The Literary Consultancy Comes to Asia

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Rebecca Swift, Director of The Literary Consultancy, will be at the Hong Kong Literary Festival in November this year to talk about how her UK-based consultancy can help writers working outside Britain.

The Literary Consultancy (TLC), begun in 1996, was the world’s first editorial consultancy. Co-founded by writer and editor Rebecca Swift and Hannah Griffiths (now a publisher at Faber & Faber) it has sought to help writers gain in-depth, professional feedback. Some send their work before they submit to agents or publishers, others when they receive rejections and are confused about why. Nowadays, agents and publishers rarely have time to give detailed feedback to writers, so TLC filled in that gap. There are now other similar consultancies and ‘book doctor’ services, some more reputable than others.

Rebecca and her team currently work only in the English language, but they do work with writers outside the UK. They include Neamat Imam, a Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist, who with the help of TLC, signed with top UK agent David Godwin and whose book The Black Coat has been published by both Penguin in India and by Periscope Books in the UK; Damien Brown, whose account of working with Médecins sans Frontières, Band-Aid for a Broken Leg, was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia; Perdita and Honor Cargill, represented by Hannah Sheppard at DHH Literary Agency following a TLC assessment, who have just struck a two-book deal with Simon & Shuster; and Catherine Ferguson, represented by HHB Literary Agency who published her book Humbugs and Heartstrings via Harper Collins’ e-book first imprint Avon.

TLC’s editorial assessment service is suitable for writers who have started a project and would like guidance before continuing; writers working on a first draft; writers wanting an honest assessment of whether the work is ready to submit to an agent/self-publish; writers who are confused by feedback they have had. See the guideline to editorial fees. FEES

Mentoring

The consultancy’s online mentoring scheme, Chapter & Verse, for writers who want to see a book project through to completion; writers who need sustained support, with deadlines, encouragement, and constructive feedback. Chapter & Verse can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This scheme is designed to fit around a writer’s other commitments, providing over the course of a year six email feedback sessions with an experienced writing mentor who helps craft the work, help the writer find his or her voice and complete a full-length work. After the development process, writers receive a full editorial assessment of the whole work by a separate editor. This currently differentiates TLC’s service .

For those of you who can make it to London, TLC offers an Industry Day at its London base, the Free Word Centre, with an agent and editor as guests. Writers have attended from Bangkok, Canada and Europe. Those who can’t make it can access a PDF information pack with a write-up from the day.

Copy Editing and Proofreading

Matching copy-editors and proofreaders to writing projects is an area of our work we have seen increased interest in over the last few years,

As publishing options for writers proliferate and more authors decide to publish independently, TLC has seen increased interest from writers needing copy-editors and proofreaders. They will discuss with a writer whether this kind of editing is suitable before you part with any money. Writers who seek this service include those for whom English is a second language and who want help ‘cleaning up’ their work.

TLC does not advise writers to translate their own work into English unless they are an expert, as often this will result in a text that a copy-editor will have difficulty ‘fixing’. Copy-editing is corrective; not designed to re-write your text. It’s also not cheap, so make sure this is the final stage of editing, or you risk re-introducing errors which may need a further copy-edit to correct.

Who Uses Editorial Services?

‘We find that most of the writers coming to us are first-time or “emerging” writers wanting support to develop their craft and gain a better understanding of where their writing might fit into the market,’ said Swift. ‘But we also have regularly published or contracted writers come to us with books that, increasingly, their agents haven’t the time to help them develop.’

Most of the literary agents TLC works with are UK-based, but they also have contacts in Hong Kong, India, Australia, the USA, the Caribbean, and Africa, and they will do their best to support writers through these networks.

Finding Success as a Writer

Reaching publication success as a writer is in some ways easier than ever (via self-publishing), and in other ways more difficult than it’s ever been (squeezed editorial budgets, more focus on marketing and publicity when commissioning new titles within publishing houses).

On the one hand, the latest International Publisher’s Association annual report is encouraging; more books are being published than ever before. But this comes with a warning: Canongate Publisher Jamie Byng said in an article in The Guardian last year, ‘I think we publish too many books … and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully.’

