The third best piece of writing advice

There’s a lot of writing advice that sounds great but is not necessarily useful to everyone. Except this; anyone who wants to be published should read their finished work out loud before sending it out or self-publishing.

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I can’t find one specific person to credit it to as I’ve heard it many times over the years. The first time I tried it was with a chapter I entered for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 so thank you to any Harlequin editors or authors who mentioned it back then. Unfortunately I only managed a few paragraphs before the sound of my voice and my self-conscious stumbling over words stopped me. “I’ll just read it really clearly in my head” I thought. Umm, no. That’s how I always read anyway and it’s amazing what tricks your mind makes when it half knows the text already – substituting the words it thinks should be there, smoothing over awkward phrasing, blinding – or do I mean deafening – one to careless repetitions.

And how do I know that’s what happens when you read it silently to yourself? Well for one, because that’s what everyone who gives the advice says. And for two, because when I read my finally complete and polished (I thought) manuscript aloud, I fund so many things to correct in the first few pages. Many were minor, a badly placed comma or a rambling sentence that needed breaking up into two – I think a lot of my changes were grammatical and I may still have got them wrong, but at least I’ve been consistent (I hope.)

I was more shocked by the typing errors that spell check couldn’t catch (or had mistakenly corrected in the first place) barley instead of barely. Then there were the repetitions of favourite words – I had done searches for the most commonly overused (I need help with my “just”s and “all”s, it seems to be an addiction – and I chopped a lot of seems too.) Doing earlier edits had alerted me to the fact that once a word is in my imagination I am apt to use it again in the same scene so I had been on the lookout for repetitions and substituted other words (oh thank you for thesauruses.) But only by reading aloud did I catch others – does the ear hold onto the echo of words better than the mind? How else can I explain all the similar sounding or looking words I identified when reading aloud? Not to mention finding two “squarely”s in three lines that I had previously missed.

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Which reminds me that when my critique partner suggested I had people feeling awe for each other too often, I changed one instance to read “not to mention admiration” and then spotted another use of “not to mention” a page later? I did a check and found the phrase seven times in a 75K manuscript which I think is rather too many. Odd how I wasn’t even aware it was such a favourite expression. Then there was the excess of sighing I found in one chapter – sure the characters are exhausted, physically and mentally, but there are more varied ways to show that.

I knew I had a fondness (weakness?) for alliteration and had put some in deliberately, all of which I kept except the most tortuously tongue twisting teasers. More accidental was discovering how many words like gilded, glisten and glimpse I had used, not all in one chapter, but I began to suspect I have an unusual fondness for G words in the this story. I had to check how often the hero referred to the heroine as his golden girl, not to mention her gleaming green eyes.  It’s possible this only seemed so apparent as the hard G sound is noticeable when reading aloud unlike softer sounds which may be used just as much, but I still changed and moved some of these – another person silently reading might not notice them but I didn’t want to risk jarring anyone else out of the story with an unusual rhythm or word choice.

Reading the whole book aloud took several days (and an enquiry from my three year old about who I was talking to) and none of the changes were necessarily enough to get the book rejected. But the overall tightening of my writing and the elimination of careless mistakes was invaluable. Above all else I want my work to be readable. I want the story to be gripping and emotional and satisfying sure – but the best plot in the world or the most beautiful prose can still be flung aside if it is sloppily presented.

So thank you very much to everyone who has ever passed on this brilliant advice and please, anyone else who feels self-conscious reading their work aloud, do persist, it’s amazing what you might find – including how good some of it sounds when the words take on a life of their own. Oh, and yes, you might catch an odd continuity error or two. Hopefully nothing as important as someone dismounting their horse twice in the same paragraph…

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In case you are wondering about the pictures, I wanted this to not be a text only blog entry, but what to use? I thought maybe some bluebell pictures as recently I’ve taken many photos even though I have folders full from previous years – it doesn’t matter how many I have, I’m always looking for one more perfect picture, or one that catches the true beauty of the massed flowers – or of their individual beauty. Just as read after read of the same work can reveal something new each time. Or, to torture the analogy even further – looking at the work as a whole, editing it silently, is to see the whole expanse of purple spread before you – only by reading aloud, savouring the feel of each and every word in your mouth do you break up the picture and see the intricate beauty, or flaws, in the close up detail.

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Or maybe I just like these pictures too much and wanted to share them.

 

Read of the year 458 BC

I always have such a huge TBR pile that I rarely read a book in the year it was published and am rather awed by people whose “best of the year” blogs are all about current favourites. However, even by my standards, my top read last year had been out there for a long while; two and a half millennia in fact.

