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Monday, 31 December 2012

The importance of editing:

Keeping track of continuity
Naomi Rabinowitz

During my 14 years writing for Soap Opera Digest magazine, I was asked many questions about my job, mainly along the lines of, "So, you get to watch TV all day, huh?"

Well, yes, watching the soaps was a big part of my job description, but writing about the shows involved much more than simply watching them. We editors had to keep track of characters, actors and the histories of soaps, most of which were several decades old. We had to worry about everyday editing concerns, such as spelling an actor's name correctly or using "there, their, they're" properly, but we also had to worry about things like how many times a certain character had been legally married to another.

It may sound amusing and kind of unbelievable that we put so much effort into getting our facts straight about a fictional land, but in the daytime world, this was of the utmost importance. If we got the slightest bit of information wrong, we'd inevitably hear from angry fans ... and it put SOD's integrity into question.

The point of me sharing this is that I believe that as much care should be taken into keeping track of continuity when an author writes his or her own fictional work, a novel. Many authors with whom I've worked, worry about making grammatical mistakes; they'll ask me to do a line edit or to check for typos in their writing, but a true edit goes way beyond that. You want your characters to stay consistent throughout. This applies to small details, i.e., if a character has green eyes in the first chapter, don't suddenly write that they're blue unless there's a storyline-related reason that they've changed. If someone's name is spelled a certain way, i.e., a girl's name is "Jen," don't also spell it "Jenn" or "Gen." Pick one and stick to it.

Of course, you need to keep track of bigger details, too. If a character finds a magic sword at the start of a story, it can't be a magic shoe later on. If a certain curse turns people into bugs, this has to stay the same throughout. If a character is cold and stoic, he or she shouldn't suddenly change personalities; the shift should be organic. This is especially important if you're writing a series and these details need to stay consistent from book to book.

A novel may be fiction, but in order for your words to be believable, you need to treat your world with respect and think of it as if it is real. If you put the effort into making your world whole and keeping every detail in place, then your readers will have a much easier time getting lost in the work that you've created.

Revenge of a Band Geek from Bad

Love. Lust. Blackmail. Romance. Revenge. Is finding love worth getting even?

Shy, overweight Melinda Rhodes' sophomore year of high school isn't going so well. Her mother mocks her weight. She spends her weekends holed up in her room making what her friend calls "Freaky eyeball paintings." Her pants split in the middle of school, earning her the nickname, "Moolinda." She then loses first chair flute in band to Kathy Meadows, the pretty and popular mean girl who's tormented Mel for years. 

This is a coming of age tale about finding love, staying on top and staying true to yourself. Is it really possible for Melinda to have it all?

Sunday, 30 December 2012

How to edit you're novle affectively.

OK, keep your wig on. The title was MEANT to be full of errors . . . actually, I have no idea if 'affectively' is wrong or not, that's why I hire editors for my books. Here, on WWBB, I do my own editing and if unsure of the word I won't use it. It's that simple.

Editing really is that easy: hire, hire, hire or do not write that/a word.

It boils down to ONE reason why a writer won't hire an editor:


Under the umbrella of arrogance they will tell you that family or friends are good enough to edit for you or 'editing kills unique writing'. They'll even say that their qualifications enables them to edit properly.

Even editors need editors. Put it this way, do you check your appearance in the mirror before leaving the house? Or do you trust yourself that your breakfast isn't stuck in your teeth or beard?

The mirror will tell you.

So will an editor.

Louise Wise is the author of two comedy romances:

And one 'spicy' sci-fi romance:

And a non-ficiton novelette:

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Editing – Maintaining your Voice throughout the Editing Process

Visit the VBT cafe
Aliza Mann

I’ll never forget the words of author Candice Havens during a 2012 craft workshop. She noted that we should be careful not to edit ourselves ‘. . . right out of your book. . .’ It’s a hard concept to grasp when editing is such an integral component of the writing process. 

Instead of probing further, I took my tidbit home, like most writers do, and thought about it – turning it over and over in my mind until it clicked. That was not for quite some time. Actually, it wasn’t until a dear friend of mine sent me a portion of a manuscript (MS) that had been through several different rounds, with beta readers, critique partners and even a few publishing agents. Since I’m one of her critique partners, I’d seen the original MS and by the time she asked that I review her final revisions, I knew something bad had occurred with this work. Her voice was completely stripped from the work. At that point, the overall tone was something that was indistinguishable from any other contemporary romance.

A boiled down version of any piece of literature is not only something that is horrible for the author, because he or she upon submission to any publisher, may become slush-pile –bound; but for the reader, if the book were to make it to the point of publication, may end up with the dreaded DNF (did-not-finish) status. And no author wants to hear that about her book.

My advice to my friend was to go back to her original draft, edit the things that are offenses against grammar, but attempt to maintain the nuances that are uniquely indicative to her writing style. The challenge of writing a novel is to strike the sweet cord of an error book that allows the individual’s own storytelling panache to remain intact.

‘How on earth do you do that?’ you may ask. Well, it’s no easy task, as previously mentioned.

The simplest and most paramount undertaking would be to find a good and reliable critique partner. One that is familiar with your genre and overall tone based on the many novels that they’ve read. The critique partner should be strong in recognizing true issues – switching POVs (head-hopping), bad transitions, weak voice, etc. – as well as the usual grammatical error identification.

Once you find the yang for your yen, be sure that this person is as committed to you as you are to them. Meaning, in the event of emergency edits requested at 3:00 a.m., this person is willing to review your manuscript while heading across town. Seriously, that’s happened and my partner was willing to do that for me, as I am for her.

The next piece of business would be the need to develop your own voice, so that you grow more comfortable in your writing style and voice. The most practical way to achieve this would be to read a great deal and to practice. Sounds so elementary, but it’s true.

There are several ways to strengthen your writing voice and a great deal of books to help the budding writer. Once your voice is stronger, this will help with maintaining the unique flavor in the tone of the novel.

Once these two key pieces are in place, honing your novel into a masterpiece becomes a bit less daunting. That is not to say that there will never be a need for beta readers, or even the editing process with publishing houses, but there may be fewer changes required in the longer run.

One a final note, too many cooks in the kitchen can sully the meal. Building confidence in your writing and knowing that there will always be someone that thinks things should be different helps a great deal. The goal should include having as few errors are possible, not pulverizing the flavor from the work; which is exactly what could happen if you allow too many critics into your creative process.

Based on the numerous tweets, blogs and articles dedicated to perfecting the practice of editing, one can fathom that most authors rank editing right up there with having a tooth extracted or child birth. As painstaking as it is, the outcome is highly desired – a beautifully crafted novel that will be enjoyed by readers for years to come.

Monday, 24 December 2012

To Hell with Editing!

William C Prentice

As the author of a poorly-edited self-published novel, I am definitely biased. Louise’s offer to let me state my case regarding editing is a great opportunity to rationalize my own behavior. Even if this were not a convenient forum for defending myself, it seems clear to me that we have evolved well beyond the need to hold editing, as a process and an objective, in the same high regard it once was.

The bulk of my professional and business career has been in the energy industry, and I have written literally thousands of business plans, offering memoranda, feasibility studies and technical papers. It was unthinkable to “launch” any such document if it had errors, but it still happened. I can remember catching a significant error on one proposal that had already been printed for shipment to the prospective client – it took a day to correct the page in a way that it ended on the correct word and line, and changing it out in all 35 hard-copies being shipped. I can also remember catching errors in such documents after they had already shipped, and having to issue an erratum sheet to follow it out the door. I can also remember catching one significant error after we had already been awarded the contract – nobody cared!

Back in the day of typed letters, it was equally unthinkable to let a piece of correspondence go out with an error. It was humiliating both to the professional sending the letter and the assistant who had typed it, and if the error was one that materially altered the intended meaning of the correspondence in a way that hurt the organization, then it could be a career limiting event. If you received a letter from someone with obvious errors, it was just cause to have a negative opinion of that person and his organization.

In other words, we were all extremely anal about it. I for one remained anal about it even after the world started to change, and I fought a losing battle against the growing flood of poorly edited material we are inundated with daily. The IT revolution has changed communications forever – we went from making a few calls, checking the mailbox, and getting a telex now and then to a world where a virtual fire-hose of communications hits us in the face constantly. That fire-hose has permanently destroyed the distinction between informal verbal communications, with its errors, mistakes and colloquialisms, and formal written communications.

One of my losing battles was a pet peeve of mine – the misuse of the three words their, they’re and there. I probably receive at least one text or email a day that violates this rule, and I rarely notice it unless it makes the meaning of the message unclear. The same could be said for just about all of the “rules” that we used to live by – Strunk and White is obviously not sitting out on anyone’s desk any longer. 

The villain here is efficiency. The objective of our communications is to convey information, or elicit information, or otherwise create understanding on the part of the recipient of the communications. With the growing need to respond to others and react to the need to convey understanding to others, perfecting any single communication robs you of the ability to participate on a timely basis with all of the other communications you need to participate in. The need has shifted from having to send out one or two “perfect” letters a day, to the need to originate or respond to several hundred calls, texts or emails a day. 

Our tolerance for errors in those communications had evolved. It is better to receive a poorly written text in response to a request or comment than it is to wait around for someone to have the time to properly draft and edit it. The rules have changed.
What about a book? I know I used to feel the same way about books. I once bought a promising paperback action novel in a bookstore at O’Hare, and I gave it away on the plane after finding a really stupid mistake about a firearm on page two. You expected better from a publisher who was going to send a manuscript out for a first printing of several thousand would have done a better job. 

But books aren’t like that any longer. The distance from your keyboard to the readers’ eyes has been shortened to virtually nothing. You can finish up a novel in the morning, format it and get it out there on Kindle within a matter of hours, or self-publish hardcopy that can be in a reader’s hands as quickly as it can be printed out and slipped into an envelope.

It takes time to edit a novel. Someone has to sit down and read it and mark it up. Then the author has to go through it and agree to changes or not, or rewrite or not. Or if you are going to self-edit, that means setting it aside for at least a day or two so that you don’t just pretend to edit because it is too fresh in your mind. While you are self-editing, the ideas for the next work that were fresh in your mind when you were wrapping your book up are all starving for attention in some part of your head, and some of those ideas may die.

All of this gets in the way of the same efficiencies that have changed communications in general. All of this gets between you and your readers, your customers.

In my opinion, the same tolerance for minor editing errors that has emerged in other areas of communications is still alive in the reader when he picks up your book. If you have self-edited enough that you are confident that the story you want to tell is being told correctly, and that any remaining errors are not material to the story, then further editing is a violation of the law of diminishing returns.

At that point, you should get it into the market and start working on something else. If you go back and find a lot of errors later on, then go ahead and edit it and then publish a second edition when you have a chance. When you are really famous your first editions with all the errors will have become a collector’s item.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Importance of Being Edited

Francine LaSala

When I tell people I’m a book editor, they generally reply: “Wow, you must be a great speller!” Well, the thing is, I’m an exceptional editor, but not the best speller. Gasp! How can that be? Keep reading, because I’m going to get into all the aspects of editing and, most importantly, why you cannot, cannot, CANNOT put your work out there without passing it under a set of editorial eyes--or several even. Even if you are able to spell antidisestablishmentarianism without looking it up. Or spellcheck. (And yeah, I needed both for that.)

First, the WHY.

Number 1: It’s an important part of the process to self-edit, but in all truthfulness, you cannot successfully edit your own book unless you are a robot. It’s impossible for us as human beings to regard ourselves with complete objectivity. I’m serious. You can’t pour out something from your head and your heart onto a page and decide whether it’s good or not. You can feel it, for sure, and some people are very good at that. But our heads and hearts are not reliable and they will also trick us into thinking and feeling that what they believe is good is actually good. (Remember these are the two jokers responsible for your last bad relationship. Still want to trust them completely?) An editor is objective, and that’s essential. (Unless it’s your mom. Don’t ask your mom to edit your book.)

Number 2: As wonderful as you are (and you are wonderful), you know it is impossible for a single human being to know everything. (Many, including my husband will disagree with me about this, but, look, it is what it is.) And hey, even if you do know everything, consider this: You may know too much! That saturation of knowledge of yours could very well affect how you present it, and you can drown your reader in confusion without even realizing it. Sometimes it’s an editor’s task to pare down, to tell you when to rein it the freak in. But sometimes an editor also must let you know what’s missing. What lacks development and exposition and what sorely needs it in order to communicate effectively with readers--scientific essay or love story or whatever you’ve written.

And finally, Number 3: The most obvious reason to work with editors is...the more you see, the less you see. The mind (remember that joker from before who made you suffer that “good-on-paper” guy you wasted the better half of a year dating?) enjoys sabotage, and gets off on tripping up even the most eagle-eyed among us. Especially when the mind is tired, and cranky, and frankly bored to death reading and re-reading the same material over and over again (no matter how genius that material may be). Look, you are always going to miss something. Deal with it. And work with an editor, whose mind (unlike yours) doesn’t care to play tricks on you, and who will see glaring boo-boos you’ve read over ten thousand times and never seen.

And Now: The HOW.
Editors come in all shapes and skill sets. Here’s a rundown.

Acquisitions (commissioning) editor.
May be considered more “marketing” then “editorial.” These are they guys that scan P&Ls to decide what’s going to work for their lists. They read your stuff, but not with the depth of someone who’s actually going to work on your stuff. If you’re indie, they don’t really matter to you.

Developmental editor.
Like a beta reader, but trained. Work with a developmental editor after you’ve completed a draft of your book--before you’ve spiffied up and polished things. The developmental editor lets you know what’s working and what isn’t, and for what isn’t, advises how to make it work. (“Kill Charlie, he’s useless!” or “Save the hot washing-machine sex scene for later in the book, after we get a chance to get to know Fred and Marva and their feelings about laundry”) Once you have this great OBJECTIVE insight, you can use those suggestions to revise and rework. And now you can polish.

Line editor.
These guys have a knack for writing a good sentence and a good grasp on grammar, and make sure that your chosen words are relaying your meaning correctly. And they suggest new words to use if you’re not quite hitting it. The line editor will not (should not!) re-write your book. Rather, he or she will clean up phrases that don’t make sense, help slice out redundancies, and make comments where appropriate (“AU: Fred and Marva and the washing machine...you explain on page 40 that he’s five-foot-four. Wouldn’t he need to be standing on something here?” A good example from my last book: “AU: Peonies don’t bloom in the Northeast in September.” Who knew? Not me. But the line editor did!) Line editors hone in on the details so easy to miss in when you’re all caught up in the throes of the rhythm and the music of the writing of a story (which, as the writer of the story, is where you should be, BTW).

A copyeditor’s raison d’etre is to get your grammar right. Like specially trained soldiers, “SEALS” if you will, copyeditors annihilate misspellings, missed words, wrong words, and other dumb crap, and can shame even the most confident grammarian. That’s okay. If you’re telling a story, your crisp command of grammar should not be the part you’re most focused on.

To recap: No matter how Type A you may think you are, if you’re writing, working with an editor is a good idea. Remember: Your heart and your mind are mischievous little beasts who want you to look bad on paper. A good editor is your best defense!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Get the bad guy right

Clive West

Enter the cafe: VBT
Have I missed a comma out in my title? I think not.

Ask yourself what the following have in common:

  • A fairy tale
  • A romance
  • A horror story
  • A police procedural
  • A Victorian melodrama
  • A children's play
  • A spaghetti western
... and so on.

The answer is that such stories, disparate as they may be in content, style and demographics, will almost certainly possess a truly despicable villain. The only question is whether that villain lives in a house in the forest and gobbles up lost children or whether they've seduced our beautiful and headstrong heroine at the time of her greatest vulnerability.

But what really makes a good villain?

Naturally the specifics relate to the book itself but there are many lessons to be learned from popular culture - not just of our generation but also of our recent ancestors. Look at the logic behind what was possible not so many years ago because, as a species, we haven't significantly changed in the meantime. In bygone days, theatre audiences weren’t able to see much of the stage, by-and-large wouldn't be particularly well educated, and would universally want something that they could let off steam over. To coin a phrase, they wanted someone to boo and the louder the better.

From a modern writer’s perspective, the first decision to be taken is whether to have multiple villains or a single one. If the answer's 'a number' then the next question is from the book's perspective - are you going to see things from the point-of-view of the heroes or the villains? If it's the former then the villains should possess minimal individual characteristics as giving them too much personality will reduce their effectiveness; the reader will begin to identify with them.

