Writing with the handbrake off

Editing a rough draft is a skill that is learned over time, knowing how much to add, what to take away, what to work on so that each scene begins to sing. Trial and error are a writer’s constant companions and that is why writers should never be afraid. Okay, it’s fine to be a little fearful some of the time, we are human after all but writers should take chances.

Fearless
Be Fearless torbakhopper courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

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Writers should experiment. Writers who play it safe may produce a competent piece of work but it is also likely to be firmly middle of the road and unable to grab or hold a reader’s attention. On the flip side we can’t all be outliers writing experimental novels and breaking every rule just because we can. We have to find a balance.

Balance
Balance by Natalie Lucier courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Writers should push themselves. They should experiment to find their voice, their genre, their style. You may think a particular genre suits your skillset but until you experiment how will you know if there is another genre out there that fits you like a hand in a glove? Finding your creative home is very different from dwelling in your comfort zone. It is perfectly possible to challenge yourself even if you are writing a familiar concept in a genre you have written in before.

Just as we all know when we are playing it safe, so too I believe we all know when we have let our imaginations take free flight because we start to produce work that is edgier, sharper and more arresting. I think of it as writing with the handbrake off and I believe it is what we should all strive for. If you’re a little bit scared you’re probably doing it right.

Damsel in distress face downm
Damsel in Distress Face Down by Britt-knee courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

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So next time you catch yourself playing it safe, think about ways you can take your writing up a gear, take a chance, let yourself go without the shackles of overthinking each sentence or constantly referring to your notes which tell you character B has to do X by chapter Y and don’t whatever you do try to edit as you write.

Trust in your skill as a writer, write with the handbrake off and enjoy the ride.

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my first novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June #FlowerSellerThursday

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

 

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If you find my self belief could you please return it to me?

If you are dedicated to the art of being a writer you will not be unfamiliar with hard work. Staring at a blank screen or clean sheet of paper trying to summon up the right words in the right order can sometimes be a struggle.

Hard work
Hard Working Lady 1 by Roger Casas-Alatriste courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

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Crafting a whole novel from the starting point of an arresting character, a key theme or a single scene and developing that across thousands of words is a big achievement. It takes time, commitment, dedication and self belief. Above all self belief. You have to believe you will arrive at your final destination with a novel to show for it. And you won’t always believe. Not every day. There will be some days when you will hate your work in progress, days when the plot is in danger of falling apart or that character you thought would be fantastic turns out to be wooden and no amount of effort will lift him or her beyond a stereotype. There will be days when you wonder why you bother. And days when you would rather watch paint dry if it means you don’t have to tussle with that scene you just can’t nail, no matter how many times you rewrite it.

Believe
Just Believe by Ashley Linh Trann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Writing a novel is long endeavor, months certainly, sometimes years. Several times along the way your self belief will take a holiday. Sometimes a casual yet harsh word can have your self belief packing its bags and departing. Sometimes it is the inability to capture the essence of what you hold in your mind but cannot seem to drag on to the page or screen. Other times it will just disappear for no better reason than you are feeling jaded or overwhelmed.

Learning
Learning by CollegeDegrees360 courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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Know this will happen. Accept it. When you experience it know that you can come out the other side. You just need to rely on your determination to kick in, like a back up generator to keep the work ticking over and you functioning as a writer even if not all the lights are currently on. We can’t all believe all the time but if you are dedicated to the art of being a writer you cannot allow yourself to crumble whenever your self belief leaves the building. Grind it out. Your determination is what will see you through until your self belief returns from its jaunt with a relaxed smile and a sun tan to take up its customary position in your psyche and then all will be well…until the next time.

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

Diamonds in the drawer

We’ve all got them. They’re tucked away somewhere, possibly in a box or a drawer. They’ve been there for years some of them, gathering dust, unloved. Occasionally, they are languishing in the dark corners of our laptops, tucked inside an obscure file, the titles only half remembered. All of them waiting for the day they are taken out, polished up and given another chance to shine.

Box of files
Box of files by Tempest Tea courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

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As writers we learn our trade by writing stories. Sometimes our early efforts are some way off the mark and if we happen to come across them years later we cringe as we read them. We are always our own harshest critics in those circumstances, mentally editing the text as we read, tutting at the mistakes that are obvious to us now, wondering how we ever thought the work was good enough.

Despair
Despair by Lloyd Morgan courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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That said, most writers will usually find something to admire in those early pieces. It could be a title, a description or sometimes just a single sentence. We come across it and we nod with a half smile and think ‘That’s not too bad’. And that is why writers should never throw away any piece of work or press the delete button on that abandoned work in progress. You never know when you might need it again.

