Publish and be Damned

An unfolding story has come my way, a morality tale of today. A Facebook friend posted a link to a blog where an author was being hounded to death. She said she had hesitated in publishing the link but of course I went straight to it. And now you want to know, don’t you? Well, sorry, I’m going to resist. The lass involved has had way too much publicity already and, really, it’s like watching a public execution.

This is the story. A young woman writes and publishes a novel. She contacts a literary blogger in the US who downloads the Kindle edition and writes a passably good review. He says it’s a compelling story which would have carried him to the end if her grammar weren’t so off and her sentences so badly composed that he had to untangle them to get the meaning. He gave a couple of examples and proved himself right. Obviously no editor had had sight of this book.

And then it begins. She is young, this author, and hasn’t learnt the tricks of good behaviour. She fights back and accuses him of downloading the wrong version. He denies it. She posts three good reviews from Amazon (which all sound strangely alike). He gets cross. Others wade in and tell her she’s being an idiot. And then it begins, the baying of the Maenads for the blood of Orpheus.

Not that she is Orpheus, of course, and nothing like him, but she had a story in her she wanted to tell, obviously couldn’t find a mainstream publisher and either published it herself or with what is loosely being called an ‘indie’ (more anon).

Now I know the grammatically correct like to snap at your errors. We’ve all experienced it, and probably from both sides: snapping and being snapped at. What made this so awful was that it was a mob of the grammatically correct, all snapping at once. It was like watching a fox – not a good fox, but one who had just eaten a flock of sheep, but a living being nonetheless – corned by the hounds and then torn to pieces. This young author was eaten alive.

She fought and fought and every time she made a comment, she proved the blogger right for she could not write a sentence without a mistake in it. When it comes to English, she hasn’t a clue. But language can be taught whereas story telling cannot. The only thing she lacks is the humility to recognise her need for help. And she has died for it, metaphorically (I hope it’s metaphorically).

I had read down the scroll of comments for half an hour before realising that the scroll bar had barely moved. I fast forwarded. Nothing more seems to have come from the author after a two-word expletive  in capitals addressed to everybody. But the baying went on and on and on for days. It went ‘live’ on Twitter and Facebook and the author’s reputation lay in ruins before the blogger was persuaded to call a halt and stop the thread. One of the last comments told the author that she would be ill-advised ever to write under her own name again.

Now, the girl was in the wrong, and we all love to see pride take a fall, and aren’t we all just weary of the flood of bad books? But what was it like for her? Putting myself in her shoes, I wondered how I would cope with what one person described as a meltdown. All dreams and aspirations vanished in an acid bath of truth. So publicly. I would find it very hard to go on living.

So then I started to worry. Why did she go silent suddenly? No ego, no matter how vaunted, could self-justify to the extent being required of her. Was she jumping off a bridge right there and then? Was someone filming it for YouTube?  Of course, given the peculiarities of our modern world, the other version of what happened next is that she is now a star, or at least a celebrity, and for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps we shall hear.

A few words on indie publishing… I think the word is being misused. As I see it, there are four types of publishing:

  1. mainstream
  2. independent
  3. self-publishing (including assisted publishing)
  4. vanity publishing

(Print on demand can happen in any category and is not a separate one in itself). When it comes to the third-party validation we all crave, mainstream publishing is the best option, given that some stranger likes your work enough to risk money on it. What could be better?

As I understand it, an indie publisher is a small, probably new concern which does not belong to anyone else, i.e. is not part of a conglomerate. It doesn’t have the clout of mainstream, or the publicity budget, but it offers the enthusiasm and personal attention the big guys often don’t provide. Lindsay Clarke’s recently published The Water Theatre comes from Alma and is doing very well.

