Sorry if I’ve been a little quiet lately…

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I’ve been editing my manuscript with my agent, Julie, preparing it to go out on submission.

When an agent offers representation, author and agent will often work together to whip the manuscript into shape. The degree of involvement varies from one agent (and book) to the next, but because of the law of diminishing returns, it makes sense to have your script as polished as possible before it lands on a publisher’s desk.

Here’s how the editorial process worked for me.

The feedback

Julie began by going through the script a second time after her initial read-through, line-editing and marking up the script with comments and questions.

In addition, she sent me an editorial report identifying some thematic issues, followed by feedback broken down by viewpoint character, which often consisted of filtering the broader themes into each of my viewpoint character’s words and actions.

The discussion

Once I’d had time to digest the report, Julie and I discussed her comments and talked through some ideas about how to implement her suggestions.

Many writers seeking representation worry unduly about this stage – that it is typically antagonistic, with the agent trying to change the writer’s intention and the writer digging their heels in to protect a sacrosanct text. I’d suggest this isn’t the case for the majority of author-agent relationships. It certainly hasn’t been my experience.

An agent takes a chance on a manuscript because they feel strongly enough to champion it. That’s a real vote of confidence. And both parties want the best outcome – a stronger book. If you disagree on the ‘how’ or you can’t see a way forward, that’s when you open a dialogue.

For me, reading and discussing Julie’s comments focused my attention on the weak points in the story and helped me understand why I’d never quite managed to make them work. I could see the effect the changes she outlined would have on the whole. There was only one question she raised that I didn’t know how to execute. It was an alternative ending – one I’d tried before I submitted the manuscript – so I’d already had difficulty making it work. I explained that, we talked it through and came to a resolution that felt right. It truly was as straightforward as that.

In my writing process – and I suspect the same may be true for many writers – some scenes just flow straight from the pen and onto the page, usually at some silent, still hour of night, when the censoring part of my brain has given up and gone to sleep. The characters seem to tell me what to write, and they move effortlessly from A to B. Other scenes have to be carved out of solid rock. The action beats are a struggle and the characters end up in a dialogue that doesn’t lead anywhere. It can take weeks to bash it all into shape.

When it came to the mark-up, without exception, the scenes that just flowed were untouched. It was the hard-wrought chapters that Julie flagged – clearly the angst was still a part of the palimpsest.

Getting down to work

Where previous self-edits have sometimes felt piecemeal, professional editorial guidance and support has brought greater focus and confidence. I could see what we were aiming for, and was excited to get started.

But, of course, some parts of the editorial process are more enjoyable than others. If you’re starting out on edits, here’s my advice.

  1. Let it rest. Deadlines permitting, give yourself some distance from the manuscript before embarking on the editing process. Because I’d been submitting my book to agents, I had a few months’ natural hiatus. Looking back, I was glad I’d let us both rest – myself and the text – before I tackled any edits.
  2. Plan your edits. It’s tempting to dive in, but sometimes making a seemingly small change at the start ricochets through the book, and you spend time chasing your tail trying to fix it. Stick with it. Having a table of chapters and themes helped me map out where each thematic change or addition would have an impact later on.
  3. Save your easy wins for when you need them. Line edits and stylistic tics can be tackled when you’re tired or you’ve hit a wall with the bigger stuff. Keep them in reserve.
  4. Enjoy spending time with your characters. I’ve been writing and editing my book for a few years, but this time around, I was aware that my days spent with these characters might be numbered. Writing new scenes when you already know the players inside out is a gift, and something you’ll truly appreciate when you have to start a new work and get to know brand new people. Having my characters say and do new things, in the name of strengthening the existing story, was far and away my favourite part of the process.

So, my message is: embrace the process, both with your agent, and when working on your own. Like many elements of writing, it isn’t always easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

So, I signed with an agent…

A month ago, something amazing happened. I sent a query to Julie Crisp, former editorial director at Pan Macmillan, where she published authors including bestsellers; Ann Cleeves, China Mieville and Peter F. Hamilton – turned literary agent. A day later, she replied, asking to see the full manuscript. Three days after that (the speed was just as well, since I was holding my breath the entire time…) Julie asked to speak to me and later that week, I was holding a signed agreement in my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

I was just starting out with the querying process and found Julie’s name via the Writer’s Workshop – she was speaking at the York Festival of Writing in September. I was also trialling the Agent Hunter website for the Writer’s Workshop at the time, so was able to find out more about Julie’s ethos, interests and the sort of writing she was looking for.

Julie has worked as an editor in publishing houses all over the globe for over fifteen years, and headed up the Tor imprint in the UK before setting up her agency two years ago. She was actively looking to build her list and – having secured publishing deals for clients in a variety of genres – was on the lookout for upmarket women’s fiction in particular.

I was really nervous about the call, but Julie put me at my ease straightaway, with her overwhelming enthusiasm for the book and compliments about my writing – those are words I’ll never forget. In fact, I was pretty sure I was dreaming at one point… We talked about my background, then the logistics of preparing the novel for pitching to publishers and Julie helped me understand what to expect at each stage.

We discussed editing and it was amazing to hear her feedback on each of the three main characters in Unsteady Souls. Julie had a knack for seizing on the weak points in the story – places where I’d been scratching my head, but not able to see a way forward. I knew at that point that if Julie wanted to represent me, it was going to be an incredible journey.

The possibility of others reading and enjoying your story is what sustains many a writer through the solitary and difficult business of writing and editing a novel. It’s such an exciting prospect to be working with someone so passionate about the book to make the story the strongest it can be, and send it out into the world.

Julie says:

“I loved the voice, the characters, the emotion and felt a genuine resonance with the novel which is very hard to achieve. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, so accomplished was the writing.  I was totally thrilled when Victoria Bird agreed to join the list.”

