Review of the week.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at book reviews. It’s markedly different from ordinary reading and from fiction writing, as you’ve to make notes as you go along. From these notes, you then have to identify themes and techniques, and explain why the author has or hasn’t delivered a successful product.

The first volume I reviewed was In the Catacombs by Chris McCabe, which appears on the website of Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA). I had some difficulty writing it, not only because this was one of my first pieces, but because I found the author’s research to be less focused than I would have expected. That point is reflected in the final piece.

One of the DURA editors then handed me Play with Me by Michael Pedersen, which I duly opined about. I found this one so much easier as I enjoyed his writing and the themes that emerged from it. It turned out after I’d submitted the review that the editor had given it to me purely for personal interest, but it was accepted anyway. I’ve heard the book publishers liked it as well.

Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee
Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There will also be a third review published in a few weeks, as each one goes through a rigorous edit. By that time, I’ll have returned to the MLitt Writing Study & Practice course at the University of Dundee. Part of your final mark depends upon carrying out a review of a live event, so this is prime practice. It also gives me an insight into how editors think and how to resolve any disputes that might arise.

A secondary benefit of writing reviews is exposure. The more publications in which you can place your name, the higher the chance that someone will have heard of you; like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m always pleased when this happens to me. Last week, I was recognised by an art student who had heard me at an event in May and enjoyed the two poems I read. I was especially pleased because I also enjoyed her Masters art installation so much.

That said, I forgot to ask DURA whether these reviews could be published under my pen name, as my real one is harder to spell, but I’m not bothered by it. It never hurt Peter Serafinowicz’s career.

I want to be a book star.

In the early 1980s, Van Halen famously requested a bowl of M&Ms at each gig with all the brown ones removed. This was reported in the press as typical rock star behaviour, but the request fulfilled a practical purpose.

The band carried so much equipment on tour that they were worried about accidents from roadies failing to set it up correctly. By including the M&Ms clause deep in the technical part of the contract, they reasoned that if the bowl wasn’t set up as requested, there was a good chance the rest of the technical setup had been ignored as well.

While writers and poets don’t need nearly as much gear as musicians, I think I’ve been to enough literary events to know what I would like and wouldn’t like if I were ever to launch my own book. It’s not to be a diva, I’m merely thinking of practical matters.

I’ve narrowed it down to five key points:

Disabled access

When I’m organising NaNoWriMo events, one of my prime considerations is accessibility. At my hypothetical book launch, this would be a dealbreaker. Everyone ought to be able to come in and hear all about my hypothetical book.

Standing up

Many studies have shown that sitting down for extended periods is a Bad Thing. Sure, most book launches rarely last more than an hour, but multiply that figure by however many launches you’re doing, and the time soon mounts up.

I’d therefore prefer to stand up as much as possible, especially while signing. This has the added advantage that I would be physically on the same level as the reader and it feels more of a two-way conversation. Speaking of signings…

Clearly signposted queue

I went to a launch in July that was so well attended, the bookshop ran out of seats. However, when the time came for the author to sign copies, nobody thought to direct people about where to queue up. Two queues were formed, and the author had to take turn about to keep the wait as fair as possible.

Short questions

I saw a cartoon a few months ago where an academic was being interviewed on stage and the caption read something like We’ve just got time for one rambling self-indulgent question. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find it again.

I would have no problem answering questions, but we’d all like to remember what the start of it was by the time we reach the end. One breath, one question, or we move on to the next person.

Red wine available to all attendees

Writers and red wine go together like rock stars and cocaine. I’m sure Van Halen would agree.

The bare necessities.

One of the best ways to edit a story is simply to give it time, much as wine tastes better when it’s allowed to breathe. But there will be times when there’s not a minute to lose and you’ve got to produce something out of necessity, and sometimes that leads to some excellent work.

I was once given a homework exercise from a writing class that was a fragment of a poem. Nothing was immediately coming to mind and I wanted to complete the exercise as I’d paid for the class. After sitting in the library then writing and writing for an afternoon, I eventually produced a rather short piece called A Big Leap but one I was fairly pleased with.

