Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Website goes live...

News of the day - my website is up and running! Hooray and thanks to Steve who designed it. If you'd like to check it out, it's at

The site going 'live' has made me think about the book it's there to give people information on. Only two months, now, until Testament is published and meanwhile there’s Christmas and New Year to be celebrated so the time is going to disappear.

I don’t know what to expect of being published. Seeing my book in the shops? What if no bookshops can be persuaded to sell it? Being rich and famous? Hardly. 99.9% of authors are neither.
Obviously, after years of writing (click here if you’re remotely interested in how many years and what writing) it’s a huge thrill finally to have found a publisher. But what now?

The Macmillan New Writing contract gives MNW first refusal on your second book once they’ve published your first, so you know somebody’s going to look at it pretty closely but they don’t guarantee to publish it. (This, let's face it, would be foolish...) It’s not a two book deal, in that sense. So, obviously, I’m worrying a lot about how the work in progress is going. Is it as good as Testament? Will MNW like it? Will the people who like Testament like it?

People say it’s so difficult to get published these days that your first book almost has to be your best. What I’m worried about is that maybe that’s true of the second book too…

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Perfume, the movie

As the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist are on half term this week we thought we’d get in a bit of DVD watching while there was no homework to clutter up the evenings. Last night it was Perfume, based on the book of the same name by Patrick Susskind.
Now, I’ll own up straight away and say I’ve never read the novel so I wasn’t sitting there tutting over what had been lost in the transition between book and film. But a film about a man whose overwhelmingly primary sense is smell? Brave to say the least.

Apparently it was felt my many directors to be unfilmable. But, when you think about it, why should words on the page be any more successful in conveying smell than the visual images attached to those smells? Does the phrase ‘rotting fish entrails’ – a feature right at the beginning of the film – conjour up the appropriate smell any more vividly than a highly-coloured shot of the same subject matter? In either case we’re still having to imagine the smell.

But perhaps the ‘unfilmable’ tag referred more to the fact that the central character, Jean Baptiste Grenouille, hardly speaks throughout the film. He is in virtually every frame and yet he has maybe a hundred words to say in the whole one hundred and thirty two minute film.

It just goes to show that having lots of lines isn’t everything because Ben Whishaw, the actor who plays Grenouille is just amazing. Without words, he manages to convey a horribly immediate sense of who this sociopathic orphan killer is and how he relates to the world and people in it. And a very strange and smelly kind of relating it is too.

I gather that Mr Whishaw (that's him on the left doing stuff with essences) was something of a smash hit in Hamlet at the Old Vic not long after he had graduated from RADA. On the basis of his performance as the quasi-autistic, olfactory savant Grenouille I can only imagine that he is going to be a star in all acting media.

Whether you’ve read the book or not, whether you like magic realism or not (I don’t), whether you like Dustin Hoffman or not (I do, he’s in it and very good he is too) you really should see Perfume just to see Ben Whishaw’s performance.

Yes, it’s that good. By the way, don't be squeamish (I nearly switched off ten minutes before the end in fear of brutality until the UFF pointed out that it was only a 15 and therefore unlikely to involve horrible violence) the end is not what you expect from the beginning!!

Monday, 29 October 2007

Speed Reading?

I’m always astonished at the speed at which other people get through books. I don’t mean the hours they are prepared to spend reading – I’m quite prepared to spend those hours too – but the actual rate at which they move down a page.
I’ve just done a quick calculation on both the books I’m reading at the moment: Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces and Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot. Given that the Faulks has much denser type and runs at just over 400 words a page whereas Julie Hearn’s book has around 250 words to a page, from the time it takes me to read a page of each, I calculate that I read just over 200 words a minute.

A quick Google-search reveals that that average (American) person reads English at 220 words per minute. This makes me feel better – I’m about average in terms of reading speed. I always though I was monumentally slow. (Maybe I’m just monumentally slow for people who read a lot?) But this revelation of my averageness must mean that almost all those whose reading habits I am familiar with are well above average. All the members of my book swallow up books as if there was a prize for finishing quickly. My Other Half reads approximately twice as fast as I do and can easily read a whole book in an afternoon.

I wonder if it’s to do with how you read? I hear pretty well every word inside my head as I read and, actually, 220 words per minute is only just over the upper limit of average spoken words per minute (Google again – where would we be without it?) If you simply process written words by seeing them and don’t have to run them through the hearing bit of your brain, I suspect you’re bound to be able to read more quickly, vision being able to take in chunks whereas the ear has to work in a systematically sound-by-sound way.

Unless you count the fact that my ‘books to be read’ pile is so big that it flows down off my bedside cabinet, on to the floor and out into the landing, my inability to read quickly has only ever really been a drawback at University. I read English and the time necessary to get my head around, for instance, three or four Dickens novels in a week (plus Anglo Saxon poetry – it was two essays a week in those days and down the salt mines in your spare time…) left me absolutely no time to read any works of criticism. So I had to decide – read the great works of Eng Lit or read the critics? Please! I’d come to Oxford to read English, why would I want to know what somebody had said about Tennyson more than I wanted to know what Tennyson had said himself?

Of course, there was the small matter of producing acceptable essays. The drawback with not reading critics – people who are prepared to tell you what’s good, what’s bad and what the guy is basically going on about – is that you have to work out, all by yourself, what is important in these towering works of genius. No wonder my tutor once remarked that I produced ‘wonderfully idiosyncratic’ essays.
Still, I comfort myself with the thought that, just occasionally, my inability to process sufficient written words in a week might have had the unintended effect of providing an amusing interlude for the poor, overworked man.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Nice author, nice book?

I’ve just left a comment over at the Mostly Books blog which made me stop and think about my reading habits.
I was responding to the lastest post about a visit to the shop by author Julie Hearn. I said:
She sounded so fab that I went straight to her website. Then, because she still sounded lovely and her books sounded very much like the sort of thing I love, I to went to my local bookshop and bought the only one they had 'The Merrybegot'. It's already been promoted to the top of the 'to be read' pile!
Which it has.

But would I have bought Ms Hearn’s book if I’d thought it sounded great but she, personally, did not come across as the sort of person I would like to find myself stuck on a desert island with? [Or as a friend of mine from the former Yugoslavia says, darkly ‘in a bunker with’…] Do I, in other words, only read/buy books by people I like?

After racking my brains and casting an eye over the bookshelf pile which contains all the most recently read books in the house, I think the answer has to be ‘yes’. If I hear or read an author interview and the subject comes across as pretentious or misogynistic or objectionable, I probably wouldn't buy their books. Not because I wouldn't want to contribute to their bank balance (although...) but because reading something written by somebody whose basic attitude to people was so different to my own would probably lead to me feeling out of sorts and at cross purposes with what I'm reading. And life's too short, and I read too slowly, to spend time on novels which make you feel like that.

But what if the book was in a genre I really liked and that particular book seemed fantastically interesting?
Hmmm. Would I give up reading Minette Walters’ books if I found out that she was anything other than lovely? Or Philippa Gregory’s? Or Tracy Chevalier’s, Joanne Harris’, Sue Gee’s…

I suppose the cop-out answer is that these authors could not write such humane and engrossing books if they were unpleasant, narrow-minded or mean-spirited.

So, do I like books because I intuit, somehow, that their writers are nice people? Or because they give me an insight into other lives, other worlds and take me on a journey of discovery?

Perhaps it's just that the way my favourite writers look at the lives of their subjects and the world in which they live chimes with something in me.

Do other people read and enjoy books by authors whom they know they would dislike intensely if they actually met them? Or am I alone in my strange reading prejudices?

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Weird connections in cyberspace

Yesterday, on the way to Sheerness to see my friend Akasha Savage (see blog links), I caught ‘Feedback’ on Radio 4 and heard tell of a folk band playing in the West-ish country, called Show of Hands. Interesting name for a band, I thought and then promptly did not think about them any more.

Idly surfing (the builders were still here so I couldn’t cook supper) after I’d posted yesterday’s blog I went to Julie Hearn’s website (directed from the lovely Mostly Books site, see ditto). Julie’s books sound fab and I shall certainly be acquiring them asap. But that’s not the weird thing. The weird thing is that on her links page there’s a link to – yes, you’ve guessed it – Show of Hands.

How does that work, can anybody tell me?

Friday, 26 October 2007

Seeing the light...

One of the building/decorating team put her head round the door of the sitting room (where I was working today) and said ‘Oh, is that a lightbox?’

What she had meant to say was ‘Do you have a spare one of these green scratchy things because mine’s been knackered by all the grout the tiler’s left on the tiles?’ but we got diverted into talking about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder – neat and non-forced acronym) and the relative merits of various lightboxes.

‘What’s a lightbox?’ I hear you cry. Well, unsurprisingly it’s a nice sleek-looking box with a light in it. Mine looks like the specimen on the left:

But this is not just *any* light – this is full spectrum light (no, telly-watchers, it’s NOT M&S light) ie like sunlight. In this case bright summer-type sunlight.

I don’t know enough about the psychology/physiology of the thing to give you a cogent explanation of why lightboxes work but I do know that, without mine, from about the beginning of October to the end of February, my need to sleep amounts to a hibernation urge, I want to eat industrial quantities of carbohydrates and avoid people lest I bite lumps out of them. If I have months without the light I develop the need for a corner in which to moan and weep. Seriously. It’s horrible.

But with my lightbox I’m almost as much fun to live with as in the summer…

Son No 2, the Bassist, has SAD too, so winter breakfast times see the two of us huddling at the kitchen table, our books pushed up next to the light, trying to find room on the table for our tea (me), toast (The Bassist) and Innocent Mango and Passionfruit smoothies (both of us).

I would show you a photo of this domestic scene, but no camera without fancy filters will cope with both our kitchen in the morning and immensely bright lightbox – you’d just be presented with a picture of something very over-exposed.

Be glad, this saves you from a photo of me approximately three hours before I’m anything less than frightening.
I leave you today with a weird SAD fact. The next best way to take in full spectrum light after looking at it (kind of the way most people would initially go for, I suspect) is via the backs of your knees... something to do with the time when we wandered around on all fours, apparently.
It's as I always suspected, I am a primitive throwback...

Thursday, 25 October 2007

I know there is a prevailing opinion amongst the kind of writers who write ‘how to write’ books that you shouldn’t spend too much time perfecting each chapter of your novel as you go along. ‘Just get it all down then play with it later’ seems to be the general view.

I don’t know about anybody else but I do know that doesn’t work for me. Not even a little bit, as Son No 1, the Ultimate Frisbee Freak, would say.

I can’t just plough on if things aren’t flowing, if there’s an unevenness further back in the story which I’ve neglected to smooth. It’s as if the flow is running away from me with a momentum and a direction all of its own. Suddenly, the story isn’t the one I thought I was telling - my characters get moody and sulky and say things I’d say instead of sounding like themselves; events don’t glide effortlessly into place, they stumble and trip along.

You know how sculptors say that the shape is there in the wood/stone/whatever and they just have to reveal it? I feel like that about my books – the story’s sitting there in the interface between my subconscious and reality and I just have to see it clearly. Too much of the conscious mind, the making it happen, and it dies.

I remember, years ago, before I started writing, listening to interviews with writers who would say things like ‘I wanted my character to do x, y and z but he wouldn’t let me do that!’ and I’d shout at the radio ‘You absolute twit! You’re making it up! You're in control!’
Little did I know.
But humble pie doesn’t taste so bad when the truth is so much more piquant, so much richer, than my thin little assumption.

Today, having reached roughly the mid-point of the new book, I have spent most of the day back in the first hundred pages, working out where the historical strand should have come in. It’s currently introduced on page 157 and it’s holding everything back, like a slow family at the barrier-end of a busy railway platform.

Hopefully, now I’ve listened to the story properly, it’ll all flow nicely again tomorrow and we’ll be out of the station and singing along the tracks.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

It's not just the internet which is keeping me away from writing at the moment. The new novel also has to compete with the builders who are currently rebuilding our utility room. The kitchen - my favourite writing spot - is out of action so I'm wandering slightly aimlessly, laptop, notepad and cup of tea in hand, between the front room and the bedroom, wishing for a study.

The perfect workroom for me (I've given it a lot of thought) would be a huge attic with skylights and a huge squashy settee at one end where I would sit in the sunshine (yes, I know we live in the UK) and think or read and an enormous desk - and no skylights - at the other end. Ideally, I'd love to have light flooding into the work area as well but direct sunlight and a laptop are not a happy marriage. Gardens ditto, which is a shame.

Would I have all my books in my study? Well, since we're talking about a perfect world, I think I'll have a library as well, also with huge squashy settee and lots of light - I know the spines will fade but I don't care.
Without the thousands of books the Other Half and I possess, the attic would be nicely minimal and, therefore, easy to keep clean. No carpets - just stripped floorboards with possibly the odd rug. In my experience the fewer surfaces I allow to accumulate in a room, the less I clutter it.

Dreams aside, the kitchen will be back in commission next week and, hopefully, the website will be live and I won't be delving in its innards 'adding content' so life here will be a bit more conducive to quiet thought and the tapping of laptop keys.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Nobody told me, when Macmillan New Writing offered to publish my book, Testament, that I was selling my soul to the internet.

You don't need a website, everybody said, but it would really help.

No, of course you don't need a blog, but it might help to get you noticed.

Yes of course it would help if people could click on to Amazon from your site (what site?) and buy the book.

Did I have a choice?

Reading blogs is a daily delight - I can barely start a day's writing without my fix of dovegreyreader and Stuck-in-a-book - but writing one... I can just tell that's going to be a whole 'nother story...