Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Privacy Issues

I am a little bit incoherent with rage today. I'm also a big hypocrite.

I'm angry because I read quite a good article by Aditya Chakrabortty about internet privacy. I suggest you don't read articles about internet privacy, by the way. It's a very bad idea.

And I'm a hypocrite because, in spite of this bit of the article. . .

Asked last December about whether users should be concerned about sharing so much information with Google, CEO Eric Schmidt replied: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

. . . I still use Blogger and Gmail.

I'm a pretty transparent blogger. I blog under my full name. My profile picture is a photograph of myself. I am pretty sure that I'd be easy enough to track down, if someone wanted to track down a 26-year-old wannabe novelist with psoriasis and a tendancy to write very long sentences (I'm right here, people, take a number. . .). The names of the suburbs where I live and work are probably available on here somewhere, or if not, in a comment thread on someone else's blog.

All of that was a decision. I could have blogged as PinkTeaGirl26 living in Indeterminate Canalside Suburb and working in Indeterminate Coastal Suburb, getting there and back via Unspecified Form of Public Transport (I take the bus). I decided not to. I started my blog to meet other writers and participate in the very active and fun publishing blogosphere (yes, Ms. Nelson, I owe it all to you!) and I wanted to do that under my own name. This isn't a small decision - I have a friend who has intended to start a blog for a while now, and is still considering how much information to make available.

It's a decision, though, and as the author of that article says, that is content I choose to release. It isn't data that becomes available through monitoring my activities, and I'm not crazy about how much information companies may hold on me because I chose to use their search engines (not singling Google out here, I use several search engines).

Even knowing how much information search engines hold on me doesn't bother me as much as Mr. Schmidt's comment. There are lots of things I do that aren't wrong, that I would prefer remained private. For obvious reasons, I'm not going to list all of them, but the best example is the simplest: gentle readers, sometimes I use the bathroom. I'm also a hypochondriac, so I have been known to conduct long and detailed research into diseases I couldn't possibly have - I would be quite happy if no one had access to that list (mostly because there is a danger they might laugh themselves into a coma). 'Unwilling to do it in public' does NOT equal 'should not be doing it at all'.

Anyway, have a nice calming article about waves to make up for all that, also courtesy of today's Guardian.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Words in Print

There is a special corner of heaven reserved for writers who have to do what I just had to do.

I had to combine two scenes.

As you may know, I'm writing by hand at the moment, and typing up afterwards. The big advantage of this is that you can edit a bit as you go - and I was so happy about that when I first noticed this problem.

My original, handwritten draft had this happen:
  • Main Character discovers Great Big Secret Meeting, in which nothing happens.
  • It is all Very Mysterious, and MC is baffled. Sympathetic Friend fills in some background, but not very much. MC continues to be baffled but figures it's nothing serious.
  • MC goes to a second Great Big Secret Meeting, with Sinister Results.
  • Sympathetic Friend, meet Info Dump. I hope you will be very happy together and dwell forever in a forest of Capital Letters Used For Emphasis In An Annoying Fashion.

On reflection, I decided I could lose half of this. The first meeting just made for a lot of redundant contemplation about what could be going on. Better to have stuff actually going on. That first meeting didn't achieve anything.

I realised this after I had typed it up. Annoyingly.

But there was stuff in the first version that I need to keep. MC's first impressions of the Big Secret Meeting, for instance. The background that his sympathetic friend fills in for him - easy enough to integrate with the main Info Dump, but I didn't want to miss anything out, in case it was important later. Also, I'm a slow writer, I need to see the word total climb.

It was driving me completely mad for days and I couldn't get a handle on it at all. I suspected part of my problem was keeping track of all those identical scrolling white pages on my laptop screen, while trying to put things in very specific places. So I printed out the relevant bits (about seventeen pages), settled myself down in a cafe during my lunch break, and tried again.

What I ended up doing was this - I divided the pages up into sections, each marked with a letter. Section A was 'Getting out of bed and all connected information,' Section B was 'Getting There and First Impressions,' etc. I didn't name the sections. I wasn't procrastinating, you see, I was actually editing. But that's just how they worked.

Then I re-read the whole lot, and figured out what could go where. The mini-Info Dump after the first meeting got divided between two different places, for instance, and the conversation before the first Secret Meeting was easily moved to just after the second one (now the only one). The whole process took very little time (one lunch hour minus one chapter of Roses From The Earth by Carol Ann Lee) and was quite fun.

What struck me, though, was how different an experience it was, reading the sections on paper instead of from a computer screen. I noticed typos, for one thing - ridiculous typos that I can't believe I missed. The rhythm of some sentences just didn't work, and others worked better. Some things that I thought were too melodramatic were fine, and some things I thought were fine were actually stilted and formal.

It helped that it wasn't a font I chose myself. I had printed it out on a printer that isn't mine, using a program I don't know well, and the text came out plainer and larger than I expected. I get very attached to certain fonts for certain stories. This story needs a slightly old-fashioned Roman font (in my head) and it came out in something that looked like a slightly more curvaceous Helvetica (I was underwhelmed).That made a huge difference, as the text didn't look familiar so my brain couldn't fill in the gaps. It looked like new material.

Every writer will tell you that printing out work can help you to see it in a different light. I also suggest nudging the text size up slightly and changing the font. It seemed to work for me anyway, although there might be some dead commas who'll disagree.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Travels of Forever Amber

I should have added this image to my post about English Books and Tea, but I forget. This is my cheap copy of Forever Amber (along with my interrail pass and my ever-present water bottle) on the Thalys high-speed train from Cologne to Paris.
I probably should have bookcrossed that book properly, really. I think I just left it in my hotel room in Paris. I bet a French chamber maid idly picked it up, flicked through it and threw it away. Or put it in the staffroom in case anyone wanted it. I'd like to think that maybe it was picked up by someone who was trying to improve their English and they now know what a Cavalier was. But I'll never know.
This is why I like second-hand books - I like the idea of books with a story behind them. I try to buy new books whenever I can, to support writers, but when I'm just too skint, or when I'm interested in a writer who gets very mixed reviews, I will often seek out second-hand books. They're also fantastic when you forgot to bring a book to work and you happen to work near four different charity shops.
I would love to know more about who owned second-hand books before me, and who will own them after me, which is why I think bookcrossing is a great idea. Shame I can never be bothered to actually do it. . . But I found a bookcrossed book in a pub in Dublin recently (I was there with some friends and was terribly antisocial for a few minutes while I read all the spines), and I took it home to read, so it is only fair that I should set it free when I'm finished with it!

Young love. . .

Once again, Kiersten White is making me laugh.

Check her out. If you don't already follow her blog, she is worth it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Amsterdamming It Up, Part 3: The Anne Frank House

The view from 263 Prinsengracht - the building where the Frank family hid for over two years

It sounds strange to say I am a huge fan of Anne Frank, because her legacy stretches so far beyond that of most writers that 'fan' seems like the wrong word. But I'm not sure there's another word. Let's just say I'm a huge fan of her writing, I admire her, and I am fascinated by her story.

Nope, still not quite hyperbolic enough. But anyway.

I didn't read Anne Frank's diary until I was fourteen or fifteen, although I learned about her in school long before that. I still remember sitting on the steps at the back of our old house that summer, looking up from a book about a period of confinement and darkness at the bright sunlight. It made what Anne lost seem so much more immediate.

But I'm just as fascinated by the story behind the diary - how it was found, how it was published, and the terrible stories of what happened to everyone afterwards. This was my second visit to the Anne Frank House and if anything, it was more moving than the first. The first time, I was a little overwhelmed by the fact I was there ('OMG I AM IN THE SECRET ANNEXE!!') to notice details as much.

This time, the same thing happened with the Anne Frank House as the Van Gogh Museum - an epic queue awaited us. Writer Friend and I arrived at 10.15 on a wet Sunday morning and the queue was already around the block (it opens at 9). We decided to go back in the evening - the Anne Frank House recently extended their opening hours to 9pm every night. Lucky for us, because it was our last full day in Amsterdam and this was our one must-do.

When we went back, there was no queue. The Annexe itself is quite small and cramped and I imagine it would be claustrophobic if it was too crowded, so I really recommend going in the evening. We arrived around ten past eight, which only gave us just under an hour to do the whole House - Annexe and museum.

The Annexe itself has remained unfurnished at Otto Frank's request. It makes it a little harder to relate the rooms to the diary (remember all those disagreements over the kitchen table!) but I think it actually increases the sense of confinement. Standing in a tiny, empty room and imagining it with two beds, a desk, a bedside locker. . . somehow it seems smaller than just standing in a small, furnished room could. The film star pictures that Anne pasted on her wall are still there (I spotted Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin - lots of the others were European and I didn't know them) along with postcards of the Queen of England and her sister (Anne loved royal geneaology). You can even see the patch of wallpaper where Anne and Margot's heights were recorded in pencil during the twenty-five months they spent in hiding. When the building with threatened with demolition in the late 1950s, Otto Frank cut out that piece of wallpaper. It was returned to the Annexe when it opened as a museum.

The stairs up to the second level of the Annexe are scary (I'm not great with heights). Amsterdam staircases are all a bit scary, even for normal people - they're steep, twisty and narrow. This staircase is straight, which is something, but it's steeper than any ladder I've ever been on. I looked up at it for some time before I got the courage up to climb it (I refused point-blank until Writer Friend was behind me), and I went up it practically on all fours, one hand on the rail and one on whatever step was level with my eyes. No way was I looking up or down, not even when I could hear Writer Friend mumble about not being dressed for this kind of thing. Halfway up, something interesting dawned on me. 'A book made me do this. I'm here because of something someone wrote.' And yes, there is more to it than that - really, I was there because a teenage girl died, along with millions of others - but a book started it all. Which was a nice thought, and it got me to the top of the stairs without incident :)

We were there for just the right amount of time for us, because we didn't want to linger in the gift shop too long (both Writer Friend and I are dangerous in gift shops!) and we skipped the videos of Hanneli Goslar and others talking about what happened to Anne after the arrest - I already knew about it from my previous visit and we were more interested in rushing past to the newest part of the exhibition.

And this is the really cool part. We booked our trip back in January, not knowing that the day before we arrived in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House was closing for a day (this is unusual. It normally only closes on Yom Kippur). It was closed to launch the museum's newest collection - as well as Anne's first iconic green and red diary, her other papers are now on display. I only discovered this when I was checking the House's opening hours two days before we flew out and I was *so* chuffed.

There are two versions of Anne's diary. The first one (academics usually call it Version A) is the original diary that Anne wrote as she went along. Then early in 1944, Anne heard a broadcast on radio asking the citizens of the Netherlands to keep any documentation they could - letters, diaries, sermons, etc - for study and publication after the war. Anne started re-writing her diary on loose office paper, with the intention of publishing it, and her re-written diary is Version B. Some pages from Version B are now displayed in rotation, along with Anne's fiction and her favourite quotations notebook ('She was a stationery freak like us!' Writer Friend whispered as we pressed our noses to the glass).

Seeing the physical objects that made up the diary was a strange experience. On the way over, I was waxing pretentious to Writer Friend about how in literature (and music for that matter), we don't have very many individual objects that are venerated. With visual arts, there is an original painting or sculpture, but if you love a novel or a piece of music, you probably won't be too pushed about seeing the original manuscript. Apart from the contents of the British Library's Treasures Gallery in London, there aren't many sacred objects for us book-fiends

But this is one of them.

This is the original copy - and while the author lived, the only copy - of a book that changed how we see the world. Even the handwriting moved me. Biographers and historians have written that Anne's handwriting, during the two years in hiding, changed from childish block letters to proper script (mine still does that once or twice a page), but seeing it myself was a different matter. Anne's handwriting, right there in front of me, almost brought me to tears again.

After the Anne Frank House, we went for dinner, went back to where we were staying, and went to bed. But it's hard to know what to do afterwards. Everything feels slightly disrespectful. It's another good reason to go in the evening, I suppose, but you may not enjoy the easiest sleep.

PS - My personal favourite biography of Anne Frank is Roses From The Earth, by Carol Ann Lee. Melissa Muller's Anne Frank: The Biography is less detailed but also good, and probably better for younger readers.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Amsterdamming It Up Part 2: Tips and Queues

Since this is a writing-and-books-blog, you may wonder why I post stuff about travelling. Partly it's because this is my blog and I love travel, so the two can bloody well co-exist. But mostly it's because I am an information *freak* when it comes to travel. I read guidebooks about places I don't plan to go to, just for fun. I occasionally spend money on them for this purpose. I spend hours on Wikitravel, often doing nothing more than identifying places I'm not bothered with. I love reading about travel, and I'm even worse when a trip is imminent.

So if I was going away, and I knew a blogger who blogged about their trips, I'd go and check their tags. In fact, if I ever go to Vegas, my first stop will be Jen's blog :)

And I love sharing travel tips. If I had been to more places, I would start a dedicated travel blog. In fact, when I am a published writer and I'm doing book tours, even though I know book tours are unsettling whirlwinds of cities and airports and cabs and buses, I will turn to whoever is in charge of getting me places and I will say 'STOP EVERYTHING! I must use the public transport system or something so I can pick up some form of travel titbit to share with my blog readers!' They will think I'm mad, of course, but I'll be on a book tour so I won't care.

