Tagged: editing

York Festival of Writing 2013: Mini-Course, Workshops, And Panel


Here are some links and notes arising from the mini-course and workshops I led at the Festival of Writing at the weekend.



Carolyn Forche, ‘The Colonel’ – listen first, then read. Where is the FIRE?!

I used ‘I Remember’ in this mini-course, and it is also a starting point for a Friday Writing Experiment elsewhere on my site. I love this exercise for many reasons, and most of all for how it fosters a natural and easy (instinctive) voice within the writing. All credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.

If you’re curious about the tarot images that first inspired me, some pictures of the Rider-Waite deck are linked here. I suggest you look at the Aces of each of the suits/elements – Wands/Fire, Cups/Water, Swords/Air, and Pentacles/Earth – and if you want to go further maybe take a look at Queens, Kings, Knights, and Pages. I love these traditional images. Maybe you can think about ways in which they embody purpose, emotion, thinking, and the material world in powerful, symbolic ways. Maybe the pictures can even give you some ideas about how to use their respective elements in your writing.

One day I hope to write and publish a book on The Four Elements of Writing …



You can find some examples of good cover letters at Mediabistro’s GalleyCat: ‘Successful Query Letters For Literary Agents’ (fiction) and ‘Agent Query Letters That Actually Worked For Nonfiction’. They are American, so be forgiving, and imaginative in how you need to adapt.

I can’t remember if they were mentioned at the panel, but do consider the resources and events of genre organisations such as the British Science Fiction Association, the British Fantasy Society, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. AboutSF has a ton of resources too.

Oh, and sorry if I sounded snippy about the idea of magical realism. I LOVE MAGICAL REALISM, and even write stuff that could fit in that vein sometimes. But this article touches on some of the issues of how it can be more problematic as a working definition for writers than it is as a literary term used by scholars. My biggest issue with magical realism: thinking about it can make the writing too intellectualised, or overthought. (But then overthinking can be a problem when world creation takes over many sf and fantasy stories.)



Okay, I was a bit overambitious with this one, and I apologise for that. It was supposed to be half about what happens during editorial processes at a publisher, and half made up of tips on editing for writers, but I only really covered the first half.

The one thing I really want to emphasise: if you are self-publishing, please build these editorial stages into your workflow:

* structural editing (mostly: matters of shaping the content)
* copyediting (mostly: improving the text word by word and line by line)
* proofreading (quality control: eyeballing of the text in its final format)

I really believe in self-publishing. Really really really do. But there are too many editorially substandard self-published works out there. Yours must not be one of them.

And if you are aiming for someone else to publish you, you can probably (within reason) let their copyeditor worry about your hyphenation patterns and punctuation. We don’t want such anxieties to stifle your creativity. Just be sure your slip is not showing in such a way that you look sloppy or unprofessional.


* The University of Oxford Style Guide (more academic, of course, but covers many of the basics)
* George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (the full version)
* The Subversive Copy Editor blog (so you know who we fret over, so you shouldn’t)
* Philip Pullman on novels in the present tense (okay, never say never, but really really think through the limits of the present tense)
* In case you really care (and want to come into the Light): That vs Which
* David Gaughran, Let’s Get Digital (okay, he was teaching at York last weekend too, but if you are self-publishing and did not attend his classes you should probably take a look at his books – they are excellent)
* Some coverage of the Joan Collins trial:

Stephanie has a miscarriage and tells a doctor or nurse not to tell anyone, while she goes about trying to adopt a baby. In the meantime, she pretends for eight months to be pregnant. When the husband of her best friend sees her without her pregnancy disguise, she murders him. Then she runs to the forest to give birth to her imaginary child. Or something like that.

An editor should be able to help …



Last week I was cursing myself. What on earth did I sign up for this for six months ago? I’ve not covered this in an hour-long session before, and I don’t have all that grammatical jargon at my fingertips, because I wasn’t taught it either; I’ve had to mug up on it during my years of teaching, and it still doesn’t always come to me instinctively. Or to think about it sideways: my instinct tells me to go ahead and edit a sentence, but I don’t always know why, and as a teacher I need to know why, and I also need to be able to translate all that bloody jargon into something other writers can understand. I mean, come on – even the grammarians can’t agree whether there are eight, or nine, or seven parts of speech …

But I was pleased with how this workshop turned out. You were a great group of patient people (thanks to those who donated sentences!), and I covered the main points I wanted to make even if much of the rest was left to the handouts. Just remember that grammar and syntax are mostly not rules but a working system.

And try to use parts of speech in their best possible ways through remembering that aphorism ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’, and considering how nouns and verbs form their functions there.

Some resources:

* An old and out-of-copyright edition of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, before E.B. White was involved
* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax – recommended if you want an accessible introduction to grammar
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft – in fact, this is perhaps the most accessible guide of all, and includes chapters on: punctuation; sentence length and complex syntax; adjective and adverb; and subject pronoun and verb (you might need to order online)

A snap of that chart of hyphenation patterns from the Chicago Manual of Style is shown above. It’s taken from the 13th edition. They changed some of their own rules for the 16th edition, eek!



I remember forgetting to mention various things at various points during the weekend. I remember that I’ve since forgotten what they were. Oh dear. I’ll remember some other time.

Something I forgot to add when I first posted this was a link to the Erotic Readers & Writers Association for someone I met during a book doctor one-to-one. In general, know thy genre: the conventions used in the writing, the conventions offline and on- where you get to hang out and network (and maybe eventually get published).

And another recommendation for writers of erotica: Elements of Arousal by Lars Eighner. It’s a how-to book on writing erotica that is a little out of date now, thanks to digital publishing, but it has some of the BEST advice on writing fiction of any type (though the faint-hearted might note he also writes gay erotica, and the braver-hearted might find it is out of print, though look around for second-hand copies and also Google the author too).

Something I can’t forget: As ever, many thanks to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop (sorry you couldn’t be there, Harry – but: priorities!). And thanks to everyone else associated, and to everyone who came along and made it such fun. I met some people who now feel like old friends as well as lots of new and fantastic people, both writers and industry professionals.

Beyond that, here are links on the book doctor one-on-ones and where you might want to go next (aka a DIY MA in Creative Writing). And also, here’s a more personal response.

York 2013 Book Doctor One-On-Ones


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.