Conversations with ghosts

conversation

What do Katie Price and Donald Trump and Alexandre Dumas have in common? That’s right, none of them wrote the books that carry their names.

In the aftermath of the #copypastecris controversy I got to musing about ghostwriting and the nature of ghosts. Now I should say that I’m currently leaning in favour of the ghosts in that particular plagiarism case and I’m not here to launch a diatribe against the practice. But, as a writer, I’ve never really understood why people (who aren’t celebrities, at least) hire ghosts.

And then I realised: I know a ghostwriter and she knows others. Why not ask her a little about the industry? Hell, I hardly ever do anything original on here. Why not use my powers for good and not fall back on my usual trick of lukewarmly microwaving other people’s leftovers and passing it off as original?

So, without further ado, here’s Ben Jeapes and Jan Greenough – excellent authors in their own right – to tell us a little about how they work. Jan works mostly in non-fiction and Ben in fiction:

Can you tell us how you got into the industry? I take it you didn’t start out with an advert on Fiverr

Ben Jeapes: Pure fluke. I did some work with Working Partners, which is sort of like ghostwriting. Their business model: think up a series; sell it to a publisher; hire an author to write the thing; everyone shares the profits, so no one loses out if you accidentally write the next Harry Potter. Publishers are fine with this because they know they’re getting quality work straight up that will require a minimum of work at their end. Then my Working Partners editor changed jobs and inherited a series by a well-known celebrity which needed a writer, and she thought of me.

Jan Greenough: I started out as a copy-editor in a distant outpost of the Pergamon empire – an educational publisher called Wheaton in Devon. When we moved to Oxfordshire and started a family, I needed freelance work I could do after baby bedtime (no nurseries in those Jurassic days). From contacts made when I was properly employed, I picked up copy-editing jobs from Hodder & Stoughton and a couple of religious publishers, one of which eventually emerged from various takeovers as Lion Hudson.

Gradually I established myself as a safe pair of hands, which meant that the commissioning editors sent me worse and worse manuscripts to pull into shape. I was the Department of Silk Purses. You might ask why the publisher had accepted these nightmares in the first place, but religious publishers work to their own rules. They are more interested in people with an inspiring story than in whether the author can write. Writing can be fixed – but in the realm of ‘how my faith helps me’, the valuable commodity is the real-life experience.

In the end the job changed from ‘Please can you rewrite this poorly-written MS?’ to ‘Oops- there isn’t a manuscript at all. Can you go and talk to this missionary/reformed drug addict/survivor of the Killing Fields and write the story for them?’

Welcome to the world of ghostwriting.

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How do you get work? Do clients come to you directly or are you commissioned by agents/publishers etc?

JG: The above explains it, really. As a publisher’s pet poodle, I am sent opportunities and asked to meet an ‘author’ and get the story out of him/her. Sometimes I report back that there isn’t a worthwhile/original story at all, and the project folds. More often, I submit a brief outline and the publisher goes ahead and draws up contracts. These are almost always ‘autobiographies’, and mainly conversion stories.

I have been approached many times by authors wanting a ghost writer. Usually I assess the chances of their story being of interest to a publisher as negligible, so I decline. They can seldom afford to pay properly and think you should share the risk with them. DON’T! At one stage I kept a file called ‘Loopy Requests for Ghostwriting’.

BJ: So far I’ve almost always been commissioned by agents and publishers, though I am trying to drum up business with adverts and a dedicated website. The one exception is an autobiography for Lion Hudson that I helped with last year, where the original ghostwriter had dropped out. I had to hustle for that one, but I was still hustling at the publisher, as I also know the Commissioning Editor socially and he had mentioned the project. The author still had to approve me.

How much input does the client have? Do they give you character notes, plot outlines and so on or do you just have a brief to ‘write a novel’?

BJ: I started by being given character notes and outlines, though I was always able to make my own suggestions. Everything I wrote went back to the client for the final say.
As my familiarity with the serieses I’ve written has developed, so I’ve been given more and more leave to do my own stuff, and hence the amount of work and concomitant income has risen to the point where I can make a living out of it (see below). So, of late, it really has been a case of ‘write a novel’: but I still have to prepare an outline, get it approved and so on, and I know the kind of thing they’re after. And the client still gets the final sign-off.

JG: It’s generally someone’s life story, so I interview them at length, generally one visit per chapter, which I write up and return, so they can check that I haven’t got the wrong end of any sticks. I’ve also written some non-fiction Christian books where I have had more creative input, but everything is shared and discussed at length.