And also, I have this. . . thing. I get asked for directions all the time. I was in Amsterdam for three full days and parts of two more days, and I got asked for directions three times. Bear in mind that one of those full days was Queen's Day, and on Queen's Day no one really cares where they're going.

I don't mind being asked for directions, but since it happens to me so often I always feel guilty when I don't know the answer. I'm always glad when I can help, and I was extra-glad the final time I was asked for directions in Amsterdam, because I also got to give a Tip. This makes me, you see, practically a Native :p

When Writer Friend and I arrived at the Van Gogh Museum, we were drenched and freezing - and the queue was stretching around the entire building. And we had one small umbrella between us. We were standing in the queue, getting progressively more miserable, when I overheard a very nice girl a few metres away saying 'You can buy a ticket in the Diamond Museum across the road and skip the queue! We've just done it! Go on!'

So we did, and we did.

And the following day, two cyclists stopped and asked the way to the Van Gogh Museum, and not only was I able to tell them (I felt like such a native. . . except I speak only three words of Dutch. . .) but I was able to give them the tip about the Diamond Museum! I was very happy. Now I'm giving the same tip to you guys. Incidentally, going first thing in the morning also works.

As for the museum itself - you like Van Gogh or you don't. If you don't, you're probably not reading this bit, and if you do, you'll probably like the museum. The selection of paintings on display isn't huge but it is well-chosen and presented chronologically with enough interesting snippets about his life to put the whole thing in context. 'Almond Blossoms' is probably my favourite. No reproduction could do it justice. I also love his Japanese period.

I want to get a biography of Van Gogh, because the exhibition suggested to me that Theo Van Gogh and his wife are among the most unsung heroes of twentieth century art - for a long time Theo supported his brother financially, and believed in his ability in a way artists can usually only dream of. After Theo's death, his wife dedicated her life to advancing Vincent's reputation. I must know more! so if anyone happens to know of a good biography of Van Gogh, do tell :)

That's it for now - and I promise the next post will have Amsterdam and books in it!

PS - Writer Friend isn't happy about being called Writer Friend. If Writer Friend ever has a blog, I will be dubbed Un-Creative Friend. So you'll all know it's me :)

Amsterdamming It Up

The adventure started, as so many adventures do, in Schiphol Airport. Schiphol's arrivals lounge seems to have great shops, but I'm always in too much of a rush to get to Amsterdam, so I've never checked them out. We took a double-decker train into Amsterdam - I'd seen them before, on my last trip to Amsterdam when I was backpacking, but I'd forgotten about them and was absurdly excited to see one again. I find train travel terribly romantic and cool, but train travel in Ireland is kind of . . . meh. There's something about double-decker trains that suggest traversing whole continents, travelling for so long that the train becomes a home-away-from-home, getting up in the morning, eating breakfast and reading your book while countries fly past your window.
Unfortunately, it only takes fifteen minutes to get from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal Station. I guess you can't have everything :)

Most of what we did was shop, walk, take photos, stop in cafes and have giggling fits, but there were a few notable stops along the way which will be in the next post.

How and ever, we were there for Queen's Day. This is the second time I have accidentally gone on holidays at a time that clashed with a national festival (Prague, November 17th. . .). Our national fesitval, St. Patrick's Day, equals a Total Closure Of Everything. People get drunk, there's a big parade, and you will be able to get a pint of milk but not much else. I don't know about cultural activities, because if you're Irish on St. Patrick's Day, you do one of two things - put on your best wipe-clean-of-puke shoes and buy a crate of beer, or hide under the duvet. I'm a duvet person at the best of times, and I prefer to drink in situations that are not outdoors in Ireland in March.

I am suspicious of national holidays. But we'd booked everything so we went anyway.

But it's OK, because it turns out that Queen's Day is great! There is a street party and people definitely drink, but the atmosphere is just so friendly and welcoming. Also, if you find yourself in Amsterdam on Queen's Day and don't like revelry, the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum are open so there's still interesting stuff to do. And there's lots of stalls set up on the streets so even just strolling around is diverting and fun. And even though I had a big pile of contingency plans for Stuff To Do If Queen's Day Turns Out To Be Like St. Patrick's Day, Queen's Day turned out to be one of the best days I've ever had in Amsterdam, which is up against some pretty stuff competition.

Another blog post will follow shortly, dealing with some things to do on the other 364 days of the year in Amsterdam!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Lonely Onlies. Yeah, Right.

I just read this extremely touching article in The Guardian, about secondary infertility. It's an interesting, although difficult, read.

But typically, I can't just leave it there, I have to go and weigh in.

Families who suffer from secondary infertility have so much pain to contend with, that I can't bear the thought that they may feel guilty for leaving their first child without siblings.

I was raised as an only child. My father married twice (my mother is his second wife) and I have a half-sister and two half-brothers from Dad's first marriage. But they were born and raised in the UK, and are quite a bit older than me, so although I get on great with them, I tend to call myself an only child because I grew up as one.

It was brilliant.

I know that if I'd had siblings growing up, I'd probably love them. My friends who aren't only children are all very fond of their siblings, naturally, and wouldn't like to be only children because it's hard to wish someone out of existence (they have to be pretty rotten).

But being an only child, I don't know what having siblings is like. I just know that growing up, I got as much of my parents' attention as I wanted. I was never compared to anyone (and kudos to my father for that, because he had three other kids he could have compared me to, and didn't). I had plenty of my own space and came to value my own company a lot, which I'm thankful for now. I never felt I had to compete, and I never had to put up with anyone for longer than I wanted to. That rocked. Oh, and no one messed with my books either :)

No one is entitled to a certain kind of family. Yes, if your child wants siblings it can be hard, but no child gets everything they want. Most people I know, regardless of the composition of their family, recognise that their unique familes did the best they could, and made them the people that they are. If the family you can offer your child is sibling-free, or enormous and sprawling, or even if it just consists of one person - who cares? Just do the best you can. I'll lay money that if you're intentions are good, they'll turn out fine. Not every kid gets a twin, or younger siblings, or two parents, or a protective big brother, or even to meet any of their grandparents (I only met one of mine). Instead, we love the people we do have.

This isn't in any way intended to belittle the pain of secondary infertility (or indeed any infertility), which I can't even begin to imagine. It is just intended to say 'don't blame yourself'. And don't feel bad about not being able to 'give' your child siblings. Being an only child is fine. And if you have a judgemental pain-in-the-arse neighbour like Maggie O'Farrell's, please direct a nasty comment to her with my compliments.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Fanfiction - thoughts please?

An Amsterdam post really will follow as soon as I upload my photos from my camera (I was tempted last night to cheat and use photos from my last trip, but I was there for Queen's Day this time!). However, there has been something of an uproar about fanfiction of late.

Diana Gabaldon has said that she considers fanfiction immoral. Numerous people have disagreed, but the first response I read was from Sarah Rees Brennan. Both posts are interesting - I especially liked Sarah's, as her own experience as a fanfic writer was so negative, yet she still believes in the general goodness of fanfic. Also, I agree with her, which helps :) But Diana Gabaldon's post is a strong argument to the contrary.

Disclaimer: Sarah reckons that Diana has modified her point of view slightly since making this post. I haven't yet read through all 584 comments on her blog [I'm a bit skint after Amsterdam though, so I might yet, since leaving the house can be expensive]. I can't vouch for whether or not Diana Gabaldon still holds these opinions with the same intensity, but she provides a well-written argument.

I'm not a reader or a writer of fanfic - when I was 12, I used to write my own versions of TV shows I liked. There were probably less than ten of them, and I threw them all away during a house move when I was 15 or so. I'm delighted that I did, since they were embarrassing. I wouldn't even say they were good enough to be called fanfic. I've also read very little fanfic. In my life, I may have read four or five pieces. My feelings about fanfiction aren't very strong either way, because if it fell off the earth in the morning, I wouldn't notice.

Many people seem to be of the opinion that if the author hates it, don't do it, but otherwise it's fine provided you don't try to make money from it. I'm just curious to know how some of you guys feel on the subject, though. If you were/are a published writer, would you mind if people wrote fanfic? Would you be tempted to read it? Or would you call in the lawyers?

Personally, I go a bit delirious whenever anyone responds to anything I write in a favourable way, so I would be thrilled if anyone gave enough of a crap about me to write fanfic. But then, I'm all unpublished and obscure, and maybe I'd feel differently if products of my imagination were available for public consumption. I don't know. Today, though, my view would be - go nuts, but I legally can't read it.

Any thoughts out there in Blogland?

Monday, May 3, 2010


Guys, many apologies for my blog-silence. I just got back from a long weekend in Amsterdam.

A post will follow soon, in which I shall go on about the many cool things there are to do in Amsterdam, and about why it's a bad idea to make a 972 page book your default holiday reading matter, and then not open it for five days. Although you may all have assumed that last part.

I may even add a photo or two. Amsterdam is very pretty.

Now, to wade through the backlog of posts. I knew there was a reason I loved coming home :D