August 25, 2011

Launch of MS Readathon 2011

My stepson and I were at the launch of this year’s MS READaTHON on Tuesday, at the Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin. A big event packed into a small shop, the place was stuffed with authors, kids, PR people, photographers, television people, children’s entertainers, and folks from the MS Society and the book trade . . . along with some rather startled innocent bystanders who had come for what they thought would be a quiet browse.

The campaign was officially launched by Evanna Lynch – also known as Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter films – but a number of other well-known faces put in an appearance, with Derek Landy, Claudia Carroll, Marisa Mackle, Judy May Murphy and the ubiquitous Sarah Webb all showing up to give their support.

The READaTHON is a brilliant campaign – you just have to get sponsored for reading a load of books in the time given. Where else can you raise money for a good cause, just by entertaining yourself?

No running a mini-marathon, or a doing a triathlon, or trying to break a world record or getting your head shaved or your hair dyed a daft colour. You just have to read the same kind of stuff you read all the time anyway. Kids, if haven’t signed up yet in your school or library, do it today (or at least, when you get back to school). You’ll  be entered into a competition for some serious prizes too.

Here’s a little info on Multiple Sclerosis: It’s a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system). The central nervous system acts like a computer, sending electrical messages along the nerves to various parts of the body. These electrical messages affect all the body’s functions, such as movement or thought. Most healthy nerve fibres are covered by this stuff called myelin, a fatty coating which helps the flow of messages.

In MS, the myelin breaks down or becomes scarred.  This distorts or even blocks the flow of messages, resulting in the symptoms of MS. There are loads of different symptoms, such as pain, black-outs, problems with movement –  even your ability to just think clearly can be affected. It hits different people in different ways. Many people explain MS like a faulty electrical flex on a kettle.  If the plastic on the outside of the flex breaks, it exposes the wires underneath making them more vulnerable to damage.

You can learn more about MS here. But even if it’s just the reading you’re interested in, go sign up for the campaign, raise some money, have a good time doing it, and help some people who are having a tough time. Congrats and good luck to everyone involved!

August 22, 2011

Holding My Attention – Books

I’ve been struggling to keep up with all the reading I want to do, mostly because of all the reading I feel I have to do – for research for work, or because I’ve had a book loaned to me, or because I’m going to be meeting the author, or have met them, or I’m reviewing something (I do the odd one here and there), or just because I’m trying to keep up with what’s current – not that there’s much hope of that.

People assume that if you produce books for a living, you must know a lot about what’s out there. This is often far from the truth – I would not consider myself a scholar of literature; not even of children’s or young adult books. Making your own books often means you don’t have a lot of time to read other people’s, and being stuck at a desk all day makes you more inclined to go and do something else, rather than continue sitting in and reading.

This also means that the proportion of books you read for pure pleasure – just because you want to read them – is smaller than you’d like it to be. But lately, I have been getting back to reading for the sheer enjoyment of it, after slacking off a bit over the couple of years when the two girls were born (due mainly to a very tired brain). So here are a few gems I’ve come across, some you’ll probably have heard of already, but some you might not.

As with the films I covered in a previous post, I’ve just decided to mention some of the books which have remained stuck in my head, on the simple basis that this is what a good book should do.

‘Monsters of Men’ is the third in Patrick Ness’s ‘Chaos Walking’ Trilogy. Todd is a boy living in a world where men’s most personal thoughts are broadcast telepathically from their heads like radio. In ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, Todd flees his home-town and its ruthless, machiavellian mayor, and finds himself set on a path through a civilization he thought was long dead. ‘Monsters of Men’ is the epic conclusion; a violent, breathtaking, thought-provoking book. The trilogy is a superbly-evoked description of a thrilling tale of personal internal struggles, power politics and war that is complex, but easy to follow, with all the elements you’d want in a rich, gripping story. As a series, ‘Chaos Walking’ is a fine achievement, and unusually for a trilogy, it has no weak link – that book which doesn’t stand up to the others. There was a point in the second book, ‘The Ask and The Answer’, when I thought Ness might be losing his way a bit, but he pulled it through and then finished with this stonker of a third book.

China Mieville’s ‘The City and The City’ starts as a murder mystery, but it’s much more about the weird, almost cold war politics, between two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma. The border between these cities is either purely cultural, or straddles some kind of dimensional portal – how much of each is down to your interpretation. Mieville is one of my favourite writers, an incredible weaver of stories and worlds. As his detective, Inspector Borlu, struggles to unravel the mystery amid the mire of bureacracy, facing hostile authorities and the dreaded, mythical enforcers of the divide – known only as ‘Breach’ – we’re treated to a clever, mind-altering experience as we’re challenged to believe that two cities can occupy the same space. There are times when I think the pace suffers from Mieville’s love of his subject – indulging in descriptions of the cities’ contrasts rather than getting on with the story (though this could have been down to my tired brain again). But this is an excellent, engrossing and original story that stays with you long after you close the book. On a side note, I’m in the middle of reading Mieville’s ‘Kraken’, and I’m lapping it up.

I had the pleasure of introducing Keith Gray at the last CBI Conference in May. I know Keith, and I’d read his some of his stuff already, but couldn’t get hold of his latest book in time, so I read ‘The Fearful’ instead. The strapline is a good lead in: ‘For those who want to believe, no proof is needed. But for those who can’t believe, no evidence is enough.’ Tim isn’t sure he believes in the monster in the lake any more, but his father’s way of life is based on that belief, and it affects many other people around them. ‘The Fearful’ is a slowly-building, haunting story about a boy’s rebellion against tradition and his father’s beliefs, and the people who threaten their way of life in a more physical way. It asks serious questions about faith, and people’s views of those with beliefs at odds with their own. A story that gets under your skin.

I was asked to review ‘Rot and Ruin’ by Jonathan Maberry for Inis Magazine. It turned out to be a real treat. It is rare to find a zombie story that is anything more than pulp fiction (which is absolutely fine), but Maberry brings a new perspective to the well-trodden territory of the apocalyptic zombie landscape. The story reads as a solid horror/thriller, with a sound plot and well-rounded characters. Benny Imura has issues with his older brother. Tom is a well-known zombie-killer, but Benny believes him to be a coward who left their parents to die when Benny was very young. As Benny is reluctantly drawn into his brother’s line of work, he learns that much of what he knows about his world is wrong. In a land overrun with zombies, Benny slowly realizes that humans can be the worst monsters, and there’s a reason for Tom’s weird, almost respectful approach to dispatching the undead. Because every zombie was once somebody’s loved one – and Tom sees his job as giving closure to the living, rather than collecting the heads of the dead. ‘Rot and Ruin’ is, dare I say it, is a zombie story with heart.

A quick mention for a couple of comics: I’ve recently finished the second, third and fourth ‘Criminal’ books, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, hard-boiled crime stories that push all the right buttons. And there was also a blast from the past in the form of ‘Daredevil:Born Again’, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. Daredevil was always one of Marvel’s more grounded, more human heroes, and Miller’s stint on the series – both as writer and artist – for me, still represents some of his best work, back before he became world-famous for over-the-top antics like ‘Sin City’. If you want to see how good Miller can really be, check out his old Daredevil stuff.

Looking back at all these books I’ve mentioned, I’m struck by the fact that they all have pretty dark themes. That’s not very surprising – I often lean towards dark themes. I have read a lot of other stuff, but nothing springs to mind as easily as these books have. However, as I am reading picture books to my girls on a regular basis, I feel I should chuck one in here. ‘Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes’ was a spontaneous buy during a recent visit to a bookshop. It’s written by Anna Kemp and illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. I hadn’t heard of either of them, but I liked the text and thought the illustrations were lovely – particularly given the all the examples of expressionistic, but badly-drawn, stuff that’s being thrown at young kids now. So after a quick test-reading with my two-year-old in the shop, we gave the book a home. It has since stood the test of multiple readings, and we look forward to quite a few more.

August 18, 2011

Writing for Children

For anyone interested in writing for kids, there are still a couple of places left on the online course I’ll be running for Creative Writing Ink in September-October. Here’s the outline of the course:

I will cover the basics of storytelling and the specific aspects of writing for children and young adults. Areas that will be looked at include: how to generate ideas; how to use observation; description of both character and setting; using dialogue and ensuring a good pace and plot, as well as how to tailor your writing for different age groups. There will be practical exercises and a final writing task at the end of the course. I’ll also be giving tips on how to get published, and how to market your books once you get published.

The closing date for signing up is the 29th of August.

August 17, 2011

Stealing Books

The illegal copying and distribution of digital books. We knew this was coming – in fact, it’s been possible for a while. Ever since book production went digital, and distribution went online. But thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and some handy pieces of dodgy software, any git with a smidgeon of computer savvy can now rip off somebody else’s book and sell it as their own . . . in industrial quantities.

This is what publishers have been gnawing away at their nails about for the last few years. Margins in the book industry are small enough without someone nicking your stuff and copying wholesale.

You can get DVDs showing you how to do this. There are online courses.

Amazon has been marketing itself as an easy means for writers to publish themselves – angling to become a producer as well as a distributor. On one hand, it’s a smart move, and a real boon for writers (albeit one that offers no filter of quality). But the internet giant is facing a serious problem with what has become known as ‘book spam’.

Online cowboys are getting hold of content through what is referred to as Private Label Rights. This is where you buy text, including the right (a rather arbitrary term in this case) to use it, reformat it, change it or even claim it as your own. People are copying-and-pasting what is often poor quality content in forms such as a cookbook, a diet plan, a get-rich-quick scheme or a travel book into an ebook format which they then put up for sale cheap online, using platforms like Amazon’s and programmes such as Autopilot Kindle Cash.

As far as I know, this isn’t technically illegal – it just means Amazon and the like are publishing a wave of garbage that book-buyers have to wade through in search of anything of value. But some pirates are actually pulling the content from existing books, removing the author’s name, changing the cover and passing it off as their own work. This takes very little work, so even a few sales can make it worthwhile. I’ve heard different figures, but apparently Amazon pays between 30%-75% of the price of the book to the author, depending on the size of the book. And it seems you can even just add irrelevant or repetitive text just to bulk it out and make it look like the book is better value.

Amazon and other distributors can use software to detect when two ebooks have exactly the same text, just as search engines can detect when the same piece of text has been used on more than one website and filter it out during a search. But some book pirates use a process known as ‘spinning’, where they use a piece of software – an ‘auto spinner’ – to alter the text, changing and replacing words, so that it looks just different enough to fool the search engines.

This is fast becoming a big business. According to Reuters, 302,000 conventional books were released in the US in 2009, versus 1.33 million non-traditional books, including ebooks. Contrast this with 2010, when 316,000 traditional books were published, compared to almost 2.8 million non-traditional books (quoting Albert Greco, a publishing industry expert at Fordham University’s business school). That’s a massive jump in one year, and it’s just going to keep growing. If book pirates can grab even a small percentage of that with little effort, especially if a lot of the work is automated, they can make a fortune.

This is a big deal for authors too. I publish about a novel a year (the publisher’s schedule, not mine), along with a few other different projects. Even after I’ve finished writing the book, it usually takes about a year before it reaches the shops. Someone else can dump a load of content into an ebook in minutes, with the same title, even sticking my name on it, and put it online. Worse still, they can just rip off my story and publish it under another name. Then they can switch to automatic fire, replicate it over and over again, just slightly differently each time, and blast it out there as often as they like.

Amazon are not sitting still on this – after all, it’s bad business and it’s doing serious damage to their brand. And it threatens to do the same to others who’d like some of that business, like Barnes and Noble, and no doubt Google at some point too. Companies like these are determined to offer this self-publishing service – and who can blame them, when you consider most of the people who read books would love to be able to write one? But these firms  are quickly going to find themselves in the same boat as the film and music producers.

This uncomfortable trend for ripping off books could quickly become a hoard of spammers and pirates armed with spinners and PLR and all manner of other dastardly devices. Filtering them out will mean proper detection systems (that’s a link to the best article I’ve seen so far on this subject), but also human resources – real live people, sifting through this stuff and getting rid of the randomly-generated garbage, and the scale of that job is going to increase exponentially.

I’ve been all for this digital revolution, but I’ve been saying for a long time that the publishing industry needs to take the reins, rather than letting our futures be decided by the people who design the technology (see ‘Seizing the Means of Production’ Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

‘Waiting to see what happens’ is not a strategy. And approaches such as Digital Rights Management (which controls access to a given file), holding ISP’s responsible and copyright breach lawsuits are next to useless if we don’t get the consumers on our side. It’s no point trying the punish ‘wrong-doers’ if everyone is doing wrong, because they can get the same quality product quicker and easier for free from an illegal source. Here are a few points to think about, just from the production point of view:

  1. With the mass of both quality and garbage on the web, people want their choices made easier. Publishers need to hold themselves up as filters of quality. At the moment, most people don’t know or care who publishes what book. Publishers need to be become more aware of how to use their brand, so that consumers will look to them as trustworthy producers of quality.
  2. Digital Rights Management should be carried out in a way that makes it easier to get hold of the right stuff, rather than making it more difficult. No reading device should be restricted to reading one type of file, or locked in to one supplier. I don’t want to be dictated to about where I buy my books.
  3. Perhaps, as things lean more and more towards the online aspect of publishing, we should look at subscribing to a service, rather than buying a product, particularly for mass market stuff we don’t necessarily keep on our bookshelves once we’ve finished with it. Think on-demand television rather than buying the DVD – but with no need for a schedule. And yes, sometimes you do want have those special ones to keep. It might be a case that booksellers and libraries would have to merge functions in some areas, or draw firm lines between each other’s turf.
  4. And finally, a point especially relevant to children’s books: We need to come to think of publishing as producing content in a range of forms, not just a printed book, or an electronic version of that printed book. Even as the manuscript is being turned out, and the design is being conceived, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What other formats do we need to think about? How many other ways can this story be told, can it be presented?’ Hook readers in by producing a more comprehensive product – not every aspect of which is sold as a complete unit such as a book. There can be online, interactive elements, involving social media, clubs, book forums, access to imagery, short stories or research materials, possibilities for fan-fiction and the like. Readers can be encouraged to take part in something, rather than just buy it.

We can produce this stuff far better, and offer far more, than the pirates. And it should be much easier for us to earn our readers’ trust and loyalty. But to do this, we need to convince them that we can provide them with these books in a way that is substantially better than the one which might offer those readers the same books much cheaper, or even for free.

We won’t beat piracy by focussing all our efforts on punishing the criminals who are beginning to steal our books. We have to beat these pirates by stealing their customers. Selling books is our business. Let’s show them how it should be done.

August 16, 2011

Holding My Attention – Films

These are aren’t necessarily my favourite films from the last few months, but they’ve stuck in my head, which I suppose is as good a reason as any for talking about them.

I’m going to start with a movie, simply entitled ‘Monsters ‘. I just sort of picked this one off the shelf in Xtra-Vision. It seemed to be marketed as just another alien B-movie, but it boasted incredible reviews, so my curiosity was piqued.

As it turned out, it was brilliant. Much slower paced than you’d expect, and much more about the two main characters than the creatures – who form more of a backdrop for the most part. It is still gripping, rich in drama and suspense. Despite the B-movie marketing, anyone looking for a hectic monster-fest is going to be disappointed. This is a moody, thoughtful and – dare I say it – sensitive film about making your way through a land colonized by alien creatures.

‘The Other Guys’ was another unexpected delight. I’m not a massive fan of Will Ferrell. I find he’s either very funny or just plain stupid. ‘The Other Guys’ features Ferrell, teaming up with Mark Wahlberg, as two cops overshadowed by a pair of action heroes. When the heroes are rubbed out of the picture, our hapless two have to step in. Maedhbh and I were creased up laughing at this in places. Warning, some of the humour was the kind that shouldn’t be funny, but is.

‘Despicable Me’ was brilliant – I liked ‘Megamind’ too, but this was better. Really offbeat, imaginative, and downright hilarious in parts. In an industry dominated by Pixar, this did its own thing with style. I remain fascinated by the phenomenon of two films being released almost simultaneously, based on similar concepts – although often executed very differently. This happens with books too . . . a lot.

For tension, one of the best films this year has to be ‘Buried’, starring (pretty much entirely) Ryan Reynolds. One man, buried in a box little bigger than a coffin, equipped with only a lighter, flask, flashlight, knife, glowsticks, pencil and a mobile phone to help him escape before the oxygen in the box runs out. This is not a light, Saturday night popcorn film. The entire story takes place in this tiny space, and Reynolds manages to carry the whole thing. Brilliant, but nerve-wracking.

With Marvel continuing their onward march into domination of the superhero genre, they’ve produced one of the best ever movies in ‘X-Men: First Class’. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this origins story shows the early friendship of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, how the X-Men are formed, and how the conflict between human and mutant really kicks off.

Skintight suits and sci-fi gear are kept to a minimum, but the strong visuals, bold characters and fast pace that translate so well from comics to films provide a real pulse-pounder of a film. With the likes of Kevin Bacon, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt and January Jones, the cast is impressive, and they all deliver, but Michael Fassbender steals the show as Lensherr/Magneto, just as Ian McKellan did in the first three X-Men films. If you haven’t seen this, do. It’s a cracking good film.

Speaking of January Jones, Maedhbh and I got the loan of the first three seasons of ‘Mad Men’ recently (thanks Kunak and Joe), and in those rare snatched periods of calm after the kids have gone to bed, we’re indulging in an episode or two. It grew slowly on us, but we’re well hooked now. Can’t say I care much for Jones’s character, but there are so many others to keep you engrossed, and though I never worked at that level in advertising (I was art director and copy writer for a small firm), there were others in the company who had spent years in big agencies, and from the stories they told, some things haven’t changed.

And finally . . . I was sent an email about a photography site recently. It’s called Perfectly Timed Photos. I started idly flicking through it and proceeded to split myself laughing. Absolutely brilliant. Adults with children beware, some of it’s really rude – but absolutely brilliant.

August 10, 2011

Misbehaving in Class

I found out recently that, in the UK, libraries and schools are starting to bring in policies that demand people like me – who go in to do storytelling, talks and drawings – have public liability cover of £5 million. I’m not sure what I could do to a person or property during one of my sessions that would cost £5 million, but apparently it’s possible to get £10 million if I need it. Going to school just doesn’t involve a very high level of risk.

However! It’s a different story in the States.

Here’s a video of a DEA agent giving a talk to schoolchildren about gun safety, holding up an automatic pistol and explaining that he is the only one in the room professional enough to use it. Check out what happens next. I’m amazed he could take a loaded gun into a school in a country where they kind of have an ongoing problem with that kind of thing. I love the reaction when he then asks someone to hand him an assault rifle.

But it seems there’s no shortage of people who want to teach us a thing or two about misusing guns. You know . . . how you can make one stupid mistake (as we’re all inclined to do, from time to time) and someone ends up with a bullet in them. In this case, the guy shoots himself in the leg while trying to show his quick-draw on video . . . while standing about a foot away from the target. There is some foul language, in case you’re not into that kind of thing.

He has put the video online, to teach us all about the dangers of being stupid with a gun. Thanks, Tex.

And to think, some schools in Britain want you to be insured for talking and drawing. Anyone for some red tape?

August 2, 2011

An Audience with His Purpleness

On Saturday, I was at Prince’s concert in Malahide Castle. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. I came out knackered and hoarse. My feet and legs ached from dancing in a confined space for nearly three hours. Actually, it was more jumping up and down – it’s hard to dance very expressively in a packed crowd (my wife says that was probably just as well).

I’m not a big follower, but I absolutely love some of his music, and the other night, he showed that he was in a class of his own when it came to working a crowd.

Things didn’t start off well. The audience all gathered in a queue for about an hour, waiting for the gates to open, and then we waited again as endless sound checks resulted in the support act starting nearly an hour late. It was all looking suspiciously suggestive of the behaviour of a man who has a well-earned reputation as an outrageous prima-donna (in fact, let us just skip right past his dodgy TAFKAP phase). There were plenty of food stalls to take our money as we waited, but very little in the way of merchandise, and I’m always on the look-out for good t-shirts.

The support act he brought with him, ‘The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble‘ – a kind of brass band funk – were good at what they did. But I don’t think they had the measure of the crowd, and quality music though it was, after we’d endured such a long wait, it all sounded a bit like a Starsky & Hutch soundtrack.

Prince was nearly another hour appearing on-stage, but when he did, he was greeted by a massive roar. Compared to the kinds of stage sets you see big acts appearing on now, his looked a bit dated – the graphics seemed downright eighties. And he rarely had more than three or four people visible on stage with him, despite the big sound.

None of that mattered once he started playing. From the moment he opened his mouth, he proceeded to blow our socks off. Sockless, we were. He might have been small enough to fit in pint glass, but he put on a stonking good show, pounding out hit after hit: ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘1999’, ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Kiss’, ‘Cream’, ‘Sign o’ the Times’  and plenty of others, blending them, drawing them out in a way that could easily have been annoying, but actually worked just right. It was brilliant.

The following morning, I went walking in the Wicklow Mountains – the first time in a few months – great for clearing the head and loosening off the legs, but a bit taxing after so little sleep. Walking across the Spink with my mum and my stepson, I still had those tunes in my head.