Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

The Initial Hurdles

As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.

Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.

Probably the most important task to undertake before showing someone is to learn how to edit your own writing.

We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.

And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.

When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.

When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.

Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.

The Go-To Person

On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.

As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.

Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.

I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.

This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.

I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.

Rejected, but not Neglected

I’ve been invited to appear on a new podcast called Story Circle Jerk. It was started by my pal Kai Durkin to showcase short stories and music, either self-written or from others. We’ll be recording our episode at the end of the month, giving me a deadline to prepare material.

One part of my appearance will be an interview about my open-mike evenings. I’ll have to do some preparation for this, so I cover the all main points without overloading the listeners with information.

The other part will involve me reading one of my own short stories. The one I immediately reached for was a piece called Him, in which the narrator talks about seeing his life replayed through his own eyes after his death. I wrote this in 2014, with its most recent revision dated 2018.

Between these dates, the story was rejected by six different publishers. However, I’ve also read it to an audience on a number of occasions during that time; I deliver it in a slow and stark tone, inspired by Salman Rushdie reading Concerning The Bodyguard by Donald Barthleme. As such, it seems to work better on stage than on the page so I still have faith in it.

The story will need to be revised a little. The way I start the process is by reading it out loud, not to an audience, but to myself. If it sounds excessively wordy, or if I find myself unable to follow a plot point, it needs to be revised. This particular piece, however, shouldn’t need too much changing for Story Circle Jerk.

Another podcast I can recommend is The Beans Podcast, run by three friends. Be advised that it’s not specifically about writing, but covers many topics, from advice columns to caffeine to nuclear bombs.

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.