Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Editors! Be vigil, though!

It used to be quite hard to find genuinely bad books. Traditional publishing houses have commissioners and editors and critical readers who sift the wheat from the chaff. The odd corker slipped through now and again but it was a rarity.

But the landscape of publishing is changing rapidly. The arrival of affordable digital printing now means that anyone can publish a book. So-called 'vanity publishing' (I prefer the less judgemental term 'self-publishing') is on the increase and companies like Lulu, CafĂ© Press, Blurb and Authorhouse now provide a complete service from manuscript to marketing and can organise print runs from one to a million copies if you’re willing to pay. You can also post an e-book directly to Amazon or iTunes; a fact that's had a huge injection of publicity since 50 Shades of Grey came out. All of which means that publishing is now a realistic and affordable option for everyone. It's a good thing. But it's also a bad thing because the floodgates have been opened and there are no filters in place.

Writers need good editors. Just pick up a newspaper or magazine today and count the number of errors. Mistakes have increased dramatically in the past few years because cost-cutting has led to the laying off of sub-editors in their droves. Without editors, we're utterly reliant on the author who may be a wonderfully imaginative storyteller but doesn't necessarily have a good grasp of proper grammar, spelling and syntax. Without editors the author may miss a glaring plot-hole or continuity error; as I know from experience, it's very easy to become so close to a project, so deeply involved, that you can't see something that's staring you in the face. I once wrote a novel and gave it out to several critical readers who all pointed out the same omission regarding one of my characters. I'd created an entire back story and biography for the character. I'd also had a very clear idea in my head what they looked like but hadn't described them as fully as I should. Consequently, when something happens later that relates to his son having lost an eye as a child, my editors pointed out that I hadn't mentioned that before. It was a silly mistake on my part. Thank goodness for editors.

All of which brings me to the point of this ramble. I know that many people who read this blog are writers or budding writers. What I'm saying to you is, take advantage of new media. Get your book out any way you can. But do let people read it first: people you know who read, who know books; people who are good writers themselves; people with good English skills; people you know well enough that they can be honest and constructively critical with you. I do it all the time and it is invaluable.

But let me show you what happens if you don't.

Back in 1997, I was asked to paint the front cover of a book. The book was called The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul and it was by a man called Aaron Jones. How he'd heard of me I don't know. Why he chose me is even more of a mystery. I was a cartoonist and illustrator back then - I've only really learned to paint in the past couple of years and I'm still learning. However, he started talking some quite decent money so I said yes, callow money-grubber that I am. Naturally I wanted to read the book to find suitable inspiration for the painting, so the reclusive Mr Jones sent me a copy of the manuscript via his printers (I never got to meet the man) and a copy of his previous book Souls of the Universe.

The back cover blurb for the book told me this:

‘He had heard of the great immortal city; the citadel of mystery and foreboding. It was the fabulous infamous city all outsiders feared to enter. Yet the bold wayfarer became obsessed by its existence, thus he sought to find it. On his far journeys he would confront all evil obstacles, encounter the wizards of science, the wondrous characters; wild and weird communities. He visited the inns and taverns, braved the deep forests, and he relished the damsels. But he knew he must one day find and behold the phenomenon; thence brazenly enter into the citadel of Bilbabalbabul.’

This was English of a kind I'd not really encountered before. I started to read the manuscript. The book begins with a description of the Middle Earth-like world of Gyral the Tall Elf:

‘This was a world known by so many names in aeons past, whose indigenous life intelligence had evolved through millions of years; through epochs of profound science and technology, through an age when they had mastered space travel; ventured to the far stars and had brought back many alien things. Super minerals and materials, life forms of numerous kinds; thus had created a world of time resilient synthetics; a world of hybrids, of humans; a mixture of countless breeds gone wild.’

Having set the scene, Jones then goes on to tell the tale of Gyral the Tall Elf, his flatulent talking mount Lollyvok, and their adventures in the grimly mysterious and extraordinarily named city of Bilbabalbabul. He does so with a disregard for English grammar and punctuation that borders on genius. He sprinkles semicolons around like sawdust on a Hobbit’s floor and happily substitutes synonyms without realising that he’s swapped from verb to noun or vice versa or has used a word completely out of context. The result is curiously mangled sentences like:

‘He climbed the hill for to get a better vista.’

'Thus I reassert you; my house, my ladies, viands and refreshments are yours.’

‘You have style in your mode.’

And the delicious:

‘He is diseased beyond repair’.

The book was an extraordinary read. Among my favourite pieces of prose are these treasures:

‘And one room in his grange was said to be filled with a great jumble of curios, antiques, preserved ancient books of wizardry, incantations, and tales of bygone aeons, and everything.’

'The effeminate albino pursed his thick lips in that certain way to suggest he was male, but homosexual.’

‘Gyral was ever vigil with shifty eyes, hand ready with sword. He then heard voices again and saw something shifting among further Orcle trunks. He just kept walking until he came to a clearing. And nothing happened.’

'He then looked on to his destination again, tilted his feather billed hat, Lollyvok broke wind, and off they shuffled under the frowning red sun’.

And my personal favourite:

‘A couple of pigmy beings then came out from a hut, hobbling in that odd swaying simian manner. In fact they looked like pigmy simians.’

Jones self-published the book and kindly sent me a copy. He later released an expanded second edition with over 10,000 additional words. And then, either because the edition sold out (I have no idea of the size of the print run) or, more likely, he’d given them all away, he ordered a third print run and expanded the book still further. This third edition is twice the size of the first. I suspect that Jones may have run out of money by this time though as the cover of the third edition is monochrome rather than full colour.

You can still get copies of The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul through outlets like Abebooks and it still has a listing on Amazon. I was surprised to see myself credited as the illustrator (under the nom de plume of Stephen Meryk Colgan - I was still experimenting) as I only painted the cover. And I didn’t do a terribly good job of that. But it was the best I could do at the time and Mr Jones was massively happy with it, apparently. But I say to you now – buy it while you can. It will become a cult classic I’m sure.

But, to be serious for a moment, as much as I love the book, this episode in my life is tinged with regret. I wish I'd had the balls to tell the man that his book was full of mistakes. I wish I'd known him well enough to point out the obvious flaws. But I was just the cover artist; I didn't ever meet him. If anyone did ever get to read it and feedback to him, he obviously ignored it. I suspect no one but me got to read it before it was published. And that's a great shame. I'm not sure the book would ever have been a good book but it would have been a better book with some editing. As it stands, it's so laughably bad that it's unintentionally hilarious.

If it seems like I am attacking Aaron Jones, rest assured I’m not. I think that the book is brilliant in its naivety. It is apparent to anyone who reads The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul that Aaron Jones is not a gifted writer but he loves to write. You can feel his passion and you cannot fault the man’s self-belief. And that’s the whole point isn't it? If you love to write then you should write. If it brings you joy, write all the time. And if you desperately want to get published and can't do it by conventional means, there are more avenues available to you than at any time in history. Just make sure you have someone edit it with you before you put it out.

I hope that Aaron Jones is still writing. I hope that seeing his book in print brought him joy. Because that would mean that, despite all of the knock backs and rejections, his passion is undimmed.

Good for him. There's a lesson there for us all.

For more on the world of self-publishing, see my previous posts The worst book ever written and Naked came the spoof.

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