Wannabe a Writer?

Category: Talk it Over – 9 Articles

Playing Away

First published in Writing Magazine July 2012


A Damn Good Edit


First published in Writing Magazine June 2009

Please can you tell me what is meant by a "damn good edit"? I have been told several times that this is what my short stories need and now I have finished my first full-length manuscript, similar comments have been made. I have spent a year writing my novel and, as far as I am concerned, have done everything I can to make it as good as possible. So what am I supposed to do now to "sharpen and polish" it as has been suggested? I know this sounds like a silly question but I really don't know where to start.

Chrissie Howard — Edinburgh

It doesn't sound silly at all. This is a very good question and one, as I've heard agents and publishers agree, a few more writers should ask Editing is as much a skill as any other aspect of writing – the most important one, I would say – and none of us are born experts. We have to learn how to edit effectively and when we do, the difference it makes is profound. Which is why every successful writer I know, goes over and over their manuscripts, cutting, tweaking and honing until they feel they're absolutely right. And still something may slip through – that's why copy editors have a job. Lynne Patrick, Managing Editor of Crème de la Crime (www.cremedelacrime.com), believes that the months or years an author spends immersed in their manuscript leaves them "too close" to their work and makes it difficult for them to see it objectively. Describing her read-through of a manuscript the company was planning to publish she says "I found far too many repetitions of one specific expletive; three minor characters all with the same first name; a couple of acronyms whose meaning wasn't clear from the context; and an incorrect Famous Name. This was after several rewrites by the author."

Lynne recommends putting the manuscript away for a few weeks after typing "The End" and then working on it again before sending it out. This is an excellent piece of advice albeit one that I'm usually too impatient to follow. It is true, however, that if you can manage it, all sorts of flaws will become apparent when you re-read your work after a suitable break. And it's getting rid of those flaws, making the writing smooth, seamless and effortless to read, that is the aim of that "damn good edit" all manuscripts need if they're to make their fortune.

You ask where to start. The answer is at the printer. Do edit on paper. You may think you can save the rain forest and be just as proficient reading your work on the computer screen, but believe me, you can't. I check things a dozen times on screen and still find all sorts of typos, missing words and speech marks in the wrong place once I'm staring at a hard copy. After it's printed, many authors would suggest reading the manuscript aloud. If you find yourself stumbling, then something is wrong with the rhythm of that sentence and other faults will show up too.

"Repetition jumps out at you if you actually hear the words in the air," says writer and tutor Sue Moorcroft, "and punctuation errors become obvious."

Biddy Nelson, who's had more short stories published than you can shake a stick at, likens editing to weeding the garden. "Go through the manuscript cutting out anything unnecessary to the plot or the characterisation – i.e. do away with all your favourite bits," she says wryly. "It can be done over and over again, there's always something that could or should go."

As a brief checklist, things to hoik out include repeated words and dull superfluous detail, any overuse of adjectives and adverbs and weakeners like "rather" and "quite." We often have one or two of these we use more often than we realise. I have a tendency to litter my dialogue with "just" and "really" as in "I just feel…" or "I really thought" and have to prune them out at the end, while writer Anne Catchpole tells how she recently edited a chapter of her work in progress – mostly dialogue – and had to delete "twelve Ohs, fifteen Wells and several Buts."

Also, watch for places where you've stated the obvious: "he yelled loudly," or "she whispered quietly" and keep an eye open for the sort of spelling errors and grammatical glitches that the spell check won't pick up. E.g. the misuse of "it's" instead of "its", "there" instead of "their" and so on. Make sure it's clear who is speaking in any dialogue and that your paragraphs don't continue for several pages.

Different authors have different methods of working at this. Penny Alexander believes in the 'counsel of perfection' which she explains as "only ever editing while focussed ferociously upon ONE aspect: e.g. punctuation, or repetition, or information dumping… and NEVER to get sidetracked from that."

Others, myself included, look for everything at the same time. Whichever way you do it, try to be ruthless. "I have always found that you can edit out far more than you think," says magazine writer Pam Weaver. "I've even managed to get a 3,000 word story down to 1,500 and still sell it, so it can be done! If you think what you've written is quote of the month, you can always save it for another time."

