A Night With Alison May

This one, from our esteemed Secretary Meg Woodward, talks about our first in-person meet for… a very long time.

On 13th October Reading Writers were excited to host Alison May, who talked to the group about the novel editing process.

Alison is a published author, writing tutor, editor and blogger. She is the author of Sweet Nothing, Midsummer Dreams, Christmas Kisses, and All That Was Lost – a novel in which a celebrated medium has to face her own ghosts. Born and raised in North Yorkshire, Alison now lives in Worcester with her husband.

Alison is a member of the Society of Authors and is an experienced creative writing tutor; she is also a former Chairperson of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She won the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge Trophy in 2012. Through her tutoring, she has worked with authors who have gone on to publish with Avon, Head of Zeus, Bookouture, Legend Press and Headline.

Alison gave the group valuable insights into the three stages of editing. She also answered some questions put forward by members:

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Jillian: I finished a novel recently and it’s not my first, but I found this one such a struggle compared to the others. Maybe because it’s a genre I don’t normally write in. I let it rest for a while and then I read through it again, and as far as the structural stuff, I found it overwhelming and almost impossible to do, and ended up tinkering with the line editing. How do I not be afraid? Are there any tips for breaking it down into more manageable chunks?

Alison: You’re right, the key thing is to break it down into manageable chunks. If you look at a book and think ‘this doesn’t hang together quite right’, that’s a start but not enough to start editing. Do you know what it is you’re not happy with in terms of the structure?

Jillian: because I’m following the life of a historical figure, it was easy to follow that timeline. But some things I focus on too long, and other things I kind of rush past.

Alison: Writing biographical is always really interesting because life doesn’t have any structure. So try and impose that three act structure onto the life. Map your key plot points over the story. What’s the midpoint of the story? What is their darkest moment and how does that climax and resolve? Because it’s biographical it may not map very neatly, so don’t panic, but it should give you a shell.

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Rob: In terms of starting a novel in the right place, can you start with an action scene then jump back to the start of a story?

Alison: If you can make it work, awesome. But I see it not working more often than not. Sometimes it can feel a bit like the author has been on a writing course which has told them they need to start with action, and because their beginning doesn’t have action, they feel like they need to start later on then jump back.

You also need to make sure starting with a later scene doesn’t ruin the tension in the story. Don’t give away too much up front.

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Meg: My issue is that I struggle to choose between two options. Say if I could write a sentence in two different ways, or I could see the plot going in two different directions. I just don’t know which one will make the story better, and I end up endlessness swapping between them without making any progress.

Alison: Editing is often an exercise in decision making. It can be scary to commit. Don’t think of it in terms of making the perfect decision, because this will put too much pressure on your brain. Think of the decisions in terms of loss and gain. What are you losing by going in one direction, and what are you gaining? You can apply this to cutting a scene, changing a character arc, using a particular set of imagery. It’s likely that both of the alternatives could work – you need to decide what will work best for your story. To misquote Neil Gaiman, what is the story only you could write? If you have two options, go for the one that feels more ‘you’ and less generic.

Ultimately it’s your name on the cover. So sometimes ‘I like it better this way’ is a legitimate position!

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Andy: You talked about editing the soul of the piece. Can you tell when you’ve got to that point, when you’ve got too far?

Alison: It can be really difficult to identify, and sometimes it’s something you need someone else to tell you. It sounds very weird but I make a substantial part of my living telling writers to change it back to what they had to start with. Because writers have been on writing courses, they’ve shared it with writing groups (nothing wrong with writing groups!) and they’ve over shared it, so they end up with something ‘written by committee’.

If you’re getting advice and you find you’re getting different advice from different people, and end up ‘editing back and forth’ between that advice, you have lost ownership of the manuscript at that moment. You need to step back then and ask yourself what you want the manuscript to be. You don’t want to be arrogant, you do want to consider advice, but it’s getting the balance right.

Feedback from other people is generally good for diagnosing problems. It’s less good for suggesting solutions. The solution and the problem are diametrically opposed – you can find your own way of dealing with the problem. It’s the same with feedback from professional editors. Their suggestion on how to fix a problem is how they would fix it, but you’re the one writing the book, not them.

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Alison’s first two books have just been re-issued as e-books with shiny new titles and covers, Much Ado about Loving and Midsummer Night Dreams. She also does lots of talks, tutoring and residential courses – find out more at www.alison-may.co.uk.