Thursday, 10 March 2016

Wow words - or not

Oh dear, I should have been here - but I'm over at ABBA again writing about what a terrible thing the 'wow word' phenomenon is: De-WOWing word words. It's got a lot of attention - obviously an issue people are concerned about.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016


Over on ABBA today, with a truffle-hunting pig and Evernote. If you don't use Evernote, you should!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Grim and gruel

I have pleurisy. Doesn't that sound Victorian? Not quite as good as consumption in that regard, perhaps, but also not fatal, so it has its advantages. I feel I should be chopping up the furniture for firewood, but (a) the axe is somewhere at the top of the garden and (b) not much of the furniture is actually flammable, most of it being, according to the labels, treated with flame-resistant substances so that it can legally be sold. Clearly whoever regulates the flammability of furniture is not aware of the needs of starving, consumptive writers in garrets.

To be fair, I'm not starving. I can drive to Waitrose to buy gruel or, if things get really bad, have gruel delivered by Ocado. Though I am lying in bed in an unheated garret, so I'm halfway there. The unheated garret is my normal bedroom at the moment, as I've sub-let more sumptuous and comfortable parts of the house to people who seem to be strangely unafflcted by pleurisy. Perhaps next year I should sub-let the garret instead.

What's all this got to do with writing, I hear you grumble, while locating your axe and gruel-supply just in case. Well, it has a bit to do with it. I have deadlines - of course - and deadlines don't go with death or gruel. Usually, I don't tell editors I'm ill or inconvenienced unless the problem will definitely have an impact on their work, or I know them very well and trust they know that I won't let the problems have an impact on their work. It can go wrong otherwise, I've found. Warn an editor you might be a bit late delivering because of a health/family problem and they panic and take your decisions for you. 'I thought it would be helpful...' No, it's not. I will suggest what is helpful, thank you. You just deal with your end of things and trust me to deal with my end of things and decide what I can - and want - to do.  

You can see their point. They have a book to deliver to a schedule. (A schedule which is usually screwed up by people other than the author, but we'll leave that for now.) If you are going to miss the deadline, or might miss the deadline, it's professional to give them good warning so that they can put things in place to limit the damage. But it's important for editors to realise, too, that if we are acting professionally and doing that, they have to trust our continued professionalism and not panic. So I have told the editor who is expecting 60,000 words on 16th February that the book is likely to be a week late, and why. I have told him what else might happen - I might get worse, and the book will be later; I might get better quickly and it will be only a few days late. I trust him. He will tell the copy editor not to leave time immediately to deal with this book, so the slip won't mess up another person's work schedule. And we will, between us, win the time back on the schedule later because I'll turn the editorial queries around quickly. We will meet the print deadline. All will be well.

That's how a professional relationship works. Trust and openness and discussion. Editors sacrifice the right to be kept informed if they panic and act unilaterally when given early notification of possible difficulties. If they do that, next time they won't learn anything until the project is definitely in some trouble. If I ask an editor to work with me to avoid a problem, and they see that problem as already existing and needing their immediate action, without consultation, they won't get the same opportunity next time.

Authors might be mavericks in that they work in their pyjamas all day and don't see the need to attend meetings. And they might look like mavericks to editors if they turn down the chance to work on boring books with one-week deadlines for a paltry fee. But they are, mostly, proper professionals who want to deliver a good book on time and work with their editors again. So, editors, if we have pleurisy or sick relatives or our house has flooded, please listen to our suggestions for solving or avoiding problems before cancelling the project or fleeing to Cuba. And please tell us before doing it, too.

Of course, if I cut my arm off with an axe while hacking up non-flammable furniture, the schedule will not be so easily fixed. But I probably won't care then about remaining professional. At least not until I have sourced a decent prosthetic arm. So - off to the Ocado page for gruel and axes. And I'll bookmark the prosthetic arms page.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A view from the bridge

Lava in Lake Nyiragong 
You could be forgiven for assuming I'd died or gone over to the dark side - maybe become a banker or something else that dare not lift its head in the booky corner of the web. But no. I've been that iconic squeezed middle that is pressed as thin as air by the needs of generations above and below. But enough of that. I miss being here. It's all too easy for the years to slip by that way. They will still all have my support. But somehow the days and minutes must be prised apart for other things, too.

The things I do all day matter and I have freely chosen to do them. But other things matter, too, and it's time to find a way to do some of them. So Stroppy is open for business again. Writing matters to me, and the fate of writers matters to me, and that children have access to books - good books. And these books don't write themselves, you know.

This year I am Chair of the Educational Writers' Group in the Society of Authors. There will be events (for EWG, I mean - I rarely do events-as-writer since the carbon dioxide of publicity chokes me). This year I will write all the books I'm contracted to write and I might even make real progress on one or two non-contracted projects. Because if I don't do it now, I will regret and resent that I didn't.

It's difficult to draw a line around what to do for others, and how far to let short-term demands compromise long-term aims or needs. I would rather have loved and cared for people dear to me than have written 250 books instead of 200 books. No one will miss those 50 books; even I will only miss two or three of them. I am a firm believer in sorting out what matters to you and prioritising it, regardless of what other people think should matter or what they want you to do. I would rather spend a day looking after MicroBint than doing a school visit, so that's what I'll do. But there must be balance, too. It's important to seek out those two or three books I'd miss and make sure I write them. And, of course, write enough books to pay for sticks to keep the wolf from the door. It would be nice if they could be the same books, but that's asking a lot.

Legend tells that Empedocles threw himself into the volcanic crater of Mount Etna, keen to prove his immortality (or to be turned into a god). I'm not going that far. But  I feel it's time to do a bit of prising apart of those dark wodges of time and let the red-hot ooze come out, fiery and enthusiastic to run downhill. Move aside, dark wodges....

Saturday, 22 August 2015

An occasional review... The School of Art

The School of Art
Written by Teal Triggs
Illustrated by Daniel Frost
Wide Eyed Editions, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-84780-611-6

Like all books from Wide Eyed Editions, School of Art is beautifully presented and illustrated. The cover blurb promises the reader will ‘Learn to make great art with 40 simple lessons,’ which sounds pretty good.

The lessons are presented by five ‘professors of art’ – plus a very brief and unexplained guest appearance by an extra professor. He's apparently based on the Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten, but there is nothing to help the child reader with this identification or explain his odd name, Professor Itten. (The others have names like 'Professor of Form'). The professors are slightly magical, odd figures who explain aspects of art theory to each other and seem to have no students. I guess the readers are the students, but it still looks a bit odd, having them all talking to each other and being professors yet not knowing about things like perspective. Maybe I'm being too fussy.  (I’m not sure, either, whether many children will warm to adult professors as the only characters in a book.) A good many words are expended on developing the narrative scenario, and that contributes to my principal grouch with the book (we'll get to that...).

The lessons cover the nitty-gritty of art theory, such as the colour wheel and how colours work together, composition, how to use shading to convey solidity, how to show perspective – all of which is really useful stuff for young readers making their own art. Personally, I would have liked to see examples of the lessons put properly into practice, but the illustration style doesn’t really allow that. (Hmm. I'd have picked an illustration style that *did* allow it; but there you go.) There is also a long section on information design and communication – which are the author’s particular area of expertise. It doesn’t really fit very well alongside the previous very practical lessons, though. Good advice such as ‘You need to have an idea of who your audience is and then think about the best way of communicating with them’ doesn’t mean a lot to a child with no concept of audience, let alone experience of information design. And it's a bit of a 'do as I say and not as I do' thing, too, because I wasn't actually very sure of who the audience for the book was, and when I made a guess, I didn't think it had found the best way of communicating with them.

A great deal of intimidating text - if you are a new reader
Wide Eyed Editions doesn’t indicate the target age on its website. Amazon says 7-10, but 7 is too young for most children to use this book independently. The style of illustration and level of activities are fine for a 7-year-old, but not so the text. There is a lot of it. A helluva lot. Most is in a smaller point size than primary school children are used to. The style is far too verbose and the vocabulary and syntax too complex for that age group. Each school ‘term’ (chapter) starts with a double-page spread of solid text – 600 words with no pictures! That will be daunting to many children.

The text is suitable for a much older age group than either the activities or the conceit of the slightly wacky professors. A child who is old enough to be able to read the text easily is likely to find the professors patronizing, but a child who likes the professors and activities might very well struggle with the language in which it is all presented. If the book had a third of the words, it would be a lot better.

Bit of a design glitch - black text on a dark green
background? Seroiusly?
I have no quibble with the content in terms of information. Triggs works at the Royal College of Art and clearly can be trusted to know her stuff about form, colour and so on. But she has never written for children before and it shows. That is not a criticism of her – it’s the role of the editor to sort out such issues. It’s not uncommon to engage a subject expert to write for an audience they don’t usually write for, but the text then has to be carefully edited to make it appropriate. That hasn’t happened in this case. There are nested subordinate clauses and lots of abstract terms and hard vocabulary bandied about without explanation (though the specifically artistic terminology is explained in a glossary).

For a child with a passion for art and an engaged grown-up to help them through the text, this might be a welcome gift.And indeed with adult assistance, a child could learn a lot from it. But I still think it's odd. It's odd, too, that the author/publisher are promoting the idea that it's good to get children to think about art college. Well, yes. But at age 9? Maybe not. Let's go with the exciting experimentation that the book promotes at the end and leave thinking about art college for later years.

Now, I'm willing to acknowledge that I seem to be out of kilter with the rest of the world in my view of this book; it seems to be getting rave reviews everywhere else. It might win prizes and stuff. But I do feel it needs an attendant adult for children to get the most out of it.

Verdict: Like one of those books with split pages you can flip over independently to make up a monsterised animal, it is neither one thing nor another
Ideal reader: a keen young artist who was also a gifted reader ahead of their years. (I have no problem with books for advanced readers, but I do think they should make that requirement clear, to avoid disappointment.)

The legally gumph: I was sent a review copy of this book but not paid to review it; all opinions are my own and as likely to be flawed as anyone else's.