Thursday, 11 December 2014

Girl Online

There has been what we might call a little literary scandal over the publication of a new book for teenagers, Girl Online. To many of us - all right, us oldies - it seems fairly missable, dismissed in the Telegraph as a book that "even Winnie the Pooh might regard as a bit twee". But hang on - a young author's fluffy debut novel published by Penguin and reviewed in a national newspaper? 
To preempt any accusation of sour grapes, I should point out that I've had my fair share of media reviews. My latest book was number 1 in The Times crime review last month. So I am not griping about the success of Girl Online out of any sense of personal entitlement, or jealousy. As it happens, I am thrilled by the huge success my own books have enjoyed. I'm certainly not jealous of the public humiliation Zoe Suggs has suffered. 
I'm just slightly bothered about the issues it raises.
Girl Online has attracted attention from the media that many hard working genuine authors can never hope to receive. I use the work 'genuine' advisedly, because of course we all know that Zoe Suggs did not write Girl Online herself. When Penguin decided to put her name on the cover, they also decided not to disclose the fact that the book had been ghost written by a 'real' author. Their duplicity backfired, angering a lot of people. 
What on earth prompted Penguin to behave in such a cavalier and disrespectful fashion towards authors, books and readers? 
The truth is, Penguin probably don't care about the criticism, because Zoe Suggs has 6 million followers on her vlog, where she chats about fashion and girly issues. Enough of these young girls are buying Girl Online for it to be number 1 on the bestseller list on amazon, admittedly only in hardcover. Penguin expect it to be the number 1 bestseller for Christmas, and I daresay it will be. Teenage girls don't care if Zoe Suggs wrote the book or just put her picture on the cover of a book someone else wrote. They are fans, devoted in the way that only teenage girls can be. Penguin know what they are doing, and it's all about sales. They have come a long way from their original raison d'etre in the 1930s, publishing cheap paperbacks to ensure literature would be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. These days they are running a business, struggling to survive in the competitive world of publishing. Regardless of any rights or wrongs, Girl Online is a profitable project.
The cult of celebrity meets the cult of youth. It's a winning formula. It's nothing new. Shakespeare complained in 1601 about unskilled child actors taking work from experienced professionals. For "there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion." Fashion, by definition, is ephemeral. Does anyone today know who those child actors were?
Instead of putting their efforts into promoting a transient fad, for a short term financial gain, Penguin would be better off supporting their many genuinely talented authors. Is Zoe Suggs (who isn't actually Zoe Suggs at all) really the best they can pull out of the bag as their Number 1 book for Christmas? They should be embarrassed. Publishers need to be working hard to introduce readers to talented new authors. If they don't, what is their role other than to make a quick buck?
If publishers simply try to cash in on current fads, they risk hastening their own demise. That is the real issue.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Evening at Waterstones Piccadilly

My name is on the list
Signing one of my books for David Mitchell
With authors Barry Forshaw and Howard Linskey
With my agent Annette Crossland

We all had a fabulous evening - really busy - with plenty of wine and mince pies! Thanks to Waterstones for looking after us so well. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Criminal Masterminds!

It's official. I'm a criminal mastermind! Well, that's what the programme said, when I was booked to appear on a panel at St Albans Literary Festival. Fellow speakers James Runcie (ITV's Grantchester) and Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of Blood and Dr Who) and I were kept deftly in line by BBC presenter Martine Croxall who controlled us criminals with admirable aplomb. I was very well behaved, following Martine's instructions to the letter, talking and giving a short reading. Ben Aaronovitch dived straight off the script and declined to read from one of his books. Of course we all forgave him, not only because he explained that he could not pronounce his characters' accents, but because he kept us amused with his account of his progress from bookseller to bestselling author. James told us why he set his Grantchester series in the 1950s. Along with some hilarious anecdotes, he discussed the moral dimension of his crime novels and offered some insights into the world of television from behind the scenes. As my own series are currently In preproduction, I wanted to take notes under the table.
After a lovely opening with live jazz as the audience packed the large auditorium, we each spoke about our work for around twenty minutes. Following another short musical interlude, Martine chaired a Q and A session, after which there was a different kind of queue as people lined up to have books signed. 
It was a real privilege to share the podium with three such luminaries of page and screen. I can confide from the green room that they are all three not only witty and highly intelligent, but charming and modest too. It was great fun, and the sense of camaraderie that sprang up between us felt very special. I could have chatted in the green room all night! 
All in all it was a wonderful evening - and the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves too! 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Browsing the web

A writer's (worrying) browsing history - all in the name of research

Whenever possible, I prefer to conduct my research by talking to real people. Whether I'm seeking guidance from a professor of forensic medicine, a police detective, or someone working in WH Smith's, so far everyone I have approached has been really helpful. Many of the details included in  my books are barely noticeable. Nevertheless, they are important, because they help create an illusion of reality. 

A market trader in one of my books has a stack of banana boxes in her front room. Only someone working in a market would know that these are the boxes favoured by stallholders, because they are strong. Although readers might not be conscious of that tiny detail, yet the scene would seem authentic to any market trader reading the book. This is just one example of the care I take to create the illusion that the world of my books is real. 

Like anyone involved in writing, I also research on the internet. It never ceases to amaze me how much detailed information is readily available online. In fifteen easy steps, with pictures, you can learn how to handle a gun. You can find out how to blow up a car, or rob a safe, or how to obtain fake documents.