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I think it says a lot about the events we lived through last year that so many books I read were either written centuries ago, or were about ancient history. The past seemed far safer, if only because we know who the heroes were who came along and got rid of tyrants, or which particular gods meted out their own brand of justice. My reading of ancient Greek plays was actually awakened at the end of 2015 but this was the year I finally read the Bacchae, the Oresteia trilogy and the Oedipus trilogy. They are all stories I thought I knew but I had never read the complete plays and was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

I’m also ashamed (due to how much I revere her books) at realising just how much of the ancient myths and texts Mary Renault seamlessly incorporated into her novels about ancient Greece. Now I know why Oedipus appeared in the Bull from the Sea. I long to go back and re read all of her books but have so far limited myself to The Praise Singer as being the one most closely associated with the days of Aeschylus.

Reading plays is not to everyone’s taste, and the skill of the translator can add – or detract – so much from the pleasure. I first read some Homer (a poem rather than a play – or of course a song given how we think they were performed) before I was ten years old. I’m ashamed (again) by how little of the complete plays I read when I got a degree in Ancient and Medieval History (it was too easy to just read the key passages that were quoted in lectures and text books.) In a way though, I’m quite glad. I’d’ve read them for the passages that proved an essay’s point rather than reading them for the love of the story or the language and I’ve lost count of the times I paused to marvel at the imagery they evoked and it was the Oresteia by Aeschylus, particularly Agamemnon that most delighted me.

Here are just a few examples:

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, P76, The Chorus

  • …., and feels
  • Pang and pulse of groin and gut,
  • Blood in riot, brain awhirl,

Do I love this because of my fondness/weakness for alliteration? Or was it reading Homer early on that gave my alliterative appreciation?

Aeschylus, The Choephori or The Libation-Bearers, P119, Just after Electra has said “O fierce flint-hearted mother” she goes on:

  • A husband laid unhonoured,
  • Unwept in a cruel bed.

And a few lines later:

  • And so my father perished;
  • And I, despised, unwanted,
  • Shoved to one side, and shunned
  • Like an ulcerous dog, let flow
  • Tears reckless and unstinted
  • As laughter, sobbing unseen.
  • Let this on your heart be printed
  • When you hear what grief can mean.

It’s always nice to find I’m not the only person to love “un” words.

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I do wish they hadn’t changed from the lovely matt black and gold cover to the glossy black one. Not least because of how hard they were to photograph together

Of the other books I read in 2016, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch was a favourite, and yet another source of bafflement (this post can only contain so much shame) that I hadn’t read them earlier in my life. Dr J recommended The Eagle of the Ninth a few years ago, it was one of the few books other than the Lord of the Rings that he read in his teenage years and directly led to his love of history and his choice of a degree and subsequent career – more proof of how important books are. I loved the Eagle when I read it a year or so ago and was both pleased and anxious to discover she wrote two “sequels.” Pleased because I had loved the book so much, anxious as sometimes an author seems to want to capitalise on a book’s success and spins out further adventures for characters who had the perfect character arc in book one and then have nowhere to go. The Eagle felt nicely rounded for me and so I was delighted to find that the Silver branch followed new characters only loosely linked to the first – in short it was a perfect sequel; adding and enriching the experience of the first book yet a stand-alone adventure that held me gripped with its plot but also her wonderful writing, here again were marvellously vivid descriptive phrases such as;

  • Salt-soaked timber
  • Smoke-blackened atrium
  • Storm-lashed woods
  • Smoke-dimmed sky

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Sparkling prose is of course one of the most famous things about Raymond Chandler’s books, the book covers boast famous descriptions that live in the memory long after the book is finished. He deserves a whole post of his own, how I only read him in recent years, long after reading other books or watching films that spoof his style of dialogue and hard-boiled detective; I’ve seen and been baffled by a few of the adaptations of his own books too but nothing prepares you for the joy of his imagery and characters and dialogue and the world weary jaded eye he casts over his world. If I’m honest, the Long Goodbye didn’t grip me as much as his previous books, I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind for it and I look forward to a re-read when I’m not puzzling over the plot; but if nothing else, I can thank the book for introducing me to Gimlets. I have no need to worry about getting scurvy any time soon with all the lime juice I’ve consumed this year.

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The final books I shall mention are the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses that I read. I actually didn’t think I’d read as many as I had, because I read none after May when I became absorbed in finishing my own manuscript aimed at this line. I keep a record of all the ones I read with a brief review, purely for my own memory and to help me when working out why some books worked for me better than others and I’m pleased to say that all the ones I read last year scored highly with me. I have no intention of reviewing authors that I hope to be published alongside but I will single out Mel Sterling’s Latimer’s Law (they are arranged in the order I read them in the picture.) The first chapter of this book was entered in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 and it leapt out at me for its freshness, its voice and its complete unexpectedness. I entered my own first chapter on the same Romantic Suspense category but I knew from the moment I read Mel’s work that it was on a different level altogether – I said as much as well before voting had been counted and felt mildly smug when it was one of the 28 short listed chapters, and was proved right again when it became a top three finalist. I can at least spot brilliance, now to just achieve it in my own work…

And here’s to more excellent books (and drinks) in 2017.

5 reasons not to blog – and 1 reason to do it

I considered calling this post “To blog or not to blog” but it seemed so obvious I thought it must have been done before – and a quick internet search confirmed that. I have very few regular followers of this blog, but far more than I expected it when I started it at the beginning of May. So I shall apologise to anyone who wondered where my weekly posts had gone over the summer. It surprised me as much as you. I had written posts ready on books, writing, reading and ripped-off toe nails – something to look forward to there – but it felt odd to post them when I wasn’t active with other aspects of my writing.

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The reason was simple, school holidays and 2 young children underfoot all the time. This meant lots of day trips – I’ve taken over 1300 photos in 7 weeks so be very afraid of future blogs – and very little time for writing or editing. I’m not a (total) fool and had hardly expected to get much done over these weeks, hence having blog posts ready in advance, but I wasn’t reading other blogs that I follow, or keeping up with twitter. I wasn’t even reading. And that is something new. I usually manage a few chapters in the bath at the very least but I think this summer, I wanted so very badly to be writing that when that proved impossible I switched off from all things that reminded me of what I was missing. Deep down I’m grateful for this; that my writing habits have become so ingrained that their thwarting also stifled other creative outlets and made me focus on this blessed day when school restarted and I could properly get at my laptop again.

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The perfect picnic spot at Grosmont Castle

So again; I am sorry if anyone missed this blog, and I hope no one is sorry to see it return to its usual levels of activity. It has also reminded me of why I started being more interactive with readers, writers and bloggers. Mostly it was selfish reasons, wanting to start building a platform or identity for when I’m trying to catch an editor or agent’s eye, and then for future readers. But it was also to share knowledge and information – not just my own – but all the helpful, wonderful and funny things that have been shared with me over the years and that are still being put out there for free every day. If I’m not commenting on other blogs, heck, if I’m not reading them and thinking and being inspired – or enraged – then why would I even want to put out thoughts of my own? So many writers say they started writing because of wanting to emulate a book that moved them, others were horrified by a book and thought “I can do better than this.” With blogging it was more that I wanted to add my own voice to the mix after whiling away so many tedious hours at work with illicit internet sessions, and also to try and collate some of the valuable writing tips I’ve absorbed over the years.

It’s the same with twitter. I signed up when Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition started having twitter chats, I had no idea what I was doing and before I knew it I had a follower and so I tweeted randomly and followed actors, writers, editors and comedians and retweeted things and drifted away for a bit when I found it sucking up too much of my time. When I started taking my writing seriously and setting up this blog I decided I wouldn’t tweet as well. Sure I’d keep my account and follow all the useful industry people and bloggers, but I wouldn’t communicate back, I’d be an anonymous lurker. And then in one week I retweeted (to my handful of followers) 2 really good articles and it hit me how selfish I would be if I kept taking advice from twitter and never really sharing it.

I know there’s no rule that you have to participate or share or comment. But isn’t it nice when people do read and respond? It was partly feeling hurt very early on on twitter when people didn’t react to a tweet or notice if I replied that I backed away from it, I know it’s a lottery of time and luck if people see some tweets, it’s not personal (I am the sort of person who can obsess very easily over such things.) Oddly enough, once I stopped caring and just retweeted more often with my own comments, I had far more interactions and far more fun. Twitter actually is fun, as long as you don’t follow to many people doing the hard sell or meet too many trolls (which is true for all social media, and indeed the real world.)

All of which is a rambling (I’m out of practice) way of saying why I didn’t blog when I wasn’t fully immersed in the writing word this summer and how happy I am to be back. And why I think sharing, even random pieces of advice or inspiration, can be so important; you can never know what small piece of information, or anecdote, or stunning picture, might be just what someone else needed to see today. You can just be sure that if I find it, I will share it, and will thank you.

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I enjoyed building dams on the beach, even when the children lost interest

And now, according to Dr J with whom I live, I have to write something about wanting to be in a spooky tower, eating cake, waiting for a spy. That, apparently, is what he has gleaned about me from reading this blog. Which is obviously rubbish. Drinking gin in a ruined tower waiting for a spy yes. Not eating cake. Unless it was gin flavoured.

(But seriously, if that’s all he’s taken from previous posts I need to crack on with more posts about writing and books and fewer mentions of alcohol. I’m not cutting back on castle pictures though.)

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Longtown Castle

Oh yes, I promised 5 reasons not to blog – holidays, children, not writing, too busy enjoying a sunset, not wanting to lose the pleasure of blogging. And too much gin some nights, always gin. 6 reasons….

And 1 big reason to blog –it feels like belonging.