HACKING AWAY

I’ve just spent ages editing down a short story from 11,800 words to under 10,000 to fit a magazine’s submission requirement. No offence to the magazine but I hate that. Not their requirement for a top limit to a word count. After all they have to make things fit and they (presumably) know their readers’ preferences and attention span. As so often, it’s not them, it’s me.

What I hate is having to do the cutting, not the reason for having to do it. I mean, I wrote a story which I think fits the length I wrote it at, if that isn’t too weird a concept. I didn’t stick lots of filler in there to pad it out like an essay for school. I wrote it in a style with the balance of dialogue and narrative that I thought it required with the sub plots and characterisation and descriptions I thought necessary to make the tale work. For me and the reader. But I know other opinions are valid and editors have constraints.

I tend to edit and amend as I write anyway. I know I have whined about multiple edits and rewrites before – the 10th rewrite might be getting somewhere is one recommendation I remember reading in one of those ‘how to…write/get published’ self improvement things. If there is any enthusiasm or joy or original thought or descriptive talent or conversational brightness left in something after that many or more revisions I’d be amazed. So not a great fan of revisions and recurrent editing. I know it improves work up to a point and needs to be done, but in this case the 11k+ version had been pretty heavily revised to start with so going through and chopping felt like a real grind. I worried it altered the balance of foreshadowing of the central trouble and I worried the ending might be too obscure, although I didn’t want to be too obvious for the reader. Then things that had been cut had to have references later on removed and the cracks papered over. Scenes didn’t make much sense if the balance had been changed when a sentence hinting at something to come had been cut because it felt superfluous.

However at the end of it I felt a sense of achievement. And when I sat and read it as a story again, without the need to look for words and sentences and paragraphs and concepts that weren’t vital to the movement of the story so I could expunge them: I still preferred the original! But as the original wouldn’t have got a look in as it didn’t fit the requirement, I suppose I have to say the new one was better. It kept the same story, probably tightened up some dialogue and kept the pace sharper. And it hit the word limit target. And when I have read books where the author has become so famous as to add excised material back in, or where directors have extended films by half an hour, I can see the virtue of sticking to a time limit or word count.

So hacking careful editing done, it is sent and we’ll see.

What happened?

Train wreck

Photo via VisualHunt

Well September was going well wasn’t it? And then October arrived and I must have offended that particular month.

It wasn’t too bad to start with really, except I was distracted from writing for the site. An idea got lobbed to me by one of the writers in the group I attend and I had a story in one go. It pretty much wrote itself in very short order. I have just finished a fifth rewrite. I hate rewrites. The trouble is that as it sits at present it is just over 8,000 words long which is almost completely unsellable. Too long for short story outlets and not long enough for a stand alone novelette/novella. It might do as an idea for a longer piece, although I like the pace and don’t think the basic idea will carry much more superstructure. On the other hand I am not sure I can chop sufficient out to hit a modern short story length without making it totally incomprehensible.

But that only took a short part of the month at the beginning and a couple of days recently.

So what else happened?

Well I had a lovely week in Northern Ireland with family for a wedding. Although I had a laptop with me, I didn’t write anything. Lots of ideas from the visit and I am making notes like mad while I remember the ideas, but nothing in a finished state for here.

On a less positive note I was in the gym, on a static bicycle, not doing anything particularly excessive and right at the end of my half hour, before I had chance to get near any weights, I felt my heart go blip into Atrial Fibrilation again.

A couple of days in hospital getting it down below 100 beats per minute and five days in total before it flipped back into normal rhythm. At the moment I am waiting a call for electro-cardioversion (which I no longer need but I will have to have the ecg trace to prove it). That teed me off a little as you may imagine, so what with going off at tangents and wondering if my heart was going to gallop off into the sunset (c170 beats per minute for no good reason at one stage) I have neglected this site. Sorry!

With any luck, now I have got my Mayan story out of the way and my heart isn’t racing around my chest cavity I can get back to Pendragon and the rest.

Fingers crossed!

 

GASLIGHT

This is the piece I mentioned the other day, as published. Interested if anyone has thoughts about the end.

GASLIGHT2

Simon hadn’t told his mum the whole story earlier in the week when he asked if he could stay on Friday.   Mum didn’t usually like him staying out late in winter. She said it was too dark to be lingering on the way home and eleven year olds shouldn’t be out wandering the streets at night. Just this once however, as it was a cultural event, she had agreed to let him go to the school film club.

