Tag Archives: writing tips

It’s Criminal

I’ve just come back from Crimefest 2016 and I thought I’d share some of what happened.

Had the weirdest experience of my life, but to explain why this is weird I have to give you some context.  I’ve been an editor for a while now and I actually managed to achieve some repeat customers.  One of these is Tana Collins, I’ve edited two of her police procedurals so far but as she lives in Scotland and I live in Wales, it’s all a very at-a-distance kind of thing.

But on Thursday (the first day of Crimefest), I’m sitting near the back of one of the panel rooms, busy typing on my tab, writing out the first paragraphs of the first scene of my third Locked series novel.  Then I hear this querulous voice saying “Gail?”  Look up and there on the row in front is Tana Collins.  This wasn’t so weird, as I’d learned through Facebook that she would be attending so was fully expecting to see her.  The oddity was what happened next. Tana said meeting me was one of the highlights of the weekend that she was really looking forward to.  The girl really needs to raise her standards if I’m a highlight.  But there again why shouldn’t I be?

Thing was, I had been looking forward to meeting her too.  It’s one of the oddities of being an editor, that you get to know a writer’s work, but you don’t always get to know the writer.  However, in this case, Tana and I have become friends and I hope that knowing one another will help the working relationship too.  I’m looking forward to her next Carruthers novel and don’t worry, I will be telling you more as her books come out.

I started with this as it happened on day one.  Through the rest of the days, I attended many of the panels, and a number of things come across quite strongly.  Here are the headlines to save boring you:

  1. Research – do lots
  2. Strong female characters
  3. Most protagonists have specialised backgrounds
  4. Sense of place, especially an international sense of place.

Here’s what I was thinking:

  1. I’m not sure I do that much research. Don’t get me wrong, I do check my facts. Especially when I’m editing – so don’t go giving a sports fan the wrong tattoo (Tana!) as I will check.  But I don’t spend hours agonising over research for my own books. So clearly this is an area where I need to up my game.
  2. I do have strong female characters, but I’ve never sold a book led by one. No one at this point is allowed to point out that I’ve never actually sold a book period, okay? But I’ve written a load of female leads, yet it was a male lead that got me an agent.
  3. Most of my lead characters don’t have specialist backgrounds. Yes a couple or more of them are police officers, which is specialist, but also necessary when writing police procedurals, but I really try to make my characters like the person you’re going to sit next to in a pub, ordinary if you like, or not. Most of my characters are bumbling around trying to make sense of things, beige people in colourful situations.
  4. A sense of place. The book that got me the agent is very carefully constructed to never reveal where it is.  On the other hand, the vast majority of it takes place in a prison, so there is a sense of place, just not a named location. Similarly, book two is out in the civilian world, but I never give a town name and I’ve made up the street names.  Besides, again, most of the action takes place in a single room – while cutting in the police scenes on the street outside. There again I tend to set my stuff domestically, i.e. in areas of the UK that I know.  This is definitely something I am going to have to work on.

Which all left me rather deflated. This is, in a way, another thing I find at these conventions.  I start out excited and then it goes downhill.  It seems every panel members is (a) younger than me [not at all true, but it feels like it] and (b) had a great career before becoming a published author.  I have a job I don’t like and the slog to publication is like wading through the Bog of Despair.  I’m also starting to either love or despise autocorrect. I wrote this paragraph on my tab and the last line came up as Bognor of Despair which I find oddly amusing – sorry Bognor I’ve never actually been to Bognor so have no idea if that’s fitting or not. (And before anyone tells me I’ve got it wrong, I just Googled it so I know it was actually the Swamp of Sadness, but I thought the autocorrect was worth sharing.)

Also, I note that for a lot of people these festivals are a time to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  That’s something else I appear to be deficient at.  I talk to people when I’m at these things but I don’t find it easy and I don’t generally come away with lasting friendships.  Tana, please note that you are excluded from this category as we knew one another way before Crimefest.

However, anyone who reads my blogs will know that I suffer depression. I might also have mentioned that I’ve had cognitive behavioural therapy to help with this. One of the tools I’ve learnt is to recognise the trigger points and head-them-off-at-the-pass so to speak.

