As an antidote to How To Be Good, here’s a story I wrote for last year’s course and have revised for this year’s Narrative Experimentation class, where we were asked to break open a piece of writing and try some non-linear storytelling. Originally titled The War Of The Geraniums, it concerns the marriage of Paul and Laura Geranium.
Do let me know what you think, and as ever if you’re in need of Editorial or Contracts services please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
They had managed to get a penthouse suite at a large chain hotel in San Diego. It was in the right direction, and at least California was warm.
Laura, having frightened herself by actually saying the word ‘divorce’, had completely changed her tune. She had sobered and calmed. She hadn’t meant to blurt the word out – that had been a mistake. But it was not inconceivable anymore. She knew she and Paul weren’t working. She was fed up of Portland: no glamour, no style, the rain. Paul was as good a husband as another, but what about no husband? Freedom.
She walked around the suite, checking the amenities and flicking the TV on – an episode of Columbo was on, an early episode. She had had a secret, embarassing crush on Peter Falk as a young teenager. She remembered Peter Falk was dead, and turned the TV off.
There was a balcony, which drew Laura over, and when she stepped onto it she realised how high it was, and that there was a bit of a breeze up so high. She looked over the railing and saw it really was a long way down: you’d never survive a fall, she thought idly.
She turned suddenly and found Paul walking up behind her, which startled her, and he looked surprised when she turned.
“Let’s have a drink out here on the balcony, darling” He headed for the wet bar, “and then maybe I’ll run a bath. The tub’s pretty big and has Jacuzzi jets, how about that?”
She frowned. Something….she had a sense of déjà vu.
She looked out to sea again. The seagulls squawked, but the only other sounds were the wind and the rushing of the sea back and forth.
Suddenly she was pushed, hard, and over the railing she went. She fell.
In late January, Paul and Laura were returning from a trip: an elaborately simple wedding in the Bahamas. Their layover in middle America was supposed to be short, a minor inconvenience, but there was a hitch: a heavy storm was affecting much of the Northwest, and their onward flight was cancelled. Such weather was very unusual for the area, though not unprecedented, and neither of them had seriously considered that a problem would arise.
The airport was very crowded, as a surplus of travellers tried to make alternative arrangements. Flights to other parts of the US were taking off as planned, but not to anywhere near Portland, Oregon.
Noticing that Laura was about to lose her temper, Paul steered her into the nearest bar.
“Sit, darling, and we’ll get a drink and figure out what to do.”
Laura ordered a large brandy, Paul a whisky, and they both took a restoring swallow. Putting the glasses down, they looked at each other, and Paul smiled sardonically.
“Can’t win them all, darling. We’ll just have to extend our trip.”
“What, here? Where is here again anyway? Kansas?”
“Oh God, you would have to get us stuck in the middle of nowhere, wouldn’t you? As if changing planes isn’t bad enough. If we’d flown direct, we could have stayed in the sun in Nassau until it blew over.”
“You mean ‘in the rum’, don’t you?” Her eyes widened with fury. “No direct flights left, darling. Full. I can’t produce seats out of nowhere.”
“That was a horrible thing to say, Paul” she hissed. “You are so mean to me these days, I’m sure I don’t deserve these constant insults.”
“Ok, I’m sorry, I’m tired and frustrated. We need to figure out our next move, Laura, not argue.”
“Well, I’m not staying in goddamn Missouri! Especially with you. No, I don’t deserve this, and I’ll tell you I won’t put up with it!” He held up a hand in surrender as her voice rose, trying to calm her – she’d been stuck into the bar since Nassau, and might get genuinely belligerent. Instead, she seemed to be wavering between furious anger and tears. And then a tear rolled down her face. She swiped it away, and continued in a venomous half-whisper, pathetically punctuated by little sobs and more tears.
“You don’t love me, you insult me all the time, you ignore me otherwise. You’re at the office so late, you practically live there, unless you’ve already found a younger model to replace me with? And after all the love and support I’ve given you… you couldn’t have been so successful without me, I backed you up all the way….I gave you a beautiful, clever child. Gave up my own career, of course. But it’s not enough for you. You don’t love me. I’m leaving you. I want a divorce.”
She buried her face in a bar napkin. Paul, who had not planned for this nor prepared for it, was only concerned to minimise the scene. He drew her to him, hushing her, murmuring that it was alright, everything would be fine, he loved her, truly, and they could work anything out. No need to talk about leaving and divorce. She was just overtired, not surprisingly, and he was sorry about being mean, he was tired too.
When she had calmed a little, he sent her to the Ladies to tidy up, and ordered another round. He tried to think quickly. In the past weeks he’d seen a lawyer and heard that, if Laura decided not to cooperate, the proceedings could be very long and drawn out, and very expensive, and alarmingly public, considering his job. And that was even before their assets were divided and they settled on her maintenance payments and custody and child support of Lily. Paul couldn’t foresee any version in which Laura would be cooperative, and the vivid scenes in his head, months and months of horror, had left him paralysed, unable to pull the trigger. He’d been making excuses too, of course – it was near to Christmas, then Lily came home and he didn’t want to ruin her holiday, then the wedding in the Bahamas, which was filled with important contacts, celebrities – he didn’t want to go alone, he felt he needed Laura’s expert charm to negotiate such an event, and it had gone well, in public. She was right, in private he’d shut down, barely speaking, making snide little comments.
He couldn’t go on with her. But he just couldn’t face divorcing her.
She returned from the Ladies, smiling weakly at him. He leaned towards her, and took her hand.
“OK. I’m going to go and recce our next move. We’re not staying here, darling, I promise. I’ll fix it. I’ll find something. Ok? Ok honey?”
She nodded gratefully, and he kissed her cheek and left the bar.
She hadn’t been alone at the bar long when a handsome and expensively dressed Texan gentleman offered to buy her a drink, and she’d mock-reluctantly accepted. They’d flirted a little, and Laura had been feeling so buoyed by the attention that in the back of her mind was a little daydream about a glamourous life in Dallas. Finance in Technology paid well, sure, but it wasn’t a very glamourous or stylish world, and for the most part she found the ‘stars’ of Tech socially awkward and badly dressed.
Interrupting her daydream, her Gentleman mentioned an evil ex-wife and then silenced himself, refusing to “sully such pretty ears with ugly stories. Ah’ll only say I’ll never get married again, not without an airtight pre-nup.”
And like that, the daydream was gone and she was utterly put off. Paul was as good a husband as any other, perhaps, and better the devil you know, because she knew she could get the old Paul back, he would never leave her. So when Paul returned, with tickets for San Diego, she apologised very sincerely to him and told him she loved him and she didn’t want a divorce, she wanted to work things out and fully recommit to each other.
In his office, Paul thought seriously about his marriage, and about the future.
Laura had sent him a barrage of texts the previous evening, beginning shortly after he’d left. She apologised profusely for upsetting him, she only worried because she loved him so much. She only wanted to help him. Where was he? Come home. Where was he? She loved him. Please come home.
