Friday, 28 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

 Yesterday we spent the afternoon with friends who are as busy with family as we are on the actual 'holiday' days of Christmas. We had lunch, exchanged gifts and then played a couple of very silly board games that were in fact great fun, partly as we played in teams. Before lunch, we chatted over drinks, as you do.
  "Surprisingly," I said, "I only received four books for Christmas." This is a surprise as for most of my family members, my Amazon wishlist is their first port of call, and it has a substantial number of books on it. My friend looked what I thought at the time was slightly aghast (more of that later). "It doesn't matter, they were all excellent." 
I proceeded to tell her what I had received and why.
1. The third volume in Neil Astley's poetry anthology trilogy 'Being Human', which means I now have all three. An excellent set for dipping into at any time or to suit any emotion, it's a phenomenal collection.
2. Blake Morrison's 'The Last Weekend'. On the Oxford Diploma course, I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Skinner, lecturer at Goldsmith's, London and Director of the Faber Academy creative writing courses. He strongly recommended Morrison's work and I am a little ashamed to say that this is the first one I have acquired. So thank you, Richard, for the recommendation (and thank you, David, for the gift!).
3. Richard Ford's 'Canada'. Possibly a bandwagon choice, but it made several lists by other people as one of their favourite books of the year (such as this one) and the opening, very reminiscent of Robertson Davies' 'Murther and Walking Spirits' was the clincher: 'First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.' For those not familiar with the Robertson Davies, it begins: 'I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.' Although the narrator in 'Canada' does not necessarily appear to be dead by the beginning of the book, I'm sure you can see the startling similarity. And I loved the Robertson Davies, so putting 'Canada' on my wishlist was a no brainer.
4. Modernist Cuisine at Home. This is the 'simplified' version of 'Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking' although it is still a hefty tome. Having my elder son at home at present has led to numerous conversations about food and cooking techniques (and more time on the treadmill, though that's another story). I also bought it for him. He won't be living at home for ever and I will need my own copy!
My friend listened to my explanations with interest and then the conversation moved on. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that my present from her was... some books off my wishlist, by Edward Marston, from the Christopher Redmayne series. Historical crime fiction for some light relief while I'm waiting for the vacuum seal on my fennel fritters to develop, perhaps.
What was your favourite present for reading?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Whence inspiration?

Five hundred years ago, rather than hitting the markets for last minute Christmas shoppings, the citizens of Rome were queuing round the block to see a work of art that had taken its creator four years to complete.

Michelangelo was originally recruited by Pope Julius II to create his tomb, but hardly had the work started and the pope changed his mind: he wanted the ceiling of his uncle's chapel repainting instead. Michelangelo might well have been surprised at the new commission. Not only had he had vast quantities of marble shipped from Carrera already to begin the mammoth undertaking of the pope's tomb, but his reputation was already established as a sculptor, not a painter. Apprenticed in Florence to a workshop that did a lot of fresco work, he had been spotted by Il Magnifico Lorenzo de'Medici for a small figure he had sculpted, and proceeded to make his name with the Pieta in St Peter's in Rome and the rescue of the David in Florence. He was not well-known for painting.
photo from Wikipedia

Now the image of God's hand reaching out to touch Adam's fingers is known around the world. Queues of international pilgrims form outside the Vatican Palace to see the ceiling and although Michelangelo's David is well-known, it is actually a replica that is surrounded by camera-laden tourists in the Piazza Signoria, while the original statue is unphotographable in the Accademia a few blocks away.  
Not the real David, 'just' a life-size replica.

I think he would have fumed about this shift in perception. He signed all his letters 'Michelangelo, sculptor'. It was a constant source of irritation to him when painting the ceiling that all that marble was sitting untouched, yet thirty years later he was back in the chapel, painting the altar wall. This time he included himself, a flayed face reflecting how tortured he felt. The additional insult for a fierce Florentine to be trapped in Rome must have been almost unbearable. Thank goodness for his sanity he had some good Roman friends in Tomasso di Cavalieri and the lady Vittoria Colonna. Subsequent popes only added to his burdens; it is no wonder that he had little respect for some of them.

This was the starting point for my novel Moses in Chains, now out on kindle. A Florentine who lived in Rome for most of his life, a staunch republican who nevertheless had deep respect for and attachment to the Medici family, a devout man who struggled with his own emotions and fled after one of Savonarola's more fiery speeches, a witty man who wasted no time if he thought others were wrong, a stubborn man, a genius, the Divine Michelangelo. Of course his servants would worship him. Wouldn't they?

Friday, 7 December 2012

What I Have Learned About E-Publishing

After five and a half long long years, I have finally released my novel about Michelangelo, Moses in Chains,  onto the usual unsuspecting world. I had hoped in my innocence to get my first novel published via the traditional route, but as time went on, I realised that was not going to happen, so I eventually self-published, at the moment just on Kindle.

I could perhaps have persevered, trying to find an agent and then hoping they could find a publisher, but I wanted to publish in 2012 as a marketing hook, which I haven't yet used, is that Michelangelo finished painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a theme in the book, in  1512, and it is therefore the 500th anniversary. Once I realised that the time it would take from finding an agent to being on the shelves of my local bookshop would lead to publication sometime in 2015, if I was lucky, I decided I would have to self-publish. Other people have done it and there is so much advice on the web it couldn't be that difficult. Could it?

The first thing I learned is that the formatting of your text, if it is to go on kindle, is quite specific and you need to set it up in styles, if you're using Word. Unfortunately for me, 'styles' means either italic or non-italic. Since my novel, all 135,000 words of it, is in two voices, one italicised, one not, as soon as I changed my 'normal style' to have a 10 point space at the end of each paragraph, I lost all the italics. Cue going through the book, re-introducing the italicisation. My recommendation? Set up 'styles' before you start.

The next thing I learned is that I am very old-school. I learned to type on a typewriter (yes, I really *am* that old) and was taught to put two spaces at the end of a sentence. Kindle texts cannot cope, apparently, with two spaces at the end of a sentence, they like one. Cue 'show all formatting marks' and go through again, taking out extraneous spaces. To be fair, I could have done a global 'find and replace' with instructions I found on this website which is accurately named 'easy as pie', but of course I also needed to take out extra paragraph marks, spaces at the beginning of paragraphs and other 'clutter'. I think I made the right decision, even though it did take me over a month to go through with the screen set to 130%.

Once I had finished the cleansing process, it was time to set up my kindle author's account. According to Amazon's website, this can take as little as five minutes. After two hours, I have come to the conclusion that this can only possibly be true if you have a US bank account. For those of us not so blessed, you will need you IBAN and your BIC numbers so that they can pay you. Perhaps not all banks are the same, but our bank's website suggested popping in to the branch that holds the account, which was not an option. Fortunately, after rifling through some very old paperwork for something else, my husband located the numbers I needed. So my advice would be, if you think you might like to put something up on kindle any time in the next decade, contact your bank now.

The other irritatingly time-consuming problem I had was entering my phone number. It really really wanted it, and wouldn't accept the account without it. But how to format the phone number? Should I assume that it would need the international code in front? Sadly, looking through the support forum FAQs was no use, as searching for 'format phone number' yielded far too many irrelevant results to be of any help at all. Eventually, trial and error led me to discover that it doesn't need an international code, it just wants the area code and the number. Without a space between them.

To be fair, there is loads of help out there. Talli Roland regularly posts articles on her blog and links to The Writer's Guide to e-Publishing, which in addition to the other two sites already mentioned, was brilliant. There were other sites I found and skimmed over but those were the main ones. You may find others have a style that appeals more to you. I haven't yet found one that analyses the pros and cons of the 35%/70% royalty decision so if anyone sees one somewhere, please let me know!

In the meantime, my jolly read is out there now. Here's the link in case you like the idea of a book in which a grumpy old Renaissance Man watches paint dry servant tries to look after Michelangelo's memoirs of painting the Sistine Ceiling while failing to cope with the various women in his life. If nothing else, you might like the artwork. :-)