Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

Editing comes in waves

Wave3

Editing comes in waves. There is the initial draft, which has errors large and small; typos aplenty mixed in with trailing plot-vines, character instability and shoddy dialogue. So the primary edit is, for me at least, a case of pruning out the missteps and giving the sickly plants a little more manure.

Then you enter your prize cactus into a competition and all its many flaws are coldly, cruelly exposed. You feel like an amateur; what you thought was a beautiful bloom is merely a canker. So it’s back to the hothouse for another round of editing.

This time you have to make wholesale changes. You have to uproot whole stems, repot, replant, replace. Isolate whole lines: trim and deadhead and mature before they can be reintegrated into the Shubbery of Gloriousness. Only then can you get to grips with the little things: the leaves must be buffed to a shine and here, perhaps, the metaphor collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness.

I’ve taken Oneiromancer for public scrutiny. To say it failed would be overstatement; I got respect for what I was trying to achieve. But it wasn’t where I want it to be. I want it to be perfect and it’s not. That’s fine. That’s why I got feedback.

Now I’m nearing the end of my (first) Big Edit. It’s been a nightmare of copy-and-pasting: whole sections ripped up, rewritten and reinserted elsewhere. Every such change has involved the surrounding scenes being altered to accommodate as previously dead characters come back to life, or need excising, or have new information. To my annoyance I’ve seen the word-count swell back towards the 140k mark; I’d been hoping to write a 110k novel. I can only hope the extra 30k ‘adds value,’ as they say. As someone says, at least.

So when this draft is finished I’m done, right? Oh, but that were the case. As soon as this is done – after a large drink or two – it’ll be time for another read-through. A copy-edit always needs to be followed by a line-edit. This is not only for the myriad fresh typos that I’ve doubtless introduced but to examine the aspects I’ve not been looking at here. Little things like voice, character and the actual words.

Wave

And then it’ll be back out into the wider world for more feedback. Hopefully I can still dredge up another beta-reader or two to plunge me back into the deep, shark-infested pool of editation. But after that comes the sell: to agents, to publishers, to hope and despair.

Editing comes in waves, as I said at the beginning. My experience with agents means that, even if I get to a place where I’m confident enough to approach them, I know that I’ll have at least one more tsunami of a rewrite. For now, though, it’s just a case of keeping my head above water. For the first time in eighteen months at sea I can see the shore.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming until you feel the glorious, sun-baked sand beneath your feet.

But, seriously

bad-comma

Woe unto the world. I have a new pet hate. A trend is arising within the bowels of the internet that I cannot abide. Every time I see it I want to spew my bile across the web, for there are some things up with which we will not put.

I’m speaking, of course, of inserting a comment after ‘But’ at the beginning of a sentence.

But, maybe any news is good news 

But apparently, it was more serious than we all thought even after Eifert had the surgery done

Yet, you don’t want a player who already has missed significant time to injury to blow his talent and opportunity

And a MegaDoom-article with multiple unforgivable errors:

So, the Bengals will probably see him start to slow down soon, though, he hasn’t shown that yet

But, he also used more baseball analogies to explain the Bengals’ need for more potency in the kick return game

But, he was the 13th ranked punt returner in the nation in 2015

Finally, here’s a Buzzfeed article with some slightly more amusing comma-fails

There are some of you out there who will be angry at the use of ‘but’ at the beginning of the sentence at all, but I’m sanguine about that. It’s the misuse of the comma that makes my blood boil. But (no comma) I’m coming across this error more and more as I trawl my way through blogs and news-sites. Maybe it’s an American thing – most of the culprits seem to be American, although that might just be where I’m looking – or maybe it’s simply a lack of editorial oversight. But (no comma) it must stop. Now.

I suppose I should admit to being a grammar pedant. Misused apostrophes irritate, sadden and amuse in almost equal measure. I just don’t understand the problem: the rules aren’t that hard to grasp, are they? But I’m used to them. Artistically speaking, miscomma-ing has far more impact and can jerk me out of a story in a heartbeat. Especially when a piece is supposed to have been professionally edited and a whole committee must have got together to make an incorrect decision.

Apostrophe

I ask you, Savers of Abingdon, what has this apostrophe ever done to you?

[Pedantry sidebar: it has never been ‘wrong’ to boldly split infinitives that no-one has split before. The ‘rule’ came from 19th century academics looking at Latin grammar and deciding that, since it was so superior to every other language, nothing that couldn’t be done in Latin could be done by anyone else ever.]

I try not to be too anal. I know that language changes and that usage evolves and develops. That’s part of the beauty of words. Similarly no-one came down and in a single act laid down punctuative laws; the system we use is a result of millennia of experimentation. If anyone’s interested I recommend Shady Characters by Keith Houston as an entertaining read.

And language and punctuation are still changing. Just a few decades ago no-one would have dared start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But.’ I use sentence fragments all the time. I am hardly a paragon of grammar knowledge, as can be judged from my score of 30% on a test aimed at 11-year-olds.

But (no comma) bad punctuation really grinds my gears. Punctuation, much more than words, is what writing is. Woebetide any novelist who dares approach me with a published work that doesn’t get this right.

And I’d literally erase literally unless we use literally literally.

The nasty scene

Mr Punch

I’m at The Nasty Scene.

I’ve been dreading this. The most controversial scene in my novel; never have I written something I’m so uncertain about. It’s grown to occupy a special place in my canon – a watershed, a step forwards in maturity, confidence and self-assertion. But also sadistic, according to one beta-reader, and a moment that more than one person said would make them stop reading any further.

So what’s a boy to do? I’ve already chopped and changed and dragged it from its original home – about a third of the way through the novel to just past the half. In doing so I’ve had to seriously rewrite adjacent scenes and – with great reluctance – sacrifice a scene I rather liked. I’m also engaged with making the nasty scene better in itself: tackling errors of point-of-view and language.

But is it fundamentally unsaveable? Surely it’s possible to rewrite it so the outcome, story-wise, is the same without the vicious extremes. Of course it is; just because it’s become an idée fixe doesn’t mean I can’t shift my paradigm and dig a way round the obstacle.

But I wrote the scene like this for a reason. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be upsetting, to be a moment of visceral horror. It’s meant to be nasty. A key moment in the plot (although, being truly honest to myself, right now it’s hard to remember quite why it’s so important). It happens because of Reasons and causes Consequences. That’s what plot’s all about, right?

Mr Punch Temple of Fame

I guess the question I’m asking is this: how far is too far?

I know the answer to this: you’ve gone too far when the scene you’ve written detracts from the novel as a whole; when it’s out-of-step, a lurch to the side, pornography-in-Beatrix-Potter-style unsettlement.

But this is not the only unpleasant scene in Oneiromancer. It’s not a children’s novel. It has death and blood and pain (and hope too; it’s not relentlessly grim, I promise) and to pull punches would be to write a different story. I can’t take out a scene just because it offends the sensibilities of a few.

It’s a question of balance. Unfortunately I don’t have the experience (yet) to know where my pivot is.

You can read a bit more about this here, if you’re in any way interested.