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Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.

Cuts to Legal Aid (or how to kick people when they’re down).

The Coalition’s snappily named Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow.  Now, as an opening sentence, I appreciate that that wasn’t the most inspiring you’ll ever have read, or even that I’ve ever written, but stick with me. Legal Aid isn’t glamorous, but it does matter.

I’m going to witter on about civil legal aid, and I have to start by declaring a possible bias. The last 6 years of my career have been largely spent in Citizens Advice Bureaux so I do have a bit of an interest in how civil legal advice services are provided and paid for.

Essentially at the moment, if you have a sufficiently low income you can get legal aid for advice on debt, housing, welfare benefits, and employment issues (amongst a whole host of other stuff – I’m concentrating on the areas where my expertise lies). This isn’t money that you as the person getting advice ever see – it is claimed by your advice provider and, for these areas of law, is generally paid at a fixed rate whatever the complexity of the advice you require. Some clients will receive only advice, but many will also be assisted with practical actions like negotiating repayments with creditors, applying for bankruptcy, appealing an incorrect benefit decision, or challenging liability for a debt.

Under the new proposals, there will be no legal aid available for welfare benefits cases or employment, and housing and debt advice will only be funded where there is an immediate risk of a client losing their home. This seems to me to be insane for a whole set of reasons.

Firstly, think about a situation where you’re in a medium amount of debt. You’re managing to pay your rent, but you’re behind with the utilities. Your credit cards are spinning out of control. Maybe you have a personal loan for a car that you’re struggling to pay. People find themselves in this situation for all sorts of reasons. The loss of a job, a sudden health problem, the loss of a partner, or simply spending more money that they have in their bank accounts. The point is that it happens, and when it happens people can find themselves bombarded with different advice and information from a whole set of people who either don’t have a clue themselves or are completely biased. So your bank says, “Take a consolidation loan.” Your credit card company threatens to send in bailiffs so you feel pressured to pay them first. Your utility company offer to install a prepayment meter to stop you getting further behind, but the tarriff looks much higher than you’re paying at the moment. Your mate says, “I borrowed from this website. They’re brilliant… oh, I’m not sure what this interest is, but they give you the money really fast.” What you need is some impartial advice, so where do you go? Maybe your local CAB or Law Centre or an Advice UK centre in your area? And what if they said, “Sorry, we can’t help you until you stop paying your rent, and your house is at risk”? That doesn’t sound like the best approach to me, but looking at the new Legal Aid proposals, that seems to be what the government is advocating. Good advice is very often about avoiding a crisis; in the new system you need to be having a crisis before any advice or assistance can be offered.

Welfare Benefits is another area of law where the coalition bill cuts provision. Actually, it basically gets rid of Legal Aid funded advice in welfare benefits alogether. The rationale here seems to be that the benefits system is significantly straightforward for people to navigate themselves. This is a belief that can only possibly have come from a group of people who have never had to worry themselves about actually applying for or living on a benefit in their lives. The British benefits system is labyrinthine in it’s complexity. The “basic” textbook on the subject used by most advice agencies (CPAG’s rather weighty Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook) runs to 1500 pages and is by no means a compete overview of the subject. And the Department of Work and Pensions, who administer the bulk of the system are by no means above confusion themselves. So where they make an error and refuse a benefit incorrectly, good advice on how to appeal is essential. This isn’t a luxury. This is about people’s basic rights and entitlements to a subsistence level of income.

To take the example of Employment and Support Allowance, which is paid to people with reduced capacity for work because of health problems. It has been estimated that around 40% of claimants who are refused benefit have it reinstated on appeal. The appeals process can be daunting and requires detailed evidence of claimant’s health conditions. To suggest that vulnerable claimants, some with multiple complex health issues, should navigate the process without advice is, at best, naive. At worst, it’s a cynical attempt to cut the benefits budget by discouraging claims and appeals.

