These first few weeks of the year are a time when everyone gets down to goal-setting. Being a long way from perfection, my list of New Year Resolutions is usually lengthy, and I always set myself up for failure. So, this year I’m keeping it simple when it comes to creative resolutions, and between January and June, my creative goals are simply twofold:
Any additional creative output will be a bonus. Come June, I’ll set more goals for the second half of the year.
If you are reading this as a writer, I expect you’ve completed a similar goal-setting exercise. But do you have any resolutions that will help you become better at self-editing? If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few practical resolutions you could adopt.
1. Keep on writing. Never review anything you’ve written until you have finished an entire first draft, be it a short story or a novel/memoir. Do not succumb to the temptation to redraft anything before you’ve arrived at what you believe to be the end point. Draft one is for your eyes only, so never be embarrassed about what you’ve written. It’ll be rough ‘n unready, but it will be complete. You cannot begin to sculpt your masterpiece until all the clay is on the wheel.
2. Practise abstinence. Put your first draft away for a minimum of ONE MONTH and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, try focusing your creative energy on something else (start writing another story, learn the ukulele, paint by numbers) until it’s time to review the project again. Without some distance from the work, self-editing will be severely hampered.
3. Think big. Don’t sweat the small stuff as you work on improving your first draft. It’s not worth tinkering with the finer points of punctuation/grammar and word choice if you need to rewrite or reorganise an entire chunk of your story. Focus instead on the big picture of narrative structure, character arc, theme, tone, setting and so on. Only when you’ve got to your final draft can the finessing begin.
While you’re practising resolutions 1 to 3, you could also expand your editing knowledge and skills by:
4. Reading Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. The book not only covers grammatical ground rules, it will also help you (among many other things) to:
5. Listening to The Editing Podcast, from fiction editor/proofreader Louise Harnby and nonfiction editor Denise Crowle. Though aimed primarily at editors, writers stand to gain key insights into how the editing process works and how writers can avoid certain editorial pitfalls. Well worth a listen. Find the podcast at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.
Good luck, writer! You got this.
Recently, I invited some new writers to submit 2000 words of their writing for a sample copy edit so that they could see what’s involved.
For each piece, I focused on the 5 C’s of Copyediting, but I also offered some general feedback on the opening of the writers’ stories, as I would for any sample. In return, I asked them to tell me how they found the experience.
(For info: While some editors request an excerpt from the middle of the manuscript, I prefer the opening 2000 words because it reveals a lot about a writer’s skills and the project. A weak opening will strongly imply that more self-editing is needed before the manuscript is ready for a copy edit.)
"Lorna gave me a huge amount to think about. Over the years I’ve asked various writer friends to critique the book and they’ve all provided me with excellent feedback. However, Lorna gave me a completely new insight into the work and what I need to do to strengthen it. One of the most surprising and useful observations she made was that my protagonist comes across as the most ordinary character in the excerpt. This was difficult feedback to hear but Lorna was absolutely right, and I’m hugely grateful to her for highlighting it.
Lorna’s attention to detail was impressive. She gave my writing some very tough love and now I have my work cut out, tightening my dialogue, strengthening my opening chapters, giving my protagonist greater heft and generally tinkering with the tone of the book. I’m very glad to have had her help, she gave me what my friends probably never dared: a truly detailed, honest appraisal."
"Your edit made a huge improvement to a text I thought I’d polished. All your suggestions were kindly and thoughtfully made. After going through your changes, the sentences sparkled. But most important of all, you opened my eyes to a problem with my main character.
I'd been feeling that something in the manuscript wasn’t working for a long time. Re-drafting it felt like a chore. And the more changes I made, the less I felt happy with it. I’d put it to one side when your offer to copy edit came through, so I jumped at the chance. I thought you'd be looking more at sentence structure than wider problems, but you pointed out that my main character didn't jump off the page. And although I'd worked and worked on her, your comments made me have a complete re-think, but I've regained the love I had for the story and can't wait to start revising."
"I can definitely say that it was helpful for me, very helpful indeed. It was the first time getting professional editor feedback (the experiences I had made before with a semi-professional looking at a text of mine were not the best). Your feedback helped me to trust an editor with my texts and trusting that the feedback will be helpful and in honour of what I want to write. Also, you stating that I write well is something I take as a great compliment, as you would have seen lots of texts and stories.
One point you noted is that I am jumping POVs. In general, I admit that I had some issues with the POV, and I am constantly working on focusing on only one character when writing a scene. Hence, this is still an ongoing learning process, where I oftentimes think, Yes, now I got it right, only to later see that there still is some visible or subtle mixture of POVs. The three points in your comments were helpful for me as I started to put more focus on exactly those questions.
Your feedback was mostly helpful for me. For most of your comments, you wrote why you made that comment, and where that wasn't explicitly included, I could find good reasons on my own. For some suggestions you made, I did not find the reason, but I took them as what you said them to be: suggestions. For me, your feedback was a kind and detailed one at the same time, especially with your final comment underneath my text."
There are many ways to find a copy editor, such as online searching, professional associations, recommendations from other writers, and crowd-sourcing websites. But how do you know if a particular editor is going to be a worthy recipient of your editing budget?
I recommend that writers find two or three potential editors and carry out a three-stage vetting process for each:
1. Online Research
If you’ve found an editor online, or someone has recommended one, the editor’s website is the first port of call. (I think it’s a bad sign if the editor does not have an online shopfront.) The website should tell you if the editor has experience/interest in your kind of writing and appears to have the kind of personality you might gel with.
Don’t just look at the editor’s testimonials, though, which are obviously going to be glowing. Rather, assess for yourself how well the site is presented and how clearly the content is written. A single typo, however, is no reason to blacklist them, because even the most professional publications are rarely error-free!
2. Initial Consultation
Once you’ve decided an editor looks promising, arrange a phone or video call. On this first call, you’re simply sharing information and giving the editor a chance to ask pertinent questions about the project and the kind of editing you need. If they show little curiosity or interest in your project, they're unlikely to be a good fit.
Go into the consultation with a list of questions of your own to find out (at minimum) about the editor’s availability, what their process is, what they charge/how they’re paid … and if they’re willing to do a sample edit (see next step).
3. Editing Sample
I believe the best way for a writer to evaluate an editor is via an editing sample. Some editors will do this for free. If the editor is a highly sought-after professional, they may charge a fee for an amount that is later subtracted from the overall cost of the edit if you decide to hire them. In addition to seeing how many errors they spot, you’re looking for how astute and tactful their queries are, and how well their editing respects your material and authorial voice. Essentially, you’re assessing whether the editing enhances your writing.
However, this sample assessment is not a one-way street. The principle reason I provide free samples is that doing so is as much for my benefit as the writers’. In providing a sample edit, I’m asking the following questions:
When you have samples from two or three potential editors (samples of the same excerpt!) to compare, you might find that the editor whom you favoured after steps one and two did not hit all the right notes in the sample stage. In this case, you can either talk to them about how they can adjust their approach, or you can go with the editor who did the best sample, but may not have had the best website or the best phone manner. Or, of course, you can continue your search!
Once you’re satisfied with the editor, you can move ahead with project. In a future post, I’ll outline how a writer and editor can proceed professionally and productively through the project so that it goes without a glitch. And in the next post, I’ll share what three writers said about being on the receiving end of a professional edit for the first time.
On November 25, I was honoured by feminist theatre company Scary Little Girls with a reading of one of my stories as part of the online launch event for greenhamwomen.digital (read more about this amazing project in my previous post).
"Liberty Dock" is a piece of short fiction about a woman at a turning point in her life and wondering what to do with her newfound freedom. When I write fiction, I try to say something about the human condition and encourage readers to reflect on their own situation and attitudes. I'm sure the themes of loneliness and grief will resonate with many readers/listeners, and I hope the ending is uplifting to anyone dealing with these emotions.
I encourage you to watch the whole show, but if you're short on time, my story starts at around the 13-minute mark. Enjoy!
While Books with Spine usually focuses on the printed word, I’m not oblivious to the power of digital storytelling. Interactive environments offer us the opportunity to take control of a nonlinear narrative and experience stories in a completely different way, with music and visuals complementing the written and spoken word. When the content shares the lived experience of pioneering activists and feminists during the early era of British environmentalism – BOOM – we’ve got something that totally fits the brief of Books with Spine by the name of Greenham Women Digital. My understanding is that there is also a book to be published sometime in 2021, so watch this space.
GreenhamWomen.Digital is an online interactive exhibition which launched on November 25th to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The original plan was to create a touring exhibition until 2020 threw its corona-shaped spanner in the works. But for once, the virus did culture a favour because now we have something that will be available for environmental and peace activists and feminists the world over, in perpetuity. Cheers, Rona!
