Sunday, 23 December 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Kindle? Here's some we made earlier...

Seeing as Deb is currently spilling a gently simmering orange, ginger and brandy marmalade all over the hob, it's fallen to me on this Christmas Eve Eve to quickly round up what we've been up to over the past 12 months.

 If you're anything like me, you'll just be getting around to wrapping presents tonight (helped on by a large drink or three). And if, by some small chance, any of those presents is a Kindle for your nearest and dearest, do yourselves a favour and download a few books before placing that final piece of tape on the holly and Santa festooned paper. Giving a Kindle with no books on it is like giving a small child a toy with no batteries.

So, to avoid tantrums, tears, stampy feet and a whole day of duck lips, follow my advice. In no particular order:

An honourable mention to Larry Benjamin, who whilst not strictly a Beaten Track author (yet!! - hi Larry), has been really supportive of what we do and writes awesome books as well, so we want you to buy them.

As an added advantage, by using the links above, you can be sure that you're making an independent author very happy. Please support them and let them know they're loved this Christmas :)

Finally, we'd like to wish you all a Happy Christmas, from Deb and Nigel (that's me) at Beaten Track HQ and our fabulous authors around the world:

Frederick R.J. Hartman
David Hughes
Laura Susan Johnson
Tom M. Paolangeli
Simon L. Read
Elle Zober

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Crush UK, One Act Plays For Boys and more to follow...

It is with some disgust that I have today been met with the realisation that I haven't posted on this blog for a full two months. The reasons are quite simple: I've been busy editing and publishing, which is why I've had to take a break to stop by now and give an update on exactly what we at Beaten Track have been up to during this brief period of apparent absence.

Firstly, there was the launch party for 'It's A Game Of Two Halves', held at The Dog House in the historical and, it has to be said, rather fine city of Norwich. The weather was glorious; The Dog House staff went 'above and beyond' to make us all feel welcome, and Mr. Frederick RJ Hartman conducted himself superbly. The venue was packed and it took a good two hours (and more) for Fred to reach the end of the book-signing queue.

It is fairly safe to say that 'It's A Game Of Two Halves' has been well and truly launched, in spectacular fashion. Alas, it's a shame the same can't be said of Fred's beloved team's current season...

Following this, we published the UK edition of 'Crush', the excellent debut novel from Laura Susan Johnson. Now, I have to be honest and tell you that I didn't read 'Crush' prior to agreeing to publish it, but I did have the commendations of my proof-readers and 'assistant editors'. However, there comes a point when the editor really has to read the book they are editing, and I'm not sorry about this - it truly is an amazing story. Anyway, I'm not going to bleat on, because the following GoodReads review, by 'Andrea', really does say it best:

This novel surpasses almost every book I have ever read; I'm not entirely sure I could say I 'enjoyed' reading it, as the subject matter is at times very moving and upsetting. However, I have rarely, if ever, come across a book written in such a way that invoked such powerful reactions and emotions within me as a reader.

A bold, stunning, hard hitting, harrowing and yet delicate and tender story of two men who had been in love for a very long time, but had denied themselves each other due to fears of how their small town society would react. There are some very difficult to read passages dealing with child abuse, animal abuse and the emotional scars and impacts this has on the protagonists' lives later on; they are described quite graphically but are in no way gratuitous.

I have to confess that I had never been more convinced that a story would not have a 'happy ending' than I was reading this novel, yet the characters were that well written that I couldn't help hoping, against all odds, that love might triumph.

I won't tell you which won out - I'll beg you to support this fabulous author and purchase/read the book yourself!!

Next up was 'One Act Plays For Boys' - a first collection of plays published by playwright David Hughes. In this volume, David offers up five of his plays written specifically for small casts of boys, the motivation for which comes from his extensive experience as Head of Drama and Theatre Studies in an award-winning performing arts specialist college - a role that has inspired him to produce original and exciting work for groups of young people, aiming to cater for those students who might struggle with the classics, and also for establishments that find existing performance pieces too difficult to stage within the school / exam context.

As the word 'volume' implies, this is just the first in a series, with 'One Act Plays For Girls' due for publication before the end of 2012. Throughout the series, the plays are accompanied by character descriptions, staging ideas and diagrams, making this an incredibly useful addition to any drama department 'library'.

This is Beaten Track's first educational text, and we are pleased to confirm that we accept school / local authority purchase orders (details can be found on the Payment Options page of our Online Shop, or contact us for further information). We are also offering one free copy for every 20 purchased.

I was privileged to be the first person to read 'Damaged Angels' - the second book by Larry Benjamin, author of 'What Binds Us'. (Thank you, Larry. Keep being fabulous.)

From the publisher (Bold Strokes):

The 13 stories in this collection give voice to the invisible, the damaged: the drug addicts and hustlers, the mentally ill, the confused, and the men who fall in love with them, all of them bravely trying to make a place for themselves in the world of unbroken men. Their worlds are sometimes the mean streets of decaying cities, sometimes the great beyond and, once, the earth itself.

Often dark, always evocative and lyrical, these stories delve into the lives of men clearly less-than-perfect and explore love in the context of disease and oncoming death as in "The Cross," drug addiction, as in "The Seduction of the Angel Gabrielle," and mental illness in "Two Rivers."

These stories explore the possibility that less-than-perfect is sometimes perfect.

I'm 80% of the way through and at this stage can only advise that you buy a copy! I'll be giving it a full review just as soon as I'm done (and have time).

On a final note, we currently have seven (possibly eight) books in varying stages of pre-publication, some with release dates as early as next month (November - National Novel Writing Month), so rather than cramming any more info into this, I will commit myself by confirming that there WILL be at least one more post before then to tell you more. That said, what I will tell you now is that one of these is the sequel to my novel 'Hiding Behind The Couch' (published earlier this year), so I thoroughly recommend you read it in preparation! (Please.)

