Friday, 30 September 2011

Er... the thing that goes here... the importance of it... being snappy and... what’s that word? Memorable

Titles, like covers are exceedingly important to a book, yet often overlooked as a topic for discussion and thought. Having studied the syllabuses of a good number of creative writing courses, for example, and flicked through any number of ‘how to’ books, I cannot recall ever having seen lectures or chapters devoted to this. Yet a title, a handful of words, when put together with an image can be extremely powerful.

With non-fiction, the trick is to be as clear as possible about what the book contains. Cultural references are often a help, as are modern pre-occupations. Thus a book titled ‘Stalingrad’ is unlikely to be about anything other than the siege of Stalingrad during the Second World War.

Fiction is much more difficult. Very often you don’t want to give too much away, yet you want to convey the themes and tone of the book. Having just spent a year or more laying out a hundred thousand words doing this very thing, the problems involved in doing it all again with three or four words can be enormous.

Sometimes a title will slip into place as you are writing and you take a day off to heap offerings at the altar of your muse in thanks for their beneficence. Sometimes. Other times you are left with a notebook full of scribbled attempts. And it’s not just me. Dickens came up with these for David Copperfield: Mag's Diversions, The Copperfield Disclosures, The Copperfield Records, The Copperfield Survey of the World As It Rolled, and Copperfield Complete. Tolstoy mined his Shakespeare and came up with a nicked title: All's Well That Ends Well as the original for War and Peace. Treasure Island was originally called The Sea Cook. Steinbeck clearly had an off day when he came up with: Something That Happened; thank goodness he changed it to: Of Mice and Men.

There are countless other examples and one wonders how far these books would have gone or how different the language would be, had some of these alternative titles been used.

For those who are stuck, there are two great mines that have been used for centuries. The first is the Bible. The King James version is replete with gorgeous sounding phrases that come ready packed with thematic clothing. The other is Shakespeare. A trawl through his plays and poems (and those of his contemporaries) will throw up hundreds of phrases that sit well on the cover of a novel. Of course, these sources have been used so much; they are something of a commonplace – much like certain styles of cover illustration.

The trick is to come up with something all one’s own. Often, a phrase can be pulled from the text, or the story can be summed up with a phrase sufficiently ambiguous to tease and entice. Other times... nothing.

Oh well. Back to the notebook. Dig out the thesaurus. And make a note to add a chapter on titles to my projected ‘how to’ book.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What is it with these people?

You can tell I’m feeling a bit better (always a relative term with me). I’m angry.

I have just listened to another of what is fast becoming the latest trend amongst a certain class of successful writer. That is, a long, whining, truly pathetic moan about how much they hate writing, about how difficult it is, about how it is ruining their life.

The answer is simple you gobshites. Give it up. Stop doing it. Find yourself something you enjoy and do that instead. Basically – fuck off out of it and maybe give all those people who enjoy writing a chance. You’ve had all the breaks. You are privileged enough to be making a living from your scribbling. And all you can do is rub everyone else’s noses in the shit by throwing a tantrum a two year old would be ashamed of.

I know writing is hard work. And for the vast majority of writers the pay is poor (if you are lucky enough to get anything at all after agents and publishers have pissed all their profits in the direction of Ama$on and the supermarkets). And sometimes you work on something that turns you inside out because that just has to be done. By all means talk about the difficulties of the craft and how much it takes out of you. But, please, if you don’t enjoy it, keep it to yourself, especially if you are a successful author, because otherwise it makes you look like a precious twat.

So, yes. If you don’t enjoy it, join the dole queue, or feel free to stack shelves in a supermarket, or sweep the streets, work in a call centre, or sit in a factory for eight hours a day with nothing to occupy your thoughts but how you are going to make your minimum wage stretch to rent and food this week. Anything but your obnoxious grizzling.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Good day

I will mark today with a post as it has been a good day. Politicians, sections of the press, and the police, have been caught with their pants down pissing on the rest of us and we got so fed up with we have flicked their collective todgers with a wet towel. They are scrambling to outdo each other in proving their moral rectitude. I have no confidence that it will last or that anything radical will result. After all, look what happened over the MPs expenses scandal. Lots of hoo-ha. And they have their noses back in the trough, claiming more than ever. Except they’ve changed the rules so it’s all acceptable now. Not.

So, a little bit of sunshine before the stormtroopers are back kicking in the door.

On a personal note, Thin Reflections briefly made it into Amazon’s top 100,000 best sellers (at 93,923 to be precise). This may not seem very high, but for a book that has no more publicity than I can muster from pestering friends, to see it get into the top 3% is pretty fucking amazing. Even if I say so myself. (In fact, I have to say so myself as I am the sole publicity machine for this book).

See it here
and here

then BUY IT!

You won’t regret it. It’s a great book. Read the reviews on Amazon. Not one of those people is my mum (or otherwise related to me – so where are my relatives?), nor have any of them been bribed or blackmailed.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Sweet sixteen

It is coming up to sixteen years since I received my first offer of publication (a book that has recently gone into a second edition). Since then I’ve had a number of other books published, put out work of my own (yes, folks, self-publishing), and published other people. Yet it still surprises me, on a daily basis, that people other than my mum buy my books. Complete strangers log on to online book retailers or go into bricks and mortar bookshops and hand over cash for things I’ve written. At the risk of giving voice to a clichéd response: “How cool is that?”

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Joanna Russ

Mourning the loss of one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

Joanna Russ (22 February 1937 – 29 April 2011)

Monday, 4 April 2011

What is lost?

I am in the middle of writing a little book report. Literally. I have just broken off because this thought came to me whilst writing a sentence.

I am, of course, using a word processor. But I am old enough to remember when it was written by hand; revised by hand; typed up; corrected and, if needs be, literally cut up and pasted back together in the required order; then retyped; and checked. If you could afford it, you photocopied it. If not you typed a fair copy using carbon paper to create a second copy. And when you had a finished piece, you also had a record of all the changes you had made. If you had the space, you kept it for the day that some institute would bid for your papers so that students could study your technique.

Yet when I was writing my short report just now I was suddenly aware that I had changed a sentence a dozen times before I was happy with it. And all those changes are lost.

Now. I am not arrogant enough to believe anyone would ever want to see the various drafts of my work (and I do still print up and edit by hand with a fountain pen filled with red ink, but I don’t have the space to store old manuscripts). Ten or twelve drafts of a book would easily take up the drawer of filing cabinet. Be that as it may, I did wonder how much is being lost for future generations to consider.

This isn’t an important issue as world events go. Anyone coming upon this little musing in the future should look up the history of the early months of 2011 to see what I mean. But it is about re-inventing the wheel.

Writers know about their craft by reading. They read in the same fashion that locusts move from one side of a field to another. But they are also interested in what other writers think, about how they developed their style, how they tackled particular problems, why they abandoned certain approaches. All this provides a set of tools for writers, maps out pitfalls, and provides a huge resource to chuck in the cauldron and stir in the hope that what they cook up has a unique flavour.

So how much of that is lost now that we can sit at a machine and change a sentence a dozen times before moving one, can cut and paste with a couple of clicks of the mouse, can change a characters name through a 100,000 word script with a few more clicks.

What is lost?

Is anything gained?

Or is it just change and me finding something to be anxious about?

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Dream on

A month rushes by and I slink back in here knowing blogging acquaintances who have racked up thirty or more entries since my last one. So what have I been doing? What excitement has kept me from the keyboard? What delights have distracted me?

Nothing. Not a sausage.

I’m drifting. True, I am working on a set of four shorts stories. True, I’m waiting on a submission. True, I have been busy packing up signed copies of Thin Reflections to send out to my adoring fans. (That sound you can hear, that’s Barbara rolling on the floor laughing after reading that last bit). But I have been sending out signed copies. And brushing up on my poker. And reading. And contemplating the silicone in the bathroom that needs stripping out and replacing with fresh. And reading.

It is a difficult state for a writer to be in. As hardships in the world go, it is, I am the first to admit, way down there at the minor end of the scale. But it is vexing, nonetheless. My head is full of images and voices (which makes me sound a candidate for those nice young in their clean white coats and their coming to take me away, ha ha). As yet they are formless, and I know with a bit of patience the two novels swirling in the chaos will begin to accrete. They will form a binary, twin novels one of which tells of Charlie’s next set of adventures whilst the other picks up the story of one of Charlie’s avatars – Jeniche of Antar.

I have to be patient and let these things take their course. Watch the debris form short stories. Enjoy the rest to be ready for the approaching ride.

So if I don’t turn up for another month, you’ll know I’ve got my feet up, headphones on, coffee and notebook close at hand… Working, in other words. Essential research. And wondering just how much fun it’s going to be when the Council finally turn up and install their anti-damp devices. Perhaps they can be persuaded to renew the silicone in the bathroom. Perhaps.

Dream on.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Thin Reflections

Well, here she is. Charlie's first full outing outing in all its glory. It will take a little while to feed through to retailers, but it is already listed at The Book Depository, Amazon, Waterstones, and Foyles. You can place your order now to be certain that as soon as they receive stocks, they'll pass a copy on to you.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

On finishing...

…a book that is. Not reading the last page and wondering what to pick up next, but typing the equivalent of FIN at the end of whichever draft is the one you finally decide has to be the last.

It is a bitter-sweet experience. Especially after reading the bloody thing for the umpteenth time through various drafts and proofs (in which you still find typos, right up to the moment they have to pry the typescript out of your fevered hand). There is enormous relief that the task is done, that three years (in this case) of living with a character through situations, of their resigned stare when you put them through yet more horrors, is finished. That for better or worse it’s all gone to the printer. You can get your life back.

So you think.

Because the moment is gone, the sweats start. Cold Turkey (although being vegetarian, I’m not sure Cold Quorn has the same ring about it). You have no writing to fret over, dream about, wake up in the middle of the night and scribble about, worry at as you do the shopping. You have handed your tenderly nurtured child over to a harsh world where people have the choice to fork over hard cash for your masterpiece or for that heavily marketed, half-price, humungous bar of chocolate. And having foregone the joys of chocolate, said folk now have access to all sorts of online media where they can make or break you and the novel into which you have poured your soul.

All those worries last until the fidgets begin. You’ve cleaned away three years worth of dust in the study, mended the leaky tap in the bathroom, and reacquainted yourself with whatever members of your family still recognise the shambling wreck that has emerged from the back room. You’ve played games on the computer until your right hand has seized up (make of that what you will). You’ve watched all those box sets (and The Prisoner really is the bees’ knees – the original, that is). You’ve pretended there isn’t a notebook full of ideas. You’ve tried.

But just when you weren’t looking, you find a pencil in your hand and a few words on a piece of paper; you find a new file opened on the computer; you find yourself sorting out a new set of music to play as the soundtrack to the movie in your head.

All of which mad ramblings are to announce:

Thin Reflections has gone to the printer and will be available soon (watch this space for details).

And I will soon be starting work on something new (as well as getting some of my back catalogue into print).

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Life Less Auden-ary

A disappointing level of reading accomplished, largely because I have been spending all day proof-reading and indexing. Come the evening (when I read the most), I have for the most part been putting my feet up and watching DVDs.

I have managed to read a few short stories as a warm up to the main reading project of the year (Dubliners) and some lighter stuff, but I was struck today by how much and how little we retain of certain books. I know Joyce well because I have read and re-read his work (and yes, that includes Ulysses and Finnegans Wake). I don’t know how many copies of The Essential James Joyce I’ve been through (even my hardback is looking… well read). Yet much of the content of Dubliners seems to have slipped from my mind. This is good in a way, as I’m coming to it fresh.

This thought was sparked by the arrival of the volume of Auden’s poems I will be re-reading. There was a frisson in getting the book in the post as it is the exact same edition I had back in 1970. I carried my school books in a canvas horse’s nose bag and this, along with others was a constant companion for two years. I have flicked through the pages, but apart from a few titles that ring bells with flat batteries, there is nothing apart from that vague memory of finding little or no connection when I first read them.

Perhaps my other reading at the time coloured this. The works we studied were (and still are) part of the literary canon. I was very much into… non-canonical writing (I started to put experimental, but much of it wasn’t; perhaps exploratory would be better?). Having said that, Chaucer, Milton, and the others all made an impression.

It will be interesting to see what happens this time round (beyond a vague nostalgia for those sixth form days – all the lovely people and wondrous events).

Monday, 24 January 2011

40 Years On

Yes, I’m still in the land of the living.

And a chance encounter with a photocopy found whilst tidying a folder set me thinking. It is forty years (-ish) since I did my A Level literature course. I sat the exam in the summer of 1972, so I would have been part way into the first year (pauses to take socks off and use toes for counting) – possibly. It was literature, after all, not mathematics.

Anyway, I have decided to revisit my roots. I had been writing long before I took this literature course, and I had read some pretty heavyweight stuff – I was already an avid proponent of the likes of Beckett and Camus as well home-grown writers such as Woolf. I read just as voraciously then as I do now (my father put up a wall of shelving for my books). But this course was my first systematic introduction to reading with a purpose to understanding not just the content of a book, but the ways in which an author achieved the effects they were after.

In other words, this was a step-change for me as a writer. I learned to be critical in a systematic way and I was provided with a set of critical tools by an English teacher who was a scholar and a gentleman. No longer with us, I dedicate this project to the memory of Colin Silk.

And the project?

I’m going to re-read those A Level texts. No big deal, but it will be interesting to see if it re-opens any doors (or maybe just cracks open a few windows). Some of the texts I have revisited constantly in the last forty years. Others I have not read since.

It will also be interesting to see if I can detect any change in my attitude to them. There was only one that left me cold at the time. The rest were inspiring, eye-opening, often difficult, but always rewarding.

The texts are as follows:

Oxford A Level – 1972
English Literature

Paper I
Chaucer – The Franklin’s Tale
Shakespeare – Hamlet
Milton – Paradise Lost – Book II
Charlotte Bronte – Villette

Paper IIE
Shaw – Major Barbara
Yeats – Selected Poems (Macmillan – Poems of W B Yeats)
H G Wells – The New Machiavelli
Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Eliot – Selected Poems (Faber)
Auden – Poems (Penguin 'selected by the author' edition)

I have most of these on my shelves, but will need to track down three: the Chaucer (I do have this as rendered in modern English, but I’d like to find the original text we used and brush up on the original), Auden, and Wells.

I am currently working up to the Joyce by reading Dubliners and will report on each of them in the usual place.

In the meantime, I have to get back to Charlie who will be appearing in print in the not too distant future.