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The Sign of the Ship & Black Swan

Or, if you will, notes on writing and publishing. Most, however, will be found here once it’s up and running: Pen & Sword: Observations on the Adventure of Writing and the Writing of Adventure.



My own writing has three critical inspirations: the truth rather than myth, trope, and cliché, popular though they may be; the desire to avoid repeating what has already been written many times; and, especially, to write books I want to read but can’t because they don’t exist.

I don’t write for “lazy readers,” as one publisher recently described the modern sort in general as part of his argument to me that I must simply my dialogue in Fortune’s Favorite, the sequel to Fortune’s Whelp. (I refused, but the deal breaker was actually the absurd, even reprehensible new requirement that I pay for line editing. No legitimate press requires this, ever. The sequel will be published elsewhere.)

Frankly, I don’t agree at all that most modern readers are lazy, not to mention that I know my audience well: its members are intelligent and want reasonably intelligent works. In fiction, authenticity and upmarket writing, not common cliché-driven formulaic genre. In non-fiction, truth, not myth-pandering and over-simplification. I’ve no intention of contributing to the further dumbing-down of modern writing, not in scholarship, not in entertainment. Simplification is understandable, even necessary, in a film script, but a novel need not be, and should not be, over-simplified.

As for simplifying dialogue, I’ll stick with John Dickson Carr’s reasoning, lines brought to me by an appropriate serendipity soon after it was suggested I simplify dialogue that in fact is neither period nor difficult.

In Mr. Carr’s words from the Editor’s Note to Most Secret (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964): “Again, Colonel Kinsmere’s characters talk so entirely in the style of the seventeenth century that Mr. Darlington and I were somewhat tempted to woo readers by modernizing it. But this, as contemporary letters and diaries attest, is how people really did think and speak in the year 1670; it makes very easy reading when long sentences are punctuated into short ones; and we have decided neither to alter nor to apologize.”

Most Secret is, of course, entirely fiction and only pretends to have been based on a period manuscript. In fact, its speech is not truly period, the tongue-in-cheek claim notwithstanding, but takes a middle ground with the judicious use of some period language, making Mr. Carr’s point even more relevant in regard to dialogue. As for mine, it’s far less “period” even than Mr. Carr’s.


The “Ship & Black Swan”

The page title is taken from a series of late 17th and early 18th century London publishers whose credits include some of buccaneer, privateer, and explorer William Dampier’s works and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson CrusoeThe Black Swan is also the title of one of Rafael Sabatini’s famous swashbuckling romances, in which a former filibuster known for his cunning and swordplay faces off with Ned Leach, a notorious pirate. Naturally, at stake is also a woman’s hand.


In 1673, the Black Swan was the sign of bookseller Charles Smith in Fleet Street, London, next to the Horn tavern. Eleven years later, bookseller D. Brown was located at the Black Swan “without Temple Bar.” In the next decade, Brown’s books were sold at the signs of the Black Swan and Bible. At roughly the same time, the famous Churchill brothers, publishers of notable voyages of adventure and exploration among other titles, began publishing at the sign of the Black Swan at Paternoster Row.

Circa 1720 the signs of the Ship and Black Swan at Paternoster Row belonged to early eighteenth century English publisher and book seller W. Taylor, who was followed by J. Osborne and Thomas Longman. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example, was published by W. Taylor at his two shops, the Ship and the Black Swan in Paternoster-Row. Modern publisher Pearson Longmon is descended from Thomas Longman’s publishing house established in 1725. (The House of Longman 1724-1924 is available in e-book form [.pdf] via Google books.)


Quotes on Writing

In lieu for now of possible blogs on writing I might one day post (and might not—writers’ advice is often overrated, tarnished by vanity, and too personal to be of much use to others, and these are criticisms I try to avoid receiving), here’s some commentary I’ve found useful, some as a writer, some in general.


Nunca la lanza embotó la pluma ni la pluma la lanza [the lance never blunted the pen nor the pen the lance]”.

—Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.


“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers,” in Virginibus Puerisque, 1881.


“In the glorious year of 1929, 10,187 books were published in the United States, among them John Steinbeck’s first novel, “Cup of Gold,” which eventually achieved what, for a first novel, was the respectable but unremunerative total sales figure of 1533 copies. On came 1930 with its ten thousand books, and “Cup of Gold” and John Steinbeck were buried under that avalanche of up-to-the-minute new books which, under our publishing system, is constantly burying good books that suffer from the unpardonable disgrace of being a few weeks older.”

—Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune, in the introduction to Cup of Gold, 1936



“The true Augustan age of literature can never exist until works shall be as accurate, in their typography, as a “log book,” and as sententious, in their matter, as a “watch-bill.”

—James Fenimore Cooper, in the preface to The Red Rover, 1827


“Finally, after a quarter of a century of struggle, enormous success came to this writer whom critics would later erroneously accuse of catering to the public.”

The book in question was Scaramouche, published in June 1921. Its manuscript had been rejected by seven or eight publishers; one had offered him fifty pounds total for the rights. Sabatini refused the offer. The novel was published by chance by Houghton Mifflin, and only because an editor saw its manuscript by accident and took a risk, in spite of not believing in this type of historical novel. In fact, chance plays a much greater role in publishing than either writers or publishers are willing to acknowledge. Writers like to believe in the quality or even “greatness” of their writing, publishers and agents in their perspicacity. Only rarely is either alone sufficient to ensure success.

—Quotation and Sabatini history from The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini by Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley.
Commentary my own.


“Dramatize! But with absolute respect for the truth.”

—Garamond in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989



“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —”

—Emily Dickinson (with thanks to Ruth Heredia for reminding me of the line)


“I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper, than of a sword or pistol.”
—Caderousse in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1889)



“Anybody can write a short story—a bad one, I mean—who has industry and paper and time enough; but not everyone may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson in “My First Book—’Treasure Island’,” 1894



“It proved a very dark rainy night…”

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

The first quote is Daniel Defoe’s, from his novel The King of Pirates, 1719, the second is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s, from the first line in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Defoe’s line was placed within a paragraph well into the story. The similarity is probably coincidence but goes to show how similar some writers’ lines can be—and how one will become cliché while another will not.


“One tale is good till another is told.”

—English proverb, quoted in Select Proverbs…Chiefly Moral, 1707


Advice on Writing

If and when I have time and get past my reservations on giving advice, reservations lately more and more weakened by the behaviors of some publishers. Any such advice will be posted here: Pen & Sword: Observations on the Adventure of Writing and the Writing of Adventure.


Old Posts…

March 7, 2012: Jacket Blurbs

Four views on book blurbs, from an article in the New York Times. They’re a necessary evil, I suppose, as one commentator notes. I’m not fond of the search for blurbs, but I can honestly say that of the few I’ve written, they were honest statements and I wrote them myself.


February 20, 2012: More on Amazon and Empire

From the Authors’ Guild, Amazon versus the free market. Both Amazon and Google are working hard to dominate large sectors of the book market, and many of the services they provide are indeed useful to both writers and readers (although Google’s book pages need much improvement in the way of author information and reviews). Still, authors especially should not forget that Amazon and Google are businesses first and foremost.


October 2, 2011: Public Writers AKA Scribes

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday on “public writers” in France. The fictional Cyrano’s ghost writing of love letters, it points out, was nothing unique, and has its counterpart today in France. Public writers–some employed by the French government, some self-employed–write everything from resumes to business and cover letters to billets doux for those for whom the written word is not a forte.


August 16, 2011: Fact Checking

Brief but good post online in The Atlantic Wire regarding the accuracy of the NY Times Magazine article on the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden. Secondary and hearsay sources are always tentative and always need to be noted. Whether in narrative journalism or narrative history, there is invariably a tendency to introduce as fact those scenes which are likely to have taken place but which lack documentation. The article also notes, as an example, criticisms of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for introducing narrative elements as facts. Narrative history should require a qualifier anytime a fact or detail is assumed, even if obvious, if not documented. I’ve occasionally butted heads–in a kindly fashion–with an editor over this. The structure of a narrative–of storytelling, in other words–requires scenes and transitions for which there may not be direct evidence. It is essential in the case of both current events and history that facts not be subordinated to the necessities of storytelling.


July 7, 2011: Codex Calixtinus

The Codex Calixtinus, a guidebook for Medieval pilgrims, has “disappeared” from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain–a development that could be right out of a Perez-Reverte plot. (Sorry, no apologies to Dan Brown, I much prefer Arturo Perez-Reverte and Umberto Eco.)


July 12, 2011: “Back to the Coffee House”

Excellent Op-Ed (“Back to the Coffee House”) followed by an excellent article, “The News Industry” in the July 9th-15th The Economist. Much of the discussion applies to publishing and writing in general. Two points stuck out to me, the first cynically because it’s true: “In a more competitive world the money seems to be in creatin an echo chamber for people’s prejudices.” The second point is more hopeful, but a cynic will remain doubtful: “As producers of new journalism, they can be scrupulous with facts and transparent with their sources. As consumers, they can be catholic in their tastes and demanding in their standards.” The latter will be difficult for many readers, given human nature and the state of American levels of education. This being said, there’s no reason to give up hope or give up trying.


July 12, 2011: Indie Authors

BBC article, The Rise of the Indie Author. Although I don’t entirely agree with it, it does make a point: publishing is changing.


July 12, 2011: Google Books and the British Library

Google Books and the British Library have made a deal permitting readers to search library materials on Google. Readers may search and copy texts back to the 18th century at no charge. Although there are issues with Google Books still to be sorted out, the Google electronic library has made a world of difference to researchers such as myself. Many of these out-of-print titles have been difficult to access except for scholars with university credentials.


February 3, 2011: More On e-Book Royalty Rates

A good article on the evolving status of e-book royalty rates, from the Authors Guild. See also my post below of March 19, 2010.


January 30, 2011: Bookstores and Book Sales, 2010

According the ny times Review of Books today, the US has lost 400 bookstores since 2000, to an estimated 10,600 today, even as the population has grown. On the other hand, US publishers shipped roughly 3.2 billion books in 2010.


January 21, 2011: Regarding Some Critics of the Content of Scholarly Works

Ben Edelman, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, quoted on Google’s reaction to his study accusing the company of deliberately favoring Google in its search engine results: “I don’t mind personal attacks, to be honest, because I think it shows they can’t argue against the research.” His words are a good reminder to writers that when a reviewer (often a competitor in the field, which some would argue is an ethical issue) provides no factual rebuttal to a scholarly work, but relies instead on often unintentionally amusing ad hominum attacks (he has no PhD, he has no hypothesis, he failed to rely on our ideologically-based theory = our sense of self-importance and the preservation of our ideology are more important than the facts), it proves, as Professor Edelman noted, that the reviewer “can’t argue against the research,” or for that matter, the conclusions.

Update, 15 May 2011, another view: “According to one cynical view, academic disputes are so vicious only because the stakes are so low.” It’s always good to keep this in mind, and keep one’s sense of humor, especially given that the egotists among academics don’t like being mocked, making it hard to resist such tactics, as long as they’re based on fact and solid reasoning. (Quoted from a ny times article by Mark Oppenheimer, 13 May 2011.)


September 27, 2010: More On Book Banning (and a Plug for Banned Books Week)

Good article on the unfortunate proclivity of some US parents to engage in book banning, “Why Are Parents Banning Books?” The ALA’s Banned Books Week runs from September 25 to October 2, 2010. Support the ALA’s efforts by reading banned books, and more importantly, encouraging your children to do so. “I Read Banned Books” T-shirts are available from various vendors. If your children agree, let them wear them to school.

Huntsville–the “Rocket City” and “gateway to the future”–has its own local efforts at book banning, efforts which resulted two years ago in parents being permitted to choose an alternate title to A Lesson Before Dying. The pro-book banning school board member was recently endorsed by the Huntsville Times for re-election, with nary a mention, much less criticism, of her book-banning inclination. This should be a significant area of concern for any newspaper.


August 27, 2010: “A Republic of Letters”

Robert Darnton reviewed Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air in the ny times Book Review on August 22. The book analyzes the history of the idea of knowledge as “the common property of mankind.” The debate is simple: who should own ideas and other intellectual property, and for how long? Certainly I don’t wish to give up the rights to my own work anytime soon, but the rights of the author must be balanced with the rights of the community. Is copyright protection–the life of the author plus seventy years–too long? I’d like my work, if profitable, to belong to and benefit my children, but how many generations should this income be available? In a related post below I describe the cost and difficulty of obtaining illustrations for a book. Even those in the public domain can be difficult to access reasonably.


August 15, 2010: Pinsky on Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance.

