Meet Sara El-Amin

This is Sara, a 23-year-old who is working at the hotel I’m staying at in Dahab. She has just completed a BA degree in Mass Communication, majoring in Journalism, from MTI in Cairo and the University of Wales.

She would like to continue studying for an MA Journalism in the UK but needs scholarship or a sponsor. She is prepared to work to support herself but needs to find flights and course fees.

I found Sara’s story fascinating because she is translating Virginia Woolf’s diaries into Arabic for the first time. She doesn’t have a publisher yet, but you can see some of her translation here. She was a reporter at Sharjah Book Fair in her first year, an event I was lucky enough to attend last year – it was clear to me there that we need many more works like this translated into Arabic. Sara doesn’t yet have a publisher for the translation but there are details of translation grants for publishers here.

Sara has a fire and energy that I love to see burning in a young woman. She has clear views on women’s rights and has been interviewed on Egyptian TV about sexual harassment in Cairo. As a follower of the amazing Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian women’s rights campaigner and NYT columnist, I know that we need to hear more female Muslim voices on public platforms and I believe Sara’s is one of them. She tells me of her experience to date and it’s clear that other people are threatened by her intelligence (as a woman) and her decision to forego the veil. I would love to see her thrive and become the journalist she’s clearly meant to be.

If any of you can help in any way – perhaps you know the perfect course or a publishing company/newspaper willing to sponsor Sara – then let me know via my email: lisaedNW10@gmail.com.

Shokran.

Lisa

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What Does An Editor Do?

Last night I chaired a panel discussion at Byte the Book, a monthly networking club for authors and people who work in publishing. The debate was focused on the new array of independent publishing houses and the question of the importance of editorial came up. Predictably, the panellist from a marketing and sales background said it was unnecessary, and the panellist from an editorial background said it was central to his company ethos. As an editor by trade myself, I ended up wading in a reminding panellist A that there is more to editorial than correcting commas and typos.

This is an all-too-common misconception about editorial work. People inside and outside the industry think that we just correct spellings, grammar and punctuation, and that’s it. Job done. But these are things that are done at the very END of a book’s editorial life, and they are often outsourced to freelance copy-editors and proofreaders AFTER the big, ‘structural’ edit has been done by the commissioning editor. The bigger companies have a ‘desk editorial’ pool that will complete this work for them, and if the desk editor feels that a bigger change to the text needs to be made, they will discuss it in detail with the commissioning editor and/or directly with the author before making it.

But what of the editorial work that takes place before this part of the life of a book? And why does the world and her partner think it’s so easy that everyone can do it?

Let’s say a commissioning editor has bought a fully written text, they love it, they’ve shared the love with the author, the agent and everyone in-house and persuaded them to acquire it for the list. But, they know it could be EVEN BETTER if the narrative was re-shaped in certain ways – perhaps a character needs to be drawn out or cut completely, maybe more or less dialogue is needed, perhaps the author could magnify a particular event to make it more dramatic or a non-fiction text needs more factual information to make sense of the point it’s trying to make.

It’s our job to let authors know how we think the text they’ve supplied can be improved, and to deliver that information in the way that allows THEM to make the changes successfully. It’s a collaboration, and if the author disagrees with a note, then it’s their right to resist that change, but maybe suggest another one. I’ve watched TV producers give ‘notes’ to actors and crew on set and realised how similar it is to the editorial process. Do the actors or writers think it’s a waste of time? No. They listen carefully and go for another (improved) shot. If they think a scene can be improved by something they’ve thought of, they tell the producer or director and it is discussed. Together.

Most commissioning editors give broadbrush notes to start with, to allow authors the freedom to make the changes in the way they see fit. Then at the next draft stage, because at this stage we’re only talking about a ‘draft’ text, then they’ll go in with an Editorial Letter. There’s an art to these. You’ve got to know the author well during the acquisition process and you learn to flex to their way of working. Some authors only like broadbrush comments, others prefer masses of detail. Some react strongly to red pen all over their text, so you go for blue, or you don’t write on the text at all – it all goes into the letter.

The best editors know that this is the author’s baby and it is important to bring the best out of it. You owe it to them, and nine times out of ten a text needs another close eye on it to really make it sing. And therein lies the joy and why your authors can end up loving you. (This can go wrong if the editor has a strong urge to be an author themselves, as they can transfer their own writerly ambitions onto the text, but I think this is a rare occurrence.)

