Posts Tagged ‘editing’

bookdesign345Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.

This week’s exercise was:

Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…

My New Beginning

Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.

Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

What I’ve Done

So what did I do there to try to add extra leads into this story, which will be the fourth in my Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware?

The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.

I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.

Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.

The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.

Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.

What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.

Oh, and if you like the look of these characters then the first in the series, Guns and Guano, is free from most places you can get ebooks, including

Turns out I have a terrible pleading for help face.

Turns out I have a terrible pleading for help face.

Dear reader, the time has come for me to ask you a favour. Not a big one, if you enjoy reading what I write, but a favour none the less.

Would you like to help proofread my new book?

I’m about an hour’s editing away from finishing the first book in a new steampunk adventure series. I can’t afford professional editing, so I’m relying on folks I know to read and comment on issues both big and small. Laura’s going to have a first read through, and in about a week’s time I’ll be sending it to other people for comments. If any of you would like to help out, and have time to read and comment on a short book (novella length – around 30,000 words) then please let me know. The more eyes I can get on this first volume (and the second, if you enjoy it enough to comment on that one too), the less likely I am to publish some awful rambling mess.

Anyone who helps out will receive my eternal thanks, along with an acknowledgement in the book and some kind of writing/blogging favour. I’d say a free copy of the book, but the first volume’s going to be free anyway. But hey, help with both books and get a free copy of the second one when they come out!

If you’d like to help out then please leave a comment below or contact me by whatever other means you have.

Thanks in advance!

Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m currently working pretty much full time on a work-for-hire fiction project, ghost writing science fiction. The process involved is an interesting one, and having got permission from the guy running the show I’m going to share a little about it here, and about why I think it’s so good.

How it works

There are five people working on this project – there’s me as the writer and the last addition to the team. B is the mastermind behind the process, the guy who brought us all together, he manages the virtual team, works out schedules and marketing and all that business side of things. C seems to mostly do developmental editing work, helping work out story, setting, etc. D wrote the plot for the books, and as part of that did a lot of work developing the characters and setting, together with B, C and E. E mostly does line editing.

From my point of view, I’ve been given a plot and extensive briefings on characters and setting. I’m the one turning this into prose, adding my own ideas and flourishes to fill gaps and flesh things out. For example I took some characters from book two and brought them into book one, to save me inventing extras and set them up for later.

C’s provided a few editorial comments on my work, but most of that comes from E. Once she’s read through my work I go back and accept or respond to her changes. I have the most contact with B, who’s doing a good job of dealing with any practical issues I stumble across and keeping me in the loop.

What I like so far

I love working with a team in this way, especially because they seem like a nice, lively, creative bunch. While I like writing my own stories, collaborating with others makes creativity even more fun, and I’m enjoying taking D’s plot and fleshing it out. Getting to work with editors is also good.

What I particularly like about the process, which B has developed and is continuing to adapt, is that it seems less wasteful than the traditional publishing approach. Instead of a writer providing a completed story, only to have to re-write large chunks when a developmental editor points out problems with character and plot, those problems have mostly been smoothed out beforehand. To put it in terms of my old process improvement job, we are avoiding the waste of re-work.

The end-to-end story production process is also being speeded up by working together via Google docs.  So even before I finished writing book one, E was reading and making editorial comments on the early chapters. It’s a good thing I naturally write in chronological order, or this could get messy.

Having other people literally leaning over my shoulder as I write freaks me out and stops me working – Laura can attest to this. But having collaborators perusing my work in a virtual environment, providing both critique and enthusiastic positive feedback as we go along, is really helpful. It’s sharpening the writing and keeping my spirits up, if occasionally stressing me out too – let’s face it, being edited always has its stresses, whether from disagreeing with the editor or agreeing and seeing what was wrong with your own beautiful words. Of course the reality is that I’m facing both.

This kind of collaboration is akin to what I imagine modern TV writers’ rooms to be like, allowing people to share and refine ideas, then go away and specialise in what they do best.

And because of this efficient, collaborative process, together with the joys of digital publishing, the first book will have been through editors, beta readers, refinement and publication, all within maybe four months of them developing the plot, and maybe two months after I started writing book one. That is staggeringly efficient. I approve.

Letting go of the artistic ego

I know that there are people who will view this as somehow detracting from the art of writing, from the purity of the author working away at their own ideas and craft. But I don’t agree with that view. Writing is already a collaborative process, involving editors and publishers. This is making that collaboration more effective and enjoyable. It’s not what we expect, and that will create a negative reaction in some people, but I like it.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you guys have on this, or similar experiences you’ve been through. You know where the comments go, please feel free to leave one.

NaNoWriMo update

I’m only writing this a few hours after yesterday’s post, and I’ve been busy with the freelance work so nothing’s changed. I think I’ll get around to NaNo this evening. Fingers crossed. Just blogging a day ahead now will relieve some pressure and make it easier to juggle tasks tomorrow.

