How to Write a Cracking Reader’s Report

In case any of you were longing for a blog entry from me last week, I was on holidays. On my return, I was delighted to discover a lovely new project waiting for me in my inbox, in which I get paid to read. It’s a reader’s report for an author who has finished a memoir and wants to find out whether it is ready for publication.

A reader’s report is a curious beast, as it crosses the line between writing and editing. It’s a comprehensive critique of a novel, a memoir or a short story collection, with editorial suggestions that authors can apply immediately, either to complete their writing project or to polish it up for publication.

How The Report Is Compiled

I start by reading through the author’s story almost as if I were a casual reader, letting the words sink in. But I take notes along the way, making observations that I can later turn into recommendations. After I’ve finished, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and start giving my verdict on the story. I’ll always start with the strong points in the story, to encourage authors and give them a feeling of confidence. Then I compile a set of recommendations, which I divide into different sections.

The most important sections are the ones that deal with the building blocks of story: character, setting and plot. I help them to flesh out their characters and pay attention to how their characters interact. I encourage them to draw on the senses to create a strong sense of place for readers. Finally, I advise them on ways to pace their plot and ensure the plot holds the reader’s interests. 

Finer Details of Story

I then go into the finer details of story. The point of view a story is told from can shape how the story develops. I advise them on how to achieve a consistent point of view and how to make seamless changes in viewpoint. I’ll advise them on whether their dialogue reads the way people would speak and show them how to lay it out correctly. A reader’s report is more about giving broad editorial suggestions than editing an author’s language or tweaking the layout. However, if I notice recurring language or layout errors, I will flag these to the author.

Reader’s reports steer authors through the maze of their ideas.

These editorial suggestions usually apply to both fiction and memoir, because authors are using many of the same storytelling skills and are taking a creative approach to writing about their lives. However, for memoir writers, libel can be an issue, so I give general advice on material that could be libellous and suggest they contact a good libel solicitor.

Why Reader’s Reports Work

For all reader’s reports, I will then give a conclusion, summarising my recommendations and giving authors suggestions on how to further develop their stories. Some may need to flesh out the story to make it long enough for publishing. Others may need to work on the building blocks of story to make the story more convincing. Some lucky authors are more or less ready to go, with just a few suggestions from me to take them over the finishing line.

For me, creating reader’s reports is very satisfying, as it gives me a chance to help other writers achieve their writing dreams. For the authors, my hope is that the reader’s report will guide them through the maze of writing a book and help them over the finish line. If they’re getting ready to report, my reader’s reports will give them access to an objective view that they can use to help them decide if they will publish. If you’d like to find out more about how a reader’s report can help you achieve your writing goals, check out the WriteWords writing consultancy services.

How One Man Turned A Creative Writing Workshop Into Publishing Success

A few days ago, I received an email that made my day. Robert Thompson, who had attended one of my creative writing workshops, wrote to tell me he had self-published a book. It’s always delightful to see someone’s idea come to fruition, but this news was especially sweet to hear because in an unexpected way, I had achieved an ambition of my own.

Writing Workshops

For three years between 2014 and 2017, on and off, I gave various creative writing workshops at the National Council for the Blind in Dublin. They were in fiction, journalism and memoir and they were very successful and well attended, with the memoir workshops striking a particular chord. Being partially sighted myself, these workshops were very dear to my heart.

Robert Thompson came to one of the memoir workshops, where he produced a piece of writing that was so perfectly crafted that I could think of nothing further to add as feedback. It was a funny, warm piece that delighted everyone who heard it. It was writing of this quality that made me want to take the workshops further. I wanted published work to come out of the workshops, Writing that would give participants the chance to show the world that they are more than their disability, writing that would help them give shape their experience and help readers see the world as they saw it.

