Monday 24 December 2018

Happy Christmas, one and all!

Dear Santa

All I want for Christmas is ...

a book deal
a good book to snuggle up to
a story to start

failing that, there's always ...


A very merry Christmas to all you readers and writers from all of us at notes from the slushpile. x 

Friday 21 December 2018

Is It Time to Face the Truth About Facebook?

By Candy Gourlay

We were supposed to post our Notes from the Slushpile Christmas greetings today but I've been so bothered by recent events that I thought I'd push our Christmas post to Monday and put this out today. 


A lifeline to the world. A boon to authors who are their own marketing departments. A way to meet like-minded folk, share information and grow friendships with people you would otherwise never have had the chance to meet in a million years.

I have really valued Facebook. It is not an understatement to say Facebook has given me the world.

But recent news has left me wracked with discomfort and guilt about my enjoyment of Mark Zuckerberg's creation.

We have known the harm that Facebook has been doing for some time. Its addictive qualities have eroded not just our productivity but our capacity for face to face, real life interaction. We discuss and debate this problem but most of us do nothing because our need for that Facebook Rush outstrips any concern for our own wellbeing – like just having to eat that chocolate bar when you're trying to lose weight.

As an author, I depend on Facebook to engage with readers. I try to curate a Facebook feed that does not just talk about my books but delivers meaningful content about reading, literacy and writing.

But recently, I have had to ask myself: at what cost?


Isn't it funny how we all got used to giving up our data in exchange for all the conveniences and wonders of social media? When the Cambridge Analytica debacle happened, maybe some of us tweaked our privacy and permissions settings but it didn't stop us using Facebook.

And then there were security vulnerabilities that resulted in up to 50 million accounts being hacked.

And then those trusted partners FB shares our details with? They included "such powerful global firms as the Russian search engine (and Kremlin partner) Yandex, Chinese phone maker (under sanctions for producing insecure devices that enable state surveillance) Huawei, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Sony (which suffered a major security breach in 2014), and the New York Times", writes Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Says Vaidhyanathan:

... if it becomes clear – as it has – that multiple industries depend on exploiting the personal data of millions or even billions of people, the concentrated political power of organized, wealthy companies outweighs the distributed power of disorganized citizens. These most recent revelations show that while Facebook might be the most egregious abrogator of our trust, there are no innocents.


But I think the most inconvenient truth about Facebook is how it has been weaponised by certain sectors to spread disinformation, win votes, destabilise and divide.

At first, there was euphoria, as ordinary people realised social media could bring down authoritarian governments. But it quickly became obvious that FB didn't discriminate between good guys and bad guys.

Warned over and over by alarmed journalists and experts, FB did nothing. Watch the PBS documentary The Facebook Dilemma, Part One and Part Two – or listen to the audio track 1 and 2. A report about the documentary on CNN summarises it thus:
... there were plenty of people sounding alarms who were by all accounts dismissed or ignored -- practically "begging and pleading with the company, saying 'Please pay attention to this'". CNN

Oh sure, out in the west, we are hearing a lot about concerns for US democracy. But in big, strong, monied democracies there is always an opportunity for justice.

It is FB's effect on smaller, poorer, weaker states that we see profound damage. In the Philippines – where most mobile phones can view FB for free – a FB-enhanced election has led to a drug war (drawing its oxygen from yet more FB weaponising) that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. In Myanmar, killings incited on Facebook are being called a genocide.


Well ... are we?

Facebook thrives on us.

Wired Magazine quotes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff:

Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don't know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don't know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.

Many of us think, but that's okay. I have nothing to hide. I don't mind being served those adverts on FB – I want to see most of them anyway!

And for authors like me, Facebook is such a godsend that so what if FB has shared my details with Netflix? I like watching Netflix and FB is so convenient, so easy to use, and most importantly, has such a MASSIVE reach ... I could never achieve that with a poxy little author website.

But but but ... how can we ignore the harm FB is doing? How can we shrug and say, 'nothing to do with me' when the harm FB does is all in our name?


Is Facebook going to change?

Facebook will not change unless we change.

But most of us have too much too lose. Family, friends, livelihood ... we are enmeshed in FB's ecosystem (which includes WhatsApp and Instagram).

The right thing to do is to #DeleteFacebook or at least deactivate your account ... here's how.

For authors like me (this is, after all a blog for children's authors), deleting FB will be a massive loss. It will demand a sea change in social media behaviour. An author who abandons FB will have to:

• Return to blogging (many of us abandoned our blogs for microblogging on FB). Do all you can to build your subscriber list (not for the lazy or faint hearted).

• Boost one's presence on Twitter (which has its own ethical issues) and other social media platforms like Goodreads and Tumblr. Twitter is stronger on the networking front so this would take creativity and is only useful in combination with other social media. It might be that Twitter will be forced to change to respond to the needs of a huge influx of FB refugees

• Look to traditional media – radio, print and TV – for a presence. Even though this has been a shrinking space, large numbers abandoning FB will create demand. But will traditional media respond?

• Use YouTube – video is powerful but demands skills and presence. But YouTube is part of the Google ecosystem, and we haven't exactly been happy about Google's behaviour either, have we?

• Improve one's website – but how to drive traffic to one's website?

• Seek and participate in literacy groups and teaching resources (like Teachit) sites or whatever special interest group that might appeal to one's particular books – online AND in real space

I am mulling all these (and more). It will certainly make my professional life harder. How do I make the time for all these while writing my books and doing the speaking engagements that are my bread and butter?

And to be totally honest, I am feeling reluctant. I have put so much of my life on FB. I love seeing my friends from across the world on my feed. I love my FB groups for authors and illustrators and and literacy and history and Philippine mythology enthusiasts. I have so much to lose.

But people are dying. Surely that is a good enough reason to get on with it? Isn't it time to ACT instead of complaining on social media and signing endless e-petitions that only help to feed the FB newsfeed?

Siva Vaidhyanathan is not optimistic about these revelations changing FB:
... while the most recent revelations of the depths of Facebook’s depravity shock the conscience, the deeper story is that Facebook’s position is more secure than we had feared. And Zuckerberg need not abandon his core principles as his algorithms continue to manipulate how billions of people make choices every day. 

Leaving Facebook will be one choice that Zuckerberg cannot manipulate.

But do I have the moral courage to do it?

Candy Gourlay's latest book BONE TALK has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. Her picture book Is It a Mermaid? illustrated by Francesca Chessa has been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Find out more about Candy on her website and Twitter

Saturday 8 December 2018

What Next? Life After The Hook

By Nick Cross

Photo by Clare Helen Welsh

If you weren’t at the SCBWI British Isles conference last month, you might be asking yourself: “What is The Hook and why should I care about it?” Well, it’s a kind of X Factor/Dragon’s Den for children’s writers and illustrators. A bunch of attention-starved, approval-hungry lunatics stood onstage in front of four agents and 200 of their peers, and spent five minutes each pitching the hell out of their books. The whole crazy enterprise was ably coordinated by Zoë Cookson, with her presentational partner-in-crime Kate Mallinder.

Zoë and Kate

Anyway, I did it. I managed to get up on stage without falling over, kept pretty much to time and successfully synchronised my pitch with a complex animated slide deck. But (spoiler alert) I didn’t win - that honour fell to Catherine Whitmore and her excellent pitch for Too Big for Her Boots.

I could lie about it, but the truth is I was disappointed not to win. Desperately disappointed. I didn’t flounce off in a huff, but I did want to be alone in my defeat. I left the conference quietly and walked down the hill to central Winchester, the voice of my inner critic ringing in my ears.

I truly believe that these moments, the moments when we’re at our lowest ebb, are the ones where we really get to choose between winning and losing. I put in my headphones, put on my favourite music and by the time I was back at the hotel twenty minutes later I had a plan. Instead of sitting around my room, stewing in my own juices, I went out, got a coffee and spent the next hour doing some final edits to my book. That hour reminded me why my book is awesome and why my faith in it is well-placed. I got back on the horse.

No, no! That was a metaphor, you idiot!

The irony of doing something like The Hook, is that the five minutes when I was onstage pitching was genuinely the easiest part of the whole process. What the audience couldn’t see were the months of preparation that led up to that moment.

I first had the idea of entering The Hook back in February. I remember mentioning it in conversation at the Undiscovered Voices 2018 launch party, and again a couple of months later when I met Jan Carr (the original creator of The Hook) at a book launch. Jan cautioned me that even getting selected was tough, with the number of entrants increasing yearly. I took that information on board and began to evolve a plan about how I might deliver my pitch, sketching out ways to introduce the world of the novel. Even then, I knew that I wanted to do something ambitious with my slides, to maximise the visual opportunities afforded to me as a writer/illustrator.

In tandem, I was working on the book all through the year, writing and rewriting, designing and redesigning. Ideas for the novel and ideas for the pitch intertwined, in the same way that the writing and illustrating processes informed each other. I knew that the timing was right for me to be finished by November, or perhaps the deadline made sure that happened. Either way, I was itching to reveal the book to the world, but it seemed to be a long time before applications to The Hook opened.

Luckily, the previous year’s conference website was still live, so I was able to get all the entry details in advance. The length of the extract I needed to submit seemed incredibly short (600 words) and when I looked at my large format illustrated layouts I realised that would be less than three pages of content. So I made a smaller format (A5) version with six pages, especially for The Hook.

I was so ready that once the competition opened, I submitted everything a month before the closing date! But I still had to wait as long as everyone else to find out if I’d made it through. I was pretty confident, but I also knew that if I didn’t get selected, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone about it. Of course, I was selected (by a super-secret panel of Scoobies) and pretty soon everyone knew about it!

After the months of planning, I had just two weeks to finalise my slides. In theory, I had a further week after that to hone my pitch, but in practice the two were so interlinked that my pitch needed to be ready at the same time. I’ve calculated that I spent about thirty hours making the slides, which is an insane amount of time for a five minute presentation. Although I endeavoured to reuse as many of the graphics and illustrations from the book as I could, there was probably 50% new material that I had to create. And let’s not even talk about trying to make the animations work in PowerPoint!

But we shouldn’t forget that no-one was forcing me do all this work. And indeed, the number of slides presented had absolutely no correlation with who won the competition. But these kinds of opportunities don’t come along very often, and I wanted to embrace this one. Despite the work involved, I really enjoyed creating the presentation because I was able to tell a story visually in a very different medium, a bit like making a short film.

Here I am mid-pitch (photo by Marie Basting)

OK, I seem to have spent a lot of time talking about the period leading up to The Hook, thereby completely ignoring the title of this post! What has happened since?

One immediate side effect was praise. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but I’ve always struggled with taking compliments. I tend to deflect them by diminishing myself in some way. I got a lot of compliments in the hours and days after The Hook, some of them from people for whom the theme of my novel had genuinely touched a chord. And I managed not to respond with something like: “Shame it wasn't good enough to win though.” I just said “Thanks.” And that, for me, was real progress!

The “final” edits I needed to do on the book turned out to be more extensive than I expected, which necessitated another two weeks of writing and proofing. In parallel, I worked on reformatting the layout of the book based on a design review I’d had before the conference (but hadn’t had the time or headspace to put into practice). At last, it was all ready to submit, but I suddenly realised I had no synopsis.

If you're a sensitive writer type, you may want to stop reading. Because I'm about to make a SHOCKING CONFESSION.

Are you sure?

Last chance.

OK, here goes...

I love writing synopses!

I know that goes against all that is good and holy, but there you have it. I find the synopsis far, far easier than writing the actual book. Part of this may be because, by the time I get to it, I’ve been over and over the book hundreds of times in my head. Anyway, I polished off the synopsis in my lunch hour - one page, 660 words, job done.

So, was I finally ready to submit? You might think that, but what I decided I really needed to do was make a book dummy. This was using the skills I had newly learnt at this year’s SCBWI conference, involving several hours of printing, gluing and sticking. As a displacement activity, it was a good one, and the end result looks pretty awesome. I especially liked writing the back cover blurb and seeing the book as a real object, which makes it so much more tangible than pixels on a screen.

With all that done, the inevitable couldn’t be avoided any longer. I have started submitting to agents, or as I like to think of it, putting my baby into an email-shaped spaceship and launching it into the cold dark void of indifference (you know, like Jor-El in Superman).

Superman and Superdad (photo by marakma)

If I sound a tad conflicted about the process, it's because trying to get an agent and publisher was never part of my plan for this book. Burned by my previous experiences with the industry, I resolved that this book would be just for me - entirely self-published and what did it matter if I only sold 50 copies? To that end, I turned away from the market and just wrote whatever the hell I wanted, in the way I wanted to do it. And yet, here I am, neurotically chasing approval all over again. What happened?

Well, for one thing, people really seem to be engaging with the concept of my book, and the way it’s presented. If everyone had shrugged at my pitch, I might have retreated into my burrow for six months and finished the book just for me. But suddenly, people want to see this thing published, and I feel some responsibility to make that happen. Plus, it fits with my new mantra of trying to embrace whatever opportunities come along.

So, I will roll the dice with some carefully selected agents, and in the meantime I’ll continue illustrating and preparing the book for self-publication. Unlike my novel, the future is unwritten.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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