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Sometimes, I can't seem to write fiction. I blame the fact that I've been writing almost only non-fiction for a couple of years - and have just agreed to do some more. When I try to get back into writing fiction, something feels dead inside. My brain feels like an imagination-free zone. And that is a desolate thing, like a moonscape without the moonbeams.
In October, I am going to write fiction. I am. For a long time now I have had that month set firmly aside, event-free, non-fiction-free. I've put in place all sorts of mechanisms to make this happen. I've told lots of people that I'm doing it. I've told my agent that I'm doing it. I've turned down paid work and told people that they cannot give me a deadline which involves me doing anything for them in October. At all.
And yet (or perhaps therefore) I'm very afraid that my imagination won't wake up, won't do its job, won't show me moonbeams.
Or I was until this morning.
A daughter phoned. My daughters may be in their twenties but a daughter (or son, presumably) is never too old to cause instant fear in a parent's heart when her number comes up on your phone. Especially at one of those times of day when daughters aren't prone to phone for a general chat.
Instantly, even before I heard her voice, my imagination was running riot. In that split second, this imagination had no words - it was all a rush of adrenaline and cortisol and raw, nameless dread. Emotion. Then her voice, "Don't worry, I'm fine." OMG, she's not fine. You don't randomly say you're fine unless you are about to say something not fine. And in the few seconds it took her to explain what the thing was, my imagination had, quite literally, taken me through visions of death, illness, job loss, burglary, injury (including actual details involving a bone), and a complicated combination of emergency services.
And after all this had calmed down (because she was, in actual fact, fine) I realised the key to imagination: emotion.
So, my October - and any time I or you want to write fiction - has to allow and encourage and nurture and conjure emotion. Maybe I'll read a poem each morning before I write; maybe I'll read the news - there's enough emotion in the human stories there; maybe I'll read a chapter of the best fiction I can find. Maybe I'll brainstorm sad words or angry words or whatever words I need to make it happen. Maybe I'll play anthemic, emotional music to waken my heart.
But I'll draw the line at asking a daughter to phone in the morning. Mind you, it's her birthday today, so I may just phone her...
----------------------------Nicola Morgan writes novels. Oh yes, she does. She also writes non-fiction about the teenage brain and stress. BUT NOT IN OCTOBER. www.nicolamorgan.com
(Kate Wilson of the wonderful Nosy Crow asked me to write a guest post for her on my experiences of self-publishing as a published author. For your info, she didn't know what those experiences were, so there was no direction or expectation. I have re-posted it here, with permission. Note that this is personal experience, not advice.)
Many writers, previously published or not, talk excitedly about why they enjoy self-publishing. Let me tell you why I don’t.
I’ve self-published (only as ebooks) three of my previously published YA novels and three adult non-fiction titles which hadn’t been published before. From these books I make a welcome income of around £250 a month – a figure that is remarkably constant. So, why have I not enjoyed it and why won’t I do it again?
It’s damned hard to sell fiction! (Over 90% of that £250 is from the non-fiction titles.) Publishers know this. They also know that high sales are not always about “quality”, which is precisely why very good novels can be rejected over and over. Non-fiction is easier because it’s easy to find your readers and for them to find your book. Take my book about writing a synopsis, for example; anyone looking for a book on writing a synopsis will Google “books on writing a synopsis” and, hey presto, Write a Great Synopsis appears. But if someone wants a novel, the chances of finding mine out of the available eleventy million are slim. This despite the fact that they had fab reviews and a few awards from their former lives.
But some novels do sell well. So why don’t mine? Because I do absolutely nothing to sell them. Why not? Well, this is the point. Several points.
First, time. I am too busy with other writing and public-speaking but, even if I weren’t, the necessary marketing takes far too long (for me) and goes on for too long after publication: the very time when I want to be writing another one. This is precisely why publishers tend only to work on publicity for a short while after publication: they have other books to work on. We may moan but it has to be like that – unless a book does phenomenally well at first, you have to keep working at selling it.
Second, I dislike the stuff I’d have to do to sell more books. Now, this is where you start leaping up and down saying, “But published authors have to do that, too!” Yes, and I do, but it’s different. When a publisher has invested money because they believe in your book, you obviously want to help them sell it. But when the only person who has actually committed any money is you, the selling part feels different. It’s a case of “I love my book so much that I published it – now you need to believe in me enough to buy it.” I can’t do it. Maybe I don’t believe in myself enough. Fine. I think books need more than the author believing in them. The author might be right and the book be fabulous, but I tend to be distrustful of strangers telling me they are wonderful so why should I expect others to believe me if I say I am? And I don’t want to spend time on forums just to sell more books.
Third, I love being part of a team. Yes, I’ve had my share of frustrating experiences in the course of 100 or so published books, but I enjoy the teamwork – even though I’m an introvert who loves working alone in a shed; I love the fact that other people put money and time and passion into selling my book. It gives me confidence and support. They won’t make money if they don’t sell my book and I still like and trust that model.
And I especially love that once I’ve written it and done my bit for the publicity machine and done the best I can for my book, I can let it go and write another.
See, I’m a writer, not a publisher. I may love control – the usual reason given for self-publishing – but I mostly want control over my words, not the rest. (That control, by the way, is never lost to a good editor, and I’ve been lucky with genius editors.) So, yes, I am pleased with the money I’ve earned from self-publishing and I love what I’ve learnt about the whole process, but now I’m going back to where I am happy to do battle for real control: my keyboard.
It’s all I want to do.
Nicola Morgan has written about 100 books, with half a dozen "traditional" publishers of various sizes from tiny to huge. She is a former chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland and advises hard-working writers on becoming and staying published, and on the marketing/publicity/events/behaviour that goes along with that.
She has also just created BRAIN STICKS™, an original and huuuuuuge set of teaching resources about the brain and mental health.
(Reposting a post I wrote on my Heartsong blog a couple of weeks ago, because I still think it.)
I rarely review books but I did when Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks first came out, so I'm on record as thinking it brilliant and brave. Now it has won the prestigious Carnegie Medal, and a storm has brewed. Many adults vehemently object to the book's bleakness, darkness and violence.
I’m not addressing whether it’s the right sort of book for the Carnegie because I want to tackle the wider issue of whether it’s right to write books like this for teenagers and whether it’s OK for them to read them.
I don’t seek to change the minds of those who dislike the book – anyone is free to dislike, even detest, any book. Many of the detractors are experts in children's books; their opinions are strongly held and well-meaning.
What I want to do is shed light on the following things, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about adolescence, human nature and the psychology and science of reading:
1. Why do many adults wish teenagers didn't read such books? Or, perhaps, that such books weren't written?
- The reasons why many adults wish teenagers wouldn't read such books.
- The reasons why many teenagers do.
- Whether it matters that they do.
Good adults are programmed by biology and culture to protect babies and children. We protect them from actual harm and, when we can, from fears and nasty thoughts. We hope they never have to deal with nasty things themselves, though we realise many eventually will. We know, somewhere in the logical part of our brain, that they must learn to take risks, one day, but we try to control when that risk-taking happens and how. This is right and proper. We want to "protect their innocence" as long as possible. This is understandable.
When I did my first talk as a YA novelist at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was floored by a question: "How do you feel knowing that you damage children?" It turned out that the questioner had 11 year-old grandchildren and since then I have often met this fear in parents or other relatives of that age group. Through my work, I understand how hard it is to move from being the parent of a child to the parent of a teenager. It's tough to let go. And tougher when it’s the young people themselves who insist on pulling away – as they are biologically driven to do. We don’t like the fact that some of them choose nasty books. We worry.
So, adults who protest against novels like Bunker Diary are being nurturing and protective. That's what we do with young children. At some point, however, we need to remove the cotton wool and tolerate bruises gained in the pursuit of knowledge and independence because they are not damaging. Bruises are temporary, after all.
Teenagers are not children. In the arguments about Bunker Diary, the word "children" has sometimes been used instead of "teenagers". This is not a small distinction. “Adolescent” means "becoming an adult", and that needs to be allowed to happen.2. Why do many teenagers like bleak books?
First, let's remember that all readers, within any age range, are different; some teenagers will and some won't like reading such books. But why might some be drawn to dark stories? Because fiction is, among other things, for exploring emotions, testing them, feeling what experiences are like. Fiction is for breaking boundaries if we want to break boundaries, and for coming back safely as we wake up and realise that it was "only a story". Just as when we wake up from a nightmare we feel relief that it was only a dream. Sleep researchers tell us that a purpose of dreaming may be to process emotions, stresses and fears healthily. I argue that fiction has that role, too.
The magic of fiction is that we get carried away into the fictional world and almost forget that we aren't really there. That no one is; that it was all constructed inside a writer’s imagination. So strongly does this narrative transportation happen that we can end up having heated arguments about made up stories…
Teenagers often feel extreme emotions; their emotional and reward centres are highly active, bombarded by the changes in their lives, bodies and brains. Hardly surprising that they need extreme books, whether extremely frightening, passionate, funny, or sad.
