Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on self-editing

Which actually sounds kind of rude, but is in fact the opposite of any form of self-indulgence; one must be strict with oneself. Here, as of this morning, are the red-pen annotations on the hard copy of what I sincerely hope will be the penultimate draft of the section of the Adelaide book that deals with Don Dunstan and his Pink Shorts, strung together, in the order in which they appear, for your entertainment. Like the parlour game of Consequences, they do in fact provide a surprisingly coherent narrative, thus:

One newspaper described them as 'flesh-pink'. They had a point, and I wasn't sure about it either. CHECK AND FIX THIS. Add something from the PhD on food and drink? You need to paraphrase this info and conflate it with DD's own portrait. MASH UP. Make more of a song & dance about this. Get DJO's permission. There was also a dash of leftover Cold War paranoia, and another of unreconstructed British imperialism. And to have been a little outraged that it was possible for any Englishman to be sacked by an Australian, even the head of the government that had employed him: 'My loyalty,' he said, apparently under the impression that he had come to work in one of Her Majesty's colonies, 'is to the Crown.' NO LEAVE THIS BIT OUT. As Dunstan had written about a different matter. Factor in dates of Royal Commission. ... the reforms in matters of sexual freedom, particularly the decriminalisation of homosexuality ... Say where photo is. Find name of song -- PERMISSION! (Which had made it possible for him to turn up there in shorts in the first place.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg

Apparently now writers aren't allowed to behave badly or they will be punished. I wonder if this new boilerplate contract contains the phrase 'damages our brand'.

Well, there goes Oscar Wilde. There go Jane Bowles and Jean Rhys. There go Verlaine and Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Colette, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Ashbery and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. There goes Norman Mailer and there, in spades, go William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. Add your own. It's a long list, as long as a piece of string.

(There, it might even be argued, goes Virginia Woolf, for here she is, fooling His Majesty's Navy. That's her on the left-hand end: click on the photo to enlarge, or, as we say in the blogosphere, embiggen. Has anyone ever done a proper academic feminist/postcolonial analysis of this affair, against the background of British/African relations c. 1910? I think there's a thesis in it.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

After computers: the art of second-guessing

The idea of book-as-baby is a common trope, and it applies not only to books but to any piece of writing that is going to be read by someone other than you. You labour to bring forth the object, and then send it out into the world.

In order to prepare a child for the world, you do your best to second-guess the hazards she might encounter. You nourish her, vaccinate her and educate her. Does the parallel with writing still hold? Why yes. It does.

My earliest forays into publication, back in the early 1980s when newspapers and books were still edited wholly by literate human beings and not largely by American grammar-checking programs, involved the then literary editor of The Age (not the current one) parcelling up volumes of poetry in fours and fives and asking me to write 500-word reviews covering all of them. This as you can imagine was no easy task, though it provided valuable early training in the art of saying something useful in a tiny space. (Which may be why I love to bang on at such length en blog. It's because I can.)

This was fine until I realised that as often as not, on publication, the final paragraph had simply disappeared. Which was another valuable lesson in the fact that in the production of newspapers, the measurement of column inches takes precedence over meaning -- as it must; space, like money, is measurable and finite, and doesn't magically expand just because one feels the need to calibrate one's nuances more finely. (As with money, again.)

And some sub-editors, I discovered, will simply physically trim the edges off your copy as though it were cookie dough, sorry, biscuit dough. I developed a strategy of writing penultimate paragraphs that would, if called upon, serve as final ones, for the times when the 500 words I had been asked for and provided happened not to fit into the space around the advertising -- for which the books pages were, then as now, desperate in order to justify their existence to a stern and pragmatic management, and the sub found it easiest simply to lop off the last little bit. It felt - no, don't go there.

I was reminded of this last night when I wrote a sentence I quite liked, comparing Don Dunstan's pink shorts to Cinderella's glass slipper, 'unwearable by all but one.'

The spell-checker promptly 'corrected' unwearable to unbearable.

I constantly see things in print, and I bet you do too, that appear to make no sense until it dawns on me that Word has 'corrected' something and no human eye and hand have intervened to correct it back. And everyone even remotely connected with writing and publishing knows that sometimes literals creep in, or amendments somehow fail to be taken in, or corrections are somehow not corrected back. I had a vivid mental picture of readers sitting down with the book and puzzling over the notion that the Pink Shorts were unbearable to all but one.

(Which has its own strange charm, as notions go, but which we know not to be true.)

And so I have changed the sentence to something less satisfactory but stronger proof against the processes, as they now are, of publishing. The child is now safe from the measles, but one sheds a parental tear over the pinprick of broken skin.

Monday, January 10, 2011


As I think I may have blogged about before, either here or at t'other blog, I learned after many years of chronically costive writing practices that if I hit a snag in a sentence or a paragraph, what I should do instead of painstakingly rearranging the grammar or rebooting the paragraph or Googling down the highways and byways of the virtual world in search of confirmation or denial before moving on to the next glacially slow sentence was simply to write a short note to myself in the text, saying what needed to be done, and to write it in caps inside square brackets for clear demarcation and easy spotting.

In practice, almost all such interjections consist of either [CHECK], which usually means 'fact-check', or [FIX THIS], which can mean anything from a clumsily structured paragraph through a bungled segue to a sentence that has simply lost its way and its will to live, and has lain down in the dust to die.

But the book on Adelaide that I am currently hustling to finish is both much longer and much more complicated than most of the stuff I write, and the manuscript as it exists at the moment, while indeed full of [CHECK] and [FIX THIS], also has a few longer and more exotic interjections in it. My two favourites to date are [GAH, JESUS, SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT -- REWRITE THIS WHOLE SENTENCE] and [NO YOU FUCKWIT, HARDLY ANYBODY KNOWS ABOUT THIS, WHAT YOU'VE WRITTEN HERE IS JUST COMPLETELY WRONG].

One can only hope that in one's hurry one does not send one of these early drafts to the publisher by mistake.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Australian novels: a quiz

The multi-talented Ampersand Duck has put together a quiz about favorite Australian novels. I was surprised by how hard I had to think about some of these. It's a magnificent bit of procrastination for those struggling to get back into a work groove, especially seeing that most of the people who read this would probably be able to justify it as work. Sort of. More or less. The quiz is here.