Archive for April, 2012

Darklands by Emma WoodcockMy proof copy of Darklands arrived this morning, courtesty of Feed a Read. It feels very good to have an actual copy of my first novel in my hands.

At first glance it all looks perfect: haven’t misspelt the title; font is a decent, readable size; page numbers work; title pages are on the correct side of the paper… but I’ll need to give it a more thorough check over when the initial excitement has worn off before I okay it – and then it will be available to purchase!

Of course there are things I could criticise: the cover is *very* shiny; and it’s come out of its packaging slightly wobbly, you know how a book goes if it gets a bit damp? But these are minor quibbles. Really, I’m chuffed to bits.

It’s especially nice that you can finally see the figure in the tower properly – it was never very apparent on a computer screen. Though my bf (and cover designer)’s first words were, “ooooh, I should have put more detail on that picture…” I guess he, like me, will always find things to criticise in his own area of expertise.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

See how lovingly dog-eared my copy is

There’s currently a Diana Wynne Jones celebration going on over on tumblr, fans posting quotes, pictures and personal memories of what she meant to them. She never seemed to make it as big as she deserved, and I don’t really understand why. But those of us who know her, love her.

DWJ has long been one of my favourite authors, and of all her books there is no question but that Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite. The review I wrote on Amazon (so long ago that I’ve changed email addresses and it’s no longer connected to me) describes it as ‘pitch perfect.’ Every word in the book is exactly the right one.

But what’s so great about it? Firstly there is a not-quite-tongue-in-cheek, but knowing use of the traditional fantasy setting. Consider the opening paragraph:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes. Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

You recognise instantly the world the story inhabits and yet, of course, the rules will be turned on their heads as the story progresses.

In my opinion, DWJ’s greatest talent was not in writing magic (though she was excellent at that), but in writing characters. Her best characters are flawed, humane, funny, and so real you want to take them down the tea shop and have a natter over a pot of darjeeling and a nice scone.

Sophie Hatter is shy and undemanding, expecting little from life. But being magically transformed into an old woman unexpectedly frees her to embrace life as she never did before. She becomes outspoken, bossy and very capable. Her own latent magical powers are delightfully unconventional; she talks sternly to inanimate objects and they obey her.

Of course, Howl is the standout character in the book. Did DWJ know when she wrote him that she would break the hearts of schoolgirls (and grown women) around the world? I like to think that she did. Howl is foppish, cowardly, vain, selfish and irresponsible. He throws a mardy tantrum when his best suit is ruined, drenching the house in magical green slime. He virtually invents the concept of man flu. But of course, there is more to him than this. He is also utterly charming, and ultimately shows himself the hero we knew him to be deep down all along.

Howl’s Moving Castle is not a long book, but there is quite a lot of plot in it, some of it fiendishly convoluted. It took me about three re-reads before I finally had it all figured out in my head exactly how all the pieces fit together. But this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book; it just made the re-reads even more fun*, as there were still things to be surprised about and unsure of (DWJ managed the same trick in the Time of the Ghost. I have only read that three or four times, but I can never remember which of the sisters the ghost actually turns out to be)

Despite all the twisty-turny confusion, DWJ delivers it all with an unexpectedly light touch. She doesn’t waffle on about scenery or weather. She doesn’t allow her protagonists to wallow or mope, no matter how dire their circumstances. She doesn’t even use big words. But her prose is perfect: light and easy to read, and always with a warm undertone of good-natured humour.

This is the scene when Howl arrives home late and drunk from his rugby club reunion:

He tried to go upstairs through the broom cupboard, and then the yard. This seemed to puzzle him a little. But finally he discovered the stairs, all except the bottom one, and fell up them on his face.

This light, easy, fun tone sounds so effortless, and is so hard to do well. I know. I’ve tried. More than any other author Diana Wynne Jones is who I try to emulate in my own writing (I called Darklands‘ protagonist Sophie as a tribute to Sophie Hatter). When I’m sunk in despondancy and lack of motivation, I’ll likely pick up Howl’s Moving Castle for a furtive little read; just to remind myself what I’m aiming for.

I give it a hundred stars (out of five) 🙂

* I’ve probably read it at least ten times.

Hunger Games movie poster

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So after a few years languishing in post-production limbo, is it any coincidence that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods has finally found a release at the same time as the Hunger Games? At first glance they are very different films, but they have a surprising amount in common.

Both feature a collection of young people thrust into an arena and made to fight for their lives for the entertainment of a baying crowd. Only one can/might survive. The young people behave as expected: fighting and dying – until one begins to question quite what is going on, and why.

Both feature virtually omniscient surveillance in an ostensibly wild environment, as well as climate control and other invasive ways to mess with the emperilled kids.

Both question the voyeuristic nature of entertainment and make sly digs at the culture of image-obsession. One of the things I really liked in Hunger Games was the utterly cynical approach to image and media manipulation. Having led a very poor and rough life so far, one of the first things to happen to Katniss upon her arrival in the capital is to be thoroughly waxed in order to make her presentable to the audience. In Cabin in the Woods, Jules is encouraged in her role of dumb blonde by the addition of behaviour altering chemicals to her hair bleach.

Cabin in the Woods poster

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

What zeitgeisty nuggets can we glean from this? I remember having paranoid fantasies about such levels of sinister observation when I was a kid back in the late 70s/early 80s. Back then it really was the stuff of sci-fi, but advances in technology mean that it is becoming increasingly plausible. This primal fear of being secretly watched, of being judged, of being manipulated in ways we can’t percieve – isn’t this simply the religious imperative at work? Isn’t this the same impulse that makes us imagine gods and angels and demons?

*** mild spoilers from this point on ***

Ultimately the survivors of the arena reject their allotted fate, and take the fight to the puppet masters (okay, I think you have to wait for the HG sequels for some of that, but the point stands). There is a lot to like about this scenario: defying fate, questioning those in power, railing at the gods.

Many people I know were underwhelmed by Cabin in the Woods, mostly I think because it wasn’t enough like a proper horror film. Fair enough, but I believe it’s something far more interesting: the slasher genre tortured to death and stuffed up its own fundament.* Plus, the nightmare creatures running wild finale was the most deliriously nutso thing I’ve seen on the big screen in years.

* of course, like any horror film villain, it will somehow make its return…

I am currently enjoying/struggling through the second draft of Kikimora. Some days it goes great. Other days I struggle to complete my word count (1000)*. So I’ve come up with a new incentive to goad me on those tough days: the line of the day.

I’m also kind of curious how accurate (or random) a picture of the novel will emerge from several months worth of Lines of the Day…

This is the sentence I am most pleased with today, 19 April 2012:

The afternoon passed slowly and mostly in silence.

It’s a small line, but well formed, and I think nicely sums up the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene.

For good measure, I have retrospectively decided on last thursday’s line of the day, 12 April:

Her limbs were very agile, and capable of bending in ways that perhaps a humans might not.

and last friday’s, 13 April**:

He had fled the oppressive old house the first chance he got, leaving Yana to cope alone with the oppressive old man.

I’ll add more each week. But I’m already curious how many of these ‘best lines’ will make it to the final cut. I learned during the editing of Darklands the value of that cruel advice, ‘Kill your darlings’…

* I realise a word quota is not always appropriate during editing, but I decided on a deal of restructuring during my first draft read through, and consequently have a lot of new sections to add in.

** I work part time, and generally write on Thursdays and Fridays.


Line of the day, 20 April

After all, she was a thing of the cold, and she drew strength from it.

Line of the day, 21 April

Kikimora had never had a mother, had never heard a lullaby, and had never felt its lack until now.

So seven months after publishing Darklands as an eBook, I’m finally making the move into print.

Months ago, I investigated CreateSpace, went most of the way through the set up process before realising that it was US based and likely to incur ridiculous shipping costs for my UK customers (or, as I call them, my customers. I think I sold one book in the US, once…) There were also brain-bending complications involving ISBNs, distribution packages, US tax wierdness…. I tore some hair out, and gave it up.

Next I looked into Lulu. They seemed to have UK distribution, but I was still unsure about the same ISBN and distribution issues. I didn’t want to relinquish control of any rights to my work, and struggled to fathom the rights blurb if I accepted a free ISBN from Lulu/CreateSpace. I could purchase my own from the ISBN regulatory thing, ten at a time, for £120 or so. Then I could spend another £70 on the distribution package to get the book onto Amazon, where I could hope to make no profit since the production cost alone was around £6, and Amazon demands a 100% markup! (Hmm, yes, I expect a self-published paperback by an unknown author will sell very well at £12!)

I don’t want to be one of those poor deluded writers, throwing money at an ambition that is clearly never going anywhere. But… if you are serious about becoming successful, you do need to invest both time and money. I guess it’s really a matter of trying to be realistic. Give it a proper go, then if nothing comes of it, know when to bow out with dignity intact?

So, people kept asking me about a paperback, and I kept saying, ‘Soon, soon…’ and doing nothing about it. However, as discussed in a previous post, I decided I was finally ready to give it another go. Part of the new determination came from thinking about money. Specifically, how £200 or so pales into insignifcance when you consider my loss of earnings due to working only part time so that I can write for the past three years. At a very rough estimate, £20-30,000? Ouch!

So I’ve had another look into it, found some useful discussions of the pros and cons of both CreateSpace and Lulu, and finally stumbled on the UK based FeedARead, which is supported by the Arts Council of England. I expect it has all the same issues regarding ISBNs, rights and distribution packages, but at least it’s UK based.

I’ve set the wheels in motion, but like all the other packages out there, this one seems very loathe to actually give you any pricing information until you’ve gone through the whole setup process. Since my word file is currently awaiting conversion to PDF (I would normally do that kind of thing myself, but don’t have the full Acrobat program and was uncertain about embedding my fonts, so it seemed safest to let them handle it), I can discover absolutely no indication of what production costs will be :-/ I don’t like this, but unless it’s truly outrageous, I think I’m just going to go with it.

I’ll keep you posted how it all works out 🙂