Friday, January 15, 2016

BOOKISH: On Writing Well

ERIC FORBES on the arduous publishing process and why writers need to focus more on learning to write better

MANY MALAYSIAN WRITERS somehow do not seem to understand the arduous process of publishing a book, getting it out into the bookshops and developing a readership. A publishing house, first and foremost, is not a production or typesetting house. (“I want my book out within a month. I’ve booked the venue and ordered the red velvet cake and champagne for the launch. By hook or by crook, I want it ready by then. I want international distribution. I want my book to be available at every Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and Kinokuniya in the kingdom. I want ...”) It is definitely not a babysitting service where you dump your horror of a manuscript and hope a magnum opus will miraculously emerge from it. (“Could we like turn this into a book with a lovely cover and all the usual trimmings? It would make an ideal Christmas pressie for Mama and Papa.”)

Potential authors do not seem to understand the rigorous and painstaking process of creating a good book. (“Here are some photographs I took with my digicam; I want a glossy coffee-table book with my name in bold letters. The wonderful thing is, there are not many words in it. You know, people just don’t have time to read nowadays. It shouldn’t be too expensive to produce. After all, I do want everyone to be able to afford it.”) The publishing house is not a dream factory where your books are manufactured and your dreams realised. (“I dream of becoming a writer one day. Can make my dream come true?”)

Of course, I can make your dream come true, but first you have got to do something. Like write. Yes, write. And write reasonably well. Is it too much to insist that you write well if you wish to get published?

There is a lot of good old-fashioned hard work involved in publishing a book, much of it hidden from the view of the world. It is, however, very difficult to maintain standards because there are more bad than good writing floating around. But, for a publisher or editor, that is where the fun (or heartaches and nightmares) is, I guess! (“Here is Harry Potter’s magic wand: go and turn yourself into a good writer!”)

Write only if you are serious about good writing and producing a book that will stand the test of time. Write a book that will make you proud to be the author. Write a book that will make your mummy proud to have a son or daughter like you. Write with confidence; write with humility; write with empathy. Lose the unbecoming arrogance and the I-am-cleverer-than-you attitude. Do not be afraid to admit mistakes; learn from them and move on. Always strive to be a better writer. We do not want the world to think that we celebrate mediocrity, do we? Wouldn’t you want to write a book that will be remembered and reprinted for years to come? Or do you prefer to write one where it will only be printed once and that’s it?

As a writer, you must ask yourself whether people are willing to fork out their hard-earned money in exchange for your book. Will reading your book make any difference to their lives? Is your book worth more than the paper it is printed on? These are just some of the questions writers must ask themselves if they are serious about writing.

What you write about is as important as how you write it. As an editor of books, a good manuscript is like a dream come true, a shooting star across the vast open heavens, a breath of fresh air, a fine-dining experience at Nobu or The Fat Duck, the coming of rain after a season of drought, a harvest after the paddy-planting season. I believe you get my drift?

There is a world of difference between a good and bad manuscript. Not only is a good manuscript well written, it is also well edited before being submitted to a publishing house. A good manuscript is like the proverbial needle in the haystack. When you are editing a reasonably good manuscript it feels like being in heaven; there is beautiful music in the air and the sound of angels singing. Editing an egregious manuscript is like burning in the pits of hell, with fire and brimstone your eternal companions. What I dislike most is that good manuscripts are so difficult to find. Sadly, there aren’t that many good ones to choose from. Most are execrably under- or overwritten and repetitious, full of vague and meaningless sentences that do not add anything to the subject. Well, as they say, life’s like that. However, in real life, we do publish the unreadable … and the occasional good book that actually sells!

We not only need more writers, but more writers with original and exciting ideas, thoughts and opinions that matter and appeal to as many readers as possible. We need writers with a sense of intelligence and storytelling in their prose and an eye for telling details. We need writers who can write well and are able to string sentences grammatically and syntactically, and punctuate them at all the right places. We want writing that is entertaining, gripping, compulsive and thought-provoking—all at the same time. We crave writing that keeps us at the edge of our seats. We want original pieces of writing that challenges us as readers. We want writing that gets us excited about books and make us jump with joy. Otherwise, what’s the point of publishing? There is nothing like the sound of luminous prose; they crackle like dried leaves being trampled upon in the heat of a summer’s day. (This is actually harder to write than it sounds.)

If fiction is not your thing, try nonfiction. However, don’t for a moment imagine that nonfiction is a piece of cake. It’s not. Piecing together research coherently and seamlessly is no easy task. Not everyone can do both equally well. Go on and write the book that you say you were born to write. And when that happens, perhaps we will meet at the bookshops one of these days and celebrate your success!

ERIC FORBES edits books for a living and has been in bookselling and publishing for over 30 years. He is reading Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, 2015) and is thoroughly enjoying it.

