Thursday 12 July 2012

Fighting Fantasy

Well, well, well. 

Resurrection of a past era. 

When I was about ten or eleven, I was in WHSmith - book section (naturally) - choosing something to read on the train. I had recently gone to live with my mum, so Dad would come and collect me every fortnight for the train ride to London. 

The book that I chose was Vault of the Vampire.

My decision was based purely on cover art, I didn't bother to look inside. I was going through a vampire phase at the time. Anything with fangs had to be good.

I remember feeling bitterly disappointed when the joy of seeing how short the chapters were dissolved into the realisation that this wasn't actually a storybook at all. 

About to bin it, the sheer length of the journey forced me to take another look - thus spawning an adolescent love affair with Fighting Fantasy.

If you haven't seen them before, they're sort of a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Point Horror. Each chapter is about a paragraph long. At the end, you have to make a decision - do you go left or right at the end of the hallway? Do you talk to the slightly dodgy guy in the corner sucking his pipe? Do you open the trapdoor?

Occasionally you get into fights. Dice are required for this, and there's a set of rules and a game sheet at the beginning. If you lose, you have to start again (or cheat). Often the storylines throughout the book are fairly complex and several choices lead to dead ends. 

It can get ridiculously addictive. But then, I was brought up on text games. Before all these swanky graphics and VGA monitors, computer games were all like this. Glorified Fighting Fantasy novels. To me, these were just the portable version (long before laptops).

Sometimes I'd forget to bring a book and Dad and I would sit on the train making up stories in the same format. We'd take it in turns to come up with a paragraph and a decision to make. Passed many hours that way. In my late teens I eventually started coding MUDs (Multi User Dimensions) - which were (are?) like huge, international FF books with lots of players.

FF cover all the major bases in storytelling: there's always a beginning, middle and end to your adventure, there's a quest - something you have to achieve - there's adversity and conflict, there's dialogue and character interaction... you're soaking all of this stuff up as you're playing.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting watching my nephew trashing hell out of Transformers on his PlayStation. I felt a swell of pride that he'd opted for Decepticons (the baddies). 

Mum wandered in and I said something along the lines of 'he's really into that, isn't he?' To which she replied 'yes, but he loves his books too.'

It's true, my nephew is an avid reader. He's currently into Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Aha! thinks I. A kid who likes reading and gaming.

So, I've just spent the day rooting around in my old room, scouring the bookshelves of my (mostly mispent) youth. I've managed to find 17 volumes in total.

Plus my pride and joy:

Those last two are sort of like the fanatic's guide to all the animals and cities mentioned in the books. I remember sitting in Mum's office at probation service one Baker day, drawing ground plans for a seedy tavern in Port Blacksand. You can see they've been studied closely.

So, things come full-circle. My nephew is nine now. I've stacked them all up by his bed for the next time he visits. It just remains to be seen whether he'll take to them. I hope so. It would be nice to think they've gone to a good home.

[August 2014: the BBC have devoted an article to Fighting Fantasy.]

Monday 2 July 2012

The Generation Game

The Generation Game by Sophie Duffy is one of the best books I have ever read.

Finished it last night, been up until 2/3am for the past few nights. Couldn't put it down. I loved it. Everything about it. Including the cover.

I cried solidly from page 106 to the end of the chapter, then from about 160 to the end of the book.

It takes skill to invent a concept like Lucas, stick it in like a knife, and then keep on twisting it all the way to the end. Exquisitely painful. You sort of enjoy the torture, because it drives home your humanity.

I know, I'm gushing. I really am. It came in the Complete Luke Bitmead collection I bought a while back. Won the 2010 bursary as well as the Yeovil Literary Prize. It's extremely easy to see why.


Philippa Smith is in her forties and has a beautiful newborn baby girl. She also has no husband, and nowhere to turn. So she turns to the only place she knows: the beginning.

Retracing her life, she confronts the daily obstacles that shaped her very existence. From the tragic events of her childhood abandonment, to the astonishing accomplishments of those close to her, Philippa learns of the sacrifices others chose to make, and the outcome of buried secrets.

Philippa discovers a celebration of life, love, and the Golden era of television. A reflection of everyday people, in not so everyday situations.

I may only have been born halfway through this book, but there was so much I recognised that made me smile. I, too, was of a generation with Smash Hits, Hubba Bubba, the cuddly toy, and psychedelic orange squash. My smile was even wider when she mentioned liquorish rizlas.

It spoke of, and therefore evoked, so many memories of my own childhood. An era. Events: where I was when I heard Diana was dead; strangers sobbing on my shoulder; a sea of flowers. It summoned first loves, losses, realisations - an incredible achievement to chronicle a life from beginning to middle with such astounding emotive accuracy.

As another review mentions:

The story speeds up quite a bit when Philippa is an adult. I suppose that reflects our way of remembering our lives – early childhood experiences can seem so visceral, whereas later events often merge together.

Absolutely. This didn't escape me either, and added to the reality of the piece. The whole construct was technically superb, from the chapter titles to the interim breaks, the hooks, teasers, retrospective aha!s and the progression of time. I aspire to write this well.

The only problem now is what to follow that with?

Sunday 1 July 2012

Biography Bashing

Fact: I spend far too much time on social media.

For a couple of days I've been trying to find statistics on what percentage of the market is celeb-biographies and what is non-celeb. I was curious to find out whether you have to be a celebrity to write a successful biography, as it's a common saying in writing circles that your biography won't sell if you're not a household name. 
You would have thought this would be an easy Ask Jeeves issue by now. But, after consulting Twitter, Wiki and  a 9k-strong writing forum, I was none the wiser.

