The first page matters

We are often told this and it is surely true. I started reading a new book a few weeks ago and the first page nearly put me off. The scene was London, not now but in the past as portrayed in many a Sherlock Holmes film – mist swirling everywhere, people emerging out of it and disappearing into it. But a book is not a film, we cannot see the mist, so we have to be told it is misty. In this case, to accomplish this, the author uses the word ‘mist’ four times in the relatively short first paragraph and, just in case we missed it, once more in the second. A word can be repeated deliberately, for rhetorical effect, but this was not the impression I had here.

Then we have ‘Darkness … pooling’ and, a few lines later, ‘blood pooling’. Quite a lot of pooling going on.

And all this on an opening page heavy with adjectives. I could undertake a statistical analysis, but life is too short.

In fact the book is good. The characters are interesting and the narrative gripping. But writing style matters too. However, style is difficult to pin down: what appeals to some may not to others.  So some may read this opening page and love it.

But I can say that this particular  opening page does not give an accurate impression of what is to come. The repetition drops off, the adjective count (with a few exceptions) drops off too, and dialogue makes a welcome entrance. As does the author’s wry take on the events he is narrating.

So anyone put off by the opening of this book would be missing out on a good read. Which would be a pity. Prospective buyers can check out the first few pages of most books online: if they are put off they will not buy. Is that what authors want? Probably not.

 

Pay attention to your interior text

It is easy to find articles and blog posts dealing with the importance of cover design. If a design is inappropriate, amateur or dreadful no one will buy it whose first encounter with the book is its cover. The assumption is that if the cover is bad the contents will be too.

The interior text is another matter. There are articles on this subject too, but not so many, and they can be a little dry. Why is that? Because the subject is a little dry and that can’t be helped. There is no way round it. Though less exciting than eye-balling graphic images of vampires, dragons, space ships and malevolent corkscrews, the quality of the text must be taken seriously, because a reader coming across a few errors in the opening chapter will not be impressed.

What sort of thing are we talking about here? One example. There is a difference between a hyphen and a dash. In fact, there are two types of dash, the ‘n’ dash and the ‘m’ dash, the ‘m’ dash being longer. We might use a hyphen to create a compound word. Okay, so I drink the occasional brandy, but only as a pick-me-up. (For purely medicinal purposes, as they used to say in the old books and films.) I might use dashes to insert an addition into a sentence. Well I’ll be cornswaggled – as my old grandpappy used to say.

Now inserting a hyphen is easy, there is a hyphen on your keyboard – but you will look in vain for ‘n’ or ‘m’ dashes on your keyboard. So where do they come from? Probably from your word-processing software but – and it’s a big ‘but’ – your software may not always get it right. You have to check, you have to use your eyes. Now let us say your book is 350 pages long, that’s a lot of checking. And if you read those 350 pages absorbed by the narrative then you will miss most of the errors they contain. Proof-reading calls for discipline and a capacity to withstand boredom. Some of us have this, more of us do not.

Here’s another example to catch the unwary. One of your characters is speaking and her sentence tails off.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . .’

But if by mistake (and we all make mistakes) you leave a space after the last point before inserting the closing inverted comma, look what happens.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . . ‘

Yes, your inverted comma is now the wrong way round. Come on, I hear you say, I wouldn’t fall for that one! Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I have just found this error in a novel where the author goes so far as to thank her editor. And this was not the only error to pass her editor by.

I know of an author who had a team of eight ‘beta readers’ checking an advance copy of her text. I read the published version and found mistakes. But if I had written the book myself I might well have missed them too because the text is already in my head. It is usually easier to spot textual errors in other people’s work than in your own.

In my second book I referred to several television sets tuned ‘to the sane channel’. I did not spot this error myself, but another author did and, thanks to her, it is corrected. How she spotted it I do not know, since the words ‘sane’ and ‘same’ are remarkably similar. But, as you can see, they have given me a chance to bring the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ back into the conversation. And it’s worth noting here that since the word ‘sane’ exists and since the phrase ‘sane channel’, however nonsensical, is perfectly grammatical, neither a spell check not a grammar check would have brought this mistake to my attention. It had to be seen to be identified. (Yes, I’m really hitting the high spots now.)

About the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Since the entire sentence is in brackets, the closing bracket comes after the full stop. However, if only part of a sentence is in brackets, and that part ends the sentence, then the closing bracket would come before the full stop. Gripping stuff! You’re on the edge of your seat, right?

But these are errors on the small scale. There is also the question of paragraph and page layout. How does it look when your chapter ends with a full left hand page and only one word on the facing right hand page? Not too good. Here we are entering the territory of widows and orphans, a term covering words and phrases left metaphorically dangling. There is some dispute over precise definitions, but avoiding bad or unsightly paragraph and page layout will be difficult, bordering on the impossible, if you are relying entirely on word-processing software to do it.

To give some indication of the factors involved, the following is from Wikipedia.

Writing guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, generally suggest that a manuscript should have no widows and orphans even when avoiding them results in additional space at the bottom of a page or column.[4] However, in its 16th edition (2011) the Chicago Manual of Style suggests a new convention in which pages may end with the first line of a new paragraph.[5] Some techniques for eliminating widows include:

  • Forcing a page break early, producing a shorter page;
  • Adjusting the leading, the space between lines of text (although such carding or feathering is usually frowned upon);
  • Adjusting the spacing between words to produce ‘tighter’ or ‘looser’ paragraphs;
  • Adjusting the hyphenation of words or characters within the paragraph;
  • Adjusting the page’s margins;
  • Subtle scaling of the page, though too much non-uniform scaling can visibly distort the letters;
  • Rewriting a portion of the paragraph;
  • Reduce the tracking of the words;
  • Adding a pull quote to the text (more common for magazines); and
  • Adding a figure to the text, or resizing an existing figure.

So if you are one of the many people who finds all of this challenging, and if you are self-publishing, you might consider using the services of an editor/proof-reader rather than, say, buying an interior text service from Create Space. A named person who knows what he or she is doing and is easily contactable by email, rather than an anonymous member of a team you cannot contact directly.

There are obviously quite a few people out there offering editing and proof-reading services. I only have experience of one, but have found her excellent. Her name is Sarah Holroyd and she is to be found at Sleeping Cat Books.

http://sleepingcatbooks.com

I should perhaps add that I have no beneficial interest in Sleeping Cat Books and also that the various specifics mentioned in this post I have learned the hard way.

Paying to have things done

‘Life is too short to do anything for oneself that one can pay others to do for one.’
W Somerset Maugham

I came across this quotation in a magazine. Like many such sayings it has a surface attraction though in this case, with one use of ‘oneself’ and two of ‘one’, it surely comes over now as formal and stiff.

But moving on to its meaning, consider what it might signify for authors. If we can afford it we could:
– use a professional for the layout and proof-reading of interior text
– use a graphic designer for our covers
– use an illustrator if our book contains illustrations

So far so good, but why not go the whole hog and pay someone to write our books for us? You know it makes sense! A certain celebrity here in the YUK has done that with some success and has reportedly said that the trick lies in coming up with the ideas. The writing is the easy bit.

Yet the issue of paying for services is a serious one. Many people think that proofing and formatting interior text is easy. To judge from mistakes even from large publishing houses this is plainly not the case. But it is usually easier to persuade an author of the importance of a professional cover because the cover sells. Or, to put it negatively, without a professionally produced cover your book won’t move.

There is one other area where authors might consider hiring help and that is marketing. If people don’t know your books are out there they can’t choose to buy them, but marketing isn’t easy. For a start, it requires certain skills – for example, in the effective use of social media – and authors don’t necessarily have those skills. It may also involving selling yourself, which many authors are not comfortable with. Readers, we are told, want to know a little about the author, like why they write in the first place or who knitted their socks.

Looked at objectively, this blog is not a good example of an author promoting his work. The subject matter is too diverse, too often beside the point (it should be publicising the books) and not confessional enough to attract a large following. I should pay someone competent to do it for me.

And lastly there is the question of money. Assuming you have enough to hire others to work for you in the first place, why would you spend it in this way? After all, instead of blowing it on a third party you could get your head round publishing software, graphic design and concepts such as ‘flattening’. Not to mention web design for your website. You could choose to do these things, but it will take time and time is money too. People who work for themselves and charge by the hour are well aware of this. So how much is an hour of your time really worth? Only you can work that out but one thing seems clear, it’s a graduated scale. The older we get the more our time is worth because we don’t have so much of it left.

 

To publish or self-publish

The choice you make may come down to your psychology. You may feel the need to be in print the day before yesterday. Why might that be? You may be young and used to things happening quickly, or old and persuaded that there may not be so many tomorrows you can afford to pick wildflowers along the way and lie on the river bank under a tree with grass in your ear.

In either case, you might succumb to negative thoughts. You might try to get an agent and ply your wares from one to the next. After two years you will have succeeded or given up. But even if you have succeeded your agent, after another two years, may not have been able to place your work with a publisher.  And now four years have gone and you cannot get them back. So this option is not for you. You have just ruled out traditional publishing. At this point you could give up and be happy instead, you could self-publish or you could become a publisher.

Self-publishing

Self-publication is not without its pitfalls, especially if your eye is caught by the promises of a vanity press. But once you have done it, then you must market your work, which will entail – whether you like it or not – marketing yourself. Not everyone is good at this and it requires intelligently directed effort. You will hope to be selling online to a potentially world-wide audience – though it is as well to bear in mind that several other people will be doing exactly the same.

But what if you want to see your title in bookshops. (Does your book really exist if it’s only visible online?) In fact, you can self-publish and sell your book in bookstores. It is possible, but only on a limited scale. You approach your local bookstore with a copy of Archangel of Fire (#1 in the Sword of Destiny series), tell them what you would like to do and they will either say yes or no. If they say ‘yes’ you will agree terms, provide the store with copies and hand them an invoice reflecting those terms. Should they find stocks running low they will ask you for more copies and will certainly look more favourably upon Forged in Fear (#2 in the Sword of Destiny series).

I have done this myself (minus archangels and swords).

Bookshop 2

With chains the situation is little different. In my experience, the manager of each store has the discretion to take your book or not. If you live in a city with five branches of Better Books, you cannot approach head office and do a deal covering all five, you will need to approach each store individually. So getting your book into stores is a time-consuming business, and that is just to speak of the area in which you live. Shall we now move on to the nation as a whole? I don’t think so, somehow. Are you really going to spend the next two years trudging from one town to the next with a suitcase full of books? If you want potential country-wide coverage you have to be published rather than self-published and one way to achieve that is to set yourself up as a publisher.

Becoming a publisher

To achieve this you pay for ISBN numbers (unless you live in Iceland, where they will be free) and set to work preparing your first book, publishing it to critical acclaim, and having the great joy of seeing it in bookstores.

In theory, at least. But how is it in practice? (Remember, we decided to become a publisher to achieve this end.) A member of the public walks in to Bargain  Books looking for your title. (She knew of it from your website). To her disappointment it isn’t in stock, she can’t believe it but, never fear, because it has been published by a genuine publisher it is registered with Nielsen Bookdata, carried by a wholesale distributor such as Gardner’s, and so shows up on the store’s computer where it can easily be ordered.

http://www.gardners.com/gardners/Default.aspx

So, yes, becoming a publisher can be done, though it isn’t advisable without first figuring out the angles. If you haven’t been involved in publishing before there is a lot to learn. With each title you have to deal with the interior text (by no means as easy as it sounds to make this error free) and the cover. And times being as they are you will wish to convert your physical book into one or more e-book formats. You will also have to keep accounts and, if you aren’t in the system already, be obliged to submit annual tax returns.

If you succeed in all that, you have done well. But if your main interest is writing you may find that you have no time left to do it and even less energy. And whether you self-publish or turn yourself into a publisher (I was thinking of becoming the Hart Head) you will still have to handle marketing whether you like it or not.

 

Three small niggles with grammar

There are two takes on grammar. According to one, grammar is a set of rules which we should stick to if we do not wish to appear uncultured. So anyone saying ‘I seen’ or ‘I done’ can quickly be identified as ill-educated.  Some of those who look at grammar in this way can be remarkably inflexible, as if ‘the rules of grammar’ had been also brought down the mountain by Moses.

This was the take on grammar I encountered at school. We were taught that we should not begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘because’ and that split infinitives were to be avoided. The most famous split infinitive is probably ‘to boldly go’, and it seemed to work for Captain Kirk. But leaving him to one side . . .

The second take on grammar is that it is a description of how a given language works. Since each language is different each will require its own grammar if it is to be adequately accounted for. This was the approach to grammar I encountered  university. It soon became apparent that the grammar of English we were taught at school left a lot to be desired since it was based on Latin grammar and the two languages – English and Latin – are radically different.

Despite all this enlightenment, small grammatical points (in the first sense) can cause us problems when writing. Three examples.

Grammatical number

The custom is to follow a singular noun with a singular verb, a plural noun with a plural verb:

the boy smiles, the men smile. But sometimes following this rule can sound wrong.

‘A troupe of monkeys attacks the tourists’.  This is ‘correct’. There is only one troupe – singular – so the verb should be singular too. The trouble is the singular verb comes immediately after a plural noun and sentences like this can trouble the ear. It is always possible to express the idea differently, my preferred way out, so that the problem does not arise.

The Subjunctive

This is not used as often as it was in the past but it can crop up, for example, in association with the word ‘if’.

Which do we prefer, ‘if I was,’ or ‘if I were’? In direct speech the answer is usually obvious: what would your character say? When it comes to indirect speech it will boil down to the preference of the writer, though I often feel that the subjunctive feels a little bit precious now.

(It is interesting that in Spanish, that very user-friendly language, there are not one but two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.)

Who and whom

I am almost incapable of not using ‘whom’ when that is the form which ‘should’ be used. Call me old-fashioned if you will.

 

 

Describing our characters

The author of the book I am reading right now has a tendency to supply a physical description when introducing a new character. His physical descriptions include what the character is wearing though, like advanced airport security, he will happily penetrate the clothes to the body beneath – especially if the character is female. Here are two examples.

‘How beautiful she was in her pink silk dressing gown, which allowed a glimpse of her shapely curves and the delicate outline of her breasts with their prominent nipples. Her long black hair was gathered in a ponytail, leaving her face free. Her eyes were large and dark, her feet were bare and her nails were painted bright red.’

‘Her dark blue linen suit and her white silk blouse accentuated a nice figure, and with her sensual lips, well-groomed shoulder-length red hair and tanned complexion, she looked like a film star.’

In case I am giving the wrong impression here, the author writes crime novels, not erotic fiction. But on the evidence so far, he is more interested in female bodies than male, though he does also make reference to what some of his male characters are wearing.

I question this approach on two levels. The first is whether, immediately on meeting a new character, we should expect a physical description. It is surely an unsubtle way of going about things. After a while, it comes across as the verbal equivalent of painting by numbers. Character – description. In a third person novel the author can tell us directly what a person looks like, and he has every right to do so.  But the fact that we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.  (I can hit my thumb with a hammer but it isn’t recommended.)

The second question is whether we need so much physical description anyway. Someone could be the body beautiful before us in all her glory and dressed to match, but if her ears are bookends for a vacuum why would we care? So I would hope that we vary the amount of physical description we supply according to how significant it is. I’m told that some people, in their choice of clothing, are making a statement – I am an important person, I am successful, I am powerful, I have a body to die for, I have a body to pay for. In such cases describe them by all means, but not all at once and perhaps, on occasion, through the eyes of another character in the book?

Naming Your Characters (2/2)

Does the choice of their characters’ surnames matter to writers of fiction? Probably not a lot. In the UK, a double barrelled surname might be used to indicate social pretension, but a surname is unlikely to carry either heroic or villainous connotations. Does the name Moriarty have a hint of evil in it? Not before Conan Doyle used it, and not to present day bearers of that name. And how about Murgatroyd? Does that have an antiquated ring to it? If so, blame Agatha Christie.

 The most obvious area where an active choice of surname might be used is humour. Supposedly humorous names could be invented for this purpose: Bucketfull (drinks too much), Bedworthy (overdoes it between the sheets), Brimstone (a preacher of the old school). But though this was done in the past it probably isn’t a good idea now since it smacks of caricature. (One of my favourites is Sir Leicester Dedlock and Dickens, as we know, invented quite a few surnames in his time.)

But sometimes an author will take a more active interest in surnames, as William Boyd does in his novel ‘Waiting for Sunrise’. The main character is Lysander Ulrich Rief, son of famous actor  Halifax Rief. Lysander has a problem and has gone to Vienna for help. The name of his shrink is Dr Bensimon, from which we might assume that his analyst is Jewish, and that would come as no surprise in the Vienna of 1913. It could almost be considered an additional qualification.

However, being Jewish in Vienna could have its disadvantages too, as is explained to Lysander by an Austrian army officer. Some money goes missing and Wolfram is accused, on the secure grounds that his surname gives him away as being Slovenian. When his case finally comes up, Wolfram points out that he didn’t take the money, which explains why there is no evidence that he did. However, another officer, one with a Jewish surname, could just as easily have taken it. The court martial is most interested in this suggestion and Wolfram is exonerated. He then fills Lysander in on the attitude to minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Although engaged to an actress called Blanche, Lysander starts sleeping with a sculptor called Hettie Bull. Boyd gives a full description of this diminutive character then asks, ‘Was ever a name less suited to a person?’  (Page 91). So it is evident that this author makes full use of the opportunities offered in choosing names for his characters, and we can all do the same if we want.

Naming Your Characters (1/2)

For an author, choosing names for characters may be difficult but must surely be important, since certain names may have resonances which need to be considered. For example, and with apologies to anyone so named in real life, if you come across a character named Algernon in your reading, what might you expect? Firstly, that the book was probably written many decades ago and that the author was English. I would also tend to expect that the character was useless, and probably effete with it – a chinless wonder. So in my case, I am responding to the name with an off-the-shelf selection of stereotypes. But I will not be alone in that.

Or how about Sally? To me, Sally is cheerful, well-built and positive. A force for good. She is also energetic, played hockey, cricket and lacrosse at school, and cycles up vertical walls for charitable causes. As for Phyllis, she has too often been the butt of the same bad joke to be useable.

As well as suggesting a certain type of character, a name may also suggest social class. This is a difficult subject, since perceptions of social class vary greatly from one location to another. Returning to Algernon, we may be sure he didn’t mine coal, but he may have been a clergyman or an accountant. As things stand now, it may be that people who name their children after celebrities or pop stars are more likely to come from a lower social class, however we define it. So if you meet a girl called Gaga you can draw your own conclusions. Many other parents follow the fashion of the times while some try to create one of their own. In the past few months I have met a Destiny (a girl of unconstrained explosive force) a Saffron, a Miami, and a Xania.

Some names may be so neutral they can be safely be used for secondary characters without further thought. For me, James, Richard, David, Mary and Susan are in this category. But if we would like a suitable name for our hero, heroine, or villain, then we must give it more thought and live with our choice for a while till we know we are comfortable with it. Would you call your hero Herbert or your heroine Priscilla? I wouldn’t.

[Confession. I started giving this subject  more thought when I discovered that I’d used the same name for the main female character in two different books. When I realised what I’d done I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed at the time, but the name was one to which I was deeply attached and the fictional bearer of that name completely to be trusted. I then had to come up with a different name for one of these women and I didn’t find it easy. She was Lyndsay. How could she be anyone else? As stupidity goes this would take some beating].

The Role of Editing

Sometimes we edit ourselves, sometimes others do it for us. What is the purpose of this process? Quite often it is to ‘tighten up’ the narrative, which raises the question why we would want to do that? Do we really want to be tight? We probably do if we are writing a page-turner or a crime story. We try to keep the reader wondering what will happen next.

Some editors are more interventionist than others, how successfully we don’t know since we seldom get to see original, unedited texts. Robert Carver’s editor appears to have made his style more laconic, changing the import of his stories in the process. Going further back, it is known that Stendahl’s publisher reduced the length of The Charterhouse of Parma. Since we cannot compare the draft to the published version, there is no way of telling whether he improved the book or not, though given the chance to read the original I would take it.

Another reason for wanting to tighten up is that our draft is prolix and repetitive. If so, we would want to improve it. But I have come across a reason which doesn’t impress me so much. This is how it goes. Nowadays, people expect instant gratification. They know what they want and they want it now. Used to surfing as they are, their attention span is less than that of previous generations. They expect a story to skip along at a brisk pace and will lose interest if it doesn’t. So writers must adapt their work to the spirit of an age when many are more articulate with their thumbs than their tongue.

Yes, a spare, lean style can be very effective, but is that the only style open to us now? Can’t we be expansive any more? Are digressions out of the question? I hope not. Not only is there nothing wrong in principle with the expansive, in the right hands it has a lot to offer. I am left with the feeling that cutting too much flesh from the bone might not be the best idea. Who wants to cuddle up with a skeleton? Not me.