Thursday, March 31, 2011

Market your book with QR code

QR (quick read) code is 2-D code that you scan with a QR reader app on your smartphone, which then takes you automatically to more info: a website, calendar, text, music, photos, timetable, PDF--almost anything. The app is free. (I use QR Reader on an iTouch) And it's easy: download the app, point your device's camera at the nifty graphic, and get whisked to the Land of More.

If you have a book about to hit the shelves (physical or virtual), why not plaster everything within reach with a variety of these codes? You can make then almost any size. (I've gone large because, hey, why not?)

For example, here's this, which takes you to a buy link for my novel, The Blue Place:

This one takes you to an mp3 of me reading the beginning of the same book:

And this one will go to some quotes about the book's main character, Aud Torvingen. (Perhaps at some point I'll find a generator that allows more text; that last quote is from The Advocate).

To generate QR code for free, use this (or something similar; I'm sure there are many). It's really easy, and the code graphic comes in several sizes, which you can then expand or shrink. Use a tiny one for your business card. A huge one on a t-shirt. Put them on ticket stubs, posters, print ads, letterhead, receipts, a mug, the side of your car, stickers on the back of a bathroom door--along with whatever text or images you think might intrigue potential readers.

What are you waiting for?

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Learning about trees

While I was writing the first draft of Hild I did my very best to make sure I didn't contravene what was known to be known. Given the peripatetic nature of the royal court, this meant I had to know a lot about many different places. (Wolds, rich farmland, rocky seacoasts, high moorland; isolated farms; busy ports...) Given the turbulent nature of the times, technology, fashion, and mores changes constantly.

This care applied to language, technology, culture, fashion, and nature. So, for example, I wouldn't have anyone in York (though it wasn't called York then) writing anything until Æthelburg arrived with Paulinus, James the Deacon, and others. No one there spoke Latin--though Hild most probably would have encountered varieties of that language when in more British parts of the country (where Christian priests could still occasionally be found). In some parts of the country there was primitive coinage from fledgling mints; in most others, not; in still others, old and exotic coins were strung and used as jewellery. Most of the country didn't use ploughs. Riders didn't use stirrups (no charging at the enemy; you'd just fall off). Their attitudes to dogs would depend on their position in society.

To my surprise, the thing I've found hardest to keep track of is trees. I waxed lyrical about sycamores in a couple of places, felt pleased when I figured out dairymaids would use sycamore for milk buckets because it wouldn't leave an aftertaste in the milk--only to discover that sycamore is a neophyte: it wasn't introduced to Britain until Hild was many hundreds of years dead. So, huh, okay, I thought, I'll use maple. But UK maples are little, nothing like massive sycamores, nothing like the broad-leaved maples of the US. So then I thought, alright, how about horse chestnuts. Ooops. Nope, also neophytes--and even more recent. Then, dammit, sweet chestnuts. Except those were introduced by the Romans, and so wouldn't be ubiquitous.

I know of a zillion different trees I could put in instead, if I just want a big tree. But none of them have the kind of leaves I wanted. All those lyrical passages about leaves like hands? Gone. Phht. Sigh.

Did you know that in a crowded forest, during a storm the trees most likely to fall are the ones in the middle, while the ones at the edge almost invariably stay standing? That's because crowded trees have smaller root plates. Trees alone in a field, or at the edge of a wood, grow roots that go on for days, because they can. And that kind of tree can take a huge amount of root abuse--you can hack off more than half the roots and it'll be just fine.

Trees, basically, can survive almost anything, given time.

I just thought you might like to know all that.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Hard SF and Soft, or Girls v. Boys

Because my brain is full of Hild. Because you're probably sick of hearing me talk about that. Because I was reminded of this in the comments of another post. Because, hey, it's my blog and I can do what I want (including ignoring all the rules of grammar)...

...here's the repost of a squib that first appeared in the Science Fiction Studies symposium: Sexuality in Science Fiction, edited by Rob Latham. (It's meant to be short; it's meant to be polemical; those were two of the editorial requirements.) Enjoy.

Hard Takes Soft, Still

SF as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.

When SF does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. SF still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body.”) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorization as soft SF.

In this regard, the world-view of the SF Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauôr (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive; soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is privileged critically.

For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an SF novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.

Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??

Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)

This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard SF. The Old Guard still rules.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dr Who

Oooh, Dr Who Season 6 (or maybe Season 32 is you're an old-timer like me) is coming...

Starts April 23. Not long after, y'know, that other series I've been waiting for. I so have to figure out this premium cable thing.

ETA: Okay, I just caved. We've added HBO and Starz (for Torchwood). Still pondering the BBC America thing.

Another ETA: Aha! It turns out that Camelot starts on Starz on April 1st. I'm officially a happy camper.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Look! Real blossom! Growing things!

The other day, when I said The alders are doing that feathery thing, a couple of people asked what I meant. I mean this:

The leaves won't be out for a while.

