Second Time Around, Chelifer, 2006.I bought a novel recently:  One of those ‘not-quite-self-published’ novels that companies in America will produce for you.

On the face of it they can be nicely produced too. This was one is. But in the first 8 pages of text I found two mis-spellings and a completely wrong word, and two paragraphs repeated. When does nit-picking become the recognition of a job badly done?

And should we expect our readers to be alert to these mistakes? And should I call them ‘minor’ mistakes? After all, they are the mistakes that I noticed as mistakes (and so was able to discount, if not ignore). They are a distraction though, taking attention away from the story, and in a sense, from the writing itself, because looking for more errors can become an irritant. Then there is the issue of the ones not noticed. How many of them have there been, and how unimportant are they?

And if we aren’t alert to them, these minor oversights and errors, what else aren’t we alert to? How about the nuances of the story? The beauties of the language (all those neat turns of phrase that might turn out to have been unintentional, to have been typos even). To what extent is the act of reading an act of faith? To what extent has that faith been undermined, shaken, by noticing a mistake on every second page out of the first four pages turned?

When I sold second-hand books for a living I encountered quite a few self-published war memoirs (and one or two peaceable ones). They too often had what are at core, proof reading issues. Proof reading is notoriously difficult. One of the best ways to discover typos and the like is to go through your work over and over again until you’re sure there aren’t any, and then – and this is the crucial bit – send the manuscript out to a publisher. The better the publisher the better it works. Magically, almost as soon as you’ve hit send, certainly before the manuscript has thumped into the bottom of the post-box, you will notice one or two that had previously escaped your gaze.

Another sure fire way is to wait three, or four, or ten years, and look at that perfect version again….If all else fails, get published, and that will provide the final crop; but not one on every other page fGs! Having said which, I have a ‘corrected’ version of James Joyce’s Ulysses which reckons to have corrected 5,000 errors in my Bodley Head edition. That’s several per page, if my maths is correct – which it sometimes isn’t. I still read the BH edition, btw.

A deeper malaise I found in many self-published war memoirs was the inclusion of repetitions that were not mere matters of proof reading or typography, but of editing, and of storytelling. Incidents were sometimes re-told, or referred to before and after the re-telling. Links that might better have been left to the reader to make. Worse still, and this is often a feature of fictional stories, the writer seemed to have no idea of what was important and not important, interesting and uninteresting, relevant and irrelevant to the story. Everything, it would seem, had been put in, significant or not, as if the writer himself (it was usually a him in the books I sold) did not know what mattered about the story, or why it was worth telling, why it might be worth reading.

I’ve known of authors reduced to tears, or rage, by what they have thought of as the cack-handed way their books have been adapted for film and TV. Often a frustrated rage or weeping, as they have been contractually bound never to reveal such negatives about the project. And publication is a sort of adaptation, one that, through the offices of a good editor and eagle-eyed proof-reader, will make a story come alive beyond the hopes of its creator. Badly handled, it can set in print, which is equivalent in terms of the life of the author to being set in stone, those glaring mistakes and errors that will cut the author like knives each time he sees them.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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