Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cover Story

'I haven't read your novels - I did see a couple but the covers put me off.'

I'm not going to tell you who wrote that about me because she's terrifically important and anyway it was in an email, which sort of counts as being off the record. But Dyan makes a very valid point. I'm never going to read a book with a pastel cover featuring a martini, a handbag and a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes. And yet, you'll see thousands of books like this, so obviously someone is reading them. So of course the cover is important. Jaws wouldn't have sold anywhere near as well if the shark had been done by Anne Geddes.

I've been lucky. I've liked all my covers. In the case of The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, the artist who was originally contracted to do the job became unwell and couldn't do the work. He was very apologetic and we were sympathetic, even though we were also tearing our hair out. Then Penguin designer Karen Trump (now Karen Scott) recalled seeing the work of an artist, Polina Outkina. I hadn't heard of Polina, but she seemed almost too romantic to be true. She was born into a family of jewellers in an ancient Russian city called Yaroslavl. She is a keen violinist. Even her name is perfect. Polina Outkina. And when I saw some of her work online I was even more enthusiastic. How's this for starters?

I was confident that we had found exactly the right person to do the cover for a dark comedy about certain unpleasant goings-on in England in 1828. But could Polina do it in time? A matter of days after Polina was briefed, Karen received this piece of rough cover art from Polina's studio in New Zealand.

We all jumped for joy because this was even better than we'd hoped. Karen gave Polina a few minor notes and the final art appeared shortly afterwards. Below is Polina's artwork for the front and back cover. Beneath it is the very final version with Karen's extra design touches. 
And now, thanks to the generosity of The Children's Book Council of Australia, the cover has a medal on it. Actually, I stuck this one on myself because the reprint hasn't happened yet. I believe that if and when it does, the medal will be rather less obtrusive, which is a good thing because you'll be able to see more of Polina's artwork.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A summary of the post about judging that I accidentally deleted, which is possibly why I'm feeling hostile towards computers at the moment.

Deleting is all too easy on a computer, as I discovered when I deleted my second from last blog post. This annoyed me because it was actually a pretty good post, about the nature of literary competitions. I'd just had the experience of being one of three literary judges. The piece of writing that I thought deserved to win was eventually voted down by my peers. They agreed that what I had chosen was certainly a good effort, but it wasn't prize-winning material. Not in their opinion anyway. And they were both professional writers with some seriously impressive credentials, so who was I to argue? I was a writer too, damn it, and I argued for quite some time, pointing out that the piece I had chosen had a very clever premise and didn't put a foot wrong, producing a funny, satisfying plot that built to a strong conclusion. They said yes, but not quite.

If you think the other two judges discounted my choice because comic writing is often given less consideration than other forms of writing, you'd be wrong. The piece that they chose, and which went on to win the award, was another comedy. We had plenty of serious stories, and a lot of them were good. We read them all twice, with a gap between each reading, just in case our moods might have changed, and what we thought was a stinker might in fact have been a searing indictment of the world in which we live. Even I thought that the winning piece was funny. I just didn't think it was as good as the piece that I had chosen. One of the other judges pointed out that the story I favoured covered ground that other writers had covered before. But was this really a problem? Should we discount a story about madness because Sylvia Plath has already done a pretty good book on the subject? I sulked. Because we judges have to remain anonymous, I would never get the opportunity to tell the writer that I thought his/her work deserved a prize. And honourable mentions weren't allowed. So this poor writer, who really did write a very good piece, now believes that the judges thought his/her work was crap.

Okay, so that's the gist of the blog post that I lost. It was much better than this outpouring, of course, because I took the trouble to introduce suspense into the proceedings. I described the various rounds in which entries were eliminated, the attempts to resolve the final stalemate by preferential voting. The betrayal I felt when one of the judges switched from my team to the other side. I went to a little effort because I wanted to let authors know that just because you didn't win the glittering prize doesn't mean your work isn't good. In fact, it doesn't even mean that your work isn't worthy of an award. There's a chance that, in the opinion of one of the judges at least, your work should have won. I wrote this post not only as a judge, but also as someone who has been writing YA novels for nearly ten years and who has only just started appearing on shortlists. Time for a photo. I've been nominated for The Victorian Premier's Literary Award in the young adult fiction category. Three of us are up for it: Cath Crowley, Cassandra Golds and yours truly. Here are Cath and I at the launch, with poet Libby Hart and author Craig Sherborne. The guy next to me is Premier Ted Baillieu and he's awfully tall, but I'm standing on a step.

It's gratifying to make a shortlist and it hurts when you don't. James Roy, who is a good writer, blogged about this candidly, when this year's CBCA shortlists were announced. But James, there may well have been a judge who thought your work was head and shoulders above the rest, but who was outvoted. And that judge probably sulked as much as I did when I couldn't give the prize to the writer that I thought most deserving.

Digital Editing

The title of my next post is rather prolix, so I decided to keep this title short and sweet.

For the first time in my life I've worked with my editor on an electronic edit of a manuscript. This is the way Penguin does it now. You no longer get a lovely pile of A4 pages covered in pencil marks where your editor has come up with suggestions, corrections, even the odd jokey remark, always encircled so that the setter knows this particular remark is not to see print. My new book is around sixty thousand words long. Even though I've already done six drafts of it, it still isn't quite there. This is the time that the editor and I work together to see if we can actually achieve 'thereness'. When you work with an editor like Dmetri Kakmi, who has done all my books for Penguin, you end up pushing the words around quite a bit. Whole pages sometimes go, and you have to come up with new ones. In the case of my last book, The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, the two last chapters appeared very late in the piece, when Dmetri finally succeeded in convincing me that my book had a dud ending. It wasn't enough to have my mysterious adult body-snatcher appear at a public party. Oh no. It had to be more interesting. So I came up with two extra chapters that involve quite a lot of running and fainting and weapons and a daring rescue at sea. (Not everyone is satisfied by this ending, but I am. Especially the daring rescue bit.)

Here is page six of The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, the way it looked when Dmetri and I had finished copy-editing. Click on it to enlarge if you want to see how much to-ing and fro-ing goes on between editor and writer:

Some authors might be uncomfortable with copy editing of this extent. Certainly, Dmetri rarely gives a light edit, but his judgment is good and I like the way he challenges me. When Penguin designer Karen Trump (now Karen Scott) saw the amount of copy editing that Dmetri and I did on the typescript of one of my earlier books, The Clockwork Forest, she advised the typesetter not to bother using the electronic copy of the text that they had been sent. Typesetters almost always work from these. But there were so many changes, Karen suggested that the typesetter might as well set the whole thing from scratch. She may well have been right. She's been right about the design and covers of all my books so far. But in this digital age, the typesetter probably wasn't used to working from scratch, and some remarkable misprints appeared at first pages. The hero of The Clockwork Forest is named Morton, though his name was rendered as Moron once or twice. It made me pay particular attention to the proof-reading, and I'm fairly confident that there isn't a single goof in the whole of The Clockwork Forest. I wish I could say the same about The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, but I was over-confident and eight misprints slipped through. Nevre mind.

My new book is called The Shiny Guys. It's fairly serious because I didn't feel like being funny. It's my first experience of computer editing, and I didn't especially enjoy it. Dmetri asked all the right questions and suggested what I should delete and rewrite to improve the book. But I missed his little encircled comments in the margins. (You can still make comments with Word's editing program, but it's a bit like Twitter. It demands brevity.) I also missed those beautiful symbols that all editors and authors know, the ones that mean delete, transpose, carry over, etc. Here is a page from The Shiny Guys, edited by Dmetri and me. For continuity, I'll include page six. Once again, click if you want to enlarge:

It looks pretty bland, doesn't it? Computer editing is faster, cleaner and more efficient than the old fashioned kind. That's what they tell us, anyway. But I haven't taken to it. Maybe it's because I'm now in my fifties and resistant to change.  Back in the old days, when technological advances meant that printers no longer had to put together line after line of lead letters, maybe I would have been the one shaking my head and insisting that lead letters were far superior to this new-fangled nonsense. But I think my resistance to digital editing is that I miss the close relationship between editor and author, where you can have lively marginal debates about what should stay, what should go and what should be rewritten. Technically, you can do that with Word. But the program really doesn't encourage it.

I moaned about the digital editing revolution to fellow scribe Cath Crowley. How did she enjoy editing on a computer? She said, with some relief I think, that Pan Macmillan hadn't asked her to. Graffiti Moon was edited the old-fashioned way, with a pencil, and Cath was confident her next book would be too. I know that Morris Gleitzman prefers to have his manuscript go straight to first pages. That is, the copy editing doesn't happen until the first set of pages comes back from the typesetter. Everyone has a preference. Maybe I'll get used to it. But I can't help thinking that digital editing may make us lazier. It is a quick way to edit. But with speed comes slipshoddery, a word to which Jonathan Shaw introduced me, so I'm going to leave it, even though spellcheck desperately wants me to type something else.

The Shiny Guys will be published by Penguin in the first half of next year. It will have a brilliant cover, because Karen is working on it again. It will have less misprints than The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher. Just in case Dmetri thinks I'm having a go, I should point out that the errors were mine. After the first print run, we noticed the mistakes and had them all fixed in the reprint. Then the book was shortlisted by the CBCA, so we had a second, bigger reprint. But McPherson's used the wrong film. So even though the book now has a nice medal on the cover, it also has eight misprints once again. I'm really sorry about the one on page 241. Click to enlarge and see if you can spot it:

And now to liven up what, visually at least, is a fairly bland post, here is my brilliant editor in his old office at Penguin Books in Camberwell. The more astute of you will notice that Dmetri is wearing a large bunny rabbit head. I don't know where he found it. But he decided to wear it at work one day, and the moment has been captured for posterity. Dmetri is now a freelance editor, and sharper than ever. I don't know if he still has the large bunny rabbit head. But I'm sure the Penguin people miss him.