Does proof-reading flatten language?

Of course, the question is facile: it’s not as black and white as that. So let’s pick apart the proof-reading stage of the publishing process, just to see what it contributes and where problems can arise.

First off, doing without proof-reading is a mistake. Nothing irritates a reader and or embarrasses a writer more than published text containing missing words, incorrect or unclosed speech marks, upper case/lower case mistakes, or whatever the obvious transgression might be. pexels-photo-415105.jpegHaving said that, something seems to depend on the reader. While some readers spot everything, and usually tell you so, others seem not to notice at all.

As an ex-educator with a very picky grammar school education, I’m unbearably fussy about punctuation, or I least I thought I was until a recent experience with a professional proof-reader. My ‘rules’ seem to be based on what I’d learned at school and not updated since, and I was unprepared for the technical approach to writing that my proof-reader friend was keen on. And from what I read about current approaches to ‘grammar’ in English primary schools, it looks like today’s children are getting a bellyful of these ‘rules’ which are then tested: enough to put them off writing confidently for a long time.

I have had a very unfortunate experience with proof-reading, which I’m keen not to repeat. My first three books fared well, or relatively well, with very few errors being spotted during that first nervous check when they came back from the printers. Maybe we got complacent, even sloppy. When the fourth book arrived, something had gone badly wrong. I spotted one or two mistakes in a casual flick through, but then the careful readers’ feedback started. At first it was a general complaint about the number of errors, and then after a routine library talk a woman handed me a list of the errors she had spotted and kindly written out for me. My stomach turned when I glanced at the list of shame. For days I could hardly bear to look at it. Then one morning after a miserable night worrying about it, I sat in bed with the list, a copy of the book and a highlighter pen and marked up every single one.artistic-arts-blue-business-159659.jpeg It took a while. In my distress I managed to get highlighter on my duvet covet and it has proved impossible to get rid of, reminding me of the miserable business every time the duvet cover appears on my bed.

The colleagues who had helped me with the errant book’s publication were duly informed and were as puzzled as me. How had this happened? We still can’t explain: it was as if the penultimate uncorrected proofs had been sent for printing by mistake. The ebook version of the book was corrected immediately, which was a relief, but I couldn’t afford to scrap the printed paperbacks and redo them. Mercifully, two years on, the stocks of the first edition are almost exhausted now and we can correct the mistakes before the reprint.

No need to convince me of the essential need for proof-reading. The conventions of the written form need to be visible in the text, to make the reader’s life bearable. But…are all these conventions set in stone? Some renowned authors have chosen to ignore them completely, but we can’t all be James Joyce.

Here’s my question: does the style and intensity of proof-reading vary according to genre? What’s acceptable – and required – in an academic paper maybe just too much for a work of fiction. And what’s appropriate to ‘literary fiction’, where writing style is the first concern, may feel wrong in a plot-driven crime story. Even within a story, the level of technical accuracy in a descriptive paragraph will and should be quite different than in dialogue, where people simply don’t speak in full balanced sentences with semi-colons and sub-clauses and all the rest.

Here’s my advice: when you’re working with a new proof-reader, ask for a few sample pages before he/she starts work in earnest. Be prepared for a discussion about the level of correction that could be deemed essential and what is a matter of choice and style. It’s your book, and you call the shots, but obviously you’ll listen to advice from a professionally trained person, even if sometimes you choose to ignore it. I’m sure that some proof-readers yearn to be editors even after the editing stage is officially over, but that could lead to all sorts of confusion and frustration. You – the author – may have to arbitrate and mediate. It’s your name on the cover, and you carry the can.

Back to the original question: can proof-reading flatten language? Yes, potentially it can, by applying ‘rules’ too heavily and inappropriately. If that’s not what you want, make sure you discuss the process with your proof-reader and find an acceptable compromise. “She who pays the piper calls the tune.”




Preparing the audio book: what am I learning?

