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.

 

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The bare necessities.

One of the best ways to edit a story is simply to give it time, much as wine tastes better when it’s allowed to breathe. But there will be times when there’s not a minute to lose and you’ve got to produce something out of necessity, and sometimes that leads to some excellent work.

I was once given a homework exercise from a writing class that was a fragment of a poem. Nothing was immediately coming to mind and I wanted to complete the exercise as I’d paid for the class. After sitting in the library then writing and writing for an afternoon, I eventually produced a rather short piece called A Big Leap but one I was fairly pleased with.

TimeOut
TimeOut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time later, the tutor alerted me to a flash fiction competition just three hours before it was due to close. I collated what were my best flash pieces at the time, gave them a quick edit, then sent them in. A Big Leap became my first published piece.

I’ve done this a number of times with my work. A looming obligation or a lack of time has a way of forcing you down an unusual path, or to come up with ideas that are unconventional.

This happened most recently in November when I was asked to write an original piece for performance later that month. After a slow start, it ended up being based upon someone I knew many years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have used him if I’d had more time to think about it.

On another occasion, I was all set to read out a particular piece at Hotchpotch, when I was inspired to write another one by a topical event on the news. If I’d left it until the following month, the impetus would be lost, and that gave me just three or four days to concoct the new piece. I’ve subsequently edited it and it now stands alone without the audience needing to know the topical references, and it’s one of my favourites.

But necessity, however superior a result it might produce, isn’t always to a self-imposed goal. When Anthony Burgess found out he had an inoperable brain tumour, he wrote several novels to provide an income for his widow after his death.

How Low Can You Go?

Until 25 January 2015, Dundee Contemporary Arts are showing an exhibition by time-based artist Jim Campbell. Whereas a TV or computer screen has a resolution up to about two million pixels, he uses software to reduce the quality of a normal video to no more than around 1000 pixels. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps; fortunately most viewers are particularly good at this.

Imagine all the triangles…

Look at the graphic on the right, for instance. There are only three small black circles with notches cut out of them, but your brain imagines a large white triangle just from the information it’s given.

Using this principle, his work Home Movies 1040-3 presents amateur footage so the figures are recognisable as people, but the faces are deliberately obscured. Tilted Plane gives the impression of birds or bats flapping overhead by lightbulbs momentarily switching off in sequence. Meanwhile in Gallery 2, pulsating lights reflect the emotion behind the fragments of text displayed around the walls, and those fragments tell a story.

Telling a tale in just a few words is a long-established challenge among writers. One of the most famous examples is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The reader must infer what happened to the baby and why the shoes are being sold. With the advent of SMS and then Twitter, limits of 140 to 160 characters are also popular. My very first writing prize was a £20 Odeon voucher for the following: “Get down from there,” said his mum. For the first time in his life, he listened to her, the noose tightening around his neck as he jumped.

Even with slightly longer works, pulling back the word count or simplifying the action can make for a better story, as the reader has to do some of the work. In one case, I’d written a 1000-word story starting with a man being woken up by a noisy neighbour, him going to the door to investigate and finding the police there, then the police interviewing the woman and her son. The first two thirds of the story just weren’t working, so I eventually removed them. The result was a much tighter story that made the twist ending more shocking as we didn’t see the events leading up to it.

And with all that in mind, I’m going to shorten this entry by letting it end abru

What’s The Story?

A couple of entries ago, I mentioned that I rarely post my work on the Web. This is because I enter competitions and contact publishers. The rules invariably state that any story submitted should never have appeared either in print or online.

I have one story that’s already in the public domain, and I’m going to share it with you below. I wrote it for a Twitter friend, and it gives you a flavour of my style, although I don’t usually write in American English.

#

Text In The City
By Gavin Cameron

Monday, and for the third week in a row, I took to the streets of downtown Ladymill. I had made some acquaintance with a few of the commuters, one of whom had bought me a cup of coffee every day last week.

But as pleasant as it was to meet these people, I wasn’t doing this for the friends. I desperately needed something that nobody seemed able to give me. I perhaps should explain why I attracted so much attention. I’d been carrying two dry-erase boards attached by two ropes over my shoulder.

The one on my front read: NEED A JOB. CAN’T GET MORE WELFARE. Oftentimes, the rain washed off the semi-permanent ink and I had to rewrite it two or three times.

The blank board on my back allowed potential employers to write down their details. So far, I had only attracted a couple of comments, including KICK ME and I’M WITH STUPID.

But I believed this Monday would be different. Perhaps it was the optimism from the sunnier weather, or that the commuter’s coffee had gone straight to my head after an inadequate breakfast, but I definitely felt a new sense of being.

As the commuters thinned out at around six o’clock, no doubt rushing home for a well-earned beer, I considered finishing up for the day. But I had no beer, just leftover Chinese food.

I walked to the train station, when a man in an expensive-looking suit approached me. Over these three weeks, I developed an ability to tell when someone was about to speak to me, and I spoke first to show I wasn’t afraid to take the lead. “Good evening. I’m Rachel Morton. Can you help me?”

The man nodded. “I think I can.”

Excited, I replied, “Oh that’s great. What kind of work can you offer?”

“I work in advertising and marketing. Have you any experience of the industry?”

“No,” I replied, “but I’m a fast learner. You can even give me a week’s trial, but I’ll only consider a paid trial.”

“Don’t worry,” replied the man, “I would pay you, although it’s minimum wage. And to be fair, you don’t need much experience.”

“I’ll consider any reasonable offer.”

“I have an office a couple of blocks from here. How about you come in tomorrow morning? Here’s my card. Bring a resumé and some ID.”

I arrived as instructed wearing my most professional outfit. The office looked very glassy and modern, and didn’t contain many staff, so I could work almost uninterrupted. Yes, I could do this. No more rainy days wandering around town. I was now an office worker. I signed a month-long contract that day.

I soon found out why there were so few staff. This advertising company wasn’t offering a desk job. They wanted people to walk around the streets with billboards strapped to us.

<<<>>>

The Final Cut.

Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.

The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.

I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.

But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.

In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.

But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.

Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.