Friday, April 16, 2021

Why Do You Hate Your Kids So Much?

 By Abir

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

 


 

Right, today we are talking about the worst things in the world, the gateway to a messed up life.

 

When I was three, and illiterate, I was fearless and careless. A happy little free spirit. Three years later, and having acquired the dubious benefits of literacy, I was a brow-beaten, conformist, neurotic; chain-smoking my way through packs of candy cigarettes. (At one point, I was a 30 a day man.)

 

What possible calamity could have turned that wonderful, beautiful boy into a grizzIed, nervous, cynical six year old? The answer, I hate to say, is Children’s Literature. 

 

I grew up in the seventies, when the genre was still ruled by unscrupulous king-pins. Shadowy figures like Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, who controlled pretty much all of the UK’s supply of children’s literature with a vice-like grip, burning warehouses of their competitors’ books and bribing corrupt librarians up and down the country to stock only their own merchandise. Rumour has it that when faced with the possible release of work by other authors, Enid Blyton once threatened to break the wings off the original penguin at Penguin Publishing and to kidnap its child, the Puffin. 

 

These were terrifying individuals who knew no moral boundaries, as is evidenced by their work. Let’s take Beatrix ‘The Bull’ Potter. Her most famous creation is Peter Rabbit, whose first story opens with the horrific slaughter of Peter’s father by a sadistic farmer called Mr McGregor, which sets Peter on a path of criminality from petty theft (stealing from McGregor’s vegetable garden) to violent revenge. And that’s before the blatant anti-Scottish racism - McGregor is portrayed as dour-faced, penny-pinching, violent and oafish – a category which less than half of Scots actually fall into.

 

But let’s move on. Let's talk about Roald Dahl. Some believe that he hated the letter ‘n’ so much that he had it surgically removed from the middle of his own Christian name. A close inspection of his works, such as Charlie Ad the Chocolate Factory and James Ad the Giat Peach, suggest that this story might be more than just apocryphal. 


And let’s look at the first of those books: Charlie’s dad is dead, just like Peter Rabbit’s in Beatrix Potter’s works (coincidence? I think not). Charlie lives in a hovel with his mum and four grandparents who share what can only be described as a geriatric, octogenarian love-nest. To escape this trauma, Charlie develops a chocolate habit which leads him into the clutches of a strange man called, and I’m not making this up, Willy Wonka, who owns a ‘chocolate factory’. For the North Americans amongst you, ‘Willy’ is British slang for ‘penis’. The whole thing seems to be modelled on Michael Jackson and his Neverland ranch. I guess Jackson was too scared to sue, such was the power of Dahl and the criminal children’s literature fraternity.


And then we have Enid ‘Razor’ Blyton, with her stories of five privileged white kids, going on adventures with their dog, Timmy. Where’s the diversity, Blyton? Where are the working class kids? Where are the ethnic minorities? We never see that side of things, do we Blyton? Your England is all tea and crumpets with lashings of jam and cream and ginger beer. You don’t mention the police brutality, the terrible working conditions, the prejudice that the working classes face. You’re a reactionary, Blyton, and in your novels, the trains always run on time.

 

But it gets worse. From simply seeking to corrupt our youth with stories of masochistic rabbits, messed up kids with a chocolate habit, and the denigration of the letter ‘n’, things turned really dark with the political writings of Roger Hargreaves.

 

For those of you who haven’t come across him. Hargreaves wrote a series of titles called the Mr. Men books. (Here’s the website: https://mrmen.com/ - but I'm warning you, it might trigger you.)

The books were a staple of 1970s kids’ literature with the brightly coloured Mr. Men getting into all sorts of scrapes, and I must admit that at the age of five, I loved these books. It was only when I was six, and more politically aware of how ‘the Man’ tries to brainwash you, that I realised the true horror of these novels.

 

Let’s take the case of Mr Messy. Now ostensibly this is the story of an untidy character who lives in a broken home, whose life is turned around my two men who one day turn up at his house. They make him see the error of his ways, and by the end of the book, Mr Messy isn’t messy any more. He’s really neat.

 

Lovely story, eh? Except it’s not. It’s the story of a free-spirit, a non-conformist, living his life the way he wants to, not bothering anyone else, and suddenly, these two men in suits turn up, calling themselves Tidy and Neat (made up names for sure – what are they hiding?) and they brainwash him into conforming to their social mores. By the end of the story, Mr Messy is basically a soulless automaton, a sheep, just like everyone else.

 

Then there’s Mr Upity – a crusty, curmudgeonly sort, who’s a bit rude to people, but to be fair, the people he’s rude to are idiots. But what happens? A bunch of leprechauns cast a spell on Mr Upity so that every time he’s rude, something happens to cause him tremendous pain, until, lo and behold, by the end of the book, he’s physically incapable of being rude to anyone. This is basically the plot of a Clockwork Orange, but whereas Burgess’ classic is a warning against state sponsored Fascism, Hargreaves’ Mr. Upity is a celebration of it. And we let kids read these books.

