How to save a novel

editing

Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

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  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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How to rite a novil

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I don’t sit down and outline every scene before I set pen to paper, though I often wonder if I should. Nor do I set out writing without any sort of idea where I’m going. I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I am something in between, as I suspect most people are.

The way I write a novel is this: badly.

Just kidding (maybe). To be serious: a novel starts with an idea that then spends a long time revolving around the cranium as the tone, characters and locations simmer and settle. Then, maybe a year, maybe several years after the initial flame, I’ll come up with a starting point and an end point and I’ll start writing.

I’ll then stop writing as I realise I don’t know what I’m doing. So at this point I’ll do a bout of planning; of writing down some key points I want to visit; some key characters and intrigues and betrayals. Then I’ll start writing again.

This time I’ll get a bit further before I find I’m writing myself into another hole; that what’s going on the page isn’t covered by my sketchy notes and I need to stop again. There then follows a bout of soul-searching. More notes are written, crossed out and reassessed, like so:

Notes

…and so the endless circle continues. I see a little ahead. I write. I realise that this thread is going to cause me problems. I get depressed. I stop and try to think. I see a little further ahead so I write…

Does this make me a plotter or a pantser? Of course it’s neither, which is why I find the terms so reductive as to be useless. (Plus I hate the term ‘pantser’. It’s such an ugly mangling of the language, and such an ugly image is conjured.)

Unless it’s just me. Are there really people out there who can write a whole novel by the seat of their pants, without any sessions of brain-work at all? Can you really be led entirely by the flowing of the pen?

Are there really people who plan out every scene in detail before committing pen to paper? I can just about imagine there are, but if so… how? Do you need to be an expert in narrative structure or something, because I’ve never managed to fill in all the gaps before starting. Surely it’s a thankless, joyless task to fully outline a story without giving it some blood in the writing?

What sayest thou?

Of course, I write this post just as I reach a brick wall in my own writing; a state of stuckness that makes me reevaluate my decision to ever start this novel. Ploughing onwards isn’t getting me anywhere so I must pause and try and gain some big picture perspective. But that’s damn hard work and I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. Or at least I’m not today.

Whatever the method, it seems that there’s nothing easy about writing a novel.

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One-star

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The only sane way to deal with reviews is to ignore them.

Sadly, that’s not always possible. I, for example, was checking mine out in the hopes of being able to boast about my scores to a prospective agent. That’s when I came across my first one-star review.

Hurts? Well, I skimmed it pretty quickly; I don’t see much point in analysing it blow-by-blow. (Except I really want to. I came across this a few weeks ago and I’m not forgotten it and moved on, which must tell you something.) I’m actually more hurt because the reviewer, I realised, is someone I follow on Twitter.

Someone I respect hates my work. This is pretty tough.

But it is absolutely their right. Books are subjective things; some things I love will be detested by others. It’s just the nature of words. They can hate something I’m intensely proud of – and it will hurt, that’s for sure, but what can you do about it?

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It helps that I’m fairly secure about Night Shift. I wrote it long enough ago, and I know I can write better now; I don’t have all my ego in one basket. Praise surprises me a lot more than criticism, and I’m constantly trying to remind myself that there is actually some damn good writing in it. And there is. I believe that.

I’m much more nervous about the response to book two, when it finally comes out. I worked so hard on that and my ego is much more exposed. Hopefully it’ll have had time to crust over before it’s finally released in 2020.

And, if the worst comes to the worst, I must try and remember my own advice.

Never try and argue with the reviewer. It doesn’t end well.

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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.

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

WritingHumour-Criticism

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.

On Interviews

Q & A

I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.

It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.

Buckle up, folks. Here we go:

‘Paper’ Interviews

These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.

The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.

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Some quick pointers:

  • Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
  • Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
  • Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
  • If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
  • If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
  • Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
  • Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
  • Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
  • Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
  • Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
  • You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?

Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews

If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.

That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.

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Onto the advice:

  • Pretty much all the above applies
  • If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
    • Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
    • Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
    • Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
  • Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
  • Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
  • Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
  • It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
  • What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
  • You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
  • Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
  • Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
  • Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
  • …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
  • Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
  • Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
  • Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
  • Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!

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And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing!