Category Archives: Books and Writers

Giving Effective Beta Feedback

I feel it worth saying that this article is aimed towards one-to-one and small group beta/critique partners. I can’t comment on larger, less personal environments like online critiquing communities simply because I’ve never been a long-term member of one.

Sarah Callender wrote an excellent blog on Writer Unboxed today. She wrote about the relationship she has with her long-standing beta reader, and the beta process. Like any good social media presence, WU packaged both the article and Tweet promoting it with a call to action: “What positive experiences have you had with a beta reader… and why was it so positive? Or, why did a beta reader… relationship not work out so well?”

What started as a blog reply ended up making me think. Obviously, this meant I needed a lie down. Unfamiliar activity does tire one out. While there is a lot of emotional responsibility on the part of the writer not to be unreasonable or explosive, a lot of beta issues I’ve had come from a couple of specific places. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to write about my experience of receiving excellent critiques/beta feedback, and what I’ve learned in two years of giving people feedback as a part of my day job. Continue reading

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Writing With Depression

TRIGGER WARNING: drink, drugs, psych medication, depression.

The first thing I’d like to say is this: I’m not a psychiatric professional of any type. I’m not a licensed counsellor, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a psychiatrist. I also don’t claim to offer a definitive view of depression.

However, I am a 40-year-old writer who has suffered depression since childhood. I’m not by any means the first person in my family to have it: my father battled severe depression. My grandmother was an unbelievably intelligent, otherwise indomitable woman. Continue reading

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Writing the High-Functioning Sociopath

 

I’ve just finished Aliette de Bodard’s Tea Master and the Detective, a science fiction novella set in a spacefaring civilisation with technology bordering on the magical (if there was such a thing, I’d call it ‘High Sci Fi’). The novella was, as de Bodard herself freely admits, a meditation on the qualities of great fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes (with deliberate and direct allegories to Holmes and Watson in the persons of the protagonists Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child).

I very much enjoyed Tea Master, but it made me think of something that has made me put more than one book down – antisocial, atypical prodigies, and the hinterland between what makes them a draw, rather than an irritation.

So, I thought it might be interesting, and hopefully useful to someone somewhere, if I put a few thoughts down on the phenomenon of writing the sociopathic genius. Continue reading

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Increasing Your Writing Output

Image result for head on typewriterI’m always uncomfortable writing about writing: when it comes to history I can say, “This is material that I researched, you could possibly have researched it too, but you didn’t, so here it is…”

When I’m writing about writing, I’m acutely aware of the fact that while I’ve got books out I’m not that much of a big deal. I’ve got a lot more coming out later this year, and I think I’ve got “game”, as we middle aged historians call it, but I’m not a hugely successful writer.

Still, there’s one thing I have that other people can be objectively proved not to have: output.

It may be shite, but at least I wrote it. In 2017, despite one of the worst depressive slumps of my life, I managed an output of ~220k words. I once wrote a 100,000 word novel in a week. There are people who have produced more, but I’m also aware that there are a number of people who produced less, and have expressed interest in knowing how I did it.

I’ll also be entirely honest that I’m a bit harsh in places here, but excuses are something that annoys me, particularly since I was once quite good at making them myself.

So, here it is… Continue reading

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Blackness and the Demon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

This is very much a work in progress and all input is gratefully received. I have deliberately steered away from making any analogy with modern society simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it in an informed way. If any reader has greater knowledge or capacity than me, they’re very welcome to use my work as they see fit.

In 1612, as a part of the infamous trial of the Pendle and Samlesbury witches, a young girl named Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence of her seduction to witchcraft:

“This Examinate did go with the said Jennet Bierly her grandmother, and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, to the house of Walshman, in the night time, to murder a child in a strange manner… after they had eaten [the child] the said three women and this Examinate danced every one of them with the black things: and after, the black things abused the said women. She describes four black things to go upright, but not like men in the face.”

This was far from the first time that blackness – not only the colour as we see here, but black bodies described as being racially African – had been associated with devilishness in Christianity. Continue reading

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Sceptics in the Witch Trials

woman_teaching_geometryI’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.

I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did. Continue reading

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Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Demonic Possession

drunkeness-copyCards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).

What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.

What’s my favourite part? The sly references to Demonic possession in Act Four, Scene Two. Continue reading

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Trumpageddon, The Revelation of John and the Apocalypse from the Middle Ages to the English Restoration

d5a9072468314a887f7ba9426743de45I rarely write about the modern world. From a personal perspective, my interest tends to peter out after 1650.

With that said, it would be impossible for me to write anything this week without discussing how utterly terrible 2016 has been so far… so I’ve decided this week’s articles will be about Apocalypse narratives, and predictions of disaster. Continue reading

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Why the English Never Tortured Witches

punishing-witches-laienspiegelThis blog post comes from a conversation I had with someone in a pub. I can’t remember how the conversation had come around to witches – it was somewhere between one of them having a go at me for not owning a telly, but before when they had a go at me for using too many long words.

The thing that stuck with me was the outrage I got when I mentioned that the English didn’t torture witches. I was offered the famous quote that Medieval people were nasty, brutish and short, and that their lives were shaped correspondingly.

Because of this, I’d like to make it clear that this article isn’t meant to account for every abusive blow struck in the cellar of every parish goal. It isn’t meant to say that no abuse took place, or that the conditions of Early Modern confinement were in any way pleasant.

What I think might be profitable is to look at is why the English judicial system never authorised the mass torture of witches, and why European systems did. Continue reading

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