Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Now the great work is ended

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I am pleased to say that the manuscript of, and photographs for, The Lost Railway; the Midlands is now with the publishers. But it turned into something of a marathon at the end.

Finding time to write is a perennial problem – ask any author. In my case, I found that when I was self-employed, there would always be domestic tasks, various other freelance jobs cropping up with shorter deadlines, taking my photographs out to shows and exhibitions, getting out on the ground actually taking new photographs, and development work on the business generally. Then there was the burglary, which set me back about two or three months and totally derailed my plans to offer photographs of newsworthy events promptly to the railway press.

After Christmas, I decided that I needed to shelve the whole self-employment plan, and start looking for full-time work again. That meant signing on as unemployed; and the DWP nowadays are rather more pro-active over their expectations of those signing on for benefits. (Not, you understand, that I got much in the way of benefits, having spent more than a year as self-employed.) Then I actually got employment; and from July onwards I’ve been working not only full-time, but also occasionally doing overtime. All these things ate into writing time.

About two months from the deadline, I was concerned that I had only written about half of what I had originally planned. I looked at my outline, and decided to write chapter five before chapter four; if I ran out of time, I reasoned, I could re-name it, and it would still fit the outline of the whole work. Then I looked at my contract again, and found that I’d done pretty much the requisite number of words and had provided probably twice as many photographs as they’d asked for. (And that was with three chapters still unwritten!) But the last chapter remained unstarted as August began; so with a maximum effort and taking every opportunity to get some work on the book done, I set to and finished the last chapter on Bank Holiday Monday. With the agreement of my editor, I then set about finishing the photographs, and got that done the following Sunday night.

When I sent up the sample chapter earlier in the year, comments on the sample pictures came back from the reprographics guys, remarking that I’d done very high-resolution scans (2820 dpi) and that some of them were “a bit flat”. I’d sent up some samples because they normally find that domestic scanners aren’t high enough quality to deliver the sort of images suitable for publication; and although my negative scanner isn’t exactly domestic kit (it certainly cost more than the £80 you see such scanners offered for in the Sunday newspapers), it must have been something of an unknown quantity for the publishers. So when they commented on the resolution I’d achieved, I naturally assumed that this didn’t represent a problem; instead, I concentrated on getting good, contrasty images prepared. After all, all the films from this period were developed at home; and they were taken under a range of weather conditions; often under the flat lighting of an overcast sky, and on one occasion (Nottingham) under a threatening sky that turned into pouring rain. Because the weather I was encountering was so frequently bad, I increasingly switched to using Ilford HP4, a 400 ASA film that was noted for its grainyness. Only in later years did I start using HP5, which had a finer grain structure, and using developers intended to further reduce visible grain.

But  two things happened when I’d finished the pictures. The first was that Cathy looked at them, and said “They’re a bit small, aren’t they?” I told her how I’d scanned them; and then she explained, in words of one syllable, the relationship between scanning resolution and image size. A picture scanned at 2820 dpi, although very highly detailed, is not going to produce an image anywhere near the size the publishers were looking for (roughly A4 sized). And then I looked at the submission guidelines; which showed me that I’d done all the pictures – well, wrong.

There was nothing for it; I’d have to re-scan all the pictures. Following the instructions to the letter, and using professional resizing software, I was able to achieve the required standard (hopefully!). And it took me a solid week of scanning; so much so that by the end of the following weekend, I was getting sick of the sight of negatives, and I was getting distinctively concerned over the risk of developing a DVT through being sat in front of a screen for a sustained period of 48 hours…

But the job was finished, and packaged up (two DVD-ROMs for the pictures and a CD-ROM for the scripts), a cover letter and some technical notes on the pictures written and printed out, and a reasonably clean jiffy bag found. Then I had to get the lot in the post.

If you’ve never been to Redditch, where I’m working at the moment, you’ll understand that that is an exercise in itself. Redditch is one of the post-war new towns, and it was built with car ownership in mind. Everywhere is very separated from everywhere else, and vehicles and pedestrians are well segregated, to he extent that places a few minutes apart by car may take anything up to thirty minutes to reach on foot. Individual districts have shopping centres which are away from the main routes, so I had to do some researching to even locate a post office. But eventually I found the nearest one (five minutes each way by car, twenty minutes on foot), and I was able to get away one lunchtime and finally commit the package to Her Majesty’s mails.

So now it’s down to my editor to review what I’ve written; and the pictures will have to go to the publishers’ own repro house to be re-balanced, and cropped, and have some of the worst blemishes spotted. I anticipate a discussion over reducing the scope and omitting some of the photographs (made slightly more difficult by the fact that I’m not working in Birmingham – a handy meeting place for my editor and me – and now look unlikely to be moving with the rest of the Law Society to the city in a few weeks’ time).

And there is the matter of promotion. I have to do a questionnaire which will ask about the sort of areas where the book can be promoted beyond the usual railway press. Given the number of locations, that could mean a fair amount of interest from across the region. And then there’s the forthcoming FORMAT festival of photography in Derby next year. The theme for their 2013 festival is “the factory”, so given that a large part of the book covers the Derby loco and carriage & wagon works, there could be the potential for some exposure connected with the festival.

But nothing changes this fact: my book has gone to the publisher. There’s a lot of people who write for years and never get the opportunity to see their material in print; so I have to consider myself very lucky indeed.

UPDATE: And now it seems that I’ve done too much and submitted too many pictures; so I’ll have to spend some time deciding what can be usefully excised – either because they duplicate other views, or because they just aren’t very exciting – and then re-working the text to take account of this change. Hopefully, that won’t shorten the text too much; the pictures that can come out are most likely the ones where I’ve had the least to say on the content, whilst the background text should say the same, or possibly even get a bit longer as I pull in the odd bit of text from excised pictures. I’ve always worked on the basis of it being better to put too much into a piece rather than not enough; too much can be cut down easily, but writing new stuff can look like too much padding if you’re not careful.

It’s always a hard trick to master. The British science fiction hack writer, Lionel Fanthorpe (some UK readers may remember him as the eccentric dog-collared presenter of Fortean TV on Channel 4 back in the late 1990s), used to churn out cheap novels by the dozen back in the 1950s and 1960s, and he was tied very much to the demands of the production process; if he overshot his page count, the publisher would cut the text short, whether the story was finished or not. He tells the tale that he once got carried away with enthusiasm for this story of interstellar exploration he’d written; his ship of heroes had explored strange new worlds, battled weird and unlikely monsters, and taken tea with wise old alien philosopher-kings, only to be faced with a horribly-beweaponed alien space fleet as the story drew to its close, one ship against thousands. The enormity of their situation had just dawned on his characters when a quick page count revealed that he had to finish the story there and then.

What to do?

Well, he had the captain think quickly and then say to his crew “There’s nothing for it, men – we’ll have to use the Gaz Flaz Heat Ray.” “No! Not the Gaz Flaz Heat Ray! There are some things Mankind was not meant to meddle with!” they all cry out. But then they go to this locker that no-one had mentioned throughout the rest of the novel when they had been in serious peril, and they get out this super-weapon, and in a single shot it destroys the entire alien fleet. They all go home safe and sound to their loved ones, and Lionel Fanthorpe gets to write “The End” at the bottom of that very page.

At least I won’t need to invent a sudden snap ending!

(Thanks to David Langford for passing on the Fanthorpe story…)

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Written by robertday154

September 21, 2012 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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