Three Candles, Four Ws.

I admitted in my first entry that I have only been writing for fiction three years. Today marks that third year.

On 29th October 2010, I joined National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on a whim. A lot of online friends seemed to be doing it. Until then, I had written only non-fiction blog entries, so I can’t explain why I’d already had a book idea kicking around for months before this.

I didn’t initially tell anyone what I was doing,except for the active NaNoWriMo chapter I discovered in Dundee. At their meetings, and any moments I could grab, I bashed out my first novel Chris The Girl, set in the year 2525 when only women exist, and reproduce by the use of technology. I reached 50,042 words; just over the punishing target. I’ve successfully tackled it every year since, and will be starting again in a few days’ time.

Then in March 2011, I heard of a new local writing group. At school, I was forever being marked down for not writing long enough pieces, but after a few weeks, I started to think, “Chuffing Nora. I’m finding this easy.” I don’t know what changed in that ten-year gap but perhaps it was because our focus here was how to make the story flow, not on refining the grammar or making it fit an exam question.

Now I’ve written dozens of stories, and had a couple of them published, my first being with The Fiction Desk, while I haven’t really talked about my second, with FourW. My story The Almost Man will be published in their latest anthology. If you live in Australia, you can go along to one of their launch dates:

Wagga Wagga on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at Wagga Wagga City Library commencing at 2.00pm.

Melbourne on Sunday 24th November 2013 at the Robata Bar in St. Kilda commencing at 2.30 pm.

Sydney on Saturday 30th November 2013 at Gleebooks, Glebe Road, Glebe commencing at 3.30pm.

The one good element of starting late is that I’m not embarrassed by my earlier attempts. There are many people who go through their teenage notebooks and cringe at the clumsy metaphors or purple verse, whereas the worst I experience is spotting rough corners that could do with tidying up.

On the other hand, I’m very competitive and find it difficult to accept that I haven’t written nearly as much as I might have by this age. And that means I’ll forever be playing catch-up.

JC Superstar. (CC: @Sultonna)

After making my fifth post here, my attention was drawn to a service called Headliner, designed to allow bloggers to cross-promote each other. I thought I’d sign up just to see what happened. Today, Mellie Miller promoted this very site on Twitter, so if you’re reading me because of her, a thousand welcomes to you. You can find Mellie’s blog on WordPress and her Twitter name is in the title. What a tangled World Wide Web we weave.

And it’s a good time to join me. Over the next few days, I’ll be headed to Dundee Literary Festival, which attracts some heavyweights of the writing world. It’s possible to see them all, but more prudent to be selective and allow a little time for reflection between speakers. It launched yesterday with a debate over potential Scottish independence, hosted by the neutral Five Million Questions organisation.

Poetry is my weak suit, so I’ve made a point of seeing events with that theme. Today, I heard Robert Alan Jamieson read a little verse, as well as a lengthy extract from his riveting novel Da Happie Laand. Over a ham roll and crisps, I heard Michael Hulse read in a measured, definite voice echoing Tom Baker. I rounded off the day with non-poet Lesley Riddoch, who argues that our country would be better off with localised communes such as those found in Northern Europe.

I mentioned in my entry The Shock of The New that I intended to revisit the subject of poetry, particularly the performance type, although neither Jamieson nor Hulse fell into that camp.

At the start of the year, I was listening to the soundtrack album of Plan B’s Ill Manors when I heard a peculiar part that began, “Pity the plight of the young fellow, too long abed with no sleep…” I looked at the track information to find it featured a John Cooper Clark. I hadn’t previously heard of the guy, probably because he totally disappeared off the radar from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s.

But for the last few years, he’s enjoyed a resurgence. I’ve seen him once live on stage, then once via video link at the cinema earlier this month. His piece I Wanna Be Yours was included in the GCSE exam syllabus alongside poets like Maya Angelou, while Evidently Chickentown was featured prominently in The Sopranos. As well as Ill Manors, his lyrics also feature on The Arctic Monkeys’ AM album. Both of these reached number one.

His amazing story has me wondering if I have what it takes to write a poem for performance. There are still people out there doing exactly that; in particular, one of his live support acts, Luke Wright. But where I find that Cooper Clark often rushes his delivery, probably a result of cutting his teeth at punk gigs, Wright understands his audience, and his delivery is clearer as a result.

Comedian Phill Jupitus has also returned to his roots, performing The Misunderstanding at the Edinburgh Festival, along with another poem comprising solely of titles from its brochure. Craig Charles of Red Dwarf also started his career in a similar manner, before turning to acting.

One omission I’ve made so far is Pam Ayres. I’ve been listening to her recently in the car. She’s a homely, motherly poet, who focuses mainly on domestic matters. I hesitate to criticise because her wit and observations are sharp, and she’s loved by millions across the world, yet her delivery can be forced, for instance using, “On the brinked,” in place of, “Brink,” to rhyme it with, “Extinct.” And she occasionally expresses the same thought in two neighbouring lines, but this can be a useful skill for holding her own on radio panel show Just a Minute against comics like Paul Merton or Graham Norton.

The groundwork has been laid for me, but the question I have to ask myself is: can I produce material for performance that isn’t derivative, especially when it’s something so alien to me? With Wright emerging, Jupitus returning, and Ayers with a new collection on sale, I have a suspicion that performance poetry is about to become massive once again, and I want to ride this upcoming wave.

You can say you heard it here first.

 

Dissecting Two E-rejection™ Slips.

If you’re a writer, feedback is a great thing, although less so if you’re a sound engineer. But the quality can vary considerably. Let’s consider two of my recent rejection slips, or the e-mail equivalent thereof. I think I’ll trademark the term e-rejection™.

We’ll endure the bad one first.

An anthology publisher sent me an e-rejection™ to my short story The Strange Case of Mr Brown, with the opinions of three readers.

Two of them commented that the story was bland, but neither of them offered up any specifics about why they thought so. With that information, I could have refined the weak parts. The third one pointed out that the eponymous Mr Brown had an eidetic memory, and that this case wasn’t strange, but I believe the reviewer missed the point that the, “case,” also referred to an unusual court hearing.

And now for something a lot better.

Some time ago, I sent a synopsis of my novel Fifty Million Nicker to an publisher. Less than two weeks later, they asked for the whole shebang.

In the e-rejection™, they told me that they felt the story didn’t take off and lacked a sense of drama or excitement. But they planted a useful nugget halfway through that summed up the areas for improvement: “You needed to surprise us with unexpected twists, and real obstacles, and genuine peril for the protagonist to overcome.”

Essentially, they were telling me to up my game, and I agreed with 90% of the criticism. I’d spent so long honing and polishing it that I’d never stepped back and considered if I could improve the actual story. And I’m now halfway through rewriting the some of the sections.

The common thread.

Both publishers commented that they liked my writing style, the latter even stated they would be happy to consider future work. When I write, I work to the principle that a sentence is only successful when you understand it after one reading. So it annoys me when I read a headache like this: “He knew that she wanted him to think that she had failed to call his bluff.” That’s not from a real book, thank goodness.

If you’re a publisher and want to slate consider the aforementioned works, I’m happy to send them on.

WASPS OPEN STUDIOS 2013 DUNDEE

An art exhibition this weekend for people who live in or near Dundee.
Have a top weekend, and I’ll likely update on Monday.

Jennifer Robson - Artist

WASPS ARTIST OPEN STUDIOS 2013
Jill Skulina Jacket

An Open Studio event featuring Artists and Designers living and working in Dundee

WASPS ARTIST STUDIOS
Meadow Mill
West Hendersons Wynd
DUNDEE DD1 2BY
Open Saturday 19th October and Sunday 20th October 2013.
Both days 12 – 5pm

Fresh in the wake of Dundee’s city of Culture bid send off, the city offers a chance for the public to meet over 40 of the city’s artists and makers all under one roof. WASPS Meadow Mill opens its doors to showcase a wide variety of creativity including: drawing, painting, illustration, jewellery, fashion, printmaking, ceramics, photography, textiles, paper-making, installation and sculpture.

The recently refurbished Wasps Meadowmill Studios hosts its annual Open Studios event this October. WASPS is home to a thriving community of Artists living and working in the city of Dundee, from new graduates fresh form Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art to well know and…

View original post 300 more words

Stand Up For Yourself.

The BBC News website ran an article yesterday about the health benefits of standing up more. It ties in with a documentary that can be viewed on the iPlayer. For the record, I’ve been standing up most of the evening, so I’m sitting right now. It lists a few people who like or liked working on two feet, including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Donald Rumsfeld.

I’m a great fan of writing this way, not just for the health benefits, but I find it helps ideas flow a little bit more freely. However, I’m stuck for opportunities to assume this pose. At home, I used to work on a chest-height set of drawers, but I needed the surface for something else. Cafés usually require you to take a seat, as does the library, while in pubs, it’s acceptable to stand and drink at the bar, but whip out a laptop, and I expect you attract strange looks.

I don’t rely on my writing for a living; I have a day job in an office, and I’m again required to sit down. It would be impractical to raise my desk, both physically and because I’d need special permission. But I do have to use the printer a lot, so I’m able to walk a short distance. I’m also recovering from some upper back strain — not caused by working — and being on my feet helps it enormously.

I’m eager to try out the poll function so, to that end, what is your preferred writing position?

 

Teaser Tuesday: Flesh Wounds by Chris Brookmyre.

Note he's now known as Chris. Topher Grace bought the rest of his name.Every Tuesday, the Should Be Reading blog runs a Teaser Tuesday. You choose two sentences at random from your current book and post them. The only rule is that spoilers are banned.

So I grabbed Chris Brookmyre’s Flesh Wounds. I’ve seen him twice at live events, and the last time, he signed my copy of this book. I resisted asking him if anyone ever mistakes him for Irvine Welsh.

Here’s a quote from page 245.

‘The autopsy hasn’t been completed yet, but I think she was murdered. She hadn’t touched a drop in years, but her house was staged to make it look like she was back on the drink with a vengeance.”

I was introduced to him via All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. In fact, most of his titles are as humorous as his prose, although it helps if you understand the Glasgow dialect, as I do. He’s described as a comedy crime writer, and while Flesh Wounds is an altogether darker story, there’s still a laugh on nearly every page.

I’m open to suggestions for which of his books I should read next.

Being Mugged.

A quick word to say that while Zöe Venditozzi didn’t win The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, she did come first in the public vote, even if the panel voted against it.

Kate Atkinson walked away with the mug, although Neil Gaiman initially seemed a front runner.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/14/not-booker-prize-2013-judging-meeting-live

The Shock of The New.

Even although I’ve had stories published, I’m very keen to keep expanding my horizons. DamyantiWrites made this very point in her recent entry Do You Swim Free?, where she discusses authors who are happy to sit on the well-worn cushions of their comfort zone, rehashing the same ideas for years.

To this end, I’ve joined a Life Writing (LW) class at the University of Dundee. Thus far, the vast majority of my scribing has been about fictional characters in fictional situations, but LW is all about the self: memoirs of a specific event you experienced, an autobiography of your entire life, or a biography of someone else’s.

In last week’s class, we wrote a passage about a recent holiday; in my case a boat trip up the River Forth in Edinburgh. Part of our homework involved rewriting the passage using reference material such as photographs, maps and articles. The next class is on Tuesday, when we’ll be discussing the LW we have enjoyed and/or disliked.

I hope to expand my horizons in other ways too, such as poetry, and the performance type in particular; I intend to come back to that subject in the future. I’ve also written a stage play and I’m kicking about an idea for a screenplay.

There are authors who can carry off taking the same path over and over again. Read almost anything by Agatha Christie and it follows a familiar pattern where everyone ends up in the drawing room while Poirot or Miss Marple whittles them down to reveal the murderer. And I dislike Dan Brown’s style, but looking past that, he is another good example. Historical facts, symbolic minutiae and conspiracies spill out onto every page of every book, and the public lap it up.

