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Thursday, 27 December 2007

Amazing goings-on at Amazon

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards extract sightings

Yesterday I was emailed by an ABNA cyber friend, Dwight Okita, to tell me that some of The Chosen One Thousand had been loaded on to the site, nineteen days before they would be officially available. To see them, you just had to go to Books and type ABNA into the search box.

Huge excitement - Trav Zander was not there, alas, but so far only about a hundred were. And you could download them for free and read them!

Or you could, if you lived in America.

Anywhere else, and you couldn't.

Then Josie added the White House as her billing address, and was able to download! I followed her example, using Amazon's Head Office address in Seattle as my cyber piede-a-terre. You can see it in the picture. (I'm right at the top, the middle window. Stunning view). Result!

But will anyone in England be prepared to do this to vote for me? Something tells me the shortlist will be exclusively American...

UPDATE 28/12/07 Amazon noticed that we'd noticed the list, and removed it and the extracts we'd downloaded. They haven't removed my virtual address in America as yet...

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Christmas in novels

A seasonal selection...

A Christmas Carol – written to pay off a debt, it sold 6,000 copies in the first week, and was hugely influential. Dickens is to blame for it all, the whole lot, turkey, relatives, spending more than you can afford on presents, it’s all his fault. Bah! Humbug! N.B. The Ghost of Christmas Present, who much resembles Father Christmas, wears green, and favours a bare chest. Chilly.

Emma - the terrific scene where she is confined in a coach on a snowy Christmas Eve with Mr Elton. Mistakenly thinking her in love with him, he proposes; then gets huffy when refused, and never forgives her. He and the vulgar new wife he petulantly acquires are Emma's enemies thenceforth.

Little Women – those pesky small females again – ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’. 'It's so dreadful to be poor,' (how true). But they discovered they could still be happy! And Jo made money from her stories… Those were the days.

Harry Potter - Harry getting dreadful Dursley presents – a single tissue – and a jumper from Ron’s mum, and having a great time with Ron and Hermione.

The Bachelor – Stella Gibbons wrote half a dozen novels as good as Cold Comfort Farm, the only one in print today. There's a lovely description of a wartime Christmas, capturing all the undercurrents of the characters' hopes and desires. 'Kenneth began to give out the presents and cries of "Just what I wanted!" began to sound in all their falseness upon the festal air.'

Courtesy of Lorraine: a Christmas song.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Calling Names

Names are REALLY important...

I bet everyone with a computer has, at some time, idly googled his own name. It's only when you hope to become well known that you realize being called Mary Jones or John Smith is not good. Not good at all. Though you can get away with it if you excel in your field - John Smith, briefly leader of the Labour Party, at the time transcended his bog-standard name.

I chose my writing name with this in mind. Google Lexi Revellian and it's all ME. Mwah-ha-ha-ha! (Though they do ask if you mean 'rebellion').

There is a magic in names. Yahweh was God's name in the Old Testament, so powerful that his worshippers were forbidden to say it. In an unacknowledged rite of passage, teenagers today often change their name when leaving home. Tessa becomes Tess, Elizabeth Liza, Mark Marc.

Back to writing; a critic once said that you could often guess the quality of a novel by the aptness and credibility of the characters' names. Bad names most likely meant a bad novel. This is especially true in fantasy, where writers have total freedom, and frequently abuse it. A hero called L'tru? Rramis? Gwaal?

Or children's fiction. Bobby Redbreast the Robin, Squawky the Crow, Mr and Mrs Blue-tit, Beady Eye the Hawk, Bobtail the rabbit, Ollie the Owl - the poverty of imagination makes you want to weep. (I did not make these up, by the way).

I've just read The Princess Bride, an eccentric but good read. Some of the names are excellent; Inigo Montoya, Vizzini, Fezzik. But others give you the impression William Goldman put down the first names that came into his head, then forgot to go back and change them. Buttercup, Westley, Humperdinck. Dear oh dear.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

My new writing website

Fun to do, after the first few hours of teeth gnashing

I've just set up a writing website. I've had this writing blog since June 2007. I am a huge fan of Blogger - it's elegant, easy to use apart from a few line spacing issues, and free!

But I wanted a site for more permanent information. I'd made a note of Squarespace ages ago, as their site looks so cool. Contrast it with Godaddy. And you get 30 days free trial. I assumed, having had the experience of setting up my jewellery website with Freestart, I would find the process easy.

Wrong!

I spent hours getting cross, and not very far. In a temper with Squarespace, I signed up for a free trial with Moonfruit, only to find it much less easy to use, and less flexible. Every time I viewed my fledgling site, they nagged me to sign up. You can't load a whole short story. Also I kept calling it Moonboot, or Fruitsuit...

I went back to Squarespace, persevered, and am really pleased with the result.

Have a look at it here.

AND it's got a message board! Now this may not seem immediately useful, but I have a vivid imagination. Just suppose I started to become slightly known - through ABNA possibly - a fan could leave me a message! I could answer him!

As my fame spread, fans could chat on my message board about how great I am, and I could delight them by the rare personal appearance there, becoming ever more elusive the richer and more famous I became...

A girl can dream.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Inspiration

Now where did that come from?

As a child, I loved Enid Blyton, particularly The Famous Five, but it was a thwarted love that dared not speak its name. Parents, teachers and librarians were united in their disapproval of her works, and conspired to make them unavailable to middle-class children like me.

I managed to read only three or four Famous Fives; I can’t remember how I got my hands on them. Possibly borrowed them from other children, or gulped them down in visits to friends' houses (what an unsatisfactory guest I must have been).

When my daughter started to read, I bought her the lot. She devoured them. When she was older and we were having a clear-out, she began to read… They ended up back on the shelf.

For me, the moment has passed, the magic is gone. I am, alas, too old and cynical to enjoy the books now.

But I there’s one I remember as being especially riveting. I looked it up; it’s Five Fall into Adventure. The Five meet a plucky ragamuffin girl, Jo, whom they mistake for a boy. She’s the baddie’s daughter, but helps the boys rescue George. Chatting on the Youwriteon forum about early loved books, I had a revelation about Jo:

Good God, that’s where Tor came from!

Tor, my heroine in Rising Fire. Five Fall into Adventure went deep into my imagination when I was a child, to emerge all these years later…

Saturday, 1 December 2007

RISING FIRE number 1 in YWO December Bestsellers!

Rising Fire wins professional literary critique on Youwriteon

A certain amount of dancing round the room is going on here. Yes! I can't wait to read my critique from a professional in publishing.

Not because I think it's likely to be ecstatic - I don't, I'm expecting it to be fairly harsh since I am aware there are still a lot of things that could be improved in the start of Rising Fire. It's not as well-written as Trav Zander. And not because I think there's any chance the critiquer will be so impressed he/she will sign me up! That is the stuff of fantasy, and has happened to fewer than 1% of those authors who've been critiqued.

No, I am interested to know if there might be a market for my books, and if I have any chance at all of getting published...

Final gloat (sorry): all four of my pieces (two novels, two short stories) on Youwriteon are now in the Bestseller Chart.
*
I need a new Achievable Goal!

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Hamlet

Unusual facts about Hamlet, best of plays

(I could not resist this illustration of an alien Hamlet).

1. Do you know that you can buy Hamlet, translated into Klingon here? Now there's a novel idea for a Christmas present... I quote, 'You may think you've read Hamlet before, but you can't really appreciate it until you've read it in the original Klingon. Now's your chance. Enjoy!'

(Original Klingon? Shakespeare was a Klingon??? Didn't know that).

2. TaH pagh taHb? is To be or not to be? in Klingon. (No, I don't know how you pronounce it. This is a blog, not an evening class for nerds! Go away.)

3. One line synopsis by Adrien Arnold: Whine whine whine...To be or not to be...I'm dead. (Not too good in my opinion; repetition of 'whine'. I prefer the simpler: Mother, how could you?)

4. Women have often played Hamlet. Sarah Bernhardt played the prince in a popular London production. In 1900, she made a five minute film of the fencing scene, with music and words on records that were played at the same time. It was the first talkie.

5. The highest-grossing Hamlet adaptation to-date is Disney's Academy Award winning animated feature The Lion King, which enacts a loose version of the plot among a pride of African lions.

6. Thomas Betterton went on playing Hamlet up to the age of seventy-four.

7. Garrick 'improved' the play; he said, 'I had sworn I would not leave the stage till I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act. I have brought it forth without the grave-digger's trick, Osrick, & the fencing match".

Nice.

And go here to see my all-time favourite YouTube short; Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hamlet.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Words, words, words...

