Restoration

I’ve had some computer problems over the weekend. Windows was running slowly and wouldn’t update, and I eventually had to perform a system restore.

Although this has caused lots of short-term chaos, it seems to be a good long-term solution; it already feels like a new machine. Unfortunately, this episode has taken up so much of my attention that I don’t have a full blog entry for you.

However, I did manage to catch up with some reading earlier in the week. I was on a train to Birmingham and back, a total of around 11 hours, so I’m halfway through the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Most authors write short stories of mayble a few thousand words long and that stand alone from each other. By contrast, this author’s short stories are more like novel extracts, while some would qualify as novellas. What’s more, almost all of them link into the same universe, known as the Cosmere.

I bought the book when I met Sanderson last year because there were no more copies of his latest novel left. I’m glad I started with this collection as it’s given me an excellent sample of his style, and now I look forward to tackling his novels when I have the chance.

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In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.

The Submissions Tracker

I’ve been falling behind on my submissions to publishers.

One of the most important steps a writer can take is to keep track of the submissions made. Below is an excerpt from my own tracker, a Google Documents sheet. You can click the image to make the text larger.

An excerpt from my submissions tracker

Publisher

When you routinely send pieces to publishers, you start to develop a gut feeling about those to avoid. One publisher seemed evasive about giving anything more than an e-mail address and a Skype number, while another promised a cash prize for the winner but stated that the piece wouldn’t be published unless they felt like it. If it feels dodgy, steer clear.

I now send my work almost exclusively to publishers rather than competitions, although I’ll make an exception on occasion. My main motivation is the cost of submission, which often seems disproportionately high, but I also tend to find them less well-organised than commercial publishers.

Submission guidelines

I can’t stress this enough: read the submission guidelines, then read them again, ideally out loud. The publisher will usually be specific about the type of work wanted, the word or line count, the format in which it should appear, the method by which it should be submitted, the deadline, plus any other relevant information such as a brief biography. Great story and poetry templates are available at William Shunn’s website.

Whether or not it’s requested, make an effort to find out the name of the editor or the person who’s taking submissions. Don’t worry if you name the wrong person; it shows you’ve at least done some research.

I’ve had experiences where submission guidelines for competitions have been unclear or even self-contradictory. If you’re in any doubt about them, don’t hesitate to ask the organisers. That signals to them that their explanation isn’t clear.

Deadline and Submission date

I know it sounds as though I’m insulting your intelligence, but don’t miss the deadline if you can possibly help it. The overwhelming majority of submissions are done online, and most publishers will accept entries up to 11:59pm on deadline day unless otherwise specified. For the few places that accept or insist upon postal entries, it’s worth checking whether the publisher wants your letter by the deadline, or whether the postmark date will be taken.

If your submission is late, there’s no harm in a phone call or an e-mail to the publisher regarding whether it’ll still be accepted.

Decision notified

We’d all love to be told instantly about the result. I once posted a piece on a Monday and received a rejection on the Friday morning, but that’s a rare experience. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of pieces, and you could be waiting up to six months for a response.

Always be aware that you might not receive any response at all. The New Yorker, for instance, advises contributors that owing to the volume of submissions, they should assume it’s a rejection if they haven’t heard within 90 days.

Title (s) entered

Very often, a publisher won’t allow a short story or poem to be under consideration by anyone else; that’s why it’s wise to have a number of other pieces to send elsewhere in the meantime. If you’re a novelist submitting to an agent, however, simultaneous submissions of the same book are acceptable.

I store each of my stories and poems in individual PC folders. Whenever I submit somewhere new, I always create a new file within the folder containing the latest revision and specifying where it’s been sent.

Entry method

Most submissions are done by e-mail and few are done by post, as explored earlier. Shorter pieces might be accepted by filling in a form on the publisher’s website. The Submittable  site is popular among some publishers. This not only accepts documents online but allows you to track the status of every submission.

Whichever online method is used, you’ll usually receive a receipt by e-mail. By post, place a stamped and self-addressed postcard in the envelope so the publisher can signal when it’s been received.

Overall submission count

Every year, I set myself a target of submitting 53 pieces to publishers; one a week on average, plus one for the extra day or two that comprises a year. It’s a generously low target, but my immediate mission is to catch up and keep pace.


Postscript

I normally try to stick to one theme per entry, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rappers Versus Poets event hosted by the BBC on Saturday night. I know a few of the poets, either personally or by sight, but I’ll leave you to watch it and find out whether they won or lost.

Back to My Roots

We’re on the last day of Camp NaNoWriMo, a spin-off project of National Novel Writing Month. Camp allows a writer to set an individual word goal and offers an alternative option to log hours of editing. I chose to edit the material I wrote during the April version of Camp.

By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I first started writing, I penned exclusively prose: short stories at writing classes and novels during NaNoWriMo. After about three years, I segued to poetry. For a long while now, I’ve wanted to return to writing short stories and other types of prose; whenever I’ve tried, I’ve been pulled back to poetry. But on looking at April’s material, I feel as though I’ve finally made a step in the right direction.

There’s one short story I like in particular. A Drink for Everyone is from the point of view of a woman who wants nothing more than to have enough money to get drunk, and the story sees her hit upon a way of achieving this aim. It’s sometimes the case that I like a story while I’m writing it, but not on rereading. In this case, I enjoyed the editing as much as the construction. At around 1500 words, it’s also a length that many publications will accept.

Other highlights of April’s material include a story about a group of people who live as though it’s 1999, a parody of an announcement at the end of the day’s TV broadcasting, and a response to a pastel drawing of a stacked shed that I’d forgotten I’d written.

