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Sending your manuscript to a beta reader

When sending your manuscript to a publisher or agent, it’s vital that you follow their instructions exactly. Whatever font they recommend, whatever layout they recommend – if you don’t follow their guidelines, then at best you’ll irritate them and at worst your manuscript will be deleted unread.

 

However, when sending out to a beta reader, it’s nowhere near as straightforward. In one sense, it doesn’t matter at all, but I’ve looked at a lot of manuscripts in the past month as I offered free readings of the first 5k words, as an experiment, and I started to notice a few issues.

 

  • Your font should be easy to read and in a reasonable size. I see no reason to use anything more fancy than 12pt Times New Roman. Some are submitted in Courier New, but that tends to give the manuscript a “typewritten” feel, and can be hard on the eye.
  • I recommend including a cover page, containing the title, author and basic contact details. This is useful in case the original email disappears, and as a reminder of the information – it’s very frustrating to not have the book’s title displayed anywhere!
  • It would also be useful to include basic information at the start of your book, such as the blurb and a little about your writing background and your intentions for the book. Be wary of including a full synopsis here though – a reader will generally not want spoilers before reading.
  • Save the file with a clear filename – preferably your book title, with or without extra information. A file entitled “ABBC” really isn’t useful! You might be familiar with it as a nickname for your book, but your reader isn’t.
  • Make good use of the header/footer facility. A page number on the page itself will ensure that you and the reader are both considering the same text on the same page. Having the author/title repeated at the top of the page can be useful.
  • Label your chapter changes clearly. A reader will often read in chapters, and it’s irritating to discover that there are no chapters, or only vague line spaces for breaks. Yes, some writers do write without chapters, but it’s not recommended unless you’re really sure what you’re doing. It’s easier to consider issues such as plot when you can break it down chapter by chapter.
  • Start each chapter on a new page. Page count is not an issue with electronic versions, and the visual white space helps to make the jump from chapter to chapter. It will also help you think clearly about your chapter breaks.
  • Make sure that at the very least you have run spell-check before submitting to a reader. While they do not expect a clean, proofread version, it’s incredibly irritating to discover error after error that could have been easily discovered and fixed with a quick read-through.

 

 

 

Powerful dialogue – add subtext

There are many aspects of dialogue to manage, and different ways of tackling it. The aspect that interests me most is the subtext: not just what the characters are saying but what they mean.

 

Think of any family rows you might have. What are they really about? What on the surface is about what’s on TV might be about control. Argument about who you’re going to for Christmas dinner is really about relationships between in-laws. Someone reassuring a member of the family might be seeking to reassure themselves just as much – or even more.

 

When your characters are talking, think about what they’re actually saying, and then think about what they are revealing about themselves as a character. If the conversation isn’t working on both levels, then reconsider if it’s really pulling its weight.

 

Listen to conversations about you, or on TV programmes, and hear the subtext in them if you can. Here’s one quick example I overheard in the summer, by a stall that sold signs for gardens.

“Oh look, ‘Grandma’s herb garden’. Your mother would like that.”

“Yeah.” Pause. “But she’s not a Grandma.”

“No, but she’d like to be.”

Now didn’t that just tell you so much about the dynamics of that particular family?

 

Book formatting for print

One task I’m often asked to do is to produce a version of a book for print. So what does this involve?

Preformatting

Firstly, I have to scan through the document to see if there are any tricky bits – sometimes a book will include sections such as letters, or newspaper articles, or something else that needs to be treated differently from the main text. There might also be areas where italics are used, for example. I apply styles to these, and to the chapter headings, and to anything else that is in other than the normal body font.

 

Some books bring real challenges, and it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with the author over how he/she wants the issue handled.

Typesetting

The next step is to create the document to the right size in InDesign and import the Word file. I then check through the import, making sure that all the styles have made it across safely and all chapters start on a new page.

 

Next there’s a tweak of settings like hyphenation, and orphans and widows (usually issues with paragraphs split across a page break unevenly), and a check that we don’t have issues like blank pages or just one or two lines on the last page of a chapter. With InDesign, I have much more flexibility than in Word to squeeze an extra word on a line or spread the paragraph out a fraction so that more is carried over to the next line.

 

The beauty of using styles for the document is that it becomes very easy to change whole chunks at a time – if the author decides to go up or down a font size, for example, it can usually be changed in a single place. A change of fonts for the chapter headings is also achieved in one step, or adjusting how any special issues are addressed.

