Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 28 February 2013

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder...

Or should it be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

I like a good proverb as much as the next girl, and, if it comes to, say, the husband being away doing publicity for a week, it’s definitely a case of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, but for every proverb, there’s an equal and opposite counter-proverb. When it comes to the blog going missing for, I don’t know, but it must be getting on for a week, at least, then my guess is that it quickly becomes a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. That’s when I have to get my finger out and get my shit together, and that’s when I have to have an opinion about something, and share it with all of you... or at least with those of you patient enough to come back after I’ve neglected you for so long.

I don’t blame those of you who move on to pastures new, to more reliable bloggers. You wouldn’t remain loyal to a daily paper that suddenly, out of the blue, didn’t show up on your doormat every day for a week, would you? Of course you wouldn’t; you’d find something to fill that void in your life. I would too.

The truth is, I’ve got a lot to write about, a lot to share, a great many thoughts and opinions swirling around in the old grey matter. The problem is, how to form them into a run of blogs that will form a constructive, coherent whole. I haven’t worked that one out yet.

Proverbs might be the answer.

There are any number of usable titles for what I’d like to do for my March blogs, ‘A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush’, or, conversely, ‘A Man’s Reach should Exceed his Grasp’. I could write a blog titled, ‘Better the Devil You Know’, or one called, ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’. I could write them both on consecutive days, for crying out loud.

Either way, the next batch of blogs, and I suspect there will be at least a week’s worth, will be about writing, and some of them will be about dealing with failure.

I’ve learned to suck it up, because if you ever want to do anything in this business that’s pretty well the first lesson you’ll have to learn: You can’t be precious about the work, because everyone up and down the line is bound to want to change something in it, and you can’t be precious about the work, because nobody’s ever going to want a decent percentage of what you do.

I hope that I’ll be able to put a positive spin on most of my offerings over the coming days, beginning on Monday, (after some weekend froth and event reporting), but don’t think I won’t have a snark or two along the way, because I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t felt let down, disappointed, and downright pissed off at times.

Brace yourselves. I’m going in. This is going to be a bit of an exposé. I just hope that by the end of it, we all think that my experiences in publishing include some stories that are worth telling.

Friday 22 February 2013

On the Subject of Speculation

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks about writing a blog on the subject of speculation. I just didn’t think it would be this blog.

One of the pleasures of being a writer is the opportunity to speculate on a daily, sometimes even an hourly basis. We ask the question, ‘what if’ over and over again, and, if we’re any good, we come up with interesting answers that weave extraordinary tales.

I had a fascinating conversation with a scientist about speculation. He compared sitting around talking science with his students and colleagues twenty years ago to doing the same thing today. Then, they’d discuss research and who had done what, and what their findings had shown, and they’d argue over just what those findings were and who had done what experiments and their inaccurate memories would throw up all kinds of new ideas, and they’d speculate, and get excited about things, and possibly further their work. Once in a while, they might even have a proper Eureka moment.

Twenty years on, two minutes into a similar conversation, someone with a smartphone would be able to verify exactly who had done which experiments and what research, and who had achieved precisely what results, and the conversation would be killed stone dead. The scientist in question has taken to asking his students and colleagues to turn their phones off in order to establish a more creative environment in which to discuss subjects that many of us would consider to be very much fact based.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Anyway, that’s the gist of what I was going to talk about in my blog on the subject of speculation. I was going to talk about how there are similarities between disciplines that seem fundamentally different. I was going to suggest that creativity is a widely used tool in essentially fact-based disciplines, and that order and method are incredibly useful to those of us who work in creative fields. You only have to have a fondness for grammar to understand that it can be a precise and beautifully mathematic discipline and that it can impose order on creative chaos.

The problem, if I have one, is that I’ve been rather absorbed with talking about the Oscar Pistorius case over the past week, so I’m going to mention that again today. If ever we were all joined in a national sport, or, in this case, perhaps a global one, it is, surely, speculation. Isn’t that what a huge amount of the news, especially this sort of scandal is all about? We all do it, and, in this case, we’re all in it together. We are, in some ways, all masters of it. None of us has ever met Pistorius, and we probably never will. Many of us are picking up imperfect news feeds, written by journalists, who themselves have agendas or are writing comment, which is, of course, speculative. None of this affects us and none of it is real in any way that counts, and yet we cannot get enough of it.

This is just the beginning of a case that will, no doubt, run and run. How many of us, drawing obvious comparisons, have not gone back to speculate about that other famous case, now more than eighteen years old, of another national hero, another sportsman, another iconic figure. That case was resolved, the alleged murderer was found not guilty, and yet here many of us still are, speculating. Voices were heard in that courtroom, as they will be in another courtroom in South Africa over the coming months, but only the alleged culprits, OJ Simpson and Oscar Pistorius know whether they committed those crimes. Only the stories of the victims of the murders that OJ Simpson was accused of, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, murdered in June of 1994 went untold. Forensics experts and pathologists and scenes of crime officers did everything they could to piece together the facts as they saw them from the evidence they collected. However, science can be  a speculative process too, open to interpretation by those who answered the questions on the stand, and by those in the jury box who listened to the questions put to the expert witnesses and to the answers they gave.

Reeva Steenkamp will not be able to speak for herself in court, as Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were unable to tell their stories. She will not be able either to point the finger at Oscar Pistorius and accuse him of her murder, or to exonerate him of a premeditated attack on her. Reeva Steenkamp was cremated at a private ceremony in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday. She is gone.

