Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catcher of the wry

Sunday Star Times Books editor Mark Broatch spent five years collecting words for a book due out this week. He explains what it takes to get your big idea into print.
His entertaining article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times on 13 September, 2009 and is reproduced here with their permission.
Bookman Beattie is presently reading the book and his review should appear later in the week.
But for now over to Mark:

How weird, and how embarrassing. Weird in that my book, In A Word, was months away from publication, yet it had been pre-listed on book websites in places like Estonia and Norway. Embarrassing in that once it began to appear I set up a Google Alert to tell me when the book, a reference work that aims to help writers of all stripes find the word they are looking for, was being mentioned afresh on the internet. The truth is, once you see the long tail of the internet twitching, you can't help but start watching for signs that it might strike in your direction. And now I was to find out, having become books editor for the Star-Times several months after signing my contract, a little of what authors go through getting into print and beyond.

In May the final f was crossed and the last j was dotted on the manuscript. Apart from the odd phone call with a trace of angst (In a Word, p101), that was that. The proofs were proved. On a day off a couple of weeks later, I did the kind of squirm-worthy thing you do when you have been working on something for ages on your own and wonder if the world might be interested: I googled my name and the title of the book.

I knew my publisher, New Holland, had sent out publicity trade material, and found that it was drifting through the superhighways and byways of the internet, settling, like a dusting of snow (p145), first in northern Europe: Norway, Germany, Denmark ("boghandel med 1.700.000 bøger, studiebøger, engelskbøger ...", which was good to know). Then came a real cultural-cringe thrill when British sites began listing it (WH Smith, Borders, Waterstone's, Amazon UK). They all repeated the publisher's blurb about it being "the essential tool for finding the perfect word" in an "information-overloaded society". Soon also offering this apparently wondrous mental utensil to busy wordsmiths was Amazon Japan, a Hong Kong retailer and Australian and NZ book sites. Finally, those stubborn Irish, Portuguese and South Africans got interested, and, suitably for the champions of all things slow, an Italian site last week.

I began to idle about teachers of millions of English language students making the book a compulsory text and me a gazillionaire, before my inner grinch (p111) reminded me that listings might translate to diddly-squat: no one has actually bought the book yet, and might never. But still, it feels a little like buying a lotto ticket, only with words instead of numbers. Or something.
By the end of this week I will have bored the country with my tale of dictionaries and thesauruses being brilliant but not always the reference book one needs, so why would one not decide to write his own? I will have repeated, on radio and perhaps TV (I might be bumped for late-breaking ephemera (p40), or stage fright might strike me dumb), that as a working writer, reviewer and editor you need words that mean precisely what you want them to, but also how you want them to. And that goes for all of us.

Here's what I mean: we don't always know what we want to say, or how we want to say it, but we often have an idea of the tone we want to adopt or the kind of word we want to use. When we're writing a CV, or a performance review, blogging or tweeting, we often need a word that imparts a positive spin, or a negative one, or has some ambiguity or neutrality. Most word reference books don't help much here, but - shameless plug ahead - the 6500-word Descriptive Thesaurus that opens the book does. For example, when you say something's thought-out (p20), do you mean assiduous, clear-thinking, coherent, thoughtful or shrewd? Or you might want to show off, and use a multisyllabic, probably Latinate and usually ostentatious word. Say, fugacious (p52), meaning lasting a short time, which in the book comes under the heading Fancy Language. The meaning of gambit or gamut (p41), under Useful Language. Or a simple, direct word, usually short, monosyllabic, often Anglo-Saxon in origin, which comes under Plain Language, such as ambush or notch (p56). I had a rough plan of how the book might be structured, but not one of how it might get in print. Now that it's happened, and I've figured out what the book does, I have some suggestions.

