29 June, 2012

Morality in Fiction

See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil?
Most writers at some point need to make the decision about the morals and standards they want to maintain in their writing. I'm not talking about the real-life side of things like plagarism and copyright infringement, but the writing itself. How much sex, violence and bad language are you willing to write into your work?

I was thinking about this the other day when somebody at church asked if I wrote Christian novels. I don't. I've always assumed that it's a cheesy and bland genre, dominated by the wives of American pastors. I'm wrong, apparently, and I'm glad to hear it. But it got me thinking. Some people don't like to read books if the content includes things they consider immoral (a definition that we would all assign to different things I'm sure!). That's fair enough, of course - we all choose books and films according to our own personal taste anyway - morality is just part of that. But as a writer I find it hard. My level of tolerance towards the stronger elements of literature is lower in myself, than in the authors I read.

Few novels I consider great contain much that I also consider immoral, but I don't get particularly offended at swearing, sex or violence in books. An excess of any of them is rarely necessary and I wouldn't choose to read a book based on violence or erotic fiction, but as a realistic part of an interesting plot - fine. But I'm less happy to include them in my own writing. Partly this is artistic, but partly it's discomfort. Until my characters have come to life and are doing their own thing, it still feels "wrong" to use language that I wouldn't use myself - particularly when it comes to blasphemy, which litters "normal" conversation now.

But fiction is fiction, right? Crime writers don't have to condone murder. My parents have a wooden sign in their house saying, "The opinions expressed by the husband in this household are not necessarily those of the management." Well, I feel like I need to put a similar one at the start of my work, saying, "The opinions expressed by the characters in this book are not necessarily those of the author". Some people don't seem to get that.

I wonder though, whether I should know where my cut-off point is. Of course I want my writing to be realistic, but is that an excuse? I may be writing a scene that requires foul language to be "real", but it was my choice to write that scene in the first place. I tell people that I don't write erotica - but that's only the extreme end of sex in literature. What about everything up to that point (for example)?

Whatever your personal standards or beliefs, do you avoid certain things when choosing your reading material? If you're a writer - do you have double standards between other authors and your own work? Have you already decided how far you are willing to go in your writing?

[Some good has come out of this common dilemma. Several years ago a handsome man wrote a post on our church blog asking for people's opinions on this sort of thing. I replied saying that I was writing something - the first thing I ever wrote, actually - that I was worried might be blasphemous. He offered to take a look and give an opinion... and we've been married for three and a half years now. If you end up getting married as a result of this blog post, I expect cake.]

25 June, 2012

The Book... by Emma Duncan

Time for the second guest post in my "The Book..." series. Today our book recommendation is from Emma Duncan.

The Book... currently making my heart race.

Photo courtesy of: Wikipedia
If I told you I was being held hostage - not permitted to go to sleep at night; awoken in the early hours of the morning having just dozed off; my fellow hostages being killed off one by one and others coming to take their place; living in fear of what's to come and deep uncertainty about who of us would make it out alive - this would not be an underestimation of my feelings for the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin (adapted into the TV series, Game of Thrones).

Never have so many of my most beloved characters died in a book, and more arisen to take their place, if possible even more beloved! I can't decide if that's because there were gaps to fill and my heart latched on to new people, or if I would have loved the new characters should the old ones have remained alive as well. The characters are all filled with depth and development, intrigue and twisted connections; vague insinuations connect the most random of people and places. Martin uses the old one-character-per-chapter-and-then-5-people-in-between trick to keep me reading until I can no longer hold the book up and it smacks me in the face as I fall asleep. I can't bear to not know what's going to happen to that character next but I am also unable to flick forwards - too rule-sy about that!

He also uses the end-the-book-half-way-through-the-latest-plot trick to keep me purchasing his books in a panic at the nearest (and usually most expensive) book shop! These aren't thin, large-print books; these are tomes of epic proportion with pages of maps and lists of the important 'houses' that the reader needs to refer to frequently in the first couple of books. Now though, they are as familiar as my own family tree and the maps I know possibly even better than the British Isles!

Although Martin's prose is sometimes repetitive and sometimes pretty crude, the story is just so engaging, and the twists and turns so completely unpredictable, that I have to admit that I love these books. I am almost at the end of number seven and apparently number eight is coming. I anticipate a cruel wait.

Thanks, Emma!
Have you read these books? I have to admit that I haven't, despite hearing a lot of hype about them recently. Are you in love with any books/series where the plot is so engaging, the quality of the prose no longer matters to you - good or bad?

Emma Duncan is a proofreader and Learning Support Assistant. She is from Northern Ireland and lives in Bristol where she is currently studying for an MSc in Counselling (when not reading Song of Ice and Fire books, clearly!). She is passionate about reading, music and admiring the Irish rugby team.

22 June, 2012

A Win At Last!

Easdon Tor from Moretonhampstead.
Yesterday, I was very pleased to be informed that I won last month's Txtlit competition. I've mentioned Txtlit before, but for those who don't know,  it is a monthly competition where participants have to write a story on a particular theme within the length of a text message. I've won once before and been runner-up a few times, but I don't enter very often and am not always successful, so it's nice to get this win - three years after my first!

The theme in May was The Final Straw and I was fortunate enough to both win and claim a runner-up space with my two entries. You can read my microscopic stories here.

It's been almost a year since I've won a competition. I was shortlisted for Choclit earlier this year, but other than that, the few entries I've put together haven't got anywhere. I've entered a lot fewer competitions in the last 12 months, in favour of concentrating on writing my current novel and trying to edit some older work, but I admit I've missed it. I thought to be a "serious" writer I should concentrate on magazine submissions, but I enjoy the challenge of competitions - particularly themed ones - and, just this week, decided that I'm going to keep going at them on top of regular submissions. Perhaps it's because my youth revolved around running competitively - I'm not actually that competitive against other people (well... not much), but I love to push myself. Now that I can't push myself to run faster, I can push myself to get better placings in writing competitions. I learn a lot from what does well and what dives!

It's been a long time since I've had any personal writing news to bother blogging about, so while I'm here, a quick update... Having just finished the second draft of my current novel - Thousand-Word Things - and abandoned it to my lovely readers, I am doing my usual post-draft exercise of writing a few bits of flash fiction to clear my head out from Novel Mode. I'm enjoying it a lot and looking forward to spending a couple of months working on short fiction and non-fiction while I let my novel stew before the final (I hope!) draft. One of my current pieces of flash fiction is based on the same idea as one of my Txtlit entries, so I'm torn now whether to keep going with it or quit while I'm ahead! When I entered Txtlit I didn't think there was much chance I'd be in this dilemma!

As I can't think of a suitable picture for this post, I have resorted to my usual tactic of posting a random photo of where the husband and I live. Today it's the view from my writing room on a misty morning, back when the sun used to shine. Remember those days? Thanks for dropping by!

19 June, 2012

An Interview With... Alasdair Firth

It's easy to assume all the unfairness in the world of books, falls on the writer. The endless rejections, hours of slogging, dead-end opportunities (and lucky breaks) belong to us. Well just spare a thought for the publishers. Publishing is another competitive industry that's hard to break in to. I spoke to Alasdair Firth  about what it takes to sit on that side of the desk.

Alasdair Firth is the Publisher and Managing Director of Bamboccioni Books, a small and independent publishing company. He runs the company alongside a regular job at a Children's Centre in Birmingham. He lives with his partner in the West Midlands and when he is not avidly consuming a book, he can usually be found experimenting in the kitchen.

Here he tells us why publishing is his passion and why small publishers are a vital cog in the publishing wheel.

Why did you decide that publishing was the career for you?

I grew up around books. Both my parents are librarians and always encouraged me to read. I’m passionate about books, so publishing seemed like an obvious choice. 

How did you get into publishing?

I studied English at the University of St Andrews, which gave me a rounded appreciation of literature. I was exposed to numerous authors and genres I would never have chosen to read independently. As silly as it may sound, I developed a critical opinion that has given me the confidence to assess fiction and poetry based on my own ideas rather than thinking I must value something because it is written by a “literary great”. For example, I have no shame in saying that I can't stand the poetry of Wordsworth.
My experience in publishing prior to Bamboccioni consists of a three-month internship at Duckworths and a month at Arcadia Books.  Both publishers were relatively small-scale operations and gave me a lot more responsibility than I expected. I gained a good grounding in the industry. I have also had some experience in magazine publishing – working for a business magazine in Shanghai as well as on a student publication.
 What made you decide to set up your own publishing company?
After graduating I applied for various jobs in publishing and had some interviews, but no success. Entry-level jobs in the industry are difficult to get, and every graduate who was applying for these roles had completed internships just like me, had similar extra-curricular achievements and the same ambition and desire to pursue a career in publishing. I was forced to accept that whilst my internships had taught me a lot, what I needed was experience in making the bigger decisions.
My partner got a job in the West Midlands and I decided to move up with him. I got a job unrelated to publishing but I didn't give up on my ambitions. One dreary December evening I decided that if I wanted that first-hand experience I had to set up my own company.
Tell us a bit about Bamboccioni Books. 
We are a small and independent publisher that specialises in high quality fiction. We aim to promote new and diverse writers. Right now, I am interested in putting together a list of titles that we can be proud of, but that also marks us out as unique and  more adventurous than most publishers. We are interested in both novels and short stories.
Our Commissioning Editor is Claire Bagnall. She goes through our submissions and identifies those that have potential. Richard Thompson is the Associate Publisher. His role is primarily to assist in making the major business decisions for the company and develop the marketing strategies for each release. I'm the Publisher and Managing Director and do a bit of everything. I write the contracts, have the final say on what we publish, hire the cover artists, lead on the production process and manage the finances. 
What are the biggest challenges facing the publishing industry today?
That’s a difficult question. I think many in publishing would view the move towards e-books as a challenge. Authors are able publish their own work and cut out the middlemen. Obviously not all authors would be able to do as good a job as an experienced publishing house, but they would retain control of their work and take most if not all of the profits from sales.
So is digital publishing good or bad?
The industry is moving more and more towards e-books. The digital revolution has got to be embraced, and I appreciate the convenience of being able to carry your library around with you. I don’t believe that we should turn our back on “real books”, however. You can't replace the satisfaction of having bookshelves brimming with books. The e-book market is also rather unregulated; for example people are uploading “books” that consist solely of information copied from Wikipedia. Most online retailers allow for the consumer to read samples, but there is no guarantee that the sample is representative of the rest of the book.
What role would you say small, independent publishers fill in the publishing scene?
With the growing popularity of e-books and the rise of print-on-demand services (such as Lightning Source), small publishers can produce titles without the fear of being stuck with stacks of unsold copies. Without this worry we're able to be more daring than the bigger publishers and publish niche fiction and books by “unknown” authors. We are, of course, all secretly keeping our fingers crossed that we stumble upon the next big mainstream success.
What's your advice for authors planning to approach publishers directly, without the help of an agent?
Don’t go overboard. Make a case for your book and identify the selling points for it, but no one wants to read an essay on how much of your life was spent writing the book. Your sample needs to polished and engaging.
Publishers are looking for something that they can sell. It doesn’t have to be generic or “safe”, we just need to know that people are going to want to buy your book, or that we will be able to convince people to do so. Other than that, my advice is that if you believe your work is good enough then stick at it.
If you’re aiming for your book to be picked up by a major publisher then you should approach them through an agent. Unsolicited submissions end up in slush piles that may not be looked at for months and when they are it’s usually by interns. When approaching smaller outfits, such as Bamboccioni Books, an agent is not usually necessary.

If someone reading this has a book that they think might interest you, how do they get in touch?

We are actively seeking new titles at the moment. Authors should email us at enquiry@bamboccionibooks.com with a sample chapter/ short story and paragraph or two saying a bit about their work and themselves. We try to respond to all submissions as soon as we can. Authors can also contact us by post, but sample chapters will not be returned and it may be a longer wait before we respond to you. Take a look at our website for details.
Thanks to Alasdair for answering these questions. If you have a novel or short story that is "niche" (or even a mainstream one), would you consider approaching a small publisher? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages?

11 June, 2012

The Book... by Naomi Marklew

Today I am getting out the party poppers to celebrate the first in a new series on my blog. "The Book..." series will be a collection of guest posts from a variety of people, who all love reading. Where would writers be without readers? They've kindly agreed to share with us an insight into the books that have meant something to them.

We start the series with a post from Dr. Naomi Marklew.

The Book... that changed my life.

