INTERVIEW: Dionne McCulloch of Cornerstones US

INTERVIEW: Dionne McCulloch of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy US

DionneDionne joined Cornerstones Literary Consultancy in 2015 to head up Cornerstones US after freelancing as an editor in their UK office. She is a YA novelist represented by Writers House in NYC, a judging panelist for The Bath Novel Award, and a PitchWars mentor. She is currently ghostwriting a feature film, and has previously written scripts for TV. She was once a White House intern and copyedited speeches for President Bill Clinton.

Why the US?paler

Cornerstones has had great success as a consultancy in the UK over the past twenty years, launching writers such as Sarwat Chadda, Liz Kessler, Ava McCarthy, Jane Yardley, Lezanne Clannachan and Kate Glanville to name a few.

Cornerstones is a place for writers to go, and return to, for advice from top editors in the industry. A big part of our success is down to the Cornerstones’ method of teaching writers how to self-edit, rather than only telling writers how to fix their book. We help writers to achieve their writing goals, whatever stage of the process they’re at, and if we feel that a book is at submission level, we pass them through to those agents with whom we have relationships.

So it seemed like there was a huge opportunity in the US market for an agency like Cornerstones, where writers can have access to a whole house of editors and be matched by us to the perfect editor, someone who is right for the writer’s genre, style and experience.

The other exciting thing about being transatlantic is that submissions are coming in all the time to CornerstonesUK. Recently an Australian writer living in Kuwait writing a story based in New Orleans came to the UK office, and it was a very American story, so we were able to connect them with a US editor who knew the market, backstory and dialect.  With editors, you want them to know the market in the place the writer hopes to sell their book.

palerWho are your editors?

I’m so amazed by our editors’ experience and get goosebumps reading their resumes. There’s so much talent! All our editors are fiction and non-fiction writers, some are also journalists, all have agents, almost all are published, and many have worked in the publishing industry as commissioning editors at publishing houses, senior agents, or creative writing teachers across all genres. They are arranged across three tiers, so it’s really a question of us helping the writer find just the right editor, depending on what stage of writing their book is at and who would best suit their voice and genre.

palerHow do you assign a report and editor?

It’s partly a conversation about budget and primarily about what the writer wants from the process. There are different report levels as well as different editor levels. The first thing that happens is a writer submits a few pages and a synopsis. We then give free feedback on those pages, a prognosis as it were. We don’t take on every writer. The writer needs to be serious about their work, and ready to be edited. This comes out during the free consultation and conversation, which can be by email or phone. Our free feedback gives the writer a sense of how it works and it helps them to feel comfortable that their work will be taken seriously.

palerCan Cornerstones help writers to find an agent?

Absolutely, that’s a big part of it. We have an ongoing dialogue with agents all the time, to help us know what they are looking for. For example, I spoke to an agent just today in New York who said that she was looking for a Mad Men type book but for women, in the workplace in the 50’s. By maintaining a dialogue with as many agents as possible we know what they are looking for, and when something comes along that matches, and we feel it is at submission level, we pass it along. This relationship can work both ways. An agent might also see a submission which they feel has promise but isn’t quite working, and they may recommend the writer to work with us to bring it up to scratch, and often they’ll want to see it again after edits.

palerWhat kind of writer makes the best candidate?

Any writer who is keen to learn self-editing techniques, and also, but not entirely, those writers who want to enter the professional writing arena. For instance, the writer who enters a novel competition is an ideal candidate for Cornerstones. This is a writer who is already taking their writing seriously, they’ve brought their work up to a certain level, and are ready to put it out into the world. On the other hand, many writers who come to us are asking us to be their first-ever readers. Sometimes, a writer can get so close to their work that they can’t see it anymore. They may seek out a writing group or critique partner, or they may feel it’s time to take it to a professional for an independent critique.

palerDo you ever feel you have to break a writer’s heart?

No. Because we aren’t in the business of accepting or rejecting, we’re in the business of teaching. Every writer needs an editor. One writer may need structural help developing their narrative arc; another needs to learn the techniques of good writing like eliminating passive writing, show don’t tell, how best to use dialogue and how to develop their setting; yet another writer needs to develop their characters. Most of the time, a writer needs some amount of help with everything and all the time there are things a writer does well that they can benefit from seeing highlighted.

palerWhat makes a book travel?

I think that is in large part unknown. A great story is a great story wherever it is set. A great story set in a US city will appeal to readers in the UK, just as a great story set in the UK can have success in the US. Trends differ from country to country, but setting doesn’t pin a book to a country as the only place where it will sell.  A book may be set in the US but a UK audience will need certain concepts explained, such as a political or cultural reference. A common problem can be that a book falls between the two markets, not quite appealing to either, and it’s our job to know how to refocus this within a book and feed that back to the author.

palerSo any advice to the writer who has yet to share their work?

It takes a lot of guts to write a book, and even more bravery to share it. You put yourself in a vulnerable place when you open your work up to criticism, whether from an editor or a novel competition. At Cornerstones we understand this; we are all writers ourselves. Once you start sharing your work, and learn the concepts of self-editing, you take your whole game up a notch. You enter the arena. So, drop us your email address at, we’ll email you back, and you can tell us what your story is about and send us a few pages. We’ll give you our honest opinion and advice, and you’ll be one step closer to actualizing your book. Go on; try it!

Follow Cornerstones‘ latest US news on twitter @cornerstonesUS

Cornerstones LogoOne writer shortlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2016 will win a Cornerstones Consultancy Report worth £400 (US$620) including structural critique on their full manuscript plus a follow up session with an editor.

Find out more about Cornerstones’ range of services for authors here