He hadn’t lied. He had gone to the film club, but he had been a bit vague about the film that was showing. Art house production or not, she didn’t approve of horror films and would have said ‘no’ had she known. Simon wasn’t that keen on them himself if he were being honest and he had only asked because Steve had said it would be really cool to go when they wouldn’t be allowed to see it in a cinema for years yet.

The film had been worth the small subterfuge, it was much better even than Steve’s hyped billing in fact. A little too good for their tastes as it turned out, and so nerve jangling that Steve and Simon had felt the need to look away from the screen for long stretches. Both boys had been glad when the end credits rolled.

The night was very dark after the lighted precincts of the school. That had been part of the appeal in the planning of course, but in the reality of the film’s aftermath the thrill palled.

Both boys lived on the edge of town, only a few hundred yards apart, but their routes home from school lay along different roads.  Simon lived up behind the church at Walley Heys and Steve’s house was at the back of the Old Hall up on Hambleys Rise. Each had two miles to walk alone in the dark, a boring commonplace trudge on normal school nights. Now, with the memory of what they had just seen lurking in every shadow, those miles were a marathon of fear.

There was an alternative. Sometimes after school they would walk together to one of their houses and the remaining boy would then walk the short distance home alone. They took turn about being the one to walk past the Old Hall and the squalor of Bailey’s farm, but tonight, being a one off sprint of terror, they tossed a coin.

Simon lost.

Together they walked to Steve’s house, talking over loudly and being as macho as eleven year olds could. Anything to occupy their minds and stop the furtive glances at the shadows gathering as town turned to country. Their laughter became a little more brittle as they left the main road and turned off past the brick pond with its inky depths and soughing, leaf shrouded banks. They reached the driveway of Steve’s family home. Simon started one last conversation to delay the inevitable. The few hundred yards between the houses had seemed trivial outside school. Here the night seemed to swallow the road ahead in its hungry maw.

Steve trotted down the drive and Simon dragged his feet to the end of Steve’s road. Here his way led left, down the lane past the Old Hall, long deserted, and Bailey’s farm. No cars could get past the farm, the gate there remaining locked at all times. Pedestrians had a right of way through to the canal bridge and what had been the village beyond. If the brick pond and its surroundings had been gloomy, the grounds of the Old Hall and the fields around Bailey’s Farm were stygian.

The gaslights on the lane were a relic of the highpoint of the town’s nineteenth century expansion. They were supposed to have been replaced by electric lights the year before, during the summer of 1966, but council money was tight and they had received yet another year’s reprieve. Each lamp cast the feeblest of yellow glows, and Simon ran from one illuminated circle to the next, loitering in each as long as he could before darting to the next oasis of light. As he ran, shadows and flickering reflections wakened memories and ghosts of long gone splendours in the windows of the neglected Hall. Above him, the arching boughs of trees lining the lane scraped and screeched against each other where they met overhead. At last he was past the Hall and to his left front, across the canal, the lights of his own lane twinkled and beckoned. All he had to do was pass the farm, slide through the gap at the side of the gate, cross the canal bridge, and he was back on tarmac with electric street lights and the houses of living people. The things from the film that hung close on his heels and in the hedges and fields, and in each patch of darkness between the lamps could not follow there. He would be home.

Simon made a vow.

He would tell his Mum and Dad he didn’t want to go to film club again. He would do his homework before Sunday night, and he would help with the washing up and the gardening and wash the car, he promised in his head. Just as long as he got across the bridge in one piece. Fingers ran down his spine. Sweat from running between lampposts he told himself, but the hairs on his neck belied his thoughts.

He rounded the last bend before the farm. At the farm entrance he could see the gate and the pedestrian access at its side leading to the canal bridge and safety. Another gas lamp grew out of the grass verge, out of the shadows by the gap he had to walk through, out of time. From the iron cross piece, barring the way, grimly marking the transition between two worlds swung something grey and shapeless, bumping, slowly spinning at the end of a rope , a shapeshifting gatekeeper to his world beyond.

REVISITING AN OLD FRIEND: THOUGHTS ON ‘GASLIGHT’

I was looking through some old files yesterday when I came across a few notes written for a piece of flash fiction. Notes for a piece of flash fiction might seem like a redundant exercise. Flash fiction is so short, so condensed that notes may very quickly end up longer than the finished piece. But that isn’t necessarily a problem or a waste. The tightness required of very short fiction is such that, in theory at least, every word must serve a purpose. Having a bigger picture in your head and ensuring the writing encapsulates that picture as pithily as possible is no bad thing.

