And Yet the Pencil Moves

Four weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been rewriting a novel I started in 2011. I’m pleased to report that I’ve had enough momentum to keep going until now.

I’m following a chapter-by-chapter breakdown with the key points and word counts. In my experience, planning is never a waste of time, even if the plan is eventually amended or abandoned. Indeed, I don’t know of any major novelist who doesn’t plan to some degree.

English: Signature of Charles Scrivener
English: Signature of Charles Scrivener (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this case, the plot has been amended substantially, but I believe it’s for the better. In the first few drafts, the main character achieved his goals too easily, whereas now there are a number of obstacles in his way. My favourite tight corner so far is where he catches a taxi to pick up millions of pounds, but doesn’t have enough immediate cash to pay the fare.

Like many of my drafts, this one is written in pencil into a notebook; even my plan is written on the back of scrap paper. I find this method more satisfying than typing it. When it is finally entered into Scrivener, I’ll edit it, so that becomes the next draft.

Writing a novel is a time-consuming process, and even more so are the rewrites to produce a tighter story, but it can be a rewarding endeavour.

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Making a Move

Every month, I organise an open-mike night called Hotchpotch for writers to read their work in front of an audience.

Mayfly, May 2007
Mayfly, May 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Mayflies are aquatic insects belonging to the order Ephemeroptera.

For the last couple of years, we’ve been using a bar called the Tinsmith, who took us in when a previous venue closed. We’re indebted to them for allowing our group to keep going, and we made it clear that the move was on good terms.

They have a snug area that offers some degree of separation from the other customers. Over the last few months, however, our audience has grown beyond this area. As a result, it’s become difficult for everyone to hear, even with a PA system.

With help from another member, we scouted out a few locations, bearing in mind that any venue needs to benefit from our presence. Some didn’t have the privacy or the space we need, while others charged amounts that we wouldn’t be able to sustain in the long run. We found the Mayfly, who take a reasonable approach to space versus cost.

Of all the impending changes ahead, the format of Hotchpotch remains the same: for writers to read out their fiction or poetry with no judgement and no criticism. The next meeting is on Monday 14 May.

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.

Anything but Reading

One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.

A sheet of bingo cards.
A sheet of bingo cards. There will be no whistling at ‘Legs eleven’, thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.

I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.

Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.

It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.

A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.

Ellipsis

This week, I’ve had a conglomeration of events, most of which weren’t related to writing. Unfortunately, these have left me no time to construct a full entry, but nor do I want to throw together a substandard post.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to make use of the time you would have spent reading this entry. Perhaps edit a poem, perhaps plan your diary for the week, perhaps send that e-mail you’ve been drafting.

Whatever you do, make it productive, and I’ll catch you back here next week.

Share in the Community

On Thursday, I took part in the Echo event at Dundee Contemporary Arts. This is an open call for artists and writers to respond creatively to the current exhibition; this season it’s Kate V Robertson and Andrew Lacon.

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been taking part for roughly three years and each one is different in character, in mood and in style. Still, the last time was particularly unusual as there were no visual artists, only poetry and storytelling. The DCA collated some of the pieces into a leaflet to be given to the audience. The pieces are performed in the gallery itself, often in front of the artwork that inspired it.

Echo is not a paid gig. The participants volunteer their own time and the DCA benefits from increased visitors. On the face of it, this sounds like a one-sided deal in favour of the gallery, but I like doing it because I believe having a deadline keeps my skills sharp.

I’ve also come to realise that when I write a piece, I like to know my words will be seen by someone.

When I was completing my MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree, one of the tutors wanted us to complete a daily routine called five-finger exercises, where you take an existing paragraph and rewrite it in five different prescribed ways. While I understand this might be useful for beginners or creatively blocked writers, I found I was generating all that material for no useful purpose.

With Echo, I find I still have that freedom of experimentation, yet the fact it’ll be heard helps me to raise my standard as high as I can. I do occasionally write just for myself, but that’s only by exception.

I was advised that the next DCA exhibition will be ‘bonkers’, so I look forward to seeing what arises from that.

 

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.