And how do we practise empathy - that supreme effect of fiction - if we can't practise extremes of feeling? Those extremes will be different for each person. Each of us has our limits. I won’t argue with yours if you will allow me mine.
Teenagers don't always think the same things are horrible or for the same reasons as we do. Adults often require less or different stimulus to be shocked, saddened or scared. Many adolescents love watching horror films or reading misery memoirs. They sometimes feel the need to, perhaps to exorcise some of their fears, to practise the emotions, to test their limits. In safety.
In safety. Freely chosen. And you can stop the moment you want to. (In books, if not so easily in films.)
I remember the first time I cried in a film: Ring of Bright Water. You know the bit. The ditch. The spade. I was nearly twelve. I was shocked - and embarrassed because I didn't know films or books were things you cried in. (I was born and had lived all my life in a boys' school. Does that explain it? It did then. We didn't have YA fiction, either.) When my mother said of course it was OK to cry in a film, I wanted to watch it again, just to cry again. And, remember, RoBW is not fiction. (Actually, at the time I thought it was, which was probably a relief.)
Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The bleakest fictional ending ever. The moment when Winston gives in to his torturers and betrays his girlfriend with the searing words, "Do it to Julia" and, later, betrays himself and the rest of humanity. I know, it's not a teenage book. But we make teenagers read it. We don’t tell them it’s too bleak for them.3. So, does it matter that they often choose to read bleak books?
Hell, yes, it matters. It matters that they read, that they engage passionately and willingly with stories and reading. And it matters that if that is what they want to read, it's there for them. Whether it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Bunker Diary or whatever. It matters, too, in my opinion, that their choice is not disparaged. It matters that adults don’t imply that they are sick for enjoying it. (And adults are now using a vile term for books in which young people die. I'm not using it here as I think it's also demeaning to the readers of those books.) We don’t have to enjoy the books they choose but we should be very cautious before undermining their enjoyment and choices. (Not all the adults have - I'm just saying we should make sure we don't.)
On the other hand, carry on - teenagers like to read what adults don't like...
But doesn't it damage them? I think it might, conceivably, if you forced a young person to read a book that they didn’t want to read because it was making them feel things they didn’t want to feel or making their low mood worse. Or if the young person had to face ideas or scenarios they weren’t ready to think about. And if they had no way to process those ideas and fears healthily, by talking them through with others, for example.
I admit, too, that reading bleak books when you are already sad is not likely to be therapy. And that reading a book about suicide when you have suicidal thoughts yourself is a very bad idea. In The Teenage Guide to Stress, I recommend fiction as relaxation strategy, but I caution against reading books that make you feel sad if you are already sad.
But those are specific circumstances and Bunker Diary is not a book about suicide. Bunker Diary is a book in which the characters find themselves in a horrifying situation and try to work together to get out of it. (Regarding the Carnegie, I agree there's a possible issue because it's for a wide range of ages and there are shadowing groups, in which a younger than 12yo might be in a position of reading before he or she is ready. But the responsible adults will handle that situation with care, I'm sure. We can't exclude an eligible and highly recommended book because it only suits parts of the valid age range. Very few books suit a 9yo and a 14yo. Anyway, as I say, this isn't about the Carnegie argument.)
Books don’t damage – they do change and transform us. Everything we read and hear and see and think changes us. We are never the same at the end of an engaging book as we were when we started. And that's somewhat scary if you're a caring adult nurturing an adolescent. But we have to be brave and trust teenage (as opposed to younger) readers to make their own choices and feed their thirst for knowledge and ideas, so that they can decide for themselves.
A friend of mine told me how her then nearly-twelve-year-old daughter started reading The Lovely Bones. After a chapter or so, the daughter had to stop, too scared to read on. So scared that she buried the book under a pile of clothes in a cupboard. Next day she took the book out and read the whole thing. Her choice. She was ready. Changed but not damaged. At any time she could have stopped again - and she would have if it was making her feel awful. But she knew it was a story. She knew how to read it. She took control as she explored her emotions.
So, for those teenage readers who want to push the boundaries of their emotions, we need brave and risky books like Bunker Diary, even if it's too bleak for adults. If you can't block them from hearing or reading about the dark side of the real world in the news, don't try to stop them reading about such things in the safety of fiction, where they can explore and experiment on their own, without fear of actual harm.
Let go. Don’t stop caring, but worry less.
Don't get me wrong: humour is an essential part of life and wellbeing. The ability to make an audience laugh is a laudable one. When kids come out of an author visit still laughing, the endorphins fizzing round their brains, it's a happy result indeed. It's visibly A Success.
But authors should not feel they have to "do funny" and I wouldn't like schools to fall into the trap of thinking that the only engaged audience is one falling off its chairs with laughter. I say this because I've seen children's authors recently worry that their events aren't "funny enough" and comparing themselves unfavourably with talented comic authors and speakers.
We should not forget that not everyone always wants to be made to laugh; not everyone laughs at the same things; and some people have different needs. I, for one, given the choice between an hour of laughter and an hour of having my heart and mind spun dizzy with new ideas or shocked into a new groove by fresh images and stories, would opt for dizzy or shocked. And I was always like that. Doesn't mean I don't have a sense of humour or like laughing, just that they are not at the top of my priority list. They are fairly high up it, but not at the top. I know I'm not alone.
If our books don't feature pants, slime or slapstick, our talks may not lend themselves to funny. I've written funny - and in my talks on Chicken Friend, yes, it was great to see the kids laughing when I chose the funny bits to read, though I preferred the more thoughtful bits, the bits where my main character really struggled with things in her world. But my YA novels are far from funny. A mastectomy without anaesthetic isn't funny; nor is being stalked; nor is mental illness or alcoholism. Even my talks on the teenage brain - which some adults might say, unjokingly, was a genuine comedic mine - only look for the occasional release of laughter. And that's usually when I quote Shakespeare.
I do "funny" talks when appropriate - a Burns Supper "reply from the lassies", a launch speech to friends, or after dinner speeches, and I think an introduction to a keynote speech is improved by a smidgen of engaging humour - so this is not about not being able to do funny. And, of course, it's very heart-warming when people laugh (assuming you meant them to), as humour is social glue. But it's not the only glue and I'm not most
interested in making people laugh. I often prefer the echoing silence that accompanies a new idea entering the minds of the audience, the shock on their faces as they take in a new possibility, and the way they will come up afterwards (or email me privately) and tell me something about their own lives that they now see differently. With The Teenage Guide to Stress
, what I like most is responses such as the girl who emailed to tell me my talk had "settled" her mind.
She didn't want
to laugh about her stress - even though laughing about serious things is no bad thing. She wanted her mind to be "settled". A book and a talk should do whatever they should do: inspire laughter or excitement or thoughts or emotions or resolution, whatever.
Today, I'm heading to Gordonstoun for two days of almost entirely unfunny events. However, I will at one point wear a knitted brain on my head (thanks, Cat!) and I can pretty much guarantee that people will laugh. That's fine. Especially since the brief laughter will flood their brains with chemicals which will make them better able to absorb the serious stuff.
But the value of an event is not measured in the decibels of laughter. If you set out to be funny, then it is, of course; if you set out to be thought-provoking, you might measure it in the silence and stillness. Or in the chatter afterwards. Or in a single question or email. Measure it how you like but don't be overwhelmed by the hegemony of humour.
So, to my fellow authors planning events: you do not have to wear your pants (or a knitted brain) on your head. Just wear your best ones.The Teenage Guide to Stress is published on July 3rd by Walker Books. It's not funny so don't laugh.
All romantic and richly-dressed, swash-buckling and thigh-booted, breeches of brown doe-skin, rapiers atwinkle, mounted on ebony thoroughbreds - that's the glamorous highwaymen. And as for the pirate chiefs, well, fearsomely moustachioed, portly stomachs bursting through silver-buttoned jackets, with scarlet-breasted parrots joining in the comradely sea-shanties, slicing their ships through the waves with the sleekness of dolphins. Ahoy me hearties! Stand and deliver! Romantic rapscallions on highways and high seas.
Most of us love or have loved a good highwayman or pirate story and where would those tales be without the romance and swash-bucklingness, the sense of robbing the rich to give to the poor - or at least just robbing the rich in an era where all the laws were made for the rich and justice was hard to come by?
We don't much enjoy being reminded of the truth about highwaymen and pirates - that pirates ruthlessly and violently terrorised (and still do in some parts) honest seafarers bringing food or goods from country to country and that highwaymen were reckless and cruel in their robbery of people of all classes, ages and weaknesses. Dick Turpin's gang, for example, is said to have been responsible for countless violent robberies, mostly against people too poor to matter to the authorities, with gleeful torture and rape thrown in.
