Sunday, 28 November 2010
I spent yesterday afternoon working on a book I am editing. It's wonderful. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. But no sooner had I gone to bed and my brain had gone into free-floating mode than wodges of prose from the past started swirling in.
I began work as fiction editor on IPC's Loving Magazine in 1984. By then, I had already had three romantic novels published and quite a few short stories, but I by no means regarded myself as an expert in writing and editing. Almost three decades on, though, I think I am allowed to call myself experienced in the field. I progressed to editor of that magazine whilst continuing to carve out my own career as a writer and when I was made redundant, I continued to write, and also joined up with a couple of agencies who critique and edit manuscripts for writers who are hoping to get published.
Millions of words have sped through my eyes and my brain. No wonder some of them have stuck in odd corners and continue to haunt me. I recall titles, phrases, images, characters - and, most of all, styles.
There was a man whose style was labelled 'chicken-pecking' by my chief fiction sub-editor. By this, she meant that each sentence ran for a few words, then was brought up short by a full stop. There was. No flow. It just happened. Like that.
Then there were the over-wordy, who never used one word when five would do, and who described their hero or heroine's every action in minute detail: She picked up the pink toothbrush, being careful not to touch the blue one next to it for fear her germ-obsessed sister might scream at her for polluting its bristles, rinsed it in cold water, squeezed out just a centimeter of paste - the striped one - and raised the brush to her mouth. She opened her lips... Well, you get the picture. The reader is desperate to find out if she will finally get together with the boy of her dreams at the school end of year party that evening, but there is so much boring detail to wade through first that, with a hiss of exasperation, Dear Reader gives up and flicks to the next story.
Another style I kept on encountering was the one in which the writer overused the gerund: Fishing in her bag, she found a tissue, applying it to her nose. Rushing, she caught the bus, blushing when realising she was guilty of leaving her pass at home. What these writers don't realise is that the gerund gives a passive feel to the prose. It holds up the flow. In a short story especially, it's best to use the active form of the verb.
Then we come to the famous Purple Prose. Yes, I am guilty of it myself, that overspilling of sentimental detail, the snapshot seen through rose-tinted specs, the affected hyperbole. Purple prose is over-the-top writing. It's complicating something simple. Instead of birds singing in the trees, a myriad of feathered souls are throwing their exotic notes of pure godlike ambrosia to we mere mortals down below.
There are those who score their prose with multiple dashes and those who pebbledash it with ellipses and colons. There are the 'can't spell, won't even bother to look it up' brigade - and those get sent back with a polite suggestion that they go on a writing course.
Then every so often, one comes across a gem like the one I am working on right now. It's not perfect. English is not the author's first language so some of her sentence constructions are back to front, and people look 'on' something - the ground, their shoes - rather than 'at' it. But the sheer lyrical song of the words, the glowing sensitivity of the characterisation, the spare, yet finely observed descriptive detail, is a joy to work with. In my 26 years of editing fiction, I have only found half a dozen manuscripts of this quality, and each time I've encountered one, I have yearned to reinvent myself as a literary agent so as to have the joy of discovering and acting as midwife to a world class author. This is what makes my job worthwhile.
If the current manuscript gets published, I shall tell you what it was. If it doesn't, then I shall truly despair of the publishing industry.