Saturday 15 November 2014

Paper or online? (Paper)

Is it a map? Çatalhöyük, Turkey, 6000 BC
Today I'm working on The Story of Maps, the next in my Story Of... series. The principal source I want to use for the theoretical history and development of cartography is the seminal work on the subject, The History of Cartography, edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward and published by University of Chicago Press in 1987. But.... although I have Cambridge University Library on my doorstep, there is only one volume of the series available in Cambridge. (It is, happily, in Newnham College Library and as that is my current college affiliation, I can easily see it.) Here are my options:

go to London and use it in the British Library. Can't afford to - £15 a day each day I need to go, which will be many - perhaps 20

buy it.
Can't afford to - each volume changes hands at around £150 and there are seven.

use it online.
This is what I'm doing. The whole thing is available as PDFs from the UCP website - which is a brilliant resource and very generous of them.
It is a map - Jianxi, China, 18th century

 I am hugely grateful that it's there, but I would SO MUCH prefer to use paper copies. Then I could flick through to find pictures of maps I want to discuss. I wouldn't have to wait for hi-res images to appear on the page (not normally a problem, but after my poor computer has buffered about 50 of these it starts to get tired).

The frustration with using the electronic version will probably boost sales of the paper copies. I'm going to be filling in recommendation slips for CUL to buy all the volumes. But this is just the sort of book that should be a real, paper book.

Saturday 23 August 2014

On the shoulders of giants

Phew. Just finished the creative writing summer school I teach at Pembroke and King's Colleges in Cambridge each year. It's always very sad to see the lovely students heading home, as I love those manic eight weeks that come along just as everyone else is planning to wind down and go on holiday.

The format of the course is simple. There are two of us teaching it; my partner in crime is children's author Brian Keaney. Every week, there is an evening lecture (with wine), sometimes with a guest lecturer, but more often just our double-act. And the rest of the week, the students write, and each have an hour-long, one-to-one supervision (=tutorial, outside Cambridge) on their work.

But of course it's not just us two. We have lots more guest teachers, many of them dead. Each year, we drag many other writers into the lectures - sometimes as reference points, sometimes as illustrations or examples, sometimes for proper discussion and sometimes just mentioned in passing. Of course, none of the students will have read all those we refer to (they aren't old enough, they haven't had time yet) but many will have read a lot and all will have read some. The range is huge - last week's 'mentions' stretch (in time) from Aesop to The Hunger Games, taking in Sophocles, Euripides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shelley, Pride and Prejudice, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rosetti, Edgar Allan Poe, Dubliners, Ulysses, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and Anne Lamott amongst others. During the course, there have been many, many more.

Previous writers are our currency of debate as well as our models. We don't want the students to write in the style of Jane Austen or Matthew Arnold - they would never sell anything. But we do want them to learn from the structures, the intensity, the insights into human psychology, the depiction and development of character and all the other universal aspects of their predecessors' writing.

So as they all go off into the world, back to Yale and Cornell and Berkeley and all the other places they came from, and ask us what they should to do improve their writing, we tell them to keep reading. To read the type of books they want to write and the types of books they don't want to write. To read recent books and to read books by people long dead. To read books they like and books they don't.

The course is not about writing literary fiction - we are as happy with them if they write a decent fantasy or sci-fi story - and it has a commercial aspect: how to write books that will sell (if they want to make a living as a writer). We tell them there is no shame and a lot to be gained by writing (and selling) books of many types and that reading widely will help with all of it. One of the questions we ask them to come back to when they are reading contemporary books is 'why was this published?' There is always a reason. If there is a book they hate, we encourage them to work out why they hate it, and not stop reading it until they know. Of course, no one has to carry on reading a book they don't like, but if you haven't worked out what you don't like, your work with it is not done. And then they have to decide whether it is a badly written book (and how) or a well-written book that is not to their taste. We don't have to like things to recognise their qualities. There are plenty of good books I don't like.

