Saturday, January 15, 2011

Without a Trace

And the skylight is like skin for a drum I'll never mend
and all the rain falls down amen
on the works of last year's man.
Last year's man - Leonard Cohen

Well, you know what they say about a broken drum - you can't beat it.

I thought I'd actually write about what was behind one of my books. I detest sermons-books, or agenda books (especially when they're a reflection of PC rather than thought). Books need to be enjoyable reads and it is a very rare writer who is good enough to carry a sermon and good entertainment. I know I am not that good (and frankly neither are most of the other proponents of this), so my target has always been to write a great story... which just might happen to make you think. Which show -- rather than prescribe how you should feel -- things which I feel strongly about. The conclusions you reach are your own. For example: RATS BATS AND VATS was variously described as "funny, funny, funny (Brian Murphy,, Noirish comedy alien shoot-em-up (Kirkus) . It's also probably the most serious book I have ever written, about socio-politics, and social exclusion. Oh and about conscription and militarism. I doubt if one reader in ten thousand realised all that as they laughed and enjoyed, but I do hope that a fair number of readers found themselves questioning other unsupported conclusions afterwards. It's what Sir Terry Pratchett does, and while I am not in that league, that is my role model. I remain, I suppose, an idealist. One who writes for money, a mercenary, if you like. But there are causes which pay well I could serve, but will not. And being paid for my books is the sincerest affirmation the fact that I do entertain, for all that.

Anyway: WITHOUT A TRACE is in many ways the works of last year's man. It was written in South Africa, at a time when the various militias of the various political factions were increasingly using children as cannon fodder.

It's not something that has gone away (they perpetrated most of the murder, destruction and rapine in Zimbabwe, and are stirring in South Africa now) -- or was new then -- and its tragic consequences, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, or in Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army are the end point of this. Nor is something that is confined to Africa, as shown by the Hitlerjugend and the Deutches Jungvolk, and their charming Russian equivalent -- where children were encouraged to spy on their parents and turn them over ‘re-education' to merely name two of these pestilences.

I've always felt those using ‘youth leagues' for their political (and often military) ends were engaged in a process not unlike paedophile grooming -- and targeting the children for much the same reason as paedophiles find their targets suitably vulnerable for their depraved desires. I don't hold these organisers in very high esteem, as you might possibly gather. They like their fodder without much experience of a wider world, with discernment and empathy still only partially formed, and in the grip of that difficult hormonal phase (period seemed a bad choice of word). It does mess about with your thinking, especially, I think, testosterone. As someone once said: it's like having to get used to having PMT for life. It's not easy being a teen, and, as I remember it, my head was messed up enough without someone else manipulating it. To be clear: those who run youth organisations aimed at letting kids GET that experience and learn that discernment, and NOT TO USE the kids come under the heading of heroes in my book -- the very inverse of the Hitlerjugend, ANC Youth League or Young (insert political party of choice here) movement.

At the time that I wrote this book both the ANC Youth League and Inkatha Youth League were being used in what could only be called atrocities against their opponents. As another form of less obvious and brutal atrocity -- but none-the-less terribly destructive to society and their future, children - particularly boys - were being driven away from reading by the choices of prescribed reading matter for our schools. These were boring, PC and very agenda driven, slow moving, linguistically difficult/weak and nearly on average as appealing to a middle grade child as a bowl of cold dog-sick. There was little in the way of hope and VERY little in the way of entertainment in these books.

And one of the School Text Publishers decided to have a competition for a new school reader. I decided to take on both issues. I knew my attitude towards them had a snowflake's hope in hell with the gatekeepers, but I've been taking on hell with a fire-bucket all my life.

I wrote WITHOUT A TRACE. You can read the start of the book here.

The book was one the finalists, and retained for publication.
Only then after six months... they chickened out.

I shopped the book around to South Africa's pathetic crop of publishers -- who were divided into Apartheid government subsidy publishers, and struggle subsidy publishers. It took me another 14 years to find a publisher, get an advance... and lo, last year they chickened out.

So here it is: It's a story I believe that still has relevance. It was aimed at Middle Grade Readers... by me. Which means if I didn't think it was good enough for adults to read, it wasn't good enough children.

On the book itself: it is set on one of the most turbulent and wildest coasts in Africa: the appropriately named ‘Wild Coast' - the known grave of many ships and disappearing place of far more. A place of savage currents, vast waves, strange phenomena, fragments of history. It's a haunted coast, visited by centuries of Arab slavers and Portuguese carracks, a place of lost dreams, terrible deeds and of great courage.

It's a Bermuda triangle for Africa if you like. And into that African Bermuda triangle -- a universe close enough to break through into periodically - I plunge my heroes -- two boys, honor, courage, determination and mischief, a sense of humor, and lots of attitude. Just your average twelve year olds... dealing with a world lost in time and space, with remanents of all those lost in it: from pirates to warriors, from wild beasts to wild fire. About cliffs, and raging seas.
I've been there, I've seen it. I've done a lot of what I write about.

It's also about loyalty and hope (no love. No kissy stuff, sorry).

It's a boys book for boys, but I have been told by several young women that was pretty cool too. I dunno. I've never been one. But as a young teen it's the book I would have loved to read.

The e-arc of the novel is up at Naked Reader. If you have been wondering what to put on that Kindle for your middle grade reader: you might try this.


Kate Paulk said...

Read it. Get the eARC, then get the final version.

It's exactly the kind of adventure I devoured - and the political aspects are wonderfully layered in, without any preaching. (For anyone who wonders, Dave does not preach. The characters and the story carry any messages that need to be there, and so seamlessly that someone who's not watching carefully could find those messages sneaking up on them and biting them late at night)

The publishers who declined to take it are wusses. Or PC (or more likely, both). Their loss, Naked Readers' gain.

So what are you waiting for? Go spend money on Dave's story, then come back and tell him how wonderful it is. If we try hard enough, we might manage to get a wonderful rosy glow from the far south of Australia.

(on a side note, jeez I wish I could do this for MY writing!)

Dave Freer said...

The rosy glow begins :-). Seriously, the truth is publishers in South Africa are dependent on school text publishing - which is controlled by their political masters - who run what is effectively a youth militia on which they depend and of which they will brook no criticism. The fact that it slid into acceptance twice - just shows that the concept that letting yourself be used is something to be avoided is relatively well disguised. Just those who use you seldom lead from the front. It's something I would have liked my kids to think about.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

The Australian Educational publishers are just as careful. In the late 90s they began sending out lists of what writers could/couldn't talk about.

It was a huge list and I held onto it for a few years but now I can't remember all the details.

No losers, everyone had to win.

A multi cultural mix.

Politically correct roles for men and women.

We had to use pavement instead of footpath and other Americanisms that supposedly made the books international. But in reality made them palatable to US readers.

I had a book dealing with racial discrimination banned.

Best of luck with your book, Dave.

Synova said...


Most American readers hate the notion that they're too stupid to understand what a footpath is.

Kate Paulk said...

Rowena, Dave,

We can't possibly let kids know that there's such a thing as racism out there and that it's bad news for the people on either side of that fence, oh, no. And we can't let them know that life is competitive and unfair and sometimes people lose, even though they see that all the time anyway.

(putting away the sarcasm shovel) Kids figure it out. What they need is stories like Without a Trace that let them see that individuals who care and keep fighting can sometimes make all the difference.

(Insert rant of choice about PC idiocy)

MataPam said...

I really hate the "must use American terms" rules. Okay, maybe if the Brit author had the American Character using british expressions... but the British/Australian/Canadian/Irish/Scottish sounding like they grew up in Omaha removes a big chunk of atmosphere.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, 'No losers, everyone had to win' - gaaaah. That about wraps it up for almost any book I can remember reading.

Someone needs to break this to 'educators': The purpose of prescribed texts is getting children to read. This may be the only chance we have. It is NOT social engineering. Social engineering goals no matter how grandiose are tiny achievements compared to the effect of functional literacy on a society. THAT and THAT ONLY is the only social engineering justifiable with the choice of school readers.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - it is a curious thing which I wonder if ever occurs to most people: We tend to assume our own values are the values of others. So for example the executive screaming for DRM is effectively telling us he'd steal if had a chance. Likewise the education official/publisher prescribing these things is himself intolerant of differences and affronted by them - so he assumes everyone else must be. He also assumes in an utterly bigoted fashion that all Americans are stupid. I wonder what that says about him?

Dave Freer said...

(chuckle) On the other hand, Matapam, I had a reader complain bitterly that Liz De Beer (the South African character) in PYRAMID SCHEME - was a product of too little research and that she sounded just like an American. Why didn't I find out something about South Africans? At the time PS was written I had spent 10 days in the US.