If you’re going to write from the point of view of the bad guys then, yes, you do need to develop their characters and this is where you can have some fun. As with the principle of theatre, it's perfectly permissible to go a little bit over the top. The reader isn't likely to want someone who's a 'bit on the bad side' doing things which 'aren't very nice'. They want someone really evil doing mind-bogglingly horrible stuff. NB this doesn't mean a splatter-fest - there needn't be an ounce of gore in the storyline for this criterion to be fully satisfied. Your truly bad guy can be the evil seducer or the wicked witch just as easily as they can be the mad psychopath or the bandito with the bad teeth and an even worse attitude.

With a group of bad guys try hard to think of something which links them. Don't forget that altruism won't figure highly on their agenda so come up with a good reason why they stick together - e.g. through fear, greed, power etc. The higher the level of 'bad-ness', the stronger the glue you're going to need to hold them together so work on this before you start putting 'pen to paper'.

A book without a solitary bad guy is likely to be insipid yet a book without a good guy isn’t of necessity a bad read. This is because we still like to be able to boo our villains – good and loud.

Now, there's a message there somewhere.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Editing is an art

Steve Evans

Editing is a strange beast. People write about it as if its meaning is obvious, yet for someone who does it professionally, as I do, it's not at all obvious. Put another way, editing covers a range of sins of commission and omission, and there are people who focus on different aspects of the art.

And it is an art, or so I think. Most professional editors do most of their editing subconsciously as they rip through a text, correcting spelling, grammar, syntax, while at the same time thinking, or trying to think, about the "big picture" - what the piece is meant to be about, how it can be improved. So I reckon that when people are working like that, on a number of levels simultaneously, they are artists. That's true even though they are participating in a social process, rather than creating themselves in the dark garret of their imaginations.

It's probably unfair to say so, but much of my best editing is done using the highlighting function of the mouse cursor, followed by a deft manoeuvre* with the delete key. I'm really quite good at this.

No writer writes without doing some "self-editing". A really successful writer, whose hard copy books are flying off the shelves of airport bookstores, will have editors begging to massage her or his work. Those of us who are not so favoured will do it pretty much alone.

There is a difference between an editor and a reader. I have a few readers who read my stuff, and give me (hopefully) unvarnished opinions. I don't have an editor, and wouldn't pay for one.

Readers are important, partly because they help give a writer perspective that is easy to lose when buried up to one's shoulders in the muck of a manuscript. When people argue in favour of editors this is primarily what they have in mind, I think. But someone who does a lot of editing of other people's work develops this for their own writing, or should - a built-in bullshit detector.

I came to fiction somewhat late in life after many years working in daily journalism, and chose the thriller genre for what might seem somewhat arrogant reasons but that actually concealed a lack of self-confidence: my line was (and is) that I have a "serious purpose in a frivolous genre". I admire writers who work in this territory like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, not so much for their "hard-boiled" approach but the seriousness of their purpose. The best thriller writing surpasses the limitations of the genre and I suppose that was my aim from the first. Now I am thinking about writing in a different way.

Experiencing things first hand is good, but it is impossible for a writer to experience everything in life in order to write about it. At least one thriller writer murdered his wife and then wrote it up, but I don't think this is recommended. Doing desk research is necessary, and occasionally direct questioning of experts is possible and desirable. For me, most of the sub-genres that shuffle under the rubric of the thriller are implicitly boring as they focus on the "real detail" - police procedurals for example. Police work in real life is quite mundane 99 per cent of the time. It's also pretty safe, even in countries like the US with a reputation for casual violence. Emotion is where it's at.

One manual for fiction writing that I admire, says that your book is finished when you are sick of it. That's pretty good advice.

* I live in an antipodean society whose spelling and syntax are very different from dominant American usage, and even from the "parent" English. Anyone who is put off by it - sorry, it's just too hard to put into another guise.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Storytelling and Editing: navigating the tricky waters

Shelly Frome

Years ago, in order to earn some extra credit, I took a course in creative writing at a little college in Miami. There I discovered women who were working on a novel and had signed up for the same course over and over again. Not only that, but they were still working on their first chapter. As encouragement, the instructor and fellow classmates would make comments like, “I see so much improvement. Those hibiscus bushes are becoming more and more vivid with each draft.” At that juncture I promised myself if I myself ever tackled a novel, I would never get stuck in the hibiscus bushes. Nor would I try to please a group of very pleasant well-wishers. I wasn’t sure I’d try to please any group at all.

Visit the VBT Cafe

But even on your own, there’s the left part of the brain that monitors and judges and the right hemisphere that just wants to carry on and be given free rein. Moreover, how on earth do you bridge the gap between what you think or hope you’re creating and the needs and responses of the publishing world?

And so, on my first pass, trying my darnedest to cram in as much information as possible so the reader would see there’s really a lot going on here, Scott Meredith, the noted New York agent, told me you can’t do that. No reader could possibly take it all in. Later on, I read the advice of the late novelist and college instructor John Gardner. He noted that you should always think of it as carefully feeding a hammer mill. At the same time, a popular author wrote a guide revealing his secret: you spring forward and then fall back to gradually let the reader in on what’s going on. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims you should keep going until the very end. Accept the fact you’re going to wind up with a lousy first draft which the editor inside you can tackle and fix. One best selling writer believes it’s like taking a car trip in the dark: using the headlights, knowing more or less where you’re headed but allowing yourself to turn off at any time to find what’s really out there.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules. For what it’s worth, I myself use a variation. Though I more or less know where I’m going, I can’t seem to take another step until I’ve polished the chapter I’m on. All the while I leave myself open to discover things—what this character’s really like, some twist in direction I wasn’t expecting that’ll necessitate major or minor adjustments. Then I’ll go back and read, say, all the beginning chapters to see if the story really hangs together with a compelling through-line.

