Category Archives: writing and checking

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.


I’ve completed nanowrimo – what’s next?

That’s the question that many people are asking themselves at the moment, or will do over the next week or so. If you’ve been keeping up with the wordcount, churning out your story and ploughing on to the end, you should have 50k or more words of a first draft and might be considering the next step.

What not to do

Please don’t rush to publish your story as soon as possible. Your story deserves more than that. It deserves a careful re-reading, consideration and editing before it is cast out into the world. The industry gets flooded with nanowrimo stories at this time of year, as new writers, overcome by the excitement of having written a novel, send it out too soon. Readers can be easily put off by a badly presented story, and you risk damaging your reputation as a writer and the reputation of indie writers generally.


For the same reason, please don’t rush it out to an editor or agent. An editor is likely to cost a lot of money if called in at this early stage, and an agent is likely to have many such manuscripts sent to them.


On the other hand, if you just want to share your work with family and friends, why not find a company who will print a few copies for you?

What you should be doing

Set the manuscript aside for a month or so. Then you should be able to read it through with a more objective eye. You might be pleasantly surprised or you might be shocked. Either way, make notes as you read, and then go through and fix the issues you spotted.


  • Take a look at your characterisation – do your characters grow and develop? Do they behave consistently? Are they interesting?
  • Take a look at your show/tell balance – one thing that might help here is to use highlighters. Highlight dialogue in one colour, and telling passages in another. This will give you an overall view of your balance.
  • Take a look at your use of settings. Do you know where the scenes are set? How do the characters and the plot interact with the setting?
  • Take a look at the structure. Is there a clear progression in the story? Is it logical?

Once you’ve considered all these, and revised your story as much as you can accordingly, then you need to seek out a beta reader or two. This should be someone who reads the sort of story you’ve written and is willing to comment honestly on it. If you don’t know anyone suitable, then try looking online, in places such as groups, or search for beta reading services. You might be asked for a small fee, or you might be lucky and find a good reader who will read for free, or will agree to exchange services. Don’t spend too much at this stage!


Another useful resource is, where you critique work to earn points that you spend to post your own work for critiques from other writers.


After you have heard back from the beta reader(s), it’s time to work through some more, with their comments in mind. You don’t have to implement everything they say, but they should raise some points that will help you develop the story.


Once you’ve reached the point where you can do no more yourself, then it’s time to consider whether your work is ready for editing, proofreading and publishing, or whether it’s better to set your manuscript aside, start on the next and return to this one when your writing has improved still further.



NaNoWriMo season

You can’t exist for long in the writing world without hearing at least a mention of NaNoWriMo – national novel writing month. During the month of November, the challenge is to complete a novel of 50,000 words. The writing should not start until 1st November, should be a new project, and the word count target should be reached on or before 30th November. Winners – those who upload and validate at least 50k words – receive all sorts of goodies from the sponsors, such as discounts on writing software or discounted membership of writing communities.


Some people swear by nano – some hate it. Some never open their projects again, some go on to publish. Some enter year after year and fail every time. Some enter every year and win, but do no other writing all year. Some win on their first year and then swear never ever to do it again.


One thing you must be aware of when taking nano on is that the writer who can storm through their novel draft in 30 days or less and then publish it within a week is a very rare creature. What’s much more likely is that you’ll be left with a draft zero, something that has got the story down in words but that needs a lot of refining, redrafting and a major dose of editing before it’s ready to be seen by anyone other than the writer.


So when you have finished nano, don’t rush to publish your work without considering the quality very carefully. On the other hand, don’t throw it into the bin in despair because it’s not ready to publish. That’s only to be expected. Never judge a novel by the first draft.


Please, if you’re going to take part in nanowrimo, enjoy the experience, make the most of the peer support and general buzz about writing, and then consider very carefully your next step. And before you try to submit to agents or publishers, please bear in mind that they have generally learned to dread the words “here is my nanowrimo novel” because of the pile of raw drafts they receive around December/January time!


Planning tools – storyplanner

storyplannerThere are many different approaches to planning a novel. Do you start with characters and a setting and see what happens? Do you plan out every detail thoroughly before starting? How do you structure the content?


One tool that offers to help you with all that is, a website where you can find a collection of different templates to complete online. There is a selection of plans to choose from, many well-known, such as the Snowflake method or the Three Act structure, as well as other, lesser known methods that are equally useful. Other sections on the website include facilities for developing your characters and your story world, and creating a summary or synopsis of your novel.


