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Friday, February 29, 2008


i can haz editorial kontrol?

Mika thinks she could write my novel much better than I can. She's already been on the keyboard and tried to rewrite the beginning.

Now it reads 'HhnhChapter One.' Clearly she intends to write a visceral, gritty thriller complete with sound effects. I have had to evict her from my study out of pure professional jealousy. I can't be threatened by new writers like that.

The thing is, actually some unsuccessful writers are under the impression that published authors would like to block talented newcomers because they present too much competition. For the record, it doesn't work like that.

The book market is not a fixed chain of supply. There's only room for one electric company in every house; the market is finite. Most people can only afford one car; there's a limit to how much food people can buy in a week. But books just don't work like that. Nobody grinds to a halt because they don't have a novel in their hands. If you go into a bookshop, you may have a specific book in mind, but if you're browsing, you could end up doing one of several things: a) Buying nothing; b) Buying one book, and c) Buying several.

In those circumstances, a new author is unlikely to be a major threat to an established one. If both Jane Newbie and John Oldpro are good authors, the likeliest outcome is C; the shopper will pick up an Oldpro trusting it'll be good, and take a chance on the Newbie as well. If the shopper has a finite budget, then there's an element of competition - but who knows which way it'll go?

It's highly unlikely that Oldpro will be so concerned that he'll want to scupper Newbie. For one thing, odds are quite in his favour; somebody with a limited budget is probably going for the safe buy, which is to say, buying the Oldpro and asking the local library to order the Newbie so s/he can read it on spec. But even if the buyer goes for Newbie, Oldpro would have to be a pretty sour puss to object.

Because, the thing is, no successful writer dislikes books. Writers love books; believe me, you couldn't spend your whole day trying to create more of the darn things if you didn't enjoy them for their own sake, rather than just for the sake of your ego. If you want to show off, there are easier ways than becoming a novelist. Writers like books. Hence, if Newbie's book is close enough in aesthetic to be in any kind of competition with Oldpro's, there's a pretty good chance that Oldpro would like to read it. Heck, he'll probably enjoy it. It's not in the interests of established writers to block promising newcomers; it means they don't get to buy their books.

Like many conspiracy theories about writing, this theory is based on the a priori assumption that your book couldn't possibly be rejected because the person reading it doesn't like it, which is never a sound starting point. But the basic point is fairly simple: literary success is not a simple you-win-I-lose zero-sum game. Who knows whose sales affect whose? It's perfectly possible that Newbie's success might actually lead more people to buy Oldpro's books - all those 'if you liked this you might like that' things on Amazon and in bookshops can have that effect. Writers grumble when other writers are more successful than them, because they're insecure, but it would take an exceptionally irrational writer to actually block the success of a newcomer.

I am blocking Mika's literary success, of course, but that's mostly because I don't want her to shed on my expensive computer, or to kill herself chewing the wires. Similarly, Oldpro might refuse to plug Newbie's book, but he probably has reasons other than competitive jealousy. Usually it's because he honestly doesn't like her book and is worried that a plug will end up shedding on his reputation as a man of judgement. It's a complicated world, and second-guessing motivations seldom does anyone any good. Better, really, to buy them off with a fish treat. It worked for Mika, anyway.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Now here's a profession I'd like to see revived

According to wikipedia, there used to be an official 'dog whipper' in villages, whose job it was to get rid of dogs that were disturbing the church service. My favourite thought is this - I quote: 'Dog whippers were usually provided with a whip (hence the title) or a pair of large wooden tongs with which to remove the animals.' My italics, but can't you picture the removal of dogs from the church as if they were sugar lumps?

I am profoundly phobic of dogs, so personally I'd like to see dog whippers employed in many more public places. Oh come on, it'd be worth it for the tongs alone.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Have you read Sarah Waters? You should.

I've recently been rereading Tipping the Velvet, which is a terrific book: beautifully written, absorbing, intelligent, entertaining and just all-round cool, and, along with Fingersmith, one of my favourite books. If you haven't tried Sarah Waters, I'd highly recommend her.

Now, for those of you who haven't read it, the story involves a girl who falls in love with, and then joins the act of, a nineteenth-century actress who makes her living on the halls by male impersonations. In tribute to this, I looked a few things up, and present for your entertainment a more recent example: Julie Andrews doing a pretty good male-impersonation act.

