The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

The Formal and the Informal

Modern English is a hybrid of many earlier languages, principally Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon. As such, it’s possible to communicate with a different level of formality depending on the choice of words used.

For instance, an object might be described as ‘round’ in everyday speech or as ‘circular’ in a technical description. You might describe a show as ‘funny’ to a friend, but as ‘humorous’ in an arts review.

Beginner writers often confuse the two tones, giving their characters long sentences, resulting in unnatural speech. In particular, I find that Victorian novelists were not good at writing an informal tone .

Additionally, the structure of a given sentence can support its tone. It’s a common misconception that a sentence can’t begin with a conjunction (and, but, &c) nor end with a preposition (with, from, &c). While these traits should be avoided in formal writing, you can begin and end a sentence with any words, provided they make sense in context.

An interesting blend of styles can be found in many Bible passages. While the language used tends to be formal in tone, the stories were often passed by word of mouth over several generations before being written. It’s therefore common to find verses that begin with conjunctions, much like someone would speak out loud.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.

Far, Wide and Deep

This blog primarily discusses writing and the performance of literary works. For the most part, this encompasses novels, short stories and poems.

But some of the entries touch upon films, TV series and rap music. What these forms have in common is that they almost always begin as a written document, from the musician who jots down lyrics in the notebook to the screenwriter carefully crafts a story arc.

In my view, it’s healthy for a writer to have influences from many different sources. Last week alone, I’ve been to see a 40th anniversary screening of Alien, I visited and participated in the StAnza poetry Festival in St Andrews, and I’ve been listening to the hits of Rizzle Kicks.

That’s not to say these sources will immediately influence my work. Rather, I might pick up a line of dialogue or a neat way of wrapping up a plot.

When I undertook my MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee, I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Jim Stewart before his death in 2016.

If you came to him with a piece he didn’t understand, he’d ask you questions until it was clear to him or research it. If he felt something could be improved, he would guide you rather than make outright suggestions. I never once heard him dismiss anything.

And when a writer embraces an unlikely influence, the result can be eye-opening. Take P D James as an example. She was known for her detective novels, then at the age of 70, she wrote Children of Men, her only science fiction work.

Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.