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!

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.