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



Those writing questions answered by Judy Darley

JudyDarleycropI met  Bristol writer Judy Darley last autumn at a Bristol Literature Festival event and last week I reviewed her great short story collection over on the Unchained blog.  For those who can’t be at tomorrow’s launch of Remember Me To The Bees, (or even for those who can!) here are her rather intriguing answers to those writing question that have been doing the rounds.

1) What am I working on?

tea-cupGosh, as always so very many things. I task myself with writing a short story every month, and am just giving the one for March a final polish. It came to me with a rush and an image of a very bright blue suitcase on a luggage carousel, and begins with the protagonist stealing it. My sister actually did this – not intentionally, but, still, she walked away with someone else’s suitcase and didn’t notice till she got home. Mind-boggling!

I’m also working my way through a revision of a novel I thought I’d finished. Feeling very excited about this, as it seems like I’m finally getting it to express what I want it to – which is harder than you might think.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’ve been told that my short stories read like novels, with layer upon layer of plots and sub-plots, so maybe I’m the writer of short stories for people who don’t think they’d find short stories sufficiently satisfying compared to novels. I’m also told I have quite a poetic way with words, which I think is probably because I love the visual arts and try to incorporate a sense of colour and texture into my prose.

Remenber me to the Bees3) Why do I write what I do?

It helps me to make sense of things. The majority of the fiction I write is to answer questions for myself. Why did this happen? What make someone behave like that? How did this result in that? I’m also endlessly fascinated in the way our experiences and cultural influences shape our understanding of the world, which is probably why my protagonists are often a little damaged in some way.

4) How does my writing process work?

I work as a freelance journalist, which means spending up to four days a week in publishing offices. If I’m struck with inspiration I’ll use my lunch hour or train journeys to and from work to write.

winter treesOn the happy, happy days when I’m working from home, I tend to get up relatively, grab my laptop, and curl back in bed, then write as much as possible before my brain is fully awake. Once my head has been tidily emptied, if the sun is shining I like to go for a run to give myself a chance to think about the next bit of the tale. That’s my plotting time, and the more ideas that flood me, the faster I have to run to get back home and stick it all on the page. Exhausting but effective!

For me the thinking time, whether that’s while running, waiting for trains or cleaning the bathroom, are the most crucial times, easing the fiction from my subconscious into the light.

Thanks to Judy for coming along and providing these gorgeous pictures too. I can really recommend her short story collection and can’t wait to hear more about That Novel.
As is the way with these things, I’ll be answering the same questions  ‘over  hers’ before too long.

Judy Darley’s short stories, flash fiction and poems have been published by literary magazines and anthologies including The Germ, Riptide journal, Litro Magazine, and The View From Here. She also writes extensively as a freelance journalist for magazines. Judy’s debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees is launching on 31st March 2014, available to buy from Judy blogs at and tweets at @EssentialWriter


Whose story is it anyway?

As cop shows go,  Line of Duty (Tuesdays BBC2) strikes me as a cut above the average. No surprise when I realised the writer is Jed Mercurio, (remember the almost fly-on-wall style Bodies? – how could I forget!) Although in LoD there’s none of the jerky camera thing, the casting is really great, the characters are have a realistic complexity and just a couple of scenarios have generated more than enough plot for five episodes (fourth was last night). But why is it then, that each time I watch, I find it hard to remember what went before, and find myself paying close attention to that ‘previously’ sequence which usually has me shouting at the telly (I know what happened last time just get on with it!) Yes, the plot is getting increasingly complex, but I think what makes it harder to follow is that there is no obvious hero, or, conversely, there is more than one.

We began with the DCI Tony Gates being given an award as ‘Officer of the Year’. He’s a loyal family man, adored by his colleagues and absolutely oozes charisma. But someone thinks he has cooked the books to make his and the force’s record better than it is. On his tail is quiet hard-working DS Arnott from the anti-corruption squad. He has had a raw deal arising from a previous botched raid, he has that lean and angst-ridden look and is treated as a pariah because of the job he does.  Soon it emerges that golden boy Gates has plenty to hide. We’re on Arnott’s side in the fight to unmask him. But damn it, we are still drawn to Gates, his cute children and all too human failings. We’re not sure how much we want Arnott to win. Then there are the top brass: both men have bosses hell-bent on their political and personal agendas. How much have they congributed to the whole mess? There’s also a memorable performance from Neil Morrisey as Gates’ amiable best mate. He has a gammy leg and a chip on his shoulder. Just how far will his loyalty be pushed?

