Monday, 29 February 2016

Book review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

I like books with clever premises that actually deliver. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness is one. It asks the question of what if you’re not the chosen one, but just a normal person living your ordinary life next to them. It has two stories in one: a Buffy-style high school urban fantasy of special people who battle vampires and gods trying to take over the world, and a coming of age story of a group of ordinary high school students who battle more personal problems that are every bit as devastating in their own way.

The first story is told in a summary at the beginning of every chapter and is referred to only fleetingly in the actual story. The main focus of the book is on Mike, the first person narrator, and his family and friends who are preparing for graduation – provided that the gods don’t blow up the school before that. They are aware of the odd things happening around them and can’t escape from getting involved in them too, but surviving an apocalypse isn’t quite as important to them as the finals, the prom and who is going with whom.

Each character has his or her own problems. Mike has OCD, his sister an eating disorder, her best friend is about to be dragged to a war-torn country to deliver the word of God, and his best friend is a god – or one third of a god anyway. Since the book is told by Mike from his point of view, his problems dominate and they get a little heavy at times. I would have wished that at least one character would be without personal demons to lighten up the mood. As is, the problems get a bit overwhelming at times, as they are all the narrative is about. But I liked Mike and his friends and wished for a happy end for all of them. And the ending is a happy one – and the apocalypse is defeated too. It’s just not as simple and rosy as in many young adult books.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the first book I’ve given five stars to this year. The stars are partly because of the dual narrative that pokes gentle fun at the chosen one trope, and partly for a cast of characters that is diverse and multi-dimensional. Mostly though, they’re because it’s a solid coming of age story with a hopeful ending that left me feeling good despite everything that happened in the book. If the ending is a bit easy, considering all the difficulties the characters faced leading to it, I don’t really care. The story is told so well that even an easy solution feels like a true victory for the characters.

This is a young adult book that has no graphic content, so it can be read by slightly younger readers too. But it has enough depth to interest readers that aren’t exactly high school students anymore. I warmly recommend it to everyone.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Who owns ideas anyway?

Earlier this week authors around the world where bemused for learning that Sherrilyn Kenyon, the author of Dark-Hunter series, has sued Cassandra Clare, of The Mortal Instruments fame, for copyright infringement, basically for using an idea she regards as uniquely her own. Their fans obviously took sides, but authors seemed to hold the opinion that she doesn’t have a case. No one owns ideas.

We’ve all been there. We’ve written a book, thinking we’ve created a unique piece of literature unparalleled to anything else, only to realise that someone has beaten us to it. And they’ve probably done it better too. We’re gobsmacked, unable to fathom how our brilliant idea could have occurred to another person and on another side of the world even.

The answer may be simple. There are only a limited number of stories that we’ve duplicated and varied over millennia. Maybe there are only four stories, like Paul Coelho maintains, or a couple of thousand, but “the same elements used in much the same ways seem to yield staggeringly different and original results in the hands of each artist who picks them up”, as Damien Walter notes on his blog. The details change, but the core remains. As Courtney Milan noted about the lawsuit, “Sherrilyn Kenyon didn’t invent the idea of a band of humans fighting the supernatural”, nor did she invent blond heroes or magical items. She simply utilised them in her own unique way – as did Cassandra Clare.

Both maintain that their creations are unique, and they’re both right. Authors are sponges who get their ideas anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes we know the moment the idea for a book struck, but most of the time they evolve slowly. And as authors are also readers, often the ideas are sparked by something we read in someone else’s book. Does that mean the idea isn’t ours? No, as long as we make it ours. But it also means that if someone else uses the idea we’re absolutely certain no one else has thought of before us, we have to let them.

More than once I’ve changed a story-line, character, or idea because I’ve realised I’m repeating what another author has already done. But as often, I’ve kept it. I’ve thought that I’ve created something unique and although the idea is the same, the outcome isn’t a copy of someone else’s work. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about the plagiarism of actual texts; that’s a whole different problem.

What would happen if Ms Kenyon won her case? We would be required to write completely unique books. There wouldn’t be a multitude of vampire books, or serial killer books; there would be only one romance with a billionaire, or a cowboy, and only one space opera with huge space ships, and so on.

It’s an exaggeration of course, and already impossible due to a sheer volume of similar books. Entire genres exist because they make use of the same core idea that no one can claim the authorship to. But it makes you realise just how much we rely on similar ideas. Take that away, and what do we have left? Not a whole lot.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Authors and social media

When new (or experienced) authors look for advice on how to make social media work for them, they find two conflicting opinions: You need to have a solid social media presence in order to sell books, but also that social media doesn’t sell books. Both are true. The gist of all the advice is this:
You need to be social on social media in order for it to work for you.
It’s not always easy to engage people on various platforms, but some are easier than others. People often comment on blog posts or posts on Facebook, but those seldom lead to conversations that build the kinds of social relationships that would advance the author’s sales. This is mainly because the person commenting is a ’visitor’ on the author’s space; they are not ’equal’ there. Also, people having the conversation are seldom present at the same time. Moreover, it’s difficult to engage more people in one conversation, so they die quickly.

So far, Twitter has been good at making social media social. The immediacy of Twitter, the feed that moves so fast it basically disappears as soon as you’ve seen it, has taught the users to seize the opportunity to answer or comment on tweets immediately. No one is a ’visitor’ on someone else’s space, people having the conversation are present at the same time, and more than one person can take part in it. It makes the conversations feel more genuine.

Once you’ve gone through the trouble of building a presence on one or more platforms, the platform may start working against you. The heavy users of Facebook are aware that not all posts are visible for all followers, or that they don’t see all the posts from the people they find interesting. You can pay for your posts to show up, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work. So far, that hasn’t been the case on Twitter. But it may be about to change.

Twitter has proposed to start offering the users a selection of tweets based on algorithms. We don’t know yet how Twitter will prioritise the tweets, but most likely it will be based on the users' own behaviour, or that of the more popular accounts. Therefore, the tweets you click on are those that you will see more of in the future. And vice versa. Your followers will only see tweets based on their behaviour. If they’ve never reacted to your tweets, nothing can guarantee that yours will be among the tweets they see in the future.

If your presence on Twitter has been an endless stream of links to your books no one has reacted to, it may be that in the future less and less people will see them. That makes it even more important to engage the social aspect of Twitter. If the algorithm prioritises tweets from accounts you engage with, you will have to start engaging more in order to be seen in the future.

Perversely, Twitter changed the conversation experience for the worse at the same time – at least for some users. On Tweetdeck everything still works the way it always has. Tweetdeck is perfect for engaging with people too, as you can see all your favourite accounts in columns. I’ve written about the usefulness of Tweetdeck here. And it could be that the algorithm, if it’s implemented, won’t affect the lists you’ve compiled, which makes Tweetdeck even more important.

Users are declaring the death of Twitter and offering alternatives. Facebook remains popular, and Google+ offers the same experience, even though many find it strange and difficult to use. But, as Anne R. Allen notes on her blog post about the importance of Google+ for authors, it’s “utterly useless for networking”. So far there isn’t an alternative for Twitter that offers the same immediacy and the sense of being in the same place at the same time. And if that disappears from Twitter too, it’ll be that much more difficult for authors to make social media work for them. So here’s hoping that won’t happen.

Until then, you can find me on Twitter as @crimsonhouseboo.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Age-inappropriate reading?

I had a good visit to the library today. I found three books that I actually want to read, not mere fillers I borrow because I don’t want to return home empty handed. They all come from the new arrivals’ shelf – always a delight when I can snatch something up first. My haul is The Rest of Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Angel of Storms by Trudy Canavan, and Dream a Little Dream by Kerstin Gier. What they have in common is that they’re fantasy of one kind or another – and that they’re all meant for young or young adult readers.

Having chosen, once again, exclusively from the youth department, I was inspired to revisit an old post that I wrote as a reaction to an article that appeared in Slate in 2014. The writer, Ruth Graham, was of opinion (probably still is?) that adults “should feel embarrassed” when what they’re reading is written for children. Not because the books are bad – she discards the obviously bad books and concentrates on those with literary merit. She objects to them because their (adult) readers “are asked to abandon the mature insights … that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”

Graham rejects YA fiction because she sees it merely as “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. Admittedly, it can be all that. Young adult fantasy is probably doubly escapist. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Nostalgia is necessary for humans from time to time. It puts our present and future into perspective. Moreover, young adult fiction can be so much more too. Some of the most insightful, innovative and unprejudiced fiction is written for young people – Patrick Ness being one of the writers at the top of the list.

Another crime of the YA fiction is, in Graham’s opinion, that it lacks the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world”. In a real world, and apparently in fiction based on it, there are no happy endings, and so “adult readers ought to reject [YA fiction] as far too simple”.  Anyone who has read John Green knows that’s simply not true (although, Graham’s article is actually written as a reaction to The Fault in Our Stars) and, while I admit that Kerstin Gier and Trudy Canavan tend to write books with satisfying endings, Patrick Ness doesn’t let his readers off easy either.

But the oddest notion of Graham’s is that adults who read YA fiction rob teenagers the chance of moving to the ‘grown-up’ fiction. I don’t even know how that could be possible. There is no natural path that guides readers from one type of books to another and from one age group to another. Books from different times, genres and literary ambitions coexist for anyone to find and read. Adults who read YA fiction do not make teenagers blind to other books. Moreover, just like adults want to return to their youth by reading YA fiction, teenagers have a need to experience the world of adults. They will discard YA books far faster than the adults who read them – perhaps to return to them later.

So I will continue to read anything I want and like. I won’t discard good books merely because of my physical age or my assumed stage of maturity. I won’t limit myself to books suitable for my age either. Young adult fiction has lessons to teach to me as well. And I won’t be ashamed of sometimes wanting to forget the reality, be it with the help of young adult or some other escapist fiction.