Getting ahead of myself
The past two weeks have revealed one of the disadvantages of living in the Okanagan Valley deep in the interior of British Columbia. Even fans of the town where I live (and they are many) admit that it is no hotbed of ancient history. In fact the local library has four books on the subject - two of which I donated. I could not live here if not for the internet, by which I keep in contact with academics and enthusiasts all over the world, and maintain extensive links to online journals.
But there are times when friends are unavailable, and the books I need are not online, university libraries won't lend them and they can't be ordered from booksellers. And that's the case now. I knew that with my current project I was going to need a particular rare and out-of-print book, and eventually managed to get a copy printed to order. (This system, called 'print on demand', is becoming increasingly common, but with some books it takes time.) Also, I need access to the pictures of a friend who has wandered all over a site for which I need good maps and photos. Inconsiderately, this individual is currently on holiday in Peru.
It's my fault. Had I stuck to my original milestones when I mapped out the project, I'd only need this material in October, and it is all arranged to be sitting on my desk by then. But as happens more often than my long-suffering wife would like, I got carried away. I occasionally found myself still hammering away at the keyboard at 2 a.m. as I put a sequence of events into text while it was all crystal-clear in my mind. So I'm now finishing chapter nine when I should be starting chapter six.
So now I have to wait for the world to catch up. Fortunately sunny weather, high temperatures and four miles of lakeside beach bring to mind a few possibilities for passing the time. I got mildly sunburned yesterday while reading an article on cataphracts. At the time I was at a picnic site halfway up a mountain overlooking the lake. After all, I wouldn't be here if life didn't also have its benefits.
Developers and writers don't mix
As those who have read previous entries may be aware, builders are my personal Nemesis. Since I work from home, and the work requires a certain degree of concentration, I choose to live in peaceful places like a Tyrolean village or a small town in the Canadian interior. Here the only sounds are birdsong, an occasional dog barking in the distance, and close at hand the clank and crash of heavy machinery.
In the last four years - within a hundred meters of my study (wherever that happened to be at the time) - four houses have been built and three demolished. within that same hundred meters, builders have also erected a bank, and an apartment block. They've also dug up the road to a depth of three meters and reinstalled sewage and water pipes - something that they last did fifty years ago and chose to repeat in the year I was at that address.
So it is with a certain lack of surprise that I discovered that work on a duplex has begun where was once the garden of the house next door. Fortunately, the builders have decided to start work in July. I know from bitter experience that the maximum disruption occurs while the foundations are being excavated and foundations put in. This means that over the next few weeks of summer I have reason to abandon the house and work on the beach, in the park or in picnic spots in the hills.
Anyone visiting the Okanagan who sees a bearded gent quietly snoozing over a copy of Thucydides in the shade of a vineyard need not alert the authorities. My homelessness is entirely voluntary, and so far not at all unpleasant.
I've also to report that another two of my books are going into foreign language editions, so that's another two volumes to add to the multi-lingual bookcase where I keep different editions of my work. On the coffee table there's currently a very handsome copy of a Spanish magazine to which I recently contributed an article. It gives my study a cosmopolitan look which nicely contrasts with the orange mechanical digger outside the window.
Of noses and grindstones
This may sound strange, but I'd say that about forty percent of my time is spent actually writing books. When you think about it, this may not be as odd as it looks - after all, how much time does a fireman spend actually fighting fires? Even apart from the time I spend teaching, the actual writing sometimes takes second place to other aspects of this hobby I call my job.
First of all, like most writers, I don't write a book and then see if I can get a publisher for it. Instead I pitch an idea to a publisher (or a publisher pitches an idea to me) and there follows a discussion, resulting in negotiations, and hopefully a contract. That takes a bit of time and work but I still can't get writing as soon as that's done. First I have to read, and read a lot. While I generally know a fair bit about a topic before I think about writing on it, the three months after signing a contract are spent becoming an expert. This means reading as much as I can on the subject, and putting together the essential facts on strips of paper joined by tape. Then I spend more time tracking down the gaps on those strips of paper, and filling them in from various academic journals, by badgering people in libraries around the world to photocopy obscure articles for me, and occasionally getting facts physically checked on the ground or in a particular museum.
Then, when I've got things planned down almost to the paragraph level, I start writing. At which point I usually realize I have to re-arrange my entire planned format, and begin cutting and re-joining my taped pages. It's generally at about then that I get an urgent request to proof-read through the galleys of an earlier book, or begin work on that book's index or maps. Or a book that I wanted to read becomes available for review, or I'm asked to do a magazine article on a topic I've always been keen on.
