Monday 24 October 2011

When the gatekeepers look like Cerberus

One of the particular challenges of writing for children rather than adults (or even older teens) is that to get your book into the hands of the reader, you have first to get it past a gatekeeper. Your young readers may well want to read books with swearing, sex and violence in, but the gatekeepers  don't want them to. The gatekeepers are teachers, librarians and parents. They are the ones who hold the purse strings, and they have to be satisfied that your book is 'suitable' for the little darlings in their care. Needless to say, their idea of 'suitable' rarely matches the readers' idea of 'desirable' and often doesn't match the writer's idea of 'realistic'.

I'm struggling at the moment to present an angry, disillusioned teenage character facing some very difficult issues in his life but without using any swear words. This type of character does swear. Almost all teens swear, and my teen readers are well aware of that (and swear themselves, I'm sure). I know the argument - parents will object, so the schools/libraries/bookshops can't stock the books if they are full of swearing. I remove the swearing, though with a weary sigh. But that's not the worst of it.

The books were supposed to be sexy, but they can't have any sex in them. The characters in these books are 17 and 18. They are over the age of consent. They don't have any full sex, but even references to sexual desire, or to consenting over-30s having sex, have to be very tame and ambiguous. I think I can trust the more knowing reader to fill in the gaps, so I'll let that go, too. And the unknowing younger teen will read on, oblivious to what might be happening.

One of the series features a historical serial killer who mutilates prostitutes. The gatekeepers don't like the prostitutes. This is where I do have problems. Er, actually, the killing is more offensive! This is not just an issue about books, is it? It gets right to the heart of attitudes towards what is and is not acceptable, not just in fiction but in life. We object more to prostitutes than to serial killers. Do we really?

Here are some activities in the books (before Blytonisation): swearing; wanting to have sex with someone; having sex with someone; drinking blood; drinking vodka; psycho killers cutting prostitutes to ribbons; inhumane experiments on people purchased as slaves; trying to drown someone; beheading someone. Which of these are normal activities that most people will engage in at some time in their lives? Swearing, drinking vodka, wanting to have sex, having sex. Which are activities to be discouraged, amongst both teens and adults, and which most people will never engage in? Drinking blood, trying to drown someone, beheading someone, cutting prostitutes to ribbons, conducting inhumane experiments on trafficked slaves. So which shall we remove from the books?

Could someone please explain to me why? If we show swearing, kids think swearing is OK? They start swearing? So if we show beheading, they think beheading is OK? They start beheading people? I'm quite glad my bint only swears at me if the alternative is being beheaded, but I don't think she swears because she's seen it in books! And she hasn't beheaded me, even though she must have come across the suggestion at some point.

I am absolutely not getting at my publisher or distributor here. I know we have to sell the books. There's no point in writing or publishing them if we don't. So I will write them in a way that means they will get past the gatekeepers. And I'm not really getting at teachers and librarians, though I do think they could maybe take a stand. What I am troubled by is the - real or imagined - parents who will object if their children read swear words but not if they read about cruelty. Who are these people who don't like to think their kids might discover people drink or have sex when they are older, but don't mind them thinking people kill each other from sexual jealousy and might get away with it?

Is it that the children know they should never follow the example of the serial killer (really? even the child with zero degrees of empathy?), but not know they shouldn't follow the example of the person who swears? Do we trust the reader to discern between undesirable and unacceptable? If we do, let them see the swear words. If we don't, don't let them see the criminal acts. I suppose including swearing, sex and drinking could be thought to normalise them. But they ARE normal, whether we like it or not. And doesn't showing violence on TV and in movies and video games - violence far worse and more graphic than that in most books - normalise violence, and acclimatise children to it? I suppose what I really want to know is, if you object to your child seeing swearing in a book, aren't you also a person who will object to your child seeing violence in a book? So you won't be buying the book anyway? Or have I got it all wrong? I'd really like to know.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Teach writing? Nah....

Whether or not creative writing can be taught is a much debated question. My own view - and I've had creative writing students - is that creative writing courses can impart techniques and help students develop skills they have, but if they have no native talent the course is a waste of time and money. Some courses are a waste of time and money anyway, because of the way they are taught or the people who teach them, but that's a different matter. But this post isn't about courses - it's about the individual, one-to-one help that an experienced writer sometimes gives an emerging or novice writer. We have all been asked by new writers to read their work. Some of us do it for money. Some of use do it out of generosity, or guilt, or because we feel obliged or coerced. Some of us just say no. I say no, but that doesn't mean I won't help...

I have a new friend. I'll call him Adrian. Hello, Adrian - I'm sure you will recognise yourself, even with this different name. Adrian has written a long novel which he has been working on for much of this year. He has had feedback from several readers, some with publishing industry experience, so their comments are more likely to be useful than those of random friends and family. He has taken on board all their comments and made changes to his novel. I have not read his novel, nor do I intend to until it is published. I have read and commented on the synopsis and the first page - that's all. So can I be any use to Adrian in helping him develop his novel? I think so. Because I don't think I can teach him to write, but I might be able to help him to learn to write.

