Showing posts with label editors and editing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editors and editing. Show all posts

Writing Advice: Getting the Details Right

This isn't really a 'how to write' blog. But I've been writing in so many different media for so many years now, that occasionally things occur to me that may be useful for people who are just starting out on the long road to publication or production. I used to teach Creative Writing for various organisations, so I have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. For the New Year I've dug out my big folder of 'how to' notes and I'll be including an occasional post with what I hope may be useful advice. Some of it should be self evident - but isn't always. 

I've been reading a contemporary thriller. I won't name it, even though it's a very good read. It fairly gallops along with plenty of surprises along the way, although less than half way through, I've guessed at least part of the ending. That, though, is more my problem than the writer's. The more you write yourself, the more you tend to be able to guess what's going to happen next. 

No. The niggling irritation involved a garden. 

The story is set in spring (I think) a warm late spring, in the South of England. The house has a big garden. Early on, we're told that it is full of wild garlic and lavender. Now, although wild garlic flowers and scents the air with its wonderful pungency through the spring of the year, it tends to be found more in ancient woodlands, bluebell woods in particular, flowering from April to June after which it is masked by other growth. By May, the scent of bluebells usually takes over. Lavender stays green throughout the year in mild climates, so that's fine. Although it wouldn't be all mixed up with the garlic. Later though, that same day, we're told that the garden is miraculously full of flowers including foxgloves, night-scented stock, hyacinth? As any gardener, even the most amateur among us, knows, your foxgloves and night scented stock are summer flowers. Hyacinths? Not so much. Not even bluebells if that's what's meant. 

We all get details wrong. But it is this kind of precise detail that can pull the reader right out of the story, challenging her willing suspension of disbelief. On reflection, it's indicative of a wider problem, because I'm still not 100% sure at exactly what time of year the story is set. Sometimes it feels like summer but other details mean it must be spring. In which case, yay for the wild garlic and hyacinths. Not so much for the foxgloves and night scented stock.  

It shouldn't matter at all. But it sort of does. It irritates, because this is a much lauded traditionally published novel and it's exactly the kind of thing that a good editor should immediately pick up on, writing 'flowers? time of year?' in Track Changes. Then perhaps even extrapolating from that a question about timescales, the when of the story. That's what good editors do. They pick up on the small things with wider implications. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you, the writer, make the piece of work better. 

So much of writing involves finding exactly the right word. That goes for things as simple as garden flowers, as well as complex emotions. If you're not a gardener, then Google is your friend. 


Telling Tales

All my writing life, people have been giving me advice. Some of it was solicited, and some of it wasn't. Some was useful and some wasn't.  I once asked an established artist friend if people routinely told her that she ought to make drastic changes to her work, and she looked at me as though I had gone mad. 'No' she said. 'No, they don't!' 

I don't mean skilled editing. A good editor can help you to see the whole wood when you're obsessing about individual trees. I mean the person who tells you to turn your book into the kind of book they would have written themselves, if only they could write. Two different people once told me to cut a third of a novel. The trouble was that one wanted me to cut the first third and one wanted me to cut the last third. 

Neither of them was right, although the book in question certainly needed a lot of pruning. In fact when I did prune it, here there and everywhere, I probably deleted just as much as they had been recommending. But they had gone for the easy option which said more about them than it did about the book. 

Beta Readers worry me. I don't have them, but I worry about other people's reliance on them. Most (although not all) writers want to be read. We're in the business of communicating. And we often have some hypothetical reader in mind. But most of the time, we're writing the kind of book we want to read ourselves, telling the stories that gnaw at us till we put them into words, the ideas we feel passionate about. 

Which is why when somebody says 'I've got this great idea for a book!' our hearts sink. We may smile politely, but what we're really thinking is, 'well go and write it then.' Other people's ideas for books are just like other people's dreams. Only our own are interesting to us. We may like to chat to our readers once the book is published. I know I do. We may like to hear from them, and answer questions and even debate with them. But I don't want any random reader critiquing my work before the event. 

Which leads me, in this rambling post, to note that I've just finished reading Kingfishers Catch Fire and I'm wondering as I do with all her novels, why it has taken me so long to discover Rumer Godden's work. Why didn't it feature as part of my course work all those years ago when I did a degree in English Language and Literature and when the first two years consisted of a quick gallop through 'the canon'. Mind you, the canon was mostly male, dead and English (even in Edinburgh) so it isn't too surprising. 