Barriers to Publishing Success

For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. The funding available for such projects tended to be for group collaborations led by an artist, in which the artist would create the work in conjunction with a community group. But I feel that if the participants really wanted to show the world what they were made of, they needed to be given a chance to create their own work, to let their unique voices be heard. I also had to recognise that what I wanted wasn’t necessarily what the participants wanted. The workshops began to lose momentum and fizzled out. That’s the nature of these things.

Robert’s Publishing Quest

Robert Thompson came to the workshops at around the time they started to fizzle out, and he booked a couple of workshops that didn’t happen due to lack of numbers. I felt sorry that he in particular wasn’t going to have the chance to be part of a bigger writing project with the participants. But Robert took matters into his own hands and finished a book called Insights from an Unsighted World, in which he shares his own stories of sight loss and raises awareness of the needs of visually impaired people in gentle ways.

Robert was kind enough to say that my workshop was the spark that led to the book. I’m just happy to know that the workshops did achieve the outcome I hoped for in the end, that published work came out of it. I’m delighted that Robert was able to share his story, and in the process, move beyond the confines of his disability. He has produced an elegant book written in the concise, lyrical, humorous style that I encountered in the workshop, and now the world will have a chance to experience it.

I hope you buy this book. I hope you don’t buy it out of pity. And I hope you buy it even if you have no connection to anyone with sight loss. If you enjoy stories that give you a glimpse into other people’s worlds, or you want to get an insight into how people cope with life’s hurdles, you’ll find it an interesting read. Even if you have no interest in the subject matter, you will get a warm glow from knowing that you are supporting two very worthwhile charities. Robert is selflessly donating the proceeds of the book to Irish Guide Dogs and the National Council for the Blind.

If I’ve managed to entice you to buy Robert’s book, you can order it at Irish Guide Dogs.

Why Writing Is Like The Salmon Season

When salmon are breeding, they must travel thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The journey is arduous, and along the way, thousands of salmon fall away. Only the strongest make it to the Sargasso Sea.

Salmon Season
Writing a book is like the salmon’s journey to the Sargasso Sea, long and brutal.

The process of becoming a published writer is a lot like that. It’s a long process and it can be brutal, and there are a lot of hurdles to be jumped.

First, you have to actually start the book. How often have you been at social gatherings and heard people say, ‘I’d love to write a book?’ For many people, the desire to write a book has never gone beyond idle conversation. So if you commit to putting pen to paper, you’re already ahead of the game.

But the writing of the book can be overwhelming for people. It’s easy to get bogged down in your story, with its many plot twists and its cast of character. And some people never make it out of that maze. They abandon their book halfway through.

When you do finish your book, it’s quite right that you should congratulate yourself. But your journey is not over yet. Now it’s time to find an audience for your book. And the main way to achieve it is through publishing. Whether you self-publish or look for a traditional publisher, publishing is tough.

If you self-publish, all the work of a publisher falls to you – publishing, cover design, editing, printing and promotion. And finding a traditional publisher can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is the stage that really separates the minnows from the big fish. It involves at least as much work as the actual writing of the book, if not more. If you get through it, the rewards can be great.

But your work isn’t over. If you really want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to make the journey again and again. Each book will be a new journey, but if you have the inventiveness to keep coming up with new ideas and the faith to act on them, you’ll truly establish yourself as an author – and you may even make a living from it.

So what are the qualities that will get you through these hurdles to the Sargasso Sea that is the life of a published author? I believe there is a holy trinity of qualities – talent, hunger and discipline. If you display those qualities, they’ll help you over those hurdles. And in the end, it’s what you want that matters. Maybe the simple writing of the book is enough for you. Or maybe your writing ambitions simply lie elsewhere.

Whatever route you choose to reach the Sargasso Sea of publishing, good luck. If you have reached it, what qualities or resources helped you on your journey?

