Thursday, 28 August 2014

A Street with a View - Clémentine Beauvais

Over the summer I finished the first draft of my next French YA novel, which, in stark contrast to the ones before, is not grim and dark but comical and light. And while my first two YA books take place entirely in Paris - and in places I know very well, including my old high school - this one narrates a road trip between the city of Bourg-en-Bresse (just a few kilometres from South Burgundy) and Paris. I know Bourg-en-Bresse and Paris well, but not the places in the middle, through which my three heroines were cycling. And that's where Google Street View comes into play. 

somewhere in France

Using Google Maps and Google Street View to write books is something I've done for quite some time, and I'm sure that most writers do it, though I hadn't quite realised how weird it sounds to people who aren't writers. My mother told me the other day, quite astonished, that she'd heard a famous writer say on the radio that he'd used it for his own novel, which is entirely set in a place in the US that he's never been to. My own response was a blasé 'Well, yes, of course. What's surprising about that?' Google Street View in one tab, Wikipedia in another, the city/ village website in a third, and more tabs containing blog posts or articles on the places in question: normal set-up for any writing session, no? Surely that's a good enough alternative to an expensive flight for the non-New-York-Time-bestselling author...

Well, sure, most of us would always privilege going to the real-world places, and some writers would not dream of writing about a place they'd never visited. There are obvious issues of cultural sensitivity at stake - 'would I truly respect the place, understand it, if I've only seen it through a 360° camera strapped to a car?'. There's the temptation of information overload, at the risk of ending up sounding like Jules Verne. And of course there are issues about the fact that the material given is exclusively visual, sacrificing the characteristic noises and smells which give life and texture to a place. A lot of writers would thus probably say that Street View should preferably be used only for quick fact-checking after seeing a place IRL (In Real Life).

not the most inspiring portrayal of space

But maybe there's something specific, and not necessarily inferior, to writing about spaces that you know only from Street View, in exactly the same way that doing a painting from a photograph is different, but not necessarily inferior, to painting from life. 

Ideally, painters begin with life-drawing; and similarly, as writers, we would already have written about spaces that we know intimately: we've had, so to speak, considerable training in 'life-writing'. In the most restricted sense of 'write what you know', this is the first skill to master as a 'representer' of things, whether verbal or visual. But of course 'write what you know' is underscored by the problematic assumptions that 1) we 'know' things, 2) we 'can' write those things that 'we know' and 3) even if both of the above are true, it makes for good artistic 'representation'.

Enter Google Street View, which presents a relentlessly artificial, 2D, unknowable vision of space. Just as photographs flatten reality and necessarily restrict the painter's visual and sensory navigation of the object to be represented, writing from Street View means subjecting yourself to an already mediated, stiff and alienating representation of space. How could anyone possibly argue that can be a good thing? 

Because, in both cases, it alerts the painter or the writer to the fact that the material cannot possibly provide a truthful kind of 'knowledge' about the object at all. Therefore it becomes not just desirable but absolutely imperative for something more to emerge - a stylisation, an appropriation of the object or the place. And this process comes from a source material so limited, so other, that you can't revert back to things you think you know. 

In other words, you just can't ignore, when you're writing a place from Street View (or indeed any travel guide book, like Verne used to do), that your vision of it is absolutely untrue. You just know you don't know it enough to write authentically about it; therefore, the only way you can go is towards further imagining that place. You have to make these impersonal snapshots of roads and monuments somehow become part of an authentic-sounding world. What must it smell like, this little pond on the side of the road? What must it feel like, this avenue, in the summer?

This creative distance is necessary anyway to any writing about place, whether or not you've been there, lived there, or not at all. You might feel you know your house, your street, your city, but of course your vision of them will always already be mediated - by yourself. The troubling difference, with Street View, is that someone else (someone totally faceless, nameless and in fact quite uncannily threatening) has done the mediating for you, placing you by necessity in a position to notice your alienation from this place.

