Friday, 25 February 2011
Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. We can’t claim any of the credit for that. James Patterson and Dan Brown would have topped the list anyway. But it is gratifying to know that we are all working in the nation’s most popular genre.
The PLR figures give you an interesting take on what the country actually reads. Of course, the demographics aren’t really representative. Older and younger people use the libraries a lot more than most of the population. But it does give you an idea of what people enjoy away from the hype of the publishers and the deals done with the big supermarkets chains. So, for example, Stieg Larsson, despite all the publicity only managed to get one book in the library chart, and that was at number 76.
The message, surely, is that people like gritty, fast-paced crime and adventure stories more than anything else. Which is lucky, because that is precisely the kind of stuff we write.
Friday, 18 February 2011
Thursday, 17 February 2011
A tiny bit of a rant that’s been festering for some time.
Illiteracy now appears to be the norm in Britain. Thousands of children emerge from what passes for our education system apparently barely able to read or write and incapable of doing even the simplest arithmetic without recourse to an electronic calculator. And why, one is entitled to wonder, are we in this position? The answers, I believe, are simple enough.
First, in many schools it is no longer fashionable or politically correct to insist that children learn to create proper sentences, employ accurate pronunciation, or even to spell words correctly. It apparently fosters unhealthy competition, or stifles creative outpouring, or does not allow the little darlings to ‘find themselves’, if children’s work is corrected. I find several expressions, the most polite of which is ‘complete nonsense’, springing inevitably to mind.
Second, almost all types of medium which display the written word, from the sign outside the local greengrocer’s shop – always fertile ground for the misplaced apostrophe – to television advertising and newspaper reports, are slightly, but consistently, illiterate. When even well-educated people see more signs advertising ‘apple’s’ than those offering ‘apples’, they probably begin to wonder. Children fresh out of school, wonderfully self-aware and creative in their outlook, but unable to spell any word longer than six letters, have not the slightest notion which form is correct, and probably see no difference between them.
Of course, everybody – and especially an author – has to acknowledge that English is a living language, evolving on a daily basis as new words and expressions are added and old or obsolete expressions fade from common usage. Nevertheless, some standards should and must be applied, or the language will degenerate into the kind of ill-spelt shorthand so prevalent in electronic mail and, even worse, text messages on mobile phones. U no i rite.
But perhaps the worst culprit, which can be observed every day on our television screens, is the curse of ‘chef-speak’. In my opinion, the best place for a chef is out of sight in a kitchen somewhere, ideally preparing something that tastes as good as it looks rather than something that just looks like a picture on a plate, and not on my TV screen. But ever since chefs became personalities rather than just cooks, the English language has begun to suffer from galloping ‘chef-speak’, as transitive verbs have inexplicably become intransitive. No longer, apparently, can one simply ‘boil an egg’, because ‘boil’ now has to be followed by, usually, ‘up’, but sometimes ‘off’ and occasionally ‘down’.
A chef cannot ‘reduce a sauce’; he has to ‘reduce it down’. Give him anything at all to cook and he will, without reference to a dictionary or a book of basic grammar, proceed to ‘measure it up’, ‘weigh it off’, ‘separate it out’, ‘fry it off’, ‘bake it up’, ‘baste it down’, ‘cook it off’, ‘roast it down’, ‘grill it off’ and even, I swear I once heard, ‘microwave it up’.
And the problem is that, because these chefs are on television, people seem to believe that what they are saying is correct from both a culinary and a grammatical standpoint. Now interior designers and TV property makeover teams are getting in on the act, ‘stripping off the wallpaper’, ‘sanding down the floorboards’ and eventually, no doubt, ‘painting up the doors’ and ‘decorating up the lounge’.
So what can we do about it? Probably not a great deal. The fact is that greengrocers are interested in selling potatoes, carrots and apples, not in spelling their names correctly. And when Civil Servants are so poorly-educated and illiterate that they are officially instructed not to use apostrophes at all in case they use them incorrectly, the rot really has set in. As long as our schools continue to fail to meet the standards of education that were considered minimal forty years ago, the overall standard of literacy is almost bound to fall.
The last straw, or the final nail, depending upon your cliché of choice, will be when illiterate teachers (and there are plenty of them out there) begin correcting grammatically-accurate work submitted by their better-read pupils. Then we all might as well give up and either head for the hills or surrender to the inevitable, cos by then it aint gonna matter no more. No wot I meen?
Tuesday, 15 February 2011
More then 18,000 people voted in the competition, which suggest that a lot of people are still very enthusiastic about their local bookshops, and are happy to support them. With the chains in worse and worse shape, the independents are likely to have an even more important role in selling books.
But what makes a great bookshop, I wonder.
I think selection and organisation are the key to it.
The big difference between a bookshop and buying books online or just grabbing something from the limited selection in the supermarket is that you come across things by accident. You are looking at one kind of book, and then see another that grabs your interest.
Not many shops are good at it. For example, my books are often classed with crime and thrillers, and although they are sort of thrillers, they really have nothing to do with the crime genre, and are not going to appeal to the people browsing in that section of the shop. It would actually make more sense to place them alongside the real-life military stories. Or possibly next to the history section.
Not many bookshops make those kind of creative decisions.
But the few that do will certainly survive and flourish.
Saturday, 12 February 2011
How much disposable income do you have? If your post office was about to charge you for a dozen stamps then offered them to you free, which offer would you accept?
Since the net book agreement was scrapped just over ten years ago, there has been an insane rush to reduce the price of books. Supermarkets sell them for less than the price of a glossy magazine (crammed with advertisements), online suppliers are constantly reducing prices, and offers are now standard in bookshops which display tables stacked with offers to buy 3 for 2, or buy one get one half price.
World Book Night is the logical conclusion of this trend, with publishers giving away a million books. Do they think recipients will respond by putting their hands in their pockets? Of course they won’t! If they aren't already book buyers, those given free books will simply wait for the next free book. It won’t be far behind. Why buy something you can get for free? As for those who already buy books - well, that will be one less sale to them. A double whammy.
World Book Night devalues the concept of books as something authors, editors, publishers, designers, proofreaders, have spent months, in some cases years, planning, researching, writing, revising, discussing and editing. Time and money has been spent producing books and publicity for World Book Night, a “celebration of adult fiction” which will sadly further undermine the industry.
Why wasn’t that time and effort devoted to promoting book sales to inject urgently needed funding into the industry? The books donated to World Book Night are wonderful works of literature. If each recipient of these million free books had been persuaded to part with the price of a couple of cups of coffee in exchange for their book, it would have injected millions pounds into the struggling book industry.
The concern over the future of books masks a deeper issue. Shakespeare only invented one plot but the 20th century placed a premium on originality. So children writing stories at school a generation ago would often accuse their classmates of "copying" a plot from a book. That never happens now. Today, children take their stories from films or, increasingly, from computer games.
But one thing children today appreciate is the value of money. They could teach the publishing industry a thing or two.
Posted by Leigh Russell
Friday, 11 February 2011
By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)
Going off at a slight tangent this week, I thought it might be instructive to do a quick survey of the sales figures of the winners of what is arguably the most prestigious literary prize of them all – the Man Booker.
First, a bit of history. Originally, the award was called the Booker-McConnell Prize, and was named after the company Booker-McConnell which began sponsoring the competition back in 1968. The prize quickly became known as the ‘Booker Prize’ or simply ‘the Booker’. In 2002, the investment company Man Group plc began sponsoring the event, hence the change of name to the ‘Man Booker’.
So that's how the name came about. What about the prize itself? Well, quoting from the official website: ‘The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1969, promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.’
Really? I think you could argue quite easily that very few of the Booker prize winners could possibly be considered to be ‘the very best book of the year’, any more than you could choose a restaurant and claim that it served ‘the best food in the United Kingdom’. Judging this kind of competition is not only incredibly subjective, but also highly specialised. Realistically, the only way any panel of judges could genuinely select the best book of the year would be to read every single book published in that year, or at least every single novel.
With the number of books published annually, this would be completely impossible, so a ruthless selection process has to be applied long before any judge so much as picks up a book. The basic criterion appears to be that literary fiction is good, and will be considered, but commercial fiction is bad, and won't be. So the judges won’t have to sully their minds with anything as grubby as a decent thriller, or a science fiction novel, or a romance or anything of that sort. The books they look at have to be literary, and ideally should contain some kind of moral or message that a bunch of pointy heads can get together around a table and then discuss at length.
You might have guessed by now that I'm not actually a fan of this kind of writing. And the reality, which I'm sure must annoy the Booker panel of judges beyond all reason, is that most of the reading public don't seem to be fans either, because no Booker prizewinner has ever actually been a genuine bestseller.
But that's not the message you get from the website. That says ‘The winner of the Man Booker Prize receives £50,000 and both the winner and the shortlisted authors are guaranteed a worldwide readership plus a dramatic increase in book sales.’ In fact, that last sentence really says it all, and it does make you wonder how many copies the ‘very best book of the year’ would have sold in the normal marketplace and without the incredible boost of the hype surrounding the Booker.
Let's look at the figures. One caveat here is that Nielsen records only began in 1998, so the earlier figures are slightly less reliable.
Between 1979 and 1996, only two Booker winners sold more than 100,000 copies. These were Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s children (177,607 in 1981) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The remains of the day (145,140 in 1989). Three winners actually sold less than 10,000 copies: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (7,881 in 1979), William Golding’s Rites of passage (9,207 in 1980) and Kingsley Amis’s The old devils (9,712 in 1986).
Then, between 1997 and 2008, only one winner sold more than a million (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi [1,245,709 in 2002]) and only one other sold more than half a million (Arundhati Roy’s The god of small things [558,572 in 1997]). Excluding these two books, the average sale for Booker winners in that period was 267,596, or just over a quarter of a million. The lowest recorded sales in the group were for Kiran Desai’s 2006 novel The inheritance of loss (165,437) and the highest was Margaret Atwood’s The blind assassin (485,714 in 2000). Hardly best-sellers, by any standard.
So what does all this prove, if indeed it proves anything? I think it proves that no Booker winner is ‘the very best book’ of any year, and I also think that in the view of the general public the Booker prize-winning novel is more likely to be the book that they will buy to leave prominently displayed on their coffee table to impress their friends and neighbours, rather than the book they will take to bed to enjoy as a thoroughly good read.
In short, most Booker winners are the books people feel they should be reading, rather than the books they actually want to read.
I'm writing this at just past ten on a wet Friday morning and another weekend is in the offing. For some writers (full or part time) the weekend is an opportunity to..well..write. I'm lucky enough to spend a large proportion of my week days at the keyboard so I do (often reluctantly) try to stay out of the office for a couple of days.
That's not to say I'm not working. I'm usually turning something over in my head throughout but outwardly I'm engaged in normal, human weekend activity. It's one of the great advantages of being a writer - you can do the important groundwork anywhere.
Even if sometimes you itch to get at the keyboard it's often valuable to have time away from a project so you'll feel refreshed when you next sit down.
OK - as I'm going to a rock gig this weekend and will lubricate the event in traditional style 'refreshed' probably isn't the appropriate word for how I'll be feeling Monday morning. But distance from your own writing is often the best way to see its faults as well as the merits you forget as you read it for the umpteenth time.
We all have different ways of operating. Some writers I know 'blitz' a project and don't step away from it until it's finished. If there's a deadline in the offing there's often little choice. But although I like to set my own deadlines for completion taking a break from a draft, in my case, always proves worthwhile.
I'll be applying this method as I near completion of rewrites on book 2.
So however you're spending your weekend, remember to enjoy yourself. Writing or resting - it's all for the good of your creativity.
Visit Richard at www.richardjayparker.com
Tuesday, 8 February 2011
One of the hardest things writers have to do is give all the people in the their book a distinctive voice, and that is something I find I have to continually check. It is especially hard for me, because there are ten characters in the military unit in my stories, and although some of them are more important than others, they are all pretty crucial to the series.
So I need to make sure they all speak in a way that is convincing throughout the book, and which also separates one man from another.
I don’t do it through accents. That is partly, if I am being honest, because I am rubbish at writing them. I have no ear for putting a Welsh accent into easily written form. But its mainly because I think it is distracting. You don’t want the book to turn into an exercise in showing off how good I am at accents.
Instead you have to do it by the kinds of things the men say. It is there in the way they react to situations, how they respond to jokes, and in the kind of ideas and thoughts they have.
But you need to have thought through your character completely to know what they would say all the time.
And you need to make sure they never say anything out of character. That would shatter the illusion for the reader in an instant.
When you get it right, it is very satisfying. The right dialogue really makes a book come alive.
But you have to keep checking you haven’t got any of it wrong.
Friday, 4 February 2011
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)
Leigh’s last blog raises several interesting points. Accurate research can be crucial, and poor or no research can destroy an author's – or a book’s – credibility.
One classic example is 'The Da Vinci Code', where the albino monk escapes from prison in Andorra and walks down to the railway station in Spain. Well, he was obviously very fit, because the closest railway line in Spain is at Barcelona, about 130 miles away. On the French side, it’s hell of a lot closer. Finding that out on the internet would have taken Mr Brown what, ten seconds? He also didn’t know that the Andorran prison is only a holding facility. Long-term prisoners, apart from Andorrans, are shipped off to their countries of origin to serve their sentences, not the other way round. OK, I live in Andorra most of the time so I know this, but it's not exactly a secret. Mind you, Dan Brown never had much credibility anyway and, with his sales, I don’t suppose he cares that he’s writing arrant nonsense.
I remember reading bits of a book by another American author who beautifully described the local Andorrans walking down to the harbour in the morning to buy fresh produce from the returning fishing fleet. Again, it’s quite a walk – Andorra is about 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast, and it’s mountains all the way.
Then we have the people who carefully fit silencers (the correct word is actually ‘suppressor’) onto revolvers, or snap off the safety catch before they fire such a weapon. You can’t silence a revolver, because most of the noise comes from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel, and modern revolvers don’t have safety catches. I should know – I’ve got two and I shoot them regularly. This was even a classic howler in the James Bond film 'Live and let die', where Bond tells one of his associates that she should have 'clicked off the safety catch' on her revolver. It's just a shame she didn't ask him to show her how ...
And sometimes you see people who pull back the hammer on a semi-automatic pistol to cock the weapon. What you actually do with a semi-auto is pull back and then release the slide, which chambers a round and cocks the hammer. Again, I own a 9mm Browning Hi-Power, so I’m very familiar with the technique. Guns, in case you hadn't guessed, are kind of my thing.
I remember being asked to read and comment on one finished thriller by a well-known author and being somewhat surprised at several technical gaffes that hadn’t already been picked up by the editors. The one that really stood out was when the hero, who was a demon lover, qualified diver, crack shot, excellent pilot and all the rest of it, obviously, landed a helicopter and then climbed out of it while he waited for the rotors to stop. This is analogous to climbing out of the driving seat of a car at thirty miles an hour while you wait for the car to stop. No pilot would ever even contemplate doing this, because it's completely senseless.
In Leigh’s field, being able to draw on the technical expertise of police officers, forensic pathologists and so on is absolutely invaluable, just to make sure that the procedural and scientific stuff is right. I don’t know how many people watched the recent TV adaptation of Mark Billingham’s novel ‘Scaredy Cat’, but there were a lot of technical and other errors in that which were glaringly obvious even to a non-specialist viewer like me, and certainly reduced my enjoyment of the programme.
And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of sources of information. Every time any reader contacts me and points out some error in one of my books - and there have been quite a few! - I thank him and add his contact details to my 'research' database, so that if I ever write about that subject again, he can vet the text for me before I make a fool of myself in print.
The internet is the biggest and most comprehensive reference source the world has ever known, with information readily available about every possible subject. OK, you have to check the ‘facts’, obviously, but if you find three or four separate websites all saying the same thing, then I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s fairly accurate.
Obviously you still have to be able to write a decent book, but at the very least if all the technical stuff is accurate, that's one hurdle less to jump. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Instead, it is all about the prose. I write a book straight through. I don’t go back and re-read anything until the whole book is done. So when I am revising, there is a fair amount of tinkering around to be done. But it is mainly about tuning up sentences, and punching up dialogue. That is all fun. It’s probably the bit of the job I enjoy the most.
But I was struck by a post on Roy Greenslade’s blog this week about how Rudyard Kipling revised his work.
"Take well-ground Indian ink as much as suffices and a camel hairbrush proportionate to the intersperse of your lines,” Kipling advised.