Broccoli: It’s Good For You!

Is it possible to learn about history through fiction? Or should historical facts only be acquired via proper, serious non-fiction books which have footnotes and sepia photographs and extensive bibliographies? Christchurch City Libraries Blog has a thoughtful post about the issue, inspired partly by The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The blogger notes that I have sneakily inserted quite a few historical facts into the novel:

Broccoli! It's good for you! Even though it isn't quite as delicious as chocolate!
“A bit like parents who sneak broccoli into chocolate cake, the Montmaray books are full of historical detail, actual real stuff that happened. I am learning, not only about things like the War of the Stray Dog, but also the Spanish Civil War, British court etiquette, and the often murky political allegiances of upper-class English people between the wars.”

This is all quite true. I confess. I love broccoli, in both its literal and metaphorical forms. The FitzOsbornes in Exile is stuffed so full of broccoli that it’s only thanks to my wonderful editors that the whole thing doesn’t taste and look exactly like vegetable terrine. I’m struggling through the same issue at the moment, as I edit The FitzOsbornes at War, the final Montmaray novel. It is a very, very long manuscript, which I’d like to make a bit shorter, and it would be logical to remove some of the information about wartime events outside England. The problem is that I find all that background information absolutely fascinating. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not writing a textbook about the Second World War, but a story, and that if the factual information does not have a direct bearing on my fictional characters, then it doesn’t belong in the novel. It doesn’t matter if I spent an entire fortnight researching a particular event – if those historical facts can’t be blended in smoothly, they have no place in my chocolate cake (admittedly, a cake made of very bittersweet, dark chocolate). As New Zealand author Rachael King points out,

“When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research. If you are, I’ve failed in my job.”

And apparently she knows how to skin a tiger, so I think we should all pay careful attention to what she has to say.

Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

Last year, I posted a rant about a couple of YA book reviews that had evoked my feminist rage. One of the book reviewers, Malcolm Tattersall, subsequently contacted me and expressed an interest in taking the discussion further. We were joined by the other reviewer, Tony Thompson, as well as Lili Wilkinson and Mike Shuttleworth. An edited version of our online discussion has now been published in the latest edition of Viewpoint. The article is titled Pink and Blue and Read All Over: Gender Issues in YA Fiction, but as far as I know, there isn’t an online version of the article. If that changes, I’ll post a link here.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)I’ve only flicked through the latest Viewpoint, but a review of Aimee Said’s Little Sister and Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye caught my eye, because the first sentence of the review states that “these are most definitely Girl Books”. I GIVE UP! No, wait, I don’t. I just finished reading the review by Jenny Zimmerman. It is mostly positive about both books, but concludes:

“I must protest about the deeply unhelpful message in almost everything aimed at adolescent girls. You know the one: Then She Met a Perfect Guy and Lived Happily Ever After . . . Mr Right is out there and waiting to rescue you from eating disorders, teen pregnancy, parental divorce or bullying. Unless there’s something profoundly odd about you, you will find him any day now. Is this what readers demand, or what writers feel must be included in fiction for young women? Yes, falling in love is a huge part of being a teenager, but it would be nice to come across some YA fiction which doesn’t assume that a girl without a boyfriend is an unfinished story.”

Well, I can think of a few YA novels that end with “a girl without a boyfriend”. All of my novels, for example. At the end of The Rage of Sheep, Hester drives off with her trusty dog and her Walkman, perfectly capable of solving her own problems – and I can’t imagine any of the FitzOsborne girls waiting around for a boy to rescue them.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

I’ve spent most of this year reading depressing non-fiction about the Second World War, but after I handed Montmaray Three over to my publisher, I gave myself permission to read anything I wanted. Something fun! So I decided to read a book about punctuation.

I heard a lot about this book when it first came out, but the author came across as kind of bitter and humourless in interviews, so I thought I’d give the book a miss. Readers, I was totally wrong. Not only is this book hilarious, it could have been written specifically for me. As Lynne Truss says, it is a book for punctuation sticklers:

“Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation . . . No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to ‘get a life’ by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”

'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynne TrussMs Truss is the sort of person who stands outside cinemas “with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick” in order to demonstrate how to punctuate the film title Two Weeks Notice. However, she readily acknowledges that the rules of punctuation are complex, that rules vary between nations (and even between publishers) and that one stickler’s pet hate might not be shared by another stickler. She is not a pedant. She loves punctuation because it helps us understand what we’re reading, and she hates punctuation errors because they cause confusion. For example, look at how punctuation alters the meaning of these two sentences:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

She claims the book is not a punctuation guide, but it does provide clear instruction in how to use apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks and other forms of punctuation. I particularly liked her discussion of the comma, which demonstrates her pragmatic approach to punctuation:

“See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken . . . My own feeling is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”

[Evidence for the passion the Oxford comma evokes can be found in this post at Bookshelves of Doom. And don’t you love that American commenter who chose to study at a British university, then was outraged that the British professors wanted her to use British punctuation? The nerve of them!]

