Revamp or move on?

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I’ve just gone through a little computer-filing tidy up, trying to get my stuff in order, especially writing things. I still have a stack of paper ideas to get into a notebook – I’m aiming to have all ideas either in one digital scrivener file, or in a notebook.

I’m astounded by how many words I have written and discarded.

I’m not talking about drafts which eventually led to something finished, either, but something started where I’ve sometimes written upwards of 50,000 words, and abandoned without finishing. There’s three half-written novels and over a dozen short stories. The ‘ideas fragments’ files includes many many more, which haven’t been really developed at all.

So the question I’m now left to ponder is what to do with all of that? I’ve signed up for an Arvon course in the summer which I’m excited about, but I also want to be meaningful – it’s a great opportunity, part funded by a teacher’s grant, and it’s both expensive (even with the grant) and a week of holiday time. So I want to come out of it with something useful. I was thinking about redrafting something that’s been in my head for a long time – the only problem is, I don’t know how to get it out. It’s one of the 50k monsters. I’ve changed viewpoint, voice, tone, location, time period. I can’t figure out quite who this elusive character IS that I have in my mind, other than she seems to fit into everything, and nothing, all at the same time. She pops in and out of my head, but never brings her story with her. I quite dislike the airy-fairy idea of characters really existing – I’ve never really found that idea sits right with me, but at the same time she really does seem to be hiding from me.
I have a few ideas what to do with her – but nothing concrete. And while I don’t, I’m wary of starting yet another version of her story and ending up with thousands of words to discard with all the others.

Do I keep thinking about her, and trying to figure out where she comes from? Or do I move on, either to something brand new or another story that I have but have not finished? I don’t know. I do know that I’m ready to write, and I feel like I’m stumbling over her pushing herself into my brain.

Kindle publishing – the new slush pile?

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I’ve become a bit of a Womans Hour listener while on my summer holiday, and quite enjoy the mix of discussion that they have – plus I find Jenni Murray’s voice very soothing!!

I listened to one programme in particular, hosted actually by Kate Mosse whose books I love and which I found fascinating, about publishing. The programme’s described thus:

Author Kate Mosse interviews Woman’s Hour Power Lister Ursula Mackensie on her role as Chief Executive of Little, Brown and Lennie Goodings, Publisher at Virago. Are fewer women reaching the top in publishing in the digital age? Former publisher, now agent, Clare Alexander; author and chair of the Society of Authors Anne Sebba and Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller join Kate to discuss. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and journalist and reviewer Alex Clark debate why books by men, reviewed by men, dominate the pages of newspapers and journals.

I might talk about the male-skewed statistics another day, but for the moment this tallied with a particularly harsh article I read here (thanks to The Parasite Guy for directing me to this interesting topic!). The article suggests that all indie authors are all terrible (they use stronger language than that) who can’t write, want a quick buck and think the world owes them a living. In the programme, Mosse asks whether the indie publishing so prevalent on Amazon in particular is ‘the slush pile in which we all started’. The R4 programme is pretty balanced, really – the participants agree that there is some rubbish out there, but they are surprisingly (to me) positive about the indie publishing experience and that it can be a very positive thing for authors.

I’ve just published a novella on Kindle – Balancing Act – and several short stories before that, and I think that self-publishing this way can be a very useful thing for a new author to do. It encourages you to write better – to thoroughly edit, to make sure that you’re telling the best story that you can so that people want to buy it. The power of having an audience – any audience – is an enormous confidence boost; for anyone suffering low self-esteem or the chronic fear of ‘is this good enough?’ it is brilliant to realise that people you don’t know are buying something that you wrote!

Building the habit of finishing

It can be a training ground. I wouldn’t suggest anyone published something that they thought was terrible, but I would suggest that people who want to write publish. Whether you send it to magazines for consideration or whether you e-publish, writers need the habit of finishing work to the best of their ability and putting it out there for other people instead of just leaving it on your hard drive. At the end of every project, you should feel that you have done something worthwhile. I also often feel that if I was going to start this project again, I could do better – but that’s where moving on to the next project is incredibly important, because otherwise you run the risk of starting and restarting, and never truly finishing anything.