Sometimes whole chunks of writing can be discarded because our sense of the novel changed as we were writing our first rough draft or the character was wrong for that particular book or the plot took a turn we weren’t expecting. Still more writing is lost to edits, pieces deemed an over indulgence or a flashback too far. However disheartened we are at the time, we must never give in to the urge to throw any of that work away.

Instead, we should always tuck those pieces inside a future folder. Chances are there is something salvageable in each and every one. Perhaps the idea was just too big for your younger self to grapple with and you needed the experience of another ten years of writing under your belt before you could finally do it justice. Usually though it is a smaller section of a larger piece we can make use of again in a different way, in a new story. That character description we were always quite pleased with but which got lost in the story we put around it. A title that was better than the story that followed. A killer opening line or a closing twist that just needed to be linked to a story of the same quality.

Diamond in the Rough
Diamond in the Rough by Orin Zebest courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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So next time you find yourself blocked or the new work in progress is failing to ignite, take a walk down memory lane and open up that drawer or box or click on that obscure file. Amongst the dross, and there will be dross, probably lots of it, but amongst the dross, I bet you’ll find a few diamonds waiting to be rediscovered, polished up and given a new chance to shine.

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

 

 

 

Why proofreaders are a necessity and not a luxury

Okay so you have spent out on a professional editor. They have performed their grammatical alchemy on your manuscript and you’ve hired a cover designer to do your cover. Job done. Well, not quite. You still need a proofreader.

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Proof reading Marks Example by Henry O courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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You’ll look at your dwindling bank account and think is it worth it? You might think I’ll just read it through myself very, very carefully and I’ll pick up any mistakes that remain. You might think the editor has done all the hard work for you so why should you bother? You might find a well-read victim, sorry volunteer, and ask them to do the job for you for free. I would caution you against any of these steps but particularly the last one. What if your relative or friend misses an obvious error? They are going to feel terrible when it’s pointed out to them and you are never going to be able to quite forgive them for missing it. Save yourself the angst and hire a professional.

Despair
Despair by Lloyd Morgan courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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I worked with a proofreader and it was a worthwhile experience. It gave me the opportunity to check through the manuscript very, very carefully myself one more time whilst I worked my way through the proofreader’s suggestions. I made a small number of additional changes (give a writer a red pen and a free hour and there’s no telling what might happen – if you find yourself spending five minutes ruminating on ‘He stood his glass down’ as compared to ‘He slammed his glass down’ or comparing the relative merits of ‘charmed’ against ‘enchanted’, as I did, it’s probably time to step away from the keyboard).

Delete
Delete by Matt McGee http://www.carimcgee.com courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

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My proofreader spotted some spelling errors that had sneaked (snuck?) through. She also commented on readability in a few places and pointed out some sentences were clarification would be a good idea. She also highlighted some stray formatting issues that had crept in like extra spaces.

The changes we made between us probably went into double figures and this was on a manuscript that had been relatively ‘clean’ to begin with. Are there still errors that remain? I hope not but if there are the responsibility rests with me.

So, if you are wondering if a proofreader is worthwhile I would urge you to hire one (and no I don’t secretly beyond to the Guild of Proofreaders [if there is such a thing!]). My rationale is always ‘Will this make my book a better book?’ A professional proofreader will give you that.

Big tick
Big Tick by Cve4mejournal courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Don’t fall into the trap of thinking an editor is enough on their own. Hiring an editor without a proofreader is like having treacle pudding without the custard. Nice enough on its own but better together.

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg 

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

 

Why editing is a necessity not a luxury

I like to think I’m pretty good with words. Whilst, I wouldn’t hold myself out to be an expert in grammar, syntax and spelling, I know enough not to embarrass myself. The finer points don’t come naturally to me, however. I have to work at them. I own several books on grammar. Some of them I have even read. Would it occur to me to put my work out into the wider world, beyond friends, family and beta readers, without an expert editor’s eye cast upon it? No.

Edit
Edit> by Matt Hampel courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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A good editor can’t turn a bad book into a good one but a good editor can turn a good book into a better one. A good editor can also make a good writer a better one, if the writer is prepared to learn from the mistakes, foibles and bad habits an editor will, invariably, point out.

We are all blind to our own mistakes. We can read a paragraph through a hundred times and only see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there. We might even have spell checked it on the computer but a spell checker can only do so much particularly when confronted with the vagaries and complexities of the English language. It’s perfectly possible that you have used the wrong word, whether through tiredness or sloppiness or just because you were thinking three sentences ahead and if you spelt it correctly, the spell checker will not pick it up. Bear instead of bare, anyone?

Manuscript
Manuscript by Seth Sawyers courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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If only to avoid such howlers, hire an editor. A good one will comment not only on the mechanics but also the flow of the words. They might suggest to you that changing that piece of information to speech might help readability. They will comment on a set of strangled sentences and suggest a way of making them more readable. They will spot a discrepancy or an area of possible confusion or repetition and suggest you change or clarify it. Suggest is the key word here. They are not going to hit you over the head with a virtual grammatically correct mallet if you don’t take up every single change they put forward. But, if you don’t accept around 90% of their suggestions you are probably not doing yourself any favours.

Corrections
Corrections by mrdonduck courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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There will be writers who use relatives or friends as their editors. That’s fine if that relative or friend also happens to be a professional editor but a well-read person, however well intentioned, is not going to have the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience that an editor will bring to the party.

For me, it was a no brainer. I have loved working with my professional editors. Their comments have made me laugh, cringe, hit my head on the desk at my own stupidity and really think about what I am trying to say and how I want to say it.

It comes at a cost financially. Professional people who know their stuff usually do. Will your book be better for it? Yes. Will you learn lots? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes.

For those who will say I can’t afford to pay a professional editor, I would say think very carefully about what you are hoping to achieve with your writing. If you want to be treated as a professional you have to have a professional approach. So, when you ask yourself the question ‘Can I afford a professional editor?’ the answer every time should be ‘Can I afford not to?’

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg

 

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

 

Cover Story

I have had a LOT of comments about the cover of The Flower Seller. This is a good thing because the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and as a debut in a tough commercial market a stand out cover is a must.

So how did it come about? As soon as I made the decision to self publish I knew I wanted to work with Berni Stevens – www.bernistevensdesign.com/ because I had long admired her work. The first hurdle to jump was would a well known designer want to work with an unknown like me? Bless her, she took the gig.

She asked me to prepare a brief for her. My brief ran to three pages. I had never done anything like this before so I had no idea if the brief I wrote was good, bad or indifferent. I’m guessing good because of the end result so I thought I would share with you some of what I wrote.

Firstly, I thanked her for working with me (very important!), then I explained what genre I was writing in – Commercial romantic fiction (equally important as straight away Berni with all her experience knew the type of covers that would work well in this genre). I then included the blurb I had written for the back of the book to give her an idea of the story.

Next I summed up the key themes for the book: love, deceit, betrayal and hope. I then told Berni of my need to build a brand with my full length fiction so that someone seeing one of my covers would know it was an Ellie Holmes. This, again, was important because what works for The Flower Seller has to work for my next full length novel White Lies and the novels that come after.

I then moved on to key imagery and said ‘I want my covers to be eye catching and beautiful with rich colours.’ I love peonies and I decided peonies could be my theme.

I then went on to say what I didn’t like (equally important as most cover designers are not mind readers). As part of this I said that if the cover was to feature a person then I wanted them to be featured from behind.

Then I moved on to the text. Apart from the fact I wanted consistency across my brand when it came to the text I told Berni I didn’t mind what colours or fonts were used. I thought a plainer text for my name worked well and something more flouncy for the book title but ultimately I left these decisions to Berni.

I told Berni that I am a fan of covers that have pictures that beckon you in whether it be into a house or a garden. Subtly, I think it works on another level to also beckon a reader into the book.

Berni being the fab designer she is took all this disparate information and weaved it all together to form something magical. She then sent me her first set of four covers which I have reproduced below.

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Contact Sheets for The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes
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Contact Sheets for The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

You can see how each of them took something from the brief I had outlined to her. Covers one and two were my favourites and ultimately I discounted number two because it showed the tools of the trade of a flower seller and whilst that is the title of the book, the main character is Jessie not Owen. So, it had to be number one. Remember that line about wanting a cover that was “eye catching and beautiful with rich colours”? I think I got that! Berni also developed the idea of covers that beckon a reader into them by showing Jessie walking down a path. Subtly, I hope that entices readers to want to walk down the path with Jessie and thus open the book. And of course I got my peonies. Apart from a couple of small changes (spot the differences?), this is the final version.

The Flower Seller
The Flower Seller – Front Cover

It was a wonderful experience and Berni was a delight to work with. I am excited about where the next brief will lead us.

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg

 

You Never Forget Your First Time

A couple of weeks ago my new book arrived. Twenty shiny advance reader copies ready for dispatch for people to read and hopefully, if I am lucky, review. I had the epub and the mobi files too of course but looking at a computer file on the screen is not the same as seeing and holding the physical copy.

The Flower Seller arrives (2)
The Flower Seller arrives

Expected on a Monday, they arrived on a Saturday so when the delivery driver rang the bell I went to the door not in a state of heightened excitement but my default setting of bemusement with a slight hint of annoyance as I had been hard at work in the study.

Once I realised what he was delivering my air of annoyance evaporated. I gladly signed for them and carried them in. That was the first wake up call. Two boxes of ten books are heavy. Suddenly this thing I had been working on for so long had substance and form. What had begun as an idea had somehow magically transformed into a real life book.

As I went to open the box, I had a moment of sharp regret. My mum had very much been looking forward to sharing this moment with me but she was no longer here and so holding the first book in my hands was a bittersweet moment as I thought not just of her but also of my dad who wanted this moment for me perhaps even more than I wanted it for myself. I knew more than anything they would want me to celebrate the achievement rather than be sad so I made a concerted effort to pull myself together.

I felt a deep sense of achievement as I studied the book. The cover looked amazing – I remembered how determined I was to work with a particular cover designer, how thrilled I was when she took the commission. I remembered agonising as I wrote up a brief for her, never having done one of those before. I remembered being too scared to open the email when the first proofs of the cover arrived because so much was riding on it and what if I hated them? (I didn’t!)

The Flower Seller
The Flower Seller – Front Cover

I turned the book over and studied the back. Months of work were contained within that glossy cover. Tortuous research and hundreds of decisions came flooding back. Writing the blurb. Urgh! What a task. So crucial. So specialist. I am a 100k word kind of girl, not a copywriter. But I became one.

The author photo. I remembered the fun and games that had gone into finding a photographer and a hair and make up specialist, the agony of the photoshoot itself – they were great, I was petrified. Fortunately, they were so great it didn’t show.

Next to the author photo is the bar code and the ISBN. I remembered all the reading I had done about ISBNs – do you buy your own or not? I decided to buy. A whole new world of, if not exactly pain then acute discomfort, opened up for me. Ah the delights of my application form to Nielsen! You want to know what? I don’t even know what that is let alone how to answer it! Somehow I made it through their form and must have made a pretty good attempt at it because ten ISBNs duly arrived. Either that or they took pity on me.

Below the photo and the ISBN is my web address and if you have been reading this blog for a while you will be familiar with the trials and tribulations of creating my website before I got the wonderful Aimee Coveney on board at www.authordesignstudio.com   You can read the blog post here https://goo.gl/CQ08Yt

 

9780993446306
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

Opening the book up I recalled the pleasant(!) afternoon I had spent ensconced in the study researching front matter and end matter and creating a page of legalese. I pulled a handful of books from the shelf and studied the layout of these pages. Funny how you never notice these things as a reader.

The dedication was easy. I had always known what that was going to be. So too the Acknowledgments. This has been a long time coming. In best Oscar mode, there were a lot of people to thank.

But wait. I have skipped to the back of the book. What about the book itself? The decisions on how the book should be laid out came back to me. Who knew there were so many choices? Basically, we only notice as readers if this has been done badly. Again, I chose a handful of books across genres from my shelves. Six books. Six slightly different lay outs. Only one leapt out at me as nice and easy to read. That’s the one I went for.

It has taken sixteen months from the moment I made the decision to self publish to finally holding the ARC copy of my book in my hand. Sixteen months of phenomenally hard work. A learning curve steeper than the north face of the Eiger. This is, of course, neatly leaving to one side the years of work that went into creating the story itself.

I am proud that I wrote it but writing is what I do. It is innate. Producing a printed book, however, takes authors into places we would never normally stray. Having trodden the path and come out the other side holding a book that was as good as I wanted it to be was a hell of an achievement. I still get a little frisson of pride whenever I pick it up. I say ‘it’ because no sooner had the books come in than they were winging their way back out of the door to their prospective readers and reviewers. I have one copy left but that too is destined to fly the nest shortly. Then I will have to wait for the proper, non-ARC copies to arrive and experience the thrill all over again.

The Flower Seller Congratulations
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes

Today’s blog is the latest in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my debut novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June 2016 #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller Kindle edition is now available to pre-order from Amazon via my website http://goo.gl/0Gv8Jg