And so to all our students, just past and longer past, and to everyone - just keep reading, and read thoughtfully and critically. You don't need a living tutor - there are plenty of dead ones that will let you climb onto their shoulders and see far into the distance.

PS - and these two came out last week when I wasn't looking.
Both from Arctuturus, both adult/teen books. All types of writing - it's what you need to do to make a living.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Not dead yet...

Over at the other place again... sorry. I will be back. Working crazy hours to finish a book (delivered yesterday - hurray!) and teach summer school at the same time.

On ABBA - do you read books to find out how to survive being different or how to fit in? The same of different?

Friday 11 July 2014

At the other place: What are words worth?

Long absence... back in summer school and deadline trauma. But I have been over at ABBA writing about the ALCS report on authors' earnings. If you haven't read the report, you should. You don't need to read the media coverage, which is mostly rubbish, but do read the report.

Sunday 1 June 2014

How to speak publisher: F is for Feedback

Publishers don't often use the word feedback. They are more likely to call it 'editorial input' or 'comments'. Or, of course, 'rejection'. But feedback is what the rest of the world calls it when someone tells you what they think of your work and how you should change it to improve it (or not bother).

Feedback in a creative writing course aims to help the student to become a better writer and to improve the specific piece of writing they have submitted. In an ideal world, feedback from a publisher would have the same aims, but generally the publisher is only interested in improving the current piece of writing - the one they are paying you for (or might pay you for if you can make it good enough). There is also feedback from agents. If you already have an agent, their feedback will be aimed at making you a better writer, and also at improving the current piece of writing.

'Improving' is a tricky term. It doesn't necessarily, in the vocabulary of agent and publisher, mean making the work aesthetically better, though it might include that. Primarily, it means making the work more saleable - because that's the agent's/publisher's job: to sell your work. If I write a totally brilliant piece of young adult fiction that's 20,000 words long, my agent is likely to tell me it's unsaleable. There is no established market for fiction of that length for teen readers. (Of course, I haven't done such a thing - I know there's no market for that. So please don't tell me to self-publish it, because it doesn't exist. Also please don't tell me there is no reason why there should not be such a thing, or list the few exceptions you can find. In general terms, it's not a thing - my agent won't want to try to sell it.)

So what IS in feedback?

In electronics and broadcasting, it's the garbage or white noise that is reflected back, it's interference. Sadly, interference and garbage is just how some writers feel about editorial feedback. They are generally the ones who feel they know best, even if they have never had anything published, and they are often the first to turn to self-publishing. But what feedback should be is intelligent and constructive criticism and commentary.

If you are working with a publisher, you need to remember that they have an idea of the type of book they want to publish and the audience for that book. Their idea will be more or less rigid depending on the type of book.

If it's fiction, they will know the age group they want to target and the approximiate type of reader. Irritatingly, that might be gender-specific. 'A funny novel that will appeal to 8-year-old boys', for instance.  'A romantic teen story with girl-appeal.' Well, you can decide not to work with them if that riles you too much. You can challenge the wording, and they might change it, but they will still be looking for the same thing.

If it's non-fiction it might be more specific still. You might have to address an area of the UK curriculum and also cover various US curricula. Or, if it's a trade book, there could be requirements such as 'a book about technologies developed in the last fifty years; the book will sell into the UK, Australasian and Chinese markets.' That means there must be plenty of Australasian and Chinese examples as well as the UK and US ones you first thought of.

Feedback will point out if you've missed the mark. The thing is, you might have written a perfectly good book, but if it's not the book the publisher intends to publish it isn't any use. Indeed, sometimes you might write a better book than the one that is wanted, and you will have to go backwards to meet the target. This sounds ridiculous, but it's not. Say you have written a wonderful book about technological innovations, but none of them is Chinese or Australasian. You might have to pick some lesser innovations in order for the book to achieve its target of selling into those markets. Or perhaps you wrote a really good story that will appeal to 8-year-old boys, but it's not funny. If the book is to be part of a list of funny books, that's no good, however wonderful your story is.