There’s a lot of argument to be had about it, but I think it comes down to some key ideas:

Are indie authors all simply rubbish writers who can’t get a ‘proper’ publishing contract?

No. Of course not. There are some great indie authors who write powerful, interesting work that for one reason or another aren’t with a traditional publisher. Conversely, there are some terrible ones as well. That’s inevitable in any platform which is open access. But there are some traditional authors who aren’t that good as well – they might have fixed the typos but it might still be a bad book, or even just simply not to your taste.

So how does a reader find a good book?

In exactly the same way as with traditional publishing! You listen to who your friends are reading, you read reviews (magazines, newspapers, online) and see what other people think. You browse the top 100, whether of fiction in general or in a category that you particularly like, you look at the ‘people also bought’ at the bottom of the Amazon page.

Once you’re on an item’s page, Amazon is great for weeding out books you’re not interested in – in just the same way as you can browse in a bookshop, you can read the blurb, look at the cover and read the first few pages to see what you think. If the blurb sounds like a rough translation or is badly misspelled, or the formatting of the first few pages looks terrible, then don’t buy the book! But if you like the look of it, the first pages get your attention and you want to read more – well, then why would it matter if an editor likes it, as long as you do?

The programme is available here.

The last 10%

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I don’t remember where I first heard that the last 10% of any project is the hardest, but I have absolutely come to believe it is the most important.

The first 90% of a project might feel difficult, but that’s the creation section. It’s when you sit down to write and edit your story, it’s when you develop an iOS game, it’s when you build a piece of furniture, it’s when you write the draft of your essay or learn how to play a piece of music. Get the 90% right and you’ll have done a decent job.

The last 10% is making those things fly. Think about playing a piece of music. For ages, depending on skill level and the complexity of the music, you’re learning how to play it. You’re practicing notes, phrases, maybe even a few whole lines, and then you start playing it all the way through competently. You don’t hit any bum notes, you’re playing at about the right tempo/pace and volume. In short, you’re playing the piece and pretty well too. It’s so easy to stop there and call that the accomplishment. Or, you could keep practicing. You vary the tone of the piece, play around with the tempo/volume and bring your own style to it. You develop muscle memory on the tricky passages so that you don’t have to think about the technicalities of it, you can focus on the artistry and how to create that magical moment of audience silence as your last note dies away, the seconds when they’re too stunned to applaud.

Everyone’s stopped before they could have – whether because we’re time-limited, bored, or happy with ‘good enough’. That’s the 90%. It’s good enough, it’s competent, it’ll get done whatever you need doing. But unless you’ve put in the last 10% it’s not likely to have that zing, or flair, or excitement that something genuinely accomplished, polished and finished will have.

Writing my novella has reached its last 10%. It was written and redrafted, so I was done, right?

No. 90% was done – it was good enough, I could have slapped it on Amazon and been done with it. But I want this to be as great in its polish as I think it is in its story, so it needs that extra 10%. It needed the beginnings and endings of chapters tightening to make them as page turning as possible, it needed the first few pages revised because they weren’t as great as what came later, it needed a scene rewriting in a different location so we could hear from another character whose voice is important. It needed proof-reading for typos and odd word clashes or repetition, and my propensity to over-use semi-colons. But for all this, the fundamentals of the story – the 90% – remains unchanged. And then there’s the formatting to provide a good reading experience, making sure the fonts and chapter heading images work well on the device, getting a cover that does it justice and makes people want to buy it, writing a blurb powerful enough that people are inspired to click on the cover and read the first pages. I need to market it, because I need to get them to that page to read the blurb and see the cover, and click on them to read the sample. It’s like the novelist’s version of the house that Jack built, and it starts with ‘hey, have you heard of this?’

So the last 10% takes a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it, because I really believe that this is the best thing that I’ve written yet.

