"Canonicity" is the perfect metaphor for becoming an adult. Small children learn (to a greater or lesser extent) that the world is made out of strict, absolute rules. They soon come to expect those rules to be both internally and mutually consistent, and the more so they appear to be, the more the child becomes attached to, and identifies with, those rules. As we grow up, and our critical sense develops, many of us start to see that more than one rule is possible, and that some rules don't work in all situations, and some rules from the past are incompatible with rules in the present. And some present rules are incompatible with our experience and observation.

Eventually we realize that what we thought were rules were barely even guidelines. They were intended as simplification - either by us or for us - to give children a means of interacting with a complex, confused and conflicted adult world.

An adult is someone who judges each situation on its present context. Who seeks information, guidance and suggestions from other adults, but who ultimately decides that what is right at any given place and time is what feels right within the present context. It is a sign of immaturity to seek to fit a present context into its place in a set of established rules.

Fiction, in the obvious cases of fairytales, fantasy and (much) science fiction, but in almost every genre, is about rules. Vampires can't go out during the day, police officers must follow procedure, cowboys are bound to being the good guy or the bad guy, and can't go against this even if it is in their nature to do so*. Pterry calls these rules "narrative causality" and with good reason. We teach the rules of our culture to eachother by telling stories.

But... the oldest stories we know are about heroes. And heroes break rules. Orpheus goes into the underworld to bring Eurydice back from the dead (in Zena people go back and forth so much to the underworld that Cerberus is put out to stud and Hades fits a revolving door (at least, I assume so)); Perseus kills anything and everything it's forbidden to kill - Heracles succeeds at every task which has been set him, even though he has been set these tasks by a god who intends him to fail.

Stories about heroism are indeed stories about becoming an adult; taking responsibility, having the courage of your convictions (a favourite expression of my prep-school Headmaster Alan Butterworth)  - what I love about this idea is that it suggests that even if your convictions may be wrong, you should still do what you feel is the right thing.

Argument over what is canon and what is not are particularly impossible in Dr Who. Much fun is being had by the series' present creators at the moment to stimulate a controversy about how many regenerations a timelord can have. The series is 50 years old. Hundreds of people have contributed to the Dr Who universe over those years, and they can't all agree though some have tried — heroically — to create stories that reconcile apparently conflicting rules.

Personally, I think there is more meaning to be found in looking at the way that the rules of a fantasy universe, or a folk tale, evolve with each retelling. As an author, there is a huge amount to be learned from reading The Hobbit first, then LOTR, then the Silmarillion. The major cultural flaw of the new Hobbit films is exactly what its makers all to obviously think is its strength: that the audience already knows what happens later, what the real meaning of the Ring and the Necromancer are.

But of course, when the Hobbit was written, the ring was just a magic ring that made you invisible, and the Necromancer just a nebulous and distant threat - something to be avoided, and no more.

Bilbo's ring is retconned into The One Ring; Gollum is retconned into Sméagol; the Necromancer is retconned into Sauron.

Inspiration is essential to the storyteller's art; and just as you can be inspired to write your own story by someone else's, so you can be inspired to write a new story by one of your own stories.

Damon Courtney is very close to releasing the third in his Dragon Bond series, and the third book is a culmination of a process of ongoing development - an expanding fantasy world; an expanding canon. A hero of the third book was little more than a mook in the first and a pawn in the second. But Damon was inspired by what the character was becoming.

To a considerable extent, what we add to the world of the series in later books can be seen as what we did not know. When we read The Hobbit as children, we thought Bilbo's ring was just a magical trinket, and very convenient considering his, ahem, profession. But when we read LOTR, we can choose to accept that in reality there were all sorts of things we did not know; could not know. LOTR shows us that no story exists in a vacuum; no story is an island — what contributes to a story may have causes and consequences far outside that story.

Which is what we learn about real life, when we become adults; the real world does not have convenient beginnings and endings. The real world is all middles.

* the most recent example of this is Vimes, who believes himself to be a bad guy, but is incapable of resisting the urge to do the right thing.


Weird Words #7: Instinctual or Instinctive?

Instinct is a tricky beast. So often we think we are or we think we aren't acting on it, and so often we might — or might not — be wrong.

My thanks go to the Dan Shive for prompting this post... I hope he reads it.

Writers, and everyone else for that matter, write a lot of bunk about instinct. Much of it can probably be avoided except for where it is strictly thematic, but all that is beside the point. Today's issue is the word instinctual.

Now this word is not the modern invention it appears to be to people who grew up with instinctive and only encountered instinctual from time to time. Although it appears to date from the mid nineteenth century*, whereas instinctive is from the early seventeenth, there should be, and often is, a distinction in the meaning between these two words.

Both words are about instinct — whatever you think that might be. But they have different suffixes for a reason.

The -ive suffix typically means: arising from, pertaining to, tending to.
The -al (often -ual) suffix typically means: of, like, relating to.

In modern English there is often some overlap between these but consider the following imaginary University Facluties:

Department of Instinctual Studies         —        Department of Instinctive Studies

I hope some readers will immediately feel the difference in meaning, I'm sure that some will see it straight away. For those that don't:

The Department of Instinctual Studies studies and teaches about instinct. The Department of Instinctive Studies studies or teaches through or using instinct. We don't know what it teaches.

To put it another way, instinctual studies is the "of" meaning of the -al suffix: "the study of instinct". Instinctive studies is the "arising from" or "tending to" meaning of the -ive suffix, meaning study using instinct.

What I find especially curious is that there are very few words ending in -ual compared with those ending in -ive. So few, indeed, that a list of those that have both can be very short:

actualactive(the meanings are very distinct)
auditualauditive(the latter is vastly more common but both are just synonyms for auditory)
effectualeffective(the former means "having an effect" and is more often used negated. The latter means performing its expected function)
perceptualperceptivethe difference is very similar to instinctual/instinctive: perceptual is "all about perception" while perceptive is "possessing qualities or capacities of perception"

I think this shows that there is a valid, definite and valuable distinction between the meanings of instinctive and instinctual and writers should stop using the latter as a "smarter sounding alternative" to instinctive. In fiction, usage of instinctual ought to be extremely rare compared with instinctive.


I can't work out whether there should or could be a clear denotative difference between instinctually and instinctively. The former seems only to be used by people who use instinctual when they mean instinctive and I suspect that this is why four out of five of the dictionaries I regularly go to have no listing for instinctually at all.

* Some sources put the word later, in the early twentieth. It appears very often in translations of German psychology textbooks and hardly anywhere else until the 1960s, and it is only from the 1980s that it really starts to become common.


Genre Tyranny - and a couple of apologies.

First an apology. I've been nagging Dawn McCullough-White to write a sequel to The Emblazoned Red. This is partly because I really like this book and partly because I really like Dawn's work in general. There's something very particular about the experience of reading it; an atmosphere, a sense of presence, that seems to be unique to her style and presentation, and imagination.

My apology is that while I have already mentioned the book on my blog, until today, the cover was not on the right hand column of this pageI don't know what difference, if any, that would make to readers discovering this book that certainly deserves to be discovered, but it's something I ought to have done, and have not.

I'm also apologizing to Ray Kingfisher, whose excellent, slick, funny Easy Money has also not shown on this page. Easy Money is dedicated to the late Tom Sharpe who died in June of this year. If you read it, you will see why.

The Emblazoned Red is a book that manages to combined the defining characteristics of several genres into a coherent, convincing, artfully imagined world. But it really doesn't conform to any of those genres. It reads like a regency romance, but the main character is an armoured knight who fights the undead and falls in love with a pirate.

If you sat down and said: "I'm going to combine vampires, zombies, pirates, paladins and highwaymen into a bodice ripper" you'd surely have a recipe for disaster, but a good book doesn't come from a recipe.

It comes from a strong story idea, that is worked into a strong story; that has characters that you care about, that compel your interest and attention. That is what Dawn delivers. That it takes place in an imaginary world where the difference between living and dead is ... less clearly defined than in our own ... is just part of her creative vision. I find her world-building almost effortlessly transporting even when it is a little sparse. So the lack of a true, defining genre shouldn't represent a problem.

But the organ by which we distribute our works depends on classification. How else can one writer claim he is #1 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Post-Apocalyptic and another be #1 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Steampunk and so on. All this enables readers to find what they want and the maximum number of writers get the maximum of exposure.

Provided they are writing genre fiction. Amazon has a category Books > Literature & Fiction > Literary. Honestly it's a bucket. The last place you want to be if you want to get noticed, and look at any book in the top ten in that category and you'll see that it has a high ranking in two or three other categories.

It's all about the categories.

Which is a pity, I think. I wonder how many readers do not actively seek the next Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Women's Fiction > Sagas or Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > American... and just want to read a good book, regardless of how it is categorized.

If I searched by category for the the type of book I thought I might like, I'm pretty sure I'd never have encountered any of  Dawn McCullough-White's work.


Editing Update: Originality in heroic fantasy? ...

... and a second draft I've been looking forward to for a while.

I'm about to start working on the first book of C Ryan Bymaster's Echoes of Power series. Bymaster's English flows very readily, and is a pleasure to read, although his diction gets a little experimental in places and his grasp of paragraph breaks, especially in direct speech is, like the rest of you, nonexistent.

What I like about what I've read so far is that he has hit upon an original* magic system that is also pleasingly intuitive, and therefore probably requires even less explanation than he has actually given.

In addition, Jarmila Zaricka sent me the second draft of her unusual, philosophical, novel of self-realization. I haven't so much as glanced at it yet as I want to save the treat for when I can sit in my cozy armchair and really savor it.

* for a given value of Frank Herbert. Nothing is ever original, and the magic system owes various debts in various places, but in the setting, it's pretty innovative.


In which I try and fail to review a book ...

... and end up generally rambling on, as usual.

A few weeks a go, I worked for the first time with (yet another) Florida Keys Noir Crime writer Jessica Argyle. It's okay. I love that stuff. And Jessica's book is as close to proper literary fiction as self-conscious modern genre fiction gets. No Name Key is part history, part crime, part sweaty-insect-bitten-marooned-in-the-everglades drama. It may be a little retro, but it is also shouting for the core of the women's movement.

Not really shouting, actually. It's more that kind of throaty growl of a she-wolf hidden in a thicket that means "we both know you know I'm here; don't make me come out there."

No Name Key is a damn fine book and I'm impatient for its publication.

Anyway, when my authors go to the trouble of recommending a book to me, I generally have a damn good go at actually reading it, and Jessica suggested I read Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks.

This is where I try to review it.

I'm going to start with the cover. I don't usually bother talking about covers of published books, but I really hate this cover, so I'm going to talk about it. The type face (font) is a disaster. It makes it look like this is classic noir, and it just isn't. I'm expecting all women in long dresses and guys stuffed into dinner suits and some plot that turns around a laundry ticket for a coat that has some incriminating evidence in the pocket. Some run of the mill retro rich white folks and private dicks.

That ain't it. The cover needs to scream, sex, betrayal, and weird, skewed, awkwardness. It shouldn't be slick.

See here, Miami Purity, about which I'm going to say something like "I really wanted to like it, and in the end I kind of did", is a book about the way that just being at the extreme end of one of the various scales of being human can make your life a weird-arse awful mess.

I had to really fight with this book to get to the end though, because the story, such as it is, doesn't keep pace with the characters. It doesn't know where to go. Partly this is because there are three clearly identifiable places where the author has said to herself: "that's a big damn crime fiction cliché right there. I'm not going there" and by not going there has kind of gone nowhere, and then on one of them, played a cliché right back by retconning a hidden twist. (All right, it might not have been a retcon, but it was painfully opportunistic and obvious. (I'm talking about the way in which Payne deals with his "rival for Sherri's affections".))

What I think goes wrong with the story is that the author loses confidence in the characters, starts to worry that they can't manage on their own, and eventually lampshades the fact that it's the characters who are driving the story, but not through what they have done so far, just through their personal character flaws. ("I told you, she'll fuck up and leave. She'll fuck herself with her drinking.")

In the end, I think that the author should have taken the risk, done the clichés and watch the fun as unexpectedly convincing nymphomaniac, exhibitionist alcoholic Sherri stumbles from one screw up to another.

Some reviewers will, I'm sure, have complained that there was too much sex. Well there was, for the story, but not for the character of Sherri. The saturation level shagging is essential. It's the only way to get across to the reader just what it is like to be like that. It isn't erotic. It isn't even funny. Sometimes Sherri gets what she's desperate for, and it's a very brief relief. That is good, daring, successful writing.

What I'd like to see from this author is a simpler, less original story, a lot more awareness of her own themes so that she can explore, inform and entertain, and push the originality and believability of the characters towards and beyond the limits of what readers will readily accept.


new release: The Sanity Paradox

I hope J. William Latimer will forgive tardiness of this announcement.

His debut novel, an international conspiracy thriller, The Sanity Paradox, was released on October 15.

Here's an extract from the blurb:

When famed author Samuel Grayson finally sobered up, he gave up more than blackouts and bouts of
depression—he lost the voice of the fictional undercover cop that made him a household name. In a desperate bid to save his career, Grayson agrees to meet with a secretive publishing firm aboard a popular Niagara Falls tourist boat. But restoring his prominence in the crime fiction business isn't his only motive. The potential publisher had repeated three simple words that have haunted Grayson for decades—three words no one should have ever known.

I really enjoyed working on this book; it has all the usual elements of the conspiracy thriller: charismatic gurus, secret cyphers, Ivy League intellectuals, bewildered blue-collar law enforcement professionals, international travel and twists galore.

What I think sets it apart is that Latimer has a really strong underlying professional knowledge of his subject matter, which enables him to use it with the very structure of the narrative, and provides, by the end, an original twist on the meaning and purpose of a literary protagonist.


It's not about the breasts.

So, yesterday's post got a ludicrous number of hits, and a small minority of the visitors stayed to actually read what I said.

Which was nice.

But looking at the two comments I got (and some "behind the scenes" feedback) I think I may have shot myself in the foot with that title. The first commenter thought that I was offended by the size of Monica's breasts and the second thought I was objecting to it or complaining about it.

Paul Taylor sent me a brief and polite email where he seemed a lot more interested in my criticism of his slightly disjointed storytelling than of his use of visual cues. Which is fair enough.

I happen to be a fan of Taylor's work. My daughter has a poster of this image on her wall. I wanted her to have it because I think it both showcases Taylor's talent for composition and colour and for the distinctiveness of his style, and is a terrific representation of female body confidence. Somehow he has painted two young women who are sexy, not because they are suggesting that they are available, but because the make me want to get to know them.

If it's not about the breasts, what is it about? It's about symbolism. As usual, I'm going to try and fail to avoid being pompous and intellectual.

In 1957 the French critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes published an influential and important book, Mythologies. The central thesis of Mythologies is that in visual media (he concentrates in particular on cinema) there is an established language of visual cues that he calls "signs". I have already mentioned this in another post. Russian theatrical experimenter Vsevolod Meyerhold developed a system for actors intented to make them hyper aware of their every movement and gesture, because, he maintained, everything the audience can see has meaning for them. Therefore, actors should not even move unintentionally, knowing that every movement will mean something to someone watching. By extension, movement and gesture can then become a means of active and deliberate communication.

These are two examples of visual language.

