Friday, 28 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

 Yesterday we spent the afternoon with friends who are as busy with family as we are on the actual 'holiday' days of Christmas. We had lunch, exchanged gifts and then played a couple of very silly board games that were in fact great fun, partly as we played in teams. Before lunch, we chatted over drinks, as you do.
  "Surprisingly," I said, "I only received four books for Christmas." This is a surprise as for most of my family members, my Amazon wishlist is their first port of call, and it has a substantial number of books on it. My friend looked what I thought at the time was slightly aghast (more of that later). "It doesn't matter, they were all excellent." 
I proceeded to tell her what I had received and why.
1. The third volume in Neil Astley's poetry anthology trilogy 'Being Human', which means I now have all three. An excellent set for dipping into at any time or to suit any emotion, it's a phenomenal collection.
2. Blake Morrison's 'The Last Weekend'. On the Oxford Diploma course, I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Skinner, lecturer at Goldsmith's, London and Director of the Faber Academy creative writing courses. He strongly recommended Morrison's work and I am a little ashamed to say that this is the first one I have acquired. So thank you, Richard, for the recommendation (and thank you, David, for the gift!).
3. Richard Ford's 'Canada'. Possibly a bandwagon choice, but it made several lists by other people as one of their favourite books of the year (such as this one) and the opening, very reminiscent of Robertson Davies' 'Murther and Walking Spirits' was the clincher: 'First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.' For those not familiar with the Robertson Davies, it begins: 'I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.' Although the narrator in 'Canada' does not necessarily appear to be dead by the beginning of the book, I'm sure you can see the startling similarity. And I loved the Robertson Davies, so putting 'Canada' on my wishlist was a no brainer.
4. Modernist Cuisine at Home. This is the 'simplified' version of 'Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking' although it is still a hefty tome. Having my elder son at home at present has led to numerous conversations about food and cooking techniques (and more time on the treadmill, though that's another story). I also bought it for him. He won't be living at home for ever and I will need my own copy!
My friend listened to my explanations with interest and then the conversation moved on. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that my present from her was... some books off my wishlist, by Edward Marston, from the Christopher Redmayne series. Historical crime fiction for some light relief while I'm waiting for the vacuum seal on my fennel fritters to develop, perhaps.
What was your favourite present for reading?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Whence inspiration?

Five hundred years ago, rather than hitting the markets for last minute Christmas shoppings, the citizens of Rome were queuing round the block to see a work of art that had taken its creator four years to complete.

Michelangelo was originally recruited by Pope Julius II to create his tomb, but hardly had the work started and the pope changed his mind: he wanted the ceiling of his uncle's chapel repainting instead. Michelangelo might well have been surprised at the new commission. Not only had he had vast quantities of marble shipped from Carrera already to begin the mammoth undertaking of the pope's tomb, but his reputation was already established as a sculptor, not a painter. Apprenticed in Florence to a workshop that did a lot of fresco work, he had been spotted by Il Magnifico Lorenzo de'Medici for a small figure he had sculpted, and proceeded to make his name with the Pieta in St Peter's in Rome and the rescue of the David in Florence. He was not well-known for painting.
photo from Wikipedia

Now the image of God's hand reaching out to touch Adam's fingers is known around the world. Queues of international pilgrims form outside the Vatican Palace to see the ceiling and although Michelangelo's David is well-known, it is actually a replica that is surrounded by camera-laden tourists in the Piazza Signoria, while the original statue is unphotographable in the Accademia a few blocks away.  
Not the real David, 'just' a life-size replica.

I think he would have fumed about this shift in perception. He signed all his letters 'Michelangelo, sculptor'. It was a constant source of irritation to him when painting the ceiling that all that marble was sitting untouched, yet thirty years later he was back in the chapel, painting the altar wall. This time he included himself, a flayed face reflecting how tortured he felt. The additional insult for a fierce Florentine to be trapped in Rome must have been almost unbearable. Thank goodness for his sanity he had some good Roman friends in Tomasso di Cavalieri and the lady Vittoria Colonna. Subsequent popes only added to his burdens; it is no wonder that he had little respect for some of them.

This was the starting point for my novel Moses in Chains, now out on kindle. A Florentine who lived in Rome for most of his life, a staunch republican who nevertheless had deep respect for and attachment to the Medici family, a devout man who struggled with his own emotions and fled after one of Savonarola's more fiery speeches, a witty man who wasted no time if he thought others were wrong, a stubborn man, a genius, the Divine Michelangelo. Of course his servants would worship him. Wouldn't they?

Friday, 7 December 2012

What I Have Learned About E-Publishing

After five and a half long long years, I have finally released my novel about Michelangelo, Moses in Chains,  onto the usual unsuspecting world. I had hoped in my innocence to get my first novel published via the traditional route, but as time went on, I realised that was not going to happen, so I eventually self-published, at the moment just on Kindle.

I could perhaps have persevered, trying to find an agent and then hoping they could find a publisher, but I wanted to publish in 2012 as a marketing hook, which I haven't yet used, is that Michelangelo finished painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a theme in the book, in  1512, and it is therefore the 500th anniversary. Once I realised that the time it would take from finding an agent to being on the shelves of my local bookshop would lead to publication sometime in 2015, if I was lucky, I decided I would have to self-publish. Other people have done it and there is so much advice on the web it couldn't be that difficult. Could it?

The first thing I learned is that the formatting of your text, if it is to go on kindle, is quite specific and you need to set it up in styles, if you're using Word. Unfortunately for me, 'styles' means either italic or non-italic. Since my novel, all 135,000 words of it, is in two voices, one italicised, one not, as soon as I changed my 'normal style' to have a 10 point space at the end of each paragraph, I lost all the italics. Cue going through the book, re-introducing the italicisation. My recommendation? Set up 'styles' before you start.

The next thing I learned is that I am very old-school. I learned to type on a typewriter (yes, I really *am* that old) and was taught to put two spaces at the end of a sentence. Kindle texts cannot cope, apparently, with two spaces at the end of a sentence, they like one. Cue 'show all formatting marks' and go through again, taking out extraneous spaces. To be fair, I could have done a global 'find and replace' with instructions I found on this website which is accurately named 'easy as pie', but of course I also needed to take out extra paragraph marks, spaces at the beginning of paragraphs and other 'clutter'. I think I made the right decision, even though it did take me over a month to go through with the screen set to 130%.

Once I had finished the cleansing process, it was time to set up my kindle author's account. According to Amazon's website, this can take as little as five minutes. After two hours, I have come to the conclusion that this can only possibly be true if you have a US bank account. For those of us not so blessed, you will need you IBAN and your BIC numbers so that they can pay you. Perhaps not all banks are the same, but our bank's website suggested popping in to the branch that holds the account, which was not an option. Fortunately, after rifling through some very old paperwork for something else, my husband located the numbers I needed. So my advice would be, if you think you might like to put something up on kindle any time in the next decade, contact your bank now.

The other irritatingly time-consuming problem I had was entering my phone number. It really really wanted it, and wouldn't accept the account without it. But how to format the phone number? Should I assume that it would need the international code in front? Sadly, looking through the support forum FAQs was no use, as searching for 'format phone number' yielded far too many irrelevant results to be of any help at all. Eventually, trial and error led me to discover that it doesn't need an international code, it just wants the area code and the number. Without a space between them.

To be fair, there is loads of help out there. Talli Roland regularly posts articles on her blog and links to The Writer's Guide to e-Publishing, which in addition to the other two sites already mentioned, was brilliant. There were other sites I found and skimmed over but those were the main ones. You may find others have a style that appeals more to you. I haven't yet found one that analyses the pros and cons of the 35%/70% royalty decision so if anyone sees one somewhere, please let me know!

In the meantime, my jolly read is out there now. Here's the link in case you like the idea of a book in which a grumpy old Renaissance Man watches paint dry servant tries to look after Michelangelo's memoirs of painting the Sistine Ceiling while failing to cope with the various women in his life. If nothing else, you might like the artwork. :-)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Wet wet wet!

We've been very fortunate in our village during the latest bout of flooding - as far as I can tell, we haven't been cut off at all. The buses are still struggling past the parked cars and no-one has commented on Facebook about flooding beyond the level crossing, which is where it usually happens, and did again just a few weeks ago. I have lots of sympathy with all those in Oxford and further afield where roads and houses have become one large extension of the nearest river.

So I was a little surprised to see that a government minister has said we need more housing built on green-field sites in this article. I'm not saying that we don't have a housing problem, because I don't know whether we do or not. I'm sure lots of builders would say that we need to build new houses and that it will help the economy in general. I question the idea that we have a 'moral right' to a house with a garden, but that's another matter.

I'm just surprised that at a time when towns are flooding in part because too many floodplains have been concreted over, Nick Boles sees fit to raise his head above the parapet and suggest we should concrete over a few more. Perhaps he would have been better off joining Nadine Dorries in Australia...

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Villainy of Villanelles

   When I was doing the undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford, I was lucky enough to have as a tutor, for a short time, Jenny Lewis, the poet behind such works as 'After Gilgamesh'.  Not only was I lucky during the course, but afterwards too, as she has since set up The Poet's House, from which she runs courses and day-schools. Today, I attended another of her day-schools, looking at poetic form, primarily sestinas and villanelles.

   Now, I like villanelles. When I was doing my MA, I discovered Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art', admired the poem, admired the subversion of the form and assumed it was far too difficult a thing for me to do myself. The rules are quite straightforward, but basing a 19-line poem around two basic rhymes, which adds to the challenge. If you want to check out the rules, they are here. I wrote a couple of pretty terrible ones during the diploma, which are unlikely to see the light of day until they have been seriously re-written, and then moved on, sticking to the safety of free verse. But then, last Christmas, I received a copy of Stephen Fry's 'The Ode Less Travelled' and determined to master poetic form by working my way through the book.

   I read the introduction, found a wonderfully iambic phrase that kicked my slumbering Muse out of her stupor, and wrote a villanelle. (I still have the rest of the book to read...)  I have since put it on my fictional blog, which means it is now ineligible for most competitions or publications, and read it a couple of times at public readings. At the risk of being either repetitive or overly self-referential, I include it below for your reading delight.

   Today's day-school also generated another villanelle and a sort of tritina, both of which will receive a severe editing before they are either shared or submitted. In the meantime, you could hear me reading, with some of my poetic colleagues, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, Oxford, as part of their 'Sounds of Surprise' season, on Sunday 25th November, between 5 and 7 pm - cup of tea and cake included. Jenny is also reading the previous Sunday. Go along to one of them if you can, they're great fun.

On Writing Poetry

I have no inkling how to start,
And listen to these words in vain:
"Technique is just the Greek for art."

The moment when true lovers part,
A wartime death, a drop of rain -
I have no inkling how to start.

I seek the words to set apart
A poem sure to bring me fame,
With no technique to make it art.

An idea's there within my heart;
Thesauruses must take the strain
For I've no inkling how to start

And clogged up rhyme, and counterpart
Strict rhythm, make themselves the bane
Of technique, just the Greek for art!

Heroic couplets won't impart
Enough to fool my struggling brain.
I have no inkling how to start
And technique's all just Greek for art.

Monday, 29 October 2012

What makes a performance?

This week has had rather a lot of music in it, one way or another.

Partly, this has been the composition of it, inasmuch as we had a meeting with the director and producer of the next Launton Village Players pantomime (oh yes we did!) in which the script as written by the OH with occasional help from yours truly was read and the songs listened to.  LVP pride themselves on having all original music for our pantomimes and we are extraordinarily lucky to have Steve Webber there to write that original music, quite apart from enough talented musicians in the group to then play the music in the shows (apologies to anyone offended by the split infinitive).  Listening to the first drafts, as it were, of the songs is interesting, because a pantomime song has to be more than just musical, it has to match the mood, the lyrics and the ability of the singers, so we're trying to tick all those different boxes as we listen.

But music also featured when we went to 229 The Venue in London on Sunday evening, in support of our friend Judy Dyble, original lead-singer of Fairport Convention, who was rather anxious about her first solo live performance in she-didn't-say how long.  It was an evening promoted by a record label that featured three other bands, all presumably with the same label.  I can't really comment on the first band, as we arrived while they were performing their last number, but it sounded tuneful enough just before it ended.  And then the next band set up.  I say 'band' because they were billed as such, but it was two guys with guitars and an awful lot of electronic gizmos, and during their set, one of them appeared to spend more time fiddling with the knobs on one of his gizmos than he did pressing the strings of his guitar.  With so much gadgetry to monitor, perhaps it was not surprising that they made no eye contact with the audience, but it felt very strange.  According to the notes put out by the record label, they were creating a soundscape, but to me it would have made better film music with the players in a studio somewhere.  The two performances after them did a much better job of engaging with the audience, whatever one's opinion of the music might have been.  Heck, the band I was in at university did a better job of engaging with the audience and we didn't have sound and lighting technicians to keep us on the straight and narrow!

All of which made me wonder about the nature of performance, not least because I will reading at the end of November at a poetry evening in Oxford (part of the the Poet's House group on 25th November, 5pm, includes cake!). Does the quality of what is being performed matter as much as the quality of the performance itself?  I have a suspicion that there is some real rubbish out there being received with great acclaim largely because of its superb delivery.  And when we go along to these performances, be they music, poetry or performance, to what extent are we influenced by the skill of the performers rather than the sublimity of their material?

Oh, and Judy Dyble was sublime in both material and performance skills. :-)

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Beyond these four walls...

There is a risk sometimes that working mostly from home might lead gently into a domestic rut.  Although I go to school two days a week, the other five still contain that blissful combination of central heating and a fridge, so I have to make an effort occasionally to break away from the village and its easy access to highly-calorific food and visit the outside world.  So successful was this effort last weekend that I went out not once but twice!

On Saturday, I attended a wonderful poetry dayschool with the amazing Jenny Lewis.  The focus for this dayschool was myth and magic, and as a starting point, we looked at a poem by David Harsent, 'The hare as witch animal'. You can find a recording of Harsent reading it, and the text, here.  Some of those attending found the poem distasteful, but I think the language used in wonderful and the concepts within it more supernatural than gross.  Better still, the discussion of myth and fairy-tale that we had, combined with thinking about Harsent's poem, triggered the first drafts for four poems; considering that I've had a bit of a dry spell poetry-wise since August, this was particularly gratifying.

And then on Sunday, it was back to Oxford again, this time to the Hogacre Common Harvest Festival.  The weather was perfect, especially for October, and there was a strong community feeling to the event.  We have events here in the village with a similar feel, but although we have our sports and social club with licesnsed bar and hall available for rent, the outdoor space next to it is the playing field, rather than a lightly overgrown field, and we don't, to my knowledge, have bee hives.  During the time we were there, two different bands played, there was a stall selling vegetables and we got the chance to watch someone pole-lathing.  A couple of brave people had a go at operating the machinery themselves but as with so many of these older skills, it's harder than it looks.

In the meantime, I've been tagged for the Next Big Thing meme. In theory, the deadline is tomorrow; I wonder how serious that is?