Saturday, 30 January 2016

Ghostwoods Weekend Interviews


Eeep!

Super excited. My publisher, Ghostwoods Books, have just launched their super sparkly new website.

To celebrate, they've been interviewing their authors.

You can listen to me talking about myself, and my forthcoming novel. Sorry for the umms and aahs folks, I am working on it. I still get that rabbit-in-the-headlights sensation during live interviews. 

I'm also going to add links to the other interviews as they come up - I think there's eleven in all - so bookmark this post and check back, or follow Ghostwoods on Twitter for the latest.

Ghostwoods Weekend Interviews

Friday, 29 January 2016

Gorilla Adventures


It's my last few days before heading back home to Rwanda. I was watching telly last night and comedian John Bishop was doing a documentary called Gorilla Adventure. Rwanda is where Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist was laid to rest.

Bishop went up to visit the gorillas and spent time with the silverback Guhonda of the Sabyinyo group. I went to visit him myself in 2008, and I hugely recommend the experience. It's $750 for an international permit to visit. You need to book well in advance through Rwanda Development Board (RDB) as it's highly in demand and permits are limited. You can find all the information online. You get to spend an hour with them, but it truly is unforgettable.

Rwanda, along with Uganda and DRC are the only three places you can visit mountain gorillas in the wild. Of those three, Rwanda is by far the safest and easiest to organise. Tourism is Rwanda's largest source of income, so money feeds back into the economy and into the preservation of the gorillas. Each year there is a ceremony called Kwita Izina where they name the baby gorillas.

Here's some pics from my trip, and a video at the bottom of just how beautiful Rwanda is, in case you need any further convincing.

If you are interested in exploring East Africa, I can highly recommend two friends of mine: Tracey (@ota_tracey), who runs Overland Travel Adventures based in Kenya, and Jo (@RW_Adventures), who runs Rwandan Adventures in Kigali. They are both top ladies, dedicated to providing wonderful travel experiences.











Thursday, 28 January 2016

Writing 101: Repeatedly Repeating Repetition



Continuing my Writing101, a really standard - good - piece of advice is to avoid repetition in sentences.

More broadly, to avoid repetition of words and phrases within the same paragraph.

But repetition of which words?

In any paragraph - even a sentence - you'll find repetition: the, a, he, she, it, they, their, an, of...

Let's call those the little words or the joining words. Forget about those, they don't matter. (Unless you're repeating had a lot, then check out my post on past tense.)

What we're most concerned with are the key words - the verbs (doing words) and nouns (naming words).

Out of those two, it's the verbs you particularly want to watch.

For example:

James climbed the stairs and walked along the landing. He opened the bedroom door and turned on the light. Seeing that Stacy was asleep, he turned off the light, walked along the landing and climbed up into the attic to read for an hour. Climbing back down the ladder, he walked along the landing and into the bathroom, where he turned on the light and looked at himself in the mirror.

Accepting this is really dull descriptive, the amount of repetition makes it even more painful.

For the purposes of repetition, it doesn't tend to matter whether the word being repeated has an -ing or -ed on the end. Walking/walked/walk, climbing/climbed/clime, swimming/swam/swum - it's a matter of tense, but you're still repeating the same action.

As an imaginative, creative writer, it shouldn't be too difficult to think up other ways of describing the same action.

For example:

James climbed the stairs and walked along the landing. He opened the bedroom door and turned on the light. Seeing that Stacy was asleep, he turned off the light, walked along the landing and climbed up into the attic to read for an hour. Climbing back down the ladder, he walked along the landing and into the bathroom, where he turned on the light and looked at himself in the mirror. 
James climbed the stairs and walked along the landing. He opened the bedroom door and flicked the switch. Seeing that Stacy was asleep, he turned off the light, headed along the landing and went up to the attic to read for an hour. Back downstairs, in the bathroom, he looked at his face, illuminated in the mirror.

If you get stuck, hit SHIFT+F7 in Word, or use an online thesaurus. The wonderful thing about the English language is that it has dozens of words to describe the same thing. You can walk, stroll, amble, meander and saunter. You can run, rush, sprint, dart and dash. You can think, consider, reflect, ponder and ruminate. 

