Nature: a writer’s mirror

Black FeathersYes! This is it!

This is the novel; the one that will change everything. It’s the best idea you’ve ever had. The world is rich, the characters fascinating and this tale of the hardships they must overcome will blow every reader’s mind. Your body’s humming with inspiration and the words tumble from you as though from a fathomless spring. And – OMFG – you’re happy. For the first time in as long as you can remember, you’re actually enjoying writing.

You stop mid-sentence. It’s okay, this is a good pause. The logic of what will come next is rich, you can feel it. Seconds pass. A minute. Your eyes defocus. You glance out of the window and then back at your work. The rest of the sentence won’t come. You reread the first part of the sentence. It’s drivel. You scan the previous paragraph and then go back a couple of pages.

Who wrote this rubbish?

Well, you know the answer to that if nothing else.

The Work In Progress becomes the Agony That Will Only Ever Intensify. You’re not holding a huge uncut diamond, you’re staring at a double handful of shit. And that’s it. You’ve stopped. Project stalled.

I wish I could say this never happens to me. I’d be lying, though. It happens all the time. Fortunately, I have strategies in place to help me.

First thing to remember: if you felt that way about a story, it’s because it really does have merit. Don’t stash it with all the other things you haven’t finished.

Do this instead:

Write a question about your project. A big question. The question which, if answered, would bump you out of this rut. Put it in your pocket and go out for a walk, somewhere rural and quiet if possible but even a city park will work. Set yourself a time limit; whatever you can spare but an hour or more is ideal.

Partway through this walk – you’ll know the right moment – sit down for a while and watch the movement of the natural world. Make a few notes. When you’re done sitting, head home, remaining as aware as you can of things going on around you: trees, animals, insects, the weather, colours and smells, any kind of sensation. When you get in, write down the rest of what you saw, any impressions you had and what that might mean for you.

Leave the notes alone until the following day before reading them. When you revisit your question and the details of the short journey you made in nature, you will have your answer and, most importantly, you’ll be able to work again.

I’ve done this many, many times – shows how often I get stuck! – and it works. Always.

The most significant occasion was when I gave up on a novel about 30,000 words in. I quit because the material was giving me such awful horrors and because I’d lost faith in the idea. When a publisher expressed an interest in the unfinished idea, I took a cycle ride and sat in the countryside for a long time. The things I saw and the way I interpreted them got me back to my desk, enabling me to finish. That was my sixth novel. It became my debut, MEAT, kicking off my writing career and winning me a BFS award. Not to mention garnering some lovely praise from Stephen King.

What we discover all around us is in the natural world is simply this: a mirror. This mirror reveals what’s inside us. The land is the writer’s ally. All you need to do is step outside in a spirit of trust. For me, the power of nature, as inspiration and tutor, is boundless. And, as a writer, the reflections of the land are invaluable.

Who knows what nature might show you?

JOSEPH D’LACEY

Joseph D'LaceyJoseph D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel Meat. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say “Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”.

His other published works to-date include Garbage Man, Snake Eyes, The Kill Crew, The Failing  Flesh and Splinters – a collection of his best short stories. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.

His forthcoming novel, Black Feathers, is released on 4 April, 2013.

An expert’s introduction to structural editing

Bloodshot eyes editorThere are two things an editor should always bear in mind when faced with a manuscript:

  1. All novels are too long
  2. The writer has already edited the manuscript until his or her eyes have bled.

I put these thoughts upfront because a lot of what I am about to say may suggest I am promoting the butchery of manuscripts, when I am in fact demonstrating how an editor should be proactive in improving the structure of a novel.

When I say all novels are too long, I’m not suggesting a particular word limit; I mean every novel that comes to me is overwritten.  It is the hardest thing to edit your own work effectively. Emotional investment trumps intellectual engagement every time.  There are writers who are very good at it; Lil Chase talks about reducing a first draft from 74,501 to 49,501, and I’ve known writers who edit very effectively as they write, but in my experience it takes an expert second pair of eyes to perfect the structure of a novel. In 100% of these cases, this will mean cutting.

So how do I cut a novel?

Well the first question to ask is do we need that Prologue? If yes, how much can I shave off it to get the reader into the main bulk of the story as quickly as possible? Indeed, in the world of expanding electronic publishing, the need to get a story started quickly is an absolute given – think Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature; this is the battleground where readers choose or reject books.

After this I systematically go through every chapter, and every scene, looking to see if it can start later in, and finish earlier.  This is a good exercise for any writer and can profoundly change the pace of a novel.

And then there are the things that will hurt the most. If a scene does not lend itself towards advancing the story of a novel, it should be cut. No matter how good it is, how beautiful a description, how delicate a character reveal, it is junk.

I often find myself reading published novels and my attention beginning to drift just after the middle and into the last third. This is basically because the editor has not been ruthless enough to sacrifice good scenes that slow the story down. Now I’m all for a novel with a consistent leisurely pace that fits the style and thematic drive of the story, but to have an inconsistent pace often results in an uneven reading experience. This is down to bad editing – the buck stops with me.

An editor is not a tyrant. If I change something and a writer comes back at me saying this subverts the original vision of their story, character, or theme – then I will back down. The writer is right. I have a duty to be ruthless and proactive, but I must be willing to defer to the writer on fundamental ideas that he or she brings to the story. It is never my novel. If a writer trusts that you understand where they are coming from, they are far more likely to accept radical change that will improve their novel.

