Saturday, 29 January 2011

The great library revolt continues …

Next Saturday, the 5th of February, read-ins will be held at libraries all over the country as part of Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book. Two weeks ago the residents of Stony Stratford borrowed every single book on the shelves in their local library, all 16,000 of them. Robin Ince writing in the New Statesman described it as "the first great library revolt of the 21st century."

Last week I posted an article suggesting that we could all follow the example set by the silent revolutionaries of Stony Stratford, and visit our local libraries on Saturday the 5th to borrow some books. Even better, why not take the whole family with us? In fact, why stop there? Let's get friends, neighbours, work colleagues … anybody and everybody, to visit their local library next Saturday and borrow some books. The more often libraries are used, the stronger the argument will be for keeping them open. It won't cost anything, except a few minutes of your time, and if you don't have a current library card then sign-up for one. It's free (Just take something with your name and address on for proof of ID)

But why should you give up your time? What does it matter if a few libraries close? According to the news, the country is on the brink of a depression, people are losing their jobs, life is getting tough for everyone – surely there are more important things to worry about than library closures? 
"Fine," writes Robin Ince. "In the struggle for existence, libraries may seem a low priority. But they are a sign that a society believes the life of the mind is important. If some are underused, the solution is not to shut them but to get people back inside them and remind them of why libraries are there." Indeed, in times of austerity, we will need our libraries more than ever. To borrow when we can't afford to buy, to access the internet when a home connection is beyond our means, and not least for the sense of community and place of refuge a library can provide. But don't take my word for it …

"For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that society has found one more way to destroy itself." – Isaac Asimov

"A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them." – Lemony Snicket

"We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth." – John Lubbock

"One of the fundamental ways in which we organise and make sense of our lives, the lives of others and the world in which we live is through stories." – Viv Martin

"The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries." – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

"The best of my education has come from the public library... my tuition fee is a bus fare and once in a while, five cents a day for an overdue book. You don't need to know very much to start with, if you know the way to the public library."  – Lesley Conger

"Librarian is a service occupation. Gas station attendant of the mind." – Richard Powers

"You might not belong to your library now, but, one day, when you walk by a building site promising luxury apartments, where kids on tricycles once excitedly wheeled back with their new favourite book on dinosaurs, you will be sorry that it is gone. Get out your library card and start borrowing again." – Robin Ince

So, please – spread the word. Let's see how many books we can borrow next Saturday (and beyond). We probably won't empty the shelves, but it's a start …

For a full list of library closures and a handy map see Public Libraries News
For more reasons to defend libraries, please see Voices for the Library 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Save our libraries – borrow a book!

On Saturday 5th February Alan Gibbons’ Campaign for the Book is organising co-ordinated ‘read-ins’ at libraries across the country. Most events are due to start around noon, but it would be worth checking local news and advertising for details.

It may be that there are no read-in events planned at your local library, which is the case with mine, but there’s no reason why we can’t still add our support. Here's an idea: 

Encourage everyone you know – family, friends, work colleagues, school friends, random strangers – to visit your local library on Saturday 5th of February and take out a book, or seven books (which is the maximum allowed here). It doesn't cost anything and what better form of protest against the proposed cuts to library provision, than to use the service in question? Let’s show in usage figures, how many people will be affected if these cuts go ahead. 

Of course don't limit it to Saturday – keep using your library. One of the easiest, and possibly most powerful forms of protest against the cuts, will be to get library usage figures up all over the country. 

I’ll be visiting my local libraries on Saturday the 5th and posting some pictures here. If you want to send me a photo of yourself, family and friends with your loans outside your library on Saturday – I’ll put them up.

If you're taking part in a read-in or have any other library campaign news, please leave a comment and we can spread the word.

Finally, here's a post from last month with some useful links to a number of articles discussing why libraries matter and what we can do to save them.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Fifteen minutes with William 'Witchfinder' Hussey - Part Two

Gallows at Twilight, the second book in the excellent Witchfinder series is out now. For the first part of my interview with author William Hussey, click here – or read on for part two …

8. Where do you write?
I have a very messy little study downstairs. Piles and piles of paper toppling every which way, books crowding every surface, research material cluttering the floor. The most important thing is it has a lock on the door and, if the door’s bolted that means do not disturb! The office means work: my writing computer isn’t connected to the internet so there’s never the temptation to spend hours surfing the web, the view through my window is painfully dull, and my phone is switched to silent. I’m just getting used to working in different environments – on public transport, in hotel rooms etc, but the office is where I work best.

9. Do you write with music on? If so what? What are you listening to now?
No, I must have silence. I even write with ear plugs in! I know many authors who can’t work without music playing in the background, but I love music so much, and I’m so emotionally affected by it, that it tends to impact on the tone of what I’m writing. It isn’t good if I’m writing a quiet scene and I’ve got Iron Maiden thrashing in my ear! Some writers get themselves into the mood of a scene by, say, playing the Indiana Jones soundtrack when writing an action sequence, but I would then find myself taken out of the universe of my book and into the realm of Indy – it just doesn’t work for me.

Currently on my iPod – Kings of Leon.

10. Do you use a notebook? Can you share with us the last thing you wrote?
I have lots of notebooks – it is the most important tool for a writer. I have one by my bed, one in the loo, two or three in my study, a whiteboard in the kitchen, one by the phone (I often get ideas when waiting for a call centre to pick up) and in my car I use the dictaphone function on my mobile – when I’m parked up and the engine’s turned off, of course! The last thing I wrote is a note for my next book – The Ghost Machine. It’s a nice little teaser actually – ‘The Skeleton Crew knew that Hiram Grudge was dead …’

11. How much research do you do? What kind and do you enjoy it?
I love research. I think it’s important, when writing fantastical fiction, that the real stuff is as genuine and as credible as it can be. You are asking your reader to accept some pretty incredible things – the existence of witches and demons, for example – so it’s important that you support their willing suspension of disbelief by getting the real-world stuff right. For example, say you’ve got a nuclear engineer who just so happens to be a werewolf in his spare time. Fine, you can be as out there as you want with the werewolf stuff, you can even reinvent the lycanthrope mythos, but you should also take the time to get the details of the nuclear engineer part right. What does his job entail? What’s his day-to-day routine? What stresses and strains does such a position put on him? What specific knowledge does he need? Does he have a uniform? You get that stuff sounding right and the reader will allow you to be as creative as you like with the werewolf element.

The only problem with research is when it becomes an excuse not to get the writing done. Research feels like bona fide work, you can pat yourself on the back for a whole day spent in the library, but it isn’t writing. No one will pay you for your research notes! So you must be strict with yourself. You know in your heart when you’ve done enough planning and research – the weight of material reaches a kind of critical mass – so be brave and start typing.

"Research gives you the writer, the confidence to stride purposefully through the world you’ve created and carry the reader with you."

The other thing is how to use your research properly. Just because you’ve spent an entire week labouring over nuclear engineering textbooks doesn’t mean that all your notes merit a place in the book. For Gallows at Twilight, I had 4 notebooks full of Civil War history, including the clothing of the period, the food, speech patterns, politics, the intricacies of the religious disputes of the time etc. I’d say that less than 10% of it made it into the finished book. My job was to give the reader a credible flavour of the period – not to bombard them with facts and figures and to show off how hard I’d worked. The reader just isn’t interested in all that. He or she wants to be put in the scene in as realistic a way as possible, and then to get on with the story. It’s hard, discarding all that research, but none of it is really wasted: it has given you, as the writer, the confidence to stride purposefully through the world you’ve created and to carry the reader with you.

12. What are you working on now?
I’ve been commissioned by OUP to write a series of stand-a-lone books about ‘genuine’ supernatural objects. Unlike Witchfinder, there will be a fresh batch of main characters and a new story in each book, but there will also be several connecting threads. I’m hoping that, when we come to the end of the series, I’ll be able to write a final book that draws all these characters together. I can’t say too much more about it at the moment, other than that I’m really, really excited! These books are a little less horror-based than Witchfinder – they’re more supernatural adventure stories, but I guarantee that they’ll be really spooky. The first is called The Ghost Machine and the second has the working title of Jekyll’s Mirror.

13. If you could tell people to read just one of your books, which one would it be?
Dawn of the Demontide – because they would then (hopefully!) be intrigued enough to read the rest!

14. Which book do you wish you had written?
So many books! But if I had to choose one, I’d say ’Salem’s Lot. It’s a perfectly crafted horror story – a single, isolated location, a wonderful cast of characters, a genuinely terrifying concept and bogeyman, beautiful pacing and great writing. I must have read that book 10 times or more!

15. What question do you wish I had asked you? 
(And what would your answer be?)
Can I buy you a pint, William? Thanks, Dave, you’re a gent!

Of course! It would be a pleasure William – the least I can do. 

Witchfinder Book 2: Gallows at Twilight is out now, published by Oxford University Press, in paperback and Kindle editions – available in all good bookshops and online here.

When not witchfinding, William Hussey can often be found at Trapped By Monsters. Take a visit … if you dare.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Fifteen minutes with William 'Witchfinder' Hussey - Part One

Gallows at Twilight, the second in the excellently terrifying Witchfinder series came out earlier this week. I bumped into author William Hussey while exploring the caves under the picturesque seaside town of Hobarron's Hollow – where the first story begins. I had lost my way in the endless twisting tunnels, and was beginning to think I would never see daylight again, when William found me. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions as he led me to safety …

1. I made the mistake of reading the first Witchfinder book, Dawn of the Demontide, at bedtime. There are some fairly gruesome moments – what made you want to write horror?
There are three reasons why I think I was always destined to write horror. First, my granddad used to make up bedtime stories for me when I was a kid, and virtually every tale had a supernatural element. Vampires, ghosts, gremlins, Frankenstein monsters and zombies – it was a wonder I ever got to sleep! And so horror was ingrained in me from an early age.

Another factor might have been my summer job. Every school holiday, I worked on my uncle’s rickety old ghost train. It was my job to wheel the cars through the swing doors and, when the ride broke down, to venture into the dark, cobwebbed innards of the ghost train and guide the screaming customers back to the light. My uncle used to roar with laughter as the riders were brought out, and I guess some of that desire to give people a case of heebie-jeebies must have rubbed off on me.

Finally, I used to live in a haunted house! I was five years old when my dad bought a plot of land and started building our first proper family home… right next to a crumbling graveyard! Dad had gone down to survey the work one night when he entered the lounge area and came face to face with a little old lady dressed entirely in black. Dad blinked, and the apparition vanished. Putting the experience down to imagination, he decided to keep the story to himself.

We had been in the house for just over a year when I encountered the ghost. She was waiting at the end of the long corridor that led to my bedroom, her wrinkled face frozen and her black eyes fixed on me. I didn’t feel frightened; her presence was strangely comforting, and I walked straight past her and into my room. Granny Ghost, as she came to be known, was sighted by half a dozen family members before we sold the house and moved away.

So, a grandfather who told me spooky stories before bedtime, a summer job on a ghost train, and a childhood spent in a haunted house. I was never going to end up writing romance novels, was I?!

2. Could you see yourself writing in any other genre in the future? If so, which?
Never say never! The Witchfinder books aren’t just horror stories, they also contain threads of adventure, fantasy, even romance! If you stick exclusively to one genre then you tend to pigeonhole yourself as a writer – the trick is to establish yourself in a certain area but pack your writing with enough variation so that you can branch out if you want to. Stephen King is a fine example of this – in the general consciousness he is viewed as a horror writer, but in fact there isn’t a genre he hasn’t tried. I have this idea for a sci-fi book in the mould of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos crossed with E.T. which I hope one day to write.

