Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.
I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?
Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.
Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.
Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:
- Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
- Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
- Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.
Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.
So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.
One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.
Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.
Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.
Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.
Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.
Then ask the question: What connects these people?
If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.
Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.
Let me know if it works for you.
I don’t consider myself skilled enough yet to give the impression I actually know what I’m talking about with this writing lark. Ten years ago I had the enjoyable experience of having a new house built and working with an architect to design our dream home. Even before we moved in we saw things we’d have wanted to do differently. When I was talking to a neighbour about this I was told ‘aah, you have build three houses before you get it right.’ And so I think it might be this way with writing.
I’m halfway through my third novel and am beginning to get the feeling that I have a better idea that I’m in some kind of control, but that’s only because (a) I’ve written a lot of words over the past five years and (b) I’ve read quite a lot on the craft of writing. One of the best guides I’ve read is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel. In fact, I read his How to Write a Damn Good Mystery first because that’s what I was trying to do at the time, but he covers more of the fundamentals in the former and he’s such a good writer it was no heavy labour to read the two.
A few days ago I signed up to Jane Friedman’s newsletter which led me to her excellent video on audience development for writers. Check it out – I wish I had the staying power to follow it through.
As an author I still believe that most satisfaction comes from having a novel accepted by a publisher who then takes it to a finished work on the bookshelves. For me, there’s a vindication in it that someone else is prepared to commit time and energy into something I’ve written. Also, the experience of working with a publisher to hone the writing is incredibly beneficial. When A Shadowed Livery was published by Grey Cells Press in 2015 it was nothing like the draft I’d sent to them a year earlier, I thought it was improved immeasurably.
However, finding a publisher or agent is very difficult, the competition is enormous, so, in this digital age, self-publishing has become an option. It isn’t easy, nor is it a guaranteed route to fame and fortune, but neither is the traditional route. Having co-ordinated the self-publication of two pieces of work – a memoir and a collection of short-stories – using both Amazon’s CreateSpace and IngramSpark, I have a some insights which might be helpful to anyone considering this path. There are more extensive comparisons available but these are just some basic thoughts from my own experience.
When considering self-publishing, one of the first questions is whether you want a printed version or are you happy with putting it out as an e-book. This decision will affect the budget you require and also the marketing plan you’ll devise. I don’t think either is best, though there’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding a book, your book, in your hands for the first time.
My recent (Nov 2016) project on Ingram’s cost a little over €900 euros for printing and shipping (from UK to Ireland) of 200 copies of an 8″ x 5″ paperback plus setup costs of €49 and cover design costs of €135. On CreateSpace there are no setup costs, the cost per copy is a little less but they ship from the US so this can be considerably more if you’re in another country. The shipping costs of the books when I used CreateSpace was around 44% of the cost of printing. This compares with around 5% using IngramSpark. This can, of course, make a huge difference in the financial viability of the book.
There can, however, be a saving on cover design. CreateSpace has free cover templates to modify and the process is fairly simple. IngramSpark does not, and you need to design and produce your own cover. They do provide a size template in a couple of formats but the actual design needs to be provided by you.
There’s also a difference in the complexity of the process. CreateSpace allows uploading of Microsoft Word files, which is handy. IngramSpark only allows uploading of PDF files, which requires conversion software or add-ins, and can be a bit tedious when errors in the draft are spotted (as they inevitably will be). With both providers, the process for e-books seems to be a lot simpler. The most complex part with IngramSpark, I found, was the cover. This needs to be produced using the size template provided, with no variation, probably using something like Adobe InDesign, then converted to PDF format for uploading.
IngramSpark provides distribution to a wide range of on-line and physical outlets, CreateSpace, I believe, only goes through Amazon and affiliates, which is still substantial.
On the memoir I helped publish, I found CreateSpace easier to use, but the shipping costs were so high outside the US it meant we changed to IngramSpark for the second print run. I’ve also found IngramSpark’s support desk really knowledgeable, understanding and helpful each time I’ve used it – a massive advantage if you’re not an expert.
This is just a quick run-through of some differences. If you’ve any questions please feel free to get in touch.
Most days I try to write, with ‘try’ being the operative word. Some days the words just won’t come, and if they do they stumble across the page, tired and listless. On other days I might be happy with what I’ve produced and feel motivated to do more the next day, which is good.
Then I might read another author’s work and feel demoralised, ready to throw the pen (or laptop) into the bin along with everything I’ve ever written. Largely this doesn’t happen because being published isn’t necessarily a measure of quality, only a measure of financial viability – a perfectly valid reason but we have to admit that the latest premier league footballer ‘autobiography’ may not be great literature. However, occasionally, something magnificent comes into my reading orbit and I’ll be blown away by the prose.
For Christmas I was given a copy of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which has staggered me by its economy and descriptiveness. At first I thought it may be because these Cold War scenes are so familiar to us through films from The Third Man through to Bridge of Spies but then I realised it was much more than that. Le Carré’s description of Leamas, for example, includes the phrase “He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman”. How I wish I’d written that. Rhythm, clarity, cynicism and humour tied up in simple words painting an accurate picture of the character we’re dealing with.
Thankfully, I’ve avoided the ‘I’m going to give up this writing lark’ response this time. I’m going to read and learn. Then attack my next completed draft with a different eye.
My hope that trumpeting of committing myself to NaNoWriMo this year would force me to show the dedication required to put down 50,000 words in a month proved to be in vain. It’s a punishing schedule and one thing I have learnt is that it probably isn’t for me at this time in my life.
Try as I might, I can’t make myself slam words on the page and worry about the editing later, which seems to be a core method for achieving the goal. I spot a missing comma from fifty paces and I have to fix it. Typos distract me, as do apostrophes sprouting where they shouldn’t. And surely I could say that a little more effectively – it’ll only take a few seconds.
It isn’t the quantity of words that is the problem, I’ve written two 80,000 word novels and am a third of the way through a third, it’s the time frame and my inability to stop from editing as I go along.
On the plus side, and it’s a very big plus, NaNoWriMo made me spend part of October completing my synopsis, research and other planning, and spend November putting down about 22k words, to join the 10k I’d written over the previous 6 months. A considerable improvement in work rate.
So, all in all, I think it’s been worthwhile. I’d be interested in hearing other writers’ experiences (by the way, is that apostrophe misplaced?)
Can’t believe it’s so long since I posted anything – where did that time go? I’ve been editing my novel, not as much as I should have been but it’s been perched on my shoulder pecking away at my conscience all the time. Oh, and I went on holiday. Part of my paper draft is marked ‘edited in Bruges’ so that’s a pleasant reminder of sitting in a pavement cafe in the sun with an inevitable Belgian beer.
Earlier I posted about a rejection letter (email actually). Yesterday I had another. It began ‘Dear Author’. Three months to send back a standard email which they couldn’t even bother to personalise. I wrote back, politely, to express my dismay at this rudeness. I started the email ‘Dear agent’!
I’m not surprised by the rejection, especially as I’ve edited deeper and deeper – I’d have rejected the sample chapters myself. I found a massive error in the second chapter, a mind-numbingly stupid one, even though I’d edited several times. The general advice seems to be to have the draft as polished as you can get it before submission and I thought I’d done that. The step I missed, I think, was having someone else read the sample chapters once I thought I was happy with it. I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who is also a writer and we actively critique each other’s work but I didn’t run these past her. She’d have spotted the errors in an instant. I’ll not make that mistake again.
How do you make sure your material is as good as it can be?