Your Words Right Back at You

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend Ailsa on Instagram who is a professional actor. She was asking her peers for monologue resources, as she was having little success finding good ones either online or in books.

You might remember in October I made a script submission to the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow. This is in monologue form, and I’d already wanted to hear it read by an actor to check whether someone else would interpret my words as I’d intended. However, I wouldn’t have had time to do this before the submission date.

Nonetheless, I asked Ailsa whether she was interested in making an audio recording. After some discussion about what form it should take and her fees for doing this, she sent on the recordings a few days later.

Holy mackarel, I should have done this a long time ago. Ailsa had added pauses and shifts in tone of voice, all in-keeping with the character. By the final scene, I couldn’t believe the life that had been injected into my own words.

Probably the most illuminating part was how little would need to be rewritten. The corrections identified so far are all minor, and come to a total of less than half a page of A4.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been working on finishing another play, this time a dialogue. When it’s time to review this, I’m seriously considering hiring other actors to read it for me.

Blanket Coverage

Some years ago, I went to a dentist that showed The Life Channel in the waiting room.

Its programmes consisted largely of short films about the improving and maintaining of health, and it was rather easy to ignore it while listening for your name to be called out. As I was undergoing a lot of procedures at the time, I was there with regularity.

Then an advert began appearing in the breaks for a service called My Favourite Directories, which seemed much the same as the Yellow Pages. At first, one of its two variations would be broadcast once in a while, then in subsequent weeks, they would run over the entire break each time.

It felt as though the company was deaf to how the audience would react to this repetitive messaging. I vowed that if I ever needed a plumber or an accountant, the last place I would look is My Favourite Directories.

Yet you don’t have to go far to find writers who employ the same tactics, seemingly unaware of how it comes across.

I’m in a popular writers’ page where one particular member has posted almost every day like clockwork for the last month to promote her books. The text reads like marketing copy rather than an attempt to engage the other page users.

And that shows in the responses. Over the course of the month, hardly anyone has engaged meaningfully with these posts with written responses. It feels like we’re being talked at, not talked to, so these daily updates have effectively become background noise. One saving grace, however, is that this author has a good seven or eight books, so the marketing copy does change daily.

When I’m announcing my monthly open-mike, one of the groups it’s promoted in has a rule: each member can self-promote a maximum of once a week.

In practice, I usually update every fortnight, but I make a conscious effort to differentiate each post from the last. They all contain the same basic information such as the date, the time and the format, but I’ll sometimes start off with a joke or make reference to a big news story.

If humour isn’t your style, even switching the order of the paragraphs or refreshing some of the phrasing can work. It shows you’ve made an effort to engage with your audience and aren’t simply feeding them an advertising line.

Look at My Favourite Directories. They haven’t existed for some time now, and I like to imagine that’s because everyone boycotted them after their blanket coverage.

Packed Up and Sent Away

About a week before the deadline, I learnt that the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow and had an open call for stage play submissions of at least 50 minutes. I already had a piece that fitted the criteria and was in a nearly-finished state, but I hadn’t touched it for many months.

So I hurriedly began work, giving it a once-over for any obvious errors, then restructuring where necessary. My usual way of approaching this is to read the entire script out loud, as this highlights any flaws more clearly than simply reading it over. There were parts that I felt could be beefed up, events that could be clarified or simplified, and even some instances when a character’s former name had accidentally been retained.

As much as I wanted to send it off straight away, I left it for a day or two. Coming back to it after that period lets you more easily spot mistakes that slipped past the first time. Once I was satisfied that the script was as ship-shape as it could be within the timescale available, I sent it in.

This is the first piece of work I’ve submitted for a long time. It’s been such a while that I’ve cleared the rest of my submissions tracker on the assumption that if I haven’t heard back from the listed publishers by now, I never will. It’ll be a nine-month wait before I hear back about this play, during which time I can’t send it anywhere else.

I stopped submitting short stories and poems to allow me to work on longer-form pieces, but now I’ve been working on these longer ones, it’s time to start finding a home for them.

Lots of Words, Little Payoff

A long time ago on this blog, we explored what to look out for when submitting your work. I’d never had a particularly bad experience until recently.

But first, let me take you back 2½ years. I’d entered a short piece to be included in a charity anthology, along with a number of local writers. The book would then be sold to raise funds for the cause.

The process was long and slow. Months after my submission was accepted, I remember going to one meeting, which I found to be an unstructured and unproductive discussion about the form this book should take. As such, I didn’t attend another meeting, although I’d cut the committee a little slack because it was clear they were learning as they went along.

We then received sporadic updates about its progress, and just over a week ago, we heard confirmation that the book was finally ready. All we had to do was send our postal addresses to receive a contributor’s copy.

At this point, it transpired that the contributors would not receive complimentary or even reduced-price copies. This came as news to us as much as it did to the writer who had been liaising with the charity committee. We were instead invited to buy a copy for £19.99.