Friday, January 01, 2016

January 2016 Highlights

1. The Kindness of Enemies (Grove Press, 2016) / Leila Aboulela
2. The Woman Who Ran (Harper, 2016) / Sam Baker
3. The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape, 2016) / Julian Barnes
4. The Happy Marriage (trans. from the French by André Naffis-Sahely) (Melville House, 2016) / Tahar Ben Jelloun
5. The Swans of Fifth Avenue (Delacorte Press, 2016) / Melanie Benjamin
6. The Dogs of Littlefield (Simon & Schuster, 2016) / Suzanne Berne
7. Even the Dead: A Quirke Novel (Henry Holt, 2016) / Benjamin Black
8. The Guest Room (Doubleday, 2016) / Chris Bohjalian
9. Good on Paper (Melville House, 2016) / Rachel Cantor
10. On the Edge (trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) (New Directions, 2016) / Rafael Chirbes

11. Exposure (Hutchinson, 2016) / Helen Dunmore
12. Where My Heart Used to Beat (Henry Holt, 2016) / Sebastian Faulks
13. Lost Words (trans. from the Italian by Michael F. Moore) (New Direction, 2016) / Nicola Gardini
14. The Golden Son (William Morrow, 2016) / Shilpi Somaya Gowda
15. The Past (Harper, 2016) / Tessa Hadley
16. Human Acts (trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith) (Portobello Books, 2016) / Han Kang
17. Dictator (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) / Robert Harris
18. Mr Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) / Samantha Hunt
19. The Illegal (W.W. Norton, 2016) / Lawrence Hill
20. Avenue of Mysteries (Doubleday, 2016) / John Irving

21. Yuki Chan in Brontë Country (Faber & Faber, 2016) / Mick Jackson
22. A Guide to Berlin (Harvill Secker, 2016) / Gail Jones
23. The World Without Us (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) / Mireille Juchau
24. The Long Room (Faber & Faber, 2016) / Francesca Kay
25. The Sleep Garden (Tin House Books, 2016) / Jim Krusoe
26. The Expatriates (Viking, 2016) / Janice Y.K. Lee
27. The Crooked Heart of Mercy (Random House Canada, 2016) / Billie Livingston
28. The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells (Sphere, 2016) / Virginia Macgregor
29. Coffin Road (Quercus, 2016) / Peter May
30. The Portable Veblen (Penguin Press, 2016) / Elizabeth Mckenzie

31. After the Circus (trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti) (Yale University Press, 2016) / Patrick Modiano
32. In the Café of Lost Youth (trans. from the French by Euan Cameron) (MacLehose Press/Quercus, 2016) / Patrick Modiano
33. The Black Notebook (trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti) (MacLehose Press/Quercus, 2016) / Patrick Modiano 34. A Cup of Rage (trans. from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler) (Penguin Classics, 2016) / Raduan Nassar
35. Winter (Europa Editions, 2016) / Christopher Nicholson
36. The Man Without a Shadow (Ecco/Fourth Estate, 2016) / Joyce Carol Oates
37. The Queen’s Choice (Mira, 2016) / Anne O’Brien
38. Hunters in the Dark (Hogarth, 2016) / Lawrence Osborne
39. Gull (Head of Zeus, 2016) / Glenn Patterson
40. What Was Mine (Gallery Books, 2016) / Helen Klein Ross

41. Thomas Murphy (Ecco, 2016) / Roger Rosenblatt
42. The Other Me (Flatiron Books, 2016) / Saskia Sarginson
43. My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016) / Elizabeth Strout
44. Hold (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Australia, 2016) / Kirsten Tranter
45. Death Is a Welcome Guest (John Murray, 2016) / Louise Welsh

1. The Widow (Bantam Press, 2016) / Fiona Barton
2. Fallen Land (St Martin’s Press, 2016) / Taylor Brown
3. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (The Borough Press, 2016) / Joanna Cannon
4. River of Ink (Bloomsbury Circus/Bloomsbury USA, 2016) / Paul M.M. Cooper
5. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter (Seven Stories Press, 2016) / Kia Corthron
6. This Living and Immortal Thing (Granta Book, 2016) / Austin Duffy
7. The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint, 2016) / Abby Geni
8. The Worlds In My Mouth (Two Roads, 2016) / Guinevere Glasfurd
9. What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016) / Garth Greenwell
10. Pillars of Light (Doubleday Canada, 2016) / Jane Johnson

11. In a Land of Paper Gods (Tinder Press, 2016) / Rebecca Mackenzie
12. The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) / Yelena Moskovich
13. Highbridge (Century, 2016) / Phil Redmond
14. Ancient Tillage (trans. from the Portuguese by Karen Sotelino) (Penguin Classics, 2016) / Raduan Nassar
15. The Good Liar (Viking, 2016) / Nicholas Searle
16. Unspeakable Things (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) / Kathleen Spivack
17. The Longest Night (Random House, 2016) / Andria Williams
18. Girl Through Glass (Harper, 2016) / Sari Wilson
19. Weathering (Bloomsbury USA, 2016) / Lucy Wood
20. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, 2016) / Sunil Yapa

1. This Is the Ritual (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) / Rob Doyle
2. American Housewife (Doubleday, 2016) / Helen Ellis
3. Your Father Sends His Love (W.W. Norton, 2016) / Stuart Evers
4. Good People (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) / Robert Lopez
5. Sea Lovers (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) / Valerie Martin
6. The High Places (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Australia, 2016) / Fiona McFarlane
7. Dinosaurs on Other Planets (John Murray, 2016) / Danielle McLaughlin
8. Ways to Spend the Night (Engine Books, 2016) / Pamela Painter
9. The Unfinished World and Other Stories (Liveright, 2016) / Amber Sparks
10. Hearing Voices, Seeing Things (Doire Press, 2016) / William Wall

11. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (McSweeney’s, 2016) / Diane Williams

1. Swallows and Waves (Sarabande Books, 2016) / Paula Bohince
2. Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet Press, 2016) / Vahni Capildeo
3. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (W.W. Norton, 2016) / Martín Espada
4. Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) / Jim Harrison
5. Sentenced to Life (Liveright, 2016) / Clive James
6. Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016) / John Kinsella
7. The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (Graywolf Press, 2016) / Larry Levis
8. War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016) / Christopher Logue
9. Ghost County (MG Press, 2016) / John McCarthy
10. The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) / C.D. Wright

1. Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2016) / Robin Yassin-Kassab & Leila Al-Shami
2. Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World (Spiegel & Grau, 2016) / Kevin Bales
3. The Naked Shore of the North Sea (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) / Tom Blass
4. The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (Doubleday, 2016) / Bill Bryson
5. Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War (Penguin Press, 2016) / Ian Buruma
6. The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (Graywolf Press, 2016) / Christopher Castellani
7. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, 2016) / David Cesarani
8. The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (Chatto & Windus, 2016) / Laura Cumming
9. The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance (Basic Books, 2016) / Simon R. Doubleday
10. The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2016) / Nora Ephron

11. Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Harvard University Press, 2016) / Denis Feeney
12. The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) / Lara Feigel
13. Being a Beast (profile Books, 2016) / Charles Foster
14. 1956: The Year in Revolt (Faber & Faber, 2016) / Simon Hall
15. The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso Books, 2016) / Owen Hatherley
16. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays (ed. Brigitta Olubas) (Columbia University Press, 2016) / Shirley Hazzard
17. And Yet: Essays (Atlantic Books, 2016) / Christopher Hitchens
18. The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature: Writings from the Mainland in the Long Twentieth Century (W.W. Norton, 2016) / Yunte Huang (ed.)
19. Autobiographies (ed. Philip Horne) (Library of America, 2016) / Henry James
20. God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human (Oxford University Press USA, 2016) / Dominic Johnson

21. This is London: Life and Death in the World City (Picador, 2016) / Ben Judah
22. When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016) / Paul Kalanithi
23. The Outrun (Canongate Books, 2016) / Amy Liptrot
24. The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (Graywolf Press, 2016) / Paul Lisicky
25. The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay (Saraband, 2016) / Karen Lloyd
26. But You Did Not Come Back (trans. from the French by Sandra Smith) (Faber & Faber/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) / Marceline Loran-Ivens
27. The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination (W.W. Norton, 2016) / Richard Mabey
28. The Hundred-Year Walk: An American Odyssey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) / Dawn MacKeen
29. Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (Plume, 2016) / Meredith Maranv (ed.)
30. Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) / Anna Pavord

31. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler (Little, Brown, 2016) / Peter Ross Range
32. City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (Picador/Portobello Books, 2016) / Ben Rawlence
33. Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds (Harper, 2016) / Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
34. Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination (Duke University Press, 2016) / Monica Hanna, Jennifer Harford Vargas & José David Saldívar (eds.)
35. Asylum: A Survivor’s Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France (trans. from the German by P.N. Singer) (Profile Books, 2016) / Moriz Scheyer
36. Shame and Wonder (William Heinemann, 2016) / David Searcy
37. The Egyptians: A Radical Story (Allen Lane, 2016) / Jack Shenker
38. Shame and Wonder: Essays (Random House/William Heinemann, 2016) / David Searcy
39. The Romanovs: 1613-1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016) / Simon Sebag Montefiore
40. Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (Bloomsbury Circus/Doubleday, 2016) / Anjan Sundaram

41. The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 (Chatto & Windus, 2016) / D.J. Taylor
42. Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (Allen Lane, 2016) / Frank Trentmann
43. Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale University Press, 2016) / Miroslav Volf
44. The Last Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas (Ballantine Books, 2016) / Alison Weir
45. The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (Allen Lane, 2016) / Peter H. Wilson
46. Walking the Himalayas (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) / Levison Wood
47. Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (Simon & Schuster, 2016) / Herman Wouk