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.

 

Why I’ve decided on hybrid publishing

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I’ve been neglecting this blog big time recently, being far too busy with life in general but more specifically with putting the finishing touches to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer and completing the first draft of its sequel. But I’m resolved to blog more regularly from now on. Writing’s a solitary business at times and there’s such a great community on WordPress that’s well worth keeping in touch with.

Anyway – back to the main point of this post. When I posted my writing resolutions for 2015, high on the list (after completing DCFS) was to finally decide on whether to continue down the self-publishing route or to hurl myself into the purgatory of query letters, agents and slush piles hoping to win one of those vanishingly rare traditional publishing lottery tickets.

Both options have their pros and cons of course. For me, the biggest problem with self-publishing is that your book will almost certainly be lost in the crowd. And traditional / conventional publishing, despite the unbelievably high bar confronting prospective new entrants (unless you happen to be a You Tube sensation or random celebrity who may or may not be able to string three words together), is perhaps not a great deal better. Put bluntly, most books don’t sell very well, however they’re published. There are exceptions of course, but they represent a tiny percentage of the tidal wave of new titles published every year.

The fact that I’ve sold very few books so far hasn’t stopped me, mainly because I love writing for its own sake. However, I love it so much that I’d like to spend a lot more time doing it, and that’s not really possible unless I start getting a decent income from it.

So is there a middle way? Some way to improve your chances of success – to help you make your books as professional as possible and to have more chance of selling it? There is much talk of hybrid or partner publishing, and these terms tend to mean different things to different people. All I can tell you about is what I’ve decided to do, and why.

DCFS will be published by a company called Albury Books. They are not a conventional publisher but neither do they publish anything and everything that comes their way. DCFS had to be accepted in order to carry their imprint. I have no doubt that their selection criteria were nowhere near as rigorous as a conventional publisher’s has to be when confronted with a tottering pile of hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and a budget that probably allows them to take on perhaps one of them. But the fact that Albury do have minimum standards was reassuring.

I also liked their website, the fact that they have a children’s book programme, and the appearance of the books they were selling. The covers looked quite professional, for instance. That is not the case with all hybrid publishers’ websites I’ve seen, some of which looked quite amateurish and were jam-packed with covers that absolutely screamed ‘self-published!’ and not in a good way.

I know what you might be thinking at this point. I know because I’d probably be thinking it myself: isn’t hybrid just a polite word for vanity? Ah yes, the dreaded vanity press, exploiting authors’ dreams, taking their money for over-priced services and giving poor value in return. Have I fallen into that trap?

Well, for me, paid publishing services are not a dirty word (or words) necessarily. Design, editing, distribution, marketing … these things, especially if done properly, all cost time and money. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who secures a conventional publishing deal, they won’t come for free (and even then, much is still expected of the author, especially on the marketing side). Sure, a self-publishing author can do much or even all of it themselves – but to what standard, and how successfully? Let’s be honest. Amazon is full of books that aren’t very good, or have lousy covers, or sell few or no copies. There are also many that are very good, look amazing and/or sell in decent quantities, but they are the exception especially on the sales.

So I have concluded that if I want to do things better, going it alone is not the best option. I need some help, and yes that’s going to cost me something. To some extent, how much it costs is up to me. Albury do not sell fixed-price packages or require you to buy services you don’t need. I have got the cover designed through them (see above) – they were OK with my own design but I decided to go professional this time, and I’m pleased with the result. They did require, as a condition of acceptance for publication, that a copy-edit of the text was done by a specialist children’s editor – but they did not insist that this was sourced through them. I could have gone out and found my own copy-editor. (The edit was a good thing, by the way – I’ve never had one before, and I’m certain the book is better for it.)

There are some things I’m still doing myself, and therefore not paying for, because I’m confident I can do them to a good standard. This includes the text layout and the set-up on Amazon. Albury will be handling the set-up in other distribution channels, on their own website and in POD. The standard of the POD printing of their books, by the way, is definitely a cut above what I’ve experienced with Amazon’s, and therefore I won’t be setting up this book in Create Space.

I have to sign a contract, but I get to keep a high percentage of the royalties. The percentage is higher than Amazon’s and certainly miles better than those of a typical conventional publishing contract.

But of course, a high percentage of diddly squat is still diddly squat. The idea is to sell some books. Which brings me on to marketing and publicity services. These are available through Albury but they cost, and I’m still evaluating the options here. Two things I know: there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, and even if I pay for some services the onus is still on me. If I don’t believe in the book, I can’t expect anyone else to. I’ll post more about the marketing another time.

If you have any views or comments on any of this, I’d be pleased to hear them. Thanks.

BASIC Boy and Falling Girl: free this weekend – with new covers

BB cover Oct 14       FG cover Oct14

Last night I got a call from the New York Times. ‘Christopher!’ barked the stressed journalist. ‘Your books are selling so fast, they’re breaking all records! Seriously, we’re thinking of taking them off the best-seller list, just to give everyone else a chance! For crying out loud, stop writing such excessively successful books!!!’

Partly because the above isn’t true, but mostly because I’m an incredibly kind and good-hearted human being – and also, both are ghost stories and it’s nearly Halloween – the Kindle editions of my two novels BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are free on Amazon this weekend, starting tomorrow (Friday 24th October) up to and including Sunday (26th October). Links to US and UK Amazon are at the bottom of this post.

(If you’re reading this after 26th October, don’t despair because (1) Falling Girl is always free on this website anyway, in PDF form, and (2) both books are very reasonably priced. And also available in slightly less reasonably priced paperback form.)

And … after reading some advice on cover design, I’ve slightly revised the cover of both books. I’ve also been giving some thought to the ‘do-it-yourself versus pay someone else’ conundrum. But that’s the subject of a future post.

Amazon links for BASIC Boy:

US: http://www.amazon.com/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1387582153

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117495&sr=8-1&keywords=basic+boy

Amazon links for Falling Girl:

US: http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Girl-Ghost-Christopher-Peter-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1387582752&sr=1-3&keywords=falling+girl

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Falling-Girl-A-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117617&sr=8-1&keywords=falling+girl

Is Amazon actually evil?

Jeff Bezos devil

Are you pro- or anti-Amazon? Or somewhere in between? Many people seem to be jumping to condemn them, especially now they’re in a not-so-secret dispute with the big publisher Hachette. Reading some of the increasingly lurid and extreme criticisms, I’ve felt my level of bemusement rising along with the rhetoric.

So, to get it off my chest, I wrote a piece on it a few days ago. I then had second thoughts about posting it, not because I changed my mind about the contents but rather because I’m never too sure how many people actually read longer opinion pieces like this. So if you don’t want to read it all (it’s about 1,400 words), here’s a very quick précis:

  • We don’t know the details of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, even though we can speculate.
  • So the fact that so many have jumped on the anti-Amazon bandwagon probably says more about their pre-conceived notions and/or their self-interest than anything else.
  • Much of the criticism levelled at Amazon has been extreme, hysterical, unfair, bizarre, short-sighted, hypocritical, or some combination of the above.
  • They are not a threat to the existence of books or literature – or at least, no more than the conventional publishing industry is.
  • Amazon aren’t perfect but they are generally very good at what they do.
  • They have, on balance, been a good thing for writers.
  • They are not an all-powerful monopoly, and what power they do have will not last forever.

That’s basically it. Do you agree or not? (And should I be saying ‘Amazon is ..’ or ‘Amazon are …’? Not quite sure.) Comments welcome.

And for those interested, here is the longer version …

Judging by the tidal-wave of criticism engulfing them during the past few weeks, since its dispute with the publisher Hachette first became public, you might easily conclude that there must be more than a whiff of sulphur lingering around the e-commerce giant. It certainly seems to have become highly fashionable to be anti-Amazon – a position that was increasingly popular even before the Hachette spat blew up, and has become exponentially so since.

Amazon have been accused of all sorts of things. A cynical monopoly, bent on using its dominant position to bully and control the whole publishing industry. (The fact that Amazon sells an awful lot of things that aren’t books doesn’t normally get much of a mention. Presumably TV manufacturers can look after themselves.) Attacking publishers, authors and readers. Even threatening the future of books, of literature itself. Tax dodgers. The mafia. Vladimir Putin. Darth Vader. I haven’t yet actually heard them being compared to the Infernal One, but I’m quite sure they must have been by someone, somewhere.

