Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Quills, typewriters and Word

I had a brilliant idea while mulling over how to get more depth and layers into Rising Fire. I would draw a map! Several maps of the main cities, maybe one showing the three kingdoms! And not just boring old modern maps, I would make them look like something from the 11th century, with quaint thumbnails of dragons and palaces and swineherds. And I would write in medieval-style script.

I could post it on my website.

So I went on the internet and looked up medieval maps, illustrated manuscripts, and calligraphy.

Luckily I had some goose and swan quill feathers to make a pen. (Since you ask, they are used for laying down ground enamels before firing). I trimmed one with a scalpel, tracked down a bottle of ink that had been minding its own business quietly in a drawer for fifteen years, and got started. Several hours later I stopped.

Now I'm not saying I couldn't make a beautiful map if I tried. I'm pretty sure I could. I just can't spare the weeks it would take to get it right; learning along the way calligraphy and the application of gold leaf. I'll do it if I ever get rich enough to take time off.

But it got me thinking about the production of books. Scribes, writing with a coal fire below their desks to dry the ink as they worked; using feathers from the left wing of the bird, as they curved conveniently for a right-hander; devastated by any mistake, which could not be corrected, but only marked in red to indicate an error.

Then the invention of the printing press; but an author still had to write the manuscript by hand. The typewriter was a huge advance, but the enormous labour of producing a neatly-typed, revised novel meant that anyone who accomplished this was serious about it, and likely to be read by a publisher, and receive a two page letter explaining a rejection.

You know what I'm going to say next. These days, with the advent of personal computers and Word, it is child's play for anyone to produce something that resembles a book.

And an awful lot of people do.

I have great sympathy for the literary agents struggling with stacks of bad novels endlessly doing the rounds ('you've got to be persistent, look at JK Rowling') and even more sympathy with the unpublished good writers, unable to be heard above the cacophony.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Alas, Oneword is no more

It was great, and now it's gone...

As a jeweller, I do a lot of work which uses only a part of my mind. The spare bit of mind gets bored easily, but it's quite specific in its requirements. It hasn't the capacity, for instance, to work on plots or characters in my writing; that would detract from the wax modelling or polishing. No, what it wants is something absorbing to listen to on the radio.

Radio 4 is not as good as it once was; BBC7 devotes all afternoon to children's broadcasting, with its strangely manic children's presenters (what are they on, one wonders?) Then I discovered Oneword.

Oneword serialized a variety of books, had lively film reviews and best of all, Paul Blezard's author interview programme, Between the Lines. Paul Blezard (see the photo) is a man of great charm and enthusiasm, who had always read the book he was talking about. He appears in my short story, Showing Them. I wasn't able to ask his permission, but am sure he is too nice to mind.

Another good thing about Oneword; there were virtually no distracting adverts.

And that, I suppose, is the reason Channel 4 returned for £1 the 51% stake it acquired in the station for £1 million in 2005.

If I go now to my Oneword preset, the station is broadcasting a recording of the dawn chorus.

I do miss it.

Saturday, 19 January 2008


Thinking about my heroine, Tor, passing as a man...

A man dressed as a woman is comic, which is why we have the tradition of pantomime dames and Dame Edna Everage. Few males over the age of sixteen can wear female clothes without appearing risible. One's heart bleeds for transsexuals, so many of whom are never going to convince anyone they are even a very plain woman. This in spite of going the whole hog with hair, makeup, nails, tights and handbags in a way most women simply don't bother about.

But a girl cross-dressing; different kettle of fish. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Annie Lennox were all wildly attractive in drag. Plus there's the fact that right up till recent times in the West, men had the power. Dressing like a man borrowed some of that power.

And in fiction... First there are the tomboys, every girl's favourite character in the book (what girl in her right mind wants to be Meg or Wendy?) Jo in Little Women, chopping off her hair and never able to be 'ladylike'; George in The Famous Five, always pleased to be mistaken for a boy, and rowing her dinghy better than Julian or Dick. Or Viola in Twelfth Night, falling in love while inconveniently disguised as a man, and finding Olivia is attracted to her. Shakespeare made full use of the gender ambiguities in the situation, which brings me on to...

Blackadder. The episode where Edmund Blackadder falls for 'Bob', a girl lightly disguised in doublet and hose, working as his servant. He is somewhat disconcerted by this, so goes to see the doctor:

Doctor: Now then, what seems to be the trouble?
Edmund: Well, it's my manservant.
Doctor: I see. Well don't be embarrassed if you've got the pox. Just pop your manservant on the table and we'll take a look at him.
Edmund: No, I mean, it is my real manservant.
Doctor: Ah, ah. And what is wrong with him?
Edmund: There is nothing wrong with him. That is the problem. He's perfect, and last night I almost kissed him.
Doctor: I see. So you've started fancying boys then, have you?
Edmund: Not boys. A boy.
Doctor: Yes, well let's not split hairs. It is all rather disgusting and naturally you're worried.
Edmund: Of course I'm worried.
Doctor: Well, of course you are. It isn't every day a man wakes up to discover he's a screaming bender with no more right to live on God's clean earth than a weasel. Ashamed of yourself?
Edmund: Not really, no.
Doctor: Bloody hell! I would be. But still, why should I complain? Just leaves more rampant totty for us real men, eh?
Edmund: Look, am I paying for this personal abuse or is it extra?
* * *
Blackadder scripts written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

ABNA update

The ups and downs of an upublished author...

