Thursday, 26 December 2013

Exciting times!

Hard to believe it's only been a little over a month since I published my first crime novel, No Stranger to Death, which is now available as both a paperback and an e-book from Amazon. Already so much has happened, and I've encountered (not for the first time) such incredible generosity from lots of people - many of whom I have yet to meet in real life. On publication day, 20th November, I sat at my computer unable to get up and make myself another cup of tea because the congratulations were coming in so fast from friends on Twitter and Facebook, and via email. 

And a couple of days later, this happened. 

Yes, the e-book of No Stranger to Death made number 17 in the Kindle Scottish crime fiction chart, snuggling next to a couple of Ian Rankin titles! 

Because I like to use social media with the emphasis on the 'social', I've promised myself I'll never become one of those authors who forever tweet and post annoying 'Buy my book' messages. However, one of the challenges facing authors who don't have a presence in physical bookshops is making sure potential readers can find their work online. And here again other people have helped me out. Since the publication of No Stranger to Death I've been on a blog tour, guesting on other people's websites and blogs. Here are links to some of them. You'll find out lots about me and my book from these, from why I chose to self-publish to what was my stand-out moment during 2013. And of course, if you have any burning questions to ask me yourself, please email me via the handy Contact Form on this blog.

  • On Isabel Costello's Literary Sofa I explain why I decided to self-publish and how I went about it.
  • Jayne Ferst, one of my first ever Twitter pals, asked me about why I chose to write a crime novel and what readers can expect from it.
  • I accepted an invitation from Victoria Watson to review my 2013. It's been an exciting year for all sorts of reasons!
  • A fellow crime-writer, Rebecca Bradley, asked me some searching questions about how I go about writing for her My First Draft feature.
  • I even made it into my local paper, the Berwickshire News, although admittedly it was my chickens which got top billing and No Stranger to Death was only mentioned in the final paragraph.
I don't tend to make New Year resolutions but there is one thing I absolutely, definitely must do during 2014 - write the sequel to No Stranger to Death. Because now I have readers asking for it. Which is the best feeling in the world.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


My debut crime novel No Stranger to Death is now available on Amazon. It already has some of those coveted 5-star reviews. The paperback will be up there in a couple of weeks, just in time for Christmas. I plan to blog at length about the self-publishing experience during December, but in the meantime several lovely friends have invited me to appear on their blogs. Details will be posted up here as soon as they are available.

We're having a bit of a do on Saturday night to mark the occasion. With a bonfire and sparklers. I'm hoping not to find a corpse lying in the ash the next day.

Friday, 11 October 2013

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted . . .

. . . Now, if I only knew which half."

I started off not knowing what to blog about this week. Not due to a lack of subject matter but because there is too much to choose from. You see, I’m planning the marketing campaign for No Stranger to Death.

Many people will probably equate marketing with paid advertising, but it’s actually so much more. And thank goodness for that. Like most self-published authors, I don’t have the money to spend on above-the-line promotion, so instead I must be inventive.

There’s no end of information on the internet for self-published authors. I use the term ‘no end’ purposely. Google ‘book marketing tips’ and you’ll get more than 58 million results (that’s more than Downton Abbey, though less than Miley Cyrus). Even working through the excellent post on the Your Writer Platform blog, ‘101 Quick Actions You Can Take Today to Build the Writer Platform of Your Dreams’, is a challenge. Of the 46 ideas I marked as worth considering, so far I've done . . . seven. 

As well as having to be inventive due to lack of budget, the self-published author must also maximise another scarce resource: time. This means I mustn’t waste my time telling people about No Stranger to Death who would never want to read it anyway. Quick Action number 4 of those 101 is ‘Research your target audience’, but I would put it at number 1. If I ruled the world, reading at least one book each month would be mandatory from the age of six. However, hard though it is hard to fathom, not everyone reads for pleasure and – even more shocking – not all readers enjoy crime fiction. So before I can start connecting with my potential readers, I need to find out who they are.

Here’s a question for you. Which of these people is most likely to be a crime (or, as they say in the USA, mystery) fiction reader?

