Sunday, 18 December 2011

Hearing voices

This is a little post that is a really musing and half a question. Though it's skirting around some deep issues I don't have time to think about today. So you can think for me.

I've noticed, as I come to know more and more writers personally, and as other writers make more public appearances, that I now often hear the author's 'real' voice in my head as I read. I first noticed it reading The Woman Who Thought Too Much, a brilliant memoir by my friend the poet Joanne Limburg, perhaps because it was such a personal book. I read slowly, hearing every word as spoken by her. I was reading Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead the other day, and that was in her voice, too. It happens less with fiction, probably because most good fiction has its own voice, but it's still there to a degree.

Years ago, I did a PhD on literature that was mostly anonymous. I knew nothing at all about the authors I was spending my life with. Of course they had voices in my head, and I felt close to those (dead) people I spent years with. But I knew I invented their voices. It's different when the voice is a real one - one I might have heard earlier in the day in Waterstone's coffee shop or on the phone (or on radio 4).

All writers adopt a voice - a public voice, a literary voice, a this-is-all-I-will reveal voice, a this-is-how-I-want-you-to-see-me voice. It's our prerogative - even our necessity. It makes the book an artefact, a creation, rather than an extension of ourselves. If I hear Joanne speaking the words into my head, the artefactness of the book is lost. It's easy to be deceived into thinking it's pure Joanne (whatever that is).

It feels like it's one step away from being one of those nutters who sends Christmas cards to characters in The Archers. (That's a radio programme about farming, for you non-UK people. It's useful if you need hints and tips on preventing your beetroot getting root-and-mouth or whatever they're onto these days. It was invented by the BBC in their paternalistic role of educating the lowly farming masses by sneaking info in under the guise of entertainment.) Actually, I've just written a Christmas card to Joanne. I hope that doesn't make me a nutter. No, she was in my house on Saturday. I'm sure she's real. Perhaps I will re-address it to 'the real Joanne Limburg', just in case.

Of course, with a memoir, the artefactness is often trying to hide itself anyway - or maybe even trying not to be there. But the awareness that voice is not equal to writer, or narrator is not equal to writer, is one of the defining marks of an intelligent, sophisticated reader. Writers choose how to deal with that shadowy presence that stands between them and the words on the page. The narrator/voice might be a robust, chortling, self-aware character in his or her own right, standing to one side and saying 'look at this story, look what happened next'. Or s/he might be as thin and sticky as clingfilm so that you're barely aware of their presence and they're hard to see and peel away from the shape of the narrative. Or they might be the shadow-on-the-wall of the real writer. Oh, I am rambling on about narrators. And Plato's got in again. Time to stop.

I think there is some very deep issue with being a writer under all this. To do with how much you want to be in other people's heads and how much you don't. If you didn't want to at all, you wouldn't write (or you wouldn't publish). But - I don't know those readers! They can have my carefully constructed narratorial/discursive voice in their heads - that's what it's for - but I don't want them to think it's me. Perhaps that's why I don't like to be heard in real life - no readings, no school visits, no radio, not even any phone...

The question is - do you hear the writer's voice (if you know/have heard the writer) when you read their books? Does it bother you? Does it make reading different? Better? Worse?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Do your research


I'm writing about sea cucumbers. They look like a sort of tube, or a dog turd, or a fat caterpillar. They live in the sea and are an animal, despite the name. In particular, I'm writing about the way a sea cucumber can turn itself almost liquid, ooze through a crack, then solidify the other side so that it can't be prised out. Cool, eh?

I found out about the sea cucumber trick on WebEcoist, which is not a specialist zoology site. It says this about the SC trick:

The sea cucumber can literally take on different body states – from hard to liquid – in order to defend itself. From wikipedia: “Like other echinoderms the cuke has a type of collagen in its skin capable of excreting or absorbing more water effectively changing from a ‘liquid’ to a ‘solid.’ They can turn their bodies into mush, climb through small cracks and then solidify into small lumps so that they cannot be extracted.”

It cites Wikipedia as its source, so off to Wikipedia.... but unfortunately this links to the page on antipredator adaptation which doesn't talk about the liquifying of sea cucumbers. The page on sea cucumbers, however, does:

A remarkable feature of these animals is the catch collagen that forms their body wall. This can be loosened and tightened at will, and if the animal wants to squeeze through a small gap, it can essentially liquefy its body and pour into the space. To keep itself safe in these crevices and cracks, the sea cucumber will hook up all its collagen fibres to make its body firm again.

Now that's not quite the same thing, is it? Hooking of collagen fibres is not the same thing as absorbing or losing water. So off to the first source Wikipedia cites for this info - it's an article in English, apparently in a French journal, but its website is in German. And it's moved. So... follow the link to another German website, which is not looking promising as this the University of Gottingen and the journal was supposed to be from the Université de Bourgogne. Searching finds nothing related. Googling the article title gives the same broken link. Move on...

Second source cited by Wikipedia is a book. But a book that is not in Cambridge University Library.

Back to Google, with sea cucumber and catch collagen, and thence to an advanced aquarists' site which says:

they have a compound in their skin called catch collagen - this tissue is under neurological control and is capable of changing from a 'liquid' to a 'solid' form very quickly (Brusca and Brusca 1990; Motokawa 1984a; Motokawa 1984b; Ruppert and Barnes 1994). This is one of the coolest things about echinoderms in general, and is one of the reasons that this group has been so successful. The ability of the catch collagen to change from liquid to solid form at will is how sea cucumbers manage to get themselves into such tiny holes in the live rock structure - they are able to ‘goopify’ their bodies (for lack of a better description), literally pour themselves into the hole they have chosen, and then solidify their skin to prevent anything from being able to remove them (Motokawa 1984a; Motokawa 1984b).

Real references - good:

Motokawa, T. 1984a. Catch connective tissue: the connective tissue with adjustable mechanical properties. Pp. 69-73 in B. F. Keegan and B. D. S. O'Connor, eds. Proceedings of the Fifth International Echinoderm Conference. Balkema, Rotterdam, NL.
Motokawa, T. 1984b. The viscosity change of the body-wall dermis of the sea cucumber Stichopus japonicus caused by mechanical and chemical stimulation. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. A, 77A:419-423.

But they're not in CUL either. Back to Google:

The compound is made of a material called 'catch collagen' which can change from liquid to solid when neurologically triggered. It does this so can squeeze into small spaces and then harden again. Another defense is they "pee" out all the water in their system and shrink into a small, hard rock.

So what is actually going on in this animal? By happy good fortune, I have a bint doing zoology at Oxford, with a tutor who is a world expert on marine thingies like these. Last port of call - Facebook.

But it wasn't last, because people are not always on Facebook when you need them to be. More fiddling around on Google reveals that 'catch collagen' is more properly called 'mutable collagenous tissue' or MCT. And now we get somewhere: there is an article in The Journal of Experimental Biology, 2002, that describes research into MCT in echinoderms. Current thinking, it appears, is that the sea cucumber controls the connections between fibrils of collagen by releasing chemicals into its tissues:

mutable collagenous structures consist of discontinuous collagen fibrils organised into bundles (fibres) by an elastomeric network of fibrillin microfibrils and interconnected by a stress-transfer matrix consisting partly of stiparin, a glycoprotein that binds to and aggregates the fibril…[etc]

There are chemicals that can prevent bridges forming between fibrils, so the creature loses its structure entirely, becoming flobbly. The chemical release is under neurological control. Hurray! Got there! (And Wikipedia was right this time, saying it 'hook[s] up its collagen fibres'.)

What will all this amount to? About 30 words in a book for reluctant readers on animals that do amazing things. But - and here's the real point - it is AT LEAST as important to do the research properly for a children's book as for an adult book. And although the book won't mention collagen or fibrils or MCT or any of that, at least it will NOT now say that the sea cucumber sucks water into its cells to make itself more liquid.

And, to the next person who asks, that is why I am paid £2 a word for a book like this.  It took an hour's research to prevent me writing 'sea cucumbers absorb water to make their bodies gloopy' and write 'sea cucumbers use chemicals to change their bodies to gloop.' An hour well spent.


Disclaimer: This doesn't mean there are no errors in my books. But I do work hard to avoid them!
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Monday, 5 December 2011

How hard do you push?

I've seen a few writer friends on Facebook recently promoting their own books as potential Christmas presents. This makes me feel uneasy, though I'm not really sure why. It's quite likely that some of these books would indeed make very good Christmas presents, and are probably very good books, and I wouldn't have thought of buying them otherwise. So why not? But I won't be buying any of them, nor will I be plugging my own books at Christmas.

People use Facebook in different ways, of course. And I don't mean people plugging their books on their professional Facebook pages - that's what those pages are for - but on their personal profiles, the pages for their friends and family. I have unfriended people in the past for using our 'friendship' as a means to try to sell me things (not books). It's not the occasional 'I have a new book out' - that's fine, it's news, it's an event to share with friends. It's the hardsell or the advertising with no news hook I don't like.

