Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Rebirth of Venus

A big lorry drew up yesterday with a pallet full of books. The driver distracted me, telling me how his wife had left him with two little children twenty-five years ago, and that she doesn't know she's a grandmother. He also told me about his elderly father being a right misery and difficult to look after. Thank goodness it was such a beautiful, sunny day. Anyway, we eventually got the books unpacked, and it's looking gorgeous.

It took five (seven, including David's two) trips to the post office this morning, laden like a pack donkey, to get all the pre-ordered books away. (This will be the last time we stress Carl and his stamp-licking tongue - our post office is to close in a couple of months). As I sat signing all the books last night, and reading messages people had sent, I became slightly heady with delight at what marvellous people we have as customers. This is one of the best parts of publishing your own books: direct contact with readers. When you go through one of the big houses, there is nothing quite so flat as publication day. You get your copy through the post in a world that's gone eerily silent and will remain that way for weeks if not months. For some people, it stays that way forever, their book dropping like a stone into a bottomless well. Ugh. . .

We're having an official rebirthday, with guests, on Saturday.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Endagered Species 2 - the Indent

'Any questions?' my tutor in web design asked sweetly. 'You've missed two classes. Do you have any particular questions?'

'Well, yes, there is one. What do I do if I want an indent?'

'A what?'

'Indent. You know, when you press Tab in Word, you get an indent.'

'Oh, well, that is advanced. Even the advanced class hasn't tackled that one yet. But there is a way, yes, and I'll show you if you're really interested, only not right now.'

'Why is it so difficult?'

'Well, you see,' he said, pulling on his lower lip, 'it's a psuedo property.'

So, good folks, the reason why this blog is laid out like a commercial report is because programmers are commercial guys, and think the double-line space between paragraphs is the right thing to do. So much so that the element for 'paragraph' in HTML (my, aren't we getting knowledgeable?) includes a 'white space', which is to say, a blank line. So every time you type a paragraph tag, bingo, you got what you don't want.

Save the indent! I mean - will you ever want to read a novel laid out like this? And a tip for aspiring writers: never send out a manuscript laid out like this.

Dem Bones

So, the news is out following DNA testing on the exhumed bones of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano: they both died of poisoning. I heard about the exhumation just as I was making the book ready for press. What a quandry! Should I wait until I heard the results? What if that necessitated rewriting? In the end I decided to leave things as they were. After all, I had not categorically stated how they died. I was not writing a murder mystery. I stayed with Tommaso's point of view at the time: he would not have known for sure himself, but would have had his suspicions (and fears). In the end, his suspicions have been vindicated by modern science.

I trust the scientists are better at their science than their history. The newspaper report said that Pico's bones were those of a tall, burly man, contradicting all his portraits. There are no portaits, only written descriptions, which state that he was 'tall and robust'.

So, science has added nothing to my story, and my story nothing to science, except for one thing. In the novel I dismiss the theory that Pico was murdered by his secretary, Cristoforo Casale. And I am rather inclined to go with my intuition. It has never let me down.

Will this finally put paid to the scurrilous character assassination of Poliziano that has been going on for four hundred years? Somehow I doubt it. It will go quiet for a while, then, in time, we will begin to read again that he 'died of syphilis' or 'died falling down the stairs in the extremities of love.' It takes a novelist to tell the truth.

The book? - out next week. The two-week delay waiting for the typesetter to return from holiday so that the printers could get the correct files turned out to be unnecessary: the printers had the files all the time. Was there ever a book so reluctant to come out into the light of day?

Monday, 4 February 2008


Just a note to say that more comments have been posted under 'Literary or Commercial' below - all well-worth reading.

Endangered species - the subjunctive

Just because a book is written for the 'commerical' market doesn't mean we can assume that readers are a bit thick and will be put off by good English. Whether the use of the subjunctive is disappearing because of this idea or just through sheer ignorance, I don't know. If I was taught it at school, I forgot about it, but it was brought specifically to my attention by a mentor concerned about my development as a writer. The use of the subjunctive lends a beautiful quality to language. Examples include such sweet phrases as 'be that as it may' or 'would that I could'. Briefly it is used when expressing a wish or a possibility, that is, not an absolute. For example: 'I wish my brother were here' (not was). There's not a single example of the use of the subjunctive in the seven hundred papages of Labyrinth. It is not an easy aspect of grammar to master, but it's worth the effort to develop an ear for it. Don't make the mistake of assuming that all sentences beginning with 'if' will take the subjunctive: there are exceptions. My third sentence in this piece, for example, is correct, although I have no idea why.

The mystery of the Labyrinth

I woke up this morning, knowing what I was going to write here, but also determined not to name names. I don't like negative reviews and didn't want to get into that. However, I thought I'd just check on Amazon to see what anyone else thought of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, which I've spent the last three days reading while I waited for Norovirus to do its worst and leave. I was so shocked, so relieved, I nearly wept. Listen, this book has had reviews to die for and has sold in huge quantities. I do recommend that anyone interested in the commercial fiction debate should read the reviews for Labyrinth on They make fascinating reading, and leave you in no doubt that the great British reading public is not stupid (except that we haven't learnt to recognise buddy reviews in the media for what they are). Review after review carries a grudging one star (you are not allowed to leave the star field empty)and each is enlightening in its criticism. So, what went wrong with this book? If it had come to me in mss, I would have said the following:

"It is obviously well-researched and lovingly done, but it is far too long. In fact, it is interminable and I was nearly in tears by the end, longing for it to finish. Because, you see, the ending was so entirely predictable. At least a third of this book could disappear without any loss. As for the characters, there are far too many of them, and almost all are wooden stereotypes. There is no depth of characterisation. You quite cheekily say in your blurb (yes, I know who writes the blurb) that it's an adventure story featuring two women who don't stand around waiting to be rescued. Oh yeah? Whatever you tell me about the character of Alice, I got the impression of someone standing wide-eyed and saying, 'Ummmm' while things happend to her. In your own notes on your own book at the back (how precious can you get?) you have a section called 'characterisation' which I read with interest, only to find myself being asked if I had guessed which one in the medieval sections echoed which ones in present day. Well, no, I hadn't. Too busy looking for something about them to be interested in. I strongly suggest you take a course in writing, for you obviously have some talent, and before sending it out again, make sure you get it edited."

Naturally, I would have then edited out the cruelty and fashioned a much kinder response. But she would have risen up in righteous anger to point out that she has a degree in English from Oxford, has worked as an editor for top publishers, teaches Creative Writing at the University of Sussex and is a founder of the Orange Prize. At which point I would have fainted clean away, unable to comprehend such a mystery as this.

One lesson I've learnt from this exercise is to check Amazon reviews before buying anything again. What does it teach us about getting published? The lesson here is as inescapable as it is obvious: it's not who you are but who you know that counts. Now isn't that sad?

Sunday, 3 February 2008

David Suggests a New Genre

What follows is an extract from an email which David sent to my disappointed author, turned down on the basis of being 'neither literary nor commercial'. He has a novel suggestion: for the world that loves categories, let's invent a new one.

"Unfortunately, in so many areas of life, it often appears that the modern world isn't much interested in substance, only attractive packaging (and cheapness). However, I think that is only appearance - it will continue to draw the mass of people, but I suspect that, as in the area of food, change is under way and that increasing numbers are seeking something of real substance. It'll probably take a bit longer to work through to food for the mind and spirit, and it may well never be mass market, but I think it will be a growing one.

The only thing that will really satisfy you as a writer is to be true to yourself - to that indefinable something that you connected with in the portrait in the National Gallery, and the love and intrigue that it generated. If you're happy that you are doing justice to that in your writing then be unshakeable ('And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise'). Least of all rewrite out of commercial considerations - unless writing commercially is your true vision.

Frankly, if I were a writer, I'd be quite disheartened if ***** wrote to me "Do you want to write commercial fiction or literary fiction?" How come 'either or', as if these are the only two types of fiction that can be? In fairness, ***** is just reflecting current publisher thinking - but this thinking is basically an accountant's view, and after that it's a marketing team's view, and at the end of the queue there might be a whisper from an editor.

If we must think in genres then I'd like to propose a new one, 'true fiction'. . . This is neither clever packaging of nothing much at all, nor graceful literary pyrotechnics, but fiction which is lit by an inner light and perception, and is true to and manifests that. Not that there haven't been such works, they just haven't been given a genre till now."

Jonathan's view

While I take a couple of days off to recover from the Norovirus, here are two contributions I've received by email. This one is from Jonathan, who makes incredible lustreware which fulfils William Morris's dictum for arts and crafts: both useful and beautiful. He writes:

"First about the lack of lustre in modern language. I am a great fan of John Ruskin, and find his prose majestic in vision, and vivid in detail. The best of it rolls like some unstoppable wave - whether of righteous indignation or of detailed and delicate description. There is nothing to touch his style that I have come across. Hemmingway wrote terse, spare and effective prose, but there was a great loss involved in this paring economy of language.

Second: commercial versus critically-acclaimed. I agree that this is an unfortunate dichotomy. Chiefly I think it springs from intellectual snobbery, which permeates many artistic fields and not just the literary. But the argument is based on very dubious logic - something along the lines of: lots of people are ignorant; lots of people like this (book/picture/story/film); so only ignorant, or mainly ignorant people like this. I am not ignorant, so naturally I don't like it. What's more, if I don't like it, it can't be good. More succinctly, it runs: this is popular, so it cannot be good. Which line of false reasoning also has the delicious variant: my work is hard to understand, so it must be good. Or my work is misunderstood, so it must be good. In my own field, there is a deep dividing line between those potters (now dignified by the title 'Ceramicists', or sometimes 'Ceramists') who feature in exhibitions sponsored by the Crafts Council, and those who make a living selling work to the public. The new, the wacky and the boundary pushing get publicity...the old hat sells. It is not a watertight boundary(which boundaries are?) but it is a slightly unfortunate division. The problem to some extent is that most of those who can, do; and many of those who can't, teach.

I have always thought there is something healthy about getting along without grants and awards; for if you want to make a living, you have to give people what they value, and are prepared to pay for. Where is the shame in this? Of course it may involve compromise. But to remain entirely uncompromising is, I think, to do nothing. The pure world of principle and inaction."