September 7, 2011 § 17 Comments
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that owning at least one cat seems to be a basic requirement for authorship.
So many of those three-or-four-sentence author bios at the backs of books make a point of mentioning the author’s ownership of both spouse and cats. I thought about this when I was writing my own brief blurb recently and I instinctively added that in too. I suppose it’s a matter of ingrained expectation about author bios, because really – pick up a few books from your bookshelf and probably one of those bios will talk about their cats.
Or maybe this is mostly a fantasy author thing. My findings are unscientific to say the least. But let’s discuss it anyway.
My theory? Writers spend so much time sitting by themselves staring at a screen – or a piece of paper – that we could, over a matter of years, come to feel seriously isolated and out of touch with the real world. Loneliness can be an occupational hazard, and the more you concentrate on building your career as an author – the more hours a day you spend pounding out the words – the greater the danger of suffering from a lack of companionship.
When I moved to the Netherlands in July, my partner ever so gloriously presented me with two kittens as a welcome gift, and there’s no doubt they transform the daily writing grind. Just having Emma sleeping on the windowsill behind my computer makes me feel that I have company. But unlike dogs it’s not intrusive company. Usually. (Don’t get me wrong about dogs: I love them. I used to own a beagle and he was seriously the cutest creature in existence. But they need a lot more attention than cats do).
There are exceptions, of course. Just now my kittens are sleeping, so I get the feeling of companionship without being interrupted while I write. But they are kittens. Once in a while I’m thrown out of my writing trance by a resounding crash as something is knocked off a shelf or a windowsill, and I’m still trying – repeatedly though unsuccessfully – to discourage them from destroying my plants.
But at least they take themselves to the loo when they need to go.
Am I right about cats? How many of my writer friends either own, or wish they owned, a cat or two? Or other animal companions? And do you ever start feeling isolated when you’ve been writing long hours for months at a time?
April 28, 2011 § 19 Comments
Are you a budding book reviewer? Are you hoping to become a professional reviewer someday, or are you perhaps preparing against the day that your name appears on endorsements all over other people’s debuts? Do you just want a fulfilling, satisfying, innocent hobby to while away the hours?
Then for you, dear Reader, I have good news! I, the eponymous Miss English, have become fascinated with the Vocabulary of Review. I have braved many genres and many authors in search of particularly fine examples of Endorsement Genius; some of this I will graciously share with you as evidence of the seriousness of my research. I include annotated observations on each quote, for the reader’s enlightenment.
On a Sarah Challis novel:
Her evocation of the English countryside is elegiac. Oxford Times.
Quite a tame start, but they did manage to fit the words ‘evocation’ and ‘elegiac’ into one simple, short sentence which is pretty impressive. Obviously this is a high-brow book.
A haunting story of heartbreak and friendship. Peterborough Evening Telegraph.
It seems they like heartbreaking stories in Peterborough. Note the occurrence of the word ‘haunting’: we will be seeing this again.
On ‘Scholarium’ by Claudia Gross:
Murder and philosophical controversy are intertwined in a dense web which keeps the reader entranced. Nordbayerischer Kurier (??)
Dense entrancing webs. This book is not recommended for the arachnophobic.
On ‘The Masquerade’ by Nicholas Griffin:
An impressively imaginative approach to history. The Times
Imaginative. This is intended to denote the fact that it is fiction.
Tracy Chevalier is apparently a fan of Jude Morgan. I have not been better entertained all year, says she. Presumably she is talking about the book.
Victoria Clayton has a glinting wit and intelligence, says the Mail on Sunday. That’s right: glinting.
Kate Mosse’s latest is haunting and heartbreaking, says the Daily Express. Haunting and heartbreak are frequently found together.
Gail Carriger has a delicious rapier wit which is also intoxicating. Some authors are dangerous.
Every single book in the world is unputdownable. This is only a word in the world of book reviews.
After all this research, I am proud to present Miss English’s Luscious Lexicon for Book Endorsements. Use this for all of your book reviewing needs. Don’t stop at a mere sprinkling of tantalising terms: the more of these words employed, the more glittering the review. (Or do I mean glinting?)
For science fiction and fantasy
Atmospheric, breath-taking, colossal, detailed, evocative, imaginative, ingenious, intoxicating, lush, original, phenomenal, razor-sharp, sensual, staggering, triumphant, unputdownable.
