Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Take note

After the enjoyable interruptions of the Book Fair, I am now back at work, although work of the lightest kind. I intend to start drafting in earnest at the start of June. Until then I am only reading, pacing the garden and making notes in a small hardback notebook which a friend gave me for my birthday.

The notebook is a great boon. It goes with me almost everywhere, and makes a welcome change from the bundles of scrap paper that I habitually use for scribbling down my inchoate thoughts. In our house all scrap paper is sourced from the stacks of redundant manuscripts and page proofs that lie around the periphery of my study, reminding me of how much time has gone by, and constituting a considerable fire hazard. Of course, the notebook notes are later sifted, assessed, roughly organised and written up on screen, so that I can refer to them easily when I need to. This I tend to do last thing at night, with musical accompaniment.

Meanwhile Mareike, our German au pair, having finally read her way through the Stephanie Meyer quartet, is now reading something quite different, of mine. It is at present rather short (lucky for her) – a mere 44,000 words – almost skeletal in its economy, which is in some ways the point. I will almost certainly expand it, but before I do, I’m interested to see how it plays in its anorexic state, especially among younger people. That’s why poor Mareike is getting the first draft. I don’t know many 20-somethings who like to read; my friends are a bit too old, and their kids aren’t nearly old enough. If the skeletal version plays well, then I will just have to write something else to go with it (sometime, Heaven knows when); because I’m told there is considerable resistance in the market for novels under 60,000 words. A case of giving value for money, I suppose, if rather an unsophisticated one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dutch courage

I can’t say yet if this year’s Book Fair will bring me any financial benefits, but it has at least brought me two very enjoyable lunches, today’s being in Chelsea with the renowned and charming Marga de Boer of Dutch publishers Luitingh-Sijthoff. As well as being one of Holland’s most influential editors, it turns out Marga is also a keen ice-skater and has a formidable knowledge of both Latin and Greek. Not for the first time this week, I find myself feeling a little like a cave-dwelling Philistine next to my host.

In Holland publishers have to get translations from English in particular done very quickly, because most Dutch people are perfectly willing and able to read English books in the original. Walk into an Amsterdam bookshop and you will find that only roughly half the fiction titles are actually in Dutch. In my case, The Einstein Girl, will be coming out just one month later than in the UK, which is something of a feat. I am delighted to find the Einstein artwork on the cover of the new catalogue (you can see it here: http://thiswriterstale.blogspot.com/2009/03/dutch-cover-story.html). Marga deliberately runs an eclectic and international list, with virtually no overlap in styles or themes: so I find my book unexpectedly rubbing shoulders with the latest from Patricia Cornwell, Danielle Steele, John Le Carré and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Apparently the trade likes what she has done, and Marga is confident that Einstein will be decently stocked, which is about all I could ask for. On the other hand, she points out that there are difficulties in publicizing non-Dutch authors in Holland, and suggests I get busy on the Internet preparing all manner of material which must somehow be linked into the great global on-line cyber market in the sky. I must admit, this is not terribly much what I wanted to hear. (Not that I mind messing about with web sites and editing software. It’s just the time they eat up...) Momentarily daunted, I then make a hash of describing my next book again.

After lunch, I give Marga a lift to her hotel in Earl’s Court, where the serious action (for her, rather than me) begins tomorrow. There she will try to cram in several meetings per hour all day and much of the night, most of them under the hot lights of the exhibition centre. Hard work on the larynx, the memory and the ankles. I expect the skating helps.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book Fair hits town

Rain and emergency engineering works on my particular stretch of the District Line (timed to perfection by the evil geniuses at Transport for London), almost conspire to make me late today for lunch with my German publisher. Tina Arnold of DTV is over from Munich for the London Book Fair, which officially opens on Monday at Earl’s Court. Dagmer, her London scout, not only recommends books for her, it seems, but also restaurants; in this case, Moro in Exmouth Market. And a good recommendation it turns out to be. The lamb I have is really delicious. If it were a painting, I would frame it and hang it on a wall.

I have spoken to Tina on the phone, but this is the first time we’ve actually met. She turns out to be delightful and funny. She also seems to know a vast amount about Shakespeare (a few years back she sat through the RSC’s entire Henry VI cycle twice), added to which she speaks English slightly better than I do, which doesn’t really seem fair. I do manage to make a hash of describing the new book I've started working on - I really should practise these things - but otherwise the whole event is great fun.

