Thursday, 27 September 2007

Google Books - How cool is this...?

Putting together a presentation for the Scholastic sales reps I am meeting tomorrow, I stumbled across the most fabulously useful thing - Google Book Search.

Google, as you may know if you're an online information nerd like me (hey I did work in the area for five years so I'm allowed...), are planning to digitize all the books in the world. Well, as many as they can get their mitts on. There was a hoo-hah about this for a while. Quelle horreur, authors and publishers all going to lose out; that sort of thing.

Well today I had planned to do the following - for just one of my presentation slides:

1. Go downstairs and find my copy of 'Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan' by the original Mayanist, John Lloyd Stephens.
2. Find the page where he mentions the rumours of a 'living city' of the Maya
3. Go down to our garden office and scan the page.
4. Manipulate the image file on my computer at my desk, back in the house.
5. Pop it into the Powerpoint slide.

Not so difficult, aye, but remember I actually own this book.

But with Google Books, here's how that scenario played out:

1. Search on Google, find the book.
2. Search for the string 'living city' - find the right page.
3. Use the inbuilt screenshot clipping tool to clip an image of the page, the bit where he mentions the mysterious city
4. Pop it into the Powerpoint slide.

5 mins in total.

to exercise any control over them But the thing that roused us was the assertion by the padre that four days on the road to Mexico on the other side of the great sierra was a living city large and populous occupied by Indians precisely in the same state as before the discovery of America He had heard of it many years before at the village of Chajul and was told by the villagers that from the topmost ridge of the sierra this city was distinctly visible He was then young and with
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan By John Lloyd Stephens
Now is that not awesome?

(If you read 'Invisible City' you'll find that this section of the 'Incidents of Travel' book is referenced. I'm not saying why...that's all a bit of a mystery, to be unraveled in later books...)


I have one lovely comment from a guy who read the book for the waterstones competition, but you should be warned that there are spoilers for INVISIBLE CITY therein...


Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Nostalgia for...Beny More

I wasn't alive in the days of Beny More (pronounced More-ray), the Cuban singer and band leader who went to live in Mexico and became a massive influence on all the Cuban salsa bands.

So why do I get these gorgeous pangs of nostalgia when I listen to Beny More? Why does it make me think of a Cuba and a Mexico I never even knew?

My theory is that as a tiny child I was exposed to this music. I do know that after my mother left my father, I spend a great deal of time with my two grandmothers. One, Abuelita Josefina (known to her old friends as 'Pepa') had a wonderful memory for lyrics and knew many of the songs of Beny More. Beny More often appeared in popular Mexican films, which went through a golden age in the 40s and 50s.

So maybe that's it; maybe I was sat for hours in front of the TV while my grandmother knitted (she was mad for knitting). Maybe that's where I acquired this overwhelming craving for gorgeous night clubs where Cuban bands play for beautiful people, sipping daiquiris between dancing the son, mambo and cha-cha-cha.

This Cuba does not exist anymore - I've been to look for it. It's all timba and reggaeton now. That's great, but, ah nostalgia. I once spent a whole afternoon lying next to a pool in Santiago de Cuba, listening to the piped music of Beny More. That's as close as I got.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Ah, the things I wish I could tell you...

Well blog readers, I've had a fun few days. I wish I could tell you everything but because we want to keep some things as a cool surprise I can't.

I popped by the Scholastic offices on Friday to meet up before going to a fancy dinner-n-awards evening with the publishers and some of their guests. Spying some mock-ups of "Invisible City" sitting on a pile of new books, I snapped some photos with my BlackBerry. It's not the final version yet but it was soooooo cool to see it. This book package truly is totally innovative! And splashproof too - perfect for taking the book down to the beach or pool.

But I don't think I'm allowed to post these photos on my blog, sorry...

I was an hour late to another meeting today, because of what the bus driver from Oxford referred to as an 'RTA'. What's wrong with the word 'accident'? Why must we always be decoding TLAs? (three letter acronyms) But my agent coped without me and successfully pitched our proposal to the publishers, leaving me to walk in on the good atmosphere.

The way "The Joshua Files" will be promoted online should now be pretty innovative too. Something new for the world of books, borrowing from something they use to promote some...

But soft! Ere I say too much...

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Okay now. How many times have you seen High School Musical 2?

Not High School Musical; High School Musical 2. It premiered yesterday on Disney Channel.

On it's third viewing in our household now. There can be no escape.

Sharpay and Ryan and sooo cool and FUNNY. They are the Team Rocket of High School Musical.

Troy and Gabriela, however, are just so saccharine sweet.
By tomorrow I'll be expected to harmonise on the best numbers so that my daughter can feel suitably fabulous when she sings along.

