Some people, no dog

Last Friday I did my first ever ‘Meet the Author’ event, turning out at Earlham library in Norwich to be interrogated by the great and good. Or, at least, to meet the few people who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday teatime.

Earlham talk

The only photo of the event I have, thanks to my wife having to wrangle the small one whilst 

The crowd was small – it wasn’t quite one man and his dog but it wasn’t too far off. The crowd was bolstered by my own family (a mixed blessing), but an audience is still an audience. And worthy of my best efforts, which I gave in the form of a brief talk, a reading, and a Q&A.

And I had fun, I think, and (I’m told) went down okay. There were enough questions to make the whole thing feel worthwhile – a good one on the use of 1st person as opposed to third, and another on what about the commute from the library to home (as I described in the talk) had given me the idea for a novel set in Antarctica.

Anyway, all this dashing about across the country means I’ve little to discuss this week. I’m a busy bee right now and writing has suffered; I’m still trying to edit the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift, working on my workshop for Edge-Lit (and imbibing as much grimdark as possible before my panel there) – I’m even trying to contemplate writing something new for the first time in years.

So I’m not idle. Promise. I just don’t have much to say right now.

Hope you’re managing to be more productive!

A lovesong to the libraries

Libraries. What’s the point of ‘em, eh? After all, you can get Amazon to deliver a book to your door for only £2. So why are we spending money on such a waste of resources? A luxury, that’s what they are. Sure, we can use one or two but, in a time of austerity, we can use the money more wisely.

The stupidity, the banality, the shallowness of this statement leaves me breathless. That otherwise intelligent, rational people can put forwards such a facile argument makes me sick. So this is my paean to the library: to the irreplaceable, invaluable system that’s imperilled by people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Earlham library

My former home, beloved and wonderful. Photo courtesy of Norfolk County Council, used with permission. My old work-mug is still in there, waiting for my return

Stories

Let’s start with books. Can we at least agree that books and reading are good things? Let me just refer you to a previous post, where I campaigned against stopping convicted prisoners from receiving books in jail – a campaign that has, thanks to all you petition-signatories, been won. Stories are one of the most important tools in our make-a-human-being kit. Can we at least agree on this much?

Reading increases empathy, thus reducing crime and antisocial behaviour
It boosts intelligence, vocabulary and all that sort of thing
It aids relaxation and mental health
It benefits concentration and memory, including in Alzheimer’s sufferers
And it’s fun

Can we agree on this much? If you have any doubts, do a simple web-search on the benefits of reading.

Cost

I’m basing this section of the figure of £2 a book, as given in an argument I had a few days ago – the argument that inspired this post. I won’t bother debating this – though you might – because the precise number isn’t that important. But let’s break it down a little further. The under-fives read at least a book a day. It’s what bedtime is for, right? One of the essential building-blocks of a well-balanced human being. £2 a book is £14 a week. £56 a month. £672 a year. Still look like a minor expense? It’s also 365 books that you either have to store or dump. Over 1,800 before a child turns five.

Let’s turn to a different audience and look at those with poor eyesight. An audiobook is around £8 on the same monolithic retail-site as I mentioned above. Large-print books are at least £4. It doesn’t take long before these costs mount up. And these are the cheap ones; new audiobooks regularly clock in around £20 each. See where I’m going with this?

Discovery

That’s one thing. That’s a start. But I’ve never been too concerned with money. Money is either there or not there. I’m more concerned with this: how will people know what books are? I don’t know any parent who hasn’t bred their child in the library. Every single time I go into the library I see children experiencing the same joy of books that I felt when I was small; just to be surrounded by images, worlds, ideas – empathy – is a miracle. I was made in the library. If you’re reading this then I’m prepared to bet that you were too.

You can’t go on Amazon and choose a book. Amazon exists for those who know what they want. You can’t browse. You might be able to find something that catches the eye – but, week in, week out, that’s not what the internet is for. You can’t hit gold with random searches unless you’re magnificently sure of a genre, a style, a type of book. And, in that case, whence the empathy? Whence the discovery? Whence the finding concepts that you’d never previously been exposed to?

Every single time I go into a library I see things I’ve never seen before. I wander aimlessly, half taking in titles, covers, dreams, visions; concepts I never knew existed. If I shopped only online I’d never have discovered half of the authors I’ve come to love, to regard as friends, to build as deep parts of my psyche. Some days I’ll come home with nothing. Some days I’ll come out with only what I went in to find. But there’s always, always the possibility that I’ll come out with treasure. And it’s not only me who’ll benefit. Every day I try and understand the world, to see things a little clearer, have a broader, more expansive perspective. Surely the world can only benefit?