We live in a country where access to certain basic services is accepted as a right, and we are immensely lucky to be in that situation. We expect our children to have access to education. We expect to be able to access healthcare. Changes to those basic services are highly controversial and, rightly, hotly debated. Somehow, we don’t seem to view access to justice and access to advice as having the same level of importance.

I’ve heard politicians characterising legal aid as a scheme for putting money into the pockets of already wealthy solicitors, and suggesting that, in true Big Society style, the voluntary sector is ready and waiting to fill in the gaps. That’s absolutely not my experience.  Much of the sort of work I’m describing is already done in the voluntary sector. Voluntary sector doesn’t mean free. Even volunteers need buildings, resources, heat, light, supervision, training, administration. A lot of the work described is highly specialist, and to ensure continuity of service and the required level of expertise, very often has to be done, at least in part, by paid workers.

The main reason a lot of this work is already done in the voluntary sector is that legal aid funding doesn’t allow for much (any!) profit margin. It’s only practical if you are operating on a not-for-profit basis. And these cuts will hit the not-for-profit sector hard. The Minstry for Justice has estimated that the voluntary sector will lose 97% of its current legal aid funding. That’s potentially catastrophic for free advice services across the country. You may never have needed to use one of those services. You may be in a position where you can afford to pay for a solicitor, but not everyone is, and I don’t believe in a society where justice is only available to the rich.

There’s lots of other worrying stuff in this bill – potential cuts to no-win, no-fee agreements jump out. The potential effects on victims of domestic violence are another big concern. If you agree that this is a worry, there is still stuff you can do. You can contact your MP directly – you should be able to find their details here: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/. You can either ask them to vote against the bill altogether, or perhaps support one of the Lib-Dem amendments which aim to protect legal aid for the most at-risk people.

You may not agree with me. You may think that the level of austerity cuts needed justifies these changes. You’re wrong, but totally entitled so to be. And so, I shall desist.

Come back later in the week (or, you know, maybe next week) when I’ll be getting all sci-fi/fantasy-ish and reviewy. I’ve got books by Neil Gaiman, Jasper Forde and Kate Johnson on my “just read” pile and I’ll be telling you what I thought about them all. From legal aid to fantasy fiction in a single bound. As ever, if you like eclectic in your bloggers, do feel free to subscribe.

The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).

Tuesday is the 1st November, and, as such, marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – although it’s actually totally international). NaNo is a fixture in many a writer’s calendar. The idea is that you commit to writing 50000 words during the month of November. It’s all about getting the words out, and it has become a valuable annual kick up the butt for many  writers. Some, such as Julia Crouch, have even gone on to get published with books they started during NaNo.

NaNo can be great. As a creative writing teacher, I get bored out of my brain from hearing, “I’d love to write a book but…” NaNo gets rid of the fatal ‘but’ and forces you to just get on with it. 50000 words in 30 days is 1667 words per day, or somewhere near the 2400 mark if you allow yourself weekends off. 50000 words still isn’t  a full-length novel (although it’s not far off one of the shorter formats, such as a Mills and Boon romance), but it’s an awful lot of white paper that you’ve killed off and an excellent starting point.

But I don’t do NaNo. Here’s why; it’s because I know I can write 2-2500 words per day. I’ve done it before. I wrote an 80000 word first draft of my current work-in-progress in jut under 8 weeks, writing 2000+ words per day Monday-Friday. I didn’t go back and correct. I didn’t edit as I went along. I just got the first draft out and onto the screen. I didn’t allow myself to leave the computer until at least 2000 words were done, and I did them every single weekday, whether I felt like it or not.

And that draft was terrible. Really truly terrible. Sure – there were odd sparkles of diamond amongst the manure but overall it was Not Good. And that will be true of most people’s 50000 NaNo words too. It’s not necessarily a problem. Editing and rewriting are a massive part, probably the main part, of writing a novel. I suspect that most writers’ actual first drafts are never seen by another living soul. The thing they call a “first draft” and send to critique partners or editors has had at least one vigorous tidy up before it’s deemed fit for other human beings to take a look.