Self-publishing is when the author prepares his own book for publication, right through to print and production. To do it properly, the author may need to hire an editor and proof-reader, a cover designer and typographer. This is expensive, obviously, but the author has total control over text and cover, and takes the lion’s share of the sales profits (well, perhaps not the lion’s share if Amazon is involved). This is not so expensive if the writer dots her own i’s and crosses her own t’s and knows what a book looks like (if you think this is silly, everyone knows what a book looks like, read on…). When the professional approach is bypassed, the results are often risible, and this is giving self-publishing an otherwise unjustifiable bad name.

The poems of Devon-born Ray Kidwell Q.C., collected by his wife, Carol. Cover painting by his son, Nicholas.

Many people going this route opt for professional assistance. This is where you have to be careful or you will stray into the last category, but there are firms around that really will assist you and you need to look for them (relying perhaps on personal recommendation). We have an imprint of Godstow Press (a legitimate indie) which is ‘author-funded’ in which we do all the editorial and design work in association with the author. We know we’re the real thing because we retain – and exercise – the right to refuse books and only accept those which have passed our literary standards and fit our list, same as in mainstream. I’m not going to name it as we’re already too busy but here’s our latest, Ray Kidwell’s A Murmur of Surf, put together with the love and at the expense of his family and selling well.

Which brings us to the last: vanity publishing. This is the shark in the water, and the one which is bloodying the names of indie and self publishing. Vanity publishing is when you pay someone to do your book and they offer you the world: an ISBN! listing in all the main databases! sales in the trade! You name it. They offer everything except what an author really needs: an unbiased opinion and a good editor.

So, what does a book look like? I’m hastily writing a short guide on this very important topic. With the sudden rise of Kindle, and its indiscriminate offer to ‘publish’ (i.e. make available) anything anyone downloads on to it (which makes Amazon the largest vanity publisher in the universe), it is becoming imperative that the world’s population has a quick lesson in what a book looks like.

The first book I downloaded from Kindle was a 75p version of War and Peace. OK, you get what you paid for, but I got an awful lot of free white space because the book was laid out like this blog, with double lines between paragraphs, which looks preposterous when it comes to dialogue.

And last week my husband paid nearly £40 for a text book from the hoary old publishing firm of Routledge which begins on the left hand page. Call me old fashioned but…

I am just plain TIRED of the amateurism now abounding in publishing since the cursed computer made my generation of professionals redundant round about the turn of the century. The world is awash with early retired editors, researchers, designers. If you need to publish your own book and need help, it should be quite easy to find one to assist you. It will cost, of course, but be worth every penny.

Sorry, said it was a morality tale, but it ended  up like a sermon! Nevertheless, the moral is, never answer a critic back, especially if he’s right.

Happy writing – and get help when you need to!


Lady Day – Happy New Year!

Given that the Earth is a spinning ball, it’s difficult to say when the year begins. For Ancient Egypt and Babylon, it began at the autumn equinox, while for the Greeks it began at the winter solstice. The Romans followed the Greeks but they wanted to start the year with a festival of the new moon. In the year when Julius Caesar changed the calender, that fell on January 1st.

In the Middle Ages, however, the year began on March 25th, the date of the Annunciation. It was always known as ‘Lady Day’.

The Annunciation by Filippo Lippi, hero of a certain forthcoming novel.

The date was changed back to January 1st in 1752 (in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ when our disconnect with natural rhythms and cycles began).

There were four major days in the year, called the ‘Quarter Days’: Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas, traditionally associated with the hiring of servants and the collection of rents. If you ever wondered why the British tax year ends on April 5th, it relates to Lady Day.  These days are roughly three months apart and close to the solstices and equinoxes.

Today we should be paying our annual rents on the allotments, but it’s been deferred to the AGM which is next week. Our last get together was in early February. When I suggested a Candlemas theme, it was descried as being ‘too religious’, so I will not breathe a word at the AGM of the Lady Day Rents. For in this city of scientists, a new puritanism is arising and, to be considered intelligent if not reasonable, I must divest myself of superstition and religion. The Age of Enlightenment has not yet finished. Some call it the Age of Endarkenment.

