Wednesday 29 July 2009

Plundering ancient tombs

BookMaven has blogged about the Albigensian massacre of 1209 which features in her latest book Troubadour (out Mon 3rd August) - an 800-year anniversary that has gone unmarked and unmourned. (You need to know that BookMaven is Mary Hoffman if you want to order the book, which you should.)

She says her post is a memorial or a plug, but I think I recognise something else in it, too (though I may be wrong). Writing about real historical events in which real people died can make the writer feel a bit uneasy. On the one hand, we are bringing their memory to life, acknowledging their lives and their suffering for a fleeting moment, hundreds of years on. If even one person thinks of them, and perhaps reflects on how their fate relates to current events, we have done a Good Deed.

But at the same time, I personally feel slightly uneasy appropriating their tragedy for a book that will be an entertainment. Would they approve? I think on balance that they would - better to remembered than forgotten - but respect and an acknowledgement that their tragedy was real, not just a story, are a vital courtesy we must afford the dead.
'My' group of dead are the 32,000 who died of plague in Venice in 1576-7. Every time I go to Venice, I light a candle for the plague dead and a candle for Marcantonio Bragadin, who I've also appropriated. I'm not a Catholic, nor even a Christian, but they were, so it seems right. (Marcantonio was brutally executed by the Ottomans while defending Venetian interests in Cyprus. He was flayed alive, and his skin is now in Santi Giovanni e Paolo; that's his tomb above. He - or at least his skin - is also a character in Michelle Lovric's splendid The Undrowned Child.)

Writing about the past is very important. It is easy to think that the 'past is a different country' and that people were not the same. People may have done things differently then, but they felt and thought and hoped in the same ways as now. It is the job of historical fiction (and historical non-fiction) to show us that a person in 1209, or in 2009BC, was just the same in all important regards as a person in 2009. It is our shared humanity that makes their stories matter to us. Don't believe that people were immune to the harshness of their lives, did not feel and fear the famines and plagues that ravaged their lands, or got used to their children dying - read Ben Jonson's
On My First Sonne, or Lear's speech on the death of Cordelia if you doubt that they felt such tragedies as strongly as we do.

On My First Son by: Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy;
Seven yeeres tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soon scap'd worlds and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lye
Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Book Maven moves

The excellent Book Maven has moved her blog to a new address, so please all change your links and carry on following her!

She can now be found at:

Happy New Home cards to be sent directly to the new address, bunches of flowers to her real-world address only.

Happy moving, M :-)

Saturday 11 July 2009

Am I a real writer now?

Imagine you are at a party. (Maybe you actually are at a party, but if so you shouldn't really be reading this - it's not very polite, even if the party is boring.) Now imagine you've asked someone at the party what they do, and they say 'I'm a writer'. What assumptions do you make about them? Personally, I expect them to be a published writer, making money from their writing. I don't think you should say you're a writer just because you write. I wouldn't say I'm a cleaner because I sometimes (OK, very rarely) do some cleaning. And I wouldn't say 'I try to make Small Bint do her homework' even though I spend a lot of time doing it because - sadly - I'm not paid to do it. (I would be very rich if I were.) 'What do you do?' means, in the usual course of things 'what do you do for a living?'

Now, you have a publishing contract - someone asks you at a party what you do for a living and you say 'I'm a writer.' Jolly good. Next question will either be 'have you published anything?' or 'should I know you?' (often followed by 'do you write under your own name?' because they haven't, of course, heard of you unless you are Dan Brown, or someone such as Katie Price or Madonna who is not actually a writer.) The first of these questions gives the lie to my definition of a writer. Why do people ask this? If someone said 'I'm a pilot', we wouldn't say 'have you ever flown a plane?' would we? It's because so many more people want to be writers than are writers, and they've muddied the water by adopting the mantle prematurely. Once, when I said I was a writer, someone responded with 'is that the new term for unemployed?'

With this much confusion about the label it's no wonder writers themselves have difficulty feeling like a 'real' writer. It's odd - there is the handful who feel confident claiming to be a writer when, in my view, they're not, and then there are hosts of writers who spend years feeling they aren't quite bona fida writers yet. Being a real writer is always just around the corner. It's easy to feel as if you are only the shadow of a real writer, and the real writer is just one step ahead. As soon as you get to where you thought the real writer stood, it's moved on.

It goes like this: if you write non-fiction, well, that's not very hard is it? All you're doing is organising some facts and sticking them down in a relatively sensible order. If you have an original argument and have done lots of research, that doesn't make you a writer, it just makes you a bit of a boff.

If you write picture books, well, they're not really very hard are they? It's not as though you had to sustain a complex plot with subplots and develop characters. And the pictures do half the work.

If you write chapter books or short novels, well, that's not too hard - no need for complex style and structure, challenging ideas and intellectual rigour. And if you write a long novel for children, well - it's not like writing for adults, is it? Poems? Well, they're so short, and they don't even have to make sense!

And so we undo ourselves in a self-doubting modesty-fest. Here's a secret: many - maybe even most - writers privately worry that they are not 'proper' writers. It's especially true of children's writers, partly because people so often ask if you've ever thought of writing for adults, implying that would be a better thing to do. I do write for adults as well and, believe me, writing for children is much harder.

Listen carefully: if you write words and are paid for them, and they include any originality, imagination, creativity or skill in the content or the expression, you are a writer. There are subgroups of writers - novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, non-fiction writers, children's writers, adult writers, picture-book writers - but they are all real writers. That contract you have - that tells you that you are a real writer. Don't listen to the bad voice in your head: you don't have to wait until you're buried in Poet's Corner to know you're a real writer.

Friday 10 July 2009

Happy 1st Birthday ABBA!

The Awfully Big Blog Adventure celebrates its first birthday today, with lots of give-aways, guest posts from stars of the world of children's books and even a virtual cake! Pop over there and take part in the festivities.

Friday 3 July 2009

Free at the point of use

In the UK, we have a free National Health Service. Healthcare is 'free at the point of delivery' (= use). I know that's a bit of an alien concept to some transatlantic readers, but bear with me. We also have a system of books that are free at the point of use.

There are lots of ways books can be free to the reader. Here are some:

  • borrow the book from a library
  • borrow the book from a friend
  • be given the book by a friend
  • steal the book from a library/friend/shop
  • download a pirated e-copy of the book
  • pick up a book-crossing copy
And some books are virtually free, or very cheap:

  • books bought from Amazon re-sellers
  • books bought from charity shops and car-boot sales
  • books ordered from a library and incurring an inter-library loan charge.
In all these cases, the writer of the book gets nothing. In the case of the loan from a library they might get increased PLR - it's about 6p per book per loan. How do writers feel about these free methods of getting books?

On the whole, writers are vociferous and enthusiastic supporters of libraries. Many of us were early signatories to
Alan Gibbons Campaign for the Book - and, indeed, signed the first scruffy bit of paper that represented its original toddler-steps last summer. We get our 6p, we're happy. Incidentally, school and university libraries are excluded from PLR. For children's writers, this means that probably most of our borrowings generate no income at all, not even 6p. And, of course, we get no PLR on books borrowed from libraries in the US, Australasia, Canada, etc.

Personally, I'm happy about people borrowing books from friends or passing them on when they have read them. It is environmentally sound, and book-giving and -sharing builds strong social bonds and endorses the emotional and intellectual value of books, which are Good Things.

I am not in favour of stealing books from libraries, friends or shops. Doing that deprives others of the book and of its value as a physical object.

I am not 100% anti-piracy. Despite the anti-piracy advertising, it's not the same as stealing a physical book as it does not deprive an individual or organisation of an object they have paid for. (Yes, I know, the publishers have paid to develop the book - the stock of printed books is not depleted by piracy.) Publishers could do a lot to prevent piracy by making more books available as e-books. If someone wants an e-book and there is no legitimate copy they can buy, they are more likely to download an illegal copy. I am not convinced that downloading pirated copies damages sales - how many of the pirates would buy the paper book? Probably very few. If it is not a lost sale, it has cost publisher and author nothing. Sometimes, sales increase when a free (legal or illegal) download increases awareness and popularity of a book. But that's an argument for another time...

Book-crossing involves leaving books in public places - heartlessly orphaning them - in the hope that a sympathetic foster-parent will pick them up, read them, then pass them on in the same way.This can't cost many sales and it's a nice idea. The serendipitous discovery of a lovely book on a bench or train must bring such joy to someone's day. And if they find your book like this and like it, they might buy one of your other books. Gillian Philips has
blogged about book crossing already this week, so look there for more info and thoughts.

Charity books selling second-hand books doesn't bother me either: I approve of recycling nd giving money to charity, and people buying from a charity shop would rarely go and look for that precise book in a bookshop. Selling at car boot sales falls into the same category of giving books away after reading them, with the added bonus that someone who is sufficiently motivated to drag their old stuff to a rainy car park at 5 am gets a few pence in return. Good for them. I'd want money to go to a rainy car park at 5 am, too.

That leaves Amazon re-sellers and the like. I can't find any excuse for scumbags who somehow get hold of books that are only just out and sell them for a fraction of their cover price, eroding the market for the book at just the point it should be earning back the investment that the publisher and writer put into it. These copies will sell to people who would have paid full price - they have gone onto Amazon because they want the book, so presumably they would have paid for it. I've no objection to re-sellers selling used copies at a discount, or out-of-print books.

Of these, I use libraries (when they are open - insert grumble here about Cambridge Central Library having been closed for about a decade), charity shops, borrowing, getting presents (:-) - and swapping free contractual copies with friends, but that's a method only open to writers. I have only downloaded pirated copies of my own books and have never been lucky enough to find a book-crossing tome.

I don't buy new books from Amazon re-sellers - except my own. Because I can buy my own books more cheaply from there than I can get them from my publisher, even with the massive author discount.

Oh, there's another new way of getting free books: quite a few publishers with Twitter accounts offer free books as prizes to micro competitions, or even just to people who send their details. I got two books in one day like this last week! I suspect they count as promotional copies, so the author doesn't get a royalty. But if the publishers are doing it right, people who didn't win are made aware of the book and may buy it. So get a Twitter account and follow some publishers for guilt-free free reading.
And when Awfully Big Blog Adventure has its first birthday celebration on 10th July, there will be free books to win there, too.

Please tell me which free ways of getting books you use and which you approve of and disapprove of. I'd really like to know where others stand on this. (I suspect I'm a fairly lone voice on the pirate deck.)