Waxing Lyrical : Reading to Save your Soul

Reading to Save Your Soul
Alex Bean

A few nights ago I noticed a recent shift in my reading habits.  In a post on Facebook I mused that since the US Presidential election in November I had begun reading a lot more fiction than usual. My habit generally being rather massive works of non-fiction and history, this seemed notable. In the comments on my Facebook post a friend, himself a writer, told me to keep it up. “Read all the fictions. Fiction will save your soul, if not your life.”

That idea has really struck a chord with me, especially in a domestic political climate mired in the toxic racism and incompetent xenophobia of a populist demagogue. To that end, much of the fiction I’ve been consuming at a faster-than-usual pace has incidentally turned out to be the perfect antidote to the uninformed hatred and suspicion permeating from the White House.

In November, right after the election, I felt completely unmoored. My whole sense of the foundations that underlie my society felt undone. So I went all the way back to the source and re-read Gilgamesh. It’s always sort of awesome (in the Old Testament sense of the word) to go back and read texts from the very origins of human civilization. Glimpsing the formal and dramatic power of literature already being harnessed so far back in the fog of time is intimidating and impressive. I also couldn’t help but be amused that the city vs. country divide made so stark in the election can just as easily be found in the wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

As I finished the work, one particular passage stuck out and seems especially relevant in the pursuit of saving my soul via fiction.

“What you seek you shall never find. 
For when the Gods made man, 
They kept immortality to themselves.
Fill your belly.
Day and night make merry.
Let Days be full of joy.
Love the child who holds your hand.
Let your wife delight in your embrace.
For these alone are the concerns of man.” 

Those lines echoed through my mind as I reflected on two pieces of fiction by people being actively persecuted by the short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office. One of them is The Moor’s Account, a novel by Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami, which I first read a few years ago. The moor in question is Estevanico, a once-successful slave trader in Morocco who sells himself into slavery in Spain and eventually becomes the first recorded African to immigrate to the Americas. \

Seeing the arrogance and violence inherent to European colonization of the Americas from the eyes of a Muslim from Morocco fundamentally alters the whole American idea. It lets the reader re-imagine this country means by finding the stories in the gaps and ellipses of history. I’d like to imagine that reflection like that might be enough to save the soul of my country if enough people read it and took it to heart.

The other work of fiction, which I started the week that Trump signed his odious Muslim Ban, was Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpa Lahiri. The Pultizer-winning short story collection mostly focuses on Indian immigrants to the United States.  What struck me, again and again, throughout the nine stories in the collection, is how Lahiri uses her understated prose to sketch out characters with thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams that are at once universal and highly specific. As with Gilgamesh, a quote (or two) may best illustrate her effusive powers.

“While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

“In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to believe that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life’s mistakes made sense in the end.”

We may be doomed to live in interesting times and I still find myself full of worry and outrage. But reading those lines made the whole sad, fearful displays which dominate the news shrink from my mind. Fiction, perhaps more than any other format, has the power to cut through the noise and make you look at yourself and the world in a new light. We’re all seekers like Gilgamesh and strangers in a strange land like Estevanico and ordinary people whose achievements are beyond imagination. No one man, no matter how foolish can steal that from us. That’s what will save our souls and that why I’m reading fiction right now.

Waxing Lyrical : The Trump Effect by @ferdinandpage


The expression of – bemusement – on these women’s faces is understandable, given they’re listening to a US Presidential candidate explain how grabbing any woman’s crotch is a perk of the powerful, celebrity male. Somehow, they assumed that a contender for presidency, despite being an “oleaginous pre-ejaculate that somehow gained sentience” in the carefully-crafted assessment of @ChuckWendig, wouldn’t come out with this load of Cro-Magnon bollocks.

On the other hand, bemusement was my first response to my last experience of overt sexual entitlement. Bizarrely, it happened ten years’ ago; I wasn’t young then or in any way naive, although I was new to the high end of commercial media. I sat in the first meeting with a top creative and his partner to discuss a multi-media project at which I was passed as physically attractive enough – for writing and brainstorming concepts. What?. Then the top creative escorted me back into Piccadilly Circus underground where, in the spirit of getting to know me, he snogged me chastely. This was in public and he was/is not Donald Trump. I decided to ask him if he snogged his male business partner and if not, why me; apart from that, it was the end of getting to know each other. However, he continued to offer advice on my appearance and public persona.

