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Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Big River Has a Little Axe to Grind: Making Sense of the Amazon / Hatchette Dust-Up by Lev Butts

I have always wondered about people who fight viciously over things in which they have absolutely no control or even stake in. I have seen families and towns torn apart by football rivalries (and while sports rivalries in the American South can be pretty intense, they apparently have nothing on the fanaticism of the United Kingdom sports fans: hell, you all even have your own Wikipedia page for your riots).

"What happened, officer? Terrorist attack?"
"No, sir. Manchester lost."
I have seen grown-ass adults brought to blows at pop culture conventions over everything from the ending of Battlestar Galactica to whether or not Batman can beat Superman in a fight. As the kid of a cop, I have heard all too often of normally kind, loving people spilling each others' blood over which political party has the most assholes (off-hand, I'd say they're about even).

In my naivete, I have always held myself and people of like mind above such frays. None of us would ever stoop to that kind of insanity. Sure, we may disagree, us writers and scholars, but we have the solid foundations of reason and critical thinking to keep things in perspective. We can rise above petty bickering, see both sides of any issue, and argue reasonably and calmly about....

Shut up. 
OK, sure. We all have our hot button issues, but in my defense, I don't really hate John Green. As I've said before, I'm sure he's a great writer. My kid seems to think so. He also does a helluva lot to promote literacy for kids and adolescents, and that's always to the good. I do take exception to his views on independent publishing, but at least that is something I have a stake in. 

Recently, I discovered the one an issue that has brought many of my fellow writers to levels of vitriol that rival that of the worst soccer fan or sci-fi fanboy. 

Epic
 I am referring, of course, to the ongoing dispute between Amazon.com and Hachette Book Group. Apparently, all through spring and summer, the two companies have been involved in pricing negotiations for e-books. This is the fallout from a class action lawsuit a few years ago in which publishers had made illegal deals with Apple to raise e-book prices. So now, according to the very in-depth research I have been able to do in the last twenty minutes, in accordance with the judgment, Amazon is involved in pricing negotiations with Hachette (as well as the Bonnier Group, a Swedish publishing conglomerate), the first of the five major U. S. publishers involved in the lawsuit having to do so.

"What happened, officer? Sports riot?"
"No, sir. Someone told a Hachette employee that e-books should be cheaper."
In short, Amazon wants cheaper e-book prices ($9.99 or less), and Hachette claims that such low prices cannot pay the costs of producing the book. 

Riveting stuff, I know, but here's where it gets weird.

Amazon, in a move worthy of Vito Corleone, decided to hold Hachette's books hostage.

"Make'em an offer they can't refuse.
You know, cut off the book covers
and put them in the bed while they sleep."
They have refused to add pre-order buttons to upcoming Hachette books, slowed the delivery of others, referred customers to other, non-Hachette books, and decided against discounting Hachette books (an admittedly odd choice given that their desire is to ultimately discount Hachette books, kind of like suspending a kid from school from truancy).

We'll fix they're asses. If they won't come, we won't let 'em!
So far, so good, though. Sounds like aggressive negotiation tactics, but nobody's really hurt. 

Except for, you know, the authors of the books Amazon has targeted. In early August, a group of 900 authors signed an open letter published in a two-page ad in the New York Times decrying Amazon's tactics. Amazon responded a few days later by posting its own open letter implying that Hachette orchestrated the authors' letter and accusing them of using their authors as "human shields." 

And then the rhetoric gets really surreal, with one critic even comparing (with a straight face, mind you) Amazon's tactics to "Vladimir Putin mobilizing his troops along the Ukrainian border."

I vill drop prices if I haff to kill every author Hachette prints.
As a more direct response to the Hachette letter, a group of writers and readers posted their own open letter/petition supporting Amazon on change.org. I urge you all to read all three letters. They all make valid points and do an excellent job of boiling this very complex issue down to its bare essentials.