Monday, 23 July 2012

A Quick Update...

There's so much going on at Beaten Track at the moment, but this is the first opportunity (which is, alas, par for the course with my day job) I've had to post a quick round-up of the news:

It's a Game of Two Halves

It's A Game Of Two Halves Official Launch Party

If you happen to be in or around Norwich this Friday (27th July, 7pm), you can find us at The Dog House on St Georges Street, celebrating the launch of Frederick RJ Hartman's debut book 'It's A Game Of Two Halves'. Up for grabs is a copy of the book signed by QPR's first team from the 2011-12 season, all proceeds of which go to The Tiger Cubs - part of the QPR in the Community Trust. You can make donations via the Beaten Track online shop - for every £1 donated prior to the launch we'll be giving out a raffle ticket.

You can pre-order the paperback / hardcover editions of 'It's A Game Of Two Halves' from now until 18th August (official release date) - ebook editions will be available via the Beaten Track Shop by 1st August.


Crush - UK Edition

If you've visited our blog before, then you may recall a previous post where I discussed the moral and ethical balance of editing and censoring as context for the addition to Beaten Track of Crush, a novel by Laura Susan Johnson. To avoid giving a certain best-selling book more coverage than it's due, I'll just say that the moral compass of the publishing world is undergoing a bit of a recalibration at present, although Crush remains a novel contains material that may upset some readers. Notwithstanding, it is an exceptional piece of writing and we are delighted to be working with Laura to produce the UK edition. What this means is we've Anglicised the language, but stayed true to the original story.

You can pre-order the paperback edition of 'Crush' (UK edition) via the Beaten Track Shop. Links to the US editions in various formats can be found on the Beaten Track main site.

Hiding Behind The Couch

Hiding Behind The Couch

After five years, I finally cast 'Hiding Behind The Couch' out into the big wide world on 1st July. It's an important novel to me for lots of reasons, not least of all that whilst no-one actually ever said that everyone has one novel in them (or indeed, as the late great Christopher Hitchens contended: "Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain."), I was beginning to wonder whether I had any more than one!

Available in both paperback and various ebook formats, you can purchase a copy of 'Hiding Behind The Couch' via the Beaten Track Shop and most online book vendors (Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc.)

Other Projects

We're currently working on a number of other publications with various writers and educators, including the Adam Christopher School of Music, David Hughes, head of drama at one of the top-rated performing arts specialist schools in the country, round the world cyclist Matthew Blake and world marathon runner (and amputee) John Honney.

These are all in the very early stages of pre-publication, so there will be more information on all of these projects in due course.

Friday, 4 May 2012

As promised: Review of What Binds Us by Larry Benjamin

I feel I must start with an apology, although it is one weighted with a reason. We've been so busy getting It's a Game of Two Halves to print that I've sorely neglected the other task I promised to complete: to properly review What Binds Us. For this I am truly sorry.

So, in the spirit of 'better late than never'...

A few years back, I set myself a target: to write a 'Mills & Boon' romance. Stupid idea. More than four years on, the total word count of said novel is a little over 15,000 and unlikely to budge much in the near future. Because, the truth of the matter is, I really hate romantic novels. It's not that I'm without a heart; nor is it that my autistic social tendencies render me devoid of empathy. Why, only last week I cried! At a film shown on TV, no less! But whilst Nige likes nothing better than a romcom (preferably British, ergo starring Hugh Grant), I prefer more creative pursuits. Indeed, I can happily spend hours (or even days) staring at the blank boxes of The Guardian's cryptic crossword.

Anyway, Larry Benjamin contacted me and asked if I would include his novel on Beaten Track. I duly searched out the novel, read the introductory chapters and sent him an email to say I had enjoyed the excerpt immensely, although if I'm honest, I was at that stage also thinking 'this isn't my kind of story'. You see, What Binds Us is published by Carina Press, which is a digital arm of Harlequin, who merged with Mills & Boon in the 1950s. I already knew this before I started reading, so I came to the book with my 'romance' scotoma well and truly blighting any sense of editorial integrity I may or may not possess.

I wrote in a blog post back in 2008:
"To be perfectly honest, I don't care how Mills & Boon started or became the leviathon in bulk publishing that it is. The reality is that writing a fifty-thousand word story of wishy washy romantic adventure, no, not even adventure, is no easy feat. Or maybe it is if this is the kind of thing one likes as a reader (and it's most certainly not).

However, I firstly owe it to the company to point out that as they've been making a decent living out of this for a century, there are evidently enough people out there who do like this kind of thing. What worries me is that I don't and as a consequence I'm not really writing the sort of story that would enthrall the average M&B reader (professional women in their 20s and 30s, according to an article by Julie Bindel of The Guardian).

Nor do I want to be writing the kind of story where the heroine abandons her strength and independence to submit to a man. That kind of occupation isn't for everybody and definitely isn't one I can endorse."

However, Mills & Boon 's history (as published on their website) says:
"As society was changing, along with attitudes to family, love, sex and marriage, Mills & Boon’s authors started to reflect these developments in their writing. The traditional boundaries still remained firm - but the occasional thriller fantasy became more commonplace. The traditionally submissive heroine became more assertive undertaking solo journeys, following their heroes to foreign countries, for example."

So, whilst, Harlequin say they are "one of the world's leading publishers of books for women", these are not the bored middle class women of the past, searching for satiation within the realms of romantic fantasies where Doctor Dashingly woos Nurse Tepid behind a curtain in pre-op. In fact, I would contend that Harlequin (or Carina Press at the very least) is publishing romantic fiction for both women and men, and from all walks of life. Which is a very good thing indeed, because men need a little love and affection too!

Lesson #1: don't judge a book by its publisher.

Now to the tricky bit...