So I looked back on the above and I re-evaluated.

The result is, why shouldn’t Tana meeting me be a highlight for the weekend?  Okay I’m not a famous author, but I am someone she’s worked with and someone who’s spent time getting to know and care about the people in her head – the ones she put on paper at least.  I was looking forward to meeting her too, so it’s great to know that she was looking forward to meeting me.  This is a GOOD THING, I tell myself and try not to go scurrying for cover as good things make me nervous, always looking for the scorpion sting.

I’ve also realised that I need to seriously up my game writing wise, and that’s what I plan to do, but that’s going to be the subject of my next blog.  The rest of this is going to be about weird things that happened at the Gala dinner.

I sat where I was told to and with no one I knew (except hubby of course) and as you do, got talking to them.  The gentleman to my right had a very strong Australian accent, but as I got talking to him, I found out that he was originally from Kent, same as me, just a few miles apart actually.

Then we got talking to another lady, not giving names as I haven’t that person’s permission.  And this is where it got really weird – she’d already heard of me – yep, you guessed it – through Tana.  That’s never happened to me before.  But my husband told me after that as soon as he saw her, he thought he’s seen her somewhere else.  Turns out that that is altogether possible – during the conversation we discovered that she works in Swansea, as do we.

Then, just to prove that I really am a Duchess of Geekdom, the guy across the table, (again no names in the absence of permission) and I start peeling back the onion layers of my geekiness and talked about Dr Who, science fiction of all types and ages.  Anyone else old enough to remember “Come Home Mrs Noah”?  No?  Just the two of us then. There was talk of superhero movies, comic books and other oddball TV.

In other words, we had a really good time.  Thank you all who helped make this my favourite Crimefest so far, and proving that I don’t have to leave festivals downhearted. And I hope to stay in touch with several of you through the coming months/years.




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How Not to Piss Off An Editor – Part 1

I’ve been professionally editing for over two years now, which is stunning, it’s gone so fast. Yet on the other hand it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.  I have to say that editing has taught me a lot as a writer, not least of which is the importance of listening to criticism.

Oddly listening to criticism is not an easy lesson to learn, but good writers learn it and learn from the criticism.  However, there are easy lessons to learn, one of the most basic is professional presentation of your document when submitting for editing (or any other submission for that matter).

I can tell as soon as I open a document what kind of writer I’m dealing with just from the formatting.  Professional formatting does not guarantee a good manuscript, but it will tell me how much of a pain in the butt the editing process is going to be.

If I see good clear formatting I know that even if the story is pants, the edit shouldn’t be overly painful.  Content is easier to comment on when it’s properly presented.

If I see poor formatting I know that even if this is the best story in the world ever, I’m going to have an absolute nightmare editing it.  Poor formatting will make prose unreadable, dialogue won’t make sense, any message or action will be lost in the fog of ‘where the hell did that come from’ confusion because nothing will have the proper impact.

Worst of all is inconsistent formatting.

If a writer always gets something wrong but gets it wrong in a consistent way, the that’s easy to deal with, a mass find and replace will sort it out and a comment will hopefully tell the writer what they need to learn.  If a writer gets things wrong in places and right in others, I can’t tell if they know what they are doing or not, I don’t know if they were so involved in the writing that they just missed the formatting or if they just don’t have any idea and need a slap around the head.

Now I’ve had good writers who can write, but can’t format, initially irritating, but by the second edit you know that they’ve learned something and improved no end (actually have a few repeat customers like this, they’re great to work with).  I’ve had others who can format and can’t write, these are depressing because I have to wade through rubbish and know that there was no pay off at the end – mind you I had one in this category who clearly understood the importance of criticism and when that author came back for the second edit, it was so improved it was fantastic.

Authors who can write and can format – well I and every other editor, we love you.  And yes I have dealt with a few of these.  One was so good I offered to edit his book for free, unfortunately he didn’t take the offer up and when I read the e-book it was a crying shame, the number of typos and inconsistencies really detracted from the fact that it was a fabulous concept.  There’s another hint for you authors – if a professional editor offers an edit for free, take them up on it!