In “The New York Times Book Review” of August 15, 2010, Robert Pinsky makes a compelling argument for reading Andrew’s Pettegree’s book. Publishing, it seems, has always been fraught with difficulties not only for the publisher but for the writer, especially money-wise. Writers–especially those with a view to making money from writing books–should probably read the book, both to gain a historical sense as well as to be reminded of their purpose. Noteworthy is the point about the profitability of “news, sensation and excitement.”


April 3, 2010: The Problem of Outrageous Photo and Illustration Fees

Highly recommended new york times op-ed piece on the outrageous cost of photos and illustrations used in works of non-fiction, especially in regard to digital issues: “The End of History (Books)” by writer and editor Marc Aronson. Many heavily-illustrated books are being priced out of the market by spiraling image fees and a Byzantine method for determining those fees. Mr. Aronson proposes a solution.

From the writer’s perspective, the ugly reality is that unless an author’s publisher is willing to foot the bill for photos and illustrations–and quite a few mid-list and academic publishers are not–the author is stuck with the tab, which can easily run as high as $100 per photo or illustration, and often higher. Further, each photo or illustration request is accompanied by a nightmare of calculation and paperwork regarding the size of the graphic, how many copies will be printed, and so forth. The cost can easily exceed the entire advance for a mid-list title, assuming the writer has even received an advance. Add research expenses to this, and it is wonder a writer comes out ahead at all–and many do not. Custom maps and custom artwork can be even more expensive. Cartographers and artists often price their work at corporate rates, again leaving mid-list authors out in the cold. Authors of scholarly and narrow-interest titles often accept a nominal advance (or even no advance) in order to see a book published, and if they are not careful, will wind up paying for a significant portion of the publication fees themselves, and end up after all is said and done in the red.

What can authors do about this? Foremost, if photos and illustrations are critical, writers should try to find a publisher who will pay for them. Many will, especially those whose books appeal to the reader in part because of their illustrations. If the publisher won’t pay, authors should try to have their advances increased, although even in this case they’re still paying for images out of their own pockets in the end. Otherwise, the only choice writers have is to rely on public domain images (there are millions); the writers’ own images; artwork or maps provided free or for a nominal fee by artists and cartographers who simply want to see their work in print or are trying to get themselves established; and on images provided gratis by friends, colleagues, and other helpful interested parties.

Writers can also learn to use a camera well, learn to create their own maps, and, if they have the aptitude, learn to draw. Writers are often annoyed to discover that some of the images they’ve paid exorbitant fees for can in fact be found in the public domain, had they only known where to look. Writers should learn how to locate public domain images, and how to tell if they’re truly in the public domain. Stephen Fishman’s The Public Domain: How to Find and Use Copyright Free Writings, Music, Art & More is perhaps the best place to start.


March 19, 2010: Advice on E-Book Royalty Rates from the Author’s Guild

A good article, it’s available online. Some publishers are attempting to retroactively lock in e-book royalty percentages.


March 9, 2010: Truth in Non-Fiction

Good article below on purported non-fiction, including the role of authors and publishers to fact check. Accuracy is never easy, but writers should never take the easy way out by assuming, or worse, turning a blind eye to potential inaccuracies in order to increase potential sales. Revisionism sells, and some writers are well aware of this. At the very least, in the case of new theory or revisionism, publishers should take an active role in questioning the writer’s critical sources. To say that the difference between fact and fiction is a thin line, as one person is quoted in the article, is a cop out. “Pondering Good Faith in Publishing.”


January 28, 2010: “It’s Not Fair!” Said One Wannabe Monopoly to the Other

“Deadline Looms for Google Books Deal”


January 24, 2010: Will Texting Permanently Alter English Spelling?

Perhaps I’m too set in my ways or too fond of the English written language, but let’s hope not, at least not in my lifetime. See “The Keypad Solution”.


January 24, 2010: The Formula Factory

An article on writing and publishing suitable to an age of appearance over substance, but perhaps all ages are like this.


January 3, 2010: What Good Publishers Do

“There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen” is good commentary on what publishers do–or what they should do–as opposed to what e-book publishers of existing books do, by Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Even so, many writers today complain of hasty editing and proofreading by publishers in general, leading to sometimes egregious errors in text which will only be corrected (if at all) in subsequent printings, if there are any. A writer’s experience in this regard may vary among publishers and also within a publisher, depending on the editor. Writers often complain as well as of small or even insignificant advances, late payment of advances and royalties, and meager marketing. They often feel that marketing is left largely in their own hands, and this is particularly true of mid-list titles. Most writers I know, while they want to produce work they can be proud of, also want to get paid, and marketing is vital to this process. Thankfully, most publishers remain dedicated to producing works of which both they and the writer can be proud, and most still do their best to pay their writers on time, the current economy notwithstanding.


