Tuesday 25 December 2012

Another thing children need...

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends, Julie, lived in a rambling, slightly dishevelled house on the edge of the heath, hidden by trees. It could be a scary walk in the dark, tripping over roots and bushes and stumbling along the half mile or so of pot-holed, muddy track to the house. Julie had an older sister and parents, and a dog. Both parents have recently died, and I've been thinking about them as Christmas approaches. Christmas makes us think about families, but children need more people supporting them than just their families. They need people who supply what families don't, or can't, give.

The best, most secure moments of my teenage years were spent in a cigarette-fogged kitchen, warmed by an Aga-type stove - not in the uber-middle-class, Joanna-Trollope way, but because cutting wood from the garden and sticking it in the ancient stove was the way to keep the house warm and get the food cooked. We had long sessions of debate or emotional-outpouring fuelled by endless black coffee and an unstintingly generous supply of advice, sympathy or just listening from Anne Hughes who sat, cigarette in hand, presiding over our traumas.

She was an artist. Her fingers were often stained with paint or ink, and when they weren't, they were stained with dirt and leaf-green from the garden, and nicotine. She was slim and beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes, and reminded me rather of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. She never, ever belittled any teen problem brought to that kitchen. She never complained about smoking, drinking, immoderate sexual behaviour or even some of the downright stupid things we did and then suffered for. There was never a suggestion that we had brought our miseries on ourselves - or at least, not until we after we were suitably recovered.

It wasn't just a place for miseries. We talked about poetry and books and art. We planned trips to the Tate, we cooked (probably horrid) meals and 'treats', and we even dabbled in witchcraft. (I remember one spell to bring a desired boy to one at midnight. Curiously, it worked. The boy was found by my dad wandering around our garden, three miles from his home, unable to say why he was there. That put us off witching.) People pierced each other's ears, dyed their hair, painted each other/themselves with henna and made various kinds of music, usually involving a number of guitars and anything else that was lying around. We wrote maudlin poems and sweet songs. The door was always open, no one was ever turned away, the biscuit tin was never empty and the coffee flowed like 2012-floodwater. Mrs Hughes frequently entertained both partners in a floundering romance, and her discretion was beyond doubt so that was fine.

My own parents preferred a clean, tidy house, not cluttered with teens who didn't belong there and hadn't been specifically invited. They didn't like music, they didn't drink or smoke or do any drugs, or tolerate any of those things. They had little in the way of aesthetic sense and very little inclination for emotional intimacy with anyone else (except the next-door neighbour). There were, in fact, quite good reasons for all this, but I didn't know them at the time, so they didn't count. In effect, Anne and Tom Hughes were the parents I would have had if I could have chosen my own. But it would have been the wrong choice. They were brilliant, and an essential part of my young life precisely because they weren't my own parents. Because they had no investment in my existential angst or silly mistakes, their kindness was freely given; it was not part of the parenting bargain and it could not be clouded later by resentment or reproof. They gave me kindness I was not 'entitled' to - and so gave me an even more valuable gift: acceptance, which every teen needs.

And, beyond that, a model of the best way to be. I haven't lived up to Anne Hughes' standard. But I have tried to be like her to my daughters' friends. I am the go-to person for pregnancy tests, for looking after those too drunk to go home, for advice about embarrassing medical issues or drug problems, or lifts to A&E, or a large glass of wine and a pile of tissues. And I think many of us who passed through her kitchen have done the same - taken a tiny bit of what she was and tried to live it. Inadequately, perhaps, but it's better than nothing. That's how she lives on. Thank you, Anne Hughes, for everything. Rest in peace.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Had we but world enough and time....

This coyness, story, were no crime.

But we don't have world enough and time. We have deadlines. And a story that slips in and out of view, dragging its characters into dark corners and throwing out an enticing distraction, is apt to get abandoned for another commission.

Stories take time. And they don't just take time to write, they take time to stalk and to understand. The time spent actually writing a picture book might be only a day or even less (though sometimes it's much longer), but the total time it takes can be months or even years. For longer books, it's much more complicated. There are stages to even the simplest book:

  1. inspiration - that moment when the idea comes to you. It might come as a story, a character, a plot idea, a situation, even a snatch of dialogue or the first line. That's just the seed, though. (Which is why it's so frustrating when non-writers say 'I've got a great idea for a book... perhaps you'd like to write it and we can share the money?' Yeah, I've got a bag of lawn seed. Perhaps you'd like to plant it, grow and nurture the lawn, and then we can play croquet on it.
  2. working it into a proper idea - people do varying amounts of planning, but even if you don't write a plan the idea needs to compost into something you can work with
  3. writing the damn thing - putting the ideas into words is always the point where the instance varies from the ideal form - where your perfectly conceived book becomes an inadequate pile of words that doesn't quite capture it. Fun and frustrating in varying measures
  4. realising it's crap and despairing - just wait
  5. rewriting/editing to make it a bit less crap. Repeat until relatively uncrappy.
The bit that is easy to forget comes at 2/3. For some people, the detail that makes the plot hold together comes at the planning stage; for others, it emerges during writing. I usually fall into the second camp. I'm not really a planner. I thrive on adrenaline. If I know where I'm going, it feels like writing-by-numbers and I get bored. But still that time needs to spent, composting the idea into something rich. I have two books at the moment that I thought I understood. Both have a good premise. Both are proving really wayward and elusive. I want to take them by the throat and shake them. They are worse than children. Perhaps I should swap some of the characters around - how would my bewitched walrus do in nineteenth-century London? No, that wouldn't help...

I had a few weeks between other books in the autumn and tried to bully these into shape. But they just hadn't had their composting time. If you get all the old potato peelings out of your compost bin and spread them on the garden, it's not going to do any good. Patience. It takes time for the subconscious to work, like worms, on the idea-mulch. It's too frustrating. I want to play with them NOW.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Who pays the piper?

This post will make me unpopular. I await the brickbats.

Before we start, though, I would say that this post is in NO WAY critical of the friend whose remark sparked it. This has been my view for years, she just reminded me of it, and how it is a more important issue now with such massive public spending cuts.

I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers. There. I've said it. The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry, or non-fiction.

I'm not against public funding of the arts - I see no problem in funding projects where the intended beneficiary is the public - but I don't see a grant to finish a novel as benefiting the public. The public doesn't need another novel, there are already plenty. A community might need a theatre, or an art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances, but arts funding should be targeted at the general good and not at individual authors in need of money. Notice I say 'as a rule' - there will always be a few exceptions. But this is about the majority of cases.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with a very good friend, an award-winning writer in an area that generates virtually no income, who is now writing in a different genre. Let's call her Kate. She had been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant and we were talking about whether or not she should do so. She asked if I'd ever applied and if I ever would, and I'd said 'no' to both questions.

'But it's different for you,' she said. 'You get paid for what you write.' I accepted that and we moved on.

But that came back to me later. I do get paid for what I write. Or, rather, I write what I get paid for. I talk to publishers and my agent about what publishers want. I take almost any commission that comes my way (these days - in the past there were often too many and I turned away those I liked less). When there is not enough writing to be paid for I build websites, make book trailer videos, teach creative writing... do other things that pay.

I will write on subjects I'm not hugely attracted to and for markets I'm not keen on, because I have to put food on the table and writing is my job. If I were a doctor who specialised in fractures, I couldn't say 'I won't do broken arms, they're boring. Bring me only broken legs.' If you have a job, you have to do the less interesting bits as well as the exciting bits. That's how you earn enough to live on. If you want to be precious about your writing, that's fine, but don't expect the rest of us to pay to keep you pure.

Why, at a time when there are people without enough to live on, should the public purse fund someone who wants to write a book? It's not as though there is a world shortage of books. This is not a case of people who can't find a job asking for unemployment benefit. It's a case of people who will probably write a book anyway, though possibly more slowly without the funding, asking for public money to write it now.

I know Kate's book will take a lot of research. I know it will probably win awards when it is published. That's not the case for all books funded by Arts Council grants - some won't even find a publisher.  I don't see why my friend working in Waitrose and doing a degree while building his band in his free time, or his friend in Waitrose who is establishing himself as an illustrator, should subsidise people who want to short-circuit the struggle and be paid from the public purse to write.

