Archive for ‘writing’


“…and every one of them words rang true, and glowed like burning coal…”

[UPDATE: As of December 2012, information on purchasing The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier as either a paperback or an e-book can be found here.]

In 2007, I posted my translation of the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

Because enough people found the earlier version both readable and entertaining, I’m pleased to make The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier available as a snazzy 56-page paperback. The translation—which imitates the form of the original in 75 thirteen-line rhyming, alliterative stanzas—is freshly polished and lightly annotated, and the bibliography is current. I’m offering this little book as a literary curiosity, an experiment in self-publishing, and a way to help defray the costs of maintaining this blog.

To preview this book, you can see a low-res PDF of sample pages or view larger images of the front and back cover.

No one else has ever translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillius claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“I study nuclear science, I love my classes…”

It would have been idyllic: basking in the glare of the Adriatic, nudging sleepy turtles in the olive grove, ignoring the pre-recorded pleas of the muezzin that tumble down the mountain…but when a friend invited me to write Becoming Charlemagne at his Montenegrin beach house, I turned him down, just as I had to say “no” to generous offers that might have put me in a cottage in Ireland or poolside in Florida. Traveling with easily-misplaced articles and books felt like a great way to miss a deadline, and I vividly imagined Balkan crime lords challenging me to win back my crate of medieval scholarship in a drinking contest ungoverned by nominal adherence to the rule of law.

My irrational fear of becoming a cautionary tale in The Economist notwithstanding, I’ve kept an eye on the e-book market for a device that does everything I need it to do. A few weeks ago, I was stunned to see a TV commercial for the latest Sony Reader, an obvious attempt to scrape away some market share from the Amazon Kindle. But how big, really, is that market? Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles are out there. I’ve spotted two Kindles in the wild, and plenty of pundits, media people, and bloggers do go on about them, but the device is hardly ubiquitous. So how un-ubiquitous is the Kindle?

Here are some ratios derived from my latest Becoming Charlemagne royalty statement. I have no idea how typical these numbers are, but here’s where e-book sales stand in the life of one modest, midlist pop-history book that’s been in print for three years:

  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 302 
  • Ratio of e-books in all formats sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 47
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to other e-book formats sold: 1 : 5.45
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to Microsoft Reader e-books sold: 1 : 3

Interestingly, Kindle sales are lumped under “MOBIPOCKET” on a HarperCollins royalty statement because the Kindle uses that e-book format (and Amazon owns the company), but 16% of the Mobipocket sales for BC occurred before the release of the Kindle in late 2007—so there’s no telling if all the sales I’m ascribing to Kindle even went to Kindle users.

So there it is: e-books account for only 2% of this one book’s total sales, which includes hardcover, paperback, and various e-book formats—and Kindle sales account for no more than 0.3% of total sales.

Perhaps, compared to sales in other genres, these numbers are weirdly low. For all I know, people who read little medieval-themed pop-history books by unknown authors are atypically hostile to e-books or simply aren’t early adapters in general. Maybe people who buy mysteries, science-fiction novels, or political screeds are far more open to new technology?

Whatever the case, while I’d like to be enthusiastic about e-books, I can’t help remembering what Charlemagne said in 793 when his flunkies promised him a canal between the Danube and the Rhine: “When you say it’s going to happen ‘now,’ well, when exactly do you mean?”

“There’s a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head…”

This week, I’m busier than Shane McGowan’s dental team—but here are some spiffy links.

At Writer Beware!, Victoria Strauss compiles recent links about the business of writing.

Much discussion ensues when John Scalzi upbraids the three biggest science fiction magazines for not accepting electronic submissions.

Strange Horizons tells aspiring writers the “stories we’ve seen too often.” So does Clarkesworld: “stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING).”

At Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner offer a “turkey city lexicon” of writing errors and hackneyed plots. Heck, the SFWA’s entire roster of writing-advice articles is superb.

Steven Hart serves up a link-rich post about editing, book promotion, and publishing contracts.

Jake Seliger wants to know: What’s the deal with white covers on nonfiction books?

Jason Fisher explains “the Lewis/Tolkien collaboration that might have been (but never was).”

Steven Till points us to John Crowley on the art of historical fiction.

Per Omnia Saecula bravely continues its “bad medieval movie” series.

