The editing cave

I’ve been in my editing cave for the past three weeks. It’s sort of like a bear being in their hibernation cave… except bears tend to lose weight during hibernation. There is a shared reputation for being cranky when disturbed though…

Writing The End on the last page of a manuscript is NOT the end. It’s far from it. Every writer’s process is different. There’s no right way or wrong way, there’s just the way that works for the writer. So I thought I’d give you a bit of a look at my editing process… which explains my absence from Twitter and Facebook and the kitchen. It doesn’t explain why my office is messy though – my office is always messy.

Editing needs both old and new technology ... and many cups of tea.

Editing needs both old and new technology … and many cups of tea.

I tend to do a lot of editing as I go, so my first draft of the book is usually in fairly good shape structurally. But by the time I get to the end, there’s a lot I know about my characters and themes that I didn’t know when I started.

The first edit is just me and the computer. I read the book through from page one to The End, making changes as I go. This is to make sure the story works. This is the point at which I might change a plot point or move a scene. I look carefully at my characters during edit 1. I may change their speech or behaviour at the beginning of the book to match the people I now know them to be. I may add imagery. I sometimes find that I am adding an action or some dialogue because I need this to background something that I put in later in the book.

Edit two – I print out the whole book. I sometimes think this is a bit of displacement activity because it takes me the best part of the day to print it out, punch holes in the pages and put it into a ring binder.

Then I give myself a day or two off (if I can). I read something else just to clear my head of my own book. They I read my book as a reader – not as a writer. However, I do something I never do to another book – I scribble all over it. Coloured pencils are important here and post it notes. The coloured pencils are to the words or sentences I don’t like – those I have to rework. The post it notes are for plot or character points that still don’t work.

Then it’s back to the computer to fix those.

The old padded bags on top opf my bookcase hold the much scribbled on editing printouts of my books. I'm not sure why I am keeping them... I just can't throw them away.

The packages on top opf my bookcase hold the much scribbled on editing printouts of my books. I’m not sure why I am keeping them… I just can’t throw them away.

After I’ve done that, the book goes to my beta reader. For those who don’t know, a beta reader is a sort of test driver for books. The beta reader is someone you trust who will give an honest opinion about what works and what doesn’t in the book. I have one. Some people have two or three. My beta reader isn’t afraid to tell me it’s not perfect – or to write Cliché Hell in the margins of the manuscript. That’s the job.

So then it’s back to the computer for another round of edits which will this time include some spelling and punctuation.

Then I combine all my documents (I write each chapter in a separate document) into one big document. Run a final spell check across the whole thing. I also use the Find tool to check on my crutch words – the words I know I overuse. I will then delete many occurrences of the words ‘just’ and ‘really’.

At this point – it’s ready to go. Hitting send is a traumatic moment… but has to be done and leads to the next round of edits… the publishers edits.

The publisher assigns and editor who send the dreaded revision letter which always starts… ‘This is a wonderful book and your readers will love it…. BUT …’

The first round of publishers edits usually involved changes to character, plot and even structure. The second round will look at the writing – words and phrases that could be improved. Then we have copy edits – which is all about spelling, punctuation and those dratted semi-colons. Does this sound familiar?

Then the publisher does what publishers do – and the next thing I see are page proofs. So one again I read the whole book very very carefully, looking for any sneaky little errors that have slipped through the net or, eeek, errors made when the final printing file is prepared.

And some time after that (sometimes a long time) – a box arrives on my doorstep with books in it.

Many years ago, when I first started this writing journey, I heard an established writer say they had never read one of their books after it was published. I was horrified. After all that work, how could she not read her own book? Now I know. I have never read one of my books after it has been published.

My very first book - maybe one day I will read it again.

My very first book – maybe one day I will read it again.


By the time it’s published, I have read it so many times, that I just don’t want to read it again. I know how it ends.

I recently thought about going back and reading my very first book. But I didn’t do it. Like everything else, I think we become better writers as we go along, and I am afraid that all I will see in that first book are the flaws, and I’ll want to edit it just one more time.

And right now, I need to get out of my editing cave and back into the sunshine, because any day now, I’m going to decide it’s time to start the next book.

Share At Your Own Peril?


Friendships with authors should carry a warning: anything you say or do risks ending up in print and should be shared with caution. I mheartburnentioned in my last blog post that my early magazine stories were often inspired by my personal romantic disasters. Changing humiliation to triumph and inventing nasty fictional misfortunes on London lotharios who dumped me was hugely satisfying to my wounded pride, much like Nora Ephron who got revenge on her unfaithful husband, Carl Bernstein, with her bestselling novel Heartburn. But when your nearest and dearest start prefacing conversations with ‘If I tell you this, promise you won’t use it in a story’, even a fledgling writer has to learn discretion.

Writers turn to real events all the time for inspiration. Stuff happens to people that your imagination couldn’t make up even if you squeezed it through a juice press. Alice Sebold used a young girl’s murder as inspiration for The Lovely Bones 5102szege4l-_sy346_and Agatha Christie based Murder On The Orient Express on the kidnapping and killing of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. It’s said that in Hollywood if any tragedy happens, literary agents, like vultures, arrive hot on the heels of the ambulance, hoping to buy the movie rights.

For that very reason, as a writer, friendships can be perilous. You’re writing a book about a woman suffering a miscarriage and 51y9hggblvlsuddenly the same thing happens to your best friend. Even as she’s sobbing out details that mirror the events you’ve so painstakingly penned, your evil self wants to take notes while your empathetic side agonizes that you need to ditch the whole project. Who wants to end up like the protagonist in Thomas Wolf’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again where friends and family of a successful author run him out of his hometown, bitter at the betrayal of their sins and indiscretions?

So where do you, as a writer, draw the line? Is it out of order to use a friend’s (or friend of a friend of a friend’s) tragedy, triumphs or outrageous personality in your fiction? Is it OK or merely callous if you ask permission first? Do you run rampant with the juicy facts or disguise that shocking saga so cannily that even Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t recognize the crime? With our first novel, How To Survive Your Sisters we were absolutely sure the four sisters couldn’t be traced to any particular person in our family. And yet one of our siblings was slightly huffy, claiming she recognized her faults in each of the protagonists

Besides, what if something truly extraordinary happened to someone you knew – newspaper fodder that someone else is bound to pick up (as opposed to all those boring strangers at parties who insist their biography should be your next masterpiece)? Like being the hostage of a crazy gunman? Or behind the wheel of a car that plunges into an icy river?

I mean, really. Obviously friendships are paramount and good taste precludes you from brandishing a contract and asking for an option as she’s still shivering under her blankets, clutching a large brandy. But given a month or two to get over the shock – once she’s warmed up a little – wouldn’t you be denying your art if you simply passed it by?

Just curious. It’s an issue all authors face. How do you deal with it?

Great reviews – just what a writer craves …

MWMI’m half way through a blog tour to launch my latest novel, Mistakes We Make. It’s always a nail-biting time, because now is when the truth emerges: do readers love your book or hate it?

Thankfully, there seems to be a general thumbs up for this latest in my Heartlands serieswith a clutch of positive comments. I’m thrilled with today’s review, for example, on The Writing Garnet blog. Kaisha says:

…’The strength behind the storyline is evident pretty much from the onset and I absolutely LOVED reading a book with towns that I know of, and have visited, as I live near them! For me, that cemented the realistic factor of the book as I was able to visualise the areas that the characters went to. Very special. There were a few situations in the book that had me rather shocked, but Jenny wrote about every dark and emotional situation with sensitivity, realism and gave them even more of an edge. To be able to write about events that could potentially bring the shock factor to the reader, with such honesty and focus, really added warmth to the book in a way I never knew was possible. Mistakes We Make is a rollercoaster ride of a story that will have you engrossed and involved in a multitude of ways. With an exceptionally strong storyline and memorable characters, Mistakes We Make is a definite must read and will leave you wanting more. Intense and emotional, this book certainly packs punch. I can honestly say that it definitely wasn’t a mistake to read!

There’s a Giveaway on the tour, so track me on Twitter to hop in and see what other reviewers are saying. But I know time is short and demands on it are great, so here’s another chance to grab a free copy paperback or ebook) for yourself! Just sign up to my newsletter here and tweet that you have done so using the hashtags #TakeFive Authors and #MistakesWeMake and I’ll pick a winner on 28th September!


Historical fiction: alive and kicking in Oxford

Friday 2nd September saw me clambering on a train headed for Oxford, and my first Historical Novel Society Conference. This was my third writing-related conference this year (first Scottish Association of Writers, then Romantic Novelists’ Association), and I was not at all sure what to expect or whether I would be wasting my time.

Held in the modern and well-appointed Andrew Wiles building, which houses Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute, I quickly discovered I knew a great many writers there, and made a number of new friends.


Fay Weldon (centre), with sessions chair Carol McGrath (left) and author Jo Baker.

We were thrown straight into proceedings with a panel discussion between Jo Baker and the inimitable Fay Weldon. The following day Lord Melvyn Bragg delivered an excellent keynote speech centred on his novel, Now is the Time. And on Sunday, we were treated to a delightfully self-deprecating speech by one of my favourite novelists, Tracy Chevalier.

To add to the mix were panel discussions by agents, publishers, booksellers and writers, hands-on sessions (such as how to build a shield wall) and workshops and, as ever with conferences, the stimulus and pleasure of chewing everything over with like-minded people afterwards. Oh – and the delight of chatting with three handsome men, eating sandwiches … in chain mail and helmets.shields

A number of themes rose to the surface time and again:

  • The future of historical fiction (the reported comment of one bookseller that ‘If it’s not Tudor or Roman, we’re not interested’ shocked many in the audience)
  • The view that critics and some readers regard historical fiction as ‘genre’ and therefore by definition inferior to ‘literary fiction’
  • Comments about covers – possibly too generic, but booksellers feel comfortable with products that look like something that has sold well before
  • The difficulty of writing dialogue that doesn’t sound either modern or artificially ‘historic’
  • The importance of weeding out anachronisms

There were tips galore. Here’s a random selection:

  • Fay Weldon: Ask yourself, ‘what’s your book about?’
  • Jane Johnson, Publishing Director at Harper Collins: ‘Write what’s in your heart – you can’t write to the market.’
  • Manda Scott: ‘The paranoid anachronism hunt is a key part of historical writing.’
  • Jean Fullerton: ‘Good historical fiction isn’t about the history, it’s about the people.’
  • Jenny Barden: Use The Museum of Early Modern London (MoEML) for digitised period maps of the capital.

Apologies for not having space to quote the many other speakers who also offered great tips. I couldn’t be everywhere at once … unless, of course, I’d been able to travel through time. Which brings me to the last workshop I attended, on writing time-slip/time travel novels.

Is time travel possible? Clearly, it’s not – so how can we make such novels work? Well, it turns out that we do this in exactly the same way as we write any other piece of fiction: by cleverly making our readers suspend their disbelief. And so, with a final dash through the corridors of the Andrew Wiles Building clutching my magic, time-transporting laptop, I’ll leave you with a few final gems:

  • Julian Fellowes has not spoiled the upstairs/downstairs trope for all other writers (Fay Weldon/Jo Baker)
  • The Peasants’ Revolt was neither by peasants nor was it a revolt (Melvyn Bragg)
  • You need a sense of national crisis as a background for a good historical thriller (Manda Scott)
  • Rory Clement: Anyone who thinks it’s an easy job is not putting enough effort in.’
  • Use all five senses to make your backgrounds come to life (a tip offered by just about everybody)

‘Monk’ Chas James with his informative Battle of Fulford tapestry.

Next year the conference will be held in Portland, Oregon. It’s a long way to go, but quite a few American writers made it to Oxford. Up for a trip, anyone?






Professional courtesy

Recently I was asked what I meant when I termed something a ‘professional courtesy’ so I’ve decided to use my spot on Take Five Authors to explain it.

The News Building small

Professional courtesy especially useful with your publisher

I’m an author. I consider myself a professional and I try hard to act professionally. In the course of my work I’m in contact with readers; publishers; agents and rights managers; promo and PR team members; bloggers; writers; conference, event and course organisers; booksellers; librarians; writing organisations; journalists and presenters; and a huge number of social media users. Obviously, all of these people can help or hinder my career but I’m not professionally courteous to them just because they’re useful to me – it’s because anything else would mean that I’m not doing my job well.


But the fact is that making myself easy to work with is advantageous to my career.

It’s surprising how much a professional discourtesy can rankle. And for how long it can be remembered. Professional courtesy might be ingrained in us if we are employed, particularly employed by a large organisation … but  it can slip when we become freelance. There’s nobody to write our appraisal, after all!

I think professional discourtesy can cover anything from downright rudeness to not observing etiquette. Here are a few examples of discourtesy from a writer to another writer/reader/other publishing industry professional that I’ve observed:

  • Taking positive reader messages for granted and leaving them unanswered.
  • Making a private conversation public without clearing it with the other party.
  • Sharing a photo that puts the subject in a poor light, again without permission.
  • Rudeness, whether face-to-face or via email. Writers ought to be capable of summoning up enough non-confrontational language to get their point across.
  • Ranting, ditto.
  • !!!Stepping outside of your role and onto somebody’s toes. Group events, such as panels, are open to this – for example, one participant hogging the promo/available time or telling the chair how the panel should be run.
  • When involved in a group conversation, stating a point forcefully then leaving the conversation (also known as ‘flouncing off’), especially if we then broadcast our version of events.
  • Overrunning allocated time, for example at a literary festival or at a one-to-one opportunity during a conference.
  • Lack of reciprocity. The obvious one is not ‘sharing’ as generously as we expect our posts to be shared on social media or only sharing when we’ve got something of our own to promote. Sometimes a political element creeps in, for example not sharing someone’s posts because they’ve left the publisher we’re with. But if anybody’s ever professionally generous, such as putting our name forward for something advantageous, let’s remember our manners and reciprocate if we can.
  • Failing to remember that, at festivals or within writing organisations, many positions are voluntary. If someone is working to our benefit for £0 then they shouldn’t be rewarded with an ungracious attitude.
  • Tone: demanding rather than asking; throwing out objections instead of suggesting alternatives.
  • Forgetting to thank or acknowledge those who help us.
  • Writing negative reviews about another author while hiding behind an alias. Most of us would think this more than mere discourtesy, of course, but I felt I had to include it.
  • ‘Forgetting’ to take our turn on a group blog because we’re busy or we don’t have a book to promote right now.
  • Not answering emails.
  • Having to be asked three times to supply material such as bios or author pix. When I’ve been in the position of having to ask for these I’ve been impressed that the busiest and best-selling authors have been the first back to me with the requested material.
  • Treating other people’s time as less precious than ours. Pretty much any of the above could trigger this!

I’m not shining my halo, here. We all let our professional courtesy slip from time to time but doing so never has a positive effect. We make ourselves hard to work with and therefore nobody wants to work with us.

That’s not good for the ego or the bank balance.