Tag Archives: writing

On friends getting published

I am very lucky to be in a position where I have a lot of writer friends. I’ve accumulated this creative network over time. Some are friends I made when we both worked in-house at a publisher; most are people I met while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa; and a few are friends of friends that have become closer because of the writing we have in common. Having writer friends is a big part of what I love about being a writer and it helps me to keep going when my writing stalls – because writing is not always pleasurable. One of my writer friends even went so far as to say he hated writing – hated the writing process and all the frustration of it, how slow it is, how painful – but he loved having written. The feeling of having put into words an idea, a story, and having pulled together all those strands, that feeling was worth all the torture of getting there, and it was that feeling that made him go back in and put himself through it all again. Hearing another writer say this is encouraging because it lets you know that you are not alone in this most lonely of pursuits. 

When I started writing, no one I knew personally had been published. Then an old colleague got a book deal. It was for something that was very different to anything I would ever write, but it still felt exciting. It seemed to make what I was doing more real, as if publication was a solid goal that had just become visible through the mist. The advance my friend earned enabled him to begin working part time so that he could dedicate more time to writing; he was inching towards making it his ‘proper’ job.

In the following years, other friends began to pick up book deals. Some months after completing the Creative Writing course, I was speaking to one of the other students I had become friends with and I remember him saying that, of each year of students that have completed the MA, it averages that about half a dozen get publishing deals. There are not too many people in each year, so this is not a bad success rate. However, my friend went on to say that, every time someone from our year got published, he felt his chances went down a little bit. He immediately followed this up by saying he knew that it was ridiculous and that of course those students getting published could never affect any other individual student’s chances, it just didn’t work like that, but still… he couldn’t help feeling a little bit like it did. 

I think this insecurity and defeatist attitude is very typical of unpublished writers (and, I’m beginning to realise, of published writers, too). In a way, it is inevitable. We dedicate a massive amount of time and effort to something, often working in total isolation, and there is no guarantee it will ever bring us any kind of monetary reward or creative recognition. It is no wonder self-doubt creeps in.

There have been some well-documented examples of literary back-biting amongst published authors (not least of all Virginia Woolf’s damning comments of James Joyce’s Ulysses), so it is hardly surprising that an unpublished author might be critical of a published author, particularly if they feel their own work is more deserving of publication. When the published author is someone known personally to the unpublished author, an even greater resentment can set in because that sense of ‘It could / should have been me’ is felt more keenly, particularly if the book is of a similar genre. 

It has been a little surprising to me that I don’t feel more like this when another friend tells me that such-and-such a literary agent has agreed to represent him or he’s just sold his book to such-and-such a publisher. I can’t deny there’s a little pang of ‘When is it going to be my turn?’ but it is only momentary, and I think this is because I’ve developed a staunch belief that half of the battle with writing is having a thick skin and keeping on plugging away. I try to remain philosophical about it; it will be my turn eventually, and whenever that is will be the right time for me.

I’ve worked in publishing for more than ten years now, and I know that there are lots of books that get published – and some which do very well – which I don’t think are particularly well written or deserving. There is no point in feeling resentful about this. The reasons why these books find publishers and why people buy them are varied and numerous and – most importantly – completely out of my control. I also know that writing is a craft and, as a general rule, the more someone writes, the better they become at it. Some writers who get published at the very first try find that they are learning their craft in full view of their readers and – more painfully – their critics, who will not hold back when the writer slips up (particularly now, when everyone can be a critic on Goodreads or Amazon, including those resentful unpublished writers).

I was talking to another writer friend yesterday, and she was saying that she knows of a writing-workshop group who met on a Creative Writing MA and have been workshopping together ever since – for about the past seven or eight years. One of them was published very soon after they completed their course, but now almost all of them have publishing deals, and the one who has only very recently found a deal secured a six-figure advance (which the others all feel slightly resentful about). So, it just goes to show, sometimes waiting a bit longer really can pay off. 

I love that so many of my friends are writers. I love talking about writing, about our ideas, and about the problems we all face. I know that I have been a useful source of information because of my job as an editor for writer friends less familiar with that mysterious side of the publishing process, and I find it really useful that friends of mine have gone down the getting-published route before me so that I can be more prepared if and when I find myself on the same road. I suppose, ultimately, what keeps me pleased for my published friends, and what keeps resentment at bay, is my belief that good writing is good writing, whether or not it’s published, and if it is good, it will be published sooner or later, so long as you keep sending it out to agents and publishers. Most importantly, good writers need to stick together, whether or not they are published, because the support we offer each other helps to keep quality literature alive.

