Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why some great books don't get published

I'm still thinking about the talk given last week by Corinne Souza of Picnic Books.

During her talk Corinne observed that nowhere else but in the publishing is there a product being produced which people are hungry for but which is not being delivered to them. This was such an arresting observation that I have kept thinking about it since.

The origin of this strange situation can be traced back to the early part of the last century, when publishers set up something called the Net Book Agreement. The agreement stopped shops selling books for lower than the cover price. The effect of this was that no shop could try undercutting other shops. The public paid anomalously large prices for their books and booksellers large and small thrived.

But such an agreement was always doomed to collapse. It was a restrictive practice. A cartel. The inevitable started in 1991 when Waterstones among others started selling books at discount. If there was to be a price war the big chains could use their buying power to get better prices than independent bookshops. The economies of scale would enable them to undercut and put the squeeze on their competitors. The collapse of the agreement was completed in 1997 when it was finally declared illegal.

Anyone buying books in the UK will have seen the result. Small operators have largely disappeared. (Leicester lost its last two independent general bookstores last year.) Supermarkets had even greater buying power than the big stores and started selling paperbacks for under £3 a shot, thus undercutting even the big bookshop chains.

Low prices and huge volumes are now the name of the game. Thus the vast majority of the money in the publishing industry is made on the top few hundred best sellers.

If you were working for one of the main publishers, of course you'd be looking for books that would sell in large volumes from the shelves of Tesco. You might regretfully decline to publish the more risky, quirky, individual and challenging books that arrived on your desk in manuscript form. Such books would once have found outlets through the independent bookshops. But line those books up in a supermarket... would they really sell at the required volumes.

Curiously, when I go visiting book groups and do talks in libraries, I meet many people who are searching for the kind of literature that they don't find on supermarket shelves. "Give us things that are quirky, individual and challenging," they say.

Which brings us back to Corinne Souza's comment. These books are being written. There are people out there looking to buy them. But the mainstream publishing industry is not bridging the gap. Something is broken.

Perhaps that explains the recent flowering of new independent publishers, often rooted in regions outside London, often publishing books that are being turned down by the big players. Having said that, I see many books in manuscript form. Five of them in recent years have been so stunningly brilliant that I was sure they would be picked up - and yet have to this day remained unpublished. (I am talking about manuscripts of obviously greater quality, originality and importance than many of the books reaching the supermarket shelves.)

In this article, I haven't mentioned the Internet. Amazon. Viral marketing. Print on demand. Digital publishing. I will write more about that in another article.

As ever, please leave comments, because I would love to hear your views on this.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Launch photos

As promised, here are some photographs from the launch of the Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp, which took place last night in Leicester.

All the ingredients of a good book launch were there. Food and drinks aplenty...

...a hall full of enthusiastic people...

...a clear-sighted publisher and an inspired author...

...and lots and lots of books to sign. Over a hundred were sold. Now, let me have a look, is that writers' cramp?

Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

It is the job of the novelist to lend eyes to the reader. One of the things that sets the really great book above the merely good is the clarity and intensity of the author's vision. It was this quality that struck me when I first came across the Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp.

That was several years ago. It was then a manuscript being read out at a writing workshop. Since then it has been shaped and honed. And last night the process reached its fruition with publication by Picnic Books, marked by a splendid launch party.

The Ghosts of Eden takes place in East Africa and follows characters from different backgrounds who find themselves dislocated by changes in place and time. Like all great fiction it leads us along the individual narratives of its cast and thereby prompts us to ask questions about ourselves and the general condition.

I'll admit to bias here. I know the author and have seen the book emerge. But doing my best to see through all that, I still give you a strong recommendation to read it. If you follow my advice and hate it, feel free to write a complaint here. I don't think many of you will. (I'd also suggest it as a good book group book as there is much in it to discuss.)

The perfect attendance at an event is a number great enough to fill all the chairs in the hall and leave a scattering of people still standing around the back and sides. (People don't really mind standing for a few minutes and the event feels special when you have to squeeze in.) Happily that was exactly the number who attended Andrew's launch. Many of them were writers. There were also members of Andrew's family and many of his work colleagues. Leicester Writers' Club has hosted talks by the likes of Colin Dexter and Jacqueline Wilson, but I have never witnessed such a long queue to get books signed as I saw last night. Andrew must have had writers' cramp by the time he got through them all.

After the signing we were also treated to an insightful talk by Corinne Souza, Andrew's editor at Picnic. I've often heard editors and agents say that they cannot take on a book unless they feel passionate about it. That passion was clear and evident from Corinne's comments about the Ghosts of Eden. It warmed my heart to hear an editor speak this way. (And I guess the hearts of the other writers present).

Corinne is clearly a big-picture thinker and had things to say about the publishing industry. I found her insights fresh and stimulating. But I'll leave that and related issues to another post. I will also be posting photographs of the event as soon as I have sorted through them.

You can find a one week blog by Andrew Sharp on the Picnic Books website here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Characters Locking Antlers

I've been pressing on with the White Angel screenplay over the last few days. There have been several long Skype consultations with Ivory, which have progressed our understanding of the story and the characters. There are some very interesting power relationships developing (the characters, not us!) which are providing another layer of interest.

I realise that in describing this process, my language has become woolly - this is something I try to avoid in the blog, as I want to be as open and transparent as possible. But in this case I can't spell it out because the story needs to stay under wraps for the moment.

However, I can say that when a story serves up events that come as surprises, but at the same time we know they are right - this is a sign that things are working. I feel we have reached that stage now. I keep getting little kicks of pleasure at discovering the way the characters will react in the situations they find themselves.

