Welcome to my blog!

Why Jacaranda you ask? In case you are reading this the other side of the world and are not sure, Jacaranda is the name of a beautiful tree, which blooms around Oct/Nov, mostly in the Eastern states of Australia. Its flowers are the most exquisite shade of blue-purple, the nearest comparison probably being hyacinth blue, so who could not be inspired to write by such a spiritual colour? When the jacarandas start to blossom, you know it's exam time, but you also know that Christmas is just around the corner. It is said that if a jacaranda flower falls on your head as you walk underneath a tree, good fortune is sure to follow, so guess who did a lot of walking under jacaranda trees! Watch this space for changing images of this lovely tree!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vanessa and Virginia

Vanessa and Virginia is the title of Susan Sellers' latest novel: a fictionalised account of the life of artist, Vanessa Bell and of her complex relationship with her sister, Virginia Woolf.(Two Ravens, 2008 and Harcourt, New York). Susan is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews, and co-General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the writings of Virginia Woolf. She is also an author, translator, editor and novelist.

I was privileged and honoured to be invited to hear Susan speak at the monthly meeting of the Hemingford Writers' Group in Cambridgeshire, near where I am currently staying.

Not only was it evident that Susan was an eminent authority on the works and life of Virginia Woolf, but from the start it was apparent that she was a charming, engaging speaker with a passion for her specialised subject and for writing in general. (I am sure her students must adore her!)It is the latter concept of writing in general that I shall focus on this posting as I found the gems she dropped about writing and publishing, and her experiences as an author, simultaneously inspiring and daunting. I have rushed home to write them up while they are fresh in my mind as I want to share them with others. I mention them in no particular order but as they spring to my mind.

In response to a question from the floor, Susan said that generally authors have no say in the design for the cover of a book. In the case of Vanessa and Virginia, it was decided to show the backs of two little girls, each with one hand raised, looking out at a view. Shades of powder blue were chosen on the premise that pink would have been too 'girly'. Interestingly enough, the jacket design is also being used to promote a play, based on the novel, the premiere of which will be held in Aix-en-Provence later this year. She also reported that the novel had a different cover in the States, another in the Swedish and yet another in the French translated versions. The importance of a jacket design and title should not be minimised. With the rise of books being sold in supermarkets, she happened to know that the buyers for Tescos gave each book a mere 30 second glance. If the cover and title conveyed sex, action and thriller it would probably make it to the supermarket shelves!

Commenting on the actual writing process from inception to publication, Susan said that she did not yet have a story for her next novel but had a character and setting in mind. (I query whether subconciously she actually does have a plot which has not yet surfaced. What are your views?) Susan said that rewrites were an inevitable part of writing and that a novel often took years to write. She also mentioned the concept of 'displacement', or procrastination, which is very common among writers, where you do anything to avoid putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. She quoted one instance where she hemmed the living room curtains rather than commence writing. (Oh, how I can relate to this! How about you?)

Susan remarked that although Vanessa and Virginia was a fictional account of the two sisters' lives, she never messed with history or chronology, but did take artistic licence with some anecdotes. An example she gave was that of a friend's toddler, who, jealous of a new baby, tried to put it in the kitchen rubbish bin! She has included this in her book.

Further on the subject of accuracy and the truth, she said that, despite the services of two editors, there was a mistake in her novel. She had swallows searching for grubs, which of course, they simply do not do, but to date noone had picked her up on that. (I wonder if those New Yorker editors would have done!Would you have?) However, sometimes an author will make a deliberate factual error, assuming, or giving credence to his or her readers, that they will be educated enough to realise this. She elaborated on an incident in Woolf's The Voyage Out, where Mrs Dalloway confuses Clytemnestra as being in Antigone rather than Agamemnon. Some researchers think that this is a deficit in Woolf's knowledge, but she is in fact showing a flaw in Mrs Dalloway's character.

Responding to another question from the audience whether she would like to be able to just write fiction fulltime, Susan said that very few writers made enough money to be able to do this. She now only worked part-time to free herself up a little, but she had only made 10,000 GBP on the sale of her last work, which was not in itself bad. However, when compared with other outlays, that amount soon palled. She mentioned that she had paid for her own publicity shots and to be able to use them she had had to buy the photographer's copyright. She had also funded the costs of promoting her book in the USA herself. (I query whether these expenses could be tax deductible? What do you think?)She added that she thought it was good to work as well as just write, not only from a monetary perspective, but it also kept you sharp.

Susan added that to distribute books to bookshops cost money, including putting on the '2 for 3' tables. She also said that two of her colleagues were reviewers. On any one day they might be confronted with a wall of books and asked to select two to review! Two of Susan's MA students' books had been selected for publication, one by the prestigious Hodder & Stoughton, but only one had been reviewed. With the demise of the printed newspaper and word, book reviews were harder and harder to come by.

Answering a question about writing courses at University, Susan said St Andrews had been one of the oldest Universities to run a writing course, but it then came under the label of rhetoric. Writing courses first started in the States and one of the major proponents of such courses in the UK was David Lodge, who introduced the writing course at the University of East Anglia. Cambridge University had no such course!

To conclude, I shall return to the subject matter of Susan's novel. She admitted that there were several literary works about Virginia Woolf, so why another one. One reason she gave was that Woolf and her husband did their own printing. Virginia would write in the mornings by long-hand, type it up, and then in the afternoons would laboriously typeset it letter by letter, which needed to be done from the bottom of the page upwards, working from right to left. In other words, if the last word on a page were 'look', then the 'k' would need to be selected first, then the 'o' and so on. The next day she would rewrite what she had written by long hand, type it up and typeset it again, which explains why there are so many different versions of Woolf's works. Another reason, of course, is that Vanessa and Virginia takes a different slant on both the sisters' works and is written from the pov of Vanessa.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A walk on the wildside or mid-summer madness?

The wind whooshed through woodrushes,
Whistled through water-reeds
As we wended our way
Through a wealth of white comfrey and
Whorls of watervole mounds,
At Woodwalton Fen
On a wet and wild mid-summer eve
Wearing waterproof wellies and winter coats
Until Rothschild's wooden bungalow on stilts
Gave haven to us weary walkers.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Violence begets violence

Warning: This posting contains a plot spoiler.

Yesterday, I saw the British film Harry Brown,
directed by Daniel Barber and starring Michael Caine. Gary Young wrote the screenplay.

Although critics have claimed this is one of Caine's finest roles, I found the film chilling and terrifying and have several issues with it.

That said, there is no doubt that it is brilliantly shot in the dingiest of colours and settings, which only adds weight to the sombre story. I loved the close-ups of:

- Michael's feet shot from behind under the bed as he laces up his highly-polished shoes, suggesting he is a respectable man who takes pride in his appearance (my mother always told me to check a man's shoes!)

- his breakfast toast, which he lavishly spreads with blackcurrant jam, implying a man who leads a normal, quiet if banal life.

The music which accompanies some of the more suspenseful scenes is spine-chilling. The dialogue throughout is brilliant.

However, the film is so terribly violent - yes, I know it's supposed to be - I had to look away several times or bury my head in my scarf, and it seems to glorify war, killing, and taking the law into one's own hands. Perhaps this was the writer's and director's intention - to question the validity of doing the latter.

The message seems to be that the police force is an incompetent, impotent organisation, which will falsely take the credit for cleaning up a violent neighbourhood, so it's okay to play vigilante. True: many good, innocent people, including dedicated police officers, die at the hands of drug-dealing/taking and gun-wielding youths who control the London housing estate where they live, which, in the end, becomes a peaceful, habitable neighbourhood.

However, I don't think that Caine's character - Harry Brown - should, or indeed, could have survived the whole ordeal. It was too happy clappy Hollywood for me. There is no doubt that he does not advocate violence for violence sake, he has served his country well in the Marine Commandoes, and acts out of the best intentions, the catalyst being when his long-time friend is killed by the local gang. The audience is also shown what a humanitarian he is when he rescues a young girl addicted to heroin, who is kept in a drug-induced state by her boyfriend pimp and dealer/addict for his sadistic and other's pleasure. One of Caine's lines which stood out for me was: 'In Ireland people were fighting for a cause. [Not sure which side he is referring to here - or maybe both.] To these people killing is just entertainment.'

I also have concerns that disenfranchised youth who might view the film think the youths in the film are role models.

Throughout the film I was reminded of Kristallnacht. On hearing of his family's expulsion by the Nazis from Poland (and I understood the rape of his mother), a youth living in Paris, goes to the German Embassy and in retaliation shoots a diplomat. This set off the incident of Kristallnacht , where the Nazi regime gave German youth licence to destroy, burn and loot Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. While the young Pole's anguish and actions are understandable, his one violent act set off a series of much more violent and serious acts against his people.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

To pitch or not to pitch

I have just rushed home from the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival, where I attended a free event, entitled 'So you think you can write'. This was an opportunity for ten people, picked at random from a crowd of 250, to give a 3-minute pitch of their book to two very prominent personalities in the publishing world: Lyn Tranter, proprietor of Australian Literary Management and Shona Martyn, Publishing Director of Harper Collins Australia.
Sadly, I was not one of the ten selected to pitch, but the process and event was an eye-opener. Some people were extremely well prepared and inspiring, but others not so. Some were downright boring.
However, here are some tips and comments which jumped out at me which might be of interest to other aspiring writers.
After the MC, a young female journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald, opened the event, Lyn followed by saying that this was not the usual way in which people pitched a novel. Agents and publishers usually liked to READ an outline and synopsis first. She always judged people's work on the writing. Later, the author might be required to deliver a pitch to about ten people in-house. In that regard authors did need to have good oral communication skills and she suggested that 'Oratory' be a subject on University writing courses.
Lyn also remarked that she would not look at any work which was not complete.
Shona said to make sure that whatever you submitted to an agent or publisher was your best final work - you only get one chance, so don't try to submit your manuscript too soon. However, because one publisher rejected your book, that did not mean that another publisher might not like it. She also said to make sure you did your research well, although if there was not a niche market for your work that did not mean it would not sell, especially if it was well written and had something to offer the reading public that was different.
To a participant who had written a fantasy novel, both judges said 150,000 words was the norm for this type of work, and that fantasy novels usually came in three's, so it was best to have at least the first and second books written, as fans did not want to wait two years for the next book; six months was the maximum. However, as these types of books were very popular at the moment, the competition was intense.
As far as Australia was concerned, crime novels were very well accepted - most readers were female. This was in response to a pitch by a journalist who had written a crime novel and had liaised with the Police Media Unit. This was accepted as a good marketing ploy as it gave her credibility.
Australia had a good range of literary fiction but the middle of the road fiction, such as romantic comedy, especially if people could relate to the themes and identify with the characters, should not be discounted. However, unlike the UK, Australian readers were not interested in the intensely sad and poverty-stricken stories of peoples' lives, of which there had been a plethora in that country.
As I am writing a spy novel I was dying to ask about that genre and also to ask if video pitches were accepted, but there was no opportunity to do so.
Legal issues came up quite a few times, such as someone who claimed they had been damaged for life by the corporate medical world, and someone who wanted to write a true account of events which named well-known people.
All in all, the experience was not as threatening and daunting as I had envisaged. Both Lyn and Shona seemed very approachable and charming people and went to great pains to clarify what they perceived as any jargon. As this Festival attracts people from all works of life, not just writers, they gauged their audience well.
Lyn concluded that she did not think pitching at such an event would work, but she was obviously interested in two or three pitches in particular - the crime one, the romantic comedy, and another which was a true account of someone's life in a mental institution after being operated on, which he alleged had caused him to be able to see into the future, only to be thought delusional and paranoid.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The secret is out.

My idol, John Le Carré's latest novel Our Kind of Traitor will be published later this year. Contrary to what I thought - that it might be about China, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan - apparently it is about two young lovers who, while holidaying on the Caribbean island of Antigua, encounter a rich, charming, middle-aged Russian millionaire, who wants a game of tennis. What else he wants is what drives John le Carré’s new novel of greed and corruption. I can't wait for it to come out. There are already pre-orders for it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The importance of on-location research

Warning – This posting contains a plot spoiler!

As part of my MA in Professional Writing I have been undertaking research for the novel I am attempting to write. Some of this has concentrated on what I call 'on-location research', i.e. visiting an unfamiliar place to get the look and feel of it.

This type of research activity not only accords with my love of travelling to places unknown and talking to people, but was also heavily influenced by John Le Carré speaking on a YouTube promo video about his most recent book A Man Most Wanted. Le Carré mentions that he travelled to Hamburg and sat in the armchair in the foyer of the Hotel Atlantic, where one of the main characters in his book, Tommy Brue, the 60-year-old Scottish director of a private bank, would have sat when waiting to meet the young German human rights lawyer Annabel Richter. Le Carré also went to the offices of Fluchtpunkt to check the veracity of his tale of an asylum seeker.

Notwithstanding this, it was not until I recently viewed the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that I fully appreciated the importance of this type of research. Warning: If you have not yet seen the film or read the book upon which it is based, don’t read on!

For those of you who have seen the film, you may remember there is a scene towards the end of the film in which Mikael Blomkvist visits Australia to trace the long-lost granddaughter of Henrik Vanger, the aged former CEO of the Vanger companies. Blomkvist finds her herding sheep in a remote gulley. Everyone, but everyone, (including me - an ex-pat Brit!) in the Sydney cinema where I saw the film said “That’s not Australia!” And indeed it wasn’t as this scene would appear to have been filmed in Spain.

The moral of this story is obvious – don’t fake it until you make it – but go there!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Twenty-four Seven

Such a common phrase these days, but Twenty-four Seven is the title of a book by first-time Australian author Shirley Eldridge, the launch of which I was privileged to attend earlier this year. It was inspired by her time as a telephone counsellor with Lifeline. As Shirley says in her author's note:

'We often see and hear about Volunteer Fire Fighters, Surf Lifesavers and SES workers, who all perform fantastic work and save lives. But, because of the confidential nature of telephone counsellors' work, we never get to see or hear about the thousands of lives they save, nor the peace of mind they bring to many of their callers.
This book honours all telephone counsellors, past and present, and acknowledges the contribution they make to humanity.'

Notwithstanding the above, Shirley's book is a gripping read - yes, about telephone counselling - but also about the female protagonist, Cherie Dexter, as she struggles with the demands made on her by her telephone counselling business Twenty-four seven and those of her ageing father, only to confront a far worse life and death situation.

Dennis Jones & Associates are distributing the books into book shops. Copies of Twenty-Four Seven are available on line from www.shortstoppress.com. Part of the proceeds of sales go to Lifeline Australia.

And a quick note to those of you, who may be members of a book club, there's a bonus in the way of a list of discussion points at the end of the book