Cameron’s Rule

Last week, I was called a perfectionist, not as an insult but as a statement of fact. It is true I like to siphon out as many errors as possible – all of them, ideally – before the public ever see it. But what’s the best way to make sure mistakes are picked up?

Read a printed copy

Many authors are in the habit of writing their work directly into a PC. In many ways, this is ideal because the words are in digital form and can be corrected without fuss, or sent to a third party. But it is more difficult to pick up errors: Scientific American has a detailed article on the subject.

So consider printing out your work to give yourself the best chance. Some people also like to change the font. I accept that printing is not good for the environment, so I keep a folder of used paper and print on the back where possible.

Read it out loud

When many people read, they like to ‘hear’ each word in their heads as if it’s being read aloud by someone else. So reading out loud as an author enables you to imagine how the reader will interpret your words, and can highlight any overlong sentences or incorrect punctuation use.

If you’re unable to find the privacy to read out loud, the next best solution is to use text-to-speech software, plenty of which is available on the Web. You can then listen to it spoken through headphones. The voice tends to be a monotone – although still miles ahead of Stephen Hawking’s antiquated synthesiser – allowing you to concentrate more on the words themselves.

Ask a friend or a professional

Be careful who you pick for this: family members or friends might gloss over the bad bits. Make sure you pick someone who’ll tell you honestly what’s wrong with it, but will also pick out what you’ve done right. Asking a professional proofreader is a more expensive option, yet it can be vital in a novel-length work.

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...
Pocket watch, savonette-type. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Give it time

When you’ve finished a draft, one of the best moves you can make is to leave it alone for a while. If you go back too quickly, it’s possible to read what you want to see rather than what’s actually on the page because your mind’s still thinking about the words that have just been written.

But how long should you leave it for? That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with. After much thought, I’ve come up with my personal method, which I’d like to name, in an egotistical manner…

Cameron’s Rule

As a bare minimum, for work of:

  • 1500 words or fewer, leave it 24 hours;
  • 1501 words and above, allow one minute per word.

By this method, flash fiction and some short stories would be left a day, while an 80,000-word novel would be left for nearly two months. Bear in mind these are merely minimum times. There’s no harm in putting away work – especially shorter pieces – for a longer time.

 

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Extrovert Through The Gift Shop.

There’s no escaping the truth that writing is a solitary occupation. Authors can spend hours of their life alone in attics, sheds, and cafés, immersed in the land, world or universe they’re trying to create. It’s therefore tempting to imagine that this breed of people are shy introverts. Actually, of the majority I’ve seen, I’ve found the reverse to be true.

These days, it’s important for a writer to be able to self-promote, as many publishers’ marketing budgets are not massive. A prime example is Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, whom I had the privilege to see at a live event last week. She was interviewed about her book The Luminaries and gave some excellent, confident answers. Doug Johnstone also illustrates my point, as he’s forever looking for an opportunity to crack out his guitar. Chris Brookmyre dispenses entirely with an interviewer in favour of his own speech, while Iain (M) Banks usually invited questions from the word go.

This space reserved for Banksy's next piece
This space reserved for Banksy’s next piece

Have you considered trying it yourself?

Public reading and question-fielding is not reserved exclusively for established authors. Anyone can do it, and I believe they should. Like many authors, I read my work out loud when there’s nobody around, as it’s a valuable tool for ironing out clumsy phrases and misplaced punctuation.

I also consider myself an extrovert. I might spend time alone in front of a PC churning out short stories, but I’m perfectly at home in front of a microphone or camera. I volunteered at hospital radio for a long time, and used to keep a video blog. I’m also lucky enough to have a writers’ open-mike night nearby, where I can try out new material. The audience is made up of fellow authors and poets.

That’s not to say I don’t find it terrifying standing in front of them. I’ve never made a complete hash of it, but I have stumbled, and that’s something I need to work on. But even if you’re an introvert, find a willing audience and push through that barrier. It’s valuable for seeing how well the piece goes down with the public, particularly if they’re laughing when they should be shocked, or vice-versa.If you do, your work will almost certainly improve, and if you become published, you’ll already have the experience of making public readings.

While I was writing this, I thought of one introvert who always causes a fuss whenever he exhibits a new piece. I refer you to Banksy in his iconic film Exit Through The Gift Shop. He seems uncomfortable with the camera being near him, but his self-promotion skills are second-to-none. I know he’s an artist, but if he were a writer, I wonder what type of work he would produce?