Category Archives: Writing

Is it like running?

Overwhelmed as I am by all the new and excellent books I see, I can’t help wondering how they happen. Are written. Get published.

Is it like running faster? I’ve never understood how come people run faster with each generation. Once there was a fuss when someone could run a mile in under four minutes. I suppose there must be a limit to how fast a human being can run a mile? But then Stone Age runners might have thought so too, and their limit was probably far from four minutes. If they knew about minutes.

So do authors today write better books because they know they have to to stand a chance of getting published, or do they write good books because evolution makes it happen? (I’m on very shaky ground here, as you can tell.)

Although, unlike the runners who can’t arrive before they’ve started, I suppose writers could – in theory – write better and better books. Cleverer use of words and better sentences about really exciting new people in new style plots. (Unless schools prevent any sensible written language from evolving.)

Anyway, they say there are only so many plots. And I despair a bit about the state of editing. If I can see it, it must be bad. So I suppose it’s back to the running. And as I was reminded when I looked it up, there is a difference between the normally competent runner, and the really successful athlete.

Or could it be the Björn Borg factor? Sweden was over-run by especially good young tennis players in the years after Björn’s Wimbledon triumphs. Players wanted to be the new Borg, and there were plenty of people able to help train them.

Or were the tennis results simply contagious? Like J K Rowling started us on wizards and Stephenie Meyer gave us romantic vampires. I think tennis-wise that things calmed down after a while. Will books?

Full circle

Five years on, Candy Gourlay and I were back where we started. No, not on Facebook. At Carluccio’s St Pancras. When thinking about what we might do – briefly – before I got on my northbound broomstick, I realised that we could finally have some more of the coffee ice cream we have reminisced about over the years. We both like it, and we both eat it sometimes, but never together.

I got there early, and was sitting reading, completely engrossed in Lucy Coats’s Cleo, when I realised someone was standing there, staring at me. But I suppose it’s fairly suitable to be found nose down in a book when you have a brunch date with an author.

And over my poached eggs we discussed lots of publishing stuff and books and writers. None of which I’ll tell you about. Children. Interior decorating. How to stay warm in our old age. Yes, really. Actually Candy believes she’s already too old, which doesn’t leave much hope for me. But we agreed that you need to have lived before you can write worthwhile stuff.

After the eggs, and the coffee ice cream, Candy accompanied me across the road to the other station, the one with a perennial queue for platform 9 3/4, but I said there was no reason for her to wait with me. I promised to leave town even if not escorted, and I did so by following the sudden stampede towards platform 4, once the Aberdeen train had been announced.

It’s good to have gone to London, but better still to get home again. I’m too old for all this big city life, seeing lots of people in crowds. I’ll have to set up meetings with people one at a time in future. If anyone ever wants to see me…

(The recipe for the coffee cheesecake will, possibly, turn up some time if I don’t forget.)

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.

On being lovely

It’s really tough being so lovely.

When I was a student of English at university I was informed by one of my British lecturers that you should never use the word ‘nice.’ It was an insult.

But I do use it, because I find it nice (!) and useful, and intend no bad meaning when I do. It’s like ‘interesting.’ That is also a negative word. It’s the word used by the Resident IT Consultant whenever I used to cook a meal with mustard for flavouring. (He likes mustard, as do I. I just seemed to have a knack for getting it wrong.)

But ‘lovely,’ well that’s another thing. That too is bad. Maybe. When I mention someone as the ‘lovely XX’ I mean it. The real lovely, not the insult. But it does appear to be shorthand for how to seem polite while actually meaning the opposite.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Bloggers are lovely. This is how we are addressed in countless emails from publishers’ publicity departments. ‘Hello lovely bloggers!’

Blogging itself has become an ugly word in my eyes. I used to describe myself as a blogger, but these days I will use any euphemism I can, given the particular circumstances, to describe myself in some other way. I don’t want to be herded into a group of people I have little in common with (apart from the fact that we all write blogs). Nor do I want to be despised, by anyone.

I’m a writer, or I review books, or I write for Bookwitch. I don’t blog.

There is nothing – well not much – wrong with chicklit. But it is not my religion. At all. Not long ago I was informed that I am a #banshee. No, I’m not. Not even close. If you can identify the book that it is connected with, I can only apologise, and point out that this PR effort turned me right off the book in question.

I’m not playful. I’m sure you can all agree with that. I’m an old fogey, but can still read, and hopefully provide OK-ish reviews.

Was very surprised some time ago when there was a blogging award, and how one author wrote about his introduction to the blogging world, and its enormous importance, by his publisher. They may have said the bloggers are important, but that’s possibly only as true as the fact that half of us were made into banshees. Lovely banshees, but nevertheless.

What I sense when getting those ‘hello lovely bloggers’ emails is that we are a nuisance. Too many of us, too greedy for books, but can’t be ignored – yet – and might come in handy one day. And we are all young and full of fun.

Humbug.

Even my own blogging software knows I’m a writer of few brain cells. It has had a new posting page for some time (so I suppose it’s no longer new, really), which makes posting so much easier. Apparently. I took several looks at it and couldn’t work out how to do what I wanted to do and what I had been doing for eight years, and found I could still switch back to the other kind of page. But it’s getting harder and harder to get the software to allow me to revert. When I fail to remember to use the secret route there, I am greeted by a chirpy message saying ‘beep beep boop’ which drives me bonkers. And it calls out ‘lookin good!’ as though I need the reassurance, and as if it can actually read and judge these things.

Grrr.

Working for free

This is what I do. It’s by choice. Often I feel as if I’ve got a tiger by the tail and I can’t let go. That’s when I harbour thoughts of giving up/slowing down/having a holiday. I like being Bookwitch, and I suspect that when my grasp on the tiger’s tail wavers, that I might stop being quite so Bookwitchy.

Authors don’t expect to write/work for free, but sometimes it ends up like that anyway, or very nearly. And then they are invited to events, with no payment for their effort or the time invested in travelling. ‘It will be good publicity.’ Annoying, but part of life for many writers.

I’m just amazed that this has now moved on to me. I too am requested to do stuff for organisations, for free. Because it’s useful to them (they don’t actually put it like that, but I can see that someone salaried in their office would get material for free and with very little effort), and I can ‘gain visibility.’

Maybe they believe that I also sit at a desk all day long, being paid for my efforts. In which case it should be easy enough for me to share my work with them.

I Bookwitch because it’s fun. If it wasn’t, I could have endless time available for actually reading more books, and socialising with friends (might not have any left), baking bread and, well, stuff. I have no wish to add to my workload by blogging for others, for free. Not when they are large companies, who could actually afford to pay for the few hours they’d like to hire my services for.

Where did all this using people because it’s convenient come from? Why do they think I should be grateful? I recently asked how much someone would pay for the work, and got a sniffy email back. What’s more, the request/suggestion originally sent out was so wooly and longwinded and half incomprehensible that I didn’t really want to read all of it. Nor was it totally clear what they were doing, after I’d done so anyway.

If companies do employ someone to sort out the company blog, say, they would do better to get someone who can write. That way they could do their own work, and not approach others with poorly written requests. But it does make sense to pocket the money while doing none of the work.

I might just get myself a high visibility vest. Should do the trick.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

Do they even know?

Recently I had a brief discussion with an author about a small factual mistake in their book. I had sort of noticed it when I read the book, but was too busy actually reading and enjoying, so thought no more of it. It took the Resident IT Consultant to bring it up, and I decided I might as well mention it to the author, in case they’d rather know, perhaps with a view to correcting it in a reprint later on.

The author sighed, along the lines of how ‘the editor, copyeditor and proof reader could all have picked it up too, but didn’t.’ I’m not surprised. Not because I think these people are no good, but this wasn’t a grammatical error, or bad spelling, or anything that simply needed some pruning to look better.

We all make mistakes, even when we know the right answer. So the author is entitled to get things wrong, and the various people at the publisher’s are – sort of – allowed to miss it as well. The author could have asked someone, but to do that you need to know that you need to know. And you don’t always know that. Nor did these editors know that the author might not have known.

It’s rather like Masklin in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers says about learning to think: ‘some things we can’t think because we don’t know the words.’ And later on, about the nomes in the Store: ‘They don’t know, and they don’t even know they don’t know. What is it that we don’t know?’

In the last few years there are absolutely masses of words and ideas that I have realised I don’t know, when I had thought I did know. I’d been told these things by people I assumed knew. Maybe they did, or maybe they didn’t, and either way they didn’t know that either.

Life’s not easy, is it?