I am reading and thoroughly enjoying a very heretical tract called ‘Harmony’ by HRH The Prince of Wales. I shall review it shortly and then submit myself for public burning at the Martyr’s Memorial which, fittingly, is opposite my bus stop in the city centre. So I can go to my martyrdom on the No 6 rather than in a tumbrel.

I jest (I hope) but sometimes the atmosphere around scientists begins to smell like a chemistry lab, all clinical and acidy. I think life without a past, without rhythms and cycles, without sacred beauty and the harmony of the spheres, without imagination, must be a very cold, acerbic life.

As historical novelists, we not only have to acquire knowledge of the past, we have to turn off knowledge of the present and divest ourselves of scientific thinking, which is why I have this running theme of The Old Year. Hope it’s useful.

Vernal Equinox

After that amazing moon on Saturday, we had the first day of spring, at least I think we did. My diary said we did, and so did a little googling, but a lot of ‘Happy Spring!’ messages came through on the 21st.  It doesn’t matter, since it’s not the first day of spring at all, but mid-spring.

There is a turning point when things stop dying in the garden and start to grow again, and that’s in January. Some say that spring begins with Candlemas at the beginning of February. Certainly having spring begin at the end of March is a bit odd when three months later it is midsummer.

Nevertheless Equinox is special and today on Facebook people have been celebrating going without socks and hanging their washing on the line. It is that moment when everything greens, which I wrote about on my gooseways blog a couple of days ago, what Hildegard of Bingen called ‘viriditas’.

Some years ago I was advised to write only for 6 months of the year. I found it such useful advice that I’ve stuck to it. Writing sucks you dry. It makes the hands of the clock spin round. It removes hours from the day when you’re not looking. It makes you tell lies, get deceitful and not a little bit selfish: ‘No, I can’t come to supper, I’m not feeling so good.’ ‘No, I can’t visit you, I’m sorry.’ ‘Have a happy reunion, sorry I can’t make it.’ And where am I? Prone (or is it supine?) beneath that succubus who eats my time.

I’d never had a garden, a proper garden, before we moved here ten years ago. If you think writing is rapacious, try gardening! The plants don’t care what you’ve got on, they want to be sown now, pricked out now, potted on now, watered now, weeded now, picked now, eaten NOW.

Happily, gardening, at its most intense, only last six months, between the equinoxes. So that’s what I do, lead a Persephone life, writing in the winter and growing things in the summer. Today I celebrated the Vernal Equinox by hanging out my washing on the line, including many socks which, with luck, won’t be required again until autumn. I’d woken up feeling fresh and free, having finished A Gift for a Magus on Saturday. After the celebratory laundry, it was the celebratory muck-out of the summerhouse. That, too, leads a Persephone life, in reverse to mine. In the winter it’s a garden store and where I keep all the seeds and the onions, shallots etc. In the summer, it’s my reading place, and so I mucked it out, yea, even unto mopping the floor, ready to get my nose into the pile of books which has been building over the last few months.

I learnt once that the name for a cave or a dark, creative place is a Plutonium, derived from the name of the king of the underworld. That has unhappy connotations right now, but it is still the right name for my hideaway hut. Who knows what thoughts will generate there over the summer? Perhaps even an idea for the next book will be born.

Actually, the birth of ideas is not a problem. I already have ideas about the School of Chartres in the 10th century, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia in the 16th, Pythagoras, Kepler, the list goes on. What I don’t get are ideas which grow, which take me over, possess me. That’s what I’m waiting for, the idea which will worry me like a puppy with a slipper, and make me tell everyone lies about why I’m unavailable, at least for six months of the year.

Right now, socks off but mind the toads, and let’s get reading.

From Earthquake to Equinox – a Cosmic Week

I’ve just come to say sorry for the silence. I’ve been mesmerised by world events. In the light of the Japanese tragedy, all personal thoughts and concerns I have seem shamefully self-absorbed and petty. Suddenly everything is prioritised. Say I have two needs (I have rather more than that): to lose weight and to meditate. The first fades to the very pits of inconsequence; the second becomes important. Forget the diet – just be quiet. That’s my mantra right now.

