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.

 

Advertisements

Your 30-Minute Trial

I’m working on an MLitt dissertation at the moment, among other projects, and this has left me little time to compose an entry.

In lieu of a proper entry, here’s an activity:

  1. Find a book you wouldn’t normally touch, or that you’re unsure about.
  2. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
  3. Read as much of the book as possible in that time.
  4. If you find you like it when the timer sounds, keep on reading. If not, leave it there.
  5. Let us know how you found the experience.

Keeping on Track

It’s great having a polished story or poem ready to be sent to a publisher or entered into a competition, but then comes the difficult part: waiting for a response. Often it takes months, sometimes it takes weeks, and a select bunch answer in a few days. This is unavoidable.

But here’s what separates a beginner from a seasoned pro: the former often sits and waits for a response, while the latter almost always uses the time to work on another piece. It’s desirable to build up a portfolio because many publishers, and almost all competitions, say you can’t send the same piece to two or more different places simultaneously.

Novel submissions are different in this respect. Most agents recognise that a book is an all-consuming work, and that it could be sent to a number of other places. It’s good practice to inform the other agents if one takes it on.

Whichever situation you’re in, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve submitted to where. It might be a simple as keeping a list if you’ve only a few pieces, but I have dozens in different places, so I use a spreadsheet to record the details:

Submissions tracker

I’ve edited out the names of the publishers and the links to their submission guidelines as I might want to resubmit in the future. The last column keeps track of how many pieces I’ve sent out during the year. My target is at least one piece per week on average; I have a poet friend whose target is an average of at least one piece per day. Otherwise, the tracker is self-explanatory.

 

It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve had published. These appear on another spreadsheet, and I keep the manuscripts in their own directory.

In many cases, the rights revert back to the author after a period of around six months to a year, so the same piece could potentially be sent to another publisher further down the line. If you’re unsure, ask the editor.

The milestones of a masterpiece.

When you’re in the middle of writing a novel or compiling a poetry collection or some other big project, it can be easy to forget the end goal. One way to maintain your momentum is to remind yourself what will or might happen when it’s completed.

Try creating something that represents your aim, like a mock cover for the finished volume. Or find a trophy, even if it’s made of cheap plastic, and label it something like [Your name] – Forward Prize – 2017. Or even write the speech you plan to give at your first launch.

Now leave the artefact in a place you’ll see it every day, and that’ll remind you what you’re working toward. It’s not simply words on a page, but something people will buy and possibly admire.

Think how you’ll feel when it really does happen.

The hardest goodbye.

For a writer, receiving a rejection letter is one of the hardest things you’ll have to face. But probably the second hardest is realising that what you’re writing is going nowhere, or that it has no place within the context of a longer work.

Earlier this year, I began to edit a novel I wrote four years ago because the current storyline wasn’t working. This meant cutting out several sections I liked, such as the 10,000 words where the main character arranges to rent a minibus with six football fans when their plane is cancelled.

Once I decided on a new plot direction, I needed to fill in the gaps. But around 2000 words into what I thought was a great idea, I found I was bored while writing it. These will therefore be cut on my next edit. And I still don’t know the exact direction I’m going to take the book.

Nevertheless, always keep the parts you cut out; you never know when they might be handy in the future.

I was given a writing group challenge to come up with a story that included an A to Z structure, however loose that structure might be. My story was called The Eternal Student, and it centred around a young man from a family of accountants who had been sent to university to gain the formal qualifications. As he knows it all, he enrols in evening classes through boredom, each with a name one letter higher than the last. It would then have gone on to describe his disillusionment with university management and how he set up his own institution.

With 1500 words on the page, there was no more mileage left in the idea, so I put it to one side. A few months later, An Abundance of Apples was born, using the idea of an A to Z structure.

A year after The Eternal Student was penned, I rediscovered it in my files. Using a fresh cast and a different situation, I borrowed the element of disillusionment and wrote another story called Plans that ended with the main character setting up a new university. This then inspired another novel starring the same character and borrowing some elements from Plans.

And to date, I still haven’t been able to do anything else with my trainee accountant.

The Finish Line.

Every April, there’s a contest called Camp NaNoWriMo, an offshoot of November’s National Novel Writing Month. In November, the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Camp, by contrast, allows participants to choose a word goal starting at 10,000 and to work on any type of writing.

I intended to do more work on one of my unpublished novels, which is mostly written but needed extra scenes. I did write a few thousand words of it, but I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm as I did when I edited it a couple of months ago. Rather than bore myself stupid with it, I changed focus.

A piece of advice often given to new writers is Finish what you start. It’s rare that I don’t finish work, but I did have a few short stories that had gone nowhere. I therefore used the opportunity to finish two of them.

One had started off as a little self-indulgence but rereading it after this time allowed me to work out and deliver the message I was trying to convey. The other one should have been written in one session, but I was interrupted and never went back to it. I now have a satisfactory ending for both pieces and they’re ready for a second redraft – and a ruthless reduction in their word counts. As for the novel, I will redraft it when my enthusiasm returns.

Camp NaNo is traditionally done without a group leader and without meet ups in person. In Dundee, however,  we’ve been fortunate enough to have active members who have met up every Tuesday in April to work on their respective pieces. I set my own target at 10,000 words as I also had a university paper to hand in around the same time, but thanks to these meetings, I managed to reach the goal.

If you’re also in Dundee, by the way, there’s a new monthly Literary Lock-in at the George Orwell up the Perth Road. There are no speeches or readings, just an opportunity for writers to mingle and speak with each other. The next one is on 25 May.

Author amnesia.

If British Rail posted a blog entry late, they would claim it was on time. I, however, make no such claim, but I have been busy over the last couple of days. I shall attempt to restore my Monday timetable from next week.

On Sunday, I went to see bestselling author Irvine Welsh launching his latest book A Decent Ride. There were two unusual things about this event. The first was the charge for admission since book launches are usually free in the hope you’ll buy a copy, which I did anyway. The second unusual occurrence was that I asked a question.

Hint: I'm the one that's not the bestselling author
Hint: I’m the one that’s not the bestselling author

Welsh was interviewed for 40 minutes, during which time he gave a couple of readings, one dressed as his main character. Then the audience was invited to ask questions, and I asked whether non-Scots readers find his use of slang and dialect a barrier to his work or a way of pulling them into the story. It seems readers struggle a little for the first 20 pages, but slowly learn to adjust.

I don’t what it is that stops me from thinking of a question on the spot. It’s not that I’m embarrassed, but I can’t think of something to quiz them about, and I don’t want to rely on the old classic, Do you write longhand or use a computer?

If I can think of something, I often go away thinking it was perhaps best to keep my mouth shut so I didn’t ask something stupid. That said, I saw Iain Banks live on stage twice and he invited questions from the start of both events. Again, my author amnesia struck. Shortly after the second event, he announced he was dying and cancelled all future engagements so I’ll never have another chance.