Monday, 25 May 2015

Earning a Living from Writing by Tamsyn Murray

Some of you may know that I achieved a milestone recently. Seven and a half years after I first resolved to 'take this writing business seriously', I handed in my notice at both my part-time jobs to concentrate solely on writing. From 1st July 2015, I will be a full-time writer. Hurrah!

Almost immediately after I'd done the deed (told my bosses I was leaving), The Fear set in. How was I going to pay the bills and feed my children with no monthly salary? What if it all went wrong? What if I had made a terrible TERRIBLE mistake?

My husband tried to reassure me. "Don't worry, you can just do some more school events if we start to struggle." And he's right - children's authors are lucky in that we have an additional stream of income to tap into: school visits.

I like to think that I give good value to the schools who book me. My events are funny, interactive and designed to get kids talking about books long after I've left. And obviously while I'm off performing, I cannot be writing so I charge a reasonable amount for an event. I don't mean for the short run of promotional visits I might do for my publisher, to promote a new book or series - I mean an everyday school visit. Two assemblies and a signing, perhaps, or a workshop and an assembly. And it occurred to me that not all children's authors charge for these standard events. Some do free events ALL the time, to help boost their books sales. They never charge. At a time when schools' budgets are being squeezed, I can understand the appeal of a free visit too - author visits are a great way to boost reading for pleasure, which has all kinds of quantifiable benefits. But here's the problem: when authors do an event for free, they are devaluing the work all of us writers do. Look at it this way - imagine a plumber offered to come to your house and fit your new bathroom for nothing. Word gets around and soon that plumber is crazy busy. People decide that they don't want a plumber who charges a lot of money when they can get the same job done for free. Lots of plumbers who made their living out of plumbing now can't get any work. And worst of all, the people who need their bathrooms installed don't see why they should pay anyone to do that work. Pretty soon, not paying is the norm, even though the work done is of a very high standard. Do you see what I'm getting at?

If you are an author who routinely does school visits for free all the time (and again, I don't mean a book tour or the occasional freebie you might do at your own discretion) then you are stepping on your fellow writers to build your own success. I urge you to stop and consider what is a fair charge - the Society of Authors has done some excellent work on this area recently, guided by the extremely wise Nicola Morgan.

Take a look. Value yourself and understand that constantly offering free events is undermining the rest of us. And help me sleep better at night now that I don't have the cushion of a monthly salary to snuggle up against.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

What’s in a word? by Liz Kessler

Ten days ago, something wonderful happened for me. The very first book I ever wrote was finally published.

It took fifteen years. Coincidentally, it became my fifteenth published book – and my first YA novel.

The book is about seventeen-year-old Ashleigh Walker going through the final year of her sixth form in school, and the journey she takes during that year. It is what can loosely be called a ‘coming of age’ novel. It is also about Ash coming out as a lesbian.

Some people prefer the word ‘gay’. I don’t mind that. Some people use the word ‘queer’. I don’t mind that either (as long as it’s the modern usage of the word – ie celebrating diversity in sexuality rather than the older definition used as an insult to abuse and offend). Some (not many) still say ‘homosexual’. I don’t even mind that, although it makes me cringe a little to hear it, as it’s a bit old-fashioned.

One thing I have become aware of, during the lead up to, and aftermath of, this book’s publication, is the fact that there are an awful lot more words being used in discussions of sexuality than there used to be, and that for many people – particularly those who are new to the discussion – this can be bewildering. I’ve been in this game over twenty years, and I’m getting a little confused myself.

I’ve found that in discussions about the book, I use different terms, depending on who I’m talking to. In that respect, I’ve been feeling a bit like a chameleon, changing colour to suit my surroundings. One interviewer referred to my novel as ‘the gay book’. I wasn’t too keen on that (and told her) but that wasn’t because of using the word gay; it was that I hope it is much more than just ‘the gay book’. But other than that, I’ve found myself using different terms interchangeably, to fit in with the language of the people I’m talking to.

