It occurs to me that every novel is a mystery.  I don’t mean in the sense of a ‘who done it?’ or a detective story.  Even a historical novel – if it’s really a novel, and not a true historical account – is a mystery novel.  Because, when we pick the book up, we don’t know exactly what will happen.

For example, I was reading The Volcano Lover, a historical novel by Susan Sontag.  It is based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his ‘celebrated wife’, Emma and Admiral Lord Nelson, and it is set during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which followed.  I knew that Emma was Nelson’s mistress, and that her husband, Sir William, didn’t object publicly, but I didn’t know why he didn’t object.  The reasons that Ms. Sontag gives are that Sir William was a great deal older than Emma – he was about seventy when the affair began, and that Sir William considered himself to be a good friend of the great hero, and chose to turn a blind eye – at least in public – to the relationship.  What I found rather fascinating was Ms. Sontag’s descriptions of the characters of Emma and Nelson.  When we first meet Emma in the book, she is in her late teens, manipulative, very talented and beautiful.  When Nelson first meets her, she is, next to the  Queen of Naples and the Two Sicilies, the most commanding figure in the kingdom.  By the end of the book she has lost her looks, has become dissolute and bitter.  I don’t know how true to life this is.  Certainly, this is plausible, but in doing her research for the novel, did Ms. Sontag read too many of the letters and accounts of people who disliked Emma, and there must have been plenty of them?  I found the portrayal of Nelson to be inconsistent with what I thought I knew about the man from reading a great deal of naval history.  Ms. Sontag portrays his as a small, sickly man, self-absorbed, and somewhat negligent about obeying orders from the Admiralty – also somewhat negligent in keeping his fleet in Naples or Palermo (where Emma was), rather than pursuing the French.  Interesting reading, but to my mind, an overly negative portrayal.  Perhaps Ms. Sontag’s affections lay with Sir William – who comes across as a kindly, loyal, but somewhat inept figure – rather than the great hero.  My point is that we don’t know – in a historical novel – how much the writer may have interpreted history to make the story more interesting.

Setting aside the historical novel, every other genre (including the detective novel) must have some mystery.  Without mystery, we know what will happen, and we lose interest.  And it isn’t just the plot which unwinds mysteriously.  Characters are more interesting when they do the unexpected but plausible.  Settings which are unfamiliar to us and have an air of mystery about them are of interest.  Mysterious times can be quite interesting; this accounts, in part, for the popularity of the historical novel and science fiction.  But apart from these major sources of mystery, I think that a good writer will often introduce small, unexpected events, or reactions by characters to events.  These keep us intellectually engaged with the book, and we think: why did that happen? and I wonder what will happen next!

Should Kids Read?

I happened on this subject the other day when I was riding on a London bus.  There were two boys sitting in the seats across from me.  One was about ten and the other was probably twelve.  Were they brothers?  I guess so, but it doesn’t really matter.  They were at least friends.  The younger boy was playing with his Gameboy (or whatever it was).  He was concentrating to the extent of  moving his upper body to coax the hero in the game to move in the right direction.  His fingers were flying over the keys, and occasionally, when the hero got in a tight spot, his tongue would dart out to better express his tension.  Now and then, he would emit a groan as – I  suppose – either the hero wasn’t as heroic as he had hoped, or his time was up.  When this happened, he would sigh with frustration, and drop his hands into his lap.  There was one occasion when the boy emitted a shriek of delight, nudged the older boy, and said something triumphant.

The older boy was reading a paperback book.  I have no idea what kind of a book it was, except that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a text book.  He was reading for pleasure.  He was quite absorbed, paying no attention to his younger companion, to the other passengers on the bus, or indeed to where the bus was going.  (I guessed the boys were going from one familiar place to another.)  Deliberately, he would turn the pages, following the text with complete attention, but he showed none of the emotion of his younger companion.  He did, however, shrug off the attempts of the younger boy to involve him in the electronic game.

The boys reminded me of my own grandchildren.  Several of the older ones are a dedicated readers; some of the younger ones are addicted to electronic games.  Does it matter?  I suppose I have a bias on the subject, which is that by the age of about 12 kids should be into books, and out of hand-held electronics (unless it happens to be an e-book reader).  Why?  I suppose that e-games are great for helping develop hand-eye co-ordination, for improving concentration and dexterity, and for building problem-solving skills.  But, they do nothing for developing language skills (vocabulary, grammar, etc.), nor do they teach much about the real world.  And they have very limited ability to build intellectual skills.

How do we as parents help to stimulate the transition from games to books?  When I was about 10, there were no electronic games.  The games that were available were card games, and games like Parcheesi and Monopoly which you played with other people.  My big distraction was comic books (which I had to read), and serial Western programs on the radio, which I could listen to while I did my homework.  Both my mother and my maternal grandmother liked to read to me.  They read the great children’s classics like Treasure Island, and I remember sitting or lying nearby, with my head full of the imagined action.  I knew that books were good!

I’ve tried the same strategy with my children, with mixed results.  Some like to be read to and others couldn’t be bothered.  Of the five ‘children’ two are readers.  My oldest daughter is a committed reader of fiction.  My son reads mostly business literature, although an interesting bit of non-fiction may catch his eye.  Not a great batting average for me.

But, I’m not sure what I could have done to stimulate more interest in reading.  I’m sure, though, that it’s an important role that every parent has.

Follies to Avoid

There is an article in the on-line version of The Week – as far as I can tell undated – written by a novelist called Robert Twigger called “Nine Follies to Avoid When Writing Your First Novel.  This caught my eye, and I’d like to comment on them and grade myself, on how well I followed Mr. Twigger’s advice in writing my first novel (not that I had ever heard of Mr. Twigger when I  wrote Fishing in Foreign Seas.)

1 The folly of the unattractive narrator.  Mr. Twigger says that the reader should like the voice of the narrator.  The reader will assume that the author is the narrator, but s/he doesn’t know the author, so s/he should like the voice of the author.  In Fishing in Foreign Seas, the narrator is the adult daughter, Elena, of the principle characters, Jamie and Caterina; Elena is a best-selling author, and I think she tells the story in an un-biased, interesting way.  Mr. Twigger says about the narrator’s voice, “Be likeable, be fascinating, be evil if you like – but don’t be deeply unattractive.”  I think he’s right.

2. The folly of ‘plot’ first.  Mr. Twigger says that when one starts with a plot first, events tend to be contrived and therefore less credible.  He suggests that you leave plot or structure to the last.  When I started writing Fishing in Foreign Seas, I had no idea what was going to happen, and I just let the novel ‘flow’.  But my subsequent novels have had more of a planned structure: generally, what’s going to happen, who the characters are, and what the ‘message’ is.  I don’t see how you can get to where you’re going if you don’t have a plan.

3. The folly of facts before relationships.  Twigger says that the world is about relationships, not facts.  I think he’s right.  Fishing in Foreign Seas is about relationships: some important, some less so; some are productive, some are destructive.

4. The folly of not being heartfelt.  Mr. Twigger says that the characters have to care about what happens.  He says, “You can’t write about the weather and the state of the nation if your main character has a hang up about sex. Sex is his thing, his heartfelt concern, so get that out in the open. Even a clever scene well done will feel thin and containing too much information if it is not heartfelt, if the character doesn’t care that much.”  I agree, and I think that the characters in Fishing in Foreign Seas care quite a lot about what happens.

5. The folly of not leaving things out.  The point is that many writers feel that they have to research something about which they have neither knowledge nor interest just to complete the story.  I think this is a fair point.  While it is not autobiographical, Fishing in Foreign Seas contains events with which I’m quite familiar.  But my forthcoming fourth novel is set in Afghanistan and Iran.  I’ve been to neither country.  But I have a keen interest in both countries, so that doing the necessary extensive research was a pleasure.

6. The folly of excessive detailThis is a frequent concern for any writer.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I try to include just enough detail to make the situation or the scene credible.  Probably in Fishing in Foreign Seas, I’ve included too much detail, but I think I’ve become more skilled at including only enough essential detail to hold the reader’s attention.