I notice that JH Mae and Everwalker are tearing ahead at 21k and 15k respectively, while I haven’t quite reached 12k. And I also have to mention Russell Phillips, who’s normally a non-fiction writer and went into this knowing he didn’t have time to manage 50k, but is still getting plenty of words down.

How are you guys doing?

Today I have the honour of hosting another guest post from indie author Russell Phillips. Russell combines an insider’s knowledge of the challenges of indie publishing with a computer programmer’s awareness of how to get the most out of the tools available to us, and this post brings those things together to offer a technological solution to many of your editing needs.

Over to you Russell…

Using Regular Expressions To Find Common Errors

I have a great editor, but I understand that she is human, and therefore she makes mistakes, and misses things, just like I do. Therefore, I like to try and make my manuscript as good as I can before I hand it over to her. The trouble with editing your own work, of course, is that all too often, your brain sees what is supposed to be there, not what is actually there.


One tool I use for finding errors is regular expressions. Regular expressions are like search and replace on steroids. Instead of finding simple strings of text, regular expressions provide a way to find patterns within the text. This makes them ideal for finding certain types of error that can occur all too easily when writing a long piece of text. The use of copy & paste, deleting, etc, can mean that even simple grammatical mistakes or typos can slip in and not be noticed.

Below I have listed some regular expression searches that I currently use on my manuscripts before sending them to my editor. To use one of them, simply copy it into the “Find” box in your word processor, just as you would type in a word you wanted to search for in the text. Note that they are formatted with a different background colour because spaces at the start or end can be important. It is possible to use regular expressions to replace text, but I haven’t included replacement expressions because I prefer to be cautious and make corrections manually. I’ve tried to order them in increasing complexity, and I’ve included some explanatory text for each one.

The expressions given below should work in LibreOffice and Scrivener version 2.4 or later (earlier versions don’t support regular expressions). Microsoft Word also supports regular expressions, although the syntax is rather unusual, so you’ll need to check the documentation for help. Whichever software you use, you will have to tell it that you’re doing a regular expression search, rather than a normal text search. In LibreOffice Writer, use the “Find and Replace” function (not “Find”). Click “Other Options” in the dialogue box, and tick the “Regular expressions” tickbox. In Scrivener project search, select “RegEx” from the operator section of the magnifying glass icon menu. In Scrivener document find, select “Regular Expressions (RegEx)” from the “Find Options” drop-down menu.

Note that, when copying and pasting from your browser into the search box, make sure that the quotation marks are correct – they sometimes get mangled.

Punctuation And Quotation Marks

This is a simple expression, but there are two versions. In British English, the convention is to have commas and full stops outside quotation marks, whereas in US English, commas and full stops are placed inside the quotation marks.

Expression to find commas and full stops inside quotation marks (use this if you write in British English):


Expression to find commas and full stops outside quotation marks (use this if you write in US English):


These simple expressions match a quotation mark followed or preceded by a full stop or a comma. Square brackets are used to group characters, so that if any character in the square brackets is present, a match is found. In this case, the square brackets are used to match a full stop or comma, but nothing else.

“a” instead of “an”

This expression will find words that begin with a vowel immediately preceded by “a”, instead of “an”:

a [aeiou]

The first three characters are simple: space, lower case “a”, space. Then square brackets are used to group all five vowels. Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly.

Oxford Commas

At school, I was taught not to use Oxford commas, but I use them in my books because they can avoid ambiguity. Unfortunately, because I didn’t use them for so long, I frequently forget to add them. Consequently, one of the first regular expressions I wrote to check for errors in my writing was to spot missing Oxford commas. Note that this won’t find every sentence that is missing an Oxford comma, but that’s why you have a human editor 🙂

\w+, \w+ and 

If you have the opposite problem, and you don’t want Oxford commas, the following expression should find them:

\w+, \w+, and 

“\w” matches a word character, ie any character that can be part of a word (letters, numbers, etc). The “+” means at least one of the preceding characters must be present, so “\w+” matches a word.

Missing Capital After Full Stop

I started using this expression after seeing this error in a book published by HarperCollins. If the big publishers can miss such basic mistakes, so can the rest of us.

Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly. Acronyms followed by lower case letters, eg “The N.C.O. said” will not be matched.

[^.][^A-Z]\. [a-z]

This expression introduces a new twist on the use of square brackets: if the first character in the square brackets is a “^”, it matches anything NOT in the group. So, “[^.][A-Z]” matches anything that is not a full stop, followed by anything that is not an uppercase letter. The next term is “.”, which matches a full stop. When not in square brackets, a full stop is a wildcard, but placing a backslash before it tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a full stop, not as a wildcard. Finally, it matches a space followed by a lowercase letter.

Missing Brackets

It’s far too easy to forget to close brackets, or to accidentally delete the closing bracket. This expression will find an opening bracket that doesn’t have a matching closing bracket.


Since parentheses have a special meaning in regular expressions, the opening bracket is prefixed with a backslash. This tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a simple opening bracket. The “[^)]” matches any character that is not a closing bracket, and the “*” means “match this zero or more times”. Finally, the “$” indicates the end of the line/paragraph.

Repeated Word

Repeated words crop up sometimes, and often aren’t noticed if the word happens to appear at the end of one line and the start of the next line.

\b(\w+)\b \b\1\b

This one may look rather odd, but is simple once you understand it. As above, “\w+” is used to match a word. The parentheses are used to group the characters that are matched, so that they can be referred to later in the expression. The “\1” matches the group in the parentheses. “\b” denotes a word boundary. In this case, it is used to ensure that only complete words are matched. Without the word boundaries, it would match a term like “anderson song” as the “son” would be matched in both words.

Putting all that together, this expression matches a complete word, followed by at least one space, followed by the same complete word.

Want To Learn More?

If you want to learn to write regular expressions to find the mistakes that you find yourself making, is an excellent learning resource, and has a regular expression tester, which will also explain the elements of the regular expression. Finally, feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I will try to help.


About the blogger

Russell Phillips is an author of books on military history and technology. Born and brought up in a mining village in South Yorkshire, Russell has lived and worked in South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cumbria and Staffordshire. His articles have been published in Miniature Wargames, Wargames Illustrated, and the Society of Twentieth Century WargamersJournal. He has been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia. He currently lives in Stoke-on-Trent with his wife and two children.


Picture by Joanna Penn via Flickr Creative Commons.

Getting stories read takes support from a whole load of different people – editors, slush readers, reviewers and countless more. Jared Cooper, as well as being a writer and a fellow member of the Reading Excuses writing group, fills several of these roles. So to give you some insight into other parts of the business, I present an interview with Jared…


Tell us a bit about yourself and where you fit into the world of stories.

I’m just a Jersey kid who likes to write. I was blessed with a string of passionate English teachers who showed me that I could tell stories. This process resulted, somehow, in me dropping out of high school and writing a novel at 16—which no agents wanted, rightfully so.

The next few years are a college-shaped blur, but over the past year or so (I am 24) I’ve really committed to my writing. I have a published short story, read slush for Lightspeed, review books for Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, and have made a handful of great connections, so I consider myself having taken good first steps in my writing career.

Your dissertation relates to short stories – could you tell us what it’s about?

Many writers will tell you: begin with short fiction. The elements of the craft are all there; it’s easier to read and dissect short stories; and getting some published gives you a nice boost of experience for when you work on novels. At the very least, you become familiar with the demons of rejection and persistence, ideally building a thick skin as well as your writing skills. It’s a good argument, to start short, and I wanted to show why with my thesis.

The idea was, essentially, to demystify the great machine of sci-fi/fantasy short story markets, and get some hard facts to show that writing short stories is a great way to break into the field. I love science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a big community around it, which was a big factor in my research.

What have you found so far in your research?

That writing is hard, man. One of the most fascinating statistics I examined was acceptance rates. Semi-pro ‘zines generally have an acceptance rate of less than 1%. But does this mean every story has a 1 in 100 chance of being published? Not at all. Every story is judged on merit (speaking broadly, of course), and one in every hundred of these happens to be considered worth purchasing and publishing. It’s a highly demanding, competitive arena, which is essential for a new writer. It’s fantastic, because anyone can do it, with a little guidance.

My research showed me the benefit of reading, sometimes very closely, what gets published. If you want to write something, the best thing you can do is read everything you can that’s most like it. The more you find stories to love, the more your mind shapes the stories you’ll end up writing, which is a wonderful organic process.

But you still have to know the mechanics. Thus, we come to the slush pile.

How does slush reading work in practice?

Each magazine is different, but most I’ve seen or participated in have a tiered system. The first readers read everything that gets sent in, and if they think it’s good enough, they pass it up to the editor and their assistants. Usually it’s just two or three “levels” like this, because the vast majority of stories die before the first readers. Lightspeed has a 1% acceptance rate, and out of the first 300 stories I read for them, exactly 3 of those were accepted for publication. It still intrigues me to see that statistic proven in practice, considering every story is judged on merit.

You learn all these crucial things for what makes a good story: strong openings, clear concepts, good dialogue, good endings. The more you consume, and the more you see stories that get attention for being well-done, the better idea you have of what to do. The taste of the magazine is a factor, too, but it almost always comes down to craft.

What gets a story past you to the next stage?

Once a story is sent to the higher levels, it gets kicked around by the editors and assistants, deciding if this piece that looked worth a second glance should be published.

