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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

 

One for the Lexicon?

I don't know if this is a lexicon phrase or not, but it's a character that crops up a LOT in wholesome American TV series, and sometimes movies. Do we blame the actor, the director or the scriptwriter? Personally, I'm inclined to blame all of them.

Crock Monsieur
Which is to say, like the eponymous toastie, composed entirely of ham, cheese and white bread. (I know the French spell it 'croque', but for reasons I won't mention because of the children in the audience, I think 'crock' is more appropriate.)

Guess that's television told. Next week, Kit takes on the art world!

I was going to post a recipe for how to make a croque monsieur, but then I decided that I'm a vegetarian so I won't. Instead, a tip for making delicious scrambled eggs: grind up a vegetable stock cube, and add a pinch of that instead of salt. Gives a nice umami flavour. With some nice chopped chives and fresh-ground black pepper, maybe a smidgen of wholegrain mustard, cooked until it looks almost done but not quite (because it keeps cooking in its own heat after you take it off the hob), a feast fit for a breakfast-eating king.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

 

Angels in Miami

This article is over a decade old, and it's been mentioned in various other websites, but it deserves to be kept alive because it's extraordinary:

http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/1997-06-05/feature.html

This is the story: homeless children in Miami, shunted from place to place in a dangerous, unstable world, evolved amongst themselves an elaborate, moral and surprisingly poetic religion. As could be expected from their life of scavenging on the edges, it's both cobbled together from bits of religion, urban legend, real life and folorn hope, and also extremely bleak. In this religion, the article explains:

On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack -- a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell. "Demons found doors to our world," adds eight-year-old Miguel, who sits before Andre with the other children at the Salvation Army shelter. The demons' gateways from Hell include abandoned refrigerators, mirrors, Ghost Town (the nickname shelter children have for a cemetery somewhere in Dade County), and Jeep Cherokees with "black windows." The demons are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear.

God is cast out of heaven, demons including the terrifying Bloody Mary stalk the earth. ("Some girls with no home feel claws scratching under the skin on their arms. Their hand looks like red fire. It's Bloody Mary dragging them in for slaves -- to be in gangs, be crackheads.") It's a perfect explanation of a miserable world: God is good, angels are good, but they're fighting a war in which they're pretty much outgunned . . . But the article is too good to summarise. Have a look.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

 

I don't know who wrote this . . .

. . . but it's a delightful solution to the problem. The word 'orange', as I'm sure absolutely everybody knows, is a word that is supposed to be impossible to rhyme in English. I've heard 'door-hinge' suggested, but it doesn't really work unless you go around saying 'I'd like some ooorrrange juice' every morning. However, I remember years ago seeing somebody write this in to a newspaper. Was it you? Was it someone you know? In any case, here it is:

I cook some oats in boiling milk
And ate them from a porringer.
Next time I'll add some citrus juice
To make my breakfast oranger.

Brilliant.

I'm allergic to citrus fruit. They turn me scarlet.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

 

More lexicon terms

The Lexicon (http://www.kitwhitfield.co.uk./lexicon.html) continues to grow . . . and will be updated on its proper page eventually. In the meantime, here are some new terms.

The first one is added in tribute to a good point someone made on a thread discussing it (click http://www.writewords.org.uk/forum/65_85172.asp to see it): that rereading your own work too many times can make it feel like a 'slippery page', which is my term for something unreadable that you can't keep your eyes on. If other people find your writing slippery, then there's really not much that can be done except sigh, junk it and write something else, but there's also the following effect - one that I certainly know from grim personal experience:

Eyegrease
A thin layer of which is added every time you reread your work. After a while, there's so much Eyegrease on every word that your eyes skid all over the page, taking practically nothing in.

Thanks to Emma for pointing that out.

Some other terms . . .


Points of Style:

Nuggety
Full of neat, pleasing and memorable incidents, scenes, turns of phrase and similar. Gives the audience that warm, satisfied feeling when reading and when reminiscing.

Buffsasstic
The feisty, sassy, wisecracking style that has proliferated, with varying degrees of success, in female-centred popular fiction in the past couple of decades, particularly popularised by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fun when it works, laboured when it doesn't, and no substitute for good character writing.


