28 October 2011

What time is it, Mr. Wolf?

It's that time again! National Novel Writing Month, when crazy people around the world try for a 50,000 word novel in just thirty days. I started in 2002 and I haven't looked back. I'm that crazy.

Last year was a success for me. My novel was a series of short stories, largely interconnected, and I had a lot of fun. More than that, two of the short stories I produced that month have since been published.

This year I'd planned to do the same thing. Then yesterday I walked into my library after a few weeks away. I was smacked in the head with a novella idea that didn't stop babbling all day. It's ridiculous and I love it.

A librarian finds herself travelling between worlds, discovering libraries she'd never imagined possible. But each is threatened in some way or another, by forces natural or divine. She will have to understand the threats before she can save the libraries and find out what (or who) has been pushing her along.

Dr. Sam Beckett meets Agent Olivia Dunham. In the library. With the candlestick.

So much for the short stories. Maybe I'll get a few in here and there, in books my heroine finds while she's exploring the libraries. Maybe I won't have the space. In any case, whatever story appears, I'm going to approach NaNoWriMo as a rest and a writing exercise, a time to stretch my skills and experiment, and remind myself of what mad genius can appear when I let go of my inner critic.

Who's with me?

25 October 2011

Write Anything: "Area 51"

If you're interested in hearing about the darker side of public libraries, head over to the Write Anything blog where my October article 'Area 51' has just been posted. I reveal a little bit of what we're all afraid of, and it's much more Mein Kampf and American Psycho than it is Conservative whingers who want to shut us down.

Of course, I also connect it back to my writing and how I address the darker aspects of humanity. I suspect I could connect nearly everything back to my writing, somehow.

24 October 2011

Conservative whingers are wrong

What better time to address the recent Telegraph article about liberal whingers and shutting libraries than while I'm stuck in another airplane for 10 hours?

“Liberal whingers are wrong – we should shut our libraries,” By John McTernan

When did you last go to a public library?

Last week.

No, really, when?

Last week. But to be fair, I work in a library, so I had a good reason to go. I might also count the library I went to more recently (Wednesday) to check out the book sale & meet my Dad, but I wanted to mention my bias: I’m a librarian. I have been recently trained with a professional library qualification and I've worked in libraries since 2005. That's my perspective.

It’s probably a good few years – and if so, you’re not alone. From one year to the next, nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all. In fact, fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.

Put another way, more than 40 percent of people go to a library every year, and near to 20 percent of adults in England go more than once a month. Does everyone have to use a service constantly to make it worthwhile? Some might say yes, but in my experience if someone uses a library there’s a good chance they’re a regular library user, ie. those who go, go a lot.

The news that councils are closing libraries has prompted sickly and sentimental pleas from all corners of the nation: a long and star-studded campaign to stop Brent Council closing six of them is now set to go to the Court of Appeal. No less a figure than Brian Blessed recently described such closures as the “act of Philistines… atavistic nonsense… the nemesis of our country”. In one sense, this is a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s ever had to cut public services: people will fight to the death to protect things they never use.

And also things they use a lot. But I'm already wondering about this guy's bias if he views the passionate efforts of his peers as "sickly and sentimental."

But there’s something bigger going on here. This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate. This is partly out of condescension, and partly guilt – because the protesters don’t use libraries either, and feel they may have precipitated the closures by their neglect.

Leave it to a Brit to make it about class. Though this is a relief, actually—It means that when my middle class regulars come in to borrow books, or middle class travellers come in to use the internet or print their boarding passes or get information about the area, or middle class anybody comes in for council information, I can tell them they’re mistaken: they don’t use libraries. And when the poor want to protest library closures, I can tell them they're also mistaken: they don’t care about the service they use all the time. They should get on with things like rioting and drinking lager.

What this debate needs is some honesty. Yes, public libraries have been of huge benefit in helping us educate ourselves over the past 150 years. It’s an honourable tradition – but it’s over. Their defence depends on a deficit model, the argument that they fill a unique gap. But that’s simply no longer true.

The perspective that libraries have been in the same role for the last 150 years is alarming. If it were true, he’d have a great point. But it’s not true. Library service is changing. Saying that the horse-drawn carriages we used 150 years ago are no longer useful does not mean modern cars are no longer useful.

Take reference services, once the core of the public library’s educational role. Access to information has been transformed by the internet. Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly.

At least you'll think you’re well-informed, and who’s going to tell you differently?

Engrossing lectures from the planet’s best minds are freely available on university websites, from the TED conference series, or on BBC iPlayer. Channels such as BBC Four or Sky Arts provide a wide range of high-quality documentaries across a multitude of subjects. We live in an information-rich society – so we should celebrate its availability, not yearn for a time when you had to go to the central library for it.

Absolutely. We live in a hugely information-rich society. And some of the information he’s talking about is online because libraries and librarians have made it available online. Google does not make information available online, it points the way to information already provided by someone else. He knows this, doesn’t he? Because it seems like he doesn't.

He also seems to think it's okay for someone without librarian-type neutrality to organize and present him all his information, for instance Sky Arts, owned by British Sky Broadcasting, controlled mainly by News Corporation, an American media conglomerate whose subsidies include News International, publishers of News of the World. But I'm sure they have our best interests in mind.

In recent years, libraries sought to reinvent themselves as information hubs. Hundreds of millions were spent to provide them with computers. What happened? Technology advanced, and soon the library computers were too old and too slow. That led to a demand for more investment. But why? Fast, cheap computing had spread to most homes, and to our whizzy new mobile phones. Where on earth is the gap that libraries are meant to plug?

Ah, yes. The idea that everyone in the world has a home computer and a smart phone. What a marvellous idea. Maybe someday. But not today.

Then there’s the argument that your local library is the gateway to a national and international network of literature and education. So it is – but so is your computer. Time was, to get hold of a particular book, you would have to go to a library and ask. Now, with Abebooks and Alibris, almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world are available to search. This is as true for new books as for old: more than 130,000 titles were published in the UK in 2009, and 330 million new books were purchased.

I can't express stunned silence via blog post, so I guess I have to address this point. No, "almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world" are very definitely not available to search online. That's just silly. And again, not everyone can afford to buy what they find on Abebooks, second-hand or no. Not everyone can even afford the postage, and if they could and they have the computer they still don't necessarily have the skills to access and understand these sources without help.

The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home – even if it often has a games console on it. And libraries at secondary schools are, in my experience, uniformly good and open places for young people.

Is that really the best he can do for a final defence? Maybe he should Google “arguments for the existence of libraries” and see what comes up. I sometimes hear this argument about a place for students to study, but not often. Most people agree that kids can find a place to study that isn’t the public library. And yet every year at exam time the kids appear. Weird.

Also: who puts their games console on their desk? Honestly.

Ancient Sumeria

Few institutions are timeless. Most reflect the period when they were created, and have to change as society changes if they are to survive.

So libraries should reflect the time of ancient Sumeria? Or British libraries are totally unconnected from the institutions that came before it? In any case, yes: they have to change. Good point well made, sir. They have changed and they will continue to do so unless short-sighted fools decide that since they aren't being given the tools to change they're now totally useless. Like giving a doctor nothing but leeches and then complaining that she can't save anybody.

The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.

Or because the people in charge of saving money are have to find it somewhere, and libraries are an easy mark.

John McTernan has an MA in librarianship from Sheffield University and worked in libraries from 1984 to 1994.

What would you call a professional who qualified nearly thirty years ago and hasn’t practiced for nearly twenty years? Not much a professional.

Of course he has a right to his opinions, as we all do. But I’m going to file his opinions in the same place I file the opinions of everyone who says they never use libraries but know all about them.

17 October 2011

Discovering the source

An interesting thing is happening here in small town Canada. Since I arrived something is opening up--some hibernating part of my mind is awakening, noticing faces and familiar roads and the curve of a mountain I used to know like it was a part of me. And for some reason all this familiarity is manifesting as rich, delicious inspiration. I want to write. The stories are welling up and they're spilling over.

I'm not one who puts great stock in where I write. I prefer not to be distracted, though I've written successfully in busy coffee shops and libraries. I enjoy having my own desk with a ready cup of coffee but that isn't an imperative. And I certainly did not expect to realize that a part of my creative mind had been asleep, or slowly drying out, since I left here two years ago.

I wonder if what I feel here is simply the echoes of old habits: the writers' guild I used to belong to, with all the support and discussion that happened at our meetings. Old friends who also write and the conversations we had, the writing exercises we made for each other for summer evenings. And the places here where I used to write: at my desk looking at the mountains, in the cafes, and in my car looking out at the Skeena river. I wonder if it's the memory of writing a book while sitting in the old cemetery, or of editing the same book on my lunch hour at the public library.

Realizing all this, I also know I must let it be a neglected epiphany. I can't start to believe my writing is worse off because of where I live. If I feel inspired here, I should use and celebrate that. Allowing myself to wonder and worry about what happens when I go back to London will only lead to trouble. At worst, it will give me an excuse not to write. And nobody needs any more of those than they already have.

14 October 2011

En Route

'Bon Cop Bad Cop'
& single serving snacks.
I'm currently however-many-thousands of meters above the earth’s surface travelling at however-many-hundreds of kilometres per hour. In a plane, in case that wasn’t obvious. I’m flying home to Canada after more than two years away.

I’ve just finished watching Super 8, and before that I watched Bon Cop Bad Cop. Bon Cop Bad Cop was better, something I could have enjoyed while closer to the ground. Super 8, however, was absolutely a plane movie. A plane movie: one you watch because you’re stuck in a little room for ten hours without internet access or a phone and you don’t want to talk to anyone because you might then have to talk to them for the next ten hours.

There are plane books, too. Earlier this year on holiday I read the first two Mistborn books, yet I haven’t read the third and final in the series. I enjoyed the first two, but I haven’t been in the right mood—the plane mood—to read the third.

Plane movies and books are not to be confused with bad movies or books. You wouldn’t watch or read a really bad movie or book on a plane if there was any other option. There’s a peculiar quality to plane entertainment that makes it acceptable and even enjoyable despite its flaws, and bad entertainment never achieves this quality.

So my question to myself as a writer is: Would I want to write plane books?

Once my answer would have been: No. But actually I'm not sure I'd mind anymore. As more of my fiction gets out into the world, I've discovered that the best thing is when it's read and enjoyed. It would be excellent to win a literary award for Best Novel Ever and a million dollars to go with it, but this is unlikely. Given that, and given that I plan to continue writing, improving my work and hoping that the next thing I publish is better, less flawed, and less plane-ish than the last, the idea that one of my books could be picked up by hundreds of people in airports around the world and devoured in one sitting isn't really so bad.

Then I can win the award and the money.

11 October 2011

Lost & Found & The Yin Book in paperback!

In October 2009 I was introduced to Jodi Cleghorn via Fourth Fiction. Some time later she invited me to be a part of her and Paul Anderson's new Chinese Whisperings project, The Yin & Yang Books, a duo of collaborative short story anthologies. In October 2010 the ebook was released. And now, the paperback is about to be released!

No one ever claimed publishing was quick, but it's certainly satisfying!

What I appreciate about eMergent Publishing and the Chinese Whisperings project is the same now as it was at the beginning: the editors Jodi and Paul have been in touch with the authors through every step of the process. The buzz between all of us involved has remained. The names of the other writers have become familiar not just because they're next to mine on the cover, but because we've continued to collaborate with other projects, with Friday Flash and as companions in our writers' lives.

The idea behind The Yin Book was to write part of an overarching story as developed by the stories previous to your own. I chose to write about Ashley Gardner, a young janitor, invisible and a little lost behind the chaos in the airport. Recently Jodi tagged me to re-think my choice and consider what other character I'd like to write about, what other element in the story I'd have chosen to develop if I hadn't chosen Ashley.

This is not an easy question. There is a host of fascinating characters, a great canvas with a lot of white space remaining, and yet I find myself resisting. As a writer I enjoy the freedom of imagination, but as much as I appreciate Jodi's prompt, and as much as I originally had every intention of choosing a new option, today I'm going to have to decline. I don't think I could have written anybody but Ashley. And why? If you've read the story, you might have an idea. Ashley is alone, she hasn't been chosen by anyone in her life, really--except me. I can't take that away from her.

So once again, my dear, it's you and me.

She's going to shrug now and say it doesn't matter.

It matters.

If you haven't yet read "Lost & Found" you can get it and all the other wonderful interconnected stories in ebook or paperback. And at the Chinese Whisperings blog there's a preview and a few notes from me about writing the story and Ashley herself.

06 October 2011

The world is down one creative visionary

Steve Jobs has died. Among the many links posted remembering him is one that shows his Stanford commencement address from 2005, shortly after he had surgery to remove the cancer that eventually returned and killed him. It affected me very much as I read it. I hope that I can be as wise, as hopeful, and as true to myself as he appears to be.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Read the full speech at MindBodyGreen or watch it here:

04 October 2011

The Novel Character

It's wonderful to be writing characters for a novel-length story again. Developing characters is one of the most fun and satisfying things about storytelling, and it's very different to write them for a novel than it is for a short story.

Short story characters are single-serving friends. You meet, say a quick Hello, find out their name (usually) and possibly what they do for a living. You might have a quick conversation about philosophy if you're very lucky (and reading that kind of story) and you might learn a surprising amount about what drives them, but not definitely. And then no matter how great the discussion and how much you quickly like or loathe them, they're gone. Everything you know about that person is defined in a few moments of dialogue or action. Good luck getting a phone number.

Whereas characters in a novel-length story develop more like real people we meet again and again. And because of this, they're tricky. Changeable. Regardless of whatever arc the story plans for them, they can be surprisingly different from one scene to the next. As their mood one day doesn't define the whole world, they can have moods unrelated to everything except themselves. They can show up wearing a power suit one day and a clown suit the next, so long as it is eventually explained. And their flaws do not have to be neatly arranged to suit the plot. They can be more chaotic, more unsetting, and generally less of a device than a short story character, and readers are glad for it.

So are writers. At least, so am I.

Kalk Bay Harbour Character by Bruce on flickr

01 October 2011

Back it up!

This week in my library a man walked away from his chair for one minute and then couldn't find his jacket. He’d kept his wallet and laptop with him, but the jacket was gone. Description: “black jacket.” Contents: “one USB memory stick containing one novel.”

This man was a writer. He said he had a backup copy of his book, but it was months old. He was desperate to get that USB stick back. The thief likely didn’t care about it. It was worth £5, if that, and probably couldn't be sold. It was everything to the man who lost it.

May I make a few suggestions to all writers out there?

  • Back up your work on a memory stick, yes. This gives you a backup that doesn’t rely on your favourite computer continuing to function.
  • Also back up your work repeatedly. Preferably every time you write. How about, “Every time you write something you don’t want to write all over again.” Back it up that often.
  • If you’re really on the ball you can back up to more than one file, eg. MyGreatNovel1 and MyGreatNovel2, and alternate which file you save in case one file becomes corrupted, or if you make a mistake you want to reverse.
  • Email it to yourself. I have an email address that is nothing but back-ups. Since I send things to that address from another address, that means it’s backed up twice, once at each address, in the Sent Folder and Inbox respectively.
  • If the work is finished for a while and won’t be touched, print it out. I realize this is dreadfully anti-environmental and in some cases impossible, but I have to consider the experience of a good friend last year who finished the first draft of a novel, left it alone, and then returned to find the file corrupted. However awful and heart-wrenching you think that scenario sounds comes nowhere close to how it actually feels. Even if you print the thing single spaced in 6-pt font at least it exists somewhere if the file corrupts.

It sounds paranoid, I know. It always sounds paranoid until the piece you worked on for however long, put however much of yourself into, is gone forever because of an accident, technology, or some jerk thief at the public library. Then you can only wonder why you didn’t bother.

And in case you think I’m saying I do all these things and never mess it up, let me correct you: Ha ha ha ha no. I have lost things that still hurt me to think about. I have not backed up thousands of words, and let MS Word destroy hours of editing work. I have done all these things, which is another reason I post this warning today. Don’t be a me.

There's a happy ending to the story of the man who lost his jacket. He found it again, at home. He'd never had it in the library. Ahh, library days.

Still. Back up your work.
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