Showing posts with label C.J. Busby. Show all posts
Showing posts with label C.J. Busby. Show all posts

Friday, 6 May 2016

Publishing as a Business Part II: A Call to Arms! by C.J. Busby

Last month on ABBA, I wrote a post on the publishing business and authors' earnings (Publishing as  Business - is it time to revolt?). It took off from the campaign arguing that festivals don't pay authors a fair fee, and asked if actually it's time to start looking at publishers' payments to authors. I suggested that maybe high profile authors like Philip Pullman, who were making waves about festivals, might start turning their ire on publishers.

Well - lo and behold!

Philip Pullman turned some of his ire on publishers in an open letter to the Society of Authors (reported on here, in the Bookseller). He likened the publisher-author relationship to that between a "steamroller and an ant" and urged publishers to "treat authors more equitably" or risk them becoming "an endangered species".

Sadly, I can't polish my magic wand just yet - Pullman's letter came out before my blogpost. I just hadn't noticed it.

But perhaps it shows that the issue of publishers' profits and writers' incomes is beginning to have traction. Beginning to be something we can't just keep wringing our hands about.

Publishers, as I pointed out in my last post, are making profits, despite the loss of the net book agreement, despite Amazon, despite video games and the easy availability of entertaining apps on phones. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of children's books, generating something like 30% of the books market according to the Cover Kids Book campaign (here).

The problem is, very little of that money is getting through to the people who actually write the books. As we know, the average income for professional writers is £11,000, and while some earn astronomically more, many earn less. This means that if you aren't one of the lucky few, you can only really afford to be a professional full-time writer if you have: a) very little need for income, b) a salaried partner, c) other better-paid part-time work (perhaps doing school visits, or something quite unrelated to writing) which is subsidising your writing career, or d) you work like stink on non-fiction or writing for a packager. Only a) and b) are going to help your own fiction-writing career flourish.

But how can we change things? Given there is a huge pool of non-professional writers out there, desperate to get a contract and live the dream, publishers have us over a barrel. Don't like your advance? Fine, we'll give the contract to someone else. It's the law of the market.

Except - things don't always have to operate according to neoliberal fantasies of markets red in tooth and claw. There is such a thing as ethics in public life, and companies can be taken to task on ethical principles. There are strong arguments and campaigns for a "living wage", for example, or for the benefits of fair trade, which have been able to force changes in companies like supermarkets, chain stores and restaurants.

Even with the campaign for fair fees at festivals, we have seen that an outcry by major authors can force an acknowledgement of basic unfairness and the beginnings of better practice. How much more effective could a campaign aimed at major publishers be? After all, festivals aren't making profits - publishers are. And if their response was to say that if they had to pay higher advances, they'd have to publish fewer books, well, so be it. Maybe that would be a good thing. Fewer books might mean more discrimination about giving out contracts, more emphasis on publicising those books rather than letting them sink or swim alone, more emphasis on nurturing and developing writers, who would represent a more substantial investment to the company. All these things would be good. And if they meant I never got another contract again, that would be fine by me - so long as some people were, and they were being treated well, and our writing industry was in robust health, rather than limping along exploiting people's dreams of being J.K. Rowling.

So here's a challenge. The Society of Authors could investigate what it considered to be a minimum fair advance for novels of different lengths, acknowledging that writing 30,000 words of well-crafted prose takes less time than 100,000 words (but not a third of the time, since plotting and coming up with ideas and doing research can be equally time-consuming for both). They could then act like a proper union (like Equity does, for actors, another profession subject to the vagaries of a market where so many people want to act that if Equity didn't exist, the minimum wage for a jobbing actor would most likely be 50p per day). They should set that advance as a benchmark for fair trade, and publicise the fact. And if they do, I'll join them. (At the moment, I can't justify the expense.)

Obviously publishers would be free to offer more for books they think are particularly skilful or marvellous - but no one is ever offered a contract unless they are considered to be a good writer, and as such they surely merit at least minimum wage. Thus a minimum advance seems entirely reasonable. Based on my own output, I should say £10,000 per MG novel is the very bottom end of what should be considered a living wage for writers (that's three times what I was offered, in fact, for my first book).

Once this is in the public domain, we can campaign on it. Publishers could be encouraged to sign up to it as a common standard for the industry - to pledge they would offer at least the minimum living wage to all their writers. Their established writers could request that they do so, and perhaps think about leaving for a more fair-minded publisher if they didn't. New writers would be encouraged to insist on the minimum wage, in the same way that actors generally ask for Equity rates, in the same way that we are now all beginning to feel the pressure to ask for proper fees for festival visits. It's right, proper and fair - and it's time we pulled together to make it happen. Otherwise we risk seeing writing disappear as anything other than a hobby for the already rich and famous, or the incredibly lucky. This would narrow the breadth of writer's experiences, narrow the social groupings they came from, and narrow the kinds of writing our children had access to. It would be a tragedy.

So - who's with me?

CJ. Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published last year by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Publishing as a business - is it time to revolt?

At the beginning of this year, there was a flurry of letters, blogs and publicity about authors' fees at festivals. Philip Pullman's decision to pull out of being a Patron of Oxford Literary Festival was prompted by, and itself prompted, a widespread debate about the ways in which literary festivals reward the authors that are the primary reason for their existence, with well-known authors such as Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon joining in to condemn the fees policy and even pulling out of appearances as a result.

