Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Getting stuck - and unstuck

I've been stuck with the sequel to Heart of Bone; largely because I haven't had the time to sit down and persist until I know what I'm doing. I like everything I've written, but all is not well. You know what they say about eggs and bacon? The hen's involved, the pig's committed. I've got to chapter six, and my heroine Caz is the hen when she should be the pig. Something has to change.

I always hope the solution to this sort of problem will come in a flash to me while I shop at Waitrose, or bike home, or queue in the Post Office, but actually it seldom does. I think it was Kingsley Amis who said, you need to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are many ways one can, in Holly Lisle's words, mug the Muse.
  • Keep saying, What would happen if... until you strike gold
  • Do some research into your characters' interests, or where they live
  • Write a short story or a poem as a creative break
  • Read a good novel
  • Look for loose ends that you can turn into something new
  • Re-assess what's at stake for each character
  • Write a letter from each character to yourself

I've just done this with one character, Jasper Egan. He turns out to be rather rude.

Hi Lexi,

You don’t know much about me, do you? Any more than Caz does. I find that quite amusing – after all, I wouldn’t exist but for you.

Let’s see what you do know about me. My name, of course – though I happen to know, you really wanted to call me J***** D***** after that writer you’ve got some grudge against, but you haven’t quite got the bottle to pinch his whole name, have you? And you’ve got some idea of what I look like. Tall and not bad-looking, I think sums it up. And late thirties, which you refer to as being an older man. From Caz’s point of view, this, hardly from yours. Plus I’m a rich and successful artist, whose art isn’t quite as repellent as you find most modern art...

I'm going to stop him right there. He gets more offensive, and it's a spoiler.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

Wishing a
Happy Christmas
to all my blog readers - and may all of us who are unpublished writers find our very own agent and publisher in 2010.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Ereaders - so what do you think?

I'm waiting for the next generation of ereaders, the ones that will be better designed and cost less than £100. (I'm not cheapskate, just...not rich.) I'm also waiting for publishers to acknowledge that ebooks should be way cheaper than conventional books, as they cost so much less to produce, and nothing to store or transport.

At under £100, I'd have bought one for my daughter's Christmas present; she's an avid reader but hasn't got her own home or car yet, and books are terribly heavy to move about. She runs out of books to read, and the ability to instantly download a novel when you want it is just what she needs.

Like many people, she's not keen on ereaders. She likes proper paper books. But I'm sure a good ereader would convert her, and I'm equally sure that they will take a big share of the market, given time. And this opens up opportunities for indie authors. Right now, Eric Christopherson with his exciting thriller, Crack-Up, is taking advantage of the new technology to offer his book direct to the public on Amazon at a bargain price, is selling significant numbers, and making a decent profit per download.

If he can do it, others can, and will.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

IZE versus upstart ISE

One of my favourite Muriel Spark novels is A Far Cry from Kensington, with a backdrop of London publishing in the 1950s. (It also tells you all you need to know about losing weight: the heroine realizes she is grossly fat, starts eating the same as before, but half, until she reaches a normal size). There is a blackmailer in the book, who is identified by his unusual spelling of 'organizer'. He spells it 'organiser'.

Not so long ago in England, all words incorporating the Greek suffix ize, were spelled with a z; so realize, civilize, ostracize. Other words like surprise, advise and surmise, having no connection with the Greek suffix, were not spelled with a z.

I stick to the traditional spelling, which also has the advantage of lessening the gap between us and Americans (damn that Webster). But so prevalent has the ise variant become, that I am often told off for 'using American spelling'.

The Oxford University Press and I are as one on this. Can I persuade anyone to join us?

Friday, 27 November 2009

See the books people buy as they do it!

I am a fan of the Book Depository, because its prices are cheap and delivery is free.

Today I ordered a book on hen-keeping for my daughter as she has the crazy idea of keeping a couple of hens in the garden of her student digs. (I have a nasty feeling they will end up on my Hoxton balcony eating all my plants).

And I discovered they have a live webpage which flags up sales as they occur on a map of the world. Self-sufficiency Hen Keeping flashed up on the screen with a tiny Union Jack, before whizzing off to a James Herriot sale in Australia.

At busy times it's strangely compulsive viewing. I can imagine if one is an author with a popular book out, one would stay riveted to it for hours, counting the sales.

Take a look, here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Self-publishing: the future?

Today I want you to consider the following facts:

  • Agents and publishers are getting more and more risk-averse; reluctant to take on new authors unless they are 100% certain of an early financial return.
  • Print-on-demand books these days are relatively cheap, and of a quality indiscernible from a traditionally-published book.
  • E-readers are set to become popular. Though Amazon is coy about revealing figures, estimates suggest they sold half a million in a year; compare that to the 378,000 iPods sold in its first year.
  • Publishers charge an absurdly high rate for e-book downloads.

I'm scenting a change in the wind. Good writers I know, fed up with rave rejections, are beginning to talk about self-publishing and e-publishing as a possibility they might consider, in spite of the fearsome task of marketing this would involve.

Yesterday Ray Rhamey, well-known for his blog Flogging the Quill, announced that he is to self-publish his novel The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles, because he fears the current vampire craze will have expired before he finds a publisher.

And not for the first time, I'm thinking that it will only take one novel, that happens to be self-published, to be mega-successful, and the face of publishing will change forever.

(A final thought - publishers love celebrity novels, which come with buyers ready-made. Who will be the first canny celebrity, I wonder, to twig that he doesn't need an agent or a publisher, but can hire an editor, self-publish and keep all the profits for himself?)

Friday, 13 November 2009

A modest blogging award which involves some work

Thanks to Sandra Patterson for including me in this harmless ponzi scheme with its delightful floral award (see far left).

It comes at a price: what I have to do is choose seven deserving bloggers, who then:

1. Copy and paste the award picture at the top of this post onto their own blogs, thank the person who gave them the award and post a link to her blog

2. Write seven things about themselves we do not know

3. Choose seven other bloggers to award, link to those bloggers, and notify them.

(Eventually, I guess, every single blogger in the whole world will be the proud possessor of this award.)

Seven Things About Me You Do Not Know
  • I have waved from the window of 10 Downing Street, and was disconcerted when a) the group of children outside all waved back and b) Tony Blair noticed me doing it.