Writing place 'from Google Street View' is of course not the only way we should proceed - that would be an absurd claim - but it can be a very refreshing endeavour in its own right - and a welcome process of distance-taking from 'truthfulness' in writing. 


Clementine Beauvais's space is split between Britain and France. She writes books in French of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and in English humour/adventure series, the Sesame Seade mysteries, with Hodder, and the Holy-Moly Holiday series with Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.  

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Other people's lives - Lily Hyde

Other people’s lives are our business, as writers.

Tamsyn Murray wrote a lovely and important post a few days ago, about how vital empathy is for writers, readers, and the world. I agree with her entirely. When we stop imagining, and stop trying to understand the way other people (and cats!) think and feel and live, we start wars.

Here are some photographs I’ve come across in the last few months, from other people’s lives. A doorway to imagination, to empathy. What are the stories behind these pictures? Who and what did these people love, hate, fear, desire?

I know some of the stories. Others, I’ll never know. But if all of us can imagine, and do our best to empathise, maybe some of these stories will never be repeated.

Crimean Tatar girls in national costume, Crimea, 1930s
Ukrainian village women in national costume, central Ukraine, 1950s 
Crimean Tatars in exile. Those who managed to take a sewing machine with them when they were deported from Crimea could make a living. Uzbekistan, 1950s 
Photos retrieved by rescue workers from a residential building destroyed by shelling in Nikolaevka, East Ukraine, July 2014. Nearly two months later, no one has collected them from the grass outside

Dream Land, a novel about the Crimean Tatars


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My Official Fear Survival Pack - Cavan Scott

Half an hour ago I didn't know what to write for this month's post and it was getting me down. Really down.

It was one of those moments when you think you're about to be found out. Do you know the times? When you feel like someone has taken out a double-page advert in The Times that says:

is a complete and utter fraud and should be thrown into the 
special prison where they put people who pretend to be writers.

Yup, today has been one of those days. 

It's quite normal, of course. Every writer or artist has days like them and if they say they don't they are either a) lying or b) lying. 

It's all part of The Fear™, that little demon inside that tells you that "YOU CAN'T DO THIS!" and "IF YOU'VE DONE IT BEFORE, YOU'VE NOW FORGOTTEN HOW TO DO IT SO WHY DON'T YOU JUST GO AND BECOME A MUCK-SPREADER INSTEAD?"

(Not that there's anything wrong with muck-spreaders, you understand. The world needs muck spreaders, and I bet they have their own version of The Fear™ too.) 

Anyway, I was feeling down in the mouth and worthless so I did what I usually do at when I feel down in the mouth and worthless. I reached for my Official Fear Survival Pack - three steps that give me a kick up the bottom when The Fear™ strikes. Sometimes just one of the three steps will do the trick. On other days I need all three, but they're always there to help. 

And inspiration hit. That's what I was going to blog about this month. Those steps I take. So here they are:

It probably sounds like a dreadful self-help book thing, but its impossible for me to listen to Freddie and the boys blasting out this particular track and stay glum. It always makes me feel better. Either that or play air guitar which usually amounts to the same thing anyway. No one can play air guitar and feel gloomy. Fact!

I love Neil Gaiman's 2012 commencement speech to Philadelphia University of the Arts. I have the book version beside my bed and the video bookmarked on my Mac. It makes me smile, it makes me think and - most of all - it makes me want to work. Here it is, without any further comment on the content, because Neil says everything that needs to be said:

On page 240 of Guillermo Del Toro's wonderful Cabinet of Curiosities he says this:

"There's the famous Sturgeon's Law, which is, 'Ninety percent of everything is s**t.' Now the way I live my life is the del Toro Law, which is, 'Ten percent of everything is awesome.' You know what I'm saying? I agree with Sturgeon, expect I think that it's amazing that we get ten percent."

It may sound glib, but when The Fear™sets in I try to think about that 10 percent. Some days that is easier than others, but there's always something that helps me crawl out of the hole that my black mood and paranoia has thrown me into. 

So there you have it. My Survival Pack. Freddie, Neil and Guillermo haven't failed me yet. 

