Posts Tagged ‘research’

The Writers’ Editor Project – a survey…

Saturday, March 28th, 2015
There were also the obligatory literary landmark tours...

There were also the obligatory literary landmark tours…

As some of you may know, last year I began a research project called The Writers’ Editor, intended to explore how authors in different genres and fields create and develop their work; their writing and publishing challenges; and what they need (and want) from editors in a new and changing publishing landscape.

Part of this research took me to several conferences and conventions in the UK (more on that soon), where I listened and spoke to different writers and publishing professionals about their writing/creating/publishing lives.

Now I want to know what you think.

The goal of this project is to develop more effective ways for Bothersome Words to help and support authors, but this is best achieved through direct communication with writers.

secret-identity-6To this end I have compiled a survey.
If you have the time, I’d love to learn what you know and how you feel about the editing and publishing process – and what sort of support you think might be helpful to you.

I’d love to hear from anyone who writes: novelists, poets, scriptwriters, comic book writers, game-writers, fanfic writers and anyone else who plays with words. You don’t have to be a published writer and the survey is anonymous.


Ultimately, I am looking for ways to help writers from an editorial perspective, advocating and supporting writers at different stages of their careers and going a bit further than just straightforward copyedits, manuscript assessments, proofreads etc.

Are there things writers want that editors don’t always provide, or only provide by accident? Is there some kind of care and development that’s missing now publishing is changing so much and publishers are offering less support? Would editor-led workshops be of interest to you? Mentorships? Editing worksheets? Forums? Something else entirely? In short, is there anything Bothersome Words – and freelance editors generally – can do to help you?

The survey is here.

And my thanks for your participation is here.

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The writer’s editor: a project

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

If you’ve ever read this blog, or accidentally engaged me in conversation, you’ll know I have Quite Strong Feelings about editing. And writing. And how editors and writers relate to each other and their procedures.

“Editing is tedious.”

I hear that a lot. From writers to me and/or to other writers. From other editors (less frequently). In terms of the writing process, editing is often regarded as administrative; the clean-up chore you know you have to complete in order to make your story “good enough”.

“Editing is about finding mistakes.”

That’s another line used regularly.

Too often these are views held by writers and reinforced by the editors they work with who are trying to pacify and reassure them: it’s OK to dislike this process, it’s hard; it’s not going to be pleasant, but…

I consider this an unfair and inaccurate view of editing. Both phrases put the task of editing, and thus the role itself, in a wholly negative light. And if you find editing monotonous, or perceive it as an unpleasant process, it’s possible neither writing nor editing are the right vocation for you.

Editing is key to the writing process, especially if you want to do it even semi-professionally – rather than writing for your eyes only[i].
It is part of redrafting and refining whatever you managed to get out on the page in your first flurry of inspiration.

If you take out the initial research and planning parts[ii], then unless you are one of those miracle writers who manages to type out exactly what they mean to say on the first pass and never go back, editing probably takes more time all up than putting the very first draft down on the page – whether you are self-editing or working with an editor. It includes all those rewrites and amendments you make as you go, as well as the changes you make to the final version.

So if you start out regarding it as an exhausting exercise in disparaging your hard work, you are really setting yourself up for a hard time.

And I’d say you’re doing it wrong.

And so are we, as editors, if that’s how you feel about the process.

What editing is…and isn’t

I spend a significant amount of my time as an editor reassuring writers that things I’ve marked on the manuscript are not a judgement against, or criticism of, or, in many cases, even a correction to their work. Of course, there are some changes that are marked for correction – spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc. – but a large proportion of things I mark up are phrased as queries, suggestions, or flags for attention. I’m not marking a test. I’m not going to slash through someone’s work with a pen and send them to the back of the class for a “fail”[iii] – though I know some people (writers and editors) prefer that approach.

Editors can go deeper into a work than just rectifying surface issues. Given the chance, and assuming we connect with the work/author, we can get almost as close as the story’s creator – but with the benefit of objectivity. Editors can be as passionate about a work as the author, but since we didn’t actually put the words on the page, there are no threads tying our heart to the author’s darlings. Which doesn’t immediately lead us to “kill them all” but does mean we can see why something may need fine-tuning.

An editor’s job is not to jump in and tell a writer how to tell their story or what phrasing they have to use. Rather, our role is to attempt to slip into the writer’s skin[iv] and work out how they would approach a problem or phrase, and then either pose questions or provide suggestions that might spark the synapses. The key is to help and guide the author to make sure they’ve written the story they want or intend to tell. Not, unless we have been engaged by someone for this purpose, to encourage them to write the story we think they should be writing.

It’s genuinely troubling to see the role and purpose of the editor diminished to “making corrections” and “ripping things to shreds” when I know how hard my colleagues and I work to establish relationships of trust with authors; the time we spend getting to know each manuscript, and thus its author; and reassuring new writers that the editing process might be confronting but it doesn’t have to be painful and will be
worth it.

Knowing how much we all love stories and writing (whether or not we write ourselves) and the creativity that is involved in the task of editing, it is disgruntling to see others cut our work down to a chore that must be endured.

But much of this sense comes from the fact that many writers don’t know what editors are capable of, or what we can offer. Particularly freelance editors. I’ve been told very matter-of-factly by several writers that they don’t think an editor would be able to help with story, or developing writing skills. (We can and do.) And more than once I’ve had writers say to me that the information and/or support and guidance they are looking for just isn’t out there if you don’t have your own circle of writing friends, or an agent, or a publisher. (It is. If you know who to ask.)

Having said that, while there are things some writers may not know they need to know, or may not realise an editor can help with, I think there are also things writers want that editors don’t always provide – or only provide by accident. Especially now that the publishing industry is changing so much and in so many different ways. With self-publishing becoming more viable, a slew of new publishing services and models on the rise, and traditional publishers often unable to offer their authors the same guidance they may have done in the past, a lot of writers I talk to seem a little adrift – unsure where to find support and advice, or how to navigate the vast quantities of information available online.

With this in mind, I think freelance editors are uniquely equipped to adapt to the developing needs of publishers and writers. Which leads me to:

What would a writer’s perfect editor look like?

The usual (only half-joking) answer to this question is “someone who tells me my work is perfect as is!” or “someone who offers me a contract!”; but, as you very well know, that is not really what I am asking. And furthermore…I don’t think either of those responses are correct.

Of course you want to impress your editor, that’s only natural. But is it really their feedback you are most concerned about? Working with an editor, whether via a publisher or privately prior to self-publishing, is just one step at the start of the process. Do you want your editor to tell you your book is amazing and nothing needs changing…or do you want your readers to feel that way? Because the role of the editor is to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. To give your readers the same joy/pain/other emotion that you get from your own story.

The editor is already on your side. We not only want to help make your book shine, it’s the whole reason we do this job. And sure, there are budgetary concerns and time constraints whichever publishing path you choose, and not all editors can do all things… but, generally speaking, editors will do whatever we can to help you and your book.

