For the last time

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I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder

Conversations with ghosts

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What do Katie Price and Donald Trump and Alexandre Dumas have in common? That’s right, none of them wrote the books that carry their names.

In the aftermath of the #copypastecris controversy I got to musing about ghostwriting and the nature of ghosts. Now I should say that I’m currently leaning in favour of the ghosts in that particular plagiarism case and I’m not here to launch a diatribe against the practice. But, as a writer, I’ve never really understood why people (who aren’t celebrities, at least) hire ghosts.

And then I realised: I know a ghostwriter and she knows others. Why not ask her a little about the industry? Hell, I hardly ever do anything original on here. Why not use my powers for good and not fall back on my usual trick of lukewarmly microwaving other people’s leftovers and passing it off as original?

So, without further ado, here’s Ben Jeapes and Jan Greenough – excellent authors in their own right – to tell us a little about how they work. Jan works mostly in non-fiction and Ben in fiction:

Can you tell us how you got into the industry? I take it you didn’t start out with an advert on Fiverr

Ben Jeapes: Pure fluke. I did some work with Working Partners, which is sort of like ghostwriting. Their business model: think up a series; sell it to a publisher; hire an author to write the thing; everyone shares the profits, so no one loses out if you accidentally write the next Harry Potter. Publishers are fine with this because they know they’re getting quality work straight up that will require a minimum of work at their end. Then my Working Partners editor changed jobs and inherited a series by a well-known celebrity which needed a writer, and she thought of me.

Jan Greenough: I started out as a copy-editor in a distant outpost of the Pergamon empire – an educational publisher called Wheaton in Devon. When we moved to Oxfordshire and started a family, I needed freelance work I could do after baby bedtime (no nurseries in those Jurassic days). From contacts made when I was properly employed, I picked up copy-editing jobs from Hodder & Stoughton and a couple of religious publishers, one of which eventually emerged from various takeovers as Lion Hudson.

Gradually I established myself as a safe pair of hands, which meant that the commissioning editors sent me worse and worse manuscripts to pull into shape. I was the Department of Silk Purses. You might ask why the publisher had accepted these nightmares in the first place, but religious publishers work to their own rules. They are more interested in people with an inspiring story than in whether the author can write. Writing can be fixed – but in the realm of ‘how my faith helps me’, the valuable commodity is the real-life experience.

In the end the job changed from ‘Please can you rewrite this poorly-written MS?’ to ‘Oops- there isn’t a manuscript at all. Can you go and talk to this missionary/reformed drug addict/survivor of the Killing Fields and write the story for them?’

Welcome to the world of ghostwriting.

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How do you get work? Do clients come to you directly or are you commissioned by agents/publishers etc?

JG: The above explains it, really. As a publisher’s pet poodle, I am sent opportunities and asked to meet an ‘author’ and get the story out of him/her. Sometimes I report back that there isn’t a worthwhile/original story at all, and the project folds. More often, I submit a brief outline and the publisher goes ahead and draws up contracts. These are almost always ‘autobiographies’, and mainly conversion stories.

I have been approached many times by authors wanting a ghost writer. Usually I assess the chances of their story being of interest to a publisher as negligible, so I decline. They can seldom afford to pay properly and think you should share the risk with them. DON’T! At one stage I kept a file called ‘Loopy Requests for Ghostwriting’.

BJ: So far I’ve almost always been commissioned by agents and publishers, though I am trying to drum up business with adverts and a dedicated website. The one exception is an autobiography for Lion Hudson that I helped with last year, where the original ghostwriter had dropped out. I had to hustle for that one, but I was still hustling at the publisher, as I also know the Commissioning Editor socially and he had mentioned the project. The author still had to approve me.

How much input does the client have? Do they give you character notes, plot outlines and so on or do you just have a brief to ‘write a novel’?

BJ: I started by being given character notes and outlines, though I was always able to make my own suggestions. Everything I wrote went back to the client for the final say.
As my familiarity with the serieses I’ve written has developed, so I’ve been given more and more leave to do my own stuff, and hence the amount of work and concomitant income has risen to the point where I can make a living out of it (see below). So, of late, it really has been a case of ‘write a novel’: but I still have to prepare an outline, get it approved and so on, and I know the kind of thing they’re after. And the client still gets the final sign-off.

JG: It’s generally someone’s life story, so I interview them at length, generally one visit per chapter, which I write up and return, so they can check that I haven’t got the wrong end of any sticks. I’ve also written some non-fiction Christian books where I have had more creative input, but everything is shared and discussed at length.

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How do you feel about seeing your book released with somebody else’s name on it? Do you think it’s fair that they get the acclaim whilst you’re forgotten?

BJ: None of the series I’ve written would have even existed without the clients asking for them – they’re certainly not the kind of thing I would have written off my own bat. One series happened because the client had fond memories of the Willard Price series he had enjoyed as a child, and wanted something similar in terms of good, wholesome, moral adventure for his own kids to read. I also enjoyed Willard Price, so it was a pleasure to be doing this kind of thing for a new generation.

All the series trade on reputations the clients have built up in other spheres through their own hard work, and they incorporate the clients’ own hard-won knowledge and experience. For instance, one of my publishers also does a series – not by me – by Sir Chris Hoy about a boy with a magic bicycle. You automatically associate Chris Hoy with bicycles, and you know a book about a magic bike will do a lot better with his name on the front than with yours.

So, long story short, I think it’s quite fair that they get the acclaim.

I’m adequately paid, and – equally important – everyone who actually matters, i.e. agents and publishers, knows it was me. I have to admit I did feel a little odd when the Willard Price fan started dedicating ‘his’ book to his kids. He was essentially saying “this is how much Daddy loves you, he hired someone to write this book for you!” And then there are clips of him reading it on YouTube. But hey, I could smile and shake my head and get on with my life.

I have a client with an absolute tin ear for dialogue, and his edits always take precedence over mine – so there are times I am actively grateful not to have my name appear anywhere, in case anyone actually thinks I wrote that.

And, ultimately, I would rather be writing than not writing. It’s very hard indeed to make a living writing science fiction, which is where I came from, so if I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be writing blog articles for a technical company, and I know which is more fun. However, if I was ever hired to ghost write science fiction then I would damn well insist my name was acknowledged!

JG: Christian publishers have an oversized sense of fairness. Almost all my books appear as ‘By A. N. Other, with Jan Greenough’ – after all, it’s their story. Occasionally, where I’ve had lot of input, it appears as ‘A. N. Other and Jan Greenough’.

Without going into too much detail about fees and costs, is ghostwriting worth it? Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?

BJ: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. At first it was just handy pocket money, in parallel with the day job, which was a handy cash reserve for a man with a new family. Because I started doing the plot outlines as well, as mentioned, it became liveable-off just as I was badly needing to leave a terrible job anyway, and I’ve had an amazing 3.5 years since. Now that all the contracts that lured me out of full-time employment have expired … well, we’ll see, won’t we?

The doyen of ghostwriting is Andrew Crofts and I strongly recommend his books on the subject as a reference for anyone wanting to get in on the trade.

As shown in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, ghostwriting can also be positively lethal, but that kind of thing is probably rare …

JG: No, I couldn’t make a living from ghostwriting alone, but then I was swimming in a very small pool. Most of my books covered their advances, but except where the author was famous (Fiona Castle, wife of Roy Castle) or did a lot of speaking tours (Angus Buchan), royalty payments were minimal. It’s vital to get a decent up-front fee. Even then, you’d be better off (though more bored) filling shelves at Tesco. I supplemented the income with copywriting for a marketing agency, copy-editing and content-editing fiction. And I’m still not rich. But if you make your name, and write popular mainstream books like Andrew Crofts (author of Ghostwriting), you can make a living.

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Is it harder to motivate yourself to write someone else’s work than it is your own?

BJ: I’ve never found it so, since I always go into a contract with money and deadlines and outlines all settled, so I know exactly what and when I should be writing.

I’ve worked in publishing, so I’ve seen deadlines from the other end, and I firmly believe in sticking to them. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Ha ha, goes everyone, forgetting that this is a man who could have sold his shopping list and got it published. There’s people at the other end who aren’t multimillionaires and are depending on your deadlines for their own living – so I’m afraid that remark has always dented my otherwise very high regard for him.

JG: Nothing motivates a writer better than an electricity bill.

Do you think ghostwriting is ethical? Do you think legal steps should be taken to ensure that the ghost’s name should be on the cover?

BJ: You won’t be surprised to know I’ve thought long and hard about this … and come down in favour of it being ethical. Mostly.

For the kind of fiction I’ve always written, where I’m presenting the client’s experiences in different ways, or for autobiography – I think it’s fine. They are hiring my voice for their own thoughts. A positive worldview is being presented; customers are getting value for money; I’m supporting my family; I am telling stories exist that should, and otherwise wouldn’t, be told. There is no bad here.

I am surprised at one client’s insistence that my name not be mentioned anywhere. The artist, the editor, all fine – but not me. Again, I’m adequately paid, but it does leave an odd taste in the mouth. I think he just has overzealous, showbiz-type lawyers, and lives such a cossetted existence with ‘people’ who do everything for him that he thinks this is normal.

I’m not sure what ‘legal steps’ could be taken, but if, say, the Society of Authors pushed for all publishers to at least give the ghost a ‘With thanks to …’ in the front matter, I wouldn’t complain. For the Chris Hoy series that I mentioned, he apparently has no trouble at all about acknowledging the writer, and goes on tours with her and the artist. So, win some, lose some.

Some ghostwriters clearly behave very unethically. For a start, some people looking for a writer are clearly complete newbs who don’t know what they’re doing. I regularly peruse Freelancer.com (not Fiverr …) for writing opportunities, and time and time again I see someone looking for a writer for their novel, for which they will pay peanuts. These people obviously think that the idea is the big thing in a novel and the writing is just a tedious formality, when a (good) novel is in fact a combination of the writing and the idea. I’m sure there are ghostwriters who take the gig and just churn out text that is worthy of the sum being paid. Okay, you could say both parties are grown-ups, it’s not illegal and no one is being hurt, but the writers in that case are taking advantage of fools who are easily parted with their money.

Even worse is plagiarism. I hadn’t heard of #copypastecris until you mentioned, it but, now I’ve looked it up, this kind of thing isn’t new.

TL;DR – the ghostwriter for a fantasy novel simply copied the entire first chapter of a David Gemmell novel, changing the names … and (as, allegedly, in #copypastecris) the client didn’t notice. So what have you here is a perfect storm of unscrupulous shark meeting complete ignoramus who has no idea of how this business actually works.
There’s no regulating body for ghostwriting, but I suppose an advantage of always having dealt with agents and publishers is that I am dealing with professionals and – in the unlikely event of my copying and pasting David Gemmell, Courtney Milan or any other writer – they would put a stop to it pretty sharpish.

JG: Worthy Christian publishers ensure that both names are on the cover and copyright page. This is important when you claim your PLR and ALCS (you do, don’t you? Register your books at once!) No, I don’t believe it’s ethical to hide the ghost’s name – and the published book is your advertisement for getting more work.

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Is there a point, legally, when a work is determined to be co- and not ghost-written? What’s the minimum contribution a ‘writer’ can make before it becomes not their work?

BJ: If I ghostwrite, I sign a contract drawn up by publishers and agents that clearly delineates exactly how much of this work will be reckoned to be mine (none) and what my rewards for it will be. So, I don’t believe there is a maximum or a minimum. You’re being hired to do a job, and you do it.

If I was working on the basis of an informal gentleman’s agreement then that would be another matter. But it would also be the sign of a rank amateur. I will help family members and good personal friends of long standing out with writing work: anyone else, it’s the contract.

JG: Interesting. In my experience the terms are exchangeable – my publishers stopped mentioning ‘ghostwriting’ and started calling it ‘co-authoring’, but as I say, ours were non-fiction, and the ‘author’ was the one who lived the life, often of considerable hardship and trauma. I have always wondered how ‘authors’ live with themselves when the book is fiction, to which the author has contributed nothing.

Why, in your experience, do people hire ghostwriters?

BJ: For reasons stated. They have a story to tell but don’t have the voice, or the time, to tell it. (I’ve recently taken on a sequel half-written by an actor whose burgeoning career means he simply doesn’t have time to fulfil his contractual obligation to the publisher. The first book was genuinely all his own.)

If you’re already famous then of course there are commercial reasons: for the publisher it’s a guaranteed sale; for you it consolidates your brand.

And some people just want their name on the cover of book, and aren’t fussy about how it gets there.

JG: My publishers hired me – not the authors. The publishers knew they had located an individual with a good story to tell, but the person lacked either the time, the inclination, or the education to write. They were persuaded into print by the offer of someone to shape the story so it read well, and to put in the tedious hours at the keyboard.

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What do you do if you think that the brief you’ve been given is… um… dumb?

BJ: Thankfully I’ve never been there! There have been glitches in the plot that didn’t make sense, or the plot develops in such a way that a previous idea will no longer hold, but editors are amenable to logic – whenever I’ve pointed out something like this, they’ve always been happy to go with my suggestion. Again, an advantage of getting the outline signed off first is that it minimises this kind of thing when it comes to the actual writing.

JG: I was always free to reject a job. It sometimes happened if I really thought I couldn’t get on with an author – for autobiographies you’re going to live inside their head for the best part of a year. More often I found that the story was dubious or boring. One author who had been in the backing group for a Famous Name wanted to describe a tour, but since he was fairly grumpy, it would have amounted to a long moan and was definitely not inspirational. It was never written.


And there we have it. A little insight into the world of ghostwriting. Hope it’s been interesting and informative. Huge thanks to Ben and Jan for answering my hopefully-not-too-dumb questions; if it’s peaked your interest, Jan is retired but check out Ben’s website for ghostwriting at http://www.oxfordghostwriter.com/, or for his (excellent) fiction go to https://www.benjeapes.com/

And, just a tiny reminder, Night Shift is out now and is totally ghost-free! Unless one counts the input of all the beta-readers, editors and freelancer commentators who helped bring the damn thing to publication.

All my own work? Don’t make me laugh!

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The great release

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Today my book is released onto the great unsuspecting world. And today it struck me: there is no-one (save my wife, who doesn’t count, and my daughter, who calls me Momma most of the time so her evidence must be considered suspect) within an hour of me who knows who I am.

It’s out. And nothing has changed.

Hell, I’ve not even got any copies of the novel. I’m going on rumour and hearsay – well, the word of my publisher – that anything’s happened at all. There’s such a colossal disconnect between my daily life and my Twitter-life that, right now, I’m struggling to marry the two.

I’m still a writer trying to get work completed and out in the public domain. I’m still distracted by publicity, by events and by life, the universe, and – as they say – everything.
But now I have a novel out.

They say – those ‘they’ again – that, no matter what else you do, you should mark the occasion. A book release is a big deal, ‘they’ say. It must be celebrated. Frankly, I’ve been too busy with emergency proofreading work and with trying to organise trips to bookshops and conventions. There’s been no chance to even think of organising my own party too.

So: happy release-day to me! A quiet day will be had, unless I spend a little extra time on some promotionary tweets. But there will be no cake. No champagne. Really this is just another day; one spent with a sick child (just a minor snuffle with accompanying nasal oozage) and with no chance of hitting a bookshop or a library or anywhere else where I might see my work.

Maybe this evening I’ll polish this off

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Or maybe work on this

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But there’ll be no visit to the inebriatorium. That’ll have to wait until the much more tangible prospect of the few events I have lined up. They’re the things I’ve been working towards. The actual day of release has arrived as something of an afterthought.