The song is 'Burlington Bertie from Bow', a traditional music-hall song that was once performed by the famous impersonator Vesta Tilley - you can see a poster advertising her singing it here, in fact.

Amazing what the internet furnishes when you're having a bit of a blocked afternoon, really. (Though I actually got slightly more written than my target, this week.) So, yay for Sarah Waters, and enjoy Julie singing you into the weekend...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008



I'm feeling tired, cold and sad today, with nothing much to say. Here's a picture of my cat Mika instead. The red surface she's lying on is, in fact, my arm, clad in a fleece, which ought to add to the cuteness factor.

Monday, February 18, 2008


A new proverb is needed

Proverbs can be a useful thing, and there's a concept I've been mulling on for some time. It needs a proverb to express it - but I don't think there is one. Who'd like to suggest one?

The concept is not unlike 'Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.' Basically, it is this: if you're going to get blamed for doing something wrong, you might as well do it. Somebody has decided you're their enemy? You might as well be, since they're already yours. Somebody insists you're mean, even when you give them generous birthday presents? You might as well spend less money next time. Someone won't stop calling you lazy when you're working hard? Working gets you no credit; you might as well slack off.

See what I mean? Almost everybody reasons like that if pushed far enough. Yet there's no prover for it. We need to fix this.

In effect, the sentiment is 'If you're going to pay the fine, you might as well do the crime,' or, 'If you're branded a thief, you might as well steal.' But I don't like those. We need something succinct and graphic. Who's got one?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Writing about lurve

Well, happy Valentine's Day, all you lovely people. Take a moment to appreciate yourselves.

Writing about love is a very curious thing. On the one hand, you have an entire genre dedicated to it, to wit, romance novels. These, at the extreme end of the market, are a very community-based form, with reader feedback and regular subscriptions. The format is predictable - hero and heroine meet, are kept apart by obstaces, and eventually unite - so, within that structure, there's a considerable challenge to be found keeping things interesting yet playing by the rules.

One result, which I've dubbed the 'Mistletoe Effect', is that a romance structure can be used in other genres, in the same way that a whodunnit structure can. There have to be two protagonists at the beginning and a clinch at the end, and in the middle, you can put in more or less anything you like. Romance readers can, as shown in the article I quote in the Mistletoe post, take grevious exception to a story where other elements oust the required romantic ending - if it's just 'dealing with love', a dedicated romance reader will consider herself the victim of false advertising. I recently read an article that makes an interesting point about why:

Reading a romance, like reading any formulaic literature, resembles the experience of re-reading in that we interpret the words on the page based on what we know is to come. In the mystery novel, descriptions of horrendous crimes are palatable because we know that justice will be served in the end. In romance fiction, we watch lovers mistreating each other knowing that they will end up kind and devoted. Indeed, it is the happy ending characteristic of all romance that enables safe exploration of the painful contradictions and uncertainties of love relationships. If a book marketed as a romance slips through with a sad or ambiguous ending, as Radway found, readers' negative reaction at first seems out of proportion to their unmet expectation: since for them the happy ending defines romance, a book without one does not belong to the genre (Radway 59; 66). When we realize the betrayal involved, however—readers felt safe probing uncomfortable, painful, and highly personal gender issues because they knew everything would come right in the end—their anger is more understandable. Reading genre literature is like re-reading literary fiction. What if you re-read Moby Dick and Ahab lived at the end?

One result of the Mistletoe Effect, then, is that the romance structure can support anything within it, but mess with the structure itself, and everything collapses.

But how to make romances work in and of themselves? Personally, though I enjoy the odd romance, I'm not a romance fan - by which I mean I seldom seek out books based on the fact that they're romances, and don't consider myself particularly part of the enormous romance reading-and-writing community. A couple of friends of mine regularly get together to enjoy a ladies' evening curled up with Mills and Boon books, which sounds like excellent fun to me, but while I've read a few Mills and Boon in my time (and found some of them really quite touching), there's an issue that strikes me. Romance being a predictable structure, when carelessly done, the hero and heroine end up together for structural reasons rather than for personal ones. That is, they end in a clinch because they're the hero and heroine, not because the story has done its work in making it actually work. They're in lurve rather than in love.

Because the thing is, love is a universal emotion, but actual romances are highly specific. How to square the two? Make the characters too individual, and you risk alienating a large segment of your audience; make them too universal, and their relationship is clearly meant to be, but only because nobody else would put up with such a dull, bland partner. And there's another problem as well: set a romance in modern times, and a plot will be difficult to manage. Because the essence of the romance is that two people are kept apart when they should be together; that's where the suspense comes in. In eras where differences of social class and race kept people from marrying, where money was an essential factor, where parental disapproval carried serious weight, where minor damage to a reputation could ruin a woman's life, there are a glorious profusion of obstacles that an author can throw in the path of her courting couple. But nowadays? Men and women generally work to support themselves, can tell their parents to go hang if they wish, live in societies where prejudice is deeply frowned upon, and can pretty much do what they want. You fall in love with someone? Generally, you get together with them.

That, at least, is the expectation. Getting around it requires imagination.

Something I've noticed in movies recently is that good romances or romantic stories are wandering out towards the edges of the taboo. Brokeback Mountain is a tragic romance rather than a Romance (it ends most unhappily), but it's also a big love story - and what separates the lovers is that sturdy staple, social pressure. They live in a place where openly gay men are beaten to death with the approval of all their neighbours; there's no way they can be with each other. If they moved to the city, they might meet more tolerance, but there's no way they can do that, even if they were willing to abandon their families: in everything but their orientation, they're entirely rural men, and, dropped off in San Francisco, would be displaced and utterly miserable. Taboo keeps them apart to the point where their romance is as tragically doomed as anything in Shakespeare - but the story had to move out to an area where social taboos still carry dangerous weight, and take place between two men, for that to happen.

Similarly with Secretary, one of my favourite romance films, taboo keeps the characters apart, brilliantly managing to circumvent the apparent freedom of a modern suburban setting. What brings the characters together is a shared taste for sadomasochism; what separates them is the fact that, while the heroine happily accepts this part of herself, the hero is ashamed of it, and spends the second half of the movie in terrified retreat, unable to believe that any woman could really love someone as disgusting as him. In fact, what separates the characters is tension between their two personalities - the thing that usually does cause romantic problems in the real world - and when they finally reconcile, the ending is all the more romantic because it's not generic. Truly, there is nobody else for either of them: the pairing is perfect because each is the only person that can truly accept and nurture the other.

Possibly if I read more romance novels, I'd be aware of equivalents in fiction, but as it is, I can't think of any. I wonder if it's because, while romance fiction is a fairly steady market, where you can keep the overheads down, movies are very expensive to make. You can have a four-books-a-month subcription to Mills and Boon, but there isn't a current fashion for straightforward romance movies, or at least, not as big as in books. Books can be a recurrent pleasure, but movies are supposed to be more different from one another. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps I don't read enough romance novels.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Snow monkeys of Japan

If you click here you can see lots of pictures of Japanese macaques. They live up in the snowy mountains and keep warm by sitting in the hot springs. What's not to love?

Friday, February 08, 2008


Frankenstein's Cat

I'd like to take a moment to plug a new TV show, Frankenstein's Cat, some of which is written by my good friend Joel Jessup. Joel is a very funny guy, so anything of his is worth watching.

Frankenstein's Cat is an animated kids' show, aired at 6pm on CBBC; here's a trailer. I think Joel's episode is on Tuesday - correct me if I'm wrong, Joel - but it's on before that as well. So, if you've got kids or an inner child and are home around 6, tune in...

Thursday, February 07, 2008


I'm wearing a scarf indoors

In a centrally heated house.

The reason is this: last week, sick of the palaver of washing and drying my hair every other day, I trotted off to the hairdressers and had a lot of it removed.

Trouble-saving? Yes. But now my neck is cold.

I'm not sure I thought it through quite carefully enough.

What's the silliest haircut decision you've ever made?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Hey, it's Shrove Tuesday!

So, what are your favourite pancake toppings?

My favourite savoury is pesto with cheese grated on top. And for sweet, I find that if you grate on an apple and sprinkle brown sugar, that makes a very drippy but delicious pancake.

What's yours?

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Reading aloud

Some readers, to the horror of writers, are put off the books if they hear the author reading them badly. Others are just disappointed. Here's the situation from the writer's perspective...

The problem with reading your work aloud is that your writing voice and your speaking voice are two completely different animals.

