Archive for the ‘Writing advice’ Category

Another Canberra author Nicole Murphy has agreed to be interviewed on how she uses beta readers to assist in her writing process. I have beta read for Nicole in the past, which was a lot of fun. Nicole had her Dream of Asarlai Trilogy published by HarperCollins Voyager imprint. Nicole and I are also co-chairing Conflux 9, the Australian National Science Fiction Convention in 2013. Link is here. We are also heading off to the Romance Writers of Australia Conference in the Gold Coast in August. The link is here.

If you want to know more about Nicole and her books, her website is here.

1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?

I’ve got LOTS of beta readers – I’m constantly picking up new people to read for me, because I write so fast I don’t want to keep bugging the same folks. I think at the moment, I can safely say I’ve got about a dozen people who I can ask to read for me, and there’s probably more that I’ve not been game to ask.

I started using beta readers in 2007. What turned me onto the value of having some external eyes look at a piece was putting Secret Ones through the first CSFG novel crit group. I had four people go over it and very lovingly tear it to shreds. It helped a lot because I do find it hard to be objective about my writing (It’s brilliant! I’m a frickin’ genius!). When I sold Dream of Asarlai to Harpercollins, there wasn’t a crit group to get the other books through and so I called on friends (such as yourself) that I knew I could count on to give me a fair reckoning of the good and the bad in the story. Nowadays, I wouldn’t dream of submitting a novel to a publisher without it being beta-read first.

2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?

Firstly, they assure me that what I’ve written is worth pursuing. Plotting has long been a difficult point for me and so their feedback on whether it makes sense and whether things are following along properly and have I tested the characters well enough or not is really important. The other great thing beta readers do is by asking questions (would she really react like that? Why do those rules apply to only those people?) it makes me think more deeply about characterisation and worldbuilding and enables me to add extra depth to the story.

3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

Not at all. I’ve had some wildly differing views from people. For example, in my long contemporary romance, one reader said I let on what the baddie was up too to easily, the other said not. One said sex scenes were great, other said not as good at the Dream of Asarlai ones. With the SF romance one that I’m getting results back on at the moment, only one has so far questioned the worldbuilding and interestingly, she’s the one with the science fiction reading background. This is why it’s important to have readers from a variety of backgrounds, because they’ll all pick up different things.

4. Do you sometimes target your beta readers to particular areas based on the experience you had with them in the past? For example, one reader is good at plot holes, another reader is good at grammatical issues and another might be good at style. Or do you take what comes?

Kinda. There are some readers that have more experience with one genre than another, and so I might only give them books in that genre. But then, from time to time, it’s interesting to hear the POV of a person who doesn’t normally read that genre on the readability of your book.

I tend to get beta-readers for big picture stuff. Sure, there’s some stuff that they pick up on in terms of grammar and such (such as you, the great de-justifier!) but generally, I’m not getting the books beta-read for that level. Maybe I should, because I know I’m not the greatest grammarian in the world and my use of words is something I try constantly to improve, but that feels more a personal thing to me. Plus, my style is quite a simple one and so tends not to need too much tweaking to make readable.

5. Do you always want the same thing from the beta reader for each novel? For example, when you have deadlines and only have time for high-level feedback?

Overall, I’m sending to the beta-readers when I’m at the point of revisions in saying “I think I’ve got a pretty good hold on the story now, the worldbuilding, the characterisation, so lets find out what’s working and what’s not so I can tweak it”. I tend not to ask more from the readers than that.

6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

I don’t think it’s too hard. You can probably train people into it, by giving them questions to consider as they read. And making sure they understand you WANT to hear the bad as well as the good.

I think recognising a good versus a bad beta reader FOR YOU is important. Some people just aren’t the right reader for you – what they look for in a story, what appeals to them, what they believe is right isn’t what you do. For example, people who like a more literary style of writing, who want beautiful words as well as good story, aren’t going to get as much out of my books and I’m not going to get as much out of their critiques because we’re focussed on achieving different things with our writing and that’s cool.

7. Do you have any advice for readers who want to be beta readers or even editors in the long run? For example, what type of commentary do you prefer?

Beta-reading is about being analytical. Ascertaining not only what’s not working and why, but what IS working and why. Because sometimes, the what is working will give the author the clue as to how to fix the what is not working.

When you’re beta-reading, the aim is to give the author feedback to improve the book. “I liked this” isnt’ helpful. “I just wasn’t warming to Character X – they came across as too selfish to be the lead in a romance novel” is.

Thank you very much Nicole. A very interesting point of view to add to the discussion. I find it interesting that you don’t find it hard to find beta readers and that you have so many. You must be breeding them somewhere in a dark corner of your office.

By the way, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG), which has a novel writing and a novel critique group can be found here.


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What is a beta reader? A beta reader is a first reader, someone who looks at a novel in progress, either at the early stages, the mid-stages or the late stages.

Beta readers read for free. Sometimes in exchange they will be offered return beta reading by the other author. Where payment is involved, this is usually a manuscript appraisal, which can be expensive and is more formal. Some writers do seek this service to help them develop their novel.

As a writer I have used beta readers for my manuscripts and been a beta reader for a number of authors. With my commencement of editing studies, I thought there were some parallel elements to what an editor does. An editor may read through a manuscript and provide critique and analysis, where they are looking to provide structural and copy edit type feedback.

The usefulness of beta readers are many fold and depending on the author and the reader can reveal a range of useful information for both parties. As a writer getting feedback on how the plot stands up, how the characters are working and the like is extremely valuable. So too, is getting feedback on what is not working. It is not a good use of a beta reader to seek to win praise, because that’s not going to help your work. Praise is nice of course, but you are really looking to see how a critical reader will react to the story. I’ve had beta readers provide very little feedback, saying only that they like it. It really isn’t any use asking these people to read again because there’s no learning involved.

As a beta reader, I find the process teaches me a whole lot about writing, and about the issues that a writer can face when writing a complex story. I also gain satisfaction from helping a friend. I have some talented friends.

Some writers have formal critiquing networks and this is also very interesting to examine as part of this series of blog interviews.

So the first interview is from Gillian Polack whose novel Life Through Cellophane has been picked up for reprint by Momentum Books. Her website is here.

Thank you Gillian for responding so quickly to my interview questions.

1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?
I’ve used beta readers since the CSFG novel critiquing circle took a look at Life through Cellophane. I don’t have a set number or a set process. Sometimes I ask for volunteers if I have specific problems with a novel and sometimes I run a story past a critiquing circle and sometimes I will ask someone particular to have a look and get a handle on where I am.

2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?
The biggest assistance they’ve been is in helping me define my audience and what kind of book it is. I don’t write bang in the centre of genre, and it really makes a difference in explaining to a publisher “This is alternate world steampunk” or “Domestic horror with added chocolate” if I know what readers think. The beta readers also help me improve the internal balance of the novel – if they go to sleep, I know I’m in big trouble.

3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

No two beta readers have ever picked up the same points on anything major. One will focus on the lack of romantic interest and another will wonder if I checked the history (poor soul, they didn’t know what hit them when I cited sources for an hour) and another will pick on the opening and point out (completely correctly) that it doesn’t quite fit the rest of it. One reader will say that the novel would be better if I dumped strand A of the plot and another will say “No, strand A is perfect – she should dump strand B.” What I get from all of this is a sense of how readers actually interact with my work, which helps me sense how it’s doing what it’s doing.

4. Do you sometimes target your beta readers to particular areas based on the experience you had with them in the past? For example, one reader is good at plot holes, another reader is good at grammatical issues and another might be good at style. Or do you take what comes?
I have one friend who beta reads for the complexities – she has a wonderfully convoluted brain and she makes very telling comments when the various layers in the text aren’t equal or balanced. I have had beta readers who check for grammar, but they tend to be frustrated. I make errors (everyone does) but quite often my grammatical errors are intentional, especially incomplete sentences. I don’t need to turn incomplete sentences into complete sentences, for the most part: I need to decide if they belong at all. They’re a part of my style and I tend to overdo them. Speaking of style, the best style editors I’ve ever had have been my editors – they have picked up on things that my beta readers missed. Still, when someone makes good comments along any of these lines (especially concerning plot holes!) it makes me very happy.

5. Do you always want the same thing from the beta reader for each novel? For example, when you have deadlines and only have time for high-level feedback?
I’ve been very lucky with deadlines. No, not lucky. I’ve set up a pattern whereby I have a lot of time to revise and rethink. I know that this pattern of work won’t endure forever, but while it lasts I’m making the most of it and learning as much as I can from the comments of others. This means that I have the luxury of choosing whether to seek beta readers for a particular volume and when to seek them.
Since each of my novels is rather different from the previous in many ways, I ask beta readers to look for different things. One I just asked to read a novel to see if it was tolerable for a male reader and if it made sense.

6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

I have so much trouble answering this. Sometimes they’re lined up, wanting to read my manuscript and sometimes I manage without them, for they are not to be found. It’s hard to find someone who understands what I need to hear about the book, and that it’s not the same as what a reviewer explains to a potential market. When I find that person, I am grateful, for their words can be golden.

7. Do you have any advice for readers who want to be beta readers or even editors in the long run? For example, what type of commentary to you prefer?

Learn how to look at a manuscript to see what it can be. Once you can see what that particular writer is capable of, with that specific story, then seeing the ways the writer can bring it into being isn’t that hard. A lot of people see the story as they want it to be, not the best it can be within itself. Comments that tell me how more appearances of this character would be gratefully accepted help because yes, it’s good to know that the character works, but they don’t help nearly as much as knowing that the subordinate story is woefully underdeveloped and lacking in the lovely complexity that makes the main story so good. Telling me that my grammar sucks doesn’t help unless you give examples and even then, you’d better be very careful that you’re right. I’ve been told off for non-existent grammatical errors and I’ve also been told off for using words that don’t exist, which only demonstrated (when I check, which I tend to) that I knew more grammar and had a wider vocabulary than that beta reader.

The best beta reader of all is a reality check on my telling of a story. They don’t need to know the technical reason why something doesn’t work (although an editor really does need to know – this is a big difference between the two) but if they can explain where it doesn’t work and how for them it has failed, I can work out the reason. In other words, complete and honest (and hopefully tactful) comments are very, very handy.

Gillian, thank you very much for an interesting start to this series of blog posts on beta reading. As I have a number of these on hand, I’m sure this will be an interesting series.


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First a little about you Laurie.

I’m the Submissions Editor at Black Library, based in Nottingham, UK. We’re the publishing arm of Games Workshop, so we deal exclusively with science fiction and fantasy stories based on the Warhammer gaming backgrounds. In the past, BL was more diverse (with general sci-fi and thrillers being released on the Solaris label, etc) but that was a little before my time here.

I asked Laurie for a photo so that you can track him down at Gamesday.

Thoughtful Laurie

I’ve been with the company since January, although I did a lot of freelance work for them for many years before that so I knew most of the authors and editors on a social level, as well as professionally. I had also been organising online fan-fiction contests in my spare time and releasing PDF anthologies of the submitted stories, just for fun.

From an early age, I was always fascinated by language and the written word–I upset my primary school teachers by finishing their reading scheme at the age of six, and having to bring my own books with me to school. I read ‘Lord of the Rings’ aged eight, primarily because my mum bet me £10 that I couldn’t. In hindsight, I think that appealing to my immature, mercenary nature was probably quite a shrewd move on her part. That’s the dangerous thing about having parents who are teachers: you never know when you’re being tricked into learning something.

My role is actually focused on discovering new authors, and either working with them on new projects or helping them to refine their style to fit with Black Library’s range–to use a music industry term, I’m the A&R man! We have a very peculiar readership (dare I say, fanbase?) in that almost every BL reader also seems to want to have a go at writing for us, too. We actively encourage this by having an annual ‘submissions window’ where we accept amateur writing samples and project pitches, and I’m trying to arrange more workshops and seminars at our events so that people know what sort of things we look for in prospective authors.

Why did you become an editor?
I actually became an “editor” long before I started working in publishing, although not in the sense you’d expect–for seven years I ran an audio-visual production company, so I was in fact a film editor and sound engineer. I like to think that the skills involved in editing, in any medium, are transferable at some level. Hollywood film editor Walter Murch famously said that editing takes ‘a certain kind of personality’ where you have to help craft ideas and refine other people’s work; both on a small scene-by-scene scale, but also in the wider context of the whole piece, the genre, the culture etc.

In short, I became an editor because I have that kind of personality. I’m opinionated, I’m a compulsive fact-checker, I like to have structures and procedures in place that I can follow and amend…but I also love to get involved at the creative level. Inside every editor is also usually a frustrated writer, but while I dabble in a lot of artistic fields I like to think that I work best in helping to refine the work of others.

What is the most important aspect of your editing role?
Well, for editing as a technical or artistic skill, it’s diligence and a keen eye for detail, or the ability to help craft ideas towards a goal. That goal depends on what you are editing, and why–it can be as crass as ‘to create a product which will sell to our customers’, or it can be to help an author craft something truly special, something that is an absolute pleasure to read. Usually, my goals fall somewhere in between… although as a lifelong fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres, I often edge towards the latter even when I perhaps shouldn’t…

But if we’re talking about my role as Submissions Editor, it’s actually far more important to create and maintain good working relationships with our authors. As I said before, I knew a lot of the guys before I started working in-house for Black Library, but I have also discovered a few new authors in the last eleven months or so, and so I’ve been able to build rapport with them right from the start of their careers with us.

Certainly, there have been times when my editorial style clashes with a writer’s personality, and I’ve gracefully handed these chaps over to other editors on my team–there’s no point in trying to force it, when what we really want to do is collaborate with them on great fiction. If an editor loses interest in an author’s work, or if the author feels they aren’t getting anywhere with that particular editor, then it’s time for a rethink.

Which areas of editing to you find the most enjoyable?
I love seeing a project through, from commissioning right up to the finished, published story. Although the publishing industry often moves at a near-glacial pace, I’ve already got some work from my authors in print even though I’ve only been here for eleven months. Without fail, even though I helped them thrash out the synopsis and refine the prose, guide them through rewrites and sort out the proofing copies…I still always read the finished, printed book. There’s a degree of finality in holding that novel in your hands, and I still get excited by that ‘new book smell’, especially when I know that I helped bring it into being.

In your view can editing be taught?
I think the basic skills of copy-editing and proofreading can be taught, but not so much the personal side of things. You can’t force someone to be creative, diplomatic and amiable but still to remain critical. If they don’t have the basis of that within them already, then they won’t be able to learn it. It’s about being a ‘people person’, or at least being extrovert enough to interact with others in a productive way.

Having said that, I often ask my editorial colleagues to check my responses before I send them back to authors–I have a tendency to be overly factual, which can sometimes sound officious or curt on paper. I find written feedback the hardest to give, which is strange really. My senior editor is Nick Kyme, who is also a successful author himself, and he has really helped me to find a suitable ‘vocabulary’ when dealing with my own authors: even if the message is harsh or very critical, it’s important to find a constructive way to deliver it, and to be direct without bruising egos along the way. As with anything, it’s an ongoing process, but once you find your rapport with an author you can sometimes get away with being a bit more direct or cheeky.

Something which Nick said to me very early on, which has always stayed with me in this role, is to ask yourself this: ‘Does it matter? And is it cool?’ (Believe it or not, I’ve got those words taped to my computer monitor so I always remember them!) This piece of advice came from me over-analysing author submissions, and picking fault with storylines or even character names. Especially working in the genres that we do, I had to constantly remind myself that there weren’t really any ‘facts’ as such, and that as long as something was AWESOME, it didn’t matter if it was actually possible or not. It illustrates my point perfectly – it’s important to learn the skills you need, but to constantly develop your own attitudes and the way you interact with your authors.

Do you have any advice to aspiring editors?
Aside from needing the obvious fastidious personality and attention to literary detail, you mean? An editor not only needs to know the difference between there, their and they’re, but also needs to be able to communicate those sort of facts to others in a helpful and diplomatic way. It’s fine to check your facts–I always have dictionary.com and Wikipedia open on my desktop, for first-stage research and basic fact-checking–but a good grounding in the English language and an academic spirit are invaluable.

It’s also very important to consume as much literature and media as you can. It’s good to have examples of tone, imagery and style that you can pitch as ideas or to help develop an author’s work, but it’s also vitally important so that your author doesn’t accidently “borrow” the plot of an old episode of some TV program, and you unknowingly approve and commission it!

As with most careers in this age of devalued university degrees, in order to get a foot in the door you’re going to need some experience in the field. For me, this was doing freelance video and literary editing on contract for Games Workshop, and it allowed me to get to know people in the industry, and specifically the company I wanted to work for. When there was no role available, I honed my skills by running the aforementioned online fiction contests and acting as an editor there.

Although everyone on the BL editorial team happens to come from an academic background (degrees, masters, post-graduate study, foundation courses etc) this is not necessarily required to be good at the job. For example, I have a BA in Cultural Media and Film Theory, and a BSc in Digital Post-production Technologies, and I have also studied English Language and Linguistics…but none of that directly relates to editing or the role itself. A professional qualification in publishing would be far more valuable to someone looking to get started in the industry, and that would still be secondary to actual experience.

The Black Library can be found here

Here is a scary shot of Laurie, which is probably why he signs his emails (Pedantic Corrections Goblin).

Scary Laurie

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Well that was interesting. In less than 24 hours after dealing with the last MS, my mother had a major seizure and fall and I’ve been at the hospital for most of the time and on leave from work. After thinking I’d be planning a funeral, my mother’s prospects have improved. She even opened her eyes today quite a number of times. So I’m feeling very positive about her prognosis.

Regarding manuscripts. My final tally was 13 recommends as number 14 became a represented ms and goes direct to the editors. I found that out after reading it and telling the author I was going to recommend it. It was a good read so I can’t complain really.

Since finishing reading I caught myself dreaming I was reading an ms. I guess it will take me a while to recover and adjust to living without having to read on such a large scale and with such a concentrated effort.

So what did I recommend? I can’t give you specifics and you have to remember I read fantasy mostly.

I recommended one SF novel.
I recommended one trad fantasy/ steam punk meld
I recommended a three of traditional fantasies
I recommended three contemporary/urban fantasies
I recommended one horror/thriller type novel
I recommended one new weird type detective alternate future
I recommended one food fantasy (my term)
I recommended one jungle fantasy (my term)
I recommended one dark traditional fantasy (nice and nasty)

For those of you interested in where these authors are from, I’m done a quick count. However, I read manuscripts from all over the world, including South America and South Africa.

  • Australia – one
  • USA – four
  • Canada – five
  • Britain – three

However, I did notice two Australian’s in Amanda’s blog post.

So what did these very different mss have in common?

  • Good execution, some amazingly well-written with very little ms errors.
  • Original slant/setting almost all had something like this, or if it didn’t it was so well done that I couldn’t pass up.
  • Good pacing. I think they all had that, most to a high degree.
  • Intensity of character, or at a minimum well drawn characters.
  • Minimal backstory/info dumping, or at least well positioned and timely
  • A mixture of dark, nasty, and some were optimistic. I tended to pick dark and gritty but not exclusively.

For the mss I passed up. I think I provided some level of comment on all full mss. Sometimes those comments were rather lengthy, some were shorter. In any event, I tried to elaborate on what the issue was. Remember sometimes it was just fit. In a couple of cases, I passed on perfectly good manuscripts because of the current list of publications and proposed publications for Angry Robot Books. This was sad for me and more so for the authors. I do trust those mss to find a home soon.

Some general issues in the second lot of full mss. Pacing was one. For example, the opening was nice and tense and then it would dissipate. This happened for a number of reasons:
back story

  • General slowness of action due to style of story telling, amount of detail, or nothing happening to advance the plot
  • Issues with world building as in doesn’t stand up or push the boundaries of credibility or reasonableness
  • End of story is world’s apart from beginning, so set up at the beginning and lack of foreshadowing (I now realize this is still a problem in one of my mss)
  • Introducing too many characters too quickly and without adequate context to settle the reader, allow the reader to care about the character or just adding to the general confusion
  • Difficult story arcs, which cause structural issues for the story sometimes leading to predictability or foundering of the story
  • Not ready for publication yet, that is the story has a beginning, middle and end but the prose is rough in a number of places, scenes have not been exploited for the action or emotional impact, or more generally a high level of errors, typos, wrong words, missing words, incomplete sentences, untidy, unfinished, perhaps even slackness in a couple.
  • Unoriginal in many ways, introducing well worn tropes without introducing something new.

Some of the recommended mss were very well polished. I read them with a sense of awe, particularly the care taken with the world building and the polish to the prose. In reading them, I felt that I had something to aspire to in my own mss.

I’m not sure I have much else to say, rather than repeating what an amazing opportunity reading submissions was and also at the same time, very intense and draining.

Writing comments is not always easy. Sometimes it takes a while to actually pin point what the issues may be and where improvements could be made. I admit to once or twice having a general feeling of an ms not being quite right and then considering it for days to work out what I might say. Responding to an ms requires analysis and creativity. It is not something I could do lightly or while I watched tele, but required concentration and immersion.

So best of luck to those recommended. I will keep an ear out for those who make it to publication. For the rest of us, it’s back to the computer, back to our mss, and continue to write and refine our work.

I’m hoping to put up a few interviews with editors in the coming months and with authors who use first readers, sometimes called beta readers. I’m hoping these interviews will be useful in providing insight into the editing/writing world.

Next up some memories and photos of Colin Harvey, who passed away last week.

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I had a interesting day yesterday. I did not read an MS, or start to read an MS. I feel like I’m shirking but not reading is certainly allowing my mind to recharge. I’ll start full MS number 31 tonight.

So I continued with snipping away at Dragon Wine. This morning I start with 152,342 words (actually I already cut something this morning but I’ll talk about that). That is approximately 15,000 words less that the original word count (167,200). I’m aiming for 130,000 words but I’d be happy with 140,000.

I’m now starting on part two and the introduction of a new set of characters. This is a bit refreshing to start with this new lot of characters.

Last night as I tried to sleep I thought about a scene that I identified yesterday as not doing it’s job. I cut it back substantially, but kept its backbone. Then I thought about it some more. You know this scene has the best descriptive writing in the book. I love it. People who have read that bit have gone wow. I added this scene during a revision a while back, back when I was looking to flesh out the world, ensure I had the detail and to make it sound more real. Originally I had this group of characters get to a point, suggest they are going somewhere else and then pick up their thread then. You know when they are already there and it’s in the middle of the action. The scene I added was how they got from there to there. I might have had some plot discussion points in there, but basically nothing happens. They move through an amazing geothermal landscape, scale a gorge, confirm their thoughts that the garrison was attacked and who their opponents are and think about where the thing they are following went. That’s it. Very pretty, some character insights, but nothing important happens. So this morning I gritted my teeth and cut it all. Phew! It was hard. I thought about restructuring so I could keep that one paragraph of description but didn’t. I cut it.