In textual fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, epic poetry, etc), visual language also exists. It is present in obvious forms such as simile, metaphor and emblem. But it is also present in a more pervasive and less obvious form: symbolism. Imagine a Regency novel about the rise and subsequent fall of a country gentleman. All the major events in the story take place in and around a water mill. The reader gradually builds up a mental picture of the mill, and through careful writing, the author ensures that the wheel becomes more and more dominant in that mental picture. The wheel is of course a symbolic representation of the medieval idea of the "Wheel of Fortune" - an idea that is still a resilient element of our culture.

Comics and graphic novels are a mixed medium. The use both text and pictures - and many of them use both textual and visual examples of visual language.

So getting back to Wapsi Square. In my opinion, and he can object if he wants to, Paul Taylor is creating art. If I feel that at the moment his visual talent is more developed than his storytelling talent, it isn't to say that there isn't clear evidence that both are improving and developing. And I feel that his style is now doing a disservice to his message in some cases.

Let me contrast this with another webcomic, where the creator keeps his symbolism simpler, but is, in a way, delivering the same general message.

Consider J.E. Draft's Zona. Draft is properly unashamed about his adulation for the female body, but his artistic style is derived from his medium. In my opinion he has made his own life very difficult by chusing to use Poser to create scenes and then adding detail, effects and subtlety to them in a (sometimes complex and time-consuming) post production phase. However, using Poser gives an impression of realism.

Draft is also a good story teller. Zona moves forward at a generally even pace, it has solid plot construction and steady internal coherence. One thing that comes across very strongly is that the worlds (there are two) in which it is set are well thought out, and highly detailed. It has it's weaknesses, but they aren't germane.

Probably the first thing you will notice, however, is that the central characters undermine the standard male
 fantasy archetypes - while still playing along. It's a clever piece of tightrope walking that I suspect comes naturally to Draft. The two main characters are the titular Zona and Mentl.

They are a loving and affectionate couple, and Draft is not afraid of showing it. Zona is extremely buxom, but it is she who is tall, muscular and powerful - she even has a big, masculine jaw. Mentl is short, a little on the skinny side, and has a face that is very far from being "conventionally handsome". Indeed, all of Mentl's attractiveness is in his personality. He is non-confrontational, sensitive, honest, kind, loyal. The third regular character is Zona's sister, Tula. Also drawn as an "Amazon", she isn't nearly as tall and muscular as Zona. But Tula is the smart one. Indeed, Tula is a genius.

In other words, the major characteristics of the male power fantasy archetype, physical and mental prowess, have been given to the main female protagonists. One might argue that characteristics that are stereotypically (for which read, "not always true") female have been assigned to the male protagonist.

Are the women sexualized? Yes, but. And it is a big but and you have to read the whole comic to realize why. The culture that Zona and Tula come from is one where many human interactions are sexualized. It is a culture that is completely without sexual reserve of any kind, which occasionally makes Mentl uncomfortable.

So, does Draft take that to its logical conclusion?

Draft's message is simple and plain: people's good qualities are complementary. Match the right people with the right variety of qualities and they can achieve great things. And most of all: you can't tell because of someone's gender what qualities they will possess.

In exactly the same way as Taylor, Draft is telling his reader that prejudice is of very little practical use.

Draft and Taylor take different approaches in artistic technique, and in their use of visual language.

Draft's apparent realism means that there is little risk that his visual language will be misconstrued. However his celebration of sexuality may offend some people, and the pleasure he takes in representing semi-naked women may lead those who don't read his comic to believe that he is just another Neanderthal.

Taylor's stylization leads him to a completely different risk. That his visual cues may be dissonant with his message. It's a difficult target to hit, especially when he is sometimes aiming to be dissonant.


I'm still not completely confident that I will have managed to make myself understood. But remember, this blog is supposed to be for writers, to make them more sensitive to technique, so that they can better understand and improve their craft.

And finally, thank you to both commenters. Noone should ever feel that they daren't voice their honest reaction.


"Monica's boobs are getting on my tits."

First, I apologize for the title of this post; I was careful to put it in scare quotes, but understand that in spite of the impression you might have got of me from my recent interview on Rocking Self-Publishing, the title of this post is an accurate representation of how I really talk.

I know I have already intimated that I am a regular reader of webcomics, and I may even have listed my regulars somewhere.

Among those is the generally excellent Wapsi Square. Wapsi went from being a carefully* drawn casual webcomic about a "small group of twenty-somethings getting up to hijinx with obligatory supernatural mascot" to a beautifully and distinctively drawn comic with a sense of humour that regularly deals with serious subject matter through supernatural (and increasingly allegorical) storylines that occasionally seem to retcon the only medium that can't be convincingly retconned. As such, you have to keep up to date or you can find yourself in big trouble.

If you don't keep up to date, and decide to go on an archive binge, you have to be prepared for the following repeated WTF moments:

  • I remember him/her/it/that... whatever became of him/her/it/that?
  • wait, she has super powers now?
  • wait, she has super powers too?
  • How old did you say you were?
  • Oh, now she's indestructible.
  • No, wait, just immune to bullets.
  • No, really indestructible... 
  • and so on
In a way, all this is par for the course. Certain long running webcomics, of which I guess one of the major grand daddies is Sluggy Freelance, shows that you can not only continually reinvent certain characters (provided other characters develop in a more conventional way), but you can (and probably should) lampshade the fact (warning: that last link was to TV Tropes. Only follow it if you have time to kill. ). Aylee the alien regularly changes appearance and personality throughout the first few years of the comic.

Somehow, we accept plotting oddities, incursions from other fictional worlds and total overhauls in webcomics that would be utterly unacceptable in other media.

Wapsi Square makes up for its oddities with some strong and compelling central characters (Monica, Shelley, Tina, Katherine, Phix), and Wapsi's creator Paul Taylor even pulls off the improbably coup of giving the impression that we the readers are still just beginning to get to know those characters, familiar though they have become.

As with all long running webcomics, Wapsi has also seen a significant transformation in the artistic style, as Paul Taylor has developed from a newb comic scribbler into, let's face it, an artist.

His style looks slapdash... a lot less careful than those early strips. But he seems to have discovered how to cram all the necessary emotion onto the faces of his characters exaggerated eyes and teeth notwithstanding.

So... to the boobs.

Dig a little in the archive and the forums, and you will discover that there is a sensible-ish reason why Monica's boobs are so disproportionately huge. And indeed, the disadvantages to her distinctive distinguishing anatomical feature are explored honestly (though not without a little humour). Having said this, as Taylor's style has become more and more individual and differentiating, it has developed into a style that emphasizes details of characters' appearance. As a result, Monica's boobs have got bigger and bigger.

Now, there are times where a little exaggeration goes a long way, and not just for comic effect. And Taylor also draws what I think are joyous and liberated old school pin-ups of his main character where the exaggeration is also ... forgivable.

And those boobs can also be useful for leaving us in no doubt that even transformed into an embodiment of righteous rage, this is still Monica.


Increasingly often, Monica's physique is distracting to the point of undermining an otherwise liberal, equal, empowered treatment of women**, both in terms of character portrayal and in the underlying symbolism of the stories.

In today's comic (pictured above), the distraction is underlined because Tina's torso is much more natural than Monica's. This is true of pretty much all the other characters. They look like cartoony exaggerations of realistic physiques - even the supernatural ones. Whereas Monica has become increasingly "impossible".

The scare quotes around "impossible" are there because there absolutely are real women who have a petite figure and impractically large breasts, and all the risks, problems, prejudice and stigma that go along with that. So if there are people in real life who have that physique, surely it's fine?

It isn't fine, though, because a webcomic is a story, and stories are about what it means to be human, and visual media in particular, communicate their cultural message visually as well as through words and stories.

Cephalopod Monica (see footnotes) does not create a problem. Whereas sharp-toothed Monica (in Taylor's style of today) creates a visual dissonance with the emotional subject manner that is undermining rather than unsettling.

In my opinion, Taylor could dial back Monica's boobage just a little, and the original sense of a character whose personality, intelligence and personal empowerment is entirely contrary to the expectations imposed by an excessively sexualizing culture will be recovered.

Ahem. That's one of those sentences again. Let me try again.

Monica is drawn and written as a contradiction. This is good. She is drawn in way that makes her look as if sexuality is her primary characteristic. She is written in a way that shows that it is not. This exposes our culture's visual prejudice towards women. This is an important message but it can't be the ONLY ONE. The current mini arc (obscure though it may be) is not about this. It's about rape. And the boobage is undermining the message (that treating a woman only as a means of sexual gratification is not acceptable).

Mini disclaimer:

Most women, I hope, don't need to be told about this particular message, and I'm sure the many women who read and enjoy this webcomic are much less distracted from the message by the boobs. What I'm saying here is that I am. And I suspect I'm not the only male who is.

* I had a hard time coming up with the right word here. Sometimes those early strips seem to be populated with jello-people. "Sally's Bar" is really the first place where you discover that Taylor can draw people rather than cephalopods.
**I'm trying to avoid a particular word. Can you guess what it is?


Minor Website update with Potentially major consequences...

I remembered that Microsoft Internet Explorer doesn't like unbracketed side effects:


This statement states that either the variable width has been initialized and contains a value, or its value should be set to "width:400px".

Without the brackets, it looks a but mad but Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari don't seem to mind. IE however stops all scripting on the page and looks at you in a funny way. So I rewrote it as:


Anyone looking at my site should now see it as it should be. If you usually use IE you may discover that there's a lot more content there than you thought. Sorry about that.

Visit my website here: http://www.densewords.com


Rocking Self Publishing Podcast Interview

Simon Whistler interviewed me for his excellent weekly podcast, which was broadcast two weeks ago. You can go listen to it here: http://rockingselfpublishing.com/episode-12-effective-editing-harry-dewulf

I just got around to listening to it myself.

I never knew I was that posh!

But I sound a lot better than I thought I would. Probably because of the distortion from my cheap crappy microphone.



"Metz" Mirabelles
It is that time of year where we in Lorraine start to collect ripe fruit and turn it into other things. People who follow me on twitter will know that I make Jam whenever possible, though I seldom eat Jam. Much of our Jam is given away to people who, we hope, eat Jam more often than we eat Jam, but many of them, I suspect, find that Jam is as adequate an  unexpected gift as we do. And pass it on.

Recently I sent a parcel of Jam to someone in England. But I suspect he might actually eat some of it. Or at least try one pot and then give the other one to a friend who, he has reason to suppose, likes Jam.
"Nancy" Mirabelles

One year in three or so, we have a very large crop of Mirabelles. The Mirabelle Plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is the Patron Fruit of Lorraine. There are two main types, the Metz (which is sweeter and smaller) and the Nancy (which as it ripens develops an attractive "blush") on the yellow skin. We have two trees of the Nancy type. This year there were so many that several branches broke.

So I made Jam. Quite a lot of Jam, actually. And there were still far too many mirabelles left. I wasn't going to make more jam, though. Too much like hard work. Making Jam is bad for my back. Only those who have made Jam will understand this. But I always make it while I can.

I can't stand seeing good food go to waste, however, so in order to get at least some small benefit from the rest of the mirabelles, I filled up two 30 litre barrels with fruit, crushed it a little, and then sealed it up to let it ferment.

Fermentation, like the Doppler Effect, is fabulously* simple. This is one of the reasons, along with preservation and, of course, alcohol, that fermentation is a source of joy.

Plums ferment very readily, and will start fermenting as long as some (about half is more than enough) of the fruit are broken or damaged. What's wonderfully simple about fermentation is that all the ingredients are already there, on, in and about a single plum. Water, sugar, cellulose and yeast. If it's warm enough (we've had a couple of very mild weeks) it gets started on its own without any prompting. And what it does is magical in a number of ways.

Everyone knows that it turns sugar into alcohol and for many that is understandably enough.

But there are two byproducts of fermentation, and the other is carbon dioxide. CO2. Yes indeed, that most fashionable of world-eating industrial waste is produced in the creation of the one substance that reliably stops us worrying about it. However, CO2  is special because of two of its very simple qualities. It is heavier than air, and it suffocates all sorts of unwanted organisms. Consequently, it forms a layer on top of whatever is fermenting. This not only prevents mould, but it also suffocates small (and large**) insects and other invertebrates (there's a larval worm that gets into plums), and kills off all but the hardiest (and least harmful) bacteria. Yeast, in fact, creates an environment in which only it can thrive, by the very act of thriving in it.

The major consequence for me is that my mirabelles are preserved in delicious drinkable and slightly intoxicating form. I do my best to regulate the alcohol to somewhere between 12% and about 18% but it's largely guesswork.

Fermentation therefore magically and simply turns one thing into another; it takes fruit in which all kind of nasties may be living and turns it into a nutritious source of clean, safe water which has an impressively long shelf life. And mirabelle wine can be used as an alternative to white wine in cooking for a couple of years after it is no longer any good for drinking.

If you are a student of medieval history you almost certainly already know that in the Middle Ages, beer was the only safe drink you could get in northern Europe. Wars were won and lost as a result of someone controlling the supply of beer.

But dig down a little into the biochemistry of even a highly simplified model of fermentation and you soon find it is fiddly, complex and messy. It seems to follow a few basic principles, but the science behind those principles is annoyingly difficult to comprehend without a degree in biology.

Thankfully, you don't need one to be able to make plum wine.

This is where the tenuous link to writing is to be found.

Everyone's best writing seems to come from a process much like a well established fermentation; once the writer is in full flow, it is much like the yeast creating ideal conditions for itself by profiting from ideal conditions; it's self perpetuating. When your writing is flowing well, you don't need to know all those grammar rules; you don't need to have your desk cluttered with plot diagrams and character development outlines, you don't need CMS open in front of you. When you're writing at your freest and fastest is also when you're writing at your best, and when your writing is the most you.

You get the best fermentation, though, when you start from a very few ingredients that inevitably include everything needed to start a good fermentation, like a ripe plum.

You can, you see, use various additives to start off, or to boost, fermentation. From one year to the next the size and sugar content of the plums can vary; changing atmospheric conditions can contribute to the amount of naturally occurring yeasts on the skins. The ambient temperature may be too low (or in some countries, too high). With a little study, you can compensate for this, and the fermentation will get started and proceed well.

Sometimes, though, the end result is still undrinkably bitter or acidic.

And sometimes, the only way you can correct this is by calling in a brewing expert who knows all about those horrible fiddly details in the biochemistry, and will tell you to, perhaps, mix two varieties of plum, or combine the natural yeasts with some shop bought freeze dried yeast of a particular variety in specific proportions.

If you decide to sell your wine commercially, then you definitely need to call in an expert.

But I didn't intend this as a post about how essential it is to get an editor. You all know that, anyway.

What interests me is those sections of a book where I can see as I am reading that the writer has got the fermentation conditions just right; where she has been writing quickly but without rushing; where she has been playing with the language and having fun with vocabulary without it becoming awkward, pretentious or annoying; where there is a turn of phrase that somehow harmonizes with the actions, the themes, the symbolism.

There is a special coincidence of ingredients that creates this kind of writing, and for me it is one of the things that distinguishes a writer from, for example, a story editor like myself. I can tell you what's wrong when it isn't working and I can tell you why it works when it does. And I can also help with the initial mix of ingredients that will lend itself to healthy, self-perpetuating fermentation. It distinguishes the writer because the writer is the person who can turn those ingredients into page after page of great writing.