So the upshot of all this is, that while feedback from a writing group or tutor might be about improving your work in purely aesthetic terms, feedback from a publisher or agent is generally commercially-oriented. A lot of the time, if you are sending your work on spec, you won't get any feedback beyond 'very nice, but not for us right now.' Even that is useful feedback - it makes you think 'what does this editor/agent need right now, and why/how did I get it wrong?' It doesn't (necessarily) mean 'your book sucks; never write to me again.' Of course, if they do say that, that's useful feedback, too. But a bit harder to take.

By the way - one of my daughters, when very young, was asked by one of my publishers to assess a new series he was planning. She read the work, and emailed him without my knowledge. It went: "Dear [publisher] - your series is boring and lacks interest." It was canned the next day. Feedback is useful. (She was right, but I could have wished she had been more diplomatic.)

Thursday 24 April 2014

Books without lumps. Or, Are some books trash?

A post on ABBA a couple of weeks ago by Clementine Beauvais prompted a storm of comments. The question it asked - is it better for children to read 'trash' than nothing - mostly brought a resounding 'yes' in response, but with plenty of people pointing out that the definition of trash is up for grabs.

I do think some books are 'trash' in adult terms. I feel entitled to say this because I am also willing to own up to having written trash. You won't find it - it's not under my name, and it's not linked with me anywhere online or offline. I don't include it in my list of publications. I suppose the only people, apart from the editors, who could identify me as the author are the people who work for PLR.

Why did I write trash, and why do I think it is trash?
The books were commissions, and I needed the money. I won't write for peanuts, and I won't write something I think is damaging, but other than that I'm fairly promiscuous. I have to be - I have bills to pay. The trash, as you've probably guessed, was for character-led fiction series, and one was a tie-in with a TV series. The publishers already had the cast of characters, the 'bible', and the scenario for the books. It wasn't one of those in which the plot is also provided, but there were certain limitations and requirements constraining the plot.

Why is it trash? Actually, I'm starting to change my mind as I write this post. But I'll say what I first thought and then review it and you can all join in. Socratic method - all good.

It is not challenging to the imagined reader. It says nothing original in terms of characterisation, themes, or plot. It is formulaic. Once the characters have been set in motion, you know pretty much (in broad terms) what will happen. OK, you don't know whether there will be a ghost, or a burglary, or whatever. But you know there will be some conflict between the central group of characters, which will be resolved. You know there will be some external challenge (the ghost or other antagonist) that will force the characters to be resourceful or resilient or both. You know that at the end the problems will have been solved, the characters will be firmly welded together in their friendship and might have learned a lesson. Good will triumph over evil. No one is going to die of cancer, no one's dog will be run over or killed with a pitchfork, no one will develop a second head, there won't be a pack of rabid, zombie wolves [oh, there's an idea] and the world won't be wiped out by a killer virus. It will all take place in its domestic+school world. (Other types of trash take place in other types of fictional world - with fairies, ponies, talking pants, dinosaurs, whatever. But they all have their tropes and formulae and follow them rigidly.) There are also plenty of books for adults that are written in the same way - look at any of the 'pulp' series of romances, westerns and erotica.

It's anodyne, predictable, shallow and - to adults - dull. But it serves a function. In fact, it serves many functions.

The phrase that starts off Clem's post is "at least they're reading". I suppose this means 'at least they are decoding text, practising the basic skill of working out how marks on the page relate to words'. Yes, my trash books do that. By reading something rather than nothing, the child develops reading 'muscle' - it becomes easier each time as the basic skill is slowly mastered.

The child is not only learning to decode words, of course. They are also learning to understand life. Most of the 'trash' books contain very simplistic depictions of human interactions. They are formulaic in their endorsement of friendship, showing good actions generally rewarded and bad actions reflected on and revised (rather than punished, often - we aren't Victorian moralists). The Enid Blyton-style school or adventure story doesn't have challenging characters, plot twists, stylistic elegance or anything else that adults like. But if a child is still working out how narrative works, they will learn that. I would not defend the outmoded showing of girls as simpering ninnies and boys as adventurous - that type of thing is truly harmful trash. But the books discussed in Clem's post are not, on the whole, toxic - just easy.