In any case, I try not to get stuck in the hibiscus bushes, self-editing so much that I’ll never finish the journey. Never self-edit to the point where I’ll avoid diving into some dicey scene and allowing it to “catch fire” as the playwright Tennessee Williams used to say.

Unfortunately, because of the ease of self-publishing and e-publishing there are countless dilettantes out there skipping over structure and the editing process altogether. Why bother, they say, when you can announce your latest and do a give-away every few months? It reminds me of the heiress Paris Hilton who arranged to get on a series of mindless so-called reality shows and then announced she was retiring. When asked on network TV, From what, Paris? she couldn’t think of a thing.

In real terms, when you’ve done your very best, you send it out there and hopefully find a match with an agent or publisher. Or, just to make doubly sure, you latch on to a reputable, professional editor who has a track record handling your particular material. After he or she gives you the green light, you send it out. Once you’ve finally placed it, more editing will be asked of you.

However, if nothing pans out, you can look into a decent e-publisher, safe in the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer.

In my own case, I spend so much time striving for a solid foundation and trying to satisfy both parts of my brain, more often than not, my independent publisher will accept the final draft. At that point, he’ll assign someone like the wonderful Allyson Gard who, in turn, will make suggestions. Only then will the final draft be truly final and ready to reach readers’ hands.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Self-Editing 101: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself When You Have That Nagging Feeling "Something is Wrong" with Your WIP

Why Your Critique Group Can't Help With Your Novel's Biggest Problem


Anne R. Allen

I was contacted recently by a newbie writer who said he'd polished every scene in his WIP many times—and his critique group said it was great and ready to go—but he still had the feeling something was wrong.

I certainly could relate. I spent nearly a decade polishing scenes in my first novel—which I later realized was unpublishable.


Because what I'd written wasn't a novel. It was a series of episodes. Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to do this when we're starting out.

This is especially likely if you edit with the help of a critique group, where we present our work in short bits. A group is great for polishing your scenes, but not your novel's structure.

And those of us who grew up in the early television era—before the days of full-season story arcs—may be even more susceptible to the problem.

So I told my newbie friend it helps to ask yourself a few questions if your WIP doesn't seem "quite right". 

1) Does the plot build from one inciting incident to an inevitable climax

Your hero can't just slay a new dragon in each chapter. He needs to live in constant danger from the Big Momma Dragon whose loot he stole in order to save the princess who is being held captive in the far-away tower of doom.

2) Can any scene be removed without affecting that climax?

If your hero stops on the way for a great comic relief scene in a tavern with a bunch of drunken Orcs, he can't just observe how funny they are. He needs to be in danger from the dragon perched on the roof, while he's trying to steal back the dragon-loot the Orcs stole in the last chapter.

Yeah, I know that's your critique group's favorite chapter, but if it's not contributing to the plot, it's got to go.

3) Do you have an antagonist? 

It's amazing how many first novelists leave this bit out. Those serially-slain dragons won't cut it. You've got to have that one Big Momma Dragon who thwarts our hero for the whole book. The "Big Momma" doesn't have to be a person or a monster. It can be a political system, an addiction, or even a weather pattern—as in "the Perfect Storm." What's important is that it keeps up the antagonism for the whole book.

You need a Big Momma Dragon who won't let up and can't be slain by ordinary means. And gets meaner and more dangerous as her little dragons get vanquished.

Some of you may say, "oh, but my main character is the antagonist: he's his own worst enemy". That means you have a literary novel, so make sure the prose is Pulitzer Prize-worthy gorgeous.

4) Do you have one over-arching plot that drives the story forward? 

Some new novelists will discover what they've written is more like an outline for a book series than a single novel. If you find that the problem presented in chapter one gets solved by chapter 10, and then a new problem is dealt with in the next ten chapters, maybe you've got the bones of a series, and what you need is to flesh out chapters 1-10 with more character development or maybe a subplot, and voilà!  You've got the first book in a series. Congratulations!

Obviously, it helps if you start the novel with some of the above things in mind before you begin, but even if you don't, you can often see a structure problem if you step away from the manuscript and re-examine it later with fresh eyeballs. 

Here's what I advised my friend. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Agatha Christie with added mayhem - The Ratcatcher

Tim Steven

Like many thriller readers and writers, particularly of the male variety, I grew up on the novels of Alistair Maclean. What appealed to me about his books wasn’t just the exciting adventure plots, but also how they nearly always contained a ‘whodunit’ element. The best of them had a disparate group of people trapped in a life-threatening situation, and you always knew from early on that one of them was a traitor or a saboteur of some kind; part of the fun was trying to work out which of them it was. It was like Agatha Christie with military weapons.

In my début thriller Ratcatcher I wanted to do something similar. A group of disaffected former soldiers are planning to assassinate the Russian president at a summit meeting in Estonia on the Baltic Sea. Which of the three British MI6 agents trying to foil the plot is actually working with the terrorists? To complicate matters, I made the treacherous MI6 agent one of the point-of-view characters. To complicate them further still, I included both women and men among the suspects, so the sex of the traitor was in doubt.

