Do you need a Structural Edit?

As mentioned in my last post my second book, Bright Axe, is getting close to publication. Why has it taken me so long? Basically, because I have been re-writing.

It is now over a year since I thought it was finished. I sent it out to a couple of beta readers. While I waited for a reply I made a start on book three. That was when the trouble began – at the start. Where did book three start? Bright Axe had two different endings, or rather I was unable to decide where it ended. I hoped my beta readers would tell me.

They were happy with both endings. It was what came before that was the problem. What was worse, they didn’t agree with what was wrong. I knew I was in big trouble. I won’t go into details but these were major plot points. If I’m honest I already had doubts myself. I didn’t know what to do, except that I needed help.

What I needed was an editor. But which editor? Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know I had a nasty experience with the editor of Bright Sword. Could I trust anyone with my book? I asked around. Someone looked good but was too busy. Someone made a recommendation but someone else said they were a waste of money. Finally I found someone, on Twitter, of all places.

It was something retweeted by Matthew Harffy, another dark ages writer who I have known since he was a struggling self published author. Actually, I don’t think he was ever struggling, because his Bernicia Chronicles, set three hundred years before mine are so good. This was the subject of that important tweet; a link to a blog post explaining why Matthew’s Serpent Sword, the first of the series, was so well written. You can read it here.

The article was written by Andrew Noakes and he is a Historical Fiction Editor. Was this the editor I had been waiting for? I had a look around his website, it was clear and well laid out and the articles interesting (only a few then – there are a lot more now.) There was an invitation to join his email list, I signed up, having decided to lurk and observe for a while before making contact.

Within hours, I received an email from him, thanking me for subscribing and asking about my work, to enable him to “provide useful content”. Well, if you ask an author to tell you about their work…! Within a few days I had signed up for an Editors Report (This is now what is described on the website as an Editors Critique.)

The result was a writer’s worst nightmare – and exactly what I needed. It ran to four pages of closely targeted text, starting with a summery, mostly complimentary but pointing out the main problem, the fragmentary structure. It went into detail about this, going into the storylines, narrative and plot. It went through the manuscript covering, in particular, the points that worried me. There were notes about characterisation; motivation and conflict and setting. It covered everything. I now knew exactly what was wrong. What it didn’t tell me was how to make it better.

For a more experienced writer, this would be more than enough to repair the damage. I was not an experienced writer – this was only my second book, after all. After a lot of thought and head scratching, I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed help. I signed up for a full Structural Edit. The price of the initial report was deducted from the cost of this which made it not quite as expensive as it might have been.

What I received became the bible that enabled me to write the best book I was capable of. It went into more detail about the faults and showed me ways to correct them. Together with the odd email consultation, I discovered my protagonist’s motivation – my manta became “What does Byrhtnoth want?”. I learned which parts of the plot had to go and what to replace them with. More detail was needed in one place, less in another. More fighting, less sex. Best of all, there was a Chapter Analysis, going through the entire book, chapter by chapter, explaining what worked and what didn’t.

It was not so much a re-write as writing a completely new book, from scratch. There were a few things we disagreed on – there is still plot that I was unable to discard, because I felt half the book would collapse if it disappeared. The book now has a proper ending, which turned out to be a combination of the two original endings. Characters changed as I put them under more pressure; some had more strength than I imagined, others showed a side I hadn’t previously been aware of.

I had found the editor I had been looking for. How I wish I had found him earlier, Bright Sword would have been better than it was, but that is water under the bridge.

As well as improving this book, I have learned so much more from Andrew. To look at my writing in a more intelligent way and question every word. If it doesn’t progress the plot it is out, however beautifully written a scene may be. I have discovered that I can actually do it – given the incentive I can rewrite. Whole plotlines that seemed set in stone have changed; scenes that I have loved were obliterated.

Bright Axe is a different book, I hope a better book. I have often heard authors praising their editor. Now I know why. Not only do they improve your book, sometimes they can change your life. That is what a good structural edit can do. Thank you Andrew.

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How I won NaNoWriMo

Any writers reading this will know why there have been no posts for the last month. For those who haven’t experienced the terrors (and joys) of NaNoWriMo, let me explain.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers with too much time on their hands write a novel – in a month – in November. Not quite a novel, but the first draft of one, 50,000 words to be precise. There are rules, although no one checks if you stick to them. The novel must be new, not something you are already working on. You are allowed to plan it beforehand, but must not start writing until the first of November. You finish on the 30th, or before if you reach that important 50k. You can enter the number of words you write each day and compare you total with other writers taking part (your buddies). When you reach the target, you must upload your work to validate the number of words and “win”.

What do you get if you win? There’s a certificate to download and … that’s about it.