But for me, where I feel I need to develop my writing is not in the area of just getting going and banging the words out. It’s in banging better words out. That’s why I’ve decided to write my second novel more slowly, to read back yesterday’s writing before I start todays, to make obvious revisions as I go along, to plan the outline of my plot and my different character’s transitions a bit more clearly. The first draft will still be terrible, but I’m hoping it will be marginally less terrible and feel a little tighter and more rounded.

So if you struggle to get started with your writing and maintain your motivation, then NaNo can be a brilliant spur. You can use the target to force yourself to get your words done every day. And it’s only a month so if the housework slides or you miss some overtime or your sleep patterns go out the window or you eat a lot more takeaway than is good for you then the sky won’t fall in. The only caveat is to remember that what you have at the end isn’t a novel. It might be a strong starting place for a novel, but you’ll need to find your own ways to maintain the motivation through the months of rewriting ahead.

For me getting the words out isn’t my particular writing problem. So, for my novel-writing at least, I’m trying a new mantra. Write less. Write slower. Write better. What do you thnk?

Where I think about whether referenda are ever a good idea…

This afternoon in parliament MPs will be debating whether to offer the British people a referendum on our future in the European Union. There’s minimal chance of the pro-referendum group winning the vote, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily be binding on the current government, so the debate itself is only really interesting to political nerds of the highest order, who can work themselves into a state of geek-frenzy debating whether the number of votes against the party line should be viewed by the respective leaders as an irrelevance, an irritant or an actual embarrassment.

The whole debate does raise a bigger question though. Are referenda themselves a good idea? Referenda – a single vote on a single issue – can in many ways be seen as the purest form of democracy. There’s a decision to be made. People vote. The majority view wins the day. Everyone has a chance to have a say, and everyone’s vote is weighted equally.

But I have some reservations. The UK is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. We have opted for a system whereby we all go out on an appointed day and pick people to represent us. We then get periodic opportunities to get back together and pick someone new, just in case the first one turned out to be a useless, unimaginative, expenses-fiddling, faceless party drone. To switch between one form of democracy and another seems problematic, and it seems problematic for reasons. Those reasons are fourfold.

1. MPs get to avoid responsibility

And this is probably the main thing that drives governments to have referenda in the first instance. It’s not that they genuinely can’t decide. It’s that deciding is difficult and any decision will be unpopular with someone. A referendum means that Prime Minsters and cabinets don’t have to be responsible for the decision. In 1975 Harold Wilson supported continued UK EEC membership, but much of his cabinet and his wider party disagreed. The referendum saved them from having to make a decision, allowed Wilson to placate his anti-European colleagues and also strengthen his own position by demonstrating public support for his stance. Britain was already in the EEC, so nothing was actually changed by the exercise. Similiarly with this year’s AV referendum, David Cameron needed to form a coalition, but knew that electoral reform was a dealbreaker for both sides. Agreeing to a referendum parks the issue over there somewhere, where it’s no-one’s actual responsibility.

2. The public don’t have to take responsibility

There are a few constants in political opinion. Generally we would like better quality services at lower costs. If you ran a referendum on the question “Would you like to pay less tax?” the answer would be a clear “Oh yes!” Similarly if you asked “Would you like to wait less time for a hospital appointment/be able to send your kids to a better school/have your bins emptied every twenty minutes?” the answer would also be “Yes.” If you’re a member of the public your ideas and wants do not have to be consistent. If you’re the government you have to make the sums add up. If you want to offer more in one area, you need to either spend more across the board or spend less on something else. Voting in a referendum, simpy putting a tick in a box for YES or NO on a single  issue, you don’t have to worry about the knock-on effects. That potentially makes for really bad policy.

