the world might suddenly change for the better. What fools we were. But it’s an interesting liminal time, totally appropriate for coming-of-age stories about obsessive nerds, the amazing women they fall in love with, and the life-changing decisions they confront.

Do you prefer to plot your story or just go with the flow?
It has to be a bit of both. I plot so that macro-scale events work well, with escalation, reversals and so on. So if I sit down to write a scene I know that the two characters will begin arguing, and eventually come to blows, and say things they’ll regret, or reveal things they shouldn’t – but the details of what, and when, and how aren’t decided in advance. They come naturally from the characters interacting. Reviews often praise my realistic dialogue, and I think if you let the words and actions be authentic to the characters then the scene will flow; and often surprise the author.

Purchase: Amazon UK / Amazon US

Manchester (6)

Extract from 2000 Tunes
Samantha Rees thrust money into the taxi drivers hand and hurried away. Stopped, smoothed down her black skirt. Was it too short?
Too late if it was.
The white-washed Presbyterian chapel was built on a hill and the graveyard sloped down to dry stone walls. A bank of dying daffodils bent their heads towards her in the breeze. When she was a little girl her uncle had tricked her, making her believe they were really called Taffodils. She shook her head and climbed the steep stone steps, worn from two centuries of comings and goings.
People in black milled around outside under incongruous sunshine. She spied smokers having a quick ciggie behind the holly trees. She’d have joined them if she wasn’t so late. Just a one-off to settle her emotions.
The mourners admitted her, welcomed her. Hugs and questions but she pushed her way through as quickly as she could without seeming rude. It smelt like a flower shop. Overpowering sweetness of the white lilies. Snippets of conversation heard in passing.
“Such a nice day for it …”
“Aye, booked the weather in advance, knowing her.”
“Joined her husband, that’ll be a reunion.”
“Always said they didn’t want to outlive each other.”
“Shouldn’t be in here really, I’m a pub man …”
Inside was dark polished wood set off against pale walls. Pews and a small gallery were filling with those too tired to stand around. She spotted her mam and they hugged. Seconds without words, but which said everything, before Sam moved to arm’s length. “Sorry I’m late. I dropped my bags off at your house first, and the trains were –” but Mam silenced her with a waved hand.
“I knew you’d be here, bach. We waited. She’d have wanted that.”
Despite all the murmurs the atmosphere was hushed, heavy, like a gap in sound before an approaching storm. Noises seemed further away than normal, vitality cut off from conversation, words disconnected from their source, just as Sam’s mother was now disconnected from her source. Organisation rippled through the crowd as people moved to seats. Some mourners had to spill over into the small gallery.
Mamgu was in the coffin at the front. It hurt to look at the box, to picture Mamgu’s face without a living smile on it; so when the minister stepped into the pulpit and began speaking Sam was glad to focus on him instead. The service was in Welsh. Soon there was sniffing and nose blowing as the eulogy continued.
They stood to sing. Calon Lân began, beautiful music and strong voices. Sam tried to sing along but her throat tightened so she mumbled, “Calon lân yn llawn daioni, Tecach yw na’r lili dlos.” A pure heart full of goodness, Is fairer than the pretty lily.
She had to look up as her eyes brimmed, lights hung in threes, the images spilt over and she realised she hadn’t brought a hankie but would definitely need one…

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester but has lived in Wales for nearly twenty years, ever since he went there to do a degree: it was easier to stay than to catch a train back. His longest career was in librarianship (twenty-five years); his shortest was industrial welding (one week).
Sometimes he writes about life and love; sometimes death and decay. He usually flips a coin in the morning, or checks the weather, and decides based on that. His aim is to tell a good story, regardless of genre. When he is not writing or editing he loves exercise, guitars, computer games, board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice and zombies.
Many thanks for a great blog Karl.
Happy reading everyone,
Jenny x


Wednesday, 17 August 2016


I sometimes review books, but rarely on my website. Even rarer is for me to interview another author - it's more likely to be me at the receiving end of a Q&A. But I wanted to tell you about a book. I read a lot, and impressing me is not easy. I read this book in two sittings reading until 2am (there's symmetry for you). I hadn't felt such a compulsion to finish a book for some time. It was particularly refreshing after reading a few books recently that were slogs to get through, including a novel by one of the world's most famous authors.

