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Hard At Work

By Tania Carver

I find this hard. Writing, I mean.

Sitting down, putting words that will hopefully mean something to someone on a blank screen, putting down enough of them to tell a story, provide a plot, create a character, give a reader some diversion from their life or even, on those very, very, rare occasions, provide some illumination into the human experience.

Yes. Hard. But please don’t think I’m complaining because I’m not. This is what I do. I’m a professional writer. I get paid to do it and therefore I bring a certain standard to it and have certain expectations, both in terms of what is expected of me and what I expect of myself.

At the best of times it’s hard.  And that’s right, it should be. The trick is in making something that’s (hopefully) easy to read. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has been easy to write. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. How many times has an audience watched an actor or a dancer or even an athlete and thought, they make it look so easy. Therefore it must be easy. Therefore I can do it. And they try it. And realise it’s not so easy after all.

Admittedly some people who try their chosen thing do go on to be proficient at it. But most don’t. Most give up and are content once more to watch/read others do it. And that’s fair enough. Some delude themselves into believing that they can do it, and persist, getting more and more embittered as rejection after rejection piles up. Then, in the case of writing, taking to the internet and self-publishing. Then getting more and more embittered as their books fail to find an audience.

I must admit, I don’t know much about the self-publishing world. And to be honest, I don’t think I understand it. I’m lucky enough (so far) to have always been professionally published by reputable houses. I haven’t always been well-represented at those houses but currently things are going OK. It took me five years to get my first novel published. I started writing it in 1992, it came out in 1997. During that time it went round just about every publisher in London, had two agents (the first one claimed it was one of the most horrible books she had ever read) and was rewritten over and over again, depending on the whim of whichever editor had it at the time. Eventually it caught the attention of an editor who was looking for gritty, regionally set crime novels. Perfect, I thought. She liked it but there were things wrong with it. It needed editing. I thought I’d done that but apparently not. I asked her to show me how to edit. She did so. This involved taking a big black Sharpie through the majority of what I’d written. At first I was appalled but then realised she was right. Too verbose.  Over-written. I did the same thing she had done, spending six months excising extraneous words. I also took her notes on board, tidying up the plotting at her insistence, making the characters more believable. It was on the spot training, learning as I went. In signposting what I needed to do, she taught me invaluable lessons in how to edit and structure. I still do the same things she taught me today.

Once I’d made all these chances the book was accepted. I was given a two book deal: could I deliver another novel in nine months? Sure. And I managed it. Just. I ended up in bed for days with nervous exhaustion but the book was there. And that was it. I’d stuck my toe in the door. From my toe I managed to wriggle the rest of my foot in. Then my leg.  Then the rest of me. Now, I think that if I’m not over the threshold I’m at least loitering in the doorway and not letting them throw me out

But did I ever consider giving up? No, I don’t think I did. My friend Simon Kernick always says that a professional writer is just an amateur writer who won’t take no for an answer. That’s bang on.

But did I ever think about self-publishing? No. Never. At the time there was no internet. There were bookshops. And if you weren’t in them you weren’t anywhere. There were vanity publishers who you could pay to have your book published. But that was that. It just wasn’t an option.

So, if I was in the same position now would I self-publish? I still don’t think so. I needed an outside eye on my work, editorial comments to guide me. Luckily a professional editor did just that then published me. I would never dream of putting something unedited, that hadn’t been proofed or copyedited out there. But a lot of people do. If the internet had been around when I was trying to get published and I was so sick of rejection I had just said to hell with it and uploaded my stuff to Amazon’s kindle store, I doubt I would still be working now. Or at least, I doubt I would have progressed as a writer. I’d have probably withered away. And certainly have got lost amongst all the other dross out there.

Because I wasn’t good enough then. The book needed work. I’d read books where the writers had made it look easy. So therefore I thought it was easy. But it wasn’t. And if I had settled for uploading it then I’d have been one of those deluding themselves that somehow I deserved to be published even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. Because I wasn’t good enough to be published then. I was an amateur but I hadn’t done enough taking no for an answer. I wasn’t ready to be a professional.

And this is another thing. A lot of self-published writers hate that that word. Professional. They react like it’s the worst thing a writer could be. It’s used on some internet forums in the most hateful, pejorative sense. A professional writer doesn’t have the heart and soul of an amateur writer. A professional writer doesn’t mean it.

Rubbish. If you’ve got a leak who do you call? A professional plumber. If you need a wall rebuilding who do you call? A professional builder. If you need an operation, who treats you? A professional surgeon. If you want to read a good book who does it best? A professional writer.

A lot of self-published writers bang on about how the traditional gatekeepers are trying to keep them out, keep them down. Deny them a voice. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single editor or agent who wasn’t actively looking for a new, exciting voice that they could manage or publish. Even in this economic climate. And some writers will get missed. And some writers already published will be dropped. The law of averages says it will happen to me at some point. And what then?

I don’t know.

I do think that having a proper book, made of paper and everything, is still the best option. And nothing I have seen, read or had explained to me will change that. Ever. And there are certain procedures a writer must go through in order to ensure that their book is of a certain standard before it’s presented to a buying readership. And some books won’t come up to that standard. Even by established authors. And they’ll have to be reworked until they do. That’s the way the business works. That’s what a lot of people who download stuff from the kindle store for twenty pence don’t understand. They think it looks easy.

Now, I may have got all this wrong. And if someone wants to put me right then please feel free to do so. Because having said all that, if the time comes when I have to move to digital, I’ll do it. In fact, I’m thinking of writing something next year that will only be available as an ebook. Just to see what happens. It’s an experiment. I don’t even think any publisher will be interested in it.

I have no idea if it’ll be successful or not. As I say, it’s just an experiment. But I do know a couple of things about it. I’ll approach it with the high degree of professionalism I try to apply to everything I do. And the other thing: it’ll be hard work.

And that’s the way it should be.

When The Sky Falls In

By Tania Carver

Unless you’ve been living in the far reaches of the solar system, you’re no doubt aware that there’s a new James Bond film out. You’re probably also aware it’s called Skyfall, it stars Daniel Craig, it’s directed by Sam Mendes, Adele’s done the theme tune and the final third is a bit Marmite, dividing the audience between lovers and haters. There are other things you may not know (or not particularly want to know, come to that). The bar at the beginning where Bond avoids the scorpion and the beach he’s living on was where we went for our holidays this year. It’s in Turkey. And it’s lovely. There you go, a scoop. You heard it here first. No, you’re welcome.

You’re probably aware of other things about it too. The Aston Martin DB5 is back (and looking gorgeous), Judy Dench is brilliant as M and it’s officially fifty years of James Bond movies. Yes, Doctor No, the first Bond film, was released on 5 October 1962. Before I was born, he said coyly. It’s also fifty years since the Beatles released their first single. Another landmark. Next year it’s fifty years of Doctor Who. Our cultural icons are getting old.

Or perhaps not. The Bond franchise has constantly renewed itself. Daniel Craig is, as we all know, the sixth actor to play Bond. Judy Dench the third M, Ben Wishaw the third Q. One of the themes of the movie is whether Bond’s too old to still be doing what he’s doing. And the answer – well, what do you think? I’m not giving too much away to say Craig’s signed for two more films. But still. It’s a fine fifty year celebration and the ending I thought was exceptionally clever. It not only finished everything off that had gone before and provided a coda, (as one reviewer said) but it sent the franchise full circle to start again. Acknowledging the past, playing to it, and renewing itself for another half century all at the same time. Like I said, very cleverly done.