At the centre of the story is Ellen Carter - award winning writer of the biographies of murderers. At the end of the first film she was imprisoned for the White Angel murders - though she was innocent. In this, the sequel, she is in prison and in contact with the notorious Kiss of Death killer - who has a million dollar story still to tell.

It is the relationship between these two characters that lies at the centre of this story. That is what I am wrestling with now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Digital Publishing

A fascinating article in the Times Online about the future of digital publishing can be found here. Thanks to David Hood for sending me the link.

I'm starting to wonder if the publishing world will eventually split into two branches, beautiful objects published in hard copy and low cost literature (also low environmental impact)published digitally. If this sounds strange, consider that the present publishing market is already split between hardback and paperback.

Just a thought.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Using Skype for team writing

The White Angel sequel screenplay is pushing forward again. This morning me, myself and Ivory had a two hour Skype consultation which has resulted in pages of notes. Mostly these are small modifications to Act 1, but there are also some real revelations (to us, at least) about the nature of the different characters, their power relationships and their motivation for different courses of action.

I plan to spend the afternoon transferring these notes to the screenplay itself. Then I'll e-mail it to Ivory for her to review this evening. If all goes well, we'll be ready and set for another Skyp consultation tomorrow morning.
All well and good. Especially as we are not using video conferencing. I look distinctly crumpled this morning.
It is the school holiday at the moment, so I have retreated to the bedroom in order to have this Skype call in privacy from the rest of the family. Half a conversation about the motivations of serial killers must sound very odd indeed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Firebridge to Skyshore book launch

Firebridge to Skyshore is a book I have been living with in anticipation for well over a year. The author, Siobhan Logan, is a fellow member of Leicester Writers' Club. That means I have heard much of the material read out in our regular manuscript workshopping meetings.

The project started when Siobhan was invited to write some poems about the Northern Lights to accompany an exhibition of visual art. Within a couple of months she had produced a large amount of new work. I remember hearing it for the first time and marveling at the freshness of the voice she had discovered as well as the sheer volume of beautiful, arresting poems
Since then Siobhan has been on a long journey. She has spoken to Saami reindeer herders and ionospheric physicists, made two visits to Tromso in the north of Norway, seen the Northern lights in all their glory and put on performances at venues as far afield as the Richard Attenborough Centre in Leicester and the Science Museum in London.

Yesterday a crowd of friends, family, poets, novelists and journalists gathered in the Friends Meeting House in Leicester to celebrate the launch of Firebridge to Skyshore, which contains this body of poetry as well as several prose essays on the science and mythology of the Northern Lights.

Siobhan gave a reading from one of the prose essays and performances of some of the poems. I am pleased to say that among the performance pieces was one of my favourites, Flyttsamer on Postcard, which tells the story of one moment on a reindeer drive, captured in the photograph on an old postcard.
There is much to say about this beautiful book that makes an interesting contrast to the pull of digital publishing. Firebridge to Skyshore comes to us from Original Plus Books - who seem to have a list of poetry collections and prose books produced lovingly on a very small scale. The illustrations in this collection are from woodcuts produced by Dolores Logan, Siobhan's sister.
Will we move eventually to a world in which most books are published digitally at very low cost and environmental impact whilst the remaining few are lovingly handcrafted works of art?
I might explore that idea further at some stage. But for now, I can browse my copy of Firebridge, whist looking forward to the next book lunch - which will be on Thursday.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to set up a blog

Next February this blog will be 5 years old. Perhaps a day for a small celebration? Hmmm - I'll think about that. No promises, but would anyone be interested in coming to a small party in Leicester? The blog equivalent to a book launch - a celebration of survival.

However, the downside of this long evolution is that I can now not remember all the technical steps I went through to set it up. Also - in retrospect, would I have done it this way?

To help me answer these questions, I am going through the process of setting up another blog, and recording all the tehnical steps. Where to record them? On the blog, of course. This project is really for my own benefit, rather than being intended as a public showcase. But you're welcome to look in in if it interests you. But be warned, I am really very ignorant in these things, so if you do look in you will see me making lots of mistakes.

The blog is called Blog Steps.

My intention is to incorporate successful discoveries into my handling of this blog. It may also help me make the decision of whether I want to migrate this blog onto another platform - something I have been thinking about for a few months.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Launches - what are they for?

A week of book launches lies ahead. Tomorrow I'll be going to the launch of Firebridge to Skyshore, Siobhan Logan's exquisite collection of poetry and prose, built around the aurora borealis - the Northern Lights. Then on Thursday I'll be going to the launch of Andrew Sharp's beautifully observed East African novel The Ghosts of Eden.

I know why a boat is launched. It is built on land and needs to get into the water. But a book?

Here, then, are a few reasons why you might want to go to the trouble and expense of organising a launch for a book:

1) The publishers have a budget for it and it seems like a waste of an opportunity to have friends round for a sumptuous buffet. Unfortunately, if you are mid-list or lower, there is unlikely to be much of a budget for this - if any. Jaffa cake anyone?

2) A chance to generate publicity. The local paper may not bother to send anyone round, but if you put in a press release afterwards they may just pick it up. Especially if you have done most of the writing for them. Be sure to invite someone who knows their way around a camera. A picture tells a thousand words. Of course, if you are a major name in literature , the papers would cover it anyway. But if you're mid-list or lower any publicity is to be grabbed with both hands.

3) A chance to make connections in the local literary world. Invite anyone and everyone. They may just start inviting you to give talks, appear in panel discussions etc. Public speaking is a helpful top-up to your (mid-list or below) earnings.

