Meet The Characters: 100 Monkeys

How can I write of the Petticoat Katie stories and not tell you about the monkeys?

Monkeys, you ask.

What is it with monkeys?

The monkeys rattled at the typewriter keys in a syncopated rhythm like the world’s smallest ragtime band. What they lacked in variety they made up for with enthusiasm.

Take a seat and I’ll tell you a story, in short. (You can read more about how Petticoat Katie encountered the monkeys in The Monkeys Of Ditto Sloth, and how she came to be in charge of them in Maiden Flight.)

Of course, I wouldn’t be in the business of a hundred monkeys in any way connected to books without the forerunner of Terry Pratchett’s librarian (link to Discworld Wiki), an orang-utan who once was a wizard at the Unseen Universtity in Ankh-Morpork. If you don’t know the Discworld books yet, you have a whole world of delight awaiting you. Not needed for the purposes of this post.


The story about the monkeys began in the early days of Amazon’s ebook adventure. Kindle had become all the rage, and pundits speculated that the ebook was going to destroy traditional publishing – the paperback is dead, long live the ebook. That sort of thing.

And ebook sites began to fill up with works by the most entrepreneurial of authors – romance. Other, snobby readers cringed as romance in all its colourful sub-genres flooded the ebook sites with the sort of covers – and stories – that made non-romance readers wince, recoil and probably make some hand signs to avert the evil influence.

A Tsunami Of Crap, it was called, in an article by early adopter J A Konrath.

Shortly after this I began writing the first of the Petticoat Katie stories (The Missing Mermaid, for those keeping score).

The lead character, Petticoat Katie herself, is addicted to the cheapest of cheap romance novels, the only books she’ll read.

“I like my stories to be quick and to the point. I like to be able to read a story in an afternoon – in fact, almost while one waits for an omnibus.” Katie glanced up at the picture rail as if looking for inspiration. “I like a feisty heroine, a handsome hero, a dastardly villain and a bit of a plot. Beyond that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s literature”

Set in an alternative 1908, before wireless radio and TV, reading books is cheaper than the cinema and you can do it in bed. But Katie encounters a set of novels so cheap that even her eclectic sensibilities are offended, and she sets out to complain (see The Monkeys Of Ditto Sloth).

Fabulously, this encounter created a number of unsavoury characters to get my teeth into – not least Ditto Sloth, a loathsome man Katie calls The Eel. He reappears in Maiden Flight with an accomplice, Ethel Fitch, a polished sophisticate with the sharpest elbows in the cake shop.

Back to the monkeys.

“They say if you put a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred typewriters and have them type for a hundred years, they’ll produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.”

THE MONKEYS OF DITTO SLOTH
Typewriter

What was the big (mocking) prediction of the internet, when it became widespread back in the mid-2000s?

Same. The capacity for the unwashed masses to access and publish words on the internet held horror for the snobbish. It was going to be that Tsunami Of Crap again, or worse.

Into this fray sashayed Ditto Sloth and his monkeys.

The monkeys type pulp fiction. The books sell like hotcakes to an unsuspecting public, Petticoat Katie included. The monkeys have to keep producing books to pay for their upkeep – if they stop, for whatever reason, the revenue to feed them disappears and they’ll starve.

Early in Maiden Flight, Petticoat Katie becomes the owner of this publishing house, and thus becomes responsible for the upkeep of one hundred monkeys in a small airless room above a sweatshop in Piccadilly, London. And as a byline, the horrid little books.

Petticoat Katie stared in dismay at the box of paperback atrocities. “I suppose I’m responsible for this slush,” she said.
“Never mind,” said the bookseller as he tied up her order with string, “At least you don’t have to read them any more.”

MAIDEN FLIGHT

At first she’s horrified.

The noise, when the monkeys took a banana break, was atrocious. They screeched and squawked in a hundred different patterns, each trying to drown out the sound of the others. The ripping of banana skins sounded like a thousand cheap novelettes being stripped of their covers.

Then, bewildered.

“Hello, my darlings!” she cried when she saw them, their keen brown eyes watching her almost as if they recognised her. Small brown eyes, peered at her. Wiry fingers typed, paper scrolled through Underwood 98s, bells went Ting! at the end of each line.

Finally, she’s charmed.

If she’d been asked to choose a favourite, she’d have plumped for the marmosets, simply because of the way they wrinkled their noses when they nibbled their food.
Definitely not for the way they screamed when anyone tried to take it away from them.

