Thursday, 24 November 2011

Preparing for publication

I have been 'off-post' for a couple of weeks as I have been busy preparing my historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret for publication by Wild Wolf in the Spring. Final preparations like this are by turns interesting, tedious and worrisome as one labours to ensure the book is ship-shape and ready for the voyage, for there's no turning back after the launch. There are quite a few tasks involved.

Final edit

The book has already been through half a dozen drafts; this is my last chance to get it really tight, coherent and smoothly readable. At this stage I feel as if I'm working with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. I'm looking closely to see (even though I've done this in earlier redrafting) if I can spot redundant words and phrases that I could pluck out: especially I'm hunting for 'he saids', 'she saids' that I don't really need; a few 'thats'; subordinate clauses that might be getting in the way of clarity; sentences, made too long by conjunctions, that might read better as separate shorter, simpler sentences; any 'ing' words, adverbs or adjectives that even now I can banish from the text.

This novel is set in the first half of the 19th century. I'm not looking to be 'faux-historical' in the diction, but I've been pretty strict about linguistic anachronism and have made good use of the etymological dictionaries (one of my favourite reference sites deserves a plug here Online Etymology Dictionary). In general, though, I've made the language a little less confined for today's reader compared to early drafts. My final edit gives me a chance to double-check I am being both accurate and plain.

Pulling further out to a wider focus, I'm checking that my characters are appropriately and clearly introduced so there is no confusion (especially tricky when you're dealing, as I am here, with several characters who share the same name that history forbids you to change - so I have to be distinct about my four Georges, three Roberts and two, er, Fannys, and at least four Mrs Stephensons). I'm doing some final checking too over what I might call my signature writing - ie words or phrases I tend to use a lot if I'm not careful; I need to avoid repetition, aim for 'elegant variation' without too much recourse to the thesaurus, which can tempt you into choices that do not fit your overall style.

Wider still, I'm giving my book a final medical once-over - approving its shape, monitoring changes of pace and rhythm, attending to the beat, throb and hum of the whole in motion.

Penultimate proof-reading

I say penultimate because there will be a last-chance proof-reading of what we used to call the galleys - ie the final typeset text immediately before printing. I really don't want to be making changes then, so this is the time for a forensic examination of the text that sits on the page, not for meaning or aesthetics this time (that can distract your attention from technical faults) but for accurate layout on the page.

To help me, I have two magnificent tools. The first is human - my son Joe, who is a superb proof-reader, and one unlikely to be fooled, as the author can be, into thinking what is typed onto the page is actually what one meant to type. Joe normally reads three drafts at various stages; he provides valuable editorial advice earlier in the process. The second tool is Microsoft Word. Used alongside the little tool for showing formatting marks, the Find function in Word is great for detecting those tiny errors (of spacing for example) that can so easily creep into the typed text, and which can be so hard to spot with the naked eye. I use it to check for double spaces that shouldn't be there, and for the odd space that can mysteriously insert itself in front of a punctuation mark or at the start of a paragraph.

Proof-reading is also about checking for consistency. I will already have carefully spell-checked the manuscript several times, but one of the many things an automatic spell-check will not pick up is possible inconsistency in optional spellings of the same word. For example, the use of s or z in certain words, such as realise/realize, organise/organize. It's very easy to find yourself spelling words like that in one way on page 53 and another on page 231. Here again, the Find function comes in very useful; in my final proof-reading, whenever I come across a word with an optional spelling I type it into the Find box and set it to look out for each occurrence of the word in the book so that I can check that choice is consistent throughout. We should be consistent across spelling conventions too - if I use the z option for the world realize, I should use it for organize and so forth.

Consistency of format is also essential. At proof-reading stage I display all formatting marks and look carefully to check I've used the same vertical spacing, indenting etc and, if not, amend them for complete consistency. It's damned tedious, but necessary for a professional finish. And let's be clear, it's the writer's job. We must not just blithely expect the publisher to pick up on errors we have made, however small.

Between the covers and the story

As well as the blank flyleaves you might find at either end of a book, there is the title page and often some printed matter, which the publisher prosaically calls front matter and back matter. In preparing for publication, the author will usually have some part to play in what goes on these printed pages. Some books include a foreword, preface or introduction from the author. In this case I have written a short note reminding the reader that Mr Stephenson's Regret is a novel not a history, and explaining in a paragraph how I've dealt with the question of historical accuracy. I've also included in my short introduction a few acknowledgements, and ended the note with a dedication. As my contribution to the back matter, I have updated my profile as Wild Wolf like to include a little biographical information about the author inside the back cover.

The covers

Peter Fussey is the Wild Wolf artist who was responsible for the outstanding cover of my first novel 11:59 and it's Peter who has been given the task again for Mr Stephenson's Regret. Peter is more accustomed to the thriller and horror genres which are Wild Wolf's stock in trade, but I'm confident he will come up with another excellent cover for my work of historical/literary fiction. My job is to brief him properly. I think our challenge is to get the subject across effectively without making the book look either like a history or a work of romantic historical fiction. I've sent him a few suggestions and one fairly detailed brief for my preferred option which focuses on the young Robert and his new wife Fanny, with the iconic Rocket engine in the background. I'm looking forward to seeing what Peter can come up with.

For the back cover I have written a 'blurb' that I hope will attract the interest of the browsing book-buyer. One of the difficulties of a first edition is that before publication there are normally no reviews to quote from. In this case, however, we have an excellent pre-publication review from the influential Publisher's Weekly. An extract from the review is going on the back cover under the blurb. For your interest, this is what it says:

"This richly detailed and meticulously researched storyline breathes life and a palpable sense of intimacy into these historical figures and immerses readers in an England embroiled in political and social upheaval as it teeters on the cusp of the industrial revolution."


Mr Stephenson's Regret is not due out until nearly the end of February, but already I am collaborating with the publisher on a marketing plan. The lead times for magazines, in particular, require us to make contact early if we are not to miss the boat on some publicity. I've also been talking to my contacts who organise readings, and though I've managed to put quite a few things in place as a result, one or two festivals I'd hoped to be involved with in the first weeks of publication already have their programmes finalised. For the most part, though, things are set fair for the launch. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

World's shortest stories, and mine

Ernest Hemingway

US author Ernest Hemingway was famously economical in his style. He was once challenged, supposedly for the price of his bar bill, to write a complete story in only six words. Hemingway rose to the challenge brilliantly:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The science fiction writer Frederic Brown is also credited with writing one of the shortest stories ever, though in truth his 1948 story 'Knock' goes on to develop a plot from the story that is introduced thus:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...

A complete story in itself. 'Knock' inspired a response by Ron Smith who gave his story a tongue-in-cheek title that was almost as long as the story itself. He called it 'A Horror Story Shorter by One Letter than the Shortest Story Ever Told' and it goes like this:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door...

Augusto Monterroso was a Guatemalan writer who devoted himself almost exclusively to short stories, many of which were very short indeed, but none as terse his 'El Dinosaurio':

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

which translates as:

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Margaret Atwood
The Canadian author Margaret Atwood equalled Hemingway for brevity with her forthright six-word story:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

This next could be apocryphal, but I read somewhere that a college class was assigned to write a short story in as few words as possible covering the themes of religion, sex and mystery. One story was rated A+:

Good God, I'm pregnant; I wonder who did it.

Some of the world's shortest stories have arisen from a competition called 55 Fiction, started in 1987 by an American editor and publisher Steve Moss. I believe the competition still runs annually in The New Times. The basic premise is that every entry must contain 55 words or less, and must have a setting, one or more characters, some conflict and a resolution. The forerunner, I guess, of the many Flash Fiction competitions you see around today. You might want to check out Steve Moss's original 1995 anthology The World's Shortest Stories.

As a writer, I couldn't help rising to the challenge myself. Unable to match the six-word gems of Hemingway and Atwood, here's my fourteen-word effort which I call 'The Proposal':

He asked her as the lift gave way. She smiled. They fell, in love.

David Williams

I'll be pleased to hear any other examples readers have to offer, whether written by themselves or others.