Your writing voice is flexible as water; you can sweeten it, acidify it, pour it out in a torrent, freeze it, change it as far as your imagination can stretch. You can speak through characters, saying things you don't mean, things you couldn't pronounce, use incantatory rhythms you'd never have the nerve or the floor-space to use in ordinary conversation. It's a very rare experience to be uninterruptable, and writers, introspective people on the whole, generally lack the social aggression to behave uninterruptably in real life. When you take the floor in writing, you're free from self-consciousness, because you're unobserved. You can be and say anything.

You can see this, in part, with letters. A letter-writing voice is again different from a fiction-writing voice, but I'm sure many of us know people who correspond differently from how they talk. Some people are shy in person and positively suave in e-mails. Some people don't write for months, and sent the stiffest of letters when they do write, but are voluble and chatty in person. Some people have sad voices and write bouncy letters.

Reading aloud is quite another matter.

Writers aren't actors. Many a writer, I've suggested before, is an actor who can't actually act. And when you're reading your work, the voice you have is no longer flexible: it's trapped within the confines of your larynx. All sorts of problems arise.

A major one is accent. Not everyone can do voices, and most writers have to read in their own accent - which may not suit what you're reading at all. Nobody sounds exactly the same in person as they do in their heads to begin with, and the accent you assume under pressure (and reading aloud is a pressure situation for someone who isn't a natural performer) can change from normal.

To take myself as an example: my natural accent is basically middle-class English, an educated Southern accent with a slight blur from having an Irish mother that makes people occasionally mistake me for Canadian, American or Australian, plus a slight London tendency to drop Ts. But put me in front of a microphone, or even a telephone, and something changes: I turn into cut glass. I don't do it on purpose. Possibly I go acrolectal as a defence mechanism, but as being posh garners scant cultural kudos in Cool Britannia (man I hated that lame phrase), I don't think that quite works. More likely is simply this: in front of an audience, I try to speak clearly. My understanding of 'clearly' was heavily trained throughout my teens by a taskmaster choir conductor, who said the phrase 'Round sound not foul vowels' so many times we could all recite it in our sleep. By a coincidence of teaching, my accent slides up the class scale whenever I'm called on to perform.

And this often doesn't work with what I'm reading. Bareback, for instance, explicitly states that the narrator's accent is less educated-sounding than her sister's. The book is deliberately set in an unnamed country, and the idea was always to have the reader feel as if it was happening in their own; hence, ideally Australian readers should hear an Australian voice, American ones an American voice, and so on. Listen to an author reading that in an upper-middle-class English accent like mine, and it becomes confusing.

It's that kind of randomness that dogs authors when they have to read. They know what a voice unlike theirs sounds like, and it sounds that way in their heads when they write it, but ask them to read it, and all sorts of things kick in. The author may capture beautifully the airy drawl of a Southern gentleman in prose, but if he got kicked in the shins for sounding posh all the way through school, it might make it hard for him to get his voice to comply. Your accent is affected by a lot of chance things, and having lots of eyes upon you can push it in the wrong direction.

Pitch, of course, is another problem. Imagine if Brian Blessed wrote a children's novel narrated by a little girl, and had to read it out loud. It would sound - well, entertaining, because Brian Blessed is a talented actor, but it wouldn't sound right. Even if the narrative voice is the right gender, or gender-neutral, there will almost certainly be characters the opposite gender from the author. The best thing an author can do is to read the lines normally, as an attempt to make your voice all booming or squeaky generally calls far more attention to itself than reading a man's line in a woman's voice, but still, it can put a crimp on things.

There's also just the element of the reader's internal voice. It probably doesn't sound exactly like their speaking voice, any more than the author's does, but that's the voice they hear your book in. A writer who doesn't sound like that internal voice - and odds are they can't sound like everybody's - is just going to sound wrong, like an actor miscast for a role because you always imagined the character as small and blond where the actor is tall and dark.

As well, there's just self-consciousness. Writing voices can be passionate, but without an actor's love of the spotlight, it can be extremely embarrassing trying to be passionate on your own in front of a group of strangers; it's like that schoolroom underwear dream, only in real life. Some readers may feel it's the author's job to make an effort, and most authors will do their best, but it's really not the author's job to be an actor, it's their job to write. If they didn't write better than they read, they'd be recording books on tape.

So there are, in short, a number of reasons why many a writer freezes up when asked to read their word aloud. If you hear a writer mumbling their way through a story, I'd suggest cutting them some slack: they may be altogether cooler on the page than in front of the mike.


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