This year, I've been writing a couple of books for which I have no contract. I write them when I have time, and they would go a lot better and more quickly if I didn't have to keep earning money at the same time. That's why it's a good idea to get a contract and advance. These are in short supply - I know, that's why I haven't got one. (Or maybe because the books aren't good enough, or because I haven't approached any publishers yet with these half-baked ideas.)

If a writer produces books that sell, the publishing industry should work in such a way that the writer is adequately paid for their work. That's not always the case - but that's a problem we have to tackle within the industry. In times of plenty, society can perhaps afford to subsidise writers - but not now. Not when benefits are being cut to the bone, when more than 100,000 people in the UK rely on food banks, libraries are closing and schools can't afford books or teachers. Yes, if we collected the taxes we are rightly owed, we wouldn't need cuts. But now - right NOW - the money isn't there. So let's spend what there is on things that really matter. And that isn't one more untried novel.

*                         *                           *                          *                           *

For the record, I have no problem with charities supporting writers (the people who give to or endow those charities have chosen to spend their money in that way). And I don't think my view automatically extends to all forms of art. A cellist, for example, needs to keep practising at a high level to secure their skill for the future. A writer can take a break or work slowly with no real detriment. And anyone - really, anyone - can find some time to write if they really want to. But time and writers is another rant, for another day.

STOP PRESS: catdownunder has carried the debate to Australia on her own blog so please do take a look at her points and commenters. 

Friday 30 November 2012

Return to Captcha

Sadly, after a brief flirtation with free love, I've returned the Captcha comment verification to the blog. There were not too many spam comments to start with, but they have mushroomed over the last week and far more were getting through Blogger's spam filter. I don't have time to be deleting crud from the comments all the time. Interestingly, the post that attracts by far the most spam is PLR =/= income tax (a curmudgeonly rant) presumably because PLR and income tax and search-magnets.

Scanning the spam, though, I did wonder about some of the comments. Why is the word 'fastidious' so common in them? Who ever follows those links anyway? But who in particular is going to follow a link if the comment starts off 'most of the people who comment here appear brain dead' or 'I was hoping to find something interesting here, not a lot of complaining about a problem you could do something about if you would just stop complaining'? (The latter might be appropriate to one or two of my rants, but it wasn't appropriate to the cheerful post it was attached to.)

Spam-mongers are, I suppose, the cold-callers of the blogosphere. But if I were a robot, I'd go and look for a job building car bodies or something instead of leaving comments on random blogs. (Yes, I do know it's a different type of robot. Joke. Don't flood me with comments about bots/robots and software/hardware. Especially not spam comments.)

And finally... the hits on the blog have rocketed up with captcha turned off. I suspect this means the bots are hunting out blogs without verification. So if any of you wants just numbers of hits, so that you can brag to a publisher that your blog gets 10,000 hits a month, or whatever, just turn off captcha and wait a few weeks. And if you're a publisher, and some prospective writer tells you their blog gets 10,000 hits a month, just pop along there and see if comment verification is turned on. If not, lots of those hits are from bots that won't buy a book.

So I'm very sorry about the return to the stupid letter/number reading and I know they are very hard to do. But please carry on leaving comments. As the other bots say: your comment is valuable to us so please continue to hold.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

The other place: Book vivisection

Nothing new here today, but Winnie-the-Pooh is dissected with a sharp scalpel over at Stroppy's second home, Book Vivisection.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Working premises

Today we're going to talk about premises. Not the building you write in, but the central idea behind a story.

Creative writing students and new writers often have real difficulty with identifying the premise of their story. Sometimes that's because they don't have one, or the premise is so weak it won't support much of a story. But often it's because they don't really understand what a premise is.

The premise is similar to the hook, or the one-line pitch, except the point of it is not to sell your story, but to provide its backbone.

Moon jellyfish, Hans Hillewaert

If your story has no premise, it's like a jellyfish, just flobbling around with no direction or plan in life (apologies to jellyfish who feel undermined by this assessment of their prospects).

Snake skeletong, dbking

If it has a strong premise and everything sticks firmly to it, with no extraneous curfuffle, it's like a strong, sleek snake.

Most stories are somewhere in between, with a premise but some things (subplots, for example) which branch out from it. But they should branch - they should not float around, only held in the body of the work by the soft tissue.

This is a whale. It has a vestigial leg, the only purpose of which is to prove that evolution is true. It is not connected to the whale's backbone. Make sure your story doesn't have vestigial legs.

Some stories have a premise which doesn't really lend itself to narrative, which is a bit of a shame.  

Black Beauty is an example. The premise is 'horses suffer at the hands of humans and there's nothing they can do about it.'  So that sets us up with a central character who has no autonomy, but will be buffeted by fate (in the form of capricious humans) and we will just have to see whether he responds by being stalwart and heroic or by being rebellious - and more than likely sent to the knacker's yard as a consequence. It's a moral fable, and a didactic treatise on horse-management. In terms of narrative, it's a series of loosely connected episodes, of the 'and then...and then... and then...' type, some of them with an explicit moral chucked in. (Keep Sundays sacred, don't drink, etc.) This is, as Mary Hoffman pointed out to me, the structure of the misery memoir. I would add: or the saint's life. Hagiography of a horse.

Some stories have a premise with strong narrative potential. The premise of The Hunger Games is that in a future dystopian society, the ruling group keep control by forcing children to kill each other in a reality TV show. The reality-TV-show element has particular resonance for our society because so many of us sit glued to reality TV shows every week, but the central idea of the child sacrifice to keep society in order is as old as the minotaur legend it draws on, and older. (Indeed, I'd say it's a version of what all societies do in trying to maintain the status quo, but that's a digression.)

If you can frame your premise as a fairly precise and interesting question that can have more than one answer,and that contains the germ of a conflict or challenge, you have a strong premise with narrative potential. So 'what would happen if a Minoan-style sacrifice were demanded of a modern/future society?' works. I'd say 'what happens if you're a horse?' is not a good premise. It's too vague, and although there are lots of specific answers, there is really only one over-arching answer, and it's that things happen to you.

A story with a strong premise can be fixed. A story with a weak premise, or no premise, is doomed (in today's market - don't write Black Beauty, it's not 1877). Work out your premise before you spend months writing the story - you might be wasting your time.

Do you know what the premise of your story is? Don't say 'it's about a boy who goes on an adventure...' That's a plot summary. What is the question that your book answers? By the way, the question will also tell you whether your book is that elusive thing, 'high concept'.  What is the question, and what is the answer? That is your book, in a nutshell: the question is the premise and the answer is the plot. If there is no interesting question, or no plausible or interesting answer, you might like to think again...

Monday 29 October 2012

How to speak publisher: F is for Flat fee

Everyone knows how books work. You have a great idea, write a synopsis and a couple of chapters (or all of it), send it off to a publisher (or twenty), sign a contract, get the first chunk of the massive (or tiny) advance, sit down to write the book, get the next chunk of advance, argue about a few changes, get the last chunk of advance, and watch your book walk (or crawl) off the shelves while you wait for your first royalty cheque (after it earns out, of course).


Sit at home looking at your email until a publisher asks you to write a book. Send in a synopsis, get first chunk of small (or large - not unheard of) fee, write book, get second chunk of fee, argue about changes to keep it in line with rest of series, get the last chunk of fee and expunge book from your memory totally while waiting for the next email from a publisher. It's more like a series of one-night-stands than a proper relationship; writing whore rather than the kept mistress of RandomPenguin (or wherever).

Lots of books are written for a flat fee, especially in children's publishing. Typically, you might be offered a flat fee for children's non-fiction (any market from textbook to mass market); reading scheme books for the schools market; licensed character books (those about established characters such as Wallace and Gromit or Disney mice); and character-led fiction that's part of a series written by many authors and published under a pseudonym that reflects the genre (eg Carnivorous d'Vil or Tinsel Rosebottom). You could can get a royalty deal on all these from some publishers - but a flat fee is fairly typical.

