Tagged: revising

New Pages Of Resources On Self-Editing And Revising

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I’m tidying up my site (bear with me! one day maybe I shall understand how drop-down menus work their magic …). I’ve just added a couple of extra pages:

* Suggestions For Self-Editing – practical tips on drafting and revising
* Revising: A Craft Checklist – thinking about techniques that bring your writing to life

The text is adapted from handouts I often give to clients or share in workshops. I am sure the content of those pages might change in due course.

The Resources page includes lots of other recommendations and links to further guidance on writing, publishing, and the writer’s life.

If you have any of your own ideas for other resources that are useful for writers, please add your own suggestions in a post below.

Thanks!

Go Set A Watchman: Questions For Writers (And Readers)

 SPOILERS.

So Harper Lee’s new novel is out!

Who’d have thought that?! I’ve always used To Kill A Mockingbird as an example of why writers shouldn’t pressure themselves with deadlines and rushing, or be overly concerned with outcomes. For the author of one of the most beloved books in the world only ever published that one book. And if that was good enough for her …

(And if only some other writers were more cautious about their output!)

But then this week all that changed. And the verdict is in …

 

1.
But I’m not going that way. Because: whose verdict?

Before it was even published, various hacks have tried to dig up a back story, piecing together fragments of a story about an old lady who never wanted this earlier manuscript published until the older sister who protected her legal affairs died … Rats were smelled, as was fishiness.

But I really doubt that the old lady who worries about the punctuation of the title of her book would really be deceived. (Old people are not necessarily stupid, you know?) And even if the old lady really was deceived: do we really care that an earlier draft has been published?

I avoided reading reviews until I finished reading the book. Some of the earlier ones seem a bit timid. Others are scathing, or bitchy, seeking out every (apparent) cliché or bit of (apparent) ineptitude, which feels to me nitpicky and somewhat pointless; we don’t need to suspend judgement entirely, but trawling over writing looking for problems in that way really takes the joy out of reading. Let’s leave that to the sadists. Clichés don’t always bother me, anyway.

I just want to say to such reviewers, to all readers in fact: This is Harper Lee. Just read the book. Just read it and savour every single word, because this is more than we ever knew we were getting.

As someone close to me said: ‘I don’t think reviews are relevant for some books. A review can be nothing other than “Here’s what *I* think”. It changes nothing in the world.’

Publishers might tell you that negative reviews will harm sales, and good reviews will promote sales, so reviews can change things in the world. But many books with bad reviews are loved by readers long after the death of their reviewers. And many well-reviewed books are soon forgotten. And some books just take off unexpectedly and capture the imagination and even become cultural phenomena: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades. Taste cannot be predicted.

And some reviews are just sanctimonious wank.

For what it’s worth, this review from We Love This Book seems to be the most balanced one I’ve read. I do find that new media and blogs often provide better books coverage than many of the traditional reviews and literary sections: more engaged, less stuffy, less posturing, more authentic.

So, question no. 1 for writers: Why do you read reviews and reviewers, and what value do you necessarily place on their opining?

[Inserted postscript, August 2015: I’ve since come across this excellent take on the book by Ursula Le Guin. Anne Rice was also praising it on Facebook. See, those old ladies know a thing or two.]

 

2.
Atticus is a racist! Nooooooo! Well, actually, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. (And NO, saying that does NOT make me a racist.) So: Atticus is a man of his time and place, it turns out. The saintly Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird gives that book a simpler moral clarity, whereas this version of Atticus is a member of a racist citizens’ council, something that was a fact of life in many small towns in the American South in the 1950s.

(I also enjoy a certain cruel mirth in reading all those stories of bourgeois parents who named their little boys Atticus. Here I frantically scrabble around to remember if any of my friends have little boys named Atticus. ‘Mummy, can I go to Hannibal’s for a play date?’ As a Wille, I’ve never approved of the way in which the chatterati often seem to give their children pretentious yet painful names.)