Oscar Pistorius can stand in court and say whatever he chooses about what happened in that house in Pretoria only eight days ago. He can take an oath before God to tell the truth, and he can break that promise, for what is it to break a promise if you have already committed a heinous murder? All anyone else can do is speculate.

So that is what we do, and we do it the World over, in our masses.

Everybody speculates.

Thursday 21 February 2013

How to Rescue Oscar Pistorius

On Monday I wrote a blog called the Oscar Pistorius Defence. In it I was trying to suggest that an old, white, patriarchal society would do whatever it could to protect one of its young, white heroes, one of its role models. I did it in a tone that was somewhat deadpan, and I wondered, from the comments, whether my approach was entirely successful.

To be fair, that didn’t matter an awful lot to me. I put my thoughts out there for my readers to ponder and respond to, and, if it’s right for them, any interpretation is entirely appropriate. Clarity is, obviously, my problem, and not theres.

Anyway, that post garnered a much bigger readership than my average post. The effect of calling a post ‘The Oscar Pistorius Defence’ or, I suppose, of having the killer’s name in the title at all (and, yes, I am comfortable calling him a killer) grossly inflated my readership in a way that I was naive not to anticipate. I just didn’t expect my blog to hold any extra interest for anybody just because I had written about what might have happened at a house in Pretoria on Thursday morning. I knew that the news media would be busy, but I’m just a nobody writing a blog. Who cares about what I have to say?

That idea blossomed into my next blog about those numbers, about how uncomfortable it made me to have any impact whatsoever on what people read or why, about how careful I intended to be about my blog titles in the future. People seem to be so easily led by titles and keywords and labels. It is too easy to find things on the web using only those most basic of criteria, and, in doing so, the cynical blogger can draw in readers, who won’t read past the first few sentences and will quickly become disillusioned by the obvious trick. Readers don’t want to be made to feel like fools. If readers think they’re being duped into reading a blog, they aren’t going to trust the blogger or believe that he is representing himself honestly. That’s not how a blogger builds up a rapport with his readership. I really didn’t want to be that person.

It is Thursday today and a huge amount has come to light in the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing. Some of this stuff is mind-blowing, not least the idea that the lead officer in the investigation, Hilton Botha is to stand trial in May for the attempted murder of 7 people. It says a lot about the state of a nation when it fails to suspend from active duty a police officer accused of so serious an offence, and allows him to lead high profile murder investigations, while himself awaiting trial.

I hadn’t planned to put Oscar Pistorius’s name at the top of another of my blogs, but, since I obviously didn’t make myself clear the first time, when I wrote on this subject on Monday, I’d like to clarify my position with regard to this appalling incident. So, to hell with it. More than the average number of people will probably come to this blog, and many of them won’t read past the first few sentences, but those who do will certainly learn what I think.

There is no doubt that South Africa is a dangerous and troubled nation. There is no doubt in my mind that violence begets violence. There is no doubt in my mind that a history of institutionalised bigotry is a very difficult stain to expunge from a nation’s psyche, and I believe that where any form of bigotry exists it leaves a door open for other forms of bigotry to walk in, take a seat and make themselves comfortable. It is not hard to see how a history of institutionalised racism could easily leave the door open in a white, patriarchial society for misogyny and homophobia to take root.

Reeva Steenkamp was only the latest victim of violence and misogyny at the hands of a white man raised in a society where powerful, old, white men protect their natural successors, the young white men, who are the role models and heroes they want to promote to perpetuate their deeply unpleasant politics. No wonder, then, that it looks increasingly, to me, as if those same men sought to conspire, from the very beginning, to sabotage Oscar Pistorius’s prosecution. I wonder what hope there is left that they will fail, and that Reeva Steenkamp and her family will see some measure of justice done.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Playing to the Crowd

I’ve rather been thinking about what I was talking about yesterday, when I discussed the numbers game, ‘the Pistorius effect’. I’ve been thinking about how a blogger like me attracts new readers and then keeps them.

I realised that a lot of bloggers simply aren’t bloggers like me.

I guess that a lot of bloggers blog for reasons to do with  exposure and business. They blog, in short, to optimise their earnings. I suppose, to some degree, I blog to empty my head of random thoughts, to have a good clear-out so that I can fully concentrate on the serious writing that I do for the majority of my working hours. I blog to share. I blog to get stuff off my chest, and, yes, I blog for flow. I blog to put myself in the public eye so that when I have stock to shift, I have an ongoing presence in the public consciousness. OK, perhaps it’s not a very big presence, but it’s there, and that’s fine by me.

My blog is not a huge business investment.

My feeling is that the bigger the investment, the narrower the opportunity to really express oneself.

My point, I think, is that if I was aiming to be popular, then I’m probably going about it all the wrong way. If I was aiming to be popular the last thing I’d do is air my uncensored opinions on the internet.

You see, it would be foolish of me to think that the vast majority of people are going to agree with me on any subject. I know this, because I know how strangely people look at me when I offer my opinions or when I question theirs in conversation.

I am not one of those people who finds it easy to nod and smile when I disagree with what someone is saying, even in polite company, and it has got me in trouble any number of times over the years, in all kinds of situations. Honestly, and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, it has got me thrown out of places. On one memorable occasion, my inability to shut up on the subject of the racist tenor of the conversation that was taking place over a lunch table got me ejected from the party. One of the women at that table was Asian. To this day, I have no idea why she stayed.

The thing is, I’m not going to espouse the majority view in order to make myself more acceptable to a broader audience. If you come here and you happen to agree with me, and that’s what you want from a blog, great. If you come here and you happen to disagree with me, and you enjoy the discourse, great; I totally respect that. 

