Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Whoops - I did it again! Sheena Wilkinson

I don't seem to learn. Eight books published and it doesn't get easier. What am I moaning about this month? About myself and how s-l-o-w I seem to be to catch on. 

Back in June I talked to Sophia Bennett for her wonderful podcast Prepublished (and if you like Awfully Big Blog Adventure you're pretty much guaranteed to love Prepublished). I was being terribly frank about the big mistake I'd made when writing my novel Hope against Hope, which was published last year. Can you believe it, I told Sophia and all the listeners - because one thing about me, I do own my mistakes -- I wrote the whole book -- four drafts of it! -- from a completely wrong point of view! The story was there, the setting was there -- but the main character was all wrong. I had to rewrite the book from scratch, from a completely new point of view. What an eejit I was!

Well, I remember thinking at the time, I won't make THAT mistake again. 

Except I did. Exactly the same mistake. I wrote a book. I thought it was pretty good. I sent it to my agent. She disagreed. I was upset. I showed it to a trusted writer friend (Thank you, Keren David, I owe you!). She said ... your agent was right. And she told me why. She didn't say You've written it from the wrong point of view, but she helped me see that my main character wasn't doing the book any favours. As soon as I imagined a new heroine  I could see at once how much better the book could be. 

The thing was, I was using a character I knew and loved, Stella, the heroine of Star by Star and a character in Hope against Hope. I had this idea for what she might do in the 1930s. And it was a good idea, but it wasn't for her.  I was trying to make her fit a world that wasn't right for her. And she became grumpy and twisted and lost all the characteristics that made me love her as a heroine. It wasn't her fault; it was mine. 

I started this book back in April 2020. I hadn't written since the start of the pandemic. I was blocked and scared and aimless -- like pretty much everyone I knew. Writing a new book seemed to ground me. This was something I could control; this was something I could do. The words mounted up giving me a sense of achievement and relief -- the world had become unfamiliar, but this, this making up stories, this was an old friend; this was what I did. Except, in literally using an old friend, Stella -- which, I can see now, I might have done because I was too anxious (or lazy?) to make up a new one, I scuppered my book. 

It's OK. I have a new heroine. I took my time getting to know her and I'm confident this time that she's the right person in the right story. She's new and shiny and doesn't trail backstory with her. A new heroine for a new year. 

You'd think I'd learn. 

(If you want to hear me talking about this and other stuff, or hear other writers talking about their processes, do check out

As for me, I'm getting back to my new heroine. See you next month. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

"I've written a book. Can you help me?" What to do if someone says this to you. Moira Butterfield

 I reckon that all professional authors will - at some point - get the question above, probably more than once. Someone you know contacts you to tell you they've written something and they want your advice - to judge it, edit it and/or pass it on to a publisher. It might even be about to happen a bit more regularly, as more people may have started writing during their Lockdown furlough time.  

It's hard not to feel irritated - for all sorts of emotional reasons you will be familiar with. You are spending your time putting your heart and soul into your own work, after all. Plus said heart will probably sink because, let's face it, the work could be dire. What are you going to do then? 

Here's what happened to me recently. It taught me the best path, by far, to take. 

An old friend sent me a novel out of the blue. This old friend lives far away in another continent and we don't communicate much. I had no idea he'd been writing a novel. I immediately sighed and worried. What if the book was rotten? How would I handle it? 

In fact, in another twist, my friend had already had a 'publishing offer', which had made him very excited. He wanted my advice on whether to say yes (but also would I read the book). He'd googled publishers who would take submissions and top of the list was an infamous company who calls itself a publisher, with marketing et al, but is really a 'hybrid publisher'. Its marketing and list-building was plainly perfunctory - nothing like a true publisher - and it asked my friend for upfront payment. It also took care to flatter him immensely on his wonderful work. It was a vanity publisher in disguise. 

With some help and wise words from the other authors on this forum I was able to convince him not to go down this route. I sent him quotes of other people's experiences and directed him to some damning online comments. 

Meanwhile I read the book. It wasn't bad. It made me laugh. But it was a first draft with lots of issues. I wasn't surprised. Anyone who writes for a living knows about first drafts not being the finished item - and I felt really angry that the vanity publisher had tried to suggest it was the finished book, so they could get a payment from my eager friend. 