Meanwhile, in the ravine everything has sprouted. Sadly, my camera was so overcome by the shock of actual sunshine that it freaked out. Hence the practically useless pic below, which I'm including anyway because it's, y'know, pink:

While we were away, our fence was completed. Here's a bit of it:

I miss the lilac and most of the curly willow, the huge hedge with the fabulous vines twined in it, but, eh, a fence is better than looking into the neighbour's bathroom at night. (Trust me on this.) And soon we'll train some nifty native vines to climb all over everything and flower.

And finally here's the gratutitous perb shot: I think (I hope) the thyme is about to burst forth. The chives are already going wild and crazy (and taste fabulous--I don't think I'll ever eat eggs again without chives).

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Friday, March 25, 2011

My novels in French

From: Eve Derrien

Bonjour!

I hope that your books (all of them) will be one day published in French. I'm waiting for Always, of course, but I'd like to read your others novels. (Why aren't Ammonite and Slow River already available in France, when their prices should have designed them to the editors' attention?)

Please help your French public ... It's a long time to wait for good books.

Respectueusement, ED

Bonjour, Eve. I honestly haven't the faintest idea why Slow River and Ammonite have never been published in France (or any other French-speaking country). Those two are my most widely translated novels (ten or eleven languages between them). I know that the agent who handles my foreign rights submitted them to a variety of publishers, but for whatever reason, back in the nineties, none of them deemed the books suitable for their market.

As for Always: I've just completed a deal to bring the foreign rights for all three Aud novels under one roof. Now that this is sorted, I'm hoping they can be published more widely, as a package, in other countries. What that means specifically for Always in France I can't begin to guess. Yet. (The ink is still drying on the letter of agreement.)

For now all I can say is: I'm mid-stream in many changes to my career. I hope to have some news on all that in a month or two. Then we can get all this mess sorted out and books into the hands of those who actually want to read them!

Meanwhile, I know that a couple of my short stories have been translated into French. For example "Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese," in Century XXI (edited by Sylvie Denis & Francis Valery) Encrage, 1995. I hope that will help.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where the deer are different

We've just spent a few days on Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands bang in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (It's the wee green splot right above the 'e' in Puget Sound--you can make the image bigger by clicking on it):

Someone very kindly lent us their house for a week. A beautiful place, nothing but peace and privacy. This is the view from the living room at dusk the day we arrived:

I can't remember the last time I did nothing for so many days in a row: no writing, no socialising, no communication with anyone but Kelley (and a bookseller and a barista in the one little village at the other end of the island). Best of all, no plane ride to get there, just a pleasant drive, then a ferry ride, then a very short drive (it's a small island). All I did was...nothing. You saw the books I planned to take with me. Well, I ending up reading only two, and one of them was something I picked up on the island at Islehaven Books & Borzoi, a fine little bookshop. Phyllis, the owner, gave me some great recommendations. I bought a zillion books, one of which, One Small Step, by P.B. Kerr, I read in about three hours. It's set in the 60s, in Texas, and is the story of 13-year-old Scott (Dad is an Air Force major) who gets recruited for a secret mission to the moon: commanding two chimps for a moon landing. Sounds ridiculous, and I suppose it is, if you take a minute to think about it, but it worked. And it's simple, straightforward, and uncomplicated.

The whole time on the island was like that: unexpected and uncomplicated. It was a delight to not plan ahead, to just wander outside and poke things in the grass with a stick, or pick them up and ponder them: worms, flowers, a bumblebee, a bird skull...

...then come inside, built a fire, drink wine. Every now and again I'd wander outside again and just...be. Just breathe the scent of pine and wild grass, the sea, the sky. The only sound was birds (including a woodpecker in the wood on the other side of the bay, and bees, and bats) and wind and the slish-slush of surf on the beach. We were the only people for miles.

I fell in love with one particular wind-thrawn tree just beyond the patio. But every time I remembered to try take a picture of it, it was getting dark. And in the spirit of plain island living, I couldn't be bothered to futz with it to make it brighter.


We saw lots of wildlife, from the humble (lots of earthworms--not something I'm used to here in Seattle, where I spend most of my outside time on decking; fascinating to watch them do that oozing telescope thing to move along) to the sublime (eagles). We had many visits, I mean right there, from what I think was a Northern Harrier, following the contours of the bluff in search of prey (quail?), and from deer. Lots of deer. Eerie deer. Deer with glowing eyes. (Just the flash bouncing back, you say? Look at the colour of the sky. I expect that's what deer from hell would want you to think...)

The bird I saw the most of, though, was a viciously territorial robin. I watched it drive off a variety of more cheerful birds. It spent the whole time looking severely stressed out. I almost felt sorry for it. Islands are like that: they dial everything down to Mellow. Lovely.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'm back

I'm back, refreshed and renewed.

But, wow, I go away for a few days and when I get back everything's changed. The sky is bright blue and the whole neighbourhood drenched in sunshine. The dogwoods have sprouted pink and white blossom and the alders are doing that feathery thing. Chow Mane is begging with renewed vigour. And indie writers are signing with Big Six publishers while Big Six authors go indie. It's a wild world. But, hey, the birds still sing, I still like beer, and books still require a writer to put one word in front of another--and readers to read them. So clearly my absence hasn't really been that earth-shattering.

