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.

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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.

Drop the Dead Entry.

When I talked about short-form writing last week, I failed to mention the My Two Sentences blog, where Edward Roads writes a complete story in that number of sentences. Most recently, it’s a timely argument around the Christmas dinner table.

Speaking of few words, it’s been another busy week and I haven’t had much time to think of an entry built around one theme, so let me give you a few.

On Friday, it was my office party. I always think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a ‘day job’. It started me thinking of a particularly brilliant piece of writing on this theme: the last episode in series two of Drop the Dead Donkey. The first half focuses on the party itself while the second deals with the aftermath the next morning. The episode is available on 4OD, and it quite rightly won Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin a BAFTA award.

Yesterday evening, I was listening to playwright Alan Bissett on Pulse 98.4, a community station broadcasting from East Renfrewshire. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, and he likes to put issues and controversies on the stage, so I half-expected the conversation to turn to politics straight away. It did, particularly regarding the question of Scottish independence.

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight, I’m seeing the classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen for the fourth time. This will be the black and white version, which satisfies my inner purist, although the artificially coloured version I saw is incredibly well done. You might not be aware how many films are based on short stories, as filmmakers can still extract almost as much as they can from a novel. Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are two such examples, and the source for Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a story of 4400 words.

Later in December, I’m off to see a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book since I was a child, so I’ve forgotten much of the plot and I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Someone asked me recently which authors I liked to read when I was younger, and I could only name him and Enid Blyton. With a little thought, I added Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I did used to read quite a bit, but from all over the place. My grandad used to take me to the library: I would pick books I liked the look of, and I can’t remember any of the authors’ names. I’ll report back if that changes.

How To Edit Like Jeffrey Archer.

Firstly, let’s move some issues out of the way. There are many people who don’t like Jeffrey Archer, either as a person or as a novelist. But he is a very popular author, with at least 250 million books sold worldwide, and his advice regarding editing is faultless.

He’s stated in the past that he likes to redraft his work up to 14 times, and he usually does so in longhand. I wondered what would happen if I subjected my own words to the Archer treatment. To do this, I needed a passage that had never been edited, and I found one in notes from an old writing class. I’ll label that passage Revision Zero. The prompt was a photograph of a baby in a sidecar.

I wanted that bike, that particular one, the shiny black Yamaha, with the sidecar. You rarely see sidecars these days, so there was only one place that could help me with that, but it was worth the trip. Six months ago, I was driving in the countryside and I had my son with me. As we were finally picking up speed, I swerved to avoid a pothole and the nearside wheel hit a deep ditch. We both went flying into a field and only missed the fence by a few inches. We were lucky we didn’t suffer bad injuries, but it was the first accident I’d had in thirty years of driving. So with this new bike, the identical one, I go up and down that road with him again as often as I can, being careful at that part. I’m trying my hardest to block it out. The more I do it, the more I drive that route, the more it never happened.

For each redraft, I copied out the passage from start to finish into my notebook (pictured), making corrections as I went along.

My handwritten drafts
My handwritten drafts

This was an unusual and quite time-consuming method for me, as I generally make only first drafts in the notepad then copy my work into a computer. Often I simply type the first draft. Let’s see how this passage has changed by Revision 3.

You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, so when I needed a new machine, only one place could help me out. I ordered a model as close as possible to my old one: a black two-litre Yamaha. 3 months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field, & we came away with a few injuries. The worst part was having the first blot on a 20-year record of safe driving. No matter how much I explain this to my wife, she won’t let my son near the new bike. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel along that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m travelling at the same speed but swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact statistically & mentally. If I make this journey safely another 99 times, it means I’ve only had an accident on 1% of them; 999 journeys & that decreases to 0.1% & so on. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking of the accident. The more I do this, the more it never happened.

Revision Zero was written in May, and all subsequent revisions were made in August, during which time I hadn’t thought about the piece.

Already there are improvements. I’ve expanded on his inner conflict between his want to be a perfect driver and the accident that overshadows this.

The introduction of his wife creates a second conflict, this time over whether his son is allowed to ride with him. That conflict isn’t explored quite so much, but its outcome is clear. Perhaps the character is too caught up in his inner conflict to care much about the external one? He might even be in denial about it, which seems consistent with his mindset.

Now let’s explore Revision 6.

You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, but I wanted exactly the same model as my wrecked one. Only one company could help me out, and even then, I had to make do with an approximate match. Three months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field. We were lucky to escape with few injuries, but the bike was a write-off. What hurts more was the stain on my clean 20-year driving record, which meant my wife wouldn’t let my son near the new machine. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m going exactly the same speed, but I swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact by statistically & mentally. When I make this journey 99 times, it means I’ll only have crashed on 1% of these trips. When I make 999, that reduces to 0.1%, & so forth. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking about the accident whatsoever. The more I do this, the more it never happened.

I was initially aiming for 14 revisions. By the time I reached that point, however, I began to feel I would be revising for its own sake when the point of the exercise was to make only necessary improvements.

I finished Revision 6 a few days ago. Plot-wise, it doesn’t differ terribly from Revision 3, but the sentence structures do. Looking at it today, I would only change the ampersands into proper words and make minor alterations to some of the sentences.

And that’s one of the key techniques for revision: leave it a few days. Many writers are keen to submit their work as soon as it’s rewritten, but it’s a good idea to leave it for a day or two and revisit it. Archer might revise his work 14 times, but not at one sitting.

The rewriting process will help to tighten up any first draft, and you’ll probably find errors you didn’t realise were there. A good way of checking the punctuation and grammar is to read the paragraphs in reverse order so you don’t follow the story. The very best way of picking up all kinds of mistakes is to ask someone else to read it. A professional proofreader is best, but even a friend’s insight can be invaluable, and less expensive.

After all, a publisher or an agent needs to be hooked from page 1, and if the first thing they notice is careless writing, that piece will go straight to the rejection pile. On the other hand, a little revision now might set you on the road to selling 250 million of your own books.