7. The folly of mistaking linked events for real plot.  Twigger says,”The situation you put the characters in – the world, if you like – must exert sufficient pressure on them to give you something to write about.”  I think  this is a very good point.  The characters in Fishing in Foreign Seas  are under quite a bit of pressure.  He also says (somewhat sarcastically), “One damn thing after another, tied up neatly, is usually called ‘the plot’.

8. The folly of proposals.  He says, “It’s tempting to try to get a deal before you do the hard work but it’s the writing equivalent of a 110 per cent mortgage. You’ll have to write a cracking proposal as well as the first few chapters and it will take as long as the book to do this. You will have to do the book anyway, you will have to solve the problems some time – so why not now?”  I agree.  I’ve never tried to sell a book before I’ve finished it.  Before I’ve finished  it, how do I know what I’m selling?

9. The folly of not having an agent.  Mr. Twigger says, “In Naples a lowly thug stands with his hand over a post box – you pay him to remove his hand so you can post your letter. Many writers feel the same way about agents. Don’t. Getting your novel accepted is a process of serially convincing people. The first person is an agent. They don’t have to be famous. In fact a young gun going all out beats an old lag who thinks life’s a drag anytime. But you need to have convinced one person after your mother that your work deserves a readership of millions.”  OK.  I agree, but I haven’t had any luck with agents.  I’ve had a lot of sales and marketing training so it’s not that I don’t know how to sell.  I’ve written to sixty-some agents in the UK and the US on four occasions.  I’ve followed their suggested formats.  I think what I  send them looks pretty tempting.  But no luck.


My third novel, Efraim’s Eye, has finally been released for printing.  (The editing process took entirely too long, and too much effort from the ‘independent professional’ but not very competent, editor, the publisher and me.)

(As of 24 September 2012, Efraim’s Eye has been published.)

The printing stage involves the preparation of front and back covers, the assignment of an ISBN number, the pricing of the book, and the final layout of the manuscript for printing.

My publisher will provide two cover designs for me to choose between.  With my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I knew exactly what I wanted for a cover design: a girl fishing in a somewhat mysterious sea.  Since I wasn’t particularly happy with the first design, I had an artist prepare scene to my specifications, and while the design was OK, the style of it wasn’t right for a book cover.  I selected the publisher’s second design, which you can see on my website  For the second novel, Sin & Contrition, I asked the publisher’s graphic designer to prepare a graphic suggestive of the title.  The result was the statue of a fallen angel, and most people find it rather striking.  (You can see for yourself on my website.)  For Efraim’s Eye, I’ll probably propose a graphic based on the London Eye.  (Efraim’s Eye is a thriller about a lone terrorist with a plan to destroy the London Eye, killing all 800 riders.)

The back cover is easier.  There is a photograph of a portrait of the author, a brief bio (that can be repeated) and a short synopsis.  There is also the ISBN number which is assigned by the publisher, and which includes some encoded data.  Since 2007, the ISBN has been 13 digits long.  The first three digits identify the industry (987 denotes the book publishing industry), the next two digits identify the language, the following four digits identify the publisher, the next three are assigned to the book’s title, and the last digit is a check sum.  I’ll be talking about the pricing of the book in a later blog.

Before it is printed, the manuscript has to be laid out in separate pages.  A table of contents is added.  Foot notes, if any must be paginated or grouped at the end of the book.  Illustrations, if any, must be inserted.  References, glossaries and appendices, etc, – if any – must be paginated.  For me, a key task at this stage is to check that the right fonts are being used.  In the editing process, the entire manuscript is converted to Times New Roman, while I use Lucida Calligraphy where the language is not English – Arabic – in the case of Efraim’s Eye.

Finally, the book is released for actual printing and binding.  My publisher uses printing on demand, which depends on the use of digital technology, and in which a book can be printed at a fixed cost per copy, regardless of the size of the order.  The cost per copy will be higher than with traditional offset printing, but printing on demand has several advantages over offset printing:

  • for small runs, it is more cost effective than offset printing
  • set up time is shorter
  • inventories can be lower and less costly
  • waste is greatly reduced

The publisher will send me a single copy of the book for final sign off.  That is always an exciting, landmark event!