Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
So rather than blog for blogging’s sake, I’ll blog for no reason at all.
What have I been working on recently? Well I published a book of poems recently through CreateSpace. It was a collection of poems covering the last eight years or so. Some of them were written when I was working for Barclays Bank headquarters in London, England as a computer auditor. London was an exciting city to work in and one of the things that made it doubly interesting was that I worked in the heart of the city – the part of London that has been there since Roman times. So there was a lot to see throughout the course of a working day. Some of that leaks into the poetry. Some of the desperate “busyness” of the financial district also creeps in and I have a somewhat cynical take on it.
When I was in London I traveled regularly to Milan, Italy on business and a batch of the poems are set there, again in the financial district of the city but totally different in nature from London. Milan is like London in one respect, though: being there is like stepping back in time several centuries. Ancient buildings and ruins, monuments, historic sites are all around, but treated by the workers as just part of the scenery.
Others of the poems were written – by remarkable contrast – in Drummore, a tiny fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. We lived there for four years and the poems tend to be more pastoral in nature. It’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of a cow’s udder for example – writing about, it that is. But part of the joy of living in the back of beyond was the agricultural cycle: the harvest, lambing season in spring, plowing, sowing and so on. All grist to the poet’s mill. The one challenge was to say something new about it that hadn’t been said before – or at least say something old in a new way.
And lastly, there are poems from the last four years, which we have spent in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of these deal with the inevitable culture shock of living in a strange culture – although, much of it tends to be generic ‘western’ culture now. In particular, a batch of the poems were written during last winter which was unusually cold and snowy. It was the first year that I had to actually get out there and shovel snow myself. So I know what I’m talking about at least when I mention snow. They say that eskimos have scores of words for snow depending on what type it is. After spending the winter in Minnesota, I only had one word for it – but, hey, this is a family show.
The book can be found here.
Have you ever been reading a novel and got confused as to which character was which? It’s happened to me several times. One of the main reasons, I found, was that if two characters names began with the same initial letter I get confused. I’m sure not everyone suffers from this disability but I do. I also get confused if two characters have only one syllable to their name even if their initial letters are different. Sad, I know.
Anyway, just in case any of my readers suffer from the same handicap I took to trying to make my characters’ names a different as possible. So I would just work my way through the alphabet using a different initial letter for each character. I also tried to vary the number of syllables. Another thing I found helpful was using foreign names.
Of course that doesn’t stop readers from forgetting who your characters are for different reasons – for example if they are too similar in other ways; or too boring. But then, if they’re too boring you may as well save yourself the trouble of writing anything down anyway, no matter what you call your characters.
I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because a severe thunderstorm fried my digital modem and wireless router. Consequently, Internet access was down for a couple of weeks. It was like having a limb amputated but was no doubt good for me in a vague ascetical way that I haven’t quite managed to figure out yet. So I’m back in the land of Web now and strangely everything is just the same as it was.
A while ago I started writing a novel that involved railroads, construction workers and kidnapping, among other things. Well, I got about halfway through and then realized that the plot didn’t quite seem to work. For one thing, I had a bunch of construction workers rob a train repeatedly, but strangely no one seemed to take any action, least of all the police. Not very credible. I also had a guy throw himself off a building only to catch his overalls on a crane hook. Well the guy stayed that way, swinging from the crane, for several days before someone noticed he was unaccountably missing and decided to do something about it. What the hell was I thinking!
There were several other plot points that just weren’t working. So I asked my wife, Liz, to read over the story and she confirmed my worst fears. The whole thing was too far fetched and, worse, unsalvageable. She assured me that there were a number scenes of brilliance at various points (aw, shucks) but not enough to sustain belief in the reader (aw, rats). I could always cannibalize them for use in another story.
Hm… So back to the drawing board. I decided – tentatively this time – to do a sequel to “Muscle for Hire”. That book seemed to go down well with readers and critics and why pass up an opportunity to give them more of the same? I’ll start the new book probably in late August after the schools go back and I have a relatively free space to concentrate.
However, I think I’ll stop some way into the plot to do a reality check before continuing this time. I don’t want to end up writing another 40k words before I realize that the whole thing is complete bilge.
A salutary lesson and a timely reminder. A platitude for every occasion.
I came across an article recently that asked the question whether a website or a Facebook page was the best vehicle for an author to spread the word about his/her books. Here’s an interesting comparison:
1998. You’re a new writer and you want to establish a permanent residency online. Which would be wiser: Having your own site at your own domain, or putting up a site at GeoCities?
It’s 2001, same drill: Which is wiser: Having your own domain, or creating a site on AOL servers?
2003: Your own domain, or a Friendster page?
2007: Your own domain, or a MySpace page?
And now it’s 2011 and the choice is one’s own domain or a page on Facebook.