Do you have an Official Fear Survival Pack? Perhaps you can share yours in the comments.


Cavan Scott is the author of over 60 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor WhoSkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and Bananaman for The Beano as well as books for reluctant readers of all ages.

Cavan's website
Cavan's facebook fanpage
Cavan's twitterings

Monday, 25 August 2014

Why Readers and Writers are the Best People by Tamsyn Murray

Last week, I had a very sad experience. We found a stray cat in the woods and brought it home, hoping to find its owner. The cat was horribly thin but very friendly and I was certain he belonged to someone, although he had clearly been lost for some time. So we did what we could - fed him, stroked him, nicknamed him Huck and the next day, took him to the vet to see if he had a microchip.

The vet had bad news: Huck wasn't chipped. Even worse, he needed a raft of expensive tests and treatment, which I couldn't afford on my own. So I put a shout out on Twitter and Facebook, asking people to donate if they could to Help Huck to recover from his ordeal and get back to his family. Many, many people donated and we smashed the £500 target in less than twenty-four hours. It didn't take long before I noticed something: almost all of the people who gave money were writers. Now you might think that there's nothing so very unexpected about that - I know a lot of writers, after all. But I think there's more to it than that. I have a few thousand followers on Twitter, several hundred Facebook friends. The proportion of people donating from that pool was very small, especially when you factor in retweets and shares. And they were mostly writers. Lovely, lovely writers.

I think it's because as writers, we empathise. In Huck's case, we empathised with the owners, searching in vain for their lost cat. We imagined he was our cat, lost and scared, and hoped that someone kind might find him and do what they could to help him. Some of us put ourselves in Huck's place, lonely and hungry. And because we could imagine ourselves in some or all of those situations, we were moved to do something to help. And we wanted a happy ending, the one where Huck got better and was reunited with his family. We wanted that so much.

Ultimately, the kindest thing for Huck was to let him go to sleep one last time, without fear and hunger. I am still desperately sad about that. But one of the things that helped me do this very difficult thing was the messages I received from the people who'd donated. Eloquent, heartfelt messages of support, reassuring me that I had done the right thing, thanking me for caring and pledging support to my idea of using any left over donations to create a small bursary for any owner who was struggling to pay for their pet's care. Some people donated even after I'd told them Huck had gone, wanting to help another animal in Huck's name. These people were writers too.

It's proof (if proof were needed) that writers are the best people. Writers empathise to make their characters and stories work. Of those people donors who were not writers, I am willing to take a gamble that they are readers, because readers make the best people too. And it's why I will argue and argue that children need to have access to books, need to be readers for pleasure. Reading teaches empathy and empathy makes the world a better, kinder place. In fact, we all need to be readers.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Do YOU Judge A Book By Its Cover? - Liz Kessler

Next year is a big year for me, in terms of my books. At least I hope that’s what it will be, and not the end of my career.

As some people know, my first ever YA book is due out in the spring. It will be my fifteenth book to be published, but was in fact the first I ever wrote. And it’s very different from all the rest. But I’ll talk more about that another time.

For now, what I want to talk about is the cover.

As anyone in the publishing world will know, things usually have to be done a LONG way in advance of publication – unless you are an overnight celebrity whose publisher needs to catch the moment before you return to your relative obscurity and appearance on ‘Celebrity’ reality TV shows. Or unless, of course, you are self-published. (Quick aside: I was amazed last month when I shared a train journey with a friend who was putting the final touches to her picture book layouts, and whose book launch – for the same book – I attended a couple of weeks later! Incredible!)

Anyway, I’m not a celebrity and I’m not self publishing this book – which means that we need a cover kind of now-ish. We have nearly got one, and both my publisher and I are working hard to make sure that we get this absolutely right. With a book that’s taking such a leap away from everything else I’ve ever done, making sure we come up with the perfect cover, and achieve the impact we want, is quite a challenge.

In the course of all of this, I’ve found myself wondering, exactly how important is the cover? Is it crucial? Can it make or break a book’s fortunes? Or in this day of social media and electronic everything, are there many, many things that are way more relevant to a book’s fortunes?