‘The hallmark of every truly educated person is a wide and flexible vocabulary’

The above is a quotation from Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, a book I loved as a child. Our orphaned eleven-year-old hero goes to live with his aunt, and she gets him to follow her about with notepad and pencil to improve his vocabulary.

Auntie Mame: Well, now, read me all the words you don't understand.

Patrick: Libido, inferiority complex, stinko, blotto, free love, bathtub gin, monkey glands, Karl Marx... is he one of the Marx Brothers? Neurotic, heterosexual...

Auntie Mame: Oh, my my my my, what an eager little mind. [takes the list] You won't need some of these words for months and months.

Mame was right about her nephew's vocabulary. I've been thinking about this, partly because of FreeRice, but also because of one or two comments on Youwriteon and elsewhere suggesting that a writer should limit the words he uses in case his readers are unfamiliar with them. One of Rising Fire's reviewers doubted teenagers would know 'monastic', 'elaborately coiled', 'dragon lore', or 'inscrutable'.

Can this be true? If teenagers really cannot cope with these words, then the sooner they learn to the better. Without going all Lord Reith over this, I write to entertain, but have no objection to doing a bit of informing at the same time.

There is no point at which anyone, of whatever age, has learned all the words he needs. Get out your notepads!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Rising Fire in at Number One on YWO

Top of the charts on Youwriteon!

I was thrilled this morning to find Rising Fire (revised) had gone straight in at number one on YWO with its first five reviews.

I know I am lucky. Plenty of excellent books on the site never make the top ten, for no very obvious reason. There is always an element of chance in whether you happen to be assigned reviewers who enjoy your work; next week my book may plummet, but meantime it's a nice achievement.

Rising Fire was the first writing I put on YWO, on 22nd November 2006. That version was pretty rough. Full of word echoes, lumps of backstory, tell not show, and POV switches mid-paragraph. I made a lot of changes.

I tried a second version on the site this summer, with a prologue in an attempt to get rid of some of the backstory. Its reception was cool. Finally, my writer friend Norm said he didn't like the prologue, and I removed it. He was right.

Grateful thanks to Youwriteon, and everyone there who has given me useful feedback.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Free grains of rice...

Test your vocabulary, send rice to the hungry, and it's fun!

Um...I seem to have said it all in the title and subtitle. Go to:

FreeRice

and all will become clear.

(Okay, the highest I've got so far is 49. No, it's 50. Yay!)

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

ABNA: over the first hurdle


My entry's been accepted by ABNA. Woot!

This morning I received the email from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, telling me my entry (Trav Zander) was eligible.

This has nothing to do with its quality, it just means I followed the rules and my files got to them uncorrupted. So you may well ask, what's the big deal?

The problem was that it was not possible to check or change what you'd uploaded; the rules were not as clear as they might have been, and there was little help or advice from ABNA admin. So the anxiety on the ABNA forum last night reached fever pitch. We'd been told we'd hear on the 12th, but emails weren't sent out till the evening American time.

In the event, they don't seem to have been as nitpicky as people feared. Wrong spacing and margins haven't meant exclusion; just corrupted files, or the extract not being from the start of the novel.

If you go to the link above, you will see a countdown clock to the date voting begins.

And if I make the Chosen One Thousand, you all know what I want you to do when the clock hits zero...

Sunday, 11 November 2007

The Golden Compass

2nd December 2007

I've been having huge problems with this - and while trying to fix them, somehow wiped the post. Then I realized the fault was almost certainly with one of my computers that a neighbour has been repairing, which is still in a transitory state.

So my thoughts on Philip Pullman and the film are lost in the ether...

And they seem to think my name is Undefined. Which it isn't.

Darn.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Five of the Most Annoying Characters in Fiction


Which fictional characters could you really, really do without?

Here is my list:

  • Sarah Woodruff in John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman. In real life, no man would be attracted to a glum girl who moped about the place. Men prefer cheerful women.

  • James Bond. This is a guy who has a PhD in Smugness, and is also an incredibly inept spy. Discovering a beautiful, naked blonde in his bed in a Russian hotel, and getting in with her without it crossing his mind it might be a trap of some kind?

  • Little Em'ly. One of Dickins' few failings was an inability to depict good, innocent young women. Also Little Nell, Little Dorrit, little Beth from Little Women - indeed, any fictional female described as 'little'. (I must declare an interest here, being tall myself).

  • Jonathan Harker in Dracula. Boy, is this man tedious. It's a wonder anyone got beyond the first page of the novel, where Harker describes the dish he had for supper, asks the waiter what it is called, and decides he must get the recipe. Far from riveting.

  • Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park. Jane Austen never wrote a bad book, but does anyone like Fanny? So shrinking and mouse-like, while all the time privately judging and disapproving of everyone.

I'll stop there for now. This list may be continued in a later post...

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Trav Zander gets gold star on YWO


My novel has made it to the Best Sellers Chart on Youwriteon...

How often does one get a really nice surprise? Nasty ones are much more frequent. But I had one today when I logged in to Youwriteon to discover Trav Zander had made it to the peaceful waters of the Best Seller Chart, where the strife and uncertainty of peer review is over and past.

You can read the first 9,000-odd words of it here, should you want to.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

My ABNA Blog

Take a look in case it's removed by the authorities!
I'm the proud owner of an Amazon blog that I don't think I'm entitled to. They seem to be just for authors who have a book selling on Amazon, or the Chosen One Thousand in due course.

But I thought it would be a good promotional tool for my profile page. So I tinkered about, clicked here and there, filled in this and that, gave up - and it appeared on my page. Woohoo!

You can see it here.

The cartoon I use for my Amazon profile is by my daughter. I like it so much I'm putting it here as well.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Thinking about Mills & Boon...

What makes good writing good (and bad writing bad)?

I listen to the radio while I work; BBC 7, Classic FM and Oneword mostly, and today I happened upon the Mills & Boon serial, The Greek's Chosen Wife by Lynne Graham.

It was immediately obvious what it was, as I came in on the statutory bit at the end where the conflict between the hero and heroine segues into declarations of hidden love. And it was quite bad. Not just the predictability of the plot (arranged marriage turns to true love) with its stock characters - he gorgeous and commanding, she beautiful and feisty - but the quality of the writing, which was both overblown and inept.

Nick, the golden-eyed hero, seldom says anything; instead, 'Nick imparted wryly', 'Nick censured huskily' or even 'Nick slotted in'. 'He found her mouth' had me jeering at the radio, below her nose and above her chin, now there's a surprise.

The book was plain bad, just as Jane Austen's are plain good. But what about good bad books, like the Famous Five series, or Dracula? Or bad good books, like À la recherche du temps perdu?

Your nominations?

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

ABNA update

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award closes its list...

Yesterday it was announced that entries had reached the 5,000 mark. Writers who missed out could go on a waiting list, and hope a registered writer would fail to submit.

The competition forum has been seething; anxious people unsure how to interpret the rules, and trying to help each other out in the almost total absence of Amazon admin. We won't be told our submission has 'qualified' until November 12th. No-one knows how rigidly the rules will be enforced; will you be disqualified for not having one inch margins? Or inadvertently leaving your name in the header? When they say 'a thousand-character synopsis' do they really mean a blurb? You can't check your submission, or go back and change it.

I wonder if they expected so many entries that the list would fill two weeks before the deadline?

Now it's just wait and see...

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Single Point of View...grrr..

A sacred cow of our time?

Can anyone tell me why we are all told to stick rigidly to one POV in each scene, with the limitations that entails? The idea took hold quite recently, towards the end of the last century. Why is it such a good idea? Whose idea was it? (My theory is that the person responsible was a thwarted writer running a class for other unpublished writers).

Switching POVs is something that doesn't bother a reader unless he's studied writing. My daughter (a voracious reader) is fine with it, though she pounced on my one bit of authorial intrusion like a terrier on a rat, despite the fact that she’d never heard the expression. ‘You’re telling the reader what to think,’ she said.

My favourite authors use multiple POVs. In Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault there is one scene at a horse fair where the POV goes all over the place; Philip, Alexander, Hephaistion, the royal horse trainer, the slaves, the horse seller and even the horse. I'd never thought there was anything wrong with the scene. A more recent example of an author who ignores the ‘rule’ is Philip Reeve, in Mortal Engines.

I switch POVs in scenes between two people, where I want the reader to know what each of them is thinking. Sticking to one POV impoverishes the scene. In the episode where Jervaid is intent on seducing Tor, while she plans to enlist his help with stealing a dragon egg, I want the reader to be party to the thoughts of both, and root for Tor and Jervaid.

And don’t tell me it’s confusing. If you genuinely find it confusing, all I can say is, you’re very easily confused and should probably not be allowed out on your own.