And I think this is OK. It’s a bit like having a wardrobe full of clothes and deciding which outfit is appropriate, depending on where you are going and who you are mixing with.

For example, I was (gasp, squeal, slightly hyperventilate) on Woman’s Hour and I don’t actually think that the words lesbian, gay or queer were used at all. Jenni Murray introduced the book by saying it was about a girl who realised she didn’t fancy boys, she fancied girls. We talked about coming out. But that was as far as the language went. And I am 100% OK with that. This is mainstream, national, hugely popular radio, so going back to the wardrobe analogy, I guess this is the place to put on my smartest outfit and do my best to blend in.

At the other end of the scale, I was the guest author on the lovely Lucy Powrie’s very popular #UKYAchat on twitter. If we’re to describe this in terms of the wardrobe, I guess this was the event where I stood in front of my clothes, trying to find something I looked cool and young and hip enough in (and cursed myself for even using the word hip, as that only showed how actually unhip I am) found my wardrobe a little wanting on this score – and decided just to go in what I had on.

The discussion on this forum was great: it was amazing to see such a variety of books being recommended; it was heart warming to be part of a discussion that was so open to books about sexuality. Hand on heart, though, there was a small part of the discussion which I have to say left some of us slightly running to catch up: the terminology.

A bit of background.

The gay movement is generally credited to have begun in the 1960s, with the Stonewall Riots. It was about rising up against years of being abused, beaten, oppressed and even killed by homophobic laws and actions. Back then, using the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual’ was radical and liberating.

The word ‘lesbian’ was later added and became widely used by many lesbian feminists in the 1970s.

My own political awakening came in the 1980s and this was around the time that there were arguments in the movement about adding the word ‘bisexual’ to the banners. Those arguments were huge and divisive within (what eventually became known as) the LGB community. Look how far we’ve come!

Similar arguments raged over adding the ‘T’ for transsexual, and I think these arguments lasted even longer. But now, LGBT has become a term that many are familiar with, and a banner that I am proud to stand under.

But even that already feels out of date in some circles. In terms of sexuality, we are living in times where people no longer want to define themselves with broad labels which basically divide everybody into three main headings: straight, gay, bisexual. The times we are living in today are about a richer, more diverse, more grey-area-y way of defining ourselves.

For some of us, this can feel challenging. I freely admit that I find it difficult to keep up at times. Over the last year or so, I’ve been introduced to the acronyms QUILTBAG, and LGBTQIA+ and others like this, which are highly-inclusive acronyms and umbrella terms that many people choose as their label. If this is how people choose to define themselves, I believe it is their decision to do this and nobody else’s. If people feel that ‘queer’ is the only word that sums up their own sexuality, again, that is their decision. Some people struggle with words like ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’, associating them with the negative connotations of the past. For others, ‘queer’ is the only word that they feel truly expresses who they are. It is up to each of us to define ourselves – not to listen to instructions from others.

But in the struggle for more and more inclusive terms, I believe it is also important to remember that not everyone is where we are, and to keep our hearts and our minds open to those who are on our side but might not have all the language to express that just yet. To some people, a coming out novel is brave and risky. To others, every YA novel ought to have characters from every bit of the sexuality spectrum and not be making a big deal about it.

Some might say that YA authors have a responsibility to represent every aspect of our diverse society and to use our novels as ways to educate young people in areas where schools, parents, newspapers and the internet are lacking.

I don’t actually agree with this. Yes, I do believe that books need diversity – and I am proud to be part of doing this in the world of YA books. But I do not believe that we have a responsibility to represent every aspect of society in every novel we write. I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves, our consciences, our deeply-held beliefs – and above all, actually, to our stories and our characters. If we start to think of our books as places where we owe it to anyone to write about certain things in certain ways, our books will turn into political manifestos rather than worlds of characters and stories to entertain, illuminate and impassion young readers.

I have never written a book where my starting point has been political in any way, or where I have sat down and decided that I want to educate or bring about an awareness of certain issues or themes. If I did that, I believe I would kill the story flat and no one would want to read it. Instead, what I have learned to do is to trust that if I open my mind to my stories, and allow my characters to explore and follow their own journeys, the things that matter to me will find a way of sneaking into the pages. And if they do, you can guarantee they will find a way of sneaking into my readers’ hearts and minds too, somewhere along the way.

So whilst the twenty-something-year-old me might have been out there with a megaphone, telling people how they should think, talk and act, I am more comfortable with the way the forty-something-year-old me does it, which is to move more gently, to compromise, to be more accepting. I am willing to listen, to learn as well as (hopefully) educate, to know for a fact that I am not always right and to be willing to let someone tell me how I can do things better.

I have also (finally) figured out the acronym I am comfortable using for myself. It is: LGBT+ which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender with the + as a way of not excluding other sexual orientations or gender identities, but stopping the abbreviation becoming too long! I have seen this used quite a bit, and it feels like the right one for me. See, the great thing is that I get to choose that for myself.

Going back to the wardrobe (which I’ve just realised could also be called a closet) analogy, this feels a bit like I’ve been looking for the perfect outfit for ages and have finally found it. And so I’m going to step out of that closet and wear my new outfit with confidence, and I’m going to shout about my new book with pride, and I’m going to continue to bang a drum for LGBT+ people everywhere, and hope that one day there will be so many of us standing under these umbrella terms that we find we have the whole world in one place and the labels are not needed at all.

Buy Liz's new book Here
Follow Liz on Twitter
Check out Liz's Website 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Vaguely reading and writing-related technology – Jess Vallance

Last month, book blogger and all-round teen marvel LucyPowrie asked me to take part in a Google Hangout as part of her UKYA Day. Sure, I said. No problem. What's a Google Hangout? 

Anyway, it turned out to be quite cool – video conferencing essentially. I do a LOT of conference calls and this was easily one of the least awkward ways of doing it. 

It occurs to me that there are probably lots of useful apps, websites and other tech stuff out there that I've never heard of, so really, what I’d like to do in this post is just ask everyone to tell me all about the useful things I don't know about. But that doesn't really seem in the spirit of blog-posting, so I’ll kick things off with a few tools I find quite handy.

1)      Pocket
This is great as an anti-procrastination tool. You set up an account, then you send any interesting links you find on the internet to your virtual ‘pocket’ so you can come back and read them when you’re waiting for a bus/in bed/not trying to write a book. 

Click on the link in your Twitter feed or wherever, then click Send to Pocket.

2)      Cold Turkey
Another one to help you avoid time-wasting. Cold Turkey lets you block yourself from certain websites for a set period of time.
List the offending sites, then choose how long you want to block them for. 

3)      Feedly
There are lots of blog aggregators out there, but I like this one best. It lets you add all the blogs you regularly read into one place, sorted by subject.
The numbers show you how many new blog posts since you last checked. 

4)      FreeAgent
Unlike the others in this list, this one isn't free but it is well worth the money if you’re self-employed. It lets you keep track of all of your income and outgoings, send invoices, upload bank statements and store your receipt scans in the right places. (NB this screen shot is from the company’s demo site, in case you’re all looking at it and thinking I’m loaded.)

5)      Spritz
This one’s more weird than useful, but I’m adding it just for interest’s sake. 

It’s a bit of technology that aims to help you increase your reading speed by showing you one word at a time at a set rate – the idea being that by keeping your eyes looking in one spot rather than scrolling down a page, you can take in words more quickly. 

It’s quite hard to explain but try it out on the website. I predict that most people here will hate it as it completely ruins the natural rhythm of the text and makes you read every single word, which I don’t think we’d normally do. 

Set your WPM speed, then the words will appear one by one. 