Structure:

Ravelled Threads
The result of almost but not quite perfect rewriting. You think you've tidied it all up - but then later, there's a single sentence referring to a character who isn't there any more, or the appearance of someone who now has no reason to be there, or a reference to a conversation that now didn't take place, hanging loose and snagging the reader's attention.

Cockroach Eggs
You know you have to clean them off, but it's so difficult to spot them all. Little stray words and typos here and there that you should have wiped up - but there, you missed one, and now the whole page looks grubby.


Handling Character

The Sabre-Toothed Kitten
A common figure in pulp sci fi and action that's paying lip-service to feminism without really being interested in women. She's tough, she's a kick-ass fighter, she kills evil men . . . the fact that she's also beautiful, cute, often small or young, provides the same comforting amount of T and A as a bimbo and has about the same level of personality doesn't mean she's not a strong female character. Honest.

Note to the guys: a woman who's just a body that fights is not a big advance on a woman who's just a body that fucks. Give her some thoughts.


The Critics section, which I think will probably have to be defined as 'critics and feedback':

Essay Fallacy
The assumption made by critics and academics that writing fiction is akin to essay-writing - ie, everything in the story is there to illustrate some previously-decided-upon theoretical point, rather than because it felt intuitively right, was the only way out of a corner, seemed funny at the time, or any of the other practical reasons that writers do things. Such criticism tends to put words into authors' mouths, and can lead to blind spots as to elements in the book that don't fit in with the supposed message.

Rewrite Shades
Projecting your own interpretation onto something so strongly that you come away with a memory of it that reflects your own personal vision rather than what you actually read or saw. It's possible to sit through an entire movie or novel wearing the Rewrite Shades. This leads to arguments later, as it can be very difficult to tell when you've got the Rewrite Shades on, and different people can be equally convinced that their version is the correct one.

Doing the Author's Homework
Projecting an intelligent and complex explanation onto a story to explain something that otherwise doesn't make sense, and which was probably the author making a mistake. Also, projecting layers of deep meaning onto a story that doesn't really have them. Basically, putting in mental work to improve something that, if it was going to merit your praise, should have been done by the author.


Living the Life

The Overhead Projector
A frustratingly common device that sits on top of your skull, projecting onto the page an image of what you meant, rather than what you said. This notional gadget is responsible for the fact that authors trying to edit themselves can miss incomprehensible sentences and misspelled words, because they saw the image from the Projector, not what was actually there. It's the main reason why it's good to get a second opinion.


Doubtless more terms will follow if I can think of any.

Good review in the Observer this weekend: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1843346,00.html. Picking up anticipated reviews is exactly like waiting for exam results. You've done the work and handed it in, now all you can do is pray - which you do with increasing frequency as the time draws near. I got up after a restless night on Sunday morning at about 7.30 and trekked through the rain looking for a copy . . . Thanks are due to the nice newsagent who let me retire with my damp umbrella to a corner of his shop so I could look at the review then and there. The walk home was much cheerier than the walk there, rain and all. The newspaper even printed my photograph, which you don't see on the link . . . but heck, if you're on this site you can find out what I look like anyway. If you particularly care. I wouldn't.

Friday, August 11, 2006

 

Going mad in style

Eighteenth-century prose is wonderful. The balance, dry humour and forcefulness of it strikes me dumb with envy: it's hilarious while being completely deadpan, and winds up feeling unarguable. It's particularly funny when it's read out loud, as the sentences are long but intensely rhythmical, and you get the full force when you hear them spoken.

My boyfriend Gareth has pointed me to a particularly nice example. It's a little tale out of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott that feels like it might have been a footnote in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The ability to avoid using the same word twice in a row alone makes it worth a read; I do feel sorry for the sufferer, but I can't help enjoying the story.

