SPS-280: When Two Editors are Better Than One – with Andrew Lowe & Jennie Nash
James and his two editors, Jennie Nash and Andrew Lowe, walk us through the process of taking The Last Flight from first draft to published book and what James learned about writing novels along the way.
- On what book coaches like Jennie Nash do
- How and why new writers fall into despair
- The importance of figuring out why you want to tell your story
- The Inside Outline and how it works
- The importance of story to human beings
- Checking to see if each scene, sentence, chapter in a book is needed
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-280: When Two Editors are Better Than One - with Andrew Lowe & Jennie Nash
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Jennie Nash: You really have modelled that for your audience about what a real pro does, and it doesn't diminish the fact that this is your story through and through and that it's your book and your work. But I just want to point that out because I think it's a powerful thing that you did.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It is the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson. Hello.
James Blatch: We are in Huntingdon, in the UK and Salisbury in the UK, respectively, speaking to you anywhere in the world. We have lots of listeners down under in Australasia, in America, and we've basically had podcasts and webinars to sustain us for a year now, but we're getting to the point where we might be outside again and meeting each other, which is very exciting. Hopefully, the next variant of COVID doesn't shut things up again. It's been a big year.
Mark Dawson: It would be the Indian variant, wouldn't it? I blame John Dyer.
James Blatch: His mum is Indian. And so anything that comes from India that's negative is immediately blamed on him. And he's very quick to tell us of India's successes and claim them for himself.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: Of which there are many, of course, emerging nation.
Let's just reflect briefly on the year, because I've been thinking about this over the last few days. We've got some more webinars coming up. It's been a transformative year. I think in other industries outside more than us for people realising they don't need to be in the office, working a lot of talk at the moment about what's going to happen to these office buildings in cities like London and New York, I'm sure is the same.
In our world, we were well set up for webinars and online learning that's of course, what we do in the heart of SPF, but that has definitely accelerated. I feel we've had in maybe six months ago, a real peak in the number of people attending webinars and online learning. And it feels to me like the rest of the industry, the older industry is catching up with where we've been for a few years.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It might be true. Things are changing. I had a chat with a fairly senior Amazonian this morning. We have kind of regular catch ups just to see how we're both getting on. And they haven't gone back, this is in London, they haven't gone back to the office yet. And he was thinking what it will be like when they go back, will the coffee shops still be there.
I imagine lots of them will now be shut and won't be there anymore. What will things be like as staff go back for two days a week, rather than five days a week. It is going to be interesting over the next 18 months or so as things hopefully get back to normal, but the good news is, as you said, the industries that we're in both speaking as SPF in education and as writers, so me and you as writers and our listeners as writers, it does put us in a pretty strong position to carry on.
As we've mentioned before, the pandemic didn't really have an effect on my business in terms of books written and sold and that kind of thing. And we've seen that mirrored in reports from other writers as well, who've had good years and started publishing or consolidated their businesses and are doing well. So it's something to be grateful for. We're quite lucky that we don't, we're not airline pilots or work in events or have a restaurant or anything like that. There aren't many industries that have done well out of a difficult time, but we probably have a couple of them.
James Blatch: I've seen a couple on social media, I've a couple of airline pilots quoting Top Gun saying, "Do you remember the name of that truck driving school Maverick? I think Truck Master it was called?" Which Goose says when they get hauled over the coals for the flypast, thinking well we'll become truck drivers. And there's two of them sort of quoted this jokingly because they are converting to get their HGV licence.
Mark Dawson: I think I may have mentioned previously, I know someone from the school run who flew 747s for BA, well Airbuses would be a more likely these days. And he was laid off and now works for Hermes as a driver, the most overqualified delivery driver you could imagine, you're used to flying people around the world and now he's driving a truck.
James Blatch: But I bet the parking's perfect when he pulls up alongside. You don't have to do that. Good. Well, Amazon have their own coffee shop, which is very nice in their building in London, which we've been to a couple of times
Mark Dawson: They do. Their office is lovely, isn't it?
James Blatch: Yeah, it does remain to be seen. I interviewed Carlyn Robertson from BookBub last week, and Carlyn has actually moved across the country a bit. And I think they're also not back in the office as yet. They're not travelling, not back in the office. And I think she's going to work from home. And I think this is an example of what's happening in industries that do have office locations that they've worked out, that actually people can work from home. They save a lot of commuting time, right.
Where I live, everyone commutes into London, which is an hour on the train, the best part of an hour on train, but then you've got 20 minutes, either side of that. That's a lot of time, dead time during the day. And if you just wander down in your pyjamas to your kitchen table, open your laptop and you're working, businesses won't suffer as a result, I don't think.
There's some unknowns, I suppose, which is the reason we go to conferences, that sort of personal side of things, the friendships, and the groups, I'm sure I'm not the only person who's looking forward to those conferences in September and getting together with all the friends to plan some time to spend together. But yeah, it's going to be interesting this bit now, the next phase, I guess, of COVID is the next 12 months as we see what the world looks like, what permanent changes are left as a result of this.
To reiterate what you say, Mark, people are reading more books. That seems to be the case. There's been an uptake in E-readers and we're in a strong position of all the industries in the world. We are one of those that's that's in a stronger position I think not a weaker position.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting. I was just thinking to myself, I've not been in this office for two weeks. I've been working from home and I haven't left Salisbury for business anyway, for much longer than that. So it's yeah, different times, certainly some challenges, but we're getting back to normal.
James Blatch: My office is in my garden. I've spent quite a lot of time in the house because we have a puppy that needs regular looking after. My wife's got a job working as a vaccine assistant, actually, helping get people jabbed. And I'm working in the kitchen with a dog snapping at my ankles. This is the first time I'd been in here today.
Everything's changing Mark, but we'll survive. Right, this episode is almost like a bit of a Book Lab in that we're going to go through the part, we'll talk to the two editors development editors and copy editors who helped me get my book over the line.
We've talked a bit about it. People have followed the process over the last few years, and I wanted just to spend this one episode, talking to those two people who helped shape the story, go over those key moments, those discussions, how it happened, how I got to where I got to, and I've now got 60 odd reviews and they are overwhelmingly positive.
I'm not just blowing my own trumpet. I'm just pointing out that the work I did with the development editors was not a lost cause, it seems to have been a key part in producing a book that some people at least have liked.
Mark Dawson: You do actually, it's worth noting, you do have a very large extended family.
James Blatch: I do. Yes. And John Dyer's extended family in India have been very busy in the click farm with that. No they haven't, Jeff Bezos, if you're listening.
But, just to trail ahead, Book Lab, we have chosen the next victim and she is Michelle Hensley. And Michelle is currently awaiting the interviews that I'll be carrying out with the experts, which will be Jennie Nash and Stuart Bache and Bryan Cohen, we'll be doing that over the next 10 days or so then Michelle will get a chance to hear the critique, and then we'll talk to her about any changes she intends to make.
Well, hopefully bring you that episode in July. I think probably at the end of July, from where we're looking now.
We also have a Patreon supporter to welcome to the podcast. So I'm going to say a very warm welcome to Chris Cobb, Chris Cobb of no fixed abode of no address, it says here. Welcome, Chris, you've been to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow to be a part of the Self-Publishing Show Community, got lots of goodies and access to regular life training as a result of that. Thank you for joining us, Chris.
Okay. So this week, Mark, any marketing or book stuff to regale us with? What have you been up to?
Mark Dawson: There's been a couple of things I can't talk about at the moment.
James Blatch: So that makes good podcasts.
Mark Dawson: I know, not too much. It's been lovely getting some pictures from readers all around the world actually, with showing me either The Cleaner in hardback in the US so lots of pictures in Barnes and Noble, which has been really nice. And from UK readers showing the second print of book, Saint Death, in supermarkets and bookstores, and I just wandered into Smiths in Salisbury. I was walking into the office and they've got Saint Death in hardback in the charts and also three copies of The Cleaner in the paperback section. So it's lovely to see that.
Someone was saying to me, it was my mother-in-law was saying to me, it must be really nice to see your books in stores. And it is, I should really stop and think about that a little bit. Cause when I was first publishing 20 years ago, now God, 21 years ago, it did feel quite good to see them in stores. But in in the interim it's kind of faded a little bit, partly because those books didn't sell very well and I'm a little bit more jaded now.
