The Middle of the Road

It can be hard to believe that that even well-known writers might only be one piece of work away from losing popularity.

Experience helps a lot, from knowing your particular audience to being aware of wider trends – not to mention fads – in contemporary tastes. However, there is no telling for sure how the public will react to the next offering.

A good way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the winners of the Booker prize. Here’s a list from 1969 to 2014, in reverse chronological order.

Only a few of these have become household names, such as William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and double winner Hilary Mantel. But mention Aravind Adiga, JM Coetzee or even the first winner Bernice Rubens, and it’s likely you’ll need to give a little more context about who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t popular writers among their fans, merely that their work hasn’t caught on with the public the same way as their prized novels.

But who needs to be an outright success as an author? There is a term in publishing known as the midlist.

These are books from authors that don’t shift in great numbers, but do sell well enough to justify remaining in print. By its very nature, there are no great examples of midlist authors, because most of a publisher’s roster is likely to fall into this category. In fact, remove the handful of high earners and everyone else probably fits there.

This structure seems to be particularly true in non-fiction. Friends who have told me anecdotally that writing articles can bring in a steady enough income to justify their efforts.

So even if your next project doesn’t catch on as you expected, give it a little time and see whether it fits within the midlist.

Making Time for Editing

Beginner writers sometimes fall into a common trap after finishing a piece. That trap is reading over a freshly-written piece once or twice, correcting any obvious mistakes, then sending it out into the world. As a result, editors and competition judges routinely receive work that is littered with careless mistakes. Most of them are not inclined to read beyond the first few errors.

By contrast, more experienced writers know that creating a satisfactory piece of writing is not something that can be rushed. Editing work is a very distinct process from writing it, and the mind therefore needs time to switch between the two.

As such, it’s essential to leave an interval between writing a piece and looking at it again with a critical eye. That means leaving your work in a drawer – either physical or virtual is fine – and returning to it at a later time.

In just about every piece I’ve written, the passage of time has alerted me to spelling and grammar errors, sentences that are too unwieldy, or plot points that aren’t clear to the reader.

But how long should you leave that work in a drawer? This is a question I’ve previously considered on this blog, but I’ve returned to the issue as I consider how much breathing space is necessary once I finish my current long-form piece.

In an entry from three years ago, I proposed a minimum period of one minute per word or at least 24 hours if the length was under 1,500 words . Three years is more than enough time to revisit that entry and to tweak the formula I proposed.

My new recommendation is to leave at least three minutes per word, or at least 72 hours if the word count is 1,440 or below. The slight adjustment from 1,500 to 1,440 is merely a pedantic tweak to reflect the number of minutes in one day.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, cut those figures to two minutes per word, or 48 hours for 1,440 words. And whatever deadline is absolutely looming, I still strongly recommend one minute per word or – you guessed it – 24 hours at the lower end.

This works out at between one and three days for most poetry and flash fiction, while a 20,000-word novella would be left between roughly two and four weeks.

When you open the drawer after that time, one of the best ways to spot mistakes is to read it out loud without an audience, as any blips are more difficult to ignore. It’s also a good idea to read it at different times of day, when you’re in different moods, and so forth, and see how you react to it then.

If you still have the time, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it aside again and coming back to it at an even later date.

With these blog entries, there often isn’t a lot of time as I want to publish by 6pm every Tuesday. But I always aim to make sure it’s typed up early, and I go back to iron out the inevitable mistakes.

After these periods of resting and editing, that’s the time to send your work out. Naturally, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is a higher likelihood that editors and competition judges will read more of the work you send them and take it more seriously.

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.

The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

Cohesion

Having read last week’s entry, a friend gave me feedback that she felt it ended without a conclusion. I agreed with this analysis: the final paragraph had linked to a page on Reddit that was too loosely connected to what had gone before.

On writing a story, I know it’s finished when the characters are where I intended them to be. For a poem, I work more by experience; when I feel I’m dragging it out, I know to stop.

I find a blog entry is more difficult. I’m not often telling a story, nor conveying an emotion through poetic language. In those cases, I would leave the most exciting parts until nearer the end and perhaps introduce a twist.

On WordPress, I’m writing factually about writing, and some subjects don’t lend themselves well to a linear narrative or a logical progression of events.

I therefore asked my friend how she would rewrite the end of the blog entry in question. She’s worked as a reporter and an editor, so has much more experience in writing factually. She told me it’s a bad idea to introduce something new in the last paragraph, and suggested summing up what was said near the beginning,

I revisited the entry, removed the dodgy last paragraph and replaced it with one that refers back to the first paragraph. As a result, we agreed it’s more cohesive than the first version.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.