The Other 75%.

Just before I begin, a couple of an announcements for people in and around Dundee. Hotchpotch, the writers’ open-mike, is next Monday, 4 August between 7pm and 9pm at The Burgh in Commercial Street. I’m afraid I can’t make that meeting, but there’s a similar event for poets between 12pm and 4pm in Baxter Park on Sunday 10 August, to which I plan to go.

In an interview with the BBC, literary agent Johnny Geller stated that in a survey of self-published authors, 75% of those asked said it was a hobby and that he was interested in the other 25%. I think that’s a fair comment from an agent, as he needs his authors to make a full-time commitment. But I wonder how many of the other 75% would be willing to turn that hobby into a career if they were offered the right publishing deal? It can be a big step to give up the fabled day-job.

For me, it’s a trade-off between a permanent office job with a regular income versus handing in my notice and freeing up those 37 hours per week to write. There would need to be a compelling offer to give it up because if a book deal didn’t materialise, the organisation isn’t replacing lost workers so I would need to look elsewhere for another regular income.

The other consideration is how long to continue trying before finding another regular income. Six months? Two years? Until I feel as though I’m suffering for my art?

It is possible to combine the two. Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin both worked other jobs throughout their writing careers, and I know an author who is currently employed by a major bookstore chain. The next time I have the opportunity, I’ll ask him whether he considers it a help or hindrance.

Hey hey, I wanna be a rock, er, film star

Finally, I took part in a low-budget film on Saturday as an extra. It’s called Shooting Clerks, about the making of the 1994 Kevin Smith movie Clerks. We were asked to dress in fashions of the period, so I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and a backwards baseball cap. By good fortune, I was meant to attend an open-air Grease singalong later that day. It was cancelled due to the weather, but I could have become John Travolta simply by removing my headgear.

There was no script available to have a nosy through so I don’t know too many specifics. We were simply given instructions when to laugh and applaud as if we were at a film premiere. But keep an eye out around its scheduled release date of 13 April 2015.

Between Two Stools.

I don’t think Rebecca Woodhead reads this blog, but in August’s Writing Magazine, she covers the subject of extroverts and introverts, as I did in a previous entry. But she takes it one step further, adding a middle category of ambivert.

My research shows this is not a horrendous neologism – in fact the term was invented in the 1920s – but I still hadn’t hitherto heard about this third way. It also turned up a wonderful WordPress post that goes into more depth about the subject than I will.

In the article, Woodhead argues that writers should aspire to be ambiverted and that few fall into the extrovert category. Yet in my experience, I’ve found that many already are extroverts; indeed I can think of a number who actively invite audience questions, or can’t wait to offer their views on a hot topic.

I can identify with the needs of an ambivert or introvert, as I’m quite fond of solitude. This is generally because I’m tackling a task that requires it, such as typing, editing, or reading – the very activities that make me a writer. But often, I’d much rather be reading my work out on stage, or answering audience questions, or negotiating with publishers.

Quite independently of the -vert spectrum, but not unrelated to it, I’ve been mulling over the notion of right- and left-brained people. It seems this theory is now outdated, as research shows that both halves of the brain generally work in tandem. Yet I still think my ‘dominant side’ has shifted at some point over the four years I’ve been writing fiction.

I have a BSc Music Technology degree because when I left school, I wanted to be in the music business or the radio industry. I used to delight in recording the perfect sound level, learning MIDI Commands, or editing video footage. In other words: what used to be termed left-brained activities. These days, I’m more inclined towards my fiction, speech-based radio stations and podcasts, and appreciating others’ artistic expressions. These were considered right-brained activities.
Perhaps I’ve always been at least partly right-brained but I hadn’t unlocked it until I discovered fiction. Alternatively, it’s maybe because I’ve had more success with writing, or at least more external validation, that I’m now subconsciously inclined towards chasing these rewards.

That external validation is a classic extrovert trait, and why I still place myself in that camp.

Julyish.

We’re midway through July now. In some respects, this is a troubling month for me.

Firstly, there’s the weather. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I’m from Scotland and it can fluctuate wildly. Thursday brought the sort of weather for lying in a hammock and listening to the Isley Brothers. I took the opportunity to walk to the seaside and enjoy a round of crazy golf and a trip on the road train. By Saturday, the rain was tipping down in the least Julyish fashion you can imagine.

Secondly, the daylight. Regardless of the weather, near-perpetual daylight does things to the brain. I find myself waking sometimes an hour or two before my alarm, which does nothing for my concentration.

Thirdly, it’s holiday season for many people. You’re out of your normal routine and writing might not feature as highly as it does during your normal day.

But there are ways to keep your writing flowing even through the least Julyish July. A gloriously warm day or a change of scenery might provide you with fresh ideas. I make it a habit to carry a pencil and notebook with me, and I recommend taking a sharpener as well. And if it’s practical, perhaps a 5am writing session would work for you, or at least give you an opportunity to catch up on your reading, and that can be as important as writing.

Just remember that if you’re writing about summer and you plan to interest a publisher in your work, it might be up to a year before you see it in print as lead times are months long. Right now, editors are planning for Halloween and even Christmas, and probably won’t take you on until the New Year. So if you have any festively-themed stories, this would be a prime time to dig them out, even if it seems a very long time away.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.

Ready to Play.

Having been flat on my back with illness last week, I missed the chance to go to a play on 25 June called Shape of a Girl at the Little Theatre in Dundee. It tells the story of a Canadian girl who was bullied and subsequently found dead. I’d been invited by a friend, playwright Mark McGowan, who is involved with Dundee Dramatic Society.

By last Friday of that week, I was feeling much better, and Mark invited me on a backstage tour of the theatre used by the society. It really is a little place: more like a large house than a venue. The auditorium seats just 100 people, and I saw the actors holding an intense rehearsal session there for a show that opens in August. Backstage is upstairs in the attic space, accessed by wooden staircases at the sides of the stage, yet it houses a green room, costume store, sewing room, and a coffee bar.

As Mark persuaded members of the company to sign up for his latest production, I spoke with one of the actors. The theatre group has lasted around 90 years, and we discussed how it has managed to remain in its own niche against comparable venues in the city, and the potential threat from a cinema that is due to open across the road.

I also flipped through an index of plays, each with a summary of the plot and required number of actors. Between the ages of twelve and 14, I had a brief acting career through the National Youth Music Theatre. It now strikes me just how difficult it must have been to find a suitable script so we all had a part. Similarly, Dundee Dramatic Society are volunteers, so there is little control over the age and gender of the players.

I’ve only once tried my hand at playwrighting, and I enjoyed the process. The group that runs National Novel Writing Month used to run a similar event in April called Script Frenzy where participants were challenged to produce a 100-page script during the month. Many of my local SF group chose to produce screenplays, but I elected to write for the stage as it needs only two actors.

I haven’t redrafted the script since it was written. But I’m confident I’ll one day return to it, tighten up the dialogue, iron out any plot holes, and see it performed.