Category Archives: Writing

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?

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

Farewell to Mal Peet

Football. Who’d have thought I’d like novels about football quite so much? The answer is that I obviously wouldn’t, had it not been Mal Peet who’d written them. And now Mal Peet has died, which is not only a dreadful loss for his family and friends (one of whom was thoughtful enough to let me know how things were, only a week before Mal died), but for his readers.

Mal Peet

Lots of people write very good books. Only a few manage what Mal Peet did, which is to write exceptional books. I remember the buzz on Facebook among his peers, last September when the proofs for The Murdstone Trilogy became available. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so much admiration, or read so many quotes, as I did then. And they were right. Murdstone is a marvellous take on fantasy literature, executed in a way only an expert could.

I felt then that it was really quite autobiographical in many ways, despite Mal -sort of – saying it wasn’t. And when I re-read the ending of the book just the other day, it felt even more as though he had put himself in there.

Mal Peet

Mal didn’t have hundreds of novels published. There wasn’t time for that. I don’t know if he wrote hundreds. That wouldn’t surprise me. I believe I’ve read all the published ones, and they belong to the category of books you just don’t get rid of. The Keepers. And now that I knew Murdstone was going to be Mal’s only adult novel, I simply had to go and move it from the adult section, to join its siblings on the YA shelves. It didn’t seem right to have poor Murdstone sitting there on his own, as it were.

I only met Mal a few times. First when he won the Guardian prize in 2009. And then at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2010 and 2011. I introduced myself again, but it seems he remembered me. Mal even allowed himself to be taken out to ‘the tree’ for a photography session.

Mal Peet

Thank you for everything.

(I must add the link to Meg Rosoff’s tribute to her dear friend in today’s Guardian. I will be discreet and not ask who she’d like to see dead instead.)

The tributes are piling up, as are old interviews, so here are a few more links: Guardian obituary, Tim Wynne-Jones, BookBrowse, Achuka. And on Open Book with Mariella Frostrup.