Archive : Month

My Problem With YA

POSTED ON February 26th, 2011  - POSTED IN Reading

Before I get compared to Martin Amis, let me say that I honestly think that YA is where the real innovation is going on in genre. It might not always be extending the boundaries but it’s pulling new readers in, and more importantly hooking them.

To understand my issue with it though, you have to look back at my reading history. As a kid, I pushed myself with my reading, reading books that really challenged me. I remember reading Watership Down at 7. I didn’t understand all the words, but then I don’t understand all the words of some of the books I read nowadays so I don’t see this as a particular issue. The point was I read… a lot. And as a result, my writing blossomed. At 8 I wrote a fantasy story that the teacher thought so good, he typed all 100 pages of it and put it into the school library.

In 1983, we moved from rural Kent back to Surrey. This meant a new school. At first I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted. I remember picking up Fellowship of the Ring and starting on that. It takes a while to get going so the early parts of it can be quite dry, but I was enjoying it none the less.

Then came the dreaded reading test. I have no idea what went wrong. Maybe I was nervous, maybe I – as I often do now – tripped over my tongue, or maybe I didn’t know how to pronounce some words. Whatever the reason, the result came back that I was reading level 7. The Fellowship of The Ring was reading level 14. I had to stop that book and read a picture book about two monkeys.

And I hated it. I hated that I couldn’t read what I wanted to read. Maybe I wasn’t reading level 14 but I was willing to push myself, yet here I was stuck with shitty picture books.

It damn well nearly killed my reading. The only thing that really saved me was the fact that my mother didn’t believe in restricting access to books and within a few years I’d be reading Clive Barker, letting him subvert my mind.

And this is why I have a problem with YA. Not because the books aren’t cool. Heck, I have no problem with reading YA myself. No my problem is one of branding. I just don’t want anyone to be in my position of being told they can’t read something. “No, that Joe Abercrombie is an adult book, you must choose something from the YA section”.

It also works the other way. How many adults refuse to read YA just because they believe it’s for kids? I don’t have a problem with genre labels, in fact I think they can be helpful, even if books are next to impossible to place under one. But those labels are not ones based on age, and I think that’s where my problem lies.

Either way YA exists and for some people it’s a helpful categorization. I just hope it doesn’t inadvertently restrict young people’s reading.

I Worry Too Much

POSTED ON February 21st, 2011  - POSTED IN Writing

I’ve come to the conclusion that writing needs to be a secondary activity for me. The trouble is that when it becomes a primary one, I become like a rabbit in headlights, afraid to move left or right for making some mistake or other. That isn’t conducive to being creative.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about dropping the level of work, but I can sit at my desk for four hours and edit a page, or I can do something else then come and edit one and a half. I’m coming to the conclusion that my creative process works best when it’s subconscious.

I am a worrier though, especially when it comes to writing. I’m so worried that I’ll do something stupid, piss off the wrong person or write the wrong kind of thing that it can make me petrified.

I guess this all comes down to self-confidence, something I’ve always struggled with as a writer. I know that if I allowed it, I could let my ego go into overdrive (although I don’t think I’m the only writer to feel this). Maybe not enough to offend but certainly enough to bore. But that balance between over and under confidence feels like a tightrope most of the time.

I shouldn’t worry. I’m not a person who naturally offends and usually I’m happy to be a lone voice. I’m only just starting to find that in fiction and yet I’m still concerned I’ll make some dreadful social faux pas. Stupid really.

I’ve found it in the last couple of weeks after some arse basically complained that new books are not like the old books and therefore crap. Now I don’t believe that. I’ve always subscribed to the fact that I like what I like. That means some old and some new. Yet, things like this come along (and get rightly rounded upon) and people start taking pot shots at Tolkien like some bastard child trying to usurp the king.

I get really annoyed about this. I mean, I love Tolkien but am open to his faults. However with fantasy fiction there seems to be no respect for the forefathers. He was a product of his time, and as such I can enjoy it as such. It’s too black and white some people decry. Obviously. It was written at a time when Nazism was an absolute evil. Times have changed. The enemies in our day to day lives have changed, become more complex. A suicide bomber could be the guy next door who lent you his ladder. It’s natural we want our fictional villains to reflect this, to be more complex, less clear cut.

But it seems that because Tolkien doesn’t fit modern day audiences in this instance, he’s automatically derided. And let me be clear: there is a difference between derision and personal dislike. You don’t get Marvel comic fans talk about Stan Lee that way. You don’t have people complaining about the state of the graphics on the old Final Fantasy games. This inability to see a novel as a product of a time genuinely worries me.

And you know, last week I thought “sod it!” I don’t think these people I’m talking with are idiots, I actually respect a lot of their views, but I’m not gonna let this go. So suddenly I’m in the role of defending Tolkien.

There seems to be a lot of tribalism forming in genre and defending Tolkien does ‘feel’ (even if it is not intended) like you’re not in the tribe with the cool kids. But bollocks to that, I’ve had enough of the disrespect. My paranoia told me that everyone probably now thinks I’m writing a Tolkien clone.

And I think that’s when something snapped; not directed at those I was discussing things with (as I said I think they are incredibly intelligent on genre and I wouldn’t be discussing with them if I didn’t like them), but at just worrying at feeling like the sole voice (well me and the arsehole).

My worry isn’t because I don’t know who I am and what I want to write, it’s because I don’t know where I fit in, if I fit in at all. No wonder identity is a major theme in my work, huh?

But worrying isn’t gonna make a bad novel good or a good novel bad. And I do feel good about this novel. Good enough to take my time to get it right, despite an almost primal urge to get it over and done with. It still might not be good enough, but anyone who thinks it’s a Tolkien clone might be in for a bit of a surprise.

So why am I letting this worry and angst consume me? Because I’m afraid I’ll make some mistake that’ll stop the novel getting published? I really need to get over that. The problem is that I think my brain needs something to worry about, and this is why my writing needs to be a secondary activity.

Because then I’ll stop wasting time worrying and spend it writing or editing instead.

Conversations With a First Time Ebook Pirate

POSTED ON February 16th, 2011  - POSTED IN Genre, Reading

First off, if you’ve come here expecting a ranty moan about ebook pricing, this probably isn’t the blog post for you. If on the other hand, you’re interested to hear what I learned from speaking to a work colleague who has started pirating books at 64, read on.

Let’s kick it off by saying that I do like ebooks, and whilst I’d like them cheaper I still think they are pretty good value for the hours of entertainment they provide.

I’ve noticed in the last month – since Xmas really – that a LOT of people are getting kindles. We’ve gone from none in my place of work to at least 4 (which is about 10% of the workforce). In chatting to those people, I feel I’ve been given a better insight into the issues ebooks face moving forwards.

Take person X, we’ll call him John. John is close to retirement and likes Bradbury and Harry Harrison. He’s a big reader and bought a kindle for he and his wife to share (which she hogs all the time). He likes it so much, he may buy a second one. John knows nothing about publishing and he knows nothing about my writing (I go all Clark Kent at work, it’s a long story).

But John has an issue with ebooks and told me the other day how he’d committed his first illegal download. I can’t remember which book it was, I only know it wasn’t genre as it was one of his wife’s favourite authors. He’d managed to find a torrent or a download of the book.

“It’s not been out that long and it’s already out there,” he enthused.

But why download? I mean, for all Amazon’s evils, they do make it so it’s incredibly easy to add books to your kindle. It was all down to pricing apparently. The hardback had been heavily discounted by Amazon so that the “This price was set by the publisher” kindle edition was more expensive.

“It’s a rip-off,” John told me.

Now this got me thinking. You see, I don’t have an issue with an ebook being more than a paperback (or even a hardback) so long as it’s good value. But to John, the fact it was more was a major issue. I told him that ebooks have VAT but he didn’t care.

“You’re getting less, why should you pay more.”

Now the arguement to that is that books aren’t free to produce. We at all levels of the publishing industry know this. So what’s the problem then? Why can’t John see this?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and came to the conclusion that it’s one of perception.

I think if I make the statement “something is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it” I’m not being controversial. Worth is not primarily derived from cost, although it does play a major factor.

Let me give you an example. You know those amazing resin busts of Marvel and DC charcters you can get for about £60? Well I remember one company telling me the reason they preferred to produce those than action figures was because they were comparatively less to make. With an action figure, you make lots of little parts and then have to put them all together. With a bust, because it’s usually a single piece, it needs a bigger mold (and those molds are very expensive) but the profit margin is far, far greater. Why do people pay £60 for them, then? Well because those things are bigger than an action figure and must therefore be much more expensive. Size plays a factor in worth.

Now look at the hardback novel. Never mind that it’s always discounted, a hardback novel costs more than twice that of a paperback, and the reason the public accepts this, is because it’s bigger. Now, I’m not trying to attack the hardback pricing model and I’ll hold my hand up and say I don’t know all the details, but I’d wager that just like the Marvel resin models, hardbacks probably have a greater profit margin.

Whatever the business model, whether I’m correct or not, the point I’m trying to make is that the general public has come to accept that how the book is bound affects its worth. In short, it’s helped build the myth that manufacturing costs form a large part of the cost of a book. If a hardback costs £20 and a paperback £8 then they assume manufacturing must cost a lot, otherwise where is that other £12 going? Again, I’m not attacking the business model, I’m just saying where people’s perception comes from.

So remove the binding, the public perceive the book should be cheaper. It’s all the fault of hardbacks.

It gets worse When I try and tell John that by downloading the book he’s denying the author money. I do slip in the old “most authors earn less than…” routine. But John’s opinion is the pricing IS the fault of the author.

You see he views the author as the one with power. If an author “gives” their work to a publisher who “screws” the public on pricing, they are an accomplice to the “rip-off”. ‘Ethical’ authors (apparently) should withhold the manuscript if they feel their readers are going to get screwed. Again, it’s a case of perception. To John, 1-starring an amazon review because of ebook pricing seems entirely justified because the author “isn’t doing anything”.

Now we all know that authors have no real power, and to be fair I don’t think £8 for a new novel is bad, whatever the format. But if piracy is going to be minimised then authors and publishers have to realise they are playing a game of perception. Say that books cost nothing to produce and, at best, Joe Public thinks publishers are lying, at worst they feel people have been ripped off for years over hardbacks. Say that authors have no say over pricing, Joe Public will just perceive authors as mealy-mouthed.

Now I’m not saying the answer is to drop ebook prices, nor to lay a book’s P&L on the line. In fact I’m not sure that I know what the answer is, just that a 64 year old has started filesharing simply because they don’t feel the current pricing models are justified. I’m sure John’s not the only one, but at the same time I accept this isn’t an epedemic. Not everyone thinks like John. But it’s going to continue until perceptions are changed. And currently, the arguments don’t seem to be working.

Reminisces of ToyFair

POSTED ON February 14th, 2011  - POSTED IN Toys

Had I still of been running the old site, I would have probably been in New York City this week. The US ToyFair is a trade-only event where retailers see upcoming product from toy makers for the year ahead and make their orders accordingly.

Of course amongst all the baby products are the things we geeks care about. The action figures, busts and statues of those properties close to our heart: Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Transformers, etc. I’ve often said those items aren’t toys simply due to their target demographic, but the industry has been slow to recognise this.

My mission at ToyFair was always a simple one: report on all the cool things that were there. And it was a ride. Toy Companies often brought in celebrities to help publicise a toy line or a license. It’s part of the reason that the trailers for a lot of the summer geek movies get released around this time – because if they don’t show off the designs for certain characters, you can be sure that the photos of the action figure will be over the web come ToyFair. So many a ToyFair was spent in an elevator with some actor, there were many times I ended up chatting to a wrestler or comics creator.

ToyFair was always one of those events that you enjoyed afterwards. It was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. The day would be back to back appointments, learning about new properties and what was cool with them before rushing back to the hotel and uploading the pictures to the web until late into the night.