I have lots and lots of friends who are writers. I can't possibly read all their books and I certainly can't buy all their books. Perhaps that's the problem. If I didn't know lots of writers and weren't a writer myself, I might think 'Oh yes, I can buy X's book for Y for Christmas!' and get a buzz out of knowing the author. So maybe I'm just not approaching it in the right way.

Do you - or would you - use your personal Facebook profile to try to sell your books to your friends in a bit of blatant, shameless advertising? If so, please tell me off. But while doing so, please tell me how it's different from a friend who is - say -  a plumber advertising his plumbing skills to me, or a friend who is a lawyer trying to get me to use his legal services on the back of our online/real friendship. Or perhaps it isn't different and you think it's OK. Isn't flagrant commercialism what LinkedIn is for, not Facebook? If I met a friend in the street and (s)he said 'why don't you buy my book? it makes a great Christmas present,' would that be OK? I don't think it would. Or am I just being an old fogey?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Why you still need to be able to speak publisher

Things are a bit tricky here, so today I'm skiving my responsibilities and pointing you towards a post that helps you understand why you still need to be able to speak publisher. Read Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List by Edan Lepucki (and come back and tell me what you think, if you have the time). I don't agree with all of it, but there are some very important thoughts here. I particularly like that it draws on plenty of other intelligent blog posts to bring together its reasoning.

These are the bits I thought particularly pertinent:

  • You never hear readers grumble that traditional book publishing is too narrow and lacking in creativity. You only hear that from people who feel that their own book is being rejected because publishers are too cowardly and narrow-minded to see its true value.
  • Is it really possible for a self-published book to be rigorously edited? After all, the editor is in the pay of the author (which is a bit like putting the lion in charge of the lion tamer). If the editor thinks the book is too bad to publish, will they say so? Will the author listen? Or will the author just find a tamer editor if the first refuses the work? (And in a time of economic stress, the editor might not feel they can afford to turn down the work. Sooner or later, the author will come across an editor in possession of more desperation than integrity.)
  • What will happen when *all* the shit hits the fans? Publishers protect the public from the slush pile. The vast majority of rejected books are rejected for a good reason - they are rubbish. If all these books that are rubbish are unleashed on the poor, unsuspecting public, how will readers pick their way through the online slush pile? 
This last point is one I've gone on about for a while. Publishers have a very valuable role in protecting readers from having to look for needles in haystacks. How will readers find the books that are well written, well structured, use punctuation properly and are not full of spelling errors if they have to wade through all the unedited, unmonitored, unselected cheap e-books online? I don't just mean now - but when every wannabe writer has published their first draft in the belief that it's good as it is?

At the moment, at least in the UK, many of the people who are self-publishing are often at least on the fringes of the publishing industry. They have been writing for years, going to classes or writing groups, submitting books that are repeatedly refused, perhaps - but they didn't just start writing yesterday. They are not all putting up total dross - there is some good stuff there, too. But it won't be long before every (wo)man and her/his dog is putting up their first unedited ramblings. It's easier to self-publish on Kindle than it is to write a pitch to an agent or publisher. So why bother? Pity the readers then, when the ratio of rubbish:readable veers further to the rubbish side. Will the reading public just give up? Will they just go off reading altogether? Or will they - irony - flock back to printed books once they have spent 100 times 99 cents on crap?

It's often said that the good writing rises to the top, but that's not true - look at some of the bestselling titles so far! And I don't mean that the type of genre fiction that does well is crap per se, but that a lot of the successful books are badly written and full of fundamental errors (poor spelling and grammar, for instance). Readers may fall for this for a while, when their Kindle is a new toy and they're keen to give cheap reads a go. But for how long? We will see. Eventually.
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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Self-appraisal: what you have achieved this year?

One thing I have not done - tidy my office
One of the things about being self-employed is that you don't get that annual appraisal thing that employed people get. Nor do you get the work Christmas lunch. *Note to self - line up some Cambridge writers for a work Christmas lunch.* It's worth doing your own annual appraisal, especially if you don't think you're getting anywhere. It might reassure you - or it might give you the kick you need to realise you really aren't getting anywhere and need to make some changes. (Hey, it's not my job to pull punches.)

You can set your own rules and your own standards. I live on my writing income, so if I'd written three wonderful novels and not yet sold them, that would be a failure. If you're a full-time pilot with five children and no partner, writing two pages might be a massive success. Be realistic.

I used to do an appraisal/audit at the end of every year - review what I'd done and set targets for the next year. It sounds very artificial, and it was done in a very lighthearted way, but I think it was valuable. I haven't done it for a while. It's two years since my life fell apart big-time and I feel I've done nothing since then. So time for a return to the end-of-year audit (end of two years, this time). Since Nov 2009 I have:
  • written 25 books (one was rejected at acquisitions, but I count the writing anyway - I'm not counting those I didn't send out)
  • been an RLF fellow one day a week for a year (harder than it sounds, as there was 5 hours travel each day as well as seeing the students)
  • been an RLF lector for a year and a bit (ongoing)
  • revised a set of seven revision guides that I wrote ages ago for a new edition (heavy rewrite)
  • taught two summer schools at Downing College, Cambridge
  • started working with three new publishers - *hello, publishers*
  • written a few articles 
  • mentored a couple of people
  • given (very few) talks
  • got AS level Italian
  • continued this blog, if that counts. Intermittently, I admit.
What are the failures? Well, I've done very few book reviews; I've abandoned a couple of ambitious projects - or at least put them on hold; decided A2 Italian couldn't be worked around bint's GCSEs; NOT started my publishing company; not put any effort into selling new book ideas; not been to the Bologna book fair either year; not looked for a new agent after parting company with the old agent.

On balance, enough done. I think. Or maybe not. Time will tell. See if I'm still here next year....

Then you have to set your goals for next year. You choose the balance of realism and optimism, but remember that you're going to look back on it next year and assess how well you did. I'm not putting my goals here - it's not just that I can do without the public humiliation, but professionally it's not a good idea. But I'll let you know next year if I did them.

So - do your own professional writing audit. Or illustrating audit, if that's what you do. What have you tried? What have you achieved? What have you failed at? What will you do next year? Which skills do you want to develop? How? Treat your writing like a real job - if you don't, no one else will.

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Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Delivery

Delivery of a book, like that of a baby, may involve a lot of people in the run-up to the event but really only the mother/author can do the last, crucial bit. There are a few simple things to remember:

  • deliver your book on or before the agreed date
  • deliver the book that was commissioned and make sure it's finished (ie as good as it can be).

If you can't do both of these, ask your editor in advance which is most important to them. Should you send a less-than-perfect draft on time, or can they give you a bit more time to perfect it? If they can, you must perfect it by the next agreed date.


Whatever other compromises there are, you must deliver your book in a format the editor is happy with. This is likely to be a Word file, sent by email, though I have worked with a couple of publishers since 2000 who still wanted a printed copy (as well). Within the Word file, they might want something very specific - eg Times 12 point double-spacing with two-inch margins, or whatever. There is a reason for this, so if they specify it you must do it. The reason is not that they are boring old farts with no appreciation of your artistic formatting skills. It's that they know how to judge the length of a manuscript in their specified format. (This is less important when they can just look at the word-count in Word, but old habits die hard.) If you're working with a freelance editor or a small publishing company, it's often best to save your file in .doc format rather than the newer .docx format. It wastes time if the editor has to come back to you because she can't open the file on her antiquated computer system.


Deliver your book with a brief, polite email. Don't apologise for anything in your book. If they are going to find faults, they will find them without you pointing them out. And certainly don't say 'I'm sorry chapter six is a bit thin - my son was sick, and...'

If you know the editor well, you can be a bit chatty - ask after their children/holiday/health. Don't give a run-down of all the problems in your life even if you do know the editor well. It's not professional. What you should do, though, is alert the editor to any forthcoming events that will mean you're out of contact if they have any problems with the file or the book. So 'please check that you can open the file, as I won't be around for the next couple of days to resend it' is fine. Or 'I'm going to Borneo for three weeks next Wednesday so I'll be out of contact...' This is helpful information - if you don't tell them, you might hold up production of your book by several weeks and that won't be popular.

But really there is only one thing to say about delivery of your book: deliver your book, as agreed. No excuses, no crap, no delays, no 'corrupt files', no decorative effects, no pages stuffed in jiffy bags (unless specifically requested). Simple.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A note on PLR

Today I got my notification of Irish PLR. Many writers I know have been saying their PLR payments have been dropping, year on year. (PLR is money from public lending rights, paid on books borrowed from libraries.) Generally, my UK PLR rises, perhaps because I keep writing books at a healthy rate. I'm not sure whether the Irish is up or down, but I thought I'd do a little statistical analysis to see which books earn the most.

