Category Archives: writing and checking

Preparing for nanowrimo

It’s halfway through October, and all round the world, writers are preparing for the massive writing festival that is NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month, the challenge that sees them aiming for a grand total of 50,000 words on a new project within the 30 days of November.

 

I have to confess that I’m one of them – each year for the past few years, I’ve bashed out a first draft of a novel during November, and then spent the rest of the year working on it. Each year, the draft I finish is a little more polished than the previous year, and I get a little further through editing. Eventually, my aim is to have several novels all nearing the finished product at around the same time, and then start publishing.

 

But how do you prepare for such a project? And should you be starting before 1st November anyway?

 

There are two types of writers, when it comes to nano – known as the planners and the pantsers. In fact, these are just two ends of the spectrum, and most people sit some way along the route between. Planners will plan out their story in great detail, world building, character building, plotting out their story. J.K. Rowling has released sheets showing how she planned out the Harry Potter stories in detail. Pantsers will fly by the seat of their pants, starting with a basic idea (or even less than that), and just seeing how it develops. Stephen King is a great proponent of that approach.

 

This is where I find Scrivener comes in handy: I’ll work out the rough outline of my story, often dividing it into three parts, corresponding to the three act structure. I’ll budget out the words for each part, and create sections for each scene I think needs to happen. The index cards hold a rough summary of the action for that scene, and I plan on between 1000 and 2000 words per scene.

 

Then when I get to November, I aim to fill in at least one scene each day, providing a structured journey from beginning to end but with flexibility should the story develop in an unexpected way – if your characters don’t rebel at some point in your story and do something you hadn’t planned, then maybe they’re not real enough!

 

The important thing when tackling nanowrimo is to remember that the aim is to create a first draft of a novel. It is not to create a polished, well-written manuscript that’s ready to send off to agents and publishers. There’s lots of work still to do once that first draft is finished.

 

Nor should you be worried if the story doesn’t achieve all you hoped for it. That’s what the rest of the year is for. The aim is to bash through your story, become completely involved in it and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve finished, you might be able to work with what you have, or it might mean pulling it apart completely and restructuring. Whichever level it’s at, you’ll have had 50k words’ worth of work put into it, and you’ll have a much better idea of what the story needs.

 

So enjoy your nano prep and enjoy your writing – just be prepared to keep working on it for the rest of the year!

 

My beta reader has gone silent!

One issue that crops up a lot with beta reading is the silence that can ensue once a manuscript has been sent out. When you’re sitting waiting for that message that tells you what they think, and nothing happens, what is the problem and what can be done?

 

There can be many reasons why you don’t hear back from them, and it’s not always because they hate your writing: it might be that their personal life has just hit problems, and they just don’t have time or energy to deal with your book. It might be that they’ve been inundated with books to beta read and they don’t have the time for them all. Or maybe they’ve realised that whatever the quality of your writing, the story itself just isn’t for them. They should be letting you know, if any of that is the case, but sometimes people panic, feel guilty, or just don’t find the time and motivation to let you know.

 

Or maybe they are one of those who are just seeking free books to read, and can’t be bothered to reply. It’s true, that can happen.

 

So what can be done to avoid or mitigate these problems?

 

First of all, try to agree with your reader a timescale. When do they expect to have finished? Some readers offer turnaround within a day, while others prefer closer to a month. Time itself isn’t the issue; what is important is to agree. If you need a fast turnaround, find a reader who offers that. If you are more relaxed (after all, how long did it take you to write the novel?), then that will give you more scope.

 

Some readers are happy to give progress reports, while others prefer to read the whole thing before giving any kind of feedback. It’s unfair to your reader to expect constant feedback, unless that’s what you’ve agreed in advance. It’s also unfair to constantly nag them about how they’re doing. They have better things to do than to reply to regular messages asking them how they’re getting on.

 

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to send a message if it’s after the deadline and you’ve heard nothing. This should be a polite “I wondered how you were getting on” message, not an “I assume as I haven’t heard that you hate my book” sort of message! If you still don’t hear anything after a couple of nudges (leaving reasonable time to respond, of course), then put it down to experience and move on.

 

Remember also that messages can and do go missing, on both sides. I’ve sent off reports and heard nothing back, and then had a query a week or so later, asking how I’m getting on. Eventually the message was tracked down: it had just been overlooked. I’ve also had clients send chase-up messages, only to find that their original message had ended up in my spam folder and so the file was never received. It’s for this reason that I will always acknowledge safe receipt of a file within 24 hours.

 

Finding a reliable team of beta readers can be tough, and this is why there’s a growing market for paid beta reads: if a reader is receiving payment for their report, that gives them incentive to read and give thorough feedback. However, be cautious with paid beta reads, and make sure your reader has a good reputation.

 

Finally, if you find a good beta reader, or even better, a few beta readers, treat them carefully and look after them – they are a valuable resource! Always respond to their reports, even if it’s just “Thank you for your time and your feedback. Is it okay to contact you again if I have any questions once I’ve read the report properly?” You don’t have to give them a blow-by-blow account of what you think of each comment, but acknowledgement is vital. And respond quickly, even if your time is tight and you don’t have time to consider the feedback immediately. Just as you’ve been impatiently waiting to know what they think of your work, so they are waiting to know their report has been received safely and appreciated.

 

 

Reading as a writer

Stephen King, along with many other writers, is firm in saying that if you want to write, you also have to read a lot. So what can you learn as a writer who reads?

 

There are many books around that teach you who to write better, but one of the best ways to learn is to see the advice in action. You want to master Point of View? Study books to see how they handle it. I have a list of books that I turn to when I want to see how to handle First Person, for example, to see how they deal with transitions between the present tense and the past, or to see how they make dialogue sound like fiction and not memoir, or avoid telling instead of showing. You want to see how books handle description? You want to see how they handle pace? How long a chapter usually is in that genre? How long the book is? Find a book and read it as a writer.

 

There are different levels of reading. Firstly, you learn to read for information and entertainment. Then you start to notice the little tricks that the writer uses to create an effect, or to make a point. Then you reach the point where you can start to use those tricks yourself. How can you expect to use those tricks if you’ve never seen them in use?

 

It’s also useful to make a note of books that use specific techniques – for example, The Martian is a great book to study. It makes use of first person via logs. It makes use of third person when it needs to. And, of course, it was a self-published book that then attracted a contract and a huge movie.

 

Beta reading can work too; sometimes it’s even more informative to see a less polished piece of work, and try to figure out what the issue is. But don’t assume that beta reading is enough. The wider you read, the better, and enjoy what you read. Just keep at least half an eye on the tricks the author uses, and think about whether you can adapt them for your own use.

 

How do I write…?

The question I see asked most often in writing groups is a variation on “How do I write this?”, “How do I start my story?”, “Will writing it this way work?”, “What’s the best Point of View to use?”

 

It’s as though writers have a limited stock of words and have to get them right first time.

 

If you’re stuck on how to start your story, or a specific scene, then write your way into it. Start with “It was a dark and stormy night”, or “Once upon a time”, or “When he got home”. Then write the rest of the scene. Once it’s all down, go back to that opening that caused so much trouble. Chances are, you’ll find your opening, and just have to delete the waffle in front of it.

 

If you’re not sure how to tackle a particular scene, maybe because you’re uncertain whose POV to use, or what tense to use, or whether to write in 1st person or 3rd, then write it one way and then the other. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the scene, and a better idea of which works better.

 

And above all, when you reach that point in your story where you feel everything is rubbish and not worth continuing, remember: that’s the point where you prove yourself a true writer. That’s the point when you plough on anyway, remind yourself why you wanted to write that idea in the first place, and just see where you end up.

 

When do I need a bleed?

One issue I’m sometimes asked to sort out is a bleed. So what is a bleed and when is it needed?

 

bleed illustration 2As part of the printing process, pages are trimmed. This is not normally an issue on print books, because any text would be well away from the edge,  but if you have illustrations or photos in the book that need to go right to the edge, then it’s important to create the image slightly larger than needed. This way, when the page is trimmed, the image will bleed off it. This avoids an unsightly white line showing, should the trimming be a fraction off (which is very possible).

 

This is usually done in publishing software, which has a bleed feature built in to it. The software will add trim marks to the file, so that the printer can trim to the right size.

 

A bleed is always needed in a cover design.

 

 

Producing a book

Beyond the Beach HutsA writing group I’m part of is currently celebrating the release of its first book – Writers of Whitstable has produced a collection of short stories all set in the town. The collection includes a variety of genres, from around a dozen different writers.

 

The project started around September last year, when it was suggested we produce a book to release in conjunction with Whitlit, a local writing festival. We came up with a theme – all stories were to be set in the town of Whitstable or have some connection to it – and the title – Beyond the Beach Huts, suggesting an insider’s view of the town – and writers each came up with their own ideas.

 

Stories were brought to writing group for critique (we send stories around a week before the meeting, so on the evening we can discuss them) and then the writers continued to work on them privately, returning them for further critique if they felt they needed it. We had a few months for this process, with final copy being in by the middle of February.

 

My role in all this, apart from writing my own stories to contribute, was to accept final versions, give them a proofread/very light edit, send them back for approval, and then assemble them into a book. An editorial meeting between the leaders of the project led to a running order for the stories, and final proofs were sent out for everyone to check their own pieces and also glance over the rest of the book. I was also responsible for obtaining an ISBN and dealing with the publishing side.

 

Meanwhile, one of our members worked on the cover art, coming up with an eye-catching cover that we’re all very pleased with.

 

Once cover and interior PDFs were approved, we sent them off to a printer who specialises in books, and three weeks later we were proudly opening three boxes of books.

 

Minor adjustments to the files made them suitable for Createspace, Amazon’s Print On Demand service, and for ebook, so now as well as copies to sell at local events, we have the book available on Amazon in both paperback and kindle versions.

 

It’s been a really fun project to work on, and the big debate now is whether to do a similar project next year, and if so, what the theme should be.

 

Writing strong scenes

When writing your novel, it’s important that each scene carries its weight. How about using a checklist? Each time I look at a scene, I ask myself:

  • How has this developed the storyline?
  • What have I learned about the characters?
  • What have I learned about the setting?
  • How have I developed the theme of my novel?
  • Is the right person telling the story here?

Do you have any other suggestions for ensuring a scene is strong?

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

Your first chapter

Within the first few pages of a book, a reader decides whether to continue or to give up. Writers focus a lot of attention on those first few pages, and with good reason. But what should you be looking for?

 

Don’t get stuck on your first chapter. Write something, anything, and then keep going on the rest of your novel. But when it’s time to edit your work, pay close attention to that first chapter, and how you use it to set up the rest of your book.

 

One issue that I often discover when I beta read is that at first I struggle to find my way in the book world. Is this a fantasy world? Is it our world? Are we talking current day, past or future? Who are these people? What’s the relationship between them? Who should I be focusing on?

 

These days, we tend to prefer books that go straight into some sort of action, but is that action detailed enough for readers to pick up what they need? You don’t have to explain everything at once, but make sure there’s enough detail to be able to follow.

 

Book two (or three or four) of a series provides a special problem. It’s so tempting to follow straight on from the previous book, but you know these characters and situations far better than the reader, who might have a large time gap between books. Are they going to remember that character? Are they going to remember the setting? Do they understand the significance of that event? What about the reader who glances at book two without realising it’s a sequel? Will they be interested enough to find the backstory, or will they be completely lost?

 

All this is why putting a manuscript to one side for a while and then reading with fresh eyes is a very good idea. Then make sure you read what’s actually written, and you don’t fill in the blanks with your memory. Is it clear who that person is? Have you indicated the time, the setting, the main drive of the story? Is the genre clear (or at least hinted at) from the start?

 

Sometimes, all it takes is a few extra words, or an extra scene, to make the difference between an opening chapter that leaves the reader floundering and one that pulls them onwards, already deeply engrossed in your story.

 

Writing books – Writing Deep Point of View

2016-01-26 08.47.57Point of view is one technique that many beginning writers struggle with. Writing Deep Point of View by Rayne Hall is number 13 of a series of 16 Writer’s Craft books. This one explains the appeal of deep POV to the writer and to the reader, and guides you through strategies to hook the reader and pull them into the story and into the narrator’s mind.

 

Twenty chapters take you through topics such as the sensory experience, trigger and response, male and female POV, switching POV, and cover topics such as how to get across what other characters feel and what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

 

The book is available in both kindle and paperback formats, although the kindle version offers much better value for money. I found it very useful as a reminder of the purpose and techniques of deep point of view, and it covers the topic in suitable depth, with plenty of examples. As a bonus, two complete short stories by the author illustrate the strength and flexibility of deep point of view in getting to the heart of a story and in twisting traditional stories.

 

Each book in the Writer’s Craft series covers one aspect of writing in great detail, and together they serve as handy, useful guides.