Sunday, 22 January 2012

Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Award

Tomorrow (23rd January) sees the start of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award entry period.

The contest, sponsored by Amazon, Createspace, Penguin Group USA and Publishers Weekly, offers two grand prizes of a full publishing contract with Penguin, with a $15,000 payment to the winners (one each for general fiction and young adult fiction).

There are also prizes for finalists, quarter-finalists and second round finalists. Winners will be announced on June 16th. To my knowledge, all entrants receive a code to order a free proof copy of their novel from Createspace.

To be eligible to enter, you must be at least 13 years old and fully own the rights to a novel of between 50,000 and 150,000 words (i.e. it must not have been subject to a publishing deal before, but can already be self-published).

Entry is straightforward: in the first instance you will need to register with Createspace; you will then need to submit a pitch of less than 300 words, an excerpt of between 3,000 and 5,000 words and the complete version of your manuscript. The entry period runs from 23rd January to 5th February, or until 5,000 entries are received for your category (young adult fiction or general fiction).

Further details on the entry requirements and official rules can be found on the contest website:

Friday, 6 January 2012

Meeting the need to read

I'm always surprised when my occupations collide, which is strange, given that being an educator and an author are more similar than they are different. For instance, both involve the imparting of information to an audience; then there is the fact that a certain level of discipline is required, in the form of rules and deadlines, if one is to succeed in meeting one's aims and, much as it pains me to admit it, the outcomes of doing so in either role are equally rewarding.

Of course, to suggest that the role of teacher or author consists of 'imparting information' implies that the 'audience' is a passive receptacle, an empty vessel awaiting fulfillment, when indeed this notion has long since been abandoned in respect of our readers and is presently unfashionable in education, where the dichotomy of 'teaching and learning' has been reordered and replaced by a perceptually more egalitarian notion of 'learning and teaching'. Nonetheless, as a qualified, time-served member of the teaching profession, and one with a highly academic specialism at that, there are times when I can not help but engage in the didactic transmission of knowledge: me teacher, you students. Listen and learn, read and inwardly digest - that sort of thing.

Those engaged in teaching forty years ago perhaps did not experience a guilty sense of 'educating without consent', although (ignoring democratic consensus for a moment) all compulsory education is precisely this, which is where teaching and authorship depart to some degree. Novel writing is always a compromise between what we want to write and what we believe our audience wants to read. Get it wrong and they put the book down for good, a luxury of choice withheld from students, regardless of the quality of teaching / learning they are forced to endure.

As usual I digress, for my goal here is not to present ad hoc, anecdotal career advice. Rather, it is to vent my frustration at having received, from Amazon, a somewhat useless and generic guide to accessing Kindle books on multiple devices in response to querying whether Kindle based school libraries were possible. To put this in context, some years ago my school dispensed with its poorly stocked, rarely accessed library, a decision which, in light of Mr. Gove's 'golden age of education' delusion, is at best regrettable. Nonetheless, we needed the space and the finance freed by this move to fund our ever burgeoning computer network - a priority ascribed by the previous Government.

Now, as the Office of Standards in Education arm up with a new literacy based remit, we, like many institutions, are faced with the massive challenge of resuscitating reading for pleasure in a culture that has declared it a relic of the past. And whilst I (begrudgingly) agree with the Education Secretary's assertion that "Children who cannot read are condemned to spend their entire life in a prison house of ignorance"1., 'austerity' measures (robbing from the poor to give to the rich) have not only devastated our public library system, but ensured that parents already short on family time must now work longer and less sociable hours than ever before.

For all of this, children are reading, just not as much or in the same way as they used to. Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust in 20112. shows a preference for online reading - websites and emails have replaced comics and books, although more than half of the respondents reported that they read magazines, so it is not just the technological paradigm at work. Of greater concern is the significant decline in book reading related to children's age and one imagines Facebook is in no small way to blame. True enough, the transition from primary to secondary education puts an end to the fanatical and universal trawling home with reading books and on one level I'm very glad about that. There is nothing worse than dragging a screaming, kicking nine year old through the mandatory five pages of Biff, Chip and Kipper, the only benefit being that it won't be me coming under the scrutiny of a terrifyingly disappointed primary head teacher.

Thus, it is not so much that I believe Mr. Gove when he suggests illiteracy condemns our children in their ignorance. This is relatively easy to address: increase rather than reduce the funding to public libraries and schools; put reading at the centre of the curriculum; continue to set reading as homework at high school. All of these measures will force children to learn to read.

Alas what it can not do is make them like, or even love, reading, let alone writing. It is not just a 'prison house of ignorance' which threatens our society, but the poverty of creativity and expression, be that through the written word, music, sculpture or otherwise. It is not naive to suggest that the behavioural problems experienced by many of today's young people result from incapacity of expression. Various forms of mental health treatment and therapy utilise creative pursuits - painting, poetry, even the simple act of writing a letter - because they are the safest way of freely expressing our emotions and 'getting it off our chest'. Without such outlets, we must attempt to keep our frustrations firmly locked away, until such point as they become too great to contain.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with Kindle libraries in schools: if, as the research implies, young people are not reading books, but are reading online, then it is logical to conclude that they might find reading of books via Kindle or some other technological means a more tempting proposition than being coerced into carting a hard copy of 'The Hobbit' around for the next term. Now, if Amazon might like to catch up / read my questions more thoroughly (delete as applicable), I'd be happy to pilot a Kindle based library in my school, because I truly believe in the power of reading and writing, even if I doubt both the veracity and efficacy of Michael Gove's policies to eradicate illiteracy. In light of the cuts to arts funding and the absence of the visual and performing arts from the English Baccalaureate, the literacy drive is all that is left - a lone and inadequate raft on a Wide Sargasso Sea.