I'll tell you all about where I've been soon. Maybe tomorrow. Until then, here's a clue: it didn't involve a plane.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

A break

Starting today I'm taking a few days away from the internets. Call it a digital detox, a communications cleanse, or, y'know, just a plain old-fashioned break. I'll be back next week. Have fun. Get out in the fresh air.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What I'm reading next

Today Kelley brought home the best haul from the library in an age. I'm itching to get stuck into this pile of reading:

  • Human Chain, Seamus Heaney (I can't remember the last time I read some good poetry.)
  • A Taste For Death, Peter O'Donnell (Why is it so hard to find the Modesty Blaise books? I want to own these, but the only place I could find it was the library.)
  • On Writing, Stephen King (I don't normally read this kind of thing but I've heard such good things about it I think it's time to gracefully give in.)
  • The World of Trees, Hugh Johnson (Ooh, big luscious pictures of trees.)
  • The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, Sonia Shah (Because, y'know, disease is interesting.)

Also on my TBR pile:

  • Woodlands, Oliver Rackham (Just started this: excellent analysis of how woodland works. Also not a library book; I just couldn't resist it.)
  • Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay (Read the sample chapter on Kindle, fell in love, and begged for a free copy from the publisher--it's on its way. Read something about it here.)
  • Queen of Kings, Maria Dahvana Headley (An advance reading copy. Which, again, I begged for--because, hey, monsters, witches, battles, magic, Cleopatra...)

The eagle-eyed among you will see a movie in the spread: Star Trek. After reading poetry, woodland analysis, and all about Plasmodium falciparum, this will, I think, be a nice change of pace. (Here's my review from opening day).

Anything you're looking forward to reading?

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This, right here, is what publishing needs to fix

(Thanks, Lisa)

Look at this: my novels for sale at iBooks.

Ammonite (1993): $11.99
Slow River (1995): $11.99
The Blue Place (1998): $9.99
Stay (2002): $9.99
Always (2007): $12.99

If there's a better way to show the lack of sense in ebook pricing, I don't know what it might be.

But it's not just the prices that are thoroughly confusing. Look at how each book is characterised:

Ammonite: 'Sci-Fi & Fantasy: Adventure'
Slow River: 'Fiction & Literature'
The Blue Place: 'Gay'
Stay: 'Hard-Boiled'
Always: 'Literary'

I can't make this make sense. Ammonite and Slow River are from the same publisher. They're both well-written science fiction with lesbian characters. Both have adventure (and sex). Both have extrapolative science. Both are novels of character. So why is one 'literature' and the other 'adventure'? How would you classify them?

The really mind-boggling bit, though, is the variety of description for The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. Three novels about the same character, Aud. Yet one is 'gay' (Aud is not a man, for those who are confused), one is 'hard-boiled' and one 'literary'. One day I'll get all the rights back and republish as 'Literature & Lesbian: series crime fiction' or somesuch. How would you describe them?

What's the most ridiculous book tag/description you've seen to date?

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Ebook pricing

Two different publishers lost sales to me last night because of price.

I had happily read on my Kindle long and juicy samples of two novels (I use the term loosely) of the sort I used to borrow from the library: single-use, disposable, mildly-pleasurable but B-level fare. For convenience-sake, last night I was ready to pay actual money. But then I saw the price: $12.99. That's too much for a single-use book. Eight dollars or less would have guaranteed a sale to me. $9.99 would have made me think about it. But $13 was an automatic no.

Related to this is the story of Ammonite and Slow River, in print since 1993 and 1995 respectively. For most of their ebook life, they were priced under $10. They sold steadily though not spectacularly. Then Randomhouse joined the rest of the Big Six and went to agency pricing (a setup in which the retailer, in this case Amazon, is forced to sell the book at the price set by the publisher; no discounting allowed).

Both books are now priced at $11.99. That's more than the paperback. $11.99 for a book that is old enough to vote. $11.99 for another old enough to marry.

Sales have dipped--though they haven't plunged, which is interesting. I'm trying to work out what this means for me, money-wise. Given the antediluvian accounting methods of trade publishing, it'll be about a year before I get royalties based on last month's sales If sales dip only mildly, I'll make about the same as before. (I have an excellent royalty rate from RH, based on list price. I wish I could say the same for my more recent contracts. But that's another conversation.)

My hope is that RH starts to experiment with price. I hope they let the resulting data drive their decisions. My guess is that, to date, most publishers have been responding from indignation and fear rather than data. However, given the clear (clear, finally, to even the most recalcitrant publishers) trend towards ebooks, my hope is that this is changing. (You might find Mike Shatzkin's latest post interesting--and, hey, he quotes my good friend Dave Slusher.)

As I've said, until I get my royalty statements I won't know what kind of impact this is having on my income. Meanwhile, I thought I'd pick your brains.

What kind of prices are you willing to pay for what kind of books? Are you like me, in that perceived quality is something you factor in? Is convenience the biggest driver in your decision? How do you make your choice about when and how and where to spend your precious book money?