There are lots of guidelines - which lots of people treat as immutable laws - like 'show don't tell' and 'don't use 'was'' and so on. There are lots of distractions, like 'use 12 pt Times Roman' (I have never submitted a MS in 12pt Times Roman, and I have never had one rejected because it was in the wrong font). If I tell Adrian how I write, he might think that's my prescription for successful writing. It's not. It's possibly a very bad way to write - for other people. But it works for me. He will have his own way of writing that works for him. So much for the activity of writing - I'm not going to say 'you have to have a detailed plan' or 'never write a detailed plan'. But what I want to get Adrian to do, when I talk to him about his novel, is to understand what he is writing and how it works or could work. So I ask him questions like 'who is the narrator?' It is an omniscient narrator. 'Does this narrator have a character? Is he/she reliable? How do you switch between points of view? What are your main character's flaws? Which of his opinions do you share and which not? How does he change during the course of the book? Why?' And so on.

These are questions you can ask of any book. You can only answer them if you know the book, and if you are prepared to think about it. I'll let you into a secret. When you do an English degree at Cambridge, your supervisor lets you choose the texts you study (or did in my day). There is no limit. This doesn't mean the supervisor has read everything. It means the supervisor can give a supervision on a book they haven't read, just as I can help Adrian improve a novel I haven't seen. It's all about asking questions that get the writer/student to think intelligently about the book so that they make discoveries and increase their understanding. I have occasionally given Cambridge supervisions on books I haven't read. Once I gave a supervision on a book I hadn't read (all of), written in a language I didn't understand (very well). Because learning is not something that must be imparted by a teacher, but something that can come from within, possibly prompted by a helpful prodding person.

You wrote the book - you know it better than I do, or some other would-be helpful writerly or publishing type. You tell me about it - telling me about it is how you work out what you know and what you don't know. Then you can work out how to plug the gaps. This is rather how I work as an RLF fellow. If a student has written a doctoral thesis, or a novel, I'm not going to read all of it. I will read a bit and talk to them about the structure and any problems I can see in the sample I've read. Yes, I might explain to them how to use commas or why they need to write in shorter sentences, but the most useful bit, often, is getting them to explain why they have written something in the way they have and defend their choice. If they can't defend it, they realise it's probably wrong. The next stage is to work out how to fix it. But I want them to do that, not me. It's their book/thesis. And I'm lazy.

Of course, there is a role for the person who reads the book and says 'your pacing is all wrong' or 'the voice is inconsitent'. But if you have someone saying - 'tell me what happens in the first three chapters. Do you think that moves quickly enough to keep someone interested?' - you might be able to fix the pacing before you show it to someone else.  I could write a list of questions to ask about your novel. But that's not the same. You really need a person who will keep pushing, with one question leading into another that depends on the answer you gave. Perhaps I should offer an editorial service that does not involve reading your book, but is basically £50 for an hour of being badgered remorselessly. Stroppy Author's Lazy Consultancy.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Draft

A draft is something you should keep to yourself. It is an unfinished book. You wouldn't serve someone a half-cooked meal, would you? Especially not if you were running a restaurant and expected them to pay for it? So don't send a publisher a draft of your book. It's not their job to tell you what to do with it to finish it, and it's certainly not their job to finish it for you; it's your job to know what it needs and do it.

There are two principal reasons for a publisher to refuse a book: it's crap and always will be; it's still crap but you could have made it OK. Oh, and there's a third - you sent them a book that is not the type they publish, or that they already have with a slightly different title. There's nothing you can do about the last bit except look at their catalogue and make sure they haven't just printed a book that is pretty much the same. The others are all in your control. (Most of this is covered wonderfully by the Crabbit Bat Nicola Morgan on Help! I Need a Publisher - write the right book at the right time in the right way and send it to the right publisher.)

There's sort of a fourth, which is that you have sent a good book to someone who just doesn't like it. That's bad luck and there is nothing you can do about editors' (or readers') tastes.

The issue of the draft addresses reason number two: it's still crap but you could have made it OK.

Now, all this doesn't mean that your book won't need any editing. Every book benefits from editing - and copy editing and proof-reading. But it should be finished in your view. The editor will still improve it. And if they can't improve it, they will be paid for doing nothing, so they can be grateful to you. If you can still find things - any things - wrong with your book it is not ready to send in.

Caveat: no book is ever perfect. This is not a licence to hold onto your book forever because it doesn't match up to the Platonic ideal you conceived when you planned the book. It has to be publishably good, not worthy of having been written by an omniscient god. If you hold on to your book for ages, tweaking and pithering about with it, you will never submit anything. And if you have a deadline imposed by a publisher, you have to submit by that deadline. Don't hang on to it for a bit longer because it isn't quite right. Read this post for a rant about the importance of meeting deadlines. Is this incompatible with everything else I have said? Not really - you just need to start the book early enough, and write it quickly enough, to leave time to correct and improve it before the deadline. That's easy, isn't it?


