short stories

Whilte tulip stamen and petals close up

100% Proofs

So, it’s September 18th (we’re only a few weeks behind ourselves now) and I am working on the proofs, also called page-proofs. Basically, this is the bit where the author is given a print out (almost everyone works in hardcopy at this stage) of the manuscript all formatted for the printing of the book. So there are page guides at the edges of the pages since the book printing won’t be in A4.

The proofs for TBD are gorgeous. Completely gorgeous. I spent quite a while stroking the first page (my preciousssss, oh my preciousssss…) and wondering at the fact that my words were on that page. All over it. And the next page. And the page after that. And yet this was clearly a real book in the making. It was very weird. But very wonderful too. I think all writers should be allowed a ‘My Precious!’ moment when their proofs arrive. But then it’s on with the work…

The author’s job is to go through and check for errors, be they grammar or punctuation errors or formatting errors. There are often some of those, especially if the original manuscript is in Word. When working on the EHRR, Word to PDF conversion would regularly format random paragraphs into a different font size or font style, create large gaps in the text and/or repeat lines.

Actually, there was almost none of that with my proofs so I was even more impressed by how Faber is able to wrestle Word into submission. The one spanner Word threw into the works involved turning some of my long dashes into superscript ~ signs. Go figure. But there is always SOMETHING like this with Word. It’s inescapable.

All of that is pretty easy. The one thing that’s difficult for a writer is that you must try not to edit for content. At all. The only exceptions should be when you realise something doesn’t make sense. This should be at the sentence or phrase level only. There were a few things like that in the TBD proofs. At one point, someone was standing upright but hunched over. Pretty clever of them, really. There were also a few instances where the pagination meant that the way I’d chosen to punctuate something didn’t work. Sentence fragments often read fine when they’re on the same line on the same page, but they don’t necessarily do the trick when you have to turn the page in between ‘bits’. I also made a handful of cuts – single sentences or phrases – that didn’t make sense and that were more easily deleted than corrected.

Anyway, the key here is that this is not the time to edit for content. If you find a better way of saying something that does actually make sense, then you’re too late. The only content things you should change are things that just don’t work. And they should only be little, occasional things. If you’ve got more than one every 20-25 pages on average, then you’re in trouble. Or at least that’s the rule I applied.

There are official ‘mark up’ symbols for making corrections, but publishers don’t expect you to use them. Just be clear and clean with your corrections. And keep them to a minimum. But do use a pen, rather than a pencil.

Anyway, I was a good little author and tried to make as few corrections as possible as the manuscript was in great shape.

But I did have one query item to discuss… One of the things I really like about the proofs is that they conform to a lot of key accessibility principles. The lines aren’t wide. There’s lots of white space on the page. The font is a good size. While the text is justified (ragged right margins are generally better for readability), it doesn’t stretch and concertina, so it’s a fairly accessibility-friendly justification.

While there are some sentences in italics, there isn’t a good alternative for this as bold just looks odd and changing the font isn’t accessibility friendly anyway… At the end of the day, there aren’t a lot of italics so it’s not a major issue… at least not compared with the key things about font size and white space.

There was just one thing that I found a little tricky as a dyslexic-dyspraxic reader: there are quite a lot of words that are hyphenated over the end of lines. I find it really hard to reassemble words than ‘run over’ from one line to another.

So my query was about whether we could reduce the number of these and/or whether we could change where the ‘breaks’ happened.

Obviously, the fewer of these the better, but why the point about ‘breaking at the root’? It’s much easier for ALL readers, not just ones with special needs, to reassemble a word broken at the root, like ‘desper- [new line] ation’ as opposed to ‘de- [new line] speration’. That said, it’s critical for many readers with special needs to have these linguistic cues. For instance, it took me about 5 minutes (even though I *wrote* the book) to figure out what was meant by ‘grey-or [new line] ange’. Similarly, I spent a good two minutes staring at ‘at- [new line] tention’ before I managed to figure it out.

For dyslexics and dyspraxics it’s hard enough to get the bits of words in the right order without having the full word to work with. For visually impaired readers, and those working with screenreaders and other accessibility technologies, it’s hard work to fit two word ‘bits’ together into a whole word when you can’t work on recognising the word as a whole. It’s not impossible, of course, but who wants time-consuming hard work to figure out what a word is when you’re trying to enjoy a story? It doesn’t make for the best reading experience.

