Snow by John Banville

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I rarely buy crime or thriller books to read ‘for pleasure’, as opposed to reading ‘for work’. I used to read, many years ago, crime books by P.D.James, Robert Goddard, and others. I’m not sure quite why I abandoned the genre but perhaps it was because many of my ‘work’ books – books I’m sent to edit or proofread – are this genre. I actually quite like working on them, have even enthusiastically requested that the author’s next book comes to me, but my ‘pleasure’ books, the ones I buy to read when work is slow and I have time, or am on holiday, have taken a different direction.

So what attracted me to read this crime story by John Banville? Partly, I think, because my last piece of editing work was a dystopian, post-pandemic novel which, rather than taking me into a world of escapism, took me instead into a worst-case scenario future. Perhaps there was something to be said for those crime stories after all – you know where you stand with a bit of old-fashioned blood and gore, a wily detective and a host of suspects. I also caught sight of a good review and was intrigued to read a John Banville book of this kind – so it was ordered.

I read John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel The Sea when it was published to much acclaim back in 2005. Although I remember little of it (I’m not good at long-term memory when it comes to the details of books read years ago and am always in awe of those who are), I do clearly remember I thought it was brilliant. I know that Banville turned to writing crime under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, so it was interesting that he’d abandoned the well-used pseudonym for his real name with this book, despite it having the same setting and characters (though a change in central character). What was this fusion of genre writing with literary writing?

The fusion is a combination of an old-fashioned country house mystery – à la Agatha Christie – and a beautifully written story. 

Set in 1957 in Ireland, Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called from Dublin to investigate a murder at Ballyglass House in County Wexford. A body has been found in the library (think Cluedo!), and a cast of eccentric characters appear, all with some possible motive for killing the man. But the man isn’t just any man, he is a priest, and thus the power of the Catholic Church will play an important role in determining the outcome of Strafford’s investigation. 

So, a country house, a body and a host of suspects. But Strafford in no Hercule Poirot. Strafford is a man with his own demons; insecure; uncertain he’s cut out for police work; a loner who stands apart from the world. Even his inability to tolerate alcohol means he’s unable to socialise and be accepted as some kind of ‘ordinary’ man – it’s merely an embarrassing burden for him to bear. And there is the mystery of his aristocratic background and why he chose this police route rather than become a barrister as his father hoped. As we witness his agonised internal brooding, his surprising, even shocking susceptibility to a pretty woman, he seems in many ways very real, unlike the other characters in the book.

At Ballyglass House we find a stiff, privileged colonel; his drugged-up, much younger second wife who found the body but seems incapable of giving any coherent information; an unruly daughter; a hostile, arrogant son. Into the mix are thrown the local publican who quotes Shakespeare and Chaucer in ordinary conversation; a doctor who feels a need to visit the frail wife every day; the local police chief who drowns his grief at his son’s recent suicide in alcohol; and the stable boy, Fonsey, whose sad history and rough appearance hide more intelligence than is generally recognised. Which of them would kill Father Tom Lawless? The apparently well-liked and popular priest. Well, of course ‘Lawless’ gives us a clue …The hypocrisy, power and corruption of the Catholic Church at this time is laid bare. 

The crime aspect of Banville’s story follows the usual conventions. Strafford says a few times that it feels as if he is watching a play and all the suspects are characters in it. And in this sense, we see it too as a kind of play; unreal and full of clichéd characters. And the clues to what lies behind the murder are laid bare a little too early for the committed crime reader to play at sleuth. But it is Banville’s glorious writing, the vivid descriptions of the snow-covered land, his authentic creation of 1950s Ireland, his acute understanding of his characters, that makes this an entertaining and worthwhile read: ‘It had snowed continuously for two days, and this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides.’ It was with a kind of hushed amazement that I reread many sentences to enjoy their beauty again.

 

What does a freelance book editor do?

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Most people’s jobs are a mystery to some extent. We may have an idea about what an accountant does, what a teacher does, what a plumber or a car mechanic does, but it’s usually just a rough overview of the basics. We’re mostly unaware of all the skills learnt and used; the day-to-day experience of actually doing the job.

There’s a certain glamour to saying you’re a book editor. People usually imagine you tucked up comfortably just reading a lot of lovely books with little idea of what we actually do. I’m not sure there’s much glamour in the freelance world of book editing, but when I was a full-time commissioning editor many years ago, well-known authors and personalities would come into my orbit and I have to admit to some excitement meeting many of them. As a freelancer such things are rare and mostly nowadays I don’t even meet – actually meet – the various editors and editorial assistants who contact me to offer work. Everything is done virtually via emails – they contact me about work which is sent either as a Word document for a copy-editing job or an Adobe PDF file for a set of proofs to correct.

I used to do a lot more reading work than I do now, though still occasionally manuscripts are sent for me to assess. I have to look at whether I think they’re good enough to be published, looking not only at how well written (or not!) they are but their commercial potential. A report requires not just a critical analysis of content and an assessment of how well it reads, but it’s important to offer constructive comments on how it might be improved, what work might need to be done before it would be seen as publishable.

Most of my work now is either copy-editing or proofreading. Let’s start with copy-editing as that stage comes earlier, though not first. The first stage ‘editing’, or ‘structural editing’, is usually done in-house – i.e. by the editor who has bought or commissioned the book. They will read it to see if more work needs to be done: perhaps it’s too long or too short; maybe some character or event in the book needs more clarity or expansion; maybe the main character needs to be expanded so we know more about them. In a book I worked on a few months’ ago a guy who’d appeared in an earlier book in the series had behaved badly. In the new book he was going to end up marrying a lovely central character and I said I thought the guy needed to be made nicer as the new book progressed or we wouldn’t want him marrying her!

Copy-editing a book involves not only correcting spelling and grammar but checking consistencies. If the book spans a few years, do people’s ages and years of events match up? As an editor you have to make notes and have a timeline to check against as you work. If real people or products, towns and cities, are mentioned, you need to check spelling. I just happened to find myself working on lots of thrillers featuring terrorists a while ago and had to keep checking the spelling of guns and weapons. I joked that if I was being ‘watched’ the terrorist squad would be at my door soon. You also have to check dates for historical events. To a certain extent it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure references to real people, places and events are correct, but as an editor you have to be ready to question anything that doesn’t sound right.

My age helps sometimes and I’m able to pick up things that a younger editor might easily miss, e.g. the current age at which you can claim your pension. I once years ago read a book set in Rome, which I know well, and immediately saw that a description of a major road in the centre of Rome was incorrect. Having walked along it many times, I knew it was very wide – not the narrow street described in the book. It turned out the author had relied on someone else for the description and had never actually been there.

Most of the books I work on have UK spelling but occasionally US, so I have to know or check some spellings which are different, like ‘kerb’ (UK) but ‘curb’ (US) for the pavement kind of kerb; a block of flats with five ‘storeys’ in UK, but ‘stories’ in US. As a copy-editor you make a style sheet and one will be sent to you for a proofread. Of course most spellings are standard but a few are down to choice or house style (i.e. the publisher’s preference). The important thing for the editor or proofreader is checking consistency, that the same spelling is used throughout.

A copy-editor also looks as ‘clunky’ sentences. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean, where a sentence is a bit too convoluted, unclear or simply goes on too long. You also look out for repetition – giving details in almost exactly the same way as earlier in the book.

I always read a book I’m copy-editing as a reader – someone who has bought the book – would do. I don’t skip to the end, I need to make sure everything makes sense as I go through, that things tie up and everything that needs to be explained – perhaps later in the story – is explained.

Once a book has been copy-edited and returned to the publisher, it’s usually looked at by the commissioning editor and the author. The author is given the chance to approve or not any changes; they will also look at and answer any queries.

Then the book is ready to go to the printer. The book is typeset and then sets of proofs made to be checked before actual printing.

As a proofreader you expect that most of the actual editing has been done in the earlier stages, but you might still question some repetition, a clunky sentence or note that some of the dates or events don’t match up. In essence you’re really checking for typos – errors that have occurred in the printing, but there will always be some ‘author’s errors’, things that have been missed at the copy-editing stage. Even an experienced copy-editor and proofreader won’t usually catch 100% of the mistakes and major books which are expected to be bestsellers are often sent to more than one proofreader, as well as being checked by the author.

I rarely work on a book that’s really awful as I work for major publishers and often the authors are well known or have had a number of books published already. Of course, they are not always books I’d actually buy to read for pleasure. This means I’m often working on books which are okay, and I’m happy enough working on them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to read. It also means though that I often find myself reading something I might not have chosen but really like, so it’s a nice surprise. The drawback, of course, to the books I don’t particularly like is that I have to read every word. But I’ve also found myself enjoying a read so much that I want to go on reading past my usual ‘stop work’ time but know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the concentration needed to do a good job for longer. The concentration required is for all described above but also includes things like noticing when a comma should be a full stop, or that a quote mark or apostrophe is the wrong way round – really minute detail. Both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs you can’t do non-stop for hours on end; you have to take regular breaks not just for your eyes but for your concentration. It’s not like working in an office where the day is usually a mix of things, with meetings and phone calls, chats with colleagues. Freelancing is truly head-down, high concentration stuff and over the many years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learnt of ways to break the day up and get a bit of light relief before I get back to the computer with full-on concentration again.

