Saturday, 4 July 2015

Your Online Presence Could Be Your Greatest Creation – David Thorpe

Commodities, when packaged, become branded, and need to be marketed. Writers are seen as purveyors of commodities, if not commodities themselves. Writers are therefore everywhere advised and obliged to brand themselves.

Branding necessitates the adoption of what's called 'an internet presence'. Any number of 'platforms' (no trains ever arrive or leave them) exist for this service. I find myself on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Blogger, Google+, Wordpress, and more.

This happened gradually. I was an enthusiastic 'early adopter'. I went online first in '92, made my first website in '95. I loved Apple in the days when Apple was the underdog. Now it is a monster, which practices the worst kinds of corporate malpractice and ill-treatment of workers.

Whether a writer is published, self-published or unpublished they have little choice but to develop their 'internet presence'. This column is not about the inordinate time and expense this entails, away from the act of writing, but the way we are forced to compromise our privacy and the threats this brings.

All artists have, by virtue of this necessity, to succumb to this invasion of privacy more than most internet users. But writers are possibly more vulnerable than visual artists and musicians since text – our medium – is indexable,

The trade-off for the many free and not-so-free services we use is our data. Corporate surveillance and the danger of identity theft are the handmaidens of our self-publicity. Long ago I abdicated my principles and surrendered anonymity in these respects.

While in the past being a campaigner against state surveillance of individuals, I now find myself powerless to do anything about it. I've given up. The likes of Facebook and Google have won. They, Apple, my ISP, my mobile phone service provider, and many more companies I may never even have heard of, know more about me than I do.

A thought experiment

I dream of the following web-based service: a secure place to which only I have access, that gathers and organises chronologically and geographically all the corporate-held information about me. This would include my financial transactions, my GPS-sourced travelling and my web-surfing. Supermarkets (via loyalty cards) and banks know what I spent, where, and when. Google knows what I searched for, posted and commented on.

Using this data, presented in a convenient map- or calendar-based views, I might discover where I was and what I bought or did on any day of the year back to whenever. If this resource linked to my health, tax and social security records, so much the better.

I'd be empowered to know all the things my memory has lost and which have fallen out of my physical filing system.

Gigabytes of such comprehensive data would enable me to write the most accurate of autobiographies ever. These nuggets would trigger memories of encounters, conversations, people and emotional states otherwise irretrievable.

That information is out there somewhere. It is intrinsic to me and my identity and history. It should belong to me. But it doesn't, and there is no hope of my getting hold of it.

Even if it were possible to source it all and construct such a virtual 'museum of me', some company would have to host it and its security would inevitably be fragile, making me even more potentially susceptible than ever to identity theft.

Such a thought experiment exposes the extent of the data we release and lose. When we click those boxes avowing that we have read and understood the terms and conditions of use, without doing so, we are not only telling a lie, we are sanctioning theft.

Every Facebook and Google click allows algorithm-based constructions of our personalities, locations, and biographical details to become more accurate. Our holiday choices, our friends and so much more are out there.

According to surveys, Germans are the nationality most worried about this. They, after all, know a thing or two about totalitarian conditions. Britons and Americans veer between complacency to undercurrents of anxiety.

The truth is, there is nothing we can do about it as long as we are compelled to use the technology.


We could fabricate an identity. After all, is that not our business as writers?

All brands are public facades. Richard Branson and Steve Jobs have cuddly images but biographies and exposes reveal something very different. Writers should therefore consider their public image as a similar facade.

Despite your human feeling that honesty is a virtue and your public needs to get to know you, bear in mind that, online, between you and your public is an unfeeling and unscrupulous machine parasited by criminals.

Learn from my mistakes. I have done little of the following because I started too early, in the pre-corporate internet days when its chief advocates were anarchists and free-thinkers believing it could dissolve national boundaries and even private property. Yeah right. Those were the days.

Firstly, separate your professional from your personal identities and lives. Give nothing away that could lead anyone to compromise your personal life. Use the security tools offered as a minimum precaution.

Confine your blogs to professional topics. Obfuscate and disguise your personal details just as you do when dramatising a character. Think of your online branding as your greatest fictional creation.

