08 July 2012

Which Hurqhada? --on 'period' research.

I have been doing a edit of Deirdre, the Adventurer, essentially a content edit on a text that was ‘more or less’ done in 2008 (I had got involved with SCS by then and devoted effort to ‘new’ paperback editions of Wanderer, Vol. 1, and Oyster’s Pearl, Vol 2).  It needs a bit of fleshing-out as well as some clarification (and elimination!) of details and so I have been revisiting some of the particulars of the story, especially as it progresses through Greece, Egypt and India.

At this point of Vol. 3, Deirdre hitchhikes south along the Suez road and winds up in Hurqhada on the Red Sea shore.  This episode takes place in October-November 2000.  But what I have found was that there is no real information available on the Internet about Hurqhada during that time period.

Unfortunately this is typical of the Internet these days-- everything is so focussed on the newest and latest that history itself is becoming irrelevant (witness Facebook’s ‘Timeline’, in which nothing before a member’s joining FB is mentioned).  I am put in mind of how ubiquitous the Atlantis resort at Nassau’s ‘Paradise Island’ is (just Google ‘Nassau’ and see how many of the first ten images are of this monstrosity).  Note that nothing is ever mentioned any more that, as late as the 1980s, Atlantis was just a sand-dune island covered in beachgrass where pigs were herded-- and it was called Hog Island.  (Enjoy your stay at Hog Island, friends.)

This is not a war zone-- this is construction.  The whole town looks like this.

In doing this sort of research I have identified two major issues (problems) with researching a ‘period’ piece of fiction:

1. Most information available through modern means (i.e., the Internet) is only current.  This is a problem when you need information from 10 or 12 years ago about entities that were there then but are not now (the Straw Market in Nassau, which burned down in about 2003) or must avoid entities that are there now but were not then (the big outlet mall at the end of Nassau’s East Bay Street, itself recently rehabilitated, that was built in 2005).

2. Most-- nearly ALL-- information about exotic places is meant for the tourist, not the researcher.  This is a problem if you need to know which day the rubbish is collected, or how much two-bedroom flats cost, or what the high-school term schedule is like, in, say, St John’s, Antigua.   All you get are airfares, hotel rates, and leisure activities.  You get nothing about the very real people who live, work, learn and pay taxes there.

Originally I had bought a really good road map of the region (at Borders!) and later looked up the place on Google Earth, where I was gratified to see that Hurqhada was represented by a satellite image from about 2003.  This was sufficient for Deirdre’s time period (she is there in October-November 2000).  Since that time development has increased exponentially, to where Hurqhada is now the prime Disney World-like resort of the whole Middle East.

When I first have Deirdre land in Hurqhada, she remarks that the place looks like a war zone.  This was evident to me from Google Earth; I later discovered that it was evidence of massive development going on all over the region.  Streets are being made or torn up, construction supplies are everywhere-- and yet the photos, aerial and otherwise, show no details about the people doing the work, their vehicles, their work schedules, and especially not where they live.  The reality behind the promise of new resort space is kept hidden, the unattractive underbelly of a region in transition from a sleepy fishing village to a first-class, world-renowned resort.

In part due to my own frustration I made sure to have Deirdre make comments about this; in her idealistic, youthful pseudo-liberalism she wonders what changes will be imposed on the locals whom she admires and cares little for the paying guests who invade Egypt and who have no care at all for the locals’ ways (which she respects and studies at length).

This recent aerial view of Hurqhada shows the developed waterfront busily entertaining tourists whilst 300 metres west, a new resort will rise upon the huge clearing of sand.  Imagine the dust, concrete powder, noise and ugly earthmovers disturbing your (expensive) holiday in the sun.

So we novelists are left with a dilemma: how to depict a location during a time period of the past without being able to ensure we’ve got it accurately.  Now I know there is a simple solution to this: we write fiction; therefore we just make it up.  Fortunately, in the case of Hurqhada, no-one will be able to tell.  Since the information about what the place was like in 1999-2001 is not available to me, it’s probably not available to anyone else either.  The only people who could debate with authority would be those who were there on holiday in that time period; and that’s just about no-one, since no-one had holidays there back then.  And of course I don’t have to be so particular as to state something that couldn’t be considered credible given even the least bit of latitude.  That's only the novelist's job, after all: to depict a reality that isn't real, yet 'feels' real, without confusing it for the reality that really is.

I just prefer to have it right, when I ever can, that’s all.  But… oh, well.

* * *

15 April 2012

On narrative quirks

As much as I enjoy the telling of a story, especially through copious use of dialogue and characters' internal monologue, I have a personal peeve about using sentence fragments in the narrative of a novel.  I fear it looks amateurish-- having seen plenty of eighth-year writing like that-- and believe that a narrative should stand as universal, as the one constant of the story, and as such it should be respectably and even formally presented.

Now I know there are exceptions of this rule.  One is when the narrative style is set up from the start to be a kind of internal monologue by a character.  This character does not have to be one in the story; the narrator, even a detached third-person one, can be a kind of character for the telling of the story.  Even Jonathan Swift, that proponent of a strict 'language police', has done this and with good effect.

Another exception, of course, is when the narrator is an active character in the book, such as in my own Deirdre series and in countless other works.  In such examples the narrator's discussion style can either make or break the whole story.  (I will boast that the one consistent observation of especially female readers is about how 'right' I seem to have got the heroine's thought processes.  So, it works.)  But a narrator with charisma and, even more important, something of merit to say, will win over the readership every time.

A very personable narrator, even a detached one, can be effected by the use of narrative and even grammatical devices. In Deirdre the first-person narrator is essentially articulate and perhaps of above-average education for her age, and she does use some fragments but certainly not to any excess. The story is about events and information, not about her personal reactions to what happens (those come through in her actions and words themselves) and so frags like 'Maybe not.' and 'In my face.' do not occur as a rule.

