Friday, 29 March 2013

In spring . . .

In spring – or so I am advised – a young man’s fancy turns to love. Whether or not that applies in this age of touch screens and Twitter I have no real idea but I can confirm that in Marcia’s case the object of her spring fancy is the next book.

This is not unusual: Marcia gets to the end of the book she is writing. This is not to say that the book is written, far from it: she is at the stage most authors refer to as ‘the first draft’. Essentially it means that the skeleton of the book (plus, of course, a lot more) is now in place. There are unlikely to be any new characters but there will be many new scenes. Now comes the hardest part: in conjunction with her agent (who will have read that first draft) places where it is felt that the reader needs more information are identified and then ways and means of providing that have to be discovered. This sounds easy but is far from that.

First the author has to overcome the sheer misery of all this. There is no excitement left: none of the fun associated with listening to and learning new people; none of the adrenaline rush when, after hours in the car quartering the countryside and many disappointments, the locations are finally established. Now, we know the landscape as well as we do our own garden and all the characters have been living with us (and I do mean ‘us’) for over a year. We know far more about them than the readers will discover – which is not to suggest that Marcia withholds information but that she feels she needs to know what has happened ‘off the page’ in order to ensure that all characters are absolutely true to themselves at all times.

She is often asked if she keeps notes about these people and her response is very revealing. ‘Do you keep notes about you father, your siblings, your uncles and aunts? No, of course you don’t. You have no need to because you know them that well. Only when I know my characters as well as I know my sisters do I start to write about them.’

When the book is finished, one of my tasks is to add details of all the new characters and additional information on old characters to the data base I keep so as to ensure that no mistakes are made when characters reappear.

And so it is that when Dinah, Marcia’s agent, says, ‘We need to know more about So-and-so,’ together with other comments, it is time to start at the beginning yet again and thread through these requirements – and to thread them through whilst obeying the following rules:
  • the additional writing must be seamless
  • since everything is always seen only through the eyes of one character at a time, any additional flashbacks or thoughts must be seen through the eyes of that character central to that scene
  • never, ever, must one character tell another something they both know. This is a not uncommon device: ‘Oh, Mabs, I was thinking about giving this to Sandra, your daughter.’ Yes, the reader needs to know the relationship between Mabs and Sandra but this is not the way to impart that particular gem
  • the pace of the book must remain intact
  • the balance of the book must remain intact.

All this whilst wishing to move on because the ideas for the next book are just beginning to form and some of the characters for the next story are tapping on Marcia’s shoulder saying, ‘Hey, listen. This is important’. Which is what happened last Saturday. So we know a little bit about the book in waiting – not much and there will be lots of false leads and blind alleys and this may be all wrong but I will share with you where I am at the moment and, as I am sure you will agree, living with a creative writer itself creates a sense of insanity.

Last week I finished the copy editing of Postcards from the Past which meant I was with one bunch of nutters. Then I was asked to reread the first draft of novel number 24 (it does have a title but you will remember the problems we had when I gave out the working title of The Prodigal Wife so now we will stick to numbers) which meant getting into the heads of a second bunch of nutters. Then, on Saturday . . .

‘A beach. A sandy beach in a cove on the south coast. I know I did one in Second Time Round but I can’t help that and, before you ask, no: this isn’t about that cove or any of the people living there.’

‘Any idea where this sandy beach might be?’

‘Not really. Perhaps it’s somewhere between Dartmouth and Bigbury. Or down in Cornwall. Can we go and have a look? Perhaps we could start at Bantham.’

And so we did.

This is a male Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina. The female (rather like with most of mankind) is more colourful with yellowy/orange markings on her wings.

Who could resist the appeal in the eyes of Bracken, this week's blog dog?

Friday, 22 March 2013

Copy Editing

There is a real possibility that today’s blog will be a bit of a disappointment. Let me explain.

I have just – and I mean ‘just’ – finished checking the copy editing of Postcards from the Past and taken the necessary down to the post office so that it can wing its way back to Transworld. That means I just have had no time at all to think about this blog whereas most weeks I have a pretty clear idea of what I intend to write and, sometimes, it is written on Thursday evening. Not today. Today my head is still full of copy editing or, as our American friends call is, line editing.

This has nothing to do with editing which is where the content of the book and big things such as plots, characterisation, pace, balance and so forth are put under the magnifying glass. No, copy editing is where the magnifying glass goes back into the box and the microscope comes out. Now we are looking at every comma, semi-colon, colon, inverted comma (single and doubles), hyphens, n-dashes, m-dashes and full stops. We are checking to see where the paragraphs break, that none of the tenses are mixed, that all song titles, book titles, film titles, etc are correct, that there are no errors in the time line. Surely Susie knew about the murder before she had lunch with Penelope? How can little John be eight today when he was born only seven years ago?

Flash-backs require special care. Did they have contact lens in 1941? He can’t have been driving an Escort then, they didn’t hit the market until much later.

I have done a bit of copy editing and I can promise you it is one of the hardest and most difficult things to do – your job is to make corrections without anybody noticing which means without disturbing the style of the writer. Sometimes punctuation isn’t a problem. Some books defy all the rules of grammar. I would have problems in copy editing such books: I would be at odds with the author all the way through. That is not to say that I do not enjoy books written with little or no regard for the English language. Dick Francis wrote some books which did that but he wrote about the world he knew (rather as did Jane Austen) and in his books you can smell the stable yard, feel the creak of the saddle beneath you as your and the horse’s breath condenses in the early morning chill, the fear and exultation of the jockeys, trainers and owners on race days.

There is no good reason for this photograph. Am I trying to prove that there is something strangely beautiful about corrugated iron? Surely not.
On Dartmoor, since you ask.
Good, really good, copy editors are like hens teeth and Marcia is incredibly lucky to have Yvonne Holland working on the manuscripts. Like most copy editors, Yvonne is freelance. She was hugely helpful to Marcia when she was writing The Children’s Hour in which Lydia was a copy editor. Without Yvonne’s expert input that characterisation would not have been possible.

So, we receive the manuscript covered in Yvonne’s notes and marks. There will also be a sheet drawing Marcia’s attention to places where there are major queries. So, job one is for Marcia to work through that and tell me what changes she wants made (it is uncanny how Yvonne always spots problems although some of her proposals for solving them may not be what Marcia wants). Once that has been done, the manuscript ends up on my desk.

I read it through, red pencil in hand, ticking everything I think is right, changing anything I feel is wrong (Yvonne and I do not always agree on the use of commas) and putting a query against anything I want to discuss with Marcia. Then I go through it again, correcting the manuscript on my computer so that the ‘post copy editing’ version can be sent overseas for the translators to start work while, at the same time, marking any corrections using a green pen.

Finally those sheets, the ones with my green scrawls on them, are popped into an envelope and taken down to the post office. Now I am back, rather damp (it was pouring with rain) with very little time to write to you. I suspect this is a rant – my apologies.

This is not the best photograph I have taken of the Painted Lady Vanessa cardui but it isn't bad of the person about to land nearby. No idea what it is but I will see if I can identify it but please don't hold your breath: at the moment I am not even sure whether it is a wasp, a bee or a fly.

Bill was far more interested in another dog on the other side of the road than he was in becoming famous. Perhaps he has his priorities right.

Friday, 15 March 2013

It has been a rather interesting time in France. Marcia is published (under her pseudonym “Willa Marsh”) by Éditions Autrement Littératures. So far they have published all four of the books she wrote under that name and these are the ones that have attracted praise in The Times here, in England, and La Figero in Paris. Here is what the latter had to say:

“Willa Marsh c’est Jane Austin avec l’humour de Blake Edwards . . . Elle mène les lecteurs par le bout du nez, et passe du burlesque au tragique avec le flegme d’un lord Anglais.” My French is nowhere near as good as it should be but I think that may be reasonably translated as saying, “Willa Marsh is Jane Austin with the humour of Blake Edwards. She leads the readers by the nose through a tragic burlesque involving a phlegmatic English nobleman.”

Anyway, whether or not as a result of being noticed by La Figero, Autrement have decided to publish Meutres au manoir or, as we know it, The Quick and the Dead as a mass paperback book it having done well under the Littératures imprint. At the same time they are publishing Le Prix de l’innocence (Facing the Music). Both books were translated by the delightful Éric McComber (as French as they come but via Canada) who, while he is working, would email and telephone Marcia with requests for help when he came across something he did not understand: they ended up by becoming the best of friends. Once such conversation went something like this.

Éric: ‘What is this smooching? We do not have smooching in France. Would it be the kissing with the tongues?

Marcia: ‘You do have kissing with the tongues! We call that French kissing! No, imagine you are on the dance floor, the band is playing a slow and dreamy number and you and your partner move together in perfect accord. You move closer and perhaps you kiss her hair.’

Éric: ‘Ah, yes. I know exactly the phrase I shall put there.’

Some of the Willa’s have references that would clearly mean nothing to the readers in France. For example, in Meutres entre sœurs (Sisters Under the Skin) the BBC Radio programme Mrs Dale’s Diary crops up quite a few times. Autrement deal with this by explaining in footnotes. Brilliant.

There is no good reason for this picture: I just like the slightly decaying thatch with the equally decaying corrugated iron and the telegraph post way off vertical. 
This time last year we were talking about the tadpoles that I used to hand rear (well, more or less) before returning them to the ponds when I felt they were bog enough to look after themselves. At the moment I am working on the copy editing of Marcia’s next book, Postcards from the Past, which will be published in the autumn. I am delighted that one of the characters in this book has obviously been reading my blogs: he has a tadpolarium very like the one I used to have. Here all we have is a tiny pond but, to our great joy, we saw some frog-spawn in it on Wednesday. I shall keep you posted.

This week’s butterfly isn’t a butterfly at all: it’s a moth. This is really very stupid of me. Butterflies are by far the easier of the two: if you look at the distribution maps for British butterflies you will find that we have a mere thirty-five here in the south west plus, of course, the ones that land up here unintentionally. The position with moths is very different. Over two thousand four hundred species have been recorded in the British Isles but I really don’t know how many are resident in the south west. Needless to say, this makes identification a lot harder. This one is, I am reasonably certain, a Silver Y Autographa gamma. When I showed the picture to Marcia she said that it looked like a monster from outer space. What do you think?

Blog dog this week is Fern.

Finally, last week I was asked if there are any photos of Marcia as a dance. Well there is this one (which she doesn't like) and I will try and find some others if I can.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Summer trees

It was a very silly idea to look at trees through the year as I should have realised before I started. They are fine in spring as the buds grow and burst, the new foliage in softest greens and pinks appears and flowering varieties delight eyes tired of winter greys. They are lovely in autumn as the leaves turn – not as gaudy as the maples in Canada although, oddly, our native “maple”, the sycamore, treats autumn with contempt: its leaves shrivel, turn a dull and dirty brown and fall to the ground to lie mourned by none but the busy worms who will shred them and take them underground to fertilise the soil – for nature is never wasteful. Then comes winter when they bare their bones and, standing stark against the sky, weave intricate patterns of light and shade.

That leaves summer: the next one I should consider and, frankly, the time of the year when trees are at their least attractive and especially so at midday when the sun is high in the sky. Thus, as I have just realised, I rarely bother to take their portraits during the months of June, July and August – so rarely that I can find only two images taken in summer where I have chosen to photograph a tree simply for its own sake.

Those who were brought up on Puck of Pooks Hill by Rudyard Kipling will remember, I am sure, Puck’s words to the children when they first met (if that is the right word). “I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too,” he says and it is, of course, true that these three are among the first to return to Britain after the ice age. This means that they support a huge variety of wild life.

The oak, of which we have two species, plays host to nearly three hundred different insects which, in turn, provide food for birds. Their acorns feed jays and squirrels, who, by carrying them off and burying them, help the species to spread. Bats roost in the crevices and hollows: great spotted woodpeckers, spotted flycatchers, nuthatches and treecreepers nest in holes they find or make in the trees. Sadly, I can find no good photograph of an oak taken in the summer so we must move on.

The same comment really applies to the ash but since it is one of the latest to come into leaf I shall cheat a little. This picture was taken on the twenty-second of May so almost qualifies as a summer portrait. It stands in the lane a few yards from our old house and we fear that it will soon be lost: ash die back is sweeping the country and it is believed that within a couple of years we shall lose at least eighty percent of all our ash trees.

This hawthorn, standing alone on Brendon Common up on Exmoor where it has to withstand the full force of the westerly gales that sweep across the tops, is not exactly the in the sort of place that Puck would have had in mind. It stands beside a small car park in which we would stop to have lunch or whatever when we were exploring for the Exmoor books. So it was that on the last day in May in 2007 after we had eaten lunch (guessing but the picture is time stamped 13.47) I took its picture.

The Horse Chestnut was introduced here in the seventeenth century: simply because it is a really splendid tree. Since it has been here but the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, it has yet to attract any serious inhabitants and so does little for our wildlife – other than small boys who do battle with its fruit called conkers (despite attempts to stop them made by folks who use “health and safety” to end much that gives fun and pleasure to life).

This week's butterfly is the Peacock, Inachis io. I regret that the butterfly photos are not that good, really. All have been taken 'in passing' when there happened to be a butterfly and I happened to have a camera in my hand. Still, it's a nice picture of the buddleia.

This week's blog dog is called George and he is uncannily like our old rescued lab, Max.

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Writer's Year

This week I am going to give trees a miss because there is something else I want to talk about. The headline is misleading: since this is from my own observations it must be specific to Marcia's year and it is wrong to suggest that all novelists work the same way and, indeed, I am sure that they don't.

The year starts with a vague idea, a shadow usually of a character but sometimes of a place. Obviously there is nothing for me to do regarding the characters. Marcia, and Marcia alone, will be the one talking to them and listening to their replies – sometimes to the puzzlement and amusement of passers who, at that time, Marcia will not even see. No, it is finding the places that is my part of the deal.

I get helpful hints such as, “I think there is a biggish house with a small one alongside, probably a converted stable or something. There's a stream and behind the hill climbs up and is wooded.” From that I am supposed to be able to take Marcia to a location so that she can say, “Yes, that's it”. Those who have read my (I fear at times somewhat pithy) comments on this procedure will know that “marital bliss” can be under considerable strain.

Anyway, we have that idea, that comment breathed into the receptive ear and Marcia begins to become more alive. Then other bits get added and this is one of the most exciting times in the year as the shape of the next story reveals itself.

The excitement continues for the first few chapters of the book until she hits the twenty thousand word count or thereabouts. Then the panics start and she finds the next few week a real problem. By now she is convinced that (a) the book is rubbish, (b) even if the book isn't rubbish it will be far too short, (c) even if the book isn't absolute rubbish and it has the required number of words her agent won't like it and (d) even if the book isn't absolute rubbish and it has the required number of words and her agent likes it her editor won't like it. Probably my most important role during this period is keeping her spirits up and that is where all of you come in too. You can have absolutely no idea of how incredibly important your emails, comments on this blog and letters are both to Marcia and to me.

Then, suddenly, that middle bit of the book is written – that desert has been crossed – and there ahead in clear sight is the finishing post. Suddenly Marcia starts to work for far too many hours in the day: one is reminded of greyhounds coming out of the trap as the hare races by. This creates other problems – RSI in wrist and shoulder and headaches.

It is no good my trying to slow her down as she just isn't listening. Anyway, I was delighted when yesterday she announced that there were a few things we needed to check up on Dartmoor as that meant she would spend the day away from the computer which would do her the world of good. As we came down off the moor these two were perched on top of adjacent telegraph poles: an alert looking crow and a buzzard seeking a late luncheon.

Then the book will be finished and the year will begin all over again. I understand that she already has the opening sentence of the next book but who will be in it or where it will be set is a complete mystery.

This is the Large White Butterfly Pieris brassicae. As its name suggests, it is famous for laying its eggs on brassica so that its caterpillars can destroy the gardeners crops. Here he (or, of course, she) is having a quick snack on the buddleia.

The Blog Dog of the week is called Jasper.