Back to the betas

beta-reader

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.

beta-reader-cartoon

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

calvin-hobbers bad writing

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

WritingHumour-Criticism

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.

Getting into editing for fun and profit

red pen

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.

literally

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.

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:

rimmer

 

The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

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Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

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St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

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There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

How to publish a novel: a writer’s guide

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London novelist’s journey from manuscript to book. But before we go anyway I must caveat in your general direction: I haven’t had a book published yet. I have only my own, limited, experience to draw on via the medium of a single publisher. Your experience will be/will have been different.

The broad sweep is likely to be similar, though, hence the ‘this might be of interest’-ness of this post. I also suspect that many of the stages will be applicable to all you self-publishers out there.

And, without further ado:

Step the First: Write a novel and make it good

A novel by

Yes, it is possible to sell a novel on the basis of a pitch: Gareth Powell did that with his Ack-Ack Macaque stories (and very good they are too). But he did that on the back of a lot of previous highly-regarded writings. If you don’t have a track-record, or if you’re not already famous, you’re going to have to go the long way round.

Step the Second: Find a publisher willing to take you on

W and A 1948

Yes, I know I’m skipping a helluva lot of steps here. But to detail every single rise and fall, every stumble and trip, in here would make this article three times as long. Besides, most of this blog is taken up with these gaps.

Step the Third: Sign a contract

publishing contract childress

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about agents here. That’s mostly because I don’t have one, though I’ve spent more time trying to get one than I have trying to get a publisher. Again, please refer to the rest of my blog ever for my agonies over a lack of agent: suffice to say that I’d really rather like one and this is where they come into their own.

A contract is a potential minefield and it’s here you can be shafted by an unscrupulous organisation. For that reason I recommend that as soon as you get a contract offer you join the Society of Authors. They’ll read through your contract and – very promptly – tell you if the contract’s exploitative and suggest amendments in your interests.

A few short notes:

  • Money goes to you. It’s not a great sign if you’re asked to pay costs
  • Keep your rights. Don’t sign away the rights to adaptations or the right to be respected as the author
  • Make sure that, if something goes wrong (if, for example, the publisher goes bust), the rights to your work revert to you. Clauses that state you can publish your work elsewhere if the novel isn’t released within a year or two of manuscript submission, or if less than a number of copies a year are sold, are nice things to have.

Step the Fourth: Tell the publisher all about yourself

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This, I suspect, is where people’s experiences will start to differ as different publishers will have different mechanisms for building up their publicity machines. Some may not do anything at all; others will have legions dedicated solely to your novel.

But as soon as I signed I was sent a huge document to complete: I was asked to write long- and short-form author profiles and a long and a short-form novel blurb. I was asked to give any useful contacts, any bookshops I lurked in, any podcasts I recommended. I was also asked to give ten questions and answers to provide to the media.

I was also invited to share any ideas I had for the cover, which I believe is, if not unusual, then at least a long way from standard.

This took a long time. I’m still not entirely sure what of it has been used, what will be used, and what has been forever dispatched into the netherhells.

The good thing about this is that, once done, it can be recycled: like the perfect submission letter you may tinker and rewrite but once the facts are down you’ll only need periodic updates. This work isn’t wasted.

Step the Fifth: Write something else

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This process is full of gaps: of feverish activity followed by lean, fallow months. Don’t sit back and sweat: make your next book sing.

Step the Sixth: The cover

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A few months pass quietly. Then I receive a proposed cover and for the first time see your name in, as it were, lights.

I was, at this stage, invited to comment and feed back on the mock-up. Not all publishers do this.

Step the Seventh: A long period of quiet with occasional stabs of publicity

quiet hawkings

This is where I needed an agent and possibly made my errors. Or at least the errors I’m aware of; I’m sure more are to come.

My publishers were hugely busy with a great number of books and I didn’t want to hassle them so I retreated to Step The Fifth – I got on with other things. I was also contacted by Unnerving magazine and asked to do an (email) interview, which was both good for my ego and helped me feel like I was helping.

But I feel this was where I should have been doing more to organise publicity for the release. Could I have tagged myself onto any festival lists? Should I have contacting bookshops or libraries, or at least haranguing my publisher into so doing? I’m really not sure.

Step the Eighth: Copy-edits

Proofmarks

Aha! As if from nowhere, a task appears! To be honest this was a bit of a relief; doing something, even if it’s a difficult, angst-wrencher of a task, is better than waiting. It’s also a sign that the publisher knows what they’re doing (not that I doubted it, but still) and things are progressing. Huzzah!

Step the Ninth: Proofs

minor edits

…and hot on the heels of the copy-edits come the proofs. The turnover was so quick as to be almost the same task; here the difference is really that I was working in a PDF (and thus was visible the pagination, the preliminary pages and so forth).Also the urge to skim was stronger as there wasn’t any handy marginal notes to draw my attention to Bad Writing.

This is, I’m led to believe, the last time you can amend your text without seriously annoying your editor. I also inserted thanks and dedications here.

Step the Tenth: Final (final) changes

Another email arrives and causes me to immediately cease all other activity: another PDF and a last list of editorial queries. This are all little things – the difference between a settee and a couch, for example, or whether something should be in a personal or a personnel file.

Step the Eleventh: Serious publicity

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This is where I now sit.

Except I’m not really sure what I’m doing, other than querying my publisher’s plans and, upon invitation, sending them some ideas. It’s two months until the damn thing’s out there and I’m not sure how best to go about promoting myself and my work.

Except for going on about it here and the occasional humblebrag on Twitter, of course.
But I’m hoping things will come together. There’s still time; I have to trust my publisher – they want my novel to succeed as much as I do. In the meantime it’s time for me to return to Step the Fifth.

Step the Twelfth: The great release

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So… what happens here? Will we go out with a whimper or a bang?

I’m still hoping there’ll be some sort of event to accompany the release. Even if it’s in my own house, in my own head, having one’s book actually living and breathing is a rare thing. It should be celebrated.

And if I do actually do anything, if there are any events to make the moment, be sure I’ll be letting you know, lovely folks.

Step the Thirteenth: The inevitable comedown

post party

Things don’t stop when the book is unleashed on the public. There may well be continuing publicity. What there will doubtless be is more work. A debut is a beginning, not an ending.

A pause is worthwhile. A glass of reflection is earned. But then the work resumes.
Nothing sells a book like another book.

Back behind the keyboard, young ‘un. There’s more words to be mined.

*    *   *

Night Shift is due out November 6th courtesy of Flame Tree Press. Available in all good bookshops and libraries, and possibly some rather dodgy ones too.

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