I always find it difficult to review books, especially those that I really enjoy, because in order to fully explain my enjoyment I must spoil the story. Thus, if you don't want to know about the plot of What Binds Us, I'll just say GO AND BUY IT NOW and advise you to stop reading this post!

The story begins when Thomas-Edward goes off to college, where he meets his room-mate and lifelong friend Dondi - a gregarious, wealthy and promiscuous young man who sets the power dynamic between them from the offset when he evicts Thomas-Edward from the top bunk, with the words "I hope you don't mind, but I'm a top." Without giving too much away, this relationship is explored during the following chapters, with tasteful references to Dondi's promiscuity and how painful this is to Thomas-Edward. There is an obvious risk here of a reader hating Dondi, not so much for how he chooses to live his life, but because of the effect it has on his friends and family and yet by the end of the book, I was left in no doubt that he truly loved Thomas-Edward, a fact confirmed when, blind and on his death bed, Dondi says: "All I long to see is your face... Because I loved you, I wanted the best for you. That wasn't me. You brought out the best in me, but that wasn't good enough." Needless to say, an emotional fairwell follows soon after and it is one of the most beautiful funerals I have ever seen (in written form). It is impossible for me to do it justice here, nor give any sense of the depth Larry Benjamin invests in his characters. All I can say is that he does it so well I was reduced to tears during that funeral.

This has veered somewhat from the chronology of the novel, but the relationships are the most important aspect of this story. True, there is plenty of descriptive detail concerning the characters and their surroundings: not far into the story, Dondi invites Thomas-Edward to his family home - the Whyte family mansion - and there follows extensive description of the property, furnishings, cars, clothing, jewellery etc. When I read the BitterSweet review, I became quite incensed by the fact that it criticised Larry Benjamin for this, and I couldn't help thinking that the reviewer had somehow missed the point, for whilst the narrative itself unravels in a relatively straightforward way, there is an undercurrent of subtle and cleverly constructed social commentary. The author goes to great lengths to detail the lifestyle of the wealthy, knowing it would be pointless to do the same for the common place - the working class existence of Thomas-Edward - with which he assumes the reader is already familiar. This effectively positions both himself and the main character as sharing the identity of the reader and is crucial to building empathy. Furthermore, I frequently forgot that Thomas-Edward is black, which is, on the main, irrelevant to the plot, but perhaps again serves to posit the author.

Lesson #2: don't judge a book by its reviews.

Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. Far from it! I almost feel privileged to have witnessed the blossoming of the relationship between Thomas-Edward and Dondi's younger brother Matthew and again must take exception to BitterSweet's remark that the language is a bit too sentimental, particularly when they exchange vows. I personally didn't notice, although on reflection think this may well be more in keeping with what readers might expect from a Harlequin digital imprint. On the other hand, when we ran the stage show of Champagne, a local gay man criticised us for creating unrealistic stereotypes, in that two of our characters were a closeted gay couple who were camp and outrageous and, quite frankly, a lot like many gay men I have since had the pleasure of acquainting. Whether Larry Benjamin has tried to depart from such stereotypes, or simply presented them in a different form I can't say, but it doesn't really matter. People in love are often soppy and overly sentimental, perhaps less so in public than in private and, alas, this is still even more the case for gay couples.

I guess I should end by saying that for the most part I agree with the BitterSweet review (and others), in particular where the reviewer says: "The writing in those last chapters is so heart wrenching, I didn’t just cry, I actually sobbed". However, I don't want to paint What Binds Us as a tragedy, because it isn't. One of the issues I have with entertainment based on real life is that it offers no escape from the sometimes dreadful, but more often than not terribly mundane world we inhabit. It's why I hate soap operas, serious dramas and biographies and can only just tolerate romance if it's paired with comedy. In the case of the latter, the formula makes it so predictable I can readily detach from the characters and their exploits in pursuing that elusive one true love. However, in What Binds Us, the author brings us the build-up to the big love story very early on, which means he can fully develop the characters and the events that surround them, as opposed to the usual love tunnel vision that is all about 'the chase'. Larry Benjamin's writing is so powerful, one can not help but be swept up in the emotional tide of it all.

Lesson #3: don't judge a book by its genre.

In summary, it's no doubt apparent that I absolutely loved What Binds Us. It might at first seem contradictory to say there were times when I desperately wanted to stop reading it, when I needed to be getting on with all the other things I had to do (like finishing writing my own novel, for instance). Most of all though, it was because the more I read, the closer I was to the end and I didn't want it to end. And I'd always thought the phrase 'couldn't put it down' was an overused, vacuous cliche!

Final Lesson: go read What Binds Us and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Writing, Reading - What Binds Us? An Interim Review

No Censorship
I am in love with Larry Benjamin. Absolutely 100% in love, yet furious with him at the same time.

His first novel, What Binds Us... I just can't put it down! I've got books to edit, whole courses of study to plan, but that damned novel keeps getting in the way.

I passed the halfway mark this morning and the realisation was devastating. I don't want the story to end: if it were the twice the length of War and Peace, I'd gladly keep on reading and reading. I know the characters so well by now that they are as real to me as my own creations; they are real people. I can almost see them in my mind's eye and I'm as surprised as they are themselves when they discover each other.

And it makes me question how I have the audacity to call myself an author, but it also reminds me why I am, why we all are:
    "Dondi tells me you're a writer," Mr. Whyte said to me.
    "Yes...I mean, I hope to be one day."
   "Now, son, either you are or you aren't. You don't choose to write like you choose to be a fireman. It's something that comes from inside you. It's a kind of compulsion. It can be a curse or a blessing."
    "I think it's more of a curse sometimes." I'd never expressed this to anyone. "Sometimes I want to write. I see things that I have to write down. But then later on, I look at it and I wonder why I bothered. I can't imagine anyone being interested in what I wrote."
    "You mustn't write for other people. You must write what you feel. If you believe in what you write, others will develop an interest. Don't cater to an interest. Create an interest."
    "Write what you know. Write what you've experienced, what you've imagined. Write as if you were trying to share your vision with your best friend."
    "That's another thing. I don't think I've experienced enough to write about. I haven't really done anything."
    "You've lived," he said. "You've felt. Start with that. The rest will come with time. Just remember: fear nothing. For a writer, there can be no bad experiences."