He’d driven around for a while, knowing something had to change, not knowing how. Eventually he’d sent a short text to Laura saying it was ok and he loved her too, then stealthily he let himself back into the house and went straight to the spare room. They didn’t mention it in the morning. She seemed a bit hungover but conciliatory, and she made a point of hugging and kissing him goodbye.
From time to time, while drinking whisky in panelled rooms, an older man would spill some gory details about his divorce, and the evil spite of women. The ungrateful, unreasonable bitch(es) had never given nor forgiven, but had taken everything. Anything left was due to the man’s own strength and bloody-minded determination.
A messy divorce did not appeal to Paul. Throwing a grenade into his life, burning down all he’d achieved, would feel deeply out of character.
He was by nature a simple, straightforward man, not a deep thinker, inclined to dismiss disquieting feelings or thoughts. This mixture had made him the success he objectively was, his character was not faulty.
It was as if he had spent years under a spell: often off-balance, often questioning his reasoning and even his memory. Fear, mixed in a toxic cocktail with relief and hope, had kept him stationary. He would be cautious, but he knew he must make a move.
Laura, born into a wealthy family, was married to Paul Geranium, similarly bred and always due to become wealthier. Paul worked at a large technology company in the Northwest, but in the Finance Division “so he’s not a techie or a hipster, no strange bike, no beard”, Laura laughingly reassured anyone who might get the wrong idea.
Soon after they married, a daughter, Lily, arrived. From then on Laura gave up the notion and the claim that she was an interior designer “at the bleeding edge of style, which was sometimes so limiting for me, some people are just not open”. Instead, she devoted herself to the kind of activities that wealthy Professional Wives participated in, which, once the appearance of Devoted Wife and Mother were established, principally concerned the maintenance of herself and her wants.
Lily had recently begun 9th grade at a very exclusive boarding school on the opposite coast, arguing strongly for it against the almost-as-exclusive school nearby in Portland, “and though I miss her dreadfully, of course, and it’s just so hard for me not having her here with me all the time…but she’s so intelligent, you know, and so creative – how could she not be? And so we thought we shouldn’t hold her back.”
Since Lily had left, though, Laura had noticed with unease that Paul did not seem quite as devoted a husband as she was a wife. He always came home late, he never seemed to listen to her, and where once he had agreed with her and taken her side, recently he had begun to criticize her and disagree, in a way she felt was unduly harsh. She could not understand why, but it seemed that their perfectly natural tiffs, always forgotten the next day, had taken on a different flavour.
She thought sometimes of other men, those real or fictional men she might have married if she had not chosen Paul. Being often dazzlingly charming in company, and conventionally attractive, she had broken a few hearts in her girlhood, breaking it off quickly when she concluded that a boyfriend was no longer fun, or that his prospects were less than she might expect. At 40, she was still beautiful, and she daydreamed of meeting a taller, handsomer, richer man who would sweep her off her feet. Paul would be devastated, of course, she thought with malicious glee, and then he would be sorry he’d been so difficult, and hadn’t appreciated all she was and all she did for him.
“I just don’t see why the promotion seems to be taking so long, Paul darling. Has everything been going alright? Have you annoyed Larry? You know, you can be off-puttingly eager with him, he doesn’t want a yes-man, you must stand up to him, try to seem more like CFO material.”
“Those remarks are neither kind nor true. I need you to support me, I don’t need criticism and complaints.”
“Oh darling, I simply can’t support you any more completely, you know that.” She paused to sip some wine, paused long enough that he thought she had heard him.
“But I must have the tools to do it and that means a stylish house and garden in which to entertain. You said we couldn’t afford the landscaping for the party in May, even though you know it’s my key yearly event and was becoming one of the parties. I’m sure people were disappointed this year. I certainly was.”
“Stop criticizing me! I’ve explained the situation is to be expected in the circumstances, which are out of my hands. Stop. Just stop picking and harping on about it, I’ve had enough, ok? Enough.”
He quickly took up his suit jacket and keys again. “I’m going out.” And he went.
Laura heard the door slam, and suddenly she felt a very strong emotion sweep up inside her. She started shaking, she felt she couldn’t get oxygen from her shallow, quick breaths. She gulped some wine, tried to prevent the whimpers that burst out involuntarily. She felt her whole body was screaming internally, an inarticulate, primal scream in response to catastrophe. The emotion was terror.
He’d had enough. And then he’d just gone. Was he leaving her? He would leave her. No. No. He couldn’t leave her.
On an early date, they’d been to the cinema. As Paul told the story afterwards, with a knowing leer, they didn’t pay much attention to the film, and the plot was silly anyway – something about a perfect murder.
But Laura had always liked the actor playing the detective, he had a gravelly, rough voice which ‘spoke’ to her, she said. They had watched the film several times later, at her suggestion, and in the beginning of their relationship Paul had laughed and agreed he couldn’t remember the film because all his attention was on her, on Laura. Later, hoping to remind him of more, she put the film on in order to have the opportunity to remind him they’d seen it together when it first came out.
Towards the end, the detective summed up – the idea for this perfect murder was to take the victim to any big anonymous hotel, in any sizeable city so there would always be pressing crime to solve…. “so he gives the lady a drink, see, and they go on the balcony. Then he just… pushes her off. When the police come, he says he was running the bath, didn’t hear anything. But as they question him it comes out, don’t it, the lady actually drinks quite a bit, and sometimes she gets sad when she drinks…. and so maybe it was accident she went over, or maybe suicide, who knows? One thing’s for sure, you can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the fella was anywhere near her when she fell.”
Conversations and Notifications got a bit more of a reaction than I was expecting, so here’s another story, written for the MOOC I’m participating in right now, Storied Women and concerning Character’s Desire and POV. How to Be Good is about a put-upon nurse, who enjoys baking.
(And don’t forget, if you’re an Author or Publisher in need of Editorial or Contracts services from this highly competent freelancer, you can email me at email@example.com)
She smiled warmly and often. Her movements were quick, calm and efficient. Her hair and uniform were neat, her skin clear and smooth, apparently free of make-up. She was popular with the other nurses, it seemed, as well as with the elderly patients.
Em was a good person.
Mr Thomson’s daughter visited again. She had a lot of questions – what was this machine for? What tablets was Em giving him? How was his pulse? Then she looked at Em meaningfully, eyebrows raised as high as possible, and loudly whispered ‘Is he moving his bowels alright?’ Em smiled kindly at the daughter – it was pleasing when the children visited and took an interest. These were all good questions, and she answered them patiently, and when she’d finished she asked both of them if everything was clear and if they needed anything else. They did not, but they did look happier and more relaxed than when she had arrived at the bed.
As she returned to the nurses’ station, Maddie was cutting herself a slice of the cake Em had baked and brought into work – a bitter orange cake with yogurt and poppy seeds. It sounded healthier and more nourishing than, say, chocolate cake, but actually it was at least as calorific, and as rich and rib-sticking as could be. Maddie had a sly look on her face as she ostentatiously stalked the cake, and leaned her shoulder into the cutting, pouting for the benefit of any nearby Doctor. She loudly announced, as she often did, “It’s so naughty of me, but I just can’t resist. Em, you are so wicked – don’t ever change.” She opened her mouth wide, winked saucily at Em, and took a big bite. Em giggled delightedly.
Rose tended to be less enthusiastic. But that was because she was fat and short-tempered from constant dieting. She refused any cake, in a slightly hostile manner, but Lucy or Jess always, always, encouraged the breaking of a diet: “Go on, Rose, a little bit won’t hurt you, you need a treat sometimes”. Rose’s firm refusal was accompanied by a tight, quick, insincere smile. Em bit the inside of her cheek, hard, though she smiled sympathetically at the ungrateful woman. The other nurses exclaimed over the cake, gave Em special big smiles, thanked her profusely, and praised her talent for baking.
It was raining again as she left the hospital. The very last of the afternoon’s sunshine made the darkening sky purple, like a bruise, and the yellow streetlights bounced inadequate artificial light off the puddles in the tarmac. Water splashed on her thick tights as she ran to the car. Inside, she checked the phone, and read the multiple one-line text messages from her sister-in-law, Audrey.
Mum much worse today!
Very grumpy with me!
Complaining about everything!
She can’t keep the soup down. I’ve cleaned her up best I can.
Did you remember I have to leave on the dot of 3.15?
Think she’s asleep, leaving NOW!
You’re out of paper towels.
She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. Then she very deliberately unclenched them. She breathed, deeply, in and out. For a count of five in, for a count of five out. Five times.
No good. Never any good. She looked around, but she couldn’t see anyone else in the car park. She screwed her eyes up, breathed in once more, and let out the roar of rage.
That was a bit better.
Em gave the pillows a couple of good whacks with her free hand, and eased her mother-in-law back against them. Evelyn looked terrible, pale and sweaty with a greenish tinge to her skin. She’d been ill for several weeks, she kept throwing up, and she was getter weaker all the time. Perhaps it wouldn’t be long now.
“Alright, love? Feel a bit better?”
She smoothed her mother-in-law’s hair back from her face. It was falling out, and irregular patches of scalp were clearly visible. Evelyn was still breathing hard from the latest bout of vomiting. Each one seemed to sap more of her strength. A string of pinkish drool lay on her chin, and Em wiped it quickly and efficiently.
“A bit better, thank you dear. You always do after throwing up, don’t you?” Her voice rose slightly, “Even if you’re dying!”
Evelyn’s hands fiddled with the edge of the blanket, and she tittered bitterly at her own joke. A wave of foul, slightly metallic breath hit Em’s face, but she didn’t flinch.
“Have a bit of water, love.” Em’s voice was firm, and her smile was confident. She didn’t immediately make eye contact, because she was looking at the glass, aiming the straw at Evelyn’s mouth.
Evelyn took a few sips.
“I had a dream I was eating that lovely cake you used to make me, dear, you know the chocolate cherry one? With the liqueur in it? Oof, I miss food. At least in theory.”
Evelyn’s voice was slow, and fainter than it had been once, but her small brown eyes stared hard at Em, with some of her old, shrewd look. She felt Evelyn could see right into her, right inside, and so she dug her nails into the fleshy part of her palm, and the pain soothed the panic.
Evelyn’s wrinkled forefinger rubbed back and forth on the satin edge of the blanket, then curled under with the others. She worried the edge restlessly, looking away, before she spoke up again, with a purposeful expression.
“You’re a wonderful daughter, Em, you’re so good to me, just as if you were my own. I hope you and Harry will have a very happy life together.”
“Ah, you’re a love. Don’t worry,” Em soothed, her own voice catching a bit, “It’s all ok. You don’t have to worry. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“Oh yes. You’re a wonderful nurse, dear.”
Evelyn took a deep breath, which hitched in her throat, then shakily let it out in a sigh. She closed her eyes and leaned back into the pillows, resting.
Em sat quietly beside her and regarded the dying woman thoughtfully. She picked up the almost-full bowl of soup, and left the room.
She threw the soup away and washed and dried the bowl and spoon carefully. Silently, she went into the downstairs cloakroom, pulled her tights and knickers down, and sat on the loo. She put her head down and her hands over her ears. Muffling her ears meant she could hear her own strong, regular heartbeat, the rushing of her blood through her veins. She felt pressure, around and inside her. Her throat was tense, almost to the point of pain.
Slowly, she picked the long straight scab off her thigh. She winced often, but each time she gave a quick smile after the tiny gasp of pain. She peeled and pulled up the scab, bit by bit, digging her nails into the flesh and gazing avidly at the bright red blood that oozed up into big, fat drops which toppled under their own weight and trickled down in a satisfying stream, to drip into the water below.
He’d been at the pub. She heard his key and came downstairs from her vigil beside Evelyn, to take his plate from the oven. He pecked her cheek and sat down, stiffly and with a grunt at the pain in his knees. In her seat beside him, she kept her hands tight around her mug, though the heat stung her palms. She held the mug in front of her, and gazed into it. Tea was soothing.
“How’s Mum?” he asked, taking a bite.
She lifted her shoulders briefly, tiredly, and summoning again her most sympathetic smile, she shook her head.
“Not good. She’s not got long left. Days, or hours? But it’s not weeks anymore, Harry. Go and see her after dinner. Then I’ll sit with her.”
She reached out a hand and laid it on his arm. He looked back at her, his brown eyes open wide in response to her touch, but his face showed no clear expression, not that she could see.
When he’d finished, he thanked her for his dinner. He went upstairs, but less than five minutes later he was in his chair in front of the TV, massaging his sore knees, a can of beer beside him. He would sit watching TV, and drink the cans of beer, slowly and steadily, until 11pm. When he got into bed, he’d turn to her and rub her leg briefly before pulling up her nightdress. She would make no protest, would lie underneath him, listening to the rhythmic movement of the bed and his breathing, waiting for him to make the mournful little grunt that meant it was finished.
When she could hear his breathing settle into familiar little puffs, she knew he was asleep. She moved around as quietly as she could. She tied her hair back again and smoothed down the strays. She poured a new glass of water for Harry, and left it beside their bed. He’d be thirsty when he woke up.
Evelyn was not asleep. She tried to reach out to Em, but she was too weak. Em resumed her seat beside the bed, held Evelyn’s hand, and waited.
Two hours later, still the middle of the night, Evelyn took one last rattling snoring breath, and died.
Em checked, to be certain. Then, at long last, a wave of relief rushed through her. It felt so good. She was enveloped in warmth and love – it was amazing, like a magic spell – a powerful, physical feeling of peace.
Audrey was very angry when the Will was read. She had expected half of her mother’s estate, but Evelyn had given the greater part of it to her elder child, Harry. Em knew, though, that the money was for her, Em, and so she didn’t even feel Audrey’s snipes and retorts and shouts. Nothing could get at her. She was utterly calm, confident and centred. She knew that Evelyn’s Will was correct, and only proper.
