Friday, August 26, 2011

NOT sitting typing alone in a room (for once)

I love my job.  It's the best job in the world.  It was the happiest day of my life, just about, when I finally accepted that I was never going to be a square academic peg in a square university department and decided instead to be a round writer.  Almost literally for a while: working at home is a trapdoor to the biscuit tin.

Or maybe the happiest day was when I realised that my decision wasn't as crazy as it must have seemed.  The day I got a publisher to agree with me that I was round.

However, as the title of my blog hints, this wonderful job is mostly typing.  And crying.

Except for one glorious day every year when you get to put on a dress and stand up and talk and tell jokes and read out the best bits and you get flowers and presents and cards. 

(How terrifying is that Dandy doll?   My good friend Louise has a line in such things: you should see the finger puppets for Bury Her Deep.  I love them all but if the books were that dark they'd be shelved in a different bit of the bookshop)

So Dandy Gilver and The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains was launched in the US last Friday and a good time was had by all.

For quite a few of the people who kindly came along to the Avid Reader bookshop in downtown Davis, CA, it was their first book launch party.  I could have done anything and they would have gone along with it.  I could have assigned parts and got them to read it.  Unfiortunately, I didn't think of that until afterwards, but maybe it's for the best - this way some of them might come back next year.  And besides, my new friends and colleagues-in-law have been life-saving bricks (which isn't a happy metaphor, I know) and deserve better.

So here are some of them:

From right to left: Eileen Rendahl, fantastic romance and suspense and romantic suspense writer (whose Melinda Messenger series gives me bad premise envy), me, Sarah R who gives "friendship" a new meaning (I lived in her house for five months and didn't even get ejected when my cat scratched her dog becasue her dog dared to eat his own food from his own bowl - the noive!), Kelly S whose son is my only known teenage male reader so far, and Carol K, one of two psychiatric professionals on hand during the evening.  Hey - Celine Dion has two eyebrow ladies.

But nothing sums up California like this picture of me and Spring Warren, another Davis writer, whose excellent book The Quarter Acre Farm has taught me to garden in this alien place where it never rains and gophers eat your tree roots.

Talk about stand-offish, eh?  There's no way Spring could be from Edinburgh and I'm very glad she's here not there.

And the best thing about this launch party was that it was uterly illicit, because I've already had a launch party for Bloodstains, in the UK, last year.

What's that you say?  That proves nothing?  it's only a picture of me with some books in a different dress?  (Except it was clearly taken before the year of Mexican food - yikes).  Well, here's better proof then:

A book cake, clearly being cut by a left-handed person in my parents' house.  How can you be sure?  Because that implement is my mother's musical cake slice and she (right-handed) and I are the only ones who ever use it because everyone except the two of us hates it with a passion.  What's to hate?  It plays Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, Here Comes The Bride, and Have a Jolly Good Book Launch.

I did.  Two of them.  And now it's back to typing, all alone in a room.  I still love my job, though.

Friday, August 19, 2011

140 characters to 100,000 words: spoilers, investment and brainache.

Well, my most miserable, least generous, snarkiest tweet ever came back, jumped up and bit me on the bum today when Jeffrey Callison of Insight called me on it.  Well, not really - he'd never - but he did ask me to explain why I tweeted:

       Oh no, not again!  I never thought anything could make me unfollow the Ed book fest.  Or am I just a miseryguts?

The issue was the 140 character stories appearing under the hashtag #UnboundEd.  But the problem wasn't unknown and possibly even unpublished - oh, my dear!- writers daring to ask for attention.  Nothing like it.  It was just my bumbling, fuzzy, permanently-set-at-novel-length, brain trying to keep up.

I'd read a tweet and try to attach some bit of it to the news, an earlier message, someone I knew, something already in existence . . . and then get to the end, see #UnboundEd and think "Oh, right, okay, it's self-contained."  Then read the next one.  And the next one.  And after fifteen my brain was melting and dripping out of my ears.

Which is exactly why I can't read short stories.  I can't get my investment level down from where it would be at Chapter 1 of a novel.  And then fifteen pages later it's all over and I'm whirling in the dust, like a cowboy who's thrown a punch at an disapparating alien.