However, while it is renewing itself – and has done, if you see the end of the new one – what it can’t do is use the same cast. Sean Connery, the first Bond is way too old to do it now. Some would say he was way too old when he did it in the early Eighties in the non-canonical Never Say Never Again. Ditto for Roger Moore and George Lazenby. The rest of the original supporting cast are all dead. So it’s renewal and rebirth for a new age.

Doctor Who does the same thing. Matt Smith turned thirty last week. He’s the youngest actor to play the thousand year old Time Lord (yet, I think, the best at carrying the character’s age), and the eleventh incarnation. The change of a lead actor is less surprising in the case of Doctor Who, it’s a show that thrives on change, in fact actively welcomes it. It could easily run for another fifty years.  Another hundred, even, because the premise – time travelling madman in a box – is so brilliantly versatile. It’s probably the one idea in fiction I wish I’d thought of. And yet I’m sure I would have rejected it for being too massively, stupidly unworkable. Which, of course, shows what I know.

But my point is the same for both franchises. Our culture constantly renews itself, retelling the same stories over and over in ways that we can currently recognise or that mean something to our lives now. Yet while they’re doing that, these cultural monoliths also have one eye on the past. They acknowledge their history and build on it. They’re creating next generation nostalgia while providing it for the original audience. They can do that. It’s in their natures.

A writer once told me that Marvel Comics would retell the same stories every five years. It was market economics: their target audience would grow up by then and move on and the comics had to be ready for the next one. He did tell me this before the nostalgia boom hit and middle aged men who should know better still kept reading them (and some of them – mentioning no names – still wear the t-shirts), but the point is a valid one. For instance, how old is Peter Parker? He was a teenager in 1962 when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Now, given the fact that he didn’t die of leukaemia and went on to develop super powers, he doesn’t look much older now. Likewise characters who repeatedly die to be reborn. Captain America and the Human Torch are two of the latest examples while over at DC they’ve killed and resurrected both Batman and Superman. (In fact they’ve just killed off the whole of the DC universe and rebooted it. That takes some doing.) This is fine. This is in the nature of us. We need constant renewal in our culture.

Why? Because, as I said, we need to retell the same stories to ourselves in ways we’ll understand. But there’s something else, I think. It keeps us young. Well, up to a point.

We don’t notice that we’re aging. Well, yes we do, when our knees give out and we start to forget things, but on a day to day basis we don’t notice. That’s because we live most of our lives inside our own heads and we only get to see the way other people view us when we happen to look in a mirror. And then we usually wonder who that old bloke is grinning back at us. Or I do anyway.

Inside our heads we don’t age.  We don’t get older. We’re the same in our forties as we were in our twenties. Or at least we tell ourselves that – the truth is probably different. But we still think we feel the same as we did then. And we want our culture to reflect that.

We don’t want to see an old Sean Connery being Bond. We want the younger, fitter model. Because that’s who we identify with. We want Matt Smith as Doctor Who, a young man in an old man’s body. We don’t want a tired old Batman. We want a fearless hero who knows that criminals are a cowardly lot and is prepared to take them on. Why? Because when we read, when we look at a screen, we want to see ourselves reflected back at us. Not the boring, tired old selves that we really are, but the stylised, idealised versions. The heroes we want to be and believe we are. We want our heroes to not get old. Because if they don’t we might stay young too.

But as I said earlier, it’s also the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles releasing their first single. And that’s when mortality hits us.

For a start, there are only two of them left. Cancer took one, a mental gunman took the other. And the two that are left are old. Admittedly they’re trying not to be and not to look it, but they are. And I’m sure that inside they don’t feel any different to the young men who recorded ‘Love Me Do’. I’m sure they’re just the same as the rest of us. They can’t renew themselves. They can’t cast younger versions to continue on as the Beatles. They can’t reinvent themselves and stay young because we want them to. And that’s sad, really.

I felt something similar when Doctor Who came back on TV in 2005. Here was something I used to watch as a kid, and love. I read the books, bought the merchandise, even went to a couple of conventions. Loved it. And now it was back. But it was still a great show, in many ways much better than the one I’d enjoyed as a kid. But there was one big difference. I was sitting there watching it with my own children. And that was one of the biggest intimations of mortality I’ve ever felt.

So yes. Our culture can renew itself. Up to a point. And we can try to do the same. Up to a point. So what do we do? How do we respond? Enjoy it, I suppose. Even the getting older bit.

Because as my mother (a huge Bond fan herself, incidentally) always says, ‘It’s better than the alternative’.

You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here . . .

By Tania Carver

You know that phrase, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’? Course you do. It’s long been the province of dull office cubicle dwellers in dead end jobs desperately trying to create a personality for themselves. Well guess what? If you’re a writer apparently it’s true. And not only that, but there’s some science to back it up.

It was fellow Murderati-ist Zoe Sharp who put me on to it. She posted a link on Twitter to this report here. I read it and instantly agreed with it. It wasn’t a shock.  Far from it. In fact, it came as something of a relief.

This directly from the article: ‘Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found.’ The article then goes on to mention a few writers who famously suffered from mental illnesses.  Virginia Woolf drowned herself as the result of depression. Hemingway shot himself after suffering from depression. Hans Christian Andersen suffered from it too. Graham Greene, my favourite writer, was bipolar. None of this came as a surprise. Especially substance abuse – just take a look round the bar at Bouchercon or Harrogate on a Saturday night. (In fact, the bar at Harrogate on a Saturday night takes more from crime writers in one hour than a wedding takes in a whole night. I’m sure Bouchercon’s take is something similar.)

A lot of writers I know have all suffered from some kind of mental disturbance at some time. I’m not going to name anyone because it’s not my place to, but some have openly talked about it. I know that in the last decade I’ve suffered (at least) two quite severe bouts of depression lasting up to a year at a time. It was very, very bad. Hard for me but I think it was even harder for the people I live with. I don’t like to make a big thing of it because not only am I British but I’m Northern; it’s in our culture to ignore things and get on with them. I’m also quite private and reserved. So much so, in fact, that I feel quite uneasy talking about it now. So why do it? I don’t know. The article sparked something in me that I recognised and I needed to say it.

However, looking back in hindsight and at a certain degree of remove, I see that those two episodes weren’t necessarily negative. I lost a lot of weight, which I needed to. And at least I tried to get something positive out of it from a work point of view. This is also something that the researchers discovered. From the article again: ‘Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable. For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.’

Now while I would never make any claims to genius, I would say that my creativity increased.  I wrote three books while this was going on. Working through it seemed like the best thing to do at the time. One of the books (The White Room) turned out incredibly dark. I couldn’t help it. The subject matter was dark to begin with – a novel based on the real life story of eleven year old child killer Mary Bell – but it seemed that my depression made it even darker still. I was totally in the mind of my child killer and it was harrowing. It was like falling into train lines and not being able to get off them until I reached my destination. And the trip was very, very dark. Consequently I was in even more of a state at the end of it. Interestingly, the book that resulted is probably the one from my backlist that most people want to talk to me about. It was also a book of the year in the Guardian newspaper. (Shameless plug: You can still buy it here.) The Surrogate, the first Tania Carver novel, also emerged from a bout of depression. So the answer is simple. If I want to write something good I need to have a crippling bout of depression.

Obviously, it’s not something to make light of or to romanticise. Writers should never willingly wish themselves to suffer mental imbalances in order to make them more creative and especially not to access what they believe is their untapped genius. (That way lies madness of a different kind – the self-delusionary kind.)

If it does happen, treatment can be given. But there is a danger – and I certainly felt this in my own case – that accepting what it was and seeking help – and probably medication – might make my situation worse. As Tom Waits said, ‘If I exorcise my demons, maybe my angels will leave as well’. This also opens up an interesting area for study – are people in creative industries such as writing more prone to bipolar disorders or are people with bipolar disorders more drawn towards the creative professions where they are more temperamentally suited and can use their creative skills? I don’t know the answer to that one.

Depression (if that’s what it was and not some undiagnosed bipolar disorder) is not something I’m in a hurry to revisit. It was like living in hell (and worse for those around me, I know). Every morning I would wake up feeling fine. A mental blank slate. But then my consciousness would kick in and it was like a wall falling on me and crushing me. Huge, heavy stones on my chest and head, pushing me down, stopping me from breathing, thinking. Stopping me from climbing out.  And my heart felt like the heaviest stone of the lot.

But it went eventually. Gradually lifted all on its own. I was able to move away from it, put distance between myself and what had happened and try to keep away from whatever had caused it. And that’s the thing – I don’t know what caused it. As the article says, writers are prone to anxiety, to depression. I’d go so far as to say it’s our default setting. We constantly think everyone else is doing better than us – more successful, bigger advances, higher sales, better marketing profile. We constantly live in fear of rejection, of handing in our new book and being told it’s no good, that they’re returning the advance, they can’t publish it, it’s unreadable rubbish. Every time we get praise we think we’ve dodged a bullet, breath a sigh of relief, and prepare to start the whole thing again. And we can’t stop it or change it. Is it any wonder writers are more prone to this than many other professions? 

Maybe it’s just me.  I don’t know. Maybe other writers can successfully negotiate these mental pitfalls better. All I know is I haven’t had a bad bout for a few years now. And I’m in no hurry to go through it again.

I am in a hurry to finish the new book, though. With as little anguish as possible.

The Right To Offend

by Tania Carver

I’m writing this just before leaving for Bouchercon in Cleveland. If all has gone to plan this should be going live while I’m somewhere over the Atlantic. Unless something horrible has happened I should have had four days catching up with friends in the States, promoting the new Tania novels, appearing on a panel entitled Heroes and Villains alongside John Connolly, Mark Billingham, Alafair Burke and Karin Slaughter, attending the signing as one of the contributors in Books To Die For (that David should have talked about last Wednesday) on Friday, carousing and generally enjoying myself. Hopefully I won’t have made an idiot of myself and come away with my reputation if not enhanced then at least not permanently damaged. At least that’s the plan I’ve got now.

I say all this because I was going to write about what I intend(ed) to talk about on my panel. Heroes and Villains (they’re all named after songs since Cleveland is the home of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame) is about just that. Everyone picks a hero and a villain and we talk about them. Interesting, maybe controversial, hopefully funny. Apologies if you’re reading this and you attended the panel and it all went according to plan and I was all three of those things because I’m going to talk about my subject again.

Or at least half of it. The villainous part. For the panel, I’ve chosen censors and censorship. I did this deliberately because this week (or last week, if you prefer) is Banned Books Week in the States. As you probably know, it’s the annual celebration of the freedom to read. This freedom is not automatically accepted, it’s not a given. It’s something that has had to be strived for and worked for. It’s hard-won and should be celebrated. According to the American Library Association there were 326 challenges to books reported to the Office Of Intellectual Freedom in 2011 and plenty that have gone unreported. These came from schools, bookstores and libraries.

For the record, here are the top ten most challenged books from 2011 and the reasons people claimed to find them offensive.

1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle 
Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence

4. My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint

7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit

8. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit

9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language; racism

If this list doesn’t make you angry then I don’t know what will. I mean, THE HUNGER GAMES ‘occult and satanic’? Only if you’re a moron. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and BRAVE NEW WORLD offensive? In 2011? Seriously, some people shouldn’t be given the vote.    

Looking at this list, two complaints seem to pop up more than any other.  Sexually explicit and religious viewpoint. I’m not a betting man, but I’d put money on those two things being linked. The religious right has traditionally had a knee jerk reaction against people enjoying themselves and it seems to be continuing that fine tradition. They’re always the first to complain about any perceived erosion of their freedom but equally the first to curtail anyone else’s idea of it if it differs to theirs.  Now when I say ‘religious right’ I’m not specifically talking about Christians, although I’m sure they make up a large part of this. I’m talking about any religion that uses its beliefs as tools for repression and censorship both against its members and those outside of its beliefs. Muslims, Scientologists (if they can be dignified by being described as a religion), Jews, Hindus, whatever. None of them have any business telling the rest of us what to think, wear, listen to, watch and certainly not what to read.

 

It’s only a small step from book-banning to book burning. And it’s not just something that happened in old newsreel footage from Nazi Germany. Twenty years ago in Britain Muslims publically burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s THE SATANIC VERSES. He received a death threat from the Ayatollah Khomenei and spent years in hiding. More recently, morons from the Bible Belt in the US publically burned copies of the Harry Potter novels because they said it turned children to Satan. These people are staggering in their casual monstrosity.

Because that’s what it is. Monstrous behaviour. They find these books offensive. Well we’re equal, because most decent people would find their behaviour offensive. And so what? We all have the right to offend. We all have the right to be offended. That seems to have been forgotten by some people.       

If they want to think that for themselves then fine. Let them. But keep away from the rest of us. We’re literate, we’re open-minded. We’re intelligent and can make our own minds up. Because that’s another thing. These terrible books listed above not only shock and offend, but they could expand someone’s mind. Give a reader a different viewpoint. Let them ask questions, reach a different conclusion. They’re challenged because they act against rigid, dogmatic systems of control. Yes, even GOSSIP GIRL.

We should always be vigilant, we should always fight against censorship whenever it raises its head. Otherwise we let them win. So how do we do it? Well, obviously getting angry helps but make sure it generates more light than heat. I think the best way to beat them is to keep reading. Go to the library. Borrow. Go to the bookstores, to Amazon. Whenever, wherever. Read what you like. Enjoy it. Celebrate that fact. And the book burners and the censors? Laugh at them. Pity them. Be offended by them.  Offend them, even. But don’t give in to them. 

‘The important task of literature is to free man not censor him’. Anais Nin said that. She was a great writer who wrote about sex. I’m sure she’s on the list somewhere. 

And for that reason alone we should read her.

The Confidence Trick

By Tania Carver

was talking to a writer friend recently, a famous, bestselling writer friend, and the question of confidence came up. ‘I love it when a reader tells me how much they’ve enjoyed my book,’ my friend said, ‘because until I hear that I think they’re all rubbish.’

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised at this but I was. It reminded me of another conversation I’d had with a writer friend – again famous and bestselling – who said after handing their new book in, ‘This is the one. This is the one where I’m going to be found out.’ It wasn’t.  The book was another bestseller.

