Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Facebook gets spooky

I've mixed feelings about social networking sites - they can waste a lot of time, yet for a writer they are attractive. When much of your working life is spent alone, staring at a screen or scribbling edits on sheets of paper, there's something reassuring about being able to contact a wider network at the click of a mouse.

I mostly use networks specific to my activities - two for writers (Litopia and Bloggers With Book Deals) and one for science types (Nature Network). Just like the watercooler moment in a normal workplace, these naturally bring together people with work in common, who can moan to each other about the latest problem, as well as discuss last night's hot TV. But I do also have a Facebook page, which I use less often, but like for its immediacy and the way it puts me back in touch with old friends and colleagues.

Yesterday I clicked on the 'people you might know' link in Facebook, and amongst the people with obvious links and those I've never heard of was someone called Jack Schofield. For some reason, that felt quite spooky.

I first got into professional writing (more about this in a future post) by doing columns and reviews for IT magazines. I never did this full time, but when the activity was at its peak I went to quite a few product launches and IT company events. Inevitably you got to recognize the grizzled pros - the full time journalists - and one of these was Jack Schofield. (For fans of his column/blog, yes he did always have a pipe about his person.)

Because I've rather slipped out of the IT world, I've not heard of him or seen him for years - now here he was. Of course, he wouldn't have a clue who I was, but it was an intriguing connection for Facebook to throw up.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Tantalizing first glimpse

Being a writer is a strange business. You spend ages producing a manuscript, send it off to the publisher, and then for up to a year you only get tiny glimpses of the gestation process before the actual book drops onto your doorstep in the post.

The other day I accidentally pulled up the listing of my next book Ecologic on Amazon, seeing the front cover for the first time. At least, almost the front cover, which is why I hadn't seen it before.

We were still working on the subtitle (now finalized) - and my editor was sensibly waiting until they had a version with the correct title on before showing it to me. However, whoever supplies images to Amazon clearly was less patient, so I was able to see what you see here in all its glory. I love it.

All we've got to do now (apart from getting the image changed on Amazon to the real version) is work out how to spell the title. I originally called it Eco-logic, but I prefer the way it looks on that image. Trouble is, Amazon has it listed as Eco-logic, and if you put ecologic in the search, the book doesn't appear. Books are never easy.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Podcasting into the darkness

I appeared last night as a guest on the Litopia after Dark podcast, a weekly chat show on writing and writers hosted by (my) literary agent, Peter Cox of the Redhammer agency.

Featuring Peter, regulars Donna Ballman and Dave Bartram, and with children's writer Amanda Lees and myself as guests on this particular show, it's a mix of serious discussion and fun book-based games. Apparently it's listened to by 12,000 to 15,000 people (numbers doubling every quarter).

We had a great time - there were some technical glitches (I particularly liked when Peter had to re-record an intro along the lines of 'it may all go disastrously wrong but it hasn't yet') and at least two of us were well medicated for heavy colds, but we all had fun.

It's difficult to be clear about numbers listening - they're based on downloads/streaming numbers, but of course plenty of copies could be downloaded without ever being listened to. Even so, it suggests there are a fair number of people out there who are interested in writers and writing. Personally, when I've listened, I preferred the serious discussion to the games - apparently the games are the most popular bit in listener feedback, but I suspect that reflects the kind of person who gives feedback, not a good cross section of the audience. Don't get me wrong - I love playing the games, and think there's good entertainment in one where the guests have to pitch existing books in a new way, but I'm not sure about a 20 questions style guess the author/character game. Even so it's a podcast that's well worth picking up on.

Litopia After Dark is a companion to the five-days-a-week Litopia Daily podcast that Peter and his team put together. This also makes great listening for anyone interested in writing. Initially this was a trifle hit and miss, but now the team has settled into it I find it a really valuable addition to my coffee break and would be sad to be without it.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Writing alien English

I've never had the need to write fiction set in the US - but if I ever do, it will be with trepidation, because handling alien English is a lot harder than it looks. I have written non-fiction for a US market, and even there it's easy to get tripped up.

It's not the obvious stuff - colour or color, and writing 'a purse' instead of 'a handbag' - it's the subtle cultural use of words and objects. I have been caught out, for instance, when describing action at a distance, saying it's a bit like a coconut shy. Luckily, my American editor picked out this non-translating term.

One of my favourite crime writers is Elizabeth George. Her Inspector Lynley books are very well written - but I can't help spotting cultural misfits. I'm yet to read one where something hasn't slipped through.

One that happens time and again is that she has people writing on yellow legal pads, unheard of in the UK.

What triggered all this was last night's episode of the US TV show Bones, set in London. This follows a long tradition of US shows coming to visit (anyone remember the Beverley Hillbillies coming to the UK?) and inevitably it was ripe with things to go wrong in the script.

But this is something I find puzzling. When an author gets it wrong, it needs an editor, or a friendly reader of the country it's set in to spot it - and it's easy to miss something if the writing's good and you are powering through. But on TV, an actor has to say the words - and I don't understand why the English actors in the Bones episode didn't point out the flaws.

There was a little bit of the 'prithy, gentle knight' effect - the English DI, for instance, was much too precise in her use of English. But the worst example was a student who twice said that a property developer was intending to build a 'condo' on a Bronze Age site. This word isn't part of the British English vocabulary. So either the actress didn't think, or the director ignored her pointing out that it was totally out of character. Either way, someone made the wrong call.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Joy of Bookshops

Stuck in Swindon for an hour, I made my usual venture into a bookshop - in this case Waterstones. As always, this brought on mixed feelings. There was the genuine pleasure of being amongst so many books, tempered by the sadness that there were few of my own books in sight. (Borders in Swindon always has a much better selection.)

I don't know why it is, but the local bookshops seem to have a positive dislike of authors. Every time I've had a book out I have written to them, and despite stocking my books, they've never bothered to respond, even with an email or call. Contrast this with the excellent branch of Waterstones at the Science Museum in London, who really make an author feel at home.

It's a shame.

Surrey Explorers - 21 Sep 08

I was invited to speak last Sunday at the Surrey Explorers, a National Association of Gifted Children group based in Kingston-upon-Thames.

I have to admit that beforehand I was a touch worried that they would all be precious kids and pushy parents - but the reality was very different. They proved very receptive to both my talk on light for the children and a talk/discussion on global warming and the media afterwards with adults. There were excellent questions, a good discussion and a very friendly atmosphere.

So apologies for my preconceptions. It was a great Sunday morning.

Writing isn't a hobby

Kicking off my new blog here (I already blog at Nature Network) with a provocation. I know for lots of people writing is a hobby - and a great one. But there are some of us, and I'm one, for whom writing is more a way of life. I can't not write. This is particularly frustrating when, as is currently the case, I'm between books.

My latest, Upgrade Me has just been published - my next two books (more on these later) are with the respective editors, and now I'm looking for new directions. It's an unnerving state. A lot of waiting, a lot of thinking.