Posts Tagged Guardian masterclass

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: getting distance

guardAll this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue  and a fundamental misconception about self-editing. Today I’m talking about the rest period before we edit.

Phineas H

Putting the book away to get distance

How long do you have to put your book aside before you can see it objectively? One student asked this because he’d left his in a drawer for several years. However, when he read it again, he couldn’t judge whether it worked because he remembered exactly what he meant to say.

One of the biggest editing problems is spotting the difference between what you mean and what comes across. It’s possible that this gentleman did write the novel perfectly. Or maybe he has an unusually retentive memory and will never be able to judge that for himself.

My own memory is terrible. I can barely remember a book I read two months ago – whether my own or anyone else’s. Never before have I considered this to be an advantage but perhaps it is.

Moreover, his point made me realise how individual our writing and revision routines have to be, and also the fundamental essential of the rest period. Leave your book until you’ve forgotten it and are no longer reliving your intentions as you read. If you know you’ll always have trouble with this, or your production schedule doesn’t allow a long wait, line up some beta readers for the test drive.

(Thanks for the pic, Phineas H)

Tomorrow: what revision really means

How long do you leave your manuscripts before you edit? What’s the longest you’ve ever left one? And has anyone seen my car keys?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: the words are only the skin

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write  and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.

Editing is not just tweaking the language

One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.

Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.

Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance

How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: accents and making a character sound distinct in dialogue

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.

Lee carson

Regional accents to make a character sound distinct

One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.

We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.

This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.

Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.

nyn2 2014 sml(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)

Thanks for the pic Lee Carson

Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language

Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.


The bland friend

One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?

The antagonist you’re afraid to write

Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.

nyn2 2014 smlContradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Tomorrow: accents in dialogue

I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. Yesterday I ran a post about three/four-act structure. Today it’s a great point about how you tie up the end.


Tying up the ends at The End – should you write an epilogue?

One student in the class had written a major climax scene, then another scene to tie up the subplot ends, then an epilogue so we could see what the characters did next. She asked, how many climax scenes could you have? How long should you go on after that? She also felt she didn’t know when to let go and allow the book to end.

Deciding the order of the end events is tricky. You need a main climax, which obviously is the major plot thread. Other threads can be solved in less prominent positions, and often work well in the post-climax scene, as the dust is settling, as a leave-taking for the whole book.

But then what? Do you need an epilogue to show life going on? At what point do you pull the plug and send the reader away?

This is very much a gut decision, but I’ve seen a lot of writers who can’t leave their characters behind. They embark on epic epilogues which dilute the ending, water down its poignance or sweetness, or delay the final punch for too long.

But I know why we write them. I did it myself with My Memories of a Future Life. I wrote several more chapters after the end, page after page, but I recognised that this was so that I could let go. It was an act of exorcism, just for me. I never intended those chapters to be in the book.

Of course, in your mind and in the reader’s there’s always more to tell. So answer this – what will an epilogue add? And who are you adding it for – the reader or yourself?

Thanks for the pic peddhapati

Tomorrow: two difficult types of characters

Do you have trouble tying up the end of a novel? Have you ever written extra chapters so you could ‘let go’? Have you ever had feedback that suggested you’d paced these ending chapters wrong, either too abruptly or too slowly?

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Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots

guardYesterday I was teaching a course for Guardian newspapers on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 7 days.


Three/four-act story structure – how strictly must you stick to it?

Briefly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and seem to work best when the major turning points are at 25%, 50% and 75%.

It’s a formula followed by Hollywood screenplays, and it’s certainly useful for novelists – but as a guideline, not a hard rule. In novels it probably won’t matter if you begin your climax at 80% instead of 75%. If you begin at 90% the ending might feel abrupt because you might not have time to come down the other side. You might also have too much of a lull beforehand. On the other hand, it might be perfect.

Where the structure rules become really useful is if you spot a problem. If the end seems too sudden, or too drawn out, would repositioning it help?

Tomorrow: ends and epilogues

Thanks for the pic TMAB2003 on Flickr

Let’s discuss! Do you find the three/four-act structure is useful to you, too formulaic? Has it helped you iron out a problem in your manuscript?

