Monday, 22 July 2013

Guest Spot: What an editor can offer, by E.V. Seymour

Congratulations! You’ve written your novel. In the process you’ve expended blood, sweat and tears and enough energy to power the Grid for a month. Your other half has read it and so have your friends. They all declare it a brilliant creation, so much so that you think you should simply send it out to a few chosen agents, sit back and wait for the phone to ring. What could possibly go wrong? Answer: quite a lot.

The problem is one of objectivity. Naturally, those who care about you and want you to succeed are going to pull their punches. (They’ve seen you sweat for the past year or so, remember.) For example, are they honestly going to point out that your main character is a weed; your story has the pace of a sick snail; your police procedure/research is, ahem, ‘unresearched,’ or your climactic scene lacks conflict and tension? Of course not! The more discerning of your mates may say something like: ‘I really loved that scene in the nightclub/in the empty house/in the burning building.’ They might even be bold enough to say: ‘I’m not sure I got why X did Y.’ Even if they pinpoint a problem, they are unlikely to be able to help you fix it. This is where people like me come in.

It’s extremely rare for a novel to tick all the boxes without a little intervention. The mundane truth is that editors encounter the same flaws time and time again. Simply put, my job involves identifying weak areas, flagging these up and offering suggestions for improvement. Weak areas can range from poor spelling and grammar, and repetition of the same word in a paragraph – I’ve twice suggested literacy courses – poor plot structure where the narrative is skimmed and scenes aren’t fully dramatised – a series of company meetings doesn’t constitute a story – to main protagonists who couldn’t cross the road without help, let alone sort out a bad guy. My pet hate is split point of view. I once encountered four different viewpoints in a single paragraph. It was the literary equivalent of watching a doubles match of ping-pong.

My skills don’t simply lie in picking up on these little idiosyncrasies. Somehow, I have to get the message across in the kindest manner possible. I find humour helps and I really endeavour to tailor the report to the individual. Psychology plays an important role. I want to inspire not crush and it’s sometimes hard to tell a writer, who has rightly set such store by his or her work, that certain elements are not working as well as they might. Occasionally, I’ll receive a piece of work and quickly realise that crime fiction isn’t really the genre that best showcases a writer’s talent. Suggesting to a wannabe crime author that their strengths lie in writing historical fiction can be a delicate business. I’ve noticed recently that constructive criticism is especially difficult to get across to clients who have had sparkling careers in other fields. Once or twice, I’ve been on the business end of a writer’s wrath, which is unpleasant for me, but a disaster for him or her. Believe it or not, and in common with a good agent, editors are batting for the writer. As a published writer myself, I know only too well what it’s like to receive rejection. I understand how damaging it can be to one’s self-esteem, how it eats away, if you let it. With this in mind, how can I not be on your side?

Crime fiction is one of the most competitive genres. With the seismic changes in the publishing industry over the past ten years, it’s harder than ever to break in. Cutting to the chase, it can cost in terms of time, mental stamina, occasionally relationships, and money. And here’s the rub.

In times of recession it may seem madness to spend your hard earned cash on professional advice. The alternative is to risk rejection from a dozen or more agents and have your confidence shattered; or self-publish, receive poor sales and rubbish reviews from armchair critics and, erm… have your confidence shattered! Too often writers seek help after the proverbial horse has careered out onto the road and hit a bus. Why put yourself through the misery when, with a little tweaking, rewriting and polishing, you can produce a piece of work of which you can be justly proud?

One final point: there are a lot of rookie outfits offering ‘professional expertise’. It pays to check these out and discover exactly what you are going to get for your money. Find out whether an editorial consultancy has a close relationship with agents. Will that editorial consultancy scout and recommend? In the past two years, I’ve seen three of my ‘babies’ obtain representation. As someone who once used the services of an editorial consultancy a decade ago, I can say, hand on heart, that it was the best decision I ever made. Soon afterwards, I obtained an agent.

E.V. Seymour is the author of five published novels. Under a closely guarded pseudonym, her sixth novel is published in August 2013 with Cutting Edge Press.
Find her novels at:
E.V. Seymour

E.V. Seymour

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Middle bit by Philippa

Writing the book was fun and the book launch exciting, but the middle bit was hard and knowing what to do with the 67,000 or so words I’d written was tricky. I knew I wanted family and friends to read them at the very least and had a sense I wanted to see and feel a physical book. I scoured the Writer’s Handbook 2011 for ideas on publishers and agents not really knowing what I needed, when along came the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition. My novel seemed to fit their criteria so I bravely sent off the first 5,000 words, full synopsis, 100 word mini biography and entry form. Even doing that felt an achievement but needless to say I didn’t win. The exercise was useful and made me polish up format and presentation and gave me a deadline.
     After just a pang of disappointment when results were announced I sent off similar packs to half a dozen publishers and agents with little or no response. I decided I had to use the ‘who you know’ system and sent off a pack to a publisher who used a friend’s printing company for all their work. They were kind in their reply but it wasn’t their genre of inspirational, self help and health writing. I did try to say my story was inspirational and had a fair bit of medical stuff in it but they didn’t buy that. I’d already realised I had to make an individualised pitch to each publisher or agent to have any hope at all.
     One particular agent gave me a reply that was so negative I couldn’t even talk about it for weeks. He thought the story had been a good exercise but was full of beginner’s mistakes and needed to be consigned to a drawer. Eventually I took it out of that drawer and decided to fight back, replying to each criticism and defending my characters – by this stage I loved and knew them well. Sometime later I received a letter saying he’d had the manuscript read by an agent’s reader and a copy of their report was included. It pointed out mistakes and errors which I accepted – too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ (that old chestnut), too easy resolution of conflict, not enough conflict in the second half etc. but the negative comments were nicely balanced by a few positive ones, just as a good teacher would do, and I found a little hope returned to my soul.
     That letter made me brave enough to approach Wivenbooks, the publishing arm of Wivenhoe Bookshop which publishes one or two choice authors, but also supports a print-on-demand facility for a few others willing to pay. Things really got moving and Catherine Dodds designed my lovely front cover and Ginny Waters got me an ISBN number and registered the details with Nielsens data for books. Wivenbooks suggested  names of possible editors and Jane Olorenshaw did a copy-edit for a further fee. Copy-editing was surprisingly good fun with e-mails bouncing back and forth – at my request the main aim was SPAG and continuity rather than content and that kept the fee down. Once we were happy Catherine sent the document off to Lightening Source and I was delighted with the proof print of the book. We pressed the button and ordered 100 copies. I have now done 4 print runs (the 5 day delivery time is excellent) and I’m exploring e-publishing.
     Novel number 2 is in it’s infancy and having learned a lot from novel number 1 I feel just a little better prepared.
Consider options – competitions, publisher, agent, self publishing, e-publishing.
Assess costs and keep an account.
Talk to everyone and anyone with contacts or experience.
Be patient.
Get an editor – copy-edit at the very least.
Be prepared for knock backs but stay positive.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Ready for publication? Part 2. The Feedback

Paula K. Randall

In the last post we were waiting for my debut novel to come back from my editor. Was I going to be dancing round the house, reading bits of the report out to anyone who'd listen? Or was I going to be completely crushed?

Well neither, as it happens, but it wasn't altogether comfortable reading. There were twenty-eight pages of where I'd gone wrong. And the thing was, I could see that the editor was right. I recognised what she was saying. She wasn't telling me the book was terrible. In fact quite a bit of what she said was complimentary. But she certainly didn't pull any punches in the places where she felt I needed to tighten up the dialogue, places where the plot was falling flat, additional scenes I really ought to write, scenes I didn't need. And that, basically, my main character was a wimp!

The novel needed a lot of work. But was I downhearted? Well, yes, if you want to know the truth. But I'm a bit of a sticker, and besides, I was starting to see where I could make improvements. And the editor was very helpful: I sent a couple of revised scenes to her for comments and she made more observations and suggestions. Then having rewritten it almost from scratch, two of my writers' group members had a go at it. This didn't result in a re-write, but it certainly pointed out some careless mistakes and some more tightening up of dialogue and action.

And then guess what, I bit the cash bullet again. I paid for another critique. There was a 20% discount for a second read, but as the novel was now fifteen thousand words longer, it didn't really work out much cheaper. I chose to go with the same editor as before, because I felt we had developed an understanding of where my novel was going. And this time I got about twenty pages of notes. But at least now the changes were minor, and there were more positive comments. One excellent suggestion she made was to re-write a particular scene from the point of view of a different character. So I tried this, and she was right, it worked really well.

Of course, I didn't do absolutely everything my editor suggested. I'm not a sheep, after all, and in the end it's my novel. But her advice and recommendations were invaluable, and enabled me to create a much stronger story and with a much more credible main character.

Another good suggestion she made was to read it aloud to myself, all the way through. So a packet of Strepsils later I could now see how often my characters began dialogue with 'Well' (even though I'd known this and thought I'd eradicated it already) and the fact that the police discussed a partial thumbprint five times. Five times. Please!

So if you're reading this and you're in a similar position, don't try and go it alone. Don't be abashed at asking for help. Read the acknowledgements bit in a lot of novels and you might wonder how much the author actually contributed. Get the best advice you can, and that probably means paying for it some way or another. It might mean you undertake a serious creative writing course, such as a degree or an MA, like Sue. Or get yourself onto an Apprenticeship scheme like Clare. Or, like me, work with a professional editor you feel is on your wavelength. And if you can, find a group of writers with some experience to help you stay on the straight and narrow. If there isn't anything near you, join an on-line critique group such as Word Cloud or Authonomy. If you like crime you could join my Google+ group Creative Crime Writers. Post your stories or reviews on there and join the community.Creative Crime Writers

The other thing you need to do is read, read, read, especially, but not exclusively, in your chosen genre. It's only by studying others that you learn what works and what doesn't.

Altogether my book went through at least seven re-writes, probably more. It was at this stage I began the wearisome process of submitting to agents. And you know the rest. That's where we came in.

Next time I'll talk about getting your book ready for e-publishing.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Historical Headaches or The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction 1 by Clare Hawkins

      I am still wrestling with techniques for creating an authentic period flavour in my novels without producing phony or unintentionally humorous effects. The development of a confident voice is fundamental. In this instance I am referring to the narrative voice, although the notion is applied equally to the individual voices of characters conveyed through their speech and dialogue. I find it useful to refer to successful writers as I continue to try to work on my style. Julian Rathbone, in his notes to The Last English King refers to his anachronistic use of modern prose in the narrative and in the dialogue, though I think in fact this is what most successful writers of historical fiction do. This would appear to be the safest approach to avoid the following effect.    Dick Turpin espied the fair serving wench who had oftentimes evaded him and swore upon his rapier that he would bed her that very eventide.     Avoiding an inappropriately modern idiom is another danger as in:        Rubens just didn’t feel up to it that morning, all that standing at his easel. Plus his model was hardly going to make it on the cat walk, not with doughnuts that size.     Period atmosphere can be very effectively achieved by using appropriate contextual references and some elements of vocabulary suggestive of a period in the past. Here are some examples.
Lady Mary gathered her rosary beads in her short workmanlike fingers, tucked them into the pocket of her gown and strode towards the door of the great hall where her armies of gentlemen and soldiers were breaking their fast. She entered the head of the hall and mounted the dais. ‘Today we move out,’ she announced, loud and clear enough for the least man at the back of the hall to hear her. ‘We go to Framlingham, a day’s ride, no more than that. I shall raise my standard there. If we can get there before Lord Robert we can hold him off in a siege.
The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory.
    Apart from the obvious references to the physical and social context (rosary beads, gown, gentlemen and soldiers, hall, Lady Mary etc, some of the verbs (gathered, strode, entered) are more formal and suggestive of Lady Mary’s manner and status perhaps. There are two notably archaic expressions: breaking their fast and  the least man, this latter reflecting the ranks in society.
    Ronan Bennett in Havoc in its Third Year uses a number of subtle grammatical variations to indicate the period of the early 17th century as well as the contextual references and some rich Shakespearean metaphor, nourish the prating mouths as well as archaic vocabulary.
The alehouse-keeper brought small beer to drink and halfpenny loaves of buckwheat and barley. The man would have loitered so that his fat lips might carry gossip to nourish the prating mouths outside, where it seemed the whole township had gathered, but Brigge bade him be gone with angry hard words and so he went, very quick his step and dismayed his look. The bread was stale and coarse and the butter near rancid. Brigge ordered the door of the parlour left open for air, but all that entered was the fuddled gaze of the drinkers, their pots in their fists, their clay pipes in their stained lips.
   Hilary Mantel’s creation of the period in Wolf Hall is achieved by a complex and skilfully integrated mix of vigorous modern language, embedded indirect speech, the occasional archaic phrase as well as rich and detailed contextual references.
The stake was on top of a pile of stones, and some gentlemen came, and priests, bishops perhaps, he did not know. They called out to the Loller to put off her heresies. He was close enough to see her lips moving but he could not hear what she said. What if she changes her mind now, will they let her go? Not they, the woman chuckled. Look, she is calling on Satan to help her. The gentlemen withdrew. The officers banked up wood and bales of straw around the Loller. The woman tapped him on the shoulder; let’s hope it’s damp eh? This is a good view, last time I was at the back. The rain had stopped, the sun broken through. When the executioner came with a torch it was pale in the sunshine, barely more than a slick movement, like the movement of eels in a bag. The monks were chanting and holding up a cross to the Loller, and it was only when they skipped backwards, at the first billow of smoke, that the crowd knew the fire was set.
   Integration of a range of elements would seem to be the key: restrained and limited use of archaic expressions, references to context and figurative language, which are integral to the character’s (or characters’) actions and experiences. Easier said than done!
    Where the first person is used in narrative, the issues of voice become more complex, because of the need to slip into indirect speech and more deeply inside the head of the narrator. (Quite a challenge when trying to imagine the thoughts and experiences of a 17th century soldier or a medieval Maltese peasant.) Other technical difficulties occur in trying to move smoothly from the inside of a character’s consciousness to a more distant view. And then there is the question of direct speech and dialogue, another tricky area for the writer of historical fiction. These topics are best left for another time!
    In the meantime, if anyone has a glossary of 16th and 17th swear words, I would be very grateful to hear about it!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Ready for publication? by Paula

One thing that this novel-writing enterprise has taught me is that I don't handle rejection well! It's no good telling me that Black Beauty was rejected nine times and Harry Potter, seven. Or that Ian Rankin had to write eight books before he acquired a name for himself. And I just read in the Afterword to one of Simon Kernick's novels that he had three hundred standard rejections before he finally got a two-book deal. He was certainly determined! But good for him; he now has several best-sellers to his credit.On top of this there's all the waiting time. Waiting for this agent or that publisher to decide whether or not your precious manuscript is for them. Of course, what you should be doing during this time is writing the next one. Only it's hard to type while you're biting your nails down to the quick. 
    So after four rejections (I know,  I know, I'm a wimp, have no persistence, no backbone etc. etc....) I decided to go it alone and publish my debut novel, Hangman's Wood, on Amazon and various other e-publishing sites. 
    Now, I'm not so arrogant that I think every word I write is a pearl beyond price. In fact I know quite well it's not. And I'm not above taking advice and acting on it. Quite the reverse, I value candid feedback, even when it hurts. So if you're interested in how I got to the point where I felt ready for publication, I'd better tell you first that I spent quite a bit of money, as well as effort. It took a lot of soul searching. I'd attended a writers' conference where I met several other writers in my situation, many of whom were considering using a professional editing agency. And these agencies, if they're any good, aren't cheap. And when you've no experience of using a service, you don't really know what to expect, and you can't help worrying that you may be throwing good money after bad. It really does take a leap of faith to decide to spend that sort of cash, especially when you don't really know what you're going to get for it. But anyway, against the advice of all my non-writing friends, I did it. I paid the money (about £400) and sat back and waited anxiously for the feedback. Of course, what you really want to hear is: This novel is fabulous. It's completely ready for publication. Or even: All this work needs is a little tweaking here and there. Because you've already spent ages polishing it, haven't you? It isn't your first draft, after all. Well, in your dreams. 
    Next post I'll write about what really happens!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Where to start, by Philippa

It has to start somewhere –  in the middle, at the end, or sometimes at the beginning – a dilemma for any writer planning his or her plot, but also a difficult question to address as I think about how my own recently published book/story/novel (call it what you like) came about.
    To start at the end ‘There’s No Sea in Salford’, my debut novel, was published in March this year by Wivenbooks, on a print-on-demand basis. On 26 April I had a wonderful book launch evening in Wivenhoe and sales of the 225 page paperback have been ticking away nicely since from Wivenhoe Bookshop and also Red Lion Books in Colchester. My main aim in publishing in this way was to allow family and friends to read my book without breaking the bank and not necessarily to make money out of the project – I am just about breaking even on the print costs.
    So that’s the end, but as for the beginning it’s hard to say when that was. I’d worked in Sri Lanka for 3 months in 1978 so I guess that’s when it really started but the actual story was inspired by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which so badly affected that country. Retirement in 2010 from a busy life as a GP gave me time to practise writing and a short course with the Open University called ‘Start Writing Fiction’ gave me a little confidence. I played with various story lines and created characters to take part. Each main character was given a filing card with personal details and dates logged to help me keep track, and I drew an extended flow chart to link their interactions. I read more about Sri Lanka and the politics of  recent times. ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ by Christopher Ondaatje and Leonard Woolf’s ‘The Village in the Jungle’ were fascinating and ‘Sri Lanka in the Modern Age, a history of contested identities’ by Nira Wickramasinge was helpful for reference while ‘Brixton Beach’ and ‘The Swimmer’ by Roma Tearne were just fun to read.
    Procrastination followed – I could never find the right time to actually get on with the writing until I read about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo (are you tough enough?) in Writing Magazine. I logged on, signed up and truly got started on 1st November 2011. I did just what they said and wrote without stopping to edit or correct grammar, pouring out 50,000 words in the month of November. At the end I got a certificate and the satisfaction of being able to say I’d written the skeleton of a novel, to either leave in a drawer somewhere or to rework into something more polished.
    I enjoyed fiddling around with it, adding bits, subtracting bits, changing words, changing names, but with hind-sight I was far too attached to my first 50,000 draft to change the structure and that could have been a mistake ( Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ does advise ‘kill your darlings’). By now I had 67,000 words and it felt more like a novel.