There was always a bit more time before Harry was home from the pub, or wherever he was. She went to her cupboard to gaze at the various supplies lined up neatly on the shelves. The orderliness of the cupboard gave her pleasure. She smiled with satisfaction at the sight of all these things, neatly arranged.
She nudged the big bottles of cleaning products back into a precise line. She took down the little brown bottle of vanilla extract and admired the apothecary style of the packaging, then put it back.
She could make the chocolate ganache she used to make for Evelyn. It was a beautiful cake, rich and gooey and decadent, with a powerful hit of cherry liqueur. She pictured it, the top thickly covered with chocolatey sugary icing and studded with gleaming ruby-red cherries. In the end, she decided to save the ganache for another day.
She chose the almond extract, and collected flour and sugar and ground almonds from another shelf. She took out a bowl and the scales, and measured her things out.
Baking was more science than art. It was necessary to add the ingredients together in the correct order, with wet added to dry, as the dry ingredients would greedily soak up all the moisture they could get. The stirring and beating and folding soothed her like nothing else. If she followed the instructions, the cake would always turn out well, and it would provide delight and nourishment to the people around her. She could always feel proud of her baking. It was one of the ways in which she showed she was a good person.
The almond cake was long-cooled by the time Harry arrived home. She gave a large slice of it to him for his dessert.
The following short piece is one I wrote and submitted for the MOOC writing course I took last year, and was homework for the second class: Expanding On Character, Cast And Dialogue. I really enjoyed the course and think I learned a lot. I hope you enjoy this little scene, in which Victoria is annoyed about not being invited to a party she’s seen on Facebook. Please do feel free to tell me your thoughts.
“Maybe I upset her somehow? But how?”
“Hmm? What’s upset?”
“Me, David!” Victoria turned away from the sink to look beseechingly at her husband. She sighed heavily and leaned one hand on the counter, with the other on her hip, and looked down, shaking her head.
There was a pause.
She grabbed her glass of wine and took a deep swallow, before setting it down again none too gently, so it clinked and squealed alarmingly against the stone counter. She looked up as if to the heavens, and then again at David. “I told you about this earlier, remember?” she said slowly and clearly. “Anne posted photos to Facebook of a party she had last weekend, and she never invited me. There’s a whole album of my friends, all having a lovely time at her house, and she never invited me.”
She stared expectantly at her husband, who had been peacefully reading The Guardian on his iPad before dinner, his own pre-prandial glass of wine nearby. David looked up and then slid his gaze past the iPad to the floor, so that he no longer seemed to be doing something other than participating in the conversation. But he didn’t provide an answer, settling for shrugging and spreading his hands in exaggerated incomprehension. Victoria shot a contemptuous look at Matt, to see if he was witnessing his father’s inability to answer this simple puzzle.
Matt quickly tried to arrange his face from horrified to innocent. Mother and son stared at each other for a long moment before Matt caved, shuffling his feet and looking down at his phone, lying in front of him on the kitchen table. No notifications. He pretended to have an itchy nose.
“I’m sure it was just a mistake, Mum” he offered, quietly.
She wheeled on him. “It was not! The photos are all over Facebook, plain as day. She must know I can see them on my timeline.”
“Did you check your Events, maybe you didn’t see the invite?” Matt offered again, even quieter.
“What? Where are they?” His mother briefly looked over at her own phone, seeming about to go and riffle through it, but swiftly shook her head, grabbed her wine glass instead, and turned back. “Anyway you get a notification about them, don’t you, and it takes you to the page to say Accept or Decline.” She took another deep swallow, and smoothly went to the fridge to refill the glass from the open bottle inside.
“Yeah, but if you don’t see the notification, or you dismiss it, you’d have to go to the Events section of your Facebook to see the invite.”
“I would never dismiss an invitation from her. I always go to her parties, I would never let her down like that.”
“No, no, Mum, I mean ‘dismiss’ means, like, when you see you’ve got some notifications but you swipe them away to do something else, see? It doesn’t mean, like, you dismissed her.” Matt spoke urgently, keen to make his mother understand.
“Oh, well, you understand that sort of thing much more than me,” she flapped a hand at Matt, and took a drink from her refilled glass, before going on: “But very unlike her not to follow up. Even when I’ve already RSVPd, she rings to check I’m still coming.” Another swig from the glass, and Victoria began to pace up and down as she spoke.
“She’d have followed up, I’m sure. She always wants her core friends at her parties, it makes her less nervous, and I am the core of the core.” Victoria smiled proudly at this thought, which suddenly struck her as irrevocably true and a great insight. Another swig, and she airily dismissed the last of the implications of Matt’s suggestion. “Yes, if it was a technical glitch, it wouldn’t matter because she’d have rung to check I was coming. Or texted. Sometimes she texts me.”
Strangely, this conclusion seemed to make her relax a little, she was now smiling slightly. She put down the glass and stirred the pot on the hob. David and Matt exchanged looks – was that it?
Some of the tension left their bodies as Victoria bustled importantly, fiddling with the heat, adding some salt, carelessly dropping a dirty utensil into the sink. She was swift and graceful about most of her movements, but a familiar observer could see the very slight clumsiness at the edges of that grace.
David stood. “Top up, darling?” He refilled the glass without waiting for an answer, then put an arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. “Smells delicious.”
He turned to Matt: “So, Matty boy, what’s up with you. How’s the coursework coming?”
Matt began to answer, but then looked meaningfully at his father and pointed to Victoria, who was rapidly tapping at her phone and frowning. She made a final tap with a flourish and mouthed ‘Send’.
I attended a Battle Of The Bands called Hard Rock Rising. Four unsigned bands competing in a heat, including Kill For Eden – my BFF Lyla-Jayne is the singer, and she’s got a great voice – have a listen:
After each short set the judges – a manager, an A&R guy, and the Head of Music at a radio station – made Pop Idol-style comments (an almost unbelievably dull part of the evening). A common refrain was their desire to ‘hear more originality’.
This strikes me as unlikely to be true. Nor is this view of mine new, or Original, but it evidently bears repeating.
I think I first became aware of this when I studied Theatre, that all the great actors/directors were ‘stealing’ from what went before. Later I learned of The Great Lobachevsky, and that even Picasso (popularly but probably not actually) accepted that Original simply isn’t a thing:
“Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal.”
Asking for originality reminds me of the bit in The Secret History when Henry points out that Beauty is actually Terror. The person has no idea what they’re asking for.
It’s clichéd but true that there is no truly original idea left, everything is based on what has gone before. Additionally, ‘originality’ almost always results in a smaller audience, a smaller impact on the market, at least initially and until the Original has become Familiar.
The very ‘biggest’, as in most widely-read, books are geared to the widest possible audience, and deliver the things already demonstrated to be popular. So, for example, Thrillers with more or less successful twists (Gone Girl was pretty effective, but I didn’t believe the ending of Shutter Island); Magic (J.K.Rowling); facile Mysteries (Da Vinci Code); re-makes/copies/sequels/prequels (Pride and Prejudice, Psycho, Spiderman, the Marvel Universe) up to and including fanfic (50 Shades Of Grey).
When something new comes along the reaction of uncomfortable audience members (and critics) is to claim it is bad, or a fad. Musicians who are very original are often not very popular or actually reviled when they first appear – the Beatles come to mind (I don’t really have to explain, do I, that they were turned down for representation, were a symbol of rebellion and counterculture in the 60s – laughable though that seems now – and gave us the concept of the boyband, lucky us).
In books a similar thing happens when a literary work is original because it is experimental in some way: ‘literary’ works are already regarded by most as inaccessible and needlessly pretentious, so when they’re ‘experimental’ as well, people’s eyes roll. Most just want accessible entertainment, a diversion from real life, and that is not wrong of them.
This is not to say that endlessly recycling the old is a good plan either (who wants another rights-retaining Spiderman film?) but It’s not wrong or foolish to want culture to be reasonably familiar, something most people can consume. Experimental works are rarely very interesting in themselves, but may become more interesting once a connection to mainstream success is achieved. Actual originality may not have anything except its originality to recommend it; four minutes of silence or a blank canvas may technically be Art but people don’t exactly queue to buy and consume it.
So it’s a case of being careful what you wish for: if those judges at the Battle of the Bands had been given something original they mightn’t like it, and they probably wouldn’t feel able to sell it.
What they might have meant is they wanted to feel some variation of ‘freshness’ – something that feels different but usually has a clear background and basis in previous successes by other artists. That’s the same thing Publishers and Agents often say they want – something that feels new, but isn’t. So here’s my advice: don’t worry about being ‘original’ in your writing, but acknowledge your influences and try to build on them.
Zsofia Dedinszky is Pottermore’s Metadata Coordinator. We first met while working on Penguin’s ebook project, where she was Digital & Data Coordinator. I’m delighted to host a Guest Post about the important topic of Metadata by a very knowledgeable and experienced colleague.
Back in 2010, when I started my adventure in this area, Metadata in publishing was considered something unimportant and extremely boring. Editors delegated their assistants to attend metadata meetings, and the most usual reaction from the audience of a metadata presentation was a yawn.
Then something started to change, slowly and due to many reasons: for the unfortunate publishers the ‘aha’ moment came when they faced a major setback from incorrect metadata on Amazon or other sites, for the more fortunate when book sales started to lift following the use of better keywording or classification techniques. People started to notice that if they wanted to sell more books online, they needed to provide online booksellers with better information and find new ways to make a book stand out in the crowd.
So the new buzzword, metadata, was born. Nowadays, when I go to the kitchen in the office to grab my tea, I hear the word “metadata” at least five times while passing my colleagues from different departments. No one needs to be convinced any longer that metadata sells books – see Nielsen’s White Paper for the numbers – and that it is something that needs constant attention and care.
So, how can an author or publisher create the perfect metadata for their books? I’m afraid I need to disappoint you – even I don’t know: it depends on the book, bookseller, time and genre. However, there are tips and tricks you can use to make your book stand out.
First of all, forget “data”. Think of metadata as your free advertisement on Amazon or other websites. How would you help readers to find your book – moreover, how would you attract the right readers to your book? Once they found it, how would you convince them to buy it?
Think of it as an interesting, constantly changing puzzle, where you have many ways to fit together the pieces, but only a few that make a great picture. And the good thing is: the number of pieces are really limited so take your time, research your competitors’ books, and try to figure out what makes them attractive for readers (other than being written by J.K. Rowling). Your puzzle pieces in this game are: title/subtitle, author’s name, book description (blurb), category and keywords – doesn’t look too complicated, right? (Price is important too, but I won’t talk about it here.)
So here are a few tips and things to consider:
- Author’s name: If you’re not using a pseudonym, it’s your name, so you can’t do too much about it. However, do your research (have I said it already?). For thrillers it might be better to use the initials of your first names (especially if you’re a woman), and similarly, if you’re a male author writing romantic fiction you might want to consider using your initials. If you go for a pseudonym, the possibilities are limitless.
- Title and subtitle: Research! Try to optimize your title with search keywords, using the keyword creation tools offered by Google, check search relevance e.g. what are more people searching for: “job change” or “career change”? Use the subtitle to specify your topic, again, trying to avoid phrases that are not commonly used (otherwise no one will be able to find your book), and sticking in even more keywords. One clever tactic used to be to put famous authors and the category into the subtitle e.g. “Gripping thriller for fans of Stieg Larsson” – this is something that Amazon strongly discourages now.
- Description: The Nielsen research found that “Description appears to be the most significant factor for Fiction titles”, so make good use of it. This is where you can do most of the clever things – try not to “waste” this field with a straight description of the storyline. This is your glossy ¼ page magazine ad: it should be exciting and should convince the readers that this is the book they need. Therefore, always write with the intended audience in mind. As preparation, put on your “sales rep” hat and think of sales points, taglines etc. If you already have good reviews, select the most glowing line and put it at the beginning, emphasized with bold font – this is not the place to be modest. Keep in mind that on Amazon you can only see the first few sentences and the customer has to scroll down to see the whole description, so make your first few sentences stand out. Remember, this is not the usual backcover copy – this is your sales pitch. You don’t need to go into specifics of the book, you need to excite the potential reader. Add relevant search terms too: here you can mention other bestseller authors or books that are similar to yours, it will help channel more searches to your book. I have found that formatting makes a difference too, so try to use the basic HTML tags in your blurb to make line breaks, and emphasize words with bold or italics. Sounds like a little thing, looks soo much better! And here comes my other favourite advice: update! Most people are happy when the blurb is posted and consider it’s done, but I need to tell you: sorry, it’s never done! You wrote a book about an actor and a new blockbuster movie came out with him? Update your description! Your book is about Greek football and they won the World Cup? Update your description! You work in a relevant field and got promoted or won a medal? Update your description! The world keeps changing so there are many scenarios we cannot even think of that could channel more sales to your book – so use these opportunities. Also, if you have one successful book, use this as a marketing tool for your second or later books.