It’s hard to find concrete evidence of exactly who reads crime fiction most avidly. I even searched the Open University digital library (which has information on everything) and came up empty. I’m sure large publishers have researched this, but they’re keeping such valuable information close to their chests. However, an article on the HarperCollins Killer Reads website, ‘Why are women so attracted to crime fiction?’, suggests it’s a given that far more women than men read crime. This is backed up by a survey carried out in 2012 on behalf of the Crime Writers’ Association, which states that the typical crime reader is ‘a woman, aged sixty-plus, married but with no children living at home . . .’

Although slightly older than I expected (until I remembered how old I am now), the CWA’s findings confirm what I suspected. I’m basing my assumptions on personal experience: years of meeting fellow crime fiction fans at events like CrimeFest and through social networking sites like Twitter. So the answer to my challenge is the older lady in turquoise (it’s not just crime fiction we have in common).

Now I know who my target audience is, but guess what? Turns out that’s the easy part. I need to decide how I’m going to reach them. That’s another challenge. And material for another blog post, as this one has gone on long enough.

Do you recognise this ‘typical’ crime reader? I’d like to know what you think. Please leave a comment below, or tweet me: @janetokane.

All pictures this week are courtesy of, and the quotation is attributed to John Wanamaker, a 19th-century pioneer in marketing.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Wordless Wednesday

One of my favourite pictures at the National Galleries of Scotland:  Pas Meche (Doing Nothing) by Jules Bastien-Lepage

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Pride of place

I am presently waiting to hear back from my editor and my book cover designer, after which I will be thrown into frenzied activity in order to publish No Stranger to Death in November. So now is the time for a relaxing trip around the Scottish Borders as I share with you some locations which helped me write my first novel.

My answer to that old chestnut 'Where do you get your ideas from?' can often be a literal one: from a place. On seeing an interesting building or view, I ask myself, 'What can I make happen here?' or think, 'That would make a great setting for . . .' This is partly down to a weakness on my part: as I wrote No Stranger to Death I learnt that despite being able to conjure up people and plots from nowhere, I struggle to invent settings. Also, if I have a place in my head, I find it far easier to write the scenes which happen there.

Thanks to the internet, we can all observe Greek islands, the Grand Canyon, even the Antarctic without stirring from our desks, but if possible I prefer to experience a place first-hand, to hear the sounds, smell the smells and spot the little details that will give my writing authenticity. The Borders is a boon to writers and artists (which is probably why so many live here) because the region is packed full of inspiring places, large and small, natural and man-made.

Here are just a few examples of real-life places that have found their way into my book. And no, I’m not sponsored by VisitScotland but I think that as an ‘incomer’ I’m possibly more excited by what I see than people who have grown up surrounded by all this loveliness.

I first saw this building several years ago before it was made into a lovely home. It used to be the stable block of a much bigger property, and formed the basis for the coach house which my main character, Zoe, is having converted. But will she ever move in?

This house was my inspiration for Larimer Hall, where Zoe’s unwelcome suitor, Neil Pengelly, lives with his brother Peter. In my book, Zoe can see the Hall from an upper room in her coach house; in reality several miles separate the properties.

This is Kelso town hall as seen from the window of Zoe’s favourite café. Actually I’ve cheated; there is no café there, just a tiny branch of Boots. And why does Zoe keep going there?

Many graveyards in the Borders are not adjacent to churches but on the outskirts of villages. This is the pretty entrance to a small graveyard which serves the village of Leitholm, on which I based much of my fictional village, Westerlea. Zoe attends a rather eventful burial here.

When Zoe is taken by her friend Kate for a fish supper in Eyemouth, the first thing she sees when she gets out of the car is Gunsgreen House which, Kate tells her, was built by an eighteenth-century gentleman smuggler. Later that evening, they bump into the people Kate blames for two recent deaths, although Zoe isn’t so sure.

I've already started preparing for the follow-up to No Stranger to Death by finding some more great locations. But first I need to get this book published . . .

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


I love the idea of #WordlessWednesday: a blog post consisting of just a picture. So here's my first. It is a preamble to my next full post, where I'll be talking about Borders locations which have inspired my writing. Here is one of them.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Can you make the trees more threatening?

