The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

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Cohesion

Having read last week’s entry, a friend gave me feedback that she felt it ended without a conclusion. I agreed with this analysis: the final paragraph had linked to a page on Reddit that was too loosely connected to what had gone before.

On writing a story, I know it’s finished when the characters are where I intended them to be. For a poem, I work more by experience; when I feel I’m dragging it out, I know to stop.

I find a blog entry is more difficult. I’m not often telling a story, nor conveying an emotion through poetic language. In those cases, I would leave the most exciting parts until nearer the end and perhaps introduce a twist.

On WordPress, I’m writing factually about writing, and some subjects don’t lend themselves well to a linear narrative or a logical progression of events.

I therefore asked my friend how she would rewrite the end of the blog entry in question. She’s worked as a reporter and an editor, so has much more experience in writing factually. She told me it’s a bad idea to introduce something new in the last paragraph, and suggested summing up what was said near the beginning,

I revisited the entry, removed the dodgy last paragraph and replaced it with one that refers back to the first paragraph. As a result, we agreed it’s more cohesive than the first version.

When It Sounds Terrible on Paper

I’m a member of the Poetizer app, where members can post their poetry for others to read. I use it only to post my own work and read what my comrades have written., but some people explicitly state in their profiles that they welcome feedback on their work,

One profile contains the following:

Currently working on changing every chapter of the Book Thief into separate found poems. I would love feedback and constructive criticism!!

My first reaction to this was No, please don’t, that’s a terrible idea, although I didn’t reply to the person.

Thinking about it, however, I realise I don’t know exactly how the poet intends to execute the project, and it might work well once it’s done. Look at the success of the 50 Shades of Grey series, which started out as Twilight fanfiction.

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called Sir Madam, featuring a character who identifies as neither female or male. I was already uncertain about whether I’d hit the right tone or conveyed the right message. Before its debut, I summarised it to a friend, who reinforced my doubts and added Check your privilege.

I performed the poem anyway at a showcase event. But I included an introduction by way of mitigation; this went on longer than the piece. I needn’t have worried; Sir Madam was rather well-received, and was the one that people remembered when they saw me next.

When a plot is reduced to nothing more than a summary, the nuances are lost and the emotion can be sucked out of it. We always hear stories about authors who had novels rejected multiple times, but it’s likely this was also a judgement on the synopsis, not just the sample chapters that agents often request

With this is mind, I plan to keep an eye on Poetizer, and find out how well – or badly – The Book Thief lends itself to poetry.

Captioning the Moment

By law, UK broadcasters must make sure that a minimum percentage of their output is subtitled. This week, I’ve been finding out how this is done.

Traditionally, a typist would be listering to the broadcast and entering the words using a stenography machine. These have a keyboard that accepts syllables rather than individual letters, and complete words would appear to viewers.

However, this method has been superseded by a technique called respeaking. Rather than a typist entering the words by hand, they listen to the audio and speak it into another microphone, where it’s converted into text by software.

So why not simply take the broadcast audio output and convert that directly into text? The computer would have to work out what is speech and to filter out any background noise such as applause, then it would need to be able to accommodate for different people’s accents and mannerisms. Lord Prescott, for instance, is notorious for not finishing his sentences.

Even today, a person can identify the correct content much more effectively than a machine, and can cope better with understanding one voice than thousands.

Respeaking also has two advantages over traditional stenography:

  1. It can take between two and five years of full-time training to use the keyboard at 200 words per minute. Respeakers can reach trainee standard after six months.
  2. The typist’s fingers are left free to make other adjustments, such as the position and colour of the text on the screen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to assist me in my own writing. While writing this entry, I opened too many browser tabs and other applications, leaving not enough memory to run the software. I could have rebooted the computer to free up space, but I instead typed it out by hand.

The Camper-Plan

As we head into the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided my project will be to revisit an old novel and turn the handwritten manuscript into a typed one.

My plan was to copy out the piece, making any amendments as I went along. But when I started writing, I found the rather bland factual descriptions were somehow morphing into something ten times as lively, with the narrator’s personal opinions peppered throughout. I’ve since written a few guidelines to help keep the voice consistent, and I’ll be introducing a counter-narrator for alternate chapters.

I don’t know why this particular leap occurred, because I haven’t revisited the manuscript since it was drafted. Perhaps it’s because I wrote it in chronological order – which is unusual in my practice, and indeed unusual among novelists in general. As such, I know how the characters develop by the end of the story.

One factor that’s helped in the past, as possibly with this piece, is the use of voice dictation software, specifically Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I initially installed this program to reduce Repetitive Strain Injury, but I now find it invaluable in other ways, since I have to speak my handwritten text out loud. This is great for highlighting individual words that slow down the narrative, and I find that some pieces have a different tone from what I intended.

During Camp, I’m aiming to edit for an average of one hour per day, although I’ve built in time to read my mailbox messages and to catch up with fellow writers in our online Cabin. A Cabin works a lot like Twitter, but is restricted to 20 people; writers can choose to be assigned to one at random, set up a private one with friends, or elect not to use one at all.

Personally, I’m finding their support invaluable, as I’ve only managed around 10% of my goal and we’re 30% through the month. There’s still time to catch up, but it will be a struggle.

Get Away

I’ve never been the type of writer who sets aside time every day, as I have a full-time job and other literary-related commitments.

However, the last seven days have been particularly productive for my poetry. I’ve written pieces inspired by such diverse sources as a convoluted train announcement and a Sorry You’re Leaving card.

The difference seems to be that I spent last week in Hove. This is on the south coast of England, more than eight hours away from Dundee by train. But once you’re there, it’s a pleasant walk into Brighton along the seafront, with plenty of tourist attractions along the way.

I must make it clear that this was a business trip, not a holiday. Yet after my shift finished at around 5:30pm, I had time spare with no washing to hang up or dishes to clear.

Unusually, I was put up in a hostel rather than a chain hotel because of where the office was located. I had a reasonably good experience there, but the bad reviews on TripAdvisor will probably inspire more poetry.

Despite the productivity I experienced, I’m still not of a mindset where I’d travel somewhere just for a holiday. I like to be somewhere for a purpose, else it feels like a waste of time.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to present workshops about National Novel Writing Month at a writing retreat called Chasing Time, run by three friends. They’re based in a large house in rural Angus.

Unfortunately, this particular workshop didn’t have enough subscribers to go ahead, but it would have suited me nicely to devote time to the other writers during the day, then work on my own project in the evenings. I’m pleased to report that their other workshops have all been successful.

The Secret Superpower

One of my favourite films is The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais. This is set in a parallel world where people can only tell the truth, so there’s no acting, no diplomacy and no religion. However, the main character unknowingly develops the ability to tell a lie. As a result, everyone else believes everything he says, no matter how outlandish.

It’s largely the opposite of Jim Carrey’s role in Liar, Liar, who develops the inability to tell a lie for 24 hours, making it difficult to continue his job as lawyer.

In both cases, there is a unique element about one person in the narrative universe that conflicts with the secondary characters who can’t understand what’s going on.

However, the concept needs to be done carefully so the audience can keep track of what’s going on. In The Invention of Lying, the rules of the world are explained as a voiceover at the very beginning. In Liar, Liar, the character is shown holding a blue pen while unsuccessfully trying to say it’s a different colour.

This type of secret superpower is one I’ve explored in my own novel-writing. Here, my main character can compel others to say something or to make a simple movement. He’s not the only one with the ability, but he belongs to a select band of people who do, still allowing that conflict with the rest of the world.