The Best of Both Worlds by Dennis Hamley
First things first. No 3 in The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Hell's Kitchen, is now published on Kindle and will be FREE from tomorrow June 15th until Tuesday June 19th. Hell's Kitchen sees Joslin enter Oxford, straight into a city full of forbidden knowledge, intrigue, danger and murder. My very own Name of the Rose, I like to think. It's just had a very interesting review by Cally Phillips in Indie Ebook Reviews. As always, Cally doesn't just ask the usual questions about a book. She gets deep into its undergrowth and finds angles and insights which both surprised and pleased me.
Anastasia's wonderful cover
Now to the main business. I've had two completely separate writing experiences recently, both of which have taught/are teaching me a lot. The first is a sort of farewell. For three years now I've edited The Oxford Writer, the newsletter of Writers in Oxford. A modest 8-page publication which appears three times a year. But it's caused me, as well as much joy and satisfaction, much tearing of hair with shrieks of rage and frustration filling our flat. Regular readers of these blogs may have noticed my general IT incompetence. So why on earth, you may ask, did I take it on
The OXFORD WRITER
The masthead (reduced size). Sadly, the Writers in Oxford trademark inkpot won't copy into its square, which should be smaller and in the middle.
Three reasons, I think. First, I wanted to see if I could master the technology to produce a publication which would not be just a list of events but a true journal, however small, which would actually look like one. Some of my predecessors had been really whizzy newspapermen and produced newsletters with dizzying typographical expertise. Rather like the London Olympics following Beijing, I knew I couldn't match that and anyway my computer wouldn't always download the templates they sent me. So I had to invent a 'line of least resistance' format in Word which eventually, to my surprise, looked pretty good.
The second was the actual editing. Articles, reports, discussions, all to be fitted into a very small compass without the contributors feeling short-changed. This meant many short links which I wrote myself, bringing back old skills which every picture and early educational book writer knows, when the actual content takes second place to the need to make it fit exactly onto the page. And then, of course, there were photographs and the textboxes with different fonts to break up the page of print. Anything to make it more inviting to read. I've ended up with a hugely increased respect for real newspaper editors. I loved all that.
But what I loved best was deciding what went in. I needed a really good, strong lead story which deserved an eyecatching headline. ESCAPING FROM THE WASTE LAND for Stephanie Kitchen's grim account of the campaign (more or less successful in the end) against the proposed closure of Oxfordshire Libraries. MAKING OUR OWN LUCK, on the future of publishing and some of the changes which writers must come to terms with (written before Authors Electric!). And, for the May issue, NOT THE OXFORD LITERARY FESTIVAL, a terrific article by Dan Holloway, calculated to give older members of Writers in Oxford palpitations at night. Then I had to nobble members to write articles and reports on the society's activities and then apologise when I had to cut their work to make it fit. I always seemed to aim for the bit they liked best. But Book News and Reviews was the feature which I thought most important and, I think, enjoyed most. This is a society of writers so one thing the members do is to produce books pretty regularly, so for me, Book News and Reviews was always the centrepiece. After my first two issues I decided the best course was to select a highlighted book for each issue, in which the author gave an account of the whole experience of writing and publishing it. Writers in Oxford holds within it many disciplines: among the highlighted books were Rita Carter's extraordinary The Brain Book, published by Dorling Kindersley, Pauline Kiernan's Screenwriting They Can't Resist, Michael Gross on Astrobiology and three novels, one by Sonia Scott-Fleming (Hope Springs, published first on Print-on-Demand and now about to go on Kindle) and the other two by Tom Macaulay and DM Griggs (actually the last two are the same person). No biographies, no history, no poetry? Well there were plenty of other notices, reviews and authors' accounts, including Merryn Williams's biography Effie, about Effie Gray, the woman unfortunate enough to marry John Ruskin, Gina Wilson's new poetry collection Scissors Paper Stone and Jenny Lewis's magnificent piece of youth theatre, Gilgamesh. Irene Gill's self-published historical memoirs and collections of wartime letters were moving, tender and beautifully presented.
But it's coming to an end. I shall share the production of the September issue with my successor, once a journalist (Eastern Europe correspondent for Reuters) and a writer of historical memoir. Then I shall put away my green eyeshade for ever, having had an experience I wouldn't have missed, no matter with what misgivings I started it.
Why give it up? Several reasons. The most important is pertinent to what we do on Authors Electric. Some of us have had long careers in publishing. Our publishers obviously decided they'd been quite long enough. Some others of us hadn't, either because of publisher shortsighteness, fear and/or incompetence or because of objection on principle. For me, it was at first a mixture of frustration and sense of escape. Subsequently, self-publishing has indeed become a point of principle. And yet...
Ten years ago I submitted a novel which had taken me two years to write to a well-known publisher who had in fact asked me to write it in the first place. It was rejected and I was mortified. But when I'd recovered enough to think straight again and look at it afresh and with some detachment, I realised what an awful seven-legged monster I had produced, terminally bad beyond any tinkering. Such a pity. So ambitious, started with such high hopes and, I thought then and still think, with a really good central idea. The novel was about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1803, after a sequence of strange events I won't go into here, he found himself in Syracuse in Sicily. One night he went to the Opera and heard Maria Bertozzi, the young prima donna, sing. They met after the performance and subsequently started a relationship which is rather mysterious. Was it, as most earlier biographers maintained, a brief acquaintance and flirtation? Was there more to it? Some later biographers, including Richard Holmes, certainly think there was more to it, a lot more, and later intriguing entries in STC's notebooks suggest they may be right. Well, I decided that they were right, so much so that, unbeknown to him, he might have left a son behind him. And when that son was twenty-one he might have come to England to find his father and then...
STC. 'Esteesee' to his friends.
I still think it's a good idea. I've always said that one day I'd return to it. I've made several tentative starts but each timgiven up in frustration. But recently, that same publisher suggested I return to it and try again. Obviously there was no promise of publication but there was a promise of an editing process. So I'll take the suggestion up. In fact I've already written a new first chapter and have worked out a completely different structure - and even outcome. And it's going to be much, much shorter.
Last year I wouldn't have done this, at least not until July when I joined Authors Electric. I had vowed never to write on spec again and risk the agony of rejection. But now I've realised there's no such thing any more as writing on spec. The book may, just conceivably, be accepted for commercial publication. But if it isn't, then Kindle beckons and, later, paper publication when our publishing co-operative gets off the ground. And in some ways I'd prefer the second alternative. Does that compromise my principles? I think not. You may disagree.
So that's why I'm giving up the newsletter. I need to free up time for Coleridge again because I've promised myself a viable first draft by the end of November - and now, because I've committed myself to it in this post, I'll have to come up with the goods. So thank you, Authors Electric, and thank you, blog.