As a former professional researcher in the field of dyslexia studies, not to mention both dyslexic and dyspraxic myself, I try to bring general accessibility good practice into my work whenever possible. For instance, when I was appointed Executive Editor of the EHRR, I re-designed the website, writing the code by hand as, while html generators are getting much better, they still have a nasty tendency to use tables, blank spaces and blank graphics to fudge layout issues: all of these are terrible from an accessibility perspective. (The Moodle virtual learning environment is a fantastic exception, BTW, and generally produces code that adheres to accessibility principles.) Anyway, the point with regard to the journal was that, as a human rights journal, we needed to have an accessible website.

That said, it’s hard to follow every good practice principle – at least to the letter – and come up with something that is both effective and beautiful. It’s OK to compromise on some things if you’ve taken the time to think through what is most important and then made a concerted effort to do the best you can.

So what about the proofs? The issue for me is that they’re beautiful. Really, really beautiful. I couldn’t be happier with how the book looks. And the page-setting is really great from an accessibility perspective… with this one small exception where I think the balance needs to shift just a little. So I’m hoping we can reduce the number of broken words without altering the look of the book and also make sure that the remaining broken words split at the root. I’m not sure what will be possible, which is why I’ve put forward a query rather than a series of corrections, but at the very least we’ll have given serious thought to making sure that the book is accessible and beautiful.

At the end of the day, it’s about priorities. Lots of white space and short lines are much more important than the odd sentence in italics. And the odd split word, if split at the root, won’t be an issue. We’ve just got to strike the best balance possible. And the first step is to be aware, so we’re already headed in the right direction.

Has anyone had any negative experiences of reading to do with layout or formatting? Has anyone with children with special needs come across things like broken words that make reading so much harder than it needs to be?

Anatomy of a short story: Part II – Concept

crocuses in the snow

We’re all part id, part super-ego and part ego: we’re all sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘we’ and sometimes ‘I’. So I decided that my story would consist of three parts.

It begins with ‘me’: with the id.

The main character (who remains unnamed) lies in bed, in the first stages of wakefulness, suspended between the worlds of sleep and waking. This is a realm controlled by the id.

The world outside my window is alive with wild little sounds in the early-morning, when humans are still in bed and fantastic creatures can creep through the dew, safe from prying eyes in the dazzle of the white, new-born light.

My senses stretch out until my shadows goes creeping away under the light from the window, then down and down the small, dark space behind the drainpipe to touch the salamander, basking in the fire of the light on the edge of the wall, where the red peony and the marigold will soon be an inferno.

And now my shadow throws itself huge and wide against the wall, reveling for a moment in the light, then surging upwards, returning to me: racing back up in the cool, sweet shadow under the drainpipe and in through the window to join me, lying languid in the sheets.

The reference to the shadow is a nod towards Forbidden Planet, while the focus on magical creatures hints at The Tempest and Caliban’s control over the natural world.

The technical challenge here is to write using only the pronoun ‘me’ (with the related possessive ‘my’) to refer to the main character, never ‘I’. It’s harder than you’d think: not quite a task for members of the Oulipo school but edging that way. (The Oulipo school, in case you’re wondering [and I would be too if my PhD supervisor hadn’t been an Oulipo enthusiast], is a group of writers and thinkers who believe that creativity is set free by constraints. So, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, they consider it a Good Idea to write books without using the letter ‘e’. While I admire and applaud their puzzle-solving ingenuity, I can’t help feeling there are bigger and better issues for a writer to worry about. But each to their own.)

So, back to the story… Next, the bedroom door comes flying open and in rush the kids and suddenly the narrative voice adopts the pronoun ‘we’ (with the related possessive ‘our). The children, and their father, are sometimes ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ (and even ‘I’ when they speak), but the narrator is never ‘I’ or ‘me’.

Half an hour later, we’re in the kitchen, spilling orange juice and dropping egg yolk on pyjamas and arguing over who’ll get the last of the strawberry jam, and yawning and wondering where all the hours of the night went and how morning has come so quickly.

… Before that, we have to brush our teeth and our hair and get dressed, and clean up the kitchen and stack the dishes and feed the cat and pick up the stuff strewn all over the family room. And it’s ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ and ‘Mummy, I can’t find my hat!’ and ‘Mummy, can you fix this?’ and the cat yowling as it winds around our ankles, neglected in the rush.