Just as you beguile your book readers with the plausibility and persuasiveness of your prose, see your role as far as possible to convince or confuse the tech companies and hackers as to your real personal nature.

Cultivate mystery. Remain the person behind the mask. Reveal yourself only to those whom you know you can trust.

Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket has done this par excellence, except that he gave the game away when he revealed his real name.

Your online secret identity could be a super heroine, and your most brilliant creation.

Whatever: be aware. Go safely.

David Thorpe (if this is he) is the author of Hybrids, about people merging with technology.

Friday, 3 July 2015

In-Between Times - Heather Dyer

Chang'an avenue in Beijing.jpg

University lecturers in creative writing are required to produce creative work as part of their job description – but they often complain that their jobs are so time consuming that they can hardly find time to write.
Anyone who has a busy day job will recognize the same complaint. But universities, unlike many jobs, tend to slow down a bit this time of year. This is the time of year when creative writing lecturers can carve out a little more time for their own creative writing.
But ‘creative’ is not a switch that can be flicked, and often the transition from ‘busy’ to ‘creative’ is not instantaneous. The trouble is that creativity happens in the pauses between thoughts. Pauses are longer and more frequent when we are moving slowly.
When deadlines are taken away we can’t come to a dead stop immediately; we keep running for a while, like the road-runner whose legs carry him beyond the edge of the cliff. There is a tendency to pace, to fret, to make lists, and to worry that we are wasting time. Why aren’t we being creative yet?
Image result for road runner
The problem is that we are still in our efficient, busy mode. On the wonderful Slow Muse blog recently, Deborah Barlow quotes Rebecca Solnit in Finding Time:
The Four Horsemen of my Apocalypse are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, pleasure, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out.
Ideas tend to arrive in the moments of down time, those in-between moments. To be creative we need to increase the frequency of those in-between moments - moments in which we are not doing anything at all. 
These days, we’re running so fast and being so efficient that we tend to fill these in-between times with little jobs. We make lists, surf the net, answer emails, eat. It’s important to allow these dead times to just ‘be’, or at least to fill them with nurturing activities like walking, meditating, listening to music, or reading something inspiring. Or just watching the rain.
Keep a notebook with you to capture the ideas that arise in these quiet times. Ideas tend to proliferate when they are noticed and appreciated. Bit by bit, in the in-between moments, your creativity will surface. And before you know it, you’ll be galloping along on your next creative adventure.

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

    Thursday, 2 July 2015

    So … dystopia is dead? – David Hofmeyr on MAD MAX – Guest Post

    ‘There’s no way I could sell a dystopian project … as a debut.’

    These were the cataclysmic words of my first agent when I submitted Stone Rider. ‘What’s the story about?’ they asked. ‘Well it’s like Mad Max,’ I told them. ‘No, no, no,’ they said. ‘No one is looking for Mad Max. Dystopia is dead. The Hunger Games, Blood Red Road, Divergent, The Maze Runner. The market is saturated.’

    Well, thank you Mad Max: Fury Road for putting that argument to bed.

    Heart-stopping, pulse-racing, flat-out crazy dystopian madness. That’s the pure joy of Mad Max. The first was a cult classic. It was raw and pounding. I can still hear the sound and fury of those machines ripping across the desert wasteland. A blasted landscape. A world in crisis. A world where water, oil and ammunition are currency. Where people live hand-to-mouth, and in fear of berserk motorcycle gangs.

    What’s not to love?

    Mel Gibson – back when he was still credible and more-or-less sane – exploded onto the screen as the eponymous ‘mad’ Max Rockatanski. When his wife and young son are killed, Max takes up his iconic – and vaguely Village People – black leathers and his Pursuit Bike and he lays into the bad guys with a furious vengeance.

    Fast-forward thirty odd years and we have an adrenalin-filled reboot to the brutal series. This time, monosyllabic Tom Hardy fits into the role of Max, chased and imprisoned by the vampiric War Boys of Immortan Joe. But this is Furiosa’s story. Renegade War Rig trucker Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron with Alien-style cropped hair) carries you through the mind-blowing onslaught of a film. And it’s a film that’s a worthy, kick-ass successor to the Mad Max franchise. Introducing a new feminist approach that delivers a fresh angle to a tried-and-tested genre.

    This robust feminist angle of the story is one of the biggest reasons for the success of Mad Max: Fury Road. What better publicity than to have misogynists the world over outraged, calling men to avoid the film? But what I love about Fury Road is that it doesn’t just depict women as warriors, physically equal to men in every way, but it succeeds in portraying them as unbroken, full of hope and courage. This evolution of dystopia into an exploration of courageous and intelligent female leads has rejuvenated and re-inspired the genre, both in books and in film.

    As writers we’re informed and inspired by so many things. For me, it was the films I consumed as a teenage boy. The Dollars Trilogy, Star Wars, Alien and Mad Max. They all had a massive impact on me. And the books. Stephen King, especially The Bachman Books. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. The Road. Blood Meridian. I’d like to say it was McCarthy who inspired me to write Stone Rider. His Old Testament biblical style – the way he cuts you to the bone with his prose. His wide landscapes – blazing-harsh and vivid. Or maybe it was S.E. Hinton. Outsiders and loners, trying to find a place for themselves. But it’s the nerve-shredding world of Mad Max that perhaps has a more obvious association with my story.

    Stone Rider – my debut novel – is a gritty coming-of-age story in which a boy who has lost everything joins a brutal race to win the chance to escape his dying world. Stone Rider is set in the dustbowl town of Blackwater, where rival Tribes of teenagers ride semi-sentient mechanical bykes. There are nods to Mad Max all over the place. And like Fury Road my lead character is male, but there is a strong female character that carries much of the action. Both stories offer a cornucopia of dust, blood and adrenalin. And both revel in the tropes of dystopia. And why not?

    Bring on the cataclysm, I say. It’s entertaining. Dystopia isn’t dead. It will never die. It will just evolve. A peak. Then a trough. Or, like Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe dystopia will just carry on peaking until we all explode. Suits me just fine.

    DAVID HOFMEYR is the author of Stone Rider, published by Penguin, July 2015.
    His lovely new agent is Stephanie Thwaites of Curtis Brown.

    Follow David on twitter: @dhofmeyr 
    Catch the latest news on his website:
    Or watch this clip:

    Wednesday, 1 July 2015

    NEXT! by Penny Dolan

    Some days,  especially when trying to move something towards a finish, the writing life seems to hold an awful lot of "NEXT". Idly riffling through the “NEXTS” in my head I find:

    The Immediate NEXTS, the thoughts like:
    What, today, should I do next?
    What happens next in my work-in-progress?
    What’s the best scene to write next?
    When will I next get a gap for some writing time?
    And . . .

    The Bigger NEXTS, such as:
    What kind of writing project should I do next?
    What’s the next thing I want to write, next thing I should write?
    Which of all the half-done things should I seize on next?
    Should the next story be the same or different?
    Sigh. Will there even be a next book?
    And when will I next hear from x or y about z?
    And also . . . 

    The Need to Know NEXTS that come nagging, like:
    What’s the next big thing – and who’s the next big thing?
    What’s next in the book-world calendar –  Carnegie & Greenaway, Super Thursday, seasonal shut-downs, and more? 
    As well as . . .

    The Practical NEXTS that pile up alarmingly, for example:
    Which admin email should I deal with next?
    What school event / library event is coming up next?
    When will the next payment be in my bank account?
    What shall I do next, if schools can’t fund visits any more? 

    And not forgetting the plaintive cry of : When are we eating next?

    There’s many more . . . and I’m sure you could add to the list. Although “being in the moment” is the big self-help thing right now, how often those wretched NEXTS come rattling into the writing zone! 

    Meanwhile, and NEXT, something truly lovely to watch . . .

    Penny Dolan

    Tuesday, 30 June 2015

    I don’t know much about art, but… Lari Don

    I’m a writer because I love telling stories with words. And those are two of the few things I’m particularly experienced or skilled at. Stories. Words.

    But as a writer, I’m frequently asked to do things that I’m not really qualified to do.

    In the box of things I’m not qualified to do, I would include moving heavy furniture to make the best space for an author event, and judging fancy dress competitions on World Book Day. But one thing that I definitely don’t feel qualified to do, yet I’m regularly expected to do (three times in the last month, for example) is comment on the work of visual artists.

    Sketches for the Tale of Tam Linn, by Philip Longson 
    (My comments were limited to ‘ooooh, isn’t that lovely’ for most of this book!)
    As a writer of picture books and a writer of collections of myths, legends and fairy tales, I’m often sent roughs, layouts and proofs of books, and asked for my comments on the illustrations. And I know that the editor doesn’t just want me to say ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely’ (though it usually is!) They want something a bit more … professional.

    But at school, I was never taught to look at art, to discuss it, to assess it. I was taught to draw still lifes of teapots and make pottery owls. Now I’m asked for comments on the art of proper professional artists. And my comments might (or might not!) affect the final look of the book.

    I have no qualifications or experience to prepare me for this responsibility. Yet, 16 of my 22 books so far have illustrations, even my 6 novels have cover art, and I’ve been consulted, to some extent or another, on every single one of them.

    Why? Why ask the writer about the pictures? Initially I thought it was because the publishers wanted me to be happy with the pictures. (!) Lately I’ve realised that it’s probably because, as the writer, I know the story better than anyone.

    Striking early illustration from Girls Godddesses and Giants
    by Francesca Greenwood, with illegible scribble by me…
    I’ve realised that the comments that are most useful aren’t the ‘oooh, I like that’, or ‘oh dear, I don’t like that’ but specific comments actually related to the story. Pointing out that there are three rabbits in the picture when there are only two rabbits in the text, or the fish looks more like an goldfish than a salmon, etc. Not opinions, but facts. Not whether I like it, but whether the illustration works for and with the story.

    So perhaps, as the person who created the story, I am qualified to comment on the pictures after all!

    And I should say loud and clear that I am always, without exception, bowled over by how illustrations add to the story, and bring it to life. I’ve been privileged to have words of mine appear on pages beside pictures by wonderful artists. And my comments almost always do start with a deeply unhelpful but entirely heartfelt ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely…’

    Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.

    Lari’s website
    Lari’s own blog 
    Lari on Twitter 
    Lari on Facebook 
    Lari on Tumblr

    Monday, 29 June 2015

    A small grey pigeon - John Dougherty

    You may have read this ABBA piece by the most excellent CJ Busby of this parish. In case you’re the sort of reader who can’t be doing with clicking links, it’s the one with the open letter to the education secretary about the way that children are taught to consciously overcomplicate their writing, cramming it with superfluous adjectives and unwieldy subordinate clauses, in order to… er… well, I’m not quite sure, actually. I imagine it’s in order to show that Somebody is Doing Something.

    The Guardian picked up on this, interviewing both CJ and me for this article. You’re going to have to click that link yourself, I’m afraid.

    I mention this, because the very day that Guardian article appeared, my 14-year old son came home from school and told me that his English teacher had asked him to amend a description in a piece of writing because the vocabulary used wasn’t ‘advanced’ enough. The description was:

    “A small, grey pigeon”.

    My son spent several minutes trying to work out how to change the word ‘small’ and the word ‘grey’ to make them more “advanced”. “I could say it’s minuscule,” he said; “but it’s not minuscule. It’s just small.” I suggested he ask his mother, who appears to know more names for colours than Dulux and Farrow & Ball put together, for alternatives for grey, or try something like ‘marl’ or ‘slate’.

    In the end, rather than change the description, he changed that whole section of the passage. He made the bird much more significant; it became a strutting monarch in an iridescent grey robe, demanding discarded chips from its subjects. It was quite a neat solution to a wholly unnecessary problem, I thought. 

     Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix
    I say “wholly unnecessary” because to demand the original description be reframed in more ‘advanced’ vocabulary completely missed the point of the description, as far as I could see. The small, grey pigeon was a powerful image exactly because of its commonplace simplicity. To use more flowery language - to turn it, for instance, into a bijou, gunmetal pigeon, or a compact, cloud-coloured pigeon -  would have robbed it of its ordinariness, turned it into something remarkable. The vocabulary might have been more “advanced”, but the writing, frankly, would have been worse, and the description less accurate. As my son put it, in a burst of frustration before settling down to the task:

    “It’s just a small, grey pigeon.”

    John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, will be published on July 2nd.

    In the meantime, you can read these.