But there is something that really gets the goat, a repeat customer (yes I do have several), who an editor knows can write and can format, who comes again and is suddenly inconsistent.  Have worked on one recently, thankfully I spotted the inconsistency quickly so did a visual check through the whole manuscript and managed to make the format consistent without reading or even skim reading.  So got the formatting right and then read the story – which was great – without the annoying distractions.

Remember that busy commissioning editors (I’m a structural editor – different job) haven’t got time to scrutinize every line to mine for gold, so bad formatting could give them the reason for throwing your manuscript in the rejection pile.  Don’t give them that reason.

So if you don’t want to piss off your editor off, here are a few tips that can help:

  1. Use a fixed width font left aligned.  Personally I like Courier New, but there are other ones.  The reason for using a fixed width font left aligned is that as you read through it, you will notice little problems like inconsistent or missing spacing.  I recently had a document where lack of spaces between words – yes a very basic formatting issue and the one that spurred me on to write this blog – meant that the word count was shy by the best part of 2000 words.  Missing spacing when you’re typing is normal, we authors get so involved with the story we miss the typing, but a professional will go through and find those typos for himself.
  2. Double spacing. This comes from the days when editing was done by hand with a red pen, but there are times when people send me stuff in PDF where I still use a red pen and, therefore, need the space to comment/amend.  These days though when most editing is done on screen it does help reduce eye-strain and the likelihood of losing my place when reading.
  3. Margins. All margins should be a minimum of 1 inch or 2.5 cm.  Again, this is a hangover from red-pen days, but it’s still important, again for space and clarity and keeping your editor on side.  Cram too much into a small space and it will be impossible to read for any sustained period.  Have you tried reading a bible lately?  Regardless of religion it’s physically difficult to read most bibles because the text is so small and cramped, don’t put your editor through that pain, we won’t thank you.
  4. Use indented paragraphs. This is important as it really separates chucks of prose.  Indented paragraphs are the ones that come in on the first line.  In Word this is easy to achieve, (Word 2007 and later) select the Home ribbon, then the full paragraph popup (the little box with the arrow coming out in the bottom right-hand side of the section marked Paragraph) then select Indentation, Special, first line.  DO NOT indent with tabs or multiple spaces, this really mucks up typesetting if you’re lucky enough to get printed. Readers should note that I’ve used block paragraphs here because I can’t find the way to change the settings on WordPress (my bad sorry, but if anyone knows how to make that change, please comment and let me know!).
  5. New chapter new page. This is fairly simple and a lot of people do this, but a lot of them get it wrong.  It’s something that authors will do by using the return key, but that only works with the font and wording that they have used, as soon as there are amendments of font or spacing or changing any wording, then the page position will change.  You get around this my using manual page breaks, the easiest way to achieve this is [Ctrl][Return].
  6. Learn the rules of Dialogue formatting. Have to admit that this isn’t the most basic thing to learn, but it is important if you want the reader to understand what’s going on in a conversation.  Correct formatting can show who says what without the constant use of speech tags, it gives the reader the right emphasis, indicates the tempo of the spoken word and the manner in which it was spoken.
  7. Read the submission guidelines. Again this seems basic, but it’s amazing how many people don’t do it.  There are some general rules, those that I’ve given here, but each editor/agent/publisher will have their own rules, make sure you read them, and make sure you follow them.  For example, I’ve been a short story competition judge, the remit was an anonymous short story between 1500 and 2500 words, so submitting a 1400 word story with the authors by line was instant disqualification, which was a bit of a shame because the story was really quite good and could have been placed or at least commended if the author had only read and followed the guidelines (so I’m told by another judge who apparently had the time to waste).
  8. Read your work before submitting it. This is basic, and hugely important.  If something isn’t clear to the author, how will it ever be clear to the reader?  If you follow the tips above, you’ll be surprised what you pick up yourself.
  9. Be consistent! If you read what came above, you’ll already know the importance of this one.

There are other tips, but these are formatting ones.  Hope it helps those who read it.

Oh, by the way, have no idea what Part 2 will be about, or when, but I suspect it’ll happen the next time I edit something that pees me off.   🙂

Bye bye for now.


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