Archive for September, 2009

Free Kids’ Book

September 30, 2009

Put the apostrophe where you think it goes.

D.C. Green is an Australian author who gives away a free e-book of one of his titles. You can have one. Free. Just like that. Go to here and click the download link.

Wasn’t hard, was it?

The PIR Debate and Saving Aussie Books

September 29, 2009

Following on from my previous post, you can chase up more stuff about the PIR debate in Australia here

The PIR Debate and the Dead Cat Poem

September 25, 2009

PIR. It stands for Parallel Import Restriction. The Dead Cat poem is another matter altogether.

PIR is used by the major English speaking nations to protect copyright in their own country. It means that a book published in that country has prime right to sales and the same book published in another country has to stay clear. The main users or PIRs on books are the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.

The effect of PIR is that if I write a book here in Australia, and it is published both here and in the US, the Australian booksellers can only sell the local version. US books are cheaper because of matters of scale – after all the US population is 300 million compared to 20 million for Australia. That makes the reader market fifteen times bigger, resulting in lower print costs.

Here in Australia the debate is hot and strong on whether the govt should scrap its PIR legislation. A coalition of three major retailers are for getting rid of it and are pushing the govt. Publishers and authors are against scrapping it.

The retailers say it will bring cheaper prices to the consumer because they will be able to sell cheaper US books instead of locally printed books. That’s an interesting comment from the ones who keep raising prices for groceries and petrol at the same time they are screwing down on the food suppliers and world oil prices are dropping. Last time I looked these companies were more concerned about a high share value than cheaper prices to consumers.

There is another factor in this debate. It’s about national identity. Australian authors write books on Australian life for the Australian market. Such books rarely sell into foreign markets without some serous revision. This is particularly true when it comes to the US market.

US spelling is different from Australian spelling. US idioms are different. US community norms are different. US life is different. And a book that makes sense in Australia will not carry well into the US. Most Australian books are changed for the American market. They suffer changes to spelling, to place names, to character names, to ethnic identities, to social mores, to plot themes, to behaviours regarding politeness, and such.

It is ironic that the country that floods the world with violent movies will clamp down on children’s picture books such that some publishers do not allow pictures of fathers kissing their children.

Oh yeah, just a reminder – I haven’t forgotten about the Dead Cat Poem. Be patient.

Jacki French is an iconic Australian children’s author. She has a wonderful book called The Diary of a Wombat. When it was taken to the US they wanted to change the wombat to an American animal. Jackie refused to allow it. They wanted to change the language so the wombat didn’t ‘demand’ carrots at the farmhouse door but politely asked for them, just as American kids should be trained to do. Jackie refused. Other editing scrubs were sought, Jackie refused them all. She stood her ground. The book became a hit in the US as it was in Australia.

Now imagine that those changes had been made. And an Australian bookseller had the choice of selling the local version or the US version. Suddenly there is an iconic Australian childrens book that has no bearing on Australian life at all.

Before we go to the Dead Cat poem, whatever that’s about, just one more thing. Peter Macinnis is an Australian science writer. When one of his books was transmogrified for the US market his reference to ‘the US Civil War’ was changed to ‘the Civil War’ – after all, everyone knows there was only ever one of those, don’t they? And his references to Paris were changed to ‘Paris, France.’ We wouldn’t want that one to get mixed up, would we?

And now we come to the Dead Cat Poem. But first we leave the US and head over to the UK.

Colin Thompson is an author / illustrator who was born in the UK but has lived in Australia for many years. He writes the most extraordinary children’s books. Chase up The Floods series. Chase up his delightful new picture book, Free To A Good Home. Chase up his books of wacky kids poems, mostly for grotty boys with titles like My Brother Drinks Out Of The Toilet, and The Dog’s Just Been Sick in the Honda. You can find those books here

One of those books of poems has been published in the UK. But the publisher didn’t like some of the poems. They were dangerous and might make little English children cry. So they published the book but left out five poems. One of those poems is about a dead cat. Not just any old dead cat. A dead cat that has been run over. Oh yeah, there are two dead cat poems. The other cat went to sleep in the washing machine. You can find those poems on Colin’s website. He pretty pissed off about them being left out of the UK book. Chase them up here

I’ve read lots of Colin’s poems. I think they are funny. I wish he was writing that stuff when I was a ten year old. They are mad, weird, and wacky. They make ten year old boys laugh out loud in class as they read them under their desk. Those boys get sent to the principal. He reads the books and laughs, but he has to obey the teacher and punish the boys. So he makes those boys stand in the corridor where they can read the poems and laugh in peace. Boys line the corridor outside the principals office every day. They go home in the afternoon and Dad says, “How was school today?” Those boys will say, “Wicked!” Dad will say, “They must have improved it since my day.”

That won’t happen in any UK or US school, I know it. But if I was principal of a school here in Australia that is exactly how I would handle it.

You know what I want to do? I want to write a book of poems for ten year old boys called, Poems About Snot and Other Stuff. It won’t sell in the US will it? I can tell that from here.

Anyway, this is a post about Parallel Import Restrictions. Keep them running! That’s what I say. Keep ‘em running hot and strong. This is the only country in the world where life makes sense. Let’s keep it that way.

Sweet, Sour, Hot, Salty

September 24, 2009

The four elements of Asian cooking, without a bit of each you are missing something. We know instinctively that they go together, but sometimes we don’t know it consciously. Sweet and Sour Pork? Everybody’s heard of it. Sour and salty? Why do we use salt and lemon on fried fish? The Mexicans even pair them up to drink. Hot and sweet? Chilli and chocolate, the perfect match. But the world of Asian cookery knows that a full menu requires the complete set.

It’s the same with writing. Something sweet, something sour, something hot, and a good dash of salt. Here’s my take on it.

Sweet and sour refer to characters. Mostly both are present in the one character. A well rounded character needs some inner conflict, otherwise the conflict has to come from outside, from another character with the other quality. We see the two extremes in Hamlet and Macbeth. But we already know that the whole of human experience is somehow wrapped up in the works of Shakespeare.

Hamlet is the sweet one. He’s so sweet he is useless. He knows he has to avenge his father’s murder, but he is taken up with Ophelia and walks into the mountains. He pussyfoots around trying to make his uncle feel guilty with a play by some traveling players instead of taking out his sword and running the evil man through. He needs a reality check. Actually, he needs a dose of sour to balance him up. His task of life, the killing of his uncle, only happens in the closing moments of the play because he watches his mother die from poison meant for him. In the end he avenges his mother instead of his father. Then he dies from the poison tipped sword and in his last breath he hands over his kingship to the enemy king in the next valley. That’s what you get from being sweet.

Macbeth, on the other hand is all sour. He is evil to the core and as the play progresses we see deeper levels of depravity in him. He shares with Hamlet the goal to take the crown. But Macbeth has no royal claim and is intent on taking it by sword and murder, even the murder of his once friend’s wife and children. He takes his sense of purpose from the three witches who have no right to call him to any duty, as does the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the other play. He involves his wife in his depravity, once again quite the opposite of Hamlet who fantasises about Ophelia but tells her nothing of the message of the ghost. Macbeth becomes, in the end, the victim of his own consuming purpose as his sourness destroys all around him.

If either of these two characters were to be a little more rounded it would take the inclusion of some of the other ingredient. But Hamlet with some sour in him might just avenge his father and the final tragedy of his weakness would be averted. And Macbeth with some sweetness in him would he a lame menace indeed and we would not be drawn relentlessly into this depleted man with anywhere near the force that Shakespeare accomplishes. Most characters in most novels live somewhere between these two men. So we need some degree of both sweet and sour in most of the characters who populate our stories.

The hot stuff, the chilli of our stories lies in the action. It’s a plot thing. We might call it ‘the exploding helicopter’ view of life. Not so many books have exploding helicopters, but current movies are filled with them. I have sat in the cafeteria of our local hospital where the big TV was tuned to a lunch time hospital drama. “Not the best thing for that environment”, I thought. Suddenly, into the drama of the TV operating theatre came the swordfight blades of a helicopter flying too close to the building. It was all shattering glass and whirling metal and the helicopter fell to the ground, blocking the entrance to the emergency room. All around me were hospital patients and their visitors. We were all somehow in the middle of our own exploding helicopter moment anyway, that’s what brought us to the hospital. But the TV script writer wanted to make it a bit more literal. That’s what it’s like when you add chilli to chocolate.

And the salt? That comes about from the quality of the writing. We know salt when we taste it. We can’t describe it in any other way but ‘salty’. There are lots of types of salt, sea salt, lake salt, crystal salt, pink salt, rock salt, many others. I have a Pepper and Salt Cookbook that list a dozen or so different types. But guess what, they all taste salty. If you don’t write quality, you don’t have salt. We might describe that quality in different ways, but in the end we somehow recognise quality.

Two authors I admire greatly are Brian Doyle and William Golding. They are alike in that they write of people who are confronting inner strife and are searching for some personal strength to get them through. I admire them because these are the themes in much of my own writing. But they are very different. Doyle can string together words that flow like old port or liquid gold. There is something musical in reading his work. He deals with love and dying, suicide and misfortune, peace and glory, youthfulness and aging. His words are like honey without being syrupy and I wonder how he manages such sentiment without sentimentality.

Golding is characterised by his ability to write in such spare prose that the story seems to write itself in my head. In one of his works a child is murdered and he says nothing of it at all. It is only many pages later that the reader notices her absence. I had to backtrack until I found the most recent reference to her, and continue reading to find where she went. I found the narrative of a murder that happened in my own mind, Golding wrote in such a way that I missed it on the first read. But once I found it I was stamped with it and that moment lives in my head still. That ability to write a story in the reader’s mind without using a single word of the event is a rare skill.

Both Doyle and Golding are writers of quality. They have salt and there is no other word to use but ‘salty’. It does not come from character or plot, it comes from wherever salt comes from. Now there’s a metaphor worth exploring.

So there you have it. Sweet, sour, hot, salty. A good story needs them all.

Books for Little Kids

September 23, 2009

Some years ago I wrote a story for a little kid’s picture book. I had two things in mind. I wanted to invent a new word. And I wanted the book to have a bitter-sweet theme. The inventing a new word was just a bit of creativity, a fun thing. The bitter-sweet edge was because not all children experience life as sweetness and light, love and kindness. Not even in a loving and caring family. I wanted to say something about that somehow.

The story is still sitting on my computer. It’s been waiting for something. I didn’t know what until recently.

A friend listened as I told the story some years ago. She is a very creative person and I trusted her judgement. I described each picture lightly and put in the text. The new word kept her engaged as she tried to figure out what it really meant – the story is not really clear in that and the reader has to sort out the ambiguity. But when I got to the end she erupted with anger. “That’s a sad story!” It was not a good response, it shut me down. And there I left the matter.

And I left the story. Until finding myself at an illustrator’s workshop at the recent CYA Later writer’s conference. The leader of the workshop had lots of little kid’s books, his own and other author/illustrator’s work. And guess what? There were books there with bitter-sweet themes, sad stories, not all sweetness and light, not all happy endings.

So I am on the up with this story. It needs work yet. But it’s not dead.

The conference had an illustrator’s competition. The first and second place winners were both extraordinary work. I loved them both. I looked at the first place entry and thought, “This style of art would be perfect for my story.” There was no name of the illustrator given so I resolved to find out who it was, but every time I ran into the organisers I forgot completely. At the end of the day I helped get things packed up and then a bunch of us went out to dinner. Imagine twenty people down both sides of a long table. My publisher was directly opposite and he greeted the woman next to me with, “Well, don’t just sit there. Show us the certificates.” And out came her certificates for taking first and second place in the picture book illustrator competition.

Sometimes things just fall into place. We talked about her work, and we talked about my story. So it’s back in the land of the living and with a bit of tidying up it’s going to start the rounds of submission to publishers.

CYA Later, Alligator Conference

September 22, 2009

That CYA bit up there, it stands for Children and Young Adult. It’s part of the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I was there, had a great time. Check it out here

I’d been invited as my new book had been part of their manuscript competition a couple of years ago. It didn’t do well in the competition. In fact, it did so badly that I asked for the title to be removed from the listings. But there was an up side. They sent me the judge’s score sheets.

The competition is based on the first thousand words of the manuscript. That sounds like a lot, but even a short novel will be over 50,000 words. That means that no matter how good it is in the main part of the novel, if it doesn’t catch the judge at first bite it is going nowhere.

I knew that I had a good story. The judge’s notes told me that I didn’t have a good beginning. So I fixed it. Worked it up a bit. Put some heat in it. Added an exploding helicopter or two. The result was that my teenage narrator changed from being an effervescent character to a simmering character. And with the opening of the book simmering away, I then had to carry the heat further into the story. The difference improved the whole novel to the point where it was picked up by a publisher.

And it was being published that brought about the invitation to take part in a couple of sessions at the CYA Later Alligator Conference. I was there with two other authors recently published, and who had come from the CYA competition. One was Dee White and her YA novel, Letters to Leonardo. The other was Kathryn Apel and her children’s picture book, This Is The Mud.

Gotta love a story with a happy ending.