Saturday, 26 September 2009

The t-word, David Cameron and me

To offend or not to offend? When you pick some words you know there’s a risk that people will be upset. But other words are not so clearcut.

I’m talking about the t-word. Some people will know immediately what I mean. To them the t-word has the same meaning as the c-word and nearly the same strength. But others won’t be aware of the t-word as an offensive word at all. They think it’s a mild insult, literally a blend of twit and prat. That’s how I think of it, and that’s how I used it. That’s how my character Ty would use it. But that isn’t how everyone reads it.

One of the strange things about having your book on the Amazon Vine review programme is that the reviewers are reading uncorrected proofs - not the final version. So when an otherwise intelligent and thoughful reviewer (like all my reviewers so far!) commented unfavourably on my use of the t-word in her review, it gave me a chance to think. Was she a mad over-reactor? Or should I make a change?

I felt reasonably certain that most people used the t-word the way I did. David Cameron recently got into trouble for using it in a radio interview, making a lame joke about Twitter - he wasn’t even aware of what he’d said. Jacqueline Wilson had complaints when she used it in My Sister Jodie - and the book was changed, but  she was writing for younger children. When I Was Joe is for teens, it has a sprinkling of swear words including the one that begins with f. Was the t-word worse? For how many people? And did it matter?

I got my first clue when I asked my children about the t-word. What did they think it meant? They thought, like I did, that it meant an idiot. My husband  however turned slightly green. ‘Are you sure you should be using that word in front of the children?’ he asked. But the obscene meaning is obselete, I argued. He disagreed.

I ran a short unscientific vox pop on Twitter. Quite a few people did find the word offensive. All of them - like my husband and the Amazon reviewer, like the woman from County Durham who first complained about My Sister Jodie - came from the north of England.

Meanwhile in the comments on the BBC story about David Cameron someone tells an entertaining story of moving from south to north and shocking people with his liberal use of the t-word (just as my Mancunian mother-in-law surprised me the first time I went to Manchester when she shouted over the road to a neighbour ‘Hello, you old bugger!’)

So I discussed it with my editor - such a southerner that he, like David Cameron, was not particularly aware of the potential to offend. And we decided to change it. Because if you’re going to offend people you need to mean it. And I didn’t mean it in the way that people might take it in this case, and as it comes early on in the story it could give people the wrong idea about Ty. I don't think it's censorship, It's a writer trying to be as precise as possible in the way she uses language - right up to the deadline for making changes.

I’d thought that the mild version of the word was so generally used that the ruder one was old-fashioned or obsolete. I hadn’t realised that many people would not even know that there was an alternative milder version.

So, if you’re reading an uncorrected proof of When I Was Joe and you reach page 21, the t-word is now  ‘tosser’. I trust that’s just offensive enough for everyone
Update. Some great comments below, from top YA writers -  Luisa Plaja (Split by a Kiss and Extreme Kissing), Gillian Philip (Crossing the Line and Bad Faith) and Rachel Ward (Numbers).

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The joy of editing

Some writers moan about editing. It’s painful - boring – impossible. It’s not creative. The joy of telling a story, inventing, imagining, creating is gone, and in its place you’re fussing around, checking and cutting.

But I love editing. The hard work is done. The story is there. Now I can trim and shape, experiment and refine without the big worries of where the narrative is going or what’s going to happen next.

I’ve just finished - hurray! – the first draft of Almost True. I loved writing the sequel to When I Was Joe but it was tough. I did a lot of rewriting right at the beginning, and then later on I found other work getting in the way. It’s taken a year to get the first draft done - double the time it took to write Joe.

However, partly because it’s been a longer process I’ve done a lot of editing as I go. There’s not so much to revise (until I hear from my agent and editor that is, they may disagree) Even so, it’s satisfying and fun to go back over sentences and chapters. Is that bit in the right place? Have I explained this clearly enough? Editing isn’t separate from writing, it just makes things clearer and sharper.

Almost True is a long book - 13,000 words longer than Joe. Will my editor think it's too long? Will he see cuts that I haven't spotted?

Candy Gourlay reported on a workshop held by Working Partners senior commissioning editor Sara O’Connor, whose message was summed up as: Slash, burn, chop, chop, chop. She gave excellent advice for writers of fantasties, and all writers - read it here.

If you’ve worked as a section editor on a newspaper you know that you can cut any piece of writing to fit, if you need to. What’s more, a good editor can usually make cuts that even the writer doesn’t notice. You also know that even the best writers can’t spot all the flaws in their work. Every piece of writing needs editing, first by the writer and then by an editor - someone to represent the eventual reader.

The perfect metaphor for editing is gardening. Do you want your garden choked with weeds, overgrown with towering shrubs ? Believe me, you do not. Some gardens just need a little pruning, others are crying out for a total makeover. Our garden was neglected for 12 years - 10 years when we lived abroad and rented it out to tenants, then another two while we failed to do anything about it.
Today was the day when the garden got its major rewrite. It doubled the available space. Beautiful plants got a chance to breathe. We re-discovered features that we'd completely forgotten about.
And now every time I sit in my garden I'm going to see it as editing in action.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The film I hate the most

Ask me my favourite film and my mind goes blank. There’s too much choice, I can’t remember them all, let alone choose. But ask which film I hate the most and it’s easy. No competition.

My most hated film stars Lindsay Lohan. But that’s not why I hate it - in fact I quite like Ms Lohan, especially in Mean Girls. I like Mean Girls because it has witty lines and although it’s played for laughs it rings true. Unlike the vile, revolting piece of rubbish that is The Parent Trap.

Why do I hate it so much? Is it the cutesy-ness, the way it has wee Lindsay playing twins, differentiated by accent rather than any discernable human quality? Is it the stereotype of England it pushes complete with creepy butler who - excuse me while I vomit - has a clap hands and dance routine that he performs with the little Lohan muppet?

No. None of those things. If those were its only crimes then it would be merely down there among my most irritating films - alongside Madagascar - yeuch - or the disappointing Shrek 3.

The Parent Trap’s offence is sentimentality. It has an interesting premise - twins, separated as babies by warring parents meet by chance and discover that a) they have a twin and b) they have another parent. It then drowns that glimmer of an idea in syrup, chokes it with sugar plums and garrottes it with a liquorice lace. The twins feel no rage or hatred at discovering the trick that their parents have played on them. They experience no envy, uncertainty or sorrow at the loss they suffered. There is only delight at being reunited with the parent who effectively rejected them and made no attempt to see them again. Instead of washing their hands of these irresponsible and selfish parents the twins plot to bring them back together again. Denial wins! A happy ending! The viewer is left wondering which sister will turn to substance abuse first. Perhaps Lindsay should make a sequel.

Some books and films for children sacrifice emotional  depth  for plot. That’s fair enough if all that happens is a pressing of the mute button. Not every series needs to be full of wrenching psychological angst. Anthony Horowitz’s brilliant Alex Rider series for example is all action, but when you do hear about Alex’s inner life you believe every word.

But sometimes books and films substitute real emotion for sentimentality. They sell their characters and their readers short. They fall into The Parent Trap.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A life built of lies - for telling the truth

You can never see your family again, or visit your home town. You live in constant fear of an attack, and you have only one or two people to help you. You have to build a new life, make new friends, but you can’t tell them anything about yourself, your background, why you are living there. You're not allowed to put family photos on display. You might have to be moved at short notice and start building up a new life all over again. Your life is made up of lie after lie, about the smallest things.

It’s hard to think of a crime that would fit such a punishment, but for a small number of people in the UK every year this is the reality of witness protection. When a witness to a crime is deemed to be in danger which could lead to their death, they can be offered police protection including a new identity. The criminals they are testifying against might get 20 years in prison. Witness protection, on the other hand, is often a life sentence.