Housebroken by The Behrg (Amazon UK / Amazon US) is controversial. It has many great reviews. Also some that warn of cruelty, toxic scenes, and people who stopped reading before the end. You know what? When something polarises opinions it interests me more. If something only gets five star reviews I am suspicious of either manipulation, or of the fact that a thing that pleases everyone can only do so by aiming at the lowest common denominator. I don't want bland books; I read to feel things.

So I'll review the book. And occasionally digress into talk of writing in general. Then I'll include an interview I did with the author. I hope you'll enjoy this combination.

The Review Of Housebroken

Notes I made on a pad before I was halfway through the book:
  • Currently reading a horrible but brilliantly-plotted novel that surprises me (and sometimes sickens me).
  • Every word earns its place.
  • Straddles the fine line between restrained and gratuitous. Horrible and riveting.
Notes I made on a pad when I was near the end:
  • Characters peeled back, surprise me but believable.
  • Ha! Not what I expected!
The first thing I need to get out of the way: Housebroken seems like a nasty home invasion story. That's not false marketing, because it is one, up to a point: but also more. Don't worry, the story doesn't go loopy, it always makes meticulous sense, but - like many of the best things - it is more than it first seems. It has layers and can change. The plot is happy to take you in new directions. So up to halfway you expect it to collapse into torture porn (the easy way out for sensationalist writers who can't generate interest via decent character and plot) but this novel doesn't do that; instead it is willing to switch to elements of technothriller and industrial espionage, replacing terror with excitement. A good conjuring trick. In fact, it is a classic trick, often used in films – horrible stuff shown at the start so you expect it all the time, never relax, but then the writer/director doesn't need to go there again and nothing is as bad as you expected. A few times I dreaded where I thought the story was going but the author pulled back. They'd achieved the effect they wanted, no need to then really go there. And thus it's not gratuitous, it's carefully controlled. So don't be put off by the trappings at the start. If you've ever enjoyed the tension and compulsiveness (whether well-written or not) of Dean Koontz or Dan Brown, you will enjoy this. Stick with it even if you have a weak stomach – it would be worse to stop during the most distressing scenes, because then those are what would be forever stuck in your mind with no resolution. Better to be strong, push through, see the story change, gain some hope, overcome the fear, and in the process dissipate the distress. In other words, endure what the protagonist endures.

This is a bleak/hopeful tale. Like The Road but rather than unconnected vignettes, it is more of a traditional tightly-plotted thriller. Unlike many mainstream thrillers where I find it hard to care about the characters, this also allows transformation and depth so you do come to care, more than just the inevitable sympathy for the victim of violence. It's relevant though. I wrote a guest article recently about why people should read horror. I gave three reasons. Up to the halfway point this book reminded me of a fourth: to close a book and be thankful for what you have. Not the possessions, but the freedom, the health, and - most important - the loved ones. To remember that nothing else matters as much as those last three. Appreciate them now: don't wait until their birthday, don't wait until Christmas, don't wait until they're ill. Do it now.

The book is expertly plotted. As an author I can appreciate the careful placing of every reveal and every twist, each foreshadowed element. I respect the ability to do that so consistently. In fact, that does enough to stop this just being a book in an often-tired and cheap genre (the house invasion); it manages to take it, polish it, and make it stand out as an impressive example of this particular fear, at the top of the pile. That takes a rare gift. Two of my books are built around continuous drama, must-read-on-to-find-what-happens-next plots (Turner and Harvest Festival), but if I attempted Housebroken's story I am pretty sure I couldn't have pulled it off as successfully as The Behrg. It takes some effort to say that, but it is only fair to do so. When I encounter another writer that impresses me I am happy to doff my hat in their direction. Particularly as it is difficult for me to read a book as a reader - I can't help but analyse the dialogue, the effects, the structuring, the flow, the style. For at least some of the time this book distracted me from those workman evaluations and pulled me back to the story. That's a laurel wreath right there.

(An aside on the plotting: only one scene in the whole book didn't fully convince me. It's an incredibly tense scene, sickening too - the nastiest thing in the book. I don't want to give spoilers so, for those who have read Housebroken, if I say net, pool, running on air, you'll know what I mean. My issue was that, plotwise, the author wanted the scene to be a dramatic reveal - but really the character would have woken not to silence, but to screaming; intended dramatic effect over-rode realism. The discrepancy could have been solved with heavy gagging. For this to be my only issue is actually praise for the novel.)

