Surprise, Surprise

On Tuesday of last week, I came home to a parcel. I was only stopping for a brief time before heading out again. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was expecting a USB cable.

Just before leaving, I opened the parcel to check I’d received the correct equipment. So imagine my surprise when I found it actually contained the following:

Picture of Good Omens with a personalised gift note

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There was no sender’s name, only a cat’s face made up with punctuation marks. However, it didn’t take long to trace it to an American friend. Around a week before, she’d heard the BBC radio adaptation from 2014. I’d casually mentioned I’d heard this, but hadn’t read the full novel, so she’d jumped at the chance to send it.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I’m making good progress with reading it. I’m working on what to send back as I have National Book Tokens that need to be spent before the balance expires.

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When to Stop; When to Start

In April, I began to redraft a novel that I originally wrote in 2011. In the intervening years, I’ve learnt a lot more about the principles of structure and how to raise the stakes in a narrative, so I was pleased with the way the redraft was turning out.

By Tom Murphy VII [ GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
By Tom Murphy VII [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/) ] from Wikimedia Commons
However, there came a point where I’d pushed the main character through as many hoops as I could conceive until he’d achieved his goal. At that point, there wasn’t much to keep him from doing anything he wanted without resistance, so the narrative began to stall. At around the same time, I began to pull together a spoken-word show. I therefore made the decision to leave aside the novel, so for the last month, I’ve been concentrating on the show.

When I stop thinking about a work in progress, I find that’s the time to leave it. The novel is currently handwritten, so I’ll start typing that up once I’m finished with the show, then see where we can take the main character from there.

Other highlights this week include performing at Inky Fingers in Edinburgh on Tuesday and listening to some cracking poets, including the featured Rachel Plummer.

And on Thursday, I heard Caroline Bird performing from In These Days of Prohibition. This is the second time I’ve heard her on stage, and it was again a wonderfully absurdist experience.

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.

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.

Further To…

As National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I might have run out of steam by now.

English: NWP teachers at work.
English: NWP teachers at work. This photo has little relation to the entry; I just like the guy’s hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the contrary, I hit a turning point in my novel on Saturday, a remarkable 25 days into the contest. I now have a new structure that I’m pleased with, and I’m more excited than ever to commit it to paper. The downside is that the new structure incorporates little of the material I’ve already written, so what I have now is effectively a 40,000-word collection of character sketches.

It therefore looks like I’ll be continuing this project during December as I don’t want to let the momentum trail off.

What I actually planned to do in December was to turn a certain public-domain novel into a screenplay; as far as I can tell, nobody has done it before with this book. It’s waited more than one-and-a-third centuries, though, so a few more months of delay won’t make much difference.

Finally, you might remember I made an entry regarding my experience of understanding the Scots and Dundee dialects; it was called Fluent in 1½ Languages. Since then, some brainbox at the University of Abertay has shown that understanding the Dundee dialect is as good as knowing a second language.

Carré on Spying

On Thursday evening, I enjoyed the privilege of watching a live cinema broadcast with spy author John le Carré. He made a speech from the Southbank Centre in London and was later interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News.

Even at the age of nearly 86, he’s still an imposing presence, with a slow and measured delivery that commands attention. He related a number of anecdotes about his time in the Security Services, many of them delightfully unflattering about the other party. I suspect, though, that there are a hundred more, all quite unrepeatable in polite company. Indeed, the sole swear word appeared in a direct quote regarding the rivalry between MI5 and MI6, reminding us that he wasn’t always a grand old figure of Establishment, but one of the lads.

John le Carre

It was in the late 1950s when le Carré began his career in espionage, and his most popular character – George Smiley – was created during this period. Yet the author isn’t stuck in the past and I admire that in anyone. For instance, he remains as politically astute as ever: acknowledging the starkly different threats posed by the Soviet Union and Isis, while lamenting the reemergence of fascism after fallow decades. Like the idealist Smiley might have believed, he would much rather have seen an era of peace when the Cold War ended.