* regular readers may guess that I am using this word VERY precisely.
** e.g. wasps. Quite a few of them end up in the barrel.


Editing Update: More Sequels, New Crimes

Here are my latest announcements:

I am currently working on the development of the sequel to Innocent in Las Vegas with AR Winters. Always a pleasure to work on detective fiction and I like the way that the author mixes up the gritty, the romantic and the comedic.

I'm also working with the Wearmouth boys (like the Hardy Boys but not really like them at all) on developing the sequel to First Activation which has been given the working title of … I'll let you guess.

Damon Courtney asked me to take an in-depth look at the character development for the final instalment of his Dragon Bond trilogy. This is always a wise thing to do in a trilogy (and even more so in longer series) as you the will tend to accumulate characters, and when you come to the end, all the important ones need to have their stories brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

You self-editors, the exercise I prescribe is to categorize each chapter according to which characters appear, so that for each character, you can read back to back the chapters that feature them.

One of my discoveries was that the Big Bad was referred to in almost every chapter, even though he only actually appears in a few of them. When one character becomes a preoccupation of all the others, it is important to assess all the references to him, to see how he is reflected in the attitudes of others towards him. This can be revealing about all characters.


Change of Web Address

The address of my blog has been updated to www.densewordsblog.com

The original address still works so this won't affect bookmarks, feeds, syndication or whatnot.

Just thought I better mention it.


Minor Website Update

Pricing page wasn't working. It is now (you might have to refresh a couple of times).

Hope I haven't broken anything else in the process.



Between Me

I may have already mentioned that I have numerous talented sisters*... watch this space for upcoming publications/releases etc by the others. This post is is about a crowdsourced film called Between Me that includes what I think is many great performances, including the one by my sister Leone.

Watch the film and if you think it's as good as I do, consider helping out with the funding.

* and one talented brother, but as far as I am aware he hasn't written any books, released any albums or starred in any films ... yet.


Authors I recommend to my Authors #2: Jonathan Meades

Authors Writers I recommend to my Authors #2: Jonathan Meades

"Torrentially articulate" is how he was described (by Nancy Banks-Smith of The Guardian Newspaper) on the appearance of the first "Abroad" series. Meades has a mastery of English whose match I have never heard. Of all the writers I know, he is the only one where I never really care what he is talking about — though it always fascinates and entertains — because listening to his English is like listening to Bach's Well Tempered Keyboard; it has been perfected with practice. Every word slots into your listening senses with not only precision, but care.

Meades' urbanity; his appearance of disinterest; his trademark suit and trademark gait; his lazy old-fashioned middle-class tones act as an inverted camouflage to his passion for his subject matter. Some writers may be said to make the language work for them. Meades makes his meaning work for him.

His language is disarming: apparently simple. His meaning is exactly the same; apparently simple.

"Belgium is exotic precisely because it is so close, yet so subtly different: mayo rather than vinegar."

A typical sentence structure for Meades, this example uses careful, simple precision in the theory (first clause) balances and contrasts this with an example from vernacular eating—what you put on your chips.

But because Meades is also a broadcaster, he is worth watching with your eyes open. Every shot is part of his meaning: the contrived wordless demonstration of what Belgium's neighbours think of Belgians (about 1.10 into the film); regular appearance of uncommented images as if they make his point for him.

Meades' humour is unusually accessible in this film; he always seems a little ill at ease with getting a laugh, which I suppose is part of his enduring preoccupation with the British middle class that spawned him.

What makes Meades' articulacy torrential is what happens when he combines his sense of visual experience - visual articulation - with his distinctive verbal idiom. From the 1994 series "Futher Abroad", Get High is all about vertigo. The excerpt below is from the middle. Try to listen carefully and watch carefully at the same time. I would love to be able to achieve this effect just with words...


Authors I recommend to my Authors #1: Agatha Christie

A new occasional series for my blog. I often find myself recommending books and authors to my authors, and most usually in order to influence or inform their style or teach them something that I think is important about storytelling. This post is about the author I recommend most often.

 Agatha Christie (15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) is arguably the worlds most famous crime writer, and you could probably still make a strong case for her being the worlds most famous author even today, 35 years after her death.

For authors, Christie's importance is not so much her enduring popularity, but her mastery of her craft. The cynic might argue that her success had a lot to do with being one of the most prolific authors in the most popular genre through the mid twentieth century's pulp fiction boom - she published new works from 1922 through to 1973. If you publish at least one novel every year for 53 years (and Christie published a lot more than that) then provided they are any good, your popularity can climb steadily.

Through her regular successes, Christie soon learned what the public wanted, even to the extent of occasionally mocking public tastes (The Big Four (1927) is a brutal mockery of the excesses of pulp crime fiction) and even mocking her own work (the recurring character Ariadne Oliver is a crime writer whose most famous character is "vegetarian Finnish detective" Sven Hjerson - Christie poking fun at herself and her "OCD Belgian detective" Hercule Poirot).

Her understanding of what the public wanted in a detective novel may well be a deciding factor in her popular success, but that isn't the reason why I tell my authors to read her. I tell my English students to read Christie too. In fact, I tell anyone who wants to use English in their professional and daily lives. Christie is as important in good English usage as Gowers.

Christie's mastery of her craft is a mastery of English usage.

Here's the quotation I always start with, from Death on the Nile (1937):

'The Negro orchestra broke into an ecstasy of strange discordant noises. London danced.'

Two word sentences are the holy grail of writing. But the preceding sentence deliberately makes use of jarring stress patterns that are suggestive of the music and the dance. To put these two sentences in their fuller context:

Smooth-footed, deft-handed waiters ministered to the table. Toast Melba, butter, an ice pail, all the adjuncts to a meal of quality.
The Negro orchestra broke into an ecstasy of strange discordant noises. London danced.
Hercule Poirot looked on, registering impressions in his neat orderly mind.

Three consecutive short paragraphs of which two are limited to one sentenc. Modern writers can learn an awful lot from this. The example is a little unfair since this passage from DOTN is all about setting the scene and the atmosphere, but Christie knows that she has to keep up the pace, keep control of the length of an already overlong book (DOTN is twice as long as her average 200 or so pages). That means that she has to make the language work really hard for her. And take a single sentence for paragraphs that many authors would struggle to do in five.

I particularly love that second sentence where she explicitly describes a "meal of quality" though its accessories, rather than describing the meal itself; in exactly the same way, she describes the setting (the 'modish little restaurant Chez Ma Tante') through the movements and manners of the waiters rather than through the décor or the setting.

The final paragraph of this group nails Poirot's character establishment in the seven words of that second clause, and notice that in the first clause, she doesn't say that he's sitting at a table or that he's sipping his aperitif of that he's in his usual perfect tidy (if slightly overtight) dinner suit.

I could close read this chapter (VI) for the rest of the day, but I have, I hope, done enough to make my point. Read Christie carefully, try to understand what her objective in each paragraph and each sentence is, and try to explain how she achieves the objective, and it should raise your awareness of your own technique.

Finally, I little observation: a few weeks ago I heard a program on BBC radio 4 discussing how, particularly in crime fiction, food was the new sex. I don't remember who all the examples given were, but fortunately something called the internet exists, so here's a link to the programme.

A few lines before the ones I quoted above, Christie shows that this is nothing new. The maitre d', upon discovering that Hercule Poirot is eating alone, consoles him with the sentiment:

'"Women, however charming, have this disadvantage: they distract the mind from food!"'


Contacting D.A. & M.P. Wearmouth

Those of you who have landed on my website looking for contact details for the authors of First Activation over the last few days, you can get in touch with Darren and Marcus directly via their website, or through twitter or their Facebook page. All the relevant links are on their author page on my website, HERE.

The authors' spot on BBC Look North is broadcast today.

:: Edit ::

The spot on Look North will be later in the week; they will be on BBC Radio York tomorrow morning at 7.05am BST.

Darren says that the email form on his website doesn't seem to be working so if you want to you can email him here: dwearmou@gmail.com

finally, here's the Author Alarms link so you can be informed as soon as the sequel is released: http://authoralarms.com/D.A._Wearmouth

(I'll do a post about Author Alarms tomorrow in case you don't know about it.)


Back from Vacation Update

I have often been at pains to point out (cliché) that a content edit can't make a book into a success. An editor can do a great deal to find and eliminate issues that will make a book fail, and also, of course, show the author what to do to make it better.

One of the joys of working with indie authors is that since most of the time the authors are not expecting massive sales, most of the time they aren't seeking them, either. The pressure is on the editor to help the author to improve his craft, not to help him improve his sales figures.

So I claim no credit whatsoever in the events that unfolded over my week of vacation in the mountains of Alsace (which are very pretty, by the way, and well worth a visit; perhaps not the most dramatic of the mountains available in north west Europe but possessed of an unselfconscious charm that – probably best not to get me started).

Darren and Marcus Wearmouth hit the big red button on First Activation on August 7th. You can get full and detailed information on the launch and promotion strategy from the podcast and program notes on Rocking Self Publishing.

By the time the podcast was released, the book was already getting some pretty good sales, and the promotion strategy seems to have paid off pretty well.

On August 21st I go this from Darren, via Skype:

"Hi Harry, number 1 in the UK, for now at least!"

From Wednesday 21st I was supposed to be on holiday, but for the last three years I've taken the Kindle, Smartphone and laptop with me, because I like to read on holiday so I might as well work at the same time. Last year I did several freebies on my summer vacation, but noone sent me any this year :'(

So instead I read the first draft of book 3 in Damon J Courtney's Dragon Bond trilogy. Even before I
messing with it this is a really really good book. When, in the far distant future, Damon is celebrated as one of the great American authors of the early 21st century, schoolchildren will read the Dragon Bond trilogy in their literature classes (don't worry, at some point in the next fifty years or so, schools will start teaching again). Seriously, though, I see working with Damon as proof (if anyone needs it) that if you have the ambition and enthusiasm, you can make yourself into a talented writer. Presumably I ought also to add "if you have a good teacher" ... if you're reading between the lines on this post I'm sure you've realized that I'm struggling against my instinct for modesty.

Anyway, by the time the family and I were comfortably installed in our Gite Rural, I was already checking the sales figures for First Activation every day. The thing is, several of my regular clients do okay over the lifetime of their books, and the ones with several titles make steady sales (the ones who tell me about it). First Activation is the first time that any book that I have worked on has charted so early.

On August 22nd it was #1 in Books>Fiction>Science Fiction in the UK, ahead of Hugh (although of course he's been in the top 100 for, like, ever) and it's still there. Here's the current best category rank in the USA:

As far as I can tell from NovelRank, it managed to creep up to 164th and 25th overall in the USA and UK respectively towards the end of last week. Total sales as of this morning 10,593.

Darren and Marcus have been interviewed by BBC Look North (this is a big deal if you're from the North of England, so please look suitably impressed) - the interview will be shown on Wednesday of this week, and they've been interviewed in regional newspapers and local radio. I suppose its the speed of the rise up the charts that causes excitement, but...

But I don't believe that something rises up the charts fast like that because it's a great book, or because it's been edited by a genius. I think it's because it's the right book at the right time, with the right cover, the right title... maybe there's even having two authors does something to catch the reader's eye. The genre is the right one to be in, the book is sufficiently, noticeably different from others in the genre right from the second page.

But to come full circle, I'm not going to start trying to infer winning formulae from one modest chart topper. I've largely come to terms with the fact that I'm a literary idealist. I want all my authors to become better authors much more than I want them to have big successes. I don't know if that impacts the kind of editing I do, but it's a principle, and at my age (I shall be 40 on the 27th), I think I shall be allowing myself one.


Author/Book Update: J.A. Ballarotto, Worthy of Trust and Confidence

Here's an interview on CBS New York who selected Worthy of Trust and Confidence as their "summer beach read".

I really enjoyed working on this book and working with Jerry, and he says that he doesn't think of himself as a writer. Read the book. If you like it, TELL JERRY TO WRITE MORE.

Anyway, follow the link. Go listen to Jerry talking.



Significant Website Update

densewords website (www.densewords.com) has just undergone a significant overhaul. Mostly what's changed is the underlying structure; the visuals haven't changed all that much, and most of the content is the same, however I've added another "author page" for DA and MP Wearmouth, whose new title is apparently doing okay:

First Activation Rank on Kindle UK on 2013-08-22
Feel free to head over to my new website and try to break it.

Editing Update: A Long Expected Sequel, The Thrill of Sanity and some Instant Classic Crime Drama

I've already mentioned here and elsewhere how Mike Dennis' stories are more like Elizabethan theatre than crime novels, for all that they are gritty, noir, first person and set either in Vegas or the Keys. I recently finished working on No Name Key for Nancy Jessica Argyle, a writer introduced to me by Mike who I have no hesitation in saying is up to the same standard, and up to the same sort of literature, as he is. I look forward to seeing the final version.

I recently completed reading a second draft of J William Latimer's The Insanity Paradox. Latimer sets out to 'write a Dan Brown like thriller but do a better job of characterization'. Of course, what Dan Brown excels at is giving the readers what they want. In my opinion Latimer succeeds in his aim. Whether he succeeds in pleasing readers is, as always, up to the readers.

I am about to begin work on the final book of Damon Courtney's Dragon Bond trilogy. Damon was my first client after I "officially" began literary edits for indy writers, and it has been a great pleasure to work with him over the course of two novels, several shorts and one novella, as he slowly comes t
fact that he doesn't suck. A whole lot of thought, and a whole lot of talk has gone into this story, and I have a lot of faith in the strength of the story, and the conclusion of this trilogy should be very satisfying to readers as well as to Damon and me.

In other news:

Darren Wearmouth, one of the authors of First Activation which was published just under two weeks ago, is interviewed in today's Rocking Self Publishing podcast, which should be online any time now.


Favourite expressions: "not worth a tinker's cuss"

(Also "I don't give a tinker's cuss")

As with many good colloquialisms this is falling out of favour for a number of reasons, not least of which is that most people don't know what a tinker is (or was), even among those who know what a "cuss" is (and know that it isn't an American word!).

To an Englishman, a tinker's everyday language is so riddled with curse words that the value of one is extremely low. That's what makes this an elegant expression; it calls to mind cussing, which allows the user to express annoyance, but it very specifically means "valueless" and therefore at the same time devalues the very cussing that it calls to mind. Which sort of makes it self-excusing. I love that.


Argument and critical sense - slightly off topic

Here's an excellent example of point and counterpoint, and the critical sense, in argument. Read the two articles:

Why French kids don't have ADHD
French kids do have ADHD

Both are from Psychology Today's website.

In the first article, the writer argues that there are hardly any cases of ADHD in France and that this is because of better traditional parenting values. The argument seems pretty strong, and pretty convincing.

In the second, the expert professional opinion seems to run counter to the strong implication (of the first article) that there is "no ADHD problem" in France, and states that French parenting can mitigate the symptoms of ADHD in an ideal case, but may cause other problems if the ADHD is related to a pathology that should be pharmacologically treated.

Both of these articles impressed me for their focus, clarity and simplicity. Both, also, ring all my critical alarm bells.

The first one is a fundamental non-sequitur. It appears to take as a first premise that there is a massive ADHD problem in the USA and that it is treated almost exclusively with drugs. But the real first premise of the article is not revealed until later, and it is this: there is a massive parenting crisis in the USA at the moment, increasing numbers of kids with ADHD is one of the symptoms, and medication is not (necessarily) the solution.

I know a few people in education, healthcare and other less closely related professions in the USA, and I don't think any of them would disagree that there is a parenting crisis in the USA right now. This is how the article works:

You agree that there is a parenting crisis. The comparison with rates of ADHD suggests that there is no such crisis in France, where parenting is different. The article doesn't merely gloss over the possibility that MANY cases of ADHD may be triggered by environmental factors other than parenting - it strongly implies that bad parenting is either a cause, or a reason for kids not getting over their ADHD. So what the writer is doing is using the simplistic, purely pharmacological treatment approach to a complex and not fully understood medical condition as a way of making the point that in USA families, kids don't have clear boundaries, and this makes them ill at ease and leads to other problems. In short, the writer is using the suggested ineffectiveness of a pharmacological treatment as a means to make a point about parenting technique. Non-sequitur.

The second article rebuts this nicely, and shows what is absolutely true in my personal experience, that when the French systems works as intended (it does this maybe 50% of the time), most psychiatric treatments, and almost all applied to children and adolescents, take a holistic approach, and this approach vastly increases the child's sense of security, particularly in the sense of security it gives to parents. (Parents feel like they are getting help, support and understanding in the problems they have with their children. This makes them parents less anxious, which is immediately transferred to the child whose behaviour always improves as a result. The flip side of French parenting is that French parents are desperately insecure and dependent, and have a very hard time teaching their children to be independent, and teaching their children to deal with change.)

The second article, however, triggers my critical sense alarm through a rather more conventional means. The expert in question is a French specialist (giving him authority to talk about French treatments) but who has gone to work in the USA (giving him authority to draw comparisons - that may, and probably are, perfectly valid). But one has to ask why he has gone to the US. Is it to evangelize about French parenting? Obviously not since he points out the flaws in the previous article.

Is it to evangelize about French treatment methods? This is where I get off his side. In France, the full range of psychiatric therapy is available for free to absolutely everyone. Yes, I really did just say the full rangefree, absolutely everyone. It is provided through a family oriented, and carefully coordinated structure called the Centres Medico-Psychologique. I have used this first hand for family therapy but they also deal with developmental problems, delinquency, educational and social problems, support to teenage mothers, stress relief... you name it. Holistic is a big word, and the CMPs take the word seriously; they see treatment as going beyond personal therapy sessions and going right into all parts of society. I can get seriously evangelical about it because when the system works well over here, it trumps everything else.

So why do I break with the expert here? Because if he was passionate about the right treatment, he would not have left a country where he can give that treatment to anyone, to go to a country where it is only available to a privileged few, and where the members of society who are most likely to need it are the ones who are least likely to have access to it, HOWEVER a practitioner can become very rich.

A lot of the critical sense is about cynicism. But you have to use cynicism as a trigger, as a means of teasing out the information that needs to be challenged. So I have my cynical reaction to the presence of this expert, but then I re-evaluate my cynicism in the context of what he says. As it turns out he is very measured and even handed in what he says: there is a problem, it is recognized by the healthcare profession, families and patients are starting to come to an understanding of it in France. In particular, he addresses ADHD and parenting separately, and addresses the possible connexions between them with a certain professional detachment.

From what I see living here, there is a parenting crisis in France as well. However it takes the form of the steady development of a two class system: those who stick far too rigidly to the traditional Freudian parenting so popular in France in the twentieth century, and those whose ideal of ideal children is the ones who are quiet and motionless in front of their games consoles. Neither of these is anywhere near anything I could understand as good parenting.

(Personally I espouse cautious and vigilant muddling through. I apply rules and boundaries as a reflex response to new situations which gives me time to reflect on a more flexible and well adapted response later on. I go to considerable trouble to explain to people the fundamental difference between "yes" and "no" (read carefully, this is really important to the plot of your kitchen-sink drama:), which is that contrary to people's "instinctive" understanding, "yes" is absolute while "no" is temporary and relative.)

I think that schoolchildren should be taught to read critically in the same way that they are taught to read. Sadly, our big governments are full of people who didn't understand the education they got, and are busy destroying it for the future. And don't believe what you're told; this is as true in France and Germany as it is in the USA and the UK.


Editing Update: Alternate Histories, Apocalypse Survival, Euro-Lit Self-Realization

I've been keeping busy over the last couple of months, and have recently finished working on a short story for Colin Taber that adds some background and colour to his alternate history series The United States of Vinland. A short story is a chance both to have some fun with the setting and its consequences, and build the world, while also learning about a different literary form. I'm really looking forward to the second book of the series.

I've also been working with Darren and Marcus Wearmouth on their debut novel, a post apocalyptic survival thriller with some curious and satisfying parallels in the overall style and structure with the genre-defining  DOTT - that I was then amazed to discover Darren hadn't read. At the moment, I think "the British Squaddie's guide to surviving the apocalypse". The book is called "First Activation" and is going to be published this summer.

Finally, I actually met one of my authors in person. On Monday, Jarmila Zaricka came to see me here in the middle of nowhere, since she lives in Paris which is (nonetheless) three hours away. Working face to face has a great deal of extra value, and we did some fascinating work on the value of symbolism, and how to work it into a story. Jarmila's book is the one that I summarized in the title as "euro-lit self-realization" but that's rather a soundbite oversimplification of a work that belongs in several traditions, whose author is multilingual and has a mix of cultures including Czech, Australian, French and Italian. I suspect it's going to be a gem.


What to expect from an editor, Part 6 - Are you paying too little?

For the second time in as many months, a new customer has said to me something along the lines of:

"You weren't the cheapest option, but I guess good work costs."

In reality I suspect that there are two ways of getting a good edit: for free, or by paying what the job is really worth.

You can get a good edit for free. Generally speaking, when someone does you a favour, they do it conscientiously. (Is that really naive of me? I hope not.) I'd be inclined to suppose, though I admit on no evidence,  that this is more true for a copy edit than for a literary* edit.

If you pay someone for an edit, there is a very simple way to work out if you are paying enough.

(1) In the USA, the minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour. If someone quotes you $ 200 for an edit of your 75,000 word book,
(2) that's a total of 27 and a half hours or 2,727 words per hour.
(3) That sort of speed is perfectly "possible".

For a writer who is experienced and reasonably competent at narration, I won't need to make notes more than once every few pages - and mostly on story and characterization at that rate, I can read and take notes at more than 5,000 words an hour. If the writer is less experienced, or makes lots of errors or there are generalized narrative or stylistic problems, my speed can be cut down to about 2,000 words per hour. This is excluding time that I take to think (anything up to 2 days for a book of that length), the time taken to organize, structure and write up my notes (1 to 2 days) and time spent discussing all this with the writer (2 to 6 hours, though sometimes as much as 25 hours; I don't count this however as writers' needs can vary so much).

So for an 75,000 word book with average problems, I would need just over 40 hours. I base my prices on my estimate of the amount of time a book will take me, because it does vary a very great deal.

Going back to (1) above, if you paid me at the same rate as someone flipping burgers, I'd still need $ 293. But you ought to expect to hire an editor with qualifications and experience that are more difficult to acquire than those needed for flipping burgers, and such people are not all that easy to find. In short, someone who is going to help you to add value to your work is going to cost more than the minimum wage.

In my case, my lowest rate would, based on the figures above, be about $ 28 an hour. Someone charging you $ 200 dollars at that rate would have to work at a rate of 10,500 words per hour! That sort of speed is not possible.

In my opinion, there shouldn't be much difference in cost between a copy-edit and a literary edit. The skills, knowledge and experience required may overlap, but they aren't different degrees of the same service. They are different services provided by different specialists (many editors offer both, and I assume in my usual naive way that that means that many editors are equally or nearly equally good at both; I am not). In both, you require a degree of specialist knowledge, thoroughness and attention to detail that is relatively uncommon.

Ultimately, you should pay what you can reasonably afford, and of course, you get what you pay for. What I hope to have done with the above is show that you can, to some extent, work out if you are being charged too little. This is only possible because you know that the job requires both time and undivided attention.

I don't think there's any meaningful way to judge if you've been charged too much based purely on the price. You have to see the completed edit before you can tell.

* yes, I'm still using this term as an umbrella for story development, content editing and writer mentoring.


Why unpaid beta readers are indispensible

Beta-reading has become a stable and staple part of the indie publishing process, and a good thing, too. Whether you pay for it or not (a few of my peers offer it as a paid service) it is a reasonable and efficient way to get a view on whether a book is "working".

There is a fundamental difference between reading a book that is published, and that you have chosen to pay for and read, and reading a book that someone has asked you to read, or is paying you to read.

Who (of the countless myriad readers of my modest blog) has never picked up a book and begun reading, out of curiosity, boredom, on a recommendation or a whim, only to abandon it after a few pages or even after a few chapters?

When that happens, at least some of the time it can be blamed on the book, and if I want to be really generous, I will say: "that book didn't work for you."

Before you engage the services of a content editor (which ought to be costly - another post is in preparation about that), its good to get some idea of whether the book is working, and the beta reader can do that for you.

So why "unpaid" ?

A volunteer beta-reader can do something that a paid editor cannot do. He can turn round to the author and say "I just couldn't finish it."

To me, the value of this is beyond measure. So often I find that after getting off to a good start, a book starts getting bogged down in details, or the plot loses it's way, or what looked like a promising action thriller becomes a repetitive brassfest. A paid beta reader or a content editor is going to keep going to the end in spite of this. Actually a book doesn't even need to go downhill for a reader to give up. Some books are so patchy in the quality of the narration that eventually the good parts - where the narrative flows well or the author really settles into a groove - no longer outweigh the weak, clunky or "experimental".

An unpaid beta-read should be a "test read". The beta reader should read "as if" reading for pleasure. And you should tell him that if at any time he wants to give up, then he should do so, say so, and try to explain why.


Free Alpha Version: Search multiple online resources with one keypress

A translator friend asked me to do this so that he could look up words and references rapidly, without having to go to loads of bookmarks or Google. It occurred to me it could be useful to authors and editors.

 You just select a word or phrase and then press a windows shortcut, and it searches whatever resources you have preselected (e.g. Wiktionary, Webster online, Cambridge online, etc)

You can create your own groups of resources and associate them with specific shortcut keys.

The alpha version only works with the "windows" metakey.

Download it here: http://www.densewords.com/test/denselookup.zip

There are instructions inside the Zip.

It is based on AutoHotKey, which you will also have to download. I would hugely appreciate any feedback of any kind, but especially, your suggestions of resources to add to the (very small) selection currently available. I can add new ones very quickly; all you have to do then is download a new definitions file.

Where the market is at - and is "indie" the right word?

This vaguely grammatical title comes with the following health warning: my access to "industry insiders" is limited to a handful of people who either don't want to be quoted or will only comment anonymously. I'm trying to change that but I suspect more trust has to develop first. My own experiences, vicariously through my clients, however, give me a pretty good view of the current state of the marketplace, and, of course, I rely heavily on the statements of contributors to forums like KBoards.

But before I look at that, here's today's Home Truth:

There is not now, and never has been before now, a mechanism whereby an author who deserves to be read can be sure of being read by the readers who deserve to read him.

Because books require a medium, regardless of what it is, some additional work that has little or nothing to do with the process of creating literature is always required and someone has to do it. The availability and competence of those people (whether the author himself or a third party) can all to easily have an effect on distribution and sales that is not in proportion with the quality of the art.

The same is not true of storytelling. If what you want is to be a pure storyteller, you can, you really can, make a living from telling stories, live, to real people. All you need is a place to do it and a hat to pass around. Why is nobody doing it? Some people are. You probably ought to.


I'm going to start by summing up the state of trad publishing in a single word: flummoxed.

They aren't panicking. They aren't keeping calm and carrying on, either. What they are doing, as any business in a changing marketplace does, is using up some of their capital to try out new things: new types of contract, new distribution models, new technologies. Some of the ideas are a little silly, but many of the people in trad pub are experienced businesspeople. They know that markets change. They know that you adapt or you fade away (or someone bigger swallows you).

What they don't have is any kind of meaningful view of where the market is going, less still of where it will be in a few years from now.

Initially, the reasons for this flux, these changes, was just the advent of electronic publishing. For the last couple of years, however, indie publishing has started to have an effect on the market. You don't need me to give you examples, I'm sure. The major effect of indie is not to dent the profits of the "Big Six"; it is to increase the total amount of books sold. This has an effect on trad pub, but mostly that effect is the industry starts looking for ways to take a slice of those new sales ("Other people are selling books when it should be us!").

I've been comparing the indie market to varies models used to describe and predict the behaviour of new marketplaces, however, because I think it is a new marketplace, not an evolution of an existing one. Indie isn't competing with trad. It's not just a new marketplace, it's a different product.

I was going to do a convoluted comparison with the arrival of tobacco in Europe, but I'm going to try to keep it concise. A new market, from the seller's point of view, has the following stages:

  1. The early bird: a seller's market with big demand for any novelty. Almost any sales/promotion strategy you try will work. People being people, will assume that they got lots of sales because of their clever strategy, so they repeat it and it keeps working.
  2. The bandwagon (or if it is fast and furious, the scrum): others notice the new market and either want to sell the same product or have a similar product to sell. The number of sellers increases very very fast. In some cases, however (this was true for Tea and Tobacco), the supply never quite matches the demand, and some features of the early bird market remain. In other cases, supply is flooded with product of doubtful or clearly inferior quality, or even flooded with product of identical or better quality. As supply begins to catch up with demand, sales and promotion strategies that worked in the past start to fail. This isn't because they don't work any more, but because they never worked in the first place, or, like many strategies, were only capable of working once. This is a hard lesson, but you have to let go of what seemed to work in the past.
  3. The slog: if supply matches or exceeds demand, a gradual evolution takes place from the scrum (where the number of new sellers arriving  each year increases) to a state where the number of new sellers arriving each year becomes constant. At this point the market is already near saturation, and sellers will start to drop out. This is initially slow, and the sellers' reasons for leaving can be very varied, though usually they just aren't making any money. I imagine that in our marketplace there are other complicating factors since not all of us (!) are in it for the money. Eventually, the dropout rate begins to increase. Those who have stuck it out and concentrated on increasing the value and quality of their product will start to gain more market share. There are a few reasons why this happens, but the most important one is that the buyers become more knowledgeable and the market and product becomes more familiar.
  4. The settle: eventually, the dropout rate levels off. When this happens, the base profitability of the product is finally established. Right now we have no idea what that will be.

There are some curious parallels with Tea and Tobacco. Initially, the market was one of many small producers and a few very large distributors. (Including the most powerful corporation that has ever existed, the British East India Company.) In publishing, up to now, the model has been the same. But the Amazon model is something new. It's roughly equivalent to the plantation owner paying a small proportion of his profits to the EIC to transport his product to market, where he then has to promote and sell it. Notice that he is still dependent on someone to transport it for him.

Maybe "indie" is the wrong word. It certainly seems to be misleading. We are dependent. We are absolutely dependent on the e-book sales platforms; without them, this market and this product would not exist.

What we are actually doing is non-corporate, intermediaryless or individual publishing. I find the term "independent" guilty of creating a false expectation. True, our artistic freedom is absolute. But for distribution we are shackled to Amazon.