In dialogue the matter is quite different.  Few people speak habitually in absolutely-correct SWEE (Standard Written and Edited English)  and the use of fragments, unfinished thoughts, interjections such as 'um' and 'uh', verbal quirks and other shortcomings in usage and grammar can be very deftly used to reinforce the uniqueness of the characters.  But the rule here must be one of consistency.  Many writers make the error of making all their characters talk the same way, with the same (the author's, usually) idiom, grammar and vocabulary.  Keeping character's speech patterns distinctive can also help in eliminating the too frequent repetitions of 'he said' and 'she said', as the separate speaking styles of the characters will differentiate them from each other.

Sadly, as with dialogue, it is all too easy for an author to fall into his own verbal style when writing the narrative.  It's too easily overlooked or taken for granted; and the all-too-common post-romantic self-focus deludes many writers into believing that how they use the language as individuals is how best to communicate a novel's story to the world at large.  This is akin to constructing a house with poor foundation and framework-- no matter how prettily you dress it up inside and out, and no matter how workable the form and function of the design, no-one will be able to long ignore the inadequacies of the fundamental structure because they will affect every other part of the visit.

I believe the story should have its own 'character', sort of like I said above.  The whole 'feel' and 'mood' of a novel comes across by how the narrative is presented.  For my part I choose to hold the narrative itself somewhat elevated from the dialogue, insisting on SWEE as well as it can be done.  One of my projects (still long in the future) is a series of 1740s novels of manners in which the narrative is given in 20th/21st-C English, to ensure accessibility to modern readers, but lines of dialogue appear in the mid-18th-C English of Johnson, both to be historically accurate and to illuminate readers as to how people really talked then.  This is almost the opposite of what I did in a book like Love Me Do, in which the narrative is in the same reliable Queen's English but the dialogue appears very much in 1970s middle-class American vernacular.

Of course there are as many approaches to narrative as there are authors.  For what I write, I do not have value for too conversational a style.  I view a novel as much more sacrosanct than that; and, for most novel-length endeavours, writing like a comprehensive-school eighth-year with slang, jargon, abbreviations and numerals, phonetic spelling, grammatical imperfections and sentence fragments will not do.  This is not just an academic point to be read and disregarded over time.  I would make the entirely unequivocal submission that in such inadequate writing the whole point of the story itself can become lost.  And, if anything, the prime directive of all writing should be to not irritate and disinterest an otherwise eager reader through an  author's misuse of the language.  After all, an author is writing to be read and to be published; and to have his work to die a premature death due to poor editing and preparation with regard to basic grammar and usage has got to be the worst way to go. --and the most easily avoided.

* * *

08 April 2012

Jonnie Comet on writing & novels

from a PR flyer, 12 September 2011--

Who, or what, is a Jonnie Comet?

One of my professors once asked me this, seeing it on some piece of text, and even some of my students have been stumped by it, which I suppose was part of the intention. Actually the name was a suggestion by my brother Rino for the name of a new band in 1978 or 1979. I thought it sounded too 1950s and rejected it out of hand.

Sometime after that I altered the spelling to appear androgynous and created an on-stage persona, some cross between Luke Skywalker and Robin Hood, a naïve though effective futuristic do-gooder featured in the songs of the Archer In The Wood and Shoot For The Stars LP projects.  By the end of the 1980s I had gone to work for corporate America and made something of a name for myself in a very specific industry; and so, when it came time to hawk Love Me Do to publishers, I chose to retain my old band’s name as a nom de plume to keep the two career paths from converging.   In each discrete circle, in order to maintain the separation, I do not mention the other name except, if it comes up, as a third-person entity.

When did you first become interested in writing?

As a child I read copiously, early and well-- in kindergarten the teacher used to have me bring in books, sit me on a table and have me read to the class since no-one else could read at kindergarten in those days. I was two or three reading levels ahead by the time I started 7th year. In critical-writing assignments I was an original voice that most teachers didn’t know what to do with. If they were mere pedants they would nitpick my grammar and spelling; if they had any sort of vision as educators they got used to just giving me an A if it had my name on top of it.

The earliest original story I can remember writing was in 5th year when a friend suckered me into doing a standup comedy routine for the class (not for an assignment, but just because) and gave me the job of writing copy for a mock news report (like a 5th-year version of SNL’s ‘Weekend Update’!). By the time I was 15 I was into the habit of writing down really cool dreams I had; one of them actually became the core of Love Me Do.

What did you do before writing novels?

I have written fiction with the aim of developing novels since I was about 15. But throughout my adult life I really have worked as a draughtsman, a liquor salesman, a boatbuilder, a delivery skipper, a private tutor, a warehouseman, a janitor, a carpenter, a skateboard assembler, a surfboard shaper, a purchasing agent, a designer of yacht hardware, a bookshop clerk, a teacher of secondary English, and of course as a working songwriter, producer and musician with a variety of outfits before and after The Jonnie Comet Band in the early 1980s.

What experiences have you had that you believe contribute to your voice as a writer?

At the age of 19 I found myself dispensing advice to younger friends (who were mostly girls, essentially groupies of the band) in Surf City. I cannot say that I had any more knowledge than they did about their personal social-life matters; but they trusted me enough to consult me with them and I did my best to rely on common sense, moral propriety and good will in helping them through them. The experience taught me two things: that I cared about people, especially young and impressionable ones, and that I had some skill as a communicator of concepts and ideals.

This sensitivity for the whole prospect of being a teenager was further nurtured when I began teaching secondary school and discovered I had students who often took me into their confidence with issues they would not mention to their own parents. They trusted in my guidance because they already knew for sure that I was a staunchly moral adult who knew how to listen and truly cared. I have always regarded their faith in me as a sort of sacred trust and a very high honour; and I like to believe I have been of great comfort to them all.

I realised that the reason I wanted to teach school was the same as the reason I wanted to be a rock-and-roll star: because I believed I had a message of honesty, decency and unconditional love to convey to other people. If I did not make much money in this pursuit, I did gain some peace of mind that having followed a course of virtue I may have helped people be happier and healthier along the way.

Aside from my worldly experiences in work and play I think this getting to know myself and what made me tick as a person is the crucial key to the relevance and uniqueness of Jonnie Comet’s voice as a writer.

What do you think is the most important feature of any novel?

All good stories are about characters. The definition of a ‘character’ can be very broad; good books have been written about animals (The Bear), computers (2001), or places (Ringworld). But what we look for is the development of some entity with whom we can feel empathy. Even when stories are inherently plot-driven, such as those Clancy writes, there are still people within them to be affected by, and to affect, the course of the events. When we recognise the humanity within the characters, we put ourselves in their places, feel what they feel, enter their struggles and cheer for their successes. We then realise that it’s been the book that does this to us, that gives us this gift; and that’s a book we consider a success at having entertained, enlightened and enlivened us. It's what I hope people will see in [Deirdre, the Wanderer].

What do you think makes a story worth reading?

Every ‘good’ story has some combination of good characters, good plot, and good style-- including good mechanical use of the language. Details are well-researched and sensibly presented.   There is a balance between narrative and dialogue-- some things are better told through action and some through the characters themselves.  Most of all the story needs a voice.  A first-person narrator should be engaging, inviting and then keeping us in the story. I like to think Deirdre is one of these-- you will read the story because she’s the one telling it. But a third-person ‘voice’ can be just as engaging, a character in itself that keeps our interest.  My favourite ‘voices’ come from 18th-C authors such as Henry Fielding and Ann Radcliffe; but that’s my taste and others will have other preferences.

Ultimately a good ‘story’ needs a good message, some theme to leave us with when it’s come to the end. This is vital, sort of the raison d’etre of the whole book. Absent this, we will wonder what we were supposed to have got out of it; its worth will have seemed purely superficial.

In your opinion what makes a book a work of ‘literature’?

All literature must have at its core this two-part rationale: to educate and to entertain. In no small part the proportion of these two determines the style and genre. For example all good lectures and sermons are literature, because they must do both, perhaps more so to educate than to entertain. Comedy sketches are literature but may be in the reverse proportion. By this definition straight news reporting is not literature; its purpose, though to be interesting, is not to entertain but to inform. Conversely a story with no underlying educative message is only fluff.

The worth of a given book as literature depends on its author’s management of this proportion.  DTW is literature that entertains the reader with a clever story most engagingly told; but beyond that it is a lesson in the necessity of having to face negative circumstances of your own making. The reader is subtly cautioned throughout that an exciting concept such as striking out on your own might finish up being fraught with yet-unforeseen difficulties, which, perhaps due to pride or naïveté, no teenager ever wants to admit could actually exist, let alone befall her personally.

Is it true you live on a boat?

In season my home base is my sailboat. It is not big but it is an extension of both my need for limitless freedom and my need for a cosy cave to curl up in. In the off-season (or when it just gets too cold, rainy, or otherwise awkward) I will crash on friends or family. For some reason they tolerate me. Though by nature I am a ‘free spirit’, I have often found myself tied-down by circumstances and so the writing of Deirdre, the Wanderer has been a catharsis for me, a way of living vicariously through a fictional narrative-- the same impression I hope readers get from the book.

* * *

01 April 2012

The White Queen rules.

In the interests of informing prospective buyers of the Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar, I posted a review of the instrument on the Musician's Friend web pages.

[Note: The current 4001 model offered by Rickenbacker is a 're-issue' of the 'original' 1964 model (URL: http://www.musiciansfriend.com/bass/rickenbacker-4001c64-c-series-electric-bass-guitar), the likes of which has been played by Paul McCartney, among others.]


I wanted one of these all my life-- to the point of making my own bass in 1977 which used two Gibson bass humbucker pickups, running through two channels of my Randall RB-120 bass head, to simulate the Rick sound (see below).

This is the Steverino Sinbird 'Mk 1'.
Played it pretty much the same as I play the Rick-- even same strings.

Finally in 1980 I ordered a lefthanded 4001 in custom high-gloss white.  It wasn't a stock Rickenbacker '-glo' colour so I waited 6 months for it.  But I have used the dickens out of it ever since.

I still run it through both channels on the RB-120, one channel at all treble and no bass and the other at all bass and no treble-- and all midrange cranked off.  This simulates the bass-and-treble stereo 'Rick-O-Sound' without the hassle of bi-amping on stage.  In 1980 I met Rick, the bass player in Cats On A Smooth Surface ('70s NJ-Shore band), who had a lefty 4001 and told me he set the neck pickup at '10' and the bridge one at '2' which emphasises the bass-and-treble effect.  The 4001's drawback is that the neck pickup does not adjust very high [closer under the strings], so you've got to compensate by rolling back the bridge one.  Thus my [Fender-style] P-bass, which is pretty stock, sounds much gutsier if I happen to merely switch guitars without altering the amp's channel volumes.

Setting the 4001's knobs at anything means having to approximate it because there are no numerals on them.  Right-handed instruments have controls that turn clockwise to attenuate (increase volume or tone).  I suspect that the Rickenbacker's knobs may be actually reversed (going anticlockwise to attenuate) but in all truth I have never figured it out and usually have to roll them both ways to check.  But I only do this once each gig and leave the volume ones set on '10' and '2' as ever and the tone ones wide-open.