OK, that’s all I've got. Now tell me yours. 

Twitter @jessvallance1

Friday, 22 May 2015

The death of (my) imagination - by Nicola Morgan

I don't know what I'm asking for here or why I'm burdening you with my trivial writer's angst. No one's dying, though something is dead. Perhaps it's just a silly scream in the dark and I should deal with it silently. All I really ask is that if you think there's no such thing as writer's block you do one or both of two things: think again or say nothing. You don't know.

My imagination has died. "Use it or lose it" is the brain's well known way of functioning. And not functioning. Well, some time ago I stopped using my imagination and filled my writing brain with non-fiction; and now I've lost it. I used, years ago, to write fiction and non-fiction happily in tandem, bobbing from one to the other constructively and profitably. But a few years ago the non-fiction took over. It took over because I loved doing it, because it was (for me) easier, because it was successful, because it was bringing me in royalties, because it led to lots of wellpaid events (generating more non-fiction writing as I prepared myriad handouts and presentations and blogposts), because it gave me self-esteem and reputation, my niche, self-actualisation.

I thought that was enough for Heartsong. I should never have forgotten that for me it wasn't. Imagination was the lifeblood of my heartsong and I'd accidentally left the tourniquet on too long.

So, when I tried to write fiction, without which I don't feel whole, I found that the fiction muscle, my imagination, was dead.

At first, I thought, as you are thinking, that it was temporary. Dormant, not dead. All I had to do was all those things we know about, the things you're all wanting to say in support:

  1. Just do it - apply butt to seat and fingers to keyboard and write
  2. Give yourself time - don't worry
  3. Get outside and walk
  4. Stop thinking about it - it will come back
  5. Try a new environment
  6. Try another new environment
  7. Do some creative napping
  8. Listen to your dreams
  9. Read lots of fiction
  10. Read poetry
  11. Allow yourself to write rubbish
  12. Make yourself write rubbish
  13. Set yourself targets; don't set yourself targets
  14. Read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I did them all to one degree or another. In fact, Writing Down the Bones nailed the problem in such a way that it created a new block by identifying the block: "If all of you does not believe that the elephant and the ant are one at the moment you write it, it will sound false. If all of you does believe it, there are some who might consider you crazy; but it's better to be crazy than false. But how do you make your mind believe it and write [it]?"

And that is the problem. I don't believe. Because of that dead imagination.

You see I'm trying to write a novel in which the central idea - invisibility - is a physical impossibility. You need your imagination to write or to read about it. And when I come to write it, to create it, all the time I'm thinking, "Don't be stupid: that can't happen." There's a disconnect between what I know stories do - the suspension of disbelief - and my ability to suspend disbelief for long enough to create belief.

I can't make anyone else believe it because I don't believe in it - what I'm trying to write or my ability to write it - any more. 

I don't expect an answer. And I don't want to sound self-pitying. As I say, no one died. There are really only two answers: give up or carry on trying to force life into a dead thing, charging up those chest paddles.

Or give my imagination a name: maybe Lazarus. No, I never believed that story either. Actually, I probably did once, before.

[Edited to add: funnily, someone crashed into me as I was walking along the street just now and he looked completely shocked and confused, as though I had been temporarily invisible and he was trying to work out how that could be. Then he just carried on walking as though he was thinking, "Yeah, so, she was invisible. So what? Get over it."]

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Being paid and a writer's confidence.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, an artist, got into a prestigious London Art College to do postgraduate work. One of the first things said to her was 'you are going to have to charge more for your paintings if you want to be taken seriously.' So she put up the price and demand increased. It made her feel rather odd. They were the same paintings, but people seemed to value them more just because they were more expensive. Was money so important?

I have found this whole subject very difficult. The only source of funding for my book 'Girl with a White Dog' published March 2014 was from my wonderful family and, in the last two years before my mother's death last May, my carer's allowance of £58.00. Just going up to London to the wonderful Wiener Library would, for example cost me over half what I earned as a carer.  I spent lots of money on research books. My husband believed in me and encouraged me to use our family money from his earnings to go to Germany for a weekend to visit Dachau. Then my book was published, and because I believed passionately in the issues it discussed, I did lots of free talks about them locally and accepted some invitations to travel up to London to discuss them (and hopefully sell the book), but none of the invitations involved offers of payment, and I was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed like I was exploiting the sufferings of the Holocaust to ask for payment.  I was asked to go to a particularly interesting event, but when I asked on what terms (too vaguely and without explicitly mentioning payment) they emailed back (I worried that the words showed that they were hurt),  'we just thought you'd be interested'. I was too embarrassed to say I couldn't afford it.

For some reason for which I am very grateful, my worries about my seemingly incessant spending of money I hadn't earned back came to a head at the Federation of Children's Books Groups Conference this year. I was feeling bad about spending yet more of our family money to go away to it and when talking to three friends from twitter, Zoe of @playingbythebook @minervamoan and @chaletfan I unexpectedly burst into tears. They were wonderful. I told them that I kept being asked to do free things by good people who had v little budgets, and I didn't know how to say 'no'.

They were wonderful. They made me practice saying 'yes, I would love to come. I charge the standard rates.'

Then, barely quarter of an hour later, whilst @chaletfan was standing nearby, a teacher approached me, asked me if I did school visits and I said 'yes, but I would have to be paid,' she said 'of course!"

I have very recently joined the Society of Authors. I think it will pay for itself over and over again just by going me the courage to refer to their rates.

This week I was asked at v short notice to go to talk to a local group of retired women for an hour about my books. I have done lots of similar ones for free. I said 'I am afraid I have no transport,' - they said 'we will pick you up and bring you home.' I said 'I have just decided to start charging' they said 'no problem, we have a budget - how much do you charge?' I said 'I am not sure if you could afford the Society of Authors' Rates' and they said 'we can pay up to £60.00' I said 'O.K.'

The night before I could not sleep. How could I dare to charge such a huge amount for an hour? If they normally paid speakers then they would see that I was not worth the payment. My confidence was at rock bottom. I wanted to ring them and say I would do it for free. My husband said 'Anne - you have no idea how interesting the writing process and business is for people who don't know about it, and  you are very good at talking about it.' He also reminded me that I HAD been paid before for speaking: my friend, a writer and Creative Writing lecturer at a local university, had invited me soon after 'Girl with a White Dog' was published last year, to speak to her students and had paid me as visiting speaker - Edinburgh Literary Festival had paid me last summer for being interviewed with Dawn McNiff about our debut books 'Girl with a White Dog' and 'Little Celeste'. Edinburgh Literary Festival had paid us for speaking, and had ALSO paid for accommodation and travel expenses. I had had lovely feedback, but  9 months between paid gigs is a long time.

So the day came and I packed 5 bags of books and manuscripts and proof copies and a box and a notice board  with pictures of Nazi children's books and white German shepherds and I spread them all out on  tables in front of about 30 women.

Then I spoke. It went so well. I found that my husband was right - just telling them about the process of getting published was interesting for them. They were so lovely. They thanked me over and over again for coming at such short notice and apologised for not being able to pay me more. I even sold some books! Then they drove me home and said it was a fascinating talk and they were so happy that I had come.

So what is the point of this post? I want to tell other writers not to be embarrassed to charge and urge them to apply to join The Society of Authors to give them confidence. I want to thank the Edinburgh Literary Festival and @Heidi_Colthup for inviting me to talk and for paying me last year, and  @playingbythebook, @chaletfan, @minervamoan for being so kind this year and telling me that I shouldn't be embarrassed to charge for talks. Thanks Joanne Harris (@joannechocolat on twitter) for that wonderful blog post, a link to which I will put at the end.

