The three-pass rule

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I have a rule. No, that’s not true. I have a theory, an idea, and it’s this: after every big change you need to make at least two more passes of your manuscript before you can send it out into the great wide world.

At the moment I’m doing major revisions to my latest work-in-progress. This is a good novel (I think) but one upon which I stuffed a little in the character department. I have a plan to combine two characters into one easy-to-swallow morsel. This obviously involves a lot lot lot of work.

So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to concentrate on that job. I’m not going to worry so much about the actual words I use. I’m not going to worry too much about little slips or finding the perfect prose. This draft is for big things: for who does what and when and how. Not about perfecting the micro-expressions or the tiny gestures.

And that’s why I’ll need another draft when this is done. I’ll need a troubleshooting pass, a precision-engineering job after the great earthmoving of pass #1 (actually pass #6, but it’s been a while since the last one). I need to make sure the voice is right, the silences are on cue and the smiles are from and to the right people.

So: two passes, one for heavy engineering, one for precision. So why is this a three-pass rule?

Truth is that two might be enough, but I’m not happy – I don’t trust myself enough – that this is enough to catch all the imperfections with this little work.

But before that, it’s time for a break.

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Such intense work is likely to take you extremely close to the material. So close, in fact, that you start to lose objectivity and focus. So it’s my plan that before I go on for a third pass I take a long, hard go at something else before coming back to the work in question. This isn’t my idea, of course; it’s in all books of writing advice and the like. I’m just trying to (finally) put it into practice.

That’s where I am at the moment with New Gods, the last in my Antarctic trilogy. I did a major overhaul then cantered through it to fix obvious errors. Now I’ve set it to one side to let cool and to give myself a little distance before I go through it again.

This would also be the time to get beta-readers involved but I fear I’ve already blown all of mine on earlier drafts.

And, while I wait, I’m on to the next task. For writing is a production line and there should always be something on the conveyor belt.

On saying no

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One of the hardest things I’ve had to do recently is turning down work. There is a terrible fear in me; that no once is no forever – that I’ll destroy my reputation by turning round to my putative employer and saying ‘Sorry. Can’t do this.’

The work in question was a piece of emergency proofreading; a short-turnaround job that came with a promised £30 bonus if I were to drop everything – by which I mean cancel family plans – to complete a piece in three days.

I could certainly use the money. It’s been a fallow period for me, earning-wise, over the last month or so and this request was from my one reliable source of income. Not only did I need the cash but I wanted to please: I always want to please, which is perhaps my biggest flaw as a human being.

But a £30 bonus isn’t that much compensation for stress and disruption and a weekend apart from my wife and the tiny monster. So – reluctantly – I turned it down.

And it was fine. I got an understanding response and it turned into a dialogue about my next pieces of work with them. As, intellectually, I knew would happen. Emotionally, though, for a few days, I was a big ball o’ anxious.

Where does this fear come from? It’s nothing but counter-productive. It doesn’t help us do our work, though maybe ensures conscientiousness.

The point, though, is this: it’s okay to say no. It’s much better to say no at the outset then to take on the impossible and fail. And, if you do take on the impossible, tell those who matter that you’ll miss deadlines in good time. These are tricky skills but ones a writer will have to get used to using.

You know all this anyway. You know all this and it makes it absolutely no easier. Well, at the very least, you are not alone. There’s plenty of fools like me around and if I’m surviving, you can too.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been offered another job. And, though it means I have to work like the clappers, I’ve accepted.

Say yes to saying no.

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The fallibility of success

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If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

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I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

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That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

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So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

Getting into editing for fun and profit

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I’ve been doing commercial editing work for a few years now. Mostly it’s been sporadic, just a few clients a year. Recently, however, I got a Big Score: I’ve been added to the approved copyeditors list of a significant name in the SFF field.

And it occurred to me: maybe you’d like to know how I did it? Not that I’m exactly sure myself, but if you’ve ever had the urge to go down this road, here’s my idiot’s guide (because I’m an idiot) to getting a toe into the editorial world:

  1. Get good at writing. Of course you’re all way along this step already. You’re reading this blog for a start, which suggests you’ve an interest in writing. That’s good. Keep it up. Read much, write much, practice, grow.You DO NOT need to know every single grammar term. You don’t need to have read English at university. Knowledge always helps – grammar-language is a shortcut for those in the know – but I struggle with anything beyond nouns. It’s not essential.  Similarly, most editing work these days is done with Track Changes on MS Word. You don’t need to know all the proofreading symbols, though they are fun.
  2. Join a writing group. Not only will this help with Point 1 but it’ll help you get used to taking and giving critiques. Start with critiques of manageable length and with giving feedback pitched at the level (and confidence) of the writer.
  3. Give full manuscript critiques. I did a lot – over a dozen – as part of a group who did reciprocal feedback – I’d read theirs, they’d read mine. Practice. Get used to going through a manuscript and seeing what strikes you as wrong and what works well. And listen to other people’s critiques too.
    If you can’t find people to exchange views with, look online. There’s always people looking for beta-readers.
  4. Be poor. I needed a way to monetise my skills, and, as these are limited, I was looking for a way to turn words into cash.
  5. Find a mentor. This isn’t essential but it does help. My writers’ group contained a retired proofreader who very generously offered to act as my guide. In practice I didn’t ask much of her, but she did put me in touch with my first paying customer, which is always a bonus.
  6. Find advice. Search Twitter for editors. Ask them for help. I was very lucky to stumble upon Dan Coxon of Momus Editorial; he gave me the names of two key reference works and was generally kind and encouraging. People – me included, though I’m mostly a doofus – are kind and will help if they can.
  7. Learn the differences between different kinds of editing. There are a lot of different terms – structural edit, proof-editing, developmental edit and so on – but the two main types are proofreading and copy-editing. See this guide for details, but bear in mind that each website you search will tell you something slightly different. Trust nobody! Especially not me!
  8. Do a course. Having decided that I wanted to go down this road, I decided to pay for membership of SfEP and to do their ‘Proofreading 1’ course. I’m not sure if it was entirely worth it – it was a little basic and I’ve not made much use of SfEP’s other services – but there are courses out there if you’re interested. At the very least it may give you some confidence and allows you to flash this handy logo sfep-badge-[entry-level-member]-normalat prospective clients. And there’s a pricing-guide to tell you how much to charge and fora upon which to ask questions.
  9. Be nice. Assuming you have a social media presence, use it for good, not evil. If you’ve been to one (or both) of my book signings you’ll know of my story: that the aforementioned Dan Coxon ended up proofreading Night Shift. Good relationships with people in the industry – built over months, not minutes – will eventually bring opportunities
  10. Advertise. Create a webpage or add a page to an existing blog. Get business cards (I didn’t do this until the night before Sledge-Lit and missed off half the necessary information) and look for conventions at which to hand them out.
  11. Email publishers. And this, folks, is how I got my business. I simply cold-called publishers until I got a break.What swung it was my knowledge of genre-fiction, and the fact that the publisher in question was kinda desperate. But until these people have heard of you there’s no way they can give you a chance.

There’s more, of course. There always is. You might be asked to do a test or trial, possibly for little or no money. I was lucky enough to get paid for my debut proofreading, upon which I was so anal that I was immediately shunted into the ‘copyeditors’ file.

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And this is only my experience. I’m sure there are many other ways of getting into the editorial field that I’m almost totally ignorant of.

But I can only speak for my experiences.

If you’re thinking of getting into proofreading or copyediting, it’s only fair that I give you a few harsh truths before we part. Because it’s not the land of milk and honey that you may be thinking:

    1. You will not get rich. Publishers, especially the smaller ones who are more likely to take you on, count every penny. You may well be paid by the job rather than by the hour. My first job for a publisher (as opposed to dealing with the author directly) saw me work for around £5.30 per hour – way below minimum wage and certainly not enough to live on.
    2. You will have to work to deadlines.
    3. You will be a freelancer. You will not have a pension, holiday or sick-pay. You will have periods where you have too much work and – more likely – you’ll have periods where you have nothing on at all.
    4. This means that you will, at least at first, need another source on income. You also have to be ready to put your real life on hold. You may have to work evenings and weekends to get things done.
    5. You will need to have a few basic business competencies: time management, producing invoices, keeping accounts and so on.
    6. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with the government and be prepared to pay tax on your earnings.

 

This is a lot of info and I’m sure I’ve left reams out. And, I stress again, this is a story of how I did it; it’s not the only way, and I very much doubt it’s the best way. Hopefully it will give you at least a rough idea of how to go about it. If you have any questions I’ll do my very best to answer them.

I’ve been lucky. I look around and see where I am and I blink in astonishment.

Chasing sales

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In case it passed you by, I’ve been doing a bit of self-promotion recently. Night Shift came out (available from all good bookshops and some really rather dodgy ones too) and I had not one but two launch parties to celebrate/shift some books.

Both these events went well. Better than I could have hoped, really. But there is a truth that we should address before we get too further, and it’s this: they’re not going to help me at all.

Reason the first:

I was given an advance upon signing my contract. Any copies that are sold on the back of my efforts – appearances, interviews and the like – will go to the publishers, not me. Not until I’ve earned out my advance, which isn’t going to happen overnight – and, indeed, most advances are never earned out. Most authors never see a penny in royalties.

Reason the second:

No cash from my efforts is going into my pockets. It’s all going to bookshops and, through them, to the publishers, to staff, taxes, bills and the like. But the money I spend on travel, accommodation, sustenance and the like – that’s coming straight from me.

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The frank truth is that you are going to spend more on an event then you ever see back. Even if you self-publish, and at least a share of the takings is going straight to you, you’re likely going to have to spend on refreshments and maybe split costs with the venue*.

Don’t think that inviting the local press will help either. I mean it will help – you might get the odd extra sale that way. You’re unlikely to get the tens of sales you’d need to cover all the wine you’ve drunk to give you the courage to do the event in the first place.

Besides, despite the best efforts of my publicist – yes, I do have such a thing, I’m slightly embarrassed to say – no local press turned up at either of my events. Apparently journalists don’t like working into the evening.

So is my advice is for you to shun all such opportunities for appearances and remain solely a keyboard-warrior? Hold on there, youngster! Be not so hasty.

First, though you may not get immediate rewards, the more books you sell the more likely you are to get a second book published. You may never earn out that advance, but the closer you get the better.

Second, appearances are fun.

You’ve worked damn hard to get a book out. You’re entitled to a celebration. There aren’t many times in your life when you’re the centre of attention**. Why not make the most of it?

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Sales come from word-of-mouth recommendations and repeated mentions; in my A-Level General Studies course (my only A grade, fact fans) I learned that you need to hear of something five times before you’ll consider checking it out. This may or may not be true but it’s not a bad way to think.

So do events; get out there and be seen.

But don’t do it to chase sales. Do it for the sheer unadulterated hell of it.

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*Okay, I’m sure it is possible to run an event that costs you nothing; maybe a local bar will host in exchange for drinks sales. But the point stands. Even if you have an event in your own front room you’d best provide nibbles

**I realise that, to some people, this might sound like hell. If you’re one of these people – and I oscillate wildly between loving the spotlight and loathing it with a fiery passion – then you don’t have to do it. Don’t let anyone – least of all me – tell you that you must make personal appearances

Upon further review

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Book burning at Wartburgfest 1817; illustration of 1883 (artist unknown)

So: reviews are coming in for Night Shift. This is, by and large, a good thing; It shows that copies are getting out to people – well, book-bloggers – and that, through them, the novel is getting a little attention.

Possibly the only thing I’ve remembered from my A-Level General Studies course is that you need to have heard of something (a band, a book, any sort of brand) at least five times before you think of checking it out for yourself. I’ve never been quite sure it’s true but if it’s not it’s still a good-enough lie.

So any mention of my work is welcomed. It doesn’t mean much if the only voice is my own constant nagging monologue; but multiple sources recommending a book makes a real difference.

Of course, not all mentions will be positive. The greater your fame spreads the more likely you are to hear dissenting voices. You’re going to have to learn how to take a negative review.

Last time I looked – I’m not going on too often – Goodreads reviews had been mostly positive. But one person had given me 2-star rating and another a fairly unimpressed 3. So here’s my ‘I’ll probably end up being a hypocrite over this’ guide to dealing with less-than-stellar reviews:

  • Remember that they’re not criticising you as a person. Yes, we all put a lot of ourselves into our work but saying that someone doesn’t like your work is not saying that they think any less of you as a person. Yes, there may be exceptions – if, say, your book is about something very important to you (transgender rights, for example) and someone disagrees fundamentally then it’s hard not to take it personally. Try and keep that distance, though: you are not your work.
  • They are not reviewing your best work. Your best hasn’t been written yet. And on that subject…
  • Publishing takes time. I’m not going to say ‘you should have been writing something else whilst the process was ongoing’ because life isn’t always straightforward. But you’re not the same person you were when you wrote that first draft. What you do now will be better because you’ve grown. (This might be less true of self-publishers, though the idea stands)
  • Try and take lessons. If your critics are consistent about over-simple plots, say, or wooden dialogue, try and take it on the chin. Learn.
  • Allow yourself time to recover. Words hurt. Allow yourself to feel that – cry if you need to, deny it if it helps – and don’t rush to a change until you’re ready…
  • …And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond to bad reviews. It’s okay to thank reviewers for a good one (via social media; don’t add to their blogs, it’s terribly gauche. And be careful about emailing as it might look a bit like stalking) but DO NOT complain about their poor taste, their personalities, or anything similar. It never ends well.
  • Write something else. Write better.

I’m sure you can find more ideas. Check this article for starters (and for another classic example of what not to do).

People will disagree with you. People will be unfair – they’ll review it as if you were trying to write a Mills & Book and not the star-killer grimdark space opera you were aiming for.  They’ll miss the point. And, of course, what one person sees as fussy, fiddly, over-perfumed prose will be another’s superlative imagery.

You can’t control this. Just remember that you’re in fine company. Every writer you’ve ever heard of has been shaken down at least once. Here’s the classic on Terry Pratchett:

…a complete amateur – doesn’t even write in chapters – hasn’t a clue.

–Tom Paulin on BBC2’s Late Review

And on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him. …

In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.

–Anne L. Goodwin, The New Republic, 1951

Reviews matter, and bad ones hurt. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. You will be okay. And even a bad review is better than no review.

At least one person has read your book.

 

 

On writing copy

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If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.