Burnt Toast Editorial

The #NoBullshit Publishing Consultancy

Category Archive:Novels

J.K. Rowling and Norman Mailer. How two authors of blockbusters planned their plots.

One wouldn’t readily think there’s a literary or publishing connection between J.K. Rowling, author of the world’s most famous wizard since either Oz or Merlin and the late American writer Norman Mailer,¹ an author best known for his pugilistic and bruising intellectualism.

What is it that binds these two unlikely literary behemoths other than their obvious star selling power? The answer is planning the plot; what Tony Buzan would call “mind mapping” or what was known in the 1970s as “idea sunbursting”.

Currently held in the Mailer archive in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, ² the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost reveals how its author managed the monumental amount of ideas, events, and characters that propel a novel about the CIA from 1959-1964 to its 1,100 plus pages conclusion. ³

So vast and complex are the strands that pull the story of Mailer’s central character of Harry Hubbard, that each year is worked out in detail with key plot and character developments highlighted with column headings e.g. “Havanna”, “Judith Campbell” (JFK’s mistress), “Hoover and FBI”, and “RFK” (Robert Kennedy). In the column “World Events” you will find amongst many other entries: “Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate” (1959), “Berlin Wall goes up” (1961), “Glenn first American to orbit Earth” (1962), “Kim Philby named as Soviet spy by British” (1963), and “Sex scandal forces out John Profumo” (1963).

Under the column “Miscellaneous”, Mailer identified contemporaneous keynote detail such as the films La Dolce VitaGoldfingerCleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and Psycho; the publication of books such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Tin Drum and Hertzog; and popular music hits as in Moon Riverand Let’s do the Twist. He even made a reference in the “JFK” column to Motown Records and some of their most famous acts of the time − the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

Yet, Mailer is far from being the only author whose plot planning and story outlines have been captured in formats not entirely dissimilar. Nor is it the first example of plot planning by map, for example Joseph Heller’s plan for Catch 22 was hatched in this fashion. But it is perhaps the most fascinating for its use of historical event to flesh out character and context and clearly demonstrates Mailer’s expertise in this form of literary writing. 

Which brings me to J. K. Rowling. A writer whose stories could not be further from those of Norman Mailer – except in one respect – they both write (wrote in the case of Mailer) bumper-sized books with complex plots. Just take a look below at how she mapped out the plot of The Order of the Phoenix, drafted on hole-punched A4 lined paper no less! 

¹ Norman Mailer (1923-2007). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

² For the Harlot’s Ghost mind map at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas click http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2011/06/16/in-the-galleries-mailers-character-timeline-for-harlots-ghost/

³ Mailer’s original intention was to write a two-volume chronicle of the CIA of which Harlot’s Ghost was the first. The project was never completed.

For an enlarged version of the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/1big.jpg

For an enlarged version of J. K. Rowling’s plan of The Order of the Phoenix click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/3big.jpg

To purchase a copy of Harlot’s Ghost click here.

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Arthur and George by Julian Barnes is our Book Pick for June!

I’m a fan of the English writer Julian Barnes; I admire his economical use of language and his careful construction of the plot lines and psycho-drama of his novels. A little while back I read his tenth book Arthur and George, first published in 2005, and what struck me was how well he had researched a criminal case that became an Edwardian cause célèbre with the involvement of the creator of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

Julian Barnes.

George Edjali, a young lawyer of mixed race – whose father was an Indian Parsee who converted to Christianity, became a clergyman, and came to England to take up a country parish in Staffordshire – was accused of the crime of “ripping horses” in Wyrley in 1903. 

These incidents became known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages” and were sensationalised in the newspapers of the day. Edjali was arrested, charged and sentenced to seven years penal servitude, reduced to three after a petition was raised for his release. Conan Doyle became involved when he read of Edjali’s determination to clear his name and his family’s reputation, and resume his professional life after having been banned from practising law.

Conan Doyle investigated the circumstances surrounding the “rippings” and was convinced that Edjali was an innocent man. Using his celebrity to generate public interest in the case, he lobbied the Home Office for a pardon and due compensation for Edjali. One of the outcomes of this campaign and the light it threw on certain legal and police procedural practices was the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. 

George Edjali, Police photograph, 1903.

Julian Barnes used a number of sources to help shape the novel’s characters, their motivation, their psychology, and to convey the social attitudes of the period. Conan Doyle was convinced that Edjali was convicted of the crimes due to two critical factors: firstly that he was of mixed race and reportedly “looked strange”, and second that the Staffordshire Constabulary was not only incompetent but made the crime fit the man. What had convinced Conan Doyle of Edjali’s innocence was on first meeting him he noticed the younger man’s severe myopia; Doyle had once been a specialist in opthalmology before finding success as a writer. 

Seeing, yet not seeing, lies at the heart of Arthur and George. It’s a powerful rumination on identity, Englishness, life and death, guilt and innocence, and the grey space existing between.

For further information and material on the Edjali case see Birmingham City Council archives at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/edalji 

For information about George Edjali see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Edalji

To listen to a 1987 BBC radio dramatization of the case click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePHl02pqjQE

For the Conan Doyle letters to the Chief Constable of Staffordfordshire concerning the Edalji Case see http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22713/lot/134/

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What do olives and Charles Dickens have in common? The #wonderword oleaginous.