There are plenty of other conversations about the treatment of race in both books by now, and it’s becoming one of those subjects where I, as a white person, in the current climate feel uncomfortable about making public pronouncements. (If that feels cowardly, it is, but I’m not ashamed.)

But we are reading Go Set A Watchman at a time when race is a matter of great urgency in public life, especially in the United States. Maybe Harper Lee thinks that blacklivesmatter too.

We read Go Set A Watchman in the week that a woman who failed to signal when changing lanes on the way to an interview ended up dead in a jail cell in Texas (and if you really care about social justice, like our saintly Atticus Finch, you really must watch that video clip). We read Go Set A Watchman and realise that some things have changed little since the time that these books were set. We read Go Set A Watchman and we watch that video clip and we ask ourselves whether that took place in the South in the 1950s, or South Africa under the state of emergency. No, it was Texas last week.

Publication of this book certainly draws attention to certain unchanging facts of life in America. So question no. 2: What do you have to say about age-old political problems in your own writing?

 

3.
So: what is the book like? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like revisiting childhood friends (while they are still in their childhood, rather than acting out on Facebook). But I did find myself drifting at the end, I’m afraid. It does get clunky and didactic as Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, digests the racism of her hometown when she returns on vacation from her new life in New York.

Jean Louise is something of a passive central character, who agonises on what she observes via reflection in close third-person point of view. Unlike some reviewers, I liked the way in which she responds to some of the conversations she hears around her, especially at a ‘Coffee’, an occasion where Southern ladies get together to discuss their husbands and the toilet training of their babies and other people’s marriages and the prospect of a ‘good nigger trial’. It’s rendered in something of a stream of consciousness, and it’s possible some readers have missed the point.

All the same, I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I thought I’d forgotten its ending, and then I looked back and realised the book fizzles out somewhat, lacking a significant dramatic resolution. It has big themes and internal musings, but they fail to crystallise in revealing action.

This points up for me, more than anything, how Go Set A Watchman overall lacks narrative and dramatic focus. It reminds me in that way of questions I frequently ask about a lot of early unpublished drafts I read in my work as a book doctor: What is at stake here? What do characters have to gain or lose in terms of both external action as well as their inner lives?

To Kill A Mockingbird by contrast has not only that trial but also and especially Boo Radley. Boo, who in the movie is hiding behind the door in one of the most terrifying screen moments of my life. No longer would I only be scared of things lurking under the bed; thereafter I’d be scared of things hiding behind the bedroom door, the door that had been left open with the landing light on because I didn’t like it closed and I didn’t like the dark.

All the same, Go Set A Watchman has a few other surprises, and other magical sequences. The most captivating are scenes with Scout, Jem, and Dill that call to mind some of those in To Kill A Mockingbird (though I’ve yet to do a direct comparison).

Go Set A Watchman is, certainly, a literary curiosity, in the vein of the scroll edition of On the Road or the published drafts of Howl and The Waste Land. But I think it’s more than that too – it’s a novel marked by plenty of accomplishment already, and it possesses real flashes of wit and saltiness. It has some of the hallmarks of a certain type of postwar American literature that perhaps feel missing in contemporary writing. And even if it has flaws and is apparently an unedited manuscript, it probably interested me far more than plenty of published and apparently flawless books that have been edited.

(‘Flawlessness is overrated.’ Discuss. Many of my favourite books have flaws.)

I’ve read a few commentaries suggesting that Harper Lee’s editor deserves some sort of honour for the way this manuscript was transformed into a great book, but I’ve not seen a paper trail about specific input from an editor, and I’d assume that any editorial conversation would have been followed by Harper Lee’s ongoing revision until she created the draft that became To Kill A Mockingbird. Let’s not forget: editors can be talented, but in the world of books writers are the talent.

Go Set A Watchman is for me, as a teacher and book doctor, an immensely useful textbook. Many beginning (and even experienced) writers seem to think that once a first draft has been planned and then written, editing requires a certain amount of pegging and tidying up, and then it’s plain sailing until you’re checking your Amazon rankings.