I got round the problem of hiding his/her identity in the point-of-view scenes by referring to our rogue agent throughout as ‘the Jacobin’, a nickname allocated by one of the other characters. Trickier was the task of disguising the person’s sex, and it involved a fair amount of stylistic and grammatical gymnastics to avoid all reference to ‘he’ or ‘she’. Not that this has any bearing on the finished product – readers want to enjoy a good story, not marvel at how cleverly the author has wielded the language, unless they’re fans of Martin Amis – but I actually found this quite a stimulating exercise as a writer.

The other element of mystery in my novel was the method of assassination chosen by the terrorists. In an odd way, it was like one of the central puzzles in a country-house murder mystery, except the question wasn’t, ‘How could the murderer possibly have done it when the room was locked from the inside?’ but ‘How are the terrorists going to kill the president when every point of access to him has been anticipated and closed?’ This posed a serious problem. I had an idea how to pull it off, but it took extensive (and admittedly very haphazard) research online to find out if a particular piece of technology existed that might serve my purposes. And I did want to stay within the bounds of plausibility; I wasn’t writing science fiction.

Once I’d discovered that the technology needed by my terrorists did in fact exist, I needed to find out more about it. And everywhere I looked, I found the same basic information, but not the in-depth, down-and-dirty detail I wanted. I asked a couple of ex-soldiers I knew, but it was beyond them. I joined a few online forums to pick the brains of the military eggheads there, but had no luck. One person even emailed me with a friendly warning that I had to be careful about asking questions like this online, as they might come to the attention of shadowy outfits monitoring the web for signs of terrorist activity.

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. If detailed information about a particular weapons system was so secret that only the manufacturers and their military sponsors were aware of it, then I could safely speculate about the nuts and bolts in my book without worrying about looking sloppy in my research to the average reader. This works as a general principle for writers of fiction, I think: do your research, but don’t be so terrified you might get a few details wrong that it takes your focus away from writing a good story.

Oh, and if anyone reading this is an insider in the armed forces or intelligence services of a certain Middle Eastern country and decides to read my novel, I’d welcome your feedback and corrections. With not a little trepidation, I should add.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Present day, alternate world, different rules


Alison Morton

Writing crime and thrillers with an alternate history setting throws up twin challenges – to tell a tense, fast-paced story with a punchy ending plus get the historical background right. Historical? Well, yes. Unless a writer knows their history, they can’t alternate it. Knowledgeable readers out there will be disappointed if a writer makes a serious blooper when projecting history in a different direction. And disappointing the reader is a writing crime.

Alternate history stories, whether packed with every last piece of information about their world or lighter where the alternative world is used as a setting with bare detail released only when crucial, need to follow three ‘rules’: nail the point of divergence from the real time line that has carried on in our world; show how the alternate world looks and works; and flesh out the consequences of the split. Writing crime, mystery and thrillers in this environment ain’t easy, but it’s fun!

Readers can take cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers are all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in various places along the personal morality ruler. But whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable form of cop. They catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system.

In alternate history, writers draw on history before the point of divergence as C J Sansom does in Dominion. But he then goes on to stretch and distort the functions of the Special Branch we know into a Gestapo-like force and the Special Constabulary into the Auxiliaries similar to the French Second World War milice. In my own earliest story in the series set in the mid-twentieth century in a country founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman refugees, the town cops are still called ‘vigiles’ after the ancient Roman ones; then, they caught thieves and robbers, put out fires and captured runaway slaves. They were supported by the Urban Cohorts who acted as a heavy-duty anti-riot force and the even the Praetorian Guard if necessary. The modern vigiles in my earliest alternate story carry out the functions of a police force that anybody would recognise today. And there is still a Praetorian Guard, but a very modern one. Both services have to deal with the criminal mind whether rational, completely disconnected from societal norms, opportunistic or terrorist.

Something to remember, especially when writing a series, is to let organisations develop. My vigiles are disbanded then re-formed as ‘custodes’ in the three later stories following a catastrophic civil war. They evolve in a similar way that London Bow Street runners gave way to Sir Robert Peel’s Bobbies who in turn developed into the modern Metropolitan Police.

Legal practicalities in alternate history stories can be quite different to those in our real timeline, but they must be consistent with history of that society while remaining plausible for the reader. My alternate world has examining magistrates (echoing ancient Roman practice) and a twenty-eight day post-arrest, pre-charge detention period which police services in our timeline would probably love! Questioning is robust, but there’s no gratuitous physical brutality – things have moved on since ancient Roman times when the punishment officer would take a criminal off into the corner and beat him into a pulp. In the 21st century, the approach is more psychological, wearing the detainee down, but the odd slap creeps in.

If writing in any foreign language environment, whether in this world, off-planet or in a different time, using local words for police, e.g. ‘Schupo’, ‘carabinieri’ or ‘custodes’ enriches the setting. But the writer has to explain in a non-obvious way. An example from my earliest book:

He handed me his card. “Kriminalpolizeikommissar Huber – GDKA/OK”. Juno, he was one of the German Federated States organised crime investigators. We were in the big time here. I glanced up at him, but he looked even grimmer, if it was possible. I decided to play safe.
The same applies for slang, which naturally peppers any thriller with police and military characters:
‘Dear me,’ he murmured, ‘you are a cross little scarab, aren’t you?’
I knew he was winding me up by using scarab, the derogatory word for the custodes. I might deal with a lot of shit in my job, but I was no dung-beetle.

Getting professional help? Do your research first! If writing a contemporary police thriller, writers should at least read around the basics; detection and arrest procedures, forensics, interviewing and case development. For political or military thrillers, the same applies for structures, chain of command, intelligence procedures and weaponry. Apart from watching television and movies and reading other writers’ books, I find Wikipedia is an excellent place to start if researching a specific force, police service or weapon. After that, most libraries and bookstores will have real life accounts written by former members of those services. For legal background, you could start with the lawyers’ associations and see if they have any public education programmes, similarly the probation and social services. If you ask reasonably intelligent, specific questions (make a list!), serving and retired professionals will usually be delighted to help you, especially if you mention them in the acknowledgements.

If you’re writing in a historical whodunit or thriller, then as well as the reading, you are probably going to become good friends with your county archivist and possibly the British Library staff. As you have no living professional to consult, you should find at least two preferably three sources for your information. Law enforcement officers’ roles, powers and practices varied hugely in the past and if policing existed at all in some past eras, it was often carried out by the military. You soon get to know your Tacitus from your Pliny or Caesar!

Crime, mystery and thrillers are one of the most popular genres in our bookshops, whether online or bricks and mortar. Whether you have a historical, contemporary or alternative setting, research and meticulous accuracy are the watchwords for keeping on the right side of the writing law.

Author Alison Morton
Alison Morton has a master's degree in history, has served time as a translator and soldier, and is a deep-steeped ‘Roman nut'. 

Currently living in France, she writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers and her first novel, INCEPTIO, will be published by SilverWood Books in March 2013.

Watch this space!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Biggest Block to an Indie Writer's Success

Clyo Beck

When you first conceived of your book, it was so exciting. In the creative flow, you probably told yourself that you would have no trouble getting it published because what was coming through was so darned good. It would be a gift to the world.

What you didn't tell yourself was that editing and preparing it for publication would be easy. Or fun. Or cheap. You didn't affirm that you would connect with the perfect publishing platform because you weren't at all sure that you would. Neither did you jump up and down with joy at the thought of marketing your book.

In fact, as you recall the process you went through, you may realize that, at times, you felt almost apologetic about writing a book. Sometimes you couldn't tell if your writing was brilliant or a bunch of poop. Doubts about yourself and the value of your writing kicked in. Who were you to be so audacious? Who were you to expect to be published? Who were you to make money when so many other writers don't make a dime?   

Yet, we're in an Indie revolution; so you decided that you would self-publish. After all, who has time to deal with the endless submissions and rejections associated with traditional publishing? Who wants to play the Catch-22 game of "you must have an agent to get published, but you must be published to get an agent." Besides, how hard could it be to publish a book yourself?

With the desire to write so fervent within your soul, you had no choice but to keep writing, and it was exhilarating. As idea after idea came to you, and as the pieces of the puzzle that was your book came together, you felt on fire. This had to be your higher guidance kicking in, right? You had to be writing for an audience who really needed—and would love—what you offered…right? Your book would just have to sell…right?

But then that inner doubter—the one embedded in you when you were a little kid—started circling you, like a vulture. While it couldn't stop the flow of inspiration coming through, it started to sabotage you. The result is that you started to doubt yourself and everything about your process. Then things started to snowball. You signed a contract with a print-on-demand publisher before your book was finished. You found yourself facing a deadline you had to meet or you'd forfeit your deposit.

As a result, you didn't have time to take your chapters to a critique group or read through your book out loud. Tired of trying to figure out whether your writing was good enough or not—and in a panic to get your book up and just be done with it so you could try and recoup the money you were investing in self-publishing—you decided you could do without a professional edit.

After all, what could it hurt? You can write, right? And, besides, these are your words. Why do they have to be edited? Why can't they stand as you first wrote them? Isn't that what will make your book unique? What can anyone else possibly add to what has emerged from you? And how dare they think to subtract anything? Besides, editors are too darn expensive.

So you rushed yourself into self-publishing with a print-on-demand publisher. The bad news is that your book isn't selling. So you feel sick, and like a failure. You don't even tell people you wrote a book. You're afraid they'll read it and think less of you because, secretly, you're afraid your book is junk and doesn't measure up, especially since you discovered a couple of typos in it. Worse, you are afraid to try again. You are afraid to write another book.

So, what's happening? Wasn't the Indie movement supposed to empower you? Weren't you supposed to be earning your living as an author by now? What's going on?

Friday, 7 December 2012


Larry Ivkovich

Editing one’s work, whether it’s for flash fiction, a short story, a novella, or a novel, can be frustrating and time-consuming. But, it’s a necessary evil for all those who want to get their work as polished and professional as possible. And, oftentimes, a much better story will be the result of it.

During my thirty years of serious fiction writing and my tenures in a number of writing/critique groups, an old discussion often comes up. It’s one which I believe has no really right answer although the two schools of thought often clash. That is, should a writer finish whatever he or she is writing and edit afterwards or self-edit as he or she writes?

It seems most writers I talk to and most writing “how-tos” I’ve read favor the former--edit after completing the work. I subscribe to the latter--I edit while I’m writing. The advice I give to beginning writers is to do whatever is comfortable and natural for them. Everyone’s different and has different methods and styles of working. There’s really no right or wrong way to self-edit.

I’ve tried to finish a work and then go back and edit but I just can’t do it. It’s not that I’m compulsive about it or a Type A personality in that regard. I just like to play with what I’ve written previously, to try and improve it or completely change it based on ideas I come up with after I’ve finished writing a particular passage. I don’t outline but I do take notes and jot things down when I think of them but it’s just more fun for me to try an idea out on what I’ve written right away. Writer and editor Anne Lesley Groell remarked at a writers’ conference I attended that this was how she also worked on her writing. So I feel like I’m in good company!