Larry Benjamin I salute you. You are fabulous!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Editor or censor: two hats, one job? Updates and Additions

The title's allusion to a certain fetish video is deliberate, for it is, arguably, one of the greatest successes in viral marketing, such that porn ever needs to big itself up in order to sell (colloquial pun also intended). It is, like toilet paper, something we could do without, but for some, those essential functions of life are made a whole lot more pleasurable by its existence, although for most to a lesser extent when the two collide on an erotic level.

I was made aware of this particular creation via a means other than the extensive coverage it receives online (I dare not 'google' it to give exact figures, for fear of what might, um, pop up, but I have seen the search results often enough to comment with qualification). My knowledge comes courtesy of the adolescent males I work with on a day-to-day basis, whereby I am bestowed with the arduous task of trying to keep them on the normative straight and narrow - a job made ever more difficult by their access to all manner of media that are revolting, unnecessary, disgusting, tasteless, repulsive, brutal, violent, vile and generally unacceptable. To me.

And there's the rub.

Who am I to call the moral shots, but a knowingly under-read social scientist with a preference for escapist entertainment? The world is a horrid place, where the powerful systematically oppress the powerless in ways that fiction would not dare to imagine. Nor do I want it to, for there is nothing wrong with letting our minds conjure up better realities, where the weak find strength and everyone lives happily ever after. To those who contend "but real life isn't like that", no it's not, you're quite right. If you want real life, then put down that book you're reading and go for a walk instead, because this is fiction. It can be anything we want it to be.

To return momentarily to the aforementioned short film, or in fact a variation thereof: a similar clip prompted much debate a while back, when one of my charges declared "that's f***ing disgusting" in response to the general giggling that had ensued from the revelation of said clip's subject matter. In this variety, we find supposed members (must stopping doing that) of the Roman Catholic clergy engaging in acts we are generally led to believe they don't, other than the more frequent than freak abhorrences the press delight in sharing with us, of course. On this occasion, the ecumenical matter is fecal and, apparently, delicious.

Now, at this point in the discussion, I was more compelled to attend to the pre-vomit saliva welling in my mouth than an explanation of the inappropriateness or danger of their obsession with all things revolting, but they are teenaged boys - relatively immature ones at that. The world so far is a great and wondrous place, filled with surprising invitations to masturbate and imbibe drugs they can name but not identify. Even so, these boys recognised their giggling as a reaction to the discomfort they felt and thankfully the conversation reverted to a more acceptable topic (aka gratuitously violent computer games involving the undead).

For all of this, I still can't decide whether conventional morality is a safety net which stops us from falling into the abyss of our most base behaviours, or a web spun by a moral majority with oblique intent to trap and immobilise dissent. A couple of years ago, when the Top Gear trio were traversing the great US state of Alabama, someone (Clarkson and May, the viewers are led to believe) decided it would be really funny to paint 'MAN LOVE RULES OK' in pink along the side of Richard Hammond's pick-up truck. As Hammond explains:
[W]e all felt that we would cause, at worst, a ripple of offence no deeper than that which might be generated among the residents of Cornwall by three visitors driving their cars through Truro with "Cream teas are rubbish" painted down the sides. We covered three miles before being placed in genuine fear for our lives.

Far be it from me to pass judgement on the response of the good people of Alabama (although I often do offline, at length and not very eloquently), but suffice to say it revealed with a stark clarity the immense chasm between their attitude towards homosexuality and that generally held in the UK. It is only necessary to add that it hasn't always been this way (and the bigotry remains in some - hopefully small - pockets of British society) because it is almost funny to look back now on the production of 'Champagne' - a stage play with music I co-wrote with Nige. Our incentive was the prospect of creating something that would sell on shock value, whilst presenting a view that we truly held: gay relationships were (and will always be) as valid as straight ones. But this was 1994, when Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was still in force, in which it was ordained that local authorities and their schools must not teach "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

Well, we got our five minutes of (local) fame, as did one of our lead actors, whose speed and stealth spared him a gay-bashing on the way home from the theatre one night. As he later pointed out, live on BBC Radio Merseyside, it wasn't as if the show involved 'anal thrusting', which went down a treat, as you can imagine. Nige and I were kicked out of the church worship group, a situation that remained unchanged even after two hours of fervent debate with the vicar (the first nail in the coffin containing my Christianity). He contended that we had a moral obligation to present a Christian perspective on homosexuality. I argued that we had, because there really was no anal thrusting, although we had stepped beyond mere tolerance of 'those different to ourselves'. Back in 1994, Champagne sent the same message that the posters pinned in my high school now declare: "Some people are gay. Get over it.". It also highlighted the dangers of drug abuse, unsafe sex and domestic violence, all in keeping with the preachings of modern Christianity, but that is by-the-by.

This leads me to explain that this blog post is really a prelude to upcoming releases, the first of which is the eBook of Champagne, the novel I penned following the stage show, formerly published in paperback by highblue and already available to purchase. When it was listed on Amazon as 'homoerotic' fiction, on account of a couple of fairly tame passages involving sex between the two main characters, I was livid. I've written other books where the characters engage in sexual relations at some point, as part of the overall development of the plot, and I am not required to list these publications as 'erotic', because on the main they are not. However, in spite of a general air of acceptance (in the UK at least), it appears that one's readers are presumed heterosexual and must be forewarned, lest such content offends their straight sensibilities.