This is my problem with the recent survey from UC San Diego on spoilers, or at least with the reporting of it. (Thanks to fellow crimewriter Laurence O'Bryan for the link.)  The study was done on 12 short stories.  The finding was that, by and large, spoilers didn't spoil them.  This is why is was reported, right?  A finding that spoilers spoil things wouldn't be news (but let's leave the dangers of positive results bias in published science for another day).

So far, so interesting.  Surprising even . . . if you could see me you'd be able to tell that I have my but-face on now (one T) . . . but the report from UCSD News Center concludes that perhaps people who flip to the last page of a book have got it right.

Guys!  Gu-uys?  Short stories aren't books.  Novels are books.  A study on spoilers in short stories says nothing about books or about novels.  Or films (by the time the results were on the radio, it was films too).

Stephen King knows this better than anyone.  He first envisaged Misery as a short story, but then noticed when he was finished it that it was 300 pages long - I'm making up the details, obviously; I have no insight into the actual methods of prolific geniuses - and so he had to change the ending.


as they say.  In a short story, crazy Annie Wilkes could kill Paul Sheldon, feed him to Misery the pig and bind the Wilkes Edition of Misery's Return in Paul's skin.  In a novel, the man had to live and the pig had to go.  As King says "no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him." On Writing p.132.

Short stories aren't just really short novels.  Novels aren't just really long short stories.  Nobody has published any results on spoilers and the novel (or film). 

As an aside, have you ever noticed that people who read short stories are often proud of it and people who don't are often ashamed of it?  What's that about?

Back on the main track, though, I am very glad that readers, critics and reviewers take plot spoilers seriously.  My new book is out this week:

and there's a twist at the end that could be completely ruined - spoiled, in fact - by the mention of just one specific word.  (There's proof of my belief in the basic goodness of humanity, eh?  Talk about tempting fate.)

Thank you, early readers, and to any new readers about to embark on Dandy Gilver's below-stairs adventure, I say this: if you are one who flips to the end before you read the beginning, don't blame me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

But how high *is* an elephant's eye?

Not having to hand an elephant who was willing to stand beside my corn as a measure, I had to make do with a cat. 

It's pretty impressively high compared with a cat's eye, I think you'll agree.

And it's just "beginning to crop" as they say on Gardener's World and Question Time, back in the old country.  I don't say anything so laid back.  I say: "Corn!  Look!  Sweetcorn!  In the garden!  Is it ready?  How do you tell if it's ready?"  frrllrrlllrrrff (that's the sound of Sunset's Western Garden's pages turning).  "It's ready!  Frabjous day!  Corn!!!"

 Not to mention the tomatoes (she said, thereby mentioning the hell out of the tomatoes).  Here are today's pickings.

And beside them are the daily takings from a row of zinnias planted in the veg patch just for cutting.  (I always wanted a cutting garden and this is the start of it.  Zinnias, in a spirit of tribute to Ma Larkin.  (I used to be a terrible garden snob, but I reckon a row of mixed zinnias is proof that I'm over it now.  There's a hanging basket of petunias too (Ma Larkin, again), but it was a present and so I can't claim the glory.))

So far, so abundant.  But now we must turn to the courgettes aka zucchini and there abundance turns to something more bloated and alarming.  First, there was a bit of a glut.

Then I turned my back for seven minutes and there was a lot of a glut.

And now my freezer looks like this:

Some ice, some bread and eleven pints of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's roasted courgette and garlic mush.  Eleven pints or, in other words, boil enough pasta and I've got a light lunch for fifty. 

But it's more than balanced by the chickpea/garbanzo bean harvest.  Six little plants, $3 the tray, produced this:

Five chick peas.  Or 50c each and a 50c tip.  Not even in the organic, macrobiotic, Fairtrade, giftwrapped section of the Berkliest Food Co-op imaginable did anyone ever buy chickpeas at 50c each.

And not even in the height of the eighties in the depths of Kensington was a course ever served in a Michelin starred restaurant as nouvelle as the cuisine I prepared with my entire chick pea harvest.

Ah, but what about the flavour?  Well, the best way to describe it is to say that they tasted like boiled chickpeas.  The slice of tomato was nice, though.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just give the Booker to Lilian Jackson Braun and we can all go home.

