Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Five thoughts on editing for style – by Rowena House

I’m lucky enough to mentor through the Cornerstones Literary Agency, which gives me the chance to focus regularly on some aspect of the craft of writing which otherwise I’m likely to forget amid research for my own work-in-progress and occasional bouts of inspiration.

Most of the mentoring time seems to be taken up with structure, but the other day I found myself preparing a session on editing for style, and realized how much my approach had changed since working with editors at Andersen Press and then Walker.

A few years ago, when I was looking for an agent, a unique Voice seemed to be the single most important thing they were looking for in debut writers. Maybe they still are. Yet when it came to editing with publishing houses, style seemed secondary to structure: the story was the thing.

This was echoed elsewhere in the industry, by luminaries such as Barry Cunningham and Robert McKee, for example. But I can’t think those agents were wrong. The trick, it seems, is to nail both.

So here, in case they’re useful to anyone else, are five exercises I find valuable when confronted with stylistic flabbiness.

1. Read the text aloud. This, I think, is almost universally acknowledged as a great thing to do. Reading aloud reveals clumsiness, repetitions, logical and stylistic inconsistencies, and complex sentence constructions that are bound to trip a reader.

To speed up a spoken read through (and this advice, I think, comes from the marvellous Book Bound UK team) is to print out the manuscript – or at least sizeable chunks of it – and read it quickly, without interruption, marking in the margins every place where you stumble, and only going back afterwards to sort out the problems.

Personally, I can’t do a read through on-screen. It has to be a paper exercise. And worth every hour it takes!

2. Another excellent rule I came across while editing is ‘2+2’.

The rule? Never give ’em four. Because 'Four' leaves the reader with nothing to figure out.  Which is boring. Thus, cut all answers to rhetorical questions. Never explain cliff-hangers.

It may be that 2+2 isn’t a stylistic issue at all, and has more to do with the process of learning to trust the reader, which until I had a realistic expectation of having readers – as opposed to critique partners – felt  way too abstract to worry about.  

It was Stephen King’s fantastic On Writing that blew this misconception out of the water. The reader, he explained, is integral to the story. For instance, the writer must ask: what do I want the reader to know that my characters don’t know? How will they know it and when? For storytelling purposes, that takes precedence over details such as choosing active verbs and laying off the adjectives.

That epiphany, in turn, made me wonder whether other, purely stylistic issues couldn’t be left until the end as well. Can we, in effect, retro-fit Voice?

I know many writers (and some agents and editors) will say, ‘No. You can’t.’ For them, discovering the right Voice is key to unlocking the story itself. Maybe, then, it is a matter of degree. If Voice is all important, it’s not a question of style. Otherwise…

3. One straightforward but deeply satisfying edit is to tidy up dialogue attribution.

The convention that ‘said’ is better than ‘expostulated’ or ‘remonstrated’ is widely accepted these days. But, boy, don’t all those saids get boring? Me, I allow my characters to cry, shout, answer, mutter, spit, protest and a few others, too.
I also love this formulation: ‘“That’s absurd!” She laughed.’ Where an action substitutes for attribution. And if there are only two people in conversation, I cut out attribution completely so long as it’s clear who is talking.

4. I’m deeply indebted to Em Lynas for the following order of things:

i. Observe

ii. Emote

iii. Analyse

iv. React

Thus, ‘The bomb exploded. Her heart leapt into her mouth. The sound was terrifyingly close. She scrambled to hide herself under the desk, and waited for the ceiling to fall.’

Just as adjectives fit most comfortably into a particular order, and jar in any alternative sequence, so this progression somehow imparts the clearest sense of immediacy, allowing the reader to experience an event at the same time as the character.

I've no idea how this works, but THANK YOU, Maureen.

5. The ever-brilliant Emma Darwin opened my eyes to another fabulous editing tool: the filter-ectomy.

In her invaluable blog, This Itch of Writing, she defines filtering as showing the reader something via an observing ‘consciousness’ - usually through the eyes of a character – rather than describing the thing itself.