Saturday 15 October 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Copy editor

A bit of a lurch back to C, I'm afraid - I just tried to link to C is for Copy editor from a post I'm just writing and found it was still saved as a draft. Oooops. Especially as the up-coming post is D is for Draft. So just imagine you have gone faster than the speed of light, like a neutrino, and come to C is for Copy editor some weeks ago. [Please don't start a discussion about the speed of light/neutrino thing - that was a flippant reference, not an informed and informing comment on the plausibility of the CERN result. Which, incidentally, I am prepared to accept is accurate. But that's another story, and was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.]

The copy editor tidies up your writing at the detailed level. That sounds reasonable - they spot and correct the typing and grammatical errors, make sure everything is consistent, and make it all flow nicely. Sometimes it is reasonable, but sometimes the text becomes a battleground.

A good copy editor preserves your style and voice and corrects any errors. Their work should be invisible. They have impeccable grammar and no ego. They improve your book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction by making many or few (often imperceptible) changes, as necessary. That is the key - necessity. They don't change things for the sake of it.

A bad copy editor rewrites for the sake of it, stamping their own voice and style on your work. Perhaps they really want to be a writer, not an editor. [Fine, copy editor - write your own book. I've written this one already.] A really bad copy editor introduces grammatical errors, and sometimes even spelling errors. Believe me, they do. You would think, given that publishing is a competitive field, that it would be hard for someone with a poor grasp of grammar to get a job as a copy editor, but it happens. Copy editors who 'correct' to 'comprised of', and who don't recognise an ethical dative if it bites them, should be sent to a special circle of Hell. Where they will be bitten by ethical datives and hanged with the hanging prepositions they are so fond of.

The copy editor needs a good general knowledge and Classical education as well as an unrivalled command of English. Writers hate copy editors who mess with things and then get them wrong. Professional writers have generally checked their work carefully; copy editors should check any corrections they want to make equally carefully.

On the whole, I am blessed with very good editors. I have had only a couple of copy editors (in around 130 books) who really botched things. One I had to have fired; there was no option. We went back to the unedited text and started again with a new copy editor. Most have improved the books, and several have spotted errors that might otherwise have got through to press. Of course, there are still errors in my books - and they are my responsibility, not the copy editor's responsibility. (It's like children - when they do well, it's their own doing; when they do badly, we blame ourselves.)

A note to copy editors: 

Yes, there are sometimes errors in our books; we are not infallible. But please *tell* us if you think there is an error, rather than just changing the text to what you think it should be. If I have missed out what seems to you to be a crucial reference to a prophecy of Nostradamus, that's because it's apocryphal - one of those bits that is generally supposed to be in Nostradamus but actually is not. I don't want you sticking that kind of error in my book - the kind of error I have deliberately avoided. You have joined in the webfest of Nostradamus-spotting - I've read Nostradamus in the original. Who's likely to be right? JUST ASK FIRST: sometimes you are right, and sometimes you are wrong. It is very, very difficult to spot factual errors that have been introduced into a book by a copy editor. (Grammatical and spelling errors, on the other hand, leap off the page at me - so if you want to add some errors please add that type.)

And another thing - I do know about English grammar, possibly more than you do. Writers vary in this, of course. Some are not very good at it and need lots of help from the copy editor. But you can tell, if you have a whole book to work with, whether or not someone can write correctly. If most of the book is error-free, then it behoves you to ask if you think something is wrong, or to check in one of those reference books about grammar and English usage. Or at least to flag your 'correction' so that we can argue with you about it.

A note to authors:

If you want to argue with your copy editor, you have to know what you are doing. You need to be able to defend your original text if you don't want it changed - you must explain why it has to be as you wrote it, and why it can't be as the copy editor wants it. Why is your wording better than theirs? Don't argue for the hell of it. Look dispassionately at your text and decide whether the copy editor has, actually, improved it. All writers benefit from the work of a good editor.

Except with a picture book text, which is a slightly special case, I recommend NOT looking at your manuscript when you get the copy-edited text, except to check things you think might be wrong. If the changes don't leap out at you, they are probably fine. Don't be precious about your text, and don't be a prima donna - especially with non-fiction. A non-fiction copy editor is - in my view - allowed to edit to improve clarity. A fiction editor should be more sensitive to the writer's style, though clarity is still important. (That's even more true of poetry, but this blog is not about poets.) There's no point in being obscure just because you think it makes you look clever - it doesn't; it makes you look arrogant, up yourself or incompetent. Unless you are Jeremy Prynne.

Ideally - and usually, in my experience - the copy editor is your partner in producing a good book. And they don't even get a credit in the book. So be nice to your copy editor. Don't get cross over tiny things, and if you don't agree, correct them politely with a good, clear and measured explanation. Finally: I'd like to say a big thank you to all the wonderful copy editors I've worked with over the years - you have improved my books in little unnoticeable ways, and I am grateful for that.