A Drink for Everyone is only the first step to reintroducing prose into my regular output. Writing a story is different in many ways from writing a poem. Generally speaking, prose needs to have a plot or an inciting event, and the text might take no particular form other than the accepted rules of grammar. Poetry, by contrast, can muse upon a theme or a moment without necessarily having a narrative structure, though the words are often written to evoke a sound, a rhythm, or a cadence.

If I can climb into the prose mindset, and use the techniques I’ve learned since I last regularly wrote short stories, I believe I can find a balance between the two disciplines.

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.

 

The bare necessities.

One of the best ways to edit a story is simply to give it time, much as wine tastes better when it’s allowed to breathe. But there will be times when there’s not a minute to lose and you’ve got to produce something out of necessity, and sometimes that leads to some excellent work.

I was once given a homework exercise from a writing class that was a fragment of a poem. Nothing was immediately coming to mind and I wanted to complete the exercise as I’d paid for the class. After sitting in the library then writing and writing for an afternoon, I eventually produced a rather short piece called A Big Leap but one I was fairly pleased with.

TimeOut
TimeOut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time later, the tutor alerted me to a flash fiction competition just three hours before it was due to close. I collated what were my best flash pieces at the time, gave them a quick edit, then sent them in. A Big Leap became my first published piece.

I’ve done this a number of times with my work. A looming obligation or a lack of time has a way of forcing you down an unusual path, or to come up with ideas that are unconventional.

This happened most recently in November when I was asked to write an original piece for performance later that month. After a slow start, it ended up being based upon someone I knew many years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have used him if I’d had more time to think about it.

On another occasion, I was all set to read out a particular piece at Hotchpotch, when I was inspired to write another one by a topical event on the news. If I’d left it until the following month, the impetus would be lost, and that gave me just three or four days to concoct the new piece. I’ve subsequently edited it and it now stands alone without the audience needing to know the topical references, and it’s one of my favourites.

But necessity, however superior a result it might produce, isn’t always to a self-imposed goal. When Anthony Burgess found out he had an inoperable brain tumour, he wrote several novels to provide an income for his widow after his death.

An Abundance of Apples (Part 5 of 5).

For the five Mondays in June, I’ve been taking a break from my usual subject to make one of my stories available free online. We’re now up to the final part of An Abundance of Apples.

In part one and part two, we meet an orchard owner who starts to trade items in alphabetical order. In part three and part four, he keeps moving up the alphabet. Can he still reach Z?

West Hollywood Hotel

Naturally, a lot of my e-mails were coming from the US, and one in particular caught my attention: a four-night stay at the West Hollywood Hotel in return for the Beetle.

We spent evenings on the phone negotiating delivery of the car. We’d read up thoroughly on international deliveries since the Australia incident and we had arranged to pack it off, when by chance, Kelly spotted a news article.

A group of criminals had been passing themselves off as representing prestigious hotel chains and airlines, and they would take payment for stays and flights that never happened.

We’d been so swept up in trying to find a swap that we’d failed even to check their quoted phone number against the one listed on the real hotel’s website.

We felt like prize idiots. I made an online post to that effect.

My parents talked to me like I was five years old and told me this was a wake-up call, that I’d had a good run and I needed to stop now. Kelly had supported me unwaveringly so far, but even she started to express her doubts. I remained as determined as ever to see this through to Z.

Only Daniel didn’t care one way or the other. He’d forgotten his football obsession thanks to his new girlfriend, some little brat from his class.

While the flood of messages had slowed sharply, I still had a number of contacts willing to swap. I learned my lesson and no longer considered foreign offers but I found someone who wanted to swap my Volkswagen.

Wurlitzer Organ

We only played it for five minutes before the sound really started to grate.

Xylophone

Jeez, do you know how much a new xylophone costs?

I thought a few hundred at most, but even a second hand one can go for over a grand. I know this because the instrument dealer who inspected the Wurlitzer through thick glasses talked me through the entire history of the organ and current market values.

Yngling

“Yngling? That’s not even a word,” exclaimed Kelly. “Don’t you mean yacht?”

“It’s not a yacht,” snapped the outdoorsy type as he unstrapped the thing from the trailer. “a yacht is a completely different class of boat. This beauty competed in the Beijing Olympics, you know.”

“All right,” I concluded. “Leave it here. I’m sure we’ll get it swapped somehow.”

“You mean leave her here?”

I made a You & We post that night, asking if anyone could swap us for something beginning with Z. One more push, just one more, and I would have completed the alphabet. We waited a whole week for something suitable.

Zurich holiday

A local travel firm called Sea the World came to our rescue, offering a holiday for two to Zurich. We checked it out, and it was genuine enough. They wouldn’t take the Yngling off my hands, but their staff had been following my swaps, and I was prepared to treat it as one.

With no further swaps scheduled, only one question remained: who would use it? Daniel and his bratty other half threw a strop when they found out they weren’t getting it. Mum and Dad hadn’t taken a holiday for years, yet wouldn’t consider it. I asked Kelly but she’d used up her annual leave until after the voucher’s expiry date.

I turned to You & We. I wrote a summary of how this whole project had started with a few apples, then blackberries, then carrots, and so on, and now we were stuck at stalemate with our Z.

I received an urgent reply from the dealer who had tried to swap me for the iPhone. He told me to come down to his shop at the double, and he would, “complete the circle.”

He looked at the value of the voucher, ran some figures through a calculator and I arrived home with my final swap.

Apples

Last year, we ended up with too many apples. This year, we ended up with two Apple iPads.

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The usual angst and introspection returns next week.