Friday, 23 May 2014

Writers' Services: assembling the right team

You know all those house building programmes that have become so popular in recent years? From Grand Designs to The House That £100k Built – they celebrate DIY builders, designing and constructing their own homes.

One thing you will notice, though, is that however hands-on the home owners are, they will recognise the limits of their own skills and bring in professionals to do aspects of the work – like plastering, plumbing and electrics – that just have to be done right. Even when they DO have those skills, they bring in the professionals to check they are doing things right.

Publishing your own book is like building your own house. Some of those observing the self-publishing phenomenon from the outside – and some of those nervously contemplating attempting it themselves for the first time – imagine that it means the author doing everything alone, from the moment they write The End at the bottom of the very first draft until the book starts flying off the (real or virtual) shelves.

In truth an indie author, like the DIY builder, is more like the manager of a micro-business, taking responsibility for each stage of construction, but knowing when and how to bring in the professionals to help. So what are those professional services you are going to need?


 To carry on with the house building metaphor a bit longer – that first draft isn’t even the blueprint for the published novel. It’s more like the rough sketches for that Grand Design you’ve been dreaming of. You’re going to have to do quite a bit more work on it yourself, bash it into shape, make your vision clearer for your readers. So you go through as many rewrites as it needs until it’s as good as you can possibly make it. And then you need to call in the editors!

First off – a word or warning. Close friends and family do NOT make good editors. Even if they are the best-read people you know. Even if they are writers themselves. They love you. They believe in you. They want you to succeed. And with the best will in the world, they are going to read your work through rose-tinted spectacles.

 What you need to do is find someone you can trust to be ruthlessly honest. Who understands the genre you are writing in and the standards you need to meet. Who can pull apart the work you have just spent the last few months bleeding over without making you feel as if you’re a complete waste of space. And who can help you build it up again so that it is still YOUR book, not theirs, but even better than you ever thought possible.

 It may sounds as if we’re asking for the impossible – but they do exist, these people. We know. We’ve found a few of them – and we’re recommending some of them here. (Another excellent source of recommended service providers is the Alliance of Independent Authors Partner Members.)

 Broadly speaking, there are three types of editing. The lines between them are a bit blurry, and I find it’s easier to think of them as three separate processes.

 First is STRUCTURAL EDITING. This is taking a macro view of the book. If you have sub-plots going nowhere, scenes that advance nothing or characters that fail to come alive; if parts of your story are told in the wrong sequence, you’ve begun it too early or dragged on the ending too long: this is where it should be picked up. At this stage, you want someone who can judge the ms as a whole, and who knows the rules and standards of your genre (and I’m including lit fic as a genre here). Good beta-readers can be excellent at this (but bear in mind what I said about not using friends and family).

CATRIONA TROTH is a structural editor with experience of working with both fiction and non-fiction MSS. 

The next stage is COPY EDITING. When all those big, macro issues have been fixed, it’s time to take a finer-grained look at your ms. A good copy editor will still look at issues of pace. But they will focus at the level of individual sentences and paragraphs. Are you using unnecessary verbiage? Or is this scene underwritten? They’ll spot if a character’s eyes change colour part way through the book. They will also check (or at least question) factual detail. (Was the model of car you describe available when your story was set? Is it really possible to shoot someone at that distance with the gun you’ve given your villain?)  

And finally there is PROOFREADING. This is editing as a lay person understands it: checking spelling, grammar, punctuation. In a manuscript being prepared for publication, it also includes checking that you are using things like em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens in the correct professional way.

Is all this really necessary? Well, the reading public seems to think so. As reviews on Amazon clearly show, readers can be savagely critical of self-published books that are full of slip-shod amateur errors.

PERRY ILES has been the proofreader for almost all of Triskele' books.

Two other terms you may hear are ‘manuscript critique service’ and ‘beta reader.’ 

 A professional manuscript critique service (such as Cornerstones in the UK) is likely to offer a range of services from which you can choose a package suited to you. They may look at your whole MS, or only an extract. In addition to the editing services above, they will often bring to bear their experience of the market to give you an idea of the commercial viability of your book. Critiquing service may also look at an MS at an earlier stage of development than final editing.

LORRAINE MACE and JOHN HUDSPITH both offer a critiquing service that covers elements of both structural and copy editing.

Polly Courtney worked with editor JOY TIBBS on her novels Feral YouthGolden Handcuffs and Poles Apart.

