Want to know the history behind Valentine’s Day? It might be a bit stranger than you think!
Want to know the history behind Valentine’s Day? It might be a bit stranger than you think!
One of the most difficult things to deal with when writing a novel is getting feedback, whether this is from a friend, a beta reader or an editor. Honestly – it can be completely terrifying. I know this from experience having written two books myself. The first experience I had of getting feedback on a piece of fiction was when I began studying for my master’s in creative writing. A huge part of the course was the workshop. We took it in turns to send a few chapters of our WIPs to everyone in the group and then a week or so later we would gather (online) to discuss that writing. The first time it was my turn I actually felt physically sick. I was terrified that the other students would hate my work, that they would destroy it. So, as an editor, I do completely understand how nerve-wracking it is to get that feedback. And sometimes it’s not only terrifying, it’s also confusing, especially when two or more of your readers or editors have completely different opinions about your work. So how do you deal with feedback?
Feedback from Beta Readers
So you’ve sent out your manuscript to five beta readers and you have five conflicting opinions about it. What should you do?
First, step back and coolly asses your betas. Whose opinion do you really trust? If one of them is your mum, then she’s probably not the one to go with.
Then go with your gut – you know if someone’s comments rings true, if something makes you think ‘Oh yeah. That’s a good point’. You need to be honest with yourself.
Look for common threads. If three of your betas hate the same thing, but one loves it, then it’s probably safe to go with the majority.
Feedback from Editors
Again, take a step back. Yes, that’s difficult; your work is so personal to you, so much a part of you. But feedback is vital to improve your craft. So put the process into perspective. Your editor is (hopefully) trying to help you. Their criticisms (if they’re any good) should be constructive. Trust me, when I give feedback on a manuscript, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, or upset you or belittle you. But it would do you no good whatsoever if I wasn’t honest. I want to help you. So bear that in mind and try to be objective when you look at feedback.
Make sure you understand what your editor is trying to tell you. If you don’t understand their comments or you need some clarification, then ask. Personally, I feel that if a writer comes back to me about a point I’ve raised, then it’s my job to address their concerns. Just because I’ve finished the edit, it doesn’t mean I can no longer answer questions or provide feedback. A caveat though – don’t take advantage of your editor’s good nature; ask a question, accept the answer, but don’t expect a long-running dialogue. And don’t argue either – you’ve asked me for my professional opinion, I’ve given it and I’ve given my reasons for that opinion. It serves no purpose if you don’t agree for us to have back and forth emails about it.
Remember – you own the story. You don’t have to do what your editor says. It’s entirely up to you. But do remember that your editor is not your enemy. We don’t sit there trying to pick faults – we want to help you make your manuscript the best it can be. So if we say something you don’t agree with, take a deep breath, read the criticism again and really think about it. Does your editor have a point?
Charles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. One of my favourite writers, he has a lot to teach us today (and some of his compassion and philanthropy wouldn’t go amiss either).
I wrote this post about opening lines a few years ago, but Dickens was the master of them, so in celebration of his birthday, here it is again.
The opening line for your novel must draw your reader in. They should read that first line and think: I need to read this book. I want to know what happens.
So how do you create a great first line? That’s a difficult thing to try and explain. The best thing to do, as with most things, is to read. And when you read, think about your reaction to that opening line. Do you want to read on? If so, why? And if not, why not? I can do no better, though, than to share these wonderful first lines:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
“You better not never tell nobody but God.”
Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963)
“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye To Berlin (1939)
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle (1948)
“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
Albert Camus: The Stranger (1946)
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
Got a favourite opening line? Share it by leaving a comment below.
Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?
There’s a lot of hype around this novel, and, for a change, it’s completely justified.
Eleanor is such a complex character. She is difficult, with odd little opinions and ideas and no idea at all how to navigate the modern world. But it’s these ‘quirks’ that we come to love as we get to know her better and to understand her and her past.
This is a novel about loneliness, how we can be so caught up in our own lives and our own needs and wants and problems that we can ignore the sheer misery going on around us. It’s also about how being kind, being human, being nice, can make such a difference. And it’s not preachy at all, it just is.
The writing is skilful, it flows so well and is, like Eleanor, straightforward. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful – again, a bit like Eleanor. There are places where the sheer emotion conveyed brings you up short, for example:
‘I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – ‘
This isn’t a depressing book, however. Rather, it feels very life-affirming. Eleanor is strong, stronger than she knows, and Raymond is a beautiful portrayal of how the most innocuous person, the type of person we all know and probably overlook, can be someone else’s lifeline, and it’s also about how the smallest gestures, how a little bit of concern and thoughtfulness, can make a huge difference. We all need to be kinder.
Eleanor will stay with me for a long time.
I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:
Unnecessary dialogue tags
It is best, on the whole, to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.
It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:
She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.
‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.
This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.
Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.
Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.
You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.
For example, have your characters talk to each other about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events. But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.
Too many adverbs
Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?
John walked quickly down the street.
You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.
John hurried down the street.
One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.
She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.
Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:
She accepted that her work needed editing.
(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)
There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.
The fire alarm rang loudly.
How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.
And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.
Similes and metaphors
A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.
Charlotte is looking after her best friend’s daughter the day she disappears. She thought the little girl was playing with her own children. She swears she only took her eyes off them for a second.
Now, Charlotte must do the unthinkable: tell her best friend Harriet that her only child is missing. The child she was meant to be watching.
Devastated, Harriet can no longer bear to see Charlotte. No one could expect her to trust her friend again.
Only now she needs to. Because two weeks later Harriet and Charlotte are both being questioned separately by the police. And secrets are about to surface.
Someone is hiding the truth about what really happened to Alice.
I really like the idea behind this novel. Charlotte is looking after Alice for her friend – something Harriet never usually allows. Alice is nervous, timid, shy, a bit like her mum. Charlotte, on the other hand, seems confident, sociable, the opposite of Harriet.
She takes her eyes off Alice for a few minutes – and Alice is gone.
This is the part of the novel that really interested me – Charlotte’s reaction, her guilt and distress. We can all imagine how dreadful we would feel, and the way Charlotte reacts is portrayed really well. And Harriet’s reaction too is really convincing. It would be so hard to forgive someone in those circumstances. That’s the stuff of a really gripping tale.
But that’s not what this story is. There’s more to Alice’s disappearance than meets the eye. And that’s where, for me, the story fell down. Without giving too much away, when the ‘twist’ was revealed, I was left feeling a bit confused, because the character’s story up until then, her reactions and emotions, hadn’t led to this. And while it’s the mark of a good twist that you’re shocked and surprised, then there’s the dawning realisation when you think back on what you’ve read and remember little things that pointed to this all along. For me, that was lacking, and so the twist didn’t work.
It’s well-written, and the author can obviously write. It’s just a bit disappointing.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.