Featured

Valley

How I parted ways with my agent

This is a long one, and a very personal one. I’ve tried to provide action points and comfort, but sometimes life is just messy and hard. I hope that showing you some of my mess is helpful.

I want to tell the truth about this, because I’ve gotten fed up of not doing so. This lack of authenticity is grating on me. It’s making me feel like what I’m going through is shameful and should be hidden, when in fact I think it’s incredibly common but we feel we shouldn’t talk about it.

In April, I parted ways with my agent.

There. I’ve said it. Saying it doesn’t make me feel good, in fact it still feels massively shit.

Friends, very rightly, advised me not to speak about this openly when it first happened. I was completely devastated, reeling in shock for months. I spent a whole weekend crying, and weeks afterwards unable to write anything new. I clung to my writing friends (who are the most beautiful individuals in the world), who kept gently telling me to take my time, that my writing would come back to me, and sent me gifts that made me cry all over again.

They weren’t ashamed of what had happened to me, they didn’t want me to hide, but they knew that working through this would take time. Sharing what had happened immediately would have been brutal. I couldn’t have coped with people’s kindness, or with their censure. I couldn’t have held hands with anyone else that was experiencing the same.

I needed to huddle into myself, hold myself tight. I had to grasp onto the things that remained – my love of books, my wonderful friends and family, long walks and even longer cries.

And I guess that’s the first thing I want you, if you’re going through a similar experience, to hold onto – it’s okay to not talk about it for a while. It’s okay to comfort yourself however you need to. BUT, that doesn’t mean you need to stay silent forever, and you don’t need to be ashamed.

There is so much secret pain in the realm of submitting books, either to agents or publishers. This secrecy breeds shame. I know I’m not the first person to speak about this, and I really hope that I’m not the last. There is no need to bear these wounds to the world if you’re not ready, and some of us may never be, but telling your story, letting others know that what’s happening is common and normal and no reflection at all on their talent – that’s incredibly powerful and validating.

So I’m going to tell you my story.

A disclaimer first though. At no point am I going to name my agent. I’m rather hopeful that most of you will have forgotten who they were. And this is because I really don’t feel like what’s happened was their fault. They had their part to play, but so did I. There were things I should have spotted along the way, and there were things we both should have been more honest about. They are also a genuinely lovely person and I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off submitting to them – they are a champion for their authors (and continue to be for me), and our parting was a painful but necessary eventuality.

I’m not telling their story. I’m telling my story. This is the tale of someone who thought they had got their happy ending, but was having to ignore a whole lot of flashing red lights to keep up the illusion.

I submitted my first book to agents and got over 100 rejections. I submitted my second and got around 40 rejections. Didn’t have quite the same stamina for that one. I didn’t submit my third book at all, didn’t feel like it was query ready, but I did book an agent one-to-one.

That agent fell in love with my book. They asked for the full and offered representation. I met with them in their offices in London and talked through our vision for this project. We signed the papers, and started editing.

And that’s where it started to go wrong, at least on my end. I asked all the right questions before I signed so felt like I was clear about where this book was headed, but I didn’t have a detailed edit report from my agent about the things they felt needed changing. I got that a little while later, after we signed, and it was gutting. There were some concerns raised that were incredibly valid and helpful, but there was also a gap that had formed between my vision for this novel and theirs.

My novel was a VERY quiet YA story about two boys who fell in love against the backdrop of the end of the world. Despite that setting, it was never going to have explosions or moments of intense peril. It was about two boys finding the best in themselves and each other, and delved into the difficulties of loss and trauma.

It became clear, in that edit report, that this was not what my agent wanted my book to be. Instead of challenging their ideas, pushing forward my vision and being clear about the limitations of where I felt this story could go, I kept quiet. I thought that perhaps I could keep both of us happy.

The pandemic saved me, in a way. When COVID hit, I felt incredibly uneasy about writing a story based after most of the human population had been wiped out by an infectious disease. So we parked it, and moved onto other projects. Over the next year, I produced two more stories for my agent to read. Both of them were too quiet, too strange, too sad.

So many big red warning lights. So much blackout fabric needed to keep them from interrupting my desperate attempts to please my agent and somehow keep my integrity in my writing.

I came up with a new way to end the world (in my story!), so early this year we returned to the original novel they had signed me for. I reworked it as best I could, added more drama (as much as I was comfortable with, but more than I wanted), and polished up the voice.

I want to pause here to chat about two things before I go on to talk about breaking with my agent, as that is a whole horrible thing all on its own and I don’t want it to distract from a couple of things that I could have done differently and perhaps gotten a different outcome. That outcome might have been that I didn’t sign with my agent in the first place, but I genuinely feel that would have been less painful than losing one.