The overarching purpose of the evening was to promote his latest novel A Legacy of Spies. Though le Carré has warned in the past that he’d given his final interview, it seems he can’t help but be lured back into the spotlight from time to time. For as long as he’s prepared to do this, he can rest assured there’s an audience waiting to hear his words.

The Submissions Tracker

I’ve been falling behind on my submissions to publishers.

One of the most important steps a writer can take is to keep track of the submissions made. Below is an excerpt from my own tracker, a Google Documents sheet. You can click the image to make the text larger.

An excerpt from my submissions tracker

Publisher

When you routinely send pieces to publishers, you start to develop a gut feeling about those to avoid. One publisher seemed evasive about giving anything more than an e-mail address and a Skype number, while another promised a cash prize for the winner but stated that the piece wouldn’t be published unless they felt like it. If it feels dodgy, steer clear.

I now send my work almost exclusively to publishers rather than competitions, although I’ll make an exception on occasion. My main motivation is the cost of submission, which often seems disproportionately high, but I also tend to find them less well-organised than commercial publishers.

Submission guidelines

I can’t stress this enough: read the submission guidelines, then read them again, ideally out loud. The publisher will usually be specific about the type of work wanted, the word or line count, the format in which it should appear, the method by which it should be submitted, the deadline, plus any other relevant information such as a brief biography. Great story and poetry templates are available at William Shunn’s website.

Whether or not it’s requested, make an effort to find out the name of the editor or the person who’s taking submissions. Don’t worry if you name the wrong person; it shows you’ve at least done some research.

I’ve had experiences where submission guidelines for competitions have been unclear or even self-contradictory. If you’re in any doubt about them, don’t hesitate to ask the organisers. That signals to them that their explanation isn’t clear.

Deadline and Submission date

I know it sounds as though I’m insulting your intelligence, but don’t miss the deadline if you can possibly help it. The overwhelming majority of submissions are done online, and most publishers will accept entries up to 11:59pm on deadline day unless otherwise specified. For the few places that accept or insist upon postal entries, it’s worth checking whether the publisher wants your letter by the deadline, or whether the postmark date will be taken.

If your submission is late, there’s no harm in a phone call or an e-mail to the publisher regarding whether it’ll still be accepted.

Decision notified

We’d all love to be told instantly about the result. I once posted a piece on a Monday and received a rejection on the Friday morning, but that’s a rare experience. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of pieces, and you could be waiting up to six months for a response.

Always be aware that you might not receive any response at all. The New Yorker, for instance, advises contributors that owing to the volume of submissions, they should assume it’s a rejection if they haven’t heard within 90 days.

Title (s) entered

Very often, a publisher won’t allow a short story or poem to be under consideration by anyone else; that’s why it’s wise to have a number of other pieces to send elsewhere in the meantime. If you’re a novelist submitting to an agent, however, simultaneous submissions of the same book are acceptable.

I store each of my stories and poems in individual PC folders. Whenever I submit somewhere new, I always create a new file within the folder containing the latest revision and specifying where it’s been sent.

Entry method

Most submissions are done by e-mail and few are done by post, as explored earlier. Shorter pieces might be accepted by filling in a form on the publisher’s website. The Submittable  site is popular among some publishers. This not only accepts documents online but allows you to track the status of every submission.

Whichever online method is used, you’ll usually receive a receipt by e-mail. By post, place a stamped and self-addressed postcard in the envelope so the publisher can signal when it’s been received.

Overall submission count

Every year, I set myself a target of submitting 53 pieces to publishers; one a week on average, plus one for the extra day or two that comprises a year. It’s a generously low target, but my immediate mission is to catch up and keep pace.


Postscript

I normally try to stick to one theme per entry, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rappers Versus Poets event hosted by the BBC on Saturday night. I know a few of the poets, either personally or by sight, but I’ll leave you to watch it and find out whether they won or lost.