In which I have a brand new book

A very brief post today, just to say that I have a brand new book coming out very soon. This is very exciting for a number of reasons, which I shall innumerate for you now.

1. It has the most beautiful cover anyone anywhere in the whole wide world has ever seen. Look at it. Just look. See how simple, yet elegant it is…

All That Was Lost_High Res cover

I properly love this cover and am thinking of asking it to run away with me to the South of France and open a guest house near the sea. It really is that pretty.

2. This book is a proper book of the heart. It’s a book I’ve had bubbling away in the back of my head for years and years and years. Because of the weird two-speed way in which publishing works – either lightening fast or fossilization slow – I actually finished the bulk of  the writing and revising two years ago. So it’s been a long journey, and now it’s nearly here. I’m super excited for the world to meet Patience, and Patrice, and Leo and… anyway, here’s the blurb:

In 1967 Patience Bickersleigh is a teenager who discovers a talent for telling people what they want to hear. Fifty years later she is Patrice Leigh, a nationally celebrated medium. But cracks are forming in the carefully constructed barriers that keep her real history at bay.   

Leo is the journalist hired to write Patrice’s biography. Struggling to reconcile the demands of his family, his grief for his lost son, and his need to understand his own background, Leo becomes more and more frustrated at Patrice’s refusal to open up. 

Because behind closed doors, Patrice is hiding more than one secret. And it seems that now, her past is finally catching up with her.

3. It was the first book my fantastic agent, Julia Silk, sold for me and it was the book she offered me representation based on. And Julia is a very wise and very brilliant so for her to love this book was a proper moment of joy in my life.

I’m excited to be getting close to being able to share All That Was Lost with readers. It’s out on September 6th in ebook and paperback, and you can order your copy right now.

In which I am writing a new book

When I venture out from my lovely purple writing room and go into the big wide world to do authorly type events, it’s quite common to be asked how I approach writing a novel. It’s something other writers are often particularly interested in. We tend to view each other’s methods like a weirdly judgmental anthropologist meeting a new culture – we’re interested, fascinated even, but ultimately convinced that all these strange alien ways of doing things are Very Wrong. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of how I do the writing thing…

I’m currently around about 15000 words into the first draft of my new book. For those of you who don’t routinely count the words in every novel you read, a finished commercial fiction novel is likely to be somewhere in the 80-100,000 word region, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

And here’s something I very rarely hear writer-chums say about this early stage of a first draft: It’s truly horrible. I hate it.

There is no one right way to write a novel, but my approach goes something like this:

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Make lots of notes and convince self that idea is good.
  3. Start writing book (completely ignoring all those notes).
  4. Watch as idea slowly grows and develops in weird, unexpected and uncontrolled directions.
  5. Spend period from around 2000 words to around 70000 words hating the whole idea and deciding it’s too random and amorphous and will never form a nice coherent whole.
  6. Abandon whole idea.
  7. Cry.
  8. Reread idea so far, work out which bits are salvageable, write lots of new bits, edit all the bits with a viciousness that in any other context would be something of a worry.
  9. Submit book.

From stages 4 to 7 hating the book is normal – at least it is for me – but stages 4 to 7 are still essential because they’re the way that my brain gets to stage 8 where the book actually gets written. And I can’t do it the alternate way where you plan the whole book in detail before you start writing, and thus avoid the feeling that the story is an uncontrolled amorphous blob. If I do that then I basically have no interest in writing the book because I already know everything that happens.

So what I have to come up with are novel-writing coping strategies and plans to get myself, and my poor innocent unsuspecting book, through stages 4-7. The first of these coping strategies is nicked from the very wise and awesome Julie Cohen and is simply this:

write-crap

That’s the whiteboard next to my desk this very morning, and it’s a reminder that it’s fine for what I’m writing to be awful at the moment. In fact it’s essential. It’s part of how I write. The book will be bad before it’s good. And that’s ok.