You may be at draft five or six before the text is ready to be copy-edited (the stage where the grammar, punctuation and typos are corrected) but even then, any significant changes are discussed with author and commissioning editor in case there are stylistic considerations, e.g. not all authors use traditional speech marks during dialogue scenes. Ideally the copy-editor and proofreader are briefed on stylistic notes before they begin, so that they don’t undo all the editorial work done so far during the final stages.

All the way through this process there are phone conversations – fraught and joyous; to-ings and fro-ings re ideas for improving the text; changing the ending, or placing chapter 3 after chapter 10. It’s a constant conversation that never really stops until the book goes to print (and even then corrections can be made on reprint).

In recent years there has been a move away from traditional editing, partly due to the rise in self-publishing. We all know how many red pens have been twitching over the Fifty Shades trilogy – the Inner Goddess would’ve been the first to go if I’d been editing it. And then the near-universal agreement among readers and editors that The Goldfinch could’ve done with a really good chop to make it even more brilliant than it already is. (Sometimes, as authors reach the bestseller heady heights a fear of editing kicks in in the publishing company (in case the author is scared off) and you can track it as their books get bigger and bigger.)

I’ve just finished The Miniaturist and felt so frustrated that this wonderful concept died on its feet 50% into the book – in case you’re interested, my editorial notes would’ve been a) the book tries to cover too many themes at once: black history, female independence, homosexuality so focus in on one or two, and b) either ramp up the significance of the miniature house and its creator or get rid of it all together. The former would be my preference.

Some authors have decided to eschew being edited at all and I await to see what happens when they run free. Only this last week, Cornelia Funke has decided to set up her own publishing company because she objected to Little, Brown US and her UK publisher Chicken House, asking her to move a chapter and change the ending of her latest book.

Her UK publisher Barry Cunningham said, “We had some editorial thoughts about the direction of the last book that she didn’t agree with,” he said. “One of the purposes of a publisher is to edit so if we felt there was a better book to be made and she didn’t then we have reached the best conclusion.”

I think, sadly, we are going to see more of this ‘parting of the ways’ as editorial skills are becoming less and less valued by authors, readers and let’s face it, some publishers (if they’re led by sales people, as most are these days).

I’m always amazed that so many people in my own industry don’t know what my job entails, so how do we bring the value back?

When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.

Walking is the Way Forward

Walking is having a moment, isn’t it? Well, it is for me.

It started last year when I read a piece by journalist Polly Vernon on how she’s incorporated at least three hours’ walking into her life every day since 2003 – it keeps her fit, slim and her headspace clear. I found myself wondering how long it would take to walk into central London from my home north-west London and Google Maps told me it would be 75 minutes. It seemed like an age, given that I was used to hopping on a bus or a tube and whizzing in under half an hour. But once I started doing it I became hooked, and time passes so quickly when I’m walking, it all seems like a bit of a lovely dream when I get to my destination.

I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating to books about walking, too, and they’re inspiring me more and more. I’ve just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and cried with the joy and grief of his journey. I’ve always loved travel writing and whilst I’ve enjoyed books about people cycling or taking trains or motorbikes across vast continents, I’ve never really read walking books. The first one to inspire me was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. I first heard the author on the radio (while walking!) reading extracts from her book. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own – over a thousand miles from the Mojave desert to Washington State. Reese Witherspoon picked up the movie rights and made a film I wanted to leap into almost as much as the book – I want a Walk of One’s Own.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Then came the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, whom I’ve only just discovered this year. I usually confine my travel reading to foreign lands. Why would I want to read about travelling around Britain? I want to stretch my horizons when I read, not limit them. But I was oh so wrong. Macfarlane’s incredibly intelligent writing in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012, Penguin) has opened up a world that is right on my doorstep. He follows ancient tracks around the world but seems at his most spiritually enlightened on British soil, or on ancient sea trails.

The Old Ways (Penguin)

The Old Ways (Penguin)

I’ve now bought his earlier work, The Wild Places (2007, Granta) and I can’t wait to join him again as he seeks out the wildernesses in Britain and Ireland. The last time I felt like this about a travel author was when I discovered Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) who is still the One and Only for me.