So, I rolled up my sleeves and tried hard to remember the one post-graduate quantitative research lecture I managed to stay awake through.

I thought that if I blogged my progress it would: 

  1. Push me to continue making progress and 
  2. Add something to the online knowledge base

First problem - where to source data? Especially when I'm not about to fork out to access any large databases. They talk in silly money, and my bank account is only little.

Word association sometimes helps:

Think books -

- think Amazon.

So, off I trundled and, sure enough, they categorise their biography section:

(click to enlarge)

Each time you click on a category, it tells you how many books are listed with that label.

A quick break down of current stock works out like this:

(click to enlarge)

There's nothing in row 1 - that's just me being messy. The number at the very bottom right is the total number of labels: 845,062.

But it's really important to remember that this is the number of labels, not books - as a book might have more than one label. That's why 'general' has so many more than any other label, because books categorised as 'historical' or 'religious' biographies are often also given a 'general' rating. Books on the Holocaust would also come under War & Espionage.

This makes things a bit tricky, so I ignored the 'general' label and this brought the total labels down to: 471,204.

I then decided to go for a trusty visual aid. To try and tidy things up a bit, I cut out everything with a 0% share of the market: any label that's percent of the market is below 0.45% - thus rounded down to 0% rather than up to 1%.

If you're not so familiar with 'rounding', 5 > (five or more '>') is usually rounded up, whereas 4 < (four or less '<') is rounded down. So, with 0.45 you round five up, which rounds 4 up to 5, which rounds 5 up to 1.0 which is 1%. Whereas with 0.44 you round 4 down to 0, which also rounds the next 4 down to 0, which leaves you with 0.0, which is 0%

See how the wonders of maths can cause entire stock piles to magically disappear?

Yes, yes, *yawn*, I know. So, anyway, this means we sadly have to wave goodbye to 'reference' biographies (compilations and photo collections, that sort of thing), 'tragic life stories' (thank heavens for that!) and 'artists, architects and photographers'. British Royalty barely scrapes through with 0.47% of the bookshelf - I'm being generous.

(click to enlarge)

I'm working from as I'm British, and I'm lazy. If anyone would like to throw me a US or EU comparison, that'd be great.

So, as of 30th June 2012, the biggest biography label by far in the UK is Historical (22%), followed a long way behind by Politics (11%) with Religion and Social & Health Issues battling it out for 3rd place (9%).

A few things surprised me. I expected Holocaust (1%) to rank a little higher, with all the interest in war memorabilia. Also with History having such a large share of the market. I also thought Sport (3%) would do better, given the number of sports fanatics and big names - but then I had to ask myself whether sports fans are also big readers...?

Multi-label data isn't the best to use, it's far from clean, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Still, that's the easy part. The hard part, and the question that started all this, is getting a sense of the celeb-biog proportion of the market verses the non-celeb - Joe on the Street - section. Are people mostly interested in reading about big names, or is there a market for everyday people with interesting life stories?

A quick glance at the biography bestseller list is quite encouraging (relatively speaking):
  1. Slave Girl - Sarah Forsyth
  2. Secret Diary of a Sex Addict - Amber Stephens
  3. Against All Odds - Paul Connolly
  4. I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron
  5. Open - Aundre Agassi
  6. Confessions of a GP - Benjamin Daniels
  7. How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
  8. Life...on a High - Nick Spalding
  9. Diary of a Menopausal Woman - Cheryl Reid, Toby Williams, Lizzi Eastburn
  10. The Sugar Girls - Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi

If you class a 'celeb-biog' as one written either by or about a celebrity, then it's not looking as bad as I thought it would. Roughly a 70/30 split in favour of the average Joe.

But it is difficult. Where do you draw the line on celebrity? How famous do you have to be? Well, for my calculations 'pretty famous'. Preferably a household name, living or dead. You certainly need a Wiki entry. But then, what if a celeb writes a book about the history of Norwich? Is it the content or the author that's important for celeb-rating? I say it's still a celeb-biog because sales will increase off the back of the name of the author.

Not easy, huh? The rules need to be clear.

Next question, though - does this statistic hold true through the categories?

Method: choose three random pages from the 'most popular' category in each listing, count the number of celeb/non-celeb titles. Total sample number each category: 36 (12 per page).

Good: Random sample groups
Bad: Not proportionately representative of size of category (why? I just haven't got the time)

I decided to knock out the Royalty section as it was a bit unfairly skewed (100% celebrity) for such a small slice of the market. Thought it would be more interesting to concentrate on the slightly ambiguous labels.  As I suspected, there were quite a few repeat titles between categories.

At first glance, the gap wasn't as big as I'd expected it to be. Though it was a lot smaller than the bestsellers list led us to believe: 45% celeb, 55% non-celeb.

I had this image of biographies, and the biographical market, as being swamped by celebrity culture with no room for anything that didn't take place in Hollywood or involve a dead bard. I wasn't expecting to see a higher average per category for non-celeb biogs.

Little bit of visual magic might assist:

(click to enlarge)

And on that helpful histogram, I can conclude that it's fairly evenly matched, except in the obvious categories you'd expect celebs to dominate: Theatre & Performance Arts and Film, Television & Music. Whereas non-celebs appear to be cornering the expert markets such as Medical, Legal & Social Sciences and the more ethereal realms of Religion.

It's only a small data set, and you'd need to clarify the definition of celebrity a bit - but it's an interesting indication.