Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

Are we there yet? Knowing when to edit.

013zBelieve me, the quickest way to a bad editing experience is to have your manuscript edited too soon. There is no point wasting money on a copy-edit (that is, one that deals with spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and so on) until the structure and the story are completely sorted, because even the slightest redraft can result in most of the copy-edit, and the money you spent on it, vanishing into the Recycle Bin before your very eyes.

The key to a good edit is to know your manuscript and to choose the right type of edit at the right time.

Let’s imagine you have reached the end of your first draft. So, the next step is to send the manuscript to an editor? Actually, no. The next step is to give yourself a well-earned pat on the back for finishing the draft in the first place. Then shove the entire manuscript in a drawer (or the computer equivalent of a drawer) for a period of time and forget about it. Most people recommend two weeks proving time, I personally would suggest a month, or longer, if you can manage it. Go and write something else – a short story, a poem or flash fiction, assuming you aren’t already diving into your next novel.

DSC00072When you are ready, take out your novel and read it straight through, just as you would any other book.  This should give you a clear idea as to which parts of the story are working, which parts aren’t, and what, and where, the main problems are. Time for draft two, and, perhaps, even draft three or four, who knows? Repeat the process for each draft, and when you have the manuscript as good as you can get it, structurally-speaking, you can edit it yourself, checking in particular for obvious typos and spelling mistakes. Then send it to your beta readers: fellow writers, friends and family whose judgement you trust and who will be honest with you. Once you have all the comments back from your readers, proceed to draft and self-edit number whatever we’re at.

Now your manuscript is ready for a substantive edit.

Heart writing 001Many writers are sorely tempted to skip this step mainly due to the expense of hiring a substantive editor. But you should remember that the story is one of the most important elements of your novel (character being another). Forgive the bluntness, but there is enough evidence out there in the marketplace to show that a rattling good story will sell a book, even when the prose is fairly pedestrian. Hiring a substantive editor to help you get the story right could be the best investment you make. If you really can’t stretch to a full substantive edit, at the very least, have it professionally critiqued, so that you are sure there are no major plot, character or pacing difficulties lurking in the manuscript just waiting to pop out and infuriate your readers.

Now, fast-forward another draft or three to the point where you are absolutely certain there will be no further amendments to the story or structure. Congratulations, you’ve made it! It’s time for a copy-edit.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

5 signs that you need an editor

  1. Your friends, family, writing group colleagues – in fact, all your beta readers – have been highlighting the same problems for a few drafts now, despite your efforts to resolve them.  When groups this diverse are all agreeing, and you don’t know how to fix the problems, it may be time to enlist some professional help.
  2. You’ve twisted and turned that plot, killed off a few darlings, resurrected and re-instated them; you’ve expunged large chunks of text, surgically removed smaller chunks, pasted back large and small bits, jigged it all about, picked a number between 1 and 10, meditated on the fact that the meaning of life is 42, and yet you know in your heart of hearts, it’s still not right, but you are thaaat close!  Time to bring in the big guns.
  3. You’ve received a positive rejection letter (yes, such things do exist!) from a literary agent or publisher with some suggestions or comments. Take their suggestions on board and consider having your next draft edited. It might be just the ticket to get you that positive acceptance letter you’ve been dreaming of.
  4. You are thinking of self-publishing. Please, please, pretty please get an editor. Get two. Or at least two edits – substantive to deal with any structural issues and a copy-edit to help your prose to sparkle.
  5. You’ve already self-published and reviewers are suggesting your book needs editing. Take their advice, especially if you are working on your next book. And when you find a good editor for Book Two – why not let them at Book One as well? If soap scents and chocolate flavours can be regularly reinvented, there is no reason why you can’t sell your own new improved version novel. Who knows, maybe some of your reviewer naysayers will find themselves having to eat their less than charitable words as a result?

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

Let the right one in: choosing an editor

DCFN0008.JPGYou’ve made the decision that your book needs editing, but how do you go about hiring an editor? A good working relationship with an editor can be of tremendous value to an author – a bad one can leave an author demoralised and upset. As with any other business relationship, putting a little effort into finding the right editor in the first instance can save you a lot of heartache at a later stage.

Here are 5 tips to help you make a choice:

  1. Be clear about what you want, what your book needs and what editing stage it is at.  Don’t waste your money hiring someone to copy-edit text that is likely to be removed in the next draft. If you are still working on your story or structure, hire a substantive editor instead.
  2. Word-of-mouth recommendation. Ask your writer friends, their friends and their friends’ friends about their editors. If they are happy to recommend an editor to you, you are already off to a good start. If none of your friends write, this may be a good time to join a writers’ group and link up with like-minded folks at writing workshops, seminars and on social networking sites. Ask questions, find out what’s good and what is to be avoided.
  3. Picture3BAsk for a sample of the editor’s work and/or client testimonials. Most editors will be happy to provide these for you. They’ll often ask for a sample of your manuscript in any event, so that they can judge the editing work involved. An editing sample gives you a chance to see how the editor treats your text and how you respond to editorial criticism and amendments.
  4. Shop around – don’t feel obliged to plump for the first recommendation. You may have a glowing editor recommendation from your five best writing pals, but if they are all writing romantic comedy and your book is a gritty, intrigue-laden fantasy epic, the editor may not be the one you are looking for. Use your instinct – if the editing sample and other testimonials feel right to you, then go for it. If not, make further inquiries.
  5. Be reasonable with your editing budget – remember, if you’re looking to pay peanuts, you risk attracting monkeys. When properly done, editing is a skilled and time-consuming process. Heart writing 001For that reason it is also expensive. Also, most good editors will be busy and you may need to book an editing slot with them beforehand to ensure they are available when your manuscript is ready for editing. So plan your budget and your publishing deadlines well in advance.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

The business of writing

There is no doubt that online publishing is transforming the industry and opening up wonderful opportunities for writers to control and manage their publishing careers. But with increased control comes increased responsibility.

DSC00070In her book From Pitch to Publication, UK literary agent, Carole Blake explains how agents and publishers seek out authors who are planning a career in writing. Of course they do. Publishing a book is an expensive and time-consuming business involving months of preparation, editing, marketing and promotional events and traditional publishing houses don’t want to spend all that money on an author who does not intend to become a professional writer.

The same holds true for self-published and indie writers. It doesn’t really matter that you may only ever write one book, the fact is, if you ask people to pay for your work, one can only assume you are putting yourself out there as a professional writer. If you want a professional writing career, then you need to approach it as you would any other business. As we all know, going the traditional publishing route doesn’t guarantee a literary gem, but it does give an author a head start in terms of available resources. Self-publishing authors, on the other hand, need to organise each stage of publication themselves.

This is the crux of the matter. As I mentioned in my previous post ‘Remind me again why I need an editor‘, publication is the process of transferring your private writing work to the public arena. The fact remains, however, that many indie/self-publishing authors are simply not aware of the work which goes into preparing a book for publication, particularly as many of the processes, such as editing, are traditionally ‘behind the scenes’ jobs.

You should remember that publication is not synonymous with printing. Nor is it just about writing. As an indie author in an open market, you are competing internationally with a huge number of other authors, both self- and traditionally published, and competition for readers’ attention and custom is fierce. 012jBasic business principles apply to self-publishing as to any other profession. Work out a short-term and long-term strategy; if your readers like your first book, they will be clamouring for more almost immediately, so you need to plan ahead. Editing, design and marketing services may be expensive – so budget for them. Work out your budget forecast like any other business to get the services you need.

There is no accounting for readers’ personal tastes and you won’t please everyone, but providing the best product possible for those who do want to read your book – one that makes reading a pleasure and not a chore – is a good place to start. Don’t forget, your aim is not only to attract readers initially, you also want to hold on to them and encourage repeat business. The most important way of ensuring that your readers will line up for your next release is to sell them a fantastic book in the first instance.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

Who nose what there talking about? (words and other confusions)

‘For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, – I declare by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.’

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1761.

Through meaning 007The gentleman in Tristram Shandy may be fairly certain of his nose, but words and their meanings can be pretty tricky to pin down at times. For example, does our gentleman above mean the nose on his face or is he talking about having a good nose around or into somebody else’s business? Out of context it’s not entirely clear, is it?

One of the sly ways in which words can trip us up is by having two completely opposite meanings at the same time. These contronyms or Janus words (Janus being the Roman god with two faces) can be relatively common words such as ‘weather’ (‘the boat weathered (withstood) the storm, narrowly missing being dashed against the rocks weathered (changed or worn) by time’), ‘fast’ (to move quickly or solid and immovable), or ‘trim’ (‘she trimmed (cut away) the rough edges of the pocket, then trimmed (added to) it with a pretty silk ribbon’). By the way, ‘fast’ also falls into the homonym category – words which are spelled and sound the same, but have different meanings – think ‘fast’, as in not eating.  What a star!

Next on the confusion list are homographs: words that are spelled the same, but have different pronunciations and meanings. For example, ‘lead’ (as in down the garden path or what you walk your dog with) and ‘lead’ (the stuff you put on your roof).

Through meaning 010But the real celebrities in the world of confusing words are the homophones – those awkward blighters that sound the same, but have completely different spellings and meanings. This category contains such everyday bamboozling classics as ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’; ‘their’ and ‘there’; ‘principal’ and principle’; ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’, and, of course, every author’s favourites – ‘write’ and ‘right’. Rite? Grate, glad we’re all singing from the same him sheet. Otherwise it wood bee such a waist!

Yes, the sad truth is that these sneaky saboteurs of clarity can fool spellchecks and intelligent beings alike. No-one is safe, but a stout dictionary of any nature (physical or virtual) and/or a good copy editor can go a long way to keeping them at bay. If in doubt, check it out. The truth (or at least the correct spelling) is out their. Oooops…

Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 

or

‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.