Open the front cover of most books and one of the first pages you’ll encounter contains paragraphs that begin something like:
First published in Great Britain in [year] by [publisher];
The right of [author name (s)] has been asserted by [him/her/them]…;
and All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted…
This legal text is effectively saying that the author and publisher, and/or anyone else involved in making the book, have created an original piece of work and that the reader is not permitted to do anything with it other than enjoy the text. The modern copyright system began with the Berne Convention in 1886 and has evolved over the intervening decades, and it’s now something we take for granted.
It was brought to my attention this week that there is a manifesto proposal by the Green Party to shorten copyright terms to a maximum of 14 years, a move that is causing anger among authors. In most cases, the current system guarantees copyright control for the rest of an author’s life, with control transferred to his or her estate for 70 years after death. If the 14-year proposal were already in operation, this would mean anything produced in the 20th century was now in the public domain.
Making a big show of copyright is the mark of a nonprofessional. A publisher isn’t going to steal your manuscript unless they’re a dodgy outfit, and if you do self-publish a book, a discreet copyright notice inside will suffice. Make sure it’s drafted by a lawyer or someone who knows what they’re doing; don’t make up your own wording.
In any case, copyright exists the moment a work is created, at least in the UK and in the USA. The purpose of the notice is merely an affirmation of the copyright.
If you have had something published in a book or in a magazine, make sure you’re receiving the appropriate money from it. Register with the Authors’ Lending and Copyright Society to check whether you could be paid secondary royalties from photocopying, scanning and digital copying. If your book is in a library, royalties are generated each time it’s borrowed, so consider joining the Public Lending Right scheme to collect any money owed.
If British Rail posted a blog entry late, they would claim it was on time. I, however, make no such claim, but I have been busy over the last couple of days. I shall attempt to restore my Monday timetable from next week.
On Sunday, I went to see bestselling author Irvine Welsh launching his latest book A Decent Ride. There were two unusual things about this event. The first was the charge for admission since book launches are usually free in the hope you’ll buy a copy, which I did anyway. The second unusual occurrence was that I asked a question.
Welsh was interviewed for 40 minutes, during which time he gave a couple of readings, one dressed as his main character. Then the audience was invited to ask questions, and I asked whether non-Scots readers find his use of slang and dialect a barrier to his work or a way of pulling them into the story. It seems readers struggle a little for the first 20 pages, but slowly learn to adjust.
I don’t what it is that stops me from thinking of a question on the spot. It’s not that I’m embarrassed, but I can’t think of something to quiz them about, and I don’t want to rely on the old classic, Do you write longhand or use a computer?
If I can think of something, I often go away thinking it was perhaps best to keep my mouth shut so I didn’t ask something stupid. That said, I saw Iain Banks live on stage twice and he invited questions from the start of both events. Again, my author amnesia struck. Shortly after the second event, he announced he was dying and cancelled all future engagements so I’ll never have another chance.
About four years ago, I started attending a creative writing group I’m still in today. The tutor gives a prompt and the job of the class members is to write a passage inspired by it. In one of the early sessions, we had a member who often wouldn’t write anything, but would instead describe what she would’ve written. I had a similar experience at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews on Saturday.
I’d been meaning to attend this for some time, and this year I finally bought a ticket for Clive Russell (Coronation Street, Game of Thrones). My plan was to arrive around midday and buy tickets for other shows on an ad hoc basis. I queued at the Byre Theatre box office for a show about Alexander Pushkin and Russians in Paris, to be told that the tickets were now available only at the venue door. When I reached the, they had just sold out.
I decided instead to have lunch quickly, then see a 12pm show by a artist and a poet who had written a Ladybird-style book about St Andrews. An enjoyable 40 minutes as they described the challenges of being in two different cities but having to collaborate, but only the audience members attended.
After tea and a scone with one of my classmates who was working at the event, I headed to Musings@MUSA, which encouraged visitors to use the objects on display as inspiration for their own poetry. The first exhibit I saw was marked Seal of Approval and that phrase stayed with me. The 17-line poem I wrote was definitely inspired by elements in the exhibition, but ended up not being about the place.
Finally, time for Clive Russell. I queued up at the auditorium to be told it was, “At the top of the building.” I wasn’t sure how she knew this from looking at my ticket, as there were no obvious markings, but I moved upstairs to the top entrance and took my seat. We were treated to a duet poem written by Rock McKenzie, then the experimental Veridian String Quartet performing Different Trains by Steve Reich.
I made some notes in advance of the main event. The photograph below shows some of these.
When the house lights came up and there was no Clive Russell, I was puzzled. The man beside me said that venues for these two events had been swapped around. I slowly worked out that the first ticket checker had meant a completely different venue, while the second one should have paid attention to the show name on my ticket and not let me in. However, I was indeed in the venue printed on the ticket.
To compound the matter, I’d offered to review the events for Dundee University Review of the Arts, or DURA. If I were writing for The Guardian or suchlike, or I’d’ve been sacked on the spot. Fortunately, DURA’s contributors are volunteers, so I explained the situation to the editor in question and it was no big deal. She even gave my classmate and me a lift home in the evening.
I still enjoyed the day, and I’m tempted to go back next year. I’ve learnt nothing is a waste of time if you can take from it a good anecdote or a free pen.
When I’m writing a new story, I have a particular manner of approaching it. I tend to let it churn around and around in my head, and then when I think it’s ready, I’ll write it in one sitting. From conversations I’ve had recently, it seems I’m not the only one who works this way.
Yet when I was asked to write a monologue recently – which I performed on Thursday – I approached it in the manner suggested by the person who set the challenge. That was to think of somewhere that means something to you, either good or bad, and write about this place for 15 minutes without stopping. Then think of somebody striking, whether someone you know personally or who is in the news, and write about them for 15 minutes without stopping. Finally, put them together and use that as a jumping-off point.
At first, I didn’t know whether I could do anything with the place and person I chose, but after those 15 minutes of writing, I found a lot of usable material, which I then assembled into a poetic monologue. Instead of writing from the top to the bottom, I worked on the second part first, setting my ideas to an iambic rhythm; then worked on the first part second, using a dactyl meter.
It produced a piece with which I’m very happy and went down well with the audience. I wonder whether I should approach more of my pieces like this?
I’m tackling National Novel Writing Month at the same time, where the aim is simply to write the raw material for a first draft and worry about the editing at a future date. As always, I’m finding unusual twists and turns simply by the process of writing. For instance, the novel was originally to be a series of newspaper reports about an inventor, with a historian filling in the gaps. However, more and more of the inventor’s own words started to creep in, and now it’s written almost entirely from her point of view with only a little help from the historian.
The next time I work on something original, I might try writing it out instead of just thinking about it, but I’ve learned a little lesson on that front as well. NaNoWriMo was planned out on three sheets of paper the size of newspaper pages. This is fine to refer to when writing at home, but inconvenient to take along to a cafe.
Firstly, let’s move some issues out of the way. There are many people who don’t like Jeffrey Archer, either as a person or as a novelist. But he is a very popular author, with at least 250 million books sold worldwide, and his advice regarding editing is faultless.
He’s stated in the past that he likes to redraft his work up to 14 times, and he usually does so in longhand. I wondered what would happen if I subjected my own words to the Archer treatment. To do this, I needed a passage that had never been edited, and I found one in notes from an old writing class. I’ll label that passage Revision Zero. The prompt was a photograph of a baby in a sidecar.
I wanted that bike, that particular one, the shiny black Yamaha, with the sidecar. You rarely see sidecars these days, so there was only one place that could help me with that, but it was worth the trip. Six months ago, I was driving in the countryside and I had my son with me. As we were finally picking up speed, I swerved to avoid a pothole and the nearside wheel hit a deep ditch. We both went flying into a field and only missed the fence by a few inches. We were lucky we didn’t suffer bad injuries, but it was the first accident I’d had in thirty years of driving. So with this new bike, the identical one, I go up and down that road with him again as often as I can, being careful at that part. I’m trying my hardest to block it out. The more I do it, the more I drive that route, the more it never happened.
For each redraft, I copied out the passage from start to finish into my notebook (pictured), making corrections as I went along.
This was an unusual and quite time-consuming method for me, as I generally make only first drafts in the notepad then copy my work into a computer. Often I simply type the first draft. Let’s see how this passage has changed by Revision 3.