 

And don’t think you Americans are any better. Dr Seuss. What is that? It’s basically just bad poetry. But because American culture is only 26 years old, Seuss has become part of the American literary canon. And then there’s Goodnight Moon. I mean, what? Seriously? It’s not even a story! And yet the damn thing has sold billions. We even have two copies of it in our house (my younger son attempted to eat the first copy).

 

So, have things improved? Can we say that children's literature has evaded the pernicious clutches of evil monsters? There’s certainly more representation these days. Books that show the world as it is. My personal favourites include The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf. Onjali's books are witty, inclusive and a great read. 


But we still have problems. One of the biggest sellers of kid’s books in the UK these days is David Walliams. I’ve never read his books, but there are people who’ve called out the ‘horrific racism’ and ‘sneering, fat-shaming nonsense’ of some of his work. (https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/author-david-walliams-jack-monroe-18551788 ) . And he’s sold 37 million copies.

 

So there we have it. If you love your kids; if you don’t want them becoming unhinged revenge monsters, Fascists, or automaton conformists; if you want them to learn to think for themselves, I’d urge you to keep them away from children’s books. You’d be much better getting them started on the modern classics, like the works of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Abir Mukherjee.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of poet, Philip Larkin, who, along with his mistress, also seems to have been a bit of a ghastly racist (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/philip-larkins-muse-monica-jones-revealed-as-a-racist-thpnz73ms ) , but the poem’s still good.

 

 

This Be The Verse

 

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

 

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.

 

Man hands on misery to man.

    It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

    And don’t have any kids yourself.


Let's break the cycle, my friends. Let's not fuck up our kids any more. Let's wean them off the crack that is children's literature.



(It shouldn't have to be said, but just in case, this piece is tongue in cheek and does not completely or accurately represent my actual views on children's literature, and I am fairly sure that Enid Blyton never did actually threaten to break Penguin's wings.)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Kid Lit from James W. Ziskin

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

I really have no idea if children’s books have changed since I was a child, since I don’t read them today. That’s perhaps a logical consequence of having no children myself. But, I suppose, if I had been so inclined, I might have continued reading children’s literature into my adult years, middle age, and now dotage. Instead, my tastes changed and I explored other genres.

Given the reasons cited above, I can only tell you about the books I read as a child. I began my journey reading my mother's childhood books. These were picture books, poetry, adventure stories, and tales of far-off places. Her books all bore muddy brown-and-white lithograph bookplates, picturing a young girl in a wood and bearing the mysterious inscription "Ex libris Elizabeth W***." (Her last name is what my middle initial stands for, and that name—like Rumpelstiltskin’s—must remain a secret.)

When my mom was seven, her parents gave her a beautifully illustrated translation of the Decameron. For me as a young boy, the language seemed old and dusty, and I never paid any attention to the book until I was studying Italian literature in grad school. That's when I discovered just how downright filthy many of Giovanni Boccaccio's stories are. If you don’t believe me, try Googling “Alibech and Rustico” for one modest example. Clearly, my grandparents hadn't done their due diligence when selecting an appropriate book for their seven-year-old daughter.

It’s a coincidence, I suppose, that my last book, TURN TO STONE, relied heavily on the Decameron for its narrative framework. I even used a couple of stories from the Decameron to provide clues to the eventual solution of the mysterious death at the center of my book. Fully attributed to Boccaccio, of course, even if the words and interpretations were my own.

Back to this week’s topic. The Decameron notwithstanding, I began my lifelong love of words and storytelling with my mother’s books. Here’s a partial list of the first literary milestones that marked my journey:

• Highlights Magazine. "Goofus and Gallant." I was Team Goofus.
• Alfred Noyes's “The Highwayman.” “Then look for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.” 
• The King's Stilts. My favorite Seuss ever. 
• The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf 
• Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton 
• Beatrix Potter 
• James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man” 
• Grimm’s Fairy Tales

A few years later at school” 

• 7th grade: Great Expectations. Took two semesters for our class to finish it. 
• 8th grade: Ivanhoe and Ethan Frome. Inspired choices for easily bored teens. 
• 9th grade: As You Like It. They told us it was a comedy. Good thing, because we couldn’t tell.

Early Teens

• Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie. 
• Archie comics. I could never choose between Betty and Veronica.

I’m sorry that I can’t comment on today’s children’s fiction. Some of it looks fun. Some of it appears to rely heavily on scatology and various bodily functions. But I think more and more books are promoting diversity and showcasing under-represented voices that have been excluded for too long. Still a lot of work to do, of course. 

Maybe someday soon I’ll check out some new kids’ books, if for no other reason than to try to recapture a small measure of the joyous wonder of my youth.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Great Day for Up

Illustration: Mystic Art Design

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

by Dietrich

It started with children’s books—that fascination with stories that came to life right off the pages. It was The Frog Prince, The Pied Piper, Rumpelstiltskin, and so many more by the Grimm brothers. And it was Aesop’s Fables and Roald Dahl. It was H.A. Key’s Curious George, and Howard Pyle’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod, and many more. 