With my monthly ABBA post coming up in the middle of all these thoughts, it seemed an ideal place to ask these questions. So, that’s what I’m doing, and I would love to know your thoughts. If you have a minute to answer this question, I’d be extremely grateful.

So…how important is a book cover to YOU? And in the style of a good old Jackie magazine quiz, please pick the answer that is closest to how you feel about it. (And feel free to add comments too!)

a. Massively important. An appealing cover is one of the first things you look for when buying new books and you have often bought a book purely (or mainly) because of its cover. If you didn’t like the cover, it could put you off buying the book.

b. Important but not crucial. If you’re in a bookshop, you have sometimes picked up books that have caught your eye because of their cover, but it’s not the most important factor in your book-buying decisions.

c. A nice cover helps but it’s like an added extra rather than a reason to buy a book – and if you didn’t like the cover, it certainly wouldn’t put you off buying the book.

d. In this electronic age, you don’t browse in bookshops all that much. You either read mostly on an e-reader or choose your books from online recommendations and are rarely even aware of what the book’s cover looks like. It has no influence either way on which books you buy.

Thanks so much! I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts!

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Gauguin in Panama - Maeve Friel

Paul Gauguin arrived in Panamá in June 1887. He was 37, practically destitute having gone from riches to rags as a broker, and in bad health. (Absinthe didn´t help.) His sister Marie was married to a Peruvian with business interests in Panamá city and Gauguin believed that, with his experience in banking, his brother in law would offer him a job and that he could then send for Mette and their five children. Years earlier a sailor had told him that the island of Taboga in Panama Bay was a true paradise, that land was as good as free and that fish and pineapples and coconuts could be had for nothing.

He wrote to Mette before his departure: "I´m taking my paints and brushes and will, living like a native, immerse myself far from mankind."

Unfortunately, the brother-in-law´s business was no more than a general store and the French canal-building project under the direction of Dr de Lesseps was already in big trouble. Malaria and yellow fever were killing thousands of the workforce every year. Landslides and explosions killed thousands more. (Most of the workers at that time were from the French-speaking islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.)

Worse, the supposed paradise island of Taboga had been turned into a huge sanatorium run by the French Sisters of Charity and, to add insult to injury, was a day-trip destination for the French officials and their families escaping the oppressive heat of Panamá city.  The price of land had soared and was already out of reach of Gauguin´s limited resources.

Charles Laval, the artist, who had travelled with Gauguin, started doing studio portraits of the wives and daughters of the French officials but Gauguin refused to do so. Instead he worked as a labourer on the canal, with the crews dynamiting through the Continental Divide at the Gaillard Cut.  He wrote again to Mette:  "I have to work from five-thirty in the morning to six in the evening under tropical sun and rain. At night I am devoured by mosquitoes."

A few weeks later, he was arrested (allegedly for urinating in a street, protesting that it was in any case an open sewer,) was imprisoned for a night or two, and fined. To compound his problems, he was then laid off before he had earned enough to get off the isthmus and return to France. On June 8th, with his dream of life in the tropics shattered, he left for Martinique where he promptly came down with amoebic dysentery and nearly died before being repatriated to France.

It would be several years before he could fulfil his dream of paradise when he moved to Tahiti and unleashed a totally new way of painting saturated with tropical colour.

(But what if, in fact, he did paint some as yet undiscovered masterpieces inspired by his stay on Taboga Island? That´s the seed that I´m working on at moment.)

De Lesseps´ dream of building the interoceanic canal also foundered around the same time.  The French abandoned the canal amid financial and political scandals that shook and nearly bankrupted the entire country.

In 1904, the Americans stepped in (after engineering a "revolution" in which Panamá declared its independence from Colombia so that the USA could do a land grab and take control of the canal building). The work was mostly done by harshly treated, poorly paid and  segregated Jamaicans and Barbadians.

