Five things writing has done for me

Sometimes, writing gets a hard rap. I mean, it can be a lonely and thankless kind of pursuit – especially if you haven’t started submitting or sharing your stuff yet – and there tends to be a lot of self doubt and musing mixed in. But it ain’t all bad. In fact, it can be pretty amazing.

I’ve put together a little list of the things I think writing has done for me, aside from personal satisfaction and an occasional pat on the back, in a practical sense.

1. Widening horizons

Reading had done a pretty good job of this anyway, but there’s nothing like wanting to write for forcing you out of your comfort zone. Instead of only reading the books I’m pretty sure I’m going to like, I read a huge variety of stuff from different genres, emerging writers and different age groups. And that’s not even including the research that goes into some stories. (Yes, I do count five hours reading all news stories I can find about talking dogs online as research ok.)

2. Making friends

Loads of people enjoy writing and even more enjoy reading. Getting chatting to them online has shown me your friends don’t have to have the same tastes as you to be great folks. You’ve already got something in common, so it’s easier to skip the ‘what’s your favourite band’ chat and move straight onto things you’re desperate to share.

3. Eating alone

Thanks to what must equate to months and months spent scribbling in notebooks in a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants, I can happily order, eat and sit staring into space on my own pretty much anywhere. Doesn’t sound like much maybe, but when I think back to how shy I was as a teenager I reckon this has been a bit of an asset – for my self confidence if not my general diet.

4. Developing a scrawl

I write by hand so often that I think my handwriting may have evolved into something else. Unless I’m concentrating, it’s barely legible. This has two benefits. One, I can take notes very quickly. Two, no one else can really make head or tail of them.

5. Word appreciation

I appreciate words and beautifully constructed sentences 100 times more now I know how difficult it can be to choose or craft them. Look how much I love the name of this street – would I have loved it quite as much had I never sat down to try and craft a masterpiece? Only the potatoes know.

So that’s five reasons for now, I’m sure there are more but my lunch break is pretty much over. Got any plus points to share?

I best start packing the books!

At last! The mortgage papers have been signed, the solicitor has been paid, and now I’m technically on track for buying my new flat! All I really have to do in the next few weeks is try to not accidentally get arrested or go bankrupt. Of course, I’ll also have to start packing – and that means booking up all of those hundreds of books, again.

I’ve moved house about three times for every two years since I left home at 17. I’m getting pretty good at packing. The only problem is, the older I get, the larger my collection of books. I’d say that for every 30 books that come over my threshold, one might end up with a charity shop – the rest I just can’t bear to part with. Good for my collection, bad for my back when moving.

This time though, I’ll be moving and knowing I’m planning to stay for a good long while, I’ll be able to luxuriate in sorting them out and re-homing them all (and I plan to buy some new shelves so they don’t end up stacked on the floor like they so often have).

many books on shevles and stacked on the floor.

A small selection of my messy books

I am so excited, although ever so slightly scared of jinxing it…. so, shh, I never told you about this new flat right? The last few months of 2010 may have dragged by excruciatingly slowly as I waited for one thing or another to be resolved, but this year has been one wild ride so far.

Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs?

Blurbondency The feeling of let down and confusion that follows reading a book because it has a blurb from one of your favourite authors, only to find the book disappointing and unreadable. Self doubt and a re-examination of bookshelves is also to be expected.

Blurbs are powerful things. They act as the same kind of seal of approval you’re looking for when you’re eyeing up a potential date. I’ve picked up and taken home plenty of books thanks to a few words of praise from one of my favourite authors – but you can’t always count on a blurb when you’re choosing what to snuggle up with at night.

Recently I read a book I just couldn’t get into. I could see it wasn’t awful, I could see it had some merit, but there were parts of it that really stuck in my craw. I sat contemplating the cover, and noticed it had blurbs from no fewer than three of my favourite authors. A strange mixture of feelings quickly arose. Confusion – were they talking about the same book? Self doubt – can’t I even tell a good book when I look at it? Shaken faith – are my favourite writers not the all-knowing beings I hoped they were?

