Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Perfect Hero - an excerpt

I think it is about time to let the world have a little taste of what will hit you all come October 21st when Hero Veasey's story emerges into internet ether.

Hero Veasey, a nicely brought up young lady, is walking her aunt's dogs in the Queen's Street Gardens of Edinburgh's New Town, chaperoned by her maid, one cold December afternoon:

With Beattie running on, full of the invitations and excitements of the past week and the week to come, it was easy to walk several times round the square while the dogs burrowed in the undergrowth and came leaping out to chase after twigs and bark at the saplings planted on the lawns. But the light was leaching away, and they needed to return home before it became entirely dark.
“Let’s try to catch the little horrors, Beattie. I will seek out Achilles, you look for Ajax. I last saw him over there, digging amidst the camellias.”
The girls separated and started calling the dogs. Achilles immediately broke cover and hurtled up the incline to where Hero stood, only to scuffle under the bushes by the gate where they had entered twenty minutes before. Hero picked up her skirts and chased after the tiresome pest. She squatted and tried to peer through the leaves, then stood again in exasperation only to jump back in surprise. A man loomed over her.
“Excuse me, I must beg a favour of you.”
His voice was educated and his cloak looked expensive. He wore a smart hat and silk scarf, and carried a fine walking stick. In seconds, Hero had taken this in but the sudden apparition still startled her.
“What favour?” she asked, examining him. He was not much taller than she, had dark eyes and was slightly breathless. He glanced back over his shoulder. As he turned back to face her, his eyes danced and his smile was rueful.
“You may slap me afterwards, any distraction will do.” He stepped towards her and reached a gloved hand towards her chin, which he tilted upwards. Hero’s eyes widened in astonishment as his face drew nearer and nearer. He was intending to kiss her! She was so astounded that she stood stock still while his lips touched hers, once, gently, tenderly, meltingly. He stayed still, and his eyes flickered away towards the gate once, but then seemed to focus once again on her, and she felt his other hand come up to her arm and then round her back.
He pulled away and murmured something incomprehensible as she gazed up at him, then he pressed his lips to hers again and she felt a shiver of response as he kissed her again, deepening the kiss. Her mouth opened, and she heard him give a brief moan. His tongue parted Hero’s lips. An entirely unfamiliar tingle assailed her, first in her breasts, then her abdomen, then lower. She found her body pressing closer to his, despite their heavy winter cloaks.
His fingers were on her neck and jaw and the tender skin beneath her ear, exerting the slightest pressure, but a pressure which made her lean into him and meet his kiss and reach one gloved hand to his shoulder. Her hand should have pushed him away, but she could not help slipping her arms about his neck, clinging a little closer, meeting his kiss, returning it. She was melting, she was incandescent. Valentine had never kissed her like this, never!
Beattie’s shocked voice only slowly cut through the miasma of desire that had overcome both Hero and the plundering stranger.
“Miss! Miss Hero! Let her go, you brute!” Then Beattie launched herself at the broad back that separated her from her mistress and began to pummel it, accompanying every wallop with her vehement words. “LET – HER – GO!”
Hero sprang away as his hold on her fell away and she watched him turn and easily catch Beattie’s flailing hands. She raised her fingers to her lips, still dazed. The man held Beattie off with ease and looked over the young girl’s shoulder at Hero,“ I do apologise. I’m not sorry I kissed you, but I shouldn’t have done it, I know. I do hope we’ll meet again, but in the meantime, I must dash. I have to see some chaps about a boat.”

That's all folks....

Sunday, September 23, 2007

That Kate Atkinson! And books that cheat.

I read Case Histories over the summer and enjoyed it, although the backstories of the various characters are sad and mournful. But One Good Turn was, I thought, even better. There have been critics who haven't enjoyed the denouement, but I enjoyed the whole book the whole way through, and didn't even try to end-read, which was unusual for me. It was funny, poignant, and although there were many loose threads, the key plot points were tightly sewn up by the end. What I like most about these two books is that there seems to be no fuss, no issue over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or populist fiction vs. aesthetically admired fiction - Atkinson just gets on with the writing. No messing, just solid characterisation, a twisty plot and vivid, pointed writing. Terrific.

