The point in the publishing process where what you’ve written begins to look like an actual book is a disconcerting one. What was for months entirely private ceases quite to belong to you. It is on its way to being a thing in the world.
I never realised how much more affecting it is when the book is fiction. When I got the cover of my first novel in the post this week it was like being introduced to a distant relative, and a slightly cooler relative, come to that. Hark at it, showing off to the girls with its groovy colour scheme, sans serif font, and scattered pictures of toy aircraft, cars and – prominently – a crocodile.
I’ve been exercised by that crocodile. When they first e-mailed me the proposed design, I puzzled over it. It was a lovely picture of a crocodile, nothing against crocodiles – but I was fairly sure that there were no crocodiles in my book.
I e-mailed back to say so. They ignored these e-mails. But the crocodile thing nagged at me. I tried again. I reminded them there was a plague of frogs in the book and suggested that they might have their amphibians confused.
When the next version of the cover came back there was a frog on the back, which I assumed was the designer throwing me a bone. But on the front: still, a crocodile. Perhaps, I reasoned, crocodiles sell books. These people are publishers and they know what they’re doing.
It was only reading back through the proof of the book that I found the crocodiles. Actually, they were alligators. But since they appear in a dream, and I don’t really know the difference between a crocodile and an alligator, and the character who has the dream involving the alligators probably doesn’t either, I decided to let the matter rest.
Amazing what you forget. Fortunately, if you are lucky, your publisher will have a line-editor who remembers these things for you and makes you feel an utter dunce into the bargain. The experience of being line-edited is awe-inspiring, professionally heartening and completely horrible. No hostile reviewer can be as withering as a friendly line-editor.
These people are pitiless, and the worst of it is that they mean to help. In among the usual forest of illiteracies and non sequiturs, for instance, mine noticed that a book I mentioned by Delia Smith doesn’t actually exist. Who knew the pot-stirring queen of puddings produced a Summer Collection and a Winter Collection but not a Spring Collection? My line-editor, that’s who. She also noticed that a character stood up twice without sitting down in the meantime, that I had one of the villains joining the army at the age of seven, and that someone entered a room from a corridor, then left by the same door to find themselves on a balcony.
It’s not so much that the feats of attention are impressive, though they are: it’s the realisation that here is a reader who has imagined your story far more thoroughly than you have. And a reader who points out the grotesque, call-yourself-a-writer howlers in tiny polite handwriting, with deadpan economy of expression.
“Query: sense?” one might read. Or: “Protagonist female in previous paragraph. Make consistent?” If Virginia Woolf had had a decent line-editor, it occurs to me, we might have been spared Orlando.
There’s been a lot of hoo-hah about Emma Thompson’s admission this week that she finds teenage slang annoying. I can just about agree but I’m not sure about her singling out of “innit”. In addition to contributing a good proportion of the total dialogue for EastEnders, it’s surely no more than a direct English translation of “n’est-ce pas?”
An old colleague of mine, Jamaican by birth, used to say “is it”, where Brits say “innit”. I liked that, mostly because it seemed to invite a reply.
We have another Labour leader with a funny voice. In addition to his sporadic, public schoolboy’s glottal-stopping, Tony Blair has always had a strange tic where he uses what linguists call a “schwa” – the neutral vowel sound we hear in the indefinite article – instead of an “i”: so “it” always came out “ert” or “ut”. On radio, Ed Miliband sounds as if he has a badly blocked nose. It has the unfortunate effect of making me picture a 1970s-era cartoon of a man with a lot of cross-hatching on his conk, saying, “I dodda code id by dobe.” Not good for gravitas.
My 16-month-old daughter Marlene is going through what is called in the trade the “posting phase”, which means that everything that isn’t nailed down ends up in either the recycling bin or the bog.
“Have you seen the remote control?” Alice will say.
Tried the loo?
Obviously this is annoying, but when she’s posting one’s treasured objects into foul or hard-to-reach places, palming bottles of bleach or eating the cat’s biscuits, she isn’t at least shouting the place down.
When particularly irked, Marlene now wilts to the ground like a spurned lover in a melodrama, and – with an expression, oddly, more studious than anything else – starts banging her head firmly on the floor. It causes her parents to huddle and confer.
Bop! Bang! Bop! Bang!
“What do you think she’s trying to achieve?”
“Search me. Should we give her some Calpol?”
We looked it up on the internet, predictive Google saving us from having to type more than “toddler ban” before guessing our problem. Apparently one child in five bangs its head on the floor, though boys are more likely to do so than girls. Sometimes it’s a plea for attention, sometimes it’s a method of self-soothing, and sometimes – bizarrely enough – it’s an attempt to distract from teething pain by giving the kid a headache to worry about instead.
The internet knows everything – but, like the Pope, is capable of embracing contradictory truths.
So we give her some Calpol. Our solution to most things at the moment – temper tantrums, odd socks, the proposed cancellation of In The Night Garden – is to give her some Calpol. It’s vile stuff, actually – impossible to administer without spilling everywhere, and sticky as hell – but it keeps her good and stoned. Dreaming of alligators, I dare say. Or perhaps crocodiles.
I think it has a knock-on effect on me, though. We drove for two-and-a-half hours after visiting friends in Birmingham with “The Wheels on the Bus” on heavy rotation and our nerves in shreds.
We arrived home to find I’d left the nappy bag, containing the baby’s shoes, Alice’s wallet, a book I was supposed to be reviewing and a vital set of keys in our friends’ porch. We had to get our hosts to overnight the whole thing to us by recorded delivery at a cost of £23. The “posting phase”, innit.
Sam Leith’s first novel, ‘The Coincidence Engine’, will be published by Bloomsbury next spring. Coincidentally, he is not related to William Leith
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