No one checks what you have written. It could be complete rubbish. It probably is! So why do it? Why put your life on hold for a month to do something so strange? Well, for one reason, you are a writer and anything that forces you to write is good.

I had heard other writers talk about NaNoWriMo and last year considered taking part – and dismissed it. I was in the final stages of publishing Bright Sword, correcting proofs etc. This year I thought “Why Not?”. Bright Axe is close to the end. I was sick of Byrhtnoth and his problems. I needed a rest. A change is as good as a rest, they say and I had an idea that had been simmering for a while. I thought I could manage the 1,667 words a day that would be needed. So I signed up.

I made my plans. If I was to do this I needed to get rid of as many distractions as possible. I was involved with a First World War project, researching local men who had died. With the centenary of the armistice on 11th November, I had a deadline. I mentally altered the deadline to 31st October. Anything else outstanding I got out of the way, or delayed it to December. This explains why there were no posts in October either. There were certain events I could not avoid – a whole day at the NEC promoting Family History Societies. I thought I could cope by writing more the day before and after. I did.

As it turned out, there were only two days when I didn’t write at all. That day and another when I binged wrote the day before (nearly 3,000 words) and then had other things to do. I tried but I was just too tired. Apart from that I forced myself to the computer and wrote. Sometimes not enough, sometimes over the daily target of 1,667 words. It evened out, as you can see from the graph that measured my progress.

So what did I learn from the experience?
The main reason for doing it was to see if I could do it – I found I could.
I learned that I could control my writing. There were certain days when I had more time, so I wrote more on those days and didn’t worry when I couldn’t write, for whatever reason.
I discovered there was a limit to how much I could write a day – somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 words. There was no point in writing more, it would be rubbish and I would be unable to write the next day.

I found it liberating. Doing something like this means there is no time to go back to correct things. Realise you have missed an important chapter? Never mind, write it now, you can put it in the right place later. Have I already written this event? Never mind, keep going, delete it later. Need some research? Don’t stop, add a note “Find date later”

It was also fun to write something different. I have written two books about Byrhtnoth and a draft of the third. Was I getting tired? Could I even write something, anything, else?
I won’t go into details, but this book is less serious. Still historical, but with time travel. Some of it is set in the present day – literally – it started on Halloween 2018. I could have a character say Okay. I could describe someone by saying they looked like some well known actor.
I enjoyed myself.

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading, one of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. Not to improve my writing, but because it was time travel. My work is set, partly, in Scotland, so it was useful to pick up some of the accent. The time period is not a hundred years away as well. She includes a lot of details of daily life – too much some might say – but useful for someone who has been inhabiting the tenth century for so long.

I am pleased to say my manuscript includes no stone circles or bare-chested highlanders. There is a pirate (of sorts) and a dog and that is all I am prepared to say. 

I don’t know what it is like, I haven’t read it yet. This is recommended by the organisers of NaNoWriMo. When you finish, you must put it away for a month – at least – before looking at it.
I know it is nowhere near being a proper book, although I know it has a beginning and an end and some interesting ideas in between, not necessarily in the correct order!

It doesn’t matter. I have something I can work on later. Perhaps it will never be published.
What it has done is teach me a lot about writing – or at least about how I write.
It has given me a big sense of achievement. I tried and I succeeded. Some of my “writing buddies” didn’t, all for very genuine reasons. Some did. I think the competitive element is important, although your main competitor is yourself.

Finally, it stops you thinking about Christmas until the start of December – still too early, but better than the alternative.

Publication – six months on

Was it only six months since my first book, Bright Sword, was published? It must have been, I remember the freezing cold of my book launch, when my Anglo-Saxon warriors administered mead to the handful of customers who braved the icy streets. Now we are in the midst of a heat wave and thunderstorms.

For all this time friends have asked, “How is it selling?” and I reply “I haven’t the faintest idea.” The only indication is the graph on my Amazon Author Central page – a jagged line for the first couple of months then a general decline. There are occasional upward turns, there has been on the last few days. Why? I checked the price and discovered Amazon have reduced the price, again.

The book is now £3.72, cheaper than the e-book at £3.99. Why does nobody tell me these things so I can pass on the news? Should I be checking the price every day? There’s probably something I can set up that will tell me.

Anyway, I now know exactly how many books I have sold – at least up to the end of June. Yesterday I received my first Royalty Statement from my publisher (I had to rescue the e-mail from my spam folder – good job I check it occasionally) They sent me money! Not a fortune but it proves that someone has bought my book. Several someones and not all of them family and friends! The bad news, for me, is that there are still plenty of copies in stock. But it’s good news for anyone thinking of buying a copy, especially at (did I mention the price?) only £3.72 – see here.

What have I learnt over these six months? The first thing is that I am not very good at selling myself. I haven’t even managed to get my book into my local library, despite giving them a free copy. Did they not think it good enough or is it languishing forgotten on a shelf somewhere?

I already knew this. I am the sort of person who has a tendency to say “I’ve written a book, it’s not bad, but it could be better. Would you like to read it? That’s all right, it’s probably not your cup of tea.” I must be more assertive. “Buy my book or I’ll kidnap your husband/children/cat and torture them until you read it and post a five-star review.” A bit over the top? Perhaps. I must try to find a happy medium – slightly more posts on twitter/facebook?

On the other hand, I have been writing, rewriting and editing book two. Bright Axe is now finished. It will go back to the editor soon – more about that another time. Then I’ll have to think about publication. Do I go back to the publisher of Bright Sword? Have I sold enough copies of the first book? If they offer me the same (partnership) deal should I accept? Would I be better off with straight self-publishing? It would mean more work, but more control about what happens. Do I put more effort into Bright Sword or concentrate on publishing Bright Axe?

So many decisions to make.

Recently I was thinking about the future:

About book two.

About when to return to the first draft of book three.

About plans for book four and whether the story will finish there.

I had a sudden revelation. If I finish the Byrhtnoth Chronicles with book four – what will I write next?

It was that, not the receipt of a royalty payment or anything else, that stopped me in my tracks.

I am no longer someone who has had a go at writing a book. I am a writer – and I’m not sure I can stop.

Where do you go to, my darlings?

As a writer of fiction, you make things up. That’s not really a surprise, but the fact is that those things become real, at least to the author. To the reader as well, I hope, but what happens if they never reach the reader?

You invent a world, and the events in it. There is a plot and you must decide what happens next. You need a scene. It must continue from the scene before and lead on to the one after. You decide who will appear in the scene and what they do. How does it start and how does it end? You test snatches of conversation, imagine the venue – should you add some description? Eventually, when you have it complete in your head, you write it down. At least that is how I do it.

You continue with the next scene, and the next. You end up with a book. You start to edit. You rearrange words, delete some, correct the spelling and get rid of those words that you use too much. You read it through, aloud if possible. You edit it again, you send it to beta readers and you make changes – perhaps.

By now you have read it so often, you know the book almost as well as your own life. The memories of your characters have become your memories; a part of your life.

Then you employ an Editor!

An editor, if he is any good, will tell you what is wrong with your book. He will tell you to change this, delete that. A character is delaying the plot, another needs more of the action. What does he want? Why is she doing that? You will want to ignore the advice. Must I really get rid of that scene, that beautiful scene that says exactly what I wanted to say, the beautiful description, the words that will tear at your reader’s heart? Yes, you must kill your darlings!

But where do they go, those memories? Do they disappear in a puff of smoke? Perhaps they remain, if the reason they were killed was lack of space, they remain as back story, part of your character’s life. But some die completely. The plot is changed, a relationship is destroyed, a life takes an unexpected turn, characters merge to become someone new.

Perhaps they will be recycled, names changed, in another book. But even if the characters forget, I will not. It may be that when I have written more books, the “might have been” scenes will fade away. For now, they linger and I mourn them.

I have been rewriting, it has been a long process, although I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I posted anything here. I am close to the end – an end which I have now identified – that was one of the problems.

Now I must put it all back together. I haven’t checked the word count, I know it is large. There will be more editing. Will I have to remove more “darlings”? I hope not, I don’t think I can stand the anguish.

Editing in the garden

How much longer?

I’m sorry that this post is a bit late.

I have been writing, but the more I hurry to get to the end of book three, the longer it gets. I have been trying to finish this first draft. I thought I would finish last week, with plenty of time to catch up with other things before I get book two back from my editor.

I knew I had been doing well, with a couple of 2k+ days. I also knew, because I was feeling so tired. But there was not far to go. I was disappointed when I got to the end of the week (Saturday, for working purposes) and hadn’t finished, the disappointment cleared when I totted up the totals and found I’d written 10,267 words! In seven days! A record for me. I would polish off the rest on Sunday, plus the blog post I had planned.

Real life intervened. Saturday evening my mother was taken into hospital – nothing serious – we went on Sunday to pick her up. Several unproductive hours later, there was still no sign of when they would let her go, so we came home. There we found a message from our son. He had broken his leg and was in hospital – a different hospital. Since he is of an age not to require the presence of a mother at his bedside, we didn’t have to rush out to visit. As you can imagine, I was not in much of a condition to do much writing.

Those things I was going to catch up with, drifted.

I managed a healthy 1,000+ yesterday and (wow) 2,200 today. I am still exhausted and still not finished. My target is 90k, and I am now on 108k.

Am I writing rubbish? I don’t know, but it keeps pouring out. I don’t want to turn it off – what if I can’t start it again.

Thank you for listening to me. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible – I hope.

Take a deep breath

If you have been following this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I have been having problems with book two of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

In the first place I didn’t intend to write a series. Bright Sword emerged from a writing course, it grew and by the time I finished it, I knew there was more of Byrhtnoth’s story to tell – He had a long life and he was still in his teens. Book two came easily, I enjoyed writing it. I tidied it up and sent it to a couple of brave volunteers for a Beta read. I was told it was better than the first book I was pleased, Bright Sword had been published in a bit of a rush, and was not entirely happy with it. The Beta readers made various comments, on different parts of book two.

Meanwhile I had started book three. I say started but in fact I began in the middle – an experiment in POV. I forced myself to stop at what I thought was the end and went back to the start. But where was the start? Book two had continued directly from the end of Bright Sword, but for some reason I couldn’t get it to work properly this time. I carried on writing, from a later “beginning” and have nearly finished the first draft, joining the two halves together.

I have continued to worry about the beginning: Steal the end of book two for the start of book three? Ignore what happened between books two and three and start later? But that bit of plot was vital! What I needed was someone to tell me what to do. An Editor.

I was wary. I had already had problems with an editor. Where did I find the right one? Someone was recommended – they were too busy writing their own books. Someone else was mentioned, but another person said they were expensive. Time passed and I became desperate. Then I found someone. I won’t say who or how, in case it all goes pear-shaped, but I think it is going well.

I sent off my manuscript, together with synopses of Books one, three (so far) and four (ideas) and a list of what was troubling me. I wanted a basic Editors Report. What I got was fantastic; it addressed every point I had raised, in detail. It told me what was good (thank you) and what was wrong (help). Horrible as some of the suggestions were, this favorite scene had to go (too much like something in book one) and that was too unbelievable, I knew they were right.

I took a deep breath and thought about it, for several days. If I take that bit out, what do I put in its place? Yes, I can shorten/lengthen that piece. That scene is just waiting to be filled out. I came up with a new outline. It is better but there are problems – I still can’t work out where it ends! The Editor has ideas, so I have signed up for a full Structural Report. I’ll report later on how it goes.

I have now recovered from that tornado of emotion – fear and elation. It is as if I had finished a large jigsaw puzzle. Every piece was in place, but the picture was wrong. Someone has taken the puzzle and thrown it up in the air. Where will it come down and in how many pieces? All I know is that it needed to be done and I will lean a lot from putting it together again. Wish me luck.

Another good thing that came out of this shake up. Despite, or because of, spending all that time thinking, I still managed 6290 words of book three this week. All that’s left to do is the final (middle) scene – the battle. I feel I have just been through one, which may be a help.

I’ll let you know next week.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

With apologies to the Rugby Cafe Writers group, whose subject this was at their latest meeting, where do I get my ideas?

Writing historical fiction, I am constrained by what was actually happening in the period the book is set. The advantage of writing about the tenth century means that there is not a lot of known facts to contend with. In fact the plot outline is provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Book three is set in the year A.D.948 and according to this source, these are the events:

Research – £2.99 from Oxfam according to the label.

A. D. 948. King Eadred ravaged all Northumbria, because they had taken Eric for their king.
In that ravaging the minster at Ripon was burnt down, that St. Wilferth had built.
When the king was going homewards, the force in York overcame the king’s troops left behind in Castleford, and there was much slaughter.
Then the king was so enraged that he wanted to turn back and destroy that land, and everything in it.
The Northumbrians perceived this and gave up Eric; they made amends for that deed with king Eadred.

This is quite a lot to work with. Apparently two years later, in A.D. 950 absolutely nothing happened!

How was Byrhtnoth involved in these events? Apart from (probably) being alive at the time, nothing is known. So in the tradition of most historical novelists, Bernard Cornwall and Uhtred, etc, I must put him in the heart of the action. For some reason, that I don’t remember, I started writing the second part of the book first, then went back to the start. I am nearing the end (or what will be the middle). This week Byrhtnoth arrived in Ripon.

I have never been to Ripon, so I consulted my other sources (Wikipedia and Google Maps). One important fact I discovered was the Minster, which was burnt down, was in fact built of stone – one of the first Anglo-Saxon buildings built of that material. How do you burn down a stone building? I had a lot of thinking to do: What did it look like? How was it furnished? How would I burn it – if I wanted to do such a thing. I think I came up with a reasonable solution. You will have to wait until the book is published, to find out how.

All I have to do now is describe how Byrhtnoth survives Eric Bloodaxe and the great slaughter of Castleford and the first draft will be finished.

I am now past 88k words and last week I wrote 7,709 – I’m on schedule!