Thursday 28 July 2011

Putting all our eggs in the digital basket

"But will e-books make out-of-print history?"

The question (on twitter) came from Katherine Roberts, author of I Am the Great Horse and the Reclusive Muse blog. She is also the founder of Kindle Authors UK.

The answer is both 'yes' and 'no', of course. Any author who cares enough and has even minimal technical ability can convert their out-of-print books into various e-book formats. As long as they own the copyright, of course. That last point means those interminable character-led series (Animal Ark, etc) will disappear as soon as the publisher can't be bothered with them. And no bad thing, you might think.

At the moment, everyone is in a honeymoon period with the Kindle, Nook and their cohort. They can do no wrong (unless you believe they will 'kill the book'). Perhaps this is because most writers and agents (and even publishers) embraced technology very late in the day. How many of you have a manuscript on a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk, written in WordStar or View? I have. That book is out of print. And, to be honest, it would be easier to scan it in, OCR it, and lay it out again than to work from the files. I'd have to dig around in my historic computer collection for all the bits and remember how to use them, and then find a way of getting the stuff off (no USB, no internet connection - we're talking things that were operated by a keen hamster in a wheel).

What did you do with your LPs? What did you do (if you're old enough) with your 8 mm home movies? What about those cassette tapes and video tapes? [Aside: I worked as RLF fellow in a university department where scriptwriting students had to submit their final pieces as audio cassette because that was what the rules still said. There was a healthy black market in C90s but a very long queue of people wanting to borrow the only known cassette recorder. This was 2008.] That's my first computer on the right: 1977. It used cassette tapes.

Just now, the iPad and the Kindle look shiny and new. Well, the iPad does. The Kindle, being mono, looks like a Z88 but relies on most people not remembering the Z88. Fast-forward 20 years. Actually, first of all, rewind 20 years. Let's line up our dinosaurs.

1991: No worldwide web (outside CERN); no text messages; no PDFs; no InDesign (1994); no Quark 3.3 (that was when it became real). We had email, of course, and the Internet for moving stuff. The book I published in 1991 was written (I think) on an Acorn Archimedes and delivered as a plain ASCII text file on a disk, with a paper print out. The book I delivered yesterday was written in Word, sent by email as a .docx file, and if I suggested posting any physical objects the publisher would think I'd gone mad.

Now let's go forwards. 2031: The Kindle will be a museum piece. Yes, of course data can easily be converted to other formats. Just like it's easy now to convert your WordStar documents. Ahem. You have to keep converting at every point of change or it gets hard. Try using your Quark 1.0 files now. It's always possible to write a converter - but as rule, it gets harder to use old files as time passes.

We will all be twenty years older in 2031. How much time will we be spending on converting our old books to new formats? Who will bother if we don't? Certainly not publishers, unless the book is a bestseller. Who will convert when you're dead? No one, probably.

I could reproduce the book from 1991 now because I have a printed copy. I had an electronic publishing business in the 1990s. Nothing we published can be read on modern technology, even though it was distributed on CD-ROMs. It was a proprietory format (like Kindle is). This doesn't bother me - the need for those books has passed. But it's a salutary warning.

Most of our e-books will disappear into the ether over time. They will be worse than out of print. You can get an out of print book in the library. I spent years working on books that had been their version of 'out of print' for 700 years. Digital archiving is a good and useful thing as long as we don't destroy the physical copies in our arrogant assumption that our formats are forever. But in two hundred years, will anyone be able to read a Kindle book? Will they in forty years? If we really needed to, we could convert something, yes. But not as easily as we can call up a physical book from the British Library stores.

If we write only for Kindle, we should consider those books to be more like magazine articles. Ephemeral, delivered for obsolescent technologies, ghosts of books. That's not inappropriate for many books, but some writers think they are writing for eternity (or at least for future generations). And as someone who has used a lot of popular culture for research, and found the copyright libraries lacking even in printed material, it will be a significant loss to future social historians. They'll have this year's vampire novels in 2211, but will they have whatever the craze is in twenty years' time?

