Pencil to Paper, Mouth to Microphone

Margaret Atwood launched her latest novel The Testaments last Tuesday with a worldwide cinema broadcast. This included a short biographical film, long readings by three actresses, and an interview with the author herself.

I discovered she likes to write her first draft on paper, although she says her spelling is terrible. It’s then passed to a typist who makes the necessary corrections. I also make my first draft by hand, then enter it into a PC.

I don’t, however, pass my writing to a typist. What I do is speak my words using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. As you can hear in the recording below, the software reacts best when you speak in a monotone – although it can handle variations in speech rather well. There are also seemingly awkward gaps while the software catches up with what I’m saying.

You’ll notice I have to say which punctuation I want; this can be done automatically, but I prefer to specify. At 1m 15s into the recording, you can also hear me make a correction, as the software had misunderstood the word ‘pass’ as ‘passed’. I then say ‘choose two’, where I’m selecting the correct word from a list of other possibilities.

Admittedly, dictating can take longer than typing, but there are two advantages. Firstly, since I type every day in my job, my hands are given a rest from the same repetitive motion. Secondly, I can make corrections when it’s transferred into the computer, creating a more refined second draft. For a longer piece, I might then print it off and make further corrections by hand, then return to the PC.

However you choose to write and edit your work, my best piece of advice is to leave time between one draft and the next. On my next reading, I invariably find spelling errors, plot holes, and self-indulgent passages. If even an experienced author like Margaret Atwood can make mistakes, then we should definitely rewrite and rewrite until it’s as good as it can be.

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More Important Than the Important Work

There probably isn’t an author who hasn’t been distracted from their work at one time or another. Even when a deadline is approaching, sometimes it’s a more attractive option to wash the dishes, walk the dog or head to the pub.

I suffered from this affliction recently when I spent about an hour trimming the cords on the blinds in my writing room rather than complete a piece. The cords did need trimmed, but as they’d waited about a year already, there was no reason why they couldn’t have lasted another day.

Now it’s happened again. The distraction this time isn’t a menial task, but another piece of work.

I recently joined a story writing group called Table 23. The intention is for the other members to chip in with suggestions for our individual projects and to provide some friendly peer pressure so we’ll actually complete what we’ve proposed.

I talked about the novel I want to redraft and I was given helpful suggestions about how the plot might progress. But after several visits to the annual Edinburgh Festivals this month, I’ve come away with another idea, this time for a one-hour play featuring two characters. I find myself thinking about it and coming up with new plot points at the expense of the Table 23 novel.

In this instance, I’m going to run with the play and at least make a first draft. My novel has at least been planned out and can wait a little longer, whereas I want to capture the play on paper before all the details evaporate.

The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


Writer About Town

Some time ago, I posted a picture of my writing desk at home. I’ve included an up-to-date one in this entry.

Although I type up pieces here, they normally begin life as pencil on paper and usually far away from the room. This includes not only fiction and poetry, but often blog posts and routine correspondence.

When I was stuck with a piece, I used to head to a café called The Empire State, with a view of the city centre from each of its three levels. The ambient sound was Motown and classic hits, and I found these helped me to break through writing blocks.

I haven’t been there lately, but mainly because I’ve found somewhere else that’s slightly more convenient.

My nearest BrewDog bar opens at midday and is usually quiet enough for writing undisturbed until mid-afternoon. What’s more, there are power sockets for laptops, plus my shareholder card gives me a discount. The only downside is that the music repeats on a 60-minute loop.

I have one more place I like to write, and it’s the most bizarre of all. It’s in a retail park on the edge of the city, surrounded by a DIY retailer, a supermarket and other warehouse-style outlets. It’s a McDonald’s restaurant.

At some point over the last five years, I’ve discovered that it’s most conducive to writing. I know I can turn up there with a notepad and by the time I finish my coffee, I’ll have something on the page, and not just crumbs.

Great as it is for creative work, though, it’s not so good for my weight loss attempts.

 

 

Some Salvaged Scribbles.

A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.

I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.

Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.

My filing system
My filing system

Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.

But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.

I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?