Category: Editing

Don’t mention Tattenham Corner

My first paid gig as a writer was for BBC Radio 4, as a columnist on Home Truths. This was a programme filled with listeners’ stories, and I sent them a piece that I thought they might feature. It was about the loss of half my Led Zeppelin vinyl collection, when my marriage broke up.

Maria, as she appeared on the Home Truths webpage

The programme producer and I worked to edit the piece to fit their five-minute slot. She cut the first page and a half. On re-reading, I could see that she was right, and I agreed to this. Then there were other suggestions: I would need to cut a reference to the lyric of a Led Zeppelin song. Not everyone was a Led Zeppelin fan, and they wouldn’t get the reference. OK, fair enough. Each editing suggestion was explained, and I agreed to every one, even though the loss of my clever reference to the lyrics of ‘Tangerine’ was a bit of a blow.

Not every editing experience has been so positive. A couple of times, I have held on to the integrity of a piece at the expense of publication.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit to an anthology. I sent a story, which the three editors liked, but they said that this alone would not get me a place in the book. They also needed an essay. They gave me a fairly tight deadline to produce this, and a word-count of four to six thousand. I was about to go away, but didn’t want to miss the chance of publication, so I worked on the essay on a Eurostar journey, en route to Bruges, and worked further when I got home. I sent a 6000 word piece, but the editors came back to me wanting it cut by 1500 words. They made suggestions of what they wanted more of, and what they wanted less of. I sighed deeply. It was coming up to Christmas, and life was busy. I felt uneasy about some of the editing suggestions, but came up with a second draft. Days before Christmas, I was sent a version of my essay that the three editors had worked on themselves. I said that I couldn’t look at it until January, and I am glad I didn’t, as it would have ruined the festive season. When I finally read the editors’ cut, the 4500 words I had sent them had been slashed to 1500. A lot of it no longer made sense. Editing by committee does not work. I said I could not agree with their edit, and explained why. I said if they had wanted 1500 words, I would have written 1500 words, but they had asked for 4-6000 words, then 4500 words. Plus it was not acceptable to hack a writer’s work about in the way that they had. The essay was not published, though the story I had sent them found a place in their publication. This was all I had wanted, to have the story published, not to be spending my precious time dancing to the tune of the three editors, who frankly didn’t know what the flip they wanted.

It was a bad experience, which grates to this day. Normally, I am happy to receive a copy of a publication in which I have work, but when the above-mentioned book arrived, I didn’t give it room on the shelf above the desk where I write. Moreover, when I saw events to promote this book advertised on social media, I realised that I had not received an invitation to any of them. I was the one that was seen as awkward, bloody-minded, for holding on to my integrity as a writer.

Today should have seen the online publication of a new story. I would have been sharing it on social media and emailing people with the link. But that will not be happening. I had uneasy feelings about the publisher’s requirements when they accepted my story. There was a heck of a lot of admin attached, a form to fill in, a contract to look at, all of which took time away from my writing. They said that they would be editing for house style, and would send any changes for me to approve. The story is set in the 1970s, with the protagonist working in the kitchens of The Grandstand at Epsom Racecourse. When the edit came to me, they wanted me to remove any specific mention of Epsom, or any reference that might suggest that the story referred to the Epsom racecourse. So ‘the horses hurtling round Tattenham Corner’ should be changed to ‘the horses hurtling round the nearby corner.’ The reasoning behind this? The story referred to poor hygiene in the kitchens at Epsom Racecourse, and could be seen as ‘defamatory’. The price of publication was to make the racecourse and town where it is set ‘generic’, so as not to offend. I would not pay that price.

I suppose the moral of the story, for me, is to trust my instincts. I felt uneasy early on in the process of editing with ‘The Three’ as I have come to call the editors of the anthology, but I did everything they asked, until what they asked was unacceptable. I felt uneasy with the requirements of the publisher of the new story, too, and that instinct turned out to be right.

I now have a story that is still looking for a publisher; but I can also hold onto my integrity as a writer.

The Fear

I am part-way through the second draft of a long piece of writing. It’s book length, non-fiction, and that’s all I want to share. The fear has got hold of me, fear of if it’s any good, if anyone will want to read it, if I want anyone to read it. Perhaps I just needed to write it, and it doesn’t matter if no one reads it. Perhaps, once this second draft is complete, I’ll rest it, not look at it for a while, or never look at it again. I might just destroy it – a passing thought. I know I won’t do that.

I have written a paragraph to summarise the book, the kind of thing that might appear as a blurb, on the back cover. There I am, calling it a book, as if that might happen. Ha! I am drawn back to my MA class when Patricia, my tutor, would say, ‘What is it about?’ when we were discussing texts, or workshopping one another’s writing. And I find that the book is not just about what I set out to write. It’s also about loss, about grief, it’s about the toll that trauma takes on the body.

I wrote the first draft in two months, which is the fastest I have ever written anything of that length. I wrote a little every day, scared that if I missed a day, I wouldn’t return to it. Some days I wrote only two hundred words, others much more. I found that the gingerbread man timer I usually set to stop my wrists and back from hurting, if I type too long, had been ignored, and my wrists and back were indeed hurting when I stopped writing and noticed things other than the words on the screen, on the printed page.

Some things were hard to write, having held onto them in silence for so long, some for forty-five years. I felt better for speaking them, for writing them, but sometimes I don’t, and today is one of those times.

I didn’t plan this book before I wrote it, just wrote scenes and chapters as they occurred to me. I thought I could sort out the order later. And I find that they do make sense in the order in which they came. There is only one chapter that I might place elsewhere, or maybe cut it all together. I wrote it as light relief, as a positive story about that time, about myself. There are a few stories like that in the book. It’s good to remember those fun times as well as the trauma. Light relief for the reader as well as the writer. The reader! There it is again, the thought that someone might read it. Maybe they will, maybe it will go out into the world as a book. Maybe it will help others who have been through the same kind of things.

Early in the writing process, I wrote a dedication: For those that have not yet spoken, and for those that have. I must remember that, when the fear takes hold, why I wrote it. For myself and for others.

The ending is set on a day in March of this year, when I went in search of a tree to climb, in memory of my friend Karan, on the anniversary of her death. It’s a remembrance of loss, but also of hope, as the book will be. A memoir of grief, loss, hope, and understanding. Here is an extract, a reminder of facing the fear:

We slide down the muddy slope. It’s incline is one I would normally attempt, with a tree to hold onto on the first couple of steps down, then nothing to halt the slip and run towards the bottom. Bob goes first. He says, ‘Just go for it,’ and the rush of the last few steps is liberating, even though there is a risk of falling. How seldom we do this as older adults, just go for it, see what happens, risk falling on your face or your arse, and would that matter, after all?

I size up the horizontal branch. It takes a few attempts to pull myself onto it. I worry that I can’t do it. I just don’t have the upper body strength. Then I think of my granddaughter on a climbing frame at a playground a few weeks before. She tells herself that she can, when at first she thinks she can’t, when attempting scary climbs, or anything scary. I am doing this for Karan, to regain that childhood feeling, and I haul myself onto the branch, straddle it like a horse, and I am grinning, laughing. The seat of my jeans is damp and slimy where the mist has clung to the bark. My coat is splattered with mud. I am ten years old again.

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

On showing not telling and subtext in writing and relationships

I am reading a bestseller, and it’s annoying the hell out of me by showing and telling. It’s a memoir, and the story is good, but I am mentally editing as I read: the writers’ and editors’ affliction. So let’s talk about showing not telling.

I can’t explain this any better than Julia Bell. Here is a quote from her blog. You can read the full post at Show Not Tell.

Good writers always try to show in this way – illustrating their characters through their actions and details. If you find yourself writing reams of back-story and notes and profiles, then, good, you’re discovering your character. But how much of this do you need to share with your reader? If you find that you’re writing no dialogue or action for your characters you might find it’s because you’re telling too much of your story, and not letting the characters be dramatic on the page. You’re describing them in action, not showing them in action.

There is a passage in the book I am reading that shows that a cat is a stray – he is described as scraggy, thin, has no collar and has an abscess on his back. He is hanging about in the lobby of a block of flats day after day. The narrator tells us that he thinks it’s a stray; he then says to his friend, ‘I think it’s a stray’. We’ve already got this by the description; we could do without the narrator telling the reader and then telling again in the dialogue. But I’m telling you this when you’ve already got the point. Which is the point.

I suppose what’s irking me is the absence of subtlety, of allowing the reader to work things out, make their own interpretation of the words.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of subtext in an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian, which is mainly about the use of subtext in relationships, but talks about writing too..

One of the lessons that I teach my creative writing students is the importance of subtext – what is really being said, as opposed to what is apparently being said. One can learn about this by, for instance, reading great movie scripts – in Casablanca, nearly everything is implied rather than stated directly.Or you can simply look at your own relationship with your partner.

No dialogue is so couched in subtext as that of people in long-term relationships. This is inevitable because one learns to be careful since, over time, certain “hot buttons” are established, which, if pressed, are liable to set off fireworks. So one tiptoes around certain subjects and yet can’t quite leave them alone.

I can think of several examples in my own life. When I phoned home to say I had got a 2:2 in my first degree, my mother said, ‘Is that good?’ Partly that she didn’t understand the university marking system, but also a couched response to the words ‘Lower Second Class’, which were clearly not the words she was hoping for. When I asked a partner ‘What’s your signature dish?’, he took this as a criticism of the fact that he had not taken a share in the cooking. He was right – it was a difficult subject to broach with someone who didn’t take criticism well. My assertiveness skills had temporarily deserted me. I also lived with someone who would make himself a sandwich and a cup of tea, and bring it into the living room where I was sitting, without asking me if I would like one. What better way of showing not telling the state of our relationship.

So I guess that subtext is good in writing but not so good in relationships – direct communication is better. Or maybe not. When my mother said ‘Is that good?’ she was really saying, ‘I’m disappointed in you’. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that;  a simple (even if not heartfelt) ‘Well done’ was all I wanted.

Famous first words

“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’?  Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.

Julian Cope from The Guardian 10/1/15

What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):

I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.

For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.

Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.”  It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.

The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.

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