The rest, as they say, is history. Herstory.

Or in this case, theirstory.

“By the way, how are the monkeys?” he asked.
“Adorable,” she said, crying again, laughing. “Really, Mr Jones, I don’t know how my life was complete before I got them.”

Boom Town
Buy my books! (and learn more about the monkeys)

To-Do List

While I haven’t done any writing this last week, I’ve done work on the other side of the coin – publishing.

Before I say more, I should add that I know there’s probably tons of resources online that do what I’ve done already. I know other writers have found solutions that work, and shared them, often for free. The fact they exist helps in a way because it means I know a solution is possible. It’s not like I’m trying to re-invent the wheel.

Might be trying to make my own wheel from scratch, but that’s a different beastie.

Wimshurst machine. Hunterian Museum, Glasgow. Maybe one day I’ll visit…

I spent the best part of two days working out where my work is published, on which platforms, and where there are gaps. In addition, I’ve worked out what I need to prepare before I reach the stage of going online to publish something – the requirements of the project, if you will.

Part of my old Day Job was all about this part of project management. In fact, my job was to carry out all the boring, tedious, humdrum aspects – logging data, formatting spreadsheets, looking for patterns and the thin thread that weaves through every project: the critical path.

At least these days I don’t have the burden of sending emails to others for input and waiting aaages for a response.

My work this week has produced actual results too. I saw that a handful of ebooks on Kobo had no covers, although I’d uploaded covers when I published them; for some reason the cover images weren’t working now. It was a matter of minutes to reload the images and approve the ebooks again. Nice!

While I was on the Kobo site I took a sacrificial ebook through the processes you need to follow to publish. Noted what the site asked for, and when in the process. What were the blockers that meant I couldn’t continue? What could I prepare beforehand that would be easy to replicate, or use on other sites?

I did the same with Smashwords and Kindle and Lulu. Wrote a template for each site, that I can use for new writing projects, to keep tabs on progress towards publication. Wrote a summary for each project, as it currently appears online, with all the relevant details of that project such as print ISBN, ebook ISBN, first published, what platform, etc. This should come in handy when I have more books to manage i.e. after I’ve published all the ones on my current To-Do List.

Which, of course, brings me back to the current To-Do List.

Now I have a handle on what’s already out there, and the work I have to do to add more, the To-Do List doesn’t seem so daunting – or so muddled.

I can see which projects I need to prioritise for quick publication either because they’re time-specific like The Cuckoo Club Archives: 2021 or aaalmost finished, and those where I don’t have enough of the pieces assembled to make the task worthwhile.

There’s more work to do – for example, so I can find out how long it takes me to produce professional-looking cover art (because I’m a cheapskate as well as being particular) because some of those books look rather “2011”. And that’s not a good look.

Would it be useful, I wonder, to do some posts on how project management techniques can help with writing?

Still not ready…

Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

 

– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

Zen and the writer

Nice post over on Inkpunks counteracts the craziness of “epublish now!” – “tweet this!” – “like! Like! LIIIIKE!”:

There is no set timeframe for becoming a writer.  Success comes at different times for different writers.  Some writers will publish right away.  Some will take five years.  Some will take twenty years before they find any kind of writing success.

But it doesn’t matter, because there is no finish line.

Amen.

The End.

And they all lived happily ever after…

Long time waiting (for a bubble to burst)

Ewan Morrison has written a piece for the Grauniad today on the forthcoming demise of epublishing. He says:

“epublishing is another tech bubble, and … it will burst within the next 18 months”

Umm… here’s Michael Allen saying something rather different in 2005. His post is about the Publishers’ Association International Conference of that year.

“Ideas at this conference were being bandied about as if they were new, when actually they’ve been commonplace on the web for somewhere between two and five years. For example, one speaker says, ‘The digital revolution is no longer the future. It’s here now.’
And actually it’s been here quite a while.

‘Online content has gone from being a niche phenomenon to mainstream.’
So you’ve noticed? At last.”

Remember, this is from 2005. Seven years ago. That’s a long time waiting for a bubble to burst. (One thing I like about this blogger is his quiet irony).

I’d be more concerned about the power cuts in India that have stopped the world’s biggest English-speaking market from using their technology for a while, not the surf of epublished crap we are all supposed to fear crashing on our metaphorical shores like debris from a natural disaster.

“An estimated 710 million people live in the affected area, ever more of whom require electricity as they snap up the air-conditioning units, flat-screen TVs and other gadgets that have become status symbols among India’s burgeoning middle classes.”

Over seven hundred million people. That’s a population equivalent to ten – TEN – Britains.

However, I suspect most of them have more on their minds than the survival of ebooks, self-published or otherwise…

(That appetite for technology (and the power to, um, power it) is a global problem. It’s a problem that won’t go away either. But not for today’s discussion here.)

The Joy of Bloggy Relics

When I find a new blog I like, one of the activities I enjoy most is going back to the earliest postings and reading the whole thing through, up to the most recent.

From the start of Joe Konrath‘s blog, you read about his efforts to push his books to bookshops across the USA. He documents the details and the sheer hard work he put in to make this happen, and then there’s the subtle shift… He finds ebooks.

There’s Dean Wesley Smith, writing his sensible advice back in 2008, cautious about the new technology that is starting to gain traction.

Luann Udell, whose posts go back ten years on the trials and tribulations of making a living at your art (in her case, little Stone Age horse figurines).

My newest discovery, Grumpy Old Bookman, whose blog posts from 2004 onwards are an online archive of the development of publishing in the UK, including the rise of ebooks and indie publishing. I’ve been looking for a source of information with a UK perspective since finding Dean Wesley Smith two years ago. This is one of those sources, and I prefer it to others.

Nicola Morgan, the Crabbit Old Bat, is a great read and another UK perspective on publishing, including ebooks and especially non-fiction.

Terri Windling, whose lovely welcoming blog has lots of great illustrations used liberally, photos and words and links to folklore topics and a perspective from the editing side of the page. Plus, she has a very photogenic dog.

All of these – and more – filled with musings and developments. The gradual buildup of posts create a voice, a real sense of personality, and the best of them create a sense of being someone’s “home” on the web.

Each time I read a long-enduring blog, I’m reminded that the volume of posts takes time to create. One of the joys is seeing how situations change the writer, or the writer finds their niche or their specialism or their folly.

This inspires me.

Each blog post of my own is a marker on my own web history, the development of my work or the growth of my writing voice, what I choose to say with it.

The messages I send to the future.

And I know I’ve barely begun.

Where will you be in ten years’ time?

This is a copy of a guest post I had published over on Do Authors Dream Of Electric Books? on 31 January 2012. I liked it so much I thought I’d re-post it here. Ta.


I recently fired up an old PC to rescue a novel from a zip disk, and in doing so I discovered a lot of old web links from ten or eleven years ago, saved onto the disk along with my novel. Reading through these has given me a lot to think about.

So many books, so little time

I thought about the ten years since I downloaded those links – life events, changes online and in the real world, successes and failures and other experiences. I looked at my meagre achievements as a writer.

And I began to think ten years ahead.

Last year, I wrote twenty short stories, one novella, one-and-a-half novels. I built a new blog up to fifty pages and had an article and a book review published in a niche magazine.

I work a full-time job. Last year I had an allotment garden and a hobby which took me away from home for a couple of weekends and occupied my spare time in the evenings and weekends for months beforehand.

I didn’t write nearly as much as I hoped. But I planned my writing around work, around the allotment, around the rest of my life including holidays and family visits and friends and exercise and learning new stuff.

And I wrote.

My output last year wasn’t prolific. Far from it.

However, I now have a suite of products up for sale on Amazon and via Smashwords to a number of international markets. I have publication credits in a print magazine. If I produce as much this year, I’ll double the size of my suite. I’ll also have a little planetary system of stories in the same universe. Two universes, in fact.

In ten years time, if I keep up the same leisurely pace of production and nothing else changes, I’ll have:

  • ten novels
  • ten novellas
  • two hundred short stories
  • ten non-fiction booklets
  • an as-yet-unplanned number of variety packs – novels+novellas, novels+shorts, twin novel packs, themed packs, character packs, etc. which add up to at least another hundred products
  • a 500-post blog

If I’d started this ten years ago, at this pace, even with all the life issues that cropped up in those years, how would that body of work make me feel?

Rather chuffed, I can tell you.

Never mind the state of publishing, the crisis of the internet, the downfall of western civilisation. Ignore it, and look at that body of work. I want to be able to look back in ten years and see that with my name against it.

Guardian Pix 2009, Shelves full of books

Image Credit: Guardian/Getty Images

What does your ten-year plan look like?