And there were the children’s books that seem like they were really written for adults, like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And I think I enjoyed the Harry Potter books as much as my young son did when I read them to him. And there are the so-called children’s books like Go The F*ck to Sleep by Adam Mansbuck that are really funny bedtime stories for parents.

Do I still read children’s books now? You bet. And I’ll probably never tire of the rhythm and the melodic sound of the words of Dr. Suess. So, every now and then I pick up Green Eggs and Ham or Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

And that brings up the second part of this week’s question: Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?
Some things that didn’t seem inappropriate back when I was young, now don’t seem quite right. If I think about some of those Grimm stories—Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their toes to get their feet into a glass slipper, or Hansel and Gretel being abandoned by their father and stepmom—some of that may not seem as appropriate for bedtime stories. And wasn’t Goldilocks breaking and entering? Or, maybe I’m overthinking it.  

When I was a kid, illustrations in children’s books were good, but there weren’t that many, and often they were single-color line drawings. Nowadays, thanks to digital printing and perhaps larger budgets for this type of book, there are often full-color illustrations running from cover to cover. There’s some great art in kid’s books, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are, and I don’t remember anything like that when I was growing up. But, most kids come with colorful imaginations, so all they really need is a good story, and there have always been plenty of those around. And whether they’re new or old favorites that I’ve read time and again, I still have a soft spot for children’s books.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Children's Books

 

Terry Shames here, answering our question of the week: 

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child? 

No, I don't read children's books--at least not usually. But at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver a few years ago, some of us were exploring the area around the hotel and ran into a used bookstore. There, in plain sight was a book I had not seen since I was a little girl, living in small town in Texas where my only source of books was the library. It was “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Nice Fat Policeman.” 



 I bought it if for no other reason than the title. Can you imagine a book being titled that these days? Maybe the nice “Plump” Police Officer? Or The Nice Police Officer Whose Weight is No One’s Business? How times have changed! And not necessarily for the worst. At any rate, I read the book and found it to be problematic in several ways, as so many older books are. There was a character described as The Magician who was seriously creepy, among other things. I don't know that I would want kids reading the book these days.

 I recently had to clean out my attic, and ran across children’s books that I had kept that were my favorites and my son’s favorites. Some of them I remembered reading night after night, sometimes two or three times. One in particular, “The Adventures of Puppy Cat,” by Mitchell Kriegman, I read so many times I could practically recite it, and grew to loathe it eventually. But if I tried to skip over any parts of it while I was reading, my son would immediately stop me and tell me what I had skipped. 


 The ones I particularly loved were books that had sly humor injected for adult consumption. I thought those writers were brilliant. “Mrs. Dunphy’s Dog,” by Catherine O’Neill was hilarious, not just for my son, but for me as well. 


The dog learned how to read because it was clear that Mrs. Dunphy was “in her cups” at night and he was bored. He learned to read the newspaper that fell from her lap—and it was clearly a tabloid newspaper. My son was entertained by the dog reading. I was entertained by WHAT he was reading. I was surprised to learn recently that one of my son’s favorite books, “The Runaway Bunny,” by Margaret Wise Brown, was still one of the books children love the most. 



I found this heartening, somehow. That at least the basics hadn’t changed. Which brings me to today’s children’s books. I buy books for my nephew’s son, who just this week turned 10. He is not a great reader, so I have struggled to find books he enjoys. Thank goodness for the Dogman series, by Dav Pilkey. 



A new take on super-heroes, the books are perfect for Grayson. I tried him on one of my son’s favorites, The Redwall series, and it fell flat. Those books are dense, with lots of description, and maybe he’ll turn to them when he’s older, but for now there’s Dogman. 

 Does this mean that kids want books that are less dense these days? That our fast-paced lives have spilled into children, and that they can’t concentrate on longer, more involved books? I seriously doubt it. I think it has more to do with the child, as it always has. Who knows why a kid takes to one book over another? In Grayson’s case, he’s a kinetic kid who loves building things and tearing them down. He likes computer games, but he also likes physical activities. It stands to reason that the books he would like feature busy protagonists, whether they are human or animal. 

 I am interested in how comic books have become all the rage, with both kids and adults. But there’s nothing new here. I loved comic books as a kid, and still remember some of them! It’s no surprise that there has been a resurgence of their popularity. But is it because kids don’t read as much, or because they are used to watching cartoons on TV? I suspect that there are kids in both camps, and that all kinds of books still reflect all kinds of kids. The important thing is that kids read. Whatever they read. The old ones or the new ones.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Enduring Pleasure of Children's Literature

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

Happy Monday. Brenda Chapman kicking off the week.

An interesting question this week. I actually started my book-writing career penning a middle grade mystery series - the Jennifer Bannon mysteries. At the time, my daughters were twelve and nine, and I often spent hours in the children's section of the bookstore selecting books for them as gifts. I was also reading fiction with some of my students as I helped them improve their reading.