I think it’s a rule made to be broken, unlike say, rules for apostrophes, where you are either right or wrong. (Switching topics, it astonishes me that so many would-be authors don’t bother to look up and learn the few, simple apostrophe rules).

I suspect that one day, single POV will go out of fashion like the dramatic unities theory that had such a crippling effect on French drama, while Shakespeare didn’t give a damn about it.. Swap Shakespeare for Moliere and Racine? I think not…

Friday, 12 October 2007

Aspiring writers' quiz

Have you got what it takes to be a writer?

It's been a while since I've redirected my loyal readers to a quiz. This one is by Holly Lisle, an American author with an extensive and very useful website. I learned a lot from it when I started writing. And she doesn't mention single POV once.

Go to Are you right for writing? and see how you score. (Disregard the repellent colour scheme of beige and pink. And the decorative photo to the left of this post, which is clearly an actress pretending to be an author. Probably Jane Austen).

Oh, since you ask, I got 47. She says: 30 - 49 points -- There's hope; you suspect some of the darker truths about the profession, and have an idea of what some of the rewards are. If you really want to do this, you'll face some disillusionment, but also stand a good chance of finding the real joys of the profession.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Now I think this could be fun...

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest

If, like me, you have a novel that, unaccountably, has not yet been pounced on with cries of delight by the publishing industry, this may be your opportunity.

They will accept 5,000 entries; you send your completed novel, and the first 5,000 word extract. Up to a thousand writers will be selected for the short list, then the extracts will go online for the public to vote for. Eventually, three contestants will go to New York for a prizegiving, and the lucky winner will be published by Penguin. It sounds as though Penguin will consider publishing the runners-up, too, if they are good enough.

Take a look at Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest (not the snappiest of titles) for details.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

I say, there's a huge hole in that chapter...


Oh. Didn't notice that. Rats.

Have you ever had someone point out a huge improbability in your plot? Small ones are okay, you can usually put them right by a sentence or two deftly inserted before the dodgy bit.

Something like, Alice mused that she had been fortunate indeed, having a father who'd insisted she take Tae Kwon Do classes to black belt standard, so that, should she ever be attacked by three men, she would win. Phew. So much for the doubter who said a girl would never have been able to defeat the baddies single-handed in Chapter Ten.

But what about the ones that wipe out your plot? In Lord of the Flies, Piggy's spectacles become crucially important as the only means of making fire. However, and isn't it lucky that no-one pointed this out to William Golding, Piggy is short-sighted. His lenses would have been concave, and useless for focusing the sun's rays.

Similar thing in the film Casablanca. The 'letters of transit' that guarantee the holder free travel anywhere in German-occupied Europe, that everyone is desperate to get their hands on? No such thing ever existed.

As for the plot holes that have been drawn to my attention in my two novels...you didn't think I was going to tell you what they were, did you?

Monday, 24 September 2007

G K Chesterton

'A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.'

This quote is from G K Chesterton, a favourite of mine. He is best known for the Father Brown stories (with which, it is said, he incidentally converted himself to Roman Catholicism). But my favourite book of his is The Man Who Was Thursday, worth reading if you haven't.

He wrote poetry too. One I like so much that I have learned it (no easy task for me, it took weeks) is The Last Hero.

It is a poem full of wild romance, about a hero who is having a truly terrible day. His enemies have taken over his ancestral home, and are hunting him down. He has walked twenty miles through pouring rain, knowing they will overtake him. The woman he loves hated him. But he remains cheerful and full of appetite for life.

I recite it to myself when feeling hard done by, or when caught in a downpour. Great stuff.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Inspiration, re-drafting, rewriting...

What would you do if you lost your manuscript?

This actually happened to Jilly Cooper, who left the one copy of her just-finished novel on a bus after a good lunch with her agent. One can only imagine the weeks of hope and despair before the poor woman sat down to write the whole thing over again...

But without the excitement and discovery of a first draft. Flipping between trying to recall the old version, and just writing it anew. Thinking it still possible that the original might turn up...and being completely certain that the first rendition was better.

I have experienced this in a minor way, when I suffered a series of computer crashes over a period of months. I bought a second computer (belt and braces) then, come the next failure, discovered that they had not been programmed to back each other up at night as I'd thought. In the end, after a week of nail biting, it transpired I'd only lost one scene. But, do you know, I still think it lacks something the original had.

Now, in case the workshop burns down, I print out the books every two thousand words or so, and take them home, where I add them to a wobbly stack; geological layers of Rising Fire and Trav Zander, going back through time to my earliest efforts.

Friday, 7 September 2007

An egg or a nest?

The difference between a short story and a novel...

A short story is an egg, a novel is a bird's nest. For me, a short story pops into my head in one piece, and by the time I've written it down, it's finished, complete, and I'm unlikely to make any but the most minor changes. This process takes four to six hours.

A novel is quite different, and takes much longer. I start with an idea of what it will be like, then as I write I go back, make alterations, add scenes, and incorporate things I observe day to day. Like the blackbird who built a nest in my balcony bay tree; string, cellophane and the odd bit of wire she came across in the urban landscape were all woven into the construction, and the earth below was littered with discarded twigs and leaves.

As I queued for fish in Waitrose, a man pushed in front of me. I remonstrated, he was rude, and another man took my side. The instant aggression that sprung up between the two men was startling. It seemed they might hit each other.

My one thought was, I've underwritten the altercation with Farren and Edric...must change it.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Says it all...

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public."

Sir Winston Churchill

Monday, 27 August 2007

Metaphors and similes

A good metaphor or simile is a lovesome thing.

When I wrote, 'He felt as weak as a fly on a cold day at the end of summer', I felt ridiculously pleased with myself, because I don't often come up with descriptive phrases like that, and they do make prose more vivid.

What about the bad ones, though? 'As quiet as a mouse' - anyone who has tried to sleep with mice rampaging round the room will wonder how that saying achieved common use. And 'touch pitch and be defiled'; as a jeweller I sometimes use pitch for repousse, and it's really not that messy. 'Touch a car's engine and you'll be black from fingernail to elbow' - now that's the truth, but it doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

From the master of metaphor and simile, P G Wodehouse;

She gave me the sort of look she would have given a leper she wasn't fond of

He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say "when!"

Her eye swivelling round stopped me like a bullet. The Wedding Guest, if you remember, had the same trouble with the Ancient Mariner

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver's trousers

As for Gussie Finknottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight

Gosh, he was good. I've really got to work on this.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Colons

Today we will discuss the colon. Briefly.

Extremely fond though I am of the semi-colon, I never seem to think to use a colon. George Bernard Shaw, that talented yet irritating man, used them to excess. He probably used up my share, and a lot of other people's.

I am not sure what a colon does that a full stop doesn't do better.

In the whole of Trav Zander, I use one colon. When it is published, there will be a small prize for the first person to locate it.

(Don't all rush at once, you'll trip over the ellipses).

Monday, 20 August 2007

The ultimate query letter?

Literary agents are a picky bunch.

We all know a manuscript has to have the best opening sentence ever, and deliver an intriguing plot on page one, in a genre which the agent believes might be the Next Big Thing. A hopeful author will, of course, also need a snappy synopsis that makes the agent rush to read more.

Now, alerted by my friend Alan, I realize this is not enough; one also has to have the perfect query letter.

I have downloaded How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman, and am halfway through reading it. Some of the advice is common sense; don't use cheap or coloured paper, or an unusual font, don't write more than a page. He has some useful insider knowledge, having been an agent himself for many years; apparently, it is a convention in the publishing industry that book titles are set in caps; 'This alone can signal a pro'.

Some advice, though, is kin to my daughter's superstition that for exam success, it's as well to wear spotty socks, and the brighter the spots the better. Using A4 paper is bad, for example; it needs to be 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Can this be true?

I have now got to the nitty-gritty about what to put in my Three Paragraphs (you're only allowed three) and there's still seventy pages to go.

I know what I'm going to be doing over the next month.

Here is one of my favourite quotes, from Nerve, by Dick Francis. The hero is talking about what he learnt from his mother, a pianist;

'Professionalism, for instance; a tough-minded singleness of purpose; a refusal to be content with a low standard when a higher one could be achieved merely by working'.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Is it done yet?

How do you know your book is finished?

I am sure Dickens, who wrote detailed outlines of every chapter before he started, knew when the job was done. Those of us who write in a more haphazard way, starting in the middle or at the end, randomly putting down scenes as they pop into our heads, are less certain. With my first book, Rising Fire, I didn't even know what happened in the second half of the book when I began. I worked it out by deciding what the characters would do next in that situation. Episodes I thought would occupy the central section ended up near the beginning. More like making a rag rug than knotting a carpet.