You can find Julie’s full post about signing me up here, and watch this space for news about Unsteady Souls.

Me, myself and I… 5 tips for writing in first person multiple POV (points of view)

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When telling a story from multiple points of view (i.e. from the perspective of different characters), you’ve got a number of options, including first and third person. In first person multiple, you have a number of viewpoints, each beginning “I…”. In third multiple, you might be following just as many character threads, but the story is told “he…” or “she…” instead.

Writing in first person multi is… an interesting choice. It tends to raises eyebrows, at least among fellow authors. (I’m rather of the view that readers in general don’t care as much, unless the chosen style works well with the read.) Third multi is certainly more common, and probably throws out fewer challenges, especially for a writer starting out.

So why choose first? And if you’ve decided to embark on a project in first multiple, what should you look out for?

1. Where are you going with this – think about what you’re trying to do with your story and see what fits.

Some argue that first person can take you closer inside the character’s head. I’m not sure that’s true (see Emma Darwin’s great post on psychic distance). My choice to use first person for my novel, Unsteady Souls, was more about the relationship between the character and the reader. I wanted to tell a story from three viewpoints that would gain empathy for all three main characters. Given the (often questionable and morally reprehensible) things the characters say and do, I wanted to create the idea of a conversation with a confidante. I couldn’t help but feel that an account written in first person would read more sympathetically.

If you’re unsure what fits your project, try writing your first chapter (or few chapters) each way and see what feels comfortable. What are the limitations of each? When the words are flowing, do you find yourself defaulting to one or the other? Why do you think that is? It may seem time-consuming to write both ways, but it’s a considerably smaller investment than having to rewrite a whole project if you choose the wrong one for your needs…

2. Building blocks – consider the structure of your story in terms of viewpoints

Using first person precludes an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, you can’t have a viewpoint character who knows the whole story, how everyone else is thinking, feeling etc. So you need to decide who takes which scene. Generally, I kept to the rule that the character with the highest stakes in a chapter or scene would get the viewpoint. For the most part, that was apparent, but sometimes it meant trial and error, and changing things around to see what worked.

Once you’ve got an idea of who has which scenes, think about how this fits with scene and sequel (see K.M. Weiland’s How to structure your novel for great help on this much overlooked topic). If one character has a dramatic event, and another takes the aftermath, that can give you the opportunity to let us into another character’s view of the same event, without having to repeat on the timeline.

3. Voice, voice, voice – be prepared to put in the work

Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for first person multiple POV. Your character’s voice is his or her lens on the world. To be believable, and interesting, each character needs a distinct – and relatively consistent – voice.

As well as the larger, more obvious factors which can differentiate individuals (such as gender, age, cultural heritage, dialect, class and level of education), there are more subtle markers, such as attitudes, values and interests, which can shape the way they think, speak and behave.

What do they do for a living? How does their experience affect how they see the world? What are their interests – what do they read, what kind of films they do watch? Do they have a primarily optimistic or pessimistic outlook? Are they introverted or extroverted? A worrier or fairly relaxed? Funny or morose?

If one character is artistic and ephemeral, perhaps they might describe a dress as “floating chiffon, ruby red and bejewelled with sequins”. If another is more practical and down-to-earth, perhaps it’s just “a glittery red dress – the kind that sparkles under a spotlight”.

When it comes to speech, do they speak quickly or slowly? In long rambling sentences or short, choppy soundbites? Are they fairly considered in their speech or do they tend to blurt the first thing that comes to mind? Do they use slang or swear a lot? Even if dialect is the same, choice of words and turn of phrase can (and should) differ. One character might say “kept schtum” whilst another says “remained silent”. Remember this applies to dialogue between your characters too, regardless of which viewpoint the chapter is in.

The acid test? You should be able to look at a chapter at random and determine, without too much difficulty, whose viewpoint you’re in.

If you can’t, it might be that the voices aren’t distinct enough, and usually that means that you don’t yet know your characters well enough, or you’re allowing your authorial voice to intrude and cramp your characters’ style – well, styles.

That said, whilst a viewpoint is unlikely to change beyond recognition, the voice can develop as the characters go through their character arc. For example, your heroine might sound less confident when disaster strikes, and more definite when she comes through her trials. But in order to sound like parts of the same whole, hints of that character need to be present – and consistent – throughout.

It comes down to knowing your characters well – fleshing out who they are, what their backstory is and where they’re headed. Depending on how you write, sometimes it may take the first draft to find this out.

4. Acting out – think about how your characters’ actions support characterisation and viewpoint.

The same rule applies to a character’s actions. What are their foibles or mannerisms? Do they click their fingers idly when they’re bored or play with their hair when they’re thinking? In the character’s own viewpoint, this might not be mentioned much, apart from the odd action beat. Perhaps it’s an unconscious habit and, for the most part, he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. From the viewpoint of his love interest, it might be a gesture that she observes in minute detail. For his arch-rival – the antagonist – perhaps it’s a tell.

5. Telling lies how reliable are your narrators?

In first person multiple POV, narrators are always unreliable – think of eyewitness testimony, for example. If there’s no omniscient voice, there’s no possibility of an unbiased version of events. And that lets you play havoc with the reader. That’s not to say you can’t do in close third person, of course, but I think the effect is more immediate in first. There’s no one to contradict or filter their story, perhaps until you hear the same event from another viewpoint later on. In the bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses unreliable narrators to great effect, disorientating the reader and keeping back the truth until the final pages.

How are you finding it?

Have you embarked on writing in first person multiple? Do you have any experiences, challenges or tips to share? Feel free to let me know in the comments.