A young man of fortune, who had led what is calle d so gay a life as considerably to injure both his health and fortune, was at length obliged to consult the physician upon the means of restoring, at least, the former. One of his principal complaints was the frequent presence of a set of apparitions, resembling a band of figures dressed in green, who performed in his drawing room a singular dance, to which he was compelled to bear witness, though he knew, to his great annoyance, that the whole corps de ballet existed only in his own imagination. His physician immediately informed him that he had lived upon town too long and too fast not to require an exchange to a more healthy and natural course of life. He therefore prescribed a gentle course of medicine, but earnestly recommended to his patient to retire to his own house in the country, observe a temperate diet and early hours, practising regular exercise, on the same principle avoiding fatigue, and assured him that by doing so he might bid adieu to black spirits and white, blue, green and grey, with all their trumpery. The patient observed the advice, and prospered. His physician, after the interval of a month, received a grateful lette r from him, acknowledging the success of his regimen. The green goblins had disappeared, and with them the unpleasant train of emotions to which their visits had given rise, and the patient had ordered his town house to be disfurnished and sold, while the furniture was to be sent down to his residence in the country, where he was determined in future to spend his life, without exposing himself to the temptations of town. One would have supposed this a well-devised scheme for health. But, alas! No sooner had the furniture of the London drawing room been placed in order in the gallery of the old manor house than the former delusion returned in full force: the green figurantes, whom the patient's depraved imagination had so long associated with these movables, came capering and frisking to accompany them, exclaiming with great glee, as if the sufferer should have rejoiced to see them, 'Here we all are - here we all are!' The visionary, if I recollect right, was so much shocked at their appearance, that he retired abroad, in despair that any part of Britain could shelter him from the daily persecution of this domestic ballet.

 

Top ten books

Guardian online has just posted a list I compiled of ten favourite genre-defying novels (their phrase, not mine). To read it, click here: http://books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,,1839749,00.html

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

 

Hello America!

. . . And today the book launches in the USA, having been in shops over here in England for the past few days. (I know because I checked. I took photographs. A security guard built like a WWF wrestler tried to stop me until I made a plaintive face and said, 'But it's my book! Really, that's my book!' Fortunately he accepted that and did not try to throw me out, which I'm glad of, as could have swallowed me without chewing.)

Interestingly, Borders has the book in the Crime section. Blackwells had it on a new releases table. I'm not speaking to Foyles, because they didn't have it at all, the beasts. Meanwhile, it's gotten some good reviews, which I'm going to add to the site in the Reviews section later, but am waiting until the reviewing round is finished until I do . . . And they tended to review it as science fiction. Life continues interesting in genre-land.

Pending posting the reviews, here are a few quotes right now:

A fresh, exciting and superbly-realised novel from an exciting newcomer.
SFX magazine (which for those of you in America is the main science fiction and fantasy mag over here, and currently very high on my list of magazines I'd like to hug.)

A nuanced exploration of prejudice, this deftly written, absorbing debut deserves a crossover literary and fantasy readership.
Publishers Weekly starred review. (They called it a 'werewolf novel with a detective story twist', which is a fair way of putting it, I think.)

A cautionary tale with echoes of The Handmaid's Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four . . . Her story resonates with real issues of power, responsibility and blame. Lycos may be imaginary, but the things that people do to each other are all too recognisably real.
The Times (and they reviewed it in the science fiction section)

And interestingly, a review here http://www.soteriamag.co.uk/Reviews/Books/KWbareback.htm on what seems to be a Christian website.

This latter intrigued me. It said very nice things about the book, which is always good, and it also assessed whether it would be offensive to Christians, which I assume is par for the course on such sites, warning that there's 'a small amount of violence and some aspects of a sexual nature' (quite true, and some swearing as well), but it implied that if you're a Christian, it's probably not a problem. Which is a relief, as I'm agnostic myself but didn't want to offend people needlessly, and there were some things that concerned me, like mentioning real saints. Before it was published I actually asked a friend of mine who's a clergyman-in-training whether he thought that would be offensive, and he said no, probably not as long as I wasn't saying all Christians are bad, so I'm pleased that the vetting seems to have worked. I'd hate to have the Harry-Potter-promotes-evil-occultism crowd after me. Then again, the Soteria reviewer reckoned that 'by placing the novel in a different reality Kit Whitfield should escape the problems other authors face from some Christians complaining about the occult, often with good reason', and that argument doesn't seem to work for Ms Rowling . . .

So there we have it: what kind of book it's classed as depends, literally, on which bookshop you're standing in. (If you're standing in an American one, there's probably only going to be one answer.) But it's definitely not a book that promotes devil worship. Your soul is safe from me. Probably.

(I'm joking about this a bit because I'm surprised to see the book crop up on a Christian website at all, but actually it's a really nice review and I'm very grateful to the reviewer, so if whoever wrote it is reading this, thanks, I owe you. I'm also a bit more relieved that I'm letting on because I read Antonia White's Frost in May at an impressionable age and was much alarmed by the suggestion that if a writer writes a sinful book, they're responsible for all the sinful deeds and thoughts it provokes in their readers, and I would so not like that to happen to me.)

Finally, for your visual pleasure, as Del Rey decided to produce the book today on the grounds that there's a full moon tonight, click here for an appopriate image . . . http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/mypics/12278/display/5039562

Sunday, August 06, 2006

 

There's always someone sensible

Reginald Scot was a hero. In 1584, there was a serious witch-hunt going on across Europe, which functioned along basic and brutal lines: all accused were tortured until they confessed, then executed. It was horrific, and also ridiculous; intelligent people were believing nonsense, in one of those nasty historical moments where everyone seems to have taken leave of their senses.

The encouraging thing, of course, is that that never happens. Not entirely. There's always a few people who keep their heads. And Reginald Scot, at serious risk of losing his (or some equally unpleasant fate), wrote a long and dense book entitled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, an argument against the whole dreadful witch-hunt. It's a highly informed book, covering witch-hunting techniques, what we'd now call stage magic, alchemy and all sides of the question.

The book didn't go down well: King James ordered all copies of the book to be burned. Luckily for us, it survived. What I'm posting here is an early chapter of the book, arguing against the theories of a famous jurist called Bodin (basically that witches were real, evil and should be tortured into confessions). It's actually funny, it's so splendidly sane. Scot wasn't soft on crime, as you can see from the earlier entries, but he was a terrifically bold and independent thinker.

It's always nice to hear from sensible people . . .


Chapter IX of Book 2
(I'm modernising his spelling to make it easier to follow)

The fifteen crimes laid to the charge of witches by witchmongers; specially by Bodin, in Daemonomania (Bodin's book on the subject, a much less humane work)

They deny God, and all religion.
Answer: Then let them die therefore, or at least be used like infidels, or apostates.

They curse, blaspheme, and provoke God with all despite.
Answer: Then let them have the law expressed in Levit. 24* and Deut. 13 & 17**.

[*Leviticus 24.16: And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death** Deuteronomy 13.10: And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; Deuteronomy 17.5: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.There's more along those lines there, but you get the gist. Not soft on crime, like I said, but he's making the basic point that you don't need new laws to deal with witches, which was pretty moderate for the era.]

They give their faith to the devil, and they worship and offer sacrifice unto him.
Ans: Let such also be judged by the same law.

They do solemnly vow and promise all their progeny unto the devil.
Ans: This promise proceedeth from an unsound mind, and is not to be regarded; because they cannot perform it, neither will it be proved true. Howbeit, if it be done by any that is sound of mind, let the curse of Jeremie 32. 36 light upon them, to wit, the sword, famine and pestilence.

They sacrifice their own children to the devil before baptism, hodling them up in the air unto him, and then thrust a needle into their brains.
Ans: Then let them have such punishment, as they that offered their children unto Moloch: Levit. 20. [Stoning again.] But there be mere devises of witchmongers and inquisitors, that with extreme tortures have wrung such confessions from them; or else with false reports have belied them; or by flattery & fair words and promises have won it at their hands, at the length.

They swear to the devil to bring as many into that society as they can.
Ans: This is false, and so proved elsewhere.

They swear by the name of the devil.
Ans: I never heard any such oath, neither have we warrant to kill them that so do swear; though indeed it be very lewd and impious.

They use incestuous adultery with spirits.
Ans: This is a stale ridiculous lie, as is proved apparently hereafter.

They boil infants (after they have murdered them unbaptised) until their flesh be made potable [edible].
Ans: This is untrue, incredible and impossible.

The eat the flesh and drink the blood of men and children openly.
Ans: Then are they kin to the Anthropophagi and Cannibals. But I believe never an honest man in England nor in France, will affirm that he hath seen any of these persons, that are said to be witches, do so; if they should, I believe it would poison them.

They kill men with poison.
Ans: Let them be hanged for their labour.

They kill men's cattle.
Ans: Then let an action of trespass be brought against them for so doing.

They bewitch men's corn, and bring hunger and barrenness into the country; they fly and ride in the air, bring storms, make tempests, etc.
Ans: Then will I worship them as gods; for those be not the works of man nor yet of witch: as I have elsewhere proved at large.

They use venery [have sex] with a devil called Incubus, even with they lie in bed with their husbands, and have children by them, which become the best witches.
Ans: This is the last lie, very ridiculous, and confuted by me elsewhere.


For the period in which he lived, an impressively level-headed treatise.

What's worrying me, though, is the introduction to my copy, which is in print today. It was written by Montague Summers, an appallingly credulous twentieth-century 'theologian' who thought that witch-hunters' manuals like Malleus Malleficarum (a book that notoriously advocated torture, denying the right to a lawyer or even to hear the accusations against the supposed witch, as well as lying to her under questioning, with little side-notes about why women are inherently evil) were good works of religious truth. (He was kicked out of the Church of England a year after being ordained there because he was accused of pederasty, incidentally.) And here's his take on Scot, quoted from 'a cautious and circumstantial investigator' (a friend of a friend, perhaps?):


'His mind was naturally sceptical, and in religion he would be nowadays a pseudo-scientific modernist. That is to say, he was utterly without imagination, a very dull, narrow and ineffective little soul.' . . . That is temperately and fairly stated. One can hardly suppose that any could wish seriously to echo Scot's sophistries as philosophical arguments.


Is it me, or should one be sceptical rather than imaginative if you're deciding to torture someone? But alas, that's the introduction attached to this extraordinarily brave book. Does anyone else feel annoyed about that?

(Oh, and incidentally, once and for all: English witch hunters did not burn witches. They hanged them. The Hammer horror films got it wrong.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

 

Am I going to get in trouble?

I ask the question because I seem, without meaning any harm, to have entered into the stormy waters of what-makes-something-genre.

I recently read a review (http://www.emcit.com/emcit131.php#Wolves) of my book on a science fiction website which, while gratifyingly positive, shows something I've encountered before in friends who are sci fi fans - a deep exasperation with authors, publishers or critics who produce books that have a fantastical or speculative element and then deny that it's sci fi or fantasy. The frustration is twofold, I think: one, annoyance that something gets sublimated out of their favourite genre out of a kind of critical courtesy because it's well written (with the implication that good writing is out of the question for a genre work); two, annoyance with works by mainstream authors that re-invent the wheel and get considered more original than genre fans think they are. Now, I wrote a book involving werewolves, which is being marketed as a 'literary thriller that transcends the bounds of genre'. A phrase which I've got a dawning suspicion is going to have a red-rag effect on some genre enthusiasts.

Of course, it is annoying if critics deny that anything in your favourite genre could be good. It's silly, as well: every genre has good stuff in it if you know where to look. But from a personal perspective, it's an argument I never really had a position in. I never read by genre, and really I think the whole idea of genre can cause more problems than it solves. (There's a lot of rambling to this effect in my FAQ section, so I won't repeat it here, it's just a click away . . .) I certainly don't want to annoy sci fi fans, who have generally been very nice people based on personal experience, but at the same time, I don't mind being referred to as genre-transcending; my desire is that the book can be read by people both in and outside the various genre communities, and the description hopefully points towards that.

More than that, I just didn't write it with a genre in mind. As the reviewer most perceptively points out, the real focus is on the heroine, which is the case in all kinds of books of different genres. I'm a bit stupid about genre, really: I had no idea what genre the book was while composing it. I wasn't fussed. What mattered to me was the heroine and the story, and to serve that, I was taking a genre salad approach. It has elements from horror, from crime novels, from feminist literature, from history, even from poetry - at least, the Christina Rossetti poem I quoted at the beginning was as big an influence on the style as anything else, including all the sci fi and horror books and movies I went through to make sure I wasn't re-inventing the wheel. It was just the book what I was writing.

As a result, now it's getting published, I find I don't really care what genre it gets called. Correction, for I am sworn to tell the truth: I do care what genre it gets called. I want everyone who reads it to think it belongs in whichever genre is their personal favourite. I want people to like it; what other books they like is up to them, and the more the merrier, say I.

But will this position wash? Am I going to be allowed to get away with it? Or have I idly steered my little ship out of the bay into a howling gale?

I have the feeling I shall shortly be finding out.

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