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, 11 December 2012

Wrap Up Your Novel (And Spot Our Seasonal Jollies)

What do you do when you’ve finished your novel and feel you’re ready to take it out into the real world? It’s only too tempting to see if you’ve armed it with the necessary survival skills to not only sprout but positively flourish. But sometimes the urge to send out the object of your love, affection and sheer hard work, to see if it will fly or flail, can be premature.


You wouldn’t want Santa to climb down your chimney without Health and Safety training, so why would you let your dear novel compete with its counterparts without making sure it’s completely prepared? It’s not all about checking that all the commas and full stops are present and correct – though obviously this is also very important – often it goes much deeper than that. One blog isn’t enough to go into detail about the full craft of re-drafting, but there are some core issues that every author must ask themselves before dashing to get a submission package ready, or deciding to self-publish.

Firstly, consider the plot. The 3 Act Graph is a good way to measure whether your story is following the right kind of structure. This can seem quite clinical and against the creative spirit of writing, but you’ll notice that most novels - literary and commercial - will in some way or another fulfill this structure; they do so because it works. Consider the sub-plot/s – do they serve to enhance the main arc of the narrative or are they mere stuffing, distracting us from the essential story?

Then think about the protagonist and the main characters – is the protagonist’s emotional arc clear throughout the narrative? Are the characters well developed and distinctive? And importantly, are they all necessary to the story? Overwriting and tinsel of any kind should be avoided. At this stage everything should be assessed with scrooge-like scrutiny and if it’s not earning its keep by pushing the plot and/or character forward, then delete it.

Another aspect, which is sometimes overlooked in the hallelujah moment of having finished the novel is the denouement. Is the resolution satisfying? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘happy’ ending but does it tie up, in some way or another, threads that you’ve woven throughout the book? Will the reader be left feeling content that the story has achieved what it set out to do, or will they have questions, trying to make sense of aspects that weren’t fully developed?

All these things aren’t necessarily obvious to the author, who knows their work so intimately that it’s hard to be objective. At this point an external critical eye can help to identify the issues that have become blurred in the re-drafting process. The one thing which is too often overlooked and which cannot be stressed enough, is time. Once you’ve stayed away from the manuscript for a few weeks now’s the time to look at it again, and judge with clarity whether it’s the cracker you thought it was.

You’ve set the foundation by completing the novel – re-drafting is your opportunity to build upon that firm foundation, and rejoice in creating something beautiful.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

How Easy is it for Self-published Books to really Make a Splash?

If you’ve ever typed ‘self-publishing’ into Google, you’ll know there are around 14,000,000 results. Click on almost any one of them, and you’ll be forgiven for becoming slightly high on the premise of how simple the process is; how endless the possibilities are. You might nod in agreement with the comments regarding how the industry was in need of a shake-up, how the notion of ‘gatekeepers’ had had its time, and the suggestion I particularly like, ‘quality will always rise to the top, however it’s published’.

Well, it’s around two and a half years since I started working with Helen at Cornerstones on Watermelon, and around two years prior to that when I began writing it. Throughout this time, I have put hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours into writing, learning about writing and improving my writing. And like many authors, I swing between having an absolute, deep, unshakable devotion for my books, and wondering if they’re actually worth the space they take up on my hard drive.

But other people tell me they’re good, not just my mum (actually she’s a nightmare, and I rarely get more than a, ‘it’s alright’ from her). But people who know. Industry professionals describe them as, ‘compelling, strong, powerful, haunting, incredibly authentic’.

And more importantly, my target audience. I’m in a very privileged position; I work with young people, and they don’t ‘do’ tact. It wasn’t unheard of for one of my earlier readings to be met with that well-considered and insightful comment, ‘Miss, that bit were crap.’

So my books have been re-written and reworked, until I’ve reached a point where the kids don’t say they’re crap anymore, in fact, they won’t stop reading when the bell goes for break, and that ultimate, heart-warming compliment has been uttered several times, ‘Can I take this home to read?’

On the back of this approval, my new titles, Watermelon and Someone Different, have recently been launched into the big, wide, open-sea that is self-publishing (as ebooks initially and with paperbacks following). In an innovative move, my immensely talented writer friend, Wendy Storer and I, have joined forces to form Applecore Books www.applecorebooks.co.uk; an independent writing co-operative, publishing contemporary fiction for children and young adults. And I am so excited I might pop!

But am I right? Are my books good? And if they are, will they rise to the top?