Warning done with, Champagne is best described by my editor, D.P. Ryan:
"Set during a period of significant social and cultural change in the early 1980s, Champagne opens up a world of seedy revue bars, prostitution, abuse, drug addiction and the devastating effect of AIDS. Centred around the events of a declining revue bar and its regeneration, a young man comes of age and finds his first love whilst looking for his estranged, abusive father. Through dark humour and strong characterisation the book is not only eye-opening, but also manages to capture a truly unique time in popular culture."

It is worth noting that the writing of this novel was undertaken with a deliberate, if somewhat subtle, political intent that will remain valid for as long as it is labelled as 'homoerotic'. And yet, the school I work in is testimony to the immense social change that we have seen over the past two decades. At most, a student or teacher might ask of another 'Is he gay?', but it is a question with no more significance than 'What car does he drive?'. Our most popular mainstream TV shows have main characters who just happen to be gay and the straights are merely surprised to discover a celebrity's non-heterosexuality if they seem a little too masculine / feminine to 'be the type'. A (gay male) friend of mine recently remarked that he was becoming increasingly intolerant of gay men whose campness was a fashion statement. In the not-so-distant past, overtly 'gay' behaviour served as a means of signalling one's identity to those who shared it. Now, according to my friend, it is the calling card of a screaming queen and quite unnecessary. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps now Champagne is just a simple love story and if so, then this is how it should be.

Champagne will be available in epub, mobi and Kindle editions before the summer. Watch this space for further information.

The second release is one which has caused me great difficulty, as indicated by the title and lengthy pre-amble to this post. 'Crush' is also the story of two men who fall in love. It is tragic, beautiful and compelling and, considering the personal-political views I have expressed above, it should be a given that I would add it to the Beaten Track catalogue without a second thought. However, it is more than a month since the author, Laura Johnson, made contact. I duly visited the Crush page on Smashwords and downloaded the sample, having noted the warning that "This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under, and which may be offensive to some readers of all ages." I read as far as I could, through page upon page of brutal child sexual abuse, maintaining objectivity by pondering over the distinction between gratuity and political cause. I reached the first incidence of animal cruelty and that was me done. I could go no further, but there was so much more to this story, I hoped.

In an attempt to glean the author's intent, I visited her Facebook page, where her profile picture was a freedom ribbon and her latest post was in regard to the need to act against animal cruelty. Our communications since have made it apparent that Crush, whilst too horrific for this naive little reader, is not gratuitous. In response to my concern that an author (and indeed a readership) might fetishise the more brutal aspects of human sexuality and behaviour, Johnson responded:
"Though I wouldn't want to make the story less brutal than it has to be, I also do not wish to placate audiences who would be titilated by child abuse and brutality. I do not have the slightest idea how I can find a happy medium there. Is there a way to convey the horror of abuse without "wallowing" in it?"

The question could be rhetorical. My personal feeling is that in the modern world, where readers' imaginations are curtailed by media technology, the answer has to be no. Many readers will need a literal account of the 'horrors of abuse' and, as one of my more experienced proof-readers remarked, whilst some of the descriptions of both animal and child abuse are horrific, they are in context and not at all glorified.

Satisfied that the author's intentions were good and that the violence contained within this wonderfully written novel was no more or less horrendous than others of its kind, I decided that I would add Crush to the Beaten Track catalogue, but then...

...Along came PayPal's decision, or rather, the decision imposed on them by banks and credit card companies. In mid February, PayPal issued an ultimatum to independent booksellers such as Smashwords to remove all publications that included certain types of erotica, in particular "bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica". Failure to do so would result in the suspension of accounts and with-holding of funds. Without getting into the complexities of the matter, it would seem that this was not a sudden change of policy - as the Dear Author blog notes, PayPal have had strict rules on this for some time.

Since then, PayPal have clarified and amended their policy on 'Acceptable Use':
"First and foremost, we are going to focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity: material that appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value)."

The main question here is how one might judge material as lacking "...serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value"? The Miller Test is the US legal standard on which such judgements are based and is considered an objective test, based on the view of the "average person, applying contemporary community standards".

Without getting into any heavy social scientific analysis of the social construction of sexuality, it is nonetheless pertinent to consider the following observation of Ancient Greece made by philosopher Michel Foucault:
"Sexual relations thus demanded particular behaviors on the part of both partners. A consequence of the fact that the boy could not identify with the part he had to play; he was sup­posed to refuse, resist, fiee, escape. He was also supposed to make his consent, if he finally gave it, subject to conditions relating to the man to whom he yielded (his merit, his status, his virtue) and to the benefit he could expect to gain from him (a benefit that was rather shameful if it was only a question of money, but honorable if it involved training for manhood, social connections for the future, or a lasting friendship)."

By 'contemporary community standards', this depicts rape and child abuse. In Ancient Greece this was not so: engagement in prostitution (either by prostituting oneself or others) resulted in debarrment from positions of public office, but "certain sexual roles assumed by boys and certain social roles assumed by adults" were considered moral, ethical and legal. And that is the problem with applying contemporary notions of morality to literature, because it does not die with the times.

All of this is, of course, a long-winded justification for the addition of Crush to Beaten Track. We will be launching our own online store in a few weeks' time; until then, PayPal's policies (and therefore US Law) have no jurisdiction, although In English Law, the Obscene Publications Act 1959 makes the distribution, circulation or sale of obscene materials an offence, unless " is proved that publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern.". It is my belief that, in the interests of literature and general concern, the publication of Crush is justified as being for the public good.

Crush, by Laura Johnson, is available in a variety of electronic formats, including Kindle (mobi) and epub.

The third addition is 'We The Animals', by Justin Torres, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Hardcover) and Granta Books (Kindle edition), a novel which Torres says is 'relatively autobiographical' - fiction borrowing from real life, something he suggests all authors do. Thus, it was not the novel itself that had me sold initially. I must confess that it was the 'buzz' which drew me in, alerted to it by an article in The Guardian Weekend magazine (Justin Torres: my parents put me in a mental institution; 24th March, 2012), where Torres tells of his incarceration in a mental institution at the age of 17, delivered there by his parents and one of his brothers, essentially on account of his homosexuality. This in itself is not surprising, given that it was the 1990s, in a small town in New York state; add to this Torres' own perception at that time of his sexuality as 'filthy', the self harm and drug use, the possible justifications for his 'treatment' abound. As one commentor on The Guardian's page for the article writes:
"You admit you were depressed, paranoid, and self-harming, and you were probably self-medicating through drugs, but still you insist they locked you up because you're gay? That really is nuts. I agree that a trip to a counsellor might have been a more appropriate first step to helping you, but you definitely come across as someone with problems. Maybe nobody really cares that you are gay apart from you. Ever considered that?"

A few others appear to share this sentiment: indeed the balance between negative and positive comments is quite even, with many citing Torres' confrontational writing style, or his use of the words 'queer' and 'faggot' by way of explaining their discomfort. Still others make the mistake of over-simplifying the cause, as illustrated by the opinion above. Justin Torres was locked up because he was gay, not in a 1960s electrodes attached to the genitals kind of way, but because of the 'pervasive, scalding shame' behind the self-harm, the violent reaction to discovering his family had read his private journals and so on. For, as much as I would like to agree with my friend's analysis - that 'out, loud and proud' is no longer a political necessity - the reactionary comments to Torres' queer stance demonstrate beyond doubt that it is as crucial now as it ever was.

And so to 'We The Animals': if I'm honest, the current price of the Kindle edition (£7.77) is beyond that which I would normally pay or endorse. This is certainly not a cheap read, and with just 144 pages, it almost feels unfinished. The crossover between real life and fiction is immediately apparent, leaving me with a sense that the plot is building up to a pivotal moment in the life of both the main character and the author. It is a moment that never arrives and I realise all at once that it's my own fault, for wanting a happy ending, or a new beginning, and for casting author and character as one and the same.

'We The Animals' is a gloriously frank and beautifully written account of childhood and adolescence. What is most striking is the author's capacity to capture this innocence, his portrayal of sex and violence as almost insignificant sources of bewilderment and curiosity when seen through the eyes of a child.

'We The Animals', by Justin Torres, is available in Kindle and hardcover editions.

This post has been a long time in the writing (and in the reading - if you're still with me at this stage, well done!), in part due to monitoring the situation with PayPal, but mainly on account of other commitments, including the (ongoing) editing of several publications. Thus, if you would like to write a guest post for Beaten Track, please let us know. Articles could be your reflections / inspiration for writing your novel, reviews / previews, social commentary that is linked to writing in some way - anything with a bit of substance and originality.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

An old game of two halves - Previews and Latest Additions

UPDATE (4th May 2012):
You can now pre-order 'It's a Game of Two Halves' via our online shop:

It seems it has fallen to me, the less creative member of the Beaten Track team to write this installment. Why? I hear you ask. Whilst Deb is witty, clever and above all the font of all book type wisdom in our house, she knows next to nothing about football*, and even less about Queens Park Rangers Football Club, the team I have supported since being a very small boy.

I frequent a QPR message board on a unhealthily regular basis and noticed that one of our, shall we say, more mature members, John 'Gramps' Clifford had penned a book about his early days supporting our club (1939 onwards) and was donating ALL the proceeds to the club's charitable arm 'QPR in the Community Trust' which "helps provide football for children and young people with Downs Syndrome and focuses on creating progressive, vibrant hubs of sporting & social activities, leading to enhanced life experiences."

This was all the incentive I needed and a few emails later, we had agreed to proof, typeset and publish the ebook formats for free.

In addition, during the aforementioned small boy period of my life, I attended many many games with a (now) long time friend, Fred Hartman who by some strange coincidence is also nearing completion of a QPR book. It seemed too good an opportunity to turn down: two QPR books on the virtual shelves of Beaten Track's emporium of electronic prose.

'QPR - The Old Days' is a wander down cobbled backstreets, where football heroes mingled in the public houses and bookmakers alongside the very people that paid to watch them on a Saturday afternoon. This was an era with no 'sports science', Isotonic drinks and custom moulded boots. If the manager wanted you to try harder, he'd hide your cigarettes and throw a boot at you during the half time team talk. Grass on the pitch during the winter months was optional and it seemed to get a red card you'd have to carry a Smith and Wesson .38 special onto the field of play.

Part reminiscence, part historical fact, this book is a fascinating insight into that now forgotten culture where men played the game for the love, rather than the money, and a football ground was more akin to a church fete than an afternoon of corporate entertainment.

Fast forward 70 odd years and Fred Hartman takes us on a journey of a completely different kind which, to likeminded QPR brethren, will remain in their memories long after they have forgotten the names of their childhood pet cat and, dare I say it, even their children.

'A Game Of Two Halves' is predominantly a biographical look back at the Championship winning 2010-2011 season, although not in the usual "I went to every game - home and away" style every of other book out there. Supporters like Fred, (and me for that matter) began as youngsters attending all games, but we grew up, got married, had kids, and took on huge mortgages. We moved away from the supporting heartlands. Therefore we get our matchday fix wherever we can, be it via internet text commentary, forums, TV, radio or even a friend tweeting live from the ground. Imagine, if you will, a forty-something man in the middle of a packed Costa Coffee jumping up suddenly and shouting "yessssssssss!!!", his spouse and offspring's quickly reddening faces gazing into their gingerbread lattes so intently they now have foam on their noses, wishing the ground would swallow them whole. This is reality for the modern, displaced supporter.