What to do? Should I edit this draft? I could make suggestions and point out weaknesses, but it would be a lot of work and what would it do to our friendship? The answer was obvious...It was a big NO! I didn't think our friendship would survive the honesty I would need to employ, and though I am used to people pointing things out about my work, perhaps he wasn't. In fact I felt pretty certain that he wouldn't be too pleased by me telling him there was a lot still to do on the manuscript. 

The answer 

I directed my friend to a reputable editorial agency. Thank goodness they exist. I searched 'editorial agencies UK' and researched a few further. I found a number of my own author colleagues involved in them and felt confident in passing on a list of links. The cost was remarkably reasonable for top-notch editing and mentoring, including helping with the process of agent-finding. 

My friend took this route and so far he was been helped brilliantly, it seems to me - and is very content to be supported by the editor he was paired with. I did check in with him and she sounds great. 

So, to recap - I was supportive. I steered him away from the fake publisher. I did not 'pile into' his manuscript. Instead I helped him find a professional who knew how to handle the work far better than me. 

I'm so relieved I didn't criticise because I then discovered that my friend had a serious illness and that this writing probably mean a lot more emotionally to him than I had known. That's something really vital to take onboard - We don't know, when we receive these requests for help, what emotional freight the work is carrying. It's like being tossed an emotional grenade! 

So recommend a good professional editing agency to help instead of trying to do it yourself. Pass your friend onto someone who is objective and can help without smashing up a friendship. 

PS: If you provide editorial services for any genre - or have recommendations - perhaps you could add them to the comments below. 

Good luck! 

Moira Butterfield writes for children, including international success Welcome To Our World (Nosy Crow). This year saw three non-fiction books published - Dance Like a Flamingo (Welbeck), The Secret Life of Trees (Quarto) and A Trip to the Future (Templar).

Twitter: @moiraworld 

Instagram: @moirabutterfieldathor 

Monday, 9 November 2020

Choosing your words carefully - Anne Rooney

Badgers choose their worms carefully. It's an easy typo to make.

This is long; that badger is the only picture you're getting. If you don't like that idea, stop now and do something you prefer with your time :-)

Writing seems a pretty easy process of just putting one word in front of another, right?

We-ll... They have to be the right words and in the right order. Splurging your thoughts onto the page is a good start, and I would never recommend being too thoughtful about a first draft if that will make you anxious, slow or feel blocked. But there comes a time when you have to look carefully at those words and make sure they are doing what they should be. Writing is rewriting. Editing is a vital part of the process. You've heard all that before. But what are you actually doing when you are editing your work? 

The pandemic is a time when lots of people are trying writing who haven't done much before — which is great. There's lots of good advice out there on planning and writing, but there's very little on how to revise your work — editing. So here goes: a quick explanation of what editing is.

You will have a professional editor work on your words at some point, of course, if your work is going to be published (including self-published). But it's still important to do that first bit of editing yourself because this is the point at which you make sure your work says what you want it to say. An editor is an advocate for the reader. They want to make the book good for the reader and will focus on that rather than on digging out what you wanted the book to be. No editor is going to crawl into your brain and look at what you meant and rephrase your writing so that it says that: you have to do it. An editor might later make it more elegant or concise, but they can only work with what you write. You are the only person who knows what you want to say in your book/poem/play/script or whatever, so it's up to you to make it clear.

The first stage of editing has a broad sweep. It looks at the structure of the piece, whether it is a poem, a novel, a picture book, a non-fiction book or anything else. Does the order and shape of the material work? Does it prioritise the things that need to be prioritised, whether to make sense or to give prominence to the things that are most important to you? Is there redundancy? Have you included things that are irrelevant, that draw attention unnecessarily from the main point, story or feeling? This doesn't mean expunge subplots; a relevant subplot is a look from another angle at the same or related issues. It puts the main plot into a wider perspective, or looks more closely at a detail of the theme, or considers it from a different perspective. A good subplot is not redundancy. It's this point at which you might add or remove a chapter, or a character or an incident, switch narratorial voice, or realise you are trying to cram two books into one, forcing irreconcilable parts together when they both need more space. Sometimes, sadly, you might decide the entire project is misconceived and can't be made to work. In an ideal world, you will have realised that before writing it, but we don't live in an ideal world. (I'm sure you've noticed that in 2020, even if you hadn't noticed it before.)

With luck, when you've made all the changes, you'll re-read and decide it's structurally fine. More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects from your changes and you need to tweak it a bit further. Don't skimp on this. There's no point in putting in the effort of the next stage if later your actual editor has you delete or rewrite huge chunks.

If you were looking at this manuscript as a publisher, there would be two further stages of editing, line editing and copy editing. As a writer, you can usually combine these — unless, perhaps, you have an issue such as dyslexia which means your work needs extra scrutiny at the level of fine detail. I leave that to your discretion; you know your capabilities. I'm going to treat it as one stage, which is what I do with my own work, but I then add a final proofreading read-through that looks for things like missing commas and all that shit.

This is where we come — finally — to choosing your words carefully. Writing for young readers, your principal aims should be clarity and simplicity. We could add precision to this, though I tend to see that as an aspect of clarity. What counts as clear and simple depends on the age of your reader and the level of knowledge you expect them to have. Sometimes, there seems to be a conflict between these aims and elegance of expression or extra meaning or resonance. It's a balance you need to negotiate sentence by sentence, word by word. But beware of thinking your deathless prose is worth a great deal of effort on the part of the reader: it isn't, and some of them will give up. You are writing to amuse or inform them, not to show off the long words you know and how well you can hold onto the tangled thread of an out-of-control sentence. This is easiest to understand with examples. Here's part of a sentence I agonized over this week:

'They sought metals and minerals in the rocks and dug them out to make weapons and jewellery.'

The tricky word is sought. Could and should I use a simpler, more familiar word? There are two conflicting approaches to this. Firstly, many children relish new words, and new words are useful. The National Curriculum encourages expanding a child's vocabulary. Sought is a useful word, and is the curious past participle of 'seek'. (Do you want to know why? In Old English, past participles were often formed by changing the vowel sound — so we have 'saw' from 'see', for instance. OE also often adds 'ed' or 't' to the end. If you take 'seek' and change it to 'soukt' it comes out exactly as 'sought' was pronounced 1000 years ago, but we no longer pronounce the 'gh'.) But at the same time, there are full guidelines on the order in which phonemes are introduced to a child developing their reading skills. Although relatively common, 'ought' is quite tricky. Allied with an unfamiliar word, that might cause some readers to stumble. We don't want stumbling — this book is for their enjoyment, not an exercise in developing reading skill.

What are the alternatives? I could say they 'looked for' metals and minerals, or I could just say 'they dug metals and minerals from the rock to make weapons and jewellery', which is shorter. 'Looked for' is so common a formulation it won't be seen by the reader. This is often what we want — that the words are effectively invisible, that the meaning is instantly apparent, like pebbles in a clear stream. (The words are the water, obscuring nothing if you've got it right.) But 'sought' requires pause and processing. It suggests and reflects a bit of the effort of prehistoric people seeking metals and minerals. It's not just looking, which is a visual act. It's hewing away dirt and rock with a primitive stone or metal tool in the heat of the midday sun or in a howling gale, a snowstorm, skin-drenching fog, or whatever. Sought is an effort for the seeker. Perhaps it's fair if it's also an effort for the reader. This is not reducing the clarity — it's still clear water, but now the water is flowing more quickly over the pebbles and we're seeing them in an environment rather than alone.

Do you have to do this for every word, every sentence? In a word, yes. But it becomes automatic, and you should be doing it as you write the first time eventually. 

It's not just word choice. It's also word order, sentence length, sentence structure and voice. Earlier in this post I wrote:

'More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects'

I wouldn't use this structure in a children's book. I'd say:

'It's more likely that you'll find...'

It's easy to see why I wouldn't use the first formulation for children. But what does it add here? Is it just pointless obfuscation? It has these effects:

The rhythm is much slower, throwing emphasis onto 'more likely' so that you pay attention: this is what's going to happen, so listen. 'Though' slows it further and signals a reversal in the argument.

'It' is not in the sentence, throwing focus onto 'you'. I prefer this as what is 'it' here? It's an implied likelihood, which doesn't make for a very interesting subject. We could rewrite it as: 

'The likelihood is that you will find...'

It's accurate but dull, stilted and impersonal, trying not to pay attention to 'you'.

As literate adults, we can read any of these formulations easily. For a child, 'It is likely' is by far the easiest to understand. The slight benefit of the nuance the other offers is not sufficient to over-rule clarity and simplicity this time

What about sentence length? It's tiring to read lots of long sentences. It's also irritating to read lots of very short sentences. It gets boring. It's too jerky. The solution is to vary sentence length, with some sentences having subordinate clauses to make them more interesting. But for children, the subordinate clauses shouldn't be too long, or nested, and they shouldn't withhold the point of the sentence for too long as they [who? we've forgotten] can lose track. Indeed, adult readers will also lose track if you make them keep a first clause in mind for ages while you ramble on. Look at this:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

We can use colour to show how the parts are linked:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one train of thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

There are five levels of clause here. That's waaaaay too many. You can read the red bits without the rest and it makes sense. (If you can't do that, the sentence has gone awry.) The other bits can be split into separate sentences that qualify the main thought. If we want to keep everything, it's still possible to do it much more simply:

'It is, without doubt, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses. This is especially true when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating a subordinate thread.'

And finally... keep it as short as it reasonably can be. This means dropping unnecessarily wordy formulations that add nothing but are just lazy. Or that you used because you thought you were going to struggle to write enough words. Or that you used because you think the subject is a bit scary and you want to put lots of familiar stuff in:

'Chlorophyll is responsible for the green colour we see in plant leaves.'

What's wrong with 'Chlorophyll makes leaves green'? Nothing. The writer has added the waffle to find an opportunity to draw the reader in ('we see'), and just to dilute the potentially scary 'chlorophyll'. But children don't share your fear of chemistry and they wouldn't have chosen this book if they did. And 'plant leaves'? What else has leaves? There are no animal leaves. It's redundant.

I could write a lot about voice, but this is too long already, so just a quick paragraph to prove I haven't forgotten about it. Up the page I said I 'look out for missing commas and all that shit'. I wouldn't write that in a book. The (real) editor wouldn't like it. What does it do here? It suggests that you know what to look for so I don't need to enumerate 'all that shit'; it reinforces the informality of a blog — this isn't a lesson in editing that you will be tested on later, it's my take on it and it's not authoritative or comprehensive. This kind of phrasing directs your reading by setting your expectations. It also conveys personality. Different books allow different degrees of authorial personality. Obviously a memoir is almost entirely personality. A text book has very little, usually none. And if you're writing a novel, you will use voice to convey the personality of your narrator and characters. Consistency in voice is important. It's confusing if the 'person' speaking to you switches personality part way through the book (unless that's deliberate for some reason). So edit for consistency and plausibility.

And don't be too long-winded, like this... It takes work to make something short — put the work in. Don't be lazy. No reader owes you their time. You have to earn it, and reward them generously by having put in the effort they deserve.

Anne Rooney

Latest(ish) book: Our Extreme Earth, Lonely Planet, September 2020


Saturday, 25 July 2020

A recipe for a YA fantasy sequel - Holly Race

The deadline for the first draft of my second novel is looming, so I'm keeping my post short this month! Here you have it - my very own recipe for writing said sequel:

- Take one (1) Chosen One trope, established in the first novel. Subvert.

- Extract the world building from the first book, add a little more context and lore, knead and allow to rise for a month or two until bubbly.

- Blend plot and character arcs together until thoroughly combined. Add the world building and bring all together in a nice messy gloop.

- Marinade a handful of secondary characters until they are established and likeable. This will be made harder by the fact that you killed off a load of them in your first book and now need to create new ones. Stir into the mixture in the knowledge that only a few will survive to the third book.

- Crack three fight scenes and a battle into the mixture one by one, making sure each of them is more ambitious than those in the first book, despite the fact that when you wrote the first book, you went all in.

- Decide that you don't have enough storylines and decide to include a mystery plot, ostensibly for complexity of flavour but also because you just love a good mystery.

- Add one (or two) romances into the mix, for sweetness, and fold in lightly.

- Bake for a year, turning the temperature up to 'anxiety and panic' for the final week.

- Decorate with a pretty cover and atmospheric blurb, and present next to your first book for comparison and judgement.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Jumping through hoops - by Lu Hersey

So you think you've finished writing your book - it's taken ages, you've gone over it carefully, there's a beginning, a middle and an end and you've taken out all the saggy bits (usually saggy middles, a kind of middle book spread - the writing equivalent of soggy bottoms). So now it's time for someone else to read your masterwork, whether that's your critique group, your agent or your editor. In my case, it's my agent, who tells me what changes he thinks the book needs before he sends it out to publishers.

And this is when the editing process really starts. You may have read through your manuscript a million times, and spent months (if not years) making all the changes you think it needs - but your reader won't necessarily see your book the same way you do.

'The end needs some restructuring - far too much happens after the death scene.'

Restructuring? *swallows* That means quite a lot of work. But yes, now it's pointed out to me...

Two months and one restructure later... 'I really like that cave scene - you need to make it at least twice as long.'

Do you realise how long it took to write that cave scene? And that it is practically perfect in every way? AND THAT'S WHY YOU LIKE IT, RIGHT??

Best not to say that out loud. Smile and say 'hmmm'. Try not to make it sound like you're being strangled. Just rewrite the cave scene. Add in a lot more cave and a lot more claustrophobia.

Oh. Maybe agent was right. More cave is really working out well. But now the perfectly formed bit before and after cave scene will have to change to fit extended cave scene. Adding an extra three pages in one chapter can mean another total restructure to keep the continuity. OF THE WHOLE BOOK. 

But you're pleased because the book is better. You send it back to the agent.

'I think chapter 7 has too much tell and we need to see that scene.'

Dammit. Have to admit, that's a slightly saggy (but plot necessary) bit I glossed over. Now I have to make it not boring and saggy but an exciting, tense episode where we meet the baddie....but of course that means the current meeting of the baddie in the next chapter will need to change completely, oh and that changes the whole continuity of the book, SO NEED TO CHECK THROUGH THE WHOLE THING AGAIN...

Back to agent. Boy this book is SO perfect now.

'You need to explain the red crystal. I don't get it.'

*Eye roll when he's not looking* 'Maybe I could just take it out.'

'No, I like the red crystal, I just need to know more about where it came from.'

'Hmmm.' I am the master of the neutral expression.

'I can feel you bristling and getting defensive, but just think about it...'

Obviously I'm not the master of the neutral expression. 'Okay.'

While you're at it, why is the bead yellow? Why isn't it blue?

BECAUSE IT'S A BLOOMING YELLOW BEAD, OKAY? Best not say that out loud. Think about why on earth he thinks it should be blue.

Oh. Actually blue possibly would work better...but then I'd have to change the next chapter, the previous chapter and, you guessed it, read through THE WHOLE THING AGAIN.

And that is how editing works. It's a process where you sometimes want to tear your hair out, rend garments and SCREAM... but it's worth it. Your agent/editor is trying to make it the best book it can be. Just another week or so, and I think I'm there. Blue bead and all.

Then, if I'm lucky, a publisher will like the book...and a whole new round of edits can begin.

by Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites

Monday, 17 February 2020

An attack of the adverbs by Tracy Darnton

Ah the joy of getting out the red pen! 

I taught a session to new writers on building up an editor’s toolkit this week. We thought about the ‘tics’ we all have as writers and the merits of a list of our overused words or bad habits - and how to employ the Find and Replace (I prefer Seek and Destroy) function in Word.

I issued red pens and everyone enjoyed ripping to pieces a page which I’d managed to cram full of problems with voice, pacing, tense etc as well as a healthy dose of typos and style errors.  It’s always easier to spot mistakes in other people’s writing than your own – and much more enjoyable to red-ink them. 

Get out that red pen yourself and slash and burn your way through my Attack of the Adverbs exercise below. Think about how adverbs can weaken a meaning or make the whole section annoyingly tentative and wishy-washy, but also how that might be exactly what’s required for characterisation or effect. 

“Well, as always, it’s basically down to you and the sort of style you truly want to achieve but it’s also kind of a useful exercise somehow. Suddenly your writing might seem really tight or indeed it might just appear somewhat bare. It’s utterly your choice,” the editor pleaded defiantly.

And now do the opposite. Use your red pen to add to this writing which is very tight (or bare, depending on your point of view):

“It’s up to you,” said the editor.

Somewhere between the two you might find your sweet spot. We’re making these stylistic choices in every sentence we write. So fish out your red pen and analyse your own prose once in a while and notice the choices you make.

And don’t get me started on speech tags …

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies. Her next novel, The Rules, is based on her short story in I'll Be Home for Christmas. She has an MA in Writing for Young People and a wide selection of red pens.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Keeping Going by Claire Fayers

We are in dark times, but this post is not about the UK election and the need to keep fighting for kindness and truth. I know we will do that. These musings came out of a recent piano lesson.

I suffered dutifully through piano lessons as a child, plonking the right finger on the right note with no sense of musicality. But a few years ago we took in a friend’s piano in need of a temporary home, and I decided to learn how to play it properly. I enjoy the intense focus on something that isn’t writing, and my teacher is very different from my childhood one. Lessons often consist of questions. What story is the composer telling? Why did he put in this chord or that repeated pattern? What emotion should the audience be feeling? 

This week, we got onto the subject of practice. I’m working on a piece where I’ve mainly conquered getting the right finger on the right note, but the main challenge is getting the sound right and it’s likely to take weeks if not months to crack it. How do I keep practice interesting?

“How do you keep writing interesting?” my teacher asked.

How indeed?

I’ve always thought that learning a piece of music is a bit like writing. The first draft (getting the right finger approximately on the right note), then the rounds of edits and fine-tuning which can seem to go on forever. How do we manage to write and rewrite a book dozens of times without getting bored?

Here are some piano exercises I've tweaked to use when writing. Most of them relate to short bursts of intensive work, more suitable for editing than for hashing out a first draft. I don’t recommend applying them to the whole draft, not unless you want to be editing for the next century, but if a project is flagging, they may help revive your interest.

Create Questions

Take a short section, maybe ending halfway through a bar (or in our case, a paragraph). Run in through several times and ask a different question each time. Why is this section here? How does it contribute to the overall story? What effect am I trying to achieve? Is anything hindering that? The theory is that asking different questions helps keep your mind active and focused.

Get Colouring

I did this with a Bach fugue and it made it so much easier to pick out the different melodies. Then I thought, why not try it on some writing?

Here’s the start of a long-abandoned story I’ve been playing with. 

I decided on pink for narrative and yellow and green for the two characters. But you could give colours to themes or emotions, or points of view, or different narrative techniques. If you’ve got a chapter that’s not working it might help you to see where it’s unbalanced. (Too much description and not enough action in mine.)

Starting Stops

Take a short passage and play it through, pausing for as long as you like on the first note of each beat. Then pause on the second, then the third and so on.

Taking regular breaks re-energises the brain. Many people I know use the Pomodoro technique – 25 minutes writing, 5 minutes off. When I was in bed with flu the other week, I couldn’t manage 25 minutes so I paused at the beginning of each paragraph for a breather. It was slow and laborious but I edited half a chapter in a day.

Take a Random Sample

Pick a page of your score and roll a dice. Play that number line. This helps combat the tendency to skim over awkward places and has the (I think) huge bonus that you can practice a whole piece without having to play it all.

You can do this with a chapter, maybe, pick a random paragraph from each page to revise. You’ll get to the end of the chapter in no time and have a tremendous sense of achievement.

Play it Backwards

Finally, just for hilarity. Play a line of music backwards. Record yourself playing it backwards. Use one of the many apps to reverse the audio and see if you got it right.

This is completely useless as an editing device, but it might keep the relatives amused at Christmas - and imagine the look on kids’ faces when you begin your World Book Day events next year with a backwards reading.

Ironically given the title of this blog post, I’ll be taking a break from ABBA for a few months. It’s been a great two years and I’ve loved blogging but I’m following the other rule of writing; know when you need to rest. Wishing you all a happy Christmas and New Year and I’ll look forward to catching up with you later in 2020.

Claire Fayers is the author of The Accidental Pirates, Mirror Magic and Stormhound. @clairefayers

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Arrgh! Early Halloween Special - it's the Edit Letter!!!! by Tracy Darnton

One of the tough things about writing novels, as opposed to having a ‘proper job’, is that there are hardly any times when the manuscript is truly ‘off’ your desk. But the period between delivery of first draft and the editorial letter some weeks (or months) later is one such marvellous time when there is a true long-forgotten sense of having handed in your homework. You can spend this time either worried that a D Minus is on its way or (and I prefer this approach) living in blissful ignorant expectation that your editor is LOVING every last word of it. So absorbed are they, that it’s taking weeks to formulate their thoughts. 

This time round, the gap gave me a new lease of life and I spent this time usefully on inventive school workshops, admin (not so fun), fact-checking my research, writing three new picture book scripts, being a beta reader for a writer buddy, getting a bad cold (also not so fun), starting a new story, completing ten reviews, pitching a couple of articles and catching up with all my sadly- neglected friends. Happy days!

But then IT came. The edit letter. Plopped into the inbox on a Friday when I was feeling sorry for myself, dosed up on Lemsip and running a fever after too much wild tea drinking with friends. Uh oh.

When I received my edit letter on my debut novel, my agent sent me a reassuring email with ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic. This is perfectly normal!’ in the subject line. She must think I am sufficiently grown-up this time round to not need one. I hope she’s right.

So I could have been that mature, grown-up author and read the letter there and then – OR – and, reader don’t judge me, I could have looked at the covering email, taken comfort at the sentence including “we absolutely loved it” and stopped right there without reading the six pages of ‘but’s and suggestions until I felt better.

Worse, I could delegate the reading of said edit letter to my offspring packing to go back to uni and childishly get him to read it for me. And then try to read his body language when he tells me not to worry – it’s all achievable. 

What does that mean exactly… “achievable”? Hmm. And what does he know? More Lemsip, more strepsils.

Two days later, fever gone, I start the first-stage process of reading it by washing the shower curtain and clearing out a bookcase. I tidy my desk. I make a cup of tea. I brace myself. I read the letter.

Before I was an author, I thought that the editor would send a list headed How to fix your book. A useful list numbered 1-5, 10 at a push. All I’d have to do is tick my way through said list – changing a word here and there, striking out that troublesome scene in the cable car etc etc. But I have news for any non-published writers: editors don’t do that.

Editors ask questions. They zero in on the slightly woolly aspects of your plot or characterisation that you hoped you’d slipped past them (Curses!). Editors ask inconvenient questions. Editors make you think about your book and how to make it the best it can be.

I have a two-hour chat on the phone with my editor. She is kind, she is calm. She gives credit where credit’s due. She makes suggestions to make my book better, pushes me to explain what I was trying to do here or there … and patiently waits when I flounder.

We talk through my draft book club discussion questions which helps me to focus on the main threads of my book, the themes, the structure, characterisation.

I draw up an action plan of things to do, some for definite, some to try out and see what I think. My brain cogs slowly turn with possible solutions. Of course, I worry, as all writers do, that the pulling out of one thread will cause the fragile web of plot to fall away. But I’m fired up to try. The game is afoot.

I’m exhausted. I send an emergency text to my teenager walking home from school to bring me a packet of Twirl Bites. He doesn’t get the message but, on his return, kindly offers me a slightly sticky, solitary fruit pastille from his blazer pocket.

I take it. The edit letter trauma has made me eat a fluffy, second-hand fruit pastille. And that, in a nutshell, is what the edit letter is like.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.

She is currently editing The Rules out next year with Stripes. (It’s going better than expected).

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Notes on editing dialogue for dramatic purpose - by Rowena House

In their excellent writing advice guide, On Editing, Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price note that: “great dialogue is about striking a balance between naturalism and purpose - knowing how you want your dialogue to sound, but also what you want it to achieve.”
Personally, I’d tweak that to read: “dialogue is about balancing dramatic purpose and simulated naturalism. Know what you want the dialogue to achieve, then decide how you want your characters to sound.”
A pedantic difference, perhaps, but increasingly it seems to me to be more than a chicken-and-egg situation. It’s about demarcating in one’s mind the difference between the product of writing and the process of getting there. The product, in this case, being the speech on the page, and the process being the craft of storytelling through dialogue.
In case this is of interest to others, here are some edited notes on the subject which I prepared for a mentee recently. Sorry they’re rather didactic; time ran away from me this month and I haven’t had time to make them more “bloggy”.
How does writing dialogue differ from storytelling through dialogue?
Writing dialogue relates to dialects and manners of speech, attributions, the rhythms and sounds of speech.
Storytelling through dialogue is about its dramatic purpose.
Editing for dramatic purpose therefore begins with the questions one asks about each conversation on the page. For me, the first question is this: what is this exchange achieving in terms of the overall story?
Really, there’s only one correct answer: it’s moving the plot along by…
One can fill in these dots in any number of ways. The dialogue might illustrate to the reader some aspect of a character’s personality, or develop a relationship, or lead to a moment of internal revelation, an epiphany of some sort.
Plot-wise, the protagonist might be prising information out of an ally or an antagonist, or maybe they’re building up to confess something important. The options are legion.
But in any event, the next question should be: are both the speaker’s intentions and the listener’s reactions clear to the reader?
I’m entirely persuaded by the many editors and writing gurus who say reaction beats are essential to signpost the direction of a conversation at pretty much every step.
            “I can’t bear that shade of red on a woman,” Deirdre said.
            Her husband rolled his eyes.
Without the reaction beat, Deirdre’s opinion floats, untethered, in the ether.
[Reactions that are actions also break up dialogue, which helps vary pace. Three to five exchanges is the maximum I’ve been recommended before something has to happen.]
Next I look for conflict in the dialogue: not shouty arguments but rising tension. As a rule of thumb, the more diametrically opposed the intentions of the participants in the conversation are, the more dramatic the dialogue is likely to be. If Character A really, really wants to get information out of Character B, give Character B a cracking good reason for wanting to keep that information secret.
Subtext comes next. That’s because, according to psychologists I’ve read, a large part of the pleasure and motivation for reading is the satisfaction we get from fathoming out the clues that the writer teases us with. If characters say exactly what they mean from the start, there’s nothing for the reader to work out, and the chances are the dialogue will come across as flat and boring, and the scene as a whole will lack nuance and subtlety.
[This assumes, of course, that the intended reader isn’t too young to understand the need to read between the lines. I don’t know how young is too young for subtext - it seems like an age since I talked to a child under 11 - but I’m pretty sure younger readers than that understand that people don’t always say what they mean.]
As with all dialogue, less is more when it comes to subtext:
            “Jasmine, you’re being stupid,” Dave said. “I didn’t even see Zoe yesterday.”
            Jasmine smiled. The Flame Pink lipstick she’d seen on his t-shirt told her everything she needed to know; only Zoe had been wearing that shade at the party.
            “Yeah. Right. Sorry.” She went into the kitchen and texted her mum. “Pick me up, would you? I want to come home.”
Despite the words spoken, the reader knows that Jasmine knows that Dave is lying. Her text to her mum is immediately comprehensible because the reader understands the subtext of her words, her smile and her action. We, the reader, might even infer from her smile that she’s been lied to before; this time it’s the final straw. The relationship is over.
Which leads onto….
What changes in the story due to this dialogue?
Without change, there is stasis, which is dull, so I subscribe to the theory that every scene needs a turning point, and without one, it’s not a proper scene.
As mentioned above, revelations and epiphanies are classic turning points for dialogue. Unexpected action - an interruption to the dialogue of some sort - also turns scenes effectively. Mixing and matching these options varies pace and keeps things fresh. [There are lots of other structural issues around turning points such as how they relate to the story’s Main Dramatic Question, but that’s for another time. Perhaps.]
Meanwhile, and I hesitate to add this given the sophistication of ABBA reader-writers, but since I’ve just been listening to Hilary Mantel’s amazing Reith Lectures again, and even she felt the need to remind her university audience of this original sin, I don’t feel too bad repeating it here: never give information to the reader that is already known by your characters in the guise of dialogue. Sure you see it in published books, but exposition disguised as dialogue really is a killer of authenticity.
Thank you for reading! Back again next month.
@HouseRowena on Twitter