Out with the new

The decade is almost over. This is hideous and I am only accepting that it’s true for the purposes of this blog post.

I end this decade in a very different place to where I started. At the beginning of 2010, I was on maternity leave, having not long had my first child. I would go back to a nice, undemanding job with the company I’d been at for the last 6 years (I started there on this day in 2004, in fact – happy former job anniversary to me!). I planned to do that job for a while, have another baby, then get back to building my career in the arts.

And that went according to plan, for a while. But the arts in the 2010s will not be remembered for its job security. So by 2016, I found myself starting a business in a field I knew very little about.

It’s been a ride. The last four years have been a hard slog, full of ups and downs, great times and hideous times. Now I find myself approaching the 2020s (oh god, it’s horrible, why did I say that?) with the feeling that I’m not a “new” freelance editor anymore. I know I’m still pretty wet behind the ears compared to many of my esteemed colleagues, but I no longer feel like a total newbie.

I only really realised this when I started thinking about my goals for the next year. They’ve gone from “work enough to not starve” to all kinds of strategic things about rates and processes and marketing channels and investing in my business. The steps I plan to take terrify me, true, but they would have been utterly unthinkable a couple of years ago, because I simply was not capable of thinking about my business in this way.

A lot of this shift in mindset is down to my business coach, the wonderful Gina Trick, who has been dragging me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone for the last six months. But some of it is also down to time.

It takes time to establish a business. Setting one up is terrifying; keeping it afloat is scarier still. So many new businesses fail, and it’s hard not to think about that when you can never be sure where your next job is coming from. Eventually you realise that your business is surviving, and then you can take a step back and look at where you want to take it next. But sometimes it feels as though that day will never arrive.

People in survival mode don’t always make the best decisions, or at least it can look that way to those on the outside. I see many of my editing colleagues offering advice to newbies, and it’s always with the best of intentions – they want to share their hard-won wisdom with those who are following in their footsteps, because editors are by and large wonderful, generous people. The advice is always aimed at helping people avoid things they may regret – don’t work for that kind of client, don’t work for that rate, invest in this, run away from that.

But when you’re in that very early, very scary stage of your career, you’re not necessarily thinking about what you might regret. You’re thinking of building up a body of work, bringing in some income – any income – and keeping yourself in business. You’re often thinking short term, because you don’t know if there’ll even be a long term.

Every business decision involves risk, and no one can really assess those risks but the person whose business it is. So if you’re still building your business, and you’re being bombarded with advice that feels too scary to take, don’t beat yourself up about it. It won’t always be like this. The time will come when you feel more confident about saying no to things, or saying yes to others. You may end up taking on jobs you regret, but there’s something to be learned from every mistake. Even if that lesson is “never ever do that again”.

Writing as an editor

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that something very exciting happened to me this week. I passed the 40k mark of my work in progress, which means that technically, if you go by the very minimum measurement, it will be an actual novel.

I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I originally thought that Wings, the novelette I published last year (and, you know, if you wanted to, like, buy it or something, I suppose I can’t stop you), would be a novel, but it turned out to be only 15,000 words long.

Those 15,000 words took me more than 5 years to write. Now, everyone writes at their own pace, and there are no rules when it comes to writing speeds, and all of that, but by most standards, except maybe George RR Martin’s, that’s … pretty slow.

I can put a lot of the slowness down to the fact that over those five years I had a job and two small children, and then I had slightly less-small children but was setting up a business. I can also put a lot of it down to the existence of Twitter.

But I think some of the reason I always struggle to get anything written is that my brain works in a certain way. I’m the kind of person who likes to spot problems before they arise. It made me good at my former job (in the planning team of an arts venue, a job that mainly involved figuring out how to cram too many events into not enough spaces). It makes me a good editor – spotting problems is, y’know, kinda important in this profession. It makes me a nightmare to plan exciting projects with, because I’m always that irritating killjoy going “Yeah, but what if this happens … ?”. And it makes me a very tentative writer.

I spend my professional life spotting writing pitfalls and helping authors figure out how to avoid them. The problem is, it can be quite difficult to turn that off when said author is yourself. An occupational hazard of editing is that when you’re reading for pleasure sometimes an error will leap out at you and completely stop you in your tracks. When that happens while you’re writing, it can really derail any momentum you’ve managed to build up. As editors we like to make texts as good as they can be, but if you worry too much about that before the words are even on the page, it’ll take you, say, five years to write 15,000 words.

I doubt I’m the only editor–writer (or would-be writer) who feels this way. So in the hope of helping people like me – and indeed, in the hope of helping me, should I actually decide to listen to my own advice for once – here’s how to turn off your inner editor and get shit down on paper.

Give yourself permission to write crap

I know I usually say to take all writing advice with a fairly hefty pinch of salt, but I can definitely get fully behind this one. It may be true that not everyone has to or wants to write that “shitty first draft”, as Anne Lamott calls it. But for self-critical writers like me, it’s so important to recognise that this is a perfectly valid part of the process. You can’t edit what isn’t there, so sometimes the most important thing is to get something – anything – down on paper. I often have to remind myself of some of the writing holes I’ve helped writers out of – if I can do it with their words, I can do it with my own. But you kinda have to write the words in the first place.

Harness the power of distraction

Sometimes I can’t write when I’m sitting at my desk. That’s where Editor Kia sits, and she’s not allowed to take charge yet. She stops the process moving forward by going back and fixing commas and shit instead of writing anything resembling an actual plot. So sometimes I need to take myself out of her domain. This is when it’s useful to remember that my laptop is capable of moving around the house with me. (Does anyone else who usually works with a laptop on a desk have this weird mental block? No? Just me?) Taking the computer downstairs and watching a film with the kids distracts enough of my brain that the rest of it can get on with some word-vomit. Editor Kia will get to play with it later.

Warm up your writing muscles

Confession – I used to really resent the kinds of writing exercises I found on creative writing courses: character profiles and scene-setting and prompt work and all that. It felt remiss of me to spend my limited writing time working on something that wasn’t my novel. But then I took part in a writing challenge led by an editor friend (the brilliant Sophie Playle). Every day, for ten days, we wrote ten sentences based on a prompt. Writing little snippets of nothing did something very important – it got me into a habit of writing. It became a part of my day, like brushing my teeth or wasting time on Twitter, and once it was, I found that it was much easier to work on the novel, in terms of both finding the time and helping the words to flow.

Then keep them warm

Once you’re in the habit of writing, try your best to stay in it. It’s not always possible, and I’m not one of these YOU MUST WRITE EVERY DAY OR YOU ARE NOT A WRITER people. But habits are far easier to break than they are to form, so if you’ve managed to get into the habit of writing a little every day, then try to keep doing it. Even if it’s a sentence tapped into the notes app of your phone or scribbled on the back of the gas bill, you’re writing SOMETHING.

Join a community

The best thing I ever did for my writing was join a local writers group. We only meet for a couple of hours twice a month, but for those few hours, I’m not an editor who wants to write; I’m a writer, just like them. We’re there for each other with support, advice, and constructive criticism. We’ve even started a ten-sentence challenge on Facebook like the one I mentioned above, so we’re encouraging each other to keep writing. There are countless writing communities online, too, if in-person groups aren’t your thing, so if you’re struggling to motivate yourself, look for a group of people who can help give you that boost.

So, my fellow constant-editing-brain sufferers, I hope some of that is helpful. I suppose I should probably go and write some of that novel now, hey?

 

October sucks

Excuse the very whingey negative blog post. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a bit miserable lately. Normally, I really like autumn. My boots get to come out of hibernation, which is good because I love my boots. September contains my birthday, and the SfEP conference. And both of those things were very lovely indeed.

But as soon as they were over, and the weather turned cold, I fell into what I shall very professionally describe as a slump of shittiness. I was feeling very bad about this, but then an editor friend of mine shared a wonderful blog post (which I now can’t find, dammit!) discussing the same thing, and other colleagues said that they were struggling a little too, and my business coach said that most of her clients were reporting similar feelings. These last couple of months, it seems, have been a bit of a slog for many of us.

It’s hardly surprising. The weather is fucking awful. Politics is a hellscape. Clients are struggling to write for the same reasons, so work is slow. How are we supposed to keep our spirits up in these conditions?

Now, I’m not normally a glass-half-full kind of person, so my instinct is to wail “WAAAAAAAAH I CAN’T DO IT PLEASE JUST LET ME HIDE IN A BLANKET UNTIL IT’S ALL OVER”. Except I don’t know when it will all be over, and I have to pick my children up from school at 3 o’clock, so this is clearly not a viable plan. So here are some of the strategies I’m trying to help pull me through the slump. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Embrace the cold

Yes, the weather sucks now, especially if you live somewhere with such a delightful climate as the north east of England. It’s going to suck for months, so we may as well throw ourselves into it now. Do all your work from inside a nest of blankets. Take hot chocolate breaks every hour. And, most importantly, put the heating on. You get no prizes for holding out until November. It’s a business expense. Be warm.

Use social media wisely

Ah, the piece of my own advice I am least likely to take. But I really should take it, because nothing makes my mood plummet like reading about politics on Twitter. I can’t seem to stay away; it’s like some kind of horrific compulsion. I try to limit the damage by muting as many of the hot topics as I can think of, which means that even when I stray off my main timeline, most of the threads (because the horror can rarely be contained in a single Tweet these days) are unreadable, which often forces me back to where I belong. I’ve actually found that a good way to stay off the wrong bits of social media is to be more active in the right bits. If you’re happily involved in interesting and stimulating discussions about words and books and lovely things like that, there’s less chance you’ll get distracted by reading about whatever whichever idiot is in charge of your country did now.

Girl, (and boy, and enbie, and everyone in between) put your records on

Many editors can’t work with music playing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cheer ourselves up with a bit of it between bouts of editing. Your deadline won’t be harmed by taking three minutes out of your day to blast out something that makes you feel good about life. And, if it’s too cold to #StetWalk, don’t forget there’s now a #StetDanceParty on Twitter every Friday.

Congratulate yourself

This might sound really stupid (things I say often do), but working when things are hard is HARD. So give yourself  a bit of credit for that. When I was trudging through September, not enjoying work, and not enjoying any spare time I managed to get either, I had a bit of a moan to my business coach that I felt like a failure because I couldn’t find my get-up-and-go. She asked me to think of it differently: I was feeling crappy, and the work was hard, but I got through it anyway. I met my deadlines; I fed, watered and mostly cleaned my children; and sometimes I even managed to put away the washing. I made myself do that much, and that was something. There are times to be ambitious, there are times when you need to give yourself a firm talking-to and push yourself to fulfil your dreams, and there are times when you just need to get through the week. You should never feel bad about just getting through the week, because sometimes that’s an achievement in itself.

So I’m going to go and have a cup of hot chocolate and a Twitter chat, while Taylor Swift plays in the background. I’m not sure about the heating though; let’s not get too crazy all at once.

Cosy

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 thisisforworkIpromise.com.
  • 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?