As the title of the book suggests, this is only half the story. The remainder of the book is a biographical meandering through Fred's Hoops-supporting life, with the boring, non-football bits taken out. Even though he chooses to start the book with the passing of a close friend, the caustically dry wit shines through even the darkest of times, which, if you are a QPR supporter, you'll know are many and varied.

Both books manage admirably to weave real football fact, which will appeal to the historians among you, with a true insight into what it means to be, and to have been a 'fan' in the truest sense of the word. Between them, these books cover over 70 years of supporting The R's. It's weeks like this that I have the best (part time) job in the world.

QPR - The Old Days is available now. A Game Of Two Halves is scheduled for release in time for Easter. Healthier than a chocolate egg and will last a lot longer.

Nigel Paice

*Editor's note

When Nige first penned this post some weeks ago, I did include a witty quip at the end to illustrate that I am, in fact, not quite so 'football-ignorant' as he implies! However, a more important point needs to be made here. We were hoping to offer pre-release ordering for A Game of Two Halves, but unfortunately this service is not available to us lowly independents via Amazon. We've been trying to find a work-around... there isn't one!

Thus: if you would like to keep updated on the official release of A Game of Two Halves, please send us a message via the Beaten Track Contact page and we will let you know as soon as the book is available. Be assured that we will temporarily store your email address locally and only send you messages related to this release, unless you request otherwise.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Award

Tomorrow (23rd January) sees the start of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award entry period.

The contest, sponsored by Amazon, Createspace, Penguin Group USA and Publishers Weekly, offers two grand prizes of a full publishing contract with Penguin, with a $15,000 payment to the winners (one each for general fiction and young adult fiction).

There are also prizes for finalists, quarter-finalists and second round finalists. Winners will be announced on June 16th. To my knowledge, all entrants receive a code to order a free proof copy of their novel from Createspace.

To be eligible to enter, you must be at least 13 years old and fully own the rights to a novel of between 50,000 and 150,000 words (i.e. it must not have been subject to a publishing deal before, but can already be self-published).

Entry is straightforward: in the first instance you will need to register with Createspace; you will then need to submit a pitch of less than 300 words, an excerpt of between 3,000 and 5,000 words and the complete version of your manuscript. The entry period runs from 23rd January to 5th February, or until 5,000 entries are received for your category (young adult fiction or general fiction).

Further details on the entry requirements and official rules can be found on the contest website:

Friday, 6 January 2012

Meeting the need to read

I'm always surprised when my occupations collide, which is strange, given that being an educator and an author are more similar than they are different. For instance, both involve the imparting of information to an audience; then there is the fact that a certain level of discipline is required, in the form of rules and deadlines, if one is to succeed in meeting one's aims and, much as it pains me to admit it, the outcomes of doing so in either role are equally rewarding.

Of course, to suggest that the role of teacher or author consists of 'imparting information' implies that the 'audience' is a passive receptacle, an empty vessel awaiting fulfillment, when indeed this notion has long since been abandoned in respect of our readers and is presently unfashionable in education, where the dichotomy of 'teaching and learning' has been reordered and replaced by a perceptually more egalitarian notion of 'learning and teaching'. Nonetheless, as a qualified, time-served member of the teaching profession, and one with a highly academic specialism at that, there are times when I can not help but engage in the didactic transmission of knowledge: me teacher, you students. Listen and learn, read and inwardly digest - that sort of thing.

Those engaged in teaching forty years ago perhaps did not experience a guilty sense of 'educating without consent', although (ignoring democratic consensus for a moment) all compulsory education is precisely this, which is where teaching and authorship depart to some degree. Novel writing is always a compromise between what we want to write and what we believe our audience wants to read. Get it wrong and they put the book down for good, a luxury of choice withheld from students, regardless of the quality of teaching / learning they are forced to endure.

As usual I digress, for my goal here is not to present ad hoc, anecdotal career advice. Rather, it is to vent my frustration at having received, from Amazon, a somewhat useless and generic guide to accessing Kindle books on multiple devices in response to querying whether Kindle based school libraries were possible. To put this in context, some years ago my school dispensed with its poorly stocked, rarely accessed library, a decision which, in light of Mr. Gove's 'golden age of education' delusion, is at best regrettable. Nonetheless, we needed the space and the finance freed by this move to fund our ever burgeoning computer network - a priority ascribed by the previous Government.

Now, as the Office of Standards in Education arm up with a new literacy based remit, we, like many institutions, are faced with the massive challenge of resuscitating reading for pleasure in a culture that has declared it a relic of the past. And whilst I (begrudgingly) agree with the Education Secretary's assertion that "Children who cannot read are condemned to spend their entire life in a prison house of ignorance"1., 'austerity' measures (robbing from the poor to give to the rich) have not only devastated our public library system, but ensured that parents already short on family time must now work longer and less sociable hours than ever before.

For all of this, children are reading, just not as much or in the same way as they used to. Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust in 20112. shows a preference for online reading - websites and emails have replaced comics and books, although more than half of the respondents reported that they read magazines, so it is not just the technological paradigm at work. Of greater concern is the significant decline in book reading related to children's age and one imagines Facebook is in no small way to blame. True enough, the transition from primary to secondary education puts an end to the fanatical and universal trawling home with reading books and on one level I'm very glad about that. There is nothing worse than dragging a screaming, kicking nine year old through the mandatory five pages of Biff, Chip and Kipper, the only benefit being that it won't be me coming under the scrutiny of a terrifyingly disappointed primary head teacher.

Thus, it is not so much that I believe Mr. Gove when he suggests illiteracy condemns our children in their ignorance. This is relatively easy to address: increase rather than reduce the funding to public libraries and schools; put reading at the centre of the curriculum; continue to set reading as homework at high school. All of these measures will force children to learn to read.

