Friday, June 09, 2006

A Perfect Storm

Wildly extrapolating from a tax case involving Richard Mabley and Judy Finnegan (the insipid British version of Oprah), The Sunday Times claimed that television ‘personalities’, footballers, and authors would no longer be able to claim the fees charged by their agents against tax. Even worse, this ruling would be applied retrospectively; everyone would not only have to pay back money claimed against tax this year, but for the six years previously.

Now, most authors have agents who take from between 10 and 20% of their clients’ earnings as fees. And most authors aren't exactly rolling in money; the average income of a freelance author in Britain is around £7000. Paying back money legitimately claimed against tax would be crippling. Naturally, this wild rumour-mongering agitated a lot of people and led the Society of Authors to send out an email reassuring anxious authors that they almost certainly wouldn’t be liable to pay back thousand of pounds (or millions of pounds in the case of mega-bestsellers like J.K. Rowling).

The Sunday Times’ story was in fact nonsense, as the British tax authorities were quick to point out. And now the case has just been settled in Richard and Judy’s favour. They can claim their agent’s fees against tax because they are, after all, entertainers; it seems that it was a good thing that Richard imitated Ali G. on breakfast TV.

Which leaves me wondering what the scaremongering was all about. Was it the usual excessive fact-free speculation that our press is so fond of these days? Or was it something more sinister? The Sunday Times story suggested that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, wanted to claw back tax from celebrities to help make up a vast deficit in his budget - celebrities are soft targets because they don’t want to make the kind of fuss that would let people know how much they earn. And Gordon Brown is not only in line to become Prime Minister when Tony Blair finally steps down, he’s also believed to be rather more left wing than Blair. Some people aren’t happy about that. Was the whole story whipped up to besmirch the Chancellor’s good name, and lose him the support of a constituency of high-profile, vocal, left-leaning creative types?

If it was, it has succeeded only in whipping up a small but perfect storm of comment. It looks like J.K. Rowling will be writing the introduction to Gordon Brown’s next book after all.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Hothouses For The Imagination

I was an ordinary child in all but one respect - I was able to read around the age of three, a couple of years before I was enrolled in the little Church of England village school in Selsley, at the top of a long steep climb from our cottage (this was Gloucestershire in 1960; although we lived in one of a tumbledown row of four Elizabethan cottages with an iron foundry on one side and the recreation fields of a nearby factory on the other, it was pretty rural). My father was in the navy, and usually away; when I was a teenager, he and my mother divorced, something unusual and peculiarly shaming in England, in the early 1970s. We had little money, and few books. But there was always the library.

When I was quite small, the library was a library van that came by the village school once a week. A little later, I joined the library in Stroud, a lovely, light, modern building. It wasn’t where I first encountered science fiction - one of the few books my family owned was Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - but it was where I began to actively seek it out, working my way through the oeuvres of Captain W.E. Johns and Patrick Moore, amongst others. When I moved to the grammar school at age eleven, I discovered a complete set of the Everyman Edition of H.G. Wells in the Junior School Library, and that set the seal. I needed more, the junior section Stroud Library wasn’t enough, and with some special pleading by my mother on my behalf, I was allowed tickets to the adult section a couple of years earlier than the rules allowed. I’m forever grateful to my mother, and to the librarian who waived those rules. I was let loose on a treasure trove, and by the time I was 15 or 16, I had read my way through the essential science fiction classics and the novels and short-story collections of the burgeoning New Wave, and was branching out into the next-door crime shelves (Ed McBain was a particular favourite) and serendipitous discoveries elsewhere. I started reading John Updike, for instance, because I picked up Rabbit, Redux one day, puzzled by the odd title, and discovered that it was set during the summer of the first moon landing, and was written - wow - in the present tense. Thirty years later, I would be told by one American publisher that they couldn’t take White Devils unless it was rendered into ordinary past tense because otherwise no American reader would be able to understand it.

I was a science geek, and didn’t take English at school beyond what were then O-levels. But while my formal education in English ended at the age of 16, there was always the library, a place where I was able to continue my erratic self-education in the art of the fiction, absolutely free, well into my university years and beyond.