Of course in the original days that was hard. When I started all I had was a local dial-up and a $800 phone bill. As time moved on, so did the technology. But no matter what the improvement, the audience size used to grow. In those days, page impressions meant finance which was needed to finance the servers needed to handle the page impressions. It was a never ending cycle, which meant that aside from walking all day (by the end of the day I would physically rock from one foot to another to alleviate the pain in my feet), all the writing and all the html coding, you were also trying to stop your server from falling over.

I managed to cook at least 2 servers in the years I covered ToyFair. And by that, I mean push the CPU to 100% so much that the machines physically overheated and cooked themselves. One engineer told me you could have fried an egg on the burnt out corpse of one machine. And it’s no surprise. ToyFair traffic was through the roof.

I once got to see the traffic data for a company that created a site that was advertised during the Superbowl. They spent $6million advertising that site and were happy with the results, especially when despite load balancing across 23 servers worldwide, it still went down due to volume of traffic. That was a sign that the campaign was far more successful than they had hoped. And to be fair, they did a lot of hits. But I laid my ToyFair traffic over the top of that and it dwarfed it.

An Iron Maiden collectible was responsible for us receiving 15 million hits inside an hour. 15 million! Are there that many fans? Or did a million forgetful fans each look at it 15 times? Either way, it was not uncommon. Sites would actually hold back their Marvel coverage because they knew whichever site put the pics up first would go down hard. And it wasn’t as if we weren’t running some of the most advanced dedicated hosting in one of the world’s best data centres. This year, I see a lot of people using Flickr. Seriously, they have it so easy now!

Of course getting pictures online first was all part of the race. My site wasn’t the only one providing coverage (and the rivalries weren’t all friendly) and not all companies held events where all the collector media would be gathered at the same time. Scheduling was important. Judging before the event who would have the coolest items and arranging to be first to see them was akin to military planning.

ToyFair would last no more than 4 or 5 days but I would have been working up to it from the start of the year and carry on doing write ups solidly until Easter. It would eat up a good quarter of my year when I would be working non-stop from 6am until gone midnight. By the time Easter came around I’d be a wreck. My friend used to hold an annual film festival for his friends round his house at Easter (basically back to back DVDs) and I’d always get to this, have my first rest since Christmas and then come down with some lurgy or simple exhaustion. ToyFair pretty much killed me.

As a result, there’s a part of me that doesn’t miss those times. It really was ridiculously hard work. But you know, seeing all my friends on Facebook at this year’s event posting their picture next to the Optimus Prime truck from the Transformers movies (he has the trailer in #3) makes me miss it more than just a little.

Review – Rivers of London

POSTED ON February 13th, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

I read Rivers of London at a bad time. I’d just read Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson and absolutely loved the book, feeling it a pinnacle of post-Tolkien fantasy. I raved about that book.

So of course anything I read after that was going to feel like a come-down no matter how much it delivered, right? Except Rivers of London didn’t feel like a come-down at all, and I feel that’s testament to just how good a book it is.

Sure the long sentence construction threw me but only for a page or two. That’s one of the strengths of this book. It grabs you from the start and whisks you along, and you in turn keep turning pages. I’ve found myself longing to get back to this book in-between reads.

It’s X-Files meets The Bill premise is a simple enough one, it even sounds slightly corny. But it’s carried off very, very well. The characters are likable, and the story twists and turns so much that you feel you’ve read a lot larger book. Yet despite all the story, it never loses direction nor momentum.

It also has its funny moments, those wry little asides and observations that make you smirk. I’d worried seeing one of these examples because in that case it was laced with sexual innuendo and those types of jokes can get old very fast. But I need not have worried, it’s not overdone, and the central character of Peter Grant is very likable.

There’s also a lot of information in these pages. Peter is presented as a bit of a facts nerd very early on in the story. As a result, when he relays information about a location or person, it doesn’t feel like an infodump. It’s actually something you look forward to, as it adds rather than detracts from the story.

As a result, London is really presented with character. Arronovitch has managed to capture the spirit of London, and not just in the titular rivers. I had great fun having Google Streetview open as I read, viewing the locations as I read them. Sure there’s probably a bit of artistic license in there, but you got the impression that these were all locations the author knew.

