Monday, 26 May 2014

Why shouldn't we privatise child protection services?

In the news this week, quietly shuffled out behind the much larger and louder European Elections, were Michael Gove's plans to privatise child protection services. 

There's a lot of hatred for rubber-faced, self-satisfied despot Gove in the literary world right now, mainly around his fuckwitted decision to take To Kill A Mockingbird out of the GCSE English curriculum. But this blog is not about that, infuriating though it be. This is about child protection. 

Child Protection services - services which are meant to protect and remove children from situations of abuse and neglect - are currently provided by statutory social services departments, under the auspices of the local authority. Most are stretched and understaffed. But they are still a statutory service, paid for by your council taxes, and your and my income tax. There's no profit involved. 

Child protection is extremely specialised work. No child walks around with a sign around their neck, which reads, "I am being neglected by my parents", or "I am being abused." The protection of vulnerable children relies on the co-operation of all sorts of agencies who might come into contact with a child - the school, health professionals like nurses and doctors, even the assistants who run after school clubs. 

Following the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000, a child who died despite being seen numerous times by doctors, there was an enquiry to find out what had gone wrong. There were several findings from the Lord Laming enquiry. 

One was that, even though Victoria had been seen by lots of different doctors, and lots of different social workers, nobody was holding 'all the pieces of the jigsaw'. Though lots of people had concerns that Victoria was being maltreated or neglected, there was no single named person (for example, a social worker) who knew about all of these concerns, and could patch them all together into a comprehensive picture of neglect and abuse. One finding of the Lord Laming review was to compel all agencies working with children to stay in better contact, to help protect vulnerable children like Victoria in the future. 

Since those days, child protection has improved. Yes, other children have died since; the case of Baby P, in 2007, highlighted the lengths that some abusers will go to to mislead the investigating services. In Baby P's case, the mother was able to hoodwink social services into thinking that she was engaging with them in order to improve her parenting skills. 

So, you can see from this how specialised child protection work is. It's not easy for social workers to tell whether a parent genuinely engaging with them, nor is it easy for social workers to piece together all the parts of a 'neglect jigsaw' to see when a child is being mistreated by its parents. This kind of work takes a lot of expertise and, most crucially, support and supervision. 

Now I'm not an expert in tendering procedures, so I don't really know how this stuff works. But I'm imagining that when child protection services are put out to tender, for bidding by private companies, the 'winner' of the tender will be the company that says it can provide child protection services the cheapest. 

How will they provide these services cheaper than the local authority can? Hazarding a few guesses here:

  • By cutting managers' salaries ("You get what you pay for", as the saying goes; cut managers' salaries, and you'll attract less experienced managers, perhaps managers who don't know anything about children's services or child protection)
  • By cutting staff costs (by lowering pay)
  • By increasing social workers' caseloads; (and higher caseloads means that social workers won't be able to do their jobs properly; they won't be able to do preventive work with the most complex cases, mistakes will be made; phone calls to schools & doctors' surgeries not returned; social workers might not have time to look for the best possible placements for looked after children)
And let's remember that some of the global privatising companies do not have good records when it comes to organisation of large-scale events, or of protection of the vulnerable:

In 2011, the army had to step in to take control of Olympic security when it was revealed that G4S, the company who had run the tender, had 'underestimated the scale of the event'

Earlier on this year abuse cases came to light from an immigration centre run by the company SERCO, who apparently went to great lengths to cover the abuse up, rather than making it stop

These are the kinds of companies likely to be bidding for tender to look after the most vulnerable children in our society. Please take a moment to sign this petition to help put a halt to the plans:

Sunday, 18 May 2014

"How do you get a novel published?"


Next month, (June 7th to be exact), I have a novel coming out. It's called Brick Mother and it is being released by an independent press called Dead Ink

This is the realisation of a lifelong dream for me. Ever since being a little girl, I've always dreamed of being a writer. And now, at last I am! (Although I never make any money from it - but that's another story.) 

Here's a Fun Fact for you: Brick Mother is not the first novel I have ever written. Prior to writing it, I had written two other novels, one of which is literally Not Very Good, and another which Could Be Good If I Spent About Another Two Years Working On It. 

Because, here's the thing about getting a novel published. It is hard - very, very hard. Publishers - even the small independent ones, like Dead Ink - have slush piles numbering into the hundreds. It's hard to stand out amongst that kind of competition. Agents and editors get hundreds of queries a week, and most don't read their slush piles during work hours - they don't have time. Reading the slush is what they do in their free time. 

Given that the competition to get noticed amongst the slush is so hard, what do you do? 

Well, I'll tell you what worked for me, and it is this. (Brace yourselves.) I worked like a mountain donkey. When I realised my second novel probably wasn't good enough to get published, I started work on a third - Brick Mother. I started declining overtime and extra hours at work, so that I could have more time to concentrate on writing. I stopped going out; didn't see friends, didn't go to parties - hell, there were some weeks when I ate cereal for dinner every night, just because it saved time on cooking. It was hard, and not much fun for quite a long time. It might be that other, more talented writers, would be able to achieve more than I did without having to work so hard. For me, that wasn't the case - what I found, eventually, was that I had to work roughly two or three times harder than I had initially thought, to write stories good enough to make it into print. 

So, not only did I start work on Brick Mother, but in between drafts of that, short stories too. I read contemporary anthologies to see what other writers were up to, and how high the standards were. That was another difficult moment. Realising my work wasn't up to scratch, and that I needed to work harder still. I don't mind telling you that I had a few little cries at that point. Then after having a bit of a cry, I started working a bit harder. Because - and this is not much fun either, so I apologise - the standard in published anthologies and debut novels is ridiculously high, and if you want to get published you have to make your work be at least as good or preferably even better, than those currently appearing in print. 

