Category Archives: Research

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!



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When Characters are Teachers …

How do you see your role as a writer?

I think it’s fair to say I see mine as trying to make sense of the world and by doing so offering another perspective. I think that’s why I am so in love with character narrators with really strong voices. I get to act, to be someone else and as a result, while I have my own views of the world, oddly my characters actually teach me theirs.

Of course I start with my views and there may be some facet of human nature, some flaw of personality, even some unfathomable (to me anyway) behaviour I want to explore in a story. So I start out with a character, take Lydia in While No One Was Watching, my African-American psychic. Where did she  come from? In part she came from Molly another character in another novel that I still plan to rework, but how I really met her was in the  original short story where I saw a room, a reporter and a woman sitting holding a child’s locket. What I saw of her first were her big black hands and the silver chain dripping through her fingers. I saw her lean forward in the chair and I heard her say, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.” And from that came the short story that got some amazing comments from the tutors on an Arvon course and later morphed into the novel. But what could this psychic, who in that short story I didn’t quite trust, have to teach me?

Well I tell you she taught me all sorts about what it might be like to grow up in Texas; she was sixteen when Kennedy was assassinated. She taught me there is a little town called Hamilton Park that has a large African-American community. She taught me what it was like growing up with the legacy that there was a time when black people couldn’t ride the bus with white people — or if they did, they had to ride at the back. Seems ridiculous and appalling now but it really wasn’t so long ago now, was it?

Now in the short story I had her papa as the first black magician in Texas as I wanted it to be something he was very proud of and a work ethic he tried to instil in his children. But also it allowed me to use one of my favourite lines, that sadly had to be taken out as you’ll see. Because the short story was an exploration of voice and unreliable narration, the reader wasn’t meant to know if  Lydia could be trusted, and there was a comparison with what her papa did. Now this was still used in earlier drafts of the novel where he was still a magician. I liked the whole sleight of hand thing and in fact that still applies to a little girl disappearing while no one was watching. So it had more levels than just a career I chose for him. But our astute cynical reporter, who sees asking a psychic to find a missing child as a desperate last resort, is even more cynical when he knows what job her papa did.

The reporter looks at Lydia and he says, “So your papa was a magician — is that so?”

And she says, “Is so. And real proud he was too.”

And the reporter leans back and nods and he says, “So he  made ’em disappear and you find ’em, right?”

I liked the whole idea of that, but since the character and her dead papa were explored in so much more depth in the novel, an editor at one of the big agents who worked with me for a while asked me, if her papa was so opposed to what she did, ‘necromancing’ and claims talking to the dead is against God, then — would he be a magician?

Good point.  Excellent point in fact. Worth noting lovely writer friends when you make changes or adapt short stories. The editor was right — his job didn’t fit with my new discoveries about each character so I had to rethink it. And trust me it’s not just a case of saying — oh he can be a baker then or a shoe maker. No and so began another history lesson from Lydia Collins that I reckon she was dying to teach me, I was just too blind to see it before.

So how did Lydia teach me more history?

Well let me tell you. I went back and she showed me what it was like to live in Hamilton Park — and yes it is a real place. And I found out that it was a planned town, designated for the African-Americans. There’s a whole book about it as a matter of fact — link at the end to the book and here is another link that might be of interest:

We’ve all read about slavery and the Jim Crow era, are aware of the prejudices so I did want to move away from stereotypes and as a white person I also have to be really sensitive to this or someone will say — what right do you have to tell a story that’s not yours? And they might have a point. So great care taken. But I had a great teacher and what Lydia taught me was that first of all she had a very proud papa who was now not the first black magician in Texas but the first person in his family to own his own home — in Hamilton Park. She also showed me how many of these people got good jobs too many out at Love Field, the airport very significant to the Kennedy story. And so her papa came to do the same, working for Braniff Airlines. All the pieces were really falling into place. And while he was very proud, Lydia sat me down and she told me, “Debz, my papa was so proud ’bout the way he got through the ‘selection’, folks sayin’ good things ’bout him so he could get that mortgage. but what he never said was how roundin’ all them black folks up together and makin’ their own town was just the same as makin’ a pen for black sheep. Movin’ us to the edge of the town.”

Now what made it into the book, like the line above, evolved from what I read in real accounts. But it’s a whole part of history I knew nothing about and I am so glad that editor made that suggestion. But even happier Lydia taught me about this.

