Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Trust Teenage Prize

The culmination of, for me, eight months reading, arguing, advocating - in a word, judging - came this week when the winner of the Booktrust Teenage  Prize was announced. This was Gregory Hughes' début novel Unhooking the Moon (Quercus).

Unfortunately for us, Gregory was in Canada at the time of the announcement but his prize was collected for him by Roisin Heycock, the editor of this unusual book. Apparently he wrote it in Iceland in eight months in "a room so small he could touch both ends ... while standing in the middle."

Hughes is English but has spent a lot of time in Canada, where the book begins. It's a "road movie" of a novel in which reliable older brother Bob, accompanies his little sister, "The Rat," on a quest to New York to find their uncle, after their father's sudden death.

They get caught up in petty crime, a virtual kidnap, a paedophile ring and the life of a successful rapper. The book stands or falls through the character of the Rat (real name Marie-Claire) and here Hughes treads a fine line very delicately. Is she an annoying brat or a brilliant, unusual, credible eccentric? Definitely the latter but it's a close thing.

It was a fresh voice on a very varied shortlist encompassing quasi-zombies, centaurs, brutal racism, a pacifist's dilemma and a "girly" book that wasn't remotely pink. And that was just the shortlist. Our longlist also featured some wonderful books, like Marie-Louise Jensen's Daughter of Fire and Ice, Keren David's When I was Joe, Tamsyn Murray's My So-called Afterlife and Mary Hooper's Fallen Grace.

The judging process was fascinating. Five of us: myself, Tony Bradman (Chair), librarian Barbara Band, journalist Barbara Ellen and impressive teenager Claudia Freemantle, faced up to the challenge of reading 120 books submitted by their publishers. At our shortlisting meeting (which was in my opinion far and away the hardest one), we sorted this monumental quantity of YA reading into three piles: Yes, No and Maybe.

The No pile was for unanimous negative response from all five judges. If one of us loved it, it was put in Maybes. It is not breaking any confidences to say that Unhooking the Moon went straight into the Yes pile from the beginning.

Once we had our shortlist - agonising for me because I should have liked our longlist to be our shortlist, if you see what I mean, but we HAD to stop at six - we had to re-read them and were joined in this by four more teenagers, whose ideas I certainly had not predicted. But I must say, if these are our future, the country is in very safe hands. Here's a photo of them with the shortlisted authors who could be present, taken by the official Booktrust photographer:

Claudia is one the far right and the teenager third from left is not a judge but a writer: Isabel Adomakoh Young is half of Zizou Corder, whose Halo was on the shortlist.

As well as lacking the winner, we also missed Marcus Sedgwick, who was on a plane to Switzerland. His Revolver was a shortlisted title. Charlie Higson (The Enemy) is 4th from right, next to Sarra Manning (Nobody's Girl) and Louisa Young (the other half of Zizou Corder). Between Isabel and Louisa is Jason Wallace, another début author with Out of Shadows.

It was a day of celebration but now I have a word of rebuke and it is for the editors of a large proportion of the 120 books we read. This was remarked on by our teenage judges in particular so is not the embittered rant of an older generation stickler! Here, at random, are some of the things I found in published, not proof, copies:

"clashing symbols;" an address printed on the cover different from the one inside the book, "slithers of ice;" a country's Latin motto incorrectly translated; "sight" for "site;" "I sunk into a chair;" "pour over their relationship;" "the baby laid in her buggy" and a definition of "déjà vu" so bizarre that one can only assume neither the writer nor editor knew what it means.

Too numerous to mention were the instances of the "lay" for "lie" confusion and the use of "I" as an object as in, for example "He looked at X and I." And that was just the grammar and vocabulary!

Claire Armitstead, the Literary Editor of the Guardian, had some harsh words for editors recently when judging their First Novel Award and she was talking about content rather than syntax or word-use. Sadly, that was also evident in the books I read. I can honestly say there were some, including by very well-known names, that should not have been published, let alone submitted for an award.

No names, no pack drill but why is this happening? And why does no-one understand that "Wherefore art thou Romeo?' does NOT mean "where are you, Romeo?" but "WHY are you Romeo?" (If Shakespeare had meant "where" he would have said it and added another syllable in the line so as not to bitch the rhythm. That is the speech that contains "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" after all).

Is it that editors don't go on courses any more? Or that proof readers are less capable than they used to be? I can't believe that. Answers, please, in Comments.


karen ball said...

Where to begin, Mary? These days, very few publishing houses have dedicated copyediting departments and copyediting is a very specific skill set. There are hundreds of highly skilled freelance copyeditors out there, whose work leaves me in awe. I fear part of the issue is that publishing houses don't recognise how important and unique this skill set is. I've been working as an editor for nearly 20 years, but if someone flippantly asks me to copyedit something I quite strictly point out, 'I'm not a copyeditor.' This isn't me pulling rank, rather not wishing to mislead superiors into believing I can do something at I, well, can't. With the financial screws being tightened, are junior in-house staff being asked to do a job that they haven't been trained in?

Flossie said...

I wonder how many books actually get a proper proof-read nowadays - or have substantial changes made "post-proofing". Those examples make me wince.


The hypercorrection of anything that has 'me' in it to 'I' makes me (I! makes I!) wince. Also the addition of 'm' to 'who' to make it sound spooky / weird, as in 'whomsoever reads this book', as seen on the back of something recently. Don't they know it's an oblique case! (seethes, retires to study with Kennedy's Latin Grammar). Weirdly enough, the cover of Halo - not the book itself - made me cringe too: the soldiers are wearing Roman costume - and the title, 'Halo', has a 'theta' instead of an 'o', which would make it 'Halth'. It's the same in the name, which would, in Greek letters, read Zithu Cthrder. Grrrrr! And this is a book that has the Greek alphabet in the back. Any child looking up a theta will be enormously confused.


Actually, in Greek letters, the cover of Halo would read 'EALTH'. Maybe it's a coded message... ealth and safety... who knows...

Mary Hoffman said...

Philip, that's hilarious! But don't let those designery foolishnesses put you off Halo - it's a great book.

Another thing I hate is "-eth" tacked on to verb stems, regardless of person, to make something sound "olde-worlde"!

Can I adopt you?

Miriam Halahmy said...

But grammar aside, this is a great post on a wonderful event. I'm full of admiration for anyone who can read and then make a judgement about such a huge pile of books. I do hope you will now have rest (?!?) and at least a chance to get on with your own writing. It was a lovely event and thanks again for the invite.

Anonymous said...

Before this gets too cute, I have the theory that with each generation we lose something. But we also gain something new and worth having. I suspect that not only do people have fewer skills in the language department, but those who employ them no longer know that they need to check these skills.
For instance, I'm beginning to suspect that in Sweden employees tick a box saying they 'know/speak English'. That's then considered enough to let the person do almost anything which requires language skills they simply do not possess. And neither they nor their employer realise this.
And then the next generation...
(Enough from I.)


Dear Mary,

Yes, of course you can adopt me. More than happy.

Just to reiterate: I have no problem with Halo, which I in fact reviewed for the Lit Rev rather nicely. It's the cover. It - and many other - children's book covers often seem to get things wrong. I know it's the market, and I know they spend ages deliberating, but I do think there should be some consistency - particularly if there is a Greek alphabet in the back of the book.

Nayuleska said...

It sounds like an interesting event to be a part of :) Congrats to Gregory.

Tamsyn Murray said...

I don't have any answers - I'm too busy scouring MSCA for mistakes!

The awards were fab, had a lovely time and was even glad not to be nibbling my nails when the ceremony proper began.

I picked up a copy of Halo as my take-home gift and will try not to let the cover put me off :)

Marjorie said...

I suspect that part of the problem is that an awful laot of people , inluding those who are now of an age to be fairly senior in the careers don'r know what is or isn't corect, becaus they were never taught.

I am now in my late 30s. I was taught next to nothing about english grammar. I was taught a little spelling, but that was because we had a teacher who was very close to retirement and chose to continue to teach what she felt was appropriate (and which she knew worked!) ergardless of the National Curriculum. The same teacher taught us some very basic grammar, but after that, nothing. For at least part of my secondary schooling I believe that even in English spelling and grammar accounting for little if any of the grades we got for exams or coursework.

Most of what I know I have learned from reading a lot and learning what looks right, from learning grammar in relation to French and German, and to some extent from trying to learn it because I feel ignorant not knowing. I am much better now, but I am never entirely confident, and in most cases, while I know whether or not something is correct, I would struggle to explain why. I simply don't have the foundation of knowledge.

My job involves a lot of dictation. I find that older secretaries will generally put in the correct punctuation etc automatically. Anyone my age or younger can't , because they don't know what is correct. Judging by the (business)letters I recieve, this is very common. (I have yet to correct and return anyone's letter, but I have come close at times...)
Of course it's reasonable to expect a professional editor to do better as it is part of the job, but if you don't know that you are rong, how to you set about getting it right?

adele said...

What Marjorie said! They do not know what's correct because no one has ever taught them. Parsing sentences stopped years ago, right? I am sounding very old-fogeyish but those kinds of things drive me bonkers!!

Anne said...

This depresses me. That a post about some terrific teen books turns into a Daily Mailish moan about grammar and the slipping of standards. It was these very things that persuaded me that I could never be a writer. It was as though all those knew the dos and donts of grammar etc form a club that the rest of us are kept out of. Yes, it's upsetting when are mistakes but don't use a time like this - a celebration - to build the wall of 'grammar and standards'as a way to exclude people from the job of telling a story with passion and honesty.

Anne said...

And ignore the mistakes in my post, please!

Barbara Band said...

But it wasn't just spelling and grammatical errors, there were appalling mistakes with continuity and misinformation. For example, characters who had left the scene but then in the next paragraph were speaking and someone visiting the British Library where they browsed the shelves to find a book!

Besides, spelling and grammatical errors jar the reading experience; they force you to stop in mid-flow which can be quite frustrating. And it wasn't just us "older" judges that picked up on the bad editing, the younger judges remarked on it too.

Mary Hoffman said...

Anne, no-one is trying to stop anyone telling a story with passion and honesty.

(And don't you dare lump me in with the Daily Mail! I wouldn't touch the right-wing, racist rag or its website!)

We talked a lot about the poor standard of editing in the judges' meetings but Tony Bradman decided, quite rightly, that it should not be mentioned at the ceremony, which was a time of celebration.

So I checked with him and the `Book Trust that my personal blog was the appropriate place to mention it.

There is nothing right-wing or oppressive about suggesting that writers and editors should respect the tools of their trade and be sensitive to language. There is no club - anyone can learn and if writers themselves need help who should provide it if not their editors?

Stroppy Author said...

Quite so, Mary. I work with a lot of writers who have not been equipped by their education to recognise correct grammar every time, but the whole point of editors is to correct such things (along with correcting continuity errors and inconsistent characterisation). I strongly believe writers *should* learn their trade properly, but if they have told a good tale and a publisher likes it, it must be edited to a high standard. It's not just being pernickety or a language fascist. Don't forget that many people reading our books don't have English as their first language, and it is much harder for them if the books are not correctly written!

Jane Smith said...

Anne, there is SO much more to editing than just correcting spelling and grammar: and it's not a question of trying to exclude anyone, it's a matter of trying to make books the best they can be. If books are published which are full of problems, everyone loses: the writer and the publisher, because there are bound to be people like me and like Mary who notice these issues, and are deterred from buying books from that writer again; and the reader, who ends up with a substandard book in their hands which will affect their reading of it, even if they're not fully aware of what made them uncomfortable with the book in question.

Gillian Philip said...

Yes, the story is the thing, and there is no exclusive 'club', but there's no excuse for silly mistakes in a finished and polished book.

Of course perfect English isn't a prerequisite, but a writer should learn the skills of his or her trade just as anyone should - and so should an editor, who shouldn't let needless errors slip through.

Besides, getting it right shows respect for the reader. As Barbara said, it interferes with the story when things are wrong or misspelt or sloppy... so it's back to the story being the thing, isn't it?

Nicola Morgan said...

The fact that I don't know how to use the tools of engineering, means that I'm not allowed to design a tall building. That doesn't mean there's some kind of clique of builders stopping me: it means my building would be rubbish.

Tools give us power. Grammar contains the tools that allow us to build strong and powerful language. Without those tools, a person's writing, however much he might wish it to be fabulously strong and beautiful, will actually be weak and wobbly, like my building. Writers should celebrate good language and sometimes that involves being negative about weaker language. And, of course, a little mistake means nothing in the grand scheme of things, like one bolt in the Eiffel Tower. But too many wonky bolts and I'd rather not climb that tower.

So, Mary, I think we do sometimes have to stand up and say these things and your blog seems like a very good place to do it.

Stuart Goodall said...

I late comment on the tail-end (get the hyphen!) of the sloppy copy-editing debate. These skills ARE specific skills, and cannot be left to somebody who thinks he or she can 'have a go'. But it's noticeable - speaking as a freelance - how our skills are being required less and less. That makes me suspicious. And it's easy to see the results: if proofreading's your thing, then textural errors jump out at you thick and fast, in modern life. Uber-sloppiness has its prime source in WWW activity, which is proving a place of extremes. Correct me if I'm wrong.