However, there are limits.

And those limits are easier to breach with nouns.

On the whole, you don't need to invent new names for an object if it has a practical use. For example:

Jane sat at the table with a glass of milk. Jason was listening to the radio and it was getting on her nerves. She took a final sip and slammed the glass down, making a loud bang.  
Adrian had bought Annie a beautiful bunch of flowers for her birthday. Whilst the Sunday roast was in the oven, she spread them out on the table and began arranging the flowers in her favourite vase.  
There were three forks and two knives on the table. Toni had never eaten at a posh restaurant before. He tested the sharpness of the smallest fork with his finger and winced. He knew one of them had to be the salad fork, he remembered that from watching Pretty Woman. But what were the other two? And why were there three forks and only two knives? 

None of the repetition in those sentences really matters, because the thing you're talking about is an actual, physical object. You could replace bunch of flowers with bouquet, no problem. But always watch out for continuity. If you start playing around with nouns in the middle of a sentence, things can get confusing:

Jane took her favourite flower vase out from under the sink. She filled the ceramic jug with water and placed the container on the counter. Once the flowers were arranged, she popped the urn in the window where everyone would see it.

All four of those (vase, jug, container, urn) might be the same thing - we assume they are because of the context - but it's a bit confusing. The reader has to re-imagine the object each time you mention it.

Verbs are easier to play about with, and more noticeable when repeated.

But the main point underscoring all of this is: does your writing sound natural?

Sometimes the pressure to avoid repetition can make things sound strained.

For example:

Charlotte walked to the car, realised she'd forgotten her keys, and loped back to the garage to find them. Sauntering over the grass, she stopped to remove a stone from her shoe before ambling back to the vehicle.
Edward had misplaced his glasses. He felt down the back of the sofa, but couldn't locate his spectacles. As he stepped back, he heard a loud crunch. With a sinking feeling, he knew that he'd just stood on his vision aid. 

I once read a good novel where the author unfortunately felt self-conscious about his repeated use of the word elephant. He replaced it, peppering his prose with pachyderms. Nothing could have sounded more awkward.

If it's an elephant - call it an elephant.

If you need to think of a dozen words to describe a character walking, perhaps your character is doing too much walking? Cut out the walking and get to where they're going.

Natural use of repetition is something you learn through, well, repetition.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Unified Copyright Database


Years back I did a post on quoting song lyrics in novels, and about the copyright issues surrounding that.

In one case I ended up with twenty-nine e-mails exchanged over  a ten month period with a single music agency before they agreed to grant me the rights. I drew up a flowchart (or a trickle chart) of my progress. Most of which involved trying to figure out who held the copyright in the first place, then filling out endless forms.

Could you imagine going to your local supermarket and joining a ten-month long queue for the checkout?

The reason for this post is that it's all happening again - only this time, with authors.

In my current novel, I want to quote Walter de la Mare. I'm rather a fan, he wrote some lovely verse, but it's not out of copyright yet. Many writers are - I can quote them for free. But he isn't. And that's fine.

Walter de la Mare is in that twilight zone of authors who are now deceased but aren't yet in the public domain. He has a society dedicated to him. However, they are not the administrators of the copyright for his work - that's The Society of Authors. So I contacted them for a quote and told them what I needed. 

Just like the music authorities, they couldn't give me a quote.

It isn't enough to say which poem you'd like to include, or how much of it. You also need to tell them:


  • The scale of the publication (C Major, I think)
  • The formats in which it will be published
  • Which territories and languages


That's actually less than the music industry required. They wanted the total word count as well as the print run.

Now - just looking at this logically. If I am enquiring about the use of a poem within a work I haven't written yet, it's probably safe to assume that it hasn't got a publisher. Or, if it has, because it's on commission, they probably don't know the exact print run yet, and certainly not the final word count or languages.

The reason an author might enquire about copyright prices is because they're trying to decide if it's worth the money. You're not going to build a story around something you might later have to remove. 