As she says, ‘Generally speaking - though no laws are absolute in fiction - vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as "she noticed" and "she saw" be suppressed in favour of direct presentation of the thing seen.’

Apparently, early in our careers, we all tend to write: ‘Turning, she noticed two soldiers’ bodies lying in the mud.’

In the edit, this becomes: ‘She turned. In the mud, lay two soldiers’ bodies.’

While homogenising every observation in this way would be dull and unoriginal, I agree 100% that a thorough filter-ectomy works wonders.
Twitter: @houserowena Instagram: @rowenahouse Website:


Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Some Rollicking Rs by Lynne Benton

I could find no children's authors whose names begin with Q, so I'll go straight on to the Rs.  And I’ll start with many people’s favourite: 

ARTHUR RANSOME.  Born in 1884, he is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books about the school holiday adventures of children, mostly in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads.  A tourist industry has grown up around Windermere and Coniston Water, the two lakes he adapted as his fictional lake.  Born in Leeds, he subsequently settled in the Lake District, where in 1929 he wrote Swallows and Amazons, the first book in the series.  It became so popular that he continued to write a further eleven books in the series, the sixth of which, Pigeon Post, won the Carnegie Medal in 1936.  Swallows and Amazons was adapted for TV in 1963 and a sequel in 1984, and two films were made of the original story in 1984 and 2016.  He was awarded the CBE in 1953, and died in 1967.

LYNNE REID BANKS was born in 1929 and has written 45 books for both children and adults, including her best-selling children’s book, The Indian in the Cupboard.  This book alone has sold over 10 million copies and has been successfully adapted as a film.  She wrote four sequels, as well as many other books for children.  In October 2013, she won the J. M. Barrie award for outstanding contribution to children's arts.  She lives in Surrey.

MICHAEL ROSEN is an English children's novelist, rapper, poet, and the author of 140 books. He served as Children’s Laureate from June 2007 to June 2009, and has been a TV presenter and a political columnist.  He has written much humorous verse for children, including Wouldn't You Like to KnowYou Tell Me and Quick Let's Get Out of Here.  Possibly his best-known book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, won the overall Nestlé Smarties Book Prize in 1989 and also won the 0-5 years category.  The publisher, Walker Books, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014 by breaking a Guiness World Record for the 'Largest Reading Lesson’.  He lives in London.

CELIA REES was born in Solihull, and writes mainly for young adults.  She writes across a range of genre from thrillers, including her first novel,  to gothic and has written across a range of genre from thriller to gothic, but she is probably best known for her historical fiction. Witch Child (2000) was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2001 (2001) and won the Prix Sorcières in France (2003). The sequel, Sorceress (2002), was shortlisted for the Whitbread (Costa) Children’s Book Award; and Pirates! (2003) was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith Children’s Book Award. Sovay followed in 2008 and The Fool’s Girl in 2010.  Her novels have been translated into 28 languages. Her books for younger readers include The Bailey Game (1994) and the Trap in Time Trilogy (2001/2).

CHRIS RIDDELL is an illustrator and writer of children’s books.  Born in South Africa, he moved to England at the age of one and has lived in the UK ever since.  He has won three Kate Greenaway Medals for his illustrations, and books that he wrote or illustrated have won three Nestlé Smarties Book Prizes and have been silver or bronze runners-up four times.  On 9 June 2015 he was appointed the UK Children's Laureate.  Some of his most notable work is The Edge Chronicles (from 1998), a children's book series co-written with Paul Stewart and illustrated by Riddell.  He has also written and illustrated the Ottoline series for younger children, of which the first book, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (2007), won the final Smarties Prize in age category 6–8 years (the Smarties were discontinued in 2008). It was then followed by Ottoline Goes to School and Ottoline at Sea.