I’d just end up despising myself if I started to try to think like someone I’m not, and if I started to try to work out what people wanted to hear, and give it to them. That only reinforces belief in the things I don’t believe in. Of course, it’s patronising too, and totally dishonest on my part. I realise the haters are going to hate; let’s not pretend otherwise, but, so what?

I met Stewart Lee for the first time a couple of weeks ago. He was at college with the husband, who has spoken of him often over the years. The husband always liked Stewart, considered him to be an honest man of real integrity, a gentle, clever man. I thought so, too. Go and watch any of his work. There is a very good reason why he tends to play small venues and why he seldom works in television. Listen to him on any subject. Listen to him on the subject of those acts that play the bigger stadiums. He’s forthright on the subject, and apposite, and he puts it all rather better than I do.

All I’m doing is blogging. Some people live by their principles. Listen to one of them if for no other reason than because he’s also very, very funny.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

The Numbers Game...

Or, as I’m calling it, right now, ‘The Pistorius Effect’.

You may remember that yesterday I wrote a blog about the defence that Oscar Pistorius might offer for his killing of Reeva Steenkamp. I was trying to put myself in the shoes of his legal team to come up with a plausible explanation for him firing four bullets into his girlfriend’s head and chest that wouldn’t make him look like a homicidal maniac. To some extent, I suppose I was commenting on the terrible state of affairs in South Africa, and, I was also commenting on the continued power of the old, white, patriarchal society anywhere in the first world to protect its own.

Either way, that was yesterday and this is today, and the reason that I haven’t called today’s blog, ‘The Pistorius Effect’ is because I’m not actually cynical when it comes to the numbers game, the popularity contest that exists out there on the web when it comes to blogging.

I don’t write this blog to attract the casual reader and to be able to claim that vast numbers of people are passing through. I don’t choose titles for my posts that will pull in casual readers who might never return. It is not my intention to be salacious... That’s what The Sun is for. When news broke that Oscar Pistorius had shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp, the national newspapers wanted pictures to illustrate the story for their front pages; of course they did. Those pictures included shots of Pistorius winning races, and shots of Pistorius being arrested; they also included pictures of Pistorius and Steenkamp in public together during their relationship. The Sun went with a full page shot of Reeva Steenkamp in a bikini. It sold thousands of extra copies that day to idiots who wanted to look at a murdered girl wearing almost nothing. Those same people probably won’t buy a newspaper tomorrow... not even The Sun. They have no interest in anything approximating an opinion, and they have no loyalty to anything.

I write about the things that interest me and I hope that they interest other people too. When they do, I’m thrilled, and if they don’t, that’s fine too. Generally, just getting a snark off my chest, or airing an idea, or simply sharing some news is good enough for me. I put my stuff out into the ether, and there it is... Gone.

In fact, I’m always rather surprised when a comment comes in, and I’m positively shocked when someone takes the trouble to tell me that they’ve read, and possibly even enjoyed something I’ve written about here.

I’m hugely flattered that I’m reaching a readership of a couple of hundred people a day. It’s lovely.

Yesterday, I called my blog, “The Oscar Pistorius Defence”. The reason why today I decided not to call my blog, “The Oscar Pistorius Effect”, even though that would have been my choice, is because of yesterday’s numbers.

As a general rule I get around a hundred hits before lunch and around a hundred hits after lunch. Yesterday... and I can only think it was because of the title of the blog... Yesterday I was averaging a hundred hits an hour on my blog during the peak reading time of the day. By the middle of the afternoon, I was seriously beginning to wonder how many hits I was going to get, and, honestly, it was beginning to worry me a bit.

I knew nothing about Oscar Pistorius or his case, except what I’d picked up in the Sunday papers. My knowledge wasn’t even current as new information was streaming in all the time, and yet a chunk of the World was clearly grabbing everything and anything that was out there, by anyone that had a moment to write something about Pistorius and Steenkamp and what might have happened in that house in Pretoria. 

The numbers did begin to tail off when the USA went on-line. Their news agencies generally cover less international news and are less interested in it. Ordinarily, I’d say that was a bad thing. Ordinarily, I’d suggest that made them insular, isolationist, or just plain ill-informed, or misled by a controlling media... I don’t know. Today, I’m not sure what to think.

I hope that my readership will grow by word of mouth and because those who happen upon my blog because they’ve hit upon a keyword in one of my titles or labels like what I’ve done and come back for more.

I’m not sure about titles, though. I’m not sure whether I might be a little more careful in future when bandying about the names of the famous and/or notorious. There’s a little minx on my shoulder suggesting that I might just want to experiment, that I might just want to save my Monday blog to comment on the biggest story of the week from the weekend papers, and give the post a title to draw in the crowds. Who knows, maybe it’s time to do something topical... On the other hand...

Go on, comment, you know you want to.

Monday 18 February 2013

The Oscar Pistorius Defence

Everyone is going to have an opinion on Oscar Pistorius over the weeks and months to come. I’m sure that most people already have some sort of an opinion.

He was the golden boy. He was the disabled athlete who was taking on the World and, if not exactly winning, then, at the the very least, making a name for himself, and that name was ‘Bladerunner’. He was hailed as an ambassador for his troubled homeland of South Africa and for the physically disabled everywhere.

We do hold these people up as examples. We hold them up as role models and as heroes. They are not necessarily any of those things. Being capable in any field, being disabled and being from a troubled nation does not automatically exempt anyone from being misguided, stupid, violent, misogynistic or even homicidal. We are what we are and our creeds, colours, nationalities, genders, skill-sets, or even our physical capabilities do not alter that.

There has been a lot of contradictory information in the press about what might have happened in Pistorius’s house when his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was fatally shot. The most recent articles that I’ve read, suggest that she was shot through a locked bathroom door. She was shot, or so I understand, through the shoulder, chest and head. Pistorius claims that it was an accident.

Disregarding all earlier claims that Pistorius shot in self-defence, believing Steenkamp to be an intruder into his home in a gated community in Pretoria, I have a simple theory about what might have happened early on Thursday morning, Valentine’s day. It relies only on Oscar Pistorius being angry and stupid. Most of us might never have been quite as angry as he must have been that day to have done what he did, and most of us might never have been quite as stupid as he must be to have done what he did, and let's not talk about the fact that most of us don't keep guns in our homes, but here’s my theory, non-the-less.

It is as simple as it could possibly be.

Steenkamp and Pistorius argued. Upset and perhaps a little afraid, Steenkamp ran into the bathroom, locked the door and slumped onto the bathroom floor in tears.

Pistorius was angry, and he tried to get into the bathroom to continue the argument. When he realised he couldn’t, he did what he had seen done a hundred times on tv shows and in the movies. He took his gun, and he fired into the lock on the bathroom door. He probably held the gun close to the lock, straight-armed, and fired at a downward angle.

If Steenkamp was sitting behind the door as he fired into the lock, the shots might easily have found their ways into her head, shoulder and chest.

All of that is about anger, and about mindless copying of what he had seen in the mass media. It is about mindless, childlike behaviour in a way. I don’t know Pistorius’s character, but I don’t think this is terribly farfetched.

The rest is about stupidity, about a young man trying to cover his tracks when he feels cornered, knowing that he has done wrong. Relying on an intruder story when South Africa is so troubled by crime isn’t remotely farfetched, even though the circumstances of the shooting soon made this scenario unlikely. This behaviour, if anything, reinforces the hypothesis. If Pistorius genuinely didn’t know that Steenkamp was slumped in a sitting position behind the locked bathroom door, and it was only his intention to gain entrance, then he must have been totally shocked and horrified to find that he’d injured and possibly even killed his girlfriend. All kinds of things might happen in his mind at that point, including self-preservation.

I’m not entirely convinced that any justice system finds the whole truth the whole of the time, but I hope that in this case it does.

I don’t know any more than anyone else knows what happened in that house, but I hope that justice is done for Reeva Steenkamp, a woman of only twenty-nine, who should not have died. There is no doubt that Oscar Pistorius killed her, the only doubt, I suppose, is whether the killing was accidental, deliberate or even premeditated.

I know that’s a jury I wouldn’t like to have to sit on. I suspect this trial isn't going to be pretty, but I suspect we're all going to see a very great deal of it on our screens and in our papers, and I suspect it will live long in our memories, almost certainly longer than Reeva Steenkamp will.

Saturday 16 February 2013

The debate on Creative Writing courses continues to rage...

... in my mind, at least.

I’ve talked about creative writing courses before, most notably over here.

A writer friend of mine was coming to the end of his MA in Creative Writing when he was offered his first publishing contract. It was, if memory serves, for three genre novels, and remuneration was in the high five figure bracket. Not bad going. He chose not to talk about the deal, or couldn’t while the contract was agreed, I don’t remember which. Anyway, to qualify for a first in his degree, his work was required to be of a standard worthy of publication. The work, in this instance was the novel that had got him the publishing contract.

The contract was not announced until after the degree was marked. My friend was awarded a second class degree by an examiner who had not published a novel for over twenty years.

Awarding marks at any level is going to be difficult when the work is open to subjective appraisal, but that isn’t really my worry.

My worry is that I’ve just learned that an A’level in Creative Writing has been proposed.

When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was share my work with a class of other teenagers and with an English teacher assigned to me at random. I wanted to shout and scream, and rant and rave. I wanted to diarise and theorise. I wanted to conjure with ideas and contradict myself. What I didn’t want to do was expose myself. I did write, and I did share some of that writing with one of my teachers, but the choice of teacher was mine and all of the activity was extra-curricula.

My English lessons were about what they were supposed to be about, they were about reading and deconstructing, and trying to understand themes and ideas, and language and rhythm. They were about structure and grammar. For crying out loud, at seventeen I was studying Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Austen and Stoppard, and Pope and Larkin, and I was getting it. I had learned about pace and sub-plot and characterisation, and I knew the names for various poetic forms and how to identify them. At fourteen I was conversant in the use of the semi-colon, brackets, speech-marks and the ellipsis, and I knew how to vary the lengths of sentences and how to paragraph effectively. 

I wonder what else I might have needed to know at that stage to become a decent writer. At seventeen I had some pretty effective tools at my disposal. What else might I need? The will to write and a fertile imagination are pretty good starting points for most beginners.

When I learn now that some universities taking students onto their English Literature degree courses are beginning their first years with remedial grammar, I am aghast. I am more aghast when I hear that those same educators are advocating for an A’level in Creative Writing. Why not teach a better English Language A’level instead, or a GCSE for that matter. When I learn that Chaucer and Shakespeare are no longer taught at GCSE because they are considered too difficult to tackle, and yet the educators too daunted by some of the greatest writers in the English language are advocating for a school-based qualification in Creative Writing, I am aghast, and I am more aghast when it crosses my mind that teachers who have no experience of writing expect to be able to teach that course.

Are we going to put a writer in every school that wishes to teach a Creative Writing A’level? If that’s the plan, how is it to be achieved? I look around at Creative Writing courses, which pop up all over the place, at all levels of ability, and few of the teachers offering their services appear, to me at least, to be qualified for the task.

Creative Writing students take up places on these courses to become writers, by which they invariably mean that they want to earn a living from writing. Trust me, that isn’t going to happen for the vast majority of them. People who want to write better letters, or keep a coherent diary, people who want to write better business papers, or better scientific reports, should probably be taking English language courses. Hell, they might even be able to get what they need by reading a decent English primer, and save themselves a lump of time and cash in the process. People who want to write for their own pleasure could simply learn more by reading more, or by taking a literature course.

Creative Writing courses are new. Not having them in the past didn’t stop any of our great writers becoming what they were meant to be. Not having a decent education is an impediment to being anything at all, so could we work on that first, please? Thanks, that’d be great.

Friday 15 February 2013

PC or not PC...

... and I’m not talking about the advantages of buying an Apple Macintosh, although, heaven help me, I do prefer them.

No, I’m talking about Political Correctness... You know, that idea that, like Health and Safety, some would gleefully claim has run riot in the UK over the past, I don’t know, maybe twenty years, changing the way we’re allowed to talk to each other.

In the past I’ve been a little bit suspicious of the Political Correctness brigade. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being civil. I’m all for treating everyone with respect, almost whether they deserve it or not. I’m told that I rather overdo the polite thing, and am a bit of a push-over in many situations, rather too easygoing, although I fail to see how. I’m also the first to stick my hand up (politely, and without shouting or swearing, and with a smile on my face) if something goes wrong and needs sorting out. Being lovely greases wheels. Treating people well goes a long way to allowing them the freedom to give you what you want while not compromising their dignity. It’s not complicated. Besides, I actually care about people, and I like to think I’m sort of nice, on the whole.

My problem with Political Correctness has been that I wonder whether it isn’t sometimes guilty of hiding the evil that people think. If someone is racist or sexist or homophobic, or in any other way bigoted about something, honestly, I’d rather know that about them. I can deal with anything if it’s front and centre, and I can meet it head-on. If the law prevents people from expressing their darker side, I might be lulled into thinking that all’s well with the world, that my neighbour or my colleague or my new friend thinks the way that I think when, in fact, they’re some sort of militant neo-Nazi madman.

I’m wrong of course, and I’m glad that I’m wrong.

What Political Correctness has actually done is help wipe out the sort of thoughtless, casual, grindingly miserable prejudices that tend to affect a society that has, historically, grown up run by old, white, conservative men. People showed fear and loathing of the things they did not understand because old, white men had taught them to. They did it without reference to their own experiences and feelings, and they did it automatically. They were wrong, and when Political Correctness defined the terms under which they could be proven to be wrong they couldn’t believe that they could be so crass and so offensive.

Most people who were once guilty of casual racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice in their every day speech quickly adopted new ways of talking. Words are powerful. If those casual users of offensive language stopped using the negative words, they probably also stopped having casual negative thoughts. Those suffering daily from the slurs heaped upon them by the stupid, thoughtless and ignorant suffered less, and Political Correctness succeeded. It made life better for the offended and the offender.

Words can change how the casual thinker thinks.

A minority of miserable bastards is wedded to its thoughts. Those people will continue to think what they have always thought. They will continue to be sexist, racist, homophobic and prejudiced in any manner of abhorrent ways. They will also continue to let us all know what they think, loudly and clearly. There is no way to dress that stuff up. What they say and how they say it will always give them away, and you won’t have to listen very hard or very carefully to work out who they are.

I wish it was possible to change those people’s minds and hearts, and their words and deeds. I fear that it isn’t. There is, however, always hope for the rest of us.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Borrowed Idea No 3: How to Tell the Truth

Back when we sat across the room from each other in a shared office, in the 1980s, when we ate lunch in the pub together, I asked Ian Rankin, who was already a published writer, if he’d give me some advice. He said that if he was going to give me one piece of advice it would be to lose the adjectives.

To be fair, he hadn’t read anything of mine, so he had no real way to know whether I over-used adjectives, but I was in my mid-twenties, so it was a pretty good bet that I did. Most new writers want to give it their all. They want to transmit emotion to the reader, and they figure that the best way to do that is to emote on the page.

Both Emma Brockes and Samira Ahmed, in their presentations at St Edmund Hall’s Writing Day in Oxford last Saturday talked on this very subject. 

Emma Brockes is about to publish her second memoir, “She Left me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me”.  It is, by all accounts, an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary woman, who overcomes... No, there’s no way to do it justice... Here’s the blurb:

When Emma Brockes was ten years old, her mother said 'One day I will tell you the story of my life and you will be amazed.' Growing up in a tranquil English village, Emma knew very little of her mother's life before her. She knew Paula had grown up in South Africa and had seven siblings. She had been told stories about deadly snakes and hailstones the size of golf balls. There was mention, once, of a trial. But most of the past was a mystery.

When her mother dies of cancer, Emma - by then a successful journalist at the Guardian - is free to investigate the untold story. Her search begins in the Colindale library but then takes her to South Africa, to the extended family she has never met and their accounts of a childhood so different to her own.She encounters versions of the life her mother chose to leave behind - and realises what a gift her mother gave her.

Part investigation, part travelogue, part elegy, She Left Me the Gun is a gripping, funny and clear-eyed account of a writer's search for her mother's story.

It doesn’t give much away, does it?

Emma Brockes and Samira Ahmed are journalists by profession, and that sets them apart as writers. They have a tendency to want to understand what has happened, and to extract the most salient facts to present a version of the truth that is accessible and comprehensive. They do not emote. To emote as a journalist, to toss around redundant adjectives, is to diminish the impact of a story, to impose one’s own limited world view on an event.