GoodLiar_COVER.inddPreparing to produce the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ is turning out to be an interesting experience. The first task, before any other planning or costings can be undertaken, has been to re-read and abridge the original text. Actually, even further back, the very first question was whether I wanted to abridge at all, and the answer is I would prefer not to. ‘Murdering your darlings’ they call it – killing off slices of the story that meant a great deal to you at the time. That process is usually part of editing the final draft, but abridging is even harder. The final text of my first book was truly a labour of love. Writing ‘A Good Liar’ took me nearly four years and involved some very steep learning, stumbles, frustration, almost chucking it on the fire and then dogged determination to see it through. Maybe there’s always a special attachment to the ‘firstborn’. Whatever the reason, abridging it is proving painful, but unavoidable. An unabridged version would run to too may CDs, twice the time and at least twice the cost. Every extra 1000 words of text means more studio time, more CDs to duplicate, more packaging – and each of those means more outlay for me and a higher price for the buyer. Just not practical. So abridging it is. Woe is me.

Rather than using the paperback for this process, I’ve chosen to work from the mobi file, highlighting on screen where the cuts are to be made. That way I can read off the screen rather than the page, and avoid the inevitable sound of turning pages, which the sensitive mike at the recording studio picked up when I made my demo disc.

big-booth-11I’m glad it’s me doing the abridging: the decision about what to leave out is dependent on thorough knowledge of the text and the significance of details. It’s made me realise how keen I was on the authenticity of the setting in this first book, both place and time. That’s why many local readers enjoy it so, but for an audio book there may be too much detail, and some of it has had to go. Some of the dialogue has been cut too: on the page it reflects the complexity of conversation, the interruptions and dialects, but that’s hard to relay in a narrated text with only one voice. It is possible to cut some of the text and still leave the story moving on, with enough detail to help the reader understand the where the characters are, and why they do what they do. I’ve found myself drawn in to their stories yet again, which has been reassuring. It’s a good tale, if I say it myself.

Apart from the necessity of abridging, I’m also clear now about the need to read it myself. I’ve seen some critical comments about audio books and poor narration by authors. I simply couldn’t afford the extra cost of a professional actor, and the demo disc sounded OK. Really! The abridging of ‘A Good Liar’ should be finished this week. Then I have to read it all through and check the timing. The goal is to get it down to 240 minutes, but I’m not confident yet that I’ll achieve that at the first attempt. When the required length is achieved, then it’s off to the studio. Hard work, but enjoyable on the whole, and I’d rather be busy than bored..


Dreadful Downton dialogue

I watched Downton Abbey the other night, for the first time. Before that, my only contact with it had been sitting next to Hugh Bonneville in the Business Class lounge at Los Angeles airport, and that was only because Air NZ lost my luggage for nine days on the way out and had to give me enough points for an upgrade. That’s a tale for another day.

Anyway, Downton Abbey, the finale. Oh dear. I wasn’t sorry I hadn’t seen the rest of it. Being charitable, perhaps the dire script was the inevitable outcome of the scriptwriter’s mission impossible – tying up far too many storylines in one episode, as well as fitting in the obligatory set pieces complete with valedictory one-liners and extravagantly costumed extras by the bus load. Poor bugger. I hope he’s lying in a darkened room, or on a beach somewhere far away from a television.

The whole affair was an object lesson in what happens when dialogue carries too much plot. ‘Oh hello, Fanny/Cedric/ whoever, I haven’t seen you since Lady X ran off with the butcher and then we all went hunting and Albert broke his leg. How are you?’ ‘Very well, thanks, and so much better since I recovered from that bout of flu in Episode 6 which nearly killed me and made me realise that life Is short and I had to divorce Dierdre before my fiftieth birthday.’ Fortunately, as I watched this farago I had a DA veteran in the room to answer my queries, although she was annoyed by my irreverent approach. ‘But it used to be good,’ she maintained stoutly. ‘This is just the end.’ Oh it was, it was.