What’s the Story?
The project is a ground-breaking, interactive online exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which sprung up at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire in September 1981. The first occupiers were a Welsh group called Women for Life on Earth, and their mission was to protest the storage of cruise missiles at the base. The camp grew over the years, augmented by many other women’s groups and individuals campaigning against nuclear weapons. Amazingly, the camp was not disbanded until the year 2000!
“Our aim is to give people a flavour and feel of what life was really like at the peace camp,” explains Rebecca Mordan of Scary Little Girls, the production hub responsible for coordinating this ambitious project.
The website was developed by mixed-reality specialist Animorph. Explaining the cooperative’s involvement, Producer Geoffrey Morgan explains: “Together we set out to push what an archival website can be and do. We wanted to create a multi-modal experience.”
The resulting site contains a huge amount of music, artwork, interviews, and dramatisations, reflecting the diversity of those who were part of Greenham.
Rebecca Mordan explains: “Like any organic movement, there were different ideologies, interests and personalities. As a result, like-minded women gravitated towards each other and shared spaces in different camps at gates situated all around the site.
“Visitors to the exhibition will be able to explore the different vibes and activities at each of the gates (violet, indigo, turquoise, emerald, green, blue and yellow), finding interactive multimedia at each.”
Designed almost like a treasure hunt, visitors are encouraged to explore widely while collecting songs, stories, and first-hand accounts hidden in the 2D and 3D landscapes. By clicking on an object or scene, visitors can share everyday camp life: the protests, actions, love and loss during this pivotal period in British history.
But don’t expect a sanitised or singular view of events. Part of the joy of this experience lies in the fact that it is based on interviews with more than 100 women whose lives were deeply affected by their time at Greenham. Like witnesses to almost all dramatic events, their accounts vary. It is their unique and sometimes conflicting memories and perspectives that create such a rich tapestry.
Explore the Greenham Peace Camp today!
When you're writing for fun or catharsis, self-editing will often take your writing as far as it needs to go. But if you're a writer with an eye on publishing, working with a professional copy editor can improve your publishing prospects, providing you are fully open to the process. Working with a professional editor (either one you hire or one assigned to you by the publisher) can be a stressful situation for many writers who are accustomed to flying solo, but with the right mindset, you'll enjoy a rewarding collaboration. Here are five ways to enter the process.
Mindset 1: It's as good as I can make it ... but it ain't perfect.
You'd be surprised how often I see manuscripts that have "author fatigue" written all over them, and it's clear the author has said, "Oh, that'll do." Only seek an editor when you have self-edited the heck out of your manuscript and are satisfied that you can take it no further. Copy editors love to work with manuscripts they can take from good to great, rather than manuscripts they can turn from okay to good (or from bad to readable!). However, don't hand it over with the assumption it's flawless ... because you WILL get a shock when the edited manuscript is returned. Expect there to be edits a plenty, and remember that even Hemingway needed an editor.
Mindset 2: It's great to collaborate!
As a writer, the page is your stage ... but even a one-woman show needs a crew! Think of your editor as the guy/gal in the lighting booth who's there to ensure you're looking your best. It is not in your editor's interest to steal the limelight or make you look bad, so enjoy the rare moment of creative partnership. Keep in mind that every editor is as unique as every writer, but hopefully your styles complement each other. If you continue to collaborate, the symbiosis will become stronger and the editing process will become easier.
Mindset 3: It's not about me.
The copy editor’s only objective is to make the reading of your manuscript as easy and pleasurable as possible. As tough as it seems (especially if you're paying), the editor's first loyalty is to the reader, not you! Edits are not criticisms, so try not take it personally.
Mindset 4: Every edit is a learning opportunity.
You are always free to disagree with the editor and reject any edit, but it’s often beneficial to understand the editor’s choices or recommendations. You will also learn a lot by studying the grammar, punctuation, and usage edits, which will improve your writing craft going forward.
Mindset 5: Professional editing is an investment.
Unless it's offered as part of a publishing agreement, professional editing will cost you hard-earned cash. That reality is especially harsh because writers themselves so rarely see financial rewards for their efforts. But if you feel you must hire an editor, think of the expenditure as an investment in your development as a writer, not only in terms of craft skills but also in terms of experience with professional editing, which agents and publishers appreciate. A professional edit is also an investment in your book, increasing its chances of being picked up by an agent/publisher or a reader. Hopefully, with great editing, you will see a return on your investment down the line!
