Welcome to the Cornerstones Blog, keeping you up to date with the latest information on literary workshops, advice on how to write, a general look at the publishing industry today and, perhaps most importantly, ways to finally crack it!

For more information on how we help aspiring authors, visit our website http://www.cornerstones.co.uk/

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Queen of self-publishing

We ran an internal competition recently that invited our authors and the public to vote for their favourite self-published book, based on a sentence blurb and the jacket. There were a flurry of votes as the deadline drew near, and three out of the 50 authors who entered were almost neck and neck. In the end, the winner was Jan Ruth for Wild Water. It was great to see how these savvy authors spread the word via twitter, emails, blogs and local word-of-mouth to garner support. It goes to show that apart from being a good read, marketing your own book is an essential part of being published. Have a look at Jan's journey to self-publication:

Congratulations Jan! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to self-publication?
When I'm not writing I'm thinking about writing, or reading. I try and counter-balance this physical inertia by walking in the mountains or riding my friend's horse. (That sounds very self indulgent but now at fifty plus, I finally have the time to be!)

What inspired you to write Wild Water?
I wanted to write a book about infidelity where the man is the wronged party and the main voice of the story, and I wanted to write about the Welsh landscape; make it function almost as a character in its own right.

Is this your first book?
No, it's my second. My very first novel (25 years ago) went to a London agent trying to set up her own project, publishing love stories with a difference but it never got off the ground because of finances.

How did you find the writing process?
Until I get the main guts of the story down I am consumed by the process really, to the exclusion of everything else. Husband could quite likely come home and find dinner in a burnt out pan in the garden!

Did you submit to agents and publishers?
Yes I did the usual route with agents, and with Wild Water I was lucky enough to get Jane Judd on my side, who then referred me to Cornerstones. After some tweaking with the original script we were ready to go but unfortunately Jane failed to place it with a publisher because 'it fell between two genres and didn't quite fit anyone's list'. So it sat in a drawer for twelve years.

What led you to self-publish?
All of the above really. My son alerted me to the steady growth of kindle, helped me with the technical details and set up a website.

How has the experience been so far?
The best part of self-publishing is being in control of the whole process and getting feedback from the paying public. And although I have a sales background, the marketing of something internet based is somewhat different to a physical book, and I am still learning. But then, I didn't set out to write something commercial, just something readable.

As we've seen from our competition, every vote counts. How did you market this?
The advantage I had with Wild Water is the tremendous support I have locally. I talked to a lot of people about the book and the competition. Generally I find people will respect something sincere and will get behind you, especially if it champions where you live. 

What next?
Okay here's the marketing! My second book MIDNIGHT SKY is almost ready to go out on kindle, after a careful re-write courtesy of Cornerstones. Winning a competition like this opens up numerous ideas to be explored.

Thanks, Jan and we hope sales fly for you. Our next blog is an interview with Rowan Lawton, a literary agent at PFD, on what kind of author she loves to represent...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cornerstones article for Jam magazine, July 2011.

Is self-editing a doddle or is editor-speak goobledegook to you?

Helen Corner at Cornerstones www.cornerstones.co.uk tells us why it’s always good to know what you’re talking about before you meet the agent.

You’ve finished your dazzling, high-concept and well-written novel, you’ve sent it out, and an agent calls you and requests a meeting. This is exciting - a chance for you to chat about your book and see if there’s a mutual rapport. You arrive at her office, where manuscripts are heaped on the desk, and sit down with a coffee while she balances your MS on her lap. There are lots of red tags on the pages, but she’s smiling so you relax.

She’s just how you imagined her: professional (she requested the meeting within a few weeks of you sending the MS), approachable (but not in a cosy way; after all you want her to be ruthless at the negotiating table) and you can tell you’re in good hands. Then again, you researched and profiled the five agents you submitted to, so you know that her reputation is outstanding. In your mind, you’ve already signed on the dotted line and written courtesy emails to the other four agents thanking them for their time and informing them that you have representation.

Then she starts thumbing through the red tags and talking about the book needing more work; one more redraft and a further read before she signs you up officially. She mentions strengthening your main character and introducing more tension peaks in the mid-section; and how about tightening up scene structure in general to increase pace? Oh and by the way, there’s no rush. She’d much rather see a polished MS that’s ready to go out to the six editors she’s earmarked.

You might be one of the few first-time authors who thinks this is a breeze. You can manage all of this and more, and deliver within the week. If you’re confident that you can make thorough rather than cosmetic revisions, then you’re lucky. At Cornerstones we’re often nervous when authors make swift revisions as they’re rarely effective.

But what if, like most debut authors, all this technique speak is meaningless? Your mind’s gone fuzzy, your hearing wobbles, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your pencil keeps slipping out of your hand. Words like ‘character empathy’ and ‘arcs’ appear on your notepad and you’re transported back to school during that awful failed French exam.

At this juncture, there are two things you can do and neither is ideal:

One is to put up your hand and admit that you’re not sure what she’s talking about. What’s an emotional arc, exactly…? This would be just about acceptable, as she smiles and takes a deep breath, but she may privately lose a bit of confidence in you - while she could teach you about self-editing, does she really have time?

Or you could keep quiet and decide you’ll deal with it alone. You’ll put yourself on a crash course in self-editing techniques, revise your MS and hope for the best. This means lots of pressure to get it right, and anxiety about whether you’ll be able to deliver.

Ideally, you should already be acquainted with these techniques. You’ll be confident and calm during this meeting, bold enough to take these editorial suggestions away to process later, think about the revisions that have been requested and then write a confirmation email with a proposed plan.

You’ll be able to write that you’ve thought seriously about increasing the tension peaks in the mid-section, but you’d rather combine the six she suggested into three impactful ones, which are listed, and which would fit into the 3-act graph. You plan to interweave the heroine’s internal conflict more closely with the action plot in a cause and effect way right from the beginning, which should boost empathy and understanding. As for scene structure, you intend to do a ruthless prune and cut down on overwriting to foreground the climax of each scene. This should aid pace and tension overall. (If I’m not making sense don’t worry: this can all be taught and is what we specialise in.)

This course of action doesn’t challenge the agent’s suggestions – which are brainstorming ideas and open to the author’s interpretation. It shows a mutual working towards a solution that feels right for your story, where you ‘own’ the revisions. This is very important because unless you feel comfortable with your edits they’re unlikely to be effective. A combined effort from you and the agent will hopefully deliver the best for the book and demonstrate that you can work together. The agent will also feel confident about sending you off to your first meeting with your editor who will almost certainly have further suggestions.

Your job is to know how to write fully. Not just to write creatively (which is mainly talent and application) but to know how to hone your work into a book strong enough to launch you into a full and prosperous writing career. It’s a rare author who can do this alone. Learning how to self-edit is not ‘writing by numbers’ as some authors fear; rather it’s knowing what components make a great story and then how, when and why you can bend the rules.

Self-editing can turn a goodish book into a dazzling one. It’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, and should be nurtured like any other part of the craft of writing. And, at the very least, who wouldn’t want a second opinion on their writing? I’m about to get Kathryn Price, Cornerstones’ managing editor, to see if this article makes sense; if it can be tightened up and repetition cut; if the beginning, middle and end is in place.

Good luck in your first agent meeting, and with preparation you’ll be one of those dream authors that agents tell us about…

Cornerstones is a leading UK literary consultancy. They have over 60 professional editors who specialise in guiding authors through self-editing. They scout for agents and have launched many first time writers. See www.cornerstones.co.uk for author journeys.

Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published, Hodder, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner outlines their self-editing and submission teaching techniques. They’re very approachable so please email Helen@cornerstones.co.uk or call 020 7792 5551 if you’d like feedback on your sample material with no obligation to use their services.

Click on the links below to view how to subscribe to Jam Magazine. Also, feel free to access their online issue for free.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

'That to Begin, Implies to End...'

It’s never easy really, starting out, but you have to begin somewhere - as did I. I’ve begun a new writing… let’s call it, ‘venture’, and my boss has kindly decided to help me. I used to actually find it easy to begin writing something, and once I began I could go on for a while with great zeal, before, quite abruptly, coming to a stop. I never quite gave knowing where a story was going the importance it needed, which is probably why I’ve never finished anything to date.

So Helen sat me down, took out an A3 piece of paper, and started firing questions at me. Who is my character? What is her goal? What makes her tick? What’s her External Conflict (EC), her Internal Conflict (IC)? This was a lot of questions. Most of my answers to these questions began with ‘Err…’ followed by a few seconds silence. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about my story, or my characters, I had a general idea of what was going to happen and what it was going to be about, but of course thinking about the details began to give this general idea clarity. And in talking about the main character, I realised I’d thought a lot about the ECs she’d be facing, but not enough about her own IC. What began to develop was something solid, a clearer direction; plot.

Sometimes, the excitement is in not knowing where you’re going, but left adrift it’s not hard to lose momentum, and before you know it beginnings can lead to no end at all. That’s not to say there’s no room to maneuver, or that the events won’t evolve or change, but with a little bit of thought (or actually, a lot), knowing the characters you’re dealing with, and knowing the obstacles that they will face, you should, more often than not, help your beginning find that end.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Show and Tell Continued...

 Following on from our last blog here's a really useful discussion with one of our authors on Showing not Telling and getting inside your character’s head:

Author: I have been working hard to improve my manuscript for the last three months in light of the comments in the report and have a general query.

This relates to getting inside the main character’s head.  I understand that when writing in the third person there are two ways of writing in the character’s voice:
(i)   echoing the character’s thoughts in the narration; and
(ii)  letting the reader hear the character’s internal voice.

Using the last paragraph on page 6 of your ‘Show Not Tell’ notes, I am assuming that an example of (i) would be: What could the old goat have meant? and an example of (ii) would be: He means that it’s going to be me!

I am quite good at using (i) but hadn’t really used (ii) much, if at all.  I would really appreciate some guidance as to how often per scene or chapter I should include Skye’s internal voice.  My concern is if I do it too much it could become intrusive, but I am not sure how to get the balance right.

My opening is currently drafted as follows:

Skye Winters lurched precariously back and forth on the crumbling roof of the church tower as the wind gusted round her.  Night had fallen and her mind whirled.  How did she get here?  Where was ‘here’?  And why was she dressed in her pyjamas?  But of one thing she was sure: the irresistible urge growing within her to jump off the tower!

I could redraft to something like:

Skye Winters lurched precariously back and forth on the crumbling roof of the church tower as the wind gusted round her.  Night had fallen and her mind whirled.  How did I get here?  Where is ‘here’?  Why am I dressed in my pyjamas?  But of one thing she was sure: the irresistible urge growing within her to jump off the tower!

I actually prefer the former version, which I think is stronger, and am having difficulty in seeing the advantage to the latter.

What are your thoughts on this?

Kathryn: What a great question.

There are two ways of including the character’s internal voice – the first, which you prefer, is often known as ‘free indirect’, where the thoughts are in the third person past tense, like the narration itself, and the second, where we actually hear the character’s thoughts in first person present tense, is ‘direct’. Neither of these is ‘correct’ as such, and you certainly don’t need to use both – it’s about finding the method that feels right for your character and story. In contemporary fiction, free indirect is more common and like you, many writers, readers and editors feel that it makes for a more immediate, smoother experience of being inside the character’s head.

As I understand it the opening paragraph in your original version read ‘she had no idea how she’d come to be there’. I think your revised version …

Skye Winters lurched precariously back and forth on the crumbling roof of the church tower as the wind gusted round her.  Night had fallen and her mind whirled.  How did she get here?  Where was ‘here’?  And why was she dressed in her pyjamas?  But of one thing she was sure: the irresistible urge growing within her to jump off the tower!

… works very well. I’d recommend cutting the adverb precariously, and showing in other ways how precarious she is (perhaps her foot slips on the slates etc) - bringing in lots of senses (how cold is it, how does it smell up there etc) is also a good way of getting right inside the character’s experience of the moment. And watch for pacing – perhaps you could introduce the urge to jump off the roof a bit more gradually, building up to it and making it really tense.

Does this help?

Author: Thank you for your comments which are extremely helpful.  I think what you are saying is that if 'free indirect' feels right for my character there is no reason why I cannot stick to it throughout (although I may occasionally use 'direct' if that feels right for the scene).

I like what you suggest in your penultimate paragraph and it is something I can look to improve on throughout the manuscript.  The only issue with bringing in lots of senses will mean lengthening a manuscript which is already too long.  Likewise, with regard to building up to the urge to jump, I understand why you made the suggestion but she actually jumps in (currently) the fourth paragraph and if I build up to the jump that will mean lengthening the first chapter and I am trying to keep it tight.

Kathryn: Again, good question.

With showing/telling and getting inside the character’s head, it’s all about achieving a balance: giving enough rich, sensory detail to make the reader and character feel rooted in the scene without slowing things down too much (although remember that at moments of heightened tension and emotion it can actually be good to slow things down to give the reader time to absorb what’s happening). But ‘showing’ doesn’t have to take up more space; remember that a really strong verb can work hard for you. For instance, if you cut out ‘mind whirled’ (which is shown by the thoughts you’ve included anyway) and the adverb, you have a bit more space:

Skye Winters lurched on the crumbling roof of the church tower as the wind tugged at her. She gripped the slates with numb fingers, straining to see in the darkness. Her pyjamas clung to her, damp with rain.
How had she got here?  Where was ‘here’?  She peered over the edge. It wasn’t far down.
She ought to jump…
What? Where had that come from? It’d be crazy to jump, she’d break her neck!

This won’t be quite right for you and your style, of course, but you can see that it’s not much longer and it’s just one way of introducing extra atmosphere whilst showing the fact that the urge to jump is growing within her rather than telling it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Show and Tell

We often hear authors ask why they should ‘show’ not ‘tell’, when so much of the published material they read is telling. I’m in the process of reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and I can’t help but notice just how much he ‘tells’. There’s little dialogue and the reader isn’t really given the opportunity to interpret any given situation as it’s pretty much all told to them.  Yet, I am utterly hooked.

This does go to show that there’s a certain level of literary talent, which can get away with such a thing. You’ll find that most literary fiction is ‘telling’, but it takes an extremely skilled, not to mention, experienced, writer to manage to hook a reader as they’re told a sequence of events. When the writing’s not been developed to that point yet, the importance of ‘showing’ is essential to whether a story will be gripping enough.

So, when is it important to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell’?

To ‘show’ and dramatise everything can slow the pace of a story, and can quite easily end up boring a reader. The main thing is to understand the crucial moments in your story. What are the key turning points in the plot? When are there dramatic emotional moments? Who are the main characters and what are their characteristics and emotional responses? These are all points where ‘showing’ is much more engaging. Less important action can easily be ‘told’ to move the pace along. A reader doesn’t need to know, for example, when a character is getting out of a car and walking up the stairs to open a door, if opening that door doesn’t lead to some kind of significant event or experience.

‘Showing’ and ‘telling’ both need to be done in varying degrees when writing. The key is to recognise which aspects of your story are significant, and which are less so. It’s always a process and something which even experienced writers have trouble with, but to hone these skills could be the difference between a good story, and a great story.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Teen and Young Adult Fiction

There’s been a lot of controversy lately on teenage/YA fiction and the themes of violence it can incorporate. What are the accepted age ranges for both and how might they differ in the UK and USA? A Cornerstones author, JB Toner, raised questions about this to our managing editor, Kathryn Robinson; this is how the conversation went:

JBT: Please thank your editor for her thoughtful and very thorough report.

I need clarification on age groupings.

The new book that I'm working on is aimed at teenagers (maybe 14+). I thought this was what is meant by ‘Young Adult’, but if this market is the age-group (12+) I need to know that before I write any more.

KR: Thanks for your email and I’m really pleased to hear the report seems helpful. ‘Teen’ and YA is usually seen as being 12/13 to 15 years old.

JBT: Just to be absolutely clear about this point, are you saying that 'teen' and ‘YA’ are the same market - 12/13 to 15? I would have thought ‘teen’ might be 12-15 year olds, whereas Wikipedia defines YA as 14-21. Would you agree with that? Also, are you familiar with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? There is a lot of killing in that book and yet the book is labelled ‘teen’ on the back cover. I read somewhere (can't remember where) that the trilogy is thought suitable for 12 year olds.

KR: In the UK ‘teen’ and ‘YA’ are the same market – very generally described as12-15, although readers outside these ages will inevitably read these books too. I think there’s a difference in the US, which may be where the wiki definition comes from (and I think the ‘teen’ definition is used more there, too, whereas 'YA' is more common here); there’s a much more defined ‘teenage’ culture in the States, and their ‘teen’ reading age bracket encompasses this. The Hunger Games (of which the second book in the trilogy is in my bag right at this moment!) is marketed as ‘teen’ fiction – so12-15 in the UK. Yes, there’s a lot of killing - the genre is, I guess, dystopian horror – whereas certain other genres – historical, traditional fantasy, romance – would tend to be a bit tamer in terms of violence (the same rule applies to adult fiction).

I’ve read one of the reviews in the inside of the Hunger Games sequel which describes it as ‘post-apocalyptic brutality fiction’ – great definition I think and indicative of what an impact genre has on tone and levels of violence. Interestingly even in the Hunger Games books – at least as far as I’ve got with them – the level of sex is very slight and innocent, particularly when contrasted to the violence. What a strange world we live in…

See below an event that might be of interest to authors who write teen/YA fiction.

Tuesday 5th July 2011

BOUNDARIES – Who Killed Controversy?
An insight into the future of teen publishing. With guest experts from across the publishing industry.

Venue: 80 Strand, London  (click for a map)

Members: £0

Non-members: £5

For membership information, please visit the members’ section.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

It's All About the Flow

It’s not too shabby coming into work and having your boss look at the opening chapter of the book you’re writing. Thank God. I’ve been stuck on my non-fiction piece for a while now. I’d say a year if I were lying, two if I’m practising honesty. There’s something about the tone in non-fiction which you have to get right, or, I suppose as with any other writing, it just doesn’t flow. Mine, suffice to say, has not been flowing. It has been stuck, since 2009 (unlike my tears which have been free flowing since).

It might’ve been easier if it was an academic piece, that way the documentary style my so-called ‘funny’ anecdotal book seems to have taken would not only be acceptable, but expected. And so after Helen kindly read the opening chapter, she looked at me and said these simple words, ‘Narrative non-fiction’. Followed by, ‘Show, show, show!’ Of course. Retrospect all becomes telling and the only thing you have left to show for it is a dull story. Where’s the tension? The conflict? And in this book’s case, the irony? Narrative non-fiction allows some poetic license, lends immediacy to the event (or events), allows the writer to divulge information with action scenes and dialogue, without boring the life out of the reader. Hallelujah! An answer. I won’t get too excited as I’ve only just started writing in this new format, but at least I can say that the only things free flowing now, are words.