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Balerno 8: 11 – 17 July

I wonder if Noah ever passed through Edinburgh during his travels? If so, he’d have felt right at home. And I’m not talking about the drunkenness and nudity, though there is that to consider. No, but when it comes to raining for 40 days and 40 nights, Edinburgh seems to be your town. Last week it go so bad I started building an Ark on Arthur’s Seat, but I didn’t have planning permission so the Council made me take it down. Old Testament prophets never had this problem.

In between dodging thunderstorms and lightning strikes I’ve been knitting. As you’ll see, I’ve reached the point of dividing front and back. So the gussets are on holders (spare lengths of old yarn, i.e.) and I’m knitting back-and-forth on a second pair of circular needles. As usual, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to be alternating recto and verso, as it were, so I’m making a few mistakes which have to be painstakingly corrected as I go, dammit, and I have to take care to keep the stitches as even as possible – though it will all even out in the wash, so I’m not worried.

I really like the feel of the needle I’m using – a “Knit Picks Classic Circular Knitting Needle”. It’s got a nice, sharp nose like Concorde (most dpns have the nose of a jumbo jet) and the metal tip doesn’t have a coating to flake off, like many do. I tried another pair first – a “Susan Bates Quicksilver”, which I liked the sound of (one of my favourite Neal Stephenson novels has the same name). But I had a couple of problems with it: firstly, it was 73.5cm, not 80cm, and felt a bit tight; and secondly, I knit so tightly my stitches constantly snagged on the lip where the needle joins the plastic holder part. So I regretfully had to abandon it.

Heigh ho. I’ve sent out my manuscript to 30 literary agents so far. 20 have already rejected it; the other 10 are currently working out how to let me down gently. But then, I tell myself, if it was easy, any old tat would make it into print. (What’s that you say? Oh.) Perseverance is the key, though it’s hard not to feel just a smidgeon discouraged.

By way of consolation, I’ve been baking bread with sugar in. This is a sandwich bread, made with oil, milk and egg, so it’s very soft and very dense – and did I mention the sugar? It’s like a hot cross bun without the fruit, the cross, or the heat, and a little goes a long way. Next time I plan to add some cinnamon and raisins and see what happens. (Death by hardened arteries, probably.)

Finally a heads-up, there won’t be a blog next week. Margaret’s going away on what I like to call a holiday, though she describes it as a trial separation, so I plan to take a break from writing of all kinds. The fact that I find the blog software too complicated to use has absolutely nothing to do with it…

Now I’m off to write a letter to the Press Complaints Commission. Turns out I’m the only person in Britain whose phone wasn’t hacked by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and I want to know why.

15 comments to Balerno 8: 11 – 17 July

  • Lynne

    Way to go, Gordon! You are less than two months into this gansey and the body is nearly there – and it’s looking very smart. Glad you like the Knitpicks needles, they’re sure good value, but only you will give them the true test of durability.
    Regarding the bread products, when you get to the cinnamon rolls, don’t forget the ‘sticky’ in the bottom of the pan prior to the buns, then invert after baking for the traditional Canadian “sticky buns”! Talk about artery concrete!

  • Gordon

    Hi Lynne,

    Yes, it’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t have a job. Or a life. Or a dream. Or a clue…

    Some needles fall apart within the first few days or weeks, others get bent out of shape but are still going strong years later. I’m pretty hard on needles – my technique isn’t exactly subtle, y’know? – but so far the Knitpicks are doing well. I particularly like the sharp pointy end! And the shiny metal finish is pretty classy.

    THe Peter Reinhart bread book says they’re called “sticky buns” because the calories stick to your thighs! I think he may have a point…


  • =Tamar

    Best wishes for optimum results on all fronts.
    (And back as well, in the case of that handsome gansey.)

    According to blogs I run into while Googling around, publishers nowadays want books to start at a sprint with lots of dialogue and conflict in the first two sentences. Even Terry Pratchett has succumbed – “I Shall Wear Midnight” began with a tension-filled action scene, then went to an 11-chapter flashback… No wonder so many people are self-publishing online. Lawrence Watt-Evans has done several books that way, and one of them has since come out in print from a small publisher.

    I am way too fond of sticky buns. If it’s a bread product, I’m there, as a consumer.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar,

    And thank you. Everything I read says that you have to grab the agent/publisher (and by implication the casual reader) in the first paragraph, preferably in the first line. So the pressure is on for a sort of pre-credit teaser like you get in James Bond films, or at the start of the Lord of the Rings movies, something to throw you into the action.

    Two of my favourite openings are, first, Iain Banks’s Excession, which opens with an attack on a ship by an entity from outside our universe. The ship is overpowered immediately, but a sentient drone has to escape to warn everyone else, but all its own ship’s systems are now turned against it. It’s un-put-downable once you start. The other is Haruki Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle which, by way of contrast, opens with the protagonist cooking pasta in the morning, listening to the radio, when the phone rings and a mysterious woman starts talking to him. Curious, I picked this up in a bookshop and realised I’d better buy the book when I found I’d already read 8 pages without noticing!

    I’ve noticed the business of starting a chapter with an exciting scene and then giving you a flashback to explain how they got there later. It’s developing into a bit of a stylistic cliche – Joseph Conrad and Proust could mess around with chronology in telling their stories – everyone else had better beware!


  • =Tamar

    I miss the good old days of easing into a story. (Also, I wish I had gotten the title right – it was Wintersmith that had the 11-chapter flashback.) I especially liked the 9,000 year prologue in Going Postal. Yet some people have the nerve to say his books start slowly. I don’t know where they get it.
    I also kind of miss the type of mystery story in which nobody gets killed.

