Monday, 16 February 2015

The Proof of the Pudding


Ah, the ups and down of a writer's life! I was chatting the other day to a talented young writer, who was asking how I dealt, in psychological terms, with bad reviews. I doubt it's a problem this person will encounter too often, but we all get poor reviews from time to time, The answer, I guess, is to take on board any helpful criticisms by people trying to be constructive, and not worry too much about comments from those who may have some kind of axe to grind - you can't please everyone. In any event, I made the point during our conversation that there are worse things than bad reviews. A published author's life is privileged, yes, but we all have our bug-bears. No point in wasting time worrying about things one cannot control, but I must admit that I do find proof-checking a major challenge. And this week-end, I've had to give a final once-over to not one, but two sets of proofs.

Proof-checking is important, but I've done so much checking of legal documents, as well as articles and books over the years, that my skill has declined. I now tend to see what I think I've written, rather than what is actually there. And, when looking at proofs of my books, I'm apt to become self-critical about what I've written, instead of focusing on some of the minutiae that I really ought to focus on. This is the moment when it's too late to  make significant changes, yet all of a sudden, one tends to have a better idea...it's a reminder that the perfection for which we seek is unattainable. Do other authors feel like this when confronted by their proofs, I wonder?

One of the worst moments of my writing career came when I received the page proofs of my very first novel. It should have been a magic moment, but I felt despondent, because I realised for the first time how far short it was of being a masterpiece. I try to be objective, but that time, I failed completely. Mind you, I cheered up quite quickly, and All the Lonely People did very well. The ebook (and the Arcturus paperback reprint) are selling nicely right now, something I'd never have imagined back in 1991. But I've never forgotten those deeply felt pangs of self-doubt - no review, good or bad, has ever made such an impression on me..

Checking the final proofs of the Truly Criminal anthology for the CWA was happily straightforward, because my fellow contributors have already done their bit. It's all looking fine.. And I was delighted to have a final glimpse of The Golden Age of Murder before it goes to the printers. The illustrations have now been sorted out by Harper Collins, and their indexer has produced not only a general index, but also an index to the main titles discussed.

Long ago, I prepared indexes for my early legal books, but it's a task I've been very happy to delegate. There is an argument that the best indexes are done by the author, not a third party, but I never felt comfortable doing it. I have done a selective bibliography, though, and didn't find it easy; the challenge has been how to limit its length. Some slimming down has become essential, just as I've done a lot of work on editing down the text. Similarly, not all the images that I contemplated including can be accommodated. Even so, the book is now well over 500 pages long...

And yet as I looked at the proofs, I couldn't help asking myself if I'd been over-ambitious, in trying to write a book that is very different from what has gone before. It's what I've been working on for many years, but even so...however, there comes a point where one simply has to draw a line.

Luckily, I've had one snippet of news that cheers me enormously. The Golden Age of Murder has been read by a distinguished author who hardly ever gives quotes for books, and although I felt this was a honour, I did also feel some trepidation. To my delight, however, the reaction has been wonderful. I won't give the quote in its entirety just yet, but there is one phrase that I really love, because it sums up exactly what I have been trying to do - to provide "a new way of looking at old favourites."

And those kind words, from overseas really have made up for the week-end's proof-chccking!

16 comments:

J said...

Good news: It may not be fun for you, the writer, but it gets the book one step closer to us, the readers!

"I tend to see what I think I've written, rather than what is actually there." That's true of everyone who's gone over something too many times. When I was managing editor of a weekly newspaper, I would question the writers about things in their articles that seemed incorrect or unclear. They often responded that they were sure they'd fixed the error, or that it was clear to them when they first wrote it. We'd then sit down to sort it out...

(I'm posting here, rather than Facebook, for a change.)

Clothes In Books said...

Sounds good Martin - looking forward to the book.

John said...

Did you purposely make that last word a typo? Very funny. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly: "...over the years...my skill has declined. I now tend to see what I think I've written, rather than what is actually there." But also I've become a *terrible* typist in my middle age and most of my errors are due to clumsy fingers and dyslexic transpositions.

Very eager to get my hands on a copy of that Golden Age book. Congrats on the "distinguished author" PR quote!

Christine said...

Don't know if I should admit this, Martin, but I like proof and am always pleased to see them. It means the book is finally finished!

Martin Edwards said...

J, thanks, you're quite right!

Martin Edwards said...

Moira, thanks.

Martin Edwards said...

John, I did correct several typos, but in the end there have to be limits! Of course, my incompetence is not confined to proof checking. You'll have noticed that my attempt to pre-schedule a Forgotten Book for a date when I'm on holiday next month misfired on Friday!
As to the quote, I'm really pleased, and will say more about it in April.

Martin Edwards said...

Christine, that's interesting. I feel happy when I send the completed book off to the publishers. It's when it comes back and I can't change it that the angst sets in...

Unknown said...

We are eagerly awaiting publication and mail distribution day-so glad that the proofing is done and behind you (and us--your readers). Bill Gottfried

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Bill, and I look forward to catching up with you both in May.

Philip Amos said...

A couple of reflections from the academic side, Martin. And it may be only on this side that an informal rule I thought universal is generally followed: Never proof-read your own writings.

This next is very personal -- plainly so, for I paradoxically edited all the publications of my colleagues/friends -- but I also think that these days one should always edit one's own writings, or ask a fellow writer/friend you know to be accomplished in this area to do it. For some years I edited an academic journal, which is why I was always sought out by friends clutching mss.

The old-style editors in all literary areas died out about 1990, though I was rather shocked as I browsed through a volume in my collection of the Book Review Digest to see a review of a novel by Mario Puzo from 1978 in which the reviewer said the book cried out for the return of editors. It obviously started earlier than I thought. I've known academic editors bring fine writers close to their knees, and no editor gets to do my stuff. One fine historian and friend of mine disappeared into a bottle of Scotch while I spend seven 14-hour days restoring his proofs to coherence after he received them from a university press.

Editors used to be poorly-paid, highly knowledgeable people who truly loved books. They are now highly-paid agents who go out seeking to get contracts with established or potential big money makers. Hence the sudden appearance on works of "A Lucy Locket Book". That's the 'editor', not the author. The 'editors' most publishers send mss to are now mostly (and I'm sorry, but this is not sexism, it's truth, and indeed books have been written about this disastrous change in publishing completed by circa 1990) 'housewives', stay-at-home mums with English degrees who want to earn a bit of extra money. And I assume we all know how much a degree in English teaches you about the technicalities of the language, let alone, e.g., fact-checking.

Such is the way of things. The only way around it is to be sure to send a ms as immaculate as possible, be prepared to reject just about all the changes made by the 'editor', and get someone other than yourself to do the proofs. This may help a few readers who write or seek to, and annoy a lot of others who will likely cite exceptions, and obviously there are such, but this is the way I went about things since I caught on around 1980. But there is one other thing I do -- never, ever read anything I've published. That's like doing you're own proofing, for you'll eternally find things you wish you'd expressed differently.

Martin Edwards said...

Fascinating thoughts,Philip. And luckily, there is a professional at Harper Collins who has been checking the proofs this very day. But in general my experience has been that publishers do like writers to look at their proofs. That's understandable,but I feel most confident when someone more dispassionate and capable does most of the donkey work!

Philip Amos said...

I am so pleased you found my rather bold assertions of interest, Martin. I must apologize for failing to congratulate you on receiving fine praise from the unnamed, as yet, distinguished writer.

I would suggest that the second-best thing about it is that he/she rarely gives quotations (cum blurbs). There are certain authors who seem to have a second career writing blurbs, with the result that they have largely lost all meaning. There are many such, but in a discussion of the problem on Norman Price's fine Crime Scraps, I did battle with Val McDermid, whose blurbs are ubiquitous. This is not so minor a matter. As with movies, publishers often quote only part of a sentence. In the McDermid case, I was so annoyed that I searched for the whole sentence, and when you read that, the impression of the book given by the excerpt (which ended with a full stop, I should mention -- deliberately deceitful) changed quite radically. Such as this is now far too common and deliberately misleads potential buyers. And it is totally unnecessary.

On the contrary, if I see a comment from a writer I much admire and who rarely shows up on covers, I grab the book, and I am willing to bet that will be the effect of your receiving this very perceptive praise from a plainly discriminating writer. 'Writer', by the by, is the better word to use. Most publishers use certain words as a sort of code. 'Writer' is the person who wrote the book. 'Author' is the person whose name is on the cover, and they make this distinction because these days the two are too often not the same person. This would be mildly amusing if it were not one aspect of how the multi-media conglomerates who have bought up most commercial imprints have turned the once treasurable business of publishing into just another corporate industry replete with all the tricks of the trade.

The shenanigans that really shocked me was re Patricia Cornwell's Jack the Ripper: Case Closed. There we have Berkley, an imprint of Penguin, for heaven's sake, sending her on a promotion tour for a book that should never have been published, but was so and complete with laudatory blurbs. The whole thing was so embarrassing that the tour had to be cut short. I saw her on a major U.S. network news show, and I was squirming. Why do they do it, and Penguin to boot? Anything for attention and money. And in this, those 'editors' reappear. It is, quite simply, such a great shame. My one hope is that in this context, fine works such as yours will the more stand out and receive the kudos rightly owing to them. I do think my great annoyance re those blurbs, my determination to nail the McDermid case, and my near-apoplexy when I read Cornwell's book is righteous, for it relates directly to the plethora of so very fine writers who receive but a tiny fraction of the attention they deserve. I must shut up now, else I shall start on the subject of book critics, and that's a whole other problem. For now, I shall just hope your book sells like hotcakes and kudos comes to you.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Look forward to the book! Keep us posted. Not all editors are housewives with English degrees. I'm a retired sub editor, and my friend is a retired English teacher. Feel free to get in touch. ;-) In other news, of course publishers want money - publishing is a business, and this is the age of the hard sell. Also, in the Good Old Days, editors had private means. They called publishing a "gentleman's profession".

Philip Amos said...

Lucy (not Lucy Locket, I hope), did I not say "mostly" 'housewives'? I did, and you missed it, so that does not give me a sudden urge to get in touch. (I'm ferocious on the matter of close reading.) But then why would I -- did I not also say that I was the editor of a journal for some years, that colleagues would ask me to edit their mss, that I always edited my own? I did. But in any case, what I thought the 'knowing' would realize also lay behind my words is that by 'editing' in the true sense I don't mean a copy editor. The old school had a profound knowledge of literature of the type they specialized in, and this it was that allowed them to analyze stucture, arguments, question dubious facts and assertions, in all this working closely with the writer. There is no "...of course publishers want money". The megacorporations that own all the old independent imprints certainly do, but the willingness of those independent imprints to risk losing money, in some cases publish works they loved knowing full well they would lose money, for God's sake, is well-known and very well-documented in memoirs and books about publishing and its history. The "gentlemen" you refer to were the publishers, and SOME of them had private means, but a generalization of that would be absurd, as would be the suggestion that the editors employed by firms in the days of independent publishing had independent means. Again, just seek out the literature about this -- there's an awful lot of it. Deep with the publishing industry there is stuff worse than the matters I've written about, but I deliberately, given the venue, restricted myself to what is really common knowledge.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lucy, many thanks, and I do hope you enjoy the book.