This morning I came in to find an email from April Hamilton, a fellow entrant on ABNA, which is so kind I'm going to quote it in full;

'I'm disappointed to find Trav Zander didn't make the semis. I read some of it and thought it was eminently worthy of advancement. As you yourself said in your Amazon blog, sometimes it just comes down to a poor pairing between the manuscript and the reviewer. In any event, this is just one small pothole in a long road, and you're already a seasoned traveller, already making your way in other venues and competitions. Don't let it get you down, and remember, in the end all but one of us ABNA'ers are destined to lose this contest. Take a day off to feel bad if you must, but then, it's right back to the keyboard with you!- April'

Which was a nice way to discover I didn't make the semi-finals.

By the way, I've just read April's entry and it's excellent and made me laugh - do read it here and write her a review.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Rising Fire's professional critique on Youwriteon

I'm pleased as Punch and Judy...

Today Rising Fire got its free literary critique on Youwriteon, that I won for being in the top five at the end of November. It was written by Gillian Stern, who works as an editor at Bloomsbury and Curtis Brown. I'm quoting two extracts, the first praise, the second some of her suggestions.

'In my job personal taste is irrelevant, but I can tell you that fantasy is not my favourite genre. However, happily for me, the extract of your novel is totally accessible and appealing and I found myself hooked and really enjoying the experience of reading it. I like the way in which you write and I like the voices and the characterisation and nothing about the writing or the story is complicated or inaccessible or difficult to take in. In fact once I got into the narrative, I was absolutely swept along – something I really did not expect.'

'My main criticism is that while all these good things are good, I felt that your writing is a little simplistic – not the style, but the layering within the writing. By this I mean that as a reader, I constantly wanted to know more – more about the time and place, more about the cultural, social and political context of the time and more, much more of Tor’s internal dialogue. The fantasy market is crowded and readers are used to complex plots, ideas and imaginings and in order to be satisfied, they need something satisfying and new. And I feel that, apart from your accessible style and the relationship you set up between Tor and Xantilor and of course your plot turns, there is not all that much that is earth shatteringly new here, little that would make an editor sit up and see this above all the other proposed novels on their desk.'

Gillain Stern's advice will be extremely helpful in my next revision. I've just finished one revision, but knew it needed more work, and I could do better. Onwards and upwards.

(If you'd like to read the whole review, it's on my website).

Friday, 11 January 2008


Guy Saville's soon-to-be-published thriller

My fellow Youwriteon-er, Guy Saville, had his exciting novel, The Africa Reich, chosen as Youwriteon Book of the Year in 2007, a huge achievement. I've only read the first few chapters, and can't wait till it is published this year so I can read the rest.

You can read about it at his website The Africa Reich.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Diaries – write now, enjoy in the years to come...

I urge you all to write a diary. A proper one, with pen and ink, not a blog. It is unwise to be frank and indiscreet in a blog, but essential in a diary. Years on, it will remind you of entertaining details you have long forgotten. And it’s excellent practice in observation and use of English.

Here are two extracts which may encourage you. Not from my own diary, because of the frank and indiscreet thing. They were both written by my daughter when she was seven. She loved her school. It was a friendly place where more socializing, arts and crafts went on than science, history or geography. Mogg was the headmistress.


Today in the afternoon it was a desrster in the lavchry.

All because of Luc and Luke. Luc started it because he said “hay it would be funny if oun of us throed a looroll over the prtishon and then Luke said what like this and throed a looroll over prtishon. Then Amelia came upstairs with a lode of driping paint brushes. So now the lavchry is patey AND loorolley.

Do you thing that is afall? Mog did eney way.

Thursday 24/10

I whent to a Halween party. It achly terned out a dsrster. Evrey one amyrerd my coshoom (except horied Veictoryer). Luke was in a bad mood and the fier warks were to loud. After all that was over it straed raing (the ending to evrey outdoor party in my pont of veiw). My mumy made a costuem for Spot.'

[Spot was, and is, Minty’s much-loved soft toy dog. See photo.]

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

I don't believe a word of it! (And you can't make me).

Five unbelievable characters in fiction

1. The eponymous hero in Little Lord Fauntleroy, which is one of those books people feel they have read when they haven’t. It’s actually rather a good read, but the Little Lord himself is like no real boy has ever been; so cherishing of his mother, and slow to pick up on what everyone thinks of his bullying old grandpa.

It's his cissy clothes, which started a trend in America at the time (see photo) that everyone thinks of in connexion with him. I found a frankly worrying picture of LLF, with excessive ringlets, velvet and lace, astride another boy, that I have spared you.

2. Lyra, in The Praise Singer by Mary Renault. Lyra is a totally bogus depiction of a high class whore. This is not my area of expertise, but whatever hetairai were like, I am convinced they weren’t like this. And I’m one of Mary Renault’s biggest fans.

3. Esther Summerson in Bleak House. Beguilingly written, indeed one of my favourite characters in the book, but again, fake. Prepared to marry one man out of duty and gratitude, when she is in love with another... So good, loving, and modest. A fictional construct.

4. Harry Potter. Unloved since he was a baby, brought up by the ghastly Dursleys, yet he turns out well-adjusted and nice. Improbable.

5. Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. Carrying a weight of symbolism on his frail shoulders, he is E.M.Forster's lone unsuccessful forray into the lower classes. Better in the Merchant Ivory film, as fleshed out by the actor Samuel West.

Who would you nominate?