I’m really glad Dave and I kept our DVD player. If you watch movies and boxsets on DVD you get something that isn’t usually available on streamed versions – the extras, with interviews about the making of the piece, or the casting, or the design, or the adaptation for the screen. Sometimes they’re a bit throwaway, sometimes they’re deep and insightful, but all have a sense of creative energy, a love of the project, a pride in the artform, and a sense of a lot of talents coming together.
Publishing a book is like that too. Perhaps there are fewer people involved than on a movie or a TV show, but there’s still a sense of great and noble effort. Well, I think it’s noble.
That’s one of the things I’m talking about in this interview, with satirical and speculative fiction author Andrew Verlaine on his show Publishing Talks.
Andrew is at the beginning of his publishing journey, with a novel scheduled for 2025. We talk about the surprises he might face in the production process, the different experts who contribute to the polish of a published book, like the different trades in a filmed work. We talk about the constructive nature of editing, how a good editor will help you discover your superpowers and also your blind spots – and then, with luck, open your eyes. And about the finicky and fine work of making something as complex and wondrous as a book, which a person will one day read and experience, will keep on their shelf, will buy for a friend as a gift, and might never forget.
I’d never have believed, when we recorded this episode in October 2015, that its subject would seem like a relic of a bygone age. It certainly felt bygone in the depths of lockdown winter. Now, as the sky brightens in the second week of March 2021, we might at some point be able to hold events where authors meet readers. Though they will be adapted for our new times, some principles we discuss in this episode still hold – attracting readers, boosting the work of the authors who participate, and giving everyone a good time. So as the UK Government presents its roadmap back to normal, I present to you a roadmap to a small, much-missed aspect of author and bookselling life. If you’re moved to comment on how this makes you feel, do drop a note in the box below.
As always, my co-host is (retired) independent bookseller Peter Snell.
I just finished the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, and am now querying agents. So I’ve had to write a synopsis.
I don’t know any writer who relishes the synopsis. Essentially, you take 100,000 words (103,000, in my case) and boil it down, spoilers and all, to 500. And hate every moment.
But we have to do it. And this time, I came to an important realisation, one that made the process so much easier.
First, you need to get it down.
Phase 1 – outline the story
Start with the protagonist. Introduce them and the status quo.
Describe the incident that kicks off the main action and how it affects the main character.
Describe how everything becomes complicated, the main plot turns, how they test the protagonist and make them change their goals.
Mention any traditions and tropes of your genre that will appeal to your ideal readers. Amazing settings, outlandish murders etc.
Describe the protagonist’s lowest point.
Add the ultimate crisis or confrontation, and how the protagonist faces it.
Finish with the resolution – how the protagonist is changed (or not), whether they’re wiser, happier, sadder, more true to themselves etc.
Now consider other characters, if you haven’t already. Who else should you add so the synopsis makes sense? Choose the most important characters.
How do those main relationships develop? Add that.
Also add themes and issues.
And lastly, what’s your most original and exciting idea? Make sure you’ve showcased that.
Splice it all together, so it flows as a story in its own right.
You’ll have to fit it into just one page. There’s a lot you might have to leave out. In Ever Rest, I have four main characters, but there wasn’t room in the synopsis to explain all their arcs. So I left one out. My synopsis is a version of the story with just three of the main characters.
So you now have a document that makes sense but probably looks entirely soulless, compared with the rich experience it is derived from.
Hold that thought.
Here, we eavesdrop on writerly life.
Husband Dave is also a writer (here’s a post about the two-writer household). It’s useful for support and also for tough love.
Dave: ‘Have you got your synopsis ready?’
Me: ‘Yes. I hope nobody reads it.’
Dave: a severe look.
I realised. That would not do.
I searched my soul. I had written the synopsis in a state of frustration and rebellion. This is stupid. Why do I have to write this? I’d prefer you read the whole book instead.
Does that sound familiar?
So here’s the biggest secret.
I decided I had to stop hating that document.
Writers are creatures of expressive emotion, and that emotion shines through our work. The reader can tell which characters we’re most committed to, which situations arouse our deepest curiosity, which ideas we love. We draw on our most genuine parts to write a story. We believe in it. We need to bring that belief to the synopsis too.
I read my synopsis and saw it had no soul. It was just a series of events. I rewrote those events, concentrating instead on the characters’ emotions. The rage, the hope, the fear, the distress, the dread, the yearning. Suddenly, I was enjoying it. I still loved telling the story the long way, the proper way. But now, I loved this new way to tell it.
That’s what you’re looking for. If someone reads your synopsis, you want them to crave the full-length experience, not to shrug and move on.
So set yourself a challenge. You know you’ve got a fine book, full of emotion, jeopardy and your own genius originality. For your second phase of synopsising, write with that spirit. Don’t write it with disdain. Write it with love.
If you dig way back in the archives here, you’ll find comments from Laura Stanfill. She was an energetic correspondent in the early years of my blog and we’re both fans of the slow-maturing, carefully built novel.
In 2012 she went quiet and it turned out she’d been brewing an audacious project – her own publishing house, Forest Avenue Press (hence her Twitter name @ForestAvePress). It’s a testament to her energy that I heard plenty about Forest Avenue before I knew Laura was behind it, and once I did, I badgered her for a proper interview.
I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about this pioneering journey, and especially the tricky business of building an imprint in one of the most challenging – and dare I say it, cautious – corners of the literary world. Actually, it doesn’t have to be cautious, as you’ll see.
Once we got talking, we had way too much for one blog post, so the Laura interview will be my theme for this week. Here’s how it will go:
Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’
Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’
A week in the life of a small press
Movements, movers and shakers – publishers and authors as literary citizens
This week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.
It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.
What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:
Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?
I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.
Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.
What about the sanctity of the byline?
In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.
Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.
Books are rarely solo projects
Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.
A quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.
In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)
Art v commerce
Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).
And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.
Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.
Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.) Publishing is a business
But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial. Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.
This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.
‘Let’s not lose the writer’
In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’
Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.
Matt Haig also said:
‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’
I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).
I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.
It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.
I know email newsletters are the holy grail of marketing and building an audience. I fully accept that we need to nudge people to sign up. I know we need to use calls to action, and not be afraid to say ‘here’s my book and here’s where to buy it’ or ‘this offer will end soon’.
But a lot of email marketing now seems to overstep the mark. And some particularly odious tactics are being taught as techniques for success.
I’ve been provoked to write this because I’ve been sent a rather tempting offer – to promote a course on email marketing, for which I’d get a 75% affiliate fee. Very generous, but … I loathe many of the tactics they teach. I can’t promote a course that teaches them. Not even for 75%.
Are there any email marketing tactics you’d like to see outlawed? Here are my top three.
Bullying pop-ups on websites
I go to a website and I’ve barely spent a second there before a pop-up nags me to sign up. A great big banner, difficult to banish, that stops me seeing anything else. People, if I can’t read your stuff, I don’t know whether I want to invite you to my inbox. Please, let me mooch around and get to know you at my own pace. It’s like being accosted by a pushy shop assistant. Yes, I know your purpose is to sell things, I’m not using you as a free museum. But before I know if I want anything, I need to look. Really look.
Sometimes these pop-ups have a ‘don’t show this again’ option. Often, they have the memory of a goldfish because clicking them makes no difference. And they even pounce on you if you’re already subscribed.
Hysterical chain of build-up emails
I know we get excited when we’ve got a launch. And we want to make the most of it. Cover reveal, early-bird review copies, paperback release etc. I don’t see anything wrong with emailing about those because they’re tangible new phases. And it’s fair enough to warn people that a special offer is about to close.
But some people send a blizzard of emails just for the sake of buzz. Watch out, an email will be coming. Then: the offer is nearly ready to send to you, are you excited? (No, I’m not.) Then: tomorrow an email is coming. It’s me again, don’t forget I’ve got a thing and I don’t want you to miss it.
Our inboxes need to lose weight. We don’t need the extra flab of empty nagging.
Prodding when you don’t respond to an offer or call to action.
‘I just wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this offer/release/crowdfunding campaign/ because I was worried that I hadn’t heard from you and I was worried that my email might accidentally have fallen into your spam folder or been forgotten or been deleted by your mischievous nephew or your arch-rival who wants to see your career collapse in tatters.’
No you didn’t. You’ve got an add-on that snitches when people don’t jump at the first email. That’s just nasty.
But do these tactics work?
I’ve seen the arguments. Pop-ups apparently get more subscriptions even though nobody ever welcomes them. Email nagging gets more sales or click-throughs, even if they’re deleted immediately because it’s the number of exposures that does the magic. But does it work, long term? What has it cost you in terms of your relationship with the reader? One of the functions of an email newsletter is to build trust, isn’t it?
The principles aren’t bad. I’m sure these tactics could be used persuasively and with grace, rather than to alienate. So let’s brainstorm – what do you respond to in email newsletters? What do you like? What makes you unsubscribe – and indeed, subscribe?
Rachel Anderson asks: How did you get into editing? Did you start writing first and then take on editing as a natural second, or was it out of necessity since there are more opportunities for editors than writers?
Oof, talk about cutting to the quick. It’s certainly tricky to make a living as a full-time writer. So most writers also use their wordsmithing in some other way – teaching or working in the publishing trade.
But does that mean all writers could be editors? Not necessarily. There’s a lot of difference between tidying your own work and shaping someone else’s to professional standards.
And you need different skills for the various strains of editing.
Copy editing and proof reading These are the nitpicky, forensic phases. Fact-checking and querying. Reading for consistency, clarity, correctness, house style, possible libel. The copy editor and proof reader are a human error trap – they have to catch anything that might be inaccurate, or would spoil the reader’s experience or undermine the author’s command. They have to spot anything that could possibly go wrong such as characters’ names changing half-way through, repeated passages from copy/paste mistakes, and snafus that no other human has yet encountered.
Rachel: I’ve been reading articles and stuff about developmental editing…
Aha – the creative stuff! For developmental editing, you need a mind for detail and a solid grounding in the mechanics of fiction (or non-fiction or memoir if that’s where you want to specialise – they need developmental editors too). Developmental editing is part diagnosis, part teaching. You need sharp radar for what isn’t working, and you need to explain this to the writer in a way that helps them solve it. Equally, it might be your job to solve it.
The best developmental editors understand how writers work and think – and this is where it helps to be a writer yourself, although it’s not an essential. You need to appreciate what havoc your suggestions might cause – for instance, if you recommend a writer rejigs a plot thread or combines two characters.
You also have to be a mind-reader – the best editors can figure out what the writer was aiming to do and advise them on how to achieve it. Or how to steer them to a wise course with their material. Developmental editors also need to be steeped in the genres they’re working with – the advice you’d give a paranormal writer would be very different from the way you’d direct a literary one.
Rachel: Do I need to get certification or training before trying to get people to trust me? Should I try to land a traditional job with a press or publishing house instead of (or before) striking out on the freelance path?
You can get training in copy editing and proof reading – in the UK a good place to start is the Society for Editors and Proof Readers . It’s trickier to learn developmental editing as it’s a matter of experience and I don’t know of any vocational courses. Even if there were, it’s the kind of thing you have to develop a sense for.
Here’s what I’d advise – read all you can about how fiction works. Join a good critique group where some of the members are working authors. Most freelance developmental editors, though, earned their spurs in a publishing house – so yes, I think this is the best path and it’s the surest way to prove to writers that you’re bona fide. And you’ll usually find yourself doing the copy editing and proof reading as well. Even if that doesn’t light your fire, it’s a useful string to your bow.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll have seen a good bit of gallivanting this week at the London Book Fair. As soon as Olympia closed its doors, the Alliance of Independent Authors began its 24-hour marathon festival of advice and information for authors. Whether you’re indie or not, there’s heaps of interesting stuff for the 2016 author, such as: a cover design clinic, marketing advice and tips on crowdfunding.
Question: how to take criticism
One writer remarked that she found it deeply painful to receive criticism about her work. Not because she thought she didn’t need it. She keenly appreciated that a perceptive critical appraisal would be full of helpful pointers. She would act on its suggestions.
But still she could never escape this gut-level reaction: this darn well hurts.
As an author who can agonise for years over a manuscript, I never forget what it costs. A long game of stubborn persistence, scrunched drafts, discipline and self-belief. This, I think, is why the criticism is so painful – because it seems to disregard that epic effort. But even if the book isn’t yet perfect, the glitches found in a critique are minor in quantity if you compare them with the work already done. A critique shouldn’t be seen as invalidation of your investment in the book, or an indication that you’re not fit to be in charge of it. You know you built it from many careful decisions. A critique is the final piece of help to allow you to complete that work.
Question: how to stay inspired through multiple revisions
So the theme of the day was persistence. Many drafts, lots of graft, honing until your eyes cross. But how, one writer asked, do we keep hold of our vision and stay the distance?
I talked about The Undercover Soundtrack. Of course I did; you know that’s my thing. One student countered with a delightful variation. She collected album covers for inspiration, for promises of ideas and worlds and characters. Isn’t that divine?
That crossed a dream; afternoons in Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange, enthralled by the track listings of albums, though just as often, the songs couldn’t live up to my hopes. Ah well. (These do, though; from Jonsi. )
This is what we need over the long period of writing and editing. We need ways to refresh our excitement and anticipation, our belief that the book is worth persisting with until it fulfils our hopes.
So I’ll end with two questions. How do you take criticism, deep in your heart of hearts? Have you developed coping mechanisms and what are they? And how do you keep your inspiration through multiple drafts?
Oh my! Do you know what I forgot to do? There hasn’t been an Undercover Soundtrack for a few weeks, and now there is I forgot to publish the teaser post. How easily we forget our own routines. Even more heinous, I’ve been adding the tracks to the soundtrack for my own WIP, greedily enjoying it while forgetting I needed to share it with you. Apologies, apologies.
So: my guest spent 16 years as a rock journalist, interviewing stars and trying to understand what their music was trying to say. When he started to write his first novel, music took on a fresh role – no longer the endpoint, it was now the beginning. The book is the story of a man looking back on an intense love affair, and the music is an aural journey of the character’s obsession, his unstable serenity that could turn dark, his complex sense of comfort in the prison of his memories. Dan Gennoe is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack (and has been since Wednesday, mea culpa). Proper writing post to follow later, but for now, sit back with Dan.