Author Archives: allieburns

When a self-published author should, and shouldn’t, hire a professional copy-editor


The one vital thing that an author can’t bring to their own work, no matter how long it’s left in the drawer, is objectivity. 

Even with a thorough writing and editing process, you’re emotionally attached to your novel, it’s an extension of you and probably, if my experience is anything to go by, you love it and loathe it a bit, too. You will know how the story has grown and changed, how the characters have shifted as you’ve become better acquainted, what sections were difficult, and how the timeline, or structure, has altered.  

Aside from the typos and errors there are also things in your writing that will be hard for you to spot; every reader has their quirks, their go-to phrases or words, repeated rhythms and sentence structures which can spoil the flow of the prose. And again, a copy-editor’s objectivity, and hawk’s-eye, for these things will bring the emotional and physical distance needed to elevate your novel to the highest standards. 

It’s also much better to get everything in order right from the outset – this way you can ensure you’re building an author brand that’s associated with polished novels. It’s true that the investment is a risk; the book might not recoup the expenditure, but the flip side is that if sales are better than you dared hope you might need to revisit the novel and tinker with it, when you should be writing the next book and keeping up the momentum you’ve established. 

Also, the guidance you receive is a lot like professional development and you’ll be able to use the skills and knowledge you gain in your future works. I learnt a huge amount from both the structural and copy-editing comments on my novels and I took all of that feedback on board and I’ll continue to use it as a writer. 

When a self-published author shouldn’t use a professional copy-editor

There are going to be occasions when a copy-editor isn’t what you need. For example, you don’t want to pay an editor to focus on the small details when you haven’t considered the big picture. It would be like colouring in a sketch of a landscape when you haven’t yet decided whether you’re keeping in the range of hills to the left, the forest to the right, or if instead you’ll scrap the landscape and pen a portrait of an oak tree. If you call in a copy-editor too soon then you risk having to put your manuscript through the process a second time.  

If you’re looking for representation, or wishing to submit directly to a publisher, they might be impressed with your attention to detail and professionalism, but that won’t be enough if they don’t feel that the story works, or there isn’t a market for it. So, the same sketch analogy applies and, even if you have already done some structural editing, an agent or publisher will still provide you with feedback and most likely require further amendments.  

If you’ve progressed your manuscript as far as you can, but you’re not sure if you’re ready for a copy-editor please get in touch for an informal chat.

How to use the ellipsis in fiction

Here’s a brief guide to using the ellipsis when self-editing fiction. Ellipses are a useful device for showing a character’s state of mind, or their intentions, and they can deliver a lighter touch than actually stating the stage directions.   But, as with all techniques in writing, the key is to be in control of how you use your ellipses; it’s important to know when and when not to use them.

What is an ellipsis? 

An ellipsis is simply three dots, which can be used in speech and thoughts. As illustrated here from a short passage from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, the ellipsis can show trepidation:

‘Mummy, I wanted to ask you something. How … how old were you when you had me?’

The ellipsis can show confusion, an incomplete thought, or, as in this next example, the gaps suggest the hesitation is coming from a desire to be deliberately vague and play games. 

I was thirteen … no, wait … I was forty-nine. Whatever. Why do you care? What’s it to you, daughter of mine?’

And, they can also show a trailing off at the end of a thought or speech.

‘I was just wondering …’ I said.

In this exchange those three dots speak volumes about the things Eleanor doesn’t say. I read here that Eleanor would like to quiz Mummy further, but she lacks the confidence to do so, and, based on the earlier response from Mummy, she probably knows there’s not much point. I also sense other emotions being conveyed by the silence: disappointment in herself for not having the strength to push Mummy for the real answer, also despondency and resignation because she’ll probably never know the truth.  It would take a lot of words to convey the same feelings, whereas the ellipsis leaves the reader to fill in the blanks and work things out for themselves. This delivers a much richer, more involving experience for readers than if Honeyman had explained that Eleanor trailed off and then named her emotions. 