There are obvious advantages for publishers in paying a flat fee: they know how much they have to pay; there is none of that complicated looking at the spreadsheet to see how much to pay you in royalties; if your book is a mega-hit, they keep all the profit; it makes their budgeting easy.

There are less obvious disadvantages for publishers: it makes no material difference to you whether the book sells, so you won't do much publicity; they certainly can't expect you to do any visits or signings or anything for free as increasing the sales of the book does you no good (except for BookScan figures, but they don't really count for much in these particular markets). If a book is really successful, the writer won't want to write for you again on a flat fee basis as they will suppose (or imagine) they can earn more writing for another publisher who will pay a royalty.

There are obvious disadvantages for the writer: if your book sells 100,000+ copies you still don't get any more than the flat fee (been there). You won't know what the sales figures are - this might sound unimportant, but it's not. If you want to pitch an idea to another publisher, it can be very useful to be able to say a previous title sold 100,000 copies. Of course, the publisher can check that figure, but you can't! (Unless you pay Neilsen for the info.) And because you can't, you won't know which book to list as your mega-seller.

But there are also less obvious advantages for the writer: you don't need to keep checking sales rank on Amazon, look for reviews or worry about whether the book is in the shops; you don't have to do visits and signings (unless you like that sort of thing); your mind is free to work on the next book; you can do your budgeting with confidence; the flat fee is likely to be more than the advance you would have got for the same book.  A book with a small advance that doesn't earn out will generally pay you less than the same book for a flat fee. If you want money now to pay to feed your children and pay the broadband bill, flat fee is often the more attractive option. It's not selling out, it's pragmatism.

Often, but not always, a flat fee is offered when the book is the publisher's idea. There is a certain fairness to this - the book would be written whether you wrote it or not. Maybe not as well, but frankly it's not going to sell on quality, is it? If a kid wants the next Vampire ballerinas book, they'll buy it anyway. As long as the flat fee is fixed with a realistic and fair assessment of the likely sales, it is usually a reasonable way to operate. The author should get as much as they would get in total royalties if it were a royalty deal.

Of course, there are rogue publishers who try to get away with flat fee offers of £200 or some such. Good, professional writers turn them down, but probably somewhere an aspiring writer will take the deal. And it takes guts to turn down anything when you don't have the next mortgage payment in the bank. (If the publisher is small and can't afford a decent fee, that's no excuse for offering £200 - they should at least make the £200 an advance and give a decent royalty; then it's up to the writer whether they trust their work and the publishers' distribution enough to give it a go.)

Flat fee is often 'work for hire' in legal terms. The publisher frequently wants to buy out the copyright and will often try to get you to waive your moral rights as well. The general advice is never to sell copyright, only to licence it. Whether you will get that through depends on the type of book and the publisher. (And how much you are prepared to dig your heels in.)

Imagine a publisher has a series of books about vegetables. They have asked you to write the Potatoes title. You want to keep the copyright. They will find someone else. Any competent writer can write about potatoes. Maybe some won't do it quite as well as you will, but the book will still be done and the editor can make it good enough. The publisher doesn't need to give way on the copyright issue.

Now imagine a publisher has a series of early reader fiction for sale into schools. They have asked you to write some animal stories. The plot and characters are up to you, they just have to be about animals, be 500 words long and divide into 12 spreads. You want to keep the copyright. This is a harder thing to do well, so the publishers might well agree. There is no end of people who will claim they can write animal stories 500 words long, but most of those stories will be rubbish. It's not like potatoes. (By the way, I have done both of these, and so feel quite free to diss the potato-writing aspect. Although actually I didn't do the potato title, so maybe that one was harder than carrots.)

If you can keep copyright, do so. For one thing, if the publisher goes bust you should be able to claim your title back and publish it elsewhere [hollow laughter] or make an ebook [unless it's illustrated, not by you]. I always cross out moral rights waiver if my name will be on the book (if your name's not going to be on it anyway - as in licensed character work - the moral rights are of no value to you).

As for the one real injustice - the 100,000+ sales because you did the book so well - my solution to that one was to negotiate with the publisher to add a royalty clause to all future contracts that kicks in if sales go over 100,000. They are content with that - if the book sells that many copies, they can afford the royalty, and if it doesn't they've not lost anything.

Monday 22 October 2012

How are we doing? Or, reasons to be cheerful...

There is a lot of doom and gloom amongst British children's authors at the moment - and with good cause. But an interesting bestsellers list in (of all places) the Daily Mail offers some solace. It lists the fifty best-selling authors. Number one is JK Rowling (no surprise there); then come Jamie Oliver, James Patterson, Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson. So four of the top five are UK writers, and half are children's writers (I'm putting Pratchett in both camps).

Thirty-five out of fifty are British. Fourteen (thirteen and two halves) of those write for children - fifteen if we include the one who writes GCSE guides. So of all the books in all the world (well, probably the English-speaking world), 15 out of 50 bestselling writers write for children and are British. (There is also Stephanie Meyer, and possibly some foreign ones whose names I don't recognise, if we want to include all children's writers.) I know some of you don't like maths, so I'll do it for you. Fifteen out of 50 is 30%. That's not bad, is it?

I know - there are a few bestselling authors and the rest of us struggle to get contracts with deteriorating terms, and there's no space in the dwindling number of bookshops for our titles. The cheering message  is that the public is still spending a lot of money on children's books. We might have to struggle to get our share of the pie, but at least the pie is still there. Given that a person reads children's books for perhaps 13 years of their life, and lives 6 or 7 times that long, having 30% of book sales go on children's books is a pretty good-sized pie.

The children's writers in the list are: JK Rowling, (Terry Pratchett), Jacqueline Wilson, Richard Parsons, Julia Donaldson, [Stephanie Meyer], JRR Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon, Philip Pullman, Enid Blyton, Roger Hargreaves, Daisy Meadows, Anthony Horowitz, (Katie Price), Michael Murporgo.

Saturday 6 October 2012

How to speak publisher: F is for Facebook

Has your publisher told you to have a Facebook page? Lots of writers say their publishers push them towards using Facebook/twitter/blogs/Pinterest/twatface/whatever to publicise their books. (Actually, I've not heard of a publisher who knows what Pinterest is, so we'll leave that one out.)

The demon that stops us getting to Mars
When (if) a publisher tells you to get a Facebook page, they don't mean invite all your cousins to be your friends and share pictures of funny kittens with you. That is not going to sell books. In fact, it will turn your mind to mush and waste your time so you write (and therefore sell) fewer books. I hate pictures of funny kittens. I can't believe so much of the world's resources are devoted to letting people laugh at photos of cats. And the time! We could cure cancer and colonise Mars if we used the time spent on funny-kitten-viewing more productively. Sorry. Anti-kitten rant over.

A publisher means you should have a page for your book/professional life, not a normal Facebook account. So - you join Facebook, you friend your friends and your family and some randomer you met on a train and your plumber, bla bla. And you post your holiday photos and links to (damnit) stupid kitten photos. But you don't friend your readers.

Please, please, don't friend your readers, especially if you write for children/young people. Because then you have to be even more careful about what you put on FB, and set up groups to keep the young readers separate from your posts about how you went on a disastrous date or you accidentally dyed your hair blue, or were sick after having too many cocktails. And don't friend your editors or your agent or your publicist (dream on) and a load of librarians and booksellers unless you are going to put time into managing lists so that you can control who sees what.

Make sure you manage your security settings so that all your private exploits are not visible to the public. It's not hard, and it's the online equivalent of not leaving your door open when you go out. And watch out for other people tagging you in photos of disreputable behaviour. Not that you engage in disreputable behaviour, of course. But if you did, untag yourself.

Once you have an account, create a page - this is the professional bit. You can create a page for you-as-author or for one of your books/series/characters. Scroll right down to the bottom of your Facebook screen and there is a link 'Create a Page'. Follow it; do as it says - I'm not doing a tutorial on creating pages (unless you really want one). On your page you can share stuff that is relevant to your book or writing life, such as links to reviews, info on events you are doing, web pages that might be interesting to your readers and so on.

People who like your work can find your page if they search for you on Facebook and can 'Like' it. You can control what they can do on your page, but it's nice to let them leave comments. Think carefully about how you are going to use your page. Are you just going to put news on it (new books, events, etc)? Or are you going to be more chatty, and put updates on your writing, projects, thoughts, blog posts, etc? Decide on your strategy and stick to it. The news approach is less work for you - but less interesting for your readers.

Your publisher will hope you will get lots of people liking your page and looking on it for information so that they can rush out and buy your next book. It's tempting to try to get lots of Likes to endorse yourself and make you feel as though you weren't wasting your time making the page. Even so, I hope you won't spam all your friends asking them to 'Like' your page. I have a strong dislike of being asked to 'like' pages for things I've not read. If you want to say you have a page, that's OK, but please don't ask me to like it. That's rather like saying - 'tomorrow is my birthday. Please buy me a present.'

From your author/book page, you can like other pages. Do it thoughtfully. If your books are for 9-year-olds, don't 'like' a page for gin or serial-killer fiction. So if you write undersea adventures, you might like pages such as 'shipwrecks' or 'sea mysteries' (I have no idea if those exist, but you get the idea). You can pretend. You could even pretend to like pages about silly kitten photos if that would appeal to your readers and fit in with your books. You can like bookshops and libraries from here with no danger of the manager of the local Waterstone[']s turning against you because you have slated their favourite holiday destination or had a row with their cousin - they can't see your personal page (as long as it's not public).

Get your publisher to 'Like' your page - it's their job to promote you. There is an important distinction here. Don't ask your friends to 'like' your page - they are your personal contacts. Do ask your professional partners to 'like' your page - your publisher/agent/local bookstore. Not other writers. We are not your publicists; we will like your page if we want to. Those of us who write reviews will probably not like your page, even if we like your work, as we might see it as a public compromise of our impartiality.

Put a link to your page in your email signature, put it on your website, your blog, your twitter profile page, your business cards (if you still have those), bookmarks and other freebies, and get the publisher to put the link on the imprint page of your books and on their publicity. After all, if they want you to do this stuff, they should support it.

If you don't want to do the kitten-sharing, cousin-hugging bit of Facebook, you can create an account and then ignore it, though you will have to collect a few friends before you are allowed to make an author page. [Purple bit changed - thanks to Mary Hoffman for the correction.] To stop people trying to friend you (they will find you, sooner or later), you can make yourself undiscoverable. Which is perhaps the ideal - you can be a as private as you like, and have the digital equivalent of a cardboard cut-out you that trollops around Facebook.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Don't be a Cnut

Man with a spiky hat being a Cnut
I look forward to receiving The Author, the quarterly magazine of the The Society of Authors. But it has tended to be full of whinges for the last few years. Take this, fairly typical, example: '[publishers] will be allowed to survive only to the extent that it suits Amazon' (p88). Or this: 'is Creative Commons a licence, really, to steal other people's work?' (That one is just misunderstanding on the part of the writer about what CC is, but they published it, so it counts.)

Of course there are things to be dismal about. But you know what they are, so I won't list them here - and if you don't, you can look in back issues of The Author for some ideas. Here is the only thing you need to know:

It's not going to change back. Not ever. No matter how much you whinge and whine. The past is a foreign country, and your visa has expired.

Some things are gone.

I read recently, but I can't remember where, that children won't learn to read because the libraries have computers in them instead of books. Well, obviously the libraries should have books in them. But children need to read to use the computer, so that's a stupid argument. It would be better to say children don't read because the classroom has a TV screen instead of a bookshelf. My youngest daughter learnt to read words and phrases such as All Programs, Control Panel and Instal at age 5 (alongside the usual raft of Biff and Chip books).

Reading for pleasure is not the same as reading. Learning to read doesn't need fiction, or even books - after all, children learned to read without there being fiction for them until the nineteenth century. *Of course* I'm not saying we shouldn't promote reading for pleasure, or physical books, or books for children, and it would be desperately sad if we lost these. And I *know* lots of children struggle to learn to read and need lots of help. But our preferred, current model need not be the only one that can ever work. (Indeed, we know it doesn't work that well as we are always arguing about how to improve it.)

Three in ten children in the UK own no books (four in ten for boys) - around four million children. Two thirds of American children living in poverty don't have a single book in their houses.

But nine out of ten children in the UK own a mobile phone. With cheap or free e-books, or e-book borrowing from libraries, perhaps those children will have the chance to read for pleasure, on their phones (and computers, Kindles, etc). Maybe we will have more readers, not fewer.

Yes, I know remote e-book borrowing looks bad for us, as authors (and publishers). But if something doesn't work economically, it won't last forever. If publishers don't make money from e-books because of e-book borrowing, the model will change in some way or they won't produce them any more. The system will self-correct. It might take a few years, cost a few businesses and livelihoods, but in the end something that works will emerge. We must not confuse concern for ourselves with Armageddon. Reading will not die; some publishers/writers might - different issues.

Whatever happens to the shape of publishing and the publishing industry, as writers we provide the key component - the words (the content, in newspeak). Whichever bits of the process can be done without, writing the words is the one that can't. Our words might be differently delivered, marketed, and read, but they are still needed. If you want to survive, don't stand on the beach trying to stop the tide; sit on a raft and wait to be carried by it. Don't forget to take a paddle so you have some control over where you go. We won't achieve anything by whinging and hankering after the past. But we might achieve something by being open to new possibilities.

Friday 21 September 2012

The elephant in the writing room

"Write what you love, with no thought to whether it's what the market wants."
"Write with passion - don't worry about selling it."

How many times have we heard this? We heard it reiterated again, more than once, at CWIG (the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators' Group conference). That's all very grand and noble and swilling with creative integrity - but it's not very practical if you need to live by your writing.

It highlights the big divide in the writing community that no one ever discusses. So I'm going to invite the elephant to step out of the corner and introduce himself: the divide between those who have to live by their writing and those who can indulge in writing whatever they want because they have an independent income, accumulated riches from an earlier career, a large pension, a lottery win, an Arts Council grant, a wealthy spouse, or a 'day job'.

A very few people are able to write exactly what they want and, because it coincides exactly with what the market wants, can make a good (enough) living from it. Super. I'm *so* pleased for you, genuinely. Remember, though, that markets change. The people who sold crateloads of books a few years ago sometimes can't get a contract now. They have not become bad writers; the population has not suddenly gone off their books. It's just that what publishers want to buy changes.

Let's suppose Roald Dahl didn't die, but went into hiding. And now he submitted a book outline, under a false name, to a children's publisher. What are the chances of his book being published? Slight, I'd say. There's too much that is violent or scary for most publishers of books for 8-10s now. Fashions (and sensibilities) change.
So what about those of us who have children to feed, a house to run, and no high-earning partner willing to let us off our share of contributing to the household income? We either have a different day job, or we write other things as well - things that sell but are perhaps not our overriding passion. You could see it as a different kind of day job. I am a writer, and my day job is also being a writer.

Unless you are mega-successful or very prolific, you can't make a living just by writing what you like best. Let's suppose you are lucky enough to get a two-book deal with a £50,000 advance. (That's pretty lucky, these days.) You take a year to write each book (some people do). So that's £25,000 a year. Now give your agent 15% + VAT, which is £4,500 and we're down to £20,500, which is already less than the average wage - and expenses have to come out of that. My annual expenses vary hugely, but are never lower than £3,000 so let's use that figure. Now we're down to £17,500 a year. And you have to get this type of contract *every* two years without fail. And only if your books earn out do you get more. (Plus PLR.) Doesn't work, does it? It's a low enough income to get income support.

If you need more money, maybe you do other things, such as school visits or teaching creative writing. That's fine - but it's no more noble and filled with integrity than writing something you are less passionate about.

Enough of the hypothetical. How does it work? These are the books I have written over the last two years:

seven short vampire novels
an adult history of physics
children's non-fiction books on -
  • maths
  • aerospace engineering
  • the work of charities in emergencies (eg war, famine, earthquake)
  • what the world would be like after a pandemic
  • fast things
  • rock bands
  • animals
  • internet safety
  • cybercrime
  • the history of surgery
a novel I'm not going to tell you about yet
three retellings of classic stories
four picture books

So that's a total of 26. OK, some are very short. But no matter. It's still a fair number. (As we're going for full disclosure, I've also written part of a book that has several authors, done a bit of copy-editing and critiquing, been an RLF fellow, an RLF lector, taught an 8-week undergraduate summer school on creative writing, built a few websites, and made two book trailers.)

I'm not going to tell you which of those books I was passionate about, but I did draw up a table of passion-against-income for each of them. I have estimated total royalties likely and have ignored PLR, so the income bit is not wholly accurate, but it gives an idea. So, in terms of percentage of income from writing, missing out one book that doesn't have a publisher yet (but is 10 on passion) and missing out the partial book, here's the breakdown:

% of income     passion rating 0-10 for book  number of books in this category

22%                  10                                         8
25%                   8                                          6
6%                     7                                          2
31%                   5                                          5
13%                   4                                          4
3%                     2                                          1

So if I had only written books I was passionate about (and we'll go down to 8, as fairly passionate about) I would have earned half as much. Which is not enough - though I can see that if I had other money from somewhere, it would have been a very nice sum to have.

There really are two classes of writer. Those who can afford to spend years on a book and accept a tiny advance are not professional writers. They may be published, and popular, and very good - but they are recreational or part-time writers. Professional writers need to worry about margins and expenses and need to negotiate good deals with their publishers. The recreational writers are no less 'real' writers, but their position is different - and they have no right to claim moral superiority or greater integrity on account of that position. Those of us who need to earn a living are not 'selling out'. A book should be judged on its own merits, and a writer shouldn't be judged at all.

Monday 17 September 2012

The Other Place

I'm over at Awfully Big Blog Adventure this morning talking about the CWIG (Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group) conference in Reading. It's not a serious write-up. You won't find useful hints and tips on writing or fulsome praise for the speakers. Not at all.

Monday 10 September 2012

The Internet: seducer, scapegoat or serendipity stall?

Are writers distracted from work by stuff on the web? Yes, sometimes. Do they need to pay good money for silly applications that block their access to the web. No, not unless they are total wimps and suckers.

An article in the Daily Telegraph is the latest in a string of mumblings that the internet is the enemy of creativity. Naomi Klein, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are apparently amongst the novelists who can't write unless they use SelfControl and Freedom (applications) to prevent them watching dumb cat videos on YouTube. Really? What's wrong with unplugging the modem, working in a cafe or library that doesn't have wifi, or even just using real self-control? After all, if they know they want to avoid messing about online, turning off the router, or just disconnecting from the network, is really not very hard to do (and it's free). I'm with Will Self, who said of this self-nannying: "“Get a grip, Zadie! I’m sorry, but that is just pathetic. Turn off the computer. Write by hand. I find that ludicrous.”

But there is another aspect. I suppose it depends in part on what you write, but I find instant access to the internet very helpful. I'm just starting a new project, and it's set in Victorian London. I'm not one of those people who does all the research and then all the writing - I'm too impatient to get started.

So I spent a day sitting in the sun making random notes on an old envelope and reading MR James ghost stories, then started writing. I probably won't keep those early pages, but they help to get the voice right. Yet writing the first 500 words I needed to check: when cigarettes replaced clay pipes in London; how long a baby will survive without oxygen at birth; which treatments of such a baby maximise the chances of its survival without ill-effects; when artificial resuscitation methods started and what they were; what the Society for Recovery of Drowned Persons recommended for treating nearly-drowned people; the appearance of a baby born in the caul; the appearance of the original Waterloo Bridge; when the toffee apple was invented (1940s - no good). I needed to know these things immediately. Guessing and writing on wouldn't work, as some of these are essential to the working out of the plot and I need to feel it's right, or at least possible. And in looking for a mudlark, I discovered there is a very unsavoury job of sewer hunter. I'll have one of those!

Ah, but perhaps Zadie and co are more worried about wasting their time on Facebook and twitter and Skype chat? But what better research source than intelligent, knowledgeable people? From Facebook, I got this from a professional historian: "I think non-clay pipes replaced clay pipes; cigarettes were common by the 1870s but regarded as unsuitable for a gentleman; and had become pretty well universal by the First World War." Twitter can bring an expert in minutes. On Skype, I chat with other writers who help me work out tricky plot points or how to adapt something to make it age-appropriate.

Besides these clear and sensible benefits, though, the web is a serendipity market. It's where you can come across astonishing snippets that trigger ideas, or feed in to your writing. That dreadful question, where do you get your ideas from, can often be answered by 'from the web' or 'from radio 4' as well as the usual 'from the world around, people talking, books, paintings...' I'm off to the library in a minute to read Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, volume 4. Which I was directed to by an article on the web. (The Google bookscan version is full of thumbs.) There, I will write and make notes and I won't bother to connect to Lapwing, the Cambridge University wifi network, because I won't need it. But I wouldn't wilfully shut myself off from that source of serendipity for extended periods in an artificial way.

If I'm writing, and want a break, I'll often look at twitter and find an interesting link to follow. It's the same as picking up the newspaper and flicking through it, or doodling in the margin of the page. A lot of writing is waiting for the brain to make connections, for the subconscious to do its stuff. Feeding in a few stories about female pirates or steam-powered submarines or sewer hunters can't do any harm.  It might be procrastination, but it's useful procrastination. In fact, perhaps web browsing is the modern equivalent of sewer-hunting...

And have you noticed how, once you are into a topic, it crops up everywhere? It's like only seeing how many pregnant people there are when you are pregnant yourself. Once you're on the lookout for arctic explorers or Victorian undertakers, they're everywhere. But mostly online. Not so many hanging in my office if I turn off wifi. I need a big sign: Serendipity welcome here.

Thursday 6 September 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for editor

Editors come in lots of flavours: chocolate, vanilla, pistachio...

Editor-god is the commissioning editor. (S)he puts together lists and series to make a coherent offering by commissioning writers/books - either looking for writers for specific books or responding to submissions. She may help a publishing director to decide the direction of the list.

The vanilla editor you will deal with most of the time is in charge of the overall shape of a book. If it is fiction, the editor will advise on the structure, plot, characterisation, voice and so on. If it is non-fiction, the editor will advise on structure, choice of material, voice and so on.

The copy editor is most concerned with the words on the page. (S)he will do a line edit - go through the book advising on style and grammar.

Don't be scared of editors (1). The editor is not some harpy bent on removing all vestiges of your individuality from your book. The idea is that you and the editor(s) work together to produce the best book possible. If your individuality manifests in using the same phrase thirty times, or having an apparently major character disappear after three chapters never to reappear, and with no explanation, then some individuality should indeed be pruned away. But the point is to make the book better. All books can be improved and a good editor does that. Have you noticed how some successful writers seem to produce worse books once they are really famous? It's often because editors are unwilling to tell them their latest book is too long, or has too much of something that was a nice quirk once but tiresome when overdone.

Don't be scared of editors (2). Editors make suggestions. You don't have to follow all the suggestions. Follow the good ones and explain why you don't think the others are good. You need a reason if you want to reject changes, and 'I like it like that' doesn't count. If you can't explain and defend what you've done, why should anyone take your view seriously? But you really, really don't need to do everything the editor suggests. To do so makes you look like a push-over. If you aren't going to defend any of your original choices, perhaps you didn't think very hard about the book?

Here's a little anecdote. Last year, I was in Starbucks in Oxford. On the next table were two men who were clearly editors. One began telling the other about a new writer he had signed. The book had come in, and there were a few problems with it (as always) and he had gone back to the writer with his list of changes. "He made every one!" the editor said. "He didn't want to discuss any of them." Do you think the editor was happy? No. The two agreed the writer was unprofessional - he couldn't have had any reason for structuring his book in that way, so he hadn't thought about the commission carefully enough. Finally, the editor said he wouldn't be rushing to take another book from that author. So you might think you're being good and compliant if you agree to every change, but you're not doing yourself any favours if you don't defend at least a few of your original choices!

Editors offer advice and suggestions, and tell you if something isn't working. The editor doesn't have to tell you what to do instead of what you've done - though (s)he might if (s)he can see a solution. Fixing it is your job. Discuss it - the editor might be able to help. If there's a problem with part of the book, you will have to do something about it, so explaining why you wrote the book like that is a good starting place for finding a solution. If you say (for instance) 'this scene you say is boring helps to show Z's character' the editor can help you find a solution that helps builds Z's character but isn't boring. If you just have a strop because the editor wants to change your great work, you're on a hiding to nothing. Don't bother. Work with your editor, not against her.

Caveat: Very occasionally, you work with a bad editor. A few editors secretly want to be writers and change your book just to make it more 'theirs'. But that is unusual. I have had one editor like that in 15 years (about 150 books).

Friday 24 August 2012

Humpty Dumpty, potatoes (lack of) and infanticide - summer in Cambridge

What type of egg was Humpty Dumpty?
Summer school is finished - and I can get back to books and blogs and the other parts of normal working life. I am very sorry to see my lovely students go and hope to keep in touch with at least some of them.

It's been wonderful to watch my students flourish, find their voices and piece together how stories work. Most of them seem to have learned something, some of them a lot. One of the best things has been to hear their reflections on the course at the end - which bits they remember, which had the most impact. One young man said the turning point was when we talked about the premise of Humpty Dumpty. (What is the premise of Humpty Dumpty? If you can answer that, you probably know what you're doing.*)

I have my favourite memories of what they have done, too. A young Chinese woman wrote a story about the rape of Nanjing - her home town. At other times, we laughed over the cultural differences that tripped us up and the Chinglish that occasionally crept into her work. One young man who had grown up during a revolution in south America told me how he had watched soldiers shooting each other from the mango trees of his parents' plantation, and how the soldiers had called a daily ceasefire so that his mother could pick corn for the family dinner.

They wrote about a mad, cross-dressing murderer obsessed with chairs; about a gentle, surprise romance in an old people's home; about a deadly bus journey across the desert; about a young soldier in the Second Word War who loses his brother; about a psychopath who sees himself as the Big Bad Wolf; about a woman executed for infanticide in 17th-century New England; about the Irish potato famine, and the effects of the First World War on the women left behind.

They have boundless imagination, and have been brave in their experimentation. I am proud of them, pleased with them, and impressed by what they have achieved. I am humbled by their courtesy and gratitude and wish them all well in the future. Some of them we will see in print some day, I'm sure. It has been worth doing, 100% - even when doing two or three 12-hour days in a row, or the day I got up with a fever, vomited, and cycled into college to teach anyway, because I didn't want to miss any time with them.

Thank you, lovely students. Have a great fall (and not in the Humpty Dumpty sense of the word).

*Humpty Dumpty is about something broken that cannot be fixed - the immutable finality of death, or other irreversible change.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

In search of pigeons

My current work-in-progress is set in Rome in the late sixteenth century. There is a huge amount of research I need to do, particularly into details of the geography of the Vatican.

But some things are proving very tricky. Were there many pigeons in Rome then? I have had the same problem with pigeons before. How many pigeons were there in Venice in 1576? Clearly not the tide of pigeons that sweeps over the Piazza now. I suppose people probably caught and ate pigeons then. There are never any pigeons in paintings from that period of Venice or Rome, but nor are there any rats or spiders, so that's not a reliable source.

Not a pigeon in sight

This week, my summer school students have been writing historical fiction. They all came back, astounded at the amount of research they needed to do. Did young women in 1921 wear pyjamas or nightdresses? What did the interior of a bank look like in 1850s Massachusetts? When was spray paint invented? Were there typewriter erasers in 1940?

They have steered clear of more distant historical periods because of the burden of research. But I'm not actually sure it's any harder to research Canterbury in 1375 than Wild West frontier towns in the 1850s. But please, does anyone know the pigeon population of Rome in 1580?

Monday 30 July 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for e-books

The level of enhancement of an e-book is
measured in dancing bears
I don't need to tell you what an e-book is, do I? Perhaps I need to tell you what it's not.

An e-book is not the same as an app. It's not a book saved as PDF and distributed online. It's not a book that's just stuck up on a website to read online. An e-book (for our purposes) is a book that is produced in one of the standard e-book formats, such as Kindle or epub, and intended for download and reading either on a dedicated device (such as a Kindle of Nook) or using a reading application on a computer, phone, tablet or some other bit of iCandy. Essentially, it's a glorified XML file under the skin.

Because it's pretty easy to produce e-books, lots of people are rushing their half-baked novels and other books into e-book format and either giving them away or sticking them on Amazon. And some competent writers, both previously published and new, are doing the same. I'm not getting into arguments about that here, as this is about how to speak publisher.

When you're talking to a publisher about e-books, it's most likely to be in the context of whether/when they are going to produce an e-book from one of your books. An e-book is just the text of your book, and pictures if it had pictures originally (assuming it was published on paper first). If the publisher intends to add new pictures, video, sound (other than just a read-aloud function) or any other bells, whistles and dancing bears, then that is an enhanced e-book. If they want to make something which is launched as a separate program with its own icon rather than opening in a piece of e-book reading software, that is an app (from application).

If a publisher wants to make an e-book from your work, or buy e-book rights, that means they are interested in producing something which is essentially the book and nothing else. There are no dancing bears. It can have some internal links, perhaps external links, and a read-aloud facility and still count as an e-book. The industry-standard royalty rate emerging (and endorsed by the Society of Authors as a minimum) is 25%. The publisher should make the e-book available for more than one platform, so not just a Kindle book, for instance - but they don't have to. The different formats have to be made separately, so not all publishers do it. In particular, not all self-publishers do it.

Some publishers (especially educational publishers) will try to fob you off with the same royalty as for a paper copy of the book, or even less. The lowest offer I have seen is 2%, which is risible.

Why should the royalty be at least 25%? Well, if the book has already been produced - so it's a backlist conversion - there is very little work involved in converting it (unless it's very old). The editing and so on has been budgeted for and paid for from the printed copies and this is a bonus revenue stream. There is no reason why only the publisher should benefit from this, as they can't make any money at all without using your work (which they will call 'content'). Whether the e-book is from a new or old book, there is no cost for printing, shipping, or warehousing. There is considerably less risk involved than in paper publishing as there is no minimum print run (indeed, no concept of a print run).

Another reason is that e-books often sell at a lower price than printed books, so the author's income will drop if introducing the e-book reduces paper sales and the royalty level is the same. It's not about being nice and generous to authors - it's about maintaining a business model that works. If writers don't make enough to live on, they will find another job and write fewer books. 

If the publisher wants to make an enhanced e-book, they will add some dancing bears. There might be extra audio (music, sound effects, spoken word commentaries, interviews), video, animation, new pictures, embedded PDFs (used for large diagrams and tables that don't convert well), links to other parts of the text, pop-up explanations, external links to websites, and so on. The royalty rate for an enhanced e-book varies and will reflect the amount of extra work and investment the publisher has undertaken in licensing and commissioning extra material. It might be a royalty of 10%, but that's a ballpark figure - there are no rules.

If the publisher wants to make an app, it's pretty much all dancing bears and not necessarily very closely related to a book at all. It's likely to be full of pokable and swipable buttons as well as audio, video, animation. Those bears will really dance. The royalty for an app depends on the author's input. Apps are very expensive to produce, so the argument about 25% being fair because e-books are almost free to produce (after the editorial process) doesn't apply at all.

Many apps cost more to produce than a printed book, but the price point still tends to be low because the public has got used to free and cheap apps. A well-kept secret is that very, very few publishers (none?) are actually making a profit from dancing-bear level apps.

In reality, the situation is not this clear-cut. There are plenty of people/small independent publishers producing things they call apps which are really no more than enhanced e-books. They might have one or two interactive features, rather rudimentary animation, and a bit of sound but are actually no more sophisticated than the electronic books we were using on school computers in the 90s. However, if they are compiled as stand-alone bits of software, they are technically apps. If you sign a deal to do an app, make sure you know what will be produced. A sub-standard app will damage your reputation more than no app at all.

Many contracts signed in the last 20 years included rights for technologies that did not then exist, either in catch-all clauses or in vague 'electronic form' clauses. I know of one publisher whose standard wording included 'all rights discovered or yet to be discovered throughout the known and unknown universe'. It's too late now if you signed that deal - but be careful with new deals.

You don't need to sign over all e-rights in one go. You can specify separate deals for, or withhold any or all of, e-book, enhanced e-book and app rights. For some publishers, e-rights will be a deal-breaker and you will have to make a choice. But you can always say you will licence the rights for a couple of years and see how things go. If they don't exploit the rights, take them back. If they make an e-book and sell no copies, take the rights back.

Do you even want any enhanced e-books or apps of your work? Some writers (including Julia Donaldson) don't. There is evidence that children using apps and enhanced e-books gain less reading benefit from them as they concentrate on the interaction with the software and not the narrative development. What you decide will depend on what you think a book (your book) is for. Or it might depend on how poor you are. But decide on your terms, knowing what is all involves.

Saturday 14 July 2012

No words

I have a question. Why are there things we have no word for, things that really clearly exist? We have words for things which might or might not exist (ghosts, angels, Higgs bosons), and for things which don't exist (unicorns, July sunshine). But then there are big things that are unnameable.

We have a word for a widow and a widower, a word for an orphan, but no word for a parent who has lost their child. Why? Is it because this state is so awful, too awful to contemplate, that we daren't have a word for it? I feel anxious even asking the question. In medieval France, people didn't use the word 'bear'  - they said 'bruin' (the brown one). If they spoke the bear's name, they feared, it would seem as if they were calling him and he would come.

I knew a novelist once who wanted to write about a paraplegic character. He went to a specialist in wheelchairs and other equipment his character might have used (this was before the days of the web) and they gave him lots of brochures. He threw them all away before he got home. He didn't dare to carry them, as if they were some kind of 'eat me' label inviting disasters to see him as fair game. It's not the same as not having a word for things, but perhaps it's related.

Or maybe there is a word and I just don't know it. Do other languages have a word for this terrible state?

No words. I have no words for the couple whose fate prompted this post, for the incident which has touched my family too closely and them with such devastation. I am a writer - I am supposed to have words. But they are inadequate to express the grief and horror of what has happened. Similarly, there are never good enough words to describe love, or sex, or terror, or pain, or bliss. I don't mean literary expression here, but words you can say to someone in normal discourse. I will try - they won't be good enough. Words fail me. Words fail all of us, though, if we don't even have a word.

Monday 18 June 2012

Stroppy's new venture: Book vivisection

No new post here today as I've been putting together a totally new Stroppy blog, all about reading. Book vivisection takes scalpel and probe to books to see exactly how they work. Critical, analytic reading is very useful tool for writers.

Please join in and add your own insights - the livelier the discussion, the more everyone gains. First post is all about Not Now, Bernard by David McKee.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Parents are not dinosaurs

Here is a fairly typical statement about parents' engagement with the 'new' technology their children use:

"Digi-phobic parents fearing that their swiping, oblivious kids will wind up in the late, great Ray Bradbury's lion-infested nursery, steering dangerous beasts through a landscape unnavigable by – and implacably hostile to – anyone over 18..."

The Guardian, June 2012

How old is a child reader? Anything between two (if we are thinking of something like Nosy Crow's Cinderella) to 16 (if we are thinking more of Celia Rees's This Is Not Forgiveness. How old is a parent, then? Anything from 18 to 50ish - bit more at a push, especially if a father. Or perhaps a bit younger if they weren't paying attention during those how-to-put-a-condom-on-a-cucumber lessons (or paying too much attention, and put it on the cucumber instead).

So what excuse does a person aged 18-50ish have for not being able to use an intuitive , user-friendly bit of everyday technology? We're not talking about building your own database/website/Flash animation here - I mean swiping a screen or clicking on a picture. If you can wipe a dead fly off a windowsill, you can drag a pig across an iPad screen.

My first computer
Yes, the children are 'digital natives' - they grew up with the technology. Actually, I'm a digital native, too. I was there at the start, using one of the very first personal computers in 1978, and haven't dropped behind. I'm not the only adult (and parent) in this position. So there are at least some old dinosaurs who weren't wiped out by the iComet.

More importantly, the parents of today's toddlers are in their 20s and 30s. They were born in the 80s and even 90s. My Big Bint is 21 this month. Some of the kids she was at school with have children starting school in September. Do you think those parents can't negotiate an iPad? Get real.

In the 80s, I was training teachers to use new technology in the classroom. They were obliged to do it. They had to teach kids how to use the BBC micro, which is 31 years old this year. Obviously the BBC micro is not the same as an iPad - if you swiped it, you just left a smear on the screen. But the first desktop computer appeared 28 years ago. (Or 29 if you were cool enough to use a Lisa). When did you first use the web? I used it in 1994 - 18 years ago, on Mosaic, which was released in 1993. That was early, but most people must have used it by 2000, surely? This stuff has been around for a long time. We must be running out of 'digi-phobic parents'. 

My really ancient v.1 iPad
The remaining digi-phobics are the older people (including journalists) who haven't noticed they are no longer the bright young parental generation being discussed. Surely there can't be many parents who don't have smart phones, Facebook, and the ability to book a Ryainair flight? At least, not those who can afford a broadband connection and an iPad and so are in a position to be out-techno'd by their kids.

There will always be some parents who aren't interested - who don't use YouTube or send texts because they don't want to. They are the equivalent of parents (like me) who never learned the rules of football or gave a toss about motorbikes because they find them unutterably dull topics.Now, surely, digi-phobic is just digi-averse, and is the same as being football-averse, or music-averse or fashion-averse - it's not a special state, just an expression of preference.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the world is thronged with parents who have had their eyes closed for the last ten years. Is it, really?

Monday 11 June 2012

Can you teach creative writing?

Hoary old chestnut. Or whory old chestnut, perhaps, as CW is the current cash-cow of the writing world.

I've always said creative writing can't be taught, so why am I spending seven weeks supposedly teaching it to a group of high-flying foreign undergraduates who have paid $nK to spend the summer at Cambridge University? Whoring? No. Because although I don't think it can be taught, I believe it can be learned. I don't intend to teach them anything, I just intend to help them to learn it.

What's the difference? There is a BIG difference.

I can teach you to use PowerPoint - it is very easy. (Really, it is.) Because it is the same for everyone - the things you need to do to make a new page, add a picture, draw lines, bla bla, are set in stone. All you have to do is follow the instructions. 100% guaranteed.

The same isn't true of creative writing. I can't teach you to write a novel/short story/picture book by giving a sequence of numbered steps that will definitely, 100% certainly, lead you to produce a book. Or not unless you count 'sit down and write the damn thing' as a useful instruction.

About as far as you can go teaching writing by the formulaic, PowerPoint-instructions method is: write down the subject; write down a verb; write down an object, possibly. Add an adverb between the subject and the verb if you really want to. Add an adjective before either or both of the object and subject if you really want to. Remember to use a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end. It still might not make sense: Blue dinosaur painfully dived the cake. Nope - can't even get a meaningful sentence. Not foolproof, like 'click the New Slide button'.

Ah, you may say - we can teach someone to make a PowerPoint presentation, but it won't necessarily be any good. They need other skills for that: they need to know a bit about design, and about information design, and how people absorb information, in order to make an attractive and effective PowerPoint presentation. And that's true. Ditto creative writing - even if we tell people the principles of developing characters, plot, and setting, showing-and-not-telling, avoiding cliches like the plague and ruthlessly excising adverbs, they need some kind of insight and imagination in order to write something that jumps off the page.

So we have to help people to learn writing instead of attempting to teach them. Let them try first. Maybe give a few hints of things to think about, if your teaching model means you have to do lectures and seminars. Otherwise, let them write something and then explore with them why and how it works, why and how it doesn't work. This can be on all levels - why that sentence is ungrammatical, or why the structure doesn't suit their stated aims. I don't tell people what to do if I can avoid it. I ask them questions and challenge their answers. I force them to defend what they have done, or recant. I make them think of other ways of doing things, and ask whether that would be better or worse, how it would be different. If they can't see ways, I make suggestions. But I'd rather they worked it out for themselves.

