The stories we tell about storytellers are often rooted in the archetype of the romantic lone genius, scribbling away in a remote garret by light of flickering lamp or foreign sun. Think Ian Fleming penning the latest Bond at Goldeneye “in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday”.
At the heart of this mythos is the belief that publishing is the externalisation of a solo effort. While that might be true of the initial putting-idea-to-paper, the wider truth is that by the time your words arrive on a bookshelf, bedside table, e-reader or iPhone, a whole supporting cast will have stained their hands with your ink.
Writing a book is only the first step on the path to publication. Between those two points – one private and personal, the other public and exposing – there is an entire complex industry of people, protocols, totems and traditions, with a handful of literary magic thrown in for leavening.
I’ve spent 20 years at one of the biggest publishers in the UK as a professional word-improver, wielding my red and blue pens to try and get good words better. That’s why I’ve written my new book, How Words Get Good, about the often forgotten team behind every author, of which I am a very small part.
Let’s imagine you’ve put your pen down – or, more likely, shut your laptop – for the last time after months if not years of disciplined, soul-sapping effort. What you have written is, in fact, not yet a book. It is a manuscript, or typescript: the raw, undigested collection of words that need to get good before they can be set free to find their audience.
Your first challenge is to bridge the gap between your current readership (you, or you plus a small circle of trusted test readers) and what all writers hope to find: an audience. Preferably a large one. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges of your fledgling writing career: getting someone in a position to publish to believe in your words.
It might (or might not) help to know that Anne of Green Gables, Carrie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Lord of the Flies, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Help and Gone with the Wind were all initially turned down by publishers. More than once. The lesson here is that publishers don’t always get it right – or, at least, it can take them a while to see what is there in front of them – so you shouldn’t be derailed by rejection.
Be more like E E Cummings, who dedicated his 1935 book of poetry No Thanks to the 14 publishing houses that had turned him down. You just have to keep going and be ready to shame those who didn’t believe in you at the earliest opportunity.
Finding the right partner
The path to publication can be long and arduous, and having an expert Sherpa at your side to help you navigate this world can be invaluable. That’s why most potential authors want to enlist the services of an agent.
It’s not easy to be objective about your art and, as an author, your creativity, erudition and (often) bottomless self-doubt do not make you the best representative of your own commercial interest. Happily, gone are the days when you might have had to lug the one copy of your opus around agents’ offices only to discover that, while you had written a vampire romance, they’d moved on to climate dystopia. Now you can browse social media to learn which storytelling tropes and trends are on their #MSWL (that’s manuscript wishlist in the lexicon of Twitter).
Let’s say you’ve successfully landed your manuscript with your target agent. And – lo! – your agent has sold your book to a publisher. What happens next? Or at least, what happens after you have celebrated the news of HAVING A BOOK DEAL!! (A book deal is a big deal. I celebrated mine for about six weeks; the only downside as I did so was the certain knowledge that, at some point, I would have to sit down and deliver the book).
Keep your ego aside
Next up is editing. A lot of writers (mea culpa) don’t like the thought of being edited, but you must learn to embrace it. When Ezra Pound edited The Waste Land with T S Eliot, they reduced the word count by half. Pound’s edits to Eliot’s words – “stet” for “let it stand” and “echt” for something true and genuine – demonstrate what a good editor does: to identify the echt that should be stet.
Your editor will assess your tone, content, structure and language and, as your first impartial reader, their feedback is invaluable (if occasionally painful). Good editing is about interrogating every idea, thought and sentence to make sure it stands up to being read.
As well as stress-testing your words, editors will ruthlessly decimate them as they go. “Editors love to cut!” said mine cheerfully, as she pruned my words. “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame,” said G K Chesterton, and your editor will be your constricting frame. Think of editors as the pathfinders for your future readers. It’s a rare manuscript that won’t be improved by their attention.
Once you’ve survived editing, brace yourself for a variation on the theme: copy-editing. These fearsome pen-wielders work on a micro level: spelling, grammar, sense-checking, fact-checking.
“If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut. And, although we all know of those writers who don’t like commas (Gertrude Stein), or love magical trees and exclamation marks (Enid Blyton), or don’t believe in the rules of punctuation at all (James Joyce), we can generally agree that even the most parsimonious sprinkle of specks in a text can make your prose easier to parse. It’s a copy editor’s job to stitch words together in a way that a reader will understand and, while as a writer you might feel that’s exactly what you’ve done already, it’s humbling how often it isn’t the case.
Still smiling? Good. It’s time for typesetting and for the final sense check of your words: the proofread.
Getting your fact right
T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom includes a “Publisher’s Note” of the correspondence between the author and the proofreader. While the proofreader had – per their job – flagged up inconsistencies in spelling throughout the text, the author took a rather more whimsical view of things. “Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah,” pointed out the proofreader. “She was a splendid beast,” came the author’s gnomic response. “Sherif Abd el Mayin... becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein,” continued the correspondence. “Good egg. I call this really ingenious,” the author batted back. It takes the self-confidence of a Lawrence to carry off this level of literary inconsistency.
By this point, you’ll be exhausted. But there’s yet more to do to get your words into shape. You might have to engage with a translator if your book is to be published in other languages, which throws up its own problems. As one I spoke to so vividly brought to life: “Finnegans Wake is a novel so linguistically challenging that the French version took nearly 30 years to complete, while the Japanese edition required three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad.”
Mark your source
If your book is non-fiction, you really should get yourself an index. These “magical shortcuts”, as Sam Leith calls them, are for the real literary aficionado, a secret sub-world of entries, sub-entries, and hidden jokes. From index entries such as those in Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (“Philip, Prince, enjoys Flying Saucer Review; praised by extra-terrestrials”), to “sinus problems”, “rent boy story in News of the World” and “sunburnt in Valencia” in Shaun Ryder’s memoir Twisting My Melon, the index may reveal where an author’s real concerns lie. Don’t have time to read the book? Read the index.
Finally, your manuscript has completed its metamorphosis into published book. It’s a time for relief and celebration tinged, in my experience, with trepidation. Print is permanent. It’s what all writers hope for their words. It’s also where it becomes too late to make any further changes. Print removes the feeling that if you could just go back to your laptop and make one last change, you’d have perfection.
All that’s left is to acknowledge in your acknowledgements that “all mistakes are my own”. And mean it. After all, a poem is never finished, only abandoned.
The Daily Telegraph