Finishing What You Start

When I’m stuck for a blog post idea, I check my Drafts folder on WordPress to see whether I can resurrect a half-written idea. At the time of writing, however, there is little material in any of the drafts.

One of them covers the concept of life writing, which I’d already discussed last week. Another was placed there by WordPress about how to use their Guttenberg editor interface. A third entry simply contains the words ‘Jesus wept’, and I’m not certain what caused me to exclaim this.

While considering these entries, I began thinking of the prose and poetry I’ve started but not fully finished. Sure, I generally finish a first draft of what I write, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gone back to edit it. However, I do keep everything I write because sometimes it comes in useful.

A few years ago, I was reaching the end of a Masters degree in Writing Practice & Study. The course had worked its magic, encouraging me to move in different directions with my writing, which wasn’t a problem until it was time to compile the dissertation. With 80% of the mark resting on a creative portfolio, I was faced with the challenge of bringing together my disparate work into one unified piece.

I had a meeting with two tutors to discuss the matter, bringing along samples of my work to figure out how to present it. As we were coming to the end of the pile of samples, we looked at a short story written in diary form about a first-year student with a horrible flatmate. I’d written the story as a homework piece for a writing group, falling back on the diary form because I was so short of time.

One of the tutors suggested incorporating my pieces into the form of that story, presenting it as though someone else had written my work. This character was rather flighty anyway, so she could feasibly have written in different styles over a short space of time.

I went back to the draft of this writing homework, converted it into a script, and beefed out the story. It solved the problem nicely and helped me to bag an A-grade for that part of the dissertation.

I’ve since gone on to refine this into a one-hour dramatic monologue, which is now more or less finished.

The Geography of Biography

I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.

It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.

It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.

The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.

In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.

In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.

Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.

Friday Night Amphitheatre

For over four months now, it hasn’t been possible to run my two writing groups in person because they’re both in pubs. While the venues cautiously opened a couple of weeks ago in line with government guidance, each group has a different obstacle preventing us from returning.

Let’s take the weekly National Novel Writing Month meet-ups. Last week, a member and I scoped out the venue with a view to deciding whether it was safe to bring members back. Before we could reach a conclusion, however, the decision was taken out of our hands.

NaNo HQ took a blanket decision not to endorse or support any in-person meet-ups until further notice. It’s a disappointing decision, especially as our area is controlling it well, but I understand they’re making the decision for every region in the world.

The other group is the monthly Hotchpotch open-mike for writers. Normally, we can attract a membership of 30 or more per session, so it wouldn’t be possible to cram everyone into the same space while leaving the required one-metre distance between people. On top of this, we have the additional hygiene issue of everyone sharing the same microphone.

What we can potentially do is arrange social night out where everyone sits at different tables, but this would have to be done in consultation with the bar.

That said, the rules are more relaxed in outdoor areas. On Friday night, I went to a street poetry event at a public amphitheatre in Dundee. This was run by Mark Richardson, who organises these ‘guerrilla’ gatherings on an occasional basis.

I’ve always half-joked that if Hotchpotch didn’t have a venue one month we would do it in the street. But was accounting only for the lack of a place and not a public health emergency. Besides, Mark did it first and his evenings have their own distinct character, so I’m not inclined to step on his toes.

The Initial Hurdles

As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.

Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.

Probably the most important task to undertake before showing someone is to learn how to edit your own writing.

We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.

And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.

When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.

When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.

Cobbled Together

I’ve had little time to put together a full entry, but there is something I want to show you.

A few weeks ago, I attended writing workshops run by the poet Imogen Stirling, who took the theme of the lockdown as inspiration for her prompts. I’m pleased to report that the amalgamation of the work done by the class has been featured in The Scotsman Sessions.

It was a pleasure taking part in these classes because that’s exactly how I started writing a decade ago: here’s a prompt, and you’ve got five minutes to write something inspired by it.

Come to think of it, that’s much how this entry has been put together.

Writing Prose Again

When I first began writing in 2010, my output was exclusively prose. I was in a writing prompt group where I would regulary produce short stories. Around the same time, I was producing longer works through National Novel Writing Month, normally known as NaNoWriMo.

My step into poetry happened around three years later. It coincided with being single for six months after a long-term relationship, but I can’t say how much that influenced me. Since then, I’ve crafted my poetry more and more to the point where I almost exclusively write verse.

Recently, however, that has started to reverse, perhaps because my poetry group is taking a one-month break. I’ve drafted one piece that will probably end up being no longer than 150 words, and I’m planning another with five characters who will likely dictate the length of the story before I know it myself.

NaNoWriMo is a contest to write 50,000 words in November. It’s not widely known outside this circle that there is a less formal contest at other times of the year known as Camp. April saw the last one, and we’re currently in the July edition. In these months, you pick your own word count and type of long-form piece.

However, I’m not writing these stories as part of Camp as I don’t intend them to be terribly long. What I’ll be doing instead is keeping aside my existing longer pieces and working on them during November.

What I have to do now is find a way to keep up my prose momentum from now until then. That said, the excitement in the group tends to swell around November, and that helps a lot.

My First Library

It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.

My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.

I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.

Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.

I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.

All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.

My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Comedy with the Structure of Drama

In June 2018, the comedian Hannah Gadsby debuted her show Nanette, causing an immediate sensation. For a time, it was hard to turn left or right without someone quoting her words or reacting to what was said.

Exactly two years on, with all the hype gone, I listened to the show with the intention of making up my own mind about it. I knew some of the gags in advance, and I knew that during the gig, she announces she’s quitting comedy.

By the end, there was a lot to chew over. I liked the content: I thought the gags were observations were spot-on, and I that Gadsby’s reasoning for quitting was a sound one, but I found it difficult to formulate a comment about it. I felt utterly indifferent.

It took more than a week to figure out what was so jarring: it was the structure of the show.

There isn’t a standard structure to stand-up comedy. As a general rule, however, a show will begin with more tried-and-tested gags, and any unifying theme or narrative will be introduced. Between the halfway and three-quarters points, you’ll often find more experimental or riskier material, which will build up to a climax near the end, often referring back to earlier in the show.

In drama, the action will usually begin with a major event, slow down a little, perhaps include some comedic elements, then the plot will thicken and thicken until the climax near the end.

What Nanette did was to switch to a drama-style structure at around the three-quarters mark.

It’s not in question this was deliberate. At one point, Gadsby actually tells the audience, ‘That was your last joke,’ before finishing her monologue, so they don’t hear the payoff they were expecting. It takes confidence to carry this off, or a sense there’s nothing to lose

Despite working through my feelings about Gadsby’s routine, I still have that indifferent reaction. It’s not dramatic enough for drama, it’s not comedic enough for comedy.

As such, I’m also hitting a wall as I try to end this entry. At least if I’d hated every minute, I’d have some kind of conclusion to draw.

The Thrice-Over Movie Club

At the end of last week’s entry, I mentioned I’d watched the Fifty Shades of Grey screenplay from 2015. I enjoyed it marginally better than the book, but I would not seek out either the novel or the film again.

Some people find enjoyment in reading the same novel multiple times over several years, or watching the same film on a regular basis. I know of one colleague who revisits The Wasp Factory annually, and another who views Casablanca every month.

By contrast, I’m not normally inclined to go back to a book or a screenplay, even if I’ve enjoyed it. I can think of only two novels I’ve read more than once: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, and the Chris Brookmyre book All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. I’m not even certain I finished the second of these for a second time.

Yet on the film front, there are more contenders, and some belong to an elite called the Thrice-Over Movie Club. It’s also great to air the word ‘thrice’ from time to time.

Inductees of the Club include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Home Alone (1990), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999), The Matrix (1999), The Phantom Menace (1999) and most recently The Greatest Showman (2017).

So what is it about these particular films that make them stand up to repeated viewings? The short answer is that I have no idea, and I’ve redrafted this entry several times trying to find a common thread. Even the three released in the 1999 have little in common with each other:

  • With Home Alone and The Matrix, it’s because I’ve owned the video or DVD.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas staple and is frequently shown around that time.
  • I’ve seen Being John Malkovich mainly by introducing it to others.

And I first saw The Phantom Menace at the cinema when I was about 15. It was with a girl I was trying to impress, and it turns out that’s the very much the wrong film to do it with.