  • I am taller than you think I am.

  • I catch spiders in my flat with a glass and postcard and release them to the wild, or as wild as it gets in Islington. (Did they contribute to the mortgage? No.)

  • I wore black throughout the nineties.

  • My ancestor, Alice Dick, was burnt as a witch.

  • I have to look up practise/practice every time because I never remember which is which.

  • All knowledge of geography was wiped from my brain by an evil geography teacher called Miss Henderson.

    My Seven Chosen Bloggers: all worth a read
  1. Alan Hutcheson
  2. Norm Benson
  3. Spinster of this Parish

  4. Tom Raymond
  5. Katherine Robb

  6. Rod Griffiths

  7. Self-publisher

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Writing pleasure and pain

I'm listening to Vaughn William's Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. It's a piece of music that I associate with my first book, Torbrek and the Dragon Variation, and I am reminded of the pure visceral pleasure of writing it; the innocent thrill of creation, unequalled since. It all went straight down on to the page, reckless POV shifts, authorial interjections, slabs of backstory; nothing got between me and the intoxicating sensation of story telling.

These days I'm a much better writer. But that huge first joy is lost; not so much because I'm aware of technical concerns that went right over my head when I was a novice, but because of the consciousness of the near impossibility of getting published these days. You not only have to write a book people will want to read; you have to get that book on to the desk of an agent at precisely the moment she is hoping for a book like yours to arrive, and that's tricky.

I know, from the feedback I've had from agents, that my third novel, currently called Heart of Rock, is in the top 5% of the slushpile. I'm sending it out on its second wave of submissions. Can I just tip it over the edge? I don't know.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The terrible pull of the cliché...

A father in Waitrose to his small son, 'We'll find it, they sell everything here.'

Small son, reaching for and finding a grown-up phrase, 'They sell anything and everything, don't they, Dad?'

The boy's simple pleasure in this cliché is all too common among adults, including those who write for a living and should know better. The journalist who describes something as weird and wonderful, the delighted new author talking about what a rollercoaster ride it is to publication, the unpublished writer who pens a strangely familiar plot summary:

When mysterious forces from beyond the grave threaten life as we know it, Scarran must face his own demons and risk everything to rescue the woman he loves from a tangled web of deceit without becoming a target himself - but can he right an old wrong before it is too late? His task seems straightforward - but is it?

A story of love, murder and mayhem.

I'm sure none of my blog readers are ever guilty of using such reach-me-down expressions...are you? I'd better admit right now, I once wrote she woke with a start.

I can only apologise, and promise never to do it again.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Do you write like a man or a woman?

I've just discovered a fascinating site called The Gender Genie. You paste more than 500 words of your writing into a box, and the site analyzes it and tells you whether you write like a woman or a man.

I tried it with the first chapter of Heart of Rock (was Catch a Falling Star) and the first chapter of Heart of Bone, my work in progress. Interesting results:

Heart of Rock: Female: 3345 Male: 3986 - I write like a man.

Heart of Bone: Female: 2597 Male: 2561 - I write like a woman (just).

Have a go and let me know how you get on.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The slush pile switch, and its consequences...

Time was, when you'd finished your novel, you would submit it directly to publishers, who, if your book was good (or passable, but they thought you'd write excellent ones in the future) would give you a contract. These days, overwhelmed by the size of the slush pile since the advent of the PC, most publishers leave the task of sorting through the slush to agents. They no longer accept unagented submissions.

For new authors, this is a Bad Thing, for two reasons:

1. There are now two hurdles to leap where there used to be one

2. Agents naturally prefer to take on writers who are going to earn a big advance

Most writers I know would be pleased to get a publishing deal of any sort (MacMillan New Writing, which offers twelve basic contracts a year with no advance, receives 500 submissions a week). But an agent would be unenthusiastic about such a deal; if she can't see immediate profit for herself, forget it.

So the publishers are missing out on good books judged by agents not to be flavour of the month, or sufficiently commercial - and let's not forget, this is something they frequently get wrong. Many best-sellers have had a terrible struggle to get into print, and other books which gained a six-figure advance have gone on to disappointing sales. I think publishers need to reclaim the initiative.

The current situation is rather as if I decided I was fed up with going round the West End looking for new clothes. I'd appoint someone to do it for me, and pay her 15% of the cost of each suitable garment she found. Would she battle with the crowds to seek out the odd terrific pair of boots in Primark, costing £22? Or go to Selfridges and select a pair for £295?

Which would be to her advantage? And would I be better off?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

There are two types of writers... today I am going to write about the published, the unpublished, and the huge divide that exists between them.

The writers I mix with, and they are mostly the ones who read my blog, are unpublished. Some of them have an agent, some don't; some are on their first book, and others have written three or four. Many of their books are works in progress, and a few are so brilliant I can't believe publishers aren't fighting over them. As we keep being told, times are hard in publishing, budgets are being cut and it's more difficult than ever to break into print. Small wonder, then, that those who do manage to cross the great divide become a little smug.

'I got published because I wrote a damn good book and sent it out with a first-class query letter,' a new about-to-be-published writer will say, flushed with pride and success. The implication being that, if your book was good enough, it too would get a deal.

I wish this were true. While there are, of course, many dire novels in the slush pile, some of today's best novels will never sit on a bookshop shelf, because their authors lack the thick-skinned persistence required to endure the pain of rejection after rejection. They start thinking the agents are right about their book. They give up.

Let me tell you about Patricia J Delois, who wrote a novel called Bufflehead Sisters. She sent it out to two agents who rejected it. Discouraged, she gave up. A friend told her about YouWriteOn, and she joined. Her book became YWO Book of the Year, and was self-published by YWO. Astonishingly (or not - she's a good writer) she sold over a thousand copies. And was picked up by Penguin. She says herself she had 'dumb luck'. Without YWO she would not have been published.

If I ever cross that great divide, I vow not to be smug; to remember that better writers than I languish unpublished; and that I have been very, very lucky.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Indents in a manuscript

Ever since I started my fourth book, I've been fretting gently about indents.

I've always done them in Word by setting a margin and pressing Enter for a new paragraph. When I loaded my novel on Authonomy, the indents disappeared. I noticed that some books on there have indents, and worked out why: it's because their authors used Tab instead. I did some research. Not much information out there, but one editor said using Tab made it easier for an editor to adjust the formatting.

Should I change with my new novel? (Too late to alter the old ones. Can you imagine going through 80,000 words of text, switching the indent on each paragraph? Aaagh.) So I asked the advice of two writers whose opinion I respect. One said yes, the other no. I went on with the fretting, as my novel grew.

Today I was reading about epublishing, which has arrived in America but not yet here. It's probably going to be big in the future. I took a look at Smashwords, and on their style guide it says, among other things: DO NOT USE indents made with spaces or tabs (the most common bad habit of all authors).

So now I know.

Monday, 21 September 2009

LitMatch, or as it will soon be known...

...I'm just teasing you. I shall not be telling you what it will be called.

As a beta member of the new, improved LitMatch site there are some things I cannot disclose. Really exciting, shiny, secret things you'd be fascinated by if only I was at liberty to tell you.

Sorry about that.

I can say that the site looks very nice, and is not at all orange like the old one.

(Go here for more information from Christopher Hawkins, LitMatch's originator.)

UPDATE: I can now reveal, the new name is AUTHORADVANCE! See link in the sidebar.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Updating the website

I've got a website for my writing, started a couple of years ago with a view to being prepared for when I was published (ah, how little I knew back then...) I used Squarespace, because their templates are so elegant. I did a special header with little dragons, because I was writing fantasy in those days, and thought it looked pretty cool.
Then Squarespace updated their options, changing the interface and making the template I'd used obsolete. It was V4, and they'd progressed to V5. I knew it would take time to come to terms with the new system, and kept putting it off - though it had to be done. And so yesterday I gritted my teeth and did it. I switched to a template intriguingly called Incident at Gate 7, and am very pleased with it. The layout is simple and spare, and does the job. I've updated all the pages, and added one for my current book.
I've left a few very small dragons like the one above, as page closers, for old times' sake.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Inspiration and long, hot baths

When do you get your best ideas? You know the solution to your novel's current problem is there, somewhere in your deep subconscious, laid down by a lifetime's observation and thought; but sometimes it's hard to get at it.

An idling brain seems to work best. Driving a familiar route is good, if you are alone. I've often pulled over to jot down the bones of a scene. But baths are best. A solitary soak seems to let my mind range free better than anything else.

Paper and pen beside the bath is essential, though, if you don't want to have to leap out and dry yourself hastily before the idea, as volatile as a dream, evaporates.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Mystery crickets, truth in fiction

Over the years on my London workshop balcony I've had waves of different creatures, some more welcome than others. One year mice ate all my lobelia; I've had a couple of outbreaks of slugs, and waves of sparrows were followed by blue tits then blackbirds. I once saw a sparrowhawk. All very interesting.

But this spring for the first time ever I heard the gentle stridulation of crickets. Though I couldn't find them among the plants, I was quite excited (Chris Tarrent used to say he liked a woman who was easily excited) and added them, for a bit of extra atmosphere, to the scene in Catch a Falling Star where Caz and her friends have a birthday supper on her roof terrace in Hoxton.

This week the crickets were still there, chirping away, as I thought. Then realization dawned that the intermittent squeaking came, not from insects, but from one of those cheap circular plastic fans set in a window pane on a nearby building (you can see it in the photo). I went to the National Biodiversity Network site and looked up the distribution of crickets. According to their map, they are in Islington, but not in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area.

I wondered if I should remove the reference to them in my novel. In the end I didn't. Caz, after all, lives in a slightly better version of reality; akin to a Richard Curtis film, where friends are funnier, weather more interesting, and life is never dull. She has the crickets; I, alas, don't.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Revision - is there no end to it?

No, probably not, is the answer to that. Death or publication are the only means of stopping me tweaking my novels. Each time I look at them I find new things I can improve. (Which is quite encouraging, really, as it must mean my writing is getting better.)

I am not alone in this. Jasper Fforde says, 'If it were possible I'd be around Waterstones with a pot of glue and replacement pages and perhaps after that knocking at your front door with a bottle of Tippex and a pen, "Excuse me, my name is Jasper Fforde. Do you have a copy of 'The Eyre Affair' by any chance? I've spelt Steller's sea cow incorrectly and I was wondering..."'

I've been revising Trav Zander. I've done five chapters so far. What I am getting rid of mostly are:
  • Unnecessary speech tags, often where I also have a description of what the character is doing which tells the reader who is speaking.

  • Bits that tell the reader what is going to happen, instead of just letting the story unfold.

  • 'He thought' or 'she thought' - generally a sign the writing is under par (thank you, Alan). There are better ways of getting the information across.

  • Deleting 'that' if it's not necessary and there is more than one.

  • And word echoes, my bane - I'm still picking those out, but at least now I have help at hand with Autocrit. It's astonishing; I must have been over Trav twenty times, including reading the whole thing out loud, and I've still missed some repeat words. I recommend Autocrit for anyone with the same problem; it costs $47, and you can try it free first.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Form an orderly line, please

Today I am touting for followers. Would you like to follow this blog, with all the exciting benefits that brings?

(No, I don't know what they are, either. But please do.)

Just scroll down the sidebar until you come to the Followers bit, and sign up.


Thursday, 13 August 2009

Advice for unpublished authors

  • Under no circumstances whatsoever, ask a non-writing friend if she would like to read your novel. She wouldn't, but she can't tell you that. She will see it as a chore, and worry about what to say if, as she suspects, it turns out to be terrible.

  • Try not to mention you are writing a book, even when you are totally caught up in its toils and unable to think about anything else. Nobody wants to know.

  • If you find you have inadvertently ignored my second bit of advice, then be ready with a succinct answer to the question, 'What's it about?' With TORBREK and the Dragon Variation, I would find myself saying, as their eyes glazed over, 'Well, it's fantasy, but not standard fantasy as the characters talk normally, and there aren't any elves or anything; it's set in an alternative Middle Ages with dragons, and it's about this girl who discovers that she's not only a Dragon Master, but that the black jewelled dagger her grandfather left her means she is...'

  • If an agent should express interest in your novel, DO NOT TELL ANYONE. Well, all right, you can tell ONE writing friend. That is all. Because your non-writing friends will not understand how thrilled you are, and will be tepid in their congratulations; and you will have to tell your writing friends the bad news later if it comes to naught, and they will understand how depressed you are...

Monday, 3 August 2009

An insight into platforms...

I ran my daughter to Bristol yesterday - she had too much baggage for the coach. She's already accumulating books, something that's crazy to do until either you own a flat or a car, as they are so heavy to transport. Her bookcase can't hold them all, and I idly looked through the excess piled on top.

'Ooh, can I borrow this?' I said. The book I'd found was Flying Under Bridges, by Sandi Toksvig. I'd picked it because Sandi Toksvig, as The News Quiz's chairman, makes me laugh.

Then I realized what I'd done. I'd selected a novel on the basis of the author's success in another, unrelated field. Just what publishers expect the public to do; the reason why an actor/television gardener/pop star can get his first novel published while better, unknown writers cannot even get an agent.


Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Starting the sequel

I'm probably crazy, starting to write the sequel to a book I haven't sold yet; but I've been thinking about it on and off for a month or two, and writing notes, and the impulse to get the first page down on Word became too much for me. Also, I've noticed I'm happier when I have a novel in progress.

So three days ago I began once more the scary, rewarding business of writing a novel. (I use the word business loosely, since no one is paying me for this. The rewards are purely creative. As yet.)

I've written just over a thousand words. Only 74,000 - 79,000 more, and I'll have a book.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Just what you're after...or maybe not.

I've just been marvelling at my Keyword Analysis on Statcounter.

There are some visitors whom I know I must have disappointed. Like the men - I'm somehow certain of their sex - who were looking for Girls Tied to Torture Rack, or Men and Woman Sex Move, or Sexi Lexi Make it a Double. Frankly, I don't care that they slunk away from this blog with their vile urges unsatisfied. (By the way, isn't it a good thing I don't write under my real name, Lexi Dick? I'd get such quantities of sad, furtive souls dropping by that my Google ranking would rocket from its current 3/10. Hmm...)

A surprising number of people come here having googled Describe the iPod. Perhaps it is frequently set as a school essay? The Most Annoying Fictional Character is popular, too, as is Metaphors and Free Rice.

But the outright winner, with more than thirty hits, is One Space or Two after a Full Stop. I do hope those visitors found my post on the subject helpful.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P.S. What is the leopard for? I felt it was time for an illustrated post. That's all.

Friday, 10 July 2009

LitMatch Advisory Panel

I use Litmatch to track my submissions to literary agents, so when they asked for people to comment and help to improve it, I volunteered. And yesterday I was pleased to hear I'm on the panel.

I'd recommend it to any writer looking for representation. It's a handy way of sourcing appropriate agents, and logging your submissions, and updating them as the replies come in. You can see statistics for individual agents; their response times, and whether anyone has been asked to send the full typescript. It's totally free.

And it's good to know that Christopher Hawkins is actively seeking to make his site even better.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

A short quiz...

Will you succeed as a novelist?

  1. How much have you written?

  2. I've begun several books, but not finished any.
    I've got one or two completed books on my hard drive, and another I'm writing now.
    Well, I haven't started yet, but how difficult can it be? All I need is the time to do it.

  3. What's your view on grammar, spelling and punctuation?

  4. The spellchecker is a lifesaver, but everyone makes the odd mistake. No one expects an unpublished writer to get everything right.
    I take pride in getting my typescript as perfect as I can.
    Typo's, grammer ect. dont matter if the story is good enough, thats what i think. Publisher's have editor's to take care of minor stuff like that for there writer's. Why do people love to nitpick? why can't they focuss on whats really important.

  5. You've finished your novel, and are bursting with pride. You ask a friend to read it. She's quite critical, and makes several suggestions for changes.

  6. That woman is no longer my friend. In fact, do you have the phone number of a contract killer on you?
    Oh. I'll go through it again. Maybe some of what she says is right. Nice of her to be honest with me.
    My book is my baby! She's wrong, and she'll see that once I've explained it to her. The first chapter may be a bit slow, but you have to know all that stuff about the will in order to follow the plot...when you get to chapter five, the pace picks up...

  7. You posted your typescript to a dozen agents. You are now the possessor of twelve form rejections. Your reaction?
    I give up. It's too good for them. Bastards.
    JK Rowling got rejected a lot. I'll just keep sending it out. *grits teeth*
    Hmm...maybe it needs more work. I'll join a writers' group.

13-16 You're on your way. Can I have a signed first edition when it's published?

8-12 Honestly. You need to take this a little more seriously. Pull your socks up, stiffen that upper lip and buck up your ideas!

0-6 Oh dear. I fear there is no hope for you at all in the challenging world of books. I suggest you take up line dancing instead.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Fine. So I'm paranoid after all...

Reluctantly, I learnt a lot about copyright in the eighties because my jewellery designs were comprehensively ripped off. It's very easy to take a rubber mould and make as many copies as you like by the lost-wax process. The counterfeiters got them cast in Thailand mostly, where labour is cheap, and wholesaled them here, in silver, for less than I paid just for the casting.

Some unpublished authors worry they might have similar problems with their novels, and it's no good suggesting to them that if they can't sell the darned thing, there is no reason to suppose anyone else will be able to, and that they really have nothing to lose by making it available on the internet.

Titles, I think, are a different matter. Anyone who has struggled to find a catchy, evocative title will know just how hard it is. You come up with something good, check on Amazon Books and it's been used, often many times. One gets an insight into why some of one's favourite books have quite dull or strange titles.

Since Jade Goody used my title, Catch a Falling Star (a title that's been used before, but not for a notable book) I've been brainstorming for a new one. Yesterday, I think I found it. And no one has used it, ever.

So what is it? Well, here is where my paranoia comes in. Suppose a publisher has agreed to publish a novel, but doesn't like the title? It's up to the writer and agent to find a good new one. Fast. Go on a site like Authonomy, and you will find literally thousands of novel titles, all unpublished. Steal a title there, and it's the perfect crime; no one can prove you did it, that it wasn't just coincidence. And in any case, you can't copyright titles.

I think I'll just keep quiet about it for now.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Happy birthday, novel 3!

It's exactly a year since I started writing Catch a Falling Star. I know because I wrote a post, A book called...not sure yet (and I'm still not, since Jade Goody used my title). It's interesting to look back over the year.

When I started, I'd got pages of notes for the main characters, plot ideas, and a few photographs, but hadn't decided who the murderer was. I did know what the crucial scene at the end would be. I revise as I go; I spend a few days going over each chapter until I'm happy with it before going on to the next, so when I write THE END, it really is nearly finished.

I wrote the last chapter at the end of March, and have spent the time since obsessively tweaking, helped by kind beta readers. I write concisely then add bits, so since March the book has swollen by 1,500 words, making it a nice round 75,000. The new bits are mostly minor; the greatest change was to make the villain considerably nastier.

It's been a lot of fun to write. The penance now comes with sending it out to agents, who seem to have got slower than when I sent out Tor and Trav.

And the title...what about Rock Remix? I'm getting desperate.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Little-known facts about agents

Did you know...

  1. Literary agents derive most of their large income from steaming off the stamps on s.a.s.e.s sent to them by writers submitting their work; they either reply by email or don't reply at all. (The commission on clients' book sales, thought by the naive to be their main source of income, amounts to a negligible sum.)

  2. Agents swap the names of particularly annoying writers among themselves. Every agent has his own Black List of writers whose submissions go straight to the shredder (once their s.a.s.e.s have been removed and the stamps salvaged, that is.) Example: if you have the temerity to ring an agent who does not know you, your name will be added to this list.

  3. At most agencies, the slush pile is read monthly, in the office after hours, to the accompaniment of pizzas and plentiful alcohol. Especially dire passages of submitted work are read aloud, to great and drunken hilarity. These events are looked forward to by all agents and interns. They are one of the best perks of working in the world of books. Most agents meet their future spouses at these parties.

  4. As a new, unpublished author, you are statistically more likely to die by tripping over a red squirrel than to be offered a contract by a literary agent.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Getting published in olden days...

Yesterday I was rereading Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, and I came across this bit. Jess, a disturbed suicidal teenager, has had an uncomprehending look at a novel by Virginia Woolf, and reckons that she killed herself because she couldn't make herself understood. She goes on:

And she had some bad luck, too, if you think about it, because in the olden days anyone could get a book published because there wasn't so much competition. So you could march into a publishers' office and go, you know, I want this published, and they'd go, Oh, OK then. Whereas now they'd go, No, dear, go away, no one will understand you. Try pilates or salsa dancing instead.

I'm submitting Catch a Falling Star to agents right now. Maybe I should take up salsa dancing instead.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

How not to start a novel...

There are many ways not to start a novel. The hero waking (with a start, naturally) is bad, and gets worse if you recount the dream he's just had, then make him get up and stare in the mirror so you can let the reader know what he looks like.

Personally - and this may be to do with my gender - I am unenthusiastic about novels that begin,

He gazed through the windscreen of his Mercedes-Benz SLR, tensely clicking the Halton-Ratchett RK 41.5's safety catch, his white shirt and Graff black diamond cufflinks gleaming in the dusk...

You just know that before too many pages have passed, you'll be meeting his young, slim, full-breasted, sexually enthusiastic girlfriend. She's another bit of his kit, and with about as much personality.

Then there's the author who introduces on page one a character you warm to, only to kill him off before you reach chapter 2.

But my very least favourite first chapter has to be the one that starts with five or six characters sitting round a table; each one says or does something in turn, and in order to get any sort of grip on the story you have to memorize them. It's hard work. Was it Gina who had the fiery red hair, the underprivileged background she's fighting to escape and a media job? Or Stacey? No, Stacey's the tall one who's just been dumped by her boyfriend and has a pet cat...

I've come across several unpublished novels with too many characters too soon, and my question is, can anyone think of a published novel that begins in this way?

Virtual prizes will be awarded.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Authonomy: multiple backing... the new friends and relatives.*

Today is the last day of the month, when, on the stroke of midnight, the top five books in the Authonomy chart get their gold star and entitlement to a critique by a Harper Collins editor. As often happens, six books are in contention for the top five places.

You may think the six authors will be sitting back at this stage, accepting that 'the wisdom of crowds' will decide the issue; that the most popular books will win.

Not a bit of it.

Imagine, if you will, you are a participant in a Britain's Got Talent where only the contestants can vote, and they can vote for as many acts as they like. What would you do? Vote for no one, so as not to help rival entrants? Vote for the acts you think are really good? Or swap votes - go to as many performers as possible and offer to vote for them, if they will vote for you, in order to amass the maximum number of votes?

It's the latter that is happening on Authonomy right now. You can see the comments a person has made on his page; how many, and whether he has backed the book he's commenting on. (Because the final sentence is invariably 'Shelved/On my shelf/Backed'.) The top six writers have backed between 40 and 120 books each in the last week alone, and the numbers are going up even as I type.

Now there are some amazingly good books on Authonomy; books I can't believe are still in search of a publisher. But, as with any slush pile, there is a lot of dross as well. It's plain that the frantic amount of swap reading/swap backing that is going on has nothing to do with the quality of the books, and everything to do with the scrabble to get to the top.

This has been going on for months. My own novel, Catch a Falling Star, was pushed out of the top five in January and February by multi-backers (I reviewed one book a day, like homework; to do more struck me as a) dubious and b) not a sensible use of my time.) It only got its gold star in March, I believe, because of an anti-Klazart backlash.

The inevitable result is that the best books are not making it to the top. Does this matter? We know that Harper Collins looks at more than the top five - in fact, by the time your book has got there, it has almost certainly been appraised and rejected. Harper Collins has only plucked one book from Authonomy so far; Coffee at Kowalski's, by Miranda Dickinson, and that was nowhere near the top of the chart. But the real benefit of the site has been agents trawling it; we know that quite a few people have been approached, and got themselves representation.

Will agents continue to watch the site if the quality of the books at the top diminishes?

It's hard to write a good book. It's easy, if tedious, to praise ten extracts a day to buy yourself ten votes, and carry on doing this for a couple of months.

Fixes have been suggested to Harper Collins. My favourite is to make a book stick to your shelf for two days once you have backed it, thus limiting votes. But, for reasons they have not explained, HC seem happy that multiple backing is now the only way to reach the top of the Authonomy chart.

* See Authonomy and the sock puppets

Monday, 25 May 2009

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Sex again, I'm afraid

Yes, once more I am addressing the tricky problem of sex in fiction. (Well, more trifling with it, really, running a finger down its silken skin, feeling a warm, pulsing... Stop! That'll do, thank you.)

