Plans on my Hands

Having received my kit from the headquarters of National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been thinking about our group’s plans for when the contest starts in November. I also need to do some work on Hotchpotch, my open-mike for writers.

As such, I’ve had no time to write a full entry. However, we should be back next week with something to say.

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The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

Cohesion

Having read last week’s entry, a friend gave me feedback that she felt it ended without a conclusion. I agreed with this analysis: the final paragraph had linked to a page on Reddit that was too loosely connected to what had gone before.

On writing a story, I know it’s finished when the characters are where I intended them to be. For a poem, I work more by experience; when I feel I’m dragging it out, I know to stop.

I find a blog entry is more difficult. I’m not often telling a story, nor conveying an emotion through poetic language. In those cases, I would leave the most exciting parts until nearer the end and perhaps introduce a twist.

On WordPress, I’m writing factually about writing, and some subjects don’t lend themselves well to a linear narrative or a logical progression of events.

I therefore asked my friend how she would rewrite the end of the blog entry in question. She’s worked as a reporter and an editor, so has much more experience in writing factually. She told me it’s a bad idea to introduce something new in the last paragraph, and suggested summing up what was said near the beginning,

I revisited the entry, removed the dodgy last paragraph and replaced it with one that refers back to the first paragraph. As a result, we agreed it’s more cohesive than the first version.

The Camper-Plan

As we head into the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided my project will be to revisit an old novel and turn the handwritten manuscript into a typed one.

My plan was to copy out the piece, making any amendments as I went along. But when I started writing, I found the rather bland factual descriptions were somehow morphing into something ten times as lively, with the narrator’s personal opinions peppered throughout. I’ve since written a few guidelines to help keep the voice consistent, and I’ll be introducing a counter-narrator for alternate chapters.

I don’t know why this particular leap occurred, because I haven’t revisited the manuscript since it was drafted. Perhaps it’s because I wrote it in chronological order – which is unusual in my practice, and indeed unusual among novelists in general. As such, I know how the characters develop by the end of the story.

One factor that’s helped in the past, as possibly with this piece, is the use of voice dictation software, specifically Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I initially installed this program to reduce Repetitive Strain Injury, but I now find it invaluable in other ways, since I have to speak my handwritten text out loud. This is great for highlighting individual words that slow down the narrative, and I find that some pieces have a different tone from what I intended.

During Camp, I’m aiming to edit for an average of one hour per day, although I’ve built in time to read my mailbox messages and to catch up with fellow writers in our online Cabin. A Cabin works a lot like Twitter, but is restricted to 20 people; writers can choose to be assigned to one at random, set up a private one with friends, or elect not to use one at all.

Personally, I’m finding their support invaluable, as I’ve only managed around 10% of my goal and we’re 30% through the month. There’s still time to catch up, but it will be a struggle.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.