Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Downs and The Ups

Today started badly. Man in truck reversed into the front of my car, destroying number plate, breaking bumper and inserting tow hook so decisively into the wreckage that the two vehicles were as firmly attached as a pair of mating dogs. Much fiddling about with a jack, splintering of plastic and general struggling later, and they were finally parted. Sucks as a curtain-raiser to a new day, and on the whole it set the pattern for much of what was to follow.

There was one glimmer of sunshine, though, since on my return from the scene of the truck v. car strife, oily-handed and irritated, I found an e-mail tipping me off to the existence of kind words about Winterbirth, uttered by a notably talented author. Jeff Vandermeer, in his Best Sf/f of 2007 report for Locus, says 'Winterbirth is the debut of a formidable fantasist, capable of writing complex and often fascinating heroic fantasy.' Very nice, and all the sweeter for coming from someone who has written remarkable books: City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek are distinctive, strange and fascinating concoctions that linger in the mind long after you've finished reading them.

Ah, life's rich tapestry. It'd be nice to dispense with the downs and only have the ups, but I guess that would asking a bit too much.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Possibly the Coolest Bridge in the World ...

... is just outside Edinburgh: the Forth Rail Bridge. It was looking particularly fine a couple of days ago, i.e. any excuse to inflict another of my photos on the internet:
And it has an important connection to the sf/f world too, being the direct inspiration for The Bridge by Iain Banks, as can be seen from the cover of this edition. That was one of his earliest non-M books, and very good it is too: it was marketed as more or less mainstream fiction, but it's got more than a hint of industrial magic realism about it. A precursor of the New Weird, before anyone had even thought of the term.
As anyone paying attention will know, Mr. Banks, in his M incarnation, is big news at the moment, with the imminent release of the first Culture novel in years. Sometimes the hype for a new release runs way ahead of what's reasonable, but this is one of those occasions when the author's earned every single iota of the anticipation and more.
The Forth Rail Bridge also, coincidentally, lives up to the all the hype when you see it in the steel and brick flesh. Awesome.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Reads and The Watches and The Listens

I've just finished Vol 2 of The Walking Dead, which is one of those things that used to be called a comic back when I was buying a lot of these things, but now that they put them out in nice fat collected editions we get to call them graphic novels. Anyway, I'm liking it lots. Really, you should give it a try if you like your fiction with word balloons. It may be set during a zombie apocalypse, but hard as it might be to believe, it's not actually about a zombie apocalypse. It's about people trying to get along together in a distinctly pressurised situation. And like all the best comics, as it goes along it gathers layers of chronology and relationships and backstory that make the whole feel greater than the sum of its parts.

Way back in the early days of this blog I spent a happy couple of posts complaining about Torchwood. By the end of that first series, I'd watched almost all the episodes, and had lost a big chunk of self-respect along the way. I really didn't like it, for specific and to me glaringly obvious reasons, and yet I kept watching the damn thing in the foolish hope that they could salvage something from the pheromone-soaked wreckage. They never did, really. Apparently some people liked it, but me ... not so much.

So now series two is underway, and I dutifully watched the first episode, and lo and behold I think I might actually have quite enjoyed it. They've tweaked the tone in a pretty major way, and it works a lot better for me: bit more humour, taking itself fractionally less seriously, a few more one-liners, marginally fewer holes in the plot. Definitely enough to get me to come back next week.

And over on ITV, we've got Primeval starting its new series too, and the first episode of that was OK too. It's a lot clearer - and a lot simpler - about what it's trying to do than Torchwood is: let's have some sf-ish fun with CGI monsters and secret organisations. The actors play it pretty straight on the whole, but it's in the service of straightforward, fun entertainment. A perfectly harmless way of spending an hour or so in front of the telly. It's kind of cool to have two UK-made sf series on the box both at the same time, and for them both to be watchable (so far).

And finally, since that's a lot of entertainment to be inserting into your brain through your eyes, here's something interesting that goes in through the ears: The Reality Check podcast interviews the man behind the Escape Pod fiction podcast. Escape Pod has turned itself into a definite fixture on the sf short story scene, and it's interesting to hear a bit about where it came from and where it's going. Well worth checking EP out, if you haven't already.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Further Adventures in Facebookland

As previously mentioned here, I'm on Facebook and likely to say yes to Friend requests from Winterbirth readers. That's old news. Now, in our continuing mission to explore the new worlds of the internet frontier, Winterbirth has its own Facebook page. Yes, why bother with the author when you can now go directly to the crux of things and make friends with (or in this case 'become a fan of') a book. It's got all the usual stuff Facebookers will be familiar with: pictures, discussion board, news items, blog feeds, links to extract from the book etc. etc. Quite neat. No idea whether it will appeal to people or not, but if you like Winterbirth, go along and have a look, maybe sign up as a fan (or, as I like to think of it, 'moral support'). If there's enough interest, there might be some Facebook-exclusive stuff that shows up there eventually.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Public Lending Right: The Movement of (Mostly) Small Amounts of Money

I've just been initiated into one of the more obscure financial rituals of the writing business: got my first statement of income under the Public Lending Right scheme. Under PLR, each time a book is borrowed from a UK library, the author (assuming they've registered for the scheme), gets a little bit of cash. 'Little' is the operative word here: the rate is currently just under 6p per loan. Unless you're a bit of an exceptional case (of which more later, complete with facts and figures), PLR isn't going to be paying for many holidays. Still, it's a welcome token. Another minor way of tracking your book's journey out into the big wide world.

The income for the author would be much higher, of course, if all those library loans had been book purchases instead. You can hope some of those borrowers might become buyers in the future, or that they'll tell their buying friends about this great book they've just read, but at the end of the day helping writers sell books is not why libraries exist. Shocking, I know, but it's true apparently. Their purposes are rather nobler, and having a well-used library system is an inherently good thing for a country and a society. So I'll just take my PLR payment as a sign that I've become a tiny little cog in the wheels of A Good Thing and be grateful that people are reading the book anywhere and anyhow.

The PLR people have also put out a booklet in which 'writers comment on the PLR scheme, its future priorities and the broader context of authors' rights.' Sounds dull as ditchwater, right? Well, probably. You can judge for yourself if you like, since this is the pdf of the booklet, but in case you're not so inspired, here's a few things that caught my eye:

There are 37,000 authors (I think they might be including some illustrators, translators etc. in that figure too, but I'm not sure) registered for the PLR scheme, with around 1,400 new ones joining each year. Wow. That seems ... quite a lot.

The number of visits to libraries each year is increasing, but the number of book loans and the number of books bought by libraries are both decreasing. People are obviously finding things to do in libraries that don't involve actually borrowing printed books. Does suggest a slight disconnect developing, though, since as far as I'm aware the number of new titles published each year has been going up, so if the libraries are buying less of them, does that mean the proportion of titles that are available through libraries (in printed form, at least) is declining?

No surprise to anyone, I imagine, but writing is a top heavy business. Some recent research says the top 10% of authors now accrue 50% of all income earned by writing. The bottom 50% get just 10% of the riches. That'll be the 'death of the midlist' everyone keeps talking about, I guess, but if anything those figures seem less extreme than I would have expected them to be. Still, in recent years the figures for wealth distribution in the UK as a whole have shown a very similar pattern, to within a couple of percentage points. Maybe under the British version of capitalism, the top 10% of every category just naturally get 50% of everything. Law of Nature or something.

According to the same research, the average income from writing for UK authors is declining and is now down to £4,000 p.a. Treasure that day job. Really. Maybe even get another one, just to be on the safe side.

Also available is the PLR's annual newsletter, which is even less interesting to a non-writer on the whole (although if you've got masochistic tendencies, or just like to know how things work, here's the pdf of that, too). But it does have some more of those facts and figures I so enjoy:

Approximate total number of book loans from UK libraries per year: 323 million (down from 330 million the previous year).

About 83% of resgistered authors received less than £100 as their PLR payment this year. See what I mean about it not paying for many holidays? This includes 35% who received nothing at all. You don't get paid anything if your earnings are under £1, I think, plus there's probably some registered authors with no books in-print.

Just over 4% have a PLR income in excess of £1,000 this year. That includes 242 lucky souls (less than 1%), who qualify for the maximum allowable payment of £6,600. In order to get that, your books have to be borrowed a very impressive 110,000+ times. I did actually go onto the PLR website to see how many sf/f/h authors are on their lists of most borrowed writers, but to be honest there're hardly any and you could guess who they are with a moment's thought: JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, that kind of thing.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Winterbirth was borrowed rather a lot less than 110,000 times. Still, it's always good to have something to aim for.

Friday, January 04, 2008

What I Did During The Holidays

Amongst other things, I was one of the 20,000-odd people carrying a torch in this little gathering:

Then, a couple of days later, with around 100,000 others, went to the New Year's Eve concert in the middle of town that ended at midnight with this:

New Year - or Hogmanay as it's properly known around these parts - has always been a big deal in Scotland, but in Edinburgh these days it's turning into a full-on Winter Fire Festival that runs over several days. There's a definitely pagan feel to it, with flaming torches, burning wicker effigies, tons of fireworks, and great hordes of friendly drunk folk.

It's so obvious why people needed this kind of thing back in ye olden days, and still respond to it today. In the midst of a cold, wet, dark winter, the light and the heat and crowds and noise are - if you're in a tolerant or an excitable kind of mood - life-affirming.

I increasingly see the whole festive period as a three-stage process, cycling from the public to the private and back again. It starts off some time in early December, when a strange sort of collective, almost unconscious delirium slowly begins to take hold. The shared consumerist frenzy slowly builds, goaded on by relentless TV advertising and the forests of Christmas decorations that sprout in shops and on our streets, until there is a great eruption of mass hysteria on or around the 23rd and 24th of December. This is an intensely public phase of the festivities, enacted by thousands upon thousands, played out on the high streets, in the malls and at the cash registers. It's all good fun, though I'm not sure you could call it harmless.

There's then a second, much quieter, and increasingly brief, phase (only loosely related to the first, as far as I can tell) in which everyone retreats into tiny little groups of friends and family, turning their backs upon the outside world for a day or two, and clusters around the TV and the food-laden platters. This is the private, quiet stage of the process, and it's kind of nice.

Then the tidal wave of New Year's Eve celebrations looms on the horizon, and the celebrations are back out onto the street, into the bars, zooming into the night sky on rocket trails.

It's good stuff, but it's all done now. There'll be another along all to soon, but in the meantime, here's hoping we all have a good 2008.

Oh, and as a bonus, to get the year off on the right foot, some of that white stuff that used to be so common when I was a kid but isn't any more shows up, and I get to make my mark on 2008 right here in it's first week: