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?"
"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.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

When Skies Have Fallen - Lammy Finalist!

Typically, I was out of the house when the email came with a link to the announcement of the 28th Lambda Literary Award Finalists.

 I am delighted and a tiny bit gobsmacked that my novel, When Skies Have Fallen, is a finalist in the Gay Romance category.

Congratulations to all! And thank you to the Don't Read in the Closet team - this book was made possible because of you.

Beyond that, I'm speechless, so I'm going to post an excerpt and leave it at that!

(p.s. the ebook is free - paperback also available: Purchase/Download Links on Beaten Track)

* * * * *

“Good evening to you, Corporal.”
His voice, a slow, deep rumble, startled Arty from his remembering. His breath caught in his throat as he fought to reply. “A good evening to you also, Sergeant…Johnson, isn’t it?”
“Sure is.” The man held out his hand for Arty to shake. “Technical Sergeant Jim Johnson, at your service.”
Arty reciprocated: “Corporal Robert Clarke.” The palm against his was big, rough and cool to the touch.
“Robert, Bobby, or Bob?”
“None, actually. Arty is what they call me, on account of my initials. My middle name is Thomas.”
“Arty,” the American airman repeated with a wide smile displaying straight, white teeth that made Arty hide his own behind tight lips. “Great name, Arty. Has a good ring to it. They call me Jimmy, but I prefer Jim myself. You’ll be wooing us again this evening, I take it?”
“Wooing?” Arty’s vocabulary had abandoned him, along with his propensity to take in air.
“You and Sergeant McDowell.”
“Oh, yes. The waltz.” What an absolute fool he must seem.
“Looking forward to it,” Jim said. The smile remained in place, as did the firm yet gentle grip of his cool fingers on Arty’s own. “Well,” he drawled, bringing the other hand up to sandwich Arty’s, momentarily increasing the pressure and then releasing, “let’s talk later.” He looked Arty in the eye, capturing him with a piercing blue gaze.
Jim departed, and Arty quickly turned away, fearful that someone had seen their exchange. It was, to all purposes, an innocent introduction, but the look Jim had given him offered much more than words. Arty’s heart was thumping hard and he was panting like a dog on a hot day. He closed his mouth and drew air through his nose, slowly, deeply.

Love is the soul’s respiration.

When you love, your soul breathes in. If you don’t breathe in, you suffocate.

“Are you feeling unwell, Arty?” Jean asked.
“No, no. I’m quite well.” He attempted a smile of reassurance.
She pursed her lips, her finely pencilled brows arched high. “We are to commence the dancing in five minutes,” she said.
“I’ll go and get, er, a…a drink.” Arty nodded to confirm that’s what he’d do. “Yes. A drink. Would you like…” He stopped and took another deep breath, releasing it slowly. “Oh, Jean.”
“Get your drink. You can tell me while we dance.”
Arty nodded again and did as she suggested, blinkering his vision against Jim and his friends standing together at the end of the bar.
“Arty,” Charlie greeted him with a clap on the back and a cheery smile. “Here.” He handed him a pint of beer. “I thought you were on your way over, until I saw you talking with Sergeant Johnson.”
“Ah, yes. He was…wishing Jean and me luck.”
“Luck?” Charlie laughed too loudly. “That was decent of him.”
There was a gleam in Charlie’s eye that betrayed his true feelings, and whilst Arty wanted to placate his friend, he was relieved to sense envy coming from Charlie, rather than suspicion. But could he be certain Jim wasn’t interested in Jean? That was the problem: how did one communicate about such dangerous matters?
Keep mum, she’s not so dumb.
Arty glanced over to where the poster hung on the wall of the mess hall; it was a mildly amusing premise, that the one person apart from his sister he had confided in looked like the attractive woman in the poster cautioning against careless talk. An RAF mess hall was a place where it felt safe to speak with a little more candour. Yet for almost all of these people, and he estimated there were eighty or more present, there was only one enemy. Tonight men and women would dance together, perhaps drink a little too much, share a moment of affection, a kiss, even. Where usually this state of affairs did little more than sadden Arty, he was feeling something far more powerful than sadness this evening. They did not face imprisonment simply for following their heart, so why should he?

* * * * *

Monday, March 07, 2016

No Place Like It #amreading #amwriting #amediting

So, I'm home, I've had some sleep, and damn, it was good! I hadn't slept properly for at least a week (probably months), and my brain, not entirely convinced it was exhausted, had to give it one last hurrah at bedtime. I snuggled under the duvet, light off, Kindle in hand - I managed to read about four lines before I somehow fumbled my Kindle onto the bedside table and zzzz.

Seven hours later...

It's a glorious spring morning in North-West England. Blue sky, leaf buds, a crisp frost glistening in the pale yet radiant sun.

My mission for today: to keep my thoughts clutter-free.

See, I've been having some problems with that. Since Christmas, I've been writing on various instalments of Hiding Behind The Couch, alongside my other work of teaching social science, editing and publishing. There's nothing new there; I operate in a state of constant mental activity, bordering on hypomanic, and I'm happy that way. If I ever watch TV or movies, they need to have some intellectual substance (and be well written/produced/directed/enacted) to fully hold my attention.

In my normal mode of operation, I can write several different stories in parallel, grade essays for two different undergraduate courses, and work on at least half a dozen publishing projects without ever dropping the mental ball. Like a spider's web (visual similes are my thing), I can see all the threads, both as separate strands with distinct end points, and the intricate connections between.

If you've met Josh - the main(ish) character from the Hiding Behind The Couch series, you may already have noted that he and I share a few traits in this respect.

...always watching, listening, putting it all together, like there’s a constant stream of thought running through his mind, picking up the shingle of theories and evidence, sifting it, depositing what he doesn’t need and forging on...

Josh does it all to a greater extreme, of course. To avoid spoilers for anyone new to reading the series, I'll just say that for the most part, Josh's thoughts are highly organised, governed by logic and mediated by intelligence, but there are times when they're a scrambled mess. He can't separate the intellectual from the emotional; he struggles to reach the end of one thought process without veering off into another. It is overwhelming, impossible.

That's what I've been experiencing, I realised, this morning, after a week away from my normal environment, followed by a good night's sleep.

It was something of a revelation, which seems daft to say. I knew at Christmas I'd burnt out, and I took some steps to address it. However, the world keeps spinning regardless of our cries of 'Stop! I want to get off!'

I owe huge thanks to Hans Hirschi and my mother-in-law, for hitting the pause button on my behalf.

Confession time: I love being at home, and given the choice I'd probably never go anywhere, or so I thought until this past week. That's not the confession, by the way. Anyone who knows me is aware of my hermit-like ways. What I'm now prepared to admit is that going away for a while can be (and has been on this occasion) precisely what I need in order to reboot my brain.

Bless Hans - I was so far behind with work that I was still editing his upcoming release, Jonathan's Promise, while I was his guest in Gothenburg last week, and he kept saying, "I didn't invite you here to work." But the thing is, even though I was working, it was without the rest of the mental noise, the constant interference of other thoughts, reminders of things I must not forget, fretful realisations that I would have to forego sleep, or writing, or some other necessity, like visiting family, in order to hit deadlines.

So yes, I did work while I was in Gothenburg, but not all the time. In fact, last Wednesday, Hans and I spent at least as much time chatting as we did working, and it was jolly good fun! We really do interact in a continued state of 'agree to disagree', because we're both strong-minded and hold firm opinions on a lot of social/political points. We do actually agree on quite a few things, but there's little conversation to be had once Person A says 'I think such-and-such' and Person B says 'I agree absolutely'.

Hans is fluent in I-have-no-idea-how-many languages, and I am constantly in awe of his linguistic abilities. Listening to him switch between Swedish, English and Alemannic(?) (his son does it, too) was both fascinating and humbling. I'm something of a dunce when it comes to learning other languages, although I love (obsess, study) accents and dialects, and even when conversations around me are in a language or dialect I don't understand, I am enthralled by the sounds and rhythms. I'm intrigued by their origins, their development, and I love incorporating dialect into my writing, although there's a skill to doing it well and not losing readers with too many contractions and dropped letters.

English language and culture is perhaps the only real bone of contention I have with Hans, and I'm pretty sure much of the time he only harps on because he knows it winds me up. Hans doesn't seem to think much of England, which I can understand up to a point. It's difficult for us English folk to hold on to any sense of pride and love for our country without being branded a nationalist, blind to the violent imperial history of 'Great Britain'. It's why many of us choose to identify as 'English' rather than 'British', although, historically, we don't do much better in that regard (consider the demise of 'Kernow', for instance).

Last year, when Hans reviewed my novel, Taking Him On, he had this to say: "...the love with which she describes her English motherland, the culture, the food, the people, even a stinking, old pub, is permeated with so much love."

It's a lovely, albeit back-handed, compliment, and his views are shared by many. English food is bland and greasy; the English climate is wet and rainy; English conversation consists of talking about the weather (therefore rain?)... I'll come back to this in a moment.

Anyway, I had a great time in Sweden, not least because it was a much-needed break. Hans makes delicious fondue (I was not the only one delighted by this welcoming family dinner), he's intelligent company, and he's an incredible tour guide. Visiting Sweden had been on my list of things to do since my adolescence, when the Lerum School of Music came to Southport on the first leg of an exchange trip that sadly didn't get as far as the second leg.

Indeed, my fascination with Sweden is what led to the inclusion of a Swedish character in Hiding Behind The Couch (Kris Johansson), which ultimately is why Hans and I connected in the first place. My trip to Sweden (which included a flying visit to Lerum) was enriching, therapeutic, educational - plus I made a friend in Albin the cat! I also gave silent thanks many times over that the Swedes are bloody brilliant at speaking English, or there would have been no coffee at Göteborg airport for me!

From Sweden to home briefly, and then to Norfolk, for my mother-in-law's eightieth birthday. I was once again immersed in the culture I love and know. This is the home county of Taking Him On (mentioned above - part of my other series - Checking Him Out). Norfolk is the northern county on the East Anglian peninsula (the bump on the right side of England), and it's fairly flat terrain, with lots of farmland.

© Adrian Cable - Creative Commons Licence
We stayed in The Swan, Harleston - an inn with a history extending back almost as far as Henry VIII, and with floors and staircases that offer excellent insight into what it's like to live with vertigo! I got up in the night to use the bathroom and wondered if I'd been drunker than I'd thought, but no. There was easily a ten-degree incline in the floor of our room. The Swan Inn is a stunning building, with thick oak beams and ancient gable ends cutting through (modern) walls. The staff are friendly, the breakfast was awesome, the company - my in-laws - was out of this world.

Real ale, a traditional English roast beef dinner, and it did rain, typically, when I'm trying to make an entirely different point, but still... On the way home, I pondered over the potential utility of old windmills with their derelict sails, and revelled in the changes in light, the weather and the fauna, as we ventured further north-west, back home to West Lancashire. I do love England, I'm not ashamed to say. It is a beautiful country with a rich history, so many different cultures, dialects, regional food and drink - how can anyone claim English food is bland when we invented Marmite? ;)

In conclusion, I'm glad to be home. There really is no place like it. But I'm also glad I went away for a few days. My thoughts had become like the spider's web we accidentally walk through, unanchored and dishevelled. Now I'm ready to spin anew.