I’m in the pub with my editor John Hudspith, talking about school puddings and prose, Snowdonia & the science of story-telling.
*Setting: In a darkened bar on the edge of Snowdonia, where the wild buzzards roam. *Characters: Jan Ruth, Snowdonian Author, and John Hudspith, writer, editor and Magical Wordmaster. *Plot: alcohol-fuelled ramblings. (Pantser) *Dialogue: read on...
Jan: I know you have the eyes of an eagle, but some folk say you also have the body of a crow. Is it true, or just a nasty rumour spread by Kimi? John: Probably true, going by the droppings. Jan: I think of you (only in private) as the brain of Brian. I couldn’t believe how many brains were confused by Brian, and how much sand my characters ate for dessert in Silver Rain. How do you focus on typos and daft mistakes and still manage to keep the overall shape of a novel, the plot and the character development in mind? John: Practiced instinct. My reading cursor hits each word, checking for choice, position, requirement, punctuation – one at a time and also in context – and, if approved, paddles it along to the story-collector, who sits there like some humongous wicket-keeper, catches each word in a fat mit, and adds it to the growing story-tree. If a character reaction isn’t right, or a plot hole gapes, or if something can be improved, the tree will sag and rattle and the catcher will know how to fix it. Like a dual processor, the paddle is programmed for errors of word, and the catcher for shortcoming story elements.
Jan: So, you think like a computer? John: No. Computers don’t think. But realising that your brain does act in a similar way to a computer, is good way to hone your writing/editing eye/processor. Jan: Is that how you’re able to edit so many different genres? Are there any that have you running for the hills? John: No running. Editing must remain wholly objective. Understanding the conventions of genre and the needs/requirements/expectations of each genre’s reader means putting subjectivity to one side. And yes, I have a program for that. Jan: The man with two brains? John: Five, actually, but I’ll keep the other three under wraps… for now. Jan: What makes you roll your eyes? John: Rolling one’s eyes is a subjective expression of emotion, so if you’re referring to when editing, no eye-rolling can occur…the paddle and the catcher do not know how. And, while they’re paddling and catching, I’m off elsewhere, rolling my eyes at humanity. Jan: Does that mean you never enjoy reading the stories you edit? John: Oh hell, yes. I do allow my subjective nose to poke in and get its thrills. Jan: So what thrills you the most when you begin to read a manuscript? John: That the story is one of my preferred genres, or that the writer is adept at plotting/dialogue/characterisation/scene-setting, etc. Jan: Has anything given you goosebumps recently? John: I went out the other day in t-shirt and shorts. Foolish at only five degrees. You could have hung your hat on them.
Jan: Either you’ve got the hide of a rhino or your head was clearly elsewhere. This happens to me a lot. Is it normal? My hubby says I look vacant (not all the time, but he says it quite a lot!) A rhino hide can be useful for an author to deflect the inevitable barbs along the way, but there is a fine line between a head in the sand job and confidence rooted in acceptance to learn and take advice. How do you deal with ego, because we writers are such ahem… sensitive souls. John: Showing the writer the `good` things and explaining what makes them good is the key. Then when you explain what could be improved and how, the ego usually gives a satisfied nod. Nothing wrong with egos, of course. Getting the balance right keeps the ego at bay because such balance is what the ego seeks. A smart young girl taught me that. Jan: Aw, Kimi. That’s given me goosebumps now! No, what I meant was, those goosebumps you get from words alone? John: I could associate that with a scene in Stephen King’s latest: Doctor Sleep, where Danny wakes from a pissed-up night to a flabby whore, a stinking mess of booze and drugs, and has to run to the bathroom to puke onto his own floating turd. Beautifully written. Word perfection brought the setting alive via mood and tone. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Jan: Sounds wonderful. How important is setting? Are you bored with my hills yet? John: You see, Jan, they’re not just any old hills, they’re always different, be they sullen peaks draped in sunset ribbons or sheened with sleeting rain or suffused with morning mist or dripping snowmelt like icing, you choose your words to carry the story’s tone…every time! I was especially impressed to see equally masterful settings in your novel Silver Rain when you take reader halfway round the world, using all the elements of place to bring the settings alive and drop the reader right in there. Jan: Thanks. Now let’s talk about sex. We all know sex sells, but it’s just as important to keep the tone consistent in a novel. No one wants to reads a sex manual, nor do they want to hark back to the old style Mills & Boon. Do you think it’s become a lot more challenging to write good love scenes which are satisfying to the reader without making them cringe? John: You said `love` scenes. Of course, they are challenging because the love portrayed must be believed by the reader, and that takes build-up. Sex scenes, on the other hand, differ from genre to genre from author’s style to another author’s style, and even to individual reader perception. Honing said sex scenes are therefore challenging to write and difficult to master. Jan: Any tips for writing good sex? John: Less is more and succinctness is sexy. Jan: Apart from the sex, what was your most challenging job ever? Can you tell? John: Easy answer… a memoir: Where Petals Fall, written by a mother who lost her daughter to leukaemia. My first go at editing a non-fiction – and at the same time, a heart-breaking – `story` – working with the author was an immense privilege, a humbling experience, and the finished work is huge testament to a courageous, determined individual.
Jan: That must have been difficult to write too, but possibly cathartic in a small way. I’m a strong believer of the adage ‘write what you know or at least have a deep understanding of what you’re trying to convey’. Would you agree that the power of her writing came from having lived through the experience, and she succeeded in a way another writer who was merely observing, would certainly fail? John: Perhaps an `observing` writer might not convey the raw emotions as well as the writer who actually experienced it, yes. Jan: In the days of agents I used to get told ‘Well, yes, it is romance, it’s almost romantic comedy, but then there’s a dark thread in it too so we can’t place you in a box, so thank you and goodbye!’ Is it possible to blend genres do you think, or is there a limit? Do you think the boundaries are too relaxed now or is that a good thing? How would you describe my genre? John: Where to start? I hate the genre label but they are necessary pointers. It is possible to blend genres. I know of one writer who experienced similar knockbacks for blending `crime` and `supernatural`. Look, it’s all about story and style, and the style of your work certainly has dark threads, certainly has romance/love/attraction, certainly has a wry touch of the comedic, but all this brings a great read. Those agents really should have been snapping you up and hawking your work. As for the boundaries being too relaxed, if it works, if it entertains, then write it.
Jan: What about your own writing? I know you’re working on something new, and after the amazing Kimi books I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Any clues as to what it’s about? John: Many years ago I tried writing the book I really wanted to write… but I lost the plot. I hope that now I can tell the story in an entertaining way, and that involves five POV characters weaved into a plot of deceit and destruction. Jan: So it’s a romance then? John: Ha-ha! In a way I suppose it is; human reliance, dependence, devotion, and the rudeness of death. Jan: Sounds like a night at our local. (It’s your round by the way… Mine’s a large Sauvignon) Five POVs is a challenge. I did this with White Horizon and I have to say it gave me quite a few headaches along the way. Is there a limit to heads? I read somewhere it was seven, before it gets too complicated for the reader. John: A POV limit? Interesting. Good POV takes time to build… five or seven would perhaps make a satisfying amount, i.e. enough space within the average (high-end) word count. Any more than that and the pages would surely need to stack up. You handled the multi-POVs very well in White Horizon. Jan: There was a good deal of planning for that book, but I have to say, in general I’m a seat-of-the- pants’ writer, whether I’m wearing tight shorts or a fetching yarn of waterproof for climbing the hills. Can you tell without looking or feeling? John: Nope. Seamless.
Jan: Always more comfortable. What about characters? Is it true you fancied James Morgan-Jones from Midnight Sky? Do you always fall in love with good ones? (Not good as in saintly, just meaty in character.) John: Oh, yes. You see, this is why blokes would like reading your novels, not just for the sultry heroines but the male characters: clumsily strong, adeptly inept, ruggedly handsome, stupidly sensible… attributes the male reader might recognise within themselves – add to that the chance of showering with a curvaceous, freckled, milky-fleshed redhead and it’s a no-brainer. Jan: Good point. *makes marketing note*. I like to write from the male POV. Does it work in general? The way I look at it is this; my target audience are women 35-65. They want to get into Al’s head, don’t they? Don’t be rude… John: They want Al’s head, you mean? Your male POVs are always great, it’s the little touches you employ, like nuts in a bathrobe pocket (sounds painful), or the clown suit, the pork pie hat, the brooding roughness of the horse-whisperer with his jumble of a kitchen, fat steaks, and lots of wine… every time you do this without fail, and every time the character is totally different from the last. It is this that makes your male POVs more than work `in general`, they’re always totally real, convincing, and the resulting reader empathy enormous. Jan: Thanks. They are my forte! What’s your favourite type of character? John: A good one. In other words I like every character… as long it’s convincing, believable, written well. Jan: Dialogue is a good builder of character, don’t you think? I find it the easiest discipline too. What advice would you give to a novice writer about the use of speech? I remember some thirty years ago trying to think of different words for ‘he said.’ Big mistake! John: Ah, yes, the invisible `said` – use it whenever it suits the flow of speech, which happens to be pretty much most of the time. And read the dialogue out loud and in character, doing so shows up errors and shortcomings with ease.
Jan: Do you find male and female writers are different to edit? John. No difference at all in the writing, but men seem less eager to ask for help. It’s a caveman thing. Jan: It’s an ego thing, possibly? When I sent my first badly typed manuscript to an agent thirty years ago (it makes me cringe now when I think about it. I had no capital L on the typewriter so I had to use a number one instead) she said it was a good story with perfectly good characterisation but littered with mistakes. She sent it to an editorial company in London, who then passed it back to me for perusal and it was covered in red pen… I was speechless! Then I got over it and re wrote it, and re wrote it again… and again. I just didn’t realise what editing and proofreading could do, and how essential it is. I didn’t make that connection; from the story in my head to the polished books you see for sale. I had no idea what happened in the middle to make it all come together. But I am forever grateful to Jane Judd for seeing that potential to develop Wild Water. So, what do you look for, initially? What do you like to see in a book? John: A crisp, clear opening paragraph that will instantly engage me, instantly drop me into place and POV, followed by the same crisp clearness … no fluff! Jan: You’re always on about fluff. Common problem? John: The number one. Over-writing, suffocating most books on a shelf near you. Jan: I must admit, you’re bloody good at hoovering up that fluff. And not just unnecessary words, you even spot misplaced spaces and commas that are italicised when they shouldn’t be. How did you get so eagle-eyed? John: Practice. When you do anything every day for years and years you will get reasonably proficient at it. Jan: You’re too modest. John: It’s my biggest fault.
Jan: How do you get in the zone to edit, is it a different zone when it comes to your own writing? John: Exactly the same:peace, quiet and gallons of tea. Jan: Of all the editors I’ve worked with, I have to say you are the most ‘switched-on’ in more than one sense. I think it’s maybe because you are an indie author yourself and know exactly what we are faced with in terms of market trends and so on. John: Yes, it helps that I’ve been down the bumpy road: written rubbish, made mistakes, and learnt a lot along the way. Jan: Oh, and I love the funny cheeky remarks about my characters too… your margins are so interesting. How important is it to have a good working relationship with authors in this way; does it help to have a similar sense of humour/borderline insanity? John: Insanity always helps. And editing SHOULD be fun. Jan: I like how you always explain the need for the edit. I’ve learnt a great deal about the finer tricks of the trade from you. John: What many authors who have never engaged with an editor realise, is that in working with an editor you’re also working with a teacher. You will learn, improve, become a better writer. Jan: Makes perfect sense, of course. Only don’t undersell yourself, Johnny. I employed a few editors before finally finding you. And believe me, they weren’t teachers. John: There’s cowboys in every trade, I guess. Jan: Doesn’t that bug you? John: Not really. Look, it’s simple, if you’re looking for an editor ask for a free sample. From the sample you will know if the editor connects with you and your work. Jan: Not every editor offers free samples. John: Then use one that does. Jan: Good advice. We’ve covered a little of everything except plotting. I think this is my weakest area and no matter how hard I try to plan, my characters tend to take over; which can be good, it means they are developing and moving the story along, but it is easy to write yourself into a dead end. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants plotter rather than a planner. What advice could you offer to rein-in those crazy voices in my head? John: Whether you’re a careful plotter or not, it doesn’t matter: write the way that works for you. As for those dead-ends, try and at least have some plot markers in place, something to aim for, like the end and one or two middle bits.
Jan: Dessert Island time. What book would you read in the sand, and which favourite pudding would you choose to accompany the experience? I’d have to say Panna Cotta or Eaton Mess with The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna. John: Choosing one book is hard enough but only ONE pudding? Yikes! Okay then, I’d go for Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher – multi-POVs and multi-themed, all so beautifully weaved, one can read it over and over and keep on getting hit with surprises. As for the pudding, something with custard… sticky toffee and fig or jam roly poly or spotted dick. Jan: You can only have one. John: Okay I’ll have a spotted dick. Jan: Mine’s another wine, thanks. What about childhood favourites? Mine would be The Wind in the Willows and school chocolate pudding with custard. John: Oh, I’d forgotten all about school chocolate pudd. It came with chocolate custard, lovely stuff. But there was one school dessert to beat that, most kids hated it but I loved it… semolina with those gooey brown little egg-like things plopped in the middle. We called it frogspawn. Always went for seconds. As for the book: Mr Pink Whistle – he used to love blowing his own magic flute, and such a skill might come in handy on a desert island. Jan: Ha! I loved books from an early age (and puddings). Although much can be learnt to hone a skill, I think it’s important to have that genuine love of words and read lots of different styles to become a rounded author (in every sense, I am getting too fat sat at this desk!) What other attributes would you consider important for a writer? John: You’re right about the genuine love of words, and to read lots of styles/genres is an enormous source of education. If I could add one important thing it would be the ability to step back and view one’s own work with an objective eye. So many don’t or can’t do this, and it shows in the writing. Jan: Good point. My round I think, what’s yours? John: All that talk of puddings has made me hungry. Chippy? Jan: Chippy? Bit of a walk from here! This is Snowdonia and it’s dark… get ready for goosebumps…