In preparation for Print on Demand on Youwriteon I have revised, read aloud, polished, checked the spacing after every full stop (gah!) and for the moment, I think that's it. But is it? After it's lain fallow for a few weeks, will new thoughts of how I can improve it sprout in my mind?

Should I still be nurturing Rising Fire and Trav Zander, or is it time for them to leave home, find a job and a flat, and make their own way in the world?

Friday, 3 August 2007

Talking dogs…

Once upon a time, there was a man who angered a great Emperor. The Emperor ordered his death.

‘Oh Most Powerful Lord,’ said the condemned man, ‘only let me live, and I will teach your dog how to talk.’

Now the Emperor was very fond of his dog. He stroked its ears as it sat beside his throne. Most likely the man was lying; it was an improbable offer, but just supposing he could do it? What, after all, was there to lose? So he said,

‘Very well. I grant a stay of execution. If, at the end of a year, my dog can talk, you will go free. If not, then you will die.’

The man bowed low and thanked the Emperor, then left the room to prepare the canine speech classes. His friends rushed up to him.

‘What was the point of that? You’ll never teach a dog to talk.’

The man answered, ‘Many things can happen in a year. I may escape. The Emperor may die. Or, just possibly,’ and he smiled, ‘the dog may learn to talk.’

* * *

I heard this story long ago, I don’t know where, and it stuck with me. If ever anything good and extremely improbable happens, I mutter, ‘What do you know, the dog learnt to talk.’

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Gold star on Youwriteon

Yesterday my short story, Comforted by Darkness, made the best seller chart on Youwriteon and got its gold star. It's currently at number eight. My other short story, Showing Them, is now at number two.

Comforted by Darkness qualified by staying in the top ten for more than twenty-five days in a three month period. In fact, it was hanging around the lower reaches of the top ten for eighty-three days, which I'm hoping may be a record.

So I'm really pleased.

Friday, 27 July 2007

The ultimate rejection letter

Any unpublished author will be familiar with rejection letters. I came across this on the web. No attribution, so if it's yours, let me know.

Herbert A. Millington, Chair - Search Committee
412A Clarkson Hall,
Whitson University College Hill,
MA 34109

Dear Professor Millington,

Thank you for your letter of March 16. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me an assistant professor position in your department.

This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals. Despite Whitson's outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet my needs at this time.

Therefore, I will assume the position of assistant professor in your department this August. I look forward to seeing you then. Best of luck in rejecting future applicants.

Sincerely,

Chris L. Jensen

While on this topic, have a look at: The Devil's Mailbox

27th August 2007 I've found the author! Still not entirely sure who he is, but see; http://www.ufobreakfast.com/archive/00000194.htm

Friday, 20 July 2007

Trav and Isolda in the rain

Another extract from Trav Zander. Trav and Tor have returned to Carl's catital to rescue Katrin. While waiting for dark, Trav goes into the city to look for Isolda. Tor suggests he gets some apples while he is there.

* * *


It had started to rain, which was good; it meant Trav could wear his hood, and if he kept his head down he was unlikely to be recognised. He knew he would be lucky to find Isolda. In this weather she would most probably stay indoors, but he wanted to see her so much he had to go and look. People were clustered by the shelter of the stalls in the central square. Trav walked round, then looked into the shop windows, but Isolda was not there. He saw a fruit stall and went and bought some apples and a hessian bag to put them in. Pocketing his change, he glanced up and there she was, coming out of the glovemaker’s, as if summoned by his wish. The elegant way she moved made her unmistakeable though she was shrouded in a cape and hood. She was alone. He followed her down a narrow lane. The rain grew heavier, and she took cover under an overhanging building. He joined her there.

‘Wet day for a walk,’ he said. Her head turned sharply and he smiled at her. It was so good to see her, and he could tell she was pleased to see him. His spirits soared.

‘Trav? You’re mad coming back. Carl is thirsting for your blood. What are you doing here?’

‘Oh, I just came to get some apples…’

‘Fine, don’t tell me then.’

‘…but since I am here, and we happen to have bumped into each other, why don’t you come away with me?’

She looked at him.

‘What, now?’

‘Why not?’

‘You mean, leave Carl, leave all my belongings, walk away with you now to wherever you are going? In the rain?’

‘Right. That’s it exactly. If you get a better offer today I’ll be surprised.’

‘But I hardly know you…’

‘You like my stubble.’

‘I don’t know where you live.’

‘Doesn’t matter, I don’t live there any more, Carl knows the address.’

‘So you want me to join you on the run? You’re insane.’

No one was about. Trav put his arms round her and kissed her, savouring the delicate lily scent of her. Apparently she still liked him…quite a lot, it seemed. This thought made him smile too much to go on kissing her properly, so he stopped and said, ‘Come on, Princess. Trust me, it’ll be great.’

She leaned back against his arms smiling and gazed into his eyes. ‘You know, I really like you, Trav. But I’m not quite crazy enough to run away with you.’

‘If I kissed you again, would you get crazier?’ He bent his head towards her. She stopped him with a hand on his chest.

‘It’s no good, Trav, you’re very nice, I find you very attractive, but you’re just not the sort of man I go for.’

Trav saw that she meant it. His confidence and excitement of a moment before evaporated. The colour leached out of the day, leaving it grey and flat, and he became aware that his left boot was leaking. Everything seemed heavy, complicated and barely worth the effort. He let go of her.

‘You mean I’m not rich?’

‘Yes, that is what I mean. I’m sorry.’

‘So you prefer a rich bastard like Carl to someone you like who’s poor?’

‘I like the life. I like money, nice clothes, someone else doing the cooking and cleaning. Good food and wine. Not having to get up at dawn. I’ve tried being poor and I didn’t like it.’ Isolda was getting into her stride now. ‘I’m not going to go back to it for anyone, and if you’re honest I bet half of what you like about me is the gloss that wealth produces; the way I dress, the way I smell, the fact that my hands aren’t red and cracked and my face isn’t careworn from a life of petty worries. I doubt you’d have looked twice at Isolda the kitchen maid in her grubby rags.’

‘You think that’s what attracts me to you? Your clothes? Okay, I like the packaging, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, but it’s not just that. It’s you I want, Isolda, the real you that I can talk to. You when you’re being kind and funny and understanding. Carl only cares about your looks. For him you’re the beautiful mistress who adds to his status, that he bought like any other expensive object in his palace.’

There was contempt in Trav’s voice, and Isolda thought not all of it was for Carl. She flushed.

‘I am my own person, not yours, not Carl’s. I am here because I choose to be. If you don’t like the way I live my life, that’s too bad. It’s none of your business.’

‘You can’t have it both ways, Princess. You’re paid to do what Carl wants, however you wrap it up. You’re his down to the last polished fingernail.’

‘I think you should go.’

‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m going.’

Her hand moved towards him uncertainly. ‘Trav – take care of yourself.’

‘Sure.’

He went off through the downpour. Isolda stood as he disappeared round the corner. There was a lump in her throat, and a piercing sense of loss in her heart. Part of her wanted to run as fast as she could after Trav, frantic that it might be too late and she’d never find him. She turned and walked in the opposite direction back to the palace, rain mingling with her tears.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Okay, so I'm a blockhead...

Doctor Johnson famously said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’

The picture, by Henry Wallis, shows Dr Johnson at Cave's the Publisher. Is the maid waiting for him to finish some last-minute revisions so she can run it to the printer’s? Or perhaps, given the fancy frock, it's a daughter of the house admiring an eminent author.

Lots of us write without being paid, though I guess most of us cherish the small hope that we will be published one day, and maybe even reap a modest profit. My writing folder is ironically entitled FAME AND FORTUNE, because I dimly remember hoping this would be the result of my efforts, in the far-off days when I knew nothing at all about it.

I have another quote from Doctor Johnson, who lived in a time lacking worldwide communications;

‘I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of Government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man.’


Happy state of ignorance. The great man wasn’t right about everything.

I looked up these quotes on The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Picturing a character...

I find it helps when creating a character if I can find a photograph that looks like him or her. I don't start with a photo, but once I know what the character is like, I can recognise a picture of him.

(In case this sounds terribly amateurish, I'll just drop in that Jane Austen used to do the same when she was looking at portrait paintings).

This photo is of an African dictator. The website I got it from has now vanished, so if you know who he is, please let me know. It's really bugging me. I used this photo for my villain, Carl of Thrales. I don't see him as a black man, but the expression is spot on. This is how I describe him;

'Carl was in his mid-twenties, and had inherited his kingdom six months ago on the death of his father; he had an air of sleek confidence, lolling as he was on his ornate gilded throne. A smooth face, a slight curve of the mouth and arched eyebrows gave him a calm superior air. Mouth and eyes, looked at separately, seemed to be smiling; taken together they were not'.
.
N.B. Thanks to Roger Williams, (see his blog Dictators of the World) I now know that the photo is of Joseph Kabila.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Is it any good?

