Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Approved and Proved

OK … so here’s a quick description of the various stages a Doctor Who book goes through once the manuscript has been delivered. This is an author’s eye view, of course. Which is a polite way of saying that, for an author, a lot of this is pretty much invisible – you hand your book to someone, a few weeks after that you get back a list of comments and you don’t do very much with your book in the mean time.

Once a book is written, it’s edited. That’s what Justin had done during June, and what I described last time – he went through the manuscript looking at it artistically, making sure the story worked, suggesting ways the narrative could be improved, letting me know if there were any wider issues. With Doctor Who, there’s the danger that you end up clashing with something that’s coming up in another book or on the telly. As you’ll have seen, I pretty much finished The Eyeless before the fourth season even started, and I had no special prior knowledge of it (less than most people reading this, probably, as I try to avoid spoilers).

The edited draft then went to Cardiff for approval. The book’s going out with a Doctor Who logo on it, the BBC have all sorts of taste and decency standards. Obviously this is a stage most books don’t have to go through. On 30th July, I got a rather anti-climatic note from Justin saying that the book had been approved by Cardiff, but that they’d asked for ‘a couple of changes’ and I’d see them at the proof stage. My paranoia gland started secreting whatever it is a paranoia gland secrets, but Justin assured me that there was nothing to worry about (his actual words were ‘we removed all that stuff about a powerful alien fortress and replaced it with a sinister hillbilly dance routine’).

It was now onto the next stage – Steve Tribe, Project Editor, got in touch on 8th August to let me know that he’d got the approved manuscript and would be dealing with it from now on. Different publishers do different things at this stage, but it boils down to copy editing and proofreading stages, with a proofreader also going through the manuscript checking for spelling/typing errors, punctuation and so on. BBC Books run these two stages at the same time, but the books have separate proofreaders and copy editors.

Steve’s job was to take the completed, edited and approved manuscript and end up with typeset page proofs – a PDF file of the book that looks just like the pages of the final book (and for good reason, because the printers will use that file). Then we all have a final read of the proofs to make sure we’re happy and we sign off on them and they go to the printers.

All publishers have a house style, and one job at this stage is to make sure the book conforms to that. These can involve a set of quite idiosyncratic rules, and it’s usually fairly mundane stuff about the use of dashes, the exact form that numbers and dates are expressed (‘26 December 2008’, not ‘December 26th 2008’, that kind of thing), the use of American spelling (Virgin had some quite bizarre rules about that, ones that probably made sense to someone). Consistency in place names (it’s World Trade Center and Pearl Harbor, for example – you could have a sentence that ran ‘the Japanese attacked the harbour at Pearl Harbor’) and titles (the rank isn’t capitalized, the individual is, so the Brigadier is a brigadier).

Then there’s all the grammar stuff that makes me glad I have a proofreader. Sometimes I’ve had fairly heated discussions about grammar. Proofreaders tend to want good grammar throughout a novel – which sounds like the sort of thing we should all want, but this has led to proofreaders in the past changing some of the dialogue I’ve written. Now … I want readers to be able to parse the sentences and stuff, but I think dialogue’s allowed to be a little rougher (‘a little more rough’?) than the narration. People don’t speak grammatically. And sometimes the change of grammar can alter the sense of the sentence. A proofreader would make Mick Jagger sing ‘I can get satisfaction’. Kate Orman has the best anecdote here – one of her proofreaders changed ‘the spaceship left the planet’s gravity well’ to ‘the spaceship left well the planet’s gravity’. The way it should work is that the proofreader highlights every grammatical ‘mistake’, the editor and author decide whether to implement the change.

With The Eyeless there were no arguments.

The changes Cardiff wanted were very few and far between and almost all were incredibly minor. The thing that linked most of them was that they didn’t want to pin down things the TV series hadn’t pinned down – how the sonic screwdriver recharges, what the TARDIS defences can and can’t do, how long the Doctor’s been travelling the universe. There were notes on how they don’t like referring to the person the Doctor travels with as an ‘assistant’ these days, and that there are some other words they’re wary about. They took out a joke about shoe sizes, possibly because they didn’t see it was a joke (which is as good a reason as any for taking out a joke, of course).

In addition to those, I got a list of notes back from Steve on 4th September. Steve’s developed a good ear for the tenth Doctor, and noted about a dozen places where he didn’t think what I’d written sounded like something David Tennant would say. He’d altered one scene that was a flashback within a flashback within a flashback and so was hideously confusing. But there was nothing changed for being too gruesome, there was nothing major or dealbreaking at all. As with every stage, I wasn’t presented with any of these things as a fait d’accompli, and we talked everything through and I persuaded Steve to change his mind about a few things, he persuaded me he was right about others.

To show how smooth this all was, we settled everything so quickly that Steve was able to go away and come back with typeset proofs on 9th September. As is the way of these things, we all noticed a few minor things that had somehow managed to elude us all up to this point, despite dozens of re-readings – an item that was described as ‘featureless’ on one page was ‘covered in symbols’ on the next, that kind of thing.

Editors have reasons for making suggestions and if a writer disagrees, his job is to work out why the editor thinks what they think. Both the writer and the editor should be able to back up their opinions, explain themselves. Often, an editor and writer agree about what a scene should be trying to do, but disagree about the way to land the scene on that spot. It is possible for writers and editors to lose track of the fact they want the same thing, or for some pretty basic miscommunication to mess things up, although that’s thankfully been an extraordinarily rare occurrence for me. I think the crucial thing to note here is that this stage of The Eyeless felt no different to the editing stage of any of my other books – it was a lot smoother than most, to be honest.

A lot of the online discussion about ‘mistakes’ or ‘inconsistencies’ or ‘wrong turns’ in either the books or the TV show just doesn’t recognise that the writers and editors have endlessly discussed things. As I said very early on in this blog, if a writer chooses to do something, he’s almost always making a conscious choice not to do plenty of other things, things he’s agonized about, talked through and so on for months, decisions that are influenced by often the weirdest things. The main influence for Doctor Who is, surely, time – my book’s out on December 26th 2008. It had to be finished in time for that to take place. It’s the same for television, only far moreso: actors have to be booked, sets built, costumes made and so on and so on.

So … 17th of September, that was it. The proofs had been corrected, the file went off to the printer. The Eyeless was done and out of my hands.

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