An Hour with Florence Noiville

Our first Masterclass. With Florence Noiville. An author. An editor of foreign fiction for Le Monde des Livres. A journalist.

On my way, I notice the huge hoarding with the latest Amul advertisement. It’s in many shades of black, blue and grey. The Amul girl is standing in an offensive (or is it defensive?) stance, holding a pencil and a paintbrush, in front of a terrified looking Eiffel Tower. The tagline in black and red, ‘PARIS IS REELING!’

I think again. Florence Noiville. A French journalist working in Paris. And Paris is reeling. And she will be talking to us. ‘Should be quite a class!’ I say quietly to myself.

Saturday morning. At Seagull Books (and in the Seagull context—we know it by now!) the class actually means an informal chat with our guest. As expected, the main and recurrent topic of discussion happens to be the recent attack on (and killings in) the office of French weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. Florence talks about the horror of reading the running strips of breaking news on television. Then, about her perspective on many related issues—a journalist’s responsibility (or a writer’s/artist’s), especially in a volatile, zealously sensitive (for all the wrong reasons!) and aggressive world of today, as well as, freedom of speech and expression, with all its dilemmas and delusions. I think about a journalist’s job. Simply put, it is to question, analyse/criticise and present the truth. A political cartoonist does the same with caricature and satire. I ask myself (and this is not the first time!)—Is it at all possible to critique without hurting someone or the other? In the room, the conversation is going in the same direction. What does a journalist/artist (or anyone of the so-called free world) do when counter-criticism is replaced by guns?

The discussion veers towards the many ironies of France—historical, political, social, and how everything may be (sometimes are) related to religion. Florence speaks candidly about curious contradictions still prevalent in France, in its treatment of minorities/the ‘others’. We talk about some of our own—India and her curiousness-es, especially recently. Florence recalls her grandparents in the 1920s, and how different communities (practising different religions) managed to live in harmony. Then she fast-forwards to 2014/15 and wonders aloud, ‘Are we going backwards?’ (Clearly a rhetorical question—both for France and India!) I am drawn to the photograph hanging on the balcony. A fraction of the sky from the crater created by tall buildings. Through the oculus, that’s all the sky you are allowed to see in 2014/15. The sky must have been vaster in the 1920s!

We now talk about books. The potential role of books in bringing about essential change in human beings; the significance of books (particularly foreign/translated works, Florence adds) in a global and multicultural milieu, at least in demystifying the ‘other’, and perhaps in instilling tolerance. Books that give us a glimpse of what has been and what could be. History is supposed to teach humility, she says. But everyone seems to dismiss theirs as past and disconnected, as if there has only been a movement towards enlightenment.

She also talks about her books—novels—one on mental illness, and the other about a socially (and/or morally?) unacceptable love story. Both tabooed topics in France, she explains to our surprise.

Our first Masterclass. Florence Noiville is blatantly honest, a person of reason, and a pleasure to talk to, and she has a very hectic schedule. So, ends the ‘class’.

‘Sure was quite a class!’ I say to myself, out loud.

Smita Abraham

Honing the House Style

The Editing course at the Seagull School has completed its fifth week now, with us students learning our share of editing, going through back-to-back lessons in punctuation, grammar and styles, sharpening the blunt edges of memories of the lessons learnt in school. But this time, there is neither the dread nor the boredom of school!

When I had signed up for the course, I was, frankly, a bit nervous about taking lessons from professionals—who are usually grumpy and ‘serious’ looking. However, that nervousness did not even take an hour to vanish, once I got to interact with the instructors, Sunandini, Sohini and Bishan. Their easy way of addressing make the classes more of a friendly chat session. That, combined with the environment of the school (not to forget the wonderful coffee at the breaks), makes up the best possible ‘class’ one would like to attend!

Moving swiftly from joint classes on publishing, sales and marketing, and the ‘structure’ of a book, we separated into our respective specializations, Editing and Designing. Then started the ‘real’ classes . . . But don’t think I am trying to sound morbid! It was just the opposite of that. Brushing up on the long-forgotten rules of punctuation, with the addition of newer concepts (like the Oxford comma, not at all as awe-inspiringly difficult as it sounds) and the complicated rules of grammar (oh the horrid verbs and tenses!), was actually quite fun, and believe it or not, I waited (and still do) to come to class each day and tackle language!

The fifth week introduced us to a new term—House Style—a term I have never heard before in my life (a rather short span till now). What it really means is a particular style of editing, that a publishing house follows, while making ‘books’ out of manuscripts. As I came to know further, each house has its own style manual and each one is, in some way or the other, different from other house styles. This gave me an idea as to what that hardback light-blue book named The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), volumes of which were kept in a neat row, was! It was the style Seagull followed while editing all the manuscripts that came their way, and the book gave precise pointers on each sections of editing. No wonder I had not understood the head and tail of it when I had first opened it three weeks back!

The ‘elements’ of House Style, as they are known, are mainly these: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, italicization, hyphenation, style of writing numbers, references and pagesetting. We were taken step by step through the major issues, first by Bishan and then by Sohini, and what I came to know literally changed many of my earlier deepset conventions of writing. Of course some were a bit difficult to digest at first, and some downright confusing! I mean, why should only prehistoric cultural periods be capitalized and not modern periods? Or, why should religious texts be capitalized but not italicized?! But again, the immense patience and humour of our two instructors to help us get these into our heads! Again in case of numbers, we learnt the style that Seagull uses to represent numbers from 0 to 9 and 10 onwards. It was a real pleasure for both parties when Sohini’s ‘Is there any question?’ did not bring up any further doubts from us! Of course these styles vary from house to house, but the basic idea was firmly set into our heads. These lessons, topped with a full exercise session on the third day made sure that we were more or less adept in the various elements of the House Style.

Photograph by Dhritish Gupta
Photograph by Dhritish Gupta

One statement by both Bishan and Sohini struck me, and has stuck to my mind since then. They said, as editors, we needed to ensure that our readers enjoy a reading uninterrupted by visual distractions or confusions or any sort of obscurity. ‘Use your heads,’ they said, ‘and be consistent.’ This last bit of advice, I believe, is the one most necessary to become a good editor. Looking forward to many more of these interesting lessons . . . Oh Time! Please run slow!

Dhritish Gupta

The Madness of English

Mad, Mad English!

English as we all know can get a little crazy.

It has a knack of making us all a little angry.

Perhaps we’ll get a bit pissed.

Yes, get quite drunk and maybe throw a little fit.

This could definitely bomb

Either fail or take off with aplomb

Presently, it has my tongue in a twist.

No rhymes right now. Maybe soon, in a little bit.

Over the years, we have come to understand the different aspects of English. Little did we know that English would turn around and baffle us once more! Enough with the rhymes then!

Over the last few weeks, one could say that everything we thought we knew about English has been done away with and built up again, differently. I cannot count the days when I’ve gone home and tried to wrap my head around what I thought I knew and what I had just learnt.

The constant reminders about editing being based solely on the concept of ‘context’ went above my head till last Friday when we were introduced to the differences in British and American English. The British, of course, invented the language—so I’d like to believe their version is more my cup of tea. No pun intended. Or maybe just a little.

One could say that it was an eye-opener. It can only be described as feeling a little cheated at the realization that I had spent the last 20 years of my life merely scratching the surface of this iceberg called English.

We all suffer under the illusion that we are masters of the language we speak. But I pity the Oxford dictionary, for every year they are compelled to add words like selfie, duck-face, humblebrag and what not.

The beauty therefore of this language is its flexibility and the fact that the differences in the spellings of the same words are responsible for creating an identity for British and American English.

The magic of English lies also in its almost fluid adaptability as it traverses through the archaic to the modern. Even when it comes to American or British, the language has lived through and facilitated change in usage and, also, the way it is read world over.

Here, we are being taught various aspects of this difference. Most of our lives, we believed that we were being taught in British English—given India’s colonial past. Little did we know that everything we have learnt of the language was a mix of both British and American styles.

Till these differences were exposed in class last week, I don’t think any of us realized the extent of how differently similar the two were. Yes, differently similar.

It definitely cleared a lot of words that we find ourselves constantly mixing up. American English, we learnt, is sometimes phonetic. While British . . . well, is probably the original. The differences are as subtle as the way we even write AM and PM!

Halfway through that class, we were no different from a bunch of 10-year-olds being made to understand quantum physics in its extreme theories of the black hole information paradox. Well, okay—perhaps it wasn’t so bad but thoroughly confused as we were, it cleared a lot of things up.

Dubbed ‘Chips vs Fries’, the most important lesson we’ve learnt is to always look at the content of the text before we turn the page into a battlefield of words and red ink.

To cite a lovely example—theoretically, baseball and cricket aren’t very different from each other. A ball is thrown, a bat is swung, a ground is cleared and a run is scored. But in practice . . .

Caroline Kuruvinakunnel

Masterclass with Ralph Möllers

At the end of the day, getting books produced is not enough; then, watching them sit in a warehouse or on the shelves would be satisfying. The job is not done until the books are in the hands of the readers and in today’s Kindle and iBooks world, their devices too. Like any other sector, globalisation and technology has successfully caught up with and reformed the way publishers get books to readers. This does not however mean traditional marketing and distribution channels have become obsolete but, rather, implies that there are more constantly being thrown in the mix. These were some of the things the session with Ralph Möllers intended to highlight.

