Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Measuring Author Success

How do we authors know if we've succeeded? Is it based on reaching a certain number of sales? Seeing our book on a bestsellers' list? Being adorned with copious five-star reviews?

For many authors, these are precisely the measures they use to gauge their success. In capitalist societies, the accumulation of material wealth is the measure of success, and whether a book is a bestseller right then and there doesn't matter, so long as it's still generating revenue.

Published works have a precarious half-life, subject to any number of factors, including, first and foremost, reading trends (currently popular genres, book sales in general), as well as the success of the author's latest published work, genre (literary fiction never dies), whether it's part of a series, and (the one factor we authors can control - I'll come back to this) the author's behaviour.

But they do have a half-life, which means authors, potentially, earn some of their living from work they did long ago.

That said, unless a book is re-released in a different format, optioned for movie rights, or some other extraordinary event occurs, titles on authors' backlists don't return to bestsellers' lists, and if they didn't make it on first release, it's unlikely (but not impossible) that they'll reach those heady heights post hoc.

In recent months, I've seen an astonishing number of authors behaving badly, in public (social media), and the effect has been nothing short of disastrous - whether it's damaged their careers, I couldn't say, but it's certainly contributed to the broader problem.

When I say 'authors behaving badly', of course, it's relative to the job we do. Our weapons are words, but sharp words brandished carelessly in an industry that is made of words can shred a community to ribbons.

That, sadly, is what has happened to our LGBTQ+ writing community. On a global publishing scale, it's a tiny community in terms of market footprint, although it has experienced significant growth in the past few years. I'll add a caveat here: these are my observations as a publisher/author of LGBTQ+ fiction. I could, no doubt, find the numbers to support my assertions, but this is a blog post, not an economics paper.

The growth I've observed has been driven, to a greater extent, by the popularity of M/M romance, which is a very specific subgenre that has its roots in the slash fiction writing of the 1970s. Slash fiction, for those who have not heard the term before, is where two distinctly heterosexual 'alpha' male characters (for example, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock) are transplanted into an erotic/romantic fan-written story.

M/M romance has evolved somewhat, but those roots are still evident in the erotica tropes of 'gay for you', 'two alpha males' and so on. The problem is one of definition, and pinning down 'M/M romance' is like keeping jelly on a warm plate. It slips and it slides, its edges become liquid, it loses traction, and before long it's dribbling everywhere and making a terrible sticky mess (yeah, I did that on purpose :D ). M/M romance is - in the simplest terms - a subgenre where the story revolves around two men having some form of sexual/romantic relationship.

In many respects, M/M romance has been the flagship of the LGBTQ+ fiction fleet, forging a clear path through stormy seas, garnering support from passing ships, negotiating safe port. But, as is the way with the publishing world, all genres have their day, and perhaps what we're witnessing is the moment when the flagship retires.

To escape the metaphors...here's the point. What's happening right now in the LGBTQ+ writing/publishing community is that we're seeing an epic drop in book sales, whereby authors and publishers who were making a steady, and sometimes living income are no longer doing so. Some publishers have already closed their doors, and while I'm wearing my author hat to write this post, I'll put it to one side briefly to say this: in case there's any doubt, Beaten Track Publishing is not closing its doors. Most publishers are in it for the money, and if the money's not there, they stop trading. It makes sense. Beaten Track isn't in it for the money.

(puts author hat back on)

Given that the vast majority of us authors are inclined towards introversion, we spend a lot of time reflecting on why we're not selling books. Does it mean people no longer like them? Has our writing declined in quality? Did we do something bad? Did we allow our words to run away with us and say the wrong thing?

The answer is...maybe? But does it matter? If an author is writing solely to earn a living, then, in a capitalist economy, the only factor of importance is the free market. If there's no demand for the goods, there's no point producing them. It's quite straightforward: ditch what you're doing, identify the currently popular genre and get writing.

However, I suspect that even those authors who claim they're only doing it for the money are not. There are so many jobs that pay more, it's daft slogging it out in this one if money is the only motivation for doing so. I'm referring specifically to writing fiction; technical and academic writing, however much one might enjoy doing it as a job, is about the money/kudos.

To come back to the question I started with:

How do we authors know if we've succeeded?

There is no one-size-fits-all measure of success, but the key is to revisit why we write and what we set out to achieve.

I became bewitched by the whole sales/reviews/bestsellers measures, but these never held any real value for me. I have to write; I choose to share. I choose to write about the hard stuff. I feel a responsibility as both an author and social scientist to challenge common-sense assumptions, to subtly introduce readers to what C. Wright Mills termed 'the sociological imagination'. When a reader tells me that my writing has made them think or feel differently about something...wow! That's why I share my writing. That's it. I remember now.

By my own measures, I continue to succeed.

I hope you do, too.

