Monday, July 31, 2006

Every Picture tells a Story..........

Unfortunately, every story does not paint a picture. Perhaps it’s the insidious influence of television that does it, generally being just mush for the mind (with some notable exceptions) but just as alarmingly, candy for the eye. The need for descriptive writing is dispensed with.

That’s the impression I get from some of the manuscripts that land on my desk. They tend to be long on plot and short on background. The characters move like cardboard cut-outs against a one dimensional, rarely painted background leaving the reader (me) feeling strangely detached from the story and, in consequence, rather bored.

Filling out the characters and locations in the story does not necessarily mean the rather longwinded descriptive passages beloved by Dickens, wonderfully evocative though they are, but a character can be painted by far simpler methods. Richmal Crompton’s schoolboy William can surely be visualised by every reader of her books, even without the illustrations, and disillusion only sets in when some benighted television producer tries to turn it into a series. Good writing inspires the imagination but television can only destroy those marvellous images that can be created in the mind’s eye.

The list of these depredations is endless; Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Alice in Wonderland have all succeeded only in destroying the magic for those who have read and loved the books. Those that have only watched the TV versions are to be pitied.

There are the occasional silver linings in that adaptations of classics such as Pride and Prejudice may have led to a revival in the reading of the books. But how much better to have read the book and had the characters, backgrounds and intricacies of plot brought to life in the mind rather than spoon-fed to you at the whim of the producer.

I often feel that those who have sucked in the TV version and then gone out and bought the book have really got their priorities backwards.

Better still, read the books and turn off the television – if you aim to be a writer, you’ll be all the better for it.

Friday, July 28, 2006

What's in a name? Or title............

…….Well quite a lot it seems. Authors have fretted over the titles of their masterpieces for centuries without coming to any hard and fast conclusions as to what’s a good one and what’s a clunker.

Lulu, the self-publishing outfit, recently ran a survey which concluded, on what evidence I know not, that single word titles were not a good idea. Since Plato’s “Republic” seems to have done OK for a good few years, I’m not so sure that I go along with their hypothesis and I’m sure I can think of a good many other titles of similar brevity that have lasted.

But titles are important. I recently completed cooperating on a book whose author had chosen a title that seemed to be neither relevant or even catchy. As authors, including myself, are inordinately touchy when it comes to criticism, I refrained from questioning the choice until the job was finished when I asked, as diplomatically as possible, what on earth it meant. Thankfully, I found out that she was as unhappy with it as was I, just unable to think of a better one. We chewed it over and came up with a pretty good one, I think.

And, it consist of more than one word.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Tragedy in Lebanon

Today I must digress. The tragedy unfolding in Lebanon, unchecked by the major powers, deserves all the attention we can provide.

Last year, I was privileged to help with the life story of a delightful lady from that country. Although at the outset I thought I knew a good deal about Lebanon and Beirut, having visited several times, as usual, being intimately involved with a family from the country puts a very different aspect on matters. Perhaps the bumbling politicians who initiated the disaster in the first place ( errors which go back some 120 years, incidentally) would have done well to have had the same experience.

The Lebanese family, who are now close friends, are all safely out of the country, something which cannot be said for many of their friends and relatives.

One daughter has had the foresight to start a blog to provide information on the situation, other than that provided by the British and American press.

I urge you to take a look at

Perhaps a significant measure of the state of ignorance concerning Lebanon is revealed by one anecdote I heard whilst working on the book:

One of the daughters, at University, was asked by a fellow American student, where she was from. “Lebanon,” says she. “Oh,” he says, “I’ve never been to Ohio.”

Meanwhile Britain’s Foreign Minister is off on her caravanning holiday and her US equivalent, tired of having to defend Israel and other distasteful Middle Eastern topics, has headed for the Far East where nothing contentious is happening.

Talking it over with a very good Jewish friend, he commented: “But making people feel sorry for us is what we do best.”

It certainly seems to have worked with the US and British governments.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Short Shrift

The short story gets short shrift nowadays which is a pity, since it is such a wonderful medium to encourage the new author. Not that it’s an easy one – the short story is a demanding exercise by any standards.