It is striking that, while the administrators, the catering staff, the ticket collectors, the marquee companies, the stewards, the plumbers, the booksellers and the technical support, who all contribute to making the festival run, are paid wages, the authors (and, at children's festivals, the illustrators), those who are at the very heart of what the festival is about, are often paid with a free lunch or a few bottles of wine - and even when they are actually paid money, it's generally a nominal sum. Unless they happen to also be a Big Draw or a Celebrity Author. It has been argued (for example, by Claire Armistead, here) that those authors who aren't a Big Draw or a Celebrity should simply be grateful for the exposure - they aren't who the audience have come to see. They gain publicity and profile from their association with the festival and that's their reward. But I think this misses the point. Audiences come to festivals not just for the Celebrity Author but to discover new writers, new voices, to hear something inspiring that they weren't expecting - to browse among a curated set of the latest talent. The new authors  are worth every bit as much to the life of a festival as the older, established ones - and I'd like to bet that the people that come back again and again do so because of the new writing they've been exposed to more than the familiar stuff that they always knew about.

But I don't want to rehash the arguments over festival fees. What seems to me more interesting is the question of who really benefits from festivals? And the answer is, by some considerable margin, not individual authors but the publishing industry. Which begs the question, why are publishers not paying for their authors/illustrators to attend festivals? Are we aiming our ire at the wrong target?

It's clear that many small and even large festivals wouldn't survive if they had to pay all their authors fair fees. But it could be argued that the industry they are really benefiting is getting a pretty cushy deal: free (or at the least very very cheap) promotion for hundreds of their books and authors, as well as a massive coming together of industry insiders in a congenial location where deals can be done and networks strengthened with booksellers, journalists, bloggers, authors - the kind of event that if it was an industry conference (which it almost is) would cost them thousands of pounds per delegate.

And the publishing industry is not short of a bob or two (profits of the biggest companies are in the millions, and margins are as high as 10%, compared with the general retail trade at 3-4% and bookshops at around 1% or lower (see here for figures).

So really, what the debate over author fees raised for me was not how mean the festivals are, but the wider question of how a whole industry can justify running a profit on the basis that every single contributor to the basic commodity it sells - the editors, the publicists, the computer support, the receptionists, the printers, the CEOs, the cleaners, the van drivers - is paid an appropriate wage, but the writers and illustrators are paid amounts that mean that, on average, they are working for less than the minimum wage.

When I go to schools, I am sometimes asked how much money I make as an author. I generally reply with another question - how much money do they think I get for each of my books that sells? Guesses generally range from about £5 per book to £1 or £2 per book. They are all utterly flabbergasted when I tell them that it's often less than 10 pence.

I can't think of another mass commodity industry that works like this, apart from the music industry. In all other areas, the core people involved in producing the commodity at the heart of any industry, whether it's a newspaper or a dishwasher,  are always waged. And music is slightly different, because its arguably performance that is at the heart of most music rather than recordings - and when a musician is performing, they are generally paid an appropriate wage.

I don't know what the answer is - but I do wonder if we need to get more angry about this. I wonder if we need to be agitating more forcefully. I wonder if the Society of Authors ought to be lobbying publishers and saying, look, you may think there is an inexhaustible supply of would-be writers who want to be published so much that they will accept any kind of deal, but unless you start offering proper returns for the business of writing, returns that however they are organised (royalties or retainers) deliver proper decent hourly rates of pay, we, your published authors, mid-list and celebrity alike, are going to start refusing to write for you.

So, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris, and all the other well-known authors who have been putting pressure on festivals. How about it?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published last year by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Saturday, 6 February 2016

My literary hero - by Cecilia Busby

Every week in the Saturday Review, the Guardian runs a feature called 'My Hero', where they invite a literary figure to write about someone who inspired them or whom they particularly admire. Recently, Lady Antonia Fraser chose George Wiedenfeld, who gave her her first job after chatting to her mother at a posh dinner party - such were (are?) the routes to employment of the well-connected...

I have occasionally wondered what figure I would choose, in the way you sometimes mull over what music you'd choose for Desert Island Discs (or is that just me?). Anyway, thinking about it recently, I decided that one very strong contender for my hero would have to be Christopher Marlowe.

I have loved Marlowe since I was about fourteen and discovered my dad's battered copy of Marlowe's Complete Works, which included as an Appendix the Baines Note, the document that, lodged with the authorities a few weeks before Marlowe's death, roundly condemns him for various heresies and treasons and may have been the reason he was killed at Deptford in 1593. Historians have cast some doubt on the veracity of Baines' testimony, but as far as I was concerned at fourteen, this was from the mouth of the man himself, and I found the Marlowe portrayed in Baine's report of his wild and no doubt drunken ravings irresistibly cool. Like a good Marxist 300 years before his time, he claimed 'that the first beginnings of religion was only to keep men in awe', as well as various other blasphemies, and amusingly claimed 'that if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method and that all the new testament is filthily written'.

As well as the denigration of religion, he denied the power of the crown, arguing that 'he had as good a right to coin as the Queen of England, and that he was acquainted with one Poole, a prisoner in Newgate, who hath great skill in mixture of metals, and having learned some things of him he meant through the help of a cunning stamp-maker to coin French crowns, pistolets and English shillings.'

This made me laugh. It was so obviously the kind of thing you say when rather inebriated, making grand and ridiculous plans with your mates to make your fortune without (crucial, this) having to actually do any real work. Add the atheism, the hints of homosexuality, the low-life brawls that saw him arrested and chucked in Newgate, and his shady role as a spy for Francis Walsingham, and you have the perfect reprobate, guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. And just look at that bad-ass, truculent stare in the portrait he had painted when he graduated from Cambridge at the age of 21. When I heard that he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, and that he'd got to Cambridge on a scholarship on the condition he joined the church, but had proceeded to become a spy and a drunken playwright instead, my admiration was complete. And then there was the tragedy of his death. So young! Such a waste! Stabbed to death in Deptford, supposedly in an argument over the bill, and buried before he was thirty.