If you don't watch HSM then clearly, you have a deficit in the tween/teen girls in your household. Them as don't, like me, don't get much choice in this. High School Musical rules!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Day in the Life of a Writer Close To Finishing A First Draft

1. Woken up wayyyy too early by BlackBerry flashing with the message "Write 1000 words of Jaguar - NOW!" Lie awake for ages, unable to stir from bed.

2. Oldest daughter invades to fleece me of what little shrapnel I have. "I haven't got my PIN yet!" is the usual excuse for the ongoing cash drain. Youngest daughter is sleepy and wants cuddles. How can I resist? Husband prepares packed lunch and breakfast for little 'un, then takes her to school, all to leave me free to write. But I just stare in fascination at FaceBook. There's a MyFlickr app! Cool; install it. Apparently apps could be the death of Facebook - people are getting cross with all the zombies and jedi vs sith silliness. I say: if you don't want the app, Dile que no.

3. Check out all my friends blogs and post comments. Email a dear friend who's back in touch via LinkedIn. Check my favourite writer's websites. Read short stories on fiction website. Finally shower, dress and look at the chunk of writing I have to do today. It's a foot chase through Old Havana. Rooftops will feature, because hey, it's Havana! So will the Malecon, because, well, IT'S HAVANA.

4. Read some of Alejo Carpentier's 'The Chase' to get in the mood. Browse my photos from Cuba, to get in the mood. (There aren't enough of rooftops. I looked down over rootops every day in Havana - what was wrong with me - why didn't I take more of rooftops?) Watch the rooftop party scene from Habana Blues, to get in the mood.

5. Finally in the mood, write the Old Havana chase scene; 800 words. That'll do - half a chapter and I left at a good place - the rooftop chase begins.

6. Pick up littlest daughter from school, acquire 3-year old neighbour boy on the way. Pick apples from our tree. Bake a pie together. Make pesto for tea. Experiment with a new daiquiri that uses fresh pink grapefruit juice and just a hint of coriander. (gently, gently bruise about five coriander leaves in the glass part of a shaker, add 1/2 shot freshly squeezed lime juice, 1/2 shot of gomme, 1 shot freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice, 2 shots light rum, shake in Boston shaker with plenty ice, fine strain into a chilled martini glass.)

7. Discuss my teenager's complex love life with her and reluctantly help her to plan a strategy with latest love interest. (It was that or talk all night long.)

8. Laundry. Who doesn't love laundry? NOT! I read in some newspaper article that Mrs Thatcher admitted that getting the fluff out of the dryer was one of the small pleasures of her life. I try it. It's surprisingly satisfying - comes off in three nice clean layers.

7. Eat pie whilst reading today's 800 words. Polish. Write this blog entry.

5000 words to go, by my estimate, until I finish the first draft of 'Jaguar's Realm'. I planned this ending ONE YEAR ago, but last week I thought of a major tweak that has allowed me to keep the pace and drama going strong all the way through Act 3. At least that's the plan, and that's why I plan. Things can only get better from a strong plan.

Writing the first draft, truly, is so much fun. I even enjoyed first drafts when I had no agent and no publisher. The story is all yours then and you're the first one to read it.

And look...only 8pm. Still time to go salsa dancing at Freuds...

But I'm too tired.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Laying Down Some Intertextual Licks

Oh, but I'm a big old sucker for intertextuality. Which probably shows that deep down I'm a bit of a postmodern poseur.

I've mentioned this to my agent a few times - he seems to think it's quite charming that I've buried references to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Borges and Haruki Murakami in my children's adventure stories. Some of it happened quite unconsciously - I wrote the first draft so quickly that apart from the plot, which I constructed carefully, much of the writing came straight out of my subconscious without much modification. Some of it, however, is there quite intentionally, even structurally. I won't say what.

Months later I looked back and thought - crumbs, what have I done? I've given away A LOT of personal information here - that anyone who knows me well will be able to deconstruct. (N.B. I removed quite a bit of this in the editing process). And what the heck is the point of all this intertextuality?

Why do we do this? My agent thinks it's like a secret message to readers in the know.

Which begs the question - who do we write for?

A friend of mine knows the children's author Philip Pullman, whose 'His Dark Materials' books are (in my opinion) the best children's books ever written, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and the William books. Pullman allegedly told my friend once that in 'His Dark Materials' he'd written a book for adults that people as young as eleven also could read.

I guess I've written a book for teenagers that I hope they'll re-read as adults and go I see where you got that. My books aren't remotely similar to those written by my literary heroes, so it's possibly too much to hope the people who read my books will go on to read Gabo, Calvino, Murakami and Borges.

But if they did, it would be so, so, so cool.

Oh, I've started keeping score of people I've persuaded (mainly by badgering) to start reading Murakami and now they really like him too:

In chronological order: David (my husband), Nathan (close friend), Steve (a writer friend), Martin (close friend), Rich (writer friend), Peter (agent). Hmm, all blokes. I have tried to persuade a few women friends but they haven't gone for him in quite the same way.

I have one Murakami book left to read - After Dark. I am saving it up as a treat when I finish the current manuscript. And then it's back to re-reading him, scouring the Web for rare short stories of his and generally being a sad fangirl.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Project Jaguar - Winding Up A First Draft

A few items I keep on my desk to inspire me: a little statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba, some Cuban moneda nacional (local money; I'm not supposed to have it) and on the right, thirty crisp Cuban Convertible Pesos (tourist money; I'm not supposed to take it out of the country) - my cab fare from Jose Marti airport to Old Havana, for next time I go, to save queuing at the money exchange.

I'm about 8,000 words away from finishing the first draft of Project Jaguar. And I don't revise much until The Editor has a say, so for me a first draft - with a polish - is what I submit.

Which means that I am close to handing over to my agent a project that I've been working on, on-and-off, for a little over a year. It's the longest I've taken so far to complete a first draft. And all those feelings I get at this stage are kicking in.
Firstly there's the desire to finish and have done. That can get overshadowed with a premonition of loss. It's fun to inhabit an imaginary world. The author gets to experience that more intensely than any reader and for longer. When the first draft is finished, the world ceases to be your own. Other people get a say. That's exciting too, sharing it. It's different though.

But then again, the desire to finish, already!

Oh and then there's the post-ms finishing elation ("It's the best thing I've ever written"), shortly followed by the depression; "Hang on...actually it's not, is it? Or is it? I can't tell. Help!"

From here until the end I resent every interruption. I'd happily shut myself up now in my bedroom until it's done. That can't happen, of course. Life continues to make its demands. I have to take my daughter swimming in about a hour. And I should probably have something for lunch other than M&S Extremely Chocolatey Caramels.

This manuscript is unsold, btw. Very exciting. Will there be any takers? It's like last year all over again.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Introspective, moi?

I don't usually turn to introspection on this blog because well, basically, it's not very fun is it? It gets awfully close to that writer's angst I try to avoid.

But today, just now in fact I had a moment of clarity in which I realised that being a published author is going to make me not more interesting as my teenage daughter imagines, but less.

(My teenage daughter observed recently, "I'm looking forward to your book being published. Then maybe your life will finally become interesting. And you'll have things to tell me. Instead of it being the other way round.")

I read an article about something, can't remember what, and was just starting to form a theory, synthesize a thought, who knows it might even have been interesting...when a very strict part of my brain cut in and said NO.

NO. You can't think about that. It might be interesting but NO. It's not relevant to the books you write. It's potentially too interesting to think about as a leisure activity. It's not comforting enough to justify as a daydream. So: simply NO.

That strict part of my brain has a propensity to let me think all I like about the stuff that it deems relevant to my job and hardly at all about anything else. There were times when I was a scientist that I literally turned up at parties unable to speak. I forgot how to make small talk. I didn't want to talk about anything but molecular biology, and no-one at the party wanted to hear about that so...I said nothing.

So I can imagine that what will happen in the next few years is that I will think more and more about my books. At the moment I can count on the fingers of a hand the number of people who have ever wanted to have any discussion with me about my books that goes beyond "You're writing a book, really, what's it about?" reply and then, end of discussion.

What if it were lots of people, though? What if that becomes all people ever want to talk to me about?

Then I'll be back where I was in the old days, when I was mad keen to talk about subcloning DNA or whatever part of my research I was up to...and good for little else. Except now the only thing I'll be capable of talking about is a bunch of stuff I made up once.

I'll be back to being a nerd.

Actually I'm being daft. I could right now make a list of 10 friends who will NEVER want to hear about my books. They should help to save me from becoming a total bore.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Forever Mexican - Chiiidoooo

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon recently said "Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico."

Well hurray for that! Because apparently the cost of being naturalized as a British citizen has roughly tripled since last year, when I last filled in the forms and didn't get round to sending them, and at around £655 I'm not quite sure it's in my range anymore. Priced out of the market! It's probably a quite sensible ploy to avoid undesirables like me becoming British. Quite right too. What Groucho Marx said.

So I'm to be forever Mexican and only Mexican. Which means that there's a little bit of Mexico right here in Oxford.


Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Joshua 1 all finished...I hope!

Well, I think I've finally done my bit and now it's all over to the publishers. I sent the corrected proofs back last week. Much relief. Now I'm looking forward to seeing the final product, complete with secretly embedded code of a puzzle wot I wrote, which readers can solve to win a prize (an iPod, I believe...)...and the much-awaited, totally innovative jacket.
About which I'm going to say only this - you will be able to see the book all the way across the store! And, no, I'll say another thing. You know how they say 'don't judge a book by it's cover' and such-like? Well, in this case, couldja?
Now Agent Pete and I are working on a cunning plan; an online treat for readers of the book. Top secret!

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

MG and DB

Here's my good friend DB, who I inherited from the one time in my life that I was ever in a Clique. It was at St Cross College, Oxford and for some reason the cool American grad students welcomed me into their urbane little set, who would always sit at the same table for lunch and watch as the Goddess Hoku opened her mail (often actually addressed to her as that...), and have cool nicknames for some of the more distinctive dons (we had a Panzer Fuhrer, a Yoda, Obi-Wan, and a Dingleberry). I'd always kind of admired the group from afar; when I eavesdropped their conversation it sounded like the Algonquin Round Table meets the Star Wars Fan Club.
I first got an 'in' with them when I overheard Hoku talking about my beloved PJ O'Rourke, whose book "Republican Party Reptile" I owned and loved, and whose new book "Holidays in Hell" was just out. Hoku and I became life-long friends following our walk to the bookstore to each buy a copy of HIH.
The group would meet in someone's college room for video evenings to watch shows like "Sledge Hammer!" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle", which were all new to me. We'd eat pizza and play with Legos. These were the type of people I'd never come across before at Oxford - right-leaning, funny, educated, witty and cosmopolitan American liberal-arts students. I was totally smitten.
This was back when there was still an Evil Empire and we had a gazillion Soviet nukes aimed at our heads, when the GDR was still cool in a grimly-socialist-black-and-white-movie sort of way - it wasn't like being a neocon or anything. One of the group, Peter Schweizer, had spent time with Washington bigshots and had published a book entitled "Grinning with the Gipper: The Wit, Wisdom, and Wisecracks of Ronald Reagan"
But as people invariably do in Oxford, they left. Eventually only two local hangers-on were left: me and DB.
We didn't really know each other at first. The group was big enough that we'd only chatted at the periphery. When we exchanged phone numbers at the farewell party of the last of the group to leave, I wondered vaguely if we'd ever meet again.
We did though, and I'm glad because DB has been one of my best friends for years, through thick and thin. She wrote weekly limericks to cheer me up through one gloomy bit of my life, I stripped wall-paper with her when she bought a cottage that needed EVERYTHING doing. I introduced DB to the concept of Murder Mystery parties and then DB expanded and improved upon the concept until they were a thing of minor legend, at least in Hertford College MCR.
DB tempted me out for tapas, cocktails and a movie last night. We saw "The Lives Of Others", the winner of last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. I haven't seen such a touching, beautifully constructed and performed film for a long time. Everything about the film is just brilliant.
Fundamentally it's a story of unrequited love and how a dutiful state security official metamorphoses into a Good Man when he falls in love with someone who he can never have, but who through her plight opens his eyes to the wrongdoing in his own occupation. It's a film which sticks rigidly to Robert McKee's stern advice to screenwriters that MEANING produces EMOTION. (As opposed to loud explosions and car chases...)
Great movie - thanks DB!

Sunday, 2 September 2007

19th Century Tradition Rules OK

The St Giles' Fair is an old Oxford tradition that goes back to the 19th century, whereby a group of local fairground companies have use of one of the main streets of Oxford for the first two days in September, after St Giles Day. And the schoolchildren of Oxford can spend the last days of their school holiday being entertained in top carnie fashion.

My two daughters and I took the usual reccie this evening. Looking at the mixture of horrific sick-inducing machines and charming old kiddie fairground rides, my older daughter, 15, remarked sourly that she felt none of the usual excitement. She said the same thing at Disneyland Paris a couple of weeks ago. Yep, it happens; you grow up. But she hasn't yet discovered how much fun St Giles' Fair is when you visit in the evening and slightly tipsy. with a crowd of student pals...

Meanwhile our five-year old was cooing with delight. She wants to throw hoops around stuff and win cuddly toys, (she only has about 40 and there are places in her bedroom where you can still see the floor, so I guess that's her rationale there...); to ride on the Waltzer under the influence of travel sickness pills, to eat huge fluffy balls of freshly spun cotton candy, hot doughnuts straight out of the oil, corn-on-the-cob roasted on a grill, to dip fudge, marshmallows and strawberries in a chocolate fountain, and then to ride the magnificent Carousel. You don't actually get any younger, like with the one in Ray Bradbury's novel 'Something Wicked This way Comes', but riding it, you might feel, for just a few moments, that you've turned into a little kid again.

It's one of the great things about being a parent, living vicariously through all your children's joyous discoveries in life. But tomorrow, after all those fairground treats and being whipped around on rides, I may need to swing by the vomitarium...