Alas what it can not do is make them like, or even love, reading, let alone writing. It is not just a 'prison house of ignorance' which threatens our society, but the poverty of creativity and expression, be that through the written word, music, sculpture or otherwise. It is not naive to suggest that the behavioural problems experienced by many of today's young people result from incapacity of expression. Various forms of mental health treatment and therapy utilise creative pursuits - painting, poetry, even the simple act of writing a letter - because they are the safest way of freely expressing our emotions and 'getting it off our chest'. Without such outlets, we must attempt to keep our frustrations firmly locked away, until such point as they become too great to contain.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with Kindle libraries in schools: if, as the research implies, young people are not reading books, but are reading online, then it is logical to conclude that they might find reading of books via Kindle or some other technological means a more tempting proposition than being coerced into carting a hard copy of 'The Hobbit' around for the next term. Now, if Amazon might like to catch up / read my questions more thoroughly (delete as applicable), I'd be happy to pilot a Kindle based library in my school, because I truly believe in the power of reading and writing, even if I doubt both the veracity and efficacy of Michael Gove's policies to eradicate illiteracy. In light of the cuts to arts funding and the absence of the visual and performing arts from the English Baccalaureate, the literacy drive is all that is left - a lone and inadequate raft on a Wide Sargasso Sea.

But we do have the technology...

  1. London Evening Standard (1st June, 2011) Michael Gove promises to free children from 'prison house of ignorance'
  2. National Literacy Trust (2011) The Gift of Reading in 2011: Children and young people's access to books and attitudes towards reading

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Back on the Beaten Track...

It's been a while since I wrote a blog post: seven weeks, at a guess, because it was some time in the first half of November, when National Novel Writing Month was in full flow. And whilst little has been happening within the realms of Beaten Track, it's been a hectic time otherwise.

Firstly, I finished NaNoWriMo, sort of, which is to say that I wrote more than 50,000 words (64,740, to be precise) and stuck in a few brief paragraphs, sets of bullet points etc. to outline the key plot points at the end. The editing, re-writing and whatever else this novel needs should be well under way by now, but alas this is not so. I've researched a little, changed some character names, tinkered with the first chapter - the usual toe-dip at the shoreline of the deep blue sea that is the first edit of a novel in progress. Before I go any further I'll have a good ponder over the star charts, draw up a map and sketch in the major landmarks, in the hope I don't get too lost once I set sail for real.

I also completed a far greater challenge, which has nothing and everything to do with writing at the same time. You see, my office / study / writer's den is what the rest of my family like to call 'the kitchen' and I suppose they have a point, given that it is where the cooker, sink, washing machine, fridge and food are located. It was a well-considered move on my part to place my work area within spitting distance of the kettle, not to mention that my dad bought us an awesome coffee machine a few weeks ago, which would fit perfectly on top of the cupboard just to my left, but Nige isn't having any of it.

Anyway, to cut a very long (17 and a half years) story short (a couple of paragraphs), the kitchen has been subject to many attempts to make it more practical and / or aesthetically pleasing. It all began during my student days, with the collapse of the cupboard holding up the sink, and every face lift since has been an interim measure on the way to the stainless steel kitchen that I didn't believe I would get, as back in the nineties it was the stuff of catering establishments only. It's a tricky room to begin with, being long and narrow, making it virtually impossible to place a table so that it doesn't block the thoroughfare to the fridge. Add to this the bizarre route of the chimney, the butt-end of a long-gone dividing wall and some substantial concrete cupboards and we're left with little room for manouevre.

Other than these permanent fixtures, the rest has been more or less rebuilt. We went from the original grey and pink tile-on-a-roll wallpaper, floral curtains and teak laminated chipboard, to 'farm kitchen' rough plaster and hand-built pine (and I really mean hand-built - like the sound effects on early Queen albums produced with 'no synths', I had no power tools for ease of sawing and drilling - I now own no less than five electric saws!). We had so much stuff, none of it matching, all of it secondhand, which is all well and good - I like recycling and saving money, but a cluttered work space is not conducive to good writing. If I get past the distraction of the mismatched, disorganised mess of everyday life in the first place, then it is guaranteed to make some kind of appearance in my work, unconsciously or otherwise. Thus, in the past my characters have variously blown up Christmas tree lights, tended lawns in blistering August sun, spent insomniac nights chatting online, consumed copious amounts of coffee and survived for weeks at a time on cheese on toast. More recently they might be found plastering, rewiring or in a state of woeful despair on account of collapsing walls and leaking pipes.

The kitchen as it was when we moved in.

Our first attempt - the surveyor suggested we invest in a proper kitchen. Pfft.

A snapshot of a wall at Manchester Airport, which became the colour scheme for the next paint job - this was during the post small children / pre-digital photography phase, so no photographic evidence could be located.

How we lived for the past two years - holes and rough plaster, prior to which there were holes and no plaster, a general lack of ceiling and half-fitted stainless steel cupboards.

The kitchen as it is now, complete with granite flooring, stainless steel, rewiring, plastered and papered walls and it all matches. Hurrah!

And so I return to what I started some time ago, although it has to be said that until such point as writing and publishing becomes my main source of income (an unfortunate catch 22 presides here), the best policy may well be to declare November and December my annual holiday from paid employment. After all, it is the part of the year when I write the most, improve my home and spend time with my family. It strikes me that this is more how things should be all year round. And since it's January 1st, it would be apt to declare my resolve to make it so. I won't be doing this, because we all know that New Year's Resolutions are made to be broken - it's only a matter of time. However, I'm happy to commit to doing my very best in continuing to develop Beaten Track Publishing, safe as I am in the knowledge that my workload is somewhat lighter in the first half of the year and that building a publishing company is a lot easier than rebuilding a kitchen!