Of course, this is more involved than just line-editing although that, too, is important. Spellcheck and grammar-check are good tools in your word processing software but aren’t always completely successful. My wife told me a story about an old boss of hers who was looking for another job. His office assistant typed up his resume for him on her PC and ran the spellcheck. Now, sometimes, you can misspell a word into a different word that’s completely legitimate. This particular incident happened in the eighties where a style of resume writing allowed you to put down what you did in your spare time. My wife’s boss told his assistant to put down “white water rafting,” as a hobby, which he’d done only once or twice. The assistant transposed the “r” and “f” in the word “rafting,” which the spell check didn’t catch because “farting” is a real word. Well, needless to say, the guy didn’t get the job! But everyone in my wife’s office, after hearing about this through the grapevine, had a good laugh.

So, it’s important for someone else to take a look at your work, whether that person is a professional editor or a fellow writer or a friend. A fresh set of eyes always helps. This is where a writing/critique group comes in handy or someone you trust to be honest with you about the work.

Still--mistakes can happen. An example from my début novel, THE SIXTH PRECEPT, is a pretty glaring one. Despite my own editing and that of my publisher’s editor, we both let a few misspelled words and phrases slip through the cracks, which I discovered after the book had come out. One of my characters is talking about “cruisin’ the Wet.” Say what? It should have been “cruisin’ the net (small case also)”. I still don’t know how that one got by. The mistakes have been corrected in subsequent printings and downloads but it was pretty embarrassing.

One thing that’s helpful to do (whether you self-edit while you write or after) is to put the story, book, article aside for a couple of months (depending on your submission deadline, if any) and then come back to it after you’ve gained some distance. It’s easier to pick out mistakes in both line-editing, plot, structure, etc. once you’re not so close to it.

I recently heard a story of an author who had left the small publishing company who had published his first book because he didn’t like to be edited. That’s a pretty extreme and, ultimately, self-defeating reaction. Writers have to develop a thick skin and be prepared to take criticism. Such comments, no matter how much you may disagree with them, will help your work to become that much better (although, if you feel very strongly the proffered advice isn’t right, then it’s absolutely your prerogative to ignore it). Though writing is often referred to as a “solitary profession,” working with other writers and editors can be a very positive experience and one necessary for future growth.

So, edit yourself any way you want! It’s important but remember you may not catch everything that can drag your work down. Trust in yourself but also in other people to help you in bringing your creative vision to life.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012


Hy Conrad 

Every writer is different.  But, if I may be allowed, I’m a little “differenter”.  That’s not to say better.  I’m just warning you, my advice may be of no help.

You’re welcome.

Throughout my career, my work has been divided into two distinct groups; TV (writing for Monk and White Collar) and books, each with its own demons.  And though my ideas about editing may not apply to anyone else, there may be a kernel in here – something you haven’t heard before.  Let’s start with TV.

In television, everyone gives you notes.  I mean everyone, from the star to the network head to the lady in wardrobe.  It’s also a rule that every note has to be addressed, not necessarily followed, but addressed.  This is infuriating but instructive.  It gives you a chance to think about your choices and defend them – or change them.

My biggest insight into TV editing is that stupid notes can be worthwhile.  For example, I once got a note saying a script was too funny.  My first reaction was, “Hey, stupid!  It’s a comedy.”

Enter the cafe (VBT)
But when I read it again, I figured out what she meant.  As you got halfway through my script, the comedy started becoming less and less grounded.  So I inserted a quiet moment, where all of the characters reassessed their situation.  Not a joke in the scene.  But it added a sense of normalcy and made the funny parts funnier.

So just because a note sounds ridiculous doesn’t mean it’s unfounded.  Just figure out what it means.

In writing books, I’m a proponent of self-editing.  That’s mainly because I have an over-developed sense of structure and can usually tell when the story is going off the rails.  When my editors do take over, it’s usually to work on the small things, some insights into character perhaps, or to tell me to put the quotation mark after the period, even if it doesn’t look “right.”  (Does that look right to you?  Well, it doesn’t to me.)

Once a month during the writing process, I’ll set aside a day and review the book so far.  I also hang a big note above my computer asking, “Why is this important?  Why should I care?”  (I don’t really; but you get the drift.)

Monday, 3 December 2012

Is your ms missing that, er, pear tree?

John Hudspith

On the first day of writing my true muse sent to me
– a partridge but NO pear tree
On the second day of writing my true muse sent to me
– two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the third day of writing my true muse sent to me
- three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the fourth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the fifth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- five go-lden clichés-
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the sixth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the seventh day of writing my true muse sent to me
- seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the eighth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- eight aunts a-milking it,
seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the ninth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- nine adjectives dancing,
eight aunts a-milking it,
seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the tenth day of writing my true muse sent to me
- ten wrong words a-leaping (from the page),
nine adjectives dancing,
eight aunts a-milking it,
seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the eleventh day of writing my true muse sent to me
- eleven readers griping,
ten wrong words a-leaping (from the page),
nine adjectives dancing,
eight aunts a-milking it,
seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree

On the twelfth day of writing my true muse sent to me
twelve blasted rewrites,
eleven readers griping,
ten wrong words a-leaping (from the page),
nine adjectives dancing,
eight aunts a-milking it,
seven sentences a-swimming (with distressingly unnecessary over-writing),
six characters a-waffling,
- five go-lden clichés -
four bad reviews,
three gaping plot holes,
two purple loves,
and a partridge but NO pear tree