I have writer friends who do up spread sheets and work how who has the point of view in which chapters and change it if it isn’t balanced, work out the percentage of action and narrative etc. This type of detail analysis I don’t usually do. I sort of play it by ear. However, I can see now that this sort of micro examination of a novel can help to refine it to its lovely bones. After I’ve done this cut back and see what word count I’ll end up with. I’ll go back to the start and then look at it at sentence level to see if I can write a few things more succinctly. I’m doing that at the moment on this pass through but I think it will be worth doing again, to tighten the prose. Then there will be another read through and maybe a pass by unsuspecting beta readers. It’s time to kick this baby out of the door. Revising Dragon Wine was one of my goals for the year. I think I can see me doing it now. As for drafting another novel, well my day job is going to impact on that. I’ll be report writing right up to Christmas. That is very draining. However, I do have a writers’ retreat planned for January, where I am hoping to achieve another 80,000 words. (I touch type btw). Report writing at work usually sets me up for critical thinking though which is good for editing.

Yesterday while playing with my ipad I found a tutorial on WordPress. So you will see I have a contact form now. I believe that will email me.

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I’m still reading mss, but today and tomorrow I’m taking a break from work and assessing mss. I’m a bit tired and I really do not get a kick out of sending rejections. I worry, too, that my comments may come across as nit picky, when the author of the ms has to deal with the rejection. It is hard to tell whether someone is ready for feedback. I’m thinking if someone got a full request then they should be ready…I’m hoping they are ready and see them as a way forward.

In my ten years or so of writing I’ve been rejected many times for various mss, short stories and novels and I’ve felt the whole gamut of feelings from being close to tears to preparing myself for bad news beforehand so it don’t kick so bad. Sometimes I couldn’t help getting my hopes up only to have them dashed. The thought that the elusive email or phone call from an editor or agent saying they loved my work is a fading fantasy. I’ve had friends get that email and I’m just close, not quite good enough. (not necessarily a good profession to aspire to when you have low self-esteem, though these days my self-esteem problems are under control).

So here I am grasping hold of the shreds of hope, revising the novel that I have faith in. Today, I’ve been able to put to use some of the insights from ms reading and apply it to myself. Do I do the common errors that I noted while reading? Most definitely. Today I cut back, restructured and rewrote a chapter that I had trimmed last week. However, I missed a few things. Then I went back to check something and found a continuity error. I’m trimming back and I can see the discipline of word count and succinctness are really useful things to help focus dialogue and make me question whether I need all those character thoughts and all that description. I also start to question whether I like the sound of my own voice. Snip. Snip. Snip.

It’s around 11.00am and I’m down to 158,798 words (last tally was 159,283). I’m trimming and it’s hard work. It takes concentration, some skill and perseverance.

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I am not yet done with assessing the full 53 full manuscripts but I have completed 30 of them. This gives me some insight into some general issues with full MSs as opposed to the partials. Also, I think it is worth noting what actually takes places when a full MS is assessed and what is not taking place.

Passing through the full MS assessment and being recommended to the editors is a great achievement I think. However, it is really only the start of the process. I know you think the months you have waited are long enough, but it can take ages. Once the MS is sent to Lee and Marc, they have to find the time to read it and then they do their own assessment. So far I have recommended 9 manuscripts and all of them are different and remarkable in their own way. All of them excite me as a reader. However, in any imprint there is limited space. This means it is still competitive. You’ve made it to the top of the pile but there are many factors involved in whether your MS gets published or not.

A reader like me makes a decision on the merits of the MS itself and is not in the position to be in the commissioning editor’s shoes or even the publisher’s shoes. What I mean is, I have an idea of what Angry Robot publishes and I know what they have asked me to look out for. However, I do not know who they are currently negotiating with and what that MS may be. I do not know the strategic direction of the imprint and what holes they are looking to plug in their existing list. The editors are also much more abreast of the market, what they think is popular, what is going out of vogue and what might be hot in future. I may have views on this myself, but it is they who are steering the ship. (okay a bag of metaphors there)

What this boils down to is, you may have a fantastic, publishable manuscript and it doesn’t get picked up. That’s the sad fact of life, really. It could be that it is like something Angry Robot just bought or they might want to publish it but the list is full…there are many factors that come into play.

In my opinion there is a lot of good stuff in this submission pile and I think the Global Financial Crisis had something to do with that. Good MSs that should have been picked up or may have been picked up in previous years weren’t and they are there with the new crop of good mss that are coming through. Also, there are structural changes going on within the industry too. Loss of retailers impacts on booksellers and authors. There are less outlets for your product. Less opportunities to market. Then there is the upsurge in ebooks and online retailing. This has changed the mix dramatically and in my view made the publishing cycle much harder. I don’t have hard facts here, these are my observations and my opinion.

Is an assessment/reading of an MS an edit?

No, definitely not. An edit starts with a read through of an MS to assess it for potential issues and to develop approaches for the editor to work with the author. It has usually been commissioned before this takes place. I think a read through/assessment for this MS reading is similar, except we are not working up an editing approach with a view to edit. We are assessing several aspects of the ms. Namely:

  • general readability;
  • execution of idea and prose;
  • structure; and
  • overall wow factor or impact.

Common issues

While reading we make note of issues. I think all mss, no matter how good they are, have issues. I think for a full ms to be recommended to the editors rests on the degree or severity of the issues. As I mentioned in blog post 3, some issues are endemic and aren’t easily addressed in an edit. For example, the style of writing needs work. The author may improve over time or not. However, at this stage you can’t take the risk. If the idea is cool, then you hope the author works it out and it will get published further down the line.

Another issue you may have is structure. The events don’t unfold as they should or it is confusing. Here there is an assessment made on the run. I have not recommended any mss that I felt needed restructuring. However, during an edit, which is much more focussed on the work may identify that a restructure is needed. As a reader I’m not in the position to make that call.

One thing I have struck in a few MSs is overwriting. I find this is particularly so in the first quarter. As I writer I would say this is due to continual reworking and adding until it is overdone. This may extend to the full ms but often there is this line, where the writing changes. I never really understood what overwriting was until I saw it a few times. Then I had this aha moment. By overwriting I don’t mean purple prose. Overwriting is where it the description of the action is over detailed, or done more than one way. For example,: she slammed the door shaking with anger. She had never felt such rage before and wanted to hit someone. This is overwritten. You could achieve the same effect with –She slammed the door. Or She slammed the door, shaking with anger. But you don’t need the rest. You’ve said it. You have to trust yourself. Another example is where the detail is so step by step precise the action takes much longer than it would in real life, or there’s so much of it, it diffuses the tension. For example: She opened the car door, sat in the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition, saw leaves floating on the wind through the windscreen and then switched on the radio. Then she is grabbed from behind.

So while the detail is nice and adds flavour to the scene, there is so much of it the tension disappears. An alternative might be: She returned the car and inserted the key in the ignition. A blur in the rear view mirror gave her a start, just as the cord encircled her neck.

Anyway these observations are quite subtle but do stand out.

Of course, full MS contain other issues common with partials, except they occur later in the work. For example, I might get to chapter 7 or 8 and find a big chunk of indigestible info dump, or pages of back story, or a deux ex machina prong, where it shouldn’t be. Also, the dialogue gets sloppy further in or there’s a sag in the story or the action.

As I mentioned in comments on blog post three, world building issues become more apparent in full MSs, because the world building has to be sustained and more opportunities arise forinconsistencies and for dropping the ball entirely. Again here it is a matter of degree, if there is a minor inconsistency that can be addressed in an edit it is not a problem. However, if the world building needs more thought and lots more work then it is going to be a problem.

I am sure there was a time in the past where authors had their mss taken up with work still needing to be done on them. Perhaps the editors liked the idea, trusted the talent and skill of the author and were really committed to it. A submission pile situation is a bit different. Your ms is competing against others. So you might be close, but need some work, but the next MS or the previous one had no issues or very minimal issues. This is the risk of a submission pile. If you have an editor who you know who is willing to read your work, then you still have similar issues but I think (I don’t know) that your chances are better. Having said that the same caveats apply. The editor may love your ms but can’t sell it to acquisitions. There may be no room in the list. It may not be right for the imprint.

Bad ,or less politely crap, endings. You could have the most elaborate of plot with amazing twists and turns but your ending is not quite cutting it. Actually a bad ending can be a let down. If I was editing the MS I might have some ideas how to fix it (and I’d be paid for this) but as a reader it’s not my place.

I mentioned the wow factor and that’s the really hard one. Have I recommended ms, which didn’t have a wow factor? Probably, because that is darn hard to pin point and subjective besides. I tend to go the more safe and conservative route—it has a good beginning, middle and end, is well executed and has something different. There have been a few wows in there. They excite my mind. They make me admire the writer for their ideas and their execution. For the record, one of the most exciting MSs for me was a full I rejected. It wasn’t quite ready yet, but its potential screamed out of the page. I am hoping my feedback will prove useful to the author.


Of the 21 MSs that didn’t get referred to Angry Robot, I gave the author’s feedback. I couched it in terms of my subjective view. All the authors I heard back from appreciated the comments. I don’t know about the others. However, I know how it feels to have your full ms requested and then get nothing back. I was like: What made you request it? What made you reject it? So I tried where possible to articulate that. It could save years of naval gazing. Actually it depends on the author’s reaction to the comments. If the comments lead to an ‘aha moment’ then I feel very happy about that. If they mean nothing and are just totally annoying then I don’t feel good about that. If I’ve requested the full, I think you have something. If I’ve given you comments then I’m trying to help (from my point of view) you get there next time. I’ve waited years for some meaningful feedback on my novel. When I got it I was so happy, finally the mist cleared and I could see my way out of it. I had been really down in the doldrums about a particular MS. Note here that editors are subjective too. One editor might have different ideas and approaches.  That means there is no one way to develop a story.

I’ve probably covered off two blog posts in one here. If I post again, it may be about some thoughts on the process, exercise. I’m not sure.

If you are wondering do I want my life back. Yes I do. My family think I am surgically attached to my ipad. If I did this again, I’d like to get paid. LOL!

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The awesome Amanda, who has read about 500 partial manuscripts for Angry Robot, has blogged about her experience. Floor-to-ceiling books here

I’m amazed about how she has powered through the reading and assessing full manuscripts, works a day job and continues to write reviews, very impressive reviews too. Amanda did mention the gender of those she requested fulls for. I think I saw someone asking her on twitter. I probably have a breakdown, but will wait a bit. I’d have to check back.

Gender didn’t really come into the reading process from my perspective. If you check back to Blog post one you’ll see I uploaded about 5-10 partials on my ipad to read. So the file names don’t usually say, ‘Chicken’s roost by female author Chris Post’.  Some times the file names didn’t even say what the book was called, just something generic like ‘Angry Robot Submission’. Also, people like to disguise their names so it is hard to tell sometimes.  If I had read the query letter, it was a while before I got to the story. So mostly, it didn’t register for me until I wrote a rejection or a request for a full. Where it really hit me was when I was referring the full ms to Angry Robot and I’d think ‘Oh so it is a woman who wrote that (just once).’

So I’m up to full MS number 30 and that is out of 200 partial ms. I figure I was requesting more in the first half of reading than the second as I have 23 to go for the remaining 280 odd partial mss. Out of the ones I have referred nine up to Angry Robot, which  have been five female and four have been male. That thirty is approximately 16 female writers to 14 male writers. I was reading mostly fantasy, so I think (but don’t know) that there were a lot of female’s writing in that genre pile.

I will do a final tally when I’m done. Next post will be on assessing full mss.

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If  like me this is your least favourite part of submitting a manuscript, then like me you probably pay the least bit of attention to it. (Edit: what I wanted to say was that I had a lackadaisical approach to query letters and sometimes synopsis, because I’ve always wanted to use that word). As part of the submission reading process, I was exposed to a lot of these (480 of them thereabouts) so I started to have an opinion on them and also had a few realisations. Number one was I have been very slack in the past and I will try very hard not to be from now on. Next thing I should say there is help out there. I usually consult www.agentquery.com as it tends to have sample query letters and search facilities. There are also links out there if you google.