Age doesn’t get rid of issues about our self-worth or our bodies; I’d got rid of most of mine but if I had been younger, it’s worth putting the warning out there that you don’t have to do anything you’d rather not do in order to get recognition or publication. And your body is OK. I know I haven’t seen it but trust me, it is. The first time someone makes a comment on your hair, eyes, placement of nostrils, can you pull your hair over more … a bit more, for the promotional piccies, just say:

This is the body the words live in. Sorry.

You won’t find billionaire narcissist bigots who grab at your crotch in publishing because because there’s not enough money in our industry. But there will be people with the power to make things happen for you who are less emotionally intelligent, more thin-skinned, less resilient to criticism, who have trouble with their gender balance. Elena Ferrante knows what happens when you are dependent on someone for whom a woman is a threat just by virtue of being a woman.

Most of the bullying is mental and emotional. Take a leaf from Hillary Clinton in the 2nd Debate, when Trump circled her, a looming, sniffing, newly-sentient pigbucket, apologies to pigs everywhere, stand your ground, ignore them, keep cool, remember your tactics, say what you need to say, share what you wanted to say with trusted confidants afterwards.

Waxing Lyrical : Life after Law by Emma Heath

Life after Law: screenwriting festivals, writing competitions, and kaleidoscope tunnels

You know those Where I Write columns in writing magazines, in which authors are photographed in pastel-coloured sheds, or high-ceilinged rooms adorned with rows and rows of (inevitably highbrow) books? That was SO NOT ME back when I discovered Fox Spirit in 2012.

At the time, I was a bushy-tailed trainee at a corporate law firm, and I used to scribble away at my short story submissions on the train, hemmed in by zombified commuters. While the human equivalent of Droopy snored in my ear, I’d whisk myself off to the enchanted realms of space pirates, magicked kings, and shapeshifting baddies.

The problem was that Fox Spirit fantasy quickly became so much more enchanting than Corporate Law reality, and I’d find myself sneaking off to the firm’s canteen, or to a toilet cubicle, to continue writing. Then the partners would get grumpy (those millions don’t make themselves, after all) and I’d get told off.

For a while, I coped with a snatched twenty minutes here and stolen ten minutes there, but it soon became obvious – 30,000 words into a novel, and moving at 150 words a day – that I was grinding to a literary halt under the pressures of law. I was no longer bright eyed and bushy tailed; I was a cynical, grizzled old fox.

In 2014, I met up with an old university friend who’d started screenwriting. I was a prolific playwright at primary school, but for some irrational reason had always been daunted by it as an adult. But over drinks one night, Kath convinced me to give it a shot, and I quickly found that (a) with fewer words, I could more easily squeeze a screenplay into my spare moments, and (b) I FRICKING LOVED IT!

I got shortlisted for a couple of screenwriting competitions, and in 2015 I decided to figuratively dive in, and booked a ticket to the London Screenwriters’ Festival, a three-day festival full of talks, script surgeries, actors’ table reads, and – most excitingly – Pitchfest (where delegates get to pitch to agents and producers).


In the meantime, I had HAD ENOUGH of corporate law. I handed in my notice in July, and waved goodbye on 4th September (taking a dip in the office fountain on my way out). Part of me was thinking “What the bleeding heck am I doing?” but the flood of relief I experienced as I walked away from that stark beige building told me it was the right thing to do.

I started managing a tuition centre – I wasn’t yet ready to go it alone – and then in October headed to Regent’s Park for the LSF. Well, wow, did that blow away some cobwebs and drag out my own personal Wonder Woman (the unofficial LSF mascot)! I learnt things – including writing wisdom from Chris McQuarrie (of The Usual Suspects fame); I had a script MOT; I made new friends; I pitched, and managed to interest two producers in my work. I came away with goosebumps, and definitely ready to push things up a gear.