It’s considered bad form in the publishing world to charge contributors to see their own work in print. Some presses do operate like this, using a business model called vanity publishing, but that’s looked down upon in the industry, even by self-publishers. In this case, I’m satisfied it wasn’t the committee’s intention to act like a vanity publisher, but a case of not understanding the conventions of publishing.

None of the contributors want it to reflect badly on the charity or its purpose; indeed, that’s why we supported it with our words. Nonetheless, a number of us feel shortchanged. If we had been advised at the start we would be expected to buy a copy, we would have at least made an informed choice. Even for those who might choose to buy this volume, it’s currently only available in person and on a certain day of the week, which further restricts its availability.

The contributors have now opened discussions with the committee in the hope that a deal or a compromise can be reached.

November, But Not as We NaNo It

We are fast approaching the start of November, which means that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) is nearly upon us. This is a worldwide challenge to draft a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I run the Dundee & Angus region for Scotland.

NaNo headquarters in California took the decision not to endorse nor support any meet-ups in person until they say otherwise. This has had a profound effect on our group, who have been accustomed to meeting all year round for five years. Even the pub we use is currently closed until restrictions on selling alcohol indoors are eased.

What we have in our favour is a number of student-age members who are accustomed to interacting online. We already use Discord software, and we’ve been working this week on improving its features.

Traditionally, physical goodies are part of the experience; these usually include stickers, pens and erasers. This also introduces another hurdle of either asking folks to trust us with their postal address or meet up in accordance with local regulations. As such, we’ve replaced the pens and erasers with bookmarks so they fit more snugly into an envelope.

In short, this does not and will not feel like any other NaNo. In other years, I’d even associate the colder nights with the coming of the contest, but that simply hasn’t happened.

There are a couple of factors, however, that won’t change and that we’ll keep reminding our membership:

  • Everyone is welcome in our group regardless of nationality, LGBT identity, &c, provided they follow the published codes of conduct.
  • There is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.

Makey-Uppie Stories

One of my favourite Twitter users is the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards. This account is dedicated to picking out tall tales and outrageous claims from social media users.

The best way to gauge the style is by reading a number of posts. After a while, you might begin to spot some common elements:

  • The story is usually heard second-hand from a friend or relative, or witnessed by the writer, although some accounts are first-hand.
  • The setting is usually a crowded public place such as a supermarket or a gym.
  • Stories often feature a child aged under 10 who speaks more articulately than would be expected from that age range.
  • In an argument with a member of staff, a manager will sometimes intervene; the member of staff is usually fired on the spot.
  • The story rounds off with a report of spontaneous cheering from the crowd.

The winner of the award in 2018 is a textbook example.

And yet, when we read an autobiography, there is usually an understanding that the events don’t take place quite as presented. Sometimes events are merged, or timelines become elastic, or the wording implies that something else really happened.

The difference between this type of writing and a Didn’t Happen award nominee is that the author has taken care to ensure that the events are at least consistent with generally accepted behaviour. How often have you seen a member of staff lose their job in front of customers, or heard an entire cafe cheer at someone else’s conversation? Probably never, and certainly not at the same time.

And with some authors, the story is so good that readers don’t care whether or not they’re being deceived. Try starting with these rock-star memoirs and make up your own mind.

Local Motion

If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.

I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.

Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.

For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.

I’m Apparantly Building Quite the Voluminous Vocabulary

Although I don’t generally have a problem with spelling or grammar, I like to use Grammarly software as a double-check. It’s especially useful in a browser, which tends only to have basic correction functionality.

Every week, I receive an e-mail with some statistics about my writing. This week, I was advised I have a voluminous vocabulary. Let’s take a look at what that means:

  • You were more productive than 85% of Grammarly users.
  • You were more accurate than 78% of Grammarly users.
  • You used more unique words than 86% of Grammarly users.

So far, we’re onto a winner. Reading on, here are the tones it’s detected in my writing and the percentage of the time I’ve used them.

  • Informative: 20%
  • Informal: 16%
  • Joyful: 13%
  • Appreciative: 12%
  • Formal: 9%
  • Friendly: 7%
  • Neutral: 7%

And the number of words checked since 18 Jan 2017?

1,033,593

Now let’s see the weaknesses:

  1. Missing period: 16 alerts
  2. Missing closing punctuation: 16 alerts
  3. Missing comma in compound sentence: 13 alerts

The is where Grammarly and I disagree most. I like to use an Oxford comma and the software doesn’t. And fet it would like me to use them before and after ‘therefore’, whereas I think that slows down the sentence unnecessarily.

The purpose of these e-mails is not merely informative, but to encourage me to upgrade from the basic package. I used to subscribe to the Premium servies, but I find it has more features than I need.

But if spelling and grammar is your sticking point, or you’re worried about accidental plagarism, it’s definitely worth subscribing.