What to Tell; What to Leave Out

Last week, you should have seen an entry about memoir writing, but just as I was about to type it, my Internet speed inexplicably slowed to a crawl. By the time I was able to access WordPress, there were only five minutes left to hammer out a basic explanation.

It’s doubly frustrating because the planned entry was in reference to the terrorist attacks of 11 Sep 2001 and would have been more relevant last week. Rather than a straight retelling of my experience that day, I was exploring what details might be included in such an account.

I was at school in sixth-form at the time, and I heard the news just as I was about to head home.

One possible emphasis is how I heard the news: first by word of mouth from classmates, plus the librarians had set up a TV showing the news footage. One pal was also able to find out details online with the first Internet-enabled mobile phone I’d ever seen.

Anotdher possible aspect is the political one. My Economics and Modern Studies teachers were both well-informed about global security and were able to lead discussions about what might happen next. The Modern Studies course also felt as though it was being rewritten as we were trying to learn it.

In my experience, memoir is better when it comes from a certain angle, although in a lengthier account, it might be appropriate to include both versions. Ultimately there is no right or wrong emphasis. It’s up to the writer to decide what type of story to tell, and aim it in that direction.

Not The Entry You Want, But The Entry You’re Getting

This week’s entry has been drafted out in pencil, and all I had to do was to type it up, maybe change a few pieces, and press Publish.

Unfortunately, I’ve been struck down with inexplicable Internet connection problems. What’s more, I’m in the same pub with the same equipment I’ve used many times before.

So now, with just a minute to 6pm, here’s your entry.

Here’s What You Could Have Been Reading

Every so often, I’ll start to write an entry, then abandon it. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it; sometimes a more urgent topic arises before I can finish it.

As such, I have five draft entries in my WordPress account, listed in order of when they were last edited. The original unedited words are in italics, with further explanation below each one.

18 Mar 2018: The Importance of Outside Influences

While it is necessary for an author to read within their own genre, one of the first pieces of advice given to beginner writers is to read widely.  and collect influences from different sources.

This is fairly self-explanatory and probably would have segued into a couple of examples of where the author has successfully put together two disparate ideas to create something new.

Oddly enough, I was at a workshop run by Kirsty Logan a couple of weeks ago where she explored this very idea, so this topic might make a resurgence.

15 Oct 2019: But Who Would Want to Hear About That?

At the weekend, I took part in two different tours: on Saturday, a road train around Arbroath; on Sunday, a walking tour around the mostly-disused basement of Glasgow Central Station.

In both cases, it was clear that the guide had a vast knowledge of his subject, including a recognition that there were still mysteries to be solved

There is no shortage of fiction written by people with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject: Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, Dan Brown in Angels & Demons, &c. Often it makes for compelling reading, but an author needs to be careful not to overload the reader.

21 Jul 2019: Respeaking

Respoken.

This was the entirety of my note. It was a reference to how TV subtitles are created, at least on the BBC.

Rather than using a stenography keyboard, the operators listen to the output and use voice recognition software to produce the words on the screen. This means the computer only has to understand one person rather than a variety of volumes and accents.

This draft also came with its own image:

Sample of closed captioning on a news programme
Sample of closed captioning on a news programme

13 Jul 2020: Different Place, Similar History

Post-industrial place with distinctive dialect.

I wrote this fragment while listening to a poetry event from Wolverhampton and surrounding areas. Someone talked about living in a post-industrial place and the language that grew out of that, and I could draw a comparison with where I live, hundreds of miles away.

I’m not sure how much I could expand much on this idea, but it’s still there for the taking.

10 Aug 2020: The Fallback Formula

While taking my Masters degree, our class was asked to perform a piece for public reading. We could do anything we wanted, but the tutor suggested the prompt ‘piece of my mind’. As I wasn’t finding any ideas, I did what I often do in that situation, and go for a walk. I recall it was a freezing February night.

The walk resulted in my first list poem, called Textbook. Each of its 23 lines begins with the words ‘I’ve learnt’, in which the narrator is worried about a third party. The original plan was to begin each line with a different verb, but I found the repetitive structure worked rather well.

Those two paragraphs were the original entry, while the one below was copied directly from notes I made at the time.

Kirsty, voice suited the piece, dichotomy, you’re never the subject until last line. Corrin, liked the repetition, person depression, created flickering image. Graeme, think you can tell it’s someone close to narrator, didn’t get gender. Jackie, speaker was male, person was female. Eddie, took it as daughter who was self-harmer.

I’ve discussed my writing process many times, including the devices I rely upon, so there’s no specific reason to finish this piece.

