Wot I dun in my hollydayz
On the last line of a completed first draft of a book, I always solemnly, and with a certain degree of emotion. write the word 'Finis'. On the one hand is the satisfaction of seeing a project safely through, and on the other there is a certain sense of anti-climax, as something that has dominated my life for the last year abruptly vanishes. Of course the book is far from a completed work - there are pictures to be captioned, an index to compile, and numerous corrections and the occasional section to rewrite to editorial specifications. However, once that first draft has been sent off, there's always a delay before the other jobs begin, and I have the strange feeling of waking up without knowing what I'll be doing that day.
Quite by co-incidence, it happened that I finished my latest project just as August was beginning. It seemed a good idea to try taking a summer holiday before starting the next book in September. So I took my lily-white body to the beach and even tried swimming a bit. Picnics by the lake are also good fun, I have discovered. I came across 'Ancient Warfare' magazine, and decided to submit an article. (Which has just been published in the September edition.) I also made a nuisance of myself on various online ancient history forums, and began preparing another article for Amphora online magazine which should be ready soon.
Now with September here, I'm comfortably back in harness with a deadline - actually two - waiting in 2010. With a pleasing symmetry as I start one book another is making its first public appearance. So later this month, say hello to the 'Classical Compendium' or in the UK version, 'Philip Matyszak's Classical compendium' - the first book I've ever done with my name in the title.
Although I'm known in ancient history circles for my sweet and sunny nature, I have to confess this fails somewhat on the subject of builders. I desperately want to see less of the species, with their saggy sun-burned bellies and execrable taste in pop music.
You see, when I am not working in a library, I tend to work at home, and the vicinity of my home attracts builders as a honey-pot attracts flies. When I was writing my thesis in Oxford, builders were rebuilding our student flats. Once I went out to complain about the noise and got back to find that a builder had fallen through the roof on to my desk.
In Austria, they knocked down the house next to our front garden and noisily built a bank. Then they moved to a vacant lot behind the house, and started a large apartment building.
We fled to Canada, where my persecutors zealously demolished the house adjoining my back fence, and have spent the last four months putting up two large houses in its place. I've spent the morning trying to translate Apollodorus while the house shudders gently in accompaniment to a digger tearing up a driveway a few yards from my kitchen window.
Voodoo dolls and prayers to the cthonous gods have failed me. It may be time for a bazooka.
The book club
I am a member of a sort of club. We do not have a president, or a list of members, and as we are scattered all over the planet, we certainly do not have monthly meetings. There is only one criterion for entry - members need to regularly publish material on the ancient world, and be prepared to read and comment on the pre-published material of other members.
This is useful, because while production editors often have a broad knowledge of the topic, the opinions of a specialist can be essential in pointing out that a particular bit of information is outdated, or that some minor detail is incorrect. As a result I always feel more reassured when I know that my work has been scrutinized by someone who really knows the topic, and that the chances of the text containing any major howlers have been greatly reduced.
There is also the additional benefit that I get a considerable percentage of my reading material completely free. I see that in the last month I have had two complete unpublished books land in my inbox, and chapters from two works in progress. In return I have sent off for scrutiny chapters 1-4 of my current production as well as a magazine article.
As a side benefit, we tend to update each other on other writers, agents, editors and publishing houses, and point out reviews of completed works that might have been missed by the authors in question. Manus manum lavat, indeed!
Life as a writer consists of taking large things and breaking them down into littler things. If you asked me to write a history of the Macedonian Wars, the scale and complexity of the task would make it discouragingly daunting. So one week I concentrate on researching the causes of the First Macedonian War, and the next week I arrange my notes on that research into coherent form. Then I concentrate on writing 500-1000 words a day until I have completed the topic, and a year later I look up, and the book is done. (You can read it this coming November.)
Finances are handled in the same way. Twice a year the royalty cheques arrive (all publishers tend to pay at the same time), and the payment has to be carefully sliced into six, with each sixth representing a month's income until the next payout. The advance for a book is all well and good, but its a loan not a payment, and is deducted from each royalty cheque until the book starts earning its keep.
Though it may not pay that much, I and several friends in the same line of work consider ourselves pretty rich. I spent this morning happily researching Cicero's 'De Natura Deorum', and then my wife and I took a stroll along the lake to our local coffee shop and watched the sailboats. After lunch I'll have a nap, and then get stuck into the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. I'll break for a drink on the deck at four, and before supper potter around the garden and pick a few strawberries.
Perhaps the next book might be that blockbuster bestseller that earns me millions. But apart from building a full-sized library extension on to the side of the house, I'm not sure there's that much else I'd change.
Ah, indexing time has come around again. I have to say that I sometimes envy the writers of fiction who never have to come up with a reference to what kind of armour their dragon riders (or whoever) were wearing at whatever battle they have decided to invent. I on the other hand, have to dig out my old copy of Robinson to ensure that the armour is correct, document this for my references and index, and then cross-check it with archaeological reports of the battle in question to make sure that the armour did indeed appear at that time.
And then my friendly editor will probably note that though I have the book and author noted in my references, I've omitted the page number so please can I go back and check that too. And of course I do, firstly because she won't stop until I've done it, but secondly because that's part of the job. While I like to spout off prose in a fine literary frenzy, doing history means nailing your opinions to verifiable facts, and being able to produce those facts when challenged.
This means that sometimes a casual comment taking up all of two lines can be the result of an afternoon's rooting around a library, or on occasion requiring a physical check of the actual site or artifact in question. (This is often done by long-suffering friends who know better than to mention a trip to Greece Italy or Turkey, lest they get stuck with several additions to their itinerary.)However, there is a definite satisfaction when an elusive reference or obscure fact is finally tracked down and firmly attributed. It's a very uncomfortable feeling knowing that you've put something into a draft text when you're not sure where that particular factlet came from.