Category Archives: Writing

Putting people in their place

Black or fat. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be put in that special group. The one that shows that white people – or thin people – are feeling inclusive. They will let you have what they have ‘always’ had, but only because the winds are such that it appears best to allow ‘minorities’ to do what everyone should have the right to do, be it write books and have them published, or buy and wear clothes that look nice and actually fit.

Thank you. It is most kind.

The Guardian Review on Saturday had a long article about how things have almost got a little better [fairer] for dark people in the publishing business.

I was struck by two things. First is that authors who are somehow different get their own imprint, as witnessed by the hiring of Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher of Dialogue Books, a new ‘inclusive’ imprint at Little, Brown. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

As the Guardian says, ‘but why does inclusivity have to have its own ring-fenced imprint? Shouldn’t it be part of every imprint rather than becoming its own distinctive brand?’

This, incidentally, reminded me of what I wrote earlier this year, “there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.”

I know someone who ended up being put there after a publishing house reshuffle. He/she was both offended and pleased. Offended because colour of skin suddenly made this the right place for him/her. Pleased because Tamarind have really keen publicists, which ought to be good for sales.

And second, a comment by Abir Mukherjee, part of a ‘dynamic new circle of British Asian crime novelists.’ Abir* has been told ‘his work is not “authentically Asian enough” because his debut A Rising Man is about a white, British detective in India.

So, the whites get to tell the ‘minority’ writers what to write. We’re back to the situation where you can only ever write about what you are; i.e. for my part a novel about a short, fat girl in southwest Sweden.

Which brings me to one of my fondest gripes, clothes for fat people. Don’t design especially ugly and different clothes ranges for us. It’s enough – well, preferable, actually – if you make larger sizes of the same as everyone else gets. This should have several benefits. No need to design twice. The fat customers will be happier. Happy customers buy more, thus providing more income.

And let’s face it; if you don’t make it, we won’t buy. We can’t suddenly use smaller clothes, just because you think that’s the best. So that’s a loss of revenue to you.

Something similar must surely happen in the book trade. Publish good books about anything at all, and we will buy. Doesn’t matter what colour skin the author is, or their accent, or if they were born in a different place than where they live now.

Yes, unlike the jeans that are too tight, if one book has not been written or published, a keen reader can buy another book. But there must still be a certain loss of potential income. To some extent publishers can and will tell someone what ought to be in a book [for it to sell], and sometimes they will even be right. But to limit Asian writers to write about Asians, or for that matter, to prevent a Muggle author from writing about wizards, is just silly.

In fact, I recently read a crime novel by Vaseem Khan, featuring his Mumbai detective as usual. Lovely book. But what makes that different from, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s lovely books about a female detective in Botswana? Is he female? Is he black? Is he a detective?

Neither Vaseem nor Alexander have been ring-fenced into an imprint suitable for their colour. Why should anyone else?


*When xenophobia is at its worst, immigrants are often told they need to adopt the same values and behaviour as the British. While I happen to think that this is wrong, I feel that it is precisely what someone like Abir has done. He has assimilated, which, considering he was born here, is fairly natural. And also what the real natives want. Except when they want their foreigners to be a little more authentically foreign.

It’s not easy.

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Starting young

If I’d stopped to think about it, I suppose I’d half expect the child of an author [whose work] I like to turn into a competent writer as well.

One day. Just not yet.

I may have mentioned this before. One of my very first contacts among fellow blog people was Declan Burke. This author and compiler of Irish crime – on his blog Crime Always Pays – has introduced me to countless lovely people, writers and non-writers. (Thank you, Siobhan Dowd!)

Back in 2007 I believe he’d just got married. I mention this because the next year he became a father. So that’s nine years ago.

Last year Declan’s daughter Lily wrote me an email to thank me for the Christmas e-cards I have sent them over the years (she’s been keeping count…), which was lovely of her.

And this year she has written something else, which I recommend you read. I won’t borrow, so you have to pop over to her dad’s blog to read it. It seems Lily is a Jacqueline Wilson fan. Well, who isn’t? And it seems there’s been a competition to write a historical letter, where the winner would appear in Jacqueline’s next book. So Lily obviously wrote a letter.

No, she didn’t win. I imagine there will have been ‘a few’ entries to such a competition. But ever the proud father, Declan put her letter on Crime Always Pays, and that’s where you can read it.

I’m having two thoughts here; 1) Jacqueline Wilson really inspires her fans, 2) we have to stop thinking that young children are too young. I would never have expected a nine-year-old to write quite what Lily wrote. But if she can think such grown-up thoughts, then surely there are more girls like her?

In fact, the really great thing about Jacqueline’s books is that even the ‘older’ stories are quite simply written, which means that her younger fans can access the teen books, and they like them, and understand them. And they go forth and write their own.

Lily gives me hope.

Writing Gender Violence

Oscars. Pathfoot Building, University of Stirling. Looks simple, doesn’t it? But by clicking the map link in my Eventbrite email for my fourth event of Book Week Scotland I was taken to the Kilted Kangaroo. That’s a bar. In town. I think. So I Googled Oscars and looked at countless maps of the university. No Oscars.

The Resident IT Consultant dropped me off at the top of Pathfoot – to save me all those stairs, what with the building sitting on a slope – and went for a walk up on Sheriffmuir. So did I. Walk, I mean. I laboured down all those stairs until I got to the reception, where I asked about the event, which the receptionist had never heard of. But she squinted at a discreet A4 sheet on the door, and asked if that was it. It was. So I walked back up the stairs to where I’d started. Oscars is the dining room, except this is not mentioned on any map.

As with the college in Alloa, I reckon the event was really for university staff and students, and they’d know Oscar, whoever he may be. But I got there, and the view was lovely. The campus loch and the Wallace Monument in the background, and the famous Scottish sunshine on the grassy slopes. Beautiful.

Pathfoot, University of Stirling

Now, you know me. Gender violence is not the first thing you think of for a Bookwitch. But the discussion sounded interesting, it was local, and it was to feature Alexandra Sokoloff, among others. Alex had to join us via Skype in the end, as she appears to be stuck in California for various reasons, and where it was very early in the morning.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Chaired by professor Karen Boyle, we also had psychotherapist Madeleine Black, Lydia House from Zero Tolerance and Lorna Hill, who’d just submitted her PhD (Bloody Women: The Role of Women in Scottish and Scandinavian Crime Fiction) that morning. This was to be part of 16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence, which will culminate in an event at the Scottish Parliament next Thursday.

Lydia House

Lydia House started by telling us about the stock images Zero Tolerance have put together, which are free to use, and more suitable for portraying violence against women than what the media usually go for. She also mentioned an award for good writing.

Madeleine Black, who’s written the book Unbroken (about when she was repeatedly raped as a teenager), talks a lot at events, and feels she’s finally getting across what rape means, citing her [male] editor who eventually grasped what the experience had been like.

Lorna Hill is a former journalist who tired of gender violence being considered a taboo subject. As part of her PhD she has written a crime novel, about human trafficking and domestic abuse.

Alexandra Sokoloff’s novel Huntress Moon is about a female serial killer. In Hollywood serial killers are ‘just part of our classic language.’ Alex wanted to reach a large audience, which is why she chose this topic for her novel, and she points out that violence against women is so common, that even though her serial killer has killed a lot of men (slitting throats is apparently quick), she still needs to look out for her own safety when out.

It’s important to point out that this kind of violence makes for a ‘series of surviving’ and it’s not something you only do once. It happens all the time. Over and over again.

Karen Boyle

Madeleine finally realised that date sex can also be rape, and she set out to write her book to tell the world what had happened. Many readers of her book have decided that despite the warning about the violence, they ‘owed it to [Madeleine’s] 13-year-old self’ to read the chapter. Karen Boyle admitted that she wanted Alex’s killer to come after Madeleine’s rapists.

Lorna talked about cultural appropriation, and how she felt she was allowed to write about an African girl who had been trafficked, despite not being either African or abused. Lydia mentioned that it’s important to have survivor-led action. And one of the best interviews Madeleine had ever done was with Trevor McDonald, which she later heard had made an 81-year-old woman open up about what had happened to her many years earlier.

Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Alex said that with television screenwriting, they are looking for edgier and edgier subjects, which now means they want something with women. She also pointed out that it’s vital to call the crimes ‘male violence against women’; that you must mention who did it, rather than against whom.

Lydia said that with their new stock images, it becomes easier to show that much abuse is emotional, rather than ‘a black eye.’ Some women believe they can’t ask for help because they have not been hit and have no bruises to show. They also believe it’s their fault.

Media has not helped by first deciding what they want to write about, and then asking for a victim of a specific kind of crime [rape in a taxi], instead of looking at the whole problem. According to Alex there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits handed in to the police, that have not been processed, because the police don’t know what to do with them.

Alex reckons that after Weinstein, and with Trump in power, women have nothing to lose. It’s time to do something. Madeleine feels you must share, because ‘the shame belongs to the perpetrators.’

Madeleine Black, Lydia House, Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Karen asked the women for their take-home points, and Madeleine said ‘do it!’ Lorna agreed, ‘just do it, have confidence in yourself.’ Alex said there are many ways of being active; journalism, writing fiction, activism, and she mentioned her own writing classes in Stirling (for when she’s allowed back in…).

Lydia reminded us of the writing award next week, and the event on Thursday at Parliament. And Karen said there is also a march from Stirling Castle Esplanade on Thursday December 7th at 6.30pm, for anyone who wants to take part.

Lin Anderson – ‘It’s difficult to murder people at home’

Dumyat

The steps up to the entrance of Forth Valley College in Alloa were murder. It wasn’t quite Follow the Dead – which is Lin Anderson’s most recent crime novel – but nearly. On a brighter note, the view was spectacular. Once you arrived. I could almost enrol for the view alone.

We’d parked in the Asda car park, and the upside of this was that we could see the car during Lin’s Book Week Scotland event, knowing that it was all right and happy.

Lin Anderson

The event seemed to attract mostly staff and students from the college, and it must have been great to have someone of Lin’s stature come and visit ‘at home.’ I’d not thought of her height until Lin pointed it out, mentioning how she and her sisters used to stand out among the short people of Glasgow, known as ‘big Willie Mitchell’s daughters.’

Lin Anderson

Lin’s dad was a detective, and he used to worry when he got to a crime scene that he’d find one of his girls there, either as the victim or the perpetrator. And it was this thought which formed the basis of Lin’s first Rhona MacLeod novel Driftnet. At the time she didn’t know there were going to be more books about Rhona, but now there are twelve.

Before writing, Lin was a teacher, and she’s keen to point out that a future author does not necessarily teach English. In her case it was Computer Science.

She realised that she needed a better knowledge of forensic science, so – along with Alex Gray – she joined an evening class in forensics. It was primarily aimed at people who through their work need to appear in court at murder trials, but it worked fine for crime writers too. Lin still refers to her course notes. (And the less said about the [real] victim with an axe in his head and his missing pet snake, the better.)

Lin Anderson

Her new book was inspired by a blizzard in the Cairngorms one New Year. It involved learning about what Mountain Rescue teams do, about answering the call of nature during a blizzard, and how to incorporate something Norwegian in her story.

We learned that these days all deaths in the mountains are a crime scene, and that Mountain Rescue take photos of victims. Up there a forensic tent can very easily just blow away. And did you know the temperature in a mortuary is 4 degrees, like a fridge, not a freezer?

Lin is happy with the trend of fans paying money to charity to feature in books. Apparently the latest thing is to be allowed to go to bed with the detective (if you fancy him/her), and she has actually kept someone from her home village on in more than one book, feeling that this way the character gets more rounded. ‘Her’ Mary Grant even does her own PR and signs the books…

And Lin strongly feels we should volunteer at Bloody Scotland. It’s great in every way. In fact, she talked a lot about her baby, Bloody Scotland. And yes, you are allowed to say Bloody. Not everyone knows this.

Finally, the hardest thing about writing a book are the words.

Ochils

We over-ran quite a bit, which proves how interesting it was. I then had to get down all those [bloody] steps again, so we could retrieve the car, but not before engaging in some shopping. After which, the Resident IT Consultant spent the drive back thinking about getting hold of more of Lin’s books.

Mary, Queen of Scots – Revered, reviled

The Resident IT Consultant and your witch had been wondering who on earth would come to a book event at a branch library on a Tuesday morning. Even if it was Alex Nye and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Well, let me tell you; countless elderly ladies, interested in Mary, in history and most likely quite keen on some culture to liven up their day, at a time when it’s easier to get out. St Ninian’s library was ready for business at 10.30, standing by with fresh coffee and enough room for wheelchairs and zimmer frames and the odd, self-balancing stick. Not to mention an ignorant Bookwitch. The man seated in front of the Resident IT Consultant turned round and said he was so glad he wasn’t the only man in the room…

Self-balancing stick

In other news, there was barely a copy of Alex’s book – For My Sins – available to buy, because it’s out of print, and will only be in he shops again tomorrow. Alex had a few copies, which she brought, but at least that’s success, even if it would have been nice to see a roaring trade in Mary.

I hadn’t even heard it all before. This can be a problem when going to more than one event for a book, but Alex varied what she said, so it was almost like it was brand new.

Alex Nye

She set the scene by describing the snow-covered Stirling castle (we’d had one just like it three days earlier), with Mary getting ready for the christening of her baby son James. Alex read a bit from that part of the book, finishing with Darnley’s sudden departure for Glasgow (which presumably had him ride right past the library, seeing as it’s virtually on the Glasgow Road).

Alex Nye

We heard how Alex began the book in her early twenties, in her ‘garret’ in Buccleuch Street in Edinburgh, and how it was eventually discovered by publisher Clare Cain and made into what we all agreed was an attractive book (even if it did sell too well), looking as though it had just escaped from a fire.

Alex Nye, For My Sins

And when it came to questions, the assembled ladies had more and better questions than I’ve heard at other events. They know their Scottish history, and they care about it.

Maybe have more daytime events like this?

Series – to abandon or not to abandon

That is the question.

As has become clear over the Bloody Scotland weekend, there are series everywhere. Not only do the long – and medium – established writers have series. The debut authors are also planning several books. Even the unpublished ones pitching their first novel, spoke of series.

If you are free to read whatever you like, whenever you can, with no blog commitments, you can probably keep up with lots of series.

I no longer know what to do. I tend to wait and see what happens. Because I can’t actually make the decision. It has to be made for me. I will – temporarily – abandon a series of books I love, if there is something else, equally loveable out there. Maybe something that is noisier when looking for attention.

And that first abandoning was never intentional. It just happened. It’s not you; it’s me.

In the last maybe fifteen years I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the crime novels by Kate Ellis and Stephen Booth. I read every one up to a certain point. I read about Mma Ramotswe. I read these usually in the right order, moving backwards to catch the odd earlier book, and then waited in real time for the next one to be published. It seemed like a long wait, until it wasn’t so bad, and then until the next two books were here and I didn’t know how to fit them in.

I discovered Sara Paretsky, whose books I still read when a new one comes along, and slowly reading the older ones.

Among my new people, as you know, are James Oswald and Vaseem Khan. I don’t know how long I can keep going. I want to. But I wanted to with the others as well.

With Sophie Hannah I grew too scared to continue, so that was an easier decison to make. And thankfully we have the new Poirots.

Or there is Harry Potter, but we knew how many books to expect. Knew there would be an end. As we did with Skulduggery Pleasant, at least until Derek Landy decided to keep going a bit longer. With Lockwood you might not have known for certain, but unless something changed, the characters would eventually be unable to do what they did because of their [lack of] years.

Which books do you keep? Will I ever reread the abandoned series? Will I restart one day? Which ones will I regret once I have ditched my copies? When we moved, we parted with about half our Dorothy Sayers. That seemed OK. Many of Agatha Christie’s books I’ve never owned as I borrowed them from the library.

And then I looked at my shelves for inspiration, and considered Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Those books I read slowly over a long time, and I don’t claim to have read all. But the thought that I might get rid of the books made me want to cry. They are staying. Campion is like a crazy older brother, and Alleyn some benevolent uncle. Yes, I know I have now bypassed them in age, as far as most of the stories are concerned.

So what to do about those just starting out? Not read at all, just in case? Read one and be hooked? Have nervous breakdown?

Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland

Had they even written those books they worked so hard to pitch?

I ask only because last year’s winner of Pitch Perfect apparently hadn’t. She pitched. She won. She got contract. And then she wrote. Or I hope she did, as the book is coming out in the spring.

I don’t know why I’ve never gone to one of these sessions before. Well, I do. They sounded too intimate, for some reason. A moment between hopeful writer and stern publishing person. Could be embarrassing to witness.

Pitch perfect

Except it wasn’t. Eight – slightly vetted – hopefuls using their three minutes as wisely as possible, trying to charm the four professionals, who in turn had three minutes per applicant to give their verdict.

The first pitch was really good, I thought. I liked the person, I liked his performance and I thought the book sounded promising. But maybe they’d all be like that.

Well, some were, in some respects, and others weren’t. Most were interesting in some way. But what fascinated me was that while what I liked best, the professionals also liked. I think. But they seemed to like what I didn’t go for, even more. Very illuminating. As far as the publishing world goes, I mean.

And the thing is, a personable potential author does not guarantee a good book, or sales. A good pitch still does not mean it’s going to be a cracking novel. And so on. Those publishing people could be wrong. Maybe?

Or rather, they know very well what is likely to work. But it doesn’t mean they pick the best story to work with. The choose what will fit in best with their business. And it’s from this readers get to pick what they might enjoy. I noticed how one of the panel was impressed by an idea that I at my age felt was anything but original, because I’ve been around for longer.

Pitch perfect

They liked the person who could say who her expected readers might be. Except she had young people in mind, and that makes it YA (the horror of it!), and young people don’t spend money. Probably right. What they overlooked – perhaps – was that authors are often mistaken about who will love what they have written. It’s a judgement better done by someone else.

The panel obviously wanted to tick boxes. It’s how business works. And the digital publisher understandably had different needs from traditional publishing.

That’s why they eventually picked two winners; one for a possible digital future, and one traditional. The latter was the one I liked best, the first one. Look out for crimes in 1930s Singapore!