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Monday 15 April 2013

On perfection - flat notes and writing typos

Last evening my wife Jennifer sang as part of the combined choirs of Vivace and Chorale Mendelssohn’s Elijah in a gorgeous Spanish theatre. Jen was one of seven soloists. The choirs acquitted themselves well; it’s a difficult and rather long work. Needless to say, while the audience was very enthusiastic and impressed with the performance, a few perfectionists in the choirs beat themselves up over the occasional sour or flat note. This is only natural, as artists should always strive for perfection, and it reflects on their professionalism that they try to attain it.
Still, in the real world, perhaps perfectionists should gain perspective.
This choral work was sung by a combination of British, Russian, Dutch and Scandinavian men and women, accompanied by a Spanish pianist, singing in English to a Spanish, British, Scandinavian, Dutch and German audience. The ticket money from the performance goes towards a project to construct a rural school in Southern India, for 575 children aged five to eleven. The project’s target is 65,492 euros and they already have in excess of 40,000. That, alone, is pretty amazing, the coming together of different nationalities to give pleasure and work towards a good cause.
There may be a few off notes, but the entire performance impressed, and that’s what’s important.
The same applies to writers and their critics. Yes, there may be a few typos missed by author, editor, and proof-reader – and the author is often the first to beat herself up when these are found, after the book goes to print, rarely at the galley/proof stage. That’s good, striving for perfection. Self-edit, self-edit, self-edit is a good mantra to follow, but there comes a time when you have to let it go – and that applies to the publisher as well as the author.
Again, a little perspective is required.
Maybe 80,000 or more words are strung together to create characters and a fictional world for the reader, and there’s nothing wrong with over 99.9999% of those words! Fine, if the book has clearly not been adequately edited, fair criticism – usually reserved for self-published work, I suspect. But complaining about the occasional glitch is simply petty and uncharitable. If the story does what is intended, then judge it on those merits, not on a few typos.

Friday 12 April 2013

FFB - Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

It’s many years since I read this. I rarely have the opportunity to re-read books, even favourites, as I own so many I still have to read even once. It was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Elizabeth, Jane, Lydia, Mr & Mrs Bennett and of course Darcy. I made a point of re-reading this after viewing the BBC television series featuring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as the star-crossed lovers (filmed in 1995). There have been many versions before and since, but in my view this – perhaps due to its generous length – captures the book most perfectly.
            It isn’t surprising that the book has been popular ever since its publication in 1813, as the wit and spirit of Elizabeth captivates readers of all ages. Typical of its period, the book uses the omniscient point of view, but it works thanks to the easy style and humour of Austen. The title of the book originally was First Impressions but was changed to reflect a quotation from Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia, when the lovers are united and the author declares that ‘the whole of this unfortunate business has been the result of pride and prejudice.’
            Considering her small output, Austen’s works have been dramatized a remarkable number of times and have been forever in print and in the hearts of romantics worldwide.
            The first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice has been quoted time and again and is certainly one of the most famous beginnings of any novel: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ That, in a nutshell, is what the book’s plot is about – Mrs Bennett finding suitable men for her daughters to marry. Well, on the surface, of course. It’s more subversive than that, however. It reveals Elizabeth as a strong-willed woman of independent mind if not means. And it’s a book about the enigmatic Darcy, too – a man who is tired of the artifice of his female acquaintances and finds himself stirred by the alarmingly refreshing Elizabeth Bennett.
            All of the characters spring alive, thanks to Elizabeth’s acute observations, whether they be her scatter-brained mother, detached father, the odious Mr Collins or the dreadful Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the main, their characters are conveyed by their speech, and it’s masterfully done.
            This book (1995) also features stills from the TV episodes.

Editor’s note: even classics can suffer from typos – and I don’t mean the old spellings of ancles (ankles), chuse (choose), your's (yours) and the like. There are at least twenty to be found in this copy. Whether they’ve been around since 1813 or introduced at subsequent reprinting, when books were typeset, I cannot say. Regardless, the typos don’t interfere with the reading enjoyment.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Storyteller's Seven - Tom Rizzo

Tom Rizzo kindly asked me to answers seven questions for his regular Tuesday spot on his blog - Story Teller’s Seven

That interview is here:
Now,  I reckoned I should return the favour, so these were my seven questions.

 1.            Heroes and Rogues looks like a fascinating book, judging by the entries on your website. You obviously had great fun collecting and writing the varied articles. I’d like to add it to my collection. When is it appearing on Amazon and elsewhere?

TR: I did have great fun putting that together. I find characters from frontier America as fascinating as fictional characters. At the moment Heroes & Rogues is available only from my website as an incentive to sign up for a newsletter. But, I'm in the process of expanding it with additional snapshot profiles. Then I'll make it available on Amazon in digital form, and replace the newsletter "incentive" with something else. 

2.           Whereabouts in Great Britain did you live – and for how long? Any memories of your stay? (I know: that’s sort of 3 questions in one!)

TR: I lived in Southwest England, the Cotswolds for four years--Gloucestershire County. I have lots of memories of my time there. At the time, there were no freeways; the country had just started to build its first one--the M1, I think. Before I had a car, I used to hitchhike quite a bit and met the most interesting characters. It was an educational experience.  One night, in the rain, I hitched a ride with a lorry (truck) driver. While we were sliding and bouncing along, I asked him what he was transporting. "Explosives, mate." I rode the rest of the way with my fist curled around the door handle in case I had to manage a quick escape.

 3.           Your western Last Stand at Bitter Creek features a black officer, David Webster. I’ve come across very few black main characters in westerns – DM Harrison’s The Buffalo Soldier, Frank Roderus’ The Outsider, Brian Garfield’s Tripwire, and the Cash Laramie adventures featuring Gideon Miles spring to mind... What prompted you to use a black protagonist?

TR: I learned that about 190,000 or so black soldiers served in the Union Army and Union Navy, but still endured discrimination and segregation, even though they made significant contributions in the war and put their lives on the line as much as anyone else. The army was reluctant to commission black officers, which numbered between 90 and 120. The Lincoln administration initially worried that recruiting black troops would alienate border states and give them a reason to secede. The idea of a black soldier serving as a Union spy intrigued me. Making him an integral part of the plot, and equipping him with skills perhaps not normally associated with black soldiers, I think, gave the story a broader appeal. At least that was my intent.

4.           Can you describe where you’re going with your latest book?

TR: I'm in the process of outlining the next novel, which will feature both Bonner and Webster. I had such good feedback on both, I wanted to create a storyline where they'll be paired again, this time in search of another stolen treasure. 

5.       You’re keen on the importance of research and have warned about the danger of doing too much. Have you now evolved a method of handling research so it doesn’t take over timewise, and have you any fascinating nugget that has jumped out recently?

TR: Too much research, of course, sucks the time from actual storytelling. But the research I did for Last Stand At Bitter Creek was important because it enabled me to get a solid sense of time and place for the last half of the 19th century. Since I have the "background" information in place, most of my research involves connecting the dots, so to speak, in terms of the actual character and events that parallel the time frame I use for my story. 

6.            Okay, you're in a small cafĂ©, huddling with three of your favorite writers (living or dead). One specializes in Westerns; another in Thrillers; the third in Short Stories. Who would they be, and what one – and different – question would you ask each of them?

TR:  Raymond Carver who, in his day, revitalized American short story telling. Carver focused on ordinary people who find themselves in ordinary - and sometimes bizarre - emotional conflicts. My question: "In what ways does real life reflect the untidy endings you write about in your stories?"  

Louis L'Amour -- because (1) the way he was able to bring the characters and the landscape of the American frontier to life, and (2) for his passion at treating the Western as history. I'd ask: "What role, and in what ways, did the American frontier shape the American character?"

David Morrell -- I'd ask him, "As backgrounding for your stories, you've become a private pilot, been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, executive protection, expert driving strategies, assuming identities, and other things. Obviously, this all helps in creating reality in storytelling. But what advice would you give to a writer who has neither the time nor money to learn such things, but wants to write as compelling a story as you do?"

 7.            How would you finish this statement: "I bet my readers didn't know (this about me) …”?
TR: I once had lunch with Elvis Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, in Las Vegas.

Thanks, Tom.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Maxwell cleverly weaves her tale

JANE – The woman who loved Tarzan
by Robin Maxwell

This book’s release, authorised by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, coincided with the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s a fitting re-invention.
            Many years ago, I read and re-read all two dozen of the Tarzan books and also the John Carter series. Like fans worldwide, I’ve always felt that the films never did Lord Greystoke justice. So, it was with a little trepidation that I tackled this book.
            What many film-makers neglected but this novel recognizes, ‘There is no Tarzan without Jane’, to quote John R Burroughs. As I became immersed in the tale, all fears for the treatment of the lord of the jungle evaporated. It was obvious that this was a work of love and respect for the original, a worthy homage.
            The book begins in 1912 Chicago where Jane Porter is giving a talk about the missing link she found in Africa. Her claims cause heated controversy among several academic and scientific attendees and, ultimately, a Mr E.R. Burroughs, a young author, takes her aside and expresses an interest in her tale about an ape man. Sequestered together, Jane tells all to Burroughs. This is Jane’s first person narrative we’re about to read, beginning in 1905.
            Maxwell cleverly weaves her tale, using the basic elements of the original but grafting on much that is new and intriguing. Seeing this tale from Jane’s perspective works exceedingly well for me. The period and character are beautifully captured – perhaps I should have expected nothing less from an accredited author of historical fiction.
            There is much that is familiar – the story of Tarzan’s origin, though shifted by date for purposes of realism, the Waziri, d’Arnot, Jane’s father, and the Mangani. The vain and dashing explorer Ral Conrath makes a suitable bad guy, but the real villain is Kerchak, the killer ape. Yet they’re given slight twists to fit this retelling; to stick to the original in every respect would have been a creative straitjacket and unworthy, and fortunately both Jim Sullos, custodian of the legend, and grandson John R Burroughs agreed. In his works, Burroughs did a lot of research for his books, and Maxwell has emulated him with a sure touch, delving into the paleo-anthropological details, the descriptions of the Dark Continent and even the history of Cambridge University, yet at no times imposing swathes of mind-numbing information on the reader.
            There are several poignant moments – not least the reading of Alice’s diary, the vaguely recalled past of young Tarzan and the erotic yet tasteful relationship between the ape man and his mate, Jane.
            You don’t have to have read any Tarzan book to appreciate this wonderful novel. If you have read some of the ape man’s adventures, then you’ll find much to please you in this retelling, bringing the lord of the jungle back to an adult readership, Burroughs’ intended audience.