Once you’ve written a piece, it’s a good idea to lay it aside for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. But what happens when the days and weeks turn into months and years?
In 2013, I was given a homework task from a writing class. I had to pen a story containing the words sleeping, falling, and alchemy. I struggled to write something, so I used a fallback technique of creating a diary form. The draft of the story was about an 18-year-old woman who had just started university and was assigned a nasty flatmate. I titled it F in Hell, the F being short for the antagonist’s name.
I redrafted the story a couple of times over the next two years, tightening the language and enhancing the plot points. But I didn’t do anything else with it, other than giving readings at a couple of events.
In 2016, I was desperate to write a creative piece for my MLitt Writing Practice & Study dissertation. The problem was that there was no unifying theme to my pieces because I’d wanted to expand my horizons, so they were difficult to bring together into a cohesive collection. I’d printed off some of my best short stories and poems to show my supervisors. One of them picked up on F in Hell and suggested expanding it.
The tactic worked. The diary structure was ideal for demonstrating my prose skills yet flexible enough to allow interpolation of my poetry. Furthermore, as the story is told in an impromptu first-person narrative, I didn’t necessarily have to iron out every inconsistency before the relatively tight deadline. The title was changed to Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream.
Almost overnight, a short story that had lain forgotten in my archive became the piece that helped me to clinch my Masters degree.
And the tale doesn’t stop there. In August of last year, I was in the audience for a BBC radio recording when I realised the piece would work well on stage. I spoke again to one of my tutors, a playwright himself, and learnt the basics of script formatting and practical considerations for the props and scenery.
From then until last week, I’d been converting Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream into a script, and making the plot much darker, before entering it into a competition. Even if I don’t win, I know I have a finished product ready to be sent elsewhere.
There are many professional writers who have left work aside for one reason or another and reaped the benefits.
In the 1960s, Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock for a film set entirely in a phone booth, but neither could find a compelling reason to keep the character there. When Cohen revisited the concept decades later, the world had changed: nearly everyone carried a mobile and had fears of terrorism on their minds. In 2002, with the idea well over 30 years old, Phone Booth finally opened in cinemas.
Sometimes the delay is beyond the control of the author. Jilly Cooper left a novel manuscript on a bus in around 1970. Disheartened, it took 14 years to begin again. In the intervening time, the plot and characters had time to mature, and her novel Riders was finally released in 1985. She considers it among her best work.
Moving away from writing, My Modern Met ran an article in April about the Draw This Again project, inviting artists to revisit and redraw their old pictures. Sometimes there’s a year between the two, sometimes there’s a decade. Be sure to click through to the Deviant Art page for many more examples, and see how each one has improved by being left aside for so long.
I think all writers have pieces that, for some reason, don’t have maximum impact or aren’t coming together in the way we want. In this entry, I have some suggestions for these pieces based on my own experience.
In 2013, I was given homework from a writing group to pen a story inspired by lines from a poem. As it wasn’t coming together, I spent the afternoon in the library writing until it made some sort of sense. I eventually created a flash fiction piece that became my first published story.
A couple of years later, I was working on a poem for performance at an upcoming gig. When it wouldn’t come out in a way I liked, I went for a walk in the cold. By the time I returned home, all the elements began to settle into a list poem. The finished product gained a positive reaction on its début, and has done on each reading since.
Which brings me to my most recent difficulty. This was another list poem, in response to a friend’s work, that wouldn’t flow no matter the order in which the lines were arranged. I ended up writing each line on a separate slip of paper and drawing them out of a bag like raffle tickets. That method helped to identify which lines felt out of place and could be removed, then the remaining fragments naturally joined together.
The most recent poem hasn’t been heard by an audience yet, as I think it needs to be left aside for a while. I’ll revisit the piece in the future with fresh eyes and decide whether I still like it as it stands. And time is one of the best ways to fix non-urgent work.
In 2014, I came home from the aftorementioned writing group having been unable to think of a story from the prompts given. I was so annoyed with myself that I typed up my frustrations in short sentences with plenty of negative space between the paragraphs, then closed the document. Thinking it would be embarrassing, as it was never intended to be seen by others, I didn’t reopen the file until earlier this year.
I was jolly surprised to find that it might actually work as a poem, and I’m also more inclined to figuratively bleed onto the page than I was two years ago. So it might yet be seen before an audience.
For the last month, you might know I’ve been taking part in National Novel Writing Month as well as leading the group. I’m pleased to report I passed the 50,000-word target on 29 November.
Because the project took up so much of my time, it now feels like there’s something I should be doing, except that there isn’t. The manuscript is tucked away in a drawer, and its dawning on me that I’m free to pursue other projects. At the moment, there’s a non-urgent opinion piece I want to write, plus an idea for another novel tangentially related to the one in the drawer. That, and it’s fun to use the word tangentially.
When you’re writing to a deadline, or even if you’re not, it’s sometimes necessary to write wherever and whenever you can. I was tackling my novel at break times and lunchtimes, and sometimes in front of the TV at night. But how difficult is it to find your optimum writing spot?
I’ve heard about a number of authors who have cleaned out their spare room, installed a desk, ensured they have no distractions, yet went back to an old favourite spot because the created one simply wasn’t conducive to writing. I once experimented with sitting right behind the front door. There was plenty of light, the noise level wasn’t excessive, and I knew nobody was going to barge in, but something about that place made me feel uncomfortable.
These days, I do the majority of my typing while standing with my back to my bedroom window, and my laptop or Freewrite on the end of the bed. When writing by hand, I can do that in a café, on a train, or during a dull literary event trying to look like I’m avidly taking notes. I find it difficult to be in a silent place, because even the noise of the pencil or a page turning sounds like a terrible racket.
By far, though, my favourite writing place of recent times was in the town of Aberfeldy overlooking the mountains. The piece in question was my dissertation rather than fiction or poetry, but I would consider going back there if I had another big project to tackle.
National Novel Writing Month ends this week, thus potentially freeing me up to make longer blog entries.
However, I woke up to the news yesterday morning that our main meeting venue – a Wetherspoon’s pub – closed permanently on Saturday night. As such, we’ll need to find a new place; this is a problem I’ve encountered before, and I’m sure it’ll work out for the best.
For the moment, I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote on the day that Donald Trump was elected. It’s called Hell’s Marksmen.
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 PieSeller, and that’s published by Law Hill Books. I’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.
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.
Sometimesthe 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:
Signalthat 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.
Exactly 39 years ago today, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched; its twin, Voyager 2, had a 16-day head start. Each craft was built to last five years and return data only about Jupiter and Saturn. But incredibly, both of them continue to send useful data back to Earth.
Similarly, our words as authors will likely hang around long after they were written.
Most of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in Bedford county jail; the author John Bunyan having been arrested for his beliefs during the Great Persecution. Although published in 1678, it’s still in print more than 330 years later, longer than anyone of the time could have imagined. The language has changed in this time, of course, but I find 17th-Century English quite accessible with the aid of a few footnotes. That’s if you have time to read the 108,000 words.
Yet there is never a guarantee of longevity. George W M Reynolds was a contemporary of Charles Dickens who outsold Dickens during his lifetime, but whose readership disappeared after his death. We simply don’t know why, or indeed why some authors capture the public’s imagination at all, or why some never do.
Probably the closest modern equivalent we have to either of these writers is Jeffrey Archer.
Like Bunyan, Jeffrey Archer wrote a lot of material while serving a four-year prison sentence for perjury. Like Reynolds, he sells a lot of books but is not generally regarded as a top author. My feeling is that the coin could land on either side for Archer: revered or forgotten.
In light of this, I used to wonder whether to make a particular story timeless, or set it in a definite year or decade. While a contemporary reference can make a piece seem dated, I also feel the reader will often take into account the era in which the story was written: the killer that’s caught by a fingerprint rather than a DNA sample, or the science-fiction prediction that’s now yesterday’s news.
On balance, I reckon it’s not worth worrying too much about whether or not a particular piece needs to be accessible to people of the future; after all, your audience is alive right now. If your words remain in print when you’re no longer around, that’s a bonus.
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.
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…
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.