Precious Words

Years ago I started blogging (originally on Blogger at https://thewhiterajah.blogspot.com/) and I wanted to prove that I could produce something every week. I think I sort of hoped someone would notice that I can turn out a regular column and that I might get some sort of writing gig out of it. Sadly, it turns out that the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle have cornered the market in those jobs and I am carrying on with the self-inflicted chore of producing my pearls of wisdom every week just from force of habit.

I regularly say I’m going to take a break and, for the next few weeks, I’m going to be away. For this week, though, I’m reposting something that first appeared on Blogger back in 2013. Some of the details have dated (I think the average published writer might clear over £11,000 a year these days) but I stand by the general idea.

I hope you enjoy it anyway.

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A recent post about word count seems to have attracted more interest than most. This set me to wondering why so many writers are quite so obsessive about word count.

I was listening to a programme on Radio Four last week (for US readers, Radio Four is the main UK talk radio channel) and it was discussing the difficulty of defining “work”. It turns out that most people like to be thought of as doing quite a lot of “work” but nobody is quite sure what to include in it. My personal bete noire is when businessmen say that they work 16 hour day in which they include lunch and dinner because they’re talking to colleagues, so this is obviously “work”, isn’t it? When I was working as a freelancer, there was always the question as to whether journey time counted as “work” or not. Given that I might be expected to travel from London to Manchester as part of the job, this was hardly a trivial issue. For writers, the whole question of what is “work” is even more difficult to pin down. Donna Tartt has apparently said in an interview that she “works” all the time, partly on the grounds that she carries a notebook with her and constantly jots down things that she might put into a novel. Given that she has written three novels in 21 years, her definition of “work” does, I think, stretch it about as far as you can. And in that last, ever so slightly bitchy, comment, we come to the nub of the concern about word count. For when I say that three books in 21 years hardly seems like full-time employment, what I am saying is, ultimately, that she doesn’t write a lot each day.

Now I spent my last post ridiculing the idea that your creative effort can be measured in words per day, but here I am, doing just that. Why? Because, like all writers I want to be taken seriously as a writer and, until I win the Booker, how do I define the “work” of writing?

I could, of course, just say that a writer is anybody who writes. But, every so often, someone comes up with the idea that almost literally everybody in the country has, at some stage, started to write a book. I can quite believe it. I have even seen computer programs being sold that claim to enable you to turn your brilliant idea into prose even if you do not really have a plot, any characters or the first clue of how to write. On this definition, we are all, it appears, writers now.

I have a friend with an English degree who decided that she would like to write. She joined a Writers Circle, because people in a Writers Circle will be writers, yes? After weeks of listening to a group of not noticeably talented people reading their Special Words to each other, she gave up. The worst thing, she suggested, was the unspoken social contract whereby you agreed that the other person’s Special Words were evidence of real talent in exchange for them doing the same for you. It’s quite possible that some of the people in the group had real potential, but in the atmosphere of mutual onanism, nobody was ever going to find out. It does seem fair to say, though, that membership of a Circle does not make you a writer.

Once upon a time, the test of whether or not you were a writer was whether or not you had a book published. But that’s hardly a test any more. Many really rather good writers are self-published or published by independent publishers that no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately, so are some people whose work, by any standard other than their own, would struggle to be judged as a “proper book”. Some people have tried to replace the test of “had a book published” with “had a book published by a mainstream publisher”. But, looking at the books published by mainstream publishers, I don’t see that as being any test of quality either. Even after you’ve taken out the celebrity books (often written by someone whose name is not on the cover) you are left with some works of dubious worth. I’ll name no names because it’s a grey area, but we can all think of some very doubtful stuff that is getting mainstream publication these days.

So if the test isn’t “I’ve had a book published”, what defines somebody as a “real” writer? It would be nice to suggest that it is whether or not you make a living out of writing. Unfortunately (he said with feeling), the last time I looked, which was, admittedly a few years ago, the average amount made by somebody who actually writes for money was £7000 a year. Obviously Dan Brown and JK Rowling manage rather more than that, but for most writers, the idea of it paying a living wage is just ridiculous. At one level, this is quite a good definition of a writer, but it suffers from the opposite problem of defining it as “somebody who writes”. While almost everybody is in the first category, practically nobody is in the latter.

I think it is the absence of any useful definition that makes us so obsessive about word counts. It’s almost as if, in the community of “serious writers who haven’t had a bestseller yet”, we define a writer as “somebody who writes down about 1000 words a day”. It’s a measure of our insecurity. And we are all so very insecure. It’s a lonely life and we look for all the validation we can get. And in the absence of Amazon reviews (hint, hint) and massive sales (even bigger hint), we look to our word count for the validation we aren’t getting anywhere else.

That’s a thousand words.

I’m a proper writer, I am.

2023 Book Reviews

Every year I point out that this is not a book blog but every year there seem to be so many reviews… 2023 has been a comparatively quiet year with only 11 books. Click on the titles to go to the full-length reviews.

As ever, the majority of the books reviewed are historical, but there are a few contemporary novels too.

Historical

Wellington’s Smallest Victory: Peter Hofschroer

I have often visited Siborne’s model of the battle of Waterloo, which is displayed at the National Army Museum. I love it, despite the fact that in one very important aspect it is totally misleading. Peter Hofschroer’s wonderful book explains why and includes lots of fascinating detail on the battle. A must read-title for Waterloo fans.

This Bloody Shore: Lynn Bryant

I’m a huge fan of Bryant’s Manxman series, looking at the Peninsular War from a naval standpoint. This is the third in the series and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Gods of Tango: Carolina De Robertis

Obviously I like history and I love tango, so i would be enthusiastic about this book even if it wasn’t simply one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. I can’t begin to summarise how good it is in this snippet. Read my full review and then please go on and read the book.

Three books by Deborah Swift

I’m something of a Deborah Swift fan. She is an astonishingly prolific author and writes historical fiction in several different periods. Two of these, The Silk Code and The Shadow Network are set in World War II while the third, The Fortune Keeper takes place in Renaissance Venice. Swift’s ability to write convincingly about such different periods (she has good line in 17th century England as well) is astonishing and she has gripping plot lines too. Recommended.

The Illusions: Liz Hyder

I should have loved this book. It’s got conjurers, history and supernatural happenings, but it just didn’t work for me. I honestly can’t recommend it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like it.

Contemporary

Legacy: Chris Coppel

This is a supernatural horror story: not my usual sort of thing, but the author contacted me and asked me to review it and the opening pages gripped me enough to carry on to the end. It’s a very good example of the genre.

The Retreat: Karen King

A mystery with more than a touch of romance from the ever-reliable romantic novelist, Karen King. It’s a fun, light read, likely to appeal to Agatha Christie fans.

Ailish Sinclair’s dance trilogy

I loved the first book in this trilogy, Tendu. It’s got sex and ballet and a touch of X-men superpowers. What’s not to like? The second in the series, Cabriole, didn’t work as well for me but, so far, the third, Fouette, has me completely gripped.

Me, me, me!

Beside reading all these books by others, I managed to put out two books of my own this year. As with the books reviewed, my efforts were partly historical (Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras) and partly contemporary (Monsters in the Mist). I obviously haven’t reviewed them, but others have said:

I can heartily recommend this thrilling adventure

Amazon review of Torres Vedras

100% recommend

Amazon review of Monsters in the Mist

The Shadow Network: Deborah Swift

The Shadow Network: Deborah Swift

We’re almost halfway through January and Deborah Swift’s latest is published next month so now seems a good time to get my review out.

The Shadow Network takes us back to the world of WW2 espionage that she introduced in The Silk Code. This story features Neil Callaghan from the earlier book but it is a separate story about a different aspect of Britain’s secret war against Germany. It centres on the work of the Political Warfare Executive which pumped out black propaganda to the Reich. It was a significant part of the British war effort, pioneering tactics that we see used in conflicts nowadays. It’s fascinating stuff and deserves to be better known. Swift, as ever, writes with authority and I loved those parts of the book.

The social background to the story also gives vivid insights into the world of the time. The heroine, Lilli Bergen, is a half-Jewish German, who we first meet living in Berlin. Swift gives some idea of the reality of life for Jews at the time. Lilli’s (non-Jewish) father disappears into the camps – her mother is already dead – and Lilli flees to Britain. There, she thinks she is safe until she is caught up in the anti-German hysteria that saw Jewish refugees rounded up alongside Nazi sympathisers and interned on the Isle of Man. Swift catches the terror of Jews who had lived under a police state being suddenly ordered from their homes to live, without family or friends, behind barbed wire.

Fortunately for Lilli, the Political Warfare Executive needs a German singer to entertain on a radio show designed to appeal to German soldiers. The songs are interspersed with propaganda designed to undermine morale.

In her new job she meets an old boyfriend from Germany – somebody she believes to be a Nazi collaborator. Instead of denouncing him to the police, she decides to investigate on her own. It’s a trope of this sort of fiction (one I’ve been accused of myself) that your hero will find themselves in a situation where they have to undertake a risky job without any kind of backup, although they are surrounded by people who could easily help them. Swift does a good job of explaining why Lilli insists on becoming a (frankly unconvincing) Mata Hari even when she has clear evidence that her ex-boyfriend is a wrong ’un, but I did struggle to suspend my disbelief. I had particular problems when she gets engaged to the villain and moves in with him. I know it was wartime and that people let things slip a little, but I was surprised that nobody seems to have thought this was odd. What, to me, was even odder was that, though the man is a cad and a bounder, he accepts that they will share a bedroom without actually having sex. That’s a necessary plot device, as there is a romantic subplot in which Lilli is saving herself for her true love.

Will Lilli save the day and will her apparent philandering be forgiven? No plot spoilers here, but no great surprises in the book either.

Like all Deborah Swift’s books, this is a joy to read and the story bowls along fast enough to skim over the more implausible elements – and you learn a lot about the war years on the way.

The Shadow Network is published in February and is already available on pre-order on Kindle and in paperback.

Hello 2024!

Hello 2024!

Here we are, five days into the New Year. How’s it going for you?

We started the year’s tango early with an afternoon of dancing locally on New Year’s Day but I must admit that, with that on top of the excesses of New Year’s Eve, Tuesday was a bit of a blur. Despite this, it’s been a good New Year so far, with a lovely review of Eat the Poor turning up on amazon.com (“Two of the best written characters ever”) and one for Something Wicked from Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team (“Clever, with sharp edged humour that is sure to delight”). It’s fantastic to see my Galbraith & Pole Urban Fantasy books getting some love. Will 2024 be the year they take off?

Speaking of Urban Fantasy, my son gave me three short graphic novels spun off from Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. I do love his books (there’s a review HERE), even if the plots are becoming insanely convoluted. I discovered them when a friend said that the Galbraith & Pole books reminded him of them. There’s a definite similarity, but I swear I wrote G&P before I read Aaronovitch.

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A more weighty Xmas gift was ‘A Mohawk Memoir from the War of 1812’. It’s hardly a fun read but I’m reading my way into that war because there is just a chance that James Burke might find himself in North America. It will be a while though. It’s going to take time before I know enough about the 1812 conflict for me to feel comfortable writing about it.

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That’s all for the future, anyway. For now I am quite enjoying not having to get up and pound at the word processor. It turns out that while I was writing two books last year there was a certain amount of domestic administration that wasn’t getting done, so 2024 is going to see quite a lot in the way of builders and decorators.

Like a lot of people (at least among my friends) I felt that 2023 didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I had fun certainly. But life wasn’t notably better at the end of 2023 than at the beginning. I’m hoping that a certain amount of clearing away of dead wood and making some space in life could mean a much more exciting 2024. I live in hope, anyway.

Does anybody else have exciting plans for the year ahead?

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

That’s about it for 2023. I’m shutting down now until the New Year.

Here’s an appropriately Christmassy picture, courtesy of whoever in knitting pillar box hats round here. There are a couple of good ones locally but I picked this:

I’m not writing a proper blog post today because I wrote a Christmas short story earlier in the week, so I’m just directing you to that. It’s here on this blog: a-free-short-story-for-christmas. It’s a Galbraith & Pole story, which may come as a shock to those of you who only know my historical novels. Galbraith is an old-school Metropolitan Police detective and Pole is a vampire. It puts a new twist on police procedurals. If you’ve never read one of my fantasy stories before, do give it a try. You never know: you might enjoy it.

Anyway, I’m off. Cards sent, presents bought, tree ready. Christmas starts now. Have a good one!