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How much time should writers spend blogging and building websites?

bloggingI’ve had a question from Tina L McWilliams: Besides Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc, a website is obviously essential. But what type? Some writers have simple ones, with their books, an author biography and so forth. Others – you and Joanna Penn included – have ‘education’ sites. Which I love, and return to regularly. (Thanks! Ed) So, could you discuss the importance and the time involved with both?

Oh my, do I have websites – here, here, here and of course right here. That’s four web homes. (I’ll explain why later, but first:)

Why have them at all?

If you’ve got Twitter, Facebook, G+, you’re certainly making good connections. But you’re fitting a limited format with little room to customise. You need a place to invite folks to when they want to know more.

Also, you control your website’s destiny. A social medium might disappear – or your crowd might (MySpace, anyone?). But your site is yours.

Quick detour – should your site be self-hosted? I’ve blogged about this here and here, including the importance of your own URL. (I’ll be talking about that later.)

How extensive does the site have to be?

If the site’s raison d’etre is to tell people who you are, you don’t need more than a few static pages – about you, your books, contact details. Perhaps a page of upcoming events if you do a lot of these (I don’t so I use social media for this). And voila: a website.

If you add a blog, you get noticed more. Search engines favour sites that are frequently updated. Human visitors like to see they’re on the blog of a person who regularly shows up, and notices when new folks call. There are a lot of dead, forgotten sites out there, so you need to make your site look alive.

manuscriptyfillerShould you blog about writing and publishing?

Honestly? The ether is choked with sites about writing and publishing.

Here’s a reason not to: being distinctive If you write straightforward posts about ‘show not tell’ you might find it hard to be noticed – and that’s one of our goals, right? So your posts need to be individual. A lot of writers blog about their lessons and mishaps on their writing journey, so you might find it hard to reach further than immediate friends.

Here’s a reason to: getting your material shared If the content is useful or strikes a chord, it’s more likely to be shared. Certainly a lot of people want to learn about writing and publishing. And you might win fans for your gloriously whacky voice (like Chuck Wendig).

But consider this:

Who do you want your content shared with?

Most authors who blog about writing will only reach other writers. That’s fine for me because writing tuition is part of what I do (but it’s not everything – see below). If you’re blogging to help people develop a taste for your fiction? firstYou might be better choosing something else:

  • your issues, if your fiction is issues based
  • your historical period if appropriate
  • other books in your niche
  • host other authors (like Jane Davis), campaign for better recognition for indie authors (like Paul Sean Grieve), start a blog series like David Abrams on The Quivering Pen with My First Time or me with The Undercover Soundtrack.

Blogging to promote your fiction? The dilemma for literary authors

I still haven’t sussed this myself. Partly this is because my kind of fiction doesn’t suggest bloggable ‘topics’. One book might deal with, say, musicians, reincarnation and despair (My Memories of a Future Life). Another might feature repressive regimes and ruined country houses (Lifeform Three).

Even so, those aren’t really my ‘subjects’. I can write the odd guest post about them, but not regular blogs. Ever Rest and my embryonic ideas are different again. My signature, if I have one, is thematic: ideas of the soul and memory, conditions of haunting. I have only realised this as I roam about in Novel 3. I could blog about those themes, but it might discharge my need to explore them in the books.

So subject and issues blogging isn’t going to work for me. But it might be good for you.

Make it regular

Your blog needs to look current. So make blogging a regular appointment. Include a calendar so visitors can see the pattern. A list of previous or popular posts will tempt them to stay longer. The longer people stay on your site, the better.

How frequently should you blog?

As often as you find manageable. Experts say that for SEO significance it should be several times a week, but that might exhaust most of us. And think of it from the reader’s perspective. How much time do you have to read blogs, even the ones you love? Once a week is probably plenty to keep you on the radar.

Which brings me to…  what I do and how much time I spend. 

Why do I have so many sites? 

It was an accident, but it seems to work. Each site has a distinct purpose, and they’re all connected to one hub and to each other.

Nail Your Novel

This one you’re reading is my original site. More here about how it started, where you can also see charming screenshots of how my blogs looked in 2011 (eek!).

Post frequency: I put up a writing/publishing post once a week plus a trailer for The Undercover Soundtrack. Plus signposts if I’ve got a guest spot or devilishly exciting news like a launch. Overall, at least 2 posts a week.

Time taken: I can’t just slap a post out. I spend at least 5 hours of cogitating, checking examples to make sure I’m not making idiotic assumptions, finding pics. You don’t have to spend as long if that’s not your style. Later there are comments to answer, shares to acknowledge and other networking to do. Every few months I might tweak the sidebar icons, so that’s another occasional hour or two. I reckon my blog swallows a full day a week – at least. (Is that shocking?)

ucovwhatMy Memories of a Future Life and The Undercover Soundtrack

Post frequency: twice a week. One trailer to introduce my guest, written by me. One Soundtrack post. Although I don’t write these, they take time behind the scenes. I book guests well in advance (as you’ll know if you’ve featured!). When posts come in, I read them, write back with praise (of course!) and quite often ask for tweaks if I think this would make them fit the format better.

Time taken: about 2 hours per week, depending on resubmissions.

How it started: I’d built a blog for writers, but it wasn’t designed for introducing my fiction. When I launched my novel, I worked out a separate profile-building strategy and wrote this post full of bold plans. I reread it just now and added updates for what lasted and what proved daft or impossible to sustain. Mostly the latter. You might find it amusing.

Another reason to have a separate site was to claim the URL. There are several reasons:

  • Easier for readers to find in a Google search
  • A handy and sensible URL to put on business cards
  • Allowed me to create a separate site with artwork in the novel’s livery (if I went self-hosted again I could have done this without making a separate site, but that would have been too disruptive)
  • I can transfer it if I want

Roz Morris, author

I got this by accident. I broke the original Nail Your Novel site, so tried WordPress hosting. I found I’d been given a blog called RozMorris, which sat idle before I realised it even existed. Then I decided to use it as a hub for the others.

Time taken: a few hours to set up introductory pages. I’ve added other material gradually as I write it for other purposes – perhaps 20-30 minutes at a time.

Updating when a new book launches I set aside a few hours to add a new page, update pics and the main header, then all the versions of it on my newsletter head, FB page, blog head and sidebar, G+, Twitter biography… I’ve got a master list in my production schedule so I don’t miss anything.

Lifeform Three

This is a separatelfsite site with its own URL, knitted into the others.

Time taken: like the main aucovuthor site above.

So many sites!

I did warn you. If I was starting now, I’d have one blog and one author site for everything else. But The Undercover Soundtrack became its own entity, and I couldn’t graft Lifeform Three on without breaking it. I also couldn’t leave Lifeform Three as a poor cousin with no presence of its own.


blogshotSo my web-web is like a house that’s been extended and extended as times change and the family grows. I don’t doubt it looks messy to purists, and especially when explained here. I’m anticipating comments of horror. However, I don’t think readers mind if the navigation is clear. I doubt they notice the different URLs. But they would certainly baulk if they had to learn a different visual grammar each time. Even though the artwork on each site is different, it follows the same core design so they find what they want quickly.

And yes, apologies. This post is a tad late. Because sometimes life gets in the way of blogging.

Thanks for the blogging pic, Mike Licht of Notions 


guardNEWS I’m thrilled to announce I’m teaching a Guardian Masterclass in advanced self-editing techniques for fiction writers. Of course, London might not be a manageable distance for you, but if it is, here’s where to find out more. And … psst … it’s one of the many good things that have happened because once upon a time, I started a blog.

Do you have a blog, a website or both? How much time do you spend on them? Do you want to suggest a way for me to streamline mine? Tell me in the comments!

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Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

7345133320_0dd41c6fc1_cThis post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.

1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing

– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.

As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.

Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.

But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.

guar teaching w joanna

Teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass: pic courtesy of Joanna Penn

2 It isn’t either-or.

Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.

Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.

There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)

Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.

LAF workshop

Workshop at the London Author Fair: that’s Dave looking thoughtful on my left!

3 Selfpublishing your first book

Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.

Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.

What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:

1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book

2 They might be fibbing (surely not)

3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.

I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.

And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.

Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair

What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments

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