I write children's non-fiction (trade and schools and libraries), children's fiction, and adult non-fiction (trade and academic). Here's the breakdown:


Type of book                     % of my registered titles            % of Irish PLR earnings

Adult non-fiction, trade             11                                              3
Adult non-fiction, academic        6                                             0
Children's non-fiction, S&L     58                                             19
Children's non-fiction, trade       11                                           23
Children's fiction                         13                                             56

Conclusions? If you want to maximise your PLR, write children's fiction - more than half the PLR income came from around a ninth of my books. Children's trade non-fiction is much more profitable than schools and libraries titles, showing that children are more interested in reading for fun than doing their homework. Who's surprised? Not me.

(And another conclusion? I haven't registered all my books.... though I did exclude some that are so old I don't really count them. Still, the total is seriously lower than the number of books I've actually published, so something has gone wrong somewhere.)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Design

There is a clause in every book contract that says the design (and some other things) is the sole preserve of the publisher. You should breathe a sigh of relief, as book design is a tricky thing.

Design is most obviously complicated in the case of an illustrated book. It's not just a case of picking the right illustrator or choosing the right photos. Pick up an illustrated book. Ignore the content of the pictures. What has the designer done? You need to look at where the pictures are on the pages, what size they are, how they relate to the text. Do they bleed off the edge of the page or are they surrounded by white space? Is text integrated into the pictures? Does it flow around them with a curved or jagged line, or is everything in rectangular blocks? How is white space used in and around the pictures?

Now look at the pictures themselves. How does the palette of colours used in the pictures work with the colour of the paper and any colour in the text? What does the style of the pictures tell you about the book? Are they whimsical, flippant, strong, aggressive, traditional, avant garde?

But design is important in even an unillustrated book. The design tells you a lot about the type of book you are reading. If the type is small and cramped and the margins are small the book is probably printed on thin, off-white paper and is most likely a cheap novel. It might be a mass market paperback bodice-ripper or a cheap edition of a classic. If there are large margins, lots of space between the lines (extravagant leading) and a font that is airy and leaves lots of space (long ascenders and descenders) you are reading either a book for reluctant readers or an expensive poetry book, or possibly a hardback novel which is shorter than you feel it should be for the money you spent. There are plenty of other elements of design: the running headers and footers; whether chapters start on a left- or right-hand page; how much space there is above a heading or chapter head; the font(s); the leading, the kerning of the title and headings; how many pages the book runs to ...

And I'm not even going to talk about the cover.

Book design is a specialist art. Good book designers make a book a thing of beauty. And book design is one of the reasons that e-books are currently inferior to real books. The look of the text is ugly, and that's a shame.

The designer rarely gets a credit on the acknowledgements page of the book, but they should. Their work is more visible to the reader than that of the editor or the proofreader. A useful trick for writers struggling with a book they can't evaluate is to print it out in a different font. Text looks different in a different font. The book you wrote in Arial (yuk) or Times New Roman (yuk) will look quite different if you print it in Goudy Old Style or Palatino. Suddenly, you can see the book with fresh eyes. Now - does your book suit a spindly, spidery font or an elegant, crisp font? Does that curly 'Q' really work?  Do you have to change the font because of the style of one letter? (I often do.) *Now* you see what the book designer does.

PS If you can't see any difference, please leave the blog directly, do not pass Go, and do not collect £200 (as if!).

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

D is for Disconnect

This is not really a How to Speak Publisher as it's just a word used in its usual sense...

I'm listening to yet another programme on books/writers on radio 4. Why is it that books and reading seem to get a massive amount of media coverage at the moment, but writers struggle to survive? If the public so likes books, why are publishers cutting commissioning and cutting the rates they pay on the books they do commission? Does the public really want books? I don't mean authors who are starting out - they have always had a hard time, and always will - but established, mid-list writers who have been making money for publishers for years and have a following. There is a massive disconnect between the public image of writers and books and the reality of being a writer and trying to sell a book.

I'm happy to work hard. I routinely write ten or more books a year (many are short - but all are books and take work). I work as many hours a week on writing as most people in other jobs work. Of course, if the publisher were not selling the books and making money, I could understand why my income drops year on year for the same amount work (or more work!) But the public is apparently gagging for books, if radio 4 is to be believed. So why the disconnect? Print costs have gone up; margins have gone down; publishers are scared of the future [come ON, guys - the future was always uncertain, that's why it's the future!] Books sell for the same or less, but the bookshops and distributors still want their cut, so that leaves only the author to dump the losses on. If the public didn't want books, that would be more understandable, but that's not how it looks. So the public is willing to buy, and the publishers cut the price. Er......

It's odd, isn't it? I accept that we live in a world of market forces, though there are some things that should not be subject just to market forces - the food supply, medicines, education. (A few books fall into the latter category.) I don't think writers should generally be subsidised if they can't write economically viable books. My view that writers should not usually get Arts Council grants is, I know, not widely held amongst writers. But if a publisher thinks a book will sell well enough to be worth publishing, it should pay a living wage to the writer - and the public should be able to buy a book without being complicit in the exploitation of the writer. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

When the gatekeepers look like Cerberus

One of the particular challenges of writing for children rather than adults (or even older teens) is that to get your book into the hands of the reader, you have first to get it past a gatekeeper. Your young readers may well want to read books with swearing, sex and violence in, but the gatekeepers  don't want them to. The gatekeepers are teachers, librarians and parents. They are the ones who hold the purse strings, and they have to be satisfied that your book is 'suitable' for the little darlings in their care. Needless to say, their idea of 'suitable' rarely matches the readers' idea of 'desirable' and often doesn't match the writer's idea of 'realistic'.

I'm struggling at the moment to present an angry, disillusioned teenage character facing some very difficult issues in his life but without using any swear words. This type of character does swear. Almost all teens swear, and my teen readers are well aware of that (and swear themselves, I'm sure). I know the argument - parents will object, so the schools/libraries/bookshops can't stock the books if they are full of swearing. I remove the swearing, though with a weary sigh. But that's not the worst of it.

The books were supposed to be sexy, but they can't have any sex in them. The characters in these books are 17 and 18. They are over the age of consent. They don't have any full sex, but even references to sexual desire, or to consenting over-30s having sex, have to be very tame and ambiguous. I think I can trust the more knowing reader to fill in the gaps, so I'll let that go, too. And the unknowing younger teen will read on, oblivious to what might be happening.

One of the series features a historical serial killer who mutilates prostitutes. The gatekeepers don't like the prostitutes. This is where I do have problems. Er, actually, the killing is more offensive! This is not just an issue about books, is it? It gets right to the heart of attitudes towards what is and is not acceptable, not just in fiction but in life. We object more to prostitutes than to serial killers. Do we really?

Here are some activities in the books (before Blytonisation): swearing; wanting to have sex with someone; having sex with someone; drinking blood; drinking vodka; psycho killers cutting prostitutes to ribbons; inhumane experiments on people purchased as slaves; trying to drown someone; beheading someone. Which of these are normal activities that most people will engage in at some time in their lives? Swearing, drinking vodka, wanting to have sex, having sex. Which are activities to be discouraged, amongst both teens and adults, and which most people will never engage in? Drinking blood, trying to drown someone, beheading someone, cutting prostitutes to ribbons, conducting inhumane experiments on trafficked slaves. So which shall we remove from the books?

Could someone please explain to me why? If we show swearing, kids think swearing is OK? They start swearing? So if we show beheading, they think beheading is OK? They start beheading people? I'm quite glad my bint only swears at me if the alternative is being beheaded, but I don't think she swears because she's seen it in books! And she hasn't beheaded me, even though she must have come across the suggestion at some point.

I am absolutely not getting at my publisher or distributor here. I know we have to sell the books. There's no point in writing or publishing them if we don't. So I will write them in a way that means they will get past the gatekeepers. And I'm not really getting at teachers and librarians, though I do think they could maybe take a stand. What I am troubled by is the - real or imagined - parents who will object if their children read swear words but not if they read about cruelty. Who are these people who don't like to think their kids might discover people drink or have sex when they are older, but don't mind them thinking people kill each other from sexual jealousy and might get away with it?

Is it that the children know they should never follow the example of the serial killer (really? even the child with zero degrees of empathy?), but not know they shouldn't follow the example of the person who swears? Do we trust the reader to discern between undesirable and unacceptable? If we do, let them see the swear words. If we don't, don't let them see the criminal acts. I suppose including swearing, sex and drinking could be thought to normalise them. But they ARE normal, whether we like it or not. And doesn't showing violence on TV and in movies and video games - violence far worse and more graphic than that in most books - normalise violence, and acclimatise children to it? I suppose what I really want to know is, if you object to your child seeing swearing in a book, aren't you also a person who will object to your child seeing violence in a book? So you won't be buying the book anyway? Or have I got it all wrong? I'd really like to know.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Teach writing? Nah....

Whether or not creative writing can be taught is a much debated question. My own view - and I've had creative writing students - is that creative writing courses can impart techniques and help students develop skills they have, but if they have no native talent the course is a waste of time and money. Some courses are a waste of time and money anyway, because of the way they are taught or the people who teach them, but that's a different matter. But this post isn't about courses - it's about the individual, one-to-one help that an experienced writer sometimes gives an emerging or novice writer. We have all been asked by new writers to read their work. Some of us do it for money. Some of use do it out of generosity, or guilt, or because we feel obliged or coerced. Some of us just say no. I say no, but that doesn't mean I won't help...