  1. I asked all the right questions, but I could have been more patient – I had read all the blogs, I knew what I had to ask. What will happen if this book doesn’t sell? Do you want to represent me for all my stories or just this one? How do you see us working together? Where do you see this book going? Who are you thinking of submitting to? And they gave all the right answers. What I didn’t do was wait until I had a comprehensive report on where they felt this novel was going. I wanted to work with this agent because they had extensive editorial experience and I knew they would make my stories as strong as they could be before we went to publishers, but I really should have waited to see what changes they wanted made before I signed with them. This would have gone against the grain, as getting an agent is the main goal so as soon as they put the paper in front of you then SIGN IT, but it would have saved me a lot of pain. I would have, perhaps, attempted a rewrite, but it would have become clear, to both of us, that my writing was never going to get to the place they wanted it to. That would have been hard, but this business is so subjective and I could have gone on to find someone who would love my sad little stories. So I guess my advice here is to make sure that you and your agent are 100% on the same page with where you want your story to get to and what the heart of it is
  2. I was far too in awe of my agent to be honest – I think this is a common problem. We try so desperately hard to get an agent that once we have one, we have to keep them happy and make sure that we continue to be what they want. I didn’t tell my agent that I was shocked by the edit report, I didn’t speak out for my quiet stories, and I didn’t fight for the heart of my writing. So, if you can, be brave. Talk to your agent honestly and openly. Don’t try too hard to please them

These are both lessons that I will carry forwards to when I next have that exciting conversation with an agent. I’ll be way more honest, patient, and exacting. I’ll want to know specifics, and I won’t move forward until I have them.

Now for the painful part.

I rewrote my story, making it as dramatic and exciting as possible. I felt, in some ways, that it was better. I had greater clarity about the characters and I fell back in love with their awkwardness. But I also felt like the story was getting away from me. There were elements I didn’t like. I could see clearly where I could ramp up the drama even more, but I didn’t want to. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. But I felt like I had wandered from that as well.

Hoping for the best, I sent it off to my agent. We had agreed a date for feedback, and on that day they sent me an email that crushed me. They were honest and as kind as they could be, but told me that the story simply wasn’t getting to where they felt it needed to be and that they didn’t feel that they were the right person to represent me anymore.

I had to read the email twice before I understood. Then I started sobbing. I couldn’t get the words out, so my husband had to read the email to understand what had happened. He held me as I cried for a very long time.

I felt like an utter failure. I thought this was the end of my writing career. I was heartbroken – someone I thought was with me for life had monumentally let me down. I hated myself, hated my writing. I felt like the biggest reject ever. I thought I was a loser.

It was a horrible weekend. It was a tough week. It was a hard month.

Talking to my agent helped. I aired the things that had really hurt me, we chatted about what had gone wrong right from the start, I began to understand that this decision was prompted by forces outside of our control, and we chatted about next steps. I want to be clear and say that although this experience has completely knocked my confidence and saddened my very deeply, I do not blame my agent or feel badly towards them. They have always acted with kindness and generosity, but this is an incredibly tough business we are working in.

Quiet YA stories were a hard sell before the pandemic, they are an even harder sell now, and it had become apparent to my agent that I simply was not going to be able to write the story they saw mine becoming. I truly believe that I eventually would have come to the same conclusion – that we weren’t quite the right fit for one another. They might love my writing, but my stories couldn’t get to where they wanted to sell them in a difficult market.

I had a really tough few months, things are still pretty tough if I’m honest. I ditched everything I was working at the moment I split with my agent and leapt into editing something new, something I knew they wouldn’t have been interested in. I have to say, that felt very liberating. My confidence is still low and I think it will be for a while yet, but I’ve managed to start writing something new. Two new things, in fact.

I thought I would write this blog post when I was at the heady heights of having a new agent. I believe that will happen, someday, but I don’t think I’m going to be trapped in the valley until then.

I really believe that I was in freefall towards the bottom before I got that gutting email. I may have smashed into the rocks then, things may have seemed very dark, but they’re not anymore. Almost immediately, dragging one leg behind me and one arm hanging uselessly, I started to pull myself up the other side.

I don’t care if I’m labouring this metaphor. I’m climbing up the other side of the valley. I’ve made it a good way up. I can see flowers and light. The air is fresher and my hurts are healing.

I didn’t want to talk about splitting with my agent only once I had the perceived happy ending again. I wanted to write about it when it was still raw. I didn’t want to feel ashamed anymore. What has happened to me, and countless others, isn’t shameful. It’s okay to feel sad and broken. But I hope you’re able to pick yourself up. I hope you’re able to climb out of the valley.

This is still pretty hard to talk about, and thank you for indulging me in my ramblings. I hope they are helpful. I want to finish by saying another final thank you to my friends, wonderful husband, and all the other kind people who have stood with me in this tough time. You have carried me more than you know.

I always felt we should write for the love of it. I feel that more than ever now. Writing is my solace and my joy, let it be yours too.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

August Reads

A summary of my August – had two weeks off work, got pinged, read all the books instead of seeing people. Here are my faves…

Any Way The Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell completes the Simon Snow trilogy, and what an ending it is. I don’t want to say too much because of spoilers, but it was everything I wanted it to be and, in a world that’s been full of grimness for while, it was lovely to read a book that had drama and mystery but also found family, dealing realistically with mental illness, and loads of cuddles. All the characters are in their twenties in this final volume, and it’s been great fun watching them change and grow from angsty teens to perhaps-slightly-less-angsty young adults.