Whether you self-publish or are fortunate to get a traditional publishing deal, the chances are you will have to do a lot of your own book promo. This can be highly time-consuming and frustrating ... especially if you go at it half cocked, so to speak. But where do you begin?
I asked marketing/PR expert (and agented writer) Anna Caig for a few choice words of advice for promoting your book based on her experience as a trainer/coach of writers who want to build their brand and reach more readers. (To find out more, or to work with Anna Caig, go to https://www.annacaigcomms.co.uk). Here is what she shared.
1. Be clear on your author brand
Does thinking of yourself as a brand have you cringing or running for the hills? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But this is about pinning down what makes you stand out, and it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of the work I do with authors. Looking at where the inspiration and motivation behind your writing comes from is a good place to start thinking about how to differentiate yourself from all the other authors out there.
2. Use your storytelling skills in your marketing
It’s amazing how many awesome storytellers revert to flat, linear descriptions when they’re talking about themselves and their work in bios, on their website, or anywhere they’ve got limited space to tell potential readers what they’re all about. But by using the same skills you use in your writing to describe your books and yourself as an author, you’ll be off to a flying start.
3. Also think about what you *don’t* want to share
Your author brand is a version of you that you’re comfortable sharing with the public … it is not all of you, warts and all. For example, many people get inspiration for their writing from painful personal events. Sometimes you’ll be happy to talk about these explicitly, but sometimes you won’t, and that’s fine. It is important to establish this ahead of embarking on marketing a book.
4. Before any marketing activity, set yourself some objectives
Is it all about sales? Do you want to build your mailing list? Are you setting up a community of readers in a Facebook group? Spending a little time thinking about what exactly you want to achieve with your marketing activity is an important first step in putting together a strategy and will ensure everything you do contributes to a specific outcome.
5. Write a strategy
Snore, right? A strategy’s a dry old document that sits on a shelf and never gets used? Well, nope. A marketing strategy means you know what you want to achieve, who exactly you’re targeting and how you’re going to reach them, and what you’re going to say. Not only does spending a little time on a strategy save *a lot* of time in the long run, it also ensures your marketing is coherent.
6. Be creative when it comes to reaching potential readers
Most spaces, digital or in-person, dedicated to book promotion are crowded and competitive. I always encourage writers to think outside the box when it comes to reaching readers. Put in the simplest terms, if you’ve written a book about trains, don’t just target people who love books, target people who love trains. Think about where you can find this audience and use the channels that will reach them there.
7. Digital and social media are just channels
I hear a lot of ‘you should be doing x, y or z’ when it comes to book promotion, and never more so than with digital and social media. But the truth is, these are just channels to reach audiences. There’s no should about it, unless they will help you talk to people who are likely to love your books. And you’re much better off using two or three channels well than spreading yourself thinly across loads because you think you should be there.
8. The rule of thirds
No more than a third of the content you share with your audiences should be explicitly promoting and selling your books. Another third is all about engaging content which doesn’t overtly sell: this is where you can give audiences a glimpse behind the curtain, share interesting information relating to your research, writing process, or just elements of your life that form part of, or complement, your author brand. The final third is where you respond to others, have conversations and comment on what other people are doing, building your relationships and communities.
9. Give video a chance
There’s no point forcing yourself to create content you really don’t enjoy, but I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve worked with who are reluctant to give video a go and then end up loving it. There is a lot of evidence that video is more effective than text or images in engaging audiences, and there are many different ways to try it, from a more polished, edited video to a quick Facebook or Instagram live. Try some different things out and try not to worry about ‘getting it wrong’ (whatever that means!) You don’t need to be too polished or perfect. The most engaging content often includes flaws, or even mistakes. It can be scary to put yourself ‘out there’ and be vulnerable, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how your audience responds to content which contains faults. Look at the engagement on a serious Facebook post, versus the outtakes and bloopers post from ‘behind the scenes’ (from those who are brave enough to share these) and the latter will almost invariably reach more people and elicit a more positive response.
10. Have fun
Yes, book promotion is a serious business that will find readers for your work and persuade them to part with their hard-earned cash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. It’s important to bear in mind that content you enjoy creating is likely to be more effective because the energy and enthusiasm will come across to your audience. So, enjoy yourself!
The book with spine I'm plugging this month is Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.
Sometimes, a book with spine reveals something new to you, but sometimes it validates something important in your life. For me, this book is of the latter variety. As a writer myself, I picked up the book of essays by writers because I was curious about how other writers came to the same decision as I did about parenthood (the decision being to remain childfree by choice, which is an important distinction from people who want kids but can't have them).
As you would expect from writers, the essays are well constructed and well argued. From a craft point of view, you get a great masterclass in how to write great personal essays. Of course, the content resonated with me, although the males' point of view, not so much. I just think that for people born women, the concept of choosing to be childfree is an issue on a far grander scale than for men. Sorry, dudes. If you are a female-identifying writer who is on the fence about having kids, this book could be incredibly powerful. It's rammed full of sound rationale for fully embracing the creative life, which may offer some readers real comfort.
However, the one thing that struck me about writers writing about this topic is how inadequate words are, and none of the essayists really tackled the lack of appropriate language for childfree-by-choice cis women, like me. So, in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I'm offering you my opinion!
Words Fail Me: Communicating My Choice
The English language was once the stooge of the British Empire, busy appropriating words from other cultures for its greedy master. Nowadays, English has atoned for its imperial past by becoming the most hospitable language on Earth. It no longer goes abroad to steal; rather, it welcomes thousands of foreign/alien words with open arms and makes them feel right at home, no questions asked.
I love English’s speedy adaptability. Even as I write, the new term “social distancing” is being entered into the OED. Though there is always controversy around certain language developments (lately in the sphere of gender identity, where vocab moves at breakneck speed), it’s critical that people take control of the language that refers to them. And it’s their inalienable right to choose their words carefully.
You might have noticed I steer clear of the word “childless”, which to me suggests something is missing, and for women who want children but are without them, this word feels especially unkind. I’m not especially keen to refer to myself as “childfree” either, reminiscent as it is of the prolific food-related intolerances of our age, as if the mere whiff of a fertilized egg in my uterus might trigger anaphylaxis.
So, if not “childfree” or “childless”, what? I would prefer to describe my persona as a “woman without children” (people-first language) and refer to my counterparts “women with children”, but I know that most of them would rather be called “mothers” because it’s a label that carries a great deal of weight in society. Even bad mothers get more respect than non-mothers, on the whole!
Sadly, women without children have no equivalent of the word “mother” that might respect their particular reproductive decision. “Non-mother” is another one of those oppositional words, like “childless”, so that won’t do. Old English would have labeled younger women without children “maidens”, which has a certain charm, but older women were called “crones”… not so nice.
We have hardly any deities from which to draw our alternative moniker, given that the ancient pantheons and most religions are simply potty about fertility. “Libertas”, the goddess of freedom, was about the closest I could get, but I do not want to be confused with libertarians, so that’s a no-go.
I guess the best we can do is 'nullipara', which is the medical term for a woman who has not given birth and encompasses those who are not fertile (too young, too elderly, and the infertile) and those who have chosen to defy their fertility. It will take some explaining, but we've seen lately how quickly new terms are adopted. So, I say it's worth a go: let's change it from an adjective to a noun, and maybe even a verb ... 'to nullipara: to choose or to embrace a childfree life'.
Nulliparas of the world, unite!
Soon after I returned to Sheffield after a 20-year absence, I was lucky to meet Beverley Ward. Beverley is at the very heart of the city's writing community and has supported its growth for about as long as I was away! Not only is she a great resource for other writers developing their craft, she is also an enormously talented writer of prose and poetry, and in a future blog post, I will be featuring her very own Book with Spine, Dear Blacksmith, a beautiful and powerful memoir about confronting grief under extraordinary circumstances.
In this post, Beverley shares her top ten habits for becoming a writer or improving your productivity.
For more of Beverley's tips and advice, request a copy of her Free E-Book here.
Beverley Ward is a writer, facilitator and coach, with twenty years experience of supporting fellow writers on their journeys to becoming the writers that they want to be. She offers a range of writing workshops and one-to-one coaching/mentoring and owns The Writers Workshop in Sheffield. You can find out more about Beverley at www.beverleywrites.com. Or email her on email@example.com.
One of my professional aims is to enable writers to become better self-editors so that the manuscripts they present for copyediting are as good as they can possibly be. Part of this mission involves demystifying the professional editing process, so here is the skinny on what a professional copy editor does to take a manuscript from so-so to SO GOOD!
The 5 C's of Copyediting
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith