Monday, 27 November 2017

Editor, Edit Thyself – Why I Can’t Make Mistakes

Courtesy of Writerful Books

I have been a book editor for thirty odd years – pointing out the shortcomings of other people’s writing and insisting that I know best.

The scary part for any editor is the day a book appears in print. It’s too late then to do anything about any errors you have missed. In the publisher’s office, we would gather round when a book came in. The designer would obsess about how the title sat on the spine; the production manager would fuss over the resolution. As the editor, responsible for every aspect of the book’s accuracy, I could hardly bear to look.

Imagine my anxiety recently when my own novel Unspeakable Things came back from the typesetter. I sweated with shame over every typo that had got past me (and the proofreader). I fussed over fonts and italics, paragraphs full out or indented.

Courtesy of The Book Butchers

There is a Sod’s Law in editing that the further you go into a book’s production, the easier it is to spot mistakes. This means they only become visible when it costs a fortune to put them right. An error in a set of ozalids is glaringly obvious, and the buck stops with the editor. A gaffe in a finished book is impossible to ignore – even though it has got past you a dozen times before.

Nervously checking my typeset novel, I realised that the first two chapters didn’t read as well as the others. This suspicion may have whispered at me before, but I had brushed past it, determined that the novel was ready AT LAST. I could not bear to tinker with it any longer.

Now the problem was obvious. I had rewritten the first two chapters last, and had not trimmed them back as thoroughly as the rest. The reading mind tripped over the phrasing, halting the flow of the text. Superfluous words muddied the stream and prevented the prose from sparkling.

How could I send the novel back to the typesetter with such last-minute changes? How annoyed would I be if an author did this to me?

But how could I, know-all editor, punctuation police and grammar fascist, publish anything less than my very best work?

I couldn’t. I made the changes. The typesetter didn’t mind – she is more tolerant than I am.

My last struggle was over widows – those leftover single words that take up a whole line and make the text look untidy. Editors can’t stand them, and they are removed from most types of book. I flipped through a handful of paperbacks at home and found that novels do sometimes contain them. But could I tolerate them in mine?

I tried to. But then I went back and made suggestions to get rid of the worst ones. Then the fairly bad ones. Then nearly all of them. I made myself leave a few in case the typesetter blacklisted me as a nit-picking nightmare.

I am happy with the result now. Unspeakable Things looks like a proper book! The first chapters are as good as the others (how good that is, you can judge in January).

But I still have horrible fantasies about other editors, authors I have worked with and people who have seen my facebook punctuation rants opening those pages. What if  I'm not perfect after all!? What if I get found out?

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Family Secrets: The Terrible and the Wonderful

Family secrets fascinate me – they are at the heart of my writing. So I was a captive audience for the BBC’s drama The Boy With the Topknot, based on the memoir by Sathnam Sanghera.

Sathnam is a rather arrogant, westernized journalist, who goes home to Wolverhampton to tell his family that he wants to marry an English girl. In the bosom of his Punjabi Sikh family, he can’t face breaking the news.

He then discovers that his father has for years been a paranoid schizophrenic and only his mother’s management of his medication has kept him out of a psychiatric ward. His older siblings have always known, and dismiss his shocked reaction. Torn between the new life he wants and the explosion of the old life he thought he knew, Sathnam unravels. He asks strangers questions for a living, but he has never investigated his own family.

How could he not have known?

This might seem bizarre, but it rang utterly true to me. Families conceal things, or don’t mention them; things that peek out from the heart of often-told stories, but are never asked about, never questioned. I know this because I hoard such things, gathered from people I know or from the media. People discover that a parent was a spy, or a Nazi. I know someone who was in her thirties when she found out at a family gathering that her Dad, now dead, was not her real father. It came out through a casual comment from an in-law; the whole family knew except the woman in question.

In Unspeakable Things my heroine, Sarah, knows nothing about her mother, who died when she was four. Pregnant and newly inquisitive, she visits the abandoned family home with her husband, who asks why her father moved them away.

 ‘I don’t know. He didn’t say.’ Dad had not talked about any of it. She didn’t even remember looking at old photographs with him, and wondered now why they had never pestered him about their dead mother, their abandoned first home. But during his life it had seemed unthinkable. Did they hesitate to test that resolute strength of his, in case it crumpled?

Families are different from other groups. They’re home to our most profound relationships, our dearest loves and deepest resentments – and yet they need to operate on an everyday level. Everyone needs to get fed, clothed and off to school or work; to rest, mooch around together and sleep. We are not our outward-facing selves in our families, the way we are with our colleagues and friends. They see us grumpy or distracted, picking our noses, grunting responses: the real people who emerge when we’ve shut the door on the outside world.

Things go unsaid in families, both good and bad. I read an article by a man who decided not to save a eulogy for his father’s funeral, but to tell him his feelings for him while he was alive. He did so. It was awkward. He wasn’t sure if he regretted it or not.

There is a reason we don’t do these things. Huge feelings and shocking revelations might tear apart the everyday functioning that makes up family life. If someone at a family gathering says something profound, we are just as likely to shrug or squirm with discomfort.

Older siblings, like Sathnam’s, sometimes patronise younger ones and pull the wool over their eyes. It becomes a habit in childhood and they can’t shake it off later. At fifty-three, I sometimes still get a whiff of it: that sense of being the youngest who can’t be taken seriously. When she protests or tries to make her mark, she’s just showing off.

There are terrible things in families, and as a writer of dark fiction, I dig them out. Secrets concealed and secrets discovered form the darkness behind the suspense.

Sathnam’s mother won't  talk about her husband’s illness, which came to light when she was a young bride in an arranged marriage. Family friends fill Sathnam in, and then ask him about his sister. Suddenly, Sathnam knows that she is a schizophrenic too – and that the day she was sectioned as a teenager was the day he turned his back on his family, cutting off his Sikh topknot and throwing in his lot with the western world.

Back in the present day, Sathnam’s mother’s insistence on arranging a marriage for him threatens his chance of happiness, and her obstructiveness when he questions her is maddening.

But the story’s conclusion is touching. Sathnam realises that his family’s secretiveness has made him what he is. He has made it in life because of them, not despite them as he thought. ‘I always thought you were happy,’ he tells his Mum. Her strength in concealing the painful truth has given him the happiness and confidence to succeed.

My second novel The Year of the Ghost confronts all the family failings that infuriate us: the things they won’t talk about, the awful things they conceal. The stress, pain and anguish this causes come to a head during the annual holiday – when there’s a ghost in the holiday home and nobody knows who it is.

But I hope I have touched on something Sathnam discovered. There are wonderful things in families, – things we don’t talk about either. The Year of the Ghost delves into secrets and lies, but it’s a love song to family as well.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Can your creativity survive motherhood?

It was winter Saturday and Jon was taking Ben and Sam to the park so that I could do some writing. They were at that age when they don’t see the connection between removed gloves and cold hands, and preparations were not going well. By the time one boy was gloved up, the other would be taking his off – and there were still hats and wellies to be wrestled with.

I had been buried in sleep-deprived, all-consuming motherhood all week. I was still writing the screenplay I had started when I was pregnant. I JUST WANTED TO GET ON WITH SOME WRITING.

I looked at my sweet-faced little ones, bundled up in their woollies, and at Jon, doing a nice thing with infinite patience. There were still four of us in the hallway.

‘Oh just bugger off, all of you!’ said Mummy.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was five. My Mum pictured me as an adult, writing at the kitchen table while my children ran around me. Wrong. I was never able to work with my boys in the building. I just didn’t have the headspace. I certainly lacked that talent men have for reading the paper (or their phone screen) while an entire coffee shop is driven mad by their offspring saying ‘Daddy?’

I had written a novel after university, but life, travel and career had got in the way, and now most of the time I was so mired in motherhood that I could barely construct a sentence in reality, never mind fiction.

Yet the seismic life event of becoming a mother had sharpened my creative hunger. The experience was central to my screenplay, in with a pregnant woman discovers that her mother tried to kill her as a four-year-old, and that her mental disturbance might be hereditary.

I carried on writing when I could. The screenplay crawled along to completion. I did a course, and wrote others. I researched producers and contacted agents. I entered competitions and got positive comments.

But who was I kidding? Ben didn’t sleep through the night until he was three and a half. Sam cried for much of his first year. I was often so tired that I spent whole days on the verge of tears. Was I seriously expecting to write a blockbuster to take the film world by storm?

I worked part time until Sam went to school, and then got back into publishing. The next fifteen years passed in absorbing work, helping others to fulfil their writing dreams.

My boys grew up, learned to put their own gloves on, and ultimately moved away. Did I say that I always loved being their mother? I mean, just look at their pictures. Nothing in life will ever be lovelier, or more important.

I thought of all this recently when a mother on facebook wondered if she’ll ever manage to write while her children are little. I told her what a woman artist said to me when I asked how she had kept the drive going through the years of heavy mothering. 

‘I built up a great creative head of steam,’ she said. ‘It paid off when I had time again.’

My creative ambition survived the wilderness years. I rewrote that first screenplay as a novel. I wrote it again, and showed it to a literary consultant. Again, I rewrote it, honed it and refined it. A second literary consultant read it and her comments were my masterclass. The task seemed never-ending, but characters wouldn’t leave my head. Like a sculptor chipping away anything extraneous, I cut back to the essence of their story. I was learning my craft.

I left full-time work to freelance and write, and in January, my novel Unspeakable Things will be published. I’m relishing writing my second, The Year of the Ghost, in which the joys, anguish and secrets of family life play a central role.

To all you mothers who are struggling to feed your creative urge: keep at it whenever you can. Make notes and stuff them in a folder. Write short pieces: poems, exercises and sketches that might one day make it into a longer form. Record moments from your days – you think you'll never forget these times, but you will. Most of all, note down your ideas: they may well be brilliant.

The era of motherhood is a primaeval swamp of creativity. It sucks at your energy and keeps you wallowing in the mire, but it’s fertile ground for the artist. The creative things that emerge from it might not look like much when they first flop onto the land. But who knows how they’ll evolve?

Keep going, keep the faith. I salute you!