So how can we offer the best help and support? What is it writers are missing out on?

Like most editors, I already do my best to discover and understand authors’ processes and language and interests so I can communicate and feedback in a way that is most useful to them – from a position of understanding things on the outside. But I’d like to take this further.

The project

This year, I am talking to writers about what they need and want from the editing process. While an editor doesn’t need to be a writer[v], knowing their techniques, strategies and angles helps us to speak to writers in their own language. A lot of writers assume that an editor will work from a solely editorial perspective anmalkovitchd force novelists to work to that structure: “here are rules you must follow; plain language first and foremost.” But editors are generally more flexible than that – it’s down to what works and suits the manuscript best, rather than blindly obeying writing laws. Personally, I am more interested in getting inside the writers’ mindset and working from within, rather than tidying up wordage from the outside.

Putting myself in a writer’s shoes helps me not only to understand how to adapt my feedback and approach, but to weed out other writing advice and see what can be helpful or harmful. What works for one writer can be detrimental to another[vi], so every writer’s process is a helpful guide for how to work with authors.

As such, later this year I will attend a series of conferences and literature events in the UK, with the aim of learning more about how different authors create and develop their work; their writing and publishing challenges; and what they need (and want) from editors. I’ll be following[vii] agents and publishers, too, to see how they approach and respond to different needs and requirements.

I hope to talk to writers, publishers, artists, creators and producers in different fields – literature (particularly genre), film/TV, fanfic, comics etc – to find out more about how these works are created, what makes them good or bad, and how all this can translate to the editing process.

And when I get back, I’ll be looking for ways to adapt and develop Bothersome Words to better meet these needs and challenges.


Australia_Council_master_horiz_col_logoThis project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

This is a research project that is being undertaken with the support of the Literature Section of the Australia Council for the Arts, to whom I am incredibly grateful. The Editorial Professional Development Grant supports opportunities for professional development and cultural leadership for Australian book and journal editors to enhance their literary editing skills. I am thrilled that in this case the Council is supporting a project that will largely focus on genre, allowing me to attend NineWorlds, LonCon3, FantasyCon and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in pursuit of knowledge.

Are you going to any of these events?
Drop me a line if you’d like to meet up!

Got some ideas about what editors can do to help writers?
I’d love to hear from you, too!

Comments, as always, are open…


[ii] Because yes, I understand that some books have years of research and planning behind them. A whole lifetime, in some cases.

[iii] OK. Occasionally the slashing might happen. But there are no marks awarded or deducted for your work.

[v] Some say this can be a hindrance since it can lead to the temptation to rewrite rather than query or suggest. On the other hand an editor editing something they wrote themselves can get stuck on an endless edit loop. So… you say potato, I say edible tuber…

[vi] This post about “firing the muse” and just getting on with it instead of waiting for inspiration is perfectly just and sound. But some writers do work best with a sudden flood of inspiration or a “visit from the muse”; some writers cannot handle thoroughly planning in advance.

[vii] Not in a stalkery way.


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On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction (Part B).

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Previous post: (Part A)

Part B: How fanfic can help you write better

I first dipped my toe into reading fanfiction because I knew some authors I had worked with had started that way. It seemed like an area I needed to know more about if I was going to work with emerging writers; not only to offer advice, but also to recognise certain writing styles and habits typical to fanfic.

I admit to being apprehensive. I’d heard the comments, read the news stories – I expected to find utter rubbish. And it’s not all gold dust in them thar hills. But there’s less-than-perfect writing anywhere. The internet is full of barely readable blogs[i] and typo-ridden news articles.

I have come across works – novel-length pieces – that are better written and constructed than some published novels I have read. And these are pieces people have put together purely for the love of it – no hope or expectation of payment, or a publishing deal, or even (necessarily) readers[ii]. Some of the stories have taken months or years to write and perfect. Many of the best ones bear little resemblance to the original works on which they’re based. They might use the same characters and traits, but often key aspects are so substantially changed that even the world is different. Perhaps only the character names remain the same; a kind of shorthand so the reader – almost guaranteed to be a fan – knows at least what to expect from the personality of that character.  These are well-written, well-crafted stories. Usually with a tonne of research and planning and thought, and even editing behind them.

There are a million writing guides out there explaining how to write, how to plan, how to research, how to self-edit. The information is overwhelming…

…and can be difficult to sift through for brand new writers who don’t have an established community of fellow writers.

Forever alone

Not everyone knows where to start or how to put esoteric writing advice into practice. Not everyone can make it to writers’ festivals, and not everyone is comfortable contacting known authors for advice – even though many are very friendly and happy to help.

The fanfic community can be a safe space to learn about the writing process, and these days the internet makes it easy. Far from being lazy, fanficcers have developed their own approaches to writing and “publishing”[iii] ­– most of which are identical to processes successful pro writers use, though couched in slightly different phrasing.

If you want to develop your writing skills, you could do worse than to emulate some fanficcers’ processes.

Five (fanfic) writing techniques
that will help make you a better storyteller

1. Meta and analysis.

This really leads into all the other points. Fanficcers are (obviously) based in fandom. They will analyse the canon work to within an inch of its life. And they will pull characters to pieces to understand their thoughts, feelings, motivations, backstory and relationships; figuring out how they would react in any given situation. They talk about these characters and their world among themselves – they can because, of course, these characters are shared. But the end result, when they write, tends to be a level of believability and depth that you can only get by knowing your characters and setting so well.

Outside fanfic, writers spend a lot of time arguing the merits of being a plotter or a pantser. In either case, if you know the background and impetus to your story and know it well, it’s going to be stronger on every other level than if you haven’t thought about it at all.

2. Knowing your characters.

This writing advice gets handed out constantly. Lots of authors recommend writing character sheets or “interviewing” your character to get to know them. If you’re writing fanfic, you have the advantage of an existing canon “template” to work from. In this case, the key is to learn how to convey the characteristics that readers will expect to see. Fanficcers have to make sure they get their portrayal right. They will study them until they know everything that makes them tick, so they can drop them in an unfamiliar (or canon-accurate) scenario and know exactly how they would react and why.

If you’re writing original fiction, the same rule applies. Only you don’t have a template to work from and you need to create this person (or bird, or potato) from scratch.

3. Consistent worldbuilding.

Very similar to the above. Fanfiction allows you to work with a template for an existing world. It means you have to develop the skills to portray things correctly, as the reader expects. Or you have to justify any differences if you diverge from canon.

Again, for fanfiction you need to know your world backwards. To write original fiction well you need the same skills and techniques to convince your readers this place is real.

4. Alpha and beta readers.[iv]

Most successful published authors have their own team of readers who critique their manuscript, although there are professional writers who hand in their first draft to the publisher without any eyes but their own ever having been cast over it.

