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?

The Storytime Express Comes to Waterford

You’d be surprised how quickly you can put a story together. Of course, to bring it to publishing standard takes months or even years, but the basic idea can emerge in a matter of hours. I give a workshop for beginning writers to help them kickstart their stories, and after just two hours, they come out with the first draft of a story. I’ll be giving that workshop for an upcoming writing festival, Waterford Writers’ Weekend. I call it The Storytime Express. Due to the demands of the schedule, it’ll be three hours instead of two, but that will give the participants some much needed breathing space.

Overall, I hope the workshop will give people the confidence to start writing and the power to tell their own story. I also want them to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from producing a complete piece of writing that is their own creation. At the very least, they’ll come out with a story plan that they can develop in their own time.

Building the Story

After some icebreaking activities, we’ll start to build the story by creating a character, setting and plot. They’ll be given a picture of a strange looking old man and be asked to create a character for him. Then they’ll sell a destination, writing a brochure blub for a place with a wacky name. Finally, they’ll be given a headline and will write the story behind the headline. These activities will form the ingredients for their story.

Maurice Murgatroyd
The unlikely hero of our express story.

 

Planning the Story

After a well-earned break, it’ll be time to combine those ingredients together to make the story. The template I have devised for the story is that a valuable treasure has been stolen and the old man is the unlikely choice to get it back. It’s your classic quest narrative. I will outline that template with a story spine, which is a series of sentences with blank spaces for you to fill in. They’ll use the information from the three previous activities to complete the story spine.wr

Writing the Story

Now it’s time to add flesh to the skeleton of the story and to create a story with a beginning, middle and end. Depending on time, the participants spend the rest of the session writing the story. If they finish reasonably quickly, we’ll spend the last 10-15 minutes hearing the stories, and enjoying the surprise of the participants at how creative they can be in a short space of time.

 

If anyone reading this blog is in the Waterford area and likes the sound of this workshop, it’s on Saturday 7 May at Greyfriars Gallery from 10am-1pm. Visit the website for details on how to book.

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?

Self Publishing Day at Irish Writers’ Centre

This week, I thought I’d bring you a report from the Self Publishing Day organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre. The Centre has a long tradition of holding publishing days, which give budding authors the chance to hear from experts in the publishing industry and get tips on sending in their manuscripts. This time, the Centre decided to embrace the brave new world of self publishing and the day featured five leaders from the world of self publishing.

Morning Presentations

The day began with a guide to the Dos and Don’ts of Self Publishing and the presenter was Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin of writing.ie. Vanessa has a wealth of knowledge at her fingertips, and she managed to cram most of it into her 90-minute talk. The real value of her talk lay in the fact that she is a self published author with  a strong background in traditional publishing, so she was able to give insights from both side of the fence. The kernel of her message was that you should make sure that your self-published book looks as much like a traditional book as possible.

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from writing.ie,(Image, asiam.com)

Editor Robert Doran then took us through the different types of editing and what you should expect from your editor. His talk clarified the differences between editing and proofreading and within editing itself, which can often be confusing. He also discussed the value of getting a sample from an editor – it turns out that opinions are divided on this topic.

Afternoon Sessions

The afternoon was devoted to marketing and sales for self published authors. Anne Marie Scully of Orchard Wall Publishing, a digital publishing company, spoke about how to make use of online advertising tools. She previously worked at Google, so she had a particular insight into Google Adwords. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin was back again for the last session, in conversation with Robert Doran and two self published authors who had made it.

Emily Evans has sold 84,000 copies of her young adult romance novels and Catherine Ryan Howard has turned her self-publishing experience in a career, offering advice to other authors through her conferences and her book, Self Printed. They had plenty of nuggets of information to share about how to run successful book marketing campaigns, and were particularly enthusiastic about WordPress websites.

Audience Participation

People were free to ask questions while the speakers were talking, and there was lots of lively discussion, about topics like libel, the correct spelling of manana and the use of pen names, as well as more nitty gritty questions about how much you can expect to spend on self publishing.

Online Participation

Successful self published authors have a strong understanding of social media and the digital world and the conference put a lot of emphasis on the digital world. For example, there was a hashtag that people could use for Twitter, so that when they tweeted about the event, it would be easy for other people to find out about it. But I believe that there is still a schizophrenic attitude towards the online world in Ireland. The people who are immersed in it can’t imagine why other people aren’t. Meanwhile, there is still a fairly vast swathe of people who have either chosen not to go online or are a little frightened of it.

Therefore, I think it would have been better if the presenters had pitched their talk on the basis that people knew nothing about social media or the digital world, as the audience seemed a little confused by the material at times. I also believe that traditional marketing methods still work, and it would have been good to see those covered in the talks as well.