The Semi-Colon

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ImageI was reading James Scott Bell’s Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level on my holiday (excellent – the only sunny week of the summer and we were in Kent!) and came across these comments:

“Do not use semi-colons. They are tranvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“For non-fiction, essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writing you’re often stringing lots of thoughts together for a larger purpose and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move. But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions and wonder where the heck you’e going. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?”

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth (James Scott Bell)

They struck me as strange. I understand Bell’s point to some extent – the semi-colon is an invitation to pause. I teach it to students as being a connection between two related sentences; a sort of glue that indicates to the reader to pause a moment and then have some linked point or explanation given to them. And I have to teach it because it’s a key piece of punctuation and it’s specifically mentioned on the GCSE English Language syllabus – students get marks for using it, and colons, effectively. So they have to use it. Why the semi-colon in particular, I’m not sure – and not sure that it should be required so specifically rather than the vaguer ‘accurate and imaginative use of ambitious punctuation’ which would require a bit more ingenuity, and a bit more inventiveness to use. Like Michael Rosen says – Semi-colons, semi-colonists, anti-semi-colonists – you can quite happily get by in life without it, but there’s no reasons to either elevate it or reject it entirely.

But the idea that you shouldn’t use it because it invites a pause made me, well, pause! I guess the point really is that you should use it when it’s needed or adds to the tone you want to get across. It’s not, as Vonnegut (above) and an Independent article suggested, a way to show yourself to be educated:

In English, there are not such tightly formed rules about the use of punctuation as there are in most European languages. A writer who uses the semi-colon well and expressively singles himself out as a skilful and accomplished craftsman.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be, GCSE exams aside. A semi-colon adds colour, adds information and detail. Sure, you can write these as simple, separate sentences. But that doesn’t automatically speed up the writing. Short sentences can speed or slow as you wish, depending on the words you’ve chosen to include. A series of short sentences with sibilance (a repeated ‘s’ sound) would likely sound faster than one with an alliterative ‘pr’ – the former is easier to say, and because it lacks the percussive nature of the ‘pr’ would feel quicker. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. When you want a lengthy, languid description, a semi-colon here and there would be useful:

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” Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
Charles Dickens (1852-53)

Dickens has a real variety – the short sentence ‘fog everywhere’ could be enough in a thriller or action novel. But here, we want the description so that you really feel what it’s like to be inside that fog – and so he explores it further. If there weren’t semi-colons, you’d likely end up with something far more separated – it wouldn’t have that rolling quality that echoes the very movement of the fog itself. Of course, that’s a completely different tone to that which Bell is going for.

Looking online, the first use of a semi-colon in printing seems to have been around 1494, according to Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. More recently, news articles are questioning whether the use of emoticons has killed the semi-colon. It seems to be something which riles people up – prescriptivists arguing that you should keep the semi-colon as being twice the pause of a comma, and those who say it should be banned entirely because it’s useless and people can’t use it well.

Oatmeal comic on how to use a semi-colon

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First steps into e-publishing

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In September, I took the (scary!) step of entering my name for the Ilkley Literature Festival open mike competition that ends the festival. October, then, found me reading a short story in front of around 40 people. It was an experience that had me literally shaking – despite standing on my feet all day talking in front of people, nothing scares me like seeing people read my own creative work…except reading it to them. Despite my nerves, however, I was pleased to be Highly Commended by the judges – who said that it as brave to atempt a short story in three minutes!

So, the next phase of my attempt to turn this writing love into something more than a private hobby is to experiment with the world of e-publishing.

There’s a few reasons I’ve decided to give this a go. I have several short stories on my hard-drive that I feel are well-written and powerful. I could try to submit them to a series of competitions or to a publisher as a collection. Short story collections are, though, difficult to place and sell when you don’t have a track record of novels behind you. Competitions are often more focused and I do intend to do something more with that – but what about those stories that are entered and don’t win? It doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t valuable or worthwhile – although it can mean that! – it means they didn’t suit what the judges wanted on that occasion. I also think that e-publishing’s an exciting avenue to try and experimenting with it via short stories will be an interesting thing to do – and part of what I want to do with this is to try new things, new ways of writing and having people read what I write.

So, my next post will be a detailed look at how I’ve gone about exploring this!