Here’s another glorious #wonderword – oleaginous. As you pronounce (olee-a-gee-nus) it’s hard to resist elongating and savouring the sound of this elastic adjectival word.

Its etymological origin is Middle English from the French oléagineux and the Latin oleaginous (“of the olive tree”) and its meaning is two-fold:

1) rich in, covered with, or producing oil;

2) unctuous, exaggeratedly complimentary, fawning, smarmy.

Thus, oleaginous is a perfect combination of meaning and descriptive representation.

Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is arguably the most powerful depiction of someone who’s oleaginous. When Dickens’ eponymous hero first encounters Heep, Dickens holds nothing back in his descriptive powers:

“Heep’s face was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.”

“He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.”

Like many of Dickens’ villains, Heep is motivated mainly by greed; yet embodied in his character there’s a commentary on the English class system. As the plot of David Copperfield unfolds Heep eventually reveals his lifelong resentment at being the object of charity and low expectations. His thwarted ambition is the driving force behind his cunning and villainy.

Much of Dickens’ fiction was inspired by personal experience and scholars have attributed the inspiration for Uriah Heep as either Hans Christian Andersen, ¹ whom the author met in 1847 shortly before writing David Copperfield or more likely Thomas Powell, a friend of Dickens’ ne’er do well brother Augustus and an employee of Thomas Chapman, a friend of the author. Powell apparently ” … ingratiated himself into the Dickens household” and was duly discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled £10,000 from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in a number of pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens’ social class and background. ²  So quite a step from olives to embezzlement!

¹ Hawes, Dennis, Who’s Who in Dickens, (Routledge), 1998, p. 109.

² “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens” see http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Gallery/g322.htm

Click here for a biography of Charles Dickens at the BBC website.

Click here for information about the actor Bransby Williams.

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Pancrazio’s legacy: the literary shaping of a novelist from our guest writer Marius Gabriel.

My parents’ house was full of books, thousands of them; and I have belonged to many public libraries in different countries. But two particular libraries shaped my mind more than any others. The first was in Villa Valverde, in Sicily, where I spent part of my childhood.

The Villa Valverde was a pensione which had been built by my paternal grandfather, Pancrazio Cipolla. He’d spent decades working in London hotels, rising from waiter to manager. He took his savings back to Taormina and built Valverde around 1910, as a luxurious retreat for British tourists.  It had all mod cons, including a library of English books. These had all been supplied by a publisher who specialized in such things, and were in a uniform edition of brown leather with gold tooling, proudly stamped with the hotel name and crest. The books were all Victorian and masculine – Sir Walter Scott, Charles Kingsley, Conan Doyle, Fennimore Cooper and the like.

It was here I met Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, and Amyas Lee, and Sherlock Holmes and Natty Bumppo, and the ‘Man Who Would Be King.’ Rather heavy going, since I was not yet ten, but I swallowed it all down in huge draughts.

The second library was at my high school, when my peripatetic parents took us from Sicily to South Africa. It was in a decaying part of the school that has long since been knocked down (we used to spear rats there during break, with compasses tied to rulers). The collection itself was large, and consisted mainly of bequests from Old Boys, some of them dating back to Edwardian and Victorian times, and smelling strongly of tobacco and damp. No attempt had been made to catalogue or filter this heterogeneous collection. They were simply in alphabetical order according to author. In my six years there, I must have read almost every volume.

I lugged home bound editions of Punch dating from the 1850s to the First World War, which was where I began to pick up what little modern history I know (and developed a fondness for weak jokes.) I found, and read with wide eyes, Henry Miller (an education of a different kind), Colette (I had to ask my mother what a Lesbian was) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (nothing left to the imagination there).

I read fusty old copies of Sheridan le Fanu, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson. I ploughed my way through novelists popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s: Sinclair Lewis (I must have read Kingsblood Royal a dozen times), Thornton Wilder, Edgar Wallace; Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck (I adored him), J.B. Priestly (very heavy going), Daphne du Maurier, A. J. Cronin, H.G. Wells (where I learned what socialism was); Robert Graves (also pretty hot stuff) and Somerset Maugham.

I read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. I read at night, under the sheets, with a flashlight, till two in the morning. I read on the bus to and from school. I read on the toilet and at the supper table. I read without even knowing why I read at times, so long as the words on the page held me.

A tenacious memory for useless things means that many of these books are still rattling around inside my head, and will surface at odd moments; or, what is worse, half-surface, and lead me a merry dance trying to recall which book and which author, in which library, in which country, in which year…

© Marius Gabriel, 2019.

Marius Gabriel, our guest writer

Marius is the author of eight sagas and historical novels, including the best-sellers The Mask Of TimeThe Original Sin, and The Seventh MoonCosmopolitan accused him of “Keeping you reading while your dinner burns”. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, and now divides his time between London and Cairo. He has three grown-up children.

His latest novel, The Ocean Liner is set post-Second World War and published by Lake Union, is available on Amazon or by placing an order with Marius via his website. His next book The Parisans is scheduled for publication later tihis year. You can view all of Marius’s book  (and there are many) on his Wiki entry 

You may also be interested to read Marius’s GoodReads page where he writes a blog. If you like cooking Marius is the man for you. Baking bread being a speciality. 

P.S. Marius served his author apprenticeship as a student at Newcastle University. To finance his postgraduate research, he wrote 33 Mills & Boon romances under a pseudonym. His identity as a man had to be kept secret until he turned to longer fiction under his own name.

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