The problem is that the outlet for such material has been withering away over the years and the number of magazines devoted to the short story has declined alarmingly. Those that still exist are often of the more esoteric variety and not terribly appealing to a wide readership.

So many distinguished authors cut their literary teeth on the medium that its overall value to the book world can never be underestimated. Today it seems to have lost its appeal for embryo authors, perhaps because the rewards are, by the standards of the blockbuster novel that gleams in every writer’s eye, pretty skimpy. But if an outlet can be found, what better way to get your talent before the public.

Charles Dickens presented much of his work in serial form in such magazines, one of which he rather conveniently edited himself, but perhaps the shining example was that of The Strand Magazine that ran from mid-Victorian days up until 1950.

Its distinguished list of contributors included W.W. Jacobs, P.G. Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, and W. Somerset Maugham along with Arthur Conan Doyle, whose introduction of the Sherlock Holmes stories set a precedent for the detective mystery. Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, E.C. Bentley, Edgar Wallace, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Georges Simenon all followed in his footsteps, and the magazine was sufficiently highly regarded by Queen Victoria herself that, that rather uptight monarch, was gracious enough to contribute some material.

Thus I was pleased to see that The Strand has been resuscitated under new management, and is encouraging the short story writer to contribute. More power to them for perhaps from there will come a new W.W. Jacobs, P.G. Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, or W. Somerset Maugham and perhaps that break which all new authors seek.

Their website is at

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Early Morning Start

Up at four this morning which gives me a chance to get on with the business of the day ahead of it, so to speak. Taking it by surprise I find makes it possible to goof off later on without getting those nasty pangs of conscience.

In fact, things are pretty quiet at the moment. I was able to get one editing/rewriting job away yesterday and the only thing I’m working on now is a James Bond type thriller that I’m editing for a client.

My book on the invasions of Britain is due back as a proof copy from the publisher later this week and then I’m cruising, quietly assembling material for another couple of books for later in the year. And, of course, waiting for new clients to keep some groceries in store.

Evening out the workload is something of a challenge in this business and there’s really no answer to it. Fortunately, it is one of the few professions where one can work practically anywhere, given the time, so even if you want to take an ocean cruise (I don’t) it should not interfere with the production line too much. Following the example of Winston Churchill, I sometimes forsake my office and work from bed. Using one of those hospital type over-the-bed tables and a laptop, I have a complete office set-up in some luxury and comfort.

It’s a tough job – but somebody’s got to do it!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Spam Everlasting.

Being away from your desk (sorry – newspeak says it’s a “work station” now in conformity with modern practice of using two words where there is one perfectly serviceable one available) sometimes hardly seems worth it. Apart from the surface mail, mainly bills and advertising junk that rest on your keyboard (no, I don’t have an In tray), there’s all the junk that you know is residing in your in-box, lurking there to irritate you.

What happened to all those campaigns to stop this stuff beats me. If anything, the contagion is worse than ever.

Like most sensible people, I use Mozilla Thunderbird which has some of the best anti-spam controls going, plus a pop-up blocker etc. etc. but still the stuff comes. The danger is, of course, than in your fury to dump it, you may accidentally junk something of value, so, in spite of these safeguards, you are wise to actually look and see just what is being discarded.

Then I notice that amongst all this, there are quite a few E-Mails encouraging me to add to the problem, offering to mail out a zillion letters for me for a few dollars to “prospects.”

Seems to me that whoever was supposed to be monitoring the Internet to stop this sort of abuse has fallen asleep at the switch.

So now, after a few days off interviewing a client for a forthcoming book, I’ve wasted half a day clearing up the garbage.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow – when I’ve answered all those offers of drugs to make me a new man and a hero to women, of course!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Manuscript Doctor

Editing another writer’s work might not seem to be a lot of fun – but it can be. It all depends on the quality of the original material, of course.

For the past few weeks I have been working on a couple of manuscripts that have both given me a lot of pleasure, largely because their authors have given me pretty much a free hand to dress them up for submission.

This is a very different matter from merely correcting spelling and grammatical errors which is often considered, wrongly in my view, to be the sole function of an editor.

Frequently one sees advertisements from “editors” quoting a per page figure for their efforts. Certainly I give an average number for the work on my website but this can bear no real relationship to the final figure, for which I will quote after viewing the manuscript. Makes more sense to me.

If you’ve taken the trouble to make your work as pluperfect as possible, it seems a useless exercise to pay someone for the pleasure of just looking at your pages – and then charging you for it. And, since you ask, do they really “edit” or only perform a mechanical academic exercise, i before e except after c and no split infinitives (although there are times when splitting the infinitive, unlike splitting the atom, is desirable)?

So I prefer to regard myself as a silent collaborator more than an editor, one who works alongside the real author to, perhaps, add a few touches to an otherwise generally satisfactory manuscript. Finally, and an important point, to format the material for presentation to an agent or publisher.

And I enjoy doing it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Observant readers of this daily diatribe (and I’m sure you all are) will have noticed that I can come across as a bit old-fashioned in some ways. It’s a charge I will deny, vehemently, being one of the earliest users of computers. However, I must admit that one of my daughters used to refer to “her Victorian father” when describing me to her next prospective paramour.

But when it comes to technology, I’m all for it – provided it does represent a genuine advance and is not some idle techno-gimmick, here today and, with any luck, gone tomorrow.

With this in mind you can see why I’m concerned with the rise and apparent increasing popularity of the E-Book. I have to be careful how I phrase this, since my publishers make a bit of a killing with these, but why on earth anyone would wish to read off of a computer screen and not curled up somewhere with a good book and a drink is beyond me.

Even the economics don’t make a lot of sense (well, to me). Admittedly they’re cheaper initially but do the buyers sit glued to their computer displays for the several hundred pages? Not ergonomically desirable I would have thought. Or do they print out the whole shebang on their laser or inkjet printer? If the latter, the consumption of the cartridges must surely defeat the economic sense – and then there’s the cost of paper. Reading from A4 sheets, or quarto as we used to say in the good old days, is a pain as anyone who has proofread their own MS will testify.

So, bearing in mind the economic advantages to myself, to say nothing of my publishers, I suppose I should give the E-Book a thumbs up in the march of progress.

But for myself, I’ll just curl up with a good book, thank you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Coming to a Full Stop

Punctuation must have caused more writers mental stress than any other aspect of the game. Spelling’s pretty much a cut and dried affair, unless you’re an American, and grammar has a few rules and regulations to follow. But nobody seems too sure about where you stick the commas, colons and semi-colons in your manuscript. Oscar Wilde once said that he’d spent the morning agonising over where to put a comma – and after lunch, took it out. And Somerset Maugham remarked, gloomily (well he was a bit), that his new editor did nothing but remove commas.

I must say commas don’t bother me too much. It’s the semi-colon I have a problem with. It seems so indecisive. “Hello,” it says, “need to have a bit of a break here – don’t want to halt ‘em in their tracks, just let ‘em have a pause.” And in goes the semi-colon and, to my mind, ruins the whole flow of eloquence. I think the semi-colon is lacking in character – even its name doesn’t have the ring of confidence, who would want to be semi anything?

In contrast, the colon is a full blooded, masculine piece of punctuation. No half measures here. It tells the world that what’s coming up needs to be taken seriously, statistics or perhaps a quotation of some sort.

About the only way I can tell if a comma is in the right place is to read the piece with an observer’s eye. The idea is to clarify the meaning of the words and if it doesn’t you either need to take it out or perhaps add a few more until the words do make sense.

I recently received a manuscript whose author must have belonged to a society that had foresworn the use of punctuation in their lives. The economy with the use of commas and even full stops made it something of a challenge to interpret.

A couple of years back, Lyn Truss, a journalist, tried to put things in perspective with her book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” It’s a pretty good effort – but it still leaves you a bit on your own when it comes to punctuating your MS.

But never fear, however you do it, it’s a sure thing that your editor will put you right on the subject – and probably delete a few commas or semi-colons!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Siesta Time

I’m not too sure about this global warming stuff but I do know that today the temperature here is going to be in the mid thirties, which in my view makes it certainly a local warming!

When, some 400 years ago, the duc of somewhere or other instructed his ouvriers to go and run up a few little shacks for his staff, conveniently within sight of the chateau so he could keep an eye on them, they duly did so.

And now I reside in one of these bijou residences – fortunately the chateau is no longer occupied so I’m not under the surveillance of the lord of the manor. But the place, so wonderfully cosy in winter with log fires and thick stone walls, was not designed with this global warming nonsense in mind. More than a few days of raised temperatures turn it into an effective storage heater – and my office into something of a sauna.

The only solution, other than air conditioning, is to get up early and hammer out a few words before things hot up and then retire gracefully to a hammock under the trees, where I can keep busy correcting the proofs of my latest book.

Fortunately, at this point, I have only a couple of editing jobs on hand and no solid writing project so my normal daily stint is pretty curtailed.

Having lived in the tropics I understand the value of the siesta and, if this warming trend keeps up, so will a lot of other people.

As Noel Coward put it “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

Saturday, July 15, 2006

No Rhyme or Reason

I was introduced to that great Scottish poet, Robert Burns at an early age. It would probably have been better had I not, for as a child I failed to see the merit of someone who could not, apparently, write in comprehensible English. Had I tried the same stunt at school, I felt, my efforts would have been rewarded with a clump on the side of the head. And my inability to understand poetry didn’t even stop there – even those who did write in English, although they usually put the words in a funny order to make ‘em rhyme, passed me by. Obviously when I was being put together, someone had left out the “poetry appreciation” micro-chip.

Very odd, since my father lapped the stuff up by the ream. I still have a great many of his poetry books in which he would inscribe additional numbers that he had culled from somewhere else. They do come in handy when I have to dig out a reference to some ode or other but, other than that, they remain unread.

I think it’s the convoluted way that some poets like to express themselves that does for me. I have no problem with the enjoyably straightforward lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, for instance, nor with the doggerel of Ogden Nash, who once published, memorably, “The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales also goes with a swing - it’s the more ethereal variety that stumps me. I always feel that the Brownings deserved each other.

Charles Dickens may have had the same problem judging by his send-up of the genre in Pickwick Papers with Mrs. Pott’s “Ode to an Expiring Frog,” referred to by Count Smorltork as “Ode to a Perspiring Frog.”

A small literary group once asked me to address them, unfortunately (for them) failing to add the sub-title that they were a poetry group. For an evening I was regaled with the efforts of the members and asked to make some constructive comments. They had no idea, or so I hope, just how difficult it was for me, having a tin ear when it came to assessing the merits of their work. I got away with it – but now make sure of the object of the meeting before committing myself.

I used to kid myself that, with advancing years, I would become more appreciative but so far not much has changed and I remain a peasant in the world of poetry.

Come to think of it, I’m not much into ballet either – I think it’s the tights.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bastille Day

It being the 14th. of July here in France (as well as in other parts of the world, I understand) the nation celebrates the equivalent of the American July the 4th., with fireworks and, more importantly, a day off. It celebrates, if that's the right word, the fall of The Bastille at the hands of the citizens, something which must have proved a bit of an anti-climax since there were only seven prisoners immured within at the time and, viewing the rabble outside, they would probably have voted to stay there for their own safety had they been asked. But it has proved a great excuse for a party over the years and I got to wondering why the British don't have something similar.
Guy Fawkes is hardly much of anything to celebrate, although a modern day equivalent might be welcome, provided he were more successful, and the nearest the nation gets is to scattered "Bank Holidays." Why there should be such rejoicing concerning establishments that collectively bring a good deal misery to most is beyond me - perhaps it's because they're closed on those days.
That perceptive observer of the scene, Froissart, observed that, during the Hundred Years War, "The Englishmen in France enjoy themselves gloomily as is their fashion," so perhaps it's a hangover from that (they lost).
But Britain is rich in opportunities for celebration, fun and laughter. What other nation could have a Deputy Prime Minister (or Vice-President, perhaps) of ample proportions leading a parade down Whitehall in a thousand dollar regalia of Stetson Hat and Cowboy Boots? It would draw crowds of fun-loving citizens, I'm sure.
Of course, I understand that fireworks would have to be banned. After all, someone might get hurt!
So, no work for me today. The champagne (actually our wonderful equivalent from The Loire Valley) starts flowing around midday, the sun is shining and tonight the village has a firework display. It all adds up to a jolly good day and, as much as celebrating the fall of The Bastille, it starts off the French holiday season. That the French take long holidays is a frequent criticism of the British. I suppose they prefer to enjoy themselves gloomily.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Limbering Up for the Day

I was asked why do I bother with a daily blog? Answers such as, "Well, everybody does now" and "It's keeping a record of my life - like a diary" are hardly adequate nor even truthful. As, in theory, I'm obligated to turn out a few thousand words a day, a bit like a hamster on a literary treadwheel, it would seem an added and unneccessary chore.
But I look at it this way. We've all watched the athletes limbering up before performing, stretching, bending etc. so as not to do some damage during the actual performance, in soccer, for instance, where they have to practise falling over a lot and writhing in agony ( I must say it doesn't seem to be of much help to English cricketers though). Well, writing this blog as I do in the wee small hours of the morning accomplishes much of the same function. As I slurp my coffee and try and get my brain and fingers into gear, I get some practice before the main event, so to speak.
Inevitably my first stab misses the shift key and the first difficult word will get hopelessly mangled but, by the time I've finished the first few paragraphs, the mechanism will be functioning moderately efficiently. So, hoping that practice will finally make perfect, the day's work should flow with the minimum of egregious errors due to failing to select the correct digits for the keyboard.
I must confess, it doesn't always work that way - and now I find that today I have very little on the agenda from a writing standpoint.
So I guess I've been wasting my time here this morning! Well it's been fun anyway.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Saving Face.

Although it's unlikely that your publisher will ask your advice (or even your opinion!) on the typeface to be used in your book, it helps to have an idea of what the arcane subject of typography is all about. The computer industry has not been of much help here, incorrectly referring to typefaces as fonts, which is technically only a size or style of a typeface. They then select a typeface for you, referring to it as the default, a word that used to mean a failure to fulfil an obligation! This usually seems to be Times New Roman, and judging from most of the manuscripts I receive, few bother to select a different face.
Times New Roman was designed for columnar work, unsurprisingly, for the London Times newspaper and has been adopted worldwide for the purpose. It is an excellent face - but not necessarily the one for your manuscript.
It is not a very good choice for a book, in my opinion, although a number of publishers in the United States do make use of it and I think your agent, editor or publisher will be happier if you choose a more open face such as Bookman for your manuscript. The more old-fashioned may still prefer Courier which fools them into thinking that you've knocked the masterpiece out on a typewriter!
But whatever you choose, steer clear of those exotic (and sometimes bizarre) selections on your word processor. I once met a businessman (well, so he claimed) who insisted on writing his official correspondence in a typeface called "Comic." It was an apt commentary on his commercial ability I believe.
Once in a while you'll come across a book that has been "designed" by some genius who uses a sans serif typeface (Arial, for instance) for the body matter. It's a grave error. Body matter for books, and also for your manuscript, should always have a face that uses serifs - it's not just a matter of convention, it makes them so much easier to read.
And, just in case you're wondering, this is written using Bookman Old Style, but for display on a computer screen, Microsoft designed a face especially for the job. Verdana is a clean, sans serif type that shows up well on a monitor.
It looks just like this - but don't use it for your manuscript!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Stigma of "Self Publishing."

I don’t really understand it. The culprits are, of course, those “self-publishing” companies that make highly inflated claims as to what they can do for you as an author. In spite of the extravagant predictions made, they have no more idea of how to get your book into the mainstream of publishing than you do – but they will most certainly charge you on the basis of it. The less reputable ones will want you to sign away your rights just on the off-chance that lighting may strike and you will have a best-seller on your hands – in which case, of course, they reap the benefit.

But they do have their uses. The more reputable ones will turn out a respectable looking book, using the print on demand process, for an affordable price and, for those wanting a limited circulation family history or perhaps a record of a company’s development, there can be no better way of tackling the job.

And personal histories are important; I think it’s a wonderful thing that families should have a printed record. I very much wish mine had – it would have saved me a lot of arduous research and high on my list of priorities is the job of recording it for future generations.

Social historians will welcome these as a valuable insight into the life of the times gone by, much as they value the historical records left by Samuel Pepys and his ilk. But how much more valuable will be the records of the rather less prominent members of society?

History tends to revolve around the famous – but primarily because they are ones whose stories have been recorded, and this gives a somewhat lop-sided view of the events of the day.

You may have only a few copies of your story lurking somewhere in an attic in the years to come, but for the historian who stumbles across them, they will be invaluable.

And your family will thank you.

Monday, July 10, 2006

"Ladies and Gentlemen...........

……… gives me great pleasure…….”.Well that’s the opening of a good many speeches that go on to provide little pleasure for the captive audience. That, I suppose, is why I get a number of requests each year to provide something a bit more inspiring for the social speaker to deliver. Fortunately, I don’t have requests from politicians but I’m not too proud to take a commission from one or two if they asked.

I’m not sure when these worthy gentlemen (using the words loosely) gave up writing their own stuff and started to use compliant hacks to do their dirty work, but I’m pretty sure Caesar wrote his own material.

Much later, Benjamin Disraeli certainly would have done so, being a better novelist than he was a politician and of course Winston Churchill, a magnificent speechwriter, would have scoffed at the idea of using someone else to write for him.

It seems to have started, as with so many thing, in the United States, with Roosevelt, FDR, not Theodore, who could and did write his own. It has always puzzled me since FDR was the most cerebral of presidents and was more than capable of putting his thoughts into words. He was, I understand, a bit on the idle side when it came to office work, which may account for the team of writers he used. Even his “Fireside Chats” would not come under the heading of his own unaided work and one of the team, a young man later to become famous in his own right, John Kenneth Galbraith, once related how they would listen to the broadcasts, eager to see which of their suggested phrases and “bon mots” the great man had incorporated into his talk.

Some later presidents were even more drastically in need of writers.

But for the casual after-dinner speaker or those called upon to address some sort of social gathering, It might be worth the trivial sum to engage someone such as myself to help out a bit. It’s as well to brief your writer thoroughly not only on the subject of your talk but also on the demographics of the audience. It is unwise to include that sparkling anecdote about two drunken Irishmen and a pig in a speech to the United Mother’s Temperance League. Come to think of it, nor to a group of Irish or, for that matter, an association of pig fanciers.

But now I have requests for a couple of speeches and I’m searching for an opening phrase that will be both original and attention getting………

……….now I’ve got it!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking………………”.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The World Cup

It’s the weekend and the country here in France is en fête for the World Cup so no work is getting done – that’s also my excuse. Actually, I’m not too much of a fan of soccer – I prefer Rugby where the players are not all graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and where a broken collar-bone is no excuse for leaving the field.

Really, it’s pure jealousy for the obscene amounts of money the players get for displaying some pretty useless skills. Useless in the way of benefiting society in any way, I mean – it’s not often in life that kicking a ball becomes of much value to you, or to anyone else for that matter.

Anyway, enough of the grouchiness which is largely occasioned by the fact that my able assistant has been obsessed with the matches for the past couple of weeks, leading to a drastic decline in production! Hopefully it will be all over by Monday and normal service can be resumed.

Just a few E-Mails to respond to and I’m off for the weekend. See you all on Monday.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Cutting it Short

“Let me have a synopsis of your work,” says the letter from your agent or publisher, cheerily. Clearly they have no idea of the difficulty of expressing the magical quality of your 90,000 word masterpiece in a few, short cryptic sentences. How can you convey the subtle nuances that you have incorporated, the sly touches of humour, the overall depth of wisdom so wonderfully expressed?

Of course you can’t. And the synopsis, or precis as we used to call it at school, has given more authors ulcers than any other facet of this business – it’s not an art that’s practised much nowadays.

The early Assyrians were probably dab hands at the game. After all, knocking out an imperial decree on a couple of broken paving stones must have taught economy of words and the inadvisability of making an error. The Egyptians were a bit more verbose, often covering walls with idle chit chat.

In these days, only the senders of text messages on their cell phones are constant practitioners of the art – if that’s what you call an inability to spell properly and find the shift key. Often the results are as incomprehensible to me as if they had written in Swahili (no offence to any Swahilians reading this – I’m sure it’s a delightful language in its way) and it seems to require the sort of manual dexterity that I lack.