3. Did you always imagine Witchfinder as a series? When you started, did you have all three books in your head?
Yeah, it was always going to be a series. The story was just too big to fit into one volume. That said, I’d originally thought that it would occupy four books, but my brilliant editor at OUP (and yours, Dave!) looked at the outline for the complete story and thought that it would be told in a much punchier way in three volumes. As ever, Jasmine was right!

As for the story itself, I had roughly 60% of it planned out – I knew what the climactic scene of The Last Nightfall was going to be, but I didn’t have the route there completely mapped out. There was a lot of mist on the road ahead. And much of what I had planned changed in the writing, as it always does. I do tend to plan my books, but I also leave big gaps so that I can be creative within the writing stage and so that, on occasion, I can surprise myself. For example, in Book 3: The Last Nightfall, I was writing a battle scene when, quite suddenly, I killed a character mid-sentence – a character that I’d never intended to die. That’s the joy of writing, isn’t it? Surprising yourself.

4. Which book in the series have you enjoyed writing the most?
That’s really tricky because I’ve honestly enjoyed writing all of them. But if pushed I’d say it was Dawn of the Demontide. I finished the first draft and I just knew that the book was working and that it was good. That’s a very rare experience for a writer. Most of us are plagued with doubts and insecurities, and no matter how many good reviews we get, and how many times people say they’ve enjoyed our books, we always feel that we aren’t quite up to muster. Dawn of the Demontide was the first time I sat back after a first draft and thought, you know what? This is actually pretty good!

5. What has been the hardest part of the process?
Just keeping all the story in my head! By the time I got to writing the last book, I had over a hundred characters and a timeline that spanned 34,000 years of history! In the end it was like a carefully played game of chess, trying to get all the pieces into the right place and to provide a satisfying and dramatic conclusion to the story. By the time people read The Last Nightfall, they will have been journeying with these characters for something like 250,000 words and over 1,000 pages, so the pressure is on to give them a great denouement that ties up the loose ends in an exciting and unexpected way and that also has a real emotional punch. I’m really pleased with how the last book has panned out, so I hope the Witchfinder fans enjoy it.

6. Do you outline or make it up as you go along?
As I say, I do tend to plot things out, but never the entire story. I use an outline like one of those wooden supports or moulds that medieval builders used to employ when constructing cathedral arches – it’s there so that, in the early stages of story construction, the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down on top of me. As my confidence in the first draft grows, I gradually take that support away and continue building on my own. Many new writers who start out often have a great idea, and get 20 pages into their book only to come to a grinding halt. If you sit down and sketch out a rough plan first then that will never happen. But here’s the important thing – the outline should never be treated as a bible – a sacrosanct text that can’t be challenged or changed. It’s just there to get you started. Character is the god of story, and if you find that your characters don’t want to follow the outline then you should always stop and listen to them. That might sound a bit crazy, but good characters really do direct writers rather than the other way around.

7. What’s your daily writing routine?
I’m not a morning person. I read how other writers work – going out for a brisk walk at 5am and then writing 2,000 words before 10 o’clock. Bleurgh! Couldn’t do it. I get to my desk by 9 and spend an hour answering emails and doing admin work. Doing that kind of stuff gets my brain in gear. Then I grab a cup of strong tea and start writing. My rule is to write 2,000 words a day. I can do more, but never less. Writers are generally great procrastinators, so I think we need that discipline of a daily word target. Sometimes that means I’m done by 4pm, other times I’m still working at the midnight hour. If I’m editing then it’s a completely different kettle of fish. I tend of edit very quickly, just so I can keep the entire story in my head, so when I get notes back from my editor I’m often pulling 15 hour days to get those corrections done. It’s an exhausting but quite exhilarating process.

Part Two