But it is cool to see books in stores and it is cool to see, not as many books there as they would have been when they, they put the shelves out. So empty shelves is in some ways is a even better sign that the readers are picking them up that may never have read me before and getting into the series. So yes, I need to be more thankful about those things. I think I've taken for granted sometimes.
James Blatch: I think it is one of the images you have of yourself as a successful author. You know, if you simply want to be a firefighter, I'm not saying it isn't, it is a cliche, not a cliche, that's the wrong way. It's something that new writers think is going to be the pinnacle. And if it's that kind of, you see your book on a shelf and someone taking it down, that's kind of like the you've reached your goal at that point, but that's not true as you're discovering now, the goal is actually to sell as many books as possible to get those reviews to give readers a bit of entertainment. That's really, that's the end result that you want to go after. And there's lots of ways to do that now. More, more ways than these days and many more ways than when I started out.
Mark Dawson: There really was just going to the old fashioned, going a publisher and crossing your fingers that they'd like it. And then they'd do the marketing and get the books out there. These days, you can still do that, and that is what I've done with the deal that we've mentioned before, but there are other ways you don't need to do it that way. You can do it yourself, which is obviously pretty good.
James Blatch: It's good to see, obviously you're higher up the chain than me and lots of other people listening to this podcast, though not everyone. We probably have a few authors as well, yeah. But it's good to see indie authors in the bookshops. It's just pathfinding a way for the normalising of indie publishing being available in those places as well.
Louise Ross's books sit alongside yours and my local WHSmith. I'm sure they're doing this as well. So that's great. Okay. Right. So we move on to our interviews then.
This is two interviews, one with Jennie Nash, one with Andrew Lowe, the two development editors. Jennie's in the States and Andrew Lowe is here in the UK. And for that I want to ask you a question about my next book, which I'm working on now, after these interviews to do with language and editing, but let's start with Jennie.
I suppose I've seen up until this point, I started this book as a NaNoWriMo, no idea what I was doing. Didn't really, I didn't even connect Mark, but you were writing at that stage. It's just something I did off my back, we were working together in the same building in Soho, in London in the film industry. And I wrote this draft, which I got done by the end of the year. So about a hundred thousand words, did nothing with it till about 2016, when you encouraged me to blow the dust off.
I just didn't know what I was doing at that stage. I had the semblance of a story, but that all changed. When I did an interview with Jennie Nash, she talked about book coaching, which I haven't really come across before. And I thought that's exactly what I need.
I signed up with Jennie as a paying customer and she and one of her editors worked with me. And that was a very pivotal, not very good English was a pivotal moment in the structure of the book.
Then Andrew was kind of the developmental polish of that more to do with the process and language, then the structure of the story, but a very important stage as well. So let's start with Jennie and then it'll be Andrew. And then Mark and I will be back after the end of the interview.
All right, Jennie Nash, welcome back to the Self-Publishing Show, friend of the Self-Publishing Show. And actually as we speak today, we are choosing our next Book Lab victim. So we'll be chatting again, hopefully the next few weeks having that episode ready.
Jennie Nash: I love doing the Book Lab. I think it's so fun.
James Blatch: Yeah, they're really great, I love those episodes. And you are here today as we're going to talk about my book and the journey that I took to publication, which has been a sort of story that's been a saga, an epic saga that's been part of the show's DNA from the beginning.
I think it was such an important moment, the conversations that we had. We had two or three conversations at the beginning, when I engaged your services and it was fundamental to the books. I just wanted to talk about that and getting to the point of publication. So this started with me interviewing you. And I can't remember. I think you just came onto the show as a guest, right? I think just to talk about author accelerator.
Jennie Nash: I think so. Yeah.
James Blatch: And we didn't know each other and I sat there, listening to this thinking, oh my God, this is 100% what I need, a book coach, I'm in that position.
So for people listening who are writing their first book, trying to absorb what is frankly, a cacophony of information about how to write a novel all over the place. Some of it contradictory, some of it very good. Some of it probably not useful.
A book coach is somebody who holds your hand, simplifies things, talks to you about your story. I think that's the key thing that you get from book coaching. Is that what you set out to do?
Jennie Nash: Yeah. We all know what an editor does. An editor comes in at the end and usually works with the whole manuscript and makes it better. And that is an excellent thing to have happen. We all want that and need that, but it coaches usually working with the writer during the writing process.
So we're helping when somebody gets stuck or helping them at the very beginning, if they don't want to get stuck. So we're really working with both on both levels, the writer and the writing and the place I remember meeting you was, you were very stuck and frustrated. There was a lot of angst coming off you at that time. Is that what you recall?
James Blatch: Yes. I was depressed, stuck about the book and very low on optimism that this would ever get done, and I didn't really know. I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't know what questions to ask really, despite the fact that I do these interviews every week and I'm in the right place.
I was not opening my Scrivener project anymore because I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing.
Jennie Nash: I think you suffered what all writers suffer from, which is, Ira Glass has a beautiful quote on this American life. The NPR show, he talks about the gap between your ability to produce something and you're knowing that it's not quite right yet. So you when you read a book, what's good and you know what you want to achieve and that target you want to hit, but your skill level or your ability to get there is not quite there yet.
That's why that suffering happens, is in that gap. Like, why can't I make this the way I want it to be, or I know it needs to be. There's a cycle of despair you get into. And I think that description of it being a gap is a really good one. Cause you know what good writing is. You work with it all day long, you see it in other people, you help others get there. You're swimming in that, but doing it in your own work as a totally different thing.
James Blatch: I spoke to Jo Penn the other day about this. I think I'm somebody who needs to, what's the word, trial and error. I need to fail at doing something. I'm not somebody who can read an academic book on a really good description of what you need to do, put the book down and put that into practise.
I need to write badly, make those mistakes before I understand what they are. It's just in my nature. I think lots of people actually operate like that. And so all the work I'd done up until this point was not wasted. I really believe that. That hundred thousand words I wrote initially back in 2010 was not wasted.
Even though I daren't even look at it now, it would be comedy value to look at it now, but it got me to a point where I knew what the story was, but I think I had two fundamental problems that I came to you with.
One was, I didn't think the story was substantial enough, and I thought the book was too long. And if you think about it, they sound like they're contradictions. Well if the story is not substantial enough, how can the book be too long? So I had two competing problems there, a wordy manuscript attempt at trying to understand how novels work and a story that was nagging away at me that there's not really enough happening here. And I think first of all, you asked a really important question. What was the question you asked me that got me? Do you remember?
Jennie Nash: No.
James Blatch: I remember it very clearly. You said to me, why do you need to tell this story?
Jennie Nash: Oh, well, that's what I always start with. And it comes from Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why, which is a book for business, but it is a book that writers need to read as well. Because I do believe that every problem a writer has can be traced back to why they're writing a book.
Why do they care? Why are they putting themselves through this? Why does it matter to them? And I'm not talking about the external goals that we all want. We all want to make money, to make sales, to make a name for ourselves, to get on the top of the list, to be like Mark. Right? And that's what the external goals are.
I'm talking about your internal why, the thing that's driving you because there are million ideas and writers have a million ideas all the time, but this idea stuck in your head.
This idea was the one that you wanted to bring to light. This was the one you said I'm going to invest my time and energy into this. So yeah, I always ask that at first. I'm glad I asked it of you first, but I remember your answer now that you reminded me of the question and it was extremely personal. It was extremely moving.
Your heart was in the answer and it had to do with your dad. It had to do with this really deep, personal historical connection to who your dad was and what he did and the time he lived. And that knowing that that was where the story was coming from. And you gave me, I remember a beautiful lesson on some of the history of the English military. And I mean, it was, it had politics in it, it had aeronautics in it.
It had things about the modern age coming into the modern age and, and things about the role of men and women and gender and power. There was so much and the reason that I love when I say, okay, why do you care? Let's just go to the very beginning motivation. Why do you even care?
And then I get something like that. It's like, oh, this writer's going to be fine. This writer's going to be fine. If somebody's answer is, "well, I don't know. It just seemed like a good idea", or worse, "well, vampire stories are selling right now, so I'm going to write a vampire story", that those writers can't get out of trouble.
James Blatch: I remember that was the feeling you gave me then is, is that this is going to be easy. Not this is going to be easy, but you've got a great start. Rather than you want to sell a book, writing in a genre where you think it's just going to sell. Well, that's difficult because your heart's not there.
Whereas I remember you saying to me, we'll be all right. We'll be all right. And that was a big boost to my confidence, but I think I had thought at that point, okay, so this came from that place. I hadn't really explained it to myself. So you forced me to confront why I was telling this story, but I think I probably thought, okay, that's a personal thing, let's park that.
It's allowed me to come up with this story idea as if those two things were separate.
And what happened with the discussion with you is that the theme that the reason I was writing it needed to be in every scene on every page, through the book. And that completely changed the way I started thinking about the story.
Jennie Nash: Right, driving the character's behaviour and decisions and the consequences that come from it.
And you'd said that you had had two problems. One was that the manuscript was too long and two was that it didn't feel substantial enough. And I think those two things often do go together because when you're writing to find your way, which we all do, you need a lot of words sometimes to find your way. And then when you know what exactly you're writing and what the story is going to be, you've got to tighten the screws down which means getting rid of everything that doesn't serve that story.
Sometimes writers can't do that. They can't pare it down. They can't let things go. They fall in love with everything. Characters, subplots, scenes, the whole thing. And you were very committed to excellence. I remember you didn't have any problem, I'll do what I have to do. Let's do what I have to do.
James Blatch: I think maybe when you feel the story is not substantial enough, you do end up waxing lyrical about the sunset and stuff because you think, well, this is all this is now. I can create some beauty in this scene as if that's the point of the book. That's not the point of it. Go and write poetry if that's what you want to do. That wasn't what this book was.
This needed to be a page-turner where the story and character are driving it and that always changed things.
Jennie Nash: Yeah. A novel has a really deep underlying logic, a good novel. There's a reason every scene is there and that scene has a function that's performing. It's deeply connected to the scene. It comes before and after when we're immersed in a book that we're just loving and we're just turning the pages and we can't stop, that underlying logic is what's driving it.
And the beautiful writing or the lyrical writing or the writing that sometimes just feels good to produce is not serving that. It's not part of that logic. And it's what's missing in really the vast number of novels that are not working. It's not that the people can't write, that the writers can't write, they probably can write. It's that writing isn't the main thing about writing. It's the thinking, it's the logic, it's the strategy, it's the structure.
So much of the way writing is taught is not focused on those underlying things. It's focused on craft and craft comes later. We need to get that solid base right. And once you did that, it felt like you had the framework for solving all your problems and getting it really tight.
James Blatch: It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin who said it takes him 18 months to two years to write a screenplay. But most of that time is not writing. He's said most of that time is thinking and banging his head against wall and feeling hopeless. And then the last three months when he's got it, he's writing.
So that's an interesting working in a slightly different world to turning out novels like we do now. Okay. So we had that and that was a really good conversation.
Then we got into the story a bit and I remember doing the Inside Outline which we may have called it something different at the time, exercise for you. Just explain what that is.
Jennie Nash: Right. I think in an earlier iteration it was called the Two-Tier Outline, but in the revision course at Self-Publishing Formula, it's called the Inside Outline. And it is a tool that is used in the revision courses at the centre of that course. And people do seem to really love it.
I actually made the tool to help people at the beginning of a project and when they're stuck. It's a tool to save, to rescue a novel. And what it is, is I think of it like a measuring stick, a yard stick, it's a tool that you can use to measure what do you actually have in the story? What is really there? And then being able to analyse it. And the way that it works is it reduces the key logic of the story down to a very small number of pages.
Ideally three if you're starting a novel, but if you're revising a novel where you were, it's more like eight or nine. And the key component of it, it was called Two-Tier Outline, now it's called Inside Outline. But both of those have this idea, this duality idea. And the outside of a novel is the plot or what happens. And the inside is this internal motivation and drive and trajectory of the main character.
When you said before that you needed every single scene to serve your story and to drive that main idea forward, the Inside Outline allows you to measure, to see, does my scene have this? Is something happening that's driving forward? And is that something connected to the next thing that happens? This idea of consequences or of cause and effect that, that's the engine, the internal driving engine. And the Inside Outline that you and I did, I had so much fun with it because it was your story was actually in really good shape.
This tool allowed us to see that and it allowed us to see what wasn't working and what wasn't connected in that chain. It wasn't locked into that chain. I remember also it allowed us to see some, what I thought was a really significant reality about your women characters that we could talk about later. But just being able to have a tool to discern where is this falling apart? And why is it not driving all the way through?
The best description I have of the Inside Outline is all creators make a model before they make the thing itself. So a dress maker makes a muslin model before they use the fine silk. And a sculptor is going to make a clay model before they make a brass model. And the architect is going to make a foam core 3D version of their house before they build the building. And all creators do this so that they can imagine their creation, they can see it, they can hold it in their hands.
That's what the Inside Outline does. They're grid-based methods which work for some people and can be powerful for some people in some situations. I'm a fan of any tool that works. The Inside Outline is not just plot-based or a grid of everything that happens. It's got that underlying piece so that we can see the 3D nature of what this novel is going to be. And yours was, I just remember it really well because it was like, you've really got something here, but it looks like it's out of order.
James Blatch: Yes. So that was a really interesting moment for me when we should say I was going to be slightly... This is going to be full of spoilers for people who haven't yet read the book. I can't believe that anyone hasn't read it but just in case, this is going to have some spoilers.
So the book started, it always started from day one with a crash. And it was a big nasty crash from which there's a survivor. And then things unfolded for the survivor. He started to work out, there were secrets with those that died. And it was difficult for him because he didn't know what was going on but he knew he needed to atone for his role in the crash who's only one way was to help these dead people with this conspiracy and covering it up.
Now you got a bit confused, not confused, but I remember you was working with you and one of your editors and you said, "Look, can you just do me a page explaining what the secret is so that we know behind the scenes, what happened up until this crash?"
I wrote this page and a half or whatever and you both said to me, "That was gripping, compelling. This is your story." And that was the fundamental change in my book. So that moment is now at the midpoint of the book, not on page one. And the first half of the book is the moment this guy discovered something's going wrong in his journey.
That for me was such a learning point because up until then not being a novel writer, I thought it was all about intrigue and concealing things and then revealing them slowly. But actually it's about the, I hate to use the J word, it's about the journey. It's about your reader being alongside somebody when they're going through all this stuff. That's much more interesting than a magician pulling the curtain back at on page 97 to say, ah, that was what was going on.
Once I understood that, I relaxed a bit about telling the story then and ironically for it being too long at that point, I then had a book twice the size, which I did. But there actually wasn't really. I talked about that with Andrew Lowe. By the time I finished this redraft and I started at the beginning, it was 196,000 words. But actually I'd completely overwritten it.
That book was effectively an Inside Outline, that draft. It was 196,000 words of every scene. And within the scene, internal dialogue of people saying why they're doing things and what they're doing. And once I stripped all that out, I was left with a, I think, a tight readable manuscript. But that was the process.
Jennie Nash: Yeah. And we know what you're talking about is this notion about holding tension. That's why I often talk about of holding and releasing tension with the reader. And the tension is, what is going on here? What is the secret? What is resolve? What do I know? All those things.
A lot of beginning writers think that the way to compel a reader is to have secrets like you were talking about that are revealed on page 47 or 112 or wherever the thing is in. And I know when I do evaluations that are the first 10 pages of the first chapter or the first 20 pages or those kinds of things and as a reader I'm feeling really unsettled. I don't know the world I'm in, I don't know what's going on. I don't know why I should care about this character.
I'm feeling really out of sorts in this story. I don't want to read forward. I don't trust the writer. Those terrible feelings that will kill a book's chances. And inevitably the writer will say, "Just keep reading. On page 47 you'll see it all comes. There's this great scene. Or 112, there's this awesome thing. And it all becomes revealed." And guess what?
Your reader has moved on by then. If they are not intrigued by what's happening and like you said, wanting to walk with this character through their journey of discovery and what are they feeling that the tensions that they're feeling around what they know or don't know or what they see or don't see or what's going on, we have to know that, we have to be inside that character's head. Otherwise, we just feel a little bit played. I'm not going to stick around for your clever reveal.
James Blatch: Which reminds me of something I think we talked about one of the Book Labs is that you do want readers asking questions, but you want them asking the right questions.
Jennie Nash: That's right.
James Blatch: Not what the hell's going on here? That's not a question you ever want readers asking.
Jennie Nash: Or where are we in time? Or are we in space? The basic questions of existence in the world you don't want your reader asking. You want them asking the questions the protagonist would be asking.
James Blatch: Yeah. So that was huge moment for me. And it was really interesting experience having lived with this story for so long and all of that bit being unwritten. Just in my head I knew roughly what had happened up to this moment and then writing it. And I really, really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed and on the characters in it. Some of the side characters as well, including the women.
They all had roles suddenly which came out in that first half of the book. And the second half of the book is pretty much as it was before in terms of the story and the writing. Hopefully it's a lot better than it was the first time, first few drafts. But that was so fundamental to me.
I can't remember how much I paid for your services Jennie, but I reaped the rewards in that one conversation.
Jennie Nash: I also remember you did something which I talk about all the time and you probably, maybe you feel that your ears burning when I talk about this all the time. But you did a one page bullet point, slug it out story about a piece of technology in your story that is central to the secret and central to the story. And I remember asking you to do that because there was so much about this piece of technology. It was not on the page in that draft you had. And it was obvious it was central. It's the whole thing.
So it was the idea of making a character out of that piece of technology that who knew about it? What was the fate of that technology? What was going to happen to it in the story? What was the importance of it? And you did this one page, it was basically the Inside Outline for this piece of technology, a little mini Inside Outline for this piece of technology. And I talk about that all the time because if you have something in your story that is not a person but it's a secret or a piece of technology or maybe, I don't know, there could be a story where it's a painting or it's-
James Blatch: Or the landscape, which is very often a character in someone's story and important to it.
Jennie Nash: Absolutely. Or yeah, a city or something that's changing or even let's say the police force as a unit or something to understand that, I'm using air quotes, "The agency of that object." What is its role in the story? What does it want for itself? What is its fate at the end?
And your doing that was a huge aha for me because I understood then what the centre of the story was and what this secret was and who was protecting it and why did it matter. And that was where you were teaching me so much about the history and the politics and the technology that that was at play in this time. It was really quite dramatic what was going on. And you had captured that moment in time in your story, this changing into a modern warfare really.
James Blatch: Thank you. I always went away from at that point after doing that, having those discussions and then drafting it, although I overwrote it, I think I had to do that. I think I wanted to go through that overwriting it so I understood everything. And then with Andrew Lowe doing the kind of copy state, he was the guy who said to me, "Strip out all of that."
That's the point to which you don't want to over tell the story. You don't want to tell the reader too much. You want the reader to be asking those correct questions, sitting there pondering at the end of the chapter what are they going to do rather than putting on the page she wondered what she was going to do. So that brought me on to the kind of whole show don't tell bits which again is a learning process for me but integral also. So those two things. There was that sort of technical change to the story.
And then the thematic thing is my non-demonstrative father who doesn't hug and say I love you. And just because he's that generation and was battered emotionally throughout his life, through the sudden death of colleagues, through his time in the air force and other personal things that happened in our family and has left him, I would say, unable to emotionally engage, not wanting to do that and being slightly awkward and shuffly if anything like that comes up.
This book is how someone ends up like that. It's there at the time when these events happen and of course, my hero character has his opportunity to realise this is happening to him and that he has a choice suddenly in dramatic circumstances to say, I'm not going to put my head down and bury my grief. I'm going to act through it and emerge as somebody who does say I love you to my children and stuff.
So that's why it was a personal story to me. But bringing that theme in right from the beginning or the first half of it and with that technical change, I was off to the races at that point. Such a big, big thing for me.
Jennie Nash: What you're talking about is so big. It's so big. It's the reason, not make this a modelling conversation, but my mother recently died and she was ill. She had Alzheimer's, it was a long time coming. We knew it was coming. But the fundamental work of human beings is really understanding who we are. And where we come from and what are the forces that shaped us? And what is the meaning of this life? All those questions. Those are the questions that novels seek to answer no matter what they're about. And novels have a unique ability in all art forms to probe the mind of another person. That's what their job is.
A photograph doesn't do that. A piece of music doesn't do that. A play or a dance or any other sort of art form have their own power and their own beauty but a novel's unique in that the whole point is to get into somebody else's brain and skin. And your knowing that what this book was about was trying to understand this man and this time and this role he had and why would someone be the way that they were? And how might they be different? Think about how big those questions are. They're huge.
James Blatch: I can't remember who said it but I think I mentioned this before on the podcast, someone said, "We often talk about books being escapism." That misunderstands the nature of what they are. They are actually, people read them to help them navigate life. People read them to see how people respond in situations, decisions they made. And so it is a form of escapism because you're absorbed into that, but it's really helping you.
That's why I think humans like stories. Why we like stories is an understatement. We tell stories in almost everything we do all the time when someone talks to you. If you watch a football game, it's about the reason you're gripped by it is because you don't know what's going to happen. And it's a story.
Everything's a story with humans. And I think that is why we're addicted to them and why it's part of our condition is because it helps us tomorrow when we make decisions.
Jennie Nash: It's really true. And I just want to point out especially with your story because it is a military thriller with a real detailed technological component. These are highly, I don't know what you call it, these are machines at that time they were the most complex machines on the planet.
So you're writing in this genre that a lot of people would say, "Well, in my genre, I don't need to think about those things or do those things or that's not what my story's about." And your book proves the best thrillers and the best and any genre are going to have this underlying emotional logic to them. They must, they have to. And people often like to say, "Oh, well, not X, whatever X is." And there's really almost no book that doesn't have that.
James Blatch: Yeah. Science fiction, whatever, it's about that humanity, isn't it?
Jennie Nash: Absolutely.
James Blatch: So that was the process that we went through and I then worked scene by scene with one of your coaches and then went to the copy stage with Andrew.
Andrew made a really good decision as well with me, which was a very natural decision based on the work that we'd done is that the first half of the book would be from one POV. And the second one... Not just one, but a character who emerges as important in the second half of the book, we would never have his POV in the first. He'd be in lots and lots of scenes but we would never be in his head until this crunch moment. And I think that's really helped the book as well because it's a big moment in the book.
My wife said to me, "It's like you're reading another book. Suddenly the book's been handed to somebody else." And she's really liked that. But I think it's a little bit unusual thing to do to suddenly do that in the middle of a book but I think it works. And Andrew pointed that would be a good way of doing it. I was almost there anyway.
Jennie Nash: There's something I want to point out because I think it's really powerful, is your willingness to ask for help and for the number of people that you allowed to help you and that you sought advice from. I think that's the mark of a real pro. So often we think that writing is something you just do all by yourself alone in a room and you have this beautiful thing. And sometimes that happens. There're rare geniuses who can do that.
You look at any acknowledgements in any book and they're thanking readers and beta readers and critique partners and copy editors and editors and book coaches and this whole village of people. And you really have modelled that for your audience about what a real pro does. And it doesn't diminish the fact that this is your story through and through. And that it's your book and your work. But I just want to point that out because I think it's a powerful thing that you did.
James Blatch: That's kind of you. It took me a while I think to admit to myself, I'd not admit to myself but I suddenly had this moment where I realised I don't know exactly how novels work. All the stuff that I can talk to you more confidently about today and I'm still very much in the foothills of that journey, but it took me a while to work out or to say to myself, of course I don't. Why would I?
Nobody comes out perfectly formed as a violinist. They practise for 5,000 or 10,000 hours, whatever it is. Why is novel writing different? It's not. It's not different. You have to learn your craft, and people learn in different ways. I'm not great at learning from books. I do quite like online courses. I've been watching quite a lot of those Masterclass Ones. As I mentioned Aaron Sorkin earlier, I would definitely recommend that.
Aaron Sorkin, again, one of the great writers on the planet, is not sitting there in isolation. He sits there around a table with a bunch of young writers and then he takes apart their scripts and they go backwards and forwards. It's not an isolation for him. It's a learning experience with other people.