I remember reading many book covers that had a parent dying or dead from cancer. The heart of the stories was a family tragedy that the child protagonist had to deal with, and while I saw the value, I also wished for lighter, more entertaining fare. I searched for a mystery like the ones I had enjoyed at that age - Nancy Drew, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five ... kids on adventures. Eventually, I decided to try my hand at writing one and this turned into the Bannon series.

Unlike some of the mysteries I read as a kid, I gave Jennifer, her sister Leslie and best friend Ambie more rounded characters and current problems. Jennifer's parents are separated, she's starting high school and is struggling, she likes a boy who has a girlfriend. One mystery deals with an abusive parent and racism (Hiding in Hawk's Creek) but with a subtle hand. Like the older mysteries, every book had a mystery at its core that my young sleuth had to solve.

The focus on more difficult and current issues is one of the biggest changes from when I was a kid. Teen books tackle topics that never would have passed the censor back in the day. I even remember questioning whether curse words were acceptable when I was writing my series and ultimately decided they weren't even though kids often hear and repeat these words.

In any event, after my foray into writing children's books, I realized that the genre requires a dedicated focus. Each age-level has its own 'rules', trends, bestsellers, reviewers, awards, and an author has to be fully immersed to stay current. Publishers are in tune with what kids are reading and are looking for books that tick the boxes and will sell widely.

I stopped writing and reading these books, instead turning to the adult genre. I've continued to read the children's book reviews and cover flaps, however. From what I've gleaned, the authors are continually pushing the envelope, writing about difficult, confusing and topical issues, such as bullying, prejudice, sexuality, death and war. Science fiction and fantasy are also hugely popular with kids. I'm thankful for all the great books I read as a kid, which shaped my own writing and even  outlook on life and the world. Today's children's authors are creating the same wonderful memories for today's generation of young readers, feeding their imaginations and teaching valuable life lessons. Tales that spark creativity, entertain and instruct remain constants. More recent themes that celebrate diversity and differences and help children deal with a wider variety of difficult issues affecting their lives are moving the genre forward.

      Website: www.brendachapman.ca

        Twitter: brendaAchapman

        Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

 


Friday, April 9, 2021

Please allow me to introduce myself… by Josh Stallings

As I type this I am looking out over the San Jacinto Mountains. I live in a valley populated by ancient cedar, oak and pine trees, bobcats, bunnies, squirrels, cougars, owls, ravens and every once in a while a brown bear wanders down from the high country. From my rustic perch I write crime stories set in Los Angeles, the city of my birth.


Hard Boiled, please.

My first books, the Moses McGuire trilogy were definitely on the harder side of hard boiled. I was angry and in need of an outlet for my pain. Moses was a bouncer in a strip club, a knight in tattered armor defending gee-string damsels, who hadn’t asked him to. The McGuire books spoke honestly about sex workers, the price paid. Each book took me deeper into a painful world.



Along came a glam rock disco heist novel. 


“I need to write a happier book. No really.” When I said that, my wife laughed. But it was true, I needed to lighten up. I’m a method writer as Stanislavski might have called it. I work from the inside out. I walk the streets I write about. I listen to the people I meet. I live in a book for a year or longer. I was with my brother on Martha’s Vineyard when three words came to me, Disco Heist Novel. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded fun. It became Young Americans, the story of glitter rock kids involved in robbing a disco on New Year’s Eve 1977. It was a joy to write, like getting a chance to rewrite my teen years with more glamour and less painful mistakes. I told my wife when I gave her the first chapters to edit “Here it is, a light book.” She left me a large note, “This is Josh light, not light light.”


 Tricky, tell it true, tell it clean.  


My most recent novel is Tricky. Cisco, an ex-shooter for a LA gang is accused of murder. The case is complicated by the fact that Cisco suffered a brain injury, and is now intellectually disabled, or is he faking it? LAPD Homicide Detective Madsen goes into Cisco’s world to try and find the truth.

Tricky is my most personal novel to date. I have spent time on both sides of the law. My grandfather was the best man I knew, and he spent his life working for the LA Sheriff's department. 


Our older son is intellectually disabled. I wanted to try to capture his humor and largeness of spirit in the Cisco character. From those that know him, I hear I nailed that. 


It was harder to strike a balance with Madsen, he went through many iterations before landing.





What’s next?


I don’t know, but I will continue to use fiction to tell my truth the clearest way I can. I hope you will join me on this journey.


I want to thank the Criminal Minds for inviting me to join their crew. Some of them are old friends, some new but they are all writers I admire and am proud to stand beside.  




Thursday, April 8, 2021

Trees, Bees and Day-drinking: a guest post by Kris Calvin

Sitting typing isn’t what we evolved to do, no matter how rewarding it might be. At your desk and/or away from it, how do you counteract the physical toll a writing life takes on your body?

Catriona writes: I'm doubly delighted today. First, I get to dodge this question, to which my answer would be . . . unedifying. Second - and much more important, my friend Kris Calvin is here! 

Kris is my film-going buddy (the day we sit in the cinema watching Paddington 3 is the day we'll know this is over); the taker of all the best and most flattering photos I post; a tireless advocate, organiser, and educator; an insanely and unquestioningly generous pal; and . . . what's the other thing . . . oh yes! A bang up writer too.

Kris's thriller ALL THAT FALL is out on the 13th; the launch party is at Murder by the Book on the 23rd. Details here.



And now, Kris Calvin:

Repeat after me: “Laptops are the enemy.” Or more accurately: “Laptops not positioned on a riser with a separate keyboard at an ergonomically correct height are the enemy.”

I came to fiction writing relatively late in life. Prior to that, for decades I used a laptop to write policy briefs and advocacy analyses in my career as a child health advocate and nonprofit manager. 

One morning, I woke up and my elbow felt like I’d been stung by a thousand bees. Tears were running down my face when my youngest son found me at 7am downing a shot of whiskey in the kitchen, channeling a gunfighter in the Old West who’d been a little too slow on the draw. (I’m not a drinker.) 

As the result of typing on a laptop for years, not only at a desk, but also in cafes, lying on the sofa (sound familiar?), I had inflamed, worn down, and otherwise annoyed a disc in my neck, until it opted to send dramatic signals to a nerve in my elbow saying, “Cut it out!” 

I spent weeks confined to bed, followed by months of physical therapy.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered accommodations that have mostly prevented recurring episodes. These include limiting myself to a specific work set-up with the screen at eye level (using either a desktop or laptop on risers), dictating rather than typing (the use of the mouse inflames my neck, who knew?), and utilizing a special cushion that keeps me aware of my posture when I sit and drive. If I fail to observe these rules, my neck, via its messenger, my elbow, is not shy in letting me know it’s unacceptable.  

Now I tell anyone that who long hours typing—including my writer pals—to position their screen at eye-level and to dictate when possible. I emphasize that there is no time like the present to begin this practice, because I had no warning. None. No subtle aches, no “maybe I should change position” feelings before I was standing in my kitchen, downing Maker’s Mark whisky in the hopes that it would prove to be my salvation.  

As to more active efforts at taking care of myself physically, I swam a mile each day at the local pool until the pandemic hit. (Emma, the protagonist in the book I wrote in 2020, swims laps daily —if I couldn’t, at least she could.) When the pool became inaccessible, I acquired an indoor recumbent stationary bike. I plan to alternate between swimming and biking when the world opens up.

Lastly, and perhaps most important to me, I’ve positioned my writing table where I can see trees and the sky through a window to the outside. I know that isn’t possible for everyone, but I’ve found a peaceful view and a feeling of connection to nature (perhaps through artwork if an external vista is not an option) help my breathing, my blood pressure, and everything else.




Kris Calvin
 is the author of the thriller novel, ALL THAT FALL (April


13, 2021; Crooked Lane Books). She served for more than 20 years


as the CEO of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and was


honored for her leadership in advocacy for children by the 


California Legislature and Governor’s office. 


You can visit Kris online at kriscalvin.com.



Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Monty Don's got a lot to answer for... by Cathy Ace

Sitting typing isn’t what we evolved to do, no matter how rewarding it might be. At your desk and/or away from it, how do you counteract the physical toll a writing life takes on your body?

This question’s a bit like one of those cans of worms that explode when you open them...however carefully I try to answer it I’m not going to end up looking good...though I think this does...my garden!

You can see 6 of our hydrangeas here - we have a couple of hundred

I know we humans were not designed to sit typing all day, but I also know this particular human wasn’t designed to type at all competently. I should’ve taken lessons at some point – but I’m old enough that when I started work there was a typing pool in the bowels of London Transport’s splendid art deco HQ at St. James’s Park, to which I dutifully took my boss’s handwritten letters etc. each day so they could be typed, then I’d collect them around 3pm, and present them to him for signing before I took them to the post (mail) room so they could be posted (mailed). Yes, I know it sounds like the Dark Ages, but we’re talking about 1984…yes, the REAL 1984. If I’d learned to type properly back then maybe I wouldn’t have to spend quite so long at my desk retyping all the Scrabble-hands I seem to want to include in every sentence. Maybe.

I love this...see below for scale...


Since I didn’t, here I sit cursing the fact that I cannot (and this is a hue admission folks) type an apostrophe in a word – I always type a semi-colon instead. I have absolutely no idea why my finger goes to the wrong key every single time, but it does. It’s every time. Just did it then – typed It;s and had to go back and change it. Sometimes the spellcheck thing decides to change it for me, other times it doesn;t and if I keep typing this blog without changing every time I do it, you;ll soon see how many changes I;m likely to have to make on every page of every book I;ve ever written. You might think this is just an amusing aside – a way to get out of an even bigger admission that I;m holding back from making, and maybe it is. I don;t know. But it certainly contributes to the overall number of hours I sit here.

I am the tiny figure in orange - helps with scale. Far right - the ESSENTIAL hot tub


Okay, so here goes. How do I counteract the physical toll of writing when I;m actually sitting at my desk? Simple confession – I don;t. I;ve tried setting alarms to get me to leave my chair and move around, I ignore them. I even have one of those watches that counts my steps (LOL…I think it thinks I;m a bump on a log) and tells me when to get up and stretch…I ignore it.

Lovely rhodo behind a soon-to-be-lovely hibiscus. We have a couple of hundred rhodos


To counteract the damage I;m doubtless doing to myself I work the five acres we live on (with husband), and do my best to keep it looking half way decent. That’s a lot of work. Today I moved six logs. Doesn’t sound like much, but they weighed about 150 pounds each, and all needed to be moved about 30 feet. It took a while; I rolled them when I could…but, you know…it was a lot. Yesterday I did four hours of pruning – which meant I did about one third of our hundreds of hydrangea bushes (and still my watch told me to exercise – it can become very bossy!) and tomorrow I’ll be clearing a large bed of branches and detritus that husband will run through the chipper, then I;ll shovel that into a wheelbarrow, wheel it to one of the paths we;re building (which are edged with the aforementioned logs) and will tip, spread, flatten…and repeat. Probably for three or four hours. We call it gardening – others might think we’ve invented some new form of masochistic torture we impose upon ourselves…but it will look lovely eventually…when we’ve dug holes for the hundreds of plants in large, heavy pots we’ve got standing by, ready to go. Monty Don’s got a lot to answer for…it all looks so easy on Gardener’s World!

Standing beside one of the first rhodos I planted, about 18 years ago


So, simple answer: when I sit, I sit…I;m oblivious of time, and I know that;s a bad thing. I overcompensate with ridiculous amounts of work in the garden – then stretch my screaming muscles in the hot tub. And take painkillers.

I love playing with colour and texture...even if I have to wait years for it to work


I am not living healthily. I know this. But I am managing to write books people seem to enjoy reading, and the garden looks – to me, anyway – magnificent. Hope it was okay to show it off :-) 

And I saved at least 5 minutes at my desk by not altering all those blessed semi-colons! Ta-daaa!

By the way - don't forget I'll be taking part in the opening panel of Wales's FIRST international crime writers' festival - online, and FREE - on April 26th. I kick off the whole thing with Martin Edwards, and Gail Williams. Other authors include Lee and Andrew Child, Peter James, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Jonasson, 7 Criminal Mind's very own Abir Mukherjee, and lots more... Full details and FREE tickets here: Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival | Wales' First International Crime Festival  

If you'd like to get a copy of the TENTH Cait Morgan Mystery, The Corpse with the Iron Will, when it’s released on June 3rd, check out the pre-order link on my website: http://www.cathyace.com/cait-morgan-mysteries




Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Battling the Paradox

Sitting typing isn’t what we evolved to do, no matter how rewarding it might be. At your desk and/or away from it, how do you counteract the physical toll a writing life takes on your body?

From Frank

It's quite the paradox, isn't it? We write about action (at least some of the time) while sitting on our backsides. Only our fingers and our brains are getting any kind of workout, but it is only our bums that get sore...

I've done a few things over the years to combat the dangers of this. The first real brush with death I had was shortly after I retired from law enforcement and started writing full time. The amount of concentrated typing I was doing for long periods went up dramatically and all of a sudden, the tendons in my hand hurt.

I asked my friend Jill about it. She said, "Stop! Immediately buy an ergonomic keyboard, and stop typing on your laptop everyday for hours and hours!" [Yes, she did employ exclamation marks in that directive].

I listened. I was used to an ergonomic keyboard at work so the transition was easy. But I hadn't thought I'd need it at home. Even though I'd been writing seriously for a decade at this point, my typing marathons were intermittent enough that I hadn't encountered the spectre of carpel-tunnel syndrom. 

Thanks, Jill. I still use that same keyboard to this day. Except now it's kinda gross. I guess I should clean it sometimes, huh? 

The other major danger that lurked in the shadows is that writing makes for a sedentary work life. I dealt with this one by getting fat. It was surprisingly easy.

Then I decided that was a bad approach for a variety of reasons, so Kristi and I hit the gym. Our health insurance entitled us to a fifty-percent discount at the local gym, so that was great. We're saving money already. We lifted weights there, starting at the machines and gravitating into the free weights for many of the exercises. Sometimes we did cardio there, but for the most part, biking, walking, and kayaking was much more fun, so mostly we just lifted. 

Oh, and they had a heavy bag! Most gyms don't. And if they do, the bag sucks. Even the police gym, for the longest time, had this bag that was hard as concrete at the bottom third and slack as an empty feed bag for the top two thirds. People who didn't know it was a trap and decided to throw a low kick at full blast got an unpleasant surprise. 

But not this one. It was sweet. Padded, perfect bliss. So we bought some hand wraps and bag gloves. Mine are red, Kristi's are pink. I got to pummel the bag, throwing combinations I haven't ripped out in years. Felt goooooood.  And I taught Kristi how to punch, how to maintain good form, how to throw combos. She took to it naturally and now she's a bad ass puncher. Seriously. I'd post the video I took to prove it but the thing is, she's about three times as good now as she was then and basically would kick my ass. Here's a generic pic for you instead.

