Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.

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When you simply don’t like it.

I recently visited the D’Arcy Thompson Museum at the University of Dundee, where a young girl was being shown around by her mother. The collection is full of animal specimens from Sir D’Arcy’s work, but this girl was having none of it, constantly saying, “This is boring, there’s no dinosaurs.” There have been a couple of occasions recently where I’ve felt like doing this myself.

A genuine extract from my notebook upon seeing Jeanette Winterson
A genuine extract from my notebook upon seeing Jeanette Winterson

One of them was at a talk by Jeanette Winterson to promote her latest novel The Gap of Time. The majority of the event was spent showing videos about Shakespeare and speaking about his life. It wasn’t obvious at first that she was referring to the structure of her book, but even when it became clear, it felt rather disjointed and rambling. Thankfully, once Winterson began answering questions, her own personality shone through; much more engaging than the showmanship that had gone before it.

I also recently began reading E M Forster’s A Room with a View, one of the ten Penguin Classics I have on my shelves. However, I was soon overcome by some confusion. Much of the first couple of chapters is about the two sisters, then other characters appear, but it isn’t clear where they’ve come from or where in Italy they’re currently located.

My puzzle is what to do if I don’t like an event or a book, or what should I have done.

In the case of Jeanette Winterson, I probably would have left the room if I hadn’t been seated in the middle of a row of about two dozen people. By the same token, I would have missed the excellent question session if I’d gone. As for the book, I’m still reading it because I’ve been gripped by the dialogue, but the appearance and disappearance of characters is rather jarring and I’m debating whether or not to abandon it.

So my question this week is: what would you have done if you were at an event you couldn’t take to, or reading a book that didn’t fully engage you?

Review of the week.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at book reviews. It’s markedly different from ordinary reading and from fiction writing, as you’ve to make notes as you go along. From these notes, you then have to identify themes and techniques, and explain why the author has or hasn’t delivered a successful product.

The first volume I reviewed was In the Catacombs by Chris McCabe, which appears on the website of Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA). I had some difficulty writing it, not only because this was one of my first pieces, but because I found the author’s research to be less focused than I would have expected. That point is reflected in the final piece.

One of the DURA editors then handed me Play with Me by Michael Pedersen, which I duly opined about. I found this one so much easier as I enjoyed his writing and the themes that emerged from it. It turned out after I’d submitted the review that the editor had given it to me purely for personal interest, but it was accepted anyway. I’ve heard the book publishers liked it as well.

Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee
Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There will also be a third review published in a few weeks, as each one goes through a rigorous edit. By that time, I’ll have returned to the MLitt Writing Study & Practice course at the University of Dundee. Part of your final mark depends upon carrying out a review of a live event, so this is prime practice. It also gives me an insight into how editors think and how to resolve any disputes that might arise.

A secondary benefit of writing reviews is exposure. The more publications in which you can place your name, the higher the chance that someone will have heard of you; like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m always pleased when this happens to me. Last week, I was recognised by an art student who had heard me at an event in May and enjoyed the two poems I read. I was especially pleased because I also enjoyed her Masters art installation so much.

That said, I forgot to ask DURA whether these reviews could be published under my pen name, as my real one is harder to spell, but I’m not bothered by it. It never hurt Peter Serafinowicz’s career.

Different Trains.

About four years ago, I started attending a creative writing group I’m still in today. The tutor gives a prompt and the job of the class members is to write a passage inspired by it. In one of the early sessions, we had a member who often wouldn’t write anything, but would instead describe what she would’ve written. I had a similar experience at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews on Saturday.

I’d been meaning to attend this for some time, and this year I finally bought a ticket for Clive Russell (Coronation Street, Game of Thrones). My plan was to arrive around midday and buy tickets for other shows on an ad hoc basis. I queued at the Byre Theatre box office for a show about Alexander Pushkin and Russians in Paris, to be told that the tickets were now available only at the venue door. When I reached the, they had just sold out.

I decided instead to have lunch quickly, then see a 12pm show by a artist and a poet who had written a Ladybird-style book about St Andrews. An enjoyable 40 minutes as they described the challenges of being in two different cities but having to collaborate, but only the audience members attended.

After tea and a scone with one of my classmates who was working at the event, I headed to Musings@MUSA, which encouraged visitors to use the objects on display as inspiration for their own poetry. The first exhibit I saw was marked Seal of Approval and that phrase stayed with me. The 17-line poem I wrote was definitely inspired by elements in the exhibition, but ended up not being about the place.

Finally, time for Clive Russell. I queued up at the auditorium to be told it was, “At the top of the building.” I wasn’t sure how she knew this from looking at my ticket, as there were no obvious markings, but I moved upstairs to the top entrance and took my seat. We were treated to a duet poem written by Rock McKenzie, then the experimental Veridian String Quartet performing Different Trains by Steve Reich.

I made some notes in advance of the main event. The photograph below shows some of these.

image

When the house lights came up and there was no Clive Russell, I was puzzled. The man beside me said that venues for these two events had been swapped around. I slowly worked out that the first ticket checker had meant a completely different venue, while the second one should have paid attention to the show name on my ticket and not let me in. However, I was indeed in the venue printed on the ticket.

To compound the matter, I’d offered to review the events for Dundee University Review of the Arts, or DURA. If I were writing for The Guardian or suchlike, or I’d’ve been sacked on the spot. Fortunately, DURA’s contributors are volunteers, so I explained the situation to the editor in question and it was no big deal. She even gave my classmate and me a lift home in the evening.

I still enjoyed the day, and I’m tempted to go back next year. I’ve learnt nothing is a waste of time if you can take from it a good anecdote or a free pen.

Dissecting Two E-rejection™ Slips.

If you’re a writer, feedback is a great thing, although less so if you’re a sound engineer. But the quality can vary considerably. Let’s consider two of my recent rejection slips, or the e-mail equivalent thereof. I think I’ll trademark the term e-rejection™.

We’ll endure the bad one first.

An anthology publisher sent me an e-rejection™ to my short story The Strange Case of Mr Brown, with the opinions of three readers.

Two of them commented that the story was bland, but neither of them offered up any specifics about why they thought so. With that information, I could have refined the weak parts. The third one pointed out that the eponymous Mr Brown had an eidetic memory, and that this case wasn’t strange, but I believe the reviewer missed the point that the, “case,” also referred to an unusual court hearing.

And now for something a lot better.

Some time ago, I sent a synopsis of my novel Fifty Million Nicker to an publisher. Less than two weeks later, they asked for the whole shebang.

In the e-rejection™, they told me that they felt the story didn’t take off and lacked a sense of drama or excitement. But they planted a useful nugget halfway through that summed up the areas for improvement: “You needed to surprise us with unexpected twists, and real obstacles, and genuine peril for the protagonist to overcome.”

Essentially, they were telling me to up my game, and I agreed with 90% of the criticism. I’d spent so long honing and polishing it that I’d never stepped back and considered if I could improve the actual story. And I’m now halfway through rewriting the some of the sections.

The common thread.

Both publishers commented that they liked my writing style, the latter even stated they would be happy to consider future work. When I write, I work to the principle that a sentence is only successful when you understand it after one reading. So it annoys me when I read a headache like this: “He knew that she wanted him to think that she had failed to call his bluff.” That’s not from a real book, thank goodness.

If you’re a publisher and want to slate consider the aforementioned works, I’m happy to send them on.

The End of The Beginning.

Ye gods! I knew I was living under a rock with LiveJournal, yet I didn’t realise the exact extent until other users started hitting the Like button. I’m unaccustomed to such a response, and I much appreciate it.

I chose WordPress over sites such as Blogger because I have a couple of friends here already. Even the range of basic features are bewildering; when I typed Like button in the previous paragraph, it gave me a Wikipedia link to the Like button page. After a little more kicking the tyres, I’m sure I’ll soon crawl into the 21st century.

Today I’m talking about endings. I recently read two short story anthologies by the same publisher: one from 2011, the other from this year. It struck me that a high number of the pieces in both of these did not have a proper ending, in fact the editor seemed to prefer this style. In some cases, the author would conclude with a limp or vague paragraph. In other cases, it would simply stop, leaving me checking for a missing page and in a couple of cases, asking, “And?” out loud.

It was disappointing rather than annoying because a lot of the stories in the anthology contained great ideas that were let down by their execution.

I try to give my stories a twist ending, or at least a clear marker the reader has reached the end. I don’t always manage, however. I recently received a rejection from a publisher looking for funny stories because, “… the ending lacked a good punch line.” To me, a rounded ending is important in a short story. Even if the reader is meant to be left in some doubt, there ought to be enough clues or information in the body of the story to narrow it down to two or three possible options about what might happen next.

One important exception, however, is autobiographical writing. I’m going to come back to this in more detail on Monday. For purely fictional writing, however, an ending is king.

Photo of mug with,
Not The Booker Prize, nor The Nine O’Clock News.

I was going to leave it until Monday to post about the Not the Booker Prize run by The Guardian, but the deadline is midnight on Sunday.

In my last entry, I mentioned my writing sensei Zöe Venditozzi. Her novel has been shortlisted, and I encourage you to click on the photo above and vote for it before the deadline of midnight on Sunday.

That’s not just because I know her, but because it’s a cracking character-driven piece from a début novelist, featuring alongside established authors Neil Gaiman and Kate Atkinson. It also happens to feature a chap with my very initials who happens to volunteer at hospital radio, just as I do.

To cast your nomination, you’ll need to create a Guardian account and write a short review in the comments. As the paper says, Comment is free, and so is your vote.