Thursday 13 December 2012

Responding to copyedits

Electronic feedback  
I’ve recently had a script back from a copy-editor. It was due 29 September and I finally got it the first week of November. More and more publishers are now using Track Changes on Word documents and it can seem a bit like being at school and getting back work covered in red ink. It’s easy to think your work must be terrible. It isn’t. Otherwise the publisher wouldn’t have accepted it. Your copy editor is good.
It’s very tempting to “accept all” and be done but that isn’t a good option.
Copy-editors are not infallible
This one was pretty good, actually, and made a lot of helpful suggestions. Typos were corrected. My script was aligned with the publisher’s house-style. There were actually just one or two changes I didn’t agree with so I rejected those. And this copy-editor did make one mistake: she misinterpreted an indirect thought as a direct thought. Eventually I also noticed a couple of things she had missed. So, it is a good job I painstakingly moved to every change and either accepted it or rejected it. This usually means accepting two changes at a time – often a deletion then an insertion.
More than a proof read
A copy edit is more than just correcting blatant mistakes. The copy-editor also advises about bits that aren’t working, checks for consistency in content and form and spots stylistic awkwardness, including, for example, the over-use of certain expressions.
How I worked with this particular editor
I kept “Track Changes” on all the time, so that I could see where I made extra changes.  
First of all, I went through every change and either accepted or rejected it. I probably accepted 99.9% of them.
Then I looked at the comments in the margin and responded to them. This produced new text that I had to copy edit myself. Sometimes, though, the comment related to a change I’d already accepted.
I revisited my own corrections and accepted them.
I rechecked my new work.
I kept revisiting chapters where I’d made changes until I’d no corrections left.
All of this took about three weeks. Finally I sent back a script that was much stronger than the original because both a copy-editor and I had worked hard on it.   

Thursday 22 November 2012

Professional jealousy = wasted energy so get over it

However, this isn’t always that easy.  Jealousy isn’t always something we can control. It’s an emotion that takes over. It chips away at us and can seriously damage our well-being. Can we talk ourselves out of it?
I’m probably not alone in being jealous of J K Rowling. She’s a great story-teller, obviously well-read and we all love Harry and co. And darn it, her first adult novel has gone straight to the top of the bestseller charts. But some of my stories are just as good, aren’t they? I’m well-read too and I think my writing is quite good. I have another feeling towards J,K, though. I’m extremely grateful to her for giving us another great example of good versus evil, of getting so many people reading – including some previously reluctant males - that more people are reading my works too.     
It’s sometimes harder when it’s closer to home. My colleague Antony Rowland recently won the Manchester Prize for his poetry. I lecture in creative writing at the same HE institution where he teaches a little creative writing and lots of other things. I immediately felt useless. Shouldn’t I and the others in the creative writing team be achieving this sort of success? Hang on a minute, though.  I’m not a poet and I didn’t enter the competition this year even though there’s a section on short fiction. That spark of jealousy, fortunately, only lasted about five minutes. The next emotion was of extreme pride. One of us has been noticed. I was also extremely touched when Antony said in an interview with a newspaper that he was part of a strong creative writing team.
Frank Cottrell Boyce recently won the Guardian Literary prize. That’s where I’d like to be and maybe I won’t get there because – well, Frank Cottrell Boyce – will I ever be that good? But wait a minute: he writes a range of material for the same readership as I write for. So, my work counts. I’m glad he was given this award. I’ve met him once and even shared the dubious of pleasure of getting lost and arriving late at the same event with him. I will be working with him in the not too distant future. So, someone in my circle of influence is highly regarded … bring it on.
What about when someone in your critique group or another writing friend gets published / represented where you’ve been looking? Or gets a better book deal than the one you were offered? Or wins a competition that you also entered? That can be harsh. You want to be glad for the friend but you are so disappointed for yourself.
At this point I have to remind myself of what I often tell my students. You can do it IF you really want to. It is of course an enormous “if”. You will have to face rejection, feelings of inadequacy, possibly poverty, they say 10,000 hours working on your craft and this occasional jealousy for which you may well hate yourself for a while. You have to hold the vision. There is some luck involved but you usually find when your scrutinize the more successful work, that guess what, it is actually better then yours even if it is by only a small margin.
This is where those fellow-writers who make us jealous for a few moments can help us.  They provide the bench-marks. It’s the Manchester Prize, the Guardian Literary prize and a decent book deal with representation by a decent agent that you set as your goals. Our friend / colleague / writing buddy has done this, therefore it is possible for us as well. We may have to try a little bit harder, though.
I always take much comfort in remembering Louisa May Alcott who worked as a jobbing writer for twenty years, no doubt earning a meagre living but being content in her work, and then wrote Little Women. Aren’t we glad that she did? She invested what she earned from that in the railways and became quite rich. Possibly after 10,000 hours of other writing?  
We can’t help the feelings but can we turn them into something that can work positively for us?                         

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Writers need a strategy

If your writing is good and you have a strategy there is no reason why you shouldn’t be published. You need to be driven enough to stay with your strategy and intelligent enough to realise when it isn’t working and to think of another. Usually it’s actually a matter of adjusting rather than creating new.
My strategy
I do not have a UK agent and I would really like one, though I do actually manage very well without one.  I usually focus on the latest work and will send it to three agents. I am currently in the process of doing that and actually have interest from two.  
Although I have picked out the most suitable to approach first I will replace them as they reject with other likely ones.  I will also reedit the work between rejections.
As soon as three agents have rejected, I also look at small press.
Once the next work is finished I abandon proactive submissions for this one and go on to reactive ones. This is where I look at opportunities as they arise – calls for submission, competitions, new small presses etc. I have to admit this is the area I’ve most been published in. Nevertheless, I’ve built up a good CV this way.
All of this is underpinned by effective networking habits: Twitter, Facebook, blogging, attending events – e.g. SCBWI, Society of Authors, book launches.
Work out your strategy
Answer these questions to work out your strategy:    
What is your vision?
What do you need to do in order to do that?
How often can you do this?
How will you notice your strategy is not working?
Writers don’t just write
In fact, if you become a full time writer, you probably won’t spend any more time writing that you do now. You may spend more time on effective submitting and marketing.
A strategy for marketing?
Oh yes, that is another whole story and deserves a whole blog post to itself. Then there is also a strategy for maintaining balance between writing, submitting and marketing.
Happy writing!         

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Self-discipline – the number one requisite for the writer

What does a writer need more than anything else? Talent? Imagination? Time? Brain space? Faith? Hope? Probably all of these. But above all else the writer needs self-discipline. That is what creates the opportunity for these other important qualities to exist.


What is a talented writer anyway? I’ve certainly come across some writers who seem to have a gift. Writing comes easily and without making much effort at all they produce something beautiful. Where are these writers, though, when they run out of ideas or the publisher imposes a deadline that’s awkward? In fact successful writers often even have to be more self-disciplined: it’s no longer a matter of fitting in a couple of hours after work. The only opportunity to write may come on a crowded train or in an unfamiliar hotel bedroom after a day of publicity events.


As time goes by we use up all of our good ideas and in fact some that seemed good actually don’t translate into a story that works. We have to force the imagination. It may seem a step backwards but trying a few creative writing exercises can help here. Writers, anyway, need time out. Time when they switch off from the constant thought about their work. It takes some self-discipline to create that. It feels and looks bizarre – just doing nothing. That then has to be combined with the other self-discipline of sitting down with the note pad or at the keyboard, even when you think you have nothing to say. Faith comes in here a little: the more often you do that the easier it gets. You know you will be able to write something.  I’ve actually noticed I often write better when I’ve felt less comfortable with it.


You can always make / find time. While the baby’s asleep. In your lunch break. After the children have gone to bed. Successful writers do. Often, once people become “full-time” writers, they actually don’t spend any more time writing than they did when they were fitting it around other things. The experience of writing may be more enjoyable, and possibly the quality is better but time isn’t the only factor there. They may well be doing other “writerly” things with the rest of their day.
The trick is not to expect too much of yourself. Don’t say you will write for an hour a day because if you’ve only got ten minutes, you won’t attempt to write. Chances are, if you try for ten minutes a day, you’ll more often than spend much longer at your desk.
Did you know that it is widely believed that you need 10,000 hours at your craft before you are ready for the public?

Brain space?