I loved getting back into the gym. Felt great, got strong, muscles reappeared, mister fat started hiding his face in shame... loved it. We worked out together probably half the time and it was a great way to spend some time doing something as a couple.

Then Covid hit. Bye-bye gym (except for a brief few weeks when it looked like it might safely open up again), and hello fat butt on chair.

It took a while to recover from that before I realized, "Hmmm, mister fat seems to have moved from crashing on the couch and into one of the spare bedrooms... seems like he plans on staying a while..." 

So I started taking walks again. Not short little half-mile strolls but going 3 or 4 miles, building up until I average 5-7 miles a day probably nine out of ten days. That's probably nothing for some folks, but it's been good for me. Oh, and I started eating way better, too. Thank Kristi for spearheading that operation with her own choices.

Between the two, I'm down some poundage. I feel better, look better, and don't worry about my time in the chair as much. Next step is to incorporate breaks every 60-90 minutes and to do some strength and stretching exercises during those breaks... leading quickly to starting to do yoga again (why did I ever quit - that's what I wonder).

The good news is that I'll be fully vaccinated by the end of April, so I can get into the gym again. Hello, punching bag - please still be hanging there! We want to pummel you.

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Blatant Self Promotion (with some other author's being promoted, too!)

I'm part of a cool anthology coming out in May, along with some names you may recognize.

The Eviction of Hope is the creation of my sometimes collaborator, Colin Conway. I'll let him describe what it's about:

It’s eviction day for The Hope Apartments. The residents have known about it for over a year. It’s too bad they ignored all the warning signs.

More than a century ago, developer Elijah Hope constructed a state-of-the-art hotel. As the generations passed and tastes changed, The Hope spent two decades as an underutilized office building before conversion into a low-income housing project.

Rundown by years of human occupation, The Hope has become a hollow shell of its once great self. It is home to drug addicts, petty criminals, and those hiding from others. The city has long turned a blind eye to The Hope as surrounding neighborhoods gentrified and pushed their disaffected in its direction.

But now The Hope is preparing a return to its original glory. The current owners plan to convert it into a boutique hotel. The only thing standing in their way is the eviction of over one hundred units.

Each resident knew this fateful day was coming, yet most chose to believe it would never arrive. They ignored the posted signs, the hand-delivered warnings, and even the actual notices.

Many stayed until the bitter end.

These are their stories.

My contribution to this anthology is “The Rumor in 411,” a story of loyalty and the power of rumors. 

The Eviction of Hope is already available for pre-order at a reduced price of .99 cents (regular price will be somewhere in the $5.99 range, I imagine). 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Oh, My Aching Back

 Q: Sitting typing isn’t what we evolved to do, no matter how rewarding it might be. At your desk and/or away from it, how do you counteract the physical toll a writing life takes on your body?

- from Susan

My particular problems stem from my inability to look at the screen while typing, which also means I can’t see typos until I stop typing and look at the screen in horror. The dismay is in part the result of my three-finger typing [I had to retype the word “typing” 3 times to get it right, by the way]  - left index and middle finger, right index finger. The faster I do my magic, the more mistakes I make, hence a start-and-stop process that adds hours to every session at the computer. How I make it through manuscripts of 70,000+ words I don’t know.

The computer is a laptop, which means the keyboard is higher and the screen lower than illustrations of proper ergonomic positions. Using a little tablet only makes it worse since I have to hunch even more and my fingers hit the right little keys about fifty-percent of the time.

So, I have issues. My neck cants forward, a little old lady effect I got before I was officially a little old lady. My back and shoulders suffer. I sit forward in my desk chair so my fingers in their vertical punch positions can find the keys, which doesn’t help my legs. My fingers cramp. 

Remedies? 

YOGA, although I’m only now getting the space back to roll out the mat (see my recent post). There is nothing like some asanas to remind me I have muscles and ligaments that deserve more respect than I give them at my desk.

HEAT, which used to mean a hot tub when I lived in Sausalito but now, alas, means only a hot shower or those seed-filled cloth things you can drape around your neck. 

MOVING AROUND, easy to do as long as it means I can run downstairs and forage for snacks, which create their own issues, or distract myself from the writing task by doing laundry.

POSTURE AWARENESS, which means not looking at the sidewalk when I’m out walking, but keeping my back straight, my shoulders back a little, and my neck balanced on my shoulders. It was natural when I was a kid and since the sidewalk doesn’t move, why I drift into looking down when I could be enjoying the view I don’t know. 







Before COVID, there were massages, expensive but at least temporarily, excellent remedies. Before COVID, our community pool was open for swimming, which stretches out the muscles beautifully. Before COVID, there were more energetic walks because my grandsons keep up a good pace and tempt me up hills. 


I have one ace up my sleeve, and it's called Kauai. I have a trip planned for later this year and the Hanalei Beach from one end to the other is two glorious miles long. A round trip walk every morning, looking at the water and the mountains and the waterfalls and the fruit and flower trees will be more than enough to counter the couple of hours later that I'll be trying not to hunch over my laptop working on the next book. There's enough aloha in my corner of Kauai to set me up for the next twelve months!



