Writing Worries - Don't Clip Your Own Wings

Apologies for the lack of recent blogs, I was helping to run the Mountains to Sea Book Festival and taking some much needed time off. I wrote the following blog in August, before I sent my new proposal to my agent. More on this at the end. For weeks now I've been worrying about a book proposal. Is it good enough? Will my agent like it? Will my publishers like it?

I've published 23 books now and it never gets any easier. The doubts are still very much there for every single book or proposal.

I worked hard on the proposal, on getting every detail right - the series title (it's a new series for girls of 9+), the title of each book, the girls' names (there are 4 main characters), the plots for each of the first 3 books, the setting; especially the setting. I started reading widely on the subjects covered in the plots and added details to my proposal.

I wrote some of the first book, then rewrote it many times until I was happy with it. Only then did I send it to my agent. She read it and gave some suggestions. I took those on board and rewrote the whole proposal again. Finally it was ready to be sent to my editors and so began the waiting game.

What happens next? My editors - if they like it - take it to an acquisitions meeting where the sales and marketing team get their say. If they all like it, and they think it will sell, then you have a book contract.


I visited my publishers, Walker Books in London to hear the news and I waited anxiously for their verdict. I didn't have to wait long. As soon as I walked into the reception area (where some of my other Ask Amy Green books were twinkling at me from the book shelves), one of my editors said 'Everyone loved your proposal'. I was so relieved! I thought my proposal was good, my agent thought it was marvellous but you never can tell . . .

But nerves are good. In fact they are important to writers. It's what keeps us on our toes, makes us try our very hardest to produce something excellent. Nerves are like the adrenaline before a race, keeping us alive.

As writers we wear our hearts on our sleeves, outside our bodies. We are largely a highly emotional bunch and like actors, we crave an audience for our work - we need readers. We want people to say 'We love your books'.

But we also need to have confidence in what we are doing. So once we get that initial 'You're on the right track' nod, we need to take that affirmation on board and then get back to work. We need to put all those fears and doubts aside and write as if nothing else mattered.

Because if we let our writing worries consume us, we clip our own wings.

So once you get that initial nod - from your editor, or if you are not yet published, from a trusted friend - put all your worries behind you and fly. The only way to live a writing life is in the air and not stumbling along the ground.

memory box frt 5
memory box frt 5

I'm all set to take my own advice. After proof reading The Memory Box, my next book for adults which will be out in early 2013, I'll be writing the first book in the new series. The series is called The Wishing Girls. More about that soon.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Write That Book - Week 6 - Editing

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

Welcome to Write That Book, the free eight week online writing course. If you've missed weeks one to five, covering getting started, characters, plot and lots more, it might be helpful to read them first.

This week we’ll be taking about editing. Once you’ve finished the first draft, then comes the hard bit, the edits and the rewrites. Yes, plural. The first draft is just the beginning. Have patience. Rewrites make the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer.

Before you even think of sending your book out to an agent or to a publisher, you must make it as good as you possibly can. Some people are excellent at editing their own work, others need help. Here is how I edit a manuscript before it goes anywhere near my agent or editor:

I print out the whole manuscript, read it and make notes as I go along in a (yellow) notebook. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I’m addicted to yellow legal pads.

Some authors suggest waiting a little while before reading. William Trevor puts his writing in a drawer for a year before taking it out to work on it again, and although it is good to get a little distance from your work if possible, I quite honestly don’t have the time for that, so I tend to get stuck in to the editing process straight after finishing the first draft.

For me, there are three stages of rewriting (and I’m sure I got some of this from a book on editing once upon a time, but apologies, I can’t remember the title):

1/ The first rewrite – structure

Step one - I read through my (printed) manuscript carefully, focusing on the overall structure of the book. I use a notebook to jot down thoughts, I scribble on the pages, I put lines through scenes that don't seem to work. Once I've read the whole thing through on paper and made all my notes, I start working on the computer again - I may add scenes, or delete any unnecessary ones. I may even get rid of characters at this stage - kill your darlings as they say. Or I may combine three small characters into one – say a teacher, neighbour and babysitter – they could become one much stronger character rather than three bit players. And many people do more than one job after all!

I re-arrange chapters, and I work on making the opening of the book more dramatic and the ending unforgettable. I add as much drama as possible and cut anything that slows down the action.

This takes a few weeks (sometimes a couple of months, depending on the book) and I find it tough going, but also very satisfying, watching the book’s structure take shape and improve as I chip away at the raw material and re-form it, scene by scene.

2/ Rewriting for meaning

Step two - I make sure everything in the book is clear to the reader. Sometimes I am so close to the characters and the plot that I leave vital information out. I make sure the book runs logically – especially if the time shifts around. And I make sure my characters stay ‘in character’.

I add ‘colour’ sometimes, a couple of lines here and there to enable the reader to imagine the setting; and I take out anything that is not vital to the plot or my characters’ journey.

3/ Rewriting for style

The final step - I work on making the prose as strong and as full of life and vitality as I can. I also work on the dialogue, making sure it’s as good as I can make it.

I make sure every description is strong and not over-written, and I delete any lazy descriptions – ‘white as snow’ etc – and replace them with something more original.

And of course I clean up any typos, spelling or grammar mistakes as I go along – that goes without saying!

After I’ve done the above between two and eight times depending on the book, I finally send it to my agent and editor for their notes. Phew!

If you find self-editing very difficult, or just want another opinion, ask someone you know and trust to read your work. A word of advice, don’t give it to your mother to read – it’s her job to love it!

Ask your reader to be honest. Ask them which parts they liked and which they found slow or boring. Ask them to comment on the characters, the plot, the writing and the pace. Once they have given you their honest opinion, listen to what they have say and try to work out how you can make your book better. Does it need a stronger opening scene; is the action bogged down with irrelevant detail; are there too many subplots vying for attention? Has your reader picked up on the overall ‘theme’ of your book, on what you are trying to say in your work, or not?

If your friends or family can’t help, you could try asking a local librarian or bookseller to read your book for you. If you still can’t find anyone to read your manuscript, never fear. There are professional readers out there who are willing to help you. Cornerstones (UK based) and Inkwell Writers (Dublin based) are two highly respected companies that may be able to help. I've mentioned them before, but they are worth mentioning again.

This is one of my favourite quotes on the editing process:

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curious--to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not.William Faulkner, Paris Review interview

Stay Positive

If you get some negative feedback (from outside readers or an editor) try not to get disheartened. All professional writers have to deal with editorial comments and suggestions, it's part of the job, and yes, some are negative. Pick yourself up and get on with making your book even better. Rewrite and keep rewriting until you can honestly do no more. You’ll never be totally happy with your book - even when it’s published - but it will come to a stage when it’s time to let go. And then begins the scary and nerve wracking part - letting go of your baby and sending it to an agent or a publisher, which we will talk about in weeks seven and eight. For now I will leave you with this quote:

Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life. Doris Betts

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

PS After fifteen years of writing, the last manuscript I sent to my editor, Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, came back with only three editorial comments - less than a page. Which is a miracle. Maybe I'm finally getting to grips with this writing life!

Another Word on Editing

A Word on Editing

Humble apologies for the lack of posts recently. What with Easter and friends visiting, it’s been pretty hectic the last few weeks. At the moment I’m working away on the edits of the third Amy Green book – Bridesmaid Blitz (out in Oct). I had an email from my editor today and I’d like to share it with you as it’s lovely.

Writers work away in this funny vacuum, not knowing if what they are producing is hitting the mark. I am very lucky to have two editors in Walker Books, both of whom really know their stuff. After a pretty stiff and thorough rewrite – after a very frank editorial meeting in London with both of them – I submitted Amy Green 3 mark 2 nervously, hoping they would like what I’d done.

I’d hacked the middle out of the book. It was veering away from Amy’s story and I had to bring it back and the only way I could do this was to rewrite a good chunk of the main plot. So I got rid of about 1/3 of the book (about 17,000 words) and created lots of new scenes.

There were a lot of different subplots in the original draft and I got rid of several of these – including a school production of Grease that I was rather fond of – but by tearing them out, gave the main story (Amy’s story) room to breathe.

Luckily my editors liked what I’d done. However there are still three reasonably big plot problems/blips that I now have to iron out.

In the editorial letter (I didn’t get one for the 1st rewrite as there was so much to do!), my editor has broken it down into sections – bless – to make things easy for me.

I have to 1/ build up the Seth/Polly subplot – which I’ve just done. 2/ Work on a particular agony aunt letter that doesn’t quite click. And 3/ work on Amy’s relationship with – look away if you’re an Amy Green fan, plot spoiler coming up – relationship with her new baby sister, Grace.

I spent this week working on the Seth/Polly subplot – researching breast cancer, treatment, drugs and clinical trials. Then I wrote new scenes using the research. But here’s the thing: I had no idea whether I’d overwritten the scenes (they are pretty sad – but cancer in all its forms is hardly a walk in the park!), used too much or not enough technical information; whether they held the reader’s attention or if they were too slow moving. I’m always aware that young readers have a hell of a lot of other demands on their time and, above all, I aim to hold their interest.

So I sent the new chapters to my editor for some feedback – and here’s a snippet of the email she sent me:

Wow! These new chapters are absolutely brilliant! I love them. There is so much emotion in there, and all the facts about the cancer/drug trial etc are really interesting – you’ve gone into just the right level of detail. It all feels so much more real now. Never mind Amy, I feel like Niagara Falls! (Amy cries a lot in the chapters)

Right, I’m off to mop up my mascara!

It made my week!

I’m lucky to have editors who care about my writing and who really get what I’m trying to do. I’m truly blessed. To the gods of writing up there, I thank you for bringing us together.

I wish you all such kind and thoughtful editors.

Yours in writing,