Scissors & Glue – top tips for writers

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Over the years I’ve been given some great advice on writing by people I’ve met, and I thought I’d share a few examples in case they might help you along the way too.

1: Easing off
received from David Garnett, writer and editor

I met Dave at the first SF convention I attended in 1997. We chatted, got on well, and he introduced me to a lot of people. It was a great weekend. He was at that time editing the New Worlds anthology, and invited me to send him something to consider. When the story came back a few months later it was one of those enthusiastic rejections which, while issuing a no thank you, encouraged me to keep at it. His feedback included the following piece of advice:

“Don’t try to cram in so much.”

I thought about the story and wondered where I’d crammed. By how much. And how not to. What to leave out of any creative endeavour – writing, music, choreography – to avoid “over-egging the pudding”, to quote one of my former editors, can be difficult to judge. I think I worked out what Dave meant eventually, but it’s a process unique to every piece of work, every paragraph, every sentence. I’ve still got that letter. It’s in a folder full of others just like it.

2: How they did it in the olden days
received from Christopher Priest, author

I’ve always written to people whose work I’ve admired and asked politely whether they might have any advice. These included Priest, after I’d read his novel The Prestige back in the mid-90s. Our correspondence developed, and he told me he did have some advice, but that I wouldn’t like it:

“Print it, delete the electronic file,
then re-key the whole thing.”

When people wrote longhand or with a typewriter, multiple copies could be created using carbon paper. Cutting and pasting was just that, using scissors and glue – a process that still has its place in creative writing today. And a re-draft was exactly that: type the whole thing out again, dude. But by the time this tip came my way we were firmly in the age of the word processor. Surely such antiquated techniques were redundant, weren’t they?

He was right: I didn’t like it. But when I gave the re-key a chance its benefits were immediately apparent. Bored typing a certain section or paragraph all over again? Then your reader will probably get bored too. And without doubt the weaknesses in any text are somehow more evident on the printed page than on screen, so re-keying from hard copy has benefits there. Whether you actually delete the electronic file is a matter of choice (I could never bring myself to go quite that far), but without doubt, taking the time to perform a real deal, old-school re-draft pays huge dividends.

And while you’re performing your satisfying re-key, implementing my final tip will make a world of difference.

3: You move your lips when you’re reading
received from unknown

I honestly can’t remember who gave me this nugget. It might have been John Meaney. Or I might have read it somewhere. But the most important thing is that I came across it somehow, because this one makes a huge difference:

“Read your text aloud.”

You may raise your eyebrows, but during speech the tongue will stumble over words that seem to work just fine when reading them silently in your head. Rhythm – or more to the point a lack thereof – makes itself known. Problematic syntax or repetition emerge from their hiding places between the words. Sentences that fall short. Or those that run too long and leave you feeling a little out of breath as you try to keep up with either the message or the mechanics of the content or sometimes both.

You’re sceptical right? Right. But give this one a go and I’m willing to bet a whole pound that the changes you make to address the problems that become apparent will make your text more readable.

So there you are. Three gems that just might help improve your writing in some way. Feel free to share any tips of your own.

Addendum – 9 July 2017
Come to think of it, here’s a tip of my own, gleaned through years of attending conventions and the like…

“Got a light, mate?”

Smoking is increasingly unpopular and unfashionable. I’ve never smoked, but lots of people do. With the ban on smoking indoors, smokers now huddle in groups outside hotels, pubs and restaurants, taking a moment. There’s camaraderie, formality is dropped, a joke and a lighter shared. But if you don’t smoke – what then?

Go anyway.

Maybe one of those smokers is an editor or agent you’d like to work with, or a writer you’ve read and admired. Away from the formality and panels, new-build relationships can be cemented beside that smouldering metal bin.

There’s one golden rule, though: no shop talk. None. Don’t mention that book or script, or that really brilliant idea for a TV show you’ve had. Certainly don’t offer a card. To take a leaf from William Gallagher, this isn’t networking – it’s notworking. For the smokers those fags are an escape from the hubbub and the pitching and the sell of whatever event you happen to be attending. Just join them to get some air, engage in some chat and get to know people a bit more. Don’t be a stalker – if you’ve been bending their ear all evening then be aware it might be you they’re trying to take a break from. But otherwise, next time you meet or email they might just put a face to the name, and five years down the line…? Well there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested in anything you’ve written, but you might have made a friend.

Martin
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Public Lending Right

Around 12 months ago I registered my Structure novels for PLR (Public Lending Right – the royalty writers receive as a result of their work being borrowed from libraries). Since then I’ve earned £6.97. I can’t help but wish I’d done this in 2004 when The Affinity Trap was first published, and then for the subsequent books, instead of registering them 10 years later. Naively, I thought someone would do this for me – someone at the publisher, or my agent at the time perhaps. In retrospect I should have known better.

This is one of those little things no one tells you but which can make a difference. So if you’re a writer with books in libraries, register them for PLR. Do it now. It only takes a few minutes.

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ADDENDUM: Apparently registering with ALCS is a good idea, too. I hadn’t even heard of this one!

FX: a blog in which I enthuse about BBC radio drama

I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s radio drama for a long time, but my enthusiasm has grown hugely in recent years. The output is diverse, and its quality outstanding. At the time of writing Radio 4 is broadcasting Dangerous Visions – a series of adaptations of classic science fiction works, including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man from Brian Sibley, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted by Jonathan Holloway, and a 15-minute piece by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Lauren Beukes1. Over the past few days I’ve also listened to several Afternoon Plays via the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as dramatisations of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Christopher Hampton, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by Mike Walker.

