The Joy of Being Edited – and a festival in St Andrews

Amongst the many delights of signing with Linen Press has been the unexpected joy of having an editor. I’ve been in more than one writing critique group and learned lots from writing workshops, so I consider myself quite a good self-editor, but having lived with Blink for several years and in multiple versions, I hadn’t realised what a relief and pleasure it would be to have a fresh eye and another ‘ear’ when it comes to making decisions.

westonbirt glade
Editing – seeing the wood  and the trees 

In fact the smallest decisions can be the biggest bugbear.  Here I am with a complete work of fiction encompassing in its particular way, love, death and pretty much the whole damned thing. This doesn’t take away from the need to position every comma and paragraph break in just the right place. Doing this alone and at this juncture is a particular tedium. With publisher-editor Lynn Michell doing the initial line edits, I just have to respond and in 99% of cases, to quote a has-been politician, I agree with Lynn!

Of course it’s not all about nit-picking. Some parts of the Blink I submitted to Linen Press had been worked over ad infinitum, others had been added in a flurry when I saw what the shape of the book needed to be. As a result there are sections even I want to change and it’s invaluable having Lynn as a sounding board, ready to confirm or dispel those insidious doubts – ‘is this better or should I have left it as it was?’

At other times Lynn has pointed out places where there’s too much happening in too short a space for the reader to take in, or where I forget that the reader isn’t quite as au fait with my characters and their predicaments as I am myself. Some of Blink began life as short stories where word-count was at a premium. This is the time to let go and, where necessary, spell things out!

All editors come with the advantage over the writer of a certain detachment, and there are many well qualified editors out there with glowing references from authors. If I had self-published, I would have hired one. But having an editor-publisher comes with a built-in advantage and the crucial factor is trust. Not that I don’t respect every reader’s opinion, but Lynn has, literally, bought into the idea of Blink. She is familiar with the whole narrative and I know she likes the overall approach. Since signing the deal, we’ve emailed and talked via Skype and I sense we share a vision of how the book should turn out. If something doesn’t work for her, I know she is looking at it from a similar perspective.

Feedback from fellow writers, beta readers, and independent editors all have their place, but for the final MS, the publisher’s advice is head and shoulders above anything that I could get from elsewhere. Of course we’re not going to agree on absolutely everything, in which case Lynn is technically the boss. However, up to now she has never insisted on a change, only invited me to consider an alternative. As a result, she cunningly makes me feel it’s my choice rather than hers.

We’re not quite done and with some rewrites still on the cards I could be speaking too soon, but mostly it feels like I have exactly what I need to get the book into its final shape. Writing is a solitary pursuit but with an editor I am no longer alone!

standphotofest-ali-bacon-reading-2_smflipMeanwhile I’m taking off for Scotland and the St Andrews Photography Festival where  I read a programme of stories last year that became  In the Blink of an Eye. This time I have studied the weather forecast and have plenty of indoor activities on my agenda, chiefly an exhibition of Rob Douglas’ twenty first century calotypes and a look at the University Library’s photographic treasures. If I feel brave enough for the SSHoP Pub Quiz I’ll let you know

As for my baby, you can download a preliminary info sheet for In the Blink of an Eye here
BLINKAISFINAL2_ALI.doc

 

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Getting it wrong: or may we be forgiven

A friend recently recommended a series of books about a coroner set in Bristol Having just finished May We Be Forgiven – an absorbing but in some ways challenging read (check out the disparate reviews!) – it seemed a good moment for a straightforward crime thriller and so I popped down to the library and picked up The Coroner by M.R. Hall.

The CoronerThe opening is assured – woman starts new job,  back story of mental breakdown and divorce,  instant confilict with new assistant and we haven’t even got to a murder yet.  So far so good. Her office is in Jamaica Street – yes, I know it well, just off Stokes Croft, a satisfying moment of recognition. Was there just last Saturday for a Bristol Lit Fest event.  Hang on, according to the author Jamaica Street, is just off  Whiteladies Road. Er, no, actually. Whiteladies is quite a way away. Well, it’s not the end of the world, I can might have forget this annoying glitch. But a few pages later the heroine ‘pops around the corner’ to Whiteladies to pick up a cofee and a pastry. I picture her jogging all the way ther and back. I’m completely distracted from the plot. I want to shout at the author.  If you don’t know Bristol that well, don’t risk getting it wrong. Or for heaven’s sake just use Google Maps!

