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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Importance of Presence for a Writer

As a writer I have been encouraged by my publishers to meet my readers online. When having an online conversation I am often talking to a small square icon or thumbnail, yet this picture is very important to me as an idea or representation of the essence of the person.

Recently I went to a writing conference and looked for all the people I had met online. One by one I managed to identify each person from their thumbnail, but unsurprisingly the real person was always radically different from the person I had constructed in my mind from the online conversation. The icon, along with the typed conversation, flattens out the persona so that it is hard to get a sense of who is actually there, behind the words. 

When confronted with a real individual though, it is easy to hear the music of the voice, see the posture, appreciate the energetic or listening quality of the personality. In these days of online relationships it is easy to forget this presence – the most important part of the person.

Presence implies a deeper more connected awareness of the world around us, and so the ability to be a vehicle for what needs to be done. I believe words can carry presence if the writer is aware whilst writing; and that words can carry a certain intent. After all, without the written form so few religious or spiritual ideas of the past would have survived.

Yet to look at writing only as a way to preserve ideas, i.e. the end result, is to miss the point, and to forget the importance of presence. Writing is a form like any other artistic endeavour where the process is as important as the outcome. 

Becoming a Writer
Click to read PDF

In her classic book, still in print since 1934, ‘Becoming a Writer’ Dorothea Brande says that excellent writing has ‘innocence of eye’ and ‘freshness of response’. To create these qualities we must discipline ourselves to stop ‘doing’ and spend more time ‘being.’ From stillness of mind and body united, a new perspective can arise. 

To maintain presence in writing is to cultivate space in oneself to let new ideas emerge, but more importantly it is to maintain a space for the response from the reader. After all it is not only the writer, but the reader who has to imagine the book. Skilful writing is not only about what to include, but more often about where to leave things open.

I have been a meditator all my adult life, and that is how I find presence in my life. Other people find it by walking in nature, by using mindfulness techniques, or practising yoga. Do feel free to share how you nurture this aspect of your writing.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

UK Independent Publishers - a 'Do they add value?' check


I meet regularly with other novelists to critique our works in progress, drink tea, and discuss the various merits of the biscuits. Recently at one of my novelists group meetings we were discussing independent publishers who might publish a full length novel. I argued that there were not that many, but one of the other group members recently emailed me to say that the Independent Publishers Guild UK ( have a staggering 580 members!  

So why do I say there are not that many ?

The answer is, because in my opinion very few add value for a novelist, and some add so little value that they are in fact proxy self-publishing. 

There are of course loads of independent publishers that publish everything from memoirs to military to experimental.(eg local-to-me Cicerone Press that publishes mountaineering guides) And a lot of other so-called 'independent' publishers that are actually assisted self-publishing companies e.g. the well-respected Troubadour, Silverwood. (But these self-publishing services will cost you - and rightly so, for the various services they offer.)

But in fact there are very few independents that publish full length novels, don't charge the author anything at all, and do add value.

These days most publishers of  fiction offer e-books as a matter of course, (and some only e-books) so lets assume that as a given, that they will at least upload your book to Amazon. Publishing is easy these days, so publishers have to do more than just upload an ebook and offer a badly-designed POD paperback to win my vote.

So what exactly do I mean by 'add value?'

a) Offer distribution of physical books to bookshops (ie I don't have to carry my books to my local bookseller myself)

b) Offer proper editing, proof-reading, interior layout and typesetting (i.e not just an edit through an online programme such as Autocrit, or reproducing your Word Document as a book)

c) Offer a print run (however limited) that is not just Print on Demand such as CreateSpace. By the time the publisher adds their cut, it makes the books too expensive in comparison with other traditional publishers, and therefore they fail to sell. Who will buy a £12.99 paperback when similar titles sell for £7.99?

d) Offer an individual marketing strategy for your book, including promoting it to bookshops and libraries, in other words not just bunging it on their website and newsletter and hoping for the best.
I reckon many  independent publishers fail on one or more of those counts. They rely on you to sell your books to family, friends and your network, and then take royalties for the very little effort they have put in, which usually just involves adding a cheaply-designed cover and uploading your word document as a book to kindle, POD and their website. I admit these things take time, and incur costs for the publisher. But in most cases you would be better off self-publishing than giving this type of publisher a substantial part of your royalties when they add so little value to what is in the end your product.

There are many 'independent' publishers that look convincing, but are actually not that good for the author. Eg take a look at this fairly typical independent publisher  It looks great, until you read under their submissions guidelines: 'Depending on how many we think it could sell, we offer varying levels of contract. About one in ten of the titles on the list have a subsidy from the author, directed either towards more editorial or marketing work than we can normally provide.' Non-fiction sells well, so perhaps 1 in ten is actually most of the fiction, but of course you wouldn't know that if you were the submitting author.

or this one: 'A traditional partnership agreement entails the same benefits as a mainstream agreement. However, as the writer you may be asked to cover part of the cost of publishing the book. We follow all traditional industry etiquettes with regards to the promotion and marketing of the title in addition to all other avenues involved in the process.'

From another niche Independent Publisher website: 'We believe that as an author it is your responsibility to ensure that your work is of a reasonable standard before submitting to us. We can recommend a proof editor if you wish but that would be outside of our arrangement with you and you would contract them yourself.'

If you are going to pay, why not self-publish or use openly assisted self-publishing like Silverwood Books?



Of course I am not negating the psychological value of having your work accepted by a publisher. After receiving a lot of rejections (and we all get them!) it feels brilliant to have your book accepted by somebody. Anybody!  A friend of mine recently had her novel accepted by a small independent publisher. She was over the moon until she read on Link'd In that her commissioning editor had just left school, had never worked in publishing before, but had done  two weeks work experience for a book promotion company. So if literary validation is important to you, don't forget to Google who is reading your manuscript and whether they are actually more qualified to make a judgement on your work than your local newsagent.

However, there can certainly be psychological (and monetary) value  in accessing a like-minded community. If you have a book that suits a niche audience, then there can be value in a niche publisher and in becoming part of that network, but check the network is not just other hopeful authors like yourself.

a) See if the books from that publisher have won any prizes or been nominated for an award (or sold millions - we wish!)

b) Check whether any of the books been endorsed by writers or critics you have actually heard of, not just 'Brilliant' - Amazon Reviewer

b) For niche markets, eg horror, fantasy, experimental, check that the publisher seems to have good networking links with their community. Eg Do they blog? If so, check out their blog.

OK, so you are technologically inept, and it's much easier to hand it to a publisher and let them do it, if they accept your submission. But if it doesn't get edited or properly laid out, if it has a bad cover, if it only reaches a few other writers who go to their website, and if it is too expensive to be attractive in bookshops, the convenience soon becomes inconvenient. You haven't the control to do anything about it, the way you would have had if you had self published - and you are still paying them via your royalties.

However, for full length commercial/literary novels I can safely say the following independent print publishers do add value - not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order. They all have beautiful websites and beautiful books that you sometimes see in bookshops - a good sign.

Bloomsbury*, AlmaMyrmidon, Honno Press, Parthian Books, Myriad Editions, Allison and Busby*, Serpent's Tail, Valley Press, Canongate*, Legend, Salt, Cinnamon Press, Accent Press, Cillian Press.

Some of these require you have an agent right now to submit (those marked with asterisks), some don't, but for a bigger list of  small independent publishers check out Nottingham Writers Studio. If you want to see a list of other small presses, check out Lollipop. And here's a complete list of UK publishers competing in The People's Book Prize.

Anyone who can recommend more excellent independent publishers to add to this list - please do!

Thank you to crime noir writer Tess Makovesky for prompting this post. Find her at

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Editing historical fiction, my way

I am in the middle of edits for two of my books, one a young adult novel and one a 400 page adult novel. These are the edits I make before I send out to my agent, a publisher, or in some cases the public. There will be other edits later, but as some publishing houses edit very heavily, some hardly at all, it pays to be picky with your work.

Recently I have seen a plethora of writing books suggesting that you should edit in 'one pass'.

This does not work for me because of the amount of research I need to check. So here is my editing process. It takes as long as the actual writing of the book.


I always work with a printed copy of the manuscript, and initially I am editing for story. 
I read like a reader and not a writer, to identify  whether the nuts and bolts of the story work. At its heart, story is about change, so if it's getting static, alarm bells ring. I mark parts that are slow or boring with a big red pen. Though sometimes boring does not mean cutting stuff, but adding more detail to make it interesting and bring it to life. 

Usually the first time I print out the draft it needs a lot of re-working -  new chunks need to be written and others lopped off. At this stage I do extensive re-writes. That copy is then like an old rag covered in scribble and crossings out and is re-cycled onto our log-burner!

After more work on the computer to streamline the story, I'm ready for a more detailed edit. Usually I send this newer version out to some readers so I can incorporate their comments when I work on the next edit. One way of speeding it up is to mark all the pages that need edits with sticky post-its. I use the same manuscript and just go through it with different colours for each editing pass. Then with the copy next to me with its rainbow fringe, I trawl through the manuscript a page at a time making all the necessary alterations. At this point I am usually fuelled by coffee, a looming deadline, and a desperation to get it finished and move onto the next book.

Here are the passes I make:
  • edit for character. Go through each major character's arc of action and emotion. Check what they are doing in the scenes where they are absent, and try to refer to these actions in the scenes where they are present. Get a sense of their daily routine - for example how long it takes them to dress, their relationship with servants or 'betters', and their class in relation to other characters. Check how they are feeling;  that it is consistent, and that it has development.  Make sure their attitudes are consistent with the period.
  • edit for theme. Highlight any themes that drive the novel, make sure sub-plots echo these themes. Look for metaphor, symbol and meaning. Try to find parallels with today, and highlight  them. They will be useful when you have to promote or tell people about your book.
  • edit for time-scale. In historical fiction it is particularly important to get dates right, and for the narrative to fit within certain fixed parameters or historical milestones. Check travelling times - horseback and boat are very slow, but mail can be surprisingly quick.
  • edit like the most eagle-eyed historian. I have made small errors in my books, (really sorry ) but not because I did not care - I did my best to make the history right! Often it is little things (like the taking for granted of walls and hedges before the enclosures act) that catch you out. Question everything and double check your research. Keep notes in case someone queries your sources. Make notes about where you have changed, bent, or ignored  supposedly 'known facts', and why. Two books down the line you might not remember why, but an expert reading your book is bound to write to you and ask.
  • edit for anachronistic dialogue, and for dialogue that fits the character. It is easy to slip into modernism in dialogue, and the quickest way to lose your historical atmosphere. Seemingly innocuous phrases like 'Oh my God' have taken on a distinctly teenage flavour since OMG!
  • edit for good English - cut out uninteresting language, spelling mistakes, faulty grammar and typos, or get someone else to proofread it.
My novel grows about 10% during this edit as I re-work dialogue, fill plot loopholes and deepen character.
What is your editing process? Do you have any tips or tricks?