Lil Chase: crafting a great book is 70% editing

After an inspiring SCBWI South West workshop with author and Working Partners editor Lil Chase, Lesley Moss and Rowena House talked to her about her two novels - Boys for Beginners and Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 - and the importance of editing when crafting a great book.

 Can we start with Lil Chase the writer. When did you begin your writing journey?

I had a typewriter. I don’t know if typewriters even exist now, but I remember asking my Mum for a typewriter when I was ten and clacking away on it. But even before that I wrote Gwynnie Goes Girlie (the inspiration for Boys for Beginners, her first novel.) Gwynnie was all written in pencil and I did the drawings and everything.

As a writer, I suppose I am an ideas person, and they go down on the page and I don’t think they’re very good at first. They are getting better, though. I think that first-draft-to-final-draft journey is getting shorter with practice, but even now there’s no way anyone would read a first draft of my book and think it was anywhere near publishable.

You said you found the Gwynnie manuscript your Mum’s attic. That’s must have been a  great way of rediscovering your ten-year-old self.

Absolutely. I feel like I’ve plagiarised somebody, but luckily that person was myself. I always kept diaries at the time. This was before emails, so I have letters my friends sent me, and letters I’d written to my friends but clearly hadn’t sent. All my cares and worries are in those letters, and all my friends’ cares and worries are in them too. I can’t tell you how vital all that information was.

You write a lot about friendship. For what age group do you think that friendship is the most important thing?

Probably 8-13. I describe my books as books for girls who are thinking about thinking about boys. They’re not quite up for boyfriends yet, but they are thinking about them; they know that’s the next step. But some girls are fifteen when it happens and some are eight. So you can’t be that prescriptive about it. Middle-grade is a very, very broad church.

If friendship is the key to middle-grade, what’s the key to YA?

Romance. I don’t know if it’s the publishers who are saying that romance is key, but that’s probably what they’ve found from sales figures. So it’s romance and family, and maybe how romance affects your friendships.

What about coming-of-age stories, rites of passage?

They can be very different from romance. YA is also about making sense of the world, finding out who you are. I started a degree in psychology and went to see a neuroscientist talking about teenagers. He said the amount of change going on in their brains is the equivalent of a toddler’s development. They aren’t young adults and they aren’t old children; they’re a different species. You certainly don’t want to preach about this, but if you’re writing for teenagers it’s probably a good idea to know a bit about their psychology.

Talking of neuroscience, in your workshop you recommended that we use the creative right brain to write and our logical left brains to edit. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Neuroscience says early hominids just had one brain and it didn’t plan or imagine how life might be better if we did something in a different way. Then there was an evolutionary jump, and we got a second brain in the same head that was creative and imaginative. This creative right brain looks ahead and imagines different scenarios. The left brain is logical. So you write with you right brain and you edit with your left brain. The best way to do that is to separate the two. Get in the zone and write, write, write. Then, later on, come back with your logical left brain and edit.

How does that fit with your other advice that we should plan our stories and edit the concept before writing the book? Isn’t that sort of plotting essentially a logical, left-brain activity?

No, not really. When you first write your plan you’re free. You write the plot with your right brain, and then you edit it with your left brain. For example, if I’m about to go upstairs and start writing, I look at my plan and say, ‘Okay, I’m on Chapter 2 where she meets her best friend.’ And that’s all I need to know.

You said at the workshop that 70% of getting your book to a publishable state is editing. Is that true of the planning stage as well?

Yes. I do the creative process of planning the book, and that’s edited, and there’s a 70:30 split there. Then when I write the book there’s another 70:30 split. It’s very important that you’ve got an idea for a story, but you’ve got to tell it in a way that makes sense to the reader and they care about it. That’s where editing comes in. Being an editor has been invaluable to me.

So as an editor, can you edit your own books from start to finish?

No I don’t think so. I know that a fresh set of eyes will make it better. You can always, always, always improve your novel and I think you need somebody else to do that. I know that a lot of people who self-publish will employ editors and I think that’s a good way.

At what point in your story do you know the end?

As soon as I sort out the idea I know the end because I think of stories in terms of change. Your character will start one way, in one position, and will end in the opposite position. Therefore I already have the ending; I just have to work out how the ending should come about. It should probably happen in a dramatic way, at a prom or at a party or in a big dramatic scene. But as soon as I’ve got an idea I know the ending because it has to be the opposite.

For writers trying to sell their first novel to agents and editors, what would you say are the keys to a great pitch? 

An interesting character with an interesting goal and an interesting conflict. You’ve also got to look at your idea and find its hook, which is often in the title. For example, Downton Abbey is all about the setting. James Bond is about a very interesting character. So is Superman; he’s kick-ass, basically. I always talk about My Sister, The Vampire because it’s all there in the title. She’s got this lovely sister, but oh no, she’s a vampire! You’ve got conflict right there. So the pitch is all about finding the hook and emphasising it.

You don’t talk about ‘high concept’ much.

Any story you can describe in five sentences is high concept. The ultimate high concept title is Snakes on a Plane. It was actually a working title and they sent it to Samuel L. Jackson and he said, ‘I’ll do it but only if you don’t change the title!’ The conflict’s right there: there are snakes! And they’re on a plane! It just couldn’t get more terrible.

High concept is just as important for books. You’ve got the blurb on the back to sell your book, but people aren’t going to get that far unless they like the title and the cover. Then they’re going to flip it over and read those five sentences on the back. That’s what’s going to make them shell out their money to buy it. Okay, they might read the first few pages, but you really have to get the concept across in as few words as possible.

Would you say that if people can’t write a five-sentence pitch, they should seriously look at their story and edit their idea before going any further?

I think it’s the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction. If you’re a poet and you can write beautiful, lyrical, wonderful words, then write literary fiction. This kind of fiction wins prizes, but sadly it doesn't usually sell very well. If you’re interested in commercial fiction then yes, you should aim to make it a High Concept book. The biggest selling books are the ones that focus on page-turning stories.

Lil Chase is the author of two books; BOYS FOR BEGINNERS and SECRETS, LIES & LOCKER 62, both published by Quercus. Her latest series - THE BOYS' SCHOOL GIRLS - will be published in July 2014.

Lil also works as a commissioning editor at Working Partners Limited, creating fiction for children and adults.
Rowena House is a journalist by trade - an ex-Reuters foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa, now a sub-editor specialising in international affairs. She turned to writing fiction for young people to meet a deep desire to tell gritty stories that are true in an emotional sense, without being constrained by ‘the facts’. At the moment, she’s working on a love story for teens set in Africa as part of the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. Rowena lives in rural Devon with her remarkably tolerant family and their less tolerant dog, a grey-and-white sheep dog called Fletcher.

 Lesley Moss joined SCBWI in 2003 and over several years has volunteered as an e-critique group moderator for Picturebook Too! and the original poetry e-critique group, and as SW Joint Co-ordinator. She is a member of and writes picture books, funny poetry and 8-12 fiction. She originally studied art and design and spent some years in community arts, including a spell as a mime animateur, working creatively with children of all ages, and much more. But her first love is writing.


  1. Thank you all! As someone in the process of approaching agents and publishers to get my first picture book out there this has given me a lot of encouragement and hope - it fades often in this business! Great stories and ideas, thanks again :-)

    1. Glad you liked it, Dennis. It's one of the great joys of contributing to W&P: you get to ask the questions that you really want to know the answers to!

  2. This is an excellent interview Rowena and Lesley - you ask brilliant questions - thank you. And thank you Lil - it's a treasure chest of answers! Really interesting on L and R brain, endings and high concept. I can see why Lil has been travelling the country to deliver her workshops!

  3. Great interview. Especially interesting to read about how much a writer should plan (or not!).

  4. Reassuring to read that 'knowing the end' at the beginning is okay :) now I just have to get there.. Interesting interview - thank you.

  5. Exciting to study this writing piece! You put up an amazing type research and cooperate with your readers. Thanks much professional resume editing service


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