  • Excession? Really? My partner loves Iain Banks and I’ve tried two (Excession and Use of Weapons) and was annoyed and bored out of my mind. I kept waiting for something to happen (Excession was particularly bad about that) or for there to be any relatable characters (both books, omg). I did read all of Excession, and I finally had to just give in and flip to the end of Use of Weapons so I could see if I was right about what was going on (I was).

    It’s funny, because I devoured the Chanur books by Cherryh and expected C to love them as well (intelligent characters, each with truly alien motivation, lots of intricate political stuff backed up with action) and he hated them.

    The Chanur books start with a mysterious creature causing trouble on a ship dock, and keep going from there.

    Anyway, I’ve read all the advice that says one is supposed to Start With Action, Drop The Reader Into The Action Immediately, so I started with a chase scene. I should go back to that story. Hmmm…

    I’ve been thinking of getting back to baking bread, but we don’t eat enough to make big loaves worthwhile. Where are you getting your recipes? I’ll have to hunt down some small-yield recipes.

    And good luck with the trial separation holiday!


  • Ugh. I should have used the html code strike for the “trial separation” up there. Sorry!


  • Gordon


    I agree completely about Terry Pratchett – one of the distinctive things about his books was the way that he set the scene for a few pages with some general observations, only gradually introducing the characters along the way. Early Stephen King was like that, too – almost nothing happens in The Shining for 100 pages or more, but it’s gripping. It’s one hallmark of a good story, for me, that the author creates the world and sets the scene, and once you’re comfortable, all bets are off.

    But people nowadays don’t want long descriptions, they want action and dialogue. One cliche is that English literature students tend to write novels that start with 2 or 3 pages of description of a heath, like Thomas Hardy, and of course No One Writes Like That Anymore. But how many great stories are never published because agents and publishers can’t see their value? (NB – I’m not talking about mine here!)

    Mind you, one advantage of audiobooks is I can’t skip the boring descriptions and skip to the conversations…


  • Gordon


    Ah, Iain Banks. Any writer who’s written over 400 books like he has is bound to be variable. Use of Weapons is apparently his fans’ favourite SF book of his. I think it’s a bit meh. I do like Excession – and I think the opening is a blast – but for me it’s one for the committed Banks reader. Once you’re familiar with the universe he’s created, then you can see how he’s playing around with it, and subverting it, in the book. But all those machine-code transcriptions – sheesh!

    I suppose it’s too late now, but I usually recommend The Player of Games for anyone who’s curious but unsure. It’s quite short, playful, and builds nicely to a satisfying big finale. The main character is a bit of a pompous ass, sure, but he Learns Some Important Lessons by the end. Inversions is also very different – more fantasy than SF, at least at first, two apparently unrelated stories that come together by the end.


  • Gordon

    By the way, Tamar, speaking of Haruki Murakami, as I did in the blog, have you come across his novel “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”? It’s part mystery, part fantasy, part I don’t know what. Very strange, very elusive, and in many ways a very beautiful book.


  • Gordon, I’m happy to try Banks again. I don’t … it was more that I tried two of C’s favorites and hated them and he hated one of my favorites! I’m sure C has Player of Games about the house somewhere, so I’ll hunt it up and give it a try. (At the least, he’ll be pleased to see me trying again.)

    I could sort of see what Banks was doing with Excession, I just … wasn’t amused. It might be that it’s the sort of thing that’s more ‘meta’, so a new reader wouldn’t get it at all!

    Anyway. I’m four inches from being finished with some quick, to-be-felted slippers for this winter, and then I have writing to do!


  • Gordon

    Hi SongBird,

    Oh, I’m not touting for trade for Iain Banks! I think he does pretty well, all things considered. Though there was a time when I was a very big fan. I also love some of his non-SF books, especially The Crow Road (and Espedair Street which has a improbably sentimental awww-type happy ending!) But though I really hate to say it I fear his best days may be behind him.

    I realised, I got so carried away on the subject of books I forgot to answer your bread question. First of all, you can make big loaves, as I do, let them cool, then slice them and bag them up and put them in the freezer, 3 or 4 slices in a bag, say. That way you can get fresh bread every day without it going stale, and the defrosted bread is honestly just like fresh-baked. It works for croissants, too, just defrost and put in the oven for 5-8 minutes and you’re in butter heaven!

    I have a small library of bread books. I can especially recommend anything by Peter Reinhart, whose books are a sort of bread porn (oh yeah baby). His Bread Maker’s Apprentice is something of a bible on the subject of traditional baking, while his Artisan Breads Every Day embraces the artisan revolution (no kneading, just stretch-and-fold, then leave overnight in the fridge to bake next day). I combine the best of both worlds – I assemble the ingredients and knead the old-fashioned way the night before, then leave overnight in the fridge, take out next morning, shape and leave to rise and then bake. That way you can fresh bread for lunch without getting up before 9am…

    Apologies for the overlong post,

  • Leigh

    Not to change the subject, buuttt…

    Could you please blow some of that rain over this way please? It is 100 out with a heat index into the 120’s

    Thank you very much.

  • Gordon

    Hi Leigh,

    I was listening to WGBH Boston today and they were saying it was going to be 102 today, 100 again tomorrow. Whereas we’re around the mid-60s, and yesterday I was wearing a pullover to keep the chill out!


  • Oooh, bread books! Thanks tons – I’m going to a bookstore this weekend, so I’ll see if I can find them!