Sunday, 22 January 2012

  Check, check, and check again.

So here we are already into the middle of January 2012. Another year with new ideas awakening and beginning to blossom like the first spring flowers in my garden.

In my case there was no time to think of new ideas because I had one final check to make on my current novel - the printer’s proofs. They arrived as soon as the postal service got back to normal after the New Year holiday. At this stage there should be no major changes made by the author, only corrections to any errors the typesetter may have made, such as accidentally transposing the letters in a word, or missing out a word or punctuation. Some authors start at the end of the book and work backwards to ensure they are really checking each word and not just reading. I check mine line by line using a ruler. The author can be asked to pay if he/she wishes to make changes at this late stage, especially if taking out, or adding phrases affect the page layout.

The last time for changes is during the copy editing stage. Most writers will admit that we see what we think we have written, and often miss mistakes such as changing the name of a character, or their hair or eye colour, mid-way through the book, or simply using a favourite word too often. Usually a good copy-editor will pick up these mistakes, but not always. It is crucial that the author should examine carefully any changes or corrections made by the copy-editor. This is the last chance for the author to check and make any changes, but by this stage major alterations should not be required.

I am sure most of you will have heard of the Australian publisher who had to destroy a large number of copies of a cookery book. Presumably both copy-editor and author overlooked the following error. “Add salt and a pinch of ground black people to the mix.”

It might have been laughable but it was a financial loss.

The topic of copy-editing is being raised again and again now that more people are using the internet for self-publishing for digital readers. Also many, like myself, are making changes to early books, hoping our writing has improved with the years. These too need the scrutiny of a copy-editor if irritating mistakes are to be avoided and punctuation used correctly. This week I read that an agency, known to many of you, charges five pounds per thousand words. Some charge two hundred pounds for a full length novel, presumably up to a maximum length.

This blog post was not intended to cover digital publications but since I have mentioned them I should add that a good book jacket is another essential and a cost unless you can do it yourself. Almost anyone can set up as a digital publisher so it is safer to check whether they provide marketing and copy editing, and the other tasks undertaken by reputable book publishers, before committing your precious work to their care.

This cheeky chappie was a gift from my youngest grandchildren to cheer me up and spur me on.

Viburnum blooming bravely through the winter - a sign of perseverance which all writers need.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


Linda Mitchelmore’s post over Christmas triggered off lots of memories for me, especially about parcels from Canada and going to school in my sticky-out petticoat which was way too long. In the way memory ambles off down different byways that one triggered another.

Not long after I had started in primary three I, a voracious reader, had read all the books on the classroom’s lending shelf. Yep, one shelf of books was all we had – for a whole year. My father asked about membership to the local library but in those days for some reason a child had to be 10 years old before being allowed to borrow books from the children’s section. I was only seven. Maybe they thought 10 was the point at which the risk of scribbling in books passed, or that a child’s brain had sufficiently developed to be given unlimited access to books?

The first public library was Innerpeffray Library, established in 1680 as part of a school. The poet Allan Ramsay set up a circulating library in Edinburgh in 1725 and the miners’ libraries of Leadhills and Wanlockhead are the oldest subscription libraries. In 1853, the Public Libraries Act of 1853 came into force allowing taxes to be used to fund public libraries. Apparently growth was slow with some people objecting to their taxes being used for such a purpose.

My wonderful P3 teacher, Miss Irving, entered the fray and I was given permission to join. I can still so clearly see the little brown cardboard pocket with my name on the front. There was a diagonal cut across one corner. These were kept in a long wooden, shallow container on the librarian’s counter. Each book had an oblong ticket with the book’s details. This oblong ticket was put into the pocket when a book was borrowed and replaced inside the book’s pocket when it was returned. I have a feeling it might even have been a quicker system than the electronic one used today!

So, there I was, aged seven standing in front of shelves of books, literally spoilt for choice. The library had almost closed by the time I made my first selection. The highlight of my week was the trip to the library on late night opening. My parents were both avid readers – my mother of detective novels, my father of just about everything (except detective novels). My mother never went to the library so dad had the task of choosing her four books each week. He could never remember which ones she’d read and took to putting a pencil tick inside the back cover of every book he took out for her.

Nowadays, of course, parents are encouraged to take their children to the library before they even reach school age and libraries cater for their young customers with a whole range of colourful picture books. Libraries often have story telling sessions for tots which involve much laughter and clapping – the sort of thing which would have been frowned on in the days I joined the library. They really were silent places but why would anyone need to chat when faced with the delicious task of choosing books?

Over the years, the library gave me freedom – to inhabit other worlds, to go on adventures, to lose myself in the joy of reading. Meeting up with a cousin recently she said she always remembered me as having my nose stuck in a book. ‘Going to the library’ was always something I was allowed to do without having to answer twenty questions on the who with, what will you be doing, when will you back theme.

My reading was never censored at home although I remember dad being quite upset when he discovered I’d read one of the books he’d borrowed. I can’t remember the title but I will never forget the contents. It was by a survivor of Auschwitz and I was transfixed and appalled by the unimaginable horrors into which I plunged. Dad was concerned I was too young to know about such things but I’d read it and such things can never be un-read. I think my recurring nightmare of hiding in a corner of the attic listening to the tramping boots coming towards the house began then.

Now, I have to confess for many years I let my library membership lapse. For part of the time I lived abroad but even when I came home I did not immediately re-join the library. I’m not sure why – books were cheaper to buy, I suppose. And I like owning books I don’t have to give back. It was only when much noise was being made about closing libraries a year or so ago I stirred myself into becoming a member again.

Apparently around 42 million items are loaned through Scotland’s libraries each year: not only books but videos, CDs, DVDs, computer software, audio books. My library looks very different from when I joined 50 years ago (did I really just say that – 50!) – bright, cheerful, not silent and computers are dotted around the place.

Still, when standing in front of all those books – spoilt for choice – I can still feel the same sense of sheer delight I felt all those years ago.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Characters from nature

Watching the unbelievably beautiful Earthflight on BBC the other night, I was reminded of a thought I had during Frozen Planet. On that programme, I laughed out loud to watch a thieving penguin craftily stealing stones from his neighbours – then defending his stolen hoard with all his strength as his puzzled victims eyed their diminished fortifications. On Earthflight, I was watching vultures trying to get access to a wildebeest carcass in the face of defence from a lion, storks and a hyena. Hilariously, the vulture decided to tiptoe round the back in the futile hope it wouldn't be spotted. If you haven't seen a vulture tiptoeing, I suggest you catch it now, on iplayer. David Tennant, who was narrating, commented that 'vultures never stay still' because they are always dodging out of the way of attacks.

Now, in both these cases, it didn't take much to extrapolate from animal to human behaviour. In the case of the vultures, I was reminded of the classic description of the shadowy underworld figure, eking out a living by "duckin' and divin', dodgin' and weavin' " – just like the vulture.

And why are scavengers generally so ugly? They seem to be almost caricatures of themselves – gawky, rough-looking, dirty, rough-furred or patchily feathered.

By contrast, watching the flamingoes dancing was the most extraordinarily beautiful sight. Like pink-tutu-ed ballerinas they moved in stately and graceful synchronicity, legs, necks, heads mirroring that of their neighbours. And seeing how gannets worked as a team with dolphins to catch sardines was truly awesome, with lessons to be learned about the common good (though not for the sardines, obviously).

I think I can justify glueing myself to these absorbing programmes. As well as being stunningly beautiful, revealing the intricacy and glory of our precious planet, they seem to offer boundless possibilities for the creation of characters for my novels!

Finally, in a footnote to Cally's blog last week, can I make the observation that one huge plus to e-books is that we can again get access to novels from our favourite authors that have been long out of print. Hats off to my friends and mentors Eileen Ramsay and Anita Burgh for taking the plunge and starting to upload their back lists!