But we do have the technology...

  1. London Evening Standard (1st June, 2011) Michael Gove promises to free children from 'prison house of ignorance'
  2. National Literacy Trust (2011) The Gift of Reading in 2011: Children and young people's access to books and attitudes towards reading

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Back on the Beaten Track...

It's been a while since I wrote a blog post: seven weeks, at a guess, because it was some time in the first half of November, when National Novel Writing Month was in full flow. And whilst little has been happening within the realms of Beaten Track, it's been a hectic time otherwise.

Firstly, I finished NaNoWriMo, sort of, which is to say that I wrote more than 50,000 words (64,740, to be precise) and stuck in a few brief paragraphs, sets of bullet points etc. to outline the key plot points at the end. The editing, re-writing and whatever else this novel needs should be well under way by now, but alas this is not so. I've researched a little, changed some character names, tinkered with the first chapter - the usual toe-dip at the shoreline of the deep blue sea that is the first edit of a novel in progress. Before I go any further I'll have a good ponder over the star charts, draw up a map and sketch in the major landmarks, in the hope I don't get too lost once I set sail for real.

I also completed a far greater challenge, which has nothing and everything to do with writing at the same time. You see, my office / study / writer's den is what the rest of my family like to call 'the kitchen' and I suppose they have a point, given that it is where the cooker, sink, washing machine, fridge and food are located. It was a well-considered move on my part to place my work area within spitting distance of the kettle, not to mention that my dad bought us an awesome coffee machine a few weeks ago, which would fit perfectly on top of the cupboard just to my left, but Nige isn't having any of it.

Anyway, to cut a very long (17 and a half years) story short (a couple of paragraphs), the kitchen has been subject to many attempts to make it more practical and / or aesthetically pleasing. It all began during my student days, with the collapse of the cupboard holding up the sink, and every face lift since has been an interim measure on the way to the stainless steel kitchen that I didn't believe I would get, as back in the nineties it was the stuff of catering establishments only. It's a tricky room to begin with, being long and narrow, making it virtually impossible to place a table so that it doesn't block the thoroughfare to the fridge. Add to this the bizarre route of the chimney, the butt-end of a long-gone dividing wall and some substantial concrete cupboards and we're left with little room for manouevre.

Other than these permanent fixtures, the rest has been more or less rebuilt. We went from the original grey and pink tile-on-a-roll wallpaper, floral curtains and teak laminated chipboard, to 'farm kitchen' rough plaster and hand-built pine (and I really mean hand-built - like the sound effects on early Queen albums produced with 'no synths', I had no power tools for ease of sawing and drilling - I now own no less than five electric saws!). We had so much stuff, none of it matching, all of it secondhand, which is all well and good - I like recycling and saving money, but a cluttered work space is not conducive to good writing. If I get past the distraction of the mismatched, disorganised mess of everyday life in the first place, then it is guaranteed to make some kind of appearance in my work, unconsciously or otherwise. Thus, in the past my characters have variously blown up Christmas tree lights, tended lawns in blistering August sun, spent insomniac nights chatting online, consumed copious amounts of coffee and survived for weeks at a time on cheese on toast. More recently they might be found plastering, rewiring or in a state of woeful despair on account of collapsing walls and leaking pipes.

The kitchen as it was when we moved in.

Our first attempt - the surveyor suggested we invest in a proper kitchen. Pfft.

A snapshot of a wall at Manchester Airport, which became the colour scheme for the next paint job - this was during the post small children / pre-digital photography phase, so no photographic evidence could be located.

How we lived for the past two years - holes and rough plaster, prior to which there were holes and no plaster, a general lack of ceiling and half-fitted stainless steel cupboards.

The kitchen as it is now, complete with granite flooring, stainless steel, rewiring, plastered and papered walls and it all matches. Hurrah!

And so I return to what I started some time ago, although it has to be said that until such point as writing and publishing becomes my main source of income (an unfortunate catch 22 presides here), the best policy may well be to declare November and December my annual holiday from paid employment. After all, it is the part of the year when I write the most, improve my home and spend time with my family. It strikes me that this is more how things should be all year round. And since it's January 1st, it would be apt to declare my resolve to make it so. I won't be doing this, because we all know that New Year's Resolutions are made to be broken - it's only a matter of time. However, I'm happy to commit to doing my very best in continuing to develop Beaten Track Publishing, safe as I am in the knowledge that my workload is somewhat lighter in the first half of the year and that building a publishing company is a lot easier than rebuilding a kitchen!