To My Readers - Wherever and Whoever You Are

Dear Reader,
I've been thinking about you a lot recently. I've been thinking about where I may have been going wrong. And the one conclusion I've reached is that I could do better.

I don't mean the writing. I think the writing is probably as good as I can make it. Which is not to say that it doesn't have faults. I started my self publishing (ad)venture just over a year ago, but I've been writing, more or less successfully, for decades. And if that makes me sound old, it's because I'm ... old-ish. You can read about some of that writing history on my website, here.

The age bit is important only in that it has made me focus on the horribly swift passage of time. Publishing involves a lot of waiting, even when you have an agent.
Here's how it goes.

You wait for your agent to respond to your novel. He says he thinks it's wonderful, (yay!) but still sends four pages of suggested changes. You burn the midnight oil on rewrites.
Time passes.
He sends more suggestions. You burn more midnight oil and drink more coffee and hit 'send' on the rewritten version.
Time passes.You start something new. You wait. You become paranoid. But no news is good news. Right?
Three months later, you send a tentative email asking what's happening. He says he has been busy but he has asked a colleague to read the book.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
The colleague suggests drastic changes. Even your agent seems a bit phased. You throw a small wobbly, but because it has rocked your confidence you go over the whole thing for the zillionth time and make some more changes.
Your agent bites the bullet and sends out your novel.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
It is just before/during/after a major book fair and they are all busy. It is summer and they are away on holiday. It is autumn and they are involved with the run up to Christmas.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
Your novel finally manages to slide through one of the narrow windows of opportunity.
But the editor is busy so she farms it out to an intern.
Time passes.You carry on writing.
Finally, your poor, tired old novel creeps exhaustedly under the wire of editorial indifference.
The editor reads it. She says she loves it.
But she must consult elsewhere.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
Weeks later, she reports that she can't carry the sales team with her in the current climate.
Don't worry, says your agent. You worry.
Lots and lots of time passes. Lots of editors send you a series of ever more rave rejections.
You strike it lucky. You get a deal. You are demented with joy.
But, says the new editor, it needs some serious rewriting.
You burn the midnight oil. You drink more coffee. You hit send on the trillionth draft.
Then, the publishing schedule kicks in.
You wait two or three years before the book is in your hands and on the shelves.
Time passes and your life with it.

You can see how age becomes an issue, can't you? Well, it did for me, last year. I found myself with several completed and almost completed novels. People were telling me they wanted to read them. People I respected (editors included) were telling me they were good. But there was no deal on the horizon and it struck me that even if there was, the wait would be a long one.

So I decided to self publish on Kindle: three full length novels so far, as well as some short stories and a couple of play scripts. There are more to come: two more novels with another work in progress. I got through a lot of writing while all that time was passing! One of the books, The Curiosity Cabinet, had already been published in the usual way, but two of them are new. I've lived with these characters by day and dreamed about them at night. It's a lot like being in love: that same intense, obsessive interest, the way you can't get the beloved out of your mind. Their dilemmas kept me awake. Their joys made me smile and their tragedies made me cry.

So what do I mean when I say I 'could do better' ?
Well, I think it's this.
Writing is a solitary job, so most writers like to chat to other writers. Who better than another writer to understand where you're coming from - or where you wish you were going? We used to do it at conferences and meetings. We still do that. But now, we do it online as well.
Which means that sometimes, we find ourselves ignoring the people who really matter. And that's you, dear reader. You.
Naturally, our fellow writers do a lot of reading, so in a way, they are our readers too.
But I've begun to realise that I spend more time talking to writers about writing, than I do talking to readers about reading.
Yet as a reader, I love listening to writers talking about what inspired their books, where the ideas came from, what they feel about this or that character, what made them write the way they did, and why. I don't necessarily want to know about the nuts and bolts of it all. I just want to know more about the world of the book and what went into creating it.
As a writer, it's so lovely, so genuinely moving, to read reviews from completely unknown readers. It isn't just the praise - although that's nice too, of course, when it comes! But it's the feeling that somebody has 'got' what you were trying to say, that somebody has understood in a very special way, has been able to enter into your imaginary world and share it and take pleasure from it.
I know not all writers agree with me. I know that if most of us are honest, when we're actually writing, we don't think about our readers much, because we're too engrossed in the story and that makes us selfish.
But quite soon after that, the reader becomes very important indeed. Talking to people who have also been engrossed in the story, is one of the things I love most about this weird and wonderful job called writing .
I think I need to do more of that and I think I need to do it better. 

Bird of Passage on Kindle - Disturbing to Read - and to Write.

Cover art precisely reflecting the themes of the novel - by Matt Zanetti 

If you're reading this on 10th or 11th May 2012, you can download my novel, Bird of Passage, free to your Kindle or Kindle App, here in the UK or here in the USA.

To be honest with you, although I'm very fond of this novel, very fond of its central characters, Finn and Kirsty, even I don't know what particular genre it belongs in. So I don't think I can complain too much that mainstream publishers couldn't seem to place it either. It's a mid-list novel, for sure and it's on the literary end of the mid-list. But that doesn't mean it's difficult to read. I hope the story is strong enough to carry you along.  It's contemporary fiction, but the story spans many years. It's a love story, but it also deals with the shocking realities - and the aftermath - of state sanctioned physical abuse in 1960s Ireland, which makes it a serious and challenging read.

The story of Finn and Kirsty begins in 1960s Scotland. Young Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to work at the potato harvest and soon forms a close friendship with Kirsty Galbreath, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter. But Finn is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly. What happened at the brutal Industrial School to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there, and what became of the mother he lost. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. 

The novel is as much about the crippling psychological effects of physical cruelty as anything else. I've realised that even I, as a writer, found myself reluctant to tackle these aspects of Finn's story. (And even since publication, I realise I've been reluctant to talk and write about them.) I knew that I didn't want to turn this into a 'misery memoir'. But Finn, as he presented himself to me right from the start, seemed like a profoundly damaged individual. And it was quite a long time before I could bring myself to get inside his mind and find out exactly what had happened to him. It became even more disturbing when I found out what really had happened to so many people, when I found out - distressingly - the stories that lay behind those men you sometimes see in UK cities, Irish construction workers or older men now that time has passed, solitary souls, unable to form close relationships and sometimes reliant on alcohol to see them through each evening. Strangely, this reluctance of mine seems to be mirrored in the character of Finn himself who can't remember exactly what happened during his childhood, having buried it so deeply, because it was so damaging.

If this makes it a disturbing read - and I think in many ways it does - then it also made it a disturbing book to write. I found the character of Finn and his history so absorbing that I would constantly wake up in the night, thinking about him, trying to figure out why he was behaving in this way, and what might have happened to make him like this. It strikes me that writers don't always, or even often, manipulate plot and character. Sometimes our characters manipulate us. Finn was relentless.

From some of the  UK reviews, I can see that men have appreciated this novel as much as women. It has an island setting in part but much of the story of Bird of Passage also takes place in Ireland and on the Scottish mainland. It has a rural setting, but many key events take place in cities.

My friend and colleague, Dr David Manderson, of the University of the West of Scotland, reviewed it in these terms: It's not just a cracking read, it's a genuinely powerful one, and once you stumble over the great love story at its centre you won't be able to put this book down. There's real pain here and many different kinds of healing, few of them nice. A story that like Wuthering Heights has as many harsh and knotted bits as deliciously sweet ones, you will be taken to a different world by it, but one as real as your own.'  Writing in the Indie eBook Review, Gilly Fraser says 'There are no pat answers in this story and no neatly contrived solutions. Endings are jagged, situations remain unresolved. Yet at the end of the book, there is a feeling of satisfaction that things did work out as they should - at least to some extent.' 

There have been other reviews, most of them by people I don't know at all, one of them calling the novel,  'A breathtaking read.'  To which I can only say, thank-you, whoever you are - and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, if enjoy is the right word! As writers, we tend to write for ourselves. How else could we spend so much time absorbed in the world of each book or play?  But very soon after completion - if we're honest - I think that most of us want desperately to communicate with other people, our readers. We want to show them the world we have created, to introduce them to the people who have become so very real to us. And we love to hear that they too have become absorbed in the world of the novel - even when that world is by no means a comfortable one.  Finally, when I was looking for a cover for the eBook, I discussed the story and its background with digital artist Matt Zanetti. After a little while, he produced the cover above. It wasn't what I expected. It wasn't quite what we had discussed. But it took my breath away in that it so precisely reflected the themes of the novel: the lonely corncrake, the themes of solitude, imprisonment and a yearning for something better. 

Catherine Czerkawska 

Piracy and Pricing: A Hot Topic. (And I don't just mean Johnny Depp)

I've been thinking about opening this particular can of worms for some time, but have held back, mostly because some of my friends have very definite views on the topic, and I know it's contentious. Some of the arguments on Facebook become so heated that the screen practically explodes. Also, I can see both sides of the debate.

Somewhere online, there's a BBC Radio Play of mine which has been streamed by a pirate site. It's a play called Tam O' Shanter, and it was broadcast to mark a Burns Anniversary. You can download it for free, if you like. People occasionally get indignant on my behalf but I find it very hard to get hot under the collar about it. I've been paid for it, the BBC are never going to repeat it and if they do decide to repeat it on 4 Extra, my share of the dibs will be unbelievably tiny.

When my son's video game development company, Guerilla Tea, recently released their new game, The Quest, onto various platforms, they remarked that it was being pirated almost as soon as it was released. They didn't seem too bothered about it. Not half as bothered as most writers are when their books are pirated in foreign parts. Not half as bothered,  if I'm honest, as I would be if my novels were pirated.

Now most writers seem to think that the comparison is bogus, since a small and inexpensive video game download is easily made. They've bought into the media's fondness for tales of the geeky - but mythical - teen working alone in his bedroom, to develop a prizewinning game.  In truth, it takes several people many months or even years of hard work and is almost certainly the equivalent of a novel, perhaps more than a novel, since the developers need expensive software in order to be able to release the game onto certain platforms. So why are the GT lads far more laid back about piracy than me and my writer friends?

'There's no way it equates to lost sales,' one of them told me. 'The people who are downloading pirated copies are never going to buy it anyway. If they were, at this low price, they would just buy it. And it certainly helps to spread the word.' I'm told that developers have been known to contact the pirates to say 'cool - but if you play it and like it, give us a positive review.'

The key here seems to have something to do with price. Cheap mobile games are the norm. Overly cheap books tend to signal 'amateur'. And perhaps the markets are simply smaller. The evidence within the games industry suggests that if you won't buy a download for 69p, with the possibility of upgrades and support, ('added value') you're not going to pay for a download at all. With conventionally published eBooks often sold at such high prices, piracy may well make a difference. Although the same logic may apply. Piracy will have no effect on sales since those who pirate would seldom if ever pay £9.99 for a download. Which leads me to another thought. Neither would I.  £5.00 is my cut-off for a download. I've paid more than that but only very occasionally.

Publishers can talk till they are blue in their collective faces about the associated costs, but the fact remains that in a world where you can download a complex game which has had to meet certain criteria, for a couple of pounds, and an album for a fiver, very few people are going to be persuaded to pay more than that for a book. Indie publishers have taken this on board. Actually, many indie publishers do charge too little. The 99p book - unless it's obviously short, or very light - a novella, a handful of stories, a guide to something or other, a small collection of essays - is beginning to stand out as the work of a rookie. £2.99 or £3.99 is low enough for an impulse buy - not much more than the price of a latte - not so steep that you back off and think about it. (Which generally means that you won't buy it.)