4) A chance to sell, sell, sell. This is particularly important if you are with a small publisher or are self published. With a big enough crowd you could sell 50 or 100 copies in one go. If the print run was only 1000, that is a great start.

5) You've worked hard to craft a beautiful book and would like to mark the occasion of its birth. Ultimately, I think this is the best reason to have a launch. It is a celebration. A moment to thank the people who have helped and loved ones who have put up with you during the darkest moments of the writing process.

Ironically, if you are a major name in literature and your book is going to attract publicity anyway, the publishers will spend money on promotion. There will be posters in the train station and a lavish book launch in London. As for the rest of us - we may as well enjoy a party.

So, three cheers to Andrew and Siobhan. It is a week to celebrate.

Blogging and vanity publishing again

I received fascinating and really insightful responses to yesterday's post - a somewhat provocative juxtaposition of blogging and vanity publishing. If you missed them, and are interested in some of the wide variety of ways blogging is used, do go and have a look.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blogging - vanity publishing for the impoverished?

Is blogging a form of vanity publishing for writers too poor to be able to afford the services of a vanity publisher? Let's look at the facts:

1) Bloggers write in the vain belief that our words and views may be of interest or use to others.

2) Bloggers write with unrealistic expectations of how many people are going to read our work.

3) Bloggers sometimes believe that their blogs will make them rich (hence the number of blogs on how to get rich through blogging.)

4) There are people who claim to be able to make your blog a success if you pay them. Their dark arts include Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), e-mail shots (spam) and Twitter (more spam).

On the other hand, here are two good reasons why blogging can be more like self-publishing:

1) No money needs to be paid to a third party.

2) If the writing is good enough and useful enough the blog will gradually attract an audience. If it is not, it won't. It would be the most brutal form of publishing if vanity was your driving motive.

As to the question of my driving motivation for writing this blog - I really haven't figured it out yet. I am certainly enthused by the possibilities of digital publishing. I believe the separation between different media and between different forms of writing are being re-cast at present, but can't yet see where we are heading. I believe big changes will come at the point where reading device for digital text become as pleasant as a book to use, robust enough to take to the beach and cheap enough to replace if you accidentally drop one in the bath (ie not yet but soon).

But at the root of my blogging habit is the same drive that animates all my writing - whether it be prose, poetry or screenplay - an intense curiosity about the world and a compulsive desire to communicate.

Many thanks for sharing the journey. Below is a graph showing the daily readership of this blog (the blue line) and the number of posts per week (the red line) going back to September last year. Sorry about the x-axis labelling. I still can't drive that Excel database package!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Self publishing and Vanity publishing

Yesterday's prize-giving event at the Society of Authors in London celebrated several categories of book (in addition to the club anthology section). Prizes were awarded for the best self-published children's book, best self-published novel, best self-published non-fiction book and the best self-published poetry collection.

These awards, given by the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, are apparently the only awards of their kind, celebrating achievement in the field of self-publishing.

What is self publishing, why does it merit celebration and how does it differ from the dreaded vanity publishing business?

If you write a book and instead of getting it published through an existing company, edit, typeset, have printed and market it yourself - this is self publishing. I have seen enough excellent writing being turned down by mainstream publishers to believe that self-publishing at its best is an honorable route between pen and audience, and well deserving of celebration.

It has also been a route into mainstream publication for a few authors. These are the ones who did it so well that the sales proved the book had merit. After which even the most sceptical publishers were prepared to take them on.

(Why do the mainstream publishers turn down excellent writing? That is a topic in itself. But the central reason is usually economic. In short, they do not know how they would market it to sell enough copies to make a profit. This can be because of sound financial acumen. Or it could be a lack of vision. I have seen 5 or 6 manuscripts that were SO good, I couldn't believe they were turned down by mainstream publishers. In those cases I wished the authors had self-published rather than giving up after the Nth rejection. I would have bought a copy. I would have told my friends about it. Perhaps they would have told theirs.)

What of vanity publishing? Vanity publishers usually describe their role as helping authors to self-publish. The vanity part comes from the fact that they accept any manuscript, however bad, saying it is wonderful. A work of art. A discovery of great importance. A book that deserves an audience.

The author hands over a few thousand pounds and they say they will do the rest. They will edit it, typeset it, print it, send a copy to the British Library etc, and send out press releases to inform a grateful public of the arrival of the best thing since Hamlet. Money is sure to flood in to the author as sales mount. They can reprint as necessary.

In reality, the manuscript will printed with little or no editing, and the author will receive hundreds of copies which eventually be stored in the loft because no one will buy them. There they will be forgotten until the house is sold, whereon the owner will have to hire a skip to put them in pending the inevitable landfill.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But the vanity press is an industry that grows fat by manipulating people's the unrealistic expectations. Anyway - three cheers for the best in self-publishing. You're an inspiration to us all.

Below are two of the the editorial team from Leicester Writers Club standing outside the headquarters of the Society of Authors.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

And the winners are...

Back from the Society of Authors, tired, but having had a really enjoyable day. How often do I get the chance to spend a whole day with three such talented, creative and insightful writers? It was a privilege.

Leicester Station
As to the competition for the best club anthology - it was won by the Wingerworth Wordsmiths, with their book 'Perspectives'. I would say that the Wingerworth Wordsmiths were worthy winners, but with that much alliteration I might not be able to finish the sentence. (Try saying it fast a few times and you'll see what I mean). I will say, however, that their anthology looks really impressive. I haven't had a chance to read through it yet, but the layout and appearance look really good.

I should also mention here, 'In a nutshell' produced by the Chobham Writers and 'Reflections' produced by Hertford Writers. Both fine looking books. I was enjoying an untitled poem in Reflections and only at the end realised the author, Katharine Elliot, is in year 11 at school. Extremely impressive. Clearly a talent to look out for in the future.

The judges commented how high the general standard was and indeed how standards had increased over the last few years.

We four from Leicester Writers' Club then walked around being tourists for a couple of hours before catching the train back home. (During which journey, Chris and I reverted to child-like behaviour, competing to be quickest on the draw with mobile phone cameras.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Society of Authors

I’m off to London today with not one, not two but three wonderful writers and all-round great people. We’re heading for the headquarters of the Society of Authors for the announcement and presentation of the prize for the best writers’ club anthology of the year. Leicester Writers’ Club is in the final shortlist, so it will be very exciting.

The reason the four of us have been chosen to represent the club is that we made up the editorial committee for the anthology. I have to say, the editorial process was not easy but it was always hugely enjoyable.

Another reason for me to be excited about this trip – as if there weren't enough reasons already - is that my great grandfather Aylmer Maude was for some years the treasurer of the Society of Authors, and I am assuming the building we are heading for is the same one that he would have visited many times.

Aylmer Maude

Aylmer had an event-filled life and met many of the influential people of his day. I have several boxes filled with copies of his papers. Among the many highlights are letters from Tolstoy, Gandhi, H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw, Jane Addams and Dr Marie Stopes. The originals are all kept in the Brotherton Library in Leeds.

When I have time, I'd like to visit the British Library and read more of his correspondence with Marie Stopes. Though I have to say that this might be a problem for me, as I have huge difficulty reading handwriting - a problem not helped by my dyslexia.

Now off to the train, fingers crossed.

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

There has been a fair bit of discussion recently on various blogs that I follow and on Facebook about the question “Can creative writing be taught?”

Some people subscribe to the ‘pure genius’ theory of great writing. To characterise it (possibly unfairly) this is the idea that great writers emerge spontaneously. They are born. It is in their genetic code. Thus, creative writing cannot be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Set up in contrast to this is the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory. This states that anyone can become a great writer, given enough effort on their own part and given enough teaching. Great writing is achieved. Thus, the teaching of creative writing is highly desirable.

If this dichotomy sounds familiar it's because it is a re-statement of the age-old nature verses nurture debate.

My views begin from an observation: creative writing classes definitely helped me. I’ve been fortunate to attend classes given by Graham Joyce, Simon Brett, Sarah Maitland, John Gallas and others. I have also been privileged to see some of my own students progress very rapidly – particularly when they were prepared to listen to criticism and willing to work.

There is also evidence to support the other side of the argument. Some students never seem to progress, however many classes they take, whilst others jump forward at an astounding rate. Difference in capacity seems to be in-built.

Instead of the ‘pure genius’ and ‘sweat and suffering’ models, I subscribe to a third theory. The ‘buried treasure’ theory states that every individual is like a mine rich in gems. The nature of those gems will be different from person to person. Some people may have the capacity to become great novelists. Others great poets. Others still will never achieve anything as writers and will have strengths in different areas. But whatever the potential, it will remain unexpressed without a process of education.

“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.” - Baha’u’llah

As teachers of creative writing it is not our task to put writing ability into our students. That ability is already there in potential form. Thus I partly agree that creative writing cannot be taught. However, I do think it is our role as teachers to create the environment where the students’ innate abilities can develop. In this I agree with the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory - creative writing can be taught.

It all depends what we mean when we say ‘teach’!

As always, I would love to hear what you think on this subject. Do post a comment or send an e-mail.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Burnout location and Backlash theme

I was walking back home from Leicester last week and took a detour through Western Park. Those of you who have read BURNOUT will perhaps remember it as the setting for a dead-of-night chase and the digging up of something long-buried. I won't say what - that would be a spoiler!

Western Park, LeicesterSome people have asked me about the feasibility of burying anything in a public park. The plan of the park (above) doesn't give a hint of the extent to which it is split by extensive drifts of trees.

Western Park, Leicester
It would be a confusing place to walk through at night. Easily big enough to get lost in. Easily big enough to bury things without them being discovered.

Two more snaps from my walk to show contrasting images of Leicester. These are connected to my first novel, BACKLASH. The first picture shows the remains of a neo-Nazi poster, stuck on the perspex of a bus shelter. Yes, there are a few people who want to incite racial hatred, even in Leicester. (It is worth pointing out that the poster was immediately reported by the children who use the bus stop and was promptly removed.)

Remains of a poster on a bus shelter

And then to a picture reflecting Leicester's inter-community harmony. Below is the edge of a drift of woodland on Western Park. It was planted in 1993 by volunteers from Leicester's different faith communities. We had Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs all working together. Being the organiser, I had to stay on the park all afternoon. It was a cold, wet winter day and the wind was hissing through the grass. But now look at those trees. It makes me smile to see it.

The Inter-faith grove, Western Park, Leicester

Saturday, May 16, 2009

NCIS series 5 finale - unpicking the formula

I'll have to come clean and admit to following NCIS. Why the unease at this admission? Perhaps because it is unashamedly comfort television rather than challenging drama. But I recon there's room for a little comfort food in every balanced diet.

NCIS poster
So - without giving anything away that hadn't been well trailed before the broadcast - one of the central core of characters dies at the end of the penultimate episode and the investigation then follows through to its conclusion. NCIS has done this before, cutting out and replacing core characters.

I'd like to compare the NCIS formula to three other screenwriting recipes:

First, the obvious comparison. CSI. Both seem to be about the investigation of crimes using forensics. NCIS is a federal naval investigation setup. CSI is linked to the regular police investigating homicide. I'm no expert on these things, but it seems vanishingly unlikely that either reflects reality. Each has a small team of investigators doing everything from shaking test tubes to arresting suspects. On the surface that makes them more or less identical.

CSI poster The key difference is that CSI is primarily about the crimes and their investigation, whereas NCIS is primarily about the characters and their relationships. (Each has elements of both, but the ballance is different). Take the NCIS season 5 finale as an example. Looking back on it, the crime detection aspect was more or less irrelevant and the big hook at the very end was concerned with a threat to the relationships between the characters.

Perhaps NCIS is more similar to long running relationship-based TV dramas such as Alley McBeal. In each we have a small group of individuals with characteristics simple enough to be defined in a couple of sentences. With each, the events are secondary to the relationships.

Ally McBeal poster
However, Alley McBeal retained the same central cast from start to finish, whereas NCIS is prepared to kill off a central character and reshuffle the deck from time to time. Without reshuffle, a relationship drama is more or less doomed to eventual plot burnout. Other examples of this are Northern Exposure and Sex and the City. By the final season a good proportion of viewers are shouting at the television: "Get married and have done with it!"

All the above examples are American. It seems to me that the team writing and studio system practiced in America tends to produce excellent quality of material but will only stop for commercial reasons. The British system - which seems to give more control to a single writer, or possibly a very small team - doesn't always sustain the same high-quality for long, but it knows when to pull the plug for artistic reasons.

What about a movie plot? I'll use the crime movie Insomnia as an example. It too is about the detection of a crime using forensics. It too is driven by questions of character. But where the plot of an NCIS episode usually brings the characters back to more-or-less the place they started, the plot of Insomnia takes the central character to a completely different place. The journey is completed. There is no room for another episode.

Insomnia poster
My question is - have the writers of NCIS got a system for avoiding plot burnout? I guess I'll have to wait for season 6 to find out.

(Please, if you live in the US and have already got to season 6 - no spoilers in comments!)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blog traffic, SEO and Twitter

"How I increased my blog traffic and made lots of money" seems to be one of the leading topics for discussion on the world's most visited blogs. Am I the only person to see an irony in this? Are the most popular blogs only being visited by swarms of bloggers, each desperate for the elixir that will give them financial freedom through blogging?

Other favourite topics at the moment are SEO (Search Engine Optimisation - or, how to get lots of people to find your website through Google) and Twitter - another method to generate blog traffic. It all seems rather incestuous.

In writing Author Intrusion, I have always been committed to the idea that there is an inherent value in communicating to the best of my ability about the things I feel passionately about. I have no idea where that will eventually lead or who will read it. But I believe that nothing we write is ever wasted.

With that in mind, you may be interested to see this graph, which shows the number of unique readers of this blog a day - calculated to the best of my ability. The number comes from a combination of those visiting the blog directly and those who read through subscription to a feed service. The other line in the graph shows the number of blog posts per week.

(Sorry about the unhelpful x-axis. The scale is the number of days since September last year - when I started offering the blog as an RSS feed. For the technically minded - the RSS statistics are automatically exported to a Microsoft Excel document, from which I produce the graph. Were I better at driving Excel, I would doubtless be able to make the x-axis labelling more helpful!)

You will notice that from day 1 to day 120 there was little change as the number of readers hovered around 15 a day. You will notice that since that time there has been a fairly steep growth to a present readership of around 80 a day. This is still a very small number compared to many blogs.

When a person begins to write - whether it is poetry, short story, a novel or a blog - there is the idea in their minds of an audience. It is almost as if the ghost of a potential reader is sitting in the room with them, patiently waiting. We may not ever get that five-figure publishing deal, but we like to think that someone - at least one person - will eventually witness what we have created. And if our work is witnessed, then it will have served a purpose.

So - I'd like to thank you for reading this. Particular thanks to regular readers and those who are kind enough to leave comments. You are all much appreciated.

And having said that, I must get back to writing the White Angel screenplay.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Adult dyslexic creative writing workshop

I'm just back from a giving workshop on creative writing for a group of adult learners. These were mostly people who have difficulty with reading and writing. A good proportion of them were dyslexic. (Presumably that is why I was invited to give the class - because of my own dyslexia.)

I could certainly relate to the anxiety of some of the students on being given a form to fill in at the beginning of the session. Also the fact that the class was in a different room and at a different time from their normal workshops.

And then a third anxiety - I was going to make them write, wasn't I? That was the first thing I had to make clear. I don't get students to do much writing - even when they want to! I certainly wasn't going to ask this group to put pen to paper. My workshops are more concerned with imagining and understanding. We imagine scenes. We understand how stories work. We think ourselves into different places and times.

Today we used photographs of real people as a basis for creating imaginary characters. Then we used keys and mystery packages to help us imagine places. And we made up stories.

I was also told some true stories by one person - which were certainly more amazing and horrifying than anything I could have made up. Quite frankly, I am still stunned by them. And astounded by the fortitude of the person who told me.

What use a bag of old keys?

What use indeed.

Keys are interesting objects. They are vital to us when the lock they open is still in use but become junk as soon as the locks are changed. Somehow I could never bring myself to throw them out. Thus I have accumulated a jangling bag full of the things.

They are tactile objects. Put a hand in the bag and feel the rough and smooth edges. They make sound when they rub against each other. And they have that distinctive smell carried by old metal objects. A smell of subtle corrosion, I suppose.

Today the keys are getting an outing. In an hour I will be taking them into town to a writing workshop for adult dyslexics. We are going to be constructing stories together and the keys are going to help. A key is a good starting point for many a story. And I am happy to say, we won't be writing any of the stories down. This will be story craft done in the old way.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Telling a story through Editing

Novelists are solo story tellers (usually). Screenwriters are one of a team. If you have ever doubted the role of the movie editor in telling a story, then this amazing video may change that:

I can't even begin to imagine how much work this must have taken to produce. It is an editing miracle. Starting with nothing coherent, the editor has created a gem. Consider then, what an editor can do with a well crafted story, beautifully filmed, acted and directed.


Best Blogs on writing

There is some great stuff on writing out there in the blogosphere - though you may need to dig a little to find it.

I came across this fascinating article on education and the teaching of literature. The author, Gisela Hoyle, is not only a teacher, but also a hugely talented novelist and poet. Gisela asks if children can be educated properly through anthologies, or do they need to be exposed to whole books? Are we living in a pot-noodle culture?

And here is another fine article from Emma Darwin. Ugly ducklings and ducks. How we emerge as writers - or artists of any kind - through a process of development. I am ashamed to say, I haven't read any of Emma's books. But if her blog is anything to go by, they will be superb.

Finally, here is another thought-provoking article from Nicola Monaghan. She talks about realism in film and the difference between British and American approaches to realism.

If you know of other exceptional articles on writing out there in the blogosphere, please do let me know.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Five Leaves Young Adult book launch

Here are a few photographs from the Five Leaves launch of three new young adult titles. (Please see this article for the full write-up.)

The audience gathering in the hall at the Adult Education College, Welington Street, Leicester.

Dan Tunstall talks about his young adult novel BIG AND CLEVER.

Claire Tulloch reads from her debut novel DROWNED.

David Belbin talks about the process of getting LOVE LESSONS published and the way in which young adult fiction has always pushed the boundaries of what the publishing industry considders acceptable for that age.

The pannel discuss gender point of view in fiction. Does the reader have a problem with the author writing from the point of view of a different gender? Does the author have a problem with it? Not acording to the pannel.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What Shape is Red?

As reported yesterday, I attended a book launch on Thursday evening. But earlier that day I'd had the chance to attend an exhibition at the Institute of Creative Technologies at DMU. The work on display had been created by students of the Creative Technologies masters programme.

I’d heard a little about the course already. I knew it was interdisciplinary, taking components of computing, writing, design etc and allowing the students a fair bit of freedom to shape the course to match their own interests. They graduate with either an MA or an MSc, depending on the bias of their work.

But that knowledge was all abstract. I had no idea what a showcase of students’ work would physically look like.

Without describing each piece in detail there is no way to sum up what I saw beyond saying it does exactly what it says on the tin. Creative technology. Here are two examples:

First Rhys Davis – whose name you may have seen in connection with the Zombie Undead film, of which he is the director. On first sight, his exhibit seemed to be a large screen on which were projected the silhouettes of flocks of flying birds. But when I stepped up to it, I found a kind of shadow of myself on the screen – in purple – under which the birds tended to congregate.

“It’s just a game, really,” Rhys confided apologetically. “A toy.” No need to apologise. I stood there watching the movement and the interaction, fascinated by the way the birds followed me as I shifted across the screen. I loved it. I could have stood there for hours, but there was a queue of other people waiting to have a go.

Second, Paul Found, who had started his project by asking a synesthetic question: “What shape is red?”
Synesthesia is a hardwired crossover of senses in the brain with which a small percentage of people are born. Taste to colour, perhaps. Shape to sound. It seems to be quite individual and different for each person. My daughter has this to some degree, having colours and shapes associated with words, numbers, times, objects and people.
Paul Found, a non-synesthetic – approached the question logically, taking the three numbers of the RBG system associated with each colour and using them to construct a three dimensional graph – which he then created using a three dimensional printer. It all sounded very high-tech to me. Although in finishing his colour models he had to resort to paint spray, car polish and elbow grease.

There was no suggestion that any synesthetic would agree with his colour to shape maps – indeed it would have told us something unexpected and fascinating about the brain had they done so. But the objects he created were undoubtedly beautiful and wonderfully tactile. I showed my daughter photographs of his red model and she pulled a face. "That's just weird," she said. "That's not red. Red is 2 dimensional."
The exhibition gave the impression that a group of intelligent and talented individuals had been given a room full of high tech toys and told to play for a few months. In the present economic climate that might seem to be a strange luxury.
But I found the results of their work enjoyable and stimulating. The world would be a far poorer place without them.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Young Adult Fiction book launch

Bali Rai, Ross Bradshaw and Maxine Linnell introduced a multi-book launch hosted by Leicester Writers’ Club last Thursday.

Dan Tunstall’s book BIG AND CLEVER and Claire Tulloch’s DROWNED were launched alongside a new edition of David Belbin’s hit novel LOVE LESSONS. The three books were recent additions to the list of Nottingham-based publisher Five Leaves.

I have a lot of time for Five Leaves, and not just because they published my novella THE MENTALIST. They are a fine example of the growing band of independent regional publishers who are giving a voice to authors who might not be picked up by the London-based giants.

Why would the big boys/girls avoid books other than because they were poorly written? They might be deemed un-commercial for a start. They might be hard to classify. They might be risky. They might be out-and-out dangerous.

Young adult fiction is not a market for the squeamish. Adults think a 15 year old should be reading Harry Potter. Safe fiction. But a 15 year old is going through the full range of adult emotions – and with an intensity that it is hard for me (on the wrong side of 40) to even remember. They need fiction that challenges them and helps them to make the huge transitions of life that they are enduring. If they don’t want ‘safe’, perhaps they should look at the growing young adult list from Five Leaves.

Claire Tulloch’s DROWNED follows a teenage boy coming to terms with the death of a close friend in rural Ireland 30 years ago. Was it an accident or was it murder? The protagonist sets out to discover the truth. Dan Tunstall’s BIG AND CLEVER addresses teenage identity and football violence. Whilst David Belbin’s LOVE LESSONS goes for the ultimate taboo – a relationship between a 15 year old girl and her teacher.

Acording to Belbin, the young adult genre has shifted over the years to accept ever more controversial subjects. It took a long time to get LOVE LESSONS accepted by a publisher. But it turned out to be a huge hit with its target audience. There is clearly a gap between what the industry is comfortable with and what young adults are hungry for.

What about the moral implications of writing about these subjects for this audience? The question was asked by a member of the 60-strong audience, and must surely have been on the minds of many. A difficult question to answer. The authors agreed that young adult audiences should be credited with some understanding and moral judgement. They are capable of interpreting a moral ambiguity.

I was listening to this, thinking how glad I am that it is not me having to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not. There is a huge gulf between the ghastly preachiness of overtly moralistic stories and the ethical quagmire of stories that are detached from all moral compass. Somewhere between the two must be a balance.

Not a happy balance though. It is never going to be that.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Gender, Author and Character part 2

This topic keeps coming up in conversations and e-mails since I posted a couple of days ago. I was at a book launch for three young adult novels last night. The question of gender and characterization came up in the talks, so I asked for comments from the three authors.

Claire Tuloch said she was drawn to writing descriptive passages in her novel DROWNED, and that a male point of view seemed the natural voice for her in getting the tone she was looking for.

David Belbin said he often takes a female point of view in his novels because he finds women more interesting to write about. Having said that, it is only recently that he has stepped into writing female protagonists from the first person. In the context of a supplementary question about other people's reactions, he said: Writers have the right to do anything" - which I liked.

Dan Tunstall said writing a first person female narrative was on his to-do list.

I'll write more about the launch in another post.

For another novelist's take on writing from the opposite gender, we move to an e-mail I received from thriller writer David Hood. I've blanked out some names to protect the possibly guilty:

Interesting blog on gender in writing. It has always been my view that there is a big difference between getting action right and thought right, and an even bigger difference between plot driven novels and those with lots of introspection. The deeper the book gets into the character’s head, the harder it is to get the opposite gender right, because it’s delving into something that you cannot possibly have observed. I know, for example, that two days a month some of my female charters are going to act differently, and I can do a fair job of describing the change in behaviour, but I have no idea, nor courage enough to try to describe, the change in internal thought and emotional processes that’s driving it. The more you claim to be describing the thoughts (sometimes unconscious and often suppressed) of someone of the opposite gender, the more you lead yourself towards danger.

It always surprised me that some of the great female literary writers get the subconscious workings of their male characters wrong, especially when they try to delve into suppressed sexual or ego driven instinct (XXXX XXXXX who is otherwise a brilliant author is a prime example; I remember throwing a couple of her books across the room because she got the male motivation wrong at the critical emotional point of the book. XXXX XXXXXXXX and XXXXXXX XXXXXX have suffered similarly at my frustrated hand). I have always assumed – though I’m not in a position to judge – that male authors return the compliment when delving too deeply into the subconscious of women.

As always, comments are welcomed...

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Does Dyslexia Exist?

I came across this blog article today and felt moved to write a response. In brief, the article states that 'dyslexia does not exist'. Regular readers will know I disagree. My response to the article is below:

To begin with Graham Stringer's remarks: he seems to have based his article on the astounding assumption that if someone can be taught to read and write then they cannot be dyslexic. He added to that with literacy statistics from different countries for which I can find no basis in fact. If his article was intended as a means of self-publicity, it has certainly worked. I did pursue the Labour party about it and they confirmed that he was not reflecting party policy (their response to my questions on the issue can be found here.)

In contrast to Graham Stringer's risible article, Julian Elliott's work is coherent and based on facts. The popular presentations of his work, however, take a similarly narrow definition of the problem. The argument seems to be that once a child has been taught to read and write, the question of dyslexia has no more meaning.

This is at odds with my experience.

I have known many adults who struggled through the education system, eventually managing to learn to read and write, but in adult life always felt out of step with the world around them - sensing that other people were doing things differently but not quite being able to put their finger on what the difference was. Then at some point (typically when they re-entered education) it was pointed out to them that they were probably dyslexic.

Suddenly their many strange quirks fell into a pattern. The fact that they could not easily remember left from right or track the flow of time or retrace their steps out of a big building. Their anomalous abilities were also pointed out to them. It was a moment of huge relief for many. A psychological burden being removed. A puzzle explained.

I am quite prepared to look at arguments that say the funding structures in education are distorted by the idea of a single one-size-fits-all diagnosis of 'dyslexia'. And synthetic phonics – wonderful. If it works, let its use be expanded. (It seems to be extremely similar to the system that was used to teach me after I was diagnosed with dyslexia back in the 1970s.) But to say: because we can now teach all children to read and write 'dyslexia doesn’t exist' is to miss the point entirely.

Dyslexia is a physical difference in the brain that gives rise to a fairly well established cluster of differences in functioning - positive and negative. It is not - as its name implies, and Stringer clearly believes - a synonym for illiteracy.

As to the assertion that: "if you cannot accurately define or diagnose something then it cannot be said to exist" - science progresses by making observations of phenomena that are imperfectly understood, forming hypotheses and then testing them.

Dyslexia was a term coined to described a perplexing phenomenon. Since that time understanding has increased. But no one would say that it is yet fully understood. Far from it. Perhaps, when the science of the brain has progressed further it will turn out to be more than one condition. I would think that is highly likely.

Early medicine might have described many different illnesses with the same words - “a fever” perhaps, or a “congestion of the lungs”. It took developments in medicine before the specific causes could be identified - different varieties of flu, which can only now be defined genetically. H1N1 flu existed before it could be properly defined or diagnosed.

Dyslexia exists also.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gender Author and Character in fiction

One of the members of last week’s book group told me that when she realised the protagonist of BACKLASH was female and the author was male, she started looking for mistakes. The character would, she reasoned, say or do something that gave away my male personality. This suspicion lasted five or six chapters. But having found nothing ‘wrong’ in that time, her resistance softened and she accepted the genuine femaleness of the character. There was an animated discussion on this and I promised to write an article in response.

My editor at Simon & Schuster told me a very similar story. She’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to carry off a female point of view successfully in a first-person narrative. Her reading of the opening chapters was through that lens of suspicion. But then the character made an observation that was so true to my editor’s understanding of how a woman would see things, that credibility was established.

Of course, I asked the reverse question. If a woman was writing a first-person account from a male point of view, would she have the same apprehension? She said yes. But I suspect in general that people’s reactions might be fractionally different for a woman writing as a man.

There is also a supplementary question: if a male author were to write a third-person point of view with a female protagonist (as I did in BURNOUT) would that be equally difficult to accept? Again, I don’t think the reaction would be quite as strong.

Backlash by Rod Duncan, published by Simon and Schuster UK
One of the questions often raised when the actions of fictional characters are being examined is: would a man/woman behave in such a way? Is the character true to their gender? The question is based on a huge assumption, however: that there is more character difference between the genders than there is within each gender.

We know that there are occasionally women who have what we might call a masculine personality and men who have what we might call a feminine personality. When we meet these people in reality, we accept them as what they are - perhaps musing to ourselves that their character is interesting or unusual. Paradoxically, when we met them in fiction we sometimes reject them saying: I don’t believe a woman/man would think like that.

Gender differences and the brain

This touches on one of the key differences between fiction and reality. Fiction has to be believable, whereas we have no choice but accept the things that reality serves up for us - however outrageously unlikely they may be.

The question for writers is: how do we allow our readers to get to the point of accepting that a character is truly male or female – especially when we are the opposite? I have two possible approaches to suggest.

The first is to offer your reader early evidence that you as a writer are able to get the characterisation spot-on. Somewhere near the beginning of the book, make an observation that is so perfectly gender correct that your readers drop their suspicions - just as my editor did. After that point, all the quirky stuff the character does or says will be taken as individuality. But try not to push it too far because the bubble of belief can be burst all too easily.

The second approach is to have another character express the view that your protagonist has a quirkily atypical personality – a peculiarly feminine male or masculine female. Once a facet of character has been observed within the book as unusual, the audience may just drop their fear that the writer has made a mistake.

Even if he/she has.

But as with all these things, I regard myself as a learner. If you have any insights on the question of gender and characterisation, do leave a comment below.

Google Book Settlement - update

More news on the Google Book Settlement.

The long running saga of the Google Book Settlement seems about to get longer. It kicked off when Google's decided to scan libraries of books in order to make them available through the Internet - without asking all the authors for permission first.

Some authors didn't like this and a case started to trundle forward along expensive legal rails. As a result a settlement has been reached between Google and an American body representing the interests of authors.

The word 'settlement' might be misleading here. It is not quite settled. There was a deadline for authors to register their desire to opt out and not have their work made available online. The deadline would have passed yesterday (May 5th) but has been extended to September 4th 2009.

Rod Duncan books and DVDs collected on a wooden book shelf

A 'Fairness Hearing' is due to take place on October 7th 2009. I'm no expert in these things, but advice has been put to me to hold off from doing anything (either opting out or registering my titles) for the time being.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Writing Weekend part 2


Day two of the Writers’ Weekend. A bright, clear morning with dizzyingly beautiful views over the wide valley. I took off early for a walk with my camera, trying to catch that distinctive early-morning light. When I take photographs, in a doomed attempt to capture visual moments, I am also learning how to write. So much of the process of writing is about learning to really see the world.

The Cotswolds
Then more workshops. Two highlights for me were a workshop on synopsis writing given by Terri Bradshaw and one on editing poetry, given by Siobhan Logan. I learned about the subjects in question and approaches to teaching them.

Leicester Writers Club af Middle Stanley Farm
I’d been trying to get Internet access and was told that I could use an unsecured wi-fi network based in one of the buildings on the site. I took my laptop out and sat next to the building in question – getting a strong and hopeful signal. But on trying to connect, my computer informed me that it had: “Failed to connect due to an unknown reason.” Blogging from the weekend was not to be.

Colour and texture contrast. Blinds and uneven plasterworkI contented myself with walking around the house, admiring the quirky little details that set genuinely old buildings apart from impressions of history recreated on interior design lifestyle shows.

Window catch and stonework
That evening, after a very enjoyable meal and a session of joke telling (during which I learned that the Scandinavian nations tell very rude stories about each other) I decided to drive back through the night rather than waiting until the next morning to return to Leicester.

Leaving Middle Stanley Farm. Night time viewWhat did I get out of the experience? (Other than a need to exercise. That food was far too good.)

In all the rush and focus on product that are part of my life as a writer, I sometimes forget what it is all really about. The writing weekend put things back in perspective. Spending time with writers. Talking about craft and creativity. Listening to other people's hopes and uncertainties. All this has left me feeling more centred in what I am doing.

And so, with that, it is back to the screenplay with renewed enthusiasm and a determination to enjoy the journey.