The second thing I always tell myself is this: ‘If you’re at less than 65,000 words it should still be getting more complicated.’ This is because I tend to try to wrap things up too simply and write too neatly from A to B – that’s part of the reason planning too much doesn’t suit me; I end up writing the most direct and efficient route from plot point 1 to plot point 2 which isn’t necessarily great storytelling. The blob of the book should still be getting messier and more amorphous. However h0rrible that feels, it’s right and good and essential.

And finally, I remember that I always feel like this. I’m a writer who routinely ditches tens of thousands of words from draft manuscripts and adds new scenes at the final edit stage. That’s just how I work, and it’s always horrendous in the midst of the ‘writing crap’ phase. But if I keep going and write enough crap, then I get to edit, and, again unlike a lot of writers, I do very much like to edit. So, must get bad words down so that I can make them better later. You can’t edit a blank page.

So there you go, a little snapshot of this particular writer’s mind. Other writers will do it differently, probably more sensibly, and that’s fine. There is, after all, no one right way to write a novel.

If you are a writer and you’d like help finding your personal right way to write a novel, then take a look here for details of upcoming courses. There are still places on the Spring Writing Retreat where you get the benefit of not just one writing tutor’s approach but two, as I’ll be co-tutoring with the much more organised Janet Gover.

And if you’d like to get a book that’s in its shiny, polished, (hopefully) non-crap stage, then there are some here.

In which I think about teaching

I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I have to remember not to lick the books

I’ve been a bit lax in the blog posting the last couple of weeks. This is largely because I’ve been mentally trying to compose a post about the Labour leadership campaign that isn’t just a series of video clips of me banging my head against a wall and then weeping gently, probably ending with a section where I jump up and down repeatedly on a picture of Tony Blair’s increasingly haunted face. I’m not sure that a post like that would really count as insightful or, indeed, interesting.

However, it’s so clear that generating a coherent opinion about Andy Burnham is basically my moral duty as a left-leaning bod with a blog and an interest in politics, that it’s hampered my attempts to blog about anything else. Fortunately today’s post brought something that absolutely, definitely has to be shared with the universe right now this very second.

 

Are you ready?

Ta dah!

Print copies

Actual print copies of my actual novel, Sweet Nothing. Actually printed out, so you can actually hold them, and cuddle them, and lick them.* There are lots of different novelist milestones – your first finished draft; your first finished draft that’s in a state where you could plausibly show it to another human being; your first rejection; your first non-standard rejection; your first contract; your first publication day; your first review; your first horrible review; the first time one of your books gets pirated etc. And in the modern world you can do all of those without ever having a printed book. So having a printed book shouldn’t logically make you feel like any more of a ‘proper writer’ than you were the day before. You’ve still written, edited and promoted the book – all that’s changed is that somebody quite unrelated to you has had the thing printed out and glued together. But still. It’s a book. An actual lickable** book. And it’s very very exciting indeed.

So there you go. A book. It’s out in paperback on August 7th, and by total coincidence the day before that is my birthday, so next week goes my birthday and then book birthday. If you check out my twitter feed (@MsAlisonMay) next Thursday (August 6th) there might even be a special #BirthdayGiveaway to win a signed copy, which would then be yours to keep, and, if you wanted, lick. Or just read. That’s probably a better idea really…

 

About Sweet Nothing

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. First novel in the 21st Century Bard series.

 

And you can pre-order the paperback or pick up the ebook for just 99 of your modern English pennies here.

 

*I haven’t been licking them. Honestly I haven’t.

** Still wrong. I’ll add ‘books’ to my list of Things I Must Not Lick.***

*** List also includes David Tennant, other people’s cake, and leading literary agents.

 

In which six is the magic number

My publisher, Choc Lit, is six years old today, which is lovely. Well, it’s lovely up to a point. Beyond that, having a publisher who doesn’t want to discuss your edits because they had too much ice cream before they went on the swings and so now they feel sicky is less than ideal. Despite those reservations, a birthday is still a thing to be celebrated, so in the spirit of ‘sixiness’ here are six things I’m thinking about right this second…

1. Turning to crime

Not actual crime. That would be bad. Being bad is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of actual crime, but I am thinking about fictional crime. Yesterday I went to see a panel of frankly awesome crime writers talk at the Worcestershire LitFest. The panel was made up of CL Taylor, Sarah Hilary, Clare Mackintosh and Alex Marwood, all of whom are bestsellers and utterly brilliant writers. A couple of things really stood out – both CL Taylor and Alex Marwood started their writing careers writing books that were marketed as chick lit before turning to crime, and Clare Mackintosh actually turned down a potential offer to publish an earlier book before her astounding breakout debut hit, I Let You Go. All of which made me think a lot about writing and publishing as a career and how easy or difficult it is to switch genres or to write in multiple genres and hmmm… well… thoughts.

 

2. I bloody love teaching

I’ve been properly snowed under with work recently. I’m marking a lot at the moment, promoting one book, trying to finish writing another and I’ve recently joined the committee of the RNA, which is brilliant but also time-consuming. And then on Saturday afternoon I had an afternoon off. Well not actually ‘off’ – I had an afternoon standing at the front of a class with a flipchart talking about plot and character and trying to help five developing authors get to grips with their own works in progress, and it was immense fun, so much fun that, compared with the days and day of bum-on-seat time I’ve had recently, it almost felt like an afternoon off. Brilliant students, an excellent worked example of a character arc interacting with an external plot (courtesy of Terry Pratchett and Guards! Guards!) and a generally all round lovely afternoon.

 

3. My new book baby is out there in the world

Midsummer Dreams was published on Friday. You probably didn’t know that. I barely bang on about it at all. The early reviews have been lovely and positive though, which is always a huge relief. Until the first reviews appear there’s always a possibility that nobody else on the planet will understand what on earth you were trying to do with a novel, but fortunately at least some people seem to love this one. Happy dances all around! If you’d like to download a copy for yourself this is the place.

 

4. The Labour leadership contest is getting me down

So it’s fairly well documented that I’m a bit of a lefty, well ok, quite a lot of a lefty, so I should be following the Labour leadership contest with great interest. Unfortunately all I’ve been able to muster so far is great disillusionment. I can’t even bring myself to type a proper rant about how disappointing the candidates all are. That’s how disillusioning the whole thing is. *sigh*

 

5. Fatness and cake

I’m currently on attempt 728 to get my weight under control. My current system involves good old fashioned bribery as the incentive, as EngineerBoy has been persuaded to sponsor me £1 for every 1lb I lose. So far I’ve made £4. Yeah baby!

The current biggest downside of the weight loss plan is that it really curtails the amount of baking I can justify doing. I love baking – it’s like magic for people who don’t have sufficient attention span to actually learn how to cut a lady in half, or, if you prefer, it’s like science for people who only have eggs, butter and flour to experiment with. Baking is awesome, but it very often leads to cake, and cake, very often, leads to fatitude. Again *sigh*

 

6. And finally, I am thinking about Christmas

Because my current work-in-progress is the third (and possibly final, but never say never) Christmas Kisses book, so for the third year in a row May and June have been soundtracked by White Christmas and Band Aid. No spoilers about the book other than to say it will be Christmassy and there will probably be some kissing.

 

So there you go. There are six things that are on my mind right now. What’s everyone else thinking about?

In which I reread an old classic

I’m currently rereading Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the book – the first was when I was about 17, and the most recent was seven or eight years ago when I read it as part of my Creative Writing degree course. Having read it so many times and studied it at university I would have said, with confidence, that Wuthering Heights was a novel I knew pretty well, but here’s a newsflash from the current rereading: it’s absolutely nothing like I remember it. There are whole sections that I don’t remember at all, and some of the bits I thought I did remember are quite quite different from how I remembered them. This is odd, because it’s, obviously, still the same book. In fact, in this case, it’s physically, literally, actually the same book that I’ve read before, but the experience of reading it is completely different.

I think there are reasons for this, and I don’t think any of them are that aliens have come to earth and rewritten bits of Wuthering Heights, which is a shame, because that would have made an awesome blog post.

The non-alien related reasons are twofold:

1. I’ve changed

Well given that the book hasn’t changed, that leaves the reader as the only remaining variable, so if the thing I’m looking at isn’t different, but the experience of looking is, then that must be down to me. The things I’m picking up on during this reading are far more to do with the characters and far less to do with the brooding atmosphere and oppressive moor. This might be because I’ve moved on as a writer since I last read the book, and am currently fixated by character in terms of how I plot and revise my own writing. I’m noticing, for the first time, how complex, and essentially unpleasant, the minor characters are. Joseph, Nellie Dean, Mr Lockwood are all astonishingly self-involved in their own different ways.

I’m also noticing how dated the prose style is, and how slow the opening chapters are, which I don’t remember picking up on before. I’m actually quite impressed with my seventeen-year-old self for sticking with it. Again – that’s the writer in me coming through, and noticing deviations from the contemporary received wisdom about how to start and pace a novel.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a book change in front of me on rereading. I started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day about eight times and couldn’t get past the first chapter, until one random day when I sat down and read about two-thirds of the book in one sitting. The book hadn’t changed, but something about my mood on that one given day married with the story and away we went together.

2. Some novels end up bigger than the novel itself

Wuthering Heights is the poster book for novels that exist in the public imagination in a completely different form from how the are on the page. Wuthering Heights has been adapted and retold in films, on TV, in musicals (thanks for that Cliff), and nearly all the retellings underplay the bleakness of the original novel. Somehow that perception of Wuthering Heights as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers on a windswept, but ultimately picturesque, moor, seeps into our consciousness, even if we’ve read the actual book and know it isn’t really like that. The idea of Heathcliff and Cathy as a slightly more consumptive Romeo and Juliet is stuck in our collective memories, even if none of us actually remember where it came from.

So there you go. Wuthering Heights – it’s not at all how you think you remember it. After this I shall be going to see Romeo and Juliet again with fingers crossed that I might have misremembered that ending. In the meantime, feel free to chat to me in the comments. What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Are there any books that have surprised you on rereading, or have turned out to be completely different from your expectations?

And finally, a quick reminder that my new Christmas Kisses novella, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is out now for kindle.

In which I have a shiny new book out

Waaah, and indeed, yippedee-do-daaa. It is beyond exciting to be able to confirm that my new novella, the second Christmas Kiss story, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is now available for kindle pre-order. It’ll be live and properly available from 4th December.

Hurrah! Let the festive, romantic, joyousness be unrestrained.

And just for you lovely blog reading types, here’s what the cover looks like.

Cora's Christmas Kiss

Like all my covers, so far, it was designed by the awesome Berni Stevens. Thank you Berni for doing such a great job.

So there you go, that’s lovely Cora launched into the world. I hope people enjoy reading about her.

In which a year has passed and I muse on how it takes a village and all that guff

So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.

Sweet Nothing

Holly's Christmas Kiss

One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.

And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.

So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.

So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.

Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The ability of Amazon to capture books in their magic butterfly nets and trap the words inside their lovely Kindles means that writers have a realistic alternative to wading through the months of submission and rejection (a process which, almost invariably, ends up with them having nothing published, but having contributed considerably to the coffers of the nice people at Rymans who sell the Big Envelopes). More and more writers are thinking why bother? And there are good reasons for feeling that way. The perception is that mainstream publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. Publishers are prepared to spend money on books by posh girls with famous sisters and even more famous bottoms, but not so happy to risk an outlay on a new novel by an untried writer.

If your book doesn’t fit easily into a neat marketing box, there’s even more encouragement to go it alone. Across web forums, writer’s conferences and writing courses, new writers are repeatedly told that they must be able to describe their book in a single sentence. To attract the capricious attentions of a mainstream publisher you have to have that instant-appeal marketing hook.

I’ve also been told, by an editor for a major publisher, that she expects writers to be able to explain what genre their book fits into and where it would sit in the market. That is just one person’s view, but a person who should know of what she speaks. So, if you’re writing a sort-of literary rom-com based on Shakespeare but with added maths, for example, you might decide that it’s easier to sell your novel directly to readers than to jump through that particular hoop. It’s a problem a lot of writers face – two others describe their own responses to this particular publishing headache here and here.

The economics of self-publishing, at least in e-book form, are also looking increasingly enticing for writers. Advances from publishers for new writers tend towards the modest. Publishing directly to Kindle through Amazon gives you a much bigger share of the cover price. In principle, it’s perfectly possible to make more income from e-publishing a book independently and selling fewer copies at a lower price, than if you published through a traditional publisher.

Despite having made a stunningly convincing arguement in favour of self-publishing, I still don’t wanna. In traditional “Alison does like a numbered list” style, here’s why:

1. It’s possible to make better money, but possible is not the same as easy.

I’m a totally unknown writer, and I’d be publishing without any marketing support behind me. Now there’s stuff I could do to promote a book at very little cost. I can tweet. I can blog. I can bully close personal friends into buying it. I reckon that between this blog, Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned real-life (you know where your parents and the old people live), I can put information out directly to somewhere in the region of 1000 people. Now, they won’t all buy the book. 1% of those people buying it would be 10 people. 10%, which is probably ambitious, would be 100 sales. That’s charming, but several orders of magnitude below what you need to get a book to the tipping point where word of mouth sends it on its way.

So I’d try other stuff: getting reviews from friendly blogs, encouraging Amazon reviews, making myself a proper glossy website, making myself a lovely shiny Amazon author page, trying to get some local press coverage – realistically I’d have to do a lot of that if I had an agent and mainstream publisher too, but I wouldn’t be doing it entirely on my own. And, at the risk of sounding overly focussed on the money, I’d be doing it while eating marmitey-toast paid for out of my advance.

2. There’s no such thing as a free-to-publish (and good and successful) book

So marketing is one problem. What about the actual novel itself? I could write the book, edit the book, draw myself a lovely little cover in Paint, and stick it up on Amazon. The problem there is that what I’d have published probably wouldn’t be a very good book.

To get a book  to publishable quality involves a bit of cost. I’d definitely want a professional cover design. I’d probably want the book professionally edited. That’s expensive. Even non-commercial critiquing services (like the RNA‘s fabulous New Writer’s Scheme of which I’m a very proud member) aren’t free. To self-publish a properly finished, professional-looking book, even as an e-book only venture, involves some investment, and, unless my numbers come up (which would involve me buying a lottery ticket, which I don’t because I, y’know, have a basic understanding of probability) I’m not really in a position to fork out that money.

3. Good enough isn’t good enough (for me)

Without the costs described above, particularly professional editing, would I be confident that my novel was good enough to put out there? Writers develop – I definitely hope to be a better writer in the future than I am now. The book I’d be e-publishing at the moment is my first completed novel. That inevitably means that I’ll look back on it in the future and see lots of things that could be improved, but I don’t want to look back and wish it had never been published. It might be a novel that I’d be proud of on the day I sent it out into the world, but would I still be proud in two or three years time?

Part of this is about my personality. I’m a perfectionist. I have high standards – that’s part of the reason that I’m good in my regular money-earning job as a trainer. I have high expectations of students, and generally find that if you set a bar just above what people think they are capable of, they will exceed their own expectations to achieve it. It also means I set high standards for my own work, and I do still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a validation that I’ve achieved a particular standard. It’s would be a massive shiny gold star on the star chart inside my head. Perhaps the fact that that’s important to me is a weakness. Perhaps it’s just a view that’s getting out of date, but in my gut, it’s still how I feel.

So that’s why I won’t be self-publishing my first novel, and am, instead, about to embark on the long tortuous journey to repeated rejection. I applaud, wholeheartedly, all those people who are braver than I, and are going it alone, and I’d love to get your comments on the self-publishing quandary. I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s decided against, and from anyone else who thinks anything at all really about things. Comment away! And why not subscribe or follow the blog while you’re here? Good-o.

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

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