If a story is strong enough, if it carries some universal truth of its own, it needs no embellishment.

I agree whole-heartedly with this approach to writing, and it’s what I tried to do with my novel Naming Names. I still don’t know how far I succeeded, and now that the novel has gone through several drafts and has had other people’s ideas exercised upon it, I’m not sure how closely it expresses the idea that first arose in my mind four years ago. Perhaps I will never know whether I did what I set out to do. For now, it is enough that I made the attempt. It is certainly enough that Emma and Samira espouse the same values in writing the hard stuff that I cling to. 

Who knows? Maybe one day.

(You can read Samira Ahmed's blog about the St Edmund Hall Writer's day here.)

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Borrowed Idea No 2: The Three Field System

So, we’re back for a second day of Emma Brockes’s marvelous ideas about writing. I saw her last Saturday in Oxford, and she spoke eloquently on the subject. I already do what she does, but I’ve never explained the why or how; she explained those things in her presentation at the weekend, so I’m regurgitating them for your benefit.

I liked her. She was good. Listen up. Trust me, it’s worth it.

You probably all remember the Three Field System from history lessons in school. At least, that’s where I learned about it. Take two different crops in your three fields and rotate them, always leaving one field fallow. If you constantly grow the same crop in the same field you’ll always deplete the same nutrients from the soil and the crops will soon begin to fail. What’s more, any pathogens will multiply exponentially, and, in no time at all, you’ll be in a world of hurt.

Now apply that principle to writing.

If you move between projects of different types, styles, lengths, weights, you stand a chance of staying sane, which is good. What's better, is that the writing stays fresh. If you hammer away at the same thing all day, every day, you’ll begin to get bogged down, and the writing will suffer. How is it possible for a comedy writer to write good quality jokes all day long? The truth is, it isn’t. Neither is it possible for a novelist to write nothing but longform, prose fiction for months at a time and it be brilliant. Those who do it start to repeat themselves, their foibles begin to show, their habits to irritate, because they’re locked in their heads, and there’s nowhere else for them to go.

I write every day. Some of that is the novel I’m currently working on, but some of it is tweets and e-mails, and some of it is this blog. All of those things exercise different writing muscles, and each of those things feeds back into the beast.

Of course,  modern farming methods run along the same lines as the ancient three field system, except that there is no fallow field. Now there is companion planting, and multiple crops per year, and higher yielding strains of all kinds of grains... and so it goes. There’s more pressure on the land to produce, more pressure on the farmer, and more fertiliser (organic and synthetic) being heaped onto the earth. There’s more standardisation too, so that the foodstuffs that turn up in our supermarkets appear rounder, or a more uniform size or colour, more generic and with a longer shelf-life.

For my money, I’ll take the old three field system. I’ll stick with the original. I’ll keep my fallow field. I like a little wiggle room. I’ll call it my time to think and to read; I’ll call it my time to throw ideas around with the people who stimulate me. We all need time to take stock, to look around us. We’re writers and we spend a lot of time alone with our thoughts, hammering away on our computers. There’s no future in running on empty... not for me, at least.

Gosh... That was such a simple idea when Emma talked about it, and I’ve turned it into rather a snark. I could take a leaf out of her book.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Borrowed Idea No 1: Stock and Flow

Emma Brockes is a clever woman and an engaging speaker, so I feel no shame in regurgitating her ideas. 

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that it was my very great pleasure to attend a writers’ event in Oxford at the weekend, and Emma Brockes was the first speaker of the day, talking about her writing experiences, and about blogging and digital media in particular. 

She talked about two working practices that I have also adopted over the years, but had never really thought about or expressed in any coherent way. Emma did, though, and I think her ideas bear repeating.

Anyone who has studied Economics or Accountancy will have come across the idea of stock and flow where a flow variable is measured over an interval of time and a stock variable is measured at a point in time...

Yeah, you’re right, that’s enough of that!

Here’s how it works the way that Emma talked about it. Flow is your every day output. Flow is your Twitter activity, Facebook updates, blogs and anything else that accumulates over time. Flow is the stuff you put out into the world that is short-lived, but gives you a constant and recognisable presence. Flow is the stuff that keeps your name in front of people. Flow builds your profile.

The truth is that most people have some flow. Even my mother has a Facebook page. Take my nephew, he has a Facebook page and a Twitter account and even a blog. Those things are connected, and he uses the first two every day. His network is social and personal, and his blogging is erratic, and that’s as far as it goes. 

I need something else, and so does anyone who has any ambition to be a writer. Facebook is less and less useful, but I have a Twitter account and, perhaps most importantly for me, a blog. I blog almost every day, and I advertise my blog on Twitter. Sometimes my posts are personal, and my opinions certainly are, but I set out with a sort of manifesto when I began blogging, and I’ve tried to stick to it.

Stock is the big stuff, and I write quite a lot about my stock in my flow. Stock is the novel that might one day be published. Stock is the book I’m collaborating on with the husband that will be published. Stock is the latest bit of paid work. Stock is the big piece of work that is on my desk for a year, or even longer, which is why I talk about it in my flow, so that the world is aware of it, so that the publicity machine is up and running, so that, when it’s time, the engine’s running in the marketing department that is word of mouth and personal recommendation.

It’s a big world out there, and every body’s competing for their share of their little corner of it. All flow might be fun and it's fine for most people, but it won’t pay the mortgage, but... here’s a thing... For most of us, all stock won’t pay the mortgage, either. The world needs to know who you are, and to that end, most of us need to be out in it, to have a fairly constant public profile that everyone and anyone can access easily. If a Google name search doesn’t put you top of the list and date you in the last few days you’re flow isn’t good enough to promote your stock when it's available, and when you want people to shell out their hard-earned cash for it.

