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Perspectives on Identity IQ Blog

Perspectives on Identity in Short Stories

I often get to the end of a novel and think Now I know where it’s going, I’d love to read it again. But, as a book blogger reading around 150 contemporary novels a year, I rarely do. But short stories are different. There’s always time to reread those we particularly admire and perhaps discover something new.

With my own anthology of short stories on the theme of identity on the brink of publication, I reread some of my personal favourites to see what they might have taught me about the someone we become. If you’re not familiar with these authors perhaps you’ll be tempted to give them a try.

Baglady by AS Byatt

Daphne Gulver-Robinson has reluctantly accompanied her husband on a business trip to the Far East. Now, along with the other corporate wives, she’s been shepherded by the wife of the chairman to spend the morning at the Good Fortune Shopping Mall. Separated from the group, with whom she has little in common, Daphne gradually loses her bearings, her money and her passport until, long after the rest of the party have left the complex, she’s ejected to the no man’s land outside, doubtful she’ll ever get home.

In a few short pages, this simple tale of a woman’s unravelling sends a shiver down my spine far stronger than any ghost or horror story. Poor Daphne is doomed long before she sets foot in the mall. Older than the other wives, and less elegant, she’d rather be in England with her animals than with these women buying souvenirs she doesn’t want or need. Out of her element, she’s rapidly unmoored. As could any of us be, if pushed into the wrong “box”. The line between secure and insecure identities might be more permeable than we like to think.

In Attendance by Paula Rawsthorne

June is another Englishwoman withdrawn from the world, although the underground public lavatory where she works, and now lives, is as much a refuge as a prison. She rationalises her situation as a kind of downsizing, now her husband’s dead and their daughter’s been estranged for years. Her seclusion doesn’t feel a sacrifice if it enables her to maintain the fantasy of a happy family but, alone at night, the memories come flooding back.

June isn’t so unusual in depending on denial and/or delusion to shore up a damaged identity, although most of us don’t take it to such an extreme. There are no lavatory attendants in my short story collection, but a few characters who struggle, to varying degrees, to confront the reality of the person they’ve become.

A Visit from the Footbinder by Emily Prager

A world away from English public toilets, Pleasure Mouse races, leaps and darts through the extensive grounds of her family’s mansion in Imperial China, telling everyone her news. So excited the foot-binder is finally coming, the little girl doesn’t realise that her long-awaited initiation into womanhood means she’ll never run again.

As in most coming-of-age stories, Pleasure Mouse must be disabused of her illusions and innocence in order to take her place in the world. But her initiation into her assigned role in society is particularly cruel. Like the bones in her foot, she must be broken, robbed of her vitality for what seem, from a contemporary perspective, minimal gains.

While foot binding is fortunately obsolete, bodies are still bent or broken to fit some internalised or societal standard of femininity. Even today, women can’t move freely in their gladrags, but totter, pain shooting up their calves, in stiletto heels. Fiction can provide a fresh perspective on practices considered normal and natural within the particular culture, but rendered strange when viewed from outside.

We don’t only try to tailor our bodies to our assigned or desired identities; the bodies we inhabit also effect who we are. We’re all transformed by puberty; some must adapt to other bodily changes, or to congenital differences from the norm. I’m fascinated by how the body interacts with identity as some of the stories in my collection confirm.

What Feels like the World by Richard Bausch

Brenda hasn’t the body for gymnastics, but she’s determined to clear the vaulting horse at her fifth-grade class’ demonstration at this evening’s PTA. Her widowed grandfather, her sole carer since her mother’s death just over a year before, watches, with a mixture of admiration and anxiety, her continue her self-induced programme of exercise and dieting for one last day. Will she be disappointed or will she achieve her goal?

In this gently poignant story, both adult and child face, in different ways, striving and failure and the pain of letting go. Neither is quite the person they’d like to be, but love, compassion and mutual acceptance keep them going, despite the grief lingering in the air.

President Daisy by Leone Ross

Although her age isn’t given, Mary seems even younger than Brenda when her aunt, with whom she’s been living since her mother left for America, sends her alone from Kingston to Montego Bay. She’s not looking forward to living with an uncle she doesn’t know and who might not even bother to meet the train. When a tall man with a daisy on his hat sits beside her and entertains her through the journey, the reader fears for Mary. Didn’t her mother tell her not to talk to strange men?

Don’t worry! This is a lovely story about embracing difference and not judging by appearance, as sweet as the tamarind balls the man buys for Mary, without being sentimental at all. It’s the perfect counterbalance to “Baglady”: if only Daphne Gulver-Robinson could have had a President Daisy to take her by the hand!

Becoming Someone

As in these five of my favourite short stories, there are a range of perspectives on identity in my anthology. As with the ordering here, we’ve tried to show a process from dark to light with the main character’s increasing confidence in, and comfort with, who they really are. I hope readers will enjoy my stories as much as I’ve enjoyed these.

This post was written by Anne Goodwin, whose debut novel Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017.

Why would you even want a Damsel?

One of my favourite animated series was, and still is, The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It aired on the BBC in the very late eighties and it has always been a huge comfort and inspiration to me. Aside from the character of navigator Mendoza’s gravity-defying cape and his tendency to do inexplicable Bela-Lugosi-style poses with it, there was only one sticking point- the character Zia.

Zia was an Incan girl taken from her village by Francisco Pizarro, because he believed she could lead him to a City of Gold. We meet her already kidnapped, and she spends a lot of the rest of the series in much the same way; being tied up, getting kidnapped multiple times, fainting, arguing with Mendoza, praising Esteban (the protagonist), or a combination of these at once. Even as a boy I felt uncomfortable with how useless she often was, designated as a plot device or a cheerleader. Granted, she was young, but still mostly harmless, and rather annoying.

There was a fairly constant implication that young girls were a hindrance or unruly. There were other female characters, but only bit parts for an episode or two, and they were usually overpowered at some point as well.

What about other animated series?

Other series did better or worse by varying degrees. Thunderbirds had Lady Penelope, although most of her heroism happened from the back seat of her armoured Rolls-Royce. Danger Mouse had no female characters at all. Thundercats and He-Man faired a little better, with some decent female warriors who weren’t knocked out with a single punch or given deliberately comedic attacks as some kind of punchline.

The first woman-led show I think we watched was She-Ra, and that was awesome, but aside from that there still weren’t many truly strong female characters for my sisters, or even me, to be impressed by. Thankfully my sisters saw inspiration in the characters they liked regardless, because they didn’t aspire to just stand around conniving or screaming, or not stand around at all. Still, those inspirational characters were always guys.

When we bought toys, especially creatures like dragons, or Transformers, we casually changed genders around to make numbers match. But it makes me wonder how different it might have been if there were more women in kids’ TV. Would it have changed my sisters’ tastes, or aspirations?

Dino Toys

Dinosaur toys can be any gender, of course…so why are they usually marketed to boys?

Books and the feminine character stereotype

Books were well ahead of this though, and always have been to a degree; a haven from the stereotypes of the screen. Girls have been fighting their own battles and walking their own paths for years. Island of the Blue Dolphins was an excellent one I remember reading, and the Deptford Mice trilogy, cornerstone of my young literary life, starred a young female mouse called Audrey. Both of these were captivating stories that I read several times over. My little sister loved The Worst Witch. The Queen’s Nose and numerous Roald Dahl books gave girls amazing and frightening adventures to power through.

Perhaps books had the progressive advantage because they explore the emotions behind a hero instead of just their physical portrayal. After all, heroes are universal to all genders, ages, and races.

Today’s damsels – a matter of media?

Having a girl or woman as a lead character is now a ‘very big thing’ in media- both new and old books with such inclusion are given big stamps of approval. The awareness of whether a character is male or female is so much greater because visual media had been under so much pressure to promote inclusivity and diversity, especially as TV and internet shows have become a much more dominant source of entertainment.

It’s not that there wasn’t a problem before, but now people are talking about it. The girls who had only a few icons in the 80s and 90s are now looking on behalf of their children, or children are asking directly. Personally, I’m delighted by all of the new avenues for children of all shapes, sizes, genders and ethnicities to see something of themselves on screen or in print.

Smashing gender roles – the (hopeful!) outcome

Hopefully, a continual smashing of gender roles will lead to both more sympathetic and emotional men AND kick-arse strong women in all media, and include vital nonbinary and trans representation as standard, which is woefully inadequate at present.

It’s hard to explain to critics (usually men) that a replacement, addition, or development doesn’t erase the history or vast library of protagonists they already have, or that it isn’t done for ‘political correctness’ (in itself a weasel phrase for ‘treating people as they always should have been’). And even if something is included, somehow a silent majority seems to view a tiny offering as consistently adequate representation, even ignoring the perils of tokenism that usually end up having the character played to awful stereotypes.

That the character ACTUALLY has something of value, a relatable, progressive story, or could have experiences never seen before seems to be a scary, alien, and offensive prospect to consumer-mentality ‘everything-must-be-made-for-me’ fans. To be honest, anyone making such complaints about inclusivity are the ones who need this diverse media the most, to learn that the world doesn’t revolve solely around them and their self-aggrandising homogenous viewing demands.

Diverse Kids

Every child deserves to see themselves represented

Being part of the solution

I’m proud to have many female characters in my book, and in seeing more genuine, faceted, and powerful representation coming through everywhere else. I know I have a long way to go with my own writing, and in what I consume, too. Everything we do and create sets a precedent for what comes after us. Everyone deserves the chance to know they can be their own unique hero, and media- be it books, video games, TV, or movies -plays an enormous part in that today. Because if nothing else, for my sisters’ sake, I would have loved them to have more toys to play with.

This post was written by Hugo Jackson.

Literacy Life and Death

Literacy: Life and Death

Literacy ought to be a topic of concern for any author, since – obviously – it goes straight to the heart of what we do, but even we don’t appreciate quite how much it has become a matter of life and death.

Few people do, apparently, but a report from the National Literary Trust (NLT) has opened the book on this largely ‘unread’ aspect of England’s socio-economic divide. It appears that children growing up in areas with the highest literacy problems can expect to die more than a quarter of a century earlier than their more literate counterparts.

Literacy is more than Reading & Writing

A sobering thought for sure, but it’s not the lack of reading and writing skills that’s the killer. No, rather the deficit in literacy skills serves to signal the presence of a cocktail of disadvantage that combine to curtail life expectancy.

In a society such as ours, of course, a lack of reading and writing skills will reinforce deprivation, locking people into a cycle of poverty. It’s no doubt tempting for some to write the illiterate off as ‘stupid’. Well, it’s one way to ‘solve’ the problem – redefine it and shift the blame – but it does little to alleviate deprivation.

Poverty and Learning: A Locked Cycle

Children who are raised in cold and damp homes (of which there are many in England) are going to struggle with education; likewise, when one is hungry and stressed from the insecurities of a life in poverty, the focus required for learning is harder to grasp. None of this is rocket science; those who care about such things have known it for generations.

Still, deprivation is left to fester, shrivelling children’s futures by diminishing the scope for them to learn essential foundation skills such as reading and writing. What’s more, it increases the likelihood that these conditions will be passed on to their children, locking in social exclusion from one generation to the next. It’s a cruel punishment for what is essentially society’s failure to address basic needs.

The cycle of illiteracy creates cross-generational poverty

The cycle of illiteracy creates cross-generational poverty

Breaking cycles of deprivation isn’t easy, of course; even when there’s the political will to make the effort (which has been sadly lacking in England these last years of austerity). It helps to know the symptoms, though, and how they reflect the underlying problems, which is where the NLT’s report comes in.

Literacy & Life Expectancy: NLT Report

Literacy & Life Expectancy is apparently the first research report to ever establish a link between the two through health and socio-economic factors in England. A series of follow-on reports will be released throughout 2018 to mark the organisation’s 25th anniversary but – more importantly – to emphasise why literacy is more important than ever.

The report also builds on the findings of a study carried out in 2008 (Literacy Changes Lives), in which the NLT established a relationship between literary and life chances through the lenses of physical and mental health, economic well-being, family life, civic engagement, and crime.

This latest research was carried out with the help of Experian. It crunched electoral ward level data on the communities at the greatest risk of “serious” literacy problems, along with life expectancy data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England. What it found was a stark national difference in life expectancy correlating with levels of literacy.

Digging Into The Details

Children born into communities with the most serious “literacy challenges” are those who are more likely to live in deprived areas, the research found. They do worse at school, they are less financially well off, have poorer health – and they have some of the lowest life expectancies in England.

In some respects, it sounds like the equivalent of asking where a bear answers a call of nature; yes, it’s in the woods, but where exactly? We don’t know the details until we’ve got our hands dirty with some proper research. We shouldn’t be surprised that low literacy levels have some correlation with deprivations that reduce life expectancy, but that’s not the same as knowing.

So a boy born in Stockton town centre (one of ten in the ranking for literary vulnerability) has a life expectancy that is 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford (10 of 10). While a girl born in Queensgate, Burnley (one of ten) has a life expectancy that is 20.9 years shorter than a girl born in Mayfield, Wealdon (10 of 10).

Socially deprived areas are common in every city

Socially deprived areas are common in every city

The divide isn’t just national, however: the research found significant inequalities between wards in the same local communities. In Middlesbrough, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, for instance, a boy born in the ward of North Ormesby (one of 10) has a life expectancy of 71.4 years – 11.6 years shorter than a boy born just two miles away in Marton East (eight of 10) who can expect to live to 83. The gap for girls, meanwhile, is 9.4 years.

Closing the Literary Divide

“If we are to truly transform the life chances of the nation’s most disadvantaged children, we must tackle low literacy one community at a time,” said Jonathan Douglas, director of the NLT.

“The National Literary Trust already runs long-term literacy campaigns in seven of the most deprived regions, cities and towns in the country, but [this] report shows that we still have a mountain to climb.

“We want to double our presence in local communities in our 25th year, and ensure that every child in England has the chance to live a happy, healthy, successful and long life, regardless of their background.”

Sadly that aspiration runs rather contrary to recent Government policy. That’s not to say ministers have embarked on a deliberate play to limit the life chances (and life spans) of England’s children, but it can be said that this has been the inevitable side effect of austerity.

The issue of poverty and problems with literacy pre-date austerity, of course: still, it adds a cruel twist to the situation.

Over the last few years, the impact of the Government’s policies on some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society has been examined in detail by academic institutions, thinktanks, parliamentary committees, charities, campaign groups and more. Reams of reports have laid bare the cruelties of austerity. Together, they present a grim picture of modern Britain. The NLT’s new report, sadly, is but one more for this bibliography of woe.

Where does this leave authors?

We’re no different to any other concerned (or indifferent) citizen; we’re not entirely powerless, but we can’t write these social issues out of existence either. Would that we could. But we can surely be rather more aware of such issues, and do our bit to spread the word.

After all, one might say we have something of a vested interest in the matter. How many potential readers – fans even – are we losing to these emerging ‘dead zones’ of literacy? For that matter, how many writers are being muted before they even find their literary tongues?

In a way, it’s about diversity. Sure, life chances are the immediate concern. But beyond that, if we are to avoid becoming a monocultural reflection of a homogeneous audience, then we surely need a diversity of readers, every bit as much as we need a diversity of writers.

Literacy is our lifeblood, in more ways than one. We ignore it at our peril.

Post written by Mark Cantrell.

Reading the Wind Introduction

Reading the Wind

I never thought of myself as a writer.

I read fiction nonstop and even wrote some Tolkien fanfiction, but in my mind, that didn’t make me a writer; I also taught technical writing to college students. About that kind of writing, I counted as an expert. Still, that didn’t make me a writer. People who wrote novels were special. I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t know how to do that. And then, one day, some irresistible urge came calling on the wind, and I decided to try. I say “one day,” but it would be more accurate to say “one year” because it turned out I was right about not knowing how to write a novel.

The Wind Reader was one of the first books I drafted, but it spent years on my hard drive, coming out every so often to be revised using the critical eye and skills I developed as I went to workshops, read how-to books, and drafted several more novels. I gradually built up craft knowledge, but the most important thing I learned is that I was a writer all along.

A writer writes.

There’s no other definition. Publication is nice, but it’s not what makes someone a writer.

On the other hand, publication really is nice!

So when I finally decided The Wind Reader was ready to go out into the world, I looked around for a publisher I could trust with my baby. I wound up submitting to Inspired Quill by following a trail of signs. On a writers’ site, authors wrote that they’d had good experiences there, that this was a publisher that would treat me and my book well. Inspired Quill’s submissions guidelines told me it responded to rejected submissions with a brief critique. That’s unusually generous. Some small presses don’t even send rejections. I thought it would be valuable to get a critique along with my rejection.

But Inspired Quill didn’t send me a rejection.

They sent me an acceptance. As any writer will tell you, this is a Great Moment in Writing.

Before the acceptance was final, however, Sara suggested a Skype interview so see if Inspired Quill and I were a good fit. As any writer will also tell you, there are small presses and then there are small presses. On its website, Inspired Quill describes itself as a “Social Enterprise.” I found that intriguing, and during the interview, Sara elaborated. She sees Inspired Quill as more than simply a publisher that produces a product to sell. Rather, Inspired Quill sees itself as part of the web of community. So, for example, it donates part of its profits to charity and runs subsidized workshops. In a phrase, it hopes to do well by doing good. That fit with the way I wanted to see myself and my work.

I want readers.

I want to sell books. But for me, writing is about more than that. It’s the best way I’ve found to examine human experience and touch the human heart. I believe I can do that in partnership with Inspired Quill.

It's time to make our voices heard

Stop Talking About Diversity In Books

“The importance of diversity in books”, “diverse characters – tokenism or important?” and my personal favourite, “is diversity really that important?”

Every time I see a convention panel discussion with a name like this, my eyes roll so hard I end up chasing them across the floor.

Let’s be honest, here. The publishing world is very, very good at talking about things that matter. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing something about it, we tend to hold up our hands and say “we’re swamped already!”

That’s partially true. In a world where the average author royalty payments barely cover the electricity for their laptops, publishers (especially small publishers!) have to work overtime just to be heard above the razzle dazzle of the latest Big 5 bestseller. Just look at how long it took for the Big 5 – with all of their resources and full-time employees – to fully embrace eBooks. It’s only been in the last few years that their websites have been even remotely pleasant to visit.

But this has to start changing. Now.

To answer the above in order, “Very”, “Important”, and my personal favourite, “No shit.”

We all know that representation matters, not just in the boardroom or on convention panels, but actually in the books that we work so hard on. We have all experienced the power of reading about a character that’s like us without being a gross tokenism.

But look at all the LGBT, PoC books out there now!

You mean the ones that are marketed solely because of the sexual orientation of their main character? Or the fact the clever, handsome protagonist is black? The ones where the publisher expects a pat on the head and a biscuit and told that they’re being sooo progressive?

(There go my eyes again!)

Okay, I should clarify here. All of those titles are important. I’m not denying that for a microsecond. But while we’re still hung up in amazement at this handful of books, we’re perpetuating the fact that these books are not normative. (After all, there’s a difference between being vocally supportive of these books, and acting with astonishment every time a big publisher deigns to print an inclusive title that isn’t then marketed as ‘edgy’ or even one of their ‘next big hits’).

But Inspired Quill isn’t perfect!

Honestly, the whole inclusivity thing has never been something we’ve given much active thought to until pretty recently. It was always part of the stories that our authors told – right from the beginning. That this view on inclusivity is in our DNA as part of our core values makes it easier for us to wipe the sleep from our eyes and start being more vocal about the how, why, and what of this side of our process.

So what can we do?

As I said above, it’s time to stop talking about diversity, and actually start to do something about it. Publishers, authors and readers have an obligation to move the stagnant ‘status quo’ forward. And yes, all readers and all publishers and all authors.

I’ll be writing many more blog posts in much more detail over the coming months, but here’s one simple idea to kickstart the process.

Ask people what they’re doing about it.

Whenever you hear someone start talking about diversity in fiction, or asking whether it’s important, this comment has served me well. “No shit. Of course it’s important, so what are we actually doing about it, other than sitting around preaching to the converted?”

As a first step, the mild shock and (usually) indignation is enough to start the ball rolling. “I’ve been commenting on cast diversity whenever I review a book,” or “I choose every character’s ethnicity instead of defaulting to white,” or even, “I haven’t mentioned the LGBT character in this book we published in the primary marketing materials.”

Bonus Request

Oh, and let’s actually stop asking “Is diversity in books important” as well, shall we? Just asking that question suggests the possibility that it might not be important. Quite frankly, that shouldn’t even be up for debate.

It’s 2017 folks, let’s move on. The devil has enough privileged advocates already.

Blog image for Anne Goodwin's post on Inspired Quill

Victims, Villains and Vulnerability

Over a decade ago, the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, ran a controversial advertising campaign aiming to raise awareness of the damaging impact of being born in poverty. The Advertising Standards Authority received almost 500 complaints about the ads, which showed shocking (photoshopped) images of babies, such as one with a cockroach in its mouth and another apparently drinking from a bottle of methylated spirits. As a result, the campaign was subsequently banned. While the complaint that the pictures could be demeaning to the poor was justified, I believe the public revulsion also stemmed from our discomfort at the juxtaposition of innocence with delinquency.

We like our villains villainous and our victims virtuous.

The image that struck me most strongly could have been a stereotypical “junkie” holding a syringe, except that the drug user was a baby, not an adult. Was it a portrait of a villain or a victim? Or the vulnerability common to both?

I’ve long been interested in the vulnerability that lurks under the skin. My debut novel, Sugar and Snails, is about a professional woman whose entire adult life has been structured around keeping her vulnerability hidden from view until a new relationship threatens to expose it. While Diana’s vulnerability – if not the reason behind it – is evident from the first few pages, Steve, the narrator of my second novel, Underneath, presents initially as a straightforward villain. Of course, he has to be: he’s keeping a woman captive in a cellar.

As I descend the concrete staircase, I can’t see my feet for the cardboard box I’m cradling in my arms. Nudging the banister with my elbow for balance, I duck to avoid the underbelly of the main staircase and catch a whiff of chocolate sponge filtered through the fragrance of your freshly laundered clothes.

The stairs shunt left and left again. I count the last three steps beneath my breath. A short walk down the corridor and I’m setting down the provisions on the chequerboard lino alongside the panelled door.

I put my eye to the peephole and flick the switch on the wall. Inside the room, the ceiling light beams on the grass-green carpet dotted with daisies and on the three hundred and sixty degree mural in fiery sunrise hues. It picks out the lidded bucket in the far corner and, directly opposite the door, the double mattress marooned in a sea of discarded food packaging and dirty underwear. It traces the curve of your back where you lie beneath the duvet.

The duvet veils your torso, your hands, your head, your hair. But it can’t disguise the spasm in your shoulders as the light comes on. The flinch. There’s an echoing jolt through my own body, and I have to back away for a moment while my pulse quells. When I look again, you’re frozen in the same teasing posture: camouflaged by the quilt apart from one foot peeping out the bottom, the enamelled nails a regal lapis lazuli.

The bolts squeal as I drag them one-two-three into their casings. I shoulder your box of goodies and shove through the cream-coloured door.

But turn over the page and he’s anxious about making a good impression on a woman he’s just met in the hospital canteen. A little later, he’s struggling to resist the demands of the sisters who have controlled him since childhood. Later still, in flashback, he’s a lonely little boy unable to connect with a mother who is grieving the death of her husband, the father who died before Steve was born.

Similarities and Differences

Steve’s vulnerability is different to Diana’s; it doesn’t lead him to self-harm. It’s different to that of the babies in the Barnardo’s adverts; although he smokes cannabis, he’s not an addict living only for his next fix. In the beginning, he is how he sees himself: a perfectly ordinary guy. He might well have stayed that way if Liesel hadn’t threatened to leave him, and he hadn’t bought a house with a cellar he needed to put to good use.

Unable to bear his own vulnerability, Steve locates it in others: in his mother’s dementia; in the psychiatric patients at Liesel’s workplace; in her childhood trauma. When his own vulnerability threatens, he pushes it down as deep as it can go into the underground prison.

In exploring Steve’s vulnerability, I’ve no wish to condone his criminal behaviour. But the novel is narrated from his point of view and he certainly doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. Yet, the more he tries to justify himself, the more deluded and dissociated he becomes.

The mentally disordered offender disrupts our desire for a clear demarcation between victim and villain. Is he mad or bad and, if the former, can that explain, or even excuse, the crime? I’m hoping that different readers will come away from Steve’s story with different answers.

A clear reason?

I’ve given my character a rationale for his crime that functions for him, until the strain of living a double life overwhelms him. I’ve tried to maintain an authorial neutrality, to approach him with the empathy and lack of judgement which are familiar from my previous professional role as a clinical psychologist. But that doesn’t mean ignoring the bigger picture of the harm he’s perpetrated, which I hope will be evident to the reader too.

I was going to end with the hope that readers of Underneath will feel, as I do, compassion for the criminal alongside condemnation of the crime. But that isn’t my greatest desire for my second novel. What I really want, is for it to be an engaging read.

Clickbait Books – A Publisher’s Response

Recently, the ‘Big 5’ publisher Simon & Schuster signed a deal reported to be worth $250,000. So far, no worries. But when the author of their acquisition is a (very loud) mouthpiece for the ‘alt-right’…things start to get a little cloudy. (Note: I’m not going to write names here – they’ll get no online kickbacks from this site!)

I have other work to do today, so here’s a pre-emptive list to cover some important things before we begin.

  1. I have done my homework and dutifully read a number of articles previously written by this mouthpiece.
  2. Yes, I understand what ‘Freedom of Speech’ really means – including the fact that it does not have anything to do with necessity of platform entitlement.
  3. No, I do not condone the censorship of any book.
  4. And yes, I know that publishing is a business that needs to make money to survive.

Okay, good.

What’s the real problem here?

Words are powerful. As publishers, we have a responsibility to all of our readers (current and future), to provide a platform which is diverse and inclusive. In which readers are able to see themselves in a light which is empowering, not degrading.

So why can’t Inspired Quill just sit down and keep our mouths shut? This deal doesn’t affect us, right? We’ll likely never be in the same league as any of the Big 5.

Thank goodness.

If being in their league means taking on a clickbait book in order to be ‘edgy’ and make money, then we want no part in it. Staying quiet in the face of such an issue would be to passively legitimize it – and that’s not going to fly with us any more.

To clarify, we’re not upset at the fact the book is going to be available for the public to read – heck, unflinching optimists might even say that it might pull a handful of people into realistic dialogue (I know, I know). We’re the last ones to suggest that any book should be ‘banned’.

The issue we take with the likes of the aforementioned book is that Simon & Schuster are actively legitimizing and normalizing behaviour and ideas that are damaging to the well-being of many different groups. They’re making money from clickbait negativity.

“Hey guys! Antagonise people for kicks, denigrate numerous already-marginalised groups to whom you have a greater privilege*, and we’ll plaster your face in every bookshop window in the country! And we’ll protect you with ‘Freedom of Speech’ clauses! Sound good? Your advance is on its way.”

“A rising tide lifts all boats.”

You don’t need to tear others down, and make them inferior, in order to rise up. In reality, there is no ‘bigger piece of the pie’ – there’s enough pie for everyone. Coming from a place of fear is the easy option. And for a company with as much clout as Simon & Schuster to swoop in and capitalize on that fear is, quite frankly, disgusting.

Being negative or silent is the ’safe’ approach. So we won’t be. Our tagline is ‘Positive Publishing’ – not because our books are schmaltzy tales with sweet endings where the protagonists ride off into the sunset – but because we wholeheartedly believe that every single one of them adds value or enrichment, however small, to whomever reads it.

Anyone in this industry will tell you that remaining optimistic is pretty exhausting. I’ll readily volunteer that during the six years I’ve been running Inspired Quill, there have been more than a few struggles and moments where I just sit back and ask myself ‘what’s the point’?

Then I remember the importance of books. The potency of their words and how they have the ability to make people realize that they are not alone. Their ability to lift people up and to create a dialogue amongst two strangers that – before reading about the inclusivity of the other in a book they’d taken to heart – may have looked at one another with suspicious glances.

Books are cultural artefacts. They give us ideas of what’s possible in the world, and they’re a very powerful tool for learning about self-identity (especially for youngsters).

A positive outcome

I can say, at least, that this debacle has had one positive effect. It’s given Inspired Quill the kick it needed to stop mumbling about social enterprises and win-win situations.

From now on, we’re going to stand up, square our shoulders, look inequality, injustice and fear in the face and say:

“We see you. And while we may never stop you completely, we will still do whatever we can to make it happen. We see you, and we will not shirk our responsibility any longer.”

Now begins the process of considering the best ways to make that happen.

What It Means To Me

I readily admit to not having the greatest memory in the world. I will forget what I said ten minutes ago. I won’t remember what I had for lunch three hours prior.

I have to begin with this disclaimer, because the following memory has stayed with me my whole life.

When I was in reception class (Kindergarten, for those outside the UK), my teacher Mrs Alton showed us how to fold an A4 sheet of paper into a little book. The task for the day was to fill this wee booklet with a short story.

I don’t remember if I’d demonstrated any love for writing before this, but I’d always loved books. I wrote my little four-year-old heart out. Thus was born The Dancing Tree, a weirdly grim fairy tale (heh) about a magical tree that lay deep in a forest. Every night, the tree would lift its roots and wave its branches, and dance under the stars. One night, the animals and birds of the forest joined in with its dancing, and the tree, feeling unimportant and unnecessary, vowed to never dance again.

The. End.

I had a happy and safe childhood, there was absolutely no reason for such a dark and bitter ending. Was it a lament for the loss of fairy tales? Or was it just that a four-year-old has no idea how to end such a story on three small pages when her drawings take up most of the space?

Either way, my love of writing, fairy tales, folklore, and magic was born that drizzly afternoon. Thank you, Mrs Alton, for suggesting I should consider becoming an author.

If I could go back in time and tell my four-year-old self that when she grows up, she will hold a copy of her very first (of many, hopefully) published novel in her shaking hands, she’d… probably wander off to play with Molly the Dolly.

(I’ve just been informed I was actually more interested in books than toys at that age. Go figure.)

But skip to about ten years later, and tell my fifteen-year-old self the same thing, and she’d either laugh or cry. Maybe both. I’d never experienced true love until I opened that first box of books and looked at that shining cover, emblazoned with a white stag, and the gleaming title, The Old Ways. I was engulfed with pride. I could barely breathe, let alone speak.

My first book signing was no better; I was shaking so badly, I could hardly hold the Sharpie. Nothing could have prepared me for how it feels to have a dream come to fruition. Of course, I got a little more confident as time went on, even had the courage to tell a potential reader, no, I am not from a cult, I just appreciate and respect the ancient legends of Britain. But thank you for your interest, and I like your hat too.

The support from my friends and family has been overwhelming. I never imagined how it would feel to have people say, although they don’t read much, or don’t particularly read fantasy, how much they loved it, how they couldn’t put it down, and how angry they were with me for killing off their favourite character. (Consider this my public apology! Things don’t improve in the sequels, I’m sorry.)

Things have gone by so fast, it’s now one year since the release of The Old Ways. Work on the sequel, Age of Magic, is steadily trundling along, with the storyline for the third one (gasp!) neatly laid out. One year of promotions, interviews, signings, newspaper articles, radio shows, and the high still hasn’t worn off.

But, and I will admit this now, I was young and foolish enough to think copies would fly off the shelves, and I would be on my way to Hollywood by now as Creative Consultant, and Tom Hiddleston would be flying in to play Erlik, and Peter Jackson would be praised for staying so close to the source material…

That, obviously, is not happening. Not yet, anyway.

But fame and fortune was never my goal. My dream for nearly twenty years was to see someone with a copy of my book in their hands. Now, my new dream is to see that same person with a copy of the sequel.

The Gateway is open. He walks free.

Blessed be,

RK Summers )O(

P.S. You can find more information about The Old Ways right here on the IQ site.


A blog post by author Lynn Michell.

Sara asked me to write something about returning to IQ Press with my second novel and fourth work of fiction, a request which led to some off piste reflection. It’s a topic close to my heart and one which worries its way into my writing. As a wordmonger, the word return has the built in connotation of a place to which one willingly goes back,  but in real life, as an army brat, that for me was rarely the case. I have no roots. But as a writer I still search for a home for my books and look for that elusive sense of belonging.

Previously I’ve been published by HarperCollins, Longman, Pluto Press and the Women’s Press. The Women’s Press is the role model for my own Linen Press, now the only indie women’s press in the UK.

So it was with a quiet confidence that I sent my first novel, White Lies, to Quartet Books. Two days later a husky voice with a heavy foreign accent on my answer machine said, ‘I love your book. I want to publish it.’ The joke wasn’t funny. Which friend or foe was responsible for that one? In fact it was the owner of Quartet who went on to offer me a contract and within a week all was signed and sealed. But things went very wrong. They designed a glossy cover for a hardback book and discussed a rapid publication. Then came the proofs.

‘Did I like the font?’ they asked.

’What about the editing I’d been promised?’ I asked back.

‘No need to edit.’ came the reply. ‘Your novel is perfect.’

Oh but it wasn’t. No debut novel is. What followed was a very nasty and costly extrication from the contract but I’m glad I did it. That novel wasn’t ready for publication. I put it in a drawer for a year, re-wrote it, and published it myself.

Looking back, this was probably the start of the cutting back by many publishers of costly editing until we arrive at today’s state of play in the book trade where a famous author and activist, Maureen Freely, comes to Linen Press with her seventh novel having left her mainstream publisher because they refused to edit it. She described the ethos as ‘anti-intellectual and anti-literary’ and likened her publishing house to a bunch of Tesco salesmen. The writing was on the wall, and we in the business stared at it with growing alarm.

And so it was in a rapidly changing and shrinking book business that I finished my second novel, Run, Alice Run. Two things mattered to me: I wanted a press whose ethos was right for my writing and I wanted close collaboration with a good editor. I knew that the Big Five wouldn’t touch it. I wasn’t a known author. I hadn’t written a sensational novel nor a series. I was no longer young, and my heroine was middle-aged, a fact that my male foreign rights agent told me would bar it altogether from publication.

The end of this long story is that I accepted a contract from Sara-Jayne Slack here at IQ. I knew nothing about her, nor her publishing house except from the website. She followed up with warm personal contact, Skype discussions, an openness and transparency, and, most important, excellent editing.

She and I work very differently as the bosses of small indie presses. I am not highly organised, work very intuitively, often play things by ear, and spend the first couple of months with an author talking about the manuscript. During my first Skype with Sara, she asked me about my expectations and described how she worked but not a word did she say about my novel. Not even if she liked it. Over the next weeks we talked again – about the timetable, social media, an online presence, branding and marketing, software, the contract, but not my prose. I was worried. But this is her way of tackling a project with a new author and she does things in a different order. Later, when the first round of edits came in, I was impressed and delighted. My manuscript had been reworked at every level from the overall structure to the choice of vocabulary. She suggested moving sections, rewriting sections, changing the nuts and bolts of the plot, making subtle changes to the characters. And she was available to answer my queries and objections. She held a very effective magnifying glass to the book that we both called Alice and I was satisfied and happy that it had found a good home.

It is with no qualms that I’m returning to IQ and placing in Sara’s safe hands my new novel,The Red beach Hut, which is more dear to my heart than the previous one. Sara may talk to me and email me about many topics outside the writing, but I’m confident that once more my prose will be carefully, sensitively scrutinised and edited and that the published book will be a better version of the one I sent her. Two books now with one press. Two horses in the same stable.

I have continuity, security and the beginnings of a sense of belonging, even of coming home.

IQ Interviews – Paul Salvette!

It’s nice to have the opportunity of pulling back the curtain and seeing the people behind the screens.

This doesn’t always mean interviewing the folks here at IQ, though. You may not know this, but for formatting (both eBooks and Paperbacks), we outsource to the excellent BB eBooks. (Because the process makes our brains hurt, and we’d much rather spend the time playing to our strengths).

So for this blog, we’d like to welcome Paul Salvette, the owner of BB eBooks. This interview will give you a few insights into the biggest formatting mistakes, why book formatting is sooo important…and why Paul thinks the Publishing industry is a lovely environment to work in.


1) Could you give us a bit of history behind BBeBooks? Why did you decide to start the business?

It was the end of my 20s and my first kid was on the way. I desperately needed to grow up and needed cash. Unsurprisingly, kids are expensive! I had written a novella when I got back from Iraq in 2008 and figured I could publish it and make a few bucks. This was during the Wild West days of self-publishing back in 2011 when there was a bit of a gold rush mentality, if you recall. The book flopped of course—probably because I’m a crummy author and I hate writing. But I had to learn how to do all the formatting, which was a bit more technical and its geekiness was more well-suited to me personally. I started posting on my blog all the HTML, XML, and CSS tips and tricks and got a terrific response. Pretty soon people were offering me money to format their eBooks for them. That was when I finally put two and two together (I’m usually sort of slow) and figured I could turn this into a small business. That’s when BB eBooks started. The business has continued because working with authors and publishers is great. They are a very kind and considerate bunch–you can’t say that about all industries!

2) What’s the biggest mistake you see regarding books that have been DIY formatted?

I’m always careful about not slamming other people’s formatting, and I understand people who want to DIY format, either for cost considerations or because they have more control.  However, for the love of God please do not format a novel with gross blank lines of space between every paragraph. It reads like a boring term paper. Novels have been laid out with indented paragraphs for hundreds of years and there’s a reason the tradition is in place: it makes for a pleasurable read. Never do anything to disturb the reader experience with formatting.

3) Are there any books you’ve worked on that have been particularly tricky?

We’ve done a lot of legal references and academic references for various churches and non-profits. Those can get sort of fun (we had one with over 1,500 footnotes). However, these are just technical challenges and can usually be overcome with some programming and elbow grease. I’d say the hardest part about our line of work is being consistent with the end-to-end customer experience. Like a McDonald’s, it is very important to be available to customers whenever they need something and deliver the product they expect. This is a major challenge for us since, unlike McDonald’s, we’re a small operation. We have a number of systems in place that customers can get new work formatted and changes made in a timely fashion, but we’re constantly trying to improve and get better.

4) From a business perspective, why is a book’s formatting so important?

Most readers will not notice good formatting, but they will notice bad formatting. Good, consistent formatting ensures your reader will have a pleasant and immersive reading experience where they can focus on what’s important (i.e. the writing and the escape). One thing we see a lot of the superstar authors do, that many first-time authors do not, is use the front and back matter as a way of promoting their brand—clickable graphics for newsletters, book lists, calls-to-action for a newsletter sign-up, etc. All of this is an important component of marketing. We’re happy to help with this for veteran and first-time authors alike.

5) Have you ever been formatting a book and wanted to stop and read the title all the way through?

Haha, yes. We work with a lot of romance authors and sometimes we’ll have to go in and make typo corrections. If it’s an interesting scene and I’m doing the corrections—often I read it!  I feel like it’s something the world’s population of men aren’t supposed to know about and I’ve stumbled upon a great secret. No one teaches young men about love and courtship, but reading a romance novel is quite educational as a dude.

6) Quick! You have 10 seconds to grab your 3 favourite books of all time, what are they?

In honor of your recent and historic Brexit vote, I’ll name only my three favorite books by British authors. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was truly a book ahead of its time. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was great literature and a chilling look at how society controls its malcontent youth. I also really liked Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. I’m not an atheist and don’t agree with him on everything, but he was a very unique intellectual. Also, he had that hilarious sense of humor that many British people have: simultaneously sophisticated and raunchy. He will be missed.

 The Boring Important, Interesting stuff:

BB eBooks is a Bangkok-based company that was founded in 2013 to provide fast, reliable, and professional formatting and design services for books created by independent authors and small presses. All books created by BB eBooks are immediately ready for sale at all major online retailers (including Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and many others). BB eBooks acts as a business-to-business contractor for the worldwide publishing community to bring about better standards for book layout and production. Find us at