 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Horses for Courses

by Abir

As there's more and more consolidation in the world of publishing, how do you view—generally, and for you personally—big publisher vs small publisher vs self-publishing now? Have your views changed since you were first published?  


So here’s the thing. I’m old, and the modern world feels dangerous and scary to me. Technology peaked with the moon landings and the VCR and any developments thereafter have basically been unnecessary frippery designed to keep young people occupied so they don't mug older people. So when the internets came along and the Amazon changed from being a river to a bookshop and then a behemoth that was scared of unionisation, I was rather sniffy.

 

I sometimes wish I’d been born twenty years earlier. I reckon the halcyon days of publishing were probably the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Back then, publishing in the UK looked pretty easy: You were a white, upper-middle class male; you had an idea for a novel; you pitched it to old Bunty whom you were at Oxford with, and who now did something terribly interesting at Harper & Schuster, preferably over a nice lunch at the Ivy, and Bob’s your uncle. Hey presto, a book deal with a nice, tasty advance; enough to keep you in lunches for a while. All you had to do was go home, write the bloody thing and old Bunty and his pals at the publishers would take care of the rest – the editing, the marketing, the press and all the other black magic that went with it, including selling the rights to johnny foreigner and the colonies. It was, I daresay, a good life for a certain sort of writer.

 

But then things started changing. They started letting others into the club. Different types, who wrote different things that weren’t set in England or New York, and ended up with fatwas being issued and authors going into hiding. Funny sort of business all round, really.

 

And then came the bloody technology. The Amazon arrived, pretending at first to be a bookshop in the sky, before revealing its true intention to be the only friend you’d ever need: your God, your mother and your shopkeeper all rolled into one. They began offering this service – self publishing – they called it, ‘democratisation of the industry’, they said. Now I’m all for power to the people, just as long as it’s the right people, and my first thought was – wait, isn’t this simply vanity publishing in a different guise? Simply a rather foul rose parading under a different name? Yes, the costs would be lower – there’d be no printing costs or stocking costs and anyone anywhere could purchase a copy from the worldwide web – but was that really progress? Surely the barriers to entry were a good thing? They kept out the dross. Suddenly every Tom, Dinesh and Sally would be publishing their banal, ill-considered and poorly edited musings, and did the world really need that?

 

But, dear heart, I have to say, I was wrong. As much as I hate to admit it, change is a good thing. Nothing improves without the impetus for change. Self publishing didn’t lower standards, instead it broke up a closed shop and spawned new opportunities. Industries grew up around it – an army of freelance editors to fix your book – a veritable feast of artists to help you with covers and artwork – and social media fixers to help you publicise your work. And these new entrepreneurs, empowered by the Amazon weren’t just in London or New York, they weren’t even in just Middle America or Middle England, they were all over the world, in Eastern Europe and Africa and Asia. Suddenly, one could write a book in Scotland, have it edited by someone in Baltimore, with a cover designed by a woman in Mumbai and marketed by a team in Cape Town, AND the quality of the output could be every bit as good as what the traditional publishers were offering. True, you didn’t get an advance to keep you in lunches at the Ivy, and you probably had to pay for the editing, the marketing and the artwork from your own pocket, but you got to keep a much higher percentage of any revenues.

 

But self publishing isn’t for everyone. It’s probably not for me, not at the moment anyway, because to make money self-publishing, I think, requires you to be a lot more than just a writer. To do it well, you need to be an entrepreneur, a data analyst, a PR guru and probably many things besides, because the self-pub market is immense. There are probably 20 million e books on the Amazon website, with several million more added each year. To stand out in that crowd, you need marketing skills and data skills and a container lorry of luck. Some do manage it, and they make an extremely good living from it, but for most people that’s not the case.

 

Yet traditional publishing is no panacea either these days. The market, partly because of changing tastes and partly because of so much choice, has fragmented. For a writer starting now, I wonder if it’s even possible to garner the sort of loyal readership of a Lee Child or a Dean Koontz or a Stephen King. Very few trad published authors ever earn out their advances, and the advances themselves are getting smaller.


But it’s not all doom and gloom. A traditional publisher still offers you the editing, the marketing and the artwork while picking up the tab, and it also offers you the oxygen of newspaper and TV publicity, and that can make a huge difference to an author’s career. And every year, a few lucky authors are offered six and seven figure advances which can change their lives. The conditions might be tougher than they were thirty or forty years ago, but the pot of gold is still there, and a wider cross section of society has a chance to reach for it.

 

I’ll end by saying this. I believe that self-publishing has brought with it opportunities for many writers who previously might not have had a chance to be published. Its advent has also helped push traditional publishing to question its own practices and to dispense with its comfortable, ‘old-boy’ ways. For the ‘haves’ it’s made things harder, and for the ‘have-nots’, it’s given them a chance. It’s still bloody difficult to make it as a full time writer, but for the majority of people, the opportunity to try has never been greater.