Monthly Archives: June 2011
My working career has always revolved around the written word in one form or another; from typing to running a wordprocessing agency, from typesetting manuscripts to proofing and editing all manner of books, legal and statutory documents and much more besides. Wearing a writer’s hat, I have attended countless writing seminars, courses, conferences, and a member of small and large writing groups and communities. I’ve done the jumping through hoops and agonised over that wretched synopsis, learned what is accepted practice and what is not. Thus, whenever I read a book, be it conventionally published or otherwise, I cringe at the errors in the proofing and editing spotted in an increasing number of these books.
“But it’s the story that counts!” is a retort I’ve heard so often it’s almost become a cliché. “Readers can forgive the odd typo, the odd spelling mistake, the missed punctuation.” Sorry, author, that is not the case. Most don’t, certainly not if errors are there in herds that leap out of the page at you. Mistakes do, will and can throw a reader right out of the story; that is their job – to make a reader not want to finish, never mind buy another of your books again. Is that what you really want? It’s not the odd little typo that’s the troublemaker; it’s the glaring howlers that shouldn’t have got through that irritate. Those misspelled or wrong words, the bad punctuation and inconsistencies that all should have been corrected long before a book was thrust into the hands of your paying readership. The poor formatting, the switched tenses and lazy grammar that poke you in the eye and confuse the brain. Even if a book is offered free of charge, a writer owes it the reader to present it in the best manner possible. Proofreading is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
When I hear or read comments such as, “Well, my mother/granny/friend proofed it” or, even more worrying, “I checked it myself”, I know I shall not bother to read the book. If you don’t care enough about your work then why should I as a reader? You see, it takes a trained, experienced eye to see the mistakes, to know the things to look out for. The Society of Editors and Proofreaders advocates you cannot proof your own work, not because they are touting for your business but because it is true. A given. Your brain doesn’t read what your eye sees. Your brain already knows your story, it wrote it and knows what should be there without seeing what actually is. Scientific fact. You might have the word spelt correctly but is it the right word? Have you placed too much reliance on computer spellcheckers and the next-to-useless grammar checker? These mechanical devices cannot and do not know the difference between plain and plane or bear and bare, breath and breathe, principle and principal. They do not know that forget-me-nots do not grow in England during September, that there’s a difference between mum as a noun and Mum as pronoun, or between having lead in your pencil or being led up the garden path. That you toe the line, not tow the line. I have no doubt there are errors in this text, which goes to show you cannot proof your own work and that proofreading is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
Grammar is another minefield. What is acceptable to one school of thought or continent may not be to another. Most authors write as they speak. That is good, it forms part of the author’s voice, brings stories and characters to life. Books written in the Queen’s English, all grammatically proper and correct, or presumed correct, can appear stuffy and, frankly, dull, especially when it is clear the writer has striven so hard to do it in this way. It doesn’t work. And who says you can’t start a sentence with And or But or Because? Who wrote the rule that you cannot split an infinitive? There are no such rules. Prose that switches tenses, uses superfluous adjectives and a never-ending stream of he said, she said, is boring, and unnecessary if the narrative is crafted skilfully. Proofing is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
When we speak, we use intonation of voice, eye contact, hand gestures, to convey our meanings. We don’t have commas and fullstops and quotation marks. When writing we need punctuation to perform this function, but used in the wrong place it can change complete meanings, make reading difficult. And if reading your text is difficult, it isn’t doing its job. A bear eats shoots and leaves is a whole lot different to A bear eats, shoots, and leaves. There was a theory that a comma means this is where you take a breath, a semi-colon a longer breath and a colon an even greater pause. Not correct. Too often, writers suffer with that common complaint known as comma diarrhoea – too many, too often, and in the most inappropriate places. And as for those rogue apostrophes …
This isn’t unique to self-published books. I’ve seen glaring errors from conventional publishing houses too, often due to being a sad marker of lean, economic times in publishing when the proofreader is often the first to be let go, leaving it up to the author to get it right or, at most, the editor. Editors do an excellent job, a hard job, and they are not infallible. Neither am I. I get it wrong sometimes. Even I get confused with compliment and complement occasionally. I was taught that anything to do with time you used the word past, as in past, present and future, and anything to do with movement was from the verb to pass, as in he walked passed the breadshop. A lesson I understand now to be wrong. Am I?
