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Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Subtle Art of Abridgement

I’ve written about this before but it seems that abridging a book is a bit like ghost-writing – a subtle, almost Machiavellian art form, of finding the absolute plot – the core of a book and getting rid of everything that is not utterly essential to the forward movement of that plot.
If your average book is 80,000 words, then an abridger’s job is to squeeze it down to about 10,000 words. So if it’s being done on Radio 4, that means 2,500 words per 15 minutes. I’ve just abridged a book by Hassan Nekker for BBC7 or 4Extra as it’s about to known. It’s called Woman with Birthmark, and is the jolly tale of a man who is found shot. Twice above the belt and twice in the balls. The police can’t find anyone who has a motive for this crime. Although the lover of one of the police team is convinced the shot in the balls means the killer is a woman. A few weeks later another supposedly blameless citizen is found murdered in exactly the same way. Could there be a serial killer on the loose?
Five half hour episodes, each at about 4,500 words.
So how, I hear you yawn, do you abridge a book from 80,000 to 22,500 (4,500 per episode x 5 - each episode is half an hour.) Well firstly I read the book a couple of times. Especially if it’s a crime novel the plot tends to be quite complicated, and if it’s a good crime novel it will be intricate and the solving of the crime will be down to many little links. This makes the job of abridging harder because if you pull a thread, to reduce the word count, it can end up with the whole plot collapsing like a pack of cards. Suppose the plot is advanced because a character earlier in the book remembers something vital, but you’ve already cut the chapter where that character first appears because it’s part of a conversation that doesn’t contribute anything to the plot. That’s what I mean. Do you put in a bit of that earlier conversation and cut something else? If so does that now have a knock on effect? ( It’s considered bad form to add your own words to the abridgement if it can possibly be avoided).
So I go through the book and cut extraneous romance and subplot. I then divide what’s left into five episodes and try to make sure each episode ends with a cliff-hanger moment. Then I start to do the serious cutting. It’s important that you don’t end up with this happens then this then this then this, an endless series of happenings, or great swathes of prose followed by great swathes of dialogue. Light and shade. Remember the tone of the book.
I then manage to get each episode down to 4,500 words as my producer asked. My producer then rings and says each episode read out loud comes in at 27 minutes so could I add another 150 words to each episode. I agree, then put down the phone and curse my producer before going back to the full manuscript and adding in 150 words, very carefully.
Anyway it’s done. It’s a subtle art because I have to keep the essence of the story and I think the essence of the tone too. And in this case, it’s mordant Danish humour and occasional flashes of black wit.
And no it’s not very well paid. Nothing you do on radio usually is. But it’s nice to hear an actor read out the words and know that you decided which words he or she should speak.
Woman with Birthmark is on BBC7 from May 7th

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I'm Pregnant!

. . . and because I'm a celebrity my pregnancy is utterly fascinating and unlike any other book you may ever read about pregnancy and motherhood. Oh for fuck sake! Yet another celebrity is about to use pregnancy as a Marketing Device and write or pretend to write about her fascinating celebrity pregnancy.

I like Denise Van Outen. She seems like a woman's woman. But she's releasing a book in the next few days called Bumpalicious. It's 'much more than a pregnancy diary.' Right. It's a pregnancy diary with pictures! It should fit nicely onto the shelf next to Tess Daly's The Baby Diaries, (she was so emotional she threw cushions!) Myleene Van Klass's My Bump and Me (You will get bigger but don't worry!) and Jools Oliver's Minus Nine to One (Jamie's food made me sick!)

I don't know about the other two but Daly's book didn't sell. The DM with characteristic spite-disguised-as-concern said it might be because of her husband's unfortunate 'sexting' escapade which timed unhappily with publication. But - could the real reason have been that - women didn't want to buy yet another book about a highly paid celebrity blithering on about how 'ordinary' she is and throwing in a few references to farts or piles just to prove it, before skipping off to the Portland (which starts at £10K for a c-section.) You have nothing new to say and you don't say the unusual in an interesting or approachable way. So don't be surprised when despite your publicists paying about £40K to have your book displayed in Waterstones as 'bestseller' to see it in a few months, languishing in the remainders bin. The public are not quite as stupid as you think they are.

What are we going to have next? The Kerry Katona guide to parenting? Probably.

Let Me Spell That For You

So it's The Girl's birthday soon and she's setting about organising her party with the social fervour of Paris Hilton.

'Oliver has to come.'


'Because he's my boyfriend mummy!' Cue rolling eyes.

And that's where it starts. I say she has to invite more than one boy or poor Oliver is going to feel a bit strange. So she suggests Mattheus as well.

'That's Mattheus with a 'z'.' A Z?!!! Where? It reminds me of a line in Sex and the City where a beautiful but particularly dim model introduces herself to Carrie. 'My name is Shaw. The Y is silent.'

And the list of unspellable names went on.

Anders. 'Is is short for Andrew?' 'NO Mummy don't be silly.' (More eye rolling)
Aurania or Oranya. 'Is her surname Otang?' 'No mummy. I'm starting to get cross now.'

Tasmin. 'Do you mean Tamsin?' 'No I mean Tasmin.'
Ocean. 'Does she have a little brother called Puddle?' (Just the eye rolling now.)

I once wrote an article about people giving children slightly odd names to make them stand out. It's not a modern phenomena - the Puritans saddled their children with names like Be-Worthy and Repentance. But now, living in the individualistic culture that we do - many parents get Individual and Unique, confused with Barking Mad. And sometimes giving them a well known name but spelling it oddly - like Kaitlyn. There is an Institute of Naming Children Humanely who look at the business of giving children a bonkers name with stern disapproval. They say that
parents who choose names poorly create misleading labels for their children. These labels can cause their children to be mocked, stereotyped, or ostracized. Mocked, stereotyped, and ostracized children grow to become demented adults.
I'm not saying that any of my daughter's friends' names are demented but a few at least have a No - this is how you spell it vibe. And the IoNCH reckon that we say our names about a million times in a lifetime so the amount of time wasted saying, 'No you spell it K.A.I.T.L.Y.N' - adds up to about FIFTY wasted days which could be spent rollerblading, writing a novel or shopping.)

Maybe I'm just jealous. Perhaps if I were given a slightly mad but glamorous name like Ocean - I wouldn't have been the shy, introverted dweeb I was at school but a mysterious figure of depth. Like an Ocean in fact. Or maybe the way kids do - I'd have been called Wet or Sloppy (I wore glasses) or Sloppy Four Eyes.

Unusual names - what do you think? Do you grow into them or can they stunt you emotionally?