Who pulled the plug out?

Last week, little more than two months after starting it, I finished the first draft of a new novel. At just less than 90,000 words, it’s currently shorter than some of my crime novels, and my editor may suggest that it needs more depth in some places, more background, more whatever. But that’s the thing about a first draft: you write and write, revising as you go, letting the original plan founder in the wake of what comes out of your head. And when it’s done you stand back and look at it from a distance. That’s the time too when you ask someone else to have a look, as you’re too close to see it clearly.

The draft was zipped off to my editor, after one last re-reading and some tidying up. So now, I wait. It’s a curiously flat stage in the process. Day after day for several weeks I sat at the laptop for every available minute. Night after night details of the plot, unfinished business, unresolved anomalies, all reverberated round my brain.

analysis blackboard board bubble


My sleep suffered. Sometimes by morning I could see a way through to the next steps, sometimes the dilemmas turned out to be non-existent. But the damn thing occupied my head almost without respite until I never wanted to see it again.


And now it’s gone. For a day or two I was still fretting about it in the night, but then that wore off and here I sit, waiting, like a deflated balloon.

ground orange balloon deflated

I’m trying to do the things I put to one side while I was writing, but nothing feels important enough to bother with. Days that passed so fast are now dragging, not helped by a tendon strain that’s restricting my walking and exercise routines. It’s only a week since let the draft go, but it feels like a month and I’m impatient for some reaction. I know there’ll be re-writes to do, but what and how is still to be decided. 

When the last book was heading towards publication this time last year, I asked myself whether I ever wanted to do it again. The same question is on my mind now. I know there are so many other things in life I want to do: getting older certainly adds a sense of urgency. But right now nothing other than writing seems to provide the sense of ‘flow’ in the way that Csikszentmihalyi defined it, a very satisfying combination of effort and focus, that makes the hours flash past. Fell walking comes close, and maybe I need to concentrate on my recovery and get the boots back on. With summer coming, that looks like a worthwhile alternative.

brown work boots


‘Murdering the darlings’, again

Remember the sense of anti-climax at the end of the first draft that I complained about last week? Well, instinctive dissatisfaction was well founded. Even before the long and perceptive email arrived from my editor I had reluctantly admitted to myself that the story took too long to get going, the middle sagged, and the final chapters were either too detailed or melodramatic, or – worse – both. Oh dear.nooo

Just goes to show that you need plenty of time for second thoughts. Fortunately, because of the fierce final effort to finish the damn thing I still have some time to play with before copy-editing is due and the production juggernaut starts to roll. Some decisions were easy: the opening scene that I crafted with such care had to go, and the first ‘darling’ disappeared. With that gone, of course, other passages now didn’t work, and they had to go too. Cut, cut, cut.murder your darlings

The hardest part of the whole exercise is keeping track of the various versions and not mixing them up. Every now and then on Twitter you encounter an author bemoaning the fact that they’ve just spent several hours correcting the wrong draft. I know how it feels and how easy it is to make that mistake when you’re tired or panicking or fed up with the whole business.

I cannibalise the original draft, moving text around, deleting and adding, before cutting and pasting the new version into the 4th draft, carefully labelled as such, and saving it. Two days into the corrections I’m doing OK so far, despite a head cold. Actually, concentrating on the work, however hard that might be, helps to dissipate the effects of the cold, and at least I feel as if I’m still achieving more than just a mounting pile of used hankies.

There are some technical details I’ve had to check to make the necessary plot tweaks. Here’s an intriguing example : ‘How to evade a tracker dog?’ I think I’ve got away with that one. When you’re splicing new bits into an existing draft there are continuity issues too, which are tedious both to pick up and to deal with.

But hey. If you’re going to do it, do it right. The book could still be out there when I’m too old to remember it, and I want it to work as well as it can. What’s a few murdered darlings in the great scheme of things?


The anti-climax of completion

Yesterday morning a strange feeling came over me, a sense of loss and uncertainty, a long way from the delight and celebration I’d anticipated at ‘The End’, the final words of the new novel. In the final week, for six days straight from first thing in the morning utired eyesntil it was dark I’d tapped away furiously, stopping only to gaze at the wall while I found a way through a barrier. The concentration was intense: it spilled over into those times when I wasn’t sitting at the laptop, and unfortunately haunted the night too. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake with dialogue or a plot twist in my head.The only way to break its hold on my mind was to play Solitaire on the ipad, which meant more screens, more eye strain and was probably not conducive to getting back to sleep. When I’m writing, the usual habit of reading before sleep doesn’t seem to work.

When ”The End’ finally came it took me by surprise, and more surprising was that I felt so flat. Maybe it had happened before, but if it did I’d forgotten. Living alone, there was no one to turn to in triumph. Friends are very patient, but listening to someone banging on about the details of a fictional conversation or the way out of a plot puzzle is enough to make your eyes roll back.

I was ahead of schedule, but worried that I’d been too driven by the deadline and should have taken more time. I’d resolved a big plotting problem, but it still felt too cerebral, too subtle, not enough action. I’m working with a new editor and chose her for her experience and ‘hard-nosed’ straight-forwardness, but I don’t know how she’ll react to the first draft of mine she’s ever seen. Worry, worry, worry.

And of course, the ever-present question: why do I put myself through this? I’ve retired from ‘work’ and should be pleasing myself, sauntering through the days, going on little jaunts, planning big jaunts, seeing people, having fun. And instead of that I’m spending most of time on research, planning, writing, re-writing, and worrying.

NewBookRelease1I tell myself that the rewards are worth the painful gestation and birth. It’s undoubtedly true that you have to keep writing if you want to maintain people’s interest in your work and the sales that go with it. Every new books boosts sales of the previous ones. If you want press interest or access to speaking at book events and festivals you have to have a new book to showcase.

If all goes well, the new book should be out in June, and then what? I have a choice: pack it in and have an easy life, or keep going and endure the lows as well as the highs, all over again.

The book title dilemma

whats in a nameMy editor and I are having a disagreement about the title of the new book. The first title I chose sounded fairly dull, and I wasn’t convinced. Then I opted for a phrase ‘Seize the Day’ which appears once in the book, and quite significantly, but right at the end. She feels that the reader might be annoyed that the title’s meaning remains a mystery until the very end. She also thinks that the  abstract phrase would be hard to link to an attractive cover image. All this may be true, but I can think of many books where the cover image is a mystery, and the title too: the connections between them and the story are intended to be part of the riddle. Am I asking too much of my readers? Do titles need to be ‘literal’?

We’re now considering various alternatives, but the issue of a connection between title and cover image remains a dilemma. There are various themes and events in the book that could be picked up in both title and image, but which would be most effective? No decision is absolutely necessary for a few weeks yet, so I shall wait for inspiration – showing more patience and tolerance of uncertainty than is customary for me.

What’s in a name?

I always struggle with titles, and then with the cover image that should illuminate the title and engage the reader: as an independent author/publisher, these decisions are all mine. The image on the cover of ‘Cruel Tide’ developed before I even started the book. It came to me when I did the walk across Morecambe Bay and was struck by the menace of quicksand very close to the northern shore. The snaking, threatening tide that covers these huge mudflats twice every day connected with another cruel tide – of abuse, cover-up and corruption that have damaged so many children’s lives. The decision about both title and cover came to me quite quickly.

Not so with the sequel to ‘Cruel TideI’ that I’m currently completing. My editor Charlotte and I have brainstormed possible titles, but nothing really stood out. Then in the final stages of the first draft, in one of those times when the story seems to be writing itself, the words ‘Seize the Day’ became suddenly significant and I could see them on the cover, with a dark image of one of the settings – no details for fear of plot-spoiling.

The first thing you do is check how many other books already exist with that title. Of course there are several, but then you have to take them one at a time and decide whether the replication is significant. The most recent was non-fiction, an autobiography, so that was OK. Another appeared to be a religious tract, too different to bother about. There was one fiction book, but a very different genre.

I think I have my title. Next I’ll think hard about the image, and start working with the cover designer Kevin Ancient who did such a wonderful job with ‘Cruel Tide’. Crime fiction covers seem to be have some common characteristics, to ensure that readers understand what may lie between the covers. Decisions to make. Watch this space.

What does an editor do?

I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been on a course on how to do it, or read a manual. But I’ve been on receiving end of a number of editors’ work, and I think I’m beginning to understand what a good editor does. Here’s what an editor does that works for me as a writer.

  1. The good editor asks really good questions about the plot plans as they develop. Some writers don’t plan at all, which means that the editor has to wait till the first full draft is available before they can ask these questions, by which time the writer may be thinking about the effort of re-writing, not whether the editor’s comments are valid. If you’re trying to write a story with twists and turns, as I’m trying to do, it takes more confidence than I have to embark on that without a pretty good idea of how those twists and turns are going to work. A few days ago I sent my editor Charlotte the outline I’d been working on, arranged roughly in chapters so we could both see how the ‘arc’ of the story would look. She read it very carefully, and came back with questions and comments such as: ‘why is that sub-plot left hanging?; ‘is that clue feasible?’; ‘should there be a reference to x earlier in the story?’; ‘does this tie in with the same character’s details in the previous book?’. Because I trust her, and she reads a lot and has a good ear for a story, I consider each point she makes, go back to the outline and think some more. The second draft of the outline is always better than the first.
  2. With some idea of the overall shape of the story, the editor is a good sounding board for key scenes or chapters as the writing develops. Sometimes I agree with the comments or suggestions she makes, sometimes I don’t but it’s a good idea to be asked to think again occasionally. If she likes the ways things are going she’ll say so, which is encouraging when you’re ploughing on day after day, trying to find a balance between a pragmatic need for progress and the search for perfection. Sometimes she and I will talk in depth about a section of the work, and disagree. Then she says, ‘This is your book, so the final decision rests with you,’ and it does. In the early days it took me a while to realise this. It’s easy to feel badgered by an editor when you lack experience and confidence in your own work.
  3. When the first draft is done, off it goes for really careful scrutiny. Now the editor is concentrating on the finer detail. Charlotte is especially good at checking chronology: ‘Surely,’ she might say, ‘the events in Chapter 13 must be on a Sunday, not on a Friday, so would that shop be open?’ The writer might be tempted to respond, ‘Who cares? Poetic licence’ etc, but you and I both know that some reader somewhere will spot any anomaly and tell you about it, which can be VERY irritating.
  4. Second and third drafts will follow, and more, each carefully checked. The daunting process of proof-reading is already underway, and typographical errors are picked up as we go, before the final preparation for submission to printer or ebook publication. Reading the ‘proofs’ is of course the final process, but by that time only minimal changes are possible. Woe betide any writer who wants to change anything much at this point. If you are making both hard copy and ebook versions, conversion from one to the other may create some typographical problems and require further proof-reading. I reckon the last proof copy was read by me, Charlotte and our book designer several times before it went to print and there are still three tiny errors, which kind and careful readers have been quick to point out. These will be dealt with before any reprint. The misprints are usually of punctuation, such as comma instead of full stop, or type-setting such as one extra space between words. It’s embarrassing when someone spots them, but the margin of error is three or so words out of one hundred thousand, which isn’t bad in the great scheme of things.

Charlotte is an old friend as well as a professional editor, so that could be helpful or not, depending on her expertise and our trust in each others’ judgement. It’s good advice not to have a friend teach you to drive, but the editor/writer relationship is  – or should be – less fraught than sitting side by side in a potentially life-threatening situation. I commission and pay for the editing and book design services that she and her partner provide. The book designer handles the layout of the book, works with me on decisions about headings, illustrations and other design matters, chooses and liaises with the printer. Yes. it costs, but the quality of my self-published book is now as good as anything produced commercially, and I have had final word on every part of the process.

That’s how it works for me. I’m interested in how other editors and writers work together.

Do I need a specialist crime fiction editor?

Two things have prompted this question. The first was a response from a well-known crime writer I asked to read ‘Cruel Tide’ a few weeks ago. I was pleased that he said some positive things about it, but he ended his note with words to the effect that I needed a specialist editor. I thought about what that implied, but then put it out of my mind in the flurry of activity leading up to publication.

The second nudge to my thinking about this question has arrived today. This evening I do my first public outing of the new book,at the library in Ulverston, and I’ve thinking about what to say. Why did I turn to crime fiction after the character-driven trilogy that preceded it? What does crime fiction entail, and what have I learned from this experience? The remark about a specialist editor came back to mind and now I’m thinking harder about it.

The role and function of an editor is always tricky for someone like me who’s written a lot over the years and always alone. Many education writers do their work collaboratively, sharing ideas, reading each other’s stuff, getting feedback as they go. I never did. I wrote, read it over a few times, made some adjustments and that was it. Only with the final education book, about school progression for the Canadian market, did I write with others and then have an editor employed by the publishers. I didn’t expect the editor to change much, but she did and all of it for the better, not about the content but in terms of the clarity and economy of expression. I analysed the changes she suggested and learned a great deal about how to write more clearly.

The role of editor, it seems to me, is three-fold: first there is ‘content’ editing. For a novel, this is the story edit, that looks at structure and character and chronology, how the whole thing flows and fits together. Then there’s the way that meaning is communicated, the structure of a paragraph or a sentence. Finally there’s the proof read, checking spelling, punctuation, speech marks and so on. All three functions have been undertaken in my books so far by the same person, a friend who has worked in publishing for decades, but almost exclusively with non-fiction. As a reader and book group member she’s analysed my stories in their various iterations, suggested changes, and pointed out anomalies or others mistakes to be ironed out in the final drafts. She would not describe herself as an expert fiction editor and she has – as far as I know – no links with current fiction publishers.

I’m hesitating to go back to my crime writer colleague and asks him what a specialist editor could do that my current editor can’t. He’s a busy bloke, and I’ve probably imposed on his time enough already. I did follow up with a phone call to a specialist editor he knows, and during the conversation what became clear was not so much the editing function as the networking that lay behind it. The person I was speaking to was well-connected, to other crime writers, to agents and publishing houses. She lived at the other end of the country and was already very busy, so I took it no further, but I was left still wondering what this editor could do for me.

I was back yet again to the issue of genre and the specialised protocols that seem to apply to different genres, and even sub-genres. Obviously a crime writing specialist editor would be more familiar with these protocols than me. She/he would know the insider tricks of the trade that would distinguish my book, and make it more interesting to an agent who would probably also specialise in crime fiction. Editor and agent would have a shared language and recognise my attempts to join that club.

The idea of this shared understanding and its unwritten rules is not attractive for me. It plays to my innate and sometimes unhelpful aversion to following rules of any kind that I don’t understand or see the point of. I still ask myself, what do readers really want? Do they get a buzz from seeing how the crime fiction rules are followed in different contexts and with different protagonists. Do they smile in appreciation as they recognise the genre features that they expect as soon as something is described as ‘crime fiction’? Do they only ever look on the crime and mystery shelves of the library or the bookshop?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

‘Cruel Tide’ is not classic crime fiction, as far as I can judge. It doesn’t have the closed group of potential suspects, or a single dysfunctional detective with a drink problem, or even a genius problem solver. The story is propelled by the characters as much as by ‘events’. There is no final reveal that ties up loose ends and looks ahead to a certain future. The goodies do not necessarily triumph. What would a specialist editor have made of all this, I wonder? If the advice was to follow the rules of the genre more carefully, how would I react? It’s my story after all. If the editor told me that an agent or a potential publisher would expect me to do things differently, I’m not sure I would have warmed to that advice. I’m too old and too awkward, and I’ve chosen to self-publish with all its attendant risks rather than chase any commercial publishers’ approval. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But still, the notion of a specialist story editor lurks in my head. If I could learn from that interaction, it’s probably something I should do, for myself, but it would have to be someone I respect, and I’d offer no guarantees about my response. Maybe I’ll wait and see the reaction to my first crime novel and go from there. I need feedback, people: specific, considered, detailed feedback and suggestions about alternatives before I embark on the next book in what will probably be a series, although I’m not sure how many more books I want to write. It’s hard work!

First draft: edit as you go, or plough on?

A few days after getting back from our long trip, my sense of urgency about the first draft of book 4 was overwhelming. I had an outline, or thought I did, which had taken weeks to develop and looked as if it would carry me through the first draft. So I began at the beginning, avoiding the trap I’d fallen into earlier of starting with scenes I was most excited about, regardless of chronology, and hoping I would piece it all together later. That way madness lies, for me at least. So Chapter 1 it was, and then on to chapter two, then three. So far, so good. But by now the inadequacies in the outline were beginning to show. Threads had been left hanging, by default not be design, some actions seemed implausible, minor characters said unexpected things and threw the storyline around. 

I stalled, went back, fixed some of the difficulties, re-wrote the outline for the next few chapters and continued. By now all sorts of unexpected things were happening, and the urge to go back and tweak previous chapters to fit in with the current direction was slowing me down. Of course there would be some inconsistencies and things to be fixed, but remembering them was the first challenge and finding them in the text was even harder. Why did someone decide they had to Gateshead? Where did Gateshead come from? In desperation I tried ‘Find; Gateshead’ but that didn’t work. I’d have to go back and re-read all the previous chapters to track it down. 

After a number of such frustrations I decided that tweaking things as I went along would ruin the sense of forward momentum that had been turning up such unexpectedly good scenes. This was a first draft, that would be read with care by my trusty editor and annotated in detail to guide the essential re-write that would have to happen anyway, however much fiddling around I’d already done. I’m finally doing what my editor advised me to do in the first place: just crash on through the first draft, amending the outline as necessary as I go, keeping track of plot and all the other threads as well as I can and put it right, all at once, in the second draft rather than ‘toing and froing’ and driving myself nuts.

With that in mind, at least the chapters are rolling along nicely and the fleshing out of the story keeps turning up things I’m happy with and had not anticipated. Which is good, isn’t it? I just wish is wasn’t keeping me awake at night.

Murdering my darlings

I’ve reached the conclusion that time away from ‘the current work’ enables me to step back and view what I’m doing more objectively, and more clearly, but it has to be a certain sort of break to be most effective. Here’s how it seems to work for me. I’ve been writing outlines and planning the current book (number 4) for some months now. I knew I would be taking two months away from it early this year and expected that this would provide the space I needed to reflect on the project – characters, pace, themes, plot and so on – so that everything would be clearer when I returned. But that didn’t work. The time away was like being on a different planet, so exciting, varied, all-consuming, and exhausting at times that there was no space in my head to reflect at all about the book. After I’d got home and recovered for a while I just started the first draft as I’d planned to do, using the outline much as it previously stood.

Ten days later, into the first draft and rolling along quite nicely, I’ve just had another shorter break over the Easter weekend. Immediately beforehand I was up to my ears in writing and editing, working and reworking the original outline as the detail on the ground was revealed – as  I mentioned in my previous blog post. Maybe that was why, during four non-writing days, my head has been wrapped around the story to the point where I could hardly sleep. Two darlings have been ruthlessly put to the sword as a result. The first of them, the opening paragraph, was nudged towards its demise by my perceptive editor Charlotte who skims the drafts every now and then and always asks incisive questions. The old first paragraph which I’d polished carefully for months, is now dead, and the one will be sharper, clearer and more likely to capture a reader’s attention.

The second doomed ‘darling’ is a character from my third book, who was about to reappear in this one. I was looking forward to meeting him again, but yesterday, when I was half watching Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Leeds United on the TV, I suddenly thought ‘Why do I need him here? What’s he adding to this story? If he has a function, is that not already being played by another character? Why complicate matters unnecessarily?’ Scales fell from eyes and when the next stage of the outline is re-written, he will be gone. 

Have I ever mentioned the Faber Academy course I went on years ago called ‘Stuck in the Middle’? Just a weekend, but I still remember the shot in the arm it gave me. Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant led it as a double act, a pincer movement of perception and experience that caught many of us round the table in the middle, making us look at our half-finished work from the outside rather than the inside. It was harrowing but salutary. I’ve thought about signing up again, but I don’t think I need to. I think I can be ruthless – no pun intended – all by myself. Maybe watching football helps. 

Me and my editor

In the world of self-publishing there’s always talk about the importance of a good editor, and what editors can do to improve the quality of your work. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor who is also a long-standing friend. You might say that having a friend as an editor is as potentially damaging to the relationship as having a friend teach you to drive. Writing a novel is a stressful business, which can cause friction between you as the writer and the editor who might want you to ‘murder your darlings’ – the bits of deathless prose that you want to keep at all costs, even if they don’t work. Or if you are of a more anal disposition you could argue for weeks over the placing of a semi-colon or where to make two paragraphs out of one.

In my case, disagreements between my editor and myself have been mercifully rare. We’ve talked books for a couple of decades so we know each other’s likes and dislikes, and I trust her judgement about what makes a story effective. She knows I’m fairly robust and can take criticism where necessary without flouncing out or getting depressed.

Her role is two-fold. She will be the first person beyond my partner Mick with whom I’ll share the outline of a new book. She’ll see past the messiness and think about the structure and the characters and whether it makes sense and rings true. She’ll point out discontinuities, misplaced scenes, unconvincing plot twists, and she’s usually right. As the writer I can see the action in my head but sometimes I don’t capture it well enough on the page and she speaks on behalf of my future readers, asking for more detail, or less. I need that: otherwise I can make too many assumptions about the readers’ response.

That’s the stage we’re at now with the new book that’s emerging. Starting with a basic idea I’ve been fleshing it out for several weeks now, adding key scenes, fragments of dialogue, expanding from a few hundred words to a few thousand. Currently the draft outline stands at 12,000 words and still I haven’t written any of the substantive manuscript. I’ve learned to be patient, avoiding the first full draft until I’ve a pretty good idea that the basic structure is ready. Of course things will change: it’s only when you delve deeper into the characters and the story that you realise exactly how things might develop. But at this stage talking with my editor about character, structure, and plot development will be invaluable. I sent the draft outline a week or so ago and have come to London for our first meeting about it. Apprehensive? Yes, a little, but that feeling is diminishing as the number of books increases. Now I’m feeling excited, to learn what she thinks and what suggestions she will make.

After these conversations I’ll head home keen to complete the outline, break it down into chunks, re-consider the order and the chapter breaks, do any remaining necessary research and finally get started on Chapter 1. From then on, if my planning and research have been good enough, the chapters should roll on, tweaking the outline as needed as we go. This is the joy of the process, when the blurry image begins to sharpen and fizz with colour and life. This is when I’ll laugh out loud sometimes, or have to stop because the tears are getting in the way. At this stage I try to read everything out loud, listening for the rhythm of the words and the authenticity of the dialogue.

When the first draft is done, back it goes to the editor for further scrutiny, ‘tooing and froing’ between us as the glitches are ironed out. Thank heaven for word-processing and email to speed up the process. Finally after more iterations than I care to envisage right now, the penultimate ms. will be ready for the editor’s line by line scrutiny, to find and correct the miniscule errors that hide in the text. This is when I need to print out to spot the errors more easily than reading on the screen.

That’s how my editor and I work together. Others may do things differently. Professional editing, I believe, is essential. The author is simply too close to see what needs to be seen. My luck is to have found someone with all the necessary skills and who can deal with someone who doesn’t like being told what to do!