But in fact, especially for beginning writers, a first draft can actually be the planning. Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines that a first draft is just the writer telling herself the story.* Once a first (or early) draft is complete, the story is laid out beginning to end, and then the writer can decide how to tell that story: which emphasis to bring out, what to cut, what to expand, how to shift the tone, or vary the pace for narrative tension. The first draft can be more about the process of exploration and investigation, rather than grasping towards any particular outcome.

Go Set A Watchman amounts to one of those sorts of early drafts, perhaps. To Kill A Mockingbird is a seriously different novel: a different timeframe, a different period, a different spirit, a different point of view. And a key event from To Kill A Mockingbird has a very different outcome in Go Set A Watchman.

But both novels have the same setting, many of the same characters, much of the same wit and verve in its style, and it absolutely has the same concerns. It’s not hard to imagine a young writer taking a look at this early draft and thinking, What if I took this and did that with it … ? A focus would have been sought, and found.

Lesson no. 3: What things might lie within the rambles of your own early drafts, and how could you take them and form something else from them? It might not be radically different. But it could also be a wild departure into something that captures some initial spark and does something more compelling, or more heartfelt, or more entertaining, or more poetic, or more [insert adjective]. Either is possible.

 

Reviews. Race. Revision. Three R’s of Go Set A Watchman.

But lessons are chores. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in the third year at school, in Miss Batham’s English class. I’d already read some Agatha Christies and having loved The Hobbit had attempted The Lord of the Rings, but this was the first time I really read an adult book with adult themes, and it left a profoundly strong impression on me, as subsequently would Huckleberry Finn, and My Family And Other Animals, and The War Of The Worlds

These lessons were not chores. Books such as these are rare events in our lives that capture our imaginations. Sequels, or allied publications, should be treasured for what they are. They should be left to work their magic, and enjoyed for what they are.

 

* If you have a direct quotation and source for Terry Pratchett on first drafts, please email me!

Definitions Of Editing: Structural Editing

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It’s useful for any writer to understand different editorial terms. They can bring clarity to what your writing needs or is ready for at any stage of creating a book.

The definitions of editing I describe in this series of posts are not hard and fast descriptions. Not all of the tasks they explain are necessary to every book that’s written, and sometimes these processes are merged or in some way going on simultaneously. These terms can be used interchangeably, or in different ways by different editors or in different fields or territories. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

I tend to see editorial production as three broad stages: structural editing; copyediting; and proofreading. In this post I’m looking at structural editing, which, using my gardening analogy, is like redesigning and landscaping your garden.

Structural editing refers to the editorial work that deals with aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript, addressing matters of content, organisation, and pacing. Does it take too long to get to the essence of the story, in which case should we cut all the background in the first two chapters and open with that scene from the middle of Chapter Three? Do key revelations in the plot create the most effective narrative tension: might they need staggering throughout rather than being loaded into a big reveal at the end? Is the conclusion sufficiently rewarding, or is it too rushed, or overly protracted? Are characters’ motivations clear? Are settings distinct enough? Could some slow-moving sections be tightened or cut, and might other scenes warrant expansion?

Structural editing often also takes account of the telling of the story. Is the voice persuasive? Does the point of view do justice to the outcome, or could it be deployed in a way that commands greater dramatic tension? Is present tense really serving this story well? Might extended sequences of dialogue be more effectively summarised in reported speech?

Sometimes structural editing is done by professional editors, who’ll actually carry out the work of cutting and pasting and even rewriting the text, knowing that it can be shown to the author for approval and for dealing with any queries. Sometimes (often, for many freelancers …) structural editing is combined with line editing and copyediting, particularly when the publisher is in a rush (often, for many freelancers …).

(And long gone seem those days of publishers’ ‘rush rates’, it seems, in which case maybe freelancers should set the rates themselves.)

