Friday, 24 February 2012

The dying art of editing

Do publishers not bother editing books any more? And do authors not take the trouble to check their work before they deliver their work to the publisher?

I ask because I’m spotting more and more errors in published works – both novels and work of non-fiction – and it really annoys me. I’m not talking about typos necessarily (though they’re not unknown), but about errors in punctuation or syntax, or simply instances of bad writing that should have been eradicated, either by the author or their editor, before the book was printed.

Take the opening sentence of William Boyd’s ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’. It’s a superb novel, one of the best I read last year, but it starts unpromisingly:

“Let us start with the river – all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt – but let’s wait and see how we go.”

That contradiction in the section between the dashes, between ‘probably’ and ‘no doubt’, pulls you up short. Any decent writer (and Boyd is a great deal better than decent) ought to have spotted it when they read through their draft, and deleted one or the other; it’s what authors do. So did Boyd not check his work? And did Bloomsbury not edit it when he delivered the novel to them?

I’ve just finished reading another excellent book, ‘The Champion’ by Tim Binding, and it contains a classic example of the kind of sloppiness I’m talking about. The narrator, an accountant, discovers that a builder hired by his employer is taking liberties with his bills. On page 304, the builder is referred to as Paul Langley. Two paragraphs later he’s become Lumley, then four lines after that he’s Langley again. Further down the same paragraph he’s still Langley, then he’s back to being Lumley. Two pages later, just to confirm the error, he’s referred to as Paul Lumley.

You can see how it happened, of course. Somewhere in the process of writing the book, Binding decided the builder should be called Lumley rather than Langley (or vice versa), but he didn’t do a very thorough job of making the change. And, once again, neither he nor his editor at Macmillan proofed the typescript thoroughly enough before publication to spot and amend the error.

Does any of this matter? It does to me. A good novel immerses you in its world, and anything that jars when you’re reading risks breaking that spell. Good writing is writing that you don’t notice – and I, for one, notice errors.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The young ones

Having written a novel about a fictional blues band, I invariably find that when I go to a gig, I end up mentally comparing my invention with the real thing, to see how accurate my imagination was.

Last night I went to The Half Moon in Putney to see Nine Below Zero, expecting to see a band at much the same stage of their career as The Hornets in the later chapters of First Time I Met The Blues. I wasn’t disappointed – and NBZ were excellent. What I didn’t expect was to discover another band right at the start of their journey.

My friend Chris and I were catching up on each other’s news and barely noticed the support act (The Aaron Keylock Blues Band) take to the stage. We just had time to register that the trio (guitar/bass/drums) appeared to be in their early teens before they launched into a hard and heavy blues instrumental. All around us, jaws dropped. This was seriously good.

Aaron himself, the singer and guitarist, is a diminutive boy whose shoulder-length hair and check shirt bring to mind a young Rory Gallagher. But I doubt that Gallagher was this good at the age of 14. Aaron can play fast, intricate solos and slow-burning blues that build to a climax, he can play slide guitar, he writes his own songs – he’s even managed to become jaded with the biz already, earnestly introducing one song with the deathless line, “This is about the music industry.” The one thing he can’t do very well right now is sing, mainly because his voice sounds like it’s in the process of breaking.

So how do they compare with my fictional Hornets? I must admit that my imagination didn’t stretch to making a bunch of lads in their early teens quite as skilful and polished as Aaron and co. Des, the Hornets’ leader, is certainly talented and pretty sure of himself, but I never pictured him as being that good – and he’s already older at the start of the story than Aaron is now. It’s quite mind-boggling, really. Check him out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The gig did confirm one thing I got right, though. I wanted the book to demonstrate that there is something about the blues that gives it a timeless, universal appeal – so why shouldn’t a group of boys growing up in Watford in the early 60s want to play this music? The fact that a boy from Oxford like Aaron Keylock is following the same path in 2012 is further proof that the blues will never die. The torch just gets passed on from one generation to the next.