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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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.

The Short Verse

Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.


I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.

As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.

One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.

That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.

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.