3. What question do you ask?

The current debate about an EU-referendum gives us a really good example of this problem. The proposal is for a three question referendum with options to: a) Stay in the EU as we are at present, b) withdraw from the EU or c) renegotiate our settlement with Europe. It’s hard to know where to start with the wrongness of that approach. Firstly, if it’s a three option referendum it’s perfectly possible that no option will see a majority, in which case you’ve really not moved forward. Secondly, what do the options mean – if you don’t really want to be part of a formal political union but do see some advantages to a broad free trade agreement, do you vote b) or c)? If you are actually a big fan of the whole united Europe concept and would like to see more integration and greater political control from the centre, then logically you should vote c), as at no point is a specified what the aim of a renegotiation would be. To hold a referendum the issue has to be stripped down to ideally two choices – it has to be black or white, no complexity, no debate, no qualifications or amendments. Again, I would suggest, over simplifying makes bad policy.

4. Where’s the scrutiny?

Parliamentary democracy is built on scrutiny. It’s the less sexy, more workmanlike element of being an MP. It’s all the select committee processes and debates on multiple amendments to bills, which is designed to mean that by the time laws are passed the majority of the inconsistencies and practical difficulties have been identified and amendments made to strengthen the bill. Referenda take out the potential for scrutiny. The issue has been pared down to a simple Yes or No and all the complications and debate is stripped away. Simplicity wins over accuracy.

So there are my four reasons that I’m deeply dubious about the usefulness of referenda in a Parliamentary democracy. Sorry it wasn’t particularly amusing. I promise I shall try to find something funny for my next post, and knock all these political musings on the head. I can’t imagine they’re doing anyone any good.

Where I muse on compliments, chain letters and not liking cancer.

Not so long ago the lovely Sue Fortin included me in her list of Friendly Blogger award recipients. The Friendly Blogger award is a generally nice, happy, caring, sharing way of bigging up blogs you love. Us little individual bloggers scibbling away in our tiny corners of the modern Interweb appreciate all the support and links we can get, and so a bit of sharing the blog love is always welcome. The Friendly Blogger award invites you to “pay it forward” if you will, and when you read down to the bottom of this post you will see that I’m sharing a few of my fave blogs for your delectation. The award also invites bloggers to share seven interesting personal things about themselves. Sadly  my fundamental British/Northern/middle-class ness prevents me from doing that. Seven things? About me? Seriously, I’ve been with my hubbie over 15 years now, and he probably only knows about four things. I consider that a sign of a worrying level of emotional outpouring as it is.

The Friendly Blogger award also got me thinking about some of the downsides of my modern uber-connected life, the main one being that, although being easily connected to masses of people all over the shop opens you up to equivalent masses of loveliness, it also brings a whole world of opportunities to get irritated with humanity. Here are a few of my main InterWeb things that make me go Grrr.

1. Just for the record, I think that cancer is a Bad Thing. But here’s where I’m setting myself apart from those annoying Facebook status updates on the subject. I’m just going to assume you feel the same. Frankly, if you don’t, you’re a bonker and any further discussion would be pointless anyway. What I’m not going to ask you to do, is copy and post my view that cancer is a Bad Thing onto your blog or status update. I’m not going to imply that if you don’t do that, you’re a living embodiment of evil. I’m not going to suggest that failure to comply with a copy & paste instruction suggests that you are somehow in league with cancer and in favour of your friends and family suffering painful and premature deaths. I’m definitely not going to imply that if you fail to copy & paste as ordered you are not a True Friend.

For future reference, valiant status updaters, please assume that, when it comes to cancer, I’m against it. I’m also opposed to many other major life-shortening illnesses and pretty much anything that can be shown to kill children, puppies or kittens. Thank-you.

2. Secondly, internet, I would very much like you to learn to do simple maths. This would stop you, for example, from tweeting comments about how a month with five Sats, Suns & Mons in it only comes along every 800 years. This is obviously preposterous. Every month with 31 days (of which there are 7 every year) will have three days which appear 5 times. As a rough guestimate I’d figure that any given set of three days must appear around about once a year. And yet, every time there’s a 31 day month I see one of these tweets or status updates. That means I’m irritated unneccessarily at least seven times a year. So why not think about the numbers before you click on post and save me the mental effort of checking your working? 

Now I know that lots of people struggle with maths. I’ve taught adult numeracy in the past, and fully understand that maths is a subject that lots of people find intimidating and a bit overwhelming. That’s fine (well, it’s not fine really, but I’ll save the discussion of the bigger failures in education that have created that situation for another day). What I would suggest though, is that if you’re one of those people who suffers from a touch of Maths-blindness you shouldn’t write status updates or tweets that rely on a mathematical oddity for the point they’re making. There’s a high chance you’ll be wrong, and that will irritate me. And it should be clear by now, lovely internet, that I do feel that you need to be dedicating a higher percentage of your time and brainpower to not irritating me than is currently the case.

3. Actually, it’s not just the maths, I’d actually like you to think more right across the board. So, when you get an email that alerts you to a specific crime wave that is spreading across the globe, what I’d like you do to is pop over to Google, copy in a couple of key phrases from that email and click search. What you’ll probably find is that the email is a hoax, and you’ll have saved me the time of searching myself and then deleting the email, and you’ll have saved yourself from looking like a gullible fool. And again, I’m less irritated. Win:Win:Win.

4. Finally, I would just like to remind you internet, that, back in the old days of mail being delivered by a man (or indeed lady) who had to physically carry stuff to your house, there was such a thing as a chain letter. That was a letter that carried the promise of much reward if the receiver passed on the letter to x people, and, often, the threatened dire consequences for those who did not. Those sorts of chain letters were a fairly revolting attempt to prey on the superstitious and the vulnerable. Status updates/emails/tweets that demand reposting, or which promise great luck for those who repost, are exactly the same thing, only now they get reposted by people who would have thrown away a paper chain letter (and who would never have dreamed of starting one).

So don’t do it. Don’t repost messages that promise great riches for those who continue the chain. Doing so is manipulative. If you wish your friends luck and happiness contact them directly and tell them that. Don’t post it to a general audience with a veiled threat against those who don’t participate included. That is Very Bad Internetting indeed.

Ok. I think that is all. I’m breathing normally again and my little fists are starting to unclench after good venting of irritations, but please tell the world about your internet irritants in the comments (or indeed tell me why I’m wrong and facebook statuses promising to make me rich if I repost are beneficial to society).

As promised I’ll finish with a handful of blog recommendations. These are mostly of the writerly variety. As noted back here I don’t very often write about writing, so here are a few suggestions of some people who do, and do so rather well:

Talli Roland: http://talliroland.blogspot.com/ Talli writes a bit of general journal stuff about what’s happening in her life, but also about her writing and publishing experiences. As she’s just announced that she’s self-pubbing her next novel I’m watching her blog with interest to see how that goes.

Raw Light: http://rawlightblog.blogspot.com/?v=0 Jane Holland’s Raw Light blog is celebrating it’s 6th birthday at the moment. A mix of writing about poetry, prose writing and anything else that crops up.

Hollyannegetspoetic: http://hollyannegetspoetic.wordpress.com/ A poetry blog – this one generally has 2-3 new poems every week, so not even writing about writing, just actual writing. And (for those of you in Worcestershire) you’ll be supporting one of my fave local poets too.

Sally Jenkins: http://sallyjenkins.wordpress.com/ Good stuff on here on all different sorts of writing, including articles and short stories 

So there you go, four writerly blogs to make up for the fact that I can’t focus my brain enough to blog about what I actually do. As ever, if you like please subscribe either as an email subscriber or via NetWorked Blogs (and, yeah, I know that RSS feed isn’t working quite right at the moment – I’m working on it, promise.)

Everybody’s talking about… Bolivian migrant cats (coming over here stealing our mice).

A political spat broke out this week between Home Secretary, Teresa May and Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, of the sort that traditionally crop up between members of opposing political parties. In her party conference speech, May cited a case of a Bolivian man who successfully appealed against his planned deportation, apparently, on the grounds that he owned a cat in the UK, as evidence of the negative effects of the Human Rights Act. Clarke quickly took issue with this account, as did the solicitor who represented the individual in question.

There are problems with May’s interpretation of events, and they are twofold. Firstly, the cat was never central to the man’s right to stay in the UK, and, secondly, neither was the Human Rights Act. The decision to allow the man to stay in the UK was based on the Home Office’s own policy, not on any wider human rights legislation.

Now I could expend many paragraphs here explaining why the Human Rights Act is actually on balance a jolly good thing, and how if it does force judges to act in a slightly counter-intuitive way in some cases then that’s sort of the point. But you are intelligent people and you have access to the whole interweb and plenty of people have spent many valuable words discussing that very point on other cul-de-sacs off of the modern Information Superhighway. You have Google – you know what to do if you want to read about that.

I’m more interested, today, in the political rhetoric that leads to these sorts of Westminster playground scraps. Politicians from all over the spectrum have form in this area. Back in 1992 Labour produced a Party Election Broadcast designed to attack the Tories record on the NHS, by comparing the treatment of two patients with ear disorders in NHS and private care. It quickly came out that the broadcast had been based on the case of a specific child, and what became known as the War of Jennifer’s Ear broke out. The child’s grandfather was a Tory supporter and provided information about the case to the Conservative Party, who used it to suggest the Labour had distorted the facts of the case of political gain. Then Robin Cook and Virginia Bottomley (Gosh, was she really 20 years ago? Now I feel old) hit each other with big sticks for a bit until it was time to go home for tea. Or something to that effect.

In 2002, the case of the elderly Rose Addis became another massive political storm in a tiny wee espresso cup, when allegations were made, initially by her family, and later by Conservative MPs, about her treatment in an NHS hospital. That particular spat ended up with statements being issued by politicians, and by family members, and staff of the hospital involved. Mrs Addis was accused of being unco-operative with staff. The hospital were accused of providing inadequate care. It all got very “He said..” “She said…” and it remains all but impossible to sort the facts from the narrative ten years on.

And here’s the problem. Politicians know, as do advertisers, public relations experts and creative writing teachers, that people like stories. We respond to narrative, to characters, to goodies and baddies, much more intensely than we respond to data and graphs and detailed factual information.

So a politician trying to make a point wants to tell us a story, not deliver a lecture. And to a degree, that’s ok. Part of the politician’s job is to persuade us that they are right about what the problems are and that their solutions to those problems are the best available. And, like their readers and viewers, media outlets like a story too. They like a narrrative and a character, because they know that will interest their audience much more than a data table. But anecdote isn’t evidence, and individual stories are open to interpretation. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s suspicious immigrant is another’s desperate asylum seeker.

Even those closest to an individual, especially those closest to an individual, will have their own views on a situation. So Jennifer’s grandfather clearly didn’t believe that her treatment reflected badly on the then Tory government. Other members of her family, including those who initially wrote to MP Robin Cook about the case, apparently did. Once something becomes a story, the storyteller decides how to tell it. They decide who the hero is. They decide who should be the villain. Stories aren’t based on facts. They’re based on narrative and character, and those are all created in the telling.  

So telling stories is a great way to engage people, to inspire and to persuade. But it’s not a great way to make public policy. Facts are too easily distorted, accidentally mislaid or purposefully obscured. Evidence, not narrative, should be at the centre of policy making, and evidence means data, information from a wide range of sources, carefully analysed and interpreted, not one example which may or may not be typical, and may or may not be accurately told.

Happily, one of the joys of the modern Information Superhighway (how many times do you think I have to use that phrase to bring it back into regular parlance?) is that a lot of that data is out there and we can access it. The downside of that is that we can fall into information overload and end up with lots of data but no knowledge. So it’s cheering to know that there are some lovely interweb bunnies out there doing some of the sifting for us. I’m particularly fond of the following:

Channel 4’s factcheck blog: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/

NHS Behind the Headlines: http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx

Michael Blastland’s Go Figure column (BBC): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14748007

And so ends today’s thinking. If you like, you can of course subscribe either by email or via Networked Blogs. There are lovely links just over there to your right to help you. And you can comment too, just down there, using your clever typing fingers. Jolly good.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?