Horrid Henry: An apology

horridhenry

Forgive me, o gods of literacy, for I have sinned. This is my confession.

About three years ago, my (then) eight-year-old son began getting into Horrid Henry. I don’t know how much the HH phenomenon is known outside the UK, so for the benefit of the blissfully ignorant: Horrid Henry features in a series of children’s books which have, by any measure, been a major publishing success story. They have been bestsellers, and have subsequently adapted into a TV series and a movie.

The books belong to a genre we might call gross-lit. The eponymous Henry is, to put it mildly, an anti-hero. He gets into trouble all the time, shows less than zero respect for his parents, teachers or any other adults, and hates his impeccably behaved brother Perfect Peter. He farts, belches, schemes and whines with total abandon. He is, in short, a grown-up’s nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong – I can see Henry’s attraction, especially to his peer group. He’s lively, rebellious and funny. And Perfect Peter is rather irritating. But I really didn’t like the books. For one thing, I didn’t think they were especially well written or original. The naughty, rebellious schoolboy character is nothing new – think Dennis the Menace or Just William, to give just two examples – and in my opinion he’s been portrayed with more wit and style before. The fact that all the child characters are always referred to by their alliterative nicknames – as well as Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter, there is also Moody Margaret, Vomiting Vera and many more – was a joke that quickly wore thin for me.

And Henry himself, I just found unbearably annoying. He’s staggeringly selfish He’s the sort of child who sucks up a disproportionate amount of effort and attention, to the detriment of the quieter, better behaved kids around them. He was certainly not anything like my idea of a good role model, much less a hero.

What’s worse is – and this might make me sound incredibly old-fashioned – there’s little sign of a moral compass in those books. There are too often no apparent consequences to Henry’s behaviour. He’ll do something selfish and bad, upsetting the people around him – and just get away with it.

So what did I do? (This is the confession part.) One day, I took all my son’s Horrid Henry books away. I didn’t think they were a good influence, or good literature. There are better books out there, I said; read those, not these.

Right. Rant over. I am of course conscious that I am not the target audience for these books. I am also aware that the average nine-year-old boy really does find farting and belching quite funny. Horrid Henry is obviously and unashamedly aimed at children of a certain age, and boys in particular. The books are also carefully and skilfully written to be easily readable for their age group, a quality which, as I reflected on in my last post, is both important and something that doesn’t happen by accident.

Three years on from my Horrid Henry book burning spree (OK, that’s dramatic license: I didn’t burn them, I just gave them to a charity shop), I know better now. My son has never been a great reader. He often takes scant interest in the written word. He doesn’t find many books he really likes. When he does, it tends to be non-fiction rather than stories – which is fine, as long as he reads, but I wish he loved fiction the way I always have. I have tried to introduce so many new books to him, with distinctly mixed results.

But he liked Horrid Henry books. So why on earth did I take them from him? What sort of fool was I? OK, I didn’t much like them. I still don’t. But they aren’t that bad – and they’re books. And if he reads them, he’ll go on to read other, different things. I can still introduce him to other options, without taking away the things he’s already enjoying.

Today I read an article that reminds us of the obvious: if children find books they love to read, then – guess what? – they’ll read more. And more; with all the intellectual, emotional and educational benefits that we know go along with that.

Now my son is allowed to read Horrid Henry again, along with pretty much anything else he wants to. It’s far more important that he learns to associate reading with pleasure and freedom, rather than only reading what I personally (and subjectively) consider to be good literature. In any case, he’s far, far more likely to come across unsuitable or harmful material on TV, or especially online, than he is within the pages of a children’s book.

So welcome back Horrid Henry, (almost) all is forgiven. Thank you for showing my son that reading can be fun after all. Just … just try to behave a bit better from now on, will you? Set a more positive example? No? …. Oh well. As you were, then.

 

Challenging Children: Long words or short?

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As a writer of children’s books, I’m always concerned about whether my prose is pitched at about the right level for its intended readership. You know: are any of the words too long, sentence construction too complex, cultural references above their heads, subject matter too ‘adult’?

This is compounded by the fact that reading ability varies so much. Well it does for adults too, of course, but when your target audience is as narrow as 8-12-year-olds or thereabouts then you don’t have to be especially off-target to miss it. If the bull’s-eye is an averagely competent ten-year-old reader, then your book may be beyond a struggling eight-year-old (at least without adult help), yet also not testing enough for a high-flying near-teen. (Then again, advanced seven-year-olds and some young teens might still be within range.)

For this reason (as for so many others) the sharp eyes of beta-readers and editors are invaluable. Then again, I’m a firm believer that kids shouldn’t be patronised, and that there’s also scope to stretch them a little. Indeed, surely that’s part of the value of reading. If they never come across new words, for instance, how will their vocabulary grow?

An example: an editor of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer picked up on the word ‘sumptuous’, used to describe an especially spectacular starry sky beheld by Danny one night. Would your younger readers know what that means, they wondered?  Might a simpler word be used in its place?

I should emphasise that I did take that editor’s advice probably 90% of the time; and even when I didn’t, I always thought carefully before rejecting it. I’m certainly not suggesting they were wrong to ask the question. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But ultimately, the author themselves has to make the decision. The editor’s opinions are always to be respected (you’d be wasting both their time and yours if you didn’t) but they are never the last word.

In the end, sumptuous stayed. I love that word. It’s so, well … sumptuous. An extravagant, opulent, overflowing kind of word; but crucially, for me it was the very best one for the job in that particular sentence.  Another place, another time, I might have agreed with the editor and changed it.

Of course, as I said above, it’s a matter of balance. Too many new, long or challenging words might discourage the young reader. The prose should be accessible; and after all it’s there to tell the story, not get in the way, jump up and down and shout, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever!’. Too many pauses to consult the dictionary are bound to obstruct the reading experience and prevent the child’s full immersion in the adventure.

It’s a similar thing with sentences. I tend to keep them short and simple more often than not. But the odd longer, more complex sentence is no bad thing, and the variety should serve to make the text more interesting – and, yes, challenging. In that sense, it’s little different from adult fiction.

If the young reader gains in knowledge and ability through your book, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d love to think that some kid, somewhere, might one day say, ‘Dad, thanks, that dinner was sumptuous!‘, just because they read Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer.

 

Twitter: the Dark Side …

Darth Vader

Last time I wrote of my new-found enthusiasm for Twitter and many of the things I’ve come to appreciate about it. But every silver lining has a cloud, and so …

  • 140 characters. That limit is so frustrating at times. I couldn’t operate with Twitter as my sole social media outlet, but then there’s no need to. It’s just not suited to everything. You can always link to something more substantial, like a blog post.
  • Content. I had to unfollow a couple of people who looked initially OK but then re-tweeted some stuff that made me shudder. Also I feel I have to be careful being a children’s/YA author, not only with what I write but also things I choose to re-tweet or favourite.
  • Disposability. It doesn’t take long to churn out 140-character tweet, and there are an awful lot of them. A tiny proportion linger on for a while in the blessed afterlife of the viral, but the great majority have pitifully short lives, forgotten and ignored.
  • Selling. Lots and lots and lots of people desperate to sell lots and lots and lots of stuff. Which is fine in a way – and of course I want to sell some books, so I can hardly point the finger – and it’s not too hard to filter out what you don’t want to see, but …
  • Paid / sponsored content appearing in my feed, from organizations I don’t follow. Ugh.
  • Expressing an opinion is fine. More than fine. Obnoxiousness, intolerance, pitchfork-waving, smug self-righteousness, sheer rudeness and lack of respect, all behind the cloak of anonymity or distance … not so OK. But none of this is confined to Twitter. Social media didn’t turn people into jerks, it just made it easier.
  • Following. The irony of the contradiction between having / wanting 10k followers and any reasonable definition of ‘social’ is never lost on me. Most people, it seems to me, don’t interact in any meaningful and/or ongoing way with the majority of people they ‘follow’ or ‘follow’ them. But again that’s not just a Twitter thing, it’s ‘social’ media in general. Meaningful and/or beneficial associations and even friendships (and sometimes more) can and do arise from social media contact, of course. But it’s kind of difficult to do that with 10,000 people (not that I have that particular problem).
  • And in a similar vein, I’ve no idea how people can ‘sell’ me 1,000 ‘followers’ for $X. Not sure I want to know either. Not only is that cheating, it’s surely also self-defeating. How can people truly ‘follow’ you without making a conscious personal decision to do so? How much are such ‘follows’ really worth?

That’s enough rumination on Twitter for now. But I’m also using it to research a future book – more on that later. In the meantime, I’m on Twitter here.

Do you use Twitter? What for? Does the good outweigh the bad for you, or the other way around?

Life, and Twitter

The scream detail

‘Twitter?? Aagghh!!’

I’ve taken a break from this blog for a few weeks. This wasn’t exactly planned; it just happened, and there were two main reasons.

First, the usual: life and other stuff. Work, family. Summer. Writing: I completed the second draft of the next book in the Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer series, and then got it critiqued. Then there was marketing activity and obtaining reviews for DCFS.

However the second reason is more specific, and new: Twitter. Yes, after many years of resisting the allure of the tweet, I’ve finally succumbed. For a long time Twitter seemed to me the very embodiment of superficiality. I mean, how much of any substance or nuance can be said in 140 characters or less? I thought its main function was to enable celebrities and politicians to make asses of themselves more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

But finally, in my classic late-adopter style, i.e. somewhat later than the rest of the planet, I signed up. And much to my surprise, after a slow start, I’ve kind of got into the spirit of it. This is what I like about Twitter:

  • 140 characters. It can be challenging to fit what you want to say into that tiny space. But at least it’s quick, which is no small bonus in today’s hectic world. You can spend ages crafting a blog post, but it’s practically impossible to expend too much effort on a tweet. And like any limit it can encourage brevity and creativity, to focus on the very essence of what you want to say.
  • Content. Twitter is like the Internet in microcosm. Sure there’s piles of disposable junk and slicks of sleaze floating on an ocean of irrelevance. The banality of endless self-promotion is a bigger issue than the self-righteous pitchfork-waving types who tend to dominate public perceptions of Twitter, but the latter are certainly there. Yet among all that there is genuine humanity, wit and originality. There is some truly fascinating stuff being tweeted. You just need to filter out the rest as best you can. And …
  • Diversity. It’s the beauty of the Internet: whatever you’re into, or do, or think, you’ll find others who share your passions. And people who like to read books like the ones you’ve written, if you can reach them. Which brings me to …
  • Marketing. It’s quick and easy to sprinkle your output with links to reviews of your books, or to blog posts, or updates. But note ‘sprinkle’ not ‘drown’ (see ‘endless self-promotion’ above).
  • Exposure. If you tweet regularly and don’t just self-promote or re-tweet the work of others the whole time, people will follow you, and at a faster rate than I’ve experienced on WordPress. Of course, ‘follow’ doesn’t necessarily mean all those people will hungrily devour every missive you churn out thereafter, let alone buy your books. In fact, in most cases it almost certainly doesn’t mean that. But at least it gives a greater chance of a bigger audience than you might otherwise have.
  • The look. There’s not a lot you can do to customize a Twitter page, and what you can do is dead easy. You might see that as a drawback, but I like it. It’s sort of democratic. It means my Twitter page can look as professional as those of celebrities and corporations. Unlike websites or even WordPress blogs, where at least some time, design expertise and/or money has to be invested to make it look at least reasonable, let alone stand out.
  • Access. I was bowled over to get a direct message from one of my fave authors, Erin Kelly, after I mentioned her in a tweet. I can’t pretend I’m now a friend of the stars, but Twitter gives a unique opportunity for direct contact with people you wouldn’t otherwise have a hope of encountering.

But of course with the smooth comes the rough. Next time I’ll ruminate on some of the things I’m less enthusiastic about. In the meantime if you’d like to check me out on Twitter, click here.

Do you use Twitter? What for? How do you feel about it? Are you an old hand or a recent convert like me?

 

 

Fathers’ Day quotes

Fatherhood

In celebration of Fathers’ Day, here is a link to some inspirational quotes. Well, some are inspirational and others are just funny. As the father of a thirteen-year-old daughter, I was especially amused by Mark Twain’s wise words (#3).

Fatherhood can be so underrated, and it’s true that some men fail to take this awesome responsibility as seriously as they should. But it’s always meant a great deal to me, as a dad myself. I love being a writer, but being the best possible parent is much more important.

This has been reflected in some of my writing, with fatherhood an important theme in my first two books, Falling Girl and BASIC Boy. Both stories featured the character Robert Black, a man who often struggled to be a good parent but came through in the end despite his imperfections. I think there’s quite a lot of Robert Black in me.

Annoying! – or, Does it ever end?

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So I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’m sitting with the paperback of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer in my hands, and I’m reading it to my six-year-old son (who’s already suffered an earlier draft so knows the story, but wants to hear it again which is nice).

The problem is, I have mixed feelings when reading the ‘final’ version of any of my work. I’ve come across too many problems, mistakes or typos in the past, blatant errors that I’ve somehow seen straight through in the previous gazillion times I’ve painstakingly gone through the flipping thing.

Even if I don’t see actual mistakes, I feel my fingers twitching when I read a particular word, phrase or sentence and think, ‘hmm, maybe that would read slightly better if …’. Once you’re conditioned to constantly edit your work, it’s hard to stop.

But anyway, today’s reading was going pretty well. No typos at least. And then on page 18 I come across the following sentence:

He decided not to mention the tree-talking Captain Frost to Mum – she had enough to worry about.

Nothing much wrong with that, right? Wrong. Danny first meets Captain Frost a few pages earlier. The problem is that he doesn’t know her name yet. He doesn’t actually learn she’s called Captain Frost until a few pages later.

And I know how this error happened: in an earlier draft, the first encounter between Danny and the Captain was somewhat longer and they learnt each others’ names. For various reasons, that scene was re-written and their conversation became a lot shorter. But I missed this particular reference to the Captain’s name between that scene and the next time the two characters meet.

So I guess you’d call it an error of perspective or context, or something like that. Anyway, it’s a mistake. Perhaps a fairly subtle one – and I take some comfort from the fact that none of the other people who’ve reviewed the book so far have pointed it out. But now I’ve noticed it I’ve just got to fix it.

Of course I can correct and upload the Kindle version pretty quickly and easily. As for the paperback – well there are already a few copies printed that have the mistake in perpetuity. There’s nothing I can do about that. (Maybe they’ll be valuable one day when I’m famous, right …?) But I can create a new printer file and ensure all new copies from now on are fixed. At least it’s on POD so it’s not like hundreds or thousands have been printed.

It’s got me thinking, though. How can I get better at spotting mistakes like these earlier? Is it just a case of going through it again and again and again? Maybe I should have paid for a final professional proofread as well as the earlier copy-edit, but I had to draw the line on spending somewhere. Oh well, it could be worse … and actually might be, as I’ve yet to re-read the rest of the book! There might well be more to come. So I’ll hold back on creating the new versions of the text for now.

What’s the worst (or most frustrating) error you’ve spotted in something you’ve written?

An inspiring story

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(Picture (c) Jason Bye, reproduced from Supply Management magazine)

Nothing in particular to do with writing, but I found myself sufficiently impressed to relate this story I’ve just come across in Supply Management magazine. (Yes, I know – rock n roll or what? I don’t read it for fun, I hasten to add – most of the content isn’t quite this interesting – but blame the day job.)

Karen Hester joined Adnams – a Southwold, UK based brewery – as a part-time cleaner in 1988. In April this year she was appointed as the company’s Chief Operating Officer, the first female board member in the company’s history. A pretty remarkable rise by any standards, but the full story is well worth reading – see the full article here. There are several things worth celebrating here:

  • For someone to start at the very bottom of a company and rise to more or less the very top is still, sadly, the exception rather than the rule. But through sheer hard work and basically being herself, Karen succeeded in doing just that.
  • The above is, unfortunately, still doubly true for women. More and more are shattering that glass ceiling, but upper management remains mainly male-dominated throughout the business world. I work in publishing, an industry in which females are well represented at pretty much every level except the very top. Almost all the executive VPs in my company are men, and it has never had a female CEO.
  • And it’s probably triply true for an industry like brewing, which doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a trailblazer for gender equality.
  • So well done also to Adnams for recognising and nurturing the talent in its ranks. It makes me want to rush out and buy their products right now. Which would be no hardship, as their beer is phenomenally good.
  • Karen comes across as a pretty remarkable individual generally. In the British Army at age 16, starting her own business four years later … perhaps her subsequent success isn’t so much of a surprise after all.

So this isn’t really about writing … but you can take this as an inspiration for writing or anything else – that with talent, persistence and hard work, amazing things are possible. But that success doesn’t always come overnight – and probably rarely does, to be honest. It took her 27 years to get from the mop cupboard to the boardroom, but she got there in the end. So let’s raise a pint of Adnams to Karen Hester.  Cheers!

The fall of Falling Girl

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I reached a momentous decision today. I’ve basically unpublished my first novel, Falling Girl from Amazon. Why?

Well, there were a number of reasons really. If you believe (as I do) that your writing gets better with time and practice, then it follows that your earliest work may not be as good as your more recent output. I’ve heard it said that a first novel should be seen as a dry run, a place to make all your mistakes (or even more than usual anyway), and should remain locked in a desk drawer (literally or digitally) rather than published.

Which may not always be true obviously. But I was re-reading the prologue and first chapter earlier today and … I don’t know. I think there’s much there that’s positive. I just think that if I was writing it now, I’d do it differently. I believe I’d lose the prologue for a start. It’s quite different from the rest of the book and has a different POV. I’d say it’s a reasonable piece of writing in itself but, bottom line, the book doesn’t really need it.

There’s another reason. Since my first two books, which were both YA, I’ve switched to middle grade with Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. Maybe that only accentuates the difference in my writing I see between then and now.

And besides, Falling Girl is available for free on this site now anyway, and has been for some time. It does occur to me that, if I don’t believe it’s a good advertisement for my writing whether I should make it available in any form at all, even for free.

But I’m not ashamed of it. It was my first novel, an achievement I remain proud of, and I’ll always have a special affection for it. I worked very hard, paying for a professional critique and redrafting many times, including one fairly significant revision several months after the original publication. Many people have said nice things about it, and I’m fairly sure most of them were telling the truth. It’s not a bad book. I still believe it’s a pretty good one in fact. It’s more that I’ve moved on and I don’t think it’s a quite good enough reflection of where I am and where I want to go.

And no-one was buying it anyway. Would I still withdraw it if it was selling well? Probably not, if I’m honest. But it wasn’t, so that’s a moot point really.

My second novel, BASIC Boy, is still on Amazon as a Kindle edition, though the paperback is no longer available. I do think that’s a better book and I’m more comfortable with keeping it on sale.

Have you published a book and then withdrawn it from sale, or thought about doing so?

 

How carefully do you proofread your blog posts?

waste paper

OK, not the most thrilling of questions, but I’m interested nonetheless. I’m always a little conflicted over this. One part of me thinks: look, I’m a writer, writing is my craft, I should aim to make everything I produce of the highest possible quality, whether it’s a novel, a short story or a 500-word post.

But then the demon (or is it an angel?) on my other shoulder whispers: nah, don’t stress so much. It’s a blog. It’s supposed to be spontaneous, human, real. It’s supposed to convey something of your personality (though I’m not sure what some of my posts reveal about that). What does the odd typo, cliché or misplaced apostrophe really matter? Most people won’t judge you for the odd mistake.

In the end I guess I lean more towards the first point of view, but take something from the second too. I do think it shows some respect to readers to take a least reasonable care. I redraft my posts at least a couple of times, then do a last scan/proofread before uploading. And after all, I am supposed to be in the habit of spotting and correcting errors. If I produce a sprawling, incoherent splurge of a post, what does that say about me and my attitude to my work?

On the other hand, a blog post isn’t the final draft a book before publication, nor a competition entry, nor a query letter to an agent. It doesn’t really hurt if it’s not 100% perfect, and I don’t really believe most people expect it to be. Therefore I don’t proofread everything to the nth degree. (Though I am anal about apostrophes – can’t stand it if they’re wrong.)

However if I spot an error after posting, I usually can’t bear to let it be. A recent example, in my post Your pulse in the pages: music to inspire your writing, I originally wrote that:

… good fiction can infer of kind of immortality upon its subjects.

As soon as the post went live, that word infer leapt out and poked me in the eye.  It was of course the wrong word – it should have been confer. (Or at least I’m fairly sure it should be – now I’m starting to doubt myself, so if anyone wants to correct me, feel free!) So I changed it (and then encountered WordPress’s occasional annoying habit of mucking up the formatting when you try to edit posts, but that’s another story). A touch obsessive perhaps, but it wasn’t correct and, knowing that, I wanted it to be right.

P.S. I absolutely know I will have made at least one error in this post. It’s just inevitable.