September 25, 2023


Unlimited Technology

Got an idea? Here’s how to make it a book

Still smiling? Good. It’s time for typesetting and for the final sense check of your words: the proofread. “In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proofreaders,” said Mark Twain, unfairly. T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom includes a “Publisher’s Note” of the correspondence between the author and the proofreader. While the proofreader had – per their job – flagged up inconsistencies in spelling throughout the text, the author took a rather more whimsical view of things. “Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah,” pointed out the proofreader. “She was a splendid beast,” came the author’s gnomic response. “Sherif Abd el Mayin… becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein,” continued the correspondence. “Good egg. I call this really ingenious,” the author batted back. It takes the self-confidence of a Lawrence to carry off this level of literary inconsistency.

By this point, you’ll be exhausted. But there’s yet more to do to get your words into shape. You might have to engage with a translator if your book is to be published in other languages, which throws up its own problems. As one I spoke to so vividly brought to life: “Finnegans Wake is a novel so linguistically challenging that the French version took nearly 30 years to complete, while the Japanese edition required three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad.”

If your book is non-fiction, you really should get yourself an index. These “magical shortcuts”, as Sam Leith calls them, are for the real literary aficionado, a secret sub-world of entries, sub-entries, and hidden jokes. From index entries such as those in Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (“Philip, Prince, enjoys Flying Saucer Review; praised by extra-terrestrials”), to “sinus problems”, “rent boy story in News of the World” and “sunburnt in Valencia” in Shaun Ryder’s memoir Twisting My Melon, the index may reveal where an author’s real concerns lie. Don’t have time to read the book? Read the index.

Finally, your manuscript has completed its metamorphosis into published book. It’s a time for relief and celebration tinged, in my experience, with trepidation. Print is permanent. It’s what all writers hope for their words. It’s also where it becomes too late to make any further changes. Print removes the feeling that if you could just go back to your laptop and make one last change, you’d have perfection.

All that’s left is to acknowledge in your acknowledgements that “all mistakes are my own”. And mean it. After all, a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Rebecca Lee’s How Words Get Good (Profile Books, £14.99) is out on Thursday March 17

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