I've already blogged about briefing Kim McGillivray, my cover designer for No Stranger to Death. Well, this week I got to see the concepts he has come up with. And no, the illustration above isn't one of them. At Kim's suggestion, we met at the recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which currently has a glorious exhibition of men in tartan. Our First Minister may eschew the kilt, but in past times notable Scotsmen did not.

Under the gaze of several non-kilted, famous Scots (the Gallery's cafe is, admirably, an extension of its display space) Kim took me through his creative process. He has read the entire novel in order to pull out large elements he might explore visually, such as trees, winter and fire. He was also looking for small details, like the owl that Zoe, my main character, watches as it swoops down in front of her to catch a mouse.

I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work, so I very much wanted to see an artist's approach to generating ideas. To my surprise, I suppose because I expected him to think in images, Kim's initial output was in words. Then, after narrowing down possibilities he started sketching his ideas out.

He presented me with three concepts: two representational and a third which concentrated on capturing the mood of my novel. We looked at paperback-sized printouts of each of these, then moved to his laptop to see them as they would initially appear online, as thumbnails. Immediately, the ‘mood’ cover jumped out at me. Even in its infancy it was great. Then Kim put it up on the screen alongside the thumbnails of published book covers I had sent him. 
It looked fantastic. To say I was stunned would be like saying Agatha Christie sold a few books. Suddenly No Stranger to Death was no longer just words in my head!

Having agreed on the concept to go with, Kim and I then discussed details of the design. The title of this post is just one of my requests he has now gone away to put into action. We also agreed to include a teaser, a small detail on the cover, the significance of which will only become clear at the end of the book. It would be unfair to Kim and not do justice to the work he has put in to show you this early version of my cover, but here’s the title and, gulp, my name. See, he has even managed to incorporate some turquoise!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

You don't know what you don't know

The evidence never lies, Nick

Mark Billingham tells a story about sharing a festival stage with a pretentious literary writer who spoke at length about how she felt her characters’ presence when writing and how they, rather than she, dictated the story. When the spotlight turned on Mark, he explained his own creative process thus: ‘I just make shit up’.  

I’m certainly of the making-shit-up school, but sometimes my imagination needs to be augmented with solid facts. I’m a big fan of research, not just because I don’t like to get things wrong, but because of what I call the ‘You don’t know what you don’t know' principle. While fact-checking, I regularly learn something completely different to, and often more interesting than, what I set out to discover. This happens most often when I involve people, rather than books or the internet, in the process. Here are three examples of how the YDKWYDK principle has helped me in writing No Stranger to Death.

CSI: Scotland
Writing my first novel started with a single idea: using a village’s Guy Fawkes bonfire to dispose of a body. This idea also presented me with my first challenge, to find out the extent to which that body would be destroyed. This was many years ago, when I was a mature student at Edinburgh University, so I made an appointment to meet with someone in the Forensic Medicine department. It was the first time I ever used the ‘I’m writing a novel and need to know . . . ‘ line which I’ve used many times since. Feeling sure they would assign me a student to speak with, I was amazed when it turned out the head of the department had made room in his diary for me, and then overawed when he told me he was used to talking to writers, in fact he often advised Ian Rankin!

This lovely man was so generous with his time and advice. The effect of fire on the human body, he told me, depended on many factors. He offered to show me photographs, but seeing the look on my face, thought better of this. Then he suggested the victim could be wrapped up in something like a carpet, because ‘that way she would be baked rather than burned’. Needless to say, I have used this, and I took great delight in having one of my character ghoulishly describe the dead woman as ‘Chrissie en croute’. In addition, as I got further into the novel, I realised wrapping her in that carpet provided yet another twist to my story, and solved a plot problem which had worried me for some time.

Who do you think you are?
I remember how I got the idea of a body in a bonfire: at a village Guy Fawkes party. But what on earth possessed me to make Kate Mackenzie, my ‘Dr Watson’ character, a genealogist? This was a job I knew nothing about. So, although Kate’s work isn’t vital to the plot of No Stranger to Death, I thought I should at least know what she would have on her desk and what she would spend most of her time doing.