I really yearn to pull something unexpected out of the bag. P D James is one author who did just that. For years, she penned detective books, then at the age of 72, wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men. And Roald Dahl is famous for his children’s books, but additionally wrote macabre short stories for adults, and the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. That’s like Cliff Richard releasing a hip-hop album.

To that end, I’ll attempt to wring every possible benefit out of the LW course, and not just from the teaching in class. Being a student allows me into the university library, where I’m writing this, and into the cheap campus bar. And that means it’s easier to take Ernest Hemingway’s slightly dubious advice to, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

But I’ll need to squeeze it all in before December, when the course ends and I’ll lose these privileges.

The End of The Beginning.

Ye gods! I knew I was living under a rock with LiveJournal, yet I didn’t realise the exact extent until other users started hitting the Like button. I’m unaccustomed to such a response, and I much appreciate it.

I chose WordPress over sites such as Blogger because I have a couple of friends here already. Even the range of basic features are bewildering; when I typed Like button in the previous paragraph, it gave me a Wikipedia link to the Like button page. After a little more kicking the tyres, I’m sure I’ll soon crawl into the 21st century.

Today I’m talking about endings. I recently read two short story anthologies by the same publisher: one from 2011, the other from this year. It struck me that a high number of the pieces in both of these did not have a proper ending, in fact the editor seemed to prefer this style. In some cases, the author would conclude with a limp or vague paragraph. In other cases, it would simply stop, leaving me checking for a missing page and in a couple of cases, asking, “And?” out loud.

It was disappointing rather than annoying because a lot of the stories in the anthology contained great ideas that were let down by their execution.

I try to give my stories a twist ending, or at least a clear marker the reader has reached the end. I don’t always manage, however. I recently received a rejection from a publisher looking for funny stories because, “… the ending lacked a good punch line.” To me, a rounded ending is important in a short story. Even if the reader is meant to be left in some doubt, there ought to be enough clues or information in the body of the story to narrow it down to two or three possible options about what might happen next.

One important exception, however, is autobiographical writing. I’m going to come back to this in more detail on Monday. For purely fictional writing, however, an ending is king.

Photo of mug with,
Not The Booker Prize, nor The Nine O’Clock News.

I was going to leave it until Monday to post about the Not the Booker Prize run by The Guardian, but the deadline is midnight on Sunday.

In my last entry, I mentioned my writing sensei Zöe Venditozzi. Her novel has been shortlisted, and I encourage you to click on the photo above and vote for it before the deadline of midnight on Sunday.

That’s not just because I know her, but because it’s a cracking character-driven piece from a début novelist, featuring alongside established authors Neil Gaiman and Kate Atkinson. It also happens to feature a chap with my very initials who happens to volunteer at hospital radio, just as I do.

To cast your nomination, you’ll need to create a Guardian account and write a short review in the comments. As the paper says, Comment is free, and so is your vote.

Taking The Lid Off The Pen.

When you speak to a lot of authors, it’s common to hear that they were always writing stories as children or experimenting with poetry as teens. However, I’ve only been writing for three years, since 29 October 2010, in fact. That was the day I signed up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on a whim, since everyone else was doing it.

From high school until that point, I’d written hardly any fiction. Since then, I’ve entered NaNoWriMo every year and written dozens of short stories, many of them under the tutorship of Zöe Venditozzi, whom I’m sure would like you to buy her book. I’m also pleased to report that I’ve had a flash fiction piece published in The Fiction Desk, while FourW will publish one of my short stories next month. More on the latter when it happens.

Although I didn’t write fiction until three years ago, I have kept a blog for a long time, and it’s still a powerful way of spreading your message, even in these days of Twitter and Facebook. I don’t plan to give up my with ageing LiveJournal for my day-to-day activities, but I did want to start afresh with WordPress for discussing my writing.

I’m viewing this as an experiment, and it might not last. After all, the more you write about writing, the less time you have to write. But I hope I can whip myself enough to keep this place updated, and more importantly, to make sure you want to read it.

One final thought: I’ve used the tag-line Carry on for a long time, before that Keep Calm poster ever came out. I’m debating whether to have a tag-line at all, and if so, what should it be?