Thanks for reading.
Deb x



Monday, May 09, 2016

Parenting, sexism, and Those Jeffries Boys

Father and daughters, at the pub, no doubt
When I was in my final year of university, I had a major run-in with my lecturer. It began with me submitting an essay about the ways in which the postwar British welfare state maintained women's oppression and ended with him shrieking at me, "You don't know what it's like to lose your eight-year-old son because the courts are biased in favour of women."

Past and present rescued canine chaps
It went on for a good deal longer than that, but that's the gist of what he said. According to him, he had been the primary caregiver since his son's birth, and when he and his female partner broke up, she was given custody of their son.

The outcome for me, which is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, was that he refused to mark my essay and told me it was barely a pass grade. I took the essay to another social policy lecturer and asked him to look over what I had written. He did so, and in his opinion, whilst it was not up to my usual standard (I was averaging a first-class), it was certainly not a fail grade.

Thus began a two-year war with the aforementioned lecturer that culminated in him refusing to give me associate-tutor work at the university during my postgraduate studies. Jump two years into the future... I met him one evening in the supermarket, where he proceeded to instruct me on how to cook moules mariniere (even though it was he, not I, whose trolley contained mussels) and gave me his email address, should I ever need a reference for a job.

To this day, that chance meeting continues to amuse and bemuse me.

The thing is, for as much as he acted unprofessionally and took out his frustrations on an undergraduate student, albeit one who could handle it, I truly sympathise with his plight. Indeed, Nigel and I went through a similar, if somewhat less distressing situation with our own children, whereby Nige was one of only two dads in the 'mother-and-toddler group', and it was not uncommon for people to assume that his wife was dead. After all, why would a dad be caring for his young children?

I'll tell you why. Because I didn't want children. I wanted rescued dogs and a house in the country, but Nige wanted children, so we compromised. We had children and rescued dogs. :) Nige was the stay-at-home parent while I was the breadwinner. It made sense, financially, practically and emotionally. Socially, not so much.

So...

That was a very long preamble to my explanation for why I wrote Those Jeffries Boys, a novel for which the tagline is:

Three brothers: doting dads, dealing with the everyday challenges of fatherhood.

Of course, the main reasons I wrote the novel are firstly, I was asked to, and secondly, I wanted to. I don't have to justify the decision, and yet I know there will be readers out there who will be outraged that I, a woman, have written a story about dads doing what all dads should do. Some may even argue that my portrayal of fatherhood buys into the idea that men make better parents than women.

And you know what? Sometimes they do. I'm sure if you asked my children, they'd be happy to supply you with evidence that this has been their experience. I wasn't cut out to be a mother; I don't possess that magical 'maternal instinct'. I feel no overwhelming urge to snuggle newborn babies. It's simply not me.

But why should it be? Just because I'm a woman, I'm expected to be driven by a biological imperative to nurture young humans. I don't dislike children, nor do I wish them any harm; there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to be a stay-at-home parent. There is nothing wrong with a woman following a 'biological imperative' for parenthood. Equally, there is nothing wrong with a man doing the same.

My point is that the drive to become a parent, and the emotional ability to care for the young, has absolutely nothing to do with biological sex. Yet western society persists in organising itself around assumptions of female caregiving (not just to the young), and in the face of any challenge to the status quo, the same old arguments get rolled out...

Women are more caring, more emotionally intelligent, better at multitasking, have greater intuition...
Men are more logical, more intellectual / mathematically minded, able to focus on one task for long periods, demonstrate strong reasoning...

See? I can do that parenting thing!
No. Just...no. See, I've been to the timber yard and been treated to 'the smile' - you know, the one that says 'you're a woman, what could you possibly know about construction work?', and while I appreciated the apologies the men offered after accidentally swearing in my presence, it had nothing to do with good manners and everything to do with sexism.

The fact that I used to work in a timber yard and know my way around a length of 5x1 PAR is by the by.

On one occasion, when I took Nige with me (alien in a strange world), the man on the counter addressed Nige with his answers to MY questions!

As if Nige knows anything about home improvements. After all, this is the man (sorry, dude) who was seconds from connecting the live and neutral wires on the washing machine to bypass the switch! (OK, in your defence, you usually deal with lighting circuits, but still.)

So, as per usual, it comes down to sexism:
individual - in the case of the women attending the mother-and-toddler group Nige and daughter #1 went to and the men's expectation of my ignorance in the timber yard;
institutional - in the case of my lecturer who lost custody of his son.

And it is damaging to both men and women.

Now, you may well STILL be thinking (or not), 'But women are biologically equipped to care for young babies.' And that is a fine argument - for societies where there is no equipment for bottle-feeding or expressing breastmilk. In western societies, there is a mantra underpinned by government health legislation that 'breast is best', and the manufacturers of baby formula have to label their products as supplemental to breastmilk.

Many parents choose not to breastfeed their babies for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the sales techniques of formula manufacturers (although I know a family who migrated to the UK from Hong Kong, where there were no controls over marketing and they were told breastmilk was inferior to formula).