I always used Rickenbacker flat-wound light-gauge strings-- as I play almost exclusively with a pick-- but not long ago switched to Rotosound Swing 66's, which are the classic 1970s sound of Phil Lynott, Sting and McCartney.  I use the 40-95 set [these are very light gauge for bass strings!] and do not recommend anything over the 45-105 set as the 4001's neck is slender and the truss rods will not need much attention unless you insist on heavy strings.

About 95% of the time I use a guitar pick rather than playing with fingers.  Even for the bass I don't use a heavy pick.  Flat-wounds provide a cleaner sound and the light gauge allows for some degree of delicacy.  I hate just slamming the guitar had and fast to make noise (I'm not in The Ramones).  Stage volume is what amps are made for.


I have not a single complaint about the quality of the instrument.  I have not adjusted the bridge in years but recently sent the guitar in for service and the tech tuned out a minor fret buzz.  Other than that the guitar has been very durable and reliable, having spent plenty of time in salt-air environments (including gigs actually on the beach) with no signs of metal pitting, chrome chipping, paint wearing away, or anything more cosmetic than a subtle UV yellowing towards a kind of milky cream colour over three decades.

I would have liked one with no binding (like Macca's) but forgot to specify that when I ordered it.  The binding sort of rubs my wrist wrong whilst playing with a pick and I dislike the look of the binding [hard-edged white trim round the perimeter of the body].

I would have preferred dots in the fretboard too because the upside-down triangles look just awful.  Rickenbacker do not offer either of these options any more.

As the original bass guitarist for Foreigner, Ed Gagliardi played a lefty 'Fireglo' [Rickenbacker red] 4001 with upside-down triangles in the fretboard before I ordered mine (1977-1980) and I should have remembered how much I hated that when I ordered it.  But, I didn't.

Scott McCarl played a 'Jetglo' [black] 4001 when with The Raspberries.  [Scott also holds a distinction of being one of the (several) inspirations for the character of Jonathan in my novel Love Me Do.  In the sequel, It's Only Love, Jonathan acquires a custom lefty cranberry-red 4001 with fretboard dots and no binding... because that's what I wanted in 1975!]

The fault with the guitar's case is that, rather than just turning the lefthanded guitar over in the foam blocks of the case, the factory turned it end-for-end, so the handle set to one side of the middle latch is now over the lighter neck end! --and it is always heavy to the other end and one has to fight it towards level with the wrist whilst carrying it or else bang the bottom corner on the pavement and coach steps.


It is true that the 4001 series does appreciate in value-- for insurance purposes I had mine appraised and the 'replacement worth' came back at 5-6 times the purchase price of 30 years ago (and considerably more than a new one now, though I won't sadden anyone by saying what I paid for it then!).


In all this is an absolutely top-notch instrument, rather like a Jaguar E-Type or a Palmer Johnson Swan sailboat, the very best the industry has to offer, something that gives you a satisfied sensation to use and draws much admiration from audiences of all ages and tastes.

I had a nice conversation with Isaaca from The Bridges who plays a 1981 4001 and asked her how she liked playing a guitar that is older than she is (it was in 2009; she was 18 then).  She said, 'It's really cool.'  Clearly she knew what she was after when she chose it.

Like most excellent designs that must look stunning and perform well, the Rickenbacker 4001 is timelessly elegant and will never be passe or disappointing.  It really is the coolest bass guitar ever; and mine is my one prized possession.


I have decided to keep this instrument for life and shall will it to my grandchildren.  Real life can seem so devoid of bona-fide bequests of seriously-valuable heirlooms.  Perhaps The White Queen will be one in future... for someone I do not even know yet.

25 March 2012

On back-cover blurbs

In the writers' circle to which I belong I have often mentioned that the 100-word blurb (the one on Amazon and on the back of the cover) is one of the most important parts of book marketing. It is painfully ironic that the people who publish and distribute books don't like to take a lot of time to read much about them. They are as lazy as many other readers.  So as an author or book promoter you have to be quick, interesting and unique.  You have to interest someone as early as possible, even to get him to read till the end of your 100 words.  And you need to make him want to pay $19.00 for the book (or $6.95 plus $79.00 for the Kindle).

I actually enjoy writing an introductory blurb.  It's an exercise in brevity (something I could always use) and it's fun to try to depict the book accurately and as efficiently as possible.  Andy Warhol once suggested that each of us will be famous for 15 minutes.  (I don't know if I've got to my 15 minutes yet.  Maybe I am just an optimist.)  Imagine, now, that you were granted one minute of your fame to depict your book to people who, if they liked how it sounded, would buy it, read it and rave about it till you became a millionaire from the book sales.  This might be your one chance at stardom.  What would you say to such an opportunity?

At the risk of appearing self-important here, I shall pose my opening chapter to Deirdre, the Oyster's Pearl as a pretty good example:
Please don't count the words; it won't flatter either of us!

Here is the one for the forthcoming
This is longer, intentionally so; but it sets up enough of the story itself that you have an idea of what to expect.  This blurb may be edited later as the book nears completion.  As yet I have not wholly addressed some of the plot elements this blurb hints at and so I maintain this blurb as a kind of guide to what has to be covered by the text proper.

I won't claim that my blurbs are anything terrific; I view them as mere tools to accomplish what I need for them to do, no differently than I view the clever little tools I have made to facilitate the restoration of the boat.  The tools are not the boat; they are the means for me to benefit from the boat and for the boat to earn its keep.

And so goes for the blurbs we have to write for our books.  For my part I believe that these blurbs are adequate to introduce the book in such a way that the book itself appears interesting.  To do this I prefer to pose questions or to leave cliffhangers that can only be satisfied by reading more than the first third of the actual book.  And I do aggrandise or exaggerate certain plot elements in order to make them seem more like the core of the story-- the same as the preview does for the feature film.  Watch the 'trailer' feature on some DVD film you have to see how often it distorts or even misrepresents the film you know so well.  This is part of salesmanship; and, though we are all much more artists in our writing, we must learn some degree of marketing in order to survive-- and, perhaps more importantly, ensure that our work survives our efforts in promoting it during our lifetimes.  So don't be afraid to really pump up your work in those 100 words.  Make it seem like the greatest thing there ever was-- so long as it's really representing the story you really wrote and not the one you only should have done!

* * *

04 March 2012

Jonnie Comet on 'Deirdre, the Wanderer'

from a PR flyer, 12 September 2011

What methods of research did you use in creating Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I would like to say I sailed to The Bahamas; but I haven’t.  It was just too far out of reach at the time I was writing the book.  I do several kinds of research for a ‘location’ novel like DTW.  First, I read.  I read everything I can about the actual settings-- in fact this reading is usually what makes me want to set a story there.  Then I research details, via the Internet or, not so long ago, encyclopaedia, textbooks, CIA fact sheets (easily available), and especially maps and sailing charts.  Perusing cartography enables me to discover specific places for which I can acquire photographs and more detailed maps.  Google Earth has been an invaluable resource lately for the Asian and Australian legs of Deirdre’s journey (Adventurer).
  Whilst writing DTW (in 2000-2001) I used a then-current map of Nassau to establish Deirdre’s movements there.  More recent visitors will know of the shopping arcade off East Bay Avenue, new in 2005, or may not know of the old Straw Market which burned down in about 2002; but the details in DTW do accurately reflect the time period of Deirdre’s visit to Nassau (April-June 2000).
  This is all academic; it is only a start.  The refinement comes when I ask people who have been there to share their experiences.  I have several yachtie friends who have been to The Bahamas many times and one friend who owns a condo in Providençiales who have been fonts of knowledge.  My mother took a yacht cruise in the BVI; her experience with the harbourmaster at Jost Van Dyke (long before 9/11, when immigration got tighter all over the world) is the basis for that in Deirdre, the Oyster’s Pearl.
  Several times now-archaic details will alert an astute reader; but remember this is essentially an historical novel capturing a way of life no longer possible in the modern world; and a responsible author will ensure that details like prices and current events support, rather than detract from, the overall aura of the setting and story.

Is the character of Deirdre based on a real person?

  No; but like all good characters in fiction she is an amalgam of several different people with a good measure of pure make-believe thrown in.  I was once involved with a girl called Deirdre who told me of the Celtic legend, about the gifted singer who was pursued by her family members and their rivals until all she loved were dead and she was left to wander, weeping, for the rest of a short unhappy life.  The concept of a poor homeless girl who is forced to travel alone, never finding solace or security, was what inspired the theme of the novel.

In your opinion how do you believe the character of Deirdre can influence other people?

  In no way was Deirdre meant to be a role model for other young people, especially not for girls, especially not for girls who consider running away.  It is more appropriate to consider her a kind of anti-hero, doing exciting and interesting things but as a person not quite worthy of emulation.  She is a very flawed being who makes very human mistakes and quite often, by the standards of any responsible person, her decisions are just ‘wrong’.  One might suggest that she had no truly good reason to run away from home in the first place; but she does not mention her reasons for leaving with any detail till the very end of DTW-- and, some might argue, not convincingly.  Desperate for love and acceptance, she tends to fall too quickly into relationships upon which her safety and security depend; and most of these turn out badly for her.  And there is the whole question of why she has a need to keep moving when a safer and more lucrative course might be to simply find another job where she is and settle in.
  But in other ways she represents the kind of self-made, self-reliant hero or heroine we all want to be like.  She is clever and resourceful, beginning as a callow child with only a provincial, immature lookout on life, and gains self-confidence through trials and self-worth through successes.  If she should not be emulated for what she does, she might be respected and admired for how she does what she does-- for at her best she is the stuff of which all heroes are made, bravery, honour, dignity, perseverance and a not-inconsequential slice of unselfish altruism into the bargain.

Why should someone want to pick up and read Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I have called DTW ‘escapist literature’, meaning that it’s the sort of book that takes you off to some alternate reality for a while and makes you yearn for a world in which things could really be like that.  I think to some extent all novel-reading is meant to do this.  When we read Jane Eyre we revel in a society without mobile phones or e-mail.  When we read Horatio Hornblower we cheer for the British imperialists and despise the French democrats.  Harry Potter makes us believe we could actually go to school to see, and even learn, magic.  Books like these we remember longest and most fondly.
  Deirdre is a reluctant heroine who tells her story from a perspective of sheltered innocence, youthful insecurity and naïve optimism.  She is placed in a situation that requires her to grow up quickly; and she relates her experiences with eye-opening frankness, as though she doesn’t know how surreal or shocking it may seem to other people.  As a reader you will naturally worry about her and sympathise with her, almost as though she were your own friend, sister, daughter or child.  If you’ve ever wondered or worried about the trials and tribulations of a teenager caught in a hostile environment, you will find an interest in her story.

What would you like professors and critics to see in Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I would hope that professors and critics, from now through all posterity, will recognise clever style, intelligent use of narrative and monologue, authentic details with regard to both people and places, and a subtle but powerful message just beneath the surface.  I would like them to see the narration as something apart from other books ostensibly similar, and in time to see the character in the continuum of Pamela Andrews, Jane Eyre, Tess Darbyville and the second Mrs DeWinter as possibly one of the more charming female protagonists of women-centred fiction.

What would you like average readers of Deirdre, the Wanderer to see in the book?

  I would like people to recognise Deirdre as a normal ‘girl-next-door’ who finds herself in some very unexpected and often very formidable circumstances and has only a very normal set of personal attributes with which to effect her own survival.  She is no-one special; she could be you.  Yet in the way she rises to each occasion she illustrates what the average teenager is capable of doing, and that should both inspire and entertain you.
  I’d also like people to, as I often say, ‘live in the book’-- to have fun with the experience of reading it, to laugh when it’s amusing and shudder when it’s scary; for it is both these things in due measures.

What is your own favorite part of Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  There are so many parts that it’d be hard to limit myself to only a few.  I like the first paragraph, intended to draw you into a story you don’t know yet.  It is a technique I like to use even in face-to-face conversation, for it arouses interest and rather demands you pay attention to the next bit and so on; and you’re still left out of the whole story for quite some time afterwards and so have to sort of sleuth your way through it.
  I like how Deirdre’s own thoughts (given in italics) often question or comment on the reality before her, showing her real innocence and cluelessness.  It’s realistic, especially for a somewhat sceptical and almost insolent teenager.
  I like her sense of wonder at the new places she sees and the new experiences she has, as though she’s aware this doesn’t happen every day to most people.
  And I like how she so often puts herself down.  She is always too critical of her intelligence, her abilities and especially her appearance; she doesn’t seem to know she is lacking in none of that and so it’s actually ironic, humour at the expence of the character herself.
  My favourite plot segments are the struggles with Johnnie, the sail in the Optimist dinghy, all of Book VII and all the cosiness with Sandy.  These show Deirdre for who she really is, brave yet vulnerable, steely yet soft.  I like the characters of Tumblebunch, Iris, Tony and Petula, and Sandy MacNally-- one my favourite characters ever-- for the sheer humanity they impart to the story.
  I don’t like Rosemarie, Leslie, Clive or Ray-- and I think that shows-- because they seek to take advantage of Deirdre; but they also account for some of the scariest and most interesting parts of the book.

Can you recall the first and last parts you wrote to the story?

  The first conception of DTW was of a homeless teenaged girl walking the length of an island in a swimsuit and sneakers with all her worldly possessions in a bag on her back.  It was to be part of another story but did not quite fit into it and ultimately became the scene on Grand Bahama in which Deirdre walks from Freeport to McLeans (Book V).  The concept recurs several times throughout the next two or three volumes as a kind of a defining image of the whole series.  (If there were to be a film of DTW a snip of this scene would have to appear in the trailer!)
  The earliest elements of the plot to be established were (in no order) the sail across the Bahama Bank in the Optimist, the stay at the private island of Sans Souci, the scene after dinner at Ray and Marta’s house, and of course the whole of Book I.  Given these the rest of it began to fall into place like the remainder of a jigsaw puzzle of which one has completed only the fringe pieces.
  The last of the plot completed was either the description of how Deirdre lands the job at Ray and Marta’s (Book VIII) or the segment at the Morton house in which she devises a plot to get away from Clive (Book V).  I like to write such all-important connexions between earlier-written bits ‘on the fly’, during a session of editing what has been finished, just logically leading from a prior scene into a subsequent one by means of dialogue or brief description; and these often become some of the most crucial scenes in the book because they set up and provide rationale for the action segments to either side.
  I truly cannot recall what made me begin with that first line as I did; but I’m afraid I rather impressed myself with it and in the event it’s made the whole book through establishing the tone of voice and prevailing attitudes of the narrator herself.

What other projects are you currently working on?

  Deirdre, the Adventurer (book 3) is in the editing stage.  Also in the works is the initial volume of Janine, of Paradise, a story of a young ingenue growing up in a fictitious British territory in the tropical Pacific, as well as a sourcebook about the setting itself called The Essential Paradise.  I have been working painstakingly on the HTML files to make these works available to Amazon Kindle® readers.  Colin (Bunge, Surf City Source editor) has me devoting effort to a readers’ companion volume for DTW, featuring essays, study questions, and rosters of data such as Deirdre’s full itinerary, budget, and her wardrobe, all of which represent vital support for the authenticity of Deirdre’s story-- and make pretty good reading on their own!

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Jonnie Comet on nontraditional publishing

from a PR flyer-- 12 September 2011

In your opinion what is the effect of established methods of publishing?

  The current model of publishing, espoused by all the major publishers, retailers and, unfortunately, most authors is to have an expensive, premier agent in Manhattan approve your book, send it to a large, famous and well-established publisher as well as to his friends at the New York Times, have Ingrams distribute it to Barnes and Noble, and then sit back and wait for the Today show to schedule your TV interviews and the filmmakers to call.
  Though a precious few do find success this way, what I call the ‘B&N model’ is inherently flawed in numerous ways.  Conspicuously, it gives voice to only a very elite few.  If the agent has never heard of you, he will regard your voice as unimportant to the market and unlikely to earn him any money, since if you were any good he would have heard of you.  Notice that, besides being circular logic, this attitude cements the agent(s) as the chief arbiter between what gets said by whom to whom, the gatekeeper of free speech in a free market.
  And just because something is not out in the market now doesn’t mean it wouldn’t do well in the market if some industrious marketer got off his bottom and set to work.  The job of the agent and publishing marketer is to sell what’s not already there.  To me, the very fact that it’s not there suggests an opportunity.  A marketer should want to be the first and only one to discover new talent and to reap the benefits.  But to the average publisher or agent, the fact that it’s not there, for whatever reason, suggests that it has no right to be.  He’d rather take an easy 15% from a sure thing.
  Notice that this model relies heavily on the author’s either being a name already known to the media world (such as Tina Fey or Anne Coulter, both of whom worked hard in other areas of media to gain their reputations) or knowing someone who can do you a favour and read your otherwise unsolicited manuscript.  If you maintain that this is the only or even the most desirable way to get published, answer this: how famous are you already; or how many agents do you regularly golf, bowl, drink craft beer or attend university reunions with?
  This model of publishing has existed since at least the 1920s and remains the default which most retailers, publishers, distributors and agents (as well as authors) think is the only sensible way to publish and market books.  It’s flawed ethically and economically.  I’ve tried for years to figure out why it persists; and I can only imagine that it’s centred in ego or establishmentism, something more having to do with the personalities in question than with logic, common sense or marketing savvy.

In your opinion what are the benefits of nontraditional publishing?
  A small book-by-book publisher, whether selling through small shops or online, operates by nature and by necessity on a much more efficient scale.  The biggest benefit comes from adopting a Print-On-Demand (POD) scheme rather than relying on a huge and expensive inventory.  Under POD a stocking distributor has only to carry as many books as will sell before more can be printed.  This number can be as low as 1.  Compare that to a 25,000-per-title run by the average big publisher’s big printing contractor-- who pretty much dictate to the whole industry as it stands now-- with whom a lower-quantity run actually increases the price per copy.  This is a system based on waste.
  POD is more space-efficient as well, which results in less real estate needed for inventory, since the reorder point can be so low and the restocking time can be so fast.  It’s less shop to heat and cool, less taxes to pay, and more space that can be devoted to a greater variety of books.  In fact a ‘virtual’ bookstore, along the lines of an eBay trader, can be set up in anyone’s garage or basement, carrying only a few favourite titles and marketing to a very specific market-- though I always prefer a physical establishment where I can meet people and touch and open books myself; and I suspect most novel readers are of my mind here.
  And then, ethically, the POD model is purer and more sensitive.  Few, if any, books get returned unsold; so there is no paper waste.  I don’t have a problem cutting down trees to promptly produce a really nice copy of a book that has been requested and will be kept and cherished for generations; but I don’t want to chop down whole forests in Idaho and Oregon to produce hundreds of thousands of books when we don’t know if anyone even wants them yet.
  Despite these obvious and very real benefits, many people look down on POD titles as something less than being ‘really published’.  This is a snobbism that can only be bred of belonging to the ‘B&N model’.
  Why aren’t more publishers, even big ones, doing POD?  I think you should ask the print shops, who by virtue of their ‘requirements’ that they do only massive runs, thus binding the publishers to an inefficient relationship, rather dictate to the entire industry what may be done with what for whom.

What do you believe is the biggest drawback of nontraditionally-published novels?
  Most of them are not edited well.  It’s not the story that makes them seem amateurish, or any triteness about characterisation and dialogue.  Any of that can be overlooked when it’s got into an appropriate market.  It’s sad but true that most people with a computer word-processing program in front of them don’t have a sufficient grasp of English to be able to write mechanically well.  As a literature teacher I used to ask my students to ask of their own compositions, ‘Does this look like what I’ve read in this class?’  Are the conventions of writing dialogue observed?  Is the grammar similar?  Are there verb-tense or -agreement problems?  Did you use whom and who correctly?  Did you even check the spelling?
  I have come to suspect that one great reason for the inadequacy of amateur writers’ publications is their utter dependence on the functionally inferior MS Word spell-checker and grammar-checker.  They are absolutely atrocious and their suggestions should be regarded with scepticism or just completely ignored.  Get a real-life hardcover dictionary (I use the Collins, believe it or not, not the OED) and get into the practice of looking up every word before you select one of the spellchecker’s options.  You will produce a quality manuscript and learn English better besides.  And your attention to the actual mechanics of the language will elevate your story above those of the punters that didn’t bother and will ensure that those who read it can appreciate it on its more literary merits.
  It’s like racing a car-- if you think you’re a good driver worth notice, don’t let your car break down on the third lap in.  Failing because of mechanical problems is the worst way to go-- and most easily avoided!

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10 February 2012

On nontraditional publishing


Some comments I made for an independent authors' forum about the new face of publishing wound up on Dixon Rice's blog.  Worth a look-- definitely worth consideration-- for anyone in or entering the writing scene.

Trust me!

03 February 2012

Independent reviews of 'Deirdre, the Wanderer' by younger readers

   as contributed to Internet discussion groups

edited by Colin Bunge

These compositions were gleaned from an Internet site featuring actual teens providing critical reviews of novels that are ostensibly aimed at teenaged audiences.  [Note: the reviews here reproduced were voluntarily submitted by readers who chose, read and reviewed the book of their own volition.  Neither the Publisher nor Author specifically recommends Deirdre, the Wanderer for any particular age of reader and will here reiterate the caution on the back cover: 'This book contains mature themes.']

  As the book features a narrator of this age the Publisher found it interesting to see how realistic or how interesting high-school students considered the character, the writing style, and the basic plot.  The site provided a reviewer with a brief description of each book as well as any press releases then available and then asked the reviewer to encompass responses to a few general questions in an essay format.
For inclusion here, the texts were edited for only obvious mechanical errors; however it should be noted that the calibre of thinking and expression of views in these reviews favourably impressed the Publisher and Author.  The reviews chosen for the (forthcoming) companion volume are listed in chronological order as they were published on the site and appear only coincidentally in descending age order of the reviewers.  The reader may also find it interesting that no teens were identified as male in contributing reviews of Deirdre, the Wanderer during the period it was listed on the site (just prior to publication of the third edition).

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Review by Cindy F--, age 16-1/2 / grade 11, New Jersey, USA

Deirdre, the Wanderer is an awesome story of a 15-year-old girl who runs away from home and tries to survive in the real world.  By hitchhiking, sailing, and telling a few ‘white lies’ she manages to get to the Bahamas where she believes all her problems will be over.  But she runs into many kinds of abuse, from being sexually harassed and fired from jobs and having to leave places she thought would be home.  Along the way she manages to make friends and most of all to survive.
The best part of reading this book was in the way Deirdre always faces her problems with optimism and especially with respect for other people.  She is never rude or nasty to anyone even when other people are nasty to her.  For that reason she is a role model for anyone who believes that life is too hard and they should just give up or try something easier.  Nothing that Deirdre tries is very easy but she always works through it, and so she gets to travel to some wonderful exotic places and learn how to live on her own.
The most awkward parts of the book were some of the lesbian scenes.  The first few times it’s obvious she is forced into it.  The next time, with Emily, she actually chooses to fool around with a married woman.  The last time it is with Sandy, who is a friend she just happens to fall in love with.  At times the book is very graphic and uncomfortable to read.  But, especially in the parts with Sandy, it is also very romantic and sweet.  I am not a lesbian but it’s obvious Sandy and Deirdre care very much for each other and you really do want them to stay together at the end, even just as friends.
The book is mostly very well written, especially the dialogue and the descriptions of sailing in the oceans and the surrounding environment.  The writer obviously knows what he is talking about and it adds to the interesting quality of the story.  There are a few places where it is too slow-moving but in other places, like when she tells Johnnie off at the restaurant, when she is living on the deserted island, and when she is dancing in the go-go place, it is very interesting and you can’t wait to see how it turns out so you will tend to read faster.
I enjoyed this book very much because it made me want to run away, just for a little while, just so I could see the Bahamas and go to warm exotic places.  It is a very good book to read at the beach or to make you think of summer vacation.  There are sequels coming out and I look forward to reading them soon.

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Review by Becca C--, age 16 / grade 10, Massachusetts, USA

This is one of those books that makes you say ‘Wow.’  It’s a totally fantastic story about a teenaged girl who runs away from some uncaring parents and hitchhikes to the Bahamas.  Her adventures make up a story that seems very believable just because of how much detail there is.  The main character, Deirdre, uses many different names and has to lie about her age sometimes, but she is really just a nice girl who is put into strange and awkward situations and then has to deal with it all the best she can.
Most of the story takes place in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.  Deirdre works as an exotic dancer which is exactly what people back home would not expect of her.  But she is smart and creative and makes it work for her.  She also works in restaurants and once as a nanny for a little girl.  Towards the end she saves the life of another nice girl, Sandy, after they are both given date rape drugs.  The two girls have a very close friendship that is actually very touching to read about.
As a basically nice person, Deirdre is a role model.  She is brave, strong and smart about making important life choices and dealing with consequences.  But she is usually disappointed and seems very sad most of the time, like she just needs someone to care about her.  Deirdre is the kind of girl you would like for your friend, and the story makes you wonder why she had to leave home until she tells you at the very end.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for action, adventure, and a strong girl protagonist, especially if you want to read a book that will make you laugh, cry, sit on the edge of your seat and say ‘wow’ too.

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Review by Marguerite H., age 15 / grade 9, Maryland, USA

I got Deirdre, the Wanderer on Amazon because I liked the description and the cover artwork looked interesting.  It is a story about a girl who runs away from home and runs into all kinds of abuse.  The girl is 15 and in 9th grade.  During her travels she is able to pass herself off as being 18 and sometimes even in college, because of how she acts and how she talks.  She has experience in sailing boats and in working on them and she uses that to sail away to the Bahamas.
In the Bahamas she manages to find an apartment with three college girls but they molest her, sexually, so she leaves and takes a job as a nanny.  Later she gets a job and works at a restaurant, until the owner’s son harasses her and attempts to rape her.  She fights back and quits and walks out after throwing her ripped shirt at him in front of everyone.  Later she meets a really nice rich guy but he thinks she is older and wants to marry her and get her pregnant so he can inherit all this money.  So she steals his arch-rival’s boat and sails to a deserted island where she gets to run around with no clothes on till this boring guy and his beautiful wife come, and then she seduces the guy’s wife.  So she is sort of a lesbian, but I think she is just confused and a little immature about it and doesn’t know herself yet.  Her next job is in Nassau where she works as an exotic dancer and people stuff lots of money into her underwear every night.  This is the sexiest part of the book and it actually makes you kind of envy her.
At the end she ends up living with this pretty rich girl from a really good school because she saved her life from some guys who gave them date rape drugs.  She and the rich girl become very close friends and have a kind of love affair, but it is not so much gross as it is sweet and romantic.  This part is kind of hard to read unless you have an open mind, but it was very tender and it makes you wish you had close friends you could share everything with.  That’s probably the author’s intention, to show how even one really close friend can change your whole life for the better.
The book is full of detail, especially about boats and houses and what the Bahamas look like.  After reading about Bay Street in Nassau I would like to go and see it.  There are other details about her jobs and how much money she makes that make it sound like you could follow what the main character does and be just as successful.  But the book was written before 9/11 and the world has changed, so you can’t.  Therefore it is basically a fantasy story that makes you think ‘what if?’
The book is kind of long but it keeps moving and you don’t want to put it down.  My favorite part was reading about her job as the exotic dancer because there is so much detail you feel like you are actually her experiencing it all.  The saddest part is that the main character is only 15 years old, and everything that happens is a lot to handle when you are 15.  Most people would not succeed the way she does.  This is why you want to feel sorry for her and wish you could help her or just be her friend, which is what she needs most of all.

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