Tanya and I recently attended a workshop at Bloomsbury Publishing‘s offices in London’s elegant Bedford Square: How to Edit Your Book. Over forty aspiring novelists split into two groups to spend the morning in tightly constructed sessions led by professional editors and writers. In the afternoon, we got to spend fifteen minutes with an editor of our choice discussing a 2,000-word extract of our own writing that had been submitted beforehand.
My group was led by the excellent Francine Toon and Jennifer Kerslake. Francine, who is a published poet, became an editor at Sceptre in 2015 and concentrates on literary and reading group fiction. Jennifer, an editor at Weidenfeld & Nicholson (part of Orion), also specialises in literary and reading group fiction. Exactly the kind of people we were desperate to know how to impress!
Both editors dispensed handouts and practical advice – sadly too much to regurgitate here – that emphasised the need to become a reader of your own work as well its writer. Try printing out your stuff in a crazy font and/or colour; persuade someone to read it out loud to you; get a frank appraisal from someone whose opinion you trust. Francine provided a great analogy: to get that perfectly cut fringe, you need to hand the scissors to someone able to step back and see it in perspective.
They also stressed the importance of limiting description to highlighting your novel’s theme, or taking its plot forward. Don’t paint a picture of a garden just because you can; see it through the eyes of someone grieving; suffering from heartbreak; fearful; or dizzy with love.
Jennifer then generously shared with us her own line-edit of a manuscript currently on the brink of publication. We were astounded at the degree of input both needed and generously given. If I’d put that much into something, I’d want my name on the front cover.
I was struck by the commitment of the participants. I suppose if you’re prepared to pay £149 and sacrifice half a weekend, you’re going to take it seriously. But these women (I noticed only two men), were bright, focussed, modest, and fun. They were prepared to take criticism of their work, but also surprisingly supportive of one another. Maybe that’s because writers need to be observant, thoughtful and empathetic if they’re going to be any good. Plus, of course, if you love reading you’re going to want to encourage a stream of first rate novels to keep hitting the bookshops.
Buffet lunch provided the opportunity for the two groups to come together for networking. Our mentors didn’t disappear into some private lair, but sat down with us, chatted and answered our sometimes impertinent questions.
Then came our one-to-one sessions. Mine was with Kylie Fitzpatrick, a historical novelist and creative writing tutor who has worked as a freelance manuscript editor for ten years and is also a lecturer at Bath Spa University’s Creative Writing degree. We went through my own offering, on which Kylie had pencilled notes (including the crossing-through of two embarrassing adverbs), discussed whether or not I should keep my prologue (not a deal breaker, she assured me) and talked about how I could get across that my protagonist – an eighteenth century servant girl – was not typical of her class. Her suggestions have already been put into practice.
I could go on – I have pages of scribbled notes – but how long do we have?
Was it worth it? It was the third such workshop I’ve attended (see my post of 7 July 2016 : Writing Historical Fiction) and I considered it excellent value for money for those without the resources or time for an MA in Creative Writing or one of those on-line novel writing courses. Writersandartists.co.uk have a line-up of similar events. Do check them out.