"My first drafts are always too long, too fluffy, too wordy," says novelist Hilary Lloyd. "So my approach to editing is to cut, cut and cut again. Like writing, editing needs confidence, only gained from sharp practice!"

So grab your red pen and practise away. Editing your novel may take some time but, like clearing out an old cupboard, it's strangely satisfying and you'll be very glad you did it. Good luck!

Writing Under the Influence


First published in Writing Magazine March 2009

I have noticed, through reading articles about them, that many creative people like to drink alcohol and that several famous authors openly admit to writing under the influence. I know I have a tendency to speak rubbish when I've had one too many so would I write that way too? Or is it worth experimenting? I'll try anything once.

Bill Winters
Whitstable, Kent

What an excellent question and one I have had a most entertaining time trying to answer! You are right that many artists and writers over the centuries have used alcohol or various mind-altering substances (there is an exhibition on this very theme on in London right now called Voo-Doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit that you may be interested in – see www.riflemaker.org) and some of them have turned out great masterpieces while doing so. Ernest Hemmingway is a famous example and the great Stephen King admits in his book "On Writing" that he can barely remember writing one of his novels – Cujo – because he was so out of it on drink and cocaine. The book still sold in shed-loads but he became a drug-addicted alcoholic who had to be forced by his family into rehab, so we'd perhaps better not take experimentation too far! Having said that, most of the writing friends I have like a drink and I must say I use wine myself to loosen up the inhibitions at times (any excuse!) even if often I find that what I thought was so wonderfully insightful and creative at 10pm reads like the confused ramblings of a lunatic in the morning. But often there is usually something there that I can use and sometimes I can come up with strange ideas that I simply wouldn't have thought of when completely sober. The main thing to remember is that you're going to have to give whatever you produce a long hard look in the morning. But as long as you do that, and regard anything you write as a draft or a set of ideas rather than any sort of finished product, then why not!

"I do find that ideas tend to come more easily after a glass of wine or two," says writer and editor Jo Good. "If I'm sitting in the lounge in the evening with a large one, I very often reach for my notebook and scribble down some thoughts. I think alcohol helps because it takes away our inhibitions and the sub-conscious comes to the fore. I don't often attempt to write properly when I've had alcohol though, and certainly not edit. But it's great for scribbling in the notebook."

"I often try to write while merry" says novelist Lynne Barrett-Lee. "Mostly when I'm nearing the end of the novel and feel compelled to return to my computer at all hours. I mostly can't read what I've typed at such junctures but there's often a gem or two buried in the dross – particularly in dialogue – so I persist. Curious, really, as real dialogue when drunk is mostly as boring as hell, as anyone who's been to the pub with their mates while on antibiotics will confirm..."

"I'm sure a glass or two helps the creative process along, although I don't think someone who completely lacks imagination is going to turn into Tolkien after a small dry sherry!!" says writer Anne Catchpole. "I think alcohol helps to temporarily silences your inner editor, so you write more bravely, and perhaps therefore more honestly and intuitively, exploring things you might otherwise dismiss as daft/embarrassing. For that reason, I'd say it's probably a good idea to write sex scenes with a glass in your hand."

I would agree with this myself. Years ago I attempted the opening of a Mills and Boon romance which did not come as easily to me as I had hoped. When rejecting the manuscript the editor picked out chapter three as being closest to what they were looking for. Which was the one I'd written – in some desperation – while three sheets to the wind. So why not try unlocking your imagination with a large shot of what you fancy and see what happens. If I can offer a word of warning – do be careful where you put your glass. I have had to replace more than one keyboard after it has drowned in red wine (strange how even half an inch of liquid when spilled can flood a entire desk) and move any important documents out of the way – I've soaked a manuscript before now too. It is for such reasons that writer Penny Alexander who says " I don't drink while writing as I wouldn't be able to hit the right keys" recommends Garvey's Ginger Still as her potion of choice and many other more sensible writers than me tend to work on nothing stronger than tea. "I write during the day and drink wine in the evening," says novelist and writing tutor Sue Moorcroft "and I'm certain that routine has developed for a reason! Wine makes me dopey in both meanings of the word – sleepy and stupid."

But if you've never tried it then I should certainly give it a go. Mainly because I am a great believer in writing something – however bizarre – rather than staring at a blank screen and if a stiff drink gets you going then it can only be a good thing. (May I also recommend milk thistle tablets to help regenerate the liver and a couple of nurofen plus for a hangover). I think it was Katherine Mansfield who said it was better to write twaddle than nothing at all with which I would heartily agree – even if it's drunken twaddle that going to need a damn good edit later. Cheers!

Getting Started Again


First published in Writing Magazine June 2007

I have almost the opposite problem to Helen Coffey (Talk It Over, January 2007). I know I have talent, having sold poetry, articles and stories, and was fairly prolific too, but the application has gone, and we all know the inspiration to perspiration ratio for success.

I am not short of time or support, but I did have a couple of minor setbacks (genuinely minor), a move, and I have discovered another passion, music. Here I don't have so much talent, but given a free moment I am much more likely to pick up the horn than the pen. I occasionally produce a little bon-bon, or a rant on an e-group, but essentially I seem to have dried up. Do you have any suggestions for restarting the flow?

Ted Beausire
West Oxfordshire

Goodness, Ted, do you realise how many readers of this magazine, trying to juggle children, unhelpful spouses, batty relatives, demanding friends and the dog that needs walking – and that's before they shop, clean or actually go to work – will be gnashing their teeth at your letter? Talent, support and time – every writer's dream ticket – and there you are playing the French Horn. What is to be done with you?

I must say, however, that I have a certain sympathy. Writing is hard work. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy and if you get out of the way of doing it regularly, as you have, it can be hard to kick-start yourself again. But it's a bit like going out and trying to get fit after a period of little exercise – a terrible strain at first but so thoroughly worth it, once you have. (I speak as one who has just lumbered around a tennis court for the first time since last summer – it nearly killed me while I was missing every second ball, yet now I feel terrific.) First, though, you do have to get up off that sofa. If you really want to write – and I presume you must do, or you wouldn't have bothered to send this letter – then you must make an equivalent effort. Start in a small way. In my new book, Wannabe a Writer? a veritable feast of hot tips for scribes (now there's an idea – you could buy a copy of that to inspire you!) the children's writer and Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, suggests keeping a diary to get you into the writing habit. I think this is an excellent idea. You could begin by telling yourself you will write – no matter what – for ten minutes each day, about whatever you are doing, thinking or feeling. Don't use a pre-printed diary – get a nice hard-backed plain notebook so you are not limited by space. For I bet you will soon find you are writing for much longer than that. Alternatively, you could start a blog on the internet – and add to that daily. Who knows, you may be snapped up by an eager publisher. Earlier this year, writer Judith O'Reilly's Wife of the North – an account of adjusting to life in deepest Northumberland after moving from London – was spotted by an agent and she has since landed a lucrative deal with Viking Penguin. Think around your problem too. Why shouldn't you write AND play music? I always think one area of creativity can only enhance another. Instead of your passions old and new conflicting, why not combine them. You've sold articles in the past – what about penning something for a music magazine about taking up a new instrument later in life? Or a short-story about a Horn player? A piece for a newspaper on the restorative powers of the musical experience? Looking for a new angle or subject to your writing may well get the muse going again. Finally, look to your bookshelves. Pick up some favourite novels you've not read for years and get hold of some new writers you've never tried. There's nothing like immersing oneself in great writing by others to make one itch to try it oneself. Or come to that – looking back at something terrific you've written yourself. Dig out the articles, poems or stories you are most proud of and remember how you felt when you sold them or first saw them in print. Undertake to enter some competitions to get you going again – you could start with the one in this very magazine or look in Writing Magazine's sister publication Writers' News that runs competitions of its own as well as bringing news of others. Be firm with yourself and set some deadlines and targets. Whenever I have gone through a phase of not writing much – usually when I have fallen into an exhausted heap after finishing a book – I like to imagine that I am enjoying the rest. But once I go back to my keyboard, I realise how much better I feel. Because, writing, I realise, like reading, walking by the sea or eating crisps with my white wine, is what makes me happy. I'm sure it does the same for you. But the only way to prove this is to do it. So next time you pick up your horn, take pleasure from playing it but start thinking what you'll write about when you've finished. Enjoy!

Finding Time to Write


First published in Writing Magazine October 2005

A few months ago you discouraged a reader from giving up work in order to write, on the basis that she might not survive financially. I understand this, as my circumstances mean that we need the regular income from my part-time job and staying at home all day would simply not be an option. When I am there, I have a husband and three young children to look after, who all do lots of activities. I desperately want to write but by the time I've got the peace and quiet, it's late and I'm too tired such an indulgence. So I do wonder, unless one stops work or lives alone, how on earth does one fit writing in?

Angie Webb

It's a good question. There can't be many parents reading this who don't empathise, or indeed many people in full-time employment, who won't know exactly how you feel. It is hard to find time for everything, especially creative pursuits where we need space, peace, time and maybe silence, in order to produce the goods.

The novelist Wendy Holden still had a full-time job while she was writing her first book and only completed her manuscript by getting up early to write for two hours every morning before work. Author Sue Welfare wrote for three hours in the middle of each night, others turn down all social invitations.

When I'm getting to the end of a book (which always takes longer than planned) I sometimes rise at four a.m. to guarantee three hours of non-interruption and have stayed up all night on occasion. I do not, however, recommend you consider any of these options. I know how exhausting one small child can be, let alone three. Wendy herself says, when looking back at her early writing days, "compared to having two children under three... it seems like a holiday now."

There are other things you can do. Tune yourself to be alert for any opportunity to write. Get yourself a nice notebook and carry it around with, jotting down thoughts and snatches of dialogue, sentences that spring to mind or how you are feeling at a particular time, whenever you get the chance. In the dentist's waiting-room, for example, outside the school gates or when you have to stand around in a queue. Keep your writing muscle exercised and your mind turning over ideas. Then, when you do have a precious half-hour to yourself, you'll be raring to go. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that there's nothing like being prevented from writing to make you really productive when you finally get the chance.

Is there a local writing group you could join, for an evening a week, when your husband is home? You may meet others who share your difficulties and it will be a regular, guaranteed time to focus only on your desire to write. Do you have a friend with whom you could swap babysitting? If she writes too, even better but you can strike a pact in any case. Maybe you can have her kids round to play while she does her embroidery or car maintenance, in return for her having yours while you bash out a short story. I have always regarded the video-player as the greatest of childcare inventions. Tell the children you're all going to watch a favourite film and once they're absorbed, you can scribble things on your lap and make the right noises at the exciting bits. Sports days and school plays are another fine chance for a spot of surreptitious writing. The moment your own offspring leave track or stage, whip out your pen. Put it round the playground that you are a freelance journalist and nobody will think you rude. On the contrary, they will be delighted, assuming you are taking copious notes on the feats of their little darlings. When your husband asks what you'd like for your birthday, tell him a day to yourself. Earmark a weekend where he takes the kids out for lunch or to a theme park and leaves you in blissful solitude at your desk (NB this is unlikely to go down well on your wedding anniversary). Find a place in the house – however tiny – where you keep your writing things and can sit and work in spare minutes. When I began, it was in a cramped corner of my husband's study. Now I have converted our largest spare bedroom to a room of my own and equipped it with kettle and fridge. Who wants relatives to stay, anyway? You really won't get anything written then! The important thing is to establish that your writing takes equal importance to whatever everyone else likes to do. I am concerned by your word "indulgence". Please don't feel guilty about writing or think that you don't have a right to something of your own. I don't know your family but I would hazard a guess that your husband has some sort of hobby or interest, be it golf or the gym or going to the pub to watch football. Writing is equally valid. Drum this into the kids too – you say they do plenty of activities themselves. Make it clear you need to as well. They may end up wanting to take a blunt instrument to your computer, as my son does to mine, but it's all character-forming. At least they'll have something to say in the future when they're interviewed about having a best-selling author for a mother!

Finally, the great thing about children is that they grow up. It does get easier and before you know it, they will be grunting teenagers who disappear for long stretches on pursuits of their own and you'll have a whole lot more time to yourself. Do what you can in the meantime, make sure you enjoy it and hang in there!

Dealing with Snobbery

First published in Writing Magazine August 2005


I have just sold a short story to a women's magazine for the first time. I was absolutely thrilled when I got the letter. It's more money than I have ever earned for my writing before and I was so looking forward to seeing my name in print in a national publication. I was excited by the thought of the illustration that might be used and was planning on buying about a dozen copies – it seemed like a dream come true. But I have been so disappointed by the reactions of others. While a couple of my friends are admiring, others seem to look down on "that sort" of story – especially, upsettingly, those who write themselves. The implication is either that it is not "proper" writing or that it is so easy anyone could do it. Will I never be taken seriously as a writer unless I have a novel published?

Elaine Archard — Torquay

Faced with these kinds of "friends", even that would be no guarantee. Mills and Boon authors meet this sort of attitude constantly; "chick-lit" writers too. I was recently asked if I hadn't thought about writing a "real" book by someone who cheerfully admitted they'd never read either of mine. Look at how disparaging people can be about Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Cartland or Barbara Taylor Bradford? (I wouldn't mind having a fraction of their sales). This reaction to your success is ill-informed snobbery – no more, no less – and almost every magazine writer I know has experienced it. Analysed, it shows the most peculiar logic. Surely as writers, our primary job is to entertain readers and you only have to look in the shops right now to see the commercial short story doing just that. The shelves are packed with "Summer Specials" – full of the short stories so popular that they are bought by millions. Isn't the proof of the pudding, at least partly in the size of the readership? Who is anyone else to dismiss their choice of reading matter as somehow inferior?

I don't know what is more galling really – to find that someone thinks you write garbage or that they believe they could write it too. I remember sitting next to a gynaecologist once, who, upon hearing I wrote magazine stories, said "Oh, that would be a good idea for my wife – she needs something to do". Hmm, I thought, get her to run off one of your hysterectomies then!

The only answer to anyone who thinks writing magazine stories is "easy" is to suggest they have a go themselves. They would then find out how much imagination, discipline and editing skill it really requires. As Jenny Haddon, the chair of the Romantic Novelists Association, wisely pointed out: "Easy reading is hard writing." And certainly Mills and Boon Romances are notoriously tricky to perfect. Jenny has published forty-three of them – under the pen name of Sophie Weston – and knows plenty about negative attitudes. She gets them "all the time", she says. But her books have been translated into twenty-four languages and are sold all over the world. So she's clearly doing something right and so – obviously – are you. Otherwise, the editor on a national publication, wouldn't have bought your work.

Anything that involves writing in a genre, to a rigid word count, for a specific market, in a certain style and getting paid for it, whether it is a category romance, a short story, the verse inside a greetings card or the motto in a cracker, comes under the bracket of professional writing. There is nothing improper about it. It is a difficult thing to do, needing a variety of talents. Those that are very good at it get picked from the teetering pile of submissions that the fiction editors get every single day. And those that get picked should feel very pleased with themselves. For it is a highly competitive market and you have succeeded in cracking it. Congratulations! As for how you are viewed, think further than those of your immediate acquaintance.

Sue Moorcroft, who has had over a hundred magazine stories published, told me she began writing them purely so she would get a track record and be taken seriously by publishers. And it worked – her first novel has just been published by Transita and is selling well. But she now thoroughly enjoys writing for the magazine market and does not intend to stop. Good for her. Several great novelists started out the same way – Minette Walters leaps immediately to mind, as does Kate Atkinson. Acclaimed short-story writer and novelist, Fiona Curnow, speaks of it being "an excellent training ground." Having to write to a word count, she says, "not only makes your prose sharp, but also shows publishers you've got a commercial head on you." There will always be those whose literary pretensions will only be satisfied by winning the Booker Prize. So let them go and try. Personally, I see nothing wrong with writing that is widely accessible and I would rather be read by a wide and varied audience – as your story will be. Which is why you are quite right to be thrilled. I will leave you with the words of the best-selling novelist, Sarah Duncan, who says: "Nothing, not selling the novel, not getting an agent, not winning awards for my filmscript, has ever compared with the first sale to a magazine…"

So there you go. Be happy. Be proud. Go and celebrate selling your short story. Then, with a big smile for your detractors, write another one…


Talk it Over

Re-published by kind permission from Jane, a writers' advice column. Originally printed in Writing Magazine.

Should I get an agent or a publisher?


First published in Writing Magazine June 2005

I have, at long last, finished my first novel and feel, after much checking and editing, that it is finally ready to be sent out. I have been looking forward to this moment for years, but now find myself at a loss. I have read lots of articles giving advice on this but it always seems to be conflicting. Do I try and get an agent or send it direct to a publisher? And if I go the agent route, how – out of all the hundreds in the Writers Handbook – do I know which ones to try first?

Clare Stephenson

If ever I go on Mastermind, this will be my specialist subject. I have so much to say I hardly know where to start but I think the most important thing to remember is that others' tales of trying to sell a manuscript is rather like those on taking one's driving test or having a baby. All very entertaining (or not!) but it won't be the same for you.

For every novel published, there are as many different versions of how the author made it, as there are jiffy bags thumping depressingly back on the door mat. For some, the very first agent they ever sent it to, went into a swoon and was on the phone begging, shortly after first post. For others, they'd been turned down by forty-seven agents, thirteen publishers and the post-office dog before they finally hit the big time.

I won't be boring and tell you how many times Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter were sent back before someone saw the light, but let us safely say: getting a book accepted – by anyone – ain't easy.

So how do you start?

Hindsight is a very fine thing and so these days I would say – get an agent. However, when I was sending out my first novel, I took a year NOT to find one, during which time, most of the agents in London variously hid from me, tried to pretend they'd taken early retirement, or genuinely did as I chained myself to their railings or harangued them at all hours of the day and night.

I ended up selling to my publishers direct. This worked for me but is not necessarily to be recommended. There is no doubt that whatever I might have said at the time, having an agent is a GOOD THING. I have one now and wouldn't be without her (even if she's the scary sort who tells me to talk less and write more and doesn't always want to listen to my fifteen-point career plan for the second time in a week).

Agents deal with all the tedious bits like the money and the contracts; they can sell your books abroad which I, for one, wouldn't have the first clue about, and, most importantly, they can wax lyrical to prospective publishers about how wonderfully you write, with a greater ring of authority than if you say it yourself, or get your mum to. But I know from experience – finding an agent isn't always that simple. So I would be prepared to try both. Do your best to land an agent but if that doesn't work, be ready to approach publishers too.

How do you choose who to go to? With difficulty, I would have to say. Long before I ever sent out my manuscript, I used to scour magazines like this one for interviews with agents and publishers, squirrelling away any cuttings that included words of wisdom and contact names. These all stayed in a file marked "One day..."

If anybody ever tells you who their agent is, remember the name. If a novelist you admire thanks his or her agent in the acknowledgements (they often do) write it down. If an agent comes to give a talk anywhere within a hundred mile radius of where you live, get there. If it's a really big name, travel further.

For I always think: "I read you/met you/saw you/heard you" is a much more flattering opener in your letter of introduction than "Dear Blah-blah, I picked you with a pin from the Writers Handbook..."

Agents – strange as it may seem at times – are human too and everyone likes to feel they have been specially chosen for a reason, not just formed part of an alphabetical list you're working through.

Do some detective work to find out who represent the writers that most resemble what you are doing in terms of style or genre, check out the publishers of all your favourite books.

Ask questions of any published novelist you meet, and find out who was kindest to those still being rejected.

Join any societies that you can – the Romantic Novelists Association is excellent for networking and has a brilliant New Writers Scheme (and good parties!). If you've had enough short pieces published to be eligible to join at this stage, the Society of Authors is invaluable too.

After that it's the Writers Handbook or the Writers and Artists Yearbook and a highlighter pen. Check for those that do actually handle the sort of thing you've written – many will specifically say No Children's or Sci Fi, for example, and put a big ring round any who positively "welcome" unsolicited manuscripts or first novels.

Sometimes gut feelings work as well as anything, if a particular name leaps off the page at you – give it a whirl. Follow the instructions they give – e.g. "Send a query letter in the first instance" or "No phone calls" – but remember that rules are made to be broken.

Be brave and bold. Send more than one letter at once so you've always got something to hope for when the first rejections come. Keep your fingers crossed and your spirits up. Brace yourself for most to say No but remember all it takes is for one to say Yes...

I wish you luck. Get lots of stamps, take a deep breath and go for it!

Introducing: Talk it Over

"Talk it Over" is a writers' advice column from Jane Wenham-Jones. Here you can ask questions and get answers on anything related to writing.

If YOU have a question you would like Jane to answer in Writing Magazine please e-mail her.

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