Friday, 9 December 2016

Goodnight Mr Chips

I have just completed a 16 hour straight proofreading session, and my eyes are bleeding.

I thought my contract was over, so I was settling down to do my own thing. Then I got offered one more gig and I couldn't resist. You see, I look at a ringbound tome and I see a paid-up flight to visit family next year.

It's very hard to say no to that, even when you know what's involved. 

The thing is, a flight to the UK takes about thirteen hours. A book like this one takes about four days. I was going to amble through it at a leisurely pace, but I forgot I'd agreed to go away with friends this weekend and the deadline is Monday. That left me a day and a half to scan copy, and two days to finish the markup sheets. 

Scanning copy is pretty easy. You just take a biro and go through the pages circling errors and popping notes in the margin. The problem for me is that my handwriting is so bad that I usually can't read those notes when I come back to them.

The markup sheet is just a table saying which page the problem is on and what you spotted (and, if you have time, how to fix it).

Some of the books are pretty good, maybe one or two corrections per page. Others are brutal. One waded in at over 15,000 words of corrections and close to fifty pages. That's pretty much a novella. I could easily make my NaNoWriMo count writing markups.

Another problem is that you swiftly become a nocturnal beast, working late into the night. Housework and personal hygiene start to suffer, fuelled by a diet of coffee and junk food. It's a bit like being a student again.

I was desperate to finish today so that I can enjoy my weekend away and ease into the holiday season. For this reason, I crawled out of bed at 7 a.m., straight into the shower, briefly brushing against the kettle to turn it on. 

For the past two days the only thing that has sustained me is our local Mr Chips, who not only deliver sterling fish burgers (light, crispy batter) - but also beer! I have honestly sat at this desk typing markups for the past 16 hours, and without Mr Chips, I may have expired entirely.

Still. I've done it. Dropping the book off tomorrow on my way out of town. Looking forward to cashing in that ticket in the New Year. Very honoured to have been a part of a proofing project that will hopefully benefit students in the future, and part of a team who work so hard to make that happen. 

I shall leave you with a picture of Sophie's contribution to the cause... I think that might be integer subtraction she's sitting on.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Ready to Edit: Three Top Tips

Well, my own editing isn't going very well at the moment, as I took another proofing job. I'll get back to my own stuff once that's done, but I thought I'd fill some whitespace with a few tips from the writing course I teach in Kigali. Hopefully it might help others who are going through the editing process.

As writers, we all start in the beginning... repeating many of the mistakes and foibles of every other writer who has gone before us. It takes years to get good at what we do. I've spoken in the past of my backlist shame. When I edit, proofread and teach, I notice the same issues cropping up over and over. 

In this post, I've plucked the three big ones that tend to turn great writing into average writing. There's a little exercise at the end to practise on.

The aim is to produce concise, clear prose which make the story effortless for your reader, allowing them to lose themselves in the plot. 

The Obvious, Obviously

We all think we know when we're stating the obvious, but it's actually really easy to miss because daily language is saturated with obvious phrases:

It was a dark night (well, duh)
He shouted loudly (by definition)
She cried salty tears (or milk - milk would be cooler)
She sat down on the chair (she didn't levitate? How disappointing)

These are the sort of things we just say automatically. That's fine, but when we start to write things down, space becomes precious. A good novel should be filled with wonderful words and interesting curiosities. Don't waste space on blanks that most readers could fill in for themselves.

If the woman sat cross-legged on the grass, braiding daises, sure, tell me about it, or if the chair happened to be one of those high-backed, Gothic jobbies carved out of bone - that, I'd want to know about. But just a mundane chair? Get on with the conversation she's having, or the deep gnawing inner guilt which threatens to destroy her entire sense of self-worth.

Think of the obvious like eyebrow hair. Take a pair of tweezers and comb through your manuscript, plucking it out. It really hurts at fist, because you feel that without those obvious phrases, there won't be enough of a sentence left. It was dark, he shouted, she cried and she sat may be a lot shorter, but length isn't the worth of a work.

Now add the things we can't imagine for ourselves.

Aggravating Adjectives

I don't need to bang on about this, many more famous writers already have. Mark Twain really put it well:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.

This is really the essence of it. The shorter a sentence, the more punch it packs. Each adjective weakens the blow.

I won't go on about it, but my rule of thumb is: try your hardest to pick one, never more than two.

The mysterious, tall, blue, creaky door - is an abomination
The mysterious, blue door - is better
The mysterious door - is perfect

Like obvious things, there's a little panic button goes off in the back of a writer's mind as they start to trim back a sentence: will it be sufficient, substantial, meaningful, if it's short? 

Yes. Yes it will. Things will flow, meaning will be had, life will be good.

Save your manuscript to a test file and try it. Go through, reduce all adjectives to no more than two at the absolute most. Choose the adjectives that don't say anything obvious or inconsequential. Only go for the ones that tell the reader something they couldn't otherwise guess, or that they might find particularly interesting, or the ones that sound pretty or alliterate (usually the same thing).

Go to town. Don't hold back.

Only judge at the end.


The Little Words

The little words are the at, the, this, them, a, an, to, as and ifs of this world. 

The joining words, though I like to extend it to longer words if they carry little meaning.

In the first draft of anything, we use too many of them. 

Good writing is like wine - potent. Each little word is a drop of water to that wine. Whilst editing, you're looking to remove the water and distill an excellent vintage. 

It's all about tightening up your prose.

For example:

It wasn't long before the doorbell rang. With a sigh, Emma pulled herself from the sofa and went into the hall to open the door. Outside in the street it was looking overcast. It would probably rain within an hour or maybe two. For now, she had to deal with the man who was standing in front of her.

Makes for much better reading after you cull the little words:

The doorbell rang. With a sigh, Emma pulled herself from the sofa and went to answer. Outside was overcast. It would probably rain in an hour or two. For now, she had to deal with the man in front of her. 

Nothing I chopped out of that leaves anything unsaid. It's just taken us from point A (on the sofa) to point B (stranger at door) much faster, reserving words for interesting things like secret government agents, an estranged father she hasn't seen in years, or an alien invasion.


It's in Word format, so you should be able to edit to your heart's content.

Three short story snippets, each in three paragraphs.

Go through them.
  1. In the first paragraph of each story, take out anything that states the obvious. 
  2. In the second paragraph of each story, pick one, no more than two, adjectives (remembering the obvious rule).
  3. In the third paragraph of each story, cull the little words and tighten it right up.

See how much better those stories read?

Now go do it to your own manuscript.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Book Curses

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Hocus, pocus, books and locusts.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Hard Copy

Now I've finished my latest contract, I've got some time to work on my own projects again. I've got both Creeper's Cottage and Wolfish ready for first edit. One thing the proofing job has given me is a real appreciation for hard copies. I can't remember the last time I saw one of my novels printed out, and it really is a completely different experience proofing copy than editing on screen. 

I went down to a print shop called Right Click in town and got both of them inked. Creeper's is over 105,000 words, close to 400 pages. Satisfyingly weighty. Thinking of taking it to my friend's café tomorrow to work on. Just pray I don't accidentally drop it because I forgot to include page numbers.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Sophie & Howl

Made it to the end of my proofing contract. Possibly more to come in the New Year. Have to wait and see. My eyes need a rest.

Managed to rehome two of the kitties. Even though I knew it was coming, I must admit there were a few tears shed as I helped put them in the box. But they've started their new lives with a lovely friend. She grew up with cats, but lost all of hers during the genocide. She now has children of her own and they were all super excited to have kittens. They took the biggest boy and the biggest girl, now named Titi and Fifi, respectively. Apparently the kids spoil them rotten.

That leaves me with the smallest girl and the tiniest boy (the runt of the litter).

My plan was to rehome them all, and I had hoped to do so on the same day, but the second viewer decided he could only take one, so I declined.

With each day that passes, I find myself wondering whether I might keep them. Life is much calmer with half the number of cats. There's certainly a lot less poo, and they are absolutely adorable.

I've temporarily named them Sophie Cat and Howl Cat, after Howl's Moving Castle

I know, I'm doomed.

The house and garden are currently sparkling. I have a friend from Kenya visiting. My mate Tracey, who runs Overland Travel Adventures (OTA), is bringing a tour over with her husband. They're crashing with me for a few days, whilst their group stays at a nearby hotel and explores Rwanda. It's been a really long time since I last had guests in the house, so I'm looking forward to it. Evicted the cats from the spare room and Dettoled everything.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Coffee Bean Eyes

Fondling a Kusu Mask
My friend Maia recently gave up her job to turn her house into a café and night school. It's called Casa Keza, a Spanish-themed tapas bar in Kigali. The official opening was a couple of days ago. Check it out on Facebook

As well as teaching fiction there, I've also started to help a local trader from Caplaki craft village to market his wares. He deals in Congolese masks, and I've developed something of a fascination. I can now confidently identify several tribes: Luba, Teke, Tetela, Punu, Lega, Bembe, Chokwe and Songye. There are many more that I don't know.

Tetela mask, tribe of the first prime minister
of the DRC, Patrice Lumumba

Ancestor jars, like those in Sierra Leone

Top Right: death gathers in mask of the Lega Bwami society.

Right: From the secret male Elanda society of the Bembe.
Left: Pwo, first female ancestor of the Chokwe

Something really struck me the other day. Someone posted on Twitter about how bored they were of the US election. To illustrate this, they posted a picture of Ramesses II's mummy. Because I'd been staring at pictures of Congolese masks for the past three days, it really caught my attention.

There's a couple of common features with masks. The first is the high, arched brow, seen in the central and left mask above, the other is a triangular nose, and the third is what is often referred to as 'coffee bean eyes,' because the eyes look like dried coffee beans. The Kusu mask at the top of this post is a perfect example, and Pwo in the bottom picture. They often look sunken in deep circular pits.

What struck me about the mummified features of Ramasses, is that he displays all three of these traits perfectly: the rainbow brow, the triangular nose and the coffee bean eyes. He even has the square jaw of the Songye kifwebe. It certainly started me speculating about ancient African death rites and whether there is a stylistic difference between elemental spirit masks and ancestor spirits. I'd love to hear from anyone with more knowledge on this subject.