I don’t know why I was surprised by what they said, really. Because I don’t think it matters what level you’re operating at, sales-wise, as a writer, you’re always prey to the same doubts and fears.  Last week was the publication of J K Rowling’s first novel since her Harry Potter series. Some of you may be aware of this, it didn’t happen without notice. I would say its had mixed reviews but I don’t think that’s the right word.  Polarised would be a more accurate one.  Some people loved it, some hated it.  The ones who hated it did so mainly because Rowling had written the novel she wanted to write and not the one they had expected her to.  Fair enough. There was a fantastically angry review by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail – which I’m not going to link to as I don’t believe in giving that rag any more publicity – which slated the novel as a socialist tract and left wing propaganda. Considering the Daily Mail is the British newspaper to have supported Hitler and old habits die hard, I would think Rowling would be massively pleased by that. I would be. Some reviews on Amazon complained because characters, just like people in real life, swore.

But other more fair and balanced reviews appeared in other papers. By and large, her book would be judged a success. Despite all the numpties and their negative reviews, others were more positive and sales were, of course, huge.  Well done her.

We were talking about Rowling the other night at home. We’ve been doing that quite a lot recently since she now has the same publisher as the Tania books (In fact the release date for Choked was moved so as not to coincide with hers). Linda is firmly of the opinion that she doesn’t know why Rowling has bothered. ‘If I’d been that successful and made that much money,’ she said, ‘why would I want to open myself up to that kind of scrutiny?  Why would I put my head above the parapet just to have people take a pot shot at me?’ She’s got a good point. But my response was, ‘What else is she going to do? She’s a writer. Why write and not be published?’ Both valid viewpoints but over the last few days I’ve been thinking more about what Linda said. And this reminded me of the two conversations at the start of this piece.

The three of us were all together recently, talking about the same thing.  Confidence in our work. I confessed that I was still waiting for the tap on the shoulder and someone to say, ‘Come on son, you’ve had your fun. But now it’s time to let the real writers in. There’s the door.’ My friends said they felt exactly the same. One of my friends even admitted that they thought they had a double whose place they had taken and who should have been getting all the acclaim. And yet, we still keep doing it.

It’s hard enough to write in the first place. To put your work out there, fearing – and often expecting – the worst, work that you could well have spent at least a year of your life working on, work that’s become precious to you. To let it go and have people hurl whatever they want at it. I’m always amazed when I get a good review. Or rather relieved. I always think about what my friend said earlier: They haven’t found me out yet. Phew. I’ve dodged a bullet this time. But next time . . .

I know, when you examine it, it’s a stupid way to think, behave and conduct a career. But I honestly believe that writers have to do it. You’re driven to write. Compelled to do it. And when you have written you want to be read. You need to be read. Because without a reader a book is just a lump of paper. So you have to do it. And to tell you the truth, if I know any writers who think differently to what I’ve outlined above I doubt I would want to read their books. Feeling that your work is terrible is, I think, a necessary part of the process. It’s what drives you on, keeps you going. Makes you strive to improve, to stretch yourself. To go deeper into that character, further with that situation, make that dialogue better, that description more succinct. You have to. And that’s why I think J K Rowling is no different, despite the slight disparity in earnings with the rest of us. She’s a writer with a writer’s heart and a writer’s drive. And a writer’s willingness to put her work out there and be judged by it when she doesn’t need to. And I love her for that.

So how do we keep the balance? Well, there’s something I always tell creative writing students. It refers to an old interview with Martin Amis when his (some would say last good) novel The Information was about to be published. The book concerns two writers, one who is successful, one who isn’t. The interviewer asked which one he was. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘Usually at the same time.’ When I read that I thought, ‘What a load of pretentious bollocks.’ But the more I thought about that, the more I thought he was right. As a writer when you’re working you have to be both. At the same time. It’s a balancing act, a seesaw, with the brilliantly successful writer at one end and the abject failure at the other. You have to be able to write stuff that you think is absolutely sparkling deathless prose yet at the same time the worst piece of dross ever written and you’ve got to strive to improve on that. It’s an odd way to think but it works. For me, at least. It’s a confidence trick. It keeps me in check while simultaneously making me work harder.

It stops the book I’m currently working on being the one where I’m found out.

Hopefully.

We Take Care Of Our Own

By Tania Carver

As anyone who reads this must be aware, the new Tania Carver novel, CHOKED, was published in the UK this week. 

We’re very happy with it.  The sales are good, the reviews enthusiastic and the reader reaction very positive.  Or at least the readers who have taken the time to contact us and tell us.  But that’s not all that’s happened. 

Simon Harwood lost his job.

Who?  I’m sure many people in the States haven’t a clue who he is but his name should be familiar to UK readers.  He was the police officer who attacked unarmed newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in London a couple of years ago.  If you’re not familiar with the story, here it is.  During the G20 protests Ian Tomlinson was found dead.  The police officially claimed that he had been attacked by demonstrators and police were unable to aid him because they were under attack by an unruly mob who pelted them with bottles and missiles when they attempted to administer first aid. 

The truth was somewhat different.  Video footage presented to the Guardian newspaper showed a masked police officer attack Tomlinson with a baton.  Tomlinson was unarmed, not part of the demonstration and walking in the opposite direction, going home after work.  Protesters rushed to his aid but he died.  The police, initially issued threats of legal action against the Guardian for making the footage public but, when public opinion was against them, ordered a post mortem.  The pathologist the police chose came to the conclusion that Tomlinson’s death was natural causes.  This pathologist has since been struck off and a sizeable number of his post mortems found to be unsafe.  Two subsequent post mortems revealed that the cause of death was internal bleeding from hitting the pavement following the attack. 

Harwood was eventually identified.  An inquest last year ruled that Harwood had unlawfully killed Tomlinson and he was put on trail for manslaughter.  Incredibly, he was acquitted.  However, the jury at the manslaughter trial was not told details of Harwood’s past record, notably a disciplinary hearing in which he illegally tried to arrest a driver in a road rage incident in 2001, retrospectively altering his notes to justify his actions.  He left the force on health grounds before the hearing could take place, joining the Surrey force and returning to the Met in 2005 where he faced subsequent allegations of punching, throttling, kneeing and threatening other suspects while in uniform in other incidents.

This week’s hearing was initially set up to reconcile those two contradictory verdicts.  However, Harwood’s lawyers intervened and Commander Julian Bennett who chaired the panel stated that Harwood had discredited the police service and undermined public confidence in it and had allowed him to resign.  But also allowed him to keep his full pension.  Ian Tomlinson’s family was, understandably, furious.  The man who unlawfully killed him was allowed to walk free.  They are now taking their case to the civil court.

Some could still argue that after reading all that Simon Harwood was just that clichéd bad apple.  If so, why did the police, as an official body, try so hard and for so long to cover for him?  To protect one of their own even after he was shown to be the worst kind of violent thug? 

This is not an isolated incident.  Take the case of Stephen Laurence.  You might have heard about this.  There’s a much fuller account of it here, but I’ll recap.  Stephen was a teenager living in South London.  In 1993 he and his friend were attacked by a gang of white youths chanting racist slogans.  Stephen was killed.  Five suspects were arrested but not convicted.  The investigation against them was so flawed a public enquiry chaired by Sir William MacPherson was initiated.  The subsequent report concluded that the Metropolitan Police force were ‘institutionally racist’ and that was why Stephen’s killers had not been convicted.  Subsequent reports indicated something else.  Detective Sergeant John Davidson, one of the murder inquiry’s detectives, had taken money from Clifford Norris, a known drug smuggler and the father of one of the chief suspects, David Norris, to obstruct the case and protect the suspects.  Two unnamed police officers were arrested as a result of these allegations but no further action was taken.  Dr Richard Stone who had sat on the panel of the MacPherson Inquiry said that the panel had felt that there was “a large amount of information that the police were either not processing or were suppressing” and “a strong smell of corruption”.

David Norris along with Gary Dobson were eventually tried and, on January 3 2012, nearly a decade since Stephen’s death, were found guilty of his murder. 

Just two cases.  I could have chosen many more.  Both could have the bad apple cliché applied to them, both could have that cliché blown apart.  The force – the institution – allowed these corrupt police officers not only to get away with it but to flourish as a result of it. 

So what has all this got to do with CHOKED?  Well, sometimes it’s hard to write a police procedural when this is going on in the real world.  It’s difficult to write about damaged but basically decent coppers trying to catch criminals, keep the public safe and generally doing the job they are paid to do.  Coppers like our Phil Brennan who, in the same way Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer wouldn’t be a private eye in real life, probably wouldn’t be a police officer.  Sometimes Linda and I feel like we’re just writing police propaganda, books that say, ‘Don’t look too closely at what we’re doing in the real world, just read about someone who punishes the bad guys and rewards the good ones’.  Maybe that’s just too simplistic and I’d like to think that our books are more complex than that but when you read stuff like the cases detailed above it’s hard not to feel that way.

I know all cops aren’t like that.  I’ve met some that are wonderful individuals.  Who care deeply about the work they do and the public they try to serve and protect.  I’ve also met ex-officers who had to leave because their voice, one of integrity and decency, was being drowned out.  

So what do we do about it?  CHOKED isn’t really a police procedural.  It focuses on Marina Esposito, a psychologist hunting for her missing child.  The police are sidelined for once.  And I have to say, it felt cathartic to do it.  I hope it works. 

Having said all that, the next one, THE DOLL’S HOUSE, currently being written, is procedural once more.  It has to be for the kind of case it involves.  And it’s started me thinking again.  Maybe by presenting police officers as complex individuals instead of black and white cyphers.  I like to think we’ve put in characters to the Tania novels that don’t fit the stereotype.  We’ve had corrupt coppers, amoral, ambitious coppers.  We’ve had corrupt but redeemed cops.  We’ve had cops who are computer nerds, marathon runners and amateur dramatic performers.  We’ve had decent, if flawed, cops.  We’ve had characters.  We’ve had people.

But, a dissenting voice could say, it all turns out alright in the end.  The good guys get rewarded, the bad guys get punished.  Well . . . not always.  Generally, yes, but not always.  I like to mix it up a bit.  The body count in the books is quite high, as is the turnover of leading characters.  This, I think, is a real reflection of the job.  If the cases in the books were real, there would be quite a high attrition rate.  The characters are put in dangerous situations.  They could lose their lives.

And that’s why we keep writing them.  Because writing about people in extreme situations is what crime fiction is all about.  Or at least a large part of it.  And police officers are a godsend for that.  So I don’t want to be seen to bang a drum for a non-existent police force.  The books aren’t propaganda.  If the police force want that, they can do it themselves.  We just want to write the best crime novels we can.

And as for Simon Harwood . . . I’d love to put him – or someone very similar to him for legal reasons, of course – in a book.  After what he’s managed to get away with, (with the blessing and complicity of the force) after the people he has hurt or killed, he deserves it.  And I think we could be excused if in this one instance we could guarantee his ending would not be a happy one.

If the only justice Ian Tomlinson’s family can get in this world is poetic, then so be it.

Unfriendly Ire

By Tania Carver

OK. I wasn’t going to comment on the sock puppet issue because I’ve had plenty to say about it in the last week, through various outlets and none of it complimentary to the writers involved.  Both Linda and I signed the letter too.  And I was going to let it die down because it should.  Or I was going to let other writers talk about it.  But then I saw something on Facebook that no one else commented on and I couldn’t let it go.  Because I think it may have repercussions for all of us.

The thought of writers inventing false names to big themselves up and give fake reviews isn’t, to my mind, the bad part.  I can understand that in the wider context of PR and publicity.  After all, how many of us have been complicit with our editors when they have approached other writers to blurb our books?  How many of us have gone into a branch of Waterstones or Barnes and Noble and turned our books face out on the shelf?  Little things, not necessarily morally right but not big enough or bad enough to hurt anyone.  Incidentally, I in turn have been asked to blurb other writers’ books.  And to be honest, if I’ve liked the book I’ve done it, if I haven’t I haven’t done it.  I can’t speak for other writers but that’s what’s worked for me.  If the book’s no good and it’s got my (or Tania’s) name on it, I can’t feel too happy about that.  So thinking about what you have to do to get your book noticed in a crowded marketplace, assuming another identity to talk yourself up in forums and on Amazon, while being something I wouldn’t do, I can at least understand.

The four writers who have figured most prominently in this – Stephen Leather, John Locke, Roger Jon Ellory and Sam Millar – have only succeeded in making themselves look foolish by their actions.  For instance, Ellory proclaiming himself a  ‘magnificent genius’ just seems laughably pathetic, although that kind of Messianic self-delusion seems to be common amongst Scientologists.  No, it’s the flipside of this that has, quite rightly, earned them anger.  The attacks on other writers.  It emerged that Stephen Leather had maliciously targeted another writer who didn’t like his books, even going so far as to set up a website in the other writer’s name with the sole intention of praising his own books.  He also made nasty personal attacks against Jeremy Duns and Steve Mosby when they uncovered evidence of his behaviour.  Ellory posted spiteful and vindictive reviews of Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride’s novels on Amazon.  The review of Mark’s book – hastily taken down when the story broke – along with other things he has anonymously said against him on Amazon forums wasn’t just unpleasant but tipped over into slander and possibly libel.  Sam Millar – although he still denies it despite what seems to be damning evidence that again hastily disappeared – targeted Stuart Neville and Laura Wilson in a similarly bilious manner.

Now, here’s my disclaimer.  The writers targeted by spitefully bad reviews mentioned above are all good friends of mine.  I’m just stating that in case people think I have some particular axe to grind.  I don’t.  I’ve seen what they’ve been going through as a result of this and it’s horrible.  Getting bad reviews is awful enough but it’s so much worse coming anonymously from fellow writers.

And another disclaimer: I know how they feel.  It’s happened to me.

Back in 2000 when my third book, Candleland, came out, I was subjected to a review in a prominent (at the time) magazine.  It was a dreadful review.  Awful.  Almost incoherent in its rage against my book.  At that time there were limited opportunities for new crime novels to find an audience and I’d just lost some valuable publicity.  People judged the book by that review.  People began to judge my other work in context to it as well.  I was trying to make a bit of a name for myself and doing what I could to help the books take off and this was a setback. And then I found out something else.  The author of the review was actually another writer.  I checked this out, looking through all his (I’m assuming it was a he since he had a male name) other reviews.  They were all equally scathing, all aimed at writers who had showed a bit of promise.  Another writer told me he knew this person’s identity but he refused to tell me.  I tried to find out but couldn’t.  I figured it was someone I knew and even had a vague idea who it was but couldn’t prove it.  I found it really difficult to go to CWA meetings and publishing events knowing that there was a very good chance that the person who had written that was sitting there, possibly even sitting with me, maybe accepting a drink from me.  Pretending to be my friend.  And then I started to think that maybe he was right.  Maybe the book was awful.  Maybe I didn’t deserve to think of myself as a writer.  Maybe I should give up.  And everyone else, all the other crime writers – was that what they all thought of me?  Did they agree?  Were they right?   

