Sunday, 29 March 2009

Wrestling with the synopsis

Having written the last chapter of Catch a Falling Star (must find a new title, damn it) I am busy tweaking it while waiting for the last of my kind readers to report back. I have also, with a reluctance that only my fellow writers will understand, begun to write the synopsis.

The problem is that a synopsis is, essentially, one's novel with all the good bits stripped out - the humour, the dialogue, the surprises - and one's characters reduced to stereotypes. What you are left with is a bare plot outline, without any of the detail that makes it worth reading. One is also obliged to reveal whodunit, and I can't believe it helps an agent to appreciate a book if she knows before she hits chapter one who the killer is.

I must try harder. I read somewhere that you should imagine you've just seen the film of your book, and you are telling a friend the plot in a pub afterwards. Maybe that would perk it up.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Shock horror at Authonomy

Yesterday evening I wrote a comment for a rather good book on Authonomy, What About the Boy?, and had trouble loading it. The site was s-l-o-w. Today I found out why.

A writer called Vineet Bhalla, username Klazart, a computer gamer, has got his friends to join and back his book. Lots of them. 697 and rising. His book is currently at 18 in the charts; his chums have now replaced all the people at the top of the talent-spotters chart - the chart that was brought in so that its algorithms would defeat people doing what Bhalla is doing. My own T-S rank has plummeted from 12 to 167.

He has demonstrated that the algorithm can only cope with people who load dozens of friends - the most one person has recruited hitherto is 150, from Facebook - it is powerless against a man who can rally the support of hundreds.

I wonder how many of the 697 have read Bhalla's book? Any of them?

Last summer, on this blog, I said that Harper Collins' encouraging people, in the F.A.Q., to get their family and friends to join Authonomy and back their book was a cheat's charter. That passage in the F.A.Q. is still there.

HC staff will come in on Monday and see what is happening to their site. I'm interested to know what their reaction will be.
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UPDATE: Harper Collins are happy with the way Bhalla has used the site, and their only concern is with the performance issues that occurred with so many extra people visiting Authonomy.
See their post here.
UPDATE 2: Harper Collins has changed the talent-spotter algorithm, to 'encourage the type of behaviour that most people here would like to see in future'.
See their post here.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Aagh, not the present tense...

Why do I get a feeling of lack of enthusiasm whenever I start to read a book written in the present tense? There seems to be more of it about these days.

I've struggled to work out its appeal for writers, and all I've come up with is that it gives a spurious significance to the mundane. So you get passages like:

She opens the steel-veneered cabinet door, and takes down the jar of instant coffee. Unscrewing the cap, she measures a spoonful of coffee granules into a mug. The kettle boils. Martha switches it off, and pours steaming water. She adds sugar and milk and stirs, wondering whether to give in to the temptation posed by the pristine packet of Hobnobs.

Gaah! Who cares? Why describe this boring stuff?

But apart from encouraging the sort of writing you might do as an exercise at a writers' class, there is, I think, another reason why my mind reels away from the present tense. The Janet and John series; frightfully dull books that children learned to read with in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Once you'd cracked Janet and John, you got on to the good stuff; what my daughter called 'chapter books' when she was small. Books that you read for pleasure, that were exciting and unpredictable.

And written in the past tense, like grown-up books.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Semicolons; some thoughts...

In my occasional series on punctuation, I have reached the semicolon.

I love semicolons; I think they give a nice balance to a sentence, and use them all the time. I think I picked them up from Mary Renault, one of my favourite authors. Editors would take them out of her books, and she would put them back, firmly. Fay Weldon hated them, and that's another stroke in their favour as far as I'm concerned.

The great Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, says, 'The sub-text of a semicolon is, "Now this is a hint. The elements of this sentence, although grammatically distinct, are actually elements of a single notion. I can make it plainer for you - but hey! You're a reader! I don't need to draw you a map!"'

One of my favourite comments on Catch a Falling Star is the following:

Sorry Lexi,

But you don’t know how to use semi colons. And when I say ‘don’t know’ I don’t mean like you’re on the verge of understanding or you’re really close to some kind of epiphany in the field of punctuation. I mean, truly and seriously, you really really don’t know how to use semi colons.

Look at the semi colon you used after the word ‘sweatshirt’. That’s not just nasty, horrific or sickening, it’s unforgivable and almost without hope of redemption. I recently taught semi colons at a grammar school in Kent. The girls appreciated it and took much away from the lesson. You should have sat in on that lesson. You would benefit greatly from a lesson like that.

Believe in yourself (I do, in my weaker moments.)


PS: Put a full stop there. A full stop will make it right forever and for always.

PPS: Sorry Lexi. I think I’ve left red stains on those cream cushions.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Brackets, the new pariah

Any writer knows that punctuation is as class-ridden as Victorian society. Exclamation marks are pariahs, commas are frequently excluded, left-wing councils attempt to banish the apostrophe altogether.

But I've only recently noticed the animus against brackets. I use them myself to denote an aside, something away from the main thread of the discourse, and think them quite handy. After several people had advised me to remove them, I started a thread on the Authonomy forum asking why. The reasons given were:
  • They look ugly

  • There are better ways to punctuate a sentence

  • They disrupt the flow of a sentence

  • They show laziness

I'm not convinced. Challenged to nominate the prettiest punctuation, if brackets were the ugliest, someone suggested the tilde (pronounced tild-uh, for those as ignorant as me). It's this one: ~ I made up a rhyme about it as follows:

There once was a writer called Hilda,
Who favoured a dash called a tilde,
She maintained that a bracket,
Could simply not hack it,
So the brackets surrounded (and killed) her.