 A beta reader, on the other hand, is likely to be a trusted volunteer. Like beta testers in the software industry, who evaluate pre-release software, a beta reader will read your MS when it is close to release and let you know if any part of the book is not working for them. They are likely to focus on the same sorts of areas as structural editor – pace, engagement with characters, any major plot holes. But as they are readers, not generally writers or editors, they may point out problems but not necessarily suggest how to fix them.


 So now you have a wonderful story, thoroughly edited to a professional standard. What next? 


Self-publishing packages like Kindle Direct Publishing make it very easy for authors to select a few elements from a pool of images and fonts, put them together through a semi-automated process and come up with their own cover design. So why do you need to bother paying a professional designer? 

 Well, for one thing, there is a high risk that your cover is going to end up looking suspiciously like at least half a dozen others, as authors pick from the same limited stock of options. Secondly, it’s amazing how tiny things about the way a cover is put together can change how professional it looks. Most of us do it at an entirely unconscious level, but put two covers together and we will instinctively prefer the one that obeys all those hidden ‘rules’ about visual impact. Designers understand that. 

 So find a good designer, one who can realise your unique vision for your book. And shop around. Designers can be expensive – but they don’t have to be. There are some outstanding ones out there who are also very affordable.  


The last stage before uploading your ms to a publishing service is INTERIOR FORMATTING. Now, this is something a lot of indie authors do for themselves. It’s not intrinsically difficult and there are plenty of programs and packages out there which can help you with the process. But you need to be aware of the rules about laying out the book as a whole (what goes in the ‘front matter’ before the main text, and in what order, and what goes in the back matter), and about laying out individual pages (first pages of chapters vs. the rest, how page numbering works). You need to understand about balancing the fonts used in the text with those used in headings. And finally you need to understand the differences between formatting print books and eBooks, and the subtle differences between different eBook formats.

 If you are prepared to take the time to learn the rules, then by all means tackle this step yourself. But a slip-up at this stage can make your book scream ‘amateur.’ So if you are not completely confident, it is worth employing someone experienced so do your interior formatting for you. 

JD SMITH has created both cover design and the interior formatting for all of Triskele's books. 

 Once the book is formatted, you have an MS ready to upload to your publishing service. And that really has been made very easy. So long as you are reasonably comfortable around computers, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do that for yourself. (See our Leaving Prints chapter in The Triskele Trail for a post-formatting checklist.) 

 And there you have it. You’ve launched your book. You have made all the decisions about how the book should be presented to the world. And you’ve assembled the team around you who can help you realise that vision. Congratulations, you are an independent professional!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Interview with Jane Davis

Jane, thanks for joining us at The Triskele Bookclub.

Thank you for inviting me.

Can we start with the cover? How did you, or your designer, create such a beautiful image?

Having worked with Andrew Candy on the covers for my two previous books, I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things, we had already established a brand ‘look’ and a trust. The way we operate is that I am responsible for sourcing the images and coming up with a basic concept for the design, and he executes it using his marvellous eye and technical wizardry, which, frankly, is way beyond me. Some authors hand over far more of the process to their designer, but, for me, one of the joys of self-publishing is how I present my work.
Normally, I prefer to avoid giving my characters a face - this is something best left to readers’ imaginations - but I also remembered what a strong image a boy can be.

Initially, I looked for a boy with a pair of binoculars, but that would have obscured his face. What I found was far more powerful. A boy looking out of a window, his face reflected back at him. The wonder in his eyes is palpable. A boy who might be looking out of the window of his council flat and catching his first glimpse of an owl...

Shamayal pointed to the empty shelf space, then paused in front of the large framed photograph over the fireplace. “I bin meanin’ to aks about that. When I woke up it was starin’ right at me. It’s some kinda owl, right?”

“A barn owl.” Aimee’s owl, to be specific, because that is how Jim thought of it. Looking at the photograph afresh, he was still struck by the image: the bird’s talons extended, its whole body taut as it lands on a slim post.

“Right, right. The wings, all spread out and that?” The boy mused. “They’re kind of like an angel’s.”

Funny kind of angel. If that’s what she was. “In some cultures, people think they become owls after they die. That would make them ghosts.”

“Ghosts? Yeah, I get that.”

I gave Andrew a very specific set of instructions, most of which he ignored. What he produced took me by surprise. I had imagined that the text would need to be brightly coloured. I had also imagined my small owl dancing along the top of the titles. I explained that I was not at all afraid of white space. Instead, this is what he came up with.