Plans can be created and then downloaded for further use, in Word, PDF or text format. A free membership allows you to create one story plan, which would need to be deleted in order to create a new one, while premium membership allows unlimited plans.


The variety of plans means that you are bound to find something that suits your method of working, and the advice that accompanies each plan will help you structure your thoughts and develop your ideas. Screenplay plans are included alongside those for novels and those applicable to either medium. The ability to favourite plans is an added bonus, as you start developing your planning skills. Links take you to further information on some of the plans.


I’m currently trying out this site for my own projects, and I’m finding it’s a useful way to keep my ideas together and organised. As it’s online, it also means that it’s accessible from just about anywhere. As a bonus, it also appears to be fully accessible from tablets, meaning that planning is easy to do while out and about, as long as you have internet access.





Help! My beta readers disagree

I often see complaints from authors that their beta readers are giving them conflicting feedback. “One wants more detail, another wants more action.” “One says this character is too bad, another says he’s too boring.”


So is it better to use just one beta reader? Or is there a way to reconcile different comments?


Using one beta reader means that you get one person’s opinion. This is useful, but limited. If the person likes thrillers more, then maybe they’re pushing for more action. Or maybe they prefer strong characters, or they’re focused on settings.


Using several beta readers will mean a wider variety of issues might be picked up, but it can also mean conflicting comments. Here it’s important to remember the golden rule: if they say something is wrong, then they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.


So in both the examples given above, the same issue is raised: in one case it’s the action/detail balance, and in the other it’s the characterisation. Maybe both sets of comments are right, because the passage gives off mixed messages. The fact they’ve selected this passage as not working right should be your cue to look closely at it, but you don’t have to agonise over their suggestions. Maybe the solution is something completely different.


What should the passage be achieving? Do you want the reader to feel the action? Then make sure your details are adding to the passage and not slowing it down. Do you want your reader to slow down and take a good look round? Then write the passage more clearly to show that.


Every reader will bring something slightly different to your book, and will take something slightly different away. It’s your job as author to ensure that they receive the message you’re trying to give. Not everyone will get it completely, but awareness of the ways in which the message is missed will help you refine your writing.


The most important thing to do is to listen to your beta readers and think carefully about their comments. Then remember that it’s your novel and you have final editorial control. So thank your readers for their comments and input, and then edit your novel as you feel best.


How can a copyeditor help?

So what does a fiction copyeditor do anyway? In case you’re unsure, let me explain, with some examples of real errors that I’ve caught.


A copyeditor will go through your manuscript very thoroughly, checking for spelling, punctuation and grammar issues (SPaG). She (or he, of course!) will mark up errors for your attention. She will check for ambiguous meaning and suggest rewording if needed.

Errors may include:

  • The wrong word used: bought or brought; steel or steal; free reign or free rein; take a peak or take a peek; bare with me or bear with me; you’re mine or your mine
  • Inconsistent tenses: He picks it up and ran with it; she saw he is busy
  • Subject/verb agreement: Each of them is or each of them are
  • Inconsistent or incorrect punctuation: “Hello,’ he said. Where, are you going Tom”?

She will check for consistency within the manuscript, and create a stylesheet.

Errors may include:

  • Inconsistent word/digit use: one or 1; one hundred or 100
  • American or English spelling: color or colour, but not both; color and center, or colour and centre
  • References to time: 10am, 10AM, 10A.M., 10 a.m., etc

She will check for consistency within the characters, building a sheet to refer to for details, to avoid:

  • Eyes that change colour from blue to brown
  • An only child who phones her brother for help
  • Inconsistent spelling of a character name

She will check for consistency within the timeline, to avoid:

  • A school week that goes on for six days instead of five
  • A character who reacts to some news she doesn’t yet know the significance of
  • A baby that’s due in one week in one chapter, and in three weeks in the next chapter

She will check for consistency within the geography, to avoid:

  • A journey that takes far longer or shorter than it should
  • A side door in a mid-terraced house
  • Inconsistent spelling of a place name

She will check for factual errors:

  • Carbon-dating metal
  • A shotgun that fires bullets
  • Charles Darwin’s Theory of Relativity


A copyeditor cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything in your manuscript, but she can pick up most of the major errors and a lot of the minor ones, and ensure that the text produced is polished, accurate and easy to read.


She will also point out copyright issues, such as song lyrics, and can advise on other matters related to the publication of your manuscript.


She should not:

  • impose a style rule for the sake of it: you must use a serial comma; never end a sentence with a preposition; you must always use an en-rule/em-rule/hyphen here (although she may advise on common practice)
  • impose her own voice on the work: she should be reinforcing your voice
  • rewrite the story for you



All corrections made by an editor are subject to author’s approval, and all queries should be dealt with by the author. The job of an editor is a highly skilled one, and checking a manuscript carefully is time-consuming. Please bear that in mind when considering your budget!



I want to be a beta reader

I often see comments from people who would like to be a beta reader but are not really sure how to go about it. This is to answer some of the most common questions.

How do I become a beta reader?

Just find yourself a writer who needs a beta reader and volunteer. It might be through your local writing group, or through goodreads, or some other place where you can find writers. Good beta readers are always in demand, and writers are usually looking to build up a regular team.

What do I have to do?

The basic idea is to read the manuscript (often a novel, but it could equally be a memoir, or non-fiction), and then tell the writer what you thought of it. The important thing is to be honest and as specific as you can. They might have a list of questions they want answered – are the characters believable? did the setting sound realistic? – or they might just want your overall impression.

How long does it take to do a beta read?

How long do you usually take to read a book? Some beta readers can provide feedback within a couple of days; others take longer. As long as you and the writer understand how long it is likely to take, there is no problem.

Do I have to be honest?

Yes, but you also need to be kind. The writer has put in a lot of work, and you should always bear this in mind when you give feedback. it’s also good to comment on things that you enjoy or feel works well, so that your feedback is not all negative.

Do I have to be a writer myself?

No. You just have to be a reader. Make sure you read genres you feel capable of commenting on, and remember that the writer is looking for feedback to help make their work better. You don’t have to tell them how to fix any problems you find; you just have to point out anything you see as an issue. Is the pace flagging? Do you find the character unlikeable? Is that event unbelievable? Once you’ve pointed out what you see as a problem, it’s up to the writer to consider your feedback and deal with it if they consider it necessary.

Do I have to be good at grammar/spelling/punctuation?

No. It’s not the beta reader’s job to point out errors like that, although some do anyway. You are the test reader, giving the writer an idea of your response. The writer has spent a long time very close to their manuscript; they need someone to look at it with fresh eyes and check the content for them to see how readable it is.

How do I actually read their work?

It’s possible you might be given a printed copy, especially if you know the person offline. It’s more likely that you’ll be provided with an electronic copy. This might be a Word document, PDF, or a format suitable for an ebook reader. You can usually ask for the version that you would find easiest to work on.

Do I do a written report?

Some beta readers provide comments through the manuscript; some provide feedback via a written report. Some do a combination of both.

Do I have to sign a non-disclosure document?

Some writers might ask you to do that, but most don’t. However, it is expected that you’ll keep their work confidential and not pass it on to others. The same goes for discussing it with other people. On the other hand, once the book is published there’s nothing stopping you promoting it to your friends!

Can I charge for beta reading?

Some people do charge for beta reading. The advantage to you is that you get something back for your time apart from the pleasure and experience of helping out, and the advantage to the writer is that they can be pretty sure you’ll provide feedback. On the other hand, there are plenty of people around who offer a free read. Some writers offer a copy of the finished work as a thank-you, or a mention in the acknowledgements. If you want to make a charge, then I would recommend building up a reputation, collecting testimonials and then testing out the waters, but any beta read fee is unlikely to reflect all the time you spend working on it, unless your fee is very high – and then you’d better be very confident that you’re offering a high level of help and expertise.

What if I really don’t like what I’m reading?

It happens sometimes. A manuscript for beta reading can be very rough and unfinished, and can be tough to get through. Just do your best, and at the very least give the writer some feedback to indicate why you found it so hard, whether it was because the writing style was too rough, the main character too unsympathetic or the pace too slow. The tougher the read, the more important your feedback is. If you can’t finish it, then try to explain the problem.

What if real life intervenes and I just don’t have time?

If you take on a read and then find you can’t complete it, for whatever reason, please do let the writer know. The same applies if you find it will take longer than you thought. Communication is key. Remember that you may be the first to read a piece of work apart from the writer, and it is their precious baby. If they don’t hear back from you, they might assume it’s because you found it terrible and can’t bear to tell them, whereas in reality it’s because you’ve had the flu!





Beta reading, editing, proofreading, reviewing

A novel has to pass through many stages during its lifecycle. In my job I get to do all of them, although not usually more than two on any one project, as otherwise I start to see what should be there rather than what is there. So what’s the difference?

Beta reading

A beta read is for the author’s benefit. It provides feedback on the pace, the characters, the setting – anything that impacts on the structure and style of the story is fair game. When I beta read, I’m aiming to give the author an idea of the strengths and weakness of both story and style, and spot any plot holes or major omissions early in the publication stage, so they’re not too painful to fix.


Sometimes the beta read can be very tough (or, strictly speaking, an alpha read), and that’s when it’s even more important to really get stuck in and figure out what the problem is. As I make a small charge for a beta read, I’m going to make every effort to read the whole manuscript, and give you whatever advice I can.

What doesn’t get looked at

At a beta read stage I will not be worried about sentence structure except to comment on any style issues, or where the meaning is unclear or confusing. Nor will I be picking up on spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, unless to comment on those that are frequent/misleading.


An edit involves pulling the manuscript apart, to a greater or lesser extent. A structural edit can be very thorough, while a copy edit will be for consistency of plot and style. At this point I’m not only pointing out every error I see, but making suggestions on how to fix them. This is accordingly the most expensive and time-consuming of the types of read.


At the editing stage, depending on the level of editing booked, everything in the novel should be looked at.


A proofread is the final stage before publication. When proofreading, the aim is to pick up any last remaining errors and check for issues with layout. Because of this, the proofread should be carried out on the final file, or as close to that as possible, because every time the file is converted/changed there is the possibility of introducing errors – such as incorrect page numbers in a print document, or blank pages in an ebook file. The purpose of a proofread is to make sure the work is as error-free as possible, so that the reader does not get distracted by any issues with either the language or the layout.

What doesn’t get looked at

Style and structure.


With a review, the focus has changed. A review is not for the author’s benefit (although having public reviews of a book can help sales). A review is for the benefit of readers, to help to know what the book is about and to give them some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of it. When I review a book, I’m looking at how well it entertains and how well the style, structure, characters and setting work towards the end product, or if it’s non-fiction I’m looking at the purpose of the book, how useful it is and what sort of reader it would help best.


I very rarely review anything that I’ve worked on in earlier stages, because I’m too familiar with it, may have had a lot of input into it already and because my time is limited and I would feel the need to reread in order to check I’m reviewing the published version. However, as a member of the Amazon Vine programme I’m often offered books to read and review, and if I read anything for pleasure I will often review that as well.

What stage does your manuscript need?

At various stages in the production cycle, all these stages are needed. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming beta readers will deal with all the other stages. You might be lucky and get a brilliant beta reader, but even so, they are unlikely to have the experience and knowledge that an editor/proofreader brings. As an author, it is your responsibility to your readers to produce the best piece of work you can, and this involves making use of professionals in the process where appropriate.


Self publishing is not producing a book cheaply. It is taking on all the business costs yourself, overseeing the project yourself and collecting more of the income from it.



Compiling your work from Scrivener

The PDF version of these instructions is here: Compiling your work from Scrivener.


Once you have finished writing your novel (congratulations!) you need to be able to export it from Scrivener for use elsewhere. While it is possible to compile straight to ebook format from Scrivener, I would recommend compiling to an intermediate format such as RTF (which is Word compatible), where you can play with formatting and check for last-minute errors before the final compile.


There are three basic ways you might have organised your files within Scrivener:

You might have just one folder with all your files in.

simple structure

You might have folders for each chapter, each containing at least one scene.

basic structureYou might have a more complicated structure, such as a prologue and parts, each part containing chapters, each chapter containing scenes, plus an epilogue at the end.

complicated structure

You can see I’ve also been playing around with the icons for the scenes! 


The basic structure for compiling is the same, whatever your structure.


compile buttonClick the Compile button on the toolbar, or select File/Compile.


The short version of the dialog box gives you options to choose – for the complicated structure, you need to choose a format that says (with parts). Otherwise choose whichever option you want: ebook, paperback or standard manuscript, for example.

compile dialog

Clicking on the blue down arrow on the right shows the full functionality of the box.

compile dialog full

Under Contents you need to check that all the files you need to include are ticked. Any that don’t fall into the main structure, such as a prologue or epilogue, need the As-Is box ticked.


Scrivener will number any folders as chapters and if you have the part/chapter structure (here you can see a part called The Game containing a chapter called Preparations) then Scrivener will number them accordingly as long as you have chosen a structure with parts, so don’t include chapter/part numbers within the folder names.


There are several tabs of options for Compile, so I suggest you play around with them and see what the end result is. One you particularly need to look at is Transformations.


Click on Transformations on the left to see transformation options.

standard compile transformations

Here you see the Transformations options for a Standard Manuscript, which includes straightening smart quotes and converting italics to underlines. You might want these options turned off, depending on what you intend to do with the file.


When you are finished with the options, check the file type you are compiling for and then click on Compile, and you will be prompted to save the file somewhere and give it a name. I would recommend saving as RTF (rich text format), which can be viewed in most word processors.

Be careful!

You now have the Scrivener version of your novel and a compiled version. While some compiled versions, such as ebooks, will not allow you to edit them anyway, there is a big danger with other versions that you make changes to this file and not to the master version in Scrivener. Once you start working on the compiled version, it can be fiddly to get the work back into Scrivener, so be aware of issues if you send a file to a beta reader, editor or proofreader. Make sure that you are prepared to transfer changes back to the Scrivener version, or continue your work on the compiled version only. This is why I recommend using Scrivener to write and edit your novel, then switching to a word processor for the final tidy up, format and proofread before exporting to PDF for print versions or MOBI/EPUB for ebook versions.




Getting started in Scrivener

With Nanowrimo almost upon us, many people are trying out Scrivener for the first time, so I’ve put a guide together to help you. Click on any screenshot to see it larger. You can also download a PDF version Getting started in Scrivener if you would rather print the instructions out to have next to you.


First download and install your Scrivener trial – currently the best link is from – this is a special nanowrimo trial that will last until 7th December.


new projectCreating a new project gives you a few options. I would suggest sticking to Fiction for nano if it’s your first time using Scrivener.


Give your file a name and choose where to save it – I always save mine to Dropbox as I can then access it via PC or laptop.


setting up


When you click Create, this is what you will be faced with. On the left is the Binder, which organises all your documents. Use the triangles to expand and contract your structure. Typing happens in the main area.

Building your structure

create new folderClick on Manuscript in the Binder. Click on the triangle next to the green Add Item button and choose New Folder. There is already one there, called Chapter.


Name your folders as your Chapter titles.


On each folder, click on the green Add Item button (or on the triangle next to it and select New Text)  to create a scene in the chapter, and give each scene a name.


part projectYour organisation can be as complex or simple as you like – here, under Manuscript I have two chapters (folders), each with one scene (text document), but each chapter can contain several scenes. Just add a new one when you need it, via the Add Item button. You can drag and drop folders and files in the Binder to change the organisation.


There is also a folder labelled Research, where you can create and store any documents containing notes rather than actual manuscript. Ignore any other folders for now – just worry about Manuscript and Research.


project targetsClick on Project/Project Targets and set up your manuscript target as 50,000 and your session target at 1667 (or whatever your daily/session target is). See those bars change colour as you get closer to your target. Scrivener will keep track of your overall word count for the project and each session, whether you work on one scene or split your time between several.


Click on the scene you want to write and get started! Jump between scenes by clicking on the scene name in the Binder. Add a new scene/chapter as you need it or set up your complete structure in advance; the choice is yours.


Don’t worry about saving – Scrivener saves as you go along. If you are switching machines and using Dropbox or other cloud storage, just give your machine enough time to sync between closing Scrivener and shutting the computer down, and between turning the next one on and opening the project.

Using the Inspector

turn on inspectorIf you want to make fuller use of Scrivener, I suggest you start with the Inspector.


Click on View/Layout/Inspector to turn on the Inspector pane on the right. This gives you options to record information about each section.


InspectorHere I have added a synopsis of the scene. There is meta data that you can play with, to label the type of document (scene, character notes, idea, notes), and a status you can set. You can use the ones already created, or you can create your own by using the Edit button at the bottom of the list of options.











Click on a chapter folder and then Corkboard button on the top middle of the screen to see the synopsis cards. You can drag them around to change their order.



outline viewOr click on Outline View to see a different view of your structure. You might have to resize columns so that you can see all of them in the window. You can use Outline View on your Manuscript and expand each chapter, to get an overview of your complete novel, as well as on individual chapters.



Click back on an individual text file to continue working on that file.



compileIt’s a good idea to compile your project every so often to produce a backup version. Click the Compile button or choose Project/Compile. There are a variety of settings – I usually use these for backups. This produces a straightforward text document that can be read in most word processors.


Most of all, have fun writing!