We can do that much more easily now because indie publishing has spawned a generation of coaches and editors ready to help you at earlier stages in the book than perhaps would have happened in the past.
You are one of those Jennie, who've got a little industry going there with Author Accelerator, which I can only just say again, has been an incredibly important part of my process.
Jennie Nash: Well thank you. We're having a good time training book coaches and getting them out in the world to help people. I just have to tell this funny story. I'm taking pickleball lessons. Do you know what pickleball is?
James Blatch: Is it something you eat at a barbecue? "Another pickleball please, and a Bud Light?"
Jennie Nash: It's a really horrible name for this new sport that is emerging in America. Picture a tiny tennis court. It's like ping pong on a tennis court, a little mini tennis court, and you have a paddle and a whiffle ball. It sounds ridiculous, but it's really fun. People have gotten really serious about it.
I was a tennis player in my youth. I was quite a good tennis player. And so my old tennis partner, we were state champions, the whole thing. We're 57 years old now. We go out and we're taking a pickleball clinic, a lesson, to learn this new sport. We're really good at racket sports. We have a lot of skills. We can walk out there and crush people who don't know what they're doing.
There's a certain shot pickleball you have to master, or the really good players are going to just eat you for lunch. We were in this clinic, we're practising this shot, it's called the third shot drop. It's a little drop shot you have to learn how to do. I could not do it for the life of me. It was making me so mad because I'm so good at everything else, I should be able to do this. The instructor walked up to me and he just looked at me and he said "10,000 hours."
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jennie Nash: Right? I was like, "Uh, right."
Jennie Nash: I've got to put my time in. I've got to practise. I've got to do the work. I've got to get 10,000 of these shots wrong before I'm going to master it. In my first lesson, I was like, "I should be able to do this."
I just tell my pickleball story because we all think that we're good at all these other pieces of the novel writing, or we're really good at reading novels, we should be able to do this. Nope, you've got to put the practise in. You got to put the work in. You got to get 10,000 drop shots wrong before you can count on getting it right. You just made me smile. I thought, "Oh, yeah, right. There is nowhere we escape this."
James Blatch: There are no shortcuts. There's no elite athlete on the planet who has not put in the grind. It just simply doesn't work. I think the same is with book writing. We talk about some people sit there and they can write this meticulous thing, but of course they're putting in the grind. We just don't see it. They're very good at doing it in their own way.
I'm quite certain Stephen King, and Iain Banks, and all the readers I like, have thrown away 10,000 times more words than they've ever published. They've all done the grind. There's no getting around it. Great.
Jennie Nash: As you work on your second book, what are you doing differently?
James Blatch: Yeah, that's a good question. Obviously, putting into practise a lot more that I've learned about what the reader experience should be, and how to tell the story, so there's no jumping to mysterious moments in the middle of a story, and then letting it unfold slowly. We start at the beginning.
I've come up with a story, I'm really pleased with the story, but I think I'm unclear on the motivation side of it, the second line in that 2-2 outline, the inside outline. I know how the story moves, what characters do within it, but I don't know the "why" yet. I need probably my main character to have a strong motivation. It might be the loss of a father.
I was slightly worried about it being very Top Gun-ish. Top Gun's a bit of a popcorn movie, but it's only mentioned a couple of times in that story that Maverick lost his father, who was shot down and killed.
Those two moments where it's mentioned are really powerful to that rather popcorn movie, when he says, "Every time you fly, you're flying against the ghost up there." That's such a great line in the film. It gives so many layer depths to why; his motivation. That's the bit I need to work on.
Jennie Nash: Could that be your title, Flying Against The Ghost?
James Blatch: Flying Against The Ghost is good, yeah. I haven't really got a good title. It's going to be Red something I think, maybe The Red Ghost, I don't know.
I don't know exactly how I'm going to approach it. Andrew Lowe is going to have a look at my outline at the moment, and talk to me about that. I'll go through your process.
We now have your course, which we should push because it's brilliant. How to Revise Your Book, which I think is selfpublishingformula.com/revise, and that sets out the process that you took me through, and that you recommend, in much more detail than we've talked about here. I'll probably go through that again.
I get myself to the point where I'm starting to be more self-sufficient, which is ultimately where you want to be as a writer; not that I'm always up for advice and help.I'm already starting to think about book three, having done the outline of book one, and now 35, 38,000 words into it...
Jennie Nash: You will become self-sufficient. That is, in fact, the process. You get help, you get advice, you get support and you get better at these things, and you see things you didn't see before. I have no doubt that you will write...
I love second books because you know so much more than you did for the first book. It's really fun. I think you're going to have a fun time.
James Blatch: Definitely more relaxed, more confident writing, just looking back what I've written so far from where I was at the beginning. Something else Aaron Sorkin says about writing and rewriting is, "You eventually find that confidence and you relax and you stop trying to write in a way that you think people are expecting you to write, and you write in the way that you want to write," he said, "that's a really important part of the process."
Jennie Nash: I love it. I love it.
James Blatch: Jennie, thank you so much. We go to Vegas together this year, I think we're going to try and do a live session on this sort of topic. I know what we're going to do next. You said you didn't want to do karaoke. We're going to find a pickleball court. Are you up for that? There's got to be one in Vegas.
Jennie Nash: That is a deal, but I'll have mastered the third shot drop by then. So you're going to be in trouble.
James Blatch: I'm going to be watching a lot of YouTube videos on that third shot drop; how to defeat it, how to undermine it.
Jennie Nash: Yeah. We will be in Vegas, so there'll be some money on it, I think.
James Blatch: Of course. Jenny, thank you so much, indeed.
Jennie Nash: Thank you.
James Blatch: Andrew Lowe, my second development editor after Jennie, at a slightly different stage of this. I'd written this enormous manuscript, which I handed you for an editorial assessment, 196,410 words. Not a light read for a page-turning thriller. Lot of pages to turn. I wanted you to tell me where I was, and how can I get this book over the line? I'd had a bit of feedback from a couple of friends, I knew this was not ready for publishing.
What was your approach and how do you work?
Andrew Lowe: My thing is, with writers who are particularly working on their first book, you're obviously really steeped in the whole world of publishing and books and you're extremely knowledgeable, but the thing is when people write their first book, I always found that generally everything goes in there, every thought, every aside, every nuance, they just go, "Let's get that in, in case I don't write enough." They don't worry so much about what shouldn't go in. They just think let's get it all in there.
Then the reader can see how expansive and amazing my imagination is. The problem with that is once you get to the end of the book, as has happened with you, you went "Oh my God, I've got about three books in one book here," in terms of the volume. Generally, with a book that's extremely long, like this, I'm looking for what I can take out, obviously.
The main thing for me is, I have this mantra which is, "Is it needed?" It applies at sentence level as much as it applies to chapter level, or even book level, where you think, what supported the scene? Is this the right word? Is there a redundancy here? Eventually you just keep applying that, "Is it needed?"
I don't mean is it needed in the sense of technically, scientifically, because then you would just have a note form rundown of events, pretty sterile. Obviously, you need to have the colour and the artistry, but it's a case of deciding where, in which parts of the book, a certain approach is right and in which part another approach is right.
If you had a car chase or something sequence, and you don't want to hear about the peaceful texture of paintwork on the car doors or the steering wheel. You have to completely focus on the momentum of that scene, and the action, and the emotion. If you have two lovers lying on a beach or in a field somewhere, that's where you need the sensory detail, you don't need to just cut to what they're talking about. The sensory detail comes in there.
What I was truly looking for with The Final Flight was to try to get a balance where you have all the action, you have the events, and how they're described, and how they're related, is firmly following that "Is it needed"? kind of mantra. The main thing I'm always looking for in fiction is to elicit an emotional reaction. If in doubt, err towards the emotional reaction, that's the stuff that's going to make the reader interested and care about what the characters are going through.
When I first went through it, it wasn't just a case of "Let's just ruthlessly cut things out." I was mainly looking to get that balance, to try and find the emotional centre of the book and cut out the flab around it.
James Blatch: Your first comment, really, was the overwritten telling the reader what to think, effectively telling the reader what to think by saying, in internal dialogue, what the character was thinking. That was your main comment to me is, "Take all that out."
Really, "show don't tell" was the mantra at that point for me, wasn't it?
Andrew Lowe: Yeah. "Show don't tell" is a sort of a version, it's a kind of an analogue form of "Is it needed", because I think there's always a lot of talk about showing and not telling; I think both are useful and both have their place. Telling it effectively, if you're setting the scene, if you're describing a room, or you're describing an environment, you're telling, really. That's not necessarily required. You can just leave it all to the reader's imagination and a lot of writers do.
I find books are much more nuanced and more satisfying if I can see some of it through the author's eyes, and not just all purely James Elroy style, just totally boiled down to the very basics.
With The Final Flight, there's a lot of stuff that you had where you were very keen to, as I say with that first writer, first book, to show it out.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: You're very keen to let us know what the characters were thinking or were their motivations whenever they did anything or thought it, or interacted. Over time, that becomes quite wearing to the reader because you want the reader to have the space to interpret what they're doing for themselves; to paint the picture in their own mind. You would have any kind of interaction and there would be a bit of subtlety, a bit of something a bit Machiavellian about the interaction. You would say, "Rob wondered why Kilton did this,"
James Blatch: Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: That sort of thing. There's a really good essay by Chuck Loniak, I assume that's how he pronounces his name, about how you should go through your work and remove all thought verbs, all words that say, he thought this, or you felt that, or he...
James Blatch: That example you gave there, which you obviously made up loosely, right? When you got me to take that out, and even further in the next sweep, you then occasionally took out the last line of the scene, which I know Stephen King's a big fan of taking out the last line of every scene. Gosh, it improved the scenes. It really improved the scenes.
When Kilton thumped the table, and Rob took a step back or something, and that was the end of the scene, that's perfect for the reader, because then the readers... This is another thing Jennie says a lot, and I'm interviewing her after I'm interviewing you, but it'll go before in this interview. We'll talk about this, but she talks a lot about the reader should be asking questions. You don't have to give all the answers to the reader, but the registry be asking the right questions.
What's Rob going to do next, is a really good question for a reader to ask, rather than read on the page, Rob wondered what he's going to do next.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah, and I think that comes from confidence, that comes from the more you write. I think if you spoke to writers like Mark, who've written many, many books, they would probably look back to their first books and cringe because what's in those first books is everything. As I say, they think they want to paint the whole picture, the colours, the textures, just everything.
When you get more confident, you want to put questions in the reader's mind, the right questions, as Jennie says, rather than give them the answers; tell them what's happening.
Andrew Lowe: I coach kids youth football. And one of the things that one of my FAA teachers told me, I remember, he said, "You see all these amateur coaches screaming and shouting at the kids when they're playing, from the sidelines. Look at Jayden! Pass! Down the line! Turn back, goalkeepers off!" You think the kids aren't really learning anything, they're just basically directing them individually, specifically. He said to me, "You mustn't give them answers, you must ask them questions." So, what's on? What can you see? What's next?
It's encouraging their brain, to train their brains, to work out the principles of themselves. I think that's what you're doing with readers, really. You're trying to put that into the reader's mind, that "What's going on here? What's all that about? Why has that happened? Why has he said that? Why is he behaving in that way?"
I see it on TV. Line of Duty is lauded, and it is great in lots of ways, but I find it also a bit clunky in the way that... As you were saying, one thing I was doing was to try to follow that principle of start late, leave early, which is a classic principle. Instead of having a scene where somebody knocks on the door, and enters a house, and says, "Oh, hello." Then it all starts that way. Sometimes that's fine. I'm not saying that's not right. You need to set the scene and you want to see the environment, but also, "Is it needed?"
James Blatch: You can start with them in the front room, in the confrontation.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah. You can start with anything, any sort of dialogue, and then you drop them straight into there, and then think, I'll worry about describing the room later, and do that in a seamless way.
Then, also, there's the thing Martin Amis said, I'll go back to Line of Duty in a second if that's all right, because the thing that Martin Amis said where he said, "What you don't want is for scenes to end with, they finished their drinks and left." He criticised his father Kingsley Amis for saying that a lot of his chapters ended with they finished their drinks and left, sort of moments.
The problem with that is, when you round things off on the nose like that, is that you give the reader the opportunity to put the book down and come back to it later, and go, "Ah, okay." You don't want that, you want to keep it as sticky as possible. You want them to really struggle to put the book down because they want to know what's coming next.
We find what they tend to do is they have to see where, it's obviously you can do, there's a lot of bingo that goes around; Line of Duty events and phrases. One of them, I think that should be on there is the lingering look. The episode I saw the other night, it had about 10 lingering looks. That was a new standard.
James Blatch: Yes, it happened in Dallas with Sue-Ellen, a lot. Glancing at the camera at the end of the scene.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah, and then you get to the end of the scene and the director wants you to know that something significant or something hot stuff on the hand is happening, and that the character will go, "Okay, thanks very much," and then they'll walk away, and then you get lingering shots of their face, looking ominous and dark.
I think that's the equivalent of what we're talking about with the scenes, where if you hang around for too long, then the reader will just feel spoonfed. That's what I feel when I watch Line of Duty. I feel like they're spoonfeeding me some significance, and I should be picking that up my for myself. That's what you're trying to do when you're showing and telling and find that balance. You're trying to give the reader the opportunity to detect the significance for themselves. That's quite a tricky balance.
James Blatch: I'd overwritten the book, is sort of a quick way of saying that, and stripping that out made a huge difference and also found 70,000 words that could go into the bin, which was the right thing to do. It felt a lot better. I knew immediately, I knew myself, and this has obviously been a learning process for me, but I knew immediately this book was now actually quite a tight book and getting close to that page turning level.
James Blatch: What surprised me is there are quite a few instances where you said to me, "You skipped this," when you said to me, "That's a conversation we want to have." I found myself probably being a bit of a slave to the story, wanting to get the story on, get onto the next day and the next event, and forgetting to give the reader the experience of those conversations where the story moved along.
Andrew Lowe: That's pacing, isn't it? That's about pacing. It keeps getting back to the "Is it needed," thing, because if you have a situation where somebody is ordering a pint, say, at the bar, in real life, that interaction is quite tedious because you don't want to read that fictionally, unless there's a real reason for it. You don't want to read what kind of lager they're having, or how much is that, or "Could I get a packet of peanuts as well?" You don't want all of that kind of detail in there. In a book, you would want to get that over with and get on to what the scene is about.
Andrew Lowe: It's a classic transition. If you have a scene where there's two characters talking about a secret guidance...
James Blatch: For instance...
Andrew Lowe: Yeah, for instance. Then, you don't want a note form version of that. You want to see the nuances of the characters, to show the characters and to do what we just talked about; to give the reader the opportunity to detect the significance from the nuances.
You've missed an opportunity if you don't show that dialogue, and the reader will sense that. The reader will want to know, will want to see it happen in real time. They'll want to see the reactions. It's your opportunity to pepper in a lot of the real quality showing where you can have... It's often what the characters do, what they're physically doing, and how they behave, but you can show what's actually going on internally and what's actually going on with that interaction as opposed to what you're seeing on the surface.
You've missed an opportunity to intrigue the reader there, if you skip over the scene. The trick is to spot those scenes where, like ordering the pint, where they transition and they're good for the texture of the book, but you don't need to see them live, and the ones where you do. It's important. So yeah, we did add a few of those.
James Blatch: Actually, that was my favourite part of the process, was writing those scenes. Often, it wasn't more than two or three paragraphs max, but it did change the texture of that and immediately I felt, yeah, that's an improvement where we were.
Andrew Lowe: Yes.
James Blatch: Then we went through at copy level, and this is obviously a new process to me as lots of people listening to this will have been through this, and quite a lot of people won't have been through it, as well. We'll just talk about it.
This is making copy level decisions on how you portray things like numbers, and abbreviations, and capitalizations, and all that stuff.
It sounds a bit tedious, but there's nothing worse than it being inconsistent through a book, is there? That was a new process for me.
Andrew Lowe: It's up to you, it's art, you can do what you like, but I think what I'm always looking for is, I don't particularly have my finger on the Chicago manual style. I'm trying to think what's the reader experience? What's to give the reader a good experience here, and generally speaking, readers are pretty forgiving about things like you and I, or whom and who, and stuff like this.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: A lot of those things, language evolves, doesn't it? I think a lot of those things become. One of my old English lecturers might take issue with whom and who, you and I...
James Blatch: It's funny you mentioned that, because there was a who and whom, and I think it was in Millie's dialogue, and you said this should be whom, which is not a very common mistake I would make and others would make, I think. And I did, he said, "but you can leave it also because it's a common mistake in dialogue as well." Very common, actually. And ooh, God, I agonised over it. And in the end, I changed it to whom, and I kind of regret that now. I'm saying that because I think I should have been brave and said, "No, that's what Millie's... He's not an erudite, academic man. He's an engineer who'd probably say "who" instead of "whom."
Andrew Lowe: Yeah, so you choose the character. I think you just have to make that decision to be true to the character, don't you?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: Again, I think it comes with confidence because if you're going to have sort of grammar Nazis looking at it and saying, "Well, technically that should be whom. Oh, that's wrong", then good luck to them.
James Blatch: Well, hopefully, a good grammar Nazi, they always dialogue. This is the way the book speaks.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah. But you're sort of, with your confidence, saying you're worrying that people will see it as a mistake. Is it something that you should have corrected? So I think it comes to that point where you just have to accept that some things are an artistic decision, and if people don't pick that up, then there's nothing you can do about it.
You can't really second guess every single person who opens the book. But yet, the main thing is, with the technical stuff, numbers, times, measurements, all that kind of stuff, I have a separate style sheet that I usually just stick to and apply to anything I copy edit. And really it's because it's more of a collaboration between the author and the editor. Then you just have to realise, look at what's comfortable, what the author's comfortable with, and you stick to that.
Andrew Lowe: Some authors hate semi-colons.
James Blatch: Yeah, I love them.
Andrew Lowe: I love them but some authors hate them. And if they hate them, that's the hill I'm not going to die on, really. If they don't like them, I'm just going to say, "Fine. We won't use them." I'm not here to push it.
James Blatch: Ultimately it's there but, I guess. Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah. So it's a piece of art. It's something that is fiction. Anything goes. But the main thing is, as you say, rigid consistency with all the way through the book, and logic to the decisions of consistency, and the reader will pick that up.
James Blatch: An interesting one for us is per cent. I looked into a lot and you said that both, you can use per cent as two words or percent as one word. And I looked up the sort of history of it, and my reading of it is that per cent as two words is technically correct. It's Latin. It means of 100, obviously. And it's only in the last few decades that people have put it together, more in the US than in the UK but people do commonly now say percent as one word. Do you know what? I agonised over it. No, not agonised over it, but I'm also quite interested in it.
So I looked into it, but this is my, my reading of it was, I think you recommended percent as two words. It's a 1966 book. It's got a septagenarian Oxford professor who was born in the twenties, probably, maybe even earlier than that? And per cent I felt was the right call, but I have already had one email from someone saying; "you've got percent wrong." It's one word, not two.
Andrew Lowe: That's what I mean. You make your decision and you stick to it and you're consistent then because it's fiction you get away with it, I think. I don't think it's a huge problem. I think it's the Chicago Manual of Style people watching this, that'll be probably rocking backwards and forwards, but I think, I think it is fiction you so you can, you can play fast and loose as long as you're consistent.
James Blatch: It's got to be understandable and an easy route here.
We're not trying to break any boundaries here. You're trying to use the rules to make it as readable as possible so people enjoy it, I guess, is the bottom line.
Andrew Lowe: That's what I say. The reader experience with what we're doing is we're designing the best reader experience possible only. And I think that's what I'm talking about. We're not designing a piece of structurally, specific academic language, legal language. There's a fair, there's a real specificity by that. What we're trying to do is to make the reader, and they set an emotional reaction, as I say, and a lot of this stuff is, or the texture of the way the word, the writing is put together absolutely needs to be as rigorous as possible.
But the main thing is you're trying to get the readers to lean in, get them to stick, make it sticky, so they can't put it down in between chapters, make them care. That's the classic thing. You want those characters, you want them to care about those characters. I think we worked, we did work pretty hard on, in terms of the subject of the book. I think initially you were concerned about whether it was going to appeal to women and I saw some chats about, in terms of the blurb and what women pick up the book.
I think the culture is probably pretty male. Absolutely. And there's a sort of general maleness about it, but I still think what we've done with it is to make it accessible to women. Absolutely, because it's more of an emotional story about these two guys and their relationship and how that impacts upon the world and the guidance system and all of those things. It's a little bit like something like Top Gear, if you, one of the things that makes Top Gear so good is you don't really have to care that much about cars. You can enjoy it as a, you can enjoy the chemistry between the presenters, the sense of form, the sense of, see what you can get away with, all of those things.
There's something school boyish about it. You don't really have to care that much about cars. So it's, I think it's ultimately trying to get something where there's an emotional experience, there's a, it's all about the characters and what they go through in their struggle that everybody can relate to. And the subject is almost kind of background.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Andrew Lowe: The themes, the themes really. You've got loyalty, you've got this kind of outmoded trying to kind of, obsolescence. Well, there's all kinds of themes going on that a lot of people will relate to, whether they know anything about the military or not. So that's the, you should be keeping in and taking this, taking the other stuff out really.
James Blatch: My wife was very determined that it should be read by women. She really enjoyed it in that front and centre, but I think it, well I think the, one of the points someone made is, "don't patronise women by putting a sentence in there to make it appeal to women. Women read gritty thrillers. They read police procedurals. They read murder books.
It was a clunky, clunky, clunky thing of me to say, "Well, how does this appeal to women?" But yeah, and I don't, probably don't need to worry about that. I think women will pick up thrillers and men will pick thrillers and read them.
Andrew Lowe: My books are pretty nasty in places and they're pretty kind of dark, and they're all women they're sort of, probably 80%, I would say.
James Blatch: I should be honest. The commercial reason for that is that women are the readers. It's a huge commercial market.
Women are voracious readers. They read more than men, statistically, and they very often devour series more often than men do.
Andrew Lowe: But you're right. Your main points about it, about patronising. It's another way of trying to second guess the readers, which is what you want to hide it to nothing because you can't tailor the book to the individual person who's reading it. You just have to be true to the art of it, the artistic side.
James Blatch: Obviously you're a novelist yourself and tell us a bit about your editing career now.
Andrew Lowe: I used to be a journalist. I used to work on film magazines, various man-child things like video games and pop culture. And I had this knack of seeing the iceberg, just abandoning ship just before it hits. And that started to happen in the late 2000s with the internet taking over magazine sales, advertising, just becoming totally fragmented.
I always wanted to get into books and I've been just a voracious reader since the days of going to the library and changing my child's library card to an adult library card and just going home with armfuls of books and learning and learning and, boring my parents with stuff I've written when I was a bit precocious maybe.
Then I got into Bookshare and I started editing a few years ago and really enjoyed that process and applying all my journalistic skills of, the kind of rigour that comes with working on things like cover lines and magazine fact checking and stuff like that. And just applying it to books and making the read as good as possible. I've be working on Reedsy, which is the online agency really, freelancer agency.
I've edited many, many books now over lots of genres, lots of books with lots of thrillers, lots of dragons and fantasies and YA and literally fiction. I'm pretty omnivorous. I don't like to stick with one thing. I didn't really want to edit non-fiction.
James Blatch: Right.
Andrew Lowe: Because I did plenty of that when I was a journalist.
James Blatch: You have a website as well, I think?
Andrew Lowe: Yeah, andrewloweedits.com, with an awkward double e in the middle, and you can find me on, yeah you can find me on Reedsy as well.
James Blatch: Which is where I found you.
Andrew Lowe: Yeah. And through obviously the mighty Ricardo who seems to connect everyone in some way.
James Blatch: He does.
Andrew Lowe: So there's a family tree at the independent publisher world.
James Blatch: He's in the middle.
Andrew Lowe: He will sort of connect or a sort of mind map or something.
James Blatch: He's the earth. He's sun we orbit. Okay. Brilliant.
I want to say thank you for helping me get the novel into shape and over the line. And it was a tremenduos, I really enjoyed working together and I've now booked you for book two. So I've got an outline for book two and I want to discuss some sort of a conflict and stuff. I flesh out the characters more, which is where I am at the moment.
Andrew Lowe: I'm looking forward to starting on something either from the beginning and conceiving it all. I think we've learned also about to be very, very focused with the, just the pre-publication side of it. I think to try to make sure you get a tight proofread as well towards the very end of the process, because there's a lot of things that grammar checkers and algorithmic checkers will sign off.
James Blatch: I'm going to consider it like a rarity, those early print copies have some typos in them and they're getting corrected. No novel gets produced printed without typos.
Andrew Lowe: I see them all the time.
James Blatch: I see them all the time, but we'd like to get them down to absolute minimum, and I've got a friend going through my book now as a kind of final sweep.
Andrew Lowe: I think that's something to learn, isn't it? I think you have to have that mindset. You're always learning. The moment you think you've learned everything there's an arrogance to that. So I think the one thing I've learned is you absolutely have to have that proofread.
James Blatch: Yeah, and the second person, fresh third person, fresh fresher pair of eyes on it as a proofreader. There you go, brilliant.
Andrew, thank you very much, indeed for coming on and chatting about this. We'll pick up book two and I'll do the same that I've done with book one, which hopefully will be a much smoother process, faster process from now to publication and we'll pull bits and pieces on that as well. So when we, when I get some learnings, as they say in America, another grammar thing, we'll do that. Brilliant. Thanks Andrew.
Andrew Lowe: Fantastic. Okay.
James Blatch: Okay. So that was the process I went through. I'm grateful to both of them for helping me. And I hope that going through those interviews was useful for you as well. Particularly if you're drafting your first novel or first or second novels, it's something I recommend.
It's not the cheapest way of doing it. I paid for Jenny and then I paid for Andrew and I've paid a few thousand dollars in fees for developmental work, but I won't spend that much again on book two, I'll have a more refined process. And ultimately, hopefully it will get to where you are, Mark, where I'm not really using development editors. It's really copy and proof. And we do have a good interview, very good interview, actually coming up with an editor and we do talk about the stages of editing in the future.
That's with Tiffany Yates. I'll think of her name in a second. She's coming up soon and I interviewed her yesterday. It was really good interview if you are interested in the editing side of things, but I think money well spent because if you, if there's any equivalent to any other industry, you do have to invest in yourself at some point. There are ways I suppose of doing it for free. It didn't suit me. It suited me to have a mentor, to have somebody.
Mark Dawson: Why I wasn't your mentor?
James Blatch: You were my muse.
Mark Dawson: Yes, no there's lots of ways to do that. And you can spend a lot of money if you want to, or you can bootstrap it. I think when I started, I probably was more along the bootstrapping line of things, but then the managers weren't very good. So you do get what you pay for. You need to make sure you pick the right people to work with obviously, and do research, but provided that you've done that. You can have an excellent experience and you obviously needed a bit more handholding, which is what Jenny provided. And then Andrew kind of swept in and tightened things up for you. So that, that, that process has worked well for you.
For me these days now I've written more than 30 books now, so I don't need help with development. That kind of comes fairly naturally to me now. But certainly in the early days, I benefited from that. When I was traditionally published, my editor was giving that kind of feedback, which was really valuable to me. It's just with experience you'll find it, you don't need quite as much help.
James Blatch: I find now that one of the things I noticed now with a bit more knowledge of the process and what's required is, I know what questions to ask. Whereas at the beginning I just felt a bit lost and didn't really know what questions to ask.
So now, for instance, I've outlined my story for book two, which I'm really happy with the story, but I knew that there was something missing in terms of motivation, particularly the main character. And I booked a chat with Andrew Lowe with that and had a really fantastic chat with him. And he came up with a really good idea, which was, I think I said this last week actually it, it wasn't anything that I hadn't put wasn't there in the outline. It was just how it was going to work on the pages and now I'm writing it.
So my question to you is we've touched on this the other week about language. This book is set in the United States, and I think I want it to sound and feel like an American author writing the book. I think that's the right way cause it's, it's wholly in the state. There's no British aspect of this at all. It's in California and Mississippi and then up in Alaska.
I'm nervous that it's not just a case of saying sidewalk instead of pavement it's to do with sentence construction and the way people just, just writing a sentence sworn in "I'm going to have one of these bad boys". You know, someone was saying about a donut. So, well first of all, it was 1963. Do people say bad boys? Probably not. So I scrapped it, but that's the sort of thing that makes me think, "Is that American? What do I do?" In fact, I've answered my own questions, asking you this question. Perhaps I should just watch some films, contemporary films in 1963 from America.
No, I don't know if that's going to help you. I think linearly the kind of, what I did when I had any kind of dialogue I've got is when I publish my Soho Noir books that set in the '40s and '50s in London, and I did work quite hard. I read a metric crap tonne of books that were published then. So I was buying on eBay, hardbacks from authors writing in those years, and then looking at the language that they use and trying to do that. And it took me a long while to do that. And I don't know that it was necessarily worth the effort.
So given that you are not the fastest writer in the world, I think if you start obsessing about language, we are going to be looking at another 10 years before you publish a second book. So I personally wouldn't worry too much about that just, dialogue is important. So if your characters are American, then they only to use American words and your, I mean your narration, that's a bit more tricky, because you're an English author. You may be writing about America, but you're still English.
James Blatch: But what does Lee Child do?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, he pretends, he writes as an American, I think.
James Blatch: That's what I think this book should be.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, well you can do, but I wouldn't go much beyond word choice. If you start thinking about sentence construction, you will literally be here forever and you'll come up with at best a pastiche that will sound false to an American reader because let's face it, you are Alan Partridge. You are middle England. You're not going to be able to, unless, I don't know. Maybe you are, and you could turn into an amazing literary magpie and you're able to kind of do that voice. But I think that's a big ask.
James Blatch: I don't go to the cooler to get a soda. I go to the fridge to get a Coke.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. That would be fine. It'd be interesting. American listeners or viewers on YouTube. Leave a comment what you think. But from my perspective, I think that would, what's the phrase, the effort wouldn't be worth the candle or something like that. You know what I mean? I don't think you'll, you won't get, the sliding scale of effort and rewards won't be, won't come out in your favour. I don't think.
James Blatch: Cost benefit, whatever it's called. Yes. Risk reward, I don't know. Yes, okay, thank you. I'm enjoying the process of writing it now. Although I'm back into the drafting phase where this, for some reason you find a million things to do apart from sit down and write every day, but I am doing it. I don't know what it is about writing. I really enjoy it when I'm doing it, but it's something in my mind about, I haven't got time to get properly into this now type thing, but I need to find that
Mark Dawson: 500 words a day. That's what we need to do. 500 words a day.
James Blatch: Yeah fine. I'm trying to do 8, but yes 500 at least, this is fine. And the beginning it's fine because I've actually drafted 40,000 and 38,000 half the books already there. I'm just going through it and making changes because of a change that Andrew and I made about one of the characters and a few other things that-
Mark Dawson: "They're all there. They're just not in the right order."
James Blatch: All the right words are there. That's a famous British sketch. Okay, good. Well, look, that's probably going to be enough about my book for a bit. So I've been enthusiastic and excited about everything that's happened with my book, obviously. So I apologise if I've droned on about it a bit in the last few weeks, it will be drafting stage now for the next one.
And we are going to be talking, although about this editing process, as I say, we've got those interviews coming up with Tiffany and with the BookLab and they're some of my favourite moments, particularly for where I am in my writing career, it's a really useful process. So we've got those coming up soon. Good. I think that's it. Mark's pointing at his apple watch because we've got less than a minute left on our recording.
Mark Dawson: Running out of time, yeah.
James Blatch: We are running out of time, but I think that's probably it. It's cold and grey and damp in the UK. We're waiting for the sun to come out and then you and I can hook up for some golf again. Hook up, you see in America, that means a different thing, doesn't it? Not that sort of hookup.
Mark Dawson: On that bombshell, I'll say it's a-
James Blatch: Romantic bombshell.
Mark Dawson: It's a goodbye from him.
James Blatch: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye. We must say goodbye together.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye. Goodbye.
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