The Second Reading

On Thursday of last week, I went to the cinema to watch a National Theatre Live screening of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was disappointed to find it was a recording of the show I’d seen in 2015, particularly I’d specifically asked about this and was assured that it was a new live performance.

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...
Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of Sherlock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, I’d consciously chosen to see the play again. In this case, I felt I would understand the story a little better the second time around as there’s an additional barrier of decoding the Elizabethan English. Having an actor apply inflection and pace to the words helps enormously.

This is an unusual move for me, as I normally don’t revisit works I’ve already read or seen. Yet it happened recently, when I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It with some friends, then I was invited again by a different person. As I’d seen it so recently, I knew very much where the story was going, but there were elements I picked up the second time and not the first.

The last time I read a novel again must have been more than 10 years ago. It was Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. At the time, I was at the end of my first degree, so the theme of university life appealed to me enough to tackle it again, though I don’t recall gaining much extra from the second occasion.

The one circumstance where I do reread old work is when it’s my own. I use this as a yardstick to measure how much I’ve learnt in the intervening time.

I recently rediscovered a 200-word story I’d written in 2012 with the intention of adapting it for a competition. While the concept is sound, I can now see where my sentences are too flabby and where I might focus on different details. I could even trim the story to just 100 words without losing any of the sense.

Of course, I might read back over this entry in five years’ time and see the same problems.

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The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.

From Stage Fright to Stage Right

I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.

A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.

Think about your introduction.

Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:

  • Give your name
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Story is called On the River Tay
  • Taken from collection The Pie Seller
  • Published by Law Hill Books
  • Brought copies, happy to sign

Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The Pie Seller, and that’s published by Law Hill BooksI’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”

Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.

Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.

Before reading to someone, read to no-one.

The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?

If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.

Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece,  or reading out only a section to reduce it.

Practice your page turns.

Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.

To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.
To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.

Make sure everyone can hear you.

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.

If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.

Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.

I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look.

I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Sometimes the audience reacts wrongly.

I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.

If there’s a cock-up, keep going.

In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.

Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:

Signal that you’ve finished.

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.

Do it again.

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.

If You Like This, You’ll Love That

A couple of weeks ago, I received two copies of Is There a Book in You? by Alison Baverstock through the post. However, I have no memory or record of ordering them. They were professionally packaged in a grey polythene envelope with a printed address, but had no other identifying features.

Did you send me these books, or do you know who did? None of my friends have claimed responsibility, even the ones who are liable to such jolly japes.

There is one possible explanation. I’m a subscriber to Writing Magazine, and I ordered two extra copies of the September edition because it featured my release The Purple Spotlights EP. Perhaps whoever put the order through accidentally marked it as a new subscription and it triggered off a welcome gift. If it is, they’re not getting them back, because it’s a lovely surprise, and when I’m ready to edit my novel again, I’ll be sure to dip in.

This year alone, I’ve really enjoyed books I’ve been lent by friends. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was a prime example, and the similar The Girl with All the Gifts by M R Carey. I would group these two books thematically with the P D James classic The Children of Men, although I bought that one for myself and didn’t find it quite as entertaining as the other two.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Girl with All the Gifts has now been turned into a film, and I’m curious to see how well it’s been done. Ditto the Paula Hawkins novel The Girl on the Train.

Poetry-wise, it’s been a strong year of lending as well. I was given Tonguit by Harry Giles and What They Say About You by Eddie Gibbons. The former collection gave me lots to chew upon, especially in the poems Piercings and Your Strengths; the latter volume had me laughing right past the poems to the endnotes.

Word-of-mouth is always a strong marketing tool. The people who recommended all these books are good friends, and by extension, I trust what they recommend. By and large, this trust is well placed.

In fact, there has been only one recommended book where I didn’t enjoy it: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. The main character is Don Tillman, a professor with autism, and that’s shown extremely well through the narrative. However, he’s at the peak of his career with a packed schedule that’s timed to the minute, so I felt he lacked a strong motivation for wanting to find a partner. There was a time I would have persisted with a disappointing book, but I stopped reading at page 41.

That said, I’m a strong believer that people should make up their own minds about which books they like and don’t like. Plenty of people love the novel, but it’s not for me. By the way, that referral came from my boss, so you can’t tell anyone I’ve admitted all this.

Readjusting My Reading Ratio

Over the last few weeks, I’ve devoted a lot of time to writing my MLitt dissertation. I’m pleased to report I submitted it on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. Yet I’ve also found I’ve been reading more than I have for months.

The dissertation totalled more than 17,000 words, so rather than edit on a screen, I printed the full document for analysis. I like to leave some time between making one set of corrections and the next, and since I’d cleared my writing diary to work on the piece, I would read a book to fill the gap. This was especially true when I spent a couple of days in rural Aberfeldy with patchy Internet access. I tackled the following works:

  • Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Morning Breaks in the Elevator by Lemn Sissay
  • Tonguit by Harry Giles

I can recommend all these books. When I’m writing my blog posts, Zemanta generates a list of related articles, and it seems Barack Obama has also been reading The Girl on the Train.

Reading is, of course, a vital part of becoming a better writer, and as I begin the next on my list – Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse – I wonder about the optimum ratio of writing to reading that an author should achieve. Is 75% writing to 25% reading an ideal proportion? Perhaps half-and-half would be better? Could an argument be made for reading more than you write?

Let’s factor in other forms of storytelling. Yesternight, for instance, I watched In Time, set in a future where time has become currency. The film benefits from some terrific writing that shows most of the workings of the fictional universe through dialogue and camerawork without a narrator having to explain the rules. So could some of my reading time be devoted to looking at screenplays?

I know I haven’t answered these questions for myself; whenever I do something else, I feel as though I need to be productive. And yet without outside experiences and influences, a writer is at risk of covering the same topics from the same perspective time and again.

One of my aims on the MLitt course was to create a diverse portfolio of work. I succeeded, but in the creative part of the dissertation, this diversity caused difficulty in making the pieces flow by theme. Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream is in a diary format, and was a way of bringing together my different styles of work.

I’ve also spent much of August at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. One place I went was The Janice Forsyth Show, recorded as-live in front of an audience for later transmission on BBC Radio Scotland. While I was there, I realised it might be possible to adapt my dissertation piece for the stage, so I’ve acted on the impulse, and I have a meeting with a playwright tomorrow to discuss the possibilities.

If I hadn’t taken that time out of my writing to visit Edinburgh, I might still be questioning what to do next with the piece. And should I come up with a definitive answer about the optimum writing-to-reading ratio, you’ll be the first to know.

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.

 

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.