OneBigWallOfText

I’m going to write this entry in a markedly different style to demonstrate a point. I’m normally pernickety about starting a new paragraph every two to three sentences, or perhaps only one sentence to emphasise particularly pertinent information. A surprising number of people don’t leave enough paragraph breaks, or don’t leave any, which makes the text harder to read. If you analyse a newspaper or a novel, you’ll invariably find the first sentence of each paragraph indented by a few millimetres. This tiny gap indicates that the narrative is moving on and allows the eye to rest briefly. There are occasional exceptions, like the Will Self novel Shark, deliberately shunning paragraphs in favour of a single sentence that spans the whole narrative. The Look Inside feature on Amazon shows how the publisher prudently compensates for this by using wider line spacing. In the early days of the CD-ROM and the Web, it was quickly discovered that longer articles aren’t so easy to read on a PC, and not just because of screen brightness. The main difference is that it’s possible to turn your head or eyes quickly to see a whole double newspaper spread, giving a solid frame of reference, but a computer screen can typically only show part of the text at any given time without some input by the user. As such, additional eye rests are necessary, and professional websites will generally leave at least one line between paragraphs, often with additional negative space at the sides. A big shout-out must go to WordPress for its readability. Composing an entry is done in blocks, typically containing one paragraph or illustration, and as such, it encourages spacing. The publishing layout is also widely customisable – something that social media sites could learn from – so you can fill as much or as little of the screen as you need. If you’re a writer of any sort, one action that makes your work look instantly more professional is to leave paragraph spaces. It doesn’t have to be every two or three sentences like me; indeed, Virginia Woolf was known to use page-long paragraphs. Your reader’s eyes, however, will thank you for the occasional rest.

Cleaning Up This Town

Regular readers will know that I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been holding it online and experimenting with different formats.

Last week, it was confirmed that we were able to go back to our previous venue. For the foreseeable future, however, it won’t be as simple as just turning up with a microphone and some poetry.

The main health hotspot is the microphone itself, which can be shared by between ten and 20 people of an evening, and can therefore pick up a lot of bacteria.

As such, I’ve bought 400 disposable covers for the top. After every reader, the surface will be wiped down and a new cover applied. Because I address the audience for a few seconds after each speaker, I’ve also cut down on cleaning by buying a headset microphone for my own use. There will also be the option for readers not to use the sound system at all.

This is what 400 disposable microphone covers look like.

That, however, only caters for the people who come along to the pub. We’ve seen a thirst over the last 18 months to participate from outside our home city. For many, it was inconvenient or impossible to travel into Dundee, while others weren’t able to navigate the stairs in the venue, or are not ready to mix until the public health threat passes.

In response, we’re trialling an online edition called Hotchpotch Beyond. This works the same way, with the sole exception that priority will be given to those who weren’t at the in-person version. The trial will last for three months to gauge interest.

To join in either of these events, Hotchpotch is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Hunter S Thompson pub, while Hotchpotch Beyond is on Sunday 19 September at 7pm on Zoom.

The Poetry, the Play and the Party

On Friday, I attended the Burryman festival in South Queensferry, a short train trip from Edinburgh. This is a tradition where a man from the town is dressed head to toe in burrs and marched around the streets, and it’s considered good luck to offer him whisky. The origin is unknown, but is believed to be around 400 years old.

Much as I’d like to devote the whole entry to this amazing day, I mention it only in the context of live events. This time last year, there was doubt over to whether it could go ahead because of crowd control regulations. It did happen, with the police making sure folks kept their distance.

This year was a different story, largely because early August marked the return of many live events in Scotland. As I knew I wouldn’t be too far away, my first event was Loud Poets at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. I was particularly excited for this, as I knew a few folks taking part, either on stage or front-of-house.

Three poets and a host played in front of an auditorium at perhaps two-thirds capacity, and they seemed relieved to be back in person. One in particular, Paul Case, relied more on memory than written work, and it reminded me that this is a habit I need to relearn because I haven’t had a need to remember my work over the last 18 months.

Then on Saturday, I was invited to a dress rehearsal of a play at Dundee Rep Theatre: Hindu Times by Jaimini Jethwa. The rehearsal took place in a studio rather than the main stage, with no sets and minimum special effects. I enjoyed being part of this select preview group, and I’ll definitely recommend the play once it launches to the wider public.

The Storytelling Centre and the Rep both enforced distancing and face coverings, but Generator Projects took a more laissez-faire approach. To celebrate 25 years of workshops and exhibitions, they laid on an outdoor show of poetry, dance and music. I also had plenty of opportunities to catch up with others from the literary community before complaints from residents closed it down at 9pm.

I have a few more live shows lined up in the near future, and I hope they’re just as enjoyable.

Finishing an Overdue Book

It must be about 12 months since my pal Sofia lent me Mort. This is because I’d never read any Terry Pratchett other than Good Omens, although I’d seen a couple of his novels adaptated for TV.

As such, I’d gained a strong flavour of his style, so I suspected I would enjoy Mort. The problem was that I had enough time to read to the halfway stage, but had made no further progress.

Recently, I decided I would read a few pages at every break time, which helped a little. On Friday, however, I found myself with a two-hour period where I was able to finish it off.

Unfortunately, Sofia has been unwell – but is recovering – so it’s difficult to know when I’ll be able to hand it back. However, I’ll definitely seek out other Pratchett novels in the future.

Back to Making Plans

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to meetings with people in different parts of the literary scene.

The first of these was a pal from the Scottish Book Trust. He and his colleagues are trying to set up a professional spoken word organisation in Scotland that’s similar to Apples & Snakes in England.

As my own events have been passion projects rather than for profit, I was limited in how much I could contribute directly. However, I was able to point him towards others in and around Dundee who more readily fitted the bill.

In the other meeting, I was part of a group of performers and producers. The plan is to hold a Fringe-style programme of events in Dundee in September, and I liked the organiser’s attitude, particularly towards audience safety.

Before this opportunity came up, I’d already been devising a stage show for people accustomed to live performance. I didn’t expect to have just a month and a half to put it together, however, so the next few weeks are going to be intense.

Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.