But who am I to cast teh first stone? Only a few months ago I was contacted by a reader who pointed out I had got my Fife bus routes wrong in  A Kettle of Fish. It’s as if  however detailed your research or sharp your memory there will be a reader out there who knows better. And once that error is spotted there may be no going back. I’m still reading The Coroner, but Jamaica street rankles, the bubble of the fictional world has been burst. How much of this story can I believe?

That’s why we owe it to ourselvs and our readers to do the very best we can with the matters of fact – or hand over to an editor who will cross-check every last detail. A reader interrupted might be a reader lost, and all we can do is to ask for their forgiveness.

For those who are interested and to show I am not without sin, here’s the story of my of my own fact-failure as printed in the Dundee Courier ( courier pdf file)  earlier this year.

 

The unkindest cut of all. On being edited

Editing. We all do it. We all need it. It’s part of the writing process I actually like: looking at what I’ve done, revising, snipping, polishing. Those of us who are unpublished will probably might rely on our own aptitude or take ourselves along to a group where critical friends will see the howlers our own familiarity has missed. If we’re self-publishing, we might pay for a professional editing job. After all, no one wants to go the market without a serious attempt at quality control. Of course, when we’re snapped up by a publishing house, an editor will be thrust upon us, one whose decision may be final. And just how will that make us feel?

My own first experience of having an editor was relatively painless. Thornberry gave A Kettle of Fish a thorough proof-read but asked for no material changes. I think I was very lucky in this respect and I’m grateful to my beta readers for ensuring I had done a thorough job before the book went out on offer.

Now I’m part of a new and exciting project in which our writing group will publish an anthology of members’ work (and not just any anthology … stand by for updates!)  This began a few months ago when ten of us all contributed a number of pieces for consideration and met to give critical feedback. Although we had a range of great material, it soon became apparent that we needed someone to ensure the collection woud have the right overall shape and, on the micro level, be rigorously edited. To this end we appointed from our number an editorial board of three,  a unanimous decision which made us all feel we were in safe hands. The editors have now reread our contributions and come back to us with requests for edits.

This all sounds quite straightforward – and it is, but it has for me thrown up a big difference between asking for feedback and actually being edited.  Looking at their suggestions for my short stories,  I’m happy with nearly all of them. But inevitably there are one or two things I’m not so happy about.  What can I do? They represent the combined wisdom of three writers whose opinion I trust and who I know will be equally rigorous with all of our authors.   If I don’t want to risk my place in the anthology, I’m going to have to bite the bullet. I can’t even ask for a second opinion – I’ve had three!

Luckily we’re not talking complete rewrites here, and the overall shape of the stories stays the same. But it is a salutary lesson to have to ‘take orders’ on my writing, which feels quite different from taking suggestions.  Love them or hate them, the edits have to be done. On the bright side, I think it represents one of those hurdles that a professional writer simply has to confront and get over. Progress, then!

How I stubbed my toe on a sentence.

Picture this. I’m reading a novel, an e-book, one of those that is advertised ‘free today.’ Well it may have been 99p, but either way, given the time and labour that writing a novel involves, this author has basically gifted the book to me and anyone else who might like to read it, a generous gesture and one I do appreciate. I also happen to know that the author has been commercially published in the past, and so I have every expectation the book will live up to the promise of the opening page which I have already scanned to check it is likely to suit me, I like its style. I am happy.

When I pick it up again to read it for real, it’s actually about a teenage boy (which I had not taken in at first glance) and after my extended travels with a teenager, maybe I was more in the mood for a story about adults, but that’s not really a problem. The boy is on a plane, the journey and his reaction to it are convincing. By the time we touch down he is a real teenager, maybe young for his age, but entirely credible. In the arrivals hall, I like the awkward reunion with the aunt he hasn’t seen for some time. She too is taking shape in my head. It feels right that she ‘jerked her head to indicate he should follow her.’ The picture in my mind is crystal clear, the awkward adolescent trails behind. But then something goes wrong. ‘As they walked he could feel her eyes on him.’ I blink and reread.  Yes, he is definitely following her. Then he feels her eyes on him, looking him up and down. She is in front. No one has turned around or caught up.