I think this novel is just crying out for sequels (the next is due in April thankfully), but more than that, I think if the BBC or ITV did a TV Series based on the characters it would be a massive hit. Either way, I hope it carries on for many, many more books.

Liz De Jager and Amanda Rutter were the people responsible for recommending this book to me, and I thank them for it. It really is a fantastic book and I’m already looking forward to the sequels.

Review – Gardens of the Moon

POSTED ON February 10th, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

I fear this review is going to be a little worthless. You see, as a writer or critic we have some experience of the tools of writing: the character arcs, the themes, the worldbuilding, and so on. We’re able to unstitch novels and look at these component parts, judging each on its own merit. Hence we end up with reviews that say “I loved the characters, but the story was weak”.

However, there comes times when books are so enjoyable you just get lost in them, unwilling to unstitch them because you feel that in doing so you’d break the illusion, that it is somehow wrong. Instead, you just want to enjoy them. If we believe that a book could be, as is often said, “not for someone” so must it hold that some books ARE for some people.

I had that last year with Mark Charan Newton’s City of Ruin. There was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, that pushed my specific buttons. Books like that are rare, especially for any Fantasy writer – who, by and large, write because of the absence of the type of books they want to read.

I started reading Gardens of the Moon about a year ago. I’d been warned it was a tough read, throwing you right into the middle of things, and that most people quit after 200 pages. It became apparent within a few pages that this was a book I would love. Dirty, gritty fantasy with epic mage battles in a time in Fantasy literature where the fantasy is understated in order to up the ‘realism’. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of those books, but as I read about mages throwing waves of magic at a floating citadel, huge chunks of rock crashing into the city below, it re-enforced something I believe. Stories can be real and gritty and still have magic in them.

Yet, I too got around 200 pages in and stopped. I was trying to read too many other books at the same time, and here was a book that not only required but appeared to deserve my undivided attention.

I’m amazed not more fuss has been made of Steven Erikson. Here’s a man who has told a 10 book epic, has told his entire story, delivering each book on time. Can the same be said of Martin, Jordan or Lynch? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to start another of those “how dare the author be late in delivering his books” threads, just marvel at the fact an epic fantasist has done it. And it’s in the fact that I do marvel at Erikson’s accomplishment I realise I’ve become a fanboi.

I’m told that subsequent novels get better, which fills me with excitement and makes me want to dive into the next book. I must show restraint. The plan is to read all 10 books over the course of the year, each book separated by a few other reads. I will pace myself, Erikson is not someone whose novels can be raced through.

His worldbuilding is as thick as treacle, his ensemble ridiculously epic, yet with each character having their own arc. It might be possible to question how they manage to cross and intertwine paths so often were it not for the intervention of Gods being made plainly clear. A game of chess is afoot and we can currently only see the pawns. If I’m honest, and this is a hard pressed criticism, the characters were sometimes understated, to the point that it sometimes became difficult to individualise them. I find myself wondering if Abercrombie levels of characterisation would have enhanced the novel or detracted from it. With characters such as Kruppe, the potential is there to turn the character dial to 11. Yet, I found myself loving the characters, so perhaps this is another example of how Erikson demands of the reader.

The plot is also a thing of art constantly twisting and turning, characters crossing paths, to the extent that I found my writerly sense of trying to guess where things were going shutting off. I just wanted to enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did.

There are so many wonderful moments in this book: from fantasy rocket launchers to dragon battles in the city, all unexpected. I found myself saying “I love this book” aloud every ten minutes or so.

Gardens of the Moon, for me at least, represents the pinnacle of post-Tolkien fantasy. This is the type of fantasy I want to read. For some, it’ll be too demanding. I understand this. This book is not for everyone, but it most certainly is for me.

Being Creative

POSTED ON February 8th, 2011  - POSTED IN Writing

One of my friends recently remarked how they suffered from ‘artistic impotence’. I blame being around creators of all sorts over the SFX Weekender, but it still got me slightly riled.

For the record, I don’t consider this friend an idiot (though I might tell him otherwise to his face just for shits and giggles). Said friend has certainly dabbled in various arts and from what I can see, there’s possibly some potential there. Potential, because if he doesn’t work at it, he’s never gonna be good, never know if he has genuine talent for it.

The nub of my problem is that I honestly do think this is a case of wanting to have created over wanting to create.

You see, it’s easy for friends to see my iota of success and imagine it going places. I love that they might think that, and whatever my annoyance, it’s nothing personal against them. What seems to be forgotten is the years I’ve put into my craft: the years I spent lugging a laptop with me on visits, the times I rose two hours before everyone else, in order to get some writing done. I’ve spent years working at being a better writer, and not everything I’ve turned out has been good. In fact some of it has been pretty crap. They know, they’ve had to read some of it over the years.

Now this was just an off-hand comment, so I certainly don’t hold any bad feeling towards my friend for it. I’ve made plenty of off-hand comments in my time. No, my issue is more a frustration at those who continually look at creators and sigh “I wish I could be like that but it’s not worth even trying”.

If you want to create… then create. Don’t worry about a business plan or how crap your initial work is. Don’t lament how others seem to be seeing success, you just get ink on page or type on screen and keep working at it until some sense of style or talent emerges.

I’m actually genuinely surprised how riled this got me. You’re never going to know how good you are until you really try. You’ll never improve until you dedicate some time to it. And if that all seems like too much hard work, then the creative arts are not for you – no hard feelings. You either enjoy the process or work hard and enjoy the results. You can bitch and moan as much as you like so long as you continue.

Don’t let anyone tell you creating art is easy, because it’s not. Now go create!

The Obligatory SFX Weekender Post

POSTED ON February 7th, 2011  - POSTED IN Events

For some reason I always seem to go to a convention and come back with a load of new personal philosophies on my writing career. I say some reason, but in truth I know them all and drafted a big long blog post about it all before I decided that wasn’t what I wanted my SFX Weekender post to be about.

What I really want to tell you about is the fun I had.

I’ve had a habit of taking my friends on my adventures. My friend Pob came to New York Toy Fair one year where we ended up stumbling drunk all over the city at 2am after a party with Run DMC. My friend Nick came out to San Diego Comic Con with me (after a personal video plea to his wife from Good Charlotte) and was sat there at the table with me as I nervously interviewed Charlize Theron. But my friend Simon, for one reason or another, missed out on those crazy, crazy times. So going to SFX weekender was in some small way a good opportunity to make up for that.

OK so the biggest ‘moment’ was when Mark Charan Newton recognised me (like I’m hard to forget). Simon seemed impressed with that, and I was happy that he was impressed. We did also see Steven Moffat and Russell Tovey in the bar (who I spent ages staring through trying to look at someone on the other side of the bar before I realised who it was).

We spent most of the time hanging out in the bar but we went to a number of panels and screenings. I made Simon rewatch Skyline, because A) I hadn’t seen it and B) He’d made me see Repo: The Genetic Opera the night before and that sort of crap deserves payback.

Funniest moment had to be where Scott Andrews beat me at Bragfest with his Summer Glau story. That is the first time it’s ever happened. The Abaddon Pub Hour was pretty hilarious as well.

I never bought any books. Which whilst that might sound disgusting to some, has good reason. Now I have my kindle (and no space left in the house) I’m restricting myself to ebooks. Whilst I might not have bought any books, there are a large number of additions in my kindle reading queue.

My biggest regret was that I never got to meet and chat to all the people I wanted to. Some people were around but they were deep in conversation and it wasn’t the right moment. If I know you, follow you on twitter and never got to chat to you, I’m sorry.

We weren’t staying on site and had to drive home on Saturday night, meaning we missed out on some of the late night shenanigans. On the plus side, it meant I couldn’t drink (which after Eastercon last year, is a good thing!). I think the best advice I can give anyone thinking of going to a convention is to stay on site.

It’s only a couple of months until the next event, Eastercon, and I’m already looking forward to it. Hope to see some of you there!