Hail Mary by Andy Weir blew me away. It’s got the classic opening of someone waking up in a room with no idea who or where they are, but with the twist of them being a scientist on an Earth-saving mission alone on a space ship. I’m not science-y but even during the geeky moments explaining how a sun-eating alien works, I was hooked. I actually struggled to put this down – it was so compelling. If you liked The Martian (film or book!), then you’ll love this.

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig is a hug in book form. I read it in one go on a rainy morning, and I will be returning to it any time I need a boost. Matt Haig speaks from a place of experience and compassion about the dark moments we all suffer with. I’d recommend keeping it beside your bed and dipping into it whenever it’s needed.

Below is one of my favourite parts of The Comfort book, but read them all and we can be chums 😊

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Very Exciting Prologues

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES.

People say that prologues are a little bit like marmite – readers (and agents/publishers) either hate them or love them. I want to add a little caveat to this because, yeah, there are some people who just hate prologues. No matter how well-written they are, no matter how necessary, these readers aren’t going to be pleased. If they find one in a book, they are likely to either skip it or put the book down. However, most people actually quite like a prologue that NEEDS to be in the story. What readers (and agents/publishers) don’t like is a prologue that’s unnecessary.

I see A LOT of unnecessary (but usually very exciting) prologues in my client’s stories. And they are all there for one reason: LACK OF CONFIDENCE. I always ask my clients if there is anything in particular that they want me to look at when I’m reading their words. As soon as they ask whether the prologue works/is needed, 99% of the time I know the answer before I’ve read it. It’s NO, just in case that wasn’t clear.

VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES usually take two forms, and they both have their potential downfalls:

  1. A flash forward
  2. A distracting subplot

I want to state right here before I go on to chat about some of the common issues that I’ve seen with these types of prologues that there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. Your prologue might work AMAZINGLY.

BUT, if you’ve included it because you’re scared the start of your story isn’t exciting or grabby enough, then it may not be working in the way you think it is. It would be worth interrogating its place in your story to make sure it’s truly essential.

I’ve seen a few of FLASH FORWARDS recently in my client’s work, and they make an INCREDIBLE start for the story. We are launched into high-stakes action, the characters are fully realised and engaging, the writing is often pacey and fluid…

And then we return to the start of the story. The pace drops. The characters are weird and awkward and don’t know how to do anything. There are no stakes yet, and I don’t care about anything that’s happening. The intention of the flash forward is to capture the reader’s interest, and it does, but it also means that when we wind back to the start of the story we do so with an ugly bump. We already know where the story is going to go, so the journey feels less fun. All those bumbling attempts that the main character makes to find their way that could be endearing and tension filled aren’t because the reader already knows where the character will get to.

Flashes forward can feel like a good idea because you get to showcase the very best of your story/writing, but I would argue that they leech tension and excitement from the rest of the story. If you’ve got a flash forward, pay particular attention to how the pace changes when you switch back to the start of your story. Do you keep the drama and stakes high, or is there a sudden drop? Is there some way you can inject tension into those first chapters to keep reader interest high? And have a think about how much of the story is spent working up to the moment of the flash forward. It will be in the back of readers minds, so if it’s at the very end of your story, that’s a long time to expect them to retain interest in stakes when they already kind of know what’s going to happen.

I’m a little bit brutal and love killing darlings, so I generally advise axing this kind of prologue. If you’ve written a super exciting climax to your story, don’t give the game away by revealing it at the start of your story!

And don’t feel like you can’t make the beginning of your story exciting in some other way. I know everyone talks about how slow starts are of the devil and readers have NO tolerance for them, but you don’t have to rush to the most exciting part right away to even have a chance of anyone reading your book. This is particularly scary in children’s fiction, but let’s give kids a little credit. Yes, they have fast paced lives now but they also have peaceful moments and we can encourage this through our writing. Attention spans may be shorter, but they aren’t non-existent. Something needs to happen early on in your story, but don’t feel like everything needs to.

A DISTRACTING SUBPLOT is another common prologue. It often comes in two forms – a flashback or something totally distinct from the main story. These often use characters who aren’t directly involved in the main story.

They are, again, VERY EXCITING but they are distracting. By using a prologue like this, you’re essentially asking readers to invest in your story twice. First, they have to care enough about the characters in the prologue, and then they have to meet a whole load of new people in the actual story and care for them as well.

This kind if prologue is often used because writers aren’t sure how to tell the readers something without it. It might be the origin of the hero or some worldbuilding that the plot depends on, and this can be hard to wedge into a story naturally. And I want to say again, that these kinds of prologues can work. We just have to keep in mind the additional investment we’re asking of readers and try to mitigate that in any way we can.

I would advise keeping prologues like this short so that you can get on with the story as soon as possible. Introduce as few characters as you can and make them engaging but not too sympathetic – you don’t want readers to feel annoyed when they drop off the radar.

If you’re feeling brave, cut the prologue. Wedge the information in somewhere else (in lots of dribs and drabs if possible!) and get some new reader eyes on it. Ask them if they feel any information is missing or if they were confused by anything, and add in bits of info where you need to.

BUT I want to say again that both of these kinds of prologues can work really well! One great example of the FLASH FORWARD are all the stories in the Frost Files series by Jackson Ford. These all begin with incredible action sequences and then backtrack to how the characters got themselves into these tricky situations. These flash forwards work because they are pretty short, and they don’t move too far into the future. We generally only backtrack to how they came to be falling out of a window or involved in a car chase, so there’s not too much ground to go back over. We quickly get to the moment of the flashforward and can move on with the story. They are fun and chaotic and engage readers in the story, they are quickly explained, and then we move on.

Subplot prologues can be used incredibly effectively. Especially in first person or close third person stories – you might need to show something that the narrator/main character couldn’t have known about/witnessed, and there might be something to establish that’s pivotal to the plot.

It’s your story, you can do whatever you like! But ask yourself – is my prologue ESSENTIAL to the story? If not, axe it!

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

July Reads

My reading has sloooowed down in recent months, but July was full of books that brought me joy no matter how long it took me to read them…

Toby and the Silver Blood Witches by Sally Doherty is a phenomenal debut by a lovely writer who I am privileged to call a friend. It’s got fantastic ME representation, a witch with the best dress ever (she can tear bits off of it and it looks as fabulous as always!), and an exciting story of good verses evil that will leave you wishing for more. Which is handy, as this is the first in a series. Great for children aged 8 to 12, and since this is my buddy’s book I’m going to leave the link to buy right here 😊

You’re The One That I Want is Simon James Green’s best yet. I will always pick up his books when I want a smile on my face and a story about authentic teens, and his latest story doesn’t disappoint. Think Pride and Prejudice with teenage boys and lots of theatrical antics. I recommend for any fans of fun YA – you’ll be grinning until the last page with this one.

As always, read them all and we can we chums, okay?

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Fat Shaming

What is it? Why is it harmful? How can we spot it in our stories?

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about FAT SHAMING. (Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.)

Disclaimer number one:

Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.

Disclaimer number two:

This blog has been a slightly long time coming as I wanted to frame it carefully. I don’t think I know everything and I’m not shouting this down from a high horse or some weird moral high ground. I am a flawed individual (we all are!) but fat shaming is something I’ve seen creeping into more stories I work with, and I wanted to chat a bit about it.

As with every kind of representation, we can all do better. I’m not saying I’m perfect or always get this right, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up if you don’t either. What we can do is recognise where we fall short, then try to do better. I really want the world to be full of outrageous and adventurous stories, ones that show a range of people and do as little harm as possible. I guess that’s what this blog, and the feedback I give to clients around this area, is all about. Let’s do less harm. Let’s represent people fairly. Let’s build a kinder world.

Disclaimers over! So, what the heck is fat shaming?!

Simply put, it is an action or depiction that humiliates or judges someone based on their size. This is something I hope we can all agree we would rather see less of in all areas of life, but I’m going to talk specifically about how this works in stories.

Fat shaming in novels falls into two broad categories – overt and covert. Overt shaming would include characters purposefully mocking fat people, unchallenged slurs, and exaggerated descriptions. This doesn’t crop up so much. What is much more prevalent (and I would argue pervasive and harmful) is covert fat shaming. Sadly, I see this a lot in both the novels I edit and those I read from reputable publishers.

Covert fat shaming plays into a lot of harmful stereotypes that are being very slowly debunked, but there is still a long way to go. A lot of us unconsciously absorb harmful beliefs towards fat people and this then comes out in how we represent them in our stories.

Basically, I’ll say again, don’t beat yourself up if you find covert fat shaming in your stories. It is EVERYWHERE and it’s super hard to get this stuff right all the time. Recognise your missteps, correct them, and move on.

Covert fat shaming often falls into four categories…

1. THE FAT CHARACTER IN A NOVEL IS THE LEAST DESIREABLE/INTELLIGENT/SELF-CONTROLLED

Here, fat characters will be described as ugly and will not be sexually attractive or even seen as a viable person to have a romantic relationship with, they will make obviously silly comments and be the butt of jokes, and they will cause problems with their lack of control.

Sadly, I read a published novel recently in which the only bigger character was annoying to all the slender characters, and they were socially unaware. They were a chore for the other characters to deal with and, in a novel of great character depth, the fat character was a flat caricature.

I’m not saying that fat characters cannot be annoying or lack self-awareness BUT if your only large character is displaying one or more of these character faults then this is falling into harmful stereotyping.

One way to spot this is to isolate each character in your novel. Make a table with their name and size at the top, and then write down their contributions to the story, and how other characters interact with them. If your fat character is always causing mishaps, is a sexless being, or is confused and being laughed at, then you may have a problem that needs to be addressed.

2. DESCRIPTIONS OF FAT CHARACTERS ARE UNFLATTERING

This is most often seen in descriptions of fat characters eating and walking.

Eating is an obvious problem area. As a society, we equate weight gain with a lack of self-control. We are told that to be fat is unhealthy and undesirable. And so, we demonise the act of eating itself. To watch a fat person eating is to witness something unpleasant happening.

What nonsense. I’m not going to go into the multitude of issues with this kind of thinking here, but please be very careful when describing a fat character’s eating habits.

Ask yourself – why am I describing this? Is it important? Am I paying the same close attention to the eating habits of all my characters? Am I using language designed to repel or neutral, pleasant words?

Walking actually covers a wide variety of physical activity, and it’s another area to be particularly careful when describing. There are two main issues here – the words used to describe the activity and the fat character’s reaction to physical movement. I’m not going to list the words that should be avoided when describing the bodies of fat characters or the way these bodies move. I think, if we all interrogate our writing, that we know when we have used words that are harmful and unhelpful.

Be careful when describing how larger characters react to physical exertion. If they are sweating or panting, why aren’t the rest of the characters doing this too? Or why is it particularly remarked upon that the fat character is going these things?

3. THIN CHARACTERS USING ‘FAT’ AS A DEROGATORY TERM 

Fat is not a bad word. It’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s not an insult.

Fat is a descriptive term.

As a society, we need to move away from asking, do I look fat in this? Why would looking fat be so terrible? And why would it matter if we showed our bodies as the sizes they are? Sometimes, literature needs to lead the charge. I would love to read more books populated by people of all different sizes who love themselves exactly as they are.

This isn’t to say that characters cannot have self-esteem issues that display as concern about their weight. What I am more talking about here are the throwaway comments that quietly reinforce a view that being fat is not good.

This is a hard one to spot in our own stories. It’s so ingrained in us that it can so easily slip through the net. The best way I can suggest of weeding this out is by reflecting on and challenging our own views on fatness. If we think there is nothing wrong with being bigger, we’ll spot the moments when our characters do.

4. TOTAL EXCLUSION

This is the most prevalent type of covert fat shaming I come across in stories, both those I edit and those I read from published authors. In novels, a world is created that in almost all ways reflects the real one, except there are no fat characters.

This is alienating. I think some people are scared about writing in fat characters, as they don’t want to get it wrong. I hope it’s been clear in this thread but I’ll say it again – it’s okay to get things wrong. I know Twitter (and much of social media) thrives on rage and hate, and would like to make you believe that mistakes are unacceptable, but that’s not true. I personally believe it is much better to try, fail, and then do better next time.

Instead of writing novels where fat people are absent, give writing a larger character a go. Share sections with a trusted friend and interrogate how you’ve written them. Spot the mistakes and rewrite. My dream is that fat representation soars, and a character’s size becomes less of a plot point and simply one part of the wonderful person they are.

I recognise that with any type of representation, I don’t hold all the answers, that I can (and probably will!) get thing wrong, and that this is an ongoing, morphing discussion. But let’s write kinder stories. Let’s write novels that allow fat people to see characters like themselves fight dragons and overcome trauma and have wild romances. Let’s populate our novels with all kinds of people, all muddling through life together in a beautiful mess.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

June Reads

I might not have read many books in June, but I may have read my favourite book of the year…

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley is a flipping masterpiece. Her novels always a dive into gentle, surreal worlds populated with deeply flawed but undeniably loveable characters on wild adventures, and The Kingdoms didn’t disappoint. Pulley plays masterfully with a time bending plot, all woven together by two of the most brilliantly compelling main characters that I’ve read in such a long time. I tore through this a few weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it now. It’s thrilling, wonderfully written, and immersive. I don’t care what kind of novels you usually enjoy – read The Kingdoms and you’ll have a whole new author to rave about.

Eye of the Sh*t storm by Jackson Ford is also rather good. Apologies to Ford – it’s hard to follow a review like the one above, but I feel like if any book can do it, it’s this one. It’s witty, action packed, and so well crafted. The food descriptions are some of the best I’ve come across and the world that’s being woven in the third of this series is consistently both gritty and inherently human (even when some of the characters aren’t quite human…) This is a great novel for fans of inverted superhero tropes and fried chicken.

Read them all, and we can be chums 😊

One tiny disclaimer – if you struggle with reading about suicide, then I would avoid Dog Days by Ericka Waller. This is a great book, full of DOGS and damaged humans, but there is also a scene later in the book that I found incredibly difficult to read. Look after yourselves!

Meandering Dialogue

How to make sure conversations in your stories flow

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving to lots of my editing clients. This time it’s all about MEANDERING DIALOGUE.

A disclaimer for my editing clients – I will NEVER use specific examples or talk about your stories! These threads are based on feedback I have given to MANY clients, so I am not secretly talking about your work.

