Tuesday, 28 February 2006

I sent the revised first three chapters of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth off to my agent yesterday. In fact I sent six chapters: the first few chapters were always the longest, and the first has grown longer as a result of some wholesale changes to scenes. The later chapters will get shorter as I flense them in the interests of pace. It made sense to even up the chapter length by splitting the first three each in half.

As a result the hero and heroine don't meet each other until towards the end of chapter 4. This is not best practice for romantic fiction, I fear.

I also changed my hero's surname. This was partly in response to the appearance of a hero by the name of Matthew Hawkwood in James McGee's Ratcatcher, and partly in response to Jan's comment that his original surname always made her think of outdoor clothing. So, he is no longer Lord Alexander Hawkshead, but Lord Alexander Harrow.

Following a link from Language Log, I thought that I should check the new name for sluttishness, using the Slut-o-meter created by Joël Franusic and Adam Smith.

There I discover that "Hawkshead" is 7.33% slutty, while "Harrow" at 2.7% is positively pristine. By way of comparison, "Darcy" is 4.63% slutty, "Rochester" 6.69%, (Rhett) "Butler" a disappointing 1.29% and "Heathcliffe" a bizarre -63% slutty.

Jane Austen (4.71%) and Georgette Heyer (10.23%) are both fairly demure, with Wenlock, at 3.05%, purer than either. My own name, however, scores a rather disturbing 93.97% slutty.

Sunday, 26 February 2006

In her Bookworm on the Net blog today, Anne Weale flagged up Storycode (US readers should go here), a site which collates reader assessments of novels, and uses them to come up with recommendations for other books.

I had a go at coding a book, picking April Lady as I have just finished reading it (will Nell merit a slap? Watch this space). Having moved sliders around to give my views on how romantic it was (very), how horrific (not at all), how erotic (barely), how exotic (fairly) and which among the seven basic plots it used, I ended up being recommended Bella Pollen's Hunting Unicorns, Terry Pratchett's Mort(!), and some old thing called Pride and Prejudice.

Sylvester appeared further down the list. A bit of poking around suggested that of all Heyer's works, the only ones coded so far were Sylvester (once) and A Civil Contract (twice).

I think that this could be a really useful site, once it has a few thousand more contributors, so I strongly encourage you all to give it a go.

Sunday, 19 February 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

19. Horatia Winwood (The Convenient Marriage)

The youngest Miss Winwood manages to commit so many social solecisms that it would hardly be a surprise if most of the upper ten thousand were crying out for a chance to slap the girl. Horry is, however, a Winwood, and if she has little else, she has the Nose. For this alone one must inevitably forgive her much.

But not everything. There are some things, and one in particular, that are beyond the power of a single nose - or indeed any number of noses - to remedy.

With no money to their name, the females of the Winwood family must base their not Ainconsiderable reputations upon less tangible things. among the most precious of these is the ability, and indeed willingness, to Talk with Capital Letters. As one might expect, it is Lady Winwood who is most expert at this. When she says that her Days are Numbered, one can readily believe that they have not merely been counted, but individually signed for, wrapped, stamped and secured with the sort of seal that one finds only in the more anagogical parts of the Bible.

Lady Winwood's two oldest daughters are similarly skilled, able to deploy Cassandra-like prophecies of doom in the face of even the most minor of domestic mishaps. This is the sort of social skill that is beyond price, without which no Grande Dame can have any pretensions to Grandeur. Even their otherwise unremarkable cousin, Mrs Maulfrey, is able to endow such a word as Settlements with a sonority beyond its real significance.

Miss Horatia Winwood, on the other hand, seems utterly uninclined to indulge in any such utterances. Indeed it is hard to find evidence of her Uttering anything at all. Even her interjections - typically "Stuff" and "Pho" - have their capitalisation subverted by Horry's stammer(not that the stammer itself is to be condemned - indeed one might come to like it, along with the eyebrows and, of course, the Nose). Such is her blasé attitude towards life that she cannot be bothered even to think in terms of Scandals and Scrapes, choosing instead to admit to mere scandals and scrapes. Is this Behaviour Befitting a Countess? I am sure that it is not only I who thinks not.

A Winwood who does not Capitalise her Speech is, one might feel, hardly a Winwood at all, and one who, when kissed, not gently at all, but ruthlessly, crushing all the breath out of her body, merely observes that she never knew that her husband could kiss like that, rather than perhaps falling into a Swoon, or Fainting Dead Away, clearly needs to Buck Up her Ideas.

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Saturday, 18 February 2006

While in the capital this week, I visited what might be considered Wenlock's spiritual London home.
I used to visit the Wenlock Arms occasionally in my younger days, when I lived in that part of the world. It went into a bit of a decline, and it has been almost two decades since I was last there. I was delighted to renew my acquaintance. It seems to have changed very little in appearance over the years, but the beer is much better than I remember, both in range and quality. I am not at all surprised that it tends to win CAMRA awards.