Here’s just one article summarising many of the criticisms levelled by Hachette authors, bookstore owners, and various industry spokesmen.

To be fair, I’ve also seen other opinion pieces that have attempted to restore some balance to the debate. See here, here, here and here for some examples. There are a number of reasons why I agree with much of what’s argued in these articles, and why I believe that the anti-Amazon frenzy is largely misplaced and bordering on the absurd. (Actually, more than bordering – it’s crossed the border, built a big house with a massive swimming pool, and taken up permanent residence.)

First, and most obviously, we don’t know the precise details of the dispute with Hachette. Too many people are assuming that it must be Amazon being greedy and unreasonable, because that fits in with an existing, widely-held narrative about them and their allegedly negative effect on the publishing world. But what if Hachette are trying it on? Or what if it’s simply a bit more complicated, less black-and-white than one of them being in the right and the other in the wrong? Things are rarely that straightforward in the business world.

Second, Hachette are not some weakling little indie. They’re a substantial multinational, one of the world’s leading publishers. Admittedly not as big as Amazon, but – crucially – be in no doubt they can hold their own in corporate guerrilla warfare. They know full well that the prevailing mood of the industry is solidly behind them, and that other major publishers will be secretly rooting for them. It’s not insignificant that it will soon be the turn of those other publishers to enter the ring with Amazon, and that the outcome of the Hachette negotiation and the precedent it sets will therefore be highly significant for them.

Also, the recent Apple saga demonstrated that the big publishers are not above collusion, and although there’s no suggestion that anything like that is happening right now, it’s clear that their interests are closely allied in this dispute. That might be another reason why Amazon doesn’t want to lose – they must know full well this isn’t a battle with Hachette alone. Also, Amazon are not the all-powerful mega-monopoly they are too often lazily portrayed to be. All those Hachette titles can be obtained from sundry other outlets, and already a number of those outlets have taken advantage of the situation by offering the affected books at a discount, including the new J. K. Rowling (sorry, Robert Galbraith). This is not a risk-free game for either side.

Third, much of the most strident criticism of Amazon has come from those with the most invested in the status quo, such as high-profile Hachette authors who have done very nicely from the conventional industry structures and business practices. Now those authors are entitled to defend their livelihoods of course. But never forget that this industry has given us inflated e-book prices, celebrity-penned ‘novels’, and Stephanie Meyer and an endless stream of Meyer wannabees. It is not necessarily the guardian of high literature, even if it’s very quick to claim that mantle at times like this.

Fourth, there’s a not-so-faint stench of hypocrisy clinging to much of the more strident down-with-Amazon rhetoric. Big publishers are suddenly earnest cheerleaders of the small bookshop, when until recently they’ve been too busy cozying up to the big chains to notice. Those same big chains have spent years trying to extract the best possible terms from publishers, yet now Amazon are vilified for doing the same thing. Big-name authors complain that Amazon have cut the discounts on their books – and yet the same company is criticised for forcing down the price of e-books, a move that will apparently destroy conventional publishing and the livelihoods of authors (and note how those two things are implicitly conflated). It’s not apparently such a big deal that publishers attempt to inflate e-book pricing while paying the same desultory royalty rates to authors. I know that publishing is a business, and a risky and (the rare Fifty Shades-like mega-hit aside) not outstandingly lucrative one at that. They have every right to fight their corner. But, please, spare us the woe-is-me, shining guardians of literature act. It doesn’t wash.

Fifth, it seems disingenuous at best to seek to blame Amazon for many of the changes that are sweeping the industry. To be sure they’ve driven much of this change, taking a key role in popularising e-books for one thing. But they invented neither the e-book nor the Internet. Electronic publishing was happening anyway. Of course, the major publishers would far rather have carried on controlling the whole thing themselves, rather than some upstart e-commerce company yanking the carpet out from under their feet.

I might also add here that the fear and loathing of Amazon misses the point that they won’t be dominant forever. The biggest players come and go. They always have and always will. Change was their making and change will one day be their undoing. It won’t be the defenders of the status quo, but another bright young upstart that works out the next big thing and does it quicker and/or better than Amazon.

Finally, I really think that Amazon has been a power for good in many ways. They have made a vast selection of competitively-priced books more easily available to everyone. They have made self-publishing easier than ever before (though they didn’t invent that either!) – and at royalty rates far higher than those offered by conventional publishers. (Not that you can directly compare them, as Amazon don’t of course provide all the value-add services of a conventional publisher. The whole topic of whether Amazon has been a generally good thing for writers or not is a complex one – but I think on balance they have.)

Crucially, their customer service is, in my experience, generally excellent and clearly superior to that offered by most other large (or even small) companies. When you deal with Amazon, they make it seem so easy you wonder why no-one else can get it right. Everyone plays lip service to this but very few other big corporations really take it seriously enough. This is no small thing – and I believe that it’s if and when Amazon stop excelling in this area that it could all start going wrong for them.

Note that none of the above seeks to paint Amazon as a paragon of virtue, an alloyed good thing in the world. They are a big corporation. They negotiate hard and take no prisoners. And sometimes they make mistakes. But they are exceptionally good at customer service, they have (for better or worse) enabled countless indie authors to realise their dream of getting their books ‘out there’, their website has made online shopping easier than ever before, and – best of all – they’ve managed to annoy a lot of people who probably deserved to be.

And they’re not actually evil.

 

Does being a writer affect your enjoyment of reading?

Reading book

It’s often said that it’s important for writers to keep reading stuff that other people write. This helps us to keep improving our own craft, and may also serve to keep us in touch with what’s current in the genres and markets that we ourselves write in. This should not be especially onerous for most writers, given that we’re generally a pretty bookish bunch anyway.

I agree totally with the above. However I’ve realised I have two problems that have affected how much I read, and my enjoyment of it. The first it the most obvious: time. What with writing swallowing up the hours, plus the day job and everything else, reading can easily become a causality of the highly inconvenient fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

The second is perhaps less obvious, and something I’ve become more aware of recently. It’s basically this: as someone who’s been writing seriously for a few years, I’ve inevitably begun to read books as – well, a writer. That means I’m now much more keenly aware of how stories are structured, how plots develop, the words that are used, the point of view, and so on. All the stuff that we learn and think about and discuss as writers.

Of course to a great extent, that’s the point. When we read outstanding books, with brilliantly-drawn characters, involving storylines, cracking dialogue, economic and cliché-free prose … we learn valuable lessons. We hope this will rub off on us, that our own writing will progress as a result.

The problem is, we will probably also start to notice the not-so-great things elsewhere. Clichéd prose, over-use of adverbs, typos, unconvincing plot developments, padding – that will all also start to jump out at us.

The last novel I was reading, I had to stop because I decided the standard wasn’t high enough. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say I concluded that the author wasn’t any better than me, and in a couple of respects maybe not quite as good. It was actually a pretty reasonable book in many ways, professionally published, and was well-reviewed on Amazon. But there were some aspects of it, some deficiencies, that were starting to grate on me. And I concluded that, with time so precious, I need to focus on higher quality.

Last year I read another – again, conventionally published – that I did actually complete but wasn’t greatly impressed with. There were a couple of errors that shouldn’t have appeared in a professionally-edited book, and the author had one unhappy habit (i.e., over-using a variety of speech verbs) that I found increasingly off-putting. And this was a well-established and reasonably successful writer.

Of course, I can’t expect to love every single book I read, or to enjoy everything that others do. It’s a much too subjective business for that. But I’m now asking myself – has being a writer in some way reduced my ability to simply enjoy books? Do I over-analyse everything I read? Do I now see faults when previously I would have overlooked them?

The answer is – I’m not completely sure. I think it might be true up to a point. My standards may be higher than before – but they probably need to be. My reading diet needs to be good.

But, having said that, in the past I’ve given up on books too – but probably didn’t realise why a particular story wasn’t engaging me. Now I’m more likely to see why, the exact reasons I don’t like it, when before I’d have just said it’s boring or something like that.

And if a book is really good, especially well written, then I will still enjoy it. Then I know I’ve struck gold, and that as well as enjoying the experience it might also help to nudge forward my own writing. Such books are truly inspiring and one of the great pleasures of life.

What do you read? Do you look at books differently as your own writing has progressed? Do you sometimes give up on books, or do you always plough on to the end?