- Category & Classification: Sounds boring. How about we say something more intriguing, like bestselling list or chart? Well, these two are very much linked together. The way you classify your books will control which charts you can get onto. Amazon won’t know that your book is a romantic comedy, unless you tell them. Moreover, if you tell them it’s a romantic comedy, they still won’t know if it’s an historical or modern story, whether its protagonists are cowboys or aliens. Of course good categorisation still can’t make a bestseller – ultimately you will need to sell enough books to climb up on the charts – but can help a lot. As someone wisely said: “not all categories are created equal” – so why not choose a less competitive field? For example, if your aim is to qualify for a Top 100 list which list would you rather choose: Romance Fiction or Historical Romance (Regency) Fiction? I hope you chose the latter – if you want a #100 Bestseller in Regency Romance on Amazon, your Overall Ranking in the Kindle store needs to reach #8436, whereas to have a #100 Romance Fiction book, your Overall Sales Ranking needs to be #299. Clearly, you still need to sell loads of books to reach the #8436 spot, but much fewer than if you aim for the #299 spot. How do you know which category is less competitive? Research (sorry!). Go on Amazon and look at the different bestseller lists. Try to select a category that is relevant to your book – if you mislead your reader by putting your book in an irrelevant category, you could earn bad reviews which can affect your sales quite badly. Try to find a niche category, or categories – you can use as many as you want (but 3-5 is usually enough). Now your aim is to communicate in your metadata which charts you are eyeing and here comes classification. Amazon and other sites usually use the BIC and BISAC classification systems, the first is the UK system, the second is from the US. Since these categories are not always the same, usually BISAC is more versatile but sometimes BIC has categories that are missing from the BISAC system. Therefore, it’s good to use a combination of these. Some online booksellers mirror the classification systems with their charts but Amazon, as always, is not that easy. If you dig deeper you’ll see that many Kindle Bestselling Lists are not reflected in the categories you have available to choose from when you select a classification code. Therefore it is always good to monitor if the classifications you chose have put the book on the charts you intended to reach (at the very end of each Amazon product page you can see all the categories your book has been listed on under “Look for similar items by category”.) If not, you can reach out to Amazon or try to get onto your selected chart by adding relevant keywords. But before we get onto this very last piece in the puzzle don’t forget to regularly check and update your classification, if possible – the BISAC list has a new release each year, and Amazon is also quick to add new categories based on trending searches or interest. So it’s worth revisiting this bit of metadata too.
- Keywords: These are the most mysterious and elusive parts of metadata. Keywords are never seen on a book’s page, but are attached to it behind the scenes and they channel all relevant searches to your book. Therefore, the purpose of using keywords is to increase the likelihood that a book may be found by consumers using keyword searches within search engines and on retailer websites. So you need to think like your potential reader: what are they going to search for? First of all, they will use natural language, so you should do the same: use words/phrases people actually use to search online. You can duplicate the message in your title and description field, but it’s not necessary – if you title is “How To Lose Weight”, you don’t need to add “how to lose weight” as a keyword, but it’s worth adding different phrasing, like “diet” or “exercise”. Start by brainstorming words and phrases that you associate your book with. Use general words like “magic” or “adventure” alongside more sophisticated or specific ones, like a relevant place or person that people might search for, or adding the specifics of the diet your book is about. Just keep in mind that these should be phrases that someone might actually type into the search engine – so nothing too complicated. Check the usage of these keywords on Google and on Amazon: just start typing and see what the search engine suggests. On Google, you can also check the relevance of each search term – do your research and check which one is better, i.e. used more frequently: “job change” or “career change” etc. Other options for keywords are: prizes won, places, characters, themes, institutions, spelling variations (100 year old/hundred year old), shorthand terms (NYC) etc. – as you see, this is your playground, the options are infinite, but use them wisely.
Don’t forget, there’s no way good metadata, by itself, can create a bestseller from a bad book, but bad metadata will most certainly make a good book invisible and unattractive. I do hope you’ll enjoy putting together the puzzle to attract your readers.
I’ve been watching the Animaniacs recently, and began thinking about how writers work in this medium. Before you tut at my childishness – still watching cartoons at my age? – let me tell you, if you remember watching this animated sketch show as a 90s child like I did, it’s worth another look because it’s actually better now I’m an adult.
It’s a layered show, full of pop culture and historical references, with a conceit rather like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in that the cartoon characters play ‘themselves’, a designed and written character, in the short animations, but they are also actors in the Hollywood machine (“We have Pay Or Play Contracts”, they sing) at any time between 1930 and 1997 – this is a gold mine in itself.
All the recognisable cartoon tropes are solidly present, built up over the previous several decades. They are then frequently subverted or overtly referenced in fourth-wall-breaking asides, all of which causes lengthy giggles for my husband and me. More than once we’ve snickered or gasped, mock-horrified, at a joke entirely unsuitable for children, simultaneously knowing a child wouldn’t, couldn’t, get the joke anyway.
What really struck me was the way in which cartoons have always placed a number of (sometimes arbitrary) restrictions on how they may tell a single story, and yet remain fresh in each episode. Take Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner: the same plot, with only two – non-speaking – characters, in the same setting of the Arizona desert. Then repeat.
Chuck Jones had even more rules for the episodes than these few obvious ones.
How can these cartoons possibly be dismissed as being for children, when they are clearly Writing Masterclasses? You try writing the same story 48 times in a row, with these restrictions on the form forcing you to keep being original because a lazy joke will show up so clearly. Could you do it? Do you have the requisite wit and ingenuity?
You do have one thing on your side – it’s a cartoon, and cartoon rules mean you can head in any direction you like: surreal, silly, bathetic, macabre, anything. As the zany characters become loved by their audience, genuine pathos can be created and you could even be accused of exploring the entirety of the human condition.
And the whole thing could still fall apart, I think, if the composition isn’t very tight, with not a second wasted, and if the comic timing isn’t absolutely infallible.
Still think cartoons are childish?
Discussion about Diversity has been affecting all Media Industries for ages: #Gamergate. #OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite 2 (Reprise, All Cast).
In Publishing, Jennifer Weiner highlighted some double standards: books by women must be ‘women’s fiction’ aka ‘chick-lit’. They sell very well, but under identikit covers: pink, pastels, stilettos, stars, even when inappropriate to the content and audience.
Women aren’t reviewed in the newspapers as often, by the mostly male reviewers, books about women don’t win prizes as often as men or books about men. The numbers bear all this out. This is all from 2015 – the same year Justin Trudeau was asked with all sincerity WHY his cabinet was half women??
In response and as a special treat, Jonathan Franzen popped up to explain: criticisms unfounded, Jennifer Weiner just wants publicity off the back of his, Jonathan Franzen’s, high-brow books which are too….something… for Oprah’s Book Club choices, also Twittering is dumb BUT birds of North America are really Important (except the Audubon Society disagree with his whole essay, premise onwards).
I’ve picked on Jonathan Franzen, but it isn’t like other men writers (Jeffrey Eugenides, Gay Talese) haven’t said very similar things, very often, very clearly. They seem to have confused out-dated opinions with facts.
And since the discussion hasn’t moved on to become action, we still have to have a debate every year concerning Whether A Women-Only Book Prize Is Necessary, Or Fair to Men.
The Publishing Industry, according to the numbers: very white, very middle-class (since you usually have to work a full-time unpaid internship to get an entry-level job – a discriminatory requirement). The industry does employ loads of women – which might make it sound like it is the only creative industry run by Women, which would be amazing!
There are far fewer men at all levels of Publishing…..except white men still dominate the most Senior posts, Quelle surprise. But, the numbers are shifting a few percentage points, very slowly, so we’ll be seeing parity after our deaths. I for one feel really grateful for this level of dynamism.
And I haven’t even got to talking about POC (of any sex) yet, this has been background and context.
Inspired Selection, the publishing recruitment agency, ran two sessions on Diversity at LBF16. The first seminar was about getting BAME candidates into Publishing, and about recognising more Writers of Colour.
Disproportionately, BAME candidates are too poor to make free internships a possibility, even if additionally they didn’t leave education earlier than their white contemporaries. BAME candidates may go into the job market without the crushing student debt of a degree, but on the other hand they also go without a qualification that even an entry-level job (ie. admin tasks) apparently requires. There was a name-check for Penguin Random House’s announcement that they’d consider candidates without degrees, but I don’t know for what positions (Editorial?) or how many times better than the graduates they’d have to be to actually get the job, having been considered.
The first seminar presented initiatives by Words of Colour, HarperCollins, and Unite, where we learned that, through Creative Access, some 90 BAME young people had had paid internships in the Publishing sector, with an 85% retention rate. Yay!
However, Publishing remains dominated by Oxbridge graduates who have done unpaid internships, and There were more POC in Senior Positions in the Industry 10 years ago than now. What happened?
They don’t know, because it was too difficult to get people who work in the industry to talk to the researchers honestly and on the record. That’s a “warning sign that something is wrong” according to a former Director of Spread the Word , evidently a mistress of understatement.
Caitlin Doyle of HarperCollins talked about how POC authors are turned away because of a middle-class white view of an ‘authentic’ picture of other cultures. An Asian writer may not be Asian enough.
She showed an image of a selection of books set in Africa – that vast continent containing 54 countries and climate ranging from arid desert to savanna to thick jungle – and the covers were all the same: red/orange sunset, big acacia tree. This shorthand must be used, in order to appeal to and confirm the preconceptions of a very narrow group of people.
That group is not primarily readers, in fact, but instead supermarket and bookshop buyers with very specific demographic information about their customers. The Publishing Industry sells to those buyers, and considers them and Amazon their customers. So if this shorthand is ‘what works’ for that small band of people, it cannot be changed.
It’s thoroughly patronising, to everyone. Compare this shorthand to the women’s fiction shorthand – they are apparently only for other women, and of those women, only the ones who really enjoy more of those pastel books. And so the category is narrowed into a tiny space, whether or not it fits.
Readers understand this, too – there are lots of readers who won’t touch the pastels books ever again because for more than a decade this shorthand has asserted the book was Bridget Jones version Eleventy Billion, and they’re bored.
The original Bridget Jones, first published in 1996, was widely credited with beginning ‘chick-lit’ – despite being a self-aware modern re-telling of a genuine Classic Book.
The second seminar was on Gender Bias, presented by Iris Bohnet, a Behavioural Economist at Harvard University, and Author of What Works: Gender Equality By Design
This one was much more about Unconscious Bias (which we all have as Humans – yes, even Feminists, even POC) and how to correct for it in simple ways. For example, in the 1970s Orchestras started having ‘blind’ auditions, behind a curtain, and in this system more women got a place.
She has, in her book, simple and cheap and quick ways that organisations can start to overcome the biases in their organisations, and then benefit from greater productivity, more relaxed and creative staff, and quite probably a fatter bottom line as well. But Bosses don’t listen much to Academics, so these cheap simple solutions aren’t getting through.
The Real Bottom Line – Conclusions
The terrible truth – revealed by these seminars led by people who work with and on these problems – is that in order to make anything happen, the people in charge must benefit from the change. They won’t do it if it affects their personal position in any negative way whatsoever – Iris Bohnet and Louisa Bull from Unite both said precisely this.
A second terrible truth was that the seminar on Gender Bias had two men in the audience, of maybe 20-30 attendees. The previous one had a healthier mix in terms of colour, but was still majority women.
In the news and online it is often women like Suzanne Collier of Bookcareers.com who are calling for an end to things like the intractable barrier to inclusivity that is unpaid internships. In one of the articles linked above, meanwhile, there’s amazing complacency shown by the TLS who are pleased to report they have more women reviewers now (327 women, 715 men) but assert they couldn’t be accused of gender bias.
All the presenters at these seminars were women – that almost NEVER happens at Conferences.
And that’s why all of this is Just. So. Slow. It isn’t (only) that big publishing companies are too slow and weighty to make changes, it’s that they (as a company and individually) don’t see a personal benefit.
Any actual movement towards diversification (as pointed out by the presenter from Words Of Colour) is coming from outside the mainstream Publishing Industry: from self-publishing, from crowd-funding of books via Unbound or similar, from the Bare Lit Festival , or The Jhalak Prize , or small indie publishers like Jacaranda.
Q: Everyone Agrees More Diversity Is Good, So What Are We Doing About It?
A1: Everything We/They Can, Because It Affects Us/Them Personally.
A2: Unless Increased Diversity Provides Clear Personal Benefits For Us, And No Drawbacks, We’ll Stick To Soundbites About Diversity’s Great Importance To Us.
This is a Good Question – the different types of Editing can be confusing.
If you search the internet for the answer, you’ll find a number of different articles explaining the different types of editing (in broadly similar terms) but you’ll find there are a number of different ‘takes’ on it. Here, I’ll explain both the general terms, and how I tend to work.
Substantive (also known as Developmental or Structural Editing) consists of analysis of the Work as a whole, by chapter, and even down to paragraph and line. It requires the Editor to exercise her judgement, rather than stick to a very particular set of rules (eg. a Style Manual, the rules of grammar, spelling, and country-specific spelling, which are the primary focus of other types of editing).
It is not re-writing. It does not interfere with the Author’s ‘voice’. It finds and criticises problems, and then suggests solutions.
The criticism may be the hardest part for an Author to hear, and it may be uncomfortable, but (I believe) it is by establishing what is not working and why that an editor may find not only the solution but a sound basis for the solution.
There is no one way to perform this stage of Editing. It requires some flexibility on the part of the Editor, as well as negotiation with the Author regarding the Big Questions about the Work, such as What Is This Book Really About? and Who Is This Book For?
Not all authors need a Substantive Edit (in a formal sense) if their previous ‘passes’ on the manuscript, and feedback from their beta readers or a Commissioning Editor suggest this stage is complete: that is, the Work is agreed to be without noticeable or distracting flaws in its composition and style, without holes, with correct facts, and in general to be basically ready for publication, subject to necessary copy-editing and proofreading.
Substantive Editing may address such things as: the arrangement (or rearrangement) of the Work, correct targeting of its intended audience (the Market), appropriate tone and its consistency and clarity, and whether the plot (fiction) or central argument (non-fiction) has, or appears to have, a hole in it. It may address characters and themes. It may address an authorial ‘tic’ (a repetitious, distracting feature of one’s writing style), or incorrect facts, or the pace, or a tendency towards inappropriate slang or lengthy digression, irrelevant discursion, or many other things.
It seeks to focus the manuscript into a coherent whole by assessing what is necessary and unnecessary for the goals of the manuscript to be met. As such, agreement between Author and Editor upon those goals is very important, and such agreement will, ideally, reduce the need for protracted negotiations about how those goals should be met.
When I perform a Substantive Edit on a book, I do some or all of the above: rearranging (from moving a section of a chapter to a better fit elsewhere, to rearranging a whole book), addressing plot and character issues, suggesting re-writes to particular areas, suggesting insertions to better address a particular goal, and so on.
I use Track Changes to show my work, and add annotations to the manuscript showing specific examples of general issues. This is in support of my covering Editorial Letter outlining broad issues and suggestions, and this may come with an additional document of questions for the author.
Line Editing is, in simple terms, editing down to the line. It may contain similar features to the description of substantive editing above, but it focuses into smaller areas. It may address clarification – of a convoluted sentence, up to clarification of a sequence of paragraphs over a couple of pages, and this clarification is usually by means of deletion or suggested alternatives, but again without re-writing. It addresses the flow, rhythm and pace of sentences and paragraphs. Redundancies and unnecessary repetition are deleted, and so on.
I have seen the term line editing sometimes used as a substitute name for copy-editing or proofreading, but I don’t see it that way at all – it requires judgement. I’ve mentioned elsewhere how strongly I believe that the details are incredibly important, and that the wrong detail may seriously damage the whole. So line editing may also require reference to a Style Manual, but at heart I believe line editing is a continuation of a substantive edit.
It does share some elements with copy-editing and proofreading. In practice, the line editing part of my substantive edit means that – as well as untangling convoluted sentences and so on – I always correct the typos I see, I notice when the font or type size changes for a single paragraph (and I change it to match the rest), I take out extra spaces, and make the headings, italics, and speech marks consistent if they are not.
This is not a substitute for a copy-edit/proofread, it is that I am personally unable to leave uncorrected a typo I have noticed in a manuscript I’m working on. A separate proofread (at least) is still needed because, by the time I’ve worked on all of the above, I’m extremely familiar with the manuscript and therefore too close to it to be its proofreader as well. Fortunately, I can easily point the author to plenty of proofreaders and copy-editors who will come to it with fresh eyes and do a beautiful job.
So, How Do The Rates Break Down Against The Editing Work?
Quite simply, I find it easiest to offer my services at an hourly rate, rather than by word count as others may do.
Charging by word count is very transparent, certainly – the author immediately knows that a rate of £10 per 1000 words equals £800 for their 80k book. However, X isn’t Y and it’s the same with sets of 1000 words.
In practice, I may spend much longer on a section in the middle of the book than I do on the first 1000 words of a book, since the beginning – the bit most often sent out to Agents and Editors – may be more polished than other sections. That’s why a Quote, if based only on a Sample Edit, may be wrong by a little or by quite a lot.
I’ve done a few sums based on recent experience, and would suggest (as a guide only) that my current rate of £30 per hour could break down to anything between £6-9 per 1000 words once I’ve finished. This is a very competitive price.
As with Publishing in general, I’m afraid definites are not really part of the climate. Quotes are guesstimates, and the whole business is very much dependent on the state the manuscript arrives in, and the skill and experience of the writer. C’est la vie.
Have you ever had your attention caught by a detail that didn’t fit? Once you notice that thing that is just wrong, it can be impossible to unsee it, and sometimes it spoils everything. The big picture AND and the details matter. Get the detail wrong and you may lose your audience. Show not Tell is often-quoted, and it’s a good rule for the most part, but be careful you Show what you really mean.
Spectre has been reviewed glowingly by the critics, which was surprising to those civilians who found the ‘plot’ even sillier than ‘steal ALL the water’ from Quantum of Solace, and the villain even less imposing than QofS’s random tiny Frenchman.
I’m actually a big fan of the Bond films, even when they get very silly, and I’ve loved Daniel Craig’s version of him from the moment he crashed through a wall while chasing a parkour champion – so I was surprised to find I couldn’t concentrate on Spectre because all my attention was diverted to cringing at the terrible, terrible costuming decisions.
The Tom Ford suits have always been cut on the tight side for Bond, which I’ve never considered a very sensible decision for someone with Daniel’s broad frame, not unless he grew another four inches to off-set it. But either DC put on weight after the fittings, or they really were cut even smaller than in previous outings – the absurdly high collars actually cut into the flesh of his neck, and the usually-buttoned jacket – WHAT??!! This is not a new trend I can get behind – it strained and gaped so much I actually hallucinated the beginnings of a paunch that DC doesn’t have. The drainpipe trousers were ridiculous, a basic fashion mistake, and thoroughly unsuitable for a man of his age even if they didn’t make him look top-heavy.
The cute catalogue numbers were pretty egregious as well, especially the half-zipped quilted jacket he wore for the last third of the film. Who told him to zip it? As it was clearly too small it also gaped, as though accommodating an impressive bust.
Poor Daniel Craig. Made to look short and fat, and worst of all presented as an ageing fashionista. It quite deflated my enormous crush on him. Shame on you Tom Ford.
Anyway, the point is these details matter. They matter hugely. You lose the audience’s good will if you get too many details wrong.
Same applies to books. Imagine carefully describing an expensive and beautifully made designer suit. Then imagine telling the reader that the character wearing it is a mature, not to say ageing, man with a stocky and well-muscled frame, who likes to wear his clothes noticeably too tight. These details say something about your character. Be sure you’re saying what you mean to say.
So I got an email the other day from a would-be writer. He wanted a meeting before telling me anything, saying the project had to be explained in person, and neglecting to say anything about himself either. I asked him to follow the instructions and submit some materials, he said we had to meet first.
Now, a meeting before work begins is to be encouraged, but meeting a potential client without any idea of who he might be (of the 25 people a Linkedin search brought up), or even the category of the proposed book, is absolutely not. It’s kind of creepy actually, like the writer thinks he’s in a spy novel and can’t write anything down. The whole exchange felt doomed from the start, but I try not to give up too soon just in case behind eg. a socially awkward or young writer, there’s a worthwhile project – writers can be eccentric or inexperienced, that’s allowed.
It turned out, once I insisted on some details, that he has worked in professional environments for many years. In fact, if he’d offered any of this information, I might have been impressed with his background, curious about his project, and certainly much less wary. So why did he approach me in such a secretive way? Did he think intrigue was the best way to get me excited about working with him? And just consider the risk of anti-climax, it’s huge.
In any other industry one wouldn’t email a stranger, a potential colleague, asking for their time for a meeting while providing no details about yourself or what you want to talk about. That would be weird. Also unsuccessful.
But, this is just the most weird of a not unusual occurrence in the publishing industry. Writers often hold back details and it’s not always clear if they forgot or they meant to. Sometimes they say they’re worried the idea might be stolen (and then it isn’t worth stealing). I have been asked to sign an NDA before reading the manuscript (it isn’t interesting enough to talk about). It’s all totally unrealistic. In reality, I write back saying Please follow the instructions on the Contact page, which are no more than the elements of any introductory email concerning a potential working relationship.
If everything is Top Secret, nothing can be done. Even James Bond introduces himself.