All is Revealed

You can’t tell a book by it’s cover. This well-known saying is sometimes true, but not always. I dimly remember scenes from an old film where a passenger in a railway carriage, male of course, concealed the pornography he was looking at behind a worthy cover. The Bible perhaps. But publishers would prefer that you could tell a book from its cover since they want to market their titles and knowing what genre a book is helps them in this.

Writers have complete control of the text, but unless they are artists as well their publishers may come up with cover designs they don’t care for but can’t do much about. To avoid this, they might commission artwork directly.

My first attempt at recruitiing a designer produced a cover for Interleaved Lives which completely ignored every word of the brief (shown in a previous post), so I tried a second designer who did his level best to fulfil it.


I liked what he had come up with, but while the publisher felt that his design had its good points they also felt it was not effective for the genre in question, namely crime. So after a week or two I found myself looking at a cover design they supplied.

And I could see what they meant. The publisher’s cover clearly shows that the book is in the crime genre and gives an indication of the content. Even more surprising to me, the artist explained his design by referring to the text. Since keeping an eye on a suspect from a car was not referred to in the blurb or the synopsis, he had actually read it!

So this is the cover I’m going with.

Filming Books

Books have been adapted for film and television for decades with varying degrees of success. Genres such as fantasy and crime have been popular: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and recently His Dark Materials. On the crime front, we have had multiple versions of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, the Wallander novels of Henning Mankel, (two in Swedish and one in English), and one of the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri (in Italian).

Classics have been popular for the treatment too, from Jane Austen, through George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens, to EM Forster, John Irving and many others. Adaptations of solid books like these provide welcome opportunities for acting talent (Helena Bonham Carter, for example) who usually do very well by them. And it may be that film and TV versions provide the only exposure to these books for some.

But the question will often arise, How faithful is the adaptation to the original?  Because there are purists out there who will contest any departure from the books they hold dear even if the change might result in a possible improvement or be necessary to render it in visual terms at all.

Here in the UK, we have recently had yet another version of The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. Those who study such things report that the script has taken significant liberties with the text. Why would anyone do this? Suggestions include making the original appear more relevant to the present day, and to spice things up with ‘love interest’ where there was none before.

Changes like these are probably not be unusual. Think of the fun a post-graduate student could have watching all those films and TV series then comparing them to the books on which they’re based. If I were younger than I am today . . . I still wouldn’t consider it. The task would take years and life is too short.

But what if, instead of taking liberties, the film or TV version is completely faithful to the text, surely that will be enough to guarantee success? I think this will depend on several things. Is the text worth being faithful to in the first place? The recent TV version of His Dark Materials is a genuine attempt to put across the original and much labour has clearly been expended on it. Yet I failed to find it involving – exactly the same reaction I had to the book. (I expect to be in a minority here and shot down in flames by a talking bear or a squadron of witch-archers flying overhead with bows and arrows.)

At the other end of the scale (for me) is Italian TV’s version of my Brilliant Friend. This, too, is exceptionally faithful to the book, required an astonishing amount of hard graft but works very well in conveying not just the characters, of which there are many, but the place where it all happens. Naples.

To end with a tricky one. Where much of the effect a book has on the reader is due to its prose style we will have a serious problem adapting it for the screen. If the narration is first person then much of the flowing prose may still be supplied –  by members of the cast, sometimes in person so to speak, more frequently through voice-over. But if the original is written in the third person there is no obvious solution.

Fortunately, there is no obvious problem either, because it is not compulsory to adapt a novel for the screen. Leaving well alone is always an option.

 

 

Reviews

I have written many reviews over the years and always found it demanding. To begin with, if I read a book and really don’t like it then I won’t review it. No point putting an author off after publication. Some might argue that comments concerning a certain category of book (let’s call it Book Number 1 in the Inspector Torcuil McSporran series) might have a beneficial knock-on effect in Book Number 2. But who is to say there will be a follow-up?

Reviewing has also caused me to change my reading habits. In the past (when I was younger than I am today, in every way, oh yeah, oh no) I would read physical copies. I still do, but if I intend to review a book now I will buy a eBook edition. The reason for this is an ingrained belief that it is not enough to make an assertion of the sort This book is absolute drivel OR This book is a work of genius. Assertions should be supported a) by reasoning and b) by evidence.

In the case of a book, evidence can only take the form of quotations from the text. To which end I used to sit in front of a screen typing with one hand while holding the book open at the relevant page with the other. This was a slow and inefficient process leading to strain of the left thumb. Then I discovered, late in the day, that by using an eBook I could highlight noteworthy sections then – sheer bliss! – copy them at will into a review.

Having just read two reviews of my recent title, I have been struck by how inadequate some reviews can be.

Review 1

Here are a couple of plums. Firstly, about the cover:

It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself.

And

The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery

To judge by the syntax errors, English was not the reviewer’s first language. Is this is a concern? Yes, though only if the reviewer’s command of the language in which the book is written is an obstacle to him/her in properly getting to grips with it.

In this case, the reviewer liked the book but in terms so general anyone reading the review would learn nothing at all about it. For example, wouldn’t we want to know what the book was about?

To quote from the site the review was posted on (here I am quoting again, I just can’t help myself), the site “helps readers of influence discover and recommend new books to their audiences”.

Review 2

This was an interesting one but in a different way.

Hart’s characters are complex and without any definite shade of black or white except for Klein Pearson , who as the sole antagonist comes out as a vile, hateful character.

This would be a telling point against the said Klein Pearson if there was any such character in the book. Unfortunately, there is not. The reviewer has conflated two very different characters, Dieter Klein and Adalbert Pearson. Worrying, right?

 

 

 

Autobiography

Some years ago now a friend showed me chapters of an autobiography she was writing, and very good they were too. She said I should give it a go and eventually I did. But unlike her I had no aptitude for it. I began well enough, Hello, my name is Rod and I was born at an early age. But I wasn’t capable of keeping it going. More accurately, I was capable, technically, but completely lacked the motivation to do it. At root, I found myself boring. And if I failed to interest myself, why would I interest anyone else?

A few bright episodes came to mind, especially concerning my travels in Iran, Afghanistan and their aftermath. For instance, when I was finally released from the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Belgrade, a member of staff drove me to the UK Embassy prior to catching a train the following morning. One of his first acts was to drive the wrong way up a one-way street, and while he was at it hoped I would understand that he had a wife and children. Good for him, I thought. But it turned out he was afraid I would contaminate his family with infectious hepatitis. To eliminate this non-existent risk, he put me up for the night in an embassy outhouse, where I slept in a roll of carpet and was wakened with the lark by field telephone.

But if we included events like that in a novel, who would believe us? In any case, taking all such stories together, a string of narrative pearls though it might be, nothing came close to a continuous narrative. I was reminded of a description I had once seen of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, which someone had compared to reading Faust by lighting. So how about a succession of dramatic episodes? But that also failed to get me going. Writing biography would be a different matter altogether, provided the subject was of interest.

What follows from this?

Firstly, I think that those bloggers who are most successful are those who take themselves as their subject. Not only do they let strangers into their lives, they open the door and usher them in. If they could offer them refreshments they would. Not everyone can do this, though. I don’t have what it takes.

Secondly, those of us who write fiction give ourselves away all the time. I obviously can’t prove this, it is merely what I think. And some will reveal their hand more than others. I would say I reveal my hand quite a bit. In fiction there is usually an element of self-description at one remove. The reader can infer various things about the writer even if he does not divulge the name of his cat.

 

Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

Blurbs

After a woman is brutally murdered in a Nebraska cornfield, Detective Mackenzie White obsesses over the twisted mind of a potential psychopath. But as bodies start piling up, can she stop the killer before it’s too late?

Though I’m just a simple country boy, the blurb I have quoted above strikes me as unsatisfactory. If bodies are piling up, I would say it is too late already for some. In any case, haven’t we read the second sentence many times before?

Just asking.

Rules for Writers

Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.

So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.

‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’

And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.

But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.

Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).

‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’

Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.

‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’  Richard Freeborn

There are many descriptions in this book.

‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’

So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.

To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.

‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’

Poetry Comics

For several years I wrote poems and published them in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Then the mood passed, I stopped and turned to prose. Until recently.

A friend who is an artist wanted a poem to illustrate and checked a few of them out. She chose Philosophy is Forced Upon the Frog and submitted her work for inclusion in a new book; Over The Line, an introduction to poetry comics, edited by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone.

overthelinecover

Their book not only contains a varied selection of poems illustrated in ‘comic’ manner but also an excellent introduction to the subject. Since I knew nothing about it, I learned a lot. So I now have a new addition to the shelf with my work in it and learned today that Over The LIne is up for a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology category).

http://www.saboteurawards.org

The friend is Zyzanna Dominiak and this is her work.

frog 1

In the fourth frame Zyzanna has neatly subverted my negative conclusion (We’re doomed!) by the introduction of hope in the shape of tadpoles. Good for her.

frog 2

 

Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.

________________________________________________________

I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

Technology in Fiction

Technology exists. Writing a novel without referring to it can be done but isn’t easy. I have just completed the first draft of a novel which could be classified as crime fiction and there was no evading it.

In those chapters involving mobile phones, computers, tracking devices and so on, I went into far too much detail.  Why? I was making sure that what I was describing would work. For my own reassurance, I had to follow through on all the moves.

But technology in itself is tedious. (I have sometimes found this in novels by Patricia Cornwell and others.)  The real interest in narrative fiction lies in what people do and why they do it. So now that I have begun revising, I find I am paring down technology references to the bare essentials to avoid falling into a deep sleep.

This may be what I should have done in the first place – it would have saved me a lot of work – but I had to know that what I was describing was possible and found an amazingly inefficient way to do it.

And what is true for technology may well be true of other areas as well – including the amount of detail devoted to post postmortems and the exact specifications of the handguns, rifles, bazookas and crossbows which caused the body to be on the slab in the first place.

So why do some authors do this? Not to reassure themselves but to convince the reader of their expertise. And also to give an authentic feel to the story – this is exactly the way it was. And if their readers like it, who could quarrel with that?