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.

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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.

Back Referencing.

Sometimes after posting an entry, I decide or realise I should have added some more information. To that end, I have addenda for two recent posts.

 

After putting together last week’s top tips for public speaking, I think I should slot an extra one after Think about your introduction.

Avoid too much alcohol and/or a heavy meal before speaking. Both of these slow down the thought process. I recognise the meal often comes before the entertainment so try to leave sufficient time for it to digest. Being drunk at an organised event rarely makes a good impression on the audience, and is inexcusable if you’re paid to perform. I often have one coffee before I speak, which speeds up the thought process.

 

A few entries ago, I also discussed how to set or avoid setting a story in a particular era. Yesterday, I finished the Anthony Burgess classic A Clockwork Orange, written in 1962 and set in a near-future society relative to that year.

To avoid the problem of including dated slang, Burgess opts instead to invent his own jargon partly based on Russian. It’s easy to see why he chose that language, as the Cold War was at its height then. Many of the words have to be inferred through their context, as most editions deliberately omit a glossary.

He does, however, also use English words in an uncommon manner. A couple of these words have made their way into modern slang and these passages read as though they’ve been written recently. A case in point is like, with which the main character Alex peppers his speech not only as a comparison but when he’s struggling to remember the words he means.

There is another example, but I’m not sure whether it’s intentional, when he describes a stereo, “playing a very sick electronic guitar veshch,” the last word meaning thing or stuff. There is only one instance of it in this context, and it sounds as though it has the modern slang meaning that’s used alongside wicked and cool. For the rest of the book, Alex only uses the word sick when he’s feeling physically ill, and the Wikipedia appendix doesn’t list it.

 

Finally, yesterday marked the birthdays of three very famous writers. Robert Burns is the most obvious – I read To a Mouse to an audience in honour – but Virginia Woolf also burned candles on 25 January, and one of my major influences John Cooper Clarke turned 66.

Anticipation, Oration, Ovation.

Thanks to electronic publishing and print-on-demand, there are more ways than ever to read fiction. It is, however, as important as it’s ever been for a writer to be able to stand in front of a crowd and read out his or her pieces.

A good live performance means engagement with your existing audience, a chance to have your name known by more people, and – if you’re published – to shift more copies of your work. I was performing on Thursday just gone, and I’m scheduled to take part in three more over the next fortnight.

To that end, I’ve put together some advice for speaking to an audience. These should be treated not as unbreakable rules, but as guiding principles to bring out a better performance.

Think about your introduction. At a minimum, people want to know your name and the title of the work you’ll be reading, but you’ll sometimes need to include other information. To make this part sound natural, I like to make brief notes which I’ll expand as I go along. The list below is totally fictional, but it might read:

  • Give name
  • Thank Tracey Jones
  • Piece is called On the River Tay
  • Taken from collection The Pie Seller
  • Brought copies, happy to sign

When it’s read out, it might go, “Good evening, my name’s Gavin Cameron. 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. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”

Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise. A good example is when you’re reading an unfinished piece of work. In December, I read out an unedited piece I’d written during National Novel Writing Month. I felt I needed to explain that what they were about to hear wasn’t as highly polished as they were accustomed to, but I was still willing to share with them as an example of what can be done in a month. Should you feel the need to apologise, it’s worth reconsidering whether you want to read out that particular piece.

Before reading to someone, read to no-one. Find a space where you’re on your own and hear how it sounds. Check the inflections you use in the piece, and whether there are any long sentences where you need to take an extra breath in the middle. If you’re reading a new piece, this is also a prime opportunity to make edits.

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, turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note on each page to help turn them more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, make sure you practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page, as there is a delay on some devices.

Keep your mouth where everyone can hear it. 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. Always speak loudly and more slowly than you would in normal conversation. If a microphone is available, keep it at the same distance from your mouth; I’ve seen too many readers wander around the stage and it sounds like a Norman Collier routine. Where possible, work with the sound engineer to set the level before the gig begins.

Sometimes the audience reacts in the wrong places. I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh in a place I’d expected; don’t point out it’s a joke or tell it again, just move on to the next part without comment. There might be occasions where they react, positively or negatively, in an unexpected place; in this case, pause until it dies down and move on without comment.

Signal that you’ve finished. Just lower your manuscript by your side and/or say, “Thank you.” The audience will take the hint and applaud.

Do it again. This guide doesn’t cover how to deal with nerves. There are many tricks you can use to overcome them: the classic advice to imagine everyone naked, or more unusual methods such as looking at people’s eyebrows to avoid eye contact. However, the only effective way of becoming a confident public speaker is by doing it again and again. It’s worth remembering that the audience sometimes is nervous on behalf of the speaker and most will be forgiving even if you make a mistake.

Speaking of which, even the best of us experience the occasional cock-up. In October, I was invited to a poetry reading at Dundee University and I attempted to read one of them from memory. I managed the second time, but here was the first attempt:

Between Two Stools.

I don’t think Rebecca Woodhead reads this blog, but in August’s Writing Magazine, she covers the subject of extroverts and introverts, as I did in a previous entry. But she takes it one step further, adding a middle category of ambivert.

My research shows this is not a horrendous neologism – in fact the term was invented in the 1920s – but I still hadn’t hitherto heard about this third way. It also turned up a wonderful WordPress post that goes into more depth about the subject than I will.

In the article, Woodhead argues that writers should aspire to be ambiverted and that few fall into the extrovert category. Yet in my experience, I’ve found that many already are extroverts; indeed I can think of a number who actively invite audience questions, or can’t wait to offer their views on a hot topic.

I can identify with the needs of an ambivert or introvert, as I’m quite fond of solitude. This is generally because I’m tackling a task that requires it, such as typing, editing, or reading – the very activities that make me a writer. But often, I’d much rather be reading my work out on stage, or answering audience questions, or negotiating with publishers.

Quite independently of the -vert spectrum, but not unrelated to it, I’ve been mulling over the notion of right- and left-brained people. It seems this theory is now outdated, as research shows that both halves of the brain generally work in tandem. Yet I still think my ‘dominant side’ has shifted at some point over the four years I’ve been writing fiction.

I have a BSc Music Technology degree because when I left school, I wanted to be in the music business or the radio industry. I used to delight in recording the perfect sound level, learning MIDI Commands, or editing video footage. In other words: what used to be termed left-brained activities. These days, I’m more inclined towards my fiction, speech-based radio stations and podcasts, and appreciating others’ artistic expressions. These were considered right-brained activities.
Perhaps I’ve always been at least partly right-brained but I hadn’t unlocked it until I discovered fiction. Alternatively, it’s maybe because I’ve had more success with writing, or at least more external validation, that I’m now subconsciously inclined towards chasing these rewards.

That external validation is a classic extrovert trait, and why I still place myself in that camp.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.