November 2, 2008: $125 Million Settlement

Last week the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and Google settled a lawsuit over Google’s copying of millions of out-of-print but not out-of-copyright books. Google has not only been copying books whose copyrights have expired, but also those still under copyright. The search giant has placed most of the former on the web in their entirely, but also brief “snippets” of the latter as well, a practice both the Authors Guild, which represents authors’ rights, and publishing companies have objected to on the grounds of copyright infringement. Authors of such books will, once the settlement is approved, receive a small sum, and in the future will receive a share of revenues from institutional subscriptions. The entire text of such books will be available for a fee, provided the author or publisher consents. Although the ruling does not resolve the issue of whether the scanning of books still under copyright was acceptable under copyright law, and while some librarians and commentators have reservations about having a single institution control access to such a wealth of information, its protection of the value of writers’ works is a good start, and strikes a reasonable balance between the rights of writers and publishers, and Google’s desire to create greater access to out-of-print works. Google, in turn, is to be commended in particular for its effort in providing an easy access library of out-of-print, out-of-copyright, formerly hard-to-find books.

However, to date the quality of many of the Google-scanned books no longer within copyright is not ideal. Scanned fingers show up on some pages. Here and there a page is blurred and illegible. In a few cases some pages are duplicated. In many cases, fold-out maps and illustrations were not opened and scanned, but were copied in the folded position, rendering them useless. The resolution of some illustrations is less than ideal, and often the small print in some illustrations is impossible to make out. The book scans in the digital library of the Bibliotèque nationale de France set a standard Google would have been well-advised to follow. The ultimate digital library, of course, would be of high resolution photo-quality scans of each page, as is done with select works in some libraries and on some book CDs.

All this being said, the Google pdf library of books no longer in copyright is still an outstanding research source, particularly to researchers who may have only limited access to university library systems. Contrary to the image of universal access to materials, many resources remain difficult to access without a PhD and associated university post. The Google library goes a long way in aiding the researcher, whether amateur or professional.

The Authors Guild has posted resources associated with the settlement here.


October 12, 2008: Melville and the Rule Makers

This past Thursday the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a law designating Moby Dick as the state’s epic novel. The vote came after a “spirited” and even contested debate over the relative merits of the novel and of Melville as writer, as compared to other Massachusetts novels and writers. State representative Christopher Speranzo originally proposed Moby Dick as the state novel, but his proposal wilted in the face of resistance, and eventually state representives agreed on the compromise of “epic novel.” In particular, the works of Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, which include Little Women and The Scarlet Letter respectively, were cited in opposition to Melville and Moby Dick. The law must still pass muster in both the state Senate and the governor’s office.

In my own opinion, unqualified except as a reader, writer, and longtime lover of that fickle mistress, the sea, Moby Dick is the best novel ever written in the English language, and one of the best in any language. This epic tale has been analyzed, over-analyzed, and even mis-analyzed by thousands of scholars of English literature, from undergraduates to professors. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of readers have pretended to have actually read it from cover to cover without skipping pages. Several film versions have been made. There is therefore no need remind anyone of its plot and themes, nor to spoil the tale for those who have never actually read the book or for whom analysis of a novel will invariably spoil the read. But beyond the story of the white whale and a mad sea captain, beyond the book’s themes and details, Melville does something in Moby Dick that appeals to my rebellious instinct both as individual and writer, and may be the ultimate source of my affection for the book: he breaks the rules. He takes his time to tell his story. He meanders as he pleases. He breaks up his narrative with technical description. He uses obvious symbolism. He assumes his readers can think for themselves. In other words, he does what many writing teachers, book critics, and the usually banal and useless “how to write” books tell us we must never do. His manuscript might never be published today as a new novel, given modern publishing’s readily apparent non sequitur: the search for “new voices with new stories” to imitate successful books already in print. More simply, it is the search for what cannot exist–the unique conformist. Thankfully, Melville heeded his rebellious instincts then, as writers ought to now. It is the only way we will ever see another spirited debate in a state legislature over the relative merits of a host of great books whose authors have been dead for more than a century.

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