And now it's difficult to imagine the book with a different cover.

The inflexibility and bureaucracy of the British education system appears rather accurately portrayed. Is that your background or is this the result of good research?

If I’m completely honest, a structural editor, the mother of teenage children, pointed out that there were some flaws in my initial ‘research’ (or lack of). It was while I was ironing out those issues that I discovered another major flaw: I had failed to take account of the fact that it is thirty years since I left school. The behaviour of my teachers would have been illegal under current Child Protection laws. The stupid thing is that all of the information I needed was available on the local government website, had I realised I needed it. Then it struck me that there was a huge opportunity to be had. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.

My angle was the suggestion that some of the rules that have been put in place with the best of intentions - to protect - actually deprive the most vulnerable children of confidential counsel from someone they trust. I appreciate that not everyone will agree with that view but, when I was growing up, we had a wonderful teacher who operated an open-house and provided a safe place for those who were struggling at home, no questions asked. It was surprising who would turn up at her door. Today, in an environment when any relationship between teachers and pupils outside the classroom is taboo, she would be sacked. I think that’s terribly sad. Fiction provides a unique opportunity to tell one side of a story through the eyes of one or two characters. It’s not the whole picture by any means, but it is one aspect of it.

One of your strengths is powerful characterisation and believable dialogue. Many authors who excel in that area have experience in other media – is that true of you?

Not at all. I left school at the age of sixteen with an RE ‘O’ Level and a swimming certificate and entered the world of insurance. My writing is very character-based, so from my perspective, you couldn’t have paid me a better compliment.

I come from a large family where the rule was that it was rude to interrupt, so I guess that I’ve become a listener and a keen observer. As someone who never has the right words to say at the right time and who regurgitates conversations over and over in her mind (sometime months after they take place), it is rather gratifying to be able to put words in someone else’s mouth. I often get the dialogue down on the page and use it as a framework, hanging the prose off it. Of course, what the reader sees is the fine-tuned version which has gone through any number of edits.

How did you go about nailing the voice of Shamayal, the disenfranchised contemporary teenager?

Can I get this out of the way? I’m white, middle(ish) class and born in the 1960s, writing the voice of an under-privileged mixed race boy, born in the 1990s. The first property I bought was a two-bedroom flat on the High Path Estate in Wimbledon. This was my blueprint for the estate. Although I haven’t walked in his shoes, living where Shamayal grew up, I have walked in his footsteps. Then, I borrowed a few mannerisms from someone I used to work with – the repetition of right, right, right. The deep laugh. I watched a few episodes of Toy Boy and (tell me if you can get arrested for this) I jotted down conversations overheard on trains and in my local park. Of course, you could never actually transcribe teenagers’ speech patterns. They would be completely unreadable. After you delete all of the ‘likes’ and the majority of expletives, what you aim to arrive at is a sanitised version which still retains authenticity. Think Ronnie Barker’s approach when writing the script of Porridge.

It’s a joy to write characters like Shamayal and Bins (an elderly man who is assumed to have learning difficulties) because they have such specific voices. You can hear them speaking to you. It’s far more difficult to write dialogue for an ‘everyman’, like my main character, Jim. You have to find your character’s quirks and vulnerabilities and exploit the hell out of them.

This is the third book of yours I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed, and now I notice certain recurrent themes: the effects of the past on the present, and unexpected events which challenge the system, whether that is religious, social or pattern of thinking. Are these themes conscious for you?

I am hugely interested in cause and effect, yes. One of my favourite authors is John Irving and the first novel of his that I read was A Prayer for Owen Meany. Irving overlays the story of Owen Meany, (a boy brought up to believe that he was the product of a virgin birth), with the somewhat dull present-day life of his best friend, John. Talk about cause and effect! I enjoy a novel where a back story is gradually unveiled. I think that one of the reasons authors write is because they want to create a world with logic, with order, with consequences, sometimes doling out justice, sometimes giving people second chances. All authors are playing God to some extent.

As for unexpected events… most of the events I have written about are based in truth, albeit slightly unexpected ones. What inspired me to write These Fragile Things was the discovery that a woman in Surbiton – close to where I live – claims she has seen visions of the Virgin Mary every day for the past thirty years. When challenged recently that that there were too many coincidences in I Stopped Time, I referred the reviewer to the biography of model-turned-photographer-turned-journalist Lee Miller. I see myself as a magpie. I collect obscure facts and think, how can I recycle them?