And yet every moment there is dual thinking, about now and the future. Because I have wandered into the forbidden bog, which is conspiracy theories on YouTube. Out of it I have learned things I wish I didn’t know. I’ve done some checking and here are the bald facts:

There is a comet called Elenin which no one I have spoken to has heard of, and yet I’ve checked with NASA and it’s true, it crossed the elliptic  a couple of days ago and for the rest of this year will be sailing through our solar system (not, I suspect, to the William Tell Overture as some of the more dramatic videos show). No one knows how big it is. Distances from the earth are all guess work. But for the astrologically-minded (which all medieval historical novelists surely are?) there is an alignment tomorrow of Earth – Sun – Comet – Mercury. March 15th – the day they are predicting for the pole shift and the end of Facebook (Noooooooooo!)

The same alignment will occur on or near the Autumn Equinox. Coincidentally (?) the Spring Equinox is next week, 20th March, the date I’ve set to finish my novel. Again, thoughts of novels and their completion seem fatuous in the light of cosmic events. March 19th, I’ve discovered, is a ‘supermoon’.  I haven’t been able to find out much about supermoon, but it’s a cyclical event which usually coincides with severe weather. I’m disturbed that my self-imposed deadline of March 20th to finish my novel may be a day too late! It’s so queer to be thinking like this, pushing on regardless, determined to fulfil an aim, whilst simultaneously imagining the end of the world (as we know it). Schizophrenic or what?

Of the many dramatic videos on YouTube, I’ve been impressed by stuff by ‘dutchsinse’, who seems to have a knack of predicting things a couple of days in advance. Nuggets of Truth provides balance (‘It’s all shite!’), and I particularly like the Truther Girls on the pole shift. (‘By all means get your survival supplies but listen, would you want to survive the Apocalypse?’)

The message of the last is, ‘love, not fear’, and ‘be here now and don’t worry about the future’. This I shall adopt.

Does history help us in all this? Yes. I’m immediately reminded of the 14th century. Some centuries are just plain bad, and the 21st may well be another. And what came out of the 14th century? Why, the Italian Renaissance in the 15th! It really was a rebirth, and not just of culture but of life at every level.

And with all that, my sermon would be ended, except to say that the format of WordPress seems to have changed overnight and I’m writing this post in a very basic layout much like a recovery programme in Word. And, after that beautiful spring day yesterday, I’ve awoken to deep frost and the realisation that I’d left the cold frame open. So, slightly unnerved by these ‘signs’ I’m now going to meditate for half an hour.

Be aware, be vigilant, be at peace. We must do as the Japanese do and carry on as if nothing has happened with that implacable expression of mild surprise. Aren’t they amazing? I want to help, we all want to help, but the only thing I can think of is to be quiet and hold them in heart and mind.

Normal service will be resumed soon, but perhaps not until after the Equinox. No, not because of comets and supermoons, but because of that seemingly impossible deadline.

Pancakes and Moveable Feasts

One of my favourite reference books is ‘Days, Months and Years’ by the gloriously-named Magdalen Bear. It’s 46 pages long and I refer to it often, because it will tell me what day of the week any particular date was and, as someone who is obsessive about detail, I like to know that kind of thing.

I also like to know when Easter was. On my current revision I discovered that it was plumb in the middle of a budding romance and the friar and nun involved would both have been on the lenten fast. It didn’t make too much difference to the story – the cakes he seduces her with are now bought at the Jewish bakery – I just like to know that kind of thing.

According to Magdalen Bear, ‘In the Western Church, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21st, the spring equinox.’ So there you go, and if you want to know when Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, is , then you count back 40 days.