I emailed a genealogist based nearby to find out if she would allow me to ask her a few questions about her job and we agreed to meet at the M&S café at Berwick (oh the glamour of being a writer!). She made genealogy sound fascinating and deserving of so much more than a bit part in my stories. 
They'll never take . . . our freedom!

I learnt that many Americans, while keen to prove they have British ancestors, would much prefer to find they are of Scots descent over English. Apparently, some of them also like to believe they’re related to William Wallace, the 13th-century fighter for Scottish independence, but they have a bigger chance of being related to Mel Gibson, who played him in the film Braveheart! This gem set my pen scribbling, and is now a line spoken by Kate. I’ve also come up with a way of giving Kate’s job a far bigger role in Book Two.

Fight club
During my recent edit of No Stranger to Death before sending it to an external editor, I realised a scene where my main character Zoe Moreland fights off an attacker didn’t work. I rewrote it several times but it remained unsatisfactory and over far too quickly. John saw from my face that things weren't going well and asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain the problem, and the next thing I knew we were acting it out. Without the weapon, I hasten to add. And as soon as we did this, I knew how Zoe would instinctively act and how her attacker would try to prevent her from escaping. Better still, I came up with yet another way to obey this valuable piece of writing advice: think of the worst thing that can happen to your character, then make it even worse.

There is, of course, a downside to research: it can be far too enjoyable and distracting. When I’m struggling to write an awkward scene, it’s easy to kid myself that looking at pictures of tattoos or reading about the derivation of Scots words is a legitimate part of my creative process. Research is up there with Twitter when it comes to being a time-suck for writers, but also like Twitter, it can introduce us to people and experiences with the potential to enhance our writing and our lives.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Cover design

How random life can be. I have a Twitter friend called Jacqui, who turned out to live only a couple of miles away. Despite walking our dogs in the same places, we never met until we got chatting on Twitter. Since then, I’ve visited Jacqui at her lovely home and learned that her husband is a graphic designer. So when I decided to have a professionally designed cover for No Stranger to Death, I asked Jacqui if he did this type of work. Her reply was the classic ‘No, but I know a man who does’. She gave me a name, Kim McGillivray.

I looked at Kim’s website,, which has many stunning illustrations, including the one above (which may not be reproduced without his permission). For those of you who don’t know already, I’m an Englishwoman married to a Scotsman and living in Scotland. And while I admire Alex Salmond’s political astuteness, I don’t support all his policies. The wit demonstrated by Kim’s depiction of Salmond in a kilt (which he never wears), standing Monroe-like over an air vent decided me. I would approach Kim about doing my book cover.

After an exchange of emails agreeing the business side of things, Kim asked for a copy of the novel. (Having people read it is something I’m going to have to get used to.) Before our first meeting I did some online research about briefing a cover designer. From the many websites by and for indie authors, I gleaned the following advice:

  • Don’t be prescriptive. You choose a designer for his/her creativity, so let them get on with it.
  • Never use the words ‘I like’. A book cover has an important job to do, and personal tastes shouldn’t come into it (so, no turquoise then).

Our first meeting was friendly but business-like. This reminded me a lot of when clients used to brief me to write their website copy, and it felt strange to be on the other side of the process. Kim and I talked about the prominent features of my novel and who I envisage it will most appeal to. We also looked at many examples of book covers, some but not all within the crime fiction genre: ones I feel do their job well and also a few I don’t rate at all. One of the biggest creative challenges facing Kim is to come up with a design which works in wildly differing sizes, from a thumbnail image on a Kindle or tablet to a physical paperback.

Kim has now gone away to do whatever it is he does. Writers all seem to work in different ways; I can’t imagine how an artist approaches his work (maybe I could persuade him to write a guest blog for me on this subject?). However, he followed up our meeting with a note which managed to distill our discussion into a few paragraphs that are spot-on in capturing my aspirations for my first ever book cover. So I know I’m in safe hands.

If you're interested in book-cover design, I recommend a visit to Joel Friedlander's Ebook Cover Design Awards. Below are some book covers which I think are particularly effective. Do you have any favourite book covers? And how much does a book's cover matter to you when you choose to buy it or borrow it from a library?