Am now rounding off the weekend with a romance: The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt. It was her debut novel, published last year, and it garnered rave reviews. Great sex scenes, but I'm not so sure I could rave about it. It's just one of those wallpaper historicals where there is an official date 1760, and some nods to the fashions of the times - but the steward of an earl's estate would not be wandering about doing the dandy thing, and frankly, the setting of the novel could have been any time when women wore long skirts and men didn't wear jeans or Armani suits.

There is a romance convention that leads to the creation of worlds where noblemen went to London and had a townhouse, came home and went to their estate, had a few friends with funny names and otherwise are totally estranged from the social, political and cultural context in which they are meant to be living. In these stories, the author can get away with whatever mechanism they feel like to ensure that the hero and heroine actually have a relationship that could be recognised as such in 21st century terms, in other words, spending time with each other and falling "in love". So in the Raven Prince, our heroine becomes secretary to the hero even though the role of secretary to a member of the nobility was not simply a question of copying out a few documents.

Neither the hero nor the heroine rang true to their time, and that is one of the tests for me. Now I am a big fan of Georgette Heyer, and I know that many of her characters are informed more by the mores and rhythms of life in the first half of the 20th century than the actual Regency where she sets so many of her novels. But she did her research and she didn't have anyone setting a foot out of place. No anachronisms, no invented occupations, just straight up willingness to accept the milieu which she had chosen to set her stories.

I suppose that fundamentally, that is my problem with certain forms of genre writing - it (and the Raven Prince is right up there in this regard) cheats. There's something about these cardboardy characters and rickety settings that lacks integrity. Most books are flawed but have some integrity. Most genre fiction is technically reasonably well-crafted (few are car-crashes on the scale of Dan Brown, frex), but there's a void in them where some form of truth ought to be. This truth holds for the serial killer books as well as the historical romance.

While I write genre fiction, the accusation can also be levelled at me - but I do try very hard to create a world where the hero and heroine are experiencing things that are historically verifiable (like the fact that it took between 10 and 14 days to travel by coach from London to Edinburgh, and the common routes that people used for that journey, or that blotting paper wasn't invented until Victoria was on the throne, or that the waltz was not commonly danced even in the 1820s). But I want my characters to live in their world. I run my plots through my head, and when I reach points at which I just do not know what is actually going on, I have a choice - plump for what I feel like or check what might plausibly have taken place...

It takes longer, it leads you down side alleyways that do not necessarily help at all, and it can hold up that muse, but in the long run, if the ship you are sailing in has proper joints and caulking and reliable sailors, isn't that better than a leaky boat run by a drunken skipper?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Iron Bess Bonney ahoy

Got me a pirate name today, ooarrr!! I did use to play at pirates, then I got a bit snooty tooty about their general nastiness, but nowadays, I am not ashamed to admit that I like fantasy pirate life, and I pretty much subscribe to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster view that global warming is due to the decrease in the pirate population, and that to avert global disaster, we must all wear full pirate regalia and practise useful expressions like "ooo arr me hearties" and "swab the decks" (the latter is especially important when addressing any inhabitants of my home who are under 18) and "shiver me timbers" and you get the idea.

I wonder whether submitting my next book as Iron Bess Bonney will get me any further in the agent/publisher hunt game...somehow, I think not.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Books I have hated

This is really mean, isn't it. I mean, my books are probably on someone's books I have hated list (in fact, given a couple of the reviews I've had on Amazon in the US, I know they are), so maybe I shouldn't do this, but I don't think the writers will actually weep that much if they have one lousy teacher moaning about them somewhere in Brussels, because after all, they are all pretty much successful (which is not my gripe - writing is definitely not for the money and I like it when writers are successful, even when they are lame writers).

Ok, so going backwards,

In joint third place, Encyclopaedia of Snow, by Emily Miano and The Secret of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig.

Here's what Miano's website says about her:

Sarah Emily Miano is the author of “Van Rijn” and “Encyclopedia of Snow”. She was born in Buffalo, New York. Sarah has had a variety of jobs, including stints as a private eye, a pastry chef, and a tour bus driver. Sarah Emily Miano was taught by the British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion on the famous University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA. Her fiction has been published in “Pembroke Magazine”, “Grand Street”, and in the UEA anthology “Papers, Scissors, Stone”. It is appropriate that “Van Rijn” is about Rembrandt, as Sarah obviously comes from an artistic family, since her brother Charles Miano is a well-regarded portrait artist. In 2004, Sarah was one of the final recipients of the UK Art Council’s Writers’ Awards. Sarah Emily Miano lives in London.

Now, there are aspects of this which sum up why I didn't like EofS - the kooky CV, the Andrew Motion namedrop, the use of 'famous' and 'obviously' and 'well-regarded'. And is she in real life Sarah or Emily? Either way, EofS was a pretentious piece of prose that veered at times towards the unreadable. Try it if you don't believe me, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Secret of the Pink Carnation was certainly not pretentious, but it was dumb as a rock and had stupid things like Keats being name-checked as a famous poet when he was only just out of nappies. It had more of its heart in the right place than EoS which was a swagger novel - hey check me out, MA from UEA, publishing deal, hot stuff. But still, it was irritating in its total failure to convey historical period accurately, including the behaviour of the characters who read to me just like modern people from America, except the modern-day heroine, who was American and who came over as Doris Day acting the role of an academic. And it sucked as a romance. No real substantial conflict, and a set up at the end which failed to resolve the book properly so that there was plenty of room for a sequel - of which I think there are two, but I'm avoiding them.

So in number 2 is Book Lover, known in the US as Literacy and Longing in LA, which I hated
because it combined the pretentiousness of EofS with the dumbness in terms of plotting and characterisation of Carnation. That was a considerable achievement, which should not go unsung. So I'm singing it here - this book has the least likeable heroine that I've read for decades, and I've been reading for three and a half of those now, so I've got some book miles under my belt.

And still number 1 after all these years, combining stupidity and stylistic ineptitude in equal measure is the Da Vinci Code, which is still number one in my hit parade of worst books in the world. I know it is going to be hard to believe that I don't resent all the money that Dan Brown has made - I really really don't. I'm glad that there are writers who make megabucks. But what gets me is the total check-my-brain-in-at-the-lost-property-office approach of so many readers to this incredibly terrible book. When I say that I think this is the lamest book in the world, people go, 'but how, it's a bestseller'. Well, so is Coke, but that doesn't make it good for my teeth. In the same way, DVC is right up there as a complete mind-rotter of a novel.

I am going to put the reverse side of the story and write about books I have loved, but I don't want to sully the names of my favourite writers by including them alongside the writers of Big Pants Books. In the meantime, I just want to say that I know that one woman's poison is another woman's Marcolini ganache, so if you think I'm just wrong wrong wrong, don't worry, I won't take it the wrong way.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Covering up The Perfect Hero

Today I had to fill in a questionnaire for the art department designing the cover of A Perfect Hero. And I would love to show you what I came up with, but harrumph, I do not seem to have the technology, Houston, to show you my two mock-up covers that were I thought, quite delicious.

But I can direct you to the pictures that I thought would be suitable:

The portrait of Thomas Robert Hay, 11th Earl of Kinoull by Henry Raeburn, which I don't seem to be able to upload, but which you can find here

The portrait of the Duchess of Courland by Angelica Kauffman.

The portrait of Sir Humphry Davey by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Earl checks out for the imperfect suitor of the book, Valentine Wemyss, who was our heroine's fiancé until he dumped her very unceremoniously and publicly. The Duchess of Courland is somewhat my idea of the complexion, features and expression of Hero herself, and Humphrey Davy is exactly my image of Freddie Charteris, who confuses Hero by kissing her in Queens Gardens Edinburgh one dank December night and then gets into all sorts of mischief when he helps her track down Valentine who has done a disappearing act.

