Saturday, 15 November 2014

Paper or online? (Paper)

Is it a map? Çatalhöyük, Turkey, 6000 BC
Today I'm working on The Story of Maps, the next in my Story Of... series. The principal source I want to use for the theoretical history and development of cartography is the seminal work on the subject, The History of Cartography, edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward and published by University of Chicago Press in 1987. But.... although I have Cambridge University Library on my doorstep, there is only one volume of the series available in Cambridge. (It is, happily, in Newnham College Library and as that is my current college affiliation, I can easily see it.) Here are my options:

go to London and use it in the British Library. Can't afford to - £15 a day each day I need to go, which will be many - perhaps 20

buy it.
Can't afford to - each volume changes hands at around £150 and there are seven.

use it online.
This is what I'm doing. The whole thing is available as PDFs from the UCP website - which is a brilliant resource and very generous of them.
It is a map - Jianxi, China, 18th century

 I am hugely grateful that it's there, but I would SO MUCH prefer to use paper copies. Then I could flick through to find pictures of maps I want to discuss. I wouldn't have to wait for hi-res images to appear on the page (not normally a problem, but after my poor computer has buffered about 50 of these it starts to get tired).

The frustration with using the electronic version will probably boost sales of the paper copies. I'm going to be filling in recommendation slips for CUL to buy all the volumes. But this is just the sort of book that should be a real, paper book.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

On the shoulders of giants

Phew. Just finished the creative writing summer school I teach at Pembroke and King's Colleges in Cambridge each year. It's always very sad to see the lovely students heading home, as I love those manic eight weeks that come along just as everyone else is planning to wind down and go on holiday.

The format of the course is simple. There are two of us teaching it; my partner in crime is children's author Brian Keaney. Every week, there is an evening lecture (with wine), sometimes with a guest lecturer, but more often just our double-act. And the rest of the week, the students write, and each have an hour-long, one-to-one supervision (=tutorial, outside Cambridge) on their work.

But of course it's not just us two. We have lots more guest teachers, many of them dead. Each year, we drag many other writers into the lectures - sometimes as reference points, sometimes as illustrations or examples, sometimes for proper discussion and sometimes just mentioned in passing. Of course, none of the students will have read all those we refer to (they aren't old enough, they haven't had time yet) but many will have read a lot and all will have read some. The range is huge - last week's 'mentions' stretch (in time) from Aesop to The Hunger Games, taking in Sophocles, Euripides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shelley, Pride and Prejudice, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rosetti, Edgar Allan Poe, Dubliners, Ulysses, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and Anne Lamott amongst others. During the course, there have been many, many more.

Previous writers are our currency of debate as well as our models. We don't want the students to write in the style of Jane Austen or Matthew Arnold - they would never sell anything. But we do want them to learn from the structures, the intensity, the insights into human psychology, the depiction and development of character and all the other universal aspects of their predecessors' writing.

So as they all go off into the world, back to Yale and Cornell and Berkeley and all the other places they came from, and ask us what they should to do improve their writing, we tell them to keep reading. To read the type of books they want to write and the types of books they don't want to write. To read recent books and to read books by people long dead. To read books they like and books they don't.

The course is not about writing literary fiction - we are as happy with them if they write a decent fantasy or sci-fi story - and it has a commercial aspect: how to write books that will sell (if they want to make a living as a writer). We tell them there is no shame and a lot to be gained by writing (and selling) books of many types and that reading widely will help with all of it. One of the questions we ask them to come back to when they are reading contemporary books is 'why was this published?' There is always a reason. If there is a book they hate, we encourage them to work out why they hate it, and not stop reading it until they know. Of course, no one has to carry on reading a book they don't like, but if you haven't worked out what you don't like, your work with it is not done. And then they have to decide whether it is a badly written book (and how) or a well-written book that is not to their taste. We don't have to like things to recognise their qualities. There are plenty of good books I don't like.

And so to all our students, just past and longer past, and to everyone - just keep reading, and read thoughtfully and critically. You don't need a living tutor - there are plenty of dead ones that will let you climb onto their shoulders and see far into the distance.

PS - and these two came out last week when I wasn't looking.
Both from Arctuturus, both adult/teen books. All types of writing - it's what you need to do to make a living.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Not dead yet...

Over at the other place again... sorry. I will be back. Working crazy hours to finish a book (delivered yesterday - hurray!) and teach summer school at the same time.

