The situation in the last post, where I felt I was being harragued and pestered while editing in a cafe, nearly happened in reverse yesterday. On a whim I’d leapt on a train to surprise visit my daughter at her prestigious place of work in Manchester. I was going to take her out to lunch but the office were to have a combo leaving party / congrats to each on a year’s work well done and Friday lunch, so we went for a Starbucks coffee break instead. It takes an hour to train travel from Chester to Manchester and an hour and a half return because I caught the slow-stop-at-every pokey village station. I didn’t mind because I’d taken Noel Lukeman’s The First Five Pages to read (thanks Al Guthrie, it was worth more than the money even though it took more than fifteen pages in for him to really get started) and I had some thinking to do on how much detail re: nomenclature at NASA Mission Control to use in Exit. Across the clickety-clack table from me a woman opened her briefcase. Out came at least 200 pages of an unbound manuscript, and a red pen. She was either an editor or the author. I reverse peered, and walked up and down the aisle to chase the man with the drinks trolley, just to get a better look at the document. I’m sure I saw the word Nelder. Damn! Surely not my book! Was this an aquisition editor from HarperCollins? I had to go walkies again, and this time caught the word vicarious. Ah, not mine then. I play a private joke based on my assertion that a novel can be deemed to be Literary as opposed to Commercial if it contains at least one of the three Vs. That is a mention each of the words vicarious, verisimilitude and vituperate. So, although I’d love to write a literary piece, I attempt to avoid those three, at least all on the same page! I remained intrigued and keen to make this writerly person’s aquaintance – after all, we must be of the same profession, or at least members of the same ocean liner even if she is on the Captain’s table and I’m lobbing coal in the boiler room. So I brandished my red pen, then realised I had brought no papers to edit, only my notepad. Nevertheless, I leant over and was about to speak, when she clearly had enough of my not-so-surreptitious noseying, gathered her chattels and left for a more solitary spot! Well, madam, if you read this, just think on that you could have engaged in banter with the next Kurt Vonnegut (RIP mate). I am an optimist or is that O I missed?
Archive for May, 2007
Although I belong to a couple of critique groups who feedback to me my grim writing errors, it would waste their time and energy if I didn’t carefully proofread the first draft before whizzing them off to my friends. I do an onscreen edit where my neighbours might wonder why I’m reading out loud. Funny to think I used to laugh at kids in my class at school who could only read where their finger pointed in a book, and out loud. Now I realise they were far in advance of me, and were proof reading their own creations! Reading out loud is a great way to find those typos, flow imbalances and grinding disturbances of resonance. Then I print hard copy to take with me to town. You can often find me in the Debenham’s cafe restaurant mid afternoon, surrounded by paper, wielding a red pen – sometimes with my Sony Vaio so as to make instant corrections or to take the story further. I’ve tried other cafes, but most in Chester are too small to be undisturbed. And I feel uncomfortable if I take up a table when the staff obviously want a quick turn around. I know Jon Courtenay Grimwood uses Cafe Nero to craft his masterpieces but I do that only rarely in the small versions in Chester.
It can backfire. Yesterday, I had 60 pages of double-spaced Exit, pursued by a Bee being readied to send to the BFSA Orbiters critique group. My red pen flashed as I found POV errors and damn it, a dangling participle – horrors! But then a chap sat next to me and said: Are you a teacher?
No. (True because I’m not any more)
Then why are you marking papers?
I’m editing, in between sips of Earl Grey.
Really? Is it a book?
Yes, or it might be, if I finish editing it.
Who’s it by – someone famous?
What’s it about?
Someone annoying gets murdered by a teaspoon in a cafe.
Hey, that’s original. I like murders. How can you kill someone with a spoon?
You grab hold of it like this and push it into your eye all the way.
Aarrggh. You’re sick.
He leaves for another table. I look around and several open-mouthed biddies stare. Oh well, I’d better go to Cafe Nero tomorrow.
I’ve now rewritten the first page or five of my Left Luggage sci fi book no less than x times, where 10<x<30 Maybe that’s normal for writers who have been told to ensure their first page WOWs the publisher or agents. What is gruelling are all those books in Waterstones that have decidedly unWOW first pages but slowly develop. However, I respect the advice and sent samples of my efforts to 6 people. They are a mix of readers of sci fi and writers, editors and publishers. I had six different opinions back. But when more than one point out similar ‘problems’ then I have to take notice. For example I’d unwisely written:
“Jena Kochi lay back on the mountainside fidgeting a shoulder blade away from a sharp stone. She savagely laughed at the stars. She knew most of the universe was dark, it had little choice in the matter.
“We had a choice. Why couldn’t the commander believe me three months ago,” she said, then realised Ryder had gone for another drink, so she yelled. “Here’s the wrinkle, it’s the survival of the weirdest now.”
I was told off for playing around with the intransitive verb, fidget. Shame cos I liked that phrase and I do love nouning verbs, verbalising nouns and other wordy mischiefs. I could also picture her savagely laughing, but it was blasted because it makes her sound OTT weird. Well, Jena is a feisty main character but maybe readers would be turned off if I portrayed her as too psychotic at this stage. I also liked the concept of the universe not having a choice in being dark – and the lead from there to the crew of the shuttle having a choice, but no one else did. Grrr. Writing is such damned hard work!
I’m going through a crisis. Not only are my short stories suffering rejects these last few weeks but so has my Left Luggage sci fi novel. Agents and publishers alike are lining up to say not for our list, or doesn’t tick all the boxes, too funny, too serious, main woman character is too feisty / not feisty enough, too much expostion in dialogue, not enough explanation… I am very good at seeking advice from editors and pubsisher friends, and critique group members. The trouble is I don’t always follow their advice although to be fair (to me for a change) the advice variation is in proportion to the number of helpers! What I am good at is tinkering too much instead especially with that all important first page. I so after another friend e-mailed me suggestions for changing that Left Luggage first page, I realised with open-mouth that I have errors (from over editing syndrome) on the version I have sent to the great agent John Jarrold – oh well. Now do I pester him with a third improved flavour? I think not -he’s either going to love the idea and most of my writing style in spite of hiccups or not.
Maybe I’ll transcribe the whole of Left Luggage to a film script and try to sell it in that format. Several folk, including Brad Linaweaver, said it would make a great movie. I’ll finish Exit, pursued by a Bee, and start on Xaghra’s Revenge first. Hey ho.
Three years is a long time for a school to change. I had to press a button at the main door to be allowed into the reception vestibule. After signing in and wearing a Visitor badge, I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted. I’d arrived early so I could have a nostalgic wander around the place that was my second home for nearly three decades. When I became the school’s computer teacher and only IT technician in 1991 I installed network cables and weather satellite dish cables all over the place. I am probably the only teacher (ex) who’s crawled and skipped over rafters in the attic and dodged mice in the basement. I bet there are space sat dishes and boxes of my cables lurking in that basement now. But I wasn’t allowed to sit and reminisce in classrooms I’d spent many happy hours teaching and gazing out of the window over fair Chester. Few teachers encouraged pupils to go to the windows, but I often did — to identify the cloud patterns streaming over the Clywd Hills. (often the enigmatic and flying saucer shaped Altocumulus Lenticularis clouds). I was held as a prisoner in that vestibule between two locked doors like in a foreign bank until a named teacher came and identifed me and took me in their care. I understand the need for security, fair enough, but damn it, I helped build that school – at least the wire bits, and the oft-repaired chair in my geography classroom! Eventually, a senior member of staff took pity and allowed me entry.
It was a strange but satisfying feeling to wander the corridors and visit friends who still teach there. Many changes have occured with the architecture and doors to empty classrooms were sadly locked, but I caught up with chats and in many ways laid to rest the feeling that perhaps I might have stayed as a teacher instead of a writer. I enjoyed teaching, the exuberance of the children is infectious. None more so than the group of the Writing Society I’d been invited to talk to there. They made me very welcome and listened patiently to my rambles on how I fell into the writing game and how they could learn from my mistakes. My 45 minutes turned into hours – I don’t wear a watch these days: after 30 years of being ruled by clocks and bells I’m happy to be without them. But the students continued asking intelligent questions and smiled at my witticisms. Thanks!
Also a big thanks to Lucy Henderson. Those students should know how lucky they are to have such an inspiring and knowledgeable teacher.
And so I returned my visitor badge to the prison warder, and ghosts put to rest, I left the old place with mixed feelings. Sure I will return, and be glad to: more Writing Society meetings and perhaps even for a night school and concert or three.
I’m giving an after-school talk today to a high school Writing Society. Great! It’s the school at which I spent 26 years teaching. Mostly happy memories lurk in those corridors and classrooms. I wonder if my teacher’s chair waits for me. I found it near the dustbins in 1978. I believe it was one of the originals from when the school was built in 1902. A classic schoolhouse wooden armchair. I repaired it 3 times in those 26 years. I should have asked if I could take it when I left teaching. Anyway, the Writing Society wants me to talk to them on how to get published. Hah! I could write the definitive guide on How NOT to get published. I enjoyed the prep for the talk – lots of re-reading, finding hooks in famous novel first lines, and the definitive how to guides as well as a reread of Stephen King’s insipirational On Writing. I asked for volunteers among them to send me samples of their writing. I received mostly streams-of-consciousness pages – oh well – nicely written. I will encourage them to explore words, forms and styles, but also refer to publishers and comp guidelines. I started writing as a kid and wish now that I knew about POV, show not tell, active voice, strong characters etc at that age. Hardly any of that is taught in schools in the UK or USA. Also to urge them to read and write in every spare minute — don’t have spare minutes. Read as a writer or you won’t find those hooks and wily techniques so easily. The sub-conscious is a rotten teacher.