You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, so when I needed a new machine, only one place could help me out. I ordered a model as close as possible to my old one: a black two-litre Yamaha. 3 months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field, & we came away with a few injuries. The worst part was having the first blot on a 20-year record of safe driving. No matter how much I explain this to my wife, she won’t let my son near the new bike. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel along that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m travelling at the same speed but swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact statistically & mentally. If I make this journey safely another 99 times, it means I’ve only had an accident on 1% of them; 999 journeys & that decreases to 0.1% & so on. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking of the accident. The more I do this, the more it never happened.
Revision Zero was written in May, and all subsequent revisions were made in August, during which time I hadn’t thought about the piece.
Already there are improvements. I’ve expanded on his inner conflict between his want to be a perfect driver and the accident that overshadows this.
The introduction of his wife creates a second conflict, this time over whether his son is allowed to ride with him. That conflict isn’t explored quite so much, but its outcome is clear. Perhaps the character is too caught up in his inner conflict to care much about the external one? He might even be in denial about it, which seems consistent with his mindset.
Now let’s explore Revision 6.
You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, but I wanted exactly the same model as my wrecked one. Only one company could help me out, and even then, I had to make do with an approximate match. Three months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field. We were lucky to escape with few injuries, but the bike was a write-off. What hurts more was the stain on my clean 20-year driving record, which meant my wife wouldn’t let my son near the new machine. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m going exactly the same speed, but I swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact by statistically & mentally. When I make this journey 99 times, it means I’ll only have crashed on 1% of these trips. When I make 999, that reduces to 0.1%, & so forth. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking about the accident whatsoever. The more I do this, the more it never happened.
I was initially aiming for 14 revisions. By the time I reached that point, however, I began to feel I would be revising for its own sake when the point of the exercise was to make only necessary improvements.
I finished Revision 6 a few days ago. Plot-wise, it doesn’t differ terribly from Revision 3, but the sentence structures do. Looking at it today, I would only change the ampersands into proper words and make minor alterations to some of the sentences.
And that’s one of the key techniques for revision: leave it a few days. Many writers are keen to submit their work as soon as it’s rewritten, but it’s a good idea to leave it for a day or two and revisit it. Archer might revise his work 14 times, but not at one sitting.
The rewriting process will help to tighten up any first draft, and you’ll probably find errors you didn’t realise were there. A good way of checking the punctuation and grammar is to read the paragraphs in reverse order so you don’t follow the story. The very best way of picking up all kinds of mistakes is to ask someone else to read it. A professional proofreader is best, but even a friend’s insight can be invaluable, and less expensive.
After all, a publisher or an agent needs to be hooked from page 1, and if the first thing they notice is careless writing, that piece will go straight to the rejection pile. On the other hand, a little revision now might set you on the road to selling 250 million of your own books.
A couple of entries ago, I riffed upon the art of shortening the short story. But having thought a little more about it, I’ve come to realise a lot of the short stories I’m most proud of are actually longer than 2000 words. I have written novels, but they’re a different class entirely.
My longest short is called An Abundance of Apples, clocking in at around 4500 words. This tells the story of a man who trades 26 items, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. This was always going to be the approximate length, and it gave some room to manoeuvre when telling the story.
Another of my favourites is The Cracked Goldfish Bowl, about a man with an amazing memory but no self-confidence. The final word count was 4300 words, but that’s merely because I kept thinking of new challenges to face the main character rather than creating an overarching plan.
I tend to approach my short stories from the top downwards. Sometimes I know where I’m going to end up, but often I let the story wander as it wishes. An artist I know, Jennifer Robson, prefers the meandering approach to her sewing, as she doesn’t feel challenged if she knows what the end result will be.
I’m a strong believer in writing a proper ending to a story, whether that ending is known beforehand or not. Sadly I’ve read too many ‘two-thirds’ pieces with a great set up, and enjoyable narrative, but the writer has omitted a satisfactory conclusion, leaving it to flop out with a vague sentence or two. That final third might have made all the difference.
What I’m saying is that some stories need cut down to size, as discussed in that last entry, while others require some room to breathe. The question is which approach is the best one to take for that particular story.
Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.
The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.
I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.
But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.
In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.
But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.
Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.
I’m pleased to report that my short story Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse has been released today by Strange Musings Press in its Alternate Hilarities anthology, along with a number of other comedy pieces.
I’d also like to give thanks to the editor, Giovanni Valentino. Book publishing takes months of work, and throughout it all, he has been in regular contact with the contributors, and kept us up-to-date with its progress.