Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

In The Wedding Group everyone seems to be tied to someone else in an unhealthy way. The title refers to a Wedgewood wedding group, never described, but much admired. The cold, rigid porcelain is a good metaphor in a novel looking at relationships. They are brittle, fragile, and frozen. Elizabeth Taylor scrutinises the ties that bind people, parent-child, lovers as well as in marriage.

In The Soul of Kindness she had depicted a very locked-together pair – Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan and her housekeeper Miss Folley. Miss Folley reads her employer’s letters. Mrs Secretan knows, but is unable to confront the housekeeper or find a way out of the situation. They are tied by this unspoken knowledge of each other in a distrustful relationship. It’s a fearful prospect.

76. Vir coverThe entrapment theme continues in The Wedding Group. I find the characters are the least sympathetic of any in her novels. Her previous two novels had included monsters, Angel, and Flora in The Soul of Kindness, people so unaware of their own selfishness that they damage others. The Wedding Group includes several portraits of rather awful people, although no one is very sympatique.

The story opens when a young woman, Cressy, declares her lack of faith, thus signalling her intention to move out of Quayle, the community established her larger-than-life domineering artist grandfather. Henry Bretton holds his children and grandchildren through his forcefulness. He likes to be known as the Master. He appears to have been modelled on Eric Gill, or perhaps Augustus John. Elizabeth Taylor deploys her precise observations to reveal the nature of the man: ‘one of his favourite tacks, and the discourse this evening – with no embarrassment at all to himself – was on the subject of woman in the life of man’ (48).

‘For all our precious ideals, our inventiveness it’s the essential, instinctive mother-wife we crave at last. We return, after our escapades or great deeds, to her, for forgiveness and healing and approval.’

Rachel [his wife] tried to look forgiving and healing and admiring, but had an abstracted air.

He just makes me want to vomit, Cressy thought. (48-9)

Cressy escapes to work in the village antiques shop, and to meet David and his mother, Midge. Midge lives for David, to the extent that when he is absent she hardly eats, or cares for herself. He is unaware of this.

He did not know that she dressed with the utmost care for his homecomings in the evenings. He imagined her always as she was now, had never – that he could remember – seen her otherwise. (17-8)

Midge is afraid of life without her son and uses everything in her power to retain his presence. As the story unfolds she becomes more and more dishonest in her schemes to keep him close. When she sees that David will marry Cressy she makes this naïve girl dependant upon her, and does the same to her grandson when he is born.

The mother-son relationship is based on silence, avoidance and slight references to things that matter. She also deploys dishonesty and artifice. He has been indulged for forty years, so they are both culpable. When David has rejected Cressy’s naïve advances, Midge tries to raise the subject with him. This paragraph reveals the meagreness of the mother-son relationship.

Serious matters they had always approached lightly. There had not been so very many of them. But the worries that had occurred had been treated in an off-hand, amused manner. It will all come out in the wash. Indeed they had no other manner with one another. For this reason, she had talked of Cressy’s visit and her confession, as if it were rather absurd; entertaining, certainly. Intuitive though she usually was with him, it had been a little time this evening before she realised he was not smiling, might even be angry at her flippancy. He thought the subject should not have been broached – there had been too much talking altogether – and he wished that Cressy had kept her mouth shut, had stayed away, in fact. Midge could not coax him into laughter. (109)

The lightness of touch here is indicative of a general avoidance in the middle classes in the ‘60s of matters relating to the emotions. It would all come out in the wash.

Another couple tied together in an unhealthy partnership is Archie, Midge’s estranged husband and his Aunt Sylvia. She is a great, spiteful, bed-bound creation. Their routines (French and Italian days, polishing the silver) point up the meaninglessness of their lives. Aunt Sylvia labels her hideous belongings for her beneficiaries according to how she feels about them, often removing their names from spite because they haven’t visited, forgetting who has pre-deceased her. When she dies Archie follows very quickly.

David’s marriage to Cressy is unlikely, entered with little thought by either of them. She is exceptionally naïve, almost infantile, having been brought up in the suffocating community of Quayle, and she exasperates him with her helplessness. It takes a harsh winter, an affair, and the discovery of a great big lie for this trio, David, Cressy and Midge, to untangle themselves. The baby breaks the Wedgwood Wedding Group, and I am not above reading good things into this. The baby’s action will prevent anyone being frozen in a moment in time, especially a romanticised and unreal moment. One is left with the impression that David and Cressy will make a better job of the next bit of their lives than Midge will, but, as with many of her novels, the ending is ambivalent and one feels that the characters may go on make a mess of things.