I'm all for providing a bit of information - even a sample - of the bits which relate to the copyrighted material. That helps the copyright holder to decide if it's going to be suitable. But insisting on maintaining this archaic bureaucracy in a modern, digital era, stifles artistic collaboration and deprives authors, and their posthumous estates, of income.

Essentially, the way I see it:

  • Copyright exists to stop people making money out of your work by passing it off as their own.
  • Copyright shouldn't exist to prevent people giving you money for the work you've already done.

I've just been reading a statement by Philip Pullman, current President of The Society of Authors, titled: Enough's enough – authors can't work for free.

I'm behind him 100% on that. But I also feel that the publishing industry (poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, lyrics) is missing a huge trick here. There are only two likely outcomes from a copyright application:

  • I want to incorporate someone else's work in my project. I ask how much. You give me a quote. I think it's reasonable - the author gets paid.

Or

  • I want to incorporate someone else's work in my project. I ask how much. You tell me you can't tell me. I decide it isn't worth the hassle - the author doesn't get paid.

Imagine a unified database where all the copyright holders are known. A one-stop shop where you could look up the piece you want to use and fill out a single, well-thought-through application form, and be guaranteed a decision within a set period of time. It wouldn't even matter if the quote was tiered, depending on the print run and territories - at least you'd know what to expect.

The whole database could even fund itself. Take a leaf out of Companies House. They charge a £1 administration fee on their Webchecker service. I'm sure you could ask a fiver for something people aren't likely to use as regularly, and which takes a little more processing. Or take commission from the copyright holders each time they make a sale, as you're saving them time and increasing the likelihood someone will purchase. You could even advertise book releases for a little extra cash.

In this digital day and age, and with authors struggling so hard for any form of income, surely this is worth pursuing?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Deeds of the Tuatha Dé Danann


I've just finished an interview with my publisher, Ghostwoods Books, ahead of the re-launch of their website. I'll share more about that soon.

We were talking a bit about my forthcoming novel, a retelling of The Children of Lir, an ancient Irish legend. I wanted to share this wonderful telling of Ireland by Robin Williamson. Hopefully it will get you in the mood. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

How to Read More


I enjoyed this Vlog on how to read more.

I really share her pain. My TBR pile is getting silly. I've just banned myself from adding any more titles to Kindle until I've finished some. 

I've never set a reading goal. I know it would only depress me as I'm a really slow reader. My mum and my friend Cathryn are speed readers. I envy them. A recent conversation with my mother went:

Me: Did you watch the Game of Thrones DVD I bought you? 
Mum: Yes, but I know what happens because I've read all the books.
Me: ... 
Mum: ... 
Me: You know that series Outlander was adapted from books? 
Mum: Read them.

Unfortunately, I take after my father in that I'll read every word on every line of every page. 

Hence it takes me a while.

I'm not sure I'm that much slower than anyone else, really. I read The Book of a Thousand Days in one day. It's just I'm usually so busy writing my own books (and goofing off on social media) that I don't put a lot of time aside to read.

I do read every day, but it's the last thing I do at night, all tucked up in bed before going to sleep. Being a night owl, I usually don't start until midnight or later. Sometimes I'll still be reading at three, but often I'm asleep after one chapter.

So, no writing goals for me, but reading every day is important, and I do enjoy the little percentage bar on Kindle which tells me how far through a book I am. There's a strange sense of relief when I hit 50%. That's why I don't think I'd like to set an annual book reading goal. I don't think I want to start worrying about whether I'm ahead or behind my reading target - not when reading is supposed to be my antidote to stress.

Starting a new book as soon as you finish the previous one is advice that works for me. I have friends who say 'If it was a really good book, I need time to think about it,' and yes, I get that. There have been books like The Lovely Bones and The Generation Game where I've been in floods of tears by the end and needed time to blow my nose and breathe. On the other hand, I find that I can often process the end of one book whilst starting the next. Many books take a few chapters to get into, so it carries you over that threshold, and there's plenty of time during the rest of the day to consider what you've just read. 

However, Point #4 is really my downfall: 

Don't waste time on books you don't enjoy.

This is absolutely true. The rare times in my life when I stopped reading completely, came after force-feeding myself a book I didn't enjoy. Slogging through a tome you're not interested in can traumatise a healthy reading habit. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to get over.

