Never Knowing

I want to talk about uncertainty, and how it is both a blessing and a curse for artists. It is the cause of our doubt, our frustration and insecurity, but it is also the abyss we choose to venture into, that we mine for treasures and attempt to fill with our art. Without that open space, we couldn’t do what we do. It is something most people try to avoid at all costs – hell, the fear of it is the basis for every religion – and yet artists have to spend much of their time seeking it out in order to explore it. I think it’s the biggest factor in people steering clear of artistic careers, or giving up on them after they’ve tested the waters.

There is a mistaken perception of an association between creative people and mental illness, where it’s assumed that, at the very least, you must be an eccentric or a prima donna to be a good artist. There’s little evidence to back this up, and in my experience, professional artists tend to be pretty well balanced, mentally healthy people, at least in part because of what they do – though we are all somewhere on the same mental health spectrum, and it is certainly the case that creative work can help people with mental health problems, so they can well be drawn to it for that reason. One of the main reasons creative people’s behaviour can often be perceived as odd is simply the extent to which they are compelled to explore areas with no clear paths or boundaries. They must deliberately seek out uncertainty on a daily basis. Of course, life itself is full of uncertainty, everyone faces it to some degree or other, it’s just that for most people, they do so reluctantly. People tend to crave security, or at the very least, narrowly defined risk. There is no clear career path for a professional artist, no obvious ladder to climb, so they have to be enthusiastic about their future, while never knowing what’s ahead. This is rarely regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

I’m a writer and illustrator, so these are my terms of reference, though I think most artists will recognise the states I’m going to describe. Let’s talk about the uncertain nature of an artist’s work first. As a writer, I stare at a blank page and think about how to fill it with words that will a) make people want to read them, and b) have something worth saying. As an illustrator, even if I have a brief from someone else of what to draw, I have to choose where to put the pencil to paper for that first stroke and how I’m going to create a picture, in what style, with what materials. When I worked in advertising, our creative director – a man who matched the stereotype of an artist; chaotic to deal with, though he had a brilliant mind – once said that he thought the most creative thinking was to be found in advertising agencies, because of the range of areas they often had to produce ideas for, on subjects they didn’t get to choose. Working in that industry had never been my ambition, and I fundamentally disagreed with him, making one simple argument: Every ad has a starting point with the product it has to sell. Art has no clear starting point at all. When I’m setting off on a book, I look at a blank page and there’s no obvious place to begin, no clear objective to achieve.

Every word you write for a story has meaning; each new word you add to the text is a variable that can change the direction and meaning of the narration – it’s an option that, in turn, leads to a range of almost limitless other options that can lead you in an infinite number of directions. And in every word you write, is the hope that people will find something that appeals, that it will make them want to read it, and to keep reading. It’s all questions with no right answers. It is the contemplation of this gaping abyss of potential that scares the shit out of inexperienced writers taking on their first novel, even as it might excite them.

This is the kind of uncertainty that I haven’t feared in a long time. I enjoy it now, I look forward to it. I savour the anticipation of the special moment when I write the first line. It’s a treat. I learned long ago to plan ahead, how to prepare for it and how to tackle each new question as it’s asked. Even so, the nerves are always tingling a bit when I’m setting off.

Drawing or painting has a different flavour of uncertainty. These are practical skills that demand the manipulation of physical materials – your ability to convey your thoughts is limited to what you are capable of showing directly, leaving less to the viewer’s imagination. The clearer the picture, the less open it is to interpretation, but it’s also more accessible, as it is not constrained by the limits of language. Anyone, whether they can read or not, can understand a picture if you’re communicating clearly – visual art is the only truly universal language we have. But you don’t automatically begin at the top of the page in the left-hand corner, so where on the page do you choose to start, and how? Which direction do you move the pencil? And where next? And where after that? Leaning heavier or lighter changes the quality of the line. I can use a harder or softer pencil. What if I use a brush, or dip-pen, or charcoal or a technical pen? What if I do it on screen, rather than on paper? And these are only the most basic questions. A different shape of eye or mouth, the slightest tilt of an eyebrow can change an expression, change the meaning. More blue than red in the depths of a shadow can suggest a different atmosphere. Again, decades of doing this has made this a pretty normal experience for me, and yet there’s still so much I can’t predict at the outset. You either embrace this uncertainty, learn to craft within it and love it for what it is, or you’ll run a mile from it.

I like to use stories to explore ideas, particularly big meaty ideas I have lots of questions about; I have a need to pull them apart, and particularly in my novels. But the bigger the idea, the harder it is for people to get emotionally engaged with it, so making a gripping story out of that involves an extra dimension of difficulty. It adds to the uncertainty, but I enjoy the challenge. However, the point of art is to get something that’s in your head into someone else’s head in such a way that they willingly accept it. They have to invest themselves in the experience. No matter how good you are, that other person’s interpretation of what you’ve made is completely beyond your control. You do your best to make yourself clear, but this is a different mind, that sees the world in ways you can’t anticipate – which is why every writer needs an editor to tell you if you’re making any sense to outside of your head.

This is another level of uncertainty and unlike your piece of art, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let go and accept it – much easier said than done. You can never know what’s going to happen to your creation once it’s absorbed into someone else’s imagination, mixed in with all the other stuff going on in there. Now their opinion of your work – and, inevitably, of you as a person – is being influenced by their own views and experiences. You are subject to subjectivity. And in the age of social media, anyone can publish their opinion of you and your work.

Just about everyone’s job is subject to the opinions of others, where there can be differing views over even the most straightforward task. In art however, every goddamn stroke you draw or paint, every word you type, can be argued and debated over, with no clear resolution. Every mind has a different view of that work’s effect, of its quality. Two equally expert critics can judge your work, one considering it nonsense, the other a masterpiece. It’s impossible to have a clear right answer in art. In fact, even reaching the point where people actually will discuss and argue about your work can be a major struggle. Being the subject of an argument can seem a strange thing to which one should aspire. And how, in the end, do we judge that quality? By sales? By critical acclaim and awards? Weirdly, in publishing, one is often seen as an alternative to the other. Go figure. Me, I want both.

Moving outwards again, let’s look at the very nature of a creative career, which is prompting the thoughts I’ve been having lately, because this kind of career seems to be getting increasingly difficult – and certainly harder for new writers and illustrators to establish an lasting career. Art is valued less while being spread further; artists, paradoxically, are doing ever more work for free in the hope that they might be valued more. Publishing is a prime example of this occupational uncertainty, because though self-publishing is becoming an ever more realistic alternative, most writers and illustrators seek access to their audiences through the distribution provided by traditional publishers, believing they’re not ‘proper’ writers until they’ve found this, often arbitrary, approval. Few of those hopeful souls realise how insecure and unstable a life still lies beyond that approval, if you choose to devote yourself full-time to writing, and how many new skills you will need to become the kind of entrepreneur you must be to make this art your career. And it starts with not knowing, surrendering control of your career entirely to someone else’s judgement, with you pitching your book and waiting, pitching and waiting, pitching and waiting . . . that’s only the earliest stage of the uncertainty that begins with the completion of a manuscript.

If, as an illustrator, you find a single style that provides you with a reliable supply of work for the duration of your career (I haven’t), if as a writer you achieve the kind of wealth from sales of a particular book or series that means you’ll never have to worry about money again (I haven’t), then you’re one of a tiny few (I’m not). To be fair, I probably haven’t done myself any favours on either front; I’ve always wanted to publish a wide variety of books for different ages, and illustrate in a range of styles and as a result, perhaps I’ve spread myself very thin. But still . . . I’m having a good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having doubts about your life or your future makes you a better artist, or somehow stimulates creativity. Frankly, having to worry about where the next mortgage payment comes from or paying the electricity bill is not good for your head and I need my head in good working order to get stuff done. I’m creative enough without having mundane shit to worry about, thanks very much.

But for most professional artists, uncertainty is a constant companion, one we have to learn to accept. On the negative side, it is a destructive force. It undermines your confidence, demanding huge self-belief to keep going. It often means financial insecurity and the stress that accompanies it; despite your best efforts, you can appear unreliable and both antisocial and attention-seeking. What are often characterised as the eccentricities of a creative professional are merely the visible manifestations of the demands of your work. It takes extraordinary discipline to keep at something that might take months to complete with little immediate reward – or possibly no reward at all – working your ass off in a way that can mean thinking for hours at a time, while wondering what the hell you’re doing with your day. Doubts about your future can get under your skin and eat away at you like acid. It’s hard to find your ‘Off’ switch, because there’s almost never a point where you can say, ‘Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or two’. It’s hard to relax. You don’t like taking days off work, or taking holidays – like any self-employed person, if you go away on holiday, you’re paying twice, once for the holiday and once for the work you’re missing. You only take a sick day if you physically can’t get out of bed.

More than anything else, it can be exhausting, not knowing what’s ahead, what’s best to work on next or constantly trying to come up with ideas for which there is no clear objective, no easy standard to measure it by, or set criteria to be met. Never knowing wears you out. There have been a few periods in my life when I had a job where I earned regular wages, and while there were downsides, it made structuring every other area of my life much easier, even when there was my own work to do on the side. Working as a self-employed artist is quite different.

There’s no such thing as a normal day, a normal number of hours to work, a normal amount of money to charge or to expect. There’s no such thing as ‘normal‘ at all – nothing to measure your career against, to say ‘This is where I should be at this stage, what I should be doing. This is what it takes to be a success’. A book could be worth everything to a publisher or nothing at all. Nobody’s sure about anything at the outset. Even the most successful artists can suffer bad luck, their careers can run out, or they can just produce a turkey. Publishers and agents will often talk about what they’re looking for in a fresh new book, what’s going to be the next big thing, what the year’s trends will be, but the longer I work in this industry, the more ridiculous and self-aggrandizing these predictions sound. The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody knows what readers will seize upon, so much depends on the environment of reading, as much as the material itself . . . and by the time they do know, it’ll be something else before they can reproduce that success.

I always find myself sighing with resignation when I have to fill out an official form. It is hard to find a place for us in the official structures of society. Banks, public services, institutions, utility companies . . . in fact, any organisation that deals with large numbers of people, demand certainty. They can make little accommodation for the lack of it. They base their decisions upon, and operate upon, the assumption that people earn weekly or monthly, that they earn the same every year, have completely predictable work costs, that their careers have established paths, that they work set hours, drive set distances . . . None of these things are true for an artist. Nor are there any universally recognised certificates or professional qualifications to establish your expertise or state what level your career is at. I don’t have a third level qualification and not once in nearly thirty years have I ever been asked for one when looking for work. Official forms often fail to provide us with boxes we can fill out with any real assurance. And if you can’t, you are given extra hoops to jump through, often costing added time and/or expense. To get a mortgage years ago, I had to pay an accountant to go through three years of my accounts, to assure the bank that I earned as much as I claimed. Which would be fair enough – except this was the same bank I’d had my accounts with since I’d finished school. They had twenty years of records they could check; my income was just too varied for them to make a judgement for themselves. Now I have an accountant do my tax return every year, which, after fuel for the car, is often my single biggest business expense.

The phenomenon of uncertainty affects how you look at the future. Ironically, having loosened up enough to acknowledge the hard fact of never knowing for certain, you can become conservative in your choices, scared to take chances. If you don’t know what money you’re going to make next year (or next month), you don’t just avoid spending money, you avoid situations that might put you in a position where might have to spend money – resisting social pressure on this can take excruciating effort. Paradoxically, you can also end up trying to avoid starting things that might provide new opportunities, but will definitely cost you time, effort, money and possibly some of the good will of those around you. It might drop you in embarrassing situations, as risk so often does. This is when your career can really start to tighten in about you, constricting you, where you’re limiting your choices rather than expanding them. Sometimes this is necessary for survival, the occupational equivalent of battening down the hatches in a storm, and I’ve found myself in this position any number of times, but it takes real strength of will to stop it getting to you and deciding to just leave those hatches shut for good and going off and finding some other way to make a living. Sometimes, having a vivid imagination isn’t such a great thing, when you’re staring into that storm.

But here’s the thing about having a job this weird, this uncertain. Mingled in with all that uncertainty in this nutty career, is tantalising possibility, just as there is in the art we produce. Never knowing what’s there can be a good thing, as well as a bad thing. Take up a more reliable career and you’ll find a clearer path, but that also means a path with less potential for the unexpected. For the extraordinary. No matter who you are in life, what path you choose, there is the chance to explore if you’re that way inclined. Choosing to make art your daily occupation however, to commit yourself to a career in it, means you’re allowing that exploration to shape your life, to shape you as a person. You will retain that sense of wonder many people lose as they grow out of childhood. It means embracing that uncertainty and all the shit and thrills that come with it. Like believing in a religion, (or completely rejecting it), you have to surrender to a certain amount of acceptance – of the insecurity, of the things you can never know, of your lack of control over how your work is perceived, and of the future itself. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and it can threaten ruin and promise glory and make you look really bloody bonkers at some times, and be embarrassing or hugely frustrating at others, but it makes for a passionate life. I know very few people who’ve thrown themselves into it and regretted the experience, and many more who’ve never taken the risk and constantly regret it.

Some people are lucky enough to have careers where they can get to do what they’re passionate about as a normal, reliable job. Art is rarely that kind of career. My question would always be: What’s it worth to you, to be able to spend your time doing what you love? We have one life, and apart from death, the only certainty is uncertainty. I think we should get stuck in and make the most of it.

 

 

Want to Make a Living? Let’s Stop Undermining Our Own Profession

I was approached recently by a reputable company who asked me to contribute a piece for an anthology of contemporary Irish writers. There was to be no fee. They expected me to to provide the work for free, because of who they were and, presumably, the exposure I’d get for it. They were a commercial business, not a charity, though they said any profits would go towards supporting emerging writers – as if established writers don’t need ‘support’.

I said no, because I don’t work for free, but I gather enough other people have said yes for the project to go ahead. I don’t want to name and shame this company, because I do have a lot of respect for them (which is probably why others have said yes), I’ve done things with them in the past and probably will again. But it highlights a problem that’s as much to do with writers themselves, as it is the businesses they work with.

While writing as a career has become increasingly professional, with writers taking on more and more of the promotion of the work, we are also expected to pitch far more finished products to publishers, put up with smaller advances, less thorough editing, shorter shelf lives and income from our books eaten into by discounting in an online race to the bottom. Alienate 1-New RulesWe have to live with the fact that experience and expertise are valued less than a fresh face or a social media presence, that celebrity deals will put money in the pockets of people who, most of the time, do not write, and consider books sideline merchandise, depriving other books of marketing budgets and professional writers of income.

In the midst of all this, writers are allowing our expectations of what our industry owes us to be lowered, instead of raised, as the demands on us increase. Because people think it’s okay to ask a writer for free, we assume we have to accept this as normal. Do try this on any other profession whose services you pay fees for.

If you are a newly published writer, and you’re asked to write for free, I know how keen you might be for a chance to show what you can do, but I’ve been there, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can assure you, publishing works on a ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ basis. If you work for free, you’ll just end up getting more jobs that pay the same amount – not a great foundation on which to base a career. It simply isn’t worth it in the long run. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously.

If you’re a well established, even an A-list author, please think about the environment you’re helping create and sustain for other writers. If you do work for free for a commercial business, because you caStealing Books-Printing Pressn afford to make the grand gesture, you undermine the ability of others to earn money from their work. If you don’t take a stand on this kind of thing, nobody else will and nothing will change.

I’m not anti-tech or against all the progress publishing has made, nor do I think there was some golden age when art was universally respected and considered a rational career. But even as writing becomes increasingly commodified and distributed with greater ease and less cost, the money made from it is being drawn away from the people who create it. Look at everyone else who works in the book industry: Editors get paid. Designers get paid. PR people and admin people and marketing people and receptionists get paid. Printers get paid. Distributors get paid. Booksellers get paid. Librarians get paid. None of these people would have anything to work with, if not for the those who create the stuff in the first place. Writers (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) are the only ones who can’t realistically expect to make a living in publishing.

Please, please, please, I’m asking you this not just for yourself, but for our profession, PLEASE DON’T WORK FOR FREE. If we don’t value our own work, how can we expect anyone else to?

The Language You Didn’t Know You’d Learned

Pictures are the language you learned without realising it. From before you were born, they have been influencing, informing and enriching your life. They were the illustrations in the books about babies your parents read with nervous anticipation as they waited for you to emerge from the womb. They were the health promotion posters on the walls of the hospital on the day you arrived. They were the diagrams on the instructions your parents followed to put the car seat in, to put together the baby gear and the toys that would promote development.

They were the illustrations on those toys, on the play-mat and your high-chair tray, your plastic plate and your bib. They were the images on the cloth books and board books that you chewed as your mum and dad gazed down at you with love. They were the cartoons you watched as you grew. As your parents and teachers first taught you to read, a systematic process laid out in the school curriculum, they used pictures to help you understand the meaning of words. But there was no systematic process to teach you how to read the lines, shapes and colours that made two-dimensional symbols on paper. Easy Option-Book BlastIt was taken for granted that you would understand these without being taught.

Even as you mastered reading words, you continued to read illustrations, because they made the early struggles easier, and still they showed you things that would contort words into knots to achieve the same meaning. These two languages were two aspects of the same thing, human expression, each as valuable as the other, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the world treats them. As ‘reading books with pictures’ became an idiom for ignorance and stupidity, as illustrators were sidelined, given a lower status than writers in publishing lists and book awards, you still looked at pictures in newspapers, magazines, adverts, adult cartoons, instruction manuals and road signs. You graduated from comics and cartoon strips, ‘growing up’, but it was still okay to look at political cartoons that could convey more meaning with one image than many of the news articles you read. Imagine the worldwide web without pictures. Imagine if the only images we had were the ones that could be photographed.

And now, as a new generation of parents around the world sit down to read picture books to their children – without explaining to them how to read pictures – remember what it was like when you were that age. Remember that you were able to learn this language of illustration so effortlessly, so instinctively, because someone else put in the time, hard work, imagination, passion and expertise to understand how a change in the curve of this line can be the difference between showing contentment and regret; how this shadow can give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional image, how adding this colour will change the entire feeling of this picture.

You can read this language because an illustrator uses it so skilfully and expresses themselves so clearly. It is the language we use to learn other languages and it is the only universal language the world has.

We could do more to show our appreciation for that.

Mind Your Language

It was a typical evening in our home. Our fifteen-year-old boy had just finished chasing his two little sisters around the house to get them good and wound up before bedtime. I was in the middle of explaining to our five-year-old why she couldn’t sleep in the cat’s bed, when our six-and-a-half-year-old (that half is very important), asked me:

‘When you stick up your middle finger, does that mean the F-word?’

If you’ve got kids, you’ll know that tricky questions can come at you out of nowhere. I suppressed the urge to laugh, partly because I didn’t want to make a big thing of this, but also because I want my kids to feel comfortable asking me questions and swearing is a serious business which everyone should learn to do properly. Apparently, she’d brought it up because it was the subject of some serious conversation in school. She goes to a small country school, where first and second class are in one room together, meaning you can have kids of six to nine all learning together, which is a pretty big gap in development. And not every lesson is being delivered by the teacher. WT9-The PosseParticularly when the older ones have older brothers or sisters they’re learning from and then passing that knowledge on.

Swearing is a life skill, and when my girls grow up, I want to be sure they’re doing it with some fluency. As my father once solemnly told me, you have to save up your swearing for when you really need it, so it has the greatest effect. And he was a psychologist, so he knew what he was talking about. That said, I don’t feel swearing is a life skill that a six-and-a-half-year-old necessarily needs, so I didn’t try to explain that, at least when I was growing up, two fingers meant ‘Fuck Off’, while flipping the finger up at someone meant ‘Up Yours’ (a phrase that sadly seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times) and, in our area at least, we were pretty specific about the differences. This distinction is open to interpretation in various places around the world, but I settled for telling her that ‘No, it doesn’t normally mean the F-word, it means another rude word.’

‘What word?’

‘I’m not going to start teaching you how to swear yet, honey.’

I only realized after I’d said it, that I’d included the word ‘yet’. She remembers stuff like that.

‘The S-word is only a bit rude,’ our five-year-old added helpfully, as she continued to eye up the cat’s bed.

‘It is still pretty rude,’ I told her. ‘And I don’t want you using it.’

I was a bit late on this one, as she’d already used it a couple of times in the past (that I knew of), casually and in proper context. Fuck knows where they pick this shit up, but then having a little kid can be like having a walking voice recorder following you around. One that can play back key phrases when you’re all out in public. EH22-Giving OutAnyway, there was our six-and-a-half-year-old in school, having conversations about swearing and it got me thinking about books (it doesn’t take much to get me thinking about books, but sometimes it’s actually relevant).

For a writer, dialogue is a vital way of defining your character. Each one should be distinctive and so, as in real life, they should speak in distinctive ways. When your characters cannot be permitted to swear, you’re hobbled in the ways you can have your characters expressing themselves, and it means it’s harder to reflect how people speak in real life.

If you work in children’s books, this is a restraint you accept. It comes with the job.

Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re applying just a bit too much restraint. This recent discussion with my daughter was further evidence of the fact that children’s books are perpetually behind the development of children when it comes to any area where parents’ inhibitions create an awkwardness and result in prohibition. We’re embarrassed to talk about it, so we ban any discussion of it. This, in turn, drives the child to seek their information on personal issues from other sources. Sources which can often be less than reliable.

Most of us teach our young kids not to swear. This is very natural, as we want them to use language appropriately and swearing can be unpleasant, disrespectful and, at times, very hurtful. We want to teach them to speak properly, to communicate well, before they venture into the murky world of foul language. If you write children’s books, this is one of the thorniest areas to navigate – the restraints are tight enough in Ireland and the UK, but look towards the US market and you have to cut back even further.

I write for different age groups and with different publishers, and standards vary slightly from company to company, even from editor to editor, but it is largely decided by what is considered acceptable in schools. And schools can tolerate very little in the way of bad language. For books aimed at primary school level, you’d be lucky to get away with terms like: ‘bloody’, ‘flippin”, ‘crap’, ‘damn’ or even the mildest blasphemy. WT12-Talking In ClassWhat can be accepted in the classroom comes down to an individual teacher’s judgement and they regard it as a practical issue; feature this language in books used in school and it’s feared the kids will start using it in class. And nobody wants kids swearing at teachers – that way lies educational armageddon. And children’s publishers want to sell into schools, ‘cos that’s a big part of their market. So the writers who work with those publishers willingly conform to those expectations.

However.

I’d be delighted if books were the biggest influence on a child’s language. As with any subject that we are reluctant to broach with our kids, like nudity and sex, for example (which I’ve already written about), when we fail to provide the necessary information, children go looking for it elsewhere. They’re going to pick up stuff from other kids around them, and from us, their parents, of course, in those moments when we fail to censor our own language, but it doesn’t stop there. Even with the best filters in the world (which we normally fail to apply), kids will pick up words on the web that would have us wincing in social anguish. Which is fair enough – I mean, hardly any of us learned our meatiest obscenities from reputable sources.

But their range of sources is infinitely wider than when most of us were young and what’s more, the stakes are far higher. Because once they get involved in social networks, they’re not just talking, they’re publishing. WT14-Twins UpsetEverything they say is accessible to a potentially huge audience and could cause much greater hurt, offence or misunderstanding. And could be permanently on display.

The range of influences on teenagers’ language, for instance, is enormous – and I think it’s making them more sophisticated as a result, both in terms of vocabulary and comprehension. They are more aware of the nuances of language, more conscious of how they use it, because they are exposed to so many people who use it well. But in terms of understanding the potential consequences of what they might say, most of them are way behind where they need to be. And given that media-savvy celebrities, politicians and other public figures are constantly being caught out and made to suffer for it, we can’t hope to train young people not to say stupid things online. I’m a forty-two-year-old professional writer, more conscious than most of the meaning of words, and I still spew more verbal shite than I’d like to admit.

Not here, obviously. These are pearls, I’m giving you here. Pearls, I tell ya.

Speech is still our primary form of expression, of communicating ideas – most of us still talk more than we read – though written words are now giving speech a run for its money, and our ever-present phones are blurring the difference between the two. The advantage of the written word used to be that we tended to think a bit more before we wrote. Now, with texts and social networks? Not so much. Those fingers can dump you in it every bit as fast as your mouth can. And those words can hang there, reaching one person after the next, long after we’ve stopped thinking about them. Unlike speech, they don’t evaporate the moment they’re created.

Which is why kids need to start learning, and learning early, the difference between expressive but relatively harmless swearwords, potentially hurtful insults and the kind of language that borders on a hate crime. And because this is often just a matter of degrees, of nuance and the character of the people who might hear or read it, it should be part of their education in communication. WT17-Jason's NightmareThe best we can hope for, is that we give them decent foundations to work from, which is what the education system tries to do.

In fiction, we should be able to go a bit further. I have had a discussion with an editor about whether an unpleasant character should utter a racist comment. She had misgivings because . . . then there’d be a racist comment in the book – and this was in a novel, with ‘Unsuitable for Younger Readers’ printed on the back. The same has happened with a homophobic comment. It was only reflective of how that teenager would speak, but I had to argue to have it in. Never mind that that is the kind of language that a child will encounter in real life. Let’s be clear about this, I wasn’t using these terms as my voice in the narration; these were uttered by characters in scenes I was depicting, scenes that I wanted to make as realistic as possible. But we had to mull over whether they could be permitted or not.

In books for children in primary school, I can’t use language that any kid will hear yelled out at a football match. I can’t use the correct anatomical terms for intimate body parts most human beings have. I recently had to take the word ‘pee’ out of a story because it was feared it would cause a disruptively riotous case of the giggles if it was read out in class. Well, no wonder, if they’re never allowed say it. And yet every school has toilets that the students are using every day. But we have to be careful about mentioning what actually happens in these tiled sanctums. In another story, I had to remove a very inoffensive reference to reindeer shit too, for the same reason. Referring to doing a poo or a pee is most definitely not swearing, but it is put in the same category of language.

Even with older readers, those who are reading novels, but don’t quite count as ‘young adults’ yet, if we want to create a situation that illustrates what’s wrong with using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, as a synonym for ‘stupid’, ‘weak’, ‘pathetic’ or ‘uncool’ – as it is so often used – it sometimes feels like we have to sell it as a social issues story, not . . . y’know . . . just a story. This justifies the reference to it in a book. To feature the derogatory uses of the word, even while making it clear why they’re unpleasant, the story almost has to be about being gay.

We could, instead, just show the effect of this kind of abuse on a character our reader has developed some empathy for, as part of a story that’s about something else entirely.  The same goes for terms that are racist, sexist, insulting to someone’s religion or bigoted and hurtful in other ways. But writers can’t differentiate between these harsh terms and comparatively harmless swearwords if we can’t use any of them in our stories.

We need to start making these distinctions as early as possible, using language that’s appropriate to the age of the child, rather than the conventions of the school system. By lumping this vast variety of terms into the same category, and banning the whole damn lot of them, we are giving up most of the influence we can have over how they’re used . . . and, a crucial point for the publishing industry, we’re making books seem less relevant to young people’s lives.

And yet it’s in books where this can be handled best. Books are quiet, private and deliberately exact in their language. They have time to be thoughtful, to offer context and can be digested at the reader’s own pace. They also have the advantage of only being accessible to a reader of the intended level or above. Reading is a natural form of filtering or certification. You can’t access the material inside if you’re not able to read it.

But by the time the kids are reading stories where we can explore these issues, they’ll have been wondering for years why nobody swears in books. And they will unconsciously attribute this absence to the suspicious relationship publishing has with the education system.

Fortunately, they don’t need books for this kind of thing, because they are busy surfing the web, as well as writing to and for each other, and they can take delight in being as colourful, expressive and offensive as they like – using terms they can learn and share across ever-expanding networks.

Language is as powerful as it is delicate. It can soothe an upset child or it can convince a nation to go to war. Where swearing is concerned, I think children’s books need to take the gloves off earlier, to play and examine and explore foul language. To relish the imaginative insult and wallow in lyrical profanity. But because of the nature of the beast, it also must be dealt with in context, handled with sensitivity and tact. It can’t be a matter of just throwing more swearwords into books – the usual problems will immediately limit our audience: the books won’t get distribution because publishers will be concerned about the reaction of schools and libraries. Schools and libraries will be concerned about the reactions of parents.

It is not the professionals in the book world who need the most convincing. In my experience, the vast majority of these people are pretty open-minded, liberal types, who just want to see kids reading books. When dealing with children, the pace of change is often set by the most reactionary parent, the one who will express outrage and threaten consequences for those who have tainted the soul of their child. You can’t be seen to be leading people’s kids astray.

And much as I’d like to say ‘Ah, fuck ’em!’, it doesn’t work like that.

Publishers run on tight margins. Even if you were to say we’d only try and sell it through shops, and let each parent decide what they’ll let their kids read, that’s too big a cut in potential sales for most publishers to take.

Short of running a massive advertising campaign aimed at convincing parents to let us use more offensive language in children’s books, it’s hard to see what to do. It’s all to easy to fall back onto bland words that lack impact and sound unconvincing. WT30-Nobody's PerfectBut as writers, we can start pushing more, stretching those elastic boundaries, consciously searching out spiky terms, earthier language, entertaining insults and killer put-downs. If we can’t get some established term past the filters, find another one, a great sounding one, that does the same job. It’s the kind of thing writers do anyway. And we need to start early.

We can make bad language a topic of conversation, as well as just an embellishment, so that it’s harder to remove it in the editing process. We can use dialogue with deliberate intent; have our characters interrogate meaning – like my six-and-half-year-old is already doing in school with her friends – argue about swearwords, make jokes about them, ask questions about them, wonder why weak ones don’t work, why misplaced ones are funny, what ones you can or can’t use in front of parents or teachers. Demonstrate how a child’s language changes when there is no authority figure around, because it does. Make fun of the contortions parents go into trying not to swear in front of their children. Make us laugh at the innocent questions young kids ask about what they hear.

Pose the questions in stories that we want children to ask themselves about the language they use and how they use it. About what it means, how it sounds. About the effects it can have. This is a tricky thing to do, and it’s important and expressive and it’s fun and those are the best reasons to write anything.

In conclusion, we need to start sneaking more bad language in children’s books. Spread the word.

Terrorism and the Art of Not Explaining Things

After September the 11th, the subsequent invasion of Iraq and all the crap that went on around it, I decided to sit down and write my second novel (which ended up being the first published), set in an alternate world to explain to everyone what was going on. Gods CoverI soon realized two things:

1) Writing a story so you can explain things makes for a crap story.

2) I knew feck all about Islamic extremism, the Middle East or the mind-set of the people there (Was Iraq even in the Middle East? Which countries make up the Middle East?).

I knew a bit about the circumstances that had created the conflict in Northern Ireland, and had watched Western extremism with some bemusement for years, but I had to face facts: I was in no position to explain anything. And besides, I was more interested in writing a thriller than a political statement.

But I am curious by nature and I did have a lot of questions, and questions are a good way to start a story. And when you write stories, you tend to write about the stuff that’s affecting you at the time.

So I wrote a tale about old men who could use young men and women to harness the power of ghosts. Those young people could take the violence of one unjust death and use that energy as a supernatural – and suicidal – weapon to cause other deaths (I wanted something that offered more variety than bombs), martyring themselves, so that one death constantly led to another. German 'Gods' CoverI created a world where one culture, a kind of a mix of the Middle East and the American Old West, was fighting a guerilla war with a more advanced, domineering culture, whose technology (and world view) was about the level of 1940’s Europe or America.

Years later in the real world, and the same stuff is still happening. And there still don’t seem to be any better answers to what’s going on except maybe for people to stop killing each other long enough for them to get a taste for life again, which is basically what happened in Northern Ireland. This solution, of course, was way too lacking in drama to serve as the ending for my novel, and you have to have drama for that all-important climax.

Over the weekend, I was at the Rolling Sun Festival in Westport, where Robert Fisk spoke about the recent events in Beirut and Paris. Gods US CoverHere was a man who actually could explain things, in an incredibly articulate and passionate way. And despite all the obscene violence he’d witnessed, he still seemed to have hope that we can some day stop creating the circumstances that create terrorism.

I wish he wrote for children and young adults – that’s surely where his message would have the greatest effect.

If you want to broach this twisty subject with young readers, The Gods and Their Machines doesn’t promise any easy resolutions, but I hope it can offer some questions.

And I figure a few questions is a good start.

Make Them Feel It

In 500 words, how to make a story, essay or article compelling. This was originally commissioned, along with another, longer piece, for the Irish Independent. Both pieces were intended for students preparing for the Leaving Cert. This one didn’t get published due to a lack of room (though they still paid in full for it), so I’m posting it here.

You haven’t much time. You have a story to write, perhaps an essay or an article. Your reader will have many, many of these to read. They’ll be checking that you’ve ticked the right boxes and then they’ll just move on to the next one. This is a person you’ll never meet and as far as they’re concerned, your piece is probably going to be nothing special. You’ve got to convince them they’re wrong – make them remember you . . . and the clock is ticking.

10: First, don’t write. Stop and think. Easy Option-Book BlastWhere do you need to end up? What’s the last thing you’ll say? Your ending doesn’t have to be set in stone, but you need a direction to head off in.

9: Get their attention. What’s the situation you’re describing? Present a problem in need of a solution. Pose a question in the reader’s mind: How is this going to work out? It’s the key to suspense: Ask a question . . . make them wait for an answer.

8: You have a problem to be solved, but why should your reader care? What’s the strongest negative emotion it can provoke? Provoke it by describing how bad the situation could be. If this is a story, dump your main character right in the middle of the problem. If it’s an essay or article, make a strong statement, then tease the reader towards your justification for making it.

7: If there are no characters, if it’s an essay, remember that emotion is as strong a persuader as logic. Passion can be convincing. What do you feel strongly about? What can you argue passionately for? Why?

6: Write it as if you’re feeling it. Make your reader feel it too. Write in the present tense, or moment by moment in the past tense. You’re emotionally affected by this and your reader should be there with you. First person or third? Or maybe even the second person, throwing the emphasis back on the reader.

5: Characters need to be believable individuals, different from each other. Each has a distinctive job to do in the story. Sometimes the clash between the different characters is the whole story. Often, it’s how they fail that keeps us reading, how their personality is ill-suited to the task at hand. Maybe they caused the problem. We’ll cheer for them all the more if the cause seems hopeless, but they don’t give up.

4: Reinforce that question hanging in the reader’s mind. Start offering up solutions, but then knocking them down. Create suspense through failed attempts at success.

3: Things have to be at their worst right before the end; the tensest moment, the most threatening event, the worst element of the issue. All is about to be lost.

2: The punch-line, the pay-off, the climax. You deliver the goods.

1: Wrap it up and be quick about it. Drawn-out endings are boring and you haven’t got time.

Now let it go and move on. You’ve got other things to do.

A Lesson for Irish Children’s Publishers

Back in 2003, the O’Brien Press suffered a major cut in Arts Council funding – a huge blow to one of the country’s top publishers, and unquestionably our most successful and influential native children’s publisher. I responded by writing a letter to the council, appealing for that decision to be reversed. I was only one of many, and the following year, most of the funding was reinstated. Once again, OBP have been hit with a bizarre and undermining cut and it is likely to affect their ability to publish children’s books and to maintain their expert and full-time staff at its present levels.

As a writer, illustrator and designer, I have learned firsthand over more than twenty years, that publishing in Ireland is run on a shoestring. The margins are disturbingly narrow.

This is particularly true of children’s books, with the extra expense of attractive and inventive formats and time-consuming illustration work, while having to charge comparatively lower prices. As well as this, they have to compete with the far greater resources, mainstream marketing and much bigger print runs from publishers in the U.K. who represent the tiny percentage of names who dominate the market.

We live in an increasingly global world and it is right that our publishers should face tough competition, it keeps them on their toes.  But we pay taxes to a government which is supposed to represent our interests and promote our culture, and as with so many things, that representation should start with the nation’s children.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Ireland’s writers have a tremendous wealth of ability to offer their country, but they can and do offer it to foreign publishers if there is nobody here who can pay them.

Children need to see their own country featuring in stories, they need to see their neighbourhoods, their people and their culture in the books they read. They need to hear their slang, laugh at their humour and empathise with characters with whom they can identify.

We are swamped by books from the U.K. and the U.S. and they provide children with access to a fantastic range of stories, but that range has to include some of Irish origin, or the next generation of children will grow up dreaming of a bright future . . . set in Britain or America.

Being a kid is hard. Every day is a learning experience, you always have to do what you’re told, grown-ups control everything and they rarely want to do what you want to do. And don’t even talk about school. Whoever said that schooldays were the best days of our lives didn’t go to any school I ever heard of – and I can look back and be thankful that my primary and secondary schools were as good as I could have asked for. Adults – particularly those who set policy and funding for schools but don’t work in them – are so concerned with cramming your head with the knowledge they think might be useful, promoting the development of the imagination can end up getting shoved right to the bottom of the list of priorities.

But it’s your imagination that gets you through childhood. Knowledge helps you grow up to be a capable adult, but your dreams are what you grow up for. They give you purpose. Algebra and geometry might be able to put a man or woman into space, but it doesn’t happen unless someone dreams of going into space themselves – only then does that knowledge equip them to do it.

Fiction throws aside enough of the rules to let us imagine what could be, to empathise, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine other possible lives. And books exercise that imagination far more than films or television, or computer games – the process is more potent because the entertainment is not simply shown to you, or responding to levers and buttons, it demands that you take part in the act of creation. Your imagination has to do some of the work.

If we are to produce bright, inventive and productive adults, we have to get our children to read. And to make them want to read and to relate those stories to real life, we must produce books that make them feel stories could happen to them, not just to others. Play is as important as education to a child, it is crucial to the development of a healthy mind. It is not enough that our children have Irish-made textbooks to inform them; they need Irish-made fiction to inspire them.

Given that OBP is Ireland’s foremost publisher of children’s books, a decision on their part to stop production of children’s titles would be a death knell for the industry’s efforts to provide indigenous works for the nation’s kids. There has long been a trend among most other Irish publishers to avoid children’s books because of the sheer cost of producing them, mainly because they are unable to compete with imported titles. If the leading native publisher gave up, what message would that send to those who have had an even tougher time in the market?

Even now, authors are forced to look abroad for publishers if they hope to make a living, exacerbating the drain of culture from our country. It’s a simple, financial truth: Our market is so small, you could have a bestseller in Ireland every year and never make a living from your writing.

Without Irish stories to frame their ambitions, children will grow up with little expectation of achieving their ambitions in Ireland, having been saturated with media from other countries. The backdrop for their dreams will be decided by what they read in books and see on television and in films. And with a few exceptions, television and film portraying Irish life hasn’t exactly been holding the kids riveted lately, particularly in proportion to the funding those industries receive.

It would be a poor reflection on the Arts Council if our country could not provide a wealth of Irish culture to where it is most needed and would have greatest effect – the nation’s children. Providing grants for our young after their perceptions have already been shaped by other countries’ literature and media would seem a bit redundant, assuming they haven’t already left for those far away hills they’ve been hearing about ever since they learned to read.

When I first started sending my books around, over fifteen years ago, I didn’t even bother approaching Irish publishers – I went straight for agents in Britain. I didn’t see a market for my types of books in Ireland. I was confident that there was a place for them in the international market . . . so why not Ireland? Well, because I originally thought of the Irish market as a stifling place, where the only books I saw from native publishers were history books, textbooks, Irish language texts, local interest material and the carefully packaged glossed culture we sell to tourists. These seemed to be the only areas where Irish publishers could compete with their British counterparts, simply because the U.K. publishers didn’t want them.

I’ve since learned a lot more about what Irish publishers can do – and there have also been huge changes in that time, but these publishers have to continue serving a narrow market to survive, even when they want to expand into other areas. Every plunge into mainstream publishing, targeting popular markets dominated by foreign publishers, is a major risk for native companies and many have stopped taking that risk. So for a writer who wants to make his or her mark in the children’s book market, approaching Irish publishers is not an obvious choice. I would not have sent my books to OBP if I had not already talked to them about illustration work – at that time, they had produced very few books for the audience I was trying to reach. I was contacted by a British agency the week after O’Brien made me an offer for my novels, and it was only the clear commitment and enthusiasm of the people at OBP that kept me from going over to the agency. I now have an agent and have been published by dozens of different companies in different countries, but having been involved in the Irish children’s books community for over a decade, I can appreciate all that our industry has achieved. At the beginning, however, and from the outside, I found it hard to see what Irish publishers could offer aspiring writers.

As for the illustration and design work that was my trade for more than ten years before I was published as a writer, I had to emigrate to London because of the then miserable rates of pay for illustration in Irish publishing. Every illustrator I have met who has tried to make his living solely from book illustration in this country has ended up having to look for work abroad, turning to advertising work (normally an illustrator’s second choice), or giving up altogether. Designers, too, can find better paid work almost anywhere else and the result is that, for a long long time, most Irish-produced books looked second rate compared to their British counterparts. That has changed; publishing in Ireland has become far more professional, more deliberate, imaginative and expert in the work it produces for kids and it was the O’Brien Press who led that charge.

Now, instead of receiving annual funding as an organization, they are being forced to apply for individual funding for one book at a time, when they publish twenty or more children’s books a year. They endured the recession and the digital frenzy, cutting nearly a quarter of their staff in 2009 and reducing everyone else’s salaries. Since this new type of application has been introduced, they have only been successful in getting funding for a few books . . . And they are the only mainstream publisher that has been put in this position. In these applications, their staff’s salaries cannot be included as costs, so it’s as if they’re being encouraged to hire freelancers and part-timers instead of full-time staff – one of the best ways of ensuring people can’t build a long-term career in publishing and contributing to the general sense of insecurity and, ironically, the prioritizing of short-term, economic concerns over more longer-lasting cultural ones. And that’s just the people are who are employed full-time. I’m not going to start ranting on here about the scant possibility of writers making a living.

The O’Brien Press is one of the few companies who have been trying to do more than just survive, by constantly raising their standards and searching for new authors and alternative projects. But it seems as if they have been penalised by the Arts Council for showing that Irish publishing can do more than produce another retelling of the 1916 Rising, or a guide to the Aran Islands, or a local celebrity’s biography.

For OBP’s ongoing efforts to promote quality, far-reaching Irish fiction, and for endeavouring to produce brighter and better children’s books, the Arts Council have drastically reduced their funding.

Other Irish publishers will surely take this lesson to heart.

 

Writing for Children – The Easy Option

If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.

The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.

When referring to these different audiences, I have to choose my words carefully here, as ‘adult books’ can imply something entirely different and actually, a lot of adults read children’s and especially YA books. In fact, in some cases, more adults are reading young adult fiction than the young adults themselves.

But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Easy Option-FartEven the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?

I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in a focussed, understandable and emotionally engaging way.

It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.

Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.

So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.

You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. Easy Option-Battery BrainA bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.

Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.

You’re also competing for these new, inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that’s increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.

You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. Easy Option-Book BlastBut it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.

If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?

Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.

Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.

So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.

Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.

But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.

‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.

There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.

Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do school groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.

For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. Easy Option-Dodging SidewaysAll the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.

Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.

Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.

And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.

And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.

By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less of that comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and may never even make it to third level.

Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully what we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in the children’s book community take very seriously.

Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.

And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.

Not Suitable for Children

I recently read a blog post by Clara Bennathan on the effect porn is having on teenagers’ expectations of sex – especially boys’ expectations. The article is a disturbing, but not very surprising, read and raises a related and difficult issue for children’s book publishing in general . . . and boys’ attitudes in particular.

I’m not one to shy away from violence in my books, partly because it adds drama to a story, but also because it is one of many different challenges to the protagonists that help create perspective. By imagining fictional lives and worlds that are very different from our own, we can look at some of the uglier aspects of life, and make judgements about them, without having to experience them. And I know boys like violence, so that’s another incentive to have it in stories, because I want boys as well as girls to read and I especially want them to read my stories. But I think there’s a responsibility here too. The more realistic the violence in my stories, the more serious I make the consequences for the characters – something my readers are unlikely to see in the violent games they play, and often in the films they watch. It’s one of the advantages of a book. You have the time and depth of field to show consequence.

Those consequences are key – and they can be handled in books better than anywhere else, because the reader is already halfway there, investing their own imagination in the creation of the story. They have created an empathic link of their own.

But in the real world, violence is something most people avoid at all costs and it’s certainly something we hope our children don’t experience firsthand. Sex, on the other hand, is something we hope they’ll get round to once they’re old enough. And yet, as we all know, anything that might have anything to do with sex is a far more delicate subject to broach in children’s literature – much more so even than violence.

This is mostly because any discussion of sex in relation to the word ‘children’, raises the ugly head of paedophilia. Something else that threatens huge damage from the untamed jungle that is the web, and yet – like teenage access to violent porn – the attempts to combat it always seem to be struggling to catch up with the horrific reality of it.

Anyway . . . ours is a strange industry, where it is far more acceptable to show someone killing someone else in a children’s book than to show two adults fondling each other.

Which is odd when you ask yourself, which of these two activities do we want kids indulging in when they’re older?

Which do we need them to be knowledgeable about if they’re to have healthy relationships and lead happy lives? How are we to do something as fundamental as propagating our species without knowing how best to do it? And it is these earthy fundamentals that appeal to boys . . .

Well, and girls too.

Why are we so reluctant to show naked people in young children’s books? Why is it we can’t show body parts the children have themselves and see every day in family life? Writers and illustrators don’t even try most of the time, because we know what the answer will be. I once had a disagreement with an editor over a scene in an illustrated book for confident readers, where two boys have a pissing contest – something boys do from the point where they can stand up and aim (or not). Not Suitable 1-Pissing ContestBoth boys had their clothes on in the illustration, there were no willies in view and there was a girl with a suitably disgusted look on her face to provide some balance. The editor was an open-minded, very liberal and easy-going person, but her job demanded that she worry about the reactions of parents and teachers. And their expectations of what one should, or should not, see in a children’s book. She was just representing the views of the publisher, and the publisher was effectively bound by the conventions of the industry.

In the end, the scene stayed in (as did the illustration), but it left me feeling frustrated about those conventions, and what they do and do not allow.

We really need to ask ourselves when the portrayal of our bodies, and more especially our bodily fluids and where they come out, became such a distasteful subject. Surely, being able to talk openly and frankly about these things is vital for our health and well-being. Instead, discussion about our bodily parts – and what springs from them – is considered rude, disgusting and many younger children seem to be of the opinion that the anatomical terms for these things are no different from the swearwords that have been derived from them. There are even adults who think the same way.

I’ll be doing another post sometime soon on swearing.

We have made this, most important of subjects, a dirty joke, a taboo subject and in doing so, have made it almost impossible to broach with children in a reasonable and mature way before they actually start finding out about it for themselves. And what’s worse, is we’ve effectively forced them to go online, hoping to find out what the adult world refuses to tell them. These things are either dealt with as a subject of toilet humour in our entertainment, or cold biology in education or as ‘social issues’. We rarely treat them as if they’re just normal.

I can really only speak from a boy’s point of view here, but then as far as the teenage obsession with porn is concerned, boys are the real problem. Speaking as someone who, as a young man, once believed nothing in his life could ever be more important than sex, I can fully understand the mind-altering urges lads get and how they can lead them astray. I do find most porn distasteful, not because I don’t like watching sex – I absolutely do – but because of the way the porn industry treats human beings in general and women in particular. And their stories are usually rubbish, which really breaks the spell. Thankfully, my imagination was better than most of the photos or films I saw as a young man (and still is).

But back when I was a teenager, there was only so much a boy in Ireland could access. Things have changed. Now the really hardcore stuff is out there, it’s viral, it can be got for free and it’s far more extreme and abusive than anything my generation would have been likely to encounter. And what’s most troubling, is the attitude towards women and the violence that is associated with this stuff. And some boys are becoming convinced that this is normal – and are now trying to get girls to reproduce this crap and even record it for themselves.

But what has all this got to do with children’s books? I mean . . . come on, Oisin. I mean, books that aren’t aimed at teenagers. I mean, books for younger kids? Really? It’s not like we’re going to start putting adult sex scenes in those, is it?

Well, no. For the simple reason that it’d be really hard to get right and it would probably be commercial suicide.

But . . . we all know the average boy becomes fascinated with his penis long before he knows anything about sex. He has his first erection long before he knows what he’s supposed to do with it (it is, quite frankly, a bizarre experience when you become aware of it). And given that his body is all there is of him in this world, it’s only natural that it fascinates him. Not Suitable 2-Picking NoseSaliva, sweat, blood, urine, faeces, flatulence, mucus, vomit, semen – whether it disgusts you or not, this is the stuff of life. It’s what we’re made of. We are hardwired to react to each of these things in a different way, because our very survival may depend on it. The most complex part of writing – understanding and provoking emotions – starts with the basics. Biology. To get anyone reading, a writer must provide something that sparks their interest, and like the majority of us when we were young, the average boy is most interested in himself.

And the parts of himself that he is most fascinated by are the tangible, physical bits. The things he can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. The things that provoke the strongest emotions for him, are those that stimulate or threaten these parts of him, and they are the base emotions: disgust, anger, fear, satisfying a physical need, or sexual arousal. So the stories boys seek out most often are those that appeal to their base instincts – at least at the start. And the fact that these things are often considered disgusting or unsuitable or even immoral just makes stories about them funnier, more interesting and more exciting.

But it also convinces children that these things are socially unacceptable, so if they’re curious about finding out more, they’re going to have to do it in secret. That’s where the real problem lies.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, in the children’s book industry, we don’t acknowledge children’s earthy appetites enough. When we’re not ignoring the subject outright, we treat it with distaste and disgust, we don’t do enough to sate it and what little we do, we do too late. We are not honest with our children. In a sincere attempt to protect their innocence, we make them ashamed of their bodies. We leave them with too narrow a perspective and too uninformed, ill-equipped to deal with these issues when they begin exploring for themselves.

In Ireland, I believe the pledge Catholics take at their confirmation to not drink alcohol until they’re eighteen has done untold damage, because it encourages secrecy. Teenagers don’t avoid drinking, they just avoid drinking in front of adults who could promote a mature attitude to it. As a result, they plough in unprepared, they binge drink and that’s where the real damage is done.

We’ve done the same thing with our attitudes to our bodies. Long before they strike out on their own, kids have started contrasting the normal bodies they see around them – the ones they’ve been taught not to look at, not to talk about – with the bodies they see displayed in magazines on racks in every newsagent and on millions of websites.

And they start learning about sex on the web, because what little they’re being told – often in school – is factual and it’s done in a class situation where they can’t express themselves as openly as they’d like. And frankly, it’s just not entertaining enough to engage them emotionally.

Schools do their best, but by the time they start teaching this stuff, children’s attitudes to their bodies have been cemented by the awkwardness of the grown-ups they know, who are reluctant to discuss it, the frustrating lack of it in children’s entertainment, and the saturation in the wider media of images created by grown-ups who neither know nor care who’s looking at the stuff.

We have, in effect, turned over the sexual education of our children to disinterested strangers whose motives vary from the fairly harmless to the downright abhorrent.

I’m not suggesting that we need to start loading children’s books with graphic sex or try to compete with what’s on the web. I just think that the depiction of the human body in children’s books should be kept in step with children’s knowledge of their own bodies and those around them. They need to see images of ordinary, flawed human bodies and learn to appreciate them for what they are. And they need to see it in a normal context, without making it a Carry On-style joke, or a serious social issue. Children need to develop emotional maturity about nakedness and body parts in preparation for the complicated demands that will be placed on them as they become sexually mature.

The other, darker side of the issue, the treatment of women in porn, is obviously a harder one to address in children’s books – and books already promote positive attitudes between opposite genders, because it’s something the industry is very conscious of. But if we can encourage boys to read more, empathy will be the happy by-product and it’s the only thing that will convince them how awful some of the stuff that’s out there really is.

And as teenagers do become sexually mature, they need to have some idea of where to look to find easy, well thought-out and unembarrassing information on sex, on the web or elsewhere – how to do it right and have fun in the process.

But it all starts with the body and how it’s portrayed. And the earliest and best place to start, is in books.

Getting Into Character

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.

This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.

It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.

This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:

An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.

Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.

I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.

Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.

I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? Oisin McGann at Ennistymon LibraryAnd still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.

Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.

It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.

Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.

I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.

With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.