Luckily there were other reviews, good ones – notably a great one in The Guardian – and things eventually began to pick up.  This reviewer eventually disappeared.  The person behind him decided he had had enough.  And that was the end of that.  But it really rankled.  It hurt.  Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of crime writing.  I love being part of the crime fiction community, look forward to getting together when we can and am honoured and blessed to have made some truly wonderful friends in the community.  So I remembered how much it hurt me when I saw what had been exposed this week.  And I knew what my friends would be going through.

I’ve said some very angry things this last week sticking up for my friends.  I’ve been challenged as to what gives me the right to talk like that, whether I’m so perfect I’ve never made mistakes or done things I regretted.  And the answer is yes.  Have I done things I regretted?  Of course.  Have I made mistakes.  Definitely.  Have I ever launched a deliberate, malicious attack on a fellow writer with the sole end of damaging their career and livelihood?  Of course not.  I would never dream of it, no matter what I thought of them or their work.

So when the dust started to settle over this affair I began to think that would be that.  It was Amazon.  Just Amazon.  Yes, it screwed with their rating system and created false readings and recommendations.  Did writers down and others up.  Even before this happened I always mistrusted the reviews on Amazon.  I can honestly say I’ve never bought a book because of an Amazon review.  And besides, there are still professional critics and reviewers who provide impartial, accurate reviews with no axe to grind.  The readers can still trust them.

Well, perhaps.

This is the thing I saw on Amazon that no one has commented on.  Larry Gandle, who reviews for Deadly Pleasures magazine and the Tampa Tribune, posted a message of support for Ellory but – and this is the kicker – ended by saying ‘As far as his negative reviews on other authors – he is entitled to his opinion and I agree with almost everything he has said about them.’

Now, I don’t know if I’m being naïve, but is that acceptable behaviour for a reviewer to exhibit?  A reviewer who wants to be taken seriously?  Fair enough, Ellory may be a friend of his and he wants to give his support.  Fine, but it may make his readers regard Gandle’s future reviews with a cooler eye and be less persuaded by them.  But it’s that last sentence I have a problem with.  Obviously, we are all allowed our opinions but it strikes me that making such a statement is at least unprofessional and at worst potentially damaging to Gandle’s reputation. How can his reviews be trusted to be impartial if he’s making statements like that?

So what should we do? Should reviewers have to declare their interests before they write?  Or is that a little prohibitive?  If that’s the case then perhaps we can’t trust any reviews or reviewers and if so that’s a sad state of affairs.

Right.  What do we do next?  How do we move this on?  We’ve all signed the letter condemning this practise.  Fine.  The Crime Writers Association have made a statement.  But nothing has really changed.  I’ve got an idea as regards Amazon.  Despite the practice of creating sock puppet accounts being illegal in this country, they’re not going to take any action that will affect their sales.  They’ll ride this one out.  However I do think there’s a way forward and my proposal is this.  Any author found making anonymous attacks and posting malicious reviews on the site should have the ratings system removed from both themselves and their books.  The books can still be sold on the site but there would be no reviews.  And they in turn would not be allowed to make any.  This again may be open to abuse but it’s the best and fairest I can think of.

Does anyone else have a better idea?  If so, let’s hear it.

By the way – and here’s a bit of shameless, sockpuppet-free plugging – the new Tania Carver novel, CHOKED, is out in the UK next week.  You can order it through Amazon here.  And the latest Tania to be released in the States, THE CREEPER, is out too.  You can buy that here.

Wanna be an author? Learn to love promotion.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So the very good news is that the rise of e publishing has made it much easier and more viable for an author to make a real living. In fact I was on a panel last week at the RWAustralia convention during which the very well-prepared moderator rattled off some e pub statistics, and apparently traditionally published authors who e publish are currently making TWICE the money at e publishing than they did in traditional publishing.  My own experience says that estimate is low. Very low.

The downside is that actually making that living is a 24/7 commitment.

Not that this is a new wrinkle, mind you. My Australian vacation (um, make that WORK vacation!) is the first time off I’ve had from writing in years, and I was still on the computer every day doing various and sundry promotion.  I’ve always been pretty 24/7 about promotion.

But now, with my e books, I don’t even have the ILLUSION (and yes, it was mostly an illusion) that any publisher is doing the work for me. It’s all me.

So the question is, what to do that actually works? 

Hah.  As if anyone knows!

But here are a couple of promotional ventures I’m involved in right now that are typical author promotions.

1.  The Killer Thrillers! author collective.

2. The Labor of Love event promotion this Labor Day weekend


Killer Thrillers!

One of the huge problems of e publishing from a quality perspective is that in this brave new world of self publishing, “gatekeepers” have essentially been eliminated.  Agents and publishers are no longer filtering books before they’re put before the public. While there’s an argument that that’s a good thing, I know from my years as a reader for film production companies how very much absolute dreck is screened out by early readers:  agents, editorial assistants, editors – and when I say dreck I mean scripts and books that should never have been read by another soul besides the purported author.

I’m all for readers being allowed to discover books on their own, and it is true that the actual purchase or publication of a script or book is subject to personal taste, the specific needs of a publishing house or line, and the vagaries of the market.  But those screeners also kept some seriously awful material from ever seeing the light of day.

So now that anyone who can figure out the e publishing platform can upload virtually anything to Kindle, Pubit, Kobo and Smashwords, where’s the quality control?  You can argue that the readers are their own quality control now, but seriously – the vast number of books – and especially free books – on offer has made sorting through the dreck that’s out there (and oh yes, the dreck is out there) a time-consuming proposition for a reader.

Personally, I WANT some screening.  But where is that going to come from?

While literary agencies are a logical entity for promotion of quality authors and books, they seem so far reluctant to set themselves up as publishers or storefronts for their clients.  And since agencies are not performing this function, I have thought for some time that authors should be banding together to support and promote their own books, and there are more and more of these author collectives springing up (not surprisingly the majority are romance authors).  I’ve been asked to join various author collectives but have so far been wary about committing because I haven’t heard of or more importantly read most of the authors involved.  I can’t in good conscience post about other authors’ books on Facebook and Twitter and on this blog and my own when I haven’t actually read the goods. I think we all have a responsibility not to waste other people’s time by randomly promoting mediocre books and leaving readers to find for themselves that those books were better avoided.

So so far my only choices have been to form a collective of authors I admire myself, or wait for someone like-minded to do it. And luckily for me, thriller author Karen Dionne has done exactly that. Karen is a bestselling author and organizer extraordinaire: the founder of the writers forum Backspace and the Backspace Writers Conference.  For Killer Thrillers she’s put together a group of thriller authors I would have approached myself: some friends and blogmates you’ll recognize from Murderati:  Rob Gregory Browne, Brett Battles and Zoe Sharp, and other authors I know and love like David Morrell, Blake Crouch, CJ Lyons, Keith Raffel – all authors I have read and can recommend without reservation.

All Killer Thrillers authors are bestselling, award-winning and/or internationally published; almost all are traditionally published as well as e published.  Those qualifications do not guarantee that a particular reader will love all or any of the books offered, but they do say that a significant number of readers have found the books worth reading. And most of the authors involved know each other from Bouchercon and Thrillerfest, MWA and ITW and Sisters in crime, and can promote each other without the slightest hesitation.