TimeOut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time later, the tutor alerted me to a flash fiction competition just three hours before it was due to close. I collated what were my best flash pieces at the time, gave them a quick edit, then sent them in. A Big Leap became my first published piece.

I’ve done this a number of times with my work. A looming obligation or a lack of time has a way of forcing you down an unusual path, or to come up with ideas that are unconventional.

This happened most recently in November when I was asked to write an original piece for performance later that month. After a slow start, it ended up being based upon someone I knew many years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have used him if I’d had more time to think about it.

On another occasion, I was all set to read out a particular piece at Hotchpotch, when I was inspired to write another one by a topical event on the news. If I’d left it until the following month, the impetus would be lost, and that gave me just three or four days to concoct the new piece. I’ve subsequently edited it and it now stands alone without the audience needing to know the topical references, and it’s one of my favourites.

But necessity, however superior a result it might produce, isn’t always to a self-imposed goal. When Anthony Burgess found out he had an inoperable brain tumour, he wrote several novels to provide an income for his widow after his death.

Putting quill to parchment.

Many authors are asked the same questions over and over again. One of these is often Do you write longhand or into a computer?

But however repetitive it becomes, it’s a question worth considering. A commercial novel averages around 80,000 words, and that’s just the final product, not taking into account the many redrafts that will inevitably have gone before.

Let’s consider the different ways that different authors physically externalise their words, and the alternative approaches that could be taken.

Learn to touch-type

One of the best choices I ever made at school was learning how to type with 10 fingers, as it’s a skill that served me well in my working life. There are a couple of huge advantages over using just two or three fingers: your word speed can more than double, and it spreads the effort between all your fingers rather than straining just a few of them.

Be advised that it takes a while to master initially, but you’ll eventually be able to do it without conscious thought. A word about tablet computers as well. These have virtual keyboards, so it is possible to touch-type on these, but you’ll need to keep an eye on your finger position as you won’t be able to feel for the keys.

Choose an alternative keyboard

It’s a well-known story that the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down typists as the first machines were prone to jamming. It’s less well-known that the jamming problem had been solved by the 1930s. This allowed August Dvorak to invent an improved keyboard to help typists increase their speed by placing the most common letters on the middle row.

Sadly, it failed to catch on widely, but it is available on every major operating system. I’ve used the Dvorak layout for some years and it has the edge over QWERTY in terms of word speed. To increase it further, you could try a chorded keyboard. Clerks of court and TV subtitlers use these to keep up with the pace of normal speech. I haven’t used one myself.

Open your notepad

Unless you’re employing a shorthand system, this slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pen or pencil, and some authors are convinced it makes for higher quality writing. Martina Cole claims to be able to tell when a novel has been written directly into a laptop, while James Ellroy sends his handwritten work to a typist.

Be aware, however, that there’s no backup unless you’re using carbon paper. I’ve been told that a highly regarded author was forced to rewrite a large section of a novel when the paper blew out of an open window.

Be a dictator

Barbara Cartland famously dictated her words to an assistant, sometimes producing around 7000 words a day. Happily, you no longer need to pay someone for this service, as voice dictation is supported by many devices.

When I first tried this in the late 1990s, I gave it up as a bad joke. It. Required. Each. Word. To. Be. Spoken. Individually. Today’s software works with normal speech to a reasonable degree of accuracy without any training, even with my Scottish accent, although I recommend doing some to improve it even further.

I often use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which can also be used to control many of your computer’s functions. In my experience, the actual dictation is fairly quick; it’s the formatting that tends to take a while.

Unconventional means

Probably most famous user of assistive technology is Stephen Hawking. He uses a switch activated by his cheek to choose words and letters from a computer screen.

But another author had to use a more difficult method. Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck by Locked-in Syndrome, so he could only blink and move his neck in a restricted manner. He wrote every word of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by listening to somebody physically reading out the alphabet and blinking at the correct letter.


There are many ways to put your words out there, and not all of these will work for every author. For me, it’s through necessity that I use voice dictation and handwriting because my fingers are currently strained with typing too much. So until they improve, that’s how I’ll be writing my work.

But I’ve long thought that when you’re forced to take a certain action, you can always learn something useful from it. And that’ll be the theme of next week’s entry.