I have a new friend. I'll call him Adrian. Hello, Adrian - I'm sure you will recognise yourself, even with this different name. Adrian has written a long novel which he has been working on for much of this year. He has had feedback from several readers, some with publishing industry experience, so their comments are more likely to be useful than those of random friends and family. He has taken on board all their comments and made changes to his novel. I have not read his novel, nor do I intend to until it is published. I have read and commented on the synopsis and the first page - that's all. So can I be any use to Adrian in helping him develop his novel? I think so. Because I don't think I can teach him to write, but I might be able to help him to learn to write.

There are lots of guidelines - which lots of people treat as immutable laws - like 'show don't tell' and 'don't use 'was'' and so on. There are lots of distractions, like 'use 12 pt Times Roman' (I have never submitted a MS in 12pt Times Roman, and I have never had one rejected because it was in the wrong font). If I tell Adrian how I write, he might think that's my prescription for successful writing. It's not. It's possibly a very bad way to write - for other people. But it works for me. He will have his own way of writing that works for him. So much for the activity of writing - I'm not going to say 'you have to have a detailed plan' or 'never write a detailed plan'. But what I want to get Adrian to do, when I talk to him about his novel, is to understand what he is writing and how it works or could work. So I ask him questions like 'who is the narrator?' It is an omniscient narrator. 'Does this narrator have a character? Is he/she reliable? How do you switch between points of view? What are your main character's flaws? Which of his opinions do you share and which not? How does he change during the course of the book? Why?' And so on.

These are questions you can ask of any book. You can only answer them if you know the book, and if you are prepared to think about it. I'll let you into a secret. When you do an English degree at Cambridge, your supervisor lets you choose the texts you study (or did in my day). There is no limit. This doesn't mean the supervisor has read everything. It means the supervisor can give a supervision on a book they haven't read, just as I can help Adrian improve a novel I haven't seen. It's all about asking questions that get the writer/student to think intelligently about the book so that they make discoveries and increase their understanding. I have occasionally given Cambridge supervisions on books I haven't read. Once I gave a supervision on a book I hadn't read (all of), written in a language I didn't understand (very well). Because learning is not something that must be imparted by a teacher, but something that can come from within, possibly prompted by a helpful prodding person.

You wrote the book - you know it better than I do, or some other would-be helpful writerly or publishing type. You tell me about it - telling me about it is how you work out what you know and what you don't know. Then you can work out how to plug the gaps. This is rather how I work as an RLF fellow. If a student has written a doctoral thesis, or a novel, I'm not going to read all of it. I will read a bit and talk to them about the structure and any problems I can see in the sample I've read. Yes, I might explain to them how to use commas or why they need to write in shorter sentences, but the most useful bit, often, is getting them to explain why they have written something in the way they have and defend their choice. If they can't defend it, they realise it's probably wrong. The next stage is to work out how to fix it. But I want them to do that, not me. It's their book/thesis. And I'm lazy.

Of course, there is a role for the person who reads the book and says 'your pacing is all wrong' or 'the voice is inconsitent'. But if you have someone saying - 'tell me what happens in the first three chapters. Do you think that moves quickly enough to keep someone interested?' - you might be able to fix the pacing before you show it to someone else.  I could write a list of questions to ask about your novel. But that's not the same. You really need a person who will keep pushing, with one question leading into another that depends on the answer you gave. Perhaps I should offer an editorial service that does not involve reading your book, but is basically £50 for an hour of being badgered remorselessly. Stroppy Author's Lazy Consultancy.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Draft

A draft is something you should keep to yourself. It is an unfinished book. You wouldn't serve someone a half-cooked meal, would you? Especially not if you were running a restaurant and expected them to pay for it? So don't send a publisher a draft of your book. It's not their job to tell you what to do with it to finish it, and it's certainly not their job to finish it for you; it's your job to know what it needs and do it.

There are two principal reasons for a publisher to refuse a book: it's crap and always will be; it's still crap but you could have made it OK. Oh, and there's a third - you sent them a book that is not the type they publish, or that they already have with a slightly different title. There's nothing you can do about the last bit except look at their catalogue and make sure they haven't just printed a book that is pretty much the same. The others are all in your control. (Most of this is covered wonderfully by the Crabbit Bat Nicola Morgan on Help! I Need a Publisher - write the right book at the right time in the right way and send it to the right publisher.)

There's sort of a fourth, which is that you have sent a good book to someone who just doesn't like it. That's bad luck and there is nothing you can do about editors' (or readers') tastes.

The issue of the draft addresses reason number two: it's still crap but you could have made it OK.

Now, all this doesn't mean that your book won't need any editing. Every book benefits from editing - and copy editing and proof-reading. But it should be finished in your view. The editor will still improve it. And if they can't improve it, they will be paid for doing nothing, so they can be grateful to you. If you can still find things - any things - wrong with your book it is not ready to send in.

Caveat: no book is ever perfect. This is not a licence to hold onto your book forever because it doesn't match up to the Platonic ideal you conceived when you planned the book. It has to be publishably good, not worthy of having been written by an omniscient god. If you hold on to your book for ages, tweaking and pithering about with it, you will never submit anything. And if you have a deadline imposed by a publisher, you have to submit by that deadline. Don't hang on to it for a bit longer because it isn't quite right. Read this post for a rant about the importance of meeting deadlines. Is this incompatible with everything else I have said? Not really - you just need to start the book early enough, and write it quickly enough, to leave time to correct and improve it before the deadline. That's easy, isn't it?

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Saturday, 15 October 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Copy editor

A bit of a lurch back to C, I'm afraid - I just tried to link to C is for Copy editor from a post I'm just writing and found it was still saved as a draft. Oooops. Especially as the up-coming post is D is for Draft. So just imagine you have gone faster than the speed of light, like a neutrino, and come to C is for Copy editor some weeks ago. [Please don't start a discussion about the speed of light/neutrino thing - that was a flippant reference, not an informed and informing comment on the plausibility of the CERN result. Which, incidentally, I am prepared to accept is accurate. But that's another story, and was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.]

The copy editor tidies up your writing at the detailed level. That sounds reasonable - they spot and correct the typing and grammatical errors, make sure everything is consistent, and make it all flow nicely. Sometimes it is reasonable, but sometimes the text becomes a battleground.

A good copy editor preserves your style and voice and corrects any errors. Their work should be invisible. They have impeccable grammar and no ego. They improve your book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction by making many or few (often imperceptible) changes, as necessary. That is the key - necessity. They don't change things for the sake of it.

A bad copy editor rewrites for the sake of it, stamping their own voice and style on your work. Perhaps they really want to be a writer, not an editor. [Fine, copy editor - write your own book. I've written this one already.] A really bad copy editor introduces grammatical errors, and sometimes even spelling errors. Believe me, they do. You would think, given that publishing is a competitive field, that it would be hard for someone with a poor grasp of grammar to get a job as a copy editor, but it happens. Copy editors who 'correct' to 'comprised of', and who don't recognise an ethical dative if it bites them, should be sent to a special circle of Hell. Where they will be bitten by ethical datives and hanged with the hanging prepositions they are so fond of.

The copy editor needs a good general knowledge and Classical education as well as an unrivalled command of English. Writers hate copy editors who mess with things and then get them wrong. Professional writers have generally checked their work carefully; copy editors should check any corrections they want to make equally carefully.

On the whole, I am blessed with very good editors. I have had only a couple of copy editors (in around 130 books) who really botched things. One I had to have fired; there was no option. We went back to the unedited text and started again with a new copy editor. Most have improved the books, and several have spotted errors that might otherwise have got through to press. Of course, there are still errors in my books - and they are my responsibility, not the copy editor's responsibility. (It's like children - when they do well, it's their own doing; when they do badly, we blame ourselves.)

A note to copy editors: 

Yes, there are sometimes errors in our books; we are not infallible. But please *tell* us if you think there is an error, rather than just changing the text to what you think it should be. If I have missed out what seems to you to be a crucial reference to a prophecy of Nostradamus, that's because it's apocryphal - one of those bits that is generally supposed to be in Nostradamus but actually is not. I don't want you sticking that kind of error in my book - the kind of error I have deliberately avoided. You have joined in the webfest of Nostradamus-spotting - I've read Nostradamus in the original. Who's likely to be right? JUST ASK FIRST: sometimes you are right, and sometimes you are wrong. It is very, very difficult to spot factual errors that have been introduced into a book by a copy editor. (Grammatical and spelling errors, on the other hand, leap off the page at me - so if you want to add some errors please add that type.)

And another thing - I do know about English grammar, possibly more than you do. Writers vary in this, of course. Some are not very good at it and need lots of help from the copy editor. But you can tell, if you have a whole book to work with, whether or not someone can write correctly. If most of the book is error-free, then it behoves you to ask if you think something is wrong, or to check in one of those reference books about grammar and English usage. Or at least to flag your 'correction' so that we can argue with you about it.

A note to authors:

If you want to argue with your copy editor, you have to know what you are doing. You need to be able to defend your original text if you don't want it changed - you must explain why it has to be as you wrote it, and why it can't be as the copy editor wants it. Why is your wording better than theirs? Don't argue for the hell of it. Look dispassionately at your text and decide whether the copy editor has, actually, improved it. All writers benefit from the work of a good editor.

Except with a picture book text, which is a slightly special case, I recommend NOT looking at your manuscript when you get the copy-edited text, except to check things you think might be wrong. If the changes don't leap out at you, they are probably fine. Don't be precious about your text, and don't be a prima donna - especially with non-fiction. A non-fiction copy editor is - in my view - allowed to edit to improve clarity. A fiction editor should be more sensitive to the writer's style, though clarity is still important. (That's even more true of poetry, but this blog is not about poets.) There's no point in being obscure just because you think it makes you look clever - it doesn't; it makes you look arrogant, up yourself or incompetent. Unless you are Jeremy Prynne.

Ideally - and usually, in my experience - the copy editor is your partner in producing a good book. And they don't even get a credit in the book. So be nice to your copy editor. Don't get cross over tiny things, and if you don't agree, correct them politely with a good, clear and measured explanation. Finally: I'd like to say a big thank you to all the wonderful copy editors I've worked with over the years - you have improved my books in little unnoticeable ways, and I am grateful for that.

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Friday, 30 September 2011

Can't run, can't hide

Yesterday I went to see an editor. While I was chatting to him, another editor - who I have known for a very long time, and written many books for - wandered past. It was a lovely surprise to see her. And then she asked me about this blog. She had come across it and worked out it's mine just from the writing style and content, without looking at my profile page. That's a very cool and talented editor. I take my hat off to her. And I will quake a little more in my boots, now.

[Not really - I am happy to own up to everything here. If I wanted the blog to be anonymous, it would be!]

Saturday, 24 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for day job

Many publishers assume writers have a so-called 'day job'. It helps them excuse (to themselves) the pitiful  fees or advances they offer most writers; it's all OK, writers are doing something else for money. 'Don't give up the day job!' they say nervously, or with a laugh, when telling you the scandalously low offer. Now look here, publishers. Writing IS my day job. Just as editing is yours. That's why you want to commission me - because I'm a professional. So cut this crap about a day job.

Of course, no one comes out of an MA in Creative Writing, sends off the novel they have been working on for the last year and by return of post gets an advance they can live while writing the next novel . Or maybe someone has, once, done that, but it is not the usual way of proceeding. Sorry, MA hopefuls. So unless they are living on daddy's millions or a spouse with an income, most writers start off by doing something else while they're learning their craft. As do most actors, musicians, sculptors and artists of many other types. But that does not mean that the'll always have a day job. By the time you are commissioning them, they have obviously already learned their craft or you wouldn't want their book. It certainly does NOT mean that writing should be so poorly paid (for the writer, but not the editor, publisher, bookseller, bla bla) that a full-time writer can't support themselves . An actor in an amateur production is not paid; a writer knocking up stories for a tiny magazine is not paid (or not much). But once you are acting in TV series or writing for so-called reputable publishers, you should be paid because clearly your work is now good enough for someone to make money from it. And that someone should be you, not just other people.

There is something of a distinction to be made here between fiction and non-fiction writing, especially for children. It's easy for the publisher to think to themselves, 'Ah, she likes writing these stories, so she will want to do them anyway. Getting some money is a bonus.' (Crap, by the way - you want it, you pay for it.) They are less likely to think someone might spend their leisure time writing trade books about earthquakes, or fast cars, or textbooks about bacteria. But publishers still don't necessarily pay properly for these, especially the text book. After all, some text books are written by teachers, aren't they? And teachers have a day job so they don't need much money. Crap again - you want their time, you pay for it.

Some children's non-fiction is written for a flat fee. The fee should obviously reflect the amount of time the writer is expected to put in. So if you are offered a fee of £1500 for 48 pages (which used to be typical, but it's fallen over the last five years and you might be offered only £1200), you need to know how long you can afford to work for that money. We could get into lots of complicated stuff about finance here, but all I will say is that you must remember the £1500 is not your income but your turnover. It has to cover expenses such as computer costs and heating your house during the day while you work in it. It has to cover non-earning time such as the time you spend answering emails, chasing late payments and putting together proposals for books that are never sold to a publisher. So they're not going to get three weeks, are they? This is when they might mention the 'day job'. Hey, publishers: I will not work for virtually nothing so that your publishing company can make money on what they will otherwise claim is not a viable book. Is the editor working for less than the going rate? Or less than they were paid ten years ago? No. Are you paying less than the going rate for your electricity? No. What will happen if I go to Waitrose and ask if I can have my food for less this week because my overheads have risen? What do you think?

At the back of all this is the person who really does have a day job. There are plenty of people who are teachers, farmers, accountants and so on who have a steady income and also write. But that doesn't mean their time is not valuable! They are writing instead of playing with their children, watching television, visiting friends. If a publisher intends to make money from that person's writing, they should pay a fair rate for it. Anything else is exploitation. Fiction is tricky - writers write at different rates. I write at different rates! I have written a book that has taken ten years and a book that has taken two hours. Of course a publisher can't pay an advance of £400,000 because it took you 10 years to write your novel. What is not acceptable is for a publisher who wants to produce (say) an A level guide to budget £400 for the author, knowing that it means someone with at least degree-level skills in that subject will have to work for less than £5 an hour to do it, even if they do have a 'day job' that pays the bills. It's less than the minimum wage.

I have turned down (of course) requests to write a book for £200 - a 96-page book, not a 30-word board book. The publishers are affronted and say 'there are plenty of people wanting to be writers...' And I say, 'fine, use them. They are inexperienced, and you'll spend the extra on badgering or tutoring them and paying editors.' Yes, there are lots of people who want to be writers - but very few of them are any good. Most of the good ones (who are committed and ready) are already writers. Oh - and another thing: the deadlines usually suggest you don't have a day job as they could not be met by someone working odd evenings and weekends.

Isn't it rather odd that publishers consider the people who produce the main component of their product to be doing something else most of the time? Isn't it rather dodgy to build a multi-million dollar industry on a bunch of people whose attention is usually somewhere else? And is there any other industry that is so dismissive of its suppliers?

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Thursday, 15 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for digital

This post is not what you expect. It's not going to waffle on about the advantages or disadvantages of e-books and apps or digital rights. There's enough of that out there already. Instead I am going to tell you what digital really means. There is a lot of mystification going on - some deliberate and some just the result of extensive ignorance.  

Let's start from the very beginning. 'Digital' means relating to or made from numbers. In terms of information technology, it means anything that can be reduced to the binary state of being stored as 0 and 1, or 'charge' and 'no charge' on a magnetic disk, tape, yadayadayada. A paper book has extension in 3-D space and cannot be stored as a sequence of 0s and 1s. However, it is produced (these days) from computer files that are digitally stored. You could see distributing and consuming books in digital form as a way of cutting out the final stage (paper). That's effectively what an e-book does.

On the other hand, an app adds extra bells and whistles. The book-words are still there, but there are also moving pictures, sound, interactivity. Those are still all stored digitally, though the creation and storage are more complex.

Here's a tekky bit. Look away if tekky bits make you queasy. Jump to the end of the purple part.

Converting just the book-words to the most basic digital format is extremely easy. Look, I can do it now. Take that first sentence: 'Let's start from the very beginning'. I won't do all of it, but here's how it goes:
Let -  three letters. Each is an ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) character
L = 76
e = 101
t = 116

Now we reduce these to binary 
76 = 1001100
101 = 1100101
116 = 1110100

So the first word is stored at the most basic level as 01001100 01100101 01110100 (without the spaces, but that shows you where the breaks are). Now you see why we aren't doing the whole sentence.

Anywhere in the world in any computer system that sequence will translate to 'Let'. That doesn't come with any information, such as font or colour or size, but the sequence of letters is the same. That is all your Kindle does - it converts the numbers back to letters and shows them on the screen. That's not so scary, is it? When you change the size, it's just showing the same thing differently. The 'change the size' instruction is separate from the storage of the text. So a simple e-book is very easy to create. It takes a bit of software that strips out all the crap from your Word File, or InDesign file, or whatever, and leaves pretty much just the letters, the part that can be digitised easily. It's slightly more complex than that, as there are things such as markers that tell the page of contents where to go to. But essentially it is a sequence of letters (ultimately, binary numbers) which is poured into a sort of software envelope that tells the e-book reader how to display it and what to do when you want to follow a link or turn the page. That's all there is to it. The different e-book readers use different envelopes and instructions, which is why you can't read all the different types on all the different readers.

An app is a very different kettle of fish. In an app, the text is the least of your worries. An app is essentially a computer program all on its own, whereas an e-book is not. Digitising pictures and sounds  follows the same principle as digitising text. Do you want more tekky stuff? Look away if not.

A picture on the computer is stored as a series of tiny dots, called pixels. How many pixels are displayed in a given area determines the resolution of the picture. If there are more pixels, more detail can be shown in the picture and so it is a higher resolution picture. Each pixel is a colour. The colour is defined as a combination of red, green and blue light. For the proportion of each, there is a number showing the intensity of that colour. The numbers are in the range 0-255 (there is a reason for this range, but we don't need to go there now). 

So, for each pixel, you have three numbers in the range 0-255.

Black is 000,000,000 (ie no light).
Bright red it 255,000,000 (ie all red and nothing else).
White is 255,255,255 (all colours in equal intensities).

A computer image (displayed, not for hi-res printing) typically has 72 pixels per inch. Is that number familiar? It should be if you are serious about this publishing lark. There are 72 points to an inch. Coincidence? No.

Back to the point: for each inch of image, we now have 72 sets of three numbers. The three numbers are each converted to binary. So that red pixel is represented by the sequence 01111111,00000000,00000000 - and there are 72 x 72 of these for a square inch of screen image, so you can see the info becomes very extensive very quickly. One letter is represented by just one of those numbers, remember.

(So is a picture worth a thousand words? Only if the picture is very small. I counted 90 characters in a square inch of text, so that would be 30 pixels-worth of info (three numbers per pixel, remember). A thousand words, at about six characters per word (including spaces), gives 333 pixels, or a picture about a quarter of an inch square. I'll go for the words, thanks.)

There are ways of compressing this information to make it much smaller, and the processes for compressing it are complicated. The computer, iPad, or whatever has to take the compressed picture information and restore it to full picture information - there's an extra step there that is not there with plain text.

Digitising the text, pictures and sound is the easy bit. The difficult bit is making the app work through time, with interactivity and animation. The techniques have all been around for a long time, but they take expert knowledge to do well - just as book design takes expert knowledge to do well. Animation is moving pictures - just one of those digitised pictures after another in a rapid sequence (a minimum of ten per second). Making the app do different things at different times or in response to the reader's actions takes proper computer programming. And that's where the problems start for publishers who don't have their own programmers. But we won't go into that just now.

The worst apps just present text and pictures with minimal animation or interactivity. There are apps out there (plenty of them, but I won't name names) which are no better than sort of animated stories we had on the BBC micro in the 1980s. They give digital a bad name. The good apps - Nosy Crow's Three Little Pigs, Faber's The Waste Land, Wolfram Alpha's The Elements - are brilliant marriages of interactivity, text, images and sound that deliver more than a paper book can. And they cost a fortune to develop. That's why all bets are off in the digital royalties department for a decent app, but you should get a decent (25% minimum) royalty on a straight e-book. Which point is why all this was relevant to you, as a writer. You need to know WHY a deal is good or bad.

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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for dummy

Dummy: stupid person, thing babies suck, or book with no content. Let's go for the last. This could be the Dummy's guide to Dummies.

A dummy is a plain-paper mock-up of a book that shows the size, paper quality, possibly the real cover, and other physical aspects. In novelty books, it shows paper-engineering features such as flaps, gatefolds and pop-ups. You'll see these dummies at book fairs. They are made by the publisher (or paper engineer) and you don't need to worry about them as a writer - unless you are also a paper engineer, of course.

Just to add to the confusion, if you write/illustrate picture books a dummy is something else. It is a mock-up of the finished book as you see it, with rough illustrations and text in place. It may be the right size, but it need not be. The point of the dummy is to show the editor the arrangement of pictures and text that you envisage. It's much easier to do with a dummy than by describing it. To make it, you make copies of your illustrations and print out the text (or scan in and add the text in Quark or whatever) and paste them onto pieces of paper. You can glue or stitch them into a book or leave them as loose pages as you wish. Loose pages are easier for the editor to photocopy for acquisitions meetings, but a bound dummy can give a better idea of what the book will be like. I'm not going to go into great detail about how to make a dummy as you can find out here and I want some breakfast now.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Character-led fiction

Yes, we've slipped back to C after only a brief foray into D-land. Sorry.

Character-led fiction is those series of stories that are initiated by the publisher and often written by a whole team of writers. The first famous one was probably Animal Ark, written not by Lucy Daniels but by a collection of writers-for-hire. Publishers like character-led fiction because they don't have to pay very much for it and these series usually sell lots of copies.

The degree of control you are given over the story varies between publishers and lists. You may be supplied with a title, a set of characters, a plot outline and a 'bible' that will cover all the details that need to stay the same between volumes, such as the name of the protagonist's dog, their parents' jobs and do on. It really is like painting by number but with words. At the other end of the scale, you might just be given a title and the characters. Although this gives you more freedom, there is also a much greater chance of the editor coming back with niggles such as 'your plot is too similar to writer x's plot' or 'oh dear, the dog is called Slug in the other book...' (Problems which could have been avoided by having a bible.)

You won't have your name on any character-led fiction you write, which is probably a good thing as it tends to be anodyne and unchallenging. If you're given a full plot, it's not very interesting to write. But it can be a useful way of giving yourself a bit of training (at least in obedience) and gives you the chance to write in a style you might otherwise never try .

The pay varies. You might get a small royalty, or you might get a flat fee. You should try to make sure you get the PLR. If you can knock them off quickly and don't mind feeling like a writing slut, they're quite a useful source of income. It's not high art, but you can get some satisfaction from writing within strict boundaries and it can hone your plotting and character development skills. It's the equivalent of practising your scales, really. If you want to give it a go, Working Partners is a good place to start.

Before you attack my snobbish attitude, I'll just point out that I have actually done it and I am absolutely a writing slut - I'll write almost anything if someone is going to pay me.

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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Title troubles: Munching on the winding-sheet?

Which comes first, the story or the title? Or even the cover image?

Are you any good at titles? I am sometimes good at titles. In the current week, I'm having to come up with no fewer than seven titles. Yes, seven. (But in case you think I am some kind of title-machine, you should know that I have a book I've been working on for years that doesn't have its final title yet.)

Four of the needed titles are for books in a series that includes books by other writers and have to fit into the greater scheme of things. They are rather formulaic and only one is proving at all difficult.

The other three are more important, and wholly mine, as they in my Vampire Dawn series. They have to work with books that are not yet written. We have likely cover images for two, and some content for two (not the same two). I came up with three titles today, but will probably keep only one of them, and that's Shroud-eating for Beginners. But maybe the publisher won't like it, and it will go back in the box of titles, perhaps to resurface later. Some titles are too enticing not to use.

One of the Vampire Dawn books, Dead on Arrival was inspired by the cover picture (you can see it on Facebook). It was one of a batch of pictures my lovely publisher found and sent to me - it was far and away the best and has set the style for the series.

But where does a title come from? I drove back from St Albans today trying to think of three Vampire Dawn titles. I think the process went like this: 'Think of words associated with death: dead, death, cemetery, graveyard, coffin, winding-sheet, shroud - ah, weren't vampires once called shroud-eaters? This is for new vampires, so...'

How do you come up with titles?
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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Putting all our eggs in the digital basket

"But will e-books make out-of-print history?"

The question (on twitter) came from Katherine Roberts, author of I Am the Great Horse and the Reclusive Muse blog. She is also the founder of Kindle Authors UK.

The answer is both 'yes' and 'no', of course. Any author who cares enough and has even minimal technical ability can convert their out-of-print books into various e-book formats. As long as they own the copyright, of course. That last point means those interminable character-led series (Animal Ark, etc) will disappear as soon as the publisher can't be bothered with them. And no bad thing, you might think.

At the moment, everyone is in a honeymoon period with the Kindle, Nook and their cohort. They can do no wrong (unless you believe they will 'kill the book'). Perhaps this is because most writers and agents (and even publishers) embraced technology very late in the day. How many of you have a manuscript on a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk, written in WordStar or View? I have. That book is out of print. And, to be honest, it would be easier to scan it in, OCR it, and lay it out again than to work from the files. I'd have to dig around in my historic computer collection for all the bits and remember how to use them, and then find a way of getting the stuff off (no USB, no internet connection - we're talking things that were operated by a keen hamster in a wheel).

What did you do with your LPs? What did you do (if you're old enough) with your 8 mm home movies? What about those cassette tapes and video tapes? [Aside: I worked as RLF fellow in a university department where scriptwriting students had to submit their final pieces as audio cassette because that was what the rules still said. There was a healthy black market in C90s but a very long queue of people wanting to borrow the only known cassette recorder. This was 2008.] That's my first computer on the right: 1977. It used cassette tapes.

Just now, the iPad and the Kindle look shiny and new. Well, the iPad does. The Kindle, being mono, looks like a Z88 but relies on most people not remembering the Z88. Fast-forward 20 years. Actually, first of all, rewind 20 years. Let's line up our dinosaurs.