Image from: childofthe1980s.com
While this is strictly a series, rather than a single book, the most important reading experience of my academic career so far was the One, Two, Three and Away books by Sheila K. McCullagh, which I remember as the 'Roger Red Hat books'.  Roger Red Hat, together with his friends Billy Blue Hat, Percy Green Hat and Jennifer and Johnny Yellow Hat, had mildly entertaining adventures in the Village with Three Corners. These were the books that, aged 4, I was first able to read for myself, and which started a life-long love of books and reading.  

I am increasingly aware of the importance of literacy. On an everyday level, it means that I can follow washing instructions and recipes, request a tax rebate, enjoy my Grandma's beautifully handwritten birthday letters, and make sure that the bus I get on is going in the right direction.  But it has also been much more.

Reading got me through many difficult times - the loneliness of moving to a new primary school, a year of working for the council, a broken engagement - by providing alternative realities in which I could forget about my own life for a while. Reading has been a source of great joy. Reading the work of people who are close to me, as well as that of strangers, creates special literary relationships which couldn't be found elsewhere. Reading has entertained, inspired and horrified me, as well as opening up whole vistas of new experience. Now working as a post-doctoral researcher, reading is a major part of what I do; anything I write comes after a long period of reading the work of other critics.  Reading has given me a voice, and has contributed in many ways to the person that I am today. Thanks, Roger Red Hat.
Do you remember the Roger Red Hat books? Love or loathe them?

 Naomi obtained her doctorate at Durham University, having studied "elegy and how it relates to the troubles in Northern Ireland" (or "death poetry" as some of us prefer to call it). She lives in Durham with her maths teacher husband, Ryan. As well as reading, writing, being a doctor of English, playing music, knitting and much more besides, she also happens to be a pretty awesome sister-in-law.

05 June, 2012

That Would Be Myself

Just after I wrote the first draft of this post, I turned on the radio to the news that the Queen's English Society was closing down. This post, therefore, is a tribute to them...

A few weeks ago I made a comment on facebook about my current grammar hang-up. It got a lot of comments from people agreeing with me! I like it when people use correct grammar. I also know, that I don't do it all the time, not even when writing, so I try not to get too angry about such things. Grammar fascists do not make good party guests.

However, this particular trend was really annoying me. Why do some people insist on using 'myself' and 'yourself', instead of 'me' (or 'I') and 'you'? It's terrible English, and the bit that really annoys me is that they don't seem to be doing it just because their English is bad; they appear to be doing it to make themselves look better - as if the more letters they say in one sentence, the more impressive it is. It was The Apprentice that tipped me over the edge. I know what you're thinking - anybody who watches The Apprentice doesn't have the right to criticise anybody else - but it's not just them. I got an e-mail once from an editor of something I contributed to, which said something along the lines of, " ---- or myself will send you the contract". An editor. I almost sent an e-mail back saying, "Myself will sign the contract when yourself has sent it to me," but decided that was not the best way to develop a good working relationship.

I won't continue the rant here, but it got me thinking about these hang-ups. I guess we all have them - writers perhaps more than most. I've learned to my cost that one of my loyal readers does not approve of 'alright' (apparently it should always be 'all right'), and another is driven crazy by 'try and...' instead of 'try to...' (something which annoys me too, but I still have to correct it in my own work all the time!). So what's your hang-up? And what do you find yourself doing - if you dare admit to it?!

I suppose the real question in all of this is: does it really matter? Does it matter if good grammar disappears? Everything in me screams 'YES!', but our language is evolving and the changing use of grammar is part of that. I once jokingly corrected a friend who said 'wedding invites' instead of 'wedding invitations', and one of her friends - who (or should that be whom?) I didn't know - told me that as the common usage of words change over time, I was stupid for not thinking 'invites' was perfectly acceptable now. I didn't really have an answer. Why should we cherish some points of grammar and not others?

I quite happily google things and facebook someone, when technically Google and Facebook started as nouns. I pronounce the word "garage" as gar-idge. I know some people hate that and think it should be pronounced with a long vowel in the middle and soft ending. But I bet those same people pronounce "village" as vill-idge. They are both words we took from the French, so why do people get hung-up on one and not the other?

What are you happy to let slide when it comes to good English? Are your standards different for written and spoken English? Have you got any good examples of terrible grammar you've spotted anywhere?