I´m recalling this because the canal was finally completed in August 1914, one hundred years ago , an extraordinary achievement that changed the world but that was totally eclipsed by the outbreak of  War in Europe days earlier.

The epic story of its building, the massive death tolls, the engineering and medical advances that the canal builders brought about, the struggle of the Panamanians to regain their autonomy : all these deserve to be remembered in this year of the canal´s centenary. 

Happy 100th Birthday, Panamá Canal. 

PS Will update with more photos...

Friday, 22 August 2014

Why I don't want to self-publish again

(Kate Wilson of the wonderful Nosy Crow asked me to write a guest post for her on my experiences of self-publishing as a published author. For your info, she didn't know what those experiences were, so there was no direction or expectation. I have re-posted it here, with permission. Note that this is personal experience, not advice.)

Many writers, previously published or not, talk excitedly about why they enjoy self-publishing. Let me tell you why I don’t.

I’ve self-published (only as ebooks) three of my previously published YA novels and three adult non-fiction titles which hadn’t been published before. From these books I make a welcome income of around £250 a month – a figure that is remarkably constant. So, why have I not enjoyed it and why won’t I do it again?

It’s damned hard to sell fiction! (Over 90% of that £250 is from the non-fiction titles.) Publishers know this. They also know that high sales are not always about “quality”, which is precisely why very good novels can be rejected over and over. Non-fiction is easier because it’s easy to find your readers and for them to find your book. Take my book about writing a synopsis, for example; anyone looking for a book on writing a synopsis will Google “books on writing a synopsis” and, hey presto, Write a Great Synopsis appears. But if someone wants a novel, the chances of finding mine out of the available eleventy million are slim. This despite the fact that they had fab reviews and a few awards from their former lives.

But some novels do sell well. So why don’t mine? Because I do absolutely nothing to sell them. Why not? Well, this is the point. Several points.

First, time. I am too busy with other writing and public-speaking but, even if I weren’t, the necessary marketing takes far too long (for me) and goes on for too long after publication: the very time when I want to be writing another one. This is precisely why publishers tend only to work on publicity for a short while after publication: they have other books to work on. We may moan but it has to be like that – unless a book does phenomenally well at first, you have to keep working at selling it.

Second, I dislike the stuff I’d have to do to sell more books. Now, this is where you start leaping up and down saying, “But published authors have to do that, too!” Yes, and I do, but it’s different. When a publisher has invested money because they believe in your book, you obviously want to help them sell it. But when the only person who has actually committed any money is you, the selling part feels different. It’s a case of “I love my book so much that I published it – now you need to believe in me enough to buy it.” I can’t do it. Maybe I don’t believe in myself enough. Fine. I think books need more than the author believing in them. The author might be right and the book be fabulous, but I tend to be distrustful of strangers telling me they are wonderful so why should I expect others to believe me if I say I am? And I don’t want to spend time on forums just to sell more books.

Third, I love being part of a team. Yes, I’ve had my share of frustrating experiences in the course of 100 or so published books, but I enjoy the teamwork – even though I’m an introvert who loves working alone in a shed; I love the fact that other people put money and time and passion into selling my book. It gives me confidence and support. They won’t make money if they don’t sell my book and I still like and trust that model.

And I especially love that once I’ve written it and done my bit for the publicity machine and done the best I can for my book, I can let it go and write another.

See, I’m a writer, not a publisher. I may love control – the usual reason given for self-publishing – but I mostly want control over my words, not the rest. (That control, by the way, is never lost to a good editor, and I’ve been lucky with genius editors.) So, yes, I am pleased with the money I’ve earned from self-publishing and I love what I’ve learnt about the whole process, but now I’m going back to where I am happy to do battle for real control: my keyboard.

It’s all I want to do.

Nicola Morgan has written about 100 books, with half a dozen "traditional" publishers of various sizes from tiny to huge. She is a former chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland and advises hard-working writers on becoming and staying published, and on the marketing/publicity/events/behaviour that goes along with that.

She has also just created BRAIN STICKS, an original and huuuuuuge set of teaching resources about the brain and mental health.