On ABBA - do you read books to find out how to survive being different or how to fit in? The same of different?

Friday, 11 July 2014

At the other place: What are words worth?

Long absence... back in summer school and deadline trauma. But I have been over at ABBA writing about the ALCS report on authors' earnings. If you haven't read the report, you should. You don't need to read the media coverage, which is mostly rubbish, but do read the report.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

How to speak publisher: F is for Feedback

Publishers don't often use the word feedback. They are more likely to call it 'editorial input' or 'comments'. Or, of course, 'rejection'. But feedback is what the rest of the world calls it when someone tells you what they think of your work and how you should change it to improve it (or not bother).

Feedback in a creative writing course aims to help the student to become a better writer and to improve the specific piece of writing they have submitted. In an ideal world, feedback from a publisher would have the same aims, but generally the publisher is only interested in improving the current piece of writing - the one they are paying you for (or might pay you for if you can make it good enough). There is also feedback from agents. If you already have an agent, their feedback will be aimed at making you a better writer, and also at improving the current piece of writing.

'Improving' is a tricky term. It doesn't necessarily, in the vocabulary of agent and publisher, mean making the work aesthetically better, though it might include that. Primarily, it means making the work more saleable - because that's the agent's/publisher's job: to sell your work. If I write a totally brilliant piece of young adult fiction that's 20,000 words long, my agent is likely to tell me it's unsaleable. There is no established market for fiction of that length for teen readers. (Of course, I haven't done such a thing - I know there's no market for that. So please don't tell me to self-publish it, because it doesn't exist. Also please don't tell me there is no reason why there should not be such a thing, or list the few exceptions you can find. In general terms, it's not a thing - my agent won't want to try to sell it.)

So what IS in feedback?

In electronics and broadcasting, it's the garbage or white noise that is reflected back, it's interference. Sadly, interference and garbage is just how some writers feel about editorial feedback. They are generally the ones who feel they know best, even if they have never had anything published, and they are often the first to turn to self-publishing. But what feedback should be is intelligent and constructive criticism and commentary.

If you are working with a publisher, you need to remember that they have an idea of the type of book they want to publish and the audience for that book. Their idea will be more or less rigid depending on the type of book.

If it's fiction, they will know the age group they want to target and the approximiate type of reader. Irritatingly, that might be gender-specific. 'A funny novel that will appeal to 8-year-old boys', for instance.  'A romantic teen story with girl-appeal.' Well, you can decide not to work with them if that riles you too much. You can challenge the wording, and they might change it, but they will still be looking for the same thing.

If it's non-fiction it might be more specific still. You might have to address an area of the UK curriculum and also cover various US curricula. Or, if it's a trade book, there could be requirements such as 'a book about technologies developed in the last fifty years; the book will sell into the UK, Australasian and Chinese markets.' That means there must be plenty of Australasian and Chinese examples as well as the UK and US ones you first thought of.

Feedback will point out if you've missed the mark. The thing is, you might have written a perfectly good book, but if it's not the book the publisher intends to publish it isn't any use. Indeed, sometimes you might write a better book than the one that is wanted, and you will have to go backwards to meet the target. This sounds ridiculous, but it's not. Say you have written a wonderful book about technological innovations, but none of them is Chinese or Australasian. You might have to pick some lesser innovations in order for the book to achieve its target of selling into those markets. Or perhaps you wrote a really good story that will appeal to 8-year-old boys, but it's not funny. If the book is to be part of a list of funny books, that's no good, however wonderful your story is.

So the upshot of all this is, that while feedback from a writing group or tutor might be about improving your work in purely aesthetic terms, feedback from a publisher or agent is generally commercially-oriented. A lot of the time, if you are sending your work on spec, you won't get any feedback beyond 'very nice, but not for us right now.' Even that is useful feedback - it makes you think 'what does this editor/agent need right now, and why/how did I get it wrong?' It doesn't (necessarily) mean 'your book sucks; never write to me again.' Of course, if they do say that, that's useful feedback, too. But a bit harder to take.

By the way - one of my daughters, when very young, was asked by one of my publishers to assess a new series he was planning. She read the work, and emailed him without my knowledge. It went: "Dear [publisher] - your series is boring and lacks interest." It was canned the next day. Feedback is useful. (She was right, but I could have wished she had been more diplomatic.)