Tuesday, 29 March 2011

What not to do when you have a bad review...

One upshot of the new digital age of self publishing on Kindle etc is the accompanying blog review posts.

The internet has turned the whole world into one big schoolyard, and if you don't believe me check out this link to Big Al's books and pals blog.

The blog is a review of a self published Kindle book by an English born, American based writer-atist called Jacqueline Howett. No, I've never heard of her either. But if Ms Howett was planning a long, successful career as a digital author she may be about to be disappointed.

The review is slight. The book in question is some sort of suspense romance involving a girl marrying the captain of a merchant ship. What the reviewer is upset about the most is the sloppy presentation of the book: it is full of grammatical errors and typos. What follows is an increasingly hostile exchange between the reviewer, the author and a host of other people who follow the blog. Ms Howett's comments are now getting pinged round the world via the interweb, facebook and twitter.

In part this seems to prove the point that self publishing isn't for everyone. It also suggests that if you are self publishing then you should employ some sort of editor or seek professional advice before you hit the send button. Publishing a  novel can be hard in the traditional world, it's even tougher on the digi-sphere. Careers that might have lasted a few years might now only take seconds to unwind.

Andy Warhol's 'famous for fifteen minutes' is looking like an awful long time.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Crusades and all that

Perhaps I am an unusually eclectic reader, but I see books as a source of enjoyment more than anything else. Sometimes that enjoyment is rooted in the fact that they are intellectually stimulating, at other times funny, or thrilling or involving. I cry over books. I get hooked up in them. They live in my imagination afterwards and sometimes it is a wrench to leave them.

I finished Brethren over the weekend. Robyn Young's debut novel is like a fabulous, glittering mini-series directed by Ridley Scott. It has a huge cast of characters and more twists and turns than a medieval banquet had courses. Set between 1260 and 1272 it weaves historical figures with fictional ones, brings the Templar knights to life.

Ah yes, the Templars. In the midst of all The Da Vinci Code hype I did a bit of reading on the Templars, who built Rosslyn chapel, near Edinburgh, which Dan Brown uses in his book. The Templars are terrific source material: a monastic cult of warrior knights who grew extremely wealthy, introducing a form of international banking centuries before the Rothschilds. The Templars, because of their connection to the Holy Land and the Grail mythology, have attracted conspiracy theorists for years and Young builds on this nicely. I suspect the Grail theme might get stronger as the trilogy progresses, but in Brethren it was neatly done: the revelation less mystical than it was political.

It's the politics which allow this book to work. The English Prince Edward is portrayed as a scheming gangster. The Templar sect our young hero gets involved with as idealistic internationalists. The book toys with out current ideas of Jihad, of Islamicist extremism, of East vs West, and while never quite dismissing them it never gives into them either. The Templars were ultimately destroyed by the French King Philip II, some forty years after the action of this book, after they were accused of heresy. Their rites were said to include spitting on the crucifix. In reality, Philip was heavily in debt to the Templars and destroying them allowed him to seize their assets. Politics and religion never really change.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Kindle thriller

Another digi publishing blog I've just come to which might be of interest. Stephen Leather is successful in paperback as well digital, but Kindle seems to suit him.
The dominance of crime and thriller writers in the Kindle charts is extraordinary, something he touches on here. Perhaps it reflects the "disposability" of the genre - you seldom want to read a thriller twice because once you know the end the trick is gone. Therefore, why bother with a hardback etc? Just a thought.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

50 books a year challenge

Michael Gove MP, who as you might know looks after education for England and Wales, has caused a frisson in the literary community - children's writers in particular - over his comment that every eleven year old should be aiming at reading 50 books a year.

You'd think authors would be all for such a thing. More reading surely means more sales. But Gove has been subject to a volley of criticism.

No surprise really. The Coalition's budget cuts have led to swingeing library closures as councils have cut the one thing no one truly considers essential but which every one would like to see continue. Anthony Browne, the children's laureate, spoke about this on radio, pointing out that if the government hadn't been cutting libraries perhaps children would get the chance to read more.

Put the libraries debate to one side and strangely my sympathies this time are with Gove. His point is roughly this: kids in the UK aren't reading enough and we are setting the bar too low in education and not encouraging them to read more. More books under your belt means better spelling, grammar and what do you call it? Vocabulary. Reading is good.

As it is, GCSE candidates are getting by on a couple of novels a year (and one of them is Of Mice And Men, he complains). In America, in some well motivated schools, teachers daringly set challenges: who can read all the Harry Potters first? First to Fifty, etc. Why not do the same here?

The comments from several children's writers to the effect that it's the quality of the reading experience that counts, not the number, is hooey. Volume matters too - it's a way of keeping count. Plus information has a habit of, well, sort of piling up. It's useful, like having an iPhone inside your skull.

Yes folks, reading expands the brain and raises your aspirations. If a person reads just one book a year and gets plenty out of it great. But what good is it if he or she spends the rest of the year on Facebook or murdering zombies on Playstation? By the time he gets round to picking up another book his brain will be back to mush.

Gove made his comments as part of a campaign to get people onside for his plan of independently run state schools. Scotland is excluded from this, of course. We have The Finest Education System.... yada yada yada. But the truth is, Scotland's middle classes have long opted out of the state sector: nowhere has better value independent day schools than Glasgow and Edinburgh (half what you'd spend in London). Their stellar results and league tables speak for themselves. As to the others, I doubt if Scots kids are reading any more than their southern neighbours. And most of our libraries are staying open.

Freedom II

A literary Facebook debate - no really, these things do happen - on Jonathan Franzen's rather brilliant, but not exactly flawless Freedom led me to a link for The Totally Hip Book Reviewer. I am so hooked. If you haven't seen this guy yet - and yes, I am coming to this a bit late - he's priceless. Very funny review this of Franzen's book, with the ever so subtle use of cuddly birds. Check it out by linking here.

The digital update

A friend of ours, Beatrice Colin, has just published her second novel on Kindle. The book has been out of print for a while and she is taking advantage of the revolution in book buying to take it onto a digital platform herself, without a publisher slicing off a large amount of takings. You can see the title by clicking here.

Beatrice writes literary fiction - not vampire romances or bloodsoaked thrillers - so it will be interesting to see how she does. She's certainly done the right thing by getting her partner, Paul Harkin of Swordfish Photography, to come up with a cover image (which I hope he doesn't mind my reproducing here). It looks lovely, most professional.

Friday, 18 March 2011

No I don't watch Masterchef

Someone said this to me the other day: "You watch Masterchef, don't you?"

Actually I'm not even sure there was a question mark at the end of that.

There's a lot to be said about that statement/question. For one, it suggests that to some of us at least, Masterchef is now "standard fare". It's unavoidable, unmissable.

It also suggests that I am one of those people: middle aged, middle classed, interested in food, cooking - and perhaps with a competitive streak.

But funnily enough, I don't watch Masterchef and I never have (not even when a friend of mine, Hardeep Singh Kohli, took part in the celebrity version. He got to the final and I never even noticed, I'm ashamed to say).

So why don't I watch it? Because it's brain numbingly idiotic for a start. Oh no! The reduction of plum and blueberry is about to turn too gloopy! What will she do now? It's because the food they make on the programme is over fussy, contrived and showy. Roasted cheek of an Albino Ape. And I hate it because I love food and would actually prefer to be cooking. But it just so happens I'm uncomfortable with the showing off aspect, the have you ever eaten anything like this schtick, because let's face it, most people don't notice whether your meat is overdone or your fish is undercooked, not when they are swallowing it back with half a gallon of vino blanco.

Which brings me to the real reason why I don't like Masterchef which is this: it's all one great big fat lie.

If you watch Masterchef you think that Britain is full of wonderful creative cooks for who every mealtime is a surprising delight. In reality, Britain has an utterly dysfunctional relationship with what we put in our mouths. Oh sure, we have more celeb chefs than you can shake a Findus ready meal at, but that doesn't stop us eating a ton of rubbish every day. We all happily troop down to the supermarket (or the garage) to buy processed microwavable bleughs, slam in the oven ready in five minute pizzas made of cardboard... or stagger home from the pub with disgusting kebabs or battered sausage suppers.

One Glaswegian told me recently I shouldn't worry about my cholesterol level if it was in single figures.

So no, I don't watch Masterchef, I'd rather think about what I eat, not reduce the process to the equivalent of some bad football match. In fact, I'd rather watch a bad football match than watch Masterchef. And if that puts me outside some sort of middle aged, middle class master race, then so be it.

Brethren, by Robyn Young

This past week or so has been a particularly gruelling one for news junkies like me. We wake up to reports of impending nuclear disaster, we surf news websites full of protests and simmering revolt and we got to bed with the sounds of sabre rattling at the UN in our ears. The world is an unhappy place.

It has been a relief therefore to indulge in a little bookish escapism. Brethren by Robyn Young is one of those huge successes many literary fiction readers won't even be aware of, because it didn't get reviewed in the pages of the Guardian or mentioned for the Booker longlist. Yet Young has sold over 500,000 copies of her books to date, in Britain alone - Brethren was her 2006 debut, the first instalment of a Crusades trilogy. She's already onto her second trilogy, starting with Insurrection, a Scottish Robert the Bruce yarn.

Young indulges in the sort of gripping storytelling that makes Bernard Cornwell an international star, but there is something fresher about Young's prose. Still in her thirties, she writes with a romantic flourish but also with remarkable economy. Perfect fodder, in other words, for the commercial market. Apparently Brethren took seven years to write, but the reward was there for her: she got a handsome advance (after being turned down by over ten publishers) and is now repaying the faith placed in her by her agent and Hodder Headline.

What struck me as I settled into the story about a young Templar knight, was how the Crusade period speaks to our own. This is a highly political time - England is ruled by Henry III, a spendthrift, rather weak king who needs the Templars and their money more than they seem to need him. You can't help but think of our own banking crisis and the former New Labour administration. In these books it is the middle east, the Holy Land, which is the focus of the conflict where, as today, rival religions and nationalities jostle for power. Europeans indulging in regime change? Fancy that. I can't help wonder how many reading this book think of 9/11 and the war against "Islamicist extremists" when they read about blood thirsty Moslem Mamluks slaughtering Christian priests. Does it play up to an anti-Islam attitude? Ask me when I've finished it, but not so far.

A friend of mine, a writer with three books published, recently lamented to me via Facebook that publishers and agents weren't interested in literary fiction any more - all they wanted were best sellers. I hate these arguments, it suggests that genre fiction is, by definition, no good and that just isn't the case. Perhaps if more literary novels were as gripping and as thrilling as the best genre works they would find it easier to find a publishing deal - and an audience.


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Digital warfare

There's a blog on the Guardian website today reporting how French publisher's offices have been raided by EU inspectors concerned that they are breaking anti-trust laws.

It's a well written piece that sets out the dilemmas of the current digital revolution. And it concludes that it is a war the publishers are ultimately going to lose.

The crux of the matter is the 'agency model' for pricing digital books, one which the EU seems intent to destroy. This model is basically the net price agreement for the 21st century - a system which was scrapped in the 1990s in the name of consumer choice and free markets, but which has resulted in a concentration of the industry both in terms of production and retail.

I love books. I love hardbacks and paperbacks. But I'm beginning to suspect that the future is the Kindle or similar devices and I've blogged about his before.

E-publishing, on the face of it, gives power not only to the consumer but to the writer as well, effectively removing those all powerful gatekeepers from the industry and allowing good writing to prevail.

But, but, but.... there is a place for publishers. It may well be a digital place, rather than a traditional one, ultimately. But I can't help but feel that writers need editors, and marketing people and PR - and to leave it to themselves, well, it just turns into a turkey shoot.

For another point of view, an industry one, go here

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Midsomer's All White Murders: The black gardener dunnit...

Who knew that apartheid was alive and will and living in crime drama?

Brian True-May's admission that he operates a whites only policy for the mainstream detective series Midsomer Murders might not rate in terms of news alongside Japan's multiple crises and the Arab world's continuing unrest, but it casts a stark light on the way people really think in this country.

Take this comment, in the Metro story, from one of the show's actors:

Actor Jason Hughes, who plays DS Jones, said he had pondered the lack of ethnic minorities. 
‘I don’t think that we would all suddenly go, “A black gardener in Midsomer? You can’t have that.”
‘I think we’d all go, “Great, fantastic,”’ he said.

Makes you stop and think, doesn't it? A black gardener? Someone give me a calendar, I need to make sure it isn't still 1956.

True-May's point is that English villages, like the ones Midsomer is meant to be like, are predominantly white. But while this is no doubt true - statistically we are a very white nation, even now, in particular outside of the cities - but it is still a red herring.

By creating a show that deliberately focuses on all white communities he is reflecting an image of England back at his audience: one that is both inaccurate and highly problematic. And by NEVER having a black face or an ethnic character (actually, even that description now seems out of date) he is bucking even the law of averages. You mean the local GP has NEVER had an Indian locum? There are NO black kids at all at the local comp? Not one? 

I don't watch Midsomer - I find the show terribly slow and cliched. Others tell me that it is some of the most appalling drivel ever broadcast. Apparently its audience tends to be older than my demographic, but is this community, as True-May implies, so fundamentally racist that they wouldn't accept a black character in the programme?

The commentator Simon Jenkins was on R4 this morning defending the producer - he was doing his let's not get carried away schtick. But the more I think about this statement by this smug TV executive the more I tend to think we should get carried away.

True-May is now suspended from his job and frankly, he should be sacked. The big question now for ITV is can Midsomer Murders itself survive? Television is notoriously fickle and sensitive to public opinion: if enough people voice their dismay at this policy, we might just get rid of it.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Goodnight Mister Tom: 30 years to the good

Not many writers are read beyond their lifetime. Not many writers are read a year after their book comes out. Michelle Magorian is likely to be one of the lucky ones.

Her novel Goodnight Mister Tom came out thirty years ago this year. It's a warm hearted tale of a young wartime evacuee who has been abused and neglected at home, but who finds a genuine parent and a new start in the unlikely shape of a grumpy old church caretaker, who lives on the edge of a graveyard.

Magorian was a repertory theatre actress when she wrote the book. In my interview with her in this week's Big Issue Scotland Magazine (it's not available online, you have to buy a copy from a vendor) she recalls being so broke she had to scrabble around for pennies with which to buy fruit and veg with at the local market. When she couldn't even to that, she'd go to the market and grab the surplus waste that had fallen on the floor.

That first novel kick started a new career as a writer and has given her an income all these years - though she says it has been up and down. Even so, with a British TV adaptation, two theatre adaptations (one is currently touring) and sales around the world, Goodnight Mister Tom has claimed a higher profile than most children's books, with the exception of the obvious Rowlings and Pullmans.

I came to the book expecting it to be overly sentimental - based on the premise, and on the snippets I'd seen of the ITV dramatisation with John Thaw. But I was surprised by how much grit the book contained, and the harshness of some of the scenes. Perhaps I shouldn't have been: the written word is generally tougher than it's on-screen counterparts. I was moved by the book, and it struck me that while there were moments in it during which she allowed the pace to slacken a little, the flaws didn't matter too much.

Magorian herself told me that she re-read the book recently and winced a little: because there were passages she felt she could write better now. Her writing, she stressed, has evolved in the thirty years since - her most recent book, Just Henry, has earned a Costa award and rave reviews. And yet it is that first book, with all its rough edges, which she remains most well known for. There's something bittersweet about that.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Epublishing: Here we go

A couple of days ago, Janice Hally commented on this blog that she was ready to self-publish online. She sent me an email about the actual act and I asked her for permission to reproduce it here because I feel not enough authors - aspiring, established, rich and poor - know about this process.

Janice writes:

I was all set to upload, very excited about it, nervous even, when - before I could press the "Upload Now" button - an E-mail landed on my desktop from a producer asking to see a script.  After getting a lead,  I'd submitted the logline and synopsis weeks ago, but as is normal, I'd put it out of my mind, expecting to hear nothing.

So obviously I had to deal with that first.  And obviously, being paranoid, I HAD to read the script again - and tinker with it - before e-mailing it off.  

So suddenly it was lunchtime and obviously I had to have lunch.  

So anyway, no sooner had I got back at my desk after lunch than the producer e-mailed - having read the script immediately and loving it and wanting to find out if we can have a "chat over a cuppa"... in London.  

So I explain I'm in France and after much to-ing and fro-ing of E-mails and checking of flights, I persuade her we could video Skype because I have a kettle here and am happy to provide my own "cuppa".  

So for some reason a Skype call has to wait till she's back in California next week (maybe she doesn't have a kettle in London.  Who knows.)

So..... after all that, the day is over.  And it's up fresh and bright the next day to get the E-book upload underway.  

After much trepidation.... I actually... Press the Button.... and.... 


It's going to start uploading.... yes it is.... but not straight away!  

It's in a queue... in fact it's number #1540 in the queue to be precise.  

But hey - this is digital, so it should be fast, right...?   Five minutes later I'm #1539!  Seven HOURS later I'm #457!  Finally, 11 HOURS later, that evening, I check the computer and coincidentally the number rolls over to #1, and hey presto!  I'm uploading!  Then I get a window up saying the upload was successful!  So I'm scrabbling around trying to find the book's page on the site to see how the cover art has come out and all that when... 

PING!  An E-mail arrives... guess what?  Before I can even FIND the book online, I'm receiving a notification of a sale!  Someone actually bought a copy!

Here's the page...

Now bear in mind I truly never expected to be selling or marketing this book!  Peter and I used to offer the occasional writing course in France and this was something I put together to loosen people up before they came - it was especially for people who had never written before.  As it already existed as a Word .doc and PDF, it just seemed like something I could use to test run the process quickly.

The book has to be cleared by a human being now before Smashwords put it in their "Premium" catalogue to sell it on through Barnes and Noble, Nook, Sony Reader, IBooks etc.  
At the moment the Kindle version is being processed by Kindle to go up on Amazon, should happen later today (it takes 24 hours).
And the Createspace (Print on Demand hard copy) version has been cleared and I've just ordered a proof copy to check it.  So that'll be a couple of weeks before it's available on Amazon and through other online bookstores. 

Oh and of course, I downloaded a sample to see how it looked and immediately spotted a typo!  But one great thing about this online thing is, that you can upload a revised version quickly (though I can't fix the Smashwords one it till it's been through its Premium catalogue review).

So there you have it.  Judging by that queue everybody's getting in on the act!

But I'm definitely going to go forward with some fiction.  

The West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson - professor, TV historian, Glasgow boy - returned to his home city yesterday to give a talk at the Aye Write Festival.

I've read two of his books this year - Empire and Ascent of Money - both of which I found hugely helpful as regards the novel I've been writing.

Feguson isn't to everyone's taste, of course. He is, like David Starkey, a Marmite historian. One friend of mine actually shuddered at the thought of going to his talk (she refused to entertain the idea). That said, the Mitchell Theatre was pretty well full and my impression was that he got a very warm response before and after his lecture.

His current schtick is based on his new book and C4 TV series: Civilization, The West and the Rest. Ferguson relishes the soundbite and has boiled down the past five hundred years of history into "six killer apps" which the west had, but the others didn't. It's a compelling argument but actually not that different from the world history course I did at Glasgow Uni back in 1987. What makes it new is the inexorable rise, in the past decade, of China. Ferguson talks a lot about China, has travelled there extensively, and it was intriguing to hear his take on it. One person asked how long before China would have to become a democracy: he fired back the answer "20 years" (based on the South Korean and Singapore model).

He doubted it would come sooner because he didn't think the young generation there were interested in political freedom. One young woman apparently told him that she and her friends don't care about the 'Square thing'. She meant Tiananmen Square.

His final comment was both provocative and memorable. "What should we do here in Scotland?" he was asked. "Get your kids to read Adam Smith," he replied, adding, "We should reconnect with Smith and forget about Marx" (I'm paraphrasing).

My friend would have been impressed with that, but he has a point.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

When you can't see the wood for the trees

Love this story of an 'anonymous writer' who has pinned pages of his novel to trees around New York.

But you see, you couldn't do that in Glasgow. The pages would last five minutes before they'd all be turned to mush in our incessant rain.

The end of second hand bookshops

Are we seeing the final death throes of second hand bookshops? I've touched on this before, but my eye was caught today by this elegiac piece in the Guardian by an academic and former part time second hand book dealer.

Anyone who reads books has spent time in one or more second hand shops. It is like a rite of passage - especially for those of us in our late 30s-early 40s. When I went to University you didn't dream of buying everything new - you headed for Glasgow's Voltaire and Rousseau and scrabbled around the dusty, overloaded shelves looking for serviceable copies of Norton's Anthology or Lermentov's Hero of Our Time.

No wonder such shops are celebrated by authors - in Louise' Welsh's The Cutting Room, for instance, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind.

Amazon, the big bookshop chains and the scrapping of the net book agreement, and with it the inexorable rise of the discounted paperback, has seen off a great many of these treasure troves. Oxfam book shops, as the Guardian piece sets out, seem to be finishing off the rest. Those second hand stores that aren't coffee shops, cafes or arts centres will almost certainly die out with their current proprietors.

But let's not get too nostalgic. The publishing landscape is changing. Paperbacks are no longer worth the £4.50 some of the second hand stores try to charge (especially when you can get a new copy for less on Amazon). Dusty shops stacked with old Penguins might be a feature of our past, but so is the LP, smoking and TV with just three channels. No one is calling for them to be saved either.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Old Firm Red Card

The Scottish government is today holding a 'summit' to discuss a football match. Don't let the pious posturing of the politicians fool you: this is a pointless exercise intended to satisfy the demands of an upcoming election which will achieve nothing.

The match in question saw three red cards, some unpleasant snarling between the management teams, some bizarre behaviour by an on-loan Rangers striker, which might have earned him a  red card earlier in the match, several wild tackles, a solitary goal, and it culminated in 34 arrests among the crowd of 60,000 plus. As such it was a stormy, unpleasant Old Firm encounter, but why has it taken on such media and political significance?

I only ask because we've been here before. There have been bad tempered games between these clubs going back decades. Players have been sent off before. And I'm pretty sure there have been matches which have seen more arrests, more violence.

There are a number of reasons why this Old Firm match is being subject to a special summit between club officials, police and politicians, called today by our First Minister, Alex Salmond. Sheer bloody minded populism, for one, with an election coming up Salmond is intent on grabbing as much air time as possible. Furthermore, the police were already truncheon rattling over this fixture in the days leading up to it. Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Gray got blanket coverage for seeming calling for the games to be banned outright - or was it to be played behind closed doors? It actually wasn't clear what Les was saying, but it was obvious he wasn't happy and that was good enough for the morning radio news programmes. After the match he 'clarified' his position to say he was in favour of the matches going untelevised. The sort of solution Hosni Mubarak might have understood.

After the match, every politician of every colour, police chief constable and even the Scottish kirk, waded in to pile pressure on the clubs to "get their houses in order". Events at the match were "shameful", they said, behaving as if competitive sportsmen had never acted in this way before. When Alex Salmond spoke about the negative impact the game would have on Scotland's image abroad you began to suspect that our GDP was reliant on those 22 men on the pitch. But what is really shameful is that after an Old Firm match reports of domestic abuse go up in Scotland by something like 75 per cent.

Is it the player's responsibility that a man has drunk six cans of lager watching a football match and takes out his team's failings on his wife or child? Are the Old Firm obliged to win/draw/play soporific football in order to lull this man into some sort of sleep? Should Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist be required to read this man a bed time story too?

My point is this, football is a huge cultural focus in this country. Many Scots care about little else. The fact that supporting the Old Firm is tied in with religious and ethnic identity only makes the brew stronger. What's more, and some pundits have said this, the Old Firm are the only clubs in Scotland who have a realistic chance of winning anything. The margins between them are small, too. Celtic might win the treble this year, they are good enough. But until last week, Rangers were also capable of winning every trophy and just might have done.

That match was the fifth time they'd played each other this season. And they still have a league match and a cup final to go. This is unusual, but it has fallen this way by chance. As the two big beasts of Scottish football their meeting each other is going to be crucial. This year, with the other clubs comparatively weak, they are more crucial than ever. So of course the players are going to be pumped up. Their careers, success and bonuses are on the line.

What I loathe about the reaction to the match is the Scottishness of wanting to throw a veil over it. This is the same mentality that gave the US prohibition. Instead of demanding we all grow up, they actually want to infantilise the nation. Old Firm matches cause crime, so let's ban the Old Firm.

But domestic abuse happens well away from the grounds, the fans who attend these matches have a choice: they can shout, which is fine, or they can hit someone with a bottle, which is not fine. Those that do the latter deserve all they get. But they that in Buchanan Street at closing time almost as often as after a football match.

The thought of which brings me to the stats. They tell us that a Saturday Old Firm match will result in 225 or so arrests in Glasgow. What they often fail to mention is that a normal Saturday night will result in 180 or so. I'm not statistician, but is the difference all that great, considering the significance of the event and the large numbers of people it attracts to the grounds and to the pubs?

Because that is the issue: the drinking. Not the football. As long as we call it football, and indeed, as long as we call it sectarianism, we are not actually doing anything about it. But strangely enough, I don't hear the police calling for a ban on pubs? When the chairman of the company which makes Tennents Lager comes out and says sorry, then we might be getting somewhere.

In one sense I would love it if the match was banned. Or rather, I would love it if they allowed the clubs to leave Scotland. The league doesn't work anyway, the clubs are too imbalanced, and Celtic and Rangers would flourish in a British league. In such a context the clubs would only have to play each other twice a year, leaving us with half the problem.

Monday, 7 March 2011

To self publish, or not to self publish

Fascinated by the Kindle self publishing issue (see earlier post).

I've just seen this blog by a US author with extensive  publishing industry experience. He writes very well and sets out the numbers with clarity.

Leaves you thinking that books aren't about to disappear after all. But the opportunities Kindle offer are real.

Is literary fiction the new poetry?

Gary Shteyngart, the New York satirical novelist, appeared in Glasgow on Saturday at the Aye Write Festival.  I hope he felt it was worth his while. I reckon the crowd was in the 20s, and although a well  informed bunch (several had definitely already read his book Super Sad True Love Story) I couldn't help but feel that crossing the Atlantic to speak to such small numbers of potential customers wasn't particularly efficient. (That said, he was doing a mini tour of lit fests and the like, so perhaps the numbers did add up. And I'm sure the publisher picked up the expenses.)

During the talk he alluded to a Jonathan Franzen comment that "literary fiction is the new poetry". It was part of a discussion that touched on his own role as a professor of creative writing at Columbia University. Somebody asked him what his students write.

Shteyngart's novel bemoans the fact that America and the west is becoming post literate, that people are surfing the web and posting pix on Facebook rather than settling down to a good book. Or any book. Literary fiction, he observed, was increasingly only being read by the people who write it. In other words, literary fiction was becoming a bit like poetry.

OK, there are exceptions (see my earlier post on the poetry slam...), but this struck a chord with me. Shteyngart said a lot of his students write novels that are concerned with language. He also points out that as 21-year-olds (in the main) their scope, in terms of the subjects they can discuss, roam from language to divorced parents in Westchester County.

It begs the question, why are they studying creative writing at all? Why are they writing about... other writing... instead of getting out there and seeing a bit of the world? Why aren't they studying medicine so they can go work for the Red Cross? Or engineering so they can build bridges, or cars, or ships? They could come back and write novels once they have done these things, and perhaps then they might have something to say. Why are they using up their valuable student dollars learning how to write books that only a few dozen people might read?

OK, they are chasing the dream: the dream that they will be special, the next Zadie Smith/Martin Amis/Whoever. I, of all people, can hardly blame them for that. In terms of craft, writing novels isn't something you can just do. You do have to work at it, often full time, and focus on it. But is 21 the time to do it?

Of course, by being students they are affording writers like Shteyngart a nice income to fall back on when they are not writing novels. Giving him the freedom to write the novels he wants, rather than the ones that sell  in numbers big enough for him to have a comfortable lifestyle.

There is nothing wrong with all this, but it underlines something to me. If literary fiction, or fiction of any kind, is to have a place in the world - and win a significant, profitable audience amidst all the chatter of the TV, Internet and movies - it has to say something. It's not enough to write a novel about language, or to do something experimental with narrative. You've also got to grab your reader and the way to do that, more often than not, is to write a really good story.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Slam Dunk

Went along to the Scottish Poetry Slam Final at Glasgow's Aye Write lit festival on Friday. Loved it.

I've been to a Poetry Slam ... show before. Not a proper slam, it was a showcase put together for the Edinburgh fringe a few years ago made up of some really talented US poets/performers.

I wasn't sure a Scottish event could possibly live up to the energy of that event, or be of the same standard. But the performers last Friday really surprised me. I particularly loved the competitive element.

We aren't talking professionals here. I doubt any of them are full time writers or musicians, they are enthusiasts with day jobs. But I'd say at least half of the 14 taking part were well worth the ticket price on their own (just £4!). Once the evening got going and the audience warmed up I really enjoyed the spectacle and ended up staying to the end - even though I'd promised my wife (who couldn't come due to our son not being well) that I would cut out early.

It was worth it though. My son is fine, my wife was chilled, and the three finalists were great to watch. The outright winner was Young Dawkins, a 62 year old American who might have stepped out of a movie about Allen Ginsberg. He was wonderful, quite breathtaking, and I'd recommend him to anyone.

The group meet regularly in Glasgow at the Rio Cafe.

Friday, 4 March 2011

First words

What is the most memorable first chapter ever written?

For an author, those first few pages are crucial. Unknown authors in particular need to get them right because they are the hook to capture an agent, an editor, a deal and eventually enough readers to rocket them into the bestseller charts. Get those first pages right and a reader will stick with you through the next 100 pages or so. And by then, if they aren't in love with your story, characters and prose style then all is lost for you anyway.

I picked up Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones yesterday and took it off to read while my daughter took part in her weekly country dancing class. As she skipped around some wooden swords I found myself totally immersed in Sebold's story.

How did I not read this book before? I was being contrary, of course. I'd heard about it, there was a while there when you couldn't move without tripping over great stacks of these books at any and every bookshop. It was on everyone's reading list and recommends list from Richard and Judy out. So I stayed away from it, assuming it to be populist schmaltz.

But that first chapter has got me totally hooked. The girl's voice comes over so clearly. The situation is so stark and awful. And the description of the rape and the murder: well it really does make you gasp a little. But because the narrator is the girl, that she is talking from 'her heaven' (let's not go there this time), it isn't a horror yarn but something far more moving, intelligent and clever.

Thrillers do the first chapter thing very well. Silence of the Lambs & The Ring come to mind. But a good first few pages isn't just the product of the highly competitive modern commercial fiction market. Philip Roth, a literary writer, has the knack. Cormac McCarthy's first few pages in The Road. Anything by Dickens, who had the popular touch.

But some really successful books have terrible first chapters. How many people abandoned Harry Potter while reading that opening about owls and strange goings on?

It is World Book Day. You can tell because their website has already crashed due to huge amounts of traffic. This year's event includes a big book giveaway tomorrow night, which is a cute idea and will make for great marketing for the twenty odd, established writers who are involved.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Jamie's Nightmare School

Love Jamie. He's great. Have (most of) his books. The cheat's banoffee pie is a current favourite, as is the grilled salmon. Do I have a problem with the fact he is now trying to 'save education'. Not really. He's a TV person, fundamentally. Jamie's Dream School isn't a real school, it's a TV show about education. And really, if he isn't going to make a mainstream TV hit out of the problems faced in schools every day, who is?

After the first episode I felt a little cheated. TV's own reliance on TV people hurt the format and destroyed any chance that the experiment, if that is what it was, could actually be valuable in itself. Rolf Harris, lovely man, is not a trained educator. Nor is Simon Callow nor David Starkey.

Ah, yes, Starkey. He was completely in the wrong to call that large boned, genetically challenged boy 'fat'. Of course he was. But what I found interesting was the headmaster's response to that 'crisis'. (This is a made up school, isn't it, can't it just have its own made up rules and have it so everyone gets called fat?)

The headmaster watched a tape of the incident and established what we already knew - that Starkey had cast the first stone. (Starkey makes a living out of casting the first stone. Did you hear him on R4's Any Questions lately?) The headmaster then started wringing his hands and warned that a disciplinary process might be called for.

Of course, he was right. But was it just editing that caused us to have the impression that the headmaster wasn't at all bothered with the way the children had behaved in that class, either before or after 'fat' was uttered by a man with more qualifications than those children have sent text messages.

The phones were going. The chatter was constant. Girls were nipping out for a chat. The boys were rolling their eyes.

Starkey was like a rabbit in the headlights, utterly unable to cope with what was happening to him. He was being run over by a 20 teen truck. He is, as Jamie pointed out, a man who expects to be listened to. He'd brought with him £30 million's worth of ancient Britain bling, but the kids couldn't have been less impressed. They hardly gave it a glance.

Actually, I felt sorry for him. But as he himself pointed out, it's the kids who are really being harmed. Their lack of discipline has left them incapable of learning.

Apparently the kids do go on a positive journey in this programme. Many of them get the wake up call needed and look set to rejoin the education process (they were all chosen because, like 50 per cent of their contemporaries they failed to gain the five basic gcses needed to go on to A level).

But will the programme influence government, decision makers or teachers - including those like the TV head who seem more interested in teacher behaviour than that of the kids? Don't bet on it.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

True Grit

Why didn't True Grit win an Oscar? Not necessarily The Oscar, for best film, but just any Oscar? It was nominated in ten categories but won zilch. It's only the fourth film ever to be nominated for at least ten awards and come away with nothing.

Jeff Bridges was immense as Rooster Cogburn. Bitter, tough, heartless and a big softie all at once. It's been a while since I've seen the John Wayne version but I don't recall being as impressed with it. Wayne's movies - probably the era they were made more than anything - could be over sentimental. The Coen's reading of the story is bang up to date: you feel every bullet as it finds its mark. It's gloriously dirty and packed with great dialogue.

But I can see why Bridges didn't win. His performance was quite a contrast to Colin Firth's proper King George. There were times you didn't catch more than ten per cent of what Rooster was saying. And the Academy would have hated that: Firth gives a performance, Bridges could so easily be dismissed as just slurring his way through the script. But the wonderful thing about his performance was that you didn't need to know exactly what he was saying. You just had to look at his great, granite like face, and it all fitted.

The real star of the show is the girl, Hailee Steinfeld, who provides such a perfectly balanced central performance. Damon is also fantastic. I've heard people complain that the finale doesn't add up to much, but I disagree. The final shoot out is brutal in the extreme - though I expected the action to be prolonged  a little - and the twist with what happens to the girl is terrific cinema.

In another year it would have walked it. But it wasn't the Coen's turn (they've had theirs for a while) and for some reason The King's Speech ruled supreme.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Self publishing | Kindle | Can you make money out of ebooks?

How to make a million out of ebooks

I have to credit Ben Goldacre for alerting me to this one. It's a story about a young woman who has built up such a following for her books on Kindle that she is well on the way to becoming a millionaire - and yet she has never been published by a traditional publisher.

Check it out here.

I've been pretty well anti-Kindle from the start. The idea of giving up my beautifully made hardbacks and paperbacks for a strange, corporate looking eReader (that will no doubt be obsolete in a couple of years) has been anathema to me. What the hell am I going to put on my bookshelves if I have an eReader? And do I really want to take a device worth £150 to the beach?

But the example of Amanda Hocking has got me thinking. Her books are there to download now. She apparently sold over 100,000 copies last month. So she's making money, she has a following - built up in no small part by her twittering, blogging and facebooking - she is a one girl industry. Publishers really ought to wake up to this.

Not just publishers, writers too. Over the last few years we've seen writers get smaller advances. And yet sales haven't really declined. Some costs have gone up. But the writers are getting squeezed. Kindle offers authors 70% of the take. Lower prices, but there is the potential of higher volume.

(Beatrice Colin has discussed this on her blog too. You'll also want to check out this blog here, written by a Chicago based thriller ebook author called Joe Konrath)

It's a big dilemma though. What would life without publishers be? It might be harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. Publishers are great filters and a good editor is worth their weight in gold. But in many cases, you have to say, you wonder what the publisher does bring to the party. Do they really contribute so much for the author to be stuck with a mere 10 per cent royalty?

So I've just downloaded my first ebook, a Hocking called Switched (Trylle trilogy, book 1). Apparently it's about trolls but the Amazon reviewers are in love with it. Oh yes, and it cost me a mere £0.49 (including VAT, apparently ebooks, unlike paper ones, are not exempt). I got charged more than that the other day for a Mars Bar.

I'll let you know if it is any good when I finish reading...

Short cut to short film

A few years ago I did not one but two screenwriting courses. They were both in Glasgow (not renowned as a centre of the movie making world) but I enjoyed them thoroughly. Each one had a teacher who was inspiring and fun (though very different), I met some great, fun people, and I learned a lot.

But not once did we actually make a film.

Week after week we worked on pitches, synopses, dialogue, plot. I don't disagree with this. Screenwriting is about structure, and courses that teach it are more aware of structure than a lot of novelists and critics who write about novels.

But, I repeat, despite all that time we invested in writing and theorising about film - and in looking at other films, debating their merits and speculating about what they cost etc - neither teacher ever thought to say: "And here's a camera go make something."

Even in the few years since I did those courses, I think attitudes to this kind of thing have changed massively. Technology is cheaper. Cameras are better. Kids who were still at school while I was chin-stroking over heroes and anti-heroes, have now hit their twenties. They have apple laptops with iMovies and tiny video cameras they can operate at the flick of a wrist.

What's more, they are fearless. They think nothing of twisting their pals arms to get them to star in their bloodsoaked zombie western mash up in which all the dialogue is in Latin (hey, what a great idea...) or a five minute kidnap movie about a man who thinks Britain is about to be poisoned by a new pesticide.

Which brings me to my point: and yes it is a plug. A pal of mine in London is involved with the people who made this excellent short film. It's daring, high energy, well acted, scrappily written, but it follows all the right paths. And here's the thing I most respect, it has actually been made. You can watch it if you follow the link above - though you will have to sign in to the website first. It's a contest too, so every vote counts.