The Most Important Writing Lesson of All

I finally managed to get a galley proof of my book. But the expected euphoria at holding an actual work of art produced by my own self did not appear.

I didn’t like the look of it, the feel of it or the size of it. At 110,000 words I’d expected a doorstop sized whacking big thing, but no. It looked like a thicker version of a half-sized comic. The champagne stayed in the fridge and the party hats remained in their boxes.

And that was just the start of it.

Holding the Book

Holding the Book

But as I’ve learned in life it’s the setbacks that teach you the most. And a very big lesson was just round the corner as I sat down to read my own book in print.

The experience was completely different to the 800+ times I’d read it in A4 size electronic format. It was even different from the version I downloaded from Kindle. It was a revelation.

Every author has probably read their first chapter hundreds of times. Trying to get it right. The one chapter that sets the scene, hooks the reader and foreshadows the tale to come. As I read my first chapter for the first time in print the book took on a different feel. I could almost see the words threading through the page ahead of me, like a narrow pathway leading me into the story. The plot unfolded more slowly, the characters seemed sharper and the hints on what was to come were more subtle.

It was a different book. It was an actual honest to goodness novel, not just electronic words dancing on a screen that one day would become a book. It was real.

I reached for a party hat…..

Then I noticed that some of the typeset wasn’t quite right. The chapter titles weren’t centre-justified. There were grammatical errors even after the two professional edits and the hundreds of searches through the text for missed capitals, commas in the wrong place and quotation marks not closed. The hundreds of hours spent finishing the book for a Kindle upload looked hopelessly inadequate. The book just wasn’t publishable, I’d jumped the gun like so many of my fellow writers. I’d wanted to finish the book so badly I ignored the advice to ‘edit the book to death’ before it went public.

So, on a plane last night I sat with a pen and a highlighter going over the text once more. I edited it backwards so that I wouldn’t get wound into the story and end up being more interested in the hero’s arc that the punctuation.

It’s going to take some time to fix. No-one said it would be easy.

But, to date, it’s the most important writing lesson I’ve learned.

And it’s a lesson that we all probably have to learn at some point.

Leonardo Da Vinci and the Secret of the Mona Lisa Smile

More art from Jambo. And the unveiling of the secret of. ‘Hush’. Mona Lisa. You’ll like this, it’s an interactive post.

I’ve seen both paintings (yes there are  two Mona Lisa paintings, and it’s rumoured there is a third. All painted on blocks of wood)

And I experimented with the concept of ‘The Smile’. It’s been described as everything from ‘Enigmatic’ to ‘Wind’.

I probably discovered the secret by accident but I’m insecure enough to claim it was the end result of a studied methodology over many years. It actually was by accident and it took 3 hours.

This is a painting of my beloved. ‘La Rubio’.

Take a piece of paper and cover the left side of the face, then move the paper to cover the right side of the face. Try it a few times and see the effect.

The Mona Lisa Smile

The Mona Lisa Smile

OK. If you haven’t figured out what you’re looking at.

The face on the left hand side of the picture is happy, the face on the right hand side is sad. Put the two together and you get ‘The Mona Lisa Smile’.

Leonardo Da Vinci knew a thing or two about painting.

Opera and Contextualisation

All performance art is deepened by context – watching your favourite artist play a song as part of a bigger picture – say Live Aid, heightens the experience.

The more layers you add the deeper the contextualisation goes until the effect overwhelms the senses.

Opera is one art that overwhelms but is alien to most people on the planet. In most cases its too elitist at best and completely incomprehensible at worst.

But, if you understood what you were watching and listening to, it would transform your views on an art form that sits at the pinnacle of human experience. There is no greater or higher art form than opera.

Of course this is only my opinion, it cannot be anything but that. But, as I always ask, please indulge me for a moment and read these words before you click on the video.

The setting for this piece is Dresden. Dresden sits at the heart of European minds. Britain destroyed it one night, one terrible vengeful night. The opera is Madame Butterfly, it’s set in Nagasaki, the site of the second nuclear strike on Earth. Both of these contextual backgrounds set the scene.

The story is set in the early 20th Century where a US Navy Lieutenant called Pinkerton decides to marry a girl called Chiochio San (Chiochio is Japanese for butterfly). Although in Japan at that time  a marriage contract lasted for 99 years he knew that it had to be renewed each year.

Chiochio’s father, in the past, committed suppuku with a razor sent to him by the Mikado (the emperor) and she treasures it in a little box she carries. After her father’s death she became a geisha to support her family. And even now she is only 15 years old.

Pinkerton planned to dally with ‘Butterfly’ until he found a suitable American woman to marry. Needless to say it ends badly when he leaves then returns with an American wife to find that he has a son by Chiochio.

But that is going too far, let’s go back to the night where he declares his love for the girl and she gives herself to him.

To add further context the two artists are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu who were married at the time of the recording but divorced soon after.

And so we have the faithless Pinkerton and the hapless Chiochio San…she sings, ‘love me with a little love’….

Puccini wrote an opera to break the heart.

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for F*ck’s Sake

So sang the great 10cc.

I thought I’d do some art tonight and leave the incessant book promotion stuff for a while Stop laughing at the back there!)

My missus is out of town so tonight was pasta a la Jambo and Merlot, drunk a la Espagnol in a small tumbler. As I cooked I listened to Bocelli with some Bruch to counterpoint the lush voice of Andrea. Bruch’s Violin Cencerto No. 1 Adagio, it could bring a tear to a glass eye.

Have a listen to Joshua Bell give it a spanking here. I could have played violin like this but I’ve got one leg shorter than the other.

Anyhoo, I was in intellectual mode and after eating I wandered round my house and took some pictures of my artwork (as in stuff wot I painted). I don’t have much, I give most of it away or sell it for charity. Mostly portraits.

It was quite difficult to photograph the pieces because there was either a reflection on the glass or a flash spot from the camera – and I wasn’t in the mood to unmount them. Last time I did that I cracked the glass and that’s not a cheap replacement in Dubai. I hit on the idea of putting all the lights out and taking flash shots – surprisingly it worked OK, a few flash spots but what the hell. After a bottle of Merlot I’m lucky just to work the camera.

So, on with the art tour chez Jambo. It’s all upstairs, mainly in the upper living room.

Vase of Flowers

Orange Flower Vase

This is an acrylic on canvas – an exercise in art class that turned into  a small project. Total painting time 3 hours (I’m a fast worker).

Next is a work on a statue – I spotted this guy in a museum in Sri Lanka – it was more the way the light cut across it diagonally that caught my eye than anything. It’s oil pastel on self-coloured cardboard

Taken sideways to avert the flash

10 Minute God

It’s called 10Minute God because that’s how long it took. The trick is just to paint the lighted parts on a dark background. There’s hardly any paint on that surface.

A Murial

La Rubio in 4 Colours (sorry Andy)

Next up a large mural (what Glaswegians call a ‘murial’) that has four paintings of ‘La Rubio’ or my missus as she’s better known. It’s not quite a Warhol but it’s getting there (yes you at the back I know what bloody derivative means!)

So moving onto another derivative piece – La Rubio again but a la Lichtenstein. If the house was on fire this is what I’d grab on the way out. Acrylic on canvas

La Rubio

La Rubio – Homage to Lichtenstein

Jambo self=portrait

Artist as a Young Loon

Another quick shot – the artist as a young loon. Oil pastel on paper

German Bollocking Fodder

The primary colours on one brush



Last but not least a exercise in painting with 3 primary colours on the brush – and you had 20 minutes to nail it or the German painter gave you a good bollocking in German.





And – back to another bottle of merlot, no wait, there’s a six pack of Corona in the fridge.

That’s enuff of that intelekashul stuff for one night.

Books and Their Covers

I wondered when books started to have ‘art’ printed on the front? I guess in the old days a book was leather bound, because they were valuable and leather was the only viable option. I suppose someone had to invent the idea of paper covers for books and it’s possible that such a thing would have been seen as trivial in the old days. I’ve seen leather covers with embossing and gold leaf on the front but not many, to my mind the Victorians et al preferred a plain and sensible cover. Before purchasing a book they must have read sizeable portions of the book to find out what it was about.

Modern book buying was shorthanded by the clever use of covers to segregate the target audience, and to give the buyers a quick way to sift through a myriad of books. Embossed gold signifying a ‘woman’s book’, menacing objects signifying murder and mayhem, weird spacecraft telling of science-fiction therein. The blurbs tease with ‘Will she ever find true love?’, ‘Can the police unravel the clues in time?’ and on to intrigue the potential reader to dig deep for a purchase.

The cover has become such an important element of a book that it can never be ignored or seen as something to just wrap a book in. E-Books more so – the ‘cover’ is the first hook to sell the book. Segregation of the buyer is less important (because the books are already segregated into ‘mystery’, vampire’ and so on. What matters more than ever is an eye-catching combinations of colours and images. Then the browser can focus onto what the cover is telling

Virtual beings, hot babes, ghosts in the machine and a ‘hook’. Awesome! Or not.
Images purchased from istockphoto

them,accompanied by text that informs and teases.

I sat and thought about this for a while. My own book needs a cover and ‘blurb’. My musings took me through ‘why’ all the way down to ‘how’. A journey of self-discovery and learning was about to commence. As well as writing I paint, so there was an in-built drive to design my own cover. After all, no-one knows what the content of the book is better than me. What followed was almost as hard as writing the book.

I thought of hundreds of possibilities, looked at hundreds of book covers and browsed the book stores. This activity threw up ten good ideas, I set to producing the cover, and….nothing. Not one piece of book-art worthy of publication. And, more importantly, they didn’t tell the reader what the book was about. They were more confusing that illuminating.

Then I had a brainwave on movies. Nowadays movies share the same media platforms as books. In many ways the art of the movie poster with their lurid designs and information on who stars in the movie, who directed it and so on are redundant. But the need to reel in a purchaser remains the same. Movies need art-covers to sell. Enter IMDB, my favourite site after WordPress.

To complete the art-cover story another element appeared in the shape of Piet Mondrian. Always a favourite artist. A Dutchman who worked out how a combination of colours, their size and juxtaposition would be pleasing to the eye. No-one knows why his art is popular, or why it’s so heavily used in the advertising world (look at most make-up boxes and Piet is looking right at you) but he nailed it.

And that looped me back to my book cover. I decided it would have a Mondrian layout complete with primary colours – because a more complex description of the content can be given. From that starting point the rest was a doddle – right up until i bounced off the ‘software barrier’. None of the software I had could handle the layout plus all the ‘lets make a book-cover’ software advertised had a little note hidden at the bottom that showed it was a Photoshop plug-in. Now I’m a dab hand at assembling Ikea furniture (which a friend of mine says is a particular form of insanity) but with Photoshop I can’t get past the first instruction line. The learning curve to use Photoshop is so steep that someone (like myself) who has only a few decades left to live shouldn’t attempt it (IMHO).

A Ghost in the Machine
Image purchased from istockphoto

But the wiles of man know no bounds and with a combination of grit, perseverance, guile and accidental good luck I fooled Microsoft Word into producing the art-work. It’s not exactly what I want but it’s at least good enough to send to a professional as an example of where I’m going with the cover. I think the colours I’ve used are too intense – maybe they need to be more muted?

Once the layout was sorted I searched istockphoto to buy the images I needed. I enjoyed the experience. The photos available are amazing (at amazingly low prices too) and all of the sites were a joy to use. A lesson for all companies that seek to sell services through the web. For my money I can use the images up to 500,000 times on paper or unlimited times electronically. A real bargain I thought.

Another angle of course, a challenge not yet encountered, is the upload criteria: the format, size, numbers of pixels, file size and, I’m sure, a dozen other barriers to getting it on Kindle will arise.

That done I turned to the ‘blurb. I’d produced some as the book progressed but the story had changed somewhat (see blog ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer). Writing the blurb turned out to be as difficult as producing the cover art. I think writers have a particular problem with the blurb, because it’s not writing – it’s marketing. And should be handled by someone who knows what their doing. Being of sound mind – not, I busied away at drafts and scenarios. What emerged is OK, but like the book-art it’s maybe a framework, an idea, an insight into what I want that a professional can shape into something better.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.