And who would have figured Humphry Davy for such a cutie!

I filled out a detailed questionnaire establishing that my book is set in 1816/17, during the winter, with snow, and that a hot clinch cover was undesirable because no one in the book actually has sex, or indeed gets much beyond a decorous bit of lip action and a caress or two. So what I expect I will get will be something like this:

Which, while it is a lively and vivid cover, would be inappropriate to my novel. I'm a little concerned too by the possibility that the hero has overdone it on the tanning table. However, I learned quite a while ago (2003 when I was first published) that as an author, you can say what you like, but expecting anyone to listen to you is folly in the extreme. Especially when it comes to the nitty gritty of marketing tools like cover art. I'm not sure that the writer in the publishing world is regarded as quite such irrelevant pondscum as the writer in the movie world, but it's best to know your place, tug your forelock and roll with the punches. Or the clinches.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I love this word, and it seems to be in the news a fair bit at the moment in relation to stem cell research. But I also like it in relation to its other meanings: the mythological beast with the lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tale, and the notion of some desirable goal that is illusory. And by the way, there is an actual chimera which is a type of fish aka rabbit fish, but that I find less interesting.

Most days I think the idea that I'll ever make a sensible living from my writing is a chimera, but I live in hope. They say that it takes 7-12 books to build up a real following, and here I am currently writting book number 7. Since I am still trying to flog book number 5 and have managed to flog book number 6 to an e-publisher, I am not sure that book 7 will count as book 7, it might really only represent book 5, but you never know. I am currently on version 5 of chapter one. I think this is the one that will take. I've never rewritten a first chapter so much. But I've decided that this time I am not going to stop, but will continue and then revisit and rewrite.

If I manage a steady 500 words a day between now and the end of the year, I should have amassed 61,000 words by the new year. Of course it won't be like that: this weekend, I have to go away for family reasons, and I doubt I'll manage my target. On the other hand, most days when I do write, I more than hit the target, so who knows. I wrote the bulk of a book in November 2005 when I did the Nanowrimo contest (National Novel Writing Month) which takes place every November. It took another 6 months to finish off properly, but the starter bones were there and I hit the 50,000 words in a month limit.

Isn't this a terrible prosaic banal way to approach writing! On the other hand, the unglamorous truth about writing is that by and large, it is banal. I'm reading a marvellous book, This Thing Of Darkness, by the much-lamented late Harry Thompson, a British TV producer and comic writer who died a couple of years ago from ironic lung cancer (ironic because he'd never smoked). The book is about Captain Robert Fitzroy, who commanded the Beagle and befriended Darwin, offering him the opportunity to join the voyage which lasted 5 years and was the source of the Origin of the Species.

Now one thing about Fitzroy and his experiences on the Beagle - he was beating the sea lanes around Tierra del Fuego for the better part of 10 years, and the thing that he and his mariners experienced again and again was phenomenal storms - all the more so in a vessel just over 90 feet long. Thompson's first storm is amazing - the writing is magnificent, and your heart is in your mouth as you read the account of how the boat is only just saved from destruction. But of course, that's the first of quite a few storms. Even in the hands of a writer as passionate and competent as Thompson, from time to time, the bad weather gets to you, and frankly, Darwin's expedition from Patagonia to Buenos Aires escorted by gauchos is a welcome relief from the nautical misadventures. Even the most appalling storm can become banal.

This though, is one of the classic reads - it's not a complete history by any means: Thompson omits interesting things like Fitzroy's failed attempt to become a member of parliament which would have put paid to his seafaring, and consequently meant no Darwin on the Beagle. On the other hand, the book is a big'un - over 700 pages, so diversions into 19th century British political manoeuvring were probably best avoided. Sometimes the process of developing scientific theories are rather clunkingly described, but on the whole, this is one of the most interesting and vivid novels I've read for some time. In the hands of Thomas Kenneally, a true master at novelising history, it might have been a real masterpiece, but Thompson did an honourable job and it is a very enjoyable and compelling read.

Now back to that fifth version of chapter one.