Minty Chocolate Cake

I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what the recipe is for this cake; leastways, I don’t know the recipe for this specific one. Mark made it, and he tells me he used a basic sponge cake with some additions.

So! Pick your favourite, bog-standard sponge recipe. Doesn’t need to be complicated, just needs to work. When you add the flour, stir in some chocolate powder too – several tablespoons should do it – and once it’s all mixed into a batter drip in a drop or two of peppermint essence. Mark also chucked in a handful or two of chocolate drops.

Bake until a skewer comes out clean.

DSCN0213

Mark decorated with mint glace icing and sprinkled it with brightly coloured sugar crystals.

It sounds like it might be a bit too minty, but actually, it works. Minty fresh.

NaNo, NaBlo, and Other Writing Challenges

With November fast approaching, it behoves me, and others like me, to make a decision about NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo. I’ve even chosen which of my many story-plans will be this year’s attempt. Or rather, Mark did, since I’m notoriously indecisive.

And yet, I think, on reflection, that I won’t be making the attempt. Not because I fear failure; I did it last year, I can do it again. But because I have quite a few demands on my time.

I’m still editing – I don’t like to rush these things – and I’m planning to make various Christmas-related items, one of which is (hopefully) an Advent calendar. Nothing like leaving everything to the last minute! Mostly because I don’t really like thinking about Christmas until the Autumn of Birthdays is done first – the last of which is the beginning of December. However. This year I’m attempting to be organised.

I will, though, have another go at NaBloPoMo – I failed quite badly last year, with my novel rather taking over. This year, I shall be stitching my way through November, so maybe there’ll be time for some intelligent, and not-so-intelligent, thoughts to make their way here.

Not that I intend to ignore entirely the writing of that novel, or the editing of the previous (whose name still needs finalising). I just won’t be racing to the end.

So, In Summary…

A reader’s life is all about reviews. For finding books to read and for recommending, or not, books to others.

There was an article on The Guardian the other day by an author who recounted her experience of a bad review. This woman ended up basically stalking the reviewer in an attempt to prove her a sort-of troll (I think the term used was catfish) who refused to let anyone like the book and wrote all sorts of things not remotely connected to the book in question.

My guess is that such people (troll-reviewers) are few and far between. But the question about reviewing remains: should one write a bad review? I read a bad review about one of my much-beloved Heyers, which made my blood boil. And then I dismissed the reviewer as some ignorant person and I calmed down. I imagine it’s even more upsetting when it’s your own book being reviewed.

We’re all entitled to our opinions about books, good or bad. I find that, quite often, I dislike novels which those-in-the-know recommend. I’ve heard many good things about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Can’t stand it and the only reason I read it (and finished it) was because I was reading it for a book-club. It perhaps fared slightly better than Perfume, which we also read, and which languishes barely half-read on a shelf somewhere, but The Road managed to both bore and irritate me. I’m sure the stylistic choice to have the punctuation reflect the post-apocalyptic world (or whatever it was that the English teacher suggested was the reason for the lack of anything except full-stops etc.) was an excellent choice on the part of the author. I didn’t, and don’t, like it. The story itself? Nope, still didn’t like it; it was tedious. So I wouldn’t recommend it to others. Sorry, McCarthy.

Sometimes, though, a bad review makes me want to seek out the book and have a look. To see if the reviewer is “right”. Surely it can’t be all that bad, I say to myself. And then I make up my own mind. What’s that saying about publicity? No publicity is bad publicity? Bad reviews don’t seem to have done EL James any harm. (Fifty Shades is one book I picked up thinking, Can’t be all that bad, and then put down again when the page I opened it on talked about the narrator’s “inner goddess”. Yes, yes it is that bad. Believe the reviews.)

For myself, since I don’t review books for a living and I can therefore choose which books I read, I’m more likely to write positive reviews. Because I choose the books I read, I choose books which I think I’ll enjoy – and usually I’m right. So I’ll write about the books which I’ve read, and enjoyed. Thus, a positive review. No doubt on the occasions when I’m slightly less enthused by my book, I shall say so. But it’s just my opinion. You might like it.

And my answer to the question posed is this: If you’re reviewing a book, you should be honest about your reaction to it. If you didn’t like it, say so and say why. Authors, just remember that not everyone is going to like every word you write.

Victoria Sponge

It occurs to me that it is some time since I last offered up a sacrifice to the Goddess of Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice.

Largely this is because the last few cakes baked in this Hall were made by Mark, the Mountain King. As we recently saw on Bake-Off, men can be fantastic bakers, and Mark’s Victorias have been no exception. Most delicious. And filled with cream and berries. Clotted cream works particularly well.

Anyway, he’s been using the recipe over on BBC Good Food as his base. And then adding things like orange and lemon extracts (works wonderfully) and decorating with glace icing.

DSCN0205

So.

200g each of sugar, flour and butter

4 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

2 tbsp milk.

Tip it all into a bowl and beat into a batter. Split between two 8” tins and back for c.20 mins at 190C (170C for fan-ovens)/gas mark 5, until nice and golden and spongey to touch. But you know that instruction already, don’t you?

Allow to cool and sandwich together with the filling of your choice. Like I say, carefully beaten clotted cream (just to soften; DO NOT WHISK), with raspberries and/or strawberries is particularly tasty.

Try not to eat all at once.

The Late Scholar

The first Peter Wimsey novel I read was Strong Poison. I found it on a book-shelf in what we called the library (previous incarnations had had the room being our playroom, and before that the garden-room; it is not a grand room, simply where my father keeps his reference books) when I was about ten.

I fell in love with Lord Peter and subsequently collected as many of the other novels as I could. I have read, and own, almost all of them. I think there’s just one left for me to find.

I was, therefore, quite delighted to discover that Jill Paton Walsh – who so wonderfully completed Thrones, Dominations and added A Presumption of Death to the corpus – has added two more. Apparently I started with the most recent – The Late Scholar – but given that my love of Wimsey and Bunter did not begin at the beginning in any case, I doubt that this will cause me too many problems.

Anyhow. Time has moved on, and I was saddened to hear of Lord Saint-George’s death in the Battle of Britain and of Gerald, Duke of Denver’s, in a house fire, leaving the duchy to Peter. I am glad that his mother is still with us.

The Late Scholar returns us to Oxford, where both Peter and his wife, the novelist Harriet Vane, were at university, and where they were married. St Severin’s College, where Peter has unexpectedly become Visitor, is in trouble, the Fellows arguing over whether to sell a medieval (possibly one of King Alfred’s) manuscript. And then one of them dies. So Peter and Harriet, the wonderful Bunter in tow, go to Oxford. And discover there were other attempts. Attempts which copied those of Harriet’s crime novels, which in their turn were based on some of Peter’s cases.

It was a suitably complicated puzzle – Wimsey’s preferred method of knowing how to know who not helping – with old friends from previous novels making appearances, from Peter’s friend and brother-in-law Charles Parker to Harriet’s artist friends in London, all leading to a really quite dramatic conclusion.

If Harriet seemed a little staid from her years of marriage and Peter’s habit of quoting others somewhat suppressed, neither of these detract from what is otherwise an excellent continuation of Peter Wimsey’s detecting career, even now he is Duke of Denver. I was quite pleased that, despite the years since I last read a Sayers novel, I could still recognise which of her novels had been paid homage to in this one, with its copy-cat murderer.

It is not often that I like the work of those writing new stories for much-loved characters once the original creator has died, but Jill Paton Walsh’s novels I do. I look forward to finding The Attenbury Emeralds.

How Long is a Piece of String?

Evelyn Waugh said something along the lines of how, with six uninterrupted weeks, anyone can write a novel. Apparently that’s how long he took for Brideshead Revisited. If I recall correctly, I think he was being invalided from WWII at the time, but don’t quote me on that. I once read an article by a chick-lit author who said that writing novels was easy work: ten months of dossing, followed by a quick six weeks of writing as the deadline loomed. Having read some of her novels, it showed. My guess is she didn’t have a lot of time for redrafts.

The people at NaNoWriMo reckon it can be done in a month. Well, 50K words, which is technically a novella, which anyone reading the publicity surrounding the latest Ian McEwan novel will know. But then, equally, NaNoWriMo do only want it to be a first draft. I think that argument came to the conclusion that a novel is at least 55K words. McEwan’s novel is just over that. It’s important to know the distinction, though, for competitions.

There is an insistence with self-published Kindle-writers to publish at an astounding rate of knots – for fear the public will forget them. Short term memories, the public. But, one suspects, this might be the reason that self-published books, particularly ones on Kindle, get such a bad press. Writing a full length novel, say 60-70K words, in six weeks, and expecting it to be a decent book is probably aiming for the moon. Not to say that it can’t be done. Just don’t expect it to happen.

So how long is the piece of string? It’s as long as it is. And it takes as long as it takes to write a good novel.

Besides, how many of us in the real world actually have six consecutive, uninterrupted weeks in which to do nothing but write? But there’s still time to prepare for a first draft for this year’s NaNoWriMo. You might be surprised by what you write, and then at least you have something to edit.

The Art of Writing

To write a great novel, read. You must read widely, and specifically. Read the genre you wish to write, and the genres you don’t. Learn what works, and what doesn’t, and you, too, can write something that will sell. Or can you?

Might you not, unintentionally of course (for who would want to plagiarise?), simply end up writing something which is already selling, and for which there is a finite appetite in the buyers’ world?

Now, obviously, I have no authority to speak on this. I’m not a published author (yet, one hopes), but I am a reader. And while I read what interests me, what that is varies on a daily basis. It can easily vary within the hour, unless I haven’t finished what I started or if it is so thoroughly tedious I can’t cope anymore. Murder mysteries with lots of needlecraft before breakfast, historical romance at luncheon, and fantasy by supper-time. While I can read lots of a single author, if I read too many similar such books, I do rather go off the style, or stick with the original. So writing to the market is not necessarily the route to success, although I have no doubt that it is a good route for some.

My suggestion, as a reader and aspiring novelist, is this: Read widely, learn how to use language, and find your own ‘voice’. Never mind what sells at the moment. That’s today. Tomorrow it’ll be something else. With any luck, tomorrow, it’ll be your work which sells. Don’t look back, look forwards. Write the story in your head which demands to be written. Your characters.

My novel, which I’ve just completed (but not finished; it needs a lot of editing), is a fantasy novel. Which is odd, because that’s not a genre I necessarily read a lot of. I don’t ignore it intentionally – until about book 5, I loved the Harry Potter series – but there are few fantasy books which really grab my attention. Perhaps I have simply yet to find the good authors, who don’t just have tired orphans being the lost heirs in kingdoms taken over by over-the-top evil sorcerers. (If anyone can suggest some which aren’t like that, I’d greatly appreciate it! Preferably not door-stopper books, though, please.)

Actually, the not-reading-fantasy makes it a little difficult for me to know how to describe my story. It’s not epic – no wars or kingdom-fighting; the magic is limited; there are but few magical races; and the most of it is centred on the doings of the new, youngest-of-six-sons, baby-of-the-family King. The Fates, no doubt, had their reasons for choosing him, but the watching Gods, who can do nothing and have no control, can’t see it. And they’ve been watching for a long time. They, perhaps, have a decent grasp of consequences, which the Fates, in their desire for amusement, have ignored.

But it is the story which demanded to be written, which claimed my attention and refused to be ignored, ignoring my normal reading habits. Whatever you do, don’t let someone tell you that you can’t write something because you don’t read it. Maybe if your story was out there, you would read that genre. Just make sure you know your story and your world better than anyone else. If you know it, you can write it, regardless of your reading preferences. Good luck!