Category Archives: Editing

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – Slushpile hell to Slushpile heaven

(First published on my old blog, 12th October 2013)

 

Right, after my lazy attempt last night, I feel I should deliver some substance today so here is the next installment in my York FoW13 chronicles.
This seminar was run by the lovely Julia Churchill and Penny Holroyde (both well known agents). It focused on what you can do to make your manuscript stand out of the slush pile, giving you the best chance of being picked up by an agent. As I said in an earlier post, agents are serious book lovers (and don’t have horns) so don’t go in with the attitude that they are your enemy, out to prevent your book from connecting with its audience.

It was extremely interesting and heartening to get the take of two agents on this. They didn’t talk about specific genres – why would they? It’s not their job to write the book. That’s our job! But there are special annoyances to avoid when submitting your manuscript to an agent. I’m going to list what I gleaned from this seminar but I will mention Nicola Morgan at this point. She is a published author and self-styled ‘crabbit old bat’, who writes brilliant, helpful posts on how to get published on her blog. I strongly recommend checking this out before you submit anything, I found her advice really helpful in preparing for York.

Ok then, hints, tips and other gleanings;

– Finish the book! Do not submit your manuscript until it is finished. I heard a lot of agents say this over the course of the weekend. Nothing is more annoying to them than reading the first three chapters of something, loving it, calling up the author asking to see the rest – only to have the author say ‘ oh, but I haven’t written that yet. Can you wait?’ Well yes they might wait and they might still want to see the rest of the manuscript when you’re done but the chances that they are still going to be as excited about it, as they were when they first read it are very slim. If you write non fiction, sample chapters, an outline, synopsis and CV are fine. If it’s fiction then finish it first! Remember, though publishing moves slowly, agents and publishers actually move very fast; they have to in order to be a step ahead of various literary fairs and book lists.

One at a time.   Perhaps you’re massively prolific in your writing or the planets have aligned and filled you with strange energies so you have finished off half a dozen novels that have been lying around in various states of undress for some time. Pick one and submit. The others have to wait their turn. You might be really good and highly marketable but if you bombard an agent with submissions you’re likely to get a no, just so you’ll leave them alone.

Do your homework. Make a list of possible agents, checking into them a bit to see if you think you’d like to work with them. These agents should be people you want to work with and they should handle books in your genre. The ‘pray and spray’ approach to submissions, rarely works. If you send your historical romance to an agent who only deals with  yachting biographies then the answer will be ‘no’ and everyone has wasted time.

Formatting. Most agents have a list of formatting guidelines with their submissions policy. Read them. If you don’t, you are going to appear either lazy, as if you haven’t checked out the agent (which by the way the agent expects) or that you don’t bother to read. None of that is attractive to an agent. Most agents nowadays use Kindles to read submissions. So don’t send PDFs as they are illegible on kindle. Title your files clearly – if an agent has two dozen files on a kindle and eighteen of them are titled ‘sample chapters’, she is going to read the one titled with the books name first. Remember, when the files are loaded onto a kindle, only a certain amount of the title appears in the list. So if you title something ‘sample chapters; [title of your book]’ then the only bit that appears is ‘sample chapters’.

Submitting you MS. Have a great title; they’ve seen a lot of it before. A great title makes them more likely to pick up your book first. In the covering letter, use a reasonable sized one paragraph pitch. Include a bit about yourself. Agents are interested in building careers not just one book, if they are thinking about representing you, you will probably be asked what you’re working on now. Agents don’t really care about previous publishing credits. They don’t need a CV of published short stories. Ultimately they want good debut authors.

Resubmissions and Replies. Yes you might get a rejection. Everyone does at some point. What you never ever ever do under any circumstances, is write a rude reply to the agent. We saw some in the seminar and I felt horrified and embarrassed for the people who sent them. Publishing is actually a fairly small world and they DO all talk to each other. On the other hand if you’ve done significant work on your MS and really feel you’ve improved it (especially if you got a ‘no thanks but think about looking at this’ sort of reply) then it’s encouraged to resubmit to the same agent. Agents usually only leave feedback if they are interested in your book – they are not a critiquing service. So don’t expect some in a reply. And don’t be a pest. Your MS is getting read. They can’t take the chance that a gold nugget is getting swept away in the pile of rocks. Four weeks is about the right time to send a friendly inquiry about your sample chapters. Six weeks, if they’ve asked to see the whole MS.

Finally, here are the Submission Bootcamp Dos and Don’ts;

– ‘I have submitted this to a handful of carefully selected agents but will of course inform you…’ Big don’t. In reality agents know that you can’t submit to them one at a time but highlighting it at the sample chapter stage is foolish. At worst it smacks of trying to force their hand.

– Don’t use silly email addresses; agents want to know they are dealing with someone professional.