In essence authors are banding together to establish their own publishing imprints, just as publishers do. We are creating an umbrella organization that guarantees a certain genre and a certain quality of work. How effective these collectives are going to be in the Wild West of e publishing is an open question, but Killer Thrillers is a brand I can put my energy into building with real enthusiasm. I hope you’ll check out the site and the books today, and if you see anything you like, tell your friends.

Killer Thrillers

 

 

 

 

Labor of Love 99 cent book promo

The second promo venture I want to mention today is another fast-growing approach: group sales events, in which a group of authors join forces and drop prices on their books for a limited time, then cross-promote the event. I’ve been watching other authors do this extremely effectively; the point is that all authors have built up a following of thousands on Facebook and Twitter, and by teaming up with other authors you are able to reach a whole new group of literally thousands of readers through other authors’ FB and Twitter followers and general buzz about the event.

My friend (and Aussie travel companion!) bestselling romantic comedy author Elle Lothlorian organized the Labor of Love Promo, a four-day Labor Day weekend blitz involving 17 authors from all different genres who have all dropped the price on one of their books to 99 cents for the long weekend.  We’re all blogging, Tweeting, and FBing about the event, and anyone who wants to browse the list can pick up any or all of the books for the 99 cent price for the whole weekend.

I’m offering up my parapsychology thriller The Unseen

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s a link to a list of all the books available, with links through to buy.  So browse away and catch some deals!

And today, if there’s anyone NOT on vacation, I’d love to talk about book screening. 

Readers, how do you find your books these days? Have you seen other effective methods of quality control and promotion?

And writers… especially aspiring writers… are you prepared for the grueling job that promotion is?  Do you kind of see how important it is to make it fun and social and collective, so as not to go completely insane?

And I’d just love to hear what everyone is doing for the long weekend. Hope everyone has fabulous plans!

See you back here in the – yike – fall!

Alex

 

 

Canonically Sanctioned Rebellion

By Tania Carver

I see that the film version of ON THE ROAD will soon be upon us.  I know there’s been good word of mouth about it but I’m afraid I can’t get too excited about it. Yes, I know the brilliant Sam Riley is in it and the great Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart plays a stroppy teenager again and Walter Salles has directed it but . . . here’s the admission. I’ve never liked Jack Kerouac.

Now I know saying this in public is the kind of thing that can get you drummed out of the Writers To Be Taken Seriously Gang but it’s true. I read ON THE ROAD and thought . . . meh. Is that what all the fuss was about? It was self-indulgent and lazy. And above all, fake. I didn’t believe a word of it. Here was a writer who was supposedly breaking with the traditions of literature and creating something entirely new, supposedly the literary equivalent of what Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were doing in painting at the time. But I didn’t get that. I love Pollock and Rothko but Kerouac did nothing for me. Left me cold. Rather than a new literature it read like an extended ‘What I did on my holidays’ school essay. And just as interesting.

Now I don’t say all this lightly. I was hugely disappointed when I read it, mainly because I was expecting to enjoy it so much. People I knew and admired loved it. My best mate from college was a complete Kerouac nut. He kept trying to recreate the novel’s experiences by hanging around in awful jazz clubs (which he used to drag me to) and hitchhiking to Bournemouth. It wasn’t the same somehow. But, bless him, he kept trying. So I thought I’d love it. For all the reasons everyone else did. It was new, hip, free. It was rebellious. And that was the word that got me, the one I had the problem with.  Rebellious. My first response on hearing that is always the same: If everyone is telling you something is rebellious, it’s not. I should have known. My mate from college was the son of a bank manager from Aylesbury.

Maybe one reason I didn’t like it was because I was a few years older than most people when they read it. I went to college a bit later than my peers, having taken what we now call ‘a gap year’ but what was then called ‘work’. I think it’s one of those things that you need to read when your self-defining memories are at their highest. That period from your mid-teens to early twenties where everything you read, hear, see and do is the best thing that’s happened to anyone EVER. If you miss out and read it later when you’ve been around the block a few times then it just doesn’t have the same impact on you. (For the record, my self-defining years were spent reading crime novels, comics and pulp fiction, listening to punk, post punk and indie, and of course seeing and doing the best things that have happened to anyone EVER.)

So with this in mind and thinking it was just me I decided to read some more beat literature. The next one I tried was William Burroughs’ THE NAKED LUNCH. Jesus Christ. Now, I’d seen Cronenberg’s film of the same name and loved it. But then I am something of a Cronenberg nut. So I was expecting something similar. I didn’t get it. As my wife often says, there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else recount their dreams. (Especially mine, she always adds.) And I believe there’s nothing more boring than listening to a junkie ramble on. Put those two together and you have a junkie rambling on boringly about his dreams. Or THE NAKED LUNCH, as it became known. Burroughs once said that the chapters of the novel were only published in the order they were in was pure chance. Some critics hailed this remark as evidence of his brilliance. Not me.

Thinking that it was just prose I had a problem with I turned to poetry. Ginsberg’s HOWL, to be exact. Fine. I quite liked that.  Good work. So I read some more of his stuff. And I soon realised why HOWL is the only one people mention.

So that was me done with the Beats. But I didn’t stop thinking about them. Why were they so enduring? Why did people still read them? Because they liked them, I suppose. Not everyone has the same tastes as me. (Which is a shame because I’d sell more books that way.) And that’s fine. But I think it’s something else. I think they’re still read for more than just the writing. I believe the beats give the impression to a lot of people that that’s what writing is like, or what it should be like. What a writer’s life is like. Going on a quest, experiencing everything the world has to offer, good and bad, then processing that and putting it down. They venerated the craft of writing itself. It’s the act of sitting at a typewriter wearing cool glasses and a plaid shirt drinking bourbon and coffee with an ashtray of overflowing French cigarette butts beside you and some moody cool jazz playing in the background. And then going out getting drunk and stoned with massively attractive and interesting people. That’s what writing’s all about. That’s what life’s all about. And that, judging from the trailer, is what the movie version of ON THE ROAD is about.

Well, it’s not. Sorry and all that, but it’s not. (Well, maybe the bit about getting drunk and stoned with massively attractive and interesting people. As anyone who’s been in the bar at Bouchercon or Harrogate will testify.  No?  Oh well . . .) It may be what sells, the illusion of the writing life, but it’s not the reality of it. Nowhere near. If it was presented as that, that wouldn’t sell at all.

For instance, here I am writing this not on a typewriter but a computer. I have to because it’s a blog post and I have to send it down the internet. There’s no bottle of bourbon on the desk beside me, just a glass of water. That’s because if I started drinking while I was writing I would never get finished. Alcohol doesn’t fuel creativity. It saps it. It’s fine after you’ve worked but not during. Likewise there’s no overflowing ashtray. That’s because I don’t smoke, French cigarettes or otherwise. And there’s no moody jazz playing in the background. Possibly because I can’t write if there’s music playing but mainly because I can’t stand jazz. (I think all those years of being dragged round duff jazz clubs at college did that for me.) So no. None of that. I’m just sitting at my desk, writing. It’s hellishly unexciting to watch.

There’s also another couple of things that make me wary of the whole idea of veneration that the cult of Kerouac encourages. The first one is the fact that we celebrate a writer who died young. As if he had such a talent that it burnt him out to use it. No. He was an alcoholic and died of an internal haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. Burroughs and Ginsberg didn’t die young. They stayed around to watch their excesses diminish their work. The other problem I have with him – and all the beats but not exclusively just them – is the fact that they’re still seen as rebels. Reading their work is an act of rebellion. Erm, it’s not. They’re part of the literary canon. They have mainstream Hollywood films made about them. They have civic memorials to them. They’re published as classic literature. They’re all of those things. But not rebels. They may be marketed as rebels, but but only in a canonically sanctioned way.

Having said that, if young people want to read those books and think they’re being rebellious then that’s fine. No argument with that. As long as they’re reading. And I don’t know, maybe they do feel rebellious when they read them. Maybe some sixteen year old kid picks up ON THE ROAD and sees a whole new literature before him. A new world and a new way of writing about the world. And living in the world. Maybe he doesn’t want to read what some miserable old bloke who’s the same age as Kerouac was when he died has to say about it. Maybe he thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever read. And it may be. Because he’s also listening to the best music anyone’s ever heard ever. And seeing and doing the best things that have happened to anyone EVER.

And if that’s the case, great.  Because to be honest, I’m more than just a little jealous.

 

 

Better Never Stops

By Tania Carver

As I’m sure you’re aware – unless you’ve been living in a cave or recently crashed down on Mars – the Olympics have been on. And not just any old Olympics, the LONDON Olympics. Now, I realise this is a blog about crime writing and not sport but bear with me because I want to write about the Olympics. (And not just because watching them has taken the place of crime writing for the last fortnight. Honest. I’ve been working. Really.)

Now I’m not normally a fan of athletics, or much sport really, with the exception of football (or soccer as it’s incorrectly known in the colonies) and have a lifelong, if somewhat misplaced, passion for my hometown team Newcastle United. But I now live in (or rather near) London and this was something else. This was going to be a huge event in my adoptive hometown. Having said that, as it drew nearer I found myself getting less and less excited about the games. It seemed like it was going to be one huge corporate free for all, all branding and tax-avoidance, with the actual spirit of it ignored and forgotten. Plus construction costs were spiralling. The games bankrupted Greece and it looked like it was going to do the same for us. Then I decided I wanted to be on holiday when the games were on. Or at least just get out of London and stay out. I’d gone from being enthusiastic to indifferent to adversarial.   

And then I saw the opening ceremony.

Danny Boyle, a film director who I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about, was in charge, along with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. And they managed to do something that was both a spectacular and awesome spectacle and a personal, heart-warming and life-affirming performance piece. And it made me feel something else. Something I have never, ever felt. Proud of being British.

As I said, I’m from Newcastle. It’s a city on the border of England and Scotland and often feels like it belongs to neither one country nor the other. The major roads stop a hundred miles south and don’t start up again until they’re over the border. Growing up there in the seventies as I did made you feel very isolated and disenfranchised from the rest of the country which is totally London-centric. And that’s why the popular concept of being English or being British never seemed to reach Newcastle.

I should add that all of this was, in hindsight, great for the formation of a writer. The perpetual outsider, the observer, the non-participant. Brilliant. But not at the time. Not when you have to grow up and experience that.

But now I live just outside London (interestingly, with that observer perspective again – near it but not of it) and that’s where the Olympics were being held. And that opening ceremony – which I watched under duress, expecting a huge, embarrassing car crash of an event – was wonderful. Cynicism just dropped away – and that is a hell of an admission for me, steeped in the stuff, to make – and I loved it. Because as I said, it made me proud to be British.

So why – and how – did it do that? I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And I’ve reached the conclusion that the ceremony represented the kind of Britain I believe in. That I recognised and want to be – and hope I am – part of. It spoke of the things that our country should be most proud of – children’s literature and literature in general, the fantastic popular culture we have, especially the musical diversity, our multicultural make up.  The trades unions who fought for the rights of working people. The sufferagettes. And our NHS, the best free health service in the world. It was an unashamedly liberal, left wing ceremony and it was fantastic.

There were dissenting voices, all from the right. The Daily Mail, a far-right tabloid (in fact the only British paper to have supported Hitler) wrote a hideously racist piece denouncing one section of the ceremony showing a white woman married to a black man and their mixed race children as unbelievable, saying no intelligent, middle aged white woman would do that. The fact that Jessica Ennis, a British athlete of mixed race parentage won gold in the heptathlon flung their remarks right back in their faces. It was described as ‘multicultural crap’ by one Conservative MP. When Mo Farah, a Somalian asylum seeker who settled in our country and is now a UK citizen won two golds and spoke of his pride at being British the Conservative MP retreated.

So yes. Proud at being British. Or at least proud to identify myself as standing for the same things that the ceremony portrayed. And, judging by the hugely positive response and the viewing figures, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. I took to Twitter straight after the ceremony to see what others thought. And everyone – with the exception of those previously mentioned dissenters – were as positive and uncynical as me. The interesting thing was the response from my friends in America. Nobody, even friends that I thought I was so similar to, got it. And that made me, perversely, even more proud and even a bit unique.

I tried to find the opening ceremony online but could only find this. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. And yes, it really is her:

And then the games started. As I said earlier, I’m not that interested in sports that don’t involve a football. But I got drawn in, watching the cycling, then the running then . . . everything. Even things I didn’t understand like dressage, which seems to involve making a horse dance mincingly to music, or tae kwon do which largely consists of one person trying to kick another one in the face. On Saturday night, I sat with family and friends cheering at the TV as Mo Farar (my new hero) won gold for Britain in the 5,000 metres. Yes, cheering.

And after all the events I would watch the interviews with both the winners and losers. And, being a writer, I was trying to find some kind of similarity or common ground with the process of competing with the process of writing. At first I didn’t think there was any. Or at least nothing I could find. But that didn’t stop me looking. And gradually some similarities began to emerge.

As writers, we sit in a room and write. Yes, I know, most of that time is spent staring at the wall, or making coffee, or on Twitter, but essentially we are writing. Athletes are training to compete against others and against themselves. To be the best they can. Writers should be doing the same in their own way. We have to better our last effort. We have to be constantly moving forward. We should never be happy with what we have achieved (or at least not for very long) and we should always be striving to do better.

Another comparable thing I found was that the camaraderie among athletes seems to be very similar to that among crime writers. One of us does well, it reflects well on all of us. One of us wins something, the rest respond by trying to raise their game. They seem to genuinely like each other and whatever rivalry exists, even between citizens of different countries, is a healthy one.

The one glaring difference is with the idea of competition. Athletes are there to win. And they do that by finishing first. Writing is very different in that respect. To quote from Trevor Griffiths in his play ‘Comedians’ (one of my favourite plays of all time), ‘We work through applause, not for it.’ And also, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being famous. But be good first. Because you can never be good later.’ Those lines are like my mission statement as a writer.

Last year at this time, London was being torn apart by riots. Whether you believed the rioters had a point or not, we saw, in the carnage, destruction, assault and even murder humanity at its worse and most base. We saw kids disenfranchised and disillusioned hitting out with undirected rage and anger. For the last two weeks we have seen kids, a lot of them from the same backgrounds as the rioters of a year ago, being given an outlet, a focus. A goal. And a chance to be the best they can be.

So by the time you read this, the Olympics will be over. What the legacy will be, I don’t know. Whether it has bankrupted the country I couldn’t say either. Will we all be fitter, more positive people as a result? Or will we go back to the same cynical state we were in before? I don’t know. But for two weeks in August 2012, there was a palpable, but rare, sense of hope. Of belief. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of it.

If you want to read more, Tim Adams in The Guardian says it a lot more eloquently than me. 

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