Imagine my surprise when serious Tweets the following day praised everything I’d found risible. ‘Wasn’t it wonderful how they managed to tie up all the story lines so neatly,’ the DA fans purred, as if this was a good thing. I could only surmise that tying up every loose end was a genre protocol which had been slavishly followed, at the cost of any dramatic authenticity. Characters and plot were all left hopelessly two-dimensional, however well they may have been portrayed in the past. I suspect the actors knew they had became caricatures of themselves: maybe they wept quietly into the post-production champagne.

Many years ago, in the very first course I did on ‘How to write a novel’ (Arvon, 2007, at The Hurst) Louise Doughty spent a couple of hours on dialogue, which I’ve never forgotten. First she gave us a transcript of actual conversation, including every non-sequitur, hesitation and repetition – which was almost impossible to read. Then we had another example of the kind I’ve alluded to above: ‘Oh hello George, how good to meet you on a lovely day with the bluebells unfurling into spring sunshine etc’ which was as unnaturally ghastly as many of the lines in the DA finale.

The desired path is somewhere between the two, of course, and hard to navigate. Dialogue needs to be read aloud by the writer, because spoken conversation differs in so many respects from the written form: very few complex sentences, some hesitation and repetition, and many contextual details taken for granted, which the writer has to supply by other means. The writer can indicate the tone of voice by adverbs, or variations on ‘said’, but most of them sound clunky. The reader has to be helped to keep track of who’s speaking, without the luxury of seeing who is doing so.

As part of the initial ‘character studies’ that I develop when someone new is introduced, I try to hear how they will talk. What kinds of verbs and metaphors might the person use? Do they have any characteristic phrases, interesting in themselves and also indicative of a state of mind? Do they interrupt others during conversation or listen carefully and respond? Do they think before they speak, or put a foot in it occasionally, and how will this affect those around them? I’m sure every good scriptwriter will do the same, until and unless the demands of the plot get in the way, as they did at Downton Abbey over Christmas.


‘Writing a novel starter pack’ : what to include?

I love teaching, always have, and since 1982 I’ve been working with adults as learners rather than younger students. Having recently struggled myself to learn the basics of starting, finishing and publishing a novel, what I’d love to do now is ‘teach’ some of that to anyone who’s embarking on the same journey. It’s making me think: what would I put in my ‘writing a novel starter pack’?

I’m going back over all the courses I’ve been on in the past six years, to identify the most useful elements and processes and then knit those bits into a structure and time frame that would suit a beginner who might not want to embark on a long commitment, but wants to get a taste of what may be involved before they delve deeper.

From the very first Arvon course I went on in 2008 I learned how to expand the germ of an idea into the start of a story, capture a fragment of that story in a scene, write it as well as I could, read it to others, get feedback and see how that felt. We also learned about dialogue, and a bit about structure. We did the inevitable writing exercises, too, just to get us going and sharing. I could have done with more about structure and Point of View, and maybe fewer of the ‘exercises’ but it was still a wonderful week and I’m still drawing on it years later. Best bits? Dealing with dialogue, and writing a scene for reading out and critique.

At a Faber Academy course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ I picked up the usefulness of capturing the essence of your story, expanding it into a short synopsis and then have others ask questions and make suggestions. When the people grilling you about your story are as skilled and insightful as Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant, it’s both intimidating and exhilarating, and I learned not just about the elements of a good story but about myself too, and the confidence it takes to benefit from critique.

Some of the courses to do with publishing have been disappointing: my main memory of a Guardian event at Kings Place in London was of being lectured and feeling patronised by a prestigious agent who, as the New Zealanders say, was seriously up herself. If I had to deal with people like that to find a publisher, I said to myself, self-publishing may be the way to go. Another element of my ‘essentials’ package therefore would be something about the ‘costs and benefits’ of self-publishing, and some guidance about how to set about it if that’s your choice.

My own novels so far have used a strong sense of place, and in my head for this notional workshop is a Venn diagram of how ‘setting’, ‘characters’ and ‘events’ interconnect and overlap to create the basic structure of a story. Maybe I could use that simple idea as the start of an exercise to create an outline, share the ideas, refine them through discussion, build a character or a scene in greater detail and write, read and re-write to see how the editing process works. We could something on Point of View, dialogue, or the 3 act structure, or opening paragraphs, or just flag those up as areas to be worked on at the next stage. Then we could discuss the process of getting from manuscript into print or ebook and how to get people to buy it, if that’s what you want.

Sounds like a plan. Like most first drafts of a teaching plan, there’s probably too much in it, but much will depend on the size, composition and starting points of the group, and the length of time they will spend with you. That in turn is set against how much time and money people can spare for such an experience. I’m sure you could find workshops like this in London, or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow but in rural areas like Cumbria we can be frustrated by the time and money it takes to access the learning we want. Going to London by train from the west coast of Cumbria means travel to Carlisle or Lancaster and then a 3-4 hour train ride, too far to travel there and back in a day so the overnight costs are added to the cost of the workshop, taking it beyond reasonable outlay. Key criteria: accessible, practical, experiential, and with a tangible ‘product’ to take away and work on.

So, I shall keep working on my plan to offer a writing workshop in Cumbria with the basic ingredients I’ve found most useful, for a smallish group of people seriously interested in writing a novel, sometime over the next few months, just to see if I can do it and if it works. If I can and it does, I’ll learn how to make it better and do it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this would be interested, let me know.

The dialogue dilemma

Writing dialogue is really difficult. I realised this on the very first ‘writing’ course I went on. One of our tutors was Louise Doughty, a skilled teacher as well as a great writer. She gave us the transcript of an actual overheard conversation to look at, and made her point quite easily that the authentic spoken word is often unintelligible in the written form. The transcript was littered with repetitions, unfinished phrases, interruptions, and other distractions that made it almost impossible to read or make sense of. It illustrated the jerky, random thought process which underpinned the articulation we were reading on the page, which was authentic but unhelpful to the reader. Our task was to take this original transcript and edit it so that the meaning was sustained but the speech was still digestible: it was a difficult but very useful lesson to learn, and if I were teaching anyone to write dialogue I would do the same.

In my own writing I use speech and dialogue extensively and for a variety of purposes; to drive the narrative, to illustrate relationship, and to add to our understanding of a character and their state of mind. That’s a big ask. The structure of a person’s speech can illuminate what we know about them: think of Jane Austen’s characters and how much we learn about them by the way they speak and the words and phrases they use. In fact, almost all we know about Austen’s people we gather through speech rather than description. I try to see and hear my characters speaking and build what I see and hear into the words on the page. Some of the nuances of what is meant as well as what is said are hard to capture without use of adverbs or more explicit ‘speech verbs’ such as ‘murmured’ or ‘explained’ that sound clunky and used sparingly.

When it comes to the second draft, I have to speak the text out loud, and frequently change the dialogue at that stage, to make it sound more more like the spoken rather than the written word. The two are quite different, and I notice in my reading that some authors don’t seem to recognise this. Their characters speak with too much complexity, in sentences that are too finely crafted to sound authentic. Of course it’s a struggle. Sometime you sacrifice narrative clarity to authenticity and hope that the reader will not notice, or forgive you.

In the third part of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’, some of the action takes place inside the nuclear plant at Windscale (as Sellafield was known then) during the reactor fire of October 1957. All the characters we see and hear in those scenes are male, with a science or engineering background and intensely focussed on the task at hand. Their patterns of speech must be – and are – completely different than conversations taking place in the home or the shop or at the Friday night dance at the club. You should be able to hear in their voices the tension they are feeling and their intense concentration on the crisis they face. What they don’t say is as important as what they do. I enjoyed writing those chapters after weeks of detailed research and thought about what it would have been like in that place at that time. I rolled it past someone with a similar background and experience to see if he felt it sounded authentic, and took his advice. I think it’s not bad: you’ll have to judge for yourself when the book appears in June. In the meantime I’ll keep working on dialogue, hoping to improve with practice and experience.