Currently, I have a modest following on Facebook and Twitter, and not much else in the way of marketing. I am up against novels that are advertised on buses and billboards and in supermarkets. Novels that will be reviewed in national press, novels that are written by ‘celebrities’. Can my little old books make a splash anywhere near the surface? Will they find their way in that stormy sea, amongst all those luxury, corporate liners? Ultimately, is writing good books, combined with amateur but tenacious marketing, enough?

Well, it’s fair to say I’m about to find out. And in part two of this blog, which will be coming soon, I will be sure to let you know.

You can visit Kate Hanney's website at www.katehanney.com

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Seller Beware

The canteen buzzed with writers who were taking part in the York Festival of Writing last year.  I happened to be standing in the queue next to Helen Corner of Cornerstones, and of course we got chatting.  I told her about the book I’d almost finished called Seller Beware: How NOT to Sell your Business.
            ‘Or another strapline,’ I said, ‘is One Woman’s Road to Ruin and Recovery.’
‘I like that,’ Helen said, ‘but don’t put and Recovery on the end, else you’ll give the game away.  Let the readers wonder.’
I hadn’t thought of that.  Later, I picked up Cornerstones’ brochure.
I decided to let Cornerstones give me a professional critique.  Positive I’d written a winner, I wanted it to have the best chance before I approached a publisher.
Brett sent me a full report with excellent advice, mainly on restructuring.  She also wanted further details of the characters and dollops of emotion.
I took her advice but because I’d written half as much again I still wasn’t confident enough to submit without another professional eye.  But I’d paid Cornerstones once already. 
Still, I rang them, and after a lengthy chat (and promised discount!) I decided to go ahead.  This time I had Ed Handyside read it—the perfect choice as he’d gone through something similar.  He gave me heaps of encouragement, saying it wouldn’t come amiss if some thriller writers emulated my style!  Many of the suggestions he made were nit-picks and I was ecstatic he’d ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ my story.
I was talking to Kris, my Polish decorator, a few weeks later about the book (as you do).
‘I don’t suppose you know any publishers?’ Tongue firmly in cheek.
‘Actually, I do,’ came the surprising answer.  ‘Iain Dale is a presenter on LBC radio every evening.  And he’s a publisher. Why don’t you listen and phone in when there’s an interesting subject?  Then he knows you.  Afterwards, you email him and ask if he’ll read the book.  And,’ he finished, ‘he lives near you!’
Iain began with a topic close to my heart.  Should the government allow people to add a 25 foot extension to their house without planning permission?
I rushed to the phone.
The next day I emailed him, thanking him for allowing me to voice my opinion, and asking if he’d look at my book.
He agreed and three weeks later we signed the contract.
This would never have happened without Cornerstones.  (And Kris’s brainwave!) Cornerstones are a super company to deal with and worth every penny for such a brilliant result. 
Seller Beware: How NOT to Sell Your Business will be published by Biteback Publishing in April 2012.

Denise Barnes

Monday, 25 June 2012

Why writers are witches

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about subjective responses to books. As an editor, your role is to be as objective as possible. Often that’s easy. If a manuscript is in early draft stage, there are likely to be issues that are common to many novels, problems that can be measured against techniques and concepts that allow you to say, pretty much categorically, yes this is working or no, it’s not.

Contrary to what an author I spoke to recently thought, these aren’t arbitrary rules set down by people in publishing to make the author’s job harder; to make the already impenetrable-seeming walls of the industry even thicker. Rather, they’re techniques based on centuries of literary theory and reader responses. If you write in this way, then a reader will feel this, when what you ideally want them to be feeling is this. In many respects, it’s common sense.

But what happens when, as an editor, you find that you disagree – and with other editors, with people whose opinions you respect and admire? I’ve just read a book that received rave reviews in the trade and, even accounting for the percentage that are bound to be marketing spiel, there are a lot of readers out there who genuinely think that this is a really good book. Not only is it being bought, it’s being nominated for prizes.

You can see where I’m going with this (and before I’m accused of contrariness, I had no idea about the rave reviews until after I’d read it and told my colleague what I thought). I found the main character passive, the structure uncontrolled, with frequent backtracking and reflection often resulting in scenes that lacked dramatic punch – that weren’t, in fact, scenes at all. And, for a book that’s set up as a psychological thriller, there was a hole where the tension should have been: no sense of mystery, and no ongoing threat for the main character, nothing really at stake. Despite what the jacket said, my heartbeat stayed resolutely slow.

Does that mean I’m off the mark, that my editorial instincts are flawed? Statistically, it’s got to be more likely than that the several thousand people who disagree with me are all barking up the wrong bookshelf. There are a lot more of them then there are of me.

But hang on, we’re not talking about a first draft book here. This is something that’s been through a rigorous editing process and, indeed, that’s finely-crafted in terms of its prose. There’s nothing wrong with the description and the writing in places is rather beautiful. And even though I wasn’t convinced by some of the structural choices, I kept reading. So the author’s obviously doing something right.

Books have a magic that goes beyond questions of their art and craft, and that’s the ability to speak to different readers in different ways. And there are always going to be times when books that aren’t technically perfect capture readers’ imaginations.  Maybe it’s something to do with a mood, or an atmosphere, something in the ether that somehow the book taps into. Maybe the author has dealt with a subject that’s close to many readers’ hearts in an unusual, disarming way. Maybe readers are responding to a new world with wonder and curiosity. Who knows? If only it were possible to predict when this was going to happen, we’d all be squillionaires.

Editorially, your job is to make sure that all the technical aspects of a book are as strong as they can be, and I firmly believe that this is a worthwhile, crucial part of the process. That essential spell is so much more likely to work its magic if there aren’t queries distracting a reader – and you do find that these issues of editorial disagreement occur much more frequently with books that are further down the line, editorially; where there is less room for objective criticism.

All you can do as an editor is keep an open mind alongside your critical one. Aim to make the book as objectively good as it can be, but don’t forget that you’re tinkering with a kind of witchcraft. And the secret ingredient isn’t always going to be something you can circle with a red pen.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The bittersweet smell of success

At Cornerstones there’s nothing that gives us more happiness than placing our authors with agents and seeing them go on to get a publishing deal. Whilst what we do is rewarding in so many ways – helping authors find their way forward when they’ve got stuck with a story, shaping promising manuscripts into something that’s really dazzling – publication is everybody’s long term goal and it’s what we’re all working towards. So why do we always feel kind of sad when it happens?

It’s like saying goodbye after a long journey you’ve made with strangers who’ve become friends. It’s like handing over your child at the first day of school and knowing you won’t play such a big part in their life from here on in. It’s like the end of a love affair.

I think most people in the industry feel the same way to some degree – and authors will certainly know what I’m talking about. When you work on a manuscript for a long time it feels like you’ve poured a lot of yourself into it. You’ve got to know the characters and the plot so well you dream about them. You can’t help but think of it as yours.

But the crux of what we do is preparing authors for the publishing arena; for starting a career in writing. And so much of that is about learning to self-edit, perfecting those independent editorial skills that will stand you in good stead throughout your writing life. When authors first come to us it’s because they’re looking for advice on these techniques; putting their manuscript through the editorial process is often the start of a learning curve that can last months or years. And the end goal of that process is for an author to go out into the publishing world on their own two feet, without needing our help any more.

With every successful edit, a manuscript (and its author) becomes bolder and more confident and seeing that happen is the most rewarding part of all. But it’s also kind of sad to know that if the process is working then each edit is bringing us closer to the moment when we have to say goodbye.


Thursday, 29 March 2012

Goodbye to my 'First'

I started writing my first book about five years ago now. When I left full time work to pursue the dream (finish the book, re-draft it – several times, naturally – get an agent, get a publisher, and have it in print) I’d written about 17,000 words. A year and a half, working part-time, coming back into full-time work, a severe edit later, and I now have 23,000 words. For those of you who aren’t great at maths, that’s 6,000 words in a year and a half, averaging out to about 11 words per day. Even now I feel a pain in my chest thinking about it. It’s rather similar to the pain I felt when the lovely Kathryn at work suggested I ditch it in favour of starting something new because progress seemed to be somewhat slow (backwards, practically, I was feeling). Shock. Horror.

One’s presumably heard of the term in regards to writing, ‘Kill your darlings.’ Well this was my ‘darling;’ singular. If I don’t have this, I don’t have anything, literarily speaking anyway. I shook off her uncomfortable advice from my already burdened shoulders and ignored her.

Except they still felt burdened. What was this unhealthy relationship I’d cultivated with my first book? The idea of letting go hadn’t occurred to me until K mentioned it. And then, as with most things in life, the delayed reaction caught up with me and the unthinkable became a possibility. And why shouldn’t it? Don’t most writers have more than one book in them? We’re not all going to be Harper Lee, write one masterpiece and then live happily ever after, basking in its global glory. Still, it hurt, as the end of most things do I suppose. Imagine those years spent tapping out words, creating sentences that made you feel as if you’d broken through some verbal barrier or discovered some profound truth. But sometimes you have to accept defeat – temporarily anyway. As with all firsts, you won’t forget it and maybe you had to have the first in order to get a better second (and third, fourth, fifth, so on.)

Just because you don’t want to do something, doesn’t mean it’s not good for you, even if you did think it was the ‘one’. So my heart is heavy, but my shoulders feel a tad less weighed down. It’s about knowing when to move on, and when to take the advice of someone who knows what they might be talking about (something about professionalism or whatever).

First book, I will learn the art of letting you go, though you will always be the one that’s taught me what I now know, and while you gave me sleepless nights you also gave me my first love. Thanks for that. And one day, maybe when the time is right, I’ll come back to you, or you’ll come back to me and we’ll finish this thing we started; my stepping-stone to whatever is to come.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Congratulations to Nick Cook

Nick has been signed on by the agent Eve White, and Cornerstones would like to wish him the best of luck for the future. We're so happy to have been a part of this wonderful journey.


Tuesday, 10 January 2012


Congratulations to Jan Ruth, author of Wild Water, winner of the self-published competition run by Cornerstones and voted by the public. First prize was Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner, Hodder, and Alison Baverstock's The Naked Author, A Guide to Self-Publishing, A & C Black. See What Alison has to say in her blog piece about the benefits of self-publishing and how to avoid vanity publishing
Thank you for your invitation to contribute to this blog Helen, and I am delighted to have supported your competition on self-publishing.
As some of your readers may know, I lead the MA Publishing at Kingston University – and so am naturally very occupied by trends within the book trade. My initial interest in self-publishing was simply that. I had spotted the growing disparity between the number of books published in the US and the UK (traditionally around 2:1, it rose to around 9:1 in 2010; the difference largely fuelled by self-published titles) and the new availability of publishing services to assist in the process. An initial exploration revealed that in some cases you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between professionally published and self-published titles.
And so my investigations began. But what intrigued me, as I interviewed those involved, was a whole new set of issues. My study of the whole area is now published as The Naked Author, a guide to self-publishing, and is available from Bloomsbury http://amzn.to/nakedauthor There is insufficient space here to consider all the areas explored, but to whet your appetite here are three:
1.       There is no single thing that is self publishing; it is a process not a product. And people decide to get involved for a variety of reasons. For some it’s the chance to gain objectivity on their work by producing a single reading copy of material they have so far only seen on screen, and from where they wrote it. For others it’s the opportunity to finalise a manuscript that has long been in their head – and on their conscience – and hence move on with their lives. A well produced self-published book can be despatched to potential investors such as agents and publishers, and in the process reveal the seriousness with which the author takes their work. Or it can be presented to a small circle of friends and family – with the subtext ‘I finally did it’.
2.       Stories circulate about bestselling self-published works, harshly overlooked by the traditional industry, and now selling in great quantities on Amazon. While self-publishing has the potential to make you rich (just as in theory anyone can become a millionaire) it is unlikely to do so. But it may make you happy. The fascinating thing about talking to so many self-published authors was the generally high level of contentment I encountered. Some had lived with a book shaped hole in their lives for years, and finally (to quote one) ‘scratching that itch’ was highly satisfying. Others wrote memoirs and felt it was part of putting their lives in order, so that their (seemingly entirely uninterested) family could find out more about them – once they were mature enough to want to do so.
3.       What is the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing? It’s hard to draw a clear distinction – other than by examining the quality of the finished product. Both vanity publishing organisations and self-publishing firms will offer to produce your book at your cost, and may help you market it. But there are a few tricks to estimating where on the spectrum organisations sit (and there’s a whole chapter on this in the book).

When purchasing publishing services, try to estimate the quality of the organisation’s general output and their effectiveness. Ask yourself how much they seek to find out about your aims and purposes (and the standard of your manuscript) before they offer you a quotation – or do they seem in a huge rush to get you on the press? Look at the quality of other titles they have produced – and be very wary if their website is full of claims about how great they are rather than sample products. Poor editorial standards are a clear giveaway – readers will not tolerate mistakes, so nor should you.

Today self-publishing is part of publishing. Deciding to manicure content and communicate it more widely is highly current (surely that’s what users of social media are doing all the time).
And if you decide to self-publish to a high standard, you have not only taken responsibility for yourself, you have committed to finish something. Both reveal an essential – and admirable – sense of purpose, and in the process you may achieve not only a profound contemporary satisfaction, but a dignified posterity.
I wish you luck.
Alison Baverstock, www.alisonbaverstock.com