LSF runs Create50, which is a series of initiatives designed to get writers and filmmakers’ work published and produced. They run script projects (resulting in feature films) and short story projects (resulting in anthologies), and I entered both. The awesome thing about Create50 is that rather than just sending your work off and waiting for a “yay” or “nay”, you upload it to the website and then other writers get to feedback on your work, while you get the chance to submit two redrafts.

I got sucked into the Create50 matrix at the end of November, and was spat out in the New Year, having reviewed 130 other scripts, and made massive developments to my own. It was exhilarating, and educating, and I made a lot of new writer friends. I also got longlisted, which to be honest felt like simply an added bonus by the end.

I wanted to get MORE INVOLVED in this magical world of writing and writers. So I started doing volunteer work for Create50, helping draft some contracts (thank you, corporate law!) and then helping develop and launch the latest initiative, Singularity50, a short story project exploring the years leading up to, and the moment of, the Singularity.

POster vers 1 copy

And… last month I was taken on as a paid employee at London Screenwriters’ Festival! Now I get goosebumps most days, just going to work. I feel like I’m living in those enchanted realms I dreamt of on the train.

Why have I told you all this? Well, for one thing, to highlight how awesome Fox Spirit is at touching, and bringing to 252the surface, a part of you which has been neglected and buried by the System – or whatever you want to call that Very-Serious-and-Important-Adult-Society that shakes its head at pretend lightsaber fights and dancing in a wooded glade.

And also – and I’m focusing in particular on any of you scribbling away in a corner of a commuter train – to whisper into your ear and tell you to find the rabbit hole and bloody well throw yourself down it! There are kaleidoscope lights at the end of the tunnel, and it’s WONDERFUL.

Waxing Lyrical : Should we censor children’s books? by G. Clark Hellery

Waxing Lyrical: Should we censor children’s books?

It started as it always does these days with a comment on Facebook. I’d taken my daughter into the children’s section of Waterstones to choose her ‘All Hallow’s Read’ for Halloween. A mother was looking at the Christmas book display with her young son (I’d guess his age to be about 3-4years) when he happened to wander towards the Halloween books.

‘Come away from them! They’re too scary!’ the mother snapped, dragging her child the three feet back towards the glittering Christmas display.

This irked me to say the least. I’m not sure how Peter Rabbit getting lost in the pumpkin patch, or Meg & Mog could possibly be scary and I rather loudly asked my little one to choose her book (she loved the pop up haunted house but we agreed on @@@), cooing over the witches, frogs, pumpkins and ghosts. As we left I *might* have waved our book at the mother while my daughter let out a dragon roar.

peter rabbit
apparently terrifying

I ranted to my Facebook friends that I felt the mother had been too judgemental about the books, without even looking at their content. Certainly if her son had been looking in the real crime or horror sections, then yes, those books would probably have been too scary, but I really don’t believe The Worst Witch or Room on a Broom are going to give him nightmares. However, it would seem I opened a can of Halloween gummy worms as there were friends who agreed with me while others said they censor their children’s reading and suggested that perhaps I should wait until my little one was more capable of choosing her own books before passing comment because then I’d be very likely to change my cackle (I’m going to warn you now, there’s going to be a LOT of Halloween puns!).

This got me thinking about my own reading as a child. I was lucky and my parents didn’t really restrict what I read and I was a voracious reader to say the least (books bought on a Saturday morning trip to the bookshop would be finished by lunchtime). The ‘Point Horror’ series was going strong and I still remember staying up to the decadently late hour of 11pm reading who the psychotic lifeguard was going to kill next, I read a lot of King and even got my hands on ‘real life’ hauntings and True Crime books. I don’t remember any of these books ever giving me nightmares but am sure some would argue they’ve warped me. However they have shaped my own writing.

So why would parents ban books? Robin Beery wrote an excellent piece looking at 10 Reasons Books Are Banned, and 5 Reasons Not To which I’d recommend all parents, librarians & teachers read. Some don’t feel comfortable with their children reading about issues they feel they are not mature enough for: puberty, relationships, death, religion. In a 2014 interview, Judy Blume stated that, in her opinion, children read over what they don’t understand and I’d have to say on this I’d agree with her, certainly I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening in the King novels I read (although I know adults who don’t either) and rereading them years later brings a new depth of understanding with more than on ‘aha’ moment when I finally understood a phrase or action.

Blume was a staple on the playground, with books borrowed and shared from older sisters. She was far more explanatory about menstruation, kissing and even the ‘first time’ than our teachers or parents and because of her honesty, has frequently been censored over her 30 year career so much so she’s described as an ‘anticensorship activist’ and discusses it on her website.

banned books

Even books we now consider ‘classics’ have been censored and banned. Mark Twain’s ‘Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn’ has been banned due to it’s portrayal of the poor, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice & Men’ due to it’s profanity (honesty moment, I studied this book for my GCSE’s and I can’t remember that much profanity. I have also taught it to an advanced English class and it provoked really interesting discussion) and most bizarrely ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by L Frank Baum due to its depiction of women in strong leadership roles – I’m not sure how Dorothy Gale would feel about that but I like to think she would click her red heels together and say ‘I want (censors) to go home?’

The Harry Potter series has been banned in some schools in the US (and one in the UK) on the grounds it promotes witchcraft and is inherently ‘evil’. I’m paraphrasing JK Rowling when I say that banning children from discussing issues is far more damaging to children than reading about something the parents might feel they’re not ready for. I will say that I, and a lot of friends, were more traumatised by not getting our ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ charm to cause biscuits to drift across the table than any ‘satanic’ undertones. I respect a parents right to censor their children’s reading but at the same time feel you may be doing them a disservice. Alex Sanchez said in an interview that ‘Books can have an astounding effect on people’ and I agree with him, especially with groups who already feel marginalised or misunderstood such as LGBT. Children find characters they relate to and this can offer a coping mechanism for situations they may otherwise struggle with.

So where does that leave me? As a mother, I’m keeping my ‘Hellraiser’ firmly out of reach, but my Blume books will be waiting for my daughter when she’s ready. As Commissioning Editor for Fennec Books I feel a sense of responsibility towards our readers: both children and adult. Fox Spirit has positioned itself as a fearless publisher of genre fiction and I’d expect its younger sibling to do no less. I’m passionate about children’s books and encouraging both children and adults to read. I hope that our selection will offer children and adults something fun, diverting and different, and if it generates conversation with their parents and friends, then we’ve done good work. Now, I’m off up to the attic to chat to the house ghosts.

Happy Reading!


All Hallow’s Read: http://www.allhallowsread.com

Point Horror: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_Horror

Stephen King Official Web Page: http://stephenking.com

Judy Blume: http://judyblume.com/censorship.php\

Judy Blume interview: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/judy-blume-interview-forever-writer-children-young-adults

JK Rowling quote: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/886905-i-have-a-real-issue-with-anyone-trying-to-protect

25 of the most banned children’s books of the last 25 years: http://www.bustle.com/articles/88633-25-of-the-most-banned-childrens-books-of-the-past-25-years-because-all-those-picture

10 Reasons for Banning Books and 5 Reasons Not To: http://www.punchnels.com/2014/09/18/10-reasons-for-banning-books-and-5-much-better-reasons-not-to/

Alex Sanchez: http://www.alexsanchez.com/Banned_Books/banned_book_1.html

22 Authors on Censorship and Banned Books: https://www.bookish.com/articles/22-authors-on-censorship-and-banned-books/

Waxing Lyrical : Daz Pulsford on Editing the Fox Spirit Way

Welcome to the waxing lyrical series in 2016. The series is open to any creative (writers, artists, publishers, editors, musicians etc) who want to air their opinions on the creative industries, from any perspective. If you are interested in contributing please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk for more information. The only real rule is no personal attacks, we don’t have to agree with you but we won’t support attacking a person or group of people. 

Daz has been editing for Fox Spirit since we began and has always been fairly flexible with us about enforcing the house style on submissions, however as we’ve got busier it has become more important so here he is with some tips to make sure your submission is in tip top shape. It’s important to note that any publisher or agent will have their own submission rules and (and this can not be said enough) you need to follow them, or you risk your submission being discounted without even being read. 


Editing the Fox Spirit Way.

(Or how I learned to love the ellipsis…)

First up: let me begin by saying how utterly wonderful all you lovely authors are, with your colourful use of languages, broadly acceptable adherence to word count and slightly less than universal conformity to Microsoft Word 97-2003 or later. I’ll waive the varying acceptance of English (UK) as standard because it’s actually fun adding the letter ‘u’ and reversing instances of ‘er’ over and over again.*

House Rules on submission guidelines are on our website at: https://www.foxspirit.co.uk/sample-page/submissions/

Please read them – you would not believe** the number of stories I have to spend ten minutes simply reformatting and tidying (fonts, double spaces, random tabs, wrong dialogue marks and other egregious crimes.)

Please note – if you submit a story in Open Office, a very old Microsoft (MS) Word format, or some other random hipster notepad format, I will hammer and curse at it until it opens in MS Word and does as it’s told.

Stop waffling and tell us what you mean!

Sorry – what I am stressing  is the importance of reading our House Rules, plus any additional rules on language, tone, sex & violence etc. set out by either Aunty Fox or your Editor (if it’s for an Anthology). It will ease my burden considerably and make us far nicer to you.

Because I’m frightfully vain and convinced half of you think editing is worthless before the Proofing stage; I have a lesson for you: using Review in MS Word.

Proper use of Tracked Changes:  (see screenshot)

It’s on the Ribbon under the Review Tab. My amendments are shown in the left hand column. Any changes you accept will disappear. I suggest you do these one at a time if there are not many, or if you plan to dispute or amend your text further. Any changes you make will show in the left column with your reference in (which is whatever name you set in the Word Options menu – you did do this, right?)

There is an ‘Accept all changes in document’ option, but make sure you are happy with all the edits first. This way both you and I can see what has been accepted as an edit and what further there is to look at.

I turn Review Changes on after I have made broad formatting changes – otherwise your eyes would bleed from all the hundreds of Red lines and notes about using double spaces after a full stop (stop it, I mean it!) and using an ellipsis 3 different ways in 27 instances.

Comments are left for suggestions, or ‘What on earth are you babbling about here?’ sort of questions. They cannot be accepted, only deleted. Ideally; you make the suggested change, or comment yourself about it and leave the original comment there.

See It wasn’t that painful was it? Now, with comments accepted, your own changes made and comments dealt with – send it back and I’ll decide you’re talking nonsense and put it back the way I had it it’s really rather nice now and ready to add to the ‘Completed, no bribes extracted’ pile.

Please – learn to use Track Changes. If you don’t have MS Word, there is still likely to be an alternative within your software that will know what my edits are trying to show you and convert them.

Things to avoid

This is an ‘Oh no, they didn’t,’ list compiled from the array of blisteringly baffling returns I’ve had.

  1. Typing your edits out into an email, either as text fragments or with line references. This is instant head/desk for me, and also I re-format the document for margins, line numbers are irrelevant.
  1. Using the wrong language. Sending us a Novel? Use whatever language you like, it’s yours. Submitting to an Anthology? Check with the Editor – it’ll usually be their language or English (UK) as default.
  1. Accepting all the changes, including the ones you made after getting the edits back. Not helpful – how do I know what you’ve changed?!***

    No kittens or authors were harmed in the making of this post.
  1. Leaving my email in Spam because you haven’t been checking after Aunty Fox sends out the ‘Edits will be with you soon’ email. I don’t mind chasing you up once. Twice is a disappointment. Three times means missed deadlines and starting another voodoo doll with your name on it.

And that’s it – your easy guide to keeping the Editing Den moving efficiently and pleasantly.

*Find & Replace you say? Try it – see what happens…

**If you do any copy-editing yourself then obviously you will be shaking your head and muttering about ‘blinkin’ authors, coming over here with their freedom from any sense of formatting and crazy ideas about dashes.’

***Actually, I do know, and can fix it – but I’m not telling you how as it will only discourage you from paying attention to Leaving The Tracked Changes On, Please.

Waxing Lyrical : The First Cut is the Deepest

We know it hurts, you’ve put love and time into this manuscript and now people are going to come along and start picking fault, before it even gets to the reading public! We feel your pain and we recommend a tub of ice cream, a weepy movie and that you suck it up cupcake, you need to put your book through this process before it goes into the cruel cruel world!

Ok let’s start by clearing this up. Beta readers, proof readers and editors are not the same things. Which is not to say the same people can’t be all of those at various points, but when you ask someone to review your manuscript you need to know what you are asking for and who you are asking.

'No, go ahead and critique my mss. I'm always ok ... after the initial reaction.'
‘No, go ahead and critique my mss. I’m always ok … after the initial reaction.’

Beta readers. These are often friends, hopefully ones not afraid to criticise you, or other writers doing a beta swap. The job of a beta reader is to come back with ‘so yeah were you going for a mash up of Noddy and Austen? Coz that’s what this feels like. Also Brad is a massive douche bag oooh and this bit makes no sense, did I miss it or is it a gaping plot hole?’ That’s all really. They are there for the every day reader, looking for things that throw them out of the story, or mess it up totally, the plot holes the inconsistent characters, the overall tone. They are not there to edit your writing, correct your grammar (if they have a good eye and pick up tense slips and typos bonus). They are there to feed back to you what your baby looks like to the rest of the world.


Editors are there to make you look better. A good editor will not only pick up on mistakes in spelling and grammar, plot holes and inconsistencies but they will guide you. You can expect notes telling you that your whole first chapter is exposition, you don’t need it, bin the lot. An editor will tell you that you’ve used the same phrase 638 times in 400 pages and that’s at least 600 times too many, you’ll get notes to move this paragraph and cut that one, rewrite a section entirely, drop Brad not only is he a douche but he serves no actual purpose, cut him out entirely. A good editor will tell you that the book will be even better if it’s 100 pages shorter and that if you are setting it in medieval England you can’t have people saying ‘whassup brominator’. A good editor won’t rewrite you, put things into their words or make any changes for you, but they will steer and discuss and help you make the book tighter and better before it goes into the world. Beta readers are the mirror held up to your baby, Editors will show you how to photoshop it before you submit it for the local cutest baby contest.


Proof readers on the other hand will just give your baby a thorough scrub and iron its best onesie. The job of a proofer is simple, but requires a sharp eye and patience. They find mistakes. Spelling mistakes, typos, they tell you when your two should be too or your their belongs there.  Proofers are the last line of defence against the fact that spellcheck doesn’t know you meant knackered not naked (seriously my brother wrote he was always nakerd and I was worried till someone pointed out the ‘r’)or that toad is a perfectly acceptable word, although toad works in the highway seem unlikely (I sent a lot of documents out with toad works in my time).

Be clear when you send your MS off. You can expect to pay a decent rate for a good line edit, likewise a decent proofer, it’s normal enough for beta reading to be trading favours or begged from friends. That does mean though that if they don’t work to your timetable or get back to you at all, or they take it upon themselves to rename your characters, I’m afraid that is what comes of trading favours sometimes. Shrug it off and use someone else next time.  If you are paying then you can expect the service you are paying for so be clear on what you want, find out the rates and see if this is someone you feel good about working with, if it’s up to you who edits your book (which it won’t be if you are with a publisher) then it’s a relationship, work out if this is someone you can work well with.

If you are issued with an editor, you may get lucky, you may not, but however frustrating you find them, be respectful, it’s a small industry. If it really isn’t workable talk to whoever is handling your book and see if they can switch you out to someone else, but be a grown up about it, you may hate the process but you need editing, you need proofing and it’s smart to get a beta if you can.

As an aside on beta readers. Don’t have too many, it’s tempting to get everyone you know who reads to go over the book but you’ll get so many opinions it can be overload. Ideally find two or three people who like the sort of fiction you are trying to write to read it and see if it hits the target audience.

So to summarise, you need beta readers when you finish your MS if you can get them. Then for heaven’s sake get it edited and proofed before you send it anywhere, to self pub or to query and agent. Give your baby its best chance. Give it a detached look over, clean it up, then wipe the snot off before you send it into the world. (Wow I’ve really squeezed everything I can from that analogy).

And check out #tentweetsabouteditors for some neat notes by @joannechocolat on the subject.