When will they ever learn? - by Dennis Hamley

What a silly question.  New writers will never learn what a frustrating road they're embarking on because, if they're worth their salt, they won't care.  That's the attitude I take when another manuscript from a hopeful newbie appears in my inbox or thumps onto my desk.

No, the pile is never as big as this
I do a lot of this work.  I edit for The Oxford Editors (www.theoxfordeditors.co.uk) and also on my own account.  Cherry Mosteshar, the remarkable woman who runs The Oxford Editors, regularly sends me manuscripts.  Sometimes she asks me merely to write a report with advice to the author.  This can be as far as the process goes.  I estimate what I read as fairly as I can, state unambiguously what I think of it, point to the good things (because there always are) and look the weaknesses full in the face with advice on what I think can be done about them.  Sometimes that's the last I hear from them.  Have they given up or tried someone else who tells them what they want to hear?  

That's not cynical, by the way.  I was once asked, not by Cherry,  to help a girl with her novel which already had been given an exhaustive report from a fairly well-known and quite expensive (dearer than us anyway) agency.  I read the report first.   It was incredibly enthusiastic.  A few token faults were mentioned but otherwise it was a song of complete praise.  It seemed to be saying that here was a future Booker winner. So, full of expectation,  I turned to the text.  It was ambitious, powerful, sometimes memorable but a complete mess as a novel.  I tried to apply WH Auden's advice: 'If you think you have found a work's fatal weakness, pause and ask yourself whether it is actually its greatest strength.'  (I know I've got the exact words wrong, but it doesn't matter, that's what he meant.)  Well, I did pause and ask myself - and it wasn't.  We worked hard on it but the surgery needed was just too great.  So she scrapped it (outwardly very cheerfully because that's the sort of person she is), picked herself up, started a totally new novel - and it's going well, because I think she's learnt a lot about herself and her writing.   But I also think taking her money and then saying things which no examination could possibly justify is either incompetent reading or exploitative and actually immoral.  However, I think and hope that one day she may come back to the first novel and see what is to be done, because I believe there's a big talent there and there's so much in the narrative which mustn't be lost.

Often, the first report is far from the end of contact.  It can evolve into a deeper relationship in which I work quite intensively with the author.  We work largely through email but, if possible, we have face-to-face 'tutorials'.    Sometimes, when the author lives miles away (at present I have one in Sheffield, one in Harrogate and a third in Ireland) we meet on Skype.  I see the lady who lives down Polstead Road in Costa.

I also help my ex-Diploma students with their novels-in-progress.   This is good because I have a pretty detailed idea of their capabilities before they ask me. At present I have an intriguing psychological thriller set in Massachusetts from an American expat and another thriller, very London and Essex with evocative and often threatening urban settings, a great plot and a wide range of characters, some of whom are exceptionally nasty.   I told the writer that it reminded me very much of Martina Cole.  'Who?' she answered.  That response pleased me a lot because I think hers is better than what I've read of MC's.

I read a wide variety of manuscripts.  Many, of course, are aimed the children's/young adult market but I get a fair amount of adult (in the literary sense) novels.  I have a writer who presents lovely short stories about philosophers, basing them on real or reputed events in their lives which show the roots of their philosophies in action.  I have a man doing potential picture book texts involving a cat.  We met for a chat in The Eagle and Child.  I cannot imagine anyone less like a Mum-reading-aloud picture book text writer.  I work with a girl who wrote a novel, which was by her own admission a bit over the top, about anorexia.  We spent a lot of time on it: like so many texts, it needed tactful editing, a lot of clarification, the removal of several cluttering-up characters, a sharper narrative flow and - as always, always, always - a radical look at the language, fining it down on the basis that a 60,000 word first draft is a 40,000 word final draft and if there's a turn of phrase you're particularly proud of, look at it very carefully because it may just be self-indulgence and will have to go.  A hard lesson to learn for the new writer.

Well, in the end I thought it was time for her to find an agent.  And she did, almost at once - and one of the big ones too. Wonderful.  But the thing I feared most might now be coming to pass.  At first, much praise: the word 'brilliant' was used several times.  And then, a long silence.  The last time I saw her the only break in it had been a rather ambiguous email.   What will the next communication be?  A pattern fairly familiar to a lot of us.

No matter.  She's produced two short novels since then and works with an energy and intensity which I envy a lot.  She'll get there, I know it.  Obviously I can't tell you her name.  But I will when she's famous.

So on we go - now to the two men in Yorkshire.  One is writing a big comic novel (and it's working, making me laugh out loud) set in a fictitious Yorkshire town inhabited by monsters of eccentricity,  overweaning conceit, lechery and criminality - imagine Cranford metamorphosing into Royston Vasey and then back to Cranford, but only slightly.  Inevitably, the story sprawled all over the place and as usual, needed a disciplined attack on its girth.  He's  rewriting it now.  I look forward to the result.  The other Yorkshireman is also writing a big fantasy, this time for young adults.  Inventive, intriguing, often funny, complicated without being confusing, this too needs a lot of its language pruning.  It will be done and the book will be good.  I used to live in Yorkshire and am not a bit surprised that its inhabitants are producing such weirdly satisfying novels.

Obviously I've mentioned no names so far.  But I will mention one because the book he sent is now published.   Richard Kirwan was head of the Irish Ordnance Survey until he retired.  He was asked to write a book about it by a small publisher in Dublin.  Though he'd never written anything before, he agreed, went on a creative writing course to learn how, wrote it and then sent it to Cherry for proper editorial feedback.  And Cherry sent it on to me.

This book was unlike anything I'd ever had to deal with.  It's partly the history of the Irish Ordnance Survey - and that's an extraordinary story in itself.  It imparts a lot of information about maps and mapmaking: I learnt a lot without feeling I was being lectured to because  it is so organic within the text.  However, most intriguingly, it is also autobiography.   But this is not just an account of a life so far: it goes far deeper than that.  The book starts with an evocation of a boyhood in Waterford, where Richard's love of maps first developed.  It develops into what I can only call a spiritual biography. It ends with a chapter entitled 'The Two Cartographers', in which the two selves, young and old, talk together and brings the whole book as near to a proper synthesis as any I've ever read.   And it is so gripping that I really couldn't wait to carry on with it after the main business of the day was finished.

If Maps Could Speak

A lovely and absorbing book.  
I'm trying to get Richard to ebook it.

The actual editing process was very much what I have come to expect.  There were things which weren't quite right and we worked hard - this time by email - on it for a long time.  Then, at last, we decided that it was ready to be published.  It appeared in Ireland in 2010, published by Londubh Books in Dublin to some very good reviews.

I wish it was available here.  It should at least be an ebook.  I'd like to think a British publisher might take a punt on it.  It wouldn't be a blockbuster (though who knows nowadays?) but I know there would be a core of perceptive readers because it's one of those books which turns out to be far, far more than at first it seems to be.

Richard is writing a novel now,  set in Waterford and vividly depicting pre-60s Irish society, suffocating in religion and frustration.  Having been married to a woman from Galway and therefore sometimes watching it as a spectator, I can vouch for its accuracy. (My wife, by the way, had emancipated herself from it long before).  I'm commenting on the novel as it develops and once again I think it will, in the end, work.  And then?

I can ask this question on behalf of all these new writers.  They aim, of course, for commercial publication and that should be their first objective.  It's also their right to aim for it, whatever cynics like us feel.  To them, independent or self-publishing doesn't yet seem an option.  'I could have done that myself without bothering with you' is a fair summary of what they think.

But it's part of my job to tell the truth, that being taken up with a big publisher is no longer the seal of approval and quality that it used to be (or so we thought), the chances of getting it are minimal and even if it comes off there's no guarantee of success.  And it's  probably a waste of time anyway, though it may take them a long time to realise it, and postpones the personal delight when a book   they publish independently makes available something worthwhile which otherwise might never have been read.  However, I think that the message is beginning to get through.  It no longer receives the shock-horror reaction that once it would.

So there we are.  Time-consuming and sometimes quite difficult work but always rewarding, sometimes inspiring and never dull.  A bit like writing actually.  I'm afraid I can't resist signing off by reproducing Richard's comments, taken from the home page of The Oxford Editors' website, because I was thrilled when I first saw it and it intensified my feeling about how important a service such as The Oxford Editors - and other agencies - provide to those who have things to say and want to make sure they say them as well as they can..

I have only praise for The Oxford Editors' team and Dennis Hamley, the editor assigned to me, for a masterful response in assessing and copy-editing my manuscript. As with most authors, I was working against a deadline which had crept up unnoticed on me. This was my first book and I wanted to get an independent assessment of the quality and content of the writing before passing it to my publisher. I also had concerns about the order of some of the chapters as this was a book which mixed history, storytelling and autobiography and I needed to have a balance between the historical and modern aspects of the book. I received, very promptly, an in-depth assessment of my manuscript in which all of my queries and concerns were fully addressed. There were many excellent suggestions on how I could improve the work, especially on bringing all the strands to finality in the final chapters. Once I had completed some changes the book was copy-edited. There were so many things I had not noticed and many subtle changes proposed which made the work that much stronger. This process was a major confidence booster for me because the work was independently assessed by someone unknown to me and in this instance by someone to whom the subject of my book was new. Yes! It was a very worthwhile and valuable exercise
Richard Kirwan

Thank you, Richard.