So... Let’s hope those 315 blogs last year paid off!

Monday 11 February 2013

The Great and the Good

It was my very good fortune to get on a train with the husband on Friday and go off to Oxford, to St Edmund Hall where he spent three years as an undergraduate. Like many of us, the husband had mixed feelings about the place where he spent some of his most formative years, and a little trepidation about returning, but he’d been invited to speak by his former tutor, whom he loved, and he wasn’t going to let her down.

I wanted to go too. I’d last stayed in college when I’d visited the husband when he’d been the boyfriend, back in the day, and I felt the romance of taking a room in college, again, albeit a double, ensuite with breakfast in the SCR.

Neither one of us was ready for what actually happened.

It was a great day.

It was lovely to have breakfast with the Principal, Prof Keith Gull and comedy writer Paul Powell, and to meet Prof Lucy Newlyn, who had organised the day, and who was thrilled to see the husband again. She was charming and funny, and couldn’t have been lovelier. 

The day began with Emma Brockes, (The Guardian) whose ideas were so well put I’ll be regurgitating them for you in future blogs. We chatted. I liked her.

Samira Ahmed’s (the BBC) presentation on digital news, her candour, her fast-talking, relaxed presentation and her endless enthusiasm were hugely engaging, and her steadfast attachment to women’s issues and her unshakeable faith in feminism were very impressive. I have no idea where she gets her energy from, but I wish I had half her focus.

The day ended, perhaps inevitably, with Stewart Lee, who is as quick and funny in person as you might expect, but who has a quiet charm and humility that is decidedly disarming. I liked him immediately. I liked his honestly and his good sense. I liked his work ethic and his generosity. He had time for everyone, and, trust me, he was in considerable demand.

This was Oxford, and the event was open to current students and alumni of the college, so the room was buzzing with thinkers, and it was an enormous pleasure to be in an atmosphere where nothing had to be lingered over or explained, where everyone caught on quickly, where connections were made easily, where everyone always seemed to be on the same page, without necessarily agreeing with one another. It was exhilarating.

More than anything, though, I felt the camaraderie. 

I was moved. Not only did Samira and Stewart, and one or two others of the husband’s contemporaries, reminisce easily with him between talks and over lunch and farewell drinks, but they readily included me.

More than that, a small, but significant cadre of the husband’s old cohort turned up to the event with the express intention of seeing and spending time with him. It had been years since he had seen them, but there were hugs and smiles, and soon everyone was talking and laughing, and enjoying each other. It was a real privilege to be in their company. It was like standing in bright sunshine, even when we sat long into the night and emerged in the rain, and it’s a feeling I shan’t readily forget. I can’t imagine how the husband must have felt, but I do know that we won’t be losing touch with any of these amazing people again any time soon... We’ll both make sure of that.

Friday 8 February 2013

There’s a First Time for Everything

It might be a relief to all concerned that my first Black Library Q and A panel happened overseas... A relief to all, that is, apart from messrs Wraight, McNeill, Thorpe, and, of course, Abnett.

I’ve got to admit, right here, right now, that it has not, previously, been my pleasure to watch the husband perform a question and answer session. I’ve rarely sat in on one of his seminars, either. For the most part, the husband’s quite happy for me to sit next to him at a signing table, and he’s pretty relaxed about public appearances, but, for whatever reasons, he prefers for me to be elsewhere when he’s ‘on’. I don’t know the reasons; it only matters to me that he has them. Heaven forfend I should ever discomfort the poor man more than I already do in our daily lives together.

Anyway... Some of you will know that a little troupe of us Black Library contributors flew off to Canada in October to take part in the Chestermere Expo. It was quite the success, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Sadly, at the last minute, a couple of staffers were unable to attend, and, since I was going anyway, and since I have worked as a sometime editor and proofreader and occasional writer for Black Library, I was asked if I wouldn’t mind stepping in and helping out with a panel or two. I didn’t mind. I thought it might be fun, just so long as the audience’s expectations weren’t too high.

I had very little to worry about. I was surrounded by professionals.

The professionals had something to worry about. They were surrounded by me.

Performing on a panel is not the easiest thing in the World. I know, I’ve done it. I did it four times in two days in Chestermere. I watched while the guys I was sitting with did it. I watched the husband do it alone.

Honest to goodness, having done it myself, watching the husband flying solo for an hour was like taking a masterclass. The man (and I’m talking about my husband, you understand, and have no bias whatsoever), is a genius... in more ways than one.

When hoisted up on a too-high stool, on a little platform with a mic in my hand and a little gathering of people seated in front of me, it turns out that I can find something to say whether I know the answer to a question or not. So that, I guess, is a blessing. There weren’t any awkward silences, at least... One or two gasps, and a nervous laugh or two (mostly from the other panel-members), but no drawn-out pauses.

It also turns out that I can find something to say that is totally unlike anything that any one else on the panel is going to say. It wasn’t that I contradicted anyone. How does one contradict a New York Times bestselling author, after all? It’s just that it turns out every perspective is unique, and it turns out that my perspective might just be a little more unique than most; here are a few reasons why:

I am the only Black Library contributor married to Dan Abnett, I am the least published contributor of longest standing, and I am in the minority of women writers working for the company. I am also a storyteller before I am anything else. I am a storyteller before I am a nerd or a gamer, or a painter of figures, or a man, or even a writer. When you ask me a question on a Q and A panel I want to tell you a story. I want to amuse you. I don’t want to lay out the facts, I don’t even, necessarily, want to answer your question; what I want to do is tell you a story.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is why it takes another writer dropping out of a foreign expo at the last minute, and a desperate but efficient event organiser to get me invited onto a Q and A panel. It was a great treat for me, even if it terrified several members of the public who happened to be in the audience for the event. 