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How do you feel about seeing your book released with somebody else’s name on it? Do you think it’s fair that they get the acclaim whilst you’re forgotten?

BJ: None of the series I’ve written would have even existed without the clients asking for them – they’re certainly not the kind of thing I would have written off my own bat. One series happened because the client had fond memories of the Willard Price series he had enjoyed as a child, and wanted something similar in terms of good, wholesome, moral adventure for his own kids to read. I also enjoyed Willard Price, so it was a pleasure to be doing this kind of thing for a new generation.

All the series trade on reputations the clients have built up in other spheres through their own hard work, and they incorporate the clients’ own hard-won knowledge and experience. For instance, one of my publishers also does a series – not by me – by Sir Chris Hoy about a boy with a magic bicycle. You automatically associate Chris Hoy with bicycles, and you know a book about a magic bike will do a lot better with his name on the front than with yours.

So, long story short, I think it’s quite fair that they get the acclaim.

I’m adequately paid, and – equally important – everyone who actually matters, i.e. agents and publishers, knows it was me. I have to admit I did feel a little odd when the Willard Price fan started dedicating ‘his’ book to his kids. He was essentially saying “this is how much Daddy loves you, he hired someone to write this book for you!” And then there are clips of him reading it on YouTube. But hey, I could smile and shake my head and get on with my life.

I have a client with an absolute tin ear for dialogue, and his edits always take precedence over mine – so there are times I am actively grateful not to have my name appear anywhere, in case anyone actually thinks I wrote that.

And, ultimately, I would rather be writing than not writing. It’s very hard indeed to make a living writing science fiction, which is where I came from, so if I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be writing blog articles for a technical company, and I know which is more fun. However, if I was ever hired to ghost write science fiction then I would damn well insist my name was acknowledged!

JG: Christian publishers have an oversized sense of fairness. Almost all my books appear as ‘By A. N. Other, with Jan Greenough’ – after all, it’s their story. Occasionally, where I’ve had lot of input, it appears as ‘A. N. Other and Jan Greenough’.

Without going into too much detail about fees and costs, is ghostwriting worth it? Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?

BJ: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. At first it was just handy pocket money, in parallel with the day job, which was a handy cash reserve for a man with a new family. Because I started doing the plot outlines as well, as mentioned, it became liveable-off just as I was badly needing to leave a terrible job anyway, and I’ve had an amazing 3.5 years since. Now that all the contracts that lured me out of full-time employment have expired … well, we’ll see, won’t we?

The doyen of ghostwriting is Andrew Crofts and I strongly recommend his books on the subject as a reference for anyone wanting to get in on the trade.

As shown in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, ghostwriting can also be positively lethal, but that kind of thing is probably rare …

JG: No, I couldn’t make a living from ghostwriting alone, but then I was swimming in a very small pool. Most of my books covered their advances, but except where the author was famous (Fiona Castle, wife of Roy Castle) or did a lot of speaking tours (Angus Buchan), royalty payments were minimal. It’s vital to get a decent up-front fee. Even then, you’d be better off (though more bored) filling shelves at Tesco. I supplemented the income with copywriting for a marketing agency, copy-editing and content-editing fiction. And I’m still not rich. But if you make your name, and write popular mainstream books like Andrew Crofts (author of Ghostwriting), you can make a living.

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Is it harder to motivate yourself to write someone else’s work than it is your own?

BJ: I’ve never found it so, since I always go into a contract with money and deadlines and outlines all settled, so I know exactly what and when I should be writing.

I’ve worked in publishing, so I’ve seen deadlines from the other end, and I firmly believe in sticking to them. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Ha ha, goes everyone, forgetting that this is a man who could have sold his shopping list and got it published. There’s people at the other end who aren’t multimillionaires and are depending on your deadlines for their own living – so I’m afraid that remark has always dented my otherwise very high regard for him.

JG: Nothing motivates a writer better than an electricity bill.

Do you think ghostwriting is ethical? Do you think legal steps should be taken to ensure that the ghost’s name should be on the cover?

BJ: You won’t be surprised to know I’ve thought long and hard about this … and come down in favour of it being ethical. Mostly.

For the kind of fiction I’ve always written, where I’m presenting the client’s experiences in different ways, or for autobiography – I think it’s fine. They are hiring my voice for their own thoughts. A positive worldview is being presented; customers are getting value for money; I’m supporting my family; I am telling stories exist that should, and otherwise wouldn’t, be told. There is no bad here.

I am surprised at one client’s insistence that my name not be mentioned anywhere. The artist, the editor, all fine – but not me. Again, I’m adequately paid, but it does leave an odd taste in the mouth. I think he just has overzealous, showbiz-type lawyers, and lives such a cossetted existence with ‘people’ who do everything for him that he thinks this is normal.

I’m not sure what ‘legal steps’ could be taken, but if, say, the Society of Authors pushed for all publishers to at least give the ghost a ‘With thanks to …’ in the front matter, I wouldn’t complain. For the Chris Hoy series that I mentioned, he apparently has no trouble at all about acknowledging the writer, and goes on tours with her and the artist. So, win some, lose some.

Some ghostwriters clearly behave very unethically. For a start, some people looking for a writer are clearly complete newbs who don’t know what they’re doing. I regularly peruse Freelancer.com (not Fiverr …) for writing opportunities, and time and time again I see someone looking for a writer for their novel, for which they will pay peanuts. These people obviously think that the idea is the big thing in a novel and the writing is just a tedious formality, when a (good) novel is in fact a combination of the writing and the idea. I’m sure there are ghostwriters who take the gig and just churn out text that is worthy of the sum being paid. Okay, you could say both parties are grown-ups, it’s not illegal and no one is being hurt, but the writers in that case are taking advantage of fools who are easily parted with their money.

Even worse is plagiarism. I hadn’t heard of #copypastecris until you mentioned, it but, now I’ve looked it up, this kind of thing isn’t new.

TL;DR – the ghostwriter for a fantasy novel simply copied the entire first chapter of a David Gemmell novel, changing the names … and (as, allegedly, in #copypastecris) the client didn’t notice. So what have you here is a perfect storm of unscrupulous shark meeting complete ignoramus who has no idea of how this business actually works.
There’s no regulating body for ghostwriting, but I suppose an advantage of always having dealt with agents and publishers is that I am dealing with professionals and – in the unlikely event of my copying and pasting David Gemmell, Courtney Milan or any other writer – they would put a stop to it pretty sharpish.

JG: Worthy Christian publishers ensure that both names are on the cover and copyright page. This is important when you claim your PLR and ALCS (you do, don’t you? Register your books at once!) No, I don’t believe it’s ethical to hide the ghost’s name – and the published book is your advertisement for getting more work.

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Is there a point, legally, when a work is determined to be co- and not ghost-written? What’s the minimum contribution a ‘writer’ can make before it becomes not their work?

BJ: If I ghostwrite, I sign a contract drawn up by publishers and agents that clearly delineates exactly how much of this work will be reckoned to be mine (none) and what my rewards for it will be. So, I don’t believe there is a maximum or a minimum. You’re being hired to do a job, and you do it.

If I was working on the basis of an informal gentleman’s agreement then that would be another matter. But it would also be the sign of a rank amateur. I will help family members and good personal friends of long standing out with writing work: anyone else, it’s the contract.

JG: Interesting. In my experience the terms are exchangeable – my publishers stopped mentioning ‘ghostwriting’ and started calling it ‘co-authoring’, but as I say, ours were non-fiction, and the ‘author’ was the one who lived the life, often of considerable hardship and trauma. I have always wondered how ‘authors’ live with themselves when the book is fiction, to which the author has contributed nothing.

Why, in your experience, do people hire ghostwriters?

BJ: For reasons stated. They have a story to tell but don’t have the voice, or the time, to tell it. (I’ve recently taken on a sequel half-written by an actor whose burgeoning career means he simply doesn’t have time to fulfil his contractual obligation to the publisher. The first book was genuinely all his own.)

If you’re already famous then of course there are commercial reasons: for the publisher it’s a guaranteed sale; for you it consolidates your brand.

And some people just want their name on the cover of book, and aren’t fussy about how it gets there.

JG: My publishers hired me – not the authors. The publishers knew they had located an individual with a good story to tell, but the person lacked either the time, the inclination, or the education to write. They were persuaded into print by the offer of someone to shape the story so it read well, and to put in the tedious hours at the keyboard.

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What do you do if you think that the brief you’ve been given is… um… dumb?

BJ: Thankfully I’ve never been there! There have been glitches in the plot that didn’t make sense, or the plot develops in such a way that a previous idea will no longer hold, but editors are amenable to logic – whenever I’ve pointed out something like this, they’ve always been happy to go with my suggestion. Again, an advantage of getting the outline signed off first is that it minimises this kind of thing when it comes to the actual writing.

JG: I was always free to reject a job. It sometimes happened if I really thought I couldn’t get on with an author – for autobiographies you’re going to live inside their head for the best part of a year. More often I found that the story was dubious or boring. One author who had been in the backing group for a Famous Name wanted to describe a tour, but since he was fairly grumpy, it would have amounted to a long moan and was definitely not inspirational. It was never written.


