Hooray! The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, has just been released in North America! Hundreds of copies of hardcovers, e-books and audiobooks are sneaking their way into bookshops and libraries as you read this . . .
There has been some discussion over whether The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a stand-alone “companion” (as it’s described on the inside jacket) to A Brief History of Montmaray, or a sequel (implied on the front cover, which says “The Montmaray Journals, Book II”). Of course, readers can read The FitzOsbornes in Exile by itself, but I think it makes more sense if you’ve read the first book in the series. There are quite a lot of characters, and it helps to know something about their histories and relationships. However, at least one reviewer enjoyed the second book without having read the first. On the other hand, she read the Australian edition, which includes a two-page summary of the first book (the American edition has only a one-sentence summary of the first book). I’m hardly a good person to ask about this. Are there any readers with any advice on this?
Thank you to everyone who entered the Montmaray contest, and provided such thoughtful, creative and entertaining suggestions for casting the (imaginary) film version of the book. Congratulations to Gwenyth, Chelsea and Divya, who’ve won copies of A Brief History of Montmaray. To everyone who entered and didn’t win this time, don’t despair! I’ll give away some more books this year. If you’re quick, you may also be able to enter the latest Adventures in Children’s Publishing give-away, which includes copies of both A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile.
The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?
Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.
Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.
Number of Novels Read: Ten.
Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)
Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.
Number of Anthologies Read: One.
Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)
Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.
Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.
Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)
Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)
Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.
Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.
Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:
1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).
2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).
3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).
4.The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.
5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)
One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.
One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.
“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”
It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.
I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.
I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:
1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals
When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:
“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”
(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)
2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle
Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as
“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”
Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.
3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:
“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”
Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.
4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist
There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:
“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”
In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.
5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David
Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).
The paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray comes out in North America next week, and to celebrate, I’m giving away some copies of the hardcover and the audiobook. Each winner can choose either a signed hardcover edition or the lovely audiobook version on CD, read by Emma Bering. To enter, leave a comment below saying who you think should play the characters in A Brief History of Montmaray, if it were ever to be made into a film. You don’t have to have read the book (it’s probably funnier if you haven’t), but you will need to know who the main characters are. Please don’t feel constrained by practical considerations, such as whether the actor is the right age or still alive.
To start you off, here are my ideas:
Veronica: Does Penélope Cruz have a much younger sister who went to boarding school in England? Because if so, Penélope Cruz could play Isabella and the younger sister could be Veronica. That would be awesome. Sophie: Maybe Saoirse Ronan? I’ve only seen her in Atonement, but she was very good in that. Or Romola Garai, if she were ten years younger? Toby: When I first started writing this series, I imagined Toby as a young Jude Law, but now . . . What about that blond guy in the TV series, Merlin? I haven’t seen it, but the actor’s very pretty, and I guess he’s British? Can he act? Simon: Needs to be someone tall, dark and broodingly handsome. How about Ben Barnes? Henry: I bet there’s a little Fanning sister who could play her. Those girls can do anything. King John:ALAN RICKMAN! Rebecca: If only Helena Bonham Carter was about a foot taller, she’d be perfect. Who else is good at playing homicidal maniacs? Meryl Streep doing a Montmaravian accent? Miranda Richardson?
I’m sure you can do better than this. Off you go. Oh, here are the conditions of entry:
1. This is an international competition. Anyone can enter. 2. Make sure the e-mail address you enter on the comment form is a valid one, so I can contact you if you win (no one will be able to see your e-mail address except me). Please don’t include your real residential or postal address anywhere in the comment. However, it would be nice if you could mention which country you’re from (just to satisfy my curiosity about who reads this blog). 3. You can talk about one character or lots of characters. 4. Skill plays no part in determining the THREE winners, whom I shall choose using some random process I have yet to determine. If fewer than four people enter the competition, then “Everybody has won and all must have prizes”, as the Dodo said to Alice. 5. Entries close on April 5th, 2011, the day The FitzOsbornes in Exile goes on sale in North America. Winners will be e-mailed then, and I will send off the winners’ books or CDs as soon as possible after that.
The Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald has been running “a series about how to write”, which I have been reading with increasing irritation. First there was Sue Woolfe, who stated that anyone can write a novel, provided they “don’t stick to a subject, a character or, worst of all, a plot”. Her advice is not to read what you’ve written until you have a hundred thousand words “about anything”, whereupon you add “some narrative techniques and suspense” and, voila, “you’ll have the novel you knew you could write”! Oh, and you mustn’t use a computer – that’s death to creativity.
Then there was Debra Adelaide, who insisted on “total extermination” of adverbs. She isn’t keen on adjectives, either – they’re the “cockroaches of prose”.
MERCIFULLY (I intend to saturate this post with adverbs), most of the other articles in this series have been wiped from my memory, but they were EQUALLY ANNOYING.
Here’s why they annoyed me. They imply that all you have to do to write a good novel is to follow a set of simple rules that apply to all writers and all situations. I agree that a writer needs to know about grammar. However, blanket statements, such as “Adverbs are evil”, make me bristle. Yes, deleting all the adverbs in your prose may make it sound cleaner and more contemporary. But if you’re writing a series about, say, posh British people in the 1930s, your prose (and especially your dialogue) will sound inauthentic if you delete all the adverbs. I’ve studied English grammar and I think about it constantly as I write. But sometimes I start my sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions – because that’s what works in a novel written in the first person, narrated by a teenage girl. Every writing project – and every writer – is unique. Some writers need to do detailed planning before they begin a first draft; other writers work best by jumping into the project feet first. Some people find it efficient to edit as they write; others find this slows their writing down. Telling writers that there is ONLY ONE TRUE WAY TO WRITE A NOVEL is wrong and silly. Writing is not brain surgery. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to kill anyone. Just press ‘delete’ ON YOUR COMPUTER and try again.
FORTUNATELY, Gabrielle Carey restored some sanity to the series in today’s Herald by saying:
“There are many things one can get out of a writing class: advice on character, structure, grammar and punctuation. But that leap into the creative realm is something you can only do on your own.”
EXACTLY! She also talks about teaching creative writing to rich, successful adults, who, having achieved all their other goals in life, decide they’re going to bang out a novel:
“They pay exorbitant prices for creative writing classes but by the end they often come up to me and say, ‘Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve learnt a lot. But I’ve realised it’s just too hard. I’m going back to law.'”
It’s true, writing a novel can be hard work. It takes concentration, good language skills, persistence, an ability to exist on limited sleep and funds – plus a mysterious, amorphous element called ‘creativity’. It’s tempting to try to get around all this by persuading an author to surrender what Ms Carey laughingly calls “some secret code or some magic advice”. But I agree with her – there ISN’T a secret code.
Of course, I’ve never actually done a creative writing course, so what would I know? Group instruction for a solitary pursuit like writing just isn’t my thing, but I’m sure some writing courses are great, especially the ones that take place over a long period of time, have a small number of students, focus on a particular type of writing (say, ‘writing a short story’ or ‘writing fiction for children’) and are taught by someone with both writing and teaching expertise. You don’t need to do a creative writing course to become a published novelist, but if you like the sound of a particular course and can afford it, why not?
What I can recommend from personal experience is working with a mentor. A mentorship is for writers who’ve committed themselves to hard work – who’ve sat down and written a draft (or several drafts) of a novel and realised they need help with the next stage. Mentors can give specific advice on your manuscript, once they’ve talked with you about what you want to achieve. Some of them also know agents and publishers, which is useful if you feel your novel is complete and you’d like to try to get it published. Your local writers’ centre may have a mentorship program, and free mentorships are awarded each year by the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia.
Of course, you don’t need a mentor to become a published writer. You don’t need a literary agent, either – at least, you don’t if you live in Australia. But that discussion is probably best left for another post.
One very nice (and unexpected) result of becoming a published writer has been that I now receive letters from readers. Yes, actual letters, written in pen or pencil on pieces of paper, sealed inside fancy envelopes and delivered by my friendly postie. Of course, it’s lovely to receive readers’ e-mails, too, and I must admit it’s much easier and quicker to reply to e-mails – but there’s something special about a personal letter, perhaps because they’re so rare now. When I open my letter box these days, I generally find electricity bills and reminders about dental appointments and pamphlets from politicians who are desperately seeking my vote in the upcoming State election – but hardly ever do I receive letters.
P.S. As much as I adore receiving letters, I can’t answer them unless they include a return address. Harriet, thank you so much for your lovely letter, but you forgot to include your address. If you contact me by e-mail or post, I promise I will write back.
Happy birthday to Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (or Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea, as one of my friends used to call it). To celebrate, go and have a look at the best Google Doodle yet! A little submarine that you can manoeuvre up and down and across the sea! Check out the treasure chest on the sea bed, and the shark, and the divers! So cool.
(If you missed it on the 8th of February, you can still read about it at The Guardian.)
The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:
It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)
Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.
I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.
Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.
Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)
I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:
It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)
North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!
When my first novel was published, I decided I would not respond to on-line reviews, ever. I believed bloggers should be free to say whatever they wanted about a book, and I thought they might feel inhibited if they knew the author was reading their review. Obviously, if a review of my book was negative, I would never, ever argue about it with the reviewer. That would be pathetic and rude. But if the review was positive, wouldn’t it be sycophantic and stalker-ish for me to leave gushing thanks in the comments?
This policy was easy to follow for my first book, because a) there weren’t that many book bloggers around then, and b) hardly anyone read my first book, let alone reviewed it. (Poor Rage of Sheep. She’s like the plain, nerdy girl who gets ignored in favour of her younger, prettier and more charming sister.)
Anyway, things are a bit different now. The YA blogosphere is enormous, and growing every day, so lots more reviewers are on-line. I’m now published outside Australia, which means I have more readers and more reviewers. I’ve actually met some bloggers who’ve reviewed my books (and of course, they all turn out to be super-nice people, as well as having excellent taste in books), and personal connections always complicate matters. I have my own blog, too, and sometimes (okay, not that often) I comment on strangers’ blogs about other topics – so if they subsequently mention one of my books, they’ll probably suspect that I will read their opinion at some stage. Occasionally, mutual friends also draw my attention to a blogger’s post featuring one of my books. And it’s not only reviews – sometimes, one of my books gets mentioned in a ‘favourite books of the year’ post, and I feel even more guilty about not saying a huge thank you to the blogger.
So, what should I do? It would be polite to say, “Thank you very much; I am so pleased you enjoyed the book” whenever anyone posts a positive review and I get to hear about it. But if I did that, I’d have to comment on EVERY blog post that mentions my book, otherwise people would say, “How rude! She commented on X’s blog, but completely ignored my post!” And, of course, sometimes I don’t see reviews until weeks after they’ve been posted; sometimes I don’t ever find out about them.
See how it would be easier to stick with my original policy? But then, sometimes bloggers post such wonderfully insightful and/or hilarious comments about my books that I can’t help wanting to contact them, simply because they sound like the sort of people I’d like to get to know. For example, this librarian, who recently blogged about A Brief History of Montmaray:
“OMG MICHELLE COOPER HIJACKED MY TEENAGED BRAIN! A castle! Nazis! Ghosts! Crazy people! British nobility! NON-British nobility! NOT true love! Diary format! The only thing she left out was sym– wait, she DID include sympathetic socialists. THERE WERE EVEN SYMPATHETIC SOCIALISTS! Who IS this Michelle Cooper person, and HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!”
Actually, I was laughing too much to comment in any coherent way on that particular post. And it was published last year, and I only read it today, so, kind of weird to comment now, anyway.
I know some bloggers love having authors visit their blogs. But I’m sure just as many bloggers hate the idea of an author butting in on their frank book conversations with friends. (Yes, I know if it’s on the internet, it’s out there for public scrutiny. But I still regard blogs as someone’s personal space.)
So, for the moment, I am sticking with my original policy of not responding to on-line reviews. (Of course, if people e-mail me with their thoughts on my books, I always reply, usually with gushing thanks. And the same thing goes if I meet readers in Real Life.) In the meantime, I’d like to say an enormous THANK YOU to any blogger who’s ever posted a nice comment about one of my books. It really is very encouraging and flattering and all-round awesome for an author to read that sort of thing. And to bloggers who didn’t like one of my books: I respect your right to your own opinion, thanks for giving the book a try, and sorry it didn’t turn out to be your cup of tea. (I make an exception to this for the homophobic librarian who was disgusted by A Brief History of Montmaray because it contained non-heterosexual characters. I don’t respect her opinion. Although, of course, I defend her right to publish her thoughts on her own blog, just as I defend my right to pull faces at her behind her back.)