The problem is, like Bookishpixie, I suffer from Reader's Guilt.

I find it very difficult to put down a book I'm not enjoying. I feel as though I have to get to the end of it, no matter what. I'll put down the book, unable to carry on, yet I'll feel so guilty about this that I can't pick up another one.

Yes, I think it is a mild form of OCD.

I am getting better at it. Like watching the news, you can desensitise yourself to that feeling of horror. Do it enough and murdering a story mid-flow starts to feel like an act of mercy. As James Joyce is quoted as having said: 

Life is too short to read a bad book.

Finally, I think the idea of a bookshelf only for books you've read is a stroke of pure genius. 

Put it somewhere public. 

Shame yourself into reading.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Once Upon A Really Long Time Ago...

Bronwyn Bancroft

It's been a really interesting week in the realm of fairy tales.


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, academics discovered that the fairy stories passed down from generation to generation may have originated much earlier than previously believed... 
The researchers say they agree with famous fairy-tale author Wilhelm Grimm, who, with his brothers, wrote down famous oral tales in the 19th century. Grimm believed that many of the popular stories dated back to the birth of Indo-European languages... 
The academics also examined the famous tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, which was originally part of a series of stories called The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and found that its roots could be traced back to 5,000 years ago.


Indigenous stories of dramatic sea level rises across Australia date back more than 7,000 years in a continuous oral tradition without parallel anywhere in the world, according to new research... 
Reid said a key feature of Indigenous storytelling culture – a distinctive “cross-generational cross-checking” process – might explain the remarkable consistency in accounts passed down by preliterate people which researchers previously believed could not persist for more than 800 years. 
“The idea that 300 generations could faithfully tell a story that didn’t degenerate into Chinese whispers, that was passing on factual information that we know happened from independent chronology, that just seems too good to be true, right?”

In 2013, 500 new fairy tales were discovered locked in an archive in Germany. I hope there are plans to translate them.

It's fascinating to think on the enduring appeal of fairy tales, and the importance of oral storytelling traditions.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Writing 101: The Past Isn't Perfect

(click to enlarge)

Thought I'd kick off this year by starting a tab called Writing 101, where I'll share some tips on writing from my own experience over the past few years. 

Everybody's style is different, but there are some things that just make writing better. A good place to start is with my pick of writing manuals

In this post I'm going to dive in with something that's fairly advanced, but which makes quite a difference. 

It's the habit of pulling past perfect into past simple. 

Don't run screaming just yet. It sounds complicated, but most of us know what it means when we see it.

If your writing is littered with had, it might need revision.

Here's an example of writing stuck in past perfect:

It had been a hot day and he had gone into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman had held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift, and he had stopped to pick her up. He had gone via the back roads because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods.

The two problems with this are:

  • Repetition: Generally, you want to avoid too much repetition of the same verbs (doing words) and phrases in a single paragraph. He had once or twice isn't so bad, but past perfect is, by nature, highly repetitive of hads and had beens.
  • Dilution: The shorter a sentence, the more impact it tends to have. Past perfect is like adding water to whisky. Past simple cuts straight to the chase and helps your reader feel as though they're living the action as it happens.


See the difference:

It had been a hot day and he had gone into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman had held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift, and he had stopped to pick her up. He had gone via the back roads because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods. 
It was a hot day and he went into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift. He stopped to pick her up. He went via the back roads, because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods.

Sometimes it's not possible, or even desirable, to remove every instance of past perfect. Sometimes it really is the most natural sounding way to explain something, but most of the time you can:


  1. Cut out had and have the sentence still make sense: A woman had held out her hand v. A woman held out her hand
  2. Replace with was: It had been a hot day v. It was a hot day
  3. Or switch the verb for something more succinct: he had gone v. he went, she had been thinking v. she thought


As with all good writing, the trick is making something read easily when it actually took quite a bit of effort to choose between a number of options.

The bad news is that switching from past perfect to simple will reduce your word count. The good news is, it'll engage readers by lending your prose a sense of immediacy, rather than reminding people that they're staring through a window into the past.