With this in mind, nothing is off the table. Sometimes it is possible to remove one, or two characters. If they are minor, exist only to provide background colour, and do not serve the story, what are the advantages of deleting them? Well, by removing two characters I have been able to completely lose a chapter in the middle of a book, tighten the story and keep the reader’s attention on the main characters and the primary drive of the story. If you can show this to your writer, and they trust you, they will go with you.

Of course cutting is only part of the process. The editor brings an overview to the novel that is invaluable.

Is everything in the right order?

Scenes are moveable, and it can greatly improve the structure of a story if certain events happen earlier, or later.

What is missing?

This is where the trust shared with your writer really pays off, because you have to go back to them and say the story needs new scenes to smooth transitions and make the novel logical. Not only that, but there may need to be things added which reflect deep story-structure, for instance, we need the main character to refuse the ‘call of adventure’ for as long as possible, we need perhaps two scenes that see him/her in conflict about this matter. And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.

All these factors bring us to the end of a novel. Here the big-picture view of the editor means I must make sure that every loose end is tied up, that all characters finish their journey, that the resolution is satisfying. At the same time, we have to get out quick. Do we need that epilogue? Is it so long because the story conclusion is inadequate? If it is essential, how much can we reduce it?  If you’ve taken your writer on a journey of trust, he or she will see the need to make changes and will always, in my experience, rise to the challenge.

I always look at the structural part of a novel first – it is my particular way of working. The production of a novel is an evolution, a complex process of collaboration that moves through many stages. When these matters have been resolved, a whole new stage is started, one that involves a far finer, more detailed, approach. In the end everyone’s eyes will bleed.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: MATT REINBOLD

Steve Haynes, EditorSteve Haynes lives and works in Cornwall. He is the commissioning editor of Proxima Books, the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Salt Publishing.

How to write for the Internet

internet questionThe key to good quality writing for the web is content that is short, simple and direct. Chunky paragraphs, convoluted sentences and excess punctuation marks not only stick out – they can damage the integrity of the channel or brand you’re writing for. To avoid the pitfalls of bad web writing, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

Keep it brief

Most online readers want to quickly scan through an article for the information they need. They don’t want to plough through long, rambling sentences and huge blocks of text. Limit your word count by trimming your sentences of superfluous words and check that your paragraphs don’t exceed ten lines. Preferences vary between websites but, generally speaking, if a paragraph runs over fifteen lines it can usually be broken up for better readability.

Avoid excess punctuation

Punctuation when sparingly used allows writers to clearly structure their sentences. However, excessive use of it can make your sentences harder to read, losing impact along the way. Try to avoid more advanced punctuation, such as semi-colons, colons and multiple commas, by rewriting your sentences.

E.g. ‘It is really important to keep three things in mind when buying a new car; practicality, affordability, and maintenance.’

Should be: ‘Practicality, affordability and maintenance should be kept in mind when buying a new car.’

Pick your headlines wisely

Your headline should be a short and accurate description of the following content. Writing a clear and concise headline (e.g. ‘How to write for the Internet’ instead of ‘Ten principles of writing good-quality copy for the Internet’) means your article is more likely to crop up at the fore of search engine results. Also, make sure that your headline isn’t too generic or it’ll get lost amongst the rest. A quick Google check to size up your competition beforehand helps.

Refer to any relevant style guidelines

Many websites will have a house style guide (or at least refer to a popular style guide, such as those used by The Economist or The Guardian). These make sure that all written content is consistent across the site, particularly where style, spelling, punctuation and format are concerned. Following a style guide while writing ensures consistency and therefore maintains the site’s credibility.

Your first paragraph is key

When it comes to attracting an online audience first impressions count; readers will often assess whether or not to read an article based on the first paragraph. To keep your audience hooked, make sure your opening paragraph is unusual, attention grabbing and/or punctuated with keywords or phrases (i.e. if you’re writing an article about ‘extreme winter sports’ make sure you repeat this two to three times).

Use sub-headings to break up your article

Sub-headings help to break text up into easy-to-digest chunks, while giving the reader both a sense of aesthetic order and narrative structure. They also act as handy signposts for the reader, allowing them to quickly pinpoint the information they’re looking for.

Hyperlinks are your friend

Part of the fun of web writing is the level of interactivity that the Internet allows. Hyperlinks can be used to put any obscure references in your article into context. They can also be used to link to other media (e.g. images, videos and previously written articles) and direct traffic towards other areas of the website you’re writing for.

Make sure your writing is of high quality, relevant and interesting

Producing great-quality content should be the first rule of web writing; even so, there are plenty of examples where key words and phrases are crowbarred into an article for the sake of search engine optimisation. Yet even if a site’s content is perfectly optimised, if it isn’t relevant to the reader or engaging in style the likelihood of it attracting repeat visitors is slim.

ALEXANDRA SZYDLOWSKA
PHOTO: MARCO BELLUCCI

Alexandra SzydlowskaAlexandra Szydlowska is a freelance writer and journalist, currently based in London. She is keen on roaming the world while writing about travel, culture, food and women’s issues. She sometimes struggles to stay chained to her desk.