I’ve known about witness protection for a long time because I used to be a news editor, and I remembered stories like this, but the idea for When I Was Joe came from a news report about the Dixon family, a six-year-old boy and his parents who had to be taken into the scheme because they were the victims of a £53m robbery on a security firm’s depot. The boy was taken hostage, and acted with extreme courage, wriggling between the bars of a cage to free the other prisoners. His reward was the loss of everything he knew.
His mother gave evidence at the trial – a trial in which defence barristers accused her and her husband of being involved with the crime. She said: "We have had to leave our home we have lived in for 20 years."
"We have been relocated a number of times. We have been estranged from our family and friends.
"The consequences of what these people did have changed our lives completely." The family were considering emigrating to Australia, but even then would only be able to visit Britain in disguise.

Danielle Cable was 17 years old when her boyfriend Stephen Cameron (pictured here together) became the victim of a ‘road rage’ stabbing by a gangster, Kenneth Noye. When Danielle was taken into witness protection she had half an hour to pack her bags, and no chance to say goodbye to family and friends.
Danielle’s case was high profile, and a film was made about her ordeal which included being taken to Spain to identify Noye so he could be extradited. However she has never been able to come out of hiding.
In a rare interview she told the Daily Mail that she hadn’t seen two of her brothers since she was relocated, and she didn’t see her mother for four months. Her phone calls were strictly limited and it takes six weeks for letters to reach her. Although she has now married and built a new life, she will always fear becoming the victim of a contract killing.

The good news is that witness intimidation is still rare - it affects only 8 per cent of cases according to a recent government survey. The bad news is that one key protection for witnesses - the right to remain anonymous in court – is under threat, after the House of Lords ruled that a defendant has the right to know who accuses him.

Most people given new identities are criminals who inform on former colleagues. Darren Nicholls was quoted recently in a fascinating piece in the  Telegraph, which examines the paradox that increasingly the expertise built up to protect witnesses is being used for criminals. The more notorious the crime, the more the state ends up paying to protect the criminal.
''Learning to adapt to having a new name is a nightmare,'' says Nicholls, who has had his new identity for ten years. ''Sometimes when work mates call out my name I just don't respond, even to this day. I am constantly on my guard, wondering if I will say something that will give me away, if I will trip myself up. You have to remember every little word of your 'legend'. One slip and it would be all-too-easy to out yourself.

''The hardest part for me is my kids. They were five and six when I had to disappear, which means they were old enough to remember their old life. They constantly nagged that they wanted to go back to our old town, and wanted to keep in touch with their friends. Explaining why they couldn't was really difficult. I don't think they will ever understand the very real danger I could be in but that's not something I want to dwell on.”

In When I Was Joe, 14-year-old Ty witnesses a crime, does the right thing by telling the police and has to be given a new identity - Joe. He and his mum have to pack their bags and leave, first to a hotel, then to a safe house. It struck me that a teenager being given a new identity might quite like the chance to start again – but there are dangers in changing too much about yourself when you’re going through the massive upheaval of adolescence anyway. For Ty’s mother it feels like she’s lost everything she’s built up – and that’s an enormous blow for someone who’s worked so hard for every little thing in her life.

The events in the book are dramatic and may seem almost unbelievable. I've just had an Amazon Vine reviewer query the  details and I'm confident that everything is grounded in fact. Witness protection is a murky area though, it's patchy, varies from case to case and police force to police force and  the people who go through it are generally unable to speak out and draw attention to themselves. An MP who campaigns on their behalf - Simon Hughes  -  ended up with a contract on his life, and police protection after bravely intervening to gain justice when a young man Jamie Robe was killed in his constituency.

I wonder how many children in the UK are living under witness protection. Your new neighbours, the new boy in your class - it could be them.

Or it could be you or your sister or a friend. Recently I was telling a friend about my book. 'That's strange,' she said, 'There was a murder in our street last week. The police were round, they wanted to take a statement from my husband. But we knew the people..they knew us. The police said they'd protect us -  but my husband wouldn't do it. And then, wouldn't you know it, it turned out they had the whole thing on CCTV.'

Update: As a result of this post I discovered that my sister had a colleague who was taken into witness protection because her son had witnessed a crime (Don't ask me why she hadn't mentioned it before!) One day the colleague was there, the next she was gone - she just had time to call and explain to her boss that she was being relocated. And  the people she worked with never heard from her again.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Sex, Violence and Swearing

How much swearing is too much? Is it appropriate for 12-year-olds to read sex scenes? What about violence - will a gory story upset your child or turn him into a knife-wielding maniac?

