Becoming Rimmer

time-painting-fresh-45-best-images-about-surreal-time-art-on-pinterest-of-time-painting

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?

time_management

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:

rimmer

 

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On copy-edits

Copyediting 2

I have survived. I live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is – a tale of high-jinx, of derring-do and of rescuing suspiciously busty maidens from suspiciously inconvenient places.

I am, of course, lying. It is a tale of sitting in front of the computer and using Twitter to distract myself from all the thinking.

Here are a few little reflections on the copy-editing process, but before we can dive straight in I should clarify: there were three people involved in the process. I was one, the editor was the second and the copyeditor the third.

The editor works for the publisher and is responsible for overseeing the word-side of my novel (and, I think, that of the rest of the imprint). The copyeditor is a freelancer who was sent my manuscript to seek out errors great and small. I never had any contact with the CE; it all went through the editor. And here is what I now know:

  • There are many types of error:
    • Typos
    • Grammatical errors or mistakes of clarity (who’s talking? Does this modifier refer to this or that or the other?)
    • Continuity errors
    • Errors of taste or discretion
    • Bad writing
  • Typos happne. They can be shrugged aside. So can grammatical errors (you were tired at the time; it was late and that thing you like was about to happen – you know, the one that leaves you all distracted). Continuity errors are worse as they actually have to go back through the MS to find the original reference and decide which to change. Occasionally you’ll have to think and no-one wants that
  • But these are nothing on matters of taste and discretion. See this soul-tearing post from a few weeks back as evidence. Actually, don’t. I’d rather forget the whole sorry saga, thank you. Why’d you have to bring it up anyway?
  • Bad writing is the worst, though. You’ve been through however many edits; you’ve got it past numerous gatekeepers and you did it with this piece of shit? Rereading your own work, especially in this forensic detail, often makes it impossible to see what’s actually good about your work
  • And this leads to more doom: do you try and improve your manuscript? Will you just be annoying your editor by making last-minute, unnecessary changes? If the copyeditor didn’t comment on a particular sentence, is it not just irritating to dismantle it and reinsert upside-down?
  • You need a copyeditor to assess your copyedits
stet

A Google image search failed to identify an artist for this, but you can get it on a mug here; the designer’s listed as Shonda Smith

  • Copyeditors are great: they spot things you’ve never even begun to think about considering. But they’re not perfect. They have their own oddities and prejudices. Mine (whose name I don’t know) seems to have a weird thing about commas. They’ll insert them where I’m damn sure they’re not necessary
  • My biggest fear is that I’ll disappoint my editor. This is stupid, but it bears saying. I am afraid to ask him questions; I don’t want to appear amateurish or needing constant hand-holding. Your editor is always on your side, though; they want your book to succeed as much as you do
  • This has been my first real experience of producing work to a deadline since university. It was a challenge, and in the end I missed it by a few days, despite working evenings. Fortunately my editor is on Twitter and saw some of my more desperate pleas for help and emailed me to see how I was going. This gave me the chance to explain that a) I was just being melodramatic for the purposes of comic effect and b) yes, the deadline was a challenge. Which leads me to the following conclusions:
    • Good communication really, really helps
    • Try and get as much info as possible at the beginning: what has the copyeditor been told? What edition are you editing? I started without knowing that I was specifically working on a US release, which caused me some confusion
    • Be careful what you put on Twitter
    • If you have a problem or an issue with the editor’s/copyeditor’s ideas you should flag it as soon as possible
  • US and British English really are two different languages. One of the hardest things for me was seeing all my usage of ‘whilst’ being changed to ‘while’, even when it was plainly wrong. Also ‘homely’ has different meanings depending on which side of the pond you are
  • All these people really want to make your book better

This has been uncharted territory for me. This may just be a brief lacuna before another wave of work washes me away, but for now I am mopping my brow, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting up the metaphorical cigarette of post-coitality.

The copy-edits are done. I am a step closer to being a published author.

Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

Writing uphill

‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

Douglas Adams

I currently have five books on the go. It’s too many. I need to put some of these to bed before I go insane.

I like multitasking. I always think it’s good for the brain to have several different levels of activity. At the front of the mind is your active project, the job that’s right before you. Behind that is the thing you did last, or you’re planning to do next, and beyond that the deeper images in the mid-memory. Your ideas pool swirls right at the back, ready to be called on at any moment – or ready to pounce upon you when you least expect it.

And though the majority of your energy is spent in your short-term memory, it does you good to have other things simmering away in the background. A little time not actively thinking about your work can invigorate it and give you answers to questions you were only dimly aware of posing. It’s good.

Right now I need a break. I’ve been swimming in various different incarnations of Antarctica for three years (Night Shift, Australis and New Gods) and, after a particular vicious slog, all I want is to start up something new so that when I have to return to the bottom of the world I’ll be able to see with fresh eyes.

But life doesn’t run like that. Writing is work and to be a writer you sometimes have to push yourself to places you don’t want to go. I’ve just received feedback from a beta-reader on the latest incarnation of Night Shift and I have to turn right round and get back on that particular appaloosa once again. See, I promised my interested agent that I’d get my manuscript to her ‘early new year’, which I’m reliably told is before the end of February.

Not gonna happen. I mean, I could just abandon my betas and send it off now, but then what’s the point in asking for feedback if you don’t act on it? No, I want this work to be the best it possibly can be, and that means ploughing through once more; my last revision was a biggie, and I need to reassure myself that I’ve not committed any egregious crimes against rationality or miseries of melodrama.

So I’m having to pull NS back to the front and opening that file once again. Hopefully this will be a bit of a canter. And then it’ll be back onto fresh virgin writing. Somewhere in there I’ll have to get back to my sequels, and to the last tidy of Chivalry, and maybe…

They say that no piece of writing is ever finished, it’s just published. I need to get something out there, to say definitively that this is done.

But not yet. There’s still a lot of work to do before then.

Issues of editing

Feeling frazzled. This week’s blog may be a bit disorganised, directionless. That’s because it’s crunch time. No more messing about. The votes are in, the deadline upon me and I’ve a better idea than ever about what works and what doesn’t about Night Shift. I mean, nine drafts – by this point you think I’d know it all, right?

Nah.

But I do have a better idea of what questions to ask.

Over the years I’ve built up a small but perfectly formed group of friends and writers who I can call upon for help and advice. The payoff is, of course, being willing to do the same for them. This time I’ve been particularly mean: due to my inability to set realistic deadlines I’ve begged for one last read-through to hopefully catch all the typos, inconsistencies and miscellaneous errors that have escaped the net so far.

Because the last rewrite was a big one. This was the one requested by the agent. For her I hacked up certain sections and recast the sequence: emptied some scenes, created new ones and, basically, did a lot of fresh, virgin writing. I did this over the course of around a month and a half; and, if you’ve ever met a writer, you’ll know that this creates a whole lot of agonising. Is what I’ve done any good? Does it disrupt the flow, mangle the pace, hurt the brain? Do I use too many rhetorical questions?

And of course I didn’t give myself anything like long enough to read through my work objectively and answer these questions myself.

So I’ve turned to my friends and colleagues, promising vague promises of wine and nibbles and eternal gratitude. I turned to my parents. I asked my fiancée. I was tempted to send out a blanket request for readers on Twitter, but I’m too paranoid for that.

Friends. Great, aren’t they?

And so this is the week that the responses come a-tricklin’ in. Trying to get a consensus, I am, on what works and what doesn’t.

One thing I’ve learnt (too late) over the many years I’ve been writing is that lack of direct criticism doesn’t actually mean a section is any good. I’ve had a tendency to use placeholders in my work, like dipping a toe to test the water. I’ve been assuming that if something doesn’t work then someone will comment on it. Nope. Ain’t the case. I can see that now. If it doesn’t feel right to you then it isn’t right full-stop.

And in this particular run-through – with a definite, tangible end to it – I decided to ask specific questions of my readers. These were only to be read upon completion of the novel (‘upon completion of the novel’ – how pretentious am I?) because I wanted to tap the readers’ emotional centres and not their logic-brains. These were mostly referring to the new sections and altered parts because they’re the bits I’m less able to assess: and, whilst much of the novel has evolved over a year and a half, these sections are essentially first draft.

It occurs to me that some of you might be interested in these questions. Some are specific to Night Shift; others are more general. And, in my eternal arrogance, I wonder if it might help any of you writers out there to reproduce them here…

General points:

  • The ending: does it work? Is it properly foreshadowed and not too obvious?
  • Foreshadowing: are there too many mentions of a particular item? Not enough?
  • Are there too many rhetorical questions? [Yes, I really did ask this: I wasn’t just joking earlier]
  • Are there any internal contradictions?
  • Are the characterisations consistent?
  • Is there anywhere I’m egregiously ‘showing not telling’?
  • Are there any sections that drag?
  • Do I over-describe characters?
  • Are there any sections you find repetitive?
  • Is there anything ‘missing’? Any sections/ideas hinted at but not explored that you think should be?
  • Did you know what was going on at all times?
  • Any ‘Chekov’s gun’s in there at all?

 And more specific questions:

  • Are the chapters of a consistent length?
  • Is the main character’s past laid on too heavily? Too much? Or not enough?
  • Should I condense the conversations between [pages] into a single section?
  • Are [character’s] injuries too severe for survival?
  • [Character] uses people’s surnames. Is it clear to whom she’s referring? Should this be changed, this trait abandoned?
  • Masks: do the references to masks work? Is there a theme here, a thread? Does it work, or is it just confusing? [this is a fairly specific reference; I don’t just have an obsession with face-coverings]

Is anyone actually interested in this? Or am I merely appeasing my own vanity this week? As I said, I’m a bit frazzled at the moment – all my chickens coming home to mix their metaphors and stir their pots.

Does anyone else have any questions they ask themselves when editing a project? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

*          *          *

I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

*          *          *

A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/33-hilariously-terrible-novel-sentences-you-need-to-read/#KujBrXMc5kzrDBo2.01

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

http://gu.com/p/3jx63

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.