Structural editing is the term you tend to hear describing the primary stages of editing in a publishing house, and this work usually takes place when a first or at least an early draft has been completed; the fundamental elements of the book will have been decided upon and bedded down, even if there is still some shaping and tweaking to bring out a desired emphasis.

Other terms introduce slightly different shades of meaning, and perhaps subtly different tasks for writer or editor.

Developmental editing often covers some of the ground of a structural edit (cutting, expanding, clarifying motivation, changing point of view, and so on). But it can also refer to types of editorial work that occur even before structural editing is needed, specifically at the conception of a book and frequently with particular markets or contexts in mind. Broadly speaking, writers who’re serious about publishing can be helped in directing their energies; writers determined to write and publish a vampire novel might need thoughtful input about the sort of vampire fiction that might succeed in a popular but still saturated market, or at least get supportive advice from an agent or literary consultant about what is strong or fresh within their writing, and also where they might gain from doing further work, or experimenting with a new approach, or developing topical themes.

The term developmental editing is often used in educational and scholarly publishing, where, for example, acquisition editors might be actively developing content for new textbooks, taking into consideration particular specialisms within fields of studies or even curricula.

It’s not a term that you encounter often in trade publishing houses, but then this is not always the sort of work that nowadays takes place between first novelists and editors at publishing companies: usually an editor buying a first novel today is pretty much committed to the story idea as well as its style and execution; there might be some structural editing, but if a book needed serious attention to voice or character in the first place, an editor might not take it on, as it could be something of a risk to commission a novel whose final execution remains uncertain. And editors need to be able to get their marketing colleagues on board, and there are lots of books out there, and editors can afford to be fussy, and they don’t have the hours in the day to invest in this sort of time-consuming work.

Developmental editing can often come with subsequent novels though, by which time editorial relationships have a surer footing and a publisher has a long-term commitment to a writer that justifies going back and forth, bouncing around story ideas and thinking about other aspects of the creation of a book and planning a writer’s career.

Developmental editing often takes place between writers and literary agents, as agents are nowadays frequently the professionals who’re working on what might, in other industries, be called talent scouting, nurturing creative professionals towards completing and then publishing a book.

Developmental editing is also relevant to much of the work that goes on within and around what might be called the creative writing industry: manuscript critiques from literary consultancies, meetings with professionals at writers’ conferences, writing courses at universities or within commercial organisations. It also borders on a lot of the activity that can take place in writing groups or among beta readers. In all of these instances, feedback is usually given on writing that is at an early stage of drafting, and in the knowledge that a project could change significantly.

I find developmental editing the most apt description for much of the work I do as a book doctor or writing teacher in fiction and general nonfiction – helping writers sift through their narrative content to work out the best focus or direction for a story and the best way to tell it. Sometimes I might even be helping a writer figure out where to place the work in terms of genre: does a writer want to develop this autobiographical content as a memoir, and if so might it gain from a briefer timeframe that creates a more intense story? Or does it make sense to allow for the more imaginative spin of fiction, which can often free a writer to be truthful in other ways?

Though developmental editing often deals with aspects of the concept or bigger picture, an editor or book doctor sometimes goes into more detailed or granular aspects of writing too. Sometimes I find myself helping a writer who wishes to develop a stronger voice – for example, highlighting the use of verbs in sentences in a sample of writing as a means of illustrating ways to achieve a tighter prose style, or suggesting other ways that syntax could be made tauter, or more pointed, or more moody. Performed more extensively, in a comprehensive edit of a whole manuscript, this would amount to what I call line editing (to be discussed in another post), but in my role as a tutor rather than an editor I like the idea that a few sample edits can model what writers could do themselves with their own words, so that they learn to hone their voices as they take books through different drafts. In many ways, developmental editing has much in common with teaching and coaching.

A further difference between developmental and structural editing is that with developmental editing a writer might solicit feedback on a partial draft rather than the whole book, getting the voice and tone right in the opening chapters, for example, before launching ahead into the rest.

Developmental Editing, a guide by Scott Norton that is published by the University of Chicago Press (one of the leading publishers of books on publishing), offers this clarification, which recaps some of the above:

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The [developmental editor’s] role can manifest in a number of ways. Some ‘big picture’ editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental’. To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor.

I’ll talk about line editing, substantive editing and copyediting in a future post.

Content editing is a related term. I tend to think of this as focusing on the internal logic of a work, and it often involves many of the tasks in developmental and structural editing, as well as more detailed aspects that usually come up in line editing or copyediting, such as fact-checking, flagging inconsistencies, or smoothing out the pace. Basically, content editing spans both the bigger picture of a structural edit as well as more detailed work. You often encounter this term in the editing of nonfiction.

Macro editing is a useful idea too. I borrow it from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a fantastic book on revising and self-editing, and I think it is a good way to describe the work writers do themselves, particularly at early stages of drafting. Bell relates it to aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript: intention; character; structure; foreshadowing; theme; and continuity of tone.

With any of these types of editing, it’s hoped that the process is dynamic and engaged for all parties involved. If you’re a writer, the most important developmental and structural editing is probably that that you do yourself during stages of drafting, revising, and self-editing, of course. But perhaps you can be clear about what you want from an editorial relationship: go in with your eyes open, and also be ready for feedback that can improve your work or even take it in a new direction. Ask a book doctor for a critique that focuses on developmental editing, tell beta readers you’re working on a macro edit, know what to expect from a structural edit from a publisher – or be sure to have taken yourself through some of these stages before self-publishing.

(And definitely, if you’re self-publishing, don’t neglect copyediting – more on that next time, and proofreading after that.)

And a reminder: I’ll be discussing these and related matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 58: Spring Clean-up

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The first day of spring, yay! According to my own logic, the first day of spring is that day when the first of the bulbs you planted in the autumn comes into flower. A daffodil opened in the window box on Thursday – see attached.  (We do have other blooms in the garden, but they were narcissi we got from the pound shop to jump the gun for a bit of yellow.)

And Friday was very sunny, and I had finished other work, so I finally started my late winter/early spring pruning and mulching. Of course, because I tend to do things arse about tit, I set about mulching first, then pruning afterwards. But how could I resist slitting open those bags of rich, claybusting bracken and scattering scoops on our beds of claggy soil, dumping and raking and levelling and mounding? And first of all I had managed to repot some heathers, which I’d put on top of tulips in the autumn, not thinking that heathers like acid soil or knowing that tulips like alkaline, so now the heathers are doing their own thing in pots of their own, while tulips are topped with heucheras and hart’s tongue ferns and maidenhair ferns.

So this got me thinking about writing and processes in writing in terms of gardening analogies. I find that making changes in the garden comes much more easily than cutting and making changes in writing – to my own work, or someone else’s work I’m editing. Maybe it’s because I’m new to much about gardening, and freer about taking risks, even foolhardy. Maybe it’s simply that I am not overthinking it.

And I also found it so much easier to do the work that had to be done this year, now that I’m gardening more seriously and have a proper garden to play with (first things first: have something to work with). For example, I’ve always been cautious about pruning in the past in my half-hearted containers, just trimming the straggly bits while preserving old growth, but I’ve now looked up the requirements of different roses and clematises and perennials, and (though I am yet to see if this all goes to plan) I noted that some things need pruning hard, even right to the ground; the life is still there, in the roots, of course, and sometimes things need cutting back in order to flourish later on.

And what’s the worst that can happen?! I murdered several acers last year, so am restarting the survivors and new ones in pots that I can dot around in sun or shade to see whether I can avoid the leaves turning to a crisp this year. (It’s a mystery whether this was sunburn, over- or under watering. The ones I’d grown in pots in the past always flourished.)

For this writing experiment: Take any piece of writing you’ve already done (a story, a chapter, a poem, a whole novel), and imagine how you’d work on this if it were your garden at the start of spring. By this, I mean that we should really be thinking about the physical work we do as gardeners, and translating that into the things we do as writers (who too often get stuck in their own heads). Some things (e.g., cutting) will be obvious, while other things will not, but sometimes it’s the striving that really forces us to bring on the work in fresh ways.

Think and work symbolically. I’m not going to relate these examples to writing, because you can do that for yourself, but hold these ideas in your mind – and body – as you look over the writing.

Pruning: What can be cut? What might be diseased, damaged, or dead? Which crossing shoots are clashing or crowding each other, and need thinning out? What needs pruning as it’s heading in the wrong direction? What growth needs encouraging? When is a plant pretty much done in terms of size?

Potting and repotting: What needs to be moved? What is growing in an unsuitable container, and what might be more fitting for both container and contents? What suits any planting as a bedmate – compatible, pleasantly surprising company, a clash of personalities? Do different needs require their separation? Does it make more sense to experiment with growing some things in pots, before planting right into the ground? Pots can, of course, be moved around as needed. (Though I wasn’t going to butt in with writing parallels: might it be worth experimenting with short fiction rather than running the marathon of a novel?)

Mulching: What layers of mulch (compost? bark? manure? gravel? grit? leaf mould?) can be added to amend and enrich what you already have?

Landscaping and remodelling: Do the larger structure and design need greater thought? Another flower bed here, a raised bed? How can needs of light, shade, water, drainage be negotiated: is it really possible to create a garden full of sunlovers when you get so much shade in the summer? Are different plantings needed or desirable? And what shrubs or architectural plants can be used to created accents? Could boundaries and borders be made more debfined? Can more light be brought in by cutting down a tree, or even just an overhanging vine? And is it really worth all that time and money and space trying to grow vegetables when Waitrose is just a five-minute walk away?

Roots: What lies beneath, within in the roots? What has yet to show itself, but can be fed for fresh growth?

Variations: If you’re not a gardener, consider the work you do instinctively or nonverbally in other areas – cooking, or yoga, or mechanics, or football. How would you take stock of a project in that field with the aim of improvement? The point of this is to get beyond the usual words we use to think about writing and to work symbolically instead. Really feel – as a physical instinct – what the writing needs in terms of what you do as a gardener, cook, or football player. Try to get beyond thinking. 

Method: Hack away at a printout of a manuscript of your writing. You probably need to do this in a physical reality, rather than on screen. I really do think writing is a somatic process, and we have to force ourselves out of our screens/headspace/neuroses at least every now and then. You can use a pencil or pen rather than secateurs. Or you could do a bit of planning: maybe write yourself some notes in the form of a memo answering some of the questions above, as well as questions of your own creation. One definite outcome: a fresh draft in a month’s time. Though allow yourself till summer if you really want things to bloom.

Btw, be sure to paginate your manuscript. This will be useful for yourself, and make life easy for any readers you try this out on. Just saying.

Further reading: If you want a serious guide for pruning and other tasks in the garden, to help you continue with these analogies and others, you can consult the Royal Horticultural Society’s many resources.

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York 2013 Book Doctor One-On-Ones

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I read thirty samples and met thirty writers during book doctor sessions at the weekend’s Festival of Writing in York. Some people were at the start of their adventures in writing, and some writing was further along and ready for some shaping, or at least focused and encouraging direction. Certain pieces just needed a few tweaks before testing out on agents or editors and finding someone who likes – loves – their work. And one submission was raring to go, and in fact came from an author who already had an agent by the time of the festival (yay! and I could see why).

Everyone was enthusiastic, and everyone was open to the idea of improvement (even the one with an agent already). It was great to meet and greet and discuss various ways forward.

Some of the most common ‘areas of improvement’ (or if we are calling spades spades, ‘weaknesses’), plus other observations:

* Overwriting: overdescription, overcooked prose, clutter, too much explanation that was not really needed – sometimes just pruning one word makes a hell of a difference.

* Pacing: see overwriting above, but also, above the level of the sentence, the ordering and timing of aspects of content.

* A lack of mood or atmosphere, or a lack of personality within the voice and narration. Maybe it is a bit too overwritten, or flat …

* Or too linear: And then … And then … And then … Every little detail is not usually necessary. Single out what’s important, and make sure it’s not drowned out.

* Info dumps, aka expository lumps, which can feel stilted or clunky.

* An unpersuasive voice or point of view, or more changes in POV than a few pages can easily handle. Let us rest in the world of that character, and really experience it.

* An over-reliance on foreground action. Of course we prefer Showing over Telling (usually), but do invite some depth and perspective into your work as well. A novel is not a film, and sometimes you can pull back the focus and use a bit of narration, i.e., Tell Me A Story. Voice helps too.

* A lack of storytelling craft and technique in general. A story concept might be fine, but the telling lacks an edge. Gone Girl is a super, fast-paced novel; its concept is simple and even unexceptional (a missing spouse), but what’s important is its telling: compelling characters, clever use of point of view, well-crafted sentences that help in building tension.

* I sometimes wanted more of an emotional connection with a character.

* I sometimes wanted more texture in the writing, e.g., specific and concrete details of setting or character, maybe delivered in specific and concrete verbs and nouns, or through action rather than description, or done with greater authority.

* A number of books opened with people waking up, sometimes from dreams. Which is fine, because sometimes books need to. But when maybe a quarter of the writing samples opened with a scene of this sort, I’m thinking this might be a bit of a cliché. Is there something fresh and unique from your world that you can give us?

* Quite often, when I was discussing some lack, I was told it was ‘coming in the next chapter’. Hmm. Maybe think about starting with the next chapter. Or at the very least foreshadowing it somehow. Just think about it (yes, go on, really open your heart to the idea).

* If more than a couple of readers are halted by the same thing, really think about some sort of change (again, just thinking – you might decide not to act on the thinking in the end).

* If a couple of readers have contradictory responses to something, rejoice! For this might be a real crux in the work. Pause a while with/at that point, and consider what else might need doing here; there’s clearly something happening there – can you do more with it, go deeper?!

* Page numbers lacking. I had to count and pencil in page numbers on some scripts in order to have page numbers to refer to on the feedback form. I’d not have done this if the scripts had been longer. Make life (work) easy for your readers. Nag nag (that really is a nag – and if you don’t know how to use autopagination, check it out).

* Take time to integrate feedback. And if it ain’t broke after all, don’t fix it.

* Don’t run before you can walk. A very wise writing teacher once had a conversation with me about the idea of ‘pride’. It was done in the most abstract of ways, but the P word was mentioned, and by the time I got home and licked my wounds I knew exactly what she meant, and exactly where my overextensions weren’t working.

* But going back to walking and running: have faith that with the right approach you too can be Mo Farah. Or maybe a good marathon-finisher. Or even just have the skill and energy you need to make it to Waitrose to buy lunch.

Before I go: sometimes I hear people say during or afterwards that they do not ‘agree’ with things I was saying in my feedback, and then I wonder 1. if I’d been too heavy-handed in my feedback, or 2. if they were really listening.

Points made are rarely matters of agreement or disagreement (unless I’m talking about the spelling of my name – and even then I’m usually forgiving, as it’s a funny name with a funny spelling, and hey, none of us are perfect). Points made by myself are not usually solutions, but surfacing issues in the writing, and often there might be something there that needs a bit more mulling.

Yes, sometimes things are misread, or misunderstood – and sometimes the reason for that is lurking, and needs addressing. Feedback I offer is usually a matter of impressions and suggestions, and things to think about or try out. And sometimes we need a little pushing … Don’t be afraid to push back, either – the process of pushing often gets you where you need to be.