76 wed grpAs usual Elizabeth Taylor is writing about lonely and isolated people, as she says she did in everything she wrote. In this novel, they present a sad view of human lives, attempting to bind people to them in their fear of isolation.

I tried to find an image of the Wedding Group, looking on Wedgwood’s site as well as making a more general search. I have come to the conclusion that – she made it up. So I have added my old photograph of an unknown and much earlier wedding group.

76 Wdding photoHere are links to two blog reviews of The Wedding Group. The first is from Leaves and Pages, who didn’t like the novel much. Then there is Laura’s Musings, who noted the social trends, revealed in the novel.

The Wedding Group was Elizabeth Taylor’s tenth novel, published in 1968. Her next was Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which I reviewed back in February 2013. You can find my comments here, a popular post that has rarely been out of the top ten of my most read posts.

I will be reading her twelfth and final novel Blaming in March. Join me.

 

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Thinking about … Book Covers

A book’s cover is part of its aesthetic pleasure. This is one reason why I don’t warm to kindles. I’m not a luddite. I felt this way when LP albums gave way to CDs and we needed magnifying glasses to appreciate the cover art. Put it another way, book covers are an art form.

Of course they say you shouldn’t judge a book – and all that – but covers play an important role in placing a book, especially within a genre. I was brought up on Penguins, and not just the orange ones, but the green whodunnits, blue intellectual texts, black classics. Even before they stopped being purely typographical they gave out some information about the contents. Did pretentious youths of both sexes really wander about with the blue ones to impress people with their intellectualism? Oh yes they did!

75 VW mugThe penguins have been such a strong brand that they are marketed on all kinds of merchandise. What booklover hasn’t got at least one mug, tea-towel, totebag adorned with a favourite novel?

75 Steb mug

Among my favourite livery in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the green covers of Virago books, and the zebra stripes of The Women’s Press. When I moved to London in the early ‘80s I visited an English teacher who lived in Camden. Her bookcase full of the green-backed Virago books made a huge impression on me. The reproduction of a painting on the cover of those books were additional delights. The new livery is nothing like as pleasing. Blogs sometimes comment that the original Virago cover was an improvement on the current jackets, especially for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels.

Today the elegant dove-grey Persephone books, with the addition of the delightful endpapers, have replaced Virago’s covers in my affection. It helps that Persephone is mainly dedicated to women writers and to neglected books. The Persephone endpapers are photographs of colourful fabrics associated with the period of the book’s original publication. And at the shop you get a matching bookmark. Love it!

Of course, these covers, identified by their uniform colour might appeal to people who organise their books by either publisher or colour. There are people who do both, see the blogpost How do you organise your books? People like the Camden English teacher. Or my nephew.

The cover of a book has always been key to my memories of it. I remember the colour and size, even if I can’t remember where it is now I have moved after 30 years.

The Guardian’s paper version of Geoff Dyer’s tribute to Albert Camus in the series my My Hero was accompanied by six different penguin covers for The Outsider. For some reason the on-line version here has a moody black and white picture of le grand homme, smoking. The six covers are fascinating, of their time and all saying something about the alienation of the novel’s narrator.

75 Etr covers

And here are a further two covers from my shelves. (The French version is nearly 50 years old!)

75 2 more Camus

I am getting interested in the production of book covers. Some of the smaller independent publishers have encouraged innovative and imaginative book covers – Peirene Press and Salt Publishing for example. My co-author and I are excited about the cover of our forthcoming book, Retiring with Attitude. Retiring is a word that describes what is no longer, difficult to capture visually. We wait to see what the designers will produce.

Here are some links to other sites looking at cover design.

London Fictions has a great page exploring some of the covers of historical London fiction. You can find it here. Actually it’s a great blog, celebrating a rich seam of fiction, lots of it.

In 2012 one hundred artists from 28 countries were asked to draw attention to illiteracy by the Belgian graphic design studio beshart by designing covers for the Observer’s 100 best novels of all time, plus 10 Belgian novels. I can’t remember where I first came across this wonderful site, but I could browse for hours among doedemee’s 100 covers here. Great project.

And this one does what it says on the tin: The Book Cover Archive. I think this might be book designer’s porn.

Authors, especially self-publishing authors, might want guidance about covers. Here’s some from Writer.ly blog, three articles. They cover colour, legibility focusing on fonts, and DIY covers.

 

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).

 

Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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A meeting with attitude – our editor comes good

‘Oh Crikey! We’ve got a title,’ grinned Eileen to Caroline as they left the meeting they’d just finished with their editor. ‘Yes, but we’ve got a hundred and sixteen notes to consider,’ rejoined Caroline glumly. ‘But,’ cried Eileen, ‘they are minor and we’ll do them in a trice. It was a jolly good meeting, wasn’t it?’ An extract from Two go Wild in Kings Place, by the acclaimed writers Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell.

73 KP

It was a jolly good meeting, despite some apprehension about whether the editor’s suggested changes would be ones we could fully support. See our previous blog post Preparing to Meet our Editor. What we achieved was not just a title, but also the way forward to a nicer read. What we have to do in the next month is

  • Bring the reader closer by recasting the case studies and removing the box numbering and some of the boxes
  • Add more of our voice
  • Fill out the details of the people we quote
  • Remove some extraneous words and phrases from some of the sentences – ‘the baggage’.
  • Remove the endnotes

We have agreed publication date (July 2014), formats (large trade softback and e-version), prices, and discussed the cover design and dateline.

What helped all that along was:

  • Preparation by us all,
  • Openness to different opinions,
  • Respectful negotiation,
  • Humour and warmth, (in comparison with the foursome at the next table who seemed to be locked in the most dour and tedious discussion of their manuscript),
  • The editor’s sensitivity, revealing a belief in the book,
  • Her expertise in seeing what was needed to make it a nicer read, and proposing and exemplifying this in her text-track comments on the manuscript.

We left the meeting with a sense of trust in the process, in the advice and above all in the relationship.

And the arrival at the title exemplifies all this. We have been struggling relentlessly for three years to find the right title. The editor and publisher had met to draw up some suggestions. They completely understood our ambitions for the book, which their suggestions reflected. And together we came up with this RETIRING WITH ATTITUDE, with the subtitle: Approaching and relishing your retirement.

73 New title

We think this title captures the purpose and content of our book, and hope you will be interested in it, either for yourself or for a loved one (or a not-loved one at your place of work). Can you wait until the summer?

73 pop

Caroline and Eileen went home to break open a bottle of ginger pop!

Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

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Let slip the novels of war

War novels have their own ‘best of’ lists on the internet. Frequently these lists have too many testosterone-fuelled novels and horror for me. The five novels I pick out in this post have something else. They use the best of the novel to reflect on something beyond the experiences of most readers. They show the bigger picture – bigger geographically, in scope and in meaning – through individual stories. They use the power of story to explore the urge to survive, the horror of what man does to men, women and children, and how humans react when faced with the vastness of war.

Here are my five (plus two) to think about.

72 all q

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques

The First World War will be the subject of much remembrance as we reach the centenary of its outbreak. In Britain literary merit seems to be the preserve of the poets. The novel of choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques, written, of course, in German. I did not read it until 2012, having been presented with extracts on a writing course. It was published in 1929, eleven years after the Armistice.

Paul Baumer tells the story in the first person. He and his school friends enlisted in the German army in 1916 as 18 year olds, on the encouragement of their schoolteacher. The story opens on the battlefield and hardly leaves it, except to go home on leave and for a spell in a military hospital. The narrator is killed in October 1918, feeling he has nothing left in his life, that the young person he was has been destroyed in the war. It has killed his friends one by one, and his country has been reduced to sending inadequately prepared raw recruits into battle to die. There are vividly descriptions of battle, but also some lighter scenes such as the theft of the goose, or the canal swim to be with some girls one evening.

72 3 books

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

My choice for a novel set in the homefront in the Second World War has to be The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen – the subject of a Readalong on my blog earlier in 2013. You can find my review here. One of the best novels of the twentieth century I believe.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The fate of the author (in Auschwitz in 1942) and the location in war-time France meant I was initially reluctant to read this book. But I was charmed and thrilled by it.

Part 1, Storm in June, concerns the flight from Paris in June 1940. The story follows several families as panic hit the capital and they scrambled out as the German army advanced. It’s an amazing exploration of what people do in a crisis, how some have great generosity and others think only of themselves. There is lovely humour, black in places, great tenderness and overall an affectionate look at people through the details of their lives.

Part 2 called Douce concerns life in a village in occupied France a year later, when German troops are billeted on the population. Here the story picks up some of the characters from Storm, but mostly concerns the relationship between a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the young cavalry officer, Bruno. The development of the relationships between victors and conquered, between occupiers and residents is beautifully observed, as are the accommodations that people make to this situation in order to preserve their own values and lives.

The manuscript was carried by Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters, taken in haste to remind them of their mother. It was only produced for publication recently.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

For a novel from the battlefield (or the air battle in this case) in the Second World War I must nominate Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is one of my desert island choices because it is so inventive, so rich in detail, so brilliant at showing the absurd in absurd situations. The title and some of the characters have entered our culture.

72 Disp

Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some brilliant writing came out of the Vietnamese War. The novel that made the strongest impression on me was Dispatches by Michael Herr. It’s a searing condemnation of what happened to the fighting men. It convinced me that war is never an answer to anything. The damage inflicted upon the participants is as futile in the Vietnamese war as all others, despite individual acts of heroism.

And the first other one:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

On publication it was celebrated as the work of a new voice, creative and strong. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is about US soldiers in the (second) Iraqi war. I read it in preparation for this blogpost. In my reading log I commented, ‘nothing to like here’. Too much of that male stuff here for me. Geoff Dyer was more critical of it in a review of another (non-fiction) book about the Iraq war. You can find his comments here: Thank You For Your Service. He includes these comments:

Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. … [His novel is] inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Here’s an example of creative writing class fiction perhaps: ‘while we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’ (p1) There was plenty more like that.

72 YB

The title comes from a US Army marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

 

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …

And the second other one:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This one is on my tbr pile, having been recommended by a friend. Have you read it? Have you an opinion about it?

And a few more recommendations from browsing the web

Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War)

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Napoleonic invasion of Russia)

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (Second World War)

D.M Thomas The White Hotel (Second World War)

And there are countless excellent non-fiction books as well.

 

Powerful stuff. What have you read that spoke to you about war? I was disappointed to find nothing outstanding in the twenty-first century. Have you come across anything you would recommend?

 

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Preparing to meet our editor

It’s time to meet the editor and hear her proposals for our manuscript. Why is this so difficult? Is it because we are preparing to face the judgement of a sharp critic? Are we so identified with our manuscript that we see its lack of perfection as our imperfections? We remind each other that the editor’s task is to help enhance the manuscript and to be its (our) saviour.

71 table

We have a publisher for our non-fiction book (working title On Retiring). We have a contract, a promise of an advance and a publication date for the summer 2014. The contract is not yet signed as we took advice from the very excellent Society of Authors who provided us with some queries. Watch this space!

We have been working on this book for three years. We have written it collaboratively (and written about writing collaboratively, see for example the most recent blogpost on that subject) and received useful feedback from participants in our retiring workshops. We have revised it in the light of comments from an insightful and experienced reader. When she indicated they would take it on the publisher asked for two further thorough revisions, first to make it more edgy, and second to better engage the reader. Both revisions improved the book. Now we have the contract and the publisher wants some final revisions from a professional editor. She says it will be quicker and more straightforward for this to be done by a professional than by us. So now we meet our editor.

71 Tabernacle

This feels personal. The book is still part of us. [Eileen wants to call it a tabernacle because she was brought up a Catholic! I don’t have a clue what she means. Hey ho. We learn as we go. Caroline.] This book holds the essence of our learning about retiring and our struggles to communicate our complex ideas. It is the outcome of considerable reflection on the processes of writing together. These subjects have been central to our lives in the last three years. Now we have to see someone else crafting the manuscript. We expect that when it comes back from the editor the book will be changed and enhanced. It will be a significant stage in letting the book go.

71 hand edit

In preparing to meet the editor we are looking at issues raised by the publisher. We use different formats to signify different purposes in the text (eg summaries of information, tables, case studies in boxes). The publisher observed that our presentation is too ‘academic’. How will the editor change this to distinguish the different purposes without boxes and tables etc? Will we like these changes? Will the revised tone reflect our voice? Will we be requested to compromise in a way that is unacceptable – for example, turning it into a ‘how to retire book’ which it isn’t!

71 Manuscript-Editing4

We hope she will solve the problem of the title. We have been through hundreds of suggestions. The main problem is that ‘retirement’ or ‘retiring’ doesn’t really cover it, to quote one comment. Yet we need either ‘retirement’ or ‘retiring’ in the title. It’s problematic because the title needs to reflect the edginess of the book, but neither word is edgy. Then there is the question of the index. Would this improve the book for our readers? And what else will she come up with?

71 MS edit

As we write this blogpost we recognise a process in publishing. First, it involves a huge amount of personal investment to write the thing. But at some point writers have to pass their creation on and trust that the editing process will make their efforts into a better book. We are experienced writers so we recognise that this has happened with each of our published books. We can see this, but it doesn’t get any easier.

Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

 

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