But it wasn't just his character I fell in love with, and he'd be a pretty poor literary hero if it was. My love for Marlowe was first and foremost for his words, and I was reminded of this when I randomly picked up my daughter's 'Oxford Book of English Verse' and came across excerpts from his Hero and Leander. I was instantly transported to my teenage years, rolling the wonderful sounds of Marlowe's verse around my mind. There is such resonance in his verse, such fantastic rhythms. There is nobody like him. Listen to this, from Tamberlaine, the first of his plays I read, and one that absolutely floored me:

If all the pens that ever poets held,
Had fed the feelings of their master's thoughts,
And every sweetnes that suspir'd their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes:
If all the heavenly Quintessence they still
From their immortall flowers of Poesy,
Wherein, as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit,
If these had made one Poems' period
And all combin'd in Beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads,
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

There are so many other quotes I could fill this with - but you can find them for yourself (and probably have your own favourites). I will just finish, though, with a recommendation. Ros Barber recently wrote a marvellous book based on the idea that Marlowe didn't die in Deptford, and that he went on to write the plays and poems assumed to be by Shakespeare. You don't have to agree with her to enjoy the detective story she lays out, and even more to appreciate the wonderful sonnets she writes in the voice of Marlowe post-death. It's called The Marlowe Papers, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize as well as winning the Desmond Elliot prize.

So there you are - my literary hero. Who's yours?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Fictional crushes... by Cecilia Busby

I have a confession to make. I bought tickets six weeks in advance for The Force Awakens (for those of you who spent 2015 under a stone, that's the new Star Wars film) - and it wasn't because my kids were begging me to. It was because I couldn't wait to see it myself.

The main reason for this is that I was exactly the right age to be bowled over by the first two Star Wars films, and I was exactly the right age to develop a huge crush on Harrison Ford. I saw The Empire Strikes Back twice at the cinema (unheard of in my bookish, not very well-off family, where cinema visits were few and far between), and then refreshed my memories for months afterwards with the book of the film. My crush on Harrison Ford is a bit of a family joke now - but my excitement at heading to the cinema for the latest instalment in the Han Solo/Leia/Luke saga reminded me of just how strong those feelings can be.

Of course, crushes on fictional characters is a big part of growing up. My youngest is just coming up to the prime age for it - early teens - and I have a sneaking suspicion that her desire to see Spectre has less to do with the high speed chases and twisting plot and more to do with Daniel Craig's cheekbones... But crushes on fictional characters is something you can experience at any age - and although the classic crush is on a film star or pop singer, I think my strongest crushes have always been on book characters, because they are entirely my own. Even though other people may read the same book, and love the same character, they won't have exactly the same person in their head, because with books, you do some of the imaginative work yourself.

I still find that the books that grab me most are those where I have fallen just a little bit in love with one of the characters. Recently, my strongest fictional crush has been Thomas Cromwell, from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I'm in good company on that one - Caitlin Moran asked others on twitter if they also fancied T. Cromwell, and was inundated with responses agreeing that he was, indeed, the thinking woman's crush de jour.

But the best and strongest crushes will always be those from the books I read as a teenager. So step forward, Beau Geste, who took the rap for a crime he didn't commit to save the girl he loved, and ran away to join the Foreign Legion. Take a bow, Ged, from Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series - who moved from being an impatient, proud and impetuous boy with enormous magical power to a wiser and sadder man, but still a great wizard, and took my heart with him on his journeys. Wave your sword, Faramir, from Lord of the Rings, the gentle, bookish second son who had to deal with his father's rage and anger that he was not Boromir, and who found solace eventually with the shield-maiden Eowyn (aka myself). Duck down behind the hedge, Stalky, on your way to some adventure outside the school grounds, running rings round the stuffy boarding-school masters.
(I discovered recently that another children's author had had a crush on one of the characters from Stalky and Co, but to her credit, it was with the poetry-writing, bespectacled Beetle rather than the adventurous leader of the gang - I'm afraid my crushes were much more conventional, as you can tell!)

But I didn't just fall for handsome boys - and in fact, if the main character was a classic 'handsome boy' I tended to avoid the book like the plague - I've never been a fan of romance as a genre. I liked my crushes to be witty, unusual, interesting, maybe a bit tortured but definitely with more to do in the story than just fall in love. And they didn't have to be human - one of my earliest crushes was probably Bagheera, the panther, from The Jungle Book. (I was recently rather taken with his alter-ego, Silas, in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.)

Now that I'm a writer, even though I concentrate on middle grade rather than YA, I find I can't help falling a little bit in love with some of my characters. I have to keep the crush well under wraps, but there are a few give-aways, and I like to think that some, at least, of my readers will share my crushes.
There's the partying, carefree Sir Gawaine, in the last of my Spell Series, who is very subtly an object of interest for would-be knight Olivia (previously a little bit in love with King Arthur). There's the bard, Caradoc, who has a little bit of magic and is surprisingly skilful with a blade (and you'll have to read Cauldron Spells to find out who he turns out to be). And in my Amber series, I have to confess to just a bit of a crush on the Druid - ex-Forest Agent, witty, sarcastic, strongly magical and with a distinctly shady past, as well as the bearer of a broken heart.

In my most recent work-in-progress, I've re-activated a longstanding crush on the Norse God Loki (I think I was always attracted to his combination of mischief and humour, as well as his tragic end, but Diana Wynne Jone's Eight Days of Luke sealed the deal when I was about 11).

(And talking of Diana Wynne Jones, she is responsible for quite a few of my teen and early adult crushes, including probably the biggest crush of them all - on Mitt, from the Dalemark Quartet).

My own version of Loki is, like many others, quick-witted, sarcastic, vain and powerfully magical. He's ready to fight when necessary but aims to run away whenever possible - doesn't suffer fools gladly, but won't stand for injustice either - and ultimately he's always willing to laugh at himself. He's probably my ideal fictional crush.

So there you are - my embarrassing crushes revealed. What are yours?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Monday, 6 July 2015

Show not Tell... by Cecilia Busby

When I wrote my first children's book I hadn't done any kind of MA in Creative Writing. I hadn't got a degree in English, I didn't do English 'A' level. I didn't even read any 'How to...' books before I started - the extent of my research was to get a copy of the Children's Writers' and Artists' Handbook. After a fairly long search for an agent and then publisher, it was finally accepted for publication, and I found myself writing more books - but still without any kind of training in the dos and don'ts.

The result is that I have had to learn a lot of writing terms and tricks on the job. When I first joined the Scattered Authors, I can remember having to ask people what 'omniscient narrator' meant and what the difference was between 'third person' and 'close third person', and what a POV (point of view) was. In my first book, I switched perspectives between characters without a thought - one minute we were seeing the scene from the point of view of the main boy, and then in the next paragraph we'd hear what another character thought about it all. I'm still not really sure if that made my narrative omniscient or not. I certainly didn't do anything like saying 'dear reader, as you can see they are all very scared at this point'! But maybe that's just 'old fashioned omninscient narrator' and what I was doing was a less overt form. (You see? I still don't really know!)

Gradually I became aware that there were lots of quasi-rules about what constituted 'good' writing, and one of them was precisely not to do this sort of random switching of perspective. I still like to 'head hop' to an extent - I'd feel cramped in only one person's perspective for a whole book - but I do now try to make sure that if we're in one character's POV, I don't switch out of it till there's a change of scene break. So that's one thing I've learned on the job.

Another rule that came to my attention after a while was that over-use of adjectives and adverbs was rather looked down on. I got slightly cross at this, as I like adjectives and adverbs (you may have noticed). In my science-geek kind of way, I went hunting for them in my favourite authors' books.

Diana Wynne Jones (foremost culprit for overuse of the said words) has a rate of about 8% of adjectives and 2.5% of adverbs (my own rates at the time were 6% and 1.5% respectively). So I wasn't doing too badly, despite my fondness for them. Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books had 6.5% adjectives and 1% adverbs. There clearly is a place for adjective- and adverb-rich description in good children's writing. But it's noteworthy that  Patrick Ness - a much more award-winning example of a contemporary 'good' writer - uses both types of word much more sparingly. He'll often, for example, use nouns instead: 'the emptiness and stillness of it' rather than 'it was empty and still'. (Neil Gaiman uses this trick too: 'He closed his hands around the coldness of the brooch'.) It can be very effective to find alternatives, and I do now find myself checking more self-consciously for over-use of adverbs or adjectives, making sure they are needed, and sometimes pruning them back. I think it's improved my writing, so I guess that counts as another thing I've learned on the job.

But... there's one rule that evades me, and it's the oft-quoted 'show not tell'. I think I know what it means, and I sort of agree with the more egregious examples that are usually put forward to illustrate it. Clearly saying, 'She was very worried about the spot on her nose' is less effective than saying, 'She stood in front of the mirror and peered at the spot on her nose. It was like a beacon in the middle of her face.' But when it comes to less obvious examples, I find myself flailing. Is it 'telling not showing' to say that your character 'frowned in bemusement'? And if you were gong to 'show' this bemusement, how would you do it? Isn't it sometimes a useful short-cut for both yourself and your reader to do a bit of telling?

The first time I camne across the idea of' show not tell' was in a review of Diana Wynne Jones's Enchanted Glass by Marcus Sedgwick. It was, he noted, 'item number one on day one of Creative Writing 101' and yet Jones happily (and to great effect) ignored it, saying such things as 'Aiden discovered that he really, really liked Andrew'. At the time, I was reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and the idea that good authors 'show not tell' struck me as highly amusing. Tolstoy spends his whole time teling us exactly what his characters feel, think and experience. (By coincidence, I'm ploughing through War and Peace at the moment and opening a random page gives me 'Princess Mary could not understand the boldness of her brother's criticism' as well as, a paragraph on, 'she felt the sensation of fear and respect which the old man inspired in all around him'. See what I mean?)

Since then I've come across the axiom in numerous books, blogs and bits of advice for writers, and in many cases it makes perfect sense as a way to improve what might otherwise be rather clunky or heavy-handed writing. Certainly it's the case that Tolstoy, great as he is, is not necessarily a good model for contemporary 21st century fiction! But I still feel a bit at sea with the whole 'show not tell' thing. I'm not sure when I'm doing it, and I'm not always convinced it needs remedial action even if I do notice it.

I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to become a published author, and even luckier that I've managed to carry on writing. I really enjoy what I do, and after all, all professions involve some learning on the job. But there are times when I wish I had the funds and time to go and do an MA in Creative Writing - now that I know how much I don't know - and, among other things, nail once and for all that pesky 'show not tell' rule...

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Invisible boundaries and social media - C.J. Busby

A few weeks ago, a young American first-time author, Kathleen Hale, unleashed a bit of a social media storm by publishing a piece in The Guardian about the increasingly vexed online relationship between authors and bloggers. The article (here) which ran in the Saturday magazine, detailed how she became obsessed by one of her online critics, a blogger called Blythe Harris. When Hale engaged with Blythe's criticism's of her book (despite the many, many warnings she received that authors should not answer back to bad reviews), Blythe and many of her fellow bloggers apparently turned on her and Hale found herself labelled a BBA - a badly behaved author. For Hale (and I should emphasise that we only get Hale's perspective on what happened here), Blythe was wilfully malicious, ruining the reception of her book, and using her clique of friends and fellow bloggers to trash Hale's reputation. In return, Hale details her own increasing obsession with Blythe - an obsession which rapidly moved from what she termed 'light stalking' (gathering any and every detail she could from Blythe's online presence) to what by any standards is just plain stalking - using subterfuge to gain access to Blythe's real-life identity, workplace address and home address.

It's a sorry tale, and I'm not going to rehash the Hale case here, but it did make me think about the business of social media, writers, bloggers and boundaries. Authors, as Hale notes, are encouraged to get online and have a social media presence, but their natural audience, book bloggers and fans, seem quite often to resent authors turning up on their turf and, as they see it, throwing their weight around. A while ago, as a bit of a newbie author, I brushed up against a similar controversy when I noticed an online discussion on a book blogger's site about one of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series.

I'm a bit of a fan of this series, and was interested to see that the author had stopped by and commented, explaining where some of the features the blogger was discussing had come from in the writing process. It was (I thought) a perfectly polite contribution, and not in the least critical of her analysis, simply adding a bit of background information. But it caused an immediate storm, in which I was very slightly caught up, having added a comment of my own about the strange ways the writing process worked. For some of the following commentators, writers were simply not welcome on a book blogging site - they were guilty of abusing the power they had as authors to dominate a space that was not for them. Book blogs and fan sites should be considered a space for fans and book lovers to freely express themselves and not somewhere authors should feel free to gatecrash.

It was all resolved fairly amicably - Ben Aaronovitch backed down with a bit of grumbling, and I apologised profusely for being new to all this and not understanding the rules of the game. But the Hale article did bring this experience back to me.

What both examples make clear, I think, is that engaging in discussion with other people on social media is now the easiest thing in the world to do, but that it's also potentially perilous - what seems to be a simple opening gambit in a conversation can quickly become a reason for several people you've never met to decide they hate you. And thinking about why this is, made me realise that it's partly about the lack of social clues we have online.

Picture this: an author walks into a cafe, orders a coffee, and then realises that at the table next to him are six women, clearly friends, all discussing why they don't really like his new book. He would have to be completely mad or utterly self-obsessed to lean across and say, "Excuse me, ladies, that point you've just made is very interesting, but as the author, I'd have to say you've misunderstood my intention...." More likely, he'd hide behind a newspaper, or slink out. It's not his place to push into a group which is clearly bounded by longstanding interactions and mutual exchange of opinions. On the web, though, it's hard to see those boundaries, easier to think this is a discussion open to anyone who happens to wander past.

We've probably all had the experience of adding comments on a forum discussion, only to have what we've said utterly ignored as the next commentator simply replies to the one before you, and the next one carries on as if you never said anything. It feels like a snub (it is a snub) - but if this were real life, the group discussing this burning issue would be that bunch of students who always occupy the table in the corner of the canteen, looking daggers at anyone who even thinks about sitting next to them - and we wouldn't be in the least surprised if they ignored our comment. (We'd almost certainly never make it in the first place.)

Would you interrupt the conversation?

As social animals, we have built up over generations the ability to detect the smallest social clues about other people and groups around us. The kinds of interaction we engage in with other people are largely determined by our previous interactions with them, their status as friends or family or work colleagues. Even with total strangers we can use visible clues like dress, body language, expression, context, to judge what is or isn't appropriate. All these help us to 'see' the boundaries that we would be transgressing and the trouble we could be causing if we were to be, for example, inappropriately intimate or aggressive or opinionated.

The trouble with social media is these clues are just not there. We've only had access to this multitude of potential conversations with strangers  for a very short time, and people appear on it as little more than speech. Speech which is devoid of accents, of voice, of clues about who this person is. It's like wandering in a dark fog, listening to many voices all talking at random - but the people behind the voices are invisible. So we have to make guesses about what kinds of people they are, and whether we are gatecrashing through an invisible boundary, or striking up a conversation with someone genuinely interested in talking to us.

Those speaking to each other on a forum, a blog, on Goodreads, can appear as simply a bunch of individuals interested in the same topic, a bunch of reasonable, open individuals who would welcome a newcomer to their midst. Sometimes that is exactly what they are. But sometimes, the invisible boundaries are as fierce as barbed wire, and we cross them at our peril.

The way invisible boundaries are so difficult to negotiate sometimes makes me want to give up on all forms of online interaction. Like Liz Kessler, who posted recently about social media on ABBA (here), I have considered just ditching all of it in favour of interactions in real life only. But, in the end, I don't, because so far I've managed to negotiate those boundaries more or less unscathed, and in the process I've 'met' some really brilliant people (some of whom I've gone on to really meet).

