Yet more foolishness re Amazon vs Hachette …

head slap

I’ve just read something that made my jaw drop so fast it bounced off the floor and back up again.

It was this New York Times article. Apparently many celebrity writers have joined a group, Authors United, set up by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie. This is of course not ‘all’ authors, or anything like, but predominantly the great, good and famous.

I wrote recently about my dismay concerning the determination of many to see the Amazon / Hachette dispute as some simplistic, good vs. evil, black-and-white affair, in which Amazon are totally and obviously the Bad Guys while Hachette are awarded the full benefit of the doubt. The fact that it takes two sides to make a fight, and that we don’t know the full details of the dispute, does not appear to register.

This has now extended to asking the US Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal goings-on, monopolistically speaking, on grounds that seem distinctly uncertain.

Just to be clear, by the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I do not believe that Amazon are necessarily totally ‘in the right’ either. Jeff Bezos may very well not be in possession of a white charger, racing to the rescue of the publishing industry, nor sport a dazzling halo. I just don’t think he has horns and a pointy tail either.

Anyway … what drove me to write this post were two quotations within the NY Times article. Because it’s not just been the willingness of some to shoot off various missives of righteous indignation, sometimes in the form of stupidly expensive full-page ads – and all directed at Amazon, mysteriously failing to lob similar pleas and threats at Hachette (I mean, they’re a party to this too, right? Why can’t they back down, if this dispute is supposedly so damaging?)

No, it’s the hyperbolic, bizarre and often frankly ludicrous comments about Amazon being the spawn of Satan and the death-knell of all culture as we know it. That, if they’re not stopped, within ten years we’ll all be illiterates living in caves, grunting helplessly while Mr Bezos urinates on our camp fires. Or something.

You think I’m exaggerating? Well take a look at these two quotes in the NY Times article. First, a gem from Andrew Wylie himself:

“It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” the agent said. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”

Seriously? I mean, seriously? The end of literary culture? Wow. I knew Amazon were a pretty slick operation, but who knew they had that kind of power? (Though only in America apparently? I’m sure Mr Bezos intends nothing less than the total annihilation of all culture globally, thank you very much.)

And another thing – the phrase ‘to those I represent’ is telling. We are talking about those who have done very nicely out of the current system. I can only conclude that Wylie’s definition of ‘literary culture’ is limited to his own elitist little corner of it.

The second quote is even more mind-boggling. It’s from an author called Ursula K. Le Guin. She opines as follows:

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author … Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

I had to read that a couple of times before I could take it in. And I thought, how can an obviously talented (and presumably intelligent) author misuse words, exaggerate and mis-represent so flagrantly? For one thing, Amazon refusing to discount certain titles and not delivering them very quickly amounts to ‘censorship’? Well that’s not how my dictionary defines the word, but I guess Ms Le Guin must be using a different one.

One of the supremely ironic things about all this is that Amazon are being given such a hard time for not discounting Hachette books, when (as is at the same time generally acknowledged) they are fighting for terms that would allow them to discount more than publishers like Hachette generally want them to. You surely don’t have to agree that such discounting is necessarily always a good thing, nor believe that Amazon is doing this for purely altruistic motives, to acknowledge that the anti-Amazon case is mind-bendingly inconsistent on this point.

But back to that last quote – the more I look at it, the more I think it’s not just hysterical. It’s actually offensive. There are many millions of people who are and have been the victims of the most awful tyranny and oppression. Who’ve been lied to through propaganda and censorship, had their civil rights trampled on, and in some cases been ‘disappeared’.

To be ‘disappeared’, I always thought, meant being dragged from your home, away from your family, then tortured and murdered, just for saying the wrong thing. As opposed to, for example, suffering a possible reduction in revenue through not having your book discounted or unavailable for pre-order on Amazon. To draw a comparison between the two, even for the briefest moment, is beyond ludicrous, beyond parody. It’s insulting, and it does no good at all for the cause of authors (and I mean all authors, not just Andrew Wylie’s pals). It doesn’t do much for the cause of truth either – which is something I would hope writers care a little more about.