We like to write post-apocalyptic novels. Post-apocalypse, none of the e-books will be available. We'll be thrown back on those old books and manuscripts that can be read by candlelight, and the Kindle-generation of literature will be lost. So no, electronic publishing will not make OOP a thing of the past. It makes it a thing of the future.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for deadline

Which is why I have been absent without leave for so long. Deadlines come first.

The deadline is the appointment you have made for delivering your manuscript (or corrections to it) to your publisher. The key phrase there is 'you have made' - you agreed to this deadline, so you have to meet it. It is impolite to miss an appointment you've made, and it is deeply unprofessional to miss a deadline you agreed to. End of.

If being professional and polite aren't that high on your list of priorities, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog as it is for people who want to be professional writers and I prefer polite people. But if you feel a lapse once or twice won't matter too much to your overall image, let's look at some other consequences. I suppose these are really the explanation of why it is unprofessional and rude to miss deadlines.

You are not working in a vacuum. When you deliver your manuscript, an editor will read it. If you are delivering corrections, a copy editor is waiting for it, possibly an illustrator and a designer. Some of these people might be freelance and will have set aside time to work on your book. If your book doesn't turn up, they will have wasted time that no one will pay for. They still have to do the work on your book when it comes in and will be paid the same, even though they spent a day watching re-runs of Futurama or weeding the garden. Then it will have a knock-on effect on their other projects, or they will have to work over the weekend to get the book back on schedule. Shame on you. Even if the next people in the chain are not freelance, they will be (quite reasonably) annoyed if their own work plans are disrupted by your inefficiency. Those others in the chain are people, not just editors - remember that.

If you are so late the book can't be dragged back onto schedule, the publisher might miss the slot booked to print the book. At the moment, printers are trying to claw their way out of the grave they've been pushed into and might be able to accommodate your book anyway - but don't depend on it, and don't depend on things always being that way.

If you deliver late, there will be less time for everyone else to work on your book, so there's a good chance it will be a worse book. Those people aren't messing with your book for the hell of it - their job is to improve it. Yes, it can be improved.

What if you really can't meet a deadline? First, work out why. Here are the possibilities:

1. A personal disaster has befallen you - someone close to you has died, your partner has left you, your house has burnt down, someone close to you is very ill and you are their carer (or shared carer), you have fallen ill (properly ill, not man-flu)

2. A technological disaster has befallen you - your file has become corrupted or been deleted, the laptop it was on has been stolen, your computer has been disabled by a virus

3. You've simply run out of time - you mismanaged your time and there is too much left to do, what you have written is rubbish, what you have written doesn't match the brief/outline, the structure you picked isn't working, you got scared/blocked and couldn't carry on.

And now the solutions/stern chat:

1. Not your fault. No one is likely to hold you to the deadline. Tell the editor as soon as you are able to or, if you are not able to, get a friend to email your editor and alert them to the problem. Then you can forget about the book for now and do what you have to do.

Don't do this if you have a cold or something short term. If you have broken your leg, that gives you a few days but unless you are an armless person who types with your toes, it won't stop you finishing the book after that.

2. Use the back up. You WHAT? You don't have one? You can now leave the blog - this is for people who want to be professionals.

If you don't have a recent back up, stay up all night recreating the book from an older back up and consider it a useful lesson. I recommend you don't tell your editor you lost the file - they will think you are a bozo (and they will be right). A virtual dog ate my homework. The physical lack of a computer might cost you a day while you track down a library where you can use one, or one you can borrow or lease. You can probably catch up that day, but if not you must explain to the editor what has happened and how you are solving the problem and how long it will take (no more than a day, remember)

3. This doesn't happen the day before the deadline - you see it coming. If you really, really can't recover the situation, you have to talk to your editor as soon as it becomes clear to you that you can't meet the deadline. The editor wants your book to work - it's a lot of aggro if it doesn't. You can ask them to help you by reading what you've done and suggesting a different structure, or how to get it back on track, or whatever is needed. They won't be happy, but they won't be as unhappy as if you don't do this and just don't deliver, or deliver rubbish.

It will not be the end of the world - they will help you, or fire you. They won't send round a hit squad or kill your children. To them, it's one of many books - it's only the centre of the universe to you. If it is commissioned non-fiction, they might get an editor to fix the mess. If the mess is too messy, they might send you a kill fee and employ someone else to finish or rewrite it. I've done many a fix after a kill fee and I've also rewritten from scratch books that someone has screwed up or pulled out of. The industry has strategies to cope. It's more of a problem if you're writing a book someone else can't fix and it's in the catalogue already. Don't expect to be popular, but they will try to find a solution. For their benefit, not yours - it's not a favour. Don't ask them to publish your next book.

Things you must not do:

Lie about a major disaster that hasn't happened to you. How many mothers can you afford to kill off in the course of your career? Besides, now everything is transparent and you don't know who knows whom. You tell your editor you have to go to your mother's funeral and it's clear from Facebook you're shopping in Oxford Street. Your editor may not be your Facebook friend, but their flatmate/partner/parent/child/friend might be: 'My poor author, Stroppy, can't deliver because her mum died'. 'Oh, it says on her Facebook page she's going on a picnic with her daughters.'/'Oh, I know Stroppy - I'll send her a card.' See what I mean?

Just go off radar. Not responding to email and not answering the phone - for more than a day, when you might plausibly have network problems or be out - is cowardly and unprofessional. And unimaginative. You can do better than that.

Sending a garbled file (if you know how to make one - if not, learn). It can buy you a day at most. The editor should open it immediately to check it's readable (ie to check you haven't deliberately sent a garbled file) and then they will email you to ask you to resend it if they can't. If you're going to say later you were out, don't hang around on twitter saying 'yay, I finished my book, I'm going to have a coffee and read the paper'. I don't recommend the garbled-file route as you can't tell how much time it will buy you. If you only need another day, it will do. More than that, it's risky. If you have a trusting/lax editor they might not check the file until they want to start work on it, and that might be a week away. Then they will be embarrassed that they've left it so long, and you will have got lucky. But it might be tomorrow.

Make stupid excuses. Either be honest or be quiet.

On the whole, the more urgent the deadline, the more important it is to meet it. The deadline for an academic book may be years away, and in my experience the publishers will be so surprised if you deliver on time that they'll assume your book/contribution is not very good. That doesn't apply to real-world publishing, so if you're a refugee from academia, you're in for a surprise.

Oh, and one last thing. Your editors will really love you if you reliably meet deadlines. Which is stupid, but just goes to show how many people don't.

Now - don't you have a book to finish? Reading blogs is no excuse for missing your deadline!


Monday 25 July 2011

Am I rubbish at this?

I've just seen an interesting blog post on 'which is the most important aspect of a novel?' Personally, I'd say the question is meaningless. Character and dialogue, for instance, can't be separated - you develop a character through what they do and say. Setting? How could setting ever be most important? You could write some dreary old crap, even if you set it an exotic Inca court where everyone ate parrot kebabs with the feathers still on from golden skewers. Setting must either be absolutely integral - the story couldn't take place anywhere else - or it's window dressing. Everything has to happen somewhere. (Doesn't it? Could I write a story set nowhere?)

The blogger's answer is 'character'. The post links to the author's Character Chart, which opens in Word and is so exhaustive I think I'll retire now I've read it. I'm not a great one for planning at the best of times, but I really don't need to know the date of my character's grandmother's birthday in order to write consistently. Really, I don't. And as for preferred home decor style, whether they have ever been fined, and their favourite board game - huh? Am I doing it all wrong? The characters come into my head and I watch them do things. Then I write it down. They are like real people. I can tell what real people are like even if I don't know when their grandmother was born or whether they wear contact lenses.

I have a serious suspicion that answering questionnaires about your characters is a displacement activity - it's easier than actually writing the story.  And knowing the answers doesn't help you write the story. It is not knowing your character is an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles that counts, it's being able to build an an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles from nothing but words. That's the hard bit.

Seriously, though. Do you do all this stuff? I often have pictures of my characters, and perhaps a page of notes on them - but sometimes not. Sometimes I have nothing except what is in my head. How do you do it?