Sometimes I use the pronoun ‘it’ (mostly in the form of it’s = it is) to disengage what is being done from the characters, almost as if things are happening of their own accord: the washing up ‘gets done’ (passive voice) rather than ‘Mummy does the washing up’. This hints at the fact that the use of ‘we’ is (at least sometimes) ironic: ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ This is a theme that becomes more prominent as the story continues.

We spend lunch flinging peas about the kitchen, watching them bounce off cabinets and roll behind the toaster while we’re trying to remember where they’ve all gone so we can fish them out afterwards, before they end up squished and mouldering and sprouting blue toadstools behind the tea-tin.

The middle section of the story (the ‘we’ section) is a bit too long but I don’t yet have the distance from writing the story to make the necessary cuts. I’m happy with the writing, but the point being made is be-laboured: there is too much detail. Some is necessary to the story, but not all. Hopefully the odd hints of humour help to leaven the heaviness of the flab that I’ve yet to cut away.

However, to put this in context, the whole story is just over 1900 words: 525 for the ‘me’ section, followed by 1030 for the ‘we’ section, ending with ‘350’ for the ‘I’ section. The balance is probably right, give or take, as I’ll discuss below.

One of the reasons that the middle section is (relatively) long, not to mention dense and breathless, with long run-on sentences, is that it’s intended to catalogue the enormous number of big and small tasks that the woman accomplishes, all the time referring to her actions in caring for her family as being performed as a group: as ‘we’. Touches of humour (or at least attempted humour) interject a note of wry self-deprecation to (try to) enhance the impact of the irony implicit in her use of ‘we’: it’s not that the woman is unaware that she’s the one doing all the work, but she doesn’t see herself as a martyr and she’s certainly not sorry for herself. This is just the way it is in families sometimes. There’s sometimes a degree of frustration (and quite a bit of tiredness) but the emphasis is on the fact that she’s too busy (and not necessarily unhappy about it) to dwell on the fact that her needs are all phrased as ‘we’ but those of the rest of the family are often expressed individually.

About two-thirds of the way through the long ‘we’ section – just when this part might seem to be getting too long, too ‘same-y’ – I drop a hint of the tension that will propel the story towards its climax.

But, oh, there are crocuses out in the garden. Snowdrops under the hedges. But we’re hunting for jackets and scarves and hats discarded by our visitors instead of going out to look.

This is the first real sign that the main character’s wishes diverge from those of the rest of the family. Here, she speaks to the reader in a voice that might as well adopt the pronoun ‘I’. Then the story dives back into the ‘we’ narrative until the day finally draws to a close. The children go to bed. Their father retreats to his study.

And there I am in the kitchen, with the washing machine rattling against the cabinet and the water slopping around inside as if to say ‘Shh, shh, shhhh!’ and it’s dark, all dark, outside in the garden. I press my face to the glass but the snowdrops don’t glow in the moonlight.

Alone for the first time since the children threw her into full wakefulness (thus ending the ‘me’ section at the beginning of the story), the woman can disentangle her view of the world from that of the other members of her family. And instead of sitting down and whinging quietly to herself about how put upon she is (and what a drip we’d think her if she did), she slips into her husband’s wellies, grabs a torch and giggles her way down the garden path in the dark to look at the crocuses. Here is a woman who may often be caught up in looking after others, but she’s got no lack of self-determination: no lack of drive to fulfill her own desires when time and space allow. When she falls into the ‘we’ of the middle section of the story, we can now see this as a choice: it may be an altruistic one, but it’s no less what she wants for that.

… and there, in the harsh white light, are the snowdrops and the crocuses… But, oh, they look so wet and sorry for themselves as they cower away from the light: it strips away the depth of their colours and flattens their shapes so they look drab as rotting fabric listing out of plastic stems and calyxes.

The story ends with a reflection on the fact that perhaps just a little more balance is needed in her life. It’s not that the woman feels that being part of a ‘we’ is a problem or that she wants more ‘me’ time, only that there’s not quite enough of the ‘I’ in her life: that bridge between the ‘we’ and ‘me’, between altruism and selfishness. Hence the title of the story: ‘Somewhere In Between’.

And there we go. From theme to concept to smaller choices about structure and shape, and from tension to technical issues and word choice, that’s how I set about writing this story.