It’s hard in this to sort out black from white, goodies from baddies, and I guess this is Mercurio’s point. All these people believe themselves to be doing their jobs, all of them, if asked, would claim the higher ground. But all of them are working to targets and walking tight-ropes of one kind or another. Mercurio describes the show as “a revisionist commentary on 21st century policing”. So no, it’s nothing like Z Cars.

In this case the no-hero show is a good thing and makes a point of its own. But it made me realise I’m a lot less comfortable with this in my reading. Yes, there are some memorable novels that deal with the fortunes of a group. I mean, there’s  The Group  for starters  and Playing with Cotton Clouds which I reviewed recently, is a very different example of the same thing. But I’ve also struggled a couple of times recently where there are several points of view and, as far as I can see, no main contender for our affections. I’m fine with ‘two-hander’ stories where we look at a relationship between two people in detail, or in the context of history or a long-running family saga where you expect to hear from different points of view. But every now and then I’m in the middle of a contemporary novel and want to say, excuse me, whose story is this exactly?

It’s not just a question of POV (e.g. in most crime novels the detective is the hero but we still need to know what the other side is up to!) but I think beginning writers do sometimes flit around more than is necessary. But the main thing is the reader’s sympathy. If we are rooting for one person (or one relationship?), the momentum is clear, and we are a lot more likely to stay interested.

How do others feel? Do you like a ‘one-person’ story, or prefer to share the plot around?

Tall order

What makes a book stand out from the crowd? Agents tell us they are looking for ‘good stories well told’. But in an age when everyone wants to write and very many can, being good simply isn’t enough. You actually have to be brilliant.

So what constitutes brilliance exactly? In revamping a novel regarded as ‘too quiet’, Catherine Czerkawska on her Wordarts blog (itself an object lesson in how hard even established writers have to work for recognition) concludes that the key to success is a stonking great story, and I’m sure she’s right. Certainly most of the first novels I have seen lately have a premise or a storyline that’s just a bit out of the ordinary.

On another of my favourite blogs, Sarah Duncan actually gives us 10 ways to stand out. Of these my favourite is ‘pzazz’ , i.e. “phrases, metaphors, nifty dialogue, cunning transitions, description etc” which really shine out and draw the reader’s (or agent’s) attention. The really interesting thing is that Sarah aims to get five of these on every page. Yes, five on every page. Wow! No wonder her romances never feel run-of-mill.

My latest read is another excellent example of this. The setting and characters in Major Pettigrew could easily feel bland, and despite plenty of action I occasionally felt my attention waning, but if I ever thought of laying the book aside, there was always some little nugget of gold (a truly memorable simile or one of the Major’s hilarious observations) to get me interested again.

That’s it then. Stonking story and sparkling prose. For a book to ne noticed it needs to be not just polished but encrusted with diamonds. If it were a cake, it would have to be well mixed, perfectly cooked and stuffed to the hilt with cherries, nuts, and chunks of rich dark chocolate.

Plain cake is not an option.

The way you tell ’em

Can you tell a joke? I find it’s not that easy.

You heard this particular joke a while back. It’s a good joke and  you think you remember how it goes and so off you go. ‘Listen to this one,’ you say. But half way through you realise it’s not going to work because you’ve somehow given away part of the punch-line. Or you get all the way to the end and discover the punch-line won’t work because you’ve missed some vital detail along the way. Either way there’s a fair chance that for the joke to work you’re going to have to start telling it all over again, from the beginning.

Well a novel is a tad longer than the average joke, and not necessarily comical, but in terms of the plot it works in much the same way. The information has to be revealed in just the right order and at just the right pace or it won’t work. And if when you get to the end, or even half way through, you find your joke is falling flat, it’s a very long way back to the start.

Stand-up comedy, anyone?