“Businessmen, they drink my wine…”

The following is an open letter to the Sci Fi Channel people.

Dear Sci Fi Channel People:

I write to you with the dogged affection of a spurned but hopeful suitor. Your Sci Fi Channel Original Movies have long provided me with superb background noise for otherwise dreary weekends of writing. I admired Sharks in Venice, I thought Dragon Dynasty was a hoot, and SS Doomtrooper more than satisfied my nostalgia for the entirely unrelated video-game franchise I’m sure you didn’t intend it to resemble at all. You even made an awful sequel to the awful Dungeons and Dragons movie! I should be grateful.

Instead, like the Mansquito tending the juice bar at a Dracula family reunion, I sense a distinct lack of opportunity, and the only sound I hear is forlorn and fruitless sucking.

Let facts be submitted to a candid world: Battlestar Galactica has ended, your parent company is unsteady, and your new name sounds like a social disease. I get that your monster-and-disaster B-movies turn a profit, but when even I can no longer distinguish Croc from Supergator or Frankenfish from Snakehead Terror, then your future is bleak.

With fingers bloody from clinging to the bottom of the midlist, I’m writing to offer two magic words that will rescue your faltering network:

Becoming Charlemagne.

We’ll start, as Battlestar Galactica did, with a miniseries—but unlike effects-driven productions that require custom sets and scores of Canadian character actors, Becoming Charlemagne: The Miniseries will be a model of parsimony. Given Sci Fi’s substantial catalog of wholly owned intellectual property, we can easily edit and re-dub scenes from Minotaur, Ogre, Gryphon, Grendel, Wyvern, Dragon Sword, Dragon Storm, and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy to craft a Charlemagne narrative that is as entertaining as it is astonishingly thrifty.

After the miniseries proves viable, we’ll frugally film the resulting Becoming Charlemagne: The Series on location in the Balkans. My contacts in the Belgrade suburbs can ply our army of extras with homemade moonshine, perhaps in lieu of pay. To ensure a smooth transition, the miniseries should establish the existence of Brutalist architecture in ninth-century Aachen, an anachronism that only inflexible purists will decry.

I understand that television executives don’t leap gaily into edgy, cerebral projects—so if it helps, think of Becoming Charlemagne: The Series as “Battlestar Galactica in the woods.” The parallel with Charlemagne’s legendary Twelve Peers speaks for itself (“there are many copies, and they have a plan”), but if medieval jargon leaves you cold, feel free to substitute more familiar language. A Saxon, for example, might profitably be thought of as a tree Cylon. An angel in a hot red dress is hardly out of the question.

While you ponder my proposal, I’ll continue my vigil outside the bedroom windows of Sci Fi executives, raising my boom box aloft in an attempt to sell you on my other marketable idea: a starkly “reimagined” version of the failed 1992 series Covington Cross. Graphic medieval violence is, I believe, the resolution of all your fruitless searches, and while there are certainly worse shows we could remake, market research proves that the smart money flocks to projects in which the Skye is always the color of Ione.

Yours in sacré Charlemania,

Jeff

cc: Steven Spielberg; Peter Jackson; Christopher Tolkien; Rosamund McKitterick; Pierre Riché; John Rhys-Davies; Mirek Topolánek, President, European Union; Steve Voigt, President, King Arthur Flour Company; Coolio

“Well and I, could trace your private number, baby…”

No one has ever asked me how I celebrated when my agent sold my book, but if someone did, I’d answer, “by eating an ostrich in the Philippines.” In August 2004, I was visiting friends in Manila, and getting the good news was just part of a strange and memorable trip. I took a ferry to Corrigedor and watched nearly a hundred people get seasick, I shopped at one of the big Muslim pearl markets, and I dined at what was, during its brief existence, the world’s only all-Spam restaurant. The landscape was beautiful, the poverty was palpable and sad, and the people were quirky—and I fondly remember it all once a month, when a Filipino telemarketer leaves me an answering-machine message praising my book and offering to help me promote it.

BookWhirl may have a Wisconsin mailing address, but they’ve told as least one blogger that they’re in Iowa, and the small print on their Web site attributes copyright to Yen Chen Support, an outsourcing firm with a call center in the Filipino province of Cebu. From their island stronghold in Southeast Asia, BookWhirl minions have pestered such authors as Piers Anthony, Lee Goldberg, and April Henry, but all in vain. Their questionable services include a press release campaign; the “Online Directory Listing,” which involves posting advertisements “to various sites that have high traffic rates”; and the “Email Marketing Advertisement,” which should settle any remaining concern about the need to secure honest employment for exiled Nigerian princes.

