Keeping on Track

It’s great having a polished story or poem ready to be sent to a publisher or entered into a competition, but then comes the difficult part: waiting for a response. Often it takes months, sometimes it takes weeks, and a select bunch answer in a few days. This is unavoidable.

But here’s what separates a beginner from a seasoned pro: the former often sits and waits for a response, while the latter almost always uses the time to work on another piece. It’s desirable to build up a portfolio because many publishers, and almost all competitions, say you can’t send the same piece to two or more different places simultaneously.

Novel submissions are different in this respect. Most agents recognise that a book is an all-consuming work, and that it could be sent to a number of other places. It’s good practice to inform the other agents if one takes it on.

Whichever situation you’re in, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve submitted to where. It might be a simple as keeping a list if you’ve only a few pieces, but I have dozens in different places, so I use a spreadsheet to record the details:

Submissions tracker

I’ve edited out the names of the publishers and the links to their submission guidelines as I might want to resubmit in the future. The last column keeps track of how many pieces I’ve sent out during the year. My target is at least one piece per week on average; I have a poet friend whose target is an average of at least one piece per day. Otherwise, the tracker is self-explanatory.


It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve had published. These appear on another spreadsheet, and I keep the manuscripts in their own directory.

In many cases, the rights revert back to the author after a period of around six months to a year, so the same piece could potentially be sent to another publisher further down the line. If you’re unsure, ask the editor.

AMENDED Review of the Freewrite by Astrohaus.

Freewrite croppedImagine if a writer like Ernest Hemingway was reanimated and thrust into today’s world. Chances are that he would see a computer and recognise the QUERTY keyboard as it’s very similar to a typewriter, then figure out that the words appear on a TV screen instead of paper.

And like a typewriter, the Freewrite aims to do one task and do it well: to allow a writer to record words electronically without being distracted by the Internet or the many options of a word processing application.

I was an early backer of the project; as such, Astrohaus sent my unit last week. Having had time to evaluate its features, here are my conclusions.

The Freewrite is a sturdy beast weighing about 4lbs. There is no mouse, touchpad or touchscreen facility. Instead, you use the keyboard for almost every feature.

Unlike a modern laptop, the keys will last longer, being a chunky Cherry design reminscient of the BBC Microsystem. They make a satisfying clackety-clack, although this also makes it too loud to use in an average library. Like a typewriter, there are also no arrow keys, only a Backspace button, plus Pg Up and Pg Dn to view previous work without editing it. It’s ideal for the writer who wants to force him- or herself to write words without worrying about editing them.

Aside from the power key, there are two washing-machine-style switches: one controls the wi-fi – to back up only, not to surf the Web – and the other selects a folder so the writer can work on up to three documents concurrently. The screen is e-ink, the same technology used in a black-and-white Kindle. While a valuable battery-saver, it does take a little time to become accustomed to the inherent technical delay betwen pressing a key and seeing the character on-screen.

But the Freewrite does, in some ways, feel like a prototype that’s not quite ready for mass-production.

Consider the Send button, which instantly e-mails you a copy of what you’re writing. Nestled between Alt Gr and Special, it’s far too easy to hit it inadvertently and find multiple drafts in your inbox unexpectedly. The user also needs to press two buttons together to start a new note. Perhaps a similar approach to Send would save these accidental messages.

As I’m British, I chose the ISO keyboard, although an ANSI version is available. That might explain why the Alt Gr button acts so inconsistently. Hold it and type ‘abcdef’ and it should show ‘攢ðeđ’, but sometimes it shows nothing, and there’s no apparant explanation.

AMENDED CONTENT: In the first version of this entry, I said I was also baffled why it’s so difficult to use multiple cloud services simultaneously; the Freewrite currently supports Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive. I use them for different purposes: the former for local document backup, the latter for online-only or collaborative documents, and the other for short reminders. However, Astrohaus responded to me that in Advanced Settings, folders A, B and C can be mapped accordingly.

I’m also unable to edit any Evernote notes, as I’m told it’s ‘created in another application’. I’m aware this is the fault of Evernote, not Astrohaus.

It is possible to map individual folders through the online interface Postbox, but once it’s mapped – even in error – it’s apparantly impossible to disconnect the folder unless you delete it. Can’t someone be allowed to correct a potential mistake?

I would also care to see less overall reliance on Postbox; a basic setting such as font size, for starters, ought to be adjustable on the unit itself rather than through the Web. Every time the writer needs to use Postbox, it’s through a browser, and there’s a potential to be distracted – the very factor the Freewrite is trying to eliminate. It should only be neccessary to use a browser for retrieving backed-up files. The Special key is currently used only to scroll through display options. Any additional features could easily be accessed by using a Special+[button] combination.

There’s a further opportunity being wasted here as well: to bring the whole experience offline if the writer chooses. The Send button might be given a secondary function of sending a draft directly to a printer, and/or backing up onto a USB stick.

I’ve been struggling a little with the battery too. The Freewrite doesn’t seem to charge unless it’s switched off; other devices will charge while you’re using them, albeit more slowly. A percentage indicator showing the remaining power should be a given.

For all the negative points identified, I’m nonetheless convinced the Freewrite does the one thing it set out to do and does it well: provide a distraction-free writing experience. I’m typing this entry on the machine, and I’m finding it’s already forcing me to change my style. If I notice a mistake earlier on, I’ve been making a note in square brackets, eg, [two paras up, correct ‘sending’], then moving on.

It’s worth remembering that even large companies don’t always hit the mark with a new product. Early adopters of the iPhone will remember the major flaws that took a couple of versions to iron out. Similarly, the first Freewrite firmware update might solve some of the issues.

I’m confident the next generation will feel less like a proof of concept and more like a replacement laptop for the serious writer, but you can buy a good Windows PC for much less than the Freewrite’s $598 (£413) price-tag. The question is whether Astrohaus can capitalise on its unique selling point and convince writers that their flagship product is the better investment.

Further character reference.

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of walking to help with thinking through plot problems or generating story ideas, and those who tuned in to the last entry will have seen my discussion about character.

Yesterday, and the week before that, I went to a couple of car boot sales. This isn’t an unusual thing for me to do on a Sunday, even if the weather is rarely so warm, but I’d never before considered what a rich place it is for character study.

English: Car boot sale at Apsley.
“How much for this?” “That’s a pound, love. Never been used.” “I’ll give you 50p for it.”  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have a look at what’s laid out and make up a back story about the reason for the sale. If a stallholder has a lot of mismatched crockery, is it from a house move? Perhaps there are a lot of records because someone has grown out of them? Then you can begin to extrapolate further, especially if you have a chance to listen in on part of their conversation.

For example, let’s say someone has a lot of signs containing inspirational quotes and is bragging about her children”s exam results. Perhaps she has so many that the time has come to sell any duplicates. Perhaps she compulsively collects them because she has low self-esteem. Perhaps she has low self-esteem because she’s always been told she’s a failure, and now relies on her children’s achievements to make her feel worthwhile. And bingo: you have a character.

I’ll also give you a real-life example of a man who sold wooden objects such as tables and bird boxes. His craftsmanship was excellent, but he would finish each one with a horrible orange-brown paint, ruining the aesthetic. Perhaps he does this because his eyesight is beginning to fail and he thinks the colour looks fine? Perhaps he’s in denial and won’t see an optician? Perhaps he constantly bumps into people and blames the other party for not paying attention? And bingo: another character.

From there, we have a story. Perhaps our craftsman bumps into the woman with low self-esteem at a car boot sale and blames her for not looking where she’s going? Maybe they start talking and find out they both love gardening? Could the story end with them moving in together on condition that he changes the colour of his creations?

Character reference.

As a writer, I often think I should denounce television and sell my set. I could easily live without watching the box again, and use the time to read stories and work on my own novels.

But on the other hand, I’ve now watched every episode of Fargo season one, and Inspector Montalbano and The Young Montalbano – collectively cited hereafter as Montalbano . In their individual ways, these programmes can teach a writer some valuable skills.

In Fargo, we have distinctive characters. Lorne Malvo, the controlled and self-assured lone wolf who often speaks in allegory. His demeanour directly contrasts with the nervous and uncertain Lester Nygaard who constantly stumbles over his speech. They’re being pursued by the two police chiefs in Bemidji and Duluth, who believe they’re superior both in rank and intellect.

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s therefore difficult to mistake one character for another. As such, each earns his or her place in the story. Incidentally, I found it impossible to unravel the formula behind the Fargo screenplay.

Montalbano also has well-drawn characters, but its formula is more obvious when you watch a number of episodes in succession. At the start, the inspector will probably be woken by a phone call; halfway through, a Mafia connection might be made; at the end, it’s likely the suspect will confess then commit suicide. There are a dozen additional common plot points.

This description makes the show sound formulaic, and it is, but formulae exist because audiences react well to them. The writer’s job is to work with the formula in such a way that the structure becomes nearly invisible. In the case of Montalbano it took a good few episodes to see the commonalities. I haven’t read the Andrea Camilleri source novels, but I expect they’re similar.

While we’re here, let’s take a moment to look at so-called reality shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex or The Hills. There is still a formula at work, but the writers approach it in a different way. It’s a technique that was shown to me by a drama teacher long before either of these shows were made.

Instead of a word-for-word script, the cast are told what the scene will be. Each actor is then given a card with his or her individual motivation that the others don’t know, and any information that needs to be dropped into the conversation. This produces dialogue that’s much closer to natural speech than a traditional script, especially if there’s an argument in the scene. The structure for the complete programme is still under the control of the writers.

From these TV programmes, we have masterclasses in structure and character. These are two considerations that have helped me redraft one of my novels that simply wasn’t working.

The first thing I did was to cull some characters. The protagonist worked with five people, and now works with three; his partner’s sister was only there to look at the protagonist disapprovingly, so she’s now been cut out.

Secondly, the structure simply wasn’t working, particularly towards the end. As it’s an adventure story, I looked up possible structures and found one called the Monomyth, a more detailed version of the three-act structure. By following this and using my own variations as the plot demanded, I now have a structure I’m happy with.

Caption man.

On Friday night, I was invited out to play what was described as ‘a writing game’. Faced with this offer, most normal people would perhaps turn it down; writers, on the other hand, are not normal people.

It was arranged by a friend of a friend and we met in a hotel bar. I was expecting it to be like a writing class, where the leader gives you a prompt – perhaps six words, or a fragment of speech, or an old photograph – and you have five or 10 minutes to write down a passage inspired by it.

Instead, we played a game of Dixit, which I hadn’t heard about before. The rules are hard to grasp at first, but they become more obvious once you see a round played. I won’t go into all the instructions and caveats, but here they are in a nutshell:

You’re dealt six cards, each containing an illustration, and you have to think of a caption for it. The other players then have to guess which card was yours by the caption you gave it. If everyone guesses or nobody guesses, you don’t score any points; but if some players guess, you do.

Who Moved My Cheese?
Who Moved My Cheese? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a tricky balancing act between not describing the card as it is, but not being so obscure that nobody understands it. For example, I received a card depicting a maze with butterflies around it. If I’d been asked to describe this card to someone, that’s very much what I would have said. But to prevent the other players from getting too easily, I gave it the caption Who Moved My Cheese? after the business book of the same name, featuring mice who live in a maze. As it happens, none of the other players had heard of the book, so nobody guessed it.

This is a principle that also applies to writing. I recently read the PD James novel The Children of Men, and I was disappointed by how often the author spelt out details that could have been shown through characters’ actions.

On the other hand, I can recall several anthologies where their respective editors seemed to equate vagueness with literary worth. The stories would have a set-up, a change, then would end with insufficient details so the reader had no idea how the situation was resolved. Even stories with an open ending will generally provide enough clues for the reader to imagine which way it went once the narrative stops. I refer you to the ending of The Day of the Triffids.

Only a few writers can get away with an unexplained ending, such as the Monty Python team, whose sketches would end abru