Why Children Can Read Dark Stories

A few months ago, I read a comment from a mother in a newspaper article that she would not read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to her six-year-old daughter, because of its racist overtones, particularly in the early chapters which reference the lead character Mary’s life in India. I was dismayed to hear this. Partly because she was allowing modern-day values to colour her view of the book. And partly because I don’t think she was giving her daughter enough credit. In my experience, children are much better able to handle dark material than adults give them credit for.

The Secret Garden

In a way, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have children and if I did, I might feel the same fierce urge to protect them from dark or troubling subject matter. But I’ve given numerous creative writing workshops to children over the years, and children are willing to embrace darkness in a way that adults are not. I also think of my own childhood, when my parents were willing to answer any question I had, and when I came across anything dark in a book or TV programme, they were able to contextualise it for me and take any fear away.

Processing Truths Through Stories

From time to time, you’ll hear parents say that they won’t allow their children to read fairy tales because the material is too graphic. But in earlier eras, parents used fairy tales to explain the world to their children, to teach them lessons about good and evil and about the right way to behave. Stories give children a safe way to process dark and difficult concepts, and this is something children instinctively understand.

It strikes me that stories can be a useful jumping off point for discussion between adults and children. In the case of The Secret Garden, yes, the attitudes to race were somewhat unsavoury. But they were a product of their time. I myself wouldn’t be mad about its portrayal of disability, but again, I have to accept that this was a product of its time. Besides, the book also teaches lessons that are still vital today, about the redemptive power of nature and the value of kindness.

Children Embracing Darkness

In a week’s time, I’ll be giving a children’s Easter creative writing workshop. During the workshop, I’ll do a Chinese Whispers style exercise. The story will begin with the words, “The girl went into the wood,” which tends to conjure up dark fantasies in people’s minds. When I did it with adults recently, they stopped the story just as it was starting to get dark. But when I do it with children, they will be willing to go all the way with the material, taking the story to lots of crazy places. They will thoroughly enjoy the process and, as far as I can tell, emerge from it emotionally unscathed.

What do you think of children reading or writing stories with a dark theme? If you are inclined to shield your children from this material, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s always worthwhile to have another perspective.

How to Benefit from Facebook Writers’ Groups

A couple of years ago, I set up a Facebook group for writers. I love running it, partly because I’m addicted to Facebook groups. As opposed to pages, groups are designed to be communities of like-minded people on Facebook, where people can exchange tips, advice and experience. I set up the Facebook group for Irish writers and book professionals because I felt overwhelmed by the information overload on the web, and wanted to meet other writers and get information that would be relevant to me as an Irish writer.

Facebook groups are intended more for information sharing than for promotion, but they can help you get the word out about your books or writing services if you use them cleverly. Here are some tips for how to use Facebook groups to enhance your writing reputation, drawn from my own experience of running the Irish Writers, Editors and Publishing Professionals Facebook group.

  1. Start Chatting

Like anything in life, you’ll get out of a group what you put in. If you join in the discussions, you’ll get to know the other authors on the group and build relationships with them. Writing can be a lonely life, and just knowing there are other people out there ploughing the same furrow can be a comfort. As an extra bonus, over time, these people will be your audience when you have book or event that you want to spread the word about.

2. Be Generous

If you’re a writer or a book professional with some experience, a Facebook group gives you the opportunity to share what you know. If someone on the group asks a question, give them a comprehensive answer. This will enhance your reputation as an expert in the book field and may attract people to your books or services in the future. Give encouragement to a fellow author who doubts themselves and share useful information that group members post with your own networks. People will appreciate these little acts of generosity.

  1. Ask Questions

If you are breaking into the world of writing or the book world in general, a Facebook is a great place to gather the knowledge you need. A well-run Facebook group offers a safe environment where you can pose any question you want without fear of ridicule. You’ll have access to a warm, friendly community of people who know what they’re talking about, and the information you gather will help you achieve your writerly goals.