All this is true of physical bookshops, of course. Except libraries allow us to take risks. The cost is negligent: the risk of an overdue charge, perhaps. A little time. How many new authors have you encountered through Amazon? I can’t think of a single one, save maybe for the odd present I’ve bought for someone else and decided it sounds the sort of thing I’d actually like to gift myself. Libraries let us try new things, they let us test both new authors and ourselves.

Every time we step into a library we go on an adventure. We enter a land of magic and miracles. We’re pirates hunting hoarded gold. What right have we to deny our children this world of jaw-dropping mind-expanding majesty?

Computers

It is astounding how arrogant we are. How comfortable in the face of our own privilege. We think that because we don’t need things that no-one does. Well here’s a shock for you: not everyone has a computer. Not everyone is free. I used to work in a library – feel free to point out my biases – and much of my time was spent aiding people with the computers. Those that needed most assistance were the elderly, struggling to get to grips with what, for them, was new technology. There were also people running businesses from the library, buying and selling. People working on CVs, managing finances and the like.

The users that touched me most, though, were the migrants. Not refugees in my case, although there must be many people whose only connection with home was via a tentatively held email connection with family and friends left behind. The people from homeless hostels, desperately trying to find work, find social housing, to better themselves – or simply for warmth. What right have we, the (relatively) wealthy and well-educated, to deprive the poorest people of such a place, such an opportunity?

Integration and social interaction

This overlaps with the other headings because neat boundaries are always illusions, and libraries are always boundary places. They’re open to all. You know how rare and important that is? Where else can the well-to-do mix with the poorest of the poor, tacit agreements making everyone welcome and respectful of the needs of others? They are the great centre-ground, non-political, non-judgmental.

Libraries are places where every ethnicity is welcome. It’s where people go to learn English (or where English people go to learn foreign languages). It’s where immigrant mothers bring their children to make them part of wider society. It’s often the first port-of-call for new arrivals – whether inter-nationally or beyond – to find out more about their new home, to find ways of belonging, to fit in.

When I worked in the public library service I knew a family of Bangladeshis that came in most days. The mother spoke not a word of English but the kids were fluent. The oldest girl acted as a proxy for her mother, bringing in letters from the council for us to translate and explain. Even if the girl hadn’t spoken English we’d have been able to help because libraries offer a translation service covering most languages you can think of.

In the meantime the kids were reading books, learning English, exploring our world. Occasionally they were pesky, but that’s kids for you. And I tell you my heart melted when one of them drew a picture for me.

Other families were Polish. How much did it mean to them that we could provide them with books in their native language? We also got regular supplies of books in Tamil for another family. Some organisations claim that migrants don’t seek to integrate with western society, and yet these same people also want to close libraries. It’s bewildering. It’s maddening.

And, of course, it’s not just a question of race. Libraries bridge generations too, like no other place I can think of. They provide refuges for vulnerable people; company for the lonely, the ill and the isolated. They make happiness. They give essential social contact and ask nothing in return.

A safe and neutral place

I’ve left this until last because it’s not the most obvious advantage of libraries. But it is, for me, the single most important. I’ll say it again: a library is a safe, neutral and welcoming place. Do you know how vital this is? Can you think of any other places in western society that offers warmth, shelter, education, information and entertainment for no charge? I can’t. Not only is there no charge but there’s no expectation. No pressure, no sponsorship, nothing but books, magazines, aid, assistance.

My library was at the interstice of some of the very wealthiest housing in the city and some of the poorest. Every day, when the schools closed, the young teens would come in to use the computers. Sometimes they were annoying. Sometimes we had to turf them out. But they kept coming back, and they kept being welcomed, because they knew they were safe. What would they do if the library didn’t exist? Stay at home all afternoon? Many of them were single-parent and poorly educated: for some, home wasn’t a refuge. Should they hang around in gangs? Is the alternative for them to discover sex and alcohol at a horrendously early age? I’m not saying that the library prevented this, but at least it gave them an option, a chance.

And whilst they were in the library, what did they see? They saw other races. They saw other ages. They mixed – hell, some even helped the aforementioned elderly with their problems. No-one judged. I want to say they were free, but there were controls: the library staff work hard to maintain a place of equality for all, respecting everyone’s right to be themselves free of harassment and judgment. Sometimes that means saying no.

I ask again: where else in this society does such a place exist?

It makes me sick, absolutely sick, to see this under threat. And it makes me rage to think that the people responsible for the closure of libraries are those who have never used them. This mandate comes from the rich, from the privileged. They see only a useless repository of books – simple compressed vegetable matter that’s increasingly redundant. Saying that ‘Well I can’t see the point of libraries, so there can’t be one,’ is arrogance of the highest order.

I don’t need libraries. Really, I’m comfortable enough in my life to get by without. Certainly I’d lament them; I wouldn’t know what to do with myself on my Wednesday mornings. But I’d cope.

But I will not go gently into that good night. I know how necessary they are not just for me but for those less fortunate than me. I want society to be healthy and happy, and that can only be achieved with places like libraries that benefit everyone without exception.

The future of libraries is one where we combine traditional services with other underfunded – but essential – provisions such as mental heath and social services. In Rob’s Paradise there’d be staff on hand to give advice to all on a need by need basis. I suggested once that libraries should take on some of the services of the embattled Post Office: there are considerable practical difficulties there – a legal mandate to lend cash and security concerns – but I still think it’s a good idea. Libraries already host police surgeries. Why not mental health counselling or just basic financial advice?

A safe, neutral place. Libraries shouldn’t be cut, shouldn’t be hamstrung by targets and finances. They should be expanded and broadened. We need to stand up for what we have before we’re forced to face up to what we’ve lost.

Finally

If I’ve come across as angry here, if this has felt like a rant, then I’m sorry. And then I’m also not sorry, because I am angry, and because there are some things worth ranting about. I spit at the vandals who are doing their best to dismantle the love – yes, love – that libraries have provided not just for me but for millions like me. I spit at them – but I also pity them. They are not proper humans. They are half-baked. They are sociopaths.

Most of them are merely ignorant. I’d weep for them, but I’m too busy weeping for the world I love.

Adventure time

I don’t trust genre.

When you walk into your friendly local library you’ll see the books all neatly corralled, forced to comply with a regime that dictates their neat characterisation. Crime must not rub shoulders with Classics. Literary fiction is too good to mix with the SF/F oiks. Romance must – at all costs – be kept from the tiny LGBT shelf. And conspiracy theories demand a place in non-fiction, despite… well, despite evidence.

And that’s all well and good. But the fact is that a science-fiction novel can have more in common with mythology than it can with its immediate neighbour. It’d make as much sense to shelve books according to their settings as to their body-count (one or two corpses = crime: a million corpses = either space opera or political commentary). Think about it: books set in London all together on one shelf, be they sagas or gangland thrillers. Makes about as much sense as anything else.

Genre-division really doesn’t give you any idea of what any particular story is about, or how it’s told. What’s Agatha Christie got in common with Patricia Cornwell? The stories they tell are so different in voice that they might as well be from different planets. CJ Sansom cohabiting with Ellis Peters? SF/F is equally confusing. Ursula Le Guin next to Terry Pratchett? I love them both but hardly see them as interchangeable.

Which is why we’ve got all these subdivisions within genre. And that’s great. But it still doesn’t give us an idea of what any story is actually like.

See, I’m currently writing an Adventure. It’s an action story, told in a linear fashion: no flashbacks, little circularity save in location. Each scene will lead inexorably to the next as the tension grows, the stakes get higher…*

But of course it won’t be classified as an adventure. There isn’t really an adventure genre any more; not since the heyday of Wilbur Smith and Ian Fleming, not since we Gave Back Our Colonies has such a thing existed. It’s why Bernard Cornwell – the man who taught me everything I know about writing action – is historical fiction. And it’s why Oneiromancer will be classified as Urban Fantasy.

Adventure isn’t so much a genre as it is a way of telling a story. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are adventures. Some of you may know of Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’; for those who don’t know he divided all fiction into the following categories:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

You can take issue about these categories. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of his analysis. But a library or bookshop based on this categorisation would make at least as much sense as its current system. Genre, as we know it, really describes a book’s ‘dress’ – its setting or basic theme – rather than what it’s really about. Add a few more categories if you like: Extended Metaphor; Not-So-Subtle Political Manifesto; Loosely-Camouflaged Autobiography; Celebrity Cash-In; The Monster Within.

Really, we only accept the narrows of ‘form’ because a) we all grew up with it, and b) we know it well enough to navigate its treacherous undertow. But it means that I, and many, many other writers will feel ‘misfiled’ because the clothes matter more than the body beneath. And that, if you stop to think about it, is just a little bit strange.

*The right is thoroughly, completely and emphatically reserved to completely change this pre-emptive description of my future novel. What am I, a fortune teller?

Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

*          *          *

I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

*          *          *

A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/33-hilariously-terrible-novel-sentences-you-need-to-read/#KujBrXMc5kzrDBo2.01

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

http://gu.com/p/3jx63

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.