What really annoys is these so-called independent publishers who take your money, claiming to offer a full editing service, often charging extra for proofing, when in fact they don’t bother to do the job properly. Those that don’t seem to care about your work, they already have your money. A form of daylight robbery. The Kindle and ebooks and ipads etc are wonderful inventions allowing writers to reach a reading public they would never have touched through conventional methods, and it is time the big boys moved over, but if self-published authors want to be taken seriously, elevate themselves out of the “vanity” publishing mindset held by others, make reviewers and readers and people sit up and take notice, they owe it to readers to get it right.
Proofreading need not be expensive. It’s time consuming, yes, but oh so vital. Circumvent this important element of the writing process at your peril because proofreading is more than just checking the spelling.
Recommended reading: Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
It was with mixed feelings I read yesterday of the Government’s intended plan for removing all cigarette vending machines from pubs, restaurants and bars. Not because I smoke (I don’t), but for the fact the way cigarette machines have shaped and influenced my life. The article was even more poignant being Father’s Day, and I wondered what my father would have made of the whole smoking issue.
My father’s boss, Mr Weiss, a Swiss music box maker, developed the wooden mechanism inside these wall-hung machines of the 1950s and 60s and also made the outer wooden cabinets. It was Dad’s job to delivery and fit these across the whole of the UK, often away for days at a time. It was also his job sometimes to restock the machines in and around London with cigarettes and, in later years, machines dispensing stockings, chocolate, and a couple of other items as a child I didn’t understand.
To earn extra pocket money, my elder siblings and I would sit around the kitchen table with a pile of coins in the centre. It was our job to slit the cellophane wrappers with a razor blade and slide in the correct change, each of us having a different brand to fill. Weights. Senior Service. Capstan. Players No.6. Whatever money was left over at the end was divided between us. (If ever you were shortchanged in a packet years ago, please forgive us, it was never intentional!)
I believe Mr Weiss’s firm was the only one in the country at the time making these, if not he was certainly one of the biggest suppliers for his machines were in every pub, club, bar, restaurant and hotel in the country and regularly supplied television and film studios. As kids, we could often be heard to shout out: “There’s one of Dad’s machines” whilst watching Emergency Ward Ten, Z Cars, even Crossroads, and many, many British films.
Another customer was the The Golden Egg restaurant chain. One in particular regularly invited us as a family to have Sunday lunch there. It was, as I recall, either on, or very near to, Hammersmith Roundabout. We always had chicken and chips followed by little paper dishes of jelly with tinned cream. We were often the only ones there; having Sunday lunch out was not common practice then for most people.
Dad always bought his van home; a little grey Austin A40, Bedford dormabiles, a white Thames, later white or blue Transits. As a consequence throughout the 1950s and 60s, we were fortunate to have a means of transport always at our disposal. Not many families at that time owned a car. In the road where we lived, we were the first to have one, albeit a van, and the first to have television but we were by no means wealthy. Both my parents always had to work, my mother at one point holding down two daytime jobs and sewing at home as a third. But I do believe as children we were privileged in many respects, all thanks to the cigarette vending machine.
For special occasions, Mr Weiss would let Dad use his car for the weekend. I remember a green and cream Austin Cambridge, very plush, with green leather seats and a walnut dashboard, but most times we went off in the van. Back then, the engines of the larger vans were always housed between the driver and passenger seat. In each, Dad rigged up a padded, wooden seat to go over this; where I sat. On long journeys it got very hot but I always had a good view. My brother and sisters sat in the back on old armchairs or settees or old car seats Dad put in. Seatbelts were unheard of! The Thames van had red rear seats running along the sides, and red and white gingham curtains at the windows which he pulled closed when on delivery.
During the school holidays we would often go with Dad on his delivery runs. He’d take us the “scenic” way, showing us pretty villages and unusual places, castles and churches, Stonehenge and many, many other places of historic interest and seaside towns up and down the country most children during that era never had the opportunity of visiting. We once came to Bristol, enjoying sandwiches beneath the Suspension Bridge, never, ever imagining I would end up living there. We visited a ferret farm near Lowestoft, to Newcastle where an aunt and cousin lived, then on to Gretna Green, across Shap Fell, travelling up the M1 the second day it opened, a private zoo with leopards and chimpanzees. We never went on summer holiday as such, but spent days away at beautiful Cornish or Dorset villages on the coast whilst Dad went on to make his delivery. We’d stay in a caravan or more often at a friendly B&B or farm.
Sunday afternoons during the summer we would often go to Devil’s Bunch Bowl in Surrey to gather bilberries for Mum to make into jam. In autumn, we would go to Box Hill to gather the sweet chestnuts for roasting back home on a shovel over the coal fire. Happy days climbing up Leith Hill or exploring places called Sunday Street or the Silent Pool, or visiting relatives in Hemel Hempstead, Watford or Ewell. We’d regularly go for days out to Margate, Southend, Brighton or West Wittering.
Dad never had to pay for petrol and when later, my mother got her first car, a red and white Triumph Herald, Mr Weiss insisted on paying for her petrol too. He was such a kindly man, to us kids more of an uncle than our Dad’s boss. When Dad went to collect his wages, he often took me with him to Mr Weiss’s home or to the factory across London in Leightonstone. Mr Weiss always gave me half-a-crown as pocket money. This was always appreciated and never, ever expected.
So for these things alone: the memories of family trips, places we visited, the fun, being able to see and enjoy the countryside, for the clothes we wore, food we ate, toys we played with, the humble cigarette machine paid. I mourn its passing.
Is there such a thing, or is this a term used by writers who know they want to write, know they must write, but are frightened to put pen to paper or put fingers to the keyboard? We all go through a phase when nothing seems to come into our heads, and the mind and page remain blank.
Writing is a habit, one is easily broken by distractions of life and home cutting in. You set yourself tasks, allot your precious “writing time” into your busy schedule yet nothing spills out. Or you reach a point in your current WIP, often in the middle when the plot and story sag, or in my case droop, and you don’t know how to move it forward. It’s happened on numerous occasions, particular when I haven’t been able to work on one of my books for a long time. Artists also experience this self-same thing so, obviously, it must be some electrical brain impulse thingy hard at work blocking the brain stems from creativity. So what can we do to get the right synapses working again?
In the many years I’ve been writing I’ve developed a few ploys to jump-start the creative juices so thought I would share them with you. They may not work for you, but in all cases, it doesn’t matter what you write, it can all be totally incomprehensible and probably end up being deleted but at least you are writing, and writing is all about habit. Or you may find, as I have, that magic scene you were searching for comes alive. The missing part to get from B to C materialises. Or you find you really need a new dress to wear to next week’s party.
1) Put on some music. Your favourite CD. Music is mood enhancing. Music retrieves memories. Both of these can inspire. Not working? Then write about the actual words you are listening to. Write down the lyrics. Write your own lyrics to the melody. They might not make sense, but somewhere there will be the prompt, that little spark that turns on the word gush.
2) Turn everything off, open the window and just listen. Listen to the sounds in the street, those around you. Can you hear bird song? Traffic noise? People talking? Something else? Write a few sentences about what you can hear. Now, what can you see? Again, write it down. Next, smell the air. Is it sweet, damp, of mown grass, or full of bbq fumes? Imagine what’s going on and write it down.
3) Open the wardrobe door. Look at your clothes. Pick out your favourite outfit or dress or pair of shoes. Imagine the place where you would most like to wear it. What you would like to happen. Whom you would like to meet whilst in that sexy little red number? Imagine your heroine in the outfit. Would it suit her? Would it be her style? If not, what would she like to wear, and why.
4) Too cold, wet or windy to have the window open? Then what can you hear indoors? In your writing room. A clock ticking? The hard drive on your computer whirring? What memories have you of clocks? Computers? The neighbours arguing? The kid across the road battling hell out of his new drum kit? Can you recall a funny instance concerning any or all of the things you can hear? Write it down. Create a scene. Unblock the mind.
5) Turn on Google Images. Type in where you would most like to be in the world. Look at the photos that come up and then imagine yourself there. What would you be wearing? Why are you there? Are you meeting someone?
6) Write the last scene of your novel and work backwards to where the lull in the middle is.
7) Take a book from your library, preferably one you haven’t yet read, more preferable, one you are liable not to read. Write the second-to-last paragraph out. Then, using this as an opening gambit, write what happens next. Or, if you prefer, write a scene leading up to this final paragraph.
8) Open any page in today’s newspaper. Pick one article or one leader. Write your own slant on it.
I bet you haven’t got writers’ block now. I bet your thought processes are flying quicker than you can type after just one of these exercises. I hope I’ve given you a few ideas that will work for you. Do tell me about it or of any tricks you have to fire up the imagination.