In my novels I am a follower of the less is more method; on the theory that most of us have been there, done that, and know the geography. What is going through the character's mind is usually more enlightening and more interesting. Also, it's frighteningly easy to make the reader cringe or roar with laughter.

I've been on writers' forums long enough to see the same topics rotate like medieval crops, and one perennial is Post your sex scenes here. There is no shortage of writers eager to do this. Okay, so they are taken out of context, and one has to make allowances, but if I could quote some of them without hurting feelings I think you'd agree with me that the cringe/laugh factor is way higher than the wow/amazing factor.

Sandie Dent spoke for me when she said, 'Most of us like eating, most of us like sex - but if a writer described a character eating a meal in the sort of detail that most sex scenes employ... well, you can imagine...

He lifted the fork, shiny and smooth, held it tenderly in one hand. It felt good. His other hand moved rapidly towards the knife, grasping it firmly, feeling its weight. His plate was waiting.

"Christ, I love roast potatoes," he growled.

... and so on. I can't type anymore because I'm laughing too much.'

Saturday, 16 May 2009

LitMatch - a resource for writers

I've started submitting Catch a Falling Star to agents, and have discovered just how useful LitMatch is.

It's a website to help writers seeking representation. You can do an advanced search and find agents and agencies in your own country who deal with the genres you write in, and also whether they accept email submissions. It gives you their website address, and blog details if they have one. You can join for free and Track Your Submissions; see at a glance who you sent your chapters to, and how many days it is since you did.

Click on the agent's name, and you go to Response Data; how long it has taken for them to respond, and rejection/offer statistics. These are garnered from LitMatch members who use the tracking service.

It's interesting - one agent whose website says she aims to respond within seven days has an average response time of seventeen, according to LitMatch stats. The sample is quite small (ten in that example) so I urge you all to join and make the results more representative!

You can also add a comment about an agent - but I've yet to find one...writers are all too anxious not to offend, or so rude the comments have been disallowed.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Location, location, location...

I like a strong sense of place in a novel - especially if it's somewhere I know. Nick Hornby's About a Boy happens in a part of North London I'm familiar with, and I like that. Vanity Fair and David Copperfield give fascinating glimpses of how London used to be.

So my novel, Catch a Falling Star, is set in very specific parts of London. I invented Fox Hollow Yard, the picturesque cobbled yard in Hoxton where Caz has her workshop - it's a blend of French Place, Leicester Mews and Bleeding Heart Yard with a big dollop of imagination, and it's as clear to me as if I'd been there.

Most of the other locations are real, and any interested reader can 'visit' them on Google Street View (I absolutely love Google Street View). You can see the Macondo Café in Hoxton Square (pictured; it's the one with the red blind) where Caz met Phil on a grey and drizzly day. You can work out that the Clerkenwell restaurant James took her to was Hix, or follow Caz on the trek from W2 to Shepherdess Walk she made to clear her thoughts after Emma's shocking revelation about Ric.

And the nice thing is, Google Street View images were taken in the summer of 2008, when my novel is set.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Fights - on the page and hitting the floor

Did you know the fight scenes we are used to seeing on television or in films are not realistic? As well as being choreographed, they are unlike real fights in three other ways:
  1. It is clear what is happening
  2. There is plenty of action
  3. The combatants stay on their feet.

Real fights invariably end on the ground, as the fighters close in on each other and grapple, and one or both lose their footing. Once on the floor, not much appears to be going on. It's all quite undramatic.

My fight advisor, who wishes to remain nameless, tells me that disciplines like boxing or kick-boxing are not much good in the real world, as they only work while the fighter remains upright.

So both the fights at the end of Catch a Falling Star are desperate, no-holds-barred wrestling matches on the carpet. And here is a clip showing the superiority of Jitsu over lesser martial arts (the black disc is there to conceal the identity and shame of the loser):

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Backstory - wrestle it to the floor and sit on its head

In the first novel I wrote, Torbrek, I had huge problems with info dumps in the first chapter. As a novice, I had no idea anything was wrong until I joined YouWriteOn and readers told me about it. I struggled with it for months; eventually I put most of it in a prologue set three years before the start of the story - then I deleted the prologue and didn't reinstate the information.

Sometimes on Authonomy I tell a writer he has a great wodge of backstory plonked near the start of his novel. And all too often the response is along the lines of, 'The reader needs to know this because of events later in the story.' Which reader would that be, then? The one who put the book back in its jiffy bag or back on the shelf when she got to the dull bit?

Richie Dowling posted this excellent advice recently:

'My definition: "backstory" -- the relevant events in a character's life that happened before the novel (or whatever) begins. It's not the same as a character biography, where you detail everything about your character--but only use a fraction of the information in your novel.

Backstory may refer to one or two important events, which have relevance to the current story.

For example, in the film The Name of the Rose the character of William of Baskerville has an important backstory--he was a member of the Inquisition. During a trial he disagreed with the chief inquisitor, was tortured and forced to recant. As a result a man he knew to be innocent was burned at the stake.

How is the information imparted in the story? Bit by bit. There are hints of something important in William's past. I can't remember the exact sequence but the Inquisition comes to the monastery. We learn that William was once a member. Finally, when the boy is begging William to help save the girl he loves, William reveals the full story.

The key to good backstory is that it has to be dragged kicking and screaming from the characters. This is information they don't want to reveal, but the reader wants to know.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader didn't just say, "Hey Luke Skywalker, that name rings a bell, I think I'm your father." It was saved until the very end of the second film when Vader is trying to force his son to join him and overthrow the Emperor. Save the backstory for important moments in your plot, and use it to create revelations which turn scenes from good to bad or vice versa.

But then what you're doing is called a "set-up" and the reader is clever enough to spot them, which is why you have to hide your "set-ups" and have them accomplish two things. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? The opening sequence? Indy is double-crossed, betrayed, almost loses his life jumping across a pit, is chased by a giant stone ball and escapes, only to have the statue taken from him by his arch nemesis. He's then chased by a horde of spear-waving tribesmen before finally making his escape in a sea-plane. He freaks out when he sees a snake in the seat and we laugh because we think, "Boy, what a day! Everything has gone wrong for this poor schmuck and now the pilot's pet snake is in his seat!" We don't notice that this is actually set-up for later on in the film when Indy is trapped in a tomb filled with snakes.

If Indiana had merely said at some point in the film, "Geez, I don't like snakes" we would recognise it as a set-up so it wouldn't work. Disguise your set-ups by making them work hard and accomplishing at least two different things.'

Sunday, 12 April 2009

How Not to Write a Novel

I love this commercial - and what I've seen of the book is amusing, too. It's on my shopping list. Click here to read a bit on Amazon.

(I'm worried about the pink poodle's knees, though. They look all wrong.)

Friday, 10 April 2009

Voice - your greatest asset

A year ago I went with my writer friend Anna to a Romantic Novelists' Association talk, given by the agent Teresa Chris. What stuck in my mind was her emphasis on the importance of voice for a novelist.

She also wondered whether writers' groups and writers' courses conspired to make authors less individual, and damaged their voice. A novelist struggling alone in his garret was more likely to retain the unique qualities that would eventually make his work saleable.

It's interesting that Eve White, answering unpublished writers' questions, makes the same point. You can read her answers here. She says, when asked what mattered most, 'A fresh voice. Style is most important. One can learn structure and plot, but not style.'

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Gold Star for CaFS on Authonomy

Catch a Falling Star got a gold star on Authonomy today - the second one I've won on the site (the first was for Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation, though admittedly there was much less competition to get to the top of the charts in those days).

This means CaFS will receive a crit from a Harper Collins' editor at the end of April.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Wrestling with the synopsis

Having written the last chapter of Catch a Falling Star (must find a new title, damn it) I am busy tweaking it while waiting for the last of my kind readers to report back. I have also, with a reluctance that only my fellow writers will understand, begun to write the synopsis.

The problem is that a synopsis is, essentially, one's novel with all the good bits stripped out - the humour, the dialogue, the surprises - and one's characters reduced to stereotypes. What you are left with is a bare plot outline, without any of the detail that makes it worth reading. One is also obliged to reveal whodunit, and I can't believe it helps an agent to appreciate a book if she knows before she hits chapter one who the killer is.

I must try harder. I read somewhere that you should imagine you've just seen the film of your book, and you are telling a friend the plot in a pub afterwards. Maybe that would perk it up.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Shock horror at Authonomy

Yesterday evening I wrote a comment for a rather good book on Authonomy, What About the Boy?, and had trouble loading it. The site was s-l-o-w. Today I found out why.

A writer called Vineet Bhalla, username Klazart, a computer gamer, has got his friends to join and back his book. Lots of them. 697 and rising. His book is currently at 18 in the charts; his chums have now replaced all the people at the top of the talent-spotters chart - the chart that was brought in so that its algorithms would defeat people doing what Bhalla is doing. My own T-S rank has plummeted from 12 to 167.

He has demonstrated that the algorithm can only cope with people who load dozens of friends - the most one person has recruited hitherto is 150, from Facebook - it is powerless against a man who can rally the support of hundreds.

I wonder how many of the 697 have read Bhalla's book? Any of them?

Last summer, on this blog, I said that Harper Collins' encouraging people, in the F.A.Q., to get their family and friends to join Authonomy and back their book was a cheat's charter. That passage in the F.A.Q. is still there.

HC staff will come in on Monday and see what is happening to their site. I'm interested to know what their reaction will be.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
UPDATE: Harper Collins are happy with the way Bhalla has used the site, and their only concern is with the performance issues that occurred with so many extra people visiting Authonomy.
See their post here.
UPDATE 2: Harper Collins has changed the talent-spotter algorithm, to 'encourage the type of behaviour that most people here would like to see in future'.
See their post here.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Aagh, not the present tense...

Why do I get a feeling of lack of enthusiasm whenever I start to read a book written in the present tense? There seems to be more of it about these days.

I've struggled to work out its appeal for writers, and all I've come up with is that it gives a spurious significance to the mundane. So you get passages like:

She opens the steel-veneered cabinet door, and takes down the jar of instant coffee. Unscrewing the cap, she measures a spoonful of coffee granules into a mug. The kettle boils. Martha switches it off, and pours steaming water. She adds sugar and milk and stirs, wondering whether to give in to the temptation posed by the pristine packet of Hobnobs.

Gaah! Who cares? Why describe this boring stuff?

But apart from encouraging the sort of writing you might do as an exercise at a writers' class, there is, I think, another reason why my mind reels away from the present tense. The Janet and John series; frightfully dull books that children learned to read with in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Once you'd cracked Janet and John, you got on to the good stuff; what my daughter called 'chapter books' when she was small. Books that you read for pleasure, that were exciting and unpredictable.

And written in the past tense, like grown-up books.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Semicolons; some thoughts...

In my occasional series on punctuation, I have reached the semicolon.

I love semicolons; I think they give a nice balance to a sentence, and use them all the time. I think I picked them up from Mary Renault, one of my favourite authors. Editors would take them out of her books, and she would put them back, firmly. Fay Weldon hated them, and that's another stroke in their favour as far as I'm concerned.

The great Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, says, 'The sub-text of a semicolon is, "Now this is a hint. The elements of this sentence, although grammatically distinct, are actually elements of a single notion. I can make it plainer for you - but hey! You're a reader! I don't need to draw you a map!"'

One of my favourite comments on Catch a Falling Star is the following:

Sorry Lexi,

But you don’t know how to use semi colons. And when I say ‘don’t know’ I don’t mean like you’re on the verge of understanding or you’re really close to some kind of epiphany in the field of punctuation. I mean, truly and seriously, you really really don’t know how to use semi colons.

Look at the semi colon you used after the word ‘sweatshirt’. That’s not just nasty, horrific or sickening, it’s unforgivable and almost without hope of redemption. I recently taught semi colons at a grammar school in Kent. The girls appreciated it and took much away from the lesson. You should have sat in on that lesson. You would benefit greatly from a lesson like that.

Believe in yourself (I do, in my weaker moments.)


PS: Put a full stop there. A full stop will make it right forever and for always.

PPS: Sorry Lexi. I think I’ve left red stains on those cream cushions.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Brackets, the new pariah

Any writer knows that punctuation is as class-ridden as Victorian society. Exclamation marks are pariahs, commas are frequently excluded, left-wing councils attempt to banish the apostrophe altogether.

But I've only recently noticed the animus against brackets. I use them myself to denote an aside, something away from the main thread of the discourse, and think them quite handy. After several people had advised me to remove them, I started a thread on the Authonomy forum asking why. The reasons given were:
  • They look ugly

  • There are better ways to punctuate a sentence

  • They disrupt the flow of a sentence

  • They show laziness

I'm not convinced. Challenged to nominate the prettiest punctuation, if brackets were the ugliest, someone suggested the tilde (pronounced tild-uh, for those as ignorant as me). It's this one: ~ I made up a rhyme about it as follows:

There once was a writer called Hilda,
Who favoured a dash called a tilde,
She maintained that a bracket,
Could simply not hack it,
So the brackets surrounded (and killed) her.

Friday, 20 February 2009

This you will love...

If you want to roar with laughter, read my friend Alan's post here.

It's a selection of blurbs, with his comments.


Tuesday, 17 February 2009

One space or two after a full stop?

Many years ago, while I was studying A levels, I did an evening class in typing (I did another in shorthand, but that didn't stick at all). We had a good teacher, and by the end of the year I could touch type, and even had a certificate for the lowliest possible level of proficiency.

I was taught to put two spaces after a full stop, and I've done it ever since. Until last week, when the subject came up on the Authonomy forum. What changed my mind was this comment from Cameron Chapman:

I'm a copyeditor and I would beg everyone to use ONE space after a period. If you check newer style manuals, particularly the Chicago Manual of Style (for the U.S.), they specify one. The primary reason that two spaces used to be standard was because of monospace fonts (courier) on typewriters. It supposedly made it easier to read if there were two spaces between sentences since everything else was spaced exactly the same. It created a sort of "mental break".

Since copyeditors have to take out all those double-spaces before manuscripts go to the printer and we generally have to turn on the "track changes" feature in Word, even auto-replacing all those double-spaces with single-spaces creates a ton of extra work on both the copyeditor's end and the author's/editor's end. All those tracked changes come up with a comment and are marked in red in the manuscript. You can see how that would just create a practically unmanageable amount of clutter on the page.

She convinced me. I've changed the spacing in my three novels' typescripts, and am training myself to use one space as I type henceforth.

(The way to do it in Word is to click Edit, Find, Replace, and put two spaces on Find, one on Replace. Easy.)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Along the wire the electric message came... is no better, it is much the same (with apologies to Alfred Austin).

Here are two quotes from people kind enough to read and comment on Catch a Falling Star on Authonomy:

'Hi Lexi, I saw this was doing well and thought I'd come back to have another look, and... you have improved this so much - I struggled mightily with the plausibility last time, particularly in her reactions to Joe, no such problems this time though - I think in places you still 'tell' the reader too much, in her explaining para's I would try getting rid of the last sentence each time (as it added nothing but repeated previous). But this is now a great read and I can understand why so many have backed it - finally, SHELVED. Good luck.'

'Lexi,came back for another read. You've obviously worked on this and I can see a big improvement, it's tighter, smoother and flows well. Nice one. Its a process this isn't it?Anyway, I'm backing this now - good luck with it.'

The point is, I haven't changed more than a dozen or so words in the first chapters of Catch a Falling Star. The 'improvement' the two readers perceived was entirely imaginary. And I can only conclude they think the book is better because it's currently sitting in the top five of the Authonomy book chart.

Or maybe it's the new cover...

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

'Describe the iPod'

I had a review on Youwriteon recently of Catch a Falling Star. Among other advice was the terse instruction, 'Describe the iPod.'

Presumably my critic wanted me to say something like, 'He fished the tiny audio device, not much larger than a Christmas postage stamp, from his pocket, admiring its sleek silver lines, and fitted the white earphones into his ears'. But it seemed to me that if a reader hadn't come across something as ubiquitous and universal as an iPod, then frankly he should not waste his time reading further, as he would not be getting any of the cultural references in the book and would find the whole thing mystifying.

I have to admit, though, that it's one of the trickiest things in writing; what to put in and what to leave out. I'm still working on that one.

Monday, 26 January 2009

A stiff upper lip and bladder control, please

I can't be certain who started it, but my money is on Graham Greene in The Comedians in 1966. In that novel, it's an effective means of conveying just how terrifying Papa Doc's secret police, the Tonton Macoute were.

I'm talking about the hero of a novel wetting his pants under extreme stress and fear.

The same unfortunate accident happens to Tom in the excellent book Mortal Engines, when Shrike appears. But now it seems to be a routine occurrence in every other unpublished thriller that I read on Authonomy (and I've read the start of at least one novel each day since May 2008). I can't believe it's written from personal experience. I think writers are seeing it in other people's books, and thinking, ooh, that's a gritty way of demonstrating the fix my hero is in. It's become a bit of a cliché.

So the point of this post is to urge all modern heroes to pull themselves together, get a grip, and stop being big girls' blouses. It's not attractive to have a hero behave like a toddler.

You wouldn't catch Bulldog Drummond damp around the trousers.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

No good being right if everyone thinks you're wrong... fiction at any rate.

At the start of Catch a Falling Star Caz, faced with a stranger on her roof, wishes she was a black belt in Jitsu. Several readers on Authonomy have tried to correct me - surely I mean Ju Jitsu? Haven't I got it wrong?

Actually, no; and I know a bit about it as my daughter is a green belt in Jitsu. It's one of the more usefully aggressive martial arts. When you reach a certain level, being pounced on by three muggers with knives holds no terrors for you, because you can deal with them. But I have wondered whether I should give in to general ignorance and change it.

My friend Cat had something similar in her book Echoes of the Sword's Song. Anna, her heroine, fleeing from an invading force led by Slayer Redblood (my favourite character, who thinks of his achievements, 'Not bad for the son of a whore') rushes to saddle her horse, but pauses to brush dust off his back first. I said, did it matter at such a time if he was a bit dusty?

And the answer is yes. If dust and debris is left between a horse's back and his saddle, it will make his back sore.

This sort of thing, where the writer knows more than the reader, crops up all the time on the writers' sites I frequent. And I still don't know whether it's dumbing down to change little-known facts, or a necessary accommodation to the reader.