How to present ellipses in fiction

As you can see from the example above, an ellipsis should have a space either side of it  when it appears in the middle of a sentence. When the ellipsis appears at the end of a sentence there should be a space between the last word and the first dot. Like this:

‘I don’t know …  or perhaps, perhaps I do. It seems familiar, but then …’

Beware of overusing the ellipsis

Whilst ellipses are useful to show hesitation, it’s easy to use them too often. When this happens the text can end up feeling hesitant itself. This can create a sense that the author isn’t confident, the prose can feel breathless, and the risk is that the reader ends up distracted, or even frustrated, by the frequent pauses. Decisiveness gives readers confidence in the author; so a firmer choice of punctuation, such as the full stop, shows tightness and control.

So, that’s the ellipsis for fiction in a nutshell. It’s a really useful punctuation tool for depicting mood and motive, and the more judicious the use the bigger the impact.

 

The best writing books on plot

It’s a good idea to turn to some plotting expertise once you’ve worked up your characters and story premise. When developing ideas into a structured plot I always like the analogy of having the canvas and then adding the tent poles to give it shape and structure.

Plotting books, like the two I’ve recommended here, will prompt you to explore the furthest corners of your story. The story analysis and the authors’ working knowledge of storytelling should demystify the process, teach you new things and inspire you to push your story to be the best it can be.

Of course, not everyone wishes to conform to the ‘formula’. Into the Woods walks us through some unconventional storylines, but Yorke argues that they all point back to the original form and couldn’t exist without it. I think you need to understand the rules, and why they exist, before you can break them.

These two books really encourage writers to consider their story from every angle, and I think they complement one another really well.

The Plot Whisperer – Martha Anderson

Martha radiates a Californian vibe that emerges as laid-back simplicity in her plotting books. I’m a big fan of her approach, and style.

She recognises that writers can either be logical and linear left-brainers, holistic and intuitive right-brainers, or balanced and so fall somewhere between the two (aka as lucky!). This perspective helps writers to think about suitable genres e.g. if you’re a logical thinker then you might find plot-driven crime easier to tackle than say character-driven literary fiction. This insight can also help you to identify where you might need to find extra help and development to balance things out.

I have several of Martha’s books, but it’s The Plot Whisperer Workbook that is the most dog-eared of them all. In it, she encourages you to develop and expand the plot and structure by focussing on three major plotlines:

  • Character emotional development
  • Dramatic action
  • Thematic significance

The workbook is full of useful tools such as plot planners, scene trackers and character transformation profiles. She takes you through every stage of the process, with helpful checklists for key turning points such as the introduction and the end of the beginning.

The only thing I can find to count against it is that she doesn’t really emphasise the need to place the protagonist at a crossroads right from the very beginning. I think there might be a danger of novels getting off to a slow start – though that could just be my interpretation of what she says because the novel she uses to illustrate her technique is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and that’s definitely a pacy read.

Martha is also an advocate of women writers and recognises that plot and structure can be a challenge for some of us. Where her approach is helpful to women is when she puts her ideas into the context of the universal story: the rhythm of life. She’s so right, the cycle of ‘moving forward’ and ‘dying off’ is ever present in life around us, our own writing journeys, and those of our characters.

Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by [Yorke, John]

The cover does address scriptwriters, but this book is all about storytelling and so offers plenty for the novel writer, too.

The most useful parts of the book for me are in the early sections about structure and the building blocks of stories: beats. Later on, Yorke goes into areas covered in most other writing books such as show not tell and dialogue; there’s a section on serials, too. But the most-underlined sections in my copy are where Yorke puts forwards compelling arguments for using a five-act structure, his explanation of what the midpoint is and why this moment of ‘big change’ in a novel is so important. It’s the clearest explanation of the midpoint I’ve found, and I think it’s worth buying the book for those pages alone.

 

 

More useful tools for structural editing

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This post looks at story beats, grids and spreadsheets as they can you help to manage your story at a scene-by-scene level. This is a good time to look for that all-important cause and effect so that you can make sure that everything unfolds logically and earns its place within your manuscript.

 Story beats

 With story beats the idea is to condense the story elements down into bullet points rather than sentences or paragraphs. Aim for twenty-five story beats – though for a script forty is more common – you can always start low and then expand. Each beat can be a combination of scenes, rather than one bullet per scene, to pinpoint key events and turning points.

All you need to do is write a numbered list and then go through your manuscript and fill in the blanks. Remember to check that the story moves through the seven critical plot points, and that these are spread evenly throughout the story’s acts.

