Last Monday I had the honour of being asked to host a Twitter Q&A for the fabulous Golden Egg Academy: “a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals providing inspiration, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children”.
I passed a fast and furious half hour, answering questions about editing and structure (with a few curve balls!). It was tough, coming up with answers quickly and fitting them into 140 characters, but that’s just the kind of challenge to which I rise: writing to length.
The reason for such nerdishness is possibly because I was an editor of children’s books in a former life. Nowadays I spend most of my time writing my own books. However, I also teach part-time on the Bath Spa Creative Writing courses (both BA and MA) where I get to bang on endlessly about the merits of self-editing and taking advice from experienced editors.
So basically, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to editing and structure.
Since doing the Q&A, people have suggested that I write a blogpost about some of the questions that were raised. I have therefore chosen my top ten from the questions asked last week (my favourite being the rather cheeky one at number 10). Here goes:
1.I am editing my story for middle-grade readers. Any tips?
Be firm with yourself. When you are in the throes of re-writing or editing your own work, you KNOW deep down when something isn’t working. Be prepared to cut and slash away at those bits which niggle. But don’t bury them just yet – keep them in a file marked ‘Murdered Darlings’ or, for the more security-concious amongst you, ‘Stuff’. You never know when those hacked off bits might come in useful in a future burst of creativity
2. Any tips on over-editing? I am currently worried I am cutting too much and making it worse, not better.
See above! You can never over-edit, unless you have rashly chucked away your previous drafts. In any case, I think it is usually a case of ‘if in doubt, cut it out’, so over-editing is never a problem for me. I over-write to begin with, so I love a bit of over-editing to sort out the wood from the trees.
3. How long do you spend editing?
That very much depends on the length and complexity of the book, not to mention the deadline. A first ‘edit’ is more like a structural re-write and that can take from weeks to months. A final line-edit is more of a tidy-up and takes a matter of days. But unless a deadline is imposed from above, I wouldn’t set a time limit on it, as it’s all about getting into the best shape possible, no matter how long it takes.
4. Do you think you become less emotional about your writing over time?
No! I still bristle when I get a list of editorial points from my publisher. I have learnt to read it through while I mutter to myself, then put it to one side for a few hours (or days, if time is not of the essence). I feel calmer then, and more open to my editor’s suggestions, which are pretty much always (infuriatingly!) correct . . .
5. What helped you most with improving the quality of your writing when you were trying to break through?
Listening to advice from my agent and editor. I started out writing short stories and picture books and learnt an incredible amount about structure from that. Also I read A LOT. Reading good, well edited work continues to teach me pretty much all I need to know.
6. How did you manage to get an authentic voice for an eight-year-old boy protagonist?
This is, strictly speaking, not an editing question (it referred to my Monkey Business and Monkey Madness titles). However, I often get asked about ‘voice’. How do you achieve it? Where does it come from? The answer is LISTEN to the sort of people you want to mimic and then do just that. Make notes – on the bus, in a cafe, once you have done the school run . . I listened to my son and his friends and copied everything they said! And then edited it to make it less rambling and bonkers!
7. How do you plot?
Erm, I don’t. Not before I start writing anyway. I don’t sit down and work out a plan and then write the book, chapter by chapter. I have to get the voice first. Once I have that, I write a couple of scenes which are bugging me. After this I feel I have a sense of the story, so I start to plot, thinking about character arc, scene development and where the reveal should come. John Yorke’s fabulous book on structure, Into the Woods, has helped enormously in recent times.
8. How do you plan an ending before you have got there?
Again, I don’t! I rarely know how a story is going to end when I first start writing, and even if I think I do, it changes once I am into the business of getting the bones down. Don’t feel hampered by this. Start writing the way it feels most natural for you to start. Set yourself a daily limit: 100, 1000, 1500 words. Whatever. JUST DO IT.
9. What is the biggest change between being an editor now and 15 years ago?
I have not worked commercially as an editor for about five years now, so I am a little bit out of the loop as far as in-house editing goes. But I would say, from where I am sitting as an author, that the whole business is a lot more sales focused now. There is little time to develop a story in house from a basic first concept: authors need to have done a pretty clean first draft before any editorial conversations begin. Personally I think that is a bit of a shame, as some of the best books I worked on in house started off as little more than a chat over coffee and were true collaborations between the editor and the writer/illustrator. I think that kind of relationship is rare these days.
10. I see you studied medieval languages – did that ever come in useful for your writing?
OK, this is the curve ball! I did indeed study medieval languages: French and German to be precise. I also studied 18th and 19th century French and German. Of course it has not impacted directly on my writing for English-speaking middle-grade readers! But I did learn an awful lot about story-telling, characterisation, cultural differences in these things, the structure of language, grammar, expression . . . all those ingredients have added flavour to my appreciation, and thus, I hope, my creation, of my own stories.
If you want to follow these fab Golden Academy Q&As which are hosted by published authors, follow #GEAQA on Twitter every Monday night from 7.30pm.