Did somevun say bear?
The gist is this: Lines have been drawn. Not surprisingly, they have been drawn between traditionally published writers (who predominantly support Hachette) and independently published writers (weighing in for Amazon). Yes there is some overlap, but this is the most prevalent breakdown.

And both sides have shown a tendency to behave towards each other with all the grace and charm of a Klansman discussing genetics. I have even heard of writers (traditional and indie) who have been threatened by their opposition for having the unmitigated gall to disagree. 

Threatened. By other writers. For having other ideas. 

We may all cry tears of irony.
So here's where I decide to step in and add my two-cents-worth:

Everybody is right.

Amazon is right: Traditional publishing is afraid of new technology. The whole dispute reeks of the paperback dispute in the 1940's: 
With [paperbacks] being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution — places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if "publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them." Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.
Yep, that's Amazon playing the Orwell card (literature's own version of Godwin's law), but ham-fisted rhetoric aside, they are correct: e-books are simply the paperbacks of today, and their struggle for legitimacy is exactly the same.

However, the 900 authors are also right: Amazon has indeed
directly targeted Hachette's authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms [by]
  • Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books and eBooks, claiming they are "unavailable." 
  • Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors' books.
  • Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
  • Suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.
Given that Amazon instigated these tactics to hurt Hachette through its authors, accusing the publisher of using its writers as "human shields" seems a bit disingenuous. Sort of like shooting a rival's kids and then accusing the rival of using the children as shields because they happened to be standing behind them at the time.

And the change.org petition is also right on several counts:
  • You may remember a story from a few years back about the five major publishers breaking the law and colluding to raise the prices you pay for your e-books. These publishers were ordered by the Department of Justice to pay millions in a settlement. Their intent was to price digital books high, stifle innovation, and limit your freedom to read as you see fit. The pressure for this change came from bookstores, from major publishers, and from other online retailers. [...] Fortunately, prosecutors rescued us from this price-fixing scheme, and digital books went back to a reasonable price. 
  •  You may have heard that Amazon is making books unavailable. This simply isn’t true. Amazon has turned off pre-order buttons for Hachette’s books, as negotiations have broken down to the point that Amazon may not be able to fulfill those orders once the books in question are released. The books that are supposedly being made unavailable aren’t available for sale anywhere else because they aren’t out yet. 
  • Amazon pays writers nearly six times what publishers pay us. Amazon allows us to retain ownership of our works. Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature. Unlike the New York “Big Five,” Amazon allows every writer access to their platform. 
  • Negotiations between publishers and retailers happen all the time. Recently, Simon & Schuster found itself in a similar deadlock with Barnes & Noble. Many authors were affected, but not by missing pre-order buttons or delayed shipments; their books simply weren’t carried at all. They were shut out completely.
This last point is particularly apt as it underscores, not only that these kinds of tactics are not unique to Amazon, but that they are fairly common and often far worse than Amazon's actions. (Yes, I know that a murderer can't be excused because someone else is a cannibal, but the petition's point is still valid).

Dammit, foiled again.
However, Amazon and Hachette are both wrong:

Hatchette is wrong to demand such prohibitively high prices for e-books. They cost next to nothing to produce (other than design and layout) since there is no physical material needed: no paper, no glue, no ink, etc. Unfortunately, most e-books cost as much if not more than the paperback of the same title. Hell, even Amazon's proposed $9.99 is too much to pay for a book that costs nothing to produce and that you don't really own anyway.

To which I will add, just as paperbacks ultimately prevailed without destroying hardbacks, it is fairly unlikely that e-books are going to destroy hardcopy books (of whatever back). In fact, cheaper e-books may possibly increase sales of hardcopy editions. I buy hardbacks even if I own the paperback if I really like the book. And if e-books were cheaper, I'd buy them so I could continue reading my books away from home without lugging them with me (I tend to read two to four books at a time).

However, Amazon is wrong to punish the authors for having the misfortune of being published by Hachette. While the author of the change.org petition presents a very good explanation for Amazon's "failure" to offer timely shipping of Hachette's books, there are problems with it. The petition claims that Amazon is not stocking Hatchette books in case negotiations completely break down and they are no longer able to sell them. They do not want to have an unsellable overstock of books, so current Hatchette orders have to be filled by the publisher, not Amazon, a process that often takes weeks. My admittedly limited understanding of book selling, though, is that the books are bought from the publisher before hitting the shelves (virtual or otherwise). If negotiations break down, those books are still owned by Amazon and can be sold even if they do not purchase future Hachette books.

The petition cannot explain away Amazon's refusal to discount Hatchette books other than to state the obvious: Amazon is under no obligation to discount any book, and the high price is the one set by the publisher.

As for suggesting buyers purchase non-Hatchette books instead, that's kind of a prick move. That is, undeniably, an attempt to hurt Hatchette by hurting its authors, and that's wrong.

The long and short of it is publishers have set absurdly high prices for e-books, and I support Amazon's desire to bring those prices down, but not by punishing the authors.

Honestly, though, we are all armchair-refereeing a fight between two businesses who are both trying to paint themselves as the aggrieved party in a dispute that ultimately boils down to one company wanting to make itself more money and another wanting to save itself more money.

At the end of the day, neither of them really cares whether I save money, despite their rhetoric. At the end of the same day, if there's an e-book I want badly enough, I'm probably going to buy it regardless of the price, though I may complain about it like a fanboy critiquing the new Star Trek film while in line for his third ticket.

It sucks worse each time I see it. 

And both parties know this.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

How I Write #blog hop by Pauline Chandler

For this post, I've been tagged by Valerie Laws to explain my writing process. We all tackle the job differently, don't we? There are one or two things we agree on, such as editing a lot and reading work aloud to spot the clunky bits, but there's no right and wrong way. It took me a while to find that out!

Valerie Laws (www.valerielaws.com) is a crime novelist, poet, playwright and sci-art installation specialist.

Of her thirteen published books, 4 are currently available as ebooks. A mathematics/physics graduate, she devises new poetic forms and science-themed poetry installations and commissions including the infamous Arts Council–funded Quantum Sheep, spray-painting haiku onto live sheep to celebrate quantum theory. Much of her recent work arises from funded residencies with pathologists, neuroscientists, human specimens and dissections. Another quantum haiku on inflated beachballs in Hackney Lido featured in BBC2’s Why Poetry Matters with Griff Rhys Jones, and live at Royal Festival Hall, London, and her installations have toured all over Europe. She performs worldwide live and in the media.  Her many prizes and awards include a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and two Northern Writers’ Awards.  She is disabled and lives on the North East coast of England.

For #bloghop there are four questions to answer. 



1) What am I writing?  

My current work in progress is a coming-of-age story for YA readers, set in the 1415, the year of the Battle of Agincourt, which features in the novel.

14 year-old Elinor, abandoned as a baby by her mother at the local abbey, is tracked down by her father and taken home to act as nursemaid to her half-sister, an albino child. When Alys is kidnapped, Elinor sets out to find her. Both girls have a burden to bear in life: Alys her albinism and Elinor her illegitimacy. The story deals with families, identity, the role of women in a medieval society at a time of war, superstition and faith.     



 2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

Mm, that’s an interesting question. Perhaps the answer is best left to readers to decide. I try to make my characters real and fully rounded with a backstory and a future, so that if you were to meet them today you would recognise them and have plenty to talk about! And I try very hard to get the history right, after plenty of research.  

3) Why do I write what I do?

My stories ‘come’ to me and I usually know when I’m dealing with one that will turn into a book. Most have been historical fiction, because I love history and researching past lives, especially the medieval period. I’m just nosy about people and feel a strong connection with the places they’ve lived in or the things they leave behind. I like to stand in old houses and let them ‘speak’ to me, imagining who lived there and what happened there. 
Joan of Arc's family home in Domremy. 

4) How does my writing process work?

Once I have the idea for a story, I try to find my main characters. Everything depends on my readers being intrigued by them, and interested in finding out what happens to them.   
When I’m committed to a story, my brain seems to work on it by itself and throw up thoughts randomly day or night, so I carry a small notebook about, in which to jot these thoughts down. The next stage is to start writing the book in an A4 notebook, on one side of the page only, because it just feels nicer and allows me space to add things later. Meanwhile, I research the history, noting down details of clothing, food, customs, buildings, language, and so on, in other notebooks. When I run out of steam and I’m not sure where to go next, I transfer what I’ve written to the computer. That process often gives me ideas for the next section. When the first draft is on the screen, it’s then a long process of editing and re-drafting.

How do you write? 
Pauline Chandler                                   www.paulinechandler.com

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Beware poetry by Sandra Horn

          The thing is, I did a daft thing a few weeks ago.
          It seemed like a good idea at the time, as these things often do. I had a great splurge on tidying up, editing and then sending out a bunch of stuff: poems, picture book texts and opening chapters of novels.
          I felt good for about half a day, then less good, then ghastly as the first rejections came in. You know the drill: It Is All Over. I Am Finished. Perhaps I Was Only Ever a One-trick Pony.
          However, rejections were only the start of it. Then came the silence. The waiting. Waiting for deadlines, for the requisite number of weeks/months to go by until 'if you haven't heard from us by...you can assume you won't, ever'.
          That's when the Slough of Despond sucks me in, and in order not to sink into the murk entirely, I read more poetry. I read it in bed before I get up. That's the mistake. It fills my head up with whirling words. I can't even have a shower or a pee without the *benison of hot water, tant pis (I can't help it, I tell you!).
          * I don't know where this came from; it's not mine. And anyway, it's archaic.
          This morning, it started with Emily Dickinson: I started early, took my dog. Who would have guessed that's where Kate Atkinson got her title from? It's a very odd little poem anyway but it got the word-whirling started. Toast-bread-flour-grain. Rain. Is marmalade a metaphor? What for? Does anything rhyme with orange? Florence, if you're drunk enough. Can a porcelain bowl be 'tense as a new-laid egg'? That is mine, but I have no confidence in it. What rhymes with avocado? Bardot (as in Brigitte); sardo (as in pecorino); hard, oh! (as in unripe).
          Noctilucent. Bioluminescent. Apogee. Azimuth.
          There's an Alice Oswald-invoking spider in the hall. The garden spawns Eilean ni Chiulleanain-invoking midges. Dandelion clocks - oh, Norman Nicholson! And I haven't even had my coffee yet. It's bound to start producing similes. Dark as. Hot as.

          The poetry has robbed me of the wee bit sense I had (shamelessly borrowed and adapted)
          Perhaps I should have had a cold shower...


                               the dinosaur gave them each a colourful balloon

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

So, you think you’re a writer?


          A writer is someone who writes. Seems easy doesn’t it? But, at what stage do writers become professionals? Not so easy. Is it when they write their first article, story, novel, or book? Or is it tied to publication? And if it’s tied to publication, what kind of publication? Does publication in magazines count? What about online magazines? Does it have to be a book? And what about e-books? Do you have to be published by one of the Big Six to be recognised as a professional author? In my opinion that would be a bit restrictive. So, should this be extended to other publishing houses who are not part of the Big Six? And what about the multiplicity of independent publishers (Indies) that are springing up?
          I started to wonder about this after chatting to the membership secretary of the CWA (Crime Writers Association) who indicated that the number of self published e-book authors who were applying for membership was increasing. This resulted in the CWA having difficulties convincing self published authors they were not eligible unless published traditionally by a mainstream publisher. Self published authors often argued that their e-books were successful with multiple downloads, and therefore could not understand why they should not be eligible. However, the problem for the CWA is how to differentiate between quality e-books and those of lesser quality. Their main concern is to ensure that quality is retained in the books published by the authors they accept.
          Of course this reflects back to the situation where anyone can publish a book electronically through Amazon, Smashwords, and others like them. And it has to be admitted, that not all e-books meet the standards required by mainstream publishers, although I would argue that there are many which do.
          Many self published authors, although not all, are now seeking entry to the professional organisations which support writers. Organisations such as the Society of Authors, the CWA (Crime Writers Association), the RNA (Romantic Novelists Association), and others. Considering my conversation with the membership secretary of the CWA, it would appear that some of these organisations are struggling with the concept of indie publishing, never mind indie authors.
          It seemed to me that the professional organisations had reached a stalemate, which was why I was so pleased to see the recent Guardian article titled “Traditional publishing is ‘no longer fair or sustainable,’ says the Society of Authors”. This article argues that figures from a recent ALCS (Authors Licensing & Collecting Society) survey shows that authors’ earnings are decreasing and have fallen by 29% since 2005. The Society of Authors states that publishers, retailers and agents are all now taking a larger slice of the profit when a book is sold, and that while “authors’ earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing.” The survey indicates that self-publishing is becoming an increasingly attractive option for writers and they found that just over 25% of writers had published something themselves, and that 86% of those who had self published said they would do so again. The article is well worth reading in its entirety and I would suggest you make the time to do so.
 
Society of Authors Chief Executive, Nicola Soloman
          Now, the main reason I like this article was because of the statement by the Society of Authors that they include self published writers among their members if they have sold 300 copies of a single title in print form, or 500 copies in e-book form, within a 12 month period. They further state that most writers would “still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable”.
          Of course, there is another option, and that is ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors), this is the professional organisation for Indies. There is, of course, an annual subscription fee, but this is no different from the other professional organisations who all require subscriptions.
 
http://allianceindependentauthors.org/
          I’ll sign off by saying please read the Guardian article I found it extremely interesting.


Chris Longmuir






Monday, 18 August 2014

FATAL FLAWS by Catherine Czerkawska


As prickly as William?
A little while ago, I was asked to speak to a group of readers. One of them had spent many years as a professional editor with one of the big, prestigious publishing corporations. All of them had read the Physic Garden and were interested in talking about it and asking questions. I’ve done plenty of these sessions and you don’t expect everyone to like the book. Some of the questions can be challenging, so you have to be able to think on your feet. All of which is a good thing. But on this occasion something happened that brought me up short.

‘How on earth,’ said this ex-editor personage, ‘Did you manage to write in the first person voice of somebody so unlikeable?’

There was one of those dismayed silences in the group, with everyone trying not to catch my eye. An uneasy stirring. A little murmur of protest. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that she was questioning my writing abilities. Not really. She was asking me how I could possibly have written 90,000 words in the voice of a totally unlikeable person. Except that of all the characters I have ever created, and if you include my plays and stories that’s a lot of people, I think William Lang is right up there with my favourites.

I simply love him.

Which was all I could say, really. The story was no hardship because I loved William to bits. Still do. And moreover, as somebody else in the group was quick to point out, even though William lived 200 years ago, you can still find his like today. Many of us know them and some of us think ourselves lucky if we do: elderly Scotsmen, very clever and sometimes self-taught, a little prickly on the outside, but with a loving soft centre, dry, humorous and with all the wisdom of their years. They’ll be doting grandfathers too, given half a chance.

Did it matter that she didn’t like him? Not a bit. But it did get me thinking. Because this was a person who had been an editor, a person of some influence within traditional publishing. And if she had still been working in that role, it would have mattered a lot. Because that would have been her judgement and yet it was one that the rest of the group – voracious readers - disagreed with.

And then it struck me that I've had other responses like that. Not, I hasten to add, from the excellent editor who worked on The Physic Garden, a pearl among editors, who confessed that she too loved William. But in the past, I've had agents and editors telling me that a particular character wasn't likeable enough. And although I’m prepared to admit that sometimes they might have been right, I suspect mostly they were wrong. It was a matter of personal preference. Something to do with their own prejudices. We all have them. But when publishing acquisitions stand or fall by them that’s when the trouble starts. Perhaps, like the advice to decorate a house as blandly as possible if you’re putting it up for sale, this goes some way to explaining so much that is anodyne in contemporary fiction emanating from the big corporations.

Do you have to like your main protagonist to write about him or her? Do you have to like this person in order to enjoy the book? I don’t think so. I rather dislike Jane Eyre, the character, I can’t help it, but I do like the book very much. I don’t like Heathcliff and Cathy at all. Who would? But I love Wuthering Heights almost more than any other novel and reread it practically every year. I don’t much like Fanny Price, but I enjoy Mansfield Park.

As for my poor William, she thought him too dour, too Presbyterian, even though he makes determined efforts not to go to the kirk as often as his family would like. And I think she believed that William had been prone to over-reaction, which is an opinion she shares with a few other readers, and makes a good point for discussion. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, and without giving away any spoilers, our narrator remembers a time when he is reading in the library of his much wealthier friend, Thomas. There, he comes across a book called The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, complete with illustrations, and is shocked to his youthful core by the pictures he sees there. This is a real book. I was able to see a very old and precious facsimile in Glasgow University Library. But you can also find some of the images online. I remember seeing them for the first time. And I, with all my 21st century assumption of sophistication, was also shocked to the core. The images are very beautiful. But the horror lies in realising their beauty and almost immediately becoming aware of the fact that they are depicting the deaths of women and children, mostly through privation and poverty. You can see some of them here. But be warned before you click on the link, they are not at all comfortable to see!

Anyway, we agreed to disagree about William’s likeability or otherwise, although most of the rest of the group seemed to be on William’s side. But it also got me thinking about all those letters of rejection that said, ‘I liked the book but I didn’t love it.’ Or ‘I loved this book but I couldn’t carry marketing with me.’ (i.e. they didn’t love it.) I used to sigh and resolve to do better next time. Now that I only have to submit a novel if I want to, I realise that liking and loving a character are personal judgments and may have nothing to do with the quality of the book – but more importantly, they may have very little to do with whether or not I enjoy reading a book. If that were the case, neither Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner would be the astonishing reads they undoubtedly are. And as for Scarlett O’Hara? Oh dear me no. Consigned to the outer darkness as terminally unlikeable.

I like my characters flawed, sometimes fatally so. How do you like yours?

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Hot Summer Writing - Elizabeth Kay

          So you’re sitting on the patio with a Pimms, some pistachios and a laptop, surrounded by cascades of scented flowers with the gentle humming of bumble bees in the background, and the occasional burst of birdsong…
      A lean, tanned figure appears with a single red rose, and an exquisite selection of Belgian chocolates. As he leans over you, his blond hair brushing your cheek, your thoughts turn to the next scene, when the heroine finds herself pressed up against a Viking warrior as she endeavours to rescue the family heirloom from the clutches of the one-eyed blacksmith who killed her brother… All of a sudden, a bit of research seems in order, and you shut the laptop and head back into the house with your…
            Of course, that’s the sort of stuff I wrote under a pseudonym, and I’m not revealing the pen-name here! So how was it for you, trying to get on with your novel in mid-July?
            Streaming eyes from hayfever, a woolly jumper because July in England is anyone’s guess. A cup of slightly bitter tea (because you forgot to get any milk) and a couple of soggy biscuits, because you didn’t put the lid back on the tin. The machine-gun rattle of magpies, as they try to scrounge ever more food from their parents, and the shrieking of ring-necked parakeets as they demolish all the food on the bird-table. A few insect bites on your ankles. A light drizzle, which has encouraged every slug in the neighbourhood to have a garden party in your flowering tubs, and a partner who’s so wound up by work issues that thoughts of red roses and Belgian chocolates are the last things on his mind. It’s not quite the life of which I dreamed as a kid, scribbling furiously in nicked exercise books and envisaging travelling to remote destinations in the name of research.
            To be fair, I have managed the travel part fairly well. Stomach upsets in Mexico, Kenya, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Cote D’Ivoire – the real highlight was salmonella in Madagascar. Mud slides in Costa Rica, flooding wadis in Morocco, sandstorms in Mongolia. And that’s what’s helped me to write about hot summer days. I tend to lump my experiences in one region together, invent somewhere new, and then extrapolate a bit. Beware of Men with Moustaches drew on my experiences in the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine. Jinx on the Divide,  the third book in the Divide trilogy, used Iceland and Norway for that wintry feel. And for Back to the Divide, the second book, I plundered Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

       Felix and Betony, our young protagonists, are being carried on the backs of Ironclaw and Thornbeak, two brazzles (griffons).
           
…They took off again, but it wasn’t until the sun was nearing the horizon that they began to see vegetation once more. The plants they saw were like the cacti of Felix’s own world; the tall branching saguaro, familiar from Westerns, and the paddle-shaped prickly pear. They weren’t identical, though – the flesh of the saguaros was a dusky violet colour, and that of the prickly pears pale lemon. Some of them were in flower – huge, extravagant blooms of bright scarlet and peacock blue.
The sand here was firmer, interspersed with gravelly bits and boulders. There was a range of mountains in the distance, but they weren’t anything like as high as the Andrian mountains. The brazzles looked for somewhere to camp that would be sheltered, for the wind was blowing more strongly and no one wanted to be sandpapered all night long. Eventually Ironclaw spotted a dried-up riverbed, and they landed.
Felix wondered whether to say anything. He knew that a dried-up riverbed was called a wadi, and his geography teacher had told him that people who camped in wadis could get swept away in the middle of the night by a wall of water. The sky was clear, though, and it didn’t look as though it had rained in this area for years. They settled themselves down, and had supper. This time it was Ironclaw alone who did the hunting – Thornbeak wasn’t going to leave the youngsters on their own again, not after what had happened the last time. He returned with some gazelle-type creature, and he and Thornbeak retired to a polite distance to eat.
Felix looked up at the sky. The stars were coming out, with that extraordinary brilliance peculiar to deserts. They munched on their bread and cheese, and squealed every time they spotted a shooting star. Felix suddenly remembered the things he’d brought in his rucksack, so he got out the newspaper, and gave it to Thornbeak, and then he passed the chocolate to Betony.
“Weird,” she said, as she rolled it round her mouth. “We don’t have anything remotely like this. I suppose it’s quite nice.”
It had never occurred to Felix that chocolate might be an acquired taste.
“Hey, look,” said Betony, pointing.
Felix glanced over towards the mountains. Lightning was forking down from the sky, silhouetting the peaks in front of it. The storm was so far away that they couldn’t hear any thunder at all. It was like a firework display just for them, and they watched it, enthralled.

         And that’s exactly what happened in Morocco. I was eighteen, and it was my first trip with a travel company aimed at young people. Holidays like this were very new ventures in the nineteen sixties, and Health and Safety hadn’t been invented. None of us put two and two together, and realised that a thunderstorm meant rain, and although the rain was a couple of miles away it had to go somewhere… Someone said, “I think one of the water cans has sprung a leak.” But within thirty seconds we all realised that there was too much water for that, and the wadi was flooding. We had to take down the tents, fling them on top of the two Land Rovers, and get out. We all spent the rest of the night in our sleeping bags on the bank, beneath the stars. The next morning the wadi was twelve foot deep in water. It was all terribly exciting, and made an excellent story when we got back home. With hindsight, the outcome could have been very different.

       I’m getting married this month, and next month we’ll be going on our honeymoon. Pimms, pistachios and scented flowers? No way. Indonesia, volcanoes and Komodo dragons!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Damn you, reality! by Jan Needle


My mind drifted into fantasy land at a very early age, and stayed there, more or less. Like my mother, I’ve never really thought of writing as a proper job, and the highs and lows of earning from it (which for most of us are getting lower all the time) never had much concrete reality. When I needed proper money I did a proper job (or worked on the grotty tabloids at least) until the financial choke-chain eased a bit, and for the rest of it – well, who wants to be rich anyway? Enough is as good as a feast; did any of you ever meet a rich man/woman who was happy? Me neither.

Lately, though, my life’s been more grounded in reality, and I haven’t enjoyed it particularly much. People very dear to me and mine are falling gently to pieces, and I’ve been a minor part of the hands-on caring process. It’s made the idea of knocking off another novella or two, or taking much part in Cally Phillips’s Edinburgh ebookfest (both of which I actually want to do) seem a wee bit too much. Despite the fact that caring is boring, it fills the mind. O untramelled fantasy, where art thou?

It's the cuts. Nelson without a leg to stand on
As it happens, I was down in Portsmouth recently, and I passed Charles Dickens’ birthplace. Now there was a strange exemplar of the reality/fantasy dividing line. Before I knew who he was I knew his house was next to the little dairy in Commercial Road that did lovely frozen milk ‘ice lollies’ for a penny, and that on the other side was the Smiths Crisp factory.

My sister and I used to sit outside the New Inn nearby of a Saturday night eating said delights, while our betters supped Brickwoods mild in the public bar bar and listened to the penny in the slot piano. The pub, inevitably, is now called the Charles Dickens, as my first school, Church Street Primary just down the road, is now Charles Dickens School.

I only missed sharing a birthday with the great man by twenty four hours (give or take some hundred years and guessing), but it took me even longer than the city fathers to realize how big he was as a name (and how usable for civic pride in a city that sure needed some.)

Being an ignorant little working class git I didn't get to read him until I took up with a university student (I was a reporter on the Daily Herald), and I must say I was sold on Great Expectations without a lot of trouble, although some of the others did me 'ead in in a very big way. That Bleak House? Come orf it, Charlie! When I got kids we used to watch Oliver over and over, and we can all still sing the songs - magic. As for the death of Nancy, well surely Dickens would have wept for joy watching whatsisface bashing in her pretty little bonce. A tabloid delight.

We all sniff at tabloids and journos these days, although I still miss the sheer fun of high-speed subbing and necking endless pints of bitter with bright and witty men and women, but Charlie would have thought such snobbery completely mad. He was a reporter, a shorthand writer, a snuffling terrier after truths, however sordid and degrading. If he hadn't been, he wouldn't have written the books, would he? I mean, how many stories do you get in a blacking factory? In the News of the World, remember, you found 'all human life'.

His private life was pretty raunchy too, and between him and his mate Wilkie Collins, the Fake Sheikh would have had no trouble dishing dirt. Charlie had a hyperactive fantasy life, which seemed to stoke his boiler with almost inexhaustible energy. Whether you think he was the greatest, or tend towards Oscar Wilde’s view of the death of Little Nell, hardly matters. Fantasy/reality? Poor sod worked himself to death. Almost inexhaustible, I said.

Like another great writer who understood the need to earn a living. Apart from anything else he wrote the probably most covered and casually sung song of the twentieth century. Altogether now:

         Und der Haifisch,
         Der hat Zaehne,
         Und die tragt er
         Im Gesicht
         Und Macheath,
         Der hat ein Messer -
         Doch das Messer -
         Sieht Man nicht!

Bert Brecht, like Dickens, would also do almost anything to earn a buck, so drove a donated Steyr when Mac the Knife made him a bit famous, to promote the brand. And when he crashed it, he called the Press in to photograph him alongside the wreck, asserting that any lesser vehicle would undoubtedly not have saved his life. Crafty Bertolt...
        
Had a lot of mistresses, as well. I think Mr Dickens would have saluted him! What’s wrong with lives of fantasy, after all? They keep the wolves away.

Poor old Pompey. They've had to sell the masts...