I didn’t, as it happens, expect to be invited to work an event again, but, here we are, a couple of weeks away from BL Live 2013, with a lovely pair of books with my name on, and there I am, on the schedule! It’s fine, though, don’t fret, all will be well. I’m on at the same time as the husband; he’s doing his solo Q&A while I sit on a panel talking about Warhammer. I’m not expecting a huge audience for my little performance, but, just so you know, and if you should happen to need an enticement to support the other Abnett, if you should happen to want to ask me a question about the husband, I will consider answering it... candidly!

You can’t say fairer than that, now, can you?

Thursday 7 February 2013

Blogs and Politics

Something happened yesterday that I thought was a very good subject for a blog, especially as it gave me an opportunity to swim against the tide of expectation.

I do love to confuse people, given half a chance.

So, I wrote my blog. I read it back, added links and read it again.

It was controversial. I knew that it would be widely read and commented on, and I knew that an awful lot of people probably wouldn’t like it. I didn’t care... OK, I cared enough to think that it was a good idea to show it to the husband before I posted it.

The husband is useful in these circumstances. I tend to speak first and think later. He’s a thinker. He considers what he says and, most of the time (although as he’s got older he has become much freer with his opinions) he’s very much more circumspect than I am.

I e-mailed my blog to the husband. Five minutes later he came to find me to tell me that he thought, on the whole, I should leave this one alone. I probably shouldn’t comment. It wasn’t that I’d said anything wrong. It wasn’t that he didn’t agree with me. It wasn’t that what I’d said wasn’t interesting or well-put. It was... It was contentious. It was political, and, whatever I did and whatever I said, I couldn’t change anything and I couldn’t do myself any good in the process.

He’s right, of course.

Is it cowardly, though, I wonder?

Is it a good idea always to say what I think?

Isn’t it true that we’re much more likely to get to the ends of our lives and regret the things we didn’t do and not the things we did do? And if that's true, isn't it also true of the things we do or don't say?

I’m old enough to know that I have very little power, but what little power I have is tied up with words.

I can speak up. I can offer an opinion. I can say what I think, and I can say it loudly and proudly and with conviction.

As it happens, the subject I was going to talk on today was academic. I was responding to something that had happened, because I thought that it was interesting and not because I really cared about it. I picked a side based on what others had said rather than on what I felt. Honestly, I didn’t feel very much at all in my heart; it was all much more of an intellectual exercise.

It’s not that I don’t care about what goes on in my head, because of course I do, but I’m going to save my voice for what I feel passionate about, and hope I have the words to make myself understood when it really counts.

I hope you’ll be there to hear me, and even to argue with me, when the time comes.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

The Loop

Sometimes I’m in the loop and it’s a fine place. Sometimes all is well, everyone seems to like what I’m doing, everyone seems to get it and appreciate it, and I earn money. It’s splendid.

Once in a while, I’m so in the loop that I can see its periphery somewhere on the horizon as I turn. I’m right at the centre of all that’s good and wondrous. I can do no wrong, and I know it. I love life when it’s like that. I love the work when it’s going well, when everything seems to fit, when praise comes from all directions, when deadlines are met and expectations are exceeded. It’s a little like magic; there’s alchemy at work.

Then there’s the other thing. Then there’re the times when I’m so far out of the loop that the loop is a dot to me, and I’m out in the wilderness. Often, I don’t feel any differently about the work; often it all feels as if it’s going jolly well; often, I like what I’m doing and think it’s pretty good. At those times other people seem to be the problem. When I’m out of the loop no one seems to like what I do, no one seems to get it, everyone’s a critic, and I can’t seem to catch a break.

That, my friends, is the writer’s lot. I am no exception. I am just like everyone else who has ever done this job. The bottom line is that all writers have their work rejected. The good and the great and the bloody incomparable have had their work rejected, sometimes dozens of times before the right buyer or the right time has come or the right version of the manuscript has emerged. This is not a job for the faint of heart.

The work of all art forms is subjective. Not everyone is going to like what an artist makes, and that means that not everyone is going to like what I write. Some of the time that is going to include my own people. Sometimes that is going to include everyone and anyone from my beta-readers to my agent to my editor, and, god-help-me, to my prospective publishers. 

Some of those people matter more than others, of course. It’s rare for all of my beta-readers to love something, although it has happened; that’s fine. If my lovely agent doesn’t like something, and that happens, from time to time, then she’s not going to try to sell it. If my editor doesn’t like it, there’s going to be a lot of hard work ahead. If prospective publishers don’t like it, they’re not going to buy it.

In theory, of course, you only need one publisher, although two is better if you want any kind of bidding war. 

In this business, the people with the real power are agents and editors... And what power!

If you can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, how do you go about pleasing one person, and who should that one person be?

Honestly? I’ve got a theory about that.

It might sound like madness, and perhaps it is, but I can’t help thinking that the only way I’m going to produce my best work is to please myself. I don’t think there’s any way to second guess what any other person is going to like on any given day. I don’t think there’s any way to second guess what the zeitgeist is going to be in any given period of time six months hence, and if it was possible to predict either of those things I don’t think there’s any satisfaction in trying to produce work to order.

Of course, there’s a good chance I’m probably wrong, but, right now, I’m so far out of the loop, the loop is a dot to me, and yet I’m sticking to my guns. That ought to count for something, surely?