The Wild Places (Granta)

The Wild Places (Granta)

So now I’m contemplating a Walk of One’s Own. I’m going to walk around the Isle of Wight at the end of July, 69km over four days, five nights. I’m going to tweet it, blog it, review it, Instagram it, and 4G-allowing, Periscope it. I’m now a seasoned solo traveller so the thought of doing this on my own is exciting. I’ve been to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East on my own and blogged about those experiences elsewhere. But what will happen on my own doorstep? Whom will I meet? Where will I stay? Will I collapse after walking 16 miles a day? What will the weather throw at me?

Bring it on. I hope you will join me as I go. More details to come, but in the meantime, here’s my Top Ten Travel Books reading list (excluding the above). Note that all but one of the authors are men – that’s another blog post!

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux (Penguin)

Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys (Eye)

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy (Sceptre)

The Full Montezuma by Peter Moore (Transworld)

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage)

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson (Canongate)

Duende by Jason Webster (Black Swan)

Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (Penguin)

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (HarperPerennial)

Why are we so anxious about reading?

There’s a lot of anxiety about reading these days. There’s my own anxiety about losing my ‘reading mojo’ a couple of years ago when I was going through a stressful time, and more recently friends are telling me that they can’t get into a novel because their mind is distracted by social media and their attention span has been reduced to the level of a gnat.

(What is the attention span of a gnat? Just wondering).

Anyway, I think we are in the midst of a Reading Anxiety Epidemic. I know that I can only really get into a novel while on holiday, when wifi access is limited and my mind is free of distraction. If I read a novel at home, it is fitful and stop-starty – not the ideal way to immerse myself in a literary work.

When I talk to people about their reading they are often really worried that they haven’t read a book in ages, or can’t find the time to devote to it, yet they continue to stack up paperbacks on their bulging bookshelves or add ebooks to their Kindle wishlist. Just to add to the guilt.

The same people are often plagued by the books they’ve never read – usually the ‘classics’ – and then they start Ulysses and can’t get beyond ten pages. That then stops them reading anything else because they feel they ‘must’ finish Ulysses before being ‘allowed’ to read something ‘trashy’. (Define trashy, I say).

The two female friends I spoke to seemed very worried about online distractions, their gnat-like attention spans and the growing pile of books in the corner. One of them had even worked out how many books she’d read if they only read one per year for the rest of her life, and was already anxious that it wasn’t nearly enough. What is enough?

The percentages on Kindle help some people tick off their reading in a satisfying way – for me and other people it’s about seeing the chunk of pages we’ve read and marking how far we have to go with a bookmark or, dare I say it, a folded corner. But this implies that we think of reading as a chore, or an achievement, rather than simply a pleasurable experience. Why is that? Why do we think we must read, as opposed to just doing it? And why do we think we must read Ulysses before we can read mass-market fiction?

I think we know that our inner lives are enriched by the experience of reading a book, and our horizons broadened. We know that it enriches our vocabulary and makes us see the world in other ways. It is the process of inhabiting another human brain for days, and coming out enlightened. It is harder work than watching TV – we have to fully engage with the world we are presented with and it inhabits us as we inhabit it. If we read something we think is ‘trash’ we enjoy it, but know it’s not quite doing the same job.

We know we’re in the middle of an epidemic because everyone has started referring to the time it takes to read something. First came the ‘short read’ and the ‘long read’ – I’m still a little unclear on what the timings are on those – and now we’re into an era of timed reading.

Lauren Laverne’s new initiative, The Pool, has organised its features into timed-reading slots for ‘women who are too busy to browse’ (should that be ‘too busy to read?’). Similarly, curated feed site Medium displays a read-time for every post. (I assume these are based on an average reading speed – some people I know are fast skimmers, others take much longer).

If the idea here is to gravitate from a one-minute read to a 12-minute read – which I do regularly on those sites – then I wonder if our ‘gateway’ back to more contented reading lives is via something we’ll enjoy and read quickly, rather than a Tolstoy epic. That’s how I got my reading mojo back.

So whether it’s the new novel Grey by E L James or a bit of Brad Meltzer, we could start by opening up our poor short-circuiting brains and giving them a break from Ulysses. Put all the lists of what we should read that we are bombarded with to one side and start with what we actually want to read.

I’m interested to hear about other people’s reading anxieties, why you think we have them and what you’re doing to combat if you think we should.