Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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Advice on how to get a book published…

Someone asked me yesterday how to get a book published by a reputable publisher in the UK.

My answer was to get a ghost writer – me – and pay me £156,000 + 98% of the royalties plus all the chocolate I can eat.

Sadly my offer was turned down, so my edited advice was this…

The conventional wisdom is that, to get a publishing deal, you need to have a literary agent but, to get a literary agent, you need to have a publishing deal.

In fact, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Fiction sells better than non-fiction, but it is even more difficult to get published. Almost bloody impossible, in fact.

Either way, the best thing to do is this…

You need to write a one or two page outline synopsis of what will be in the book – beginning to end – so the publisher knows what he/she is actually going to get.

And write perhaps a 20-page extract. This does not have to be the first 20 pages, but it might as well be. The reason for providing this extract is twofold. It shows the publisher that you can write. And it shows them the style your book will be written in – the same facts can be written a million different ways. An extract gives them a feel for the suggested book’s style.

Plus you need to include a biography of yourself – maybe half a page.

You are a good prospect if you are young (ie under 30), attractive and already have some track record in some creative area. And it helps massively if you can speak fluently. Being dead is not a good selling point if you are trying to get a publishing deal unless you are Jane Austen or George Orwell.

I know someone who was a ‘reader’ for Penguin Books. He was given a translation of a Japanese novel which Penguin had been offered. After reading it with growing excitement, his report to Penguin said that it was the most brilliant novel he had ever read and they would be mad not to publish it.

They told him: “We are not going to publish it.”

The author had, unwisely, just died and would be unable to do any publicity for the book.

Publishers want someone, preferably attractive and certainly alive, who can do publicity interviews for the book and who is ideally young enough to provide them with maybe 40 more years of books. They seldom want a one-off wonder unless you have an absolutely cracking story like being held as a sex slave for 14 years by Prince Philip in a secret cellar under Buckingham Palace or cutting off your own leg with a fish knife while being held hostage by Saddam Hussein in a Paris brothel.

When you have your idea, outline, biography and extract together, you should then go to a bookshop and see which publishers are selling the type of book you want to write and approach them one by one, having looked in a copy of the annual Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which gives contact names, addresses and publishing requirements.

One thing you do not do is this…

You do NOT write the book first and then approach a publisher.

You want to screw an Advance out of them.

That way, even if the thing sells no copies, you have earned something for your talent, time and heartache.

If you approach a publisher with a completed book you cannot, by definition, get any Advance from them to tide you over while you write the book. You would have worked for perhaps two years for no money and you may have written what publishers don’t want.

Also, publishers like to feel they are controlling the creative process. Most publishers I have encountered are wannabe writers who cannot actually write creatively themselves, so they want to write and/or re-write through you while getting cultural kudos with their friends at dinner parties in Islington.

Never believe that publishers know anything about creative writing. If they did, they would be writing books themselves.

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, publish…

…and try to interfere with your writing to give themselves a creative hard-on.

The thing to remember is that, up to the point of signing the contract, they can cast you aside and they have all the power. But, after signing the contract, you have most of the power. Under a standard publishing contract, they control the cover, but they cannot change a single comma of the text without your permission and it is unlikely (unless your book is utter shit) that they will throw away the Advance they have paid you. So listen to their advice but stick to your creative guns if you disagree.

If (just to use round numbers) you get a £9,000 advance, you would normally be paid £3,000 on signing the contract. You then have to write the entire book with no more money coming in. You then get £3,000 on delivery of an acceptable final manuscript. And you then have to wait for 6-9 months and get £3,000 on publication. So any ‘Advance’ tends to mean you only get one third up-front in advance of writing the book.

The thing to remember is that it highly unlikely you will make any significant money from your book. Literally hundreds of books are spewing into existence every month to try to find space on the same limited shelves. It is like playing the Edinburgh Fringe. You are unlikely to get noticed and it is like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. In the case of writing a book, these are the £50 notes you could have earned by stacking shelves in a supermarket rather than starving in a small room earning no money while you toil away at your creative keyboard.

If your book is a paperback, you are likely to get a royalty of only 7.5% of the cover price. So, if your book sells for £10, you get 75p per copy sold. Roughly.

I believe most books sell well under 10,000 copies in the British Isles and fail to make a profit. Publishers live on their rare big buck-earners.

When approaching a publisher nowadays, you also have to take into consideration the new phenomenon of eBooks. Random House recently signed a big deal with Apple to put their back catalogue and future publications onto iBooks.

My 2002 contract with Random House for the anthology Sit-Down Comedy specified a 50% royalty on any future e-book version. A fortnight ago, they sent me a letter saying they want to only pay 25% instead of 50% on any eBook version because the contracted 50% royalty rate “was arrived at before the UK eBook market had begun to develop and before the extent of our digital investment was known. Since this royalty was agreed, the eBook market has moved on greatly but, in the process, we have found that 50% of net revenues is no longer viable”.

Well, lovies, my tendency is to say, “Tough shit, life’s a bitch and a gamble, ain’t it? Don’t come whining to me if you mis-calculated your own business.”

But, with Sit-Down Comedy, in fact, it doesn’t much matter because, although the contract was with the late Malcolm Hardee and me as editors of the book, we agreed to split the royalties between ourselves and the 19 contributors to the anthology. So we are talking miniscule sums even if it sold loads.

However, I know another author whose book has been in print for quite a few  years. It may soon go out of print. Under a standard contract, if a book is out of print for two years, all rights return to the author. So, for example, Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was out of print for two years and now 100% of all rights have reverted to me and to the estate of the late Malcolm.

However, if this other chum of mine’s book becomes an eBook, my understanding is that it will, in theory, never go out of print – the file will still be available for download from the Apple/Amazon/publisher’s computer – and so the publisher will retain the rights until 70 years after the author’s death.

If my chum, on the other hand, refuses to accept a royalty cut from 50% to 25%, then it will presumably not become an eBook, the paperback will go out of print and, two years later, 100% of all rights will revert to my chum. And there would then be the possibility of negotiating a new publishing deal or publishing via some print-on-demand operation like lulu.com

We live in interesting times and that, of course, is the ancient Chinese curse.

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