Monday, 27 August 2007

Metaphors and similes

A good metaphor or simile is a lovesome thing.

When I wrote, 'He felt as weak as a fly on a cold day at the end of summer', I felt ridiculously pleased with myself, because I don't often come up with descriptive phrases like that, and they do make prose more vivid.

What about the bad ones, though? 'As quiet as a mouse' - anyone who has tried to sleep with mice rampaging round the room will wonder how that saying achieved common use. And 'touch pitch and be defiled'; as a jeweller I sometimes use pitch for repousse, and it's really not that messy. 'Touch a car's engine and you'll be black from fingernail to elbow' - now that's the truth, but it doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

From the master of metaphor and simile, P G Wodehouse;

She gave me the sort of look she would have given a leper she wasn't fond of

He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say "when!"

Her eye swivelling round stopped me like a bullet. The Wedding Guest, if you remember, had the same trouble with the Ancient Mariner

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver's trousers

As for Gussie Finknottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight

Gosh, he was good. I've really got to work on this.

Thursday, 23 August 2007


Today we will discuss the colon. Briefly.

Extremely fond though I am of the semi-colon, I never seem to think to use a colon. George Bernard Shaw, that talented yet irritating man, used them to excess. He probably used up my share, and a lot of other people's.

I am not sure what a colon does that a full stop doesn't do better.

In the whole of Trav Zander, I use one colon. When it is published, there will be a small prize for the first person to locate it.

(Don't all rush at once, you'll trip over the ellipses).

Monday, 20 August 2007

The ultimate query letter?

Literary agents are a picky bunch.

We all know a manuscript has to have the best opening sentence ever, and deliver an intriguing plot on page one, in a genre which the agent believes might be the Next Big Thing. A hopeful author will, of course, also need a snappy synopsis that makes the agent rush to read more.

Now, alerted by my friend Alan, I realize this is not enough; one also has to have the perfect query letter.

I have downloaded How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman, and am halfway through reading it. Some of the advice is common sense; don't use cheap or coloured paper, or an unusual font, don't write more than a page. He has some useful insider knowledge, having been an agent himself for many years; apparently, it is a convention in the publishing industry that book titles are set in caps; 'This alone can signal a pro'.

Some advice, though, is kin to my daughter's superstition that for exam success, it's as well to wear spotty socks, and the brighter the spots the better. Using A4 paper is bad, for example; it needs to be 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Can this be true?

I have now got to the nitty-gritty about what to put in my Three Paragraphs (you're only allowed three) and there's still seventy pages to go.

I know what I'm going to be doing over the next month.

Here is one of my favourite quotes, from Nerve, by Dick Francis. The hero is talking about what he learnt from his mother, a pianist;

'Professionalism, for instance; a tough-minded singleness of purpose; a refusal to be content with a low standard when a higher one could be achieved merely by working'.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Is it done yet?

How do you know your book is finished?

I am sure Dickens, who wrote detailed outlines of every chapter before he started, knew when the job was done. Those of us who write in a more haphazard way, starting in the middle or at the end, randomly putting down scenes as they pop into our heads, are less certain. With my first book, Rising Fire, I didn't even know what happened in the second half of the book when I began. I worked it out by deciding what the characters would do next in that situation. Episodes I thought would occupy the central section ended up near the beginning. More like making a rag rug than knotting a carpet.

In preparation for Print on Demand on Youwriteon I have revised, read aloud, polished, checked the spacing after every full stop (gah!) and for the moment, I think that's it. But is it? After it's lain fallow for a few weeks, will new thoughts of how I can improve it sprout in my mind?

Should I still be nurturing Rising Fire and Trav Zander, or is it time for them to leave home, find a job and a flat, and make their own way in the world?

Friday, 3 August 2007

Talking dogs…

Once upon a time, there was a man who angered a great Emperor. The Emperor ordered his death.

‘Oh Most Powerful Lord,’ said the condemned man, ‘only let me live, and I will teach your dog how to talk.’

Now the Emperor was very fond of his dog. He stroked its ears as it sat beside his throne. Most likely the man was lying; it was an improbable offer, but just supposing he could do it? What, after all, was there to lose? So he said,

‘Very well. I grant a stay of execution. If, at the end of a year, my dog can talk, you will go free. If not, then you will die.’

The man bowed low and thanked the Emperor, then left the room to prepare the canine speech classes. His friends rushed up to him.

‘What was the point of that? You’ll never teach a dog to talk.’

The man answered, ‘Many things can happen in a year. I may escape. The Emperor may die. Or, just possibly,’ and he smiled, ‘the dog may learn to talk.’

* * *

I heard this story long ago, I don’t know where, and it stuck with me. If ever anything good and extremely improbable happens, I mutter, ‘What do you know, the dog learnt to talk.’

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Gold star on Youwriteon

Yesterday my short story, Comforted by Darkness, made the best seller chart on Youwriteon and got its gold star. It's currently at number eight. My other short story, Showing Them, is now at number two.

Comforted by Darkness qualified by staying in the top ten for more than twenty-five days in a three month period. In fact, it was hanging around the lower reaches of the top ten for eighty-three days, which I'm hoping may be a record.

So I'm really pleased.