Thursday 21 July 2011

From Concept to Copy - by Mary Hoffman

(via all sorts of other C-words, like Contract, Cover, Copy-editing, Coffee and Confusion)

Today we have a rare guest post as I'm honoured to be a stop of Mary Hoffman's blog tour for the launch of David (4th July, Bloomsbury - buy it!). This puts Mary in good company as the only other guest to date has been a pirate. And even then he was hijacked, he wasn't really a willing guest. Sadly, Mary, the pirate was not Johnny Depp. Or actually, I don't know - he might have been. I've not seen him.

But to the point. David is Mary's latest stand-alone historical novel and its ravishing. It follows the scurillous and exciting story of the model for Michelangelo's statue David - a character whose real name and history are unknown, so there?s plenty of scope for conjecture and imagination. As always, Mary's historical research is painstaking to the point of agonytaking and the book is beautifully atmospheric and vivid as well as exciting. Hey, there's sex and intrigue and spying and violence and art. What's not to like?

I'll hand over to Mary now, who explains the process of getting David from an inspirational spark to a book in the shops.


In April 2006 I put this idea among a bunch of others in a document I prepared for my agent about possible further titles for Bloomsbury:

"The Real David (or The Boy David): Who modelled for Michelangelo's David? No-one knows so I would invent the story. He would be caught up in the rivalry between M and Leonardo."

At this stage I had written The Falconer's Knot and had the second half of a two-book contract to fulfil by writing 'something similar'. In the end, Bloomsbury chose Troubadour to complete that contract.

So that was some time after what I call my 'light-bulb moment'. That's the point where you get one in a whole sea of ideas that you think might turn into a book.

First books virtually always have to be complete before you submit. You can get away with a proposal and sample chapter when you have a few books under your belt. When you have a lot, just a proposal will do. If your Neilson figures are spectacular, you can probably just  write half a sentence and get a contract.

What happened with David was that I wrote a proper proposal for it. In August 2008 on a train journey from Edinburgh to Oxford I wrote the full proposal for what became just 'David' and it won me a contract to write the book. 

It contained phrases like 'Absolutely nothing is known about who, if anyone modelled for the David....This provides a perfect blank canvas for a novelist'. And 'What I propose is a colourful adventure story set in the turbulent years of the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth in Florence'.

I wrote the proposal on 2nd August, sent it to my agent on  the same day. She forwarded it to my editor on 4th and got this the next day 'This proposal looks fantastic! Will be in touch'.

Although we agreed the advances in September, the signed contracts didn't arrive till mid-November. That's the book which has just come out this month in the UK and that was its real beginning.

City of Ships
I had to write that first, because I was already contracted to do that before starting on David. This is how writers like to work: one book about to come out, one being written currently and a contract under their belt for one or two more books.

Calendars, Carrara marble and the Computer
 Research begins on the computer, my trusty MacBook Air laptop, with the much reviled Wikipedia. I think people who pooh-pooh Wikipedia completely misunderstand it. It is a brilliant first port of call for dates, links and bibliographies. That's while you are constructing a timeline (essential) for the background (if you are writing historical fiction) and a calendar of what actually happens in the period taken up by your novel -  both the real and invented.

I belong to the London Library - I'm a Country Member, which means they post books to me. The annual fee is horrendous and you pay postage for the books on top of that but not only do they have almost every book I want to consult (another C-word), my membership allows me to read academic articles online which before just tantalised me with an opening paragraph.

The Carrara marble didn't enter the picture till quite far along but I like to have an object in my study that focuses my mind on the book in progress. I bought a small white cube of marble in a shop in Pisa on the same trip when I visited  Carrara and saw the white scars on the mountainside from which the block that became David was excavated.

Coffee and cats
I am not a great believer in writing Rules; I prefer to think in terms of things that facilitate my writing. Two of the things that help me write. Black, freshly ground coffee and three Burmese cats, who are part of my family.

Chapter by Chapter
Once I start to write I try to keep at it steadily writing at least one chapter a week? it used to be two but by rate of strike has gone down as I've got older and Social Networking has got more distracting. So between 3,000 and 8,000 words a week, the further on in the novel the more words per day. But these are all going to be pretty much usable words because this is the D1 and I submit the D2.