The Wenlock name comes from the mediaeval moated manor house of Wenlock's Barn that once stood nearby. In addition to the pub, the name has attached to a couple of local streets, and to the Wenlock Basin, which branches off the Regent's Canal.
It is shown on Greenwood's 1827 Map of London - it is the unnamed basin in the top right-hand corner, which looks like a very new addition to the map, as the lines symbolising water don't follow the edge of the basin. Wenlock's Barn is shown at the top left-hand corner of the next panel of the map. It would appear that the pub postdates the Regency by a few years, as they make clear.

If you ever visit, then the sandwiches are well worth sampling. Proper doorsteps, made with extremely fresh bread. Salt Beef seems to be the favourite variety, but I went for black pudding.

There are building works on the other side of the street, with luxury apartments going up with views of the pub or the basin. One would make the ideal Wenlock London pied-à-terre.

Friday, 17 February 2006

The Wenlock family is just back from a visit to the Great Wen, to borrow Mr Cobbett's charming phrase (but then you should see what he has to say about the delightful spa town in which Wenlock currently has his abode). One of the principal purposes of the visit was to take part in a Valentine's Day debate at Upminster Library on the motion that men are as romantic as women.

Proposing the motion were, from left to right, Roger Sanderson (caught in the act of producing some red roses for our opponents), Michael Taylor and Wenlock. Despite (or perhaps because of) meeting in a nearby hostelry some ninety minutes beforehand in order to work out some tactics, I am not sure quite how coherent our line of attack was, although Julie Cohen makes a brave attempt to explain it.

My own argument was from the heroes of classic romantic novels: Heathcliffe, Max de Winter, Rhett Butler, Rochester and, of course, Darcy. They may not always be pleasant to have around, being frequently selfish, arrogant, rude and grim (and not always having Ten Thousand a year to make up for it), but despite these failings they are somewhat more stirring of the emotions than the assorted Janes, Lizzies and Cathys against whom they play out their parts. I would be tempted to exempt Scarlet O'Hara from such criticism were she not such a self-centered cow who really ought to have come in for more of a slapping than Bridget Jones. As for the second Mrs De Winter: as a heroine I reckon that she shows less personality than either her predecessor (who labours under the disadvantage of being more than somewhat dead), or indeed Manderley.

Our opponents were, from right to left, Julie Cohen, Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Lord. Julie's arguments tended to involve reading out smutty lyrics from current hit records, and noting that her husband had nobly sent her off to Upminster on Valentine's Night rather than staying in for champagne and chocolate (Mrs Wenlock chose to accompany to the debate, and it was she who took these photographs, but I would not want to use that fact to score any debating points. Katie brought the subject of cheesecutter thongs into the debate, while Elizabeth Lord accused Byron of writing for money (I am giving a somewhat partial account of things, in both senses of the word - Julie's account is probably more reliable).

After the audience had had their say there was a poll of the audience, which ended in a tie broken by the chairman's casting vote which went to our side. We then went back to the pub. All in all, a very enjoyable way to spend the evening of Valentine's Day.

Sunday, 12 February 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

18. Henrietta Silverdale (Charity Girl)

It is hardly an unusual position to be in. We saw it five years earlier with Sir Gareth Ludlow, and we shall see it again in a year or so with his Grace Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware. A heyero arrives with some unsuitably young girl in tow, drops her off with you and your family to look after, and then goes gallivanting off on his adventures. What can you do?

Well, if you are Miss Silverdale you can do a great deal better than meekly accepting the situation and leaving your reader to endure Ashley Carrington on the Road, a deeply unedifying travelogue involving High Harrowgate, Low Harrowgate and all that lies between (more than would be strictly necessary if only Carrington, or, as we should perhaps more properly style him, Viscount 'Des' Desford, could be bothered to go via the stile), and which takes in unduly frosty landladies and unduly cantankerous old men who have married their unduly plebeian housekeepers, or, as they apparently wish to be styled (as if it made a ha'porth of difference), 'Lady Housekeepers'.

It is not as if Miss Silverdale's circumstances are exactly unpropitious. A household containing an unmarried daughter and an ineffectual father (ineffectual as a result of having died some years earlier, but that is beside the point) discovers that a nearby house has been occupied by a single man in possession of a fortune. If the house is not called 'Nether-something' then at least the single gentleman is. This is surely something that a heyeroine with a ready intelligence and a good sense of humour could make something of - perhaps the new neighbour, who after all is bound to fall in love with somebody in the household, might have a good friend who is rich and handsome, but lacking in manners?

Or if not that, then what about the female servant whose loyalty to the woman she still considers as her mistress is threatened by a new arrival, an apparent interloper who has been swept off her feet and delivered to the house without anyone really having thought things through, and who, as a result, ends up in very real danger of her life. Could Miss Silverdale really not come up with the idea that somebody might, one night, have dreamed they went to Inglehurst?

But no. Miss Silverdale appears to believe that she should take as a role model Lady Hester Theale, and do the dutiful wet-goose thing. Such behaviour in one described by no less an authority than Simon Carrington as "sound as a trout" simply will not do. What if Fitzwilliam Darcy had decided that, rather than hanging out with Bingley and generally making things happen, he would prefer to be as dull an old stick as Henry Tilney? What if John Melmoth had stayed at home? What if Montoni had brought in an architect to remodel Udolpho along Palladian lines?

It is simply not to be thought of, and yet in Miss Henrietta Silverdale we have a heyeroine so lacking in romantic sensibility that instead of a cat fight between Miss Charity Steane and the frightful Mrs Danvers Hepzibah Cardle we have Wilfred Steane in a purple jacket being tedious with Simon Carrington; instead of wild happenings in the stormy woods around Otranto Inglehurst we have Desford's groom getting into a snit. This is not Byronic, this is not Gothic, this is not remotely horrid.

If this is what we must expect from our heyeroines, we might as well go back to the Brontës.

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Sunday, 5 February 2006

There has been a fair amount of discussion of viewpoint in the last few days on ROMNA, the mailing list (or, as it calls itself, the cyber chapter) of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Hilary Johnson, who runs a highly respected Authors' Advisory Service, has said that viewpoint is the single biggest source of problems in the typescripts that she is sent.

I know that some writers have trouble with viewpoint, but until today I had thought that I found it easy enough to understand, and to handle. It is, after all, simply a matter of deciding through whose eyes you are seeing the action, and only writing about what that character sees, feels or knows.

The important part is sticking to the same viewpoint through a whole scene. In some cases, of course, it is a matter of sticking to the same viewpoint for the whole book. With the fairly convoluted plot of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth I knew that I would not be able to manage this.

So, what has been my problem today?

I was rewriting a scene early in the book, and I wanted to use it to cast a bit more light on Lord Alexander, without going in for too much internal reflection - I need to keep the pace up at this point in the story. I therefore chose to use the other character in the scene as the viewpoint character. This made it easier to describe our hero, in terms of his dress, his manner, the colour of his eyes. However it became much harder to drive the action forward.

My viewpoint character's role in the scene was rather reactive. He knows things that Lord Alexander needs to learn, but he doesn't do anything to drive the story along. This turned out to be a problem, because I couldn't use his knowledge directly. It was no good his thinking about what he knows; he still had to tell Lord Alexander, and the repetition was killing the pace. If he didn't think about it, then the whole scene became a load of telling, not showing, and that made for dead prose too.

In the end I had to scrap the whole rewrite, after about 2,000 words, and start again, with Lord Alexander as the viewpoint character. Once I made that rather painful decision everything started flowing much more easily, and I am sure that the result will be much tauter.

I just can't afford to make this sort of mistake too often, because I have at least a soft deadline ahead of me.

Saturday, 4 February 2006

Some six months ago, in my very first post on Wenlock I said:
I am currently working on a Romantic Regency Romp, James Bond meets Georgette Heyer, complete with fireworks and at least one elephant.
Rather a presumptious statement, now I look back on it.

James Bond was, of course, the creation of Ian Fleming. Ian Fleming's literary agent was a man called Peter Janson-Smith. In 2003 he joined up with Peter Buckman to form the Ampersand Agency. The most notable name on their client list is (the estate of) Georgette Heyer.

At some point soon another name will be going up on that client list - mine. Having started by claiming literary kinship with two of the most popular authors of the last 50 years, I now find myself represented by an agency with strong connections to both.

Which is nice.

Thursday, 2 February 2006

There is a much misquoted remark by Anton Chekhov that originally read something like
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
(From a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, 1 November 1889)
(although on the web it is usually described as putting pistols on mantelpieces.)

The rewriting that I am doing at the moment is in part a matter of removing undischarged rifles from the stage. Having done no plotting at all when I started to write, I put quite a number of contrivances and devices into the early chapters because I thought that they might come in handy later on. I was actually surprised how many of them did turn out to be useful - including a walk-on Frenchman and, most importantly, a scene-stealing elephant. But not all of them were winners.

My problem is that the rifles are not always that easy to remove. Some of them are like the Dude's rug in The Big Lebowski. That rug really tied the room together. Take it away, and there is a big empty space.

There is one particular rifle that I am working on at the moment. In fact it is a Japanese miniature tinder pistol. I saw this picture of it and decided that it would be a perfect gadget for Lord Alexander to carry with him and use in an emergency, just as James Bond is equipped with various miniature gadgets usually disguised as fountain pens or watches.

The tinder pistol formed the basis of a conversation in Chapter One between Lord Alexander and his friend Sir Peregrine Caradoc (a slightly eccentric Natural Philosopher) during which they revealed some of the backstory. The problem was that at no subsequent point in the plot did a situation arise in which Lord Alexander needed to start a fire. So I find that I must confiscate the tinder pistol and give him something else to discuss with Sir Peregrine.

Luckily I also need to put a few rifles onto the stage too: rifles that are fired, but fired a little implausibly because we hadn't already been alerted to their existence. In this particular case I have found myself removing a miniature-tinder-pistol-shaped rifle, and replacing it with a very-large-gas-balloon-shaped one. Not surprisingly, this has required me to completely rebuild the stage.

It is at times like this that I think how lucky I am that my agent could see enough good stuff in Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth that she was not put off by such flaws.