Striking sentences

love reading

Do you ever come across a sentence in a book that you find yourself going back and re-reading several times? Because it strikes you in some way as being special – it might be beautifully constructed, amusing, inventive, or just exactly the right sentence for just that place? That happened to me today as I was ready Broadchurch by Erin Kelly. Kelly is already one of my favourite authors – she’s just so good. Below is the sentence that struck me, underlined; I’ve also included the previous one for context.

An air vent in the tiny window is held together by masking tape and on the still are some dried flowers in a wobbly clay pot and a wooden cat. A health-and-safety-notice clings to the wall for dear life.

Why did I like the underlined sentence so much? I think there were three reasons. Firstly, it’s a creative, different way of saying something otherwise banal like ‘there’s a notice on the wall’. Second, there’s a dash of playful, ironic humour in the concept of a health-and-safety notice apparently being afraid and in some kind of danger. And third, it just fits so well. The passage is written in the perspective of a hot-shot city reporter walking into a small-town newspaper office, and she’s casting her sardonic eye across the rather down-at-heel surroundings. It’s the kind of observation such a person might make in that situation.

Perhaps I’m making too much of one little sentence; and probably many others people would find it unremarkable. Just a little thing. But it struck me and I wanted to explore why.

Do you find yourself doing this sometimes, reading and re-reading a phrase, sentence or passage and thinking, ‘wow, now that’s writing.’?

And the weirdest comment award goes to …


I’m always delighted to get comments on my blog, and grateful to everyone who takes the time and trouble to make them. Recently however I’ve had a few slightly … strange ones.

Take this one I got last week, a comment on my post, Is Amazon actually evil?:

There are certain factors that needed to be considered while choosing a wig. Wash with specially-formulated wig shampoo and conditioner. These are available in different shades and colors which can perfectly complement with the natural look of your hair.

Now maybe I’m being a tad pedantic, but that doesn’t seem to have an enormous amount to do with the subject of my post. Granted Jeff Bezos is somewhat hirsutely challenged, but even his sternest critics are surely too polite to bring that up, and too sane to seek to connect it with his business practices.

I haven’t clicked on the link accompanying the above comment, but I’ve little doubt that it’s connected to someone in the wig business – a laudable profession I’m sure – and it’s part of some kind of marketing strategy. Well there’s nothing wrong with trying to make a living I suppose. I’m just not convinced I like them using my blog to do so, or that it will do them much good anyway.


The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue Tags

Really good post, and re-blogged because I totally agree and I couldn’t put it better myself. I think every writer should read this, because it’s one of the biggest pitfalls of inexperienced writers – and I have to say a few published ones I’ve come across too. I completely agree that balance is key, but the bias should be towards the humble ‘said/says’ precisely because – as you say – the tag is there to point towards the dialogue, not itself. There are exceptions of course. The other thing that grates with me is the completely unnecessary tag – e.g. ‘I’m sorry you’re upset,’ he commiserated. That’s not necessary because it’s obvious from the text that he’s commiserating.

Draft 2, here we go …

Flying saucer

Last time I wrote about my new project, a children’s book provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. The 27,000ish word first draft was finished a few weeks ago. I churned it out pretty quickly – as I’ve mentioned before I’m a bit of a first draft bodger. I had a rough plan but to be honest a lot of it took shape as the words hit the screen.

After that was finished I deliberately left it a couple of weeks. Then I held my nose and started to review what I’d written. This is a tricky time, because that first draft is – how should I put it politely? – a mixed bag. Or a pile of steaming horse manure, if you’re less generous. Bursting with typos naturally, but there will also be problems with plot and pacing, uneven and underdeveloped characterisation, poor sentence construction, too many adverbs, and more than the odd cliché. (Probably also too many parentheses – I’m a terror for that.)

The purpose of the first draft review is to find all those nasty little (and big) issues, to painstakingly (and painfully) document them. And to resist making any changes at all while I’m doing it. It hurts, let me tell you. But it’s a necessary step before I try to rush in and fix everything.

