Advice on Taking Advice...

The self-publishing revolution is in full-bloom and everywhere that I look on my daily potter around the dusty, book-ish corners of the internet there's advice on how to do it DIY. Most of it is good, some very good and some rather questionable, but it was my return from a holiday that I shall forever associate with Katniss Everdeen and the people of Panem that makes me want to tackle one particular self-publishing issue - editing.

The book I'm currently working on is called Powder Burn in which Sam Blackett has given up her job as a sub-editor with a New York paper, abandoned her boyfriend and flown east to chase her dream of becoming an adventure travel writer. She washes up in a Himalayan city where snowboarder Pete Halland blows into her life – headed for the mythical Powder Burn to make a first descent and a documentary. Sam throws in her chips with Pete and his friends and their play for fame and fortune - but they crash into Jortse and Tashi, struggling to free Phutan from invaders... and the rest follows.

The book has a long history. I finished the first draft back in 2004, when my agent was Stephanie Cabot, then MD at the William Morris Agency in London. Stephanie was terrific and within a couple of months Working Title Films had taken a movie option and I was doing a rewrite for Penguin. Unfortunately at that point, Stephanie had to return to the USA to go to the aid of her sick parents, the publishing deals languished and when Stephanie settled back in America permanently we parted company. I started the next book (which became The Fulcrum Files) and left Powder Burn in a draw until the movie option died, when I felt free to go back to it.

Working Title's plan - at least as far as it was ever explained to me - was to take my 'adventure-chick-lit' and turn it into a more straight-forward thriller. And once they had folded their hand, I thought that I might as well have a go at it myself. So I commissioned a manuscript appraisal from one of the well-known literary consultancies. These existed long before the indie publishing revolution and have always filled an important need. It's hard to be objective about a book when you've spent months or years working on it, and if you don't already have an agent and publisher, then you really do need to go and pay for an objective appraisal.

Overall, I can't speak highly enough of the professional advice I've received over the years from various editors, but just to show you that they don't always get it right, here's a paragraph from the analysis of Powder Burn:

"Legends involving mystical swords and chosen ones who can save their country from destruction do have a certain appeal to some readers, mostly male. There is a risk that female readers will skim these bits whilst male readers skim the passages from Sam’s point of view, not a good idea. The whole point of a thriller is that it should grip all readers throughout... And never underestimate the insularity of readers in the UK and N. America. Characters that come from very different cultures and have strange names that are difficult to pronounce tend to go down like lead balloons."

And to which I can now respond with just three words; The Hunger Games, the huge global sci-fi hit written for teenage girls, set in Panem and starring a bow-and-arrow-wielding chosen one called Katniss Everdeen. Ok, so I'm being a bit unfair - but you can see the point, no one really knows where the next big hit is coming from, or what publishing conventions it's going to break on the way to the top. So take the editorial advice and think hard about it, but remember; the buck stops with the writer - just how much belief do they have in the story they're telling? A question I shall be asking myself when I resume work on Powder Burn in the next few weeks....

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Good post, which addresses certain issues we should ALL be thinking about. In the immortal words of William Goldman, 'Nobody knows anything.' I don't know why, as writers, we tend to want to go along with whatever we're told about our work - but we do. But editors don't get it right all the time, and as a writer, you should always bear in mind that an editor is earning his or her living too. I realised this over many years of working with producers, directors and script editors on drama. Once a play is commissioned and in production, you can be reasonably sure that your director has the best interests of the play at heart - (although not always!) - but in the world of television, a script editor can string you along unpaid, quite literally for years, with endless edits. I say unpaid, but he or she is always being paid. It's the writer who isn't.
A good editor is a pearl of great price. A bad editor, or simply one who isn't quite in tune with your 'voice', is a disaster. The trick is in being able to know the difference and know when to say 'no'. And that's difficult.
My novel The Amber Heart had been through so many edits I had lost count. It had, frankly, been edited to within an inch of its life. The straw that broke that particular camel's back was an email to my agent from a publisher's editor, praising the novel, turning it down, as it happened - because she 'couldn't carry the marketing department' with her - and remarking by the way that it needed a 'good strong edit.' I'm afraid my response to that was a resounding 'no it bloody doesn't'. Which was the point at which I went for the eBook option!
julia jones said…
I always enjoy your posts Mark and look forward to more books as well.
Mark Chisnell said…
Many thanks for the comments, I guess it's all part of the journey!!

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