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October 2008

Blood for Breakfast

Settle down now, everyone, settle down. Right, now, as you know, I´m giving two big lectures this week. (What did you say, George? Well, they´re important to me, and there were a lot of people there at the first one. No, not just idiots. Now that´s enough, George, or I´ll send you to sit outside the Head Mistress´s office...) Where was I. Oh, yes? I´m going to have to leave you to be very sensible and quiet while I´m away. And what I´d like you to do is think about the relationship of symbols to reality. (What´s that, Alicia? Yes,... Read more →


New Jersey jetlag

Just a brief post from an internet café in Oaxaca, in Southwest Mexico, but about something else entirely. Reading historical fiction for my PhD, I´ve been fascinated by how, for many writers, fiction is fundamentally about time and therefore memory, at the deepest level if not always on the surface. When I realised I was going to have finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime before we actually took off from Heathrow, I dived into Borders. One of the books I bought was LeCarré´s A Small Town in Germany. I read it all the way across the... Read more →


Any minute now I'll wake up and smell the tequila

I shan't be around the blog very much in the next ten days or so, so okaying comments may be a bit delayed, and posts a bit thin on the ground (now there's a badly handled metaphor!). If you detect a whiff of tequila around, that'll be because I'll be coming from Mexico. I've just looked at the forecast, and it's Heavy Showers in Mexico City, whereas it's brilliant gold autumn sunshine here in London. Have I made the wrong decision? And in my last post, It's here in my hand and I'm dancing, I failed to credit children's author... Read more →


It's here in my hand and I'm dancing

So I'm doing the Happy Author Dance round the kitchen, because the boxes of my author's copies of A Secret Alchemy have arrived. Twelve hardback and twelve of the big, handsome export trade paperback: I even thanked the courier man. And yes, it does look gorgeous, and yes, I did take it to bed with me yesterday (well, it spent the night on the bedside table, but it was well within patting distance), and yes, when I got up I brought it back downstairs, where it's been glowing quietly on my desk all day. But why it should be such... Read more →


Not a fortress, just a zoo

To some aspiring writers the book trade looks like a well-defended fortress, garrisoned by what appears (according to your temperament) to be a bunch of celebrity-hunting, money-grubbing clones, or thick-skinned, parasitical philistines. Hang around for - oh, all of ten seconds - on some of the writing forums, and you'd think that the garrison is run by a set of James Bond villains determined to destroy literary civilisation as we know it. It is heartbreaking to send your work out and have it rejected without so much as a grade attached: even lazy and nasty teachers write C- before they... Read more →


Setting up their stalls

Talking about Nathan Bransford's Worst Advice a friend - a published children's writer - said this: I know certain people locally, who are writing children's books. Some of these people have got 4 blogs and websites each. But they don't have the published work to back it up. They put masses and masses of effort into networking and publicity but they treat the book itself as secondary. One of them had a bullet-pointed to-do list for the year which went something like: 'Approach agent. Get agent. Approach publisher. Get publisher. Get book translated. Sell European rights.' I've read her book... Read more →


Make me believe

The US agent Nathan Bransford asked his blog readers what was the worst writing advice they'd ever been offered. His comment trails are always long - it's a consistently interesting blog - but this one made a python look stumpy. After I'd recovered from quotes like "Remove all your commas; editors don't like commas and they pull the reader out of the story," and "Any sentence that uses 'was' is written in passive voice" (more on that one here), I was interested to see that the bad advice quoted which most resonated with other commenters was "Write about what you... Read more →


It's feedback, not howl-back

In Listening to Copernicus I mentioned the kind of would-be writer who maintains their self-belief that their writing is good in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. I'm not talking about Beginner Writer who has yet to learn to be bad because they have yet to learn how to read their writing against good writing, understand the difference, and do something about it. Nor am I talking about Aspiring Writer who feels they get nowhere in competitions and slushpiles, because that just means they haven't got there yet. I'm talking about Apparently Deaf Writer (with apologies to all writers... Read more →


Too quiet on the lit fic front

To listen to some of the literary gloom-mongers huffing and puffing you'd think that Faber, Cape, Canongate and their ilk hadn't issued a book between them for years, whereas if you'd peered into the bag which I toted home from Foyles last week (15% discount to members of the Society of Authors) you'd have seen that's not true. It simply isn't true that no one's writing and publishing good literary fiction any more. But it is true that "Publishers, however, are consistently and in vast quantity turning down well-written literary fiction that is ‘too quiet.’" That quote comes from the... Read more →


PS: Listen to The Mathematics of Love

This was going to be a PS on the bottom of Too quiet on the lit fic front, but that got too long, so here's a separate little mention: I've finally got round to getting my on-stage interview at the Brisbane Writers' Festival up on my website. When I got the Festival programme, I remember, I was incredibly daunted. A panel discussing something about history, or fiction, or historical fiction, I could handle, but an hour-long live one-to-one interview? With audience? Recorded for national radio? But in the event it was great. My publishers Headline Review (who in that hemisphere... Read more →


A bit more round the back

Producing and selling anything as complicated and hard to pin down as a novel was never going to be easy, but there seems to be more trouble between writers and publishers over covers than over just about anything else. From the annoyingly smug position of never yet having had a duff or even a merely dull cover (though I think the Russian cover of The Mathematics of Love is probably, shall we say, an acquired taste, even without the watermark) I can still see how painful it is to feel that your book isn't being fairly or elegantly/wittily/powerfully represented, and... Read more →


It's the doing

In Where the wild things are, when I was talking about empathy in reading fiction, I had to stop myself going off on a tangent about whether and how writers worry about making their characters likeable. Honestly, sometimes writing this blog is as bad as writing my MPhil critical paper, and now my PhD's commentary. The closest analogy, I remember thinking in exasperation round about this stage last time, is gift-wrapping a porcupine. Every time I thought I had everything neatly packaged, so that I was clutching a tidy parcel ready for the sellotape and ribbon, a shaft of quills... Read more →


Pure noticing and the slippery double

One of my Darwin cousins who I've not yet met (there are a lot of us) is the poet Ruth Padel. Her mother was a biologist, and her grandmother Nora was a botanist in the days when botany was more or less the only acceptable science for women. Apparently Ruth took her mother to a poetry reading, and afterwards her mother said, 'I see the point of poets now. They notice things.' Don't laugh - though poets are allowed a wry chuckle before they open the email which tells them their publisher has gone bust because their Arts Council funding... Read more →