But back to your agent’s request. I wonder if we don’t agonise too much over this. I always ask potential clients for a synopsis but am not looking for a literary masterpiece. All I need is a clue to see if the completed work will meet my requirements as a subject and that it is one that I feel I can handle. In the case of your agent or publisher, they’re going to need the first two or three chapters to check on your style of writing and the synopsis only needs to map out the rest of the work for them.

So it’s best to keep it strictly to the plot and avoid the flowery phrases. But make sure you can spell and that you know where the shift key is!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On Being a Ghost Writer

It was at the London Book Fair this year that I was tackled by someone who resembled one of the LL’s, Literary Ladies, described in Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit.

“So you’re a ghost writer,” she said, in much the same tone of voice that Victorian clergymen must have used when addressing ladies of the town on a Saturday night in The Haymarket. “Whatever made you become one of those?”

Apparently detecting a slight odour of malfunctioning drains, she didn’t wait for a reply, spotting someone far more distinguished passing by and sheered off in search of some intellectually challenging conversation.

Of course, no writer wakes up one morning and thinks to himself, “Gosh, it’s a beautiful day. I think I’ll be a Ghost Writer.” It occurs more by happenstance. Some struggling penman, having noted that you have a bit of expertise in the matter, asks for your help. And Bingo, you’re a Ghost Writer.

Most of us started elsewhere other than in the book writing department. For myself, my first literary job that paid was as an advertising copywriter, a ghost writing job if ever there was one – and pure fiction, to boot!

But once on the treadmill, it’s hard to escape. There are some serious caveats to the business however.

Firstly, you must enjoy writing – and in differing styles to suit your client.

Secondly, you had better park your ego somewhere for there’s unlikely to be much fame for you in the trade.

And lastly, but most importantly, you must have the ability to plug away and grind out a substantial number of words each day. That psychosomatic disease, writer’s block, is not allowed in the profession.

But the advantages for those of us that can overcome these obstacles are substantial.

Fascinating people and diverse subjects come your way that you would never encounter otherwise.

And never forget that, whilst you may not make a fortune from a best-seller, it should provide you with a steady income – and a very pleasant way of earning a crust of bread.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Chore for the Day

The chore for the day is to be creating an index for my new book. And believe me, it is a chore. So much so that publishers usually farm out the work to specialists.

Of course, if you have a work of fiction no index will be needed, but my book is an account of all the invasions, and proposed invasions, of the British Isles and for this a useful and informative index is an essential.

A simple index can be created using one of the built-in programmes of your word processor but, since the manuscript will be re-formatted when being typeset, this is not of much value. In any case, it is merely a word search, much the same as the search and replace function.

So for me to create a meaningful index, which will contain information on each entry rather than just a simple page reference, I have to access the typeset file.

Using Adobe PageMaker to compile a simple index (selected words with their relevant page numbers), I can then elaborate on this to produce a more encyclopaedic list.

It’s a time consuming and not a particularly entertaining business but a good index is a sure sign of a competently researched book and well worth the effort.

But it’s easy to see why so many farm the job out to professional indexers – it really is a chore.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In the Footsteps of Pepys

I up betimes this morn (well, I’ve been re-reading Samuel Pepys diary and the style’s catching) and sitting here with my coffee, watching the sun come up over the vineyards, I get to thinking over this diary business.

Samuel, of course, wrote his in shorthand, not for the purposes of secrecy ( he used a standard shorthand system of the day) but because it was easier for him. The “naughty bits” he coded in an arcane mixture of French and Italian that would hardly fool anybody. And he was obviously quite proud of his efforts as he had them bound carefully and preserved them throughout his life.

To me they are a fascinating glimpse of the times and all the more so because they are transparently honest – a quality shared by few other diarists or even people, come to think of it!

The diary form has become popular with authors recently but I think it is a difficult format to pull off successfully. Bridget Jones has, I suppose, been the spur here, not Samuel, and the problem is that day to day existence is a bit on the boring side. Keeping it up for 300 pages without your reader falling asleep requires a touch of genius.

The answer is, of course, to skip the non-event days and concentrate on the juicy bits but here there is a problem of continuity. The work becomes, not a continuous flow of narrative, but a jerky, episodic recounting of events, which is fine as a historical record, but, to me, unsettling as a work of literary fiction.

Recently I was tempted to try the diary form for an auto-biography I was “ghosting.” The subject had provided me with an immaculately kept and detailed daily record, a great temptation since it would make life so much easier, I thought. After 50,000 words or so of the diary, I realised that it did not work as a book – it remained a diary. So I scrapped the lot and rewrote it as a straight narrative.

Perhaps a redeeming feature of “blogs” such as this, is that they are unlikely to come back to haunt us or even be read in the future. Sooner or later, a hard drive or server will crash somewhere and consign it to the happy hunting ground in cyberspace. Anyway, I won’t have to bother with having them bound up and carting them around with me. And there aren’t any bits that need putting into French or Italian!


Many thanks to those of you who passed me the information on finding this venerable word processing programme. It was good to find that so many agreed with me on its merits and that it is still alive, if in retirement.

It did have a pretty steep learning curve – but then, so did my first bike!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Stormy Weather

The week got off to a pretty shaky start, thanks to Meteo France who were predicting thunderstorms, lightning and all sorts of nasty weather.

Having been struck by lightning here last year, we closed down all the computer stuff, televisions etc. and waited. Of course, nothing happened. The sun shone with undiminished fervour and the mercury rose above 30 degrees.

At lunch time, we decided it was just a mare’s nest and so here I am, back on line.

If the British think they are obsessed with the weather, they should see the French. Of course, here we have the critical factor of what will the weather do to the grapes so I think we are justified in taking it seriously.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the TV presenters on television, who, with a couple of exceptions, are picked for looks and not necessarily their meteorological expertise. One is so good looking that a friend’s wife has forbidden him to watch!

So who cares if they get the forecast wrong.

Now, having lost the morning, I’m scrabbling to catch up. Summer is usually pretty slow in the ghosting department but this year has been a bit of an exception.

Now let’s see. Oh yes, they’re predicting thunderstorms again tomorrow. If at first you don’t succeed………

P’raps I’ll work through the night.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The March of Time

The other day I was intrigued to read that Ms. Rowling had run out of paper on which to finish her next Harry Potter saga. Those who write their books in longhand must be a dwindling bunch. I recall that the novelist Iris Murdoch did and that she insisted on delivering the pages to her publisher by hand herself and refused to allow them to make any changes – a wonderful riposte to the demands of publishers and agents everywhere who insist that you play by their rules.

As my last school report listed my handwriting skills as “execrable,” a word I’ve liked ever since, at an early age I invested in an Imperial Portable Typewriter. Portable was something of a euphemism for it would have made a good boat anchor. However it lasted me for a good many years, far longer than the several more lightweight successors that succumbed to flooding with coffee, wine and occasional gin as well as the odd dropping from a height, with pathetic ease.

Technology arrived in the shape of a computer, a Commodore 64, an absolutely marvellous concept being just one obese keyboard with all the works stuck inside. The word processing programme whose name I forget, was a plug-in cartridge and contained none of the whistles and bells that come with more up to date concepts. It just did what you told it to and not what the programmer thought you ought to be doing– a wonderful idea .

But time marches on and the next thing was that a mouse arrived on my computer desk along with something called, mysteriously, Windows, a name that still baffles me.

Logistically this posed a problem since the mouse was, according to all the diagrams I saw, posed to sit just where my drink had done in the past. Either I had to become a left handed drinker or a left handed mouse user. On the grounds of experience I chose the latter course, something which also has the advantage of discouraging casual use of your computer by others.

But I remember another early programme called Wordstar that worked beautifully without the need for a mechanical rodent cluttering up your desk space. Everything could be done from the keyboard perfectly simply – its failing was of course that it was not “up to date” and possibly not compatible with Windows. If anyone still has a copy, I’d love to have one.

This all sounds as though I’m opposed to modern technology. I’m not, as long as techno-hype does not allow it to supersede something that worked better in the past.

After all, if it weren’t for modern technology, you wouldn’t be reading this now.