To the Edge

Over the past week or so, I’ve had a lot of time to write while travelling on trains. In fact, I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham that reminds me of an old-school Butlins chalet. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s marvellous.

Unfortunately, while writing, I haven’t had much time to write about writing. I only started this entry at 5:30pm and it’s due to be published at 6pm.

Douglas Adams is known for saying, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ I know he was trying to be funny, but I can’t get behind that mentality. To me, a deadline needs to be met, even if it’s a self-imposed one.

Last week, a friend needed a reference for a job application. I hadn’t read the e-mail properly and didn’t realise it needed to be done on the same night. I wrote it nonetheless on the grounds that the employer might be flexible. My friend agreed, so I submitted it the moment it was proof-read.

My top tip for meeting deadlines is to use a paper diary rather than a phone calendar; I favour a Moleskine. The pages are much larger than a mobile device allows, so you can see a week at a time, and you can refer to it while you’re speaking to someone on the phone.

It’s Gonna Be Epic!!

I was invited last week to be part of a one-off writing workshop. I knew little about the content in advance because it was brought to my attention by a third party. However, I believe improv keeps me sharp, so I was excited to go along and find out.

Martin O’Connor led us through the workshop. He’s interested in epic poetry, particularly in the Scots dialect, so he was holding these sessions around Scotland.

As part of the exercise, the eight or so participants were asked to complete several statements ranging from ‘My favourite holiday was…’ to ‘After death, I believe we…’ From these, we were asked to build a chronology of one aspect of our lives, before building up to the beginning of an epic piece of prose or poetry.

Martin invited us to send the work to him, either as it was written in the workshop or expanded into a full-length piece. The work didn’t necessarily have to be in Scots; in fact, none of the participants wrote that way.

Poetry is about boiling down big concepts into a few words, so for epic poetry, you need a lot of source material. Paradise Lost by John Milton is based upon Bible Scripture so he had a lot of material to draw up. Similarly, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are both set over a 10-year period.

Prose allows a little more flexibility for expanding ideas. The classic example is War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which runs to 250,000 words. This took seven years to write, and is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place from 1803 to 1815.

This month, I’ve started upon my annual attempt at National Novel Writing Month, as well as leading the local region with the help of a co-host.

The target is 50,000 words, more modest than the works mentioned above, but the challenge is to write them all within 30 days. Fortunately, I’ll be spending a lot of time on trains, giving me ample time to boost that word count, and the region as a whole is nearly at the 300,000-word mark.

Of course, the new standard of epic literature is neither fiction nor poetry. In July 2016, Sir John Chilcot published his long-awaited report about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It ran to 2.6 million words.

The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.

 

 

Performing to an Audience: Updated Oct 2018

It’s come to my attention that this blog is now five years old. After a few test posts, it officially launched on 14 Oct 2013.

Throughout this time, I’ve periodically updated my guide to performing in front of an audience. From this entry onwards, these posts will have a consistent title format. I’ve placed this one and my previous posts about performing into a single category so you can read them on one page.

If you have time, two other great sources are a guide from Lies, Dreaming and a more detailed post from John Foggin.

My last update was made in January, and wasn’t due to be revised so soon. However, a few incidents happened last week that made me return to the topic. These are peppered throughout the current guide, below. Remember this should be treated as a subjective guide, not a textbook.


Talk with the organisers about what’s required

Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to:

  • How long you’ll be asked to speak for
  • What type of content is required
  • Whether it’s de rigeur to read from paper or speak from memory
  • Whether you’ll be given an introduction
  • Where you should wait before you’re called up
  • Whether any fee is payable

Each event has its own particular character. At Platform Poetry, for instance, each performer is asked to fill a 10- to 15-minute slot. At Blend In – Stand Out, each person performs one poem before the interval, then the reading order is reversed after the interval.

If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.

Think about your own structure

The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own slot so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:

  • Give name, say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
  • Say you’re happy to sign copies
  • Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
  • Tell obesity clinic anecdote
  • Read out And an Onion One Too (page 24)
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Read out The Crust of the Matter (page 12)

Note that the thanks should be placed second-last, not as the final item. That means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head rather than why you think Tracey is so great, even if she is.

Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise

Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take or infer from the piece.

If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising or telling a long story, either take it out of your set or work on it until only a short introduction is necessary.

Read out loud and time your words

The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out where nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?

When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or to stick a post-it note as a lever. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.

Don’t forget to use a stopwatch to make sure all your words fit within the agreed timeslot.

Make sure everyone can hear you

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you might need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation and don’t be afraid to pause.

If there is a microphone, always use it; it’s generally there because there’s a known problem with people being able to hear the performer. However, unless it’s a major gig, there’s unlikely to be a professional sound engineer around, so ask to test it out beforehand.

A big annoyance for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random. So whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth and speak into the top; that said, there are types of microphones where you speak into the front. Don’t worry about being too loud or causing distortion; it’s almost always better than the alternative.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig

I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look

I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it’s  unnerving to make eye contact for most people. Fortunately, there are some techniques to avoid this.

One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way is to look beyond the back row; again, everyone assumes you’re looking at someone else.

Both of these methods have the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Keep going through distractions and cock-ups

A common issue at spoken-word nights is the audience member who keeps talking. Unlike a music gig, you don’t have the advantage of drowning them out with your instruments. A good host will take charge of silencing any chat, but if they don’t, either carry on as you were or – if it’s too distracting – politely ask them to refrain.

Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps a hundred other unpredictable problems crop up. Keep going as best as you can. It might mean cutting a piece short or shouting instead of reading, but the audience are there to see you perform.

Listen to the performers

This might seem like an obvious and unnecessary piece of advice, but it doesn’t always happen.

I was speaking at an event last week where I talked about Hotchpotch, the open-mike night I run; I was on a panel with others who are involved in the local literary scene in different ways.

Someone in the audience clearly hadn’t listened to what I was saying. At the end of the event, he kept commenting to me how ‘brave’ I was for standing up, then giving me advice about how to handle an audience. I explained to him that I’m completely comfortable doing this, but he didn’t seem to listen to this either.

Later in the week, I went to an event where some of the performers were standing outside the venue rather than listening to their peers’ readings. I found it rather disrespectful to expect others to listen to their work when they didn’t offer the courtesy of returning the favour.

Signal that you’ve finished

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect.

A good clear signal is to lower your manuscript or to step backwards slightly, or even say ‘Thank you.’ At that point, people should take the hint and applaud.

Do it again

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and even which subjects to cover for different audiences.


There are no guarantees that your poetry performance will be a success. But by following the suggestions above, you can maximise the chances that it will.

The Intelligent Narrator

Something that occasionally crops up in literary discussion is the issue of the unreliable narrator, where the reader gains the perception that whoever is telling the story is being economical with the truth.

Perhaps the opposite of that trope is the intelligent narrator.

Having seen the film adaptation some years ago, I finally read Fight Club, the debut novel by Chuck Palahniuk. The story is told in the first person, and it takes a little time to become accustomed to the style.

But what shone through for me was the intelligence of the character telling the story.

Sure, he makes some questionable decisions, and that’s part of the charm of the book. However, his decisions are always based on his own logic and knowledge. For instance, he knew the chemistry involved in making explosives; he didn’t simply mix ingredients together and hope for the best.

I’ve long been drawn to novels where the narrator knows what they’re doing – or at least gives the appearance of such.

I was reminded of Layer Cake. This was based on the book of the same name by JJ Connolly, and could feasibly have been set in the same universe as Fight Club, such are the parallels in their styles.

Here, the unnamed narrator takes the same approach to selling narcotics as a chief executive might approach a legitimate business deal. He isn’t bumbling through life, and has a clear plan to leave the lifestyle by the age of 30.

And in the film adaptation of Trainspotting, Renton appears to be the most educated among his friends. I can’t speak for the novel, but I imagine he’s very similar in that.

Perhaps the most intelligent narrator in fiction was also created by Irving Welsh. In Filth, part of the story is told by a sentient tapeworm.


Last week’s entry was about the problem of enjoying Graham Linehan’s work while disagreeing with his views. Since the entry was posted, it’s been reported that West Yorkshire police have given him a verbal warning about harassing someone online.

The whole issue led to some civilised discussion with friends. It seems our consensus is to try to separate the creator from the creation, so I think that’s the tack I’m going to take for the moment.

 

 

 

 

The Linehan Problem

For a long time now, I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan’s TV shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd.

Over the last couple of years, however, it’s emerged that he holds views that I disagree with, explored in an opinion piece from 2016, while this and other matters are still debated on his own Twitter account.

This entry is not to discuss the views themselves, but to question how to react to his writing in their wake. Can I still rate Moss playing Countdown as one of my top sitcom moments? Am I allowed to imitate Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea?

I accept that some artistic expression can change from from acceptable to offensive in as little as a decade or two. Last week, I saw John Cooper Clarke on stage. He included a poem from 1993 about a person he described as a ‘disgruntled transsexual’, containing outdated stereotypes, as did the introductory patter.

In Clarke’s case, only that poem was problematic, and he at least acknowledged how much controversy it causes today. For this reason, I don’t have the same problem enjoying his work as I do with that of Linehan, whose opinions I’m far less willing to accept.

An odd disconnect struck me while writing this. I’m also a fan of the musician Peter Doherty, who has a long criminal record, yet this doesn’t seem to factor into whether or not I can appreciate his work.

Perhaps the passage of time will determine whether a given person’s personal life overshadows their artisic work.

That said, a journalist friend has stopped using the Gill Sans font in her zine. Even though he died in 1940, she has an ethical problem with its inventor Eric Gill who was accused of abusing his own daughters.

An article in The Guardian from last year asks similar questions about Gill as I ask about Graham Linehan.