Fight, fight, fight, fight!

We're at it again.  Is crime fiction literature?  Are thrillers crime?  Is literature fiction?  Is reading entertainment?  Is that a wasp? 

Sorry, got distracted there.

And then sooner or later someone will say "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing [insert example of low-brow genre chosen for its shock value]"and we all have to turn off Twitter, spin three times and spit.

Philip Hensher started it this time with an article I hesitate to paraphrase in case I make it worse but here goes:

Thrillers have infiltrated the Booker.  Thrillers are conservative and comforting in that they offer . . . Well, I've never heard it put better then what Jill Paton Walsh said once (about crime novels, strictly speaking) . . . they offer "a dream of justice".  Science fiction is doing better, more interesting things than thrillers.  It's disappointing that people's tastes are sometimes so narrow. 

I agree with that last point in large shovelfuls.  It's a shame that anyone can spend a lifetime reading and not at least even try a murder, a western, a romance, a spot of magic realism, a saga, a Victorian doorstop like Middlemarch, a graphic novel, Anita Brookner, Brad Thor . . . I wonder if Anita Brookner's ever read Brad Thor. 

More seriously, it seems to me that when readers move from looking for something interesting to read into the realms of looking for (eg) a crime novel, urban, procedural, plenty violence, not too pat an ending or a murder, no swearing, not too much gore, rural setting . . . something had been lost.  One of the most depressing Amazon reviews I've ever seen began with "A new author is always a risk . . .".

Okay, not strictly true.  All of the most depressing Amazon reviews begin "This is the worst book ever writen.  So boooooring I literelly had to gouge out my eyes . . ." and are about The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird.
But readers' narrow tastes (which make them morons, in Hensher's view) also make for some enormously entertaining cultural moments.  Like the Dan Brown effect a few years back, when people who never normally read thrillers read The Da Vinci Code to see what the fuss was about and then sneered at the short chapters, the metronomic cliffhangers, the dull characters.  It was like someone going to their first opera and leaving at half-time because everyone just stood there singing.

Anyway, I do have a point.  I have two points.  I just chose a slow build to get there.  Hey, this is a quality literary blog.  If you want slam-dunk action go and read a different one.

1. You can write a thriller/mystery/crime novel with terrible prose, flat characters, a sketchy setting and nothing to say about the human condition and have it published.  It might even be a bestseller.

2. (This isn't the second point; maybe best call it 1.b.) You can write a literary novel with no story, flat characters, a sketchy setting and nothing to say about the human condition and have it published.  It might even win a prize.

1.c. But a crime novel with no story or a literary novel with terrible* prose are going nowhere.

1.d  A beautifully written novel, with a cracking story, rich characters and a lush setting that tells you true things about life is better and all genres - including Literary Fiction - will try to claim it as one of their own.  If the story is about a crime, the CWA, MWA, ITW, SinC and Malice will lick it so's no one else gets it.  (You can still tell I'm a kid from a big family, eh?)

*where "terrible" means hasty, thoughtless, pedestrian and tin-eared.  There are plenty of literary novels with over-wrought, intrusive, show-offy terrible prose.  Children's pastry, I call it.  Lots of fun for them to make but you wouldn't want to eat it when it's done.

So maybe literariness is just a kind of longevity - no more than the plain fact that you can only read a story once for the story itself, but you can want to read that bit where Lizzie Bennet smacks down Lady Catherine in the garden again and again (and punch the air every time).  Beautifully written Austen smack-downs are more lasting than aha! moments at the end of crime novels.

Doesn't seem like an oppurtunity for sneering, though.

And so to Point 2.  I chose LJB for the title of this blog because she's no longer with us and because she wrote about cats who solve murders.  She wrote sharp, funny, bonkers stories with a character - Qwilleran - to love, about cats who solve murders.  And there's nothing more reminiscent of a dahlia grower sneering at a crysanthemum grower in the flower tent at the village show than a crime novelist whining that they should be taken seriously for writing what they write and then in the next breath sneering at writers like Lilian Jackson Braun.

Newsflash: cats don't solve ingenious murders and neither do private dicks, feisty attorneys, maverick cops, or jaded reporters.  It's just pretend.