But there's no use in us digging in our heels, taking a moral stance, screaming 'death to all pirates' and refusing to engage with the world as it is. They may well be thieves and vagabonds but when you're in the middle of the ocean with no gunboat in sight, you'd better have an alternative strategy, because shouting at them to go away is never going to work.

One possible solution may be to add value, just as video game developers do. There's a fashion for wailing 'but authors can't do this!' But if you stop and think about it, authors can and already do engage with their readers. They write interesting (and free) blog posts about the background to their books, they have Facebook pages, they give readings and talks, they do reviews and make recommendations and tweet about all kinds of things. These are the extras that will make your potential reader click on the purchase button. If they prefer to download from an illegal site, with all the added hazards to their own PCs or laptops, then they were probably never going to be a paying customer anyway.

What do you think? But let's have a nice clean fight, shall we?

Karol Kossak, My Romantic Hero

Great Uncle Karol Kossak
Recently, I did a guest interview for Rosemary Gemmell's excellent Reading and Writing blog. Rosemary asked me about researching my new novel, The Amber Heart and wondered how much my Polish background had informed the writing of this book. It brought to mind all over again, my charming great uncle Karol Kossak - that's him above, trying to squeeze his immensely long legs into a small horse drawn vehicle!
Karol was married to my Polish grandfather's elder sister, Wanda Czerkawska. There were five children in the family: Zbigniew and Boguslaw, Wanda, Ludmilla and my grandfather Wladyslaw. All of them, except Great Aunt Wanda, fell victim to the war in one way and another. The two elder brothers died in some border skirmish. Ludmilla, pretty, flighty and flirtatious, married a Polish army officer but was imprisoned in Auschwitz and died there. Wladyslaw was imprisoned by Stalin, released, and died of typhus on a long, enforced march East. Wanda met and married Karol Kossak before the war - he and my grandfather were good friends. Karol wasa younger member of a family of distinguished Polish artists, of which Juliusz and Wojciech Kossak are perhaps the best known. They painted battle scenes, were fabulous equestrian artists and all in all were a fascinating, if slightly Bohemian family.

My dad, who was demobbed in the UK after the war and stayed as a refugee, finally managed to get in touch with some of his family through the Red Cross. This was years later, after he had met and married my mother, and quite a long time after I was born. His mother died not long after this, but he stayed in touch with the Kossak side of the family.
I went to Warsaw by train when I was in my twenties to visit Karol and Wanda, who were living in a small spa town called Ciechocinek, and their daughter Teresa, who was living in Warsaw and working as an animator.We had to cross East Germany to get there, and the guards came aboard with dogs and guns! Karol was like a throwback to another age. I had never met anyone quite like him. Later, I saw a production of the Merry Widow in Vienna, and - as I told Rosemary - Count Danilo reminded me irresistibly of him. Karol was utterly charming. He would take me out walking or for rides in the horse drawn droshkis that were used as taxis in the town where they lived. The drivers would all doff their hats to him. We would go to cafes for coffee and cognac and he would draw little sketches on paper napkins for me - I have them still. He would kiss my hand and generally behave exactly as a romantic hero should. I think I was in love with him, even though he was in his eighties.
My Polish was about as bad as his English so we spoke in French which I could manage - and which he had spoken in pre war Poland.  He told me stories about the grandfather I had never known - how he was a 'ladies' man' - how he laughed a lot, was fond of practical jokes, was generous, brave and an excellent horseman, one of the last of the Polish Lancers.
When I came home, I wrote poems about Karol, and then a couple of radio plays reflecting my Polish background, but I always knew that eventually I would write a historical novel, or perhaps more than one, set in Poland. The Amber Heart is that novel and Karol found his way into it as Julian – the heroine’s delightful brother-in-law.

But sometimes, a poem still says it all - and here's the poem I wrote for Karol, not long after I came back from Poland.

I remember
talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There's no cure for it.
Though I hurtle through youth
for love of him
he’s gone too far before. 

If you find yourself reading this blog on 23rd or 24th April, you can get a FREE download of the novel, on Amazon Kindle, in honour of World Book Night. If you look at the Authors Electric Blog, you'll find an interesting and eclectic mix of experienced and award winning writers, all of whom have decided to go for Indie Publishing in one form or another.

Snakes and Ladders

New on Kindle!
The howls of anguish over eBook publishing continue. Surprisingly, rather a lot of them are orchestrated by a handful of youngish writers and 'cutting edge' publishers. What's even more surprising is how quickly the literary rebels, the enfants terribles of a couple of years ago, seem to have mutated into ultra conservative young fogeys - which seems a pity in writers whose work I've admired.
One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the élite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. It seems that now, we are faced with a backlash from a small group of intellectuals who feel similarly threatened by a new method of delivery which threatens their exclusivity.
What phases me, though, is the reiterated statement that this new regime will mean less money for writers. I keep wondering which writers they have in mind, since - with a very few exceptions, winners in the blockbuster  lottery - every writer of my acquaintance has found him or herself better off under the new regime.
It's tempting to conclude that at least some of these writers who are complaining have had a reasonably smooth passage into publishing. Maybe they even secured decent advances. But as any older writer could have told them, for the vast majority of mid-list writers, life is more like a game of Snakes and Ladders than a box of chocolates, and most of those snakes have no respect for talent. Your counter hits the square, and down you go.
This also helps to explain why so many of us oldies are embracing the digital revolution with such enthusiasm. We and our colleagues have become disillusioned with the process of submission, enthusiastic response, extreme delay and ultimate disappointment, because the 'sales department remembers that something similar, five years ago, wasn't just as successful as they thought it was going to be.'
This kind of nonsense isn't just frustrating. It actually interferes with the creative process. You lose all enjoyment in the act of writing, because you're invariably trying to tailor your work to suit an ever shifting set of demands. I have wasted years of good writing time trying to negotiate with this world, trying to get the whole damn industry to treat me and my fellow writers not as humble supplicants, but as professional business partners.
Recently, at a conference, a participant asked me, 'How do you manage without all the support and promotion of a publisher.'
Cue hollow laugh.
Professional editing, design and promotion can all be bought in. Of these, I'd say that editing and design probably should be bought in.  If you still find yourself making mistakes, at least they are your own, honest mistakes. This is never as frustrating as the experience of handing over large chunks of equity in your intellectual property in return for some hypothetical 'respect', only to find yourself being let down time after time by the very people you trusted to do their best for you. Loyalty cuts both ways.