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Niftyness

So I was footling about on the LLF website (I like to go admire Kelley's interview every so often--my sweetie!) and came across some of the original badges. I've always liked this one, and thought you might, too:

Earlier today, our ex-neighbours Kurt and Elbereth (they moved last year, huh) dropped by for a visit. It was lovely to see them. Kurt's been spending more time with his music, so I went to listen. He was SoundClouder of the day recently. Here, listen to some of it for yourself: delicious ambient music, beautifully produced, guaranteed to lower your blood pressure.

Kurt Lorenz - Filament by kurtlorenz

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rain rain rain

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8 lesbian and bisexual writers you should know

Another list--but I'm actually on this one. From the perspicacious people at eurOut.org:

Lists Are Hot: 8 lesbian and bisexual authors you should know

I've always been an avid reader, reading pretty much anything and everything in the fiction category. I prefer good books (well-written, with a good story) above anything else, but of course I appreciate if the novels are more relatable, especially if it involves a queer storyline or the novel is written by a queer author. Here are eight lesbian and bisexual authors you might like to check out.

These are by no means the best, although they are all great writers, but I tried to make a selection based on the kind of novels they write. I'm just a book lover, not an expert, so don't bite my head off if I might have gotten some of the genres wrong. It's just intended to give you a general idea of the sort of novels each author writes.

So, hey, my weekend is off to a good start. Next up: formatting Hild to read on my Kindle.

You?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Fab chart (but where are all the women?)

Oooh, look at this:

Full size here.

It's pretty cool. But where are all the women? Where's the feminist SF? I admit I'm extraordinarily bad at picking out details from this kind of dense information presentation, but on first pass some giants of the field I didn't see: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, C. L. Moore, Joanna Russ, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffery, Vonda McIntyre, Suzy Charnas, Elizabeth Lynn, Gwyneth Jones.

Who else?

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Kelley is interviewed on LambdaLiterary.org

Three Four links for you today:

  • LambdaLiterary.org interviews Kelley. “'I’m fascinated by stories of identity, of choices and consequence and big feelings.' Novelist and short story writer Kelley Eskridge dishes about her reissued science fiction novel, Solitaire (Small Beer Press), what it’s like to live with another author (Nicola Griffith), and her ideal literary three-way."
  • Over at Sterling we have some nifty links for writers, especially Ann Crispin's thorough and useful look at online promotion.
  • The paperback of Always is on sale at Amazon.com. I mean really cheap. Wow. Why? I've no idea. (No idea, either, why the image at this link is so dark. It's not like that in reality.) But it's a bargain.
  • Interesting news (good news! nothing but good news) about one of my most favourite bookstores eva, Charis Books and More.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Really beginning to piss me off

The other day I finally watched The Social Network. Good film. More about that another time. What struck me was the Netflix jacket:

For those who can't read my blurry out-of-focus photo, it says:

Director David Fincher's biographical drama chronicles the meteoric rise of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) from Harvard sophomore to Internet superstar, examining his relationships with co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Winning Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director, the film also racked up Oscar nods in the same categories and for lead actor Eisenberg.

No mention of Aaron Sorkin. Who actually fucking won the Oscar. There again, hey, he's just the writer. Not important, right? This constant dismissal of the people who create the movies, who create the books, who create the TV shows, is beginning to really piss me off.

That's all.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ammonite and Janes Plane

Yesterday was International Women's Day. Which also happens to be the anniversary of the very first performance of my long-ago band, Janes Plane. I wrote about the band and how it formed in my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Here's that chunk again, with links to the music.

JANES PLANE

One January day in 1981--actually a kind of glimmering twilight in the north of England, at that time of year--staring at the stains on the bathroom wall as I washed my hands with stone cold water, I realised that this was my life. It wasn't just a break from reality, or a mistake, or a holiday. It was real. I had no money, no job, no skills; no electricity, no phone, no tv; no respect; not even the coins to make a phone call or feed the machines in a laundromat. This was it, the sum total of my life so far: nothing.

It was a very ugly feeling. Something would have to change.

Carol got a job as the warden and unofficial liaison officer for the Springbank Community Centre. I got a temporary job, as something Hull City Council called a "tree technician" but which was essentially labouring. In a hard hat and steel capped and sheathed boots I dug trenches and surveyed in parks and graveyards. Back to the shovel and pickaxe life of the archaelogical dig, except it was in the freezing rain and mud. Me, a female supervisor called Maggie, and five men. We moved from green space to green space, cataloguing trees, planting shrubs and saplings and hedges. Got flirted at by gum-snapping schoolgirls. In my hard hat and rain gear, they didn't know I was a girl, at first. "Give us a kiss," they'd say. "Okay," I'd say, and take my hat off. Then they'd swallow their gum.

In some ways, it was a grim job: the brutal physical work, the cold, the nasty porn-riddled huts (and I mean nasty porn, the kind that makes you want to gag). In other ways, I was deliriously happy. I loved digging, the cut of steel through dirt. I loved trees. I loved helping things grow. And the conversation as we dug was mind-bending: sex, religion, politics, life, philosophy. Serious conversation, thoughtful and deep, though not steeped in formal learning. These men were as fascinated by having a woman work beside them as I was about living in their world. And, wow, I got paid, a lot.

Every now and again I got a telegram from Leeds about some family emergency and I'd have to leap on a train and go home. Helena ran away to London, with her girlfriend Haydee, where they set up house in a Brixton squat with a bunch of drug addicts. I went down to see if I could get her back. Compared to her situation, I was living in paradise. Gaping holes in the floor, no electricity at all. Cooking and heating with raw flame from a tapped city gas line. Surprisingly good food--because they stole it. Lots of drugs. I walked with Helena through the Brixton streets, and she was a stranger to me. Of course, our conversation wasn't helped by the fact that twice armoured troop carriers stuffed with testosterone-pumped Special Patrol Group officers screeched to a halt, and we were thrown bodily against the wall. Brixon was fulminating. About two months later--by which time Helena was safely back in Leeds--the place went up in riots.

Carolyn tried to kill herself again. She was dying. I took the train to Leeds. She recovered. I went back to Hull. Helena tried to kill herself; I went back to Leeds, then back to Hull.

Carolyn tried again. Dad also did something horrible to his back. They were in separate wards of the same hospital. The doctors deemed it unwise for either to know the other was ill. I'd be by one bedside, chatting in that bright desperate way one uses in sick rooms, then say, "Gosh, just nipping out for coffee and a cigarette," and zip off to the other bedside.

They both recovered. Back to Hull.

I memorised the train timetable, and kept a packed bag with a change of clothes and enough money for a return ticket by the door. When the telegrams came I'd check my watch, judge whether there was time for a cup of tea, and be at the station before the next train to Leeds.

Carol and I moved into another shared house. Part of our rent was to help remodel and decorate the place. One of the owners had been Marianne Faithful's lover, an ex-heroin addict who seemed to be independently wealthy. One of our housemates was a psychiatric nurse. Real people with real lives and real jobs. Beginning with them, I began to build lasting links to the women's community: about two hundred women living at close quarters along Spring Bank and Princes Ave, a tiny pool of lesbian nationhood in a violently homophobic city. Like any ghetto facing extreme stress, the community was full of bickering, poverty, solidarity, and political action. We had sex with each other (non-monogamy was de riguer) and knew each other's business. Those in funds bought the others drugs or food because they knew sooner or later the wheel would turn--lesbians got fired all the time--and they'd need help. Later, as we got the hang of community, we built an overlapping framework of formal and semi-formal support networks: Lesbian Line, the Women's Centre, the lesbian disco, a party circuit, and so on. We raised funds for a variety of non-lesbian political funds, too: anti-apartheid, national abortion league, Rape Crisis. Some of these community networks and counselling organisations and political action groups still survive. Most were ephemeral: we raised the money, we spent it on what the community needed, we moved on to the next thing.

me and Carol, really wasted on mushrooms, 1981

Carol and I went to the very first National Lesbian Conference in 1981, in London. After the plenary sesson (plenary, an addition to my vocabulary--though in the following years I would become fluent in meeting-speak), we got stoned; then, just for good measure, dropped two dozen mushrooms each. A thousand pumped and righteous dykes were working themselves into a political frenzy, which at the time involved shouting matches about who was more oppressed than whom. Carol started freaking out. I took her to one side, sheltered her in my arms, and a woman came up and started talking. I got concerned, then I got cross, then she took our photo: somehow Carol looks happy and carefree while I was worrying myself to a nub.

Back in Hull, I got sick again: inexplicable dizziness and breathlessness and muscle aches. The doctor told me I was having a nervous breakdown. I knew I wasn't, but I didn't know what the matter was*. It was bad enough to force me to leave my job. As soon as I wasn't working, I felt better. Perhaps I was allergic to work. That was the community opinion, and I wasn't sure they were wrong.

I heard that some women were thinking of starting a band. "You should do that," Carol said.

"Perhaps I should," I said.

At the audition (at the women's centre, a rickety little house bought and repainted by the community), I picked up the microphone. "How long is the lead?" I said.

"Twenty feet."

I tapped it. Miraculously, that day the electricity was working. "Great. I'll be next door." I walked into the next room, and shouted, "Ready anytime." I felt ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as if I'd tried to sing with them looking at me.

They played something. From my own special room I sang along, improvising. They liked it. I was in. Carol also seemed to be in, as a percussionist--which meant whanging on whatever was to hand with a spare drum stick, and pogoing up and down in exuberance.

The drummer was called Jane. She was an art student, a complete drumming beginner, but she owned her own kit so she was in. The lead guitarist was also called Jane. She'd been in a band before. Her girlfriend was Heidi, a drama student. Carol and I and Jane and Heidi became very good friends. The bassist, Lou--mother of a two-year-old, Christa--was currently in another successful indie band. There was a rhythm guitarist to begin with, too, but I forget her name; she left not long after I joined.

Carol and I moved again, this time to a nice house on Albany Street with central heating (and a phone, and a TV) and real curtains on the windows, and light switches that worked. It was owned by four women, three of whom had moved to Leeds. One, Jan G, still lived there.

Jane the guitarist also moved in. Jane the drummer set her kit up in the dining room, which became the rehearsal room. I bought my own microphone. We jammed the melodies, I'd go off and write lyrics, and then we hammered out the songs. (Photo: the band rehearing about February. From left to right: Carol, me, Lou, and Jane. The other Jane was stuck inside with her drums.) After five or six months we'd accumulated enough for a set, but didn't perform.

I began to brim with words.

We set up our first gig: the International Women's Day celebration at Springbank Community Centre. We would open for a more established women's band from York.

We were all tense. We would be debuting in front of three hundred of our friends and peers on the biggest day of the year. Do or die.

Stress and sex seemed to go together in the Hull women's community. Heidi had sex with Carol (that night, Jane and I got companionably stoned). Then Helena, on one of her visits, met Heidi, and they took up with each other. Jane seduced Lou. I had sex with a sweet young drama student and the Polish woman next door and a few other people.

For our Janes Plane Saturday night debut, and also to see Heidi, Helena came to Hull. She arrived on Friday, bearing some Nepalese Temple Ball to soothe my nerves.

On the night of the International Women's Day celebration, we climbed on stage--I was past the stage of being pushed--Jane shouted, "Two, three, four!" and brought down her sticks--and my life changed, again.

Between one heartbeat and the next, my performance anxiety changed to performance thrill. I could smell it, literally, smell them, the crowd, the pheremonal explosion waiting to happen--and then I pushed them over the edge.

This was what I'd been aiming for when I banged the dustbin lids together at dawn when I was four years old. This is why at fifteen I'd dressed up like a dog's dinner and stood on stage pretending to be a Japanese schoolgirl.

I opened my mouth and sang and felt that I was lighting the sky, building the universe, challenging the gods. The crowd went insane. The band went insane. I knew what it might feel like to own the world.

I decided that night that I would never stop performing. It's a version of this feedback that I ride everytime I stand up in a bookshop to read to an audience.

You can listen to four Janes Plane tracks on the CD and a couple of them aren't bad, but we were better live, where we offered our hearts and the audience offered theirs back.

Three of the songs on the CD are from the earliest days and were played that first night: "Bare Hands," "Nightdrive," and "Reclaim the Night."

"Bare Hands" is all about Hull. In the late seventies and early eighties, the inner city was the urban equivalent of a blasted heath. The good people always left; only the hopeless stayed. I knew it could be a decent place if people would allow themselves to imagine the possibility.

"Nightdrive" is, I think, the only thing I've ever written that is about the joy of machinery. I never really liked the song, never really believed it (I didn't drive, knew no one with a car), but the audience liked to dance to it and it was difficult to fuck up.

"Reclaim the Night" was our anthem. Writing it taught me of the perils of point-of-view. Lots and lots of women hated the beginning of that song, because it delves into the mind of a potential rapist and we see the target as just that, a target, a victim, and not as a human being. It was politically naïve. I hadn't realised how powerfully a perspective change could influence an audience's attitude--could alter the emotional meaning.

"Vondel Park" comes from my experience in Amsterdam. In Vondel Park, after smoking that red leb for hours on a two-days-empty stomach, I hallucinated herds of wild horses, and a fifty-foot tall Mr Bertie (an advertising icon made of a candy called Liquorice Allsorts) striding across the fields. And then all the pretty pictures eeled away like smoke and I was in the park, with a bunch of hippies playing guitar, saying "Wow," and getting stoned.

On the tape you hear that I flubbed some of the lyrics. I was always doing this, always forgetting the words.

This week is also the anniversary of the first publication of Ammonite in 1993. The book is old enough to vote. Whoa. Sometimes I just don't know what else to say. Just...whoa!



* My first experience with MS. Which I was diagnosed with the month Ammonite was published. March 1993--a big month. Sigh.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lesbian lit power couples

Yesterday I saw that Flavorwire had posted a list of 10 Real-Life Literary Power Couples. There were no lesbians. So I tweeted about that. And decided to start a list here to include some of the suggestions I got, both present-day and historical.

Note: I'm using the terms lesbian, lit, couple, power and even historical loosely. Though, okay, 'couple' means they probably had (or, hey, are still having) sex with each other, and 'lit' means they were or are writer, publisher, editor, critic, translator, distributor, agent and/or founder of some importance and influence.

  • Margurite Yourcenar and Grace Frick
  • Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy
  • Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields
  • Val McDermid and Kelly Smith
  • Barbara Grier and Donna McBride
  • Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner
  • Sappho and Atthis
  • Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg
  • Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney
  • Victoria Brownworth and Judith Redding
  • Ann Godoff and Annik LaFarge
  • Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf
  • Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
  • Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett
  • Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein
  • Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh
  • Rita Mae Brown and Fannie Flagg
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett and Margaret Jourdain
  • Patricia Highsmith and Marijane Meaker
  • Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith
  • Gloria Anzaldúa and Cheríe Moraga
  • Alice Walker and Tracy Chapman
  • Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff
  • H.D. and Bryher
  • Anne-Marie MacDonald and Alisa Palmer
  • Marie-Claire Blaise and Mary Meigs
  • Amy Bloom and Joy Johannessen
  • Emma Donoghue and Chris Roulston
  • Susie Orbach and Jeanette Winterson
  • Charlotte Mendelson and Joanna Briscoe
  • Louise Fitzhugh and Sandra Scoppettone
  • Tanya Huff and Fiona Patton
  • Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner

Thanks to @RonHogan, @karolnielson @Bluestalking @timothypower67 @cd_coleman @kelleyeskridge @kellyoyo @klytaemnestra @BeMissH @ktirah @Julia_Watcon @syntactics @The_Nomad_Motel @cecilseaskull and others.

So, as I've said, this is just a start. Make suggestions (here in the comments or Facebook or Twitter) and I'll add.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Latest report on Hild

I'm nearly two-thirds of the way through reading Hild. Parts of it most definitely rock the thunderdome. Parts of it, well, let's just say I took many wrong turns.

For example, I spent a couple of hundred pages using Hild's mixed feelings of adopting a dog to reflect her essential loneliness. But for a variety of reasons, historical and character-driven, it just doesn't work. So the dog is something I'll have to patiently unpick from the overall weave. Then there are several mini-arcs in which I test various notions of point-of-view. In the rewrite I'll have to settle on one method, which means the arcs designed to test the others will have to go. Some of the seventh century politics are just too bloody complicated for the general reader. (Why should most of you care about all the different Fiachnes, petty kings in Ireland who murder each other, even if the sons of Hild's uncle's enemy are involved? See, your eyes are already glazing over...) I think it's interesting--I've had a blast working out how the politics of the whole isle are connected over the course of two or three centures--but I really don't need it, not all of it--and there's a lot, those people were scheming--to tell the story of Hild.

However, I'm reaching the point where many things were becoming clear to me, in terms of plot, characterisation, setting, technique, comic relief, relationships and so forth, and it's around this mark that I wrote a very detailed outline for the rest of the book. So there shouldn't be too many more sidetrails.

Also, pretty soon Hild starts having sex. Which will definitely, ah, perk things up.

Meanwhile, it's pretty interesting watching her grow up, watching how what she notices around her reflects her development as a human being. (Also interesting, but less fun, watching myself get it spectacularly wrong here and there. Tuh.) But every now and again I read something I'd forgotten writing and I giggle (that is, I smile sternly and with a certain mature detachment), or a I gasp, or gag. In other words, every now and again I totally, absolutely rock the writing thunderdome!

It's also been interesting watching myself play with technique. One whole page, for example, consists of just three sentences: one of 11 lines, one of 4, and one of 9. (I've talked before about experimenting with sentence-length.)

Anyway, by this time tomorrow I should be done with the first read through and have a preliminary understanding of the work ahead.

Then maybe I'll post something involving fresh air...

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Coupla pictures for Sunday

I've started to read Hild now. I have to say (modesty is not in my DNA) the first hundred pages rock the thunderdome!

But it means I'm going to be erratic and eccentric again. Here, to keep you amused, are two pictures. One is of the contents of the box I showed you the other day:

You'll see it hasn't even been opened yet. This is because I have heroic self control. (And because vertigo doesn't play nicely with fuming, aromatic, and very definitely intoxicating fine Armagnac.)

And then there's the kerbs, because it occurred to me that you hadn't seen how the front row are beginning to recover from their accident a while back:

They're not nearly as lush as they were, but they're being very brave. And tasty--because we keep just munching them up.

Tomorrow, perhaps more news of Hild, and what Carkeek park is like lately. I hope your weekend is proving as fine as mine.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Two things that made me laugh out loud this week

Lots of things make me laugh: slapstick humour, sly witticisms, people being exactly themselves, sudden joy, and sheer pleasure. (FYI, being tickled doesn't make me laugh, it gives me the urge to punch you in the mouth. Just to be clear.)

Today I want to tell you about two things of the many things that made me laugh out loud this week. The first was delivery of a lovely vintage bottle of Armagnac (Larressingle X.O. if you must know). The Armagnac itself, of course, is delicious enough to make anyone grin, but it was the box it came in, more particularly the FedEx stickers, that really struck me as absurd.

I've seen these stickers many times before, but for some reason the sheer absurdity of the thing really struck me this time. Note to FedEx: it's alcohol. The point is some level of intoxication. Also, I was reeling with vertigo when I took delivery. The whole thing just made me chortle.

The second thing was a gift, wholly unexpected. And anonymous (though it didn't take more than a minute to work out who sent it). It was the beginning of a screenplay called The Blue Place. I was utterly delighted to see someone else's vision of Aud as a screen character. I haven't read more than a couple of pages yet (see vertigo, above) but I know it will be enormous fun and it's already warmed the cockles of my heart that someone took the time and care to do that.

So today I'm feeling so lucky I can hardly stand it. Except, of course, somehow, womanfully, I do...

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

You can't game the system

Over the last couple of months or so I've chatted with, advised, and/or agreed to provide references for a whole slew of people who are applying for things: grants, scholarships, jobs, prizes, contracts, and more. It's gradually become clear to me that a lot of people out there believe in superstitious behaviour and magical thinking: that if they just talk to the right person, if they just use the right code words in their application, if they could just use the right bio then they'd be accepted, over the threshhold, in with the in-crowd.

Life's not like that. Sending this story instead of that won't get you the grant. Going to this conference instead of that won't make you best friends with the CEO (or editor, or grantor) who will change your life.

That is, it might. But only if you're ready. Only if you've done the work. Only if you're good enough. Getting a job, winning a grant or selling a novel to a particular imprint doesn't make you a great writer. It makes you someone who got a job, won a grant or got published by a particular imprint. The only thing that makes you a great writer/leader/barista is, well, being a great writer/leader/barista.

There is no silver bullet, secret decoder ring, no funny handshake that will give you entree to a reality where you're a great writer/leader/barista. Not for the long term. There's only talent, hard work, and relationships. (Also--the joker in the pack--luck. Though most luck, in my opinion, is an opportunity well taken.) If you write the kind of stuff that will one day win an NEA award, then one day you'll win an NEA award--it doesn't matter which part of the novel, precisely, you submit or whether it's been edited/blessed by someone famous. Your work will either appeal to the panelists or it won't. (Full disclosure: mine never has. Why? Haven't a clue. We're just not a fit. Why? Well, that's one of the great mysteries of the universe. Though, of course, they are so WRONG!)

So don't stress about the unnecessary details. Just do your best. Constantly. Stop trying to game the system. Put your time and energy into the actual work. And good luck.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kiss my ring

This morning I talked about a podcast I listened to yesterday. I've just remembered something else that came up: writers don't have much control in Big Publishing.

Which make me think of the Oscars. And makes me mad. Aaron Sorkin, winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, got played off the stage. None of the actors did. Nor the director. And three producers got to talk about their Best Picture win. Three. Of the above-the-line talent, only writers get drowned out and thrown off.

Writers get no respect. You want another example? Only one (1) of the actors thanked their writer. One. (Go Colin.)

So, I am pissed. Hollywood: your movies wouldn't exist without writers. Publishers: your books spring from our imagination. Writers: It all begins with us. They need us. They should kiss our fucking rings. Every day. Without us they are nothing. Without us they couldn't even get started. So stand up straight. Take up space. Don't be cowed.

That's all.

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Go listen: a good primer on current change in publishing

I don't listen to podcasts much because almost everything I do is writing- or reading-related and listening interferes with that. But yesterday, while unable to read, I listed to the SF Signal podcast on bookselling. (Via Cheryl Morgan.)

The panelists, Cat Valente, Chris Roberson, Allison Baker, Alan Beatts (plus moderator Patrick Hester), discussed the fallout for the bookselling ecosystem of the restructuring of Borders. They're all smart and well-informed, and between them cover a variety of perspectives. So it turns out to be a pretty good primer on how bookselling works these days. So for those who have never really understood the ins and outs of the (complicated and deeply fucked-up) business, go listen. (You only really need the first 40 minutes.)

However, you'll be shocked to learn that I'm not in complete agreement with the concensus.

  • I believe we've passed the point where we can talk about a monolithic publishing industry (if we ever could). Over the last decade 'publishing' has morphed to encompass a variety of models. It's a whole new ecosystem. Cooperatives. Small e-only publishers. A changing role for agents. Independent editors, book designers, and developers turning the reviled (by many) 'self-publishing' niche into a new, better, stronger animal call 'indy publishing'.
  • Epublishing is already driving paper publishing decisions. We've passed that tipping point.
  • Cat Valente mentioned the inherent unfairness of a world where only rich people could read ebooks. (I'm paraphrasing wildly. Cat, if I've got it wrong, my apologies.) But my guess is that within a year the Kindle, and similar e-ink readers, could be functionally free.
  • The role of communities such as Goodreads, Library Thing, ad hoc blog and Twitter communities, genre sites (corporate, such as Tor.com, and not, such as Dear Author) will grow and generate the kind of awareness (and then word-of-mouth) that used to be the purview of the broadsheets.
  • The Big Six trade publishers will go one of two ways:
  1. Assume a role more akin to Hollywood studios: buying finished product, tentpoles, blockbusters, while the smaller projects originate independently elsewhere.
  2. Finally understanding that their previous B2B stance (their customers being wholesalers, resellers, distributors) has to change to B2C, that is, dealing directly with the reader-as-customer.
  • It may well be that some will pick one way, some another, and one or two try both. I don't know. But if I had to bet I'd say 'both'. I think we'll know more in a year or so.
  • Allison Baker sounded smart, in terms of economic Darwinism and forced efficiencies in the business--and yet I'm always wary of treating the market (and book buying and selling is just that) as a rational system.

In the end, I think the truest thing said was by Alan Beatts (who runs Borderlands, a fabulous bookshop in San Francisco). "How you spend your money is a vote." If you spend your money at Amazon.com (and many of us do, for many reasons), you're voting for the rise of Amazon's power and influence. If you spend your money at an independent, you're voting for the survival of that independent. As someone once said about politics, voters gets the government they deserve.

What kind of book ecosystem do you think we, as readers, deserve?

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Game of Thrones trailer!

I've just watched ten zillion wee freebie vids about Game of Thrones via the HBO app. And here's the new trailer. April is coming!

I should be back in Real Blogging mode soon. Just as soon as this mind-splitting headache goes away and the last of the vertigo evaporates.

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