I’ve always loved reading, right from when I was a small child and reading my first books, so how lucky was I to find my way into work that enabled me to do something I’m passionate about.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

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This was a bit of a spontaneous buy – reading just a few words about it in an email about new books made me think it would be one I’d enjoy. It turned out to be a book I loved. An extraordinary book that’s sad, inspiring, magical and wise. It’s about enduring love; what it means to be an immigrant, someone not living in the country in which you were born; it’s about family history and the passing on or denial of the past.

Elik Shafak is a British-Turkish prize-winning author. The Island of Missing Trees centres around the story of Cyprus and its divisions after the Turkish invasion of 1974, which led to the island being divided into Turkish Cyprus to the north and Greek Cyprus to the south. Before this, the tensions between the Turks and the Greeks was already difficult enough that two young lovers – the Turkish-Muslim Defne and the Greek-Christian Kostas – had to keep their love secret from their families who, if they knew, would disown them.

‘Once upon a memory’ opens the book, ‘lay an island so beautiful … that many travellers … fell in love with it … wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.’ Such beautiful language makes the tragedy of the battles and divisions that have raged throughout Cyprus for generations all the more vivid and haunting.

The story, however, opens in London with Ada, 16-year-old daughter of Defne and Kostas, who when asked by her teacher about family heirlooms can’t answer, and then starts screaming. Is she screaming because her mother recently died? Is she screaming because her father has been consumed by his grief and become distant from her? Or is she screaming because of all the untold stories, secrets, ghosts and tragedies of generations that lay hidden within her?

The Island of Missing Trees follows Defne and Kostas’ story through Ada, a girl born in London with all traces of her Cypriot heritage apparently wiped away but desperate to be recognised. Much of the story is told through a fig tree (which narrates alternate chapters), grown from a cutting of a tree that stood in the middle of The Happy Fig taverna in Nicosia. A tree that has witnessed all. In 1974 the taverna was run by a gay couple – one Greek Cypriot, one Turkish Cypriot – who were more at risk of discovery than even the young lovers. It was a happy place ‘despite the tensions and troubles besetting the island … It was a place with history and small miracles of its own.’ Yusef and Yiorgos help the young lovers, giving them a quiet corner of the taverna where they won’t be seen. The men are their protectors – but there’s no one to protect them when violence breaks out …

Kostas is persuaded to go to London in 1974 to escape the danger in Cyprus, told it’s only temporary, but  really for good. He writes to Defne but she doesn’t write back. More than 20 years pass but Kostas can’t forget his first and true love. By now he’s become a well-respected botanist and when his work takes him to Cyprus again, he knows he has to find out what happened to Defne. She is working as an archaeologist digging up the remains of all those who died in the war so that the lost are identified, the families can make peace. Or do they make peace? Should some things be left alone?

Despite Defne’s initial reluctance the two become a couple again … secrets, heartbreaks are shared. Both move to London, Defne already pregnant with Ada. It should be ‘happy ever after’ but in real life this rarely happens, and nor does it here. Defne becomes an alcoholic, she can’t forget the past and is haunted by ghosts and the loss of her own country, by the family who rejected her. She and Kostas agree to never speak of the past, of their families, so Ada grows up in ignorance of her heritage, her culture, her wider family. A decision made with love but also ignorance of our need to know where we came from, who we are.

Meanwhile, through the fig tree, the family’s story is told through a weaving of nature: of trees and plants, or animals and insects. It’s a wondrous tale of the continuity and connections in life.

I really loved this book: a book which is sad and troubling but also one of hope and delight.

Manuscript to Book: A Short Guide to the Book Publishing Process

A lot of my freelance book publishing work is copy-editing and proofreading. People often ask me what the difference is and so I thought it might be useful to guide you through the basic steps of a book journeying from manuscript to a published book. Of course, nowadays, your ‘manuscript’ will most likely be a ‘typescript’ – not many authors write by hand still! And mostly it’s typed on a computer and so you may automatically think of sending it as an email attachment to a potential publisher or agent. But it’s always wise to check out the requirements of different publishers and some will want an actual paper submission sent through the post. I’m going to write more about ‘submissions’ another time but for now, I’ll outline the basic steps.

Manuscript (or Typescript)

You’ve finished your work and it’s all ready for you to now find a publisher. It’s often easier to find an agent to act for you, but more of how to submit your work another time. So let’s move on to the point when your book is accepted by a publisher. This basic copy forms of the foundation of what will become a book. First of all, it will be read by the editor who commissioned or bought it. ‘Commission’ means they approached you to write it; ‘bought’ means it was sent to them by you direct or an agent.

Structural Editing

It’s most often – though not always – the commissioning editor who will read the manuscript first to decide whether any major changes or improvements are needed. ‘Structural’ is just what it says: does the structure of your book, the storyline, or maybe in a non-fiction book the way the information is put together, work well. The editor will identify things like a particular character needing more or less work – an important character who perhaps needs more depth and to be more strongly described; but perhaps you’ve given too much time to a minor character who then detracts from the main storyline and characters. An editor will perhaps get you to expand certain parts of the story but maybe suggests cuts for parts that are too long and affect the flow of the story, losing the reader’s attention. Once all the book is in good shape and you and the editor are happy, it will be passed to a copy-editor.

Copy-Editing

The copy-editor is concerned with correct and consistent spellings and good grammar. They will also look at the flow of the book, whether it reads well and may make basic rewriting suggestions – perhaps switching the order of words, adding or taking away odd words or sentences, expanding or rewriting something that isn’t clear or makes easy sense. They will check for consistency, and this includes things like keeping a track of time: e.g. if a character is, say, 20 at the beginning of the book and the story moves on 10 years, their age should be given as 30. Likewise relationships between characters: that an ‘uncle’ is always an uncle and not sometimes a ‘great uncle’. The copy-editor will check for repetition – whether you’ve already said something or described or explained something. They make sure any ‘facts’ are correct – historical dates, spellings of real people or places.

Once books were copy-edited by hand: paper copy with the changes marked in pencil. But now I always copy-edit on-screen – the book is sent by email and I edit it with track changes and comments for my queries, and it’s returned by email. At the end of the copy-editing process, the book should be in good order to go to the printer. The author (and commissioning editor) will get the chance to check through any changes though and answer any queries the copy-editor has had before the book goes for printing.

Design

The copy-edited book will now go to the Production Department for design. This can be a fairly simple process for perhaps a novel – what font and font size to be used; the general layout of the page, whether a new chapter always begins on the right-hand page, and ultimately the cover design. For a more complex or non-fiction title, the design will require a lot more creative thought.

Typesetting and Printing

The next step is to typeset the book – arrange the words on the pages; decide on the layout of special things like quotes of verse, letters or other text that is often indented or in italics. The book needs to be ‘set’ in just the way it will appear in the finished book. This is sometimes done at the printers or by a separate typesetter. Once the book is typeset then the printer will print off ‘page proofs’ or email them to the publisher.

Proofreading

I still receive proofs as paper copy, i.e. printed out on paper. Occasionally a quick job or short job, particularly on an e-book (one to only be published that way) may come via email and I proofread on-screen, but by far the majority of my proofreading work comes via the post as a large parcel of paper! I then proofread it with a red pen, blue pen and pencil to hand. Red pen is to mark printer’s errors – things that haven’t been printed exactly as they are on the copy-edited typescript (I will always have a copy of that to check against); blue pen marks errors missed by the copy-editor (there are invariably a few, though rarely many); pencil is for any queries I might have – sense, an unusual word  or spelling. Once I’ve finished, I will parcel it up and return to the publisher. Usually the author will receive a set of proofs too so they can check as well; an important or ‘big’ commercial title by a bestselling author may be proofread by more than one professional.

The Finished Book

The next thing of course is for the printer to print the book – print the pages and bind the book, either as a hardback or paperback. But publication isn’t just about the arrival of finished books at the publishers, it’s about marketing and PR, it’s about distribution to bookshops, etc. And often now an author will be expected (and want) to be involved in the PR with book signings, talks, etc.

This is a basic guide but hopefully helpful to you. Do let me know if you have any questions!

A Book & Writing Blog

This is a blog for budding writers and lovers of good books. I shall be sharing thoughts and advice about writing, based on my many years of experience as a professional book editor. These articles will give you an insight into the publishing process and offer tips, from how to get started to overcoming writer’s block, and what to do with your finished work.

I’ll be passing on big book and publishing news I hear about – major autobiographies, prize winners, etc., and anything else of significant interest.

I shall also be sharing some short reviews of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed. Working as a book editor, having time to read a book of choice is a bit of a treat. And when I’ve really enjoyed a book, like most people who love reading, it’s great to share the book or recommend it.