Sunday, 25 February 2018

This blog is going to be a bit off-topic.
     I'm in the middle of planning for several school visits and my mind is like an over-excited and untrained collie racing round a field, barking furiously and scaring away the sheep it's trying to round up.
     In an attempt to exhaust the over-excited collie, I went to the gym on Tuesday morning. And That Bloke was there again. The one that makes my jaw drop.

     Before you start conjuring up some tall, blond, muscled Adonis, stop and think again. He is nothing whatsoever like that.
     He is Asian and probably no taller than me, though he's certainly much slimmer. And stronger and fitter.
     He doesn't strut around in a skin tight vest with all his tattoos on oiled display. Instead, he dresses anonymously, in a loose t-shirt and knee-length baggy shorts. The most 'don't-look-at-me' gear you could imagine. I haven't seen him talk to anyone, and he does nothing at all to draw attention to himself. Apart from the astonishing stuff he does-- which he performs in an abstracted, absorbed manner with not even the quickest glance round to see if anyone's watching.

      At the centre of the gym floor is a complicated structure of vertical steel bars, with some cross bars. Various platforms can be hooked onto this structure at different heights. There's a punch-bag hanging at one side, and straps with hoops on them, with which some brave people do press-up and what-not.
      The first time I noticed That Bloke, I happened to be on a cycle near this central structure. Absorbed in my own work-out, I barely registered That Bloke when he strolled over and seized hold of one of the vertical bars. I assumed he was going to do some chin-ups, which is a common enough sight. Even the men do them, sometimes.
     Then I realised that That Bloke wasn't hanging down from the upper cross-bars... No, he was standing out horizontally from one of the vertical bars. He had taken hold of a vertical bar at about head-height -- and then raised his whole body, legs and all, so that he stood out, rigidly, horizontally from it. Arms straight out, legs straight out. And there he stayed. Perfectly still. For what seemed like an age. While my jaw slowly dropped lower and lower with every ticking second.
Like this. Honest.

     The core-strength required to hold your body in that position for even a second is, well, considerable. Without even talking about the arm and shoulder strength. Pole-dancers can do this, I know, as part of their routine -- but they don't hold it the position for so long.
     For all the expression That Bloke showed, he might have been standing at a bus-stop.
     Then he dropped to his feet and went off quietly to shake the big heavy ropes.

     He was there again on Tuesday morning. He started off by fixing a plastic platform to the steel frame, at about hip height. Then he stepped up onto it, first with his left leg, then with his right. That is, he lifted one foot onto a platform at hip height -- and then used that one leg to step him up onto the platform. Like climbing a stair where every step is at hip-level. He repeated this stunt several times.
     I thought this was mad enough. But he followed it up by putting both hands flat on this platform -- his feet were on the floor, remember. He then raised his legs in a straight line behind him.
     Picture the scene. His hands are palm down on this hip-height platform. He balances on them while he raises the rest of his body, and his legs, in a straight line behind him. His heels are slightly higher than his head. The palms of his hands are his only contact with anything solid.

      Let me be clear. His feet aren't resting on anything. There is nothing supporting his body except his hands. He is holding his entire body at that sloping angle in empty air.
     Then he did press-ups. While balancing on his hands and holding the whole weight of his body in the air, in a horizontal line, he did several press-ups. I was there. I watched him do it. I wouldn't have believed it otherwise. I didn't even know the human body was capable of that.
     After four or five press-ups, he dropped down, had a drink of water and wandered out of the gym.

    Washboard abs? -- With that kind of core strength, the man must have abs like the steel cable that holds up the Forth Bridge. Somewhere under his loose, baggy t-shirt.
     You wouldn't give him a glance if he passed you in the street. He wasn't tall.  He wasn't 'built.' What could be seen of his arms and legs seemed quite slim and normal, and not noteably muscular. He seemed unremarkable in every way -- until he started turning himself into a human shelf-bracket or angle-poise lamp.

When I told Davy about That Bloke, Davy said, "He must be a gymnast. Only a gymnast would want to do that."
        The gym, I should say, is a well-attended but unspectacular 'lifestyle centre' run by the local authority (or, at least, out-sourced by them.) It's not expensive or in any way glitzy. Its clientele spans the local population, from the young and fit to the old and unfit (like me) to people in wheelchairs and people who come along with guide-dogs or carers. And in the middle of us all, this quiet bloke quietly doing astonishing things. And then wandering off. To where? To do what? Leap tall buildings with a single bound?

What I have are been mostly doing, when not gawping at the gym, is sorting out my website, which badly needed it. It had somehow got into such a fankle that not even I could find anything on it.
     It's a work still in progress, but I think a lot of progress has been made. At least you can find your way round it now.
     It's here.
And on it, you can find out more about these. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Thank you, Lev Butts. You have been an inspiration.

     My Authors Electric colleagues are always being inspirational and Lev was the latest one at it. Before Christmas 2017, Lev did a blog on ideas for presents to give the writers in your life.
     One of Lev's gift ideas was a book on cover design: Cover Design Secrets Bestselling Authors Use to Sell More Books, by Derek Murphy. (Oooh, those sneaky best-selling authors with their secrets. Murphy is no slouch on 'exactly what it says on the tin' titles either.)
     Lev's blog seems to have been quite a success, since just earlier this month, another AE, Reb MacRath was having a bit of a rave about another of his recommends, Arc customisable notebooks.
     But since I've been spared the notebook obsession that seems to strike so many writers, it was the cover design secrets that grabbed me. It had been nagging in the back of my mind for quite some while that not all of my covers were as, well, grabby as they could be.
      What were those secrets that best-selling authors were hogging to themselves? I needed to know.

     I ended up looking into several books on the subject. Look up Murphy's book on Amazon and you will be shown several others covering the same ground.
     What did I glean? -- as my Scots partner always puts it.
     Well, I'd always known that the cover needs to show the would-be reader the kind of book they'll be getting, whether it's humourous, romantic, historical, thrilling adventure or blood-thirsty crime.

     But this is a factual approach. Here you are: there's a castle and someone in historical clothing on the front: it's historical. Or, there's a fast modern car and a gun, so it's contemporary and a thriller.

     I think what I'd failed to grasp -- surprisingly, considering how I've made my living -- is that there needs to be an emotional connection too, just as in story-telling.
     When we write, we most often start with something that shows the reader the character they'll be connecting with. We construct a scene that lures the reader into identifying with that character, that creates an interest in them. So a cover needs to say, not only: This is X kind of book. It has to also say: Don't you want to know more about this person?

Years ago I was commissioned to write a story set in the Viking Age. The publishers wanted something pacey and exciting but historically accurate. After it went out of print, I republished it myself, and this is the cover it had. (Art work by Andrew Price.)

I looked at it again, and considered it in the light of what I'd been reading about book design. Despite all the axe and sword waving, it seems a little aloof and distant. It says: This is a book set in a time when blokes went about in helmets and mail, looking for trouble.

But there's a bunch of them. Milling. Which one are we supposed to be rooting for?

So I fired up PhotoShop and made some changes.

 Saga of Aslak Slave-Born by Susan Price

This new cover gets in close and personal and leaves no one in any doubt about which one is Aslak, our main man. It also reminds me of the quote from Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That
 'Britain was attacked by waves of Picts (and, of course, Scots) who had recently learnt how to climb the wall, and of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who, landing at Thanet, soon overran the country with fire (and, of course, the sword).'

Another book of mine which I felt was not being sold by its cover was The Bearwood Witch. 

Andrew and I, in designing the cover, had been puzzled what to put on it. There's a witch but it's set, not in fairy-tale forests, but in one of today's grimy inner cities. How to tell the reader that, visually?

We came up with this, but neither of us were very happy with it.

The door-key was supposed to suggest the present day, while the five-pointed star stood for witchcraft. It's quite eye-catching and graphic, but who builds an emotional connection with a key? It doesn't give the reader much idea of what to expect.

Again to PhotoShop. (I know, Karen, I know about PicMonkey but just as the shortest way to a destination is the way you already know well, so is the shortest way to a new cover.)

The Bearwood Witch by Susan Price

I think the new cover (left) does a far better job of connecting a browser with the book and what they can expect from it. Darkness settles over a street of parked cars and terraced housing as we are eyeballed by one of the main characters.

I also discovered that I'd neglected to publish Bearwood Witch as a paperback -- well, that's put right now.

The title of this blog is, of course, inspired by all those ads that keep popping up while you're browsing on-line, with either 'the UK' or the name of some town local to you inserted: Oldbury is going mad for this diet plan!  Smethwick is going crazy for these incontinence pads!

Well, the UK as a whole does seem to have gone a bit giddy just lately but I can assure you that neither Smethwick nor Oldbury goes mad for anything.

Except these books. The UK is going mad for them, I tell you. Mad.

This is the saga of Aslak Ottarssen, born a slave.
Aslak, and his beloved sister, Astrid, are the children of a Norwegian farmer. Their mother was an
English slave.
     Their father chooses to free Aslak. But Astrid remains a slave.
     Aslak promises that he will buy her freedom when he is a man and can earn enough silver. At fifteen, he goes viking to earn his fortune.
     Returning from sea, he finds that his father has died. Worse: his step-brothers have sold his sister.
     Furious, Aslak leaves his home forever, and calls on his ship-brothers to help him find and free his sister.
     He pursues Astrid across the North: a violent and dangerous place in the Viking Age. His hot temper leads to him being sold into slavery himself, in Jorvik, capital of England's Danelaw.
     But, captive among strangers, he finds unexpected help, faces death, sees a ghost— and meets still more danger.
Can Aslak regain his own freedom and rescue his lost sister?
 Kindle              Paperback

Zoe wants her dead boyfriend back. 
She's heard all about Elizabeth Beckerdyke. About her being a witch. About her speaking to the dead.
     Maybe she can raise the dead too?
     So Zoe goes knocking on the witch's door.
                Duncan is homeless, a rough sleeper.
     He's looking for a new life. He fears the witch and he fears for Zoe.
                Elizabeth Beckerdyke wants to prove her power.
     But can she control what she leads back from the land of the dead?

                A dark, disturbing novel of the occult by the award-winning author of The Sterkarm Handshake.

Kindle             Paperback