Which brings me to that other sort of "pirate", very different from both the parrot-ridden, shanty-singing, jolly-roger myth and the genuinely dangerous, ruthless robber of the seas: I'm talking about the scummy thieves who steal our work and prevent us being able to earn. I wish people wouldn't call them pirates, because there's really no comparison, either in perceived glamour or in power. Scummy thieves, they are. They just take what isn't theirs, without bravery, risk or effort.
This is close to my heart right now, as yesterday I received a Google alert, directing me to where I could (apparently) get free downloads of my ebooks. These are ebooks I published myself, no advance, no fee, no earnings unless people choose to pay the c£2 I dare to charge for them. No publisher to serve a take-down notice for me. They took me countless hours to create, and I paid real money for proof-reading, cover design, formatting and promotion. And three days before they appeared on this torrent site, I noticed that my sales on Amazon had plummeted to almost zero.
Well, thanks for that, to the thieves who put them up on the site.
And thanks, I must say, to people uncaring or unaware enough to download them.
I can't do anything about the site and the scummy thieves - though I'm following a few leads and doing what I can without spending a ridiculous amount of time. I contacted the Society of Authors, and, amongst other things, they suggested informing the Publishers Association
scummy thief site. If you're an SoA member, you'll find helpful articles in the members' section of the SoA website, by the way.
NB - incidental warning: I did not
click on the links to download my books - including the audio version, which I was particularly intrigued about because I never created an audio version - and Kate Pool at the SoA said I was right to be cautious: "By no means all sites purporting to offer pirated copies are in fact doing so. In addition to entirely legitimate online retailers offering to sell new copies, or second-hand copies some are virus-ridden, and some are pfishing sites just after bank/personal details e.g. encouraging rights holders to contact them, and promising (not always truthfully) that they will remove the book from their site if the rights holder pays a fee." And I think, in fact, that's what this particular site was; which doesn't make it better, just different.
Anyway, as I say, I can't do much about the little thieves with their scummy sites. But I can do something about the uncaring or unaware behaviour of people who download from them.
And so can any of us. Two things. First, call them on what they're doing. Whether it's our kids or our friends, or casual acquaintances who drop into the conversation with a little laugh that they know a place where you can get any ebook/music free. Ask them (and yes, it can be done politely, and usually that's all it takes before the penny drops) exactly in what way deciding not to pay for a book or music or image because it's easy to steal is any different at all from shop-lifting
? Explain that actually yes, writers need and deserve to be paid for their work, in exactly the same way as the shopkeeper or any other human does. But even if a writer happened to be very rich and moderately unsaintly (only one of which things I am), you still can't steal from them - just as if I left a cake cooling on a kitchen windowsill you wouldn't steal it. "But Nicola doesn't need
that cake and anyway, I don't like
her," doesn't make it OK to steal my cake.
And second, stop calling the people who steal the files and put them up there "pirates". Just stick to scummy little thieves
. Because they are.
Most people, I still believe, are decent, and wouldn't do this if they understood and realised that it does hurt and that there are victims. Call me an idiot, but it is what I believe. And I think that making decent people understand is the best thing we can do.
----------------------------------------------------------------------For my article on copyright for ALCS, see here. Anne Rooney and John Dougherty have also blogged for ABBA on the topic before. So have I. (And so have others.)
PS At only a slight tangent and still on the subject of money, please note that there is NEW SOA ADVICE ABOUT FEES FOR AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR VISITS. If you detect my voice in it, there's a reason... Each author/illustrator is entirely at liberty to charge whatever feels right, but you might like to know what many were charging last year. And yes, every author/illustrator is different and every event/school/budget is different, but if your visit is valuable, give it a value. Interestingly, a lot of wonderful librarians and schools have retweeted that article, with supportive comments. Thanks, to all of them.
PPS Entirely irrelevantly, if you work for or want to support a school, note that I am offering ONE free BRAIN STICK™ only to a randomly-chosen school, in my next Brain Sane newsletter. Details of how to enter (free) are here.
This won't be the first time an ABBA blogger has praised editors but it would be hard to praise them too often, so I'm going to do it again.
When I had my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog, I used to come across so many writers who had turned or were planning to turn their back on the idea of aiming for trade publication because "the editing process would suppress my voice" or some such twaddle. Because twaddle it is. A good editor is a bit like a good singing teacher: nurtures and nourishes your voice so that it can sound its best. A singing teacher would also be a critic, suggesting when you've got it wrong. And you might occasionally disagree with the teacher, and you might be right, but that wouldn't make them not a great teacher.
Stick with the voice analogy for a moment: you accept how when you sing or speak you are hearing your voice through your own head, reverberating differently so that it sounds different when it hits someone's ears? Well, a good editor is that other pair of ears and can show you how you might wish to tweak or polish your voice to sound best for other ears. Because what it sounds like in your own head isn't as important as how it sounds to others.
And I am not so arrogant that I don't want to listen to a trusted expert, a trusted expert who a) wants my book to be as good as possible and b) can help me make it so.
Here I have to mention the long-suffering, eagle-eyed, hyper-intelligent and just plain darn brilliant editors working on The Teenage Guide to Stress with* me. Caz Royds and Alice Horrocks are editors to die for. And this has been a BIG task. (Notice the "with", because this is the ultimate teamwork.)
Editing fiction is a tricky thing (and they do that, too) but editing non-fiction requires a different set of skills and tuning. Five levels of headings - and have we at last got the hierarchy of information right??? Is the order of material right? Is everything perfectly balanced and weighted? What do we do about the fact that the author is paranoid about leaving things out and yet perhaps it can't all go in? Have we got the voice just right for 12 year-olds and 18 year-olds and adults? Is it sufficiently serious and yet not too dark? How do you tackle blushing and self-harming, sweating and suicidal thoughts all in one book? How deep shold the contents list go? Index? Wahhhh! Glossary or not? And then the design issues that come with non-fiction become part of the editorial process - and here a big mention for the so-patient and talented Beth Aves, who somehow manages to incorporate every text change or order switch without complaint.
The complications of this rather large book meant that we have gone to the wire, time-wise, with last-minute "ARGGGGH"s flying back and forth, and yet with humour, respect and mutual admiration all the time. We go to print on April 29th and I'm sending them fizz to celebrate. We may have to have a Skype party!
Next project: The Demented Writer's Guide to Self-Inflicted Stress. You can all contribute!
NOTE: For the chance to win a copy of The Teenage Guide to Stress, signed on or before publication day, visit my blog and leave a comment on any/all April/May posts with "Exam tips" in the title. Each comment = one entry to the random draw, so comment on each post if you wish!
Nicola Morgan's free Brain Sane newsletter is full of links and articles about the brain, reading, tress, positive psychology and mental health. Next issue is a special one on SLEEP, with gorgeous sleepy giveaways and books to be won.
No, not visits from dead authors. I mean seeing author events from the other side, the side that's not the author's side. And not from the audience's side, either. From the event organiser's side.
I was thinking this the other day, after writing another blog post about organising author events, which was aimed at organisers. It struck me that sometimes we - the people giving the talk - spend a lot of time working to make sure that the audience has a beneficial experience and also a fair amount of time afterwards fretting about whether we've been given coffee, treated well, introduced properly, paid sufficiently, respected. Those things - how well we prepare and how well we are looked after - are very important to the overall experience of not just us, but our audience, because if we are relaxed and positive we are likely to do a better job. But they are far from the whole story and we may have become blind to something else important and useful.
How about we walk a mile in the shoes of the event organiser? I'm not talking about stealing their shoes, though if they were gorgeous I might well be tempted. I'm talking about looking inside their heads, properly, sympathetically, and then using what we find there to help create a really good event, one that is not only great for the audience and us but great for the person who bridges the void between the audience and us, person who can make a real difference: the organiser. Because just as the event is better when I'm happy, the event is better when the organiser is happy, too.
Let's call the event organiser Mary. (This is not code for "I'm thinking of an actual person called Mary but let's pretend I'm not." As far as I can remember I don't know a Mary who has ever organised an event for me. It's just a name, and a very nice one.)
Mary may be nervous about meeting us. This is apparent from phrases we often hear Mary use when introducing us to people, such as "real live author" or "famous author", or from her high-pitched laugh or her exasperated voice as she tells a group of kids, "I told you five times that the library would be closed at lunch-time - we have an author visit." To Mary, we are not just a stranger, we are a stranger who has been dominating her emails/work/life for a few weeks or months; we are a stranger who may be strange - and often are; we are a stranger who may wreck her day and reputation by delivering a bad event; we are a stranger whose services take up some of her department's precious money; we are a stranger who may actually be "famous"; we are a stranger who may be judging her and leaping to wrong conclusions about her.
Mary's nerves may also be apparent from the fact that she forgets to introduce us, or introduces us badly, or says, "This is Nicola Morgan, who needs no introduction." She may genuinely think I need no introduction. I do very need one, because without one I feel inadequate, but Mary doesn't know that. She just wants to get the hell off the stage and back into the audience. I had one organiser once who was so nervous that she forgot my name entirely, at the very moment when she said, "I'd like to welcome..."