A lot of stories die there, too. Part of what preserves that 1% statistic is that there are no “near wins” with fiction; a story doesn’t just make it. The editors may not be unanimous, but in almost every case, the positive feedback has to overwhelm the negative. Having said this, one of the three accepted stories I mentioned was a requested rewrite, which does happen, but only if the editor is confident in your skill.

My experience is still lacking, a bit, so I leaned more on how much I felt the story fit the magazine’s taste rather than how highly I rated it. Although it is extremely validating to see veteran editors give similar comments to my taste profile.

It’s very educational, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to write short fiction. Keep your eyes open for magazines looking for slush readers; it will be the best investment of your time as a beginner.

What are you writing fiction-wise at the moment?

I mentioned writing a novel at 16. That was a project I spent about four or five years reworking and rewriting, and then let sit. This year, I’ve taken all my favorite parts of the story and split them into short pieces. A handful of those are being sent around, accruing feedback, and in rare cases, getting published!

I’m also about 36k words into a new novel, about 10k into a novella, and I have an array of short pieces, old and new, in various stages of completion and critique. Right now I’m developing my schedule and getting as much done as I can—and, currently, finishing school.

Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently, and what was good about it?

I just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and it was fantastic. Jeff shot straight to my favorites list, and it’s great because I’m hunting down authors who have extensive short fiction publications, or have written about writing. VanderMeer’s done all that; he’s a great fountain of knowledge, and I can confidently recommend that almost anything he’s worked on will improve an aspiring writer.

But really, if you want to write: find fiction to love. Find writers who talk passionately about the craft, whose ideas you agree with, and let them show you their favorites. And if you can, slush read. Developing your craft is a continual process, and often exhausting, but my thesis has shown me that it’s not an industry to be afraid of. Anyone can do it, if they want.


Jared W. Cooper is a Jersey-born editor, reviewer, and short story aficionado. His work has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction, and his reviews can be found at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. He can be found on twitter @jaredwcooper, and at,



Posted: September 6, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

Commas are weird. Using them correctly is partly a matter of good grammar, but it’s also a stylistic thing. Laura’s been picking me up on my over-use of commas lately, playing the role of the good proofreader. But I used to be even worse, as I realised doing some final proofreading on From a Foreign Shore (out on Monday – very exciting!). The first story in that collection, ‘Holy Water’, is one of the oldest stories that I’m re-publishing and it shows. I kept finding excess commas scattered through the text, which I’m now hastily purging. It’s too late to stop a couple of reviewers and early readers seeing my grammatical faux pas, but electronic self-publishing means that I have enough control to stop it at that.

Of course this is also part of the iterative process that is learning to do an independent ebook release. This time I’ve left myself enough time for that extra re-read, and even contacted reviewers, neither of which happened with Riding the Mainspring. Hopefully next time around I’ll do those corrections before seeking reviews, and request the reviews far enough in advance to be ready for the release date.

Life is all about learning. What matters isn’t doing things perfectly, it’s doing them better than last time, and on that basis my book release process seems to be heading in the right direction.

Now excuse me, I have more commas to purge.


For a writer, I can be terrible at thinking about the purpose of my words.

I realised this as I was helping everwalker with some editing last week, looking for ways to make one of her scenes punchier. All my suggestions were about taking things out rather than adding them in, because I’m that sort of editor as well as that sort of writer. There’s always a conscious element to the choices I make in that process, but for the first time another part of the process, one that had previously been happening subconsciously, came to the fore.

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

I realised that I was thinking about what each sentence did in the reading experience. Not just what information it conveyed, but what it represented as a function in the scene. What changes in this sentence? What emotional impact does it have?

Several sentences in a row can convey different descriptive information while all serving the same function, for example telling you that a character is tense. In a slow scene that’s fine, it adds vividness, but once the pace picks up you really just need to convey that tension and quickly move on.

I’ve never read my own work in quite such a functional way before, but something has clearly clicked in my brain. I expect it will make my writing and editing better, as well as giving me a new perspective as a reader.

* * *

Quick update on the e-book. It’s been delayed by a mixture of other deadlines and technical failure on my part. I wanted to get a mailing list set up before I publish, so that I can direct readers there from my books. But two days after switching domains to I discovered that I’d done that in the only way that didn’t let me embed a signup link. Curse my mildly inadequate research!

I then put off solving this for a while, because mailing lists and internet domains are slightly outside my comfort zone. And when I came back to it yesterday I realised that it wasn’t a big problem – I could have a signup page over on Mailchimp and a page here to direct to that.

So yes, I failed at the internet, but at least now I have a mailing list. And if you’d like to receive updates when I have a new story out, as well as occasional free stories and offers on the books I will soon start to release, then please go and sign up.


Image by bark via Flickr creative commons.