Posts Tagged editing

Clashing tones: a peril when we spend a long time writing a book

frankensteinI see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.

And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.

When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.

Mood to mood

It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.

One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.

This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.

We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.

This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.

But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.

Thanks for the pic petsadviser.com

guarmasterNEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.

Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss

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7 ways to cut a novel without losing anything important

2009_1101oct09chillingham0030‘Help, an agent has told me I need to cut 25,000 words from my novel!’ I get a lot of emails like this – from writers understandably wondering where on earth to start.

What is too long?

In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.

Too long for who?

You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.

So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.

1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.

sidebarcrop2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)

3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.

4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?

5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?

6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersml7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)

NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)

Back to important matters….

Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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How to cut a novel (and enjoy it)

7968121396_96df1a8d43_cI did my first bookshop  signing yesterday. Big landmark! It was a terrific day, lots of people (which was a relief).  The local writing group came in force and one question came up time and again. ‘My manuscripts end up so long. What should I do?’

Many of their novels were tipping 150,000 words. One gentleman was turning out whoppers of 500,000 and knew he needed to do something about it. But what?

How long is too long?

Actually, length is not a question of wordcount. It’s about pacing. No book seems too long if the material has been handled well. A tome of 100,000 words will read like lightning if it is well paced. A novel of half the length will be a tedious trudge if the pacing is poor.

Of course, the book may be considered too long because of the market and genre. That’s a whole subject in itself. But let’s assume for today that you can have any length you like, so long as it is, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right.

Pace

What is good pacing? It’s holding the attention of the reader. Plot revelations come at just the right speed. Not just plot, but emotional highs and lows, notes of comic relief, moments of growing tension. Well-paced novels keep the reader up past their bedtime.

Coherence

A novel also reads smoothly if it is coherent. Whether it’s a simple story of two friends or a sweeping epic with seven protagonists and a plot that spans a century,  it holds together as one elegant work. Like a well-designed room, everything has a place and it belongs. The material is under control. The more a reader feels the author has this authority, the more they will be gripped.

So when a reader, critique partner or editor tells you the novel is too long, they usually mean you need to fine-tune its coherence and pace. You need to make it a more compelling read.

Why do novels end up too long?

Three reasons:

  1. the writer was having fun and went off at a tangent – nothing wrong with that, it’s part of the organic growth of the novel
  2. the writer found it was more difficult than they expected to get their characters from A to B – again, this is good and will make your novel unpredictable, organic and true
  3. - and most important – it’s almost impossible to keep control of coherence and pace while you are writing. You have to tackle these issues once you have the manuscript complete, and can see what belongs and what needs emphasis. (Some of the writers I spoke to yesterday were surprised by the concept of revising. Especially that revising was an essential, radically artistic process, rather than a quick brush-down for spelling tweaks.)

Take a break, then make a beat sheet

Readers of my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence will be familiar with these two steps. To edit productively, you need critical distance. So take a break. Write something else. Lock your manuscript away until you’ve forgotten most of it. Most of us need at least a month, but the longer the better.

Then make a beat sheet. This is my ultimate revision tool. Before I start editing, I need a way to grasp the structure of the entire book. So I make a summary of each scene’s purpose – why it’s in the story, whether it advances the plot or our knowledge of a character. I use this to decide if I have scenes that aren’t necessary, or are in the wrong place or if they repeat other material.

carrielu2Take many passes

When I start editing, I’m feeling my way. With each pass, I climb further inside the novel. I understand what every scene and character should do, and realise whether to emphasise or condense.

It’s as if cutting is like marathon training. To start with, I make light, obvious  excisions. Repeated words, over-long descriptive passages, portions of scenes that go nowhere. By the end, which may be weeks or even months later, I’m hardcore. I’ll think nothing of reordering a whole sequence of scenes, downgrading a character’s role or merging them with another person. I will gladly let go of ‘darlings’ – scenes, descriptions, characters and plot developments that are there only because I like them, and not because they are needed. (I may have to add scenes too.)

Cutting is creative

Cutting a book can sound like a negative, dispiriting process – another reason why some writers find it difficult. In fact is creative, not destructive. Although the net effect is a tighter wordcount, we’re not throwing material away but discovering what’s not needed. It’s a process of refinement. I love it because it’s where the book develops its distinct personality and identity.

nyn2covsmlThe beat sheet is in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence 

And… announcement! You may have noticed a new cover has appeared in the sidebar. Nail Your Novel: Characters is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

Thanks for the swordsmen pics CarrieLu 

Do you like cutting your novels? Do you have any tips to add?

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Publishing schedule for indie writers – who to hire and when

I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.

Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.

But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?

Here’s a critical path.

1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.

2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.

3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.

Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.

4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.

What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…

5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.

Covers

Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.

With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.

Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).

Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.

Thanks for the pics John Kannenberg and Ron Dough

Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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Final edits – what do you look for?

When your novel is as familiar as the sight of your two hands typing, what do you miss?

I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.

Making sure we stay with the main character #1

There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?

Making sure we stay with the main character #2

The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.

Making dialogue bookish, not filmic

When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.

Culling the fancy stuff

Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.

For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.

Adapting my style for the demands of the book

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.

The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.

We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!

For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn

Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy

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Love writing? Love the tools of the language

Nothing unnatural except for an apostrophe

Here are some terms we must stop using. ‘Grammar Nazi.’ ‘Punctuation police.’ ‘Spelling snob.’

When did we start forgiving sloppiness and sneering at correctness? If you have a genuine love of the writing craft, isn’t it a point of pride to get these things right?

We are writers. Our prose is our instrument. These are not stuffy, irrelevant rules. They are essential technical skills for communication.

When we get them wrong, we trip up the reader. Or we mislead, or undermine ourselves (and here let me metaphorically wave a copy of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves).

Yes, the reader might be able to guess what we really mean, or mentally correct it for themselves. But we shouldn’t do that to them. And for every reader who shrugs off a wrong apostrophe, there’s another who sees it as slovenly ignorance. (That’s me, by the way. Unnecessary apostrophes make me apoplectic.)

Forgive the missing 'c'...

But good grammar, spelling and punctuation go unnoticed. They aid invisibly and discreetly, like an exquisitely trained butler. They let your content speak and breathe for itself. They give your writing poise and control. Doesn’t every writer want that?

I appreciate that if you don’t know about it, it’s daunting. But make it part of your job to find out. If schoolish tomes put you off, there are plenty of more palatable books. If you really struggle, find a beta reader who can salvage your language for you.

To turn to publishing, let’s look at what happens when we don’t take enough care. You may already have seen this post by British writer Anthony Horowitz in the books blog of the Guardian newspaper. Look at the comments. Look at the bile heaped on books with bad grammar, spelling and punctuation (and particularly how the commenters feel this defines self-published books). If you needed proof that writers are judged on these things, look no further.

So please – no more of the N word, the P word or the S word.

My pet hates – what are yours?

Its and it’s are confused

Its means ‘belonging to it’.

It’s is short for ‘it is’.

If you’re still confused, ask yourself if you mean ‘it is’. If you don’t, it’s probably the other one. See how easy it’s?

There and their

If what you mean is ‘where’, the word you want is ‘there’. You may also use it without any meaning of its own in a sentence such as ‘if I see this mistake again there will be blood’.

If you mean ‘belonging to them’, you need ‘their’.

So there.

Reigns and reins

A horse has reins.

A monarch reigns.

You can have a reign of terror, but on a daily basis I see: ‘so-and-so took over the reigns of power’. This is wrong. They are speaking figuratively of leather straps that steer – and so the correct word is ‘reins’.

I also see ‘we had to reign in our spending’. That refers to an act of braking – which is done with a rein.

Nay, nay, nay.

Tell me yours in the comments! And recommend good books on the topic…Thanks for the pics Electricnerve and Jimmiehomeschoolmom

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Can I trust my agent’s advice on my book?

Is the feedback you’re getting for the novel’s good or is it steering you to fit in with the market? This writer asked for my advice

I am in the fortunate position of having got (after plenty of rejections, redrafts etc) an agent for the first novel I’ve written. Which is great. But while the idea of my book is strong, the manuscript needed shaping. With my agent’s help, I’ve been redrafting for the last 15 months, but I’m finding it hard to differentiate between what is solid advice from someone who knows and what are tastes/suggestions that might take my novel away from what I’m trying to do. The suggested changes all ring true in terms of what will make the novel work/sell, it’s a much better book, and I know that what’s being said is mostly good advice, but I want to keep a tight hold on the heart of why I wrote the novel.

I presume this is something all writers have to go through once they open the door to the world, but I’m hoping you have some tips for gaining clarity and creating the best possible version of a story while not losing anything that’s truly integral.

I do sympathise. You’ve edited the novel for so long you probably can’t see where it should go. When someone else is contributing suggestions, you can feel like everything is whirling out of your control. Especially if that person might have different aims from you.

There are two aspects to tackle here.

1. Do you know what you want your novel to be?

You mention you’re worried about losing the heart of the book. Yes, absolutely. But it sounds to me as though you may not be entirely sure what that is.

Often if we’re writing a novel that’s unusual we feel there’s nothing else like it. But there are probably a lot of books like it in certain aspects. If you know what those are, it is far easier to have a meaningful conversation with an editor or agent – and it might also help you get clarity yourself. You can think about the novels that may have given you crucial inspiration. Also, look up Amazon tags for the subjects your novel covers – you can find surprising parallels this way

As well as this, work out which of your agent’s suggestions are raising your artistic hackles. This is similar to the situation I posted about a few weeks ago, where a writer felt her critique group was derailing her novel. The principles are the same – identify what is working for you and what isn’t.

2. Art versus market

Do you fear you’re being steered to write something that is more saleable but less artistically fulfilling?

First of all, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want. I know writers who welcome a lot of direction from their paymasters and are truly happy to fit in with what the market needs. Others decide they have different priorities.

For instance, my novel My Memories of a Future Life was wooed by the senior editor at one of the Big Six, who wanted it to be a murder mystery. Another publisher hinted they would take it if it was reshaped as a conventional thriller. Both urged me to rewrite because their marketing departments would back me after my success as a ghostwriter. But I felt the idea deserved more unusual treatment. My agent liked the novel my way too – and took it out just as it was. But although editors enjoyed reading it, their marketing departments found it too risky.

So agents are not always trying to shoehorn you into a commercial space. And no one can make you change your book or write what you don’t want to. (And if you do try to aim more at the market there are no guarantees your book will sell or be successful enough to lead to a career.)

What do you do?

You mention that your agent has been working with you for 15 months. That’s a long-haul commitment to helping you nurture the book and shape yourself as a writer. This is a good relationship so far, so make the best of it.

It may be that, as I said above, the agent is unsure what you want and is making stabs in the dark. Give them a chance by begin clear about your vision for the book. Then have a frank discussion about how they are guiding you and where they see you in the market.

Best of luck.

Thanks for the pic jcoterhals on Flickr.

Agree? Disagree? How would you advise a writer in this situation? Share in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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Are you writing the wrong genre?

We all have strengths and weaknesses in our writing, but are yours telling you something about the kind of novel you should write?

I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)

Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.

How to pep yourself up

Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?

Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.

But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.

However…

But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.

This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.

Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?

Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.

I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?

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Self-publish or small publishing house? How to decide

I’ve had two questions recently about small publishers. First, Stacy Green: ‘Do you think self-publishing is a better option for new authors than a small publisher whose focus isn’t solely on the next bestseller?’

Also Tahlia Newland: My agent is waiting for the last 3 big publishers she queried for my book to get back to her. If no one wants it, it’s just small publishers left. I’m thinking I’d rather ebook self-publish than go for a small publisher who hasn’t got a big distribution. I’d be doing most of the publicity anyway, so why not be in a position to keep control and maximise profits? What do you think?

There’s an excellent piece here by Michelle Davidson Argyle on what a publisher should be able to do for you.

What I’ll add to that is my own opinion, from my own experience and that of author friends.

The term ‘small publisher’ can cover anything from the small adventurous imprints started by publishing professionals who have decamped from the major companies – to decidedly less qualified outfits led by people who are chancing their arm at publishing. With varying motives.

Quite clearly, the publishers started by the publishing professionals will have the edge. They have the experience, the expertise and the contacts – and you can weigh up an offer simply by googling them and finding out about their reputation. But some small – and micro-small – publishers may not be as good for you as going it alone.

It all comes down to what they will give you in return for the chunk they take and whether that suits you. And in some cases, you have to be able to assess whether they are properly set up to do the best for your book. Leaving aside the crooks, some of the very tiny publishers do not have enough experience in key areas of the business – but they don’t know how important those are. You’ll see from my horror stories below.

But first, here’s a run-down of the major areas in which a publisher can help you and the self-publishing alternatives.

Editorial help

Editorial help certainly can cost. If you go it alone you can hire a professional to do this, but it’s a hassle to set up and takes time away from your writing.

Art, editing and formatting all come with the package when you sign a publishing deal. Even harder to put a price on is the input of an editor who is in tune with what you want to do. The right editor, who chose your book from their company’s slush pile, has fallen in love with your work – unlike an editor you hire. Any good editor can make you better than you believed possible, but one who had to woo you will probably go the extra mile (provided you agree with their vision). They can guide you to revise and revise, and can reassure you when you’ve done enough. An editor you hire can only carry on as long as your purse can hold out. Having a trusted team around you who are helping you hone your book is terrific and irreplacable.

However, if you’re tied to a publisher you’re tied to their professionals. You may love the words people, but not like their cover artwork at all. And you may not get much clout to refuse cover designs you don’t like.

Moreover, you might be right to distrust those designs. I looked at the list of one small publisher and thought at first they were producing municipal leaflets – all their fiction had ugly covers produced with the one template. Yet they’d managed to get authors to sign up with them.

Distribution

Distribution is where your book is stocked. If you go it alone, you can buy packages for this from the POD companies but if you don’t know what you’re getting how do you know what’s worth paying for? And let’s face it, it’s the least creative part of making books, so who has the patience to become expert in it?

But the grass isn’t necessarily greener in a publishing deal. Especially in companies that were set up solely by editorial or production people. And have never had to handle distribution. And don’t know what they don’t know.

I know of one publisher who produced beautiful copies of an author’s work – superior even to the very good quality that POD can produce – but couldn’t organise how to get the books onto Amazon. Instead they sold them through ebay, where no one buys books, and through an obscure website for that genre. They sent the author to a major fair to showcase his work and couldn’t arrange for copies of the book to be available there so that they could be sold. They got reviews in major magazines and the book still isn’t on Amazon.

Market reach

Another question you have to ask yourself is: what is the publisher’s market reach? Can they market to more readers than you can on your own?

Publishers with rigorous selection procedures will be able to get reviews in places that never touch self-published works – such as the national newspapers. That’s a gate you simply can’t open on your own, no matter what you do.

But a couple of reviews aren’t enough to sell your book. You need other gates opened too – to wider audiences. I know of several small publishers who are well enough connected to be able to get reviews in influential places. But some aren’t at all, regardless of how much they talk about how passionately they love good books. Now that we all build tribes, this aspect of a publishing deal is like royal marriages. Some publishers’ tribes aren’t as big as those of some bloggers!

What rights do they keep?

This is a thorny question indeed and is why it is good to have a reputable agent on your side. I’m not offering legal advice here in any capacity, and every single case is different. So if you are currently studying the fine print of an offer and are worried about it, please get proper help. If you don’t have an agent, a rights lawyer can do it for you – although it will cost you (which is one of the reasons why an agent deserves their percentage).

Traditionally, most books are ‘in print’ for a period and once the run is sold they go ‘out of print’ or are printed again. After a certain period you may get your rights back or your contract may come up for renegotiation. Sometimes you can take the book elsewhere if you want.

Many small publishers launch a book through e-editions and print on demand. Print on demand allows a publisher to print a book only when it is needed, saving on warehousing. If a publisher uses POD, they might have a clause that says they will keep your book in print in perpetuity – and that means you can never take advantage of a better offer from somewhere else with a more prestigious reputation. Of course, to look at it from their point of view, they don’t want you using them as a stepping stone to something better, after they’ve put so much effort in (which they may or may not have, of course). Although any legal agreement can be undone if it’s wrangled enough, that’s messy and expensive.

There might even be clauses governing what you may work on in future and who owns it.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We mustn’t forget that being published is the most important milestone a writer can imagine. What most of us want to do is write great books and find someone to handle the less interesting jobs and treat us fairly. A publishing offer may indeed do this. More than that, it may give you moral, emotional, practical and technical support that is beyond measure, pulling you out of isolation and into the ‘proper’ world of writing. After all, it’s not just about money; writers have an innate urge to share, communicate and to know our work is cherished.

But any deal you do is also a business deal about your career.  Not all businessmen are nice. Or some may be terribly nice and awfully incompetent.

If you get any offer from a small or micro-publisher, look very carefully at what they will give you for what they will take.

Thank you, Very Urgent Photography, for the picture

Do you have any experience with small and micro-publishers? Share in the comments!

Oh – shameless plug – My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30!

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36 Comments

Nearly finished? Make yourself a critical list

Sorry I’ve been quieter here than usual. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or have seen my stream in the sidebar will probably know that I’m bolted into my study in the final throes of My Memories of a Future Life. (Can’t tell you much about it yet, but it has its own Twitter ID.) So my blog has forgotten it has an owner, Dave has forgotten he’s got a wife… or he thinks I’ve forgotten him. The upshot is that I can’t talk sensibly about anything that isn’t happening to my characters in their time of crisis.

Anyway, while I do these most final of final edits, I invented a little tool that I thought you might find useful if you’re also at the last pass. I’m calling it the critical list.

What I’m doing at this stage is test-driving the whole book to see it works as it’s supposed to. Speed is of the essence. When we edit we read slowly which is great for detail but gives us a distorted idea of the pace. When we read at the speed a reader does, we understand the flow.

I’m finding points that need a tweak, but that can bog me down to that detail-obsessive snail pace again, which I don’t want. So I make a change, whip out a sentence here or reword something there, and keep a note of the page number so that I can come back and check it at editing speed later. Then I go on through the manuscript, running it at the speed a normal reader would.

Big deal, huh? Sorry. This is probably the least profound post I have ever written on the storytelling art. You are probably wondering if I’ve lost my senses, but such has my world shrunk while in the grip of this book.  You’re very welcome to share your most trivial writing tip ever in the comments, and I’ll be delighted you said hi.

Thank you, Christina Welsh, for the picture – and back soon.

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31 Comments

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