Mary has other things to do than my event. My event is not actually the most important thing in her life. It may well be the most important thing of that week, possibly even longer, but it's not the only thing she's worrying about.
Mary has no idea what I'm feeling. She has never had to "perform" in front of a large audience of 14year-old strangers. She probably thinks, if she thinks about it at all, that because I've done it for years I am totally relaxed. She would almost be right, but it's that "almost" that's crucial. She certainly doesn't know that there are several innocent things she can do which will topple my equilibrium. Years ago, before I was published, I had to organise an author visit to my daughters' school. I'm cringing as I think about how little I understood what those "famous" authors were thinking or how cack-handedly I treated them, but I know that I was wrapped up in my own stress.
Mary is worried that she might have forgotten something. She's made a huge list on the back of her repeat prescription form, but, although she knows she's done everything on the list, apart from order her repeat prescription, she's still worried she might have forgotten to put something on the list in the first place. Which is worrying.
She is also worried that George is going to do his mad-March-hare-crazy misbehaving thing again and she is particularly worried because she's just noticed that George is sitting next to Michael, which she'd expressly asked the teachers to make sure didn't happen, not least because Michael is supposed to be leaving early for his anger management class.
She is not only worried: she is also excited. She has a lot invested in this day. She had to bid for the funding and she's going to have to justify the outcomes. She really wants it to go well. She wants the pupils to be inspired by the talk, library borrowings and reading interest to rise in the ensuing weeks, the teachers to feel it was worthwhile and me to be happy and impressed with the school, the pupils and the library and...and...she's studying my face as I arrive and I'm looking a bit tense and now she's worried that I've just had the experience of walking through the foyer while Year 9 were stampeding to lunch. Or meeting Shannon and Donna from Year 10, who she's pretty sure are waiting outside the Head's office. Because they often are.
So, Mary is nervous, worried and excited and that's a recipe for things not to be completely perfect.
How can we, the authors, help Mary and therefore help ourselves? In my view, it's simple, as soon as weve have recognised what Mary's shoes feel like to walk in. Here are my five tips:
1. Prepare Mary. Make sure that she knows exactly what we need, in advance. In my case, these needs are on my website, on the page which I have asked her to read, and can be summed up as follows: a) she (or someone) will give me an introduction which makes the kids feel they are going to have a great event b) the kids will have been prepared and at least some will have looked at my website and thought about questions c) a few minutes of peace and quiet just before an event and between events. That's all. If Mary knows that, she can stop a whole load of her worrying.
2. Remind Mary. Mary may have forgotten everything in point 1 above, so remind her a couple of days before the event.
3. Forgive Mary. Because you have walked in her shoes and noticed that they are a bit leaky in wet weather and not really as comfortable as they could be. Especially the bit pressing on the toe that the pile of books fell on last week.
4. Smile at Mary. Smile at everybody you meet, even George and Michael and Shannon and Donna. Smile when you arrive. Smile when you shake Mary's hand. Smile as you walk with her to the library and after she's told the kids yet again that the library is closed because there's an author visit. As the well-known saying almost goes: "Smile and Mary will smile with you." And then everything will be all right and, if it isn't, smile anyway.
I honestly think point 4 is far more important than we might think. It's about first impressions, chemistry, putting people at ease. You're a bit anxious, but Mary is more anxious; take control of the situation; don't be a victim of Mary's anxiety or your own - cure it with a smile. Even if Year 9 did stampede all over you on their way to lunch and you met George on a mad March hare crazy day and Michael when he'd forgotten his medication and Shannon and Donna when they were just being Shannon and Donna. George, Michael, Shannon and Donna are probably nervous, too. And Mary. Besides you get to go home and not come back; they don't.
And you have chocolate in your bag. Because that's the fifth tip: Have chocolate in your bag.
You could even share it with Mary.
A couple of days ago the Daily Telegraph told us that "Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of 'informational texts'." The article went on to say that "American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014."
Well, that was the desired reaction and it was the reaction I duly gave. However, it appears, judging by the early comments below the piece - which I hadn't read at the time because comments beneath online newspaper items generally give me appalling indigestion - that the article was wildly misleading. The third comment, by Deborah Brancheau, seems particularly informed and suggests that we needn't worry too much.
Anyway, I am not here to say who may have exaggerated what and why, or not checked which facts. I am here to shut the stable-door before the horse bolts, just in case anyone from our Government could possibly be so stupid as to consider trying to undermine the importance of reading fiction. Hard to imagine, but still.
I have done many different talks about literacy and the reading brain over the years, as it's one of my hobby-horses. I will also admit that I used to recommend non-fiction as equal in value to fiction, particularly as I used to teach reluctant readers and am a dyslexia specialist, and keen never to undermine anyone's reading choice.
However, while it's certainly true that readers should be allowed to come to a love of reading by whichever types of book they wish, I can't get away from the increasing research that suggests compellingly that reading/listening to fiction is necessary to developing empathy and an expanded Theory of Mind, which are in turn necessary for tolerance, wisdom and the strong foundations of human society.
If you are interested in this research, here are some resources:
Four fascinating books:
Proust and the Squid – Story & Science of the Reading Brain
, by Maryanne Wolf Such Stuff as Dreams – The Psychology of Fiction
, by Keith Oatley Grooming, Gossip & the Evolution of Language
, by Robin Dunbar iBrain – Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind
, by Gary Small
And one online article: “Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood
”, by Marr, Djikic and Oatley. Keith Oatley is the author of Such Stuff as Dreams
, mentioned above, and this article is an academic but shorter introduction to that message. He and his colleagues find numerous links between degree of empathy and reading fiction and their work seeks to find explanations for such links, in psychology and neuroscience. I find their findings compelling and fascinating and I urge you to read the article and to try some of the books above if you're interested in pursuing this.
In the article, they ask: "Is fiction just a pastime, an entertainment, or does it have psychological effects that can be distinguished from those of reading non-fiction? Does reading the works of great artists have effects that can be distinguished from reading the same information but without artistic form?" And the work in Such Stuff as Dreams
and on their blog, Onfiction
, suggests that the answer is Yes, and provides possible explanations and greater detail.
Let me offer one quote from the article, describing one study which goes to the crux of the argument: "Students read either a chapter of a novel about the difficult life of an Algerian woman or an essay on the general problem of women’s rights in Algeria. As compared with those who read the essay, those who read the fictional piece said they would be less likely to accept current Algerian norms for relationships between men and women. In another study Hakemulder (2000) found this same decreased tolerance for current norms in students who read the fiction piece under instructions to mentally project themselves into the situation, as compared with those asked to mark the structure of the text with a pencil instead." The latter finding, they suggest, shows "that it is our imaginative projection of the self into the described situations that is key."
Narrative transportation - that "imagined projection of the self" - it's what humans can do, and what fiction facilitates. And it's this, they (and I) believe, that generates empathy, the human understanding that what is in my head is/may not be what is in your head, at the same time allowing the difficult skill of guessing what might be in your head, based on a combination of what is in my head and a generalisation of what I have experienced from the other heads I've been able to enter - in fiction.
So, if a government were to introduce any circumstances that would make fiction rarer, harder to access, available only to those wealthy enough to buy lots of novels and stories - supposing, for example, libraries and librarians were threatened - they would be threatening empathy, wisdom, tolerance and society.
And that would never happen, would it?
[If you'd like me to speak about any aspect of literacy acquisition, Reading for Pleasure, and/or the reading brain, whether for parents or educational professionals, do email firstname.lastname@example.org. I've done a number of conference keynote speeches this year and a series of talks to parents for Education Scotland. I've got dates lined up for trips to London and elsewhere (Kuala Lumpur and Prague!) throughout 2013 and I'm happy to add talks onto those visits, thus saving you some costs. Have brain, will travel!]
A while ago, I was tidying up after a school event. The librarian had already started her next class, which, I quickly surmised, was the annual “tell them about copyright and plagiarism” lesson for new senior school pupils. Hooray! So, I listened in.
After explaining something about copyright and plagiarism, she gave the reasons why they shouldn’t break the laws. Well, she gave two reasons.
- You might get caught plagiarizing in an exam or coursework and then you could be disqualified.
- You are committing a crime and if you get caught you could get a criminal record and/or pay other penalties.
These reasons, though true, are neither the whole truth, nor the most important truths, nor the arguments most likely to convince. We (people in general) are not very good at risk analysis. These risks seem far off and unlikely and once we observe that in fact it’s very possible to break copyright over and over again and not get caught, the argument loses all power.
Here are some better reasons (which she may have given after I'd left):
- If you break copyright laws, you are stealing; in doing so you are directly hurting individual, real people, most often people who really can’t afford to be victims of your theft. (When people hear specific stories of hardship, this is powerful, and most young people care deeply about such things. In fact, it’s my belief that most people of any age care, and those who don’t are perhaps unreachable anyway. Some people will steal and hurt whatever we do or say.)
- If you download illegally, you are also putting money into the rapacious pockets of large corporations. (Most people don’t particularly like the thought of benefiting huge companies while harming individuals.)
- If you wrote something and discovered that, although you were making no money from it, someone else was, how would you feel? How would you feel if that happened over and over again, and you remained poor while the people stealing it grew richer and lazier? (The “imagine if it were you” argument is a strong one.)
I’ve been thinking (and talking!) about copyright and its effects recently, and I’d like to draw your attention to some things.1. ALCS have produced some wonderful classroom resources
pupils, which outline the issues in useful and clear ways. Consider pointing teachers in their direction?
2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27, para 2:
“Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author." Just in case anyone thinks we don't have any moral authority to protect our work.3. You might be interested in the story in Der Spiegel
of what happened when Julia Schramm, of Germany's Pirate Party, which campaigns on an anti-copyright platform, discovered that her book was available on an illegal download site. When she sold publishing rights to Random House, what did she think that meant, if she doesn't agree with copyright anyway and allegedly regards Intellectual Property as "disgusting"? Surely a better course of action for her would have been to self-publish or crowd-fund the project, then assigning a Creative Commons Licence?4. What about TrafficPaymaster, the "scraping" software sold by HowToCorp?
Do read this Guardian article
. It makes the point that HowToCorp was founded by Grant Shapps, now chairman of the Tory party. He handed the company over to his wife, but I'm guessing there's one member of the Government who just may not be on our side in the copyright argument. I do hope I'm wrong.5. And companies that profit from illegal download sites?
Danuta Kean explains it brilliantly here
. Please read her full piece but these were some points that stuck out for me:
- That the illegal filesharing sites iFile.it and Library.nu are alleged to have made $11m from ebook downloads.
- That "BitTorrent –the technology of choice for illegal filesharing – is estimated to account for 18% of global Internet traffic."
- That when the FBI indicted seven executives of the file-sharing site Megaupload, those executives, including Kim Dotcom (!), had allegedly earned $175m from the site. In 2010 Dotcom took home $42m.
(Quoted with Danuta's permission...)
6. Here is another online article, the Trichordist’s Letter to Emily White
, including a personal story of the negative effect on a writer. As Danuta and the Trichordist both argue, it’s not just the file-sharing sites but the companies that sell the hardware to both parties in the transaction; the sites that profit from advertising (Google, ebay, Facebook etc); and the finance companies that provide the money-handling facilities when people sign up for premium subscriptions, for example. It seems as if everyone benefits except the creator.
That’s the point: I don’t believe I have a right to earn a living from my writing. What I do believe is that if anyone is going to earn anything from my writing, that person should be me. Not only
me, but me foremost, me in control. That's what copyright means. It doesn't mean greedy, rapacious miserliness. It means being able to share in the results of our own creativity, talent and hard work.
And this is important for young people to realise because they, too, are creators. One day, many of them will try to make a career in a creative industry, not only to pay their bills but to contribute to the culture of their time. What will that be like if in the meantime they and we have allowed the Cult of Free to hold sway so that paying the bills is not only difficult but impossible? Creative people must eat, too.
Some people disagree with the whole idea of copyright protection. Fine. Disagree away. I'm telling you why I support it. And why I want young people to know the score. Then they can decide.
Two years ago I gave a talk called "How To Sell Your Book on the Internet". It was, needless to say, about the "Author Platform" we writers are supposed to be standing on top of, dominating the world of books, and gave handy hints and tips about how to use things like Facebook, Twitter and blogging for the uninitiated writer. I wasn't the only one talking about the subject. Our very own Nicola Morgan has, until very recently, been giving brilliant advice about it on her Help I Need a Publisher blog (much better advice than mine, I can tell you!).How it is now....
Last week I read a thought-provoking piece by Candy Gourlay on Notes from the Slushpile. She asked this question:
If everyone's now got a platform, how are you going to stand out?
I hope Candy will forgive me for using her excellent pictures to illustrate this point (on the 'picture is worth a thousand words' principle).
How it was....
The question I want to ask is:How do you feel about those two pictures?
I can tell you how I feel. Kind of relieved actually. What Candy said in her piece chimed with my own feelings. It meant that the misgivings I'd had recently about all this jockeying and jostling were not so stupid after all. Don't get me wrong. I love blogging here (and reading about the myriad facets of writing life from my fellow bloggers). I love running the current series on mythological beasts and beings
on my own Scribble City Central
blog. I love chatting to people on Twitter, though I'm not so keen on Facebook these days. But, quite honestly, all that stuff does crunch chunks out of my writing day if I let it, however much I protest to the contrary, and that's before I've even started trying to get through the mass of links and intriguing industry bits and bobs provided by others.
The sad fact is that we live in a time poor world where there just aren't enough hours in the day to process all the information flooding over us, however interesting it might be. I'd like to read all the interesting blogs out there - but if I did that, I wouldn't have time for my own writing. In the final analysis that writing IS the most important thing for me. It's what puts the food on my plate, and clothes my family. So, I've taken another look at that Author Platform of mine, and am now only doing what I have to to keep it alive and kicking, and concentrating on what I know works. The energy and hours I've saved are already paying dividends in productive writing output.
Je ne regrette rien - building my Author Platform has taught me a great deal. But I'm no longer its faithful skivvy, slaving away at it for fear of being left behind. I've stopped running to catch up with myself. That, ladies and gentlemen of the ABBA community, is my New World Order - and it feels good!
Lucy's latest series Greek Beasts and Heroes
is out now from Orion Children's Books
Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog
(A UK Top 10 Children's Literature Blog)
Join Lucy's Facebook Fanpage
Follow Lucy on Twitter
By: Linda Strachan
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Gillian Philip
, Cathy MacPhail
, Keren David
, Sally.J Collins
, Linda Strachan
, Eoin Colfer
, Edinburgh International Book Festival
, Barry Hutchison
, Vivian French
, Nicola Morgan
, Add a tag
Despite the almost continuous rain earlier in the summer last Saturday when the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
opened its doors the sun shone and it was glorious. People were sitting all around the lovely square in Charlotte Gardens chatting reading books,eating ice cream, enjoying the atmosphere and people watching - trying to spot their favourite author.
On the walkways there was a buzz as people rushed to join the queue for an event or strolled by to browse in the bookshops or cafes.
It is my favourite time of the year. A chance to catch up with lots of friends, writers from all parts of the country, to meet new people and to go to listen, laugh and be fascinated by the skill and imagination of the speakers.
In the famous authors' yurt, (green room) the great and the good, famous, not so famous and the first time authors gather before or after events. As the festival lasts for over two weeks and has something like 800 authors from all over the world, there are always new people to meet. This year sees the festival holding the 2012-2013 Edinburgh World Writers Conference, with special events looking at the role of literature around the world today.
On Saturday I caught up with other authors many of them SASsies - Nicola Morgan, Cathy MacPhail, Eleanor Updale, Elizabeth Laird, Julia Donaldson and Moira Munro, Keith Charters and crime writer Alex Gray. it is a place for families and I also met the Bookwitch and her daughter, and Mary and Gerry (the Mole) from Ourbookreviews and their lovely daughter.
I went into listen to the brothers Scarrow, Simon and Alex, both highly successful authors who decided that they might share some characters! So Alex was able to bring two of his brother's well loved Roman characters into his own book set in Rome.
The event was great fun with teams of three chosen from the young audience brought up to compete in a history quiz. Lots of fun and cheering ensued.
Monday the sun was still shining and I met up with Barry Hutchison and I went into the event on his new book the 13th Horseman, which made me realise just how much fun you can have with your characters!
Barry, along with Sally Gardner and Steven Butler were understandably nervous about an event called Story Consequences. Vivian French was the excellent chair person (and had control of the bell!) in an event where the three other writers were invited to start a story (character, place and emotion suggested by the audience) and keep it going for 30 seconds until the bell rang signalling that they had to pass it on to the next person, and so on.
Despite their reservations it was a riotous success and by the end of the event three very different, if slightly strange, stories had come to life. The audience got behind the authors cheering them on, and everyone had a great time.
It occurred to me that this might be an interesting challenge to try in the future, for writers, aspiring writers and in creative writing sessions with young people, too.
|Story Consequences event|
This week also saw the Society of Authors in Scotland (SOAiS) AGM and lunch when we welcomed some new committee members Cathy MacPhail, Gillian Philip and Michael Malone and our new Scottish (SOAiS) chair Lin Anderson. It was also a pleasure get the chance to chat to the new Chair of the Society of Authors who had travelled up from London - Lindsey Davis.
I had a lovely surprise when dropping in to the yurt to find Keren David there, who introduced me to Amy Plum, a YA author who is American living in Paris and will be speaking at the book festival next week.
