Thursday, January 18, 2007

New challenge

My dad is a writer, translator and editor: a professional. I write computer code for a living. Spot the difference. He's written two novels (and a bunch of other stuff). I can claim that I've written three novels, but there's no comparison. That's why I was rather nervous about telling him about NaNoWriMo.

Fortunately, he seemed to get the point of NaNo and he was really impressed that I'd managed it - even more impressed when he found out from my mum that I'd actually done it twice before as well. He was also very keen to see what I'd written. That was potentially embarassing (how well can anyone write a first draft at 30wpm?) but in the end I let him see the first couple of chapters, and then sent him the whole thing.

Now he's read through the first chapter and sent me some suggestions and comments. He pointed out lots of things I could do better, but he also pointed out some bits that he liked. Both are really encouraging: yes, he pointed out things that I'm doing badly, but I understand why they're bad and I believe I know how to make them better - and that's just as encouraging.

So now he's set me a challenge. He's off to Italy for two weeks, and he's asked me to re-write the first chapter (bearing in mind his comments) by the time he comes back. I had been thinking of putting it on the back burner for a while after the crapometer - but stuff that, a challenge is a challenge :)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Snark No Surprise

Ok, no surprise this time. Miss Snark felt that my story starts too slowly. She's not the first person to say that either and I suspect they have a point. But still, some of the other comments I got are not bad considering what I sent in was only a quick second draft. Question is, can I do any better, and if so, how?

Since sending the excerpt to the crapometer, I've re-written the whole of the first chapter. For anyone who's interested, this is the first five pages or so. Any comments or suggestions on this are welcome and encouraged, good or bad.

It was late September. The sun was sinking behind the mountains, and the first chill of autumn crept through the village of San Gregorio. Lorenzo Compagno sat on the low wall outside the village’s only restaurant – his restaurant – and gazed across the valley. He watched a distant car climbing up the mountainside, past the lights that marked out the Stations of the Cross, over the pass that lead to the Adriatic coast. The Stations led up to a hermitage, high on the ridge. Every Easter Lorenzo would make the trip, stopping at each of the stations to drink and rest. From the summit he would look back at his own village, its clutch of red roofs nestled below the ruins of its castello.

Lorenzo listened to the clattering of knives coming from the kitchen. For as long has he could remember, Lorenzo had lived above the restaurant. His first memory was of his father taking him into the kitchen and teaching him how to chop parsley. He had spent most of his youth working with the old man in the restaurant, serving at tables, learning the trade. All too soon it had been his turn to take over. Now he himself was an old man, and most of the work was done by his sons. But it was still his restaurant; it was his world, everything he knew, and the one place where he could be sure things would always be done just right.

A shiver interrupted Lorenzo’s reminiscences. He stood up and headed into the kitchen. Inside was a scene of frantic but controlled activity. He headed over to Giuseppe, who was carefully sorting through a box of mushrooms.

“Everything under control?” he asked.

“Of course,” Giuseppe replied.

“That’s my boy.” Lorenzo put his arm around his son’s shoulders and squeezed. “Are you looking after Gino?”

“Of course,” Giuseppe repeated.

“And how’s my little girl?” Lorenzo asked, stepping over to where Sophia was chopping an onion.

“Taller than you,” she replied. She put down her knife and embraced him. With him stooped over and her standing upright, it was just about true.

“So what’s your brother got you cooking this evening?” he asked.

“Saltimbocca alla romana,” she replied.

“Alla romana?” Lorenzo said. “Al’ San Gregorio, I hope you mean.”

Sophia said nothing.

“I don’t mind you serving foreign food, but that was your grandfather’s recipe and he invented it here in San Gregorio.”

“Honestly, father,” Sophia said, “Rome is hardly foreign.”

“Apart from they don’t talk like us, they don’t look like us, and they don’t cook like us. No, it’s hardly foreign at all.”

Everyone laughed.

“You know, I heard that there’s a place in Rome that serves pizza with ham and pineapple,” Sophia teased. “Maybe we should do that here?”

“Sure,” Lorenzo said, “and then we can serve sardines Chantilly for dessert.” He shook his head. “The world’s gone mad.”

He turned to the boy Dino, who was filleting a fish. “This place used to be open six days a week,” he said, “and for lunches. Now everyone goes in to L’Aquila to eat foreign rubbish, and we can barely keep the place open four evenings. We can’t open on Mondays, because Giuseppe here wants to spend time with his family, and we can’t open on Wednesdays, because my girl here is going to college. And we don’t serve lunch any more, because now everyone goes in to L’Aquila to work,” he added. “Even my own children.” He looked sad, like a Labrador in the presence of food.

“Come on,” Giuseppe replied. “That’s not fair. You know well enough there aren’t enough customers to keep the restaurant open full time. If we had to pay everyone who worked here, we wouldn’t even be able to open when we do. You know how hard Gregorio works in town.”

“That brother of yours,” his father said. “He’s never been the same since he came back from Argentina.”

“He’s better,” Giuseppe said. “He’s the finest waiter in all of L’Aquila.”

“In all of Italy,” his father replied. “The finest waiter in all of Italy. In my family. And he has to work in L’Aquila.”

“He works here,” Sophia said.

The conversation was interrupted when the inside door of the kitchen opened and the man in question appeared. Gregorio stood in the doorway for a moment, immaculately dressed in black and white, down to the cotton gloves. He looked slightly out of place in the humble, earthy kitchen; when he wore the same outfit in La Pesce d’oro, L’Aquila’s finest eating establishment, he added the final touch of refinement to what was already the glitziest place in town.

“Ah, Gregorio, my boy,” he father said, heading towards him. He pinched the young man’s cheek, then embraced him. “Is everything ready out there?”

“Of course,” Gregorio replied. “I just wanted to check on the wine, make sure we haven’t run out of anything.”

Giuseppe looked up from his work for a moment. “What were you looking for?”

“Ciliegiolo,” he replied. “Giovanni and Francesca will be here, and the Ciliegiolo is her favourite.”

“I think there’s a couple of bottles left,” Giuseppe said. “I had to move them the other day – they’re …” He thought for a minute. “I’ll come with you.” He left the mushrooms, stopped to wash his hands, then headed for the door.

Gregorio followed him, but stopped in the doorway. “Dad? If there’s only a couple of bottles left, you’d better get on to Carlo and order some more,” he said, before disappearing out the door.

“Good point,” Lorenzo mused. He followed his sons out the door.

Sophia finished her chopping, and moved over to a bubbling cauldron of sauce. She lifted the lid and peered inside, then got out a spoon and tasted it. She licked her lips, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Not bad,” she said.

With everyone else gone, Dino spoke up.

“How does Gregorio remember all that stuff?”

“What stuff?”

“Who likes what wine. Who doesn’t eat clams. Who’s favourite kind of pasta is what. When the Mazzinghis come for dinner.”

“The Mazzinghis come here every Tuesday, and Fridays once a month, and on their anniversary,” Sophia explained.

“I know that,” Dino said. “Last year their anniversary was on a Wednesday, and Lorenzo had us open the restaurant specially. But everyone else. He seems to know everyone. Even when Enrico came in, and he’s only been here twice.”

It was Sophia’s turn to feel proud. “That’s the mark of a good waiter,” she said. “It’s all about knowing the people. You know he worked for three years in Buenos Aires? The most gregarious city in the world, he said. Everyone there eats out all the time, and everyone in the restaurant knows everyone else. The waiters never write down your order, they just remember everything.”

“And how do they remember who’s who? I mean, whose is whose?” Dino asked. He had finished filleting the fish, and took the bones and skin over to the bin. He moved over Giuseppe’s box of mushrooms, and continued to sort and clean them.

“He talks to them, listens to them,” she said. “And he knows people. It’s all part of the art. Trying to spot the mood, whether the woman feels like fish or chicken, remembering who likes which sauce. Who talks a lot, who likes to be quiet, who likes which table. You know he was serving in the restaurant here when he was twelve?” she added.

“Giuseppe told me.”

“Even as a boy he always wanted to be a waiter. Here in this restaurant. I think it nearly broke his heart when he had to get that job in L’Aquila.”

“He’s the head waiter at the Pesca d’oro,” Dino said. “That’s the best place in all Abruzzo,” he added.

“Not to Gregorio,” Sophia said. “This is home, remember. But you can’t make a living in a place like this any more. Not full time.”

Dino looked sad.

“What are you going to do when you finish school?” Sophia asked him.

“I’m applying to the cookery school in L’Aquila,” Dino replied. “To be a chef.”

“Of course. It’s a great place,” she added, “you’ll love it there.”

“If I get in.”

“Of course you’ll get in.”

“That’s what your dad said,” Gino added. “My parents say they turn down a lot of people.”

“They turn down people they don’t think are serious,” Sophia said. “You’ve been working here for, what, nearly a year now? There aren’t many other kids your age who can say that.”

The door opened again, and the two brothers walked in, loaded with bottles. Gregorio looked at each one, peered at the cork, then lined them up tidily. A few more went into the fridge; he moved them all around so that the new bottles were at the back. Then he went back to the restaurant, moving among the tables, once more making miniscule adjustments at each one, replacing a fork which wasn’t quite shiny enough.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Snark Surprise

When I sent my hook for Cheese to Miss Snark's Crapometer, I have to say I wasn't expecting much. I'm not a writer and never have been - English really wasn't my thing at school. Ok, I've written three novels, which is fairly unusual, and I definitely feel that Cheese is the best of them. But that's not saying anything.

But as I read through hundreds of other hooks on the blog and saw them picked apart, I started to get my hopes up. Hook after hook was rejected for the same reasons - reasons which didn't apply to mine. Sure, it had its own problems, but maybe, just maybe ...

And then this happened (#359). She actually liked it. I quote her response:

This is a hook.
The only quibble I have (and it wouldn't keep me from reading pages) is wondering if the inspector is hanging about town (befriended his daughter when he catches them together) or if the inspector is not there for the duration of the novel (return of the inspector imminent).

This is an old trope but it's got a fresh twist with the EU thing.

I had to look up trope. But she thought it was interesting enough to get me to send in the first 750 words. I made the second round! Boy, was I excited! I also got a bunch of good comments. A lot of the issues people mention are things that I actually know I deal with in the book itself, but they just don't come across in the hook, so that's encouraging too. I'm very pleased with myself, and probably a little surprised. Ok, the choice is necessarily subjective and rather arbitrary, and there were some "winners" which I felt were a little lame - but there were a couple of great ideas which didn't make her cut too - #162 and #213 (#209) really struck me.

So, my next problem: like the rest of my novel, my first 750 words were nothing more than a brain dump composed at 30wpm. (You can see them on my NaNoWriMo profile - view excerpt). I hadn't edited them at all - that would have been presumptuous. But I didn't want to send them in like that. Unfortunately, Christmas week isn't the best time for editing - not with three sets of parents to visit and a wife and two children at home. In the end I made time for one revision, then posted it. As it turned out, the deadline for posting it isn't until this Friday - but I didn't know that at the time and didn't want to miss out. Better to get feedback on something which probably isn't the best I'm capable of than get nothing at all.

So, next weekend, hopefully, I'll see what she makes of my first 750 words (in version 2). Watch out for it. My first round number was 359, I won't get a 2nd round number until it gets posted.

However seriously I'm not taking it, I'm really enjoying the whole crapometer process. I've learned a phenomenal amount about writing through reading the excerpts and hooks and the comments on them. Almost, but not quite, enough to make me want to write something else, and see if I can put what I've learned into practice. Or re-write Cheese. At the moment, though, that feels like too much like hard work. I'm currently bogged down half-way through re-writing the first chapter.

I suppose what I should do is run through it doing an 80-20 rule edit, not worry about overcutting and leaving it too short, and see where that gets me. One day ...