RICK RIORDAN is an American author. He is best known for writing the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, about a twelve-year-old boy who discovers he is a son of Poseidon. His many books based on Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse mythology have been translated into 42 languages and sold more than 30 million copies in the US.  20th Century Fox has adapted the first two books of his Percy Jackson series as part of a series of films. His books have also inspired related media, such as graphic novels and short story collections.

And finally, of course, (you didn’t think I’d forgotten her, did you?) J.K. ROWLING, the woman who single-handedly raised the profile and status of children’s writers throughout the world.  Her creation, Harry Potter, is as famous in the real world as he is in the book, and the seven books relating his adventures as he grows up at Hogwarts Academy for Wizards from age 11 to age 18 are nothing less than a phenomenon.  The later books are extremely long, but I have yet to hear children complain about having to read 766 pages (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), or having to queue up at midnight at their favourite bookshop to get their hands on the latest book the moment it hit the shelves.  Now that they’ve all been captured on film, their stars are almost as famous as the author herself.   Her own story is as much of a fairy story as her books: like many of us children’s writers, she started with an idea for a book, or in her case a series of books, sat down and wrote the first one.  She was a hard-up single mother, she didn’t come from a dynasty of writers, she wasn’t married to a publisher (like Enid Blyton was), and she didn’t know anyone in the business.  So like we all do she sent her first manuscript out on spec to various publishers, MANY OF WHOM TURNED IT DOWN!!!  (Bet they’ve been kicking themselves ever since!)  Luckily, Bloomsbury took a chance on an unknown author and in 1997 published a short run of 1000 copies of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and then the unbelievable happened: it took off in a way nobody could ever have foreseen.  Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined the unprecedented success her creation would bring her.  She is now the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time, having sold well over 500 million copies of her books, and became the world’s first billionaire author (though she lost this status after giving away much of her earnings to charity, including the one that had supported her when she most needed help.)  However she still remains one of the wealthiest people in the world.  And it all came from a great idea, a talent for writing, a lot of hard work and a large dose of luck.  Well done her!

(This is the Scots edition, but it was the only one with the original cover illustration, so I had to use it!)

Next month it will be time for children's authors whose surnames begin with S.

Latest book: Danger at Hadrian's Wall (Book 2 of The Britannia Mysteries)

Monday, 13 August 2018

Kay Goes Collecting -- Career Novels by Sheena Wilkinson

When I did my PhD on girls’ school and college novels back in the 1990s, it was very hard to find other people who took the books seriously. Now I am in touch, online and off, with many readers and collectors of old-fashioned children’s books – from the classic to the ephemeral, and meet up with them every two years at a wonderful conference in Bristol.  How things have changed in the last twenty years. And social change is at the heart of today’s post. 

One of these readers and collectors is Kay Clifford, who’s widely known to be the authority on the career novels which were popular after World War 2 – among the earliest YA fiction, you might say, since they were aimed at the teen reader thinking of her future. Kay’s talks at the Bristol conference are always informative and highly entertaining, so when I read that she was launching her book Career Novels for Girls (Mirfield Press, 2018) I knew I could expect a treat.

Little has been written about career novels, and when I started reading Kay’s book – which is every bit as informative and hilarious as her talks – I thought readers of this blog might like to know about this once booming area of children’s literature. As Kay repeats often in her book, they are fascinating documents of social change, and tell us a great deal about the attitudes of their times. 

I’ll let Kay continue in her own words: 

Those lovely career books of the 40s and 50s with their alliterative titles: Rennie Goes Riding; Cookery Kate; Shirley: Sales Assistant; Chris at the Kennels.  If you were named Ann, you could aspire to be Air Hostess Ann.  Except that you had to be Grammar School educated (which immediately narrowed the field), stand over 5’2”, weigh between 105lbs and 135lbs and understood that you’d be sacked as soon as you got married.  And, of course, every girl expected to get married, didn’t she?  A career was only for those years between leaving School and Finding A Man. 