We know children struggle with what makes a story and they need to learn that in simple steps.  Look at any 'story' written by a small child: 'The dog went out for a walk and found a bunny. Hello bunny, he barked. Then he went home and went to sleep. The next day it rained.' The stage after decoding words is understanding narrative. My Director of Studies used to say that readers developed in sophistication from interest in plot, through interest in character, to interest in style. Leaving aside whether that scale is useful in assessing adult readers, it certainly maps out the progress of the emerging reader. (Though I could argue for an occasional reversal of character/style in some cases that allows 2D characters to be carried by style - Mr Gumm, for instance.) A trite story about fairy unicorn princesses that illustrates a very simple view of friendship or kindness - the archetypal trash, if you like - provides a useful model of narrative structure and human experience recreated recognisably in fiction. The child - even the child who has no friends, or a distant and cold family - is not alone if they can see some aspect of their experience mirrored in a book. I would consider a lot of the fairy-unicorn-princess stories to be trash, but as long as they don't promote discrimination or endorse an overly gendered view of girls (which sadly they often do), they aren't in my view harmful.

Imagine you are a child who has just got the hang of reading. You're not desperately struggling, just not fluent yet. You can read a fun romp in which you don't have to worry about themes, complex character motivation, or tricky intellectual (or even imaginative) challenges. Or you can pile on all the challenges in one go - and probably give up. We give babies food that is easy to eat; we give small children tricycles, and then bicycles with stabilisers. We don't feed a one-year-old filet mignon or onion tart with parmesan. We don't ask a five-year-old to take their little bicycle straight up a dirt track over a mountain. Trash books are weaning food, they are bicycles with stabilisers. They are care and concern for the weaning mind.

We don't feed our babies rubbish, though. We don't give them food stuffed with salt and sugar and additives - we just give them food that is easy to identify, hold and digest. Food without lumps made from healthy ingredients (though they are sometimes bland, to adult tastes). And easy books are not necessarily rubbish. As long as they aren't stuffed with unhealthy stereotypes, lies, misleading ideas, they do no harm. They are books without lumps.

So - were my books trash? No, actually, I don't think so. They are not even trash if children choose to read them when they 'should' have progressed to more challenging books. There is a huge elephant in the room here. Writers are always banging on about 'reading for pleasure' and how the GOVErnment pays it no heed. But here we are, the people who are supposed to care and champion reading, saying kids CAN'T read for pleasure if we don't like their reading choice! They must read for challenge, for education, to develop their taste. They must read Northern Lights instead of My Fairy Unicorn Princess Annual. No wonder reading drops off when children get the choice. We all have preferences.

If we want a child to read for pleasure, we have to let them read what pleases them. Only after the stabilisers and the lump-free stage can they progress to allegory and trauma - if they want to. They don't have to. That's the whole thing about pleasure. Some won't progress to more challenging books, and some adults don't read challenging books. I'm sure there are people in the anti-trash camp who would baulk at being told to spend their days reading Finnegan's Wake or Tristram Shandy.

Thursday 20 March 2014

"I am just going outside and may be some time."

I'm going to cancel the redirect to so the blog reverts to Then I'll wait a week until the deadline for payment has passed; then I'll redirect it with the new payment scheme.

If it fails, please look after my reindeer-skin sleeping bag.

Monday 17 March 2014

Compulsory spring-clean?

I'm aware that I haven't kept my promise to be back more regularly after the house and baby. But that's on account of further family illness, not disinclination.

