The Importance of Structure and Conflict

This entry gives away the storyline of the novel The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kae Tempest. If you don’t want to know, it’s a good idea to skip this entry.

Every six months or so, one of my writing group members runs a 12-hour read-a-thon, where members can encourage each other to engage with a book they want to start or finish. We had the last one on Sunday just past, and I finished reading the aforementioned novel.

As a long-time fan of Kae Tempest’s other work, including poetry readings and music-backed albums, I really wanted to enjoy this, but what a letdown.

We’re led into the slightly seedy, slightly grimy world of the characters. But when the characters’ backgrounds are spelt out one after the other, it quickly becomes directionless.

Around two-thirds of the way in, there’s a scene where some chancer is beaten up after trying to charge a drug dealer double the previous price. This would have made a fantastic opener, from which we could have seen the tensions rise. Instead, any conflict is almost immediately resolved in the following chapters.

The book also suffers from some hallmarks of the first-time novelist. Firstly, Harry is a thinly-veiled version of Tempest. Secondly, the other characters all talk in a similar manner to each other, and not much conflict is built up between them for most of the time.

All the elements of a great story are there, but the final product feels like a collection of notes than a cohesive whole. The only element that made me push on through is the poetic prose throughout.

Having reached the abrupt ending, I recalled hearing about the first edit of Star Wars. It didn’t impress test audiences very much.

There is a standard story structure underpinning almost every major film, so an editor carefully went through the footage and shuffled it into an order closely resembling that structure. Here is the video of how it was done:

Had someone done the same with this novel, I might have been giving it a far better review.

Proofreading at Speed

One of the best ways to proofread a new piece is to leave it aside for a while, and then revisit it in the future. Writing and reading are two distinct processes, much like cooking and eating,

My preferred formula is to leave one minute per word, or 24 hours, whichever is longer. To find this, divide the number of words in a piece by 60. So a 600-word short story would be set aside for 24 hours, while an 80,000-word novella would be left for over 1,333 hours or around 56 days.

But what if you have a deadline that won’t allow the piece to be set aside for long? Here are three ways I’ve learned over the years to speed up the process.

Change the typeface

Microsoft Word is usually set up to type in Arial or Times New Roman, with equivalent typefaces available for Mac. However, there are countless others pre-installed on both operating systems. Save your work, then convert the text to something completely different.

I suggest picking wider letters than usual and increasing the font size, because the eye tends to focus on different parts of the same words, and any errors will seem more obvious.

Read it aloud

For the avoidance of doubt, there’s no need to read it to anyone, just as long as it’s out loud to yourself. This method is good for picking up poor grammar and clumsy sentence construction that reading alone often misses.

Make your computer read it out

I used to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking a lot, and that has a feature to read text from the page, although Word and other word processors also have this built in. I have a particular problem with typing form when I mean from, and vice-versa, and this method is particularly good at finding these.

Older speech synthesis is a little grating for longer pieces, but the inflections have become much more realistic over the last decade. Just ask the actor Val Kilmer, who was given a cutting-edge system after he lost his voice.

… and a disclaimer

Murphy’s Law dictates that a blog entry about proofreading will contain some errors that can’t be attributed to stylistic choices. I haven’t found any, but I’m sure my many readers will be all over it.

Writing a Character Backstory

On the weekend just past, I had a chance to play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) after a substantial gap of around two years. This was to be a fresh game that required a new character.

The Dungeon Master (DM) is the person who both manages the game and reacts when a player takes an action. She asked each player to write a backstory for our characters that could then be worked into the game.

When writing a novel, it’s a good idea to write up the backstory of the main characters. This helps to keep the action consistent throughout the story, even if you don’t end up using every detail.

The same technique can be used with a D&D character. Mine is called Kat Herder, and she:

  • grew up in a small town and worked as a butcher’s apprentice
  • left to join the military so she could travel, and became a highly-ranked soldier
  • unexpectedly left the military after 15 years, but kept travelling and taking on casual work

But I also don’t have to think of every detail. We’re playing the game in a fictional world that already has its own story, and Kat simply needs to fit into it.

The DM has asked me further questions to enhance the story, so I’ll be working on that this week.

Grammar, and the Importance Thereof

For a long time, I’ve used Grammarly on my computer. It acts as a spellchecker and grammar checker, but works across the whole of Windows 11, not just the Microsoft Office suite. Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company telling me how well I’ve been writing in the previous seven days. Let’s take a look at the one from yesterday.

That claims I was more productive than 76% of Grammarly users, was more accurate than 78%, and used more unique words than 81%. I have a streak when I’ve used the software for 124 weeks in a row, so there’s a lot of data to mine from that. It also points out my most common errors, but it must be stated that around half of these are stylistic differences from what the programmers expect. For example, I would write ‘6pm’ and not ‘6 PM’, and with the free version, there’s no way to inform them that’s just how I write.

I routinely watch educational videos on YouTube, and over the last few weeks, I’ve stumbled across a language tutor called Olly Richards. His method of teaching is what he dubs the StoryLearning method, in which learners are encouraged to read materials in the target language and hold conversations with native speakers – and to be less concerned by individual words, phrases and sentence construction. His view is that the grammar of a language will be learnt naturally through everyday use.