I keep positive in two ways. First: along with the wrinkles, hopefully I will also see a lot that’s good, or potentially good, in the first draft. Things that will be kept, or can be improved and enhanced, as well as things that need to fundamentally changed or cut out altogether. I should glimpse that good book that’s fighting to get out – and my first draft review will be the first step towards its freedom. Second: having written two books before, I know from experience that this really works, that the book will get better as I review and redraft. Something much better will emerge at the other end. Losing the dross is just part of that process. It can’t be avoided.

If you’re interested, here is my completed first draft review of DCFS. I don’t expect anyone to read all of this – indeed, much of it won’t mean anything if you haven’t read the book yourself. But anyway there are three sections:

  • A chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis
  • A list of characters and their main traits
  • Notes on what I think is good, bad and indifferent, along with ideas for improvement – generally, and chapter by chapter.

What this shows is that there’s a lot of work ahead in the second draft. The good thing is that I think the basic structure and plot is fundamentally OK. That’s a relief, because that’s often the hardest thing to fix without virtually a complete re-write. There’s lots to put right though. And one of my main conclusions is that I think there are too many characters (a common problem in my first drafts as it happens) and I could lose one of them. And swap the genders of two more! Well sometime you need to be radical …

Now I feel ready to dive into the second draft proper. I aim to take about 2-3 weeks for that.

And then? That’s when I feel ready to show it to someone else. Someone who will give that vital, fresh perspective and tell me what’s really wrong with it – everything I’ve missed. All good fun!

Wish me luck …

Introducing … Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer

Flying saucer

What would you do if a flying saucer landed outside your house?

Danny Chaucer is lonely and bored. Nat Ford is the new girl at school and spends half her time trying to dodge the bullies. Nothing interesting ever happens in their dead-end village. Nothing that is until one still, starry night when something happens behind the trees at the end of Danny’s garden. He’s not quite sure what – except that suddenly everyone seems to be looking for something, including the sinister Captain Frost.

There might be only one way to escape – and that’s up …

That’s my first stab at the blurb of my new book, provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. (No idea whether that title will survive; I just like the fact that Chaucer rhymes with Saucer. Opinions welcome!)

You’ve probably worked out it’s a children’s book. More specifically it’s aimed at roughly 8-11 year olds. This is a departure for me, as BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are 11+ up to YA territory. So why have I gone younger for the new one? Well there are several reasons.

The first is that, when I was a kid, I did actually daydream about having my own flying saucer, of being able to just take off, to cruise though the skies and up to the stars, soaring far and above my problems. Of course I’d be the envy of everyone. Probably it’s the classic introvert’s dream – to be liked and admired, but also to be able to get away, to stand apart. Cool at last.

(Mind you, that’s not quite how it works out for Danny, Keeping the saucer secret is going to be one of his biggest problems – a lot of people will be very interested in something like that.)

The second reason is simply that, like a lot of writers, I want to try my hand at different things. (One day I’d like to write an adult novel too, but not just yet.) I don’t think I’ve finished with YA, but I want to see if I can write for children. The fact that I have two boys, aged six and ten – both of whom need some encouragement to read very much – is part of the motivation too.

I believe children’s literature is tremendously important, and writing it well is a talent sadly too often underrated. To create stories that children can understand and relate to, without patronising them, to inspire and to instil a love of reading – what a wonderful thing that is.

Third, I think this concept has good series potential. The first book sets the scene for more to come. I mean, there’s lots of places you can go in a flying saucer, right? And it does seem that, if you want to sell some books, having a series is a definite advantage. Producing more, shorter books, more frequently, makes sense to me as a strategy. (I also have some marketing ideas – not unrelated to the age of my sons.)

And finally, I have a sneaking suspicion that space is going to get bigger over the next few years. (Well it’s already pretty big, but you know what I mean.) We are less than five years away from the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the surface of the moon. There is the fairly imminent prospect of the first commercial space flight, and perhaps a manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future. And that’s just from the US and Europe – who knows where China’s ambitions will take them?

And have you heard about NASA’s flying saucer? It’s all happening you know.

I’m aiming to have Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer finished in early 2015. The first draft is done, the second is underway. Next time I’ll talk about my approach to the writing, what I’ve done so far and how I plan to get from here to publication.