The Ocean at The End of The Lane and Childhood

Beautiful cover

Beautiful cover

This weekend I read one of the pot luck books I picked up from the library – The Ocean At the End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman. I like choosing books I don’t know, just because I recognise the title or author or just because I like the front cover (and the library is much cheaper than all the books I’ve bought in book shops using the same method and have then never read!)

This ticked the last two points – I have heard of Neil Gaiman (I follow him on Twitter even) and I was intrigued by the cover. I first came across Neil Gaiman when a friend bought me one of his Sandman graphic novels as a teenager. Then I loved (although was creeped out by) his Doctor Who episode The Doctor’s Wife.

The Ocean at the End of The Lane is the first novel of his I have read. It creeped me out, too. Just one bit in the middle which I made the mistake of starting to read at bedtime. I had to switch to a Georgette Heyer and skip three pages in the morning.

It’s an interesting book, simply but compellingly written. It recounts an event from the childhood of the forty-something protagonist, which he recalls after revisiting his childhood house and a farm at the end of the lane. The telling of childhood was fascinating; viewing the world through the eyes of a seven-year-old. It also made me think a great deal about the difference between being seven thirty-odd years ago and being seven now. I kept thinking Oh he wouldn’t have been left to roam free like that, surely? And then I realise that I was, as far as I can remember. Certainly some time before I was eight (when I moved north – my childhood is bisected by that move) I roamed the fields, climbed trees, visited friends’ houses on our estate, all without taking much notice of where my parents were.

I like this cover too

I like this cover too

My memories of childhood are almost non-existant, apart from one or two key events. The book recreates that fluidity of childhood and memory with great authenticity. It also made me wonder what my children will remember. It’s so different now: their lives are recorded through photographs, video, school reports with images, social media, parents’ blogs. So many aides to memory. There are probably fewer than fifty photos of me between the ages of 0 and 16 in total. I can take that many of my chidren in a day.

Is it a good thing? Maybe we should be able to rewrite our childhoods, change our recollections at will. Like the protagonist in the novel, maybe our childhood memories are not entirely accurate, and maybe that’s necessary. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of every tiny detail. Our lives are really only stories we write in our mind, with heroes and villains. The truth, as revealed by endless photographs, is bound to feel much more ordinary.

Mind you, all our photos are stored digitally. There’s a strong chance they’ll degrade over time and the children will only be able to retrieve fifty images in thirty-odd years time. And perhaps that will be just as well.

Write Now, Write Naked: 2013 365 Challenge #330

The Inconvenient Urge

The Inconvenient Urge

I’ve read several posts this morning with great writing advice in them, or posts about the importance of writing. The online blog community is a wondrous resource for all things writerly. Even if you aren’t a writer, these are still great reads.

So I thought I’d share the highlights of my morning reads (as a nice change from hearing all about me and my lovely children!)

The first post I read this morning was by Robert Benson, on his blog Ubiquitous. Quotidian, called The Inconvenient Urge.

The post discusses how the need and inspiration to write comes at the worst possible times:

“The urge to write often settles on me when there is too much to do at work. When there are already too many unfinished projects and too many dishes to wash and too many clothes to fold. The urge comes when family members are sick, when the child needs my attention, when things are already impossibly complex and there are too many things competing for my focus.”

Aside from the fact that it’s nice to hear a man also complaining about the laundry and the dishes (hurrah it isn’t just me!) it is also a feeling I can completely relate to. I went to write in the local Motorway Services this morning (it’s not far from preschool and I find if I go there, rather than going home, I get more done. Especially when the internet isn’t working!) Even though the WiFi was on today, meaning I wrote fewer than half of the 4,000 words I wrote last Monday, I still got engrossed enough in Claire’s journey to forget to get my McD breakfast before 10.30am. 🙂

I’ve been known to be late for the school run, or lose several hours of what is meant to be productive housework time, or forget to walk the dog, because I’m wrapped up in another world. As Robert Benson concludes, however, “the urge to write comes when it will. Be grateful. Be ready. It is always inconvenient.”

Thought Catalog Article

Thought Catalog Article

The second post I read today (via http://jeryder.blogspot.co.uk) was a list of great quotes on writing by famous authors, on the Thought Catalog blog. Entitled 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips by Great Authors, my favourites include these:

11. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die. – Anne Enright

and

17. Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain

The final blog I read today, by the Write Practice, was called Write Naked, and it discusses a favourite topic of mine: writing what you know. Like the author of the article, I used to think that suggested you could only write about your personal sphere of experience: meaning I could only write stories about marketing managers who had been to New Zealand. (Well, actually, that does feature quite a lot in my stories! Ahem.)

Write Naked

Write Naked

But that isn’t what it means. It means writing about the sensations you can relate to. It isn’t the detail of the job you do that defines it, but the emotions you experience along the way.

So, even though Dragon Wraiths is about a sixteen-year-old orphan, and that wasn’t my childhood, I could still draw from enough experiences of my life growing up to write authentically about loneliness and not fitting in and the exhilaration of being outside in nature.

In the article, Sophie Novak says:

“Write naked. The raw can be a million times more powerful than the best polish. Do you know why? Because truth shines.  It can’t be beaten by invention. Just forget any inhibitions, and share the truth. Your truth. It’s quite scary, and absolutely worth it.”

Or, as Neil Gaiman puts it, “The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Right, boys, get dressed, we’ve got a busy day ahead.”

Claire laughed at the groans emanating from the bunks as she stuck her head around the door. The hostel had been mostly empty when they arrived, and they’d been able to secure adjacent rooms. After sharing with the boys for a week at the previous hostel, Claire was glad to go back to her own, private, sweet-smelling space.

The only movement her words provoked was a pulling up of duvets, muffling the grumbling protests that it was too early. Claire thought there had to be a happy medium between Sky waking up with the birds, and these boys who needed a rocket under them to get them going in the morning.

With a sly glance she said, “I guess I’ll have to cancel the motor boat trip then, and we’ll go to the seal sanctuary after all.”

The duvets flung back and first Jack and then Alex sat up in bed.

“Motor boat? Are we going water skiing?” Jack asked, looking adorable with his tousled hair and sleepy excited eyes.

Claire’s smile drooped. “Ah, no. We’re going on a day out on the estuary.” She watched their excitement fade, and thought quickly. “But we’re taking the boat out on our own. Have you steered a motor boat before? And are you any good at map reading?”

Alex’s expression remained disgruntled, but Jack jumped up. “Bagsy I get to steer the boat first. Thank you, Aunt– I mean Claire.” He ran over and gave her an impulsive hug.

Claire returned the embrace, a little surprised at the gesture. The boys were not very tactile, unless you included thumping each other and wrestling on the bedroom floor.

“You’re welcome, Jack. Come on boys, get dressed. This hostel is self-catering, so we’re going out for a fry up.” She’d learnt that a hearty breakfast was essential. As with men, so with boys: regular feeding was a core requirement of good relations.

*

Claire looked at the tiny craft bobbing on the water, and thought better of her great idea. For something licensed to hold six people it looked tiny.

And very vulnerable, she thought, watching the boat pull at its mooring as the wake of a passing yacht stirred up the water.

“You boys taking your Mum fishing?”

All three of them turned to look over as a man approached them, his lined face split in a wide grin. “They’ll be biting today. It’s high tide around mid-morning, but you’re best to wait until the afternoon. Forecast is good. Did you want to borrow some rods? I’m sure I can find something.”

Claire shuddered, and hoped the boys were more interested in steering the boat than pulling slimy squirming creatures from the water.

“Can we, Claire, can we, please? I’d love to catch something. I’ve never been sea fishing before.” Jack’s voice rose high with eagerness.

“Doesn’t Robert take you?” As she said the words, she tried to imagine her brother, as she knew him now, attaching maggots to a hook. “Never mind. Er, yes, if you can borrow all the gear I don’t see why not. Just don’t expect me to touch them. If you catch something you’re on your own.”

The answering grin from both boys was electric. Claire hoped the friendly stranger was wrong, and the fish weren’t biting. Leaving them discussing the merits of various types of bait with the man from the boat yard, Claire wandered off in search of caffeine. It was going to be a long day.

***

E-Book Censorship – Necessary or a Slippery Slope?

The story as it unfolds

The story as it unfolds

Some worrying news has trickled through to me this week, through various sources, that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and particularly Kobo are censoring Self-Published/Indie Published books. As far as I can gather, from reading posts on Shannon Thompson’s Facebook wall – here and here – and through statements from Smashwords, the concern is specific types of erotica, such as incest or rape themed books, but may easily stretch into all Indie Publishing.

WH Smith, who sell Kobo books in the UK, took down ALL self-published books in response to criticism over some of the content they apparently unknowingly stocked.

Smashwords  also has this comment in their statement:

Going forward, I think we can expect this to become the new reality as major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable, or might find non-erotic categories that most western cultures consider mainstream as too objectionable.  This means we can expect more mess to come in the years ahead as the industry navigates ebook globalization [My emphasis]

Now I have to be honest, this isn’t a straightforward debate for me. My mind is surging with conflicting emotions. Paramount is the thought “Oh my goodness, if they start deleting Indie books, there goes my five-year plan. Amazon is already censoring reviews (I’ve had at least three reviews of my books deleted and lord knows how many more I don’t know about). I’ll have to give up writing and get a job.”

This might seem like an overreaction when I write books with no sex in them, never mind erotica. But, as Smashwords points out, this may well not just stop at erotica but might cover any area that’s considered taboo in a certain culture. Shannon points out on her blog that the legal age of drinking between the UK and the US is different, so might books featuring a teenager drinking be banned in the US?

First WH Smith then all KOBO

First WH Smith then all KOBO

Then of course comes the view that refusing to publish any kind of books is bad. It’s censorship, it’s against free speech, it’s harking back to the days of banning and burning books for not fitting in with the social mores of its time. As one commenter points out on Shannon’s blog, though, it isn’t actually against free speech, because these companies are businesses and have every right to sell what they choose. Even so, it still isn’t good news for Indie authors like me.

Ah, but then, a third voice pipes up: the voice of the parent. I’d happily see all porn banned on the internet: free speech or no. And if there are erotica books out there that favour or promote rape, then I am happy for them to be banned. (Remember this is only the parent talking, so no snotty comments about me being a bigot, thanks!)

I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world where people have had easy access to books promoting rape. There’s something about an idea being written down that gives it gravitas. You write about rape in a book, make it sound like a cool thing, and somebody somewhere is going to feel like that gives them a green light.

In an article on the Christian Science Monitor (which I found through Shannon’s blog) someone defends the erotica ebooks by saying:

“We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production,” wrote PJ Vogt on OnTheMedia.org.

“Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.”

So it’s okay if it’s in a book, with fake characters? I should agree, yes of course. Except I’ve read books that have changed the way I think. They’ve actually rewired my brain to see the world a different way. That’s the power of fiction (as so beautifully argued in a lecture by Neil Gaiman recently:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

The On the Media article quoted above says that internet porn hasn’t increased actual instances of rape, and makes the assumption that literature won’t either. But if you look at Neil’s argument, the written word is more powerful than onscreen images, precisely because it happens inside the mind. It locates another ‘me’ in the world. Great if that widens the mind, not so great if it narrows it.

Neil also says, “We have an obligation [as writers] to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it” but that’s an entirely different argument against some of these books!

There is a petition on Change.org that I will probably sign, but I am having to think twice about it. The petition does say **This petition is NOT condoning non-fictional beastiality, incest, pediphilia or other things of such ‘extreme’ nature**. 

Non-fictional? What about fictional? Also, there are some views in the comments that I don’t agree with. For example someone says you need a credit card to buy the books, so you’re obviously over 18. Except what about the free sample? I’ve downloaded the first few chapters of plenty of books without having to pay for them, and many of them I wouldn’t want my daughter to read at any age.

It’s a difficult debate and I hate not knowing what side of the fence I sit on. If Amazon and other online retailers delete my books, I’m back to square one: trying to fight my way in through the agent/publisher route. And I believe we’ll all be the poorer for stopping the publishing revolution before it’s even got underway. However there is no doubt that there are books out there that ruin the image of self-publishing for all of us, never mind books I wouldn’t want my kids to have access to.

Where do you sit?

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