I maintain that it is the writing itself that is important, that’s the clincher and I think that is true. However, the query letter and the synopsis have a purpose.

Query letters/introductory email

This is your introduction to the publisher/editor/reader, that is, the first impression you are going to make. It is not really the place to write an A4 page or more about your life, the troubles of your childhood, the reason you write dark fiction (as a result of said bad childhood) and that your idea came from a dream and then recount the dream verbatim. I am sure these recountings have a place. Hopefully, after you have signed the contract and your publisher has taken you to a bar and bought you so many rounds of margaritas that you drunkenly reveal all. They’ll recover from the shock and there won’t be documentary evidence.

One lovely man said in his email/query letter that he was a failed aspiring writer (waves). This struck me because year before last I was calling myself that (never in a query letter or email). A writer friend almost smacked me down for saying it. The crux being “had I given up?” No says I. Well I’m not failed then am I. Which is basically the comment I gave back to this writer in his rejection, you aren’t a failure until you give up.

So what works in a query letter/introductory email?

A short salutation.  A short one liner about your MS, or a pitch. What is your story like and what makes it stand out. Saying you write like Terry Pratchett is not really inspiring. You need to be saying what you are like and how you are different. For example, my story is a traditional fantasy with aliens instead of elves. It will appeal to readers of GRRMartin and Peter F Hamilton (not!).

A bit of background information on yourself, such as your past publications if any, your qualifications/occupation, special interests if they relate to your ms. For example, if you are writing about a pacific nation of 400 people, do say what credentials you have to do so–like you did a thesis on it, or spent your formative years there etc or you are part of the nation etc. Or if you are using a World War 2, European setting, then mention you spent twelve months researching it etc. It lends a bit of credibility to what you are sending in.

Check www.agentquery.com if you want some guidance.

For me as a reader, anything that was brief and to the point was useful.

What made me lift an eyebrow and wonder was the A4 page of oversharing, unamusing attempts at humour, which make the writer sound wankerish, (just personal taste), saying that you have submitted 500,000 words, or 300,000 words or even 275,000 word manuscripts. These word counts are well in excess of the guidelines and did not give me a good impression at all. (hint check guidelines). Actually I’ve submitted somewhere once thinking I could get away with over word count and basically I got it back the next day with a rejection. It wasn’t read because it didn’t comply with guidelines. I did read the partials for these over large ms but I did not request any of them. My knees shook just reading the word count.

The best ones for me were the ones that eased me into the mood to read the ms, filled me with excitement (that sounds interesting etc) and didn’t poke me in the eye for any reason.


These were an interesting thing. When I started out, I read them quite religiously, except where they were impenetrable. Then I’d head straight for the ms (and occasionally the MS was also impenetrable). Then when the pressure built up (lots of MS and not much time), I read the first bit of the synopsis get the idea and then go read the MS because that’s where the ultimate decision was going to be made.

Then if the story didn’t reveal its speculative elements or I suspected paranormal romance I’d go back and read the synopsis.

However, I did come to appreciate the synopsis that was easy to read, the one that caressed my head. I gained an insight here that the synopsis does need to be easy to read. That way it will be read.

It helps not to clutter it up with sub-plots and minor characters. In my opinion, you need the central narrative of the story and those bits that impact on it and not every single detail. Angry Robot asked for character lists. I remember rolling my eyes when someone would say there are hundreds of characters but here is the first twenty or so. Yep I’d head straight to the MS tail between my legs.

There is a trend apparently to put the character names in capitals. It made no difference to me, except where there were lots of characters and then there were all these capitals screaming out of the synopsis at me. A bit off putting, actually.

A chapter summary is not a synopsis, btw. A synopsis has its own narrative flow. It is meant to engage, inform and basically sell your work. A chapter summary has a different function.

This is the most important thing I learned. As a reader and a writer I may not have valued a synopsis as I should. However, it is an important tool. Editors use it to sell the novel to the publisher or the acquisition team. Marketing use it to help market your work and maybe assist with developing the blurb.

While personally I don’t think it is fatal to your prospects if you can’t write a good one, it certainly helps if you can.

I met an agent once who said she only reads query letters and in her view if a writer can’t write a good one then they are a crap writer. A bit harsh to my mind. Obviously I don’t agree. If I do write to agents, I choose ones who allow a sample to be sent with the query and synopsis. But that’s just me.

The other interesting thing in the Angry Robot submissions was the ‘intentions/inspirations’ part. I wonder if you had as much trouble as I did when I had to write to that part a year or so ago. So it was interesting to see what you guys did with it. Rarely was any one the same, though there were a few who said they wrote the novel because they want to write for a living. Hey don’t we all. I did check with Lee about this. According to Lee, there is no one way to respond to it but they are interested in what you say. I thought the response should be about the particular novel, where the idea came from, what inspired you to write it etc. But don’t listen to me. I’m wrong!






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I said that the list was not exhaustive and I was planning to do some rounding off later to cover points I missed. However, Rowena Cory Daniels over on Ripping Ozzie Reads here pointed out that I missed some important ones. Actually I could probably wax lyrical on the subject till the end of time, but I have limited time and so do you.

So what did I miss?

Rowena mentioned point of view and world building. World building I was going to cover on a later post when discussing full manuscripts. This is because world building issues become more apparent in the full manuscript. Sometimes they can be disguised in a partial, unless they are fairly well marked.

I’ll also add plausibility and structure to round off this post. Also I will relate some insights from others about ms submissions. I really should be writing myself, or cutting, as I think is what I’m meant to be doing.

Point of view

This is the person telling the story. There are different types of point of view, the all seeing god-like view (omniscient), first person, the story told from the “I”, the third person, “he/she” perspective and sometimes the second person, “you”. For example—you walk up the stairs and push open the door and see blood pooling on the hearth rug. It puts the reader in the firing line. I won’t elaborate here, except to say that it can be done, if done well, but it is a rarer form of narrative. I recollect that Stephen King also mentioned progressive third person, which was how he approached The Stand.

Omnipresent point of view is used, particularly in older works. However, there are issues with this approach. Distancing the reader from the character can be an outcome of this approach. Also, it can lend itself to head hopping.

First person point of view puts the reader in the narrator’s head. I must admit to dreading the next first person narrative in the submissions pile at one stage because when done badly it can be grating. So I have no real prejudice against first person narratives but I have noticed that some people use it to add way too much of everything or try to be funny. In this case sometimes more is less.

So, what do I mean.

A character walks into the bar and they are narrating what they see, feel and hear. Then they stop and say:

I’m six feet tall, with great shoulders and I’m a real chick magnet and with my physics degree I can pull chicks with my grin. Already five chicks are eyeing me off as I approach the bar and my dick hardens at the thought I’m going to get laid. (Haha maybe I’m doing this too well).

I think there are lot of issues here. The CV approach to character description; the thoughts that aren’t entirely relevant, unless you want your character to sound like a dickhead; and the sort of not well disguised info dump and telling nature.

So first person narrator leaves you with choices. They are telling the story or are you sitting in their heads hearing, feeling everything? Moral is you get the closeness but sometimes you get too much detail. Also it can be limiting as your character doesn’t see everything. One author I know who used first person in an epic fantasy is Glenda Larke (she’s on my side bar) in her Isles of Glory series. She uses a series of first person narratives.

Third person narrative allows for you to be close to the character, particularly if it is quite tightly written. You can have multiple points of view so that many persons tell their side of the story. However, here is the clincher: keeping to your point of view.

Some of us call this point of view violations, point of view slippage or just plain sloppy writing. I also noticed, too, when reading a couple of submissions that point of view changes distanced me from the characters and the story as they happened too quickly or suddenly.

A short chapter from one character and I’m almost starting to bond with them and get with the story and the short (very short in some cases) chapter ends and I’m thrust into new character and new scene. Same deal, I’m not getting enough time to actually understand the change in character and scene. Then enter chapter three with new character and new scene. It was choppy and I lost interest. There has to be a judgement there of how many characters are needed. Do they all need to be in the opening scenes? Is the scene long enough to hook the reader? It might work for a Bruce Willis action movie, where you have music and visual cues, but in a text based medium it didn’t work for me.

Then there is the dreaded head hopping. This is where there is one scene with multiple characters and the reader is getting all of it. The worst case is where you can’t tell who is thinking what. Or you think it is this character and then it drifts to another character and you shake your head and feel totally confused. There are lots of books and advice written on this. Some recommend keeping to the same point of view in the one scene or chapter.

There are books out there with head hopping in them. If you read them yourself and become annoyed then you know why. Some writers signal the change in point of view well so it is an easy slide.

Another aspect is the character whose point of view you are in reports things they have not seen or could not reasonably know about. This can be minor inconsistencies that get corrected at the edit stage but you want to minimise them.


This is related to world building and also to character building. I am a real fan of steampunk. However, it is very difficult to do well. There are issues with language. In my opinion, you can’t be a purist Victorian style writer as that type of narrative may not appeal to a modern reader so you have to do enough of the style and language to give it a flavour and even then that is hard to do well. Then there are the characters. They need to be products of their time, or if they aren’t acting like a well brought up Victorian woman then we really need to understand why. Also, you would want to understand that her peers are reacting in the way they ought to too.

This includes the scenario I mentioned in blog post three where you have a demon hunter who doesn’t do a plausible job of killing demons.

Then there are stories where the setting is historical and some things happen way too easy for that period of time without good explanation. If you are using well researched periods like World War 1 and World War 2, you need to have done the research or your bones get picked clean by the avid historians (professional or amateur). This includes naming items like cars, tanks, planes, cities etc.

And that leads us to

World-building issues

The main issues with world building are to do with how the world is portrayed and flaws in the thinking process. If you are using a historical past but you change one thing then you really need to think through what that means. It might sound really groovy but by the end of the MS you’ve come unstuck and I’ll probably send you a list of things you need to consider and a list of inconsistencies you need to address.

Other mistakes include:

  • setting up a world and rule system then breaking it;
  • not setting up the world and rule system so you can do whatever you want;
  • using a broad brush to setting up the world, where choice details probably works better;
  • being contradictory;
  • using modern vocabulary or tech references that should not exist in your setting.

For example, you have a setting in which the Victorian era never happened but you describe something as a Victorian gothic nightmare.

This discussion is not exhaustive by any means. I’m happy for people to add more through the comments.

Structure of the story

This is another way of looking at the things in blog post three. You have a story with a beginning, middle and end. You have a good start. However, these days you can’t wait to kick the story off in chapter three. You need to be kicking things off much sooner. In some cases, the first line and in other by the end of chapter one. Unless you write like a genius and the writing itself is so mesmerising and then you can do whatever you want.

Once you have your beginning, middle and end, you need to sculpt it so that you are telling it cleverly. This is hard. I find it a challenge. You have to make decisions about that girl in the room with the dead body (see post number three). You have to get her out of there as fast as you can and have her deal with how she got there, how the person died etc, while she is running away and maybe being chased.

I was on a panel at an SF con with a bunch of writers, in particular, Garth Nix. Not sure if you know he was a literary agent for a long while until he retired to write full time. Anyway, he related in this panel how sometimes he would get submissions from people who would say to him. ‘It is really great in chapter five.’ I’ve really taken that comment to heart. You can’t expect people to wait until then, not if you are wanting to publish popular fiction.

I had a bunch of beta readers read my new manuscript and I had comments like “It really takes off in chapter three.” I thought of Garth’s comment and realised I had to fix it so that it took off in chapter one.

Also, when I was about a third of the way into my submission reading and the back story issue was really apparent, I had to look at a novel submission I have out, just to check I had not done that. I was relieved to find there wasn’t a skerrick of back story. The MS probably has other issues but at least it didn’t open with back story. Phew!

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