1991: No worldwide web (outside CERN); no text messages; no PDFs; no InDesign (1994); no Quark 3.3 (that was when it became real). We had email, of course, and the Internet for moving stuff. The book I published in 1991 was written (I think) on an Acorn Archimedes and delivered as a plain ASCII text file on a disk, with a paper print out. The book I delivered yesterday was written in Word, sent by email as a .docx file, and if I suggested posting any physical objects the publisher would think I'd gone mad.

Now let's go forwards. 2031: The Kindle will be a museum piece. Yes, of course data can easily be converted to other formats. Just like it's easy now to convert your WordStar documents. Ahem. You have to keep converting at every point of change or it gets hard. Try using your Quark 1.0 files now. It's always possible to write a converter - but as rule, it gets harder to use old files as time passes.

We will all be twenty years older in 2031. How much time will we be spending on converting our old books to new formats? Who will bother if we don't? Certainly not publishers, unless the book is a bestseller. Who will convert when you're dead? No one, probably.

I could reproduce the book from 1991 now because I have a printed copy. I had an electronic publishing business in the 1990s. Nothing we published can be read on modern technology, even though it was distributed on CD-ROMs. It was a proprietory format (like Kindle is). This doesn't bother me - the need for those books has passed. But it's a salutary warning.

Most of our e-books will disappear into the ether over time. They will be worse than out of print. You can get an out of print book in the library. I spent years working on books that had been their version of 'out of print' for 700 years. Digital archiving is a good and useful thing as long as we don't destroy the physical copies in our arrogant assumption that our formats are forever. But in two hundred years, will anyone be able to read a Kindle book? Will they in forty years? If we really needed to, we could convert something, yes. But not as easily as we can call up a physical book from the British Library stores.

If we write only for Kindle, we should consider those books to be more like magazine articles. Ephemeral, delivered for obsolescent technologies, ghosts of books. That's not inappropriate for many books, but some writers think they are writing for eternity (or at least for future generations). And as someone who has used a lot of popular culture for research, and found the copyright libraries lacking even in printed material, it will be a significant loss to future social historians. They'll have this year's vampire novels in 2211, but will they have whatever the craze is in twenty years' time?

We like to write post-apocalyptic novels. Post-apocalypse, none of the e-books will be available. We'll be thrown back on those old books and manuscripts that can be read by candlelight, and the Kindle-generation of literature will be lost. So no, electronic publishing will not make OOP a thing of the past. It makes it a thing of the future.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for deadline

Which is why I have been absent without leave for so long. Deadlines come first.

The deadline is the appointment you have made for delivering your manuscript (or corrections to it) to your publisher. The key phrase there is 'you have made' - you agreed to this deadline, so you have to meet it. It is impolite to miss an appointment you've made, and it is deeply unprofessional to miss a deadline you agreed to. End of.

If being professional and polite aren't that high on your list of priorities, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog as it is for people who want to be professional writers and I prefer polite people. But if you feel a lapse once or twice won't matter too much to your overall image, let's look at some other consequences. I suppose these are really the explanation of why it is unprofessional and rude to miss deadlines.

You are not working in a vacuum. When you deliver your manuscript, an editor will read it. If you are delivering corrections, a copy editor is waiting for it, possibly an illustrator and a designer. Some of these people might be freelance and will have set aside time to work on your book. If your book doesn't turn up, they will have wasted time that no one will pay for. They still have to do the work on your book when it comes in and will be paid the same, even though they spent a day watching re-runs of Futurama or weeding the garden. Then it will have a knock-on effect on their other projects, or they will have to work over the weekend to get the book back on schedule. Shame on you. Even if the next people in the chain are not freelance, they will be (quite reasonably) annoyed if their own work plans are disrupted by your inefficiency. Those others in the chain are people, not just editors - remember that.

If you are so late the book can't be dragged back onto schedule, the publisher might miss the slot booked to print the book. At the moment, printers are trying to claw their way out of the grave they've been pushed into and might be able to accommodate your book anyway - but don't depend on it, and don't depend on things always being that way.

If you deliver late, there will be less time for everyone else to work on your book, so there's a good chance it will be a worse book. Those people aren't messing with your book for the hell of it - their job is to improve it. Yes, it can be improved.

What if you really can't meet a deadline? First, work out why. Here are the possibilities:

1. A personal disaster has befallen you - someone close to you has died, your partner has left you, your house has burnt down, someone close to you is very ill and you are their carer (or shared carer), you have fallen ill (properly ill, not man-flu)

2. A technological disaster has befallen you - your file has become corrupted or been deleted, the laptop it was on has been stolen, your computer has been disabled by a virus

3. You've simply run out of time - you mismanaged your time and there is too much left to do, what you have written is rubbish, what you have written doesn't match the brief/outline, the structure you picked isn't working, you got scared/blocked and couldn't carry on.

And now the solutions/stern chat:

1. Not your fault. No one is likely to hold you to the deadline. Tell the editor as soon as you are able to or, if you are not able to, get a friend to email your editor and alert them to the problem. Then you can forget about the book for now and do what you have to do.

Don't do this if you have a cold or something short term. If you have broken your leg, that gives you a few days but unless you are an armless person who types with your toes, it won't stop you finishing the book after that.

2. Use the back up. You WHAT? You don't have one? You can now leave the blog - this is for people who want to be professionals.

If you don't have a recent back up, stay up all night recreating the book from an older back up and consider it a useful lesson. I recommend you don't tell your editor you lost the file - they will think you are a bozo (and they will be right). A virtual dog ate my homework. The physical lack of a computer might cost you a day while you track down a library where you can use one, or one you can borrow or lease. You can probably catch up that day, but if not you must explain to the editor what has happened and how you are solving the problem and how long it will take (no more than a day, remember)

3. This doesn't happen the day before the deadline - you see it coming. If you really, really can't recover the situation, you have to talk to your editor as soon as it becomes clear to you that you can't meet the deadline. The editor wants your book to work - it's a lot of aggro if it doesn't. You can ask them to help you by reading what you've done and suggesting a different structure, or how to get it back on track, or whatever is needed. They won't be happy, but they won't be as unhappy as if you don't do this and just don't deliver, or deliver rubbish.

It will not be the end of the world - they will help you, or fire you. They won't send round a hit squad or kill your children. To them, it's one of many books - it's only the centre of the universe to you. If it is commissioned non-fiction, they might get an editor to fix the mess. If the mess is too messy, they might send you a kill fee and employ someone else to finish or rewrite it. I've done many a fix after a kill fee and I've also rewritten from scratch books that someone has screwed up or pulled out of. The industry has strategies to cope. It's more of a problem if you're writing a book someone else can't fix and it's in the catalogue already. Don't expect to be popular, but they will try to find a solution. For their benefit, not yours - it's not a favour. Don't ask them to publish your next book.

Things you must not do:

Lie about a major disaster that hasn't happened to you. How many mothers can you afford to kill off in the course of your career? Besides, now everything is transparent and you don't know who knows whom. You tell your editor you have to go to your mother's funeral and it's clear from Facebook you're shopping in Oxford Street. Your editor may not be your Facebook friend, but their flatmate/partner/parent/child/friend might be: 'My poor author, Stroppy, can't deliver because her mum died'. 'Oh, it says on her Facebook page she's going on a picnic with her daughters.'/'Oh, I know Stroppy - I'll send her a card.' See what I mean?

Just go off radar. Not responding to email and not answering the phone - for more than a day, when you might plausibly have network problems or be out - is cowardly and unprofessional. And unimaginative. You can do better than that.

Sending a garbled file (if you know how to make one - if not, learn). It can buy you a day at most. The editor should open it immediately to check it's readable (ie to check you haven't deliberately sent a garbled file) and then they will email you to ask you to resend it if they can't. If you're going to say later you were out, don't hang around on twitter saying 'yay, I finished my book, I'm going to have a coffee and read the paper'. I don't recommend the garbled-file route as you can't tell how much time it will buy you. If you only need another day, it will do. More than that, it's risky. If you have a trusting/lax editor they might not check the file until they want to start work on it, and that might be a week away. Then they will be embarrassed that they've left it so long, and you will have got lucky. But it might be tomorrow.

Make stupid excuses. Either be honest or be quiet.

On the whole, the more urgent the deadline, the more important it is to meet it. The deadline for an academic book may be years away, and in my experience the publishers will be so surprised if you deliver on time that they'll assume your book/contribution is not very good. That doesn't apply to real-world publishing, so if you're a refugee from academia, you're in for a surprise.

Oh, and one last thing. Your editors will really love you if you reliably meet deadlines. Which is stupid, but just goes to show how many people don't.

Now - don't you have a book to finish? Reading blogs is no excuse for missing your deadline!

.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Am I rubbish at this?

I've just seen an interesting blog post on 'which is the most important aspect of a novel?' Personally, I'd say the question is meaningless. Character and dialogue, for instance, can't be separated - you develop a character through what they do and say. Setting? How could setting ever be most important? You could write some dreary old crap, even if you set it an exotic Inca court where everyone ate parrot kebabs with the feathers still on from golden skewers. Setting must either be absolutely integral - the story couldn't take place anywhere else - or it's window dressing. Everything has to happen somewhere. (Doesn't it? Could I write a story set nowhere?)