Absolutely fascinating piece, Dennis, which manages to be heartening and a bit sad at the same time. Heartening, because it's good to know there are real editorial agencies (and sensitive informed editors) out there still, and a bit sad because when we follow the progress of writers who are starting out, young or older, we can so often see our younger selves in them but have to let them find things out for themselves and have to hope they don't make ALL the same mistakes! I did a stint with the Open College of the Arts many years ago (another effort to keep the wolf from the door!) and I loved the variety of writing that came in.I learned a lot about self editing too, from working with other people.You're right, of course. Real writers will carry on writing, no matter what. But when you see somebody being given the run-around by the publishing industry - and I found myself in just that situation late last year - what do you say? I was doing an event and stayed to listen to a later speaker, a young, enthusiastic and clearly very talented writer who had been - so far as I could see - treated with cavalier indifference by his publisher. I could see it and the audience could see it.He had begun to accept it as normal.Had begun to believe that he himself was unreasonable in expecting the normal courtesies which happen in most other business relationships. Afterwards, people kept coming up to me and saying 'tell him, tell him' - but how could I? He was still at the thrilled and hopeful stage. I suppose, like you, you can only set out the options and hope for the best!
Dan Holloway said…
The Auden quotation seems incredibly wise (but as you found sadly very often true). I love the idea of meeting slients in the Eagle and Child. Of course, when I was tutoring philosophy I never ever did such a thing!
CallyPhillips said…
I simply second what Catherine said about this post - heartening and sad - AND what Dan says too re meetings! It seems that today I have NOTHING original to say, but that doesn't stop me writing now does it? But a fascinating insight into Dennis the editor. Where do YOU find all your time from Dennis and can you send me some?
Susan Price said…
Yes, Dennis' energy and willingness to embrace new technology puts many much younger people to shame. Cheers, Dennis!
Bill Kirton said…
Lovely read, Dennis. In some ways sad, yes, but reassuring to have it confirmed that there are still real editors at work who care enough about writing and new (and old) writers to devote lots of time to them. Thanks.
Jan Needle said…
I've just written a substantial and thoughtful comment. And me computer has just despatched it to the outer darkness. So - great post, Dennis. Thanks.
ABE said…
You make one long for the experience of being 'properly edited,' of being courted and supported and coddled as one writes.

The main problem is that those who need it the most can afford it least.

Pardon my ignorance, but have you written a book on editing or self-editing? I would love to read your advice. I believe that before seeking professional editing, the writer should do as much as humanly possible to remove the obvious errors - so as not to drive the editor batty.

If you have such books - and/or a blog or website, a link in your columns would be appreciated, too.

Dennis Hamley said…
ABE, despite what Sue says, I haven't got the energy to do a blog (except this one of course) and I don't use my website for anything but blatant self-advertising (and even that's out of date)but I do think it might be useful for me to write down the principles which I follow, with examples. I'm not a professional editor (well, if people pay me for what I do, I suppose I am!)and I follow my own system of common sense, experience in both reading and writing and from watching some very good editors at work. And some rubbish ones too, so I know what not to do. But I do think that help with self-editing is something I can provide and I'll find a form in which I can do it. But the first and most important advice I can give in self-editing is: READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. You'll see where you've gone wrong at once, all the way from weak punctuation, slightly wrong emphasis, unexpected ambiguity, up to finding that what you've written is actually physically impossible to say. I've found that before now. Silent reading will never give you that clarity. You make your prose three-dimensional and it can be a bit of a shock.

Jan - how sad. Now I'll never know. Can't Matti find it for you? It's got to be sculling around somewhere.
Dennis Hamley said…
And Cally, I'm not one-eighth as industrious as you are. Sometimes, as I curl up in front of the TV with a glass of wine, I think what a lazy slob I am.
Lydia Bennet said…
lucky writers to have you editing them Dennis! there are lots of editing companies nowadays but how can people be sure their money's well spent, the example you give of useless praise suggests some do this just for money with no real interest in the writer or their work. Editing like you are doing is basically like a one to one workshop of many hours - I've tried mentoring people when asked, and tutored creative writing at university MA, and I find it very draining of time and energy if you do it properly. You must be a positive powerhouse!
glitter noir said…
Marvelous piece. I loved the Auden quote, or near-quote, which reminds me of how Byron's friends begged him to stop writing his 'beastly' poem, Don Juan, and write more of the famous old tripe they'd enjoyed. The very things they criticized--the digressions, the comically cynical tone, etc--are the best things about 'Donny Johnny'. Cheers.
Lovely piece, Dennis. You sound like a wonderful editor - empathic, guiding, sensitive and patient about letting the author be themselves.
Love that 'read your work aloud' advice! You're so right. It is the single most important thing you can tell people to do.I even used to tell people to do it with academic essays. In fact, we should be spreading that one wherever writers are gathered together! Playwrights do it all the time - my husband has got used to the constant stream of 'acting out' that goes on whenever I'm writing a play. People used to ask me about writing dialogue all the time and it's one of those things that is very hard to teach, if people don't have an 'ear' for it - but that's also the key to writing good dialogue. Brilliant advice.
Enid Richemont said…
I have always read aloud - couldn't work otherwise. And Dennis, I never knew you did this (how little we know about friends and colleagues).

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