Oddly—or perhaps not—the BookWhirl site lists not a single endorsement, ringing or otherwise, from any of the 130 mostly self-published authors who’ve used their services, and the professional qualifications of the BookWhirl staff are an enigma coated in ube and wrapped in the deep-fried milkfish of mystery. The company touts its “experienced team of online marketing strategists, ad copywriters, graphic artists, and web designers,” but neither their Web site nor any of their tiresome press releases list the name of anyone with publishing or marketing experience. In fact, the Web site lists no employee names at all.

I haven’t the foggiest idea why BookWhirl thinks they can help me. Their unsolicited calls probably violate federal law, and I don’t support their efforts to profit from the gullible. Still, the next time I get that call from Cebu, I’ll enjoy hearing someone who hasn’t read my book tell me how thrilling he found it. He’s just doing his job, and he can’t possibly know how silly he sounds, but aspiring writers can learn from his folly: empty praise is a service you don’t have to pay for.

“I was filled with creative desire, I set my mommy’s house on fire…”

Every so often, I bump into aspiring writers who say they can’t imagine why anyone would read or write a blog. Me, I don’t understand why anyone would pay to fill their shelves with books about writing when a host of smart journalists, novelists, professors, and other pros have moved much of the conversation online. It’s never been easier to gab about the creative process or to learn about writing as a business, and folks are just giving away the wisdom. Behold…

Literary agent Nathan Bransford descends from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. (The smartest one is number five: “Don’t quit your day job.”)

Writer C.M. Mayo compiles a list “to all the many people who ask me to read their manuscripts.”

Novelist J.A. Konrath outlines the differences between a confident writer and a delusional writer. (Link via Steven Hart, who has some pithy advice of his own: read, study, understand.)

Margaret Soltan ponders why writing is often “acutely unpleasant.”

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk spends a day “writing uncomfortably.”

Olen Steinhauer wonders how other writers find the time and notes that the day his new novel came out was not “particularly raucous.”

“The tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays…”

Twenty-three years ago this month, I convinced my folks to drive me to the toy store to buy something that toy stores no longer sell. Most people didn’t know what a modem was, but when I whipped up an ASCII animation showing us making the trip as a family and emerging in triumph from the Toys R Us, my parents were amused enough to give me a lift, if understandably skeptical. In 1986, the online world was too tiny to be mythologized. Wild stories about local kids “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens” sometimes made the news, but online bulletin-boards were “here there be dragons” outlands for all but a few, and no one noticed gaming pioneers as they racked up monstrous Compuserve bills playing Hangman at 300 baud.

Lacking any real plan, I used my modem to connect to a suburban archipelago of slow, single-line BBSes, not knowing that the experience would teach me how to write. A few years later, when I was the only English major banging out e-mail on an X-term in the basement of the computer science building, I didn’t know I was an early adapter of a network that would soon link millions of offices and homes while uprooting the business models of several industries, including publishing. I only knew that I sensed opportunity.

I thought about those days when I read Jake Seliger’s post about a New York Times article pointing out the obvious: the online market for used books is a boon for readers. Jake wondered how cheap books will affect the business of publishing, and while I don’t know what the future holds for companies that can’t adapt, I told him I didn’t think a bonanza of secondhand books was necessarily bad for authors:

As someone who recently entered the publishing world as a lower-midlist author, I’ve thought quite a bit about the implications of the online market for used and discount books. When someone buys my book used on Amazon for $4 instead of paying $12 for a new paperback, that’s around 75 cents in royalties I don’t see—but I’d be awfully short-sighted to gripe about that, because the glorious churn of the used-book market may help me in the long run. Today’s budget-conscious undergraduate may be tomorrow’s history teacher; perhaps he’ll assign my book to his class of twenty students five years from now. Or maybe he’ll recommend the book to a friend who then downloads a copy to his Kindle, thereby putting around $2 in my pocket. Or maybe he hates the book so much that he strenuously avoids my next one, thus sparing me a one-star Amazon review that would have dissuaded potential readers.

Who knows? I do know that I’d be a fool to gripe about the Internet, because thanks to the Web–which includes everything from Amazon to bloggers to podcasts to the online BookTV archives—I’ve sold more copies of my book than the 50 or so secondhand copies currently listed on Amazon. Fretful authors and publishers who dread the advent of the hyper-efficient online book market may yet be vindicated, but I’m not convinced that budget-conscious book-buyers are the only ones who stand to benefit from it.

Compared to a fantasy world in which Amazon, the big bookstore chains, and used-book dealers simultaneously thrive (and where all of our orders are, presumably, delivered by a Deschanel sister on a flying unicorn), the current situation looks bleak—but as an author, a voracious book-buyer, and someone who’d be nowhere without the Internet, I prefer the here-and-now to the real world of twenty years ago, when a suburban “bookstore” was a nook in the mall stocked only with bestsellers, a few shelves of genre fiction, some classics, and the latest comic-strip anthologies.

Whether my career thrives or stalls, I’m glad I’m a writer now. I can get obscure articles in minutes rather then weeks, and people on the subway can use a telephone to order and read my books from stores that never close. Best of all, my cable modem is more than 6,500 times faster than the modem I bought in 1986, but it cost the same amount: around 60 bucks (or half the price in 1986 dollars). Confusion may be justified, but hold off on the Anglo-Saxon elegies; not everything is worse than it used to be.

“…and we can all sit watching our Hawaiian island world.”

Becoming Charlemagne is not a racy book, but when I wrote it, I marveled at the rich potential of medieval history to perplex and offend. Wine-guzzling Muslims, Jews owning slaves, knife-wielding Christians who tried to relieve a pope of his eyeballs and tongue—to be honest, I had expected more complaints from readers who found that the eighth century either defied their Tolkienesque caricatures of the Middle Ages or failed to conform to their religious preconceptions. Instead, debates and discussions at book-talks and lectures have been downright genial, and to my knowledge, the harshest thing I’ve been called is a “Catholic apologist,” a charge that surprised and amused me. (Eat your heart out, Tertullian.)

Years ago, as a college cartoonist, I would have been disappointed by such a placid reaction, but today life feels way too short to make shocking the easily offended the highest goal of art. I’d much rather inform and entertain—but I do reserve the right to offend, a right I hadn’t thought to affirm until I read the review of Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel of Medina in Sunday’s New York Times.

Jones’s novel is a highly fictionalized retelling of the story of A’isha, the third and youngest wife of the prophet Muhammad. Last year, after a scholarly expert on A’isha suggested that the novel might incite violence, Random House dropped the book and a small press quickly picked it up. In last weekend’s Times review, journalist and novelist Lorraine Adams lists some of the historical errors in The Jewel of Medina, dismisses the book as a bad example of genre fiction, and calls Jones’s prose “lamentable.” As a reviewer, she’s entitled to her opinion, even if the extent to which a novelist must hew to historical facts is debatable, but her conclusion is stunning and strange:

An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this ­novel. Their stance seems just about right.

That’s one bizarre paragraph, suddenly contrasting as it does Constitutional protections for “repugnant extremes” with what “great writers” applaud while suggesting that a book must “qualify as art” to be defended on the grounds of free expression. Sherry Jones may be no Salman Rushdie, but when it comes to The Jewel of Medina, the question of her free expression is not hypothetical: Adams notes earlier in her review that shortly after last year’s controversy, “somebody pushed a firebomb through the mail slot at the home office of Jones’s London publisher.”

Which leads me to wonder: If tomorrow I should find my car on fire, or death threats nailed to my door, or a dagger protruding from my sternum as I step outside my office, will Lorraine Adams think I had it coming? I suspect not, but in her zeal to pen a clever takedown of a book she thought was lousy, she implies that defending me from violent reader responses depends on whether or not critics and literary mandarins decide my book is art. Call me quaint, but I don’t have to like, or even read, The Jewel of Medina to know that Sherry Jones and her publisher deserve freedom from firebombing. I don’t have to read a novel by a glib reviewer to know that its author deserves the same defense as well.

“…writing books on the way it should have been.”

That’s a photo of the bibliography of Becoming Charlemagne; I shot it the morning the final manuscript flew like the Winged Victory of Samothrace to my editor’s desk in New York. Large-scale maps scrawled with timelines and trade routes, teetering towers of library books—by that point, my workspace looked like a cross between the lair of a serial killer and Tom Hanks’ bedroom in Mazes and Monsters. So this past Thursday night, I was both honored and relieved to sit on a research-themed panel hosted by James River Writers, which taught me that this obsessive, it-puts-the-lotion-in-the-basket behavior is, at least among authors, something close to normal.

My co-panelists were Phaedra Hise, journalist and author of the meticulously reseached Pilot Error: Anatomy of a Plane Crash, and Maggie Stiefvader, whose young-adult novels about homicidal faeries and “werewolf nookie” are informed by her college study of medieval languages. (Her children are named Wulfnoð and Æðelðryð. She is hardcore.) Our trusty moderator, fantasy writer Bill Blume, did a great job. Bill writes the funny and trippy webcomic The Wildcat’s Lair, where he contends with stuffed dragons and technicolor cats in their natural habitat: the gaming table.

Writing is often dreary work. You’re up all night, flipping between the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and a twilight block of Felicity episodes (don’t judge me), paranoid that you might not meet your deadline, wondering if anyone is going to care about the ninth-century Islamic pistachio trade. Publishing a book rarely brings the wealth, the fame, or the power over life and death that many aspiring writers believe it will. When your book hits the shelves, it’s a happy day, but life just doesn’t change all that much.

…and then, once in a while, you’re invited to yak it up at a writers’ event, and you retire to a pizza joint for a late night of unrepeatable stories with smart, funny people, and you begin to understand the value of your 300-page calling card beyond the reviews and royalty statements. Writers like to gripe and whine, but when it comes to this one benefit, don’t let authors tell you otherwise, not even my fellow recluses. The social aspect, unlike the process of writing itself, is even more fun than you think it will be.

“Then I went off to fight some battle…”

On Saturday, I’ll be sitting on a panel at “Going Freelance,” a workshop sponsored by AIW and the Johns Hopkins writing program. Tilt your head and you can see the medievalist traces in this event if, like me, you were told in grade school that “freelance” was a term to describe medieval soldiers of fortune. Of course, medieval mercenaries did exist, but “freelance” isn’t a medieval word at all. The term was coined by Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century author who almost singlehandedly inspired quasi-medieval fandom in the English-speaking world.

From The Knight and the Umbrella, here’s Ian Anstruther explaining how Scott lit the fire under the Victorians who romanticized and reinvented the Middle Ages:

It is hardly possible to realize today the immense influence of this author on contemporary drama, literature and art. His early poems like the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, which were first published in 1805 and 1808 respectively, and his great series of tales in prose which began with Waverley in 1814 and reached its peak, according to many critics, with Ivanhoe in 1819 . . . truly hypnotised all who read them.

The proof of this may be seen at a glance in the catalogues of the major exhibitions throughout the country. In the twenty-five years between the first appearance of the Waverley Novels in 1814 and the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, two hundred and sixty-six different pictures inspired by the pen of the “Wizard of the North” appeared in public galleries; every summer without a break, a scene from Ivanhoe was the subject of two of them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of some version of “freelance” appears in 1820, in chapter 34 of Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” The OED cites subsequent uses of “free-lance” or “freelance” as a negative term to describe politicians and journalists with minds of their own. By the early 20th century, “freelance” was a verb; soon, it came to refer to the self-employed.

If, in the spirit of medievalism (or at least dorkiness), freelance writers wanted to liken themselves to an authentic figure who represents the reality of late-medieval English contract law, they might see a kindred spirit in the Franklin from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the late 14th century, franklins were a newly prominent class of independent landholder. Not bound by hereditary feudal obligations, a franklin could sell his produce to the highest bidder while negotiating or even canceling deals. Like any successful freelancer, a franklin was blessedly exempt from the 14th-century equivalent of corporate team-building exercises, i.e., clearing woodlands, draining swamps, or taking an arrow in the sternum for a leek-breathed feudal lord.

But can you imagine telling your friends you’re a franklin? Can you imagine writing “franklin” under “occupation” on your tax return? It’s a legacy of the romanticized Middle Ages bequeathed to us by Sir Walter Scott and other writers, artists, and poets that we overlook the agricultural drudgery that defined most medieval lives, so that even we who sit and type all day can dream of jousts and banners bright, and tell ourselves we’re charging into battle.