As I'm writing I print out each chapter to put in a D1 cardboard wallet file. I also read it aloud to my husband, which is a great way of catching mistakes. Deeply frustrating for him because he asks 'what happens next?' and I don't know!

Once the first draft (D1) is finished I trawl through the whole thing again, using the printed document, picking up inconsistencies, correcting typos and checking timelines, etc. Sometimes I can find a glitch that means re-writing a  whole section - aargh! I write corrections on the D1 and transfer to a new D2.

This goes off to editor and agent usually simultaneously and electronically. I am always too close to the deadline to give it first to my agent to submit to my editor.

If I were to offer writing advice to anyone, in a single word, it would be the one above - consequences. Remember that however complicated your plot and varied your cast of characters, every action and incident had a consequence, even if it isn't revealed till much later.

The consequence of sending off a book is that you will get a response from your agent and editor.  I submitted David by the end of July and I knew my publisher was going on holiday in the second half of August so if I was lucky I'd get David reaction before she left.

It just so happened Bloomsbury were giving a belated launch for Troubadour, when it came out in paperback, on 5th August last year so I met my editor at the party. By then I knew my agent loved it but I was on tenterhooks ages for my editor's reaction to say something. Then she said she was halfway through and loving it! By a miraculous coincidence, this was exactly a year after she had said the proposal looked fantastic!

I did get the proper email before she went away so really only about 2 weeks' wait this time with a preliminary halfway approval after a week, so a much quicker result or consequence than usual.

Cover visual
This came in September last year and though I am now used to it I was a bit shocked by it at first; it wasn't the 'real' David!

Readers think, quite mistakenly, that writers choose their own covers and make decisions about when to change them etc. But of course this is done by the publishers' design team and the approval of the Sales and Marketing teams has far greater weight than that of the author.

I have had several covers in the past showing scenes that not only did not occur within the book but could not have happened! And there is one American cover I hate so much I have to keep it hidden on my shelf!

But friends have told me that the cover for David works well and has good 'pick-up-ability' so I am content.

Copy-editing and corrections
These can seem to last for ever! I now get joint editing/copy-editing from two people and these suggestions came just before I left for a long weekend in Venice mid-November.

I did these edits by 28th November then had an hour-and-a-half's phone call at the end of January to tidy up remaining points. On 2nd February I was still arguing one half sentence with my editor!

The bound proof copy came on  February 17th and the page proofs on 23rd. I had to correct these and get them back by 21st March . But I was still checking how one main character's name should be spelled right up to Easter.

Proof copy
Increasingly these days potential reviewers get a proof copy or bound proof of a book to read well before publication (see above). It will have some editing done but not be the finished version. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, I received a proof copy from America that had been set from an electronic of the un-edited D2! Characters' name were different and people were thanked in the acknowledgments that in the end did nothing.

I hope one day it will be worth a lot of money on eBay!

This means two things. [Or three - I wrote about a different kind of copy last month in How to Speak Publisher.] Firstly, material that appears on the back cover or jacket-flap, describing the book and its author. You should get to check all this and I did. Best too if the author reads all 'copy' for press releases, catalogues, Amazon etc. etc. If you don't, you will get emails from sharp-eyed fans telling you there is a mistake. (In one bit of catalogue copy, I was described as having only two children when I in fact have three!). And secondly - the finished copy! You usually get one in advance and then the rest of your free copies a month before publication. Holding that finished copy in your hands is the second book-end, the closing bracket that forms a pair with your 'light-bulb moment' when you first had the idea.


And with that exhaustive tour, I think we can say goodbye to C and move on to D...

Thank you, Mary, and best of luck to both you and the lovely David! David is a wonderful book - I think it's Mary's best, so you should buy it.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

D is for David

And for Deadline. Two reasons there have not been any more How to Speak Publisher posts - tomorrow, Mary Hoffman visits on her David blog tour, and she has lots of 'C' words for us (not that one!) so I didn't dare move on to D before her visit.

Come back tomorrow to meet the lovely Mary and the very gorgeous David.

Saturday 9 July 2011


Today I'm over at Bart's Bookshelf talking about writing for reluctant readers, and at Awfully Big Blog Adventure talking to Mary Hoffman as part of ABBA's fantastic literary festival. ABBA have lots of posts from hoards of writers over the whole weekend, so go back there often!

And in the real world I'm at Kathryn Evan's farm in West Sussex having lots of fresh raspberries and fun! Have a lovely weekend, people.

Thursday 7 July 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Cover

The cover is the bit on the outside of the book. That doesn't take much explanation. It can be a flimsy bit of card if you've written a mass-market paperback or a cloth binding covered by a glossy dust wrapper if you've written a high-end hardback - or anything in between.

Then there's what goes on the cover. Crucially, it should have the title and your name. And it should have a nice and appropriate design. That's where things generally go wrong (though sometimes your name doesn't appear on the cover - with licensed character work, for instance). It comes as a surprise to most people who aren't involved in the process that the author has virtually no control over the cover of their book. The cover is designed by a designer. That's good, generally, as design is what designers are good at and writing is what writers are good at. It would be pretty rubbish if writers designed the cover and designers wrote the text, wouldn't it? Keep that in mind when you grumble about your next cover. But even though this sounds like a pretty obvious division of labour, there are often problems.

The first problem is that the designer rarely reads the book. This can lead to some ridiculous situations, when a black character is depicted as white, for instance, or a horse is the wrong size/type/colour. Then there's historical and scientific accuracy. An illustrator *should* check everything carefully before coming up with a cover picture, but they don't always do so. You may have a medieval knight in armour from the wrong period, or penguins outside an igloo (yep, had that one - poles apart, illustrator!) As author, you should see a rough of the cover in good time so that you can pick up on these details and have them changed. But that doesn't always happen. You may not see the cover until it has been passed by everyone else, and then your objections may fall on deaf ears. 'It's too late to change it,' the editor cries. 'No one will notice.' The last may be true, at least in some cases - but you've noticed and so it will niggle every time you see the book. (Or worse than niggle if it is (a) a really bad error or (b) you've not published many books yet.)

Leaving aside the covers that are just plain wrong, some covers are horrid, ugly, boring, or formulaic (they look like every other paranormal romance/Mr Gum-style silly book/sci-fi fantasy). This is where it gets tricky. The design of a cover is not just an aesthetic matter.The marketing droids have some input, as they know how the cover will resonate with booksellers and purchasers. There is a language of cover art and cover design which you may not speak but you hope the designer and marketing team do speak. The cover is shorthand for 'this book is about XXX; it might appeal to you if you liked YYY.' A lot of the distress authors feel at their book covers is that they feel the cover places their book in the wrong pigeonhole. You might think your novel is a staggering work of original genius that is really a one-off literary novel, but - even if it is - the publisher may think they will sell more if it has a pink glittery cover and picks up on the fluffy romance bits. The publisher is probably right. Cry if you must, but at least you will be able to afford a box of tissues. You don't want your book to look like every other book of that type, but you will sell more if its cover speaks the right dialect. Your paranormal romance won't sell as many copies if the cover is pale blue and yellow rather than black and red.

 Some cover designs are just lazy. They use stock photos that have been used on a hundred other covers and they use unimaginative design and uninspiring fonts. You can grumble about this, but what it says really is 'yours is a routine book - it's not a list leader and we can't afford a better cover'. The publisher will struggle not to say this to you, so I will. They can't afford to set up a photo shoot with models who look like your characters; they can't afford to commission original artwork from Quentin Blake; they can't afford that better picture from Getty. No amount of author-whinging is going to get the budget increased. If you can find a better picture from a cheap picture agency, you could pitch that. But I don't give much for your chances if the rest of the design has been done.

The truth is, some publishers are really good at covers and some either are not or are lazy. I love my covers from Evans (Off the Rails is the best) and from Arcturus's adult list (Story of Physics comes out 31st July). There are others I don't like as much, but I'm not going to say which as they are publishers I might want to work with again. Arcturus are great and I have a lot of input. Evans give me the chance to say whether I like it, and I always do so I've never found out what would happen if I tried to argue. But there was one case in which I hated the cover, and the illustrations inside and so did the editor, but our objections fell on deaf ears. I was really pleased when a national newspaper refused to review it because of the horrid illustrations. (How petty am I? I'd rather be right than reviewed!)

If you really hate the cover, you need to be able to say exactly what you hate about it and you need to listen to the reasons the publisher gives for choosing it. You might just be wrong. Or they might be wrong. Unfortunately, they have the final say, wrong or not. As always, a strong argument is more likely to get a result than tears and tantrums. Stroppy does not always mean having a strop. And if you're going to be stroppy, you also have to be right.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Fun-suckers and 'trashback' in the land of figs

This is generally a serious(ish) blog offering sound(ish) advice on writing. But I think Sundays should be a day off from serious(ish) professional stuff and so from now on Sunday posts will be more personal reflections on frivolous things. I might even try to make some tenuous link with writing, but I'm sure I won't always succeed.

So - who are the fun-suckers in the land of figs? They are proctors of Oxford University. I was in Oxford last weekend and wrote this post on the bus home. The pavements were littered with figs that have fallen from the trees. You didn't know there were figs in Oxford? Nor did I. But walk down Observatory Street or Woodstock Road, or countless other streets and you will find squished figs underfoot. They could do with an infestation of bushbabies to clear them up.

Instead, they have an infestation of fun-suckers.

When students at the university finish their exams, their friends meet them outside the exam halls and 'trash' them. Trashing involves the hurling of food, confetti, glitter, silly string, champagne (for the rich), beer (for the poor) and anything else that can be hurled over the exam-sitter who is, as the university demands, dressed in sub fusc and gown. (Sub fusc is a monochrome formal outfit with some arcane bits and pieces; a gown is a cut-down version of a real academic gown, with silly tatters in place of sleeves - except for scholars, who have better sleevelets.) You can see obvious objections to this - there's a lot of mess and someone has to clear it up, for a start. It disrupts the traffic (very briefly). But it is, basically, harmless fun.

I took part in the trashing of a certain chemistry student, who will remain nameless in case the fun-suckers want to pounce. I went with her student friends to wait for her. We had our bags searched (!) before being allowed to stand behind barriers and shout, wave balloons and throw confetti. A mixture of police and proctors (the university's own law-enforcers) told us not to open any bottles or cans of drink. Of course, officer, we just brought them along because bottles like an outing on a sunny day, we weren't going to open them. There was a lively trade between trashers in allowed items - biodegradable confetti, hats, garlands, balloons with strings that were not going to be released. Our serious trashing contingent had hidden in Magpie Lane; the vanguard was to offer immediate shouting and confetti and direct the trashee to the right place. The trashers used mobile phones to check the area for proctors and police before picking their venue.  

Once in Magpie Lane, the trashing began: icing sugar, baked beans, turmeric, Guinness, gone-off sauce of some kind. The trashee loves this, by the way - it is a welcome release of exam tension. Not to be trashed is a sign of having no friends. To have friends who give up their time, their spare food (it uses up the stuff you can't be bothered to lug home at the end of term) and scarce money to celebrate the end of your exams is a wonderful thing. It is an act of cameraderie, affection, delight - a happy moment for all except the proctors. Yes, there are some baked beans on the floor. I'm sure the urban foxes will lick them up. There is some confetti, but so is there after weddings, and it soon disintegrates. It looks nice, anyway. It is happy, summer mess. It's part of the Oxford scene that tourists flock to see. Why try to kill it?

Students are fined for trashing if caught. Fines this year that I heard of were £50, £80 and £100. How much do your friends love you if they will risk that? There were six of us trashing the chemistry student - a potential £600 in fines if we were caught. And the trashee can be fined, too! One friend was fined £50 last week for pushing a pie into a friend's face. There was not even any littering, the pie stuck to him. Why? Because, the excuse goes, using food like this is an insult to homeless people. WTF? Did the fine go to feeding homeless people? No. Would homeless people even want half the gone-off stuff used in trashing? No. How about this, proctors? If you catch someone using food for trashing, tot up the value of the food and fine the group that amount and spend it all on food for homeless people. Or sell trashing licences in advance, with the money going for food in a homeless shelter. Instead of fun-sucking, help others benefit from the fun. Oh - and those bottles of champagne you confiscated - where did they go?? Not on fun, I hope.

Yesterday Small Bint went to her school-leaving prom - the same state secondary school the trashing sister left four years ago. Swarms of pierced and tattooed parents cheered meringue dresses and sharp suits arriving in stretch limos, milk floats, buses and even a fire engine. They loved it, all of them. The police lurked around the corner. Later in the night, I drove Small Bint to an after-party, past the police arresting the sharp suits. Why? What had they done? They are good boys - I know many of them. They were probably making a noise. It was 11.30 on a Friday on their last day of formal education. Surely a bit of noise is justified? Why launch them into the world with a police warning instead of shaking their hands and wishing them good luck in what will be tough times?

Is this relevant to writing? Yes. The expunging of fun is one of the curses of modern childhood and of education ruled by the National Curriculum. Let wonder and fun thrive. Don't stifle it. Throw beans, wear meringue dresses, shout with joy that you're out of that stifling school, read Asterix and fuck the literacy strategy with its narrow focus on reading for improvement instead of pleasure. Books are fun. Life is fun. If you don't want the fun, at least let the kids have it.

Friday 1 July 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Commissioning editor

There are lots of different types of editor in a publishing company. At least there are several different editing roles, though in a small publishing house an editor may double up, performing more than one role. The commissioning editor is the one who - guess what? - commissions books. To you, the author, the commissioning editor is pretty close to god.

The commissioning editor builds the list. That's not writing down things to do that then never get done, like our own lists. It's thinking up and acquiring books that make a collection with coherence and integrity. Sounds posh, doesn't it? The commissioning editor commissions books either by deciding they want a certain book and looking for an author to write it, or by looking at proposals that come in and picking from them.

Your job as writer (with the help of your agent if you have one) is to identify the commissioning editors of lists into which your book would fit. There is no point in sending a proposal to a commissioning editor who does not have a list that it would suit. I can't stress that strongly enough. An editor is not likely to start a list just for your book. Nor are they likely to take a book that would compete directly with one already in their list (or in the list of another editor in the same publishing house).

If you are happy to write books to commission, rather than coming up with the ideas yourself first, you can contact commissioning editors of relevant lists and introduce yourself, explaining what you write. This only works for some types of books. Don't approach an editor at Faber saying you'd like to write some literary novels and would they get in touch, please, when they need some written? That doesn't happen. But if you want to write reading-scheme-type fiction for early readers, or books on cat care, or travel guides, you can approach a commissioning editor, with examples of your previous relevant publications, and ask if they have any openings in their list. Expect to be told 'No'. That's the default answer. You just might get lucky. Then they may say 'we're commissioning short stories with a scientific content supporting key stage 1 science' or some such. And then you decide if you can do it and want to do it.

The names of commissioning editors - especially those who are good to work with - are sometimes a closely guarded secret. Most commissioning editors are drowning under a deluge of unsolicited proposals and manuscripts (slush pile). To ask an author the name of their editor with the intention of sending them your own proposal or manuscript, especially if you are unpublished, is not polite. An editor will take more notice of something sent in with a name check: 'Stroppy Author gave me your name' or whatever. It suggests an endorsement from a writer they trust. We will not give those endorsements to people whose work we do not know (and consider good). So if you meet me at a party and I won't tell you the name of my editors, that's why. You can find the names of editors in the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook - or at least the name of the person to send your proposals to, which may or may not be the real commissioning editor.

If you phone a publishing company and ask the name of the commissioning editor for the list you are interested in, you may or may not be given it. I've been refused the email address of a commissioning editor by a telephone-answering Hitler. Even when I told her I'd already published more than 50 books of the same type, she was reluctant to give it to me. Funny way to run a business, employing staff to make it difficult for the buyers to acquire the product they sell. But then, publishing is a funny business.