Eats, Shoots and Leaves also contains some fascinating historical facts about punctuation, and an interesting discussion of the future of punctuation in a world of e-mails and texting. My only criticisms of the book are minor. Firstly, it lacks an index. I think it ought to be compulsory for all non-fiction books to have an index. (Actually, it would be quite nice if fiction books had them, too, so that I could go straight to my favourite bits when re-reading a novel. I can see that constructing an index for a novel could be rather difficult in practice, though.) Secondly (and this isn’t the author’s fault), the edition I read was written in 2003 for a British readership, so it was not completely relevant for this Australian punctuation stickler. Nevertheless, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a terrific read and I heartily recommend it for fellow sticklers.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

I’m officially on holiday this fortnight, and I think I’ve lost the ability to construct proper paragraphs. However, here are some things I noticed, but was too busy to post about, during the past month or so:

Kate Beaton put up some new Julius Caesar comics on her website. Here’s Part One. Part Two involves Cassius glaring actual daggers at Caesar, and the introduction of the truly awesome Dogs of War (even if one of them looks more like a Bunny-Rabbit of War).

Montmaray has also popped up on NationStates. It used to be The Kingdom of Montmaray, but is currently The Incorporated States of Montmaray and is ruled over by a “corrupt dictatorship”. Its “national animal is the Blue Heeler, which frolics freely in the nation’s many lush forests” and “an increasing percentage of the population’s youth have homosexual parents”. (I had nothing to do with this, I swear.)

Two authors, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix, have also published an article about their experiences writing YA fiction. Apparently, writing for teenagers means throwing aside all the rules for good writing, because:

“. . . readers in Y.A. don’t care about rumination. They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase . . . In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight.”

Oh, really? But the funniest bit was:

“The average length of time you get to write a Y.A. book is six months. Compared with ‘literary’ fiction, that’s warp speed.”

SIX MONTHS? I spent longer than that just doing the research for my last book. Gosh, I wish someone had told me earlier that I didn’t need to put any thought or care into my YA novels. Think of all the time and energy I would have saved myself. Also, apparently ‘YA fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ are mutually exclusive categories. Has anyone told M. T. Anderson, Margo Lanagan or Sonya Hartnett this?

I’ll be back soon (as soon as I’ve remembered how to write in paragraphs) to post a rant and a rave about some books I’ve recently read. In the meantime, don’t forget my book give-away is still on.

The End of Montmaray

In the small hours of this morning, I e-mailed the manuscript of the third Montmaray book to my publisher.

'Frau am Schreibtisch' by Lesser Ury (1898)
The author wonders how many exclamation marks to add after writing, 'The End'
The final book in the trilogy. The end of The Montmaray Journals. Farewell to the FitzOsbornes, who’ve been hanging out in my head for the past seven years. If I weren’t so sleep-deprived, I might actually feel a bit sad about this.

There’s quite a lot of work to do before the book appears on bookshelves – some of it to be done by me, much of it by the talented, hard-working people at Random House. Structural editing, copy-editing, fact-checking, type-setting, proof-reading, designing an appealing cover, making sure the real people in the book who are still alive aren’t going to sue me for defamation of character . . . But at some point next year, the book will be released in Australia, all things going well. Here’s what I can tell you about it:

  • It follows the fortunes of the FitzOsbornes throughout the Second World War and beyond.
  • It contains dashing young men in uniform, brave young women in uniform, spies, diplomats, secret agents, scary bombing raids, fiery plane crashes, funerals, weddings, heartbreak, despair, courage, determination and a hopeful ending. And also, kissing.
  • If the first book was Sophie’s coming-of-age and the second was Veronica’s, then this one is Toby’s.
  • The novel is ridiculously long, although I’m hoping my brilliant editors will provide some suggestions for trimming it, because otherwise, the hardcover edition is going to weigh a tonne and a half.
  • The novel may or may not be called The FitzOsbornes at War.
  • Any of this might change between now and the (still unknown) publication date, of course.

    To celebrate finishing this manuscript (and also because I’ve had three boxes of books cluttering up my flat for weeks, but have been too busy to find somewhere to put them), I’m giving away some copies of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. See here for details.

    Oh, Goodreads . . .

    If I were a Sensible YA Author, I’d stay well away from Goodreads reviews of my books. After all, reviews aren’t for authors; they’re for readers. Of course, I’m not a Sensible YA Author (if I was, I’d be writing about zombie mermaids, not 1930s politics), so I do occasionally visit Goodreads, where I get to read one-star reviews like this [warnings for plot spoilers and homophobia]:

    “The story was interesting and engaging until the end when the author suggests the boys are lovers. WHY? For a young adult book–or any for that matter? Too bad Ms Cooper ruined the book.”

    That was the entire review – and that’s a very polite, positive and coherent review, compared to some of them.

    But then, there are also Goodreads reviews that are critical, yet thoughtful and entertaining, such as this one of A Brief History of Montmaray, which begins:

    “Michelle Cooper is the Quentin Tarantino of young adult novels.”

    Um . . . what? It turns out the reviewer isn’t referring to the gory murders in the book, but to Tarantino’s habit of wearing his influences on his sleeve. The review consists largely of complaints about the characters and the plot, but it’s smart and passionate and, most importantly, uses LOLcats to illustrate its points. I loved it.

    Then the same reviewer tackles The FitzOsbornes in Exile:

    “Dear sir or friend,
    I am a princess in exile. My family cannot access our funds unless you, a kind American, will launder money through your bank account and send letterhead, bank statements and personal documents. Thank you for helping.

    the FitzOsbournes

    I don’t know why they didn’t just send out a letter like this, if they needed money so bad . . .”

    The review goes on to compare the plot of The FitzOsbornes in Exile to that of the recent X-Men film, and regards Simon as the Clark Gable of Montmaray. It’s absolutely hilarious. Thank you, Mariel, you made my day. Well, my morning, at least. Or part of my morning.

    Now, to slightly more serious matters. Here is my blog’s Spam of the Month:

    “Dude, you should be a writer. Your article is really interesting. You should do it for a living.”

    Okay then, I will! Unfortunately, I’m finding ‘writing for a living’ a bit busy at the moment, so my poor blog has been neglected this month. However, in a few weeks, I will (hopefully) have handed over the manuscript of Montmaray Three (currently known as The NeverEnding Story) to my long-suffering and infinitely patient editor. Then I’ll return to my irregular – but slightly more frequent – blog posting.

    In the meantime, just talk quietly amongst yourselves.

    Writers Read and Top Ten Castles

    I love discovering what other writers are reading, so I was pleased when my attention was drawn to Writers Read, a blog that asks authors to discuss what they’ve been reading recently. After only a few minutes of looking through this blog, I’d added three titles to my ‘List of Books That I Must Track Down Because They Sound Really Interesting’. As if I don’t already have enough books awaiting my reading attention. (Disclaimer: I may possibly be one of the authors featured on the blog this month.)

    Also, as I can never get enough of castles, I was happy to find this list of the Ten Best Castles in Literature, and in particular, to see Udolpho mentioned. The Mysteries of Udolpho remains the only book that has ever made me miss my train station due to paying too much attention to the story and not enough to the scene outside the train window. This list also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series for years. Perhaps I’ll get around to it once I’ve finished this book I’m trying to write (which, by a remarkable coincidence, also contains a castle . . . or at least, a fortified house).

    How To Write A Novel

    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.

    Phyllis BnF Francais 874, Folio 11v
    The author resolutely ignores all those urging her to delete her adverbs
    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.

    Letters of Note

    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.

    The lost art of letter writingThat’s why I so enjoy browsing through Letters of Note, an on-line collection of letters to and from famous people. It includes adorable letters from J. K. Rowling and Dr Seuss and David Bowie to fans; an indignant letter from Enid Blyton to Robert Menzies demanding that he stop calling her books ‘immoral’; a completely illegible letter from King Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn; a hilarious ‘personal letter’ from Steve Martin; a letter from an exasperated schoolboy to President John F. Kennedy and much, much more. Go and have a look, it’s fascinating. It’s like finding a dusty box of letters in your attic – assuming you’d lived the same house as Albert Einstein, Yoko Ono, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Freddie Mercury.

    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.

    Look At This Cover!

    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:

    'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
    'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

    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:

    'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
    'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

    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!