The blogger's answer is 'character'. The post links to the author's Character Chart, which opens in Word and is so exhaustive I think I'll retire now I've read it. I'm not a great one for planning at the best of times, but I really don't need to know the date of my character's grandmother's birthday in order to write consistently. Really, I don't. And as for preferred home decor style, whether they have ever been fined, and their favourite board game - huh? Am I doing it all wrong? The characters come into my head and I watch them do things. Then I write it down. They are like real people. I can tell what real people are like even if I don't know when their grandmother was born or whether they wear contact lenses.

I have a serious suspicion that answering questionnaires about your characters is a displacement activity - it's easier than actually writing the story.  And knowing the answers doesn't help you write the story. It is not knowing your character is an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles that counts, it's being able to build an an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles from nothing but words. That's the hard bit.

Seriously, though. Do you do all this stuff? I often have pictures of my characters, and perhaps a page of notes on them - but sometimes not. Sometimes I have nothing except what is in my head. How do you do it?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

From Concept to Copy - by Mary Hoffman

(via all sorts of other C-words, like Contract, Cover, Copy-editing, Coffee and Confusion)

Today we have a rare guest post as I'm honoured to be a stop of Mary Hoffman's blog tour for the launch of David (4th July, Bloomsbury - buy it!). This puts Mary in good company as the only other guest to date has been a pirate. And even then he was hijacked, he wasn't really a willing guest. Sadly, Mary, the pirate was not Johnny Depp. Or actually, I don't know - he might have been. I've not seen him.

But to the point. David is Mary's latest stand-alone historical novel and its ravishing. It follows the scurillous and exciting story of the model for Michelangelo's statue David - a character whose real name and history are unknown, so there?s plenty of scope for conjecture and imagination. As always, Mary's historical research is painstaking to the point of agonytaking and the book is beautifully atmospheric and vivid as well as exciting. Hey, there's sex and intrigue and spying and violence and art. What's not to like?

I'll hand over to Mary now, who explains the process of getting David from an inspirational spark to a book in the shops.

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Concept
In April 2006 I put this idea among a bunch of others in a document I prepared for my agent about possible further titles for Bloomsbury:

"The Real David (or The Boy David): Who modelled for Michelangelo's David? No-one knows so I would invent the story. He would be caught up in the rivalry between M and Leonardo."

At this stage I had written The Falconer's Knot and had the second half of a two-book contract to fulfil by writing 'something similar'. In the end, Bloomsbury chose Troubadour to complete that contract.

So that was some time after what I call my 'light-bulb moment'. That's the point where you get one in a whole sea of ideas that you think might turn into a book.

Contract
First books virtually always have to be complete before you submit. You can get away with a proposal and sample chapter when you have a few books under your belt. When you have a lot, just a proposal will do. If your Neilson figures are spectacular, you can probably just  write half a sentence and get a contract.

What happened with David was that I wrote a proper proposal for it. In August 2008 on a train journey from Edinburgh to Oxford I wrote the full proposal for what became just 'David' and it won me a contract to write the book. 

It contained phrases like 'Absolutely nothing is known about who, if anyone modelled for the David....This provides a perfect blank canvas for a novelist'. And 'What I propose is a colourful adventure story set in the turbulent years of the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth in Florence'.

I wrote the proposal on 2nd August, sent it to my agent on  the same day. She forwarded it to my editor on 4th and got this the next day 'This proposal looks fantastic! Will be in touch'.

Although we agreed the advances in September, the signed contracts didn't arrive till mid-November. That's the book which has just come out this month in the UK and that was its real beginning.

City of Ships
I had to write that first, because I was already contracted to do that before starting on David. This is how writers like to work: one book about to come out, one being written currently and a contract under their belt for one or two more books.

Calendars, Carrara marble and the Computer
 Research begins on the computer, my trusty MacBook Air laptop, with the much reviled Wikipedia. I think people who pooh-pooh Wikipedia completely misunderstand it. It is a brilliant first port of call for dates, links and bibliographies. That's while you are constructing a timeline (essential) for the background (if you are writing historical fiction) and a calendar of what actually happens in the period taken up by your novel -  both the real and invented.

I belong to the London Library - I'm a Country Member, which means they post books to me. The annual fee is horrendous and you pay postage for the books on top of that but not only do they have almost every book I want to consult (another C-word), my membership allows me to read academic articles online which before just tantalised me with an opening paragraph.

The Carrara marble didn't enter the picture till quite far along but I like to have an object in my study that focuses my mind on the book in progress. I bought a small white cube of marble in a shop in Pisa on the same trip when I visited  Carrara and saw the white scars on the mountainside from which the block that became David was excavated.

Coffee and cats
I am not a great believer in writing Rules; I prefer to think in terms of things that facilitate my writing. Two of the things that help me write. Black, freshly ground coffee and three Burmese cats, who are part of my family.

Chapter by Chapter
Once I start to write I try to keep at it steadily writing at least one chapter a week? it used to be two but by rate of strike has gone down as I've got older and Social Networking has got more distracting. So between 3,000 and 8,000 words a week, the further on in the novel the more words per day. But these are all going to be pretty much usable words because this is the D1 and I submit the D2.

As I'm writing I print out each chapter to put in a D1 cardboard wallet file. I also read it aloud to my husband, which is a great way of catching mistakes. Deeply frustrating for him because he asks 'what happens next?' and I don't know!

Once the first draft (D1) is finished I trawl through the whole thing again, using the printed document, picking up inconsistencies, correcting typos and checking timelines, etc. Sometimes I can find a glitch that means re-writing a  whole section - aargh! I write corrections on the D1 and transfer to a new D2.

This goes off to editor and agent usually simultaneously and electronically. I am always too close to the deadline to give it first to my agent to submit to my editor.

Consequences
If I were to offer writing advice to anyone, in a single word, it would be the one above - consequences. Remember that however complicated your plot and varied your cast of characters, every action and incident had a consequence, even if it isn't revealed till much later.

The consequence of sending off a book is that you will get a response from your agent and editor.  I submitted David by the end of July and I knew my publisher was going on holiday in the second half of August so if I was lucky I'd get David reaction before she left.

It just so happened Bloomsbury were giving a belated launch for Troubadour, when it came out in paperback, on 5th August last year so I met my editor at the party. By then I knew my agent loved it but I was on tenterhooks ages for my editor's reaction to say something. Then she said she was halfway through and loving it! By a miraculous coincidence, this was exactly a year after she had said the proposal looked fantastic!

I did get the proper email before she went away so really only about 2 weeks' wait this time with a preliminary halfway approval after a week, so a much quicker result or consequence than usual.

Cover visual
This came in September last year and though I am now used to it I was a bit shocked by it at first; it wasn't the 'real' David!

Readers think, quite mistakenly, that writers choose their own covers and make decisions about when to change them etc. But of course this is done by the publishers' design team and the approval of the Sales and Marketing teams has far greater weight than that of the author.

I have had several covers in the past showing scenes that not only did not occur within the book but could not have happened! And there is one American cover I hate so much I have to keep it hidden on my shelf!

But friends have told me that the cover for David works well and has good 'pick-up-ability' so I am content.

Copy-editing and corrections
These can seem to last for ever! I now get joint editing/copy-editing from two people and these suggestions came just before I left for a long weekend in Venice mid-November.

I did these edits by 28th November then had an hour-and-a-half's phone call at the end of January to tidy up remaining points. On 2nd February I was still arguing one half sentence with my editor!

The bound proof copy came on  February 17th and the page proofs on 23rd. I had to correct these and get them back by 21st March . But I was still checking how one main character's name should be spelled right up to Easter.

Proof copy
Increasingly these days potential reviewers get a proof copy or bound proof of a book to read well before publication (see above). It will have some editing done but not be the finished version. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, I received a proof copy from America that had been set from an electronic of the un-edited D2! Characters' name were different and people were thanked in the acknowledgments that in the end did nothing.

I hope one day it will be worth a lot of money on eBay!

Copy
This means two things. [Or three - I wrote about a different kind of copy last month in How to Speak Publisher.] Firstly, material that appears on the back cover or jacket-flap, describing the book and its author. You should get to check all this and I did. Best too if the author reads all 'copy' for press releases, catalogues, Amazon etc. etc. If you don't, you will get emails from sharp-eyed fans telling you there is a mistake. (In one bit of catalogue copy, I was described as having only two children when I in fact have three!). And secondly - the finished copy! You usually get one in advance and then the rest of your free copies a month before publication. Holding that finished copy in your hands is the second book-end, the closing bracket that forms a pair with your 'light-bulb moment' when you first had the idea.

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And with that exhaustive tour, I think we can say goodbye to C and move on to D...

Thank you, Mary, and best of luck to both you and the lovely David! David is a wonderful book - I think it's Mary's best, so you should buy it.