It isn’t just a question of time, though, is it? If you’ve had a fraught day, it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to write. It is for that reason my first activity of the day is always my writing. I then feel free to spend as long as is needed on anything else. I know I am lucky: even though I am not a full-time writer, my day job is very much about my writing and if my line-manager walked into my office right now, he would have no problem with the fact that I am writing this on my work computer in my employer’s time.
It wasn’t always thus. I did my Masters in Writing for Children whilst keeping up with my own writing, entering every competition going (I don’t do that now – I’m much more selective) and being Head of Modern languages at a challenging school in Basingstoke. I worked very late in the evening, weekends and school holidays. Oh, and my own children were teenagers at the time and you know what that means.  
You have to form an hiatus between your normal concerns and what your writing needs. Tea or mediation might work. Put all of your concerns about the rest of your life on hold – write a list, maybe – if it’s on the list it is going to be dealt with – or try worry dolls. Tell the dog. Whatever works for you. Then get writing.
A colleague of mine swears by changing space. Leave the office and go home. Move to another room. Have a different desk for writing from the one where you pay household bills. I’ve tried that too – it really does work. 

Saturday 29 September 2012

Great news for teachers
If you're a teacher in the Greater Manchester area, or not too far away from Salford, I may be able to offer you a free school visit. This would be about 90 minutes long, and would include a reading form the book, a question and answer session, a creative writing exercise with your class and a chance for your students to buy a signed copy.  Email me here for availability and to discuss details.
For schools further afield, I can offer a question and answer session. Just buy two signed copies of the book and I'll answer 20 questions form your students. Use the Add to Cart button below:      


An Excerpt form Spooking

Now for an excerpt from Spooking  
This is one of my favourite pieces. At a reading recently I actually sang part of this.

It was night-time. Tom could hear gentle snoring. His eyes got used to the dark and he realised he was in a student room. Kevin’s. Marcus was sitting up on top of the bookshelf, flicking through some of the books. 
“Twenty heavy text books, lined up by the wall,” he sang. “And if one heavy text book, should accidentally fall. -” He took one of the books and threw it to the floor.  - There'd  be nineteen heavy text books lined up by the wall.”
One by one, Marcus tipped the books on to the floor. Then he wrenched the shelf away from the wall, so that it looked as if the shelf had given way under the weight of the books.
“Blimey, ‘e’s a good sleeper,” said Marcus, “We’d better do summat about that.” He floated over and took his mouth organ out of his pocket. He played a bell chime over and over again, getting louder each time. “Wake up Kev-in. Kev-in wake up,” he sang finally.
Kevin woke up startled. “Who’s there?” he called. “What’s that?” He snapped his bedside light on. “Oh Christ,” he said, as he saw all the books on the floor.
“Do not take the name of the Son of God in vain,” said Marcus in a very solemn voice.
“Can he hear you?” asked Tom.
“Just about,” said Marcus. “Not loud and clear like you can. Quiet enough that he might think he’s imagining it. ” He put his finger to his lips.
“Is there somebody there?” asked Kevin, his voice a bit wobbly.
Marcus stretched his arms out in front of him and went “Oooh” Oooh!”
Tom had to bite his fist to stop himself laughing.
“Can he see you?” asked Tom.
“He might be able to. If he’s sensitive enough,” said Marcus. “But by the morning or even as soon as we’ve gone, he’ll probably think he imagined it or dreamt it.”
“What about the books, though?” asked Tom.
“Well, he’ll just use those as the explanation about what give him the nightmare.”
Kevin was looking a little less startled. He got out of bed and started straightening up the books.
“Oooh! Ooh!” went Marcus again.
“Who the Hell’s there? What do you want?” shouted Kevin.
Marcus shuddered. “Do not mention the name of the Bad Place in vain.” Hhe spread his arms out in front of him again in classic ghost fashion.
“What?” cried Kevin. “What do you want?”

“He can see me all right,” said Marcus winking at Tom. 
Tom really had to bite his fingers hard now to stop himself laughing. 
“You can’t be for real,” said Kevin with a sneer. “Who the Hell are you?”
“Do not mention that dread place,” quivered Marcus.
Tom couldn’t help tittering. 
“Who’s there? What do you want? What’s so funny?” cried Kevin. His face was white.
“I have told you,” droned Marcus. He blew Kevin a kiss.
Kevin shivered. “Yes, all right,” said Kevin, pulling his dressing-gown on. “Now leave me alone.”
As Kevin opened the door to his room, Marcus blew at a stack of papers on the table. They too ended up on the floor. Then he slammed the door. 
(I have taken a couple of spoilers out of this!)