One of the aims of doing the reading challenge is to learn.

I think any book, no matter what genre it is, or if the reader enjoys the book or not, can teach a writer something useful. May has been a learning kind of month.

Writing

The books I read in May showed me that:

  • You need to start the action ASAP
  • You need to let the reader into the world (for example, Katniss starts as a regular girl in The Hunger Games before she is (and we are) plunged into battles and politics).
  • Don’t sacrifice character for description. I know this is an alien world, but I don’t really care what their word for love is, or how they make little aliens. I care about how the character interacts with this world.

Writers of speculative and dystopian fiction spend so much time on worldbuilding, it’s only natural to want to show it off, but unless you’re going to write a saga like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, a lot of that world won’t make it into the book. After all, the book isn’t about showing the world how creative you are, it’s about telling a story in an entertaining way.

Reading

In May, I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler.

I loved the Lilith’s Brood trilogy. It was imaginative, inspiring and incredibly well written.

The Left Hand of Darkness was a hard read. I didn’t connect to the characters until halfway through the book. It felt a bit inaccessible, which made it hard to buy into the story. The last few chapters made up for the start of the book, and I can see why it’s seen as a classic sci-fi book.

Links of the month

Gove the destroyer

There’s been a lot of debate over the UK Education Secretary’s decision to kick great American novels off the curriculum. To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were mainstays of the GCSE syllabus. One exam board, Eduqas, has replaced Maya Angelou’s brilliant I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, with Meera Syal’s Anita and Me.

As well as having to study a Shakespeare play, GCSE students will have to study:

One of these 19th-Century novels:

  • Great Expectations
  • A Christmas Carol
  • The Sign of Four
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pride and Prejudice (yeah, if you want to put them off reading for life…)
  • Frankenstein
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

One of these post-1914 drama or prose works:

  • An Inspector Calls (the cleaver people had to study this at my school)
  • The History Boys
  • Blood Brothers
  • DNA
  • A Taste of Honey
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • The Lord of the Flies
  • Animal Farm
  • Never Let Me Go
  • Anita and Me
  • Pigeon English

There’s nothing wrong with expanding the reading list, but I don’t think there’s a need to kick anything off the syllabus – why not offer exam boards the choice? By focusing exclusively on British literature, students are going to miss out on studying themes from other cultures.

Amazon vs Hachette

Amazon may dominate the book selling market, but it doesn’t make vast profits. Amazon takes a 30% cut of most ebooks sold on its site, but if the book is offered at a discount (which many are), that loss comes out of Amazon’s cut.

Amazon is asking publishers to share the cost of the discount, but Hachette is refusing. At the same time, some of Hatchette’s books are not getting the usual Amazon discount and others aren’t available on the website at all. This has resulted in a bit of a backlash, and calls for a boycott.

It sounds like Amazon is in contract negotiations with the publisher, which it’s allowed to do. It doesn’t have to offer discounts, it doesn’t have to sell all the books. People do have the choice of going to Waterstone’s (other book shops are available).

The anger stems from Amazon’s dominance, and the impossible position this leaves publishers in. Amazon says, ‘fine, you don’t have to work with us, sell your books somewhere else’, the publishers say ‘but that’s not fair, you have a massive customer base!’ The thing is, you can’t have it both ways. If you want to benefit from Amazon, you have to work with the company.

#ThisBook campaign

The organisers of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction have started a social media campaign to promote female writers. The #ThisBook campaign asks women to tweet about books – written by women – which have had an impact on them. It will announce the top 20 books in July.