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Five Tips for New Writers

I rarely edit anything that hasn’t already been re-read and re-drafted by the author, read and critiqued by the agent and then re-drafted again, and finally read and given a structural edit and possibly a line edit by an in-house editor at the publisher before it lands on my desk. And I still find stuff that is inconsistent, awkwardly phrased, inaccurate and unbelievable. I am currently editing something that hasn’t been seen by anyone apart from the author and me, and it is very interesting to note what it is the professionals do that do not necessarily come naturally to someone who is new to writing a novel, even someone, like this author, who is clearly not a bad writer. Saying that, some of the tips below would also have improved the writing of a number of the professional authors whose work I’ve edited, too. Anyway, here are five tips for (new) writers, which might be helpful when getting your novel picked up by an agent or publisher, and will certainly make an editor’s life easier. They are in no particular order, and are in no way exhaustive – just five things I’ve noticed in my most recent edits.

Tip 1: Don’t introduce characters who are irrelevant to the plot.

This is frustrating to readers because, basically, you are wasting their time. If you’re going to give us a name and a physical description and fill us in on the character’s background to allow insight into her psychology, then that character had better appear in more than one scene. It doesn’t matter if she has a function – to show the protagonist helping someone out of the kindness of his heart, or to demonstrate how utterly, devastatingly attractive the protagonist is that someone so unattainable would fall for him – if that character disappears after only one scene, readers will be resentful that they invested so much in the character in the first place. Solution: Use a character who already exists to fulfil the necessary function (as well as being key to the main plot) or show us the trait you’re trying to highlight in the protagonist by working it into scenes that you already have (which drive your plot forward).

Tip 2: Don’t give background information only as it becomes relevant.

So your protagonist is desperately short of cash and has to sell her most treasured possession in order to make ends meet. Only, your readers haven’t heard anything about this treasured possession up until now. If you suddenly spring something like this on them, readers will see it as a weak and rather-too-convenient device to keep the plot going. And no amount of background information at the time when the thing becomes relevant will make it seem plausible. Solution: You will pack a much stronger emotional punch if we hear about this treasured possession earlier. Readers need to see how much it means to the protagonist in advance to make them care when it is finally taken away.

Tip 3: If an important conversation happens, give us dialogue.

This comes down to the oldest rule in the book: show, don’t tell. Some writers are great at dialogue, and some seem to fear it. There is often a tendency in early drafts to over explain what is being said and what it means and how it is interpreted by the characters, with the worst cases shunning dialogue completely and simply reporting what happened in one big paragraph. The only explanation I can give for this is that the author thinks the conversation is so important that it needs to be explained to the reader. It doesn’t. Solution: You can tell readers a massive amount by leaving a load of stuff out. Give us a gesture or a movement instead of telling us how someone was feeling when they said something. Readers want to imagine the scenes themselves. Give them the words that were spoken first and then add a few necessary details.

Tip 4: Watch what your first-person narrator tells us.

So, in first-person narration (or even close third-person), you need to remain acutely aware of your narrator’s state of mind. If they are drunk, or massively traumatised by something they’ve just seen, or if they’ve been knocked on the head and can’t see straight, they probably won’t be able to give us a lucid paragraph about exactly how they’re feeling or what the experience means to them. Equally, a first-person narrator should not, usually, say something like, ‘He was so concerned about me that he did everything he could to make my life easier.’ Unless, of course, your narrator is trying to convince themselves of this. A first-person narrator does not have access to other characters’ thoughts, so cannot tell readers what other characters are thinking or feeling. Solution: Use language to demonstrate drunkenness etc. Incomplete sentences, odd juxtapositions, etc. can help in speech, and you might get away with being slightly more lucid inside someone’s head, but their thoughts will still be affected and jumbled. Save any really profound thoughts for when your narrator is just getting back to normal. On the point of reading other characters’ minds, a first-person narrator can tell us what that character said (‘He told me how concerned he was about me’), or show us how they looked (‘I could see the concern in his expression’), or even have another character report back on what they have heard about that character (‘He’s really concerned about you, you know’). Any of these techniques works better than trespassing inside someone else’s head.

Tip 5: Avoid clichés.

It’s very easy to write in clichés, because we hear them so much in everyday speech. It is also horrible to hear that your writing is clichéd. The only way to avoid this is to read it back with an eagle eye (that’ll be a cliché, right there), and get rid of the blighters. The exception to this is where they appear in speech or ‘in voice’ (where you’re writing first person, or very close third person), but even then I’d recommend caution. Solution: It’s great if you can spot them as you’re writing, but this is often easier said than done (cliché alert!). Be sure to have a thorough check through once you’ve finished your first draft and sift any remaining ones out. You’re looking for things like ‘my heart skipped a beat’, ‘I felt sick to my stomach’, ‘it was a cold and rainy night’. You know the stuff – anything that you’ve heard a million times before.

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Sexist Children’s Books

Pre-motherhood, my experience of children’s books (since being read them or reading them myself as a child) was limited. I worked as a temp for a couple of weeks at Macmillan Children’s Books – my first ever job in publishing – and then much later I worked on Disney books at Parragon for almost a year, so you could say I’ve covered the two ends of the market. Since going freelance, I’ve worked on teen fiction, but nothing for younger kids, and it’s come as something of a shock. Don’t get me wrong, there are some lovely, lovely picture books out there, but it is boldly apparent that a massive proportion of them perpetuate sexist stereotypes and favour male characters over female.

Let’s take The Gruffalo as our first example. All of the characters are male. Why? There is no necessity in the story for the characters to be male. The drawings wouldn’t even need to change – we have a fox, an owl, a snake, a mouse and a fictional creature. All the first three of these characters are doing is behaving like predators, and female owls hunt as much as male owls, as far as I’m aware.

Don’t get me wrong, The Gruffalo is a brilliant book. It’s clever and witty and has a very satisfying conclusion. But I find myself changing the sex of half the characters when I read it to my daughter, because I don’t want her to feel excluded. Because the reason all of these characters are male is because the default in our society is male. Still. The female only tends to exist in relation to the male. If there is no absolute necessity for a character to be female, then generally it isn’t.

What is particularly infuriating is when all logic would suggest the character should be female. This is the case when dealing with farm animals. Look at Duck in the Truck. The characters here are a duck, a sheep, a goat and a frog. Now, ask any farmer (and, if you read children’s books, you’ll know that farmers are always male), and he’ll tell you that ducks are kept, in the most part, for their eggs. You’d have trouble getting eggs out of a drake. And, as a friend of mine pointed out, the book is not titled Drake in the Truck, anyway. ‘This is the drake driving home in his…’ Hmm… Stumbled at the first hurdle, there. And why, Mr Farmer, do you keep goats? For their milk, you say…? Well, isn’t that funny…? You see my point.

I was at Windmill Hill City Farm with my daughter yesterday morning, and we were looking at the pigs. There was a woman and her toddler standing next to us, and she was talking to her son about what the pigs were doing: ‘How many pigs can you see? Look at him! What colour is the patch over his eye? He’s having his breakfast, isn’t he? Can you see him eating that straw?’ etc etc. The pig in question had two very prominent rows of nipples on her underbelly. So to talk about animals as male all the time is not only perpetuating the default as male norm, but it is actually misleading. It’s just wrong.

And so, Dear Zoo gets the sex-change treatment, as does The Three Little Pigs, as do many Dr Seuss books; Hansel and Gretal find their roles being reversed and don’t get me started on dinosaurs… If you were to read children’s books about dinosaurs, you’d be forgiven for believing that they didn’t come with female versions. If you can think of examples to prove me wrong, please let me know – I want to buy them for my daughter. And if you can think of examples where female animals are not shown to be such by either a) wearing a skirt or dress or having a bow of some kind in their hair or b) having prominent eyelashes that the male version doesn’t have then I promise I will send you a prize of some sort.

In the meantime, I’m going to set about writing a story about a female farmer. And then I’m going to write about the female dinosaurs and where they have all been hiding for so long.

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Work, work, work, rest and … breathe…

It’s been a hectic couple of months, which goes some way to explaining my silence in the blogosphere. I can’t complain – I love having this much work in, and I’ve been editing some really good books lately – but, as I’ve bemoaned to Jon numerous times, why couldn’t I have had this much work in when I actually had time to do it? And, with this much editing, when am I going to have a chance to do my own writing?

I worked every hour available, apart from a couple of days off at Christmas, right up until new year. And then we went to Lanzarote for ten days. The sudden break was much needed, and the perfect opportunity to unwind. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get some writing done, too, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. My brain was in the wrong place and so I read instead. I read a whole book. Which – apart from for work – I haven’t done so quickly for longer than I care to remember.

And now we’re home, and this is the strange part: I don’t have any work lined up until the end of the month, and Jon is off for another month yet, so he’s Chief in Charge of Childcare, which means I have acres and acres of time to write. Just what I have been craving. And I’ve made a start (it is only day two, after all), but it feels strange. Almost frightening. It is a lot of time – a luxurious amount of time compared to what I’ve had lately – but I also know that it’s still not going to be enough. Not to do everything I want to do.

Writing is a slow, slow process. We rush around in our normal lives, and we can achieve so much in so little time – send emails, make calls, have meetings, read books, write reports – but writing, if it is to be good writing, writing of any literary merit, takes longer. It needs to be considered. It needs to be mulled over, read back and fiddled with, read again and – but wait! If that bit’s changed in that subtle way then the later bit which refers to it needs to change too, and that character wouldn’t know that that happened if the earlier scene has been shifted, etc, etc, as if the whole thing is coming unravelled like a piece of knitting with a dropped stitch.

And that’s the point at which I find myself with my novel. In a word, it’s messy. But it must be done, so I’d better get on with it.

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An Editor’s Brain

I never used to like reading multiple novels simultaneously. There was something about how I became immersed in the story that was tainted, diluted or confused if I dived into different books, splitting my empathy between disparate characters in separate times and places.

I suppose the idea is logical, to a degree, but it’s actually almost impossible not to read multiple novels simultaneously in my line of work. For a while I stuck to one novel at a time for pleasure, and I was dipping in and out of things all the time for work as an in-house editor, but it didn’t seem to matter because the books I was editing were so different from what I was reading at home.

Then I began to write a novel myself. This might have complicated matters, but the imaginative process is different, so it didn’t seem to clash. When I began my MA in creative writing, I was reading between six and ten extracts from different writers’ work each week for workshopping, as well as working on my own novel and producing shorter writing projects alongside that. I began freelancing during this time, so I would occasionally have a week or two where I was copy editing a novel on top of everything else.

I had to draw a line in my brain. It was very easy to slip into copy-editing mode with the extracts for workshopping, and workshop mode with the manuscripts for editing. It’s a common problem for freelance editors who line edit, copy edit and proofread. The different stages in the editorial process require different levels of intervention, and sometimes you have to editorially bite your tongue.

My method of working when I have an edit in is to sit down and get it done in one big chunk with as few interruptions as possible. Part of an editor’s job is to remember stuff. This might be the spelling of a character’s name, or it might be that a particular breed of dragon has no sense of smell, or that when the spy escaped from prison it was dawn. As you’re reading, you don’t know what will become relevant. It is only when those very same dragons sniff out the novel’s hero that your editorial alarm bells need to go off.

I’ve long been amazed with the human capacity to remember stuff. Most people’s brains must be a jangling mess of passwords and PINs. When I worked in an office, I needed one password to get into the building, another to log into my computer, another to access the invoice-processing system, another to access a client database and another to operate the photocopier. I’ve half a dozen passwords or more to log in to various websites, as well as the code for my burglar alarm and several bank card PINs.

Apparently, your brain develops a greater ability to remember if you practise. There have been studies of the brains of London black cab drivers, as well as the brains of piano tuners, which show how new neural pathways develop to accommodate our needs. I’m sure a study of editors’ brains would show something similar; we’re a pedantic, pernickety lot.

Since having my daughter over a year ago, I’ve thrown my one-book-at-a-time rule out of the window. I never know when or where I’m going to have a moment to sit down and read, or how long that moment will last. I have a book on the go in my bedroom, one in the living room and I have two that I’m midway through on my Kindle, which lives in my bag. So far, I haven’t noticed any ‘diluting’ effect. The only effect I’ve noticed is that, if the book’s a bit rubbish, I’m more likely to put it aside and read other things rather than feeling obligated to plough on to the end.

I’m also, for the first time ever, copy editing two things simultaneously. Or, rather, I took one urgent copy edit in the middle of a less-urgent one. I feel a bit bad about it, as if I’m doing a disservice to the less-urgent edit (although I’m pretty sure that’s just me being over-conscientious). I’m rather hoping my brain’s neural pathways have developed enough to cope with the break. Who knows how an editor’s brain works? Perhaps giving the opening section of the story time to sink in will mean I do an even better job than usual.

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Getting started…

So, I’ve decided to start a blog. This is something I’ve thought about doing for some time, but I always dismissed the idea. It seemed to me that it was arrogant to think that anyone would be interested in my life. Who cares? I’ve never been much of a blog reader myself. And, if I want to spend time writing, I really ought to be working on my novel, or that short story I started and shelved four months ago…

But I’ve changed my mind, haven’t I? It’s all tied up with becoming part of Editide with J – a real, functioning business – and actually trying to do the freelance editing thing properly. I’ve had loads of work the past couple of months, so it’s going well. I even read a book about it – How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing, by Emma Murray and Charlie Wilson – and the authors reckon a blog is a good thing, so here we are.

My plan is this: I’ll write a bit about editing (without mentioning specific books and clients, obviously), a bit about my own writing and then some stuff about what I’m reading, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and what’s grabbed my interest lately. It’s a personal blog. All views are my own. If you want to comment, or get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

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