Publication Day, at Last

Cover image by Claire Maclean
There was a day last week, when I began to wonder if I would ever get The Amber Heart onto Kindle as I had promised myself - and a lot of other people -  before the end of March. I had been through it so many times, so many edits, big and small, that I have quite literally lost count.. 
The Amber Heart must have run to hundreds of drafts! Agents and editors had read it. Suggestions had been made and accepted or rejected. Years had gone by. But enough is enough and here it is. At long, long last.
I first began to research this story almost thirty years ago. It was loosely inspired by some episodes from my own family history, most particularly the information that my father's widowed grandmother had had an affair with her estate manager on those wild Eastern Borderlands of Poland where they lived. Researching this intriguing episode of family history and pinning down some dates, I realised something that not even my father had understood: that she had been a fairly young and wealthy widow, when Julian Czerkawski, a rich and distinguished relative of her late husband, died, unexpectedly. He had been both a Polish representative to the Austro Hungarian parliament, and a doctor. His death was premature in that he was stabbed by an intruder, and died of his injuries some days later. Childless and unmarried, he had left his estate to her youngest son, my grandfather, who was then only eight years old. She would, of course, have had to appoint somebody to manage the estate until my grandfather,Wladyslaw, was old enough to take possession - would have travelled back and forth between the two houses. And so an affair began...

Wladyslaw Czerkawski
The story in the Amber Heart is set much earlier, in mid-nineteenth century Poland, but all the same, the relationship intrigued me and some of it found its way into the central relationship of the novel which is a story of strong mutual physical attraction. Somewhere in my remote family history is an old aristocrat who had outlived many wives, fathered many children -  and died in a riding accident while in his eighties. And he too has found his way into the novel, albeit in highly fictionalised form! Back in the nineteen eighties, when the first drafts of this novel were written, my then agent, the late great Pat Kavanagh, did her level best to sell it. But we kept being told that 'nobody is interested in Poland.'  The feedback on the book itself was wonderful but it fell at every marketing hurdle because of its Polish setting. She told me she was deeply frustrated by it. But I knew that if she couldn't sell it, nobody could.

Which is why I'm now letting it take its chances on Kindle. I'm hoping that somebody out there might be 'interested in a novel set in Poland' - and even if you don't care where it's set - I hope there are elements about this big story that will move you, regardless of time and place.

Makowiec - Poppy Seed Cake - A Polish Christmas Cake

I know Christmas is long past, but Makowiec - which is a sort of poppy seed roll  - probably counts as my favourite cake in all the world, and not long ago, somebody asked me if I might be posting any Polish recipes on this site. I will - after all, food looms quite large in the Amber Heart - and here's the first of many. You can make it for Easter, instead of Christmas. But it's a bit of a cheat, really.Polish cuisine (and Austrian too) uses poppy seeds not just in bread, but in a variety of desserts and cakes. As in Austria, many of their cakes and pancakes and pastries involve yeast as a raising and lightening agent. I once spent Christmas in Warsaw with my Polish relatives. All the food was excellent, but it was the poppy seed cake, aromatic and delicious and strange, which I remembered more than anything else - the poppy seed cake which still seems to me to be the 'taste of Poland.' Sadly, it's hard to find and difficult to bake. Or it was, until very recently.

But now, Polish delis are springing up all over the place - we have one in Ayr called The Polish Cottage, and occasionally you'll find a piece of Makowiec in their chill cabinet. I browse around this shop a lot, listening to people chatting in Polish, reading the labels (they stock some of the best jam I've ever tasted) and sampling the salamis, But it was only on my most recent visit that I spotted the can pictured above and realised that you can now buy the filling for poppy seed cake ready made - a filling which was always tricky to make, involving cooking and grinding something that's impossibly fine anyway! This is a can of 'poppy seed mass' with ground seeds, orange flavouring and a few other things. I know it's a bit of a cop out, but I couldn't resist it. I haven't made my 'instant' Makowiec yet, but I will. And meanwhile - here's the recipe for the characteristic yeast pastry which you'll need to contain the seeds.

Cream 2 oz fresh yeast with 3 tablespoons of cream, sour cream if you can get it, and a teaspoon or two of sugar. Leave aside in a warm place until it begins to bubble a little.
Rub 6 oz of butter into 1lb of plain flour sifted with a scant half teaspoon of salt.  Add 2 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar, and then work in the yeast, two whole eggs beaten with one or two egg yolks (eggs vary in size) a teaspoon of vanilla essence and (if necessary) a little milk. Work the dough well, by hand. It shouldn't be too stiff or too wet but like a soft pastry. You can add a little grated orange peel if you wish.
Roll it out thinly into a rectangle on a lightly floured board. Spread the poppyseed filling evenly (and quite thickly) over the dough, leaving a margin all round of about an inch or so. Then roll up carefully and seal the edges with a little milk or beaten egg. Transfer this to an oblong buttered pan (you can line it with foil if you wish) and allow to rise for an hour or so. Pierce the dough once or twice with a skewer to prevent it from splitting. Then bake in a medium oven for about 45 minutes. It should be brown and well risen.

This recipe, incidentally, comes from a wonderful old book called Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the table, by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, which is crammed not just with excellent recipes, but with lots of fascinating information about Polish history and cuisine.You can use this pastry for all kinds of other things - especially those wonderful Austrian pastries with plum jam and cream cheese. And you can buy that rich plum jam - more like a plum butter than a jam - in your local Polish deli too.

eBay and the eBook Revolution

About six years ago, when I was working as Royal Literary Fund 'Writing Fellow' at a university in Scotland, (helping students purely with their academic writing) one of my students, studying Commercial Music, remarked, 'You know, you writers should be doing what musicians like me are doing. Forget big publishing. Just find some way of getting the work out there yourselves.'
At that time, eBook Readers were available, but not yet the phenomenon they would soon become. After a writing career so checkered with success and failure that you could have made it into a board and played a game of chess on it, I agreed with her, but I couldn't see how to do it. It wasn't just that musicians could do gigs and get paid - in fact it wasn't even that, since as any musician will tell you, they don't get paid very much and besides, I already did get the occasional 'gig'. My RLF Fellowship was an extended and wonderfully supportive gig.
But although there were all kinds of ways for musicians to get their music 'out there', I didn't yet see how the same might apply to writers. 
Back then, I had just read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (if you haven't read it, go and get it now!) and it made sense to me. But I had become frustrated at being cast in the role of humble supplicant by my own industry, an industry that seemed to have grown complacent over the years, an industry that increasingly disrespected the talent upon which it was forced to rely.
My 'day job' - the work that bought me time to write - was, and still is, an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, mostly selling antique and vintage textiles. I had always had an interest in such things, and had started out by trying to sell them at antique markets, but it was a thankless task. Then I discovered eBay and realised that here was a technology company providing me with the tools to do the job, worldwide. Soon, I was selling embroidered tablecloths to Australia and vintage linen sheets to fashionable New York addresses. Over time, I built up a nice little business and it's one which I can manage so that it fits in with my writing. When I'm snowed under with writing work - like now, when I'm deep into final edits on a new novel - I can wind it down. When I badly need some extra income, I can work like a Trojan and increase my turnover. I can take advantage of seasonal spikes, such as Christmas. But most of all, I think, my eBay experiences gave me a sense of how to run an online business, how to become friends with my customers, how to add value, package nicely, enclose pretty postcards, and write a blog to give people the extra information they enjoy.
It was only when I tried to apply these same lessons to my writing business that I found myself meeting a brick wall of indifference - not from readers, I hasten to add. When I could interact with them, they were appreciative. But from the layer upon layer of gatekeepers who seemed to have interposed themselves between me and those same readers.
I had an agent, I had a decent publishing and production track record, I had work waiting to go, but in spite of all kinds of praise from editors, my work was generally rejected at the 'sales' stage. I was routinely told that it was 'not linguistically experimental enough to be literary' but 'not quite fitting any genre, so we don't know how to market this.' God help my innocence, I even approached one or two Scottish publishers with the suggestion that a more businesslike relationship should be possible. This met with a disapproving silence. Not the way they worked at all. How dare I?
Until Amazon came along and brought technology to bookselling instead of vice versa.
The parallels with eBay are irresistible. You'll find the shysters and the incompetents on there - of course you will. But you'll also find millions of efficient small-to-medium sized businesses, from sole traders to online incarnations of known names, most of them giving excellent customer service, backed by a superb search facility.
Here's a very ordinary example.
Recently, we realised that the wheels on our shower doors had worn away. A plethora of local bricks- and-mortar businesses shook their heads, with that loud indrawn breath that is peculiar to sales people, and suggested that a new cabinet was the only option.
Five minutes on eBay, one digital picture sent to a seller - and a packet of new wheels arrived by the next post.
Last night, I came across a superb essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, characterising the way in which publishing is changing. It's called 'Scarcity and Abundance' and it should be required reading for publishers and writers everywhere. Essentially, it's a piece about mindsets. And the analogy could be extended to include the way in which our High Streets function (or increasingly don't function.) My local 'bathroom supplies' shops,with their beautiful glossy showrooms, were in a 'scarcity' mindset and sliding door wheels did not loom large for them. eBay, on the other hand, with its unlimited shelf space and abundant individual small businesses, could allow me to find the handful of suppliers in the UK who specialised in such things and - moreover- an individual who knew his stock well enough to be able to identify my requirements from a single digital picture. The wheels were not cheap, and I'll bet he's making decent profits - but they were a hell of a lot cheaper than a new cabinet and I was one happy customer.
All of which makes me think that the young literary writers who choose to see the eBook revolution as some kind of capitalist plot to ruin publishing couldn't be more wrong. One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the √©lite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. A plethora of recent Guardian pieces (and - with a few notable exceptions - their comments) have all taken this remarkably superior stance. For a more balanced picture, you have to go to the technical pages. No doubt the bathroom showrooms feel exactly the same about eBay, even though it is entirely open to them to embrace digital, and set up an online store as well. But that would also mean embracing the mindset of unlimited shelf-space, of abundance, of trusting the abilies of people to search for what they want, coupled with the benefits of good - really good, not just adequate - programming.
A coder friend once told me that when most conventional businesses go digital, they don't understand the difference between an excellent programmer and a merely adequate programmer. All programmers are the same to them. The results are potentially disastrous and you can see them every day in clunky websites that are frustrating to use. Technology companies such as Amazon, eBay, DropBox and so on, always realise this and employ the best.
Above all, embracing the digital revolution means trusting the customer to know what he or she wants. And for most traditional publishers (although not, it seems, for writers) that seems to be a bridge too far.
Of which, more in my next post.

Bird of Passage, on Kindle

My Inspirational Polish Dad - Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski

My late mother used to tell the story of how, as a young woman in postwar Leeds, she went into a local shop where a casual acquaintance said to her, 'Now that the war is over, I think that they ought to send all those Poles back, don't you?'
'Not really,' said my Leeds Irish mum. 'You see, I've just married one.'
The one she had 'just married' was my lovely dad, Julian Czerkawski.

My grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski

Dad was very young when war broke out. That's him, the toddler with the girly hair, at the very top of this post, with his rather aristocratic parents, Lucia and Wladyslaw. I always think my grandfather, whom I never met, looks like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. I only have two pictures of him, but I love that wavy hair, those wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, that clear, direct and somewhat daunting gaze. I wish I had known him but - although we didn't know it at the time, because he had simply disappeared in the war  - he was dead long before I was born.
There's my dad again,  just a little later, on the right, in his velvet 'Lord Fauntleroy' suit and wrinkled tights, looking much more boyish.The billy goat was called Goat, plain and simple, and for some reason he loathed women. He would chase and butt any woman who ventured into his paddock. Lucia - plump and pretty - was afraid of him, but he rather liked Julian. Poland was, of course, caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of Joe Stalin. If one of them didn't get you, the other did. My grandfather was imprisoned under Stalin, released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but sent - as so very many Poles were - on the debilitating long march east across Russia, to join the army units on the Persian border. Like so many Polish soldiers, (and so many civilians too) he died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road.

My father, meanwhile,  had been through a string of deeply harrowing experiences, but eventually he had made his way to England, via Italy, with a Polish tank unit, as part of the British Army. He was initially stationed at Duncombe Park near Helmsley in Yorkshire, and when he was demobbed, he worked for a while as a textile presser at a mill near Leeds. The choice of jobs for refugees was strictly limited at that time: mills or mines, and no arguments.

While there, he met, courted and married my mum, Kathleen, (on the right of this picture, holding my hand - her elder sister, my Aunt Vera, is on the left) and soon after that, he went to nightschool and began studying the sciences which he loved. Had the war not intervened, he was destined to be trained as an artist, by his uncle-by-marriage, distinguished Polish watercolourist, Karol Kossak. Julian dabbled in art all his life, and it remained a much loved hobby for him, although he always doubted if he could have made a career of it.
Me and my dad. Note my ringlets. I think I look like something from the 1920s or 30s - but dad was always handsome!

By the time my father retired, many years later, he was a distinguished biochemist with a double doctorate - a DSc as well as a PhD. He always wore his learning lightly, was the perfect gentleman, the best dad a daughter could wish for and in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that he had suffered in the war, he was never bitter.

Perhaps because dad had married an English speaker, and perhaps because of his background, which was rather cosmopolitan, we were only on the fringes of the Polish community in Leeds. I remember wearing a traditional Polish costume, with embroidery and ribbons. I remember eating Polish food - my best friend at school was Polish too. But we seldom went to the Polish club. Because he was studying, dad wanted to learn English as quickly and as well as he could so - to my great regret - I didn't learn to speak anything but the most basic Polish.

All the same, dad had a fund of stories - and he told me all about the Poland of his childhood. He had been the son of a landowner, who had an old estate at a place called Dziedzilow, near the ancient city of Lwow. The family even had a coat of arms (oddly enough, it includes a goat!) It all seemed strange and enticing: nothing like my typically working class Yorkshire childhood. For me, back then, and for many years after, the Poland of my imagination was as exotic and enchanting as a place in a fairy tale - and with the same faint air of unreality. I knew that I wanted to write about it. In fact, I did write a couple of radio plays set in Poland, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But I wanted to tackle something much longer, and I thought even then that it would be a novel. I began to research the background material many years ago, and one of the main sources of inspiration for me was my father. After he retired, I asked him to put down everything he could remember of his early life in Dziedzilow. I have his notebooks and sketches still. By the time he was born, the old manor house, which inspired a somewhat embellished Lisko, in my novel, was long gone, burned down in some previous conflict, although the cellars and ice house were still there. The family lived in what had once been the old Steward's House. The landscape of Lisko, in the novel, is the landscape my father described to me. This may be one reason why writing The Amber Heart was such a pleasure - it was written straight from my heart!

Dad, in his father's car - the only car in the district

The Amber Heart - an epic tale of love and loss in 19th century Poland.

Painting by Juliusz Kossak

A beautiful, butter-yellow mansion.
A spirited heroine.
A troubled hero.

When Maryanna Diduska first meets Piotro Bandura, they are both children, but their situations could not be more different. Maryanna is the pampered daughter of Polish aristocrats, while Piotro is the child of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian widow.

Stefan took a pouch from his jacket and, with a laugh, scattered coins, as though scattering grain, watching them spread out and dive, hunting among grasses, squabbling volubly, fighting for what they could find like so many starlings. But one of them didn’t move. He was the tallest and the oldest, a boy of perhaps eleven, his hair black and matted, his face sallow under the grime, his eyes an unexpectedly bright cornflower blue. He stood still, hands hanging by his sides, fists clenched, and he stared up at Maryanna, unsmiling, unmoving. She shifted uneasily. For perhaps the first time in her life, she saw a gaze of pure resentment directed straight at herself. She turned her head into her father’s jacket.
‘Daddy, tell the boy not to look at me,’ she whispered.

But this is also the tale of the beautiful house of Lisko, Maryanna’s beloved childhood home, and the way in which the lives of its inhabitants will be disrupted by the turmoil of the times.

Out on Kindle, before the end of March 2012, The Amber Heart is a vivid, dramatic and unashamedly romantic story of love and loyalty, of personal tragedy and triumph, set against an intriguing backdrop: the turbulent Eastern Borderlands of 19th century Poland.

The first draft of this novel was written many years ago, while my Polish father was still alive. He was the best dad anyone could ever wish for and the book is dedicated to him. The novel was praised by my agent at the time, the late Pat Kavanagh, and then by countless editors. 'I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night reading it. I wept buckets!' wrote one of them, before adding that she would have to turn it down. You see, The Amber Heart always fell at the sales and marketing hurdle. 'Nobody knows about Poland!' they would say.