If you’re now wondering if the session was on marketing, then yes . . . at least so we thought. It appears those who have been constantly exposed to the fuss about marketing are now quite bored with the topic. So if you’ve had enough of the ‘why’ and ‘mix’ of marketing, then you’re in luck, I don’t believe in preaching to the choir either. The session turned out to be more than marketing in its pure sense, I had a pleasant time learning about online and multimedia platforms for books. This write-up is only intended to highlight a few of the things I personally found interesting and memorable.

One of my favourite takeaways from the session was when he mentioned he works with his wife in his companies and described her as ‘the limiter of stupid ideas’ in his professional and personal life. It’s indicative of the fact that in the world of publishing, sometimes when you have a passion for the kinds of books you produce—whether it is educating kids through an entertaining medium, preserving knowledge and history, giving people of a different language an opportunity to enjoy a great story, etc.—you might get carried away. It is however important to pay attention to the business aspect as well; even non-profits have to survive.

We are all aware of how quickly there’s a new technology or a new feature for additional capability in existing technologies. Ralph mentioned that by the time he becomes conversant with the current technology, the world introduces and moves on to the next one. Like most people, he believes that younger people are more abreast with these changes. ‎After listening to his presentation ‎and seeing his demonstrations on how to use some of the online platforms he’s involved in running, I don’t think I’m one of those people anymore. Ralph gives himself credit for at least trying to keep up with technology unlike most people his age who give up; I however give him credit for successfully knowing how much he does. At this point, he’s probably more technologically savvy than I (‘the younger one’) am. I would purchase a book from the app store, download and just read it in my iBooks app. Ralph can purchase a book, download, unlock and convert it to a normal ePub format so that he can import into an independent app (not iBooks or Kindle) where he can read it (without being tracked).

Tracking was another interesting ‎topic we discussed. Turns out online stores can track more than what books you looked at or bought and which ones you may also be interested in. Does seeing adverts on the sides of your screen which tie into the content of your email or searches make you raise a brow? If yes, well, you might get wide-eyed. Through apps, your activities on books you’ve bought can be tracked. As readers, you and I might find this a little creepy but on the flip side, as publishers, such data is a source of credible feedback, say, at what point did readers abandon a book?

On the multimedia front, Ralph shared with us an online marketing tool that he has developed: Book2Look. It is a platform where publishers, bookstores, bloggers can advertise their books. Flipintu, I found very interesting, probably because of the unique feature that accommodates groups such as a class or a book club. The group can read, highlight, post comments and have discussions on this platform.

Ultimately, looking at the things I found interesting from the session, I’ve come to realise that sometimes it’s not the things we didn’t know, it’s the things we weren’t aware of about the things we knew.

P.S. I’m currently sifting through my mind wondering which of my people would be the best limiter of stupid ideas J

Habibah Kike Kamaluddeen

Punctuation saves lives!

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Move aside, old grammar joke. That’s not what I meant.

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This is Maria Fedorovna who, if stories on the Internet are to be believed, saved a man’s life by using a comma. Literally.

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 to 1894—an unsympathetic and autocratic ruler. Maria, on the other hand, was known for her generous nature. The famous incident occurred when the tsar had signed an order that condemned a man, an alleged traitor, to life in exile. Against the man’s name was written ‘Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia’. Maria scratched out the comma and re-inserted it so that the line read, ‘Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia’. The man was set free.

Now, although there is no historically accurate source to vouch for this story, it’s a neat little anecdote that proves just how important punctuation can be. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to scratch our eyeballs out when we have to punctuate a long sentence full of clauses and lists. And this, in turn, leads some of us to go on a rant about who really cares where commas and hyphens go. As long as the meaning is clear, isn’t that all that matters?

Well, yes.

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We could just go on writing without worrying about punctuation because commas are so annoying and who cares about the Oxford comma why are editors still debating about that but trying to read words written no matter how artfully without punctuation will fail to make any sense and reading in itself will become such a chore that we may have to resort to a cheat sheet to decode what the writer is trying to say and the cheat sheet will consist of punctuations duh

I don’t know about you, but I certainly went blue in the face reading that. I don’t know what it is that makes some people use punctuation with gleeful abandon, while others treat it like some form of anthrax. But here’s the thing, assuming that we are writing to communicate with another person, rather than simply to please ourselves, then our paramount concern must be whether the reader will understand the writer’s intention. And punctuation is how we ensure (or try to) that the intention is conveyed. Punctuation ensures that our words mean to the reader what they mean to us. We are essentially doing on paper what we do with our voices.

And yet, there was a time when punctuation did not exist. The earliest written text had no punctuation. The orator would read aloud to people, pausing and deciphering text as he read. We seem to have come a full circle now. Increasingly, in modern communication, be it social media or texts, punctuation is becoming more and more obsolete. It may be because of the need to make written communication more similar to spoken conversation (I’m saving that for a separate rant) or because it’s just the current fashion. There’s also the interesting development of how punctuations are being repurposed to signify various emotions. The period, one of the first punctuations to enter written text, now signifies anger when you use it while texting.

George texts his girlfriend:

I know we were supposed to go out for our anniversary, but wouldn’t it be more romantic to stay in instead?

His girlfriend replies:

We could do that.

George needs to prepare for an evening of hostile stares.

Then there’s the ellipsis which can now be used to convey a whole range of different emotions from scepticism to anger to unfinished dialogue.

George texts his girlfriend again:

Are you mad?

His girlfriend replies:


George should prepare for a fight.

Take Tumblr for example. Anyone who’s ever been on that site will immediately notice their distinctly unique language.

Of course, with written communication constantly evolving, this can be a debate about all formal conventions and standardization of language being obsolete. But let’s not get into that.

Punctuations are supposed to imply in words what we would in speech. But speech, too, more often than not, fails to convey our true meaning to the listener. Which reminded me of Victor Borge. For those of you who haven’t had the joy of knowing this man, Victor Borge was a Danish musician and comedian. His sophisticated brand of stand-up included a famous skit called Phonetic Punctuation. ‘When we write, we use punctuation marks in order to underline the meaning of our sentences,’ he said. ‘But we do not have that support when we speak,’ and so, he created different sounds for different punctuation marks to ensure that our intended meaning is made indisputably clear.

So which is it? Are punctuations essential or is language just fine without those annoying squiggles? I’d say both. They serve a purpose, both in formal text as well as in social media and IMs or texts. And who knows, maybe someday in the unforeseeable future, humans will develop a language that will do away with the mess of punctuations, syntax or grammar, just like some other unloved punctuations went extinct.

Punctuation marks may be running their course and we, at this point, may not be able to do anything to save them from their sorry fate. So as a small compensation, I vote these punctuation marks stage a dramatic return!

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My favourite? The Interrobang!

What‽ You haven’t heard of the interrobang‽

Neha Potdar

Judge a Book by its Cover, the Seagull Way

‘Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover’ would seem like any other usual quote a person would come across often. However, one of the more interesting revelations came when I began my journey at Seagull and peered at the cover designs to assess a book, causing constant debates in my head all along. This quotation, usually more conspicuous to a larger audience, seemed like an anomaly all of a sudden in the Seagull setting. To end this debate as a matter of fact, we can all say the effect of the quotation is to not eventually give a verdict on the book but to incite interest in the reader from the abstract portrayal. However, for a second thought it does stir some perplexity in a rookie mind.

My initial days in retrospect were precisely as I had expected them to be: exciting, informative and intriguing. The sessions plunged into discussing the mode of business in the publishing industry, then to different operational models and then the organizational set-up of a publisher. The roles of a publisher, various types of editors, designer and a typesetter in a publishing house didn’t seem like any other corporate setting but rather much more collaborative and social.

The sentiments of an author, editor and a publisher require a much more sensitive heart to fathom, since they have existed to set the paradigms of the publishing industry. These paradigms, much more difficult to write down, encompass issues like copyright, royalty agreements, distribution structures, translation rights, etc. These issues have witnessed shifts in their paradigms in the last couple of decades only for a story to be told and understood, again, for us to acquaint ourselves with the past of the existing scenario.

One of the more interesting aspects of the orientation days was the story of the manuscript, from an author to the readers’ hand. Since it wasn’t as bumpy as my travel every day from home to school turned out to be, I was just more inquisitive to know the different paths a manuscript could tread on. My travel options could range from hailing a cab (in case of a time rush), walking to this other main road and catching a bus or taking an auto-rickshaw with a switchover on the way or just a good forty minute walk, given I’m in good mood and good health. On the other hand, a manuscript could be procured from a struggling writer waiting to get a shot for his work to be published, or find an author to commission and get the desired opinions on a particular subject. It could also be that the publisher has to deal with a time-taking, introspective, pensive writer which could possibly send the publisher into the autumn of his life, but again who doesn’t want to enlist a good title in their catalogue. Another expedition could be an unfinished work of an author handed over to be co-written and finished, to be brought to life for the larger good.

Truth be told, there is still a lot to learn and explore and neither can I record the humongous web of information out there in this candid style.

Tanay Jain