Sunday 20 May 2012

SCBWI Professional Series UK North West

I’m pleased to see that this is really taking off now and was very well attended yesterday. Philippa Donovan, an editor with Egmont and director of her own company, Smart Quill, an editorial agency ran a workshop with us. Philippa has worked previously as a scout for publishers.

Smart Quill

She started Smart Quill as a solution to the problem that editors these days have very little time to actually do much editorial work on a book. So, with her two different hats on she tends to see books at the start of their journey and at the end. In between, the writer may work further on the script, have a further dialogue with Philippa, find an agent, work on the agent’s suggestions and eventually find a publisher – it may even be Egmont!

Knowing the industry

As always, some of the advice Philippa gave I’d heard before and some of it contradicted what I’d heard before. After all, there is a certain amount of subjectivity throughout the business and it is always changing. She mentioned that we need to know the business and that the business is becoming more transparent.
I’m not going to try to capture the whole of her talk here, but I’ll just flag up the things that seemed particularly important to me.

Self-publishing digitally

A lot of the prejudice about self-publishing is vanishing now and it is all right to submit books that have been digitally published – particularly if a title has sold well. You still ought to buy in editorial services and design ones as well if you are not techy enough. Publishers are good at creating lovely products and marketing them. Nevertheless, self-publishing gives you a platform and some visibility. It may be particularly good for picture books as you are no longer restricted to selling co-editions nor are you restricted to a certain number of spreads.

Publishing digitally with a publisher

This may be where you need your agent more than ever – digital rights can be very tricky to negotiate.

What to think about as you start writing

As soon as you are ready to turn your idea into a piece of fiction, think about its marketability. Which age group will your story suit best? What is going to push the narrative? The voice, pace, composition, character, or plot? Read to see how other writers use narratives. Do you want to be similar to one of them or deliberately different?  Read bestsellers – even ones you know you will not like – and then write the book you want to write. At least you will know where it sits in the market.

Common faults

I was quite gratified to see that Philippa’s list was very similar to my own- I’ve mentioned these before on this blog.
Telling instead of showing – and she mentioned that is actually quite hard to turn telling into showing.  Far better to have too much showing – you can always take some away.  
Vagueness – particularly about emotions.
Prefacing with too much author presence – unless this is part of the style.
Overload of detail
Point of view changes – it’s okay to change point of view but not too often and not too violently  
Inconsistency in point of view / voice.
Poor characterisation - and yes she agrees with me you have to know EVERYTHING about your characters but you don’t need to write everything down and somehow what you do write carries the whole message.    
Dialogue – must be what characters would say in a given situation but not too natural or it becomes boring. Only hint at accents / dialects.
Plot should not overburden reader. There shouldn’t be too much of it.
Finally – if in doubt, take it out.

Why we need agents and how to find them

They are the first point of selection. They have good relationships with publishers. They know the industry well. The publisher focuses on products, the agents on people.
Many agents have become independent recently. They may be good to work with as they have no back list – so they will work on the forward list – which includes your book! And you really need them to negotiate your digital and foreign rights.
Look for a personality that suits yours. Google them. Read books from their client lists. Maybe send to three at a time. Show them that you have understood the industry.  Tell them why you have chosen them.
It really was a very informative afternoon. Thanks to Steph Williams and SCBWI for organising it.       

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Beta Readers

The term comes from the computing industry, where alpha programmers devise new software and other equally qualified and experienced IT people test it out in controlled conditions. So an experienced writer gets other experienced writers to read their work.
Why not ask target readers to try it out? What is wrong with just using a critique group?
Target readers actually are an excellent idea and I would define them as beta+. Unlike the experienced writers they are not analysing the skill of the writer but are responding as a reader. Does this text work? The experienced writer will look for faults and will critique towards making the text more polished. They will also have some idea of how to flirt with the publishing industry. A mixture of both types of reader is probably desirable.       
Naturally, members of your local critique group will also do that. The problem may be that they don’t see the whole text and may only be judging at a line-editing level. They may, for instance, say that your characters aren’t clear. Well, probably not if the first time they’ve met them is in Chapter Six and you’ve introduced them effectively in Chapter One. And even if your critique group has seen the whole text, as you’ve altered it as you’ve gone along, they can probably no longer be really objective.
So, it’s good to get a group of fresh-eyed “beta readers” to look over your carefully edited and polished text.    
I’m two thirds of the way through my final edit of Potatoes in Spring and I’m trying to find my five beta readers. I’m asking a colleague who has a special interest in the topic and I want him to see how ethical my text is. I’m asking another colleague, another creative writing teacher who frequently works with young people, to take a look. With the latter there is a slightly ulterior motive: she is a playwright and we both think the novel may effectively be turned into a play. A Holocaust survivor who also came over on the Kindertransport has also volunteered to read it. Then I want to find two other readers. One should be another young adult, then two experienced writers. That gives me two betas and three beta+s. Is that the right number? I’ll revisit that later.
Obviously if I’m asking five people to read my work and comment on it, for nothing more than an acknowledgement in the book and a free copy when it is published I need to give something back. I did think about setting something up that worked like a baby-sitting circle. But this could be complex to organise and it might mean you work with the same people all of the time which could lead to a “house style” that may or may not be right. An element of randomness is probably welcome.
So, at some point I must also be a beta reader. Will it work fairly if we leave it to everyone’s conscience? Or should we pay our beta readers? Could people afford to pay? Or could it be a I.O.U that would be settled out of the advance?