How do you know if what you have created is any good?

Two ways, in my opinion; your own gut feeling, and the reactions of others. Both unreliable.

Van Gogh, obsessively painting nearly one canvas a day, must have felt an inner conviction of his own talent. During his life, he only sold one picture. Within a year of his death, his brother's widow had begun selling his work. Today his paintings sell for millions.

Then there's Sir Walter Scott. Any of you read his books? I thought not. * They're unreadable. In his day he was hugely successful, the first international author.

Sometimes I think my writing's good, at other times wonder whether it's not total rubbish. And as for the reactions of others... My short story, Comforted by Darkness was described as 'mesmerising' (I like that reviewer a lot) while another dismissed it as 'a readable romance for a weekly magazine'.

All you can do is peg away and see what happens (provided, of course, it happens in your lifetime).

* Okay, Alan, you're the erudite exception that proves the rule.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Sweet peas

I grew these on the workshop balcony.

Sweet peas are such good value; pretty colours like tissue paper, fragrant, and you have to pick them to keep the flowers coming.

Mantelpieces are like secular altars. I put small things I like on there, and change them around now and then.

Except for the careful use of the serial comma, this has nothing to do with writing. I'm being self-indulgent.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Carl of Thrales

Carl of Thrales is one of the villains in Trav Zander. I can't help feeling sorry for him, as he has truly terrible judgment. At the start of the book he has everything, and he loses it all through one bad decision after another.

This is a scene towards the end of the book, after Carl has been deposed from the throne of Ser. He is on his way to wreak vengeance on Trav.


* * *


Carl sat at the inn table on the hard wooden bench, his muscles sore after another unaccustomed day in the saddle, damp from the intermittent showers that had been falling on and off since dawn. He’d have liked a seat by the fire so he could get dry, but they were all taken. He lacked a change of clothes and, used to clean linen, felt crumpled and grubby. The forest was confusing, and today he had got badly lost. He had taken the wrong path, blundering about for hours before getting back on track. One lot of wet trees looked very much like any other. Without a map he had to rely on rare signposts or directions from surly labourers.

He hated the way he lived now, homeless, comfortless, having to do everything for himself, and he had no idea of what would happen when his money ran out. He could not work, he did not know how, and he had no desire to learn. Still, time enough to think about that when he had done what he meant to do…he would be able to think better once his task was accomplished. It would clear his mind.

‘Here you are,’ the slatternly serving girl said, dumping a plate and tankard in front of him containing a primitive meal of beef, bread and beer. He was hungry, and just the sight of the food made his mouth water, but he called the girl back and pointed to the crusted mustard pot.

‘I’d like a clean one of these.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘It’s got dried mustard all round the top.’

‘No one’s ever complained.’

‘Well, I’m complaining now. I want another one.’

The girl picked the pot up, put it on the table next door, picked up that table’s mustard pot and banged it down in front of Carl.

‘There.’

She walked away. The new mustard pot was hardly cleaner than the first. Carl began to eat. What a wretched inn this was, but it was the only one he could find in the small town and it was a black night. Too dark for him to want to ride on to the next place, and besides he was exhausted. The low-ceilinged room was packed, and the noise of a dozen conversations oppressively loud. Everyone seemed to know each other, and newcomers crossing the threshold were greeted with roars from the drinkers and diners.

‘D’you mind if we sit here?’

Two burly men of uncouth appearance stood by Carl. He looked them over. Their clothes were coarse and they reeked of horses, sweat and ale.

‘Yes, I do mind. I prefer to be alone.’

The larger of the two men raised his eyebrows. ‘Do you now? Then it’s not your lucky day, sonny.’

He settled himself beside Carl, forcing him to shift along, and his friend joined him opposite. They resumed their conversation.

‘The grey gelding Mel was asking five hundred for, did you see its legs? Bog spavined and sand cracks too, he’s got a nerve, and he sold it as well. There’s a fool born every minute. That mare in foal at the end of the line, she was a bargain for anyone with eyes to see it…’

Carl seethed quietly for several minutes, then interrupted.

‘What was the point of asking if you weren’t going to take any notice?’

The big man broke off and turned to Carl as if he had forgotten he was there.

‘Manners,’ he said briefly. ‘Myself I’d have gone for the bay with the blaze, nice looking animal, mark you with that temperament it could break your neck…what is it now?’

‘That’s what you call manners, is it? A perfunctory query then barging in where you’re not wanted? Still, I guess in this company it passes for refinement. I suppose it’s only what I might have expected from a filthy peasant who was probably dragged up in a stable.’

Carl had the man’s full attention now. ‘What did you just say?’

All at once the miseries, discomforts and frustrations of the day came to a head and Carl let some of his anger out. ‘I said you could have been reared in a pigsty, going by your smell, and you’ve got the manners to go with it.’

The man put his tankard down slowly on the table and stood up, exuding such menace that the room hushed round him.

‘Get up.’

‘What for?’

‘Come outside.’

Carl did not like the turn events were taking. ‘No, why should I? Do you know who I am?’

‘I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care. I know what you are, you’re an arrogant little stuck-up git who thinks the world belongs to him and wants teaching a lesson. Well, you’ve just met the man to give it to you. Get up.’

Carl was relieved to see the innkeeper coming over. He addressed the big man before Carl could make a complaint.

‘What’s going on, Winch? Is this fellow causing trouble? I don’t want a fight.’

‘It’s all right, Pirie, I won’t hit him in here, he’s coming outside with me.’

‘Leave him, I’d rather not have a fight outside my inn either.’ He eyed Carl. ‘You, you can clear off, you’re not welcome here.’

‘But that’s outrageous. I haven’t finished my meal. I’ve paid for my room. You can’t turn me out.’

The innkeeper felt in the leather bag on his belt, and counted coins on to the table. ‘I’m doing you a favour. There, take that and don’t come back.’

‘But where am I supposed to sleep tonight? This is the only inn.’

‘That’s your problem.’

Under the unfriendly eyes of the whole room, Carl picked up the money and his jacket and walked out into the black rainy night to get his horse.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Just three dots…

What is your favourite punctuation mark?

Since the astounding success of Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ this is not the weird question it might once have been. Like every right-thinking writer, I treat the exclamation mark with suspicion and disdain, only grudgingly giving it house room in dialogue. I have always been a fan of the semi-colon; it gives a pleasing balance to a sentence.

But lately I’ve noticed a worrying addiction to dots of ellipsis in my work. There they are, all over the place, leading people to believe that this may be the origin of my Youwriteon username, Spotty Leopard.

I love the way they let a sentence trail off, leaving the reader to continue a thought in his head…

This can’t go on. I’ve got to get a grip.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Rocking horses and writing a novel…

I am currently reading Wannabe a Writer? By Jane Wenham-Jones. An entertaining and informative read.

She says ‘It is a strange thing that few people assume, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that they can paint pictures worthy of the Royal Academy, sing like Pavarotti or play the guitar like Segovia. Yet all sorts of otherwise sensible beings imagine that if they only had the time they could knock out 90,000 words that would get snapped up by the publishing world and then fallen upon by a grateful public.’

Funnily enough, people harbour the same delusion about renovating rocking horses. People sell them on eBay with the line, ‘I bought this intending to do it up, but didn’t have the time.’

Just as well for the poor old rocking horse. To make a good job of it, you need to know the history of rocking horses, a bit of woodwork, how to make and apply gesso, how to dapple authentically, how to prepare and attach a real horsehair mane and tail, how to make appropriate leather harness…the list goes on. Getting out the power sander and the paint left over from decorating the house just won’t hack it.

Yet, as with writing a novel, it’s invariably the lack of time that’s perceived as the real problem.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

A rejection from a Chinese economic journal...

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight.

If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard.

And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam


I have just taken the Fantasy Novelist's Exam. Seventy-five questions, and if you answer yes to any one of them, you fail and are told to abandon your novel.

I answered yes to three, but I'm not admitting it. Or saying which they were.

If you want to take a look for yourself, here it is: http://rinkworks.com/fnovel/

Tor in the rebel cavalry


Some readers query the part in Rising Fire where my heroine, Tor, disguises herself as a man and fights in the cavalry. She’d never get away with it, they say.

Throughout history, hundreds of women have dressed as men and enlisted in the army or navy, usually in order to follow their lover/husband. Some have become famous, like Doctor Barry, who had a long and successful medical career, including work in the Crimean war. In a society where only men became doctors, and only men wore trousers, her sex was never questioned.

This is an excerpt from a book, published while she was still alive and passing as a man, by the Count of Las Cases. The Count wrote that on 20th January 1817:

"I received a visit from one of the captains of our station at St Helena. Knowing the state of my son's health, he brought a medical gentleman along with him. This was a mark of attention on his part, but the introduction occasioned for some moments, a curious misunderstanding. I mistook the Captain's medical friend for his son or nephew. The grave Doctor, who was presented to me was a boy of 18, with the form, the manners and the voice of a woman. But Mr Barry (such was his name) was described to be an absolute phenomenon. I was informed that he had obtained his diploma at the age of 13, after the most rigid examination, and that he had performed extraordinary cures at the Cape."

People see what they expect to see.

I can’t resist mentioning Black Agnes, who fought like a man but without pretending to be one. In 1334, she successfully held her besieged castle at Dunbar for over five months. After each assault on her fortress, her maids dusted the merlons and crenels (the top of the battlements), making a joke of the siege. How this must have annoyed her attackers.

Then, less than a century ago, there was the English war reporter Dorothy Lawrence (see photo on the right) who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier during the First World War.

I’m going to stop here. There’s a lot on the internet, for anyone who is interested to learn more.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Machine With No Name...

Actually the new MFP has two names; the Nameless One, and my daughter insists on calling him, no, it, Buttons.

I printed out Rising Fire (in case the workshop burns down) and the print quality in places is not as crisp as Percy's. I shall try hitting the Best button next time. Personally, I think we should all do our best all the time, and not require a special button for it.

The Nameless One and I are not yet in perfect harmony.

Unbelievably, Pootle the robotic vacuum cleaner has stopped working. He's going back under warranty tomorrow.

Monday, 18 June 2007

PERCIVAL THE PERIPHERAL

Never give a name to an electronic gadget; you will feel like a murderer when the time comes to replace it.

This is Percival the Peripheral, the multifunctional printer which has served me well for two and a half years. He still looks like new, but he doesn’t print any more. It’s fifty pounds just to have him looked at, and a new MFP costs little more than that. His replacement arrives today, and Percy is destined for the local recycling centre.

He appears (as himself) in my short story Showing Them, which you can read at this link: Youwriteon.

I won’t be naming the new machine. Our relationship will be a purely formal workplace one. I shan’t pat him after he’s done a particularly good job of copying, or say ‘Thanks, Percy,’ as I switch him off.

Now I’ve just got the robot vacuum cleaner (Pootle) to worry about.

For the last time; thanks, Percy.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Plants in pots...

This blog is supposed to be purely for the purpose of promoting my writing, but hey, it's my blog, I can do whatever I like! The power!

This is a shot of part of my workshop balcony. I potter here if not too busy.

This year's unwelcome guests; vine weevil grubs, baysuckers, and scale insects. Last year we had ants and slugs too. I don't use pesticides, so it's just me and them locked in a war of attrition.

I relocated the slugs. (My daughter is fond of them. I quite like them too).

Monday, 11 June 2007

Pesky things, prologues...

My heart tends to sink when I open a book and there's a prologue. Frequently one can make little sense of them, and their significance only emerges well into the book.

But yesterday I found myself writing one for the start of Rising Fire, in an attempt to minimise the amount of back story in Chapter One.

It's brief, and not too gnomic. See what you think...

PROLOGUE

Poised on the balls of her feet, absolutely still and intent, Tor faced Attalor, feeling the unfamiliar weight of her new sword; at thirteen, she was just big enough for an adult one. Rain still dripped from the trees edging the clearing, though the sky had cleared; she was wet to the skin, her threadbare clothes offering scant protection.

Stealthily, Attalor edged sideways, trying to get her to go where the shafts of sun would shine in her face. He was a foot taller than Tor, with a warrior’s strength and speed. His eyes under fierce brows never left hers. She stood her ground, knowing he was choosing his moment to strike, and she must be ready. She grasped the hilt in tense fingers. Now! As his blade came down, hers rose to meet it, blocking his thrust and riposting.

He stepped back, lowering his weapon, and broke into a smile. ‘Well done, Tor. Soon you’ll be too fast for me. That's enough for today.’

‘Let me try again. I can do better, I know. I’m just getting the feel of it.’

Attalor laughed. ‘We’ve been here since dawn, I need another breakfast, and I’m sure you do too.’

‘Just once more?’

‘Have pity on your old grandfather. We'll come back tomorrow.’

‘All right. Let’s get some eggs on the way home.’

‘Sorry, Tor, I’ve no money. We’ve still got some bread.’

Tor grinned at her grandfather and fished about in her deepest pocket, then produced a silver sixpence in triumph.

‘Where did you get that?’

‘The squire’s hawk was stuck up a tree, right near the top, tangled by its jesses. I climbed up and got it. He was grateful.’

‘Eggs it is then. Clever girl.’ He ruffled her damp hair, and they left the forest and set off for Cramble, the small village where they lived.

Attalor went in to the cottage to get the fire going, while Tor slipped next door to their neighbour who kept a small flock of hens. She knocked and went straight in. Maddy looked up from her spinning wheel and tut-tutted.

‘Look at the state of you, Torbraya! You’re filthy, and that tear wasn’t there yesterday when I patched you.’

‘No, it got caught on a branch.’

‘Come here, let me look. You’re wet through! What’s your grandfather thinking of? He should have more sense, you’ll catch your death.’

‘S’okay, I’m fine, I just came to buy some eggs.’ Tor held up her sixpence. Attalor was very particular about paying their way. He did not mind Maddy patching Tor’s clothes, but he drew the line at his granddaughter being given food as though they were beggars. Maddy fetched a bowl and put a dozen eggs in it, grumbling the while.

‘He’s got no idea, that man. He shouldn’t be bringing you up, it’s not right. Teaching you to fight every day as though you were a boy, what’s the good of that? Addling your brains with reading and writing, too, there’s no sense in it. Who’ll marry you, that’s what I want to know, when you can’t cook or sew to save your life? Where’ll you be once he dies and you’re on your own?’

‘He’s not going to die, so it doesn’t matter.’ Tor took the eggs and handed over the sixpence. ‘I’ll bring the bowl back tomorrow, is that all right?’

Maddy took three pennies from her purse and gave them to Tor. ‘Mind you change into dry things the minute you get next door.’

‘Will do. Thanks.’

Tor whisked out of the cottage before Maddy could remember that she only had one set of clothes.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

An extract from TRAV ZANDER...

Tor is working undercover in Carl of Thrales's palace, disguised as a maid. Jervaid, whom she knew before, happens to be there in the Palace Guard.

Given his packed social schedule, Tor was surprised that Jervaid continued to find time to see her. She supposed he enjoyed a challenge, but she thought it was also because they had first got acquainted in Tarragon when she was disguised as a man. Tor had been bored by her captivity there, he had welcomed a break from standing on guard outside her door, and their friendship had flourished. Normally Jervaid was too busy seducing girls to get to know and like them. Tor was the exception, his one female friend.

This evening after their meal, Jervaid had suggested a drink, overriding Tor when she said she really should be getting back. He was now regretting picking this tavern. The place was packed; they had got seats with difficulty, and a raucous group behind them made conversation impossible. Nearby a man carried a hawk on one hand while he drank with the other, and every so often it baited with a frantic flurry of wings before he lifted it back on to his wrist. The stir from its wings blew out their candle.

Jervaid reached to relight it from the one on next door’s table.

‘Tor, this is ridiculous, we can’t talk here, I can barely hear you. Come back to my place.’

‘Here’s fine. I’ve got to go in a minute, anyway.’

All the frustrations of his recent dealings with Tor, with the unsatisfactory end to the evening imminent, came to a head. He knew she liked him, he was certain she found him attractive, why was she being so evasive and difficult? He let his irritation show.

‘You really are the most exasperating woman I’ve ever known. It was just the same at Kallarven, you were always rushing off, or there were too many other people around.’ Jervaid’s sense of humour went missing briefly. ‘Do you realize any of the other maids would give their eye teeth to be with me now?’

‘Why don’t you ask them then?’ Tor said, standing up. ‘I’m going.’ She pushed her way out of the crowded tavern. Jervaid half rose to his feet, then gave up and subsided back into his seat. Morosely, he waved at the serving girl to bring him more wine.

When the flagon arrived, he filled his cup and drained it. As he put it down, he saw a man sitting where Tor had been, staring at him. His face was familiar; after a few moments Jervaid placed him. Back in Tarragon he used to materialise around Skardroft’s palace like a dark ghost. The Palace Guard had orders to let him in to see the King at any time. He was thinner, gaunter, older than before, his skin yellowish and dry like parchment.

After about a minute, Jervaid met the man’s stare and raised his eyebrows.

‘That was a striking-looking girl who just left,’ Corfe said. ‘Do you know her well?’

‘Not as well as I’d like to,’ said Jervaid with complete accuracy.

‘She comes from Tarragon, I believe,’ said Corfe. ‘Where you come from. Did you meet her there?’

Jervaid was disconcerted that the man seemed to know who he was. Why should he recall one guard out of so many? What was he after? He was tempted to tell him to clear off, but decided against it, and said instead, ‘Yes. Do you know her?’

‘What was she doing in Tarragon?’

‘Exactly what she’s doing here, turning me down,’ said Jervaid moodily. ‘Women.’

‘Was she working as a maid?’

‘That’s what she does.’

‘Did she work in Skardroft’s palace?’

‘I met her there. Why do you want to know?’

‘I thought I recognised her, but couldn’t quite place her.’

There was a small silence.

‘Why did she come here?’

‘To find a job. To give me a hard time. I don’t know. You ask a lot of questions.’ I need to tell Tor about this man, Jervaid thought, I don’t know what he’s doing here but he seems to be on to her. ‘I know one thing,’ he added, ‘I shan’t be wasting any more of my time with Hettie. There are plenty more pretty girls in Ravendor.’

He got to his feet and shouldered his way out. Once outside, he found a dark doorway from which he could watch the tavern. He waited patiently for five minutes, and was rewarded by Corfe emerging and walking down the street. Jervaid followed him at a distance until he was sure he was headed for the palace, then he doubled back to Tor’s lodgings and knocked softly on her window.

Tor opened it. She was in her nightdress. ‘Jervaid, I can’t believe you came here,’ she said in a fierce whisper, afraid of the landlady hearing.

‘Tor, I had to see you…’

‘I said no and I meant it. How difficult is that to understand?’

‘Let me in, I’ve got to talk to you. Someone will see me standing here.’

‘Then go away.’

‘I think you’re being watched.’

Tor saw he was serious, opened the window wider and he climbed into the dark room. She wrapped herself in her cloak and lit the candle while Jervaid looked around him.

‘It’s a bit basic here, Tor. It doesn’t compare to your room in Tarragon.’ He sat on the bed, the only seat available, and leaned against the wall, his hands behind his head, smiling at Tor. ‘Sorry I got miffed back at the tavern. It’s because I fancy you rotten, I always have, you know that.’

He patted the bed beside him. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’ She looked at him suspiciously.

‘Who’s watching me?’

‘A tall thin man, long face, slightly stooped. I’ve seen him in the palace at Tarragon. Quiet voice. Difficult to guess his age. Has a way of looking at you…’ Tor’s eyes had widened. Without thinking, she sat on the bed, staring at Jervaid.

‘Corfe was watching me? What happened?’

‘Who is he?’

‘He was my grandfather’s undercover agent. He got hold of Pom and tried to make him say where the Knights were, he tortured him. Gwenderith broke a chair over his head. He’s here now working for Carl, I’m surprised you haven’t seen him. What did he say?’

‘He was asking about you, where I’d met you. He went back to the palace.’

‘You’re the second person he’s talked to that I know about. I don’t know why he’s interested in me if he doesn’t know who I am. He saw me one time with Skardroft, but if he recognised me why hasn’t he had me arrested?’

‘He didn’t seem to remember you. Maybe he’s got a terrible memory for faces…’ Jervaid’s attention was wandering from the conversation. He wound one of Tor’s curls round his finger.
‘I like your hair a bit longer…’ His warm hand slid round her neck giving her a pleasant frisson. It was true she found him attractive. ‘So do I get a reward for coming and warning you?’ he murmured, nuzzling her cheek and pushing her backwards on to the bed. There was a brief not unfriendly tussle then Tor succeeded in standing up.

‘All you get is my undying gratitude, I’m afraid. I’ll have to chuck you out now.’ She spoke with reluctant firmness, opened the window and stood by it.

‘Goodnight, and thanks a lot, Jervaid.’

Jervaid went off into the dark, a handsome figure striding along the quiet streets, his natural optimism in the ascendant once more. Too early to abandon hopes of Tor; she liked him; they were alone in Ravendor; she could not, surely, resist him forever. Meanwhile, there was that serving girl from the White Boar, Jenneth; she should be getting back to her lodgings from work about now, and he had no doubt she would be pleased to see him.

Friday, 8 June 2007

This is all pretty random thus far...

Hallo,

I've started this blog in case anyone should be interested in my novels or other writing. So I've begun by loading a short story, Comforted by Darkness.

I shall be getting to grips with this whole blog thing over the next few weeks/months, I hope.
Thanks for dropping by.

Lexi

COMFORTED BY DARKNESS (a short story)

Joss noticed the man at once as, smiling and weak with relief, she closed the waiting room door behind her and emerged into the wintry night. He was sitting on the wall in the yellow glare of the street light, his feet on the steel bench, dreary municipal shrubs threadbare behind him, and he met her glance and smiled back at her.

In the brief embarrassed moment as she realized she was smiling at a total stranger, she saw he was lean, tall, and dark of hair and eye, with interesting lines of thought and experience on his face. Joss turned away to her bike, tethered to a lamppost, and began the tedious task of releasing it from its various necessary chains and locks. She had a feeling the man was watching her, and it made her clumsy. She removed the plastic bag from the saddle, rolled it and tucked it away, put her handbag into the box on the back of the bike, attached her bike lights, clipped on her reflective belt and fished in her pockets for her cycle clips. After putting them on, she realized her gloves were at the bottom of the box. As she opened the lid again, it spun out of her hands to the stranger’s feet.

He picked it up and handed it to her.

‘Oh, thank you.’

She dropped her gloves. He retrieved them.

She smiled. ‘Thanks.’

‘Don’t you have a helmet? You seem to have everything else.’

‘No, they squash your hair.’ He raised his eyebrows. Every non-cyclist she’d discussed the matter with had disapproved of her not wearing a helmet, and it never failed to irritate her. ‘I’ve been biking in London for twenty years without a problem,’ Joss said with asperity, skipping several stages of the argument. ‘They’d make death safe if they could.’ She wheeled her bike to the kerb.

‘You misunderstand me. I believe in living dangerously. Come and have a drink with me.’

‘What?’

‘I asked if you would like to have a drink with me.’

Thoughts whizzed through Joss’s mind. He’s got a nice voice, I’ve given up on men, he doesn’t look like an axe murderer, I’d be crazy to let a man pick me up on the street, how long has it been since I’ve had a drink (let alone anything else) with a man, I’m wearing my jumper with the hole in the sleeve, after all I’ve got something to celebrate…

Joss had gone into the doctor’s that evening chilly with fear, certain that the results he had for her would be bad news. Terminal news, in fact. She felt as if she had been holding her breath for the past three weeks. She had not wanted to tell anyone, because that would have made it more real. If she had been going to tell anyone, now that her sister was dead it would have been Sophie, but just getting Sophie’s undivided attention was a problem these days since she and Pete had had their third child. They had left London for the country, so Joss would have had to ring her, and it was not possible to talk for more than thirty seconds at a time before one of the children needed her. If Joss said she was afraid she was dying Sophie might not even notice.

But she was not dying; it was official, her tests were clear. The man stood there, dark eyes on hers. What the hell, she thought.

‘Yes, okay. If you can bear to watch me locking the bike again and dropping things.’
He pushed her bicycle for her to a bar nearby that Joss had often passed but never been in. Its décor was dramatic; deep sofas upholstered in black velvet, intimate round tables lit by black glass and crystal chandeliers and wall lights. Each table held a candle and a few flowers in a glass. Not many people were in there – maybe it got busy later on. Joss took off her coat, grateful for the gloom that might conceal the rattiness of her jumper.

Her companion looked at her thoughtfully. ‘I see you as a wine drinker…white wine. Not Chardonnay, my guess is that’s what you were drinking a few years ago. How about a Cape Sauvignon? Or Sancerre?’

Joss laughed in surprise (how did he work that out? And get it right?)

‘Sancerre would be great.’

He summoned a waitress, ordering her wine, and vodka for himself. He got a pack of Gauloises Disque Bleu out of his black leather jacket before taking it off and revealing further black clothes. If unexpectedly called on to play Hamlet, he wouldn’t have to change.

Slumped in the depths of the sofa, relaxed for the first time for weeks, Joss felt a wave of fatigue sweep over her and she yawned.

‘I’m so sorry, I woke early this morning. I can hardly keep my eyes open.’

‘Don’t worry about it. You needn’t talk if you don’t want to.’ He offered her a cigarette, and when she shook her head he lit one for himself, filling the air with rich fragrant smoke. She found she did want to talk; she wanted to tell him everything.

He listened to her as no one had ever listened to her before.

* * *

‘Joss, are you all right? You look exhausted.’

Joss was startled; did she look that bad? She had put concealer on the shadows under her eyes and some blusher she did not normally bother with.

‘Oh…I went out last night, that’s all. The Pale Horse, do you know it? Near the Angel.’

‘No. Anyone nice?’ Camilla knew Joss did not have much of a social life; of course it got more difficult as you got older. Funny really though, when she was quite good looking. Enviably slim. Camilla offered her a chocolate digestive.

‘Thanks. Yes, I met a man…’ Joss was not in the habit of confiding in Camilla; they shared an office amicably enough, but had little in common. And she did not know what to say about the evening anyway. She had never met anyone like him, and it had not been like any first date she had ever been on. He seemed very interested in her, but was not pushy at all; she knew nothing about him but felt as though they had been together for years. His eyes watched her with complete understanding and sympathy.

‘What does he look like?’

‘Tall, dark…and handsome.’ Joss laughed.

‘What does he do?’

‘He hasn’t said much about it. He’s some sort of actuary, I think.’

‘Will you be seeing him again?’

‘Yes, tonight as a matter of fact.’

* * *

After their second evening together, about to part on Joss’s doorstep he said,

‘I’ll see you tomorrow?’

‘Oh dear, I’d love to but I’m so tired. I think I ought to stay in and have an early night, recharge my batteries.’

‘Then let me come round and cook for you. I’ll wash up too, you won’t have to do a thing.’

‘You’ve just made me an offer I can’t refuse.’

‘Is there anything you don’t eat?’

‘Liver and kidney.’

‘Rats. I’d planned on making liver and kidney surprise, it’s my party piece.’

‘And I’m not keen on sprouts.’

He smiled. ‘Sprouts were the surprise.’

So Joss lay on the sofa while he cooked for her in the kitchen that ran along one wall of her living room, in her flat which had seemed shockingly expensive when she bought it, but a shrewd investment ten years on. She watched him concentrate on what he was doing, his face intent, his movements elegant but unshowy. The food smelled mouth-watering. He brought her over salted almonds and a glass of champagne, sitting on the edge of the sofa and clinking glasses.

As she had meant to, Joss went to bed early; he carried her there and she spent the night in his comforting arms, in the friendly darkness. With him she forgot everything she had wanted and not attained, or had once possessed and lost; the child it was probably now too late for, the bereavements, the past lovers, the career success she had never quite achieved; all the failures and disappointments that make up a life.

* * *

‘Hi, Sophie, it’s me.’

‘Joss! How are you? Hang on a mo, I’ll just put Freddie down.’

‘Is this a bad moment?’

‘No, it’s as good as it gets these days. The builders aren’t here and Jemima’s having tea with a friend. How are you doing, what’s happening?’

‘I’m great. Really good.’ Outraged yells from the baby came clearly down the phone to Joss’s ears. ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Yes…(you’re a pest, you know that, you should be asleep. Oh all right then…) Sorry, he didn’t want his nap today, and he got us all up at five. Okay, I’m listening.’

‘I had to tell you, I’ve met this amazing man.’

‘Joss, I’m so pleased for you. Tell me everything. Where did you meet him?’

‘He picked me up in the street. No, I’m being sensational, we just got talking and we went for a drink together.’

‘Doesn’t sound like you at all. What came over you?’

‘I’m not sure. He looked all right, and he is, he’s really nice. Better than nice.’

Sophie seemed to have reservations. ‘And you’re sure he’s not married or anything, like that creep Richard?’

Joss laughed. ‘Definitely not. He’s not a married sort of type. He’s gorgeous. I feel so lucky.’
‘You must bring him for a weekend as soon as the extension’s finished. (What is it, Sam? Well, can it wait a minute? Mummy’s on the phone.) Sorry. Why didn’t you tell me about him before?’

‘I only met him Wednesday.’

There was a pause. ‘Do be careful, Joss, won’t you?’

* * *

Camilla was scandalised when it emerged that Joss’s new boyfriend had moved in with her. How long had that taken, ten days? She had always thought of Joss as being rather prim. She gazed at her over the top of her celebrity diet magazine.

‘Hasn’t he got a place of his own?’

‘Only rented.’

‘You’ll have to bring him to the office party so we can all meet him.’

‘He doesn’t like parties. I’m going to skip it this year. I don’t feel up to it anyway, I’ve still got this bug hanging round making me feel lousy. I’m lucky to have someone to look after me at home.’

She’d lost weight, Camilla thought, and she was thin before. She might feel better for having a man in her life, but she didn’t look it. Her cheeks were quite hollow. He couldn’t be that good a cook with the weight visibly dropping off her.

‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, poking my nose in, but he’s all right, is he? You hardly know him.’

‘I feel I’ve known him forever.’

* * *

Joss had some time owing to her, so she decided to take it, put her feet up at home, really rest and get back to normal. The past year had been a strain, one way and another. It was no wonder she felt ill. Once she got her strength back she would get a new haircut, spend some money on clothes, go on holiday.

‘I’ll take the week off too, if you like. I won’t bother you, I’ll just be there if you want me.’

‘Yes please. If it’s not too boring for you?’

‘I could never find you boring. I’d never tire of you, Joss. I’ll bring some work home with me for when you want peace and quiet.’

By day he waited on her, chatting, bringing her tempting snacks, and reading books aloud. She loved his voice. At night he lay close, holding her to him in the darkness.

As the short days and long nights passed Joss grew weaker and kept to her bed. Her energy seemed to be draining away. She began to suspect she was not going to get better, that whatever was wrong with her had the upper hand. She now doubted the doctor’s diagnosis. Tests could produce false negatives, doctors made mistakes. Day followed day as she put off making another appointment.

One morning, as the winter sun streamed through the window, thoughts that had been vague and unformed crystallized in her mind. He was sitting on the bed. She took his hand and stroked his fingers, turning the silver skull ring he always wore so its empty gaze faced her. At last she looked into his grave eyes.

‘I’ve worked out who you are,’ she said. ‘Not just my last lover…when you were outside the doctor’s, you were waiting for me, weren’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘You came to get me. Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Most people don’t want to know.’

Joss smiled and put her arms round him. A tear ran down her face.

‘Is this it, then?’

‘Yes. I’ll miss you, Joss.’

‘Kiss me.’

Their lips met for the last time. She clung to him and none of it mattered any more, everything faded to insignificance and was past and done with, life became as insubstantial as a sigh. He laid Joss back on to the pillow and gently closed her eyes, then collected his few belongings and let himself out of the flat.

* * *

It was a small gathering at Joss’s funeral; her immediate boss and some of the girls from work, a few of her friends and some family friends of an older generation. Joss had not been a churchgoer, and the service was a perfunctory one in an ugly crematorium in the middle of a large cemetery. Sophie had brought her baby as she was still breastfeeding, and his cries expressed the pain and outrage that Sophie felt. Eventually she took the baby outside and perched on a wall till the service should be over, sniffing and groping for tissues.

She could not believe poor Joss was dead. She wished she had seen more of her in the past year, but she’d been so busy with the children and the new extension. She’d planned to have her to stay when it was finished, had even decided (before hearing about the new man) who she would invite to dinner that Joss might fancy. Joss should have got married and had children, it was such a waste.

People trickled out into the thin sunshine.

‘I’m Camilla, I used to work with Joss. You must be Sophie. Joss used to talk about you sometimes, and the children. It’s terrible, isn’t it, first her sister dies then the same thing gets her?’

Sophie hesitated. There was no one else to ask. ‘Did Joss say anything to you about a new man in her life? I thought he would be here.’

Sophie had looked in vain among the other mourners for the gorgeous man Joss had described in her last phone call.

‘Yes. She sounded dead keen on him. He moved in with her really fast. But it was a bit funny, you know…did you know I found her?’ Their boss had sent her round on her way home to see why Joss hadn’t come back to work. When she got no answer, she’d tried a neighbour who had turned out to have a spare key to the flat.

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yes…it was awful. She was in bed, quite peaceful, but there was no sign of anyone else. Nothing.’ Camilla wouldn’t say it, but she had wondered whether the man was a figment of Joss’s imagination.

Sophie shifted the baby to her other arm, and glancing up noticed near the cemetery gates a man in dark glasses and black leathers getting on to a big black motorbike. A subdued roar came from its engine as he accelerated into the distance. He wasn’t wearing a crash helmet on his dark hair.