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The Perils of Proof-Reading

Creative Writing Posted on Sat, April 07, 2012 09:18:14

It was a glaring and potentially libellous error. If a journalism student of mine had made a blooper like this, I’d have failed them, pointing out the likelihood of a court sending their editor to jail. If a creative writing student had made it, I’d at least have downgraded them for failing to proof-read their work. Trouble was, this time it was me that let the error go through and there it was, for all to see, in my first ever e-published novel.

Oh, the shame. To compound my utter mortification, proof-reading is something in which I take a particular pride. It’s one of my ‘strengths’. “Born to sub” is an insult that journalists throw at those with a tendency to pedantry, and it’s one I’ve shrugged off many a time. Attention to detail is good thing and no, it does not hamper your creativity. I am always banging on about it to my students. (E.g.: “You are not ‘bored of’ this lecture on grammar and punctuation, you are ‘bored with’ it”). How many times have I written on an assignment that it needed better proof-reading? I hate to think.

One of my other strengths? Knowledge of the law, of course. I got a Distinction in my Law exams at journalism college and I’ve retained a healthy interest in it ever since. Several years reporting the courts for local newspapers also kept me alert to the dangers of libelling someone, sometimes unintentionally. I know the traps and I know the defences. So when a reader pointed out that there was an incidence of a stray real name in my new novel, I almost handed myself over to the police out of sheer embarrassment.

Yes. This prize proof-reader and savage wielder of the red pen put a real name into a novel where a fictional one belonged. Quite what was in my head when that happened, I’ll never be able to explain. But countless proof-reads, revisions and edits by myself and my partner, over the space of many weeks, failed to pick it up. I realise here that I may be playing into the hands of the e-publishing nay-sayers, who expect anything not professionally edited to be riddled with gaffes. But I’ve seen typos and other such silly mistakes in traditionally published works too – in fact, in my local reading group, we’ve commented on the prevalence of errors in printed material these days and wondered whether it was a symptom of cost-cutting in the editing departments of publishing houses. The fact is, sometimes idiotic mistakes slip past even a trained eye. But that’s not to excuse myself, you understand.

I’m grateful for several things. Firstly, the kind reader who spotted the inconsistency was a friend rather than a libel lawyer, who would have scented blood and lots of money. Secondly, this kind reader e-mailed me straight away, adding that she “hoped I didn’t mind [her] pointing it out.” Mind? I should be paying her a very large fee. Thirdly, I’m glad I put that blurb at the beginning which says that all the characters are fictional and any resemblance to persons alive or dead is purely coincidental, as that will go some way towards mitigation (won’t it, Your Honour)?

I’m very grateful for the speed with which I was able to take down the offending document from Amazon Kindle and replace it with the corrected version. And finally, I’m glad I know so much about defending a libel case. Because if any of the original versions fall into the wrong hands, I can at least say that I took all reasonable and timely measures to correct the bungle. And that may reduce my prison sentence.

So, let this be a terrible lesson to all creatives out there. As tiresome as proof-reading is, do it properly or it can land you in all sorts of potential trouble. Will I now be gentler on those students of mine who fail to spot their mistakes and typos? Not likely.

The (legal) version of Kill and Tell is available from Amazon Kindle, here.

A Brave New Blog!

E-publishing Posted on Sat, April 07, 2012 09:12:20

I am an experienced blogger. And yet, this is the first time I’ve written a blog for myself. For three and a half years, I’ve written a blog for the Berwick Book Group, which until this month was funded by New Writing North. That funding’s come to an end and so too will the related monthly posts. I’ve also blogged as part of the Write Around the Toon project, where I’m one of the writers-in-residence. And for most of my working life, I was a journalist – in other words, Will Write For Cash. And Will Write on Any Given Subject.

And here I am, suddenly able to write on anything that pops into my head. For someone who’s made a career out of writing to other people’s orders, it’s impossible to overstate the weirdness of this situation. Come on, somebody, I want to say: tell me what to write about, and it will be done. Give me a deadline and I will always meet it. But let me choose my own subject and timescale and suddenly I have a case of literary vertigo.

In a bid to get over myself, I’ll start by mentioning the other strange thing I’ve just done, which is to self-publish my first novel on to Amazon Kindle. It’s something I never thought I’d ever do. Like so many would-be writers, I always longed for the day when some perceptive agent or traditional publisher would take me on and find me that six-figure deal. I share the common desire among writers to see my book on the shelves of a shop (or more accurately, flying off the shelves of a shop). And nothing would induce me to spend money on so-called vanity publishing, where writers are persuaded to part with their cash for a poorly-made product that will never, in all reality, be read. But things are changing in the publishing world and I can’t think of a reason not to be part of it.

This novel, Kill and Tell, was written a few years ago. It had quite a bit of acclaim – it was a runner-up in the first ever Andrea Badenoch Awards run by New Writing North and in 2009, it was shortlisted in the Luke Bitmead Awards, described as “one of the most prestigious awards in the country for unpublished writers.” (Being a runner-up, I’ve discovered, is a particular talent of mine). And when an extract went up on a national website a while ago, it received very good reviews. So I’m confident that it’s worth a read. But after just a couple of potential agents turned it down, I lost my resilience, stuck the novel into the computer equivalent of a bottom drawer and moved onto another writing project instead.

It was only when the self-publishing phenomenon started to take off that I thought again. I’m a realist – to the point of pessimism, according to my partner – so I’m not expecting to become one of those rare self-publishers whose work takes off and earns millions. I just thought: this novel is good, according to some fairly authoritative sources, so why shouldn’t it be read? It didn’t cost me anything, apart from a little time, to upload. And all the work that went into the writing of it won’t have been wasted.

Some writers – and publishers, of course – are very sniffy about the whole self-publishing issue, arguing about the potential lack of quality and of course the notion of selling your hard-wrought novel at such a low price. These are interesting points for discussion and I certainly can see all sides of this debate. But as a journalist, I’ve seen this sort of change before. Citizen journalism got the same frosty reaction, with predictions that it was a temporary fad, that it would be poor quality and unreliable and (shock, horror) that it may undermine those in the establishment. They were wrong. Now the journalism gatekeepers at the likes of the BBC and the wider newspaper industry rely very heavily on citizen journalists, who turned out to be of no more mixed quality and reliability than those in the traditional arm.

It’s my prediction that self-publishing will do for literature what citizen journalism did for news – bust past the gatekeepers and refresh a tired, old-fashioned and elitist system. Of course we will continue to love our printed words, but there will be room for us ‘upstarts’ too. And some of us, believe it or not, have some talent. So I’m not going to apologise for becoming an ‘indie’ author. This is one of those moments where you realise the world has turned a fraction, and existing models are breaking down. So I’m excited to be part of it.

If you want to follow how things go for me, please sign up to get my regular blogs via the RSS feed button at the top of the page. I’ll also be posting on issues such as creative writing, teaching the craft, journalism and related subjects. It would be great to have you with me!