As a reminder, these are the main plots :

  1. Hook/opening image
  2. Inciting incident
  3. First turning point
  4. Mid-point commitment or reversal
  5. Crisis – the all is lost moment
  6. Climax
  7. Resolution

If you’re not sure if a scene, or chain of events, should be included in the beats then check back on your central theme, or vision statement, to see whether or not it fits. If it doesn’t, then perhaps it needs further developing, or removing altogether. When you come to revisit the manuscript you’ll be alert to those highlighted scenes and you’re more likely to notice if they slow the pace, or need further development to bring them back in line with the theme.

Grids or spreadsheets

Breaking the story down into a grid, or spreadsheet, by scene or by chapter, will really help you to take an aerial view of your story, especially if you’ve ‘pantsed’ your way through the first draft.

If you’re a planner, you might have lovingly prepared a detailed schedule before you set off on your novel-writing journey. If that’s the case, you could revisit your original plans and add any new directions, scenes, chapters and characters.

At the beginning of a project, I prefer to plan the main point points and develop the characters, but then I join the dots as I write and change things a lot in subsequent drafts. This method means that I introduce a spreadsheet once I have a first draft, I use it to track the act, plot point, dramatic action, character development, goal and theme (and it’s a great device for delaying the moment I actually begin the revisions). I also have a date column, which helps me monitor my timeline, this is especially useful with events like pregnancy and to make sure that the story ties in with historic events.

I hope you’ve found these posts on using tools for structural editing useful, and remember to check back for more writing advice, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter where I post links to my latest tips for writers.

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Quick-and-easy tools for structural editing

If you’ve finished your first draft, these tools will help you to analyse your storyline and identify where to make changes when you embark on your macro edit. They’re planning tools, but they’re useful for your edit whether you’re just using them for the first time, or blowing off the dust and revisiting your original plans.

This post focuses on some quick and easy techniques; I’ll take a look at the larger, more complex tools in a future post.

Vision for the story

If you wrote a vision or intention when you set out to write your novel now is the time to revisit it. For my second novel, The Land Girl, my intention was to tell the story, across generation and class, of how life changed for women during the First World War, and how this progress came undone after the Armistice.

When I came to the end of my first draft, I was able to see where I’d stayed true to this intention, but also where I’d drifted from it.  This helped me to identifiy scenes and subplots that were superfluous to the story’s central theme.

If you didn’t write down your vision or intention at the beginning, it’s not too late to do this before you begin your edit as it will still give you focus and identify the core theme of your novel.

 A blurb or premise paragraph

It can be a challenge to reduce 90,000 words to just one hundred, but a whole novel is a difficult thing to analyse when you try to think of it in its entirety. One paragraph distils the story down to the main conflict and allows you to see how marketable and easy it is to communicate your concept.

One technique is to write ‘When’ and then ‘Must’. This short paragraph will identify the inciting incident, the main character, their goal and the conflict – and you get all of that plot detail from just a couple of sentences. It will also help you to see if any of these vital plot elements are missing.

Synopsis

I’ve not come across a writer who enjoys putting one of these together, but they are undeniably helpful editing tools. If you write an extended synopsis, rather than a one-pager, you will be able to see whether you’ve hit all of the right plot points and which elements of the story are the most pertinent (what you leave out of a synopsis is just as telling as what you include) and if any plotlines fizzle out without resolution.

If you’ve left out an element of the storyline from the synopsis it could be because it’s a subplot, which is fine, but it could be a tangent you followed when the main plot became tough and you got distracted by a shiny new idea. You can ask yourself now whether this piece of the puzzle fits, or if it’s potentially a distraction that dilutes the main thrust of the plot. Other key questions are whether the plot stays with your core theme (as set out in your vision or intention statement), and how the subplots feed into the main story arc.

You should be able to analyse from your synopsis if the protagonist’s external and internal conflicts are closely aligned, and whether or not they feed into one another at the story’s climax.

The other important element you can assess here is character growth. Somewhere near the beginning of the synopsis you should have communicated the main character’s flaw, or lack, and identified how the story’s early events have triggered the journey towards change. By the resolution you’ll have demonstrated how they’ve changed. Seeing it set out simply allows you to check that the protagonist’s journey has led to sufficient character growth.

So, there you have three straightforward tools to get you going with your macro edit.