The point is that social media are transient and fall in and out of favor whereas a website is for ever.
I only partially agree with this. To my mind many websites become outdated because their owners fail to update them. However websites are also a good place to display information that is relatively static such as the author’s name, background etc. So having long intervals between updates is not so much of an issue.
Social media, on the other hand, perform a different purpose – that of keeping followers and fans updated with what is happening right now, like new books coming out, what the author is working on and so on. So it’s not a straight comparison.
Normally if you want to know more about a person you would look for their website. It stands to reason that any author worth his salt should have one. So why haven’t I got one yet? Em, I’m working on that…
Interesting article in various newspapers about John Locke an independent author from Kentucky who has sold a million copies of his ebooks without the aid of a safety-net agent or publisher. One of the interesting ploys he used to garner sales was reducing the price of his books to 99c each. That’s way less than other authors who have signed with traditional publishers. He published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct self-publishing service. Kindle Direct’s pricing structure looks like this:
< $2.99 = royalty of 35% goes to the author.
$2.99+ = royalty of 70% goes to the author.
If my calculations are correct – and they may not be since I am crap at math – he would need to sell six times as many ebooks at 99c for every one copy at $2.99 to make roughly $2 in royalty.
I suppose it all depends what you want: copies sold v. royalties earned. Of course, if you sell at 99c that’s a big incentive to customers to buy your book. In fact, for all I know, most customers browse only the 99c titles looking for a bargain. But is the price six times as attractive as a title at $2.99. I’d be very interested in finding out the answer to that question, because I’ve been mulling over whether to drop the prices of my own books to 99c – as a kind of experiment.
What do you think?
In the mail this afternoon, I got the first proof of the book of light verse I had been working on. It looks great so far. I need to make several adjustments. The resolution of illustrations is too low, because I reduced the file size to try and save space. However, CreateSpace (the service I’m using to publish and distribute the book) allows 40mb for uploading the book contents so I have plenty of space after all. Also, as you can see from the front cover, the illustration bleeds into the book title and the the guy on the far left at the back seems to have had half his fingers amputated. These I can easily fix using Photoshop.
If anyone is interested, after trying out various methods, including using a graphics tablet and several painting and drawing applications, in the end I decided to do the illustrations using a rather unassuming fountain pen on cartridge paper. I found it gave me the best line quality. I then scanned each illustration and converted to jpeg using mostly 50% compression (which is where quality suffered).
I have to say, it is a great feeling holding your own book in your hands, even if it’s only a proof. This is the sort of thing that publishing ebooks can’t even come close to. Ebooks are very good – or at least moderately good – at publishing text-only books, like novels. What ebooks can’t do is publish books where the page format is important, like illustrated books (eg. mine) and many non-fiction books. A lot of people are predicting the demise of traditional publishing because more and more people are buying ebook readers like Kindles. Given that the vast majority of books are non-fiction, and that a huge number of them have illustrations, charts, diagrams and other fancy format-dependent content, I don’t see traditional publishing being under any serious threat until ebooks get a lot more sophisticated in the kind of content they can display. Of course, no matter what kind of content ebook readers can display, there are some people who simply can’t give up the sensory pleasure of holding a physical book in their hands.
I’d be interested if anyone has any ideas about where they see publishing going in the future. Am I the only one who is slightly skeptical about the alleged takeover of publishing by ebooks?
To my mind there are no hard and fast rules about how to plan a work of literature. But what I have found is that my method changes depending on genre. I’ve written two non-fiction books and the method I used was to get a pile of research material and read through it and while reading take notes. The notes were my reflections on the source material and were fairly detailed. Once I had finished with research I would go through my notes and categories them according to theme. Then I would rearrange the notes into section, each section representing a theme. After reviewing the themes I found that some of theme seemed to go together. So I grouped the themes into chapters and hey presto! I had the first draft of a book along with footnotes stating the sources.
But for novels I have a different method. First of all I try out a few opening scenes to see if any of them have legs. Once I’ve written a couple of chapters and I can see where the story is beginning to go I write a synopsis.
It puzzled me for years what the difference was between a working synopsis and a synopsis meant for submission to a publisher. It was only after trial and error that it dawned on me. A working synopsis tends to be more of a description of what I hope to achieve in each chapter rather than a description of what’s actually there. This makes sense if you think about it. When you’re writing a book nothing IS there to begin with because you haven’t written it yet. So when you write a synopsis you’re really giving a description of what a chapter, or part of a chapter, should achieve in terms of the overall plot.
What works for me is to create a table in MS Word with two columns: column 1 for the chapter numbers and column 2 for the synopsis of each chapter.
Each novel I’ve written has been between 28 and 32 chapters, with each chapter being somewhere between 2,400 and 2,600 words.
Another thing I do is to take a note of the number of words I write each day and keep this in a spreadsheet. It’s heartening to glance at it now and then in the course of writing to see how much I’ve written already and how far there is to go.
For one novel, “The Blood Menagerie” I even drew up a flowchart of when each character appeared and what they did. The flowchart had the characters’ names along the top and the chapter numbers down the left hand side.
The only reason I do all this is not because I’m ultra-organized. It’s just that I like fiddling about with calculations and spreadsheets and things. There’s always the danger that I spend time fiddling instead of writing. I’m still waiting ruefully for the day when I put the finishing touches to a pristine and highly complex spreadsheet and suddenly realize that I haven’t actually written anything yet…
What do Ogden Nash, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Edward Lear and Harry Graham have in common? Apart from being male writers who are dead? The answer is that they all wrote light verse. You might think that light verse is the preserve of those who can’t write anything else, but writing light verse takes a good deal of technical skill and subtlety. That’s if it’s any good.
The tradition of light verse is a long one. A particular brand that was practiced during the late 19th, early 20th centuries was black in humor and could be called, to give it its proper name, grotesquerie.
A good example is this by Harry Graham:
“Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes.
And now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.”
A less vicious version is found in Ogden Nash:
“Sure, deck your lower limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance –
Have you seen yourself retreating?”
Belloc practiced a type of light verse that has probably gone out of fashion. These were cautionary tales of various sorts – all humorous and all ostensibly aimed at warning children away from bad behavior (though much of it was a tongue-in-cheek aside to the adults). These had titles like:
Godolphin Horne – who was cursed with the sin of pride and became a boot-black.
Rebecca – who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.
Charles Augustus Fortesque – who always did what is right, and so accumulated an immense fortune.
Chesterton was one of the most sophisticated practitioners and plied obscure poetical forms like the “ballade” and the “clerihew” and wrote satirical rhyme as well as grotesque verses.
“Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything,
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot.”
And lastly Edward Lear, that Victorian artifact who is renown for singlehandedly resurrecting and making popular the limerick which is so unfunny today:
“There was an Old Man of Aôsta,
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, ‘Don’t you see,
she has rushed up a tree?
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!’”
So why am I waffling on about these old fogeys? I wouldn’t say I was addicted to light verse. Well, okay, maybe I am. Over the years I’ve written enough light verse to line several trashcans. So I decided recently, since my novel stalled halfway through due to family commitments, that I would gather together some of the better ones and publish them. So at the moment I am illustrating them, which takes less time than writing a novel, and to some extent is more enjoyable. Here’s an example of a limerick (well why the heck shouldn’t I?):
“There was a young man whose hyperbole
Was often administered verbole.
In his throat and distress him most terbole.”
I reckon that’s at least as bad as Edward Lear don’t you? And anyway, he’s dead and can’t argue.
It’s a thing that’s always puzzled me. What is the strange compulsion that comes upon someone that forces him/her to sit at a keyboard and write? It was worse still in the old days. There were no keyboards; just the literal pen and paper with which to beguile the marching hours.
William Maxwell, who was fiction editor at the New Yorker at the end of the golden age, between 1936 and 1975, once said: “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” I think that’s true. You read something fairly decent and you think: I could do that. On the other hand, how many times have you read something and thought: that’s crap! I could do better than that! But there has to be something more to it than that. ‘Emulation’ doesn’t drive you to sit for hours, day after day, week after week hammering out the 60k+ words it takes to write a novel.
The novelist Judith Rossner has said, “every asshole in the world wants to write.” But apart from the anatomical difficulties of that particular method, the reason why the novel within everyone never sees the light of day is because most people don’t have the perseverance to write it. Apart from anything else, thinking that you can ‘do better than that’ doesn’t mean that you can. Writing is more difficult than it looks.
I’m sure some people write to see their name on the bestsellers list. Others write for money alone. And yet others write because they have something they want to communicate to other people. But some people write because they just love the sound of words, the combinations of words, unusual usages of words, in fact, everything about words.
I can’t help feeling that if you’re really serious about writing then there has to be a payoff. I don’t mean that you should walk off with a one-million-dollar advance. I just mean that some form of remuneration is surely necessary to at least ratify your opinion that those hours you spent writing weren’t all for nothing.
That link between the hard work and the affirmation is something that writers find difficult to wean themselves off. The poet John Hall Wheelock once said that: “most writers are in a state of gloom a good deal of the time; they need perpetual reassurance.” And that’s probably why rejection by an editor at a publishing house can still ruin your week. Despite all that, isn’t it essential to at least act like a professional, if I want to be paid like one. If not, am I not just playing at being a writer?
I worked for about seven years as a freelance journalist and found out this amazing fact: a looming deadline doesn’t care how you feel about writing.