With that in mind I dug out the finished piece. ‘Gaslight’ was published a couple of years ago in ‘The Tall and the Short’ an anthology of short fiction, excerpts from longer pieces and poems, by various authors.

When I looked at it again I realised that I had probably cheated. There was a requirement to keep the piece under a thousand words and I had achieved that aim. I wondered at the ending however. The reader is left hanging – appalling pun, as the piece turns on something or someone dangling at the end of a rope. As I read it again I put myself in the place of the reader. The editor had expressed doubts about the ending but I was adamant. I think I was fed up with it and I can see why from my notes. It started out as 262 very tight words from notes at least four times that long. There was a feeling that 262 words was however too short and that elements needed more explanation or better setting so it ballooned to 996. The reverse of how I like writing to go – splurge it down and then refine, although I have mentioned ad infinitum my dislike of redrafting/rewriting. Much worse to expand however, than cut. Having said that, my problem is that expanded from the original size though it may be the poor reader still has no consummation with this piece. They don’t know what happens to the protagonist or what the object of his peril really is, whether there really is any peril even. I know of course but I should perhaps at least have hinted. I still like the idea of open ended stories, particularly horror genre pieces, but I still feel a twinge of guilt at how open this piece ends.

I would alter it I think if I were to write it again from scratch. I am even tempted to expand it a little to ‘finish’ the story but that risks the ending being twee and too cosy. If anything I think I’d like to leave more possibilities of awfulness in the readers mind. I am even tempted to go back to the 262 word version, make it 300 words and leave it at that.

Of course I won’t bother. I don’t think.

The piece is published. Anything except a major rewrite into a full short story is going to end up like all those ‘Director’s cuts’ in films that end up much worse than the original. Other, much better known, authors have of course gone back and altered books, usually not for the better. Stephen King rewrote and reinstated about 400 pages of cuts in ‘The Stand’.  General critical opinion is that the editor did a great job on the first edition and there was good reason to lose those 400 pages. Four hundred! That’s chutzpah all right, putting back in 400 pages of extraneous fluff. When I get as famous as King maybe I’ll come back and tweak the ending. I doubt it would be 400 words, let alone 400 pages.

NORMAL SERVICE WILL BE RESUMED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

If anyone was wondering, I will be writing more about writing and less about ‘Stuff’ soon – honest!

Indeed, there will be Part 4 of Pendragon later this week (written and being mulled over about long term direction as I write – well, it will be as soon as I post this and get back to work!).

There is an SF piece I may have mentioned before which started as a long short story – target c10K words which is already at 17K and nowhere near the end so I think it is safe to say it is a novella at least, and probably a novel. Decisions need to be made about cutting or expanding certain passages. If it’s a novel then character and place need more work I think, and sub plots which were truncated probably need to be expanded and reintegrated to the main story arc at some point. Maybe more about that process later.

There is another long SF short story, c12K words, which I have out with a magazine at the moment – been with them for a while, which is a good thing as they have passed it on to an editor. Not sure whether it will see the light of day. I hope so – they are a very good magazine, and it was nice just to get over the first hurdle with them. I won’t embarrass them or myself at this stage by saying who it is. Many a slip etc. but fingers crossed.

There are several other things that all these stories were a ‘break from’ which need pushing forward. So I hope you can see my ‘ramblings’ are simply a way of expressing a general concern about life while I let the writing ferment in the background (and more importantly, a way of putting off real hard graft!).

So – back to the word mill.

 

 

New Flash Fiction From Old

So the next attack on the humble fairy story is rolling along. The few people who are privy to part of it have mostly given it a positive reception. Two comments, ‘too much dialogue’ and ‘a bit longwinded’ momentarily made me think about it but this was a first cut so I’m not too bothered. I’ll let it stay as is for now and finish it before reviewing. (I know I’ve said I hate rewrites but I know they are worth doing – just once or twice, not ten times). I like dialogue, it moves the story on without being didactic. When you read it you should be able to make your own mind up about the character of the person speaking without having to be told about it. Of course I suppose actions speak louder than words so sometimes a description of the actions of a character can reinforce or counterpoint what they say, but the interplay of the two makes for an interesting dance that is difficult to have without a fair amount of dialogue.

Having said that I’ve just written a very short piece, 350 words, with no real dialogue at all. A short ‘spooky’ piece, the brief not my choice,  for Hallowe’en, it is a very concise working of an idea I had years ago. It was an experience rather than an idea in fact. I raced across Manchester one night from Victoria Station to Piccadilly, ran through the barriers and onto a train to Macclesfield. We went through Stockport which was fine and then I noticed the next station was Hazel Grove when it should have been Cheadle Hulme. I was on the wrong train and on the wrong line. I got out at the next station, Middlewood which was deserted and as the name suggests in the middle of a wood. The station buildings were closed and the bridge to the other platform was accessed by a path up through the woods onto a small lane through the woods, over the tracks and back into the woods. There was not another soul about and no houses or, save for the old station, any buildings at all, visible anywhere. I waited alone on the deserted station in the dark with fog gathering for what seemed like hours before a little 2 car dmu arrived and eventually took me back to civilisation. Not that spooky in the end but it made me wonder a lot of what ifs over the years. Finally I got around to making something out of it. The end result may not be the best interpretation but it’s certainly the shortest of the variants I have considered. We’ll see if it gets published. If it does there’ll be a link. If not it may see the light of day here.

Whatever happens it’s done two useful things:

One, it’s made me think about reworking this into a longer piece, probably a genuine short story.

Two it’s made me realise how difficult it is to pare down an idea into this sort of length. I used to worry years ago about not being able to write enough. Now I worry about being able to write little enough to make it work and not ramble.

Worth another look at my attack on Cinderella to see whether it may be longwinded after all.

REWRITES

I hate rewrites.

Everybody (nearly everybody) stresses how important they are and I suppose in my heart of hearts I know they are right. I remember in the late 70s, reading in Victor Jones’ ‘Creative Writing’ that, ‘Shakespeare, it is suggested, never paused to “blot the ink” though Ben Jonson suggests that on occasion it might have been better if he had.’ Jones went on to say that Tolstoy revised his work 5 or 6 times and that generally the more one revised the deeper one went. This suggests to me that best practice depends very much on the individual author.

 

In ‘How to be a Writer’ Stewart Ferris says that as a publisher he can recognise a first draft very easily and won’t waste his time reading beyond the first couple of pages. Tough on Shakespeare huh? Ferris is quite up front about it and says it’s economics –why should he spend hours editing an ‘amateurish’ manuscript to produce a dazzling book when he can take three books written to a high standard and publish them in the same time? Good point but  what does he mean by ‘rewrites’? Obviously you avoid and correct mistakes. But what are we really talking about? In his next chapter Ferris says that everyone’s redrafting will be different, perhaps changing 5% per draft but going through ten or more drafts to re-write 50% of the book to produce something worthwhile. Each new draft is a ‘freshening up of the text’. Maybe I’m being pedantic but I can’t believe the tenth+ draft of anything is going to be ‘fresher’. It might be more what the publisher, editor, agent wants to see, and it may be better than the original but I can’t see ‘freshness’ creeping in with this much reworking.

 

I have a piece of writing, originally about 120,000 words long which I revised down to about 70,000, in the process weeding out any obvious grammatical errors, gratuitously overblown sections, unnecessary repetition or factual mistakes. I redrafted it as losing that much of the original meant some structural changes were required. I was very happy with it. An agent then suggested some changes of focus so I did the rewrite and it had lost something. Another agent loved this draft but wanted some more changes just to ‘harden it up’ a bit for the ‘boys’ market. This went on and today I have six different versions sat on my hard drive and the original hard copy in my desk drawer. It has never seen the light of day, and probably never will. Times have moved on for that genre, but in any case I now hate it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good book. I think its probably one of the best things, if not the best, I’ve written, but the thought of revisiting it as a writer makes me feel physically ill. I know if I tried selling it again the redrafting and revision process would be almost impossible. Is the sixth or seventh version better than the second? No. They certainly aren’t the book I wanted to write. Will the eighth or ninth be? Don’t know because they are unlikely to happen but I wouldn’t have thought so. The spontaneity and brightness has all disappeared. It looks overworked and it is. Freshness? Please!

 

So do I redraft? Of course. I do a lot of it as I go along. But ten plus times? No. If I can’t get it right with four or five attempts I have to ask myself; ‘is this the right book to be writing?’  Perhaps I would sell more if I did rewrite everything ten or twelve times. But I suspect I would end up writing and selling nothing as the will to live leached out of me with each redrafting.