Well-crafted writing often has depth, by which I mean there can be multiple references from the same word/image/motif. The worst stories and novels have only one layer, the surface. You can still enjoy some of them if they do the surface layer well, but depth and multiple layers are better. For example, The Road's surface layer is the journey and the destination, but that's hardly what the book is about. It is layered with familial love and duty, questions of what a good person is, responsibility, how to act, the environment, our current values, and more. The road that is walked, but also the one that us lived. For all my praise of Housebroken I am not saying it has all those layers; a book aimed at such a designed experience can't. But it is nonetheless well-crafted. For example, at first it seems like just a random home invasion but it's not. Like all aspects of the plot, other things are going on below the surface, and it is all connected satisfyingly. There are layers concerned with:
  • corporations and greed
  • technology and possessions versus the important values
  • getting at the core of your personality
  • psychological control and playing a role and using words (one of the themes of my first novel Turner)
  • a game of "What if?", where you ponder what you would do (and visualised in an extended metaphor near the novel's end)
  • entertainment (of the reader - don't underestimate the importance of this)
Multiple levels, multiple meanings. That statement is made with the book's title, which implies home invasion, but also dog training (with a particular item that doubles as a final and central stripping-away of the protagonist's old psyche as he is “trained” and transformed too via being broken). [Note - that's not a spoiler, since the prologue gives part of this away on the first page.] Likewise the destruction of the house room by room is a metaphor for the deconstruction of a life; both are destroyed in tandem.

I want to talk about settings. It is important to have a variety. It's very hard to keep a book compelling if all scenes are set in one (or a few) locations. It was a criticism I had of two books I read recently. In many ways this is why books about being on the run, or a journey, are popular, and have been ever since The Odyssey (the more entertaining sibling of The Iliad, partly because of the variety and changes). You'd think with a book that seems to be about a home invasion this would be a real problem, mostly set in one house, maybe a few rooms. But this is where I was again impressed by the author. Scenes take place all over the house and grounds, and even when a room is repeated the context changes, and the decor changes as a result of past scenes. It's cleverly tied to the theme - by letting the story spread through each room it also takes chaos with it, destroying what was there before, the past, the possessions, and seeing what is left when the layers are peeled back. Scenes later go even further afield, to other surprising and interesting locations (see, I said it isn't just a home invasion story). There is never a sense of "seen it", of the tedium of confinement that so many authors would have fallen into, thinking it helps with empathy when really it only makes the reader's eyes glaze over. When we read a book we want to let go; we want to trust the author to take us on an exciting journey but not crash the car; to conjure and perform magic tricks and not drop the ball. Yep, I felt that security here, and could sink into the story.

In the end? A well-written, superbly plotted novel. The Behrg always has an eye on the reader and their experience, carefully controlling and manipulating and foiling expectations. I don't feel like there's a word wasted in this story. The author doesn't over-explain, or do the reader's work for them in this tale (partly) of redemption. I think this book does a LOT right when it comes to pace and plot twists. It's not for the faint of heart, yet it is also cleverer than I anticipated. If you feel like being challenged and also going on an emotional rollercoaster, give it a go. It's horrible in parts, an uneasy read, but I'm impressed.

(Warning: some people can't read a book where an animal suffers, so I have to warn you that there is one scene of that in this book.)

Interview With The Behrg

Karl: Please don't tell me Housebroken was your first novel. Or at least tell me it was your first published one, but you wrote another fifteen first and had to trash them. It wouldn't be fair if you got so much right on the first attempt!

The Behrg: It was actually my first, though I'm no novice to writing. Previously I spent my time writing and studying screenplays. As I transitioned to a more narrative structure I was surprised at the similarities, though really I shouldn't have been. What I really enjoyed, however, was the freedom it opened up to explore these characters, without the need to hit a certain "plot-point" by XX amount of pages.

Karl: Okay, I feel better. Even though I know screenplays and novels are different disciplines, I imagine there is a lot of overlap from the fact that they both aim to tell an interesting story, concisely.

This may seem weird, but bear with me - I sometimes imagine how great it would be to be able to somehow sit in readers' heads as they read one of my books, seeing the exact points where they were excited, bored, confused, scared, tense, pleased and so on. Although you can't shape everything to the demands of others, because then you'd end up fitting everything to the same template like a malignant focus group, it's still good to have an awareness of what King's "dear reader" might feel at each point, because then you can lead them round and satisfy or frustrate their expectations. So few authors genuinely consider what the reader is thinking during each scene, instead often falling back on self-indulgence, just writing what they want. But while I was reading Housebroken it often felt like you'd really considered and guessed at what the reader would be thinking and expecting at each point, controlling their reading experience like a Hannibal Lecter of words. Were you conscious of doing that as you wrote, or maybe earlier when you plotted?

The Behrg: Not weird at all -- I think every author would love to know especially where things stop working for a reader. For me it comes down to not forcing the characters but rather trusting them and their decisions. It often leads to darker places than I'm comfortable with, but not following them down those paths would eliminate the authenticity I feel we, as authors, seek.

Love your article on Linda's Book Bag btw, exactly how I feel about horror. Too many people think it's just the cheap slasher / gore splashing everywhere / no character development type of garbage that B-movies are made of. My idea of "horror" is much broader. Well executed "argument" you had there.

Karl: Thanks. Just curious, what was Housebroken's word count? I knew it was a Kindle Single and for some reason thought they were all novellas and expected Housebroken to be a quick read. It was, in that I ploughed through it in two nights, but not quick in sense of feeling short. If anything, every time I felt I'd had my money's worth, you threw another twist into my trolley, as if you wanted to give not 90% value, but 150% value. Which makes me wonder if part of it was my expectations to do with length.

The Behrg: Actually Housebroken wasn't a Kindle Single but was rather one of the first books selected in Amazon's new "reader-powered publishing platform," Kindle Scout. As far as the twists in the novel go, most were uncovered through the writing process, rather than pre-plotted. I honestly expected a much different ending to the story than where it eventually led.

Karl: Apologies for my mistake about the Kindle scheme, I probably got the Single mixed up with Scout's requirement for 50,000 words or more (and skimmed the "or more"). Writers, eh, never trust them to be able to read as well.

Penultimate question: your craziest writing experience, experiment or method. Ever co-wrote with someone else? Written to a time limit? Written while drunk? Gone through an experience of a character so you could write about it more truthfully (e.g. climbing into a dog cage)? I can't list many more, since I don't know what I don't know, but an answer might seem obvious to you.

The Behrg: My craziest writing experience? Like writing under water or while standing on hot coals? Or maybe the short story I penned while sky-diving? :) While it often feels I've got a gun to my head when writing (metaphorically, of course), I can't say I've done anything too crazy. I let most of that insanity onto the page rather than into my own life. That being said, I do try to challenge myself by switching things up, whether that be trying to write a novel longhand or blurring the lines of genres, etc.

Karl: Something off-topic. I'm not going to ask ask about your name, since I saw you'd covered it on your site - no doubt a question you got tired of! So instead, music. Lead guitar, or rhythm, or both? Do you sing and play? What style and songs? I'm still a beginner in many ways (my nemesis is the F chord, well named; or maybe having to stretch my fingers across 5 mid-neck frets for Revolution by the Beatles). So: any guitar or general music tip, something that you wished you'd known and might help me or others?

The Behrg: Ah, the name thing! :) It is an odd one and yes, I wrote a blog article about the decision, but no one's EVER asked me about playing music, so kudos for the original question. I picked up the guitar when I was fourteen after a rock-climbing accident where I shattered my femur bone two weeks before summer vacation began. With nothing to do but watch endless loops of The Price Is Right, it was a great way for me to invest my time and has become a huge part of who I am. Funny how the tragedies in life often carry us down paths we would have otherwise never ventured. I've played in various different groups from wedding bands to originals, and at one point even had a production contract that came close to "making it," I suppose. I'm a big believer that everyone should play a musical instrument. It's like learning a second language - it expands your mind, gives you an opportunity to lose yourself in something creative, and is a far more productive use of time than playing some absurd app on your phone. As far as advice, I'd just say play the music you love. Stick with it because it does get easier. Don't be afraid of making mistakes or changing what someone else has written in the way you play it. That's the beauty of music, is that it's never finished. Never complete. It's always a work in progress. The same could be said of writing, to some degree.

Karl: I agree so much. I wish I'd started learning years ago. Actually I did have a few lessons as a kid (guitar and violin) but didn't enjoy it. I only started to understand the pleasure when I began making music with friends. Now one of my favourite evenings is when we get together and have a crack at playing songs - one drummer, me on lead guitar, one singer, and a fourth either playing bass, keyboard, or tambourine. It's social, it's creative, and we laugh a lot. I have sometimes altered and simplified songs to bring them down to my skill level, so I'm glad I needn't feel too bad about that. In fact, I'm tempted to go do some finger picking practice now. Thanks for your time!