Back to the betas

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At long last I’ve finished the sequel to Night Shift. Long-time readers of this blog will know it as my problem child novel; it’s taken years to get into any sort of shape, and has been through renames and remixes aplenty.

What I’d like to do now is to get it off to my editor and then hide under my desk for a few months until I get a response. I might do that anyway, but first I must take time and do my best to ensure the eventual response doesn’t draw out a guttural howl of agony. It is time to request beta-readers.

Beta-readers are saintly humans who are willing to give up their time – sometimes a lot of it – to help make your work better. They ask for no money (yet – they really should unionise), dealing only in favours; specifically, the expectation that you’ll read their blithering drivel works of undiscovered genius in return.

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Beta-readers aren’t professionals; they’re not sensitivity readers and they often don’t have the experience of paid-up editors. But they’re spot-on 90% of the time. If they tell you your multi-time-frame-and-perspective-jolting climax isn’t working, they’re probably on the money.

It also helps that in many cases, these betas know you and know how to give criticism, coming as they do from that mythical group of people called ‘friends’. Sometimes payment is made in beer, wine and chocolates.

But this is the hardest time for me. I know the novel needs at least a good sanding down; there must be rough edges aplenty. There is work to be done.

But I just want to get on. On to the next one. Maybe do some real writing for once.

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When drafts collide

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One of the great things about editing – especially if it’s been some time between drafts – is the way you can be constantly tripping over yourself. There you are, freshly resolved to fix some dreadful plot-hole, armed to the teeth with stratagems, reinforcements and stiffened morale, and you run slap bang into the quagmire of your previous edits.

Replacing bad writing is fine. Replacing bad ideas is harder but can be done. But realising that your last draft was actually quite good in certain areas can create a horrible sense of dislocation.

Case in point: I’ve finally managed to get a good glimpse of my eternal project – the one I’ve been working on for five years and still isn’t right. This time round I came forearmed with a whiteboard, with reams of ideas and a fresh awareness of some of the weaknesses of my previous drafts.

And that was fine for the first few hundred pages. Rewriting there was aplenty; new motivations and causalities led to some characters being replaced and shuffled around, leadership-hats moving from head-to-head.

Then I ran into something I hadn’t expected: ideas that were actually pretty good.
It seems I had some thoughts previously. Moreover, they took a pattern remarkably similar to the one I had in mind now.

Worse, they might actually be… better?

Which leaves me with a dilemma. On the one hand, the differences can easily be married with a quick search-and-replace to make sure all ends are neatly tied off. But, on the other, I’m wondering if I don’t need an entire rethink. Again.

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If nothing else I need to call on my loyal, eager team of beta-readers – by which I mean I have to beg on my knees for an emergency hearing – to make sure that what I end up submitting shows no joins, no fragments, no speedbumps or irresolutions.

I also need to get the hell on with it before my next bit of paid work comes in.

The fallibility of success

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If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

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I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

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That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

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So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

The lazy writer’s guide to genre

I’ve failed to write anything acceptable for the first time in yonks. So, by way of a holding pattern, please accept this post of five years ago in lieu of my eternal soul. Normal service will be resumed next week, I promise

A Writer's Life

The lazy writer’s guide to genre 

Know you want to write be aren’t sure what? Simply scan through the list below and you’ll soon find the genre for you! 

Childrens & Young Adults 

How well do you know the little blighters? Can you find the right degree of simplicity without falling into patronisingness? Are you afraid of being terribly, terribly silly – or, at the older age-range, terribly po-faced and intense (because, like, teenagers feel, man)? Plus you have to pick an additional genre, which means you’ve got all those problems too. Incredibly difficult and best avoided 

Comedy 

Risky. Visual humour doesn’t work too well when written down, and sarcasm and irony create black comedy at best. Unless you’re really, really good at writing bon mots and creating high farce I’d steer well clear. Otherwise you end up looking like a bit of a…

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Getting into editing for fun and profit

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I’ve been doing commercial editing work for a few years now. Mostly it’s been sporadic, just a few clients a year. Recently, however, I got a Big Score: I’ve been added to the approved copyeditors list of a significant name in the SFF field.

And it occurred to me: maybe you’d like to know how I did it? Not that I’m exactly sure myself, but if you’ve ever had the urge to go down this road, here’s my idiot’s guide (because I’m an idiot) to getting a toe into the editorial world:

  1. Get good at writing. Of course you’re all way along this step already. You’re reading this blog for a start, which suggests you’ve an interest in writing. That’s good. Keep it up. Read much, write much, practice, grow.You DO NOT need to know every single grammar term. You don’t need to have read English at university. Knowledge always helps – grammar-language is a shortcut for those in the know – but I struggle with anything beyond nouns. It’s not essential.  Similarly, most editing work these days is done with Track Changes on MS Word. You don’t need to know all the proofreading symbols, though they are fun.
  2. Join a writing group. Not only will this help with Point 1 but it’ll help you get used to taking and giving critiques. Start with critiques of manageable length and with giving feedback pitched at the level (and confidence) of the writer.
  3. Give full manuscript critiques. I did a lot – over a dozen – as part of a group who did reciprocal feedback – I’d read theirs, they’d read mine. Practice. Get used to going through a manuscript and seeing what strikes you as wrong and what works well. And listen to other people’s critiques too.
    If you can’t find people to exchange views with, look online. There’s always people looking for beta-readers.
  4. Be poor. I needed a way to monetise my skills, and, as these are limited, I was looking for a way to turn words into cash.
  5. Find a mentor. This isn’t essential but it does help. My writers’ group contained a retired proofreader who very generously offered to act as my guide. In practice I didn’t ask much of her, but she did put me in touch with my first paying customer, which is always a bonus.
  6. Find advice. Search Twitter for editors. Ask them for help. I was very lucky to stumble upon Dan Coxon of Momus Editorial; he gave me the names of two key reference works and was generally kind and encouraging. People – me included, though I’m mostly a doofus – are kind and will help if they can.
  7. Learn the differences between different kinds of editing. There are a lot of different terms – structural edit, proof-editing, developmental edit and so on – but the two main types are proofreading and copy-editing. See this guide for details, but bear in mind that each website you search will tell you something slightly different. Trust nobody! Especially not me!
  8. Do a course. Having decided that I wanted to go down this road, I decided to pay for membership of SfEP and to do their ‘Proofreading 1’ course. I’m not sure if it was entirely worth it – it was a little basic and I’ve not made much use of SfEP’s other services – but there are courses out there if you’re interested. At the very least it may give you some confidence and allows you to flash this handy logo sfep-badge-[entry-level-member]-normalat prospective clients. And there’s a pricing-guide to tell you how much to charge and fora upon which to ask questions.
  9. Be nice. Assuming you have a social media presence, use it for good, not evil. If you’ve been to one (or both) of my book signings you’ll know of my story: that the aforementioned Dan Coxon ended up proofreading Night Shift. Good relationships with people in the industry – built over months, not minutes – will eventually bring opportunities
  10. Advertise. Create a webpage or add a page to an existing blog. Get business cards (I didn’t do this until the night before Sledge-Lit and missed off half the necessary information) and look for conventions at which to hand them out.
  11. Email publishers. And this, folks, is how I got my business. I simply cold-called publishers until I got a break.What swung it was my knowledge of genre-fiction, and the fact that the publisher in question was kinda desperate. But until these people have heard of you there’s no way they can give you a chance.

There’s more, of course. There always is. You might be asked to do a test or trial, possibly for little or no money. I was lucky enough to get paid for my debut proofreading, upon which I was so anal that I was immediately shunted into the ‘copyeditors’ file.

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And this is only my experience. I’m sure there are many other ways of getting into the editorial field that I’m almost totally ignorant of.

But I can only speak for my experiences.

If you’re thinking of getting into proofreading or copyediting, it’s only fair that I give you a few harsh truths before we part. Because it’s not the land of milk and honey that you may be thinking:

    1. You will not get rich. Publishers, especially the smaller ones who are more likely to take you on, count every penny. You may well be paid by the job rather than by the hour. My first job for a publisher (as opposed to dealing with the author directly) saw me work for around £5.30 per hour – way below minimum wage and certainly not enough to live on.
    2. You will have to work to deadlines.
    3. You will be a freelancer. You will not have a pension, holiday or sick-pay. You will have periods where you have too much work and – more likely – you’ll have periods where you have nothing on at all.
    4. This means that you will, at least at first, need another source on income. You also have to be ready to put your real life on hold. You may have to work evenings and weekends to get things done.
    5. You will need to have a few basic business competencies: time management, producing invoices, keeping accounts and so on.
    6. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with the government and be prepared to pay tax on your earnings.

 

This is a lot of info and I’m sure I’ve left reams out. And, I stress again, this is a story of how I did it; it’s not the only way, and I very much doubt it’s the best way. Hopefully it will give you at least a rough idea of how to go about it. If you have any questions I’ll do my very best to answer them.

I’ve been lucky. I look around and see where I am and I blink in astonishment.

On Air #3

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This is, as per bloomin’ usual, a photo stolen from the internet. I do not look that good.

I’m buried in proofreading and copy-editing at the moment, my deadlines teaming up to smack me oop-side the head. And my daughter has the plague, which is… unhelpful. These are my primary excuses for not having much to say this week.

So please excuse the brevity of this communique. But if you want to hear more about some of my writerly philosophies and the problems of cultural insensitivity, you might like to check out this interview I did on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Monday.

I’m on from around 02:20 in, right after Katy Perry. I’m in and out for nearly 40 mins, which came as something of a surprise to me.

Big thanks and kudos to Charlie Thompson for making me feel at ease and for drawing out the best of us guests. Remember, if you ever do interviews like this, the host is your ally. They will do their best to make you sound good.

And now it’s back to the word-mines with me. Them deadlines won’t meet themselves.

Hopefully I’ll have broken the back of them – and have maybe done something more interesting – in time for next week’s blog.

In the meantime may the words rise up to meet the pen.

Becoming Rimmer

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The signature is of CristoF, but who they are defeats my Google skills

Things to say to a freelancer: “Here’s some more work! We’ll pay you…”

Things not to say to a freelancer: “…but the deadline’s shorter than the other piece you’re working on.”

Fresh after last week’s blog-post about the importance of keeping balance in work, all my plans are now somewhat askew. I’m not after your pity; it’s a great thing, to have work lined up for the rest of the month and possibly beyond. And I get to copy-edit the sequel to a book I read (and paid for) a few months ago, so woo!

But I am at a point where I must, must, must keep on with my own work whilst I’m trying to earn money. It would be too easy to push the creative work to one side: “oh, it can wait another month.” Of course it can. But, come February, what’s to stop the same thing from happening again?

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stolen from xkcd

No, for the first time in my life ever (save maybe in essay-writing season at university, though I seem to remember I was rubbish at it then), I feel I have to sit down with a calendar and devise a proper work schedule. And this sucks. It’s always seemed to me like the old Arnold Rimmer problem of spending all the time on the plan and not the work.

But I must protect my writing. And family time. And give myself sanity-breaks.

Otherwise I’m not a writer at all. I’m this guy:

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