J.K. Rowling's Tree House Doesn't Matter

Big news broke today. Maybe you already heard?

JK Rowling wins permission to build £250,000 Hogwarts-style tree houses

Except ... is this big news? Is this news at all?

What do you think, eh?
A lot has been said about the cult of celebrity in our societies (here meaning UK and U.S.) so it's not that topic that interests me specifically. Though it is interesting to see the rise and rise of the 'famous for doing nothing' celebrity - still more prominent in the U.S., I think, perhaps due in part to the UK's familiarity with such things i.e. the Royal Family - the idolising and near-worship of a rich, successful stranger is nothing new.

Saw this exchange on Twitter the other day between two book people, and thought it summed up a lot of things nicely:

@kimkardashian has nearly 16 million followers. I know her name, but have NO idea what she is. Is she a singer? Movie star? I have no idea.

I don't quite know either. She happened after I left the U.S. and I still think she might some elaborate prank.

A prank would be nice. The reality's far scarier.

So, to authors and their worlds. We all know that gone are the days of being able to write a book and have it be judged on its worth alone. Authors are brands, now. We interact like never before (a good thing) and, if you make it big, your life becomes a legitimate target for the press (a bad thing). Photos of authors on holiday get published. Kiss-and-tell stories drag attention away from the work and into the personal lives of writers. Money - who has it, and who doesn't - is no longer an individual's own matter, but a matter of public debate.

Good and bad, good and bad. Yes, it's great to see writers and authors get the attention equal to popstars. I think it says a lot about our countries that children's authors appear in the news, smile out from magazine covers and appear on Oprah and no one bats an eyelid. That's a win right there. And I'm not so naive to argue that because they're making art they're somehow above all that.

Still ... tree houses?

J.K. Rowling took the press as much by surprise as she did the book world. That success - unrivaled, unprecedented and completely unplanned - made her the first real star of the digital age, as far as books are concerned. Dickens may have been mobbed and beloved by crowds, but he never had sue to stop pictures of him on the beach being published.

Yes, writers are interesting people. They tend to be clever and pretty smart, and they certainly know how to create drama - after all, that's what they do for a living. And fans of the books want to know about the person behind them. All fine and good. But isn't there a line?

I just worry that the cultural shift has moved from 'but is it art?' to 'but is it news?'

Neil Gaiman lives perhaps one of the most open lives of any big name writer alive. Through Twitter, Tumblr, his blog and his general approach to fans, he shares much, from emotions to new projects, and is rewarded by a loyal and passionate crowd of supporters. That's his choice, and it's a brilliant one.

But where will the line be? If a writer build a new house, do we need to know? Do we care? If a writer gets drunk and gets in a fight, do we care? It doesn't change their work.

To be published, and to ask people to pay to read what you wrote, is on one level an act of extreme pride and arrogance. It's understandable that with that comes the acceptance that your life has to be more open and under scrutiny. Fame and fortune comes with a caveat, and in our culture it's one tied to the press.

Would it be better if writers just ... wrote? If they interacted as they pleased, but didn't get treated like fair game?

Or, at least, the world at large didn't need to know about their tree houses.

Even if, to be honest, this one looks freakin' sweet.


Screaming Back - A New Side Project

Hey all.

What do I do, creatively?

I work full time as a writer for an online magazine - so that's my job. At the moment I consider becoming an author to be something I'm working on, but it's still in the hobby / I'm getting there category. I play (and now teach) piano, but that's not really a time-consuming or input-heavy occupation. All good things.

And now ...

Screaming Back! (dun dun duuuuun)

Recently I launched another creative project with a very good friend of mine, who is also my brother-in-law. Screaming Back - http://screamingback.com/- is, I suppose, a comedy venture. A collection of graphics and parodies, with videos to accompany - some just rants and questions, and others (planned, but not yet out) skits and sketches - it's only a couple of weeks old, but it's proving entertaining so far. To us, at least. Ahem.

Normally there won't be too much cross-over between this blog (BOOKS!) and Screaming Back (JOKES!) but since they're both things I'm involved in, I thought I'd give a shout out.

Check out our newest video if you have a spare four minutes (come on. who doesn't?) - a thoughtful and not-at-all rant-like bit on companies who want their names to get all verby.

You can see it on the site or, if you want, the link right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANhn3v7JlCQ&feature=plcp You can either subscribe to keep up to date when more come out, or check back here occasionally. I'm sure to mention it again.



Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Hello again. Time to get back to normal scheduling.

Today's book is one of those stories that's tied to a specific time and place. We all have these books - ones we can't re-read or think about without instantly conjuring up very clear images of that one town, or that one room, decorated in a certain way, where we first read the tale. In psychology, it's called a flashbulb memory - a striking, specific recollection of events that at the time aren't amazingly important. Where you were when you heard that Princess Diana had died, perhaps - or, in a literary way, where you were when you first read Harry Potter.

For me, today's book is linked to a journey. A very real journey, in fact - a car ride from our family home to visit my grandfather. We'd stopped in a WH Smith before hand and been allowed to choose books to read while we were away. Not a big reader at the time, I nevertheless decided to take the plunge, and I bought (with my own money!) THE WIND SINGER, by William Nicholson, I read it in the car, and later in bed at my grandfather's place.

Front Cover

The cover certainly attracted me to begin with. The synopsis hooked me. The story reeled me in. It's a fantastic book, and one of the first kid's books I read that hadn't been recommended to me, or borrowed from my family - it was a book I wanted to read, and it was mine. Nicholson's characters are fantastically written, and the world he created was both really fascinating and wonderfully blurry - by which I mean there was a constant foreign-ness to it that kept me reading, and means that years later I still remember the feelings from the story. 

THE WIND SINGER is actually part of a trilogy, and I was determined to get the books all in hardback when they came out. I did, and it was a strange, proud feeling to have them all on my bookshelves. Somehow the series - called THE WIND ON FIRE - doesn't seem as well known as it should be. I'd encourage anyone reading this to check the books out. 

Front Cover   Front Cover

In fact that's the best thing that could come from this post - someone finding these books, reading them, and loving them. Sadly, my copies are abroad at the moment (often the case at the moment) but I'll get my hands on them eventually and re-read the trilogy. 

That's the best thing about books you love. Going back to them isn't a chore or a bore - it's a thrill each time.  And that's why I want to write my own.


After Kestrel Hath rebels against the stifling rules of Amaranth society and is forced to flee, she, along with her twin brother and a tagalong classmate, follow an ancient map in quest of the legendary silver voice of the wind singer, in an attempt to heal Amaranth and its people.


Synopses, Planning and Writing

Monday morning's here again. It has a nasty habit of doing this ...

Over the last couple of day's I've been part of an ongoing conversation via Twitter and some writing forums about synopses. Specifically, their use before you write a book. Should agents get a look at them before you invest months / years in writing a new book? Can you really sum up a book you haven't written yet in a way that'll be useful?

The number one thing that comes out of any sort of discussion about synopses is pretty clear - writers hate 'em! They're hard. In a way, harder than the actual book. 70,000 words of epic fantasy across time zones and different lives? Sure thing. Cram all of that into two pages? Come on, now...

The point of a synopsis is obvious, I'd think. You lay out the plot for agents / editors so they can judge the viability of the work without committing hours of (possibly wasted) reading time. They're busy people, and asking them to read an entire ms. that might not even make sense in the end is a big ask. Synopses also make sure the writer themselves has a good grasp of what's important in a story. Which characters will you miss out, understanding that their role is minor? Which battler scene or grand denouement will you sum up as 'They fight. They win', because you get that it's not actually the focus in that scene? Having to shorten your writing and condense it and concentrate it can bring into sharp relief what matters. That's a good thing, right?

I recently watch the movie of Order, and then started re-reading the book. Man, there's so much more than I'd  remembered, or seen in the film. Winky the House-Elf! She got cut ...

I think for a lot of writer - my included - it's easy to loose sight of the fact that writing synopsis can be considered good practice just as much as writing stories. Can you get the whole plot down to 2000 words? How about 1500? Now you're talking. Less?

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's also a pretty good indicator of writing quality. Rambling, flowery prose  in a synopsis has to be a warning sign to a reader. If the writer can't even make this flow, what's the book going to do?

Seem to me a synopsis should

  • Introduce the setting, time, and main characters within reason. Minor characters don't have to be named.
  • Demonstrate an author's understanding of pacing and plot. Set the story up, set it in motion, and bring it to a conclusion.
  • Show at least a basic understanding of your story's best qualities - what's unique, what's strange? Highlight those bits. You can leave out the subplot about a boy who finds he's a wizard. 
  • Show that an author can write well even in constrained circumstances. It's like a style test. Haiku deliberately enforces strict style restrictions in the belief that the formality and challenge can, in the end, create the most beautiful poetry. Your synopsis doesn't have to be a work of art, but it can still be good writing.
I'm going back and forth with my agent at the moment with a couple of synopses, trying to decide which project is best to focus on. Her knowledge of the market and what's coming out soon in invaluable. For me, it's a reminder that writing is still a job, and it's not all 'happily ever after' and lounging around at home, wearing a monocle.

Just try to make sure synopses aren't all 'and then .. and then ... and THEN ..' if you're writing one. If it's not fun to write, it won't be fun to read.


Why do we tell stories?

The book I have on submission at the moment, EREN, is about a few things - a boy's troubles, adult hypocrisy, mysteries to be uncovered...

But mostly it's about stories, and asking the question why do we tell them?

Stories are a part of life. We tell them. We can't help it. When did that happen? That first 'once upon a time', that first 'A long time ago...', that first 'Come, sit, and I'll tell you a tale...'?

Sharing a story can be as powerful and as bonding as sharing a drink, or a bed, or a life. The image of gathering around a fire in a far flung inn, as a storm rages, and then swapping tales as the night draws in is a strong one, used many times by writers. If you're being clever and like your literary theory it's called a frame narrative. If you're being cleverer still it's just a darn good way to get away with telling more than one story without too many people noticing.

But why do we tell tales? From 'in the beginning' to 'happily ever after', the journey is above all else one of exploration and understanding. Stories aren't literal (side note - it's fun to read that word in a Welsh accent) because they're the shadows behind the light; the stars behind the moon; the dreams you have remember that made so much sense at the time. We can ape and mirror this world, flattering it or exaggerating it, and the aim in the end - beyond finding out what happens next - is to end with a bigger and better view of life. To gain perspective without actually leaving the room. It's a bold magic that asks so much from so little.

In EREN, I'm not sure Oli finds the answer he wanted. You'll have to wait to read it to see if you agree. In EREN the answer is probably more brutal. Stories in that world exist to feed and drive things far older and more dangerous than us. I did that as a nod of respect to tales and the strange, brilliant power they have in them.

Reading HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE at the moment. And when it is finished, I'll let you know how it all went.


Waiting. Writing. Waiting.

Turns out that a lot of being a writer is waiting for things to happen.

Not in an ill defined 'waiting for greatness to be thrust upon me, verily!' way. Actual waiting. For e-mails, for contacts, for news.

Writing a book might be quite a time consuming hobby / craft / profession, but that's probably the only reason all writers aren't also pant-wettingly insane. A new book takes up a lot of time, which means time you could spend clicking the refresh button and slipping slowly into insanity can actually be put to a more productive use.

Still, some jobs are fast-paced. Firefighter. Olympic sprinter. Teacher. Race car driver! Secret agent. Astronaut. Cowboy! Spy. King!

Wait, I got distracted...

Solo jobs, as writing is, tend to mean less crazy back and forth, shooting the Bad Guys (and rescuing the sexy but mysterious double agent) and more time typing away in your house, shooting the fictional Bad Guys (and rescuing the sexy but mysterious double agent, who'll only betray you 'cause, duh, she's a double agent).

Time spent writing is good, but there are plenty of other ways to frustrate yourself while you're waiting for news and edits and opinions. I've found some doozies. Oh, yes I have.

Twitter is a brilliant waste of time. It's probably the most useful and productive waste of time I've ever known. Millions of folk, interesting and not, expert and idiot, with things to say, but only 140 characters to do it in. No rants, no spammy pictures - just concise and easily followable or blockable info-blasts. Great stuff.

Specifically for me, the SHIT posts (Submissions Hell, It's True) over on Writer Writer Pants on Fire have been great to read. A series of interviews with debut authors on how their submissions process went, they're informative, realistic and hope-bringing all at once. Fun times.

The Absolute Write forums, of which I am a big supporter, offer writers community, expert knowledge and great resources for almost any question or thought you have. As with most forums, you can waste as much time as you want on less important questions and still find those little truth-nuggets that'll be a boon to your career.

And, of course, there's work. Real work you get paid for. I write for New York International, and working as a writer is a great, great joy. Do check out some of my articles if you want, and let me know what you think.

I'll be waiting, I guess.


What does it take to be a writer?

What does it take to be a writer?

On the face of it, a very simple, or very difficult question.

Practically? An idea, some paper (or laptop), and time.

Less practically? That's more what I want to talk about.  What are the qualities a person needs, the beliefs and dreams and abilities and skills, to sit down, write, and make it work?

Thoreau had an idea: "“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

File:Henry David Thoreau.jpg
Henry David Thoreau, 1817 - 1862, and his stoic, come-hither eyes.

But still, that's more a suggestion, a hint in the right direction. Once you've lived and loved and hurt and seen, what do you need to do? Just put things down in words and be content? Or is there something more?

I do have an answer for this, though of course it's my own answer, and I'm not claiming this alone is unique and absolute truth. I think it's quite far there though, if that's not arrogant beyond reason.

What does it take to be a writer? Absolute and complete belief in the worth of your own writing.

When all's said and done, ignoring agents and publishers and readers and editors, ignoring money and profit and deadlines and style and criticism, if you don't believe in your own story and your own ability to make it, how can anyone else?

This is an artistic business made into a capitalist business, and books, for all their worth, are just as much a commodity to be bought and sold as are burgers or laptops.  To succeed against what are, admittedly, impressively substantial odds, there's only so far acumen can take you. But belief?

It might sound trite if you haven't experienced it yourself, but belief, unwavering and concrete, is a terrible force to reckon with. When everything else falls away, a writer must know - really know, in their heart - that what they have to say matters, and that what they've written is worth others reading. In a way it's arrogance taken to its extreme. Or, as Thoreau suggests, vanity. Look what I have written! Look what I can say! 

Just look at it in a positive light. A writer who loves their work and believes in it can bring passion and energy to the publishing process that money by itself can't. Naive? I don't think so. Ask agents. Do they have to love a project to take it on? Spoiler: The answer is yes.

So, go, write, believe in what you're doing, and if all else fails, hang on to that.


Book Reviews / Blog Awards

Happy Friday one and all!

I've blasted through a couple of books recently - ones that have been mentioned on here multiple times, but without any review (since reviewing without finishing seems a little off...). On top of that, there are a couple of blog awards I need to announce / give thanks for. I have definitely been a tad lax on this point, so thanks and apologies go out to fellow writers and bloggers.

So yes, it's a super special double focused Friday post - huzzah!

A sunny afternoon just a couple of days ago, I manned up, sat on the balcony, and finished EIGHT DAYS OF LUKE. I'd left it with perhaps 15 pages to go (a bad habit) and it took no real time to finally finish this interesting little book. In all honesty, I didn't fall head over heels for it, and if I didn't know Diana Wynne Jones already, I'm not completely convinced it would win me over. It's quite likely that if I'd read this as a kid, my thoughts would be different. I posted just t'other day about reading certain books while you're still young, and this might be a good example. In the end, though it was a good read and I didn't see the ending coming, I found the plot a little bit too ... hmm ... unsatisfying, and the very end really did come from no where to make everything neat and tidy. Her writing is flawless as ever, and the interaction between characters (child and adults) is brilliant and, I'm sure, even funnier to a kid, but in the end I think it's not the best read I've had lately. 

John Connolly's THE GATES (covered from a slightly different angle here) was a really good read (or, in this case, listen). Issues of age group aside, the plot was original and, more's the point, completely unpredictable. The characters were vivid, just the right side of funny, and perfectly rounded, and any book than can mix up science and particle physics with the opening of the gates of Hell without raising a few eyebrows has done a marvelous job. I'll read more of his stuff - what higher praise could I give?

Now, onto awards.

Paige, over at The Dream Words has been kind / foolhardy / wise enough to pass on The Booker Award to me!

Apparently it comes with Rules. These are: 

This award is for book bloggers only. To receive this award the blog must be at least 50% about books (reading or writing is okay) Along with receiving this award, you must also share your top five favorite books you have ever read. You must award 5 bloggers, with booky blogs you adore.  

Following my own tradition, I won't pass it on right now, but will reserve that for some more thought. As for my top five books...

  1. SKELLIG, by David Almond. It's unlikely this will ever be dethroned.
  2. LIFE OF PI, by Yann Martel. Despite the lackluster performance of his latest book, this one, and SELF along with THE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS, keep Martel up there.
  3. WUTHERING HEIGHTS, by Emily Bronte. Gothic, tragic, brilliant.
  4. A WILD SHEEP CHASE, by Haruki Murakami. Sometimes when it seems like an evil sheep is trying      take over the world, the only satisfying ending is to find out that an evil sheep is trying to take over the world.
  5. CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. This will soon be coming out as a film, and honestly, the trailer looks blinding. Observe:

Lane Heymont, over on his brilliant blog, passed on the Sunshine Award to me. For this one, you need to list ten things about yourself

  1. My Japanese is decent. My French is, increasingly, really, really not.
  2. I just celebrated my one year anniversary! My wife is brilliant.
  3. My favourite animal is either a donkey or a duck.
  4. My professional aspiration as a child was to be a burglar. 
  5. My professional aspiration now is to be an author, but also, just a little, to be a burglar.
  6. Really, really want to go to Portugal, but can't work out why.
  7. I don't believe in Eskimos.
  8. Favourite sport is, depending on my mood, tennis, athletics (800m) or football.
  9. I've always had trouble counting.

Getting this awards means a lot, so thank you guys, and thank you to all who read this. I've said it before, but writers need community to hold back the obvious madness, and being able to interact with budding and professional writers alike is a real joy. Sharing, supporting, learning, etc. Great stuff.

And I rather think that's enough for now. Take care all, and have a great weekend.


Stitching and Sewing and Mashing a Story

The other night, and I'd said I would, I finally sat down and collected all the strands and pages and scribbles of my story, and mashed them all together.

Well, mashed, or stitched.

I've been thinking about which term works. One certainly sounds nicer. Ah, the stitching of a story. It seems calm, collected, graceful, even beautiful. Mashed certainly has a rougher sound. Like cramming all the words in to a too-old suitcase right before a holiday, and puffing and swearing until finally I make them fit, and sit, exhausted, on top of the bulging heap.

How does writing work?

In truth it's probably a mixture of both, and then some.

Me, t'other night, being mad word-alchemist, as lightning cracked the (largely metaphorical) sky

Though there are as many different writing styles as there are writers, for me books always have a 'hump' - a point after which it suddenly all makes sense, finally. Things come together - whether crashing and moaning or fitting perfectly, like cogs - and suddenly, instead of pages of things that happen, I have a story.

Imagine a hot air balloon, deflated. It's been built - the basket woven and hammered, the balloon itself stitched and pressed, the engine wired and oiled and filled - but if it's lying in a field, it's not much to look at. That thing's going to fly? Looks more like it's going to ... hurple. 

Then, it fills, and it folds out, and takes shape, and the crowd goes, 'Ohhhh. I see. Right. Marvelous. Um. It goes quite high, then...?'

So now the end is (almost) in sight. The story even has a denouement, if I can get away with using such an unnecessarily pretentious word...

So, stitching or mashing? Is the book going to be finely crafted or hammered into submission, then dragged bleeding, to the press? It is going to be like a load of cogs that purr, or a groaning, lumbering hulk?

Yes, probably. That's a suitably annoying answer, but I'm a writer - I don't deal in straight answers. I think in the end writing is about making words do what you want them to. At times, that means being tyrannical, killing your darlings, and letting the Editor's Red Pen of Doom bloody the book up a bit. At times it means being frightfully clever and making the words dance and play and do all sorts of brilliant things that are probably overly-complicated, but fun all the same.

And still the world turns, and the book grows ever longer.

That's the most important thing of all.