Fanficcers don’t have a professional publishing house at their service (usually!) so they’ve worked out their own ways to develop and polish their work. Many of them put their fics through rigorous testing before it goes online. They have readers check that the story and characters hang together, that everything is as strong as it needs to be. And they may put it through its editing paces for spelling and grammar as well. These readers are usually fellow writers, or sometimes just readers passionate about the genre or topic.

This is a great system for polishing original work, too. Putting a manuscript through its paces before submitting to agents and publishers, or even before hiring your own editor, can result in a much tighter and more developed story.

5. Brit pickers, science pickers etc.

A step deeper than fact checking, although this is basically what this is. Many fanficcers are writing in a world or culture that is not their native one; for example, they might be Americans writing characters and stories set in the UK or vice versa. Or they might be writing a story about a scientist, or an artist, or a bird, or anything at all. They research heavily before they start writing, but then they get an expert to check through and ensure the language and tone is correct, not just basic facts.

In both fanfic and original fiction the slightest (unexplained) off-note will throw a reader out of the story. It can be invaluable to get someone who knows to look things over for you. You can’t always rely on an editor or proofreader to pick up these details.


Of course, none of these methods are exclusive to fanfic; many professional writers use the same or similar processes and more besides. But if you’ve never put much thought into planning your story, or considered why such research or planning might be necessary, some of these techniques – and the reasons behind them – might help you explore and develop your own work in new and interesting ways.


[i] Ahem.

[ii] Although, realistically, no one enjoys writing into the void. Even if they’re not looking for fame.

[iii] Albeit usually online and for free on specific forums/communities.

[iv] Fun fact! I got someone to beta read this post and the one previous. Thank you, Fabulous Colleague. You know who you are.


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On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction

Monday, March 31st, 2014

 Part A

This post isn’t about getting fanfic professionally published. Nor is it an attempt to disagree (or not) with authors such as George R. R. Martin who stand directly against fanfiction for various reasons. This isn’t about encouraging writers to plagiarise or teaching them how to file off the serial numbers on fanfic to publish it as original work[i].
It is about how the techniques required by fanfic can help writers develop their skills and become more thoughtful about their processes.

Fanfiction[ii] gets a lot of stick. Despite its lengthy history, for a long time fanfic was tucked away and never spoken of in polite company. While it’s never really been secret, over the past few years, it has been brought a little further into the light. Certain books[iii] have achieved success off the back of their fanfic beginnings. Publishers have been actively seeking out popular fanfic works to greater or lesser success.

But just because it has had light shone upon it, doesn’t mean people regard it any more highly than they used to[iv]. Talk to most people from outside the fanfic world and they tend to be a little bit:


“Real” writing

Fanfic, goes the argument, isn’t “real” writing. It’s cheating. It’s lazy. It’s stealing someone else’s ideas. It’s plagiarism. It’s sordid. It doesn’t involve skill or creativity. It doesn’t take any talent[v].

“Real writers”, professional writers, create original worlds and characters from scratch. Their works are carefully and fully developed, and they consequently have a depth that’s impossible for a fanwork to achieve.

There’s no denying there are differences between “professional”, or original, writing and fanfic. They each have their own sets of standards and expectations – something that is acceptable for a fanfic would be frowned on in a traditionally published work; someone writing professionally is bound by a lot more rules and guidelines than someone writing fanfic; the author of an original work has to convince their audience to believe in and follow a brand new fictional world where the fanfic author has to reassure their audience that they can be trusted with already beloved characters and worlds and meet their expectations. They’re important differences…but that doesn’t mean fanfic isn’t real writing, or that it doesn’t involve useful skills and techniques that can be applied to professional (or other!) writing.

Critics would have it that pro writers are pro writers and fanficcers are fanficcers and never the twain shall meet. But there are plenty of traditionally published works that prove the twain have   met and they get along quite well, thanks. There are off-shoot series based on popular films and TV shows such as Star Wars and Stargate that are not called fanfic because they are officially licensed[vi].

Books like Wide Sargasso Sea, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the Young Sherlock Holmes are described as derivative, or mash-ups, or parodies; “inspired by” or “set in the world of”… but are equally the kinds of books that could only be written by someone deeply familiar with the source material that inspired them.

Ignoring the legal and financial sides, what makes these books different to fanfic? Is it simply the fact that the original creators have authorised them? You don’t have to delve too deeply into or AO3 to find works that are equally just “variations on a theme” – stories that continue where canon left off or reset the entire story in a completely different world.

Like it or loathe it, the suggestion that such writing would involve neither skill nor creativity is patently incorrect.

A number of publishers and even authors employ ghostwriters or collaborators to continue a popular series. Tom Clancy’s splinter cell series, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and many others have all been taken up by other writers. Such endeavours require the same skills as fanfiction: the writers need to immerse themselves in the original canon, to learn worlds and characters and write in a way that matches and is true to the original creators’ style and tone[vii]. In these situations, popular media judges the writers for their skill and their ability to “get it”.

Does anyone ask these writers whether they will ever write “for real” as fanfic writers often are when they are found out?

Possibly they do, but is the scornful tone quite so loud? What constitutes “real” writing? Where’s the line?

The line must be drawn here

There is a post going around on Tumblr, written by someone who reads scripts for a living, reassuring fanfic writers about their talents… It is a good post, and as someone who works with stories for a living, I agree with much of the sentiment: there are some incredible storytellers in the fanfic world, and often fic ­– unconstrained by the rules and expectations of a money-making business –  bends genres and expectations in ways professionally published works don’t. (Or can’t?) Of course, some of these fanfic authors do actually write for a living, because writers of fanfic are just as varied as any other group of humans. They’re people. They come from all corners of life, and they’re all ages. They’re students and academics, scientists and librarians, business analysts and soldiers, artists and authors… So it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of these writers know what they’re doing.

Writing lessons

Another recent online comment declared outright that “fanfic isn’t like professional writing”. This was in response to a post aggressively criticising the presence of certain phrases/tropes/writing styles in fic. Others went on to point out that such negative phrasing (rather than gentle guidance) tended to put people off writing at all[viii]. Fanfic, they pointed out, was more often about writing for fun and not everyone writes it with the intention or desire to learn how to write better.

Fair enough. Writing should be fun…or at least enjoyable and/or satisfying[ix].

Some fanfics are badly written and/or thinly-veiled self-insertion stories written by sparkle-eyed daydreamers.

So what? There are quite a lot of original works that could be described the same way.

Some people write for the same kinds of reasons and enjoyment as they might otherwise watch a film or read a book. No one asks them to work at those pastimes until they have them mastered.

Does writing anything have to be a training exercise? No… but it can be.

In fact, if you do want to learn how to write better and develop your skills, fanfiction is a pretty good way to start. Not the only way, granted. And maybe not everyone’s preferred way. And I don’t particularly advise ficcing your favourite author’s work if you know they are against the practice. But if you’re looking for writing exercises to develop your skills, using a pre-created world as a source or template seems as valid as other known exercises such as writing a scene from a photograph or using a song as a prompt. By learning how to explore, examine and develop someone else’s canon, you can often work out how they have pieced things together; the elements and themes and considerations that go into making a fictional world. And from there you can figure out how to go about creating your own…

Continued in Part B: How fanfic can help you write more professionally


[i] Some publishers accept and even encourage reworking fanfic but despite recent publishing deals it is more often frowned upon. It cuts so close to plagiarism that it can be a risky proposition and just changing the names is not enough. I once received a submission that was quite clearly a reworking of a Harry Potter fanfic; there wasn’t a single name or setting that was the same as the original, but it was still obvious.

[ii] fanfiction = fic. As distinct from “fiction” = original or published fiction.

[iii] You know the ones. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Mortal Instruments. A number of well-known authors began their writing careers in fanfiction. Some hide this fact, some are open about it. It’s surprising how many popular novels secretly began this way.

[iv] Fanfiction gets a lot of flak from all corners of the reading populace. Part of this is fan shaming, part of it is because of its reputation for being the originator of slash fiction and for being focused on erotica – even though, by definition, fanfiction is just that: a reimagining of an existing fiction by fans. Erotica and slash are just one aspect.

[v] One of the things often counted against fanfiction is the fact that a lot of the writing is amateur and often poorly executed. And some writers get outraged that people are “playing in their sandpits” or “misrepresenting” the characters they created. For actors who have portrayed certain characters it can undoubtedly be somewhat disconcerting to see “themselves” written into blushingly graphic anatomical situations.

[vi] Which is not quite the same thing as Amazon’s “Kindle Worlds”, which is licensed fanfiction.

[vii] This is also a fairly accurate rundown of how an editor approaches most edits. Suggestions and changes need to be made with the author’s voice and foundations in mind.

[viii] This holds for criticising any kind of writing, fanfic or otherwise.

[ix] Just covering my bases here for all the authors who feel writing is sometimes like squeezing blood from a stone and far removed from the notion of “fun”.


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Editor Q&A: Part 2

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Gather round! Gather round! For it is time for part 2 of Editor Q&A.

Last week, I explained that these posts were the consequence of a social media question time[i] I held a few weeks ago. I’m sticking to that explanation, and without further ado proffer the following as part 2…





@laimelde asked: How do you get work/how does the process of agreeing to edit someone’s (manuscript) happen? ie: What info should someone have handy before they approach an editor?

1. Freelance editors get work by:

  • Word of mouth – fellow editors passing names on (either because we used to work in-house with them or because we have freelanced for them) or publishers/authors/clients passing our names around.
  • Many of us also have our own websites and advertise in editorial directories etc.
  • Most states/territories in Australia have a Society of Editors. Members can often apply to advertise in the directory and there is usually a jobs board as well as networking events.
  • Networking – in person and online!

2. As to the process of hiring an editor…

The basics to have on-hand when you approach an editor are:

  • A manuscript or document that is ready for an editor. (ie: not one you are still rewriting. UNLESS you want an editor or mentor to work with you at that level[ii].)
  • The final word count.
  • A description of the manuscript/document.
  • A goal.manuscriptpiles

I also like it when clients are able to give me a history of the work: whether it’s a first draft or something they’ve been working on for years and that they’ve passed through crit partners and writing groups. (This also holds for, say, corporate documents that may be compiled from several sources – has anyone else had a go at editing it into shape or am I being given the raw data?).

This gives me an idea of what state the manuscript is likely in and how much experience the author/writer has with being edited. This can affect the advice I give and terminology I use when discussing the work with them.

It also means I get an idea if the author is trying to hire someone too early in the process. A lot of people try to hire an editor to work on their very first draft and I think this can be a mistake.

If the author is looking for a quote, I usually ask for a few sample pages so I can gauge for myself how much work is likely involved in the edit. It also means I can give them feedback on the service I think is most suitable to them. I need to know the full, final word count for the same reason.

A description of the manuscript can be as simple as a couple of words stating that it’s a sci-fi novel or a short story, or as detailed as a half-page synopsis. This lets me know what I am dealing with – proofreading a legal text requires different time and skills than copyediting a romance novel, and developmental or substantive edits are different again.

Defining the goal is also important and it’s an opportunity for the author/client to clarify their expectations of the process[iii].
Someone who is self-publishing will need slightly different services to someone who plans to submit to agents and publishers. Someone who wants to work slowly on developing their manuscript will need different advice to someone who already knows how the publishing process works and wants a straight copyedit without any fuss. This part of the conversation ensures that both the author/client and the editor are approaching the edit with the same expectations and understanding.



Desolie Page asked: What, for you, is the biggest challenge in completing an editing project?

I think the best answer I have is: being overwhelmed.

Sometimes the project feels insurmountable – maybe there is just so much work to be done on the manuscript that it’s hard to know where to start; or it is competing with other deadlines and it feels like you could never get it finished. Sometimes it can even be difficult to know when to stop…

In this case I am a chronic list-maker. I write out all the steps I need to complete for the edit, or all the tasks I need to complete and their deadlines, and then mark them off as I go.

NB: I found this question quite tough – not because there are no challenges to editing, but because there are so many different ones. So I made Desolie answer as well!

Here’s her response:

Well, apart from all the challenges of freelancing (marketing, workflow), I often forget to pace myself, especially when working on a tight deadline. I need to take mini-breaks to rehydrate, change my focus for a bit, otherwise I’m just head down and running on adrenaline, which is not good for my health.

Like you, I need a list to remind me of the ‘little’ things I need to check. And I’ve learnt to keep all the notes relating to a project in the same place, rather than just grabbing the nearest piece of paper that I manage to misplace. I think my biggest fear is that I’ll miss something that obvious.

That sounds like my challenge is being organised (better work on that one).





Thanks everyone who joined in and asked questions! I’m always happy to answer editor questions, if I can. Drop a line in the comments or ask me on Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook. (And if I can’t help there’s sure to be someone online who can!)


[i] Not at all like this:
Fast Tube by Casper

[ii] See previous post

[iii] Sometimes writers will state explicitly that they are looking for “a proofread”. Asking what they want to achieve from the process – their ultimate goal, is a good way to find out if they are really expecting an edit that will analyse plot and structure. Alternatively, sometimes people ask about an edit when they’re not even sure whether they want to or should continue their work at all. Again, by getting them to explain this, an editor might conclude that the author really just wants some initial feedback.



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Conflux 9

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

It’s always great to head off to Canberra’s annual Conflux, where I can catch up with friends and make new ones.  It’s a chance to find out what everyone’s up to and celebrate successes. There are parties and gatherings and just all-round fun.

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

But for me it is also a chance to learn. Conflux may be a speculative fiction convention that draws and encourages fans of all flavours, but more than anything it is a celebration of writing; bringing together authors and publishers and readers in one spot. For all that I already spend a lot of time reading books and blogs about genre, writing, and publishing; events such as Conflux are an opportunity to hear experts and folks in the field speaking in person about their passion.

It’s a chance for me as an editor to discover what makes the worlds I wander through work so well, and to learn how writers understand their processes – so I can talk to them in their own terms when I am editing their words.

It’s also a chance for me to share the pearls of wisdom I pick up with other writers who may not yet have discovered writing communities or online resources. My incessant livetweeting during these events[i] is intended as much to help spread the word to them as it is to record/report the event as it happens. And spending time attending panels and talking to industry folk keeps me armed with the latest information to help new writers who often turn to me and other publishing professionals for advice.

This Conflux I not only followed panels, but also participated (because I was momentarily brave when filling out my registration form). I spent a late night with Patty Jansen, Ian Nicholls and Satima Flavell mumbling to a bleary-eyed audience of ten about whether self-publishers need editors (you can probably guess what I think about that). I think we mostly made sense, and even if we didn’t all agree, no one punched anyone and we’re all still friends. I also got to ramble about social media etiquette at the end of the con with Russell Farr, Zena Shapter, Alan Baxter and Alex Adsett. My favourite part of that was Jason Fischer repeatedly putting his hand up and prefacing every question with a promise not to pun. (Although I am pro-pun, as anyone who’s ever had to edit my magazine and newspaper heads can attest, so I was all for it…)

I also did my first pitching session for Etopia Press! That was an adrenaline-pumping  hour – who knew five minutes could go so quickly? I can’t speak for the writers, but I really enjoyed that session as I met some lovely writers, heard some fantastic stories, and can’t wait to read more. I also chatted about pitching and the process thereof to a few people later on, so maybe I’ll blog on that topic down the track…

Topics I followed through the con…

Small press: I work with small, medium and mainstream publishers so this was a particularly interesting series of conversations, not least because so many innovative things are coming from small press in this changing publishing landscape. The mainstream versus small press smackdown highlighted the different considerations and approaches publishers and small press take – and the different challenges they face and the opportunities for their authors. There was a strong sense that small press like Ticonderoga have been able to take more risks and follow their hearts on “artier” projects in ways that mainstream publishers, driven by the bottom line, cannot. Marc Gascoigne described Angry Robot as medium press and was keen to take advantage of the ability to move faster than larger publishers on publishing projects and even marketing and promotional ideas.

Fantasy: I read and edit so much in this genre, and there are so many sub-genres within it – and they’re constantly changing and expanding.

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other's books!

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other’s books!

The panel examining the success and visibility of women in fantasy was particularly fascinating as this seemed to vary depending on country and subgenre. Indeed, while this panel was taking place, *this article*  was going around Twitter; and many people have since been discussing the Strange Horizons survey. It was especially interesting to hear Trudi discuss her unexpected success in Poland, where she says publisher support and promotion meant her book tours made her feel like Stephanie Meyers.

Young Adult: Again this is a topic I followed as a fan and as an editor. Arguments about YA and what constitutes a YA novel seemed to permeate the whole convention – and you can log on to Twitter at any time of the day or night and bump into people discussing the subject. As the YA explosion panel explained, the fact that so many books originally published as “adult” titles have since been rebranded as “YA” only adds to the confusion.  Garth Nix pointed out that it’s no surprise so many adults enjoy YA fiction – the word “adult” is right there in the name. The panel ultimately concluded that YA is story-driven and this will always appeal to readers.

Crime: It was a twist to see the “crime tropes” panel pop up in a speculative fiction convention, but the reason for this soon became clear with a quick poll that confirmed everyone present, speculative fiction readers all, also read crime. The success of last year’s first GenreCon already made it obvious that most genre readers probably cross the streams fairly readily, but it was impossible to determine from this sample crowd whether as many readers of crime also cross back to science fiction. This talk covered the difficulty of categorising crime novels when so many cross genres – Daniel O’Malley making the point that in “anything ‘other world’ a single drop will make it so, but a drop of blood does not make a book a crime novel” – and quickly led on to book covers and bookshop shelving (a topic which came up numerous times during and after the convention; frustrating more than one bookseller.)

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful 'Midnight and Moonshine'

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful ‘Midnight and Moonshine’

Short story: I’m starting to edit more of these now I am working with digital presses – which have begun to accept and publish shorter works – so I was keen to learn from the experts what makes a short story successful and how the process differs for the writer compared with writing a novel. Lisa Hannett described short stories as “evoking more than they explain” and it was interesting to hear the panel describe the importance of the first paragraph or two of a short story – rather than the first line. Jonathan Strahan admitted a good first line made him suspicious as he’d then anticipate two pages wasted on justifying such an opening.

The business side of writing: In “facing reality” terms, this was one of the most valuable panels I attended. I often hear from new writers who plan, based on the first draft of the first thing they’ve ever written, to quit their job and live off their income as a writer. I know enough to talk them out of this,(!) but this panel took it to the next step. This was about the reality of being a career writer once you have been published. In many ways it was similar to workshops I have co-presented for freelance editors – the focus being less on the actual work you do (writing or editing) and more on the reality of what that life means: you will be running a small business. And you will be working alone. You have to be prepared, you have to be organised, and you have to know yourself. Karen Miller pointed out that while writing is a solo endeavour, publishing is a team sport and you need to know the roles of all the publishing people you work with. All the panellists agreed that publishing was just one step in a writing career and shouldn’t be the end goal because actually being published involves a lot of work and effort on the writer’s part.

Guests of Honour: I tried to attend as many guest of honour presentations as I could, although I missed more than I would have liked. Karen Miller’s photo presentation stood out in particular, showing how valuable a research trip can be and how differently a “standard” tourist tour of the castles and exhibits of Europe can be, viewed through a writer’s eyes. Under Karen’s guidance, stunning shots of a romantic, mist-swathed glassy river became the potential scene for a bloody ambush; an intricately engraved helm featuring the moulding of a bearded face became the enchanted armour for a king and so on. She showed us pictures of elaborate (and decrepit) doorways and encouraged us to imagine what sort of occupant might reside beyond, and further: how difficult (or how easy) others may find it to enter through such deceptively restrictive openings. The presence of tourists in the ancient dwellings served to add perspective – providing a measure by which we could see how humans have changed in height and girth (or not) and the challenges a character (and thus a writer) may face maneuvering within any given space.

Books about these places are easy to find, but Karen’s photo presentation made it obvious that these realities are much clearer when seen in pictures.[ii]

I also signed up to attend my first ever kaffeeklatsch – with Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne. I think everyone has been watching Angry Robot closely since they started as they’ve certainly been trying exciting new things and publishing fantastic titles – lots of Australian authors among them. Angry Robot are extremely online-savvy and one of the most important things I took away from the conversation, given the number of authors I have heard bemoaning the need to be on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. was that the only thing that is a must-have for any author is a website. Nearly all publishers feature pages for their authors, but Marc pointed out that readers will go to Google, not a publisher, for the latest information about their favourite author. An author can keep all their information on their own site and be the obvious, official place for readers to go. Additional social media: blogging, Twitter etc. should only be undertaken with genuine interest. As our later social media panel discussed: readers and followers can instantly tell if you’re faking or marketing, so if you aren’t interested, don’t have time, or can’t be bothered: don’t do it – concentrate on the writing!

Angry Robots

The “Angry Robot family”: Marc Gascoigne, Jo Anderton, Ingrid Jonach, Kaaron Warren

I think all the authors at the chat[iii] liked the idea of Angry Robot’s inclusive approach to publishing, which both Marc and his authors described as a kind of “family” with AR authors
encouraged to join in on their email loop for discussions about releases and covers, launches and signings. More than one writer mentioned later how isolated they had found their own publishing experience by contrast.

For myself, I think it’s imperative that any future office[iv] I move into comes equipped with underfloor caves like the AR offices. And cobbled streets outside, too. Or inside. I’m not picky.


In all this was another fabulous con. I met some wonderful new people and learned far more than I could ever condense into a single post. (Even one as epically long as this.) And I haven’t even touched on all the launches, readings and parties that took place between and after panels. Once again, this was a weekend of fun and enrichment that reconfirmed to me how lucky I am to work with the books and stories I love to read.


[i] Apologies to everyone who has been bombarded during this month’s Bothersome Words Conference Tweeting Extravaganza.

[ii] Or real life. I think we could all justify a holiday to somewhere that would help with our next writing/editing project: yes/yes?

[iii] And at the Angry Robot Hour held later in the con… I may have stalked Angry Robot a little bit…

[iv] House.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

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Watch your language

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

My mother used to call me a slut.

One step into my bedroom and she’d cast her eyes despairingly to the ceiling and berate me for my sluttish behaviour. It wasn’t until we’d lived in Australia for several years that things changed and she would comment only on the untidiness of my room.

This was not because of any change in behaviour on my part (despite my parents’ best efforts to get me to “do something about that pigsty”) but because they’d finally worked out that the word had an entirely different meaning in this country than it had back home.

Fast forward a few years and this particular word is almost universally used primarily in the “immoral” sense.

Language, then, is important. It’s important when you’re a schoolkid trying to fit in – even if you appear to speak the same language as your peers, slightly different word choices can lead to embarrassment if not actual miscommunication – and it’s important if you’re a writer, trying to set a scene.

This time last year, I wrote a similar post on building worlds. Lately I’ve read a lot of stories set in places that are clearly foreign to the authors writing them, so I’d like to return to the theme of worldbuilding from a language perspective.

The internet has made it easy to research countries and cities, and even different industries. With enough time and effort it can be relatively straightforward to build up a fictional set of characters livingfootpath in a real-world place. But picking up those subtle language differences is not so easy – and it’s not always obvious that there are differences, unless you’re looking for them.

The most common issue encountered in my writing/reading/editing bubble is the use of American English when a scene, its characters and even the narrator are intended to be English or Australian – and this differentiation must certainly work the other way for American readers/writers/editors.

Often, people flag footpath versus sidewalk as the most obvious writer “tell”, but there are more subtle differences of which to be aware. For example:

Once they have traversed the walkway of their choice, do your characters buy their groceries from a shop or a store? And how do they carry their shopping home – in bags or sacks?

Do they snack on biscuits or crackers? If they tuck into a packet of chips, does that mean a steaming hot bag of fries or a nice pack of crisps?

Do they take cream or milk in their tea? Or do they prefer a nice bottle of fizz? Or pop? Or just a plain old soft drink?

Where do they live? In a house or a cottage? Or perhaps they prefer a more urban lifestyle and they’ve shacked up in a flat/apartment/unit/condo

Clothing can be a conundrum, too. If a character puts their pants on, does that mean he has his trousers on or that she’s clad in nowt but her knickers? If they’re sporting a rather fetching vest, should this include a pocket-watch adornment, or is this another word for undershirt?

Narration, as well as dVestsialogue, will need to fit too. Natural style for a UK or Australian speaker is usually:  “come and sit down,” or “go and get your sister,” where US style is to drop the and: “come sit down, ” or “go get your sister,”* – subtle but notable differences. US style also allows for gotten and anyways, which are not typical of UK or Australian English.**

From an editing standpoint (because we tend to check these things) this goes even further. Are any of your characters experts in their field? It’s important to not only know the language of their industry but how the experts use it – including their colloquialisms and jargon. This can be key to your story and it’s vital to note that the manner in which the public commonly uses an industry’s terms is not necessarily the way the experts wield the same words.

IT is a perfect example here, where terms are commonly misused by everyday folk and it’s easy to assume that tech experts will use the same colloquialisms, when in fact they are as precise as any doctor with their wording, even when they bandy jargon about.***

Do your research. If you’re setting your story somewhere with which you are unfamiliar, don’t just rely on the interwebs to show you where that country town is or how many Tube stops are involved in your characters’ travels. Concentrate on the language as well as the layout of your world.

If you can’t visit your intended setting, watch television shows and read books from that area – they’ll give you a good feel for dialogue and language culture. If your story is set in a specific time, be it the distant past or the present, do the same and take note of how words and language may have changed – even a couple of years can make a difference. If you’re going to write about a field or industry outside your own experience, don’t just talk to experts about their work – check that your fictional expert is using the jargon correctly, too.

The right language adds fine detail to your worldbuilding. Get it right and your reader will be an armchair traveller, mentally meandering the streets  you describe with the ease and familiarity of a local (which, of course, they may well be!). Get one word wrong and they can be as easily thrown out of the story. The believability is strained, the narration rings false. If those details are wrong, thinks the reader, what else is untrustworthy in this tale?

How do you craft your language? And what words throw you out of a story?

*    And yes, there’d be different punctuation here as well. I’m not entering that argument here.

**   Of course there is some slipover. Americanisms and UKisms and Aussieisms cross oceans and borders with merry abandon. But unless it has been adopted into common use, an editor will likely adjust for local style. So even though, for example, “gotten” is being adopted into colloquial use in this country, it’s totes not something many editors would let pass just yet.

***  For more information on this, speak to any IT guru you know who has had to help someone fix anything on their computer. (This will be *every* IT guru you know.) Ask if you can watch next time someone asks for tech help. Marvel at the array of facial expressions deployed by said expert as they try to translate what *exactly* this person means when they say their computer is “broken” and describes the elements involved.

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Genre-ly speaking

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

There’s been a lot of chat about genre on the interwebs lately; in particular, people have been discussing the question of whether one should write according to genre – and according to what sells both to readers and to publishers in the first place – or whether it’s okay to write what you want and hold firm to the belief that someone somewhere will recognise the deep-seated brilliance of your creation, genre (and markets) be damned.

This seems a rather multi-layered question and there are so many different answers and aspects to consider.

Genre is confusing

Genre often means more inside the industry than out. Even passionate readers may only be aware of some of the broader categories and this can cause problems, particularly in areas such as speculative fiction, which most readers I speak to think of as “science fiction and fantasy” – assuming they have even heard the alternative term at all.* There is an understanding among readers that the “science fiction and fantasy” section of a bookshop will also include horror, all the vampire and werewolf fiction they desire, urban and paranormal fantasy, supernatural fiction, and anything else that seems a bit “otherworldly”.
That said, there can be confusion over books that, due to their themes or certain narrative devices, fall neatly under “speculative fiction” and thus find themselves duly shelved with other, more obviously fantastical or science fictional titles. This categorisation may not work well for readers who don’t quite know how to relate to what seems to be, for example, a straight-up detective novel with subtle supernatural elements.

It’s hard to know whether this is a problem of marketing or categorisation. Would such a title do better in general fiction? Would the author be better advised not to write the book at all or to adjust the writing to fit genre conventions? This last seems a great disservice to the original story, but what’s more important – the creation or the success? Are there similar problems in the crime genre which also has various subsets?

When contemplating genre, it’s important to consider who you think will be your main readers – but keep in mind you can’t actually control your audience. For example, YA, or young adult, fiction seems to be growing in popularity, but the definitions of “young adult” differ slightly from country to country (and possibly publisher to publisher). Depending on the title, it’s generally accepted that it’s not just “young adults” but also actual adults who will read YA, as well as children, depending on the book. I recently heard an industry expert say that not only does the Australian publishing industry not call this genre “YA”,** but also that he thought it was really sad that so many grown women (in particular) were reading – and becoming obsessed by – YA novels such as Twilight and other popular series because they were intended for children and he felt they should be kept that way.***

This seems like the voice of someone who would certainly like to keep distinct lines between genres, at least when it comes to distinguishing between adult and children’s titles, but honestly it just doesn’t always seem that clear-cut. I have worked on a number of titles for adults that have later been described in reviews as “young adult novels” – to the author’s surprise and, if the cover labelling is anything to go by, presumably the publisher’s as well.


So how do you decide what to write, genre-wise, if you already have a plot and a story in mind? And how does this relate to the common writing advice that’s already bandied about?

Write what you know

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an expert, but surely the genre, and indeed the subject matter, should be something you care about and are interested in?****
Writing is not a quick process and it is certainly not a get-rich-quick career. Why would you saddle yourself with a genre and style in which you have no interest? It would be immeasurably hard to write such a thing as well as something you were passionate about and, assuming you were successful, any publisher would be likely to require you to continue to write in that genre, at least initially – thus you would effectively have written yourself into a corner.

Assuming results in donkeys

Or something. There are certainly some clear-cut lines with genre, but there are also books that have crossed those boundaries. If you make assumptions about the publisher or the market and deliberately rework your ideal book to fit more comfortably into an established genre, you are denying the publisher (and your readers) an opportunity to see beyond that. Sometimes categorising isn’t obvious and sometimes publishers slip genre titles into general fiction or even (shhh) literary fiction. The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example, is a successful novel that has been slotted into “general fiction” in most bookshops, but given the time travel elements is certainly speculative fiction, despite the romance within. Sir Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, often says in interviews that he was under the impression that he was simply writing satire until being categorised as a fantasy writer. Elizabeth George is an established crime writer, but it’s the romantic back story of her characters that gets her readers most up-in-arms.

Trying to adhere too neatly to genre conventions in order to fit can be a mistake. Readers will see straight through it if you aren’t genuine, and it’s important to remember that there’s a reason other books have so easily crossed genre or slipped into “general” or even literary fiction. Russell Davies talks about this in A Writer’s Tale, pointing out that even his comedies have tragic or sad moments and vice versa. His suggestion is that this is what life is like – if the audience is to believe the story, you have to add a dose of reality and that means not being all one thing all the time. This applies to any story if you want it to stop falling flat. It’s where the secondary and tertiary storylines can come in so handily: the romance back story in the crime novel, the tragic spy thriller set in the fantasy novel etc can add depth to a tale that might otherwise feel too two-dimensional if forced to sit wholely trapped within a single convention.

Note, though, that all this still has to be true to you as a writer, to the story you believe in, or it will ring hollow and the reader – not to mention the sharp-eyed editor – will find you out. Genre is about much more than making sure you follow a few conventions. You have build it from the ground up. It will be reflected in the language you use, the world that you build, the characters you choose and their motivations, the plot itself and the interactions between the characters. It will be there in the rules you follow and it will be evident in the rules and conventions you break, the things you don’t show. While it’s true that some genres sell better than others, in the end it comes down to story. A good story told well will always sell better than a humdrum tale told half-heartedly.

What do you think? Should writers “write to fit” or just let the story flow as it will?

There has already been some discussion on this here: Kylie Mason: In Which I use the Words Genre and Convention (following the first Genre Cage Fight at Shearer’s) and here:  Zena Shapter: Should Genre Mean Something Special to You Or Not?


*Mostly they haven’t. Hands up those of you in the industry who have heard the old “but all fiction is speculative” line more than five times?

**Which may be news to the authors, editors and publishers I see online regularly discussing the genre using that term.

***Admittedly, said expert visibly cringed when discussing the wave of YA vampire fiction that was in the New York Times bestsellers list at the time and said he didn’t understand any of it, so perhaps not the most unbiased of opinions on that front…

****At this point I find it comforting, salient and, frankly, amusing to turn to Mitchell and Webb to illustrate this point with their series of screenwriter sketches, including this one which proves that you really will do better if you know and care about, for example, spy drama, rather than just making up what you think is required to fit the genre: Mitchell and Webb – Spy Service 
Fast Tube by Casper

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How to build worlds

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

When it comes to setting the scene in a book, everyone will tell you the worldbuilding is important. This is true no matter what sort of book you’re writing or which genre you’re writing in.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, of course people tend to focus more closely on the worldbuilding since it is expected that you will be inventing new, make-believe worlds with your words. But it is just as important to create a believable world if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography: you have to recreate the world of your past, bring real people and landscapes to life for today’s reader.

Similarly, even if you’re working between these two extremes, creating a fictional story set in the real world, you still need to focus on piecing the foundations together. Things need to make sense. They must be believable and consistent and well-rounded. The biggest mistake a writer can make is to assume that their own knowledge or view of things is enough to for an entire world.* We all have our blind spots and biases, and these can easily be revealed in the worldbuilding if care isn’t taken.

The devil, they say, is in the details. They can make or break the story. As the author, by presenting the reader with your words, your vision, your world, you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief and let go of this world to enter yours (even if the story is set in this world, and even if what they’re reading is “true” rather than fiction). So, you have to give them enough information to experience that world – and you have to maintain their interest in your world throughout the story.

Add enough detail and the world you have created is brought to life. Leave too much out and the entire story can seem shallow. Lose track of even the most insignificant-seeming fact and the entire plot can fall apart. **

Worldbuilding and the speculative fiction focus has already been mentioned. The skill it takes to create these fantastical places is widely recognised by fans of the genre. These authors are not just creating a land or planet complete with landscapes and townships, but also ecosystems, cultures, politics, language, magic – entirely different states of being. Ideally, everything that makes the world run on every level has to have been thought out as it affects every character and the way they interact with each other and the plot at large. The author needs to keep hold of every strand that they’ve used to weave this world together if they are to keep the reader convinced with every page they turn.

All this attention to detail gives a sense of realism to even the most incredible of tales. If the world works, the story works. But if some of the details feel off, if the worldbuilding isn’t strong enough, the whole story can come crashing down. Unless it is a plot point, nothing is more distracting than finding a character possessing skills or achieving feats that the very rules of the invented world insist should be impossible. A reader will snap out of a story in an instant if, for example, the shapeshifter who couldn’t touch metal in the first three books of a series is unharmed by several silver bullets in the fourth because the author forgot that particular clause.

Consistency and attention to detail is just as important in less fantastical novels. Action thrillers that otherwise show extreme attention to detail when it comes to science, technology and military power can fall apart if, for example, the political scenes depicting world leaders gathering to combat the major common threat (aliens, terrorists etc.) only show the US President and his security force in action – leaving out any further mention of the other supposedly powerful “leaders”.

Such a situation suggests the author has cribbed from US-centric Hollywood movies, rather than researching how global political leaders might react to crises. It doesn’t matter how convincing the aliens are, how believable the technology, or how tightly-written the gun-fights if the scenes most easily imagined in our world are the ones that are merely sketched over. Such a contrast in the level of detail is likely to pull the reader out of the story. It suggests a lack of authority and mastery on the author’s part and the mirage can be shattered.

Research, then, can be key to ensuring that details and your own narrow knowledge base don’t let you down. But there’s more to it than merely adding and enforcing those details. It’s not just about creating a world – you have to make it believable and it has to make sense.

If your world is different to ours in some way, if it breaks the laws of nature or physics, you might do well to familiarise yourself with the consequences of such a change. How would that affect day-to-day life? Geography? Trade? Buildings and cities? Education? Politics? Family life?

If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your audience and consider whether you’re writing about something that will be different for them – are you writing about a different time? A different country? Again, how is life different in that world to this one?

It’s also worth ensuring you’re familiar with the genre in which you write, even if (or especially if) you plan to break all the perceived rules of those who have written before you. It’s worth knowing in advance if the concepts and characters you think you have invented are actually featured heavily in World of Warcraft or bear an uncanny resemblance to a well-known Celtic myth, even if it is entirely coincidental. Whether or not these similarities are acknowledged in your world are themselves  important in the building.

* Unless you’re writing a dystopia. Or utopia, depending on ego size and confidence/tendency towards tyranny…

**Of course, add too much detail and you leave no blanks for the reader’s imagination to fill in. There’s a lot to be said for hinting at information. Worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean giving all the facts, figures and measurements of a world or city. That way page-skipping lies.

What are your tips for worldbuilding? And have you seen any major slip-ups? What pulls you out of a writer’s world?

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How stories are distilled

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

One of the best tricks a writer can learn is how to make the research they have done for one specific book or article work for a completely different publication. An even better trick is to figure out a way to make that research work for several different pieces.

One of the keys to working this out is understanding the audience for the text you’re writing so you can identify the best way to present your words. The slant, style and content of a piece may suit one publication but be completely inappropriate for another, leaving you with perhaps pages of research and hours of interview recording left unused.

If you can identify a fresh angle or approach to this same information, your otherwise wasted notes can easily become the makings of a completely different piece that you can send elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, editors need pretty much the same skill set.

The editor needs to be just as aware of audience (though perhaps this seems obvious, given that I’ve said before the editor is there to ensure a written piece works for the reader and the publisher as well as conveying the author’s message).

But this goes further.

Freelance editors for example, like many freelance writers, often work for multiple publications and need to be aware of the different requirements of each editor*, each publication (or publishing house)** and, of course, the audience. They need to take care that the approach of the text they are working on suits the reader and the publication not just when it arrives fresh from the writer, but also once it has been edited.

Subediting magazines or newspapers, often the editor will be required not only to edit, but to cut – sometimes substantially – a piece of writing to fit a layout. This might mean cutting a 1500-word piece down to 500 words, all while keeping the soul and voice of the piece intact. While this involves some rewriting on the editor’s part (hopefully without it being noticeable) the editor must always keep in mind the audience for whom the piece is intended.

One thousand words is a lot to cut from any piece and so the editor must get into much the same mindset to subedit as the writer did in order to write it in the first place.

They need to consider the angle and approach of the piece.

It becomes a precision procedure. That travel story, told from a personal perspective, may contain all sorts of amusing details. So what do you cut and what do you keep? You can change the slant of the whole story, without any rewrites, just by cutting those thousand words.

If, for example, you’re subediting for a travel magazine, you need to keep in mind that the reader might want to recreate the author’s journey and would be more interested in the facts and figures of the trip than the amusing asides.

But the same story in the lifestyle section of a newspaper might be intended as light Sunday brunch reading, for which the entertaining, relatable stories about other hotel guests and getting lost in a foreign city are more suited.

In effect, the subeditor repeats the story distilling process that the writer did at the start.

For each piece, a subeditor needs to determine the most salient details to keep; those most relevant to that particular publication and its readers, discarding spare text that doesn’t fit either stylistically or thematically. At the same time, the editor needs to weave the remainder together, hiding any gaps and reworking the text so it appears this is how it was written in the first place.

This is the invisible craft at work once more.

What are the most pieces you have ever got from a single piece of research? Have you ever been mis-edited (rather like being misquoted)?

*Different editors have different, personal style preferences. (Usually comma-related.) It’s worth finding out what these are before you start marking up pages. While every editor knows that even venturing the word “comma” in an editorial department is a bit like yelling “fire”, I once worked for two different magazines in the same publishing house at the same time. The two editors had completely opposing views on comma usage. Fun times.

** Beyond content, you, as editor, need to know what the “house rules” are for that publication or publishing house. Em-dash or en-dash? And would that be with or without spaces? What’s the general feeling on ellipses? Which dictionary do they use? Which style guide? Do they have a house
style guide? ***

*** Don’t be fooled by these last trick questions. Of course you also need to know if the editorial department actually uses and adheres to these guides. Including the house style. Rather than, say, some alternative style a particularly scary chief editor once implemented that everyone has since soaked up by osmosis or passed on with secret, trembling handshakes…

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