Sample review: An unputdownable tale of colossal, staggering, breath-taking proportions. The writing is atmospheric, lush and evocative executed with a glinting, razor-sharp, intoxicating wit. I stayed up until dawn to finish reading this phenomenally well-executed book.
For thrillers and crime novels
Action-packed, fast-moving, exciting, gripping, gritty, heart-racing, menacing, palpitating, relentless, shocking, suspense, tough, unputdownable, whirlwind.
Sample review: This is a fast-moving, action-packed, totally relentless rollercoaster of a book, so shockingly thrilling that I was suffering cardiac arrest by page fifty-seven. I was resuscitated five times before I reached the end of this heart-palpitating, unputdownable whirlwind of a story. It will take me a year to recover my health, but I don’t care: this is a must-read.
For women’s fiction
Bittersweet, colourful, compelling, deft, entertaining, fun, haunting, heart-breaking, intoxicating, irresistable, magical, mesmerising, relatable, saucy, sexy, stylish, tantalising, tender, unputdownable, warm-hearted, witty.
Sample review: This haunting, heart-breaking tale is bittersweet and tenderly funny. The author’s irresistable, intoxicating wit sparkles dazzlingly through every scene. It’s easily relatable, unputdownable, funtastic and amazingacious – I gave away my six-year-old daughter today so that I could have time to read every single word this author has ever written. This must-read book will transform your life, leaving you irrevocably, permanently, unreversably changed.
For historical fiction
Authentic, breathtaking, compelling, comprehensive, deft, engaging, epic, evocative, imposing, informative, intelligent, majestic, meticulous, operatic, powerful, rich, rigorous, scalpel-like, sprawling, tour-de-force, tumultuous, unputdownable, vivid.
Sample review: Triumphant: a must-read. This confident, assured debut is a slow-building, considered narrative that’s simultaneously gripping, tumultuous, action-packed and completely unputdownable. The majestic, sprawling scope of this truly epic novel is completely mind-blowing. It is rigorously, meticulously researched and absolutely authentic, and at the same time it is an imaginative and original interpretation of it subject matter. The author builds the world with scalpel-like precision, as deft and careful as a brain surgeon operating on the girl of his dreams. I wonder if this author would accept a proposal of marriage.
Bleak, bitter, chilling, dazzling, disturbing, dreamlike, eerie, grim, gripping, haunting, horrifying, nightmare, repulsive, spectral, spooky, striking, thrilling, unforgettable, unputdownable, violent.
Sample review: This accessible, eminently readable tale of terror is so chillingly disturbing – so hauntingly horrifying – that you’ll be too scared to finish the book. It’s a bleak, grim, eerie nightmare of a tale that will have you sleeping with the light on for the next eighteen years. Expect plenty of thrilling spectral violence. An unputdownable must-read.
There it is, dear Readers, free for your delectation, admiration, entertainment, enjoyment and possible disparagement. In closing, here’s what one reviewer recently said about the Lucious Lexicon:
An unputdownable must-read! (The Weekend Lexicographer).
April 20, 2011 § 6 Comments
From time to time I like to explore the portrayal of writers in fiction and film. Previously in this blog series, we’ve looked at Karen Eiffel of Stranger than Fiction and Richard Castle of the murder mystery TV series Castle. The character we are visiting today has a small role in a highschool movie …
WAIT don’t go. This is a teen movie that is not entirely putrid. I admit that there is a prom involved. (If we are to believe film culture, it seems like American highschool kids do nothing but attend proms). However it has nothing whatsoever to do with transforming the ugly duckling into the swan so that she is allowed to kiss Freddie Prinze Jnr. On the contrary, the plot is based on The Taming of the Shrew, and moreover it manages to be pretty consistently funny.
The film is 10 Things I Hate About You, and the character in question is played by the marvellous Alison Janney. Good huh? Her name is Ms. Perky and she is a Guidance Counselor (see what I did there? I spelled it the American way. Oh yes. Doing well).
Ms. Perky is not a very good Guidance Counselor (!) because she is very, very busy writing an erotic novel. Here is a clip of her first appearance.
How many writers do this? Work on the novel at the office, I mean, not… the rest. Necessarily. (Anybody want to own up to any of Ms. Perky’s more original characteristics?) I imagine most of us are a bit more surreptitious about it than Ms. Perky. It’d be fun to get away with tossing everyone out of the office so you can have more quality time with the novel.
And it would be so amusing to be able to get away with that degree of blunt talking. There are definitely times when I want to be able to say you are a fatuous moron without creating a miniature world war three.
Instead I just admire pink-clad, straight-talking, erotica-writing fake guidance counselors from a distance. If I can’t be Karen Eiffel when I grow up, maybe I’ll settle for turning into Ms. Perky.
April 6, 2011 § 8 Comments
So, I’ve been quite serious lately. Very serious. I have a string of posts which are so relentlessly serious I scarcely recognise them as mine. Since it is my birthday I decided to treat myself to a post full of complete absurdity.
The chosen topic: book trailers. Wouldn’t it be amusing to poke fun at the increasing invasion of the book world by crass marketing techniques? Just imagine if people started being silly enough to create film-style trailers to go with book releases! Imagine! I thought it would be tremendous fun.
Only… it’s already happened. Not even recently, either; I gather book trailers have been lurking around for a while.
Oh, god. Say it isn’t so.
I’m a bit puzzled by this. I am a voracious reader, and I have been buying books online for years. And yet, I have never come across such a putrid abomination as a book trailer. Either they’ve been quite well-hidden up until now, or I’ve been pretty good at filtering out the things that will make me want to take out my own eyes with a spoon.
Why am I so indignant about this? Primarily because I can’t see a reason why the world needs book trailers. The reason I’ve been given is: modern readers have an attention span of about five seconds, and nobody reads anymore because we all watch TV instead. This is why a mere synopsis is not enough: there must be a super-professional, glossy trailer to persuade people to waste their time reading a book instead of watching a film.
How incredibly patronising.
Now that the book world is hurtling in the direction of the digital, it appears we are to be seeing more of these strange beasts floating around. Experts are already telling new authors that this (along with a million other things) is essential and must be done before the book is released.
Clearly, then, I am going to need a book trailer when I publish my first novel. How can I expect anyone to read it, otherwise? Obviously my career depends upon it.
First of all, I am going to need music. Let’s take a leaf out of the film industry’s big book of super-duper film tricks and pick something exciting. Loud! Exhilarating, even! Packed with action!
Great start. Next I’m going to need some people to play my characters. These chaps and chapettes will do nicely:
Right, I’ve only got thirty seconds of screen time for this trailer, so I’d better make sure to include all the juiciest parts. You know, to make sure my readers are hooked.
That means there must be:
An action sequence! I’d love to have some guns and fine latex suits, but this is fantasy fiction so I will have to settle for rapiers, velvet coats and lace cuffs. That’ll take up about twenty of my thirty seconds.
Nudity! After all, no
film book is worth watching reading without sex, right? I can probably manage to strip all my major characters at least half naked in the remaining ten seconds of the trailer.
I might even have time for one or two choice (but brief) quotes from the actual text. You know, the cute one-liners that will give the impression that it’s breezily witty and intelligent as well as graphically violent and pornographic.
There, job done. That ought to do it. My career is made.
It’s just a shame that none of this has anything at all to do with the novel I’m writing. But what does that matter, right?
March 19, 2011 § 15 Comments
Today we’re going sailing, on the Scented Sea… of Desire.
I know what it sounds like. It sounds just like… well, being a proper young lady I won’t say.
It’s actually a tea.
To quote the supplier:
“Exotic candied fruits, mango, papaya, pineapple and scented flowers have the desired effect!”
(I wonder what the desired effect could be?)
It comes from this beautiful shop on Steep Hill, Lincoln, Merry Old England:
And in this shop is a HOST of glorious teas, and they are not glorious merely for their delicious fragrances and their delectable flavours. They are glorious for their NAMES.
When else do you get to go shopping for Friar’s Potion, White Rabbit, Super Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls or Monkey on Top of the Mountain?
How about Russian Caravan and Keemun Black Tiger?
Gunpowder Special Temple of Heaven?
Yellow Mountain Golden Spears and April Snow?
Secret Garden, White Crystal, Fuchow Snow Buds, Golden Needles, Goddess of Mercy, Love Dedication, Roselle and Lavender… it goes on.
I don’t know about you, but I am completely sold on every single one of those and I don’t even know what most of them look, taste or smell like. I’m just dreaming about the day when I get to stock my kitchen with jar after polished jar labelled up with ‘Flowers in the Sun’, ‘Captain Tea’s Well-Being’, ‘Water Sprite’ and ‘Eight Immortals’.
I’ll put them right next to the jars labelled ‘Eye of Newt’, ‘Frogs’ Legs’ and ‘Wing of Bat’.
Would I feel that way about them if they didn’t have such glorious, outrageous names? Maybe not. Call it ‘green tea’ and it becomes a bit drab. Even ‘jasmine green tea’, which I love, lacks a certain something in comparison with ‘Jasmine Snow Monkey’.
Names, then, are important! Names inspire, and catch at the imagination. Wouldn’t you have more belief in the awesome power of ‘Theodorus the Hero’ than ‘Bob the Impressive Guy?’ I’m telling you, the enduring supremacy of Lancelot is about more than a white horse, shining armour, a chivalrous manner and achingly good looks. It’s because he has a cooler name than Arthur.
Those of us who write fantasy are lucky. We get to make up names to suit the characteristics of the characters. Fantasy names can be musical, thundering, soothing, resounding, fearsome… it’s so much fun to make them up, and so hard to get them just right for the character, that I spend more time on this than I should.
Even if you’re not writing fantasy, there’s scope to be more imaginative with names. Not everyone has to be called Joe, or Deb, or Bob. Try Gwendolyn, Zachary or Sebastian. Even the abbreviations sound cool. (Just don’t mix up the two approaches and have a book set in the modern world where everyone is called ‘Thorn’ or ‘Rowan’ or ‘Misty’. That’s really bizarre to read).
By the way, the website for the above-named tea supplier can be found here. It’s an amazing shop, not the least so for actually being family-run and casually situated in an ancient and decidedly picturesque 12th century building. As far as I know they will post tea (and coffee!) just about anywhere.
Anyway, I’ve made a resolution. Next time I wake up feeling like I cannot be bothered with Life, the World or Anything, I will begin my day with a cup of Scented Sea of Desire. Who knows what could happen?
March 10, 2011 § 25 Comments
Writing novels is a dangerous business. Most rational people know not to spend too much time visiting with the imagination; it’s easy to get lost, and who knows when you’ll ever find your way out? Novelists, however, are widely agreed to be a little bit less than rational. If we’re going to spend so many hours per week on safari with the wild beasts of our innermost thoughts, it’s important to be well-equipped. And that requires a well-stocked War Chest.
Item of Primary Importance: Tea
You might have thought I was going to say ‘writing materials’ or something absurd like that, but I am thoroughly English (in nationality as well as name – yes, I know it’s hilarious). I can’t do anything without at least one cup of tea to get me started. Fairly strong, with milk and sugar. Better keep the kettle close by, too.
Item of Secondary Importance: Chocolate
Again, consumables are much more important than writing materials. After all, you could, just about conceivably, write the next chapter of your novel on your own arm, in your own blood, if absolutely necessary. It’s indisputable, however, that nobody’s getting any words down without a dose of chocolate-fuel first.
Item of Tertiary Importance: Suitable Writing Materials
See, I got there in the end. Part of me wishes I could moonlight back a century or two and write here ‘good quality writing-paper and a set of well-mended quill pens’; I have an attractive vision of myself in a flowing gown, seated at a quaintly old-fashioned writing desk, covering my dainty fingers in ink as I pen the masterpiece that people will still be admiring long after my death. Since this is reality, though, I have settled for a notebook with a cute cover and a biro. And when that got boring, I went back to my laptop.
Which brings me to the real point of this post (reaching the point after only 300 words of absurdity is a bad habit, I know, but forgive me: it’s March, and everybody knows that March is Mad March, when people are given to sudden fits of uncharacteristic behaviour). Yes, anyway, the point is: the accepted superiority of the laptop over the notebook and pen is only phase one. Many people would agree that Microsoft Word isn’t exactly ideal for writing your 100k+ words. In my War Chest, currently, is a programme called Page Four (link).
This programme is set up to behave like a sort of virtual notebook. I can have any number of ‘pages’ open and accessible at once, so I can divide my work into a chapter per page (for example), or I can have umpteen notes pages as open tabs while I’m writing. Given my propensity to forget half of the made-up words I made up for my fantasy world (including character names), this is very handy.
Item of Secret Importance: Favourite Stuffed Toy
I get anxious sometimes, particularly when I am staring at the rubbishness of my own work and I realise: I really am crap, aren’t I? The only thing to do at that point is to regress to the age of six and collect my best-friend-in-fake-fur. This lady has already been featured on this blog recently, but here she is again, with her current beau:
She’s almost as old as I am, so do be kind to her if she’s looking a little worn.
Anyway, now that I’ve exposed the depths of my absurdity when I’m writing, I’m going to start asking questions, and all those other shameless bids for conversation that bloggers resort to. What’s in your War Chest? What programme, application or delicious piece of software do you use to write? And what’s your recourse when you’re overcome with despair? (Come on – it happens to all of us. At least, I’m pretty sure it does…).
February 2, 2011 § 5 Comments
I don’t know about you, but personally I love it when I pick up a book and find a host of really colourful characters. The more eccentric and unique, the better. Show me a woman who bathes in green tea and cobwebs, dines on a steady diet of mushrooms and paints her lips with the innards of insects and I’m probably sold.
I’m not alone in this, for certain: there are reasons why the Mad Hatter and his friends are some of the most popular characters in literature. In my own writing, I intend to be swimming in peculiar characters before long. In which case, it doesn’t hurt to get started by looking up a bit of inspiration, does it?
I’ve said before that history is one of my chief sources of inspiration, especially if my imagination fails me and I get stuck. I can’t recommend it enough: it’s the surest cure for writer’s block that I know. A few weeks ago on this blog, we looked through the annals of history for some juicy tid-bits about highwaymen. And it was fun! It was almost like stepping into Wikipedia: we began with highwaymen and ended up with care bears. Crazy.
Today we will plunge back into the eighteenth century (and beyond). This time, our line is baited for eccentrics and madmen. Let’s fish.
Here’s an article to start, from “the Public Advertiser”, 30th October 1784.
“The celebrated Dr. Graham who is figuring away at Manchester, has till very lately, buried himself every morning in earth! He has stood, at least, up to his chin in it; then ran nimbly round a large field, attended by numerous spectators, to whom he advised the adoption of “this sure and happy means of preserving health, and of obtaining longevity!” – He dresses in a light suit of cotton, in compliment to the manufacturers of that place, and lives principally upon potatoes.
The above excentric character, who in lectures which he gives at Manchester recommends Balloon-flying as very conducive to health, says that in the course of years this mode of travelling will, he doubts not, be so much improved, and rendered familiar, that it will be “as common to hear a man call for his Balloon when he is going on a journey, as it is now for him to call for his boots!“- The art of flying he considers as one of the greatest desiderata of mechanics, attempted in divers ages, and now bringing to perfection.”
An encouraging start. The man is instantly described as ‘celebrated’ – obviously doing odd things is widely considered worthy of applause. I wonder if burying oneself in earth up to the chin every morning really works…?
Next is Sir George Sitwell, a baronet born in 1860. He is famously recorded as having had a plaque put up on the gates to his Derbyshire manor house with the following inscription:
“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”
If only we could all get away with that…
There is also an intriguing rumour of his having the white cows on his estate stencilled with blue and white Chinese willow patterns. Fair enough, I say. If you can make your livestock look a little more interesting, why wouldn’t you?
Sir George compounds his excellent track record for mild insanity by pronouncing that novel writing is bad for the health of its practitioners. Obviously crazy.
Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater: another wealthy Englishman, whose particular penchant was for holding dinner parties for dogs. Each dog would be properly dressed for the occasion in the latest fashions, all the way down to shoes to fit little doggie-feet. He also counted time by lining up his old shoes in rows: he only wore each pair once. He never married, for some reason.
It’s sometimes said that creativity leads to increased eccentricity. Furthermore, according to this article, eccentricity is likely to become increasingly extreme as people age.
For my part, then, I am looking forward to being incredibly colourful by the time I reach old age (assuming I make it that far). I will have a vast collection of hats, one for each day that I’ve been alive; I will eat nothing but cake, and drink nothing but tea; I will hold tea-parties for my cats; and I will sleep on a mattress of novels every night. What are your plans for your charmingly eccentric twilight years?
I will end with this uplifting quote from John Stuart Mill in 1859 : “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. [T]hat so few people now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”
Now bring me my Balloon…