I by no means mean to cause offence to any African-Americans and I hope her voice is authentic and accepted because she is my favourite character, and yes I know you should love all your children equally, but she taught me so much and I hope she continues to as I would love to work with her again. I dare say she will wake me up some night who knows when or how long from now with another story to tell me! And I’ll be waiting.

So I guess what I’m saying is, you might, as the writer, set out with your own views and statements about the world you want to explore through your writing, but sometimes your characters — well they have whole other ideas.

So a good writer, has to also be a good listener.

And maybe my role isn’t just to force my own views onto my readers, but others’ views and really I guess it is to explore new perspectives, just some might not be mine! It’s like gaining sympathy for a character I started out hating! And there are lots of other characters all waiting in line and I guess it’s who shouts the loudest first that gets my attention.

Maybe all I really am is a vehicle for bringing characters like Lydia to you — so you better listen to her, right Lydia?

Yes, Sir. I’m comin’ soon.

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Editing, where to start?

I have covered many aspects related to writing and editing your work, so which is the most difficult?

I am amazed when I read Tweets and Blogs posts where writers complain about editing. I will tell you why. Editing is what writing is really all about — the nuts and bolts of it. It’s perhaps as much as 90% of writing and is as integral to the process as getting that idea down as a first draft, which is really only the beginning.I think of  the first draft like laying the slab of sculpting clay and forming a tentative shape of what it wants to be — we can see it’s a human or a dog or a tree let’s say and some parts will be more formed and more detailed than others. But do you leave it there? Is that it?

Of course not. Now you must sculpt, deconstruct to reconstruct, mould, craft, tweak and polish. This is the process, this is writing. There does come a point of course where you need to stand back and stop tweaking and perhaps perfection itself is elusive. But indeed it’s the editing that makes bad good and good better, fine finer and great amazing. So never be shy of the process and never think negatively about something that really is the writing process itself.

There are various forms of editing from a full plot or structural edit that usually is where you start after you’ve laid down the first draft; and there’s line editing and copy editing, oh and final proofing. People call the various forms of editing different things, but really I wouldn’t get hung up on a name and they all overlap anyway. I have also talked to people who use the term ‘development’ editing which is more to do with making ideas turn into stories and is very much an initial form of editing akin to structural editing.

When I critique I do a bit of everything. I am copy editing in the sense I am tidying and correcting issues in the narrative itself, explaining rules that are being broken or not understood, so part of it is the nuts and bolts issues, and in some ways I can’t help myself highlighting the clichés and the point of view issues, incorrect formatting in dialogue, incorrect use of semi colons and so on … but what I also point out is the place to start is to look at plot and structural issues first. The corrections and copy editing aspects need to be there to show the writer where they are making fundamental errors, but there is no point correcting all of that first when it’s likely whole sections, even characters will be lost in the big edit. What I think is key to starting the editing process is to look at what’s not working and what is, what needs to be better, as in voice, character, plot and perhaps refer to the story arc as a place to start. Ask yourself what key question the novel explores, what the conflict is that drives the story and is this clear and strong enough? Is the motivation of the key players defined enough to account for their actions and make the plot as credible as it needs to be? These are the big questions and often ones we find hard to see in our own work. So this is where seeking another opinion is useful.

Then look at the scenes in terms of functionality. I use a spreadsheet for this, especially when confronted with a first draft that needs reshaping. People talk about how every word has to count, and perhaps we think this is being too precious and if we teased apart every sentence and every paragraph, the way perhaps a poet might, we would take a lifetime to write a novel. But it does all have to count. It has to be functional; move plot, develop character and explore theme, tie into the leitmotifs you set up from the beginning. So when it comes to your edit, look at function and make sure there isn’t what we call filler … scenes that add little, that are really only padding. This is really where the story’s shape will emerge from your block of clay when you can think it terms of what a scene and then what a chapter does. If you can’t define that then perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Perhaps there is another simpler way of giving the same information as part of another more functional scene?

Getting started is often the biggest stumbling block, and being able to stand back from your work and see its flaws.

If you can’t afford to pay someone to do this seek a writer’s opinion you can trust or even a reader although they might not have the skills you need, they might be able to tell you something seems wrong, but not how to make it better. But at the very least put that MS away for a while and then go back to it. It’s amazing what distance can do to highlight what you couldn’t see before.


And remember editing is process. It can’t be rushed.

If you have any editing questions please ask!

Have a good day writers and readers!



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Well as I come to the end of a phase dedicated to research, I thought I would say a few words about it. It might be useful to take some of the things I’m thinking as I start writing the new novel, for this Blog. Any useful insights. If I have any!

And so I guess a good place to start is research.

How much should you do and how much do you need?

Answer: How long is a piece of string?

Every project is different. Yep, true enough. So I will say it again: every project is different.

I am really brushing up on research I did for the short story I am adapting into a novel, but that does mean I need to explore some areas in far more depth. I am still in the phase but ready to write.

Obvious as this might seem, (but I’ll say it anyway!), the amount of research you need,  depends very much on your current knowledge of the subject. If you are indeed ‘writing what you know’ and ‘what you know well’, perhaps you don’t need as much. Personally I don’t like the phrase ‘write what you know’ because 1. you can get to know almost anything, right? Kind of?  And 2. if we only wrote what we knew, how many fantasy and Sci-Fi books would get written? If you write what you know, is your knowledge accurate? Validated? Unbiased? Can it ever be unbiased? Write what you know about being human — this is what translates in any genre.

I don’t spend weeks and weeks researching because I need to write, like I’m driven by some primeval instinct, and if I don’t my head will explode, but I need some research for sure. If I was writing historical fiction then I’m sure it would need more research, unless I was a professor of history but then my life would be about researching! But I do spend a fair amount of time. This can be fun, reading books, watching movies even. I did a lot of this for my JFK novel. In fact it was that,  that made me realise how blurred the line is between fact and fiction.

I did a fair amount of digging for my Isle of Pelicans novel (now resting, it has ‘issues’) … in fact it was a visit to Alcatraz that inspired it. So I did a lot of reading and went back there. By then I had a first draft. The internet is a great source of information, but a word of warning … you can also find a lot of nonsense there. So be wise about your interpretation. As I pointed out to my paranoid friend, anyone can post anything. I have an MSc and worked as a scientist before this. I could post some ‘fact’ that says if you sneeze more than 5 times a day you are 10% more likely to get cancer and, someone somewhere will believe it.  I did just type it, in fact and on the internet. But it’s not true, well as far as I know! But get my drift?

Perhaps it’s my background that makes me more aware when researching. I often had to look up scientific information in my last job, and that meant using reputable publications and websites. I had to seek validation of those facts from at least 5 sources.  Just be wise, especially when looking for historical information. But you all know this anyway because you’re all so clever!

Deciding what was ‘fact’ and what was ‘fiction’ about the Kennedy assassination was not easy. Those pesky grey areas, and there are a lot. Then you can go with what you feel. Accuracy in fiction I talked about before. Your call. It is fiction after all. But you decide. How credible and how real do you want your work to be? No one says it has to be truthful, but if you want authenticity then you need some truth.

When I did pay another visit to San Francisco it was part of a 40th birthday trip I took with a few fellow ’40 club’ friends. So it was not just for research, if only I had the agent and publisher willing to fund that, right? But I did go armed with a notebook and dragged my friends to all sorts of places. The best was Golden Gate Park where a body was found (in the book people!). We rode the amazing carousel they have there, one featured in my story, and I took lots of photos of the kiddies playground. I hope no one thought I was some pervert! I did not take photos of children, although some might have got in the panned shots. But the oddest thing was asking my mates to help me look for a good spot, near to, but out of sight, of the playground where my character was beaten to death! And like good sports they joined in. “Over here? “No, too dark.” “What about here? The legs could stick out under this tree?” “No, too exposed.” … you get the drift. “No Mr American cop with a big gun, I don’t really plan to kill someone and leave the body in this park. Honest.” No that last one didn’t happen. But imagine!

I did email the San Francisco Police Department and the wardens at Alcatraz for information, mind. I wanted to know if you could hide a kidnapped child on Alcatraz after it closed. I did have to explain I really did not have any intention of doing this of course. The nice man told me no as it’s all lit up and they check after it closes so the information was helpful! And the cop sent me a great email about procedure. He even said ‘let you imagination go wild here!’ when I was asking about forensics!

You can learn a lot from books and the internet and many people have published successful novels having never visited the place. I think it helps, but is not always possible.

I would love to have visited Grapevine Texas, the setting of While No One Was Watching (what a name for a real place where a reporter lives, eh?) And I still want to stand on the grassy knoll. I have been to Texas and to Dallas as I have travelled a lot in the USA so I am not setting novels there for the fun of it. It just seems to fit my stories.

You might not have to go there but it helps. Being in a place can allow you to add an authenticity that’s hard to capture otherwise. It’s in the little details. I found myself standing in the Golden Gate Park noticing the shapes made by the trees in late afternoon. I noticed smells and we asked someone who told us what blossom you get at that time of year. These are the things that can make the difference. So if you can go, do. But as I say, not always possible.

I Am Wolf  is set in New York briefly (I have been and know it enough for what I need), Moscow and a small Russian village … hmm this has been part of my research as this is new to me. I don’t need lots of detail but I need enough. And a small part in Alaska which I would love to visit. But I have enough for this. I already delved into linguistics and psychology but have bought and read a few more texts.

When you have digested the information you need and you get writing, you will always need to dig more as your novel takes you in fantastic unexpected directions of its own. But this is exciting.

Where writers often stumble — with this newly acquired knowledge — is in its deployment.

Ever read those novels where the action is paused for huge information dumps? I know what people think, I have thought it. Well I learned all this, I want to show it off. NO. Please don’t. Like those small details, smells in a park for example that you use to add authenticity, it’s the little things from your research that can say more than big info dumps.  The same can be said about all the scenes you end up deleting and all the background information you know about your characters that you never directly use. I’ll tell you why. Knowledge is powerful. You all know that. But hey, let me say it again anyway: knowledge is powerful. 

And knowledge will seep through in the way you write and the little things you add. Your readers are astute and will sense the depth of your characters when you know far more than you write, because it will be there in the subtext of your words. The way you know your subject will do the same. This is where fiction writers can use their power.

If you want to show the world in a different way, reveal some flaw in human nature, show another perspective; whatever your theme or intention, fiction makes it seem real. Unlike documentaries or factual books, fiction can be emotive, you can get right into the psyche of your characters and become them for a while. Maybe this is enough to produce the paradigm shift, the change in thinking that no factual book could give you?

Would you sit and read a text-book on self-actualisation and linguistics in feral children? Wolf biology? The history of Russia? Perhaps you would, perhaps you wouldn’t. But through fiction knowledge is imparted. Now I have to say that again don’t I? Well I will anyway: through fiction knowledge is imparted. It’s another way of learning, but a very intimate one and one that the soap writers are more than aware of. You can bring the world’s attention to many things through films and books and I am sure these outsell the factual books, when you are often preaching to the converted.

So do your research and use it wisely.

Now I will leave you all in peace. Have a great weekend y’all!

‘I Am Wolf’ drawn by Colin Wyatt


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Simplicity Works

We seem to have a few entries for the Blog 200 Challenge. Many thanks to all those that took part. I will announce my winner tomorrow with some comments. I’ll look at some of the others next week, focussing on the good points and what might have been done a little better. Hopefully this will be helpful and will replace Fiction Clinic next Friday, more like Fiction Clinic Week.

Having recently completed the second draft of my new novel, three little words sit firmly in my head this week — no not ‘I love it’, I’m sorry to say, more like, ‘Keep it simple.’

Good advice. Keep. It. Simple. (Yes I know this is grammatically incorrect, it’s a narrative device!)

I am terrible for looking for such levels of depth I am really telling three stories, and I don’t just mean subplots, I mean three big plot lines and far too much happening. I always knew it but I couldn’t help myself.

This is a common problem and I know I’m not alone. Quite often you start out with a simple idea, a slightly more complex premise and it turns into a highly complex novel. This happens when you get taken over by the ‘Novel Monster’. Know what I mean? The one that keeps you awake at night and possesses all waking thought. Spaces clear around you on the bus … were you really mumbling then? Or is that just me? (Watch number of Blog followers plummet.)

Fellow novelists, I know you know. I know you know that I know you know. See, over-complex!

I actually plan to put that novel out to pasture for a few months. I know there is something there and the pace and characterisation is strong, but the story needs to be simplified.

It is my feeling, and I’m sure I also read it somewhere, that the simplest idea and the simplest storyline is usually the best. While you need layering and texture and subplot, the essence needs to be simple. High concept novels are those that feel as if you have known the story all your life. You ask yourself ‘why didn’t you think of that?’ And you answer, ‘Because you thought it had been done before?’ That’s the thing about simplicity, it feels natural.

Of course I know there are many complex novels out there too, but even those can usually be taken down to a simple defined story thread.

I am now in the throes of research to adapt another short story into a novel and I can tell you, while it explores many complex themes, the story itself is simple. It feels right. Now not to mess that up!

Have a great day and result time tomorrow … 🙂 looking forward to sitting down later, with a steaming mug of coffee, and having a good read of  my talented followers’ work. Thanks all 🙂


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Self-publishing – good or bad? I want your opinions

Following on from the discussion at Hay hosted by the Commonwealth writers, I wanted to throw this open to you … I am also chairing a discussion called To Kindle or Not to Kindle next week, looking more specifically at ePublishing.

What I want to know is what you think and what personal experiences you may have had in either paper or ebook publishing or both?

Do you see this as a last resort after hundreds of rejections from mainstream publishers and agents or do you think your work is unconventional and isn’t suitable so you see it as a great alternative route to get your work out there. Do you simply want to cash in on this market? And what are you doing to get sales?

As a writer myself trying to get an agent, but also having been published a few times now (paper and eBooks) and as a publisher myself I kind of see all sides, which sets up some interesting perspectives. But I am also an editor. For me what I think I want from publishing my novel is a great editor; another pair of critical eyes. I heard many writers talk at Hay and almost without exception they thanked their editor for turning their work into something special; for making it what it is.  And I see the way my editing helps improve the work of my clients. So did you self-publish and if you did, did you get an editor? Tell us about that. If you didn’t, why not? And in hindsight do you think you should have?

I look forward to your responses and urge you to re-Blog, Facebook and Tweet this and get some thoughts ticking over! And any questions or issues from this can be covered as the week goes on.


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The mood swings of writing …

We all do it.

We’re inconsistent beings.

Thoughts likes pendulums.

Our moods swing as we write. One week, one day, one moment, you’re thinking you’re a great writer, the next we’re a crap writer.

Not sure if we ever really find the happy medium.

Validation comes in small ways, an offered opinion from someone you trust and if it’s positive it can paint a smile on for days. Well perhaps until that rejection letter pops into the inbox.

I’ve talked about it before. I’m probably boring. I will talk about it again. But it really is the way it goes.

Most of the time now I am swinging through the air with a smile.  Yeah, okay I am quite mad. It helps.

Today I am smiling because a lot of projects I’ve been involved with are all coming to fruition and June 01 is a bright day on my calendar.

The Wild n Free ; the latest Paws n Claws book written and illustrated by children is out that day. In fact today or tomorrow I should see the proof of the book … I am so excited. That’s been a real labour of love and one that probably won’t make me my money back but it really is not about that. I talked about that before but I have to say it is such a great feeling. The email that popped in my inbox on Friday saying how much one of the parents appreciated all the work and what a confidence boost it has been for her little boy makes all of it so worth while. This reaffirms that it is not about the money and I am still glowing from that. 🙂 🙂 🙂

I will be at the Hay festival as a visitor this year and will sneakily be promoting the book 🙂 Anyone going, let me know and I am happy to meet for coffee!

I also have another project I have been working on for months with a client that gets published to Kindle at around the same time and I might be inviting her as a guest to the Blog, especially as it’s a memoir about battling mental health issues and it is mental health awareness month. So that’s exciting.

And I am also close to finishing the second draft (well it has changed so much more like a first draft) of Isle of Pelicans, my novel.

I have a feeling it’s going to be a good summer.

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was designing postcards to promote Wild n Free, once again filling my  Sunday with the unpaid work stuff, how I’m not sure what else I would’ve been doing if I didn’t have all this? Sunday is an odd day for me, a day when I always wish the family lived closer and I had somewhere to go or something to do, but I always manage to fill it with something nice 🙂

It’s a great life.

Wild n Free is available from Amazon to pre-order by the way, it’s only £7 (please buy it!) and do ‘LIKE’ it on Amazon for me. Cover will be on soon (I have sent it!) and on release day the Kindle version will also be available to download. All royalties to Born Free!

Click here to go to  Amazon

This cover was drawn by one of the authors, 11 years old! What talent we have out there!

Enjoy the day 🙂

Cover by Hannah Probyn-Duncan aged 11

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