And there we have it. A little insight into the world of ghostwriting. Hope it’s been interesting and informative. Huge thanks to Ben and Jan for answering my hopefully-not-too-dumb questions; if it’s peaked your interest, Jan is retired but check out Ben’s website for ghostwriting at http://www.oxfordghostwriter.com/, or for his (excellent) fiction go to https://www.benjeapes.com/

And, just a tiny reminder, Night Shift is out now and is totally ghost-free! Unless one counts the input of all the beta-readers, editors and freelancer commentators who helped bring the damn thing to publication.

All my own work? Don’t make me laugh!

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What’s it all about, Alfie?

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I’ve been musing, recently, on something you’d probably think I’d have worked out years ago, and that’s what I write about.

I’m not talking about that complex and ill-defined area of ‘theme’ that writing manuals always go on about – or, at least, not in the way that I interpret it.

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Theme is, I think, what your story is about; what’s the thread that runs through it? They often say that you don’t know until the first draft is finished. Well, Night Shift is a murder mystery set in Antarctica (and is available from at least some good bookshops) and if there’s a theme…

Well, maybe I am talking about theme after all. It’s terribly complicated and, clearly, I don’t understand it at all. But I’m here to talk about two things that I’m slowly realising are significant influences on the novel and the trilogy as a whole. One is poverty. The other is mental illness.

Let’s talk about mental illness first because it’s simpler: I didn’t realise it when I was writing the early drafts at least, but Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, is mentally ill. Childhood trauma leading to long-lasting depression and possible borderline personality disorder or Asperger’s. To what extent he’s a proxy to me you can decide yourself.

As I said, I had no plan to do this. It’s just how he came to be written. What pleases me immensely is that the trilogy in which he stars shows a clear progression in his mental health until, by the end of the third book, we (will) see…

Hold on their, youngster – let’s keep this spoiler-free, shall we?

As I said, that’s simple. It’s a character arc, albeit an inadvertent one. The issue of poverty is harder to explore.

One of the things that interviewers are fond of asking is if I’ve been to Antarctica. My stock answer has been to say that no, I haven’t, but whilst I was writing the first draft I was working in a building that lacked heating. Ah ha ha ha, how funny and disingenuous, let’s move on quickly, right?

But now I’m realising: Antarctica is poverty.

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Antarctica is a character in my novel and I’ve come to believe (not ‘realise’ because even now I’m not 100% on it) that it is based on my experiences of being poor.

Now I should say that I was never truly hungry. I always had a roof over my head. I had family to fall back on, loathe though I was to do that.

But I felt the constant pressure that poverty causes. It’s not necessarily about feeling a physical chill – not in my experience, at least – but it’s about constant stress, of worrying whether or not you can afford any luxuries at all. It’s having to carry a balance-sheet in your head at all times. It’s about being drained. Poverty is a vampire that sucks you dry and leaves a bloodless corpse in its wake.

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@Mark Parisi; OffTheMark.com

And somehow these emotions became embodied within the frozen wastes. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t think it’s obvious in the novel. But that’s what it is to me as I now look back.

Antarctica, in the story, is context. It’s the matrix in which my characters operate; and even when it’s not mentioned it’s implicit within everything every character does. This, is realise now, is exactly how life was for me when I was flat broke.

Again I must say that there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. This probably says as much about me as it does my economic state.

But every day was difficult. Every day was stress.

In Night Shift, when the chill of Antarctica starts to break through the walls and reach its frozen fingers into what was previously held safe, that how I felt when some unexpected expense undid all my hard-worn calculations. The retreat deeper into the bowels of the base was mirrored by my own retreat into home-life and hibernation.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should forget about ‘theme’; maybe instead it’s a perverted version of ‘write what you know’ (and see also here). My subconscious took an innocent story and twisted it into a nightmare of its own neuroses. And by telling you this I wonder if a) I’m putting off potential readers, or b) making everything worse.

But then, isn’t the subconscious responsible for all writing? Doesn’t it drive all our decisions, for better and for worse, and don’t we just try and justify the outcomes? I don’t know. This is all a bit too heavy for me.

So I shall sign off here, leaving only a vague sense of anxiety in my wake. Am I oversharing? Have I alienated you all forever?

I worry about these things. But I also hope. And wish you, as always, happy writing.

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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.

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.

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.

On Air #3

8-tips-on-how-to-have-a-successful-radio-interview

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.