Have a good idea
I was shocked - shocked, I tell you - to find when I was nearly finished the manuscript that my first plan for In a Word was typed out in 2004. That meant when I finished it had been working on it for five years. What a simple and elegant plan it was too. A reference work for reviewers and critical writers. It had about eight parts, and would have been a doddle (p60) to produce. Well, probably not. I wanted to encompass the likes of the thread count of sheets and the cars James Bond has driven. As it grew in size and ambition, it became a more general word-finder, but one, as I say, that divided words up in new ways. Because I write and edit for work, coming home and doing the same didn't always appeal. So I worked away at it on my days off, collecting words as I went from hundreds and hundreds of reviews, articles and opinion pieces from the best writers on the planet, using up books of my employers' Post-It notes. I suspect New Holland went for the book because it represented an unusual idea, not many people writing word books in NZ, and my CV suggested I had some knowledge of the subject matter. If you want to interest a publisher, write a detailed outline of your idea first, or if it's a novel, finish the first couple of chapters. Don't be afraid of big, weird ideas. They can only say no.

Get a publisher
Because the manuscript, such as it was, was turning out to be useful to me, I thought it might prove useful to others. This occurred to me about mid-2008. It helps if you have a colleague who is already on her way into print, as Kim Knight was with her splendid collection of cooking tales and recipes, Home Made. I hope it was simple jealousy and competitive spirit without a trace of pre-emptive schadenfreude (p73). I met Kim's bullish commissioning editor at New Holland, Louise, who liked the idea. Belinda, the boss at NHP, seemed to like it too, but they wanted buy-in from overseas. Fine by me, as my aim was always to write a book for all English speakers and language students. (Or at least the Commonwealth; if enough people like it, maybe we can do an American version.)
We hammered out a contract; or rather they offered me a standard one offering a smallish advance and royalties on each book that sells, I asked a friend, a member at the NZ Society of Authors, if it was kosher, he said pretty much, I quibbled (p105) with Louise, we signed. If one publisher rejects you, try others. They have different focuses and tastes, and another might be more bullish on your brilliant idea.

Finish the manuscript
And that's what it is until it's in print, a manuscript. If someone tells you they are writing a novel, tell them that they are not, they are writing a manuscript. The recession saw Louise leave and the (thankfully) thoroughly capable Matt take over. As with most nearly-books, New Holland got an outside editor to read it and make suggestions. The book, which was yet to settle on a title, wasn't structured usefully to readers. It was hard to navigate if you hadn't worked on it from day one and didn't have a digital copy to search. The editor and Matt and I came eventually, after just a little grinding of teeth, to the current structure. In a Word now cuts up English into lists under the broad sections of Vocabulary (words of different types), Characterisation (describing people), Terminology (criticism) and Reference (lists such as films by subject matter, p163). Six months of slog saw the back of it. By all means, have confidence in your idea, but be willing to take instruction. It might be your baby, but your publisher is paying for the delivery suite, the christening and the notice in the paper. And they have done this before, you know.

Do the business
Once you send back the final proofs there is likely to be several months of waiting. Depending on the book, you may be asked to do publicity for it. There will be a clause about it in your contract. Because we cover a lot of books in the Star-Times, we are literally bombarded (no we are not; and don't say something's ironic - p124 - when you mean coincidental) with offers of interviews, extracts and books for review. Despite our best efforts, most of these books can't rate more than a mention. So when my hard-working publicist, Lorraine, sent out the press release, I was pleased to hear there was what amount to an enthusiastic response for review copies among jaded media folk. I then wondered briefly what it's like to be crucified in print. Probably best not to worry. Most books get very little notice, particularly in the metropolitan press. If you're lucky you will get a mention or review on Radio NZ, but probably not on TV. Lorraine tees me up for some interviews, almost always like unmedicated dentistry for journalists. I get the very first copy of my book. I feel very happy. And I start to think about what to write next.

8 Cool Words
Quell - it's short, direct and has a lovely sound to it (Plain Language)
Epistaxis - medical term for a nosebleed (Specialist Terms)
Affect/effect - both can be a verb or noun (Common and Occasional Confusions)
Tessitura - optimal range for a singer (Voices)
Weltschmertz - world weariness (German Terms)
Truculent - fierce, combative (Human Descriptions - Negative)
Pleaching - interlacing of trees for border (Gardening Terms)
Sindonology - study of the Shroud of Turin (Fields of Study)

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