This method takes a lot of time. It has to be done one-to-one, and it can feel brutal. But I won't tell them answers, I will only help them discover answers - because then the answers mean something to to them; they own the answers, they have invested in them, they believe in them, and they are answers that work for them.  If at the end I don't agree with the solution they have reached, I will say so and explain why. But more often they will come up with something that is at least worth trying. I think this is how it has to be. Once they are out in the big, wide world trying to make a living from writing, no one will be there telling them what to do. They will have to know the questions to ask of themselves and their work in order to improve it, not follow a formula or run and ask someone else.

So that's why, students, I am going to harangue you and badger you and not tell you the 'answer'. It's your job to learn, and my job to beat you until you do. I'm not being paid to teach you.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for Epilogue

An epilogue is a bit that comes at the end of a book - but a particular type of bit. It's not the index, which also comes at the end, or an appendix, or the picture credits (which might come at the end), or a glossary (found at the end of some books).

An epilogue is a bit more; it tells you what happens after the end of the story, or sometimes sets the scene for a sequel by giving a tiny bit of narrative that suggests there is a lot more to come. Imagine a story in which the villain is dead and buried, everything is sorted out, you think it's all over ... and then there is an epilogue in which someone wandering through the graveyard sees the earth has been disturbed around the villain's grave. That tells you the story is not over. The publisher wants another £8.99 from you.

In a factual book, an epilogue might suggest some piece of future research or contain an update to the main part of the book (especially if some development happens after the book is ready or nearly ready for press). But it's much better to integrate that into the book, even deferring publication, if possible. With an academic book, the author/publisher has probably been working on the book for years or decades and it represents lots of work that the author is unwilling to throw out just because it's been proved wrong. So the epilogue becomes a type of apologia - a means of explaining why they are still publishing this book after its research has been superseded. It will probably take account of recent research and give some reason (possibly spurious) as to why the rest of the book is still valid.

So an epilogue in a fiction book means 'give us another £8.99 soon' and an epilogue in a non-fiction book means 'that £18.99 [or £58.99] you spent on this book was possibly wasted'.

This post is even more cynical than usual.

Thursday 24 May 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for Earning out

'Earning out' is what you hope your book will do. Remember the advance? It's what the publisher paid you a very long time ago when you started/sold your book. We talked about the advance at the start of How to speak publisher.

Your book earns out if/when it has earned enough in royalties to cover the advance the publisher paid you. Here's a bit of simple maths. Simple, I said. Don't hide behind the sofa, there. Maths is your friend - don't leave it to the publisher or your agent.

Stroppy Author gets an advance of £5,000 - hurray!
This means that to earn out the advance, the book needs to earn £5,000 in royalties

Stroppy Author's book sells for £10 a copy.

Stroppy Author gets a royalty of 10% - hurray!
This means that the royalty on each copy is 10% of £10 = £1
So to earn £5,000, the book would need to sell 5,000 copies at its cover price.

These are not real figures; this never happens - but that's the principle.

While we're on maths, let's do a spot of counting.
The press likes to shout about six-figure advances. This is to confuse people, who usually assume that a six-figure advance is a million pounds/dollars/euros. It isn't - a six-figure advance is one represented by a number that has six digits, so it is £100,000 (or $100,000) or more. Count the figures: a 1 and five 0s, that's six. Don't count the comma. So if you hear that an author has a five-figure advance, that means they have £/$10,000 or more, which is not necessarily very much. Obviously £99,000 is quite a lot; but $10,000 is not.

Some books never earn out their advance and are not even really expected to. If a publisher pays an advance of £300,000, this is largely to grab a lot of publicity. The book might earn out, but no one will be hugely surprised if it doesn't because a lot of these gambles don't pay off. To the author, the big advance seems to be a sign that the publisher is certain their book will be a bestseller. In fact, it's a sign that the publisher hopes their book will be a bestseller and thinks there's a pretty good chance it will be. But it's cheaper to pay an advance of £300,000 and get lots of free press coverage than to invest in posters all over the underground and buses. The publisher can still make a huge profit even if this book doesn't earn out.

How quickly your book earns out depends on the following factors:
  • how large the advance was in the first place
  • the royalty rate
  • the price the books sell for.
There is a lot of room for wild variation here. Advances range from zero to £/$1,000,000. Royalty rates range from less than 1% to 10% (sometimes even higher after some massive number of sales - but very rarely). Books sell for anything from cover price to 90% discount. At some levels of discount, the royalty might disappear completely. This is generally to cover the publisher shifting the remaining copies for next-to-nothing when they've decided to give up on it.

I have books that will never earn out the advance. This is not because the advance was large, but because the royalty is pitifully small and it's a royalty on nett receipts (what the publisher actually gets, rather than the cover price) from books sold at massive discounts. I can think of a book that will have to sell 100,000 copies before I receive any royalties, and it's only sold about 40,000 so far in four years or so. It doesn't much matter, as I knew this was what would happen and was happy with the advance. In this case, you have to think of the advance as being a fixed fee and then if the book does earn out, the extra money is a bonus. Hooray!

On the other hand, I have a book that earned £1,000 royalties in the first two weeks - because it sold at cover price, had back orders and had a very small advance. Again, I knew this would happen - but it's more of a gamble because if the projections were wrong, or the publisher went bust or decided to discount the books, I'd earn very little from the book.

Understanding what you are getting is crucial. You might feel it's OK to accept a small advance if (a) you can live without the money for now and (b) you are confident you will get enough in royalties to make the deal worthwhile in the long run. Do the maths, though - how much will you really get?

Let's look at that hypothetical book at the start, the one with the £5,000 advance. Assume there is no advance. How many copies have to sell before you earn £5,000? Five thousand? No.

Cover price = £10; copies sold at (say) 40% discount, so nett receipts = £6 per copy
10% royalty = 60p per copy.
On that, your agent takes 15% + 20% VAT (in the UK) = 9p + 1.8p per copy = 10.8p per copy.
So for each copy sold, you get 60p - 10.8p = 49.2p.
That means it takes 10,163 copies for you to get £5,000.
(Of course, your agent would also take 15% + VAT of your advance, so your £5,000 advance comes to £4,100 in your bank. You need the book to sell 8,333 copies to make that.)

(You can use these sums in other territories. Swap £ for $ or Euros and p for cents.)

All this means that you need information in order to make a sensible decision about the contract you're offered.

In particular, you need to know the print run (how many copies the publisher will print), when they expect to reprint and how much they expect to sell the books for. Ask how long you expect it to take for the book to earn out the advance. A good publisher will be willing to tell you the print run and should be able to give you an estimate of the last two.

It's sensible to base your decision on the first print run - after all, if the publisher was certain the book would sell more copies, they would probably order a larger print run (but not necessarily - warehousing printed copies costs a lot, and there is cashflow to consider).

That book that earned £1,000 in the first for fortnight: I know that if the first print run sells out, and the average discount is 30%, the royalty will be nearly £9,000. The book will almost certainly reprint. I've written books that won't earn out, and have taken as long to write, for an advance of less than £9,000.

The lesson is, as always, ensure you have all the information you can get and make a decision based on it (and maths, if necessary).

  • The advantages of a large advance are: you have money in the bank; you feel valued; the publisher is likely to work hard to sell the book because they have invested in it; the money you get (initially) is unaffected by the cover price/discounting.
  • The disadvantages of a large advance are: it takes a long time to earn out; if the book doesn't earn out, the publisher will be less likely to commission your next book; people will be bitchy about you and assume your book is bad.
  • The advantages of a small advance are: the book is likely to earn out, so you get some royalties, which always feels good when the book was written long ago; the publisher is more likely to commission your next book, especially if it sells better than expected
  • The disadvantages of a small advance are: you don't have much money while you are writing the book; you feel undervalued (but that's subjective - work on your attitude!); people will be bitchy about you and assume your book is bad - but this time only if you tell them how large (small) your advance is, because the publisher isn't going to be shouting about it in The Bookseller.
What is not acceptable is for publishers to offer a very low advance AND a very low royalty rate, which is becoming increasingly common. An advance of £400 and a royalty of 2%? (This is a real offer, not from 2012, but recent.) That's ridiculous. Of course, the book might earn out. But you won't have very much money either way.