The fact is, most people on social media ARE open, engaged, reasonable and friendly, and, if you transgress an invisible boundary, they are usually polite enough to just inform you gently that you're in the wrong place. But I do think it's important to be aware that just because those boundaries are invisible, doesn't mean they are not there - and when you find a clear notice that says "Authors (or whoever) are Not Welcome Beyond this Point", it probably pays to respect it.

C.J. Busby writes funny, fast-paced fantasy for children aged 7-12. Her latest books, Dragon Amber, is published by Templar.


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

An Interview with Frances Hardinge - by C.J. Busby

I first met Frances Hardinge as part of an intrepid SAS contingent that stormed the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton in October 2013. We had a great time, although there were fewer costumes than I'd hoped, and no centaurs galloping through the plenary session...

Myself, Teresa Flavin and Katherine Roberts do the costume thing...
I recently read and reviewed Frances Hardinge's new book, Cuckoo Song, for ABBA reviews (you can find the review here).  I loved it - and I wanted to ask Frances some questions about it, and about her writing in general, of which I am great admirer. So I thought I would hijack my ABBA post this month to interview her. Luckily, she is a very accommodating person, and was happy to allow me to grill her. As we live at opposite ends of the country, this had to be by email: but let's pretend we met in a chippy in Brighton for this conversation...

Waiting for fish and chips
So, Frances, unlike in previous novels, Cuckoo Song is set in a real historical period. How did you find that compared with setting your stories in secondary worlds where you are free to make it all up? 

Writing a book set in a specific real world time period is much harder. There's always the fear of getting some detail wrong, and being caught out. One becomes obsessed with checking historical minutae, even for details that probably won't make the final cut. In a way it's a lot of fun, and you discover lots of new things during the research, but you can go quite, quite mad. In spite of my checking, I'm sure there are still lurking errors.

I did find myself making some compromises. Sometimes to preserve the pace of the book, you can't afford to detour into lengthy explanations of historical context. 

And I had to compromise when it came to the dialogue. At first I really wanted to have my characters using plenty of slang from the time. Then I started looking at the things people actually said in 1920s Britain.

I say! Rather! I should think so! Jolly decent. A good sort. Old thing. Old bean. Old man. Ragging. Blighter. What rot! What a lark! That's torn it!

Nowadays we can't read these phrases without hearing them in the voice of Bertie Wooster or Billy Bunter. They sound flippant, innocent, comical and bit twee. When one is trying to build suspense in a tale of psychological horror, that's the last thing you need. The characters might as well be exclaiming:
“Oh well, never mind, old girl. What ho! Ginger beer!”

Yes - that would have ruined the atmosphere for sure! It's a bit like the dilemma of using Shakespearian language in an Elizabethan setting - the odd words and phrases give a sense of a different time, but too many 'thee's and 'thou's and it starts to sound like a send up. Of course, in Cuckoo Song it's not only a case of real-world historical details, because you are also depicting another world - the fairie realm. I loved the idea of fairies as these strange bird-like Besiders who lurk in out-of-the-way places. How much did you draw on particular details for myths and folktales as inspiration when developing your otherworld characters?

In the case of Cuckoo Song, I drew quite heavily on the old changeling folktales. These tales make for a disturbing read, not just because of the nightmare scenario of a malignant imposter taking the place of one's child. In the stories, the human hosts usually rid themselves of the changeling through utter cruelty - leaving them on a dunghill, flinging them into deep water, hurling them into the fire, etc. (It's particularly unpleasant because there's evidence that in past centuries some children with severe disabilities really did die from such brutal treatment, because they were thought to be 'changelings'.)

The nature of the changeling varies from one folktale to another. Sometimes it's a fretful, sickly fairy child, swapped for a healthy human infant by envious fairy parents. Sometimes it's a full-grown adult fairy, infiltrating the mortal cottage so that it can be pampered and fed. Occasionally, however, the changeling nothing more than a doll, fashioned from leaves, wood or wax, and enchanted to look like an ailing child. It was the third type that started to fascinate me.

The journey of Triss and Pen into the Underbelly is inspired by a particular folktale called "The Smith and the Fairies". After his son is stolen by fairies, a smith is advised by a wise man to go to the green hill on a certain night, armed with only a dirk, a Bible and a crowing cock. The way into the hill will be open that night. He must drive the dirk into the ground to make sure the hill does not close behind him. The Bible is protection. It is the rooster, however, that will most upset the fairies...

In some ways, however, I deliberately deviated from traditional fairy lore. The fairies of folklore tend to be vulnerable to cold iron, but also to trappings of the church - Bibles, prayers, blessings, church bells. In my book, the Besiders are twilight creatures, inhabitants of the in-between and unmapped places, and their great enemy is certainty. Most iron will not hurt them, but they have a horror of scissors, which cleanly and cruelly divide, leaving nothing in between. Religious faith is dangerous to them, but so is faith and certainty of all kinds.

I found the idea of the scissors as a symbol of dividing everything neatly into one side or the other quite chilling - as you make clear, so much cruelty comes from that kind of black and white thinking. The book is very good at delving into the grey areas between, and showing how mixed-up most people's characters are. I especially liked your portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters, Triss and Pen. As one of two sisters myself, I totally recognised that combination of fierce hatred and love - the way your sister can be both your worst enemy and the one person you can always rely on. Do you have sisters, or was that an impressive feat of imagination?

I do have a sister. I was older, but by only eleven months, and it always felt as though we were basically the same age. We constructed elaborate imaginary worlds together, tried to set up a detective agency (we never got any cases), wrote plays with songs, invented codes and fought like fury. The first time one of my milk teeth came out, it was because I was biting my sister.

Ha, ha. I knew it! I was also the eldest and my sister was thirteen months younger, so a very similar gap. And yes, we fought bitterly, but also collaborated to create imaginary worlds and games, write letters in code, make maps and search for hidden treasure (we never found any). It's a great apprenticeship for writing children's books! 

One of the things I also like about your books is that you never really hurt or destroy your main characters - they may have some heart-stopping or tearful moments, but they are generally put down gently on safe ground at the end. Are you conscious of that, and is it related to the age you write for, or is it just part of who you are as a writer, that you don't have a desire to take your readers to very dark or unhappy places? (Or do you secretly nurse a desire to write a book with a massacre in it?)

Funnily enough, one of my books does have a massacre in it! It's my third book, Gullstruck Island. I won't say any more since it's an important plot event, and I wouldn't want to commit spoilers.

Ah - I haven't read that one! (Orders it from the library immediately...)

My books tend to have a bodycount, and for the course of the story I like my readers to be in real doubt about whether my main character will survive. Most of them live in quite unforgiving worlds. I suspect that in fact I probably do take my protagonists to some dark and unhappy places... but then allow them to find a way out again, through their own ingenuity, courage and strength of will. 

My books don't often have neat or straightforward 'happy endings', but hope generally triumphs. That isn't because I'm softening my books for a younger audience, but because I'm naturally quite a hopeful person. I'm a cynical optimist.

I think that's what I meant, really - not that there aren't dark times or places, but that as a reader I feel safe. I know that somehow it will work out, the main characters will find a way. I like the idea of being a cynical optimist - I think I'm probably one, too.

I'd like to finish  by asking you a bit about the nuts and bolts of how you write. Your language is wonderfully inventive - your descriptions always fresh and original. Is that something that just flows from your pen or do you refine a lot in subsequent versions?

I am not one of those authors who manages to produce the same number of words each day (though I admire the discipline of all those who do). I have spurts of productivity where I turn out a lot of text in a day. Afterwards I go back and fiddle with it neurotically, and usually the 'fiddling' takes the form of cutting. I have a terrible addiction to metaphors, so when I revise my own work it usually involves the gentle patter of snipped metaphors and similes hitting the floor.

That's interesting - so the first draft has even more of that inventive figurative language! I'd love to see a Frances Hardinge text before it's been pruned, all overgrown and tangled with trailing metaphors. What a treat! But your stories aren't just beautifully described, they have cracking plots. Do you work these out beforehand, or follow leads as they come up? In other words, are you a plotter or a pantser?

I always plot out my books before I write them. For my first book I even had a chapter by chapter outline. I haven't gone into quite that much detail in plans for my later books, but I always map out the main incidents, and know what the ending will be.

However, there's always some room for making things up on the fly. A book should be a journey of discovery for the writer as well as the reader, otherwise the writing process can become dull and leaden. My stories surprise me. Characters develop in unexpected ways. Just now and then, I change my mind about my plot structure halfway through writing the book. It's still useful to have that first plan, though, even if I decide to deviate from it. I need that trellis, even if I can't full predict how my story-vine will grow.

What do you do when you get stuck? How do you get the ideas and words flowing again?

I seldom reach a point where I can't write. Instead, I get a form of writers' block where I write the same chapter over and over again, and can't get the text to 'work'. It lies there on the screen like a stunned weasel.

If you're sitting alone in a study for too long you can get hypnotised by your own screen. Sometimes I go for a ten-mile hike, just so that I can work through some plot knots in my head. 

I find it a lot easier to write, however, if there is a deadline looming, even if it's an artifical one. I belong to a couple of writers' groups, and I find that I become a lot more productive just before the sessions...

I think that's probably enough. I could happily carry on all day, but we need to get started on those chips! Many thanks for answering my questions, and good luck with the next book!

It's been a pleasure. Pass the ketchup!

I hope everyone's enjoyed this conversation as much as I did - and if any of you haven't come across Frances's books, do go and seek them out. They are among the most inventive, delightful and original books for older children I've read.

C.J. Busby writes funny fantasy for 7-10. Her latest book, Deep Amber, is out with Templar. The sequel, Dragon Amber, will be published in September.

Twitter: @ceciliabusby

Friday, 6 June 2014

How do we judge quality in children's books?

By Cecilia Busby

There are a couple of things recently that have made me think about how we judge quality in children's books. One was the rather interesting discussion about kids reading 'trash', started by Clementine Beauvais on ABBA and continued in other places for a few weeks afterwards. The other is my decision this year to try to read all the Carnegie shortlisted books. Both have made me think about how we judge what is good in children's literature.

The Carnegie Book Prize is probably the best known and most prestigious prize awarded to children’s books in the UK – it’s effectively the Booker for children. It generates a great deal of interest, a lot of attention for the shortlist of nominated books, and it’s a brilliant show-piece for the best in children’s writing.
A couple of years ago, my son’s school, like many across the country, took part in a Carnegie shadowing event – children at the school read the shortlisted books and then met to discuss and vote for their own favourites. It was the occasion of his most epic reading challenge ever: with only a week to go before the vote, he read the entire Chaos Walking trilogy, as he didn’t want to just read Monsters of Men on its own.

This year, I thought I’d do a little Carnegie shadowing of my own, wondering if it would be worth doing something similar with the primary school where I am Patron of Reading.  Normally, Carnegie shadowing is done by secondary schools, and when I looked at the shortlist, I realised why. I was struck by just how dark the themes were, and how many of the books were for older readers. Of the eight books, three are designated 14+, four 11+ and only one 9+. Only one of these books, then, sits firmly in the classic 9–12 age range. The others are aimed at secondary school readers: either 11–14, or 14–17. In the descriptions, the words that caught my eye were ‘trauma victim’, ‘difficult’ or ‘bleak’ circumstances, ‘a brave book that pulls no punches’, ‘unimaginable terror’, ‘shocking brutality of war’, ‘abusive, alcoholic partner’, ‘dysfunctional family dynamics’, ‘brutal act of cruelty’, ‘political tension’, and ‘family conflicts’. Only two of the books, Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy (the 9–12 book), appear to have a more light-hearted element.

Maybe this is just about the periodic shifts in what is ‘of the moment’ in children’s literature, or maybe just coincidentally the best of the books published this year have tended towards an older age range and a dark strand of realism. But the shortlist chimed for me with a growing sense that children’s book prizes, like children’s book reviews, tend to favour the more ‘literary’ end of writing, and particularly the older, more adult books. Is this because their quality, as children's literature, is better? Curious, I went to find the criteria for the Carnegie nominations, to see what these judgements were based on.

The criteria are here, and they make interesting reading. There is no mention of the world ‘children’ anywhere, except in terms of eligibility: nominations must be for children’s books. In the main criteria, it is emphasised that the book should be ‘of outstanding literary quality’, and the specifications for this relate to plot, character, and literary style. The list could just as easily be applied to an adult novel.

Children’s writers, even those for young children, use and display fantastic skills in plot, character and style – but it’s important, I think, to specify that these are being assessed in relation to child readers. Because the skill to engage a child reader may involve certain linguistic tricks, certain exaggerations of character, certain simplifications of plot, that would not necessarily work in a novel for older readers or adults, and that can, at first glance, seem less, well, less ‘literary’. Not always, of course, and indeed, one of the younger age-range books on the Carnegie shortlist, Rooftoppers, is full of astonishingly inventive imagery. But is this what makes it a great children's book?

If we make 'literary' writing the main criteria for judging quality then in effect we are judging children's books in the same way we judge adult books. This seems reasonable for the older teenage books: a literate fourteen year old is, in essence, an adult reader. Their interests, in terms of subject matter, may be different, but their ‘reading’ skills are sufficient for the deployment of the full range of adult literary styles and tricks of plotting and language.

The Carnegie judges are skilled and established children’s librarians, so it’s likely that the panel do consider these elements in relation to the age of the reader. But I wonder if the often dazzling language effects and narrative innovations that writers for older teens can utilise inevitably appear to fulfil Carnegie criteria to a higher degree than the simpler (though no less well-judged) effects used by writers for the younger age range. I wonder if the more hard-hitting and controversial subject matter that can be delved into in a teen book inevitably makes the lighter touch needed for young readers appear to be lacking in intensity by comparison. Looking at the last ten to fifteen years of the Carnegie would seem to confirm that it’s the teen books and ‘difficult’ subjects that predominate, with only a couple of winners that would not be considered YA.

I have no objection to the Carnegie celebrating the best that older teen fiction has to offer, and such books can be reasonably judged on adult literary criteria. But what if we want to celebrate the best in classic childrens books, the 9–12 (middle-grade) books? This, after all, is the age when children most fully engage with books, the age when they love them with an intensity I don’t think you ever truly find again. Books that spark that kind of love deserve to be lauded. Maybe it's time for two Carnegie Prizes - for young adult and for children's books.

If we want to celebrate these books for younger readers, though, do we need different criteria? Should we acknowledge that they simply can’t be judged by (or only by) standard ‘literary’ criteria, that these don’t fit with the way children (as opposed to teenagers) read books? Perhaps so, but then  how do we judge them? That's a trickier matter. Drawing on my own experience of the books I fell in love with as a child, I would like to suggest some criteria for judging quality in children's fiction.

1. Is a child who reads this book likely to put it down with a sigh at the end and say, “That’s the best book I ever read’?

2. Would a child who read this book want to immediately read the next book in the series, or make a note of the author and find everything they’ve ever written?

3. Is the book likely to make its child readers laugh out loud, and/or cry, without it necessarily being a wholly ‘funny’ or wholly ‘sad’ book? (Both require skill and judgement, although personally I think making them laugh is harder. But both show that the reader’s emotions are fully engaged.)

4. Is a child reader likely to be so absorbed by the story in this book so that by the end they don’t want to eat, sleep or engage with the outside world until they’ve finished it and found out what happens?

5. Are there characters in the book that will be so fiercely loved by many of the children that read it that they would give anything to walk around the corner and find them walking the other way?

6. Are these characters and the world they live in so loved by the child reader that they are likely to feel bereft when the book is over, and more than half inclined to read the whole book again from the beginning, just to keep those characters alive a little longer in their heads?

Of course, these criteria are subjective. They also rely on an adult making judgements based on their own memory of being a child reader, based on talking to children, based on their experience of children's likes and dislikes. But all judgments (including literary ones) are subjective - and these are at least very different questions to ask of a book than ones about the deployment of style, narrative, characterisation and language (although all these things contribute to the end effects I’m talking about). They are first and foremost questions about the heart and soul of the book, and its effect on child (not adult) readers.

Perhaps, if these had been the criteria over the last decade, the Carnegie winners would still have been the same books. Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference. What do you think? I am certain that the Carnegie winners over the last years have been great books. I am less certain about whether they have been great children’s books.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for 7+ as C.J. Busby. Her new book, DEEP AMBER, is aimed at age 8-10, published with Templar.
Twitter @ceciliabusby