 

When I’m happy with the main body of the book, I can sort out the half-title, title page and imprint page, and anything else that’s needed for the front matter and end matter. There’s also the headers, footers (if needed) and page numbers to sort out, and checking that these only appear on the pages they’re needed.

Export and check

I export to PDF and scan through the file to make sure that all is as it should be, and then send off the PDF to the author for them to check. With InDesign, fonts are embedded in the file, meaning that the viewer will see the document as created, which isn’t always the case with files produced from Word. Ideally, a proofread would be carried out at this stage, to check for formatting issues as well as text issues. Sometimes I’m asked to do this, while at other times it remains something for the author to deal with.

 

Any issues can be dealt with fairly quickly, as the bulk of the work is done, and then I can create a final PDF if needed. By this point, it’s clear how many pages the book will have, which is vital information for creating the spine of the cover design. Again, I have some flexibility in page count as I can adjust settings easily to add pages (removing is trickier to do without affecting the overall look of the text).

How can an author help?

These days, authors often create the document with formatting as they imagine it should be. While traditional publishers might frown on this, I find it a help to see what the author has in mind, as long as it’s not too fancy.

 

It always helps if I’m prewarned about any issues that might arise, as I can be on special lookout.

 

If you know how to use styles, then applying them in Word rather than using ad-hoc formatting is useful.

 

Above all, it helps if the author is prompt with checking through proofs or letting me know if there’s a delay. As in  many things, communication is the key to success!

 

 

How much does an editor cost?

One concern of a writer getting ready to publish is how much an editor will cost. I’ve seen much resentment on all sides, from professional editors accused of high fees, from writers convinced the editor is charging far too much, and from those who charge very low fees and are surprised that others get upset.

 

So just what is a reasonable fee editing a novel? First of all, ask yourself some questions.

How long have you spent on your novel?

Just for fun, take a rough guess at how many hours you’ve spent on your novel. Bear in mind that in the NaNoWriMo challenge, some writers have managed to churn out 50,000 words in 24 hours, working flat out. Then there’s the time spent staring at the screen, trying to work out the best way of phrasing something. And the time spent working out your plot and whether things happen in the right order.

How long would it take to read through your novel?

If a reader were to sit down and read through it, how long would it take them? Okay, reading speeds vary, but you can get a rough idea. If we take a very rough estimate of 100 pages per hour, at 250 words per page, that’s 25k words per hour. And that’s reading very fast, not taking in every detail. So for a nano novel you’re looking at two hours minimum for a readthrough. That’s the reading time for an edited, published novel, though, not for a raw manuscript that still might need a lot of work. That can easily take four or five times that reading time.

How long would it take to edit your novel?

How long do you think it would take for someone to read through your novel carefully, line by line, making notes, checking every word, ensuring it all makes sense, ensuring continuity, and becoming as familiar with the text as you are?  This is very hard to estimate, so I would suggest that as an absolute minimum, take the reading time and multiply it by ten. The time taken will vary widely with the quality of the original writing, of course. Some texts only need a clean-up, while others will need a lot more work, entailing not only close reading but constant checking backwards and forwards. Novels written by someone who is not a native English speaker can be even more complex.

What’s a decent hourly rate?

The minimum wage in the UK is around £7 an hour. The recommended rate for editing in the UK is £20 – £30 an hour plus, depending on level of edit needed and quality of writing to be edited (Society for Editors and Proofreaders).  Editors with a great deal of experience might well ask for a higher fee, while some jobs are more complex than others. Don’t forget that an editor is also usually self employed, so responsible for covering their own tax, pension, sickness cover, holiday pay, training, national insurance and costs of running their office, such as heating and lighting. Admin also takes up part of their time, so time available to do paid, chargeable work is reduced accordingly. One estimate is that of any hourly fee they take in, around 75% maximum is actual net income, so here we’re talking about earning around £15 an hour net.

 

Look at those figures in relation to your estimate of time taken. What do you notice? For your nano novel, we’re talking about a minimum of around 20 hours of editing, at £140 minimum wage or £600 recommended rate. And most novels are more like twice that size. As the size grows, so does the complexity of the edit. For the 100k novel, we’re looking at a very rough estimate of £280 ($360 approx) at minimum wage and £1200 ($1500 approx) recommended rate. And that’s  for the bare minimum level of work on a very clean original. If you’re paying a lot less than this, then what’s happening?

Why are some editors much cheaper?

You will always be able to find editors offering to work on your novel for a low fee. This probably means one of the following:

  • They’re just setting out in business and trying to get experience and testimonials.
  • They cut corners and don’t give your work the time it needs (some may well just run the spell and grammar checks and claim to have edited your work).
  • They’re just editing as a hobby, and the money is an extra bonus.

Each group has its own drawbacks:

  • The first group lack experience and are likely to be inundated with requests. They will either buckle under the pressure or soon find they can’t afford to work at that rate for long and their fees will rise with their experience level.
  • The second group – well, just don’t expect them to add much quality to your novel. If you’re lucky, they won’t actually do any harm.
  • The third group forms more of a grey area. On the one hand, if your writing is a hobby, then maybe a hobby editor is suitable. I’m sure there are some out there who can consistently offer a good service at or near minimum wage. On the other hand, they are likely to lack the experience that a professional editor has gained over many years of working in the business, or they might be tempted to rush through the job or not understand the full implications of editing.

How hard is it to edit?

Editing is a highly skilled job, but a good edit is invisible, so it’s far too easy to get the idea that anyone can do it. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – be very careful of editors who apply rules rigidly, for example. In all writing, but especially with fiction, an editor needs to understand when a rule may be broken, and be aware of regional variations in usage, among many other issues.

 

Editing is not just a question of being good at grammar, punctuation and spelling. Your editor should also be drawing up a style sheet – noting anything from whether to use anymore or any more, or where to hyphenate, to whether John has blue eyes or brown, and the fact that Jane is left-handed and lives in a bungalow. The style sheet can be very complex, for example if writing fantasy, and will be used to check consistency throughout the manuscript in conjunction with a style guide that advises the editor on whether capitalisation is needed, where italics should be used, how to deal with abbreviations, and many other issues.

 

If they’re carrying out developmental editing, they may well also have many other tools such as a timeline they can check against and a way of checking the progress in each scene for balance between action and backstory.

 

A fiction editor also needs to understand the intricacies of issues such as consistent point of view, consistent use of tenses and how to retain the author’s style while polishing it ready for publication.

 

Always remember that there are three aspects to editing, as in many things: good, cheap and fast. You can always get one of the three, and usually two. But three out of three? Never! Which are you willing to sacrifice, and which is most important to you and your novel?

 

 

 

 

 

New maths resources available

I’ve started adding my maths resources to this site – I’m aiming to have a sheet to cover each topic in the maths and statistics GCSE syllabus, covering the main content of the topic and to include practice questions.

Designed to help me in my tutoring sessions, these will be made available for use/copy as long as the business name remains on them.

 

Using Styles in Open Office Writer

Advantages of styles

Using styles is a handy way to help you ensure your formatting is consistent throughout your document. Styles can also help you to navigate through your file and see the structure easily, and if you intend to convert your Word file to ebook format, styles will enable you to generate an automatic table of contents.

 

I have covered styles in more detail in the Word version of this article, so here I will only give you where to find the various features in Open Office Writer:

Applying styles

formatting toolbarYou will access the styles option in Open Office Writer by selecting Format/Styles and Formatting, or by clicking the Styles and Formatting button on the toolbar (on the left). Apply the style by highlighting text in your document and double-clicking the style you want.

 

Use a page break to force a new chapter onto a new page – under Insert/Manual break… page break, or by typing CTRL+Enter.

 

Modifying styles

update styleTo modify a style, change one of the sections of text that uses it. Then, with that section highlighted, on the formatting window use the dropdown button to choose Update Style.

Using styles to navigate

navigatorUse the Navigator pane, under View/Navigator, to move around the document and see the structure. Expand the heading section if necessary by clicking on the plus sign to its left.

Table of contents

table of contentsUse Insert/Indexes and Tables/Indexes and Tables to insert a table of contents.

 

 

 

 

The new computing curriculum

Back when I was at school, people suggested to me that I could work with computers. Believing that working with computers consisted of entering data and typing, I rejected that option outright, unable to think of anything more boring.

 

Then I got my hands on a ZX81, and I discovered that while using a computer might be boring, someone actually had to write the programs for others to use. That was where my interest lay, and where I found real pleasure.

 

I completed a degree in computing and IT, and by the end of it had a growing understanding of how much society is dependent on computing systems, and of how problems are solved by careful thinking and planning.

 

At this point I was also trying to earn some money, and extended the childminding training I was doing by getting a job teaching in adult education. I was teaching beginner IT classes, so while I had done all this marvellous learning, I was now teaching how to use a mouse and use basic spreadsheet formulas. It wasn’t the most inspiring of subjects, but it was enjoyable, and at least in the early days I was learning more about my subject all the time as I came across problems that others were having.

 

I went further by qualifying to teach in a secondary school; the business ICT was not the most interesting of topics, but there was the creative and computing sides to tempt me. The first school I trained in used Flash and Fireworks, and the second had a strong control element, and both of these encouraged me to believe that the subject was well worth teaching.

 

It seems to me that the trouble with ICT is that it’s easy to teach but hard to teach well. Most people these days have some level of ICT skills, but generally the subject seems to have a bad reputation as far too often it’s taught by people who have no real training in it and don’t have any real knowledge to pass on (I rush to add that this is the general impression I get, not from my very limited first hand experience).

 

I have sought to keep a balanced curriculum, including creative, business and more technical elements, within the current guidelines, and I feel this is really the best way to go. The skills of word processing, basic spreadsheets and (to a lesser extent) databases are still important, even if you’re only running a home. Being able to balance a budget using a spreadsheet, write a well laid out letter, use the web efficiently and understand the consequences of using ICT for a business will be applicable to everyone, surely. Being able to express yourself creatively using ICT is also important; I’ve long had admiration for those who take ideas from the world around them and modify and develop them through use of technology, and I feel creativity is essential to living well. That’s not to say the new curriculum is wrong: you can’t possibly make the most of computers without having at least a basic understanding of how they work and the implications of them.

 

Now the curriculum is being completely overhauled. I should be rejoicing: it’s changing to embrace the side of the subject that first attracted me. I only became interested in computers when I found that I could write my own programs; surely I should welcome the chance to encourage that interest in others?

 

Sadly, things are not that straightforward. The draft curriculum does seem to be written in a rather biased way; maybe this is simply a reflection of the extra detail needed for the new elements, but it would be a shame if in the pressure to include computing elements the creative side was lost, not to mention the less interesting but still important business ICT.

 

Partly prompted by these changes, there are discussions taking place on the future of the subject: there are fears that the focus on computing will drive students away, or that the lack of teachers available to actually teach computing will mean that the subject will become still more watered down and weakened. I was shocked when I did my training to discover that while to teach maths you had to have a degree containing at least 50% maths (and that means maths, not accounting or economics), to teach ICT all you needed was an A level or equivalent experience.

 

There are already schools where ICT is taught in a cross-curricular way rather than in discrete lessons, and this worries me; while there are teachers who will encourage the use of ICT to complete work, are they actually prepared to teach the ICT skills needed, or are they dependent on the skills the students already have? Will they merely take advantage of the fact that students have a basic ability to type and correct documents, or are they willing to spend time teaching how to use audacity, for example, to create a podcast, thereby increasing oral skills? As long as there are discrete ICT lessons where the students can learn these specific skills, I can imagine some teachers taking advantage of those skills, always assuming they have the knowledge themselves to support them, but I don’t see much space in an already crowded syllabus for the extra teaching of ICT skills alongside the specific subject knowledge, which is a shame as using two separate skill sets will surely develop students’ thinking skills and ability to relate learning to different areas.

 

The new curriculum is still under consultation, and I have to trust that by the end of the consultation period it will feel more balanced. In the meantime, I intend to do the best I can to encourage good ICT and computing teaching, by developing and offering materials to help support teachers in the new curriculum, including cross-curricular learning. It worries me, for example, that primary teachers are expected to teach computing, which for many must be completely new and alien. I also see many opportunities to combine ICT with other subjects, but feel that often teachers just don’t have the time to investigate and create materials suitable.

 

I’ve no idea how this will pan out, just as I had no idea when I started this blog how it would develop, but it’s a good excuse for me to put my own skills and creativity to use, and to extend my own ability and knowledge. And so www.coinlea.co.uk is born. Not much there yet, but I’ll be adding resources as I develop them (or find them in my filing system!), safe in the justification that as I’m offering them to others I don’t need to feel that time spent on them is mostly wasted.

 

Feel free to take a look, make use of anything you fancy and suggest anything you’d like to see in there.