If you have a question, or any tips to add on past tense, please drop a comment below.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Into the Unknown



I began 2016 upset with myself. 

Regular readers might recall my Oath, Boast & Toast this year? Well, I was upset because I'd watered it down.

I changed it at the very last minute. I had just completed a contract with an extremely impressive human rights group. It'd been a truly amazing, eye-opening experience, but my time there had come to a natural end. 

I'd decided that 2016 was going to be the year I threw myself into writing. I was going to tailor everything else in my life around it and see what happened. Whilst I've been in the UK I've been to see a couple of nonprofit projects, the type of funding work I can do in the evenings, from home. Meanwhile, I've been networking online, lining up a couple of meetings in the arts community in Rwanda once I return. 

I had planned to branch into writing retreats on Lake Kivu. I was going to do this in partnership with my friend Christiane, who had just built an ecolodge in a perfect location, high in the hills, overlooking the water. Unfortunately, she passed away in September, so I put that idea to bed. 

Lots of ideas have been going through my mind since. Rwanda has always been hugely productive for me creatively, and I want to give myself time to see whether I can develop a proper writing routine. See whether I can shift myself away from development consultancy towards something more artistic. 

It's a huge gamble. Nothing is guaranteed. Which is why, when the lovely organisation I was working for offered me a second year at better pay, I stumbled. It happened just before I posted my Oath, Boast and Toast. Whereas before it had read: 'This is it, death or glory!' it then became 'Perhaps I'll try and focus more on writing in the New Year.'

The moment I posted it, I knew I wasn't being honest. I was allowing fear of insecurity (especially financial insecurity) to overshadow the heart:

I get a sort of tingle down my spine when I earn money from writing. It’s the same tingle I got when I was offered my first publishing contract. A little spark of joy which lies dormant in between, when things aren’t going so well. 
As writers, I think we live for that spark. - The Dabbler Interview

My first advance is modest, but it means a lot. It's the first time a publisher has said: Yes, we believe in you. We believe that we can sell what you write... In an industry where money is often tight and nothing is ever certain, that's a massive token of trust... Every book I've written has been slightly better and gone slightly further. - blog post

I am in the ridiculously lucky position of being able to buy a little time for myself. I have a secluded spot in which to write, friends who rejuvenate me and prevent me disappearing up my own arse entirely, and a little work which, although intermittent, can be folded around my writing routine. All I need is rent money and food. I'm a fairly simple being, all told. 

It's at times like this there is only one thing to do: scour the internet for life-affirming quotes which back up your idea of who you want to be. In my case, I mostly have @adriantannock to thank:

You can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love. - Jim Carrey 
Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible. - Doris Lessing

And, of course, Christiane, who insisted that if I had the opportunity to write, write I must. 

So, I've taken the very brave, or very foolish, decision to turn down the extremely kind offer of guaranteed work, and return to my original plan of free falling into 2016 in the hopes that things will work themselves out.

I'd regret it if I didn't at least try. 

This blog could get quite interesting once I get back to Rwanda. 

Or very quiet, depending how the writing's going...

Thursday, 14 January 2016

By Grabthar's Hammer...


Oh, come on!

Seriously?

2016 - so far, you suck!

First Bowie, now Alan Rickman.

Has 69 become the new 27?

He was stunningly entertaining as the Sheriff of Nottingham, delivered a chucklesome Metatron in Dogma ("What are you?" - "I'm pissed off is what I am."), and is most famous for Professor Snape in Harry Potter, but here's my personal top five picks...

I shan't apologise for this. I love  Die Hard. It was his breakthrough movie role, and I'm a sucker for a sexy, sardonic villain. It was like the serious version of the Sherif of Nottingham.

Groomed to within an inch of his life, blowing out brains and blowing up buildings - fabulous.


Hands down, without a shadow of a doubt, Galaxy Quest is my all-time favourite Alan Rickman role. Nobody else could possibly have played Alexander Dane to such effect. He just stole the show.

By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!


I really loved the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind. If I recall correctly, it took a very long time for it to come to screen, because he didn't believe it could be adapted well enough. I remember being very excited when it was eventually adapted, and although it wasn't a leading role for Rickman, it was still a really special project to have been involved in.