So most of us, in spite of those glorious and uplifting career books, became a Secretary or a Nurse.  Or a Teacher if you were clever.  Or even a Librarian if you were really clever (for a girl, that is).  Some of us, reading those Bodley Head or Chatto & Windus career books yearned to be a Ship’s Officer, or a farmer, or the Captain of a Ship, or drive cars while our husbands did the housework (yes, there is one book – but only one book – where this happens) but we didn’t and couldn’t.

It would be 40 years before Eileen Nolan would be an Army Brigadier, and another 50 years before entry into Medical Schools would be 50% female.  But these books opened gates and gave us the right information.  They explained how to be an Almoner, how to be an Occupational Therapist, how to be a Physiotherapist.  They gave us dreams and aspirations which we may not have been able to satisfy in the 50s and 60s, but we could pass those dreams and aspirations on to our daughters and our grand-daughters. 

And today we can read and revel in these books.  The social detail.  The man of the house coming home at 5 o’clock and sitting down immediately at the table as his evening meal is put before him.  Meat and two veg of course.  Girls wearing gloves and hats when attending for their interviews.  Fathers having the final say-so as to whether the job is suitable or not.  A vanished world.  But with invaluable social information.  A by-gone world.  A snapshot in time of the 1940s and the 1950s.  

I’d really recommend Kay’s book to anyone interested in mid-twentieth-century children’s literature and/or social history. I’m no expert on careers novels, but I found this book an entertaining, wry, and informative insight into the worlds of our mothers and our grandmothers.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Time to go - by Ruth Hatfield

After three years of monthly panics about what to write, I've finally decided to give up writing these blog posts, for the foreseeable future at least. Three whole years - in that time, I've had two books out and produced (well, birthed) two children. Seems like a good period of time to reflect back on. So what have I learnt, really? (Disclaimer: this is entirely about me, but I'm talking about myself in the second person because that often seems like the easiest way to make grand statements about complicated things).

That producing children is easier than producing books.
That children demand more of you than even books do.
That pouring your heart and soul into working out how best to raise your children is easier than pouring your heart and soul into working out how best to write your book.
That children know instantly when you are trying to think about something that is not them.
That child-raising and book-writing are two relentless, exhausting endeavours.
That child-raising has a higher chance of bringing you joy and happiness.
But not necessarily of making you feel you have said what you want to say.
Because mostly you are just repeating 'Because it is' and 'DON'T PLAY WITH THE DISHWASHER'.
And sometimes you forget that words were ever a pleasure to you.
That children are their own magic.
And books are your magic.

I had something else to say - about the failure of my books to sell, about ten years of work, thoughts and dreams dissolved in the aether, about the cruelty of a savage review, about something a wise friend recently said to me concerning my reluctance to let myself write what I really want to write, and how it was a bit like being too frightened to let yourself fall in love again after suffering heartbreak -

But that seems like the best place to stop. When there's still something more to say.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

People Watching (but for the nation) - Kelly McCaughrain

I once tried researching my ancestors and very quickly ran into all kinds of dead ends. I think having an unusual surname is considered a good thing in genealogy research but mine was a little too unusual. There just weren’t any other McCaughrains. Anyway, in between haranguing my elderly relatives for info, I was often heard to lament the fact that so little of the past survives. And even where there are birth, death and marriage certificates, these leave me (a voracious fiction reader) deeply unsatisfied. I want the stories. I want people’s voices and opinions and thoughts about the neighbour’s new curtains.

I’ve also been heard to say that my generation will leave so much of ourselves behind that our descendants will be sick hearing about us. Computers and the internet have us frozen in aspic, surely. Our descendants will only have to look at our Facebook pages and read our blogs and check our Amazon orders to analyse our entire lives.

But actually, when I thought about it, is this really true? The Amazon orders may well survive but…

My university thesis? On a floppy disc I no longer have a disc drive for.

My teenage video letter to a penpal? On a video I can no longer play.

My digital photos of the last 5 years? On an external hard drive which, last time I plugged it in, wouldn’t work.

My mixtape CD made for me by my husband? Gathering dust since my laptop has no disc drive.

My first attempt at a novel and many short stories? On a pen drive I lost somewhere in the Jordanstown campus of the University of Ulster.

My DVD of a bellydance performance I once did? (yes, really). On a DVD I can no longer play (possibly a good thing).

My MySpace and Bebo pages? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Firing information into the ether is clearly not the answer. Or, if it is, it’s going to require some intentional effort towards preservation.

Enter the Mass Observation Project.

If you saw Victoria Wood’s excellent Housewife, 49 on TV you’ll know about the Mass Observation project.

I love this photo. It's the hat.

It was begun during WWII and invited members of the public to keep diaries on anything and everything, which they sent to the archives to be preserved. Which sounds slightly Big Brotherish but actually wasn’t. In fact, I get the feeling that the people who ran it weren’t so much number-crunching spies bent on selling you products and accusing you of communism as a couple of forgotten secretaries stuck in a cupboard trying desperately to hold onto enough funding to buy teabags. It’s now a charity, in fact, and a public resource for historical research, curated by the wonderfully named Ms Fiona Courage (I so want to name a character after her). And let’s face it, if the government wanted to know all about you they’ll look at your Tesco receipts and internet use, not your diaries.

Anyway, Housewife, 49 was the story of one Mass Observer, a housewife from the Lake District called Nella Last. She wrote about 2 million words for Mass Observation, on whatever paper was handy, mailed faithfully to the project over the course of 27 years. 

Some of these diaries have recently been published in 3 books, all of which I read because she was actually a wonderful, natural writer. They contain everything from details of how she managed with food rationing to arguments with her son and husband, gossip from the neighbours, politics and mental health.

She seems to have suffered from depression and had had a breakdown prior to starting her diaries and was suffocating in her marriage to a man who I think was suffering PTSD from WWI himself, and it was really the diaries that saved her. These, along with the Women's Voluntary Service, which she joined despite her husband’s disapproval, were the outlet she needed in a very lonely life.

The real Nella, with her son, Cliff

She writes so well I found even the soup recipes fascinating. Which made me think that, if I was the poor sod someday tasked with analysing all these diaries people sent in, I’d probably be profoundly grateful for the entries written by people who are naturals with words.

Which makes me wonder why more writers don’t do this? (Or have even heard of it?) I mean, writing? Observing? 

Because, amazingly, it’s still going. They send out a ‘directive’ 3 times a year asking you for your thoughts on a couple of particular topics – The NHS, Eurovision, The Royal Wedding, Time Management, the use of purses – anything at all. It’s like having someone email you random writing prompts. They’ll also pick particular days – 12th May – and ask everyone to fill out a diary for just that day and send it in, to get a picture of what was happening across the nation on one particular day. And they welcome special reports on any topics or events that interest you. It's all optional, of course.

As someone who’s always kept a diary, this appealed to me. And it’s not just about the historical value of it, though I do think that’s important. I think diary-writing is writing. And writing anything makes you a better writer. When you haven’t the creative energy to work on your epic fantasy novel, you can still be honing your art by keeping a diary. And the thought that someday some future writer might be reading your words for their epic historical novel set in the early 21st century is fantastic.

You’re not only honing your craft, you’re helping writers of the future. Who knows what tiny realistic detail they’ll glean from your observations that they couldn’t have got just from reading back issues of The Times? Petrol cars were noisy? Chalk squeaked on a blackboard? Halloumi replaced goats cheese as the veggie option in all restaurants in 2015?

OK, I do sometimes find myself writing about what I had for lunch and thinking, who’s going to care about this? But think of it this way:

I recently found a very old, exposed but undeveloped Super 8 film belonging to my Grandfather. It contains 3 minutes of silent footage, possibly of the inside of the lens cap, and it’ll cost me about £60 to develop in a process with a 50% success rate but, on the other hand, it could be 3 minutes of my now deceased Grandmother washing dishes so I am of course going to try. 

What you consider not worth committing to paper, may be absolutely invaluable to someone 200 years from now.

So, if you fancy some writing practice that isn’t just screaming into the void, check out the MO website for more info and consider signing up. And if you work with young writers maybe suggest it to them too (I think most of their respondents are in the older age brackets). Their last email to me said they're keen to recruit new writers and that numbers have been declining. There are only a couple of hundred people doing this in the whole UK so your contribution would be valued, I'm sure.

And don’t worry, everything is kept anonymous. You won’t be publicly identified as the person who only pretended to like The Shape of Water while secretly thinking Splash was a much better movie.

Come on, admit it

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 


Friday, 10 August 2018

Love books? Want a warm feeling? Watch this! Moira Butterfield

How would you use a picture book if you were blind or partially-sighted? Well, there’s a charity called LIVING PAINTINGS who make this happen, and I think when you see what it does you’ll have a very warm feeling.

It’s recently had a BBC appeal film made about its work, narrated by the gorgeous Martin Kemp, who himself once feared losing his sight. Please take a coffee break to watch it here, and you’ll understand more about the work. Much better than me banging on. Click on the link below and then on the BBC link. It's worth it. 

 I’ve been helping the charity recently by writing audio descriptions of picture books. The first one I got involved with was the remarkable JOURNEY, by Aaron Becker, published in the UK by Walker.  It has no words, but it tells a tale through fabulous atmospheric pictures. I had to find a way of describing them that communicated the visual magic and the adventure. It was a tough one, but I’m glad to say that in preliminary tests one little boy was moved to lay his head on the book because he wanted to ‘get into the adventure’.

The second project I’ve been involved with is the upcoming new Elmer book by David McKee and Andersen Press. It’s the first time that blind and partially-sighted children are going to get their copy of the new book on the same publishing date as everybody else. It will have braille words and some touchie-feelie pictures, and an audio description of the rich, detailed illustrations as well as the story itself in audio. I’m not allowed to say what it’s about but I can say it looks gorgeous and I had to find a way of getting that across without being repetitive. Fingers crossed it goes down well. 

Working with LIVING PAINTINGS is a delight and a privilege. If you're asked, I thoroughly recommend it. And if you haven't yet clinked on that link, do yourself a favour and do it, to get that warm feeling! 

Moira Butterfield 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Red capes and Pooh: fiction as a source of symbols of dissent (Anne Rooney)

The costume of the Handmaids in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale has been adopted by women around the world protesting against oppression of women and repression of reproductive rights. It's clever. The costume is a symbol, but one that can't easily be suppressed. A woman can't be arrested for wearing a red cape, yet she doesn't need to say anything to make her point. From a writer's point of view it's fascinating. A story — a work of speculative fiction (scifi if you like) is so embedded in the cultural pysche that its entire ethos can be referenced and drawn on in support of a cause, just by wearing a coloured cape.

Literature as a tool of dissent has a long history. We've all referred to Big Brother (of 1984 fame, not dumb TV show), Animal Farm and Brave New World. But none of these has a visual icon that allows the reference to be carried out silently and, effectively, irrepressibly. But maybe the wordless reference it's taking off. China has been suppressing images of Winnie the Pooh and the latest Disney Pooh film has been denied release there because Pooh has been adopted as a symbol of dissent. Or at least a way of making fun of the leader Xi Jinping. Are there any more visual symbols of dissent taken from popular literature?

It's another reason, I suppose, for governments to disinvest in 'proper' education. But the rise of the Handmaid and Pooh both come from the filmed versions. Can't see any government managing to suppress Netflix...

Anne Rooney