– Do drop the names of authors on their lists that you admire. This doesn’t mean saying that you are the next Philip Pullman, but you can say ‘would appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’ about your work. Also showing that you know who an agent represents proves you’ve done your homework about them.

– Don’t include copyright pages. What you’re saying when you do this, is that you don’t expect an agent to act professionally. And of course your MS is copyright protected. The minute you write it and send it (even if you only email it to yourself) it’s under copyright.

– Do re-submit

– Don’t submit unfinished manuscripts.

– Don’t request a receipt on your email. Agents hate this kind of trickery!

– Don’t direct an agent o dropbox, Yousendit, a link or amazon.

– Don’t lie. Ever. They will find out. They are spooky like that.

– Do mention if you’ve met the agent before.

– Do highlight if it’s a resubmission, but this isn’t essential.

– Do submit your next book, even if the first is rejected. They still want to see what you write.

And there you have it. Much of it is business courtesy but these are all important  points. Remember. it’s just as big a deal for the agent to call an author and offer to represent them, as it is for the author to receive that call!

Throwback Thursday: Self-Editing and Humble Pie

(First published on my blog 14th August 2013)

I can honestly say that I’ve never left a scathing, personal review for a book. (Occasionally I have left a harsher review if I feel the author has cheated the reader or propagated something harmful with their words.) That’s not to say I haven’t thought personal comments, I just haven’t felt the need to shout about it. I may be being too laid back, but I feel that the only times to speak up on the review front are when you have a genuine complaint or something has totally knocked your socks off. That said, in the right company with a group of trusted friends I have said some very catty things about certain books – never without cause but still. Was it necessary?

I’ll get my usual tangent in early here; the origins of the phrase ‘humble pie’ dates back to the middle ages when serving folk and the upper crust (another good phrase) all ate at the same board in the same hall. How well to do you were depended on how high above or far below the salt cellar you were seated. Anyway, the nobility hunted for a past time and when successful, deer and other kills were given to the kitchen for preparation. The off cuts, the bits no one really wanted, eyes, ears, intestines etc were known as ‘umbles’. These, in true waste not want not fashion, were mashed up and made into pies to feed the servants – who were sat significantly below the salt cellar. As the English language progressed those who could read and write dictated how English was to appear written down. They developed a curious propensity for adding ‘Hs’ onto words beginning with a vowel. ‘Umbles’ became ‘humble’ – hence ‘humble pie’.

I really hope you’re still with me.

How does this tie in with my statement about book reviews? That’s where the self editing comes in. While publishing houses and agents, if you are lucky enough to have a contract with either, do provide some editing still, nowadays it is far less than it used to be. You want your book to be as good as it possibly can be before submitting it for two reasons; one – it’s far more likely to get picked up if it looks like it needs less work done to it .(Editing is expensive) two – the more you do yourself, the better condition you get your book into, the better prospect you’ll appear to be long term. You can be trusted to make necessary changes.

This is all well and good. Editing, you say? I can do that. I mean I wrote it so how hard can it be?

Very hard. Excruciatingly painful. Brain meltingly, head achingly, tooth grindingly bad. Soul rending at times.

Here’s the big secret fellow writerly folks; Editing your book and doing necessary re-writes is ten/ twenty/ a hundred times harder than writing it. Writing the jolly little begger is a walk in the park by comparison.

I’ve got to the stage where I know what to do and I went on a fabulous self edit your novel course which taught me how to do it. At the moment I’m putting it into practice. It is difficult. Major understatement.

I’m roasting my prime haunch of venison, hopefully it will fall mouthwateringly off the bone, smothered in butter and herbs…but I won’t be tasting it. I’m preparing it for the consumers I hope will be drawn to the table by the aroma. Meanwhile I do have this unappealing but substantial pile of off cuts stacking up beside me. Umbles you might say. The bits no one else wants. They do say nothing in writing is wasted…guess I’ll be making me a pie then.

It is shockingly hard to write a book. I don’t have a sufficiently strong verb or adverb, not even amongst my umbles, for how hard editing that book is. Yes, crap does get published. Yes, you or I may be better writers who could have done it better. No we don’t have the right to go nuclear with our slanging – not on a public forum anyway. I’m not the thought police. Neither though, am I the arbiter of literary crapness. One person’s excrement is another persons golden read after all.

So what have I learned from around this juicy, bitter mouthful of umble pie? Criticize constructively and honestly. But don’t ever fall down the rabbit hole into being cruel or judgemental. Authors do read reviews – wouldn’t it be great to give useful feedback rather than tell them it’s donkey dung but not why? You don’t have to lie and say you like something when you don’t but remember how hard creating a book is, and how easy judging someone’s book is by comparison.

I’ll be bearing that in mind from now on. If I survive this self edit.

One day the book on the firing line might be yours. Think about it.