Now, there are three main reasons dialogue can feel like it’s meandering all over the shop:

  1. It goes on for too long
  2. The point of the conversation isn’t clear
  3. Switches in subject feel random

I’m going to use a short section from Goldilocks by Laura Lam to explore all of these areas. If you haven’t read this book yet, why the heck not? But don’t worry – there will be no spoilers!

This is a discussion between the main character, Naomi, and her mentor, Valerie:

This is a great section. Short, sharp, to the point. This is a whole, separate piece of dialogue that moves the story along, tells us about the dynamic between the characters, and, most importantly, will help us unpick some meandering dialogue issues…

1. DIALOGUE THAT GOES ON FOR TOO LONG

This is usually because there is too much said before or after the real crux of the conversation. Too much information is being included, and this can make the conversation feel overly long.

Consider the section from Goldilocks again. This conversation is taking place on a journey after the two women haven’t seen each other for a while. Valerie has travelled for a long time to visit Naomi. Do they talk about putting their seatbelts on? Does Naomi ask if Valerie wants a shower to wash away the travelling? These could both have been used to pad out the start of the conversation but they aren’t, because they aren’t things the reader needs to know. Do you think these two women spent the rest of the car ride in silence? Probably not. But their chats for the remainder of the drive are not important enough to be included. The reader can assume they’ve happened, without actually witnessing them all.

Those things wouldn’t make for bad dialogue, they could be well written and carefully integrated, but they aren’t needed. And that’s a hard thing to face when looking at our own stories – is every line of dialogue absolutely essential?

The first two places to look if you feel like your dialogue is meandering is at the start and end of conversations. This is when the advice ‘start late, finish early’ is worth its weight in gold. One way to really interrogate whether every part of your dialogue is needed is to print off each section and grab a highlighter. Be ruthless, and only highlight those sections that are really, totally essential. Then get even meaner – explain to yourself why each part is needed. Is it furthering the plot? Developing character? Filling in backstory? Hinting at something to come? You can leave in some sections where the reason for keeping it is I LIKE IT but if you’re finding your speech is full of these bits, then it might be time to cut them out.

Now, only you know your story and where it sits in the genre/age group you’re writing within. It might be that including more filler moments gives your book a cosy, conversational feel – and that’s fine if it fits the type of book you’re writing. But be honest with yourself and shave off those starts and ends where you can.

2. THE POINT OF THE CONVERSATION ISN’T CLEAR

Let’s go back to Naomi and Valerie. What is the point of this conversation? This is slightly easier because it’s a short section, but this should be evident in all dialogue. The point here is that Valerie has some reason for her visit that Naomi wants to know, and it also shows off some of their relationship dynamic.

Imagine if they’d had this conversation instead:

‘How was your flight?’ Naomi asked.

‘It was good,’ Valerie said.

‘Let’s get you settled then.’

Firstly, it’s bland and boring. But secondly, what is the point of this exchange? It might be to show some of the care Naomi feels for Valerie, but what else is there to it? This care can be showcased in so many (more creative) ways than with this section of dialogue.

Again, it’s time to be brutal. Is there dialogue in your novel that’s nice and maybe serves a purpose but has no real, driving point to it? Find each section of dialogue, even weeny ones like this, and question them – WHY ARE YOU HERE? If the answer is evident, that’s great. If not, maybe it can be cut. Even if the meaning is clear – ask yourself, is this showcased somewhere else and I don’t need the dialogue to say it as well?

As I said, the point can be harder to find in longer conversations, and you may need to split these into sections that serve different purposes. If there are parts that don’t serve a purpose, maybe they can be reworked or cut out.

3. SWITCHES IN SUBJECT FEEL RANDOM

Imagine if Naomi said directly after this:

I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

This would be… strange. Why is she telling Valerie about this new hobby? And why now?

Now, I’m not saying that random switches in the conversation can’t happen. However, they need to be clearly explained to the reader, especially if it’s the main character making this abrupt change.

If it was changed to:

Naomi hated awkward silences. ‘I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

Then the reader understands why she’s said this random thing.

During these conversational shifts, it’s really important to let the reader know what your main character is thinking and feeling. This smooths the way for these changes in direction, and makes sure that your dialogue flows from one topic to another.

So, pick a longer section of your dialogue. In the margin, pop a star each time your conversation changes direction – a new subject is aired, a question is asked, an action is suggested. And then make sure that this has been clearly explained or set up by your main character’s inner world. If they suggest getting dinner, have you shown them feeling hungry? If they accuse someone of murder, have they put the clues together in their mind?

In the Goldilocks example, there is no inner monologue from Naomi BUT what she’s thinking/feeling is clear. Valerie states it, and then Naomi’s speech backs this up. Use those other characters, especially when working in third person.

Just one last thing to say – dialogue that is sharp, clear, and smooth is actually incredibly unrealistic. Real conversations are full of interruptions, totally random shifts in topic, people not listening and getting distracted… We are terrible at talking to one another, really!

BUT that wouldn’t make for very compelling reading. So, forget about realism and think carefully about what you want to get across with dialogue. Say it, then then stop talking.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Agency

How can you spot good character agency?

I’m going to start sharing some of the feedback I regularly give to clients, along with tips to help you find and change/strengthen these things in your own stories. Let’s start by chatting about AGENCY. (To find more of these on Twitter, search #EditingTipsFromAnna)

Teeny disclaimer for my editing clients: I will never use specific examples or show any part of your stories! This might have formed part of the feedback you received, but I will never, ever talk about YOU or your words.

Anyway – what the heck is character agency?

Boiled down, agency is your main character doing stuff and moving the plot forward. It’s closely linked to their aims/wants/needs/fears. Basically, it’s your MC acting on inner impulses and making the story happen. Rather than things happening to them, they are going out and getting shit done.

Side note – agency is actually pretty unrealistic. We all take action and push towards our goals, but life throws a lot of randomness at us that we have no control over and can’t form a neat narrative around. I think this is why a lot of writers struggle with giving their characters agency. It’s more realistic for lots of things to be thrown at them. However, that doesn’t make for a very compelling story.

As a reader, it’s easy to spot when a character is lacking agency. Either their aim/wants/needs/fears won’t be clear so their actions feel random, or lots of stuff happens to the character rather than them doing things. As a writer, lack of agency can be tougher to pin down. Loads of stuff might happen in your novel, and how can you figure out whether or not this action is being prompted by your MC? This can be especially difficult since you do need a certain amount of external story propellers. Your MC probably has no control over their wider world, the actions of their friends and family, the weather… but they can act within these.

So how can you spot character agency in your stories? First, write out what happens in your novel, point by point. This is a bit different to a synopsis, as you don’t have to keep it short or prune anything out.

I’m going to use The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as an example to show good agency. If you’ve not read this already – why the heck not? And prepare yourself for a few spoilers.

You’ve written a point by point run-through of your plot. Now, grab a highlighter, and mark every element that is prompted by action from your MC. This is what this would look like for the opening section of the Hunger Games:

There is a good mix of Katniss taking action and other stuff happening. But this is how that opening section would look if her agency was taken away:

Stuff is still happening in this agency-less version, but it’s so much less engaging and exciting! Now, I don’t know how highlighter-full your plot is looking. If it’s a bit bare, don’t despair! Realising your MC lacks agency can feel demoralising but it’s an easy thing to fix.

The first thing to establish is your MC’s aim. This is crystal clear for Katniss – she wants to protect her family/survive the games and return to them. Every action she takes is informed by this. So, take a look at your plot with your MC’s aim in mind. Is every action they take pushing towards this, even if this sometimes conflicts with that they want or forces them to face their fears? What Katniss really wants is a peaceful life. She doesn’t want to fight or lead a revolution, but she is forced into a situation where she has to act contrary to what she wants to achieve her main aim of protecting her family.

Making this aim clear will ensure that your character’s actions are understandable and it gives readers something to root for. Katniss makes things happen, but her actions would feel random without her aim to protect her family. What is your main character’s aim? They might have been thrust into a situation, but what are they going to take control of and push towards? Answer these questions, and then go back and thread agency into your story.

Hopefully, this will just require adjustments. You probably already had an aim in mind, but might not have attached it to your main character or used them as the driving force behind it. However, sometimes adding agency needs larger scale changes. If Katniss had been picked in the Hunger Games originally, writing in Prim getting picked and all that this entails would have required a major rehaul.

BUT putting good character agency into your stories will make them so much stronger. You’ve already written a novel, so you’re more than capable of rehauling it and making it shine!

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

May Reads

I had another great reading month in May. Here are my faves…

Goldilocks by Laura Lam BLEW MY MIND. Set largely in a space ship headed for a new planet that could be a place for humans to live after they’ve messed up earth, this story has both global and personal reach. Told from one woman’s point of view, we travel with her through space and learn of a brutal betrayal, a new hope, and are with her as she has to make impossible decisions. This was genuinely a book I couldn’t put down, and it’s perfect for fans of Becky Chambers, Margaret Atwood, or anything spacey.

If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane is another smasher. If you love romance tropes like friends to lovers to enemies to who knows, people stuck in lifts, and the make-over moment, then you’ll love this. It takes these elements and makes them feel fresh and clever. I love Mhairi’s books because they feature 30-something women with actual working brain cells – this one in particular features a solicitor who struggles with her love life and it’s such a refreshing thing to see. This is a must read for fans of Stephanie Butland, Jenny Colgan (I’ll warn you now – there’s less baking BUT you’ll survive), or Marian Keyes.

Heartstopper Volume 4 by Alice Oseman is, you guessed it, the fourth in a series that follows one of the most heart-warming and authentic love stories currently being written and illustrated for young adults. Get ahead of the trend as this is being adapted by Netflix, and then it will be EVERYWHERE. Yay. Ideal for fans of Simon James Green and Patrick Ness.

As always – read them all and we can be friends, okay?

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback on beloved stories can be one of the most wonderful things in the world. It can also be incredibly tough, since that fresh pair of eyes will spot things we didn’t in the ONE MILLION times we scoured our words.

Below are some of my tips for taking the sting out of even the most brutal critique.

BE CAREFUL WHO YOU CHOOSE

Do you want cheerleading, some grammar and sentence structure help, in-depth character analysis, or feedback on your structure and pacing? Decide what you want BEFORE you ask someone to read your story, and make sure that person knows what you want and is willing and able to provide it.

My mum reads all my novels and she is one of the loveliest first readers in the world – providing encouragement to keep going. My beta readers will chat big picture stuff with me and lament over how much they want to smush my characters and make everything better. My critique partners provide me with detailed, often line-by-line, feedback on exactly what is and isn’t working. All these readers provide different comments and critique, and I’m careful to figure out where someone fits in this spectrum before I ask them to read anything of my stories.

It’s incredibly frustrating to seek one type of feedback and constantly receive another. And it wastes both your time and theirs. If there is someone reading your work and the comments always leave a sour note, then ask yourself if they are providing something you don’t want or need right now.

BUT don’t just blame yourself. A few years ago, I started swapping with someone and too late I realised that their comments always veered to the critical end of the spectrum. Now, that could have been because what I was sharing with them was utter shit, but they should have found at least one or two things to complement each time, even if it was just the font I chose. Their comments always made me feel low. Once I realised this, I extracted myself from the situation. (If you’ve swapped with me before and are now wondering if I’m talking about you – I’m not!)

Be careful before you share your work with someone. Begin by just sharing a little, and make sure that expectations are clear on both sides. If you’re not happy with the feedback, then you’re under no obligation to share any more of your work with that person. Go out and find someone who understands your story and will give you the level of feedback you need.

TAKE YOUR TIME

In the toxic swapping situation I mentioned, I would read the feedback and even days (weeks, MONTHS) later, it would raise my hackles. I would rarely change anything in my story based on their comments, and I always felt like they were pulling me in directions I didn’t want to go.

However, there is some feedback that initially will make us rage and cry and call down a hoard of vengeful flying monkeys, but after a few days it will sink in and begin to make sense. Perhaps it cut too close to a darling you couldn’t bear to part with, or maybe it suggested changes you couldn’t face making, but slowly those comments return to your mind more and more and, instead of feeling the rage, you feel excited about how the changes can enliven and brighten your story.

Strangely, this doesn’t always mean you’ll 100% agree with the feedback. You might decide to go in another direction totally, but something in those comments unlocked a creative bubble in your head and let you fly.

That’s why I always suggest that my editing clients take at least a day or two after receiving feedback to make any changes to their manuscript. There might be some comments they adamantly disagree with when they first read them, but then those tough words help them push through a creative block.

This can also go the other way. Sometimes, having someone interact with our work can be exciting in itself. I’ve run off after getting feedback and started making changes, only to totally run out of steam a few days later when I realised I didn’t quite want to go in that direction, and now I need to change it all back again.

Take time to sit with feedback, even the stuff that feels 100% wrong or right. You might go in the exact same direction you decided to seconds after reading it, but giving yourself a day or two to digest will give your subconscious time to play with the new ideas and produce something even bigger and better.

REMEMBER THAT IT’S YOUR STORY

That means that only you can decide what to add, change, or cut. Feedback may batter you, but even dissenting voices will help you refine and grow confidence in your vision. Cherry-pick the feedback that strengthens and develops your story, and feel free to ignore the rest.

There is one exception to this rule, and that’s when you repeatedly get the same feedback from reader after reader. I had a scene in one of my young adult novels that I thought was really clever. I believed it displayed the differences between two characters and inventively detailed the changed world they found themselves in.

I was wrong.

Reader after reader commented on this section. They either misinterpreted it and didn’t like what it said about a previously gentle character, or they didn’t understand it. I thought this was a great scene, but it just didn’t work. Ultimately, despite the pain, I cut it.

You might be able to save those scenes that people keep tripping up on. There might be something to strengthen or tone down, description could be cut or dialogue smoothed, but if there is something that keeps cropping up again and again, then it needs to be addressed in some way.

As always though, there is an exception to every rule! And maybe that scene is meant to trip readers up. Maybe it’s there for a good reason and they will figure that out later. Only you, the writer, knows this.

Use your power to ignore everyone you please wisely.

And wield this power of wilful ignorance with grace and kindness. Even someone who gives you terrible story advice again and again is investing in you as a writer. You might choose to step away from them, but you don’t have to be cruel. It takes a great deal of time and effort to give feedback on someone else’s words, so make sure to honour the commitment they made to you and your story, even if you’re going to totally ignore them and carry on your merry way.

I hope these tips are helpful. Feedback can be inspiring, and I hope you find great people to share your work with 😊

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