Short story writing was a way of improving my own practise, and also a way of trying to get things published. 

Publications came slowly. I had one or two every year from 2010 onwards, and these little moments of encouragement were enough to persuade me to keep on going with the novel, even when things were difficult. 

So, in about 2011, I started sending Brick Mother out to agents and publishers. Following the best advice, I thought about what kind of places might be interested in my writing - which, should you be interested, scores the amazing hat trick of being slightly unsettling, somewhat left-field, and not terribly commercially viable. (If that's not enough to get the big publishers falling all over each other to get to me with their cheque books, I don't know what is.) 

After giving it a bit of thought, I realised the people most likely to be sympathetic to the left field, the slightly odd, and not particularly commercially viable, HURRAH! - were small, 'artistic' independent presses. I put 'artistic' in quotes because I don't know exactly how best to describe the sensibility of these places, other than that I know it when I see it. 

Rejection from these places (and I had a lot of rejection for Brick Mother, especially given that I was sending it twice a month for several months, in my drive to get it published) came hard. What you have to realise about independent presses is that they're run by small groups of people, usually on a shoestring, and most often by people driven by the love of a particular kind of writing. If we didn't have presses like this, the literature world would be a very sad, and homogenous world indeed; it would be a place full of Jeremy Clarkson biographies, and not very much else.

So, when you as a writer find places like this, you sort of punch the air and go YESSS, THESE ARE MY PEOPLE, and you thank Thor (or whatever god you happen to worship) that people like this (odd, strange, driven by the desire to print weird and probably rather unpopular books) exist. 

Only often, because these independent presses are so small, and so shoestringy, that they can only publish two books a year. And when you hold such high hopes that they will love your novel, and want to publish it, it really comes like a punch in the gut that they don't, and they won't. Maybe there are only two people working at the press, both volunteers, and their list is already full for the next two years. Maybe they're so busy they didn't have time to read all of the submissions. Or maybe they just didn't like your book very much, for whatever reason. It just wasn't completely their thing. It didn't light their candle, it didn't chime their bell, it didn't make them want to give up even more of their evenings and weekends in the pursuit of putting out another book, because they just didn't love it enough. And that's fine, because independent publishing is driven by passion, not by duty - and that's how it should be. But it also meant that my poor little book kept on not getting accepted for publication, over and over again. 

All the same, I kept on looking for places, and competitions, and I kept on sending it out. I should mention, as well, that by the time it was finally accepted for publication - in July 2013 - I had redrafted it 5 times, sent it around a couple of trusted writer-friends for critique, and all in all likelihood spent well over 2000+ hours on it in total. 

In December 2012, after several years of spending hundreds of unpaid hours writing in all of my free time, having spent a lot of money on submission fees and postage, and still with no publisher interested in my book, I was pretty fed up, and close to stopping. But I still had two unpublished short stories on my hard drive, and I thought I should try to get them published before I stopped altogether. 

In February 2013, my story "Dance Class" (one of the unpublished short stories) was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. 

The month after that, encouraged by having been shortlisted, I wrote another short story, and sent it off to Wes Brown for consideration in an anthology he was putting together. Luckily, he liked it - and in June the same year, an editor called Nathan Connolly got in touch to say that he had read the story, and liked it so much, did I have a novel that I could send him? 

Reader, I was of course punching the air. I was at home by myself, dancing around the living room even though there was no music on. The cat looked at me askance; he was not impressed, even less so when I tried to get him to join in. Bradley, I said to myself, don't get carried away. You know the last time you got solicited for a story it turned out to be a scam. (That, too, is a story for another day.) My excitement was tempered by many months of disappointment, you could say.

I sent the novel off anyway, and not too long afterwards got another email back. They liked it! They loved it! They thought there were some serious problems in the third act of the book (er, what? More rewriting? Don't you know how much of that I've done already?!) - but these minor problems were not enough to stop me from doing a victory dance around the office at work (that's right, I was at work this time; good job there was nobody else around) and inventing a song called "Having a novel published, having a novel published" which works quite well if you sing it along to the tune of Let's All Do The Conga. 

The moment when Nathan wrote to say that he liked Brick Mother enough to want to publish it was one of the highest points of my writing career. There have been other points that have come near it, but nothing has beaten it yet.

There's been a lot of hard work since. Close edits, structural edits, drafts passing back and forth - I've done probably a hundred more hours on it since it was accepted for publication, or maybe more. But who's counting, right? When it comes out, I want it to be right - I want it to be the best beast it possibly can be - and by this point, I am certainly not shy of a bit of hard work. 

So my journey to publication has not been an easy one. It's been draining, exhausting, expensive, dreary at times, sometimes even depressing, but now that I'm on the eve of holding my novel in my hands for the first time, I consider every single minute of it worth it. Totally worth it. 

Currently reading

Lazy Eye Donna Daley-Clarke

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Coffee Shop Nights

Last week, I went across to Huddersfield with Gareth Durasow and Richard Smyth to read at Coffee Shop Nights, an evening put on by Chol Theatre Company. It was a great evening, with brilliant performances by Gareth and Richard, and from Six Lips Theatre company. I read a part of my story Top Dog, which appeared last December in Toasted Cheese Magazine. Here's the video (with preamble) for those of you who like that sort of thing.

Currently reading

The Pursued C S Forester