There are some notably writers who disagree. Novelist Jenn Ashworth stated in the same article, ‘More books and more people talking about books is always excellent … it is a shame we have fewer and fewer librarians to help readers navigate their way through all this glorious literary chaos and find hidden gems.’

What’s clear is that good writing needs champions; those who can help not only source, but polish these ‘hidden gems’.

Says Swift: ‘When we find a particularly gifted writer, a “hidden gem” from any country, our professional reader or mentor flags the writer up to our in-house team. We will then look at the work, and think about the various pathways open to the writer; so what might be best for the book, according to the genre, the target readership, the market appeal, and so on.’

It’s an exciting time, and there are plenty of options for writers who are serious about writing, getting their work up to standard, and making it available to readers across the English-speaking world. The internet has opened up many possibilities, and it’s a thrill for all at TLC to be working at the intersection between the writing on the one hand, and potential readerships on the other, and finding ways to help writers form relevant links between the two.

By Aki Schilz

AkiSchilzTLCAki Schilz is a writer and poet based in London. She works as Editorial Manager at The Literary Consultancy.

Spinal care for writers

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Developmental editor Laurel Cohn looks at story structure.

No, this column is not about how to maintain correct posture at the computer (are you sitting up straight?). I’m interested here in the notion of the spine of your story.

Just as you can’t function at your optimum if you have spinal issues, your story needs to have a strong and healthy backbone. Think of your story as a creature. It does not need to look realistic – it can have a multitude of limbs and unusual features – but it needs to be able to stand on its own and deliver its creator’s intent.

Being able to identify the backbone of your story is crucial to help you work out whether you have unwanted growths that need to be excised or require additional material needed for balance.

PLANNERS AND PANTSERS

Some writers meticulously plot their story before they begin chapter one. These are the planners. Others just start writing and let the story develop and unfold as they go. These are sometimes referred to as ‘pantsers’, those who write ‘from the seat of their pants’.

There is no right or wrong way; it is totally dependent on the writerly practice that works for the individual author. However, in my experience as a developmental editor, structural issues are common in both fiction and narrative non-fiction book-length works, and while planners do sometimes need to apply structural adjustments to their work, it is the pantsers who usually need to consider significant spinal manipulation.

DIAGNOSIS

The first step is to find out exactly what you’re dealing with. Some writers know there are structural issues in their work, but are not sure how to go about identifying them.

Writing a chapter outline after a completed draft is a good start. It is also useful if you are some way into a work and you feel like the structure eludes you. Some publishers require this as part of the submission (particularly for non-fiction), but even if they don’t, and even if you are a planner, it can be a very illuminating exercise. Using point form or prose, note for each chapter the key event, characters introduced, time covered, themes, plot threads etc. What you put into your chapter outline will depend on the type of manuscript.

You could begin with quite a detailed approach, but see if you can end up with no more than six to eight dot points or two to three short paragraphs for each chapter. The idea is to outline what you have written, not what you intended to write.

You may find that the draft is well-paced and balanced, with no major holes or blips. Or you may find that some chapters don’t seem to have a key dramatic event and others are choc-a-block with action; that a sub-plot seems to disappear from the narrative for over half the book; that a character is redundant; that the pace is uneven. Reviewing your chapter outline will give you ideas on what is working, what is missing and what needs to be rethought.

IDENTIFYING THE SPINE OF THE STORY

Diagnosis is only the first step. In order to fix structural issues, you have to  identify the spine of your story. One strategy is storyboarding.

A storyboard is a series of illustrated panels in a sequence, like a comic book. It is used in film to help plot stories and you can use it to help identify the key structural points in your manuscript: the bones of the spine. Once you understand where the spine lies, you can more readily amputate unnecessary limbs or strange growths that cripple the story. Storyboarding also helps you see your story as more than a collection of words – the individual bones are depictions of characters, their actions, and the consequences of those actions.

To storyboard your plot begin by listing the three main events that take place in your story; not just three random events, but the three things you are most likely to tell a friend when describing what happens in your manuscript. Use the three main events as roughly beginning, middle and end, and turn them into three panels. Now fill in some of the spaces between these main events and storyboard your plot to around 12 or 15 panels. Alternatively, create a single panel that shows the key event of each chapter. You may end up with ten or twenty panels, depending on how you have organised your material. This is a little like a visual version of the chapter outline.

HONING THE STRUCTURE

There are various ways you can play with your storyboard to help you hone your narrative structure. You can cut your panels apart and rearrange them. Storyboarding can help you discover whether you have too much story or too little. It may reveal that your story’s ending is really your beginning or that one character (or more) has no real impact on the core of the story and can be cut. It might show that the sequence of events isn’t as tightly constructed as it should be. It can be a very useful tool in the revision process. You can use storyboarding to plan ahead, and you can also use it as a diagnosis tool for what you have already written.

Different genres and different stories may lend themselves to different types of layouts. For example, in a story where the passage of time is critical (such as a crime story) a spreadsheet may be appropriate so you can chart hours, days or weeks. There is a fascinating sample of J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at www.slashfilm.com (search for J.K. Rowling).

There are lots of different ways to represent a structure using shape, colour and space. I have worked with writers who have used mind maps, excel spreadsheets, outlines and index cards. Whatever shape your skeleton takes, and your representation of it, using colour and visual patterning may help you to see your work differently – to identify weaknesses and build on strengths in your story structure. With a strong spine, your story is more likely to fulfill your intentions.

 

Laurel Cohn is an editor and mentor passionate about communication and the power of narrative to engage, inspire and challenge. Since the late 1980s she has been helping writers develop their stories and prepare their work for publication. She is a popular workshop presenter and runs an editing and manuscript development service. 

A WAY WITH WORDS

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Freelance editor, writer and trainer Shelley Kenigsberg suggests writers could take more responsibility for shaping their manuscripts.

A question beginner writers often ask me is: ‘Can’t I hire a professional editor and hand over my manuscript so I don’t have to do the messy bits myself? I think it’s ready and, anyway, it’ll be exhausting having to look at those pages one more time…’

Answer: Yes. Of course. (I would say that.)

But.

What if you could learn to edit yourself? Not redraft; that’s probably something you’ve already done a lot. You are likely to complete at least a few drafts before you’re happy to hand over the manuscript. But the editing process is different from the redrafting.

Stephen King goes for a 10-draft minimum before he hands his manuscripts to his publisher. Kings extols the value of doing drafts with the door closed (utterly involved in the world of the work) and one with the door open (with a bit more distance) before letting the manuscript go.

Even seasoned, often-published writers understand to keep choosing the right parts of their story to show—and take time to mull over, sift and confirm those choices in the next draft—till the story is ready to soar.

Lots of writers have rules for writing. Henry James’ directive is particularly apt also for editing. He asks writers to: contemplate, select, render. What does that mean to you as a writer? My interpretation of James’ elegant rule is: think, pick, paint.

Observe, think and notice the small and large gestures by and between people to bring characters alive and get a sense of where your story (fiction or non-fiction) wants to go.

Then, choose the right details (what your characters notice/what your topic demands to illustrate, background, gestures, dialogue…) that not only says something about the character or expands the idea but also moves the story foreword, as opposed to bogging it down with details irrelevant to unfolding the story the way you’d like to. (Perhaps the ideal way you’d imagined you’d write before you began!) The act of painting in acutely observed details enables writers to bring new imagined stories and theories into being.

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Editing is a rigorous process. And you need space between finishing a draft and beginning the edit. And there may be more than one edit… some writers do the big picture or structural edit first, then fine tune with the copy edit.

The edit, if you’re doing it right, is where you remove those phrases that make you (or early readers) cringe, where you remove clichés and replace them with fresh images, and where you check the work for consistency.

It’s where you apply the best tools in your armory of ‘dos and don’ts’ to deliver a bloody good tale—bloody because, more often than not, editing means murdering some of your darlings; your most beloved scenes and phrases, your oh-so-wise reflections and expositions on the state of world. Those are ripe for the cut. Savagery in the edit means you cut the worst and save the best.

And for each iteration, you’re not ‘merely tinkering’. You are painting in final brushstrokes before handing over the work. It could well be the masterpiece your publisher’s been waiting for.

Shelley Kenigsberg runs S K Publishing and edits for publishing houses and private clients, in fiction and non-fiction. She has conducted editing workshops at an APWT conference and runs writing and editing programs called Editing in Paradise .