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Facing facts

I’ve been giving my ‘image’ (dictionary definition: ‘the personality presented to the public by a person, organisation, etc’) a lot of thought since I decided to self‑publish No Stranger to Death. Does an author’s image actually matter when readers choose the books they want to buy or borrow from the library?

Some writers regard the results of their labour as ‘art’ rather than a commodity. However, increasing numbers of books are now sold in supermarkets and online at knockdown prices. We may not like it, but books are subject to the same market forces as the proverbial cans of baked beans. Why else are publishers so keen on series rather than standalones? They are relying on brand loyalty, the consumer’s perceived need for reassurance that their next reading experience will be the same as their last. This is happening elsewhere in the creative industries too. Die Hard 6 anyone?

Where does this leave those of us who self-publish? I may not choose to write a series (in fact, No Stranger to Death will have a sequel), but I’d be foolish not to adopt other business techniques to maximise my sales. And this brings me back to the topic of image. Can and should writers create images which may differ from who they really are, in order to sell more books?

Here’s an interesting example of how something as simple as a photograph can be used to present differing faces of a writer. Those of you who have met him will agree that this affable-looking chap is the Michael J Malone, Scottish poet and crime-writer, that we know:

However, in another of a series of photographs by Bob McDevitt Photography, Michael looks rather sterner:

And finally, in this one – which Michael has chosen for his Twitter avatar – he looks positively menacing, the epitome of an author of dark and gritty crime fiction. Which he is, so this image works for him.

In preparation for the publicity I’m hoping to generate around November 5th, when my novel is published, I went to have some professional pictures taken. The header to this blog is one of them. My lovely photographer, Linda Sneddon, had me pose in a graveyard and reproduced some of the shots in monochrome. Despite all this, I must face the fact that I could never look anything other than what I am: a blonde, smiley, middle-aged woman who wears a lot of turquoise.

Pretending to be someone you’re not must be exhausting and is probably doomed to failure, especially in this age of social media. So I’m not going to even try. Phew, one less thing to worry about!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Remember, remember, the 5th of November . . .

One of my favourite radio programmes is I’ve Never Seen Star Wars, in which Marcus Brigstocke invites celebrity guests to try new experiences. For example, Ian Hislop went to buy a pair of jeans for the first time ever. That was funnier than it sounds. Trying different foods is popular, most memorably jellied eels and, another time, tofu. So, I wondered, what would my list of ‘never done that’ consist of? Here's what I came up with.

I’ve never:
  • Eaten sushi or oysters
  • Seen Mama Mia
  • Read War & Peace
  • Driven on a motorway
  • Had a tattoo
  • Been camping or skiing
  • Published a book

These will all probably remain undone. Except that last one. Yes, this is a roundabout way of announcing that from November 5th 2013 my first novel, No Stranger to Death, will be available on Amazon as an ebook and a paperback.

I’m excited and scared in equal measures. 

I'm planning a party too . . .
Pictures courtesy of

Thursday, 4 July 2013

On no longer being a student

So, farewell Open University. It’s been great, even though sending off the final assignment of my final course was an anticlimax. That’s the trouble with living miles from the nearest shop and working from home: no easy way to buy cakes and no one to share them with. Now I have to wait until August to find out my final mark for A300 Twentieth Century Texts and how good a degree it’s helped me achieve. I’m lucky that nothing but my self-esteem depends on this outcome, but I’m still anxious to have done well.

I’ve written before about how I ended up doing an OU degree so I won’t repeat that. Here are the modules I studied (a year at Edinburgh University saved me two OU ones):

·         A207: From Enlightenment to Romanticism, 1780-1830. This wide-ranging course covered music, philosophy, science, poetry, drama, art, architecture and social history. The essays I wrote included ones on Goethe’s Faust, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Turner’s depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, and Robert Owen’s social experiments at New Lanark.
·         A215: Creative Writing. This course included, as the OU website puts it, ‘exercises and activities designed to ignite and sustain the writing impulse’. As well as short fiction, we produced poetry and travel-writing. Each piece of work submitted had to be accompanied by a reflective commentary, providing details of how it was conceived, the process of drafting and editing, and how difficulties were overcome. Quite a lot more than answering that old chestnut 'where do you get your ideas from?'.

Monument Valley
·         AA310: Film and Television History. This was by far my favourite course, not least because it necessitated watching lots of DVDs! I studied, among other film genres, westerns (which inspired our visit to Monument Valley in 2011), British war films, 1960s spy thrillers and post-WW2 European cinema. The TV element included sci-fi and soaps. I did my end-of-course project on the classic serial on British television, writing about the adaptations of I, Claudius (first shown in 1976, and again very recently) and Moll Flanders (1996). 
·         A300: 20th-Century Texts. This was my final course and I’ve blogged about it in some detail already.

The benefits of studying with the OU have turned out to go far beyond interpreting texts, remembering facts and getting good grades.  Here are just a few of the things my studies have taught me about myself:

·         I can take on a huge commitment (both in terms of time and effort) and see it through to the end.
·         I work best with deadlines.
·         Few tasks are insurmountable. I’ve lost count of the occasions when I read an assignment title for the first time and thought ‘I can’t do this’. But I did. With one exception (see below).
·         I discovered I can’t write poetry to save my life, although I do enjoy reading and studying other people's.
·         I may be a pantser when writing fiction, but when it comes to academic writing I’m a planner through and through.
·         I enjoy reading ebooks for pleasure but when I’m studying, a physical book wins every time. 

I'm now familiar with words like palimpsest, hypallage, scotoma, hermeneutic, belleslettres and more –ologies than you can shake a stick at. And I learnt other lessons too, like always prepare for the unexpected, especially when a deadline looms. I managed to cope when a virus rendered my computer inoperable a week before an essay was due in, mainly by making the engineer feel so sorry for me that he moved my job to the front of the queue. But what on earth was I supposed to do when the handle mechanism on my study door broke the day before an essay was due in, leaving me unable to get inside the room? I had to wait until my husband came home and kicked the door open. It was such a bizarre excuse for needing an additional day that my tutor had to believe me.

So, will my experience of studying with the OU help my career as a writer?  Look again at the things I’ve learnt: commitment, working to deadlines, persevering with seemingly impossible tasks. I think the answer has to be ‘yes’, don't you? 

I'll definitely be celebrating in August with ice cream cakes from Giacopazzi's!

Monday, 22 April 2013

Nearly there!

It feels like I’ve been working towards getting an Open University degree forever, not just for the last five years. Actually, the process started in 1999 when I first contacted Edinburgh University about studying there. I managed one glorious year studying English and Scottish Literature but by then grants had been abolished and tuition fees were being introduced. There was no way we could afford for me to continue: I had to shelve my academic ambitions and get a job.

Fast forward a few years and my husband’s new business is doing well enough for me to reduce my working hours. However, the prospect of returning to frequent 50-mile drives each way to Edinburgh no longer appealed, so I approached the OU. And to cut a long story short, here I am with just 3,000 words standing between me and a BA (Hons) in Humanities. I have until noon on 23rd May to deliver my final assignment for the A300 20th Century Texts module. This is an EMA, an end-of-module assessment. It’s worth nearly the whole of the rest of the assignments put together and will influence how good a degree I get.

I’m lucky, I can afford to spend a lot of time on my EMA. I don’t work fulltime, I have no children to care for. I salute those who do, and are still determined to study. I must limit my time on Twitter and this will be my last blog post (yes, I know they aren’t very frequent anyway!) for a good while. So, in the spirit of sharing, here’s a summary of the task which lays ahead of me.
You are the sole judge of a new literary competition in which you have to choose the best novel of the twentieth century. The preliminary shortlist is made of up several texts from the A300 module and one novel of your choice.  In an essay of 3,000 words:
  1. Elaborate the criteria to be applied in choosing your winning novel. This discussion must be informed by the theoretical and critical debates in the study material.
  2. Analyse two of the novels, the one you think should win the prize and one of the others.
I’m going to write about Pat Barker’s Ghost Road, which is a set book, and Robert Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers, a wonderful Scottish novel.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

As Shakespeare said . . .

 . . . “Whate’er you think, good words, I think, were best” (King John)
I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently. That’s hardly surprising, I hear you say, given that I’m a writer currently studying other writers. But I’m talking about words per se, rather than as the building blocks of prose, poetry and drama. A few things prompted this.

Thanks to Twitter I saw the results of a quest to identify the ‘best’ word in the English language. Sadly I can’t find this now but I remember disagreeing with the results. Given the number to choose from (the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete ones) I would be surprised if consensus can ever be achieved. Bravo to anyone for even trying, though.

The BBC's Scottish news one morning told of delays on the Whifflet railway line. My husband admitted that despite being a Scotsman he didn’t know where Whifflet is and, worse still, he couldn’t understand why I was so taken with the name. I googled it, and discovered Whifflet is a part of Coatbridge to the east of Glasgow, and its name originated from ‘wheat flats’. As you’ll see if you go to Wikipedia, it isn’t as pretty as either name suggests.

Finally, last week I entered a writing competition which required a short poem or story about a made-up word. I might have passed on this, had it not reminded me of a word I occasionally use which came out of a conversation with my husband about where I get my story ideas from (yes, that old chestnut). ‘They come from my imagination, I just make them up’ met with the response ‘There must be more to it than that, or we’d all be able to write’. I admitted I don’t understand quite how my imagination does what it does, and John’s response was ‘See? It’s magic.’ And that was how ‘imagication’ came about. I wrote a poem about this which won’t get anywhere (I’m no poet) but it was fun to do.

All this recalled an interesting exercise I did as part of the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course a couple of years ago. After writing the letters of the alphabet in a column, we had to write two words against each letter: one that we liked because of its sound, the other because of its meaning. Then we had to go down the list circling our preference in each pair of words. So, for example, against ‘L’ I put ‘luminous’ (sound) and ‘laughter’ (meaning). Luminous was my favourite.

The course manual revealed a fascinating fact: nearly everyone will exhibit a marked preference for one aspect – sound or meaning – over the other. It’s very rare to find an even split. My results bore this out: I clearly (25 out of 26 words) appreciated words more for their sound than their meaning.

Does this influence my writing? Perhaps, in a subliminal way. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely to have an impact on my reading and appreciation of others’ writing, especially poetry. It certainly didn’t help my attempts to write poetry, which was the stated aim of the exercise.

Have a go yourself and see what aspect of words – their sounds or their meanings – you prefer. Then leave a comment below or tweet me - @janetokane - to say how you get on and if the result surprised you or confirmed what you already knew.

And finally, to demonstrate the importance of words: 

Images from
Accessorize greetings card from

Monday, 18 February 2013


The Scots poet everyone's heard of: Robert Burns
Portrait by Peter Howson
One of the great things about my current Open University course on 20th century literature is that virtually every text I tweet about reading has fans who tweet back to say how much they love it. The novels Orlando (Virginia Woolf), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick) seem particularly popular. And several people agree with me that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories should be more widely read. However, it was TS Eliot's poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock that got the most responses, with several folk tweeting me their favourite lines from it. You may recognise some of these, even if you've not knowingly read the poem:
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons
I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
So here's a confession: I rarely read poetry out of choice. Yet when I do, I am full of admiration for its precision, its skilful use of language, its sheer cleverness. Perhaps what holds me (and many others) back is that most poems don't give up all their treasures on one reading. You have to read them over and over again just to understand what they're going on about. And even then a poem's 'meaning' may elude you. But don't let that put you off. I see poetry as proof of that old saying: 'tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive'. 

I'm not going to paste in endless poems - that would make this a very long post. Besides, many are available, free to enjoy, at the click of a mouse. What I've done is list a few of my favourites, with links to sites where you can read them. Choose one and have a go! They’re in no particular order and cover everything from love poetry to sheer nonsense. 

And for you writers out there, poetry is a splendid source of book titles. For example, Val McDermid must surely have taken The Mermaids Singing from this line in ‘Prufrock’: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell – one of the great romantic poems
The X Files: Bonnybridge, October ’95 by Hugh McMillan – Scottish and hilarious (thanks to Rosemary Kaye for this one!)
The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes – for every writer 
To A Louse by Robert Burns – Burns is best enjoyed out loud so this link also offers a reading by Robert Carlyle
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll – a splendid nonsense poem
Warning by Jenny Joseph – a battle-cry for middle-aged women

Wilfred Owen
commemorative window

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen – one of the greatest anti-war poems ever
Skipping by Marina Sofia – this poem is on the wall above my desk, a source of comfort when I worry about my writing

Do you have a favourite poem? I’d love to read it, so please leave a comment below or tweet me: @janetokane.

Friday, 4 January 2013

I ♥ books

1992: Reading with a cat. What could be nicer?

When I set out to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge last January, reading 12 books in 11 different genres in a year seemed achievable. However, I hadn’t then decided to embark on the final year of my Open University degree. When I signed up in early September to study Course A300: 20th Century Texts, it became obvious I wouldn’t only be sacrificing writing time. The course has 16 set books, ranging from 1930s poetry to 1960s science fiction, and an infinite number of reference books. The amount of reading this requires reminds me of what a tutor said when I studied for a year at Edinburgh University as a mature student: “Reading for pleasure? We’ll soon knock that out of you.”

I hoped then, and still do, that he meant we would have so much course reading we’d have no time to read anything else. Because I can’t imagine ever not wanting to read. How dreadful it would be not to relish choosing the next book to take down from my shelf or select from the list on my Kindle, to no longer feel the thrill of starting that first page. Even if a book disappoints, I still get a sense of achievement at finishing it, and as a writer, it’s instructive working out what went wrong. And if it has been a satisfying read – what joy!  

Reading is a way of life for me, and when I look back to my childhood I can see why. So many memories connected with reading stand out in my mind.

This was c. 1967, so pardon the decor
My parents were (and still are) avid readers themselves, so they knew that with the right groundwork I could develop into one too. Admittedly, growing up as an only child in rural Dorset at a time when there were only three TV channels, I had little choice in the matter. I had to read or take up a sport (I’ll pause briefly for those of you who know me stop laughing at that idea.)

Mum worked as a hairdresser from home in those days, her ‘salon’ a room at the end of the house kitted out with a sink and two hairdryers on wheels. This being the 1960s, she mostly did shampoo-and-sets and the occasional perm, and when each customer’s hair had been put into rollers they sat under a dryer. When I was very young I would persuade some of them to forgo the pleasures offered by the magazines provided and instead read my storybooks to me. As I grew older I got pushier and insisted on reading out loud to a favoured few, the word ‘loud’ being apt – those hairdryers were very noisy.

The books in my primary school’s library – a large cupboard, really – were augmented by fortnightly visits from Dorset County Council’s mobile library or, as it was known then, the Library Van. I’d feel very grown-up climbing up the steps unaided, making my own choices, then cycling home with a basketful of books. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were my heroes for a long time. I once announced to my parents that I wanted to be called George, though I don’t remember their response. 

Then I progressed to Blyton’s Malory Towers series. This resigned me to having a girl’s name but left me hankering after a boarding-school education with all the lacrosse and midnight feasts that came with it. Mum and Dad took me every Saturday to Beeches Bookshop in Salisbury. The lovely building is still there but Beeches closed down long ago. In the early ‘70s, though, it was stuffed to the rafters with books old and new, most in rows on open shelves, some so precious they were kept in locked glass-fronted cabinets. You could buy four hardback children’s books for £1, and they’d take them back later in part-exchange for yet more. Angela Brazil’s schoolgirl adventures, with titles like The Nicest Girl in the School and A Fourth Form Friendship, were already past their heyday by then but I didn’t care.
1969: I was a swot

When I was a teenager, there being no such thing as young adult fiction back then, I started reading what Mum read: crime fiction. The rest, as they say, is history.

I started this blog post intending to examine the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for study. It’s been hijacked by my childhood recollections, which probably means I’m older than I like to think. Anyway, I have a subject for another post now. In the meantime, what memories of childhood reading do you have?