If you haven't read it, do. Immediately. It's magical. And very relevant indeed at a time when, as the Covid threat begins to recede a bit, so many people seem to be deciding to move to rural communities in order to 'find themselves' and finding mostly that they don't know how to live in rural communities. Or they make television programmes about 'finding themselves' in rural communities where people have already found themselves, thank-you very much.

Godden tells wonderful tales. And that brings me back to the thorny problem of advice. I'd lay bets that if a beta reader had got their hands on Godden's extraordinary work they would have told her everything that was wrong with it, just because it is so strange and so different from anything they might have read before. 

Then it struck me that the one piece of advice I wish somebody, anybody, had given me when I was just starting out, was this: Tell your story and tell it well. But first and foremost tell it for yourself. If you're bored with it, everyone else will be. If you're engrossed in it, passionate about it, and if you truly know what you're writing about, there will certainly be somebody out there who loves it too. 

Dear Emily: A Previously Undiscovered Piece of Literary Correspondence.

Top Withens near Haworth. That isn't Cathy on the right. It's my mum. 

I'm reblogging this piece again, for various reasons. It was one of my most popular blog posts ever (this and the post on an older blog about how much I hated my memory foam mattress, which fortunately has gone the way of all useless things, the mattress, not the post.) 

I recently heard a little tale about one of Scotland's finest writers. I'd better not name him, but take it from me, he is - albeit not in an obvious blockbuster way - one of the UK's finest, most readable and thought provoking writers of fiction. He had had a submission turned down by a young intern who clearly didn't know enough to know how little they knew. I was gobsmacked. I thought 'what hope is there for the rest of us?' And then I went back to this. Hope it cheers you up too. 

My novel Bird of Passage, which was inspired by my love of Wuthering Heights, is now out in paperback, as well as being available as an eBook. 

The Humongous Book Group 
'Our mission is to be market focused above all things.'

Dear Emily,

Thank-you for letting us see the completed draft of your novel, Wuthering Heights. I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you, but as you will see, your manuscript was involved in a process which takes some considerable time.

First of all, can I say that I enjoyed your book. Unfortunately, I was not, at this stage, able to carry our sales department with me. We have therefore sent it to our in-house team of ‘beta readers’. This is a new concept even for us here at Humongous Publishing. It involves a team of interns who act as a kind of focus group. They read new fiction for us in their free time, and offer helpful suggestions. We call them ‘The Beta Bunch’ or sometimes ‘The Critters’. You don’t have to take any of these ideas on board, but if you can put your natural ego to one side for a while, and think of the good of the novel as a whole, you may start to see things our way.

Below is a list of editorial suggestions collated from the Beta Bunch, Sales & Marketing and my own feedback. As I’m sure you realise, in the current publishing climate, sales predictions must be exceedingly optimistic for Marketing to allow us to take any risk. With your lovely novel, they don’t see how they can sell it to a wider public, which was why they suggested some input from the Beta Bunch. Between us, we have come up with a few edits which may help to turn your fine novel into a more marketable proposition.

1 The title presents significant problems. Wuthering is clearly a part of your Yorkshire vernacular, but potential readers in the south have no understanding of this term. As you pointed out in an email to your agent, it is a description of a particular kind of wind. We think Windy Hilltop would be a much better title both for the house and the novel. And while I’m on the subject of dialect, we are all in agreement that Joseph is (a) incomprehensible to the average reader and (b) a boring old man. We think he could definitely go. Nobody would miss him. He just holds up the forward thrust of the plot.

2 The narrative framework of the novel is confusing. We don’t really think the dual narration involving Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean works. One of our beta readers suggested that it may be possible to dispense with the narrator altogether and simply tell the story from a third person point of view. Perhaps an objective omniscient narrative voice or deep third person subjective point of view might suit?

3 You have clearly ‘written yourself into’ the story. You need to delete the first few chapters. Instead, we might begin with Mr Earnshaw bringing the young Heathcliff to Windy Hilltop. But we need far more back story for Heathcliff. Perhaps he was Mr Earnshaw’s ‘natural’ child. Perhaps we might see Mr Earnshaw bidding a sad farewell to his dying mistress in Liverpool, realising that he must take the child home with him and wondering how his family will react?

4 There are some problems with characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy in particular seemed inconsistent and irrational to our editorial team. Ems, darling, nobody can fall in love with characters like this, and we have to love these people! And while we’re on this topic, one of our readers suggested another name change, this time for Heathcliff. Perhaps Cliff Heath or something similar: rugged but somehow more of a real name.

5 We think you might usefully reconsider your heroine’s character. Readers find it hard to engage fully with a thoroughly unlikeable person and Cathy is – forgive me – in danger of coming across as a bit of a bully – all that pinching and slapping. She is very pretty - but perhaps a tad too pretty? She needs some faults: a big mouth, a snub nose, unruly hair. Perhaps she gazes into her mirror in dissatisfaction at herself. It’s fine that she’s feisty and spirited. But there are times when her character verges on the psychotic and her tears and tantrums may provoke the wrong response. Nobody likes a watering pot, do they? And a watering pot with serious food and anger issues is quite hard to love. The reader must be able to sympathise with her predicament in choosing between poor but handsome Cliff and rich but wet Edgar. They must be able to put themselves in her shoes. At the moment, who would?

6 You may also need to reconsider Cliff. He does seem to have seriously sadistic tendencies. BDSM is fine, (in fact we could do with a little more of it here in view of other publishing successes) but cruelty to animals on the part of the hero is a definite no-no and the scene where we learn that he has hanged his wife’s dog MUST GO. Actually, we all reckon his wife should go too. Cliff HAS to marry Cathy. You can’t cheat reader expectations like this and besides, Isabella is SUCH a wuss. You should be aiming for a powerful hero with whom the reader can sympathise, even when he’s behaving badly: sexy and brave but with a certain underlying vulnerability and a hidden sorrow. Likewise, we really think you must reconsider the scenes where Cliff indulges in what can only be described as necrophilia. We feel quite strongly that horror is not your genre.

7 We would like to suggest that you ‘big up’ the supernatural elements. Several of our ’critters’ suggested that you should begin the tale in the present day, with a young couple – Londoners who have moved to Yorkshire perhaps - buying Windy Hilltop with a view to renovating it. Inexplicable things start to happen to them. The house is haunted! The husband refuses to believe in the supernatural but the wife starts to research the story and unearths the whole sorry tale: Mr Earnshaw and his tragic mistress, Cliff and Cath growing up, followed by Cliff’s desertion. Cath’s unwise marriage, Cliff’s return and most important of all, the resumption of the love affair. 

8 Forgive me, Emily, but you do tend to cop out of the erotic scenes. None of our beta readers could believe that – when Cliff finally comes back – he and Cathy wouldn’t be making mad, passionate love all the time, out on those windy moors. We have to be there and feel it with them. Where is her inner goddess? Wouldn’t he want to punish her for making him suffer all these years? The only time they seem to get it on is when she is dying and even then it’s only a few kisses and Cliff gnashing his teeth a lot. (More borderline necrophilia.) We need more sensuous wuthering in the heather!

9 Overall, the consensus was that you should definitely consider deleting the last third of the novel. Remember the old adage, kill your darlings? Well, we all agree that a bit of a massacre is in order. At present, the passages with young Cathy and Hareton read like an extended coda to the main event which is clearly the wild and wonderful relationship between the principle protagonists. You pointed out in your last (somewhat forthright) email, that you visualise this as a necessary resolution to the disorder of the first two thirds of the novel, without which the whole thing makes no sense. We take your point, but none of the beta readers cared for your ending, with the exception of one who thought Hareton was ‘quite fit’.

10 The whole of the Beta Bunch felt very strongly that you needed to come up with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. One suggestion was that Edgar Linton might fall down a pothole. You have a lot of potholes in Yorkshire, don't you? Cliff finds his conscience at last and tries to rescue him. Edgar dies, Cliff survives. He’s wounded (we all love wounded heroes) but at least he has done the brave thing. He marries a pregnant Cathy and they move to Windy Hilltop. Although they live happily every after, they have to spend their whole lives pretending that the baby isn’t Cliff’s, just to keep Cathy’s reputation intact. Which is the reason for the haunting. The truth must be told!

So there it is. We feel that with a little more work you could really turn this into a stonking great story. You never know, it may even be a ‘breakthrough’ book for you. We look forward to hearing from you with your rewritten manuscript just as soon as you can manage it. I’m sure you can do it. After all, time is on your side.

Very best wishes

Verucca Havering-Gently

For Humongous Publishing, London and New York.

My New Scottish Island Novel - Maps, Plans and Other Displacement Activities.

My fictional island of Garve
Anyone who has read and enjoyed The Curiosity Cabinet  and, like me, loves small Scottish islands, might be interested to hear that I've spent the last eighteen months or so working on a 'spin-off' novel called The Posy Ring, the first in a series of novels set on my fictional Scottish Inner Hebridean island of Garve, which is bigger than Gigha, smaller than Islay, and sits somewhere in the region of Jura - in my imagination, anyway!

If you want to know what Garve is like, the map on the left might give you some idea. My artist husband, Alan Lees, painted this for me, following my instructions, so that I could keep track of everything during the first tricky drafts of the book. The novels will be centred around an old house to the north of the island (you can just see it on that map) called Auchenblae, or Flowerfield, and like the Curiosity Cabinet, there will be past and present day stories, although nobody actually goes back in time.

You will, however, meet a few of the characters from The Curiosity Cabinet all over again, although this time they are not central to the story.

While I was writing the early drafts of the new novel, I found myself even making plans of my fictional house. It's a rambling old place, a bit run down, and I knew that if the story was going to be consistent, I had to know the exact shape of the building, inside as well as out. So I made floor plans. It was fascinating - one of those tasks that you find so absorbing that it becomes a kind of displacement activity that you do instead of knuckling down to write the book.

I did write it though, and also did a great many revisions and rewrites before I felt it was ready to be sent to my publisher. Now, I'm working with an excellent editor. This is a necessary part of the process because like most of us, I always get to the stage where I can't see the wood for the trees. If you have the luxury of time, I always recommend to people that they finish a piece of writing and then let it lie fallow for as long as possible - because when you go back to it, you'll usually see what needs to be done. But a good editor is beyond price.

It definitely helps to have an editor who 'gets' the way you write, but who is sharp and clever and meticulous enough to ask all the right questions. Fortunately, the problems, such as they are, aren't structural (always a nightmare) but nips and tucks and clarifications. We use 'track changes' and have interesting conversations in the comments. I must admit I find those kind of edits enjoyable rather than otherwise - a process of polishing, and I've always enjoyed polishing things.

Besides, since my two main contemporary characters are antique dealers, I think they might enjoy polishing things as well.

Game of Sevens - The Physic Garden

My Authors Electric colleague Pauline Chandler tagged me to take part in this little game. You go to the seventh page of your work in progress, or your newest work if, like mine, your current work in progress consists of a heap of reference books and some notes and not much else! Count down seven lines and post the next seven sentences. Or you can go to the seventy seventh page if you like. We're hoping you don't have a seven hundred and seventy seventh page, but I suppose it's possible. Pauline's extract was from a tantalisingly interesting historical novel - you can find it here, on the Authors Electric blog.

I decided to run with another historical novel - my own new novel, The Physic Garden. When I turned to page seven of the paperback version, and counted down some seven lines, here's what I found:

'I should have started the tale elsewhere and earlier. But I wanted to write about her, the way you want to talk about what you love. Loved. I wanted to bring her to life in words the way I would once have made seeds, bulbs, roots and tubers grow into plants, the way a few green shoots could grow and stretch out and blossom, the way affection grows and blossoms, although you never see it happening, no matter how closely you try to follow the movement of it.

All the same, I should have started the tale earlier. Perhaps I should have begun by telling you about my father, Robert Lang, who had been college gardener for many years, since I was just a lad. Or with myself, who loved green and growing things, even as a boy. Or with Thomas Brown, who had come to teach botany at the college, a few years before I met Jenny.

But I think that would have been the hardest beginning of all. So instead, here I am, telling you about Jenny Caddas and her swarm of bees, the way she smelled of sweat and honey, and how her hair flew about her head and caught the light, a tangle of flax in the sunshine.'

You can see right away that I've cheated! It seemed such a shame to stop, since these few paragraphs are right at the end of a chapter - and I think we need to know that Thomas Brown would have been the 'hardest beginning of all.'

Incidentally, I had occasion to meet a retired editor a little while ago (not my editor, I hasten to add, who was an angel in human form and the kind of editor who is beyond price.) 'How,' this person asked, 'could you write in the persona of such an unlikable character?'

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, gobsmacked. The novel is written in the first person 'voice' of William Lang. He is writing as an old man, remembering his youth in early 1800s Glasgow. Coming to terms with the events of his youth. Coming to terms with a grave betrayal. It would be no exaggeration to say that I loved every last thing about him, and still do. I had no way of answering the question, therefore, except to say that I didn't find him unlikable at all. Fortunately, a few other people agreed with me. They liked him too. What's more, they recognised him. But it got me thinking. And mostly what I thought was how very glad I was that this individual had not been my editor. Because if I had been persuaded to make William conform to somebody else's idea of 'more likable', I may well have destroyed the whole book in the process.

By the way, I'm hesitant to tag individuals in this game - I know how busy writers are. But if you are reading this and feel like doing it - why not just give it a go? And let me know how you get on in the comments below.