Tina brings with her good news from the German market, namely that orders for all kinds of books are holding up very well; if anything, better than last year, and certainly better than expected. This may mean that the book market is largely recession-proof; on the other hand, it may just mean the recession hasn’t really arrived in Germany yet.

Meanwhile translation of The Einstein Girl continues apace. Apparently the translator lives in Berlin where most of the action of the book takes place. She has gone as far as to seek out certain of the key locations, most importantly Albert Einstein's summer house in Caputh, which is now open to the public. Now that's what I call dedication.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Plan B from Inner Space

Like the wheels of Soviet industry, I always work to a plan. Some book plans are more detailed than others, but without them, I don't think I would get very far. The difficulty is knowing when to stop planning and start drafting.

Plans appear less difficult and often less troublesome than producing prose - you can fill a screen with story notes in a fraction of the time it takes to write a page of finished text. For that reason, it is tempting to skimp, and get on with the "real" work of writing. This is a mistake, at least for me. In my experience, the writing you do in your head, the ideas that fuel the drafting process, are pretty much the make-or-break. An effective story, poorly written, can always be re-written (although that doesn't mean it will be, heaven knows). A bad story well written is still a bad story, and will probably remain so, no matter how you primp and polish it.

It's a pity nobody teaches the dark art of outlining. It’s much trickier than it looks. As you develop your premise, a huge number of narrative possibilities present themselves. You want to give each of them due consideration. You want to be sure that you are developing the story in the most interesting and original way. But spend too long pondering and the whole enterprise can lose its freshness. You need a degree of uncertainty, the possibility of discovery (even revelation if you're really ambitious) for the business of writing to be enjoyable. Because, ironically, it is in the act of writing that originality most often arises, when you are familiar with the particular world of your particular story, and can see its possibilities most clearly. Nail down too precisely what is going to happen ahead of times and the you can find yourself navigating through an imaginative desert, where nothing very spontaneous occurs.

Fortunately right now I am at a stage in the cycle - well, two cycles, actually - where no hard planning is required. The main book I’m working on is at the research stage. This means that I have a rough plan (most detailed on the set-up and main characters), a setting and some notes suggesting narrative possibilities. As well as factual background, I am hoping the research will turn up some little gems of knowledge that will help me refine the plan. (For ‘gem’ read anything truly surprising, arresting or downright shocking. When researching, I’m part scholar and part tabloid hack.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

There's gratitude for you... !?!

Last week during a short stay in the bucolic loveliness that is East Suffolk, I decided to drop into the parish church at Cratfield. It was from nearby Huntingfield that some cousins of mine emigrated to Western Australia some 40-odd years ago. There, after many years of hard graft and not infrequent personal danger, the younger of the two made a considerable fortune for himself prospecting gold. It is many years since Mark has been back to Suffolk, but when the church at Cratfield needed to raise funds, he stepped in at once. I found that this plaque had been put up to mark his act of generosity.

Oh dear. It seems my cousin was less popular in the parish than we'd all assumed...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Riding the rim

Let’s face it: writing is not the most financially promising walk of life, and even reading a lot won’t guarantee a prosperous retirement. (Perhaps the reason so many people don’t do any until they reach it). So here is a way for a bookish type to earn a free drink or two. It never fails.

Equip yourself with a few fat novels. War & Peace is excellent; Proust is good for back-up; and then (beware of intellectual overkill) there’s Finnegan’s Wake. Avoid late Harry Potters (although they are awfully fat) and anything with vampires except Bram Stoker’s original. They spoil the image.

Get hold of a reasonably straight-sided pint glass. Any kind will do, except the very tall, narrow ones. With your drinking companions gathered round, you pose the following question. “Which is greater: the height of my glass or the circumference of its rim?” While they are pondering this question, say: “Tell you what: just to make it interesting I’m going to do to this…”

Take your War & Peace and place it under the glass. Then ask: “So which is greater: the height from the surface of the table to the top of the glass, or the rim of the glass?”

By now, most of your companions will have made up their minds, but at the slightest trace of hesitation, say: “Tell you what: let’s add Finnegan’s Wake and this volume of Proust to the pile.” By this time, the glass will be about five or six inches above the table. Pose the question again: “So which is greater: the height from the table to the top of the glass, or the rim of the glass?”

By this time everyone will be convinced that the total height must be greater than the glass’s circumference. That’s when you make them bet on it: a drink, three drinks, the keys to their car, their wife, whatever. Then measure the rim of the glass with the use of a napkin and a ballpoint, followed by the distance from the top of the glass to the surface of the table. No cheating is required. As long as the stack of books is not taller than the height of the glass, you will win the bet.

“I don’t believe it!” your companions cry.

You smile, tap your copy of À la recherche du temps perdu and say “It’s all in here.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The weight of money

“What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day, over a bottle of wine. He went on to say that creating lists of titles that were eclectic, sourced from many different countries, and – frankly – clever, was getting harder and harder to do. Safe bets are increasingly the order of the day.

I’ve heard other people in the business say more-or-less the same thing, especially since the recession started to bite. Most of them blame the retailers, or the publishers, or the media, but I wonder if writers aren’t to blame as well. Maybe even the Internet.

Follow any on-line forum for writers, and while different views will be expressed, the core message from 'those who know' is the same: publishing is a business; you can’t buck the market; leave your ego at the door; the writer is the servant, not the master. Given the difficulties new writers face getting into print – the sheer size of the odds stacked against them – it’s no wonder the message gets home: writing is a craft, not an art. Like a screenwriter-for-hire, you produce what your paymasters want you to produce, or there’s the door.

Allied to this is a subtle, but intimidating anti-elitism, that seeks to characterise artistic endeavour in almost any field, but especially literature, as self-indulgent or pretentious. I read one comment posted on a newspaper forum that said: “The days when the few speak and the many listen are over.” He thought the explosion in twittering and blogging and YouTube meant that the novel was effectively dead, and good riddance (especially the ‘literary’ novel, naturally). He obviously preferred the alternative: that the many speak and nobody listens.

I wonder if all this market realism hasn’t gone too far and struck home too deep. Should new writers (or old ones, for that matter) really be worrying about publishers’ bottom lines? Shouldn’t they – it almost sounds like heresy to say it – be worried about following their own vision, going where the Muse or the spirit or their imaginations take them? In short, thinking like artists – even if they fail. Because most are going to fail anyway, at least in financial terms. The trouble with all this wary pragmatism, with writers streamlining their ideas until they fit seamlessly into a recognizable sub-genre or type, is that it starts to make anything that doesn't fit look eccentric and risky. In other words, true originality can be mistaken for naivety or even incompetence - resulting in a swift No Sale.

One of the UK’s most eminent literary agents wrote a short piece in the Guardian newspaper last year, offering advice to new writers. It ended: “Don't second-guess the market, but do persevere and write authentically.” In other words, to use the well-worn phrase: to thine own tortured imagination be true.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia Question

I am woken early this morning by a panicked phone call from Basil, my indefatigable Ukrainian publisher. From a railway junction in a place appropriately named Chop, he explains that in spite of reaching the No.1 fiction slot across the entire region of Zakarpattia Oblast (better known as Carpathian Rus), the Ukrainian edition of Zoia’s Gold has been withdrawn from sale there, following an ugly spat with the local authorities. The signing tour is now definitely off, and if I attempt to set foot inside the regional capital, Basil says, I may well be taken into custody for my own protection.

Basil is a great believer in what he calls ‘mouth to mouth’ publishing. In this case, the mouth in question belongs to the provincial governor, a man whose nicely touched-up portraits are to be found lovingly adorning every classroom in the region, such is his popularity among the young. The governor was apparently much taken with Zoia’s Gold (or Zojino Zlatinko in the local dialect), and even more taken with the several cases of fine wine and cured rabbit that Basil brought back from his last caravanning holiday in the Dordogne. Magically Zojino Zlatinko found its way onto the syllabus in every school in the region (see photo of happy recipients, above), doing wonders for my ranking on Amazanko.zpt.

Sadly, things have since turned sour. The sticking point, it seems, is a casual reference in the text to Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, which is what Zakarpattia Oblast was called when the hated Hungarians owned and ran the place, which they did for a thousand years until they were finally sent packing in 1919 (It is still an offence to display the Hungarian flag or to serve goulash in any public restaurant). Local nationalist sensibilities have been enraged, and now Basil has been told to pulp his entire print run or face the very serious charge of Sedition and Splittism (Sedijka i Splittinko). This is especially unfair, since Zakarpattia still entirely lacks a book pulping plant, and Basil's previous attempts to dispose of unwanted or libellous stock have had a truly disastrous impact on the local sewerage system.

If only he hadn’t rushed the sub-editing and insisted on the early publication date of April 1st, none of this would have happened.