Overall, I commend the Irish Writers’ Centre for organising this day, and for opening up a mine of valuable information to help people realise their dream of becoming self published authors. It’s interesting to reflect that when I went to my first publishing day at the centre, self publishing was dismissed as a footnote. Now it gets a day of its own.

Escaping the Writing Desert

I don’t believe in writers’ block. But I do believe in the writing desert. It’s a place where words turn into dust, where mirages of stories dance before your eyes, but vanish as you reach out for them. Being in the writing desert doesn’t mean you don’t write, but you write in circles, like a desert fox chasing its tail.

It would be easy to surrender to the writing desert’s shimmering sands. It’s a place where there is no rejection, no fear. But to stay there would mean betraying tha talent that lies inside you, and thwarting your writing voice. If you stay in the writing desert, you will wither.

No helicopter is going to come and rescue you, so you need an escape plan. I’m going to share my one with you, in the hope that it will help you formulate your own.

 1. Write for Yourself

A lot of writers eject ideas from their subconscious before they’ve had a chance to form because they’re afraid it’s not what the market wants. They’re paralysed by the thought of how daunting the publishing process is and lose heart because they feel their ideas are too puny.

The best action to take is to turn your back on publication. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in the long term, it restores your confidence. Give yourself the freedom to write what you want, and write for a set amount of time each day or each week. You’ll establish a writing rhythm, which will keep a channel open for publishable ideas to flow through. The act of writing itself is powerful. It is an act of faith in yourself.

 2. Write Around Yourself

You can never entirely escape yourself when you write, but if your writing is too introspective, you’ll remain in the quicksand. Expand your reach to the world around you, to the people you meet and the places you know. Draw a map of that world with your words. Use your writing to push past your assumptions and understand that world better. You won’t be taking yourself entirely out of the equation, but you’ll turn your life’s experiences into stories that readers will relate to.

3. When You’re Not Writing, Just Live

When you’re not writing, it’s tempting to spend a lot of time fretting about the fact that you’re not writing. But it’s better to shove writing to the back of your mind when you stop writing, and immerse yourself in the richness of the world around you. Pay close attention to your surroundings. Eavesdrop shamelessly on conversations. This will add texture to your writing, so you can create that 3D effect that allows readers to feel they’ve entered a whole new world. And trust that while you’re getting on with the business of living, your subconscious is churning away and will produce a brilliant idea for a story when you least expect it.

This is not a failsafe escape plan. But it at least ensures that you will write in a straight line, instead of in circles. And if you walk that straight line for long enough, you will end up in the abundant lands where your stories reside.

What’s your writing desert escape plan? Feel free to share your tips.

An Unapologetic Love of Words

As writers, it’s easy to lose heart if the words in your heart don’t match the words the public want to read. You read all these articles telling you what the hottest trends in publishing are, and you realise that your work is, according to these articles, desperately out of fashion. The publishing gurus and best selling authors tell you to write what’s inside you, but those words can ring a little hollow if the words you write are often rejected.

Last Saturday, I went to a highly original one-woman show in my local town of Tramore, Co. Waterford. It was my second time going to Seriously Now, by Petra Kindler. Part monologue, part stand up comedy routine and part reflection on the meaning of language, it defies categorisation and is the most original and stimulating show I’ve seen in years.

Petra’s originality and dedication to her vision to prove that Germans really can be funny has been rewarded. She’s been included in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will give 19 performances of her show next month.

Picture taken from Edinburgh Fringe Festival Website
Picture taken from Edinburgh Fringe Festival Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are three lessons that I think writers who are worried they don’t fit the mould can learn from Petra’s performance.

1. You don’t need visual aids

We live in a visual age and attention spans are dropping like stones. Social media is driven by pictures, and people who are more aural or language oriented can feel they’re being drowned out. Petra uses two highly effective visual aids, but apart from that, her message is driven solely by her words, and she’s able to keep people rapt for 60 minutes. Sometimes words really are enough.

 2. Translation is vital

Translation can be seen by many to belong to the dusty realm of academia, or obscure literary awards. In the opening part of Petra’s show, she demonstrates that translation gives a glimpse into the soul of a people, and that the quality of translation greatly changes how a reader perceives a book’s meaning. She also warns authors who want to be translated into German never to use the word “hen party.” If you go to her show, you’ll see why.

 3. Your life is more interesting than you think.

One of the great skills that writers have is being able to mine their own lives for stories that will resonate with a wider audience. Everyone has aspects to their lives which seem ordinary to them, but fascinating to everyone else. Petra is a German woman who moved to Waterford in South East Ireland and being able to send up commonly-held stereotypes about Germans has given her a rich seam of material to mine. She’s able to give an affectionate outsider’s perspective on Irish culture too.

If you happen to be in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, you can catch Petra between July 31st and August 24th in Laughing Horse @ The Phoenix, at 3.45 every day, except Mondays and Tuesdays. Petra needs those days off to gather what’s left of her marbles.

Three Advantages of Traditional Publishing

This month’s Writing Magazine has a big special on self publishing, in which authors frankly share their warts and all experiences of the self publishing world. Self publishing is certain gaining momentum as a way to get your work out into the world. Authors are carving out incredibly successful careers independently of publishing houses. It’s never been easier to put your writing out into the world, and authors are seizing those opportunities, and profiting from them too.

But I’ve got to say that if I ever manage to finish that difficult second novel, I’ll be choosing the traditional route to publication. And I’m going to slaughter a sacred cow and hazard a guess that some self published authors would agree with me. here are three good reasons why.

1. You don’t have to produce your own book.

Why did you become a writer? My guess is that you wanted to tell stories and find an audience for them. Developing your stories to a degree that will make people want to read them takes 100% of your effort. Yet for a self published author, that’s just the beginning. They then have to format, design, produce and distribute their own book. To me, that’s like expecting artists to produce their own canvas, or musicians to produce their own instruments. If you’re traditionally published, your publisher will carry that financial and logistical burden for you, and let you get on with the business of being a writer.

 2. You get on the shelves

When my first novel was published, I was amazed at the extent to which, in this digital age, people expected it to be available on bookshelves. That’s why I believe that despite the availability and popularity of e-readers, if you’re not in bookshops, it’ll seriously damage your sales. Self published authors are at a huge disadvantage here, because it’s next to impossible to get your book into a bookshop on any significant scale using your own resources. Traditional publishers will put you in front of your reading public by ensuring your book is distributed using the major book distributors in your area.

 3. You get kudos

Being accepted by a traditional publisher means your book will be taken more seriously. You’re a lot more likely to be reviewed in national papers and to be put forward for awards. If you’re applying for arts council funding, your self published book is less likely to be considered as a viable publication. If your book is being traditionally published, it means that someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to books thinks your book is worthy of publication. Call it snobbery, but that still carries weight in certain circles.

Do you fly the flag for self publishing or for traditional publishing? Let me know your thoughts. I’m expecting some lively debate!

Editing an Anthology

At the moment, I have some precious items in my hands (or strictly speaking in my hard drive). Some of these items have been a long time in the making, and they have a value beyond words, so I must be sure to treat them with care. They’re tie writings of Tramore Writers’ Group in Co. Waterford, who are in the process of compiling an anthology.

Most of the group are veterans of anthologies. They’ve produced two already – Ferry Tales and Tramore Tales. But in a departure from their previous anthologies, this anthology will be a mixture of poetry and prose. I’m delighted that the group has asked me to edit the anthology.

When I met the group to outline my proofreading process, they were knee deep in words and slightly overwhelmed by the task at hand. Aiming to lift a little of the mist from their eyes, I told them that I would straighten out their spelling and grammar, using the dreaded Track Marks function, the electronic equivalent with the red pen. I would do two proofreads and help them decide on the order of the pieces.

1st. Proofread

I’ve just done the first proofread. In this proofread, I’m familiarising myself with the authors’ work, the quirks of their writing, their strengths and the errors they’re most prone to. Each author will get a track-marked version of their documents, with the corrections indicated so they can see where the corrections were made, and a clean document with the corrections incorporated.They can work off this to do a final edit of their work. With each submission, I’ll send some editorial suggestions, with advice about ways to strengthen the work before the final proofread.

2nd Proofread

At this stage, I’ll just clean up minor spelling and grammar errors. More crucially, I’ll decide what order the pieces will appear in. I can choose to order them by:

  • Theme – if some of the pieces have a common thread in terms of subject matter.
  • Mood – the atmosphere of the pieces. For example, I’ll follow reflective, moving pieces with more light-hearted ones.
  • Form – I’ll measure the ratio of stories to poems and ensure there’s a good balance, so readers don’t feel they’re wading throught he material.
  • Alphabetical Order – I’ll simply order them according to the author names.

In reality, I’ll probably opt for a mixture of order and form.

Why I’m Doing It

I’m hoping that my outside perspective will be useful, as the members are familiar with each other and their work and may not spot errors such as repetition, over description and misuse of punctuation. I’ve been a little rigorous with my editorial suggestions, because I want to make sure the pieces are in the best possible condition for publishing. Above all, I need to be clued into whether the author is making a grammatical error, or just has a quirky way of wording their sentences. I will make sure I wield a scalpel rather than a chainsaw.