How do you work? Your books often contain more than one timeline or point of view, so I’m guessing you’re a planner.

Gosh, no. I am a layer-er. With the exception of Half-truths and White Lies, which virtually wrote itself, none of my published novels bear any resemblance to their early drafts. A Funeral for an Owl is no exception. It started life as the story of thirty-year old Jim recounting the story of his nine-year old self’s friendship with Aimee, a girl from the other side of the tracks. Most of the action took place over a six-week period, the summer holidays. The reader was left in no doubt that Aimee killed herself. One of my colleagues had committed suicide leaving behind two teenage children, and this event and its aftermath were very much on my mind.

Then I asked myself, who Jim is telling his story to? Is he in therapy? Is it one of the doctors who saved his life? The twist was that it was St Peter and that Jim was an aetheist. He got a second chance and woke up on the operating table. My agent loved it! She said that we should put it out there immediately.

But Transworld, my then publisher, exercised their right of first refusal. My book lacked a strong female character and they had put a lot of effort into marketing me under their women’s fiction imprint, something that completely passed me by. And so I set the manuscript aside for a number of years. In the meanwhile I wrote I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things, but I held onto a soft spot for Jim and his owl story. The characters were very real to me. I had blurred the lines between my lives and theirs by including personal history and setting their stories in my local neighbourhood. Also, the material was too good to shelve. And so, when I came to the end of my next project, I began to re-write it.

Unless you want to be pigeon-holed as an author of Christian fiction, you cannot play the religion card twice. Having exhausted this with These Fragile Things, St Peter obviously had to be shown the door. In the meantime, knife crime had risen dramatically in London. My story already had knife crime in it, so I explored where I could take that.

The central theme in my previous fiction was missing persons, and I found myself studying the Missing Persons ads in The Metro, the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds whose stories aren’t sufficiently high-profile to land them on the pages of newspapers. They are simply slipping between the cracks. And so I looked into the facts. One in ten children ‘run away’ from home before they reach the age of sixteen, an estimated 100,000 every year. Shockingly, a quarter of those young people are actually forced out of their homes by parents or carers. Two-thirds are not reported to the police as missing. That’s 75,000 children for whom a Missing Persons ad will never be placed. All of these children are highly vulnerable, at risk of substance abuse, sexual exploitation and homelessness. Mobile phones and social networking sites have made it even easier to target them. And then I discovered a particularly poignant quote from Lady Catherine Meye: “We can't establish for certain how many children are missing. You'd have more chance of finding a stray dog.” So that got me thinking, what if…?

Every time you introduce a new angle, each what if? question has to be pushed to its limits.

I know that writing in such an organic manner is not ideal, and I would certainly never recommend it, but setting material aside and revisiting it is an excellent practice and allows far greater objectivity. You have to analyse what isn’t working any why. Writing is very much a learning process and I’d like to think that my writing had improved. I went back and polished every page, really concentrating on the short-lived relationship between Jim and Aimee. Young as Jim was, even though there was an age difference, even though their relationship didn’t develop, there would have been sexual attraction. Ignore something as critical as that, even if you think it might be taboo, and the writing you produce is dishonest. When someone has spent years dwelling on a very short period of time, on events that gained greater significance afterwards, you aren’t simply reporting facts. Jim would have embellished the story in his mind. The Aimee the reader meets is the memory of the memory of the memory. She had to shine, everything she says has to carry a message, and the summer had to feel endless. My job was to convince the reader that these few events shaped a man’s life.

Also, I got the opportunity to meet Shamayal and Ayisha, and to turn Bins, my favourite character, into a hero.

And what’s next for Jane Davis?

Next is the release of my new novel An Unchoreographed Life which I hope will take place at the end of the month. I’m just in the process of finalising the cover design and the e-book formatting. The title is an echo of Margot Fonteyne’s description of her tumultuous off-stage life. It’s a story about a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother - which, I have to admit, is an odd choice for someone who avoids writing sex scenes. However, the focus is very much on the mother and daughter relationship. I took my lead from What Maisie Knew rather than Belle de Jour.

Suspicious though I am about talking about pipeline projects, I will risk saying that I am three chapters into a new novel, the working title of which is The Things we Lost in the Fire. Actually, that’s a bit of a giveaway. But, like everything that has come before it, I suspect that it will change...

 You can read our review of Funeral for an Owl here.