    Sunday, 28 June 2015

    Fear and Wondering - Clémentine Beauvais

    Let me introduce you to the disturbing awesomeness of Wonder Ponder. Wonder Ponder is a small publishing imprint, founded by Anglo-Spanish writer Ellen Duthie, which produces desks of philosophical cards for children. On one side of each card, there’s a picture, on the other, a number of philosophical questions to be asked to the child about the picture. Simple. The first deck of cards is called Cruelty Bites (Mundo Cruel); the second, I, Person (Yo, Persona).

    Look at how great these cards are:

    Another one features a family eating cat soup. Actually, that’s even the one that’s the cover image for the box of cards:

     On the other side of the cards, the questions are thought-provoking whether one is a child or an adult. Is it less bad to kill an ant than another animal? Is it never OK to force someone to do something they don’t want to do? As with many works of philosophy for children, those are time-old, ageless questions, meant to be discussed or debated but not solved. They are not, in themselves, exceptionally original questions for this purpose, though they are certainly picked well and phrased crisply.

    But Wonder Ponder is different, in its daringness, to other works I’ve seen of philosophy for children. The graphic style, to start with. The pictures are decidedly dark, hectic, perturbing. Daniela Martagon’s visual identity is that of a cheeky, misbehaving, imaginative child, who loves drawing scenes of war and desolation, squashing ants with a pen, and retorting ‘why not?’ to those who ask ‘why are you so cruel?’.

    The provocativeness is, I think, brilliant. Of course, not everyone agrees, and unsurprisingly Wonder Ponder have received some criticism for the overt violence of some of the scenes. They’ve responded with typical wit:

    More interesting than the straightforward haters, though, are the people who, in order to make sense of these merciless cards, have suggested that they in fact promote kind and positive messages: Wonder Ponder are pro-animal rights, aren’t they? They suggest ways of becoming nicer to one another, don’t they?

    No, has been Duthie’s categorical reply. In a blog post, (which also contains some close-ups of other cards, and a video) she noted with palpable amusement that many people have tried to reclaim Wonder Ponder cards for their own ideological agendas - but she immediately specified that “we don't have contents we wish to insert in the reader, nor specific "right" values to transmit to them.” All they want is for the adult mediator “to have the guts not to indoctrinate”.

    Duthie also states, again and again, that no one from Wonder Ponder will ever provide answers or guidelines for reflection to the adult mediators. To play the game, adults must lay their cards on the table, too; no bluffing allowed, no steering the child into specific perspectives or opinions planned in advance.

    But surely, people enquired, Wonder Ponder could at least do a box showing nice things, instead of all this distasteful cruelty? Another no from Duthie, in another remarkably smart blog post entitled ‘Why we’d never do a box on “kindness” or accepting diversity’.

    Duthie’s blog post is one of these calm, matter-of-fact pieces of writing whose radical nature only truly sinks in on the second or third rereading. Here’s a bit for those of you who are too tired to click on the link:

    “The children's literature market is full of positive models of kindness, generosity and tolerance. Children are fed these messages non-stop: be good, be accepting of others, share.
    To understand to what extent children are bombarded with these commandments and messages, check out a 6-7 year old's comment on the scene below: 

    -Is it cruel?
    -Because he's not sharing it with the baby lions.”

    What do you think of Duthie's words? agree? disagree? what do you think this example tells us? that the child is wrong? or right? that society is wrong?

    I have a lot of time for didactic, political, committed literature for children - it was my PhD topic, and I enjoyed much of the primary material. And I tend to distrust educational enterprises that insist too much on the freedom they supposedly leave the child. I much prefer an openly committed book with a clear thesis to a benevolently liberal one that doesn’t acknowledge that it has a thesis. 

    But in the case of Wonder Ponder, I’m completely on board. Perhaps it’s because of the iconoclastic, deliciously naughty feel of it. Perhaps it's because I like Duthie's coherent, plucky position, displayed both in the cards and in the extra-textual material - online, in her promotion plan, etc. Perhaps it's because I'm always in awe of people taking risks to launch cultural and educational projects like these, especially when they're sure to make at least a few people squirmish. But also more simply perhaps because it makes me want to sit down with some kids, and adults, and play the game with them.

    Note: A big thank you to Celia, who got me my first Wonder Ponder box

    Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.