  1. Respect the Group’s Promotional Policy

Some groups allow no promotion at all, while others are very liberal, allowing you to trumpet blast your latest book release. In the group I run, we try to achieve a balance between promotion and information. We allow promotion using certain designated posts, and promotions are not allowed outside of them. In general, Facebook groups are more about information than promotion, and with blatantly promotional posts, you may run the risk of looking a little desperate. If this is your promotional style, you’ll get better results using more direct promotional mediums like Facebook ads or e-mail campaigns.

  1. Use Moderate Language

You’re on Facebook to represent yourself professionally as an author. My Facebook group doesn’t allow profanities, but even if there is no such restriction, be careful with your language choices. A remark which you think is made in jest can seem offensive out of context. Also, avoid making personal remarks against individuals, even if you have good reason to. You could run the risk of libel charges, and at the very least, you’ll give the impression of someone who’s bitter, which won’t do your reputation any good.

How do you use Facebook groups to promote yourself? And if you run a Facebook group, how do you make sure that the group is beneficial to members?

Three Hard Truths About Promoting Your Writing

I write this blog to tell you about my writing projects, for myself and other people, and also to help you with your writing. And I’m doing it (says she, blushing slightly) to promote myself. As a result, I try to present myself and my work as positively as possible, adding a glossy sheen to my writing. This week, I’m dropping the gloss and I’m going to talk about how hard promotion can be.

People who know me know that I’m honest and frank, possibly a bit too much so for my own good. So I’m not going to hide the fact that like many writerly types, I find it hard to promote myself. It feels like boasting. But there are things I have learned about promoting yourself which are hard, but which give me the motivation I need to start spreading the word.

Here are my hard-won truths about self-promotion. I

You Have to Tell People

First of all, you have to let people know that you exist. Nobody is going to come and pluck your brilliant book out of your bedroom door or your hard-drive. Nobody’s going to ask you to come and speak on a panel. Nobody is going to avail of your business-boosting copywriting service. You need to let people know what you have to offer them. The good news is, that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to trumpet blast them with a showy sales pitch. You’re just telling them the story of what you do. The upside of promotion is that you get a chance to share your passion, and that passion will make people sit up and listen.

trumpet
You don’t need to trumpet blast about your writing.

Nobody Owes You Their Custom

This was a harsh but useful lesson for me to learn. I used to fret about the fact that people weren’t buying my book, weren’t turning up at my writing workshops, weren’t following through on requests for me to do editing or copywriting work for them. Then I realised that they weren’t under any obligation whatsoever to do any of these things. Instead, it’s up to me to show them how I can be useful to them, and to show an interest in their own projects and personal goals. This is what will get them to pick up the phone, to come through the doors, to open up that book.

Keep Telling Them

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you’ve announced your latest book/workshop/event, all you now have to do is sit back and watch the sales roll in. But people are being bombarded with information from every corner. To make sure your information cuts through the babble, you need to tell them over and over again about your offer, using various different mediums.

These truths may be obvious to some of you, but I’ve found that reminding myself of them gives me a sense of perspective, and when I follow through on them and do the promotion, I reap the rewards with plenty of interesting work. What are your tough promotional lessons?

Three Questions Your Editor Will Ask You

A lot of people think that when they contact an editor, the editor will just give them a price right away, correct spelling and grammar and hand the manuscript back, and that will be the sum total of the editor’s involvement. But your book is precious, and you need an editor who will also see your book as precious and will do it justice. This is what editors want to achieve for their clients.

To make sure they can achieve that goal, editors will ask you a number of questions to see if their skills and expertise fit well with the book you’re writing. These questions will guide you on how the editing process works, so you’ll get a greater insight into what an editor can do for you.

question-marks
Editors ask questions to make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Here are three of the questions that an editor will ask you to help you decide if they’re the right fit for you.

What type of editing are you looking for?

Editing is about more than spelling and grammar. It’s about making language and structural changes that will help your book become the best book it can be. Editors will ask you whether you’re simply looking for spelling and grammar changes (proofreading) or whether you’d like more help. Editors can also help you to structure your sentences more effectively and check any facts you mention for accuracy. This is called copy-editing. They can also go even deeper and give you a chapter-by-chapter analysis of your story structure, giving you feedback on your plot, character, setting, point of view and overall language use. This is called developmental editing.

What genre are you writing in?

It could be argued that the principles of all stories and the skills required to edit them are the same, so in theory, an editor could edit any type of book. But to really bring out the best in your story, you’ll need an editor who understands the rules of your genre and adheres to the rules of that genre. For example, if you’re writing historical non-fiction, you would need an editor who is experienced at checking references and checking the formatting of a bibliography.

How far along are you with the book?

This is another way for an editor to determine how much editing will need to be done on your book. If you’re just finished your first draft, you would need fairly extensive editing advice, a developmental edit or an in-depth critique. The editor may even feel that it’s too soon for you to hire an editor, and you need to develop the story more yourself first, so the editor won’t have too much influence on its structure. If you’ve done all the drafts you can, but still need more work, a copy edit might be helpful. And if your book has already been professionally edited and is on its final draft before being published, a proofread may be all that’s needed.

If you’ve hired an editor, what questions have they asked you? And what questions have you asked them?

The Challenges of Editing Poetry

Proofreading poetry is a delicate business. As there are fewer words in a poem, the slightest change you make will have a much stronger effect. Whether you choose to put in a comma leave it out will determine the shape of a verse, or even the whole poem. I’ve been asked by a local poet to wield my editing scalpel. I’m flattered that this person has trusted me with her poems, which she’s hoping to put into a collection. She asked me to do a light proofread and suggest an order for the poems.

editing-scalpel
The delicate task of editing poetry.

 

Read Like a Reader: When I’m first editing a job, I let the words wash over me, the way you normally do when you’re reading a book. This helps me to connect with the material and to figure out what story the person is trying to tell. In this case, as they were poems, I read them aloud to get into the rhythm of them. Reading aloud also helps you spot patterns of errors the person makes.

Ordering the Poems: It’s extraordinary how themes naturally emerge in people’s writing, without any forethought on their part. There are issues or themes people will naturally gravitate towards, and that was the case with this collection. Four or five themes came to the fore, and fortunately, the numbers of poems which fall under each theme is relatively equal, which will add body to the collection.

Proofreading: There’s always more to proofreading than you originally think. Often the problem isn’t with spelling and grammar, but with structure. In this case, I discovered bigger problem with the rhythm of the poems, and I flagged those up using Track Marks, the computer equivalent of the red pen. Also, when you make one change, you have to make changes for all instances where the error needs to be corrected. This manuscript soon becomes festooned with red marks.

Second Proofread: When I’ve finished track marking, I will create a new document and accept all the track marks. This incorporates all the changes I made and will give the poet a clean copy to work with. I’ll then clear up any remaining errors before handing it back to her.

Giving Feedback: Proofreaders largely concentrate on spelling and grammar, but I’m going to add a feedback document, pointing to poems that need work and suggesting ways of correcting issues related to the rhythm of the poems. The poet can then implement the suggestions herself if she wishes.

Have you ever edited poetry? If so, how do you approach it? If you’re a poet, what would you look for in an editor?

A Writer Goes To A Book Fair

Many years ago, I wrote a book (well, five, actually). Long-time blog followers will know that I blogged about it enthusiastically at the time. The book had varying fortunes, and in recent times, I had let it gather dust in my house. So when I saw a notice a couple of months ago about the inaugural Copper Coast Geopark Book Fair, I was delighted. I thought it was time my book, The Pink Cage, came out of its, well, cage (sorry).

Preparing to Sell

Finally, the day of the book fair arrived. The thing I was most apprehensive about was how my book stand would look. Other people on my Irish Writers Facebook group had elaborate plans for their stands, but visual display is not my strong point. Luckily, my husband has a strong visual sense, and he helped me display my books around an actual pink cage he had bought me some time ago. I ended up wearing a pink jumper as well (the subconscious is indeed powerful).

stand-at-book-fair
Displaying my wares at the Copper Coast Geopark Book Fair, Photo Credit: Orlaith Hamersley.

After we set up, the doors opened and the punters poured in. Given the remoteness of the location, this was pretty impressive. Another challenge for me was deciding how to interact with punters. I thought about what I like when I go up to a stall. I prefer that people don’t talk to me, but have an approachable look and are happy to chat once I initiate the conversation. So that was the approach I took with punters.

How Was It Overall?

Overall, the experience was great fun. I enjoyed chatting to the customers and watched with interest how other stand holders interacted with theirs. It was particularly interesting to watch a bookseller who’s been in the game for decade. His books were real treasures, and his enthusiasm for his books won him many customers. I shared my stand with a friend of mine, a great local character, and I was particularly delighted to meet Pam O’Shea (@pamlecky) and Fiona Hogan (@cookehogan) from the Facebook group I set up – always great to meet Facebook buddies in real life.

But the selling environment was a little challenging. I had initially believed that this was a book fair for authors looking to sell their self-published book, but it turned out that there were a number of second-hand book stalls. The stands were intended to raise money for the Copper Coast Geopark, so I can understand why they were there, but it was difficult for us authors to compete with them. We’re not familiar names to the public, and because we produced our books ourselves, they cost that bit more.

Still, I sold as many books as I expected to sell. I’m proud that I put my book back out into the world, and that I represented myself as well as I possibly could. Have you sold at a book fair? What were the challenges and what were the benefits? If you run a book fair, how do you manage to make it viable, and what advice would you have to authors who take your stands?

Is Self Publishing for Everyone?

A self published author I know, a lively, go-getting character, posted on a Facebook I run about how fed up he is with the stigma around self publishing. He was published by a traditional publisher, but found he sold far more copies as a self published author. Yet he felt that self published authors like him were looked down upon for not being with an established publisher. Several self published authors then shared their positive experience of self publishing, and the general feeling was that self publishing was now a force to be reckoned with and snobbery should be set aside.

I would certainly agree with that. I self published copies of my novel after the publisher I had stopped printing copies. I did enjoy the control that came with self publishing, but I’ll still be trying for an established publisher next time. I still nurture fantasies of lunch with my editor in a swanky restaurant.

 

editor lunch
Toasting success with a future editor.

I regularly recommend self publishing as an option at my creative writing workshops. But I also believe it’s not for everyone. Here are three instances when I believe self publishing is not a good idea.

If you write literary fiction

I read an article in The Guardian which said that self publishing worked for most genres –  except delicate literary fiction. The trouble with literary fiction is that it’s quiet and understated, and needs the gentle push of  a publisher to make its voice heard. Also, unlike other genres, it doesn’t follow strict rules, so you’re creating each book from scratch. This takes up a lot of headspace. If that headspace is taken up with worries about how you’re going to get your book out, it will affect the quality of the work. Using an established publisher at least takes that concern away.

If selling gives you the shivers

Some authors are naturally quite commercially minded, and those authors tend to make very successful self publishers. As I said, you need to be able to shout loudly to be heard as a self published author. Some authors have neither the personality or the inclination needed to do that shouting. You do have to do your own publicity when you have an established publisher as well, but at least they will do the basics for you, and this gives you a leg up.

If you don’t have a specific audience

Self publishing works really well if you are writing for a defined audience. You can learn who that audience is, what they want and how to deliver it to them. You can narrow your focus and tailor your sales approach to that audience. If you write books that are very general, it will be hard for you to find people to target, and to compete with authors who know what readers they want to reach. Having an established publisher behind you gives you a platform to reach a wider audience, and from that experience, you may discover which readers favour your book.

What do you think? Is self publishing a go-to for every author? Or are there authors whose work is more suited to an established publishing model?