Over the years, I've gone back to it from time to time and - rereading it - have realised that it has stood the test of time. Now, a few other people have read it and said the same thing. I've worked on it, of course, honed it, polished it, responded to some useful editorial suggestions and brought the benefit of my own greater maturity to the story. The advent of eBook publishing has finally allowed me publish this novel which, of all the things I have ever written, has been closest to my heart. So many of the elderly Polish people who generously helped me with research for this novel are dead and gone. But they have left me with a great mass of interesting material in the shape of documents, photographs, postcards, diaries and first hand accounts, not least the notebooks my late father filled with stories and sketches of the Poland he remembered.

My dad.

If you read the Amber Heart, and are intrigued by the background to the book, you'll find more to entertain you here. Over the coming months, I'll be mining all that fascinating background information to write the occasional post about pre-war Polish history, customs and traditions, costume, arts and crafts, and food. Whatever takes my fancy, really. I'll even post a few recipes.
I hope you find it entertaining, and that you might  like to join in with your own comments.

What Would Make Me Go Back to My High Street Bookshop?

I've always loved books. The way in which this house is positively stuffed with them is evidence of that. Periodically, I decide to have 'a bit of a clear-out'. Then I go to a library or car-boot sale and come home with replacements. I have a big collection of books about textiles and costume, mostly discovered at library sales. They aren't terribly valuable, although they would be difficult to find anywhere else. But over the past few years, I've found myself buying almost all my new books from Amazon, and now I download even more of them straight to my Kindle. I read a lot more but buy fewer and fewer new 'dead tree books'.
Don't let anyone persuade you that Kindle is only for 'light reads'. Actually, Kindle is brilliant for the really heavy reads. I read Nicolas Nickleby on my Kindle over the Christmas holidays, even though I have a nicely bound copy of it sitting on my bookshelves.
It was easy to hold and easy to read. And I felt exactly the same way about this wonderful novel as I did when I was reading that 'real' book. Except that I seemed to read with even more total absorption in the contents, if that were possible.
But on World Book Day, I've been thinking about why I frequent my local bookshop less and less, and what might make me go back to this or - even better - to a small independent bookshop.
Partly, it's where I live. We're deep in the countryside and it's easier to buy online. And if I can't find what I want on Amazon itself, I can usually find it from a small bookseller on the same site.
I go 'into town' once a week on average, but I don't browse around the shops very much because the High Street of our nearest town is - not to put too fine a point on it - awful. It's dirty and scruffy and full of empty shops and charity shops, dog pooh, chewing gum and human spit. You may think that's because people like me no longer shop there much and you may have a point. But it's more complicated than that. Because once upon a time, my husband and I had a small shop in the centre of town, selling crafts and pottery. Our turnover was pretty huge. If we had told anyone at the time what it was, they would have thought we were living the life of Riley. But we soon realised that we were working all the hours that God sent and earning very little.When we had paid everyone else: suppliers, fuel and accommodation for buying trips, astronomical rent and rates, electricity, phone, VAT, accountant, there was almost nothing left over for ourselves.
So after a few years, we got out of it. The customers were there at that time - but the overheads were so vast that the game just wasn't worth the candle any more.
I doubt if that situation has improved.
Our single bookshop has had a checkered past, and I remember when it was the Big Bad Wolf which came along and ousted the lovely indie bookstore, where the staff not only knew all about their stock, but also knew their customers too. Now the Big Bad Wolf is running scared of the even Bigger Badder Wolf - well forgive me if I'm a little less than sympathetic.
A couple of years ago, a friend and fellow writer said  'Is it just me, or do you go into a bookshop these days and find literally nothing you really want to read?'
I found myself agreeing with him. I thought I had got picky in my old age. But perhaps not. At  least at Waterstones they have got rid of the three for two offers where you could never find a third book you wanted. But those tables still tend to be a mix of celebrity bios, cookery books and television tie-ins, the shelves full of a narrow range of heavily promoted titles. And even if something 'different' is well reviewed in one of the Sundays, you can bet you won't find it in your local store. I could name at least three titles I expected to find in my local shop last year - well reviewed books by Scottish writers - but they would have had to be ordered.
So in an effort to be positive I've started thinking about what would make me go back to my High Street Bookshop.
Here's my personal list:
1 An eclectic mix of popular and unusual books: some currently well reviewed titles, plus a genuinely personal choice from whoever is managing and working in the shop - and who is prepared to talk about books to the customers. Maybe even a good deal of 'local' specialisation, according to the siting of the shop. I suppose I'm looking for the equivalent of the local deli!
2 A second hand and antiquarian section - not 'nearly new' books such as charity shops stock - but genuine out-of-print and collectable books.
3 A coffee shop: one that's comfortable, informal and friendly with good tea as well as cakes and sandwiches.
4 Lots of evening and possibly even weekend events (preferably with the coffee shop remaining open and not firmly closed): readings, talks, question-and-answer panels, signings, workshops - in other words, a bookshop as a resource for all those people in the community, and there are lots of them, who are interested in writing and writers and a wide variety of subjects about which writers might write, fiction and non-fiction alike, properly promoted, not just the occasional celebrity piloted in. We already have a cafe in the town which does this kind of thing and does it well - but why not a bookshop?
5 Short queues. In Glasgow's Borders, I often used to browse, take my book to the check-out, take one look at the queue snaking around the shop, put the book down and go home and order it from Amazon instead.

One thing I don't want is to buy downloads for my eReader in my local bookshop. Why would I? Any more than I would buy an app or a game for my phone in a mobile phone shop.
But if my local independent bookshop was truly local - a friendly place, a resource for me as both reader and writer, a place where I could browse and buy old and new books, drink coffee with friends, listen to writers talking about their craft - if they built that, I would most certainly come and carry on coming to it, several times a month.