However, things are about to get complicated here in Stroppy Land, on account of Google/Blogger having messed up my account when changing their payment system. They want the money for the hosting of the name (that's fair, and I'm happy to pay it) but the changed system doesn't let me log in to the admin panel so I can't pay it. The old card has expired and there's no way of giving them a new card number. So as of 21st March, they are threatening to pull the plug. The only apparent way of talkng to them is a phone number in the USA, and I don't have a landline phone so that's going to cost A LOT. And I don't expect it to be resolved, anyway. So if Stroppy vanishes on that date... well, you've been warned. I can't even back up the posts because of their changes to the admin account.

I'm hoping we'll just revert to the old address and the posts will still be here. But if not - well, no one died. And I'll consider it a spring clean. Out with the spiders, but I'll be back.

And if anyone at Google/Blogger is listening - please get in touch with me using an email address I can reply to, not a no-reply address, because none of the Help stuff you have covers this, you haven't replied to any of my pleas through Feedback or twitter and I want to keep all my spiders!

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Show me the money - or, rather, don't...

You're all used to me coming on here and ranting about how authors must be properly paid for their work. This isn't one of those rants. This is different.

First, an admission. I'm quite good at saying that the deal is not good enough (when it isn't) and asking for something fair. But I'm very bad at sending out invoices. It's OK with the books that my agent handles, as I don't have to send out invoices. And royalties are OK as they're self-billling. But the other stuff, advances, flat fees - no. I 'forget' or put it off. I rationalise that I can't be bothered to invoice in stages when each stage is a relatively small amount - I'd rather invoice the whole lot at once.

Yesterday I discovered why I do this.

It's not inefficiency - I'm efficient about all other aspects of the business of writing. It's not any difficulty with the process - I know how to do the invoicing and recording; after all, I've been doing it since 1988! I have thought about it before, but couldn't come up with any particularly convincing reason.

I've said many times that just because someone enjoys their work isn't a reason not to pay them properly. We pay surgeons and landscape gardeners and actors. But that's looking at it from the wrong side of the fence. That's challenging the problem of the world not wanting to pay us. This is from the writer's side of the fence, though.

I'm writing an adult book on psychology at the moment - quite a light-hearted book, that poses a series of questions and then anwers them with reference to classic studies in psychology. (That cover image has the wrong title. I know. Don't worry about it. Early days.) Anyway, I was writing up a study by Lepper into how inner motivation is reduced if outer motivation is supplied. Children who like to draw will draw less (spontaneously) if they are once offered a reward for drawing, as later they assume they did drawing for a reward (payment) rather than pleasure. The point is that we associate an external reward (money) with spending our time doing something we'd rather not do. So then we assume we didn't really like doing the thing (I didn't really like writing that book) because otherwise we wouldn't have been rewarded for doing it.

And that's why I don't like invoicing. I know I should be paid, I know I deserve to be paid - but I also know somewhere that I don't want to lose the inner motivation by knowing I'm being paid. And it's why I really like BACS because I don't have to take a cheque to the bank and see I'm being paid for it. It's nothing to do with embarrassment about payment, or feeling of low self-worth, or work-worth. It's about preserving the feeling that I do this job because I want to.

So all I need is an assistant to do my invoicing...

Friday 17 January 2014

Making things in the real world

I've been away from here for a long time - longer than ever before. But I hope I'm back now. I've been making things in  the real world. Or, rather, helping or overseeing other people make things.

My daughter has had a baby. I have helped build a home for her little family to live in. And I've written some books, of course. I didn't make either the baby or the building, but I did a lot of support work with one and supervisory work and decision-making with the other. And it struck me as being rather like editing. The editor doesn't write the book, but helps it into the world, shapes its structure, makes sure the right people and materials are in place for it to get from idea to thing. And I feel proud of my daughter and grandchild and their new micro-house even though I didn't really make them, just as an editor is proud of the books in her list.

The baby was born last month, and the micro-house is ready for moving into this weekend. I will have more time to catch up on the writing projects that have slipped a bit, and to be back here, hassling and narking and whingeing and hoooraying as appropriate. This time last year, I didn't expect either project. Life is full of surprises. I hope this year brings you all good surprises.

Happy 2014!