Playing Eamon de Valera to Liam Neeson's Michael Collins was one heck of a role to take on and resulted in a gritty, hard-hitting performance which won him a BAFTA nomination. 

Might need to watch Galaxy Quest again after, for a pick-me-up.


I'm a huge fan of Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd. Saw an amateur production in Guildford many years back, and it remains one of the best performances I have ever seen to this day. Although I thought the film adaptation fell every so slightly short of the mark, it certainly wasn't because of Rickman. Yet again, he played the role of dastardly villain flawlessly.


I know my mother would like me to add Love Actually to this list, too. 

You can catch his final performance, as the voice of The Blue Caterpillar in Alice Through the Looking Glass, later this year.




Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Birnbeck Regeneration Trust

(panoramic - click to enlarge)

Last Friday, I had a lovely day out by the seaside visiting Birnbeck Regeneration Trust. They're an incredibly dedicated group of individuals fighting to save a very unusual pier at Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset. It stretches from the mainland to a natural island, and has a second walkway leading off it. Early estimates reckon it'll cost about twenty million to renovate completely, and there's potential for a museum and café on site. As with Ihezie Foundation, I'm hoping I can get involved in some capacity. 

The pier is now so dilapidated that it's unsafe to walk upon. The only way to reach it is to wait for low tide, when you can set out across the sand for two hours, before the sea reclaims it.

It was absolutely breathtaking to be by the ocean again. Living in a landlocked country, you forget your island-dwelling roots sometimes. Although Lake Kivu is practically an inland sea, you don't get the same tidal ebb and flow, or the scent of salt on the breeze. I cast my eye upon the waves, searching for the children of Lir.

If you'd like to buy a little piece of history, check out Birnbeck's fundraising page. You can purchase pieces of the original planks, or slate from the roofing on the island. 



Monday, 11 January 2016

Face the Strange


I was in a bank today when I saw on their TV that David Bowie had died. Everybody has their favourite face of Bowie. I'm a massive Labyrinth fan (there's even a Tea & Jeopardy episode from Jareth's lair). But I think another performance which was truly special was his portrayal of Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man). The director created the part without using makeup or prosthetics. This was apparently done to allow the audience to imagine what Merrick looked like. But I think it also served a higher purpose in that Bowie's appearances didn't detract from the fact that Merrick was - first and foremost - a human being. 


Sunday, 10 January 2016

Sunny Afternoon


Had such a fun night out last night for dad's birthday. We went to see Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. It's the story of The Kinks, and it's utterly brilliant. Danny Horn and Oliver Hoare (Ray and Dave) brought the house down. They had so much energy. It was a fabulous production and a gorgeous, intimate theatre. Everyone was on their feet by the end. If you get the chance, go see it. I think it's going out on tour shortly. I particularly enjoyed it because You Really Got Me has been one of the theme tunes to my road trip across the UK these past few months, sandwiched between Brown Eyed Girl and Wild Thing on my 60s mix CD. Kitty and me know how to rock.


Saturday, 9 January 2016

A Question of Copyright



As so many of my conversations now begin: somebody recently posted on Twitter...

About a program called Fingerprint My File. You can pay a monthly subscription to give your files a digital fingerprint, proving your ownership of that file without having to upload it to someone else to verify, thereby potentially giving away the creative ideas you're attempting to protect by copyrighting them in the first place.

It's sort of the modern version of posting your work to yourself in a sealed envelope, and, with the cost of stamps today, about the same price.

I started thinking about whether this was an essential part of an author's toolkit. As with the postal 'poor man's copyright', neither method seems to do more than prove you date-stamped a file. It doesn't prove you didn't nick the ideas inside that file from someone else.

On which note, it's worth dispelling the myth that someone can steal your ideas. At least in literary terms:

Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do. - Gov.uk

If everyone in the world could say 'I thought of that first,' without ever having written it down, no one would ever be able to write anything again.

