Learn to Let Go: Working with an Editor

Keys on a keyboardCongratulations! You’ve got a publishing contract! But now, you have met someone called an editor who is going to work with you to get your book ready for publication. What do I mean by ready? Isn’t it already ready? Isn’t that why you sold it to, say, Penguin/Random House or HarperCollins?

Sadly no. It’s only now that a lot of the work begins.

An editor is the crucial second pair of eyes, dedicated to making a good book a perfect one. You need to learn to trust them. They only have one job: making your book the best version of itself.

But haven’t I always told you (more than once) to be selfish in your writing? Absolutely. But that stage is done, and now it’s time to move onto the publication stage. This is the stage of collaboration, and yes, compromise. But it’s all for the greater good of the finished piece.

The biggest challenge is that it requires you to be less protective of your “baby”. Let go of the strong emotional connection you have to the work.

But keep a copy of the finished piece you handed in to the publisher in the first place. That is draft one, and no one will ever take it away from you. But now it’s time or teamwork.

I have to be blunt about this: If you can’t trust your editor, then you either need to walk away from the deal or get the publisher to find an different editor. And in most cases where this rift has taken place, it’s not the editor at fault. And most publishers know this.

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Lee Child on Writing Myths

Thank you so much to the reader who sent me these videos on Lee Child debunking certain writing myths, following on from last month’s post about “crappy writing rules”.

Lee’s the immensely popular and talented author of the Jack Reacher series, and so much of what he says here links to my own ramblings on writing over the past few years.

Enjoy! I’ll try and find some more content like this between now and the end of the year.

More Crappy “Rules For Writing” that you can Ignore

Not Tablet Law Ten Commandment Thou Shalt RuleUgh. They’re everywhere, and often repeated as sage advice: “only write about what you know”. “Don’t use verbs other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”. Some of these are useful in many cases, but should never be set in stone. If you feel it’s right to break a rule then break it. Better yet, act like their are no rules. I usually write “said” because it feels better. It’s not a rule, it just works. I try not to overthink it, as that would box me in creatively.

One of the frequently rolled-out lines is that “every character must WANT something”. Okay, sure, every human “wants” stuff and has motivation, but fretting over minor points with ancillary characters will bog down your story and may well induce writers block in many.

The better advice is this: you’re writing something that – I presume – you’d like people to read. That’s not too much of an assumption, right?

Well if this is true for you (and it almost certainly will be), then your readers are the masters, not your characters. Let your characters be who you want them to be. Go further: let them surprise you sometimes. It’s fun. But remember one thing: your READERS will WANT something. Maybe it’s a satisfying conclusion. Maybe it’s to be surprised and shocked. Maybe it’s to laugh out loud. Decide what it is you want your readers to feel and then… well, ignore it.

Seriously. As I said before, don’t overthink it. Let it sink to the back of your mind. It’ll come through subconsciously anyway when you write enticing scenes, or breathtaking dramatic moments.

Just don’t get hung up on writing rules. You’ll enjoy the writing process much more, and will probably write better things as a result.

Titles for Chapters?

Chapter-1Do you write titles for chapters? What are they like? Are they a suggestion of what the reader is going to get in that part of the story?

If that’s the case, why not just let the reader discover that by reading the chapter? Why give the game away?

I write short notes on each chapter. Sometimes a simple line, or paragraph. Maybe a little more, but not much more. When I come to write a chapter, I can refer to those notes. But I don’t want to the reader to ever see those notes. They’re the prompt for the performance I’m putting down on the paper for them. I want them to see the finished article, not the mechanics of how it was made. Does that make sense?

Some authors can just sit at a blank screen and write, with no notes or prompts. Others have to research extensively and practically write the chapter (or even more, based on word count) before starting the first draft. It’s not right to say that I sit somewhere in the middle: I’m much closer to the former than latter. I write just a few little notes to get me started, but nothing more. I want to be largely free to make things up as I go, as the idea comes to me. Those notes just help keep me grounded in the wider context on the story.

Writing a title and/or notes for a chapter is a great idea for many for these reasons. But when it comes to having a title for your chapter, think very hard about whether or not the title adds anything for the reader.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: if the book would still work without titles, then you should probably ditch them.

Writing like your Literary Heroes

superheroWho are your favourite authors? Which authors does your work mirror? Are they the same people? This is common, not just for new authors, but for long-established ones too. We feed off of, and are inspired by, those we like. There’s nothing wrong with this.

I remember James Ellroy once dedicated a novel to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, who taught him that he didn’t need to write like them, he needed to write like himself. It’s an important lesson new authors often need to learn. I think Ellroy’s continued to be inspired by those people, but does not take any steps to simply copy them.

The fact is, no one writes in a vacuum. Your work will be influenced by those you like or are inspired by. The trick is to steal what has gone on before, and repurpose it for your own ends, rather than merely copy it. Copying is a bland attempt at replication. Why bother? Those who wrote the work originally already did a perfectly good job of it. But by stealing – shamelessly – and mercilessly adapting it to your own purposes, you can create something wholly original.

This is a psychological thing as much as anything. Your work will grow organically when the “theft” of other styles happens without you noticing it.

So read other authors, and be inspired by them. Don’t shoehorn their style into yours, and you’ll let the influence happen without you even noticing. And your work will be much better as a result.

Are Career Authors a Threatened Species?

Old typewriterLet’s be realistic. Things aren’t as easy as they once were for full-time novelists. Revenues are declining, but at the same time, there’s never been more people reading than ever before. How do we resolve this? Or maybe we don’t? The market is changing. It’s usually foolish to fight it: that’s seldom a long-term solution.

And really, that’s what I’m trying to work through. There’s no point as a new author, moaning about the “state of the industry”. This is pointless. It is what it is.

Does that mean making a living is solely out of book sales is dead in the water? No, there will always be success stories. There will always be people like Andy Weir (author of the excellent book The Martian) making a big dent out of nowhere, and the people with already long-established careers will continue to perform well. So they and others will do well, but I think that maybe when it comes to making a career solely out of novels, proportionally fewer will than we have seen in the past.

For most authors – or those who want to make a living out of writing books – I think it’s sensible to take an honest and open look at your skillset. It’s rewarding too.

Being a good writer is a really valuable talent as the knowledge economy grows to dominate everything in the coming years. Many writers will continue to adopt new skills and become journalists, copywriters, etc. and grow their business that way. In short, it’s much more likely that you can make a career out of writing, than making a living just as a writer of novels. Your novels will be a piece of the puzzle: maybe a little piece, maybe a lot. That will be down to luck, perspiration and determination.

Finding a Tone of Voice in your Writing

ToneLots of very distinctive writers are credited with having a real “voice” in their work. Sometimes that’s not a good thing. An overplayed “voice” can be distracting. But used well it’s powerful.

So as not to confuse the term “voice” to mean something to do with dialogue, I often prefer to say this is the “tone” of the work.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking: is tone something you consciously try and apply in your writing, or does it occur naturally?

I think it works well to make a conscious decision to apply a style and tone to your writing. That way you control it, rather than have IT control you and your work. However, once you make the decision to apply a tone, it’s worth putting it to the back of your mind. Try not to overdo it, let it occur naturally. Usually this takes a bit of time, but for a longer piece, it’ll become second nature.

If this isn’t something you’ve ever thought of, a great utility to analyse is the free online Hemingway Editor: Like Hemingway himself, it’s good for stripping out superfluous words but also can draw your attention to “crutch” words, phrases and styling. That way any conscious tone you apply to your voice won’t have too much cliché.