Nige and Daughter #2 - after the pub...
My youngest daughter, for instance, was born five weeks early and thus had no sucking reflex. She was tube-fed, and too damned impatient to wait for the hind milk once her sucking reflex arrived, so my breastmilk lasted all of three months. She went on to have a baby at twenty-eight weeks of pregnancy (he's now eight months old), and with him being in intensive care and taking only the tiniest amount of milk (one ml at first, I think) via a feeding tube, her milk quickly dwindled. She did brilliantly, but sometimes, with the best will in the world, breastfeeding is not possible. Other women (my sister included, and she felt the need to apologise to me) choose to bottle-feed because it is right for them. And that is OK.

Most women who have been through Day Three will tell you: breastfeeding is not all plain sailing. When your boobs feel like they're going to burst, and the baby is hungry and screaming, and your hormones are completely haywire, there is nothing absolutely-bloody-perfectly-lovely about trying to feed your child. Chapped nipples (Kamillosan is a magic potion), leaking milk going through pads, bras, tops, let-downs in the middle of supermarkets because checkout assistants don't move any faster for the siren song of squawking infants...you get the idea, I'm sure. Conversely, bottle-feeding means buying formula, sterilising bottles, getting the water to the right temperature, etc. so it's all swings and roundabouts.

The other alternative, if there is a lactating parent involved, is to express breastmilk and share the burden/joy, which is what Nige and I did. I got up, expressed milk, went to college, came home, breastfed, expressed again, and then we took it in turns during the night to get up and feed, change, comfort, and so on and so forth ad infinitum (my eldest daughter is nearly 23, still doesn't sleep well and says she's never leaving home - in case there is any doubt, I'm not still breastfeeding her. She gave me up long ago, for cornflakes).

Nige and Daughter #1 - (sigh) after the pub...
In short, the notion that women are biologically equipped to feed their young is true, but we are not prehistoric people. We're biologically equipped to process the pips and stones in fruit, but it doesn't mean we should eat them. Aside from that, in many non-human species, adoption of orphaned and abandoned offspring occurs often, and in those cases, the adoptive parents successfully feed and raise their adopted infant, just as we humans do.

To return, then, to Those Jeffries Boys. I wanted to write a story that portrayed modern fatherhood. The three main characters - Mike, Andy and Dan Jeffries - happen to be heterosexual men, but their experiences of balancing being parents with jobs, household chores, family life and the bigger challenges it throws at us could be the experience of any parent, regardless of gender or sexuality. There are women in the story, too, and they are strong, independent women, who enjoy sex, love their jobs (sometimes) and love their partners and kids (with one notable exception).

These characters are not entirely the figments of my stereotype-busting overactive imagination. There are real parents - mums and dads - who are doing parenting their way, or trying to. Any parent - single, in a same/opposite sex partnership, or whatever, it doesn't matter - who goes against the 'mum at home with baby, dad out at work' 'norm' will tell you, it's a never-ending saga of explaining, justifying, brushing off insults, ignoring strange looks and correcting assumptions about broken relationships or dead partners.

I'm a firm believer that subtlety changes minds, because it's not rote learning. Teaching someone what equality means does not lead to them understanding and embracing it. Offering them examples to explore and giving the opportunity to mull them over, ask questions, seek other opinions - that's how it's done. Those Jeffries Boys is, like all of my stories, intended to entertain, but hopefully it also provides an opportunity for readers to consider a view of the world that might be different to theirs but is no less valid.

Those Jeffries Boys is available now for preorder and will be out on May 26th.

Thanks for reading,
Deb x

Monday, April 18, 2016

Those Jeffries Boys - preamble, blurb, excerpt

Cover Design by
Decorous Anarchy Studios
I'm writing! Woot! And as 'The End' of the novel is tantalisingly nigh, I decided it was about time for an excerpt from Those Jeffries Boys - the next instalment of Hiding Behind The Couch.

Those Jeffries Boys is a 'character special', and it follows chronologically from Two By Two (Season Six), but as always, I'm trying to write in enough back story for the novel to stand alone (as far as is possible with a series), whilst at the same time not including so much back story as to set existing readers' eyes rolling.


Who are Those Jeffries Boys?

Readers of HBTC will already know Andy and Dan Jeffries very well. Tall, dark and handsome (of course), they're the younger two of three brothers. Prior to Season Six, their older brother Mike only appears occasionally - usually not on page, and rarely in a good light, because, as his brothers would tell you, he is a knob.

A what?

OK, so here's the deal.

I write 'British' stories with 'British' characters (or 'painfully British', as a recent reviewer put it). Let me clarify this - again. I am English. That's different to British, and, in fact, most of what is touted as 'Britishness' makes me feel ashamed of the cultural heritage you wrongly attempt to impose, so if you're trying to cause offence, keep on calling me 'British'. I guarantee it's far more painful to me than the presence of radio plays and other cultural artefacts in my writing appear to be to some readers. If you want to show some respect for my identity, then get it right. I'm English. Specifically, Northern English. Does that matter? By heck, it does.
Fish and Chips by George Hodan

That said, I do write about characters from other parts of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and no, thank you, I don't wish to get into a debate about the (un)happiness of that union. (See previous concerns regarding 'Britishness'.)

The Jeffries brothers are Northern English, too, hence, Mike is...a knob. See 'UK - offensive' on this page if you don't know what that means: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/knob

Now, the thing is, one might read the story of these three men and see elements of that 'Britishness' I maligned above and think I've been and gone and contradicted myself. No doubt at times, Mike, Andy and Dan portray aspects of our culture that I utterly despise (well, perhaps, not Andy...). They are, when all is said and done, white, English, upper-working-class, heterosexual men who enjoy a game of footy and a pint with the lads. They're materialistic and not the kind to take offence at being (wrongly) referred to as British. They may even be proud of it. They may also, at times, say or do things that would be considered -ist (sexist being the most notable), and it would be unrealistic for me to write them in any other way.

English Soccer by Dawn Hudson
But they're all right, really. Nice lads, you might say.

Any road...

That's enough preamble.

Blurb:

Three brothers: doting dads, dealing with the everyday challenges of fatherhood.

Following the imprisonment of his ex-girlfriend, Mike Jeffries has one priority: his six-month-old daughter, Bethan. Between caring for her and being a self-employed painter and decorator, he's already got enough on his plate, without his sisters-in-law insisting he's ready to date again. Now Bethan's grandmother intends to fight him for custody, and Mike's not sure he can rise to it.

Always up for an adventure, Andy Jeffries has finally found the perfect challenge: keeping the woman he loves satisfied and raising their twin daughters, Rosie and Sorsha. The problem is everyone else thinks he needs more, and dealing with his brothers' trials and tribulations means he's getting it, whether he wants it or not.

Dan Jeffries is about to become a father for the second time, and he's terrified, not that he's the kind of man to admit it. But after the premature birth of his daughter, Shu, he's taking no chances until his son is safely delivered into this world, which means putting a hold on his hunt for the perfect family home. However, the house he wants comes with a very big price tag, and not of the monetary kind.

Those Jeffries Boys is a novel-length character special. Part of Hiding Behind The Couch series.

Excerpt(s):

Bethan was three days old when Rachel walked out on them, and Mike had panicked. He could barely look after himself, never mind a newborn baby. He'd focused on what he could do - get them both away from the flat, to somewhere safe - but he'd caused so much trouble that Len - his mum's fourth husband - had threatened to do him over if he came anywhere near them again. In desperation, he'd turned up on his brother's doorstep - not Dan's, but Andy's. He'd begged for asylum, and Andy had granted it without question.

Even now, Mike was amazed - and profoundly grateful - that Andy had taken them in. They'd never got on. Back when they were kids, their mum used to say 'two's company, three's a crowd' to explain why one of them was always left out, and the one that was left out was usually Mike. But then, there was only a year between Andy and Dan; they were more than brothers, they were friends, whereas Mike was just the loser who couldn't keep a job or a relationship. He might've been the eldest, but it didn't guarantee their respect, because respect was earned. He knew that now. And he'd done nothing to earn theirs.

*

With Rosie on one hip and Sorsha lying on the changing mat and kicking her legs in the air, Andy attempted to keep his phone gripped between his chin and shoulder. Nappyless Sorsha gurgled and started to pee. Andy grabbed a wad of tissues to soak it up. His phone slipped and fell with a thunk and a splash, right into the puddle.

"Crap," he said, hoping his cursing wasn't a prediction of what was coming next. He retrieved his phone and set it to one side. "Dropped my phone," he said loudly by way of explaining to Shaunna on the other end of the line. "Give me a sec."

Andy grabbed a cushion off the couch, put it on the floor next to the changing mat and laid Rosie on it. Both sisters turned to look at each other and made cooing noises. Andy sighed contentedly - being a real dad had well and truly done for his pretentions of wanting to be free and independent forever - and gave his phone a quick once-over with a baby wipe. He put it to his ear again and felt a dribble run down his cheek. Could be pee, could be baby-wipe juice, he didn't care.

*

If Dan had one great regret, it was letting Tom go through with the wedding, because he'd honestly thought Adele would back out of it before the big day. As was to be expected, Adele's dad had paid for everything, and she'd handed over the planning to Eleanor, so Dan had successfully avoided contact with Adele for months. But as the day drew closer, their paths had crossed more and more frequently, and there was still such animosity between them that Adele had suggested they go out for dinner together, or whatever would give them an opportunity to escape everyone else for an evening so they could clear the air. The result of that evening was sitting in the back seat.

It was all in the past, and they were happy. They had a healthy almost-four-year-old daughter; in four days' time, they'd have a son, and it sounded as if Tom was finally moving on, too. But for all of that, Dan wished he'd stopped the wedding. If he had, then Adele might just have considered marrying him.

***

Those Jeffries Boys will be out at some point this year. I'll keep you posted!

Thanks for reading.
Deb x

N.B. This post is intentionally brought to you in Northern English dialect. Why? Horses for courses, and all that. Be assured, however, that as a first-class social science graduate with a sound command of the English language, I can also write in Standard English, should the occasion suit.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Hiding Behind The Couch series - some stuff you might like to know

A while back, Hans Hirschi sent me a set of questions about my ongoing series, Hiding Behind The Couch. He used snippets from it in his review of A Midnight Clear, but, of course, I write long. I thought I’d share the rest of my responses, as they offer insight into where the series came from, my favourite character(s), the best order to read, and so on.
So, without further ado…

What is Hiding Behind The Couch?
Hiding Behind The Couch is the ongoing story of nine friends from high school/university and the important people in their lives. The stories are about life, so there’s love and romance, births, deaths, marriages, murder, industrial espionage, accidents, affairs, successes, failures – it’s a fictional micro-social study, and it’s inclusive. People are people, and I don’t distinguish by superficial differences, but to clarify, there are LGBTQ and heterosexual characters, as well as characters from some of the different ethnic groups that make up the rich culture of the UK.

Why did you write Hiding Behind The Couch?
Why I started writing it? Therapy.
November 2007: I was a month into a period of depression that lasted six months in all. I hadn’t written anything since finishing Champagne in 2002 (which was not the reason for my depression – depression doesn’t need a reason), and I was beginning to think it was the only book I had in me. Then I saw a blog post about NaNoWriMo, and I decided to have a go – nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But what to write? I had no idea. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want any of the characters to be based on real people in any way, shape or form. So, I just started writing and decided to see where it took me.
It began with Josh’s dream…a recurring dream…he was recounting it to a friend (Eleanor) at another friend’s (Adele’s) wedding. Dan was best man; Andy was in hospital following a near-fatal car crash, Shaunna and Kris were smooching at the table in front, Jess was mocking the bride, George arrived late… Nine characters? Utter madness.
But I wasn’t planning to publish it. I just needed to write.
108k later… I realised something. What I’d actually needed was a therapist, but us social scientists are a cynical bunch, so I was loathe to talk to one. I did see a psychologist back in 2007, who referred me to the women’s refuge (WTF?). How utterly pointless. I’ve seen one since (in early 2015, about my weight) who dismissed my critical appraisal of CBT which is based on teaching undergraduate psychology for 15 years as ‘she is resistant to cognitive therapies because she’s writing a novel about a psychologist’.
So if you ever wonder why Josh and Sean are a pair of arrogant, cynical buggers, it goes with the territory. Maybe it’s part of the job spec for psychologist: must be a condescending git. ;)
Ultimately, I wrote my own psychologist, but –
This is the bit where either you’ll decide I am completely insane, or…well…
Here’s the thing. In between writing HBTC #2 and #3, I wrote a short science fiction novel called And The Walls Came Tumbling Down. I say it’s science fiction; it’s posited in superstring theory, or my understanding of it, but I’m a social scientist, not a theoretical physicist.
So I suppose And The Walls... is theoretical contemporary fiction. The story is about a young man whose dead-beat existence gets turned upside down by a chance meeting with an anthropologist from another dimension. It needs a good edit, which I’ll get around to doing one of these days, but the indie-published edition is still online.
In the process of researching for And The Walls..., it dawned on me that potentially, these worlds we authors ‘create’ are not actually creations at all, but inter-dimensional incursions. Now, as I say, I’m not a scholar of whichever kind of science this is – quantum mechanics? Theoretical physics?  – but this is my interpretation/understanding.
Within superstring theory (the 10-dimensional version), the first 4 dimensions are our understanding of space-time; the 5th dimension is a world that is slightly different to ours; the 6th dimension is a plane of worlds that have the same starting point as ours – I’ll leave it there, because it’s the 5th dimension that is relevant here (this page offers a good layperson’s explanation: http://www.universetoday.com/48619/a-universe-of-10-dimensions/).
We can’t readily perceive beyond three dimensions – we struggle to comprehend the 4th (time) in anything but linear form, and our limited 3D perception effectively renders the other dimensions invisible (see Carl Sagan’s explanation of Flatland for how this works  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0WjV6MmCyM).
As I say, we can’t readily perceive those other dimensions, but there are theoretical models that support the idea that at least some of the experiences purported to be ‘ghost sightings’ or ‘channelling spirit’ may be moments of inter-dimensional perception: surplus gravity (potential evidence for a multiverse), ‘ghost’ sightings and other supernatural occurrences are theorised to be the consequence of an inter-dimensional incursion – a momentary connection between the fifth dimension and ours.
Those experiences are not dissimilar to the way in which many authors produce stories. It certainly describes my experience of writing Hiding Behind The Couch. I know the characters like I know people in the world around me. They have distinct personalities, preferences, daily routines. I have no control over the events in their lives.
At any given time, I can ‘tune in’ to their realm. I can tell you, for instance, that as I write…
  • Josh has just decided to have another cup of coffee – even for him, it’s too early to leave for work.
  • Sean is ready for work, sitting on his sofa, drinking tea and watching news on TV and talking to himself in low-level amusement/horror at world events.
  • George is already at the farm, and it’s raining. He’s taking his time, opening the animals’ stalls and giving them their morning feed.
  • Shaunna is sitting at her kitchen table, mug of tea in one hand, phone in the other, while she scrolls through her Facebook feed and slowly comes around to the day.
  • Andy is…
I’ll stop there, because of spoilers (and I could go on and on), but I’m sure you get the gist.

How many books and words (approx) are there now?
Approximately? LOL.
To be honest, if you’d asked me the same question this time last year, I would have had to take a wild guess, but with readers’ preferences shifting towards shorter stories, plus the few requests I’ve had about reading/writing order, I put the info into a spreadsheet.
To date, the series consists of 21 stories, of which:
  • 5 are works in progress
  • 7 are ‘seasons’ - think TV series with seasons consisting of run-on episodes, plus seasonal specials / character specials
  • 4 are stand-alone novels focusing on specific characters (e.g. Ruminations is Josh and Sean, Crying in the Rain is Ade and Kris)
  • 6 are novellas
  • 1 is Deb self-indulgence and irrelevant (when I crossed from our dimension into theirs)
Word count (including WIP): 1,447,820
At the end of this post, I’ve included the full list of stories, listed in both the order they were written, and in chronological order. They can be read in either of those and remain spoiler-free.

Who urged you to turn HBTC into a series, and why?
Andrea, my very good friend and editor, although she was neither of those things when she ‘urged’ me to turn HBTC into a series. Originally, we met through what was then my main job: teaching in a high school sixth-form college; Andrea was one of my students, and she’s always been an avid reader. She’d left sixth form before I started writing again, so at that stage I’d only written Champagne. She read the original edition and (thankfully) can’t remember it. First novels, man…they should be consigned to some kind of reverent cemetery of fiction, where we can leave flowers and appreciate their contribution to the world without actually looking inside the casket.
Andrea read HBTC #1 after she’d graduated uni, and I wasn’t going to publish it, or HBTC #2, but she persuaded me to publish HBTC #1, and then she read HBTC #2. Her review ended with:
All I can hope is for the possibility that Debbie McGowan might like to make this into a trilogy, or even a series that I can keep indulging in for either the rest of my own or the characters' lives!!
And I thought…I can do a trilogy. I had NO intention of going beyond that. I wrote HBTC #3, called it a day. My depression returned. The characters wouldn’t leave me be.
That was the point when the series became ongoing. Until then, I’d tried to ignore the constant bombardment of my mind with stories and events – a lot of the time, it’s only interludes, moments in the characters’ lives. My job seems to be to put it all in the right order and find an overarching plot to link it together.

Will you ever stop writing for that series?
I don’t know. I don’t plan to, but I have no conscious control over it.

Your favourite character? (I had to ask)
Hm. My favourite character changes all the time, depending on whose story I’m telling.
For the most part, it’s Sean, because he’s a bit broken but functional. He’s got ‘the Irish charm’, he’s intelligent, compassionate and imperfect. I always adore George. He’s one of the genuine nice guys – such a big heart.  Josh… Sometimes I could strangle him. He’s a pain in the arse, but I try to be patient, because George is a good role model. ;)
Jess – she’s difficult to describe. I don’t dislike her, but she’s never been a favourite. She’s not the kind of person I’m drawn to – too driven and ambitious, and a bit ruthless with it. Dan and Adele, I’m kind of ambivalent about, too; they’re very materialistic and all about the ‘body beautiful’. Eleanor – I forget about her a lot of the time, because she puts herself on the outside of the group.
I’m very fond of Shaunna. She’s sensual, fun, independent, funny. I love her optimism and strength. Kris, I like, but our similar life experiences seem to divide us (that, along with the many ideas my husband has for how Kris meets an untimely end – very entertaining, I might yet publish them as a collection!). Ade is fun. I’m slowly getting to know him better.
Andy…I have a king–sized crush on, which is surely definitive evidence that I am in fact quite, quite mad. ;)

The series, in writing order:
Hiding Behind The Couch (Season 1)
No Time Like The Present (Season 2)
The Harder They Fall  (Season 3)
Beginnings (prequel 1)
First Christmas
In The Stars Part I  (Season 4)
Breaking Waves
In The Stars Part II  (Season 5)
A Midnight Clear
Red Hot Christmas
Crying in the Rain
Ruminations (prequel 2)
Two by Two (Season 6)
Hiding Out
Breakfast at Cordelia’s Aquarium
Chain of Secrets
Those Jeffries Boys (WIP)
The Wag and The Scoundrel (WIP)
The Lost Mitten (WIP)
Reunions  (Season 7) (WIP)
The series, in chronological order:
Beginnings (prequel 1)
Ruminations (prequel 2)
Hiding Behind The Couch (Season 1)
No Time Like The Present (Season 2)
The Harder They Fall  (Season 3)
Crying in the Rain
First Christmas
In The Stars Part I  (Season 4)
Breaking Waves
Chain of Secrets
In The Stars Part II  (Season 5)
A Midnight Clear
Red Hot Christmas
Two by Two (Season 6)
Hiding Out
Those Jeffries Boys (WIP)
The Wag and The Scoundrel (WIP)
The Lost Mitten (WIP)
Breakfast at Cordelia’s Aquarium
Reunions  (Season 7) (WIP)

For more about the series, including links to buy/download*, visit:
*Season One is available for free on my website.
Beginnings and Breakfast at Cordelia’s Aquarium are also both free on all platforms.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

F*** you and your one star

If I didn't run a publishing company, and if I wasn't an author, today would be the day I'd leave GR. It's not that I've been naïve until now about how many spiteful, full-of-their-own-self-importance trolls reside there. Nor have I ever thought GR could or should do something about it. Freedom of speech and all that...

But actually, no.

Freedom of speech is not a licence to verbally bully others, particularly when those others are banned from defending themselves.

Freedom of speech is the right to speak up for your beliefs, to be free to say whatever you want to say, but the freedom of one should not come at the cost of another.

And herein lies the problem with GR (or any other site that allows posting of reviews, for that matter).

Readers can say what they like about books. They can justify reviews that are attacks on the author by claiming they are offended by the author's views, as expressed in that one particular book.

Authors have NO freedom of speech. We can't defend ourselves against negative reviews. We can't explain misunderstandings. We're not supposed to thank readers who leave positive reviews, or even thank readers at all, simply for taking the time to read and review our books.

I suppose one could argue that our freedom as authors resides in that we can write those books in the first place.

It's a system that pits people against each other, by discouraging interaction. So, let's say I write something that offends some people. They give it one star, rant about what an ignorant, privileged bitch I am, while I sit back, taking the blows.

What I want to do is ask questions.

Why? How did I hurt you?

I want the right to reply, to say sorry perhaps, to know how I can make sure I never do it again.

Because, you see, I'm an intelligent, sensitive person, who strives never to cause offence, to treat all people equally and with due respect. if I incite your hatred, and you want me to learn from this, then educate me.

All of this? It's not because I offended someone and they wrote a scathing review, and it has nothing to do with reviews of anyone else's books, either.

It's because someone gave me one star. No review. Just one measly star on one story.

So here's the deal: if you, as a reader, like my stories, read them. If you want to tell me you read and like my stories, I'd be delighted to hear from you. I do get the occasional message from a reader, and it's worth a thousand publicly posted five-star ratings just to know that somebody, somewhere, was moved enough by my work that they took the time to tell me.

But if you don't like my stories, then don't read them. I obviously didn't write them for you.

My next book will only be published on my website, and I'd like very much for it to not be listed on GR. In fact, I'm going to try to find a way of publishing it that makes it NOT a book so it has no place on GR or anywhere else. Because all I want to do is write stories and share them with people who want to read them.

And if you don't want to read them, then take your one star and, well, I think you can probably figure it out for yourself.

Thanks for reading (I really do mean it...most of the time),

Deb x

Monday, March 14, 2016

Every word is sacred

One surefire shortcut to understanding the poverty of language is to become a writer or an editor. Better still, become an editor of people who write in your native language even though it is not their first language, because no matter how gifted the linguist, they will, sooner or later, come up short.

This particular issue recently arose when I was editing a story by an author whose grasp of English is superior to some of the students I have had the dubious pleasure of teaching during the past seventeen years, and I'm not necessarily referring to those for whom, like this author, English is a second or additional language.

Fluency is not the same as competence, not even for a native English speaker, and competence is sorely overrated. I consider myself very competent in both my understanding and use of English. I would even go as far as to say I have a gift with words, inasmuch as I'm able to successfully bend them to my will, and in so doing create stories narrated in the character's voice, rather than my own, whether that character is a working-class engineer (Sol in Checking Him Out) or a middle-class, stay-at-home mother (Shaunna in Hiding Behind The Couch). I love language. It is my hobby, my livelihood, my obsession, and I never stop learning. Language evolves, and so, too, must we who depend on it in order to be understood, or, indeed, to entertain. Right now I'd settle simply for being understood.

To return to the issue I mentioned previously, it was due to a misinterpretation of what was said and the underlying intention of what was said, and it's no surprise. Language is mediated by many factors: the mode of communication, the presence or absence of non-verbal cues, the demographic uniqueness of those involved in the transaction, a common vocabulary, and so on, all serve to help or hinder understanding. Add in to the mix that on this occasion, one of us was a native English speaker and the other was not, one has to wonder how we ever manage to communicate at all.

In part, it's because translation is far more than swapping one word for its equivalent other. Nor is this problem restricted to translation between two entirely different languages. I work with quite a few authors from the US, whereas I'm from UK (England, specifically), and there are significant differences between the two versions of English, in both their 'standard' form, and in the regional variations. For instance, I often use the word 'graft' in my stories, taking either the formal UK English meaning of 'to add something new' or the informal meaning 'to work hard'. Thus, in UK English, a tough job might be described as 'hard graft', yet in US English, 'graft' is 'the act of getting money dishonestly'.

Suffice to say, if I write in a story 'he was grafting away', it's going to be subject to very different interpretations, and that one word has the potential to ruin the reader's understanding and enjoyment of the story. Likewise, at the heart of the miscommunication between the aforementioned author and me, as their editor, was one word in a 60,000-word novel. The word was not contentious, or offensive, or difficult to understand, but by virtue of what it was, it drew attention to itself. I've recently been through exactly the same experience with one of my own stories - Chain of Secrets.

I was fortunate enough to have two very accomplished proofreaders who had not read the Hiding Behind The Couch series, of which this story is a part, although I'd asked them to read the story to ensure it worked as a stand-alone. What I didn't anticipate was running the gauntlet with them over a single word.

Anyone who's read any of the series knows the character George, and they also know that George is gay. It's part of the storyline in both the prequel and book one, so really, there is no way of reading any of the series without knowing it. But what about people who haven't read any of it?

The scene in question takes place at the end of the characters' last day of primary school (age 10-11):

"Bye, Josh!" Shaunna called, as he and George passed by. Josh smiled quickly and kept his head down. George started giggling.
"Shush," Josh whispered.
"Why? Do you fancy Shaunna?"
"No."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! Why did you nudge me at lunchtime?"
"Did I?"
"When she said she hated Dan."
"Oh, yeah. Because Dan won't let her play footy."
"Because she's a girl?"
"Yep. She's amazing at football."
"Amazing," Josh repeated. "Are you sure you don't fancy her?" Now both of them were giggling. "Plus, Dan is Adele's boyfriend," Josh added.
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Why Shaunna hates him, I mean."
"Oh. So, like, she's jealous?"
"I don't know." Josh glanced sideways at George, and watched him for a while. He was frowning, deep in thought. "You like him?"
"Dan?" George asked. Josh nodded. "We're not even friends, really."
They continued to walk, both in thoughtful silence, until they reached the road where Josh lived. George paused at Josh's gate. He was still frowning.
"What's the matter?" Josh asked.
"Just thinking. I don't think I'm ever going to have a boyfriend. It's too complicated."

So what happened? Both proofreaders stated in their margin notes next to the last line: 'should be girlfriend'. Note, they didn't ask or suggest - they were confident they were right, because George is a boy, and they assumed, not that George is straight, but that readers will assume he is straight.

My dilemma: should I leave it as it is without explanation, which then draws attention to what could, potentially, be judged an error? Or do I add in something earlier to make it clear that George is gay?

It is a fault of the reader if they assume George's heterosexuality, and if this one word draws attention to their own, more than likely inadvertent, heterosexism, then my work here is done.

The word 'boyfriend' stayed, and without qualification or apology. I know the risk I'm taking as an author, and it is mine to take. It is more important to me to take a stand against heterosexism than it is to keep a (heterosexist) reader rapt in my story.

However, it is NOT my risk to take as an editor, and whilst I know that raising an issue like this with an author is likely to cause uproar (because that is how I reacted in the same situation), I have to.

Throw in that language difference, and one can easily see how the minor outrage caused by being called to question can multiply exponentially when I say 'this is not what readers are expecting and it therefore draws attention to itself' and the author hears 'this will offend readers'.

In writing and editing, every word matters. If one word is chosen over another, or a sentence is phrased in a particular way, we direct the reader's expectations, which is why it's so important for us authors to work with an editor who knows what they're doing, and who is natively fluent in the language in which we are writing.

If we trust our editors and proofreaders, then we can at least take solace in the fact that when they point these things out to us, they don't do it to piss us off, even if that's the unintended consequence. Editors steer us clear of road blocks and make sure we don't veer off into a canyon while we drive blinded by the wonder of our words.

A good editor is an author's best friend and worst enemy rolled into one. Our work is their work, and they have our best interests at heart - if they don't, then it's time to get a new editor.