Browsing the internet feels safe, but in reality the activity is a two-way process.  Recently a man was, quite rightly, prosecuted for posting a racist comment on twitter. If the comment had been made in a pub the speaker might well have been punched in the face, but he certainly wouldn't have ended up in court. We've probably all said something offensive, in private, but posting an offensive comment online is very different. It's out there in the public domain and you can't take it back, or claim to have been misunderstood.

So what is the position with browsing histories on computers? What I do at home is my own affair. It's no one else's business. My browsing history is private, and hidden from other people. At least that's how it seems. But it remains accessible to anyone who wants to look for it. Even if it's deleted, the information can be retrieved. Like leaving invisible traces of your DNA just by breathing when you enter a room, every search you make on a computer leaves a footprint, some of which might, potentially, land you in trouble. 

Of course it's possible to click on an unsavoury website by mistake. Although it may not be not easy, it's possible. But what about a browsing history that shows its user has regularly searched for questionable material? From poison to paedophilia, guns to gambling, torture to terror, homicide and horror, murder and misery, drugs trafficking, people trafficking, my browsing history includes research into many seedy and illegal activities. 

Writing  this post has started me wondering... What if someone put a writer in the frame for a crime that involved material the writer was researching? The police might reasonably treat the writer as a suspect. Perhaps, on balance, it's safer to carry out research by speaking to real people! 

And now I'm off to delete my browsing history on my computer, as far as I can... 

Links to all my books - the results of my research - can be found on Leigh Russell website

Leigh Russell website

Monday, 6 October 2014

How the World of Publishing has changed

My own personal writing process has changed almost beyond recognition over the past six years. To begin with I wrote longhand, in pencil. The first draft of Cut Short was written with no plans for the future. I had no idea anyone else would ever read it, let alone publish it. Certainly it certainly never occurred to me that it would become the first in a long running bestselling series, nominated for major awards and reaching number 1 on kindle. At that stage I was writing just for myself. Nine books on, I have abandoned handwriting in favour of typing my manuscripts. It's much faster, which is just as well as I'm now delivering two manuscripts a year to my publisher. The other big change is that I now write for my readers, not for myself. 
The world of publishing has also undergone huge changes, which are ongoing. When my debut, Cut Short, first came out in paperback, in 2009  fellow author suggested I ask my publisher to bring it out as an ebook as well. At that time, I had heard of ebooks but wasn't quite sure what they were... The ebook duly came out about six months after the paperback and that happened again in 2010 with Road Closed. By the time Dead End was published in 2011, the ebook and print book were published at the same time. Sales of my books are huge on kindle, with all of them reaching the Top 10, and one even hitting the coveted number 1 spot. Sales figures of my print books are not quite so high, and that seems to be a trend throughout the publishing industry. I do wonder where books sales will go next. 
Another change that has come about due to the internet is that it is now possible for readers to contact authors directly. A day never passes now without my receiving an email via my website, or a DM on facebook or twitter, from a fan of Geraldine Steel or Ian Peterson. It's lovely to hear from readers all around the world, and I always respond as promptly as I can. This is a bonus that simply didn't exist for authors just a few years ago. 
My life as an author has changed so much since Cut Short came out in 2009. Who knows what further changes are in store for us? 

Links to all my books, and facebook and twitter accounts, on, together with news, reviews, events and interviews
This post was first published in The Reading Thing blog

RACE TO DEATH is out now in paperback, and getting great reviews

Blog Tour Day One

For the first stop of my October Blog Tour I was invited to comment on how the world of publishing has changed.

I hope you find it interesting! I'll post the text of it here tomorrow or you can read it now on 

Thanks to The Reading Thing for hosting. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is This Education?

Having spent several decades as a secondary school English teacher, I cannot let this article in The Times pass without comment.

          English A-level students will study Russell Brand, Jamie Oliver and Dizzee Rascal, despite accusations from within government that classwork was being “dumbed down”.
          Television clips of the comedian, the chef and the rapper have been approved for teaching next year. Sixth formers will also study the Twitter feed of Times columnist Caitlin Moran, an episode from the children’s TV show Horrible Histories and a comic-style graphic story alongside conventional classic and contemporary literature.
           “This is exactly the kind of dumbing down we are trying to get rid of,” a Department for Education source said at the time. “They must be having a laugh if they think A levels in Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand are going to be let through.”
          Yesterday, however, the OCR exam board announced that its A level in English language and literature had been approved by Ofqual. It will be taught in schools next year, with pupils sitting AS levels in the qualification in 2016 and redesigned linear A levels in June 2017.
Asked if the content was dumbed down, Ms Bleiman replied: “Absolutely not. This is about serious linguistic study. We have chosen what we think are absolutely fascinating high-quality examples of language in use.”
          Clips of Dizzee Rascal interviewed on Newsnight, Oliver speaking to camera on a cookery show and Brand giving evidence on drugs to a committee of MPs are among 20 set texts for one element of the course and may crop up in exam questions, as may Moran’s streams of consciousness on Twitter. 
The Times

          Well, Ofqual can insist this isn't dumbing down if they like, but television clips and a children's TV show weren't on the A Level syllabus when I was at school. We struggled through Chaucer (in the original), Milton, Shakespeare and Donne - and we rose to the challenge. Without help I wouldn't have coped with those writers then, but I can enjoy them now, thanks to my teachers. Surely that is the purpose of education. 
          What is the point of A Level English if it only exposes young minds to texts they can access by themselves? Or are today's A Level students unable to understand and appreciate TV's Horrible Histories without support?