I've seen people on writing forums get really paranoid about sharing their work online. What's to stop someone reading the sample, loving the idea, then re-writing it? Well, if they re-write it well enough, not a lot. We all draw from the same pool of imagination, there's apparently only seven basic plots we all use, and, speaking from experience, it's surprisingly easy to channel the voice of a dead author.

Just before the publication of my debut novel Angorichina, I picked up a short story by Somerset Maugham called The Sanatorium, because it was also set in a TB sanatorium. I was utterly mortified to discover that one main character looked almost identical to my own (Laura Wheeler/Ivy Bishop - young, pretty redheads), two old men were feuding vigorously (Joe & Sean/McLeod & Campbell) - one of each dying in a similar manner - and we both had a character with the exact same surname (Templeton)! A friend suggested the spirit of Somerset Maugham was speaking through me - I just wish he'd had something more original to say.

A complete fluke, but I would have been sceptical if someone else had told me that. A couple of years back, I submitted a comedy sketch to an open call. They didn't use any of my material, but a few weeks later I was listening to their program and an almost identical sketch came up. It was so similar, I actually said 'that's mine' out loud. I still harbour suspicions, but it was a political sketch that stood more chance of being accidentally double-dreamt than Sumerset Maugham's short story. It was very similar in concept, it wasn't word-for-word exactly the same.

Which brings me to the key point that bothers me about copyright, and programs like Fingerprint.

Even if you suspect copyright infringement - what are you actually going to do about it?

I mean, there are things you can do.  Copyright is a civil matter in both the US and UK. Provided you're claiming less than £10,000 lost earnings, it's a small claims matter through the Intellectual Property Claims Court, which costs between £35-£455 to initiate and doesn't require a lawyer. If you're a member of The Society of Authors, then you're entitled to free legal advice as part of your membership.

You can do that, but would you?

It's up to you to pay the court fees, and there's no guarantee you'll get them back, or your expenses (transport to and from court, time off work...) It's a big gamble. One website encouragingly pointed out that, because it's not a criminal matter, you don't have to prove they are guilty - you just have to convince the court you're right.

Well, therein lies the crux of the matter. Unless they've copied your work word-for-word, or you can reasonably prove that they wrote their version shortly after reading yours, and too much of theirs is the same to be coincidence, then it's going to be an unlikely venture. Somerset Maugham proved that coincidence has a wide girth. 

So, from that angle, I can appreciate why writers might prefer never to breathe a word of what they're writing, or planning to write. It seems that's the only true way to make sure nobody can nick your next novel.

As regular readers will know, I'm not so cautious. I freely share snippets of work in progress on my blog. I suppose I like to think that other people have enough imagination not to need to steal my ideas. If they don't have any imagination of their own, then any novel they manage to write faster than I can, using my ideas, is likely to result in something average enough to be unimpressive. I naively believe that an idea sparked blazes brighter than a wick lit from a secondary flame.

As authors, we're all magpies, but the skill lies in building a nest from your stolen booty.

If someone could take my idea and write it better - should I begrudge that?

As someone who has written two works based on other people's ideas (Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran (2015), Gaston Leroux and The Children of Lir (ETA 2016), an Irish legend translated by Lady Gregory), I feel a little uneasy about drawing a definitive line. In both novels I've nicked somebody else's characters and plots, and in Children of Lir, I've even directly quoted dialogue from an existing work.

Both of those works are long out of copyright, and I feel that by adapting them I've truly added something to the world - to literature. But what might I write if I could plunge into the pool of all ideas, all conversations, all characters?

Art is a difficult creature. All artists, in whatever medium (music, paint, poetry, song, dance) develop and learn through imitation. We even have a word for it - pastiche. Artists often begin by attempting to emulate other artists they love - working out what makes that style or delivery so effective - then attempting to surpass it in their own voice.

The application of copyright - something coldly logical - to an arena that is naturally playful, becomes restrictive.

I'd like to leave off on a TED talk by Johanna Blakley. Although she's focused on the fashion industry, what she's talking about is extremely interesting. She poses the argument that industries without copyright are not only more creative, but make better economic sense. Could that ever work for literature? 




[UPDATE: For more on the copyright issue, and discussions with book pirates, check out my post Downloading #bookz]