Businesses make themselves stronger by joining forces. Simon Whaley discovers how this can help your writing.
Writing is a lonely occupation, but those writers who succeed tend to be the ones who seek support from elsewhere. In the world of business this is known as a synergy, when two or more businesses co-operate to produce a result greater than their separate parts. As individual writers we have strengths, but we also have weaknesses. In order to develop as writers we need to recognise those weaknesses and then join forces with another business that can help us overcome them, making us much stronger in a competitive world.
Successful novelist Jean Fullerton, whose latest novel, Fetch Nurse Connie, is published on 4th June, knew early on that she would need guidance from an expert in the publishing industry. ‘When I started writing I had no idea if I could. I started jotting down a story just to amuse myself, but then the writing bug took hold of me. I’m dyslexic so knew that spelling and punctuation would be a problem from the start and knew if I was going to get anywhere I would have to seek professional help.’
Jean approached Hilary Johnson’s Authors Advisory Service. ‘I heard Hilary speak in 2003,’ says Jean, ‘and I sent my first script to her later that year. Naturally, I hoped for a glowing report and although what came back wasn’t that, it certainly was encouraging, but also it told me straight that I needed to learn my craft.’
If you’re going to ask another business professional to help your writing business, it’s vital you research their background and experience, so you know you can rely on any advice they offer. Hilary Johnson, for example, has worked in publishing for many years, drawing upon her work as a magazine editor, a distance learning tutor, a reader for Penguin, a competition judge and organiser of the Romantic Novelists’ Associations New Writer Scheme. She’s also built up a network of specialists, so when a manuscript comes in she can allocate it to the right person. ‘At the time,’ says Jean, ‘I was writing more romantic stories, and so my manuscripts went to an editor with years of experience in a major publishing house working within the romantic genre. If you’re a crime writer it would go to someone who understood the ingredients of a crime novel.’
What Jean found most useful was not only the detailed grammatical suggestions, but the analysis of her structure and story for the genre she was targeting. ‘New writers often get confused as to what authors’ editorial services actually are,’ says Jean, ‘and they tell me they don’t need editorial services as they are very good at grammar. But good editorial services are so much more comprehensive than whether you should use a colon or a semi-colon. It’s about pulling all the elements of the story, characters, plot, pace etc together so as to enthral the reader.’
Jean’s determination to seek the support she needed with her writing enabled her to flourish. She’s since gone on to write several novels, including the successful Nurse Millie books, and has an agent. But that doesn’t mean she rests on her laurels. She knows her books still have to be of the highest standard before her agent submits them to her publishers. ‘My agent, who was an editor at HarperCollins and Penguin, and her lovely team now do the honours, so every manuscript I send to my publisher, Orion, is as polished as it possibly can be.’
Editorial services cost money. We are buying expertise, after all, but we should also look at this expenditure as an investment in our business. All businesses invest in order to grow and writers are no different. However, buying such expertise is just one way of doing things.
Vicki Beeby, who writes under the name of Tora Williams, spotted a competition run by Mills and Boon, which offered a critiquing option. ‘I follow Mills and Boon on Twitter and Facebook,’ she says, ‘and the competition was advertised there. It was free to enter.’ She didn’t enter straightaway, though, in fear of what the critique might say. However, with only hours to go before the deadline Vicki made her submission, and was glad she did, because she won the competition. The critique she received was immensely helpful.
‘It was a very carefully thought out critique,’ says Vicki, ‘that mainly focussed on the internal conflicts of the hero and heroine – what the editors liked about them and what needed more work. I found it a huge help in that it forced me to think more deeply about the story and see it not just as a writer or a reader, but from the perspective of an editor who knows her line very well and understands what a reader expects a Mills and Boon historical to deliver.’
This is where the professionalism of working with another business shines through. That industry expert perspective can set us off on the right track. Anyone can give us advice, but what we need is the right kind of advice. We’re often advised to join a writers’ group, and that’s a great tip, but there’s a limit as to what a writers’ group can do for us. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have an editor, agent or publisher as a member, a writers’ group may not be able to give us the up-to-date industry perspective on our work.
Vicki’s critique has enabled her to move on with her project. She made the changes the critique suggested and then sent them in. ‘I received a revision letter from Mills and Boon last week,’ she says, ‘so I’m busy working on that and will resubmit when it’s done.’ By building upon the feedback, Vicki has taken a step closer to publication.
Editorial services aren’t the only businesses that writers can benefit from. Vicki is a proofreader (www.vickibeebyproofreader.co.uk) and knows the benefits of what a proofreading business can bring to other writers’ businesses. Some writers use a proofreading service before submitting to an agent, or a publisher, to ensure their manuscript is as polished as it can be, while self-published writers engage their services before going directly to print.
’Spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes throw up a barrier between the readers and the story,’ says Vicki, ‘therefore, you should check your work carefully before submitting it to give your story the best possible chance of being accepted. However, it can be very difficult to spot mistakes in your own work – all too often you read what you think should be there, rather than what actually is. An external proofreader will provide a fresh pair of eyes to your work and pick up mistakes that you’ve possibly skipped over many times.’
A good proofreading service doesn’t just look at spelling, punctuation and grammar, although these are vital points, as Vicki explains. ‘Another major aspect of proofreading is checking for consistency. For example, ensuring that formatting – fonts, line spacing, paragraph indents, etc – is consistent throughout. With fiction I also check for point-of-view inconsistencies, anachronisms, factual errors, such as if a character picks blackberries in May, eye colour changing from brown to blue … the list goes on. I also proofread theses and maths and scientific textbooks, where I am required to check references, calculations, headings, the contents list and anything else that the client may specify.’
For many writers, the key business partnership we’re keen to secure is that of an agent. Last year, Emma Finlayson-Palmer was taken on by an agent, and has found this business synergy has affected her in several ways. ‘Having an agent has given me a lot more confidence in my writing. I also find that I’m now editing far more than I might have previously. Knowing that it’s definitely going to be read by an agent pushes me to write better than I ever have before.’
Having an agent take her on has boosted her confidence, as you would expect, but it has also made her take a more business-like approach to her writing. ‘I’m finding that now I have an agent, I feel justified in locking myself away to write. It has assuaged the guilt slightly! Even my husband encourages me to go off and write, as if having an agent makes it official that I’m a writer now!’
For any business synergy to work, it’s important that both businesses get on. Only then can both business thrive on the joint efforts. Emma agrees. ‘My agent has a great eye for detail and is a fantastic editor. She provides detailed feedback and suggestions to improve my writing and make it more marketable. She gives a lot of positive encouragement and general hand holding through my doubts! For me, a great working relationship with an agent involves a mutual love of your writing. She/he needs to feel as passionate about your writing as you do. It also helps if you share similar tastes in books and themes. For example, my agent and I both have a love of time as a prominent theme, witches and strong female protagonists, amongst other things.’
Support from other writing businesses will be required at different stages of a project’s development. An editorial service can be useful after creating that first or second draft, to highlight any major structural problems, and then again later, to reflect whether we’ve made the right changes. A proofreader can offer that final polish, before we submit to an agent, who we hope will secure us the all-important publishing deal.
When we’re throwing all of our energy into such personal creations, the thought of letting someone else get involved may horrify us. But as all three writers here have shown, forming business relationships with other writing businesses has enabled their own writing business to grow stronger. It doesn’t matter where in our writing journey we are, we can always benefit from some outside support.
Always research potential manuscript advisory services to ensure they have experience in the genre you’re writing.
Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service – www.hilaryjohnson.demon.co.uk
The Writers’ Workshop – www.writersworkshop.co.uk
The Literary Consultancy – www.literacyconsultancy.co.uk
Basic information about literary agent can be found at:
Writers’ And Artists’ – www.writersandartists.co.uk
Agent Hunter – www.agenthunter.co.uk
Both services offer more detailed information to subscribers. Some manuscript advisory services may put you in touch with an agent if they think you may be of interest to them.
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders maintains a Directory of Editorial Services, identifying over 500 of their members and the services they offer.
© Simon Whaley