Ultimately, I know that when judging books – as with all other art forms – there’s a great deal of subjectivity involved. You say tomato, I say pulpy, soppy trash. But that won’t stop me from suffering a good dose of blurbondency when the book and the blurb just don’t seem to fit.

When is a book not a book?

As technology grows ever snazzier, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to work out exactly what the word ‘book’ defines. Back when I was a kid that was a pretty easy question to work out. A book was a collection of pages bound together, normally with a pretty picture on the cover. True, some books were made of cloth and some were even waterproof and inflatable (I wish you could get those bath time books for adults), but they were all essentially the same thing.

Then there were audio books and story tapes, and these were a little trickier to classify, but it wasn’t much of a problem, seeing as you’d naturally assume there was a solid, paper book present during the creation of the tape – they had to be reading the story from something after all.

The movement of stories from paper and print to pixels muddied the water slightly, but when I think of ebooks, I still think of something that resembles a physical book. In my mind, it’s just a digital representation of those paper creations I know and love – whether it’s a whole book on my laptop or a short story on Ether, it’s still a ‘book’ to me.

But yesterday I saw a news story about Penguin’s new book for babies, which seems to be an interactive story experience on the iPad for the teeny ones, and I started wondering when you reached the point where a book was no longer a book. True, many children’s books are interactive – from those cute ones with spaces for finger puppets to pop up varieties – but then, so are plenty of video games.

Getting stuck into a console based game such as Final Fantasy or Fable isn’t considered the same thing as reading a book, and I definitely don’t think it should be, but there’s plenty of storytelling – and generally reading involved in these experiences.

So, if playing games like those are considered something very separate from reading a book, where do you draw the line when it comes to the new, multimedia offerings that are being branded as books these days? I’m thinking of things like the new Penguin release, or Ann Rice’s ebook experiment, or any of the other new developments that combine traditional books with new technology to make something new. When does a book stop being a book? Or does the word book just have a totally different meaning these days?

Booklovers read anywhere

While sizing up new flats and trying to work out good writing spots recently, I’ve also been thinking lots about the best places to do one of my favourite things – reading. I might be a bed fan through and through – stacks of pillows and a duvet are my friends when it comes to reading, especially if the story is either scary or sad – but you can’t stay in bed ALL the time. At least, that’s what people tell me.

So if I need to have some alternative reading spots, I want them to be good ones. A window seat would score a close second and a sofa by a fire is a definite third. However, as much time as I’m happy to spend day dreaming about my ideal reading space, the truth is I’d do it anywhere.

A quick tally of the amount of people I see reading in buses and cafes, on benches and walls or even as they walk down a crowded street tells me I’m not alone.

The idea of booklovers getting their fiction fix wherever they can find it has reminded me of a poem I loved and memorised as a wee ‘un (a rare occurrence). Reproduced below as it seems to be freely available online, but shout me if I shouldn’t have please!

Cats Sleep Anywhere

Cats sleep anywhere
Any table
Any chair
Top of piano
Window ledge
In the middle
On the edge
Open drawer
Empty shoe
Anybody’s lap will do
Fitted in a cardboard box
In the cupboard
With your frocks
They don’t care
Cats sleep anywhere.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881 – 1965)

black cat on pillow

Whisper having a good old nap

I think the same could be said for most booklovers! I especially like the idea of the lap part. Although, having tried it in the past, I have to say it’s more distracting a perch than I usually prefer for reading. Don’t let that deter you though, maybe you’re focus is better that mine.

Have you got a favourite place to read, or are you a cat-like book-ninja, happy to get down to business at a moment’s notice? Or maybe you’re like Whisper, and you like doing things as they’re meant to be done.


Are bestsellers craving critical love just greedy?

I can’t remember where, but the other day I saw an article about bestselling authors – and how upset some of them are about the fact that they tend not to be particularly popular with critics. At first I thought this was fair enough, I mean, it must be quite upsetting to be thought of as popular but not, um, serious.

On second thought however, I decided that it wasn’t fair. You’re a bestselling author; do you really think you need a pat on the head from a critic or two? If you’ve cracked the market there’s a chance you’ve tapped into a genre, or a writing style, that lots of people like. To do this it’s quite likely you’ve had to compromise to some extent right? No one can say they have tastes that are shared with everyone else, we’re all a little bit different – and it’s those differences that make us feel special.

To create a book that tops the charts, you need to appeal to a lot of people. I’m not saying this means you’ve had to dumb down your writing (Christ, as a copywriter I know how difficult it can be to be simple and concise), but you’ll probably have made the decision to eschew some of the flowery language or conceits critics are fond of. It doesn’t make your book worse, it just makes it a different beast, and the kind critics aren’t as interested in.

I don’t read many bestsellers, and the ones I do read are the magical lucky few that manage to straddle the line between literary fiction and popular novels, but there’s a reason for that. I choose the books I like to read, and they tend to be the kind that appeal to niche audiences. They tend to be the ones more likely to get good reviews by the critics, but they aren’t going to be raking the authors in much cash.

So when bestselling writers complain they aren’t being taken seriously, I can’t help wondering if they remember how rubbish it is to write and write and never earn enough to feel as though you can even call yourself a writer, let alone a bestselling or critically acclaimed one.

Kids more likely to have mobiles than books? Boo!

That’s it, I’m going to have to go on a book buying mission (oh, terrible I know – how much I hate shopping for books). Unfortunately – or fortunately if you’re one of the people who helps me move form flat to flat on a regular basis – I won’t be buying books for myself, I’ll be buying them to give to all of the children I know.

So what’s brought this on? Not my general love for my friend’s sprogs I have to admit, more the total fear elicited by the report claiming that kids are more likely to have a phone than a book. Pushing the idea of parents reading to children and giving them the chance to explore reading themselves is one of my hobby horses I guess, I feel like I can’t shut up about it sometimes, but it was such a great part of growing up for me I can’t help but want to hang on to it.

One thing is for sure though, if kids do end up being part of my future, they will grow up in a very bookish home. Especially if Ink has anything to do with it – I think we could build one damn awesome fort out of our combined collections of books and comics.

Keeping books physical?

Every time I browse book or publishing news feeds these days, I’m guaranteed to find countless posts on the ‘advent of the eBook’, the ‘death of the real book’ or the ‘end of publishing as we know it’, and it’s all very interesting, and obviously it does look as though the way we are all absorbing information is changing and the chances are that we are moving closer to digital models for a lot of the information we consume. What will it mean for books and writers?

It’s probably not even worth me speculating. But I did find it quite funny to see these two headlines side by side on Google News today.

As Google enters the eBook fray, much to the (dare I say slightly hysterical) interest of journalists, so we are reminded of the physical value of a popular book.

Humans are funny creatures, but no matter what changes are to befall our favourite forms of entertainment , I reckon we’re still quite far away from killing off out hunter collector genes. Taking a look around my house and it’s multiple bookcases, I sure am anyway.

Readers ditch celebrity memoirs

Out of all the books out there that just don’t float my boat, celebrity memoirs have got to be my least favourite. I could moan about them all day for reasons ranging from my disgust at the idea that such drivel as Jordan’s efforts could end up sitting beside genuine memoirs to the fear that celebrity trash could influence the publishing future of the country.

However, for me, the surprising news that Waterstones managing director Gerry Johnson has been pushed from his post was over shadowed by the stats showing a slump in celebrity memoir sales. I just hope that people give up on these flimsy money making exercises and turn to well crafted books instead. The thought they just won’t read anything is too depressing.

Hopefully Waterstones can find a way to tempt people back through their doors. Hearing about all the independent bookshops closing is bad enough let alone having to see Waterstones go the same way as Borders.

Children’s books get real

The Waterstone’s Children’s book prize finalists have been revealed and there’s a notable increase in books dealing with real life issues and settings rather than the fantasy and sci fi leanings that have been popular in recent years.

I think it’s nice to see. While I loved horrors and fantastical books as a child I think I engaged with them in a very escapist way. As a young adult I was able to see the way authors were commenting on universal issues through an imaginary or magical landscape, but when I was younger it was harder to identify the things I might have in common with characters in fantasy books.

Children’s books dabbling in realism, however, had my sympathies totally hooked and more often provided me with the ‘you’re not alone feeling’ that is one of the most amazing things about reading.