Things that need to exist

I need someone to invent all these things, please.

  • A search engine that’s as effective as Google, but is called something like
  • An app that can differentiate between the time you spend on Twitter marketing your business and engaging with your community, and the time you spend looking at baby animals with things on their heads or reading rage-inducing things about politics. (The premium version will kick you off when it knows you’re doing too much of the latter two.)
  • A service that tracks how long it’s been since you last had an in-person conversation with an actual human you aren’t related to, and if it’s been too long, makes you leave the house in search of one.
  • A device that measures your TBR pile and won’t let you buy any more books until it’s fallen below a pre-set height.
  • A punching bag in the shape of the Microsoft Word icon.

Editing with kindness

Am I allowed to say that one of my favourite sessions at this year’s SfEP conference was… my own? Well, looks like I’m saying it anyway, arrogant arse that I am.

Although, in my defence, the session wasn’t about me and what I had to say. I was just there to lead a panel of fiction authors talking about their experiences of being edited. This is my kind of session – I didn’t have to stand there and have people actually listen to me. Instead they got to listen to the wonderful panellists – Joanna and Emlyn Rees, KJ Charles, and Alison Ingelby. They’re all fantastic writers and jolly nice human beings to boot, so you should go and read their books.

Between them, they’ve been edited dozens of times, so these authors know whereof they speak. The session was lively, interesting, and full of humour and passion. And if there’s one thing that I hope the editors present took away from it it’s this: at the other end of your edits is a human being who’s done a hell of a lot of work, and you’d better bloody remember that.

Writing is hard. Ten minutes on Writing Twitter will show you author after author talking about the long and painful process of trying to get that story out of your head and onto a page. Novels are labours of love. And sometimes hate. Authors (and I know, because I keep attempting to be one) put a lot of themselves into their work, and sending that off to someone whose job is to find every single flaw in it is not an easy thing to do.

And editors are going to find flaws. As Jo Rees pointed out during the panel, a lot of writing is about making decisions. Every word that gets onto the page is a decision to take the story in that direction or this, to evoke this mood or that, to have a character become one thing or another. Thousands upon thousands of decisions. And the author is not going to get every single one of those decisions right. (Which isn’t surprising. I make the wrong decision about what to have for breakfast most days.) It’s an editor’s job to point out the less optimal decisions (about the manuscripts we work on, not my breakfast) and suggest solutions, but I think there can be a tendency among editors to feel a little bit pleased with ourselves when we do. There’s nothing wrong with professional pride, but we must always take care that it never tips over into thinking we are better than the author for spotting something they didn’t.

The authors on the panel told us horror stories about terrible editing. Harsh comments. Imposing style choices with no respect for the author’s voice. Ignoring the author’s expressed preferences. I think these all boil down to the same thing – editors thinking they know best. Sometimes our training, skills and experience mean that actually we do know what the right answer is – that’s why we’re being paid to find those problems and solve them. But to think solely in terms of fixing the author’s mistakes is to turn the author–editor relationship into an adversarial one, when really, we should be a team. Editors should never lose sight of what we’re there to do, which is to help and support the author in telling their story. And the best way to do that is with kindness and respect.

Respect the months and probably years that the author has spent thinking and planning and writing and deleting and rewriting and worrying and thinking some more and rewriting again. Respect the emotional investment the author has put into what you’re now taking your red pen to. Even if the manuscript’s full of problems, getting those words onto the page is no mean feat.

Compliment the things the author’s done well (and there will always be something). Empower them to reject the changes they don’t feel comfortable with. And understand that you always have a choice about how you communicate with your author. If you aren’t adept enough with words to write a query in a way that isn’t cruel and cutting, then quite frankly you have no business being an editor. Tread softly, because you tread on their dreams.

Thank you once again to the wonderful author panel, the delegates who attended and asked such great questions, and anyone who can tell me what I should have for breakfast.


30 things I learned at #SfEP2019

  1. I need to concede my “SfEP’s Sweariest Speaker” crown to Chris Brookmyre.
  2. Most editors are not brilliant at knowing the first lines of pop songs. Which meant our team won chocolate.
  3. If you’d like to get a cheap laugh, name your quiz team “Kevin”.
  4. It in fact was possible to love Emma Darwin more than I already did.
  5. My children might respond to my attempts to correct their English with “Mate, it’s just non-standard”. Well, if I’ve brought them up right.
  6. Speed networking is some hardcore shit. All I did was yell at people to change seats and I was exhausted.
  7. Also, one-minute warnings are useless if everyone’s speed-networking too hard to pay any attention to you.
  8. Failure is good, and everybody does it. Listening to other people’s tales of failure and coming back from it is reassuring and inspiring.
  9. Emoji use is already past its peak, and David Crystal wonders if in a few years we’ll be on to the next thing.
  10. The biggest Primark in the world is insanely huge, and does not sell flip flops out of season.
  11. You should try on your dress before you pack it. Ten minutes before a three-course meal is not a good time to discover you can no longer breathe in it.
  12. A spurtle is a stick you stir porridge with.
  13. Rights and Permissions Manager at a large publishing company is absolutely a job I never want to do.
  14. Because you need to do things like get permission from buildings to publish photographs of them. (Or someone who works on behalf of the building, I imagine. Not the actual building.)
  15. I did a lightning talk (I did not. This is a very specific in-joke that precisely three people will get).
  16. Speakers should probably Google any celebrity they aren’t familiar with but are mentioning in their talks, just to make sure they’re not currently facing charges for sex crimes.
  17. People are absolutely awful at remembering to use microphones to ask questions in sessions. (In amongst all my usual flippancy, this is a really serious point. People have hearing problems, and accessibility is not an optional extra.)
  18. The SfEP is about to become the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading! But something has to happen to some vellum or something first.
  19. You can put chilli in everything if you really want it bad enough.
  20. Writing a book is a painful process. Editing can be even more so, and there is a lot editors can do to make that worse or better for their authors.
  21. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg talks in semicolons.
  22. You’re only allowed 15 “fucks” in a BBC 3 radio play.
  23. When you chat to someone online nearly every day, it’s really weird when you sit down together and work out you’ve actually only met once, two years ago.
  24. A good editor is a detective, a spy, a linguist, and a sound mixer.
  25. Welsh is really old.
  26. Tiny changes to the way you think about and respond to things can make a big difference to your working practice, and therefore your life.
  27. Also, Liz Jones makes one hell of a beautiful PowerPoint slideshow
  28. Riffat Yusuf is absolutely the person to call should you need hilarious editing-related lyrics set to the tune of “He who would valiant be”.
  29. I spend waaaaay too much time online, judging by the number of times the response to my introducing myself was “Oh, I know you from Twitter!”
  30. Editors are still absolutely the best people. Thanks for a wonderful few days. I’ll see you all in Milton Keynes for hashtag SfEP2020 actual lol!

A Very Serious Guide to Punctuation

Ah, punctuation. Where would we be without it? In run-on sentence hell, that’s where. The power of these tiny little marks in helping us to communicate effectively with our fellow human beings never fails to astound me. But also, punctuation is hard, yo.

So here is my guide to each punctuation mark:

. The full stop. Or a period, if you’re American. Or a full point, if you’re New Hart’s Rules. The full stop isn’t one of those marks that can be one thing or another, full of elegance and whimsy. The full stop knows where it’s going, and that’s at the end of a sentence. It gets its shit done.

! The exclamation mark. It also goes on the end of the sentence, but it’s a flashy little bugger. Always showing off, waving its pointy little head about, making everything seem so exciting! It’s like one of those annoying perky people who always seem to be in a good mood! If it were a person, the exclamation mark would get punched in the face a LOT.

? The question mark. This does exactly what it says on the tin. It marks a question. How dull. I guess you can also use it for sentences that aren’t technically questions? It adds uncertainty to what would otherwise be a plain statement? But maybe that’s nearly as annoying as Mr Flashy-Pants Exclamation Mark up there? And so maybe that would also earn it a punch in the face now and then?

, The comma. Commas are little bastards. Commas are the punctuation mark that teaches you that life is full of lies, that everything everyone has ever told you should be questioned and questioned again. Your teachers told you that you should put a comma where you breathe. They were lying to you, because they were trying to spare you from the ugly truth: that there are vocative commas, listing commas, parenthetical commas, Oxford commas, commas that set off introductory phrases, commas that go with independent clauses and coordinating conjunctions, commas that will make you want to die because you’re not sure whether or not it should be there. Commas do nearly as many jobs as Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig, so it’s no wonder people can’t keep track of them all.

; The semicolon. The grown-up, sophisticated punctuation mark. The Ferrero Rocher of punctuation, if you like. According to most sources, a semicolon has two uses: separating two independent but related clauses, and separating items in a list where the items already contain internal punctuation. But there’s a secret third use – making you look like a Proper Writer; one who Knows Some Shit.

: The colon. Let’s be honest: most of us could go our whole lives without really needing a colon (the punctuation mark, that is. Pretty sure you need the one in your body). Except me, apparently. I seem to quite like them. Colons introduce further information, so they’re pretty handy. But alas for the poor colon, as it is so often usurped by…

The dash. When in doubt, hoy a dash in there. This amazingly versatile punctuation mark will save your ass when you’re really not sure which one you should be using – it’s surprisingly hard to get dashes completely wrong. You should use em dashes with US English and en dashes with UK English, and you should always, always call them em/en dashes and not rules, just to really piss off the typographers.