With that all out of the way, it's time to get back to the word processor. However, by now I've been at the computer for weeks, and my wife decides it's time for me to briefly rejoin the human race. So I get hauled off to the mountains, or a lake, or a forest cabin or anywhere with no internet access and where ancient history is the time Jamie was scared by a bear in 1982.
Fortunately the weather has been vile this spring, so I've been able to get my head down and hammer away at the keyboard. When I have all my ducks in a row I can produce over 2000 words in a day. Sometimes at the end of it I feel fresher than when I started, simply because of the sheer relief of pouring all those pent-up ideas onto the page. That's what I've been doing for much of May. However, my wife has pointed out that the lawn has grown almost to the height of the windows, and now that the sun is out, a trip deep into the woods would be lovely ...
A while ago, I was talking with a colleague about a somewhat savage review of one of her books. Because I know both the topic and the reviewer in question I was not greatly surprised - the reviewer and my colleague have a number of long-standing personal and professional disagreements. And that's the problem. The reader has a right to believe that a review is an impartial opinion of whether a book is worth the effort of buying and reading. Sadly, many a review is not quite so objective.
A review might well be written by someone who has written a rival book, or who has a pet academic theory and is miffed that the current book does not whole-heartedly endorse it. Then there's the 'catty post-grad' type review which doesn't get past a list of the typos and minor errors to look at the book as a whole. Or the journalist who has evidently not read the book past the blurb on the back cover ... and well, one can go on and on. I consoled my colleague by pointing to a wonderfully batty review of one of my books on amazon.com. This is a non-fiction account of the Roman army in AD 100. The reviewer says 'I was most disappointed with the novel. The characters are ill-defined and one-dimensional. The plot had no unusual turns and was easily predictable.' Well, quite.
Compare this with Michigan War Studies Review of the same book (at http://www.michiganwarstudiesreview.com/2010/20100305.asp). This is one of my favourite reviews, in that it is both critical and informative. The comments were valuable to me when I came to write 'Gladiator' as a follow-up book.
Because a good way to get books is to review them, I sometimes ask certain journals if they want me to comment on a book I need to read anyway; so I've some experience on the reviewer's side of the fence. However, I have the advantage of being fairly well-known in my field, and if there is something in a book I am not sure about, or disagree with strongly, I usually contact the author and ask about it. Then even if we still disagree, I include both my opinion and the author's rebuttal. This is because I feel strongly that a review is not a platform for the reviewer's own opinions, and it is certainly not the place to score a few points in an academic grudge match. If a review doesn't help readers to decide whether a book is worth reading, then there's no point in doing it.
Fortunately, and despite the examples of bad reviews I've given above, most reviews are by professionals or amateurs who are both passionate and knowledgeable. Generally, a good book will get plenty of good reviews. And in that context, a really negative review sticks out like a sore thumb and is more of an indictment of the reviewer than the writer. A review in an influential journal definitely affects short-term sales, but in the long run it can't keep a good book down or puff a bad book up.
And I always remember what a wise editor told me many years ago. 'Never answer a critic - unless he's right.'
Of Writers and Authors
Somewhere I read that there's a difference between writers and authors. For me, last month was an author month. Being an author means air travel, doing interviews with the media, having conferences with publishers and agents, giving talks (in this case at my old college in Oxford) and boozy evenings in pubs.
There's a lot in favour of being an author, and it's my guess that many people are thinking about the author side of the business when they say they want to write a book. However, you become an author when you've written a book. Actually writing the thing is a horse of a different colour. For that you have to be a writer.
Being an author is a social business. It involves talking to people, from reviewers to editors to the general public. On the other hand, a writer inhabits a solitary, perhaps even a lonely world, where the all that matters are ideas and the blank space on the word processor where you put them. For a non-fiction writer, there's also the facts, and where to find them.
You're a writer if you feel vaguely dissatisfied when you have not written your self-imposed quota of words for the morning, and a non-fiction writer if you can spend all afternoon in the library nailing down a single detail (which you may later decide not to use anyway).
An author enjoys reading good reviews and seeing his name in the media. A writer looks at his royalty statements and wonders if he wouldn't make more money flipping burgers. On the face of it, the author has it much better. But the odd thing is that although I enjoy both sides of the job, on the whole I still prefer being a writer.