In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.

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A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.

Your Weekly Writing Update by Grammarly

A few weeks ago, I started a subscription to Grammarly.  As I sometimes churn out my writing work quickly, especially blog posts, it’s a useful tool to pick up any spelling or grammar errors that creep in.

There’s already a proprietary checker in Microsoft Word, and it’s possible to download browser extensions that perform a similar function. But Grammarly software is consistent in Word, in your browser, and anywhere else you type on your computer. It doesn’t, however, seem to be available for mobile devices.

Every week, I’m sent a summary of how well or badly I’ve performed in my spelling and grammar. Here are selected stats from 06 February to 12 February.

  • You wrote more words than 96% of Grammarly users did.
  • You were more accurate than 82% of Grammarly users.
  • You have a larger vocabulary than 97% of Grammarly users.

So far, I feel like a latter-day Shakespeare. However, it’s not all happy news:

Top 3 grammar mistakes

1. Missing comma in compound sentence: 44 mistakes.
2. Incorrect use of comma: 15 mistakes
3. Missing comma(s) with interrupter: 10 mistakes

Grammarly and I can’t seem to come to an agreement on this issue.

Sometimes it allows the use of the Oxford comma in a list, but sometimes I’m told to take it out. Similarly, I’m often shouted at for placing a comma before and in a sentence, but it’s occasionally required to stay in.

I’ve also discovered a problem with the verb form in the following sentence:

  • The audience here tends to be corporations.

I’m advised this isn’t correct:

tends

So I duly drop the final letter to make the verb agree with the plural subject corporations. Then I’m told:

tend

Now the verb form is incorrect because it doesn’t agree with the singular audience. And so we go around in a loop. There is a facility to add custom spellings or to ignore a suggestion, but no way to let the software learn your writing style or to flag up false positives.

Ultimately, the writer has to determine whether the words that are written, or the way in which they’re written, are suitable for the intended purpose. Grammarly is a tool that uses algorithms to apply the conventional rules of English; it’s not a textbook that must be followed precisely.

How to Fix a Broken Piece

I think all writers have pieces that, for some reason, don’t have maximum impact or aren’t coming together in the way we want. In this entry, I have some suggestions for these pieces based on my own experience.

In 2013, I was given homework from a writing group to pen a story inspired by lines from a poem. As it wasn’t coming together, I spent the afternoon in the library writing until it made some sort of sense. I eventually created a flash fiction piece that became my first published story.

A couple of years later, I was working on a poem for performance at an upcoming gig. When it wouldn’t come out in a way I liked, I went for a walk in the cold. By the time I returned home, all the elements began to settle into a list poem. The finished product gained a positive reaction on its début, and has done on each reading since.

Broken mirror
Broken mirror (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to my most recent difficulty. This was another list poem, in response to a friend’s work, that wouldn’t flow no matter the order in which the lines were arranged. I ended up writing each line on a separate slip of paper and drawing them out of a bag like raffle tickets. That method helped to identify which lines felt out of place and could be removed, then the remaining fragments naturally joined together.

The most recent poem hasn’t been heard by an audience yet, as I think it needs to be left aside for a while. I’ll revisit the piece in the future with fresh eyes and decide whether I still like it as it stands. And time is one of the best ways to fix non-urgent work.

In  2014, I came home from the aftorementioned writing group having been unable to think of a story from the prompts given. I was so annoyed with myself that I typed up my frustrations in short sentences with plenty of negative space between the paragraphs, then closed the document. Thinking it would be embarrassing, as it was never intended to be seen by others, I didn’t reopen the file until earlier this year.

I was jolly surprised to find that it might actually work as a poem, and I’m also more inclined to figuratively bleed onto the page than I was two years ago. So it might yet be seen before an audience.

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.

 

I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Normally, blog entries come to me easily. It might be prompted by a comment during the week, or be inspired by a particular problem I’m having.

This week, however, I’ve been struggling to complete an entry. I started on the topic of swearing, then about gaps in your writing CV, then about third-person biographies, but none of these topics were going anywhere. I might return to them in the future, but today’s entry is about finishing what you start.

I normally good at finishing stories and poems, but I have a few that have been untouched since the first draft. Most recently, I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I abandoned my original idea after four verses because it was much too wordy and I wanted to take the narrative in a different direction. Here are those four verses:

We saw the archipelago of masts
while sailing over Dogger Bank in gale
force six conditions. They displayed full sails
like pirate vessels of the ancient past.
They numbered in the twenties. We informed
our captain. She immediately warned

them of our presence with a blast,
instructed us to try the radio.
All frequencies, all wattages, yet no
response was heard. When 30 minutes passed,
she ordered that her ship should deviate
of-course toward the masts, though gale force eight

was forecast. Once we had a closer view,
we noticed something out of place. The decks
were underwater. So it seemed. We checked
again. Correct. All decks submerged, no crew,
no skeletons, no personal effects,
just masts with sails and ragged flags. Perplexed,

we asked the captain where to go. Perplexed,
she stopped us by the archipelago.
Again we tried to use the radio
as gale force eight turned into 10. The next
the next we knew, the bow was pointing in the air.
It knocked us to the deck.

This needs a lot of work done. There are a number of options to breathe new life into it: cut out unnecessary words and phrases, continue to add verses, rewrite it as prose, recycle elements of it into other works, and/or cut it into individual phrases and shuffle them about.

To make what became the response, I used some elements of this story, cut out a lot of detail and rendered it as prose. The final result mimicked the shipping forecast on Radio 4.

I’ve done something similar for older pieces. Around 2011, I wasn’t writing much poetry and I thought what I had was quite a good piece. Four years later, I revisited it while answering a writing prompt and it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I took the same idea but structured the verse differently and I’m now happy with it.

Some writers seem scared to finish pieces, as if they’ll think of a better word or structure as soon as it’s been submitted to a publisher. But if its publication you’re looking for, there comes a time when you need to let go of it. Remember there will be every opportunity to amend it if it’s rejected, and some publishers will allow – or insist upon – amendments if it’s accepted.

I’ve been asked before how I know when I’ve finished a piece. That’s not an easy one to answer, but the best measure I have is when I stop thinking about it day-to-day. That’s when I leave it alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes later on.

It’s a good idea to finish what you start, at least to the best of your ability. If you see the perfect outlet for your piece, it’s much easier to tweak it than to have to add or remove significant portions. You might then be able to submit it comfortably before the deadline.