The ellipsis. What can we say about the ellipsis…? So dramatic… So emotional… There are two things you should bear in mind about ellipses. One is that there is no one set way of styling and spacing them, no matter how hard anyone tries to argue otherwise. And the second is that if you are getting your work professionally edited, your editor will almost certainly remove at least half of them. Sorry…

“”/‘’ Quotation marks. If you’re British, quotation marks are proper confusing. We all get taught “speech marks” at school, which were double quotation marks. But at some point, at least if you’re going to work in publishing, you have to come to terms with the fact that UK books largely use single quotation marks, and they are used for many things that are not speech. This is like the commas. If you’re confused, blame your “teachers”.

the apostrophe. Apostrophes indicate contractions and show possession. The third use of the apostrophe is to sow discord in editors’ groups. Or is that editors groups? At least we can all agree it’s not editor’s groups. Unless you’re talking about one editor’s groups. Maybe you’re talking about an editors’ group’s discord. Have I made your head’s hurt?

Holiday guilt

What’s the worst part of parenting? Is it the sleepless nights? Slime stains on the carpets? Having DanTDM constantly on the TV? Or is it the guilt?

Parenting guilt is horrible. I had so much of it during my daughters’ early years – every time I had a problem with their health, or their behaviour, or their sleep, I would worry that I was doing something terribly wrong that would ruin their lives and/or turn them into awful people. It eased up a lot as they got older and I realised that most things didn’t really matter all that much and as long as you could get them to the end of the day having fed them and kept their limbs attached you could call it a win. But this week I’ve had a bit of a specific subset of parenting guilt, and that’s working-parent guilt. And an even more specific sub-subset of parenting guilt, working-from-home-parent guilt.

One of the things I love about freelance life is the flexibility to be there for my kids when they need me. I get to go to school plays, look after them when they’re ill, and take them to visit their little cousin in London every half-term. But the summer holidays present a challenge. Six weeks is a long time to have them at home, and, more importantly, it’s a long time to be earning no money. So work I must. I was fortunate enough to have a busy spring, which meant I could afford to take on only a few projects in July and August, but it still means there are days, like today, when I have to get someone else to look after my children, and I feel guilty about it.

It’s very odd. I used to work outside the home, and while I sometimes felt sad that they were off having fun without me in the holidays, I never felt particularly guilty that I couldn’t be with them. I took as much time off as I could, but at the end of the day I still had a job and was still expected to show up for it. When you work at home, it feels more like a choice. You are the one who makes the decisions about whether and when you work, so even though the work is there and it needs doing or you won’t get paid, and so it’s not much of a choice at all, it can feel as though you are choosing work over your family, and that kind of sucks. But sometimes it has to be done. I can have the best intentions of working around my kids, but if that means starting work at 9 p.m., the quality of my work is likely to suffer, and there’s every chance I might not actually find enough of those evening hours to get the work done.

So today, I’ve packed my children off to my parents, who are going to take them to the cinema. I’m sure they’re having a wonderful time – the girls adore their grandma and granddad, especially because Grandma makes cakes with them and does craft projects and lets them do all those other activities that Mammy rarely has patience for. My own memories of being looked after by my grandparents in the school holidays are so precious to me, so I know that spending a day with my parents is probably of more value to them than spending yet another one with me. But still, I have this weird guilt that I’m letting them down in some way and, of course, the guilt of asking my wonderful parents for yet another favour.

I wonder if women find this harder than men. That’s a genuine wondering – I’ve never really talked to any freelance dads about it, whereas it’s a conversation I’ve had many times with fellow mums. I think most mothers feel the pressure of work-life balance very keenly because childcare responsibilities are usually ours, so when the demarcation between home and work gets fuzzy, perhaps we are more affected by it. Or perhaps not – perhaps it always hits the work-at-home parent more.

As work-at-home parents, maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves, and stricter about the way we think about our work. Our responsibilities to our clients are important, and just because our boss is us and our office is the spare room, that doesn’t mean it’s any less crucial to show up and put the hours in. And to all the other work-at-home parents out there wondering how they’re going to get through this constant juggle of childcare and work and bored kids and purse-draining days out – hey, we’re almost a third of the way through already. We’ve got this.

The writer’s nemesis: back-cover blurbs

Writing is hard, yo. That’s why I’m forever in awe of anyone who actually manages to finish a novel. And when you’ve finished your novel, you’re still not done with the writing. Because then you’ve got to write your back-cover copy, sometimes called a blurb or a synopsis (although those two terms sometimes mean other things too, because publishing is nothing if not fricking confusing at times. I’m going to mostly stick with blurb here, because it’s shorter and I’m lazy saving my wrists from RSI.). Whatever you want to call those snappy, interesting, mind-blowing few paragraphs that are going to make readers desperate to buy your book, they’re paragraphs that have been known to make grown men and women weep with despair. Authors who can turn out epic battle scenes, sex scenes that are so hot you can’t read them in public, or magical systems that would baffle even Hermione Granger sometimes find themselves utterly at a loss when it comes to their blurbs.

It’s easy to see why. You need to inform the reader what your book is about without giving away too much. You need to evoke the world in which your story takes place without overwhelming the reader with irrelevant detail. You need to introduce your characters without taking up the whole cover with their backstories. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? And when you’ve already put so much work into the actual bloody book, this final hurdle can feel like a tough one.

So here are three tips for writing a great blurb:

  1. Write one, then delete half of it. Blurbs should be short and sweet, and authors often make the mistake of trying to tell the reader too much of what happens in the book. If they want to know what happens in the book, they need to buy it!
  2. Take inspiration from books that sell well in your genre. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel. Look at what works, then try to emulate that.
  3. Remember what a blurb is: a sales tool. You can’t write an effective blurb if you don’t bear this in mind. Blurbs are not for showing off your skills as a writer. They’re not for summarizing your story. They’re for persuading people that they want to read your book. Approach your blurb with that mindset.

Does that still sound too hard? Help is at hand! Because I’m a bit of a weirdo who actually enjoys working on blurbs, I’m now offering a back-cover blurb editing/rewriting service. Read all about it here, and get in touch if it sounds like just what you need.


Personal branding: you do you

People who know me or have followed me for a while probably already know that while I love editing, and I love working at home, I hate hate hate the marketing that is a vital part of running a business. Loathe and detest it with the fire of a thousand suns.

Or at least, for a long time, I thought I did. When I stopped to think about the ways in which work finds its way to me, I realised that perhaps I had actually been doing more marketing than I thought, but it was just so enjoyable I hadn’t really noticed.

Because here’s the thing – work does often find its way to me. I mean, I’ve done a few rounds of cold emailing publishers and packagers, and I answer Facebook posts looking for editors every now and again, but most of my work has come through referrals, or people stumbling across me on Facebook or Twitter. This hasn’t always happened as often as I’d like, and I know that I need to do an awful lot more work on actively marketing my business. But I’m clearly not totally invisible, so I must be doing something.

I’ve written about this before, but my approach to marketing has basically been to be me. When I first started my business, I knew I couldn’t compete on experience with the people who’ve been working in publishing since I was a baby, or have worked in top New York publishing houses on global bestsellers. So I decided not to try. So much of a successful editing relationship is about the fit between two personalities, so I decided the best thing I could do was try to show as many people as possible what my personality is.

I make a lot of jokes about Facebook and Twitter being part of my strategy, but it is actually true. I’ve spent many, many hours hanging out in groups of writers and editors, learning, taking in the knowledge, and trying to be helpful when I can. It’s been so much fun, and has had the added bonus of making me part of the community. People remember me, and people can’t point work your way if they don’t remember you.

It also helps to find a niche. Mine happens to be swearing, so much so that people tag or mention me in almost every conversation about it in the Facebook groups I’m in. Sometimes I do wonder if that’s all people think I’m capable of, but if they do, they can fuck off. And at least they’re thinking something about me, right?

This blog supports my “personal branding” approach too – content marketing wisdom says that blogging should be about increasing your visibility to potential clients, so you can answer their questions and they can find you. Some of my posts, such as my recent self-editing series, are aimed at that, but not all, and that’s not my blog’s primary function. It’s about showing people who I am, reminding people I’m here, and entertaining and reassuring my colleagues, particularly those who are on a similar journey to me (that’s the idea, anyway. Not sure it is always quite as hilarious and wise as I naturally am AT ALL TIMES). Maybe this approach isn’t all that great for SEO, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in it.

I don’t want anyone to think the reason I connect with people is pure cynical strategy. It’s not (and I think anyone who saw the Great Twitter Cake War understands this. Cake is far more serious a matter than mere business strategy). I love getting to know people. It is its own reward. I like to be part of a community, so I don’t feel isolated, so I have people to turn to for advice, and so I can provide that for other people. But, if you do all that with sincerity, it will, most probably, lead to opportunities. And being sincere is the key. If you approach social networking with a pure strategy brain, it will backfire. People will see through you. But if you are honest, and helpful, and supportive, and kind (except to people who believe in the superiority of fruit cake), and YOURSELF, you begin, quite organically, to build a brand that people remember. Even if it’s “that one who swears a lot”.