I will be appearing in the book festival this Sunday when I will be reading as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series on Freedom of Speech when I read Nasrin Sotoudeh.'s poignant letter to her daughter.
On Friday 24th I am looking forward to delivering my workshop 'So you want to write for Children?'.
On the following Tuesday, after the main bookfest closes there is the School Gala Day when Charlotte Square is closed to the general public and bus loads of school children fill the square to attend events with their favourite authors.
|Sally J Collins|
I will be there with Sally J. Collins the illustrator of the Hamish McHaggis books and we will be joined by Hamish himself as we tell the story of the Great Glasgow Treasure Hunt
I love the opportunity to go and listen to all sorts of writers talking with passion about the books they have written and living close enough to Edinburgh I enjoy dipping in and out of the festival to see a wide range of events.
A couple I am particularly looking forward to are events with Jasper Fforde and Eoin Colfer.
So if you get the chance to come to Edinburgh in August come along to the book festival - go to some events and soak up the atmosphere. And keep your eyes open, you never know who you might bump into.
...............................Linda Strachan is an award winning author of over 60 books for children of all ages from picture books to teenage novels and a writing handbook Writing for Children
Recently, the Guardian reported the story of author Terry Goodkind, who "turned to Facebook to name and shame a fan who pirated a digital version of his latest novel". As usual when a case of theft is revealed, there were arguments on both sides, regarding whether words should be free or authors should be entitled to protect their work and earn from it. Paulo Coelho is quoted as calling on "pirates of the world" to "unite and pirate everything I've ever written". Coelho has every right to say this of his own work - he is exercising the degree of control (or lack of) that he chooses.
However, I do not recall him calling on pirates of the world to
pirate steal everything that anyone else has ever written.
And this is what the proponents of the "words should be free" argument so often forget. Surely the choice should be made by the creator of the content? Otherwise it's theft.
Whether or not illegal downloading increases sales is utterly beside the point. It may well do so. All my self-published ebooks are DRM-free, not because I want them to be stolen but because I want my readers to be able to read them on any device in as many places as they wish, and if the price I must pay is that some people will steal, that's a price I'll pay. That does not mean that I am happy with anyone stealing it, or that I can afford to be stolen from. But frankly, even that misses the point: theft is still theft however much the victim can absorb the loss.
Recently on my Crabbit At Home blog, I linked to an excellent but long piece
arguing why illegal downloading is morally wrong, but to be honest, when will we stop making the arguments so complicated?
Taking something without the owner's permission is theft and theft is wrong. I grant that if you'd die without the stolen item, it's forgivable. But it's still theft. And last thing I heard, books may be important but you don't generally die for the lack of one.
It really is that simple.
Recently, I downloaded the remarkably wonderful Adblock program, a piece of free software which instantly removes all adverts from my internet experience, including those dreaded "belly-fat" ads on Facebook. After I'd downloaded, I was given the option
of paying a contribution, if I wished. I paid $5.
A few days later, I received this email (my bold):
I wanted to say thanks for paying for AdBlock at http://chromeadblock.com/pay. I wrote AdBlock hoping to make people's lives better, and you just told me that I managed to do it :) Thank you very, very much! &nbs
A constant complaint from many authors is that the whole business of publishing and selling books has become so, well, commercial.
Our sixth most viewed post of the last four years is Nicola's funny, incisive, and - needless to say - crabbit look at her local branch of the Chain Bookseller of the Year, including a visit to its bacon aisle.
As a bonus, the extensive comments section includes a debate between Nicola and publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, with inactive URLS to further thoughts from both of them, which for your convenience I present in active form here:
Number 5 will be here in an hour!
The other day, I was discussing with my family whether people can change. Actually, it wasn't so much a discussion as me posing a theory, them agreeing, and then all of us providing more and more evidence. Which is pretty much my favourite kind of discussion, at least while on holiday.
My theory was that it is very difficult, very difficult, and relatively rare, for people to change themselves. (And this has an implication for novelists, as you'll see.)
Of course people do change. We know that. Any individual changes a tiny bit each day, imperceptibly, adding up to large changes over decades. Sometimes, changes can be more sudden, especially during the growing up years. Various landmarks change us: leaving school/university, having children/not having children, close bereavement, major changes of circumstances. These bring changes to our personalities over the years, and changes to our habits.
But these changes tend to be a) gradual b) an adaptation to changed surroundings/ environment/ people around us and c) largely involuntary. They do not answer the question: CAN people change? In other words, can they change when they want to? Can we often change our behaviours when we see a negative consequence, or, indeed, a positive one? (I know that people sometimes can - change addictive behaviours, for example - but they generally need a great deal of help and intervention.)
The reason I was thinking about this was because I am hopelessly useless at changing bad behaviours. How many times have I looked at the bathroom scales and said that I was going to eat less, exercise more? (Twice today, anyway.) How many times have I made resolutions to drink more water and less wine; eat more fruit and less sugar; not buy ice-cream "just in case one of my daughters comes home unexpectedly"; do an hour's writing before answering emails; say no to speaking engagements; spend less time at my desk; enjoy weekends properly; be less of a workaholic; get less cross when people are stupid; not snap at my husband (no link there to the previous remark!); do more gardening and cooking (hobbies which I love and are good for me); get up from my desk every hour? Countless times, is how many. And I never change my habits. At all.
I am utterly beholden to my adult, middle-aged personality, which happens to be that of a driven workaholic, hopelessly Type A, unstoppably entrepreneurial, unable to say no to any exciting idea that pops into my head at four in the morning. I was different when I was fourteen and will probably be different when I'm 84. But there is no discernible change between how I am now at 50, how I was when I was 40 or 30. I have a whole different life, but my bad habits and behaviours I'd dearly like to alter remain stubbornly unaltered, even though I recognise completely that changing would be good for me and probably give me a longer life.
SO, writers and readers, why oh why oh why oh why do the characters in our books always have to change and develop? Even if the action takes place over two weeks, or two days. It seems to be one of the unbreakable rules of novels.
The Carnegie Medal even has criteria for characterisation, including:
Are the characters believable and convincing?
Are they [the characters] well-rounded, and do they develop during the course of the book?
Do they act consistently in character throughout the book?
You know, it rather bugs me that a character must
develop during the course of what may be a very short timespan
By: Celia Rees
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, The Vanished
, Every Step You Take
, Blood Sinister
, This Is Not Forgiveness
, Point Horror Unleashed
, Nicola Morgan
, Celia Rees
, Linda Newbery
, ABBA Review
, Add a tag
At the risk of 'bugging the life out of people' (see Nicola Morgan's recent ABBA Post of the 24th below), I've got a new book coming out next week. February 2nd, in fact, and I'm going to mention it because having a book published is one of those things that doesn't happen all that often to me, although with so many books published it is obviously happening all the time to other people, who then bleet and tweet about it, to Nicola's annoyance. I suppose that's part of the problem. In her perceptive way has put her finger one of the profound contradictions of social networking, and publishing for that matter. To an individual author, a book being published is A Very Big Thing; to everyone else, it's another 'so what?'. Cursory glance only before we go on to our own tweet, Facebook page entry, blog or planning our Virtual Launch.
At the risk of bugging, I anticipate publication of This Is Not Forgiveness with the usual mix of feelings: pride and a sense of wonder that my name is on the cover, but also complex feelings of nostalgia and loss. When I turn the pages, it is like looking through a strange kind of diary. I remember where I was when I thought that, wrote that, added that detail. It happens over a summer and I wrote it over a summer, so the weather, the descriptions, are like snapshots of particular places at a particular time. And there is something perfect about a book that is about to be published, before it goes out into the world to be the object of scrutiny and criticism, before it has a chance to fail.
I have another reason for nostalgia. This Is Not Forgiveness is a topical thriller set in the present and this is seen as a bit of a departure for me. I'm now known mostly for writing historical fiction. If not those books, then the old Point Horror Unleashed titles - Blood Sinister and The Vanished. But my first book was a contemporary thriller for teenagers. Every Step You Take. It was published in 1993. So long ago, that when I went to get the rights back from the publisher, they claimed never to have heard of it. That, too, was a contemporary thriller, so in a way, I've come full circle, returning to my roots.
That book was published into a different world. I'm typing this blog on a laptop, it is going straight by WiFi onto the 'net. I'm uploading pictures to go with it. I typed Every Step on an electric typewriter. Laptop, WiFi, 'net, upload? Terms not coined yet. I sent it off as a paper manuscript by Special Delivery, posted at the local Post Office (now a cake shop) not by attachment as I would do now.
The Internet was in its infancy, so no e mails. Publishers sent you letters. All you had to do was open the envelope, read and file. Everyone sent you letters, so it was easy to keep track of things. No matter how hard I try to be organised, finding things in e mails is like sifting though spaghetti. As for publicity, it didn't take up any time at all because there wasn't any. My first school visit came randomly from a librarian wh
By: Linda Strachan
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
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, Linda Strachan
, Scottish Book Trust
, Allan Guthrie
, Andrew Dixon
, Edinburgh Book Shop
, Society of Authors
, Lin Anderson
, Nicola Morgan
, Add a tag
On Saturday 17th September 2011 at The Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh the
Society of Authors in Scotland (SOAiS) held their annual conference with a theme of understanding and making the most of the digital revolution in books and looking for new opportunities.
The conference was also followed on twitter and you can follow the tweets on #soaconf
|Sara Sheridan and Marion Sinclair|
networking- 'Let me give you my card'
There were over 100 delegates attending the conference which was open to all, not just members of the Society.
It was a fascinating day with lots of great speakers who were generous with their advice and happy to answer questions. We started off with author Sara Sheridan who as always was energetic and enthusiastic in her approach.
I haven’t actually flipped a coin since I finished reading Nicola Morgan’s haunting new book WASTED. I haven’t had one on me at a particular moment, or I’ve been driving, say. But (and especially when I’m driving, as it happens) I have spent a lot of time thinking about the workings of chance and luck and fate. It’s WASTED that’s done it to me. It’s that sort of book.
Everybody has stories of what might-have-been, and there are some downright chilling ones at Nicola’s blog for the book, http://talkaboutwasted.blogspot.com/. (Have a look at the post for 4th May, Claire Marriot’s story of the lock that jammed on 7th July 2005, and say you don’t have shivers in your spine).
(On a less sinister note, I was remembering - because of election day - that had I not decided at the last minute to go to a party in 1987, where I met and fancied an SDP supporter, I wouldn't have gone to work for them at election time and I wouldn't have met my husband. And so the examples go on.)
WASTED examines concepts as diverse (or maybe as close; don’t ask me, it makes my head spin) as quantum physics and the myth of Oedipus. It’s the story of Jack and Jess, and Jack’s Game – the coin he flips to sacrifice to luck before he makes any decision. Jack has had two mothers, both of whom have died, and he can’t believe he hasn’t used up all his ill luck – so he trusts to the coin to make his decisions now, accepting its verdict whether it looks good for him or not. There’s a scary passage when Jack plays his game with street corners in the middle of the night, and ends up in a very dodgy neck of the woods, and so loses his ‘lucky’ coin. Contrarily, Jack doesn’t treat this as a message from fate, but finds a new coin... and so the complex game of luck and chance continues, with drastic results for both himself and Jess.
It took me longer than I expected to read WASTED, because I kept having to double back and re-examine an incident, a decision, a concept. It’s that kind of book – it makes you think, and it makes you shiver. Sometimes fate diverges into two chapters; the eerily omniscient voice of the narrator gives us the variables, and a tiny butterfly-flutter of chance is shown to lead to wildly different hurricane-sized outcomes.
It’s haunting because it makes you wonder, even as you make tiny decisions of speed or direction on the school run, just what parallel universes are splitting away from you at each second, and what’s happening there. I’m really quite glad I never seem to have a coin to hand, because Jack’s Game might be a little too tempting, and then what does one do? Defy the coin?
But if you read WASTED – and you really, really should – you have to play Jack’s Game at least once, because it’s how each reader must choose the story’s outcome, and it isn’t quite as simple as life and death. Honestly, WASTED is a corker. Try it.
Members of the Scattered Authors Society are performing at Edinburgh this coming week. Do come along if you can, or forward this to friends in the north …
On Saturday 21st August,
1pm, Mary Hoffman will talking about the latest volume in her best-selling Stravaganza series – City of Ships
2pm, Nicola Morgan will be explaining how to make publishers say ‘yes’.
7pm, Michelle Lovric will present her novel The Book of Human Skin and be discussing ways to write about Venice with Katie Hickman.
And on Friday 27th August, Gillian Philip will be launching her new novel, Firebrand.
Details of tickets and venues can be found on the Festival website
Everything we do changes our brains. So, if there's something we are doing differently now, compared with how we did it previously, our brains will be changing or have changed to reflect that. If readers' brains are changing and if reading behaviours are changing, surely this will matter for writers?
Reading behaviours have changed over the last twenty or thirty years, at least in parts of the world where the digital age has arrived. Almost all of us read a great deal on-screen, and we spend a certain amount of our day reading material on websites. New research at the University of California, San Diego suggests that the average person today consumes nearly three times as much info as in 1960. According to The New York Times recently, "the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour."
We quickly become better at scanning headlines to decide what we want, and we skip and flit about, gathering snippets of info and processing it very quickly. Our brains change to reflect new skills. Gary Small's fascinating book, iBrain, is based partly on research on a group of people who had never used the internet before, alongside a control group. The study suggested - and this is backed up by other research into time taken to rewire neural connections - that after only five hours' practice, the brain of an internet beginner has changed, measurably, to reflect new skills and experience. And more practice or use produces more change, apparently.
(For more on the science of this, I recommend iBrain, and The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.) But for now I want to talk anecdote, not science. I want to ask you if your experience matches mine.
Maybe five years ago, I was about to start writing The Highwayman's Footsteps. I wanted it to be "rip-roaring adventure", thrilling historical drama, just like one of my favourite books as a teenager, The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I remembered that The Black Tulip had lots of gore and high tension and a very fast-paced story.
So, I took it from my shelf to re-read it, for the first time since I'd been a teenager. Well, I wasn't wrong about the gore. (Who says modern YA fiction is shocking? Blimey!) High tension? Well, maybe, but you had to read a LOT of words first and unpick reams of long paragraphs and complex sentences. It's turgid prose, with masses of subordinate clauses. The opening paragraph consists of a single sentence of 148 words.
Reader, I couldn't read it. Seriously.
So, what has happened in the intervening years? How did I turn from a teenager who could lap that up to an adult who couldn't keep her eyes on the page? But forget me - what about you? I'm guessing I'm not the only reader whose reading habits have changed. And it can't be to do with age, because surely a teenager would have if anything a greater need for pace than a middle-aged person? Are we just too busy nowadays to read slowly? Have we been subconsciously demanding faster books / simpler sentences over the last thirty years, so that now page-turnability is compulsory, whereas before (?) it wasn't? Has our definition of page-turnability changed?
If our reading habits, needs and tastes have changed, science tells us our brains have, too. There's nothing much we can do about this, although each of us in theory controls the mouse on our own computers. Besides, I'm not even saying that in terms of reading habits this is a bad change. (In terms of the arguments that people like Gary Small and many others are introducing regarding empathy and wisdom, that's a different matter.)
I'm just interested:
- Do you find it harder to concentrate on longer, denser texts than you used to?
- Have you had any Blac
I've been thinking about this a lot recently because some people I respect have contradicted a belief of mine. See, I think - thought - that writers should think of their readers. Of course we need to have confidence and belief in our own writing and to love what we do, feel inspired and fulfilled by it; but, for me, each sentence is there for the enjoyment of readers. Therefore, I'm thinking of them while I'm writing.
I also believe that the main reason I failed to be published for so long was that I was writing purely for myself, with little or no thought for the reader's enjoyment. I was so up myself with the beauteousness of my prose that if I wanted two glorious sentences where one would do, hell, I'd put them both in. After all, they were Good Sentences so the reader could damn well read them and enjoy them as much as I did. I was thinking of myself and my enjoyment way too much. I was being self-indulgent, which is what doing something for yourself is.
So, quite often on my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog I have blogged to aspiring writers about the importance of thinking of readers when we write. I don't mean that we should just give them everything they want, just as parents shouldn't give children everything they want. I mean that for me the desired end of a book is the satisfaction or excitement or inspiration of the reader - or whatever other emotion I happen to wish for in them - and that my own pleasure is only in achieving that. I have quoted Stephen King's thing about his Ideal Reader, the person he has in mind when he writes, the person he imagines looking over his shoulder. He talks about writing the first draft with the "door closed", in other words without too much thinking of readers, but the second and subsequent drafts with the "door open", very much with imagined reactions flooding in and affecting what he writes. And that's in a book on how to write - On Writing - so he is offering it as guidance, even a rule.
But I'm aware that this is not the only way to look at things. I recently interviewed Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris and asked each of them where they stood on this question and they were quite clear that they don't particularly think of their readers. Now, considering that they are both phenomenally commercially successful, I find that interesting.
So, have I got it wrong? Or does it just depend how you interpret the question? Are Joanne Harris and Ian Rankin just lucky that they've hit a way to write which indulges both them and their readers, so they don't have to think consciously about the reader? Am I too mired in YA/children's writing, where we have to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to satisfy a reader who is patently not the same sort of reader as we are ourselves? Or what? To the writers among you: how much do you think of your readers, either as an imaginary generalised bunch or a specific group?
Yes, we write because we want to and because we love doing it, and it's therefore somewhat selfish, but to what extent is your actual choice of ingredients in each book for the sake of your reader more than yourself? What is your relationship with your reader when you're writing?
And take your time: I'm not thinking of readers or
writing at the moment because I've got a building disaster. Six days after my lovely plumbers started what should have been a
In the last week, two blog posts that I've commented on have found themselves in The Guardian. One was Lucy Coats' trenchant post on ABBA about A Certain Person and his unpleasant brain injury comment. The other was independent bookseller Vanessa Robertson's equally trenchant piece about World Book Night. I’m interested in what happened to them and the appended comments and in what this means for all of us.
After Vanessa's WBN post, I'd left a comment, among many comments from other people, and mine was picked up by a journalist and quoted (well, half of it) in her subsequent Guardian piece. No other comment was quoted by name. In the Guardian, my quote was prefaced by the statement, "Author Nicola Morgan was among those happy to air objections..." This implied that I'd been asked by the journalist. Actually, she had tried to contact me but my phone was off while I was doing school talks and by the time I got her message it was too late: her deadline had passed. One might think that because I’d commented, I was de facto “happy”. Well, yes: I was happy to comment amongst all the other commenters but the small but important difference now was that my comment had appeared on another forum, in print, with another headline, and taken out of its original discussion. It had been, in effect, re-contextualised by someone else. I am not annoyed, because I utterly stand by what I said, and the journalist's piece was good. But it got me thinking.
In Lucy's post, one commenter's remark was also taken and used in the Guardian piece on that subject, and later, on ABBA, that commenter expressed a similar surprise to mine. I’m not criticising journalists, by the way. There may be an issue of asking permission but I’m not interested in that just now. Ditto any copyright issues to do with quoting from blogs.
So what am I saying? I am saying that the internet has changed something about conversation. Blogs, unless actually private and hidden, are public, and when we comment, although it might feel like a discussion where we're all in the room, we are putting our views out there in a very public way. We cannot then control where our comments will appear. And it's permanent. The internet doesn’t forget. The internet has blurred the once clear divide between the spoken word and the printed word. It's more permanent than either and possibly more powerful.
In a good old offline conversation, you know who is there, who is listening - unless you are being bugged - and you know it is unlikely your words will find themselves discussed in public elsewhere. You can make mistakes, change your mind, clarify what you mean if someone doesn't understand. No one can take your words out of context because all those in the discussion know the context. The discussion is also moderated by those in it. It is controlled and yet can be wild and free ranging. There is little at stake other than the opinions of those present.
In an online conversation, the new conversation, all that is different. There is much more at stake, much more that can go wrong, much less control. You don't know who's listening and you don't know what will happen to your words, except for one thing: they will remain.
We also need to realise that Facebook and Twitter conversations are now watched by journalists. You make comments on Facebook and those comments can be quoted or passed on to people outside your FB circle. I have heard of people having to "defriend" others because they are worried that those people, not being actual friends, may use their comments against them. And I worry about the unguarded comments that some people make on Facebook, because FB sometimes feels like a party, with a
One of the problems with modern life is too much choice. Choice is offered as a good thing and, on the face of it, it is. Certainly, lack of choice is lack of power and the ultimate lack of power is slavery. But too much choice can be horribly paralysing and lead to great dissatisfaction.
There's an area of choice in which I think writers are becoming panicky and paralysed. It's the P-Words: Publicity, Promotion, Profile, Platform. Oh, and pro-active.
Time was when a writer wrote a book, waited for Publication Day, was wheeled out for a few signings and tottered back to a hotel for a claret-laden dinner with editor. (Actually, I have no memory of such days, but allow me some imagination.) Now, we have to be pro-active, partly because often our publishers don't do enough or we have better ideas, or simply because there are so many opportunities and our publishers rightly encourage us to use them. We see other authors Doing Stuff and want to Do Stuff too. For a pro-active, interfering, control freak such as me, this is, in theory, great.
In practice, it's a flipping nightmare, a feast of choices, incitement to wake in the night with Yet Another Stupid Wheeze Which I Usually Actually Carry Through. And then there's the panic when we hear what someone else is doing - why didn't we think of that? The blog tour, the sponsored marathon, the one-woman festival, the colour-coded Tweet-up, the mail-shotting of the fan database. What?? You don't have a fan database, in a spreadsheet, with the ability to identify each category of reader, by postcode? You mean you haven't set up a Twitter persona for each of the characters in your book? You don't have a special blog, posting every day for six months? You haven't organised a book giveaway throughout all continents of the world? Bad, lazy author.
NO! No more, I say, no more. I reject paralysing choice. I will not be panicked into doing stupid things that sound good but wreck me. Never again will I set a world record of school visits in one day, as I did for Deathwatch. Or organise a blog tour AND set up a new blog, as I did for Wasted. Nor will I ever lie awake wondering what mad things to do for the next book. I will reject panic. I will calm down, be sensible and moderate. We do too much, worry too much, glance in too much fear at other people, fret about what we're not doing instead of focusing on what we can do well.
So, here, for what it's worth, is my advice on approaching publication in a state of zen:
- Play to your strengths: do what suits you. If the idea curdles your stomach juices, spit it out.
- Focus not on the excitement of the Bright Idea but the feeling you will actually have when you have to put the idea into practice. Will you regret it? If so, stop it in its tracks.
- Choose a couple of things to do and forget the other possibilities. You have another book to write and a life to live.
- Ignore everyone else: no one is doing everything and most people are not selling as many books as you fear.
- If you wake in the night with a crazy idea, go back to sleep.
- Be strategic and time-focused. Six months before publication, make a plan (in conjunction with your publisher); then do virtually nothing till two months before P-day.Then, look at your plan and follow it. This planning eliminates the need to wake in the night in a panic. Besides, you're not panicking, remember?
- Remember that what happens to your book will depend mostly on luck and the book, more than how many hours you spent promoting it.
- You do not have to have a launch party - it's fun (for some people) but it usually doesn't sell books so only do it if it will make you happy, not if it will stress you.
- Do as I say, not as I do. But I'm trying - I really am.
By the way, in case my publicist is reading this, the book is called Write to be Published. But it's not published till June, so I'm doing nothing yet.
Author Gregor Dallas has accused the Society of Authors of not doing enough to defend its members from large publishers which are cutting back on range and creating a "national scandal" with the declining quality of their books.
Dallas, a historian and chair of the SoA’s France group, has put himself forward for a position on the SoA’s management committee, forcing the first election at the body for several years.
By: Linda Strachan
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
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Where can you find a Yurt and a Spiegeltent, comedy, politics, cuddly creatures, crime and all kinds of great writing?
Well, if you are in Edinburgh in the next two weeks or so there is one place you should not miss.
By the time you read this the 28th Edinburgh International Book Festival will have kicked off. Billed as the 'largest and most dynamic festival of its kind in the world'
Now that is a huge claim to fame but for those of us who live in the vicinity - and the some 220,000 visitors it attracts- it is easy to see why.
Edinburgh at festival time is a completely different place than it is during rest of the year. It feels looks and even smells different!
Playing host to the The Book festival, the International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Jazz Festival and several other festivals all at the same time, the city is converted into one huge venue, where even the streets become the stage and performers attract audiences in the most unlikely places.
In all this exciting cultural mayhem the Book festival is an oasis of calm. You enter Charlotte Square (which for the rest of the year is a leafy private garden) and immediately the bustle of the city is converted into an excited hush, a tranquil setting resounding with gentle roars when the audience in one of the tents begins to applaud.
Of course the Edinburgh weather can affect the Book festival as much as anywhere else and there have been a few years when the rain left delightful little ponds around the square- delightful for the little yellow plastic ducks that suddenly appeared! Their equally sudden disappearance gave rise to discussions about the possibility of a plastic crocodile..... ?
But each year they have added more solid walkways, then covered walkways to and from the event tents and the bookshop tents and finally even to the author's green room - the yurt.
There was one particular year when there was much comedy to be had watching the staff wielding large umbrellas to shelter celebrity authors in the dash across what seemed to be the only uncovered walkway- the first 2 metres as they stepped out of the yurt on their way to their events. Thankfully that was sorted the following year.
But when the sun shines the grassy centre of the book fe
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I'm cheating a bit with this blog post, I'm afraid. Many of you know some of the things that are busifying me at the moment and I'm really struggling to keep up so I hope you won't mind my bringing you a link to a post I wrote recently for the Guardian books blog during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which the Guardian now sponsors.
Even that post was a teeny bit cheaty, as I've blogged on ABBA about the gloriousness of the Yurt once before. But the Yurt is magically glorious and magical gloriousness deserves an audience.
However, not everything about the EIBF is magically glorious. But they give us due warning.
Which is very necessary when you see this:
But, in no way does this spoil anyone's enjoyment. In the very same minute that I took the mud picture, I took this, just a few feet away:
And besides, what do I care? I haz these: