Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Gold-Starred Rules for Shy Networking Writers

Nina Milton, speaking and reading at the Wells Literary Festival
Blogpost fans who know me personally, would probably say I’m a bit of an extrovert, and can happily walk onto a stage and address a crowd, especially if it’s on the subject of books…especially if it on the subject of my books. 

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In public, or among friends, I come across as bubbly, gregarious and confident. But actually, folks, I’m not an extrovert at all. Like many writers who love their own company and that of their characters, I’m actually a bit of a trembling flower. But I can do a conjuror’s magic trick which allows me to walk into a company of strangers and look outgoing, which I learned at the age of fifteen. 

As a kid I was painfully shy, which I blamed on my first name. In an age when unusual names were not common, I was teased mercilessly about mine. My mother had called me Nina – not after the famous Nordic singing duo or the ‘high priestess of soul’, but after her friend’s daughter, who for no reason I can fathom, pronounced the name to rhyme with nine, rather than teen. From my earliest memories, I hated my name. Kid’s called me ‘nine-o’clock instead of Nina Crane, or counted up across the street at me…’one-a, two-a three-a… 

Me at the Carmarthen Book Fair
When I took my first part-time job, I swore to change all of that. I went to work behind the sock and tie counter in a local department store. I was asked what my name was and I simply introduced myself as ‘Nina’  pronounced as in Nina Simone. Now, instead of bizarre and laughable, my name was singular and cool. A tiny alteration in pronunciation which did wonders for my ego, and taught me an interesting lesson…we can pretend to be more remarkable than we really are.

I’m telling you all of this because it’s Christmas Fayre season again, and I’m off to events  all over Wales to promote the Shaman Mystery Series. Last Saturday I was at Carmarthen library to promote my books and myself as a writer.

And on Saturday December 10th, I’m in the pretty town of Llandeilo, at the Llandeilo Book Fair.
Landeilo is tucked at the foot of the Black Mountains in South Wales, not far from Swansea, and is packed with lovely shops, as well as holding a book fair. 

Book events are not only great for selling your books, it’s also a place to meet other authors.goint to share them with you!
NIna at the Llandeilo Book Fair
I put on my ‘Neena, not Nine-a’ face and pretend to be fearless and undaunted, despite still being that trembling flower inside. To help me, I use my gold-starred rules for shy networking writers, and I'm

Here are my gold-starred rules of networking for the writer who is shy at heart. I find they help a lot.

1. Use the four-pronged approach. First brought to the fore by Dale Carnegie, just remember to…
  • SMILE, 

2. Be interested. Being actually interested in the other person stops the stench of desperation coming across and keeps that smile in place…naturally. It will also allow the right questions to pop into your mind – questions like, “what brought you here today” and “what sort of writing do you do”, and remind you to listen to the answers while getting that person’s name into your head (asking for their card really helps!)

3. Have no agenda. This springs naturally from being interested in the people around you. Concentrate on finding out about them, look keen to know more. No one wants to be in the same space as the ‘hard-selling, self-obsessed person’ for long.

4. Sort your plan. This is essential for hiding shyness and projecting confidence. Before you leave the house, get your ‘one minute blurb’ for your latest writing project clear in your mind. Look at my blogpost on elevator pitches to help you with this one. Remind yourself of your particular talents and strengths. It's important to map out what you want to talk about, because (rightly) be concentrating on rules 1-3 may take such things out of your mind. With rule 5 in mind, tell yourself all the ways your writing is wonderful – get your list prepared.

5. Be your passionate self. Having sorted your plan, you won’t need to look pushy because you’ll have more confidence in yourself. You’re smiling, so you’ll already be feeling happier. So now you can drop any artificiality and allow your lovely self to show through and demonstrate what you feel passionate about – I promise you, that’s always a winner. 

Do not say sorry. Okay – if you tip your wine over the books on your neighbour’s table, you might have to ask their forgiveness, but you should never apologise for your writing or make excuses for your books, or admit that you’re not sure how good they might be. Your stories have value. When you sort your plan, put these values in the list. If you are selling your book, whether to a punter or a publisher, do not start with ‘sorry, but…’ That makes it sound like you’re asking for a favour, when in fact, you're offering to show them some marvellous work.

Have your cards ready. All writers should have some sort of business card. If you already have a book in print, there are fun alternatives, too. I like to use bookmarks, with the covers of my books, a short blurb and my contact details. Other writers use postcards. I have also seen greeting cards using the jackets of novels, but these are too costly to give away and should instead be there to raise revenue.

Try for generosity. You’ll be wanting people to be generous to you, to give your work a chance by stocking, reading it or publishing it! So you can afford to offer something in return, even if it’s only turning up an hour early to help put out all the tables.

Follow the leads. You’ve come home with a dozen cards from other writers, agents, booksellers and publishers. Follow them up, even if it’s only an email to say how nice it was to meet them. Keep those links going, as you never know where they might take your writing. And they'll remind you just how much you enjoyed the event, even though you're a shy networking writer

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Costa Book Awards – the shortlists are out!

Another year, another book prize announced. This is one of my favourite book prizes, which has afforded me unbelievable reading. Novels like The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. 

Costa offers several awards each year, Novel Award, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children’s Book, and Short Story, and I already have several of the shortlist for each of these on my own ‘to read list’. 

I’m keen to get Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve love Tremain since she began to write, which is many moons. She has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I recently read her book Trespass I was thrilled to find she’d written a novel about murder. Was Tremain writing a crime thriller? My review of Trespass can be found here This new novel is set in Switzerland where the second world war is still a long-ago echo coming off the mountains. It’s described as “a striking portrait of friendship” 

There are four books in the First Novel shortlist, but I’ve heard of each of them Francis Spufford is already on the list as Golden Hill became the Waterstones Book of the Month, and Kit de Waal, shortlisted for My Name is Leon is know as a short story writer. But I’d never heard of Susan Beale’s first book The Good Guy and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand. . These are set in the US and long-ago Holland respectively, so on my beg, borrow or buy list they go.

Biography is not my favourite writing form, but this year I’d love to read Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return, It was  five years ago,as tension increased during the harrowing situation in Libya, that I read his Booker-shortlisted novel, In the Country of Men

 It felt a very pertinent and current read at the time, and is partly his memories of his childhood, during the time Colonel Gaddafi's regime took hold in the seventies. A boy of nine watches his father taken away for questioning and does not know what to think, or whom to trust. The novel is writing in such deceptively simple prose, but powerfully examines themes of conflict, family ties, and betrayal.
In the past, the Poetry Award has sent me rushing to read current poets. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees won five years ago, a short book I love to return to. Bees are central in this collection,…bees / are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them … and while doing that recalls bitter memories of what we have lost,This year, it will be Falling Awake  I read first. I’m already in love with Alice Oswald’s poetry, especially Dart, a shape-shifting epic poem about the river Dart, and the people who live around it. In the White Review, Oswald said; I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. You can hear Oswald read here.

Who doesn’t love Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry books? Now she’s on the Costa Children's shortlist with her first novel for older children: The Monstrous Child, described as a black comedy focusing on Nordic myth. This is the one that I want to read, it sounds scrumptious and long-awaited.

I have a very soft spot for the Short Story award, which hasn’t been going for very long, because in its inauguration, my Open College of the Arts student, Guy Le Jeune, came third with his story Small Town Removal, which I’d read in its very early stages. The Short Story Award shortlist will be announced soon, and all the shortlists will announce their ultimate winner on Tuesday 3rd January. From these five the Costa Book of the Year is selected. Fireworks will explode, Champagne will pop its cork and one writer will be very pleased…and a lot richer. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

Patron of Hares, Saint Melangell

I love discovering something hidden and special that I never knew about. So when friends asked me to go with them to the shrine of St Melangell, I jumped at the chance. I’d never heard of this saint, even though she is the patron hares, which are my totem animal

Her shrine is still kept in beautiful condition, in the small northwest Wales village of Pennant Melengells, It's one of the most remote shrines in the UK, located in the Berwyn Mountains. It’s only a short drive from St Mylin’s well, a far better-known shrine to a well-loved saint, who was probably Bishop of Wales at around the time Saint Melegell was born.

Melengell lived in the 7th Century CE, in what then would have been an independent Wales, still more Iron Age than Medieval. The Romans had long gone, and the old, local tribes called refi had taken over the rule of the land once more, led by a warrior aristocracy. The people would have spoken Old Welsh and held that powerful blend of belief; Celtic Christian, fused with a remaining underbelly of pagan belief, still clinging around the edges of this new religion. They'd only recently been converted to the powerful message of this still-new faith by saints like David and Mylin.

The tarn of Llyn Cau
We arrived at the youth hostel, for our one night stay in Dolgellau, which is sheltered under the most southern tip of the Snowdonia mountain range. 

 Rising above us was Cader Idris. Myth and legend have echoed around this high peak  for many a century and began with the fabled Welsh book of folklore, The Mabinogion. It’s said than anyone who falls asleep for the night at the foot of the Cadir Idris wakes, the following morning, either dead, mad, or a poet. We were about to lay our heads down is just that place, and I was hoping to wake with the latter quality!

The following morning (seemingly neither dead nor mad), we motored northeast to the village of Pennant Melangell. The far west of Wales possibly still looks, in places, very much like it did when the saints and the war-lords ruled the head and heart of early Wales.  As we travelled, my friends told me what they knew about St Melangell. 

She was the daughter of an Irish monarch, who had determined to marry her to a nobleman of his court. The princess fled from her father, across the Irish Sea, and took refuge in the isolated Tanat valley. She lived as an anchorite, walled into her shrine for most of fifteen years, without seeing the face of a man. 

The legend has it that one day Brochwel, prince of Powys, was hunting a hare with his dogs. In its desperation, the hare found this beautiful young lady wandering through the countryside, and took refuge under her cloak. The pack of hounds refused to go anywhere near the saintly Melangell, some howling and turning tail, some whimpering and lying down before her feet.

The prince was amazed to find a virgin of surpassing beauty, engaged in deep devotion, with the hare he had been pursuing under her robe, boldly facing the dogs. The Prince gifted her the valley of Pennant Melangell and she lived there, offering sanctuary and retreat to all who came.  She founded an abbey on the spot, and died abbess at a good old age.  Her tomb was in a little chapel, or oratory, adjoining to the church. 
I loved the carvings inside the church, especially the 15th Century oak screen with carvings that tell the story of Melangell and Prince Brochwel, and a fabulous series of stone carvings of the hare by the sculptor Meical Watts. 

But what we’d come to see, and be tranquil within, was the 12th Century shrine of Saint Melangell. Its stones are carved with Romanesque and Celtic motifs, and it contains what is said to originally have been the saint’s cell bed. Bones said to be those of the saint were deposited within the shrine. This was all were reassembled in the last century but it took a lot of fund-raising to eventually get the entire thing to be re-erected in the chancel at the back of the church. 

The church is now a Grade-I listed building. But more interesting to me, is that it sits in what is believed to be a Bronze Age site. In fact, Neolithic bones have been found on the site, which shows, as often is the case, that this sacred place had been used throughout time. I was overwhelmed by the ring of yew trees, planted before Christ was born, by people of the Iron Age...local druids, perhaps… These surround the churchyard. I spent a lot of meditative time in both saint's shrine, and under the trees, too.

Southey, when he visited the church in the 19th century wrote; 

And now I shall tell you why
It was proper that I 
Should go thither to spy
The place with mine own eye.
Tis a church in a vale,
Whereby hangs a tale,
How a hare being pressed,
By the dogs and much distressed,
The hunters coming nigh
And the dogs in full cry,
Looked about for someone to defend her,
And saw just in time
As it now come pat in rhyme,
A saint of the feminine gender.

To be honest, I don't think he'd had enough opium, that time…maybe he failed to sleep at the foot of Cader Idris!

For information about St Melegell's church and shrine, Click here for website

Monday, 7 November 2016

Creating Great Character Voices; Barbara Kingsolver's The Poinsonwood Bible

In the summer of 1959, the Price family carry everything they need on a lumbering plane and fly to the Belgian Congo to take up a missionary post in a village called Kilanga on the Kwilu River.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, (1988), follows three decades of their lives in postcolonial Africa. This, her fourth book, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. 
Barbara Kingsolver spent time in the Congo as a small girl "We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era," she says. For Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible is an “allegory of the captive witness. We've inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by
pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”

Writers talk a lot lately about ‘personal voice’.  Creating the voice of characters (often called 'persona') who feel realistic, authentic and engrossing is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Kingsolver says,… “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people…” It is, she adds, a "powerful craft; there's alchemy…"
Kingsolver has five independent and distinctive voices within this book. Each female member of the family narrates their story in turn. The magic trick Kingsolver achieves as a writer is to make their voices entirely original and independent of each other. When I read the book, this was the remarkable thing that struck me hardest. It was as if Kingsolver truly knew the five women whose stories she will tell.

Nathan Price is a fanatical missionary, with a rigid but simplistic religious code. Although devoted to saving souls, he’s abusive to his wife and daughters.
He first encounters the Poisonwood tree – the bangala – in his garden. Ignoring warnings from locals not to touch the plant, his arms painfully swell. But he has linguistic difficulties with this tree, too. In the native language the word "bangala" can mean "dearly beloved" if spoken slowly. If said fast, it means Poisonwood Tree. Nathan’s unwillingness to learn anything about the language is a symptom of his general cultural arrogance. On a weekly basis, he preaches that Jesus is a poisonwood tree which can cause intense pain and even death. His congregation sniggers, but Kingsolver seems to be saying that in the hands of people like Nathan, religious beliefs are poison, and that his missionary zeal did cause intense pain and even death.

The four daughters in the novel echo my favourite childhood read – Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (also loved by Kingsolver, of course!). In the erstwhile novel, the lives of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth are investigated deeply, especially their relationship with each other and their parents. In The Poisonwood Bible something similar, but darker and more penetrating, is explored
Orleanna Price married Nathan Price when she was seventeen and gave birth to three children in the space of two years. As they are shunted about the missionary world, she loses her spirit. By the time we meet her on the plane to Kilanga, it seems to me she’s entirely a passive vessel for her husband's will – although she hates the Congo.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason...The breathing of monkeys. The glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains...The forest eats itself and lives forever…
Rachel is her first-born daughter. From the extract below, which comes early in the novel, we can tell that Rachel is an unadulterated egomaniac, just as her father is, except she’s focused on the state of her appearance and her comfort, not her soul.
.…Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we set foot. We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned a big old prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove God had ensued us here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people surrounded us – Lordy! – in a chanting broil. Charmed, I’m sure. We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating [sic]bodies. What I should have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads…
Only slightly younger, and very gifted, are the identical twins, Adah and Leah. At birth, the left side of Adah’s body was paralyzed. She limps and is almost speechless, but her mind is acute, and it’s through her voice that a considerable amount of the book’s political scenes are related.
Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about...but mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as ‘Tata Price, you have trop de jolies filles – too many pretty daughters…Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: Kulwela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife. 
‘‘One of the girls, you mean,’ Mother said. She pulled on the nape of  Nelson’s T-shirt, extracting him from the stove so she might speak to him face to face. ‘You’re saying Tata Ddu wants to marry one of my daughters.’…
Compare this voice with that of  Adah’s healthy twin sister, Leah…
I prefer to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, burning the trash and weeding, while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such. Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father would bring over seeds in his pockets; Kentucky Wonder beans, croookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. We planned to make a demonstration garden from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle; an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes…
Ruth May is the youngest of the sisters, nine years junior to the twins. She is an impish child,  easily able to get into trouble. Kingsolver concentrates on penetrating the little girl’s mind, so that, although her thoughts are lisping and playful, we can glean a lot of the story's subtleties from her voice…Sometimes you just want to lay on down and look at the whole world sideways. Mama and I do. It feels nice. If I put my hed on her, the sideways world moves up and down. She goes; hth-huh. hth-huh. She’s soft on her tummy and the bosoms part…Sometimes I tell her; Mommy Mommy. I just say that. Father isn’t listening so I can say that...
Each voice has a further distinctive aspect. Ruth May invents her own language, Adah can read backward, Leah uses language to mimic her hero father, and Rachel consistently and unapologetically ‘malaprops’ her words.
When I opened the book and been to read, I imagined this would be a story about four young girls battling against their father’s growing madness and the alien world they’ve been thrust into – Little Women for the 21st century. But the story moves on and on…Ruth May dies from a snake bite and Orleanna finally musters the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters, although for the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt. Meanwhile, her surviving daughters flourish, in various ways.                                                                                                                      Although idealistic Leah worshiped her father, unlike him she is intelligent and compassionate. The realities of the Congo wears away her strong Christian faith. She marries a local man and throws herself into the fight for African independence. Rachel, you won’t be surprised to hear, chases  her dream of wealth and beauty. My favourite sister, Adah, has a surprising outcome, turning her life around after facing death one night. The three girls go in very different directions, but each of them remains haunted by their early life in Kilanga.
Go to Kingsolver's website to find out about her other books