None of the ladies I spoke to yesterday are active on twitter or will be following my blog, but they have no idea how much they have helped my confidence. I have to honour a couple of re-arranged free events, but after that I will no longer feel arrogant or greedy for asking to be paid. I owe it to my family. I will try to charge the standard rates so as not to undercut other authors.

And please, if you are someone who invites speakers - please read Joanne's Harris blog on festivals. She is right.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Not an Issue? - Joan Lennon

My first YA novel is teetering on the brink of becoming A REAL BOOK, but for me, as for all writers (I'm guessing), the story and everyone in it have been real from the very beginning.  
Silver Skin is a scifi/historical fiction inspired by the Stone Age village of Skara Brae on Orkney.  There are 3 main characters: Rab, from the far future, and Cait and Voy from the Stone Age.  When it was (wisely) suggested that Rab was coming across as too young, I didn't/couldn't write a different, older character.  I just aged Rab.  I imagined what he would have experienced in the x number of years that would pass to get him to the right age.  He's still Rab, just older.  How could he be anyone else?

Why am I telling you this?  Because, as Silver Skin's publication date approaches, I'm becoming aware of "issues" ... 

For example, I'm officially white, though in reality I'm pinky-yellow with occasional unfortunate flushes of beetroot.  Does this mean I can/should/must only write about pinky-yellow people with the occasional unfortunate beetrooty sidekick?  This is a legitimate question and we won't be finding the definitive answer to it any time soon.*  But the situation I find myself in isn't one I consciously sought.  I blame my characters.  I blame the story.  

Rab is black.  (He's also male, which I'm not, but that's another hornets' nest altogether).  He could have been any colour under the sun because he is from the far future. when "human colouring and characteristics had been jumbled together for so long that any couple could produce a child of any appearance.  Nobody stuck out because everybody looked different."  But he walked into my brain black and I saw no good reason to bleach him.  

Cait is taller and paler-haired than the people she lives with.  

Voy, the Old Woman, has arthritis-crippled hands.  

The bulk of the story is set in Neolithic Orkney, at the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age, which was a time of major climate change.  Rab's future world has been shaped by climate change too.

But this is not a book about being black, or about having a tall blonde heroine, or about disability, or about climate change.  Those things are just in there, because they have to be, for this story to be this story.

Or am I being naive?  Is every book about the issues?  As writers and as readers, what do you think?  

* I've pulled up just a few of the excellent ABBA posts on the issue of issues for you to re-visit:

(publication date 16 June 2015)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Power of A Book - Lucy Coats

Sometimes you discover a book and immediately know it will be a part of your life forever. Twenty years ago or so, I discovered the OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon (kind of uncategorisable, but think time-travel, history, Jacobites, the best love story ever but also so much more) and have been hooked ever since. They're not children's books, but an older and more mature teen (16+) could quite well read them. I've heard it said that they are so popular because they portray the human heart and human condition in all its pain and glory, and wouldn't disagree.
A trio of characters from the TV show (with added book fan)
Gabaldon (known to her readers as Herself) wrote the first book as an experiment, to see if she could. Her main character, Jamie Fraser, was inspired by a time-travelling Scotsman in an episode of Dr Who. There are now eight (extremely fat) books, with a ninth being written. The first has just been made into a very successful TV series, (now being shown in the UK on Amazon Prime) - an incredibly difficult thing to pull off in the face of millions of rabid fans who can quote from the books verbatim and have strong ideas about how the characters should be portrayed.

And talking of fans, the power of this one book series brought people from all over the world together in a very literal sense this weekend. I have just returned from the 2nd Outlandish Gathering in Crieff, where over 200 lovers of the books from 14 countries spent a weekend having fun and raising money for charity at the same time. In my desire to help a good cause, I (allergic-to-exercise-woman) even took part in a Highland Games and channelled my inner Artemis in the archery competition. (Let's not mention the extreme aching after five tug-of-war bouts.)

All this happened because of the power of a story. That's pretty darned amazing in my book!