I hear you calling me picky, like one of those pesky readers (as I once heard described by Barbara Trapido) who takes her to task because such and such a train journey described in a novel could not have taken place in 1963. As if it mattered. But it does matter to that particular reader, just as this little stutter in the airport matters to me, because I am no longer in the arrivals hall, wondering how the boy and his aunt are going to get on and why he is there in the first place. I am thinking about the writing, and how it could have been done differently. In terms of my progress through this book, it feels like I’ve stubbed my toe.

This is why editing is important. I’ve lost count of the occasions in our writing group when someone has picked me up for something similar, some small but silly lack of continuity that raises a laugh and is easily put right. But every story is a gift to the reader, an  invitation to leave the world behind and enter the fiction. Anything that bursts the bubble takes the gift away.

Woman Holding Bandaged AnkleOf course, even in a well-edited book the odd thing will slip through. In this case I was unlucky it was near the start. The rest was as far as I noticed error free. It still wasn’t quite my cup of tea, which was probably to do with the subject matter. Or maybe that toe was still smarting, just a bit.

End Game

I have now written the last piece of the plot of my W.I.P. and have only a chapter or so of ‘loose ends’ to tidy up. Am I celebrating? Actually, no. Because I find writing the act of finishing a novel a strangely vicarious pleasure. Last time it proved no pleasure at all, but more an uncomfortable act of separation. I wrote nothing for several weeks afterwards.

Even now as I realise that the end (and not quite the end I had planned) is in sight for Ailsa, I can feel a bit of a dark moment creeping over me. This time I do have other projects to attend to, but I feel sure that when I have written the last sentence I won’t want to go back to this book for quite some time. I could of course simply finish it of and send it out for critiquing, but I already know there are elements of the first section which need to be changed. Sending it out ‘warts and all’ doesn’t feel quite right. On the other hand, waiting until the spirit moves me to go back to it could result in a long gap – good for the book, perhaps, but not in line with the target I have set myself of having a finished article in time for this year’s Winchester conference.

Foreseeing this difficulty, I have come up with a cunning plan. I am going to hold back from that last chapter and attempt to do my tidying now. Having reached the end in my head, I should be able to see how the plot as a whole shapes up and, with this in mind, I have rewritten my synopsis. It looks, I think, pretty tidy, except that the novel itself doesn’t quite match – so some work to do there!

This experimental game (of pretending not to be finished) may not work. Perhaps I’m too close to it to make a decent job of rejigging it at this point. But I think it’s worth a try. If all else fails I can revert to my original file and try again later.

If you want to know the outcome, watch this space!

Long and Short (2)

Adding the new Short Fiction page has prompted some reflections on writing.

There’s an idea in circulation that a short story is in some way harder to write than a novel. I don’t think for a minute that this is the case, but looking at the relative word-count, the effort to get 3000 words right does feel disproportionate compared to, say, 100,000. Come to think of it, my stories usually start at around 3,500 and end up just over 2000, so there seems to be a law of diminishing returns in there somewhere. Short stories, in view of their brevity, also lend themselves to microscopic examination, and  I remember John Ravenscroft (former editor of Cadenza) describing them as the ‘shetland ponies’ of the fiction world, by which I think he meant they were short but showy (rather than cute but bad-tempered!) At any rate, they should never be tackled by anyone with a low ‘completer finisher’ score on the Belbin grid!

 

On the other hand, the process of writing fiction of any length is, at least in my case, basically the same:

 

  • Get the story down
  • Adjust it in terms of structure, pace and resolution until you’ve said what you wanted to say
  • Put it aside, find out what others think and take another look at it yourself
  • Have another go
  • Get more feedback (and/or take another break)
  • Carry out a detailed line edit
  • Do another edit
  • Possibly another
  • Repeat last 4 steps for as long as it takes

Try factoring this up to the 30+ chapters and 100+ scenes of a novel, and no wonder it’s such hard work!