I’ve been considering how this applies to the English language. In everyday conversation, few people think about every word they say, and the general sense will usually shine through even when the words aren’t precise or are in an unusual order.

When I’m writing this blog, on the other hand, the words will probably hang around for some years. As such, I feel it important to maintain a decent standard of writing, especially as the subject is prose and poetry. Grammarly is one of the tools I use for this, but it isn’t the only one.

I drafted this entry on the evening of Monday 16 May, and I came back to it this evening. I redrafted the previous paragraph to include another relevant point, and I deleted two instances of ‘and’ right next to each other. I consider that time away from the writing to invaluable for spotting such errors.

The Text Behind the Text

At the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, access to the Internet was becoming more common outside of academic settings, and many people used the official event website to keep track of the news.

One such user, Bruce Lindsay Maguire, won a court case against the organising committee because that website wasn’t accessible to him. One point of complaint was that no alt-text had been provided for images, so his Braille display wasn’t able to tell him what the images represented. The Australian Human Rights Commission website features a summary of the case.

With 22 years now passed, it’s easy to imagine this problem was confined to the early and more experimental years of the Web, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s use Instagram as an example, which employs software to try to identify what’s in a picture. A typical caption is ‘May be a picture of two people’ or ‘May be cars on a road’. However, it’s not easy to find the option to type your own alt-text. On the Android app, you need to click a small ‘Advanced settings’ link just before posting the picture, then head to ‘Write alt text’. There seems to be no good reason not to provide this box in plain sight.

A good piece of alt-text is one that fills in any important details that aren’t conveyed by the image caption or any other context. It doesn’t need to contain every detail, just enough to help someone understand the scene if they can’t see it.

One exception is purely decorative images. On this page, I often use headers created from fractals; these are generated by software as a copyright-free source of images. It’s not important to know that the image has dots and swirls of blue or pink, so these are typically labelled as simply ‘Fractal’.

A Trickle of Income

In 2003, The Killers released their first single Mr Brightside, but it didn’t take off commercially until 2004. Despite the gap of nearly two decades since then, the single has spent 307 non-consecutive weeks in the UK Top 100, accurate to Friday 25 March 2022. This type of sleeper hit has a literary equivalent called the midlist.

A midlist book in a publisher’s catalogue won’t shift a lot of units at any one time, instead consistently selling enough copies to justify keeping it in circulation. But is this a good or a bad place to be? It depends on who you ask.

Publishers typically like the midlist because it gives them a wide pool to choose from, not to mention bringing in reasonable passive income for minimum marketing. On the other hand, writers can find it difficult to promote their work because those marketing budgets are geared towards new releases.

Realistically, most published novels will end up on that list, with only a few breaking out as household names. But the aforementioned passive income can also benefit authors. I’ve had a few short stories and poems published between five and ten years ago, and they bring in secondary royalties from when books are lent or copied.

If you’ve had anything published with an ISBN, I urge you to register with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. There’s a one-off membership fee taken from your first payment, but subsequent ones are made every six months with no further deductions.

Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.

A Surprisingly Unpopular Event

I received a message from someone local who’s currently working on a community-focused project that launches this weekend. It’s aimed at encouraging people to think more about the clothes they have, the memories they represent, and imagining what might happen when these items are passed on.

One of the proposed events was to bring in local poets to respond to the above themes, but as the organiser didn’t know many poets, she wanted to tap into my connections. I was happy to help out, and I spoke to two of my poetry groups.

After a week, I was surprised to receive virtually no response to my messages, especially as the clothing event was intended to take place in person. As an organiser, I’ve found that people react to staged events more positively, as the public has become weary of so many virtual ones.

I explained this to the organiser but added that I would still like to contribute. My starting point was a T-shirt from 1996 that I still own, and the resulting piece became an exploration of when I met my first girlfriend at age 12, and how my approach to relationships has changed between then and now.

I don’t know whether I’ll actually be able to attend, as something more pressing has arisen, but I wish her all the best with the project.

When You Find the Words

I’m pernickety about keeping backups of my stories and poems, even if I ultimately don’t end up doing anything further with them. Each is given its own folder, and the different versions appear in date order. The oldest files go back more than a decade.

As such, I was most surprised that I couldn’t find a certain light verse I’d written in 2018. I tried searching by title: Too Chicken. I then tried searching by first line: I’m in love with the woman from Nando’s. I tried searching again with other words I recalled from the text, but no results appeared.

I thought I would have to reconstruct the piece from memory. I knew a reasonable chunk of the text, and it was written in a triolet form, so some lines would be repeated at predictable points.

The other day, however, I was looking at Snapchat. The app has a Timehop-style section where you can look back at pictures you sent in years gone by. I don’t often use that feature, but I’m glad I did, because I’d taken a picture of the original handwritten draft.

A lot of my pieces are first jotted down in pencil, and are then typed up and edited to create a second draft. That critter had somehow escaped the net, but it’s now safely on my computer and can be easily found.