Throwback Thursday: Candle flames, light bulbs, flash bulbs and flare guns; Editing your novel.

(First published on my old blog 19th August 2013)

At the end of April, earlier this year, I finished writing my novel. I spent a day walking around in a hypnogogic state where everything seemed very crisp and bright and yet nothing was quite real. Bit of an odd day – I was torn between feeling euphoric that I’d finished The Book and lost; what was I going to do now? What was I supposed to do now? Writers with more experience than me will tell you that this is only the beginning. If I wanted to get anywhere trying to sell my book, then I needed to edit it first.

Great. Good.

How?

I had more than a slight inkling that work needed to be done before I could think about sending it out into the world. I’d read ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne and David King – which I highly recommend – but while it answered the question of ‘what’ to some extent, it didn’t show me ‘how’.

So I decided I would enroll (or perhaps that should be enlist) in the Writer’s Workshop ‘Self Edit your novel course.’ The course is entirely run online, over six weeks, by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

I’d heard good things about the course and by that point the book I was initially so pleased with, now appeared to be an unclimbable white paper mountain. Possibly inhabited by abominable snowmen. Daunting was an understatement. The only problem was I’d missed – by two days – the start of the next course. I was going to have to wait until June to get stuck in.

At this point other writers who’ve been here, will be sagely nodding their heads. ‘Ah yes’, you’ll think. ‘I remember that stage.’ For those of you who haven’t hit that particular bump in the road yet, here it is; You can have the patience of a saint. Perhaps you never get irritated by other people’s idiocy or your own. Perhaps when the washing machine spews grey water all over the floor instead of just spinning your socks, you’re the sort of person who sighs and smiles and calmly reaches for a mop. Perhaps you even drive quite happily behind the moron in the car in front who is doing 30 mph in a 50 mph zone. Maybe you’re really that patient.

It doesn’t matter. The minute you finish writing a book, that patience will evaporate and you will be overcome by a call of the wild type pull to send it out. Now. Yesterday. Go go go go! This is a really bad idea.

I’d committed to doing the self edit course so reluctantly I shoved my work in progress (WIP) into a drawer and did other things, waiting for June to roll around. I am so glad I did. It was a very intense six weeks. There was so much to absorb. Even now, going back over the course notes, I’m still learning more. I realize now that this isn’t a case of learning to edit and then that’s it. You start learning and you go from there. There were many such light-bulb moments during the course.

On the other hand it was ingeniously designed to fit in around your everyday life – no matter where you were in the world. There were a number of people in the same group as me who were in Australia or Portugal, France or Malaysia. Despite hectic lives and different log on times all of us managed with relative ease, to learn and participate in the course. Every week a brief tutorial video and a nice, lengthly explanatory written tutorial was posted, followed by a homework assignment. These were all based around your own WIP (which is why you really need to be at least close to finishing a draft before you do a course.)

Three things came out of this for me;
1) partly because I’d had to wait for the course but definitely due to how the course guided me, I was able to look at my WIP with some perspective. Enough distance to be objective. (This is invaluable because by this time the impatience had worn away to be replaced with the insistent fear that the whole thing was drivel. That’s perfectly normal too by the way.)

2) the group as a whole reads and offers comment and critique on each others work. This is something that would have scared the bejesus out of me in the past. Here, as an exercise in learning what works and what doesn’t in writing, it was truly eye opening. I had the most amazing group. Everyone was really supportive of each other, everyone really tried to offer sensitive and constructive criticism. Turns out that having someone read what you have written, then tell you what they think, isn’t actually that bad at all.

3) You learn the techniques for deconstructing and reconstructing your own prose.  Writing is re-writing. If you were like me and just dashed off an essay at A-level for which you then received an A, never having worried about notes or drafts, then be warned, your first draft won’t be your last.

It’s a different skill set of course but I think I can honestly say that in terms of knowledge transferal, I learned more in that six weeks than I did in two years of my four year degree course.

The best part; Debi and Emma were fabulous. Literally. Super powered – like something out of a fable. Astute, honest, sensitive, helpful and just generally lovely. In short the course was like joining a family of writers of all genres. I’d been so nervous about doing the course because I was shy about showing my writing to anyone (yes, despite the finished first draft impatience.) There was nothing to worry about.

My writing has not been the same. It never will be. This is a good thing. I can now see where I want to get to in terms of quality, even if I can’t yet reach it. I stress the yet. It’s built up my confidence and improved my prose beyond anything I expected. It’s not often that expectations are far and away exceeded rather than falling short.

So there you are. Have a finished first draft? Not sure what to do? Check out the Self Edit your novel course. You won’t regret it. IMO it’s ridiculously under priced for what you get out of it. Not that I’m complaining.

Actually, I’ve been feeling a bit lost since the course finished last month. I’m quite tempted to try sneaking onto the one in October. No one will notice…right?