A Funeral for an Owl - Review

Review by JJ Marsh

A shocking opener involving a school stabbing throws the reader right into the middle of three lives. Ayisha is a teacher who believes in The Rules. Shamayal is a teenager from the estate who follows no rules - not his dad's, not the gang's, no one's. Jim teaches history. His own history has taught him that rules are open to interpretation.

The narrative is divided: one strand details a younger Jim's encounter with a girl from the other side of the tracks, Aimee. Their unlikely friendship develops into an obsession with bird-watching, triggered by the sight of a barn owl. It's a summer Jim will never forget. The second strand unpacks the present-day implications of teacher-pupil boundaries, an education system smothered by red tape and how easy it is for an individual to slip through the cracks.

The motif of the owl as angel, ghost, predator and victim recurs throughout the book as random kindnesses and cruelties affect the lives of others. Events change the characters: Ayisha learns how the rule book does not cover every eventuality; Shamayal discovers Bins, the old bloke living rough, should not be written off; and Jim's return to the present opens his eyes to how he's been living in the past.

It's a richly detailed novel peopled with nuanced characters, sharp dialogue and thought-provoking situations which encourage the reader to stop and wonder, 'What would I do?'. The setting is subtle yet realistic and creates a world you are reluctant to leave. Jane Davis is an extraordinary writer, whose deft blend of polished prose and imaginative intelligence makes you feel in the safest of hands.

I bought A Funeral for an Owl as a birthday present for my mum. There is no greater compliment.

You can read our interview with Jane Davis here.

Friday, 9 May 2014

How To Organise A Writers' Workshop

by JJ Marsh

I fell into organising workshops by accident. In spring 2011, I attended my first local event run by Zürich Writers Workshop. Over one weekend, I learnt a huge amount, not only from tutors Janet Skeslien Charles and Susan Jane Gilman, but also from my fellow writers. So I couldn’t wait to sign up for the autumn one.

However, various circumstances meant ZWW would not have the time to organise another workshop that year. I asked their permission to have a go myself, then talked to my collaborator at Nuance Words, Libby O. We could see there was a demand, we knew some suitable tutors, and with blind optimism, assumed organising a two-day event for thirty writers would be a breeze.

Ha ha. Ha.

TIPE: The Independent Publishing Event

Three years later, we’ve run five different events, and learnt how to avoid a few of the land mines.

Here’s our Ten-Step Programme to organising a successful event:

1. Find out what participants want. Canvass opinion by whatever means at your disposal. Here in Zürich, there are lots of organisations with a broad membership which have a focal point such as a message board.

2. Get specifics. ‘Writing for kids’ is not enough. Young adult? Children? Picture books? Publishing advice or creative input? What EXACTLY do you want?

JD Smith on Cover Design
3. Locate tutors who can meet those demands. If using writers, make sure they are used to running workshops. If possible, maximise their presence by offering the local bookshop a reading/signing event the night before.

4. Assess costs. We’re a non-profit organisation, so we simply need to cover our expenses. We have to factor in flights and hotels on top of venue, equipment, catering and tutor fees, then balance that against how much is reasonable to charge participants.

Writers' Boot Camp
5. Organise a payment system. After preparing invoices individually and chasing late-payers proved to be an enormous headache, we began using Eventbrite, which does the work for you.

6. Advertise. When you know what you’re offering, reduce it to a snappy headline, a two-line teaser and a paragraph with more detail. Find a good image to brand the event. Then get it everywhere – use every network you can find. The Barefoot Snow Walkers Group might not seem the obvious place to find writers, but you’d be surprised.

7. Manage expectations. Communicate with tutors, play whack-a-mole with individual queries and requests, and be clear what you can and can’t deliver. Ensure the day includes lots of breaks and networking opportunities.

8. Prepare practicalities. Technology back-up, feedback forms, logistics of airport collections, signage and hashtags (for Twitter purposes), name badges, pens, Blu-Tak, camera, contact details of key personnel. Review names and needs (I put everyone’s key details on index cards and test myself.)

9. Host. Greet participants, make introductions, take pictures, talk to people during the weekend to get a feel of how it’s going, write notes for follow-up, thank tutors, participants and venue. Collect feedback forms, deliver guests to airport, lie down in darkened room.

Write Con 13 with panellists Joanna Penn, Susan Jane Gilman, Emma Darwin and Andrew Lownie
10. Read feedback, note positives and negatives, ignore outliers (one guy complained about the weather), send follow-up notes, pay bills, write up event on blog, set up a Google alert and then start planning the next one.

Other great writing events in Europe: