Venues

I often speak about Hotchpotch on this blog. This is an open-mike night I run, with an ethos of no judgement and no criticism.

Yesterday, we heard that the venue we use is closing down, so we currently have nowhere to hold our next session, scheduled for Monday 15 July.

A few of the regulars are working on a stopgap venue, and we hope a permanent place can be found for August. We’ve also sent a message to members, advising them of the situation and asking for help.

So I’m afraid this entry has not much style nor substance, as this conundrum will be taking up much of my time this week.

Nonetheless, we’ve endured a number of venue closures over our ten-year history, and we’ve bounced back every time.

EDIT: In the time since this entry was written, we’ve found a stopgap place. This will give us breathing time before August.

Get Away

I’ve never been the type of writer who sets aside time every day, as I have a full-time job and other literary-related commitments.

However, the last seven days have been particularly productive for my poetry. I’ve written pieces inspired by such diverse sources as a convoluted train announcement and a Sorry You’re Leaving card.

The difference seems to be that I spent last week in Hove. This is on the south coast of England, more than eight hours away from Dundee by train. But once you’re there, it’s a pleasant walk into Brighton along the seafront, with plenty of tourist attractions along the way.

I must make it clear that this was a business trip, not a holiday. Yet after my shift finished at around 5:30pm, I had time spare with no washing to hang up or dishes to clear.

Unusually, I was put up in a hostel rather than a chain hotel because of where the office was located. I had a reasonably good experience there, but the bad reviews on TripAdvisor will probably inspire more poetry.

Despite the productivity I experienced, I’m still not of a mindset where I’d travel somewhere just for a holiday. I like to be somewhere for a purpose, else it feels like a waste of time.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to present workshops about National Novel Writing Month at a writing retreat called Chasing Time, run by three friends. They’re based in a large house in rural Angus.

Unfortunately, this particular workshop didn’t have enough subscribers to go ahead, but it would have suited me nicely to devote time to the other writers during the day, then work on my own project in the evenings. I’m pleased to report that their other workshops have all been successful.

The Secret Superpower

One of my favourite films is The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais. This is set in a parallel world where people can only tell the truth, so there’s no acting, no diplomacy and no religion. However, the main character unknowingly develops the ability to tell a lie. As a result, everyone else believes everything he says, no matter how outlandish.

It’s largely the opposite of Jim Carrey’s role in Liar, Liar, who develops the inability to tell a lie for 24 hours, making it difficult to continue his job as lawyer.

In both cases, there is a unique element about one person in the narrative universe that conflicts with the secondary characters who can’t understand what’s going on.

However, the concept needs to be done carefully so the audience can keep track of what’s going on. In The Invention of Lying, the rules of the world are explained as a voiceover at the very beginning. In Liar, Liar, the character is shown holding a blue pen while unsuccessfully trying to say it’s a different colour.

This type of secret superpower is one I’ve explored in my own novel-writing. Here, my main character can compel others to say something or to make a simple movement. He’s not the only one with the ability, but he belongs to a select band of people who do, still allowing that conflict with the rest of the world.

A Place to Speak

Over the years, I’ve been to poetry gigs in many different locations.

In most cases, there are only a few legal requirements, including the correct insurance, a PPL licence if music is involved, and an alcohol certificate if drink is served.

For this reason, pubs and cafés are a common choice, and many bookshops, theatres and libraries are able to help. And there are plenty of alternatives. A friend launched her novel in a bank, while my own Hotchpotch event has previously taken place on an ancient warship.

And now I have somewhere new to add to the list: a virtual reality studio. On Saturday, Second Space took over the place for one night only.

This studio is largely open-plan to allow two or more players to battle against each other wearing VR helmets. As a result, there’s an area large enough to seat 50 people comfortably.

The other unusual factor in this gig was the extent of technology involved. Each poet was accompanied by computer-generated fractal imagery such as you might find at a nightclub, plus short films screened between performers.

Even before I knew about this, I’d discussed with one of the owners the possibility of holding a special Hotchpotch there, as we’ll celebrate our 10th birthday in March 2020. From seeing how well the Second Space performance was staged, I’ll start making plans now and we’ll be all set for next year.

How the Story Ends

Although this entry discusses the endings of screenplays and short stories, no spoilers are revealed. We’ll be looking at the craft of bringing a story to an end rather than the specifics.

There’s been some disquiet over the ending of the TV version of Game of Thrones, with the consensus that it had been unsatisfying compared to the action that had gripped viewers earlier in the run. It echoes the rumbles that followed the endings of Lost a decade ago and The Prisoner in the 1960s.

Conflict is at the heart of storytelling across all media and all eras, and it’s by convention that the conflict should rise and rise as the story progresses, then end with a final resolution that ties up every plot point. Unless a writer is exceptionally skilled, it’s difficult to break away from this convention and still hold the audience.

An unsatisfying ending is usually because the writer failed to resolve the conflict, or sometimes because said conflict wasn’t strong enough in the first instance.

Let’s look at The Prisoner. The series begins when a former British intelligence agent known as Number Six is abducted and imprisoned in a coastal village, where absurd rules apply and staff attempt to nudge him into explaining why he abruptly resigned from his job.

Despite this strong initial premise, the series begins to fall into a rut. By the halfway point of the run, each episode sees Number Six attempting either to escape or to win over his captors, but failing each time in a near-predictable manner.

The final episode is consistent with the absurd rules that had been well established, but fails to answer the question posed about why Number Six had left the security services. That revelation could have been one of the greatest moments in TV history. But thanks to the erratic production, the episode instead divided its viewership.

It is entirely possible to end a piece in such an open-ended manner, as is common in some short stories, but this must be carefully done. A few years ago, I had a story published in an anthology whose stories didn’t seem to have proper endings, leaving me with the feeling that each writer was concealing a vital plot point.

However, an open ending is common in The New Yorker and similar publications. In other media, the film Teeth (2007) is a particularly good example of showing how the previous sequence of events might be about to repeat without spelling it out too much.

The bottom line is that a good ending must either indicate that the previous conflict will be resolved in some way, or an audience must have enough information to work out how it might be resolved once the narrative ends.

Poetry in the Community

On Monday of last week, I had the opportunity to teach my colleagues how to write a type of poem called a clerihew. This was part of a larger event called Learning at Work Week where people were teaching their skills to their workmates, such as Zumba, knitting and making mocktails.

A lot of people don’t think they’re very good at writing poetry, so the aim of my workshop was to encourage colleagues to write verses about each other using a simple format. I ended up with a number of good ones, and the clean ones might make it into the internal newsletter.

Colleagues and friends have also occasionally commented that they don’t understand poetry in general, with some asking how to appreciate it.

The best advice I can offer is to read and listen to a wide variety of different poets. There will probably come a point when you begin to differentiate between what you like and don’t like.

After all, most people are certain of their taste in music, and that’s because we’re surrounded by it every day and have built up a template in our heads of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you’re willing to take the time, it’s possible to do the same with poetry.

A Last-Minute Change of Plans

In the first few minutes of the film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative branches off in two directions. This creates two separate realities.

In one of these, Helen Quilley catches her underground train and arrives home to find her partner cheating on her. In the other, she misses the train, giving enough time for the mistress to leave before she arrives. The rest of the film alternates between the two realities and explores how that starting point leads to two different outcomes.

The Sliding Doors screenplay is a great example of how a character’s last-minute change of plan – intentional or otherwise – can play a pivotal role in the plot. However, it’s unusual that the audience can compare and contrast both outcomes.

Another film that relies on chance is Titanic, starring Kate Winslet as Rose Calvert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. In the story, Dawson wanted to return to America, and was only on board because he won tickets in a game of cards and managed to arrive in time.

As an audience, we’re left to assume that if he’d been unable to board, he would have tried to find another way to travel, and that Rose would be with her intended fiancé as the ship sank. Without them meeting, the plot would be substantially less exciting.