I'm aware that all of this is what's known as a 'big ask'. But I'm also aware of one or two bookshops and book cafes in Scotland which seem to be doing just this, and thriving.
What do you think? Feel free to add you own thoughts below!

Story Is King - How eBook Publishing Inspired Me To Hone My Storytelling Skills

Bird of Passage

At some point over the Christmas viewing marathon of the last few months, somewhat prolonged because of the appalling weather (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Casablanca,  ET, Singin’ in the Rain – I was doing that alright -  Brief Encounter, thank God we didn’t have a power cut) I distinctly remember hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber say ‘story is king’ and although I have some reservations about the ALW bandwagon, I found myself in broad agreement with him. Which might have come as something of a surprise to the writer I thought I was, even five years ago.

I don’t know when this all began for me, but I suspect it was post millennium, when my previous literary agent was struggling to place a new novel with various publishers who were all telling her how it was ‘wonderfully written, but too quiet’ and no, they couldn’t possibly market it in the current difficult climate.’ That difficult climate, incidentally, seems to have been current for an awful long time and predates the recession by some years. I was lamenting my fate on a message board when a colleague pointed out (sympathetically) that publishers were always looking for the holy grail of wonderful writing allied to a stonking great story, but if they couldn’t have both in the same book, they would settle for the stonking great story any time.
 Back then, although I found my colleague’s observation to be accurate, I don’t think I learned my lesson. In fact I would say it is only over the past year or so that I have taken it on board. I have a close friend with New Age tendencies, who is always saying things like ‘the universe is trying to tell you something, Catherine.’ Well, now, I’m listening. And the fact is that I have become enchanted by story, as enchanted as I used to be when – as a very little girl – I listened to and then read for myself, the stories in the illustrated Wonder Books which had once belonged to one of my aunts, and had then been passed on to me.

Several things have contributed to this. That ‘stonking great story’ line has been working away in my head like yeast. The films I named above have one thing in common – they are all fine stories, and of course some of them are very fine novels too. It is through the medium  of those powerful tales that we are engaged, while in the sheer pleasure of our absorption, (even when the stories themselves are sad) we learn something about ourselves – and others - as human beings.  

On Christmas morning,  pottering about the kitchen, (as if I hadn’t had enough TV for one holiday) I found myself watching the Nativity,  the beautiful version with Andrew Buchan as a bewildered Joseph and Tatiana Maslany as a totally believable Mary, and becoming captivated all over again by a story which was as familiar to me as my own name, the drama and humanity of it, the way in which it engaged me on practically every level: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and last but by no means least, purely as a piece of  entertainment.
Some years ago, as a reasonably well established playwright trying to break into television, I had struggled to please a string of script editors, until I realised that (a) the script editor earned his salary by stringing me along with endless unpaid rewrites and (b) television really wasn’t for me – although the money was an enticement. Unfortunately, it was more like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Just when you thought you might have got there, the whole thing shifted.

Recently, it struck me forcibly that all the gatekeepers I had ever encountered seemed to have quite different ideas about what they wanted from me but none of them had really taken on board who I was as a writer and – more importantly - who my potential readers might be. This realisation was both liberating and alarming, because so much of my focus had been on pleasing these same agents and editors who were - on the whole - nothing like my potential readers. The trouble was, I didn’t know who those readers were either.
Dealing in antique textiles - my lucky dragon - not for sale!

One of my other jobs involves dealing in antique and vintage textiles online and sometimes writing about them. I’ve been doing it for some years now and I could describe to you in great detail who my customers are, (many of them come back time and again and send me nice emails in between times) where they live, what kind of things they like, and why I’m so fond of them. But when it comes to identifying my readers, I’ve realised that - like so many writers – I’ve trusted other people to do that for me.
The other thing these gatekeepers had never stressed was the importance of story. They had talked about characterisation and pace and structure and plot. But the endless ‘rules’ of plotting are not the same thing as telling a good story. Not one of them had said ‘For God’s sake,  just go away, find out and then tell the story, from the bottom of your heart.’

Would it have made a difference if they had? Maybe.
When I was finishing the final edits for my most recent novel, Bird of Passage, (now doing quite well on Amazon Kindle)  I saw that what had started out as a piece of reasonably well written but rather wishy washy fiction, had actually – over several drafts, a few years and a lot more experience - turned into a real story.  I don’t know that it’s a stonking great story, (although I think my next novel, The Amber Heart, might well be) but it’s certainly a good story, a story of love, obsession, and cruelty, told from the bottom of my heart. And it's one that I hope a number of people will find moving and engaging.

It perplexes me that I had managed to go through an intensive arts education, with an honours degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University, followed by a postgraduate degree from Leeds University, followed by many years of writing, publication, production and  a certain amount of success, all the while receiving advice from artistic directors and script editors and book editors and agents – and nobody had ever pointed out the simple truth that story is king. At university, I specialised in Old English & Mediaeval Studies. This literature – spanning many centuries - is crammed with wonderful stories illustrating timeless truths about the human condition, but you’d never have known it from the way we studied it. The fact that Beowulf, Gawain and The Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales and The Icelandic sagas are as powerful and engaging now as they were when they were first written, was treated as a commonplace irrelevance. ‘If you like that kind of thing, that’s the kind of thing you like,’ said one of our tutors, looking down his academic nose at us.
Maybe I shouldn't have expected anything different. And maybe I should have known what I needed to do, all along. But the truth is that if you can't tell a good story, even if you are the most celebrated of experimental writers, with a deeply intellectual following, few people will want to listen. Robert McKee says that the essence of good story is unchanging and universal’.  Your first imperative, as a writer of fiction, should be to get your head down and tell a good story.
Now, I'm trying, and what a sheer pleasure that is turning out to be!