So yes, I’m happy. Hell, I’m delighted. This is the day I’ve been working towards for years. It’s just that… nothing at all has changed. Nappies need changing. The bins need putting out.

Can you smell the glamour?

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“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”

The final countdown

Today’s blog is brought to you in association with a vague sense of panic.

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It is a month until the Great Day of Publishing. I have so much to do. And I have nothing at all to do.

On my mental list:

  • Write an article for a local magazine
  • Answer questions for another magazine
  • Write many blog posts
  • Be interesting and insightful
  • Arrange bookshop events

Like many people I can make myself work hard and be personable. I can cold-call companies, and bookshops, and ask favours and make demands on strangers’ time. But it’s hard work. I’ve just got off the phone to a bookshop: it took me a whole weekend to work up the courage; I had to rehearse what I wanted to say; I had to be the very best ‘me’ I could possibly be.

It takes time and energy and, until the last decision is made and the final arrangement tidied, there’s always a sense of incompleteness.

Of course, nothing is ever truly finished. Arranged an event with a bookshop? How am I going to get there? Do I need to book accommodation? What do I need to take? Oh God I’m probably going to have to do a reading!

What if no-one turns up?

On my to-not-do list:

  • Harass the publisher
  • Over-commit my time and energies
  • Piss anyone off

I want to tick off the tasks. I want arrangements to be signed, sealed and delivered. But I’ve never done this before – do I do it myself or do my people (ha!) have people to do this sort of thing? I don’t want to duplicate work. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. How many enquiries (per hour) can I send out before my emails get switched straight into the ‘annoying author’ siding?

What I should be doing:

  • Writing something new
  • Editing old works

If all else fails go write. It’s a healthy mantra.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to focus on the things that matter when there’s so much still unresolved.

Still, best be grateful; I can only imagine how the publisher’s feeling right now.

Apart from anything else they’ve got all my emails to read.

How to publish a novel: a writer’s guide

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London novelist’s journey from manuscript to book. But before we go anyway I must caveat in your general direction: I haven’t had a book published yet. I have only my own, limited, experience to draw on via the medium of a single publisher. Your experience will be/will have been different.

The broad sweep is likely to be similar, though, hence the ‘this might be of interest’-ness of this post. I also suspect that many of the stages will be applicable to all you self-publishers out there.

And, without further ado:

Step the First: Write a novel and make it good

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Yes, it is possible to sell a novel on the basis of a pitch: Gareth Powell did that with his Ack-Ack Macaque stories (and very good they are too). But he did that on the back of a lot of previous highly-regarded writings. If you don’t have a track-record, or if you’re not already famous, you’re going to have to go the long way round.

Step the Second: Find a publisher willing to take you on

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Yes, I know I’m skipping a helluva lot of steps here. But to detail every single rise and fall, every stumble and trip, in here would make this article three times as long. Besides, most of this blog is taken up with these gaps.

Step the Third: Sign a contract

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You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about agents here. That’s mostly because I don’t have one, though I’ve spent more time trying to get one than I have trying to get a publisher. Again, please refer to the rest of my blog ever for my agonies over a lack of agent: suffice to say that I’d really rather like one and this is where they come into their own.

A contract is a potential minefield and it’s here you can be shafted by an unscrupulous organisation. For that reason I recommend that as soon as you get a contract offer you join the Society of Authors. They’ll read through your contract and – very promptly – tell you if the contract’s exploitative and suggest amendments in your interests.

A few short notes:

  • Money goes to you. It’s not a great sign if you’re asked to pay costs
  • Keep your rights. Don’t sign away the rights to adaptations or the right to be respected as the author
  • Make sure that, if something goes wrong (if, for example, the publisher goes bust), the rights to your work revert to you. Clauses that state you can publish your work elsewhere if the novel isn’t released within a year or two of manuscript submission, or if less than a number of copies a year are sold, are nice things to have.

Step the Fourth: Tell the publisher all about yourself

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This, I suspect, is where people’s experiences will start to differ as different publishers will have different mechanisms for building up their publicity machines. Some may not do anything at all; others will have legions dedicated solely to your novel.

But as soon as I signed I was sent a huge document to complete: I was asked to write long- and short-form author profiles and a long and a short-form novel blurb. I was asked to give any useful contacts, any bookshops I lurked in, any podcasts I recommended. I was also asked to give ten questions and answers to provide to the media.

I was also invited to share any ideas I had for the cover, which I believe is, if not unusual, then at least a long way from standard.

This took a long time. I’m still not entirely sure what of it has been used, what will be used, and what has been forever dispatched into the netherhells.

The good thing about this is that, once done, it can be recycled: like the perfect submission letter you may tinker and rewrite but once the facts are down you’ll only need periodic updates. This work isn’t wasted.

Step the Fifth: Write something else

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This process is full of gaps: of feverish activity followed by lean, fallow months. Don’t sit back and sweat: make your next book sing.

Step the Sixth: The cover

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A few months pass quietly. Then I receive a proposed cover and for the first time see your name in, as it were, lights.

I was, at this stage, invited to comment and feed back on the mock-up. Not all publishers do this.

Step the Seventh: A long period of quiet with occasional stabs of publicity

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This is where I needed an agent and possibly made my errors. Or at least the errors I’m aware of; I’m sure more are to come.

My publishers were hugely busy with a great number of books and I didn’t want to hassle them so I retreated to Step The Fifth – I got on with other things. I was also contacted by Unnerving magazine and asked to do an (email) interview, which was both good for my ego and helped me feel like I was helping.

But I feel this was where I should have been doing more to organise publicity for the release. Could I have tagged myself onto any festival lists? Should I have contacting bookshops or libraries, or at least haranguing my publisher into so doing? I’m really not sure.

Step the Eighth: Copy-edits

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Aha! As if from nowhere, a task appears! To be honest this was a bit of a relief; doing something, even if it’s a difficult, angst-wrencher of a task, is better than waiting. It’s also a sign that the publisher knows what they’re doing (not that I doubted it, but still) and things are progressing. Huzzah!

Step the Ninth: Proofs

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…and hot on the heels of the copy-edits come the proofs. The turnover was so quick as to be almost the same task; here the difference is really that I was working in a PDF (and thus was visible the pagination, the preliminary pages and so forth).Also the urge to skim was stronger as there wasn’t any handy marginal notes to draw my attention to Bad Writing.

This is, I’m led to believe, the last time you can amend your text without seriously annoying your editor. I also inserted thanks and dedications here.

Step the Tenth: Final (final) changes

Another email arrives and causes me to immediately cease all other activity: another PDF and a last list of editorial queries. This are all little things – the difference between a settee and a couch, for example, or whether something should be in a personal or a personnel file.

Step the Eleventh: Serious publicity

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This is where I now sit.

Except I’m not really sure what I’m doing, other than querying my publisher’s plans and, upon invitation, sending them some ideas. It’s two months until the damn thing’s out there and I’m not sure how best to go about promoting myself and my work.

Except for going on about it here and the occasional humblebrag on Twitter, of course.
But I’m hoping things will come together. There’s still time; I have to trust my publisher – they want my novel to succeed as much as I do. In the meantime it’s time for me to return to Step the Fifth.

Step the Twelfth: The great release

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So… what happens here? Will we go out with a whimper or a bang?

I’m still hoping there’ll be some sort of event to accompany the release. Even if it’s in my own house, in my own head, having one’s book actually living and breathing is a rare thing. It should be celebrated.

And if I do actually do anything, if there are any events to make the moment, be sure I’ll be letting you know, lovely folks.

Step the Thirteenth: The inevitable comedown

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Things don’t stop when the book is unleashed on the public. There may well be continuing publicity. What there will doubtless be is more work. A debut is a beginning, not an ending.

A pause is worthwhile. A glass of reflection is earned. But then the work resumes.
Nothing sells a book like another book.

Back behind the keyboard, young ‘un. There’s more words to be mined.

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Night Shift is due out November 6th courtesy of Flame Tree Press. Available in all good bookshops and libraries, and possibly some rather dodgy ones too.

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On copy-edits

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I have survived. I live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is – a tale of high-jinx, of derring-do and of rescuing suspiciously busty maidens from suspiciously inconvenient places.

I am, of course, lying. It is a tale of sitting in front of the computer and using Twitter to distract myself from all the thinking.

Here are a few little reflections on the copy-editing process, but before we can dive straight in I should clarify: there were three people involved in the process. I was one, the editor was the second and the copyeditor the third.

The editor works for the publisher and is responsible for overseeing the word-side of my novel (and, I think, that of the rest of the imprint). The copyeditor is a freelancer who was sent my manuscript to seek out errors great and small. I never had any contact with the CE; it all went through the editor. And here is what I now know:

  • There are many types of error:
    • Typos
    • Grammatical errors or mistakes of clarity (who’s talking? Does this modifier refer to this or that or the other?)
    • Continuity errors
    • Errors of taste or discretion
    • Bad writing
  • Typos happne. They can be shrugged aside. So can grammatical errors (you were tired at the time; it was late and that thing you like was about to happen – you know, the one that leaves you all distracted). Continuity errors are worse as they actually have to go back through the MS to find the original reference and decide which to change. Occasionally you’ll have to think and no-one wants that
  • But these are nothing on matters of taste and discretion. See this soul-tearing post from a few weeks back as evidence. Actually, don’t. I’d rather forget the whole sorry saga, thank you. Why’d you have to bring it up anyway?
  • Bad writing is the worst, though. You’ve been through however many edits; you’ve got it past numerous gatekeepers and you did it with this piece of shit? Rereading your own work, especially in this forensic detail, often makes it impossible to see what’s actually good about your work
  • And this leads to more doom: do you try and improve your manuscript? Will you just be annoying your editor by making last-minute, unnecessary changes? If the copyeditor didn’t comment on a particular sentence, is it not just irritating to dismantle it and reinsert upside-down?
  • You need a copyeditor to assess your copyedits
stet

A Google image search failed to identify an artist for this, but you can get it on a mug here; the designer’s listed as Shonda Smith

  • Copyeditors are great: they spot things you’ve never even begun to think about considering. But they’re not perfect. They have their own oddities and prejudices. Mine (whose name I don’t know) seems to have a weird thing about commas. They’ll insert them where I’m damn sure they’re not necessary
  • My biggest fear is that I’ll disappoint my editor. This is stupid, but it bears saying. I am afraid to ask him questions; I don’t want to appear amateurish or needing constant hand-holding. Your editor is always on your side, though; they want your book to succeed as much as you do
  • This has been my first real experience of producing work to a deadline since university. It was a challenge, and in the end I missed it by a few days, despite working evenings. Fortunately my editor is on Twitter and saw some of my more desperate pleas for help and emailed me to see how I was going. This gave me the chance to explain that a) I was just being melodramatic for the purposes of comic effect and b) yes, the deadline was a challenge. Which leads me to the following conclusions:
    • Good communication really, really helps
    • Try and get as much info as possible at the beginning: what has the copyeditor been told? What edition are you editing? I started without knowing that I was specifically working on a US release, which caused me some confusion
    • Be careful what you put on Twitter
    • If you have a problem or an issue with the editor’s/copyeditor’s ideas you should flag it as soon as possible
  • US and British English really are two different languages. One of the hardest things for me was seeing all my usage of ‘whilst’ being changed to ‘while’, even when it was plainly wrong. Also ‘homely’ has different meanings depending on which side of the pond you are
  • All these people really want to make your book better

This has been uncharted territory for me. This may just be a brief lacuna before another wave of work washes me away, but for now I am mopping my brow, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting up the metaphorical cigarette of post-coitality.

The copy-edits are done. I am a step closer to being a published author.

Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

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Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

Nonprofit-communication-is-overflowing-with-jargon.jpg

So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point