Now, libraries aren’t what they were. Too many are closing down because too many local councils see them as easy targets when relatively small savings have to be made. And there are too many demands on them as well; they’re no longer exclusively about the printed word, but must cater to demands for computer access and CD and DVD lending too, all on ever-shrinking budgets. It’s a rotten shame, ably documented in Tim Coates’s blog (thanks to The Grumpy Old Bookman via Maxine at Petrona for the link).

I think of all the kids like me, weird kids, bright kids, enquiring kids, from backgrounds where books don’t furnish a room. What will they do without these marvellous hothouses of the imagination? If not for libraries, I wouldn’t be the semi-respectable tax-paying novelist I am today; and I don’t think that I’m unique amongst writers in owing libraries a massive debt. Not a bad return for what is, really, a public pittance.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Shameless Part Two

If I hadn’t been ‘resting’, I would have noted that David Hartwell’s Best SF 11 was published on May 30. I haven’t seen a copy yet (chiz, chiz) but no doubt it’s crammed with great stories, not to mention my own ‘Rats of the System’.

Shameless Part One

You have to be these days. So, shamelessly, you may be interested to know that Mind’s Eye is out in paperback as of today. You can buy it here at 20% off retail price, and help jack up my pathetic statistics a notch or three.

According to the back cover:

A strange piece of graffiti daubed on the window of a London restaurant is the catalyst that propels Alfie Flowers into an intriguing mystery - and a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse. From the back alleys of London’s street culture to the chaos of post-war Iraq, in his desperate search for the source behind the mysterious symbols, Alfie finds that he in turn is being chased. Someone is determined to do whatever it takes to stop him finding out the truth.

Deep within an ancient network of caves lies a dangerous secret. A secret connected with the disappearance of Alfie’s father some twenty years before. A secret that someone will kill to keep.

According to me, it’s a thriller about a race to capture the secret of mind-altering drugs and neolithic entoptic patterns that starts off on the streets of London and ends deep inside caves in Kurdistan, in which Alfie Flowers discovers just how deeply his family and the mysterious Nomads’ Club were entwined.

Want to know more? Read the first chapter.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Off Duty

Cripes, has it been more than a week since I posted anything here? Well, I have been ‘resting’ after spending the last three weeks polishing Players, which has now been delivered to the publishers. It needed rather more work than I first thought, and as always, at this stage, I was fully immersed in the work. I find that spending as much time as possible working each day is the best way to get the entire book inside your head, so that when you tweak one part you instantly know which other parts will be affected by the change. So when I realized that Carl Kelley would need to tell Dirk Merrit about the plot to rob him, because it gave Carl the perfect excuse to head off to Los Angeles, I also knew that Dirk Merrit would be in on one of the subsequent deaths, and that this would later affect a couple of paragraphs in the closing chapter. And because I had everything in my head, I was also able to work put exactly where I needed to sharpen and underline the motivations and feelings of just-promoted hotshot detective Summer Ziegler, and make sure that her scenes were always from her point of view. I could also see which scenes were too long or too short, and prune out a couple that were actually unnecessary. And I realized too (it’s obvious; I’m stupid) that it really is better, in a murder mystery, to keep chapters short and focussed on one character rather than switch back and forth between parallel scenes.

All of which sounds as if I didn’t really plan this out or think it through before I started writing it, which isn’t quite true. But I tend to be a seat-of-pants writer and like to find out things as I go along, even at this late stage, rather than exhaustively plot and plan everything; it means a lot more work, but I also have a lot of fun exploring alternative plot lines. I’ve thrown out what must amount to about 50% of what ended up in the novel - an opening sequence in which Summer rescues a street kid from a beating, for instance, chapters involving her confidential informant, and scenes set at her deceased father’s half-built house - but I think now that what’s left in is absolutely necessary.

Anyway, it’s a glorious day today, and I’m off to snoop in some of the neighbourhood gardens which are open for charity.
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