If you’re still with me and would like to read it… please watch this space! Or, if you’re feeling helpful, perhaps you’d consider commenting with some suggestions about magazines or journals that might publish it…

branches with dewdrops

Anatomy of a short story (Part I)

Writers are often pigeonholed into boxes: poet, novelist, romance novelist, biographer, historian, playwright, screen-writer… Until you’re famous (or at least critically ‘acclaimed’), trying to be a ‘writer’ in a broader sense isn’t going to win you any applause: you have to prove you’re good before people will grudgingly admit that it’s perfectly possible to be a novelist and poet and screenwriter too. And that’s fine – to a point. But there’s a big difference between aspiring to be a good writer across genres and saying you’re already one. Proof is definitely needed before you should go around saying the latter, but the former… Well, what’s the harm in encouraging people to strive to be good at more than one thing? Especially if, at the end of the day, it’s still writing.

Although I see myself primarily as a novelist and script-writer, I’ve recently set myself the challenge of writing some short stories. My goals here are twofold. First, short stories require a much smaller investment of time and energy to write. If I can produce decent work, I’ll be able to build up the publications section of my CV relatively quickly. Second, I want to practice being concise. I have a tendency to write flabby, waffle-y first drafts. It’s not the end of the world as they are first drafts and I do edit them into submission, but it would save a lot of time and energy and angst if my drafts were just a little bit trimmer to begin with. There are even signs that my short story writing efforts are paying off: The Bone Dragon was remarkably light on waffle. If anything, it was too concise (see for more on book length issues).

Short story writers sometimes claim that every word must count in their work and this is true: where there are fewer words, one misstep is more significant. But that doesn’t mean that using the right words and cutting out unnecessary ones doesn’t matter in a novel. If you’re doing your level best to write a really good book then of course it counts. You might get away with a bit more in a novel than a short story, but what you can get away with is not the same as what is good.

So on to the first issue when writing a short story: what is it going to be about? Now, there are lots of ways to go about writing a short story (or anything else for that matter). Some people start with plot or an idea or an image or a character or a situation or theme… But at the end of the day the point is that you need to start with something. And, pretty early on, that something needs to coalesce into a decision on what the story is going to be about (unless you’re one of those weird people who can produce good stuff when ‘writing blind’).

I absolutely loathe writing exercises that are narrow and prescriptive (I generally see these as calculated to put insomniacs to sleep), but quite a number of literary magazines have a theme for each issue. Generally, these are fairly broad (and it’s always a good idea to think outside the obvious box anyway) but let’s face it… Certain themes will appeal to only certain people. It’s better to submit to a publication that doesn’t use themes if you’ve got a good piece that doesn’t fit the current theme in a magazine you like than trying to manipulate your story to fitting the theme when it patently doesn’t. Just keep coming back to the publications you want to approach – eventually you’ll find a theme you want to write about.

Since I’m a psychologist by training, it’s perhaps not surprising that a theme based around the word ‘ego’ was one of those that appealed to me recently. This theme, perhaps more than many others, immediately threw up a common hurdle: how was I going to write something unique on this theme that would have a decent chance of getting accepted? In other words, how was I going to stand out from the crowd but in a good way?

Sometimes it seems to me that literary pretences are the way to go in certain publishing circles: making obscure references to little-read texts often wins you brownie points, at least among literary and academic circles. The ‘ego’ theme comes equipped with a host of inbuilt opportunities for this sort of pretentiousness. And, being me, I immediately decided that I wanted to work with that… but in a playful (i.e. contrary) tongue-in-cheek sort of way. From the start, I knew I wanted to bring in Freud’s seminal work but also draw on the cult sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, which combines Freudian theory with plotlines drawn from The Tempest – the hope being that while those with literary pretensions might coo over the Freudian hints, others in the know might smile at the less than ‘high culture’ (a snooty concept I despise) secondary textual references.

On the basis of those quick-fire decisions, the concept for the story politely presented itself, neatly turned out and ready to go. Freud’s theories depend on the relationships between the id, ego and super-ego. Simply put, the id is the unconscious: all our deepest fears, our darkest wishes and desires. It lives in a world of almost pure sensation, sensual and pleasure-seeking, impulsive, living for the moment. The id is what we think of when we think of ego: pure selfishness, all ‘me, me, me’.

 The super-ego is, in many ways, the opposite of the id: it’s our conscience, our sense of right and wrong, our understanding of moral values and social obligations. The super-ego is what makes us altruistic. It’s the ‘we’. The ego is somewhere in-between: it blends the inputs from the id and super-ego and controls our actions and decision-making. It’s part self-interest and part conscience. It’s the ‘I’.

And that’s the basis of the concept for my ‘ego’ story. As for how that played out in practice, please tune in again for Part II, which will arrive sometime in the next fortnight.