Or you look in your diary around now. In fact it’s today, and that it’s in my very secular diary is because people the world over appreciate any excuse for a knees up. We had an event at the village hall on Friday called ‘The Mardi Gras Barn Dance’ which is mixing your languages if not your metaphors.

Mardi Gras is French and means Fat Tuesday (Martedi Grosso in Italy). The period of Carnival runs from Epiphany until Lent, and on Fat Tuesday you eat up all the flour, eggs and dairy in your larder, mostly in the form of pancakes (although the list for Italian dolci is very much longer and more varied than that).

It’s knees-up day, especially in Venice, Rio, Sydney, Trinidad, Montreal and New Orleans.

So get out your Venetian mask or Brazilian feathered headdress, or make a King Cake (a purple, green and yellow brioche:

and celebrate a tradition that goes right back to Roman Lupercalia and probably beyond that.

In the agricultural cycle, we are now into the lean times. The winter veggies have finished and the summer salads have not yet begun. Here we are surviving on Claytonia, chervil, parsley and what’s left of the spuds and onions (OK, and a bit of shopping). But in the past, March through to May was really tough, so those who devised the Christian calendar were wise men to have Lent fall when there wasn’t much to eat anyway.

King Cake


The Promise

A week ago I promised a posting on adverbs and how they can clog up our writing but day after day I’ve put it off. So I’m going to write about broken promises instead.

We’ve been watching a four-part drama called The Promise which ended last Sunday. It was set in two time periods with the story of a granddaughter in our time going to Israel to find the Palestinian family her grandfather knew in 1947. We thought it was probably one of the best, if not the best, TV dramas we’ve ever watched.

Local actors, both Jewish and Arab, were used.

On the last episode I started getting tense a quarter of an hour in and by the end, two hours later, was ready to explode in tears. The story of the Jews and Palestinians in the last sixty years beggars belief; that Britain was one of the causes of this intractable conflict is not something we ever discuss.

It was an incredibly brave production, filmed on location, and it gave the Jews a hard time. Let’s be clear, by ‘Jews’ is meant the hard-line Zionists – , in 1947, the Irgun – bent on clearing the whole of Palestine for Jewish occupation. That ‘clearing’ in the last episode involved throwing tear gas or smoke bombs into homes in an Arab village then machine-gunning anyone who ran out, women and children included. It would not have happened if the British had not suddenly withdrawn and left them all to it (at which point, Len defects and takes the consequences of dishonourable discharge, leading to a bitter future life that Erin inherits).

Len poses with Mohammed's family, a photo which leads Erin to the goal of her quest.

Most dramas bend over backwards to be fair to both sides (unless they’re about Ireland, of course, in which case we Brits have to watch with our heads hung in shame). This one didn’t. This one stayed true to history, because when the Brits moved into Palestine to oversee the formation of the new State (a period known as ‘the British Mandate’), they were on the side of the Jews. Many, after all, including  Len, had been present at the liberation of concentration camps like Belsen. But during their time in Palestine, the British soldiers found their allegiance shifting to the Arabs. Len’s own allegiance shifts when he finds his Arab servant being abused not by Jews but by his own comrades. He tears them off a strip and then befriends Mohammed, and the story begins.

It was inspired by a letter the writer-director, Peter Kosminksy, received from a British veteran of the period, which led him into eight years of research and writing.

Each week we watched the credits carefully. Credits for the actors were unreadable (no Baftas there, then, but we’ve given the drama best film, best actor, best supporting actor, best screenplay, best music, best casting, best everything – except the credits, blue on a black background, I ask you) but we were more interested in the production credits. Countries involved included Australia, France and Israel. Israel. Wow.

In an interview Peter Kosminskysaid that on location in Israel the crew were Israelis, as were the Jewish and Arab characters in the drama. He said he didn’t have to get state approval for what he was doing, but he sought the approval of the Israelis – both Jewish and Arab – involved in the production and got it.

‘I ended up feeling there was nowhere else to shoot this. It brings a verisimilitude – one visible, one invisible. You have the real physical elements – the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture, and you have the invisible – the relationships between the Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast. There was a scene where a Jewish actress plays a Jewish settler, who has a screaming match with a Palestinian woman played by an Israeli Arab. It was a very hostile scene, it felt tense. At the end they wanted to be photographed together as actors. [Peter Kosminksy in an interview].

But over and above the horror of the political story, we had Erin’s personal story (I noted her name and didn’t miss the irony), of her emotional distance from her mother, who in turn was emotionally distant from Len, now an old grandfather paralysed in a hospital bed. No one could do insolence better than Claire Foy, the actress who played Erin  – she made me cross and angry with her so what must it have been like for her poor mum?

Erin by the wall in modern-day Israel.

But in the end Erin comes home, gives mum a proper hug at the airport and then goes to see grandad. It was his diary that had guided her journey, his life she had uncovered, a noble, heroic life as a sergeant in the British army, loyal to his friend, Mohammed, to whom he had made a promise which proved impossible for him to fulfil. Erin does what she can. Her journey takes her to Hebron, Haifa and, of course, Gaza, in her search for anyone related to Mohammed. When she comes home, she goes to the hospital to tell her grandfather what she has done. His response is a slight movement of a finger against her hand, and a tear rolling down his cheek.

And that’s when I cracked up.

My Dad was in the 8th army and fought in Palestine. And he fought in shorts. That really struck me in the final episode, the Brits fighting in shorts. They looked so vulnerable with their bare knees, like Hoplites in kilts.

I went to Israel as a young woman in the 80s to do a job of picture research for ‘The Cultural Atlas of the Bible.’ I met Israelis and Palestinians in their homes and, like Erin, fell in love with both. When I came home, my mum was waiting for me at the airport, which was not something I’d expected. I knew this story and up until the final episode thought I should have written it (the one I did write lies in the proverbial drawer somewhere, wherever that drawer might be); but I couldn’t have written that last episode.

‘Don’t shoot the dog!’ I cried out, but he did. Not flinching, as we discussed the other day, from the dramatic moment. Children shot, women abused. And then the really powerful story of Erin’s friend, Eliza. For what has taken Erin to Israel in her gap year is that Eliza, who has dual nationality, has to do her stint in the Israeli army and Erin’s going to stay in the family home. When it comes to the show-down in Gaza, Erin has to face Eliza who is now fully playing her part as an Israeli soldier. It’s an awful moment, and they rode it beautifully. Just from a glance exchanged you could tell that their friendship was going to survive this horror.

So, back to boring TV and doing a lot of knitting. Cartloads of accolades and shiny prizes to all those involved, although I rather suspect that Kosminsky at least is above such things, as those who are truly worthy tend to be. After all, it took him eight years to write and produce this, and you don’t do that for trinkets and baubles. It should be compulsory viewing for every child on the planet.

It can still be seen via Channel 4

Sheep that Grow on Trees

I was looking cotton up on Wikipedia. I’d had my nun dressed in undergarements of cheap, scratchy cotton, but thought I ought to check. Just as well! Back in the fifteenth century cotton was so rare that they thought it came from sheep which grew on trees.

From Wiki:

During the late medieval period, cotton became known as an imported fiber in northern Europe, without any knowledge of how it was derived, other than that it was a plant; noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep. John Mandeville, writing in 1350, stated as fact the now-preposterous belief: “There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie [sic].” (See Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.) This aspect is retained in the name for cotton in many European languages, such as German Baumwolle, which translates as “tree wool” (Baum means “tree”; Wolle means “wool”). By the end of the 16th century, cotton was cultivated throughout the warmer regions in Asia and the Americas.

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I sometimes amuse myself by wondering what we do/think/believe now which they will preposterous in the future. Any suggestions? Here’s one for starters:

‘They took the toxic waste from pesticide manufacture and put it into the public water supply to prevent tooth decay. ‘