London Book Fair time again. Where has the year gone? Not that I go any more; the last time was in 2010. But somehow for anyone who has ever worked in the book trade, those April dates are a kind of marker in the year – a little like September for teachers, academics and people with school-age children. I almost miss it. A small publisher’s life is spent mostly sitting at a desk, and LBF was an opportunity to come face-to-face with people who were only names on an e-mail header the rest of the year. These days opportunities to put faces to names are rarer.
But that wasn’t what I planned to post about at all, other than in an accidental illustrative sense. Accidental because I sort of found myself doing it without really intending to. Illustrative because it illustrates to perfection what I did plan to post about, which was, I’m easily distracted.
Picture the scene. I’m sitting at my desk, trying to convince myself that a piece of unpublished work I found in a storage box in the back of a cupboard is worth resurrecting and devoting some time and effort to. (My ideas mojo seems to have abandoned me; is this why writers need an ideas box?) This piece is from so long ago that it’s typewritten. Remember typewriters? Remember a time when correcting or amending meant retyping the whole page, and trying to make sure the retyped version ended in exactly the same place as the earlier version, else you’d have to retype the whole chapter, or short story, or whatever. I remember it well, and this brought it all back...
... and there I go again, off at a tangent, this time distracted by my own past. Back to the point. There I am, trying to bring it into the 21st century, when an e-mail pings into my in-box. Or my daughter pops up on Skype. Or the phone rings, and just for once the caller display doesn’t show Unavailable, indicating that it’s someone trying to sell me a water cooler. Can I ignore the interruption? No, I can not. Certainly not my daughter; I never pass up the chance of a chat with her. And the e-mail just might not be be spam; it could be important, or interesting, or fun.
And when I’m reading, it’s just as easy to distract me. Even more so, truth to tell. A historical detail which even my sketchy knowledge tells me is wrong – modes of address for British aristocracy, for instance; a comma in the wrong place so that a sentence is ambiguous; or heaven forfend, an apostrophe missing or misplaced. Any or all of these are guaranteed to stop my eyes in their tracks, and not only make me lose the thread of the narrative but also set up alerts in my brain that make me look for the next occurrence of the same thing. Which doesn’t contribute at all to my enjoyment of the book.
There are other things too. It jars when a character uses language that’s out of keeping with the way s/he has been set up. And when I encounter ‘Gadzooks’ dialogue in historical fiction; doesn’t the author understand that his/her people would sound perfectly natural to each other, so that’s surely how it should appear on the page, wiped clean of modern slang, of course, because that’s even more distracting.
And finally for now, (though not exhaustively – I could go on all day and fill pages) self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing: the kind of elegant phrasing and finely wrought images that shout, ‘Forget the story; look at me!’ If ever I’m asked to define good style, my answer is simple and immediate: it’s invisible. The best style is so in tune with the content that the reader doesn’t notice it.
Maybe it’s because I’ve honed my editor’s eye too sharply; or maybe it’s just that these things matter.
Or maybe I’m just easily distracted.