Radio 4’s Afternoon Play is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: unsurprisingly they’re often dramatic, but they can also be funny, unusual, and often moving. Sometimes the productions are straight-through dramas, such as Referee by Nick Perry, the story of corruption in the beautiful game, or Justin Hopper’s Dog Days – the poignant tale of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of independent greyhound racing. Others, such as Paul Cornell’s Something in the Water, use flashbacks or other interesting techniques to move the story along or give insight into character motivation and history.

One such play – the first to really make me sit up and think I want to write this stuff2 – is Déja Vu by French writer and actress Alexis Zegerman. Produced by the BBC in conjunction with the French Arté Radio, this play – which you can still listen to here! – uses some unusual, atmospheric sound effects and features a French linguaphone with issues. Pitched as a love story (although I’m not sure it is), Déja Vu also tackles issues of prejudice and race, and there’s a fascinating awkwardness between the lines of the characters’ relationship. I love the quirkiness in the way this play tells its story.

Linguaphone: My heart might explode. (whispers) All over this room.

“There’s nothing to spy except spiders”

I’ve become a particular fan of Katie Hims’ work. Hims’ plays often have an historical setting or connection. There’s a simplicity and disarming emotional connection that makes Hims’ plays immediately accessible and engaging. You know the people in her plays; very often you are the people in her plays.

Lost Property is a beautifully constructed 3-part story covering 70 years, interweaving lives and crossing continents as circumstances affecting evacuees in World War Two have a huge knock-on effect. Listening to the Dead: Four Sons is the story of baker’s wife Clara – a medium who finds herself unravelling as World War One looms: she knows her boys will go off to fight, and sees the fate that awaits them. Even the Prime Minister comes to hear of Clara’s “gift”.

Clara: I wish we had girls.
Narrator: But they didn’t. They didn’t have girls. They had four sons. A goalkeeper, a poet, a heartbreaker and a saint.

Not all Hims’ plays are tear-jerkers, though: Samson and Delilah features a matter-of-fact angel from oop north played by Sean Baker, who bursts into flames in order to return to heaven after informing Tracey – a hairdresser who’s desperate for a baby – that she’s finally going to have one – and all of the infant’s special requirements.

“She smelled of sulphur”

Productions in the Afternoon Play slot are also often humorous, such as Jeff Young’s The Exuberant, a story about rival meteorite hunters seeking a recent arrival. The HighLites: Wash and Blow series by Steve Chambers and Phil Nodding, recently broadcast in the 15-minute slot during Woman’s Hour, is set aboard a 5-day cruise around the fjords. The play takes place in one of the cabins, with the hum of the ship setting the scene, along with occasional announcements over the tannoy by the vessel’s captain, or references to various locations and events elsewhere on board. This really does, if you’ll excuse the pun, highlight (ahem) the importance of dialogue in this medium, with some wonderful wordplay throughout.

Bev: You need to face up to the harsh realities of life instead of burying your head in an ostrich, Nigel. It’s not too late to save your marriage.
Nigel: It’s over, Bev.
Bev: It’s not over ’til the fat baby sings.

“If the story changed, who would they be?”

For me as a writer and a genuine enthusiast of BBC radio drama, it’s exciting that the corporation actively seeks new talent3. Radio 4 recently broadcast 10 new plays under the heading of Original British Dramatists. The stand-out piece for me was The Cloistered Soul by Rachel Connor.

I connected with the The Cloistered Soul on many levels, but the space, gentle pace, acting performances and subtlety of production were all absolutely wonderful. As the story progressed I found myself thinking how has she done that? regarding Connor’s script, given the huge amount of space the dialogue enjoyed without slowing down the story. I’ve downloaded the script to read through when I listen again.

Dramas that delight and surprise

I can’t emphasise how much I love this stuff. The output is varied and challenging and often daring, giving opportunities for writers to really stretch themselves and tell stories in interesting ways. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s unique to us, and we’re very lucky to have material of this standard available. You can listen when you’re working, driving, walking the dog or ironing, or simply having a lazy morning in bed. Try a few of these plays out, and you might just find yourself converted.

I did.
Click here for a follow-up post.
Read my other audio drama posts here.


For consultancy on digital content strategy, writing or editing, please get in touch, or you can tweet me to say hi.

  1. “It’s pronounced like ‘mucus’ ”, she once told me. ↩︎
  2. I have a script on submission with a producer at this very moment. Will it be good enough? Only time will tell. ↩︎
  3. I use the word “talent” here to avoid a repetition of “writer”, rather than to imply that I might have any talent! ↩︎

Scrivener tip: editing auto-complete character list in scriptwriting mode

In scriptwriting mode, Scrivener automatically adds character names to the auto-complete list as you write. While this is for the most part convenient, it can prove to be a pain if you decide to change a character’s name, or accidentally type something formatted as Character & Dialogue instead of, for example, Technical Directions, as it will still be added to the list and appear in the options list every time.

If this happens, and you’re like me and want to keep things neat, you might feel the need to prune your auto-correct list. To do this, from the Menubar select Project/Auto-complete List, then in the pop-up window simply edit the list and click Save.

Bingo.


For consultancy on digital content strategy, writing or editing, please get in touch, or you can tweet me to say hi.