Should parents, teachers and librarians protect children from difficult and controversial content - and if so how? Maybe there needs to be a rating system on books, as there is for films and videos? Or how about a content listing - this book contains sexual references, violence and offensive language?
These subjects have been discussed in several blog posts recently. Nathan Bransford opened a fascinating discussion about ratings here and writers Meg Harper and Gillian Philip wrote about violence in children’s literature, and how it can be censored by publishers, teachers and librarians.
The debate says a lot about the way we see children nowadays. Where’s the trust in their ability to think and judge for themselves? Is it because adults don’t have the time to talk to them about what they are reading? Or because parents believe by shielding them from reading about unpleasant subjects they will never come across them?
We don’t read books to learn about ourselves - how boring would that be? We read to touch other people’s lives, imagine situations we have never been in. We learn empathy, we learn about people, we learn about the world. The most protected and privileged children are the ones in most need of books which will open their minds to the problems that life can and will bring.  If parents have strong beliefs and ideas that they wish to pass onto their children, then books are a good way to let the children test those principles. They will be doing that in the real world soon enough.
There’s also a lot of snobbery about certain books for children. Actually almost any book helps develop the imagination. Compelling series shouldn’t be sneered at - we can all learn something from their power to grab readers. Children need to be encouraged to read not censored. If they love a book they should be encouraged to talk about it, not censured for their taste.
I’ve been reading the excellent YA book Catching Fire this week, sequel to  the equally brilliant Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Set in a futuristic world, the US has turned into Panem, where 12 poor miserable districts are ruled by a rich capricious Capitol. Every year children from the districts must compete in the Hunger Games, the ultimate reality tv show in which the 24 tributes kill each other one by one until only the victor remains.
These books are packed with horrific violence. Much of it is gratuitous, it’s impersonal - and that’s exactly the point. Suzanne Collins often puts the reader in the place of the audience who lap up the excitement and the entertainment of the Games. It’s a very clever, perfectly pitched piece of writing, completely compelling and, yes, potentially upsetting. How could a rating sum up what Collins does so cleverly? How many parents would want their children to read a book if a content panel on the back warns you that a boy is torn apart by mutant dogs, or a girl is stung to death by venomous hornets? But these are important books for children to read.
My books contain violence, swearing, some sexual content. It's all necessary to tell the story I want to tell. My 9-year-old read the first five chapters of When I Was Joe. He enjoyed it - OK, he had to say that -  but he thought it was too old for him. That's fine. He was able to make that choice.
 Parents - when your children are reading, look away. Let them get on with it. They're growing up as they read.
But when your child recommends a book, or wants to discuss it with you - say yes, and get reading. It's your best chance to talk about things that really matter.

Thursday, 3 September 2009


I'm spitting with rage at the news - thanks to Kris, who blogs from Stoke Newington -  that this fabulous piece of graffiti art by Banksy has been destroyed by Hackney Council. Unbelievable.
Baroque in Hackney has a picture of how it looks now. As she says - can't the idiots who run Hackney Council tell the difference between tagging and a piece of public art?
It was painted on the side of a privately-owned property, and the owner was begging them not to destroy it. I hope she sues them.
According to Kris even the men from the council  had tears in their eyes. But they did it all the same.

Update: Accoridng to the BBC, Hackney Council have now admitted that they screwed up. Boneheaded councillor Alan Laing  has been defending the council's right to do whatever it wants but now admits:   "Due to a problem at the land registry unfortunately our letters stating our intention to clean this building didn't reach the owner.
"As soon as we realised this, work stopped. We are now speaking with her about how to resolve the issue."
The owner Diana Attrill said:  "I don't care about art or politics - I am just an ordinary girl who liked being cheered up by seeing this on my street.

"People have always been telling us to sell it or cover it in Perspex, but we only wanted it to be here for the public's enjoyment.
"You can't take a photo if it's behind a thick plastic screen."
She continued: "We never wanted to make money out of it like many do - but it was a part of our lives. Now it's gone.
I know there are more important things to be getting upset about. But wanton destruction just gets me down.